Archive for April, 2009

A Morning Mini Manifesto

Posted in Indie Theatre, ME with tags , , , on April 29, 2009 by travsd

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Lacking material for a new post (although a flood is heading this way), I hearby attach my artistic statement for a pending grant application, written at about four o’clock this morning. Those are ways the best ones, because the censor is off. I have been writing and re-writing the sentiments expressed therein since I was a teenager. I hope one day to get better at it.

Probably the most pernicious and unnatural aspect of the performing arts in America (and increasingly elsewhere) is the schism between the two artificial constructs called “popular culture” and “the arts”. Unlike the theatrical cultures of the Greco-Roman world and post-Renaissance Europe, America’s did not grow organically out of the nation’s religious life but, having been banned by officialdom, sprang up illicitly in close association with vice. “Entertainment”, like the traffic in sex, booze, drugs and gambling with which it was long associated, became a pleasure industry, without the same social mission – the social glue — that characterizes old world theatre. Recognizing this as long ago as the 19th century, certain individuals and groups in the U.S. made a counter-revolutionary effort to establish an “art theatre” that could compare with Europe’s. That it has failed in this mission may be attested to by the simple bellwether that its audience consists of a tiny minority of intellectual and economic elites. Millions appreciate the products of Hollywood, Broadway, and the music industry; a tiny clique cares anything about “art films”, “important plays”, or “serious music”.

And rightfully so. “Art films”, “important plays”, and “serious music” are unspeakably boring. I avoid them whenever possible. Art, which reaches us through the senses, should quicken the pulse, excite, draw us to the theatre in the same way as the products offered by bordellos, saloons and casinos do – commercial producers at least know this much. Business sense is SENSE, after all. On the other hand, pimps, drug dealers and gangsters are all scoundrels. That is the definition of someone who places personal gain over public welfare, is it not? Do commercial producers fall into that category? I’ll be careful and say “Not all of them, and not always”.

My philosophy has always been – always (I found my voice as a writer as a teenager) – that neither of these approaches is suitable or adequate for a great culture. America now clumsily bestrides the world in farm boots and a baseball cap like a drunk and retarded Gulliver on a spree through Lilliput. Wherever it goes, it deposits jingoistic Hollywood fireballs and misogynistic rap lyrics like a hundred thousand diplomatic turds. This from the nation that produced Emerson, Poe, Whitman and Melville.

And yet I love America’s popular culture. I love it with all my heart and soul. I am inspired by its originality, its individualism, its dissonances, its iconoclasm. I love its diversity, its populism, its accessibility. I love the new forms it is constantly inventing. Jazz, the blues, vaudeville, burlesque, rock and roll, Gothic horror, freak show…all of these form have played a major, defining role in my work.

At the same time, I think I reflect the true national character by being a bit schizophrenic. I am not someone who thinks life ought to be lived as one long, perpetual party. I am enthralled with the dime museum and the amusement park…but at bottom, I am a Jeremiah. I have been a critic almost as long as I have been a playwright and producer, writing first for ‘zines, then for major publications like the Village Voice and American Theatre and now on my blog Travalanche. Many of my plays have long, Shavian style didactic prefaces. And while I have presented hundreds of vaudeville and burlesque shows, Barnumesque exhibitions and pop and folk music gatherings, have written books about pop culture, and always seed my plays with elements like original pop music, borscht-belt humor, vaudeville style characterizations and burlesque dances – all that aside, my plays tend to mix that love of popular American forms with a) themes and forms that anchor us in the world by evoking tradition and history; and b) rather stern, angry satire in the tradition of Aristophanes, Swift and Voltaire. I consider it my mission as a playwright and as a citizen both to make theatre that elevates the sensibilities of the audience (i.e., not to “dumb down”), and to make them think about the cruelties and follies being perpetrated in this world, often in their name. Commercial entertainment has the power to bring us all together – but, having no greater agenda than pleasure, annihilates that power. But in a democracy, we are more than consumers, we are citizens. “Entertainment value” should not be a mode of escapism, it should be the spoonful of sugar that contains the medicine.

Howling Vic’s Journey of Decay

Posted in BROOKLYN, Burlesk, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, Women with tags , on April 22, 2009 by travsd

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Now I know why Howling Vic is Howling! It turns out she has a toothache. Or, as Dorothy Comingore pronounces it in Citizen Kane, a oo’ ay!

Brooklyn Arts Exchange Resident Artist Victoria Libertore, better known to fans as Howling Vic, will be doing her new piece My Journey of Decay at BAX this weekend (April 24-26), and it’s all about the holes in her mouth, a theme to which I and a lot of other starving artists I know can sadly relate. In a spirit of solidarity, then, I present the following interview, conducted from our respective dental chairs:

TRAV: A dance piece about dental problems? Can you describe it?

VIC: Of course. First of all, it’s not a dance piece. It’s a theatre piece. That’s my background. I do weave some movement throughout with music. But, the piece itself is a memoir piece about how my teeth got into such a state and what I’ve gone through to repair them. It’s funny! And has some surprises!

TRAV: Tell us about your dental problems!

VIC: Lots and lots and lots of decay. I just got through the first phase of all the fillings and root canals. Now I just have crowns and veneers left to do. The hardest part was an operation where they had to slice through my gum, open it up and dig out an infection. It took three hours and 13 shots of Novocain! But, growing up I had braces, lots of cavities and eight teeth pulled. Four wisdom teeth and four because my mouth was too small. Believe it or not, after developing this show, I’ve heard much worse stories.

TRAV: What was the inspiration?

VIC: I was sitting in the dentist chair and feeling like crap about myself. I thought, “I’m going to have to find the humor in this because it’s going to be a long while before all my teeth are fixed.” So, I started writing. I was also doing “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron at the time. You write pages every morning and it was a great outlet for the show to start to come out.

TRAV: Any other artists involved in the piece?

VIC: Most definitely. Rosalie Purvis is my director. I can’t say enough good things about her! She develops her own work as well. She’s been an amazing outside eye letting me find my way as I write this piece. Her enthusiasm for the material and sharing it with people has given me some newfound verve. Justin Sturgis is lighting the piece and he’s one in a million. And, the staff at BAX/Brooklyn Arts Exchange have been amazing. This is my first year of an artist residency there and it’s helped me grow in so many ways and they’ve been so supportive.

TRAV: Any other artist dental horror stories, i.e. of friends, colleagues etc.?

VIC: Tons! It’s unbelievable. I don’t feel like crap about myself anymore. Everybody has a dental story except those few that have never had a cavity. But, they live in constant fear of getting one. So, everybody’s got their thing with their mouth. What’s amazing to me is how having someone in your mouth, in your roots can bring up so much. I talk about this in more detail in the show — how it’s brought up my history, my family. I thought that was just me. But, it’s true for others that I’ve talked to. And, of course, there’s the issue of lack of healthcare! That could be its own show.

TRAV: Plans to continue the piece after BAX?

VIC: Broadway, Baby. I’d love to see the show move to another venue and get a run, tour the country, go overseas. Hopefully, with BAX’s help, my agent, Judy Boals, and some confidence I’m finally starting to find within myself, My Journey of Decay will go on. That’s the intention I’m setting!

My Journey of decay promises to be anything but a trip to the dentist. You can get more details about the show and how to buy tickets at: www.howlingvic.com or www.bax.org.

Immediate Antecedents (Featuring the Gratuitous Use of Bold Faced Names)

Posted in Indie Theatre, ME, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2009 by travsd

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This photo was taken during my first New York production Universal Rundle, which was performed at the Vortex Theatre in 1988, a couple of months after my wife and I had premiered it in Portland, Maine. The star of the New York version, Tom Wright (shown) was an old school friend of my sister-in-law’s, and the owner of the Tribeca loft where the two of us stayed for several months when we first moved to the city.

Memories of Tom crashed over me like a wave recently upon meeting film director Bette Gordon and reviewing the documentary film Blank City, both featured in the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival. The latter film depicts the underground film scene in New York in the 1970s and 80s, a movement that has in retrospect been dubbed “No Wave”. Central players included Amos Poe (Blank Generation, 1976); Jim Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise, 1984, etc etc etc); Gordon, (Empty Suitcases, 1980; Variety, 1983); Eric Mitchell, Steve Buscemi, Nick Zedd, Lydia Lunch, Debby Harry, Susan Seidelman, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cookie Mueller, etc etc etc. Tom Wright—the guy in the picture above—was a total player in this scene.

IN FACT, the year before he starred in my play, he’d directed his buddies Steve Buscemi and Mark Boone Jr. in a two man show at LaMama. A few years before, he’d had a central role in Eric Mitchell’s film Underground USA, along with John Lurie, John Waters regular Cookie Mueller, and Taylor Mead, the seminal experimental theatre and film actor and member of Warhol’s Factory. (Jarmusch was the sound man!) Tom was a frequent collaborator of Taylor’s. I got to meet him a few times; in fact I believe he came to see Universal Rundle. (Bohemian royalty notwithstanding, that early production of U.R. was such a blip that I was able to present a rewrite as “new” at Soho Think Tank’s Sixth Floor Series featuring myself, Jeff Lewonczyck and Hope Cartelli. We hope to mount a full production before too long). (Postscript, we later did, in 2011: see here).

I often denigrate the off-off-Broadway scene as I found it when I moved to New York, but I want to take a moment now to write about the delicious scraps I found here and there in the late 80s that nourished and inspired me, and, to my mind, provided a sort of bridge from the halcyon days of the original off-off movement of the 1960s to the current flourishing indie theatre movement.

Case in point, while we were living in Tom’s loft, we would often walk up Greenwich Street to an amazing theatre called Cucaracha. Run by this bizarre character named Richard Caliban (whom I later got to know at the MacDowell Colony a few years later), Cucharacha quite possibly remains my favorite downtown theatre company despite its demise a decade ago. There was an astounding amount of activity there, and a palpable energy. We would go weekly to see the latest installment of their “Underground Soap Opera” which featured performers like the late Adrienne Shelley and Martin Donovan, whom Hal Hartley was to plunder for his own cinematic stock company.

Also flourishing on the West Side in those days was the Westbeth Theatre Center, which featureda weekly cabaret featuring the likes of the gilded-eared Frank Maya (who later died of AIDS), and Carmelita Tropicana. PS122, naturally was a breeding ground for these types of performers, as was Dixon Place, which was then located in Ellie Covan’s apartment in Alphabet City. My favorite of them all – you could see him/her perform at all these spaces — was the great Ethyl Eichelberger, probably the only performer I’ve seen in my twenty years in the profession who made the slightest impression on me…in the sense of “I want to do that!” (Not the drag, just the SIZE of his performance). He was a great sloppy, improviser who messed with the classics – he could fill a room with the violet fog of his hamming. Rob Prichard of Surf Reality too had known and admired Ethyl—a big portrait of the performer hung in Rob’s apartment behind the club. Alas, Ethyl killed himself rather than suffer the slow decline that would have been inevitable given the AIDs he’d been diagnosed with. The disease had also taken Charles Ludlam, whose artistry by all reports put Ethyl’s to shame, a couple of years before I moved to New York. But I was fortunate enough to catch many performances of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, which was then led by Ludlam’s lover and successor Everett Quinton.

(In the early 90s, I worked up the nerve to ask Everett to star in my Columbia, the Germ of the Ocean…he declined, but when we finally got a production going at Chashama, I was thrilled that it did star a real, live ridiculous alum, Julia Pearlstein, who’s since become my gun moll. But Everett did attend, and the production also featured Tim Cusack who later cast Everett in his production Lord Cornbury, so the events follow a sort of satisfying trajectory. Incidentally, that production of Columbia was directed by Ian W. Hill at the Bindlestiff Palace of Variety and also featured Edward Einhorn, Art Wallace, and several other notables. Anyway, much later, I learned that the thread of Julia’s life also connects her to the very wellspring of this movement, Andy Warhol himself, who moved to NY from Pittsburg with her father the realist painter Philip Pearlstein).

Lastly, far, far from the Lower East Side, Tribeca or the Village, I made my first pilgrimage to Coney Island USA in 1989. The place threw me for a loop and it still does. (Go here to hear me gab about the experience for the Coney Island Oral History Project: http://www.coneyislandhistory.org/voices/index.php?g=voices&s=details&object_id=676). Dick Zigun, a Yale educated playwright, found some kind of crazy aesthetic consonance between punk culture and side shows. In fact – to tie it all back together, Charles Ludlam performed at that venue…and I know a lot of the seminal punk bands did too. I was so taken with the place (and the Mermaid Parade, which it produces), that I wrote my play Sea of Love, which I first produced in 1989 on a double bill with Misshapen Jack the Nebraska Hunchback. The opening act was a Coney Island character named Sailorman Jack, and the original production featured Sarah McCord, who has a role in Stanley Tucci’s The Imposters. This double-bill was a blip, too, of course. That’s why I was able to produce a rewrite of Sea of Love at Soho Think Tank’s Ice Factory in 2002, with choreography by Julie Atlas Muz, and a cast featuring Kate Valentine, Bambi the Mermaid, Jeff Lewonczyck, Robert Pinnock, Moira Stone, and Sarah Jane Bunker. And of course, Misshapen Jack has been revived many times, notably in the 1998 NY International Fringe Festival, and the Brick Theatre’s Moral Values Festival. And Sea of Love finally came home to Coney Island in the form of a reading in 2007.

seaofloveTony Millionaire’s postcard design for Trav S.D.’s Sea of Love

And now, a shout out to a couple of compeers who must share something like my vantage point on the old world and the new. One is Kevin Draine the Bitter Poet. We met – yikes – twenty years ago — when we were part of the now-defunct Manhattan Punchline’s intern unit, the Comedy Corps. Essentially, in exchange for improv classes, we did all the shit jobs at the theatre. (I ran the light board, a harrowing nightmare that was without a doubt and to this day my worst experience in the theatre). The Punchline was based on Theatre Row, and for the most part the Comedy Corps was a very uptown scene, with at least one foot in the comedy club world. The most famous member of our group ended up being Ileana Douglas. Of the two dozen or so in our year, OBIE winner Maude Mitchell, Debbie Rabbai, Misstress B (Kenwyn Dapo) Sheila Head, and Caryn Ronsenthal (author of Dumped) are the only ones I’m aware of still going strong in NYC. And Kev, whom even back then I would bump into at downtown venues like the Home for Contemporary Theatre and Art, which later merged to form HERE. Afterwards, he became the Bitter Poet, an Art Star-like creation that makes me think of him as a kind of old war buddy. Unlike me, he’s retained the Dorian Gray-like ability to look precisely as he did in 1989, so I don’t know what he’s got to be bitter about.

And on the subject of Art Stars, I can’t go without mentioning the Mother Superior of them all, Saint Reverend Jen. She came just a bit afterward, but she is such a fully realized being, and so much the full flowering of so many of those named above that I feel that she, much more than your correspondent, is the strongest link to the previous age of bohemia. The fact that for a time she was the girlfriend of Nick Zedd is only a sidecar to the story. In and of herself, she is a perfect, walking work of self-created art. Indeed, she fully deserves her own post, which she will receive in just a few days, in conjunction with the release of her terrific new book Live Nude Elf (Soft Skull Press).

Until then,

I remain,

Loquaciously yours.

Post Easter and Still Not Risen (with Shout Out to Senor Wences)

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, ME, Vaudeville etc., Ventriloquism & Puppetry on April 17, 2009 by travsd

7bf8b7f6de7663c61It’s the birthday of Senor Wences today.

A whole slew of new pieces on indie theatre and vaudeville, as well as a bunch of original reviews are coming this way in the next few days. In the interim I’ve been vacationing with my kids and working on retouches on two upcoming plays and a new book proposal. In the meantime, please check out my 29th Voice piece, on the Axis Company’s new show Trinity 5:29: http://www.villagevoice.com/2009-04-15/theater/trinity-5-29-s-manhattan-project-story-not-exactly-setting-world-on-fire/

Everything Axis Company does is intelligent and interesting, and this production features Edgar Oliver, one of my favorite actors in New York, as well as Brian Barnhart, the company’s managing director, who turns in an intriguing David Lynch style performance as Harry Truman-slash-Jehovah.

Also, I’m thrilled to announce that I’m covering the Tribeca Film Festival for the Villager family of papers. While I’ve written a couple of film reviews in the past, this will be a good chance for me to fatten my portfolio in a short time. Since writing film criticism was the one skill I received extensive practice in at NYU, it’s ironic that it’s taken me decades to receive the opportunity to do it professionally (And big thanks to my old Surf Reality buddy Scott Stiffler for giving me that opportunity.) At any rate, the first of several pieces is posted: http://www.downtownexpress.com/de_312/allhail.html. It’s all about the pioneering film-maker Bette Gordon. Working on the Gordon article unveiled a bunch of crazy synchronicities rooted in the era just before I began living and working in New York, which will be the subject of my next post.

Until then,

I remain,

Obediently yours.

Stars of Vaudeville #4 Lou Holtz

Posted in Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Singers, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2009 by travsd

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Cut of the same cloth as Benny Rubin, and traveling in the same pack (which also included George Burns, George Jessell, Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, et al.) this singer/comedian’s most famous bit consisted of rhyming his jokes and setting them to the tune of “O Sole Mio”.

Born April 11, 1893 in San Francisco, he was performing at a theatre called the Crest in that city with the team of Boland, Holz and Harris when he was discovered by impressionist Elsie Janis’s mother. The year was 1913. Ma Janis convinced the trio to come East to New York to back up Elsie, who was one of the biggest acts in vaudeville at the time. The other two got cold feet and bolted, so Holtz went solo.

Holtz started out in blackface, copping a lot of his moves from Jolson and Cantor. He was employed by the Shuberts for some time as an understudy for Jolson, reportedly an attempt to keep the latter artist in his place. By 1919 Holtz was at the Palace, where he was soon a regular master of ceremonies. He was well prized for his dialects, particularly, the stereotypical Hebrew one, a character he called Mr. Lapidus. He continued to work in revues, nightclubs, and vaudeville straight through the thirties and by the forties, he had saved up (and carefully invested) a big enough pile to retire for the rest of his life — which is what he did (aside from occasional television appearances through the end of the 70s). He passed away in 1980.

Here he is on the radio show “Laugh Club”

To find out more about Lou Holtz and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Stars of Vaudeville #3: Frank Keenan

Posted in Melodrama and Master Thespians, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on April 8, 2009 by travsd

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One of the great thespians of his day, Frank Keenan (April 8, 1858-February 24, 1929) alternated performances in “legit” with dramatic sketches in vaudeville. Variety‘s Joe Laurie, Jr. put his performance in “Vindication” in his all-time dream vaudeville bill, so powerful an entertainment was the turn. Keenan’s career also included major roles in The Christian (1868), The Girl of the Golden West (1905) and The Warrens of Virginia (1909), and close to 40 films.

Ultimately Keenan had cause to regret the easy money of vaudeville. It was through that connection that he was to become the unwilling father-in-law of comedian Ed Wynn – a mere clown, and worse…an Israelite. Despite Keenan’s rancor (for a time he disowned the couple), Wynn named his first son for him: familiar character actor Keenan Wynn–best known perhaps for protecting the Coca Cola machine in Dr. Strangelove. And also as the voice of the Winter Warlock in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

To find out more about Frank Keenan and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Stars of Vaudeville #2: Walter Huston

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on April 6, 2009 by travsd
Huston as Jerry Cohan

Huston as Jerry Cohan

He was very much the vaudevillian. He had great respect for it always. He never thought himself above it.

John Huston, on his father

As a kid growing up in Toronto, Walter Huston was always playing hooky, doing impressions, and putting on little shows for the other kids in the neighborhood. At 16, he was hired for a road show called The White Heather. He quit school to take the part, but his parents didn’t allow him to go. Stuck in town, he was forced to take the usual clerk and factory jobs available to an uneducated kid. But he kept his wits about him and saved enough money to attend one Shaw’s School of Acting, thus keeping a
hand in.

Before long, he and his boyhood friend Archie Christie joined the Edward d’Oize Travelling Company to perform Mr. D’Oize’s plays The Mountebank and the classic David Garrick. As was common at the time, the tour ground to a halt in the middle of nowhere, the boys trunks were confiscated at the hotel for unpaid bills, and the pair decided to hobo their way to New York. The two starved and scraped for weeks, Huston eventually getting a tour of a play called Convict Stripes with a 5 year old Lillian Gish.

In 1902 he was cast in his first big show, a small role in Richard Mansfield’s production of Julius Caesar. He beat out 100 other comers for the part, which only had 4 lines. Unfortunately, he was so nervous on opening night, he forgot the lines. Mansfield was so angry he hissed Huston’s dismissal to him during the performance.

Dejected, Huston decided to play pro hockey awhile. (H’m, I think I’ll do that). Apparently he was either a really good hockey player (he was from Canada, or it was much easier to get in the leagues back then). Gradually he returned to acting, and more years of struggle in melodramas.

Meanwhile, his sister Margaret had become a successful opera singer. At her apartment she met many of her sophisticated and famous friends, whom he regaled with jokes and tales of his life out west. To Margaret’s chagrin, the friends were so entertained they told Walter he should go into vaudeville. He did.

Years later, Groucho Marx recalled being kept awake on a train by the sound of Walter Huston making love to a woman in the berth below him. Groucho responded by dropping coat hangers on the couple, but they didn’t seem to notice. The woman was undoubtedly Bayonne Whipple, who became Huston’s wife and partner (at least I hope she was). In 1909, Whipple and Huston began to work the circuits with an 18 minute sketch entitled “Spooks”. The climax of the piece involved a gag with a large face painted on a piece of expanding rubber. Huston capped it off a song called “I Haven’t Got The Do-Re-Mi.” After five years of “Spooks”, they moved on to “Shoes,” which took them to the Palace. After this, they moved on to “Time”, an elaborate musical show with a jazz band. Unfortunately, they worked up this last act for the renegade Shubert Advanced Vaudeville circuit, which folded. Keith of course blacklisted them. It was 1923 and they were finished in vaudeville.

Another bit of of bad luck for Walter’s sister ended up being good luck for Walter. Margaret had permanently lost her voice and so was finished in opera. She now used her knowledge to give voice and diction lessons. One of her first pupils had been John Barrymore. Now she trained Walter. Not only this, but she secured a backer for a vehicle for him to star in. Mr. Pitt garnered raves and Walter was on his way.

Stage successes included the original production of Desire Under the Elms (1924), The Fountain, The Barker, and Elmer the Great

In 1928 he broke into films with Gentlemen of the Press, which was followed by D.W. Griffith’s first talkie Abraham Lincoln. Other key performances of his career included the title character in the stage and screen versions of Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth, his portrayal of Jerry Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, and a crooked old prospector in his son John’s classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

DISTINGUISHED PROGENY: Walter’s son John was one of Hollywood’s finest directors for forty years, and his granddaughter (John’s daughter) Anjelica is a much respected actress.

To find out more about Walter Huston and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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