I don’t know many artists that dabble in complacency.
I was fortunate enough to take a class with the reputable Philadelphia playwright/screenwriter, Bruce Graham, this past winter. Bruce has over 25 years experience writing for television, film and stage. He has won countless awards and grants and spawned unprecedented accessible fame through his play Philly Fan that boasts sold-out performances and return engagements.
It had been awhile since I took a class within an art discipline, so I was excited. I fought tooth-and-nail to get into it in the first place. After numerous faxes and emails, I finally broke the shaft and my adviser relented, granting me access. I had just survived a ten-week term taking classes I had absolutely no interest in that were horrendously unchallenging. Also, thanks to my “real job,” I was getting behind with my grant research and submission deadlines. I needed inspiration. And also (also) I kept getting distracted by this stupid novel I’m trying to birth.
Besides the viewing room slash classroom being particularly cold, there were many chilly comments shared between us about each other’s work in his Playwriting I class. When I arrived at the tv/film major’s living hall that also housed the classrooms, offices and labs in the basement, I felt like a freshman again. I was starting to get used to the familiar faces of the education program, but I felt like an outsider. Once again I was the token black guy, surrounded by motley theater majors traveling in gaggles.
The hallways were paved with that shiny, speckled linoleum scabbed with black sneaker streaks, accompanied by that distinct basketball court sound. The walls, big cement bricks coated in a heavy, buttery yellow as if to avoid that institutional feel but failing miserably. Gray and maroon added softness to the labyrinth of corridors that lead to the aforementioned rooms with no clearly visible signage for the elevators or hidden restrooms – surely a pedestrian part of campus where great minds with nimble limbs meet.
On that first day, I waited outside with my new classmates (judging them as they judged me, through our peripheral vision) until the prior class had removed all of the equipment they were using. It was so nice to see students learning an actual, profitable and unique skill. Jealousy erupted inside of me. I walked into the freezing viewing room that was adorned with several different shades of gray, from the carpet to the theater seating to the wall paint. I sat in the front row, just as I’ve been doing since kindergarten, and anticipated.
A youngish, budding gentleman entered touting his firm yet supple body through the fit in his jeans and green polo shirt. I gasped thinking to myself “oh no” just what I needed, a crush on a hot professor. Luckily he was helping the students remove the equipment from the class. He apologized to me and my sprawled out classmates with a seductive and effortless smile while pushing his gold, wire-rimmed glasses up the bridge of his nose. Classic, sexy A/V nerd. Then he arrived…
At first glance, I knew that I had to be careful when I met Mr. Graham. He was my cliché type, physically. He walked in, half waddling half meandering, but with a smug and purposeful nature. He was wearing old old old light blue jeans with an indescipherable t-shirt that mentioned some company he’s probably never even heard of. He was wearing what I believe to be one of the most abdominal insults to fashion, a denim button down dress shirt (mind you, I’m wearing a Levi’s one today) with it totally unbuttoned revealing the dryer-set in stained tshirt below. He was staunchly but worn by experience, I pegged him at late 40’s early 50’s. He was covered in hair all except on his head and cheeks; his man-coat oozed out of that horrendous tshirt, his ears, his nose, his forearms, the backs of his hands, etc. Not that I was paying attention or anything.
I had already missed two of his classes due to my contentions with my adviser. He welcomed me in a huff and dismissive manner, alluding to his pity on me having missed two of his classes. Bruce made it very clear to me on that first day that we met he was very talented and excellent at what he did, not because of what he has done, but how and why he keeps doing it. I was instantly charmed by his rough around the edges demeanor and appearance (he looked like Bob Fosse, my idol, in his post-Cabaret, pre-latter years), his appreciation of the craft, his skill, and most importantly, his accolades.
Immediately I felt I had something to prove.
We were to write scripts for each and every class. Before long I knew that I was infinitely better than 95% of my not-so-peers-peers, not only because of my skill but because of my very own accolades. I subtly gloated about how fabulous my work is and some of the things I have done in the past. I guess half in self defense, half in staking my claim of superiority. But the things these children wrote about! Every other word was fuck, dude, like, shit; has texting inspired a four-letter word generation? Not only was the “grammar” offensive, the situations were redundantly repetitive (double negative intended). House party, two people in bed, house party, two people in bed. One trust fund baby (I could tell) had the audacity to write about a homeless person. Ha!
The classes went by, on and on and on. I couldn’t wait to get past hearing what these kids were into and delving into my own work, and Bruce’s. There were two other students (the other 5%) who wrote very well, one who had a style very similar to mine and liked a lot of the same writers as me. We both were the only ones doing any major critical thinking and offering up conversation about the class’ work (mostly each other’s). Bruce noted that we both had qualities affiliated with the theatre of the absurd and we both blushed in bliss, so fond and honored to be compared to greats the likes of Genet, Albee and Beckett. The very last class, the other absurdist wrote a vaudeville and had me read for the lead. It was one of the more inspirational portions of my time spent in that class. My last piece I hadn’t realized that I named the main character Bruce, not until we had the reading in class. Funny.
Bruce Graham’s newest work Something Intangible is an ensemble piece that takes a voyeuristic look into the point of view of a business-minded brother of a creative genius. Together, as total opposites, they form one monumental force fighting their way through the tumult of the business of show business (in this case, the film industry). Graham conceptualized the work long before he actually took it to pen and paper, drawing on research he delved into regarding the Van Gogh brothers and their relationships with art and each other. Take that fascinating topic, throw in a 40’s Hollywood backdrop and a compelling story loosely based on the life of Walt Disney, and you have a well-rounded and poignant homage to the beautiful demon that is the creative process.
Before I speak further about the play, that was by far some of the best theatre I’ve seen/heard on stage, I have to say that there is a certain aptitude that Bruce Graham has for making his work broad-based and accessible while still staying true to artistic innovation. Sure, there is a classic, not-so-timeless feel to his work. From what I’ve read of his, Graham is prone to specify specific moments in time in his plays that are unchangeable, almost as if time were a character in the cast. It is so frustrating to an absurdist like me who speaks on sociopolitical issues yet I live way too much in the future while struggling to figure out the present. In class he noted that some of my dialog was too real. In one of our assignments we were prompted to write based on a specific location and I wrote about my fear of getting into a bike accident and falling over a bridge onto some railroad tracks. Problem was, it had to be a monolgue and I’m only good at dialog. To trick my way out of it, I had two characters on stage, the biker and someone dressed like him laying down on the tracks representing his dead body. The monlogue was grossly filled with “Oh my God” and “Somebody help” as if to avoid having the character confront any of his own emotions*. It was a valuable lesson I learned, writing that and getting the feedback that I did. Now I know better not to cop out of a perfect opportunity to expand a character without getting carried away with technical devices and unspoken illusion.
In another assignment we (they) learned about rhythm. It was as enjoyable as a crossword puzzle. Any good writer loves word games, so I made the best of it. Practice, practice, practice. As much as I know I could write something (good) in iambic pentameter if I wanted, what I really wanted is more inspiration. That came later.
One of the first constructive criticisms I got from a classmate (the other one in the 5%) was another comment on my dialog being too real. He claimed that he felt it was unrealistic for one of my characters to bring up cocaine use so casually. I said, “You must not have met many dancers.” And I left it at that. Bruce defended me, having had experience working with them throughout his career that spanned from the 80s til now, he didn’t think that my matter-of-fact aside about drug abuse was that incredible.
For the last assignment, I really went for the gold. We had been watching the classics: A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Odd Couple, Death of a Salesman. I was seething, wishing I was 5 more years ahead of myself. I pushed out a complex, convoluted script that I couldn’t even begin to explain in words. Bruce kept asking me “What is this about?” and I couldn’t give him an answer. I didn’t want to give him an answer. He was intrigued. I was flattered.
One of his prominent declarations is that a good play should prompt questions from the audience, preferably in the form of “What’s going to happen next?”. Exposition is great in all its forms, but it is the curiosity and anticipation that keeps people awake in the theatre, not just the rude people who forget to turn off their cell phones or with the ones with the candy wrappers. Because of his teaching and his critique, I was able to take my work to a whole other level. I should take a look at that script again.
This is not to say that Mr. Graham does not love theatre tricks and momentary suspension of belief. In Something Intangible he creates several scenes within a scene where the actors are all communicating with the same character at once, a device he manages to pull off effortlessly in writing and is interpretedly brilliantly by the show’s director, Terrence Nolen. 40s music the likes of radio inspired post WWII tunes spin an extra feel of nostalgia into the script as does the innovative and more timeless set constructed for the Arden Theatre’s thrust stage.
Modern wood and leather finishes are adjacent to steel railings and cylinders depicting water towers, hinting at the pith of the creative process, not so much the actual story itself. Lighting devices are used throughout, painting the mood of each scene as a painter would stroke his canvas with varying emotions. The set was immaculately constructed with two occassional chairs downstage facing centerstage where a couch sits in front of a tiered storage area with drawers, also made out of wood with contrasting finishes. Behind that, a drafting board slash desk with various accoutrements for creativity, the central character in the play. The backdrop was a multi-framed window with the backdrop of the Hollywood hills painted on it with a pool of geometric light spilling onto the carpet below, mirroring the square windows.
There aren’t enough words to describe the talent of the play’s ensemble cast. Scott Greer plays the business-minded brother, Dale, who tirelessy supports and navigates the ebb and flow that is the aspirations of his brother Tony, played by Ian Merrill Peakes. Doug Hara successfully handles the role of the young animator who is constantly the pawn and paintbrush of Tony’s ideal, abused by the brutal nature of his perfectionism. He has a monologue that seems almost obligatory, not nececessirly for the plot but for the theater itself, but he pulls it off quickly like a bandaid and in the end, no harm is done. Sally Mercer takes the role of Sonia, Dale’s psychoanalyst. This character served as one of the primary vehicles with which to speak of the culture and state of mind in which the play takes place. The character speaks of the struggle with legitimacy of her profession in the medical industry during that time, and it was captivating to watch.
Most notably was the dual performance of Walter Charles who stars as Von Meyerhoff, the inspiration for Tony’s innovation, and Bartelli, the banker of the studio who is the bane of his artistic freedom. Ironic and wonderful how Walter plays these two roles, one the champion of Tony’s work, the other the antagonist, in a way. Despite all the genius Tony doles out to Dale who is incharge of the business end and securing financing, it is Bartelli who controls the fate of his work, representing the major players in the business who provide funding to the studio that presents Tony’s work.
As time-specific as this work is, it speaks volumes about how the industry works – the struggle between what is art, what is commercial and what is innovation. At that time, technology was just starting to seep into everyone’s lives as a form of entertainment. There was so much that could be done. New was exciting and dangerous, and just as expensive as it is now. Meagan Bridge, a highly-acclaimed Philadelphia-based performance artist and a friend of mine just recently said of her work as an artist, “We’re tired of relying on hierarchical and opaque structures of funding cycles and the emotional whims of presenters with a lot of power to do a measly two- or three-day run on a proscenium stage. We want to take back performance and make it more a part of our artistic practice and our daily life.” Much could be said for the current contradictory state of the arts not only here in Philadelphia, but all over the country. This play couldn’t have come at a better time.
Something Intangible begins to explain that inescapable desire to create and the vehicle that is entertainment. The “beast” or “demon” or “creative act” is something that has plagued the world’s greatest creators. We will never know what went on in Paris between the Van Gogh brothers those fateful two years in Paris when Vincent Van Gogh managed to produce an amazing amount of work. We will never know the innerworkings of Walt Disney’s mind. We will never know the true struggle of the artist. More importantly, the artist will never know true happiness.
Near the end of the play, Dale claims that his brother will never be happy. He is a perfectionist in love with his art and perhaps he is narcissitic (is that not the most vivid and accurate description of the artistic process?). During the final scene, I couldn’t help but turn and look at my friend Jamie who sat next to me (a fellow artist and champion of my work). She was already looking at me and smiling, reminiscing about the jokes we’ve made in the past regarding my inability to enjoy my successes, to stop and look at what I’ve done, to complete a creation and accept it as such (completed), to be happy with my work… There’s always a line a that could be better, a move that could be sharper, something that could be cut, something that could be added. Perfection will never be enough for me. It horrifies me in a way but I know that I couldn’t live under any pretense.
Bruce Graham tackles this issue with such a subtle grace, at least on the outside. He manages to add wit to the complex subject and you want to laugh at the humor but you don’t know how to feel about the sadness because on the outside it looks self-induced. But he is a patriot of us cursed with this blasted talent. This way of being. As if nothing else would or could matter. He mastered his aptitude for art and made room for a life. A rare and honorable feat. I was hoping that he would rub off on me in class. He sparked my creative processes, and that warm, familar coldness settled over me, knowing that I was alone and I was possessed. As much as I had met a brethren, I was still very much alone.
*note to self: examine this more.