Mar 19, 2012
I feel a real underpinning of anger about the recent news regarding Mike Daisey and his one man show The Agony and the Exstasy of Steve Jobs. I've been reading the blogs and editorials hoping that they satisfy or get to the heart of why it feels like such a violation. None have been able to do so, so I've decided to write my own.
For those of you who don't know, Mr. Daisey's show about the working conditions at Apple factories has been a huge hit, first in the theater world, and later on the media circuit. He performed the monologue on This American Life, and it was their most popular show ever. After some fact checking by NPR's Marketplace and This American Life, he was found to have fabricated many details of the experience that he was claiming to have had.
After This American Life retracted their episode, Daisey's countered with the argument that theater is not journalism, and that fact can be turned into fiction in the theater, even if presented as non-fiction.
Before I get into it, for Mike Daisey to get on his soapbox and tell us the rules of the theater is blowhearted in and of itself.
I saw the show last fall at the Public in New York. Daisey sits in front of the audience and tells, to dramatic effect, of his trip to China, of the labor conditions there. He wants, and gets, the audience to lap it up. Maybe I'm a cold-hearted cynic, but I have to admit, it wasn't particularly reveletory. It doesn't come as a huge surprise that working conditions in China were are bad. I was a history major and I read about the building of the transcontinental Railroad. People work hard, harder than other people in the world.
I also wondered. Why is this guy telling this story? Something about it felt disingenuous, like he was wanting me to feel something, almost pleading with me to feel it. When you have good storytelling and acting in general, don't you plead. It should come out of you, effortlessly.
I read and review plays for a playwrights conference and one of things that is continually brought up is "what is the essence from which this agitates?" It's almost as if you shed some skin, and you want to show people around you how it died, so that it's not as painful for them.
But Mike Daisey never experienced the story that he said he experienced, that he pleaded with audiences to feel. Instead masqueraded being in a vulnerable place to entice people. He stole a story. And a story that he knew would be very popular. He seemed to do it so that he would be well-known. And he almost pulled it off.
But something didn't fit.
I'm angry because I take storytelling seriously. I work to have it come from a place deep down. And while we all struggle to gain notoriety, to stand in front of a theater night in and night out and invent an inexperience to seem more profound is a violation. Even if what you are doing has some benevolance.
Thanks for listening.
Jan 29, 2012
I took to the the theater this weekend, seeing two productions.
The first was Our Town, directed by David Cromer. The production moved like a well-oiled, and albeit, unaffected organism. Stripped away was the artificial veneer applied to a text, where actors tell you what they think you should feel, where you could cry bullshit a hundred yards away. Instead, these actors felt, they yelled at each other, which is certainly the anomaly for this oft-produced play. You could sense the blend of the beauty and pain the quotidian: the real sound of clicking heels on wood, the snapping of pees, a baseball hitting leather in the moonlight. It was real, uncommented on...palpable. Most effectively demonstrating this is the brilliant choice of the costumes. Everyone is wearing something so goddamned regular, like the most regular khakis and sweater vest combo. Nothing sticks out, except for what the people do, which is ordinary.
For the first two acts, this blend of the pain and joy of living rests just below the surface. It digs at you. The lights are on the audience, and you felt like Mitt Romney could be holding a town hall in Iowa. You were in the town, wanted to be a part of the town...or didn't. But regardless, the fourth wall was firmly worn down. You were involved. Cut to the third act, when the digging that Cromer has done to that wall, enables him to obliterate it....and connect to the audience in a way I've never seen a play do. If you are interested in what theater can do, see this production. That's all I will say.
I also had the pleasure of seeing Clybourne Park, by Bruce Norris, directed by Pam MaKinnon, at the Mark Taper. This production was also a pleasure to watch, and had a rhythym and a pop that made it super easy to listen to (not always the case). The actors spoke to each other, they connected deeply with the stakes and similarly to Our Town, it wore you down, set up relationships for pending explosions. It's not until late in the second act when this thing blows open. And it really does.
It's about a house in Chicago and how the economic inequality of people of other skin colora allows bubbling racial tension to burst through. The first act sees a white couple move out of this house in 1950s. The second act sees a white family attempt to move back in. The sharp production makes you feel the prospectives on historical trends which have and continue to divide Americans, and how race is a function of class, and how cultural differences are shunned or unaccepted. The characters struggle with shedding their predetermined outstanding of the world through the lens of racial tropes.
At the epicenter of the tension are two jokes, both of which play deeply on racial stereotypes. I think we can laugh at truths that make us uncomfortable...it's almost like a shedding of skin, particularly if we can laugh at ourselves. Norris is asking the audience to laugh at what makes us uncomfortable. As the audience does, the theater becomes a vehicle for the slightest bit of racial healing.
I had friends in both of these productions, and kudos to them for their wonderful work.
Both productions were helmed by artists (Cromer, Norris, McKinnon) who are leaders and have sharp visions about the role of theater in 2012. It is satisfying to see.
Thanks for reading,
Jul 14, 2011
I took to the road this summer.
I gained better sense of our nation. Visiting the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, California, I could really see what influences each state.
In Kentucky it was horseracing, bourbon, rolling hills and well-tailored pants.
In New Mexico it was red and green chilies, sculpture gardens, hot springs.
Other highlights included:
Pick-up basketball in Chicago
Austin, Texas BBQ
The man in 7-11 who told of his run-in with a raccoon.
Ft. Collins Reservoir swimming.
The Utah Salt Flats.
and lastly the High Sierra Music Fest.
It is good to fill up, feel some new air, swim in some new bodies of water...and taste our great nation.
And now back in Los Angeles, where I get to audition for an Audi commerical with my hero, Phil Jackson.
May 17, 2011
The Chicago Bulls have risen.
The backdrop for my formative years was Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. As a 12-year-old, I would leave Chicago Stadium unable to hear my father, having just watched Jordan split defenses and dish to Scottie for a dunk that shook the building.
I celebrated with friends and family almost every year as the Bulls climbed the tower to the championship.
Many lessons can be learned from these years. The most of which seemed to come from the teachings of Phil Jackson. Jackson called upon the Bulls to find their heart, to become warriors, to embrace their pack on the court. The Bulls used to practice without the ball. He inspired BJ Armstrong to imagine hitting a key three-pointer late in the game, and then after imagining it, he would do the same in a game.
Over the years, I have thought a lot about the power of the Bulls: the team work, the courage, the love of the game, their ability to believe in each other.
So when the Bulls entered in the United Center on Sunday with a rousing romp of the favored Miami Heat, the spirit and joy for the symbiosis of a basketball unit was infectious. They played with all the heart and courage of the Jordan teams (if not more), and were no doubt supported by a fan base that fed their heart and desire to win. Even though it was just Game One, it was an insanely beautiful thing to watch.
As Jackson exits the game, we can see the spirit he instilled on the game, in this new team and with a fan base that certainly knows how to support warriors. As the bench rises to support the starters, as each player finds the open space on the court, the new Bulls proved so wonderfully that the organism of a basketball team is much stronger than an isloated star. Now to sustain that. The Miami Heat on some level know this lesson, the question is how firmly is it embedded in their psyches.
We'll see tonight.
May 6, 2011
I often tell the story of the first "professional" show I ever did. I had just finished acting class, got my headshots, and excitedly auditioned for a play. Three months later, it opened to the following review in the Chicago Reader.
Suspension of DisbeliefBy Jennifer Vanasco
SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF, Theatre o' th' Absurd, at the Chicago Actors Studio. It's heartbreaking when a small company puts on a truly awful show, because small troupes are the lifeblood of Chicago theater. But there's almost nothing to redeem Suspension of Disbelief, written and directed by John Linton Roberson. The play is violent, ridiculous (and not in a good, existentialist kind of way, which is clearly its aim), and mildly offensive: "faggoty" and "dyke" are both used to draw laughs. It's also stiffly acted and haltingly staged.
Rick Krassner is a struggling writer who may be on the verge of breaking into Hollywood: his vile agent has gotten him a meeting with a producer (Michele Alexander, in the production's only good performance). The twist is that the characters are compelled to commit murder, cannibalism, and other heinous acts by a director and playwright we never see. Only Rick comes to realize that they're all trapped in a play, a conceit that could be interesting. But Roberson is unsure of his message and seems to hate everything about the stage and screen. The director (an uncredited voice) is a martinet, the stagehands are bullies, the critics vacuous, and all the characters vicious and unredeemable.
This play was truly embarassing. I made the mistake of sending out a mass email, and my good friend's mother came (god bless her soul.) Needless to say, I apologozied profusely for it.
I could go on and on why it was so bad, but let's just say I had to start the play seated in the audience. For one of the previews, there were only two people were in the audience: my parents. Before the show started, I had to sit next to my father and pretend like I had just wet myself. Looking at my dad out of the corner of my eye, trying to "suspend the disbelief," I can only say I did not feel either like a man, or an actor. And I sorta don't think my father wanted me to be his son.
I initially googled this review because I saw a really bad play last week in LA and I was going to write about that. But now I've arrived at another point.
Do I regret doing this play?
I learned a number of things: how I could find purpose in a really bad script, how to show up for something I found difficult to embrace, how to deal with a writer/director who laughed at all his jokes.
But most of all, I learned how to choose a project carefully, and to protect my inner artist. The stage is sacred, and when we encounter people who write and produce work that doesn't have the right intentions behind it, when it can't speak to an audience, then we, as actors, are vain for choosing to participate in the telling of that story.
There's a lot of theater out there that isn't doing what it should for audiences. It's therefore the responsibility of actors and audiences alike to hold a high standard, because we need the theater to last. And to last, it has to be good.
Apr 19, 2011
This morning I walked my lovable dog Maggie.
Towards the end of our journey, Maggie took a poop. Now I had not expected this. I had thought she had pooped in the yard earlier, and I did not have a bag to clean it up. So I walked across the street found a plastic bag protruding from a garbage can, went back across street, cleaned it up and threw it away.
As I walked off, I heard a woman say "Did your dog just poop?"
I said yes.
"Aren't you going to clean it up?"
"I'm sorry?" I said.
The woman pointed to two overturned plastic silverware containers the pavenment shielding two pieces of poop from an unsuspecting foot. Sort of ghetto poop genius.
"That's not my poop. Or my dog's poop."
"Whatever," she shrugged.
" My dog pooped across the street and I put in in this garbage can. You don't believe me? "
The woman shrugs again and rolls her eyes, I felt like I was being racially profiled, for my pitbull and my American Apparel sweatshirt. The lovely lady then gets in her Prius with her daughter and sits with the motor running, probably giving her a daughter a lesson in how not to trust the world. I stood over the aforementioned poop and wondered what the right thing to do would be.
I thought about the Rabbi from my Passover seder the night before. A pious man with seven children. Would he clean up the poop? Would community goodwill override individual accountability? Or would he defend his honor and walk away?
After about two minutes of this little standoff, Ms Sassy reversed her Prius to where I was standing glared at me, then mustered the courage put the car in drive. I watched her turn a corner, and once I was out of her sight, I knelt down and cleaned up someone else's poop from the sidewalk.
I look forward to seeing her again.
Now clean up your poop!
Apr 11, 2011
This weekend was a breath of fresh air.
I had expectations leading up to it. Had planned to go to San Francisco but didn't.
I find out a good old friend is in town. We have a barbeque, build a fire.
I went to the GOOD Magazine in LA event, which showcased sustainable development and how to make LA a more community orientated, environmentally friendly city. My friend Alex built a remote control which she could use to turn off all televisions.
On Sunday, my friends Josh, Molly and I biked to Pasadena. Had amazing coffee at my new church of choice, the Intelligentsia on Colorado Avenue.
Last night, I went to the first birthday party of a theater company started by a group of old Actor's Gang friends called L'Enfant Terrible. (www.lenfantterrible.org.) It's a wonderfully innovative group (they put a colorful spin on the classics/Shakespeare). They are a great addition to the Los Angeles theater scene. They had a first birthday party, and the spirit and support of friends was paramount. As their company is in its infancy, it felt important that they know that they are backed by a community, because producing theater is hard and can certainly be unforgiving. That said, we who love it undestand that it's an art valuable enough to sustain it, so we put our heads down and make it.
Your life is what you build. This town can be so alienating, And when you embrace the streets you drive on, the people you pass, and the air you breath as your own, you find a little peace and joy. Now how to sustain these feelings?
Apr 5, 2011
Had my first Shakespeare class earlier this week.
I had an aire of skepticism going in. Will the teacher be good? Will the other students be good? Do I need to be working on Shakespeare right now?
I realized that Hollywood was deep in my veins. And acting (and Shakespeare) was far from it.
But sitting down in the dark of the theater I was instantly recharged.
Here was none of the "Guest Star, Co-star" talk of a casting director workshop or the need to prove yourself to a director.
This was about the word of the Bard, and how you freely you embrace his characters with your instrument. I felt like I could have been sitting some rec room in the Catskills in New York.
Looking around, each intern had the Compete Works of William Shakespeare in tow and was encouraged to follow along. Their enthusiasm reminded me of my first days at the School at Steppenwolf, hungry and excited for the wondrous possibilities of the stage.
For the first class on Monday, we all did monologues.
I performed my Trinculo piece (featured in my last blog entry). Our brilliant teacher, a woman with a long history of performing Shakespeare was dead-on in her analysis. She saw clearly where each performer was doing well, and where they could expand and explore. But to do so you needed to be comfortable in the language. It was truly about exploration. She watched my Trinculo and encouraged me to simply find the moments, and that most importantly, Shakespeare is about making discoveries. Anytime you ask a question, you are really asking that question. What you already know is so much less interesting that what you are discovering in that moment.
I was reminded of when I learned this lesson, that learning things as the character in the moment was so much more effective than explaining something that you already knew to the audience.
I saw a great production of Take Me Out by the About Face Theater in Chicago some years ago. Tom Aulino, a New York actor who played Mason, had a monologue where discovers that baseball is the perfect metaphor for democracy in America. "All those threes or multiples of three..." I was transfixed by how, with each discovery, he got more excited. Opening the door to his emotions enabled the audience to share in his excitement.
Shakespeare's language can be daunting on first approach. But when it's all broken down and deeply felt, it's boundless.
Well that's all I have for today.
Gonna hit the tennis courts.
Mar 30, 2011
Hello and welcome to my blog. So nice to have you here. Come in, sit down, have a hot toddy, rest yourself the polar bear skin rug, and we'll regale old sea stories. Are you enjoying yourself yet?
I've thought about starting a blog at various points over the years, and for some reason, now is the time.
I joked years ago (with my very funny Chicago friend Jenny McClory) about starting a blog called It's About You. The joke being, that people seem to create blogs about themselves. And we would turn that on it's head.
Well I guess that gets to the heart of why I'm blogging now. As an artist, there's a lot to report and share both from the internet and the world. It thus became apparent to John Pick a blog might be a good place to share nuggets of goodness.
I've been struggling a bit lately with falling back in love with acting. A couple of situations have left me jaded and confused. I should know, by now, that when things like that happen, it's best to get back in the gym, to stay on top of the craft.
So today, I signed up for a Shakespeare class. What's better than to stay in love with acting than Shakespeare.
I have a couple of Shakespeare monologues that I love to perform. Young Clifford from King Henry VI, Part III and Trinculo from the Tempest. Trinculo is one that I partiuclarly love.
Trinculo, a drunkard, is lost on the island, where Prospero presides. A terrible storm, a tempest, has come again, and Trinculo "does not know where to lay his head." As the storm arrives again, he discoveres a "fish-like" creature (Caliban) underneath a gaberdine. His only choice is to crawl beneath and lay his head for the night, which he does. At the end of this monologue, the actor has the pleasure of reciting one of Shakespeare's famous lines. "Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows."
I've been working with a lot of image work, and somewhere along the line, the image that I conjured up for the Trinculo's terror and fear and hope for shelter and safety was imagining that Trinculo has walked out, alone, on the platform where Barack Obama is to be inaugurated. It seems to be sunrise in Washington on January 20th, and the steps of the Capitol are empty, and the marble is white and cold and visible. The place will shortly be filled with throngs of revelers, all searching for the hope and change the man has promised. And this promise, if you really think about it, is so incredibly daunting. Thus the prospect of safety from the storm that Trinculo so desperately desires is dwarfed by the reality of the damage that the storm (or the Bush administration or simply the global craziness) has and will cause. The question of healing, of safety, of goodness, is one that Trinculo asks to the gathering storm and it is no wonder that his "best way is to creep under this gaberdine here." Looking up to this storm ("alas the storm" has come again), I imagine the face of Dick Cheney sitting in a dark thundercloud, ready to ruin the promise of Obama's morning.
This sort of substitition makes the whole thing real and true and visceral. It makes all the little moments specific.
Why am I writing about this? In any creative darkness, the answer is always to touch the sword to the stone, and this monologue is one that helps me get to the joy and purpose of acting. Dont'cha know?
Well thanks so much for reading and again soon.
Mar 29, 2011
These are the best English Muffins on the planet. They are from Le Grande Orange in Santa Monica. Go there, and eat them. Perhaps you will have a breakfast sandwhich. That's me in a green shirt.