Last Friday afternoon I took the train to New York for the sole purpose of seeing Christian De Gré Cardenas for dinner. The following morning I took the train back home to Baltimore. The only reason for that trip was because he is a friend I just had to see.
It was also a very personal post-Covid-lockdown tip of the hat to celebrate my belief that change is a gift from God.
After my first career as a business trial lawyer I decided I wanted to enter the professional world of theater in New York City, if I could in my late 60s and early 70s.
The only way to get across a chasm so deep was to jump.
Because I was old and no one would read my scripts, I decided I had to take an alternate approach. I decided to use my background as a lawyer so I read all the legal contracts required to be a producer and I took a class in producing theater.
All the young future producers started to ask each other what they wanted to produce. When it came to me I would say: “Nothing. I want you to produce me.”
After I had taken an introductory class at the Commercial Theater Institute in New York, I got a chance to go to the O’Neill Conference in Waterford, Connecticut for an advanced class so I could meet the future big shots.
That trip was a life changer. I hit a gold mine. I met three people within 24 hours who would change my life forever and are my friends to this day: Christian De Gré Cárdenas, Sue Marinello, and Aaron Sanko.
Today I want to talk about Christian and how he has changed my life for the better.
We both got off the northbound train from NYC in Connecticut in the early evening. We were picked up by a van driven by Aaron Sanko, who transferred us to a small motel where we would stay during the conference.
Aaron and Christian knew each other from the New York theater world. I was the old guy in the backseat who didn’t know anything or anybody who had instantly become a groupie.
The next day, Christian and I would be in the same class with Sue Marinello, and we have been bound together with Aaron Sanko ever since. I will talk more about these, my collaborators and friends, as we approach the opening of Mind The Art Entertainment’s (MTAE) upcoming performances, which will be premiering in April, July, and November in New York.
When Christian and I got off the train we looked like two Willy Lomans walking on stage in Death of a Salesman. After we were delivered to the motel and were waiting to register, I decided to talk to Christian and asked him if he would like to go get a drink after we checked in. He never got a chance to answer because the night clerk interrupted to tell us: “Forget about it. Everything is closed.”
Sue Marinello and I sat next to each other at the conference, and she committed to reading my play Onaje. Shortly thereafter, Christian suggested we apply to the upcoming New York Fringe Festival.
After the remarkable success of Onaje, Christian offered me a chance to write Vox Populi, his final operetta in a series based on the seven deadly sins. I immediately accepted and we agreed to meet at a restaurant in Spanish Harlem next to his apartment, where we would sketch out the plot and talk about the tone and temperature of this comedic operetta.
We had the restaurant to ourselves and the waiters brought us food and mescal throughout the afternoon, until the restaurant was set up for the dinner crowd to come in. It was magic.
I went back to Baltimore and went to work at a feverish pace and completed a rhyming rollicking first draft that Christian liked. He invited me to go to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to marry the music to the words.
Each morning we would get up and go to a little breakfast place that had a wide open garden with a little pond, a beautiful flowered fence, and a balcony with tables for breakfast. We were often alone as we started our day of work.
During breakfast we would go page by page editing the draft, and in the afternoon Christian went to work writing the music while I made changes to the script. Later in the afternoon, Christian would play back the music he had created. In the evening we went to magnificent restaurants in San Miguel and drank more mescal.
Around the plaza and the magnificent church, mariachi bands would sing for the locals, as well as the tourists, and we would walk the streets and listen for music coming from the rooftops. When Christian liked the sound overhead we would enter, go up the stairs, order another drink, and listen until we moved on to the next venue. It was magic.
When we got home at night Christian would go back to work, and in the morning, before we went to breakfast, he would play back what he had composed the night before.
This routine went on for well over a week and somewhere during that time we became brothers in creativity and laughter, and deep friends.
It is amazing how we all step in and out of unique worlds as we change careers or grow older. In my case, as my second career evolved and as I grew older, I stepped into an amazing world of people and experiences that have made me richer and more fortunate.
Unlike any profession I know of, the theater welcomes humanity into an opportunity for friendship in a way somehow the world cannot achieve.
During our dinner in New York last Friday, we were talking about something but I can’t remember what. I just remember Christian looking up straight into my eyes in a moment of surprise and saying: “Do you realize I am exactly half your age?”
Okay, I may have a problem. I am a recovering lawyer and now aspiring playwright and poet. Is it possible that I miss time sheets? “Every six minutes” for a lifetime?
People used to say: “You are what you eat,” but what if you are what you “do” or have done?
Maybe I’m getting worse. At the law firm, I made a rule that if anybody could finish a story that I was telling I would stop telling it.
Now I don’t care. If I can get a second laugh or even a third from the same story I will repeat it, again and again. (And I’m going deaf so I’m the only one who doesn’t have to hear it.) It could be senility. It could be I’ve lost any sense of embarrassment, but it definitely demonstrates no merciful memory loss, at all.
The other thing is, even in retirement I must “work.” I have grown even more intolerant of delay because everything I’ve written should be on stage by now! Damn it!
What has happened to me?
In the past year, I have written or rewritten three plays. One (Onaje) has been produced in New York, two will be produced in New York (Vox Populi, for which I wrote the libretto, and The Grace of God & The Man Machine). Another, The Naked House Painting Society, is looking for a home.
Yes, I used to be impatient as a lawyer but now my stuff is not produced fast enough? Do I still need litigation? The need to measure work on massive conflicts in tight building blocks of measured time along with a new project have made me afraid.
I have started working on a poem based on Dante’s Inferno. Dante’s Inferno has 34 cantos and 23 six-line stanzas in each canto. That in itself was my wake-up call. How sick is this?
The law can definitely create “delusions of grandeur.” Might it also imprint the structured, ordered, anal impact of time sheets?
Is it now that I require 34 cantos and 23 six-line stanzas in each canto? Seriously? But I haven’t given into it yet, I think.
Still, as I started the Prologue and began to “write about what I know,“ I found a schizophrenic litigator’s theme begging for harmony. This is how it starts:
With first light, or birth, or perhaps before/
And maybe after, comes the dialogue:/
The debate in the mind. Waves on the shore/
Each overriding the last. No monologue./
Two nagging voices in constant conflict./
One “as doubt“ the other “as hope,“ both spent/
Bickering on some path I did not pick/
Living the daily schedule of events/
As I wake and wonder where each day went:/
The debate in the mind. Waves on the shore/
Each overriding the last. What event,/
What plea, what prayer from my central core,/
What keeper of my life long travel log/
Can cure me of this endless dialogue?/
I start with a sonnet? How sick is this?
T.S. Eliot said:
“evenings, mornings, afternoons,/
I have measured out my like with coffee spoons;”/
And the poor man was just a banker.
Still, it will be funny and too long for me to repeat, so that may be progress.
Spring is coming and we have a new lead producer and manager and a “new” play. Onaje is now The Grace of God & The Man Machine.
Mind the Art Entertainment is our new lead producer and manager, who will be working with Sue Conover Marinello.
This is a big deal for us. The money has been raised for two new “table reads” at the New York Opera Center in late February and in early March. The legal documents will be executed in mid-March and then we will start raising money for a production.
How did we get here?
After Onaje got the rave reviews at FringeNYC, Kevin R. Free and his agent John Essay took an interest and made suggestions to develop Onaje from a 93 minute one act to a full length two act. I went to work with Kevin.
Kevin and John have exposed me to a new and more polished professional performance, and Mind the Art has had numerous NYC productions, so both are big steps up. The performance dates will depend on fundraising and the acquiring of an off- or off-off Broadway theater, but we are focused and starting down this very challenging path.
All New York productions are expensive. This is a whole new world. It appears to be more about love and community than money. Most investors, large or small, love the theater and want to be part of the excitement. They are just plain “riverboat gamblers,” if they care about the investment at all. (The producers tell their investors that there is a high likelihood they will not get their money back because only a very small percentage of New York productions are successful investments.)
Over the last months, Kevin and I have met several times and I have been open to and impressed by his ability to X-ray the script and study its bone structure and life force.
We have become friends, and out of that friendship has come a much deeper and more powerful and relevant play because we were vulnerable and shared the differences of our lives.
As we worked on the play I have been surrounded by, and have commented on the politics of the present day.
Those of you who came and saw the production of Onaje remember that it derives from the civil rights riots in Cambridge Maryland in 1967 and its aftermath.
I have discovered that the wellspring of the play and the divisions within our country derive from our first beginnings as a nation. But also from that wellspring has come deep, loving, committed relationships and even great humor. That is what the new play is about.
The support and belief of Mind The Art Entertainment has also been born out of friendship. Christian and Patrick commissioned me to write the libretto for Vox Populi based on the success of Onaje at FringeNYC. The year before, Christian, Sue, and I met in Wallingford, Connecticut at a class for producers at the O’Neil.
The beauty of this creation is it comes from divergent backgrounds and is born from respect and friendship. It is in direct contrast with what this country is presently going through. The new play incorporates the present and our nation’s past.
Cross your fingers and wish us “break a leg!” It will be an interesting year ahead of us!
Sometimes, it seems as if Amtrak travels through America’s subconscious.
Last Sunday, on a cloudy afternoon, I took the train up to NYC for the “table read” of my new draft of Onaje. I put The New York Times on the seat next to me and looked out at the graffiti on the abutments of the bridges and junked cars in back yards.
We are divided by our politicians, but are we now divided from our children too? I had read about why the “millennials” blame the “baby boomers” for the world they have inherited and had wondered if there was a common beginning to all of this.
The millennials don’t have the ”spoiled child” anger of “sex, drugs and rock & roll” and “never trust anyone over the age of 30,” which was the mantra of my generation. Their anger is the residue of all that.
We were born into the rich, expanding post-war economy. They want a job to pay off the student loans for the education to get the job they never got.
How could this have happened?
To placate us, President Lyndon Johnson, ended the draft. Our parents — all of them — had been drafted and went to war together to defeat fascist nation states and rebuild a capitalist Europe, to allow free trade to rebuild the devastated nations that we had defeated, and then to break down walls to offer freedom for others.
For the college-educated boomers, it had been acceptable to avoid the draft, because we didn’t approve of the war.
Unintentionally, by doing so, we split the nation the millennials inherited into the privileged rich who would not, and the working poor who would fight our future foreign wars and salute our flag, after the privileged draft-dodgers had felt free to burn it.
The thing is, the “privileged” never followed through. After we graduated, the Peace Corps and public service became old news. We had bumper stickers that said: “The One Who Dies With The Most Toys Wins.”
We were too self-obsessed to notice that the seeds which had created WWII were composting here in our country as we let the economics of disenfranchisement grow.
NAFTA would bring those seeds to bloom with immigration reform. It was predestined, as the privileged got richer and the jobs of the working poor left town, and women still remained unprotected ( “Me Too”), and the city slums expanded ( “Black Lives Matter“). The white working poor were easily fanned into racist hate as they were left behind.
It was painfully ironic on Monday, at the reading, when the actors brought the past into the present. They brought to life a play about savage racist riots which happen in 1967, just as the early boomers went off to college.
It was painful to see how the cast of white and black Americans could so brilliantly bring the hate and violence between the races to life, and then break from their characters and become friends so easily and talk and laugh. It stood in stark contrast to the story of the play and to the anger presently in our country, now so divided that even families are unable to communicate.
How could this be? It may be that the actors had a common goal that was bigger than any individual in that room. They needed each other and enjoyed each other as they brought that common goal to fruition.
Perhaps the boomers thought only of themselves. The one percent now has all the toys. In the end, we are what we do, not what we say. We said we were ”peace and love,” but we had no commitment to anything other than to our avarice and greed.
We earned Trump and his bone spurs. He is one of us.
I have provided the names of these wonderful actors. Watch for them on TV and on the New York stages. They are each and everyone of them brilliant: Joe Dellger, C.E. Smith, Tim Rush, Khiry Walker, Adam Couperthwaite, Laura Darrell, Mary E. Hodges, Johnny Shea, and Erin O’Brien.
One year ago this past Sunday, our play Onaje had its opening night in NYC. We caught lightning in a bottle that night because of the exceptional talent of those people who came together to make that magic happen. Every performance was sold out and every reviewer gave us a rave.
Since that opening, Onaje has picked up steam, and is headed for a new production and a great future. We thought it might be interesting to ask: “Where are they now?”
Here is what we’ve learned:
Curtis Jackson, who played the titular Onaje, is currently assistant directing a new immersive performance Incomplete Conversations (produced by his company, Silent Theatre Company), a full-length play presented throughout multiple spaces and three floors. He also starred in Blacksite: The Musical! (produced by Soft Cage Films), and Eugenie, a short film with the Southside Filmmaking Youth Initiative.
Tim Rush, who played Henderson, was cast in the double role of Jackson/Kirk in Wendy Macleod’s Women in Jeopardy at The Shaker Bridge Theatre in New Hampshire last spring.
Bristol Pomeroy, who played Richard Middleman Sr, continues to be considered for TV and stage roles.
Prop Master Joey Paradise moved on to FRAGMENTS, a play about a woman with Alzheimer’s remembering being a girl in Austria during WWII. He also joined the New York company of Jersey Boys as a stage management sub and is working as a consultant and script doctor.
Ralph Meizler, our amazing Stage Manager, is currently in rehearsals for the touring company of Broadway hit Frozen.
Mary Hodges, who played Sarah, has been Assistant Director on Slave Play as it has made its way to Broadway! She can also be seen playing Judge Anita Wright on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
I also asked some members of my production team to send in their reflections.
Sue Conover Marinello, Producer
In the year since producing Onaje at FringeNYC in 2018, I have marveled at the amazing bonds this project formed. This story, the poetry of this writer, the vision of this production united us. The cast, the crew, the writer, the audience — so many wonderful people who make theatre possible — are joined in the shared experience that is Onaje. While this play highlights specific events that take place on the backdrop of an actual historical riot, Onaje joins us all in a shared history and quest to create a better America and world. It strives to imagine a reality where people respect one another.
To produce Onaje at FringeNYC was intense and wonderful. To continue to move this project forward to its next production is inspiring. The magic of theatre is borne out of hard work, focus, play, experimentation, and precision. Through 2019, Onaje has grown. I am grateful for those strong 2018 bonds, and look forward to 2020 as producers, cast, crew, writer and audience will once again unite to make theatre possible.
Katie Marinello, Social Media Manager
Onaje was a life-changing experience for me. Bob and Sue took a chance, letting me be their social media manager while balancing a full-time job. I learned so much in such a short time as we sold out tickets, grew our following, and increased engagement. I felt energized in a way I hadn’t in forever. Not only did I get to work with a fabulous group of people and see six dynamic and varied plays in six days, my next client was sitting in the audience at Bob’s play! Since then, I’ve been able to quit my full-time job and launch KT World Communications, LLC, a social and digital communications company. Bob has become a mentor as well as a friend and client and I couldn’t be more grateful. I can’t wait to see what’s next!
Jim Marinello, Assistant and fan
A year ago, I was lucky enough to see Onaje awe audiences night after night. Some of them remember 1967; many didn’t. Audiences came with high expectations, and they were not disappointed. Expectations have only grown since then. I have been a super fan of this piece since I first saw it in a staged reading well before the Fringe, and I am pulling for it to find the right forum and production to present its powerful message to a wider audience.
Informally, we have heard that everyone is doing well. More specifics to come but one year later it is pretty clear that good things come from collaborations with good people.
We thank each and every one of you who made this magic happen. If you have any reflections or updates to share with me, please send them along!
Ever since I finished the operetta with Christian in beautiful San Miguel, Mexico this August I have been having withdrawals. I have been waking up laughing from nightmares because they are in perfect Hallmark Card couplets:
“Happiness is when all your dreams come true/ ❤️❤️❤️
And become the job you really want to do./” ❤️❤️❤️
Instant dry heaves. What has happened to me? I can’t go back to sleep after something so sappy/awful as that. Probably because I’m afraid to… What is my mind trying to tell me? And I think it is permeating other aspects of my life!
“It also seems to happen when, without regrets/ ❤️❤️❤️
You start a blog and confess to dreaming couplets./” ❤️❤️❤️
Terrible! Terrible! OKAY! Think deep! What could be the cause of this?
Last Tuesday at noon on the eighth floor of the National Opera Center at 7th and 29th, I found myself looking out the window as the actors and Kevin R. Free were entering the room behind me. I should have been nervous.
I had reworked the script with Kevin and he had called for a table read to try it out with many new actors he had chosen. The room was on a corner of the building, so I had a view of 7th Avenue heading north and 29th west. From the eighth floor, even the traffic jams and people zigzagging past each other on the street below seemed to provide a calm order which I took for granted.
Kevin took control and the reading began. I decided to just listen. Predictably, but quite remarkably, the gifted actors brought the story from the page and built the characters and the relationships with their inflections. I was hooked. Every one of them was brilliant. They give a new draft its birth.
After discussion and feedback, Kevin, his agent John Essay, our producer Sue Conover Marinello, and I went next door for a drink and quick dinner.
The actors had universally loved the new rewritten play and those who had performed it before had said the already successful play had been substantially improved. Kevin, John, and Sue agreed and made wonderful additional suggestions. Only then did I realize, both the script and I had been on trial.
Being nervous would have been more than appropriate. But somehow the suggestions, the collaboration, and the successful result all were just steps heading for the more perfect production. Ok — so why am I dreaming in the language of heart-throbbing greeting cards? ❤️❤️❤️
The night before, I had been lucky enough to have dinner with Christian. He confirmed that in the second week of November he would have rehearsals of several of our songs for the operetta and then do a recording of them for marketing purposes. We discussed a new opera that he wanted me to sketch out. It all seemed so natural.
I decided to stay another night so I could see and study “Hadestown” which was chosen as this year’s best musical on Broadway. Christian had told me how much he liked and respected it. Without a second thought, I felt it was important for me to stay and study it.
That night after the theater let out, I walked through Times Square to get home. There were mobs and mobs of people taking photographs of each other below a massive screen, which showed the riots in Hong Kong in the constantly bizarre flashing neon that lit up the remainder of night. I felt oddly detached but quite comfortable.
The next afternoon on the way home, I chose a seat on the train that would allow me to look at the town of Havre de Grace as we crossed the river back to Baltimore. The sun was warm through the windows as it occurred to me: maybe all of this was normal. Maybe it was, just as I dozed off…
“Happiness is when all your dreams come true/
And become the job you really want to do./”
And then again, I couldn’t believe it! What is happening to me? I woke up laughing. ❤️❤️❤️