Sunday, July 13, 2008

Theatrical Piracy: Beautiful Stories

So over the Fourth of July weekend my wife Jessica and I took the girls to my parents’ house in Ohio. A visit Gran’ma and Gran’pa sort of thing.

I was in the basement looking though my warped water stained comic collection. A side note to comic collectors: Don’t store you comics in the basement, especially basements prone to flooding during summer rainstorms. Fortunately the “important” comics, the Daredevil Born Again arc, Watchmen, Electra: Assassin, and Ronin had long since left my parents’ house. So I was left quietly mourning for my Spiderman issues of the Kraven’s Last Hunt storyline, and Secret Wars. It was a pity about the loss of GI Joe issue 21 though.

It was in the basement that I reconnected with the inspiration for one of my first forays into the dark underbelly of theatrical plagiarism:
Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children. Written by Dave Louapre and drawn by Dan Sweetman, BSFUG was not a very traditional comic. The two dozen or so issues published in the early 1990’s were self contained short stories with illustrations, published in comic book form.

It has probably been fifteen years since I looked at those comics. Looking back on them, I see that what appealed to me about the stories were that most of the issues felt like little one acts. Single set, and only a couple people. So that is exactly what I did with an unauthorized (Do I have any other kind?) adaptation of a couple of issues of the comic back in college.

Issue #12: “Beneath the Useless Universe” was a variation on Death Takes a Holiday. With Death becoming a houseguest who over stays his welcome in the home of an elderly African-American man with the weathered face of a Delta Blues musician. Death learns to use a yo-yo and tries to name the old man’s pet goldfish.

Of course we didn’t have any male African-American students in the theater department let alone elderly ones, so you would have had to use your imagination watching the show.

Issue #14: “Dangerous Prayers” was the story of a woman who wakes up one day and decided that she isn’t going to get out of bed anymore because the world is too…well, I don’t really remember why she didn’t feel like getting out of bed.

The illustration that really drove the shape of the “Dangerous Prayers” script was a picture of the woman in bed surrounded by a bunch of men with leaf blowers. The illustrations made the outside world such an intrusion in her interior world. I conceived of a Greek chorus that was ever present in her bedroom acting as her answering machine, her radio, the people at her job, etc…

BSFUC was the first and last directing effort, to the best of my knowledge, of Playlab NYC's Managing Director, Jennifer Wilcox. The show’s ensemble cast included in its numbers Playlab NYC Artistic Director, Kevin Hale, who gave up acting shortly after the show. Come to think of it, in retrospect it seems to have nearly driven both Jennifer and Kevin right out of theater all together.

The show ran for two performances, and there doesn’t seem to be much incriminating evidence that survives. Nothing I could find, no pictures, no scripts. I did come across a program though…written on a typewriter.

I recall toying with doing a second night of one-acts the next year. I was pretty keen to tackle Issue #10: “Where the Tarantulas Play.” A love story set against a failing petting zoo in the desert was a personal favorite. But it wasn’t to be.

Gosh looking back at these I wouldn’t mind tackling the adaptations again…

Sunday, July 6, 2008

What We Eat: The Artistic Home

This is intended to be the first in what I hope will grow to be a series of entries about the works that have influenced the direction in which I am working to take Playlab NYC. My attempt to share the books, movie, and plays I have consumed.

The Artistic Home:
Discussions with Artistic Directors of America's Institutional Theatres
by Todd London

Published by Theatre Communications Group in 1988, The Artistic Home was written by Todd London, the current artistic director of New Dramatists. The slim volume is a summary of 13 meetings between the artistic directors of more than a hundred of America’s non-profit professional theatre companies. Peter Zeisler, who passed away in 2005, wrote the foreword. Mr. Zeisler was long associated with TCG, and was instrumental in the founding of the Guthrie Theatre. The introduction by Lloyd Richards, who passed away the year following Peter Zeisler, is perhaps best remembered for his work as dean of the Yale School of Drama in the 1980’s and his close collaboration with August Wilson.

The Artistic Home is split into five sections that examine a number of issues that regional theaters are facing: artists, audience, and day-to-day operations. We often read about the struggles of individual artists, the daily rejection, but here Todd London offers us a look into the struggles of theaters trying to find new directions. Directions where they can better nurture artists, and bring audiences to them. New directions that will allow the theatres to not only survive themselves, but flourish.

This is not a how to book for running theatre. Rather it is a book stuffed with ideas. A book that works for me much like my favorite issues of TCG’s American Theatre Magazine. They both serve me best as a jumping off point for my imagination. It is a book of “What If’s”

I have read reviews of the book that claim that the book is only useful if you are running a large theatre company, I couldn’t disagree more. To my thinking some of the approaches and ideas that are discussed are probably impossible to pull off encumbered with a forty-year history and a large board. However if you are at the very beginning at the birth of a new company there is some flexibility in trying out the ideas thrown around in these pages. Also, there isn’t a board member at any theatre to whom I wouldn’t give a copy of this book.

The best description of The Artistic Home comes from Peter Zeisler. He says in his introduction that reading the book “is like walking in on a high-powered brainstorming session” with the leaders of the regional theatre movement in this country. He goes on to say that the book exists as a starting point for further conversations.

I would love to see a new edition of the book. If not a whole new book then I think at the very least the time has come for a revised edition. Every several years, American Theatre Magazine publishes a kind of regional theatre check in, with a large articles devoted to conversations that follow the same format as Mr. London’s book. Why not compile those into a series of appendix that allow us to see the evolution to where things are now, twenty years later? I would also like to see the model of the books approach applied to Off-Off-Broadway companies.

My copy is becoming dog-eared and filled with marginalia. It is something that I dip into every few years for inspiration of what my theatre company could be.