Posts Tagged ‘Postville’
Each time I finish a play, especially a full length one, I become more or less catatonic. I can’t bear even the thought of writing anything else; a state that lasts for anywhere from two to four months.
Then, one day, I realize that I’m seeing things, and starting to get annoyed. Not that I’m not annoyed a good deal of the time every day. It’s just that now, I find I’m getting annoyed and wanting to tell people about it. And that’s when I know I’m ready to write again.
I finished the script of “Getting Betta” in mid February. Fortunately, in this case my catatonia (sounds like a province in northern Spain, doesn’t it?) corresponded with 2 productions of Shakespeare Incorporated, one of Postville, and a gig of Senior Moments. So at least I appeared to have an excuse for not being productive.
But this past weekend I went to see 3 plays. One of them had gotten a great review in a local newspaper, and another had been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Frankly, the only one I thought was a particularly good script was the third one, which was presented by a group of recent CU grads I’d taken classes with over the past several years.
But the thing that got me going was the fact that all 3 plays used the same dramatic device — the characters taking turns stepping out of the action of the play and addressing the audience. I think that device was wonderful for the Stage Manager in Our Town, but that was 80 years ago. Has it become the hallmark for every worthy contemporary piece of drama?
While I was taking a walk this morning, I started thinking about that and all the other things that annoy me about the playwriting business. And Whammo!, a play emerged. (Actually, it happens in the other direction first, so I guess it “inmerged”.) The working title for the play is “Catharsis,” and it’s about overuse of hackneyed dramatic devices, people who tell you how to rewrite your plays, writing to formulae for commercial success, not being recognized for your true genius, …. You get the idea.
“Catharsis” is going to be no more than 10 pages, so it should be finished in a couple of days.
Watch out, world. I’m annoyed and ready to write!
Last night we had the 6th of 8 performances of Taste of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. (I’m in a Renaissance quintet that we formed to sing before and during the play.)
Merchant of Venice has sometimes been tough to swallow. It’s a great play, but it’s deeply anti-Semitic. While it’s probable that Shakespeare didn’t have anything personal against Jews — they were expelled from England in 1290 and weren’t officially allowed back in until 1655 — anti-Semitism remained widespread in Britain. As well read as Shakespeare was, he would have been exposed to it in literature and come to regard it as accepted wisdom. The play reflects that fact.
Nonetheless, we’ve gotten through 6 performances of Merchant of Venice so far without any picketing. It is Shakespeare, after all, so people make allowances.
When I started talking about writing a play about the events in Postville, my family and friends pleaded with me not to.
“There’s no way you’re going to be able to write this play without it being anti-Semitic,” they told me.
“Sure there is,” I responded, although I have to admit that at the time I wasn’t quite convinced. Unless the play was going to be too sticky-sweet to say anything, it was going to have to tread through a host of “ism” minefields — anti-Semitism, anti-immigrantism, anti-Midwest farmerism, …
I’m convinced that I’ve achieved the objective of writing a play that deals sensitively and appropriately with a number of difficult issues. But each time there’s a public reading — this past week were the second and third — I’m concerned that I’m going to get the crap kicked out of me by people who hear individual sentences but miss the point.
“You said that Jews are cheap!” Kaboom!
“You showed a Hispanic immigrant who couldn’t speak English well!” Crash!
Some of that happened in Des Moines in March, but I knew it would. (See Write Your Own Damn Play.)
There was only one instance of it this week. And that was a woman who beat me up for not following up in the play on the otherwise un-referred-to occupants of a bus that gets clobbered by a train. Anti-innocent-bystanderism? (Come on, Lady, even Tolstoy when he was writing War and Peace had to make choices about what to include and what to leave out!)
I’m hugely relieved, but I’ll continue to worry about people who are so burned by their hot buttons that they can’t or won’t see things in context.
So here’s my plea. Just treat me with the same consideration you’d give Shakespeare. That wouldn’t be so hard, would it?
I heard yesterday that my “Postville” play was selected as one of the winners in the 2009 Playwrights Showcase of the Western Region playwrighting competition. The competition was open to writers from the 23 states west of the Mississippi River. During the Showcase (some time from August 5th – 8th), “Postville” will have a staged reading at the Curious Theatre in Denver.
The award is certainly comforting after the flagellation I got from the activists and superannuated playwriting professors at the reading at StageWest in Des Moines. From the audience reaction I knew the play was better than that, but it’s still nice to get some recognition like this.
The other good news is that “Shakespeare Incorporated” is going to be produced in London, either this Autumn or early next Spring.
Last summer, when “(Not) At Home” was being produced at the Boulder International Fringe Festival, the Fringe folks contacted me to ask if I’d be willing to house some out-of-town artists. I looked at the list and noticed that some of them were from the U.K. Maybe I’ll make a contact that will help in marketing my work in the U.K, I thought. So I agreed to house a Brit.
Sure enough, I made contact with Andy McQuade, a wonderful actor and the Artistic Director of the Second Skin Theatre Company in London. I gave him a copy of “Shakespeare Incorporated,” and he loved it. About 6 weeks ago he contacted me, and we’ve signed a deal for him to produce “SI” in London. He’s looking for a suitable theater venue now. I’ll post more when things are finalized.
Don’t you love it when a plan comes together?
In case you didn’t recognize it, this is my happy face.
It’s been a mighty busy week in the great scheme of play marketing.
Last Monday I flew to Omaha and then rented a car and drove to Des Moines for a public reading of “Postville” at StageWest. (“Postville” is my play about the group of Hasidic Jews who bought a defunct meatpacking plant in a struggling, northeast Iowa town and reopened it as a kosher facility. Click here for the synopsis.) There was a rehearsal on Monday night and then the reading was Tuesday night. There were over 100 people at the reading, which is about three times the turnout that they normally get for this kind of thing. Given the media attention the play has gotten, that wasn’t surprising.
The reading went better than I had hoped for — people laughed at the right times, they oohed and aahed at the right times, they even wiped their eyes and sniffled at the right times. Wait! Maybe that was me wiping and sniffling. But the laughing and oohing and aahing is the gospel truth.
Everybody seemed engrossed in the play from the first page through the end, an hour and forty intermission-free minutes later. No shuffling in seats, no checking of watches or talking among themselves, and only two people running out to the rest room. And when it was over, there was sustained, enthusiastic applause. I’ve been around theater enough to know the difference between polite, “Let’s get out of here, but not embarrass the cast” applause, and “This was really pretty good” applause. This was the latter.
Next there was a 5 minute potty break. Most of the audience then left, but about 30 people returned for a talk-back session.
The events in Postville (see the article on the play in the Iowa Independent or the Des Moines Register for some of the background) have been in the news in Iowa on a daily basis for the past year, and it has all been incredibly traumatic and emotional for the people of Iowa. Was the owner of the plant guilty of immigration and human-rights violations? Or was the whole thing being blown out of proportion by the media because he is a member of a Jewish religious sect? Did the immigration agents abuse the rights of the illegal immigrants? There are dozens of issues here.
Given the level of attention and emotion, I knew that many Iowans were going to have very strong prejudices about what should be the focus of the play, what should be included and excluded, and even whether it should have been written at all. So I was expecting to get beaten up by at least some of the people who remained for the talk-back session. And I was.
Three groups emerged from those who stayed. Five or six people were what I’ll call activists. They came with an axe to grind, and they were going to grind it. How dare I write a fictional play (the play has been marketed as a fictional account, inspired by the events in Postville) and use the name of the town? I should either write a documentary, 100% factual, or else I should move the setting of the play somewhere else, change the Hasidim to some other group (Amish?), and make it otherwise unrecognizable. Some people insisted I should make it more clear that the owner of the plant was criminally guilty. Others insisted that I should make him completely innocent.
You get the idea. Nobody likes to talk more or louder than a social activist with an audience. These 5 or 6 people each had vastly differing opinions, each insisted that I HAD TO change the play as he or her wanted it changed. Between them they monopolized most of the conversation.
The second group was made up of three older college playwriting professors. Someone who has taught playwriting for 40 years gets used to looking for problems and telling their students how to fix them. And the students have to listen to them. So off we went to the races with the professors being professorial, recommending changes that ranged from throwing out 80% of the play to throwing out 120% of the play and starting over. My favorite suggestion from this group was that the play shouldn’t have 11 characters and take place in and around the main street of the town of Postville, it should have 2 characters and all take place in the living room of one of the Hasidic Jews. In Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Thanks a lot. Very helpful.
The third group was made up of normal theater-goers, a few of whom said nice things about the play, but most of whom sat in shocked silence while the activists eviscerated me and the playwriting professors eviscerated my play.
Later, the people from StageWest and several of the readers told me that they couldn’t believe with how much aplomb I had sat and absorbed the abuse. One of them said to me, “But I guess you’ve been to this sort of rodeo before.” Amen to that, sister. It takes a thick skin to be a playwright!
By the way, the feedback from the cast and the artistic management of StageWest is that “Postville” is a good play, which may need some tweaking but certainly doesn’t need to be gutted before moving on to production. (Thank you to Ron, Ron, Todd, and the cast for your hard work. You did a great job.)
The next day I drove to Postville and met with several people, including the rabbi of the town’s Hasidic community and the man who had been the mayor during and after the raids. Overall, I felt I got a mandate to go ahead with the play basically as is, and to leave it referring to Postville. Several of the people I talked to said that it may even do the town some good. And the ex-mayor suggested that I submit “Postville” to nearby Luther College to see if they would be interested in producing it.
The next step is a reading of “Postville” at the Theater Company of Lafayette (Colorado) in September, and a production at their Mary Miller Theater next February.
Take that, bleeding heart activists! And for everyone who told me what I HAVE TO DO to rewrite most or all of the script, write your own damn play.
I’ve written before in my blog about how Boulder is one of the world centers of new-age sensitivity and touchy-feelihood and the fact that I frequently get into hot water here. Well, I think I may have really put my foot in it this time.
Last Wednesday I had a reading of the first draft of my “Postville” play at a little playwrights’ self-help group that I’ve been helping to start up in Boulder. Boy, was that a bad idea. I guess I should have realized that I wasn’t going to fit into this new group when, at the organizational meeting, a large part of the discussion by the other attendees was about how sensitive and caring they all were.
“I’m just so concerned about the injustice in the world I could cry.”
“I’m twice as concerned as you are, and I’m in touch with my inner-self and the cosmos as well.”
“How could you even think that you are as concerned and active as I am? I keep my thermostat at 46 degrees all winter and eat only things which have fallen off of trees, and my carbon-use footprint is lower than that of a Kalahari bushman.”
OK, that’s not an exact transcript of the discussion, but believe me, it gives you the general idea.
At the reading of my play there were 10 people, 3 of whom had been to at least one of the meetings before, 6 acquaintances of mine that I had invited to listen to the play, and me.
There had been some talk at the organizational session about doing a short writing exercise at the beginnings of the meetings, but I had asked the regular members to skip it this time because there were so many outsiders and because reading my play was going to take over 2 hours. No, they were going to do it anyway.
So the facilitator had us spend 5 minutes (it seemed like hours) with our eyes closed, breathing meaningfully into various parts of our bodies.
“Breathe into your toes. Breathe into your feet. Breathe into your thyamus glands.”
Then we were allowed to open our eyes and were instructed to write whatever came into our minds, without letting our “inner editors” interfere. I’ve heard from several of my friends who were there that they were absolutely appalled at being invited in under false pretenses and forced to participate in a sensitivity ritual like that. I agreed with them and could only apologize.
What is it with so many touchy-feelyers that they are so oblivious to the fact that others may not be interested in being subjected interminably to rituals like that? It’s like being accosted by a religious fanatic who harangues you interminably and won’t take no for an answer.
And even worse with the “sensitive and concerned” of the world is that so many of them are bullies! If you don’t believe as they believe, and do exactly as they do, you are clearly an inferior human being and you deserve to be tied to a stake in blazing sun on an anthill. Or at least ostracized until you publicly admit the error of your ways and demonstrate that you have reformed.
I’ve let the other members of the playwriting club know just what I thought of what went on. I don’t think they’re going to invite me back any time soon. That’s just as well, because they’ve managed to get my entry visa into the People’s Republic of Boulder rescinded.
An article on my Postville play was published this morning in the Des Moines Register. Click HERE to read the article. And In case you haven’t taken a look at my blog about the play, see “They’re Hijacking My Play.”
Some people have objected in online comments to the Register article that all the press coverage of the Postville raids mentions the fact that the owners and managers of the plant are Jewish. The comments point out that when other companies have problems, the religion of their managers is not mentioned.
That was a big concern of mine when I decided to write the play. Friends and family all warned me that I wasn’t going to be able to write a play about the events in Postville without it appearing to be anti-Semitic. I assured them that as a playwright writing a fictionalized account, I’d have the freedom to write the play to make exactly the opposite point. In catastrophic situations there will often be people looking for villains, but in many cases the accusations are unfounded.
The issues I deal with in the play revolve around the groups being different and how they deal with that. The conflict and action of the play would be similar whether the groups were Jewish, Christian, Latino, or Martian. The fact that one of the groups was Hasidic Jews simply provided an opportunity to examine the issues in extreme and often humorous situations.
Whether I succeed in the task I’ve set out for myself remains to be seen.
Last week’s The Iowa Independent and The Colorado Independent each published feature articles on my Postville play. See my post on “They’re Hijacking My Play,” and click on the newspaper names above to see the articles.
Grant Schulte, a reporter from The Des Moines Register saw The Iowa Independent article and interviewed me over the phone today for an hour. His article will be published in this Saturday’s Register.
About 5 years ago, when I was still living and working in Europe, I was spending a lot of time working in Zurich. One night I was having trouble sleeping, and I turned on the radio in the hotel room to the BBC. A piece came on about Postville, an isolated small town in northeastern Iowa. In the late 1980s, Postville, like many small Midwestern towns, was having trouble. The local meatpacking plant had closed down a few years before, all the young people were moving away to Chicago and Minneapolis, and in 10 or 15 years, the town would be out of business. Which really upset the locals, many of whose families had been in Postville since its founding in the 1850s.
Then, one day in 1987, an entrepreneur showed up and purchased the plant with the intention of reopening it. The townspeople were delighted. There would be jobs and economic development, and Postville would be saved from extinction.
Except that the entrepreneur was a Hasidic Jew from the Lubavitch sect in Brooklyn, and the plant would be a kosher one. Kosher meatpacking plants are not your typical “outsourcing” venture. A large percentage of the work must be done by specially trained, orthodox Jews.
So in moved 30 orthodox rabbis and their (large) families. Still wonderful, thought the locals. This is America, it’s the melting pot. We’ll accept and absorb anyone. And the townspeople, being the welcoming folk that they were, formed a welcoming committee to help the Hasidim adopt to life in rural Iowa. There would be a “buddy system” matching the Hasidic children with local children at the local schools. There would be dances for the older youth. And the Hasidic women would be invited to come help out preparing for the Postville Christmas Bazaar. But first, the townspeople and the Hasidim would get together for a spare rib barbecue picnic! (As my old Haverford College classmate Dave Barry frequently says in his syndicated newspaper column, “I am not making this up.”)
The Hasidim immediately let the locals know that they had no intention of being absorbed. Their children wouldn’t be going to the local schools; their sons wouldn’t be dating the townspeople’s daughters, and their daughters wouldn’t be dating the townspeople’s sons; and the Hasidic women wouldn’t be working for the Christmas Bazaar. And not only weren’t they going to eat spare-ribs, they weren’t going to eat anything that they hadn’t prepared themselves. Ever.
The townspeople were, of course, profoundly offended and an epic culture clash ensued. But economic salvation is economic salvation, and both sides determined to make the best of it. The next thing that happened, however, is that meatpacking plants have a lot of low-paying, dirty, dangerous jobs that neither the Hasidim nor the locals were willing to do. So in came a large number of immigrant workers from Eastern Europe and Latin America. And Postville, a town of 1,500 people which had never knowingly seen a Jew or a black in person before (of course they’d seen them on TV and the movies, just not in person), suddenly had a population of 1/3 people of color and culture.
Even though I had not yet started my writing career, I recognized this as a story of great dramatic potential, and I wrote it down in my “Ideas File.” A year and a half after I retired, after I’d completed and had some success with my first two full-length plays, I contacted Stephen Bloom, who had written a book entitled “Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America.” Bloom was the one I’d heard being interviewed on the BBC program. We negotiated and signed a contract for me to purchase the theatrical rights to the book, and I set about writing a play “inspired” by the events in Postville.
But in May, 2008, there was an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid on the Postville plant. The raid uncovered a large number of illegal immigrants, some underage workers, and various other labor infractions. While I had heard rumors about this sort of thing before I started outlining the play, I had decided that the themes for the play would be completely different.
- Change is inevitable. It’s not as though the alternative is living eternally in the 1950s and being happy and prosperous forever.
- Change hurts, and when people are hurt they often react in inappropriate ways.
- The American melting pot model is no longer universally applicable. Not everyone wants or needs to assimilate and disappear into the American “mocha mix.”
- Somehow, people will reach a new working arrangement and learn to live together.
I had consciously chosen to ignore the raid and its aftermath – fines, arrests, the meatpacking company going into receivership, general uproar. But in the 8 months since the raid, there has been ongoing news coverage, and I was becoming increasingly concerned that my play was being hijacked. People would expect to see the raid and its implications addressed.
Then, last week, I came up with a way to incorporate the events but not turn the message of my play on its head. Some unhappy locals would have instigated the raid by tipping off the government. When the raid comes and the plant closes they, along with everyone else, realize that an uncomfortable truce was greatly preferable to extinction. The plant re-opens, and life goes on at a new level of compromise.
I had a reading of the first half of the play last night, and I think it’s going to work. Wish me luck, and watch out for “Postville,” which I hope to complete in the next 3 or 4 months.