Bruce J. Robinson
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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Reading Trauma

I had a reading of one of my plays this week. It was in our apartment. I'll divulge nothing about the piece and the event (other than the fact that it's clearly a work of great genius). This is a safe place.

There was no audience. There was no judgement.

Well actually, there was plenty of judgement. Every actor was judging the others and everyone was judging my script, God knows. Moreover, I was judging more than anyone: judging whether I wanted these actors to continue with their roles; whether I wanted to remember them for other things; and whether I am a talent-free putz (despite what my family and friends tell me).

Set against the backdrop of my raging anxiety at hearing my words, the evening is essentially a series of traumas.

TRAUMA ONE: WILL THEY SHOW UP? - These are actors who are being paid gratitude and nothing else - and this is New York, where the subway rules. And people are fallible. Even actors.

About fifteen minutes before the start, actors come filtering in. I try to make polite conversation. At this point, I'm friendly with almost all the actors who read for me. Happily, there's food. In fact, our in-apartment readings have acquired the name Popcorn Rep (given, I think, by Austin Pendleton - a brilliant actor and popcorn-consumer).

Donna likes to put out some nice refreshments as a way to reward them for their efforts and to vitalize their occasionally flagging energy. Some actors are delicate. It's time to start. Rinnnnggg!

"I had subway trouble. I'll be there in 10 to 15 minutes." Okay. Fine. But I've run out of material. I asked the actors about their careers. I've even shown them my trophy for winning our Fantasy Football League. I've been through my "A" material. Fortunately, they are actors. They're delightfully capable of entertaining themselves (if not always others).

The actor showed up, was superb, and is now a favorite of mine. The sign of a good playwright is the capacity to forgive. (Sidebar: an actor was there with a direct connection to an important play, loved this tardy actor's work, and recommended this actor to the casting director - reminding me that so much is about showing up.)

TRAUMA TWO: DO I SUCK? - I'm not bragging: I'm not Mamet, but I'm not chopped liver. My work has garnered respect from many I greatly respect. People have actually paid their hard-earned money to spend time with my material. But do I suck?

I sit there and hear the words that I linked together and am generally appalled at what a moron I am. I seem fatuous, shrill, and goofy - and that's when I like my work.

Fortunately, I have the actors and my wife to counter that. They love the piece (and they really, really did!) and tell me I'm a genius.

Of course, the truth is somewhere between. Ain't it always?

TRAUMA THREE: ARE THEY LYING? - The actors are kind. I was an actor for many years. I won't claim that actors are generally any better or worse than any other profession or stratum of society. I do claim this: the best of actors are the best of people; the most odious, the most odious. I try and generally succeed in surrounding myself with the former.

This reading was a shining example of this principle. These monumentally charming and generous people could be lying to me to a) be kind b) curry the favor of a playwright or c) in the case of Donna, sidestep witnessing and cleaning up a very messy wrist-slicing.

They convince me that their enthusiasm is real. They love the piece. I am happy. They are actors.

POST-TRAUMA: THE PLAY WORKS, with a number of rewrites in the offing. I'll keep posting about its future - which is bright. I complete the very satisfying evening in what's become a tradition: I engorge myself with abundant carbs. It was a good evening. Just another anxiety provoking episode in that long journey to stage.

Happily, we go to bed. I know the play basically works. I drift off - a smile and banana bread on my lips and visions of rewrites dancing in my head.

Friday, August 8, 2008

HAIR in Central Park

Once more, in the minority. Oh, well. So it goes.

My wife, Donna; our beloved niece, Daisy; and I saw this production the day before yesterday. This was the last performance before the press opening.

Donna and I got on line at 10:10. Happily, we were surrounded by some terrific people. We were told that most times people who were in our spot on line got tickets.

As we approached the woman handing-out tickets, we heard: "Only single tickets left." Gulp! A few moments later, we were serenaded by: "Only vouchers left."

Yipe! Had all that sitting on that uniquely hard rock been for nothing?

They informed us that throughout the runs of HAMLET and HAIR (so far) nobody with a voucher had been excluded. So, we were hopeful.

We showed up at the prescribed time and waited. Not only did we get tickets, but they were both all together and excellent. These were the best Delacourt seats we've ever gotten - including those for MOTHER COURAGE, for which we made a donation.

I wish I could have joined the audience (and the critics) in celebrating this production. After all, there's very little as magnificent as sitting in Central Park and hearing some of those wonderful tunes.

Let me make two disclaimers. First, Donna did a production of HAIR at the Odd Chair Playhouse in Pittsburgh. It was run by Thom Thomas - Donna's first acting teacher (at Point Park College) and to this day one of our best friends. Thom's a great director, writer, and an even better human being. Thom directed HAIR - and brilliantly, according to Donna. So, she has solid ideas as to what HAIR should be.

Second, I lived through this era. I saw HAIR a bunch of times in its earliest incarnation. I saw it even more times in the last revival because one of my closest friends - Eva Charney - was a swing and asm. She grew to be a close friend of Tom O'Horgan - the remarkable and wonderful director of the original HAIR. I met him through Eva - and found him to be a lovely man.

I have ambivalence about the era (and this piece). It's the need to sort out my feelings and thoughts about it that is motivating me to write a new play about it. My reaction to and experience in the era is significantly different from those of the HAIR characters.

I was in college at the time. Nonetheless, I was dealing with the draft. My family was lower middle-class - but in that my mother was a teacher, education was always exalted. Moreover, I was blessed by left-wing parents who quickly came to see the War in Vietnam for what it was.

The characters in HAIR were far different. They were fairly poor and had insensitive parents. However, Claude could've done what I did: find a dodgy, anti-war shrink; tell him you believe in aliens and that little people were living in your teeth; and get exemption - which, in my case, was a 4F!

I always found the characters in HAIR a little self-congratulatory and naive for my taste - just as I did my legion "oh-wow" friends and acquaintances who didn't see the sixties in historical context.

I found the direction and choreography wrong-headed. The direction started the show with a good deal of direct address (see my previous raving vs. the breaking of the fourth wall). All of that early material should have been delivered to the Tribe.

This group of actors was called "The Tribe" but they simply didn't seem Tribe-like nor were they molded by the director into a Tribe. They weren't a bunch of drugged-out freaks (as my friends and I sort of were. Now, we're mainly doctors and lawyers and playwrights). They looked liked hairy AMERICAN IDOL competitors.

Clearly, all or much of this material was initially a by-product of improv and of the specific talents around whom the show was molded. The show centers on Claude and his draft situation. Around that, however, revolve a bunch of skits that are presented straight-out. Maybe these skits had greater resonance when the actors helped to mold them. I'm not sure. I do think, however, that they can work as events that the Tribe can share - that's part of re-enforcing their collective identity.

The choreography in HAIR shouldn't look like dance. It should be dynamic, organic movement - as Twyla Tharp concocted for the film HAIR. Here, it was usually dull and occasionally coy.

The direction was consistently ineffective. It was wrong-headed starting with the casting of Claude and Sheila (neither of whom captured the character's soul and both of whom had the wrong vocal quality) to the set (which put the band up-center and put a wall between the stage and the lake, which would have immeasurably added to the evening's magic). To her credit, however, she did cast a wonderful actress who sang "Aquarius" and the equally outstanding actor playing Hud.

I'm delighted that all these people (and I include reviewers in this category) have found pleasure in this production. There are pleasures to be had. Nevertheless, it didn't carry my wife and me away (as various productions of this problematic piece have).

Enough. It's a beautiful Sunday in New York. We'll probably take a walk in Central Park, where I'll continue to consider and talk to Donna about my own sixties play and just what impact that charming, energized, and seriously silly era had on this seriously screwed-up one.

It's so odd to be so out-of-step with consensus. Taste is an odd piece of business. I read and occasionally post on TALKIN' BROADWAY (All that Chat). Taste is so important to so many there. And being a fan of a particular talent is also so vital to so many. I find it so strange that one day I intend to write a play about it, too. So many play-topics; so little time.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Fourth Wall

Last night, Donna and I went to a play reading. It was the first or second time it was done in public, and the goal was to allow the playwright to hear his work and get a little audience feedback. Believe me, it's an event that at best is traumatic.

Of course, I'll preserve the piece's anonymity. After the reading, there's time in which the audience shares observations with the playwright.

This was not a terrible play. Believe me, I've spent untold hours listening to inartistic drool while tracing with my tongue on my front teeth "kill me." This wasn't good by any means, but it certainly wasn't a suicide-aid.

However, the central character delivered his first line directly to the audience. NO!

Who am I supposed to be that this guy is talking to me? In Hal Holbrook's magnificent MARK TWAIN TONIGHT, Twain was lecturing an audience (of which I was part). That's organic and therefore acceptable.

In this piece, this initial audience-addressing character even acknowledged us as "the audience." I suppose at least this is frank.

The thing is: I don't need to be or want to be reminded of the fact that I'm a guy in an audience, in a theatre, witnessing make-believe. I want to be a fly-on-the-wall.

Theatre allows you to go to places and witness things that would otherwise be impossible to access. It allows your to lose yourself. This becomes increasingly difficult when not only the central character but nearly all of them use direct address and by doing so remind you that this is just a play. There is no real vulnerability, because these are just a bunch of artists who will ultimately step out of costume and make-up. No harm, no foul.

The voluntary suspension of disbelief is what a good audience member tries to bring to the play. This is something that shouldn't be peevishly withheld. On the other hand, it's something difficult to achieve. It demands the participation and encouragement on the part of the theatre artists.

I think that breaking the fourth wall is largely the easy way out. Of course, someone will cite Shakespeare as someone who often does so. True. But we must remember that genius trumps everything. According to the theatrical saw, WAITING FOR GODOT is a play in which nothing happens. Twice! Would another playwright be advised to try to pull-off something like this? Hardly. But genius is sui generis and self-defining.

The "wright" part of "playwright" suggests a mastery of craft (as in "cabinet wright"). A playwright is part artist and just as much artisan. Part of what we try to do is through the deft use of subtext, inner-monologue, and physical action bring to life the heart and soul of the characters. It leads the audience to discoveries and allows the audience members the opportunity to make discoveries by themselves.

It's easy to recite the inner-life. It also creates a cheap intimacy. "Hey, he's talking to me. Of course, I care about him." Real intimacy with a character happens when you share his or her humanity.

These moment of heart-felt and intimate acknowledgement are the very grist for the drama that should drive the action. Don't allow it to be the easily achieved rhapsodizing that feels good to the playwright (ah! the sound of my voice!) but at best is far too easy and at worst tears the drama out of the play's heart.

Monday, August 4, 2008


I cleaned my desk drawers. If you knew their condition, you'd consider this a miracle. I have a tendency to hoard - one reinforced by my beloved wife, Donna. She gets separation anxiety when she chucks out chicken bones.

She has dresses that she bought 20 years ago and hasn't worn in 15. I imagine that our parents' Depression sensibilities helped form this mad impulse to hold-on. In any case; I have a storage space, a four-drawer bureau, and four desk-drawers all overflowing with the detritus of my life.

Yes, I cleaned my desk drawers. I gathered the pens and pencils, batteries, and clips of all sorts into discrete piles. I threw out irrelevant papers. I even deemed some elements useless - and, with a touch of anxiety, I threw them out.

To my surprise, I found a lot of wires. These largely looked like computer and telephone wires - and not just a few. There were 15-20. (There may be more now. They multiply like Tribbles.)

I reasoned with myself: "I can't even identify these. I don't seem to have a need for them. All things electronic seem to be working well (except our new, massive TV - which is grist for another blog entry and around which I'm considering forming a religion), so there's not some unfulfilled need that could be met by one of these little cables. Maybe it's time to throw them out! To be bold! Maybe this bold throwing out of the unnecessary will impel me to a new way of being - a new understanding - a new paradigm!"

The wires are in a bag in my closet. Hey, who knows when I might need 'em?

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