Yikes! Every day, in odd and different ways, I rediscover I am coming out of a dark place. So two days ago I needed someone I admired, someone inspirational, to show me some light.
So how bad was this bad place?
Two days ago, when I finished my first draft of a Covid Comedy about global warming, rats, bats and our place on the planet, I firmly believed my empathy had become misplaced by the pandemic.
The rats must be horribly embarrassed about dropping the ball 400 years ago, when their bubonic plague didn’t eradicate humankind once and for all. Because now, for the poor rats, it’s much worse.
The rats have been upstaged. These upstart bats are getting all the credit for COVID and the anti-homo sapiens dark web is reporting that the bats had unified all earth’s creatures for the great second global effort to liberate the planet. But the rats dropped the ball again because they are dangerously late coordinating and bringing out Bubonic 2.0.
Maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome from eating human leftovers out of dumpsters for 100 years. I can feel their pain. After all, you are what you eat.
But think about how very sad the rats must feel now! Will they forever be remembered for being stupider than human beings who can’t stop global warming or polluting the planet or even stop killing their own kind and get vaccinated?
Yeah, that was dark! I decided I had better get back to creative and talented people to rediscover the joy which I had left behind.
I decided to call Van Dirk Fisher, an artist whom I admire greatly. I have never met Van in person. We have only met on Zoom calls but I have watched him work. He was the inspiration I needed.
The Black Experimental Theatre (BET) a.k.a. The Riant Theatre, was founded in New York in 1979, as a not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization, by artistic director Van Dirk Fisher. BET is a theatre that entertains as well as teaches by nurturing and developing new works by playwrights that encompass the historic and social progression of African Americans and the contributions the Black community has made in the United States. Last October, Van directed and staged a brilliant virtual performance of my play The Grace of God & The Man Machine in anticipation of a staged performance when the NYC theaters reopen.
Van is an inspiration first and foremost, both because he has and continues to make amazing art and because he overcomes the impossible, always. I saw him cast the virtual play brilliantly and then proceed to teach the actors how to use virtual backdrops, even though they were located in different states. He was so good, he got three actors in three different locations to pass a joint as if they were sitting at the same picnic table. He created both the intimacy of theater and the close-ups of movies.
The talkback afterwards had as many as 80 people participating while he artfully directed the conversation.
During the call, Van and I talked about his theatre and his accomplishments as well as about preparing for the performance of my play at The Riant Theatre.
Through the dark humor with its roots in despair came comedy, but from the dark comedy came a conversation with a Relentless Creator who brought me back to a balanced optimism with his joy.
Last Sunday’s Zoom performance of a staged reading of The Grace of God & The Man Machine may offer an introduction to the future of theater.
The new format was advanced by a remarkably effective merger of the immediacy of live theater and the dramatic impact of the cinematic closeup.
The actors Duke Williams, Toni Seawright, C.E. Smith, Austin Sky Parker, Sheila Joon Azim, Tait Ruppert, Dexter Haag, and Peter Mendes brilliantly rose to the occasion with only four rehearsals and Van Dirk Fisher, the director of the Riant Theater, before a large and universally appreciative but invisible audience, magnificently shaped a new art form.
Judging from the chat rooms and the talk back after the performance, it was a huge success.
Maybe this is the future of theater even after the pandemic is over. Theater has always been an art form for live audiences. Cameras were reserved for the waiting room for those who were late to the performance and videos of theatrical performances always fell flat but maybe it will be different now.
Director Van Dirk Fisher and the Riant Theatre placed virtual backdrops behind the actors and the actors, all separated and in some cases in different states, reached out and past a joint between each other and exited and entered as they stepped in or out of the camera in front of which they performed alone.
The traditional narrator became a character in the performance, offering stage directions and blocking instructions as if he was organizing his remembrances of the story.
The reading took on an immediacy that a staged reading cannot provide, but the degree of difficulty remained almost unnoticed for an audience which tuned in from New York to California.
The infectious immediacy of theater and the dramatic impact of the cinematic closeup? Why not? Live sports events come to life for the fans in attendance and at the same time offer the close up for those viewing the game at home.
Van, always the scholar, always the innovator, always pushing ahead, told me that Zoom is perfecting moving backgrounds, such as a view of the highway from the car in motion. Imagine theater sets that move to support the live action of the performances on stage.
This could be coming as the innovation created by these remarkable creative artists.
It is unfair, but once again I am the lucky one. These people are unique!
This Sunday, October 25 at 8:00 pm (ET) my play, The Grace of God & The Man Machine, will be performed in a Zoom/virtual public reading by director Van Dirk Fisher and the Riant Theatre. CLICK HERE to get tickets.
When the theaters open up, it will be presented live on an open stage with audiences seated to watch it, but for now this performance is an example of an industry‘s remarkable ability to maintain itself and continue to create.
In early March of this year, we had just finished a table reading of the latest draft when New York started to shut down because of the pandemic. Just two days ago, nine months into this, Kevin R. Free, the New York director who ran that reading, begged on Facebook for people to please wear masks as he described the devastation on the performing arts industry and its 12 million artists:
“This is personal to us, our whole livelihood depends on social solidarity and we will not be labeled ‘non-essentials.’”
Artists have always been essential. They are the counterpoint to propaganda.
Now in an American election year which will define who we are, the theaters are closed. But this industry defines itself like no other: “The show must go on.”
In these times, an amazing cast of professionals (several of whom have Broadway credentials and all of whom are brilliant) are the ones to uphold this responsibility under these very difficult situations.
Artists in all forms are examples of independent courage. I found the same grit and determination when I first started to learn about writing for theater in Baltimore at the Baltimore Playwrights Festival years ago. I have come to love these people and this world which these artists create even though I am forever new to it.
There is a tenacity and courage in every member which is profound. Repeatedly, as I have met and worked with Van Dirk Fisher and the Riant Theatre on this production, and with others like Christian De Gré Cardenas and Mind the Art Entertainment, Sue Conover Marinello, Katie Marinello, and Parker Bennett, I have learned grit and courage from them.
For this production on Sunday night, I benefit from this resilience and creativity. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Van has responded to this nightmare by developing the art of virtual backgrounds and performance skills for virtual reality theatrical productions.
Think about that. You get knocked down you get back up.
Please join me and watch these remarkable people offer a counterpoint to the propaganda of an election year.
Come if you can. And if you can’t, please donate to support the theater if possible.
I’m thrilled to share that a reading of my play, THE GRACE OF GOD & THE MAN MACHINE (formerly known as Onaje), will be presented by the Jocunda Festival this Sunday, October 25th, at 8:00 p.m. (ET). There will be a Q&A afterward with the playwright (yours truly), the director, actors, and audience, led by Van Dirk Fisher, the director and founder of the Riant Theatre.
I would be doubly thrilled if you could join us — and help support live theater.
For tickets, register in advance on Zoom:
Donation: $15.00 to benefit The Riant Theatre. After registering, you will receive a confirmation email with details about joining on Zoom.
THE GRACE OF GOD & THE MAN MACHINE, a Black Lives Matter play, is an intricately plotted thriller that explores the consequence of racism on two individuals and their families.
Set in Eastern Maryland in the 1960s and 1987, two sons — one white, one black — meet by chance on the road, unaware that their families shared a life-altering connection years before. Now, their fate and their families’ futures may depend on the choices they will be forced to make.
THE GRACE OF GOD & THE MAN MACHINE allows the audience to ponder: is the die forever cast by a one-time choice we make?
“Having run this Zoom Play Reading Series since the pandemic began, I’ve developed directorial and visual techniques that make our Zoom productions visually, emotionally, and viscerally stimulating,” director Van Dirk Fisher said. “It’s something people haven’t always associated with the play reading format. Audiences also love the interactive and spirited Q and A that follows,” he added.
An O’Neill Theater Center semi-finalist, Onaje appeared at the 2018 Fringe Festival to rave reviews and sold out audiences. Theatre Is Easy gave Onaje its Best Bet designation and described its “high stakes story” as “the most dramatic, fleshed out near-cinematic play I have seen.” Onstage Blog said Onaje “brilliantly brings a sense of warmth,” and Blog Critic described the play as embodying “exquisite conceptualizations and themes.”
CLICK HERE to download the Press Release.
Quarantine Journal Entry #*@!%😱!
On Friday, March 6th, I headed home on a mid-morning train from NYC. We had been busy. The day before, we had finished a third table reading of The Grace of God & The Man Machine. The atmosphere had been wonderful and the actors had greeted each other with hugs and kisses, celebrating the act of making theater.
Other than my wife, this was the last time I have been within six feet of anybody for almost two months. Everyone in the world I know is in quarantine.
I have tracked my friends in New York and elsewhere, as some of them have gotten the virus, gone dark, and returned to report they are better but have lost friends to the disease.
The realization that this will not end easily for anybody has been made clear every morning as I’ve watched a cold spring come to Maryland under iron gray skies. I have been waiting for good news or some sign of change. I want the everyday life that I will always remember but will not see again.
Today, I decided to gather the little things that I might have taken for granted before, and make them into an exciting life that must be coming.
My social media manager Katie Marinello has already posted the Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal article written by Michael Millemann about the law school class that we taught with Eliot Rauh. We have been notified that it continues to be one of the most downloaded current articles. I read it, and instead of taking it for granted I celebrated it as part of a new beginning, a new opportunity.
A year ago this week, I recited my 7th annual Harvard Alumni Association poet laureate poem (a “serious” bit of frivolity which I dearly love). This year, because the alumni meetings will be held virtually, I was asked to write it and have it videoed for presentation tomorrow. Instead of being disappointed I will not see my friends and fellow alumni and present it to a live audience, I reviewed the video and found myself laughing.
Finally, the play I was afraid would die in New York City after that great reading, we have just been informed is a finalist for the New York Rave Theater Festival and is being considered for perforce in NYC in October.
A different world is evolving now, but at least personally it is starting to feel like we are starting to wake up from a sleepless night to a coming spring.