A Myth Gone Public

Last night I attended the public The Public reading of

Christina Gorman

's play,

American Myth

. You may


I attended a reading of her "work-in-progress" back in November, and this was that. I feel more at ease to address the play by name, in spite of it still bearing the WiP nomenclature, because this was a seriously serious reading, my friends. The Emerging Writers Group


, and filled the center section of the Anspacher Theatre (dear God, what a wonderful space!), and I don't want to name-drop here. I really don't. But suffice it to say that there were some very respectable names attached to the acting and directing of the thing. So, Christina, I'm outing you, whatever other work remains to be done on your script.

American Myth

deals with a fictional set of characters, but ones plucked out of the headlines like a

Law & Order

episode (only more insightful, of course). It deals in questions, which is probably my favorite thing about Christina's writing. All plays tend toward argument; conflict, after all, is drama, and vice versa. But there's nothing like a play that encourages one to ask questions rather than deliver a personal judgment, and

American Myth

does this for me. It asks what history is, both personal and national, and what we want or need it to be. It questions the motivations of the supposedly moral, and the supposedly immoral. Maybe it's simply the Unitarian Universalist in me, but I love pondering these questions because I can never be absolute in my judgments of others in my daily life. A play that impartially (hyper-partially, perhaps?) explores all the angles of a moral conflict resonates very personally with me. Plus, the script has all of Christina's usual wit and incisive display of human behavior that I've come to expect from her work.

Actually attending the reading was a sort of strange experience for me. I went by myself, with which I'm normally fine but this time, somehow, felt conspicuous about. Christina was wonderfully and specifically grateful for my attendance, and that went a long way to comforting me; in fact, for the brief moments I was in her presence I felt totally at ease. Yet apart from that, even as I was simply sitting and reading, waiting for the performance to start, I was uneasy and downright riled up. It's taken me a while to put together what could be the source of this, but this morning I realized that it was being so close to so much of what I want . . . and not having it. Of course I couldn't figure that out last night -- I was fully invested in the play and its development. This morning however, as I packed my chattel for

today's workshop in Philadelphia

, I put it together.

As much as I parlayed my feelings of rejection regarding




into moral outrage and philosophical questioning, the fact is that I had allowed myself to become too dependent on the whole effort for the wrong reasons. I very genuinely cared about the story we were trying to tell, of course, and felt committed to our work and intentions. All that was not compromised. However, I had in a way come to rely on the show as a ticket to somewhere, and I have to admit to myself that part of my response (or lack thereof) to the casting changes was petulant and careerist. We had a reading at The Public scheduled, and then I felt it yanked out from under me. Yes, I care about that show; yes, I put good, hard work into its creation; yes, it is deserving of a life beyond our Fringe Festival performances and sacrifices ought to be made to ensure that. But I also want very badly to be valued more than I yet have as an actor, and that very visceral urge pushed on me hard when all of that went down. I had another opportunity to rejoin the process shortly thereafter, which I ignored. Maybe it was because of all the reasons I said, to distance myself from the story we created before, etc. But also, I was hurt by my own sense of slighted ambition.

Believe it or not, I do not want to dwell on that episode, apart from coming clean a bit on the whole thing.

As Far As We Know

continues in its development, and I'm very happy to hear that it lives on. It is wholly deserving of whatever success and attention it can create, as are its current creators. In fact,

Friend Nat

is one of those "creactors," which I find oddly comforting -- he's like a God-father for me. I mention it not just to come clean, but also because what allowed me to realize the source of my anxiety last night was that it felt just like an emotion I used to have in high school and college all the time.

I would sit down in the auditorium, or little theatre, and wait for the lights to dim. I was usually by myself, for whatever reason. (Often, that reason was because it was my third time seeing the show and I had run out of folks who wanted to see it.) I would sit and sit, a mounting sense of anticipation and dread occupying my heart and head. Then the show would begin, and I would get wrapped up in its machinations, but one part of me would always be on the outside of that. That part would feel wrapped up tight, strong, full of urge and impulse. And it would only feel more so after the bows were had, and the applause faded from memory. That urge sits there in every performance and whispers to me,

"I want to do that.

"I want to do that . . ."

Origin Myths

Last night I was privileged enough to attend a private reading of Christina Gorman's work-in-progress. Christina -- as you may recall, Loyal Reader -- was the playwright attached to our process in creating

As Far As We Know

for the 2007 NYC Fringe Festival. She has since become a part of a play-development program hosted by

The Public Theatre

. So last night I strolled into the Public, to the downstairs rehearsal room, and tried as hard as I could to look like I belonged there. I think I did okay. My practiced nonchalance bordered on disdain, especially while wandering the back hall while all around me well-employed theatre folk busied themselves about rehearsal, and workshopping, and probably warming up for a performance at Joe's Pub. Yeah, I was cool. I didn't even stain my shirt at dinner beforehand.

(I made sure my coat was closed.)

I won't say too much about Christina's play, except to say that I enjoyed it. I'm not saying much more because it is, after all, a work in progress, and who the hell am I to out it prior to Christina's releasing it upon the world at large? She expects to be presenting it in some kind of final form in the Spring, and I'm very much looking forward to seeing it again after she's incorporated whatever notes she took for herself from this reading.

Whenever I see it again, I may also see a few familiar faces again. Going into this reading, I was preparing myself to be reunited with some


ers (that really doesn't read well, does it?), most of whom I haven't seen in a year or so. To my surprise, I was the only one from that crew there. I did, however, see Gaye-Taylor Upchurch again, my director from

the reading of

Burning Leaves

we just completed

. She and Christina have apparently worked together in the past, hence Christina's attendance at the


reading. Christina also knows

Tom Rowan

. It is, I tell you, a small world after all. As if that weren't enough, one of the actors performing in the reading attended

The Big Show

. I didn't recognize

Bhavesh Patel

as he sat

directly in front of me

and I

read his name in the program

. He had to come over and clear things up for me. So. Pathetic. I'd rather have spilled pizza sauce on my shirt.

Bhavesh did a great job, as did the rest of the cast:

Reed Birney


Carla Harting


Brian Wallace


Alex Webb


Halima Henderson

. The whole affair was directed by

Michael Goldfried

, and to good effect. It was simply done, with the actors remaining seated and with music stands in front of them. I often find it a bit stifling to be seated for a reading, but no one seemed to feel repressed by it on this occasion, and I appreciated being allowed to focus on simply the actors' choices. Christina is writing a play that has very much to do with characters being nudged out of their comfort zones through discoveries about the frailties and failings in one another. The relationships are very distinct, and the action largely achieved through conversation and various storytelling forms, so creating a space in which we as the audience were left to focus in on faces and the minutiae of expression was very smart. Afterward, I was very briefly introduced to Goldfried, and discovered that he had seen

As Far As We Know

and thought it to be good work, which was certainly a nice note to leave on.

Christina's play concerns itself with origins in a variety of ways, including the origins of personal passions and America itself. It was strange for me -- and I do hope she will understand where I'm coming from with this -- to find familiarity in this new play. At times her new play reminded me of the style or even thematic content in


, and it's a difficult chicken-or-egg deduction to make. How much of that was Christina's influence on our script, our story, and how much of it was an effect of her experiences working on our play? Ultimately, I don't think it's an important question to answer. She and I both invested a lot of time and energy into


, and it's only natural that prints will be left and continue to be made long after our involvements ended. Still, I am curious about origins, in general and as they pertain to creative expression.

Many, possibly most, of my favorite stories are origin stories, and I've written here before about how fond I am of that earliest stage of a collaboration, when the ideas are ALL good and the response is ALWAYS "Yes, and...!" The first of a superhero movie franchise is generally the best, because it's like watching a tragedy in reverse: Inevitably, the hero will become something greater than he or she could have imagined, and we get to watch it all happen, to appreciate intimately the progress, the journey. Maybe we're transformed too. (Talk about your adolescent power fantasies... [Seriously - talk about them.].) But what of the origin of a story? There's a popular idea that there are really only about nine (or so; the number varies) stories in the history of the world, and every supposed "new" one is just a retelling of one, or a hybrid of a few. That's as well as may be. I've got no argument with the idea. However, I believe each story told has the potential to spark "new" stories, and that the culmination of these quite literally changes our reality. In this sense, stories are made new all the time by our ever-changing belief in them. Take, for example, our Founding Fathers. Were they as we describe them now? Certainly not. Will they become further mythologized (is SO a word) a hundred or so years from now? My bet is for yea, and those new beliefs will affect the world as we know it.

So I am, irresistibly, inevitably brought back to that tired question that caused me so much grief nearly a year ago: Who owns a story? Or, to be more neat to this particular entry: Does the originator of a story own it and, if so, how do we say who originated that story? All glory be to Allah, I suppose (Welcome to the DoD web surveillance, Odin's Aviary! Here's your complimentary pin, with GPS included!), but how do we claim ownership of a story when we're little more than synthesizers of other stories, and stories themselves exist to be shared? I'm not talking here about commercial ownership -- that question bores me, immediately necessary though it may be. Rather, I wonder about the ways in which we attribute credit in what may be essentially a great dialogue between storytellers that reaches back thousands of years. Maybe we only borrow the stories we "create." Maybe we're just helping them along to the next stops on their journeys.

But hey: Christina's play is Christina's play. Don't step up to that, 'cause girl will mess you UP.

Carnie Corporation

The Women's Project

is a great organization that I was proud to be a part of for a short time this spring, helping to develop and performing in

Corporate Carnival

. (I also managed to accidentally lampoon their ideals while performing for them, which just goes to show that I am a consummate method actor. While playing a rather right-wing-inspired character, I complained of "sounding like a girl." THE CHARACTER complained of it, I should say. Yes. The character...) It was something of a unique experience, however. I entered a process with which I was ostensibly very familiar -- collaborating to create original material based on a few clear themes, using improvisation and incorporating circus and other "physical theatre" skills -- only to be surprised by how different my experience was from working with

Zuppa del Giorno




Cirque Boom


The first strangeness was getting the gig at all. I auditioned for

Corporate Carnival

way back in February, I think, when I was still unemployed. (Part of the reason I'm so crazy busy these weeks is my panic to book any and every bit of work I could find during that period.) I assumed that train had sailed, yet I heard back from them months later about my being a part of their "temp" squad. Judging by the email that offered me this slightly dubious-sounding position, that initial audition was intended to see if I suited their needs for the main cast, and they just kept me in mind for the sort of filler/choral needs fulfilled by the temps. Judging by my having performed in nine shows last week, I think we can safely say that I accepted their offer.

The greater strangeness came from becoming involved with the show at a later stage of its development, and being asked to contribute (in a limited way) to its further development. It felt strange to be included at this point because I had to play catch-up on the ideas that were feeding into the show's concept. Yet no one was actually talking about "the concept," because half of the people there were so familiar with the dialogue already that they didn't perceive a need for it. At least, that was my interpretation. I also found myself immediately confronted with this approach to play-building: "Okay. We need a commercial for a pharmaceutical drug that cures the 'Mundays'. Go outside the space, build one, and then come back and present it." This is much the way

As Far As We Know

gathered material, so I had to pause to remind myself that this was not, in fact, the same show. It's a good technique in a group with an established rapport, the members of which can enjoy and contribute freely to the work. It's a little, well, weird when you're a group of strangers who have little-to-no concept of what you're aiming for in terms of mood, idiom, etc. Still, we did all right, I think. It felt a little bit like the kids' table at Thanksgiving, our temp crew. But that was fun in its own way, too.

The ultimate strangeness, however, was how different it was to build what was ostensibly a circus-themed show with people who were predominantly concerned with the theatre. ( I believe -- and I could be grossly mistaken here -- that I and

Richard Saudek

were the only ones in the cast with previous circus performance experience.) I've gotten quite accustomed to running up to my fellow performers and shouting, "Hey! Let's see if I can throw you over this wall!" The accustomed response is, "Okay!" Now I tried on for size, "You mean, like,


throwing me over the wall, in a clever pantomime?" Richard actually suggested a bad-ass assisted flip that he could do, that we demonstrated on the first try, yet it never made it into the show. I did get my little acro-influences in here and there. Some weight-sharing, a shoulder-sit. The rest of the actors also really incorporated new skills onto the bottom of their resumes, too. Just about all of them are way better at juggling now than I am (not hard, but still). It wasn't a lack of skill or eagerness to learn; just a whole different perspective on things.

The experience was good, however. Great, intelligent and talented people. Probably a little bit more intelligent and talented than the particular idiom in which they were performing, but what can you do? Work is work. It does compel me further to get organized and make my own circus/theatre show and/or troupe. God's winding up with a 2x4 on that one. I've gotta get in that . . .

Update, May 28:

Friend Sara has posted an

encyclopedic range of photos

from the


! Peruse!


This morning I received an email from the playwright UnCommon Cause Theatre had been collaborating with to create

As Far As We Know

, informing those of us who did not yet know that the remains of Staff Sergeant Keith "Matt" Maupin had been recovered and identified. For those of you who don't know, the events resulting from the disappearance of Matt -- in 2004 -- were the inspiration for that show. For years, in spite of a video purportedly exhibiting his execution, his status remained active as far as the military was concerned, and his family kept faith that it could be true. That was the real subject of our play, what really kept our interest in it: keeping that faith and what we may have to lose by keeping it.

I had decided at some point in the process that most likely Sgt. Maupin had died. I had no details, and vacillated frequently on this position, but ultimately it was the idea I came to embrace. He was gone. That was my luxury, that perception. If I learned nothing else working on

As Far As We Know

, I learned that the perspective I was afforded by my distance from the situation was absolutely a luxury. No one who knew Matt, none of his family or the people living in his hometown, no one who had loved ones involved in this war could afford that luxury. I could. I had the distance to decide for myself, regardless of the hopes of others, that the best thing for all involved would be to grieve now, to try to say goodbye.

What I've discovered, with the arrival of this official news, is that my decision to say goodbye never reached my heart. It was just a decision. Now, this morning, I discover that all this comfortable time of mine I had been keeping a candle of faith going in my heart for Matt and his family. I've discovered that I wasn't comforted by my perspective at all. My


merely quieted my mind. What gave me comfort was that unconscious lick of flame, that nearly unjustifiable hope, which is now just as quietly extinguished. Matt is gone now. He has been missing, potentially and finally actually deceased for years, but now he is truly gone.

I can't compare my grief to his parents', his brother's, his friends'. I can't even compare my grief to my fellow players' and collaborators', some of whom have been to Matt's home and met the people there. It would be ridiculous to conceive of it. I'm just a guy who followed the news, studied the situation and tried to imagine the lives inside it. Yet I'm in tears to learn that he is gone. What was Matt to me? I'm not sure. Probably, figuring that out for myself will be what allows me to let him go. He represented a lot for me -- patriotism, ambition, discipline, the commingling of faith and love -- but representation doesn't tear at emotion this way. No, in some way, without ever meeting him, I came to love Matt for myself. And there is nothing right in this, in his death. No matter what peace it brings, no matter the resolution. His death is wrong.

In one of the introductory classes we were required to take as freshmen in the BFA program at Virginia Commonwealth University they tried to help us understand the nature of tragedy. Actually, of capital-t Tragedy. That is to say, as a form, not simply a vocabulary word. One more colorful teacher asked us, "What is it when a busload of nuns dies?" Someone naturally responded, "A tragedy." (That someone: probably a young guy with a bit of something to prove who valued very highly his own ability to know the "right" answer, and obviously in no way was that someone, nor could he ever have been, me.) "Wrong. When a busload of nuns arbitrarily kicks it, that's a travesty. Now, if it's a king, and we can see it coming from a mile off, but nothing we say or do can change it, and we just have to watch it unfurl into its ultimate conclusion ... that, my friends, is Tragedy."

The circumstances of Staff Sgt. Keith "Matt" Maupin's capture, torment and murder add up to a travesty. Even accepting that Arthur Miller made us see the possibility of a salesman experiencing a tragedy normally reserved for kings, there's too much that's arbitrary about Maupin's story to leave it room in the parameters of tragic action. He was not in combat, but escorting fuel trucks, and they weren't meant to be on the route they took when he was captured. He lied about his personal details on the hostage video that was released, presumably because he felt he had to, and even now news agencies are reporting those, misunderstood as facts. The government had to do everything they could to avoid looking like they were flailing helplessly, owing to how little they knew. It's a travesty.

But. But. Part of what makes Tragedy work is the way in which we come to resist the inevitable outcome. The tragic hero could be someone we would never get along with in life, yet through the journey of the story we come to intimately identify with a commonality: the will to live. "Rage against the dying of the light." We do. We always will, be that light our life or hope for others'. Ultimately, Matt's situation would not turn out well. The more time that passed, the more certain his fate became. We would have been smart to let our hope go, to will it to pass. And yet. And yet.

I -- little me -- will miss you, Matt Maupin. I wish I could hold you and your family up. I hope you all find peace and the space of breath to grieve. The tragedy of this outcome devastates me, but the years of your faith . . . our faith . . . inspire me. May you never lay down, may you always believe.

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

-Dylan Thomas

Three's Company

This entry is not about the formative experience that watching the above-mentioned situation comedy was for me. Nor is it about using proper punctuation in titling. It is, however, about company. Or rather, companies. Or rather, theatre companies. And threes are just funny, as any self-respecting reader of this 'blog by now knows.

I have been a part of several start-up theatre companies at this point, and I have been in-on-the-ground-floor-ish of several original shows, the which is a bit like being a part of the beginning of a repertory company (just one that is guaranteed to disband at some point [probably a month or so from the first rehearsal]). I'm sure there are many who have been a part of more over the course of a decade, but I've had my share. A brief history:

  1. Just after junior high (which is 7-8 grade in NoVa), my drama teacher at Lake Braddock started his own summer theatre camp, producing children's plays he had written, which were mostly adapted fairy tales or adaptations of existing plays. I attended two summers, the first two, and looking back I'd say it was safe to suggest that he had very little idea where to begin. He just began, and it was begun. As far as I know, that "company" disbanded when he switched to teaching high-school theatre at a different school.
  2. In high school, every show was like a company beginning and ending, in the compressed nature of intense teenage experiences. The one we really felt we owned, however, was our competitive improvisation troupe. That one ended, for me, in graduation, but as far as I know continues on through the years at good ol' James W. Robinson.
  3. In college I fell in with a group which eventually came to be called Lacquespace (sp?) Enesmble, or Theatre, or Productions, or something like that. It was essentially formed from the frustrations of a writer who wasn't getting what she wanted from the curriculum and actors who were tired of not get cast, either for grade restrictions or simply because they went unnoticed. The group put on several well-meaning, hard-working productions. I acted in the first and wrote something for another. At a class meeting (read: me: geek: I was '99 theatre class president), I suggested that we needed to get involved to keep Lack-space alive after we garduated, and the woman who got it started misinterpretted it as an attempt to wrest control from her. Still, I believe it continued beyond our departure. When I graduated, a younger woman was at the helm, steering it toward geurilla theatre.
  4. It took me a while to get settled, upon graduating college and moving to New York, and for some time there was no possibility of knowing enough people to strike up an organization. Then, about a year into my residence, the seeds of two such start-ups were planted. From the group that produced a show entitled Significant Circus would eventually come the circus-theatre troupe Kirkos, and from my work with David Zarko on a farce entitled Der Talisman I would come to be included in the formation of Zuppa del Giorno, the contemporary commedia dell'arte troupe. Kirkos enjoyed a few years of productivity, but now exists more as a talent-funneling organization than anything else. Zuppa del Giorno, of course, is still going strong in Scranton--as well as annually in Orvieto--and for that I am grateful.
  5. UnCommon Cause (formerly known as Joint Stock Theatre Alliance) began the process that would eventually become As Far As We Know almost four years ago, and nearly three years ago I was invited to join it. This does not a company make, but after two-odd years of working with a group on a single project, one does develop a certain sense of family.

Recently I got an email from Friend Nat, one he had sent to about a dozen theatre folk he is familiar with, testing the waters for the enthusiasm people would have for starting a theatre company. Shortly thereafter, Friend Avi contacted me about the possibility of collaborating together (in spite of his current busy-ness with grad school) on a script or show. Avi and I have already met and agreed to do mutual research. Getting together with Nat (Hi, Nat!) is like trying to barter for clothing in a refugee camp (totally a mutual difficulty [Hi Nat!]). Finally, prior to both offers, I was contacted by David at The Northest Theatre about the possibility of joining in an effort to set up a resident theatre company there starting next season.

For most actors like me--that is, who dig "straight" theatre productions and are of not-too-great fiscal ambition--the idea of becoming a part of something like a permanent company is awfully tempting. "Repertory" theatres, as they are often called, are scarce in America these days, at least in comparison to how many there used to be. Now, every actor is a sort of "free agent," every theatre an economic liability that relies on celebrity draw and its elder community for staying afloat. (You notice I'm not backing this up with anything--this ain't wikipedia--and you are free to disagree.) A company, or even a single venture, with any staying power (and staying-with-me power) is very appealing to me. This is part of why "university theatre," or the track of going back to school, teaching and eventually getting tenure, is so sought after. It occupies more and more of my thoughts these days.

However, I am also a little gun-shy about starting something new, about doing it all over. That's understandable, I think, given one perspective on the past twenty years o' life. In some senses, how far have I gotten? Where am I now? Many people--myself occasionally included--look at my life and wonder at why I should be in such an insecure, unestablished place at my age. It's not uncommon for me to be written off in a lot of people's opinions as anything from undisciplined to inconsequential. Ah: But. In the past twenty of my years--and especially in the past ten--as an actor and creative collaborator, I have had experiences I wouldn't trade for a 41" flatscreen TV. Through all the beginnings and endings, misunderstandings and perfect chemistry, I've created my own work in little communities of people who care, and it has made me a better person. I have no doubt. Whatever is the next, best choice for me and my life, it will be a choice that leads me to as much of this sort of experience as I can handle.

Take a step that is new, y'all. Take a step, that is new . . .