Saturday, March 27, 2004

Got Those Midlist Author Blues

I live in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. I work in a local, independent book store, and I count a few novelists as friends of mine and a few more as neighborhood characters who I run into all the time. I also love to read. And this band, one of my favorites, is about to have an album out with lyrics written by contemporary novelists. So for all of the above, if not for many other reasons, I thought I’d weigh in on the Salon.comarticle by “Jane Austen Doe” on the difficulties of being a “midlist author”.

According to a novelist friend of mine, this column is all the rage amongst authors. Everyone’s talking about it, and everyone wants to know who Jane Austen Doe is. No one can figure it out, including myself, who lost at least forty-five minutes of productive Parabasis writing to try to crack it on C’mon! There are enough clues in that article, some enterprising detective should figure it out, right?

The article has been the aim of an enormous amount of vitriol, which you can read in the letters section (there’s a great letter from Neal Pollack in there). Some of this is well deserved, some of it is anti-artist overreacting on the parts of the readers. Some of it is the self-hating competition of victimhood that artists go through. You know, the mind set of: “You think you had it bad? I sold my eyeballs to pay for my novel! FUCK YOU!”

Anyway, back to the article… Jane Austen Doe is a midlist author—you know, the people who don’t move that many books, and haven’t really won any awards, but get good reviews and have a dedicated following. I will say, in the article’s favor, the jaded JAD is brutally honest about her own thinking, the actions of those around her, and even the amount she gets paid in advances (it ranges from $150,000 to $10,000). And I think it’s pretty clear she was expecting to be cheered for her candor, not jeered for her whining. This point is driven home by her tips to help midlist authors (encourage the NEA! Buy at a local bookstore!) all five of which are good points, but point pretty clearly to an article meant to inspire rededication to the arts in the masses, rather than loathing.

And the article is filled with juicy tidbits about the difficulty of navigating an increasingly consolidated publishing world. Including such tidbits as the publicist who promised a booking on Good Morning America who suddenly vanishes along with the booking, the editors who love her work but can’t help her at all, the agent who is totally useless and other little vignettes we begin to understand how difficult it can be when you have no clout and only yourself to sell.

It’s a little surprising, actually that the article has generated so much venom, but generate it it has and JAD deserves a good amount of it, but not for the reasons most of the letter writers are responding to. Some of the anger comes from her writing things like this: “Reading a book that's poorly written I pace the floor, beseeching the Muses, God and the editors of Publishers Weekly to explain why trash like this sells so much better than serious books like mine.” Arrogant? Sure, you bet, but I prefer the honestly of someone saying that they think they’re a good artist to the false modesty that pervades so much artist memoirage.

There are two main problems with the article: first, as my novelist friend points out, it’s not particularly well written. The chronology is incredibly confusing, her interludes are often longer than the regular passages, the “confessions” really should be called “fragmentary rants” and the prose when describing emotions often drifts towards the purple (See the above quote for an example). There is literally no sense of humor to this article, and that's a crying shame-- when you're going to write about heartbreak and failure, it helps to bring a little giggle gas along for the ride.

The second problem is that the main thrust of the article can be summed up like this: because my books didn’t sell well, I’ve had a difficult time making my living solely from writing the novels that I want to write. In the letters responding to the article, most people get offended at this. “So what! At least you get a chance to write!” they cry. “No one wanted your books, why do you want to get paid for them!” This criticism adds up to the age-old argument that an artist’s living should be dictated solely by the rules of the market place. This (as I’ve argued earlier) is an argument that is totally ignorant of history and places a surprising amount of faith in a capitalist system clearly gone amok over the past ten years.

My problem with JAD is that she doesn’t see freelance article writing, ghost writing a celebrity autobiography, teaching at a local college (or high school), or, indeed, writing the copy for a box of Wheeties as connected to the art of writing, and that’s a shame, because to me it’s all still making a living doing something that you love. Besides that, there are all sorts of fringe benefits. Teaching forces you to clarify your own ideas about art and have those ideas constantly tested by inquisitive young minds. It also helps you learn how to deal with the public, which is very important for anyone going on book tour. Ghost writing, freelancing, ad copy, liner notes, they’re all a form of writing, and disciplining your art to someone else’s forms would help any writer gain clarity and precision in their own work.

A really brilliant friend of mine once said “the most creative thing you will do as an artist is to create the environment that allows you to be creative”. Once you get past the circular phraseology, you might notice how profound this is, and the broad ramifications it has for any artist working hard at making a living. And this is what really disturbs me about JAD. She’s stuck in a tantrum wondering why the publishing world won’t take care of her like they said she would. Well, simply put, they won’t take care of you. They never have, they never will. Time to get creative.

Israel, Palestine, and Everythings Ruined

Over at Everythings Ruined (swiftly becoming one of my favorite blogs) I managed to get into it with some people over Israel-Palestine, and I threw down this particular gauntlet: the conflict is not resolvable. What do we do now?

John Paul, dropped the following science, as they say:

- - - -
In response to Parabasis' question, I can think of three possible answers, all of which need serious reconsideration and exploration--
1) Let them fight it out and whoever wins, wins. Intervention only delays the inevitable.
2) Make it two states with two separate governments. Neither can have an army or police force. The UN handles all security and settles all disputes with finality.
3) Make everyone leave. Most of the problems are in Jerusalem, so just evacuate the whole city. Make arrangements for everybody and pay for their transport. The Palestinians can go wherever they want--another Islamic country, or Europe, or somewhere where people claim to be interested in their well-being. The Israelis can go somewhere else, like New York, where many current residents of Jerusalem came from in the last few decades anyway. (A Palestinian woman I knew in Brooklyn loved to point out that any one of her Jewish neighbors could buy her old house in Jerusalem but she couldn't. She still had the keys.) So everybody has to leave--no one is allowed to live in Jerusalem, never again. It becomes a city-size museum of religion, with representatives from all Abrahamic faiths, each who care for their own holy sites but nobody owns any kind of property in the city, anywhere. You can visit but only to pray and see the sites.

As you might guess, I'm sympathetic to (3). Of course none of these will work--nothing will work. But I like them better than any of the recently-proposed solutions. People toy around with (2) but that's only a way of delaying (1).
- - - -

I agree with John Paul that the two-state solution is only a way of delaying an all-out war, one which the Palestinians will definitely lose. And this doesn’t begin to discuss the other real problems with the “two state solution” What happens to the Israeli Arabs? Isn’t this really just codifying ethnic cleansing by keeping the Palestinian refugees from returning to their land on the other side of the border? How is two racist states that hate each other better than one? You begin to see why there’s no solution to this thing.

Three is a really interesting idea. I remember at one point advocating very simply that Jerusalem become a UN protectorate. Hell, why not make in the official Seat of the UN (sorry, New York) and have the UN there to ensure anyone can go anywhere without fear of molestation.

My problem with all three of these things, is that they feel like real solutions. In other words, they violate the thesis of the argument (no solution can work). In my mind, absent any long-lasting solution to the problem, we should pursue other more quotidian goals. If we can’t get peace (and I think it’s pretty clear we can't, at least right now) why not pursue the goal of human rights? I think it’s pretty safe to say that (for example), on a human rights front, the Israeli government is a near-total disaster. They have democracy, sure, but they put people in camps indefinitely without trial, practice torture regularly, and do all sorts of other things in their supposed zeal for peace. Here are some things that could be addressed immediately (and not just by the Israeli government), and would immediately improve the situation:

(0) Eliminate job and other kinds of non-State discrimination against Israeli Arabs

(0) Palestinians get, on average, one tenth the water provided to Israelis (thanks to the Kibbutz program) much of this water comes from land in the West Bank, which is occupied by the Israeli state. Fixing this would be, well, a good thing.

(0) An immediate dismantling of all settlements built after the Oslo Accords specifically made them illegal.

(0) Stricter regulation of the Right of Return for Jews, which has led to, amongst other things, a high presence of the Russian Mafia, believed to be responsible for some incidents of anti-Semetic violence and graffiti within Israel (I believe in eliminating it all-together, but that'll never happen, here's something that can happen and will improve the daily life of the Jewish people in Israel)

(0) Cease assassination and collective punishment against the Palestinian people. These are clearly illegal under international law, and do nothing but foment greater hatred. Simply put: If the policies worked, they would have worked by now. Sharon’s government’s “defense” policies are a massive failure. The U.S. arms deals with Israel specifically stipulate that the weapons sold (including those helicopter gunships) can only be used for "defense", so I think the ball's really in our court on this one.

(0) The surrounding nations (especially Jordan) need to start treating their Palestinian refugees as human beings. The life of a Palestinian refugee in Jordan may not suffer from the same threat of violence, but there could be greater integration into society and a greater humanitarianism to the way the refugees are treated.

These are just some examples of little things that could be done to make the situation better over there. Right now the Palestinian people live in some of the poorest, densely-populated areas of the world. There are no jobs, there is nothing worthwhile to the land of the Gaza Strip, there are attacks from settlers, the IDF, militant crazies and all sorts of other pressures to deal with. On top of this, they have very few recognized rights.

Okay, this post has gotten incredibly long. Later on I’ll try to talk about ways to build good faith between the Israeli and Palestinian people. Just a hint: their governments get in the way!

Friday, March 26, 2004

Lifting Up The Curtain: Space Wars

Richard Foreman once said that the biggest problem in New York theater (especially the fringes of it) was real estate. Boy was he ever right. Foreman is able to continue what he does at least in part because he has a permanent home at the St. Mark’s Church, and can afford to rehearse for four months and perform for another four. It doesn’t hurt that Europe will pay large amounts of money to get him to come over, but that’s beside the point of this particular post.

The point of this particular post, you say? Never underestimate the power of real estate. Because right now, real estate is ruining my life.

In order for a play to be performed, it has to be rehearsed, obviously, and it order for it to be rehearsed, it has to have rehearsal space. The set for FYB is made up of several different areas, the largest of which is 12’ X 12’. Reason thus dictates that we need a space that is at least 12’X12’ to rehearse any single area and a much larger space to rehearse anything set in multiple stage areas.

But reason isn’t operating here. Economics is.

Plainly put, fundraising is not going as well as it should be by now. This is due to all sorts of reasons, many of them being economic, some of them being logistical, some of them being that no famous people are in the show etc. but what this means is that we don’t have enough money in the bank and we’re starting to freak out a little. Anything that can get cut, is getting cut, or at least withheld until the money comes in. So that means, no paying for rehearsal space unless it is absolutely necessary.

When I complained about this, I was given a choice: rehearse in a good space or have the set I want. The producers are right, and they shut me up pretty quickly. Here’s the rub, though: believe it or not, rehearsal space (the type, size etc.) really really matters (just like your office matters, just like your living room matters) and the free space is free because it’s mostly useless. One of the spaces has public restrooms in it and we aren’t allowed to keep people from using them during rehearsal. Try getting an intimate performance out of an actor while they’re worried someone will break in and poop during their big monologue. Another one is in a church in Brooklyn, while we have an actress coming from Inwood and there are loud, screamed swear words occasionally peppered throughout the show. Also, we have no idea what the dimensions of the space are. Then there’s the space where we can only rehearse as long as there are under seven people because otherwise they have to get a security guard.

None of these spaces are conducive to creativity, we still don’t know where half of our rehearsals (including tomorrow’s) will be, and it’s beginning to distract from the real work that we have to do. The only option right now is that I spend money out of pocket to book the rehearsal space myself.

This is a frequent dilemma in Off-Off Broadway theater—do you use money to get what you want? If you have some money saved up, should you blow it on your show? The only other thing I could do is yell at the producers to do a better job, but they’re working very very hard to do the best job they can and honestly, I don’t fault them for the fundraising shortage. So file this one under “get over yourself” I suppose. I would rather just spend my time directing, but I’m at the start of my career and who the hell do I think I am? Time to pick up the phone and book my ass some space.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Condi Condi Condi

The New York Times is reporting (along with everyone else) that, due to pressure from the Democrats and from nervous Republicans, Condoleezza “Oil Tanker” Rice will be taking a few more questions from the 9/11 Panel. The article thankfully announces in the second graf that Rice will appear “only in private and not under oath”.

Personally, I could really care less about whether or not she appears in public, it’s the oath that counts. I’m sure there is some information she has that cannot be given in public, and frankly, appearing in public is little more than media circus at this point. The fact that she will not speak under oath means that her appearance in front of the 9/11 panel is essentially pointless. The perjury statute is essentially the governmental version of the lemon law- a safeguard to make sure you are being sold an honest story when you ask your questions.

This commission is supposed to be the most important and thorough investigation into the greatest national security failure in post-WWII United States history. Everyone involved in this failure, regardless of party affiliation and position of power should be testifying under oath. No one (including the current President and, of course, President Clinton) should be immune from the panel’s questions. To do otherwise is to ensure that the 9/11 Panel’s findings are essentially meaningless and that the whole thing is essentially a stunt.

But there’s also two special reasons for Rice to testify under oath, first: she’s a well document prestidigitator for the Bush Administration. Someone with a record for honesty (hard to come by with this or really any administration) is one thing, but putting someone up there who has a bizarre from-a-distance relationship to the truth and demanding she not be held legally accountable for what she says is really quite outrageous. The second reason is that she is currently very publicly undermining the veracity of Richard Clarke who just was willing to testify under oath about his views on the lead-up to 9/11. Rice is being allowed to say whatever she wants in public, and then protect herself from accountability. Can anyone out there imagine Clinton (who, as I’ve said above should be testifying under oath in front of this commission either privately or publicly) would be granted the same courtesy? Within 48 hours, the commission would have subpoena power and be forcing him to testify, while crazy-pants Coulter made another zillion dollars off her new book “Perjury: How Liberals Undermine the Constitution In Another Attempt To Destroy America”.

Lifting Up The Curtain: blocking begins!

In Honor of Harper’s Index:

Number of rehearsals (including previews) before opening: 28

Number of costume designers found: 0

Number of stage managers found: 0

Percentage of show blocked: 0

Level of panic on scale of 1-10: 6 (I’m not constipated but are often nervous for no reason)

Tonight we begin blocking the show. For those of you unfamiliar, blocking a show is when you begin to develop what the actors will be doing physically. In other words, where do they enter from? When? Where do they go? Do they sit? Stand up? When does that happen? Where (exactly) do they stand? Etc.

This is blocking. Tonight we begin it. A majority of a play’s rehearsal process is spent blocking a show and, this being the most important, high-profile show I’ve ever done, I’ve decided to change the way I do blocking. Due to my love of a challenge. Or masochism. Or something.

I’m trying to show a lot of restraint on my part in rehearsing the show. I try to ask the actors as many questions as possible, and not offer my opinion until I’ve heard theirs. I tried (with mixed results) to keep discussion of the script bound to the who-what-where-how and away from major discussions of character and emotion, which take time to develop and can’t be done in a vacuum.

Now, we begin staging the show. How I used to do it: go through the whole show with the actors, blocking the whole thing moment to moment. Run through the show. Fix some things. Repeat until tech week. The problem: the play begins to feel very unspontaneous after awhile, and lack of spontaneity will kill any play, but especially a farce.

So my new approach to things: I’m going to do the blocking in layers. Layer one (this week): everything the play needs. This means setting very little. The characters have to exit, they have to enter. Occasionally there are things for them to do embedded in the script (if one character says “sit down” the other character must be standing and they must either continue to stand or decide to sit down depending on the situation). Everything else, I’m going to just let the actors play around and give notes about what I like, keeping it positive for now, and offering very little in the sense of limiting or criticism.

Or, at least, that’s what I’m going to try. Level two will be starting to set more and more of the moment-to-moment stuff in order to tell us as much as possible about the subtext of the show and the characters. Level three will be guided by what else needs to happen after the second run-thru to make the show really shine.

Hopefully enough will change often enough that the actors will stay on their toes and I will stay out of their way enough that we can all continue to develop our understanding of the play.

(an extra special thanks to Noah Smith for listing Parabasis on his ever-entertaining "Baggy Pants and Bravado". Just so's you know, Noah, I posted anonymously for a little wile because I wasn't sure if I was going to reviewing plays on this site or not, and didn't want to get in trouble for it if I decided to at a later date. For everyone's benefit, my name is Isaac Butler, if you see Parabasis on the blogosphere, that's me)

The Fall of the West Wing

I’ve meant to talk about the dramatic fall of The West Wing, this being a blog that handles both culture and politics, and The West Wing being a piece of culture that is about politics. I don’t have any desire to sound like some crazy-town fan, but it’s plain and simple that the show suffered both an artistic overhaul and an aesthetic devaluing at the same time, and it’s pretty doubtful that TWW will ever get its groove back.

So what’s the change? The major change is, of course, that Aaron Sorkin (and Thomas Schlamme) left executive producing and writing the show. The show now resides in the hands of John Wells, sole executive producer, architect of NBC’s “event television”, and executive producer of the now-laughable ER and the never-credible Third Watch.

Sorkin’s writing of at least part of every episode was more than egotism. Sorkin’s rat-a-tat words created a cohesive world that the characters lived and operated inside. His style was so distinctive that it is just as easy to make fun of (as Noah Smith brilliants proves here). Sorkin’s dialogue was often called “unique” and, indeed, it was, at least for Television. Those of us in theater knew that what Sorkin actually was doing brilliantly was taking the aesthetics of hyper-realist playwrights like Pinter and Mamet, and making it palatable to wider TV audiences. The world of TWW was preferable to our own—people were funnier, smarter, more dignified and nobler. They were idealized people, serving an idealized, Nobel-prize winning President dealing with the moral and political ambiguities of current events.

And now Sorkin has left. And so the world must be completely changed. There is no way around it. Sure, the current West Wing episodes do an alright job of aping his style occasionally, but really the dialogue the characters speak now is regular television dialogue, no different than what you’ll see on any other good network show. And let me say this clearly: the dialogue is not bad. It’s not great, but it’s not bad. What it is is incredibly different. The heartbreak that fans feel is in watching a group of human beings suddenly, and without explanation within their world, begin to speak, relate, act, and think totally differently. What NBC (and John Wells) didn’t realize is that this kind of change is like an acid bath washing away our suspension of disbelief. And if you can’t suck us in, the more preposterous elements of the plot go noticed rather than un.

This brings us to the real problem: the plotting of the show. Bartlett gets together with former Presidents and figures out what to do about Saudi Arabia! Toby solves Social Security! A tornado whips through a Midwest town and Bartlett disappears briefly! CJ had an affair with the former VP before he was the VP! Event Television dictates that every week must be big big big when the old West Wing could get Big Drama out of Campaign Finance Reform.

This is not to say that the old West Wing was never preposterous. It often ran contrary to any idea of realism, but it’s cohesive world and theatrical performances culled you into a sense that it didn’t really matter, because you were being so entertained.

So what we have in the show is a wrenching change that forces the audience to pay more intellectual and less emotional attention to the show combined with an aesthetic driven by emotional manipulation and preposterous plotting. This combination obviously will do nothing but inspire hatred amongst the viewing public used to the old show and it is, in my mind, these two combined forces that have brought the once very entertaining show down.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Lifting Up The Curtain 3: Book Work Begins!

In the Beginning There Was The Book Work, and the great director beheld it and behold, it was alright.

Book work (or table work, depending on who you’re talking to) is how almost everyone begins their rehearsal process. It’s a time when the actors and director sit around a table and read through the script over and over again, talking about what’s going on, hashing out the issues, begin character analysis etc.

Bad habit I’m trying to cure myself of: doing too much too soon. It’s really tempting at this stage (around a table, everyone excited, creative juices flowing etc.) to try to set on some level how the play should sound. When is it loud or soft or nice or nasty or quiet or whatever? What table work really should be used for is building the foundation of a play: The who, what, where and how of the script. You’d be surprised how many plays I’ve seen, or people I’ve talked to where it’s really clear that on some basic fundamental way the company didn’t have a shared understanding of what the hell is going on in the play.

My friend T Ryder Smith demonstrated the importance of the basics when I assistant directed a show of his. He had the cast go around and describe moment to moment in simple sentences what happens in the play (in this case “This Is Our Youth”) as if talking to someone who had never heard of the show. (So, for example, if this was Hamlet, you might say “it is nighttime. Two men are standing watch. A third man arrives. They discuss the strange sighting of a ghost over the past few nights.” And go from there.) When I did this exercise on the first day of rehearsal, I could see the pain and confusion on the actors’ faces. Two scenes of “First You’re Born” got completely left out, and the play happened in the wrong order. I turned to the actors and said “this same feeling of uneasiness is what you’ll feel on stage if we don’t establish the fundamentals first”.

So that’s what we’re doing now. To an outside observer, our rehearsals up to now would probably be extremely boring. We read a chunk of the scene, and then we talk about it. The conversation is pretty much always the same. “Alexa, what does Bimsy want in this scene? Rob, what does Viktor want? How are these things in conflict? Where are the stakes etc.” It’s the same questions repeated over and over, and, to tell you the truth, the play isn’t very funny right now, because the actors are struggling with logic, action, conflict, stakes and all sorts of other building blocks of a scene.

This is where my bad habits come in. I’m struggling in rehearsal with this internal conflict: “the play isn’t funny right now an it’s a comedy! Aaarg! PANIC!” vs. “The actors are going slowly and taking the time to think about what’s going on in the scene, and if you want a truthful performance out of anyone, that’s where you need to start”. Right now the latter half is winning, but every now and then Panic rears its ugly, dictatorial head.