Sunday, February 05, 2006

Dialogue: Mac Rogers I: Hailing Satan


First off, I do need to congratulate you on your massively successful (massively in terms of the world of self-produced Off-off-Broadway theatre, anyways, although sellout shows, awards, favorable reviews and an audience base of more than 1,500 is really about as successful as you can get) run of Fleet Week: The Musical, and also your follow-up play, Hail Satan, easily one of the best plays I had seen all year. That may be one of the fastest and most impressive turnarounds of work (not only to produce two plays within six months of one another, but to have one be, as you put it, a “musical about gay sailors” and its follow-up be a play about Satan worshippers and the impending apocalypse). I had asked you, during Fleet Week, just how the hell this had happened, to which you replied, “Musicals about gay sailors sell.” Which, judging from the huge turnout for the play, followed by the not-so-huge turnout for Hail Satan, seems to be a pretty fair assessment of the situation. Now that you’ve done the two shows, what sorts of new insight to the current state of independent theatre have you gained? Or have you basically become more cynical and realize that the only way to get an audience is to write musicals about gay sailors?

Thanks James! And congratulations are due to you as well, as 2005 was not only the year you revived your Christmas Carol, but you also mounted my favorite James Comtois play yet, Dying Goldfish, which I hope I'll see again someday.

I should point out, to put our conversation in a larger context, how utterly local the circumstances of our conversation are. New York City is one of the four or five places on Earth where a story about gay sailors would be a big success and a play about the Antichrist would play to mostly empty theaters. In most of the rest of this country, the opposite would be true.

Unfortunately, I can't provide a straightforward answer to your question. The circumstances surrounding the productions of Fleet Week and Hail Satan don't stand up to a one-to-one comparison because they weren't produced under even roughly equivalent circumstances. But maybe if I talk about the reasons why that is, I can shed some light on what I learned in 2005 about producing Off-Off Broadway.

Jordy, Sean and I conceived Fleet Week as a joke, a parody of the type of show that would do well at the Fringe: a pro-gay marriage musical featuring dancing sailors. We also enjoyed the evolution of the iconography of the sailor in port, dressed all in white, from a quintessentially straight figure out to score chicks to a quintessentially gay figure playing a role.

It's not the kind of show I would have chosen to do on my own. I intensely dislike preaching to the choir or congratulating New York audiences on having all the right opinions (something you very gratifyingly savage in your upcoming Nervous Boy, I believe), but something snapped for me after gay marriage become one of the tipping points in the 2004 election. That reminded me that homophobia is real, vicious, alive, and widespread, and that a little insular New York City smugness is nothing compared to the millions of people around the country who are angered and disgusted by gay love. I changed, and Sean and Jordy changed, and our approach to the piece changed. We did the second half of our work on Fleet Week infused with a not inconsiderable amount of anger. I think in the end result that anger leavened the silliness and scatology of Fleet Week just enough to keep it from being sickly-sweet or sophomoric without losing the gleeful overall tone we wanted.

I really sweated promoting Fleet Week, as you can see here. What I didn't know as I wandered around in the heat in that sailor suit was that I largely needn't have bothered. We were in the Fringe Festival. The Fringe creates an enormous fascination all its own. You don't have to get noticed by the larger world, you just have to get noticed by the part of the world that's already paying attention to the Fringe. The Fringe particularly has a draw among the gay community and among the musical theater community. (Certainly, some overlap between these communities has been noted.) Once word got out that we had a gay On The Town, the show largely filled itself.

I felt like one thing we did worked particularly well. We somehow got three hundred of our collective friends and family to buy out opening night, which got our show up on the sell-out board at Fringe Central. That helped get our show talked about, and gave the impression that tickets would soon become unavailable. It's the oldest trick in any book: to succeed, you need to look successful.

This is tricky for guys like you and me. We prefer to be rumpled and self-deprecating. I myself have no instinct for presentation at all. I'm not able to project that "You owe it to yourself to get a piece of this!" vibe that makes more careers than anything else. I'm not attempting to excoriate the mass culture here either. I understand the allure of confidence. As it happens, I'm attracted to confidence.

So if Fleet Week had an unusual advantage, Hail Satan had an unusual disadvantage, which it'll take me a few sentences to get to. Well, for one thing, I went into Hail Satan on an incorrect assumption: "We're the guys who put on Fleet Week! All our new fans will want to check out our next show!" This was incorrect. We didn't, strictly speaking, have new fans. We have fans if we write more gay sailor musicals, but not if we do pitch-dark horror comedies about religious fanatics.

Hail Satan was my labor of love, the most personal play I've written in years, which was part of why I wanted to be in it. I'm probably the least nurturing person any of my friends know, so I thought it would be a neat surprise that my character becomes a doting dad under the most fucked up circumstances imaginable. I wrote the cult leader specifically for Sean. I wanted to exploit Sean's warmth and charisma, as any cult leader worth his salt has to be a seducer, but I also wanted to mine the rock-like anger Sean can project beneath his party persona. I specifically tailored the play to Jordana's sensibilities as a director. I knew she'd keep the pace brisk and the tone as light as possible and only very carefully let the menace creep in by degrees. I specifically didn't want one of those Visionary-dudes who would telegraph the darkness ahead of time. (Sometimes a script calls for a Visionary-dude, sometimes it calls for a more meat n' potatoes style helmer like Jordy. My scripts more often call for meat n' potatoes, but not all the time.)

Here's what I'm leading up to, though: all three of us had artistic roles in the production of Hail Satan. None of us was a pure producer. None of us was exclusively focused on the externals of production, most specifically getting asses in seats. I guess I thought notoriety from Fleet Week plus all the people whose shows I had militantly supported over the past year would pull in a decent crowd. As I don't have to tell you, this was a stupid thing to think. (I pause a moment to profusely thank the Nosedive crowd for coming out in force; you guys rule.)

Hail Satan wasn't in the Fringe, it was just a regular play, thrown to the Off-Off wolves. When you don't have the shoulders of a festival to stand on, you're fighting on two fronts. You're making the play and you're making the awareness of the play. When you're not in a festival, there needs to be somebody who is pounding the pavement and working the phones while everyone else is having fun. If you don't, nobody will know about your show. Lesson learned.

All right, Comtois, this is fun! What else you got?

Oh, I gots plenty.

You actually both answered a couple of my prepared questions and led up to a number of others with this answer. Hot dog! I think I had mentioned before, this “dialogue” will be broken up into three parts on Jamespeak, and I want to reserve this first part of the “dialogue” mainly for the plays themselves, particularly Hail Satan, so if it seems like I’m being particularly breezy with your responses, it’s most likely because I want to save some of the points for later.

I do appreciate the kind words you’ve given Dying Goldfish, considering it was an absolute nightmare to produce (though that may have been due in part to the concurrent “Off-Night Series,” my schooling on why we should never organize a festival of any size again). A Very Nosedive Christmas Carol was very fun to remount, much to my surprise, and we very well may do it again. Dying Goldfish, on the other hand, will need another company to remount it.

I’d be surprised if you could come up with a straight answer to that question, considering none of us can possibly know how a show can or will turn out. However, that seems to be a “best assessment” of what happened. And wow. It does seem like you got a “crash course” on the genuine ins-and-outs of promoting. This is coming from someone who figured out some “hard truths” about audience attendance and PR a while ago (i.e., 75% of your work promoting the show is a wasted effort, but you never know which 75%, so you have to do it all), but who never had been involved in the Fringe and had never experienced such a surge in popularity. I also never knew about the Fringe’s “sell out” list. Good thinking there!

Despite all this, I too have been (or felt I have been) guilty of naïve optimism when it comes to audience loyalty for Nosedive shows (the biggest example of this was when I thought that the success from Christmas Carol would roll over with ease to a play about real-life family friction and real-life mortality). Hell, I really did believe that at least half or a third of that audience of 1,500 for Fleet Week would go see Hail Satan. (Do I have egg on my face?)

I agree neither one of us is suited for self-promotion nor presentation, despite us knowing that confidence is more attractive than self-deprecation. My problem is always trying to “pitch” the play in attractive sound-bytes without either misrepresenting the show or giving too much away. Very odd that I’m the one in Nosedive in charge of PR. Very odd or very fitting. However, having to write the press releases forces me to find a way to write an accurate and engaging 100-word summation of what to expect with the play. I can just never come up with it verbally at the top of my head when (say) I hand someone a postcard at a bar and they ask me what it’s about. When that happens, I usually just point out the picture of the monkey on the back and hope they find it funny.

But I digress. Let’s get back to Hail Satan.

For Hail Satan, it very much seemed like a personal play, and Sean’s casting was spot-on (I have some more questions about casting him later). To me, his portrayal of the cult leader/head of the Satanic Church was damn near pitch-perfect (I’ve read a lot on the subject for the past few years, but have only had very peripheral first-hand experience with these cult leaders. Pete, Patrick and an actress friend of mine have had more first-hand experience, since they have had experience being in cults at various points): incredibly charismatic, sincere, and making you believe you’re the only person in the room when they talk to you.

Which brings me to my next “question.” There didn’t seem to be much “research” (in the strict academic use of the word), but it definitely felt like it was written by someone who had “done his homework” on the subject. So, how much…I hate to use the word but I can’t think of a better one…“research”…was needed and done for Hail Satan?

Well, that’s a question I can answer quite easily. I read The Satanic Bible by Anton LaVey. I had some idea that I was going to go on to read Paradise Lost and Faust in further preparation, but upon completing The Satanic Bible I felt like I had all I needed.

Hail Satan was begun on a dare. To be specific, I was daring myself. I had just sat through an awful short play with the Devil in it and I was bitching to some people about how much I hated the Devil being used as a crutch, a short-cut symbol to all that’s bad. I hate how the Devil has become this sort of smug, erudite guy who cracks witticisms all the time. I like it when the Devil is scary, all-powerful undefeatable. I’m a Rosemary’s Baby/The Omen type of guy. (Angel Heart is a good late example of the kind of Devil story I like, climaxing with a fantastic piece if dialogue: “After all, Johnny, what gives human life its meaning? Somebody loves it, somebody hates it? The flesh is weak. Only the soul is immortal. And yours belongs to me.”)

So after I read The Satanic Bible, which is a solidly written book with a decent amount of common sense mixed in with the hocus pocus. I basically had all I needed. I had a set of beliefs for my Satanist characters, a kind of enlightened hedonism based in selfishness. (When I told Jordy about LaVey’s beliefs, she said it sounded like objectivism for people who don’t want to read all of Atlas Shrugged.) I liked these beliefs because they speak to so much of what I’m not. I’m not good about going out and taking what I want. I’m very slow to be cruel to other people, even if such cruelty would help pave my way to happiness. LaVey warns against “psychic vampires,” people who out of their own neediness will suck up all your available time and energy, and I’m easy prey for such people. I saw the analogue I was looking for as well: the way in which secular liberalism often seems so weak in the face of religious fanaticism.

The religious fanatic has certainty on his or her side. The power of certainty cannot be overstated. Certainty eliminates hesitation and writes a blank check for any number of despicable actions. I always feel like secular liberalism holds a tenuous sway even in the countries where it has taken hold because religious fanatics are always chafing under the restraints of having to tolerate people who believe different things. The ones who are noisily discontented about this, like the character of Marcus in the play, worry me less. You can see them coming. The ones who worry me more are the patient, canny fanatics, the ones who quietly schmooze the powerful while solidifying their coalitions, or the ones willing to train and wait for years to carry out one bombing. The ones like Charlie, the character Sean played. Guys like Charlie attain tremendous power because they’re sure of themselves, so sure that they’re willing to proceed quietly and win one little victory each day until eventually they have the whole map. And no one saw it coming.

The one part of LaVey’s book I didn’t find useful was his sense that it didn’t matter if Satan was real, that what was important was that people be in touch with their selfish and liberating impulses that make up the essence of all that is Satanic. I wanted to write a horror play, so I wanted Satan to be real. I wanted him to be an incredibly powerful offstage character who figured out exactly which personalities to put together to achieve the desired result. Tom’s buried desire for a child mixed with his well-meaning liberalism mixed with his confrontation-averse personality and his economic dependence would make him uniquely vulnerable to Charlie and his cohorts.

As my friends and I get older and more people I know are having children, it occurs to me that raising a child has more impact on the world than almost anything else you can do. I believe the future of the world depends on a large body of people who subscribe to secular liberalism. I don’t mean that these people can’t be religious – I don’t have a problem with faith in and of itself, and I think faith can often be beautiful – but they must recognize secularism, the co-existence of different faiths under secular government, as a governing principle necessary for the continuance of civilization itself. Even the very small sliver of responsibility I have in this great ongoing endeavor frightens the life out of me.

A character in Hail Satan describes a disorienting depression she is going through, which I based on one I went through myself about a year ago. It’s in the play as an example of the kind of self-observing artistic fatigue that I sometimes fear we can’t allow ourselves anymore. The world will keep on churning to an uncontrollable end while artists examine their cavernous interiors (which, as it happens, is something we have to do), and if I spend too much time thinking about that I feel a sensation a couple rungs below panic.

I’ve submitted Hail Satan to the SPF Festival, and if it should get in, I have something I’m struggling with. In the play, Satan is real. That makes the play scarier and more fun. But on the other hand, does it introduce an element that disrupts the play’s internal debate? By which I mean, if Satan is real, then aren’t the fanatics just doing the right thing? I haven’t decided.

Got a little heavy, huh? It’s the salad with chickpeas talking.


You’ve now mentioned that Fleet Week was written as a joke and Hail Satan was written as a dare. I don’t know why that tickles me so. I’m now expecting to hear that Sky Over Nineveh was written as a bet. But, as always, I digress.

I’ve never read LaVey’s book from cover to cover, but I do remember reading the first few pages several years ago at a book store in Boston (either my sophomore or junior year at BU) and there were lines in Hail Satan that reminded me of what I had read/skimmed some eight years prior (in particular, I remember LaVey wrote in the first few pages that Christianity is about abstinence, whereas Satanism is about indulgence, and one of your characters in Hail Satan explains that as a tenet to their beliefs). But I agree that doing any more “research” on the subject would bog the whole thing down and make it play out like a term paper.

I’m interested in your mentioning of “psychic vampires,” something I actually believe in myself (I’ve used the phrase “emotional vampires” when I think/talk/write about them but they really amount to the same thing). I’m finding myself writing about them more and more (in Evil Hellcat and the Liquid Lunch, The Adventures of Nervous Boy and the forthcoming short play The Scene) and experiencing them more and more.

Let’s just hope I’m not one of these “psychic vampires” eating up all your valuable time with this dialogue. Seriously, just throw some holy water at me and I’ll back off.

What made the play genuinely scary for me (and the rest of the Nosedive gang who came to see it) was that it took the idea of Satan very seriously, and basically sucked you into the Satanists’ worldview. Part of me was thinking, “Shit, they’re right!”

As far as wondering whether or not making Satan real disrupts the internal debate in the play, I don’t really know, since I’m a bit on the fence about the idea of secular liberalism. Maybe that’s just because, after having very secular and liberal views for so long and living in New York for nearly seven years, I’m beginning to wonder if New York — particularly the New York theatre world — is too secular and liberal for my taste. I’m finding the “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” attitude that secular liberals espouse seems to be both increasingly hypocritical (since hardcore secular liberals in New York are just as knee-jerk and close-minded as the religious right) and not exactly the way to go.

I think part of the problem you’ve been having with plays that deal with Satan as an abstract shortcut symbol — which I would agree with are annoying — is that it’s due to a secular liberalism (which I’m becoming convinced that it’s a fancy name for selfish atheism).

I actually may not be disagreeing with you here. I may actually be thinking that “secular liberalism” is a fancy name for “selfish atheism,” which is something I’m guessing you’re not endorsing. (Is there anything more selfish than the ongoing secular liberal cry of “Won’t somebody PLEASE Think Of The Children?!”)

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about the separation of church and state, but one of the things I found quite refreshing about both Hail Satan and your play about the story of Jonah, Sky Over Nineveh, is that they both took the concept of God and faith seriously. In other words, most plays in recent years that deal with theology are either done as religious tracts or as tongue-in-cheek farces (i.e., “The Apocalypse has NEVER BEEN FUNNIER!”). I bring this up because in the program notes for Nineveh, you said that you grew up with this illustrated book of Bible stories, and you never read them as sacred texts, just great stories. The effect of watching both Sky Over Nineveh and Hail Satan feel like you’re simultaneously watching something from a secular and sacred standpoint. If that sounds too pretentious I’ll paraphrase and say you’re simultaneously watching a writer who’s not wearing his religion on his sleeve, but is still showing a deeper grasp of the importance of faith.

Is this because you at least grew up with or around religion to have some of it “rub off,” or at least, enough to not completely dismiss belief in God as silly twaddle? This may not exactly be a direct question but I wondered if you want to expand on this and tell me if I’m way off the mark on this. If you’d like, you can simply interpret the question as, “I saw Sky Over Nineveh and Hail Satan as companion pieces. Was that at all intentional?”

To address your point a few paragraphs up, you’re correct that we don’t disagree here, we’re just using some of the terms differently. Your criticism of knee-jerk New York liberals is well taken. And we forget the positive power of faith. The most prominent American statesman to speak out against the massacres in Darfur has been Senator Sam Brownback, a hard-right Republican with a despicable domestic record who has lead the American charge against the Sudanese genocide because it appalls his religious faith. No liberal has spoken out as prominently so far. When giving credit in Rolling Stone to the lawmakers most helpful in advancing his anti-AIDS initiative in Africa, Bono acknowledged the otherwise repulsive Rick Santorum, who was also motivated by his Christian faith. Religious faith is like a new technology: it’s a force that can be used to positive or negative ends. It’s time to take the burden off of phenomena like Christianity or iPods or nuclear reactors, and put it back where it belongs, in the realm of human judgment. We live or die by how we use what we have.

My dream of secular liberalism doesn’t require the dissolution or even the excessive muzzling of religious people or religious groups. It simply requires that they all agree to submit a little bit to a secular authority in order to coexist with one another. Christians and Muslims are never going to agree on key things, and neither group is going to disappear anytime soon. The dream is that I will be allowed to worship in my home and teach my children my faith and take my family to church, but I will not be allowed to interfere with my next door neighbor even though I am certain that what he believes is going to send him to hell. It sounds so elementary, but obviously world history shows otherwise.

To get back to your question, the two plays weren’t conceived as companion pieces, or, to be more specific, as they were written four years apart, Hail Satan wasn’t conceived as a companion-piece to Sky Over Nineveh. But as I neared the final writing stages of the former, I began to see the resemblance. And the more I think about it, the more it seems to do my mental state no favors.

Both plays feature communities overtaken by religious zealotry, and both plays share the oddly self-hating feature of a secular liberal who is powerless to stop the onrushing tides of fanaticism. In Nineveh, the liberal, Ehren, is honorable and brave (with the Clintonian flaw of not being able to keep it in his pants) and is simply overpowered by the forces arrayed against him. Four years later, when I wrote Hail Satan, the liberal had become the wincing coward Tom, who is willing to pedantically stand up for his beliefs as long as they don’t cost him his job. He has none of Ehren’s humanist warmth or vision. In Nineveh, the hero turns out to be a woman of tremendous faith who just happens to not be a fanatic. Her faith gives her the strength to save her city and lead her people to some kind of future. The equivalent character in Hail Satan doesn’t find the same strength from her faith, and Satan makes short work of her as soon as she proves to be a problem. Nineveh ended in an act of large-hearted mercy, Satan on an act of extraordinary selfishness. Where Nineveh was a large, hot-blooded expansive tragedy with a lot of room for love and redemption, Satan was smaller, more claustrophobic, more airless, more bereft of life and hope. (Much funnier, though.)

Considering the two together, one written in early 2001, one written in mid-2005, I can only conclude that in some way I’ve become a smaller, more craven, less hopeful creature somewhere between the two. (Though I’ve become funnier.) Between the writing of each play, of course, one will find 9/11, the Iraq War, and several years of my precious liberalism utterly losing its way as all of the prominent liberals (excepting a gutsy few like Paul Berman and Thomas Friedman) using all their breath to denounce George Bush (who, to be sure, deserved and deserves denouncing) and none to denounce the rise of a strain of Islamist fanaticism bent on erasing the things we value most in democratic and secular culture. Liberals missed a moment after 9/11. We could have been a much more powerful force against George Bush and his rancid entourage if we had first acknowledged that there are things in the world that are far, far worse than George Bush, and lent our voices against them as well. In addition to the usual amount of personal disillusionment that everyone accumulates moving from their twenties into their thirties, there was a certain element of profound philosophical disillusionment.

I don’t like to think of myself as smaller. I’d like to write plays that offer more possibilities to an audience. If we present our visions powerfully enough, then we get audiences to live inside the world of our plays for two hours at a time. If those worlds are small and constrictive, as was the world of Hail Satan, it can be hard to shake off that sense of confinement. That was intentional with that particular play, but I’d like to not do that every time at bat. I’d like to not be in the business of peddling pessimism.

One last note on religious faith: I keep coming back to it in my writing for one other reason, a dramaturgical one. It’s the most fascinating motivation going. Money and sex are sort of shortcut motivations. People accept them immediately; the benefits are immediately tangible. Same with survival, same with the Bruce Willis/Harrison Ford thing of “They’ve got my family!” Love is a bit more interesting because it’s intriguing to discover what given character thinks love is. Tom’s journey in Hail Satan is a journey toward love, for example. But religious faith is the most interesting of all, because you’re creating a character willing to engage in life-changing acts because of devotion to an entity and a set of principles that are invisible. For most people, religious faith is the one thing that from time to time lifts them out of a life otherwise spent in pursuit of money, orgasms, companions, children, and oblivion. It’s so hard to explain, and that may be why I keep wanting to explain it.

I keep feeling like my tone is so humorless in these answers. Well, maybe some of this stuff isn’t funny.

I think you can blame me for the humorless tone in your answers, since I’m admittedly asking increasingly humorless questions. With a little luck, Parts 2 and 3 of this dialogue will focus much more on the pros and cons of poop jokes and whether you think Yoda or Palpatine is a better light saber fighter. Apologies if I’m doing any sort of damage to your mental state with this line of inquiry.

With your answer, I can either continue down the line of inquiry I was planning on (which would mean ostensibly ignoring what you’ve written) or go deeper down the rabbit hole of secularism and religion (which would end up having me do some long rant about Israel versus Palestine for 15 pages before getting back to the subject at hand and asking about Hail Satan). I think I’ll try a little bit of both and address your answer as briefly as possible so we don’t both just sink into horrible fits of despair.

I agree that faith is very hard to explain but worth explaining, since faith and God do seem to be more interesting subjects to talk and think about than chasing pussy. Not that I have anything against writing about — or chasing — the latter.

I also don’t think you’ve been peddling pessimism (in the way that I’ve sometimes been very guilty of; as proud as I am of Allston, Ruins, and The Adventures of Nervous Boy, arguments could be made that they try to convince the audience that happiness is a sham). I also did notice the claustrophobic nature of Hail Satan versus the expansive nature of Sky Over Nineveh. Perhaps, rather than this being a sign of becoming smaller, it’s a sign of getting older. I really don’t know. (It’s really why I thought of them as companion pieces and I didn’t look into it any deeper than, “The play about God is expansive, the play about Satan is restrictive. Makes sense.” Then again it’s pretty common for me to make connections in my twisted little brain that simply aren’t there.)

I had a feeling that that’s what you meant with secular liberalism, but that we were just using different terminology. I had never been particularly political (Pete’s more the politics junkie; he regards political events like sporting matches), barring the fact that I check in to see who’s running for what, check in to see what the politicians’ policies are, then vote. 9/11 was particularly disheartening (after the dust settled and I was able to get a grip on my horses) because we all pissed away some once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. We could have gotten the world to unite and eliminate the presence of Wahabite Islamic fundamentalists (I think pretty much everyone is in agreement that the Wahabites have to go). We should have taken a long, hard look at our alliance with Saudi Arabia and…ah, fuck it. You know the rest (it’s really too depressing to rehash).

As I understand it, a key difference between the secular Western world and the Islamic Middle-Eastern world is that we (the former) see the separation of church and state as fundamentally right, they (the latter) see it as fundamentally wrong. Both have problems and inherent flaws in the ideas, although ultimately I do believe in the former. Having said that, I do understand the logic of the latter (i.e., faith and belief in God is the foundation for the creation of civilization). I don’t agree with it, since none of us can be certain what God wants, but I can understand the logic of it.

Your theological beliefs do seem to permeate both Sky Over Nineveh and Hail Satan in ways that make me think that referring to them as being just a good dramaturgical motivation as a little disingenuous (not to imply that you’re trying to gain obedient cult followers, the way we here at Nosedive are). In other words, it’s clear that God and religion is on your mind in more ways than just useful story tools (since you’ve returned to the subject in more than one produced play).

Forgive me for waxing your car a little here. Sky Over Nineveh helped me to understand the possible meaning of the story of Jonah and “buy into” the concept of God as a real, genuine presence in our lives. Not to get all mushy/preachy (trust me, I haven’t been “Born Again”), but it did enable me to make sense of the Old Testament, which for the longest time has been a series of disparate parables that have never seemed to add up to anything, other than God is an angry force that makes it rain frogs if you wear garments made from two different threads. I could never figure out what the moral or point of the story of Jonah was when I read the Old Testament (or Torah). (True, I have some difficulties reading scripture, simply because I don’t know how I’m supposed to be reading it. Am I reading this for a moral? A guide? A prophecy?) The Book of Jonah was always particularly tough for me. What’s it trying to tell me, other than God yanks His followers around and leaves them high and dry “just because?” But the closing lines from Sky Over Nineveh helped me get over that particular theological roadblock when Baby Bitch/God says: “Jonah, how long do you think it has taken me to come to the conclusions I’ve reached. A generation? A lifetime? Two lifetimes? The entire history of your race from one end to the other represents a fraction of the time I’ve spent coming to the conclusions I’ve reached. And you think I could explain them to you?” Well, there you go. God has “thought shit through” and is continuing to do so, and His plan is infinite and He can’t possibly explain an infinite plan to a finite being. That’s something that’s stuck with me ever since I saw your show (which would have been staged…2001? 2002?) and reminded me of how effective theatre can be (two hours of fun can lead to rewiring an audience member’s brain. Who knew?).

Not that faith is not a good dramaturgical device (in the way that a terrorist kidnaps Harrison Ford’s family is a good dramaturgical advice). I guess this is just my long roundabout way of saying a.) I agree that faith may be a better character motivation than money and b.) y’done good, kid.

Anything you want to add before I ask my last two questions on Hail Satan?

I think you wrapped us up admirably. I’ll only return to the earlier point about peddling pessimism. I think playwrights can speak to their audiences/readers in a couple of different ways. A single play by itself can be a statement, but so can the complete work of any given writer. It’s important to be able to consider what a given writer is offering the world in the context of all of their various writings taken as a whole. David Mamet offers us a merciless and cruel universe in American Buffalo and Edmond, but he also shows us great compassion and even tenderness in plays like The Cryptogram and The Old Neighborhood. It means something to me that he understands that tenderness and compassion do exist in human nature, that they aren’t always manifestations of agenda. It means something to me that Harold Pinter wrote Monologue and A Kind of Alaska, works as warm (not happy, mind you, warm) as his better-known masterpieces are cold.

Sometimes a playwright needs to tell the audience, “Life can be merciless and unfair, and people can just want to hurt you. We all just need to understand that that’s real and engage with it.” A play like your Ruins does that. But a playwright who only writes plays like Ruins or Hail Satan is essentially telling lies by obscuring part of the truth, the truth that the human race is genuinely capable of compassion and empathy and companionship and the accumulation of wisdom.

A play like Dying Goldfish expands what the Comtois-verse offers to an audience. To me it’s a play about a woman who has learned to live with imperfection, who has learned how to band together with her loved ones to lighten the burden of her frailty, and who passes a long some of what she has learned to her younger brother, who is still laboring under one of the key sentimental delusions of youth: that one perfect love will fix everything about your life. I found the relationship of the brother and sister very moving, and I thought when they left together with their arms around each other at the end that it was just joyous. (I also think Nervous Boy, for all its terrifying numbness and alienation, offers redemptive touches. I don’t want to give away anything, as I understand it will soon be going into production, but I think a phone call made by a key female character near the end is very important to understanding what one should take away from Nervous Boy.)

At any rate, I’m all good, and ready for whatever’s next!

Great! I only have two relatively short questions, which will wrap up Part One. Before I do that, I think you do make a crucial point about constantly writing plays that show a dark and hurtful worldview end up becoming increasingly dishonest. The good example of this (in filmmaking) is Todd Solondz, who, far from being the edgy and honest provocateur that he was once hailed as when Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness came out, has shown himself to be a one-trick pony displaying mean-spirited cynicism for the sake of mean-spirited cynicism with his follow-up films (Palindromes seemed to be the last nail in the coffin).

My hope, the ongoing hope with Nosedive Productions, is that through the plays, our audiences will see a very wide spectrum of worldviews, philosophies and tones (i.e., a very sincere and hopeful Christmas Carol followed by a very bleak and horrific Nervous Boy and everything in between). If I just kept writing and staging variations of Ruins, I’d be portraying a dishonest worldview and peddling pessimism. If I just kept writing and staging variations of Christmas Carol, I’d be portraying a dishonest worldview and pandering populism.

Of course, you will notice that the way several theatre companies survive in this city is by ostensibly doing the same show over and over again to a specific target audience. I mean, bully for them and all, but it’s something I really have no interest in doing (and I’m guessing you’re very much the same way).

Now, here’s my second-to-last question about Hail Satan in particular, and it’s a relatively easy one (at least, I hope it is). Hail Satan was a genuine horror play (and horror being something very difficult to pull off in theatre), based primarily in psychological horror (Rosemary’s Baby being the most obvious “jumping off” point for the play) as opposed to grindhouse or splatter horror (what our next show, The Adventures of Nervous Boy, will try to pull off in June). You said yourself that you were a Rosemary’s Baby/The Omen kinda guy (whereas I’m more of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre/Dawn of the Dead kinda guy). Was there any concern about trying to do “horror” for the stage, or was that why the show is more in the psychological horror sub-genre? Or am I way off in my assessment here?

I should say first, I love Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Dawn of the Dead. While the psychological horror of Rosemary’s Baby may be more my style, those two may ultimately be the greater masterpieces. They’re both certainly better than The Omen.

I’ve loved the horror genre since I was a teenager. I never grew out of it, and eventually I began to object to the concept of “growing out of it.” The horror genre has the same capacity for greatness as any other. In political matters, horror films are often the first responders, in either an allegorical fashion (Texas Chainsaw or Deathdream as responses to Vietnam) or in a very direct fashion, like Joe Dante’s recent zombie telefilm Homecoming.

My sense of horror as being transferable to the stage began when I read Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker, which employed both the monstrous and the uncanny for its effect. My ideas sharpened after reading Wallace Shawn’s nightmarish early play A Thought In Three Parts. The dead-hearted sexual drones of the middle scene are as queasy and frightening as a mall-full of Romero’s zombies, and the way their personalities would suddenly change or just plain empty out like blood from a wound made me want to turn all the lights on and call a friend. Edward Albee’s Seascape isn’t scary at all, but I loved the way he didn’t have a minute’s hesitation about bringing a pair of giant talking lizards onstage halfway into what had been, up to that point, a completely realistic piece about a married couple.

About every other play I write isn’t good enough to be produced, and one of my drawer-plays that I wrote in 2003 was a radical adaptation of the British horror film Death Line called Raw Meat. All I ended up retaining from my source material was an underground cannibal who cries out “Mind the doors!” (Americanized to “Stand clear of the closing doors!” for my purposes.) In my version, for about forty minutes we watch a man and a woman in their late twenties waiting on a subway platform. They flirt by talking about their relationship experiences and hopes. So far, so Off-Off-Broadway. Then, at about the forty-minute mark, they are kidnapped by a tribe of underground cannibals and taken to their lair deep beneath the city. One of the cannibals turns out to be the guy’s ex-girlfriend. There’s a fair bit of blood and splatter after that. It was a neat script, but not quite ready for prime time, and I lost my desire to improve it.

With Hail Satan, I made a decision early on that I wanted it to be frightening. The only way I can go about being frightening is to look inside myself and see what scares me, and try to realize it theatrically. I came up with several things:

- I’m frightened of sudden and profound changes in people’s personalities.

- I’m frightened that I might undergo a sudden and profound change in my personality.

- I’m frightened of spending the rest of my life trapped somewhere doing things I don’t want to do.

- I’m frightened of falling in with a cult and being turned into a mindless follower.

- I’m frightened of becoming a father.

- I’m frightened of responsibility.

- I’m frightened of being hurt by someone stronger than me.

- I’m frightened that I might hurt someone weaker than me.

So as I wrote Hail Satan, I tried to weave these fears into the play’s essential fabric. The building where Tom works may or may not be hell, but it is a place he can never leave, a place that will trap him using both his weakness and his economic dependence, a place that will diminish him until he becomes the kind of man who can’t distinguish between love and possession and badly harms someone who is his responsibility, someone who is in his care. These are among the things that frighten me, and I wanted Hail Satan to realize them in the form of drama.

Someday I’d like to explore more subconscious fears the way Churchill did in The Skriker, but I don’t have the budget for that sort of imagery as yet. I love the idea of grindhouse horror, but I don’t know how to write it. I can’t wait to see you guys make it happen with Nervous Boy.

I seem to have no such worries of stagecraft boundaries. In Evil Hellcat and the Liquid Lunch, one of the characters — Zombie Tom — gets his scalp peeled back to expose his brain so that a succubus/groupie can feed off of it. I had a lot of fun writing it, and was under the impression another group was going to produce it, so I really didn’t give a shit how they were going to do it. Part of the fun for me being a playwright is to write fairly crazy shit and see just how the production team pulls it off. I think this happened after reading Clive Barker’s Frankenstein in Love, which describes a scene where there’s a talking head on a stick. Since Mr. Barker was neither rich nor famous at the time of his playwriting and stage producing — and therefore would not have unlimited funds to stage such a thing — it gave me an “anything goes” attitude when it came to writing for the stage.

(Also, reading A Thought in Three Parts helped to augment my “Seriously, Anything Goes” attitude with my writing.)

After it turned out that Evil Hellcat was going to be produced by Nosedive, Catherine was given the unenviable task of making a detachable scalp with a brain underneath. Since she succeeded, and it turned out to gross out a number of audience members far more than I had expected (hey, my sense of humor is sicker than most), it gave us more confidence to play around with makeup and effects.

Sometimes, it really helps to not know how to do things and just make it up as you go along.

I, too, am looking forward to taking what we learned from Hellcat and kicking it up “to 11” for Nervous Boy. And I would love to see that cannibal play of yours (seriously, just make the ins and outs of how to stage it Jordana’s problem).

I have to say, that template for Hail Satan did make it scary, since those are definitely some things that scare me.

And with that, a la the shitty ham-handed segue newscasters use, here’s my last question specifically on Hail Satan.

There was a line that (the night I went to see it, anyway) had the audience moan in dread, when Sean’s character (Charlie, the boss and Head of the Satanic cult) reprimands yours (Tom) on the ad campaign by saying, “Your draft is about a new paradigm replacing an old paradigm. You’re essentially saying, ‘This is so much better than the way you do things now, the silly way you’re doing things now.’ That’s unacceptable. Thoughtware has got to seem like what everyone’s already doing. Don’t give them the option. We’re the only paradigm. Got it?” This, to me, seems to be the underlying philosophy behind the Satanists in the play, and it’s where Charlie first shows signs of his (and their) insidious nature.

Now, what’s interesting in this philosophy is that this is how the Satanists want to get their message out (not through a “New and Improved” plan but by convincing everyone that this is what they’ve been believing all the time, and it’s time to start acknowledging it), but at the same time, isn’t this the underlying philosophy behind most art (grandstanding on a soapbox usually causes audiences to tune out)? Is there a greater meaning behind that line or idea? Or are artists truly Satanists? Aside of course from me, who openly kisses the hooves of The Cloven One every night.

Yeah, I was pretty proud of that line.

Obviously to make any society accept significant changes to its definition of acceptable behavior, effective propaganda is required. Propaganda, like faith and technology, is a neutral force that can be put to a number of uses. Once again, moral judgment is key.

What Charlie is describing there is part of what I have admired, through gritted, furious teeth, about the Bush Administration propaganda machine. Initially the response to the Abu Ghraib/Guantanamo scandal was to deny that torture took place, then to blame it only on a few low-level bad apples, but both of those responses proved to be, I guess, lies, the party-line changed. The new thing was to start inventing all sorts of terms to re-imagine torture as a spectrum of activities, some morally acceptable, some not. “Torture” is bad, and we don’t do it, but sometimes we do use “stress positions” or engage in “coercive interrogation techniques.”

The trick is to invent these terms and then employ them as if they had been in use for decades. The hope is that if you make something seem entrenched, you work a sort of suggestive power over people: you make them think they have already acquiesced, possibly long ago, to this new and different thing you’re doing. Similar techniques would be effective for promoting the legalization of gay marriage. An argument I hear quite often (and one which is persuasive to me) is: “Gay people are already living together. Gay couples are already raising children. Their straight neighbors are cool with it. Get on board with what is already happening.”

The way to win arguments, as the best Republican strategists have understood for some time now, is to define the terms of that argument before your opponent has a chance to take a breath. Look at what’s happening now with the wire-tapping scandal. Many of Bush’s supporters are busily reframing the issue to be: “What’s wrong with wiretapping? Do you want to just wait for terrorist attacks?” A lot of people who hear this formulation experience a sort of clearing of the mind, a glorious simplification. The most pertinent issues - the issuance of warrants, the protection of civil rights by determining the value of collected evidence, the gradual abandonment of privacy – are swept away. Now there’s a different argument happening, one Bush’s critics can’t possibly win.

Artists have known this for a long time. All art has an element of propaganda, no matter how much we go out of our way to avoid didacticism. Simply by writing a play, we are creating a rigged universe, with some details omitted and some featured prominently to create the mindset we want in our audience. If we render the first twenty pages, the first twenty minutes effectively enough, the audience goes through a subconscious acceptance process: “Oh, yes, this is how things are. Now I know to react from here on.”

If the rendering is ineffective…well, have you ever had the sensation of watching a romantic comedy and realizing you hated one or both of the lovers, or you thought the lead should actually end up with a different person than the filmmakers think she should end up with? You find yourself hating the movie not because it’s badly made, but because it’s trying to get you to buy into a paradigm that you don’t accept. You hate it because the whole premise is wrong.

And herein lies the solution to this conundrum, I think. I’m pretty close to being a free speech absolutist (there are one or two gray areas, but I’m pretty close) and I’m not in favor of legal limitations on politicians, advocates, or artists that inhibit their ability to create propaganda. The only solution is for people in general to have better brains - by which I mean, people need to cultivate their skepticism and their courage. A rigorous skepticism inures you from being colonized by someone else’s paradigm, and courage allows you to respond when they try. If you hate what my play is trying to say about the world, you should write something in response. The most effective response would be to write another play, one that shows me what you see, but the main thing is to not keep quiet. Propaganda can only be resisted by strong, skeptical minds.

I’m over looking something here, I think. Sometimes, to truly enjoy a piece of art, you need to make an act of surrender. You need to let something defensive inside yourself rest, and give yourself over to the world unfolding in front of you so that you can feel sensations that you couldn’t generate from inside yourself. It’s like a lot of other things in life. Falling in love is more of a surrender than a fight. You’re allowing someone in invade you and change you, because it would be worse to send them away.

So there you are. Sometimes you fight, sometimes you surrender. How can you tell when each one is called for? I have no freakin’ idea.

Next: The fun of invading minds and fighting without surrender.


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Ramblin' Blog Entry

I’m amidst the “dialogue” with playwright Mac Rogers and am awaiting his answers to my quite nosy questions, and we here at Nosedive Central are organizing the first reading for The Adventures of Nervous Boy (A Penny Dreadful), which will take place sometime next week, depending on everyone’s schedules. In the meantime, I figured I would take this time to treat this page as a typical blog. You know, blather on about what’s been going on in my life for the past few weeks, what sort of music I’m listening to, that sort of trite stuff.

Okay, I’m not really listening to any music right now (my “Cherry Pie” ring-tone on my phone notwithstanding). But I’ll still blather.

* * *

In theatre-related news, Wendy Wasserstein died (as I’m sure you all no doubt know by now). Admittedly, I’m ignorant of her work. I’ve never seen nor read a play by Ms. Wasserstein. I know, I should be flogged and exiled from the theatre community, but since I’m already so on the fringe of the theatre community as it is, I doubt I’ll notice much difference between exile and integration.

However, I’m guessing it’s now time to get acquainted with her work.

Also, Patrick, a.k.a. Philucifer, a.k.a. Charlie Willis, sent me this link in the New York Times about directors protecting their work and suing others who “steal” their directorial input. The implication is that directors want to copyright their work. It’s an interesting can of worms to open, since a director works on material that’s copyrighted in someone else’s name (the playwright).

Legally, the only precedent I can think of in which a director’s work can be copyrighted is to protect the blocking/stage directions as choreography, since choreography can be and is protected under U.S. copyright laws. I brought this up to Pete, however, and he was mildly offended at the idea that all a director comes up with is blocking. Although I agree that there’s much more to what a director does than blocking, copyrighting the blocking and stage directions is the only way I can think of where there’s a legal model (i.e., copyrighting directorial work by arguing that the directorial work is blocking, blocking is choreography, choreography can be copyrighted). Anything else is a bit…murky and gray, since — despite what many may think — ideas can’t be given copyrights or trademarks (i.e., how can a director legally claim ownership to an actor’s motivation and, more to the point, how can said motivation be proven to be stolen?).

This is all the beginning of an interesting yet slippery slope. Bear in mind that I'm not wild about stage directors having constitutional rights or civil liberties to begin with. I'm pretty much against stage directors being given citizenship. But that's just me.

(Yes, I’ve received several angry letters and phone calls from the ACLU for keeping Pete in a cage in the basement.)

Finally, on the subject of theatre, I saw my first play of the year last week: Red Light Winter, playing at the Barrow Street Theatre, written and directed by Adam Rapp. I really dug it. It was right up my alley and Mr. Rapp does seem to share a kinship with Bug author Tracy Letts (although Red Light Winter is not nearly as violent as Bug). (Yes, I am also aware that another superficial connection between the two plays is that I saw them both at the same venue.) I recommend it to people who are emotionally troubled, feel increasingly alienated from the world and enjoy onstage nudity. Namely, people like me. Thanks to Marsha for getting me the free tickets!

* * *

As I had mentioned briefly in my “2006” Jamespeak entry, one of the items on my “to do” list was to spend one day watching all six episodes of Star Wars in order. Well, during MLK weekend, a bunch of us in Nosedive did indeed do that. Well, sort of (we basically crapped out during Return of the Jedi). Let’s just say that it is days like this that make me realize I should be doing something more worthwhile with my time. Like reading Ms. Wasserstein’s plays.

Still, it was fun, albeit a bit draining (I don’t quite recommend it, people. Watching 10-12 hours of Star Wars is kind of like forcing yourself to eat nothing but Pringles and Snickers bars for 10-12 hours). I’m still a fan of the movies (although I’m really glad to never have to see Episode I ever again) and I liked watching how Episode III (the last of the prequels) flowed rather nicely into Episode IV (the original Star Wars).

What, you were expecting tight, intelligent commentary on the movies? Hells no! Basically I like light saber “twirly-whirly” action and movies where shit blows up. The first movie I saw in the theatre was The Empire Strikes Back, so I’m one of those people who grew up with Star Wars as a staple of my childhood. There’s really precious little more that can be said on the subject.

Except that Yoda’s a pretty kick-ass light saber fighter. Even though he doesn’t win a single light saber fight in any of the movies.

I also got a sandwich, so January wasn’t a total washout (in terms of achieving goals).

* * *

Also, as mentioned in a previous Jamespeak, Cars Can Be Blue, the official Nosedive house band, had been on a self-made cross-country tour for the past couple months. However, their tour came to a grinding halt when their bus broke down in Ranger, Texas.

But here’s what really sucks about this: they’re still stranded.

According to their blog on their MySpace page, they’ve been working at the truck stop in Ranger where their bus broke down for the past month, so they can raise enough money for a new injection pump and thereby return home. They’re now asking for donations from fans and friends to help bail them out. So check out their page for the details (you do need a PayPal account).

* * *

And that’s really about what’s happening over on my end of the barnyard. Part One of my online dialogue with Mac should be up pretty soon.

Until then, don’t take any wooden nickels.

Loving onstage nudity,

James “Increasingly Alienated” Comtois

February 1, 2006

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