Perhaps because I am older, or perhaps because I am now a playwright and a recovering lawyer, I decided I would make a commitment to a more spiritual Christmas this year.
I committed to finding a passage out of the comfortable consumerism, “Jingle Bell Rock” on the radio, Alvin and the Chipmunks and the hula hoop, and into a less self-deceptive and more spiritually aware holiday.
My problem is I excel at self-deception.
In the past, I have always believed that I was sufficiently into the festivities to fool myself, and I would let the transformative spiritual moment gently pass.
No, in truth I am a wizard of self-deception.
I fool myself in little ways all year long as I artfully keep my “spirituality” — like my “modesty“ — at bay.
For example, I have a room right next to my study that contains the framed memorials of the important accomplishments (of which I am so very proud) from my life as a lawyer and playwright.
When I enter this room, I am reminded that I don’t take myself too seriously, because it also contains a sink, a toilet and extra toilet paper. But of course, it is not a private bathroom. If nature calls, our guests are forced to see what I am proud to believe I have made of myself, framed and on the walls when they lock the bathroom door behind them.
I have employed this same gift of willfulness and self-deception when I have prepared myself to let the holidays gently pass by each year.
But as I have said, I think things have changed now that I’m a playwright and recovering lawyer.
I have been forced to see things less as an advocate and more as an observer.
A judge or jury renders a verdict, but there is no redemptive celebration thereafter. Rectifying and resolving social wrongs, if that happens at all, offers no thought of spirituality and in my case, may regrettably explain the bathroom.
But as a playwright, I have come to observe that my plays are meaningless unless the actors commit to giving them life and the audience commits to embracing the performance and the work.
So I have observed that some ethereal things do not come to pass at all unless there is belief, commitment, and then action.
This year, I will find the time for that individual commitment and action on Christmas Day. After I celebrate the joy of being with my family, I will take a walk — perhaps just a little walk — out by myself alone and consider the universe, which I do not understand. I’ll stop for a moment and realize that even if I have no belief in a heaven or a hell, I accept that cold hand of “grace,” which is what so much of religion and spiritual faith is about. And then when I return back home, I’ll try not to see if anyone is locked and reading in the bathroom.
So his fool tells King Lear: ”Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.”
I am 72 years old today and one step further into my next life. No not the afterlife… the next step and the opportunity of freedom which that entails. As it’s my birthday, I hope you’ll allow me this time to reflect…
I decided to start this blog several years ago to chronicle what would happen to me in retirement. I loved the practice of law, but concluded that there is a time to retire before you get in people’s way and can’t find the bathroom. I wanted to stay a little bit ahead of that curve so I got out early.
I already knew that eccentricity and determination always trumps a loss of intelligence. So this was my chance to be free to try something entirely different, but I still was not free of trepidation. Delusions of grandeur are a wonderful thing until you start to think you might act on them.
Nonetheless, I first decided I would become a “political force” as a Democrat in an entirely gerrymandered Republican district because I was very concerned about how we, as a country, were being divided by political forces and I was going to change that. This was Trump country. I raised more money than all my Republican opponents combined and knocked on almost 7000 doors for more than a half a year. I was resoundingly defeated and Trump became our president.
Because I obviously had learned nothing about impossibility, next I decided I would become a professional playwright. I bought a Shakespeare coffee mug and applied to the Yale Drama school, fully believing that I would be the oldest applicant ever accepted to Yale’s drama school. I succeeded only in becoming the oldest applicant ever rejected by Yale’s drama school. Nonetheless, I had decided this is what I wanted to do.
Obviously I had to rethink this thing again, with just a little more of my failing intelligence. So I applied to the Commercial Theater Institute (CTI) of New York for a class in producing theater. I had a plan. When the first morning of class broke up the students got lunch and inevitability they talked about what plays they were considering producing. When it came to my turn to talk I informed them I wasn’t considering producing anything. I wanted them to produce me. It worked. The impossible happened. A young producer agreed to read my work, liked it and arranged for professional staged readings in San Francisco and later in New York.
Because I had excelled in something I didn’t want to do and I had completed an introductory class in it, I applied for an advanced class in producing at the prestigious O’Neill Conference in Waterford Connecticut. I got in and there I met Sue Conover Marinello, who produced my play Onaje with great success last year in New York, and Christian De Gré Cardenas of Mind the Art Entertainment who has an amazing history of producing and also writing the music for a number of amazing operettas in New York. Both became friends.
After Sue Conover Marinello’s production of Onaje in New York, Mind the Art commissioned me to write the libretto for an operetta, Vox Populi, a comedy about the seventh deadly sin of pride, for Christian’s music. Last month, Christian and I completed the operetta in San Miguel Mexico.
Because Onaje had done so well, Sue convinced Kevin R. Free, the wonderful NYC director, to read the script. Kevin had fresh and original insights which lead to my reworking the script and his commitment to direct its next production.
The blog has become a happy travelogue. It is a history of mistakes and opportunities. It has taught me that even though I may not succeed in any of this, I’ve lost the fear of failure and each day is more fun than the last. The next step into a new thing is the hardest thing I ever do but it is getting easier with age.
I’m trying to teach an old dog a new trick: “patience.” But “impatience” has been one of that old dog’s primary character traits. I am that old dog.
After my play Onaje received its wonderful reviews in New York last October, I was impatient to immediately take it “off-Broadway,” but I was advised because New York is so expensive (The New York Times reported last Sunday that the brilliant and very controversial new Slave Play has spent $3.4 million to get to previews on Broadway) to be patient and watch “good things happen” before the next step.
I was patient and great things happened. Kevin R. Free, the gifted New York director, read the script and was interested but he told me, ”You missed an opportunity.” Dan, Onaje’s father, is African American, and his counterpart, Richard Middleman, Jr.’s father, is white. Both were fellow crabbers and friends down at the docks. Both have been missing their sons because of what happened “that night” so many years ago. What did that do to their friendship? Isn’t that question at the heart of this play?
It was as if Kevin had X-rayed the play and found the missing piece that lifted the play from specific to universal, and I had found a friend and hopefully the dream director who knew the script at least as well as I did and perhaps better. It was the same play but, looked at from a different angle, it was no longer just about Onaje— it had become about “American Terrorists,” the Klan as a destroyer of families.
I immediately started to rewrite so that I could send the new draft to Kevin. He like the rewrite and agreed to direct it in the future, but he wanted to have a table reading of the new script. I, of course, became impatient but I am learning ever so slowly that collaboration offers a kind of maturation and focus.
The play is getting stronger. Kevin’s agent, John Essay, and our producer, Sue Conover Marinello are working together and looking at budgets, venues, and theater opportunities.
The table reading has been set for October. We are off to the birth of a new and much more powerful play that will hit the stage soon but, of course, never soon enough for me. The actors will assemble at the Opera Center on Seventh Avenue in the next few weeks and we will hear a deeper and richer story come to life and I will grow wiser and benefit from learning to become more mature and, patient… Maybe.
As I wrote last week, my day job now is to write a “bawdy libretto” for an operetta about the seventh deadly sin: pride. It will be performed in NYC (and hopefully elsewhere) next year. I now have three plays in the works. One was produced in New York last October and remains in development for future professional productions. One I have reworked and is now as fresh as spring time and ready to be sent out. And one I killed by overwriting, but it is on the autopsy table for study.
Right now the future is the libretto for a bawdy operetta. This is what I’ve learned so far:
My bosses and co-collaborators are Christian and Patrick, the founders of Mind the Art Entertainment. Their six previous operettas about the six other deadly sins have either been performed in New York or are in development for performance. This thing is going to happen, baby! These guys are real, and real talented.
But this is what they have taught me: collaboration. They are amazing. They told me to write a libretto. They said they needed 10 songs in the first act and eight songs in the second act. There would be eight actors performing over 35 rolls, it would be entirely sung and it would be a bawdy comedy. Once I wrote the libretto Christian would put music to it. But I had never really understood artistic collaboration before. I kept going to them and saying “is this what you want?” “Is this what you want?” And I kept getting the answer: “Write the libretto you want to write! Make it your voice. Make it your story.”
“How about if it’s totally rhymed?” “How about if I try and do hip-hop?” “How about if I have a singing dog?”
Last Friday I met Patrick at the Opera Center in New York and we were scheduled to work through the first draft that I had provided. It was a corner room with wood floors and perfect acoustics. The sunlight came in through the seventh floor windows. We worked at a central table in the middle of a room, which was much larger than we needed.
I started with my same stubborn questionings: “Is this what you want?” Patrick, almost with an air of irritation, said again: “Write the story that you want. Tell the story that you want. We will collaborate. We will collaborate.” And we did for the rest of that day.
He knew the first draft as if he had written it and just offered ideas for consideration. They were amazing and creative beyond my wildest expectations. I had expected head-banging. I got laughter and collaboration instead. Later on the next night Christian and I went out to dinner at the Algonquin Hotel, the historic home of the round table and Dorothy Parker, and he leaned over and laughed and said, I can write to your words. The rhythms makes sense. And we both laughed. I asked for his thoughts and because I had not brought paper I took notes on both sides of a bar napkin and carefully folded it and put it in my wallet before we left to say good night.
I am now halfway through April and deep into the second draft. This is more fun than I could ever have imagined.
As we closed the bar late that night, Christian said: “Our job is to create art and have fun.”
Thanks to Christian and Patrick, I’m learning that.
On May 24, 2018, at 3:25 pm I received an email from the New York Fringe Festival (FringeNYC.org) telling me that my play, Onaje, was accepted for production in New York in October.
At the heart of the play is the Civil Rights riots and burning of Cambridge, Maryland in 1967 —still sadly relevant 50 years later with civil disobedience in Charlottesville Virginia, but this time the President says “there are good people on both sides.” We are still “a house divided.”
I lived on the Eastern shore of Maryland as a boy that summer. I had grown up in liberal Massachusetts and had never experienced firsthand racism or the terror of being an outsider and the range of psychological damage which occurs from it.
My first day visiting the Eastern shore I was invited to go to a country club to go swimming in the club pool. I was not a hippie. My hair was long enough to go over the top of my ears but not over the back of my collar. As I approached the gate to the fence that ran around the edge of the swimming pool I saw the lifeguard looking at me as he descended from his tower to confront me before I entered.
When he stopped me at the gate he told me because of my hair I would have to wear a woman’s bathing cap. Swimming stopped and parents and children looked at me. All the men had short crew cuts and all the women had long hair but were not wearing bathing caps. That was in early June the riots occurred in late July.
I will continue writing in this blog about the production of the play up until I’m through its final performance in October in New York. I don’t know how it will land. This is the story of the first production of my play. Come and share with me the ride.
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