Dramadoodle

July 19, 2010

“Ideas emerge from plays—not the other way around.”

Sam Shepard, born November 5, 1943

The above quote is from the introduction by Ross Wetzsteon to the paperback edition of “Sam Shepard: Fool For Love and Other Plays,” published in 1984 by Bantam Books. In the essay, Wetzsteon sets up the Shepard line above by first quoting thus: “I would have . . . a picture, and just start from there.” This impulse to visualize, Shepard went on, “is mistakenly called an idea by those who have never experienced it . . . . I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard the line, ‘where did the idea for the play come from?’ I never can answer it because it seems totally ass backwards.” Then Wetzsteon goes on to expand the idea by using more comments from Shepard and others. He begins with the playwright himself.  “. . . once it goes off into the so-called meaning of it, then it’s lost, it’s gone away.” Asked to “explain” one of his plays, he says simply, “I think explanation destroys it and makes it less than it is.” Or, in the words of Jacques Levy, who directed several of Shepard’s early plays: “Sam is more interested in doing something to audiences than in saying something to them.”

Next Wetzsteon asks what is this “something” he’s trying to “do”? He again quotes Levy who describes what Shepard is not trying to do: he says it, “has no relationship to the purging of emotions through identification or total involvement”; he then calls metaphor to the rescue: ” . . . it is more like the way changing a room’s temperature does something to the people in it.” Others say that Shepard’s genius lies not so much in helping us understand what we don’t know as it is in making us feel what we know all too well. “Symptoms,” Shepard has said, are “things that show on the outside what the inside might be up to. “It’s probably more to the point to say that he provides us not with the symptoms but with the disease itself, not with the outside but with the inside, not with ideas but with the feelings that are their source.

According to Wetzsteon, there’s a quality in Shepard’s work that can only be conveyed by referring to dreams, the feeling that we have entered a world at once beyond rational comprehension and yet utterly familiar. “I feel something here that’s going on that’s deeply mysterious,” Shepard has said of the way he approaches a play. I know that it’s true, but I can’t put my finger on it.” “The fantastic thing about theater,” he has said elsewhere, “is that it can make something be seen that’s invisible, and that’s where my interest in theater is—that you can be watching the thing happening with actors and costumes and light and set and language, and even plot, and something emerges from beyond that, and that’s the image part that I’m looking for, that sort of added dimension.”

This “something”—this added dimension—is what Sam Shepard gives me in his early plays like Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class, and especially his one-act play, Action. The following blurb is from the October, 2004, University of Maryland at Baltimore County production of Action as staged by the UBMC Theatre Department (as are the two production photographs). “Action takes the audience right into the living room of a post-apocalyptic holiday. Liza, Lupe, Jeep and Shooter are trapped in a cold, isolated cabin after a mysterious “crisis.” Time has passed since the days of mass-media and indoor plumbing and they are struggling to pull off a holiday meal. Limited food, an uncertain future and overwhelming boredom begin to take their toll with disturbing and absurd results. In this hilarious marriage between the realistic and bizarre, Shepard offers a stirring look at the unplugged American mind.”

Action, which is included in this collection of Shepard plays by Ross Welzsteon, sure did something to me when I first saw it 25 or 30 years ago. It is a perfect example of his approach to play writing as stated in his introductory quotes. Back then, I attended a local production of the play and was powerfully moved by the experience. But I came away with no idea what it was that triggered my strong emotional reaction. I couldn’t even figure out what the play was about, and certainly had no idea how he had pulled those feelings out of me. That intrigued me and I spent many days after the performance thinking about the play and talking to people about it. Even to this day, when I find someone willing to listen, I do that. At some point along the way, though, I finally realized that what the play is “about” isn’t important, aside from the fact that it exists to somehow involve me in the playwright’s creative process, which is manifest in how, after all these years, the work continues to intrigue and mystify me—as do the best so-called “classic” plays such as Death of a Salesman and Our Town which have the same effect on me, albeit in less intensive doses.

What I take away from this is that it’s a huge mistake to try to figure out what Shepard’s best work is “about.” Try to dissect a Shepard play and you drain away its life force—you kill the power of it, in the same way you destroy the effect of a perfect joke if you have to explain the punchline.

Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.


Do You Love Me Or What?

November 6, 2008

Scene From A Failed Play

There are times when failure is more interesting than success, especially to the person who created the mess—which in this case is me. Of the five plays I’ve written, three have been produced in the Baltimore Playwrights’ Festival, but the one I like best—the one that I think is the most original and accomplished—is one of the two that were rejected. The following is a scene from that play.

SETTING: A modern living groom.

CHARACTERS: ALUNA, female; SKILLET, male; and PASSIE, female; all three attractive thirty-something’s.

ALUNA ENTERS with PASSIE close behind. ALUNA pauses to pick up a gift-wrapped package from the coffee table. She opens it and looks at the contents with mild disgust, then drops it in a wastebasket. PASSIE arranges herself on the sofa as ALUNA straightens the magazines on the coffee table, then she goes to the door and peers through the peephole. After a beat ALUNA turns to face PASSIE and speaks.

ALUNA: Damn—you’re still out there!

PASSIE (nods and smiles): Yep.

ALUNA (again looking through the peephole): You’re hugging the wall, trying to blend in with the paint. This lens makes you look all distorted—thin on top, fat in the middle, thin again at your legs and feet. (ALUNA turns to face PASSIE, continuing): And your face is red and puffy like you’ve been crying.

PASSIE (formal): I expect that’s because I’m concerned about the nature of your interest in my husband.

ALUNA: Your husband? Where did you get him—at the Husband Store in the mall? Was he on sale?

PASSIE (quiet, mean): Bitch. Slut. Maggot.

ALUNA: When it comes to men, all I get is the eccentric, half-baked, pussy-whipped, mother-dominated—and/or married.

PASSIE: Lust is all it is, just animal lust.

ALUNA (laughs): That’s the best fucking reason there is—pun intended. (pause) Can’t help it if a man follows me home, wants and needs what I have. Not my fault the guy only has one brain cell with my name on it.

PASSIE: You lure him. Lure him! (pause) Skillet was raw when I found him, like something that’s been dug out of the ground, some root that when it’s refined you have something wonderful—coffee perhaps, some narcotic even—but first you have to grind it up.

ALUNA: Look, he’s a grown man—mind of his own. I know he’s not mine, but he ain’t yours, either. He’s nobody’s, right? Fair game. Nobody owns nobody.

PASSIE: He’s innocent, like a baby animal in the zoo. No history. (pause, then continuing in dreamy baby-talk) He’s my pumpkin, squeezums, honey cuddles—my duckie, my poopsie. (continuing, adult voice) At night, waking from a deep dream, he’s beside me. Lying there, I nourish him. We drift in and out of sleep. A film of moisture covers our naked flesh. (pause) There’s nothing original in that. We are ancient, repetitive. We could be any two out of millions, billions—even trillions. (pause, defensive) Hey, I don’t kid myself—I know that being a mother is one big vanity, but so what?

SKILLET ENTERS dressed only in trim boxer shorts. He’s carrying a video camera and the women ignore him as he tapes the following action:

PASSIE (continuing): I’m upholding traditional values here—sanctity of the family unit—that sort of thing. It’s my job. Some have to breed, or then what? Zero-population growth—curtains for the human race, right? (pointed, sarcastic) Not every woman is up to it, right?

ALUNA (sarcastic): Never trust a man raised by a woman.

PASSIE lunges and grabs ALUNA by the throat with both hands. They struggle and wind up on the floor, PASSIE’s knees pinning ALUNA’s arms. ALUNA squirms free and they now sit facing each other, glaring.

SKILLET continues taping for a beat but when it’s clear the fight is over he loses interest and EXITS.

ALUNA (fingering her throat): You . . . you tried to kill me! (pause, looks around ) Where’s my mirror? I’ll bet there’s marks. And they’re expecting me to show up at that damn party! (picks up mirror from end table and inspects her neck)

PASSIE (joining ALUNA on sofa, softer) I was a little angry, yes, but in complete control—didn’t mean to hurt you. (smiles) Enjoyed seeing the tip of your tongue, though, between your teeth. (pause) At least we got to know each other a bit better. (laughs) Should be friends, right?—with all we’ve got in common.

ALUNA (pointing to her neck): Look at this! Christ! (pause, then out to audience) Would you look at this?

PASSIE (shifting closer to ALUNA on the sofa): Want some tea?

ALUNA (surprised, shifts away): What?

PASSIE (after a beat, dreamy): There are people I couldn’t stand when I first met them, but now we’re friends. That happens. Loved some others and now they’re mortal enemies. You never know. (sweet smile) Who knows—maybe we’ll become fast friends. (pause) So, can I get you something? Coffee, tea or Coke? I’ve got milk. (she picks up a glass ashtray from the coffee table, distracted) We bought this on our honeymoon at Niagara Falls. (calls upstage) SKILLET! Come here and feel the ashtray! (hands ashtray to ALUNA) Feel it. (ALUNA inspects the ashtray as PASSIE continues): Nice, huh? All smooth and cold like that? Look at the bottom, what it says. (ALUNA turns the ashtray over and PASSIE continues, reciting): “Niagara Falls—Where Love Reigns.” Isn’t that sweet? Touch it to your cheek.

ALUNA (starts to the raise ashtray to her cheek, then checks herself): Just a damn minute—this is MY ashtray! (continues, pointing) MY coffee table! MY magazines! (gestures around living room) All of it! All of it! (points off) MY coffee and tea and milk in the goddamn kitchen!

PASSIE (takes an envelope from her purse and hands it to ALUNA): Snapshots. We’ve traveled all over, Skillet and me. Documented everything. (ALUNA looks at the pictures as PASSIE continues): Shots in front of every vertical object in the world, seems like—statues, fountains, cathedrals—

ALUNA (overlapping): Ha! Towers, smokestacks—a rocket on the launching pad at Cape Kennedy, and—

PASSIE (overlapping): You name it.

ALUNA (continuing): Mosques, the Washington Monu—

PASSIE (overlapping, digging in purse again): We lived in Florida for awhile. Everglades. Did a lot of stuff with gators down there. Got married up here and went down there so Skillet could meet my family of origin. (she pulls some items from her purse and hands them to ALUNA, continuing): Them’s decals from the states we traveled through—Virginia, the Carolinas’, Georgia—check ‘em out.

ALUNA (soft, humoring her): Sure. (she flips through the decals and hands them back, continuing): Nice.

PASSIE: Skillet was fun and full of surprises. He’s kiss me in unexpected places—moving conveyances, mostly. Elevators, helicopters, airport vans. We enjoyed many mutual experiences back in the day, like the time I woke up in a beach house in California, Cheese Whiz squirting from a can into my bellybutton.

ALUNA: Skillet?

PASSIE (sad, distracted): Some friend of his. Some naked woman. She smiled and kissed me. (pause, brighter): I collect state flags, too!

ALUNA (losing patience, mild sarcasm): Wonderful. You may need that memorabilia later—in case you forget who you are.

PASSIE: Exactly! That’s what it’s for. Or I’ll get a tattoo! For purposes of identification—name, rank and serial number on my arm or ankle, or . . . or . . . (trails off, then recovers with false bravado): You know, I’ve decided that unhappiness is inevitable.

ALUNA (soft): Happiness also.

PASSIE: Is that your story, you happy?

ALUNA: Hope to be, some day. Got my hopes up. (the phone rings and PASSIE leans over to answer it but ALUNA clamps her hand over it) This is MY goddamn phone!

PASSIE (freezes) But, but . . . it’s ringing!

ALUNA: So? Don’t have to respond when some stranger—god knows who—rings your goddamn bell.

ALUNA gets up from the sofa and begins to pace like a caged animal, looking at the phone with fear. It keeps ringing throughout the dialogue.

PASSIE: It’s a sin what you’re doing.

ALUNA: Fuck ‘em. They just want me for my luminosity. My goddam luminosity. They need the light. They invite me, they get the benefit. It’s a trick, a goddamn joke. (ALUNA paces for a beat or two more, then continues) Is it snowing out? (pause) If it is, they’re probably canceling the fucking party. (brighter) Hey, that’s it—don’t you think?

PASSIE: It’s summer.

ALUNA: Hurricane?

PASSIE (negative): Huh-uh.

ALUNA: Damn, damn, DAMN! (sad) Do you know what it’s like to enter a room of strangers and wonder who they think you think you are? That moment of dread? You don’t know how to act, what to say, so you stand off to one side, in a corner, back against the wall, watching. A cute guy on his way to the john tells you that you should be out in the middle of things, dancing, out there with the music and bright lights and all. (pause, angry) I hate that, him telling me that, because there’s sights to see and sounds to hear on the edge, also—alone—feelings to feel. (long pause, brighter) So he struts back out of the john, acting confident, but I know better. I know that Truth wears a mask. He’s got this damp spot on his pants leg, near the crotch. (pause) See, right there I know who he really is—just another man. So I relax, smile. He sees my smile and smiles back. ( pause, shrugs) That’s it—boy meets girl.

PASSIE: And you wind up here.

ALUNA: It was romantic. Cold spinach quiche for brunch. (giggles) Never saw the sunrise but I figure they must have had one.

PASSIE (assumes wrestling pose, hands clawing the air in front of her) You’re disgusting!

ALUNA (assumes a similar pose, sarcastic) If you wanna be virtuous, it helps if you’re ugly. (they circle for several beats, grabbing and slapping at each other)

PASSIE: Slut! Maggot! Degenerate witch!

ALUNA: Restraint is the enemy of instinct. (she stops, suddenly soothing) That’s just a line in the mind, you know—it can be crossed.

PASSIE: Bitch!

LIGHTS BANG OUT. End of scene.

The Baltimore Playwrights’ Festival assigns five readers to each new play, and they are required to fill out a four page critique to explain the pros and cons of the piece as they perceive them, and then conclude—based on their comments—whether or not the submission should be recommended for a staged reading, and a possible full production in the festival. On the last page of their critique, each reader is asked to summarize their overall opinion of the submitted play; the following are the final comments they made about Do You Love Me Or What?:

“The playwright’s idea has merit, but the piece is disjointed and confusing. Unfortunately, I feel it needs a complete rewrite. Perhaps it should be be expanded into a two act piece with the first act describing the relationship between the husband and wife in order to give insight into the conflicts the author is trying to present.”

“Good dialogue, credible situations, but the through line is not clear.”

“I’m sure the author feels he has written a very profound play. Unfortunately, I found it merely obscure.”

“I am going to score this play as ‘recommended with severe reservations,’ hoping it will be given a hearing with the playwright given the opportunity to prove me wrong.”

“With a bit of line trimming, could be a tour-de-force.”

I sort of understand their reactions, but on the other hand I did clearly say in my play notes that Do You Love Me Or What? was an attempt to tell a conventional triangular love story in an unusual way. I explained that it is a surrealist/absurdist comedy/drama in one act, and that the action takes place in “real” time, as it is perceived by the male character—it’s all in his head. In his confused mind he and the two female characters combine and change to become still other characters. Past, present and future are compressed. There is no exposition, no explanation of who the characters are—we know them only by their behavior. Everything is contained in the action, what the characters say and do. But their words alone cannot be trusted; the characters (and the writer) are all unreliable narrators. The play is pure action. If the audience goes away confused, that’s O. K., as long as they are also entertained. In my notes I said that I believe that confusion, combined with entertainment, will lead the audience to thoughtfulness, and in that way they will be collaborators in the creative process.

All well and good, but upon reading the play after all this time (I wrote it in 1999), I find myself agreeing with the critiques, at least for the most part. So I’m considering a major rewrite and—perhaps—a resubmission to the Baltimore Playwrights’ Festival. Wish me luck.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.


The E-Tower

September 24, 2008

What I Did On My Summer Vacation—In 1973

One thing I packed for my first (and so far only) international trip was my new camera, a Minolta 35 mm SLR (single lens reflex). The whole business of doing photography with such a sophisticated instrument, rather than my old Kodak Instamatic, was so strange to me at the time I had to refer to the manual whenever I attempted to use it. So I was careful to bring along the little white instructional booklet, too.

It was August, 1973, and I was on my way to Paris to meet my new girlfriend, having been introduced to her at a party the previous May. She was a schoolteacher out of class for the summer and living with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend (an Italian waiter the sibling had met in Rome), in a one-room apartment on the Left Bank. It was all very romantic, and the sisters’ were old hands at international travel, having made the European scene for several summers running. My girlfriend, with her knowledge of the country and her high school French would be my guide, or so I assumed. The tip-off that perhaps she wasn’t “in the know” so much herself was the fact that August was the month when well-off Paris residents abandoned the hot city, leaving it to hordes of low-end tourists. Actually, August was the only time most schoolteachers could afford to vacation in Paris. That was my situation, too, being a low-grade (in every sense) Visual Information Specialist at the Social Security Administration, one with child support payments to make.

As I boarded the Paris flight I promised myself that at no time during the eighteen days in France would I make a single “touristy” photograph of a famous monument, such as, for instance, the Eiffel Tower. If I did choose to photograph a popular site, I would figure out how to do it in a fresh way—as an abstraction, perhaps, or from a great distance framed by trees, or with something completely unexpected in the foreground, something ugly, like a wall plastered with handbills. The goal was to produce what on the surface appeared to be “bad” snapshots, but which in fact had required a lot of thought and would provoke an unexpected response in the viewer, a response at once intellectual and emotional. It wasn’t that (in “postmodern” lingo) I wanted so much to “deconstruct” the tourist snapshot—I doubt I knew the term back then—but I was determined to avoid committing that photographic sin of sins, the visual cliché. Of course all this was a tall order for an amateur photographer. Looking back, I now realize that rather than being a photographic trail-blazer I was simply a visual snob.

I was very young, though, and in love with love and at the same time passionately trying to master a new craft while in a new country where I didn’t speak the language and was completely dependent on my new girlfriend for even the basics, like food and lodging and where to find a bathroom. And after little more than two weeks of walking the streets of Paris, motoring through town after small town in Southern France and “making images” not “taking pictures” of cathedrals, castles rooftops and markets, I was homesick and more than ready to board the flight back to the U. S. I was also mildly depressed, having convinced myself even before I saw the processed slides that I had failed in my quest for a series of perfect “anti-travel” images.

It’s appropriate that this tale of misguided youth (but not misspent, since in retrospect I loved the experience) ends in irony. When my girlfriend asked me to pose for one last snapshot, I agreed, and of course she wanted the Eiffel Tower in the background. I’m too ashamed to show the resulting image, but at least that’s one creative sin which will be forever on her head, not mine.

“The E-Tower” is the first in a series of short travel-photo essays which will post on this site from time-to-time. (Click images for larger views.) Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.


Pity the Poor Rich

August 21, 2008

The other evening I attended the opening of an art exhibit at a tiny gallery in an old loft building on the east side of town. You know the one, it’s in that gentrified area near what used to be our run-down but still working harbor. As I wandered among the incredibly high-priced images and sculptures, I felt sorry for the people who would one day own them. At first that seemed a bit strange, but I felt my concern was justified because the people who make art are usually from the poorer classes, and of course the only people who can afford to buy it have to be affluent. Since the poorer group has a corner on the creative process and the rich have only money, there is a built-in opportunity for unfair trade practices. The rich folk among us are being systematically exploited by a greedy segment of the poorer population—men and women otherwise known as “artists.”

Allow me to speculate on how this tragically unfair situation came about. One day, a long time ago, a clever poor person noticed that rich people have more money than they know what to do with. This budding Michelangelo or Picasso or Judy Chicago figured out that the rich were so busy making money that they had no time to learn how to do anything else. So the Artist (having awarded him- or herself a capital “A”) began making cute little objects—sketches and paintings and statues—and selling them to the wealthy folks to use as decorations in their offices, homes, yachts, private jets, and beach condos. Because these objects were attractive, and because the wealthy clients had no clue how they were produced, the various items took on a mystical aspect. For the rich, owning art objects quickly became spiritually chic, and before long they were paying outrageous prices for worthless artifacts and feeling enriched by the process. They were very happy—as were the sniggering Artists.

Today rich people continue on the same foolish path, but the process has been scaled-up. And the higher art prices rise and the sillier the subject matter, the more secure the wealthy folks become in their belief that the things they horde have real value. They rationalize their religious-like belief this way: The importance of an art object, they argue, is inherently aesthetic and therefore unmeasurable in objective terms. (This, by the way, is a theory originally spread by the capital “A” Artists’ themselves, and by their agents.) The rich victims are convinced that they are really buying “beauty,” as if that were possible, and they are willing to pay thousands of dollars for, say, a small painting of a tree. The Artist, of course, would rather look at the real tree for free, and on the side grind out a gross of pictures to foist on the gullible rich. Of course smart poor people know that any object that cannot be eaten or worn is of no real worldly value. This fact is lost on the rich because, never having been hungry, they have no rational point of reference. Dealing with graduates of the art school of “hard-knocks,” they are at a huge disadvantage. That’s why I pity them. When it comes to so-called art, the rich are little children attracted to bright objects, and they need to be protected from their own ignorance.

Since I believe that most “Art” is an illusion created by self-anointed Artists for one purpose only, to separate the rich from their disposable income (here defined as any money over the amount needed to live comfortably, which is most of what the rich possess), a way must be found to protect the wealthy class from art class grifters. For starters, I propose a law banning the sale of art objects to persons with annual incomes over $300,000. I know that poor people will claim that any money taken from the rich, by whatever method, is simply wealth redistribution, but I disagree. The poor may think of it as just normal “capitalistic art commerce,” but I say it’s the blatant exploitation of one economic class by another, and in a just society this situation cannot be allowed to continue. After all, what if the tables were turned?

This post is a slight revision of my essay titled “People Who Buy Art Shouldn’t Read This,” originally published in the May 25, 1979 Baltimore Evening Sun. The angry reaction to it by several of my “Artist” friends, who seemed to have taken it personally, and not in a spirit of fun as intended, totally surprised me. Oh well, I guess that’s what I get for playing with fire . . . uh, I mean playing with satire. (The gag cartoon above wasn’t used to illustrate the first version of the essay—it didn’t exist then—but it strikes me as apt. Click on the image for a larger view.) Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.


Mort Cohen’s VP Doodle

July 19, 2008

After reading my July 18, 2008 request for doodles, Mort Cohen sent along the above caricature attached to an e-mail message. (Many thanks, Mort.) He says he was playing around in Photoshop, electronically doodling, trying to figure out different ways to color the image, and came up with this enhancement to our own Vice President Cheney. I think it’s a very good likeness and I’m also intrigued by the “fog” or “mist” of color from which the VP appears to be emerging. Since Mort doesn’t tell us what it is, we’re free to speculate. Does the fog/mist represent Truth, Beauty and the American Way, or is our VP wandering around in some sort of moral fog? It’s always fun when an artist gives us an opportunity to participate in his or her creative process. Mort didn’t nail it down so we get to collaborate; it’s our call. What do you think the blue mist is? Meanwhile, if you’d like to have your own doodle published on DoodMeister.com, send it to: jimscartoons@aol.com. Your submission will be my permission to post.