Recommended Reading: Diving Normal

August 31, 2007

So I’ve been doing some writing lately. No, not reviews – I’ve been making my first forays into playwriting. Who knows what’ll come of it, but it sure is fun. I’ve been writing some really crazy stuff (crazy, at least, for me) as my imagination has jumped on board this train and just taken over the controls. I look at some of it afterwards and just go, “Who wrote that? Because it sure wasn’t me.” I’m surprising myself daily with some of the stuff I’m coming up with. Let’s hear it for the ol’ subconscious, everybody!

To help me along this new adventure, I’ve decided to do some inspirational reading and look at other plays that are being written today – for insight into form, structure, and the topics that are on the minds of other writers. Thankfully, I have the perfect resource for such an endeavor sitting right on my bookshelf.

The complete set of Plays and Playwrights anthologies.  

Oh baby, what a treasure trove of inspiration these have been for me over the past few weeks! Because of that, I thought I’d start a series of posts highlighting some of the great plays I’ve been reading. Perhaps you will be encouraged to read them too.

I’d like to start with Diving Normal by Ashlin Halfnight, a playwright whose work I have come to admire greatly over the past couple of years. This play appeared in NYTE’s most recent anthology, Plays and Playwrights 2007, and it showcases one of the dominant characteristics of Ashlin’s writing: compassion. He genuinely likes all of his characters, regardless of their shortcomings, and never takes sides. He wants them all to win, yet remains cognizant of the necessity for conflict and the eventuality that someone will win out over another in some fashion. Diving Normal displays that inherent tension beautifully.

Because Ashlin doesn’t take sides he also doesn’t judge his characters, leaving that instead to the reader. Which is both nice and a little unnerving: nice, in that it allows the reader to make up their own mind about the characters and the play’s events; unnerving, in that it forces the reader to really confront their own feelings about the play’s themes without being told how or what to think. In the case of Diving Normal, those themes include friendship, loyalty, and sexual compulsion. The way Ashlin confines his three protagonists – Fulton, an everyman-type graphic novelist with a bright future; Gordon, his third wheel-ish next door neighbor who has a crush on Fulton’s girl; and Dana, a gritty young woman with secret carnal desires – to the play’s unit living room set and slowly-but-confidently reveals them to us free of subterfuge keeps one riveted.

Did I mention that Diving Normal is full of surprises? Oh yeah – that’s something else Ashlin is really good at. He keeps the reader alert by constantly pulling the rug out from under him or her. Just when you think you know where things are going, he subtly makes an unexpected (but fully earned) turn. This is especially true of the play’s final three scenes, in which Ashlin brings things to an emotionally roller-coaster conclusion. The Boss hit the nail right on the head in his introduction to PP07 when he called Diving Normal “perhaps the most blisteringly intimate” play in this collection.

For those of you who are into liner notes, check out this very candid interview I did with Ashlin back in February. He talks about the genesis of Diving Normal, as well as a number of other topics covering his plays, his career, and his multifaceted background. Very good stuff.


FringeNYC 2007 Round-Up

August 27, 2007

My FringeNYC experience this year was as varied as always, exposing the rich diversity of the festival that has become the annual indie theater lynchpin of the summer. As usual I saw both some hits and some misses, but more of the former than the latter. And just about everything I saw was something I would never be able to see anywhere else than at FringeNYC.

I detected two prominent themes running through the shows I saw. The first was politics/social relevance. From the corrosive effects of capitalism and advertising on the everyday American citizen (Kevin Doyle’s not from canada) and shame of one’s own ethnicity and identity (Nancy Moricette’s Jaspora) to the global need for renewable alternative energy sources (The Revolutionaries by Adam Mervis) and even post-partem depression (In the Shadow of My Son by Nadine Bernard), it was refreshing to see so many shows tackling heady and serious topics.  I got a lot of nourishment from these meaty subjects.

The other prominent theme I noticed was intimacy. Whether it was two famous luminaries bumming around town together (Truman Capote’s A Beautiful Child), a trio of urbanites trying to navigate a complicated love triangle (Chad Beckim’s Lights Rise on Grace), an indie theater actress looking for love and nookie (Adam Szymkowicz’s Susan Gets Some Play), or a band of boy and girl scouts discovering themselves and each other while lost in the woods (Ed Valentine’s Scout’s Honor), the efforts of people trying to connect as either friends or lovers proved to be an enduring favorite yet again. Some of these plays were funny, others were more serious and contemplative, but all of them were very moving and all-too-true.

One play that managed to straddle both the political and the intimate was Bucharest Calling by Peca Stefan, in which a quintet of characters searching for redemption also faced the challenges of forging a new cultural mindset in the new world order of the European Union. This was an impressive showing by the visiting members of Romania’s MONDAY Theatre.

In a nice blog post late last week, The Boss admitted that his favorite part of this year’s festival was “the wonderful chance meetings with folks before and after shows.” I concur. I had many of those myself, more so than at any other previous installments of FringeNYC, and they all helped me feel a much stronger sense of the theatre community and camaraderie that The Boss talks about. Chance encounters with a number of folks – including playwright and FringeNYC adjudicator Vincent Marano (whose play, a collapse, appeared at last year’s festival); Plays and Playwrights 2007 alumni and summer review squad member James Comtois; Associate Artistic Director of The Brick Theater, Hope Cartelli; and Brick regular Bryan Enk – doubled my enjoyment of each show I respectively ran into them at. To quote The Boss again: “This level of camaraderie and community really only happens at FringeNYC, and it’s probably my favorite thing about the festival.” Now it’s mine, too.

nytheatre mike Gets Some Play

August 25, 2007

It’s been a while since I last posted. My bad. You all probably thought I was dead. Hardly – I’ve just been Fringe-ing for the past two weeks. I’m going to write about my overall FringeNYC experience this year within the next couple of days. Today, however, I’d like to talk about an event that, for me, exemplifies the wild, unpredictable energy that gleefully permeates FringeNYC every year.

The event in question came during the first performance of Adam Szymkowicz’s delightful comedy, Susan Gets Some Play, when I got called on stage by its two stars, Susan Louise O’Connor and Kevin R. Free. The wacky premise involves the heroine, Susan (played wonderfully by O’Connor), trying to find a new boyfriend by holding fake auditions for a non-existent show. During the play, she and her best friend, Jay (the hilarious Free) try out several potential candidates – all of whom are played by other cast members.

All except one, that is. Susan Gets Some Play throws a wild card into the mix by hauling one lucky audience member on stage for a shot at the title character’s affections. On the day I attended, that audience member was me.

Here’s what happened. I was randomly (and unexpectedly) approached by Free and fellow cast member Scott Ebersold in the theatre lobby beforehand. Our conversation went something like this:

(Free and Ebersold approach. They are smiling, and they have a Polaroid instant camera.)

Free: Hi. Excuse me: are you single?

Me: (Hesitant, not knowing what this is about.) Yes.

Free: Straight?

Me: (Beginning to see where this is going.) Yes.

Free: Great. Would you like to meet a friend of ours?

Me: (Throwing caution to the wind.) Sure.

Free: Great! Can we take your picture?

Me: Sure.

(They take a Polaroid of me.)

Ebersold: Great. Can you just write your first name and last initial on the bottom? There may be more than one Michael here.

Me: Sure.

(I write my first name and last initial on the bottom of the Polaroid.)

Ebersold: Okay, great! Thanks!

And off they went to recruit some more unsuspecting audience members. There was a near-capacity crowd mulling in the lobby, so I figured there was no way I would be chosen to partake in whatever they had planned.

Little did I know. A mere fifteen minutes later, I found myself trodding the boards with one of New York’s best indie theater actresses. Hearing my name called, and then rising from my seat to take the stage, was an experience similar to the one I imagine studio audience members must have when they find out they’re the next contestant on The Price is Right.

Once on stage, I immediately fell victim to Free’s “pencil trick” (read my review of the show for a full explanation of what I’m talking about), then we got down to business. O’Connor and I read some intentionally ridiculous sides that placed us in the middle of a sci-fi/space botpoiler (complete with moody lighting and the theme music from Alien playing in the background). After reading a few lines, Free pulled me aside and gave me an adjustment:

Free: (Whispering conspiratorially in my ear.) Okay, that was good. I want you to try it again, and this time I want you to yell at her. Just throw a tantrum. Start at 10, and build from there.

Never mind that such a reading would be appropos of nothing in the script. That, of course, was the joke. Right. So, I did my best to follow Free’s direction, bellowing crudely at O’Connor (and generally making a total fool of myself) for about a page before co-star Jorge Cordova (playing Ted, the upstairs neighbor) came in and broke things up. Needless to say, I did not pass the audition.

Now, I definitely would’ve liked Susan Gets Some Play even if I hadn’t momentarily become a part of the action. The fact that I did, though, just enhanced my enjoyment of it, and punctuated the go-for-broke attitude that FringeNYC is all about: anything can happen at this festival and often does.

(By the way, it’s a good thing I wrote my last initial on that Polaroid: I later found out that Free and Ebersold had, indeed, pre-screened another Michael from the audience!)

In Memoriam: The Actor’s Playhouse

August 2, 2007

I learned today that the Actor’s Playhouse, the 170-seat theatre that sits opposite the former location of the legendary and long-defunct Circle Repertory Company, is going the way of its old across-the-street neighbor. The 62-year-old West Village theatre is closing its doors permanently, according to its operator, Peter Berger. The rent has become too expensive, and there is speculation that the owner of the property, Duell Management, is in negotiations to “to turn it into something other than a theater.”

This is very sad, considering the rich history of the Actor’s Playhouse. The theatre has been home to many fine and popular productions over the decades, including John Van Druten’s play, I Am A Camera (1956), which served as the inspiration for the musical Cabaret, Fortune and Men’s Eyes (in both 1967 and 1987), Last Summer at Bluefish Cove (1980), the Craig Lucas-conceived Stephen Sondheim revue, Marry Me a Little (1981),  Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy (1982) and Safe Sex (1991), Howard Crabtree’s Whoop-De-Doo (1993), and Naked Boys Singing! (1999). Last summer, the theatre served as a FringeNYC venue, and was home to Gutenberg! The Musical! just earlier this year.

And so it goes that another long-standing contributor to the cultural and artistic landscape of Greenwich Village (and thus, New York City) fades into history.