“When I was a little girl, there was this wonderful show on TV.”
That’s the first line of my play, “The Adventures of…” As a playwright, it’s taken me downtown, midtown, Provincetown (3 times) and to Dublin, Ireland. It’s never had the same cast for more than one production, a streak that remains unbroken in 2013.
Last Wednesday, two days before the show was to open (again) in Provincetown, I got an email with the news that our leading lady had a family emergency. And I would be going on in her place.
After thinking about it for a few seconds, I realized it was the best solution. I wrote the play, I’ve seen it more than anyone else, and the character is essentially an adolescent and adult version of me. As Tina Howe says: “It’s all true, but none of it happened.”
My play had taken me back onstage.
Will Clark and Nick Lazzaro, in the EATfest production.
To begin well before the beginning, I came to New York to act. After a brief stint at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, I was not asked back. I kept up with acting classes, and made the odd appearance in a showcase or two, and in summer stock. I was determined to stay in New York, and find a place in the theater and started fumbling toward what’s become a body of work as a playwright.
Fast forward a number of years, and I’m doing my second 24-hour play festival at Wings Theatre. I liked the horror and excitement of it so much the first time that when they asked me back again, I said yes.
We followed a standard drill: you pull things like settings, and actors and director out of a hat, and have words or phrases you must incorporate into the text.
I ended up with: birthday cake, obstinate, and gymnastics; 3 actors, one of whom was my summer stock buddy, who’d since been in one of my full-lengths; a director I knew was quite good; and a setting: ATLANTIS, 1 MILLION YEARS, BC! (THANKS, Peter Bloch). Oh, and we also had to mention Clay Aiken.
I muttered to myself on the train, pulling up, then tossing aside, ideas for plots, characters, how the hell to show Atlantis…briefly considering setting the whole thing underwater…trusting that I would get the idea I needed by the time I got home.
Back when I was a sportswriter, I’d walk into the newsroom after a game, take a look at the clock, and know that by deadline, I’d have a story. It didn’t block me, rather it gave me the confidence to begin, because I knew I’d be done in time.
At a certain point on the walk to my apartment, just as my building came into sight, I got the first line, and where it fit, and the idea for the rest of the play, and for the characters in it. I got home, I wrote it. When you’re doing a 24-hour play, you have to write with your id, rather than anything above it. Go deep, go personal, go mad.
I finished it and had it at the theater by 10am (with mention of Clay Aiken in a totally organic way). I handed the scripts to my director and leading lady…but the other two guys in the cast were nowhere to be found. (Later we’d learn that…well, I forgot why they didn’t show up. What mattered is that they didn’t. I remember their names to this day).
We drafted an actor from another play, and everyone got on the phone to see if we could round up a third. We briefly discussed me going on in the third part, which I discouraged. I went to the church across the street and lit a candle. And when I came back, one of the producers had found a guy in Jackson Heights.
Jamie Heinlein, Jason Alan Griffin and Hunter Gilmore in the Dublin production.
The cast rehearsed all day, and I asked the director if we could go on last, so people would have more time to learn their lines.
And…they did it.
The audience loved it, and laughed so hard at the Clay Aiken reference that the actors had to hold. I knew I’d written a decent play, possibly one of the better things I’ve written. This unnerves me, because it was written in a blinding flash, in such a random manner. But I’ll take it. And hope to write something as good or better that’s…longer.
I did a little tweaking and submitted it to Emerging Artists Theatre and it was accepted for an EATfest…with two out of three new actors. I submitted it to the Dublin Gay Theatre Festival in tandem with a piece by J. Stephen Brantley, in part because he had two men who could double in the male roles in my piece. We were accepted, and went to Dublin with two new actors, and the original leading lady.
Mark Finley, Jamie Heinlein and Lee Kaplan in the Women's Theater Festival production in Provincetown.
I applied to the Universal Theatre Festival in Provincetown, and we were accepted, but our leading man had moved away, so we picked up another new actor. We were asked to come back the next fall, and this time, we had to bring along a new juvenile. The play was picked up by a theatre in San Francisco, and a friend of mine who went to see it said it was done very well; it’s on YouTube now.
We were invited back to Provincetown for the final Universal Theatre Festival, a “best of,” and…we needed a new actor. I remembered the guy who came in from Jackson Heights for the first performance. He was available, and we were good to go.
And then…I was in the mix.
I can certainly be in front of people; I host a reading series, and appear on panels, and read my own work at the drop of a hat. But I haven’t set foot onstage as someone else since Ed Valentine’s “Women Behind the Bush,” in which I was a homicidal society matron (with one line), that we did all over town one summer.
I printed out the script and highlighted it and started trying to learn it on the subway home. And in the car on the way up.
I got a wonderful note from one of the other actors going up (who was taking the other part played by the actor who had the emergency). It was sweet and supportive, and she said she’d sit in for me at tech and not to worry, everyone had my back.
About halfway to Provincetown, my wife realized that we were opening that night (she’d thought it was Saturday, and wondered why I was so frantic). We got there midafternoon and I rehearsed with the guys for about an hour, then went to find something to eat (not an easy thing in Provincetown on a January afternoon). I’d bought a couple pieces to wear as my costume, and accessorized a bit.
I had the cut-down sides in my notebook (a handy prop I’d thoughtfully written in the original script for just such a purpose), but I didn’t need to refer to it.
There was no way I could, or would, imitate Jamie Heinlein, the real Maggie. Instead, I took a deep breath, and looked at the audience, and just tried to live for a few moments, truthfully and loud enough to be heard, on the stage, with my own words. If I did it right, it would be enough.
Memo, me, and Mark Finley at the Universal Theater Festival, Provincetown, Jan. 2013
I was very tired when it was over…and remembered I had to do it two more times. I was surprised how quickly the routine of going to theater early, putting on costume and makeup, and getting ready came back. Waiting backstage with the other actors, warming up and listening to the other plays, and eating fudge. I think I might have said “yes” to the whole thing because of the large pan of fudge I knew was backstage.
Then it was over, and I could take off the red hi-tops I’d bought for the character, and put them on as myself when the weather gets warmer.
The festival evaporates quickly…the out-of-towners have to drive a long way that night. There's no lingering over good-byes, or marveling over what we’d done. We were all on our way within minutes of the final bow.
My wife and I stayed over one more night in Provincetown, and drove back the next day, still tired, relaxed, and tearing up as we listened to the President’s inaugural address on the radio.
I have always thought that play could be longer. Whenever we rehearse it, I think of the ways it could be expanded, maybe even into a full-length. And having played it, I learned new things about it (and the writer). It hit me harder than ever that I want to expand this one. I know where I’d put the new scenes and what should happen when.
If I do this, as I suspect I might, I promise, I will never, ever, go onstage in it.
Acting is HARD.
I had to choose between being with my people last night and being with my people. This is what happens when you wear too many hats.
What I mean is that there were I was invited to two awards ceremonies. One was the Lammies, the Lambda Literary Awards, the annual celebration of the best literature in the GLBT community. I was a judge in one category, a nominee in another. But in the same city, at the same time, there were also the Lilly Awards: the third annual celebration of women playwrights, by women playwrights, that honors our own, and the people who love us.
I am a woman, a writer, a playwright, a queer person (in so many ways it’s multi-dimensional). And it’s become clear to me over the years that such distinctions are specious and no one has the right to ask you to define yourself or put those categories in an order. You might as well say: I’m a little finger. I’m a pancreas. It’s impossible. They were honoring one of the people I love most in the world at the Lilly Awards, so the decision was easy: Playwrights Horizons, 42nd St., with bells on, for Tina Howe.
Theresa Rebeck, Julia Jordan & Marsha Norman.
As I took my place in the auditorium, next to a playwright we’ve decided is my long-lost cousin, I looked around and saw many people I knew: people I’d met through Tina; writers whose work I’d discovered and fallen in love with and just walked up to; people from up North and down South, and on the Internet. Not so many from Downtown, but I carry that particular state of mind with me wherever I go. We Independents represent whether we’re in a church basement with a pole in the middle of the stage, or in the ballroom of the Mandarin Oriental listening to Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli honor John Kander (where we’d been the night before, because we won tickets to the Dramatists Guild gala).
Tim Sanford, Artistic Director of Playwrights Horizons, resplendent in his “Miss Lilly” sash, an honor accorded to brothers who are also sisters, remarked that he is SO glad that The Lilly Awards are now a “thing.” He welcomed us, and introduced the divine Estelle Parsons to give the Invocation. Ms. Parsons spoke of her childhood (in the late ‘30s), discovering her voice in community theater, run as so many were, by a woman with intelligence and taste, who wanted more than the role prescribed to her by society at the time. Parsons, who would be honored later, finished with a rousing “Onward!”
Then the founders: playwrights Theresa Rebeck, Marsha Norman and Julia Jordan welcomed us, and reminded us that the reason they’d called us all together again was that just three years ago, they’d watched as awards season left the station with no women on board…and they’d decided to throw their own party, and created the Committee for the Recognition of Outstanding Women in Theater. As my shrink says to me each time I leave him: “Remember, Kathleen, living well really IS the best revenge.”
There was a delicious tension in the air as the women spoke of the need for self-recognition and celebration. The adjective “angry” was batted around, like a balloon, or a badge of honor. I’ve found that the word “angry,” depending on who is applying it, is often used as a weapon against someone who has a legitimate concern…or by someone who is frightened of what’s being said or asked.
David Ives, Miss Lilly of 2012.
There were a total of 10 awards given, for writing, directing, acting, design, and all around awesomeness. (I’m not sure that’s an actual category; if it’s not, it should be).
Joyce Ketay led off presenting the first Lilly, for directing to Diane Paulus, whose long resume includes the Broadway productions of “Porgy & Bess” and “Hair,” and who is the artistic director of A.R.T. Paulus accepted with alacrity (because she had to go off to a fundraiser for her own theater) and invited the women present to send her their plays, bring her projects they want to create or direct.
David Ives then came onstage to present the acting award to the divine (an actual goddess in his play, “Venus in Fur,”) Nina Arianda. The multi-tasking Arianda, who was scheduled to perform for the President in a few hours, also took the time to speak movingly of her parents, especially her mother, as well as the writer who created the character she brought to life. And she also stuck around to present this year’s “Miss Lilly” award to Ives: complete with red silk sash, bouquet of flowers, and tiara, which Ives wore for the rest of the evening. Because that’s the kind of guy who is worthy of the title “Miss Lilly.”
Tonya Pinkins then came to the stage to present a writing Lilly to Katori Hall, whose “The Mountaintop” had a successful run on Broadway last season (after its Olivier Award-winning run in London), and whose “Hurt Village” (starring Pinkins) was also seen at the Signature. Hall showed both gratitude and vigilance, reminding the audience: “We still have so much work to do.”
Director Trip Cullman presented the next writing award to Leslye Headland, who is about to make her directorial debut with the film of her play, “Bachelorette.” (and also wrote this season’s “Assistance.”) Headland talked about once having had a fear of writing, and urged everyone to get over it…and she spoke movingly of Wendy Wasserstein as a mentor and friend.
Acclaimed set designer Louisa Thompson presented the next award to Sarah Benson, artistic director of Soho Rep, whose award-winning work has included a production of Sarah Kane’s “Blasted” and new works by such wonderful playwrights as Annie Baker and Young Jean Lee. Benson was giving birth (pretty much) last year when she was first offered the award, and came back this year to talk about both artistry and motherhood.
It was a theme mentioned by several of the women presenting and receiving awards: how they had been told that women “stepped away” when they had children, and couldn’t keep up their artistic careers…and then they told stories about how they’d done it (with the support of other artists, and also by multitasking such functions as tech rehearsals and breastfeeding.
Marsha Norman presented the next award to Heidi Ettinger, whose many designs have shaped and enhanced Broadway plays, musicals, national tours, and operas. She designed the set for Norman’s “ ‘Night Mother,” and “The Secret Garden,” as well as the original production of Tina Howe’s “Painting Churches,” among many others.
The next award was for musical acting, and went to Christin Milloti, and was presented to her by her co-star Lucas Pappaelias, who brought his guitar to the stage and serenaded her with a song of his own composition, which cited her various credits and had a chorus of “I get to party with Christin Milloti.” Christin broke the “f-word” barrier (and apologized profusely to her parents), and while it got used a time or two more, no one else really worked blue.
Tina and me. She gave me that necklace, of course.
Then Robyn Goodman presented the Lifetime Achievement award to Tina Howe. She said “Tina Howe is her own most gorgeous creation,” and that she is a “great winged beauty,” which she is.
As for me, I can’t begin to find words to say how much Tina has meant to me as a teacher and a friend. She’s someone who has touched so many lives…one by one…that there are generations of us whose hopes and views have been shaped by her kindness and wisdom.
And Tina accepted the award in her inimitable fashion, citing her traumas as a schoolgirl, and her awakening to Ionesco, and how she put the “white gloves” on as a playwright, in order to be heard, while keeping her surreal, sublime vision close and visible to those who look.
And Estelle Parsons was brought back to the podium for her award by Frances McDormand, who also knows a thing or two about making a playwright’s work sing.
Then we all levitated and went across the street to the West Bank Café, where everyone mingled and consumed potent potables, and I’m so glad that the Lillies are a “thing” and not an institution, where we can repair to the bar after, and talk and get an eyeful of each other and tell stories, and pass the pizza and realize: we got it going on. And say “thank you.” To the women who’ve come this far, and the ones who are making it happen now, and pushing the ones after us into the future.
We'll all over in Ireland and shit, and I have been posting to the blog I created many moons ago (2009?) when we first played the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival. Read all about it here
Eric Hellberg, Tracy Baker and Meghan Cary in "A Bushel of Crabs," En Avant Playwrights.
For a long time, I would not admit to it. Sure, I budgeted, talked directors into signing on, arranged for rehearsal space, built websites, ordered postcards, bought snacks to sell during intermission, handed actors an envelope with a stipend. That’s part of being a playwright, isn’t it? There would be a point, I thought, when I passed all that off to other people, and just went to rehearsals, did rewrites, and read the program, rather than handing it out, on opening night.
Surely, all that would give way to…something simpler, less fraught. (And don’t call me Shirley). I was a playwright, not a producer.
After a wonderful production of my first full-length play, “To the Top,” at South Carolina’s Trustus Theater back in the last century, I realized…that wasn’t going to happen again very often. And if I waited for someone else to do it, I might be waiting a long time. I kept writing, and sending the plays out…and somewhere in there was accepted into the Turnip Festival with “I’m Gonna Run Away,” a play I was supposed to produce myself! “Oh shit,” I thought. And immediately called Peter Bloch, friend, fellow veteran of John Strasberg’s acting class, and someone who had already started to direct (including a staged reading of one of my short plays at Dixon Place). Peter took me in hand, and showed me what a director does, and gave me shoves in the direction of how to put a show together.
We won “Audience Favorite” that year at Turnip, which came with a check and a trophy. Peter and I went on to produce “The Space Between Heartbeats” at the Samuel French Festival (back when it was at the American Theater for Actors, where there were holes in the stage and about a dozen plays a night). The play was entered under the auspices of Mirror Repertory Company, an off-Broadway company, where I’d worked as assistant/general dogsbody, in one of the more learning-intensive jobs I’ve ever had, to Artistic Director Sabra Jones, and I considered it a great coup when I talked her into playing one of the parts. I didn’t however, actually SEE the performance, as I was backstage, holding up a flat.
Somewhere in there, I was acquiring a tribe: other playwrights who had work they wanted to be produced. We got together one weekend and came up with the idea of organizing a group to send out our work…then one of us suggested: why don’t we pool our resources and put up a night of our work? That is the 2-sentence version of how we formed En Avant Playwrights, with the considerable help of Tina Howe, our mentor at Hunter College.
We produced three nights of new work at Hunter’s Loewe Theater through En Avant over about two years, each playwright producing his or her own play, and all of us divvying up the responsibilities of the overall production. We got stronger in our skills, and connections, and found actors and directors we liked, and kept working with them. Some of us started producing our work elsewhere, with other companies, or on our own.
Karen Stanion in "Grieving for Genevieve."
Somewhere in there I went on a game show. That itself wasn’t unusual; I’ve been on five game shows. I call it “the new arts funding.” But I had my biggest score on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” winning $50,000 before walking away from a question I wasn’t sure I could answer (and it was a good thing, too, because I would have gotten it wrong).
Talking with Peter Bloch, I said: maybe we can produce a bunch of my short plays. And he said: why not a full-length? And I was stunned. I didn’t realize I could do that. So we applied to the Midtown International Theatre Festival with “Grieving for Genevieve,” and got in. We recruited a cast we liked, and had enough friends and followers to make some cool costumes, snag some unique props, and load it all into the wheelchair (which I bought off eBay when this guy’s mom got too fat for it), and pack it into the car (which I’d also paid off with the Millionaire winnings), aka the Propmobile, after each performance. We sold out most of the run, got some good reviews, and I didn’t have to go on (which looked like a distinct possibility when we lost one actor, Derin Altay, to an Equity regional gig…but I was able to convince another actor, Meghan Cary, who’d been in “A Bushel of Crabs” to learn the script in a long weekend and step into the role for the second half of the run).
Noelle Holly and Karen Stanion in "Rock the Line." (Yes, that's the same shirt).
Somewhere in there, I got involved with TOSOS II, when Doric Wilson took an interest in my work. “Send me something,” he said, and I sent him the full-length “Rock the Line,” and he said: “let’s read it.” We did a helluva reading…I’d asked Peter Bloch to direct, but he ended up in the hospital (not at my hand, I always remind people) and Doric found Steven McElroy to take over. We had a great cast, including Meghan Cary and Stephanie Deliani, from En Avant days, Karen Stanion from “Grieving for Genevive,” and Jamie Heinlein, from Mirror Rep days, among others. Paul Adams, of Emerging Artists Theatre asked if EAT could produce it. And they did, beautifully, and have since produced my plays “Some Are People,” “The Adventures of…” “One Small Step,” “Sharing the Pie,” “Staying Put,” and “Secret Angel,” (some of which I later produced again at the Universal Theater Festival in Provincetown).
Doric asked me to help with the Robert Chesley/Jane Chambers Playwrights Project, which presents staged readings of new work and revisits GLBT plays that need to be seen. And somehow, I failed to connect that if you present staged readings…you might end up producing them. I kept bringing in cool plays, and Doric and Mark Finley and Barry Childs of TOSOS kept mounting great readings…and you know something’s going to happen here, right?
Somewhere in there, “Rock the Line” won the Robert Chesley Award (which came with a check), and we took the money and went to Ireland…and discovered the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival. I came back with the resolution that I’d find a way to get one of my plays there. EAT had produced “Some Are People,” directed by Mark Finley, with Karen Stanion, among others, at EATfest, and I thought it would be a perfect candidate for Dublin…along with two plays by Kevin Brofsky and Matt Casarino. Paul Adams said: well, you can go if you take responsibility for it, and I referred to myself as the Dublin “wrangler,” raising money, buying plane tickets, arranging for an invited dress rehearsal…and once there, handing out postcards, buying props, you know, all the stuff the playwright does.
Jamie Heinlein, Jason Alan Griffin and Hunter Gilmore in "The Adventures of..." at the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival.
We went back again the next year, at the invitation of Artistic Director Brian Merriman, with my “The Adventures of…” and J. Stephen Brantley’s “Break,” and TOSOS went with Chris Weikel’s “Pig Tale.” It was actually, well, not easier, but more familiar, the second time around.
Then Mark said: what if TOSOS produces Meryl Cohn’s “And Sophie Comes Too” in the NY Fringe? And I pretended like I wasn’t going to doing so much, because after all, it wasn’t my play, even though I’d brought it to TOSOS, and I love Meryl’s work (and Meryl). Somewhere in there, I found myself getting the postcards, and taking pictures to use until the real photo shoot happened, and chatting with reviewers I knew and…being on the crew for the shows when the other crew couldn’t be there. It was interesting to sit backstage and listen to the show, and hear stuff that told me things as a playwright; to feel the audience, and compare them from one show to the next, and put it all in the magic trunk to pull out in one form or another some other time.
The next summer, TOSOS produced The Five Lesbian Brothers’ “The Secretaries” in the Fringe, and I said YEAH when Mark announced it. And I was proud to be called Associate Producer. I’ve never been so thrilled to work on someone else’s play…or as pleased with the results. The quality of the work, and what we all brought to it, gave me as much joy as anything I’ve done in the theater.
Though at one point, sitting at the bar at Cowgirl, someone I sort-of-knew came up to me and asked if I’d be interested in doing publicity for her play…and I said: “No, I’m a playwright,” and it left me feeling… unsettled. How come she didn’t know I’m a playwright?
Later, at another EAT show, a friend introduced me to the person she was with, saying “And this is Kathleen…she’s a marvelous publicist and producer…” and I was surprised at how angry that made me, and reminded her: “no, I’m really a playwright…you were in one of my plays, remember?” (And I’m not marvelous. I’m competent, and occasionally inspired).
And somewhere in there, a couple of dear friends passed away, and I helped to produce their celebrations of life; because that’s what it is, when you have a theater, and music and performers, and video and lights and sound. It’s a production. How can you feel obligated or weird about that? Do a budget, arrange for programs, work out a running order…
And now, it’s 2012, and I’m wrangling… organizing…PRODUCING the world premiere of my play, “Outlook,” at the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival for Emerging Artists Theatre, directed by Mark Finley, with Meghan Cary (from En Avant and Grieving for Genevieve and Rock the Line days), and Donnetta Lavinia Grays (another playwright who produces); Irene Longshore and Danielle Quisenberry from EAT, and Jen Russo as production stage manager; Jen who marched with me in the St. Pat’s for All Parade two weekends ago in Queens, carrying the Dublin banner.
I am a playwright. And producing the work is part of my job. I’m proud to be a member of the Honorary Awards Committee for the New York Innovative Theatre Awards, because they are me: people who do it on inspiration, luck, talent, training and no money. We’re the direct descendents of the Caffe Cino, WOW, LaMama, and all other mothers and fathers of us; all the people in basements and the backs of bars, and Brooklyn, where the audience sits three feet away from the stage (if there’s a stage), and the bathroom is backstage (or not working at all), and when the lights go down, and the bells ring, you can almost hear Joe Cino say, “it’s magic time.”
It’s made me who I am today: a playwright. And a producer.
It’s also completely a manifestation of the economic and class system in America today…but that’s another story for another time.
Below is the IndieGoGo link to our fundraising campaign. You’ll probably be hearing from me soon. Because, you know, I'm a producer. And a playwright.
Back around 2007, I had a show in the Spring EATfest at Emerging Artists Theatre
; I was very happy with the EAT production of “Some Are People,” directed by Mark Finley, and made it a point to see most of the performances. The play was bracketed by a pair of 10-minute pieces that I loved watching as well: Peter Snoad’s “My Name is Art” and Chris Widney’s “One of the Great Ones.”
And that’s how I met Andrea Alton; she played a loud, obnoxious patron in a modern art museum, and she had be giggling from the get go. Andrea kept working at EAT and elsewhere, and I loved seeing what she was going to do next. She invited me to the Fringe production of the play she wrote with Allen Warnock in the 2008 Fringe, and I got tickets right away. (NB: I call Allen Warnock my long-lost cousin because we HAVE to be related not too far back. There’s just not that many of us). So along with our friend Cheryl B., we went to the show, a two-hander, in which Andrea and Allen played all the parts, including the two eponymous best friends: poets and co-hosts of a public access cable show about poetry and crafts.
Andrea Alton and Allen Warnock in her play, "Pioneer Lovin'."
As veterans of many (many) an open mic, Cheryl & I recognized great bad poetry at the first syllable. We howled and guffawed and drooled so that (as sometimes happens), the actors started playing the show at us. One of the many characters Andrea played was Molly, a security guard/poet, who made only a brief appearance, but stole all our hearts with her homemade water ices and lesbian poetry.
Cheryl had already booked both Allen and Andrea at her Poetry vs. Comedy series, and I quickly shanghaied them for my series, Drunken! Careening! Writers! After the Fringe, Andrea and Allen kept working on the show, which had a strong spine: what happens to friends who are artists when one of them suddenly becomes successful? Can their relationship survive the sudden difference in their stature?
They eventually took it to a commercial run in NYC in 2010, in between doing other gigs, which for Andrea included appearances at more EATfests in plays by Staci Swedeen (as a hippie dog trainer) Jon Spano (a very angry nurse/ betrayed wife) and Mark Finley (a neglected teenage heiress/serial killer). She played a groupie/stalker in the reading of Meryl Cohn’s “Insatiable Hunger,” this past May, cracking up the object of her affections, Lea DeLaria (and everyone else).
Andrea as a lonely teenage heiress/murderer in Mark Finley's "The Chiselers."
She directed a piece by Emily Mitchell for an EATfest, and whenever I saw her, she was talking about writing, or taking a class, or doing standup somewhere, saying “yes” when people asked her to do a gig. Molly the lesbian security guard/poet from “Carl and Shelley” took on a life of her own: she started to turn up, complete with mullet and safety vest, and perform her poEMs (her pronunciation) around town, including at Drunken! Careening! Writers! She acquired a last name (Dykeman) and a middle name (“Equality,” at about the same time everyone else from Facebook was calling him/herself Equality or Hussein). An appearance by Molly soon became an event: from beauty pageants (the ironic, queer ones) to Butch Burlesque, benefits (including one for the Dublin Gay Theatre Festival
that I organized last year).
Andrea’s Molly became the go-to butch when you needed someone foulmouthed, funny, and totally fearless. Embraced by the butch community in particular (some of whom walk up to her and quote her poEMs), she did get some pushback from one queer artist, who thought it was inappropriate for Andrea to "appropriate" a butch persona. (When I heard about that, I thought: slippery slope…does that mean that gays shouldn’t play straight parts?)
And what exactly IS an artist supposed to do to get to work? If you're not a "type," if you're not the age/height/weight/style/color/haircut they're looking for, are you supposed to wait around for the rest of the world to catch up with you...or create your own scene and put yourself to work?
And the proof is in the pudding, or in the butches in this case, and the full houses and shrieks of laughter show me that a queer audience gets what Andrea’s doing with Molly, and because it is a beautiful characterization, well-crafted and truthful, they’ll shout along with Molly when she tells her F-Train Girl: “I WANNA STICK MY FACE IN YOUR VAGINA!”
(Really, don’t bring children to see Molly. Or your more sensitive adult friends).
Andrea had the idea that she could do a solo show with Molly, and she asked Mark Finley to direct, and he knows a good thing when he sees one, and said, OF COURSE. And, as always, Andrea worked her ass off: she presented a version of her long-form Molly show at One Woman Standing, as part of the New Works Series at EAT (a series she also curates). She applied to this year’s Fringe…and got in. And got a BIG theater to fill.
So she got to work again: raising money, surrounding herself with producing, creative and tech staff who bring their own talents to making Molly shine. Doing the publicity, making more appearances, and spreading the word among her growing community on her blog, on Facebook, Twitter, and the gay bars in Park Slope.
As soon as tickets went on sale, I got mine for Opening Night, and joined the large crowd for “The F*cking World According to Molly” at the Players Theater on MacDougal Street. She surfed the waves of laughter and will be even better when she gets off book (I kid!)
And she did go to the next level: the show is not an hour of standup, it’s a play, about a very specific woman, and how the hell she gets through life, and creates her art, and tries to get over/through/around a devastating loss to find the things that make her happy: ladies and chicken fingers (or nachos). And in the midst of this, she finds the time to tintervene when she sees injustice being done in the schoolyard where she works. That is, when she doesn’t call in sick or high.
There are 4 more performances of Andrea's show: Fri 19 @ 6 Sat 20 @ 9:15 Thu 25 @ 2 Sun 28 @ 4:15
. You should go. Get tickets here
Hanging out with Molly at Dixon Place.
I have been kicking around in New York City since the title of Orwell’s book. And I still look forward to the next show, the next interesting writer or actor or all-of-the-above (...except for clowns. Clowns make me nervous). And people sometimes ask me: how is it you’ve been able to hang in here so long, and not get bitter or mean or crazy? And I say: you haven’t seen me in the mornings. And also, I don’t put everything I say or think on the internet. However, AFTER my coffee and my editing skills, what gets me through the day (and night) is the considerable energy and talent of the people I call friends and colleagues. I feed off it, it inspires me, and makes me want to go home and create something.
So, as long as I have talented friends doing great new work, I’m good. Can’t wait to see what comes next. And play with the talent.
Like, tomorrow night (Aug. 18), I sure hope you’ll come see Drunken! Careening! Writers!, at KGB Bar, 85 E. 4th St, 7pm FREE, with J. Stephen Brantley, Kevin Holohan and Thaddeus Rutkowski.
I met J. Stephen at an EATfest…and then we went to Ireland and ate some oatmeal...but that’s a story for another night.
When I was pitching the idea of Drunken! Careening! Writers! to Denis Woychuk, the owner of KGB Bar, I said: “I want to have writers like Cheryl B. and Thad Rutkowski and people like that in the series; people who are doing amazing work now, and who are going to have a long-term impact on the scenes they are in, and in whatever their genres are, and maybe invent some new genres, and people who cross genres when they need to, to say what they have to say.”
Well, maybe I wasn’t quite that articulate, but it was definitely the thought process. And I used Cheryl and Thad as representatives of that, because I’d known them both for years, and they’d already enlivened a bunch of readings at The Writer’s Voice, and appeared in WV, the literary magazine that had a brief, beautiful life, and I’d go downtown or wherever they spoke to hear their likes.
Cheryl passed away early Saturday morning, in the arms of her partner Kelli after a furious bout with Hodgkins.
And back in the winter of 2004, on a night I later joked that was so cold that the dinosaurs we rode stuck to the streets, Cheryl B. became the first Drunken! Careening! Writer! The first poem she read was “Reasons to Stop,” about why she got sober. (She also set one of the first standards for the series: you do not have to drink to careen).
Cheryl was a welcome, frequent reader (and even guest-host) of DCW, and a generous friend to many of the other readers. She was at the event more often than not, because (more often than not), she knew one or more of the readers, and might even have introduced me to them.
Traveling back even further in time, it was probably the mid-90s when I first met Cheryl. Regie Cabico (another guy I started DCW for) curated some new poetry readings for us, and brought Cheryl in to read (which also may be when I first met Anne Elliott and Ron Drummond and Guillermo Castro and Gloria). She read a piece about being the “prize” in a lesbian dating game, which was the sort of side duty that often came with the territory as a wandering poet. When she performed, her words came out in staccato bursts, often accompanied by one arm waving. A seasoned performer by then, a winner on the slam scene, she knew how to play an audience, how to take a pause, how to hold for laughter. How to hit the line that made you gasp, then applaud. Pale-skinned, dark-haired, a slash of red lipstick, working basic black like nobody’s business, Cheryl embodied Poet to me.
Zaedryn Meade, Robin Cloud, Tara Clancy and emcee Carolyn Castiglia at Poetry vs. Comedy.
She also taught me a lot about Community: that is, finding out who else was doing what, and working with them, and if you had a chance, giving them a place to work. Cheryl invited me to read at her series: Atomic, Poetry vs. Comedy (I mis-represented a poet), and Sideshow/The Queer Literary Carnival, (the series she curated with Sinclair Sexsmith). Writers & performers whose work I got to appreciate up close because of Cheryl include Janice Erlbaum, Josh Kilmer-Purcell, Carolyn Castiglia, Alison Smith, Livia Scott, and many others. Working with peers, pushing to make the work better, helping the newbies on the scene, and the folks who’d just arrived in town: that was all part of the job of being a responsible artist, being responsible to your own work, as well as to the other folks out there, trying to get by, just like you.
We talked over the unanswerable questions: how do you balance the money gig and the work that’s closest to your heart? What ABOUT the MFA? What about teaching? She talked about her writing group, and the part of it that involved putting together proposals. We began, with another writer, to explore putting together a book about Meow Mix, the bar that was a cultural touchstone and watering hole for a generation(ish) of downtown queer folk, particularly lesbians, particularly rockers, but also everyone else who wanted to be part of it.
She had a dayjob until a couple years ago, then got downsized along with a significant chunk of the American workforce. She pieced out a living from freelancing and editing (she was a very good editor), and while the unemployment was difficult, it was hardly a period of lying fallow. She got a lot of writing done, and her name appeared on a lot of articles and blogs, and when she came to DCW, she read pieces of her memoir, which she called “When I Knew Everyone on Avenue A.” There was a piece about when she decided not to drink anymore. A piece about her father throwing a plate at her across the dinner table. She performed in a multi-media piece downtown with some other poets at the Flea Theater, in an evening curated by Regie at full glamour. It was marvelous.
We saw each other often, at readings, panels, birthdays, the occasional “at home” at her apartment in Brooklyn, where a salon of queer divinity often reigned. While the accent was on queer, it was talent that got you in the door with Cheryl, and labels were the last thing she judged you by. As someone who had identified as bi, she occasionally took some pushback from people who demanded she pick one side or the other. She told me once a guy asked her what PERCENTAGE she was (which seems to me just the kind of question a lot of guys would ask) and she said answered: “75/25 women/men” and then commented that she answered so quickly, she knew it was true.
I remember thinking that things were really coming together for Cheryl in the last year or so: the writing was strong and it was just a matter of time before she found a publisher for the memoir. Pretty soon, I thought, the world is going to catch up with her, and she’ll be acknowledged by circles far wider than her cadre and foxhole buddies. After years of hard work and putting it all in, Cheryl was bound to start getting it back in a great way.
She and Kelli found each other, and when you saw them together, you thought: “of course.” At the first Sideshow last April, I looked over and saw them kissing in the corner and thought I’d never seen her so happy. In late 2009, they’d started performing with Elizabeth Whitney, Lea Robinson, and Kate McCabe as the Famous Lesbian Comedy Road Show* (*famous lesbians not included). Teaching, traveling, writing, curating, enjoying life…that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Famous Lesbian Comedy Road Show: Cheryl B. Kate McCabe, Kelli Dunham, Lea Robinson, Elizabeth Whitney.
Last fall, I saw Cheryl at Kelli’s show at The Center, and she was using an inhaler, for her allergies, she said. I gave her the name of my allergist. A couple weeks later, I got a message from her and when I called her back, she broke the news that it wasn’t allergies, but Hodgkins.
At moments like these, the most important thing is Not to Say Anything Stupid, and I fumbled for words that might be comforting and not cause her any more anxiety. One thought hit me and I said: Why is it that the best times and the worst times happen at the SAME time? And she said, they do, don’t they? And I inquired whether I might pray for her. (You do have to ask, in one memorable instance, a friend of ours got up and left the theater in a huff when my partner told him he’d be in her prayers). But Cheryl said she’d appreciate that. I told her about my sister’s bridesmaid, a stripper who’d survived her Hodgkins and is still with us (though I think she gave up stripping).
I got on the phone and the internet, as we do, and found out that it was a highly survivable cancer, that she was in the range where it usually hit, that the treatment protocols for it were very specific and there is a lot of knowledge on the disease. Statistically speaking…statistically speaking…she should have survived. Statistics are shit.
The winter was a cold, hard one. Cheryl and Kelli went to chemo. Cheryl started a new blog
, of course, which is what a writer does. It’s part of the arsenal to beat life back when it gets too overwhelming, and I thought: good. When she gets through this, it will make a powerful memoir.
We saw Cheryl and Kelli at Christmas, and gave them a ride home from chemo, and went to an “at home” in February, where Cheryl made heart-shaped pasta and we drank diet root beer. Cheryl & Kelli performed their “first date” as the Xtranormal Bears, and I told Cheryl about my Xtranormal bears performing Beckett and Pinter. She continued to perform when she could, and started participating in NaPoWriMo
Cheryl & Sinclair, curating Sideshow, the Queer Literary Carnival.
We ran into each other at the Rainbow Book Fair at the Center in March; I didn’t get a chance to see her read because I was down the hall at my own reading. My partner saw her and said: I thought she might collapse. So it was not unexpected to find out not too many days later that Cheryl had to be hospitalized, and was in intensive care.
I stayed in touch via phone and email. I worried. I did not visit…in part because the times I’ve been hospitalized, I’ve hated having visitors because I was so tired and sick, and also because my own allergies have had me coughing and sneezing since March, and I didn’t want to do that anywhere near an immune-compromised person. And because, I suppose, in the back of my mind I thought, if I don’t acknowledge the seriousness of the situation, then it won’t be. She’s getting through this and will write a book about it, and we’ll be friends until we’re crotchety old fabulous curmudgeons.
And it was perilous…until it wasn’t, and somehow, Cheryl pulled through, and was admitted to a rehab facility so her lungs could learn how to breathe again, and she got up the strength to walk up the stairs to her apartment.
My April and May were busy with writer stuff. Work stuff. Stuff that in the long run isn’t really that important, is it? Doric
passed away. Doug
passed away (I actually had it on my list to write about him today, on Father’s Day). And I said, I’m going to see Cheryl this weekend. But then, last Thursday, she was back in the ICU. But it seemed to me if she’d done it once, she could do it again. I really wasn’t going to have to get a call or an email or read a Facebook post announcing that one more friend had departed.
In my heart of hearts, I’m not sure I have all the equipment to be a satisfactory human being. I’m a pretty good writer, and that’s where it goes. The call comes, the news is bad, and I keep humming along, being responsible about stuff, and turning things in, until I start puking blood or suddenly spike a high fever.
Yesterday, I put on a dress and went over to Deb’s to sit with Kelli and do what I could, which is not much. We brought food and drink, and a gift I’ve been trying to get to Kelli for weeks. (It’s a honey badger t-shirt). We talked a little, laughed a little, sat in silence a lot. In times like these, my voice changes to a very serious tone and I try to sound like I have something useful to say. The phone rang, people came and went. Finally, we had to go. My partner was house managing a show in a festival, and I had tickets to my own show in the East Village Chronicles, which I hadn’t seen yet.
Oh hell yes, a margarita went down good, and I went over to E. 4th St. by Avenue A to see my play about a dying poet (which I'd dedicated to Doric). I covered my face at the end, because I couldn’t bear to watch.
I’ll be back in the East Village this Thursday, for Drunken! Careening! Writers! Cheryl was supposed to read last month, with Kelli, but wasn’t able to. The last time she read was in September, 2010, when she was joined by Kaylie Jones and Shawn Stewart Ruff. As often happens, all of them read pieces on a theme (we never decide it, it just happens). That night, most of the work was about staying/not staying sober.
This month’s reading is as queer as you please, and it pleases me greatly. Before we begin, I’ll lift a glass to Cheryl, and invite everyone else to, as well. And together, we will careen in her honor.
I can’t think of anything else to say right now. But I do have a link to an excellent quality video of Cheryl reading some of my favorites of her poems. Listen to “Why I Stopped.”
I came to New York City to be among writers and artists, including imaginary ones. Some real writers have become my best friends, and some of the ones I made up have served me pretty well, too.
I have a show opening next Monday, June 6 at 7:30pm; The Last Dream of Arky Malarkey
will be in evening A of the East Village Chronicles, Vol 7
, along with Bitter Fruit from the Bowery
, by Larry R. Yates, The Pretty Young Girl
by Claudia Barnett, and Three Rooms. Inspired by a Totally True Story. Or Three.
by Michael Ian Walker, all four plays are directed by Laura Livingston.
The festival runs through June 26 at the Metropolitan Playhouse in the (wait for it) lovely & fragrant East Village on 220 E. 4th St., almost right across the street from Kate’s Joint, which is a vegetarian bar. Beer & fried tofu things! Tickets range from $10 to $20 and you can get a festival pass for $40 here
Evening B of the festival includes The Philosophers
by Robert Anthony; Stained Glass
by Lawrence DuKore; Baby Marty
by Bryce Richardson; and Big Black Mexican Woman
by Alberto Bonilla, directed by Andrew Firda.
Russell Jordan in "Sharing the Pie."
The company playing all the work is Paul Bomba, John Fennessy, Sidiki Fofana, Kate Geller, Emily Gittelman, Ralph Pochoda, Russell Jordan, Gordon Kupperstein, Rob Maitner, and Teresa Stephenson. (Russell was in my play “Sharing the Pie” at Emerging Artists Theatre and in Provincetown!) The cast of “Arky” is John Fennessy and Kate Geller.
And the third leg of the festival (what? You’ve never heard of a 3-legged festival?) is Alphabet City VII
, six solo shows based on the lives of real people, who are East Village Residents. That’s directed by my EAT
colleague Derek Jamison, Evening A features Abraham Sparrow
as Alex Sanders
, a Hondler (A guy who makes things happen -Yiddish
) Retired? Age 85; Jane O’Leary as
Patricio Jardines, colorist/stylist, former drag queen; Me’Lisa Sellers
as Frances Goldin, human rights activist, radical literary agent. Evening B is Clare Barron
as James Tigger! Ferguson
, "The Godfather of Boylesque" & "The Original King of Boylesque”, Joel Putnam as
Danny Cornyetz, Video Jockey; From a little home studio came one of the first hip-hop music videos at the dawn of a national sensation; and Keri Setaro
as Miss Aurora Cenzia
, MA, Director, Virginia Day Nursery Episcopal Social Service, impacts the lives of up to 5,000 New Yorker annually.
This is my second time in the Chronicles, which present new work that’s based on the lives and times of one of the most interesting neighborhoods in New York City. A couple years back, they did my Joey Ramone play, All Good Cretins Go to Heaven
, another of my imaginary histories/encounters. (That play is published in Best Short Plays 2009
by Smith & Kraus )
Each year, the Metropolitan Playhouse (and its handsome artistic director, who has exquisite taste) Alex Roe, send out a call for short plays about their neighborhood. This year, I pulled out “Arky,” which I wrote for the last festival, but it didn’t get in. I am nothing if not stubborn. (It’s actually my second play about a dying poet, but the other one is set in the West Village, so it’s not eligible. Also, it’s published
Amy Fulgham and Will Cefalo in "All Good Cretins..." East Village Chronicles 5.
I love having a real setting for the characters’ lives. I realize that I’ve written a number of plays which are imaginary histories of real people (like Amelia Earhart and Joey Ramone), or in which fictional characters participate in historical events. And as I wrote, I did something I rarely (if ever) do, which is write a bio for the character.
The bio helped me figure out my poet’s timeline, and as I worked out his age, and how old and where he might have been from birth to death, the story took shape. He became a kind of East Village Zelig, crossing paths with the great and the subway grate, rubbing elbows with people I wish I’d met. I liked the bio so much, I put it in the stage directions. It’s not performed or read in the play, though it could be a program note. It was for me and for the actors and director, so they’d know just who this man is. But since I have a blog, I thought I’d share it here.
If there were an entry for Arky Malarkey in A Guide to Modern American Poets, this is what it would be:
ARKADY (“ARKY”) MALARKEY: (1918-1988) b. New York City. The poet known as Arky Malarkey was born on the Lower East Side of New York City in a tenement on East 7th Street. His parents were Sofia Gorki Malarkey (b. 1900, Uglich, Russia, d. 1933, New York City) and Francis X. Malarkey (b. 1895, Limerick, Ireland, d. 1918, New York City). Francis Malarkey died in the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic, and Sofia worked as a seamstress in a garment factory to support herself and her son. The factory closed in 1930, and Arkady, known as Arky, left school. He held a variety of jobs, from newsboy to dishwasher to theater usher. He also sang songs and told stories in the saloons of the Lower East Side. He began selling “Poems for a Penny,” then a nickel, then a dime, impromptu verse he made up, and sometimes wrote down. He’s mentioned in a Joseph Mitchell “Talk of the Town” piece in the New Yorker ca. 1940. It’s thought Arky Malarkey introduced Mitchell to his fellow street poet, Joe Gould (see Joe Gould’s Secret by Joseph Mitchell). When Irina Malarkey died in 1933, leaving her son on his own at the age of 15, he claimed never to have had a fixed address again, except for “U.S. Army” from 1942-46. After his discharge following WWII (where he case of malaria, which recurred throughout his life), Malarkey returned to the streets of New York, and was on the periphery of several Postwar literary, theater and social movements, including the Beats, and off-off Broadway. In the early 1960s, he gravitated to the experimental theater scene in Greenwich Village, and he performed his poetry at Café La Mama, the Caffe Cino and Judson Poets Theatre. The Rev. Al Carmines, Jr. staged a series of Malarkey’s poems as a dance piece, with music by David Amram. Diane Arbus photographed him with his shopping bags of poems, in front of the offices of The Village Voice, which occasionally published his poems, and to which he often wrote letters to the editor. Malarkey lived in a series of abandoned buildings and squats on the Lower East Side through the ‘70s and ‘80s. Several early punk bands embraced him as a mascot and inspiration, and he was sometimes seen outside of CBGB and Max’s Kansas City with the likes of Patti Smith and Jim Carroll. He spent most of his summers in Tompkins Square Park, where he was present for the Tompkins Square Riots in August, 1988. Witnesses report that Malarkey sustained a head injury when he was trampled by a police horse. He broke into an apartment in the building where he was born. The tenant called for medical help, but Malarkey collapsed and died before assistance arrived. The city coroner ruled he died of traumatic brain injury. No charges were filed.
You better hold on
Something's happening here
You better hold on
Meet you in Tompkins Square
--Lou Reed, “Hold On”
See you in the East Village.
Doric at his office (Zuni restaurant).
A significant portion of my relationship with Doric Wilson was spent at the backs of theaters and rehearsal rooms, and at his office (the restaurant Zuni).
We always talked as we folded programs before a show or a reading, and Doric imparted a lot of information, much of it wise, useful and funny. I don’t think I’ve yet begun to realize just how long and how much I will miss Doric.
On May 7 (was it really just a bit more than two weeks ago?), when he didn’t arrive with the programs to the Chesley/Chambers reading of Josh Conkel’s “I Wanna Destroy You,” it was unusual enough that we all began to feel uneasy. Doric didn’t miss TOSOS readings, especially a new work from someone as amazing as Josh Conkel. Three people Doric loved: a playwright, an actor and a singer, went down to his apartment. I set my phone to vibrate and began to watch the reading; a message came that Chris and Zac were on their way back. I went into the hall and waited. When they got off the elevator, they said: “He’s gone.” Behind us, the play went on.
I’d been watching Doric wind down this last year. He had a long history of heart trouble, had had a stroke, and other ailments you might expect after 72 action-packed years of living. Each year, he declared that this was “likely” his last birthday. Eventually you’re going to be right about that.
Of course, he might have been in better shape had he not lost his health insurance back in the ‘80s, when our president (Ronald Reagan) told health insurers they could refuse coverage, or take it away from to gay men. So Doric’s major health problems might have been lesser ones had he been able to receive the treatment he needed then.
I learned about that particular footnote of history from Doric, along with many others, political and theatrical, in the half-dozen years we were part of each others’ lives. He was an excellent teacher outside the classroom. That Saturday night, I expected to rehash and hear his take on our last reading; we’d read Meryl Cohn, Billy Hough and Suzanne Goldberg’s “Insatiable Hunger,” featuring a great cast led by Lea DeLaria. It was our first staged reading of a musical, and a great success.
One line in particular brought the house down: After a character explained to another: “They’re lesbians!” Lea’s character, Max, responded: “I prefer the term 'box fairy'.” Hold for laugh. And hold. And hold some more. Afterwards, Doric asked Meryl if that was a real term (or a “thing”), and Meryl said no, she’d just made it up. And Doric responded: “Then it’s the best line I
ever wrote.” Not much made Doric prouder than helping along other playwrights, performers and musicians. He loved to hear how a new play sounded. Take reservations for the next reading, print out colorful programs and bring them over and fold them with whoever happened to be at the back of the theater.
He invited me along for the ride after TOSOS did a staged reading of my play, “The Audience.” He also found me a director when the one I’d been planning to use ended up in the hospital (not at my hand). We were at the Duplex, where TOSOS was presenting the first New York run of Elizabeth Whitney’s “Wonder Woman” cabaret, and I was directorless. He went across the room, and came back with Steven McElroy, who directed first the reading, then the eventual full production of “Rock the Line,” (which Doric also had a hand in renaming), at Emerging Artists Theatre
As we got to know each other, Doric asked about the other plays I was seeing, what other writers he should know about, telling me about plays and playwrights he thought I should know, introducing me to people he thought I’d like and vice versa. He made sure Victor Bumbalo was familiar with my work, and one night I got a call from Victor, saying that I’d won the Robert Chesley Award for Emerging Playwright, and Megan Terry had won the award for, well, already emerged playwright. Doric presented me with the award, along with my other great friend and mentor, Tina Howe. (I dubbed them my fairy godfather and fairy godmother).
We used the prize money for a trip to Ireland, where I got to see the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival
…but more on that later.
Doric, with the agreement of Mark Finley, the Artistic Director, and Barry Childs, the Producing Director (the heart and soul of modern TOSOS
, who in 2001 rebirthed the company Doric founded), asked if I’d be interested in working with the Robert Chesley/Jane Chambers Playwrights Project. I said I would, and he invited me to Zuni to talk about it. We ordered a round: A martini for Doric, a beer for Barry, a cranberry/seltzer for Mark, and I said: “Ooh! I’ll have a frozen mango margarita!” To which Doric replied: “Four gays and only one orders a sissy drink!”
That was the beginning of an official relationship that has lasted to this day, and one which has led to a helluva lot of fun, and hard work, and some very good productions, and opened the door for some plays to get productions from other companies. And of course, many more nights at the back of the room folding programs with “no talkback after” at Zuni.
Chesley/Chambers gave me a chance to develop my latent impresario side, and a chance to hear new work from some of my favorite playwrights, and a bunch of cohorts: directors, actors, designers, ready to jump in and make it happen.
Doric was there, front and center, at almost all the readings, shaking the playwright’s hand, taking the picture of the cast afterward, declaring people to be the newest members of TOSOS. Sometimes three or four times, if he didn’t remember them from the last reading they did. (He remembered the cute boys; he did not always remember the women. But he liked them each time and repeatedly made them members).
We read some plays I’d seen in Ireland (by Irish playwrights and American work I saw over there), and I mentioned to Doric I thought TOSOS should take a play to the Dublin Gay Theatre Festival. That was the first time he jumped out of our car when it was moving (I forget what led him to leap out the second time…but he survived both departures). He hated the idea! We had no money for such things! And Ireland was a place where they hated the gays!
Doric was a great man, and great men have great flaws. The man had a temper. And he had a mouth on him, as my mother would say. And he had very firm beliefs about what gay people could expect in the theater, and from society. He did not believe that a straight organization would fund a gay theater (though nobody crowed louder than he did when the Dramatists Guild Fund began to make grants to Chesley/Chambers).
He also made it clear, when I first knew him, that he saw no need for gays to get married (followed by a dissertation on the Napoleonic Code). Then he realized that many of his friends and many in the next generations of gays who chose to be together in committed relationships didn’t have the same civil rights as married opposite-sex couples. When he realized that marriage equality was a civil rights issue, he got behind it (though never, he reminded us, because HE wanted to marry anyone). He blogged about it here
. He loved the energy and activism of the demonstrations that sprang up here after Prop 8 was upheld. With his usual pessimism, didn’t think the Democrats would win the last election, but was thrilled when they did. (He was also visited by the Secret Service for the anti-Bush sign he had in his window just before the Republican Convention in ’08).
It took me a while to learn that sometimes Doric changed his mind and (on momentous occasions) even apologized. After TOSOS produced Chris Weikel’s “Pig Tale,” at the Wings Theater, Mark Finley had the idea of taking it over to Dublin. Mark and I had already been over with my play, “Some Are People,” and everyone in the EAT crew who went raved about how much fun they’d had, and how well they’d been treated. So we applied. And got in. And went to Ireland.
On the Dublin opening night of “Pig Tale,” festival director Brian Merriman gave a short curtain speech, talking about how proud he was that TOSOS had sent an entry, and how important its founder, Doric Wilson, was to gay theatre. His gracious words got back to Doric right away (we made damn sure of that), and by the end of the festival, Brian was on the TOSOS honorary board. And, at the close of this year’s festival (May 14), they renamed the International Cultural Dialogue Award the Doric Wilson Award.
Mark Finley went from strength to strength as the TOSOS artistic director…he and Barry were not afraid to disagree with Doric, set their own goals and make them happen. In the last few years, among our other activities, we produced Doric’s first play, “And He Made a Her,” at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, and sat in Mark’s living room for a reading of the first act of “The Boy Next Door,” Doric’s declared last play.
We also produced two shows in the New York Fringe in 2009 and '10, both by lesbian playwrights (one of them by FIVE lesbian playwrights), and Doric led the horn-tooting for the both of them, pulling strings and calling in old friends to get reviews, interviews, mentions online and in print. He brought people in, sat with them, and laughed LOUDLY at the funny parts.
He was tickled when we got the Lucille Lortel Theatre as our venue in last summer’s TOSOS production of The Five Lesbian Brothers’ “The Secretaries.” He frequently recounted the story of how he threw a drink in Lucille Lortel’s face when she made a racist remark (and that’s why he’s not on the Walk of Fame in front of the theater). We stood at the back of the house and put inserts in the programs, and talked about how he used to live across the street from the theater, and about some of his old times in the Village. (Somewhere in there, I heard the story of the chimpanzee, the men's room of a gay bar, and the Broadway director).
Since 2011 marked 10 years since the rebirth of TOSOS, Mark and Barry decided to make it a Doric season…we began to plan a “Doricpalooza,” and discussed, venues, plays, and casts, and which works.
It was just over two months ago that we hosted “Proud to Know You,” a tribute to Doric’s 50 years in the theater, at the Beechman. I blogged
about that, and while I didn’t mean for it to have the air of a valedictory, it was a great summing up, and I’m glad we had one while the honoree could still be front-and-center and give a curtain speech.
After “I Wanna Destroy You,” we were headed into a reading of Doric’s “Street Theater” at The Center; there wasn’t really any question of canceling that (though we did put it back a week; there was too much personal business for his chosen family to take care of for us to finish the professional business of putting on a good reading).
But it’s definitely on, June 9, and I hope you’ll be there.
I'll be there, maybe folding programs, as I was one night at the Mitchell Room when the conversation got round to children. Doric commented that he probably had a child. That was news. He explained that two lesbians had approached him in his first couple years in New York, and asked if he would “donate” so they could have a baby together. He agreed and well, frankly, I didn’t ask for the details. He lost touch with the women, but said that over the years, he’d sometimes look at the faces of people on the street who seemed to be about the right age, and wonder if one of them was his child.
“Well, don’t look at me,” I replied. “This red hair’s out of a bottle.” He laughed and laughed. It’s a laugh I’ll always hear.
I’m so glad I’ve had a chance to blog about the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts
. At the start, it was a list of names and events in the town I was born in, and visited too infrequently in recent years.
By the end of the festival, it’s become a garden of revived memories, as well as some new names and faces I’ll be following (and going to see in the future), as well as a chance to talk and write about some of the things I like best: playwrights, composers, gay artists, theater companies, new work, and of course, the Phillies.
Here are some of the things I’ve learned and loved AND notes on shows that will continue their runs past the end of the Festival.
- I already knew about InterAct Theatre, and loved learning about their latest production, “A Passing Wind” a chamber musical by Artistic Director Seth Rozin. Because, really, you can’t write enough about a man who made his living by farting. The multi-tasking folk at InterAct are in production with ANOTHER show through May 8, with Rozin’s “Two Jews Walk Into a Bar” at their home theater, The Adrienne on Sansom St. in Center City. The show’s running through May 8. InterAct will conclude its season with the world premiere of “In a Daughter’s Eyes” by A. Zell Williams from May 27-June 17. InterAct is also continuing to make a major contribution to American playwrights with its 20-year (!) program, begun in 2007 that offers development awards and commissions for new plays each year.
- I also found out about the wandering thespians of EgoPo, who did return to the land of their founder’s birth, whose world premiere production of “Hell,” adapted from the novel by Henri Barbusse, opened at PIFA, and continues through May 15 at the German Society of Pennsylvania. “Hell” will become part of the company’s repertory as it continues its season of works by and inspired by Antonin Artaud.
- I got a chance to interview playwright Rogelio Martinez, whose take on a Philadelphia tale resulted in “Wanamaker’s Pursuit,” a play about a young heir to a famous department store who goes to Paris to see the art, and mixes and mingles with the likes of Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and Paul Poiret. You can still see the show, it’s running at the Arden through May 22.
- I also found a new company to watch closer to home (well, in Brooklyn) in Grounded Aerial, whose artistic director Karen Fuhrman, filled me in on the amazing dance theater company that flies through the air with the greatest of ease (and expertise), which opened the festival with a performance on the outside wall of the Kimmel, 9 stories up, and opened their new show, “InsectInside” at the Brooklyn Lyceum this week (and for the record, seems to have outlasted that OTHER show featuring a spider…)
- Joe Hallman shared his experiences as artist in residence at the Rosenbach Museum & Library, and how his research, ideas, collaborator and talent came together to create the song cycle “Raving Beauty” inspired by the life and loves of Mercedes de Acosta. The song cycle is just beginning…I can’t wait to see what comes next. I’ve already suggested some future venues to him…so I can go see it myself on the subway! In the mean time, I’ve been scrolling through his playlist/channel on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/user/JoeHallman?blend=22&ob=5
- And, I finally discovered (it’s been around for a century!) the wonderful theater Plays & Players, which sponsored the PIFA New Plays Festival, and also does wonderful work year round supporting emerging playwrights and presenting new work and revivals for adults and children in its gorgeous (and I mean fantastic) historic space on Delancey Place in Center City. Two of the company’s playwrights-in-residence were given a chance to create and present new work using the “bake-off” method.
- It’s good to hear that there’s a strong spoken word scene in Philly, in the form of First Person Arts, who both develop and support Philadelphia artists, and provide a venue for touring storytellers and poets, hosting a Story Slam with nationwide talent at PIFA.
- I also had a chance to meet/agree with playwright Jules Tasca that producing your own work is hard...and fun! His "Art Lover" was one of THREE plays that mentioned/focused on/used as a plot point the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911, which I now know a lot about. From three different POVs (and Wikipedia's).
- And I know there’s a roadtrip or three or five in my future because I must see for myself the neo-vaudeville and burlesque presented by Peek-A-Boo Revue. After all, it’s not every day you get to see folks named Lulu Lollipop and Buzz Speakeasy, much less without their clothes and doing banana dances. They’re committed artists, reviving and reinventing a classic form of American theater with a 21st century slant. And a good old fashioned bump-and-grind.
Ed note: Kathleen Warnock received financial compensation for this post from PIFA (Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts).
Philadelphia's famous burlesque house, the Trocadero.
Ah, Paris…home of the Moulin Rouge, the Folies Bergere, the Crazy Horse Saloon, where Josephine Baker shook her bananas, and where artists and poets chased the green fairy in the Belle Epoque and beyond…providing much art and merriment in a time that inspired this year’s Philadelphia International Arts Festival
Ah, Philadelphia, home of the world-famous Trocadero, a Victorian-era theater, once a vaudeville and burlesque house, where the likes of Gypsy Rose Lee and Tempest Storm strutted their stuff, now a performing arts center. Sister cities, indeed!
Fortunately for Philadelphia and PIFA, there’s a classic vaudevillian, neo-burlesque show in town that was just the troupe to produce an “inspired by” show as the latest gig in its 13-year run.
The Peek-A-Boo Revue
is a much-loved member of the city’s performing arts scene (and have sometimes performed at the restored Troc), which has been doing its thing for 13 years. They were invited by their home stage, World Café Live
to create a show for PIFA, and will present two shows at the World Café at 8 and 11pm this Saturday, April 30. The shows
, as you might expect, are not for children (you must be 18+ for the 8pm show, and 21+ for the 11pm show).
“It’s a good match for us,” said Lulu Lollipop, the company’s director, who has run Peek-A-Boo for the last eight years (it was founded by Molly Corsen and Five Spot owner Philip Cohen). “I’m glad Laura at World Café Live invited us to participate.”
Peek-A-Boo has collected a dedicated fanbase, and the faithful will see the kind of show they’ve grown to love, including some sketches and bits directly inspired by Paris in the early part of the 20th century.
“When we produce a new show, we take it to a bunch of other venues,” Lulu explained. “We’ll be in Philly every 2 to 3 months, and that same show travels.” So as they created the PIFA show, Peek-A-Boo was building a show that can tour, and also fits in with their vaudeville/burlesque theme (or “mission” if you’re a non-profit, and they’re workin’ on the 503c3).
Veterans and newbies can expect to see “a very bawdy show,” Lulu said. “Jokes that are very tongue in cheek; we threw in a classic French can-can and elements from shows like the Folies Bergere.”
One of the company members, Miss Sophie, has created a performance that’s an ode to Josephine Baker.
“As she started moving through her performance style, we were like ‘wow: you have this movement quality of Josephine Baker.’ So she’s doing some pieces that are Baker-inspired. One is called ‘Drums a Gogo.’”
Here’s a clip of Miss Sophie performing “Drums a Gogo.” (NSFW!)
Peek-A-Boo’s musical director, Buzz Mouthpiece, wrote a song for the show, specifically for the Paris-inspired theme: Je ne Sais Quoi. As Lulu says: “Basically it’s sort of about falling in love in Paris.”
“It’s the big opener,” she said. “With all the girls in it, and they’re all falling in love with the French gigolo who’s singing this song.”
Peek-A-Boo is a both a large and dedicated venture: the company develops its shows, then tours with them around Philadelphia, upstate Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey and splits the box office with the company.
“Our whole cast is 22 people; it’s a lot of mouths to feed,” said Lulu. In addition to the opening number, she described a running sketch with two regular Peek-A-Boo characters, Chrissy Model (played by Christa D'Agger) and her stepsister TT Model (played by Peek-A-Boo’s resident songbird Tracey Todd Superstar), “foul-mouthed old fly girls, and they’re always interrupting the show somehow. Chrissy and TT are going to Paris, so we see them leaving, some of their experiences in Paris. Then they come back at the end, and show you pictures from their trip, like the Eiffel tower and doing dirty things with baguettes.”
This edition will also include a fan dance (not exactly in the style of Sally Rand) and all the traditional components of burlesque: A brass section, and of course, some bump & grind. (If you’ve gotta bump it…The 20-some acts perform to both live and recorded music, and have even taken their show on TV, in a (slightly) more covered up version, appearing on “America’s Got Talent.”
Tessie Tura would be proud.Ed note: Kathleen Warnock received financial compensation for this post from PIFA (Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts).