Don Fried — Playwright & Author

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

hippiesI’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.

moving-manI’ve spent the last two weeks in Austin, Texas, helping Rhonda move apartments.   We’re not unfamiliar with the drill, having moved 12 times in the first 5 years after we were married.  At this point, after 37 years of marriage, our move count is somewhere in the upper 20s.   As you can imagine, with all that experience, we got pretty good at it.  After some of those moves, we had every box unpacked and every picture hung on the wall the same afternoon.  And one time we actually had a party in our apartment the evening of the move!

Rhonda has always been incredibly organized, but I developed a lot of my skill working for North American Van Lines out of Wilmington, Delaware for a year while I was in graduate school at the University of Delaware in 1972-73.    Try carrying furniture and boxes up and down stairs for 40 – 80 hours a week while you’re going to school.  That’ll cripple you or get you into fantastic shape.

Many nights during that summer, I would get home from a move after 11 pm and get to bed after midnight.  Then I’d have to be up before dawn the next morning to make it to the depot by 6 a.m.  so we could drive somewhere, load a house all day, drive somewhere else, and unload the house all in the same day.  One week we loaded, unloaded, or drove for 72 hours straight.

So it’s not surprising I ended up a little schizoid.  The few hours of sleep I did manage to get at home were filled with nightmares.  A truck would drive by outside our window, and I’d slide off the bed and try to pull the mattress off the box spring, with Rhonda screaming and beating me over the head with a pillow.

In those days Rhonda was a very light sleeper.  Our clock radio had electron tubes, and Rhonda would always wake up to the click of the clock, before the unit had warmed up and the music started.  She’d turn the clock off, and lean over and kiss me on the cheek to awaken me.  And I’d crawl out of bed and get ready for work.

One night, I was awakened by a slap across the face instead of a kiss.  “OK, ” I thought, “she’s in a bad mood today.”  So I got up, got dressed, and ate breakfast — all in the dark as I did in order not to awaken her again — got in the car and headed off to Wilmington.  About 45 minutes later I arrived at the depot and found it closed.  It was only then that I looked at my watch.  It was 2:15 a.m.  Rhonda hadn’t awakened to the click of the clock radio.  She was rolling over in her sleep and slugged me.  And I was so exhausted and programmed to work around the clock that I had gotten up and gone to work.

All those memories came back to me this past week.  Although we were hiring someone to carry the heavy pieces of furniture, we were doing everything else ourselves.  For 4 days, Rhonda packed boxes and I carried them and small pieces of furniture down the stairs and loaded them into our van.  Then we drove to the new apartment, and I carried them back up the stairs at the other end.

The first day or two were really rough.  You see what happens?  You’re minding your own business and suddenly, 35 years later, you’re not in the kind of shape that you were when you were 21.

But then, miraculously, it started to come back.  I made literally hundreds of trips up and down those stairs, and by the end I was able to do it all day long, carrying two boxes at a time ON MY BACK.

I briefly considered going out and trying to find work with a moving company.  But then I realized that with my plans to become a professional boxer, my moving career will have to wait.

A couple of days ago Rhonda and I rented two superhero movies — “Iron Man” and “Hancock.”  It got us to thinking about what superpowers we would choose.

At first Rhonda said she’d always wanted to be able fly.  But then she saw a movie actress who had recently starred in a superhero movie being interviewed on TV.  That actress was asked the same question and she said that her choice would be to be able to eat as much as she wanted without gaining weight.  Rhonda immediately changed her mind.  She now wants to be “Consequence-Free Gluttony Woman.  After all, she says, how much time would she spend flying.

I’ve thought about it for a few minutes  (very few), and here are some ideas of the superhero I’d like to be.

1.  Able-To-Sleep-All-Night-Without-Getting-Up-To-Pee Man: self-explanatory.

2.  Loud-Music-Revenge Man: able to cause boom boxes, car stereos, restaurant and store radio CD players and radios which play loud, obnoxious music to be inserted into the anal cavities of the people who play them.

3.  Comeback Man:  able to think up clever comebacks at the time they are required, and not hours, days, or weeks later.

4.  Genitalia-Enlarging-Spam-Reversal Man:  causes the genitalia of people who send out spam offers to enlarge my  genitalia to shrink with each spam shot they send.

5.  Lawyer-Destructo Man: needs no explanation or justification.

You get the idea.

Let me know ideas for superpowers you’d like to have.

When I was still in the business world, there was an expression I used frequently when I was counseling people who worked for me.  “You’ve got to choose which train you want to stand in front of.”  In other words, it’s a big tough world, and there are lots of things in it that you may not like, or are patently unfair, or just plain stink.  But you can’t spend all your time tilting at windmills, so choose your battle.  It also implies that, like Don picasso_don_quixoteQuixote, when you do choose your battle, there’s a good chance you’re going to get knocked silly.

My wife, Rhonda, is moving this weekend, and for the last several months she’s been looking for a new apartment here in Austin.

(A short digression here:  Rhonda has big problems making decisions and agonizes over everything endlessly.  Once she does makes a decision, she second-guesses it — forever.    These days I kid her that one of the benefits of her going through menopause is that she’s getting a little scatty and has finally stopped agonizing over which color towels she chose for the bathroom 30 years ago.  She really appreciates that.  By the way, I’m just the opposite; once I’ve made a decision it becomes the correct decision and stays that way — forever — often in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.)

Getting back to choosing an apartment in Austin.  We’ve discovered that most apartment complexes in Austin refuse to let you see a copy of the lease agreement until the day you come in to sign it.  And in most cases, they won’t let you sign it until the day you are moving  in.  I’ve objected to this strenuously, but have gotten little sympathy.

“How am I supposed to know what I’m committing to?” I ask.

“You can read the lease when you sign it,” they respond.

“And if I want to have a lawyer look at it?”

“Bring the lawyer with you.”

Right!  Picture it.  You’ve got the moving van and 4 moving men double parked outside the leasing office at $150 an hour.  And the lawyer is sitting next to you charging $250 an hour.  And you decide you don’t like something in the lease.  Something like, say, the fact that the lease explicitly denies any obligation on the part of the lessor to provide a habitable dwelling, but that you have to keep paying rent in perpetuity.  (By the way, words to that effect were actually in one of the leases that I did manage to get an advance copy of.)  So you decide not to sign the lease, and there you are with your goods in the moving van at $150 an hour, making the rounds of Austin apartment complexes.  Which, of course, you’re not going to do, so you sign the frigging lease.

Do you get the impression that this is exactly what the apartment complexes want?  You bet your sweet ass it is.

Fortunately, most of the complexes will tell you in advance that they use the standard Texas Apartment Association lease.  (Which they also refuse to let you see in advance, but is available in 100 places on the internet.)  Unfortunately, the members of the Texas Apartment Association are the apartment owners, so the lease is strongly one-sided in their favor.

For many years, I tried to read (and, if possible, mark up) every contract I signed.  Every car rental agreement, every hotel check-in form, every software download form.  Sometimes, I even managed to get away with it.  But eventually, I started agreeing to whatever moronic things the  contracts wanted me to commit to.  I guess, like everybody else in the world, I’m relying on the fact that 90% of what is in those documents is  illegal and wouldn’t stand up if it ever came to court.

You’ll have to excuse me now, I’m going to go sign an apartment lease.  This isn’t the train I’ve chosen to stand in front of.

don-singing1A couple of days ago I went out to take a walk and turned on my Walkman.  It was already tuned to my favorite classical music station, and I found myself in the middle of an epic choral piece.

It’s often tough to distinguish the lyrics of works like that; lots of them are in Latin, and the rest are in 16th Century French, Italian or German. But there was no problem understanding the lyrics of this piece.  And even if there had been, the choir was repeating the same words over and over again.

“Unto us a Chinese wall.  Unto us a Chinese wall.  Chinese Wall, Chinese Wall, Chinese Wall.  Unto us a Chinese wall . . . .”  You get the idea.

The music was wonderful, and the 200 plus singers were clearly excited about the Chinese wall.  But I couldn’t help thinking I was missing something.

After about 5 minutes there was what was a transition in the music. “Aha!” I said to myself.  “Now I’m going to get the next part of the story.  That’s bound to clear things up.

“And his name shall be called Juan DeVille.”

What??!!

“Juan De Ville, Juan De Ville, Juan De Ville.  And his name shall be called Juan De Ville.”

On they went, singing the praises of Juan De Ville for several more minutes, before going back to the Chinese Wall.  “Well, that explains everything,” I thought.  “The Chinese wall is anthropomorphic. and it has a Spanish/French name.  And it must be one hell of a wall to inspire a musical tour de force (tour de farce?) of that magnitude.”

I listened enthralled for 20 minutes more until the piece ended.  You know how some songs get into your head and you can’t get them out?  That was certainly the case with the wall and old Juan.

I have a fairly good baritone voice and sing in a community choir, so when a song comes into my head, I go ahead and belt it out.  Day or night, wherever I am I just let it go.

“Unto us a Chinese wall, Chinese wall (etc.), and his name shall be called Juan DeVille.”

I could tell that people were awed with the song and my rendition of it, because they’d look shocked.  Then they’d smile nervously and back away.

Finally I decided I had to buy the piece.  So I went to my local music store, where they know me well, and told the clerk that I wanted the choral piece about the Chinese wall.

“The what?”

“The Chinese wall.  You know, the one who’s name shall be called Juan DeVille.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know anything like that.”

“Come on, a piece like that has got to be a classic.”

And I sang him the first few bars of each section of the music.

He didn’t even try to hide his amusement.  “That’s Handel’s Messiah,” he said. “But you’ve got the lyrics a bit wrong.  Actually it’s ‘Unto us a child is born.  And his name shall be called Wonderful.’ ”

“Oh,” I said.

“Hey, Melanie,” he called to his colleague on the other side of the store.  “Listen to what this guy just said!”

I slunk out without buying the CD, and haven’t been back yet.  Let’s see, those two sales clerks are about 25 years old.  I wonder how long it will be before they retire.

wolfLet me begin by stating categorically that, in spite of popular opinion, I am NOT a dirty old man.

Yes, I take classes at the University of Colorado Theatre Department.  But I can assure you that the fact that 75% of the students in that department are good looking women between the ages of 18 and 22 and in fantastic shape  had absolutely nothing to do with my decision to pursue my theatrical education.  It was  completely unexpected.  And it would have been terribly sexist of me to abandon my choice of a second career simply because I noticed that my heart rate was hovering near 140 beats a minute from 9:30 – 11:00 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.  (Which just happened to coincide with my Introduction to Theater class.)  I’m sure you agree with me on that.

Neither was my decision to take acting classes at all influenced by the fact that those classes, in particular, tend to be very “hands-on” affairs.  I mean, lots of men approaching sixty have frequent opportunities to embrace 20 year-old women, don’t they?

My classmates seem to sense my detachment and professionalism, and accept me as they would any other student.  The fact that they immediately grimace when they are told that they have to play a “close” scene with me shows how quickly and completely they are throwing themselves into their theatrical roles.  What a bunch of troopers!

Now that we’ve gotten any doubts in that regard completely out of your heads, I have a confession to make.  As a young man I was obsessed with sex.  (Try to control your shock.)

There was a statistic that was bandied about when I was in my early twenties.  “The average male thinks about sex every 11 seconds,” it said.   I remember being absolutely astonished at that figure.  My reaction was, “What in heaven’s name do they think about the rest of the time?”

As I got older, I realized that such an obsession wasn’t normal or healthy.  Quite apart from distracting me from my career, it was becoming increasingly exhausting.  So I set out to break myself of the habit.  And I’m happy to say that I’ve succeeded.  It took nearly 40 years of hard work, but I can honestly say that these days I don’t think about sex more than once every 15 seconds.  Approximately.  On average.  Sometimes, of course, it’s more often.

All the same, that’s quite an accomplishment.  Aren’t you proud of me?

I’ve been puttering around with a small start-up theater group in Boulder for the past couple of months. The vision for this year is that the group will call for previously unproduced, one-act plays from regional playwrights.  The “reading committee” will select the best plays and present them in public reading evenings from February through September 2009.  Then, the best scripts would be produced in an evening of short plays.

We’ve posted listings in several playwrights’ newsletters and arts events calendars and so far have received about 10 scripts.  So far, so good.  The problem is that that all anyone seems to want to write about is unhappy people sitting around at funerals agonizing over their relationships with the deceased and bitching about their unhappy lives.  No kidding, a significant portion of the plays have somehow managed to have that same plot line.  And most of the rest of the scripts are about unhappy people somewhere other than a funeral agonizing over their relationships with still-living people and bitching about their unhappy lives.

One of the cardinal rules for playwrights is that all of your characters must have strong desires, and something must get in the way of their achieving their desires.  They will struggle to overcome the obstacles, and sometimes they will succeed (comedy) and sometimes they won’t (tragedy).  In my book, desiring to sit around bitching about how unhappy you are just doesn’t satisfy that instruction.

wayne-newton1A few months ago I submitted a short play for a call for scripts.  The requirements were that the plays had to be between 30 seconds and 4 minutes long, they had to be about Las Vegas, and they had to use the words “Wayne Newton.”  Wacky, huh?  I thought so.

In response, I wrote, “Tough Town.”   In “Tough Town,” a down-on-his luck Wayne Newton comes into a seedy booking agent and tries to get a job as a Wayne Newton impersonator.  At first, the booking agent doesn’t believe that the person he’s talking to really is Wayne Newton.  He’s just another kook star impersonator who’s gotten carried away in the role.  In any case, there’s not much demand for Wayne Newton impersonators, so the agent tries to give him a gig as an Elvis impersonator.  But Wayne doesn’t do Elvis; he really is Wayne Newton!  The elvis1agent is unconvinced.  If this really is Wayne Newton, he must be worth millions of dollars and have people breaking down his door to offer him concert gigs.   So now Wayne must persuade the agent that he is short of cash and that he can’t get a job anywhere.  At the play’s conclusion, the agent has convinced  Wayne to don a honey-blond wig, and is training him to be a Celine Dion impersonator.

Over the course of the play, Wayne needs to convince the agent: a) that he really is Wayne Newton; b) that he really is broke and needs a job; and c) that even if there is infinite market demand, he isn’t going to lower his standards to doing Elvis.  The agent: a)  needs to convince this seeming madman that he believes him; b) needs to find him a job that is in demand and that will earn them both some money; and c) needs to get him to agree to do something (someone) other than Wayne Newton.  Wayne Newton’s character goes from being somewhat arrogant and inflexible, to humbling himself and compromising his principles.

All this happens in about 3 minutes. Lots of high-stakes needs from the characters, lots of action, lots of humor.  Nobody sits around bemoaning their unhappy pasts.

Sure, good scripts usually come from what the playwright cares about.  But writing plays must also be about entertaining the audience.  Wallowing in morbid, autobiographical self-pity rarely does that.

Last night, in spite of my well documented antipathy for all things Christmas, I went with some of my fellow-singers from the Rocky Mountain Chorale to a recital by the phenomenal choral group Kantorei in Denver.  The show was in St. John’s Cathedral, which is absolutely gorgeous and has amazing acoustics.

It was exclusively Christmas music (you have to understand, waxing lyrical about Jesus was never particularly big on my side of the synagogue), but once I got over that, I was mesmerized.

Then, when we were leaving, I commented to my friends that I always find vacating the venue after one of those performances DISCONCERTING.

Yes, they groaned too.

I’m off for a hike to North Table Mountain today with the Boulder Outdoor Group.  If I don’t post again tomorrow, you’ll know that my backside is frozen to a rock somewhere up there.  Don’t bother sending help.  It will probably be too late.

kill-bill

The day before yesterday I went to the theater for a costume fitting for the role of Darwin in my play, “The Debate.” I told the theater’s artistic director about the latest award for Shakespeare Incorporated. I then made a comment to her similar to the one I included at the end of yesterday’s post. I’m afraid I delivered it with a great deal of animosity and more than a few expletives.  “I hope those &^#$%$# @!#$*#s at the XXX playwright’s club that wouldn’t let me in last year are feeling really stupid!”

“You shouldn’t focus on revenge,” she responded. “You should be happy about what you’ve accomplished.”

It got me to thinking. She was right, of course. It can’t be healthy for me to work for six months on a play, and then spend a year or more marketing it, primarily for the purpose of exacting petty revenge on people who never cared about me to begin with, and have certainly long since forgotten the offense they gave me.

It can’t be healthy, but I’m afraid it’s a large part of what inspires me and why I write. (Along with it enabling me to be “Large and In Charge.”)

I’m one of those after-the-fact geniuses. Come on, admit it, you are too! After any sort of confrontation or unpleasant situation, I start “shoulding” all over myself as I think of all the clever things I should have said or done. (“Shoulding” is pronounced disconcertingly similarly to “shitting”.)

“I should have told him to [Clever Response 1].”

“No, I should  have [Clever Response 2].”

“What I really should have said was [Clever Response 4,873].”

It goes on for days or weeks. Or years. And the more I feel that someone has won a point on me, or even worse, given me a personal affront, the longer I’m going to obsess over it.

Given that I can’t help myself and am going to obsess about it anyway, being productive and creative to achieve revenge seems to be a more mature, socially acceptable alternative than, say, putting burning bags of feces on their porches and ringing their doorbells at 3 a.m.

I’ll give you an example.  The first short play that I wrote was presented in a single performance at a fringe festival in February, 2007. Note that when I write I spend hours working on every line of dialog to get them perfect.  But the actors in my play were either unwilling or incapable of learning the lines. At some point, I imagine they had probably read the script, but they seemed determined just to take the general idea and ad lib their way through the play. When they questioned a line at the end of the second scene that didn’t make sense, my response was often, “Of course it doesn’t make sense. It might have if you’d used even some of the lines that I wrote for the first scene!”

The lead male was the worst offender. In addition to being unable to remember the lines, he had a crippling case of stage fright.  It might have been helpful if he had told us about that before we cast him!

Then, 36 hours before the performance, he showed up to a rehearsal with a machete and threatened to start “cutting” people. The director immediately fired him and went out and bought a shotgun. I ended up having to play the part myself, which I couldn’t come near to perfecting on such short notice. In the performance, one of the other actors had a wardrobe malfunction and didn’t come out on time, so the rest of us stood around like idiots for what seemed like hours.  Overall, it was a nightmare.

On the airplane flying back to Denver the next morning, I was so angry and upset that I realized that I was either going to kill somebody or I was going to have to find some other way to exact revenge. So I came up with the concept for Red Herring, and the first outline was done before the plane landed. In Red Herring a frustrated playwright starts playing dirty tricks on the cast and crew of his latest production. But the tricks all go drastically wrong, and the victims are more seriously injured than the playwright had intended. The lead actor of the “play within the play” is the one who bears the brunt of the damage.

Red Herring is having its world premiere in June, 2009. Of course I’m excited about having a new play produced, but it will be particularly satisfying to see that lead actor take it on the chin again and again.

There is an old Afghani saying that has made it into Western culture in numerous books and movies.  “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” I say, serve it hot or serve it cold, but make them EAT IT!

no-way-out1It was early December, 2004. I’d had a stressful week of contract negotiations in Peoria with Caterpillar, but now I was headed home. The flight from Chicago to Denver was three-quarters full when I boarded, but I managed to find a window seat with an open middle between me and the man on the aisle.  I settled in for what I hoped would be a peaceful beginning to the weekend.

At the last instant before they closed the doors, she hurried onto the plane, lugging a wheeled carry-on suitcase, a computer bag, and an oversized purse. Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine. Wait a minute.  That’s a different curmudgeon story! She surveyed the cabin and took aim at – me! What? Do I have a target on my forehead?

She made her way down the aisle to my row, pausing only to remove several bags and coats from a nearby overhead bin and put her things in. Then, leaving the stewardess to deal with half a dozen irate passengers whose bags were now on the floor, she settled into the middle-seat next to me. I ducked down behind my newspaper.

“Hi, I’m Anne,” she said.

“Uh, I’m Don,” I responded reluctantly.

“It’ll be nice having somebody to talk to for the next couple of hours.”

I pretended to be engrossed in the listing of hog future prices on page 16.

“Look at that headline, she said, reading the side of my paper facing her. “Supreme Disallows Nativity Scene on City Hall Grounds. Those morons!”

I mumbled something about the Constitution and separation of church and state.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she replied. “This is a Christian country. It was founded by Christians and nobody should object to us putting up a nativity scene on the grounds of the Town Hall.”

I abandoned any hope of relaxing, and settled in for a fight. “Actually, I object to it. Put your religious displays in your church, and I’ll do the same with my religious displays in mine.”

She glared at me with animosity, I supposed trying to determine how I had managed to hide my horns under my hair. Then, in an attempt to be civil, she tried what she was sure would be common ground for any sane person. “Well, at least the country is on safe grounds for another four years now that we’ve re-elected Bush.”

“I voted for Kerry,” was my response.

“I’m sorry for you,” she replied.

And on it went. It was like the Sartre play, “No Way Out.” Each thing she said made me want to strangle her. And like an idiot, instead of keeping my mouth shut, I argued with her.

Finally, the pilot came on the PA to announced that we were beginning our descent into Denver. By this time, Ann and I had lapsed into a tense silence. I saw her winding up for one final attempt at conversation.

“There’s one thing that we can certainly agree on. It’ll be great when they make it legal to use your cell phone during the flight, won’t it?”

At that point, I completely lost it. “Are you absolutely out of your mind? It’s bad enough we have to listen to people screaming into their cell phones everywhere else in the world. Look around you. We’re prisoners here. There’s absolutely no escape!  But it’d be worth it if it meant I didn’t have to talk to you!”

We sat in silence for the rest of the trip. And no, I didn’t ask for Ann’s phone number so we could keep in touch.