This morning was hard. I woke up and it was raining. Over the last month, I have been coming to recognize a hard truth — which I finally realized this morning.
Over five years ago, I started this blog to force myself into a weekly discipline, to improve my writing skills and to explore how I could start a whole new career after retirement from a very happy first career as a lawyer.
My whole life I had quietly wanted to see if I could create a life as an artist.
After writing 10 plays for the wonderful little theaters in Baltimore, I decided to see if I could break into New York professional theater and I committed to writing and publishing poems.
I took classes at the New York Commercial Theater Institute and was fortunate to be accepted into the poetry program at Bread Loaf in Vermont.
All of a sudden, it was starting to happen, this improbable dream of mine.
My play “Onaje” was selected by FringeNYC in 2018 and, after great reviews, got picked up and nurtured by a NYC producer. After the rewrites and several table reads to make it a more fleshed out two-act play, “The Grace of God & The Man Machine” was ready.
But then COVID hit in March of 2020. The theaters shut down just as we were waiting to open off-Broadway.
Then in February of this year, we were ready again. We planned to open off-Broadway in November 2022 for a one-month run at Theatre Row on 42nd Street.
Also this year, I published “An Accidental Diary: A Sonnet a Week for a Year,” so we were on our way.
The dream was coming true!
But then, a month ago, COVID struck again and the producer went out of business after 15 years of producing successful shows. Even still, the producer offered the use of the performance space if I could find a new producer with such short notice.
This seems like an impossible task. I looked in the mirror this morning and I said it: “This lifetime dream may not happen.”
But then I realized, I’m not ready to give up just yet. Somewhere out there, there may be a partner, or a resource, or some other way to make this happen.
I turned away and looked for a diversion, for good news to chase away this awful gathering sadness.
Well, last week I learned that, along with my sonnet “Summer Thunderstorms” being chosen a runner-up for the Robert Frost Foundation poetry contest this year, “City Snow” had been included in the “Maryland Bards Poetry Review 2022” anthology. Both poems are from my book, “An Accidental Diary.”
I sat down by the window and opened my little book and reread “Summer Thunderstorm”:
As with the generations long since dead
The fire and brimstone of the status quo
Wakes him up from the safety of his bed
And lightening frames him in the window
And photographs him in its afterglow.
Tonight he feels his present and its past
As the summer storm also comes and goes.
Conclusions are foolish in a world so vast.
For at the edges of his world and heart
Far past the farthest boundary of his grasp
Where ideas cause worlds to come apart
He lives in this place that will not last.
He loves his life more than he can explain
And leaves the window open to hear the rain.
I opened the windows to hear the rain.
After I looked out at the storm for a little while, I got a fresh cup of coffee and started writing this. I have stuff to do. It’s time to get back to work.
I opened the New York Times last week and turned to the theater section and read the headline:
“Dear Evan Hansen’ and ‘Tina’ to End Their Broadway Runs
“The musicals, both of which lost steam after the pandemic shutdown, will close in late summer.”
The article pointed out that before the pandemic Evan Hansen was making $1 million a week in sales but now, because of Covid, successful plays were again falling by the wayside. Tina, about the life and music of Tina Turner also had been doing very well.
Over the last two years, as I watched New York theaters close and reopen and struggle to sell tickets, this kind of news had become the soundtrack of my life. I was used to it by now.
I turned to check my email and noticed an email from Mind the Art Entertainment (MTAE), the producers for my play The Grace of God & the Man Machine, scheduled to open off-Broadway on November 21. It read:
It is with great sadness that I announce that I, as Founder and Resident Artistic Director of Mind The Art Entertainment, have formally submitted a recommendation to our Board to close our company after 15 years.
Producing in NYC is no longer viable for us after so many losses related to the pandemic, including 6 cancelled/closed back to back productions.
This can not be happening!
Almost two years after the remarkable success of a Onaje — my 90-minute one-act at FringeNYC in October of 2018 — after MTAE became its producer, and after several rewrites and three professional table reads lead by dramaturg/ director Kevin R. Free, we had a two-act play with an explosive finish. It ran fast and smooth like a river to a waterfall. We were ready.
Then, after that last table read in March of 2020, the pandemic hit and we all had to wait but we were ready.
In October of 2021, we were surprised and blessed to be offered a virtual trial performance directed by Van Dirk Fisher at the Reliant Theater, who was doing cutting-edge online productions to expansive theater-starved online audiences. It was well received.
We were so ready and this play was perfect for the politics of its time. Its time was now.
Early this year, it appeared that New York theater was opening up, and MTAE booked Theater Row for November to open a week-and-a-half after the midterm elections. That would be perfect.
Now, after almost four years of anticipation and preparation, we have a road-tested redemptive two-act play, rich with true American characters, timed to be performed in November after the midterm elections, but Covid variations were again on the rise.
And just like that, it is over.
The producers sent heartbroken apologies to everyone and have even offered to transfer the off-Broadway lease at Theatre Row free to support a new producer, but it will be next to impossible to mount the play unless a new team is in place by the end of this month.
Yes, I am heartbroken.
But throughout my whole life, I have been blessed by the opportunity provided by crossroads and disasters.
If you are a professional producer for New York theater, or if you know someone who is, just let them know I’m not dead yet and I would be happy to send them the script — but two weeks may not be enough time. (You can click the Contact link in the menu.)
Yes, I know it is almost impossible. But as Hamlet says, “the readiness is all.”
About a week ago, I could take COVID-19 and its variants no longer. I couldn’t do Netflix anymore. I needed community.
A long time ago, I decided that what makes theater a community — and Netflix not — is the interactive energy of a live audience. But I had a problem now.
If I were to go to live theater now, I would be breaking a promise that I had made to myself almost two years ago.
It was during our final table read of The Grace of God & Man Machine. I had paid no attention to talk of some virus in China. Mind The Art Entertainment had committed to produce my play and soon we would be opening off-Broadway.
That night I bought a steak, a glass of wine, and a single ticket to see Hadestown on Broadway in front of a sold-out audience. Hadestown would provide me that same energy that I would soon be part of when my play would go live off-Broadway.
I was beyond happy.
The next day as I took a train back to Baltimore, I realized something terrible was happening. Pretty soon thereafter, theaters started to close and slowly an unconscious darkness opened in me.
My hope of a second life as a playwright, which I had dreamed of even as a boy, so unfairly started to drift away, week after week and then month after month. But more horrible was the loss of not being a part of live theater.
I made the promise, and over the months I hardened my resolve, that I would not go to the theater until I could be part of that collective energy. I refused to settle for some anemic second-best with half-empty seats.
So why did I nonetheless decide last Wednesday, February 9th, to go to a new play: Behold, A Negress by Jacquline E. Lawton, at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore? Why was I breaking my promise when the theaters were not fully open?
What was it, really, that I so desperately missed?
I chose to go to Everyman Theater because it always has been a theater bustling with people and when the lights went down every seat was always filled with a loyal subscription audience. I had been going there for opening nights for over 30 years. I could count on them. Somehow, they could always seem to deliver that energy.
The day before the performance I received a phone call reminding me that I must bring evidence of my COVID vacations and booster and wear a mask the entire time I was in the theater. I confirmed that I had gotten all the vaccinations and would be wearing a mask.
It seemed to foreshadow my disappointment and to add salt to the wound.
When I entered, I had my mask on and my vaccination records ready. An assistant at the door checked off my name.
I noticed the list was not extensive.
As I entered the lobby it was strangely quiet. There was no familiar group of chatting people lining up for a glass of wine before the performance.
When I entered the theater, even after social distancing there were a lot of empty seats.
I looked around and there was a pit in my stomach. This wasn’t going to work.
Before every theater performance, I have a ritual. I observe the set and the stage and try to imagine how different it will be when I look back at it after the play is over and the actors are taking their bows.
I looked at the set and then gave it a second look. I was intrigued by how perfectly it had been designed and how beautiful the high ceilings and colors were in a post-revolutionary Paris drawing room and how carefully an artist’s easel had been displayed upstage center.
The set alone had caught my attention. It felt good. I had inadvertently crossed the threshold and now I did not want to be disappointed.
The lights went down. The music picked up and the play began.
The first of the two lead characters enters in a stunning dress and without a word, in a minute, establishes her character though action alone. The second lead enters, also in a stunning period piece costume, to establish her character and the framework of the play with minimum exposition. I was hooked.
Artfully, everything was in place.
I will give nothing away other than it was a 90-minute play with two principal actors and one supporting character. The two leads reveal a multifaceted relationship through many artful twists and turns and even briefly use dance to create the excitement of creating a portrait to change the political mind of Paris.
The play itself is about the character it takes to risk one’s self and one’s art form to save the moral authority of a culture.
Wasn’t that what this theater was actually doing by performing this play at all?
Slowly, something wonderful and unexpected rose up in me as I looked back at that stage as the actors took their bows before a small but very enthusiastic standing ovation.
It was pride, and then deep respect for this theater that would protect its patrons but also not compromise the quality of any aspect of a magnificent production, despite the cost.
It was that but there was also something else.
What was this unique little community?
The actors playing the roles, the director and tech professionals creating the atmosphere, and the willing suspension of disbelief and presence of the audience?
Then I laughed.
No other community would have a catchphrase as its answer: “The show must go on.”
I had foolishly demanded the fiction of perfection and had missed the perfection of the thing itself.
I left laughing and looking forward to rejoining this little community of feral souls who create, with a live audience, the sustaining vision for its larger community, by example.
November 22, 2022–December 20, 2022 at Theater Row, 410 42d street NYC, The Grace of God & The Mind Machine will finally open.
For the blog today I am simply posting the memorial information for Van Dirk Fisher. Those who can attend should if they can and if not please consider joining me by sending a donation to Pamela Fisher, Van’s sister, via Zelle as posted in the invitation posted below.
Van Dirk Fisher
Saturday, October 23, 2021
10:00am Special Tribute by Family and Friends
(2 minutes per person)
11:00am – 12:00pm Memorial Service
The Abyssinian Baptist Church
132 Odell Clark Place
New York, NY 10030
In lieu of flowers please send donations to Pamela Fisher via Zelle to (917) 640-5731
Limited in-person seating – Virtual service available @ abyssinian.org
Six months after the pandemic shut the New York theaters in March of 2020, I met a remarkable man, Van Dirk Fisher on an introductory Zoom call.
He had chosen my play, The Grace of God & The Man Machine, for a virtual performance at The Riant Theatre.
From the start, I was skeptical about a virtual performance, but I was impressed by Van’s tenacity and remarkable creative energy.
He would not let me say no. Less than a month after that call — and a year ago this October 25th — Van directed a highly creative virtual performance of the play.
The producers and I watched him direct the brilliant cast he had assembled and shape the virtual performance. He completely understood the play and he almost seem to inhabit it.
The following Tuesday after the performance, I dedicated a blog to him. I said:
This new format was advanced by a remarkably effective merger of the immediacy of live theater and the dramatic impact of the cinematic closeup.
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 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.
Judging from the chat rooms and the talk back after the performance, it was a huge success.
The producers were so impressed by what they had seen they immediately bet the farm and asked him to direct the future off-Broadway production.
We had only met him in Zoom meetings. He was that impressive.
Last Friday, nearly a year later, finally I received a text from the producer telling me it would finally happen. The Grace of God & The Man Machine would open this spring off-Broadway. We were off and running and finally we would be working with Van in person.
Two days later I was surprised by a text message from Van‘s sister:
“Van passed yesterday at 3:49pm.”
When I called her in disbelief, she told me December of last year, he had been diagnosed with stage four stomach cancer but had fought it and continued to work.
A month or so ago, I contacted him to see if he was interested in working on a new play. He never revealed that he was sick.
Just as American theater is opening up and finally recognizing Black creators, this man and his future audiences will be deprived of his chance to show his considerable gifts.
I would be willing to bet that up until the very end, he believed he was going to beat cancer because that’s who he was.
When this play goes up off-Broadway, there will be a tip of the hat in the program to him and his indomitable spirit.
I only knew him through Zoom calls but now he won’t even be there for us virtually. I never got a chance to meet him and shake his hand but I know he will be there with us when the play opens.
He will be with us live!
I am trying to learn how to live at the heart of thank you.
Sixteen months ago, in March of last year, I left New York with a new play, The Grace of God & The Man Machine, born from the success of my one act play Onaje at FringeNYC. Mind The Art Entertainment (MTAE) had taken over management and production of the play and we were getting ready for an off-Broadway production. An unimaginable dream was coming true…Life was good!
Then COVID hit. Members of the team got sick, had to leave New York to recover and in some cases got the long-term devastating effects of the disease.
These people were my friends. These people are my friends!
The theaters closed. The effect of the pandemic on New York Theatre and on my friends was devastating.
During these dark times, the play was picked up by Riant Theater. They gave a surprising and outstanding virtual performance directed and staged by Van Dirk Fischer with amazing backdrops and brilliant actors who performed seamlessly from different locations and even different states. A remarkably large audience saw it and stayed on the Zoom call to discuss it for almost an hour afterwards. The pandemic loomed on unabated but the heart of theater kept beating…
On July 4 I was surprised and ecstatic. I received the following text message from MTAE:
“Mind the Art Entertainment will be presenting The Grace of God & the man machine by Robert Bowie as their opening mainstage production of their 15th season”
We were on again! We were headed for off-Broadway again! After almost a year and a half we were still alive. But then…
On July 27 I received a follow-up message from MTAE: The Delta variant is expected to continue impacting theater openings. This puts theaters back in closure scenarios for the winter.
… We were off again. There would be no opening this fall or coming year. Then yesterday I get this message…
“It looks like we are moving forward. Good. Sending you some project updates this week.”
This play will happen!
I jokingly sent a message back to MTAE
“We are going to Broadway even if I have to go in a coffin!”
I’m sure they laughed because they get it!
These people, for me, have more fortitude and courage than I can imagine. They have brought into light the courage of numerous others who have faced this pandemic with great courage: the overworked healthcare workers, the selfless care givers who have seen the elderly die without loved ones around them, or the deceived who begged for the vaccine too late.
I have been learning that if I can convert the selfishness of my own pain to a selfless understanding of others’ lives, I will be better off. I am trying to learn how to live at the heart of thank you.
All the people at MTAE and The Riant Theater are the heart of theater, and the heart of theater keeps on beating.
The theater for me has always showed me, on stage, who we are. Now the theater has shown me, in real life, what I hope I can learn. I am grateful.