Tuesday, July 31, 2007

De Gustibus

The Dramahound has been thinking about food lately. Not that there’s anything new about that, but this is more than the usual “what’s for dinner?”

There are not a lot of plays about food. I did see a hilarious ten-minute play by Melissa Fendell about the history of the potato a few months ago at the Milk Can Theatre Co., along with a play by my friend Cheryl Davis that involved a recipe for salmon poach in a dishwasher. M.L. Kinney has written a really creepy play about gluttony- a couple is so into what they’re eating and each other, they let their offstage baby die. Brecht mentions bread a lot (he would, wouldn’t he?), as does Shakespeare in Coriolanus.

My scene partner from grad school, Giuliano Hazan, now is a chef and writes cookbooks. The scene we did that I remember best was from The Country Girl, and when I had to slap him, my hand slipped and threw his glasses across the studio. But he forgave me. Before we went to school together, Giuliano translated at least one play of Dario Fo’s into English. There must be a Fo play about food.

Sunday night my boyfriend and I were cooking, which we do for recreation and because it’s something we can do together. Otherwise, that’s what take-out menus are for. We made a roasted vegetable dish from one of Giuliano’s books, and my boyfriend started waxing rhapsodically (as he is wont to do) about the Roman countryside, and what might Cincinnatus have had for dinner from his farm. And the more we talked about it, the more we were surprised. There’s no pasta in fourth century B.C.E. Italy- that doesn’t come until Marco Polo brings it back from China. Probably no rice or risotto yet, either. No potatoes or turkey, they’re American. Tomatoes are from South America. So old Cincinnatus has wine, olives, probably figs, some kind of bread. Not quite fettucine alfredo.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Wild Parrots of Brooklyn

Some years ago my brother and his family were living in a house in Pasadena. My little niece was very taken with the wild parrots that lived in the neighborhood. You couldn’t always see them, but you could certainly hear them. Later I read about the wild parrots of San Francisco, so I assumed parrots were a California thing.

A few summers ago, long before I had a clue I’d be transplanted to Gowanus, my boyfriend and I were walking to our favorite diner near his house in Bay Ridge. As we’re walking along a sidewalk that borders Leif Erikson Park, I looked down at the grass. And there, six feet from me, was a youthful-sized green parrot.

The parrots have been in Brooklyn since the early 1970s. The species (monk parrots, also called Quaker parrots) is originally from Argentina. No one seems to really know how they got here, though some say they escaped from a cargo at JFK. Their original home was at the Brooklyn College athletic field. They made their nests up in the light towers. Near Leif Erikson is a baseball field called the Dust Bowl, and we’ve watched the parrots building their nests in the light towers there.

The parrots’ third Brooklyn home is closer Gowanus, and that’s in the Gates of Eternity leading into Green-Wood Cemetery. They just love those Gothic spires, and they are quite squawky in their greetings to visitors.

There are many photographs of the parrots in Brooklyn and New Jersey at www.brooklynparrots.com. My personal favorites are the ones of them eating pizza; they also seem to enjoy bagels. There’s also a Brooklyn parrot video: http://www.loftinpro.com/animalplanet.htm. And a slide show of photos to watch while you listen to “The Ballad of the Brooklyn Parrots.”

Thursday, July 26, 2007


I got an email from a playwright friend yesterday, which I responded to this morning. I had to think about what she’d written before I could write back anything of substance. She is adapting some myths into a play. She’s done adaptations before, as have I. But this adaptation is different for her.

I know how she feels. I tried to think of one adaptation I’d done where it was the same process as another I’d done, and I couldn’t think of any. It’s always different. It always has to do with the nature of the material, plus the original author’s intent, and where it intersects my intent.

So it’s in that context, I can truthfully say I don’t have a clue what adaptation is. Has Sarah Ruhl, the critics’ darling of the moment, written an adaptation of Eurydice? I bet she’d say no. Has Steve Sater written an adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening? Probably, but it isn’t a slavish adaptation, however true it is to Wedekind’s intent. Even though I knew even before I read an interview with Sater there are scenes in the musical that aren’t in the play. The father-son scene makes complete sense, it’s emotionally satisfying, it isn’t jarring in the least. However, I know enough about the original play, and European drama and societal attitudes of a century ago, to know that Wedekind never would have written that scene. In his authorial context, in his world, it wouldn’t have made sense. But in Sater’s and our world, it makes perfect sense. I think that is what makes that libretto particularly admirable. If he did a word-for-word adaptation from the German, or from Eric Bentley’s translation, that’s all well and good, I guess. But to get into the world of a play and figure what is going to resonate emotionally with a contemporary audience, while not violating what Wedekind was trying to say- to me, that’s the whole point.

Never fear, there will be more Dramahound on adaptation. I’ve spent years of my life trying to figure it out.

Monday, July 23, 2007

110 in the Shade

It's been a long time since I worked at the Theatre Development Fund. But as a Dramatist Guild member, I still get discount tickets through them. So Wednesday night I went to see "110 in the Shade" with two actor/singer friends (one of whom is a devoted and much appreciated reader of this blog!). The three of us did not go to school together, we have completely different training. And had fairly different reactions to the show.

I thought Audra McDonald was simply amazing. I'm not surprised she's won that many Tonys at her age. John Collum (who I'd seen on stage before, but never in a musical) was incredible. He does what every really great actor does- he makes his work look absolutely effortless.

I grew up with a lot of Jones & Schmidt music around me. I sang songs from "Celebration" for voice lessons; auditioned for multiple productions of "The Fantasticks"; I studied with a man who directed a production of "Philemon"; and my parents has the original cast album of "I Do, I Do" which I listened to frequently.

Now, I have a greater appreciation of libretti, and in particular this one. N. Richard Nash wrote the libretto for "110 in the Shade," based on his play "The Rainmaker." I'm trying to think of another playwright who's done that, adapted their own straight play into a libretto, and off the top of my head can't think of one. I sat through a lot of scene classes in school where someone was doing the Starbuck/Lizzie scene. In my youth, I dismissed it as incredibly hokey. But I don't believe that now. I think that Nash put his finger on something very important about being a woman in this culture, in the scene where Starbuck tries to get Lizzie to say she's pretty. I've seen incredibly assertive actresses dissolve into tears while working on that scene. It was by far the most moving scene in this production.

I suspect that even the beautiful Audra McDonald has a critical voice in her head telling her that she's not really that pretty. I suspect that we all do.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Immortal Magyar

When I was researching Hungarian history for what turned into two plays (“Maura and Katinka” and “Geography”), I was looking at a list of famous Hungarians of the 19th century. There were some politicians, some composers (like Liszt) and a guy who I had never heard of: Ignaz Semmelweis. Who the hell was he?

Well, if you’re a woman and you’ve ever given birth (or if you’re not a woman and you’ve ever had surgery), Semmelweis is kinda huge. He discovered the importance of antiseptic surgery 15 years before Joseph Lister did- though I know I was told in high school that Lister was first. Semmelweis was from a working class family in Pest. He studied at the General Hospital (Allgemeines Krankenhaus) in Vienna and specialized in obstetrics. He noticed that the women giving birth in the charity ward had a lower death rate from childbed fever than the wealthier women. In some European hospitals up to a third of women giving birth died from childbed fever, so this was no small thing. The reason was that the poor women tended to be dirtier, and the doctors would wash their hands between deliveries. The rich women were cleaner, so the doctors didn’t bother.

But nobody in power in Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, believed him. They thought he was at best an upstart, and at worse a nut. Semmelweis finally retreated to Pest, and ran an obstetrics clinic there. But still he was undermined: one of the nurses had a grudge against him, and didn’t bother to change sheets between patients, even though she’d been told to; things of that ilk. This went on for years- Semmelweis battling to save women’s lives, and carrying incredible guilt when he was unable to. He had doctors wash their hands with soap, sterilize them with a chemical (carbolic acid) and then rub their hands with oil, so that the germs (not that anyone knew what a germ was yet- this was all observation on his part) wouldn’t get into the pores of their hands (no rubber gloves in the 1850s).

Finally, in the summer of 1865, Semmelweis lost it and cracked up. His wife had him committed to a sanatorium outside of Vienna. What no one knew was that during one of his last obstetrics cases, Semmelweis had cut his finger. He developed gangrene, and was dead in two weeks. The day before Semmelweis died, in England Lister began using carbolic acid to sterilize his hands before surgery. Fourteen years later, Louis Pasteur identified the bacteria that caused childbed fever.

There is a building in Pest that’s part of the general hospital that has Semmelweis’ name on it- I’ve seen it. But there’s not much else to remember poor old crazy Ignaz, who saved so many lives. “Immortal Magyar” is the name of an old biography of Semmelweis from 1950.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Green-Wood Cemetery Thespians

There are four well-known actors buried in Green-Wood Cemetery. One is Laura Keene, who starred in “Our American Cousin,” and was onstage at Ford’s Theatre when Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth. Another is Kate Claxton, who was onstage when the Great Brooklyn Theatre Fire broke out.

The most famous actor that we’ve all seen (he was in a lot of movies) buried in Green-Wood is Frank Morgan. Born Francis Wupperman in New York City, he was one of eleven children. His family were the distributors of Agostura Bitters, which must have been how they could afford to have eleven children. Morgan is best known for playing the Wizard in “The Wizard of Oz.” But I think he’s even better in Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Shop Around the Corner” where he plays the owner, Mr. Matuschek.

The famous actor that none of us have seen now resting in Green-Wood is Lola Montez. I spent a year or two trying to write a screenplay about her. I have never been sure if I abandoned it because she was such a slippery character, or because I was working on it when my sister-in-law called to tell me that the World Trade Center had been hit. Or as my brother put it: “Somebody bombed your back yard.” Which is exactly what it felt like. My work on Lola is still sitting in my file cabinet.

Born in Ireland to an unmarried milliner, as a young woman she invented herself as Lola Montez, a widowed Spanish countess who had to perform for a living because her husband left her penniless. Her biggest hit was the erotic “Spider Dance,” where she would sweep off her dress imaginary, strategically placed tarantulas. Men loved it- Lola was the toast of Europe. She had an affair with the Tsar, and she brought Bavaria to the brink of civil war, because King Ludwig I couldn’t live without her. He abdicated, and Lola went off to greener pastures- New York City.

In the States, Lola wrote two plays about her life, in which she played herself (who else could?). She ran them in New York multiple times, and toured up and down the Mississippi. When the Gold Rush broke out, Lola got on a boat and sailed to California, where she entertained the miners. Then she went to Australia and performed there. Behind her, Lola left a succession of husbands (she never actually bothered to divorce the first one), and a few neglected children. By the time she made it back to New York, she was broke, and had a stroke. In the winter of 1861, she died in a rooming house on the west side of Manhattan. Lola Montez was 42 years old. She is buried in Green-Wood under her real name, Eliza Gilbert. There was a very good biography of her- “Lola Montez: A Life” by Bruce Seymour.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Careful What You Say

I am very careful about what I say in a theatre or in the lobby during intermission if I don't like the play. I have overheard things about my work that I wish I hadn't more than once. I remember seeing a show 15 years ago in I think the Royale, one of those old great Shubert houses on 45th Street, and I was with my parents. We were sitting in the orchestra very near one of the boxes. I'd been backstage in that house. There is a curtain hanging underneath the box, and if you go behind it, you are backstage. At that time there wasn't even a door. At intermission my mother starts- ranting would be the right word- about how she hates the acting. I'm begging her to shut up or lower her voice because at best she's entertaining the stage management staff, and at worst she's undermining the actors' confidence. Which I told her, and which, of course, didn't stop her.

In Manhattan, there's the ten block rule. You have to be ten blocks away to say Anything negative, however much you're dying to, to whomever you saw the show with. I really try to stick to this rule, which it's always easy if you've sat still for three hours and had your head brimming with what you want to say. An old boyfriend of mine extended the ten block rule to include cars with the windows closed.

But once in awhile when you're the target, you hear something good. I worked on a 24 Hour Play Festival in Kansas when I was playwright-in-residence at the Inge Center. It was not the best of circumstances. I'd be there 36 hours, my divorce lawyer was having a hard time with my case, I had bronchitis, I was on antibiotics and had a raging fever. My play was in the first half, and the lead actor had far from mastered his lines so there was a lot of the other actors milling around onstage and trying to feed the lines to him. So the only thing for me to do at intermission was go out for a smoke. There was a family already out there- mother, father, adult son. They talked about what they'd just seen. The more obvious and cliched the situation, the more it was like a TV skit, the more they liked the play. So then they got around to mine. "I didn't like it," the son said. "Why?" asked his mother. "Because you didn't know what was going to happen next," he said. Which to me is the the best thing he could have said. If you do know what's going to happen next, then what's the point?

Smith & Kraus felt otherwise; it's coming out in their "Best Short Plays for Three or More Actors" this year. It's called "Body Shop."

Saturday, July 7, 2007

The Great Brooklyn Theatre Fire

On the 4th of July, we did not go away, since my boyfriend and I had to work Tuesday and Thursday. Instead, we made a short trip to Green-Wood Cemetery, , which is about ten blocks from where I live. It's enormous, has four lakes (some bigger than others), a Gothic-looking chapel, hilly, lots of trees, great view of lower Manhattan. Really interesting funereal statuary, not to mention more mausoleums than I've ever seen in one place in my life.

We did some walking, and some slow driving (it kept raining). The nice guard at the entrance gave us a map, and we hunted down former Gov. DeWitt Clinton, but had less luck with Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the first important classical composer in the U.S.

One monument I noticed was what I thought was a memorial to the victims of the Brooklyn Theatre Fire. There was a large theatre called the Brooklyn Theatre; it looks like it was what's now in the southwest corner of what's now the Brooklyn Navy Yard. On the evening of Dec. 5, 1876, a kerosene lamp ignited a stage drop in the middle of a performance of "The Two Orphans". There were no fire escapes. The fire went up the drape to the ceiling of the theatre, and turned the building into a conflagration. Over 300 people died. Underneath the monument in Green-Wood are the victims whose bodies couldn't be identified. I thought I knew a lot of theatre fire history- in the 19th century, there was a massive fire at theatre Barnum rented (the menagerie was in the basement) on 14th Street and Irving Place (later the Academy of Music and then the Palladium), killed people and animals. And I've read about the Ringling Brothers fire in Hartford in the 1940s- the whole tent went up. But I'd never heard of the Brooklyn Theatre Fire before.

For contemporary newspaper accounts, go to:

Friday, July 6, 2007

My P.O. Pals

Eudora Welty wrote a story called "Why I Live at the P.O." Which if you used to use Eudora mail in the olden internet days, is why it was called that. I don't spend as much time as I did at the p.o. as I did, say, three years ago. More and more theatres let playwrights submit electronically. But most still don't.

My boyfriend was very pleased to tell me this morning that he had mailed two (2!) items using first-class stamps in the past month. I was lugging mail that came to $40+ when I got to the p.o. That's this week's take- I was there last week as well. You can't mail a manuscript in a mail box anymore- I think it was the Atlanta Olympics scare that brought an end to that. You must hand your envelope to a person in a post office. And if you already have the postage on it, the post office employees don't always agree who should take the envelope. It can be an elaborate game of "keep away."

It's more convenient for me to go to my old post office on 85th Street in Manhattan (it's on my way to work and near an express train), than it is to go to my new post office in Brooklyn. So I see all my old p.o. clerk pals. The sweet lady who hums to herself; the harried lady who doesn't like having to write out "Bound Printed Matter" on my play envelopes. And my own personal favorite, spray-on-hair guy. I'm not sure I knew you could get spray-on hair anymore before I met him. He never doesn't use it. It always covers exactly the same amount of his scalp. Does he think people won't notice that it's spray-on?

You have to have a p.o. strategy to beat the lines. I have a pretty good idea of when the shifts change. Mondays and Fridays are not so good. But if I can get there before 9:15, Tuesday through Thursday, there's no one there. Except between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Then you'd just better bring a book.