Don Fried — Playwright & Author

Posts Tagged ‘humor

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.

Jump forward 400 years to the readings of my play, Postville, (The Plays, They’re Hijacking My Play) this past week.Postville Reading

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?

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.

baggage-claim-2Yesterday morning I flew from Denver to Austin for 4 days of topping up my grandfatherly batteries.  When I got to the baggage claim area in Austin, I went over to monitors to see which carousel my bag would be coming in on.  The second listing on the screen was an arrival for flight 1147 from Austin!

That’s right, Flight 1147 (the name of the airline is being withheld to avoid a lawsuit) was going from Austin to Austin.  (As my old Haverford College classmate Dave Barry says, “I’m not making this up.”)

At first I thought it had to be a mistake.  But then it hit me.  No, it wasn’t a mistake.  It was just another creative attempt by a struggling airline to  BEAT THE RECESSION.

I would love to have been a Japanese tourist taking photos (nobody pays any attention to a Japanese tourist taking photos) at the meeting where they came up with that idea.

“Come on, guys, there must be something else we can do to avoid losing our jobs.”

“Maybe we should schedule more flights.”

“Don’t be silly.  There aren’t enough people on the flights we run now, so we lose money on every one.  The more we schedule, the more we lose.”

“How about if we get more people to fly?”

“We tried that last week.  It didn’t work. ”

“OK, then, let’s run fewer flights.”

“That’s not going to work either.  Then we don’t cover our overhead.”

“You mean like the building?  Maybe we can get a smaller building”

“I mean like your salary.  Maybe we should get you a smaller salary.  The problem is that our costs are too high.”

“I know, let’s cut back on services.”

There’s a stunned silence in the room.

“Wait!  I’ve got it!  Let’s schedule flights from airports to the same airports.”

“Yeah, right.”

“No, I’m serious.  Think about about.  What’s our biggest expense?  Fuel.  How much fuel is it going to take to taxi out onto the runway, sit for 20 minutes, and then come back to the terminal?”

“Maybe you’ve got something there.

“That’d be bound to increase our on-time arrival percentage too.”

“It might.  If — and this is a big if — we could manage to get the planes back to the terminals on time.”

“And we wouldn’t need nearly as many staff checking people in and handling their bags.  Who’s going to bring a suitcase if they’re going to be home in an hour anyway?”

“Practically no one.”

“We could save a lot of money on the planes, too.  I mean the planes wouldn’t even need engines would they?  Just one of those little tractors to pull them away from the gate.”

“We’ve got plenty of those already.”

“And no toilets!  The doors would have to be there, of course, but there wouldn’t need to be anything behind them.  We’d just keep the seat-belt sign on for the whole time.”

By now the ideas would be flying (unlike the planes) fast and furious.  Skip ahead a year — a venture this complex is going to take lots of planning, isn’t it? — and voila, we have a flight from Austin to Austin.

By the way, the arrival listing on the computer monitor in Baggage Claim showed that Flight 1147 was scheduled to arrive 90 minutes late.

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.