Requiem for Squirt City, Phukenburg

This 35-minute play is about a typical night in a chat room. Zulima is a camgirl, surrounded by hungry men. Late in the evening, an old man appears and tells the crowd he’s just taken thirty tablets of Ambien and wants to confess his life’s secrets.

Director’s Statement:

In our current post-truth world, where the sifting, delineation, and dissemination of information through social media platforms has blurred the lines of what is considered fact or fiction, the idea of masks, where an individual can hide behind a particular character and persona, has translated to the dark corners of the internet in an almost inhumane capacity. People now feel emboldened to say whatever they want without repercussions, whether one agrees or not with what is being said. And if there are repercussions, what is the actual resolution without muddying the outcome more? Relativism at its finest. There are no absolute truths. Where does that continuum end? My hope is to show the character Natasha representing the one shining light in this play within an already dark world, to combat the distortion of facts and truth.  – Jed Alexander

A few observations now that the Hollywood Fringe Festival has been over for two months…

I was inspired to write down these thoughts, and post the pictures below, when I found out that I might not be able to get access to a video recording of my first play. A video was done by my co-producer but, due to my lack of experience as a producer and my carelessness, I didn’t inquire about it in a timely way. When I finally did, two months after Fringe was over, it was too late: the co-producer, Justin Key, and the director, Jed Alexander, both gave me the cold shoulder. And when that happened, I panicked: “Maybe it was all a dream. No video. Disowned by my collaborators. Did it really happen? Crying for Squirt City!”

The play—Nights in Squirt City, Phukenburg—was, in my book, a success. Jed did a fine job. He was complimentary about my writing. He worked extremely hard. He assembled a fabulous group of actors. When we really started rehearsing, it was a joy to see it all come together.

And yet..

There were three big issues as we prepared our project. First of all, since it’s a festival with four hundred shows, rehearsal spaces and times for the shows are inconvenient and limited. Second, people kept dropping out due to the shocking and dark nature of the story. Third, I never really developed a great rapport with Jed.

This happened the night of the table read: I arrived at his apartment building early. We were supposed to use the community room for our reading. Since I was early and didn’t feel like waiting in the street, I asked some neighbors if they would let me into the building, and they said yes. I walked into the community room, and a few minutes later Jed saw me as he came in from another entrance: “What are you doing here? Why did they let you in? It’s outrageous that people off the street are being let in! Hold on, I’m going to text the management …” And for the next five minutes that was all he could think of.

Once, I  wrote a five-hundred word email explaining my intentions in a scene, and he wrote back, “All very unclear.” In some basic way, we never clicked.

What  drove me crazy was that Jed kept referring to the setting of my piece as the “dark web.” It’s not the dark web by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a chat room.

But after fifty to a hundred lengthy messages, he finally understood and ended up with a good show. I was pleased with the result (with one flaw I won’t go into now).

In other words, the finished product was an island of perfection in a sea of chaos.

It came as a blow to me to realize that not only did I not have a video of our play but that both the people I’d worked so closely with have moved on and washed their hands of me. Maybe when you’re Done in Hollywood you really are DONE.

As for that Justin Key…He’s got 9,000 Facebook friends plus six hundred followers, and every little bit of show business wisdom he imparts to his fans (mostly former and current students at AMDA) gets at least 150 likes (“You rock, Justin!” “Dope!” “Yeah!”), but there’s no substance behind the glitzy façade. During the months we worked together, he’d occasionally vanish for days on end. “Justin will work magic for us, you’re gonna love it!”  Our Justin may be a popular and charismatic mentor at his junior college, but he did next to nothing when it came to social media, promoting, getting postcards and posters made, reaching out to other shows, coming up with creative ideas to attract an audience, or going to Fringe workshops and meetings.

The cast couldn’t have been more different: the lovely Zulima, the enthusiastic Andrew and Jonathan, the loud and funny Arnie, the profound Joe… I miss them. What happened to our little community? With every day that passes, the lines these actors spoke disappear further from memory…

I’m now in the midst of my next project, Revocable Trust. Of course I will make sure to hire a videographer. But, beyond that, I find myself rebelling against the fleetingness and maybe even the futility of theatre. All that work. All those meetings. All that time. For what?  On the other hand, now that I’m working with a pro—John Coppola—I’m beginning to sense that the process as well as the product can be fulfilling and satisfying.

That’s me with Jonathan Moreno.

The full cast. Clockwise: Jonathan Moreno (Chorus 2); Arnie Ellis (Moderator); Joe Hulser (WishMaster911); Andrew Moreno (Chorus 1); and Zulima Tristancho (Natasha).

 

Zulima Tristancho as Natasha, a Russian camgirl in a chat room.

Jed Alexander (left); Zulima Tristancho (center); Arnie Ellis (right)

Arnie Ellis, Jonathan Moreno, Zulima Tristancho, and Andrew Valenzuela.

Justin Key, Alex M. Frankel, Jed Alexander, and Brandon Molnar (projectionist).

Why My Second Play Could Be My Last  

Three performances of my chat-room play Nights in Squirt City, Phukenburg have taken place at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Two more are slated to happen next week, and then that’ll be it. The director seems pretty happy with the project overall. The cast is also happy. Reviews have been good, the few that were posted by people in the audience. I couldn’t be more miserable.

Now why would that be? I’ve been thinking and thinking and came up with five reasons, all of them good, but I still can’t be sure that I have this right. I’ll start with the weakest reason and then proceed in order of magnitude.

  • While I’ve been very happy with what the director has done, I’d only give Squirt City, the way it was done this time, a B+. That’s still a positive rating. But why not an A? The director cut many things and really sped up some of the “inconsequential” chat-room patter, as he calls it. He was right to do this, but he ended up cutting so much that the second half of the play, which happens in, as it were, a different register, comes too soon and goes by too fast. To compensate for the tremendous speed and all the cuts, the director should have encouraged me, or I should have known, to expand the latter half of the play by at least ten minutes. This didn’t happen. We now have a very good sketch, but it goes by so fast that the whole project doesn’t have the weight that it ought to have. As I said, B+.
  • The second reason for my unhappiness is the big weak link in this whole business:____________________________________________________________________REDACTED!!!___________________________________________________________________________________ Theatre people are almost as obsessed with crowd size as our President. Poets, on the other hand, are more or less resigned to having just a meager handful of people in the audience. Poets don’t have expectations; poets know their art is unpopular. _____________________________________________________________________________REDACTED!_______________________________REDACTED! _____________      _____________________________________________________________________lized.
  • More important for me, perhaps, than the number of folks in the audience is the fleeting nature of the enterprise. This isn’t film, which gets memorialized for all time. It happens a few times, and it’s over, never to reappear. During the last several years of my “theatre phase” I attended many, many performances of plays, but because I wasn’t involved with their creation, their fleetingness didn’t bother me. But I’ve been working on Squirt since January. All that money, all the meetings, all the time, all the preparations, all the discussions…for what? Poof!—it vanishes like a soap bubble.
  • Which leads to the non-appearance of “friends.” I had assumed that half the people I know would want to come and see this play. Not necessarily to support me, but out of sheer curiosity. Not one person from my Wednesday poetry group showed up. I have never in my life witnessed such an array of excuses: family illnesses, broken bones, sprained ankles, sudden surgeries, sudden suicides, difficulty driving at night, lack of transportation, lack of time, lack of funds (and I’m sure most are legitimate). My next-door neighbor, whom I hardly know, immediately said he would come and support me, even if the tickets were three or four times what they are now. This showed up the fact that closer friends…where were they? All the hours, all the money, all the work, all the commitment, for what? It all goes back to childhood. Were my parents supportive? Of course not.
  • And maybe—though I’m not too convinced of this—I’m suffering from a bit of generalized post-partum depression.

The next project, slated to be done later this summer and involving a different team, might very well convince me (who knows?) that writing plays isn’t a total waste of time after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bombing at Fierce: An Old Poet Tries His Hand at Playwriting

fiercebackbone-pic

At an advanced age I decided to start writing plays, or at least try one play. The initial inspiration took place while I was actually standing in a theatre, the Studio Theatre at St. Denis Building, where I host my monthly poetry series. I had done poems, nonfiction, and fiction, so why not plays? I started attending the theatre regularly and rereading some of the classics. After six months, I began writing a play about a homeowners’ association, basing it on meetings I’d participated in and characters and conflicts I knew about. It didn’t go well. Then nearly a year later, I started on a new project, Revocable Trust, based on a chapter in my memoir. This time I managed to finish the project: two acts, ninety pages, an old house in the fog, people fighting over an inheritance. . .

I’d been going to writing workshops for twenty years, but where was I going to take my play to be workshopped? I brought bits and pieces to my Saturday poetry group, and they were very well received. My workshop co-facilitator, Bob Foster (who used to act with Katharine Hepburn), was initially skeptical when he just heard one scene, but when I showed him the full manuscript he was won over. Where, though, was I going to take the manuscript to be read and performed and, ultimately, staged?

I heard about a theatre company, Fierce Backbone, that meets every week at The Lounge on Santa Monica Boulevard. Their format works like this: every Monday, from 7 to 10 pm, playwrights bring in scenes from new or revised work, and it’s then read by actors in the company and critiqued by everyone.

I was getting a bit fed up with the written word, the word that sits squarely on the page and never rises from it. On the one hand, I have come to see poetry as mostly FOR THE PAGE. Many poets (especially in Los Angeles) get too excited about the performative aspects of their art. I’ve become disenchanted with the limitations of performance-oriented poems, and excited by the quiet subtleties available on the page. On the other hand, there’s something creepy about living only on the page or computer screen. The written word has been exalted to the point where the human voice is on the verge of going quiet, or not mattering. So, outside poetry, I was pining for the naked voice with all its splendor and imperfections.

Another thing I was looking for was actual warm human contact. When I recently won a prize for a memoir excerpt, I never heard any of the voices awarding me this prize. I simply received an email and, later, a check in the mail. I was dissatisfied with the coldness of the purely literary world. Too many people were hiding behind the written word!

When I started going to the weekly sessions at Fierce Backbone, I discovered that human warmth was not on offer. Even if you just glance at the picture I’ve posted, you get an idea what the people are like. I realize they are in the middle of a scene, but even when they were not acting, the were acting: it was like being in high school again and unable to get into the long-established cliques. The actress in red, second from left—De Ann M. Odom—was one of the most cliquish people in the clique. In four months we never exchanged one word. I tried, but she, and most of the others, were unapproachable. I think she is a fine actress, but I never felt that she—or any of the others—wanted me there.

And who were some of the others? Bob Telford, veteran actor and now on the board of directors, always sat haggard and downtrodden against a wall, and never opened his mouth to opine on anything. If I wanted to cast someone in the role of a depressed sex offender at the end of his rope, it would be him. Then there was Clifford S. Blackburn, another person on the board: an imposing nonentity currently working on a two-hour monologue about the life and times of Ulysses S. Grant. If you ever want help getting to sleep, find a recording of someone reading from this monologue. And finally, there was Paul Messinger, a roly-poly, sheep-clad wolf of a man who relished his power and authority as a board member in the little world of Fierce, and someone thoroughly accomplished in the art of the pointed baritone question and the slap-in-the-face rebuke.

So why did I stay? 1) I didn’t know where else to go. 2) I thought I’d give them a chance. 3) They are all serious and committed to their art. I tried to disregard the clubbiness and the weekly snubs, hoping that better things would follow.

It was clash of personalities from the start. They probably sensed right away (and correctly) that I’m more a literary than a theatre person. And this brings me to maybe the heart of the conflict: poetry is an extreme example of a purely literary enterprise; theatre, on the other hand, straddles the world of serious art and show business. What most actors end up doing is not Shakespeare or Sophocles or Ibsen or even Neil Simon: it’s commercials, it’s TV, it’s Netflix, etc. etc., though SOME of the time what they do is in the service of “serious art” and “literature.” Way back in college I read an essay by Arthur C. Danto on the question of whether philosophy was literature. His conclusion was that while there were many overlapping areas, philosophy was certainly not literature. The same with theatre. This explains why, to an extent, I was such a fish out of water. Theatre’s another discipline. When Fierce actors raised their hands to announce that they had just landed a part in a commercial, or in a new Netflix series, I had to ask myself, “What am I doing here?”

Here’s the good news: One of the actors from Fierce, Anne Ryerson Hall, came to my monthly poetry group and read a scene from my play with actor Beverly Swanson. This went extremely well and, as the Brits would say, I was chuffed. A few weeks later, at Fierce, the first three scenes from my play got a solid reading. Again, it went well—the actors there are so talented. But the comments, when they came, were not always useful. I knew that I was expected to make revisions and bring the piece back in a few weeks. In theatre you’re always revising, and I understood this. And revise I did—but I didn’t rewrite. I wasn’t prepared for what happened next, during the last phase of my “audition period,” after which I was to receive a  verdict about being accepted into the Company.

November 21 was a busy night (four different plays were to be done, I mean scenes from four different works-in-progress). My scenes from Revocable Trust came first. The actors read very, very fast and quietly. I was cupping my ears to understand them. The audience was losing patience. If these actors had been trying to sabotage me, they would have done exactly what they were doing: reading so fast and with no expressiveness or interest or care for what they were doing. Even before they were done, I was almost in tears. Playwright Tom Cavanaugh, sitting right in front of me, was taking copious notes and vigorously shaking his head. The scene ended and the applause was scattered and weak and deadly. I went up on stage, alone, to hear comments. The knives were out, and the assembled clique was gonna be Fierce. (I do not doubt this manuscript needed work.)

And when I say the knives were out, I need to stress that most of the comments were not that negative. It was the atmosphere in the room, after the miserable “performance,” that was so discouraging. But three of the room’s heavyweights—Paul Messinger, Clifford S. Blackburn, and Tom Cavanaugh—came at me hard. “Did you even try to rewrite after we saw this last time?” said Paul. Clifford said, “I don’t like any of it, not the characters, not anything.” Tom Cavanaugh (who’d been shaking his head so vigorously) now gave a deep critique that I couldn’t take it in because I was too upset. I then said to him, “So, I have too many words, I’m too verbose.” He got angry: “What kind of word is “verbose”? That’s a poetry word! This is theatre!”

After the night was over, I sometimes thought of the play scene and critiquing scene as my Fierce Baptism of Fire. Perhaps they all had a plan for me? Perhaps this was a ritual? To be taken apart by them and put back together in their image. Like fraternity hazing. “Yes, I’ll probably go back,” I said. “They have a plan for me, yes.” And I told myself, “Maybe they can see things I can’t.” But that wouldn’t account for the very poor reading. That wouldn’t account for the weekly awkwardness and snubs.

A few more days and nights went by and I knew my sixteen weeks at Fierce were at an end.

But it won’t be the end—trust me—of Revocable Trust.