Category Archives: Theater

First Read Playwrights, Then Poets

August 4, 2017

Instructions to Young Poets: First Read Playwrights, Then Poets

In going through a box of archival material the other day, I found a list of playwrights I had made several years ago. The list was not alphabetical, nor was it meant to be definitive. I believe I was giving a lecture on Sam Shepard’s True West in a course surveying 20th century American literature, and drew up the list to apprise a class of young English majors as to how many significant contemporary playwrights deserved more critical attention.

Theater is in a peculiar situation, especially in terms of playwrights. Trying to make a living as a playwright is like serving as a volunteer lifeguard at Death Valley. Over the years I have heard students comment about the difficulty of telling their parents that their main interest in life has become poetry. The students love to mimic the hysterical despair of their parents. “What did we do to deserve this?” I tell them that their parents should consider themselves lucky. “You could have told them that you wanted to be a playwright.”

I myself was first attracted mainly to playwrighting rather than poetry, and my preference in terms of a contemporary canon has not shifted over the years. If I don’t feel that I have much in common with most poets I meet, my admiration for playwrights is probably the heartbeat of that mutual repulsion.

If I have any recommendation for a young person who is interested in devoting decades to the art of poetry, then it would be to avoid reading contemporary poetry magazines and anthologies until one has read a total of 100 plays by an assortment of playwrights from the following list. It would amount to an average of two plays per playwright. My personal recommendation would be to start with Brian Friel’s “Translations.” Then, and only then, spend a few months reading poetry, after which they should stop and read another 100 plays, this time by the much shorter list of earlier 20th century playwrights. I would recommend starting with Sean O’Casey.

The key to reading these plays (and this is one of the things I learned at Padua Hills) is that one must imagine oneself on stage. If one is reading a play from the point of view of being in the audience, you will not absorb the importance of plasticity in your imagery, and you will never shake off the one-dimensional passivity that infects so much of contemporary poetry.

Edward Albee
John Arden
Doris Baizley
Amiri Baraka
Stephen Berkoff
Edward Bond
Ed Bullins
Caryl Churchill
Christopher Durang
Martin Epstein
Harvey Fierstein
Horton Foote
Irene Fornes
Brian Friel
Bruce Jay Friedman
John Guare
Walter Hadler
Susan Hansell
David Hare
David Henry Hwang
Arthur Kopit
Tony Kushner
Eduardo Machado
David Mamet
Leon Martell
Murray Mednick
Marsha Norman
Cherrie Moraga
Joe Orton
Rochelle Owens
Robert Patrick
David Rabe
Sarah Ruhl
Milcha Sanchez-Scott
Ntozake Shange
Sam Shepard
Neil Simon
Anna Deveare Smith
John Steppling
Tom Stoppard
David Storey
Megan Terry
Luis Valdez
Paula Vogel
Wendy Wasserstein
Peter Weiss
Lanford Wilson
August Wilson
Susan Yankowitz
Paul Zindel

“The War in Heaven”: Steve Kent and Sam Shepard (1943-2017)

Monday, July 31, 2017
THE WAR IN HEAVEN
In Memory of Two Poets of the Theater: Steve Kent and Sam Shepard (1943-2017)

In addition to canonical favorites such as Ibsen, Pirandello, and Strindberg, I had been primarily reading contemporary playwrights such as Edward Albee, Samuel Beckett, and Harold Pinter when I moved to Los Angeles at the age of 20. In the winter of 1969, a graduate student named Lynn (“Scotty”) Mason at UCLA posted an announcement that she was casting actors for a student production of a one-act play entitled Icarus’s Mother by Sam Shepard. I had not heard of Shepard or this play, but was fortunate enough to be cast in the role of Frank, the man who recounts an apocalyptic vision as a holiday picnic implodes. It was a prose poem of a high order, and I began to read as much of Shepard’s writing as I could get my hands on, as well as other playwrights he was aligned with. By chance, during the summer of 1969, I acted in a student production of Futz and took a course that concentrated on off-off-broadway playwrights, during which I became familiar with the work of Rochelle Owens, Megan Terry, Irene Fornes, Adrienne Kennedy, Lanford Wilson, and Jean-Claude Italie. Along with other students dissatisfied with the kind of plays the theater department was presenting on its main stage, I formed a theater group called “The Fifth Corner” and we rehearsed off-campus for our adaptation of Anne Sexton’s poem, “Flee on Your Donkey.” After graduation I went on to act with two other theater groups in Los Angeles, one of which included OOB playwright Robert Patrick’s Cheep Theatrics, starring Julie Kavner (future voice of Marge Simpson).

I never again acted in a play by Shepard, although I certainly saw enough productions of his plays. As famous as he was among theater people, one must understand that public attention and interest in Shepard’s work in the mid-1970s was relatively muted. I remember a production of Curse of the Starving Class at a small theater in Hollywood in the late 1970s, for instance, in which only half the seats were filled, and the same was true of a production of Action at the Burbage Theater around that time. In many ways, it was the devotion of working people in the small theaters who made the case for Shepard’s writing, and not just theaters in New York. The importance of theaters in California is most particularly evident in Shepard’s development, for it was during his residence in Northern California that he began come to terms with his youth in Southern California.

The people I know who worked with him all bespoke of his influence in their lives as well as their work, and I would not be the writer I am today without having encountered writers such as Walter Hadler and Murray Mednick at the Padua Hills Theater Workshop in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Shepard himself taught at the first gathering of that group of playwrights, and had a play he wrote called Red Woman produced there. Padua Hills remains for me the quintessential quest to understand what it is that makes theater theater and not just an entertaining game of “let’s pretend.” Its direct impact on my poetry and poetics is impossible to overemphasize.

The poet William Matthews once observed that there is more talent on exhibit at age 30 in any given generation than achievement at age 60. I suppose that’s one way of separating the highest levels of accomplishment from the merely competent, for not only had Shepard produced a memorable body of work by age 60, one of his very best plays had its premiere performance the month before he turned 61. I saw a production of The God of Hell at the Geffin Playhouse in the summer of 2006, and it only reinforced my belief in his capacity to see into the interstices of human contradictions in a manner befitting a major artist.

It should be mentioned that Sam Shepard was not the only person in his birth family who worked in theater. His sister, Roxanne Rogers, is also a playwright and director as well as an actress. I saw one of her plays, directed by Ivan Spiegel, at the Burbage Theater in West Los Angeles, after it moved from Pico Blvd. to Centinela. After the play was over, I went backstage to talk to Ivan, and we found ourselves in the alley behind the theater. Roxanne joined the group with an older woman whose blue eyes registered a singularly discerning glow. “This is Roxanne’s mother,” Ivan said. We talked briefly, and all the while I had to withstand the temptation to tell her how much her son’s plays meant to me; but it was Roxanne’s evening, and I focused on her play, which had had a scene in a loft built on the stage that made the voices and lines of the characters ricochet back and forth the stage, as if some pent up realization were emerging from a thicket. You can find an article about Roxanne Rogers’s direction of Murray Mednick’s play, “Mrs. Feurstein,” at:

Mrs. Feuerstein

Shepard, however, is not the only loss that the theater world has gotten news about: Steve Kent has also died, and not nearly enough has been said about his contribution to theater in Los Angeles and other areas of the country. Kent was one of the founders of the Company Theater and the Provision Theater, which staged plays in the late 1960s and 1970s that still glow in the memories of those fortunate enough to have been present. Anyone who took part in The James Joyce Liquid Memorial Theater or who saw The Emergence knew that what it meant for the audience to be part of the conscious journey of performed vision. Steve Kent was a brilliant director, and he is enshrined in my heart every bit as much as the author of Angel City and the The Tooth of Crime.

Indeed, both Shepard and Kent shared a common collaborator, Joseph Chaikin, founder of the Open Theater. Kent adapted Beckett’s writing into a brilliant stage piece (Texts) as well as worked with Chaikin’s on Shepard’s The War in Heaven, which Shepard specifically wrote for Chaikin. To speak of the sadness I feel in Shepard’s passing is inseparable from the jolting pang of Steve Kent’s death.

I sit in silent homage.

Director, Educator, Activist Steven Kent (1943-2017)

http://www.nytimes.com/1981/03/09/theater/stage-joseph-chaikin-s-beckett-solo.html

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/my-buddy-sam-shepard

Edward Albee (1928-2016): A Master of Audacious Protest

Friday, September 16, 2016

Edward Albee (1928-2016): A Master of Audacious Protest

When I was young, it was not unheard of for a young person to say, “I want to be a playwright.” In fact, the decision to focus on writing for the theater was a far more practical one than aspiring to be a poet sixty years ago. Back then, playwrights held a far more esteemed position within contemporary American culture. Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams were legends by the mid-1950s, and reading plays by the great European playwrights was considered an ordinary part of a liberal arts education. As I pointed out in my book, “Holdouts: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance 1948-1992,” theater supplied far more momentum to the avant-garde in the 1960s and early 1970s than poetry. It wasn’t even a contest.

Edward Albee, who died today, did not begin as a playwright, however. He started as a poet and then turned to theater. In both of these cultural endeavors, Albee knew all too well how a comprehensive fashion show is hard at work; his advice about the stance that both playwrights and poets should take about this fashion show should be fervently adhered to: “Actually, the final evaluation of a play has nothing to do with immediate audience or critical response. The playwright, along with any writer, composer, painter in this society, has got to have a terribly private view of his own value, of his own work. He’s got to listen to his own voice primarily. He’s got to watch out for fads, for what might be called the critical aesthetics.”

In demonstrating the level of vigilance needed not to succumb to fads, Albee taught us how theater is the quintessential laboratory for discovering “the temper of the time, what is being tolerated, what is being permitted.” It is in protesting those limits that writers distinguish themselves in the manner that Albee sorted them into: “Good writers define reality; bad ones merely restate.” (Tweeted by Ryan Adams). Great writers transmogrify those definitions of reality, and Albee belongs to that cluster of superb visionaries.

Along with hundreds of other writers, I owe Albee more than a nod of gratitude: he was one of the writers whose work helped wake me out of the stupor of the military industrial complex in which I had spent my childhood and adolescence. By the time I first read him, in the fall of 1966, he was already a superstar among the young playwrights. His one-act plays, “The Zoo Story” and “The Sandbox,” transfixed me when I first read them. I had the good fortune to act in a school workshop production of “The Sandbox” at Southwestern Community College in the spring of 1967, and this distant memory flutters within me as I find myself caring for 94 year old mother. And how can one overstate the extent to which the monologue of the story of Jerry and the Dog reverberated as a model for many young playwrights throughout the 1960s and 1970s? The monologues in Sam Shepard’s one-act plays, for instance, can hardly be studied apart from this progenitor. Albee most certainly redefined my reality; my own trajectory in shifting from theater to poetry could not have happened without that initial impetus to which the surplus of Albee’s corrosive writing made an enormous contribution.

I have continued to read Albee’s work throughout all the years in which I primarily have devoted myself to poetry; and cannot imagine my poetics having developed in their peculiar manner, in fact, without having had the guidance of Albee’s ear for the theatrical puncture point. In the entire history of theater, less than fifty playwrights have equaled his capacity for a shimmering clarity of self-examination made visible in imaginary people. Even more rare is how tirelessly the dialogue he coaxed out of his characters can coil and recoil within a stage’s “empty space.” He made the performance of a private vision an occasion of public urgency. In Albee’s case, I remember in particular a production of “Seascape” that I saw in Century City. The theater itself no longer exists, but the theater of my memory glows, and I remain spellbound.

One of the aspects of theater that makes the experience precious is its singularity: productions cannot be revisited like novels; yet that only makes one cling more closely to theater’s oscillating essence. Theater is the most porous art: it must be absorbed straight through the skin of one’s consciousness. This instantaneous envelopment marked Albee’s theatrical instincts. Even in plays that some regard as his minor work, his audacious imagination magnified the possibilities of what hides under the surface of contingency.

I have no doubt that Albee knew, in his final years, how much difference he made in the lives of so many writers whose work he never read a page of. What better reward can any writer hope for? Surely these are the unseen bouquets at any memorial service his friends will gather for in the days to come.

(See my blog entry on February 23, 2014 for a review of a production of Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” by the California Repertory Company.)

This blog entry, originally written on the day of Albee’s death, has been revised on Sunday morning, September 17.

“Music for Airports”: Brian Eno and 512 Hill Street, Ocean Park, CA

Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports” and Ocean Park, California

Back in the mid-1970s, I was living in an apartment in Ocean Park, California on Hill Street. I had originally moved into the neighborhood in early 1973, and ended up living in that same apartment for 20 years. With my 70th birthday only 15 months away, it’s doubtful I’ll ever have such a long stretch of residential stability. I still have dreams of walking around in that apartment, and the dream-time is as real as this keyboard feels to my fingertips, typing these words. Indeed, more palpable. My life as the editor and publisher of Momentum Press took place entirely within my occupancy of that space, and there isn’t a memory of all that publishing that is not intertwined with its pair of upstairs bedrooms. Over the years, I had a number of roommates, the most famous of which was Nick DeNucci.

I got more than a frequently anthologized poem out of my co-habitation with Nick, however. After HIDDEN PROOFS came out, I got a phone call from a stranger one afternoon. “Are you Bill Mohr?” “Yes.” “Did you really know a fellow named Nick DeNucci?” When I admitted, somewhat reluctantly, that he had indeed been a real life roommate, and not just a character in a poem, the person calling me shared his experience of knowing Nick DeNucci. Nick had been a musician, and he had swooped in and out of number of other lives rather briefly. In the case of Brooks Roddan, the person calling me, the brief encounter did not even involve meeting him face to face. According to Brooks, Nick knew Brooks’s roommate, and had occasionally borrowed his roommate’s car to get to a gig. Unfortunately, on one particular night, that car was not available, but Brooks happened to have an extra car parked in front of their place, and the roommate lent DeNucci Brooks’s vehicle, which didn’t surface again for a couple of weeks, when it was found wrapped around a telephone pole on Vermont Avenue.

Instant commiseration! Brooks and I felt bonded immediately, and I am grateful to the auspicious fate that has kept us loyal, dear friends. I would think of him as a profound friend, in fact, even if we were never to spend any time in the same physical space again. I doubt that will happen, but I believe there is an intimacy each of us finds in our artistic solitude that is similar to the intimacy of our friendship.

The intimacy of this imaginative friendship also involves experiences that have no originating attribution. I have no recollection, for instance, of who encouraged me to buy Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports.” All I I remember is standing at the kitchen sink, doing the breakfast dishes, and listening to that album one or twice a week for about a month. It was as close to some profound communion with the Eternal Pulse of Being as I will ever come. A winter month, overcast, and there were many slightly damp mornings, and rainy nights. As I ran hot water over each clean plate and bowl, I could feel the cool grey from the Pacific Ocean just eight blocks away from back door.

I had not yet begun reading the poets associated with the Language movement., but in the middle of the next decade I would write a piece that was absolutely grounded in the poetics of “Music for Airports.” Thanks to Rod Bradley and the sculptor Mineko Grimmer, you can see a performance of the poem I wrote out of my meditations on Eno’s music.

“BARELY HOLDING DISTANT THINGS APART”

“The Last of the Knotts”

Doug Knott – “The Last of the Knotts” – Santa Monica Playhouse

Solo performances of dramatic scripts have shifted their focus in recent decades from homages to famous individuals (Will Rogers, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain) to tour de force enactments of more “ordinary” people’s lives. Sarah Jones’s Bridge & Tunnel, for instance, focuses on the immigrant communities of New York City; her ability to play both male and female characters marked a new level of imaginative engagement with androgynous plasticity. Both Linda and I were fortunate enough to catch a performance of Bridge & Tunnel, when we were living in Long Island and teaching ESL to immigrants, and can vouch for Jones’s theatrical dexterity.

In a more personal, self-reflective mode, Doug Knott, one of the original members of the Carma Bums, has been performing a one-man show over the past four years called “The Last of the Knotts.” A few of my friends, such as Laurel Ann Bogen, have seen earlier versions of this play and mentioned that it has developed considerably in the course of its public viewings, which began with the Hollywood Fringe Festival in 2011. Linda and I finally got to see it this past Sunday at the Santa Monica Playhouse. Unfortunately for Doug, the audience was very small. A substantial number of people had received bad promotional information from sources other than Doug, and at least ten people showed up the evening before. Needless to say, they didn’t return, and as a result only eight people were present on Sunday.

Knott was unfazed. He feasted on his lines as if he were a chef who had prepared a New Year’s Eve banquet, and he was not going to let any of the sauce go to waste. So what if only a handful of guests were there to enjoy the delicacies of his kitchen. And the menu was of a delicate nature: childhood abuse and the life-decision of an unanticipated pregnancy. Knott recounted the details with a rhythmic edge that sharpened the sense of recitation. Of course he has told this story before, and told it long before it became a script. But whereas all too often one can hear a story from someone and feel – palpably detect – the sense that it’s all too well fixed and set in its proclivities, Knott’s monologue broke free of that gravitational aura of self-hypnosis within the first ten minutes and, from that point on, guided the audience through the comedy of a post-Beat life. If Knott knew where his life was going in the play, it was not because he had lived it. In point of fact, the surprises that loving another person brought to him in his life off-stage seemed to catch him just as off-guard in the recollection made visible in a single actor’s body and voice.

Knott’s success in keeping the audience attentive to a solitary voice, refracted through a poignant ensemble of love-fraught memories, is largely due to his ability to make his internalized movie flicker against a mural  painted on a single large board at the rear of the stage. The first third of the play does not make many references to the major symbols on the mural, but as the central love relationship takes hold, one of symbols slithers forth to become a central character. It’s not an ordinary snake that might be found in the mountains around Los Angeles. Knott’s lover has a boa constrictor. At one point, the snake wraps itself around Knott’s neck and he begins to panic. Slowly, all too slowly, the snake eventually stops strangling Knott as its owner stands in front of him, seemingly indifferent to his plight. To Knott’s overwhelming relief, the snake returns to his lover, flowing onto her arm “like reverse lava.” What a marvelous image! I have thought of it ever since I heard that line. It hints not just at the ambivalence that love brings to the life-and-death stakes of being intimate with someone else. It points to the very source of eros and thanatos itself: a primeval id whose song is rupture and rapture.

In thinking of the course of Knott’s life, after the play, it occurred to me how different the story would be if he had met his lover after she had been with the musician and had a child with him. The trauma of deciding on an abortion would probably have involved a much different conversation. Knott’s experience of being bullied by his father is a Gordian knot of irresolvable affliction entwined with the need to caress the bliss that life offers in brief installments. In making his love-relationship’s choice about a pregnancy a public confession, he offers a larger audience than he suspects a chance to revisit the incalculable wounds of their own journeys. No redemption awaits, but compassion is ever alert to our common needs.

Doug Knott’s program for the play notes the contributions of dramaturg Eric Trules, director Chris DeCarlo, and producer Debra Ehrhardt. They also deserve sustained applause. Gilbert Johnquest’s hand-painted mural was a wonderful introduction to his finely crafted work.

The Cast, Director, and Introduction — “RAM”

IMG_3466 2PLACE: Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Bing Auditorium

Photo: Copyright Linda Fry. All rights reserved. (Click on photo to see full picture. From left to right: Devin Falk, Joshua Grapes, Kyle Jones, and Robert Edward.

DATE/TIME: Saturday, October 11, 2014; 2:00 p.m.

S.A. Griffin did an extraordinary job at LACMA this morning in getting the cast prepared for the staged reading. I had never met half the cast, nor had they met each other, and the first task was to assign the parts. Unfortunately, Eric Morago had an emergency that required him to relinquish his role in today’s production, but I had had a gut feeling earlier this week that an understudy might be needed and I asked a recent CSULB graduate, Kyle Jones, to show up just in case. He ended up playing the role of the Poet, while Robert Edward took on the part of the Dealer. Devin Falk and Josh Grapes played the Hipsters, and Cheryl Fidelman joined in as the Girl. Eric Reed’s piano accompanied the recitation.

This event at LACMA grew out of a small exhibit focused on Venice, for which a mural painted on linen that had hung in the Venice post office for many years had been restored. The mural will return to home after the exhibit concludes, though the building is no longer a post office, but a movie production company headquarters. The mural itself is cited in Stuart Perkoff’s long poem, “Voices Heard in Venice,” which he composed during the same period in which he worked on “Round About Midnight.”

Originally, in terms of mounting this event, I had a peripheral role. I was only supposed to deliver an introductory talk, which I will include in this post. I only delivered about two-thirds of this introduction, however. (The Bing Auditorium was on a tight schedule, and I wanted Eric Reed and his company to have as much time to play as possible.) My role in this project changed radically two weeks ago when Mary Lenihan wrote me an e-mail and asked if I could find some new actors, since the group that had committed to do had taken on a new project. I spent a good portion of the past two weeks assembling the cast and discussing approaches to this staged reading with S.A. Griffin, who agreed to serve as director about a week ago. If the cast was unfamiliar with Perkoff’s poetry, it was crucial to have a director who knew and profoundly respected his writing. I could not possibly have made a better choice for the job than S.A. Griffin.

The rehearsals took place downstairs in the small auditorium. I was able to be present for most of the run-throughs and S.A. was gracious enough to let me make comments now and then that helped clarify the tone (or “the true sound”) of the lines. I have always missed theater ever since I left the Burbage Theater back in the mid-1970s, but it was impossible to do a small press project and be a playwright/actor at the same time. I made a choice, and I’ll never know whether it was the right one.

The cast managed to get in about three hours of work before, including a run-through with Eric Reed, on the Bing Auditorium stage before the audience was let in, starting at 1:30. About 150 people eventually took seats, including Marsha Getzler, the head of the Temple of Man. Venice West itself was represented at the event! In the transition between rehearsal and performance, the cast had its first chance to relax since they had first met and they began chatting very amiably, so much so that no one seemed to notice that they were only five minutes away from hitting the boards. My old training kicked in, though, since I kept my eye on the clock. With five minutes to go, I called everyone together to re-focus on character, and to let nothing else distract them. To their credit, they immediately dropped back into the script and stayed focus on it as Mary Lenihan welcomed everyone and I gave the following introduction.

Round About Midnite: An Introduction to the Jazz-Poetry Scene in Venice West and the Poetry of Stuart Z. Perkoff

         by Bill Mohr

Venice West was the name bestowed by poet and painter Charley Newman on an artistic movement of underground poets, painters, and musicians who made an area known as “the slum by the sea” a nationally recognized part of the Beat movement in the 1950s. It is Charley Newman’s friend, Stuart Z. Perkoff, however, who is generally acknowledged as the primary figure in that scene. Born in 1930 in St. Louis, Perkoff’s formal education ended with high school graduation. He dropped out of college after only one week of classes, moved to NYC and in the late 1940s became the first well-known case of a man who resisted the renewal of military conscription after World War II. In his early 20s, Perkoff settled in Venice, California, and by mid-decade, Jargon Press had published his first book of poems, The Suicide Room. By the end of the decade, both Perkoff’s poetry and that of fellow Venice West poet Bruce Boyd had achieved the distinction of being included in Donald Allen’s magnificent anthology, The New American Poetry. While such prominence might give the impression of a scene with at least a hundred poets at work, the actual number of poets, all told, who constituted the core of Venice West probably numbered no more than somewhere between a dozen and a score. Their impact, nevertheless, is the stuff of legend. Perkoff died from cancer in 1974, but two of the Venice West poets are still alive and writing, and I wish at the start of today’s program to acknowledge once again the very fine poetry reading that Frank T. Rios gave at this museum several months ago. It took place in the room where the Biberman mural is on exhibit, and I hope all of you have a chance afterwards to visit it.

As was the case with all the poets in Venice West, Perkoff represented a distinct subculture within the Beat movement. In particular, one notes a lack of interest in pursuing publication. If it has taken so long for Perkoff’s  “Round About Midnite” to come into the public view again, part of it is due to the fact that it has only been available to readers since Perkoff’s Voices of the Lady: Collected Poems appeared towards the end of the past century. Before then, the only evidence that such a play existed was in a chapter of Lawrence Lipton’s bestselling encapsulation of the Venice West scene, The Holy Barbarians, which appeared in 1959.

Among the passages quoted in The Holy Barbarians were two pages of dialogue between characters designated as “Hipsters,” “Dealer,” and “Poet.” Even though Lipton described it as a “long poem, an oratio for the speaking voice,” it would appear that Perkoff always saw it as a poem mean to be staged in the presence of jazz musicians. If one turns to pages 40- 43 of The Holy Barbarians, in fact, one gets a glimpse of how a living room in Venice became the rehearsal hall for Perkoff’s “Round About Midnite,” On one such occasion, which probably can be dated to 1958, Lipton claims that the ill-fated jazz musician Les Morgan showed up at Lipton’s residence to serve as the musical half of the poem’s thematic investigation. The poets who complemented Perkoff were Tony Scibella, Charley Newman, and Charles Foster.

It’s hard to know how many such occasions occurred. They were certainly not all successful. As Lipton noted, “Nobody knew, as yet, how to integrate the two arts form into something like modern idiom that would lend itself to improvisation, at least on the musical level. There were those who insisted that even the poetry should be improvised. These were the fanatical jazz buffs who that the wordman had everything to learn from the jazzman and the jazzman could do no wrong.” On the occasion that Lipton wrote about in The Holy Barbarians, Les Morgan was not one of that haughty choir. Morgan listened to the dialogue, Lipton noted, and then “began to blow, a yearning, haunting theme, in perfect mood with the words. This was it. This was that we had been working towards for months.”  As exciting as that intersection was, it was only one instance of the process by which “Round About Midnite” reached its final draft. Lipton mentions months of “experiment and public performance” that still had to be worked through in order for them to have “a real grasp of the problems involved in this revival of music and poetry.” And it was Perkoff, not Lipton, who produced and directed the culminating version of “Round About Midnite.”

In regards to the interweaving of jazz and poetry, in general, The Holy Barbarians only records a very small part of the total work done in Venice West and Los Angeles. According to his poems, journals, and letters, Perkoff was working with Shelley Manne, one of the legendary figures of this period, as early as August, 1956 and Perkoff was also involved in the staging of a major jazz and poetry concert in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles in December, 1957, at which the musicians included Shorty Rogers, Bill Holman, Ralph Pena, Buddy Collette, Red Mitchell, and Marty Paich. By the time that “Round About Midnite” was staged in 1960, therefore, one could say this “poem for voices and music” represented an invocation of jazz’s affinity for poetry akin to Langston Hughes’s classic Montage of a Dream Deferred. One of the links between Perkoff and Hughes to keep in mind would be that forgotten classic of jazz history, John Clennon Holmes’s “The Horn”.  In listening in on “Round About Midnite” this afternoon, I would urge you to keep in mind how this play absorbs the advice of Charley Parker that Holmes quoted as an epigraph for his novel: “Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. They teach you there’s boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art.” Perkoff took Parker at his word and revealed the alleged boundary line between jazz and poetry to be an illusion. If you can hear how poetry itself becomes the session of a community of transformation, then for an instant I hope you will find yourself in the company of those whose visions are meant to bring us together in a new state of ethical and imaginative relationships.

For those of you, by the way, who want to know more about poetry or jazz, there are two writers I would recommend: for information on Perkoff’s community, you should check out John Maynard’s Venice West, and for jazz in Los Angeles, there is no better resource than Steve Isoardi’s pair of in-depth surveys, Central Avenue Sounds and the more recence volume, The Dark Tree.

Finally, it should be mentioned that in a world with an ideal budget for this kind of project, we would have been able to be graced with the presence of Sy Perkoff, Stuart’s brother, who is still alive and working as a jazz musician up in San Francisco. We are, however, extremely honored to have Eric Reed and his Trio with us today. They have come up all the way from San Diego to be with us and honor Stuart Z. Perkoff. I also wish to thank Rachel DiPaola, Stuart’s daughter and the keeper of his literary estate. Her generous permission has enabled LACMA to move ahead with this project.

So sit up, take a deep breath, and prepare to savor “Round About Midnight.”

The Ghost Sonata

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Ghost Sonata is currently being staged in a workshop production at the Actors’ Gang in Culver City and will be up for one more weekend before the group takes Midsummer Nights Dream on a world tour. I read August Strindberg’s play back in the late 1960s and remember wondering back then if it were more a play for “self-broadcasting,,” a sort of a radio script for one’s private transmission. My recollection is that it was the kind of poetic nightmare that appealed to a young writer full of the inner turbulence that often marks a literary apprenticeship. This production, however, did little more than evoke a desire to read the play again in order to find out exactly how much this production verged in intent from Strindberg’s script. Mr. Brian Finney, the director, seemed to have little idea of how to bring the young student and the Hyacinth Girl into full awareness of each other’s predicaments. The acting was either “over” or “under” the tone needed to sustain characters, and none of it benefitted from the decision to “mike” the characters, which resulted in the first act seeming like a parody of “lip synch” performance.

On the whole, the acting was not as good as could be found at a MFA production at UCSD’s theater. I was surprised, in fact, by the pedestrian quality of the efforts. The best work was done by two young actresses who played the role of subordinate collaborators to Hummel, the vampire-like figure of The Ghost Sonata. When they became the horses who dragged Hummel’s wheelchair like a triumphant chariot in slow motion across the stage, the stage briefly glowed with a sense of genuine theatricality. The staging was not defiantly original at that moment, but at least it pulled theme and image into the vortex of the unpredictable. Even if one knew the script, it was hard to tell at that precise moment what might happen next, and the renewal of that uncertainty was exactly what more of this production needed. If it is to be revived during October as a play meant for the Halloween season, then the internal dynamics need more imaginative commitment. In particular, the castration motif needs serious reconsideration. Emasculating males by ripping rubberized facsimiles of genitals is superficial titillation at the level of juvenile pomposity. These instances made The Ghost Sonata seem closer to Alfred Jarry than Strindberg.

The musicians were perhaps the best part of the performance; their combination of percussion and accordion renditions of various tunes gave the production a hint of the tone poem that is at the heart of Strindberg’s play. Any play that they happened to be hired for would probably be worth attendance. Whether that play would have the kind of director and actors needed to give their duets the context they deserve is most likely no better than a 3 to 1 proposition.

 

“Something has been broken….”

Edward Albee’s “The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?” — February 23, 2014

The California Repertory Company is staging Edward Albee’s The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?  at its Royal Stage on the Queen Mary in Long Beach for a three-week run. When the play was first staged a dozen years ago, no doubt a significant percentage of its audience in New York would have remembered that Rochelle Owens wrote a play called Futz in 1968. Albee seems to have included one allusion to Owens’s play in The Goat. Albee’s story focuses on the marriage of Martin, a world-famous architect, and Stevie, who learns from a letter from Martin’s best friend that her spouse has deviated from the herd of sexual normativity in order to take up with a barnyard animal, In explaining to his wife that he has made an effort to understand his compulsion, he describes going to a self-help meeting for those whose sexual preference is an animal. The leader is fucking a small young pig, according to Martin and it’s hard not to regard that detail as an allusion to Owens’s play.

While watching The Goat yesterday afternoon, however, with Linda and and Hye Sook, I  was reminded of a passage in The Zoo Story,  which came out years before Owens’s play.  In the monologue, “The Story of Jerry and the Dog,” Jerry describes to his auditor, Peter, this encounter with his landlady’s dog, whom he has unsuccessfully tried to murder with poisoned meat.

“The beast was there … looking at me. And, you know, he looked better for his scrape with the nevermind. I stopped; I looked at him; he looked at me. I think … I think we stayed a long time that way ….. But during that twenty seconds or two hours that we looked into each other’s face, we made contact. Now, here is what I had wanted to happen: I loved the dog now, and I wanted him to love me. …. ….”

In The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? there is no love-hate relationship; rather, Martin claims to have a bond with a goat named Sylvia that equals if not surpasses the jouissance of Spenser’s Bower of Bliss. My point, though, is that this is not the first time that an off-stage animal has played a major role in one of his plays. In the mid-1970s, back when Century City had a very fine several hundred seat theater, I saw Albee’s Seascape, and my memory is that it involves an encounter between two human and a pair of large (human-scale) sentient lizards. I never read the play, but having seen The Goat, I am very eager to sit down with the script and to start considering what I can now learn about Albee’s use of animals as a dramatic trope. He was one of the half-dozen most important influences and inspirations in my youthful decision to start writing in a serious manner, and I have sadly neglected to keep his work as present in my thoughts as it deserves.

The production of The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? is an above-average effort by a solid theatrical enterprise at the southernmost edge of Los Angeles County, despite the lack of a physical chemistry between the husband and wife. Both Roma Maffia and Brian Mulligan played their roles with thoughtful comprehension, but it was difficult to believe on a physical level that these two people would ever have fallen in love and managed to stay at the level of intimacy they claimed to have experienced during their marriage. Ms. Maffia was especially adept at picking up the comic jousts intertwined into the dissolution of a marriage through an extreme act of infidelity. When her shock gives way to grief, she was able to release the agony of mourning in a sequence of groans that turned the stage into a open grave for which there was no consolation. “Something has been broken that cannot be fixed,” she tells Martin, and though she tries to bury what been broken, the slaughtered goat she drags into their living room cannot ever be interred. Craig Anton’s portrayal of a best friend echoed Ibsen’s DNA to a remarkable degree, even in the final costume of a dark coat at the end of the play. I normally don’t notice costume design, but if anything hinted at the divergence of Stevie and Martin, it was the underlying warmth and coolness of their wardrobes. Stevie’s outfit bespoke a sensual passion, whereas Martin’s cut of cloth seemed to fit the methodical alignments required of an architect.

James Martin’s direction was commendable in its control of the play’s pacing, a far more difficult challenge that it might have seemed to the audience. Albee has always handled dialogue with a master’s gracefulness and any director who undertakes one of his plays had better come prepared for the need to calibrate his cast with vigilance. The one moment I would have liked to have seen worked on longer was the instant in which Roma smashed a painting by Martin’s mother through an easel. It was a rupture that could all too easily be coded as a punctum, and perhaps the brevity of the gesture’s ripples were meant to evoke the way a perfect diver glides through the surface of the water. If so, I still wanted to see the diver linger on the diving board thirty feet above the drowning pool.

Finally, my reflection on this performance would be at fault if I did not mention the winsome presence of a young actor who is still in the earliest stage of eventual multiplicity. Without any mannered sentiment whatsoever, Tyler Bremer’s performance as Billy evoked the inner turmoil of a young man willing to risk having told his parents that he is gay. Whether or not he has given permission to them to share that firm part of his still inchoate social identity with people outside his family is uncertain. (His father’s revelation of his son’s coming out to his best friend seems not to be held to the same standard of rectitude that Martin assails Ross for having violated.) Bremer’s portrayal of Billy superbly catches the travail that any young man must endure to break free of an ambivalence that almost any marriage can succumb to, even when the temptations are far less extraordinary than the betrayal depicted in The Goat.

Ask Your Mama

February 20, 2014

The past several weeks have been very busy at school. This semester I am teaching a graduate seminar in 20th century American literature that I’ve never taught before, so I’ve been kept busier than usual in preparing for my classes. Linda and I have had the chance to eat out more often than usual, in part because a couple of good new restaurants have opened nearby. Portfolio Cafe at the corner of Junipero and Fourth Street most certainly be getting close to its 25th anniversary; it recently underwent a renovation that mainly seemed directed at shedding any image it might have of a 20th century coffeehouse. The rear area still retains its laid-back ambiance, but the front now seems to possess more of a Peet’s polish, though still having some measure of individuality. The storefronts next to Portfolio’s, which I read at back in 1993 with Harry Northup and Linda Albertano, had been vacant for almost two years, or so it seems, but very recently two restaurants have opened up, one featuring an Argentinian menu and the other specializing in Peruvian cuisine. We had a free meal at the latter a couple of days before it officially opened because the owners apparently wanted to conduct a trial run of the kitchen. We can’t wait to go back.

Bridge Markland presented a one-actress performance of Robbers in a Box last this past week at CSULB. The advance publicity hinted that she was adept at playing both female and male roles, and perhaps she is accomplished in that regard if she avails herself of speaking in her native language. Unfortunately, she presented what amounted to a karaoke version of Schiller’s drama. Recorded voices intoned the dialogue as Markland toyed with puppets and a wig to enact an adult variation of a child’s fantasy of theater. Indeed, the title of her evening suggested the mise-en-scene, several short linked walls were unfolded as to resemble a large cardboard container, such as the kind a child might appropriate from the leftovers of a moving-van. Markland use of that space would have been much more lively if she had spent time thinking about ways to incorporate that element into a metatheatrical meditation rather than assembling a collage of pop music songs that rarely seemed to apply to the mood of the moment in the play.

Linda and I saw Sarah Jones in a performance of her Bridge & Tunnel in NYC, and the gap between the Markland’s and Jones’s quality of performance and talent is enormous. I still fondly recollect the manner in which Sarah Jones managed to play a variety of roles with extraordinary dexterity. I would hope to have a chance to see her again. Markland’s performance was simply another evening of theater aspiring to be memorable, but never getting past the first whiff of possibility.

Far, far more accomplished than Markland’s staging was a one-time performance of Langston Hughes’s Ask Your Mama, It opened with a trumpet solo by Ron McCurdy, who walked out of a darkened passageway to the side of the auditorium’s seating onto the stage in a elegant, understated arrival. McCurdy led his band through the paces of a dozen or so compositions with joyful affirmation of one of Hughes’s lesser-known works.  Actor and director Malcolm-Jamal Warner read Hughes’ book-length poem. There were several very witty moments in the text. Hughes recounts Louie Armstrong being asked if he could read music. “Not enough to hurt my playing,” Armstrong replied. (That response reminds me of the section in WC Williams’s Spring & All in which the assessment of technique runs like this: “That sheet stuff’s a lot of cheese.”)

The film collage that accompanied the music and reading of the poem added little to the public performance, which was free and open to the public. I’m happy to report that the Bovard Auditorium was almost completely full. We sat in the first section of the balcony and there are were only a handful of empty sets behind us in the rear balcony.

 

Lunar Walk Poetry Reading, Brooklyn

Monday, October 7, 2013

One of my oldest friends, Harley Lond, runs a listing of video releases called “On Video” and the following notice in the most recent edition mainly caught my attention because Brad Dourif is the character voice of Chucky. Dourif recently was in a substantial run in a Broadway production of a play by Tennessee Williams, which Laurel Ann Bogen was fortunate enough to catch when she went to NYC to give a recent reading at the Cornelia Street Cafe.

Here is Harley’s description: “It’s been a quarter of a century since fans were first petrified by Toyland’s most lethal serial killer, and now Chucky is back to finish off the job he started so long ago in “Curse of Chucky” (2013), staring Fiona Dourif, A Martinez, Danielle Bisutti, Brennan Elliott and with Brad Dourif once again providing the voice of Chucky. When a mysterious package arrives at the house of Nica (Fiona Dourif), she doesn’t give it much thought. However, after her mother’s mysterious death, Nica begins to suspect that the talking, red-haired doll her visiting niece has been playing with may be the key to the ensuing bloodshed and chaos. On DVD and Blu-ray Disc from Universal.”

Now it’s my turn to head to NYC, and give a reading at the Lunar Walk poetry series in Brooklyn this coming Sunday. Another old friend, Lynn McGee, is the co-curator of the series with Gerry LaFemina. Here is the announcement that Lynn recently sent out:

Dear Friends,

Another bi-coastal reading! October 13 at 4:00 p.m., Patricia Spears Jones and Bill Mohr will read in the Lunar Walk Poetry Series at the Two Moon Art House & Cafe in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Bill Mohr is coming all the way from Los Angeles, where he teaches in the MFA program at California State University, Long Beach, and Patricia Spears Jones, as many of you know, lives right here in Brooklyn.

Bill Mohr is known as a poet, founder of Momentum Press, and literary historian. His latest book, Hold outs, covers a pivotal time in the Los Angeles poetry scene, and was published by University of Iowa Press. Patricia Spears Jones teaches, reads, appears on panels, blogs and more—and her latest book, Painkiller: Poems, is out from Tia Chucha Press.

Our admission fee of $10 gets you a free drink, and there is an Open Mic. The Two Moon Art House & Cafe is on the east side of 4th Avenue (315 4th Avenue), between 2nd and 3rd Streets, on the edge of Park Slope, Brooklyn. If you’re coming by train, take the (R) to Union, or the (F) to 4th Avenue, and walk about four minutes up (or down, depending on which train you take) to the Café. If you’re driving, street parking is available. If you’re a teacher, encourage your students to come and read in the Open Mic. And if you’re a poet, read in it yourself!

Looking forward to seeing you on Sunday, October 13.

Sincerely,

Lynn

Lynn McGee

Co-curator, with Gerry LaFemina

Lunar Walk Poetry Series at the Two Moon Art House & Cafe

This event was funded in part by Poets & Writers, Inc., with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.