Friday, May 10, 2019

Mother’s Day is a Gyp

No, really, hear me out.

My Analysis: 
In this country, we only have 10 federal holidays. Four of them are based on stuff related to the military or war; one is a function of the calendar; one is based on an Italian guy funded by the Catholic church to find a new way to buy and sell things and who never even set foot on this continent; another one is predicated on a religion practiced only by 1/3 of the planet’s population; still another, while ultimately honorable, was the government’s attempt to mend relationships with labor unions. The final two are MLK Day and Thanksgiving. Fine. (The latter has been consistently misconstrued as a celebration of the Pilgrims, which, of course, it is not. More on that some other time.)

My Beef:
Why do we have those kinda random holidays, yet we don’t have a federal holiday that actually acknowledges the humans who, literally, gift us with life. I mean, come on, a man’s participation in the whole “giving life” thing is not all that complicated or that significant. Why don’t we have a REAL holiday for moms? Those women who actually lug little creatures around for nine months. Their bodies actually become food manufacturing facilities for us – both while they are packing us around and after they finally unload us into the world. Women suffer through hours of the second worst pain known to humankind to pop us out. (The first worst pain is kidney stones, but I would never suggest a holiday for that). At the very least, they deserve a day on the level of Columbus Day.

My Proposal:
All the other holidays, typically, you get a whole day off. If you don’t get the day off with pay, you maybe get a little extra to work that day. Cool, right? Many of these holidays even get an extra day! You have "the day" PLUS the day you "observe" the day on. What? That’s totally double dipping. We have also gone to great lengths to create elaborate festivities and festivals and cookouts and parties for the current holidays. Mother’s Day, on the other hand, is on a Sunday, which is a day off anyway! Where’s that extra day? (NOTE: Moms never get a day off, which is the whole point behind this little rant.) Top it off with the fact that, usually, the best we can muster for our moms is a cheap ass breakfast in bed made by a three-year-old with food Mom already had in the fridge. Sure it's cute but not really holiday-worthy. I have friends who plan three weeks out for Labor Day Bar-B-Qs, replete with themes and decorations. Maybe, just maybe, Mom will get a trip to a noisy and overpriced all-you-can-eat buffet with the whole family. Shit, she can’t get a break. Think about it, why would we honor a mom with her own day and think that she would want to have her day be exactly like every other day except that she might get a break from preparing one lousy meal. Not cool. I mean, face it, opening day of baseball season is a bigger deal and your team has probably sucked for the last 10 years! And then…AND THEN…boom! Monday again and we’re all back to business as usual. Is it too much to ask, for Moms to get a real, honest-to-goodness, day off with pay holiday?

My Daughter
Right. To the point, Watkins. Here is the real reason for my post. This person right here. You'll notice I am not posting pictures of this insanely incredible person with her kids (both of whom I love dearly) or her husband (same). It is called Mother's Day after all. It's not Moms With Their Family Day. On Washington's Birthday, we don't talk about all the other presidents. On July 4th, we don't mention all the other military holidays. Yes, my daughter is a mother. But her mom-ness is only a part of who she is. We all should remember that on Mother's Day. It's not even the most important part of her, but it is the reason we give for celebrating on this one not-fully-formed holiday. We shouldn't just celebrate the biological fact of someone being a mom. We should celebrate the influence moms wield on their families, their communities, and, indeed, the world. We should celebrate their ability to multitask with the most important of tasks in the face of insurmountable societal and often familial challenges. We should honor their empathy and caring. They problem-solve, analyze, help with homework, lead by example even when they rather just take a shot of Jameson's and put their feet up. They work, hard. Stay at home moms, working moms, single moms, married moms, LGBTQ moms are all more than just what we celebrate on the day.

Why shouldn't Mother's Day be more like Labor Day? (No pun intended.) Why shouldn't we plan big parties with friends and food and booze. Why shouldn't we take the following Monday day off with pay to truly celebrate these people so important to us? I for one was guilty of allowing Mother's Day to be an afterthought. It really wasn't until after my mom passed that I realized how important I could have made that day for her. Instead of picking out the last minute card and calling her for the requisite Mother's Day chat, I should have done more. We should all do more to remind them, and ourselves, that we cannot live without them. Figuratively and literally.

Make this Mother's Day great.

P.S. Heather, I love you. Happy Mother's Day.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

A Rant About Unprofessional Actors (Warning: Prepare for F-bombs)

I can't help it. I'm usually not like this. I mean, it really takes a lot to get me really aggravated. Seriously, I don't even send food back at a restaurant. Sure, if there is a Brillo pad baked into the bread or a used condom masquerading as salmon in Dragon Roll, yes, I'll raise my hand and try to get the server's attention. However, there are a few things that just piss me the fuck off. (I did warn you.) Some little, some big. For example, people who don't say anything when they are trying to squeeze by you in a store. Say something. "Excuse me." "Pardon me." "Move your fat ass, buddy." Something! Don't just stand there and get all irritated because I'm not clairvoyant. And don't exhale in exasperation as you pass by. That only pisses me off more. Here's another: Drivers who speed up when I turn on my blinker. Really? You're not gonna let me in and you are five cars back? You are gonna speed up just to let me know, what? You're so important that a little freeway courtesy is beyond you? Maybe you're in such a hurry that those extra two car lengths on the 405 are gonna make a difference to you getting to Target before the rush starts? Puh-lease. Asshole. Oh, yeah, those little stickers on produce? Fuck those. You ever try pulling those off a pear or a peach? Who invented those anyway? Ugh. Oh, and then, someone had to invent special printers to make those little fucking labels AND the special machines to put the little bastards on the fruit. No wonder avocados are so expensive!

Admittedly, those are mere annoyances that I wish could be remedied by civility or, in the case of those sticker-thingies, technology. There are, however, some things that are simply inexcusable. Actors, listen up. Specifically younger actors. I would hope the old pros out there would never do this, but who knows. I'm casting a play. I have cast many plays in my day, but this was a shock. A real wake up call. I put out the requisite casting notice in the trades. About 100 actors submitted for one of the roles. I invited twenty of them in to audition. Of those twenty, ten actors confirmed. The other ten didn't bother to respond at all. I sent the ten actors (who were professional enough to respond to an invitation to audition for a play they had submitted to) their times and their audition material. One of the scheduled ten contacted me the day before the audition and asked if he could reschedule because something important came up. Fine. No problem. The day of the audition arrived...two actors showed up to audition. Seven just blew it off. No call, no email, nothing. They just chose not to show up.

Why would anyone do that? People talk and people remember. Additionally, you never know where something might lead. My own company, for example, is work-shopping this new play (the one we're casting for), we have two movies going into production, we are working on a TV series, and we are planning a theatre season for 2019. As petty as this sounds, I will remember every single person who failed to show up, didn't call or email to cancel. Sad to say, I'll probably remember them more than the people who actually showed up, gave me their all for 3 minutes and didn't get the part.

Guess who I ended up casting? The guy who rescheduled. Why? First, he killed the audition. Second, I knew he was professional and would probably treat the role and the play with respect.

The business part of being an actor is hard. Really hard. It is as difficult, if not more so, than any other career. If you called a plumber and he never showed up after confirming a time to fix your sink, would you ever call him again? If you missed half a day of work for the cable guy to show up in that asinine four hour window and he never called but just didn't show up at all (okay, maybe a bad example), you would, at the very least, be somewhat annoyed. Do yourself a favor and treat your creative career like a profession not hobby. If you truly love what you do, afford it the people in the position of getting you work the same respect you would any other professional. Don't make me have to write something like this again.

Thank you. Next!

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

On Being an Actor. The Long Haul.

Some of the best actors I know have never made a movie. They have never been in a Broadway show. They have never starred in a TV series. They work hard, they take class, they audition, they have day jobs, they commute to small theatres to do good roles in order to keep their chops up and, perhaps, have someone see their work. Sometimes, they move to smaller regional markets and work in Portland or Phoenix or Dallas or Chicago. They pay off their student loans, shell out hundreds of dollars a year for new head-shots, and hope their new agent might get them more paid work this year than their last agent did last year. It's not the glamorous Hollywood red carpet stuff you see on Entertainment Tonight. It is the work-a-day slog of countless journey(wo)men actors across the country. Well-trained, talented, dedicated.

David Fox-Brenton and Benjamin Stewart in "Sherlock's Last Case" at the Mayfair Theatre, Santa Monica, CA
Most of you reading this have probably never heard of an actor by the name of Benjamin Stewart. Benjamin was one such actor. I had the pleasure of working with him on several occasions throughout my career. The first time was at the Grove Shakespeare Festival in Garden Grove, CA. While we didn't act in any shows together, we were in a couple seasons simultaneously. I was a young actor with drama school and 10 or 15 shows under my belt and Ben was the mainstay character actor in the company. Later, I would be instrumental is his casting as Dr. Watson (pictured above) at another theatre I happened to being working at as a producer (and box office manager!). Many years later I would call on Ben again, once at a professional regional theatre company I had founded as well as a Shakespeare festival I was fortunate enough to briefly lead in Arizona. The last decade or so of his career he spent constantly on stage at the Arizona Theatre Company in Tucson and Phoenix. Benjamin was  fabulous actor. Did he have a career? Absolutely. A fine one. Did he make a lot of money? Hardly. Never made a major motion picture. Never had his name above the title. Never walked a red carpet at the Oscars or the Tonys. He was an actor, though, and audiences who were fortunate enough to see him perform were moved to laughter and often tears.

Also in the picture is David Fox-Brenton, another one of those excellent career actors you've never heard of. Interestingly, both David and Benjamin passed away in June of 2013 just 17 days apart. Both were 70 years old. It doesn't really mean anything, since to my knowledge this was the only play they were in together. But, I just just think it's interesting.

Nationwide, there are about 160,000 members of SAG-AFTRA and about 50,000 members of Actors' Equity. Granted, not all of these people are actors, per se. Some SAG-AFTRA members are journalists, radio personalities, hosts, musicians, etc. Also, many AEA actors are also members of SAG-AFTRA, so there is going to be some crossover. Remember though, these are just the union actors. There are easily (I'm guessing here, but I'll stand by it) at least as many non-union actors as there are union actors. Maybe more. These would include young actors just starting out, actors in smaller markets (i.e., NOT Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago), actors who have dropped out of the union in order to pursue their craft in ways not allowed by unions restrictions. These kinds of actors are no less professional, no less talented, no less dedicated than their union counterparts. Should you join one of these unions? Maybe. That union card is a badge of honor for most of us. But if you are just starting out, think hard about it. Sure, you'll feel good about the fact that you have the card, but once you take this step, you will cut yourself out of lots of acting opportunities - student films, indie productions, intimate theatre shows. It's a tough call. One of a thousand you'll make over the years.

For our friends and family, it may be a little difficult to accept that there is no magic key to unlock the door to financial success as an actor. No secret handshake. No one guru with all the answers. No special workshop that will suddenly alert studio executives you have arrived. There is no ONE way, no one person, no one role that will automatically launch an actor into Emma-Stonedom or Ryan-Goslingville.

  Left to Right: Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon.
It is also frustrating to understand that the timetable is different for everyone. How many parents and spouses have insisted that their  talented young thespians have a "five-year plan," a "Plan B."  Pure and simply, no one can do that. It is different for each and every actor. Some of you will hit quickly, others will start later, still others will become Benjamin Stewart. Bryan Cranston (of Breaking Bad fame), for example was 44 when he finally made a name for himself in Malcolm in the Middle. Stage actor Sidney Greenstreet made his film debut when he was 61 playing Kasper Gutman opposite Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. There are no rules and you can't make any.The universe will not listen.

Being an actor is hard work. The work isn't just on stage or in front of the camera. It's involves all the other stuff that gets layered on our creative life. Taking classes, reading scripts, watching films and TV (yes, that's actually part of the job), researching and preparing for auditions, the auditions themselves, commuting to all these things, sitting for photographers, networking, volunteering at the small theatre where we are a company member, the list is long. Oh, yeah, plus we have to make a living at the same time.

As silly as it sounds, being an actor is a calling more than a career. Those of us who have been doing this a while will tell you that we don't chose acting, it chooses us. People become actors because they  have to. They have little choice in the matter. I've seen talented, passionate actors return to it after being away for 30 years, simply because it is who they are. Acting is how they express themselves, how they relate to the world, how they process emotions and meaning in life. The first time you were bitten by the acting bug, a career as an actor didn't matter, did it? You just wanted to be one! It was the joy of the work, the intensity of the process, the passion for the words, the pleasure of the community. It was the smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd. 

While all this may seem grim and hopeless, it isn't. Quite the opposite. The life of an actor is a full one. Hope, ambition, variety, emotion, knowledge, close friends, and lasting relationships. Scene study class is therapy. A long run in a good play is safe haven. Your time on set is educational and inspiring. Thousands of talented, young actors stream to LA and New York year after year to start building their resumes and begin their journey through characters and stories and emotions. Thousands more, older and wiser, with loads of experience ranging from Simon to Shaw to Shakespeare still persist and persevere in regional theatres, stock companies, tours, and tiny converted store fronts. Each looking for the play, the role, the opportunity, the coach, the mentor, the director, the tribe that will connect with them, nurture them, create with them. 

In short, you are not alone. You never will be. You will become part of a tribe of creative people, encouraging each other step-by-step. You will help each other make new projects and find new voices within yourself. You will have support when you feel like you'll never work again and you will have applause when you take your bows or land your first big series. It will not be what you thought it would be, but it will be a uniquely personal experience the whole time. Enjoy the ride, even the bumpy parts. It doesn't matter if you are a Benjamin Stewart or a Meryl Streep. You are an actor, do the work of one...wherever it leads. That is part of the fun.

Places, everyone, places.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

In Defense of Hollywood, Again

2017 was  a tough year for Hollywood. Hell, it was a tough year for the nation. For the planet, even! With Awards Season upon us, we are about to be bombarded with more angst. We are about to hear from...wait for it...actors. We are about to watch award shows where (gasp) people say things that we might not like. 

About a year ago, Meryl Streep, arguably the greatest film actor of her (or any) generation blasted then President-Elect Trump. So began the Twitter wars - well, a Twitter war - waged on the "Hollywood elite." Hollywood. That monolithic, hypocritical, evil-headed hydra that is out to promote it's liberal agenda. That nefarious conspiracy bent on corrupting our children and poisoning the minds of our lawmakers. That factory of fantasy that dares to make us think about alien invaders, hope for superheroes, long for true love, fight for free press, indulge in crazy sex, and maybe even fall in love with a hairy monster (or even a slimy, scaly one).

In an article shortly after Streep's acceptance speech for the Globe's Ceceil B. DeMille Award, Timothy Stanley in CNN Online (Hollywood, Spare Us Your Hypocrisy), launched some very typical arguments - all of which we have heard before. Now, granted, much of what Stanley says in the article is fair and he certainly seems to agree with Ms. Streep's fundamental points. Yet, he, like so many others, creates this strange Hollywood specter that most of us in the industry simply do not know and have never participated in. Hollywood casting is hypocritical and bigoted. Hollywood is unfair at best, out-right discriminatory at worst. Hollywood is a Trumpian corporate greed machine concerned only with profit. Hollywood is a red-carpeted Skynet just waiting to drop a mind-controlling virus into our neural implants while we shove popcorn in our pie-holes.

These tired, old arguments are all far more complicated than the 35 year old Brit, Mr. Stanley, makes out. It's a deeper, more nuanced issue that few actually ponder before spouting off their opinions about "Hollywood." There is no "Hollywood." Hollywood is a phantom concept too often used as a scapegoat. There is no big tall building where bloated, cigar chomping movie moguls sit around conspiring over which white, British, male actor under 35 should get the next big role in Saw 9. Not every movie has an action figure licensing deal attached. Not every movie does a billion dollars worldwide at the box office. Do these things happen? Yes, they do. Rarely. No matter what you hear, actors (and other creatives, for that matter) are not interchangeable cogs in some giant golden gear cranking out lucre. 

"But," you are saying, "Harvey Weinstein!" 

According to the Motion Picture Association of America (yes, the MPAA members are the six "major" studios, but the data is real), there are somewhere around 400-500 "major" movies created in the U.S. every year. In 2015, over 2,300 dramatic features were submitted to to the Sundance Film Festival. Add to that some 1,800 documentary features. Add to THAT the countless short films that pop up out of every graduate film school across the country. Oh, and the U.S. is only #3 on the list of the world's top movie producing countries. We're behind India (Bollywood) and Nigeria. Nigeria! The people making these movies range from struggling young artistes with very specific points of view and very distinct, personal stories to tell all the way up to the giant blockbusters with budgets in the hundreds of millions. Hate to tell you, but there is no great and powerful puppet-master pulling the strings to all these stories. The handful of perverted assholes you hear about do not represent the vast majority of people in the world making movies for all the RIGHT reasons.

Do bad things happen in what is commonly called the "movie business?" Yes. Is there corruption and under the table dealings? Certainly. Is it always fair? Hell, no. Are there casting problems up and down the industry? Fuck, yea. Have been for a while. Will be in the future. Do we need to do better? Yes, absolutely. 

Casting, in particular, will never be perfect. Ever. There will always be something at issue in the process of casting.  So long as actors want to act, so long as opportunity is not afforded those who desire to pursue a career in acting, so long as theatre and film and television are viewed as hobbies for young people and not respected as actual industries of excellence and advancement, so long as those who attempt to study in order to learn the art and craft of the actor are marginalized or dissuaded from doing so, the playing field will be uneven at best.

When actors take classes or go to drama school they are taught that the purpose of learning their craft is to create characters. They are trained in voice and movement. They take classes in history and literature. They sing and dance and wear masks. They believe in and pursue the notion that they can play any part with the right amount of dedication, study, training, and talent. How many white actors have aspired to play Shakespeare's Othello? How many black actors have dreamt of playing Hamlet? Should performances of John Merrick in Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man be restricted to only actors with similar physical deformities? Should the role of Elisa (played by the fantastically gifted Sally Hawkins) in The Shape of Water have gone to an actual deaf mute actor? Is it unfair for a highly talented actor to play a disabled war veteran if that actor does not have that exact disability? Actors long to explore character and experience. They strive to experience and empathize with the wide variety of challenges set in front of them by playwrights.

I know what you are going to say. You are right, this isn't the 1600s, or even the 1800s. There actually ARE actors of color, actors with physical challenges, women actors who can play female roles instead of the men that used to play them in Shakespeare's day.  I get it. Look, this ain't easy. But to tell an actor, any actor, that they cannot be allowed to play a part because they are not perfectly typecast flies in the face of every reason the actor becomes an actor. I once directed a play that had a character who was 75 years old. I auditioned 200 actors. Not a single 75 year old actor came to auditions. Not a single 60 year old actor came, either. I cast a 50 year old and aged him up with make up. Am I ageist for doing so? Should my theatre have done a different play with more easily cast characters? Should I have kept looking? Hired a first-time actor?  Don't blame actors for the parts they get. It's a hard game.

Art is not segmented into the neat pie charts of population demographics. Not film, not theatre, not painting, not literature, not music. Art does not represent the masses. Should it? Perhaps. Maybe. Should it strive to be welcoming and fair? If anything should, art should. That said, art is also messy. It is subjective and devoid of the black and white that defines other parts of society. It is shades of grey and rainbows of color that many people just can't focus on.

If we must wield a sword of blame for all of this imbalance and unfairness, let's use it to hack at a country whose very culture oppresses those with points of view, those with stories to tell, even though we claim this is not the case. Blame family members who demand productivity from their loved ones instead of creativity. Blame a government that does not support the arts to any truly significant degree, so much so that young humans of color have no opportunity to create their own stories or even dream of doing so. Blame a system of education that is more concerned with children's test scores than actual knowledge. A place where these same children are not allowed to dream of a world in which they are valued. Where dreams of most young people are sacrificed for a notion that education of any kind, if you can afford it, is a job factory rather than a place of gaining consciousness and understanding. Education should never be just about choosing a career. In a perfect world, our schools would be dedicated to creating well-rounded human beings full of information AND imagination. After their schooling these same human beings would be full to the brim with questions of the cosmos, overflowing with an appreciation of nature, AND know how to balance a checkbook. They would understand civics, appreciate history - everyone's history, AND love poetry. They would be passionate about literature and the arts, they would respect other cultures and colors and creeds. These kinds of humans could adapt to any profession. Any job. They might even become filmmakers.

To clumsily paraphrase Shakespeare, The fault is not in Hollywood, but in ourselves.

Oh, back to Meryl Streep. If you are one of those people that think actors should not publicly voice their opinions on anything other than acting, I will welcome your silence at the bar when my Packers are playing. Unless you've played pro football, zip it.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

New Year 2018

The "New Year" is my favorite holiday. Hands down. (Okay, okay, maybe tied with Thanksgiving. But it's super close.) When you think about it, it really shouldn't be a holiday at all. It's just a day. A man-made reckoning of the passing of time. Nobody's birthday is attached to it. No famous battle started or stopped on this day. No historical screw up that evolved into a party. Just another day, but yet - not. The fact that we all - all of us, all over the world - decide to celebrate the simple act of turning a page in a calendar is important (as well as fun).

New Year celebrations for me have always been contemplative. No, not in a gazing at my navel meditation way. In a clearing out the file drawers of my life way. More like what you do at tax time only with joy and mindfulness instead of angst and anxiety. Know what I mean? The end of a year is rather like taking all the memories from that year and visiting them one more time. Like so many snapshots, some beautiful, some not, we take one more glance at them before we box them away and put them on a shelf. We write the year on the box in big, bold Sharpie in case we need to reference it in the future. Put a little smiley face next to the year if it was a good one. A frowny face, perhaps, if it was laced with difficulty or sadness. This box then gets slid right next to the others in chronological order.

Then we open a new box. Empty. Clean. It has that new box smell. It waits for tender memories, exciting new adventures, new selfies, new challenges, new everything. This new empty box calls to us quickly, daring us to start filling it up. Boxes hate being empty.

Throughout the year, I've noticed many people post pictures on their social media sites of themselves in their "happy place." All of these pictures have one thing in common. There is, usually, only one person in the picture. Of course, someone probably took the picture so there would have been at least two people, but the happy place referred to is typically the happy place for the person in the picture. Alone. These happy place pictures are always very beautiful. Tropical beaches, peaceful harbors, snow-capped mountains, sun-kissed pine forests. Stunning pictures worthy of Arizona Highways or Popular Photography. Not "happy."

I think what people mean by "happy place" is "quiet place." Those are two different things. When I think of a happy place, I think of , well, you know...happy! Joy, gladness, laughter, friendship, love, camaraderie, jokes, stories, food, wine.  Personally, my happy places always involve other people. Drinks with a friend as we solve the problems of the world or settle an issue with our significant other can be a happy place. Dinner with loved ones where we catch up on stories and lie a lot and laugh more is definitely a happy place. Watching a play in a crowded theatre as we hold our collective breath. Concerts where everyone knows the words. Museums where people crowd around a masterpiece. Happy places, too. I had a happy place this year that took me by surprise. For the first time ever, my daughter and I were at the zoo (momentous event in itself). Hardly a quiet place, definitely a happy one. She and I were standing together - shoulder to shoulder. My arm around her waist. A throng of other zoo-goers hustling and bustling by. We stood in the middle of this polite chaos, watching as her husband and eldest daughter laughed at some animals with my wife. Two people watching three people as they leaned on a railing to see the flamingos. Happy place. Shutter click. Into the box.

When we wish each other a Happy New Year, we are NOT hoping that we each have a long string of quiet days where dogs don't bark, babies don't cry, and the restaurants are silent with the sound of old people gumming their mashed potatoes. We are saying "have a great time this year!" Fill your new box with amazing things. Have a million happy places not just one. Have your quiet time, sure. We all need to decompress, slow down, take a breath, reboot. Just don't confuse quite for happy. There is nothing quiet about happy. Happy is laughter and love. Happy is friends and family. Happy is sometimes messy and marvelous.

The passing of one year to the next is the one time of year when the sole purpose of the holiday is to wish that the person next to you - wherever you are - has a happy year. That is worth celebrating. That is why it is my favorite.

HAPPY New Year, Friends. Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Wayne's Folly, or Why You Need to Eat Your Peas

When I was a kid, my mom made me eat peas. Canned peas. They were gross. Yeah, you could blame it on the technology of canning back then or you could, like I did, blame it on my mom for cooking the already mushy, gag-inducing little seeds beyond anything remotely acceptable for consumption. I worked out this amazing con to get out of eating my peas: I started helping my mom "clean up" after each meal. I would grab everyone's silverware and the used paper napkins and take them into the kitchen for her. Silverware in the sink, napkins in the trash. Any good con takes planning. I knew, eventually, we were going to get served peas. I was prepared. Serve the peas and I was going to shovel those little bastards into my napkin and get them into the garbage before anyone was the wiser. It worked, too. For a while. Then everyone noticed that I went from complaining non-stop about how terrible peas were to cleaning my plate of them. Hum. So much for my plan. Busted on week three of the Great Pea Stratagem.

Years later, I would nervously revisit peas. Not canned, of course, but frozen. I liked them. In fact, I really, really liked them. Next came fresh peas. Then different kinds of peas. I am now a certified pea fanatic.

That's right, I'm using a pea analogy to talk about musical theatre. Boom. Mic drop. Bet you didn't see that coming.

Every playwright has their "problem plays." William Shakespeare had All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, Henrik Ibsen had, well, everything, and Stephen Sondheim had Merrily We Roll Along and Follies. Ultimately, I think every problem play can be overcome with creativity, intelligence, a great cast, and thoughtful collaboration with a deft director. Or not. In some cases, the play is not to blame, at all. The peas aren't the problem. It's how you cook them.

Tracie Bennett as Carlotta Campion
Follies has been, until recently, a problem play for me. I love everything Sondheim and I have seen this musical staged a few  times. Each production was - off. Was Follies a love letter to the theatre or an indictment of a bygone era? Is it about dreams deferred or the futility of hope? Is it a fantasy? A domestic drama? A psychological character study? Sure, sure, it's got a couple well-known tunes (if Streisand sings it, it must be good, right?), but I was never really able to wrap my head around it as a whole piece of theatre. Then, I saw Dominic Cooke's production from the National Theatre (thank you NTLive and Fathom Events).

Follies. Stephen Sondheim. 1971.  It debuted on Broadway and was was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and it won seven of them. One of the seven was not Best Musical.  Lights, Costumes, Scenic Design, Direction, Choreography, Score - yes. Alexis Smith won for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musial. The musical itself got snubbed in what was a pretty lightweight year on the Great White Way. In it's day it was the most costly show ever produced on Broadway. It was also a financial failure, losing it's entire investment. Full scale revivals have been few and most of the notable remounts have been "concert" versions, which in my mind, while entertaining, cannot deliver on the whole of the play - the juxtaposition of one's youthful dreams against one's mature regret.

To be sure, this is a bleak musical. Beautiful, but bleak. For fear of sounding a little arrogant and old, this play is also not for young people. If you are under thirty, sorry, but you don't know jack shit about this subject matter. Which may explain why it took me so long to really understand it. As a person of a certain age, Sondheim has held a "mirror up to nature" for my generation. Maybe that's not fair. Maybe I should say, instead, that this is a play for people who have lived. Really lived. Made decisions, tripped, failed, succeeded, been scarred, been scared, loved hard, laughed loud. If you have ever questioned the very meaning of your life, ever wondered "what if?" ever thought that maybe you could have been better, gone elsewhere, done something else, seen the future, avoided the past. 

Imelda Staunton as Sally Durant and Janie Dee as Phyllis Rogers
The brilliance of Cooke's take on the play is how he weaves the ever-present younger selves of Sondheim's characters through the staging. Never a doubt that the older versions are still yearning for a "do over." Just one. Tracie Bennett's Carlotta delivers a breath-taking version of "I'm Still Here." I mean that, literally. A moment of transition in the middle of the song will take your breath away. She parleyed an exquisite piece of technical acting and combined it with a brilliant lyric. I didn't see it coming. "The Road You Didn't Take" hit me like a ton of bricks when Phillip Quast's Ben , basically, sang my own life's insecurities back at me. With each song and each line of dialog, this production uncovered an emotional experience I don't ever recall having with a musical before. Imelda Staunton's Sally will break your heart with some of the most specific acting choices I have ever witnessed. "Losing My Mind" leaves you no doubt about the characters intent or state of mind. Brilliant. The stand out for me was Janie Dee as Phyllis. It is her play. Her cynicism, her resolve, her biting disappointment. "Could I Leave You?" is a show stopper and all her. Well...her and Sondheim.

What makes the National Theatre's version of this play so remarkable is its clarity. Cooke's direction is crystal clear. He never waivers in how he presents the emotional inner workings, past and present, of the characters. There are no protagonists in this play. There are no antagonists. Everyone is flawed. It is painful. The pain and regret at the very core of this musical is at once the show's greatest achievement and also the reason it has probably failed to be a commercial success over the years. Each performer has made specific, artistically distinct choices about their character. Choices that, more often than not, do not square with other productions you may have seen.  Choices that not merely ground the character, but that also inform the other characters in the play. This is an actor's play, start to finish, and this cast shines every step of the way and the director lets them.

This is not an easy play. You do not leave the theatre hopeful and happy. You leave pondering your own life, questioning your own decisions. There is a pressure in your chest while Sondheim's music still rings in your ears. 

If you are able, go see this production, even if you think you might not like it. It's not easy to grow up. It's not easy to admit you made mistakes. Wrapping your peas up in a napkin isn't the answer, though. Eat your peas. You'll grow to like them.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Comfort Food

My mom was a terrible cook. She was. My brothers are going to disagree with me on this, I know. In fact, I think that's them calling me now. This is not to say that I don't look back fondly on meals from my childhood - I do. I remember them as very delicious. Mostly, anyway. The whole reason for this post is based on the love I have for my mom's cooking. But my dear mother was no Julia Child. She worked crazy and difficult hours in a casino coffee shop, so the meals she prepared were quick and simple. They were as nutritious as the era would permit. We always had a meat, some kind of vegetable and a starch (that's what we called carbs back in the day). On Monday nights she worked the "swing shift." My dad would throw some wienies in a pot of baked beans and we boys would chow down in front of the TV with Howard Cosell and a two-quart bottle Pepsi. All this was normal for our household. We didn't know what we didn't know.

Until I was about 16 years old, I thought the oven was just a place you stored pots and pans. Harvesting vegetables was a simple matter of digging the can opener out of the junk drawer and ripping through that can of peas without cutting your finger off. We also didn't have any of these new age food lubes. No EVOO, no peanut oil, no coconut oil (puh-leeeze), no flaxseed oil. My mom had bacon grease in a one pound Hills Bros coffee can (or maybe it was Folgers). Sound familiar, boomers? Thought so. I never once saw my mom change that bacon grease. I saw her add to it after frying up some Farmer John's. I saw her take from it before frying up some tacos or hamburger patties. Never saw her empty it out, clean the can, and start fresh. Pretty sure it was kinda like sourdough bread - you always need some of the original "starter" to keep it just right.

Mac and cheese seems to be a common comfort food. Every restaurant on the planet nowadays has macaroni and cheese on the menu. It usually runs around 10-14 bucks and is made from 8 kinds of smelly goat cheese. That is a rip off. Everyone knows, the only real Mac 'n' Cheese is made by Kraft, comes out of a blue box, and all you gotta do is mix the orange dust with a whole stick of butter and a half cup of milk. Brussels Sprouts? My mom never roasted Brussels Sprouts. She never added pancetta or balsamic vinegar or truffle oil. Didn't marinade them in the tears of a mermaid or braise them in aged Yak Butter. She boiled them. Boiled the shit out of them until they were soft enough to eat. Steaks? Fried them in bacon grease in a big honking cast iron skillet that we would clean over a campfire once a year on a hunting trip in the Ruby Mountains. Put that sucker over the fire, let it get red hot, scrub it out with a battery terminal brush...viola...good as new. Meat loaf? Really? It's a giant hamburger patty that you slice.

Some things she made did take time. Her famous homemade chicken noodle soup is legendary. The noodles were made from scratch, too. The deliciousness that was this soup was probably due to the salt shaker she emptied into every batch. Thanksgiving is always a chore, right? Face it, no one's Thanksgiving meal is as good as your mom's. Ever. Only thing is, all American Thanksgiving meals are pretty much exactly the same. Admit it. It's really hard to screw up a turkey. You got your giant genetically modified bird (the bigger the better), your root vegetables (candied yams and mashed Russet potatoes for us), your chopped up stale bread (always Mrs. Cubbison's - I told you, mom was busy), and your variation on cranberry sauce which you only eat once a year's awful (ours was canned Birdseye. Sliced. Gross).

Comfort food. All of it. Whatever you ate as a kid becomes your comfort food as an adult. Sometimes you put you're own twist on the classics from your childhood. You'll add an ingredient. You'll cook it in glass instead of the hand-me-down aluminum pan that still has baked on residue from that stew that went wrong in 1995. You'll swap a cheap Chardonnay for chicken broth. Yet, at their very core, the recipes remains the same. Caloric, rich, simple. More important, though, memorable.

The whole point of comfort food is wrapped around emotions not flavor. It's the joyous memories that flush your face when a serving of Grandma's Galumpkis hits the table. When you dip your spoon into that pot pie, it's your mom's voice saying expertly, "Careful, it's hot," as she passes the salt shaker down the table. The string of grilled cheese getting stuck on your chin. The flavor is the memory not the taste.

Sometimes comfort food may evolve out of friendship as well as family. After acting school my best friend and I were roommates for a few years. We made a tradition out of drinking Jameson's Irish Whiskey late at night while reading Shakespeare out loud or trying to impress a date (often both). I still drink Jameson's and whenever I pour myself a glass I think of my friend even though he only lives about a mile away. And, yes, I consider Irish Whisky a food. Our exploits in that little apartment off Fairfax will live on so long as that distillery in Cork continues to produce.

We all have something. A BBQ rub (never enough cumin), a pot pie (always turkey), a spaghetti sauce (no sugar please), a pastry (croissants).  That one food that evokes a vivid memory of someone we hold dear. With every bite we slide effortlessly into a warm place or a sweet adventure.  I have several enduring "comfort foods." Two of my favorites are my mom's baked chicken (the only time the oven was ever used for it's intended purpose and something we make to this day often) and homemade candy.  Specifically, my mom's homemade Christmas candy. Each Christmas, Colleen (my mom) and Jackie (her sister) would team up to produce a staple of the entire family's holiday celebration. Honeycomb, taffy, nougat, divinity, peanut brittle, caramels, pralines, and of course, the obligatory fudge. They are both gone now and I happily took up the mantle although not on their scale. That would be like Milli Vanilli trying to sing Sondheim. No, I am not as good at it as they were. My annual attempts are no where near as delicious. Yes, it is a lot of work. More work than I ever knew. But for a few days every year, I get to relive a few moments with my mom in a tangible and very real way. The recipes are incantations of sorts. Maybe closer to a meditation on  my mother. The pages faded and the margins penciled with alterations in her perfect cursive. If read out loud (which I must often do to make sense out of the fractions of spoons and cups), they are chant-like, magically switching on a time machine in our kitchen. The spatula, a magic scepter, that channels her deft wrist and determination. My awkward pouring and ham-fisted measuring forever chasing her perfect eye and effortless grace with sugar and vanilla and heat.

Her caramels and chocolates made up for every overcooked floret of frozen broccoli; excused each spoonful for canned zucchini; forgave the mashed yam, the iceberg lettuce, and each well-done fried pork chop.

Whatever your comfort food is and whatever it represents, I hope you have lots of it over the holidays. Just maybe hold the salt a little and back off on the butter. Oh, and don't forget to take all the pots and pans out of the oven.