One I first saw her work at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Four separate compartments in a wall that contained shoes, and over them, cowhide that was roughly stiched on with black thread, the kind used for stitching gashes in a human body. The shoes, ghostly remnants behind the stitched cowhide, belonged to people who had been murdered in Columbia's civil war. Such a powerful depiction of the concept. The staff person helpfully told me that I could see more of her work at the Fogg Museum at Harvard.
I like to explore all kinds of artists' work because it makes me wonder how I can transfer their ideas to the theater. (Did I just admit to stealing ideas? I think I did!) I l search out someone like Salcedo's work and think, could this be a set for one of my plays? Or I look at work like hers and think what, play could I write with these sculputures in it?
At the Fogg we went looking for her exhibition. You know how it goes in museums--sometimes you wander from gallery to gallery, not even knowing what you're looking for, but you know whatever it is, is around here somewhere. It's the nature of elusive art; it's not necessarily working in the same reality we're living in, not playing by the rules we live by, it won't necessarily raise its hand in greeting like a friend saving a seat at a cafe. But on an upper floor we stumbled upon a room filled with sculptures of chairs set willy-nilly in the space, and for a while I stopped looking for Salcedo's work because of the power of the sculpture in that space distracted me from my search. I can continue in a minute, I thought; meanwhile I want to examine this.
What struck me was how the artist used and filled the entire space, which is how it is for a theater artist. We fill spaces--we do, that grand empty stage--and someone knew what they were doing with that space. It made me laugh and smile, which I do a lot in museums when I see something that makes me happy, like the time I saw a nail driven into a piece of 2 x 4 and presented as sculpture. Simply brilliant! Sometimes I've had the staff think I was laughing at a piece because I thought it was perhaps silly (like the nail in the 2 x 4!) as if maybe they thought I was some anti-NEA nutjob. Times are a little weird right now. But the laugh is a reaction to pure delight of seeing a work of art just nail what it was saying. It's like "hearing" a language that you can understand, only the hearing is sight behind your eyes and the resonance isn't in your eardrum but in your chest and your brain. And so it was with this exhibition. And of course, you probably knew before me that it was Doris Salcedo's work I was looking at.
And here we weren't looking at little shoe-size compartments cut into a wall. These were entire rooms filled, or rather, they commanded the space but not really "filling" it. The pieces filled the space with their power, and not their physicality.
One gallery contained individual silk-like sculptures constructed of handwoven silk threads filled with tiny needles, like nasty little booby traps hung on the wall, you put one on and you die from a hundred pin pricks. The size of a shirt, one sculpture could command an entire wall.
Another gallery contained a tapestry lying on the floor comprised of thousands of preserved hand-sewn red rose petals (rose petals! sewn together!) the work is intended as a shroud for a nurse who was tortured to death in the Colombian war. Tender and duplicitious, our action and reaction to death.
Trying to "make it"--whatever your definition of that is--as an artist is a constant struggle. I don't think I've ever felt pressure like this, even in my early years as a starving freelancer (starving freelancer/starving artist; they're really one and the same because starving is starving) when I said I would only work for companies who I felt were making the world a better place and with people who I liked. You have your underlying ideals and your principles that form the basis of your company, and you stick to them, and you have faith that by following your heart you'll make it--again, whatever that means, though here with Alley Cat Theater I can define what success is. Part of it my idea of success is sharing ideas like this.
But it's hard enough to be an artist, but if you want to make it doubly hard, here are some hard and fast rules you should follow.
You want to break new ground. You want to do something different. You want to build a following for your theater, made up of people who are interested and look forward to the work your theater presents, much in the same way that people anticipate a movie by their favorite director, or a book by their favorite author. And that desire takes up a large portion of the worrying that you do as you build a new theater, trying to figure out how you do it, because in theater, the old try and true methods don't seem to be working anymore.
And then, on a cold, wintry day after Christmas, when you and your wife are out trying to find that place where you can rent kayaks in the summer on the estuary that leads out onto the bay, you stumble upon an unkempt amphitheater, something that looks like something out of ancient Greece. And you suddenly remember that play your friend has that would be perfect for this setting, and you think of the short play that you have, and maybe some of your friends have other short plays you can present (and you think, of course they have short plays I can present; the problem I'll have is having too many short plays) and imagine the stone steps filled with people, and lights coming on on a summer night, and microphones--will they need microphones, or will the actors project?. And the next day you look at the pictures, and the theater looks definitely like a fixer-upper, the kind of place where you fall in love, and only you can see the beauty and possibility.
If anyone who's reading this knows how I can get this done in Quincy, Massachusetts, please message me. Let's put on plays in the park in the summer, giving people a chance to put down their phones and sit together on a balmy summer night and listen to stories and laugh and cry a bit, and go home, maybe changed just a little bit.
My medium is everything available in the traditional theater (e.g. lighting, costumes, dialogue, sound) as well as non-traditional theatrical elements (e.g. movement, multimedia (video), puppetry, magical realism) to address burning issues of our times, e.g. Turtles and single mothers and Plank and individual rights and climate change. My purpose for using non-traditional elements isn’t for the shock value, but for the way they force people to look at “normal” things differently. I investigate the theater world in the same way painters—abstract expressionist, for example—explore and push the boundaries of the canvas, only instead of painting pictures, I’m telling stories by pushing the boundaries of the theater. I’m inspired by any artist who pushes the limits of their medium. Examples of these techniques in my work include:
My vision is Alley Cat Theater, a diverse theater that promotes and introduces Boston audiences to new, non-traditional work addressing today’s issues.
My good friend, Bonny Saulnier, is one of the people who is helping organize the Massachusetts Women's March on Washington on January 21st to affirm on the first day of the Donald Trump's presidency that we will never accept racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and environmental destruction. Each state is organizing for the Women's March, and people (not just those from Massachusetts) might want to connect with their own state organization to help out. She sent me the information guide, asking me to share it widely.
To cut right to the chase, you can click the image to get the Women's March on Washington Information Guide.
I initially thought that I'd post it to my Facebook page, but Facebook doesn't let you attached a big PDF like this. I thought about email and Twitter, but then, right about the same time I realized I could just use the same technology that I use to share news about Alley Cat Theater, Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended a performance of Hamilton, a member of the cast read a statement during the curtain call, and President-elect Donald Trump took to Twitter, basically saying that sort of thing has no place in the theater.
To use a delicious word from my childhood: Bushwah.
The theater--art in general--isn't just about entertainment, though at times it could be. The institution of the theater, though, is capable of so much more than entertainment. It is capable of nourishing and supporting a community the same way a church could. Theater nourishes the entire human spirit. It nourishes not just our need to be entertained and to laugh, which is so important but the theater shouldn't be limited to just that. Theater also addresses our need for the the spiritual and the political. It is a place to dream, and it is a place for catharsis. What happened the other night with Pence was very small potatoes; that space traditionally has always been as political as the town hall, as spiritual as a church, and as earthy as the local pub.
As a playwright, my characters all pretty much reside on the fringes of society. They constantly are looking for their place in society as individuals, battling the forces in our world that, I feel at least, beat down the humanity and try to strip them of their individuality. For that reason I've always considered myself a very American playwright--something that I've always been proud to feel. When I applied to Boston University for its playwriting program, I wrote in my letter of intent that, among other things, I wanted to continue the kind of work I did as a columnist for a newspaper, only do it in the Boston theater scene.
Theater isn't just about producing plays, and for that reason I have decided that Alley Cat Theater will do whatever it can, whether it be through the plays produced, blog posts like this one, or any other action I can take, to support the values of individuals whenever I feel they are being trampled.
Get the Women's March on Washington Information Guide >>
Some of us are canaries in coal mines. Playwrights all over Facebook are reeling from the recent election, wondering what they can do, and like most writers, the conclusion they come to is, write. It's what we writers have all done throughout our lives. When we were small, we learned to scribble our thoughts and ideas, the simple absorption of the ink from a Bic pen onto thick tablet paper made our words as permanent as if in stone. It's the writer's reaction to anything: Get it down on paper. If any good comes out of this next administration, I'm hoping at least we'll get a few new American plays out of it.
In February, 2012 I started a play about a couple of squatters in an old deserted loft, and about a year later those two morphed into characters in an urban terrorist cell. That play, now called The New American, is still in draft form (i.e. it's never been produced, much less picked up by any of the major development groups), but it came from my fear of what I clearly saw as our society slowly starting to break down. Now with the current political climate, I can see I was on to something. Just goes to show: Listen to your gut.
Right now I'm working on securing funding for Alley Cat Theater, this next grand experiment in theater, an experiment to see if theater, and I, can actually make a difference with plays like The New American.
In the meantime, here's an excerpt from The New American.
American No, How? : SLAK’s Speech
It’s called American know-how. You ask another country how to do something, and they say, no, how? Then we show them. That’s American know-how. I’m telling you, man: This country sorely lacks visionaries. Your everyday person would rather wallow in their own shit than actually use their own brain to think, man. They look to the government to save them. That’s why we elected you. I can’t believe people ever bought that shit. It’s like, I don’t know, like, leeches, man. Like doctors used to cover a sick person up with leeches and we’d go, yeah man, bring on the leeches. Now we’re like: leeches? It could’ve worked though. Maybe. It wasn’t that late. All they had to do was search the past. It would have worked. Read some history, man. All those factories, just sitting there. Empty. Doing nothing. Double-u Double-u Two, man. Americans turned all those factories into tank factories. Airplane factories. Whatever. Okay, so instead of building all that war shit they should have built transportation shit. Trains. Invested in the infrastructure, man. It would have turned this country around. Think of the jobs. All those factories would have been crawling with workers building all that shit trains need instead of those crap cars, burning oil and us going to war for the oil. Leaches, man. Aaargh. Makes me crazy. Anyway, you’d have designers designing the trains. People running the factories. Truck drivers hauling stuff around. People unloading the trucks. Construction workers. People laying track, building train stations, and then all the business that would spring up around a train station. We’d be like this whole little self-contained train world. What? We did it with washing machines. Why not trains? You’d have the return of the steel industry cause all those locomotives and train cars and rails are made out of steel. You already had the right-a-ways along the highways. Move the cars out of the way and here come the trains, man. It’s everything the government promised. Jobs. We would have been off oil, which was the major cause for war. It’s green, good for the environment, getting cars off the road. It’s an idea that’s got something for everyone including the crooks in Washington and Wall Street. It could have worked, man.
Alley Cat Theater is a direct result of my involvement with Boston Public Works Theater Company, a theater I co-founded with another playwright that is made up of seven playwrights, all of whom are producing one play, then we will disband. BPW is coming up on the beginning of our fourth year working on the project.
You can't beat hands-on training. From doing budgets to pushing a broom, I continue to learn so much about theater-making as BPW enters its last year. I think one of the best lessons though, were not the ones that taught me how to make theater, but how NOT to do it. I keep saying to the other playwrights, We're not making mistakes; we're learning lessons.
One lesson I'll carry over to Alley Cat Theater is I will never again--I repeat: Never!--lay track in front of an ongoing locomotive. That pretty much describes BPW's first year, and I think it was unavoidable as we aggressively built and financed a theater and produced a full-season. Lots happened. Lots of good things. But it was stressful. Very stressful, and something I don't think I'd like to go through again. I bring this up because of questions that I've been asked about when and what will Alley Cat Theater produce? All in due time, is my answer.
I'm not going to force anything. I'm not sure about the model where theaters pump out season after season after season. It reminds me of corporations producing quarterly financials for Wall Street, and the necessity of getting the quarterly report out takes precedence over the quality of the product. Or let me put it this way, I don't think it's an appropriate model for me, working as both playwright and producer of my own new work. I'm not going to put one of my plays out there until I feel it's ready for a full-on production.
So...for the curious:
Much of theater happens off-stage and here's what's happening off-stage at ACT. The details of the business model are coming together, for example, a bank account needs to be opened and I plan on making the theater an LLC. These and a bunch of other details are what make up the grunt work of theater, and you should get down and kiss the ground the people walk on who do this kind of work.
For me, the fun stuff:
ACT's first production was last summer with a 40-minute production of Plank in the Providence Fringe Festival. ACT co-produced with OUTLoud Theatre, and the time we spent in the rehearsal room was absolute heaven. The play has grown to become full-length, and is currently being used by Concord Academy as part of its theater curriculum, with a small class of three students using it as a departure point for their own exploration of the themes in the play. While these students are working at Concord Academy, I'll continue working on the script, especially in January at Vermont Studio Center where I was accepted as a fellow for the entire month for Plank. The students at Concord Academy and I are going to exchange ideas and discoveries. A director and I have begun working together, and I'm hoping for some workshopping soon, and perhaps a reading.
I suspect that things will begin to move a bit faster. I'd like to share some more ideas here on this blog. There is no right or wrong way to do any of this, that's what makes it so darn fun: How you can constantly reinvent things.
Alley Cat Theater
Alley Cat Theater produces new work that is intelligent, compelling, and thoughtful, telling stories by pushing the boundaries of the theater.