The Hell of Castanets

It’s funny but a little sobering when you bump up against your limitations.

I’ve never been even competent at any sport. None.* I have, however, had a huge interest in the arts. I’ve tried most of them: writing, painting, photography, Japanese/Chinese ink drawing, Western ink drawing, pencil drawing, crayons, sculpting, wood burning, collage, graphic arts, music, and a few others that I’d rather not think about. I’ve known better than to try dancing. And let’s not even talk about acting; actors are singularly gifted mutants.

When it was all said and done, I found my talents in writing and photography, and writing (theoretically) paid some money; so I followed that path with photography on the side. This choice was both correct and incorrect, but that’s a different story.

But music…. I love music so passionately. When I was a kid, I liked the Beatles, but I loved Beethoven. Schroeder was my favorite Peanuts character. I tried drums, trumpet, guitar, piano, organ, accordion (not that easy to play), bongos, castanets….

After all these years, I’ve developed functional skills on guitar and keyboards, but that’s about it. Castanets remain beyond me.

And I can’t sing, damn it. I can’t hear myself do anything but go off-pitch. Then I freak out and I’m embarrassed and lost. I have no sense of rhythm, and I can’t support a singer because they’re all over and around the rhythm, depending on me to keep it together. This does not help either of us.

I do have a meager talent for making weird noises.

It kills me because I love the idea of having music in my hands as well as my ears, but the idea and the reality remain so distant.

I suppose this is true of most professions: learning is hard, practicing is tedious, and success is very far away (to steal from François Villon).

Then, when you hit your confidence point, and you’re feeling a little cocky, you realize that there’s roughly a million steps to go before you can even copy the artists that have inspired you.

We’re all artists in our own way, all in our struggle with ourselves. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched a waitperson in a restaurant do their thing and thought, damn, they are good. Or a bus driver. Or an auto mechanic. Or a business manager. Or an IT tech. Or doctors, dentists, lawyers, and all the rest of you.

Of course, I’ve also lived through a few situations where I caught myself thinking, maybe this person should take a whirl with the accordion.

*I did exhibit some talent for baseball. I could hit respectably, and I could sprint for the bases, but, for some reason, they held it against me because I couldn’t catch. Go figure.

Rise and Fall of the Weird

Following below, you will find an opinion piece I wrote about Portland’s history and its effects on the city, good and not so good. Originally, I wrote it for Facebook (though a local paper that shall not be named bounced it). I think it’s a thoughtful piece that, among other things, modestly suggests ripping out skyscapers at the south end of town to build houses.

Some of it’s serious, some of it’s vaguely tongue-in-cheek, and, for balance, some it’s bonkers. Enjoy (or something along those lines).

Note: If you’re a Portlander and live in a cool old house (at least 100 years old) that you think might photograph well, please tell me about it.


I’m a playwright and photographer based in Portland, having lived here since 1989. Of late I’ve been working on a photo project called “Survivors” where I photograph Portland houses that have remained standing for over a hundred years, especially those built in the 1880s (and a few rare homes from the 1870s).

Unsurprisingly, the project has taught me a great deal about Portland’s history—both good and the bad. One thing that sticks with me is that when Lovejoy and Pettygrove flipped the famous coin to decide Portland’s name, no Tacoma, Seattle, or Spokane existed. Astoria had been established, but it faced geographic limitations to its growth. Basically, no cities stood between San Francisco and Vancouver, BC, and the question remained open whether the new town even belonged to the U.S. or England. New arrivals built the place anyway.

Things have changed a smidge since then, but this has always been a fractious city, rife with political shenanigans and corruption (and a certain amount of fun) and laced with hope. Cyclically, it has risen and faded.

It has not always treated its citizens well, often squandering its assets. It’s hard to imagine what the city would be today if Harbor Drive, a six-lane freeway, had not taken out some 79 fantastic waterfront buildings and homes in obeisance to the almighty automobile. There’s no Harbor Drive today, and Portland is (to my knowledge) the only American city to have ripped out a freeway and replaced it with a park.

Then there’s the Multnomah Hotel. A truly awe-inspiring building that had long been a centerpiece of Portland’s political and cultural life, it met its demise to be replaced by a parking garage. Eventually, that illustrious facility met its own end to become Pioneer Square, destined to become Portland’s beloved “living room.” What a lot that block has seen.

In the 1960s, wise old men decided that Portland south of the city center had become unsightly; so they used Federal funds to “revitalize” the area, tearing down 83.5 acres, demolishing an entire neighborhood built by Jewish and Italian immigrants, rife with historic homes, mom-and-pop groceries, restaurants, and shops, replacing these with a sea of boxy office buildings. The result has been a human desert where families once thrived. Personally, I’m in favor of ripping out the Bauhaus monstrosities and building houses. We need houses.

On the east side, another vibrant neighborhood of old homes, shops, and scores of jazz clubs was demolished for I-5, the Memorial Coliseum, and, later, the convention center and the Legacy Emanuel Hospital complex. This time, the displaced population was largely Black. Obviously, there’s a pattern here.

In many ways, the city’s saving grace has been its population of cranks: stubborn preservationists, activists, artists, Bohemians, hippies, punks, and other glorious riffraff who embodied an unappreciated facet of the revered pioneers. That is, a lot of the folks who trekked through the forests or risked insanely dangerous sea voyages to get here were plain weirdos who wanted to get away from stultifying normalcy so they could live as they wished.

It’s notable that William Johnson, the first white person to build a log cabin in what became Portland was a British sailor with a Native American wife and a passel of kids who moved on when other settlers showed up. Guess it was all downhill from there.

That’s been the pattern. Eccentrics and regular folks who just want to live their lives build a rich, unique place, and then other people—sometimes well meaning, other times greedy and ruthless—tear it down. We’re forever cursed by our individuality.

Right now, we’re living through a destructive period, where a huge influx of people seeking the Promised Land have brought with them the problems they sought to escape. Their money (and the ever-present greedy and ruthless) pushed away the people that they sought to become. The rootless who came here to find a bit of grace underestimated how difficult that task would be, and now they have nowhere to go. And those with the greatest dedication to their fellows, standing up against discrimination, drew the ire of some truly evil people, turning the city into a war zone.

So things aren’t so great right now, and those in pain turn to a past that, honestly, had its terrible aspects alongside fleeting moments of transcendence. I have a certain faith, however, that the stubborn, irascible weirdos will rise again, creating something unique and beautiful before they become drowned out by sensible voices, and the cycle begins all over.

Maybe the task for those of us who have survived Portland’s “good times” is not to become stuck mourning the past but, rather, to support the weirdos to come and to stand against those who will try to exploit them. We may be doomed, beautiful losers, but we have our moments, and we should recognize that we’re the folks who give the city its character and grit and its ability to build anew.

At least for a little while.

The News is a Harsh Mitterest

So, like…yeah, in the news biz, you often have to write things quickly to get the word out, but…but….

But this, from Microsoft News:
Even though there is lots that is still unknown about omicron, the new variant is concerning because of the “large number of mutations” that suggests it could be more transmissible than other variants, Fauci said.

Okay. It’s Saturday morning, and you’ve got one of those hangovers that feel like someone’s smacking the back of your head with a hammer every time you swallow, but people usually go to J-School for a reason. For instance…practicing journalism.

Hows about….
Even though much remains unknown about Omicron, the new variant raises concerns due to the “large number of mutations,” Fauci said, suggesting Omicron could be more transmissible than previous variants.

I’m thinking that took about…four minutes? Maybe three? I realize no one really cares, but it’s kind of like carpentry. You take a few extra steps, and, 100 years from now, people will admire the house you built and pay far too much money for it. Or you wrap up before lunch, and the house falls over when you proudly lean against it to have your picture taken.

That’s how editors earn their way, parasitically preying upon the weakness of others. (Note: Weddings, parties, anything. And bongo jazz a speciality.)

Everyday Terrors

For some reason, the notion of ghosts has followed me from early childhood. I blame my mother. For a good, wholesome Nebraska girl, she sure delighted in telling spooky stories. She’d begin a story told by such-and-such, way-back-when, and subtly shift into an untrustworthy narrator. Just like that. Therapy has helped.

I wrote my first story at age six. An underwater adventure, it could best be called derivative. Perhaps I had a gift for writing, or maybe it was self-defense.

Two to three years later came a stunning development in my supernatural education: some television network broadcast Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting, an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s astounding novel, The Haunting of Hill House. If you’ve never seen the film, it can scare you sideways. Double that for book. (Personally, I find the resemblance between Shirley Jackson and my mother unsettling.)
Though I’m sure that, at some point, I’d been far more frightened by life than by that film, let’s put it this way: I don’t remember those instances. Not to spoil anything, but, during the scene where the door begins breathing, I was in that room, no other reality within reach. The shock and terror and unstoppable, flowing imagery followed me straight to bed, where I was expected to sleep.

Sometime during that long night (which probably involved 15 minutes of waking consciousness), I began to realize that a relatively clever and devious individual could simply make up a story and scare people silly. (I don’t remember if I shared this realization with my mother.) I do, however, recall that the next time that The Haunting came on television, I asked if could tape it with the family tape recorder. I’m not sure how this happened, but my parents said yes. To be perfectly frank, they probably had started worrying about me long before that.
Time passed, and, at a second-hand, paperback bookstore that my family often frequented, I found a book full of true ghost stories. They had to be true—it said so right on the cover. It might have been a Frank Edwards collection. I liked his books quite a lot, and the story of the Romanian girl attacked by an invisible vampire (while the police watched the bite marks appear) truly freaked me the hell out. Hey, it says it’s all true. Right on the cover.

Those books probably provided much inspiration when I finally connected the dots and realized that I could tell ghost stories, and people would completely lose their minds, particularly when those people were my cousins, clustered together in my aunt’s stone fruit cellar. With the door shut. Atmosphere makes such a difference.

Life rudely drew my attention from ghost stories, but something—a mysterious presence, let us say—remained. I’m not much on horror movies. It’s just not my thing. But a new ghost film, hmm, I might give it a chance. (As with most ghost hunters, I almost always come away disheartened.) I grew up and I calmed down, and, though I tried not to work for the clampdown, I favored blue and brown. By chance, I found one of those true ghost story collections in a favorite bookstore and, on impulse, bought it. I didn’t even know why. Perhaps I was beginning to feel the weight of responsibility and needed a vacation I couldn’t afford to take.

I learned an amazing thing, though. True ghost stories, read right before bed, relaxed me. Maybe they echoed from childhood; maybe they blunted the future. No matter how it worked, reading true ghost stories became my go-to when I wanted to loosen up before sleep. (Not insomnia. That usually required turning to Being and Nothingness.)

So I’ve been reading these damned things for years. It’s gratifying to read the good ones, but I’m not sure that it matters. What matters is the story. I can hold aside hyperbole, credulity, and even grammar for a solid ghost story that brings the chills and fills the shadows with unease. Maybe it feels like home.

Which is a long way to say I’ve written a new, full-length play, and it’s a ghost story. Somehow, I feel like I’ve been writing it for years.

Slowly, the old, weathered door creaks open….

You know, it’s a mess in here. Everything’s covered with cobwebs, and only half of the links work. It’s probably time for some spring cleaning.

That said, I’m alive (if anyone cares), if not well, and I hope I can soon say the same about Splatterverse. Though clearly, Splatterverse is never going to be well.

Gotta’ go put on the hazmat suit. Cheers!


Playwrights West Presents a World Premiere: Claire Willett’s “Dear Galileo”

Dear Galileo thumbnail

On a beautiful August night, come explore the stars with….

Playwrights West—Portland’s professional theatre company composed of nine distinguished local playwrights—in association with CoHo Productions, proudly presents the World Premiere of Dear Galileo, written by Playwrights West’s Claire Willett and directed by Stephanie Mulligan. Dear Galileo opens Saturday, August 8, with a special VIP preview performance on Friday, August 7.

As Claire says, Dear Galileo is “a play about science, religion, fathers and daughters, sex, creationism, and the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope.”

What’s It All About?

Dear Galileo opens with a young girl asking big questions about the universe as she writes letters in her diary to one of history’s greatest scientists, Galileo Galilei. So begins a dialogue that bridges faith and science, wonder and doubt, and present and past, as three very different women in three different eras grapple with the legacies of their famous fathers:

  • In a small town in Texas, creationist author and TV pundit Robert Snow is at a loss when ten-year-old Haley’s newfound passion for science begins to pull her from the Biblical teachings of her upbringing.
  • In Swift Trail Junction, Arizona, home of the Vatican Observatory’s U.S. outpost, pregnant New York sculptor Cassie Willows arrives to find her estranged father, world-renowned astrophysicist Jasper Willows, is missing.
  • And in Renaissance Italy, Celeste Galilei lives under house arrest with her elderly father Galileo—the disgraced astronomer imprisoned for defying the Pope…and facing down the Inquisition by publishing one last book.

As the three stories weave towards convergence, each family’s destiny becomes inextricably bound with the others, linked across time by love, loss, faith, the search for identity, and the mysteries of the stars.

How Do We Get There?

Dear Galileo opens Saturday, August 8, at CoHo Theatre (2257 NW Raleigh St), and plays Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings at 7:30, and Sunday afternoons at 2:00, through August 29. Friday through Sunday tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for students/educators/seniors. All tickets on “Thrifty Thursdays” are $15, and Thursday performances include post-show talkbacks, featuring some of Portland’s most innovative theatre artists.

When Do We Really Begin?

Playwrights West invites you to join us on Friday, August 7, for Dear Galileo’s VIP Preview Performance/Gala, where a $40 ticket offers a you-are-there seat to Portland theatre history and includes a post-show talkback, a gracious reception, and some terrific company.

Where Do We Find the Answers?

For more information and tickets, go to Playwrights West or contact CoHo Productions Box Office: 503-220-2646).

You Have More Questions? Keep Reading

Who Are We?

Dear Galileo features actors Nathan Dunkin, Kate Mura, Agatha Olson, Walter Petryk, Chris Porter, Gary Powell, and Nena Salazar. The production team includes Sarah Kindler (Scenic & Properties Designer), JD Sandifer (Lighting Designer), Ashton Grace Hull (Costume Designer), Annalise Albright Woods (Sound Designer), and Nicole Gladwin (Stage Manager).

Who Are The Creators?

Claire Willett is a proud member of Playwrights West and a founding artist of the Fertile Ground Festival. She was a finalist for the 2015 Jerome Fellowship at The Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis and was the 2011 Oregon Literary Fellow for Drama. Her other works include: Carter Hall (in development with Nashville songwriter Sarah Hart, thanks to a grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council); Upon Waking; How the Light Gets In; That Was the River, This Is the Sea (co-written with Gilberto Martin del Campo); The Witch of the Iron Wood (co-written with local composer Evan Lewis); an original adaptation of W.H. Auden’s 1942 poetic oratorio For the Time Being; and The Demons Down Under the Sea, an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee,” produced in October 2014 as part of Shaking the Tree’s production of The Masque of the Red Death (a collection of Poe shorts by the writers of Playwrights West).

Ms. Willett her first novel, The Rewind Files—a time-travel, science fiction adventure about Watergate, has just been released by Retrofit Publishing in Los Angeles. Ms. Willett is also a popular, widely read blogger at: It’s Kind of a Long Story. Like Dear Galileo, her blog is the voice of a fiercely intelligent, compassionate, and spiritually attuned writer, unafraid to take on big ideas.

Stephanie Mulligan is a stage director in both the professional and educational arenas. Her favorite recent shows include The Seven Wonders of Ballyknock, Almost Home, The Outgoing Tide, Jesus Saves, The Guys, Little Women: the Broadway Musical, The Music Man, Nickel and Dimed, The Wizard of Oz, Murder Is My Business, Love’s Labor’s Lost, The Laramie Project, and The Comedy of Errors. Stephanie has worked with (and learned from) such notable American directors as James Edmondson, Penny Metropulos, John Dillon, Aaron Posner, and Nancy Keystone. She has participated in international programming, collaborating with India’s Mahesh Dattani and Lillette Dubey, Vietnam’s Do Doan Chau and Dang Tu Mai, and Australia’s Cate Blanchette, Robyn Nevin, and Andrew Upton. Ms. Mulligan’s work with many fine local companies includes Portland Center Stage, Lakewood Theatre, triangle productions!, Coho Productions, Artists Rep, Broadway Rose, and Portland Civic Theatre Guild.

Playwrights West, a professional theatre company founded in 2009 and composed of nine Portland playwrights known for the high quality of their work, focuses on presenting top-level productions of its members’ plays and supports the development of original work in Portland. The nine member playwrights are: Karin Magaldi, Ellen Margolis, Aleks Merilo, Steve Patterson, Andrea Stolowitz, Andrew Wardenaar, Claire Willett, Patrick Wohlmut, and Matthew B. Zrebski. Drawing upon a growing national movement of playwrights taking the reins for productions of their work, Playwrights West introduces Portland audiences to compelling, innovative theatrical experiences, presenting vital new plays by gifted local authors.

Why Are We Here?

  • In 2011, Dear Galileo was a finalist for the Fox Valley Collider Project, a Chicago-area initiative to support original works of theatre about math and science, and was developed with the support of a 2011 Career Opportunity Grant from the Oregon Arts Commission, a 2011 Oregon Literary Fellowship from Literary Arts, and a month-long artists residency at I-Park Artists’ Colony in East Haddam, CT.
  • In 2012, the play was produced as a staged reading in the Fertile Ground Festival by Artists Repertory Theatre, directed by Stephanie Mulligan, where the cast included Chris Porter (who returns in the role of Galileo).
  • In March 2013, Dear Galileo received a staged reading at Pasadena Playhouse in California as part of the Hothouse New Play Development Workshop Series, directed by Literary Manager Courtney Harper, with a cast that featured noted actors Robert Picardo (Star Trek: Voyager) as Jasper Willows and Lawrence Pressman (Doogie Howser M.D., American Pie, Transparent) as Galileo.
  • In Summer 2014, Willamette University in Salem—launching its new on-campus company, Theatre 33, with a summer of readings by Portland playwrights—selected Dear Galileo as their inaugural project.

Has Anything Like This Ever Happened Before?

Dear Galileo marks Playwrights West fourth full production in association with CoHo Productions, a premier supporter of new plays and original work.

Can Any One Person Explain It All?

No. But if you have questions, contact Steve Patterson.





The Modular Play: An Act of Faith

19442In 25 years of writing plays, I’ve generally worked from beginning to end. I may have a final scene in mind—sometimes an image that spurs the play’s creation. Sometimes, for tightly plotted stories, I work from an outline. Even so, when actually writing the piece, the process opens with “lights rise” and closes with “end of play.”

About a year ago, an idea came to me arising from images and voices I’d carried around for almost aa decade: American soldiers during World War II basically trying to talk themselves calm the night before a battle.

The time and locale fluctuated. D-Day seemed a natural, but also had been extensively covered, from The Longest Day to Saving Private Ryan. I considered the Anzio or North African landings, but those required explanation—and exposition. More and more, I thought of the lousy winter of ’44 and ’45, when war’s end loomed but hadn’t yet arrived.

Then an actor friend suggested I write a Christmas play, which made me laugh at first. No one would immediately associate my dark, sometimes sardonic plays with presents and cheery lights. Plus, could anything new be said of Christmas? Still, I liked the idea of writing a non-sentimental Christmas play for adults. All too often, between Scrooge, nutcrackers, and elves, the holidays seemed a reason to stay home from the theatre. Not because the existing plays were bad—simply because they were tired.

Then somehow the long-smoldering World War II play latched onto the Christmas Eve, finding the German-besieged town of Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge. I’d long been fascinated by the town’s heroic effort to stave off Panzers as ammo, food, and medical supplies ran low.* And another image came to mind: a wounded civilian, a woman, in the midst of men trying not to fall apart. And If the Fates Allow took shape.

Or rather, it took shapes. I didn’t have an ending or a beginning. All I had were voices and a setting. The play stalled. I couldn’t find a way into it. I figured, what the hell, I’d write what I had—little scenes, snapshots, snippets of conversation. I had no idea where it was going. All I could do was rely on faith that I’d written a bunch of plays—too many maybe—and I could write another, hoping a piece would find its form as had happened so many times before.

It didn’t. A nervy process ensued, where, at any time, the play might go sideways. Plays do sometimes. You get into them and find out they have an unfixable flaw or they run dry. But increasingly, I began to feel comfortable with the characters. I could feel them pushing to have their stories told. So I started thinking of scenes—some so brief as to be blackouts—as pieces of a mosaic. I’d just keep writing until I exhausted the time and place, or until the play’s form revealed itself. No matter how it turned out, I was having a great time writing it. I liked hanging out with the characters and you couldn’t beat the circumstance for drama.

Siege plays—where a penultimate event shapes the action—have a form all their own. You just keep moving forward, and they get increasingly tense. The possibility of disaster colors everything, lending weight and urgency to otherwise ordinary conversation. If a character speaks of missing home, the question hang as to whether he’ll ever see it again. Sharing a cigarette carries a sense of communion—a rite to stave off emotional collapse.

Then, as if illuminated in a camera flash, the ending appeared to me, and it completely startled me—as I hope it will the audience, and I found most of the material written previously supported the resolution. Though my conscious mind seemed to float from place to place, my unconscious had been doing its job. I still needed to properly sequence the pieces and build transitions, which essentially meant rewriting the play from beginning to end, but a great deal of the original material survived the rework, and the beginning found itself. It said: start here. I’d just been warming up to that point.

I can’t say it’s the most relaxing way to work, but it wasn’t boring, and the results worked. I think.

Would I used the “modular play” technique again? Maybe. Plays have a way of telling you how they want to be written, and there’s something satisfying in taking your hands off the wheel and letting your instincts do the driving. In a way, it’s what writers do anyhow. Even when you’re carefully laying out a piece using an outline, you have to step back and let the imagination run. We’re never much more than nominally in control of a first draft. The rewrites demand all the writer’s craft and cunning.

Putting pen to paper is always an act of faith—faith in one’s self, in your intuition, and your need for discovery. Whether you leave the diving board with your eyes open or closed, you’re still going to hit the water. And you still have to clear the rocks.

*Despite my efforts to find a fresh World War II event to write about, after completing the play, I discovered that Band of Brothers had explored the same time and place, although they looked at if from a very different angle.

(At noon, January 26, “If the Fates Allow” meets the public as a concert reading at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre, produced by Playwrights West as part of the Fertile Ground New Works Festival.)