Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Bouquet of Additional Thoughts on "The Lily's Revenge"

Unquestionably, the major event of May 2011 for me was The Lily's Revenge. First, as I said in my earlier blog post, I couldn't stop thinking about it, and it led me to ask myself many questions about what I want to do with my art, what theater can and should accomplish, why I tend to write realistic narrative plays if that's not necessarily the kind of theater that moves me the most, etc. In short, Lily's twined itself around my insides and gave me what I call, partly but not really in jest, "an artistic crisis." Which, I figure, is only healthy; at my age, I ought to have artistic crises. Though I feel humbled and confused, I also feel awed, moved, and inspired. It's funny, I think of myself as a sensitive aesthete, but rarely am I ever so in thrall to a work of art that I see. It happened more often when I was still in school.

Meanwhile, the Lily's cast and crew discovered my blog post and passed it around, and Taylor Mac himself linked to it on Twitter, which completely made my day, and the Magic Theatre invited me to the cast party! So I ended up seeing the show again, at its closing matinée, and dining and drinking and dancing with the cast afterward. I am so grateful to the good and generous Magic staff and Lily's cast. At the party I did not feel like a poser or an interloper, even though I am just an enthusiastic audience member and they had been collaborating on this massive project for 2 months. But then, The Lily's Revenge is the kind of show where you can get randomly hugged by a cast member before you take your seat, where the audience shouldn't feel like they are "just" spectators, where it's all about building connections and spreading the love. The closing-day audience was so supportive -- the show ran about 15 minutes over because we kept interrupting it to applaud -- and the party was so warm and loving. It expanded my faith in humanity.

And I'm glad, too, that I got over my petty fears of "will people think I'm weird if I see the show a second time? Is my having gone nuts for this show a sign of weakness?" Loving something, being enthusiastic, is so often seen as uncool. It is so easy to be jaded. Thus, one of the many points of The Lily's Revenge is that love and commitment are acts of courage, not of weakness. It is an un-jaded piece of theater, and the least we can do is to be un-jaded in return.

OK, by this point you probably think that I have joined some hippie cult, and I admit that The Lily's Revenge is the very definition of cult theater. (if that's not a tautology -- didn't theater evolve out of religious rites and cult ceremonies?) It's something I didn't know I needed until I experienced it, and it resonated very deeply with themes that are preoccupying me.

My blog post about Lily's, therefore, led to some amazing things for me. But I do wonder if it helped to sell any tickets. In contrast to its New York production, The Lily's Revenge wasn't a sellout success here in San Francisco; when I bought my ticket for the closing performance, there were still plenty of seats left. Well, in New York the show got rave reviews in the New York Times, Time Out New York, etc; here, the show got a polite, but hardly enthusiastic review in the Chron and a very snarky headline ("Five-Hour Play Is Five Hours Too Long") in SF Weekly.

Even more strange, to my mind, was the fact that the theater community wasn't as excited about The Lily's Revenge as I expected. Several friends told me that the only reason they wanted to see it is that they knew some of the performers. OK, thanks to that 35-person cast, every theater person in San Francisco knew someone in Lily's (let's praise the Magic, again, for staging the show with local actors and directors) and it's laudable to support your friends' endeavors. But still -- I was amazed that that was the only reason people wanted to see it. If you love theater, why wouldn't you want to see a big, ambitious, wacky and entertaining 4+ hour epic that roared into town in a cloud of literal and figurative glitter? Why wasn't that enough of a selling point?

I can speak only for myself, but I was excited about The Lily's Revenge from the day the Magic Theatre announced it -- long before I knew that friends of mine would be acting in/directing/hanging lights for the show. In fact, my first thought was "SUCK IT, NEW YORK" (my internal monologue can be surprisingly vulgar). I had read the New York reviews and also heard that many New Yorkers who wanted to see this play had been unable to get tickets. But now it was coming to San Francisco, and I'd get to see it! And probably without having to stand in a line! Sometimes there are advantages to living in a smaller, less theater-crazed town. But then, somehow, it went from "Yay, I can get a ticket" to "Hell, I could buy twenty tickets to closing day if I could afford them! What's the matter with San Francisco?"

Is it that we resent the Magic for devoting its resources to a New York-based artist, in a season where they did not produce any Bay Area playwrights? There seem to be two competing schools of thought on this matter: one says "theater should be local, support local artists and stories, don't let New York City dominate the national theatrical conversation, don't be in thrall to the latest New York hit." The other school of thought says, "Isn't it awful that most new plays get only one production and have a very hard time getting produced again? Stop the premiere-itis!" On the one hand, we're supposed to condemn the Magic for producing a "New York hit"; on the other hand, we're supposed to praise it for giving a second production to a challenging and complex play! This kind of thinking can really tie you up in knots -- and take your attention away from the value of the work itself.

And when it comes to the work itself, did The Lily's Revenge affect me so deeply because I was already favorably disposed to it, because I'd looked forward to it for a year? I realize that's a possibility; but it doesn't make my reaction any less true or valid.

Besides, I went to Lily's expecting to have a good time at a crazy and ambitious piece of theater; I was not expecting to have an artistic crisis! And I wrote my earlier blog post about the show in the hopes of encouraging others to go see it, not in the hopes of getting invited to the cast party and meeting Taylor Mac!
I really could not have predicted any of this. And I feel very lucky.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"I've Got Six Weeks, You've Got Seven Weeks" (With Apologies to Rodgers & Hammerstein)

Earlier this month, I was hanging out at everyone's favorite dive bar with one of my fellow Olympians Festival playwrights. I asked her how the writing was going.

"Well, I'd like to have a first draft finished by mid-July."

"Wait! Isn't your birthday in mid-July?" I said.

"Yes -- I kind of thought it would be my birthday present to myself."

I thought this was a fantastic idea -- and it just so happens that my birthday is also in July, one week before my friend's. So we clinked glasses and made a pact to finish the first drafts of our plays by our respective birthdays.

July is coming up fast, though! We have just six or seven weeks to get this done. And when I realized that, I felt a song parody coming on.

I sent this to my friend last night, but I hope she won't mind if I post it here. By announcing this pact in public, it means that if you read my blog and know me in real life, I want you to pester me about my writing and hold me to my promise. Plus, this may serve as an explanation/excuse for why I'm blogging less these days. Also, I'm damn proud of myself for finding a rhyme for "Pleiades." So, here goes -- to the tune of "Sixteen Going On Seventeen":

We stare, dearest friend,
At an empty page
Which we know that we must write on

Lest we stare, dearest friend,
At an empty stage
When the Festival turns its lights on

I’ve got six weeks, you’ve got seven weeks
To write our Olympians plays
A month and a half
To write a first draft
And finish by our birthdays

I’ve got six weeks, you’ve got seven weeks
I think your idea is wise
We'll write in a hurry
A frenzy, a fury
And then have time to revise!

Six weeks to finish Pleiades
(I hope it will be fun)
In seven weeks you'll be at ease
Joe Ryan will be done!

Here's our deadline
Coming up quickly
And so we mustn't shirk
You've got seven weeks, I've got six weeks
Let's get down to work!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Flower Power: "The Lily's Revenge" at Magic Theatre

First things first: Don't be scared, it's not really five hours. It's four hours and fifteen minutes, and Magic Theatre has just slashed ticket prices for the final dozen performances, so what are you waiting for? Don't read my blog post on The Lily's Revenge -- run out and experience it for yourself!
Seriously, there are so many things I want to say about this amazing piece of theater, but I also realize that one reason I loved it so much is that I had almost no idea what to expect and was thus continually surprised. You don't even get a playbill until after the show is over; additionally, the playbill doesn't have a lot of extraneous material in it -- no interview with Taylor Mac or essay(s) about elements of the play. I've seen many plays that aren't very challenging or hard to understand, but whose playbills are nonetheless filled with explanatory essays. Whereas The Lily's Revenge is a five-act, four-hour allegorical fantasia about marriage, environmentalism, community, narrative, meta-theatre, and more -- and the creators have faith that the play can speak for itself. This feels almost radical.

But then, nearly everything about The Lily's Revenge is radical and nervy and surprising and filled with an insane amount of faith and trust. It is a massive undertaking: it has something for everyone, but, because it's so overwhelming/overstuffed, it's also guaranteed to include elements that put you off. Nonetheless, the result is incredibly inspiring on multiple levels. When was the last time you saw a play that began with the gutsy pronouncement "This play could very well last for the rest of your life!" and then actually lived up to that promise? At least, it's been three days since I saw The Lily's Revenge, and I still can't stop thinking about it, and I know it will reverberate for me for a long time to come.

But what's it about, anyway? A stripped-down plot description would be something like: "A walking, talking Lily seeks to become a human so that he can marry the Bride, and gets caught up in a war between the God of Nostalgia and the God of the Here-and-Now." New York theater artist Taylor Mac is the show's creator, writer, and star performer. He acts, mugs, sings, plays the ukulele, exudes charisma, looks good in a tuxedo and even better in his green-glitter-lipped, flower-collared Lily drag. The Lily, as written, is kind of a diva, and Mac is good at grabbing the spotlight, but also good at stepping back and letting his 30+ collaborators have their time to shine.

All of the actors perform with impressive commitment, energy, and passion at every moment; I don't know how they keep it up over the course of 255 minutes, six shows a week. You get the sense that all of the performers and, indeed, all of the artistic collaborators truly believe in what they're doing -- if anyone was even slightly skeptical, this show would topple like a house of cards. But everyone has willingly put all their eggs in Taylor Mac's basket (big kudos to the Magic Theatre for taking this risk!) and they know that this gamble will pay off.

For The Lily's Revenge isn't "just" a play -- it's an exercise in building community between artists and audience. There are moments of audience participation throughout the play and during all three intermissions. The first intermission is a communal dinner, the second is a cast-and-audience dance party. I spent most of the third intermission in line for the restroom, but nonetheless got serenaded by a Lilac as I waited! The intermissions are delightful palate-cleansers; plus, they make you more involved in the show and thus, more receptive to what it has to say.

And The Lily's Revenge has got a lot on its mind. It's a play about marriage, and it has a very queer sensibility, but it's not explicitly about gay marriage. It's a plea for love but also for thoughtfulness -- for deeply caring, in every sense of the word. There's also the big theme about Nostalgia vs. the Here-and-Now; how nostalgia, in the form of outmoded cultural narratives, can be used as a tool of stasis or oppression.

The play is so dense that I am still realizing things about its craftsmanship and structure. For instance, in Act I, the characters frequently name-drop Hegel. In the car on the way home, I realized the reason for this: Hegel's big idea was thesis-antithesis-synthesis, and that's the way The Lily's Revenge is structured. I also got a lot out of reading what critics have said about the play's New York and San Francisco productions. I love this quote from Backstage: "A surprising but suddenly obvious connection lands just right: Both theater and marriage are essentially pure, intimate relationships that have only been corrupted into institutions."

The structure of the play even mirrors the central conflict between nostalgia and the here-and-now. The Lily's Revenge comes down pretty clearly on the side of living in the present (that's probably another reason for the audience participation and community-building), but Taylor Mac also calls himself a "pastiche artist." And a love of pastiche means a love of old-fashioned or passé artistic genres -- that is, a love of nostalgia. A play about anthropomorphic flowers is automatically nostalgic; reminiscent of children's theater, and of works of art from the Victorian era -- think of the talking flowers in Alice in Wonderland.

For a pastiche artist, there are two challenges: to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts, and to create something that speaks to the present moment rather than being mired in the past. The Lily's Revenge, in its beautiful and crazy way, overcomes both these hurdles. Like a flower, it has its roots sunk deep into the earth, and a spirit that blossoms toward the light.

Image 1: Lily (Taylor Mac) has his diva moment, surrounded by the Flower Girls; photo by Jennifer Reiley.
Image 2: The Great Longing (Mollena Williams) tries to shut Lily up; photo by Daniel Nicolletta.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Passing the Hat for the Olympians Festival

Okay. Let's do this.

The San Francisco Olympians Festival has two weeks left to go on our Kickstarter campaign, and we're about three-quarters of the way toward our goal. The video above provides a great introduction to our goals for the Festival, the success we had last year and our plans to make this year's festival bigger and better.

In more concrete terms, your donation will help provide for upfront Festival costs such as theatre rental and photocopying scripts. Believe it or not, photocopying represents a huge chunk of a new-play festival's expenses. My play has nine characters in it. And 9 scripts * 100 or so pages each * 11 cents per page = about $100 for photocopies. Multiply that by 12 nights of the festival, and you can see why we'd like to have rent and photocopies taken care of upfront, so that our nightly ticket sales can go toward compensating the writers, actors, and artists.

We're very grateful to all of our donors and we have several ways of showing you our gratitude with a little something extra. Our "Eos" option (if you donate $48 or more) is a really good deal -- in addition to a thankful Facebook post and your name in all of our dozen playbills, you get a full-color, full-size Olympians show poster of your choice. And our posters are amazing.

And I'll throw in something of my own -- if you donate but are unable to make it to my show on October 22, I'll email you a copy of the finished script. Out-of-town friends, this is for you! Even if you just donate $10, that covers the photocopying of one full-length script. $10 is also the price for a ticket to an Olympians Festival show -- if you like, you can think of your $10 donation as your way of buying a ticket to my play, even if you live across the country.

Many thanks, and may Zeus smile upon you!

Monday, May 2, 2011

"The Most Human Human" and the Most Human Playwright

For my dad's birthday last month, I gave him a copy of the new book The Most Human Human: What Talking With Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive, by Brian Christian. When Adam Gopnik, in The New Yorker, called the book "terrific" and "one of the rare successful literary offspring of Gödel Escher Bach," I knew that this would be a perfect gift for my computer-geek, philosophically inclined Dad. Upon further research, I liked how the author, Brian Christian, has degrees in computer science, philosophy and poetry, and was born in 1984. He's an overachieving Millennial, in short, and it makes me proud that my generation has reached the point where we are writing erudite books that get rave reviews in The New Yorker and can be given to our baby-boomer parents.

So I purchased the book, read the introduction for kicks, and was sufficiently intrigued that I ended up reading the whole thing before giving it to Dad (I knew he wouldn't mind).

As the New Yorker comparison to Gödel Escher Bach would imply, The Most Human Human is a difficult book to sum up and covers a wide range of topics. Fundamentally, it is an investigation into what intellectual processes humans can still do better than computers, and how that can help us to understand our place in the world and get the most out of being alive. If our humanity does not lie purely in our intellectual capacity, where does it lie?

I should note, for those of you who are put off (rather than encouraged) by the comparison to Gödel Escher Bach, that The Most Human Human is much shorter than Gödel Escher Bach and probably more accessible -- it will make you think, but does not require you to understand symbolic logic. In addition, The Most Human Human has a moral-philosophical-humanistic component that I don't remember being present in Gödel Escher Bach. (Some indication of Brian Christian's tone can be discerned from the fact that one of the book's epigraphs comes from David Foster Wallace and Wallace is quoted several times in the text. How Millennial of Christian!) It's a warmer and more inviting book, I think.

The Most Human Human covers a lot of ground, so people with a wide variety of interests and concerns are likely to get something out of it. Clearly, one of the big themes of the book is human verbal and non-verbal communication -- and clearly, that's something I also think about a lot, because I write plays. Christian even cites the work of playwrights in his text -- discussing David Mamet, for instance, in a section on how human dialogue tends to be far more circuitous and discursive and filled with interruptions than computers are capable of. I love the fusion of art and science!

The Most Human Human, therefore, has given me some ideas on how to be a better playwright -- not just a better human being. In one fascinating section, Christian explains that chatbots these days excel at "stateless conversation," that is, conversation where their response depends only on the last thing that you said. But they're not so good at taking into account the overall arc of the conversation, and even worse at taking into account the conversation they had with you yesterday.

One of the earliest chatbots (late 1980s) was MGonz, which was designed to be verbally abusive, belligerent, and argumentative -- and succeeded in fooling a lot of people into thinking it was a human being.

"As becomes painfully clear from reading the MGonz transcripts, argument is stateless," Christian notes. "I've seen it happen between friends: 'Once again, you've neglected to do what you've promised.' 'Oh, there you go right in with that tone of yours!' 'Great, let's just dodge the issue and talk about my tone instead! You're so defensive!' 'You're the one being defensive! This is just like the time you x!' 'For the millionth time, I did not even remotely x! You're the one who...' And on and on. A close reading of this dialogue, with MGonz in mind, turns up something interesting, and very telling: each remark after the first is only about the previous remark. The friends' conversation has become stateless, unanchored from all context. [... Thus] there's a sense in which verbal abuse is simply less complex than other forms of conversation."

When I read Christian's invented sample of "stateless argument," I realized that if I read this same dialogue in a play, I would consider it terrible playwriting. I know this sort of thing happens in real life, but it seems to happen even more often in the work of bad or inexperienced playwrights. Being taught that "drama is conflict," some newbie playwrights confuse endless argument or bickering with genuine dramatic conflict. Their plays tend to consist of two relatively generic characters quibbling with and criticizing and insulting one another in generic -- in stateless -- ways.

But if you know exactly who these characters are, their relationship to one another and their prior history, the deeper reasons why they are arguing, you can write a good dialogue scene that doesn't degenerate into mindless bickering.

Good playwriting (and good chatbots) take prior conversation and prior history into account, the way that human beings do, unconsciously, in real life; bad playwriting (and bad chatbots) is stateless.

And that's just one of the many things that The Most Human Human made me think about.