Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Reading

A live reading of a script can be a painful thing. A reading of a screenplay can be excruciating. When it starts off poorly and there’s no clear route to the exit all you can do is watch the pages flip, one a minute, like sands in an hour glass. As the actors fold each page over the brad you watch your life tick by. You’ve lost control. You can be present and listen to the tripe passing for art. You can inspect the performers clothing, wondering if they made the choice for their character or if they’re just lazy. You can listen to their voices – eliminating the words from your mind to hear the music of the tone and cadence of their speech – essentially throwing a “Different Trains” filter on it, but then you realize it’s not music as is, it must indeed be manipulated and that Steve Reich really did compose “Different Trains” - morphing plain spoken phrases of train conductors and Holocaust survivors into a riveting string quartet about his childhood. What I’m saying is that when a man can transmogrify the mundane announcement “From Chicago to New York” into an ecstatic mantra, you know you’re listening to a master. It made me want to ring out “Columbus! Columbus! Columbus, Ohio!!!” until I went hoarse (that’s for the 3 fans out there who know that little ditty of mine about fried fish filets). In fact, if you’ve never heard a Steve Reich piece, go online right now and download something. I don’t care if it’s “Drumming” or “Different Trains” or the mesmerizing “Desert Music”, but you shouldn’t continue living any longer without having experienced the divine, peace inducing joy of his music. Really. Go now. I’ll be here when you come back.

Welcome Back! Doesn’t Reich kick ass? The best is listening to “Desert Music” while you’re buzzing through the empty Mojave at 80mph. You elevate.

Now. Where were we? Uhhhhhh. Right!

Instead of enduring the crap masquerading as drama lingering before you, you can focus on something other than what’s being presented to keep you interested and sane.

You can attempt to meditate, but good luck, because, after that attempt, at best you’re still only Half-Way though! and you keep Losing Focus because those People In Front of you keep Talking TALKing TALKING! Finally though, at least there’s less to come than you’ve endured. You listen in again to see if it’s gotten any more Interesting, but aesthetically it’s still aiming to be little more than a 9/11 anti-anti-immigration movie of the week. And it’s not even reaching that Low Bar it’s set for itself. And now you can immerse yourself in General Outrage. THIS guy won those awards listed in his bio? He has support from WHAT organizations? He’s being produced WHERE? You can ponder the inequities of the world, indulge in a little Jobian cursing of Jehovah. Or my personal favorite pastime is to imagine the climactic moment from my ECSTATIC JOURNEY aria “It’s Been Quite a Day (and I could use a drink)” manifest in this very space. I see a pterodactyl-like metal-taloned robotic Bird of Prey carrying Our Protagonist and her Spirit Guide mouse through a deserted desert underworld and then they CRASH through the brick wall of the rear of the space in which I’m bodily present like the fucking Cool-Aid Man. You know that big glass jug from the 70s commercials? WHAM! Right through the wall. Now that would be some drama worth attending. Bricks falling all around. Blood and dust on your lip. The imaginary smell of copper in the air – a trick of the adrenaline rushing through your veins driven by an explosion that wakes you from your constant slumber. My head throbs with the spare Bb duad as I slide in a 9th and pound the F ‘til it goes up to a G and I can almost hear Margaret (backed by Christine and myself) blaring like a Walkurie as she recalls her journey of transformation into an unwilling shaman.

I lost myself for a few minutes more wondering why I stopped composing and we’re near the end.

It’s the last few pages that are the worst. It looks like a skinny bit of tree to leaf through, but it keeps going – in league with the reaper, stealing a bit more of your life away. I should bolt. But I’ve waited so long, I can stay for the oh so climactic ending, right? Actually, I’d rather listen to a chorus of Chinese peasants exclaim “Pig!” 100 times (see Act 2, Scene I “Nixon in China” – much fun! OK. I’ve actually been listening to “Nixon” while writing this whole entry and if you ever want to wake yourself up, throw on “Nixon” to Act II, Scene II - "Oh what a day I thought I'd die!". It doesn’t matter that the Sanford Sylvan has the enunciation of a gorilla. That scene is John Adams throwing it down, pounding you relentlessly like Rinde Eckert in Ravenshead, schooling Wagner and Danny Elfman in the House of BRASS. Talk about balls Mr. Colbert. Adams could take any punker any day of the week - in volume alone. If you EVER have the chance to see “Nixon in China” in person. GO. “Drive a long way if you have to.” As my favorite anti-green quote goes.)

Then…we’re almost…just a few more…the last page…And…DONE! Done, right? YES! We’re DONE! Do we have to applaud? Sure. I’m thrilled to be released. I praise God for the opportunity to leave. Wait. They’re not doing a Q&A are they? Please Lord. Spare us. The writer stands. He comes down toward the stage….

No. No! NOOOOO!!!!!

No. He just wanted to soak up the adulation. Enjoy. Just let me go.



In truth there were bright spots to this otherwise dim evening.

One, I saw a star. A recently former TV star, but still, I could have touched her curly hair if I’d reached out for it. I don’t know why this is exciting, but it is. I only remembered after I left the theatre when she was following me by a mere 10 paces that I knew someone who was friends with her and I’m buddies with another writer whose film she was in just last year. I almost turned to say hi from them, but now that we were in the parking lot, I thought that might be creepy, and what if they’d worked together but weren’t friendly? So, I continued on to the parking lot where I got charged an extra buck because I was 1 minute over my allotted time there. Hate that.

The other lovely surprises were a lively performance and dare I say, nuanced performance by a young actress I plan to keep my eye on. One shouldn’t have to ask for this, but she wasn’t just reading, she was not only making clear and appropriate choices throughout, but she was even reacting when she didn’t have lines. She took a thin, unremarkable part and breathed some real life into it. After googling her, I realized I’d seen her in one TV show previously and apparently she was a singer/songwriter who had the 99th best-selling single of 2005. Go figure. I went online and saw why. In person I was guessing she was 25 and unremarkably attractive. In her music video (Yeah, they still make those! Who knew?) she’s a freakin’ jailbait siren. Check out Brie. If I could find that place she works, I’d eat fast food daily. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9065XaSmnG0

Lastly, and bestly (It’s MY blog, I can use non-words if I want to), I saw an old buddy and colleague I hadn’t seen in years. He was the narrator, which is a taxing and thankless job in any reading, but a vital one indeed. A poor performance in this role can easily kill a script instantly. He’s a former actor turned writer/director and he has a delightful countenace. His speaking voice is mellifluous and his singing voice is baritone honey. So let’s call him HoneyBear.

In an odd coincidence, this morning my roommate wasn’t around, so I sang in the shower like I rarely ever do. But I didn’t just sing, I blasted. And I went start to finish on a little 9-minute aria I wrote 10 years ago called “God Made America” for the show “WARNING!: eXplicit Material”. Originally I’d hoped to sing it myself as I was one of three narrators who regularly took on different roles throughout the show. It was a juicy bit and it felt good in my voice. But when I put together workshops of it back in 2000 and again in 2001, it was so taxing to be producing, performing, making changes, etc., that I realized it would be a far better idea to give it to HoneyBear. He sang it quite beautifully, and at the time better than I could. I’d recently begun to disassemble my voice with a new opera teacher and it would be another 2 years before I was not only back in form, but better than I’d ever been by orders of magnitude. I was so taken with the piece and realized that as a large cast show WARNING! might never again see the light of day I decided to repackage the aria in the new context of a monologue about hitchhiking and perform it myself for “Monks & Sluts and Statesmen (Oh, My!)” when it had it’s brief moment in the sun. While I still loved HoneyBear’s performance, I realized when I sang it that I love writing for characters on the edge. You should feel that this character could really commit murder at any moment. And HoneyBear exudes such warmth it’s hard to believe that in his interpretation. That and he has a more lyric voice and I have a more dramatic tenor. Tonight while watching him read the stage directions I thought to myself that when I’ve performed it I add a level of crazy born out of desperation that I don’t think he’s felt in his adult years in the same way. It’s not that I believe his life’s been a bed of roses (it wasn’t his screenplay that was being read! ☺) But, he has a beautiful wife of many years in addition to two lovely boys, 5&7. Maybe he had hardship early in his life that I have no concept of that he could tap into and he simply chose a different path for this character, but this Jeremiah is in the depths of profound his loneliness and for some reason, I feel like I have a good line into all that.


Sunday, March 29, 2009

Random Dreams

Two dreams.

Sat night
I'm being chased around a 2 story cabin by a small bear. He never gets me.

Friday night
I'm riding a bale of hay. It's a rectangular bale and it's got wheels underneath and it's motorized. My girlfriend is lying face down on it, keeping her head up enough to see the road. I'm lying on top of her. Neither of us is driving, but I realize I missed the exit I was aiming for to get off for downtown LA. I get off the 10 on what should be San Pedro and I figure I can backtrack on local roads from there, but I can't take a left, so I take a right and suddenly it's another highway - though not as big as the 10. We're going like 60 mph and neither of us is wearing a helmet. In fact we're both naked. Then the bale of hay separates and she zooms ahead. I see her lose control and skid off to the shoulder, where luckily she stops, because it's nearly a sheer cliff a few feet further off the road (We're parallel to the 10 and I think "I didn't know there was a cavern like this right next to the 10") I race over to her and she's alright, but I say. "Are you OK? This is crazy. You're not even wearing a helmet." She says she's OK.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Favorite un-PC line of the day

David is going to celebrate because he just wrote 20 more pages today and kicked out the first draft of his new spec pilot "The 40 Year-Old Assistant". His favorite un-PC line? When our protagonist is taking a temp agency computer exam and having a fit, throwing things at the computer. He's way in the background seen through a sound proofed window. In the foreground a flamingly fey receptionist at the temp agency is talking to a friend. He says...

"Hiii! How are you? No, I’m not going. The last time I went there I woke up in some castle in the Hills with a cock in my mouth and no shoes on my feet.
Yes. Some fucker stole my Pradas. I should have had insurance on those. I’m never going to get another pair on this salary.
Honey, the sugardaddy is long gone, why do you think I came back here? That cocksucker lost everything and wanted to move in with me.
I know!!!


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

incongruities and absurdities

"To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position is correct. Another feature is the slurring of the point. A third is the dropping of a studied remark apparently without knowing it, as if one were thinking aloud. The fourth and last is the pause." - Mark Twain, from "How to Tell a Story and Other Essays"


Monday, March 23, 2009

Monk Flambé

Last Friday I applied to a residency at the The Atlantic Center for the Arts. I'd been there under the mentorship of Spalding Gray exactly 7 years ago. It was a very difficult time, partially because Spalding was suicidal, partially because I was doing a new piece about a friend who committed suicide, partially because for the first time in my life I was surrounded by a group of artists who came to hate me and partially because this arts colony is located in a swamp 7 miles from the beach (no cars) outside of New Smyrna Beach.

As I dropped off my application I wondered how much I really wanted to return. You still have to pay for room and board and transportation and I have a roommate now, so I couldn't subsidize it like I did in the past by subletting my place back home. In fact, why not just take a residency of my own where ever I please?

Then I remembered a friend did a self-imposed retreat with some monks in Santa Barbara and raved about it. That would be perfect.

I emailed him for the name of the place and details and I got back this response:

"O god, Winks. I went online to find the website and found that the place was burned down in the November fire outside Santa Barbara. Geez... awful. It was such a gorgeous place. If you want to take a look:"


Sad. But perhaps God's trying to tell me something. Why he had to burn down a monastery I'm not sure, but he's got my attention. I'm listening.

I'm just not quite sure I understand.

PS Yes, they called me "Winks" in college. A story for another day.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Pippin: Deaf and Dangerous Theatre

There are few individual words that strike fear into the heart of the erstwhile theatergoer than the cheery sounding “Pippin.”

Throughout the country, from Salinas, CA to Elsah, IL, it’s hard to have escaped this show’s reach. In my youth, the only musicals more often mangled at the hands of pimply teens were: Oklahoma!, The Fantasticks! and Godspell (The last also a Stephen Schwartz creation).

Yet, since its initial 1972 run of over 5 years, it has never made a return to the Great White Way. The televised version starring William Katt (the titular star of The Greatest American Hero) as the eponymous protagonist was a non-starter few even know exist. Consequently, most have either seen terrible performances of this modern classic or have come to rely on the original cast recording to assess its merits.

A quick dash to the iTunes store will remind you of the thin 70s arrangements (Oh, the Wah Wah pedal in “Simple Joys” and the featured flute in “Magic to Do”). A sweet revelation in that walk down memory lane leads you to actor John Rubenstein with his trembling voice, full of hope and terror - always dangerously close to falling off the melody. Vocally, he was the personification of callow youth. His timid abilities actually make one long for the less trained singer on stage. He captures an authenticity of naiveté, hard to carry off with the polish of the well-trained voice that is ubiquitous in the musical theatre landscape of today.

But the voices are the least important part of the Pippin I just witnessed.


Because half the actors were deaf. Nary a word, nor note escaped their mouths.

But a more enlivening production of Pippin, you’ve never experienced.

If you have yet to see a Deaf West production, go. Go immediately, the next time you hear one is anywhere near you. It doesn’t matter what they’re doing.

(Though if you have the chance, also go see “Sleeping Beauty Wakes” anywhere it’s being done – even if it’s a concert version. My old friends Brendan Milburn & Val Vigoda wrote that show specifically for Deaf West with the talented, Tony-winning Rachel Sheinkin and they’ve been doing a concert version for the last year. Check it out in the Bay Area this April. details at: http://tinyurl.com/cnt2l3)

Sadly, the Pippin at the Mark Taper has closed and I don’t know if there are any confirmed plans to bring it back anywhere anytime soon. I personally avoid Broadway revivals like the plague, but we can all hope this one’s heading eastward. Certainly, there are enough houses empty on Broadway to welcome it, so keep your fingers crossed.

I first heard about Deaf West in 1996 because the theatre of which I was a member (Sacred Fools) was moving into DW’s old space on 666 N. Heliotrope. Fools is still there churning out lots of little, funny, punky shows and Deaf West moved to the Valley and has blown up large. They still only have a 99-seat theatre up there which they use for workshops and kids shows, but they now co-produce their big productions with theatres that have much larger spaces.

I never saw a Deaf West show, however, ‘til “Big River” in 2004. When they started in 1991, Deaf West did small shows, and received little attention. They had a special and specific mission to create work for and performed by the deaf community. I'm not fluent in sign language (ASL), and I can hear, so what would attract me to go to a show like that? It’s not surprising that they didn’t reach a wide audience at first.

All that changed in 2000 when they started doing musicals.

How does a deaf actor do a musical you may ask? Damn good question. And their solution is unique, riveting and…surprise! - exceedingly popular. Director Jeff Calhoun has been the mastermind behind this technique starting with their first attempt – “Oliver!” in 2000. It didn’t get that much notice, but in 2002 he adapted “Big River” and it became a sensation. It went from their little theatre to The Mark Taper Forum to Broadway and then it returned to The Ahmanson in LA which holds 2000 people. That’s where I saw the show and I was blown away.

Essentially, the protagonist and a few other roles are played by a deaf actor AND a singing actor simultaneously. Often, the deaf actor often seems like the “lead” of the two, directly engaging with the other actors more often (when only one of them is interacting). The singer sometimes stands to the side, sometimes nearly off-stage, other times downstage, facing the deaf actor upstage. The focus the singer places on the deaf actor is magnetic. You can literally feel the energy of connection. They become in service of the deaf actor, hanging on their every motion. The deaf actors will sign the lyrics and dialogue and while they don’t often mouth the words themselves, you feel like the voice is coming from them.

Calhoun does a brilliant job mixing it up, so the actors occasionally switch “lead”, sometimes act in unison, or in parallel, or simultaneously, but juxtaposed. In the last case, we get to see different parts of Pippin’s psyche personified.

The most extraordinary moments are when there is a full dislocation between the performers. When Pippin is invited to celebrate his one year anniversary with the widow who saved him from depression, his voiced half wants to run screaming, but his deaf half isn’t prepared to leave and lingers at first. Eventually the singing Pippin tears him away. It’s at that moment we see not only the warring sides within Pippin the character, but we are painfully aware of a new relationship that has been created between the two actors. They are Siamese twins, inseparable but different people. The winning Tyrone Giordano is the deaf physical embodiment of Pippin. He even gets to have sex with the widow “Catherine” while the voice of Pippin, the brilliant Michael Arden, is literally shut out of the room. And yet, after “sex presented pastorally” Arden emerges after this first brief separation smoking a post-coital cig. Those clever devices abound.

When the strapping, virile black adult actor voices the under five-foot tall white child playing Pippin’s step-son curls up into a ball onstage after his deaf counterpart has run off in a tantrum, we are treated to theatre in it’s most expressive form. Our brain does the computations for the relationships and in deciphering that fusion we get a burst of creative inspiration that we can savor. And it is a bounty.

With the Pippin character who rarely leaves the stage, the bond is all the more powerful because we feel a deep brotherly love for which we have no context. Arden wasn’t just a translator. Their love wasn’t quite like Honey to Duke in the funny pages. They are twins by choice, or circumstance in the universe in which they are consigned to live out their days. It was clear that while the two disagreed like siblings at times, one would die without the other by his side.

And Calhoun takes advantage of this, when near the end, the Leading Player strips Pippin of his the magic, his clothes, and the colored lights in order to teach him a lesson for choosing a life path that embraces the ordinary. (Much influence from mentor Lenny and his "Make Our Garden Grow," Stephen?) Ty Taylor’s rippling muscled performance as The Leading Player hit the mark with a part whose name shall ever have Ben Vereen emblazoned upon it. Armed with a killer voice and sexual magnetism, he turns into the antagonist Pippin needs. In a normal production, you have Pippin left in his underwear, awkwardly clinging with to his lover and her child in the merciless glare of the fluorescent work lights. It can be a hokey attempt at a Brechtian device, or at best occasionally moving, but we don’t really feel the Leading Player has truly wounded Pippin.

But in Deaf West’s Pippin, the Leading Player orders his minions to remove Pippin’s voice bodily. They then grab and hoist Arden into the air and remove him from the theatre - kicking and screaming. Not played for laughs – like a Kate and Petruchio - in a brilliant directorial choice, Calhoun actually has Arden play deaf at that moment. By that I mean the man who was The Voice begins to sign and grunt as a deaf mute. While Arden signed for substantial parts of the show along with Giordano, we were given this extraordinary moment of theatre where The Voice calls out to The Body in this visceral reversal - enough to bring a chocked scream to my throat. “They can’t do that. The show CAN’T go on. He was the voice and this is a musical!”

We sat in stunned silence, partially because we didn’t know how they’d finish the show. Partially, in delight of seeing the conventions they’d set-up and broken within the context of the show, but also because this was the second time this had happened in this final performance.

It was not supposed to be this way.

Halfway through the production, during the grandmother’s forgettable ditty “No Time At All”, there was a disturbance. At first I didn’t know what was going on. There seemed to be an additional choral part I was unfamiliar with. Had Tom Kitt (the excellent orchestrator who dusted off Schwartz’s tunes without dominating them with his own voice) added something for the shirtless men before they make their reveal from under grandma’s copious skirts? It didn’t make sense to my ears.

Then I realized there was an audience member vocalizing in addition to the actress. Ironically, at the end of this song, they do encourage the audience to sing along, but this outburst was no song.

Soon I was able to identify from where the disruption was coming. The Mark Taper is a thrust stage (U-shaped). So as I was sitting in the Far Left House I could easily look across the stage directly at Far Right audience members. And there, in the front row, was a man grunting, standing up from his seat and sitting back down in jerky movements. Initially, it was small bits of bothered gesticulation, and then as the commotion grew, his parents or handlers came over to see if he was OK. He moved to leave the theatre. He sat back down. There were no words other than a constant attempt at “No.” But perhaps it was just a guttural expression of helplessness incarnate. The man may have just been a lanky boy, but he was a good six feet tall and he was one of the only black people in the crowd. He kept leaping up from his seat and moving unpredictably. He’d go up three stairs and almost leave, then he’d return. There are stairs that lead straight onto the stage as well and I was waiting for him to walk right up there and continue his distress. The singers never looked, but were keenly aware. They kept going – riveted on their performance of a light-hearted tune about seizing the day and enjoying all the fun that life is. After three balks at leaving the theatre, the boy was encouraged out of the theatre, not to return.

I was devastated and space was electrified. There’s nothing that can elevate the awareness of an audience like a grand mishap. Whether it’s an actor going up on his lines, a set falling over and nearly killing someone, or an unpredictable audience member, it galvanizes a crowd and cast like a near death experience. A passive audience and a tired ensemble perks up at the adrenaline rush. There’s real drama. Real danger and it puts the play’s artifice in perspective.

The humanity in this disturbance was overwhelming. I couldn’t help the tears from coming. I so badly wanted this kid to be let back in the theatre. I want to know how it escalated. Was he autistic? Deaf as well? Were all the sound and light and movement overwhelming and he really just needed a quiet space free from excitement to be happy? Or did a few moments of uneasiness cause his guardians to suggest he leave which he desperately didn’t want to do? Could he have wanted to have seen the show as much as I wanted him to?

What would I do if I had an autistic child?

Suddenly the theatre had become the ruminating center I believe it was designed to be. This light entertainment suddenly brought me to consider my deeper beliefs about the world. It made me look at myself as the parent I am not yet. It made me wonder what my girlfriend and I would do were we to have a child and it was diagnosed in utero as autistic. How would we live our lives needing to care for him throughout not only the rest of our lives, but even after our deaths?

And then I began experiencing the entirety of Pippin in this context. A friend of sophisticated theatrical tastes saw the show earlier that week and reported it wasn’t all that. Certainly Deaf West’s production elevated the material, but he felt there wasn’t much to work with – especially considering he’d see the genius of their 2006 production “Sleeping Beauty Wakes.”

But I respectfully disagree. I’ll grant you the dramaturgical style of Pippin is simplistic and the messages are baldly presented. (My girlfriend who’d managed to avoid the show in her youth actually whispered to me after the second number “Is this a kids show?”) And indeed it feels very “Story Theatre.” Other early Schwartz like Godspell have a similar presentational aesthetic. Were it not for the sex scenes and the chorus dressed like strippers (male and female alike), it could be appropriate for children, but Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson (the librettist) also tackle some serious issues, albeit in simple if not shticky ways. Luckily, the warring king Charlemagne who had to put some of them over was portrayed by ever-delightful Troy Kotsur and voiced by Dan Callaway and I was happy to watch their antics.

Their anti-war statement (against Vietnam at the time) could perhaps be heard by its original audience in their comic/absurdist presentation better than the overt denunciations in Hair. I don’t know if the war themes resonated with this audience though. Our ongoing wars have vanished from the news and our nation’s consciousness as the financial crisis has exploded. That doesn’t give any less reality to the 4,259 US killed and 31,089 US wounded. We’re just ignoring it. Just like we’re ignoring another 1,000 US military killed in Afghanistan and the estimated 100,000+ Iraqi’s killed. Odd. After writing those numbers I’d have expected those scenes about war would have greater resonance, but we’ve really compartmentalized those horrors.

Back to the drama. The lack of consequences for our protagonist’s actions may also fuel arguments against Pippin as a good dramatic work. His patricide is taken back as in a child-like “do-over” when Pippin realizes it’s hard to be the king. He doesn’t have to deal with his failures. The radical governmental shifts he tries to impose once he becomes king, like abolishing the army and giving land to the poor, don’t work out, so he simply reverses his decisions. As such, not only do we not see Pippin deal with the complexities of adult life, but it reveals a statement from the authors which is a strangely practically-minded and downright conservative message. Don’t try to change the world. It doesn’t work. I find that particularly strange as my memory of Pippin is that of a child’s version of Hair.

Despite whatever message may have been intended in the work, I was surprised how both during the show and for days afterwards I continued to reflect on my life in response to the performance. Schwartz has not only created an iconic set of songs, but like most great theatrical work, I was able to revisit the piece later in life and see something completely different in how the it held a mirror to my life. I didn’t think Pippin had such substance, but I’m pleasantly surprised.

While Pippin’s music and lyrics may not have the sophistication of any Sondheim, or even Rogers & Hammerstein, Schwartz has tunes that cut to the heart and stick to the tongue. The opening of “Corner of the Sky”, “Magic to Do” and “Morning Glow” are recognizable after just one bar of the piano introduction. It’s hard to say that about most of the pabulum crossing the boards these days. He also knows how to write something that feels good to sing. The entire day before going to see the show “Corner of the Sky” crept into my voice and I found myself humming it, singing it, and then when I got in my car, wailing full blast. It's just infectious and while pop may be derided by myself and others at times, I also know how hard it is to write a hook that sticky.

He was also able to set up the theme of the show in a single couplet. “So many men seem destined to settle for something small/But I won't rest until I know I'll have it all”. The search begins for something big and when in the end he chooses a simple unremarkable life instead of burning up in glory, I couldn’t stop thinking of my own choices in life.

I was once obsessed with breaking ground and creating riveting, disturbing, unforgettable pieces of live theatre. No more. I was driven to explore the effects of technology and apropos to Deaf West, I’ve been fascinated with the separation of voice and body since I first strapped on a body mic as a teen. In 1995 when writing my first opera, my original plan was to have all singers on mic and doubled with dancer doppelgangers. I never got to fully realize that vision. Instead, the plentiful multimedia/video aspects subbed for the dancers in productions of ECSTATIC JOURNEY at Aspen and American Opera Projects. But it was a joy to see Susan Marshall pull off the exact style of fluid staging I envisioned for Phillip Glass’ less remarkable 1997 score of the dance/opera “Les Enfants Terribles” (an adaptation of the Cocteau). That production marked the second time I’d ever paid to see something twice. The first time was to see John Moran’s genius “Mathew in the School of Life” at The Kitchen in 1995. While there was no singing or dancing per se, I’d also call it a dance opera where multiple performers played the same character. Here they would lip-sync to a pre-recorded score. It was the technique I stole from and reversed for my first one-man opera VIRTUAL MOTION.

The intersection of me, the “multiple actors per character” technique and Pippin occurred in 2001 when Stephen Schwartz chose my “avant-musical” WARNING!: eXplicit Material” to be presented in the Disney/ASCAP Music Theatre Workshop.

Stephen amusingly introduced the show thusly: “You’re about to see a show that’s the most left of center of anything that’s ever been presented here at Disney. In fact, it’s…well... here’s David.” I then appear to step forward to give a quick pre-talk, but instead the scene quickly ramps up into a vortex of an opening number involving 3 people playing me, David Rodwin (1 female), 5 actors playing the protagonist (2 of them female), 2 shrinks eventually to be played by life-sized puppets who lip-sync only) and a bevy of sex dancers involved in an absurdist orgy with pre-recorded voice-pitch-shifted dialogue recreated from the worst porn movies on record. Set to a hip hop riff I assembled based on a sample of a bridge from the original Big Mamma Thornton rendition of “Hound Dog.” It was a delightful bit of chaos that won me fans to this day.

Stranger still, it was only after watching Pippin for the first time in 20 years that I realized part of my opening was simply a modern take on “Magic to Do” when I thought I was stealing from Shakespeare, Vonnegut and Chuck Mee. (I’ll explain another time.)

In fact, the basic thrust of WARNING! was that of Pippin. Young guy dissatisfied with life quits his job, and hits the road looking for meaning. Again, I usually thought I was stealing from another source, The Muppet Movie in reverse, as he picks up a coterie of misfits who become a surrogate family. But like in Pippin, he too finds, love and lust, money, power, friendship (no war), and deals with his own imperfections. But honestly, the piece is too big and avant to be commercially produced and I never found an ending that works.

Which returns us to Pippin’s ending. We last left Pippin stripped of his clothes and voice. And we watched in breathless awe as our mute Pippin comes downstage and signs his way through something. I didn’t know what. But it was a beautiful silence. Then his lover joins him and we hear the words. It barely mattered. The way they came together meant everything. As he leaves the pursuit of greatness behind, his deaf step-son sneaks back to the stage and we hear the trope of “Corner of the Sky” when...the immortal actor who played his voice returns to accompany the optimism of a new generation. Maybe this time.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Jeff and Martha

My friend Jeff (with whom I share the most Facebook friends -160!) has just started a new blog:

As he writes" This year, I will be attending (and graduating from?) Martha Stewart's Cooking School."

And he's gonna take you along.

Not only is Jeff's writing most amusing, I've already learned something practical. How to make the perfect hard boiled egg.

Check it out:



Monday, March 16, 2009

If you're just beginning to read this blog, I recommend...

If you're just beginning to read this blog, I recommend you read the Rockmoto 9-part series in order. Reading it backwards might be confusing or just unsatisfying. (and check out http://www.rockmoto.com for all things cool at the intersection of music & motorcycles.)

And while you're here, make a comment and sign up as a follower. It'll be fun. And free. And who can turn down a offer like that in this economy. :-)




Sunday, March 15, 2009

Rockmoto blog #9 - "Post-Script"

Monday, March 2, 2009

Driving to work this morning I saw a crash. A motorcycle in the carpool lane. A sobering reminder. It raised a morbid interest in me to see how many accidents there really are. Before I saw any stats, Google found me a news story about a fatality last May on the 405 where something fell off a truck and was sitting in the carpool lane. Late at night, some poor guy didn’t see it, hit it and died on the spot. Never had a chance once he made contact.

It made me think of the half a dozen times I've been in a car and run over something on the freeway that could have been a real problem on a bike. I don't mean to fixate on it. And I plan to take the test to get my license. It was just a sobering scene this morning to see traffic stopped in both directions, flashing lights, a guy on a stretcher and a bright yellow sport bike visible at the scene.

Still, someday I’d love to hit an open road on my way to Vegas and just cruise.


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Rockmoto Blog #8 - "The Course" - http://www.rockmoto.com/blog

March 1, 2009

Yesterday went well. I didn’t know how many exercises we were doing in total, but we got a break every hour and usually did 2 per shift. I didn’t and don’t know what’s coming next and that’s a good thing. Not because there was anything scary, just because I could stay more focused.

We’re riding around an empty parking lot at the W. LA VA hospital. There are lampposts in the middle of the lot which luckily aren’t hard to avoid. And the light is most appreciated when the sun goes down.

We got talked through each exercise before we did it but it, was hard for me to follow the detailed explanation because my mind works better with visuals. I would have appreciated a large eagle’s eye of map for each pattern we were about to do. Instead they provided one small 4x8” drawing for us all to crowd around and peek at before the demo. But once they did a demo ride exactly as we were supposed to do it, everything became pretty clear. And if anything still seemed vague, Jess and Amanda made it an easy going atmosphere where people felt free to pipe up with questions. More important than the path we were taking were a slew of factors from whether we’d be in 1st or 2nd to how and when to ride the friction zone on the clutch (as opposed to downshifting or braking).

Over the two days, we practiced shifting between 1st, 2nd and neutral, basic curves, tight U-Turns, swerves, quick-stops, slaloming between cones and a few others things. Nothing was incredibly difficult (except the tight U-Turns), but it was all a matter of getting our co-ordination down. I might know that I’m supposed to hit the clutch a split second before I downshift and at the same time brake with my right foot and right hand, but to get everything going at the exact right time and not squeeze too hard or too softly is challenging. It’s like learning to play the organ (including foot pedals) or sing while tap dancing. I did my first quick-stop perfectly and then wasn’t able to replicate it the entire rest of the first day.

Sometimes I’d improve as we repeated exercises, but as the evening wore on, I generally performed less well. That’s partially because of fatigue from sitting on a bike for 5 hours, but it’s also because the sun went down around 6:20pm and we rode til 9pm. Those last 2-1/2 hours in the dark were frustrating. It was harder to see the cones, so I was more tentative and I wanted to be confident enough to enjoy the riding.

Honestly, the most fun thing was getting to the end of an exercise and having to circle back into line. It was only then that I could crank it up to almost 20mph. (And no one was really watching me get back in line, so I felt less pressure when I tried my quick stops.)

They usually split the class in half, but there was still a lot of ‘waiting your turn to go’ with a dozen students. We could have gotten a lot more practice with fewer students, but it would have cost more and really it was nothing unbearable - with the exception of my clutch hand. You see, they wanted us to keep it in 1st gear while in line and you have to keep the clutch in with your left hand or you’ll stall out. I cheated sometimes and put it into neutral, but getting that bike into neutral was the hardest thing to do the entire weekend. Apparently, Nighthawks are notorious for being difficult to get back into neutral, but I still felt inept when it took me 5 tries to get it in there.

Neutral, for reasons unclear to me, lies halfway between 1st and 2nd gears. And worse, because you control your gear shifting with your foot, you can’t see what gear you’re in the way you can, say on any modern mountain bike. A light comes on when you’re in neutral, but there’s no gearshift indicator telling you you’re in 3rd gear. You just have to know or be able to feel it. Only on the high end bikes do they have electronic read outs of what gear you’re in.

Before pulling back into line, our coaches would often signal us to come over to get notes after we attempted a maneuver. The notes included things like: “You were in first the whole way, try it in second and just ride the friction zone. It’ll be smoother.” After the note, they’d wave us on. Since the class was usually split in two, half the time I’d get comments from Jess and the other half from Amanda. The sign they gave to stop was to raise both their arms to the sides with slightly bent elbows – palms facing me. When I executed an exercise sufficiently, they’d wave me through after a thumbs up or an affirmative nod.

Though I wanted to give a thumbs up back, it seemed like a bad idea to take even one hand off the bike. And even though when I did something well, Jess would sometimes sneak a secret little smile that made me feel like she was a proud mother, I’d keep a cool face and give a perfunctory nod as if to say “Exercise #7? Check.” I didn’t want to be familiar in a way that would threaten, weaken or transgress her coach status. We didn’t talk about this beforehand, I just thought it was the considerate thing to do in order to ensure that I didn’t compromise her professional authority.

Near the end of the second day though, I’d begun to feel confident on the bike and our interactions had gone so well I’d finally relaxed about all that and realized I was perhaps erring too far on the side of caution – veering into a pseudo military seriousness. So as the sun went down, I completed a swerve with aplomb and instead of giving me the stop sign, Jessica raised just one arm – on the side facing me. Barely thinking, I indulged in a bit of unmasked enthusiasm and gave her a High 5. I thought instead of a mere thumbs up, she was giving me an offer for some serious props. I couldn’t leave her hanging. I was psyched that I was able to glide right past her - perfect arm distance away - and lay on some serious palm without slowing a bit.

The moment I passed, however, she whipped around and gave the stop signal. I did a quick-stop and found, to my utter embarrassment, that I’d mis-read her first signal. She did in fact want me to stop to begin with. Apparently, there was something I didn’t do correctly. At that point though I was so flustered that I gave her the high 5 that I have no recollection of what she said. I couldn’t believe after being so careful, I just gave the coach, my girlfriend, a fucking high five. Idiot. Later, she said no one’s every done that to her before. Luckily, she found it amusing.

Speaking of things I screwed up, I had one consistent problem which was that when I pulled on the hand brake, my wrist naturally shifted down which meant my engine revved. If I didn’t have my hand on the clutch that’d be a problem, but I had it in every time. I just made a revving noise and occasionally turn the head of a coach to see what I was doing. Jess suggested first that I had poor wrist positioning, then the mentioned the problem could be that the bike was a little small for me. I’d like to try riding a larger bike to see if that really made a difference, because this is something very basic, I need to get worked out.

But, all in all, I did pretty well. Enough to enjoy many of the exercises while doing them. Not that we were graded (other than Pass/Fail), but I’d give myself a solid B. There was one guy who’d been riding for 3 years on a permit and was there because didn’t want to deal with the DMV test, so he was the best in the class – (He’d have gotten an A+ if he hadn’t piped up a few times not to ask a question, but to give a comment as though he were a coach as well). Two or three other guys were as strong a rider as I was. Six or so were slower to pick things up and rode with less self-assurance, but there were only two who were a lagging behind in a problematic way. There was some concern that both might fail. And it’s gotta be a hard thing to tell an adult that they spent $250 and 15 hours only to fail at the course like this. I was nervous for them ‘til the end, but they both ended up squeaking through. They weren’t given any special treatment and hopefully they’ll learn to ride better, but I’m glad they passed.

I passed too. And when it was clear the course was almost over I really wanted to ride more, and faster, and on big open roads instead of in little circles all the time. Our parking lot course was only about 50x80 yards and it felt quite confining after a while.

In all, it was a success. By the end of the second day I was wondering how I’d do out in the real world. Going 60mph on an open road doesn’t scare me that much. Going 0-40mph through traffic though is nearly terrifying. So I’m not sure how I’ll get myself out there. There aren’t too many places to rent bikes from however and it’s much more expensive than cars. A little Honda Rebel will run you $100 a day not including insurance. And that’s the cheapest I’ve found.

My reticence to get out there isn’t because the course wasn’t good or complete. It was both, but I think I’ll just need to log hundreds of hours surrounded by 4-wheeled idiots before I start to feel comfortable.

One aspect of the weekend I’m disappointed is that I didn’t get a chance to get to know many of the other participants. That was my fault however. There were plenty of breaks for socializing, but I didn’t get to much because I walked the dog every free moment I had. It’s a long time for the pooch to spend in the car in his crate. But I did speak with Jack and Ali a little and they seem like a sweet couple. He’s a screenwriter as well. I also talked with Isaac who was sporting a seriously cool matching helmet and jacket. The latter featured a skull with the bold text ICON MOTO. The black, white and red color scheme even matched the Ninja he was riding. I commented on his fashion choice and he confessed it all belonged to a friend and he had no idea what he was doing. This made me feel better, cause he looked badass from the get go in that get-up.

I also got to know the instructors better and that was a good thing. Jessica and Amanda were both great coaches. Jessica told me she was relieved I didn’t suck or have attitude because that would have been difficult. And I was happy that she gave me no special treatment. She was neither easier, nor harder on me and I was truly grateful for that. I also felt privileged to experience first-hand something she loved to do and excelled at.

What’s next?

I plan to finish my license at some point (I still have to take the stupid written DMV test), but I’m not sure if I’ll go out and get bike any time too soon. Also, having half the course at night taught me I really don’t want to ride in the dark, which means I’m not really looking at using it for commuting, just for day trips and joy-riding. That said, I have been checking out some modern, classic-style Bonneville Triumphs on Craigslist, but I’m not quite prepared to throw down $5000 on a machine just yet.


Friday, March 13, 2009

Rockmoto Blog #7 - "Day 1" - http://www.rockmoto.com/blog

February 28, 2009

After a leisurely morning making (and eating) popovers, I began running around town looking for some new boots. I was confident they’d have something good for me at a nearby Big 5, but they had almost no selection in my size and the ones they had, didn’t fit my foot well. I race to Target where I score some water and gatorade, but strike out again on the boots. I don’t know what to do and time is ticking down.

I’m taking an afternoon/evening class because it’s the only one they had space in, but we still have to be there at 3:30pm for Jess to set up. We also have to walk the dog and time just keeps slipping away as I make PB&J sandwiches for our nourishment during the breaks. It’s a very first day of school vibe - to the point where as I stuff the sandwiches into little baggies, suddenly I feel like a someone’s mom. Weird. We head out, but we’re really running late. Tension rises and eventually we give up on getting boots as well as a long and pretty walk for the dog. Jess seems mad at me for poor time management and I don’t know how to make things better.

This is not a good way to begin.

We get to the VA where the course is taught and we walk her dog Memphis for 20 minutes. Then Jess starts the set up while I continue to walk Memphis.

Eventually, I come over, pull on my cowboy boots and strut over to the container where everyone’s meeting. They keep the bikes and all the gear in an actual 12’x50’ steel shipping container. Jess and Amanda are checking people in, looking official, wearing their bright red “RIDER COACH” shirts. She told me they changed the course format about 5 years ago and shifted the nomenclature from “instructor” to “coach”. ‘Instructors’ were too scary it seems. It was intimidating enough for most people just to be getting on a bike for the first time. ‘Coach’ seemed more like they were helping you, but I still think it sounds like it’s someone who’s looking to cut you from the team.

We’re instructed to get a pair of gloves, helmet and bandana. While everyone else has to grab garden-style ‘work gloves’ they supplied, I felt pretty nifty with my new mitts. I grab a bandana whose purpose is to save your head from grinding into the grease of the last few hundred people who wore that helmet. In fact, the Westside Motorcycle Academy is so popular, they have 1 course during the week and 3 courses every weekend – meaning the first group starts at 6AM, the next at 11AM and we’re at 4pm. This means that helmet’s been on someone’s head for the last 10 hours, not to mention the hundreds of people before them the last 3 years. Despite that, the helmets don’t smell at all. They seem surprisingly fresh. I grab a bandana anyway and when I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror. I think I look like Aaron Eckhart’s Harley-riding boyfriend character from “Erin Brokovitch”. Somehow the relationship seems oddly parallel even though in the movie HE rides and she doesn’t.

Jessica and Amanda call us over for a quick talk. Seeing my girl strut out there in her riding boots, high-end Kushatani racing pants, aviator glasses and clipboard was impressive. She looked more like a NASA flight instructor for astronauts-in-training than an Earth-bound bike coach.

Soon enough, we head over to the bikes. The first exercise is a dry run. We just gear up, sit on the bike and practice all the controls so your hands and feet get to know where everything is.

The magic happens when I put on the helmet. My first experience wearing a helmet was little league. I was just six and played catcher with my dad’s old mitt. It was a dark chocolate leather that smelled like old time baseball. It had a small pocket unlike the newer 1976 mitts at the time. We had to restring that webbing to keep it together, but it was a solid glove. I remember gearing up like I was a knight going into battle. Shin/knee guards, padded chest, and helmet with facemask. The mask smelled like piss and sweat and was far too big for my little face, but it’s extraordinary how having all that protection increases one’s courage. You feel a little invulnerable. “Go ahead throw a speeding ball at my head. It’ll bounce off and I’ll stand right back up.” (Unlike the time I was walking by another team’s practice and some schmuck misses a throw and I catch it right in the eye. I’ve got a seriously colorful shiner for my 2nd grade class photo.)

Like Proust’s madeleine, the helmet has sent me back in time in an instant. I recover, but I’m feeling invincible, nostalgic and fresh. Not a bad combo. Now to get present.

I saddle up on the bike and the sheer physicality sitting on it is remarkable. It’s like riding a horse but more solid. A horse is unpredictable, which is part of why it’s so amazing when you have a beautiful rider and horse perfectly in synch. But a bike? It’s all up to you. It won’t help or hurt you. It just is. And that means it’s all on you to know your machine, know your road and know your abilities - or lack thereof.

It’s such a power position. Legs spread wide across your beast. Feet on the ground – engaged because they have to be in order to balance the bike once the kick-stand is up. Hands up and out in front of you - clutch lever on the left and the throttle on the right. Suddenly, I wonder what the women in the class are feeling. The position is hardly ladylike. Do they feel excitement? Violation? Terror at being given that power? Or is it no different for them as it is for me?

I tell myself these are gendered assumptions, but only 10% of riders are women so there’s got to be a reason or three for that. Our group? 11 people total. 7 men. 4 women. 1 Black. 1 Latino and 1 female Asian. We have two couples including Ali and Jack from the classroom on Monday.

I’m assigned to my bike - a Blue 1992 Honda Nighthawk. It’s a little small for me and I was hoping for one of the Kawasaki Ninja’s – sounds cooler and it’s got a tachometer and body work that makes it look like a real sport bike, even though I think they’re all 250cc bikes (a third of the power of what Jess rides), but I just take what I’m given.

It doesn’t much matter as we’re never going above 18mph and we’re in 2nd gear almost the entire two days. So it’s not like this is about speed. I get comfortable. And it’s the day that speeds away.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

An Open Letter to Maestro Conlon, Art. Director Domingo, Angel-Patron Broad: RE the $32 million dollar travesty aka The LA Opera Ring Cycle

Last night's “Das Rheingold” was a miserable travesty.

If the following review seems unnecessarily harsh, it has a purpose. It's designed to save the planned full Ring cycle next year. And it's an open letter and a plea. Here's it is:

Maestro Conlon, Artistic Director Domingo, Angel-Patron Broad:

Please find a Loge of your own and weasel your way out of the contract you have with Achim Freyer.

Don't let him design, build and stage the entire ring cycle next year. Instead:

1) Be a Wotan and steal Robert LePage's design and staging for his future MET production.
2) If that's not ready or Mr. Gelb won't lend it out, get John Conklin's stunning, simple and powerful design from Chicago and restage it.
3) Even better, get former GAle/GAtes director/designer Michael Counts to work his magic at re-imagining this behemoth. He can do it quick and for a tenth of your $32 million dollar budget. He’ll wow your audiences with visions worthy of Wagner’s score.
4) If you can't do that, borrow the Met's nearly silly, old "classic" 1986 Otto Schenk design. Even that creaky production would be better than Freyer’s nonsense.
5) And if all else fails, just do it as a staged reading.

Why? Because I can't think of anything worse than the avant-summerstock garbage I saw onstage last night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. If you allow this production to continue as planned you are going to turn off the entire city of Los Angeles to Wagner for the next decade if not longer (for reasons other than Wagner’s doing).

Please don’t do this.

Why? First because Maestro Conlon did a fine job with the orchestra. And his work (and the singers) should not be diminished or destroyed by the offensive staging.

In addition, Wagner was the most influential European artist of the 19th century and we in an artistic metropolis such as Los Angeles have an obligation to mount and should have the pleasure of experiencing his greatest work in the most potent manner in order to continue the conversation.

The production as is won’t allow us to see, hear or feel this seminal work.

As I left the theatre, a guy behind me said to his friend, "I don't know about all these avant-garde productions they always seem to do." The problem is not that it’s avant-garde. It isn’t. It’s just bad. People won’t know the difference and they’ll think they don’t like avant-garde or/and they hate Wagner. Don’t let this happen.

Get a Loge and get to work.


David Rodwin


Das Rheingold More Relevant than ever in a HORRIBLE Production

And now a little review:

The good news:

First, Das Rheingold is not a relic. It’s a living, relevant story with some of the greatest orchestrations in opera to date.

Here’s why the story is as important today as it was when it premiered 150 years ago.

The whole thing is about greed. More than that, it’s about people who paid for a house they couldn’t afford and when the bank comes to collect, they steal money from the little guy to pay off their mortgage and save their family, but doing so starts the beginning of the end of their time as leaders of the world.

Sound familiar!!!??? I mean rarely has Das Rheingold been as relevant as it is today. What would be radical as a design for this opera would be to dress the Rheinmadens as a big sexy TV commercial, the giants as Bank mortgage lenders, the Gods as middle class Americans in over their heads and Alberich as a regular Joe turned self-made millionaire.

Instead, we get almost indescribable crap layered on crap.

But again, the good news is the story IS relevant.

Second. More good news. We’re in good hands with Maestro Conlon. The score is a bitch and Conlon’s up for the task. For starters, keeping the horns together in the overture is no easy feat and can easily turn to mud, but he kept a pulsing translucence evoking the Rheine quite well (despite the first horn’s two flubs in the first minute) True, the Rheinmaden’s were poorly balanced in the opening scene, but I partially blame the design. More on that soon.

A few transitions were less than crisp and I personally prefer faster tempi as we go from the Niebelungen depths to the God's perch just outside of Valhalla and back again, but generally Conlon did an admirable job over the 2:45 non-stop marathon.

Other musical highlights include Morris Robinson giving a robust showing as the giant Fasolt, Gordon Hawkins lending a strong vocal performance as Alberich and Arnold Bezuyen breathing a bit of life into the production as Loge.

Arnold got the biggest round of applause, because Loge was one of the only characters neither immobilized by his costume, nor covered by a mask. But he still had to give face through caked on make-up that was a poor second to the Joker’s brilliant design in The Dark Knight. He also had to maneuver around two addition unexplained arms dangling from his body making him vaguely resemble a standing lobster with old fashioned devil ears. I mean, WHY? WHY for Godssakes? But he provided a bit of life in this otherwise passionless staging.

And now we’re already jumped into the design horrors, let's drill down:

Why was the direction and design so bad?

1) Random shit.
1. There’s a 3-foot wide multi-colored eyeball Down Right. It glows for a moment during the overture, but is never used again, though it sits there for 3 hours. Sure, Wotan lost an eye to gain his wife years back, but that’s no prescription to build a briefly glowing giant eyeball into your show. 
2. There are two poorly drawn cut outs of black and white fish downstage on both sides of the stage. On Stage Left it poorly and partially conceals the constant efforts of what I can only assume is the solid associate conductor Grant Gershon trying to keep all the singers in line with the orchestra which is not visible to most of the onstage performers. 
3. An airplane hangs over the stage the entire evening and finally moves a few feet to symbolize the passage of the gods to Valhalla in the last minute of the opera. WHY? 
4. When Alberich places his curse on the ring he is suddenly surrounded by 5 creatures who circle him. One is an 8 foot tall limping white mutant dog with red spots, three were unidentifiable, and the last was a white woman with two globes for breasts the size of her head. They prance about him during the curse and once he’s done singing, the white woman beckons him over and he fondles her breasts as they wander upstage and are lowered under the stage. Sure, that’s what I do right after I make any big curse, I fondle the spherical hooters of an alabaster mutant chick in front of the gods I just cursed. Makes perfect sense.

2) The scrim.

There's a scrim down the entire production separating the audience from the performers. This not only inhibits sound, but it's design intent was to provide a foreground of pointless, abstract, video masturbation neither pleasurable on its own aesthetic merits, not having anything to do with the opera thematically or the rest of the structure of the design in any capacity. The neon lines a thoughtless rip-off from Robert Wilson, the two-toned haze or reds and blues at first mistaken for the presence of the river Rheine, then more clearly seen as the twitching of an artist who has no idea what to do with the video after he’s committed to keeping the screen down the whole damn show. First, hire a real video artist if you don’t know what you’re doing. Second, if you think you know what you’re doing, listen up, “YOU’RE INCOMPETANT. STOP. JUST STOP NOW.” Got it? Lastly, If you’re going to separate your audience from your performers for a non-amplified opera, you better have a damn good reason – like you’re letting the audience see the artist paint an enormous version of “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”. Oh, and did I mention that was only for two fantastic scenes and they had mics.

3) The Costumes
1. Half the performers had full masks shielding us not only from the singer’s facial expressions, but worse, from their voices as well. 
2. The other half of the costumes were so large, the singers couldn’t walk one step in them. This immobilized (ironically) the oh so powerful Gods. Freyer’s fix was to have dancer doubles pop out from behind the giant structures the singers stood in. The dancer doubles would then move around one another an ambiguous dumb show clarifying and amplifying nothing but confusion amongst the audience. 
3. The actual design looked like it was constructed by a group of remedial high school students. They looked like poor executions of hastily sketched drafts. The imagery neither captured a childlike exuberance, nor an unrefined “outsider art” quality. It just looked sloppy and poorly conceived. Worse, I’m sure this was intentional. Instead of looking like $32 million dollars, it looked liked third-rate summer stock.

4) The Set
1. Compare for a moment John Conklin’s spare blood red moon I his Chicago “Siegfried” to the raked 2-D globe covered with random letters, numbers and unintentionally tangled ropes and you know your high school could have done something better. Better yet compare Conklin’s Fafner dragon to Freyer’s transformation of Alberich into a dragon in this production. Freyer’s just looked silly while Conklin’s appropriate of Bunraku puppetry on a grand scale was majestic, frightening, powerful, evocative and beautiful.
2. As we listen to the grand transitions between heaven and the Niebelung underworld, we had to watch as the gods pretend to pull twisted ropes to hoist the edge of the stage up. Ooh. Aah. How glorious.
3. Some of the masks were cool, but the lighting in Niebelung was so bad you couldn’t even see them.
And now, I’m just worn out. There were so many other ill-conceived bits of both design and direction there are too numerous to list. I’ll just give one to give you an idea of the idiocy on parade. Just before Mime’s first exit, he displays his joy at his brother’s capture by wagging his butt in the audience’s face and then skipping off stage. Ah, the dignity. Sure it was a callback to Italian buffoonery. And sure, Wagner would be horrified. I don't care what Richard would think. I just know this was one more idiotic slap in the face to the audience.

If you’ve read this far and care at all about opera, please just take a moment and send a letter to Director Placido Domingo and beg LA Opera to change its course soon, or we’ll all be flying to NY to see Heppner and Voigt do LePage’s the Ring in a year, because there won’t be a Ring in LA worth seeing.


Rockmoto Blog #6 - "Telling Your Parents"

February 27, 2009

I told my parents this morning that I was taking the MSF course. Jess didn't tell her parents until she'd been riding her own bike for 6 months. Their response? A long pause, then, “Your father and I are going to have to call you back.”

Their apprehension has turned to pride over the years though, as she's turned a past-time into a thriving career - going from the back of a bike, to a rider, to an editor of a national motorcycle magazine, to a coach - in addition to her current position at the Motorcycle Industry Council.

When I told my mom I was doing the course, she thought it'd be a great, life-expanding experience for me.

My dad on the other hand gave an pained pause and sighed, “Oh, Dear…You know, your cousin Howard (Judy’s husband) showed up at their daughter’s bat mitzvah with his arm in a sling. He was wearing a helmet, but he still broke his arm. I just don’t know why people ride.”

Oh, dad. Thanks for the encouragement.

I’m not really that nervous about tomorrow, but I wasn’t able to get new boots yet. You’re required to wear something that covers your ankles and the only thing I have are some old used cowboy boots. They don’t recommend them as they don’t have much traction on the soles. But I tried Payless and they didn’t have anything that fit me. I’ll run out tomorrow and grab something quick and cheap. Real moto boots start at around $100 and I’m not ready to make that investment. They supply helmets and gloves, but Jess got me some hi-tech super cool riding gloves for me as a present. That was super sweet of her. She really wants me to enjoy the experience. They’re tight like ski boots are on your feet. I’m not sure if they’re supposed to be that tight, but they’re XL and I’m don’t know if they come in a larger size.

We were going to take a few minutes to sit on my roommate’s bike so I could familiarize myself with all the controls, but our time together is so limited we didn’t get a chance to do that.

I’ll be coming in tomorrow cold as can be. Hopefully, I’ll represent.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Rockmoto Blog #5 - "The Classroom"

We now return you to your previously scheduled programming. Rockmoto blog #5

February 24, 2009

Last night was the classroom part of the MSF certification course. Our teachers were Amanda and Erika who together founded the Westside Motorcycle Academy 3-1/2 years ago. I’d met Erika once socially and it was good to see a familiar face. As she took attendance she stumbled over my name, but when she saw me raise my hand, recognition hit her face and she called out “Oh! Hi. How are you?” People stared. Great. I’m no longer anonymous. I don’t want special treatment. I just want to get through this like any other person.

Not that everyone here’s a Harley rider who’d have stomped on my glasses in elementary school, but I’m guessing Teacher’s Pet status doesn’t get you very far in the moto world (Check me out writing “moto” instead of motorcycle. I have little idea if people really do that, but I’m either starting to fit in or I’m sounding like an idiot dilettante poser.)

I was distracted at the beginning of my classroom because I had to leave work early at my relatively new job. I didn’t have a chance to tell the boss in the morning because there was a crisis afoot and when I stepped out he wasn’t all that happy. I kept trying to shake the thought that I’d just jeopardized my job, but it was a serious distraction all night.

The class was in the community room of the Westside Pavilion on Pico. I didn’t know they HAD community rooms there. It was a little tricky to find – hidden behind the food court. I got to the parking lot 15 minutes early, as suggested, but I didn’t get into the classroom 'til 5 minutes before 4PM and almost every seat was taken. These people were serious about this. No one’s on time in LA and I was nearly late at 5 minutes early.

It was a diverse group, which is nice to see in LA. I’m not sure if I fit in, but it was so mixed, anyone might have felt the same way. There were folks from other countries. Black, White, Asian, Latino, male, female, the works. The composition felt much more diversified than any place I’ve ever worked. It was somewhere between an Obama campaign headquarters and The Forum. There was also a similar excitement and nervousness just like in those communities too.

It was a group of 72 people broken into tables of 7-8 and the first thing they had us do was introduce ourselves to our table and say why we were taking the class. Some people had been riding for a while, but wanted to get their license finally (after holding a permit and then failing the test at the DMV which is supposed to be a real bitch). Others had ridden on the back of a bike and were bit by the bug, so they were going the next step. There was one couple at our table (Jack and Ali) who decided to learn to ride together instead of taking dancing lessons. Very cute. And when it was my turn, I timidly slipped in that my girlfriend already rode, so I was just trying to catch up. To that an “I-work-out-ever-day-at-the-gym-so-I’m-gonna-wear-a-really-tight-T-shirt-to-go-with-my-trendy-stubly-beard” actor asked if I’d ridden on the back of the bike with her. Before I was able to mention her bike has no back seat, a Lebanese guy at the end of the table said, “You can’t ride bitch to your girl, man”.

And indeed I haven’t. But it’s a concern. Ever since Natalie Portman refused to “ride bitch” to Zach Braff in “Garden State”, ‘riding bitch’ has been a serious danger out there…for any man whose girlfriend rides.

I’m pretty darn secure with my masculinity, but I have to admit, dating a Moto coach has tested that. I happily admit to being a massage therapist, opera composer, and avid cook only because I’ve every confidence in my love for women. But when my girlfriend rides over 100mph and puts her knee down, and I can’t EVEN ride bitch to her, it does make me feel like less of a man. My roommate shakes his head at my inability to appreciate how wicked her skills are. So you’ll understand how I felt as we’re filling out forms, when Amanda, the other instructor, comes over to my table.
“Is Jessica’s boyfriend here?” (Dude, that’s like just being someone’s “wife’.) Oddly, the guy to my right says yes.
“David! Great to meet you.”
“I’m not David,” he says. Confusion abounds. Apparently his girlfriend’s name is Jessica as well. I pipe up.
“I’m David.”
“Oh. Great to meet you. Are you excited for this? I think I’m gonna be teaching with Jess this weekend. Have fun.”
She leaves. Everyone looks at me for a moment. My cover is blown. Bad enough my girlfriend rides. Now they know she’s the freakin’ teacher. “How’d she end up with a 4-wheeler like me?” That’s what I fear they’re all thinking. Luckily, no one comments on it further and it’s down to business.

The course is thorough, well presented and flies by. There are decent videos, question and answer sections to keep us awake and breaks every hour. We cover everything from proper turning strategy to the greatest cause of accidents (alcohol, alcohol, alcohol)

Five hours later I take the written test. 50 questions. I need to answer 40 right. I’m terrified. I’ve taken so few tests in the last 15 years that my Princeton education seems irrelevant. I’m just out of practice. And I wasn’t listening as well as I could. I was marking up my notebook, cross-referencing which answer was on which page, to the point where I wasn’t really reading. I’d have done better if I’d just read the training book cover to cover. I’m so nervous I finish the test before anyone else hands theirs in, so I start going back over my answers figuring I must have done something wrong. It seemed deceptively simple, and I couldn’t take the risk to screw this up. So I went back over every question.

Perfect score. NO great accomplishment, but certainly a great relief. Next stop… Mounting my hog.

That came out all wrong. I have to stop talking like I’m in the lifestyle. Hmm. In fact, I think ‘The Lifestyle’ means something different altogether. I’ll just shut up and ride.


Sunday, March 8, 2009

Purim Party-On

We interrupt this Rockmoto blogging series for a look back at my first drunken Purim. And when I say drunken I mean...

March, 1995.

There was a line to get into the house. I’d never been to a Chabad service before, but I heard they throw a great Purim party and I figured this would be an easy entry into the mysterious world of the Hassidim. The Chabad House was a little gray colonial a few blocks off the Northwestern campus in Evanston, IL and frankly it was a revelation to me there were Jews in the mid-west much less Hassids.

I’d grown up in a country club Conservative temple in Stamford, CT where Purim meant gathering in our large sanctuary where lay folk would take turns reading from the Megilah and then an English speaker would give an animated English translation. Parents would encourage their kids to stamp their feet and swing their cheap, plastic groggers every time the name Haman was mentioned. I enjoyed the booing and hissing too ‘cause he was the bad guy who as prime minister tried to convince the king to commit genocide against all the Persian Jews. (He didn’t succeed and Purim is the festival holiday celebrating his defeat and our survival).

The making and eating of Hamantashen and the story-telling was the extent of the holiday as far as I knew. Not much to write home about. I didn’t hear about tradition of donning costumes much less the general drinking and revelry that accompanied Purim in some circles ‘til I heard about Chabad in my 20s.

Chabbadnicks were still scary to me at the time. The black hats, beards and paias made it clear they were not just separate from gentiles, but from me as well. I thought their retention of 16th Century Polish landowner costumes to be absurd and misguided if not destructive to intra-Jewish relations as well as interfatih understanding. But I was in grad school and decided I would be open-minded and see what it was they actually did. Rather than starting out with Yom Kippur though, I figured I’d go for a more light-hearted event like Purim. Especially if they know how to throw a party.

I get to the front of the line and I’m told “Ten dollars”. There’s a cover? Unbelievable. Like tickets at Yom Kippur. I nearly turn around but I decide, hell, I’m here already, I might as well stay. I don’t know if I’ll stay for more than a few minutes, but I’ll buy the ticket and take the ride.

The moment I step in the door a guy my age hands me a shot in a little plastic glass. “Le’Chaim!” And he downs it. I follow suit. He hands me a yarmulka and then runs away.

I get two more steps in the door and another guy, thrilled that I’m there approaches me like and old friend and says
“Hi, I’m Schlomo! What’s your name?”
“Welcome.” He hands me another drink. “Le’Chaim!” Boom. Another one down.
A man in his late 50s comes up to me in an kick-ass costume. He’s got a super realistic looking Gandalf length beard and he’s actually wearing an ornate wizzard’s costume all the way down to the curly-tip brocaded shoes.
“You’re new here! Welcome.” He hands me a drink.
“Thanks. Le’Chaim!”
Another hit. The wizard runs off to join a group of other costumed men kicking it up like mad in a traditional circle dance. They’re ten feet away from a group of women doing the same.

Next to them I see the table with self-serve drinks. A dozen bottles of Crown Royal, another dozen liters of vodka and a host of other liquors from Slivovitz to Jameson. There were a total of 50 people there, so they were prepped to get hammered.

As I eye the booze, the guy standing next to me offers another shot. The fourth in under five minutes. And I say,
“Hold on. I need to catch my breath. Who was that last guy? His costume was amazing.”
“Him? That’s the rabbi.”
“The rabbi? What is he doing?”
“Tonight we’re playing a game. ‘Drink ‘til the rabbi drops’.”
This was not my rabbi. My rabbi was Rabbi Alex Goldman - 3rd generation conservative rabbi - age 134 when I was getting bar mitzvahed. OK, he was only 73, but his father was an old school Chicago rabbi who was still practicing at age 96. And even as a spry septagenarian, my rabbi talked old, thought old, and even SMELLED old. He was barely capable of smiling, much less partying. He was a lesson in severity and I was pretty darned sure he didn’t drink. I’ve been led to believe no one at my temple drank. They were part of that Americanized middle class Jew that I’m told doesn’t drink. I’ve been to other conservative services where they sip some whisky and vodka at their onegs, but we never had that. I heard stories that back in Russia my great-great-grandfather would start his day by downing a shot of vodka before his feet touched the ground. It was poured the previous evening and left within reach on his night stand. Of course, he didn’t have centralized heat, so he needed other ways to warm his cockles at the break of dawn. As for my childhood temple, we used our syrupy Manischevitz for our Kiddushes and I didn’t realize there were other kinds of wines until I saw Orson Wells on TV hawking jugs of Gallo in the thick of his sad, portly decline.

My dad drank Budweiser in those classic cans to borderline excess and washed it down with pretzels and peanuts every Sunday to the hum and crack of the NFL. Occasionally, I’d have a tiny sip just to see what it tasted like. Because of those afternoons I have a nostalgic love of that pisswater. It reminds me of the few relaxed father son moments spent in contented silence interrupted only by an occasional outburst from my father when he lost patience with the Giants once again.

I didn’t drink in high school one iota, but my days at Princeton taught me a blissful excess with my dear friend “Old no. 7”. My copious drinking in those days was instigated by my brothers in song and I didn’t really drink outside that circle. This is not to say I didn’t go too far at time. My favorite step over the line was a “Drop-trou” arch after which my dear English friend Crispy and his girlfriend carried me in classic drunken sailor style nearly a mile to the doorstep of the girl I had a terrible crush on. They deposited me and departed thinking they’d done a great mitzvah as I thought I’d be received warmly. In fact, no one was home. I figured I’d wait for her return. Some hours later my amore discovered my slumped figure blocking the entrance to her sleeping quarters and she gently nudged me awake and asked.

“What are you doing here?”

I attempt to explain what preceded my arrival was singing with my a cappella group for the last night of the football season for which it’s traditional that while mid-song, we lower our pants and brave the frigid November climes in recognition of the hardships our team went through. And to acclimatize ourselves to this endeavor, we steeled our loins against the environs by imbibing a classic sour mash.

What I got out was:
“I…Oh. Uh.” I try to stand. “Oooh. Bathroom?”
She opens the door of the women’s room, guides me to a stall and I make it to the toilet just in time. I beg her to leave, but she holds my hair as I wretch in front of the woman I had recently come to adore – only the third who’d actually agreed to kiss me at that godforsaken Puritan school. And now I’ve ruined everything.

We’re actually still friends today, but though I assured her I’d be fine if I just got a few hours of sleep on her hallway floor, she called the campus police and I was ushered home in the back seat of a flashing patrol car.

That was the third most drunk I’ve ever been and that night was NOTHING compared to Purim at Chabad house.

Fragments of memories are all that remain.

The costumes were out of control - both homemade as well as rented from professional costume houses. The most haunting beast was a 7 ft. tall blue Alladin genie – the Disney movie of the year. I’m still chilled when I recall holding hands with this monster while doing the huora.

Yes, I played my part in a human centrifuge for a good part of the evening, but at some point I joined the three-piece klezmer band, making them a quartet. The next day, I deduced that I became their extra percussionist as evidenced by the red thrashings my arms and legs appeared to have received from the crashing of my tambourine against various body parts.

The last image I have is trying to balance as I bicycled home. I certainly shouldn’t have been behind the wheel of anything that night, but I appear to have somehow made it back to my apartment.

It took a full 24 hours to even begin to recover and I’ve not been back to a Chabad Purim since that night.

But I do go to a great Purim party these days at the house of a conservative rabbi. He prefers single malt scotch. I bring an entire bottle with me. This year Trader Joe’s 11 year. It’s actually quite good. We go through quite a bit and I just take a cab home.

My favorite moment at that party came two years ago when I’d been tipsily flirting with a lovely woman all afternoon. Feeling I should meet the other guests, I engaged another gent in a talk for a while, at which point, I get a tap on my shoulder. I turn to see her a few more sheets to the wind than I’d last encountered her and she looked at me with all seriousness bearing on severity and burped out:
“David Rodwin…” She was still as stone, but clearly steadying herself with all her strength. “…We should procreate.”
Then she pulled an about face and exited. We never did procreate, but God, I love Purim these days.