Don Fried — Playwright & Author

Archive for the ‘Musings of a Crusty Old Fart’ Category

Joe BtfsplkI bring rain, and I always have.

I’m like Joe Btfsplk, the jinx in the old comic strip “Lil Abner,” who walked around with the rain cloud perpetually over his head.

The year I lived in Germany in the 1970s had 350 days of measurable precipitation. When I moved to San Francisco, Northern California was in the depths of a 5 year drought. It started raining a few days later, and did so for the next 9 months. When I walked end-to-end across Britain in the 2000s, it was the 2nd wettest July in the island’s history. (And that’s no mean feat!)

You’d think I’d learn, but 3 years after the end-to-end walk, I trekked for 2 months through the Alps. It was the wettest summer in the region’s history. (The hotel owners in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland, offered to take up a collection and give me the money if I’d agree to leave.)

The day before yesterday, I flew into Southern California, where I’ll be staying for 2 months on theater and film business. Have you seen the reports of the torrential rains that hit the area yesterday?

My mother, on other hand, brings sunshine and always has. But that’s another story.

We’re available for hire to help with your rain-making and rain-stopping meteorological needs. Separately is strongly recommended. Otherwise, the two weather phenomena compete, and you’re liable to end up with a tornado in your living room.

It wasn’t one of the reasons I subscribed to TIVO, but I always thought it was an interesting feature that it would monitor my TV-watching habits and automatically record shows similar to those I watch.

At first, of course, I would program the box to record things I thought would impress it —  the grand production of Aida from Cairo, PBS specials on the plight of the Brazilian rain forest, that sort of thing — even though I had no intention of ever watching them.  Eventually, though, I reverted to my preferred diet of old movies on TCM with an occasional UT Longhorns football game thrown in for variety.

But TIVO is constantly trying to dumb me down.  It records dozens of moronic reality shows about New Jersey divorcees and people in jail for driving without licenses.  Last night, I delete nine, count-em, nine Universal Fighting Championship shows!  Japanese anime cartoons for 5 year olds?  I’ve got them by the dozen.  Spanish language soap operas?  How in heaven’s name did TIVO conclude that I would be interested in them?

The worst part is that, unless I specify “Keep until I delete” for everything I intentionally record, TIVO will delete it to record 50 Most Embarrassing TV Moments.  Give me a break, TIVO, and stop trying to turn my brain into porridge.

To be fair, though, TIVO does occasionally blunder on something worthwhile.  I mean, how else would I have chanced on the special on Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue?

A couple of weeks ago I crossed an important barrier.  Some time during my working career – I think it was about 1980 — I realized that I was getting a sick feeling in my stomach every time the phone would ring or my boss would call me into his office.  It was almost always bad news.  I’d done something wrong, or somebody else had done something wrong, or something bad had happened without anyone in particular being at fault.  But it usually meant that I’d have to work through the night and, more often than not, it signified that whatever I was involved with was in the process of going down the tubes.

Hope may spring eternal in the human breast, but by the time I retired, it no longer did in mine.  Which was just as well, because when I started writing, the trend continued.  Nobody was interested in my work, and most letters, emails and phone calls were to inform me that another one of my plays had been rejected.

Not that this was all bad.  Viewing the world through mud-colored glasses is a good thing for a playwright.  Being a curmudgeon makes for drama, and drama makes for – well – drama.

But then one morning about two weeks ago, the phone rang and I realized as I went to pick it up that I was saying to myself, “Maybe it’s someone who wants to produce Senior Moments.  And it was!  Good things had started happening often enough that, without realizing it, I’d crossed over from the Vale of Pessimism to the Hills of Positivity.  That was a good thing, right?

Not quite.  Crusty Old Fart-hood dies hard.  My first reaction was to bemoan the loss of one of the driving forces of my artistic inspiration.  If I’m not constantly pissed off at the world and everything in it, how am I going to come up with ideas for plays in which pissed off people overcome their problems.

Well, I needn’t have worried.  I’m in London at the moment for the opening of rehearsals for a production of Shakespeare Incorporated.  As soon as the plane from Denver took off, the woman in front of me put her seat back in my lap and stayed there for the next 9 hours.  Sweet!  At Heathrow, we landed at the brand new Terminal 5.  Rather than being an improvement on the abysmal Terminals 1 – 4, it’s even worse.  Delightful!  I got onto the Tube to go downtown; we went 5 stations and the train stopped.  After a few minutes, the driver came on and announced that a train following us was delayed, so in order not to have too much of a gap between trains, they were going to have all trains on the line sit in their stations until the faulty train was running again.  Wonderful!

And so it has gone for the past 3 days.  The weather is typical London grotty.   The air bed I was sleeping on in my director’s flat has popped half its seams, so the bed lies at a 30 degree angle,  and so did I all night.  The 5 year old son of the couple I stayed with last night decided that the world would be better if he head-butted me repeatedly in the groin.  Could life possibly get any better?

So I needn’t have worried about losing my inspiration for a world in which things are constantly annoying and going wrong.  I’m so relieved!

According to Hollywood folklore, the words in the title of this post are what a studio functionary is supposed to have written about Fred Astaire’s screen test for RKO Pictures in the early 1930s.

That quotation comes more and more to mind as Shakespeare Incorporated and several of my other plays begin having some success.  Each of these plays was  rejected — occasionally quite rudely — by quite a number of the theaters and contests to which I submitted them.  I’m also reminded of another Hollywood executive who had an option on the screenplay for ET and sold it to Steven Spielberg.  And of the guy from Decca Records who turned down the Beatles.

OK, so I may not be in the Beatles’ class in terms of recognition any time soon, and Shakespeare Incorporated may never rival ET for commercial success.   But  just in case, I’ve decided to follow the lead of the Lord High Executioner in The Mikado, and I’m compiling a little list (they’d none of them be missed).   If Shakespeare Incorporated ever wins a Tony or a Pulitzer, I’ll be ready to look up each and every person who rejected the play and make them eat their words.  Preferably, I’ll force them to ingest the rejection letters they sent me.   (If they ignored me and didn’t even have the decency to send a rejection letter, I’ve saved up some old scripts that should be particularly appetizing.)

Yes, I do take all this very personally.  But hey, I’m a crusty old fart; that’s my job.

I know it’s not the Boulder way.  Instead of being bitter and twisted and savoring thoughts of revenge, I should be grateful for whatever success I achieve, and we should all hold hands and hum and frolic semi-naked in the snow of a Colorado January.  Screw that!  You must be mistaking me with someone else.

Those of you in Boulder, don’t expect to see me any time soon.  No doubt when this post becomes public, they’ll rescind my visa to the People’s Republic.  Again.

Well, this past Monday was April 20th.  That may not be significant to those of you who don’t live in the Boulder area, but 4/20 at 4:20 p.m. is the traditional Smoke Out on the University of Colorado campus.  And what that means is that somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 people show up to smoke the evil weed.  (Ostensibly to lobby for a change in marijuana laws.  Yeah, right!).

boulder-smoke-outOver the past several years the University administration and the police have tried a number of creative means of discouraging the festivities.  These have included blocking off the entrances to the chosen location and turning on the sprinklers.  Last year they filmed the crowd, posted photos on the Internet, and offered a reward for anyone who would identify a “perpetrator.”

In the run-up to this year, the administration simply asked students and the public nicely to stay home.  That didn’t work any better than previous years’ strategies had.

I had a meeting in the front lobby of the University Theater building at 5 p.m. on Monday, and as I approached the area where on-street parking is usually plentiful, I realized that Monday wasn’t a usual day.  20 minutes of searching and about a mile and a half further, I found a place to park and walked back to the campus.  I haven’t seen crowds like that — both in terms of numbers or appearance — since Woodstock.  (Which, by the way, I got within 14 miles of and then said “Screw it” and left.)

Immediately after the end of my run as Darwin in “The Debate” I shaved my beard and got a hair cut.  So instead of looking like a sympathetic and possibly participating overaged hippie, I look like an overaged suburban voyeur.

As luck would have it, the center of the Smoke Out was in Norlin Quad, right in front of the University Theater.  Talk about a contact high!  From a quarter of a mile away the smell was noticeable — not that I would recognize what MJ smells like, you understand.  From 200 yards away, the clouds were visible.

boulder-smoke-out-2I’m afraid I don’t remember much about the meeting.  I do remember being terribly hungry and going out for pizza afterward.

What was I writing about?

When I was still working for a living, I was on the road pretty much Monday through Friday, 40 or more weeks a year.  My job was selling large, multi-national Information Technology Services outsourcing deals,  usually in the $500 million and up value range, and sometimes in the multiple billions of dollars.

Deals like those are not high percentage wins; you win about one in 10, and you work on each deal for an average of  about 18 months.  Do the math.  10% hit rate; 18 months work on each.  Yeah, you’re getting the idea.  (Maybe others are better at it, but that was it for me.)  Because of the size of the deals — one of the deals I worked on that closed was worth $20 billion — the company could afford to keep me around and well paid in between wins.

But that didn’t mean that there was much job satisfaction in working my ass off and constantly getting my hopes up, and then losing one deal after another  Take my word for it, it wasn’t a lot of fun.  And even in the incredibly rare cases where I worked on deals that won, there was always someone else who would manage to make sure that I had moved onto another deal months before and would steal the credit.

Which brings us to today’s really sad story.

One evening when Rhonda, Eric, David and I were still living in England, the four of us sat down to the all-too-infrequent event of eating dinner together.  (I think it was some time around 1994.)  We had a dog at the time, and the dog was in the habit of doing in the back yard what  dogs do in back yards.

“Someone’s got to go out and clean up Sheba’s poop from the back yard,” I announced.dog-pooping1

“Ooh, I hate that job, I hate that job,” shouted David and Eric in chorus.  (Rhonda remained silent, since she was generally exempted from poop-cleaning duties.)

“Really?” I responded.  “I kind of like it.”

The three of them looked at me like I had two heads.  It got me to thinking.  Why would anybody like that job?

And I realized.  I would go out into the back yard with a shovel in one hand and a plastic bag in the other.  The plastic bag was empty and the yard was full.  15 minutes later, the yard was empty and the plastic bag was full.  I’d actually accomplished something! And nobody was going to steal the credit from me.

That was as close as I came to job satisfaction for 30 years.  And that was when it occurred to me that I really needed to get a life. It took me another 12 years to get it.

I told you it was a sad story.

hasidic-jewsIt’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.

turtlesThis morning there was quite a nice little piece in the Boulder Camera about all my theater activities and the book launch and reading coming up next Sunday for “Ups & Downs: The (Mis)Adventures of a Crusty Old Fart and His Bouncy Son as they Trek Through the Alps.”

Good news, right?  But half-way into the piece, it says, “He’s also involved in Rising Stage, a local troupe devoted to new plays.”  Which was true the last time I spoke to the columnist, but since my acrimonious break-up with the Boulder Chapter of Colorado Dramatists is no longer the case.

Now I’m sitting here absolutely certain that my former colleagues at Rising Stage have already convened a meeting and (having finally stopped holding hands and humming and opened their eyes — and in the few minutes they can spare not talking about what a big, cruel world it is and how much they’re going to do to save it, very little of which they actually do)  are talking about how I intentionally falsified the truth in my mania for self-aggrandizement and what an asshole I am!

I’m bracing for a scathing email to come winging over the wires any minute.  I’ll reply and explain what happened, but it won’t do any good.  Once you reject the true touchy-feeliness, you will be consummately evil.  In fact, you will always have been consummately evil, no matter how long before the breakup you had a cordial relationship.

Am I being paranoid?  Of course.  But it’s not like it’s not justified.  And it’s not like it’s something I can stop.  When will I ever stop agonizing about the fact that not everyone is going to love me?  Probably never.

I’m resolved to the fact that there will always be an ample supply of people who are angry at me.  Because the one thing I will never do is to stop sticking my turtle-head out of its shell and making progress.  And seeing my little turtle backside in front of them is one thing that a lot of turtles in the world just can’t stand.

500-pound-gorilla3When I was a kid, I was so focused on what I was doing and what I wanted, that I tended to ignore everyone who I didn’t think would be of immediate use to me. All too frequently, that resulted in my footprints being on people’s foreheads. Yeah, I was a self-centered jerk!

Now I spend a lot more time trying to be nice – or at least helpful – to everyone. Mind you, I’m still not what most Boulderites would define as a nice (read “enlightened”) person. I’m not nearly enthusiastic enough holding hands and singing Kumbaya for that. It’s just that the older I get, the more evidence I see that “What goes around comes around.”

Don’t get the idea that I believe in divine justice, either. But if there are lots of people who “owe you one” then sooner or later, some of it is going to be repaid. And since it’s a mighty complex world out there, you never know who it is who can do something nice for you, so you’d better be nice to everyone.

And the converse is true. If you are an asshole to enough people, it’s bound to come back to haunt you. (See my gloating post, “May they all get halitosis . . .”)

What brings this to mind today is a column by John Moore, the theater columnist of the Denver Post. He came to see Friday night’s performance of “Separated at Birth: The Lincoln/Darwin Plays. (My play, “The Debate” is one of the works in “Separated at Birth” and I’m acting the part of Darwin in it.) I’d expected to see a review of the plays in the Sunday paper, but instead there was a piece about the fact that at the recent Colorado New Play Summit, a panel of theater leaders from throughout the U.S. had spoken with such delight about the impending fall from power of theater critics in traditional print news media. (“Death of Criticism: Careful What You Wish For”)  Moore calls it “grave-stomping,” and part of the piece details the many benefits that critics provide the theater community.

I tend do agree with him, but I can certainly understand the reaction of the panelists. Theater critics are renowned for being frequently brutal in their reviews of plays and the people who create them. Either they have had so little regard for those people that they just don’t care, or they thought that this is the way to sell more newspapers and magazines. Probably both.

Contrast this with a critic who has reviewed several of my plays (to avoid being accused of pandering, I won’t mention his name). That critic always manages to be gently even-handed in his reviews, pointing out the good along with the bad. The audience gets the idea, but even when a review of my play was less than glowing, I couldn’t help but feel fairly treated and supportive of the columnist.  That’s just to show that there is an alternative to brutality in theater criticism.

But that’s the exception, rather than the rule, and now that print media is in crisis, there are seems to be an inexhaustible supply of people lining up in gleeful anticipation of stomping on the graves of the theater critics.

So let that be a lesson to all you 500 pound gorillas, you muscle-bound beach bullies. All the rest of us may be 98 pound weaklings today. But you may not 500 pounds and muscle-bound forever.

bulldozerFor a couple of months I helped start up a Boulder chapter of a Denver-based playwright’s club that I’m a member of.  I’ve now parted company with that group.  It was either that, or we were going to come to blows.  Part of the reason is that  I’m not enlightened enough to breathe the same tantric air that they do.   (See “If you’re not as caring and sensitive as I am, I’ll smash your face in”).  Even worse is the fact that I’m not willing to flagellate myself publicly and admit that my refusal to accept the “true way” is a catastrophic personal failure on my part.

In actuality, though, a lot of the conflict is based on my aggressiveness in marketing myself and my writing.  What a lot of beginning writers don’t realize — I certainly didn’t — is that a large part of getting started in this business is making a name for yourself.  There are countless stories of great works of literature that were turned down by the first 40 publishers they were submitted to.  How many more are out there molding in drawers (does an unread manuscript mold on a computer disk?) or already decaying in landfills?

I submitted the first plays I wrote to dozens of theaters, and got turned down nearly as often as I got ignored.  I realized that there must be some key difference between me and Tennessee Williams.  Other than the fact that he was a great playwright and I was writing crap, I mean.  A press agent!  Of course!

Being naturally frugal, I decided to become my own press agent and went on a concerted campaign to market myself.  As my writing improved and I started to get  productions, I took responsibility for letting everyone — local theaters, newspaper columnists, radio hosts, people I sat next to on the shuttle bus to the airport —  know who I was and what I was up to.

And lo and behold, it started to work.  In the past year there have been quite a number of newspaper articles and radio interviews about me and my work.  And more importantly, when I submit plays to theaters, especially in the Denver area, instead of always getting rejected or ignored, sometimes people want to talk to me.  And those discussions sometimes turn into productions.

I went to a play at the University of Colorado the weekend before last and afterward went up to congratulate the graduate student who had directed the production.  When I introduced myself, she immediately said, “Oh, you’re the playwright, aren’t you?”

But as nice as it is to have some recognition, that’s not why I do it.  I have no intention of writing for the next 20 years and then dying, either for my work to disappear without a trace or to be discovered after I’m gone.  Instead, I’m going to see my plays produced and my books published.  I’m willing to take responsibility to make that happen, and marketing myself and my work is a critical part.

So it’s too bad if there are people who think I’m a shameless self-promoter. I am.  It even says so on the banner at the top of this page.  And I’m not going to stop.

And it’s too bad if those people don’t want to play with me because of it.  I’ll see them on Broadway. Oh, wait!  I won’t see them there, because they’ll still be in Boulder.  With their eyes closed, breathing meaningfully into significant parts of  their bodies, and complaining about the fact that they’re not getting anywhere with their writing careers, but that aggressively promoting themselves isn’t the true, touchy-feely way.