Wednesday, July 24, 2013

I Kind of Have a Thing About Birthdays

Mind-blowing right?  I'm like the first person you've ever met in the entire universe who gets pensive, neurotic, and sentimental surrounding her birthday.

But this is my first birthday during which I am keeping a blog, so I thought I would take some time to articulate my thoughts and experiences about the subject into words.

First off, I have a summer birthday, which in theory is awesome--no school, clear weather, banana ice cream (in my case at least).  But in terms of corralling people together to watch you blow out candles, the logistics are a bit more complicated.  During the school year when it's your birthday, even if you have no friends at all you can still bring in cupcakes and other kids will pretend to like you for the time they spend licking up the frosting.  And if you do have friends, they might come to school early and decorate your locker and then your emotional validation is displayed for the world to see.  In the summer, on the other hand, any social gathering must be planned and organized and RSVP'ed, which becomes complicated by the array of scheduled sports, sleepaway camps, and family vacations.

Which brings it to the second major reason that birthdays have always been somewhat angsty for me:  over roughly the first half of my life, my birthday coincided with the American Natural Hygiene Society conference.

No this was not a gathering of dentists--the American Natural Hygiene Society was the vegan organization that formed my family's diet and lifestyle.  My dad, raised a raw foodist, had been attending the conferences his entire life and my mom since she was 10 years old.  They met and fell in love there and when they divorced obsessively healthful eating was one of the few things they still agreed upon.  Along with my family, there were a gaggle of other kids who convened every year with their parents in whatever city the conferences took place; for a while, the venues shifted from city to city, but by the time I was in elementary school they were either in Fort Lauderdale or Washington, DC (I still bear a small grudge against Georgetown for the night a door ran over my big toe the night before my seventh birthday).  While they used to throw a joint celebration for all of the kids whose birthdays were in July, because my Dad was President of the ANHS for most of my childhood and sort of felt like some kind heiress, like the Paris Hilton of veganism.

So much banana ice cream...
But while there was a certain level of angst at having my birthday so disconnected from my day to day life, there was also a small relief that I never really had the responsibility of thinking what I would do on that day.  Once I got to high school, for various reasons conference attendance no longer was mandatory, and for the first time I actually had to think about where I would be spending my special day.  While for many years I was reassured with the presence of the same friends who would be there every year, I was now subject to the same scheduling issues that plagued other summer birthdays.  And because I had spent so long without much of a choice in the matter, I felt under particular pressure to make up for lost time.  While there were a handful of people that were usually around in high school, by the time I got to college I was moving around so much in college and grad school that every year would often include a completely different set of friends and settings.  I have enjoyed brunch in Williamsburg, partied with canvassers in LA, wandered farmers' markets in Jerusalem, gone swing dancing in Youngstown and chanted at the Bhakti Center.  This led to some wonderful memories, but also a nagging every year terror that people wouldn't show up or the plans wouldn't turn out perfectly.  My initial plan for my summer in LA was to take advantage of Disneyland's free admission on your birthday program, but decided to go to work instead because most of the people I would have wanted to see would be there.

Even this past Sunday night I kind of freaked out at Trader Joe's when I saw the weather forecast called for rain, putting the kibosh on plans for a casual picnic and I had to come up with a not-lame idea that wouldn't force my friends to spend a ton of money none of us have.  We're going to karaoke--it's likely going to be a ton of fun.  What most excites me is the opportunity to bring together friends from my different communities out here.  To integrate.

Integrate.  Perhaps that's what this has always been about--having people around me to share my milestones, thoughts and experiences.  Integrating the past divided between parents, interests, health conferences and finding a consistent core.  So as mark another birthday, to old friends and true, to old friends and new, I wish that good luck go with you--and happiness too.

Have a good one today, too.

Friday, July 19, 2013

When Works of Art Find You at the Times You Need Them Most

Most people consider me reasonably well-read.  And yet my scholarship contains some rather glaring gaps that I've managed to fill by acquiring a Wikipedia-level knowledge of many things.  Years ago there was a Facebook group entitled "No, I Have Not Read That Great Literary Classic--But I Saw The Wishbone Episode" (for those who didn't watch PBS in the late 90s, "Wishbone" featured a literature-obsessed Jack Russell terrier who liked to cast himself in the lead roles.  To this day it composes my entire knowledge of Ivanhoe).  I have never actually read Proust, Nietzsche, or a Dickens novel outside of A Christmas Carol.  I know who Rosebud is but I have never watched Citizen Kane.  

Gradually, I've attempted to fill those gaps as time and opportunity allow.  In some cases I am flabbergasted that I hadn't taken the time to consume them earlier--I am probably one of five people on Earth who can claim to have watched the Star Wars films in chronological order.  In other cases, I feel had I encountered these works earlier, I may not have had the capacity to truly absorb them into my being.  

Such is the case with Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George and The Fervent Years by Harold Clurman.  

In the case of Sunday in the Park With George, like Ivanhoe, for years I had possessed a working knowledge of the musical inspired by the life of painter Georges Seurat.  But for whatever reason, the characters and the music never electrified me the way my nine-year-old self was by the iconic fairly tale types of Into the Woods.  But on a recent Bernadette Peters Youtube-clip binge two months ago, I discovered a link to the filmed production in its entirety and watched it while at the airport during a recent trip to Chicago.

And that shit moved me.  

Thursday, July 18, 2013

A Conversation to Sort Out My Feelings About "Orange is the New Black"

Over the weekend, I binged-watched Jenji Kohan's prison dramedy "Orange is the New Black" on Netflix.  While I had a frustrating relationship with Kohan's previous show, "Weeds," the prospect of such a female-heavy cast was too much to resist.  And to my delight, I found the experience of watching the show to be heartbreaking, moving, and exhilarating.  Where "Weeds" had repelled me by its insistence on reducing many of its characters to nasty tropes for the sake of glib humor, here Kohan seemed committed to creating full-bodied characters.  As the theme song says, perhaps "everything is different the second time around."

And then the finale happened.  SOME SPOILERS AHEAD.

While it was not wholly unexpected, I felt like I had been gut-punched (or perhaps in this case, tit-punched).  Sick and uncomfortable in the way I felt after finishing a Thomas Hardy novel.  Perhaps it was the nature of binging, the intense emotional roller coaster in a short period of time. I intend to rewatch the episode and scene again with a clearer head.

Though the advantages of Netflix's whole series dump are clear, the one big drawback is the the lack of discourse available.  For weekly shows like "Mad Men," for instance, one of my favorite parts of the experience is reading the recaps throughout the web that dissect small details and find a larger context for the conversation.  With a show that not all of America is experiencing at the same time, however, it can be difficult to discuss major plot points without spoiling the experience for everyone else.  So the other day I put out a call on Facebook for people who had finished all 13 episodes, and was fortunate to receive a reply from my new friend, actress Adriana Jones.  Below is a copy of our dialogue.

  • Conversation started June 6
  • Adriana Jones

    It was lovely talking to you after Fresh Blood tonight! Let's stay in touch; I think we could become good friends .
  • Tuesday
  • Lisa Huberman

    I just felt the whole piper freakout was completely unearned. I guess i knew it was going to become that show eventually. but I hoped it wouldn't
  • Tuesday
  • Adriana Jones

    I understood why Piper would be upset about Larry leaving her and Alex goading him in their secret meeting, because on top of that her business is failing because Polly is useless, so it made sense to me that she would be coming undone. It was just a weird tonal shift to suddenly have Pennsatucky want to kill her.
  • Lisa Huberman

    I don't think it was a tonal shift for pennsaltucky to go after her. But seeing her take violent action over pennsaltucky means piper has passed the point of no return and will get an extension of her sentence.
  • Adriana Jones

    Yeah, I was wondering about that. Did she kill pennsatucky? Or just beat her up really badly? Healy won't vouch for her, since he was ready to just let her die, so there's probably no way to prove it was self defense. Will she get transfered to a maximum security prison then (and become roommates again with miss claudette)? I imagine not because that would eliminate the rest of the cast, but it will be interesting to see where this goes in the next season and to see if it becomes "that show"-the violent, gritty crime show-or if it will just be a slightly darker version of this season.
  • Lisa Huberman

    Having watched (and been frustrated by) Weeds, I figured this was coming. But I had so loved the restraint of the first part of the show. As the theme song says, taking steps is easy, standing still is hard
  • Adriana Jones

    Ah, I never watched Weeds, so I had no idea what to expect. Coming into it from that perspective, I was pleasantly surprised because they avoided a lot of the more annoying cliches and developed a pretty wonderful, fleshed out cast of characters.
  • Lisa Huberman

    I totally agree--especially coming from Weeds. Weeds had some great actors, but everything was played for some crude absurd joke. I felt so much warmth and sadness watching this show. Miss Claudette broke my fucking heart
  • Adriana Jones

    Ah! I almost cried for Ms. Claudette. I also really love Kate Mulgrew as Red.
  • Lisa Huberman

    Right? And Jodie Foster directed episode 3. Some serious heavies. Also fun fact: the woman who played Yoga Jones was the voice of Patti Mayonaise on Doug
    That completely blew my mind
  • Adriana Jones

    Oh my god, that's awesome! I am going to have to rewatch some episodes and see if I can detect the patti resemblance.
  • Lisa Huberman

    Love how much female camaraderie the series showed. There was something 90s about it--films like a League of Their Own and Girl, Interrupted.
    Fried Green Tomatoes too
  • Adriana Jones

    Yeah, I've been getting really exasperated by the lack of genuine portrayals of dynamics between women or just women period in film, so it's nice to see such a strong cast of women on a hit tv show exploring so many different types of female relationships. I miss the girl power 90s.
  • Lisa Huberman

    I do too! I miss the grumpy women of 90s pop culture
    And I mean WOMEN. Not teenagers
  • Adriana Jones

    Yes! And even the teenagers were more mature. The comparison between buffy the vampire slayer and twilight is made often, but I'm always struck by how much stronger buffy and the other girls on that show are than any female character in twilight and the difference in power between the girls on the two shows.
  • Adriana Jones

    Well, twilight is a move not a show.
    But you know what I mean.
  • Adriana Jones

    Blargh, I'm going to get stuff done now, but I'm glad I got to decompress about "Orange" with you. Talk to you later! -A
  • Lisa Huberman

    Hey--would it be okay if I published this convo on my blog?
  • Adriana Jones

    Absolutely, blog away (just send me the url so I can see the post it's a part of?)
  • Lisa Huberman


Friday, July 12, 2013

Health Nuts, Tennessee Williams, and the Evolution of an Idea

One of my favorite parts about being a playwright has been watching ideas evolve into what they will ultimately become.  In my weekly grad school workshops, I watched my fellow writers experiment with different approaches to addressing a particular concept or experience until they found the ideal form.  I remember one of my classmates poured months of research into a play about slavery that he hoped to use as his thesis, and when it was rejected ended up reshaping that historical info into a thrilling pilot about the abolitionist movement.   Last year I went to go see José Rivera's play Massacre at Rattlestick, and while the play didn't completely and totally "work" I enjoyed being able to recognize patterns and themes from his other plays that made up so much of the language of my undergraduate career.  A month later, I went to see a reading of his play The Hours are Feminine, a play of a completely different tone from Massacre, and yet again I noted a connective thread.

The original sign
from my grandparents' health food store
Even more interesting are instances when a playwright isn't just addressing similar subjects or using revisiting common themes, but literally retelling the same story.  Case in point:  before Tennessee Williams wrote The Night of the Iguana as a play in 1961, he first penned it as a short story in 1948.  Both versions of the story have the same setting, a hotel in Mexico, and both feature an emotionally troubled female painter named Ms. Jelkes who identifies with a captive iguana.  But while the version has the painter traveling with her ailing grandfather and centers around her bond with a tormented ex-preacher, the short story version hews closely to Williams' own experiences, and Ms. Jelkes gets sexually and emotionally entangled with two homosexual American writers.  

I was thinking about Williams in particular a month ago when I was going through papers to take back to Ohio.  In a binder full of creative writing from undergrad, I came across the first thing I ever wrote that would become Health Nuts, a one-act play that is going up this evening at The Brick.  It's handwritten on notebook paper and conveys the inner monologue of an Ohio health food store proprietor in the 1960s who is shattered when she discovers a Hershey Bar in her husband's coat pocket.  

The idea was based on jokes my mom and I used to make if my grandmother--who did open a health food store with my grandpa in Ohio in the middle of the 20th century--ever caught my grandpa Max sneaking chocolate.  

An excerpt from the original story
The class ended, and I left the short story unfinished.  The idea, however, stayed with me, and when it came time for screenwriting class, I thought I would have a go at it and called the story Health Nuts.  This time I expanded the world, adding anecdotes from my vegan childhood--for instance, my mom embarrassing me by coming into my elementary school and lecturing me on the evils of chocolate--but the treatment, at least, followed the same general structure.  

From the treatment

When I tried writing the script, I toyed with the idea of having the wife be the one sneaking chocolate.  
But I eventually struggled pulling the idea together and put it aside.

The screenplay

Then, in my last semester of grad school, I found myself scrambling to come up with a ten-minute play for Midnight Special, the semi-monthly reading series produced by the Rutgers playwriting program.  With about ten hours before go-time, I decided to revisit this idea I struggled with for an entire semester in screenwriting class two years earlier.  I distilled Health Nuts the screenplay into a ten-minute dispute where a wife confronts her husband in their health food store after finding a Hershey Bar in his coat pocket. And it played like gangbusters.  In further revisions I would add a third character and details of the world back in from the screenplay, but this idea that began in the basement of Bradley Hall in 2008 has finally found its true form.  And it's about to debut before a paying audience tonight. The journey seems to have come to an end.

The one-act version
Of course, someone recently suggested it might be really funny as a web series...To be continued!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

On the Tony Awards and My Changing Relationship to Theatre

So last month, I decided to watch the Tony Awards in Times Square.

This was a purely last minute decision.  I hadn't seen any of the nominated shows this year, with the exception of Best Play nominee The Testament of Mary, and had even rebuffed an opportunity to watch the dress rehearsal in favor of a 6am shift at Trader Joe's (because money.  I could always find a live stream somewhere on the internets (yes, mom, that extra "s" was intentional).

But there I was, approaching 42nd St. around 6:45 and I started to wonder, as I do often, what was the point of living in New York City if I was going to watch it all from my computer screen?  At any rate, Christine Pedi from the Sirius XM Broadway station was hosting, and at least I could make my dad jealous.  So I bought a $.79 bagel from Duane Reade for dinner and plopped down in the middle of a sea of tourists to watch Neil Patrick Harris sing and dance on a giant screen.

Initially, I told myself I would stay for just the opening number and then go home, but soon I was seduced by that old razzle dazzle--theatre people know how to put on a show.  Oscars, you have officially been served.

Still, I couldn't help but feel like my 14-year-old self would have enjoyed this a lot more more.  The 14-year-old who spent car rides to school with my dad memorizing the lyrics to Mel Brooks' The Producers and sat enraptured watching Susan Stroman's walker choreography tap across the stage at Radio City.  Whose heart stopped feeling Bernadette Peters brush past my aisle seat during the opening of Gypsy.  For years I still held a bitterness that the candy colored Thoroughly Modern Millie beat out vastly more subversive Urinetown for Best Musical in 2001.

I cared about musicals then.  They were an integral part of my life.

As a writer of "straight" plays, the Tonys carry mixed emotions.  The ceremony tends to squeeze plays that aren't musicals into minute-long speed-thrus, and a few years ago moved the best book award to the pre-show broadcast. (to add insult to injury, the play nominees were recapped by speed talker Jesse Eisnenberg, who seemed to be auditioning to play a hipster Harold Hill).

And I don't see Broadway musicals anymore.  The last new Broadway musical I saw was 2010's Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which closed after only a few months because it couldn't find a broad  audience.  It's easy to chalk it up to the superficiality of the contemporary theatre world, but has Broadway changed or have I changed?  Am I becoming Stan Marsh from South Park, who suddenly reaches 10 years old and finds all of the music he used to like sounds like shit?

Because of my inclinations as a critic, I am trained to look beneath the surface.  To see the larger picture.  Broadway is about more than simply fulfilling dreams--it's also a business serving the elite and the tourists who can afford to pay top ticket prices to see celebrity-studded revivals.  It's also true though that a musical adapted from a movie was a lot fresher when The Producers debuted in 2000, a period in which musical comedy was all but dead in the water and the field was dominated by dance-heavy "concept" musicals like Fosse and Contact.

The fact is, the world of Broadway felt exponentially farther sitting in the middle of Times Square than it did all those years ago watching the Tony Awards in Ohio. Sadly, there are few chances of joining the chorus as a playwright.  And even established playwrights have a hard time finding commercial success on Broadway, as we have seen this year with high profile flops by David Mamet and Theresa Rebeck.  Many well meaning family members from Ohio encourage me that I could have a play "Off Broadway," not understanding the nonprofit world is also driven by commerce (this point seems to also be lost on New York Times theatre critics).  I think sometimes we need to replace the terms "Broadway" and "Off Broadway" with "big-ass theatre" and "littler-ass theatre."  There is some bold, exciting work in larger theatres in midtown and a lot of commercially-driven crap at New World Stages.  It's unfair to put something like Annie Baker's The Flick and Naked Boys Singing in the same category.

And even if there are shows Broadway I want to see, it usually means I see them alone.  Yes, I know TDF and rush policies exist, but most of my friends usually tell me they are in rehearsal or too broke.  There are a lot of uses for $40 in New York City.  Part of why I got into theatre was the sense of community, and so when I see shows and readings they tend to be shows that I can share with people in my network.  I only went to see The Testament of Mary after seeing my friends on my facebook newsfeed posting about it.  You know when I saw the most Broadway plays? When I was in grad school in New Jersey and I specifically enrolled in classes that would force me to see shows.  For theatre criticism I saw, among others, Sutton Foster in Anything Goes and Mark Rylance in Jerusalem.  And while the costs where prohibitive, the knowledge that I would have regular informed, lively discussions about these experiences assayed any doubts I might have had about laying down the cash.  

It's not that I don't see theatre anymore:  I see a ton of it.  I go to readings, short theatre festivals, site-specific productions about orgies, and immersive shows that ply you with wine while three men with pianos guide you through Franz Schubert's Winterreise.  One of my most delightful experiences this year was seeing The Public Theatre's Wild With Happy and seeing projections of Disney World become characters in their own right.

Are these productions somehow "better" or more "real" than Broadway?  I don't like think in those terms.  I find them unhelpful and unnecessarily divisive.  It's just the world in which I am living right now.  Right now my resources and time are best spent supporting the artists whose achievements seem within my reach and who can best help me achieve my own goals.  When I plump down $20 to see a friend's devised theatre piece in Queens, I may not be able to watch clips of it on the Tony Awards, but I'll get to engage in a lively Facebook salon about issues of feminism and workplace ethics.  I am truly pissed at myself for missing Annie Baker's The Flick, but it also fell smack-dab in the middle of a particularly hellish grading period and many contacts fell by the wayside.  But that's a conversation in which I would have loved to actively participate.

And that's I guess what it's about for me: the conversation.  I was never the strongest actor, and when I used to get passed up for roles in Ohio as a kid I would become frustrated and contemplate leaving theatre for good.  But what kept me coming back was hanging out in the lighting booth and talking Broadway with my high school's technical director or the thrill of picking apart a production in the car with my Dad as soon as we left the performance.  In college I would hang with the smokers outside the shop door after theatre history riffing on Brecht and Artaud.  Now the conversation occurs in my friends' Facebook feeds (and probably on Twitter.  Though I really don't understand Twitter).

My relationship to theatre and my goals within it are changing.  I don't know where it's leading.  But I'll keep talking my way through it until I get there.  I hope you'll join in.