We Can’t Lose Another OnePosted January 15th, 2016 by Sean Williams
As theater people, we’ve become accustomed to the failure rate. It can’t be helped, in the course of our careers as writers or producers or actors, we know that one show is going to do well, another will do poorly, and we can’t know ahead of time which is which. You write something, you pour your heart into it, you hand it off to a brilliant director who assembles a team of perfect, strange artists to pull off their vision, the show opens, and that’s when the vagaries of luck or circumstance hit. A reviewer doesn’t get it, a cell phone goes off, there’s a train closure… whatever it is, the show doesn’t quite work. You lose money, your audience doesn’t get it, you chalk it up to “lessons learned”.
Our response to it is always the same “Yeah, it’s just so hard.” Failure IS an option. When you attempt something audacious, you are risking failure and the risk is often accompanied by… failure! We say to each other all the time, “just focus on the work, let everything else go.” And yes, we have to. The only path to success is to focus on the work, but failure still happens. You still get to the end of a run, or even a season, and realize it *just didn’t reach the audience* the way you’d hoped.
The Secret Theatre is about to close. That is what I’m writing to you about.
Because there are any number of reasons why it is closing. The swiftly changing neighborhood – the very neighborhood that desperately needs a theater in it - is gentrifying quickly and while the landlord at the building that houses The Secret has been incredibly generous, it gets harder and harder every year to justify keeping the space open.
Also Richard Mazda, the owner/operator of The Secret, is a theater guy, an artist, not a businessman. He’s scraped by, raising funds from personal relationships and sinking his own money into the space to keep it open, but he never set up a nonprofit, never designed an aggressive donor model, never reached out to gladhand and cultivate local community support. He wanted to have a theater so we could have a theater and he focused on that. He’s a theater person, so he made plays and figured the rest would work itself out. He has attempted something audacious and risked failure and… We all know what can happen next.
The Secret Theatre is about to close. We hear this news and wince and then say, “It’s hard, it’s so hard, and I don’t know what’s become of New York…” This is a HUGE MISTAKE. We shouldn’t say that, because The Secret is not a production, it’s not a season, it’s not a play or a performance. It is a *space* where theater people can make plays.
The Secret isn’t closing in the same manner that so many other performance spaces have closed, where a hostile landlord is kicking theater people out to make way for a CVS. The Chain Theater, in the same neighborhood, has closed because the owners of the property want a different business in the space. The landlord at The Secret wants the space open, and has spent years being proud of the artistic community, offering extensions on the rent, cutting deals. They have bent over backwards to keep this space available for us, the theater community.
We can’t include the closing of The Secret in the same breath as having a production that fails to take hold, or a show where you dropped your lines, or a bad review. The Secret is a brick-and-mortar building full of lights, chairs and a door, outside of which an audience stands and behind which we make plays. And they are finally creating a nonprofit to apply for public funding, they are finally creating a community infrastructure in LIC to support the space, they are finally putting together a comprehensive and aggressive donor campaign…
But they are a year away from seeing these plans take root. Richard Mazda’s great mistake is that he kept he kept his enthusiasm focused on productions, he wanted to hear about other producers’ plans for reinventing the space for each show, he wanted to create new plays and reimagine old ones. He kept his head down and focused on the art. He’s too much like one of us. Now that he’s moved that laser-like intensity to creating a sustainable financial model, The Secret could be here for years to come.
The Secret Theatre can survive if the theater community can find a way to keep it alive. We have less than a week. Here’s how you can help –
Go here Secret Theater Fundraiser and give what you can and then please pass this link around.
Go here (physically) - Rent Party ! It’s a good old-fashioned rent party. Get a group of friends together and go.
And if it’s purely theater you love, then go here and buy tickets to City Girls and Desperadoes, starring Austin Pendleton. It’s being produced by The Secret, and you will love it.
You don’t want to hear the news two months from now, shake your head andsay, “I don’t know what’s become of New York. I don’t know why we keep losing these spaces.” This space is in jeopardy because it’s run by people with the same priorities as us, and we’ve all come to each other for help. The difference is, we’re not borrowing props now, or asking for rehearsal space, or papering a show. We’re keeping the lights on in one of our homes and without it, we’ve lost something permanent.
Letter To Sean’s BitsPosted April 21st, 2015 by Sean Williams
Okay, everyone come here for a second. Come on around, get yourself comfortable. This shouldn’t take too long.
I’m calling this meeting because we’re roughly half-way there. We’re turning 45 in a few weeks and it’s probably counting on too much good-luck and science to think we’ll all make it to 90, so let’s just… y’know… Let’s have a State of the Union, as it were.
Now, this isn’t about *blame*. Nobody’s blaming anyone, okay? I’ve treated some of you badly, some of *you* have treated *me* badly, but this shouldn’t be about blame. We’re all here, in our own way, to be “Sean” so there’s no point in singling out anyone for the job they should (or shouldn’t) have been doing.
In fact, let me start with Hair.
Hair, you’ve been great. You’ve been incredibly fun, you’ve been up for whatever I’ve asked and you’ve stayed around LONG after you’ve technically needed to. I owe you a lot, and I think in the full balance of our relationship I’ve treated you pretty fairly. I put you through hell in the 80s, sure, but at least I’ve saved you from industrial surfactants as often as I could.
In fact, let me say this now – Y’all are released. You’ve done what you were supposed to, so if you’d like to retire, you’ll get no argument from me. I mean… PLEASE, stay if you’d like, I promise we’ll keep having fun. But if you’re tired and you wanna go, that’s fine.
Knees, however… Look, it’s been complicated. I know you’ll think I pushed you, that I hurt you and didn’t take care of you and maybe you’re right, maybe that’s fair. But I was doing what I thought was best. How the hell would I know that running that much is terrible for you? But here’s the thing… You’re not done. I’m gonna need you. Pretty much constantly. So buck up. We’re gonna be mad at each other from now on, I’m pretty sure, but we’re also not going anywhere so… try to make some peace with it. Also, on my end, I promise to keep up with the PT to try to manage the pain.
Face… We’ve figured it out, haven’t we? Oh my god, do you remember – it’s gotta be 30 or 35 years ago – staring at each other in the mirror and crying, just sobbing, because you looked like an unset pudding covered in teeth, hair and oozing sores? But look at you now! Most of the scar tissue is hidden by a beard and the voices of the musical theater bitches who said, “you get much better looking once you get to know you” are all behind us. Bear with me because this will sound dramatic and poetic, but I’d almost say we’ve found the beauty in your ugliness, haven’t we? Plus, you’re *literally* the face of the organization, so I really should support you to the best of my ability.
Eyes, though. Jesus, you guys are really falling down on the job. If we’re half way there, you guys are petering out *early*. Look, I don’t want to say this in front of everyone, but you guys have basically sucked since the late 70s. And now you’ve decided that not only can I not look at trees, I also shouldn’t be able to read? Jesus. I know, you’re gonna say you’re getting old and I get that but shit… you couldn’t have held on *any longer*?
Throat – I know I haven’t treated you very well – but you have been kind of a drama queen, haven’t you? Yes, the reflux is not your fault, and obviously the heavy drinking and smoking and all the rest didn’t help… but I can’t help but notice that *a lot* of my friends did the same things? And their throats are okay. I will take the blame up to a point, I added way more pressure than I should have, but come on – be honest. You couldn’t have handled even an easy life. And it sucks because had you been stronger, we coulda made a lot more money, you and me.
Back, obviously, thank God, right? For someone I’ve never actually seen, you have been the most consistent thing in my life. Hours standing in a recording studio, years spent catering, chair lifting “actors who move” and now, lifting and carrying children who are actively trying to break you, you’ve been absolutely AWESOME. The very, very few times that you’ve let me know you were hurt, you got better *immediately*. Oh my god, I’m so lucky to have you. Almost everyone I know is having problems with theirs, and you’ve been just great.
Hands, you guys have also been awesome. Anything you haven’t done, it’s because Brain didn’t really try that hard. Anything you’ve done well is because you guys were always totally willing, and a lot of that shit was hard! Jesus, you guys played violin! Seriously, nice job, y’all.
And Teeth, you guys have been pretty good. Genetically, I deserve way worse, but you guys have taken care of everything I’ve ever pushed your way. I wish you weren’t all lined up like a very old picket fence, and there was that business with the wisdom teeth back in the day, but overall you’ve been pretty good. Tongue – you too. And I don’t blame you guys for the eating, you just dealt with whatever was shoveled your way. Oh and Hands? I also don’t blame the hands for doing the food shoveling.
No. That’s not your fault. I think we all know who’s fault it is.
Stomach. You’ve been… awful. You’ve driven way too much of the decision making around here, you’ve pushed for self-destructive behavior, you’ve made it harder on everyone here to do their job – seriously, Knees are totally pissed off at you all the time – and in return you haven’t even worked efficiently.
I’ll get to Dick in a second, Stomach, so don’t tell me that *he’s* been driving all the decisions more than you have. You’re WAY worse.
God, it’s just been terrible. Demanding fat-rich spicy food in huge quantities, creating a constant sense of being empty even when full, desperately craving anything mass-produced and individually wrapped and then… giving us reflux? What the hell?
We’ve got years and years to go, but you might as well know that I feel trapped in the prison you’ve created for me. Not a minute goes by that I don’t feel your crushing mediocrity, your humiliating abject failure, being broadcast to the world. Walking around all day, I have to follow behind this banner declaring “No Self Control” and “Bad Genetics”, sitting down I feel my belt buckle and shirt strain against the weight of a thousand terrible decisions and then as soon as I lie down at night, I have to suffer the waves of acidic indignity.
You’re the worst.
Now Dick, you’ve actually been surprisingly cool. Probably second only to Brain in terms of providing entertainment, both with friends and by myself. And while I know that other people’s Dicks have led them into terrible situations, you’ve actually been pretty awesome. Yes, the first marriage can be blamed almost *entirely* on you (with some Brain malfunctions added in) but I actually learned most of my important life lessons from that marriage and in the end, it was probably a good thing.
Also, I appreciate how game you were back in the 80s and 90s, and a whole host of our friends were appreciative as well. A lot of people weren’t sure what to do with their given genitals, and you were always really good at being available but not pressuring. And it’s *incredibly nice* that in the last ten or so years, you’ve totally chilled out and let Brain make most of the decisions without much interference.
Also… I mean, you gave me my life. Without the kids, I’d be absolutely fucking nothing. Nothing. You gave them to me and for that I will always be grateful.
Lastly… Brain. You are just the most mercurial little bastard, aren’t you? The years I’ve spent asking for focus and getting none, only to get intense overload in the wee hours of the morning. The way you hear a sentence and create a whole meaning for it out of context. The way you find and embrace criticism and disregard compliments. The way you refuse to listen to the things you need to hear because you’re too busy dwelling on minutiae that has no effect on your life.
THE WAY YOU LET STOMACH MAKE ALL THE DECISIONS.
You can be an asshole, let’s just put the cards on the table. But you’re also wonderful. Without you, I wouldn’t have Jordana. I wouldn’t have my friends, I wouldn’t have Gideon Productions. And the way you experience music and theater and art – the way you shut down your most critical faculties and just let the work crest over you… I think there have been times when that was what saved me from literal self-destruction.
Now, it took us some years, but I think we’ve got the chemistry worked out. I appreciate that you’re still feisty as hell, still able to pull out a good 1600 word rant, but that you no longer seriously consider a hard right turn off a bridge. It’s been a tough road, but it feels like you’ve got at least some of it worked out.
Okay. Guys, I’m sorry, I can’t get to everyone. Let’s just say everyone I haven’t talked to… you guys are functioning at… y’know… let’s say a B-minus. But please don’t let your performance slip just so you can be addressed directly at the “Turning Fifty In A Few Weeks” evaluation in five years.
We’re half way there, if we’re lucky. So let’s keep working together and see if we can’t do a little bit more with the second half. I’m pretty sure we can all do better. I know I can.
Pursuing FailurePosted March 25th, 2015 by Sean Williams
Barnaby: Okay, I have to start my homework now, Daddy, and I’m *pretty sure* I’m not gonna get all of it done.
Me: Why’s that?
Barnaby: There’s way too much homework. I have a reading response and spelling and math and I have to finish my travel brochure for India.
Me: That does sound like a lot.
Barnaby: It does, right?
Barnaby: So, do you think I’m gonna get it all done?
Me: I don’t know, what do you think?
Barnaby: Well, it’s a lot of homework. If I had to choose? If I had to say whether or not I could get it all done? I think I’d say there’s too much homework and I can’t get it all done.
Me: Well, kiddo, you know I don’t care if you do any of it.
Barnaby: You don’t?
Me: No, you don’t have to do any of it, as far as I’m concerned. The truth is, it isn’t really teaching you anything, you’ve already been at school for eight hours today, it really doesn’t matter to me if you do it.
Barnaby: Okay, well… I should probably start my homework, though.
(Cut to half an hour later. His spelling is done, his math is done.)
Barnaby: Okay, but Dad? I have two big writing projects to do, and I’m not sure I’ll get them both done.
Me: Well, if you don’t, you’ll have a really good excuse why you didn’t.
Barnaby: Yeah. (Beat) Wait, what do you mean?
Me: I mean, if you fail to get both pieces done, you’ll have a really good excuse, right? You had a lot of homework and it would have been really hard to do all of it.
Barnaby: (laughing) Daddy! You’re supposed to tell me to do all of this!
Me: I am?
Barnaby: Quit joking around!
Me: Barnaby, I promise you, from the bottom of my heart, I don’t actually care if you do any of this. If you tell me you want to watch a video, then we can sit and watch a video.
Barnaby: So you think I *shouldn’t* do this work?
Me: Oh no! Not at all, I think you *should*.
Barnaby: Then why did you say I had a good reason not to do it?
Me: I can’t *make* you do it, you decide what you’re gonna do. I don’t care. And if you go in tomorrow with your homework not done, your teachers probably won’t care either. You’ve got a good reason *not* to do it and if you *do* do it, it won’t really make that much of a difference.
Barnaby: So, why are you telling me that?
Me: Look, most people go into most things trying to figure out the reason they’re about to fail. Believe me, almost everyone I know has a stack of reasons *this high* for why they are gonna fail to do stuff – even the stuff they actually want to do.
Barnaby: Why do they do that?
Me: Well, first of all, it isn’t ‘they’, it’s me too. And I don’t know why we do it. I really don’t. But it isn’t everybody. I know a lot of people who are really successful at stuff, who don’t fail at stuff.
Barnaby: You don’t fail at stuff.
Me: (laughing) I don’t? I mean… honey, I fail at stuff all the time.
Barnaby: Like what?
Me: Dude, I might be failing *right now*. Maybe I’m supposed to get angry at you for obviously wasting time talking to me instead of doing your homework.
Barnaby: DAHAD!! I’m not wasting time, we’re *TALKING*!!!
Me: Right. This is what you do. You ask interesting questions to try to get people to talk so you don’t have to do your work.
Barnaby: (laughing) No! I ask interesting questions because people have interesting stuff to talk about!
Me: (laughing) The fact that you think people are interesting is actually one of the things about you that I’m most proud of.
Me: QUIT STALLING. Kid, if you want to do this, then do it. If not, then let’s go do something else.
Barnaby: Well, should I choose one of them to do? If I don’t do both of them, should I choose one?
Me: Whatever you want.
Barnaby: I’ll start with the reading response, and when I get that done, then I’ll see.
(Cut to half an hour later. His reading response is done. He’s rubbing his hand because it really hurts.)
Barnaby: Daddy, I think I’m going to do the travel brochure now.
Me: Okay. Do you want me to write some of it for you?
Barnaby: Don’t you think I should write it myself?
Me: Either way. But you know your hands get tired and I’m supposed to scribe for you if your hands hurt.
Barnaby: But other kids do all their homework on their own.
Me: Yeah, but they don’t have the same problems that you do. Their hand muscles are different.
Barnaby: That’s why it’s harder for me?
Me: It isn’t harder for you. It’s easier for you.
Barnaby: DAHAD! It’s *harder* for me! My hands don’t work like other kids!
Me: Look, dude, everything is hard for everyone. The difference between you and other kids is that we know what’s hard for you and we can help you. Most other kids? Their parents have to work really late and they have to do their homework at school. Or they only have one parent. Or they don’t speak English at home and so they’re the only one who understands the assignment. Or they have a whole bunch of brothers and sisters who are all running around yelling.
Barnaby: Or they don’t have pencils.
Me: (laughing) I mean… I suppose that’s possible, but probably not in our neighborhood.
Barnaby: What else?
Me: Well, what if they have an older brother who takes up all their parents’ time with his homework so they have to sit in the other room playing by themselves?
Barnaby: Like Marlena?
Me: Yeah. I mean, she’s got none of the same problems you have, but she’s got her own struggles. The reason stuff is *easier* for you is because we’ve had specialists and counselors from here to Timbuktu telling us all the different ways you’ve developed differently and how we can help. And most other kids have a ton of things that are hard but nobody has ever said, “it’s because of this or that”, so nobody is trying to help them.
Barnaby: That’s really terrible.
Me: Look, it all works out in the end. You’ve been given a hundred advantages. I mean – I might be doing all this wrong, but I am sitting here. Just the fact that I’m sitting here means you’ve got it easier than most kids. You might have been born with some delays and stuff, but every single step you’ve ever taken has been made easier for you.
Barnaby: So, I’m really lucky?
Me: I don’t know. I really don’t. I don’t know if it’s good or bad that you’ve been helped every step you’ve taken. I know so many people who have a lot of money, but who talk about being poor, and I know a lot of people who say they deserve more than they’re getting when they have a ton of stuff. I know a lot of people who think their lives are really hard and awful when their lives are actually totally awesome. Most people decide they want to do something – like they want to have kids or start a company or get in shape or whatever – and then they talk about all the reasons that it’s *impossible* for them to do it right. They have *all these reasons* why it just won’t ever work… and that’s for the things they *chose* to do.
Barnaby: Why do they do that.
Me: Sweetie, it isn’t even ‘they’. It’s *me too*. I do this all the time, and it’s annoying and I don’t want you to do it. I mean… I’m just about the luckiest person that has ever lived ever. Every single day, I’m the luckiest person.
Barnaby: Because of me!
Me: (laughing) Yes. Totally. I got the perfect kids for me, I have, like, basically a perfect life. But I still get these horrible thoughts that I’m a failure, that I can’t do all the things I want to do, that I can’t be a success.
Barnaby: What do you want to do?
Me: DUDE!!! Listen, if you want to talk, I’ll talk. But I’m sick of sitting here. Let’s be done with your homework, I’ll just write your teachers a note and tell them I said you didn’t have to do this brochure.
Barnaby: No! No. (pause) I’ll do it.
Me: Well, if you’re gonna do it, then do it.
Barnaby: Can you write some of it for me?
Me: Of course. You’re gonna have to spell the words, though, if I ask and I’m gonna write them the way you tell me.
Me: And if you want to write stuff yourself, just tell me.
Barnaby: Okay. Daddy? I think I’m gonna *start out* writing? And if my hand gets tired, I’ll have you write stuff.
Me: Totally. You do as much of it as you feel like you can do and as soon as you need my help, just ask me. That’s what I’m here for.
How I’d Do It.Posted March 10th, 2015 by Sean Williams
There is a well-known proposal in place that would call for producers to pay all their artists a minimum wage in Los Angeles, for the 99-seat and under union contract. I’ve thought a lot about this.
Am I in favor of this proposal? I mean… I’ve never been the guy who considers these things very much. On this blog, I’m not speaking as a mouthpiece for Gideon, let me make that clear, but we basically look at the world and say, “here’s what *is*, here’s what we want, let’s make it work.” In our group, it never occurs to any of us that we can change that first thing, we just focus on the last.
Also? I hate Los Angeles. And I’ve earned it, I put in the years, man and boy. I know where all the Del Tacos are, I know how to get from Monrovia to The Beach on side streets… I’m allowed to hate it. So who the hell cares what I think?
But this proposal could very well affect how we do business in New York. It *won’t*, of course, because the union knows that would be a terrible idea. They understand the value of what the indie theater world is already doing and we’ve got a relatively useful agreement right now that both sides like. But I’ve been wondering how I would handle it if it *did*.
The first thing I’d do is cut rehearsal time *way* down and hold rehearsals during the day. We can get space for much less during the day and we would get scripts to the actors well before rehearsals start and let them know they have to show up off book.
Would we be under-rehearsed? I don’t know, honestly. I’ve been in shows where actors weren’t off-book after four weeks of rehearsal and we still survived opening night. Actors won’t let themselves look like assholes. Maybe we would be under-rehearsed, but actors sometimes don’t take care of stuff no matter how much time they’re given.
So, we cut rehearsal time down to 30 hours total. That’s $270 per actor.
I would also focus on doing only scripts with, say, less than six actors. I chose six because our show Viral has five and I totally, totally love Viral. So… yeah, totally arbitrary.
We wouldn’t have produced Universal Robots, Advance Man, Blast Radius or Sovereign. Now, those are probably four of our most beloved plays… but losing them doesn’t mean the world is ruined or whatever. I love all of those plays, but I DON’T love them more than Frankenstein Upstairs (four actors) Ligature Marks (two) or the afore-mentioned Viral. We would simply have had to prioritize differently.
I would cut the runs down to two weeks, probably, and fit as many shows in those two weeks as possible. So, we would cut the space rental budget by two thirds in rehearsal and a third in performance. We generally sell X number of tickets per show, regardless of the length of the run, so even if we sell .8X tickets, we’re paying .66Y for rental and it would still work out. And we might even work exclusively outside of Manhattan to save money.
We would produce shows that were 90 minutes or less. This gives the actors a half hour call, and the show would still be only two hours. That’s $18 a show. That’s another $250 per actor. Obviously, an actor is *allowed* to show up before half hour – and if they *want* to hang out afterwards and talk to people they can, but they’d be off the clock as employees.
So… what we’re looking at is $270 for rehearsal and $250 for the performances, which comes out to only $20 more for the production than we’re paying now.
Yes. The actors would have to do a great deal of the work on their own, outside of rehearsal. And if they wanted to do extra rehearsals and run lines with each other, they can find space to do that on their own. And yes, when the show closes fourteen days after it opens, it doesn’t really give you any time to actually grow into the performance.
And most importantly, YES, it sets up the sense that we’re not all in this together. That the producers/writers/directors are the owners of the show and the actors/designers are *literally* employees, not investors. It would be *extremely* difficult for groups of artists who are loosely defined to feel good about moving effortlessly from one artistic assignment to another and there might be a sense of resentment, should actors be asked to drum up audience or share stuff on social media.
But… maybe that’s why they won’t do it in New York.
I mean, the truth is that every producer I know would be much happier running our productions for five weeks rather than three. Every actor I know would be as well. The *reason* we run it for three weeks is because of the economic reality of New York and the agreement with the union. If we were, say, used to a $1000 credit from the city, a $30 ticket price and a five week run, we would COMPLETELY FREAK OUT, if we were given the showcase code. And a lot of us might bail. But then… a lot of us wouldn’t.
We’re creative people. We see what is and find a way around it.
Now, I know, this seems like I’m saying the union deal is bad for actors and it very well may be. I know that should they propose that here, it would be *hard* for the *artistic side* of being an actor, but I simply have no idea what “bad” even means, and I completely disagree that it would be “untenable”.
But my only thing is this… We’ve gotten creative with space here in New York. We’ve basically got an entire underground movement in NY with doing Site-Specific Theater. Our single biggest expense is real estate because New York real estate prices are insane, so we work around it.
Isn’t Los Angeles basically underwater when it comes to real estate? And I know – I KNOW, I lived there – there are some neighborhoods that are better than others. BUT… Here in New York? Why is there an amazing, incredible, award-winning theater in *Bushwick*? Remember when that was a terrible neighborhood? I did a show in Jamaica that sold out its entire run. If you look down your nose at a sketchy neighborhood, but you also can’t pay your artists… I don’t know…
If I could find a 40 seat theater for $175 a day… I would basically rent it out for about six months and then just fill it with shows. Because that’s $1225 a week. And look! I found one of those in Los Angles just now on the ol’ internet! I did a search for “Theater Rentals Los Angeles” on Google.
Maybe that space is shit. But there are *no* warehouses? There are *no* giant living rooms? Everyone drives, so don’t tell me you need to be close to a train… I don’t know…
But I know this – if the union pushes a contract on the independent producers of theater that seems unmanageable, they’ll find a way to manage it. And out of the groups that manage it, one or two of them will produce really, really good theater. If the union pushed that deal on us here, a bunch of us would stop producing, a bunch of us would go non-union… but a bunch of us would figure it out.
The basic theme of my entire blog over the years is this – we might not get what we thought we were promised. These agreements? These categories? This is all invention anyway. These were all negotiated with dated data by people no longer in the game. Shit’s gonna change.
Maybe this is a terrible deal for Los Angeles theater, and maybe the actors there know it and will fight it. I want them to fight for the best possible circumstances for them to be supported in their work. I’m not exactly sure what that means, of course, but I also know better than to think one way is *right* and the other way is *impossible*.
Just This OncePosted March 3rd, 2015 by Sean Williams
The man down the street said, “I’ve shoveled snow about 15 times already this winter and it was 40 degrees yesterday. Just this once, I’m not going to go out there and hack through the ice, I just can’t do it again.”
The man down the street, a different man, said, “Well at least *I’m* shoveling the snow in front of my house, unlike the guy with the sheet of ice. But shit, I’ve got a path that a person can walk down safely, just this once, I’m not going to dig out the entire sidewalk.”
The woman down the street says, “Oh Jesus. Why did the dog have to shit right here on the sidewalk? You know what? I’ve been picking up dogshit twice a day, every day, all winter. Just this once, people can walk around it. It’s one dog, one piece of shit, it’s not that big a deal.”
The mom from another neighborhood says, “I can’t even deal with the snowbanks any more. I’m gonna stop in the crosswalk and let my kid out. It’s too goddam cold, just this once I’m not gonna double park down the street and walk my kid in.”
Another mom says, “oh my GOD. That woman is parked *in the crosswalk!* What a fucking *bitch*. I know it’s cold, that’s why just this once I’m gonna double park in the bike lane in front of the ice-sheet covered sidewalk and walk my kid in. I’m going to let the car idle for the three minutes I do that because it’s cold and the inside of my car might drop a few degrees when I open the door.”
A man says, “I’ve waited through one green signal without making it through the intersection. I’ve already waited through a *whole cycle* of lights. Just this once, even though the light isn’t *yellow*, even though it’s *fully red*, and even though this is a crosswalk in front of a school, I bet I can make it through and nobody will do anything. I’ll get away with it, I won’t get a ticket.”
These people are special. The rules say you shovel your walk, you pick up your dog shit, you don’t let your car idle, you don’t park in a crosswalk, you don’t run a red light. And the reason none of us say, “there oughta be a law” is because there *is* a law. All of these things are illegal. The guy standing in front of his triple-parked, idling car, smoking a cigarette? That guy is breaking the law three ways.
I was in the park one day at noon with my two year old daughter and a man let his two dogs off the leash. I asked him to grab his dogs, the ones that had already knocked my kid over and he said, “they’re fine”. I told him to put them on a leash and his response was, “call a cop, asshole”.
These people are special.
Now, I’m special too. Everyone told me a career in the arts would be impossible, and I said, “for *you* maybe! But I’m clearly *special*!” And I pursued a career in the arts. A career that has never once endangered anyone’s lives. A career that breaks no laws.
The fact that people have to have *a grownup* standing next to them *forcing* them to obey laws that we’ve taken the time to put through committee, voted on, created signs for and then posted them, is astonishing. “Call a cop”, they say, if you want common decency and the human instinct to protect our young. If you want your neighbors to live up to their civic duty, if you want a shared sense of responsibility, you can’t just pass laws and put up signs. YOU HAVE TO LITERALLY CALL THE POLICE.
This winter is hard on everyone. It’s hard on the people I’ve spoken about.
And then it’s hard on the woman with two children, walking slowly across the ice-floe covered sidewalks, walking in single file down the least-I-can-do shoveled sidewalk, pulling her kids around the dogshit, yanking her kids out of the way as two more cars blow through the red light, walking into traffic and slush to avoid the car parked in the crosswalk, avoiding the old men smoking in front of their idling car. It’s hard on her as well.
The difference is, she isn’t a lazy ass piece of shit with a moral compass that spins in whichever direction is “only as hard as I feel like working, and no harder, no matter who it fucks over.”
Theater Review – Three Little PigsPosted February 24th, 2015 by Sean Williams
I have to admit, it’s a powerful and charming concept. The director decided to use non-actors, people who had nothing to do with the theater at all, and stage the thing in a found space (in this case, a preschool in Queens). Once she had gone that far she went even farther, to her credit, and used 14 *actual four year olds* to stage the show.
But while it’s a charming idea, it didn’t quite work. First of all, there was no consideration for the fact that a show like this would almost certainly sell out, so there was very little room for the audience. I had to actually stand at the back. Secondly, there was no announcement about cell phones or recording, so virtually every single person had their phone out, making a video of the performance. The one saving grace is that they seemed to reach the non-theater audience that we’re always trying to find – very young, very racially diverse (many seemed to speak English as a second language) and deeply, deeply invested in the program. If the off-Broadway community could reach this audience, we would have nothing to worry about.
Apparently, from what I gathered before-hand, the cast was divided up and given theatrical assignments almost at random. Again, a powerful idea, as if the art of theater is really the art of a communal artistic statement made whole by the co-joining of disparate and often random voices. Overall, the idea worked without any of the cast really failing at their assignments.
Well… except perhaps the playwrights. I don’t want to give any spoilers in case there are any out there who *haven’t* read anything about the production and don’t know the source material, but there are a series of Jungian archetypes representing Sloth, Avarice, Charity and Wrath as embodied by three pigs and a wolf. It’s no surprise that pigs are known as “little” and the wolf is both “big” and “bad”, as it’s really the central struggle between Wrath and the other three that forms the spine of the book.
But it gets muddied in this production. There are various salesmen, selling straw and sticks, there are people who tend the fire in the brick house and there was not one but *two* narrators. I suppose the point could be to demonstrate how desperate theater people are for attention, how needy and how important it is to be actually *on stage*. The problem was, even with the tag team of narrators pushing the action, the piece still dragged.
And you could tell that different audience members were more invested in some characters than others. Pulling out their phones to record or photograph only specific characters and then largely sitting mute for the rest. It’s a testimony to the commitment of the director that everyone in the audience seemed to be transported, even when their favorite characters weren’t featured.
Honestly, I found myself suffering from the same problem. There was a young woman at the back – I suppose a girl, actually, as she is four years old – who had my attention the entire time. From what I understand she was in charge of the costumes (which could explain why almost every character was wearing pink) but that didn’t stop her from jumping up and down, smiling and making faces, and almost constantly waving at… well, at *me*, it seemed.
Although I know that the very best actors make you feel like you’re the center of their attention, I couldn’t help but be swept away by this girl’s enthusiasm and obvious joy that I was there, watching the show. And while I hate to dwell too much on appearances, especially with actresses just starting, I have to say – I was utterly captivated by her beauty. There was something about looking at her face, her simple plain joy at being with her friends, being with the audience and particularly knowing that I was there, that made me feel not just that I was in the perfect place at the perfect time in my life, but that it’s entirely possible that the world itself might be improved by the existence of this perfect little person…
That being said, most of the play was deeply boring. And the fact that I had to stand in the back while every single audience member held their phones (and in some cases *actual iPads*) in front of my face was incredibly frustrating. Once the piece was over, the cast mingled with the audience, doling out high-fives and hugs. However, I wasn’t surprised when one of the people there, a dark haired woman who seemed to be deeply invested in a dark haired girl that looked almost exactly like her, said, “It was *cute*?… but it wasn’t *the cutest*”
Unfortunately, this review is coming out just after the run ended. And I’m not sure I can recommend the production for anyone, unless you’re a fan of basically *any* kind of theater. But as I was leaving, I noticed a face in the window, that perfect little blonde girl, still smiling at me and I may be wrong but just before she went back to the dressing room with the rest of the cast, I saw her blow me a kiss. And suddenly, it was the greatest piece of theater I’ve ever seen.
Theater Review- My DogPosted February 6th, 2015 by Sean Williams
The conceit of this piece may be tough at first, but if you’re willing to go along for the ride we believe it’s ultimately worth the investment.
This piece is done almost totally without dialogue – more on that in a moment – so technically it should be considered more of a ballet and a study of movement than anything else.
The dog, “Hildy”, remains motionless for what seems to be an interminable amount of time. At first, she seems to be a study in chocolate (a “chocolate lab”, if you will) but the longer you watch her, the more she looks like a rolling expanse of deeply fertile ground. Almost like Hills and the audience may be moved to consider her name as an initial clue about what the piece means.
Named after Hildegard Von Bingen, a mystic and polymath of twelfth century Germany, you might at first believe you’re experiencing something both disciplined and expansive – a deep and constant search for knowledge both wordly and supernatural. But then it dawns on you – her name was given to her by her “Owners”. Is it not actually an example of both tone-deaf hubris and pretension? Does it not lessen both The Saint and The Dog to share this name?
As soon as we begin to question these things, the play springs into action. A sound, unheard by the audience, alerts the dog that something is happening outside the theater. And the shift is stunning. This rolling mass of pure relaxation becomes a bristling, guttural spring-coil of alarm. Without moving a muscle, every audience member’s heart begins to race.
It’s astonishing. We know there’s something out there, something we can’t see or hear, something that she is both terrified of and bravely stands in opposition to. And it occurs to each of us – this has been happening to us, to the audience, for some thirty thousand years. There has been one wolf who sits by the fire and, for some reason, warns us that other wolves are approaching and warns them not to come any closer.
When it occurs to us that it’s a neighbor receiving delivery Shwarmania, (and we realize it long before The Dog does), we feel duped and angry – our sympathetic nervous system activated for no reason – and we do what every audience member (now clearly defined as Dog Owner) does. We yell at Hildy shut the hell up.
It’s remarkable how quickly she does, and the next action makes up the third and final state that she delivers to us. Wordlessly, but with what definitely feels like dialogue, she comes up to the audience and simply looks. But we can tell, the wagging tail, the perked up ears, the eyebrows arched, we can tell that all she wants is for us to tell her she’s done well.
And this is the true magic of the piece. When she approaches the audience, we find ourselves scratching her chest and telling her not just that she’s a “Good Dog”, but that she’s the very best dog that has ever been a dog. This pattern is repeated throughout the performance and on occasion, audience members have been reduced to baby talk and the kind of heightened praise usually reserved for perfect spelling tests of young children.
Up to this point, we’ve seen the three acts of the performance. 1) The Dog At Rest, (which may seem to be static but actually contains innumerable shifts and contortions), 2) The Dog On Guard, (a quick, unsettling explosion of activity that unnerves more than the best horror plays) and 3) The Dog Who Begs (which should be annoying, but thanks to the incredible talents of The Dog is actually adorable).
And then we come to the strange payment method for the production. There are no tickets, no seats, no program but at two different times during the 24-hr performance, The Dog comes to the audience with Act Three, and we are compelled to fill her dish with food. Ten minutes after that, we have to walk the dog to the park, let her shit and then pick up her shit with a bag.
(I can see how that might be a deal breaker for other theater goers. Especially in bad weather.)
While technically this is an audience participation piece, you can give as much or as little as you want. We spent most of the performance sitting on our laptop, watching TV, working on grant proposals and new scripts, really almost anything other than watching The Dog.
But this is a good thing. It’s a deeply relaxing and reassuring piece. As opposed to The Cat (playing elsewhere in the neighborhood) the production contains no ambivalence, the character is very simply played and the motivations are crystal clear. The Dog loves you, wants to protect you and every once in a while, wants to be fed and petted. This reviewer enjoys The Dog FAR MORE than The Cat in almost every regard. Other theatergoes are not wrong when they say The Cat is an asshole.
Ultimately, it’s a deeply satisfying production in every possible way. Perhaps the only real downside is the knowledge that it’s a limited run, due to genetics, and when the show closes after a dozen or so years it will simply break your heart into a million pieces.
Diapers and SpiralsPosted February 2nd, 2015 by Sean Williams
Growing up, in movies and TV shows where Parenting was either mythologized (with moms) or used as character-building shorthand (for dads), I always heard these cliches…
“I mean, I don’t even know how to change a diaper…”
“I want to be there when he takes his first steps…”
“I wonder what her first word will be…”
“I can’t wait to teach them how to ride a bike, how to throw a spiral, to play catch in the yard…”
Now, I don’t know if the world is different significantly now or if none of this was ever true. Or maybe it’s just that I live in New York or have weird kids or… I suppose it’s possible that I’ve just been doing it wrong. But *none* of this has been applicable to having babies for me. Taken one at a time…
There was a time when you had a ripped off sheet of muslin and a hand grab of sheep’s wool to diaper your baby, but that was 800 years ago. For the last four or five generations of Americans, there have been people (often scientists) (YEAH! SCIENTISTS!) who have been cutting out specially shaped pieces of fabric that will fit your baby perfectly.
I don’t care if you’re going single-use-disposable-landfill-clogging diapers or reusable-waterwasting-fecesleaking diapers (I genuinely don’t care, there’s no good solution for getting rid of poop before people are flushing it, so do your thing and *don’t get judgey*), either way, you won’t have any trouble figuring out how they work. They’re idiot proof. And by day eight, you’ll have changed at least 40. Even if you’re an idiot, you’ll know how to do it by week two.
And seriously – if you *don’t*? If you can’t figure out diapers? Here’s what happens. You get covered in poop. Your baby pees right into your face. But guess what! Even if you’re a diaper GENIUS, your baby is gonna shit on you at some point. Not even at some point – at a bunch of points.
It’s summer? You’re gonna be hot. It’s winter? You’re gonna be cold. You’re having a baby? You’re gonna get shat on.
STEPS AND WORDS
I have a video of my son walking from two weeks before Thanksgiving. He was born in the middle of December, so I have video evidence that he was walking at roughly eleven months. Why, then, do I usually say he was 14 months when he started walking?
Because there are no first steps. He had probably taken steps before that video and he probably didn’t take steps again for two or three weeks after it. That wasn’t the first time he walked, and it didn’t even really count as “walking”. (He didn’t, like, go to the deli and get me a sandwich or anything, so I don’t really count it as “walking” anyway.)
Ugh, it’s the most frustrating thing about having kids. You want it to be a mountain your baby climbs, where she puts a hand up, pulls herself to the top and there she is, at the summit. But that’s not what happens, it’s just this long amble up a hill. You won’t know how far you’ve come until you look back and see how far down the starting point was.
There aren’t first steps, there’s no first word.
What’s really fun, once your kids are out of the toddler phase, is watching videos of them before they could talk and realize they were talking the whole time. You know their voice now, you didn’t then, and you can even make out words and thoughts, you know what songs they’re singing at 13 or 14 months.
People used to think there were first steps and first words. That’s because parents used to put kids in playpens and ignore them for hours, only paying attention when something non-simian happened. It wasn’t until one of the kids clearly said, “make mine a double” that they realized the baby was copying their language.
THROWING A BALL
This will be where most people will say I’m full of shit, but I honestly believe that you can’t teach anyone anything. Not even your kids. You can show them how you do something, you can insist that what you’re showing them is the right way, but it’s up to them to learn it.
You can do a thing 500 times in front of someone, they still won’t know how to do it. Don’t believe me? How many times have you watched your favorite sport? Do you think you can actually play it?
You can even stand next to someone while they do something and re-direct them so they do it right. Sure, that’ll work, but only that one time. You line up a shot in pool, take your time, focus and then hit the ball in… BUT if you don’t go get the ball out of the pocket and line up everything exactly the same way again, you’ll never actually *learn* that shot.
Musicians know this, it’s why we sit and play scales forever, even once we’re good. Why do basketball players still practice their jump shots, even when they’ve made it to the NBA? Because nobody *taught* them a jumpshot, they have to keep *learning it* every single day.
Nobody can teach you anything. It’s up to you to learn it. And if you think you’re gonna spend a lot of time teaching your kids? You aren’t gonna be ready for what parenting actually is. It’s mostly watching them, desperately trying to stop yourself from a) yelling at them to do it how you showed them or b) just yanking whatever-it-is out of their hands and doing it yourself.
BONUS: AN ACTUAL LIFE-CHANGING DEVELOPMENT
One day, your baby will be sitting up. They’ll lose their balance and start to tilt back, but they’ll move their hands forward slightly and not fall back. This will happen a few times.
This will be the most important thing that happens during the first 9 months.
Before this happens, you will spend every single second either holding the baby or sitting within a foot of your kid with your hand at the ready so you can catch their head when they fall backwards. Or the baby will be on his back, about to start bitching. Or on his stomach, about to start bitching. Sitting up, they’re happy. Right up until they fall backwards, hitting that soft monkey-brain hemisphere on the tile and lowering their SATs by 40 points every time they do it.
Once they can sit safely on their own and not brain themselves falling backwards, your radius around the kid moves from zero feet to twelve feet. If she starts crawling towards an extension chord or puts a xanax she found on the floor in her mouth, you can get to her before she’s done any harm.. But finally, after however-many-months, you will have a baby in the room who’s awake, content and sitting on the floor. You’ll stand up, hands on your hips stretching and cracking your back and you’ll notice, for the first time in months, that your upper shelves desperately need dusting.
This will be the first real freedom you’ll feel. The next time you feel this way is when you drop off your youngest at their first full-time day of school. For me, the gap between the first and second glimpses of freedom was from May of 2007 to September of 2014.
That was another thing that I was not ready for.
ChildrenPosted February 2nd, 2015 by Sean Williams
I wasn’t ready for kids. AT ALL. And I was old, I’d been around kids, all my friends were doing this together and I had a ton of support. But MAN… I was not ready.
In a stunning development, absolutely nothing is the same now as it was when we were babies so there’s no point in checking in with our own parents or grandparents. We don’t make baby books, we don’t bronze shoes, we don’t shoot 6 minutes of silent grainy video on a second birthday and later, we don’t make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, let them watch TV for three hours a night and then start worrying about school in seventh grade.
We have different things we’re supposed to worry about now, and in general we have a lot *more* things to worry about. I’ve taken two kids through the first four years, two VERY different kids, and I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about stuff and maybe too much? Maybe not enough? I’m not sure.
I’m gonna spend the next couple of weeks looking at these things – not because they’re interesting to you, my half dozen dear readers – but because I’m about to forget all of it. My oldest is eight and is half way through third grade, so that’s as far as I’m going to go, but I hope to get down as much insight as possible before it’s all gone from my mind.
Because I wasn’t ready before I had kids. But now that I’m in my forties and we’re all done having kids, I’m ready. Maybe if I write some of this stuff down, it’ll ease my frustration about being such a slow learner.
The Last Five YearsPosted January 20th, 2015 by Sean Williams
Cathy should have understood something – something that she *will* understand later in life. Doing Summer Stock in Ohio is a win. That’s as good as it’s gonna get. It’s a job, it’s a chance to see part of America that she’s never been in before and she gets to stretch herself doing parts she’d never get in a LORT Theater. A shiksa goddess gets to play Anita in West Side Story? When is that ever gonna happen again?
Marlena asks us what Hebrew School is. Jordana says, “I went to Hebrew school, until I was 13 and then I had a bat mitzvah.” Marlena says, “Oh no!!! He said ‘as long as you’re NOT from Hebrew school!’ I don’t think he would like you, Mommy!” Jordana says she’s fine with that.
Barnaby gets stuck on why Jamie doesn’t have to re-write a single word. And he wants to know what “The Atlantic Monkey” is. I spent about ten minutes explaining how it works to be a writer, what it means to publish, who Sonny Mehta is, etcetera, before I realized that not only would all this information no longer be useful to him when he grows up, it’s probably all completely dated *right now*. So we talk about online publishing.
I remember it’s been six months since I wrote in my blog.
The first words out of Jamie’s mouth are betrayal. “I’m breaking my mother’s heart,” he says, acknowledging with glee the fact that he’s throwing out the things his parents value most.
Through the rest of the play, he cheats constantly. He leaves college early because he already has a publisher, all of his success comes ten years before he was expecting it, Cathy even says of him “the rules do not apply”… Even in his Christmas Story, Schmuel cheats death and time. And not to go down an musical rabbit hole but in that song, Jamie even cheats us out of one beat every four measures.
His rule-breaking seems to be done with firm abandon. Cathy sits in front of him sobbing and he says, “there are people who are publishing my book and there’s a party that they’re throwing and while you’ve made it clear that you’re not going, I will be going. And that’s done.”
He knows he has responsibilities to Cathy but he is simply not gonna address them. She even says at one point that she can’t understand how he can watch her cry and not do anything at all. When confronted with his responsibilities, whether to his family, his education, his wife, whatever it may be, he responds the way I and SO MANY of my friends responded in our twenties. He punks out.
Barnaby notices there are 41 seasons of dreams. He asks me if that’s not a mistake. he was supposed to go back 41 *years*, if he goes back 41 *seasons*, then that’s just slightly more than ten years. I tell him it’s not a mistake.
We play “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” a few days later and during “Here I Am”, Marlena – at four years old – says, “Is that Cathy?”
We come back to The Last Five Years later in the week. Barnaby notices that in “See, I’m Smiling”, something changes between when the song begins and the more lyrical section about a minute in. He wants to know why it sounds different. It takes me a second to realize, Jason Robert Brown’s moved from 4 to 3. It moves from hitting the quarter note on all four beats to an almost waltz feeling.
I’d never really noticed before.
So why does Cathy make us so frustrated and crazy. Why is it easy to see Jamie for all his faults but we still want to grab Cathy by the lapels and shake her?
She makes herself less, every chance she gets. Early in their relationship (late in the show) she tells a story of a high school friend who gets pregnant and married, and says that she can do better than that. Which is, apologies to my flyover state family and friends, a pretty damn low bar to set.
But as the two of them get closer, she’s perfectly happy to be mansplained at about Central Park, she buys a copy of his book in Kentucky and she mocks her successes. And when it gets too bad, she sings to “Daddy”, not even “Dad”. Even worse, though she claims that she “will not be the girl who gets asked how it feels to be trotting along at the genius’s heels”, she states very clearly that sitting in a room while Jamie ignores her is a thrill because she’s “a part of that”.
When he *begs* her to put on her dress and come to the party with him, we know she refuses. I didn’t write the show and I’ve never played Cathy (and likely never will), but it seems she can’t get over the gulf between his successes and hers. She sees his success as proof of her failure, to the point where he even says, “I will not lose because you can’t win.”
This, to an actress who keeps getting work. But, of course, it’s work that she’s mocked and made less of.
Every so often, a magical moment will happen with your child and it won’t be at a birthday party and it won’t be at a graduation or a dance or an award ceremony. It occurs not when you’ve set time aside for a magical moment. It only happens when you allow for great asschunks of time to be spilled out all over your kid. The magical moment happens for thirty seconds in the middle of 72 hours of yelling at them to stop teasing each other and to please pick up their shit.
We’d been listening to a whole string of shows and very often Barnaby seems to be daydreaming, chewing on his fingers and staring out the window. But a few days ago, after we turned off Into The Woods, he came out of his stupor long enough to say something.
“Dad, the more I listen to musicals, the more I learn about stuff. Not just music, not just how plays are made and music is created, but… The plays give me perspective on my actual life. There are people in the stories, and there are people who make the stories, and if you listen to the musical you can find out all sorts of stuff about all of them, the made up people and the real people. And that can actually tell you all sorts of stuff about you and your life.”
And I couldn’t speak for a second. I couldn’t say, “this is everything. What you said is everything.”
I’ve missed family trips to Disneyworld and countless bedtimes. I’ve run lines while washing their dishes and played scales while he did homework and sat revising scripts with one or both on my lap. Without me having to explain, he already knows why.
So Cathy makes herself less and Jamie cuts every corner. Both of them are annoying in their own ways, both of them embrace their own worst cliches.
And we love both of them because we were *so much worse*. It’s a gorgeous snapshot of being in love in your twenties, and it’s so hopeless and so beautiful and so perfect. I got married at 23 and divorced at 28, and I was about 200% more repellent than Jamie. And my ex was… Well, she was no Cathy.
I love them so much and I don’t want them to break up. My poor son and daughter, who’s hearts break every time they hear Sherie Renee Scott sing “Goodbye until tomorrow”… My heart breaks with them.
Why didn’t Jamie and Cathy wait? Why couldn’t they have dated other shmucks, why couldn’t they have married other stupid people before they fell in love with each other?
When the movie comes out, there will be regular people who love it (because Crying) and people who hate it (because Musical, and people are stupid), but please know that for many of us, our opinions will be deep and wide and *painful* to us. Because we felt the same way with Harry Potter, with Lord of the Rings, with Spiderman…
Because we were all eight once and we looked up from a comic book or pulled off our walkman headphones or closed the novel and said, “I know something I didn’t know before. What I’m holding in my hand, I didn’t realize, is some kind of window. I know these made up people and that means I know the person who made them up, in a way. And I know I’m a child, I know I’m not supposed to know what love means, but… I love this.”