Around the Sun

A week of 2008 remains, and, if this year has taught us anything, surprises are possible. Still, the media’s trotting out theri Top 10 lists; so I’m giving it my shot. In many ways, it’s been an incredibly tough year for me. Though I’ve studiously avoided writing about it here, I spent much of the year adjusting to being an orphan after my mother’s death on December 18, 2007. I had a small but heartfelt production fall through. I put my production company to bed. And I wrapped up the year with my back going out spectactularly (and my doctor clapping me on the shoulder and helpfully saying, “We’re getting old, buddy”).

It’s also been a year of amazing, sometimes poignant highs. Here are some of them in ascending order.

10. Dead of Winter
After a long hiatus, Pavement Productions geared up to do a production we’d wanted to do for a long time: Dead of Winter, a trio of ghost stories I’d written. We had the good fortune to team up with Portland’s The Bluestockings, pulled together an excellent cast and crew, but the production spiraled into a truly eerie space as death seemed to stalk everyone involved, with nearly all of us suffering a personal loss and one cast member having to drop out. We finally got the damned thing launched, had hit and miss and reviews, and though we stuggled on weeknights and toughed it through some lousy weather and nearly every production company in town putting up a show at the same time, we had solid weekends and sold out all our Saturdays. Plus the show was fun as hell, and audiences were hugely appreciative. Then, midway through the run, Lisa L. Abbott, the director I’ve collaborated with since 1995 (and who has been the primary interpreter of my work) won a tenured teaching position in Savannah, which was wonderful for her, but meant she and her husband, Sean DeVine (Pavement’s technical director) would be leaving Portland. Shortly afterwards, Buffy Rogers, The Bluestockings’ artistic director, moved back to New Orleans. A bittersweet ride and, ultimately, Pavement’s last full production. Group highlight: the cast and crew spending an unnerving evening in Portland’s haunted White Eagle Tavern.

9. Angels+Demons
I continued my Angels+Demons photo project through ’08, with some terrific results as Janet Price signed on as the project’s makeup artist, my finding a sort of “sweet spot” in the lighting design, and the models bringing wonderful ideas and looks to the project. I’m not done yet–more A+D in ’09, and eventually, I hope, a show.

8. Burning Time
As a JAW alumnus, I was invited back to Portland Center Stage for the 10th anniversary of JAW to participate in Commission!Commission!, an absolutely mad gig where patrons bid for a playwright’s services, give them an idea to write about, and then the writers have a half hour to write and the director and cast have a half hour to pull a show together. Edge City, and, this year for the first time, open to the public. Ah. More ways to fail. But my patron fed me a marvelous idea about a father who takes his kids to Burning Man while their mother falls apart at home. It practically wrote itself, and Sharonlee MacLean took the mother’s role and burned the house down. Good times. (I’m exhausted just thinking about it.)

7. Next of Kin
A tough, gritty drama (though laced with gallows humor) I wrote about a trio of siblings coming together as the family patriarch’s death approaches. Written as I knew my mom was coming to end of her run. I loved the play, but reactions from some of my most trusted collaborators were cool at best, and I suffered a crisis in self-confidence. Then Andrew Golla and the fine folks at Portland Theatre Works chose it for a reading. The show was well attended, and the audience was absolutely wonderful and engaged with piece. In short: it worked. An emotional trial–a personal triumph. The play needs revisons, but I came away reassured.

6. Spies
Bond came back with Casino Royale, but Quantum of Solace was hugely entertaining and fed into a new play idea I’d been wrestling with for almost a year. Then my sister-in-law sent me John LeCarre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which proved to be the first piece of fiction I’d been able to get into in years (I mostly read non-fiction as research), and suddenly the threads began to pull together. More research to do, but, as Pete Townsend wrote: you can get up off the floor tonight/you have something to write

5. Liberation goes to press/Flynn returns
My two big war plays came back with a vengance: Liberation was published by Original Works Publishing and Waiting on Sean Flynn was produced by Neanderthal Acting Company in Detroit, where it played to 500 people in a weekend. Two of my favorite plays, back again, with renewed interest elsewhere.

4. End of the Pavement
Where to begin? Lisa and I had contracted with the Back Door Theatre for a June slot to stage a revival of a rewritten version of my 1991 Oregon Book Finalist Bombardment, and then Lisa got the Savannah gig, and the writing was on the wall for Pavement. We decided a full production was out of the question; so we decided to go out the way Pavement began, presenting readings of new plays, and we ended up producing a four-week mini new play festival, with readings of new plays by Nick Zagone, Matt Zrebski, and myself, and wrapping up with a classic Pavement “anthology” show of short plays inspired by Ubu Roi. It was a hell of a ride, and we so completely sold out the final night that we had to turn people away. When it was all over, Deb and I sat alone in the theatre where Waiting on Sean Flynn and Delusion of Darkness had premiered and felt one era end and another begin as the Stones sang Mixed Emotions, a song Lisa and I had picked out to wrap it up: Let’s grab the world/By the scruff of the neck/And drink it down deeply/Let’s love it to death/So button your lip, baby/And button your coat/Let’s go out dancing/Let’s rock n roll

3. Blue Nights/Red Days
My theatre gone, I was feeling both a little lost and liberated, and then idea a play idea came from where all the best ideas come–out of nowhere, and the next thing I knew, I was working on Bluer Than Midnight, a really strange little play about Blues music, the Civil Rights Movement, and…the afterlife. I’m hoping for a private reading of it this year, and I’ll see what happens next, but no matter where the play goes, it’s given me a terrific gift in that, for research, I bought a battered old red Fender Stratocaster and learned to play the Blues (badly). After years of music in my life as a listener, I again have it in my hands.

2. Oregon Book Awards
What can I say except Lost Wavelengths won the Oregon Book Award? It was an incredible high, made even better by being nominated among such distinguished company. Sometimes things really do happen at just the right time.

1. Obama
Among all the theatre and personal strum and drang, there was the election of elections. I love politics, though, for all my opinions, most of what I know about it comes from my time as a journalist and from reading Hunter S. Thompson, who, for all his quirks, was one of the sharpest political observers out there. Somehow, I locked in on Obama before Iowa, just a feeling, at a time when Hillary Clinton seemed unbeatable. Then Iowa came and it was a race. Somehow my gut told me this was the guy, though I faltered at times, worried, rode the roller coaster. But nothing prepared me for the speech at Chicago’s Hyde Park, where in ’68 police beat Vietnam War protesters senseless in a televised civil war that shattered the Democratic Party and the nation. I wept, unashamedly. Hope was, indeed, more than a slogan.

So I find myself wrapping up the year with an R.E.M. song that I clung to going into 2008, only to find the meaning has changed. We have hard times ahead, but the game isn’t over.

Here’s hoping you all have a rich, productive, and fulfilling New Year.



I want the sun to shine on me
I want the truth to set me free
I wish the followers would lead
with a voice so strong it could knock me to my knees

Hold on world ’cause you don’t know what’s coming
Hold on world ’cause I’m not jumping off
Hold onto this boy a little longer
Take another trip around the sun

If I jumped into the ocean to believe
If I climbed a mountain would I have to reach?
Do I even dare to speak?–to dream?–believe?
Give me a voice so strong
I can question what I have seen

Hold on world ’cause you don’t know what’s coming
Hold on world ’cause I’m not jumping off
Hold onto this boy a little longer
Take another trip around the sun

Around the sun
Around the sun
Around the sun
Let my dreams set me free.
Believe. believe.
Now now now now now now

Smoking CAN be Hazardous to Your Health

So I have the day off, and I’m starting it the way most normal Americans do, brewing up a triple espresso of Celebes Kalossi and sitting on the covered back porch, sighing at my snow-buried garden while smoking a briar packed with Rich’s Cigar’s Midnight Express…while listening to Jimi Hendrix play “Machine Gun” (a live cut off the Band of Gypsies album). Foot gently tapping. Watching huge, fluffy snowflakes fall in psychedleic swirls. Another morning at the fun factory, just like at your house.

When I get this…impulse. A nagging instinct. “Look up,” it says. Look up? Hendrix is wailing out, doing call and response machine gun blasts between his guitar and the drummer. But the feeling’s growing and impossible to ignore. So I look up.

And directly–directly–over my skull hangs an inch-thick, three-foot icicle with a wicked sharp point, that has dripped down through a small bend in the patio rool metal.

So, uh…casually, I put the pipe down, turn off the music, rise, and grab the nearest metal implement at hand–in this case a sprinkler head–and give the icicle a gentle tap. Instantly, it drops, shattering. Right where I was sitting.

This gives one pause, surely: mostly, given that we’re into our sixth or seventh day of snow and ice, how long had it been hanging there? But I sweep away the shards, sit down again, relight the pipe, and find a weird smile smile crawling up my face.

No one interrupts the Jimi.


Reading the NEA Tea Leaves

Since Obama’s moving so fast in putting his team together that they’re down to announcing Michelle Obama’s press secretary, I’ve been searching a bit to try and find out who might end up at NEA (the chairmanship opens next month). Caroline Kennedy has been one name knocked about, but for the moment she’s out of the running since she’s expressed interest in Hillary Clinton’s senate seat. About the only other name I’ve run across is Michael Dorf, who used to work with the late Congressman Sidney Yates–a good sign–and who owns part interests in wineries–which, for some weird reason, seems like a good sign too. But who knows?

I’m kind of hoping that Obama will work something like FDR’s WPA for the arts into his economic recovery plan, but that might be the sort of thing some shithead like Sen. Tom Coburn might filibuster as the empire crashes and burns. (There goes my grant, eh?) Right now, paying for symphonies probably isn’t at the head of the list while the State of California is digging under the sofa cushions for pennies.

Other things I found whilst reading the tea leaves were a couple articles saying theatre is again dead. Or at least, the “straight play” (nonmusical) is. (Note to theatres: “Lost Wavelengths” has music in it and is a drama…I’m just sayin’.) This is apparently because blah blah blah subscriber base aging blah blah blah young people not coming blah blah blah small theatres popping up blah blah blah big theatres flailing blah blah blah….

If you been around awhile, you could probably write the rest of the article yourself. I’m going to go way out on a limb here and, drawing on my producing experience, offer a couple modest proposals:

1. Don’t do safe plays. If it doesn’t scare you, then what’s the fucking point, really?

2. Get your audience drunk. Or assume they’re drunk. Or high. Imagine seeing the play for the first time high. In brief: if it blows your mind, it’ll blow theirs…and they’ll come back or recommend it to others.

3. Keep your ticket prices reasonable or at least offer some deals. If you have to jack them up to cover the real estate, maybe you’re the wrong theatre for that real estate. (And I know this goes against everything right and true and American, but, you know: you don’t have to get bigger. Sometimes, small means freedom.)

4. If you’re a theatre that celebrates having an edge, please don’t do the same play everyone else is doing.

5. Do world premieres…you’re going to lose your shirt anyway, so have some fun.

[Note: upon reflection, I decided that the version of this I wrote earlier today was too harsh and judgmental, so I edited it a bit.]

Paging Mr. Donner and Party….

Well…we got creamed.

About eight inches of snow here topped with a lovely crust of ice, with more freezing rain on the the way. What the week will look like is anyone’s guess. But for the moment, we’re enjoying being inside. I’m cleaning up my office (an unnatural disaster), taking breaks to play some slow, aching blues on Red, the Strat. Deb’s making Christmas cookies, only some of which will escape the house alive. R.E.M. is cranked through our massive, old speakers, the bass shaking the house(there is great joy in huge cones that can remind you of where all your fillings are), and the parrot is singing along. The dog is hiding.

In less than a month, Bush will be history. Which is where he belongs.

Out the windows, finches, juncos, chickadees, and bushtits are covering the feeders.

I think I’m gonna survive 2008 after all. As long as the food holds out.


Brief flash into the future….

It was snowing lightly as I ran an errand today. The wind had eased, and it was pleasant walking as long you had a hat and were bundled up. These two guys were walking towards me, both of them pulling rolling suitcases and one of them carrying an acoustic guitar case, and, though they might have been visiting, I just wondered if ten or fifteen years from now, one of them would be saying to the other: “You remember when we moved to Portland and it was snowing?”


June will come again….

So it’s 23 degrees F in Portland. Tomorrow it’s supposed to be 15. Which is pretty cold for anywhere, but especially for here. And I’m saying to myself, well, it’ll give the tulips and the peonies that cold snap they want, but, inside, I’m thinking: man, it’s not even officially winter yet.

So to counter living in the dark, here are a few shots of my garden in all it’s hammy June glory, the month when everything just…shines.

They Never Taught this in J-School

When I was taking journalism in college, the following behavior would likely have been frowned upon as “too editorial.”
BAGHDAD – On an Iraq trip shrouded in secrecy and marred by dissent, President George W. Bush on Sunday hailed progress in the war that defines his presidency and got a size-10 reminder of his unpopularity when a man hurled two shoes at him during a news conference.

“This is a farewell kiss, you dog!” shouted the protester in Arabic, later identified as Muntadar al-Zeidi, a correspondent for Al-Baghdadia television, an Iraqi-owned station based in Cairo, Egypt.

Bush ducked both shoes as they whizzed past his head and landed with a thud against the wall behind him.

“It was a size 10,” Bush joked later.