Another Shade of Dark

My plays have never been known for being especially frothy. Blue is, apparently, my favored color–in clothing, language, and music. I suppose that reflects my outlook. Humor, however, serves an an antidote to the blues, on-stage and in life, so I try to find it even in the heaviest work. Another requisite in tackling the serious is to do it very, very well. I don’t know that I’ve succeeded in that, but, believe me, I have tried. Serious themes deserves the best, and I’ve spent many sleepless nights wondering if I’ve done the work justice.

The last few years, I’ve largely focused more on the fantastic: plays exploring the psyche or utilizing magic realism or alternate realities, and I’m turning, also, to exploring the human condition through our relations to the arts, of late writing about music and photography. But, for a good number of years, I was known as the “war guy.”

That is, I wrote a series of plays–four in all–about war and its aftermath. Three explore the subject through the characters of journalists: Waiting on Sean Flynn (Vietnam); Liberation (Bosnia); and Depth of Field (Liberia, Sierra Leone, and 9/11). Reporters, serving as our eyes and ears during conflicts open a breathtaking, immediate window into war narratives. Plus I used to be a reporter–never a war correspondent, though (I get asked)–and I have great admiration for those who put themselves at risk to the show the world the cruelties of which we are capable. They’re also damned interesting people, which makes them fun to write about.

Flynn and Liberation have been successfully produced multiple times (and Liberation has been published by Original Works Publishing). Depth of Field remains in progress. I’ve finished a number of drafts, but I still haven’t quite cracked the code on that one. I haven’t given up, either.

The fourth play, Next of Kin, stands as a sort of coda to the trilogy, shifting the focus from reporters to soldiers and their families, whose vital stories I felt remained somewhat unaddressed by the other plays. Next of Kin, looking at Iraq, is also the most contemporary work. It’s a good, strong play, I think, which had a very successful staged reading last year with the splendid folks at Portland Theatre Works; I’m currently shopping the premiere to theatres around the country.

Though I never planned it, the plays developed their own arc. Flynn asks why we’ve come to war, and whether we should stay or go? Liberation, acknowledging we’re trapped in war, asks how much do we sacrifice to tell the story? Depth of Field asks whether, after surviving war and paying the price, why return. And Next of Kin asks what we do and who we are when its over.

Writing these plays has been, I think, a substantial, unique accomplishment. (I have kind of a dream of having them collected in a single volume someday. Maybe it’ll happen, though it’s hard to say, given the state of both theatre and publishing these days.) I didn’t set out to do it: it just happened. They’ve made me a few bucks along the way–not very much. But they have rewarded me, however, so richly in terms of experience, introducing me to people and places I’ll never forget (and never want to, even when the memories are ghastly).

They’ve given me a chance to work with brilliant directors, actors, and designers on a subject that seems to bond artists they way soldiers and reporters bond in the field: everyone knows this is a serious, important issue that demands our best, and the subject tends to strip away our bullshit because, let’s face it, it’s about living or dying, killing or being killed. When you work like that, you get down to the core of your collaborators, exposing who you really are, and it’s one of the primary reasons I have such deep affection and admiration for those who work in this tough, sometimes ephemeral business. If you’re lucky, you’ll learn to like your colleagues, and they become your friends; if you’re really lucky, you’ll come to love them.

The plays have also afforded me some of the most intense audience interactions of my career. During ther performance, the theatre feels beyond electric, the air supercharged. Total strangers, speaking to me after shows, have told me stories they may have never told their families. After a performance of Liberation, a Bosnian woman told me how she walked, barefoot, away from her hometown as its men and boys were being systematically slaughtered. And then she thanked me for having the courage to tell the truth. Never, ever have I felt so simultaneously honored and humbled. That moment remains a treasure I will carry to my end.

Finally, this subject has allowed me to talk to and exchange letters and e-mails with with veterans and war correspondents, which has been worth every minute of sweating through the work, worry, and heartache that comes with making theatre.

I feel these plays have deepened my soul. When I pick up the morning newspaper and read so-and-so many have been killed or wounded wherever they’ve been killed or wounded this day, the pictures and feelings that come to my mind may be different than yours. Not better or worse, just…different. If you have a heart, you can’t write about war without it changing you, and you can’t write about war effectively if you don’t have a heart. Sometimes I think it’s damaged me, you know? Just a little. Knowing a little too much about the worst humans can be and the most terrible things that can happen to us. Whatever I’ve learned and kept inside, It’s nothing compared to those who have been there, and it’s paid me back more than I could ever imagine.

This Memorial Day, as we approach the 10th anniversary of September 11th, I just want to take a moment thank all those who have served–and those who have reported the world’s self-inflicted catastrophes–for putting your very lives at risk. That’s it. A small and quiet acknowledgement that’s but a pebble in the ocean compared with your experience. With a special thanks, from as deep as I can reach, for those who have been so gracious to share your best and worst stories with me.

Here’s to the day when all our work becomes obsolete.

Seeing Around Corners

The unmistakable clean, sharp cutting guitar tone, with just a little hair on it. Enough to catch. Hook. The sound of Robbie Robertson’s new album, “How to Become Clairvoyant.”

A very cryptic title, that one. Honestly, I didn’t care for it when I first heard of it. It sounded just a little…corny. The title song, it turns out, is stone brilliant, and you don’t get to it until the next-to-last song. Robertson doesn’t give it up just like that. Like a good writer, he knows to make you wait.

The last song is a tribute to Django Reinhardt, who, along with Robert Johnson, seems to vie for the ultimate guitarist’s guitarist (even Les Paul bowed to him). This song bears close listening, particularly the end. And no, I’m not telling why.

I’ve liked all of Robertson’s post-Band albums, some more than others, as with all artists. “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” and “Skinwalker” are among Robertson’s best songs–a very high bar when you consider what he’s written.

This album, though, reflects a mature artist both living in the present and looking back with clear eyes. He never was The Band’s strongest singer–then again, the other guys were some of the best singers in popular music–but he has his own, distinctive tone and phrasing, and here he’s comfortable with what he can and can’t do, using his strenghts. Eric Clapton plays on about half the tracks (and co-wrote a couple, plus one instrumental’s all his writing), and Robertson seems to bring out the best in Clapton, who’s an artist who seems to thrive when collaborating.

A couple songs slip into cliches lyrically, but Robertson, like Bob Dylan, seems keenly aware of those cliches, and uses them as tools rather than crutches. There are enough songs full of original writing that there’s no fear Robertson’s slacking. Rather, he’s having fun. If you take those songs that way, you will too.

Besides the title cut, some of the killers here are “He Don’t Live Here No More,” “Won’t Be Back,” and, especially, “This is Where I Get Off.” The latter reflects the end of The Band, which, over the years, has prompted some resentments toward Robertson, particularly in Levon Helm’s very good autobiography.

It’s tough when you separate from an artistic collaborators. Close artistic partners usually have to become friends just to survive together, much less accomplish anything. You spend substantial time with them, sometimes under great pressure, and you learn their strengths and weaknesses, which you rely on or compensate for (as they do with you), resulting in a unique, complex affection. You can hear that tenderness–and pain through severance–in Robertson’s vocal. I think it’s fair to assume he misses what The Band could do as much as his listeners, but he knows it belongs to the past, especially as Richard Manuel and Rick Danko have passed on.

There’s a hint, though, of Manuel’s ghost in “This is Where I Get Off.” The album’s strong backup singers, particularly on that cut, echo The Band’s great harmonies without imitating them, including a haunting falsetto counterpoint to Robertson that recalls Manuel’s gorgeous voice, which could pull off a falsetto as well as the best Motown singers. It doesn’t come in until that song’s powerful, final chorus, and Robertson’s too careful and smart an artist for it to be coincidence. It’s heard but briefly, leaving Robertson to finish the song alone.

As it should be.