Though things are still pretty strange in theatre land, hope does seem to be on the horizon. Last week, I got my first dose of the Moderna vaccine, and while I’m still a good while off from my second shot and my immunity, the strict social distancing measures in place at my recent adventure to New City Players’ (NCP) production of A Love Like Thisstill made me feel pretty damn safe.
Pre-show, ushers took great pains to ensure that all theatregoers stayed masked unless eating or drinking, and that only at their six-feet-apart seats. The play was also held outdoors in the Peck Courtyard of the Broward Center, which makes contagion far less likely than it would be in an indoor space.
But as with Miami New Drama’s similarly COVID-safe Seven Deadly Sins, the play’s somewhat unconventional staging felt less like an unavoidable accommodation than an interesting atmospheric element of an all-around unconventional production. This unique show is a result of NCP’s partnership with the Art Prevails Project, an all-black and multidisciplinary South Florida artistic collective.
However, before writing any further, I would like to note that this may be one of those times that it would be foolish of me to try to claim objectivity, since, though I had no involvement with this production in particular, I’m still an NCP company member. There’s also the fact that I feel a little uncomfortable training my white gaze on an all-black production, but as times are still kind of insane, I guess it would be a shame not to write something about one of the few shows I’ve been able to attend in-person over the past few months.
So maybe this’ll just have to be less of a review than a reflection, or maybe just a celebration, since A Love Like This definitely offered a lot to appreciate! The six short plays that make up A Love Like This were all written by local creatives of color and are united by their focus on love, whether that be romantic love, familial love, or that oh-so-special love between friends. Some of these pieces, of course, felt more realized than others, but all had perspectives worth exploring on a kind of love that is often left out of the mainstream limelight; the love found in relationships between people of color.
The vibes were already pretty jubilant even before curtain thanks to pre-show music by Miami band Purple Flux, and the energy only went up from there when the night kicked off with a poetry-infused introduction from narrators Nyah Hardmon and Marnino Toussaint. Then, the first play up was Pops: A Musical by Cry Alexandra, which focuses on the relationship between a daughter (Ayomi Russell) and her father (Byron Holton) as she helps him come to terms with the fact that she has a new man (Xaire) in her life. The conversation occasionally gets so heated that the characters erupt into song, and though this was the only “musical” of the evening, plenty musicality was on the table throughout.
For instance, the narrators reappeared with more poetic stylings and the occasional musical number in the interludes between the evening’s plays, and the second kicks off with a casual call and response duet between two sisters (Maggie B. Maxwell and Stephon Duncan). In Distance Makes The Heart by Daryl Patrice, they are soon joined by their long-lost third (JaShae Jones), who has reappeared only in the wake of their mother’s death. And though the ensuing reunion ends up dragging plenty of resentments to the surface, the past proves no match for the characters’ deep-rooted sisterly love.
Love between black women was also the subject of Double Dutch by Kelli Rae Jordan, the title of which describes the favorite childhood game of long-time friends Anne, Denise, and Candace (Maggie B. Maxwell, Stephon Duncan, and JaShae Jones.) Now in their thirties, the women commiserate over shared experiences of trying to hold their own in a world that is all too eager to pigeonhole them and celebrate the friendship that has sustained them through the worst.
On the other hand, it’s love between black men that is portrayed in Deep Cuts, in which a young black man (Xaire) searches for guidance from an older pair (Byron Holton and Kent Wilson) he encounters at his local barber shop as he reckons with the aftermath of a difficult relationship. Especially as a counterbalance to their frequent demonization in the culture at large, it was refreshing to hear a story that instead emphasizes black mens’ exquisite sensitivity and capacity to care.
Black men, of course, can also be fine AF, as the character Jamila (Ayomi Russell) reminds us in the play Black Coffee. Jamila is swept off her feet when a routine coffee break gives way to a fast-moving flirtation with a dark and handsome stranger (Marnino Toussaint), but it’s her charm and verve that end up leaving the bigger impression where the audience is concerned.
Black Coffee was one of two plays written by Darius V. Daughtry, the Art Prevails Project founder and evening’s director. The other is its memorable final piece Of Covid And Cocktails, a Shakespeare-inspired tale of how a waiter’s (Kent Wilson) subtle engineering helps fuel a black couple’s budding romance.
After their fated meeting, sparks quickly begin to fly between the aptly named Horatio (Darius V. Daughtry) and enigmatic Bev (Sheena O. Murray), whose initial aloofness belies a softer heart. Though Horatio’s attempts to woo Bev escalate into a full-on rap battle, in the end it’s the aftermath of a racially charged tragedy that comes to cement their bond.
While far more attention is payed to black love than to black sorrow in A Love Like This, such moments serve as a poignant reminder of the institutional injustice that puts that love under constant threat. And though it may be hard at first glance to see what a collection of mostly feel-good stories about incandescent black love has to do with large-scale issues like racism, I have always believed in the power of theatre to instill empathy. So for some, connecting to the characters in stories like these may be the first step to a greater awareness of all that is at-risk if our country continues to devalue black lives.
Meanwhile, I was also theatrically intrigued by the use of slam poetry and rap to enhance A Love Like This’s storytelling. As has been demonstrated by smash hits like Hamilton, influence by art forms that have traditionally been minority-dominated has the potential to push theatre in plenty of new and exciting directions—but if industry gatekeepers continue to enact barriers between non-white theatre artists and chances to share their gifts with the world, that’s progress we might never get to see.
Thus, I can only hope that our recent reckonings have planted seeds of lasting change within the theatre industry, for my own entirely selfish reasons as much as anything else— because I can’t wait to see what shows the talented writers and performers who fueled A Love Like This get a chance to bring their artistry to next!
A Love Like This plays for only one more weekend, with performances on the evenings of April 22nd through 25th. And since strict social distancing also means strictly limited attendance, I think you better grab those tickets fast!
What, exactly, makes a thing theatre? That once straightforward question has been turned on its head by the COVID-19 pandemic, which made the conventional theatrical experience all but impossible. And though one could make a strong argument for Ich Bin Ein Berliner, the fully produced audio play now available for streaming through Theatre Lab, not being theatre at all, I did feel something of that old in-the-audience high when I attended the “play”s live launch event this past weekend. No live actors were present, but the appropriately masked and distanced guests did get to enjoy an atmospheric war torn “set” and some pre and post-show live music from talented local band Hola Hi.
There was a palpable sense of enthusiasm among the crowd for what was likely one of the first few in-person theatre events that any of us had attended in months. A first day of summer energy, or maybe closer to a just-out-of-prison-energy; but maybe it’s in poor taste to be joking about prison when far graver infringements on freedom than those we endured during our quarantine are Ich Bin Ein Berliner’s primary subject.
That would be those imposed by two communist regimes, the comparison between which forms Ich Bin Ein Berliner’s core: the one that ended in the Berlin Wall’s cathartic crumbling and the Cuban Castro regime that is still in power today. It’s an affinity that is intensely personal to playwright Vanessa Garcia, whose family was one of many that fled Cuba’s atrocities to search for peace on Miami’s freer shores. Garcia, playing herself, goes on to tell us the story of her reckoning with that affinity and her Cuban heritage. And though the play’s intensely personal nature gives it much of its power, its entrenchment in the personal may also be its primary flaw.
This is not my first time tangling with an audio play, but the fact that Ich Bin Ein Berliner was crafted specifically for the medium and presented with a video accompaniment made it a far different experience than listening to a more conventional theatre piece merely adapted to the audio form. The photographs and animated sequences certainly added more texture to the story than could be achieved with audio alone; in one poignant moment, Garcia’s recounting of her father’s death from a heart attack is movingly coupled with a visual of a disappearing heart. And when Garcia tells us about Chris Gueffroy, the last man shot before the Berlin Wall came down, we are stricken by a photograph of his haunting human face.
These animations are sometimes used for comedic effect as well, particularly in clever classroom scenes that also serve to provide background knowledge about the events surrounding the Berlin Wall’s construction for audience members who aren’t in the know. But these expository sequences also added to my sense that Ich Bin Ein Berliner hasn’t quite made it over the border that separates a work intended to convey a message, however beautifully and entertainingly, to one that tells a cohesive and satisfying story.
I certainly don’t want to downplay the importance of or at all disagree with Ich Bin Ein Berliner’s urgent political purpose, but the fact that Garcia’s “arc” was mostly one of intellectual discovery and reflection seemed to rob the story of any real tension. Her desire to understand her intense reaction to the fall of the Berlin wall does eventually transform into a desire to physically travel to Cuba which ignites some familial tensions; but the trip she ultimately takes there is one that even she describes as a “false entry” given that the country itself is still not free, and we don’t totally grasp the stakes that that specific event has for Garcia’s understanding of her roots or herself as character.
Though Ich Bin Ein Berliner made passing reference to the Holocaust, it also didn’t quite connect its two historical subjects to a broader theme of combatting injustice and finding solidarity with fellow victims of oppression, which might have made for an even more powerful message. I was still moved by Garcia’s journey, but I do thus see how someone without a connection to the subject matter might fail to connect to the story as a whole.
But Ich Bin Ein Berliner is still definitely worth a look, especially since you don’t even have to leave your couch to check it out! Rich, witty dialogue, a vibrant emotional core, and excellent performances by a predominantly Latinx cast of talented South Florida actors give this play a hell of a lot more heart than anything you might que up on Netflix, though I’m also still hesitant to call it a “play.”
Are audio recordings and projected visuals things that can be used in the service of a theatre piece? Sure, and once the pandemic is over, I’d love to see how creatively theatre artists are apt to put them to work! But do those things constitute theatre in and of themselves? For fear of disrespecting the element of live performance that makes our art form so visceral and enervating, I think I’d have to say, no, not exactly.
But these days, such compromises are about the best we can do, and the mere fact of having gathered to take in a story with other human beings gave the premiere an air of occasion and emotional weight that could never be replicated if I had just watched it alone in front of a computer screen. I also would have lost out on a chance to catch one of the first public performances of a new song by Hola Hi directly inspired by the play that preceded it.
This song was actually one of the most moving parts of the evening—and to see how artists can inspire each other and inspire empathy despite everything the pandemic’s thrown at us is certainly nothing to take for granted these days. I hope that kind of collaborative spirit is still alive and well when it is again safe for us to gather more freely, once COVID finally starts to loosen its deadly grasp. And let’s not forget those whose confinement is not so temporary—those still trapped against their will in countries that deny them their autonomy—even then.
To say I’ve been haphazard with this blog since the huge theatrical shift that happened in March 2020 is a bit of an understatement. And though I do plan on getting back to reviews and whatnot once more in-person theatre is like, possible, I did want to pop in for a second to talk about some stuff I’ve been doing, because, single as I may be this Valentine’s season, I am seriously feeling the theatre love!
In fact, the biggest reason I’ve been so sporadic with blogging these days is because I’ve found myself doing and writing so much theatre that I’ve scarcely had time left to write about it! Tomorrow night (February 12th), I’ll be performing in a digital production of My First Time with the Maplewood Playhouse. Rather than being conventionally “written,” the play My First Time was assembled by producer Ken Davenport from the thousands of anonymous stories submitted by regular old people to the website of the same name. A cast of four actors play a huge variety of characters as each reflects on their first sexual experiences, which run the gamut from hilarious to heartbreaking.
Though I’m as eager to get back into live theatre as anyone, the confessional feel of the piece and its non-scenic structure lend themselves relatively well to the Zoom setting, the intimacy of a camera befitting the intimacy of the subject matter — and it’s certainly a little less nerve-wracking to perform some of my more explicit monologues in the privacy of my bedroom than it would be if I had to face an audience head-on. But jitters aside, I’ve definitely been enjoying the chance to break out of my high school typecast as a “cerebral neurotic.” Now, for once, I’m getting to strut my stuff as not only one but a plethora of romantic leads!
This celebration of lost V-cards might make for a perfect pre V-day date night that doesn’t require you to leave your couch… which could actually be a good thing if our sexy stories end up putting you and your special someone in the mood. You may want to note, though, that My First Time isn’t all flirty fun —a few of its vignettes do touch on some serious issues of consent that I’m glad are becoming a greater part of the cultural conversation about sex.
In my view, even its lighter fare holds the important purpose of combatting the irrational sense of shame and secrecy that exists around something that near everyone does — a shame that falls disproportionately on women. Not only is it vital to emphasize that a woman’s “no” should always be respected, it’s equally important that she have the right to say yes, enthusiastically, without being disrespected— including when that yes is said to another woman!
In fact, a romance between two women is at the center of Same Rain, a short play by meeeeee that will be premiering in FemuscriptsLove Fest later this month. One of the many exciting new theatre groups to spring up during the pandemic, Femuscripts is an “all-female and female-identifying theater production company aiming to amplify female voices in theater.” Since male voices have been center stage for centuries, I’d say it’s about time that some ladies took the lead!
While Femuscripts made their November debut with a night of five thought-provoking “Long Story Shorts,” Love Fest is a far more ambitious undertaking. Thirteen fem-written plays celebrating love of all kinds add up to three full nights of theatre you can catch on February 19th, 20th, and 21st. You’ll also be able to catch me onscreen again in a short play called Glass Slippers by Brooke Lynn White, which features a fun, fairy tale twist on the dating game.
Meanwhile, though it yet remains to be seen whether or not I’ll be able to make it out of this pandemic with a presentable play that’s longer than like, ten pages, I’ve also been keeping my theatre spirit alive as a regular attendee of New City Players’ NCP Lab, which next meets on February 15th for a second round of first installments of one-act plays. Though this may not be the month any of our 2020 selves envisioned, life would certainly be a lot bleaker without the theatre to tide us through!
In a way, I suppose it’s my own sinful nature that saw me impulsively buying a ticket to the second of two opening night performances of Miami New Drama’s deliciously wicked Seven Deadly Sins at near to the last minute. There’s no denying I’m a glutton for theatre, and after a near-nine-month fast, I was positively ravenous.
Playing until this January 3, Seven Deadly Sins is the first full-scale theatrical production to open in South Florida since the catastrophic COVID-19 shutdowns. The sheer scope of the undertaking certainly brought us back in with a bang. Instead of scaling down to suit the requirements of the era, artistic director Michel Hausmann went massive. The loading dock of Miami New Drama and six spaced-out Lincoln Road storefronts became the “stages” in which seven separate short plays are performed, each inspired by one of the titular sins.
The result is an expansive, immersive, experience which begins in “Purgatory,” an outdoor bar and waiting area in which theatregoers could lounge and enjoy a themed cocktail or two before the performance began. We could also browse the show’s virtual program by snapping a picture of a QR code at the box office, which I actually hope catches on as an option in more traditional productions. Save the trees!
When showtime hit, Kareema Khouri set the scene for the evening as the crooning “mistress of purgatory,” seducing us with songs of sin as musical director Wilkie Ferguson ably accompanied on the piano. From there, the mistress instructed us to check our wristband tickets, which would tell us where we should meet our guide for the evening, which might be in purgatory or at one of the sins. That the guides and even our bartenders were all actors themselves only added to pitch-perfect atmosphere of the evening; I found myself in a group led by Paula Macchi, whose cheery demeanor made for pleasant and informative between-show interludes.
Since the order in which the plays are experienced will naturally affect the way in which we perceive them, in a way Seven Deadly Sins is essentially eight different shows, and even more since there was a point at which our groups were shuffled. The seven sin-inspired vignettes were also written by seven different acclaimed authors of impressively diverse backgrounds, meaning that a variety of styles and tones were showcased throughout the evening. I ended up enjoying the result as a bit of a masterclass by example in how to write short plays as well as an entertaining night.
While no human gathering can be 100 percent virus-proof, the extensive safety procedures put in place for Seven Deadly Sins made it pretty damn close, as attested to by the fact that it is one of the few live productions Actor’s Equity has given approval for. Audience members were given a temperature check before they received their wristband and were required to wear masks throughout the performance, and I noticed our guide diligently step in to remind one theatregoer who had let hers slip beneath her nose to pull it back up. Hand sanitizing stations were also available throughout the performance area, and the seats were wiped down after each group transitioned to the next “sin.” Finally, should any COVID incident occur, Miami New Drama also requires ticket buyers to list the names and numbers of everyone in their party at check out for potential contact tracing.
My night began in Wrath, with a one woman play called Memories in Blood by Dael Orlandersmith. Our guide explained that a number on our wristbands would instruct us which socially distanced seat we should take, and then handed us each a set of headphones to connect to a receiver which we would find velcroed to the side of our seat. These headphones were the vehicle through which we would be hearing the live performance of actress Carmen Peláez, whom we could see through the plexiglass of the storefront.
Though one might think that such a set-up would create a sense of disconnection, I instead found that it created an experience that was in many ways more intimate than your average night of theatre. The small groups we traveled in ensured us all seats close to the “stage.” And since I was physically estranged from my fellow audience members, my connection with the performers felt all the more penetrating.
For an emotionally-charged solo piece like Memories in the Blood, the effect of this was almost unsettling. The fact that we find Peláez’s unnamed character at home and her somewhat awkward demeanor made me feel almost embarrassed to be a witness to her intensely wrathful reflections. But the play’s meditation on memory, confinement, and loneliness was ultimately worth the discomfort.
Next up was Greed’s All I Want Is Everything!!! by Moises Kaufman, which finds Gerald McCullouch as a money-mad son at his father’s funeral. His character, Leo, can only see the death as a harbringer of his long-awaited inheritance. Mia Matthews plays his sensitive sister Vivienne. This time, I was relieved to find that the characters’ primary tension was with each other instead of with the crowd, the actors conveying an impressive amount of contentious sibling chemistry despite the fact that they were encased in separate plexiglass playing areas.
In a unique and resonant touch by scenic designers Christopher and Justin Swader, the areas were separated by their father’s coffin. Some discussion of how Leo came to be the shallow swine he is served as a poignant reminder that sinners are at least as often made as born. Overall, though, I found this story’s trajectory relatively predictable and the plot less original or nuanced than in some of the night’s other offerings. But the excellent performances and crisp, well-written dialogue still made it a pleasure to watch.
The third sin on my menu was Gluttony, though the character at its center was not one known to be a glutton in the traditional sense: Richard Nixon. Though this play, Itsy Bitsy Spider by Rogelio Martinez, takes place in a restaurant, Nixon’s insatiable hunger is instead for power and admiration. Nixon confides these ambitions in his butler, played with elegance by Christopher Wrenshaw, while Gregg Weiner makes for a compelling and surprisingly likable central player as the notorious president. It’s difficult, after all, to become much of a politician unless you know how to play to a crowd.
While Nixon’s charisma made him more fun to spend time with than the narrator of Memories in the Blood, he was unsettling for entirely different reasons, including his resemblance to another notorious president who need not be named. Though this Nixon entertains delusions of running for office again even after his monumental fall from grace, hopefully both he and his modern-day counterpart will be remembered by history as the crooks they are.
Especially given the nontraditional interpretation of gluttony, I had begun to reflect on the tendency of one sin to blend into the next; on the wrath that comes when greed goes unsatisfied, the spiritual “hunger” that underlies an endless pursuit of “more.” So I wasn’t surprised at our guide’s assertion that the sin of pride, our next destination, has been thought of as a precursor to all the others. It takes a certain sense of superiority to justify thinking you deserve to have your desires satisfied at any cost, which is what most other sins boil down to. So maybe it’s not entirely surprising that the play representing Pride was probably the one I had the strongest emotional reaction to, or that this reaction was itself a sin: wrath.
Strapped, written by Carmen Peláez (whom we’d previously encountered as an actress in Memories in the Blood) also had one of the more inventive premises of the evening. The speaker of this solo piece is a statue of seventh vice president and vocal pro-slavery advocate John C Calhoun come to life. This was indicated by the characters’ costuming and makeup as well as by another ingenious set design touch, which brought us as his background the base of this statue, covered in Black Lives Matter protest signs.
This reanimated Calhoun, played with terrifying verisimilitude by Stephen G. Anthony, then proceeded to deliver a manifesto on his racist beliefs. Though this raised my umbrage, Calhoun was no wrathful madman; his prideful certainty allowed him to calmly reason his way through his beliefs instead of lashing out, hiding his hatred behind a civilized veneer. His chilling analysis of white supremacy eventually implicates all who benefit from it, an indictment that will stick with me long after the play’s end.
Next door at Sloth, this meditation on race continued with Blackfish by Aurin Squire. This vignette also took a non-traditional interpretation of the sin it explored by harkening back to sloth’s historical precursor acedia, which has been variously translated as distance from God or as a kind of spiritual apathy. Sandi Stock starred as Regina, whose specific crime I’m going to avoid spoiling here; let’s just say that it involves a brazen act of deception. Stock’s portrayal brought depth and seeming sincerity to a character who easily could have appeared a two-dimensional villain; we get the sense that her desire for justice is genuine, but the slothful shortcut she takes in an attempt to bring it about is still unforgivable.
Regina’s story underscored my takeaway from Strapped; that honestly acknowledging your privilege is perhaps the first step to dismantling its underpinnings. In Shakespeare’s words, the best theatre is able to hold a mirror up to nature, which occurred to me when I caught a glimpse of my reflection in this piece’s plexiglass post-show. When characters share our sorrow, these mirrors can offer us solace, but in the case of Seven Deadly Sins, perhaps we’d best behold a warning.
Then there was Envy, a sin which here applies to both titular characters of Andre and Erica by Hilary Bettis. Andhy Mendez’s Andre is warming up before his Carnegie Hall debut when Renata Eastlick appears as his ex-girlfriend Erica. Both are talented piano players, and the magnetic confrontation that ensues is both steamy and fraught, complicated by romantic and professional jealousy. Sin, here, is destructive to others and self-defeating; the bitterness of nursing the green-eyed monster and the doubts that Andre and Erica instill in each other may well stop either from ever finding a happy ending.
After a brief stop in Purgatory, where our bartender Nate Promkul ably entertained us with a tale of a lost soul, last up was lust, which found us, appropriately, in a brothel. Amsterdam Latitudes by Milo Cruz featured Jessica Farr as the prostitute Ludmilla and Caleb Scott as Mirian, who has come to her in search of answers about a client of hers: his dead ex-lover.
While Farr’s performance sometimes struck me as a tad too affected next to Scott’s more realistic enactment of grief, both actors shone in this scorching examination of how passion unchecked can wreak havoc on a soul and a life. And though it is only by chance that this sin was my seventh, watching Mirian and Ludmilla don their masks to face the plague-filled world outside at the play’s end felt like a resonant conclusion to the entire night.
Well, near-conclusion,there was still a closing number from our Mistress of Purgatory to enjoy as she guided us through our curtain call. Kareema Khouri also provided the voice of God in the play Blackfish, a fitting role for someone capable of such powerful and enchanting vocals. I was stunned by her sheer talent, and found myself getting surprisingly emotional, reeling from the effect of the night as a whole.
I was awed to see theatre persisting in such an elegant form despite all the obstacles COVID has sown, and it felt as if the unique presentation of these seven plays had turned them into something far more special, thought-provoking, and excoriating than the sum of their parts. My head was spinning with overwhelm in the best possible way; having been through hell, I felt truly transformed. However, there were a few kinks yet to be worked out about the logistics of this new sort of theatre. For example, the endings of our plays were occasionally interrupted by the sound of applause from a nearby play that had already wrapped up. I also missed the first minute or so of Amsterdam Latitudes because of a malfunctioning receiver. Despite these hiccups, I’m sure Seven Deadly Sins would have amazed me even in a more “normal” theatre season, and I hope it inspires other companies to experiment with unconventional forms both during the pandemic and beyond.
So, at about this time last year, I wrote a Thanksgiving post vaguely inspired by my participation in New City Players CitySpeaks storytelling event (don’t bother looking at it now, though—this one is long and winding enough!) The post ended up being more properly about stories and gratefulness in a larger sense, and it also ended up being one of the most terrifyingly vulnerable pieces of writing I’ve ever shared publicly.
In said previous piece, I discussed the fact that I have attempted to write a memoir that has as one of its major themes the fallibility of stories themselves. So I will begin today’s mediation by putting forth a quote from this memoir that touches on both stories and on Thanksgiving:
“This story I am writing is not a straightforward story. Every named cause is only approximate, every meaning will be questioned, every symbol transformed. What we should be grateful for isn’t always obvious; what dooms us, sometimes, the least apparent thing. For example, my 5th grade teacher included the ex-husband that she was now on bitterest terms with on a Thanksgiving round-up of things she was grateful for because their union had produced her beloved son. I took this logic a step further, and, bafflingly to my parents, declared that I was thankful for evil itself.
As dainty and picturesque were the princesses, as dashing were the heroes, the villains of my favorite stories always had more character than these heroes, more flair, and often better musical numbers. Their world-ending plots were indeed so intricate, so admirably concocted, that I couldn’t help but feel a certain sympathy when those plots were inevitably foiled. Without villains, without conflict, there could be no movies, no books, no stories, no stages, and then where on earth would I hide?”
It’s certainly an interesting passage to think about. It’s an interesting passage to think about when the biggest thing “dooming” us these days is a virus that’s invisible, and when so many of us “theatre people” have been robbed of our artistic outlets, the stages on which we routinely “hide.” It was from mostly an outsider’s perspective that I watched the shattering effect that COVID had on the South Florida theatre world; but I was also an outsider who knew a lot of insiders, who was closely following goings-on, and who, thanks to my own theatrical background, was all too aware of the heartbreak that would be left in the wake of every cancelled play.
We are storytellers, us theatre people, well-versed in the art of narrative and foreshadowing, but this was a twist that not one of us could foresee. This was mass devastation on an international scale intersecting with mass devastation to our community intersecting with whatever personal devastations the pandemic brought to each of us. It was as if the down-to-earth seriocomedy we were living in had suddenly transformed into a horror film, a total upending of all we thought we knew.
And yet, the chaos at hand did not entirely extinguish our show-must-go-on-spirit. Starting with early efforts like Theatre Lab’s Original Online Monologue Festival, the scene exploded into an array of virtual productions and events, events we took much solace in even as we recognized their insufficiency. Theatre was alive and well, I tried to claim in my round-up of some of these offerings, but perhaps I should have instead said theatre was alive and on a ventilator, not gone for good but suspended indefinitely in some infuriating in-between. Our stage lights had after all been pared down to paltry ghostlights, and we had been reduced in each other’s eyes to washed out Zoom screen apparitions, as if ghosts of our pre-COVID selves.
(See, I am talking about the same company I was talking about last year! Bow down before my ability to manufacture narrative consistency!)
In all seriousness, though, I’ve been a fan of NCP’s since I stumbled upon their production of my all-time favorite play, The Glass Menagerie, on the way back from a Hilary Clinton rally about a million years ago in 2016. A move to New York and boomerang home later, I then ended up attending their production of Falling in September of 2019.
Falling explored the day to day life of a family dealing with a son who was on the lower-functioning end of the autism spectrum — and while I didn’t particularly “relate” as someone much higher functioning, it was refreshing to see a theatre company that was concerned with autism at all. Their commitment to exploring the issue didn’t stop with what was onstage, either; NCP also hosted several surrounding community engagement events and nightly talkbacks with experts during the show’s run.
My insatiable hunger for all things theatre also saw me as an occasional attendee at their NCP Lab back when it was an in-person event. But this open gathering for artists to commune and share work has taken on another character entirely since the advent of the pandemic. For one thing, attendance has grown exponentially since participants have been able to log in from all over the state and even country, and, thanks to quarantine, it’s frankly not as if most of us have much else to do on any given Monday night. At this week’s Thanksgiving themed lab, many attendees professed their gratefulness to have had this much-needed oasis of connection and impetus to create given that it seemed everything else was in upheaval.
The tapestry of pieces written during each two-week period also began to serve as multifaceted “time capsules” of the fraught moment. The speed at which things warped during this hurricane of a year meant that something produced during the early days of the pandemic could even a few weeks later be a “period piece.” Not that everything we wrote has been about COVID either; subject matter on offer has run the gamut from alien abductions to imprisoned murderers to most everything in between.
A few of these lab experiments were performed as “Zoom plays,” for a virtual event this May,including one written by me. This play, Easter Miracle, is set on Easter 2020… during a conversation amongst volunteers at the call center for a suicide hotline. Which, you know, mood. Since then I’ve been able to expand this sketchy trifle into a super-rough full-length draft. Which surprised even me, since I had no earthly idea what I was doing when I started it and had been stuck staring blankly at my early scrawlings for quite a while until I finally managed to trick myself into finishing just 8 pages for lab.
Sometimes I begin writing a piece with a deliberate mission and relatively preordained plot; other times it’s more like stumbling down a dark hallway with a flashlight, slowly piecing a whole together from a mass of disparate parts. So the only explanation of why I wrote it that I could initially give was that I seem to be drawn to the darkest aspects imaginable of any given situation, which is itself probably a side effect of my misanthropic, depressive tendencies and formative experiences of being the autistic odd one out in a mostly neurotypical world.
Yet, oddly enough, though it seems as if our collective mental health has taken a major nosedive this year, I’ve found 2020 thus far surprisingly… bearable. There were points at which the intensity-of-it-all has even translated into periods of manic creative enthusiasm, though these bursts of energy were inevitably juxtaposed with periods of listless burnout.
But now, when I was in an up, all the more impressive to be thriving, and when I was in a down, well, who wouldn’t be? When I was in a down, easy to find reasons I was down besides the fact that I was just a lazy, horrible person. Suddenly it didn’t feel like my fault that I’d wasted an entire day watching the news and scrolling social media; I could just blame President Trump!
And for once, what I was seeing and hearing from those around me echoed the dismal worldview that I had to some extent always held. Suddenly, it was easy to find company for my misery, so it seemed as if my sadness was no longer mine alone. I felt, finally, less like an outcast looking longingly in at all the shiny happy people than like one of many tossed to the seas in some great shipwreck, nobly managing to stay somehow afloat.
So while I can now look back on much of my early work as driven by a desperation to make everyone else suffer with me, this year I found that much of my writing was instead driven by a desire to somehow “pay forward” my intimate knowledge of ~the darkness.~ If we take as a given that I am at least occasionally crazy, maybe my voice would be particularly resonant now that everything was going crazy; now that we were all woebegone and isolated, then I, a seasoned expert in woebegone isolation, would perhaps be able to create something that would truly speak to people.
My eagerness to find something good in this damn mess also translated into what has probably been the biggest non-theatre influence on my life over the past few months: my involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement. To say that I “didn’t care” about racism until everything boiled over this May would definitely be inaccurate; but to say that I never made it a priority to care probably would be. As white-privileged-bubble as I know this sounds, I don’t think it even occurred to me that I should make it a priority to care. Not that this constitutes any real excuse, but I think I was so preoccupied by the metaphorical wars going on inside my own head to truly see the flesh and blood battles that others were fighting for their lives.
But in 2020 things had slowed down to the extent that I actually had the emotional energy to engage with the suffering of others, and the media frenzy that followed George Floyd’s death made it impossible to stay oblivious to it. The more I began to learn about the scale and nature of the systemic oppression faced by people of color, the more impossible it became to stay neutral. Soon, I was breaking what had by then been months of almost total quarantine to take to the streets, outlasting the wave of initial furor to participate in a multitude of protests and demonstrations.
Much in the way that this little blogging project served as an anchor to me throughout the latter half of 2019, marching and shouting for justice eventually began to give a continuity to my seemingly endless 2020 days, one that offered me a more visceral and more immediate sense of purpose than writing did. Before, my consistency had been the theatre; but now my consistency was rebellion. Anger. Outrage, at this broken world.
Protesting wasn’t the only surprising touchstone I found in 2020. Starting in late August, I have spent every Saturday besides this last one volunteering to distribute groceries to those in need with an organization called Hospitality Helping Hands. I found being able to help prevent families from going hungry a particularly resonant mission as juxtaposed with my history of disordered eating, which I rambled on at length about in last year’s post (told you that piece was vulnerable!) This year, though, I am attempting try to relegate it to a mere aside, because I really don’t believe the matter to be worthy of more than a mere aside.
Lately, with most non-virtual socialization out of the question, how much I weighed has simply become so much less important to me than it had seemed before our apocalypse. Appearance was simply not at issue during the two events I did regularly leave the house for; all that mattered about my body now was whether I was strong enough to withstand an eight mile march for justice or endure a 3 hour marathon of lifting groceries into cars. And here in 2020, there were plenty of far scarier things to worry about than gaining a few pounds. Like, you know, Donald Trump?
So I’m not sure if any of you were aware of this, but our country had a little election recently. And right up until the polls closed on November 3rd, I was doing all I reasonably could to ensure that the outcome of this election was the one less likely to send our nation spiraling further into catastrophe. But after having been caught entirely off guard by the results of the 2016 election, I was all too uncertain of what would come to pass.
Since then, it seemed as if Trump’s rabid fanbase had only expanded and grown more vocal. I passed corner after corner overtaken by angry mobs of supporters carrying Blue Lives Matter flags and ”FUCK YOUR FEELINGS” signs; I spied Trump flags proudly displayed in my own neighborhood and a MAGA cap on the head of my own uncle. Watching these Trumpers and MAGAts carelessly traipse around maskless denying the increasingly obvious wrongdoings of their leader hadn’t exactly restored my faith in humanity, so this time I was prepared for the worst.
Meanwhile, on the night before the election, I was lucky enough to receive a letter from New City Players inviting me to become a member of their artistic ensemble. Now, I hadn’t been intending to receive this invitation, exactly. But I had at some point begun a bit of a quest to see how thoroughly I could emotionally dominate lab with my frequently highly charged pieces, and having my efforts and talents recognized by a group that I already respected so highly felt a bit like the artistic version of finding out that your crush is recruited.
Which is how I ended up in a ridiculously good mood on a night on which I was also at least 70 percent convinced that my country was about to erupt into a civil war. Whatever chaos was about to go down, at least I could fall back on the knowledge that I was no longer a theatre outsider but once more a-part-of-it-all, and thus on one of the only things I have consistently found to be true; the theatre always saves me.
Anyhow, as we all now aware, my worst fears about our political situation were not realized, and I am amazingly enthusiastic about New City Players’ next project. They’ll be staying at the socially relevant cutting edge with an original outdoor co-production with Art Prevails Project called A Love Like This. This totally contactless experience will feature world premiere short plays and poetry that explore and celebrate relationships and ritual through the lens of Black creatives.
Since it became less “trendy,” I have seen so many organizations and individuals slide back towards the status quo when it comes to putting in the effort to be actively antiracist; but NCP is obviously not one of them. They are currently fundraising for this project with a Giving Tuesday campaign, and while I don’t want this megalopolis to devolve into a plea for funds, I would urge you to at least consider donating if you’re in a position where you can consider it.
Now, I say this less because I am now a company member than because of all of the things that made me choose to become a company member, the myriad evidence I have that the hearts of all those involved are actually in the right place. Evidence like the fact that they produced a hundred-episode Instagram live show as a fundraiser not solely for themselves, but for the South Florida Theatre League’s emergency relief fund and thus for our community as a whole.
And I trust that NCP will continue to care about combatting racism long after the lights go down on A Love Like This, just as they have continued to care about the autistic community long after the curtains closed on Falling; by hosting a digital City Speaks event for autism awareness month and commissioning me to write an original short play featuring two characters on the spectrum this past May.
In a post about A Love Like This, NCP referenced a quote from Jamil Zaki’s book The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, which I am now totally going to steal.
“We find it easier to empathize with single individuals—whose faces and cries haunt us—than the suffering of many. In laboratory studies, people express more empathy for one victim of tragedy than they do for eight, ten, or hundreds…With the right treatments—including unlikely friendships, art, and community building—we can grow a more muscular kind of empathy, and broaden our kindness along the way.”
This is a phenomenon that I’m sure many of us have experienced first-hand. I, for instance, found my resolve to stay committed to fighting for black lives strengthened by learning the story of Jade Kothe, whose death of a preventable overdose due to police negligence I eventually ended up writing about in another of my most vulnerable pieces thus far (Cool, the entire internet knows that I did drugs now…).
Whether you read my take on it or not, I encourage you to learn Jade’s story too, even as I warn you that some of its disgusting details may hurt to read about; they certainly hurt to write about. Because sometimes it hurts to care. It hurts to realize just how badly others are victimized by a system that you yourself may have implicitly condoned with your oblivious passivity. It hurts to care in a world where almost half the country wanted to reelect a president who doesn’t care about anyone but himself and “fuck your feelings” is the order of the day. And it hurts to care about people at all in the middle of a pandemic that has killed 250,000 people and counting and severely afflicted countless more.
Empathy is not easy, and neither is honesty. Of course, I won’t deny that there is also an aspect of attention-seeking and even masochism to some of my more dramatic public confessions, a lingering touch of the actors’ “look at me.” But sometimes it really is about the principle of the thing, or at least about both, and the fact that I am willing to throw myself under the bus to say what I believe must be said is one of the few things about myself I’m ever genuinely proud of.
Which means that I guess I have to talk about the actual coronavirus now. Fuck, how do I get myself into these things?
Ok, here goes: the reason I was not out at Hospitality Helping Hands this past Saturday is because I have been on total quarantine since early last week. I have been on total quarantine since early last week because my father, who I live with, began showing symptoms consistent with COVID-19. After days of frustrating delays, he eventually received a positive test result this past Saturday. Luckily, his proved to be a relatively mild case, overwhelmingly unpleasant but never truly serious or life-threatening. And though we are not entirely out of the danger zone yet, all evidence thus far seems to suggest that both my mother and I have somehow avoided infection ourselves.
But I was briefly in a situation where I had pretty damn good reason to suspect that I could indeed be harboring the virus, which wasn’t even the scary part. The scary part was that a full fifty percent of coronavirus cases are thought to be spread by people experiencing no symptoms at all, and that I had interacted in person with people from outside of my household shortly before my father’s symptoms appeared.
Which brings us conveniently back to the idea of empathy, and to the idea of empathy for individuals being far easier for our puny little brains to grasp than empathy for the masses. It’s not as if I’d been intellectually unaware how dangerous COVID-19 was, but the abstract notion of spreading a virus to “people” being a bad thing to do was not in fact sufficient to instill in me the appropriate level of fear. However, the idea of having potentially spread said virus to specific people who I’d kind of planned on enjoying being alive with after the dust of 2020 had settled was absolutely devastating.
Meanwhile, while my family hadn’t planned on a large gathering for the Thanksgiving holiday, my sister had planned on driving down from Orlando to convene with us and one other “pod” of close relatives, which will obviously not be happening now. So at first, the timing of this little scare also seemed particularly unfortunate, especially as it coincided with my greater realization that this entire holiday season is likely to be an exercise in denial, depression, and despair as we stare down what looks to be the pandemic’s darkest days. Since I was lucky enough to have not really been in the middle of anything when COVID hit, in a way the usual festivities of the holiday season are one of the biggest things that I’ve “lost” thus far.
Upon reflection, though, I can only see the fact that events unfolded precisely as they did and precisely when they did as yet another strike of miraculous good fortune. What if we had gathered today, and what if it had been today that my dad had been invisibly incubating the virus, with all of us unmasked for at least long enough to share a meal? Move anything a few days forward or a few days back, and the results could have been utterly disastrous. Take one wrong turn in COVID’s perilous forest, and you risk ending up in unimaginable sorrow; move one pawn the wrong way on the chessboard and you might permanently alter the outcome of the game.
So maybe this is my wake up call to the fact that while it will certainly hurt to isolate for as long as COVID demands, the potential pain I — or any of us — could cause by not isolating is of a far greater measure. Because even though “caring” will likely mean enduring a long, lonely winter, wehaveno choice but to care about each other, because COVID will not. COVID is a Trump supporter with a “Fuck your feelings” sign, the ingenious cartoon villain who foresees your every move. COVID will not care why you took the risk of interaction, or how pure were your intentions; COVID will not make an exception for you.
So better to stay six feet apart; because we also must remember that we are all only separated by six degrees of separation. Even if you somehow think it’s “ok” to risk the health of strangers, what happens if one of those strangers comes into contact with someone who comes into contact with someone who comes into contact with the elderly relative that you’ve been responsibly avoiding for months? There’s nothing to stop any germs you send out in the world from boomeranging back towards someone you love.
This is simply not the time to be playing Russian roulette with our own physical health and that of those around us, especially not when a vaccine may only be mere months away and the oasis of a happy ending truly in sight. All else that can be said about time, it does tend to pass; and while periods of extended involuntary solitude are certainly not fun, they do tend to be technically survivable. As your resident expert in woebegone isolation, I would know. And year from now, will it really matter whether you met up with your friends and family in person or online for the 2020 holidays? Or will it only matter who is missing from the table, forever lost to the irreversible thrall of death?
So, um, happy Thanksgiving?
Well. I certainly did not know that this is the way I would be ending this story last week, let alone last year. But things do seem to have a way of coalescing into narrative; sentences to paragraphs, paragraphs to pages, pages to the sort of starstuff that fills books. When we tell stories, we take stock; we look at where we are, and how we got there, and where we’re going. And when I take the time to contemplate the random, winding roads that led me to the life that I lead today and everything that I value about that life, I often find myself awed by the fact that everything could be different if near anything had happened in any other manner than the peculiar way that it did. In this, I am beginning to realize the futility of regret — even as I do still regret. But I have also begun to look back on things with the thought, to quote from near the end of my aforementioned draft of Easter Miracle:
“Maybe that doesn’t mean that what happened “should’ve” happened. But the world doesn’t work in shoulds. We don’t live in shoulds. We live in “is.” And sometimes we just have to accept the good in “is.” Even though that doesn’t erase all the bad.”
So, does any of this mean that I, in any good conscious, can say that I am in any sense thankful for the pandemic itself when it has brought so much sorrow to the world? I’m not sure, but I’m also not sure it actually matters, because I didn’t choose it, and I cannot stop it, and it is certainly going to be here either way. In such situations, all we can do is cling to the faint silver linings, from more time with family to unexpected virtual connections to end-of-the-world sales at Forever 21. Or maybe we do not merely cling to these glimmers; maybe we use them to spin yarns.
For, even in a pandemic, and perhaps especially in a pandemic; no artist should abandon their mission to find beauty in whatever ways present themselves, big or small. Maybe some days that means dedicating yourself to large-scale creative projects, but some days it could be as simple as choosing a mask that makes a fashion statement or whipping out your iPhone for an impromptu photoshoot. Some days you may indeed give up, and watch too much Netflix, or eat too much ice cream, or get totally wasted and make a fool of yourself on Zoom; but so it goes. This is no time to judge anyone, including ourselves, for whatever safe indulgences it takes us to get through the days, the months, the year. So long as we never lose sight of the fact that none of us will ever know what anything foreshadows; and thus that there will always be reason to hope.
But do not fear, good readers. My disappearance from this realm of theatre-blogging indicates no loss of passion for the matter nor loss of creative energy; I’ve merely decided that that energy would be better spent on other projects given the bizarre state of theatre these days. The quick pop-up pop-down nature of most of the super-cool virtual theatre that has been happening also isn’t terribly conducive to written reflection.
One play that’s been adapted into a podcast series, however, has the benefit of being a permanently available object to which I can direct my attention. Fort Lauderdale company New City Players has also thought of a way to maintain the “shared experience” aspect of theatre in a safe and contactless way by holding an in-person listening party for their play-turned-podcast Little Montgomery this coming Saturday November 14th.
Little Montgomery is based on the play Montgomery by Stephen Brown, which has also been performed under the title Country Girls. The play…podcast… playcast? gets its name from the character of Rick Montgomery (Gregg Weiner), a pill-popping country singer whose kidnapping drives the plot. The unlikely perpetrators, however, are not any seasoned crooks but rather a pair of preteens, fiery thirteen-year-old Megan (Krystal Millie Valdes) and her not-so-trusty younger sidekick Kimmy (Casey Sacco).
Wind of the incident quickly reaches hardass police chief Patty (Elizabeth Price), bumbling officer Larry (Dave Hyland), and his equally inept protégé Chet (Timothy Mark Davis). The madcap game of cat and mouse that ensues is complicated by the revelation that Megan is Larry’s daughter, the first of many shocking twists that propel this high-octane comedy toward its surprisingly touching conclusion.
This isn’t my first exposure to the writing of Stephen Brown, as I was lucky enough to catch the Theatre Lab production of his Everything is Super Great last December. Little Montgomery shares its knack for combining exceptionally witty dialogue with a genuinely affecting plot; tragic and detailed backstories lend the quirky characters’ struggles real pathos.
The occasionally cartoonish extremity of these characters suits the nature of the medium, which has fewer tools to capture the attention and engage an audience than might an in-person production. Since the cast is more than capable of rising to the play’s colorful heights, this works marvelously; I can’t imagine a down to earth drama about more conventional folks being as absorbing to listen to as Megan’s precocious steeliness or Patty’s southern drawl.
The playcast is divided into five episodes of a little over twenty minutes each, which were originally released at a rate of one per week. Now, though, all are available for free on a variety of streaming platforms for you to space out or binge on as you please. You’ll also find the series’ 6th bonus episode, a conversation between Brown and director Timothy Mark Davis about how the project came to be. This provided a fascinating window into the play’s origins; Brown wrote it after a long period of writer’s block and was heavily inspired by the best friend whose humor helped him survive those dark days.
This aspect of Little Montgomery makes it an interesting choice for these dark days. There’s certainly plenty in this story that might resonate, from the decimation of Kimmy’s dreams of stardom by a cruel twist of fate, to the grief over the recent death of his wife Mary (Laura Creel) that Rick Montgomery viscerally describes. We eventually get to hear Mary’s voice through a recording of a song she left behind, and this bittersweet moment is one of the highlights of the playcast. It conveys plenty of nostalgia and sorrow over things lost, but also a sincere yearning for new beginnings and a persistent hope.
Little Montgomery’s story also ends on a note of hope, if a hesitant one, on a note of wounds not healed but healing and something of the feeling of a slowly lifting fog. This also feels appropriate for this particular moment, a moment in which we are still light years away from getting back to any measure of normality but in which at least a path towards that normality is beginning to emerge.
Til then, it seems New City Players will continue to find increasingly innovative ways of adapting their goal of “creating community through transformative theatre” to this unfortunately indefinite intermission. Other pandemic endeavors of theirs include the recording of several original Zoom plays, a hundred-episode Instagram live series, and a bi-weekly-ish virtual version of their longstanding NCPLab, which has been downright soul-sustaining in this strangest of times.
Little Montgomery’s listening party also marks the first in-person theatre anything I plan on attending since the world shattered in March, which feels important. It feels important because it’s a reminder that the spirit of theatre is sure to persist despite whatever calamities the world throws at it, and that there are other people out there as determined as I am to keep it alive. It feels important because it is important that we keep finding ways to connect with each other even when that connection has to be maintained from a six-foot distance, and to keep using our creative voices to record each other talismans against despair.
But no worries if you can’t make it this Saturday. Since podcasts do have a major accessibility advantage over plays, you could also listen to Little Montgomery just about any other time— while doing chores, while driving, or in the manner that I did, which is through headphones while desperately trying to hold onto an umbrella during a massive tropical storm because my daily step goals will cease for no weather, damn it!
Meanwhile, I have a few other virtual and in-person theatrical endeavors on my to-write-about list, so plan to hear more from me soon — for real this time! For now, happy playcast listening!
As devastating as the COVID-19 pandemic has been for South Florida theatre (and most everything else), it’s also had some unexpected but undeniable bright sides — and today, I’m talking super-nova bright. Thanks to Zeezou’s Stardust Extravagnza, the inaugural production of Area Stage’sMiami Queer Theatre Collective (or MQTC), I’ve managed to expand my theatrical horizons as far as outer space without ever actually leaving my house!
It all started around 5 months ago, when I stumbled upon one of the MQTC’s “Queerantine Creativity Challenges” on an early-pandemic Wednesday morning. These bi-weekly challenges took the form of morning prompts meant to inspire the creation of an artwork to be shared via livestream later that day. I participated in one of these challenges by impulsively writing an essayistic “love letter” to NYC, and a few weeks later, MQTC put out an open call for artists interested in participating in a longer collaborative project. Not only was I by then on the prowl for anything that would keep me from falling into a void of COVID-related creative inertia, I was also fascinated by the chance to delve more deeply into queer culture and my queer identity.
Thus far, being bisexual is actually not something I’ve thought a lot about, and this mostly because it just never seemed like a particularly big deal. For one thing, as someone on the autism spectrum, I was used to being thought of as “queer” in the word’s original “strange/odd” definition far before I had any awareness of sexuality period.
My natural Aspergian weirdness, in turn, led me to retreat at an early age to ultra-accepting and ultra-liberal social landscapes like theatre troupes and art schools, where queerness was commonplace and homophobia was basically nonexistent. So my gradual realization that I was attracted to women as well as men struck me as… like, literally nothing to worry about.
Still, though my dating app profiles have long been set to “seeking both,” I generally described myself as straight up until about 2 years ago primarily because I didn’t feel “bi enough” to use the label given that I’d never actually acted on any of my same-sex attractions, which probably circles back to the fact that I haven’t dated much period due to, like, the inherently terrifying nature of interaction with the rest of the human race. But post ~certain experiences~ during my time in grad school at, pardon the cliché, Sarah Lawrence College: I feel pretty damn bi.
Now, all that being said: back to Zeezou’s Stardust Extravaganza!
I admit that I was a little nervous going into the project, bc, you know, the inherently terrifiying nature of interaction with the human race, but I quickly found that working with my talented and friendly collective-mates was nothing to be scared of. On the contrary, I quickly found myself enjoying the camraderie, especially given that the pandemic had interfered with much of my usual interaction with the rest of the human race.
It’s the same push-pull paradox that’s kept bringing theatre back to the forefront of my life despite my repeated attempts to abandon it for more “sensible” and less nerve-wracking pursuits. Seldom do I feel more vulnerable and exposed than when performing in a play or seeing my writing come to life onstage; but seldom do I feel more alive, fulfilled, and genuinely connected to other people than when in the midst of putting on a show, even an online one!
It’s also worth noting that the decision to take this project virtual is likely the only reason this particular collective of people was able to convene. Though a non-COVID version of MQTC would have presumably been open only to artists who lived in Miami or close enough to commute there regularly, the online version attracted artists from not only all corners of Florida but as far away as Texas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.
The resulting troupe of 12 also ended up being an incredibly diverse one in regards to age, gender identity, and ethnic background as well as sexuality, meaning that getting a chance to work with and learn the perspectives of my fellow collective members was often as enlightening as entertaining!
After a few rounds of “collaborative speed dating,” we were able to establish a few basic objectives for our project:
We wanted to address the sparsity of queer-themed children’s programming by creating a theatre work that would be suitable for the whole family and appeal to kids as well as adults
We wanted to tell a positive and uplifting queer story rather than one that focused on struggles and hardship
And we wanted to center gender nonconforming characters, play with metatheatrical themes, and embrace an out of this world aesthetic!
Thus, Zeezou’s Stardust Extravaganza was born! The appropriate-for-all-ages show mostly takes place on far-away Planet Rainbow, which is imperiled due to the ongoing war between the the two alien species who call it home. As one might guess from their names, “TellTales” are defined by their storytelling abilities while “SingSongs” prefer to spend their time singing and playing instruments.
The feud began when TellTales of yore started spreading “stories” about why singing was wrong, leading all but the bravest of SingSongs to abandon their music. This is the status quo until chosen alien Blippy learns via oracle that the only way to restore harmony is to fuse the two art forms is by putting on a Broadway musical with the help of a special and talented human child from planet Earth!
The resulting journey to opening night is a hilarious, whimsical, and tremendously catchy one, but the story also hints at deeper themes. For example, though sexual orientation is never addressed directly, it’s impossible to miss the affirming implications of songs like “Welcome to Planet Rainbow,” which celebrates a planet where everyone is free to be their true self without fear of judgement.
The harmful stories about SingSongs that TellTales pass down through generations are also a meaningful nod to the ease with which flawed representation can erpetuate negative stereotypes and insidiously work to perpetuate systemic oppression. It probably wouldn’t hurt most of us to think a little more about the kinds of stories we tell!
Soooo it’s definitely worth tuning in if you’re in the mood for a quirky and upbeat extraterrestrial escape this weekend orrrr if you’re interested in experiencing a script I helped develop as one of the many talented writers on the show’s content team orrrrr in hearing me pontificate in a ridiculously pretentious accent as the voice actress portraying puppet character Roy. G Biv. The role also required me to sing in “virtual public” for what I’m pretty sure is the first time ever, but no time like an international pandemic for jumping out of one’s comfort zone, I suppose! Well, at least as long as you do it inside…
Zeezou’s Stardust Extravaganza will premiere online tonight (July 25th) at 8 PM and will be shown again tomorrow (July 26th) at 2pm. The show will ONLY be viewable during those two time slots, so be sure not to miss its orbit! All you need in order to receive the link to attend is a virtual ticket, which is free with even a minimal donation in support of the MQTC’s future programming. Btw, the show only lasts a little less than an hour, meaning that you can watch and still keep the rest of your night/afternoon free to…um, what are we still allowed to do these days?
Finally: I’ve definitely emerged from this experience both far more aware of the importance of responsible representation and far more curious about the realm of musical theatre writing now that I’ve dipped my toes in. Fitting to realize while working on a super-queer theatre project that there’s no reason I have to stick to straight plays!
Now, all that being said: I should be back on-blog soon(ish) with a post about some other virtual theatre adventures and eventually with the promised last-three-posts in my Isolating Age series. Meanwhile, happy space travels!
“Do you think all this being in masks is hurting people’s souls?” my mother asked me one day, as we put on ours for a routine trip to the grocery store.
How the hell was I to know? I’m a writer, not a theologian. And, on the off chance I do have a soul, I assume mine is already plenty scarred.
She continues: “If you’re in a mask, that means you’re afraid.”
During the first days of the pandemic, I vividly remember coming across the following meme.
There are few theatre-goers who wouldn’t get the joke. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 smash hit, The Phantom of The Opera, is the longest running Broadway show of all time. It’s been a fixture there for over thirty-one years (aka more than six times longer than the confederacy existed…) thanks in part to its almost universal appeal. For instance: it’s one of my all-time favorite musicals. It’s also one of my “not-really-theatre-people” parents’ favorite musicals. Oddly enough, it’s also one of Donald Trump’s.
But not everyone is a Phantom phan. Some critics have deemed the musical too high on spectacle and low on depth and character development to be a truly satisfying one, an interesting criticism of a show that is in many ways about the power of images and the seductiveness of spectacle. The show’s key symbol and instantly recognizable logo, the Phantom’s mask, also makes the play an interesting one to consider now that another sort of mask is becoming a symbol of a completely different kind as the centerpiece of a country-wide debate.
By now, we’re so used to Phantom’s ubiquitous presence on the Great Bright Way that most of us seldom stop to think about, like, how fucking weird it is. Based on a 1910 book by Gaston Leroux, Phantom of the Opera tells the story of Erik, a child born with a severe facial deformity. He is abandoned by his parents and left to make his way as a circus freak, an environment in which he is ceaselessly demeaned and mocked. In adulthood, he finds unlikely refuge in the waterways beneath the Paris Opera House and there refashions himself from the grotesque outcast Erik into an elegant “Phantom,” hiding the withered part of his face behind a pristine half-mask.
Emboldened by his newfound disguise, the Phantom then becomes a masterful composer and architect, uses schemes and threats to exert substantial control over the theatre’s politics, and finds a musical protégé and potential love interest in Christine, a beautiful young orphan training at the institution.
How much a simple mask can empower. How much a simple mask can protect.
And yet…how easily a mask can slip.
“If you’re in a mask that means you’re afraid.”
At first, the Phantom tries to woo Christine from afar, using only his voice to instruct her and keeping himself and his ugliness safely out of sight. It’s no accident that when he finally appears to her corporeally, it is from within her mirror, that this mirror was the place he took over as portal to his subterranean dungeon lair. That, perhaps unconsciously, he had attempted to take ownership over the site of his deepest, earliest wound.
The Phantom expresses his devotion to Christine obsessively, singularly, constantly composing music in her honor and blackmailing the opera’s owners until he lands her a starring role. And though his pursuit eventually drives him to actions that should be considered reprehensible (#problematicfaves), the Phantom’s style and persona help him remain a figure as seductive and sympathetic as he is frightening, a fact to which his story’s popularity attests.
And maybe even the Phantom’s intended would have one day been swayed by his sensual “music of the night” — was she not about to be reunited with her handsome, wealthy, childhood friend Raoul. In the song All I Ask Of You, the two declare their love:
[CHRISTINE] Say you’ll share with me One love, one lifetime Say the word and I will follow you [TOGETHER] Share each day with me Each night, each morning [CHRISTINE] Say you love me [RAOUL] You know I do [BOTH] Love me—that’s all I ask of you
In the movie version, this is a gorgeous moment — until you cut to the Phantom. Watching them. Watching her — his muse, his savior, his everything— getting away. He’s gripping the show’s second most famous symbol, a red rose, one he had given to Christine but that she’d carelessly discarded upon finding her new beau. The Phantom then picks it up as he sings a mournful reprise, only to rip it to pieces.
Now, for all my melancholy, I don’t actually cry very often; very rarely does a work of art move me to tears. But the first time I beheld this moment, I actually started to sob. For all its spectacle, Phantom of The Opera is still plenty capable of touching our hearts.
The show doesn’t need to be a particularly nuanced one to communicate raw emotion with this kind of visual shorthand; all I needed was the image and the sweeping score to be instantly taken back to all the times I’ve found myself on the outside looking in. Feel free to roll your eyes at the crashing chandelier, but under all Erik’s bizarre, theatrical overcompensations, his brokenness is all too real.
But let’s turn our attentions for the moment to the conspicuously unmasked madman who’s been running around the White House these days. Now, having already compared Donald Trump to the literal lord of the underworld as well as to Hitler, I’m reluctant to make yet another comparison to the Phantom… as that would be an insult to Erik.
But Trump’s kind of brought it on himself by playing songs from Phantom of The Opera at his campaign rallies. In some ways, it’s an odd choice; in others, a fitting one. Trump, after all, won over America almost entirely with spectacle. To quote my aforementioned Trump/Hitler piece, written for Musée Magazine’s 19th issue in early 2019:
Our nation elected Trump in part because we were taken in by the false aura of splendor his wealth and seeming self-assurance granted him, because of the solid nature his grandiosity and self-importance lent to his speeches, speeches with actual content so bizarre and incoherent that his candidacy should have been a joke. But instead of laughing, we handed him the keys to our kingdom. A close look at the president’s behavior, or even a casual scroll through his twitter feed, reveals his self-preoccupation and an outsized ego he would do anything to protect. If we continue to trust in Trump’s bravado and the surface glimmer of his crafted persona while ignoring the damaging and problematic messages he conveys, we risk making the same deadly mistake as did the Germans who were hypnotized by Hitler’s own manufactured ease.
All this, of course, is even truer now. Though Trump’s mistakes have gotten bigger and his ideas have gotten ever stranger (Lysol, anyone?), his ego, improbably, remains intact. Trump’s obsession with his own image is the reason why he prioritized resurrecting his “great economy” over saving actual human lives and gassed peaceful protesters for a photo op. It’s also the reason that he has continuously downplayed the importance of masks and still refuses to be seen wearing one, not wanting to give reporters “the satisfaction.”
Which brings us quite seamlessly to Phantom of The Opera’s final moments, the “point of no return.” The Phantom’s unrequited love for Christine has long festered into a toxic madness, and, in front of an entire audience, she has pulled off his mask. We can see for the first time, not his sleek, suave surface but his hysterical desperation, along with his limp, thinning hair, and pathetic, naked face. In reaction, the Phantom has trapped Raoul in his lair and given Christine an ultimatum: he will free her lover if and only if she pledges to marry him.
Now, someone given only the above scene could well come away with the idea that, “people who look like monsters are monsters.” But those whom have the benefit of the whole story can clearly see that what is actually being conveyed is that, “people who we treat like monsters often become them.” Or that, “a lifetime of marginalization can drive people to actions that can seem, at first glance, incomprehensible.”
Then, instead of making a choice, Christine steps forward and kisses the Phantom—the only expression of love he has ever known. And then Erik realizes—that he has to let her go. Knowing, certainly, that she isn’t coming back. As the reunited Raoul and Christine make their way to safety and cruelly begin to reprise their timeless lover’s duet, Erik does the only thing left to do with his seething, bottomless rage; he turns it back on himself, towards his image. With bare fists, he can only shatter his mirror.
Note that the first time I beheld this scene, having never properly stopped crying after All I Ask Of You‘s reprise, I was practically inconsolable. Despite years of hiding his very face in a futile effort to seek acceptance, the Phantom finds it in himself to show some damn humanity and sacrifice a future with his only love for the sake of her happiness. Meanwhile, Donald Trump doesn’t even have the humanity to put on a damn mask when doing so could’ve made him a powerful role model for the American people, and thus could almost certainly have saved lives.
Which, um, sort of begs the question:
WHY IS A FICTIONAL SOCIOPATH A BETTER ROLE MODEL THAN THE PRESIDENT?
“If you’re in a mask, that means you’re afraid.”
News flash: with over 100,000 Americans dead and new cases at over 50,000 new cases a day…WE FUCKING SHOULD BE.
Maybe we would look better or even feel safer without masks… but in truth, we would be in far greater danger. No mask can be worn forever; and no “masking” of the coronavirus pandemic is actually going to make it go away. Even the recent instances of horrifying police brutality that kicked the Black Lives Matter movement into high gear fall under the broader category of mistaking “seems” for “is,” and while I’m not going to try to simplify the matter to a platitude like “don’t judge a book by its cover,” also, like, DON’T?
This is no time to let ourselves be swayed by surfaces and spectacle but the time to choose discomfort over delusion, reality over denial; coronavirus will be hard enough to beat without us refusing to acknowledge that it even exists. And though, for now, our mouths and noses must stay covered, we should make sure our eyes are open wider than ever before.
Now, as I’ve proclaimed, is the time for vision, a time when the smallest shortsightedness could be deadly; masks, after all, do less to protect ourselves than the people around us. So this is the time to, for once, look at something other than our damn reflections and care about something beyond appearances, to truly see why we should continue to make a simple, selfless choice.
And if you happen to be reading this, Mr. President… I doubt there’s any face covering in the world that could possibly make you look any stupider than you already do.
Now, all of that being said, I do, eventually, plan on finishing this little Isolating Age series, and next up is Sunday In The Park With George by good old Stephen Sondheim, whose characters are some of the most solitary—and most twisted— folks around. Is anyone surprised that he’s my all-time favorite composer?
In the meantime, while obviously-not-working-on-this-post-for-nearly-a-month, I’ve been busying myself writing a few new short plays, finishing a one act, occasionally attempting to start or revise longer works, protesting for police reform (more on that eventually), and participating in the creation of a super-queer musical that takes place mostly in outer space (more on that in… I don’t know, a week?)
Meanwhile, happy mask-wearing, and happy weirdest July 4th in the world! I’ll be out (in all black) trying to fix America!
Though it’s been one of my favorite musicals for over a decade, I don’t think I was actually mature enough to absorb the full emotional impact and nuance of Rent until late this March, when I decided to revisit the musical for the first time in several years.
This blast-from-the-past wasn’t just a whim. Though the COVID-19 pandemic differs from the HIV/AIDS pandemic in countless ways, it is also one of the only events remotely comparable in our recent cultural memory. Other writers who have lived through both have also already made the comparison, so I’m assuming this logical leap isn’t totally out of line for someone who wasn’t there to make.
It seems after all, that there was a time when AIDS was as mysterious and frightening an illness as COVID is today, and a time when, at least for those in disproportionately affected communities, life was as disorienting and grim as it is now.
As writer Kristoffer Diaz put it in a Twitter reflection about his experience of that time and Rent’s profound impact on him during its early days:
“Think about feeling alone, even surrounded by millions of others feeling that same way. Think about watching your community in peril. Think about terror and uncertainty and fear and fear and sorrow and fear.”
Yes, well, that sounds familiar….
As I briefly mentioned in my intro post, Rent was my theatrical gateway drug. Even Rent’s somewhat imperfect movie version had me utterly entranced—during the height of my ardor, I watched it almost nightly.
Over the next few years, Rent would become not only the first show I saw on Broadway but the work of theatre that I’ve seen live the most times period; so many times, in fact, that I’ve lost the specific count! A touring production here, a chance trip to TKTS there, that one time at the Lake Worth Playhouse…
In hindsight, though, I’m not sure just what it was about Rent that inspired me to such a frenzy. That it was my first exposure to a truly modern musical? The appealing and accessible themes of living life to the fullest? The hint of rebellion I enjoyed in obsessing over a show that explored “taboo” topics like drug use and homosexuality so openly? Perhaps I just thought the songs were pretty or that Idina Menzel was hot?
Or maybe it’s just the fact that Rent is, among other things, a musical about outsiders. Between my Aspergian social difficulties (again, refer to my intro post) and my 7th grade status as a dorky ugly duckling, 12 year old me certainly wasn’t winning any popularity contests. So perhaps a show focusing on quirky underdogs and that enthusiastically toasts to “going against the grain” and to “anyone out of the mainstream” was a welcome respite from my all-too-conformist peers.
The show’s art-comes-first attitude may also have played a part in luring me towards a creative lifestyle; whatever the precise mechanisms, I can trace a direct line from Rent to my interest in acting and then to theatre more generally, and thus to one of the defining passions of my life.
But the story of how Rent became a Broadway sensation notable enough to cross my path in the first place is inextricable from the morbidly fascinating life story of its author, Jonathan Larson. After growing up in suburban White Plains, Larson spent most of his post-college life in NYC’s East Village, making a meagre living as a waiter and devoting the rest of his time to the “the most single-minded pursuit of an artistic vision” some theatre historians have ever seen.
This vision was of a new breed of American musical — Larson sought to merge traditional musical theatre sound with contemporary rock and pop, and in doing so, to inspire a new generation to give Broadway a chance. “I’m the future of musical theatre,” he would introduce himself to strangers, unironically.
When Larson failed to secure a full production of Superbia despite some encouraging feedback, he channeled his frustration into a one-man rock monologue called Tick Tick… Boom!, which was later reworked into a three person show that has played off-Broadway, on national tour, and on the West End.
And then there was Rent. Though Rent was loosely based on the 19th century opera La Bohème, it was more substantially shaped by Larson’s own East Village experiences, including losing some of his closest friends to HIV.
A full seven years into Rent’s development, the musical was at long last slated for an off-Broadway production at the New York Theatre Workshop, and Larson was finally poised for his big break. But instead of becoming a star, the 35-year-old Larson died of a freak aortic aneurysm on the very night before Rent’s first scheduled preview.
Now, while there was no way that even the visionary Larson could have foreseen his own untimely death, Rent’s weighty subject matter of HIV/AIDS had already imbued the show with a prescient focus on mortality.
For instance: early in Act One, an HIV positive ex-junkie named Roger sings One Song Glory about his burning desire to make a mark on the world before he leaves it: “one song before I go…glory…one song to leave behind…”
Then, repeated throughout the score are imperatives to seize the day and to continue to strive for love and connection even in the face of pain and tragedy, encapsulated in memorable refrains like “forget regret or life is yours to miss,” and “no day but today”—advice that seemed even more poignant coming from beyond the grave.
Press were drawn to these eerie coincidences and to Larson’s tragic tale like vultures to carrion, and audiences soon followed their lead. It’s impossible to tell whether Rent would have been such a huge sensation had Larson’s death not attracted so much attention, but the boost certainly didn’t hurt. As it is, Rent ended up becoming, more or less, the Hamilton of its day.
Rent’s off-Broadway run sold out almost immediately, and the musicalwent on to become the 11th longest running show on Broadway, playing for a full 12 years. Rent also won four Tony Awards and even became one of only nine musicals to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
And as for Larson’s fated mission to change the face of theatre and to make the art form newly appealing to his generational cohorts? Most theatre afficionados would say he succeeded.
Rent’s acclaim paved the way for future rock musical hits from Spring Awakening to Hadestown, and the show attracted scores of young devotees. These “Rentheads,” would return to see Rent as often as their wallet allowed and would even sleep on the street for a chance at discount tickets. Larson’s work is also known to have personally influenced artists ranging from Lin Manuel Miranda to… well, I guess we’re back to me.
Despite the charms of Rent’s movie version, I believe that Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway is a far better representation of the show as it is meant to be seen. In preserving much of the musical’s innovative theatricality and offering us intimate close ups it would be impossible to see from a theatre seat, it gives us a kind of “best of both worlds.”
Since apparently there are no rules here anymore and this essay is already over four thousand words long, I’m not going to busy myself with much discussion of the performances. Like, everyone was just fucking great.
The entirety of Rent’s Act One takes place on “one single magic night,” a Christmas Eve in the late 1980s. As the show begins, Roger (our HIV positive ex-junkie, if you recall), plays guitar while his roommate Mark films the proceedings, working on a passion-project documentary about their tumultuous lives. Then, a sudden power outage incites Rent’s title number.
Now, many people assume that Rent’s title refers solely to the most frequently used definition of the word rent, “a tenant’s regular payment to a landlord for the use of property or land.” But as Jonathan Larson reportedly emphasized, rent is also the past tense of rend, which means: “to separate into parts with force or violence; to tear apart, split, or divide.”
And though the song’s chorus repetition of “How we gonna pay last year’s rent” makes meaning one of the word rent obvious in the song “Rent,” other verses suggest that meaning two is also at play.
For example, the company wonders:
How do you leave the past behind
When it keeps finding ways to get to your heart
It reaches way down deep and tears you inside out
‘Til you’re torn apart
How can you connect in an age
Where strangers, landlords, lovers
Your own blood cells betray
What binds the fabric together
When the raging, shifting winds of change
Keep ripping away?
And so, quite likely, the song’s closing line “everything is rent” doesn’t mean that everything is “a tenant’s regular payment to a landlord for the use of property or land.” No: what it means is that everything is torn, everything’s in tatters, everything is fucked.
Yes, well, that sounds familiar….
There are, though, certain situations in which “everything is a tenant’s regular payment to a landlord for the use of property or land” would actually be a fairly reasonable thing to say. For instance… when YOU CAN’T FUCKING PAY YOUR RENT. Like, you know, tens of thousands of American citizens these days?
While Mark and Roger’s refusal to pay their rent is often taken as a sign of their immaturity, it’s also possible to interpret the characters’ impassioned declaration that “We’re not gonna pay rent because everything is rent” less as a senseless rebellion against adult responsibilities and more as an acknowledgement that nobody should have to pay rent because this whole fucking system is FUCKED. In the wake of today’s emerging wave of rent strikes, I’m tempted to say that they— and, again, Larson— were simply ahead of their time.
Rent’s plot kicks into gear when Benny, the pals’ former Boho friend turned uptight landlord, offers to forgive Mark and Roger’s debts and offer them rent-free residence from then on.
The catch is that the agreement only stands if they can convince their performance artist pal Maureen to cancel her upcoming protest, which aims to deter Benny from taking over an empty lot on which many of the area’s homeless have set up camp. On principle, Mark and Roger refuse. Way not to take advantage of your privilege, ya’ll!
Yet though Rent’s political conscience is also hinted at by mentions of activism in “La Vie Boheme,” on the whole the show is less focused on civic struggles than emotional and interpersonal ones.
For instance, Roger is “just coming back from half a year of withdrawal” and has been making every effort to shut out the world since, in Mark’s words:
“His girlfriend April
Left a note saying “We’ve got AIDS”
Before slitting her wrists in the bathroom.
Yet Roger is jolted out of his long emotional slump when sultry stripper and current junkie Mimi (who is also HIV positive, though we don’t learn this until the end of Act One) appears at his door, asking him to light her candle amidst the continuing power outage. The two begin a flirtation, and though Roger is obviously intrigued, he is not yet ready to let down his guard.
Meanwhile, anarchist philosopher Collins is rescued from a mugging by the appropriately named drag queen Angel. The two, both of whom are HIV positive, quickly strike up a passionate romance. Later in the act, they attend a group called “Life Support” to commune with others who share their diagnosis and join in a number called “Will I,” which encapsulates the terror of a terminal illness in a simple three-line refrain:
Will I lose my dignity?
Will someone care?
Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?
As much as I’ve always loved this song, listening to it has never been so gutting as it’s been lately. I suppose because I’ve never really thought about how it might feel to contract a potentially fatal virus until… I don’t know, late this March?
After Maureen’s protest, our motley crew heads to the Life Café to celebrate with the aforementioned “La Vie Boheme” a raucous ode to the Bohemian lifestyle. In the midst of the revel, Roger and Mimi reconnect in the duet “I Should Tell You” and finally share a “small lovely kiss” at the end of Act One.
But as we embark into Act Two, which moves at a much-accelerated pace and covers the entirety of the following year, things can’t stay so peaceful. Though Mimi appears to dive wholeheartedly into her relationship with Roger, she can do so only while continuing to use substances to keep everyone at an arm’s length. And Roger, all too conscious of Mimi’s fragile health and wary of getting hurt again, makes plans to leave town before anything between them gets too real.
Even bleaker, the show’s most stable and perhaps most affecting relationship, that between Collins and Angel, is permanently shattered by Angel’s death. Afterward, in the raw “Goodbye Love,” Mark confronts Roger about his disregard for Mimi. Roger fires back by suggesting that though Mark “pretends” to “create and observe” from behind his camera, he is really using his obsessive film-making to “detach from feeling alive.”
It’s not entirely clear from the script whether Mark’s primary motivation is to make art or to numb out—but as someone who employs similar coping mechanisms, my best guess would be a bit of both.
I started writing about COVID almost immediately after the crisis started, and haven’t stopped for long since. This, I think, is partially an attempt to process what may well prove unprocessable, and partially, a paradoxical escape. Ironically, I can sometimes lose myself so deeply in the mechanics of crafting a scene or essay that I can in a sense forget what I’m even writing about.
In typical perfectionist fashion, I’ve also been driving myself rather (completely) crazy regarding whether I’m producing “enough” material quickly “enough,” given all the “free” time I supposedly have.
Gradually, though, I’ve been getting it through my thick head that I may need to cut myself a little slack considering how thoroughly everything is fucked rent right now.
In 1996, Jonathan Larson asked, through Mark:
How do you document real life
When real life’s getting more
Like fiction each day?
Blow my mind…
24 years later, I ask: how do you document real life when the “facts” are changing every second? How do you document real life when your leader is a clown, the officials are his flunkies, and nobody seems to know what to believe?
How do you do document real life amidst economic ruin, constant crises, rising death tolls, flaming riots, flagging hope? How do you document real life when the headlines are practically guaranteed not only to blow your mind but to frequently leave you on the verge of tears?
In 1996, Larson asked:
How can you connect in an age
Where strangers, landlords, lovers
Your own blood cells betray?
But now the question is: how do you connect in an age when it’s a risk to even leave the goddamn house?
Though I admit to having a notable tendency to “social distance” since long before it was cool, even I’m not immune to the emotional fallout of continually existing at this level of seclusion. Strangely, I feel not so much more disconnected than I was before the pandemic but like I can now see clearly how disconnected I already was.
Before, I’d created the perfect system of errands, escapism, and busywork to drown out the subtle but unmistakable chords of loneliness; now, often, the silence speaks too loud. I’ve even wondered fleetingly whether this matter of “social distancing” is some exceedingly cruel externalization of my own ~intimacy issues~ or even a broader cultural punishment for all the ways our world —and our country — were already tearing apart.
For years now, Americans on the whole have been retreating to our iPhones and our Netflix screens instead of fully and openly engaging with each other, pursuing our individual advancement at the expense of our values, resting on the laurels of our privilege, and dividing sharply along political, religious, and racial lines.
Such a shrewd landscape is aptly invoked by Larson in the Rent song What You Own. As Roger retreats to Santa Fe and Mark slaves away at an unsatisfying “sell-out” job, their voices join in a distanced duet.
Dive into work
Drive the other way
That drip of hurt
That pint of shame
Just play the game
You’re living in America
At the end of the millennium
You’re living in America
Leave your conscience at the tone.
And when you’re living in America
At the end of the millennium
You’re what you own
Roger and Mark then think back wistfully to the show’s first act, to a night when they’d been able to find connection even in this “isolating age” — though I bet even Larson never imagined an age quite this “isolating,” where the order of the day is “six feet apart.”
Yet then, somehow: clarity. Suddenly, Roger hears it; his song. And Mark sees it; his film. The world may still be in shambles, but their creative vision is still holding strong. So, the chorus morphs:
Dying in America
At the end of the millenium
We’re dying in America
To come into our own
And when you’re dying in America
At the end of the millenium
You’re not alone
As living shifts to “dying,” the two are no longer suppressing their pain but openly admitting their vulnerability, and in doing so, find themselves finally able to plug back in. The heartening “you’re not alone,” takes the place of “what you own” as the potential for connection returns. In Rent’s stage version, Roger and Mark don’t physically unite until the next scene, but the film version memorably ends with their embrace.
It’s straight on from “What You Own” into Rent’s similarly optimistic final scene. Exactly a year from Act One, the bohemians gather for their Christmas Eve festivities and a screening of Mark’s new film. But the celebration is stopped when Maureen and her partner Joanne appear carrying Mimi, who has been “living in the park” in thrall to her drug habit and is now on the verge of death.
The group gathers at her bedside as Mimi struggles to maintain consciousness, while Roger plays her his long sought-after song: “Your Eyes.” For a moment, she appears deceased; but then, an intake of breath as she is “brought back to life” by Roger’s song.
This conclusion is another frequent sticking point with Rent critics; the moment is chastised as being too unbelievable, too saccharine. As a perennial pessimist, you’d think I’d be on their side. Except….in the middle of a pandemic, be it caused by HIV or anything else, who wants another “realistic” story of doom and gloom when there are plenty of those in the headlines?
Besides, maybe the moment just ought to be read a little more metaphorically. While a literal resurrection-by-guitar is a pretty improbable, art of all kinds can certainly empower, revitalize, and even heal.
Art including Rent itself. As it was put in documentary No Day But Today, Rent’s optimism was one primary reason so many audience members came back to the show time and time again; so they could leave the theatre bursting with hope.
Some stories gain their power by reflecting life, but others are strongest where they differ. If Mimi’s revival can inspire and encourage at times when this hope is scant, why shouldn’t she survive the show? Now, if only a more benevolent “writer” in the clouds had been calling the shots for Larson himself…
As recounted in a memoir by Anthony Rapp, who originated the role of Mark: it was a dreary day off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop on the night of Rent’s first preview. Though Larson was gone, his parents had insisted that the show had to go on, in the form of an unstaged concert version to be performed for Larson’s family and friends.
But by the time the cast reached “La Vie Boheme,” the energy of the material was irresistible; Rapp couldn’t resist the urge to jump up on a table and dance it out. The rest of the cast followed, launching into their choreography as well. The company proceeded to perform Act Two full out despite the exceedingly painful resonances, realizing the Jonathan had essentially “written his own funeral.”
In Rapp’s words, once the show was over:
No one moved, no one spoke. They all just sat, some staring straight
ahead, others sitting with their heads in their hands, still
others sitting huddled together. Afraid to move myself, afraid
to disrupt this moment, I walked across the stage as quietly
as I could and found a group of actors from the studio pro-
duction and sat with them, looking down at my hands, feeling
the crushing, enormous silence of over one hundred fifty
people bearing down on me. I have no idea how long we all
sat together saying absolutely nothing, but it felt like forever.
Finally, a male voice from the back of the theatre called out,
“Thank you, Jonathan Larson,” and with that utterance the
spell was broken, and the group began to move and breathe
– Without You, Anthony Rapp
So I guess now’s the time to confess: once a Renthead, always a Renthead, and thus I did not stop at one Rent viewing. I watched the entire show a full three times, and have pulled up a song or two quite a few more. Sometimes it was “for research…” and sometimes it was most decidedly not.
The deeper I’ve delved into Larson’s story, the more I’ve found myself inspired by the composer himself as well as his works: by his fervor, his earnestness, his devotion to his craft.
How terribly bittersweet it all is: how much Rent mattered, how its creator will never know; how much has changed in 24 years, and how little; how I find myself turning to a musical about a moment of disease-driven chaos in the middle of another plague entirely.
So, I’ll say, once more, and 24 years later: thank you, Jonathan Larson. For that.
In Rent’s final scene, sorrow still looms as large as ever, but the show’s core group of Bohemians now stands united and reinvigorated, ready to face it head-on. Though life’s fabric may still have been torn, you’d be hard pressed to see a group tighter-knit.
After Mimi’s scare, the show finishes off with a joyful “Finale B,” a song which a group of former Rent cast members recently sang as a tribute to all the frontline workers who are confronting COVID up close on a daily basis.
And yes; I do think that this hopeful reprise is appropriate. As broken as these times may be, they are not without their small mercies, unexpected blessings, hints of light.
We can focus our attention, for instance, on the ways in which COVID-19 has fostered a weirdly enhanced sense of community. Whatever our backgrounds, viewpoints, or walks of life, we are all now sharing the experience of social distancing, of the threats to our health and to the health of our loved ones, the sheer absurdity of our drastically changed lives.
Like it or not, we’re all stuck in the mess that is 2020 together. 2020; a year, that, at least according to the pun-savvy, was supposed to be a year of improved “vision” for us all.
The implied optimism of early “2020 vision” proclamations is now, of course, viewed as ironic; but maybe not so fast. Maybe 2020 is still the year to lean into our individual visions, and maybe as much because of the pandemic as in spite of it.
Already, creatively: artists have harnessed the power of the digital to develop innovative new work, strangers have banded together to collaborate on projects, and voices separated by miles have joined in song.
And politically: while Trump is far from defeated, his reelection is becoming more and more improbable as his callousness and incompetence is further exposed. As the Black Lives Matter movement grows stronger and more radical, the potential is emerging for a real dismantling of America’s racist underpinnings. And the war of the rent (meaning 1) is just getting started.
And, of course, an artistic renaissance and a political one don’t have to be at odds; in fact, they can fuel each other quite naturally. For one last time, in Larson’s words:
Now, all that (finally) being said: provided I don’t get distracted by anything else shiny, I plan to follow the vibe of this new “isolating age” by making this the first post in a distinct COVID/quarantine inspired series. Next up is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom Of the Opera, and if you’re actually bored enough to follow along, I’ll specifically be referencing the 2004 movie version. If you’re still bored or curious what else I’ve been working on you can check out a scene I wrote towards the end of this video of a recent live reading of new work by Artserve and New City Players!
Meanwhile, pals, happy quarantining, happy creating, and lmk if anyone needs my help overthrowing the government or anything…
While the coronavirus has stopped South Florida theatre artists and aficionados from physically convening, it cannot stop us from creating or connecting. As we adapt to our newly distant lives, we are slowly discovering how to bring our beloved craft to the digital realm, with increasingly exciting results. As artists, it is our duty to bring joy even to landscapes of tragedy, to wring order from chaos and conjure hope from despair.
Also, quite frankly, a lot of us just really need money.
Due to COVID-19’s financial impact, both companies and individuals have turned to the digital world as a means of fundraising as well as of art-making. Most of the promising virtual performances and events listed below are accessible on a “free but donations encouraged” basis, so I wholeheartedly encourage patrons to support whichever organizations or individuals you can and wish to if you’re lucky enough to have the means to do so. Note that I’d also like to keep this blog as neutral as possible, so just don’t ask me to take sides!
Therefore, in entirely random order:
Theatre Arts Productions, a fledging Lake Worth theatre company otherwise known as TAP, is presenting the first in a series of film and television success stories at 5 pm today (Wednesday April 15th), this one featuring acclaimed actor Lee Wilkof. You can also catch “Spreading Light Into The World,” a showcase featuring uplifting performances by some of TAP’s talented students, at 7 pm this Saturday the 18th on Zoom/Facebook live.
New City Players is drawing attention to the South Florida Theatre League relief fund in a particularly innovative fashion with their Instagram Live “Late Late Show.” Host Tim Davis goes “live” with a different South Florida theatre artist every night to discuss the state of theatre, or the state of the world, or Taco Bell, or Star Wars, or…whatever else comes up. At the very least, you can expect dependably amusing (and slightly inebriated) conversation, but you should also come prepared for anything from impulsive duets to sock puppets. Check it out at 9 pm nightly @newcityplayers on Instagram!
Fort Lauderdale company Measure for Measure is back in business with a reading of Angels in America featuring a stellar cast of experienced South Florida actors. This 2-part Pulitzer Prize winning play by Tony Kushner focusing on the mid-1980s AIDS crisis happens to be devastatingly timely today. The reading will be divided into six Facebook Live sessions, with Part 1 to be presented on Friday April 17th Saturdays from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. and Sundays from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Another virtual reading to be had is a Zoom iteration of playwright Chris Gacinski’s The Mortal Drama, a story of two artists whose devotion to each other and to their craft is only rivaled by their devotion to heroin. Catch it at 8 pm this Thursday (April 16)!
On another note entirely, if you’ve always wanted to try improv but always had excuses not to, you are now officially out of alibis! Every Monday, Anthony Francis of Improv U will be hosting 45 minute improv “log-ins” in place of his in-person “drop-ins” until the latter are once again possible. Both experienced improvisers and novices should feel free to Zoom in for improv games and exercises and an evening of guaranteed fun. Note that while the class is free, you do have to register via Zoom in advance! Interested improv fanatics can also check Francis’s Weekly YesAndU Livestreams.
Other improv offerings include a performance by Understated, a duo team featuring Kathleen Kenny and Jeff Quintana that aims to make “magic from the mundane.” Donations will be split evenly between both artist’s home theatres, Quintana’s Speakeasy Theatre and Kenny’s Actor’s Workshop and Repertory Company. For something a little different, Actor’s Rep is also offering incentive to get moving with a weekly Saturday Morning Stretch class led by Emma Sue Harris and featuring “Yoga, Full body stretch sequence, light core exercises and kinesthetic bliss!”
If you’re too busy to commit to anything at specific time, Dramaworks’ In The Wings Interactive is free to be perused whenever with some cool behind-the-scenes content, including Theatre Talks, stories from top theatre professionals like Gary Cadwallader and Elizabeth Dimon, and even a haiku contest!
There’s also no wrong time to lighten the mood musically with #MNMSings, a Youtube series that features the talented members of MNM Theatre Company performing songs from musical theatre favorites like Grease, Company, and Avenue Q.
Finally, last but obviously not least, Theatre Lab is back in the game with round 2 of its Online Original Monologue Festival, which has now acquired the nickname #OOMF. #OOMF2: Heroes will benefit the behind-the-scenes “heroes” of the theatre world, like stage managers, designers, technicians, administrators, and box office employees.
The event will commence in a similar fashion to its predecessor, with filmed versions of last month’s workshops on Parts of A Story and Elements of A Monologue viewable on Theatre Lab’s Facebook page for those who missed them last month. You can also catch a live review of the Elements of A Monologue workshop today (Wednesday April 15th) at 12:30 on Facebook Live and at 7 pm on Instagram Live. Meanwhile, a brand new workshop called “Scene Writing” rumored to feature some exciting special guest playwrights will take place at 12:30 pm on Instagram Live and 7 pm on Facebook Live.
Scenes, stories, and monologues will be accepted via email until 10 am on Monday the 20th, and the festival itself will take place on via Facebook Live at 7:30 and will be available on Youtube the following day. It will utilize the same virtual telethon format as last month’s, with each performer providing the cash-app information of a behind-the scenes-hero. So be sure to bring your wallets. Um, figuratively. Your virtual wallets?
There may well be who-knows-how many other things going on in the South Florida’s cyber-theatre-sphere that I am not aware of. However, as I have no actual responsibility to anyone or authority over anything, hopefully this round-up is a decent start. Also, it’s almost 5 in the morning….
Meanwhile, I remain alive and well and back in good old Lake Worth, if only now checking in with this blog a good month since I claimed that I’d be trying to update regularly. I do have some non-review theatre-related posts in various stages of completion that I’m planning on finishing eventually, but I’ve gotten sidetracked with a lot of other quick-turnaround short writing projects and playing catch-up with longer ones. Also, I kind of had a world pandemic to process, but enough about that. Happy (virtual) theatre-going, folks!