Monday, July 20, 2009

Candles for James

James Purdy's birthday was July 17th. He was never one to make a fuss and there was never any kind of dinner or party to celebrate (or bemoan) the passage of another year. I would call him or at least send him a postcard from wherever I happened to be in July.

"Vicky!" he'd say when I called in a tone that was both surprised and pleased.

We never spoke for very long - James always got a little impatient with the telephone after a few minutes - but before he hung up he always said, "I love you!"

"Love you too, James!" I would reply.

Now that he's gone, there's no postcard to write or phone call to make. But it didn't seem right to not be in touch somehow. So a dozen of us who cared for James and worked with him gathered in front of his Brooklyn Heights dream palace at dusk this past Friday. We lit candles and it seemed natural to stand in a circle facing his front door. Some of us read passages from THE HOUSE OF THE SOLITARY MAGGOT and EUSTACE CHISHOLM AND THE WORKS and fragments of writing that had been personally bestowed. John recited The Running Sun, which seemed strangely appropriate:

We who are under the ground
Indians and voyagers and wilderness men
Still breathe the bloom of plants in the air
And dream of the running sun.

Then we took one last look at the corner window where James used to live and one by one blew out our candles.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Paper Angels experience

So it's over and as usual, I'm left with a huge mountain of bills to pay. I always say that theater artists are secret masochists.

I was on line at HSBC this afternoon with the box office cash, behind an old man playing with the dentures in his mouth and an old lady consulting her savings account book (she had $829 and deposited $300 the previous week). The line was LONG. I got the distinct feeling that 80% of the crowd had never mastered ATM machines. With the check coming from Theatermania and some of my paycheck this week, I'll have just enough to cover everyone's fees. Except mine of course.

But the production went well despite six rehearsals turning into two because of double-booking in the space, and me losing my voice, and the lead musician turning out to be a nasty snooty bitch... We had packed houses and very good responses and the actors were generally great to hang out with. Wish that I hadn't gotten sick so I could have sent invitations to more foundations. I think though that this isn't the end of PAPER ANGELS... full-production this fall? Hooray for masochistic activities!

Our hot promotional pictures above were taken by Damian Wampler. Jan Lee at Sinotique is an amazing guy for letting us use his space and borrow props:

Friday, March 13, 2009

Goodbye, James Purdy

James Purdy is dead.

The last time I spoke to him was about three years ago. I didn't recognize his voice. "Vicky!" he said and when I sounded confused, he said, "It's James!" His voice was raspier than when I had been visiting him every Sunday two years previously. He said he had fallen down the steep winding steps of his Brooklyn Heights townhouse but reassured me he was fine. I promised to visit, but I never did.

For those of you who don't know who he is, go to Abe Books right now and buy yourself a copy of IN A SHALLOW GRAVE or EUSTACE CHISHOLM AND THE WORKS. He's the only writer I've ever read that has made me catch my breath with the sheer beauty of his language, the dead-on emotionality of a perfectly-placed turn-of-phrase. He was audacious too, writing scenarios that few would dare approach - disgusting moments of disembowelment and crucifixion in his hands became tragic expressions of twisted desire - the homoerotic longing in my favorite books are exemplars of an unattainably perfect love.

From the Estate of Robert Giard, James as I remember him
with his prints of 19th century pugilists and photo of Dame Edith Sitwell.

I learned of him through John Uecker, whom I happened to sit next to at Theater for the New City's Thanksgiving dinner at Arturo's in 1988. We instantly became good friends and my first evening visiting his apartment, he disappeared into the bathroom for (I swear) at least an entire hour. Left to my own devices, I went through his bookshelf and picked up a copy of IN A SHALLOW GRAVE. John had mentioned James a few times to me and my curiosity was piqued. I finished the book in one sitting, gasping through the middle and crying through the end of it, probably making sounds like a dying cat. I'm glad John was in the bathroom.

When I got back from a trip to Italy in 1989, John was about to direct SUN OF THE SLEEPLESS, an evening of two short plays by James and I fell right into producing, something that felt weirdly natural to me, though I was all of 17 years old. Natural or not, I wouldn't have done it if one of the plays, SOUVENIRS, wasn't astoundingly beautiful - one of the most lyrical plays I have ever read. The production was an incredible experience with Laurence Fishburne (then called "Larry") and Sheila Dabney. Yes, Laurence was great but Sheila was incandescent. Michael Feingold said in the Village Voice review, "Dabney can make the single word why sound like a complete requiem mass and make the cross from couch to easy chair look like the end of the world. The others only handle the language, she lives it."

Sheila Dabney & Laurence Fishburne in SUN OF THE SLEEPLESS, 1989

I think I saw the play six or seven times and it never failed that after the play was over and the lights came on, all the women in the audience of one accord let out a huge sigh and slumped over in their chairs. I am not exaggerating. The only woman who didn't react that way was Maria Irene Fornes, whom I happened to sit next to one night. She frowned and crossed her arms, warding off James' heightened Romanticism, I suppose. A few years ago, when I mentioned James Purdy to a passing acquaintance, he said that he's hung onto the program for SUN OF THE SLEEPLESS all these years - it was the most astonishing play he'd ever seen.

James Purdy, Jane Smith & Michael St. Claire
at the opening night party for 'TIL THE EAGLE HOLLERS

I produced two other James Purdy shorts ('TIL THE EAGLE HOLLERS) and then two full-length plays THE RIVALRY OF DOLLS and FOMENT. James was getting older by this time and coming out less, so I ended up visiting him more. I had a different take than his other visitors. Believing that a writer needs inspiration, I would bring over my son, who was then a toddler, and a book or an object that I thought would interest or inspire him. John worried that I was wearing him out and would occasionally give me an earful, but I was undaunted. I once brought a blind baby over on a visit and I spent a few weeks reading to him A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES by Howard Zinn. Somewhere among James' things is probably a ouija board that I bought - James refused to have anything to do with it, but I played with my son (then about 6) and we all got a little spooked by the antics of that ouija pointer-thing (particularly when it kept spelling AMOS AMOS AMOS). James stuck it under his typing table and we never touched it again.

Every Sunday for about two years, I would go out to his apartment in Brooklyn Heights, bringing him a healthy lunch that I would buy in a deli on Montague Street. For an 80 year old guy, he was very spry and would hop down the three flights, open the door and kiss me hello. I would follow his skinny heels up the steep winding steps, put lunch on a plate, sit and talk. He would have an entire pie waiting for dessert. I kept telling him it was unnecessary, but there it was every time - cherry or peach or pumpkin - and we'd eat three pieces and then he urge me to take it home. My son loved having pie at home all the time, of course. When James called one day to tell me not to come, I wondered if it was the pie - was buying a pie too much of a financial burden? Or maybe it was because I really was wearing him out? And then I had a falling out with John and never ended up visiting again.

It's sad to me that he never found the appreciation he deserved as a writer. Like all his friends, I worried about how he ate and paid his rent. James was always diffident, waving off his lack of popular success - calling the book industry and the "establishment book reviewing media" both "sister whores" - but I always felt that it must rankle. A compilation of his plays is coming out soon published by Ivan Dee - I'm not sure what's in it, but I hope to see FOMENT and ENDURING ZEAL. (Just think of that title - enduring zeal - isn't that what we all want?) There is no writer with a more unique voice than James Purdy, no one who wrote more truly from the heart and therefore more shockingly and disturbingly. James knew something about love and beauty most of us spend our whole lives trying to grasp. He told me once that when a student of his asked how he could be a better writer, he answered, "That's easy! Write what no one wants to hear."

James took his own advice and has left us an incomparable body of work that will probably be revisited now that the irascible thorny visionary himself is gone. Thank you and goodbye James. In my dreams, I'll see you on Sunday and share a pie we never could finish.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Inauguration Shuffle

Back in NYC after long drive where I vainly tried to keep my eyes open so Matt wouldn't feel like he was a chauffeur. Despite a stop at one of those cookie cutter service stations, I fell asleep anyway, the coffee clutched in my hand.

We were up at 7:30 in the morning today, thinking to get an early start on the inauguration. But with getting the kids up and making some much-needed coffee and trying to figure out what to take, we didn't get out the door until about 8:30, by which time, it seemed all of DC was already awake.

We walked down Independence towards the Capitol with other groups of families and friends, passing by a few tee-shirt vendors hoping to make a buck off Capitol Hill. Yesterday, we had walked through the mall and found barricades on the Capitol side that forced us to make a wide detour north, so we kept to the sidewalk on the other side of the street, thinking there would be another chance to make the right-hand turn onto the mall. Instead, we found ourselves trapped in the area where ticket holders were lining up to get into the better part of the mall. Barricade after barricade, silver ticket area to purple ticket area, we found ourselves jammed among more and more people, and unable to find our way onto the mall. We were directed over to the freeway and along with thousands of people, walked through the tunnel, trying in vain to turn towards the mall. After FINALLY making it to the 7th Street area, we found that it was full. They said 14th Street was still open but by that time, we had totally lost hope of ever getting on the mall.

Since it was impossible to get ourselves out of the crowd, we plodded on like lemmings. Or like cattle - an elderly African-American woman good-humoredly started to moo, as she hung on to her grand-daughter and her niece. Some people around us were still happy and hopeful and excited, but most people by that time were confused and rather frustrated. Finally, just at the entrance to 14th Street, we stalled entirely, pinned on every side under the 14th and Jefferson street sign. We could see a sea of people across the way stretching all the way to the Monument and the back of a jumbotron, but nothing else. Oh well, I thought, the buck stops here. But suddenly, it seemed some gate was opened and we sprinted towards the nearest jumbotron on the mall.

The sun came out and as the mall filled out around us, we regained our festive mood. Somebody was handing out free flags and though I am normally not a flag-waving person, I took two. We saw a woman with a box of hot chocolate and Miles went off to buy us all some sugary warmth. The area behind us was cordoned off for handicapped people and diagonally to our left, we could see a jumbotron and a crane with a camera. The crowd was multi-generational, multi-ethnic and seemed to be primarily comprised of African-Americans, college kids and working-class families.

Miles had vanished into the dense cube of people gathered in front of the hot chocolate man and I worriedly went to look for him, as they announced Clinton and Bush, Sr. There was no cell phone reception, so I had to go back to the Jefferson and 14th sign to text him - calls would not go through at all. After weaving among the people at the hot chocolate stand, I gave up and went back to Matt and Marcelo, who were huddled on a portable cane chair that Marcelo insisted had been abandoned.

The crowd gasped as the jumbotron revealed Cheney in a wheelchair looking all but dead and booed when Bush appeared. Some people behind us began to sing, "Nah nah nah nah, hey hey, good bye!" Marcelo went off the the port-o-san just before a worried-looking blonde woman with a toddler in tow came up to me and asked if the chair was ours. I apologized profusely and she went off with it. Miles still wasn't back. We were all up on our feet now in anticipation of Obama being announced, waving our flags and stomping our feet in the cold. Matt and I dubbed it the Inauguration Shuffle or the 'Naug Dance. Boy, was it cold.

A shout went off when Obama appeared with his wife and two little girls. With that many people it sounded more like a roar. They say that 950,000 people can fill the entire mall, so there must have been about that many. Aretha Franklin sang America the Beautiful like a gospel song, the live feed to the jumbotrons causing a slight delay that sounded like she was echoing through an enormous cavern. Miles suddenly appeared with two tepid cups of hot chocolate. We gulped it down and tried to listen while some prayer was said, doing the Inauguration Shuffle and hoping this guy would keep it short. He finally finished and suddenly, there was Obama with his hand on the Bible, giving the oath of office. We shouted and waved our flags furiously and our Inauguration Shuffle turned into something more akin to a Hop.

We didn't stay after Obama's inauguration speech. It was way too cold - I wonder which sadistic Founding Father picked the end of January for the ceremony? We trudged back to Capitol Hill with the crowd, getting on the highway for a long detour.
Later, I realized that we probably should have tried to visit a museum or something on our last afternoon, but our brains seemed to have stopped working when our toes froze over. Instead, we got back to the house and lolled around for two hours before getting on the highway for the trip home.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Inaugurating the Inauguration

So here we are in DC with both kids in a gorgeous house that, as the 11-year-old said, "outclasses ours." We're staying with a really interesting couple - Bob, a military historian, and Kate, who is all over the internet for grilling Bush on foreign policy. They're swapping with us in the summer, so now I am anxious to fix the place up before July when they stay over.

We arrived yesterday in the afternoon after a five hour drive that was not too bad, considering we were in a car with two kids. I know there is an American romance about family car trips, but in my mind, being trapped in a car for several hours over several days with kids on a highway is DEATH. But there were no meltdowns, no whiny declarations of boredom, no property struggles over the back seat, not even demands to use the bathroom. About the only incident was that we couldn't find a bathroom when we stopped in Old New Castle too early at 9:30, but a nice lady at Jessop Tavern let us in, telling us that she was going to the inauguration too the next day.

Our hostess Kate had said that parking was okay on Saturday, but when we arrived, Eastern Market was in full swing and there was not a space to be had. After driving around for a while, Bob called to check on our progress and we decided to unload the car first. The kids made a beeline to the fusbol table and they probably would've been happy thwacking the ball back and forth all afternoon, but I told them to bundle up for the concert at Lincoln Memorial.

Kate, who was already at the Memorial, had told Bob that it wasn't too crowded yet when we first arrived at the house, but as we made our way to the metro, we found ourselves in a gathering crowd that just continued to gather as we got off at Smithsonian and made our way towards the Lincoln Memorial. We didn't get too far past the Monument - the Memorial looked like a toy house way way way off in the distance. Two jumbotrons were about half a mile away, which I could occasionally see if I danced around the tall people in front of us. Marcelo started to complain that he couldn't see anything and spent most of the concert acting bored, despite Matthew's attempts to interest him in the event. It didn't help that he didn't know most of the celebrities, so he spent most of his time trying to balance on a rock.

Bruce Springsteen kicked things off with a rather blah song that no one recognized and the event continued with a roster of celebrities - Stevie Wonder, Forrest Whitaker, Tom Hanks,Tiger Wood, Bono, Beyonce - with a few unusual picks - Laura Linney, Jack Black, Rosario Dawson. Since I couldn't see anything, I ended up listening more intently to the speakers. Surprisingly, the most passionate and clear-speaking star was Samuel L. Jackson, who spoke about Rosa Parks' accidental heroism really beautifully. Tom Hanks' speech about Lincoln was the most unwittingly hilarious. It was punctuated by something that sounded like the Star Wars soundtrack. Dancing around the tall people, I realized this sound track had to do with some images that were being projected, but if you couldn't see anything, it sort of sounded like, "Lincoln was a quiet and melancholy man..." (Cue ominous sounding music...) dah dah DAH DAH!

Much mention was made of the Civil Rights Movement, and the holy trinity of politician acronyms - MLK, FDR and JFK. People wove back and forth through the crowd, hoping to find some place where they could see and be more part of the action. Where we were, the mood was definitely excited but no one was really moved. The grass was cold to stand on and no one could see anything and thirty years of cuts in arts funding in schools has left a lot of people not knowing any American folk songs or having any central social connection. The songs that most people knew were Lean on Me, Shout and American Pie, though my teenage son didn't know Shout at all, and only knew American Pie through something taught in math to remember the value of pi that went Pi, pi, mathematical pi, three point one four one five nine... so that's what he sung instead. Garth Brooks was the one who sang both Shout and American Pie, so unexpectedly, Garth rocked the concert.

The most exciting singer, though, was Bono, but not so much for what he sang, but for his chutzpah in saying, "This is not just an American Dream, but an Irish dream, a European dream, an Israeli dream... and a Palestinian dream!" There was a pause between his mention of Israel and his mention of Palestine, which Matt and I later agreed made you think how awful it would be if he left it at an Israeli dream. The crowd went wild.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Stimulate Me

It's 18 degrees out and there is NO HEAT in my apartment. I'm wearing two sweaters and hugging a hot water bottle. The cat refuses to budge from the under the covers on the bed.

Sunday, we're going to DC for the inauguration and I'm really excited about it, especially after reading Obama's DREAMS FROM MY FATHER, a beautifully written memoir that really inspired a lot of hope in me for our President Elect. Just the very fact that he lived in a walk-up tenement in East Harlem in the early 1980s is wonderful. I mean, can you imagine Clinton or Bush or Carter or any prior president having that kind of history? I doubt if Clinton or Bush have ever even BEEN in a walk-up tenement.

So now I'm wondering if there is any hope for some arts funding from the US government with Obama in charge. In the memoir I just read, there's a very moving description of a Chicago performance of Ntoshake Shange's FOR COLORED GIRLS, which might be well known among theater aficionados and students of African-American literature, but it certainly isn't any big splashy Broadway-style play - it's in verse and doesn't even have a narrative - so maybe, just maybe, the guy has an appreciation for small-scale experimental arts and there is hope for an Arts Stimulus Plan?

The Institute for Policy Studies describes a plan for 1% of the Economic Stimulus Package to be used for the arts. With estimates for the stimulus plan running from $600 billion to $850 billion, 1% would provide an influx of $6-$8.5 billion to the arts. The thought makes me want to run up and down the room shouting in joy. What a relief it would be to not have to choose between making art and making rent. At least for a few years. How wonderful it would be for public art projects, arts in schools, historical archiving, small theater companies and libraries to get some economic acknowledgment after years of tightening the already-excruciatingly-tight belt. There's an online petition for the 1% idea that about 4,000 people have signed at iPetition including Barbara Ehrenreich, one of my heroes. Not sure whether an online petition will really be effective, but it can't hurt. And if you're stuck in a life-sucking job staring at a computer listlessly most of the day, you can be even more effective by actually writing or calling your congress person More great ideas are at Sarah Browning's blog.

I also really love this article in Truthout Yes, We Can Make the Stimulus More Stimulating where Dean Baker proposes some beautiful measures to make the stimulus plan more effective. Number 5 is Funding for Writers/Artists/Creative Workers:
In the New Deal there was both a federal arts project and a federal writers project. These programs employed thousands of young artists and writers. A creative stimulus package can extend this idea for the Internet Age. Suppose that President Obama made $10 billion a year available for state and local governments to support various types of creative and artistic work. This could include music, movies, writing books, even journalism. The one condition for support is that all material be made freely available in the public domain....

This funding would be sufficient to employ 200,000 people a year at an average of $50,000 each. This would put an enormous amount of creative work in the public domain that people all over the world could download at zero cost. In the first year or two, we could have this program administered through public agencies, but in later years we can have people choose for themselves which work they want to support through a tax credit. The cost would be approximately $10 billion a year.
And number 7 in the article, Pay for Shorter Work Weeks and More Vacations, is even more radical:
The United States lags the rest of world in that its workers are not guaranteed any vacation time, sick leave or family and parental leave. In Europe, five or six weeks a year of paid vacation is standard. Also, all West European countries guarantee their workers some amount of paid sick leave and paid parental leave.
Arts and vacation in the US - how civilized! I'm going to email everyone I know and then run up and down the room shouting in joy. Just to get a little warmer.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Taking It to the Street

My old friend T. Scott Lilly has been posting all of these photos of us in Theater for the New City's summer street theater way back in the late 1980s. Seems like a lifetime ago, especially since there's hardly any vestige left of the East Village in the 1980s. It's like a dream that never existed but then like Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ, occasionally you find yourself at one of the bars with the first names (Mona's, Blanche's, Joe's, Sophie's...) and you look around and think, wait a sec... you were there, and you were there, and so were you...

I think I'm 16 in the photo below. It looks like HIT THE ROAD, the street theater of 1989, which mystified a lot of first generation immigrants and street kids with little knowledge of underground American history since it was about hobos. That's me on the far left, with Joe Davies next to me. Joe was one of the founders of the Caffe Cino, the first Off-Off Broadway theater, but I didn't know that as a teenager the 1980s. To me, he was an old teddy bear who smelled a little and was a bit unintelligible because he badly needed new dentures. He was in a perpetual fight with his landlord over his rent controlled apartment. The landlord would turn off the water so Joe was forced to shower at the theater. I lived in the basement of the theater when I was 16 and there was only one shower. In the women's bathroom. Nothing wakes you up like getting up to pee and stumbling onto a large naked old man. Joe ended up getting work as a token clerk and I loved seeing him at the 8th Street station. I heard he moved to Florida and recently died. I really miss him.

The one below is a publicity shot for CONEY ISLAND KID, the 1988 summer street theater. We're all gathered around George Bartenieff in a bad wig, who's playing Ronald Reagan. Alex Bartenieff, his son is on the bottom left in the Santa suit. I'm next to him in a shedding silver beaded dress. My good friend Sheridan Roberts is flying up in the air on the far right, held aloft by George Liker, a decidedly odd bird who was in Street Theater for two years. I think he was (is?) part of the Living Theater. Scott Lilly, who posted these pictures on facebook is in the boxer's outfit, playing the Coney Island Kid. This was one of the best Street Theaters, about a family getting evicted and ending up in Coney Island. They squat an old funhouse and the Coney Island Kid busts out of an old publicity poster.

Street Theater is still going strong at TNC, but it's an art form that's dying in New York City from the combined effects of lack of public funding and the squeaky cleanliness of the new New York where god forbid a raucous performance break out without a permit and police presence. I'm not talking about Lincoln Center Out of Doors or Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte - I'm talking about a bunch of performers traveling from place to place with a stage they erect, taking theater into places where it normally doesn't exist. Street Theater is usually political to the point of being agit-prop and a free-for-all of dance, mime, clowning, musical theater and whatever else the performers can come up with to compete with the usual New York City panorama - you know - Mister Softee's insistent little ditty, screaming babies, giggly teenage girls, winos with Terets Syndrome, the works.

In the height of the Great Depression, Mayor Laguardia created a Portable Theatre Drama program that produced plays through the Department of Public Welfare. Imagine that - theater for public welfare - bread and roses! During the summer of 1934 and 1935, five portable stages toured thirty parks six days week, becoming the precursor for the Federal Theatre Project and Hallie Flanagan's aim to bring "theater mindedness" to the greater American public. The following photo is from The Federal Theatre 1935-1939: Plays, Relief and Politics by Jane De Hart Mathews and shows a street theater in Saint Mary's Park in the Bronx - it looks like UNCLE TOM'S CABIN, which was their first production. TNC's street theater performs at Saint Mary's too.

Though the Federal Theater Project succumbed to anti-Communist hysteria in 1939, Street Theater became a staple of the experimental theater movement in the 1950s to 1960s with Bread and Puppet Theater and the Public Theater most famously taking shows to the street. The Public might be better known for the Shakespeare productions they performed on a flatbed truck throughout NYC but they also did more experimental plays like a musical adaptation of TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA written by the team that wrote HAIR with danceable salsa and funk. It was at the Delacorte a few years ago and I thought, wow, what it must've been like to have seen that in a housing project in the Bronx in the early 1970s.

Now, besides TNC, there's Circus Amok's amazing gender-bending campy vaudeville circus led by hirsute wonder Jennifer Miller who worked at TNC years ago. There's also the various free Shakespeare groups - Gorilla Rep, Drilling Company's Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, and Kings County Shakespeare, though I am not sure if they still perform in parks. Last summer, Waterwell toured their THE/KING/OPERETTA to parks in the Bronx, Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. TNC is the only theater I know, though, that actually erects a stage right smack dab in the middle of the street. With the latest financial debacle heralding a possible new depression plus the isolation of all our lovely 21st Century innovations, maybe it's time to bring back this tradition. Who's street? Our street! Free theater for all!