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.
After a brief vacation, I’m back and in a good mood! I am refreshed and reinvigorated after visits from the family over July 4th and thereafter, and also by great news and a fresh draft of a new play.
Or maybe I’m just happy because I’m not writing about politics?
First, the producers have told me The Grace of God & the Man Machine, which was ready to go on stage just as the pandemic hit a year and a half ago, is being reconsidered for production. Their design is to be opening off-Broadway at the beginning of next year for a 3- or 4-week promotional run. More on this later as it develops.
And second, I have a new draft for COVID comedy: The Future of the World in 70 Minutes. It is high stakes.
What makes a COVID comedy? Rebellion, revenge, and redemption?
Consider the deep lingering embarrassment rats have suffered since they dropped the ball 400 years ago when they failed to eradicate mankind with the Black Plague and thus save the planet. What could be worse?
Bats are getting all the glory for COVID. They are smart. They have organized all of the planet’s animals and organisms to lay a new eradication trap for mankind. To trigger it, all that is needed is one revenge murder of a COVID spreader—in the name of justice. But why has the rat who has been assigned this responsibility delayed it for six months?
Could the rats fail again?
Our rat hero claims he can’t set the trap and the plan won’t work because humans are too stupid. Too stupid to fix global warming, the world’s pollution, or practice social distancing. Too stupid to wear masks and get vaccinated. So they can’t even imagine seeking justice against those who are killing their own fellow humans.
Millions dead and not even one prosecution or revenge murder? Even Man’s inhumanity to man will not work because mankind is too stupid.
Is that it? Or is our rat hero a victim of Stockholm Syndrome who secretly wants to go to Princeton, or has an eating disorder from living in a dumpster and is actually vegan?
The bats are very angry. They have just sent a general who is flying in from Wuhan. It must happen tonight…
Okay, so maybe I am still writing politics… but at least I’m happy because I had a great vacation.
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.