Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Family Values

We’ve recently cast Dying Goldfish and I for one am really excited about it now. We have some regulars and some first-timers and I’m really looking forward to seeing the results.

Before I go into the much-delayed post-mortem of our second play, Allston, I wanted to broach a subject that has been on my mind as a result of our upcoming play.

* * *

“The bonds of family bind both ways. They bind us up, support us, help us, and they are also a bond from which it is difficult, perhaps impossible to extricate oneself.”
—Neil Gaiman,
The Sandman

“Families don't have values. If you support your son and love your son no matter what he does, this is the exact opposite of a value, it is evidence of clinical insanity.”
—Dave Sim

There was one person I know (since I haven’t consulted him before this posting, I’ll leave him anonymous) who absolutely adored The Royal Tenenbaums and The Incredibles because he said (with such positive glee), “They were about families.” In other words, they were about positive family values. Alas, I thought (and still think) this is a very narrow-minded and—dare I say—false look at this subject (in other words, I think the former film is really boring and stupid and the latter is Pixar fun; no less and certainly no more).

Personally, I think it’s important to look at the good and the bad of this concept of “family values.” After all, if anyone mildly offended at the insinuation of the second quote above, just think about the Hatfields and McCoys (the literal family feud). As New-Agey and squishy as we all pretend to be when we ever talk about families and family values, the concept of killing someone because their father killed your grandfather is — obviously — unethical and insane.

(An obvious and cartoon example, I know, but still worth noting.)

It’s also worth noting how families can truly stifle you and stunt personal growth; as an adult, how much good can come out of being around a group of people who think of and regard you as how you were when you were an eight-year-old? Sure, that can give you a sense of personal history and humility (and I’m sure most people would agree with me that family reunions give you humility up the wazoo), but self-evident fact is that none of us are the same people we were when we were children.

In fairness, I’ve been pretty impressed that many family members of mine (specifically my parents) seem genuinely interested in my playwriting. I don’t think they necessarily agree with some of my philosophical viewpoints, and they have cringed at some of the content in the plays, but they seem to enjoy what I’m doing and curious to see where I’m going with Nosedive.

In other words, I’m not completely regarded as their eight-year-old who’s moved out of the house (note the word “completely”).

Dying Goldfish was an attempt for me to really look into weird family dynamics and friction with family members without any of the clichéd and bullshit youthful angst (or without any of the Hallmark Greetings sentimentality). Family friction is something we all deal with, and I thought it was time to show a play about this thing we all go through, but regard the subject as an adult and for adults.

About two-thirds through writing the first draft of Dying Goldfish, I caught Five Easy Pieces on the tube (you know, that Jack Nicholson movie where he tries to get toast by ordering a chicken salad sandwich with toasted bread and asks to “hold the chicken?” Yeah, that one). I hadn’t seen the movie in about five, six years. Superficially, there are some similarities between Bob Rafelson’s film and my new script (Jack Nicholson’s character is the self-made black sheep of a family of gifted musicians who goes home to see his father who’s had a stroke; the protagonist in Dying Goldfish is the self-made black sheep of a family of academics who goes home to see his uncle who’s had a stroke).

However, if anyone comes to see the latest Nosedive play expecting to see Five Easy Pieces, they’ll be very disappointed, since the similarities are coincidental (the primary bases for my play are from bad dates I’ve had, weddings I’ve attended, awkward family confrontations I’ve participated in and family illnesses I’ve witnessed or have had relayed to me).

There are even more superficial similarities between Five Easy Pieces and The Royal Tenenbaums (the former is good because it treats its characters and audience with dignity and respect by examining the truth and the former is bad because it treats its characters and audience with condescension by portraying a false view of the world).

My sister has been promoting Dying Goldfish to her friends as “the play about our family.” Although I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with her, Pete and I are much more of the opinion that one of our previous outings, Mayonnaise Sandwiches, dealt much more with the interactions among members of the Comtois household.

True, there are undeniable similarities between Will and Carol’s family and mine, just as there are undeniable similarities between Will and myself. However, I wouldn’t say that I’m Will. For one thing, Will is much smarter, nicer and more put together than I am.

This is a very personal play for me, and there are several autobiographical elements to it (just as there have been with all of the Nosedive Productions), but it is not an autobiography by any stretch of the imagination.

Obviously, it’s a subject that I find fascinating, and a subject I’ve only very recently written about. I don’t want to look into it with hateful cynicism (and have no reason to) any more than I want to look into it was rose-colored glasses (again; I have no reason to).

Interacting with various members of my family (both immediate and extended), I see the similarities and connections between and among relatives, but I also see some of the proverbial “skeletons” in various closets that I had never noticed (and no, dear reader, you ain’t getting any details here): the sources of long-term friction, the different alliances between cousins and siblings, the inherited weaknesses and faults.

I often like to grill different family members about their relationship with other members of our family (my sister’s relationship to our mother, my cousin’s relationship to another cousin, my father’s relationship with his brother, etc.), particularly to understand these people from different angles (as well as get some sense of personal history).

(Halfway through writing this, several major “cans of worms” with my family have been opening up, primarily due to a family member’s health deteriorating at an almost exponentially rapid level and seeing the varied emotional tolls this is taking on various family members. Bear in mind this is a new development that began long after I finished the final draft of Dying Goldfish. If I had more time to do rewrites to the script I very well may be tempted to factor all this new autobiographical stuff into the play, but we’re beginning rehearsal and enough is enough. This doesn’t actually surprise me, since this sort of shit has been happening to Pete and I for years now. Whenever we’re at work on a production, our lives end up becoming very similar to the lives of the characters. On one hand, you can just write this off as “Blue Car” Syndrome, where you basically just become acutely aware of everything pertaining to your obsession du jour [i.e., you get in a mindset to stage a three-hour tragedy about emotional emptiness — Ruins — you’re going to see nothing but emotional emptiness in your daily life]. On the other, some of these “coincidences” are too uncanny to be written off as merely “coincidences.” I mean…I’m only acutely aware of this person’s failing health because I’m in production? If I hadn’t written this play I’d be unaware of her being sick?)

I have no family I’ve made on my own (I have the family I was born into, but I have no wife or kids), unless you count Nosedive (and again, I don’t write this with cynicism or sentimentality, so Pete, Patrick, et. al., please hold your “Awwwww’s”). The idea that “we’re stuck together” in every connotation of the phrase has come to mind on more than one occasion.

Well, I suppose I’d have to refer to Nosedive as a family, the more that I think about it.

The positive: I’m genuinely amazed that these people put up with me and have put up with me over these few years.

The negative: I’m genuinely amazed that they won’t go away no matter how many times I throw lit matches at them and scream “GO AWAY.”

The positive: having a loyal group staging your plays and having a fun time doing so.

The negative: being seen as the “drunken grump” of the group no matter what you do or how you behave (talk about being permanently seen as the eight-year-old!).

Personal alliances and vendettas end up becoming group alliances and vendettas; personal problems can become group problems (many see this as a nice support group, and often I do; many times though, I see it as annoying); individual causes become group causes.

And so on, and so on.

Yes, it’s funny. I consider myself as both a creator of this family (we won’t get into which one of us—Pete or I—is the mother or the father, thank you very much) as well as its black sheep.

(I guess Pete would be my “heterosexual lifepartner,” as Silent Bob is to Jay. Or Moe is to Homer. Yikes.)

Does Nosedive have values? I suppose in the way David Koresh’s cult have values (don’t worry, my little ones. We won’t be bringing out the punch until Kronos Unbound). Often, I’m amazed and touched by the loyalty several members seem to have to Nosedive, disturbed by the loyalty several members seem to have, as well as simultaneously dismayed by and relieved with the lack of loyalty.

We don’t have a mission statement per se (we wrote one for Fractured Atlas and during a brief period when we were attempting to apply for grants, but it’s completely useless and has no relation to the real-world company), or some written manifesto, but I guess we have some core beliefs (mutated/altered with each “family” member, the way family values are mutated/altered with each member of a biological family) and some unspoken core aesthetic (i.e., a Nosedive show looks and sounds like a Nosedive show, despite different designers, actors and themes).

Anyway, I did want to hash out some things about this subject so people won’t be expecting something as innocuous as Leave it to Beaver or something ghoulish like The Jackson Family Christmas (not that I thought you would).

It looks as though after Dying Goldfish the “family values” motif will be temporarily dormant for the next few Nosedive plays. I guess because it just opens too damn many cans of worms for me to feel comfortable with.

I’m really hoping that my next Jamespeak will be up sooner than a month. But then again, I ain’t making no promises.

Grounding Patrick for a month,

James “Alcoholic Father” Comtois

April 5, 2005


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