Saturday, April 24, 2004

The Military-Religious-Industrial Complex Can Bite Me

I wanted to expand on two points that I’ve raised below, part of which was about religion, and part of which was about nuclear research. They’re unrelated, but I’ll combine them in one post.

Religion and politics: On the specific issue of the Catholic Church’s ridiculous attempt to sway the election towards pro-life politicians, Atrios has it exactly right here and right again here. Really, the big things that Atrios is examining is the media’s reaction to the Catholic Church’s advising vis-à-vis communion and pro-choice politicians. There are pro-choice Republicans and that’s not being looked at.

Also, Atrios points to an interesting post by Amy Sullivan that points out how little Bush goes through the performance of being devout. His church (United Methodist) opposed to war in Iraq and Bush doesn’t even really attend church these days. What does that say about his faith? I’d say it says that he prefers to worship in private and thinks religion is a private matter, but he clearly doesn’t think so, and the media tortured Howard Dean for saying pretty much that, so I think it’s time to examine Bush’s faith a little more clearly. In what ways does it guide his actions? Does he believe god talks to him? How does that manifest itself? Does he see visions or hear voices? Is his policy towards Israel dictated by the Christian Zionist movement or not? Why doesn’t he go to church? What sort of worship ceremonies does he follow? I just think that if everyone else is going to have to go through the faith-based wringer, let’s not take Bush at his word when he says he’s a devout Christian and let’s see how much his faith dictates his actions.

And also, I think it’s important to say that, in my humble opinion, in any movement (religious or otherwise) there’s a fine line between devout believer and barking lunatic. I’m not saying that Bush is a barking lunatic, I just think that getting some of the questions above would help the American people figure it out. I mean, even most religious people would probably have a problem with a commander in chief who hears god’s voice regularly and has visions, right?

Anyway, on to the nuclear research thing.

Hopefully, you’ve read Fred Kaplan’s great Slate piece on nuclear research. If you haven’t read it here. Now read this New York Times piece from this morning. An interesting juxtaposition, eh? We’re spending billions of dollars on nuclear weapons that we won’t/couldn’t/shouldn’t use, in other words, we’re putting our national security at risk with foolish Cold War appropriations requests, while at the same time hanging the very people protecting our national security out to dry (the article, if you just want to skim, is about a homeless Iraq War veteran).

Surely some of that 30 billion dollars over four years for nuclear research could be put to better use, like paying people risking their lives a wage that allows them to live.

They really might be that crazy

Oh Jesus Christ. Why isn’t this enough to get this guy out of office.

Friday, April 23, 2004

Just to drive the point home.

This one's from the AP:
"April 23, 2004  |  VATICAN CITY (AP) -- A top Vatican cardinal said Friday that priests must deny communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, but stopped short of saying whether it was right for John Kerry to receive communion.

Cardinal Francis Arinze spoke at a news conference to launch a new Vatican directive clamping down on liturgical abuses in Mass which bars lay people from giving sermons, non-Catholics from taking communion and rites of other religions from being introduced in the service.

The document restated church teaching that anyone who knows he is in "grave sin" must go to confession before taking communion.

Arinze was asked whether that meant that Kerry should not request or be given communion for his unapologetic support of human rights, including a woman's right to abortion."

religious fever strikes the blogosphere

Apparently, we are now on a religion kick in the blogosphere. Good, it’ll distract me from my every-time-I-do-a-show nervous breakdown that happens.

Let me preface this by saying that I am an atheist, and that I used to be a very devout Christian with a Jewish mother, whose Judaism has been extremely influence to me culturally.

To add a few cents:

Simply put, I don’t really think religious people realize how hostile this country is to people who don’t believe in god. In the 1950’s, Congress passed a series of laws inserting “under god” into the pledge of allegiance and changing our national motto from “e pluribus unum” to “in god we trust”. This was done specifically to separate us in the US from the “godless communists” and I guess that means those of us who don’t believe in god don’t belong in the country. After all, we can’t swear an oath, we can’t publicly and honestly recite our dedication to the country, and our very currency calls our beliefs illegitimate. After September 11, we were all told to go to our temple, mosque or church to find community. I guess that means the 8% of us who don’t believe in god don’t have communities. Oh wait, I suppose we could shop, right?

Furthermore, I think it’s pretty easy to make a prima facie case that organized religion has a pernicious and conspiratorial influence on government, pushing government towards hostile, racist, retrograde policy that is ripping the country to tatters. Take, for example, what happened in Michigan this week. At the urging of the Catholic Church, the Michigan state legislature made it okay for doctors to refuse treating patients who they find morally questionable. That’s not particularly in line with Jesus’ teachings or the Hippocratic Oath last time I checked.

And then there’s the Catholic Church’s attempts to deny holy communion to politicians who are pro-choice. A fundamentally anti-Christian activity if ever I head of one.

I also think that there is a big difference between the organizations themselves and their members. There are many people (my father comes to mind) whose Christianity leads them to a more tolerant, progressive, loving, generous worldview.

So what is to be done? I think we need to remove religion’s stranglehold on government to start. Or rather (sorry, Christians) Christianity’s stranglehold on government. Under God in the pledge is unconstitutional, as is “in god we trust” on money, as is opening proceedings with a prayer, as is funding for faith based initiatives as are exemptions those organizations can get to discriminate against people. Government needs to be religion blind.

Monday, April 19, 2004

Play Development, some director's thoughts

Mac Rogers and Dan Trujillo have been talking a bit about play development from the playwright’s perspective. I thought I’d try to chime in on it from a directing point of view.

This was all started because of the formation of 13 Playwrights, whose slogan is “we don’t develop plays, we do them”. I know a couple of the 13P, enough to say that it is a really interesting group of people and it’s nice to see playwrights seize the proverbial means of production.

I’ve been reading over some materials the Director’s Lab gave me for their summer program, and one of them contains tons of interviews with directors and playwrights. Universally, they seem to despise the current system of developing plays. Countless readings, workshops, more fully staged workshops, even more fully staged workshops and then, if you’re lucky, a showcase-code production that technically can’t even be called professional.

Anyway, that’s the dark side of it. There’s also a pretty good chance that you’ll end up developing your play with a director (for example) who is really uninterested in helping you write the best version of your play you can. What the director is often interested in is writing the play for you or, rather, getting you to write the play the director’s not a good enough writer to write.

One of mentors used to work in the literary department of New York Theater Workshop, and (at least at the time) they developed a way of commenting on plays that gave control to the writer, and demanded that everyone structure their ideas towards helping the play get better.

The five step process went something like;
Read the play
Have everyone say one positive thing about the show
The writer asks questions of the people assembled. The answers must be value neutral
The assembled people ask the writer value neutral questions. In other words, what they don’t understand not what they like or dislike about the choices made
The writer can then choose to take suggestions from people if he or she feels like it.

I’ve had a couple of experiences developing scripts like this. It is really really hard and takes a lot of discipline. Sometimes you feel like you want to scream “just rewrite this scene this way and it’ll be better!” but that’s not really the point.

I’m coming to realize more and more in theater that a good process does not guarantee a good product, but a bad process doesn’t guarantee a good product either. So you might as well have a good process, a collaborative one, an artistic one that’s open to change between everyone and is also respectful of people’s boundaries. Let the writer write, if you don’t like the end result, don’t direct it.

That’s how I view it as a director. I don’t get particularly assertive about changes and notes until there’s a real trusting relationship developed and until it becomes clear that the writer can handle that kind of “scene 10 is too long” conversation. If you’re working with a good writer, they should be able to anticipate those kind of notes anyway as they see the show develop in the rehearsal process.

The reading-workshop-production format is only helpful if the processes are designed right. If not, they’re useless or even worse, harmful to the integrity of the project.

Of course, many of the 13P are involved in development processes that they would call helpful. The Soho Rep Writer-Director Lab (full disclosure, I used to intern there) produces really fascinating anti-naturalistic work. New Dramatists is of course one of the more famous places to develop new work, and several of the 13P come from there.

The problem is, like in so many other things, a problem of economics. Let’s say you’re a development house. You have a development program. There really isn’t a lot of money out there, so you fully produce two plays a season. The rest of the time, you’re giving things readings and workshops, sometimes multiple times. It’s not that you’re hostile to new work, it’s just that you’re trying the best you can and there’s really nothing else you can do. There isn’t enough money. The best you can do is give the artists a chance to create and progress and hopefully get a little exposure in the hopes that someone will come along and provide the money for a real production.

Anyway, my thoughts are starting to ramble and repeat themselves, and I have to go to the space soon, so that’s all for now.

Come see First You’re Born!

Lifting Up The Curtain: Everything Wrong is Right Again

Finally had our tech today. We ended up inadvertently canceling Saturday’s half of tech. We got into the space, spent the first half adjusting the blocking to the real set (instead of the rehearsal room) checking out sight lines, and listening to some of the great sound cues our designer, Brian PJ Cronin has come up with.

Then at six PM, Shelly showed up, surveyed what had been done and said, “I can’t really go into tech with the lights like this. We need to hang a bunch of lights, we’re missing all of the practicals [real lights, like table lamps, Christmas lights, wall sconces etc. that appear in a set], very few of the lights are focused. We can do everything on Sunday, it’s okay.”

So I took the actors upstairs for some work memorizing the lines, and did some physical work with them and went home.

That was Saturday. Simple, busy, and a little bit discouraging. I worked into the schedule two days of 10-out-of-12s, one for Saturday and one for Sunday. Because of union rules, if you end up rehearsing the actors for 12 hours (and there are restrictions on when, for how often, and how many times you can do this), you must give them two hours worth of meal breaks, hence, 10-out-of-12. Anyway, my TOOTs had both turned into less than that (one 8 and one 10 hour rehearsal) and it seemed at some point like we weren’t going to get anything done.

Then came Sunday. Thank God for Sunday. Not a day of rest (sorry Jesus) but rather a day of extreme activity. For those of you who have never been in a tech rehearsal, this is pretty much what they’re like: you make your way through the show (slowly), usually in what is called a cue-to-cue. A cue-to-cue is where you jump from tech event (i.e. a change in the lights or the sound) to tech event, stopping at each one and getting them to look/sound/be timed correctly. It is very slow going (in the first four hours of tech, we got through maybe ten pages of the script) but also very rewarding. It is the first time when you see the play really come together. It’s also the only overtly product oriented part of the whole rehearsal process. Tech is also probably the most boring time for an actor. You basically don’t get to act all day, because by the time you get to anything interesting, someone is screaming at you to stop and go to the end of the scene.

Food is also really important during a twelve hour rehearsal, especially since the tech staff always works through the meal breaks. Everyone eats. Usually, they eat shit, because it’s all that’s available. Saturday, I ate shit. I must’ve eaten about twenty Dunkin Donuts Munchkins in the course of the afternoon, on top of the soda and the Worst Coffee In The World brewing in the theater’s coffee pot. And I smoked too many cigarettes. I felt, quite frankly, like I was going to die.

None of that for me on Sunday! No, no! Animal Crackers, Edamame, Chinese Chicken Salad, Water, only two cups of coffee, no Diet Coke at all, and I felt great.

It’s hard to describe tech rehearsal without going into too much detail. Basically, it’s both head-spinningly productive and mind numbingly dull to recount at the same time. I loved it. Takeshi Kata, our set designer, and Shelly Sabel, our light designer, are not only wonderful people, and great designers, and great artists with good suggestions for me to improve the look and feel and arc of the show, they also get along with each other well. As the day wears on, things get sillier and sillier, of course. Tak starts biting people for no obvious reason, and then he starts kissing the tops of people’s heads, blurting out “before I felt like biting people. Now I feel like kissing people”. It’s Tak’s anniversary with his wife tomorrow, and here he is on a Sunday night in a theater while his wife tries to make a living as a production designer in LA. Two nights ago, Shelly pulled an all-nighter designing a window for Ralph Lauren, and yet here she is teching away.

Why do people do this? What could possibly be worth living across a continent from your wife, or basically not getting a good night’s sleep for two weeks? We’re not saving lives, we’re not creating anything particularly tangible or real, and yet we believe very strongly that what we do has meaning. Meaning enough to not get paid a living wage to do it. Meaning enough to spend an enormous amount of money on education and be in debt for the rest of your life. Meaning enough to come here to the Peter Jay Sharp theater and hang out with people for a few hours literally looking at how light looks on a wall.

And it has meaning enough to drag me here, to plunk me down in a chair and start making some real decisions. It has meaning enough to make me choose what I like and what I don’t. It has meaning enough to make me work through my breaks and feel tired and cranky but still make the effort to be nice to everyone. It has meaning enough, in other words, to get me over myself.

The show is beautiful. If nothing else, if nothing else works, if, for some reason, I’m a terrible director, the actors are having an off night, you hate the play, whatever, if nothing else, the play is simply gorgeous. The scene that has been my bugaboo for this whole process, a scene is which the different characters share one dream and are all on stage at the same time, has been solved through sheer simplicity and a great sound design.

In other words, I feel like we’ve gotten our groove back. Now it’s just time to make it good.