I get requests on the telephone

Ongoing items of note. Just got a call from Laura over at Virago Theatre. My play, “The Hermit Bird”, was selected for a staged reading over in Alameda. Mark your calendar, please, for July 8, 2006 at 7:30 p.m., plus a wine and cheese reception to meet the author afterwards.

Dave has put together a good-looking trailer for Ambassador’s Day; go watch it. Charles gets most of the face time in the trailer, but I’m in there as well.

Lastly, you got two weekends left to see “The Little Theater’s Production of Hamlet.” I’m Hamlet, as portrayed by a truck driver from West Virginia. Somewhere in the past weekend, audiences have started to really dig the production — they’ve started to talk back to us, and we’re getting reviews along the lines of “best show ever in the space.”

And every Saturday we work in the yard

Every morning between four a.m. and six a.m. there was this cat that slinked into our backyard, took a large dump, and then skulked away. Were I true to my West Virginia roots I would sit out on the back porch with a shotgun, real quiet like, and 187 that cat into a better world. But seeing as how I’m employed and sane I decided to find a gentler way to keep the cat out of the yard.

Down at the hardware store I found a two-pound bottle of “Uncle Ian?s Dog and Cat Repellent.” It advertises itself as “100% Natural and Safe ? Just sprinkle on soiled areas! Not harmful to pets! Dogs and cats leave!” Okay, fine.

So I open the jar and sprinkle about a pound of the red-black powder out onto my lawn. It whiffs into the May breeze and gets up my nose, making me sneeze. Man, I hope this stuff isn’t poisonous to people. Let’s read the ingredients label.

“Active ingredients: 60% Dried Blood. Inactive ingredients: 40% Bone Meal and Dried Chili Powder.”

After my eyes stopped watering, I realized that this truly was the perfect cat repellent. In spreading this concoction o’ death across my yard, I was in effect saying to the cat:

“Attention CAT! This place where you wish to defecate is a BAD PLACE! It is a place of DEATH! It is a place of BLOOD and BONES, with a slightly higher percentage of BLOOD! Also there is CHILI POWDER here! This place is highly PIQUANT and SPICY! And if you remain in this place, you will BE COOKED in a RED ARRABIATA SAUCE and served with PASTA! So SHIT ELSEWHERE!”

That was three weeks ago, and the cat and its shit are nowhere to be seen.

It’s a black fly in your Chardonnay

Letter two. When I was a small boy, my family drove through the heartland, and I particularly remember the smell of irony in the air, all through Nebraska, Iowa, Wyoming. Now that the corporate farm machinery has taken over, corn has bcome the dominant crop in these regions. But still, in the back woods of West Virginia, irony grows wild in stretches on the glowing verdant hillsides. We used to pick it when we were kids and suck on the stems. But even then we had the horse sense not to eat it raw.

I may be biased, but I believe that the quality of irony is really so much better back home. Picked fresh, it has much less acidity. On tourist traps along the Turnpike, you can still find good quality irony that has been boiled down into that West Virginia staple, the Tall Tale. My father sends me Tall Tales every now and then, which I really appreciate since they’re impossible to get fresh in California. “Well,” he said, “I’ve decided to have one of them sex change operations. Yeah. Decided to become a woman ’cause I’ve about had it with the whole man thing.” Flat, with no inflection, not a hint of laughter in his voice. The one who breaks first loses. Now out here on the West Coast, they don’t know from a good Tall Tale. I picked up a six-pack of Tall Tale down at Safeway last week, but some boxboy had stuck it in the Lies aisle.

The irony that you can get at Safeway is nowhere near as good as the fresh stuff. Something always happens in transporting it to the city — it dries out. It’s rawer, sharper, some would even say meaner than the homegrown. Be that as it may, you can still get good results from prepackaged. Typically I like to cut ten parts truth with one part irony. The result freezes well and it can be microwaved on short notice if company comes over.

Now there are some cooks, even today, that find irony a little too bitter for serving in polite company. But nowadays, especially in American cuisine, I think it must be a joyless cook that doesn’t rely on a little irony from time to time. Granted, irony is sharp and pungent by itself, but a judicious cook can serve an unusually large portion of truth with a dash of irony, and the guests are rarely the wiser for it. Irony covers up the smell of raw truth, tempers it, and generally makes it easier to digest. However, you can’t please everyone all the time; irony is not to everyone’s taste. Old folks and other people with limited perspective tend to avoid anything that’s touched it. To each his own, I suppose.

We both love Brecht, don’t we? He spends a great chunk of his plays sneering at his audience, making fun of their presuppositions. Jean-Paul Sartre quotes Jean Genet: “If I were to have a play put on in which women had roles, I would demand that these roles be performed by adolescent boys, and I would bring this to the attention of the spectators by means of a placard which would remain nailed to the right or left of the sets during the entire performance.” Irony is not native to the United States, but the stuff absolutely infests late-night eighteen-to-thirty-five television these days. Irony is nothing new. It’s just in vogue to dress up comedy in irony right now.

Now let’s turn to Mr. Rilke. “Irony: Do not let yourself be governed by it; especially not in uncreative moments. In creative moments try to make use of it as one more means of grasping life.” Rilke’s advice is sound, but his young poet merely seems to have overindulged in the stuff. You are what you eat. I love a big old bowl of biting irony every now and then, but I have the sense to stay away from others for at least a day or two after pigging out on it. It does make you less pleasant to be around, and so I prefer not to impose my stinking self onto others on the occasions when I indulge.

If there’s too much irony in a batch, no one will eat it. If I’ve made this error, I simply freeze it for a few days, thaw it in the refrigerator, and cut it with more truth. The irony goes well on sandwiches, or with pasta.

Nothing’s gonna change my world

               Two actors shuffle scripts on a stage as a class of hopefuls
               look on.  The guru steeples her fingertips and nods.

                         It's a dress.  Why won't you wear

                         I hate it... I hate the way... you
                         proposed to me.

                         So what are you saying?

                         I'm saying that --

                         Okay, let's just stop.  One of the
                         mistakes I see here is straight out
                         of theater, or rather, I should
                         say, community theater.  There's no
                         connection.  No connection at all. 
                         You see how you're reading away
                         from one another?  Totally amateur. 
                         This is El Lay.  That sort of thing
                         will get you kicked out of an
                         audition, quick quick quick.  How
                         much fundamentals have you had?

                         Um... I don't know?


                         What do you mean by fundamentals?

                         Ah.  I see.  Basic motivation. 
                         Scene, counter-scene.  Mind-sense
                         memory.  I see so many actors come
                         in, so many actors across the
                         United States, and they don't have
                         their basics.  You gotta ask the
                         fundamentals.  In this scene, what
                         is it that you want?  What do you
                         want to accomplish?  How do you
                         feel?  Do you love them?  I run a
                         three-day workshop, by the way, on
                         these issues.  We really get into
                         the details of the emotions.  And
                         it's a non-judgemental place, I
                         tell you.  A place for actors to
                         free themselves.  And their
                         emotions.  We accomplish some great
                         things there.

               Guru holds up a booklet labelled "Art Is."

                         This is my book of poetry, it's
                         called "Art Is."  "Art Is" came
                         from a pretty personal place, I can
                         tell you.  I believe in the healing
                         power of acting.  And I think that
                         comes through pretty clearly in the
                         poetry.  That's the essence of
                         poetry, is Art.  And Art Is.  Well. 
                         Let's start the scene again.

               John and Linda shuffle pages.

                         It's a dress.  Why won't you --

                         Okay, stop.  I want you to look at
                         her, and say, "I love you, wear the

                         I love you.  Wear the dress.

                         Look at him.  Say, "I love you, I
                         won't wear the dress."

                         I love you.  I won't wear the


                         I love you.  Wear the dress.

                         I love you.  I won't wear the

                         I love you, wear the dress --

                         I love you, I won't wear the dress 

                         Start the scene.

                         It's a dress.  Why won't you wear

                         I hate it... I hate the way... you
                         proposed to me.

                         There, we have a connection.  And
                         the most important part of the
                         connection is learning to play
                         love.  How do you play love?  How
                         do you play love for a person
                         you've never met before in your
                         life?  It has to come from
                         somewhere.  It has to come from a
                         personal experience.  You have to
                         make it your own.  I teach an
                         advanced course -- and granted,
                         you're still very new, but some of
                         my five-year and six-year students
                         make the cut -- where you can pop
                         in and out of love.  This is the
                         key thing.  This is what the
                         casting agents are looking for. 
                         What if you don't love?  Where's
                         the interest?  I'm asking you a
                                                         FADE TO BLACK.

As you right well pointed out, actors are an insecure lot, roughly saddled with the need for artistic and personal validation. Given these market forces, and the number of fresh-faced young girls arriving in L.A. each summer, it’s impossible to imagine that a profitable artistic-guru industry would not spring up.

All professional acting gurus have a deep conflict of interest: I’ll tell you how to act, how to find your character and make your art and get rich and break into an upcoming Paramount Pictures release, so long as you buy my tapes and attend my workshops and and pay for my back office.

“Without talent or ability one must not go on the stage. In our organized schools of dramatic art it is not so today. What they need is a certain quantity of paying pupils.” That sounds like it was written two weeks ago, but Stanislavski actually wrote it in 1925.

There is no more important choice for the aspiring artist than the choice of guru. And most artists make this choice far too hastily. The math is simple: if you emulate a guru, you will, in the optimal case, achieve the results that the guru has achieved.

The acid test for any guru — religious, political, or artistic — should be the following: What have you done recently? Not what have your students done, not what did you do 30 years ago in a Boston regional theater, not what do you have a romantic vision of yourself doing… but, simply, what have you done recently?

Nearly all modern artistic gurus fail miserably by this standard. They tend to have recently published poetry on web sites, or at best, supervised three-day workshops.

If you don’t know how to do something, start by copying someone who does it with fine success, by your definition of what constitutes success.

Here are the artistic gurus that have been most influential on my life.

Everett Chambers. A short, curmudgeonly grumpus of a director, pushing seventy-five… crotchety, sharp and very, very funny. Directed me in two plays. The producer of the “Columbo” TV series and about a dozen movies-of-the-week, mostly for ABC. Directs on his feet.

Keith Johnstone. Wrote “Impro,” the most worthwhile book I’ve ever read on the acting process. Invented several key improvisation formats that morphed into popular television shows.

With this new litmus paper in hand, let’s return to letter three and our man Rilke. “Let me here promptly make a request: read as little as possible of aesthetic criticism — such things are either partisan views, petrified and grown senseless in their lifeless induration, or they are clever quibblings in which today one view wins and tomorrow the opposite. Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing so little to be reaches as with criticism. Only love can grasp and hold and be just towards them.” Rilke is oblivious to the fact that he himself is, in this very paragraph, writing aesthetic criticism. Were we to follow his instructions exactly, we should stop reading his letter right away.

But the most telling bit of the letter is not his general artistic advice — “I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything!” — but rather the closing of the letter, where we learn What He Has Done Recently: “Finally, as to my books, I would like best to send you all that might give you pleasure. But I am very poor, and my books, when once they have appeared, no longer belong to me. I cannot buy them myself — and, as I would so often like, give them to those who would be kind to them.” I am a bad writer and a worse guru, but I can surely afford to give away my own books.

Let’s not be too ad-hominem against Rilke. And I am fully aware that I am judging the quality of his life by my own standards of success. And he clearly has no specific desire to be a quoted authority on the grandeur and depth of the artistic process — he never asked to be a guru. And this is a private correspondence.

But if we follow his advice on how to be an artist, should we be particularly surprised if we achieve his results?

They tell me it’s cool but I just don’t believe it

Letter One: “You ask whether your verses are good. You have asked others before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (since you have allowed me to advise you) I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself.”

Up until 1930 or so, the creative process was mostly solitary. Storytellers went into the great hibernation or trance that permitted them to spin out a story on the page. In the golden age of Hollywood however, a sea change occurred in the way by which popular art is developed. It became too expensive and too risky for creativity to be dependent only on one perception of what is “good” and “bad.”

And so, popular writing, and art in general, became fundamentally collaborative.

Collaborative art is agony. For a young creator, there is no deeper hell than to have their art audited. But the proof is in the product: q.v. Casablanca, arguably the best movie ever written, with a screenplay that was poked and prodded and argued over by three very competent writers, Julius J. & Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch. Their tension and disagreement over what constituted “good writing” produced a fuller, more considered work than any of the three could have produced individually. And there are other forms of art that are by definition collaborative — you can scrub the invisible blood alone in your basement, if you like, but unless there’s an audience, you ain’t Lady Macbeth and it ain’t theater.

The hallmark of the modern commercial artist is his ability to accept and incorporate criticism. Were we plumbers or architects, we would never refuse our customer’s request to redo the project. We’d simply nod, apologize, and bill more hours. So it is with commercial artists. Commercial artists have a sufficiently thick skin to take criticism, interpret it, and layer it into their art without whining or throwing things.

Commercial artists can do this because they see themselves as distinct from their work products. The secret mental gymnastic: a critique against the art is not leveled at the artist. It’s against the art, which is distinct from its creator. For the dedicated artist, acting can always be changed; writing can always be rewritten, and no art is ever completed; it is only abandoned.

It is fallacious to believe that an artist can only accomplish art through solitude. Art is consummated only when it is understood, and the muses themselves beg to be whored out.

Well I know that you’re in love with him ’cause I saw you dancing in the gym

Dear San Francisco Gymnasium Nude Guy:

First off, let me tell you that some of my best friends are gay. And I don’t mean that in a “some of my best friends are gay” way. I mean that in a “some of the deepest and most significant relationships of my life are with gay people” sort of way. Since we’re all exercising here together in this San Francisco gym, its pretty safe to assume we’re a bunch of queer-friendly folk.

That said. The locker room is, first and foremost, a place for transitioning from the street-clothes state to the ready-to-work-out state. We all go there, we shower, we put on our baggy shorts and iPods, et cetera and so forth, we exercise, we reverse the process.

Further, it is commonly accepted that a certain amount of nudity is implicit in the San Francisco locker room experience. Heck, it even happens across the States. In locker rooms across the heartland of of this great nation, guys get naked in order to prepare for weightlifting, or bocce, or any array of other manly activities.

Now here’s the issue. When you get naked and pose, one elbow resting on the locker, in an affected sprawl of theatrical ease… Rippling your pecs, naked as a damned jaybird… Trying to make eye contact with the rest of us…

Well sir, you are not observing the Locker Room Protocol.

Again, for clarity’s sake, I am all for you discovering a sexual partner or three. This is, after all, the City of Love. I wholeheartedly encourage you in your constitutional pursuit of butt-sex bliss. However, the Locker Room Protocol was written for the comfort and security of all exercisers, and I must insist that you strictly observe its guidelines.

For your convenience, I attach a copy herewith.

Rule 1. No conversational gambits while I am naked. Naked time is private time for me, and we’re not going to find common ground over today’s baseball game or Oprah while my boys are out and about. If you absolutely must initiate conversation, for example to inform me of an impending terrorist act, wait at least until I get my underwear on.

Rule 2. No attempted eye contact of longer than two seconds. This rule may be bent if we are already having a conversation; however, if I am naked at the moment, we are not having a conversation (see Rule 1) and as such you cannot make eye contact with me. A longing, lustful, wouldn’t-it-be-nice-to-bang-you look that lasts for over two seconds, when you don’t even know my first name, is out of order while in the locker room.

Rule 3. No peacocking. Peacocking is the process of loitering or gaggling about in a flashy manner, typically while naked. Naked state in the locker room is required to be a transitional state ? you are not permitted to lazily clean your fingernails while naked, or run your fingers absentmindedly through your hair, or initiate cell phone calls, or otherwise laze or loll about. This rule goes for double if I am also naked (see Rule 1). In other words, simultaneous Rule 1 and Rule 3 violations go on your permanent gymnasium record.

When all gymnasium attendees observe the Locker Room Protocol, they are entitled to the following Benefits.

Benefit 1. You may initiate and continue conversation with me, on general polite topics of your choosing, including but not limited to Oprah or the baseball game on television. If you flex your muscles or otherwise peacock (see Rule 3) while we are having said conversation, I may change the topic to something more innocuous, such as weather or C++ programming, or I might even terminate the conversation without warning. But be forewarned that if I am naked when you initiate conversation, I will refuse eye contact and grunt noncommittally only (see Rule 1).

Benefit 2. While I am naked, you may steal furtive glances at any part of my naked anatomy. You know you want to, and I know you want to, so I will accept this as long as you don’t make a big deal about it. I’m really not all exciting to look at while naked, but if it floats your boat and I have no idea that you’re checking me out, go ahead and get it over with. Note that if you spend too long looking at my naked anatomy, say over two seconds or so, I may call you on a Rule 2 violation. Err on the side of caution here.