Dear Denise (Dirty Barbie)

Dear Denise (Denise Laughlin Stewart),

I saw Dirty Barbie last night and loved it!

To invite an audience to see you perform your own life on stage is remarkable.

Your talent, as a performer and writer, makes for an engaging, entertaining evening.

Denise Laughlin Stewart

Your energy and generosity with your audience is awesome!

As you continue to share this show and allow the performance to evolve, I have a suggestion.

Make it more extraordinary by adding more internal biography to the external.  Subtext is great, but perhaps we could have another layer.

We know what happens with you, and your mother.  We get the facts.  Let us inside a little more.  The details are vivid, but keep peeling back the onion!

Some of this has to do with tone. For example, the new room/suicide scenario is really about a child encountering death.  Rather than playing this for laughs, could it be played straight and make for a poignant moment?  What was your inner experience, as a displaced child, moving into that room?

Just my two cents…

Sam

(P.S.  I also enjoyed seeing you and meeting your old friends at the party afterward.)

They're called tweets, President Mubarak (a short play)

President Hosni Mubarak
President Hosni Mubarak

The private chambers of EGYPTIAN PRESIDENT HOSNI MUBARAK.  He works at his desk, with paper and pencil.  Enter CHIEF OF STAFF.

SCENE 1

EGYPTIAN CHIEF OF STAFF:  Mr. President, the people are revolting.

PRESIDENT HOSNI MUBARAK: You can say that again.

CHIEF:  No Sir, I mean they are actually revolting.

MUBARAK:  What seems to be the problem?

CHIEF:  They want a middle class, Sir.

MUBARAK:  They’ve got one.

CHIEF:  It’s disappeared, Sir.

MUBARAK:  Disappeared!  You are in the middle class.

CHIEF:  I’m the only one, Sir.  We basically have two economic classes now, Sir.  The poor.  And the billionaires.

MUBARAK:  Who is revolting?

CHIEF:  The poor.

MUBARAK:  That’s good to hear.  I’ve got enough problems without having a bunch of unhappy billionaires on my back.

CHIEF:  I’m not so sure, Sir.  There are so many poor people.

MUBARAK: So where exactly is this revolt?

CHIEF:  In the streets.

MUBARAK:  Then close the streets.

CHIEF:  We’ve tried that, Sir.  They keep moving to another street.  We can’t close them all.

MUBARAK:  Of course we can.  Impose a curfew.

CHIEF:  Yes, Sir.

SCENE 2

CHIEF:  The people are still revolting.

MUBARAK:  I’m sure they are.

CHIEF:  The curfew isn’t working, Sir.

MUBARAK:  Why not?

CHIEF:  They won’t listen.  It’s impossible to enforce.

MUBARAK:  Cut off the telephones.  That’ll stop ’em.

CHIEF:  They aren’t calling each other, Sir.  They’re using the Internet.

MUBARAK:  Excuse me?

CHIEF:  The Internet, Sir.  Computers wired together.

MUBARAK: They can do that?

CHIEF:  Yes Sir.  They also have wireless devices.  And they text.

MUBARAK:  Since when do the common poor use these Internets?

CHIEF:  They use it quite a bit, Sir.

MUBARAK:  And they talk to each other on this?

CHIEF:  Yes, Sir.  Mostly with social networking sites.

MUBARAK:  Why would the common peasant need this?

CHIEF:  Fun, mostly. They share things and tweet.  For example, yesterday I posted some amazing pictures of my granddaughter’s birthday party.  In some ways, I think it makes for a richer online experience.

MUBARAK:  Isn’t that nice.

CHIEF:  They also use these sites to discuss politics and plan protests.

MUBARAK:  Then this is the problem.  What are the names of these so-called websites?

CHIEF:  Facebook.  Twitter.  Youtube.

MUBARAK:  Shut these down!  Immediately!

CHIEF:  I don’t know if that’s a good idea.

MUBARAK:  If it resides inside my head, then by definition, it’s a good idea.  Would you like to have your head cut off?

CHIEF:  No Sir.

MUBARAK:  Then ban these Facebooks and Twitters.

CHIEF:  Yes Sir.

SCENE 3

CHIEF:  Mr. President, the people are really revolting now.

MUBARAK:  Tell me about it.

CHIEF:  It’s not a modifier, Sir.  It’s a verb.  Hundreds of thousands of them are in the streets now, revolting.  I’m afraid they might set this building on fire.

MUBARAK:  Still that middle class bullshit?

CHIEF:  The economic grievances have been building for some time, Sir.  But the more immediate problem now is Facebook and Twitter.

MUBARAK:  I told you to shut those down.

CHIEF:  We did that, Sir.  It made the problem worse.

MUBARAK:  If we turned it off, then why is it worse?

CHIEF:  The people want to Tweet, Sir.  They want to update their Facebook status and connect with their friends.  They’re angry.

MUBARAK:  Have the police arrest them.

CHIEF:  Not an option, Sir.

MUBARAK:  If it comes out of my mouth, then it’s an option.

CHIEF:  The police are on their side.

MUBARAK:  On their side?

CHIEF:  Yes, Sir.

MUBARAK:  But the police work for me.

CHIEF:  Police are people, too, Sir.  The revolt is widespread.

MUBARAK:  So the police are not following orders?

CHIEF:  No Sir.

MUBARAK:  Then call out the military.  I’ve never had any problem with them.

CHIEF:  That may piss the people off even more.

MUBARAK:  Maybe so.  But if we kill a few, the rest of the people will fall in line.

SCENE 4

CHIEF:  The people are still revolting, Sir.

MUBARAK:  I’m well aware of that.  Have we killed a few?

CHIEF:  Yes, Sir.

MUBARAK:  And they’re still up to no good?

CHIEF:  They’re fighting back, Sir.  They’re filling the streets and burning government buildings.

MUBARAK:  Then perhaps we should kill some more.

CHIEF:  You may want to leave the country, Sir.

MUBARAK:  Leave the country?  You think I need a vacation?

CHIEF:  No Sir.  You may need to leave permanently, Sir.

MUBARAK:  You would look very different without a head.

CHIEF:  I’m sure I would, Sir.  But part of my job description is advising you.

MUBARAK:  And you would risk your life by advising me to leave my country?

CHIEF:  Only because it may save your life.

MUBARAK:  Nonsense.  Where would I go?

CHIEF:  South America is always a good option.

MUBARAK:  And who would lead my people?

CHIEF:  They want to select a different leader.

MUBARAK:  I don’t understand.

CHIEF:  The people are ready for a change, Sir.

MUBARAK:  After 30 years — the best years of my life — and this is the thanks I get?  That’ll be all.  You can leave now.

CHIEF:  They want change in their government.

MUBARAK:  You’re talking gibberish.  You may go now.

CHIEF:  It’s been a pleasure, Mr. President.  I’m going to Paraguay.

MUBARAK:  Paraguay!  What’s in Paraguay?

CHIEF:  Google it.

MUBARAK:  What does that mean?

CHIEF:  Goodbye, Sir.

He exits.

end of play

Sarah Palin, the actor who forgets her lines

palin sputnik moment
palin sputnik moment

If we could forget about the politics and see it purely as theatre, then Sarah Palin’s problem becomes obvious.

She forgets her lines.

She needs more rehearsal.

It seems obvious that she memorizes answers to certain questions and then freezes up and gets lost.  But it’s live, so she has no choice but to blast through to the end.

I’m sure she does much better in rehearsal.

I can almost picture it.  Bristol holds the script.  Our Tea Party hero starts.  She gets off to a good start.  Slides in a zinger.  And then… she forgets.  You can’t hold it against her.  She’s had very little time with the script.

She asks for help.

“Line!”

“Sputnik,” says the daughter.

“Sputnik,” says the former governor.  “WFT.”

“WTF, Mom.”

And so it goes.

Alas, the task calls for improv, and this is not her forté.

When the camera finally rolls, with no book in hand (unless it’s on her hand), she starts out fine.  She looks great.  And then forgets a line.  She panics, cobbles together a few random keywords from the script, and then, after a moment, detours into some familiar territory.  Anything.  Pulling it together for a strong, coherent finish (on a completely different subject).

St. Thomas Players Production of Yasmina Reza's Art

for The Salisbury Post

Salisbury has always been a good theatre town. I know there’s a rich history dating back to the previous century. And I know I’ve missed a few in my time (almost five and a half decades).

But it seems like Salisbury theatre has made some strides in recent years that sets it apart.

We don’t just have a community theatre offering shows every two months on a fairly big stage to a fairly big house.

We’ve also got a full season at Catawba, one of the finer college theatre programs in the state, if not the country.

And we have smaller companies, and some professional actors who live and perform here, offering a rich menu of quality theatre on a frequent basis.

I’m pretty sure that’s not normal for a town this size. I’m pretty sure it’s remarkable.

Just two weeks ago, Joe Falocco — a consummate actor with a Salisbury address — presented Shakespeare’s Villains at Lee Street Theatre. It was delightful, smart, and incredibly funny.

A couple of weeks before that, St. Thomas Players gave us a thoroughly engaging production of Rabbit Hole.

Now, as it does each year, St. Thomas Players knocks out another summer with another one-two drama punch, following Rabbit Hole with an excellent production of Yasmina Reza’s Art, currently on view at Catawba’s Florence Busby Corriher Theatre.

The acting here is very, very good — but it doesn’t get in the way of a play that’s quite fascinating.

Near the end of Art, Yvan, the character who gets in the middle of his friend’s argument, sums up the play we’ve just seen when he says something close to this: ‘Nothing beautiful has ever been created as a result of rational argument.’

Good point, but the larger point is that while isolated statements in an argument can seem rational, the argument as a whole is absurd.

Just as arguments for isolated bits of a war can sometimes make sense, even though the war as a whole is absurd.

The war in Iraq began for one reason and continued on for a variety of entirely different reasons. Same for Afghanistan — and other conflicts between nations, races, municipalities, friends, people, families.

In the moment, there’s always somebody who can explain it like a champion. And then there’s always history, wherein the absurdity rises to the surface.

People still debate what really started the Cvil War.

This is the idea that gets distilled into Art, a very tight play that is not absurd, as a play, but instead is a play about absurdity.

We’re talking about a guy who attacks his friend for buying a painting that’s simply blank — white paint on a canvas.

It sets off a barrage of complicated, personal, hurtful argument, wherein the absurdity becomes as stark as the white painting that begins the ordeal.

As the play unfolds, the characters get heated about ideas, and the judgmentalism escalates. Sometimes it gets so complicated that I can’t follow the argument. I don’t know exactly what they’re talking about, but I know exactly what they’re saying and what they mean — and I’m pretty sure that’s the point.

This big mess doesn’t seem to challenge the actors. They don’t miss a beat as they whip through each other at a brisk pace. They’re exceptionally well prepared, and they seem to understand the nuance of each and every verbal dagger they throw.

Craig Kolkebeck directs the play and acts. He plays Serge, a dermatologist who buys a white painting and knows how to get under his friend’s skin.

Kolkebeck possesses the gift of naturalness. He’s always immersed in the play itself, never on a stage or aware of an audience.

I first heard about Art, the play, in the 90’s, over a glass of wine, from Bob Paolino, who had seen it in New York. We were talking about theatre and he said “I like Art.” This sounded like a weird thing to say, and I probably said something like “I do too.”

Bob straightened me out.

“The play, Art,” Bob said.

Soon after, I read it and discovered that I liked Art too. I’m glad I got a chance to see it, and I’m delighted I got to see Bob’s exuberant, winning performance in it. He plays Marc, the friend who instigates the argument when he notices that, like The Emperor Who Has no Clothes, the painting has no color.

One mustn’t play favorites with an ensemble cast of three that thoroughly clicks, but the manic moment of the evening obviously belongs to Anthony Liguori. He plays Yvan, the neurotic scapegoat, whose monologue about his wedding invitations provides the comic peak and is a sheer delight to watch. As long as it is (and it’s a long monologue), I’m sure everyone in the audience would have gladly granted him another five minutes.

The set is tasteful, white, and stark — and it’s also for sale. Upon leaving the theatre at the play’s conclusion the audience is invited to bid on the pieces in a silent auction.

This is a great show. I’m sure the army of volunteers involved in the production are proud of their work, and they should be.

Cracking the local theatre scene – a pretty tough nut

The internet distributes my ten minute plays quite well. Shambles links to my website (which is now over ten years old) and sends a steady stream of traffic from theatre students around the world. They often request permission to use my 10 minute plays in their classes.

This week, three students asked me for scripts for their projects.

Stephan, a student in England, wants to use Panic Attack. Avery, in Georgia (USA), is using In the Waiting Room. And Diana, in Romania, is doing a school production of Responsibility.

Sometimes, the requests come from places in Asia and Africa where I’m guessing there may not be access to many short plays in English in the library.  Sometimes they translate them.  One student in Sudan told me he translated Pizza into Arabic and changed the title to “Milk.”

Often, teachers tell me they use the scripts to help their students learn English.

I know that some students probably do have access to a good library and could certainly find a better script than mine — but this website makes it easy, and these exchanges give me a tremendous amount of pleasure.

Thus, without Broadway success, critical success, or money, I’m sort of a content playwright. I make the plays free and accessible online, and get the satisfaction of knowing that the words I put on the page are getting used on a regular basis.

But, I just can’t crack the hometown. Here in Salisbury, NC, we have three theatre troupes, plus a local college with an excellent theatre department. They all have done new plays written by local folks (including some really bad ones, which is the norm for new plays) — but I can’t get them to consider mine.  They will give me the time of day, when I buy a tickets to their productions — but that’s about it.

I have done plays here. That’s how I got started, in the mid-90’s, by producing them myself. They went really well.  Got a lot of support and learned a lot.  A self-produced local production is one good way to get a play done, and it’s a lot of fun — but it’s ultimately an ego trip that doesn’t tell you a lot about the play.

This spring, Lee Street Theatre will be producing a festival of ten-minute plays. They did this last year also. Last year I didn’t enter the contest for two reasons. The theme was “city.” I didn’t have any plays that specifically talked about city life, and I didn’t have the time or inclination to write one. I love cities, but the theme is a little broad. It would be much easier to write a play about a pair of socks. I also noticed unsavory signs of politics and competition among those involved, and feared my play would be rejected.

I did go to the show. It was fun, but a fairly weak production overall. A number of people asked me why I didn’t submit one, and I said it was because I didn’t want to be rejected in my hometown (Salisbury — a small town) and thereby suffer the embarrassment.

This year, a couple of people on the committee urged me to submit — and they whispered to me (pssst…psssst) that a discussion had taken place and that it was decided a play of mine would be picked.

They call the evening “A Six Pack of Plays” and the scripts must be set in a bar.

Well, I wrote a play called A New Normal.  (You can see it here, if you like).  It’s set in a bar. It’s about a bar’s last night in business. It takes place on New Year’s Eve, 2008, during the heart of the Great Recession. It’s certainly no masterpiece, but I think it’s okay.

Problem is, I didn’t read the guidelines. When I read the guidelines, in order to get the address and mail the play — I noticed that it was limited to three characters.

My play had six (although three of them had no lines, such that those actors would really not need to rehearse more than one day).

I inquired about the strictness of these rules and learned that the cost of violating this decree was severe. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that this play would not be considered. So I didn’t send it and never showed it to anybody.

They extended the deadline a few days and I wrote a second play (well, it’s actually an adaptation of something I wrote a few years ago; it worked quite well). This one was not set in a literal bar, although it’s about a person who has spent too much time in a bar, and she invites the audience to join her at the bar. I thought it hit the “bar” theme pretty hard.

I submitted this play, but it was disqualified because it was not set in a bar. When they say bar, they mean a real bar. Symbolic, thematic, metaphorical bars will not suffice.

I understand, of course, that they want the convenience of using a single set for all six plays. But I’m certain this could have been done with a prop or two, without any set-changing fanfare — and it would have added a bit of variety to the evening.

It’s called Nice Name for a Sky and is posted here.

My ten minute plays have had a number of productions, including hundreds in classrooms around the world, with almost fifty productions in theatres, including some pretty nice ones in New York, Minneapolis, Chapel Hill, Melbourne, Charlotte, and elsewhere. Several have been published by play services and, and three of them last year in the NC Literary Review. And I’ve won two state arts grants for playwriting and filmmaking.

But I’m still trying to figure out how to play the local theatre political scene. Still looking for my first local theatre production. It’s a tough nut to crack. Maybe it’s because I take it all too seriously.

Catawba Theatre's "Working" is excellent

Catawba College Theatre’s current production of Working is excellent.

I’ve been too busy the past couple of years to go to all the shows, like I used to — but I did see The Boy Friend, earlier this year, and tonight I saw Working.

Catawba College Cast of "Working"

Perhaps I think it’s awesome because I haven’t had much time for theatre lately, such that anything seems awesome to me.  Or, perhaps I think it’s awesome because it’s awesome.  I’m pretty sure it is.

Ironically, I had reservations about going to this show about working because I’ve gotten behind on my work this week and had to leave a good bit of work undone in order to go.  I’m glad I did.

These kids are putting up some sweet, delightful musicals.  They have a ton of talent.  Strong voices.  The acting is nearly perfect; they’re incredibly well prepared.  They understand the story they’re telling and never do anything to get in its way.

The four piece orchestra on stage isn’t bad entertainment, either.

I’ve got Studs Terkel‘s book, Working, here in my office, right here beside me.  It’s been here on my shelf, beside me, for over 20 years.  I’ve never read the whole book.  But occasionally I open it and start reading — and no matter which page I turn to, I become mesmerized for some time.  It’s a masterpiece.

The show captures the poignancy of working Americans also.

The Catawba Theatre faculty — the brains behind this production — does a wonderful  job with multimedia.  Moving characters in silhouette, behind changing photos projected on screens, make the background as fluid as the performance on stage.

There’s a lot to watch, and a lot to hear.  The songs tell simple, clear stories.  The photos provide a powerful montage.  But it’s all organic.

There’s one more night, tomorrow (Saturday, April 17).  There were a few empty seats tonight.  Not many.  If it’s possible to get a seat tomorrow, it’s worth it.

Hype for my new book of plays

cover of An Actor's Dozen
cover of An Actor's Dozen

This is the cover of a book I’m publishing.  Consider this the pre-publication publicity hype.

These days, with print-on-demand, self-publishing can be remarkably easy, and cheap.

It’s also possible, of course, to pay editors and graphic artists, etc.

But it’s nearly free if you do your own editing, typesetting, and design — and upload the files yourself.

Of course, then you get book covers that look like…this.

In a few days, this book will be available on Createspace.com, Amazon.com, the local bookstore (Literary Bookpost), the store at The Looking Glass Artist Collective, and from the trunk of my car.

The media blitz will be minimal — but so was the risk.

It didn’t cost me anything but missed sleep.

I seriously doubt any traditional publisher would have been interested in the least.  The cost is high and the market is small.

If nobody buys it — so what?  It’s stored on a computer and printed only when somebody wants a copy (except for the ones I buy, that will be in the trunk of my car).

If people do buy it, good for me.  I make a few dollars profit per book (instead of the tiny royalty a hypothetical traditional publisher would hypothetically pay, if they would hypothetically publish it ).

If anybody wants to read the plays for free — they’re all here, on the website.  Lots of people do every day.  There’s nothing new in the book other than the more portable form and a little more editorial scrutiny.

This is just to state the obvious:  publishing is really changing.

Play Review: A Life in the Theatre

Here in Salisbury, NC — Lee Street Theatre is offering David Mamet‘s 1977 play, A Life in the Theatre.

If you live around here and like this kind of play, you’ve got the chance to see great theatre in this little town.

I happen to love this kind of play, and I thoroughly enjoyed this fine production.

What kind of play is it?

It’s Mamet, of course — tight, muscular, and poignant. He’s the best writer of profanity in the business — but A Life in the Theatre is squeaky clean.

A Life in the Theatre
A Life in the Theatre

In fact, I don’t recall a vulgar moment. It’s a sweet love story about the backstage lives — a mirror for their entire, inner lives — of two actors. It’s an especially endearing piece for those who, themselves, have spent time backstage.

It’s a two-man show, a gem of a story, and everything depends on the caliber of the acting.

We, the theatre goers here in this small southern town, are extraordinarily blessed that Craig Kolkebeck and Brian Romans call Salisbury home — and that Lee Street Theatre chose this play for them to do. They absolutely nail it. Every beat. Every expression. Rapid timing. It’s an intimate space. Perfect.

A lot of credit must go to Christin Duncan, who is technically the stage manager — but in part the director. Claudia Gallup, the actual director, spent the last two weeks of rehearsal, and the first week of the two week run, in the hospital. Duncan took over at crunch time, and she’s done so with art and precision.

My only complaint is with the audience (which was pretty darn big for this kind of play in this small town). They laughed a lot. Two folks behind me might have had one two many at dinner. They offered loud cheers, like they were watching one of their kids on American Idol.

There are some humorous moments — but I’m pretty sure this play is a drama and would be that much more powerful if audience members could realize that and contain their nerves.

The Looking Glass Artist Collective, which started a short time ago, just prior to the onset of our Great Recession, as an idea in the active brain of Sarah Hall, is turning out better than anyone could have expected. The art gallery, store, classroom, musical offerings, and theatre all seem to be thriving.  Good news for Salisbury’s vibrant art scene.

A Life in the Theatre continues October 22-24, 2009, 7:30 pm, at the Looking Glass Artist Collective, 405 N. Lee Street. Salisbury, NC

Nicotine Gum

Nicotine gum

Ah, another piece of nicotine gum.

By the time you see this particular piece, it’s been chewed and discarded — along with many others.

I buy the Walmart generic in quantity and chew it all the time.

I ranted against smoking as a child and then took up the habit in college, during a semester in Venice. Everybody did. And we all thought we could quit.

I did quit.  Many times.  Sometimes for years at a time.  I used the patch, the gum, hypnosis, and Smokenders.  Between 1976 and 1996, I probably smoked about ten of those twenty years.

In February of 1997, I quit for good.  The motivation was coughing, bronchitis, and the fear of pneumonia. Said motivation occurred on closing night of a play, Slient Visit.

Silent visit had a barely decent reception as dinner theatre at The Wrenn House, in Salisbury, NC.  Prior to the Charlotte production, one of the actors fell off a horse and injured herself.  The director simply cut her scenes from the show.

The ten year old kid who had the most lines got the flue a couple of weeks before the show.  Then he got behind in school and decided not to rehearse anymore.  He couldn’t remember his lines anyway, when the show was in Salisbury — so he really didn’t remember them in Charlotte.

It was a fairly bad play already, and this made it perhaps one of the worst plays to ever grace a stage in Charlotte, NC.  It ran for two weeks and the audience size ranged from two to ten.  It got two of the most negative reviews I’ve ever read about any play.  Both reviews singled-out the author as the primary problem.  The author of the play was me.

At one point, during rehearsal, someone asked me what kind of play Silent Visit was.  I said it was a “comedy.”   One of the actors responded that she thought it was a “dark drama.”

At a cast party, an audience member asked me what kind of weed I was smoking when I wrote it.

During the excruciating two week run, I smoked myself silly.  When the play closed, I couldn’t stop coughing and could hardly breath.  The next morning I started chewing nicotine gum and have done so every day since.

Nine years.

People often ask if I’ve tried to quit the gum.  Not really.

I’m a drug addict and content to be one.

Often, during intermission of a show, I walk outside, pop a piece of gum in my mouth, and join the smokers.

I’ve made gum runs to Walmart in the middle of the night.

[Note:  With some heavy revision — such that it’s clearly a comedy and makes sense — I think Silent Visit is a weird enough to actually be a decent play.  One day, I may re-visit Silent Visit.]