The Bone Done Got Frenched


Playwright Willam S. Gregory came up with this rather off-center but inspired idea to have the Portland Center Stage playwrights group write short pieces about food and horror, tie it all up in a bouquet garni, and present it around Halloween under the title “Frenching the Bones.” That’s a culinary term regarding a technique for artfully removing meat from ribs, and you can fill in your own joke because those in the group have pretty much exhausted them all.

Anyway, the meal was served last night at Portland’s CoHo Theatre, and it was quite well received. Had a pretty near full house, and you could feel the audience was riding right along with the plays, laughing, groaning, or gasping at exactly the right times. Kudos to the splendid playwrights involved, but special notes to Chef Gregory, Matt Zrebski who directed, and some very fine actors who gamely took on 28 roles in one evening. The meal was delectable, the presentation impeccable. The diners completely satiated.

In short, as the late William S. Burroughs would have said in a rasping, nasty voice dripping with sardonic menace: it was unspeakably toothsome.


Gore-Tex Dreams

Traditionally—and who knows if tradition applies to weather anymore—the Northwest rainy season begins on Halloween night and ends April 15th. Oregon children trick-or-treat in Gore-Tex. That doesn’t mean it rains every single day, but…well, yes, it does.

And though it’s said true Oregonians don’t squint in the rain, the rainy season is really not all that much fun, and consecutive gray skies lend themselves to a certain introspection. Maybe that’s why so many Oregonians write. I knew a handsome old gent in Oregon logging country who said it was too risky to go to town because “there’s a widder behind every stump.” Much the same can be said of Northwest writers.

So it’s not surprising that we’re home to Powell’s Books, possibly the best independently owned bookstore in the U.S. (unlike The Strand, you can find things) or that winners of the Oregon Book Awards consistently produce work of such quality. But it may be surprising to know Portland is increasingly known as a home for new stage works. There are some very fine playwrights here—many of them are friends of mine—and artistic directors around the country are looking to Portland Center Stage’s JAW Playwrights Festival as a source for hot new plays and playwrights, with JAW plays and authors being picked up by the regional theatre circuit. My suspicion is that trend will not only continue but grow.

Another notable Portland characteristic, which I think fuels new work development, is that there’s a very strong DIY spirit here. Toss any three people together at a Portland coffeehouse—and we are rotten with coffeehouses—and you’ll end up with either a band, a restaurant, or, possibly, a theatre company. You can produce a play here for a fraction of what it costs elsewhere, and, if the local critics slaughter you, you don’t have to throw yourself in front of the MAX train—you just mope for awhile, listen to too much Elliott Smith, then begin writing again.

Oregon’s mountains, particularly the Coast Range, are unbelievably verdant, overflowing with life and pocketed with thickets rich with mood and mystery. If there’s a relationship between environment and psychology, perhaps it’s no surprise that Northwesterners inhabit equally complex inner worlds that sprout ideas the way fall rains breed mushrooms: overnight, whole landscapes change.

Life with Mick & Keef

Thinking much of the Glimmer Twins of late, back when they were young and, as Gore Vidal said, so ugly they were pretty. Recently finished the first draft of a new two-act drama called “Next of Kin,” which has do with a family reunited for a medical crisis. Sounds pretty pedestrian for me, given my onstage history with characters spontaneously exploding, turning into insects, and having telepathically induced orgasms (and that’s all in one play), but the family patriarch in the new play is a totally whacked Vietnam Veteran, hardcore helicopter pilot, and rabid Rolling Stones fan who named his kids after the band members; so I’ve been listening to the Stones more than usual.

I guess anyone who gives a damn about rock’n’roll (or whatever myriad forms popular music has mutated into) hooks into a certain band, and that music comes to punctuate moments of their lives. It’s not necessarily transferable: I start talking about the Stones, and I can see my wife’s attention…drift…elsewhere. As well it probably should.

But there is one Stones memory that haunts me. It was back in the early 80s, wintertime, and I was driving by night to Southern Oregon. In a space of about 50 miles, there are four mountain passes and valleys one has to negotiate, and the driving can get a bit tricky. It had to be past midnight. I’d stopped in a little town called Canyonville, loaded up on coffee at a truck stop (and, perhaps, I might have had another, substantially more powerful stimulant in my system as well). Anyway, put on “Sticky Fingers,” took a deep breath, and began climbing the first of the passes.

It was going pretty well, but, as I started climbing Mt. Sexton, the final pass, it began to snow. Millions upon millions of thick, drifting flakes, immediately beginning to stick. I could feel my tires not quite connecting–this was in an old, heavy Ford with rear-wheel drive–and I knew I not only had the pass to cross but a long, steep grade down the mountain, probably into a blizzard. White-knuckle driving if there ever was one, and then the Stones’ “Moonlight Mile” came on, it’s drifting, dreamy mood and rhythm seeming in concert with the snowflakes sweeping before my headlights, and it was like everything went…click. A perfect moment. Genuinely dangerous, stunningly beautiful. One you never forget. Forever, in the mind’s eye, the snow falling, the guitars keening, and Jagger whispering in your ear:

When the wind blows and the rain feels cold
With a head full of snow
With a head full of snow
In the window there’s a face you know
Don’t the nights pass slow
Don’t the nights pass slow

The Waiting

This is a playwright’s life: wait.

It’s a continued sequence of moments to come. You’re always working, always thinking; nothing comes without the effort. But so much is predicated on that which you cannot know.

A good part is spent waiting for theatres to get back to you, and, even for the hottest playwrights, the answer is usually…no. Politely, but…no. A good day is…no, but send more. That particular dialogue can go on for years, but it’s better than plain…no. Getting a script back without a note means…hell no. (Luckily, it’s been awhile since that’s happened to me.)

A lot of times, especially in these days of electronic submissions, you’ll never hear back at all. Your script simply vanishes. Maybe it’s being done under an assumed name in Montevideo, but most likely it’s forgotten on a dead hard drive. Or you’ll hear back so long after sending it that you have to go back to your notes to figure when you sent it. At the moment, I’m attuned to this phase because I have a lot of stuff out right now.

Then there’s waiting for ideas, which do not come unless you look for them, but which never appear while you’re looking for them. They come in the space between, when your attention is elsewhere. If, however, you do not look, they will not appear unbidden. And they wonder why writers drink too much or smell of various varieties of smoke or totally melt down when they can’t find their lucky pen.

When the script is done, you wait to hear back from your first, trusted readers. Then you wait to have a workshop reading accepted. Wait for the reading date. Wait to see if it goes on to a public reading. Wait for that date. Wait for actors to show up for meetings, rehearsals, performances. Wait for the audience reaction. Wait for all your emotions to settle before rewriting. Wait for another reading. Repeat endlessly.

If your play is actually accepted for production, suddenly the opening date glows red on your calendar, and every day is a step closer to that point. Which takes forever. When you finally get there, you wait for the time to leave for the theatre. You wait on every streetlight, which will turn red as you approach the intersection. You wait for parking. Once in the theatre, you read and reread the program, waiting for the lights to go down. (And you crush the hand of your significant other in those last few seconds before total darkness.)

Then, if you’re lucky, for ten minutes or an hour or two hours, you are waitless.

Finally, after the damn thing opens, you wait on the reviews, which is like waiting to get your biopsy back.

This is why every playwright should own a copy of Tom Petty’s song “The Waiting.” It’s built off a cliché, but it’s a good one:

The waiting is the hardest part

Every day you see one more card

You take it on faith, you take it to the heart

The waiting is the hardest part

The Show Must Go On

I awoke this morning to the radio announcer saying the Santa Ana winds were dying down and kind of took a deep breath: much misery to come in California, but maybe containment can begin.

Meanwhile, right in the apparent indie art vortex of the universe (I guess they’re talking about Portland in New York or something), here’s some info regarding “Frenching the Bones,” a fun, one-night show I’m involved with, written up on Mead Hunter’s witty Pu Pu Platter blog:

Tuesday, October 30th…mark your calendars. It’s free and it’s going to fill up quickly. And the plays are, uh, well, absolutely wrong…in the best possible way.

So a good part of San Diego County burns down and the media annoints Portland as the Next Big Thing; I predict property values will go up.*


[Note: Not to be interpreted as flip. I can’t tell you how much California’s disaster pains me. San Diego County is one of the most beautiful places in the United States, rich in history and talented folks. Here’s wishing them safety and recovery.]

Orange Bracelet in the Wind

When I was a small boy, about six, we moved to San Diego and, after a couple more years, to Escondido, then a small town in North San Diego County. Now, it’s all pretty much one city, from Spring Valley, where I started grade school, to ‘Dido where I finished it, and, if current Santa Ana conditions continue as predicted, much of it’s about to burn.

I lived there during the high Sixties, in a Navy town where soldiers shipped out to Vietnam and the Miramar Marines flew their shark-throated Corsair jets over the freeway. Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” was big on the radio, and I remember it booming out of my cousin’s convertible as we cruised the warm Southern California night, with the bowl of San Diego lights glittering below. The other popular song at the time was “Light My Fire.” Tonight, those roads are likely closed except for emergency vehicles.

I was never a big Beach Boys fan, but I knew whereof they sang. A true SoCal kid, I developed an impressive talent for falling off of surfboards, skateboards, roller skates, and bicycles with sissy bars and banana seats. When I wasn’t falling off of moving objects, I was riding in them. I watched, fascinated, as Hell’s Angels lined up at the drive-through of the local A&W Root Beer Stand. I lay sleepily in the backseat after swim class and peered out the rear window as the Buick made long, lazy turns, for a glimpse of the white cross atop Mt. Helix. I clung to the seatbelt, stuck in the middle of a giant traffic jam, while baton-swinging cops chased Vietnam War protestors between the car bumpers.

And, on a dark, terrible night, I watched my father weep at the TV as Bobby Kennedy bled to death on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel, four hours north in L.A.

Those idyllic Sixties, man.

Then there were fires. The weather would turn strange and unsettling, like something had gone seriously wrong with reality, and the wind would begin blowing. Hot. Dead dry. Spinning empty cups across parking lots. And that night, the TV news would take a break from Mekong Delta firefights and be simply about fires. Real ones. Right then, in Southern California.

One year, I think it was ’68 when everything seemed to be aflame, the Santa Anas blew on and on, and in the middle of the night we stood on our sleepy Escondido street with all our neighbors and watched an orange bracelet shimmer atop a hill. I can remember the adults saying, if it comes over that ridge. If it makes it over that ridge. Our ridge.

To an eight-year-old kid, this was impossibly exciting, and a part of me was rooting for the fire: you can do it. Come on, baby. But another part understood that breaching that ridge would be the worst thing imaginable, the end of everything, and that fear reached down and prayed to whatever indefinable, non-denominational God I had. That ridge was our Mekong Delta, our Ambassador Hotel.

The firefighters stopped the fire on that hill, were heroes–real heroes, not props for a photo op, and, when the wind died down, we went back to barbecuing hamburgers in the back yard and planning fishing trips to alpine ponds.

Tonight, some eight-year-old will stand in his or her front yard and watch another orange bracelet on a hilltop. It will seem like a movie, like television. It won’t be. It will be equally thrilling and terrifying.

Choose wisely, kid. And good luck.

Monday Has Broken

“Draw bamboos for ten years, become a bamboo, then forget all about bamboos when you’re drawing.” –Georges Duthuit–

There’s a perfect light just before the sun goes. When colors deepen and saturate. As with most moments of grace, it’s fleeting. But it’s worth waiting for. Once a day. Twice if you, you know, get up to see the sun rise too. Though that’s less relaxing because you need to be awake and everything. Else you’re just as likely to suddenly jolt awake, you’ve missed the perfect moment, and there’s drool on your chin. Sunrise, coffee…forget it. Not the same.

Did I mention that perfect light thing?

*Dull thud as head hits the desk*

“See your future. Be…your future. Make…make it! Make your future. I’m a veg, Danny.” –Ty Webb–

Know Your Audience

If you’re a producer, you see the audience from several vantages: as they’re lining up at the box office, as they’re being seated, one-on-one when they present problems (lost, late, drunk, wanting to use the can 30 seconds before curtain), and, if you choose, from the seats next to them.

If you’re a playwright, you tend to experience them anonymously as another audience member (or you hide and peek at them through curtains or the tech booth window). Playwrights seldom take bows. Once in awhile, usually when you’ve written something that really sings, the cast may acknowledge you during their curtain call, which feels somewhere between being honored and having your cover blown. Some playwrights react to this by glowing or preening, while others seem to retract into their clothes, becoming ever-so-tiny; I tend to nod, smile, and wave while wearing a thousand-yard stare.

But the producer and playwright share a common thought: who are all you people?

Which is not to say we’re not grateful you’re there. Believe me: we are, whether there’s 300 of you or four. It just seems like some kind of magical trick, conjuring up strangers with this goofy thing you’ve essentially made up, and it’s impossible to separate the experience from what has gone before, all the things the audience will never know about: the weird discomfort of fund raising, the intricate dance of casting, the late nights stuffing press releases in envelopes and remembering to put on the postage, and the inevitable moment during rehearsals where everyone’s exhausted and someone says just the right thing at the right time and everyone collapses into hysterical laughter and you have to call a break. (Sometimes those will stay with you longer than any other memory from a show.)

And, of course, there’s the 2:00 AM panic attacks, waking into hyperventilation–did I remember and what about and did I call and what time did we schedule?–followed by a hand-trembling, solitary cup of herbal tea rattling a teacup and saucer in a darkened room, headphones cranked until your ears ring. (I keep a copy of “Wild Horses” cued up–I think it’s that bit: “no sweeping exits or off-stage lines/could make me feel bitter/and treat you unkind.” I’m sure every producer/playwright has their own 2:00 AM music, and that it runs a gamut from “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” [“…everything’s going my way…”] to “Psycho Killer.” [“…I hate people when they’re not polite…”].)

Eventually, the fatigue will overtake you, a ferocious riptide, and it’s a fatigue that I can only liken to dealing with a life-threatening crisis. Only it’s self-inflicted, and we do it for fun. You finally fall asleep to a shifting, blurring montage of expectant faces, rustling programs, and extinguishing cell phones.

God bless you, but who are all you people?

Then the lights go down, and it doesn’t matter: we’re all in it together.

Flashback: Winter Cascades

rain on evergreens.

trying to start the fire, more and more newspaper, burning, curling faces of politicians, until the kindling finally catches. still wearing your coat until the cabin begins to warm. light a pipe with a heavy, cherry-flavored tobacco. pour a glass of brandy. put on some slow, sad Brahms, shut off the light. watching chill rain, waiting on snow. the feeling coming back to your hands and feet. wet boots steaming before the fireplace. alone. relieved you’re alone, but also wishing someone was there. the fit never quite right. here on top of a mountain, thinking of the city, and, if in the city, dreaming of the mountain. never able to be just where you are. waiting for something to possess you, an outside event or idea. ever hanging. forever standing on your toes. and then suddenly, through the fogged window: snow in circles, rush of silence. weight of the brandy, pulling down into cushions. smell or burning pine. skillets on the walls. books. fishing tackle. phone, unplugged. desk with writing tablets, pens. no computers.

rising heavily, feeling the brandy vertigo come and pass, and opening the door to the soft hiss of snow, already filling in your footprints. no need to lock the door, closing it softly, and feeling the forest move around you. a slow-turning vortex of dark green memory. turning, turning, with all the faces past, the lost moments, ghost memories or piercing lost opportunties.

write something. save yourself from yourself.

Guided by Voices

No one asks me to teach playwriting. That’s probably because my academic credentials qualify me to shout rude questions at weary press secretaries, not misguide young minds. It’s just as well since my answer to inquiries such as “How do I get a play produced?” is “Write a good one.” That’ll be _________ dollars.

But if some misguided administrator actually asked me to teach a seminar or something, I guess I’d title it “Listening to Voices” simply because I know a play has a chance if I can hear the voices of distinctive characters.

That’s all a playwright has, really. You can develop any number of scenarios, but how those play out depend on what kind of people your characters are, and the only way you can tell them apart is by the way they speak. Suppose your character stows away aboard a spacecraft. You’re in for one kind of play if, when discovered, your character says:

Please, man, please. All I ever wanted to be was an astronaut. But everybody said I was, you know, stupid. I won’t touch anything. Honest.

As opposed to a character who says:

Well, hell, you found me. Guess we’re stuck with each other. Might well rock’n’roll. Have a snort. But be careful. I get stingy with my supplies when I get past the Van Allen belt.

Not that I’d recommend writing either play; we have too many spacecraft stowaway dramas as it is, right? It’s just that in a dialogue-driven medium such as theatre, voice is destiny. Once it was customary to refer to playwrights as the “gods of theatre” (and a lot of us are irritated about being demoted to “necessary evil” in some quarters), but the truth is we’ve always pretty much been stenographers to the unconscious.

Which is to say, at least for me, I don’t have the slightest idea where the voices come from. I can tell, however, when they aren’t cooperating because everyone ends up sounding the same. It’s one of the most common problems I see as a producer reading scripts; not only do the characters not have distinct personalities, but they’re not speaking to each other. Reading those plays is rather like getting cornered at a party by a monomaniac. Pretty soon, you can feel your smile muscles cramp as you glance at the clock or oh-so-casually look around from someone to rescue your ass.

A play’s a play, and an essay’s an essay.