Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Elvis At Auschwitz Diaries

6/5/15.  I prep Elvis At Auchwitz to submit it to Nylon Fusion’s 50’s & 60’s Ten Minute Play Festival.  The play was written in 1998 as part of a bunch of one-acts about the Holocaust entitled The History of The Lagers.  (I am now starting the first act of a full-length play with the same title, about a woman in 1982 who discovers she’s the daughter of a notorious escaped death camp commandant.)  EAA is also one of the half-dozen Orpheus and Eurydice take-offs I’ve written as stories or plays.  The only time it was ever read was back in 1998 as a table read at Fazil’s, a Times Square studio that no longer exists. As I re-read the script, I realize that, seven years before I meet the women I call Ava and Eva, they show up in this play as German twins.  I immediately scour the rest of my collected works to see if there are mentions of other people I have yet to meet, like Christopher Lee.

6/7/15.  Christopher Lee dies.  So much for that theory.

6/19/15.  I submit Elvis At Auschwitz 

7/9/15.  I get an e-mail from Ivette Dumeng, the Artistic Director of Nylon Fusion, telling me that EAA has been accepted in to the Festival.  This makes three things this year (Great Plains and Red Bull being the other two).  I send out "I am on a fucking roll!" e-mails to the immediate world.

7/13/15.  Romeo and Rosaline gets read at the Red Bull Short New Play Festival.  (See separate diary.)

7/21/15.  Ivette e-introduces me to Lori Kee (the director) and the three actors in the cast.  After getting our available dates, the first rehearsal is set up for 6:30 the day after my birthday, which gives me a chance to take a brief nap if I’m hung over from the previous evening’s festivities. 

7/24/14.  I have now outlived Carl Sagan, and lasted a year longer than Hemingway while looking a year more like him.  Plans for tonight’s pub crawl fall through at the last minute, but then Omaha friend Kat Ramsburg invites me to see King Liz with her at the 2econd Stage Theatre uptown, after which I meet Barry and Shannon at the rooftop bar at Connelly’s, after which Barry and I end up at Jimmy’s Corner till it closes.  The starlings are bitching at each other when I get home, and as usual I get four solid hours of pass-out sleep before dehydration kicks in and I am wide awake. 

7/25/15.  After napping from 1 to 3, and working on the second of three flashback scenes in the first act of the Lagers play, I head off to the table read, where I meet Lori (and her cute little dog, whose name I immediately forget because I don’t write it down), and the actors: Rob, Ryan and Michael, playing Red, Felton/Elvis and Lamar.  The reading goes well.  During it, the actors make minor word changes of a deliberately ungrammatical nature, like saying “weren’t” instead of “wasn’t.” Since to my ear this helps to solidify the regionalism in the speeches, I tell them to do it whenever they think it feels right for the character.  Ryan asks how much of a caricature of Elvis’s voice he should do, and when Lori and I both say it’s fine if he goes a little over the top, he says: “Then I guess I’ll just get it from Bubba Ho-Tep.”   I put one finger on my nose and point to his and say “Yes.  Yes please.”  And then we explain the reference, to those who do not know.
(For those who do not know, go here.)


I promise to send everyone online links to pictures of the real Red and Lamar, and manage to do that within the next couple of days. 

7/29/15.  Ryan sends me a thoughtful and perceptive e-mail about concerns he has with the Mengele and Auschwitz references in the play, and suggests two solutions.  This is the best thing about (a) getting a play up on its feet and (b) working with good actors—the stuff on the page gets tested, and questions I never would have asked myself need to get answered.  I write Ryan back agreeing with his observations and solutions, and promise him some rewrites in the next couple of hours.  Lori’s in on the e-mail chain too, so when I make the fixes, I first type them up like sides, with intro and exit speeches and the page numbers where they can be inserted, and then I edit them into the current script and create a whole new version, which somehow still comes in at 9 pages even though I’m adding in almost a full page of dialogue.  Ryan likes the rewrites, Lori tells me they’re good but she’ll reserve judgment till she hears them read.  (Smart.)  Part of me feels bad for the actors, since they’re probably halfway off-book by now.  But the changes are good ones, and they go a long way to reducing the glibness-when-it-comes-to-Nazis air of the original draft. 

8/4/15.  My six days of crazy begin by me getting up at 4:30, and getting to the Delacorte Theatre in the on-again off-again rain by 6:30, to get tickets for Cymbeline.  I draft the final scene of Act One for the Lagers play, and come up with a really bad Byron and Shelley pun. By 10:30 there are only 102 people on line, not counting the seniors, which is the smallest amount of people I can ever remember seeing at that time of day.  I figure there are going to be a lot of empty seats tonight. (There aren’t.  The place is packed.  And the show is delightful.  Don't listen to Christopher Isherwood.  But then who does?)

8/5/15.  I go to the 6:30 Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Plays performance.  Gwen Rice, a friend from Great Plains, has a play in it, which is far and away the best thing of that slot.  Me, I’m excited because it’s an actual play, and not just a scene or something that sets up a situation that doesn’t get resolved.  It’s constructed so that the ending echoes darkly a moment that was originally delivered brightly, and it mixes humor with tragedy to make the tragedy sting, and it is not afraid to go dark, and it is so well-acted and well-directed. It totally deserves to make it to the finals.  (It does.)   

8/6/15.  In the morning, I makes notes for a Cymbeline review and write a sonnet about my natural inclination to equate blowing my own horn with excessive vanity.  (Irish Catholic upbringing, anybody?)  I start re-reading A Natural Perspective by Northrop Frye and making notes for my Shaxpere book.  I head to the Morrison Hotel Gallery on Prince at 7, ostensibly to see the David McClister opening, but really to meet my friend Dawn’s new boyfriend Jason.  At  9 we adjourn to the SoHo Grand for birthday drinks with Dawn's friends, after which I lead an intrepid foursome to Toad Hall, after which I get home at 3, because that is what happens when the bartender at Toad Hall is an old friend from the Cedar Tavern. 

8/7/15.  I get up at 8:00, grab a coffee, and from 9:30 to 5:15, I work on two 1200 word articles about golf with my golf- trainer friend Roberto.  I go home, shower, change into The Writer Uniform (vest, dark jeans, white shirt with blue stripes) and go to the first performance of EAA at 7 PM.  Sadly, this is also the night that Bella Poynton’s play is getting done at Sam French (she’s another Great Plains friend), so I’m going to miss it.  When I get to the theatre, I see my friends DJ, Courtney, and Carrie.  We all sit together.  Elvis is the second play, after which there’s a brief intermission to get a drink; then two more plays and another drinking break, then the last play.  This is all emceed by a guy and a woman from the company, who pop up to remind us to drink and give us Nylon Fusion news.  My director Lori is in the first play, which would have gone a lot better if some guy who walked into the show drunk hadn’t walked out of it even more drunk while they were saying their lines.  Ugh.  Elvis goes very well.  The actors have a great time with it, Ryan’s Elvis is a delightful tightrope walk between caricature and reality, and I am pleased and relieved that the rewrites feel seamless.  The evening of five plays ends up being a combination of wistful, farcical, and dead serious, with the fourth play, May 10, also directed by Lori, getting the best response of the night.  

8/8/15.  As a deliberate challenge, at the coffee shop this morning I write a sonnet where the metre is anapestic and not iambic.  It’s about me walking home at 3AM from Dawn’s party, and it needs work, but I like the way it bounces against that iambic pentameter wall in much the same way that I was staggering back and forth on the sidewalks of West Broadway. 
At 12:30, it’s the Great Plains brunch at The Banc Cafe, which Gwen can no longer make because she’s having a pre-finals meeting with her cast and director, and Bella can barely make because her play goes up at 2.  Besides Bella, there’s Kat, David Hilder and Helen Banner from the writer group, with Simon Harding and Ali Hall representing the design contingent. I make a mental note to organize something like this once a month, and since Jim Brown is coming into the city from LA in early September, that's going to be the next one.   

I watch last week’s Hannibal when I get home (in preparation for this week’s Hannibal), then meet Alan and Judy for dinner at Mexicue on 5th and 27th.  It’s the usual fun time with them, muted by what’s going on with Judy’s sister, during which we get onto the subject of the beer they’ll be serving during the play (PBR’s and Yngling)—and from the dark backward and abysm of my brain, I picture someone doing a New Yorker cartoon of CS Lewis , JRR Tolkien, Nevill Coghill, Roger Lancelyn Green and Charles Williams all hoisting a Yngling, and I cry out: “Inklings drinking Yngling!”  and Alan says “I dare you to say that three times fast.”  Dare not taken; it's impossible.

When we get to the box office and I announce that I’m one of the writers, I finally get to meet Ivette, the Artistic Director, who introduces herself.  I mention to her that there’s an error in the program—it says that I’m the author of the first play (Face Value) which is obviously a misprint.  (The author is David Csontos.)  I ask her if the two emcees can make some kind of announcement clearing this up, but they never do. 

Tonight, my friends Rob and Patrick, Elijah and Jennifer, Bram and Fiona, and Walter end up coming (along with Alan and Judy), so we commandeer an entire row.  The audience tonight is warmer, and the laughter is more infectious.  Jacques and Lori are so much better in Face Value now that they don’t have to worry about being interrupted by drunks, and during Elvis there’s an air of “I can’t believe I’m laughing at this, but it’s hilarious,” like the play is tapping some deep well of humor.  The audience loves it, and even better, my friends are laughing like crazy. 

There is also a script save.  There’s a section, just before Elvis goes into the Army, about this recurring dream he has, which sets up the whole Auschwitz angle.  It gets skipped tonight, so when the time comes for Elvis to see the camp pictures that look like his dream, the audience isn’t going to know what the hell is going on.  Except that Ryan saves it by ad-libbing the whole dream sequence into his recognition scene, and he does it so seamlessly that nobody questions it.  I thank him profusely after the show for what he did, and I can tell that he’s completely jazzed by it.  And rightly so.  

Plus—icing on the cake—as I’m congratulating the actors and Lori, Ivette grabs me and says “I want to introduce you to John Patrick Shanley,” and takes me back into the theatre and plants me in front of a tall handsome guy dressed in white who’s sitting in the front row next to this model-gorgeous blonde in a little black dress.  “This is the author of the Elvis play,” she announces, and Shanley extends his hand, and we shake, and he introduces me to the blonde, and she and I shake hands, and he congratulates me on a job well done, and I say something about how the actors really made me look good, and then he asks me what everybody ends up asking me when they hear about or see this play: “So did Elvis ever go to Auschwitz?” and I say no, not to my knowledge,  and then I start blabbering about all the history that is true in the play (the twin stuff about Elvis and Ed Sullivan, the Gladys stuff) while there’s another voice in my head yelling STOP BLABBERING YOU SOUND LIKE AN IDIOT.  So I stop, and there’s an awkward moment of silence, and I say, as unblabberingly as I can, “I’m so glad you liked the play, Mr. Shanley; thank you very much, and it was a pleasure meeting you,” and we shake hands again and I go back to the foyer and chug three PBR’s in 45 seconds. 

8/9/15.  My Moleskine is down to its last pages, which means the next couple of days are going to be all about logging those notes that need to get typed into scripts or other idea folders.  This one got started on June 13, and I would have filled it up a lot sooner but for the fact that all the Lagers notes got put into a separate play notebook which is now three-quarters full itself.   

In the AM I write a sonnet about death, and then head down to the Drama Guild to see Love Drunk, six short plays by three writers, one of whom is Arika Larson, another Great Plainswright.  Her two pieces are presented first, and for someone who says she doesn’t write ten-minute plays, they’re damn good.  They’re based on photographs, like all the other plays, and it’s fascinating to see who does what with each photo.  None of the plays are what I would expect (a good thing) and while a couple of them aren’t quite plays (a potentially bad thing) they still work as scenes from which those photos could have been taken (a very interesting thing). 

From Arika I hear about the Sam French finals.  She was there.  I kind of knew already, because I didn’t see anything in either Gwen’s feed or Bella’s feed about the results, but she confirmed that neither one of them were chosen in the final six.  I haven’t seen or read Bella’s play, but from what I know of her writing, there’s a good chance she got gypped.  In Gwen’s case, I know she got gypped.  I didn’t have to see the rest of the field to know that there was no way in hell six plays were better than the script she wrote and the play those actors performed.  No way.  I can’t imagine how she’s feeling.  Me, it just reminds me of the answer I want to give and never do whenever someone asks me what kind of plays I write, because it sounds like the bitter fuck-you response of a theatrical misanthrope—which doesn’t make it any less true.  “What kind of plays do I write?  I write the kind of plays that are not mediocre enough to get published or produced.”  

In the evening, I go to the Sidewalk Café, which is now the lone occupant of its block on Avenue A, for the final night of Boog City, a poetry, music and theatre festival.  My friend Ronnie is in a bizarre oratorio called Ishtar Redux, and there’s spoken word and music and a comforting air of downtown camaraderie.  I talk a little with Cannonball Statman, one of the musicians; I have three Guinnesses at happy hour prices, which equals the cost of one Guinness at Mercury Lounge prices; I get this idea for two scenes/moments in the Shaxpere book, which would be homages to the Henry V pre-battle scene where Henry goes among his men in disguise—in one scene, Shaxpere disguises himself to go among the actors of his plays and hear what they really think of him, and he gets really pissed when they make fun of him; and in the other scene he does the same thing to a bunch of his fellow writers, and gets really pissed when they prefer Marlowe over him, even though Marlowe has been dead since Shakespeare was 29.   

And I think of the fact that Elvis actually got produced.  So does that make it mediocre?  I don’t think so.  And I think of sending an e-mail to Ivette at Nylon Fusion to thank her for choosing it, which means "Thank you for getting it."  And I recall that Nylon Fusion was the tenth ten-minute play festival I sent it to, so nine other theatre companies didn’t get it at all.  Which makes me realize that, when a play is finally produced, the writer gets to point to that production and tell all the theatres that rejected the play: “See?  SEE?”  But before that play gets produced, and whenever that play gets rejected, the writer points to himself and cries: “What is WRONG with me?”
And I think, y’know?  It’s nice to not have to say that at the moment, for however long this moment lasts.

No comments: