In six days, Vince and I are going to take A Big Risk. We’re going to get on a plane (Vince hates flying) and go to Minneapolis, Minnesota. There we’re going to hand a script to a room full of people, most of whom I haven’t met (first-draft readings take a pint of my blood), and we’re going to read it, rehearse it, record it, and make a serial podcast out of it.
This is Jarnsaxa Rising. Ancient Norse Gods use humans as pawns to battle each other. When an ancient giantess takes human form to engage in eco-terrorism, a corporate team tries to stop her, and learns who the real enemy is.
The script is stylistically different for me, in narrative and in craft. I’ve never written science fiction or fantasy before. Adjusting to audio drama is also new for me. Vince has done a lot of sound engineering and still experiments with it for fun. He’ll be performing all of the sound engineering and writing all of the music. We made a sketch comedy podcast episode to prove to ourselves we could do it. Now we’re getting involved with other people and going on a journey.
Carin Bratlie believed in me enough to produce Traveling Light years ago, and now we’re going to go take a leap of faith together again. She’s assembled a solid, smart cast, and she’ll be directing.
I know so many people who complain at being left out of opportunities. There’s so much “they don’t want me because I’m too (x, y, z) for them” that I hear, and I want to be in a culture of saying “yes, and.” This is one of those times where we can step up and build the sandbox in which we want to play.
Speaking of building your own sandbox, progress on Jarnsaxa Rising continues. In addition to the script, I’m working on “meet the artist” posts for the podcast’s blog. Every time I open up my e-mail, see the performers’ headshots and read their bios, I get all warm and giggly inside. This project is going to be Really Good.
And last night it rained, finally, so the garden is getting wild again. The red lilies are blooming and doubling and trebling, and the morning glory vine has started to fight with the lavender, but they’re no match for the mint, so I have to get in there and break up some of this battle.
Once upon a time there was a playwright who was really, really bored.
She sent a Facebook message to a friend, a director, who was never bored, halfway across the country. The message was, “I need something new to write about, throw me a prompt.”
The director said, “Just above the 60th parallel in the Baltic Ocean, a team of researchers arrives at an abandoned wind farm, to investigate some unexplained energy surges. They discover that the wind farm has become sentient. And hungry.”
The writer said, I like this, and she researched and thought and imagined. Five years later, we have this:
It seemed like a great play idea, with multiple characters and the wind turbines themselves being played by actors who rotated giant rain sticks, as if the gods and humans and everyone were all embodied in the wind turbines. But the story was too unwieldy. It made more sense to break it into episodes and do it as a podcast. So, basically, it’s a science fiction fantasy revenge tragedy that takes place in a dystopian future and the ancient past.
and that’s what I’ve been up to lately.
So, I’m writing the script. I’m eight episodes in, with hopefully only two more to go. although two of the episodes may get merged into one. Vince is doing all the sound engineering. Carin is directing, she’s found a cast, and we’re going to Minneapolis to record it in July. We’ll edit the files in August, and launch the podcast in the fall.
I’ve been taking a Coursera course, called Sagas and Space, about Norse culture and how they thought about themselves. It’s been inspiring and helpful, particularly Terry Gunnell’s guest lecture on “Spaces, Places, Liminality and The Supernatural in The Old Nordic World.”
I’ve been learning a lot about Indiegogo. This is our campaign, in case you like this and want to help. We’re just over 5% funded, with 41 days to go. I get about two messages a day from people who want me to pay them to retweet the campaign or add it to a directory. which feels like adding my needle to a haystack.
Tonight, I have writer’s block. I know what needs to happen next, everything is outlined. As I write, I feel like I’m stumbling. There’s a lot of new things that I’m learning: writing purely for audio instead of live audio-visual performance, using episodes, using non-linear narrative. some information is missing, and I don’t know what it is, but without it, I can’t confidently move forward. I’ll get it, I just have to find it. I also know that writing doesn’t come from inspiration, inspiration comes from writing.
Fortunately, I have a really good cast, good people who have said, “sure, I’ll climb aboard your wagon.” I just want to make sure I don’t disappoint anyone.
I wanted to go to bed early tonight, so I can get up early tomorrow. It was hot today and it’s supposed to be hot tomorrow, so I’d like to have some of the cool hours of the day at my disposal. I want to get up early, pull weeds and water the flowerbeds before the rest of the world gets moving. The local amateur pyrotechnic aficionados are setting things off, which upsets the dogs. They’re being pretty good about it, but I can hear them shuffling around anxiously.
I think I’m just going to lie down and listen to an audiobook, and hope that settles me down.
Philadelphia Arts Advocacy Day probably sounds like something involving tall skinny women wearing all black and chunky jewelry sipping chardonnay and complaining about the callouses they have on their check-writing hand. And who’s to say it isn’t? Any tall skinny woman who wants to sip chardonnay and complain about arts funding is a friend of mine, as long as she keeps donating to the arts organization of her choice.
But seriously, folks. The Philadelphia Cultural Fund is likely to be reduced for fiscal year 2016. Last year arts advocates convinced Mayor Nutter and City Council to approve an increase in the funding, to $3.14 million. This year, we’re only asking that the budget not be reduced. We’re not asking for an increase (though that would be really nice too). We’re just asking that it not be cut (to the 1.84 million that Mayor Nutter has proposed).
In order to have cool things that make a place livable, such as summer camps, street fairs, orchestras, nifty little painting and writing classes, and endless productions of Shakespeare to make us all feel smart, you have to have cultural funding in your city budget. If you want to be a great city, you have to have great art, and that means great money. We’re not even asking for more money, we’re asking just to keep the number the same.
Thank you for all the hard work that you’re doing for Tacony and Mayfair. I moved to Tacony when I married my husband, and in the past eight years I’ve seen a lot of positive change. For example, the Tacony Storefront Improvement Program was long overdue and is a great asset to our neighborhood. Here is another way that life in our district can be improved, that’s also very important to me.
The Philadelphia Cultural Fund’s budget allocation is at risk. As a writer, artist and arts supporter, I’m writing to urge you to save the Philadelphia Cultural Fund (PCF) and keep the budget allocation at $3.14 million for the fiscal year 2016.
As you already know, last year Council appropriated an additional $1.3M for PCF, bringing its allocation up to $3.14M. This additional funding allowed PCF to dole out larger grants and reinstate the Youth Arts Enrichment grants. This grant provides project support for arts-education programs serving K-12 students in the Philadelphia School District.
Funded projects directly address the priorities of reducing youth violence, reducing truancy and drop-out rates, and increasing the percentage of School District graduation rates and graduates going on to college.
They give kids something positive and productive to do. This is something that our district desperately needs. We have tons of young people wandering the neighborhood, and no opportunities available to them beyond sports. For kids who aren’y interested in or good at sports, there needs to be meaningful activity. Furthermore, participation in arts programs helps increase emotional intelligence, making people less likely to engage in violent or destructive activity.
There are many people in Tacony and Mayfair who are just plain bored, and live to complain about renters or people who are different, and watch television. Events such as the Mayfair farmers’ market and street fairs give residents the opportunity to interact. It’s great that this is happening, but we need more. The Devon Theatre has been sitting idle for years. It’s a tragic joke that the past artistic directors abandoned it. However, it would make an excellent space for Theatre Philadelphia companies to give performances. People in our district need intellectual and emotional stimulation that art and culture provides, in order to lessen violence, drug use and crime. The arts also enhance local businesses; people who attend arts events are more likely to spend money near by, such as for dining and parking. The Philadelphia Cultural Fund allows for better opportunities not only in District 6, but throughout the region.
Mayor Nutter has only appropriated only $1.84 million for the PCF in his FY2016 budget. Please encourage Council to act and ensure that PCF is flat funded for Fiscal year 2016.
Please allocate $1.3M for the Philadelphia Cultural Fund.
Thank you again for your hard work, your time, and your attention to this important matter.
Before you think this has turned into a Paul Williams Stalker Blog, let me give you a little bit of background. Matt Casarino (friend, playwright, singer-songwriter, performer and half of the band HOT BREAKFAST!) and I have been discussing the Paul Williams documentary, Still Alive.
It stuck in our craw, collectively, as you might say. Were this a dog park, the documentary would be that weird tree root sticking up out of the beaten earth that we both kept sniffing, chewing, and trying to pull out, before realizing it was stuck to something much more insidious.
As dogs will, we are compelled to keep gnawing and pulling at that tree root until it sticks up out of the ground, and let the sun and rain hit it, until it grows leaves.
I think what’s frustrating both of us is that Kessler had the opportunity to interview Paul Williams, a person who tapped into the collective unconscious and spun out some amazing songs, and he dropped it. Matt and I both wish we could get a Google Hangout interview with Williams, to ask the really important questions (just how sleazy were the infamous El Sleezo dancing girls?) and just listen and let the man talk, for crying out loud. What’s the science of his songwriting? What’s the process? True, there’s no specific formula to make something that tugs at your emotions, but Williams’ decades of work is close to Joseph Campbell’s decades of study of myth.
Initially, when I saw the movie and it bothered me, I started to write an e-mail to Matt about it. Matt knows the science of what makes pop songs and stories engaging, so I wanted to know his thoughts about the movie. Then I really got on my high horse and posted my rant publicly. Matt wrote me back, and was kind enough to allow me to post his continuation of the conversation here.
Both of us feel like this movie misses a point. Matt showed me that it hits another, very interesting mark.
Without further ado: this just in from Casarino.
The first 45 minutes of Still Alive are maddening. Frustrating as all get-out.
I understand documentaries can be as much about the filmmaker as the subject – whether or not they’re seen on-camera, the director/editor is the one shaping the narrative into the story they want us to see. But while a little personal context is fine, good LORD, man, you’ve got one of the most interesting fellows in the world in front of you, and you’re talking about yourself? Shut up, step aside, and let Williams talk.
My frustration reached its apex during the Vegas scene. After a few awkward shots of Paul’s wife, we see shots of her repeatedly interrupting the band rehearsal to ask the musicians how many comps they want as an annoyed Williams looks on. I turned to Jill and said “this is bullshit. It’s a cheap shot. Kessler is deceptively editing the film to make her look intrusive.” This was followed by Kessler’s v/o, as he opines that Williams is clearly annoyed that his wife is ruining this trip.
That’s when it hit me – I’ve been duped. Kessler isn’t clueless. It’s not just this scene that’s unfairly edited – it’s the whole movie. He’s doing this on purpose. He’s painting himself as a dopey, gooey-eyed fan, and purposefully leaving in all the shots “normal” documentaries leave out – the awkward and uncomfortable confrontations, the sideways glances given to increasingly intrusive cameras. He’s going behind the scenes of his own movie.
And with this method, he ends up showing us a side of Paul we otherwise never would have seen.
He could have given us a sitting-on-a-couch documentary, in which Paul takes us through his life, his various projects, his process, his highs & lows, all that stuff. That would have been very satisfying, honestly, because Paul is a fascinating man and has spent decades learning how to charm the camera. But we wouldn’t know Paul like we do now. We wouldn’t see the very real, often deeply uncomfortable moments when Paul is just barely too polite to tell Steve to go eat a handful of crap. We wouldn’t see an exhausted Paul telling Steve he’s all “Paul Williamsed out,” or telling Steve his questions are condescending and insulting. Those are real, honest moments, and very telling.
And they never would have worked in a “normal” documentary. They would have been jarring, making Paul come off as irritable, unpleasant, ungrateful. But here, we get it. We cannot believe this drip is botching his Paul Williams documentary, a movie he’s lucky to be making. When Paul’s values overtake his courtesy and he incredulously calls out Steve for being shitty, we’re on his side. It’s a great moment, albeit terrifically hard to watch. But if Steve were “invisible,” if the movie was more of a talking head documentary, that moment would make Paul appear irritable and combative. But because we’re as exasperated as Williams, we see a man determined to be present, to accept his past without regretting it. Paul’s not telling us how he feels – he’s showing us. Remarkable.
And Steve takes the hit. He lets himself be comically obtuse, mistaking Paul’s obvious sarcasm for an actual invitation. He lets Williams and his wife glare at Kessler and the camera with a sort of polite contempt. He’s a simpering wuss in the Phillipines, whining about the food and terrorists. He asks jerky questions that seem designed not to provoke answers, but to make Williams feel bad. Christ, he even dresses like a drip, with his oversized, droopy t-shirts, wrinkled pants, and stooped posture. Doesn’t he know he’s in a movie?
But by being the bad guy, he lets Williams be the good guy. That incredible moment at the end, when Williams watches a video of his coked-up 1983 persona with horror, absolute disgust, and embarrassment? That probably couldn’t have happened in a “normal” documentary. In this one, where the jerky filmmaker has been pushing for this moment for years and Williams has been resisting it, it becomes the entire point. It reveals the soul of Paul Williams.
Now, this revelation doesn’t mean I loved the movie. It’s still kind of hacky. Kessler lays it on way too thick, especially in his v/o that opens the movie, when he tells us how much Paul meant to him as a child. He overplays his hand, becoming so unlikable that the movie itself turns off-putting when it should be riveting. And he can’t resist unnecessary, gratuitous intrusions, like the campy clip from The Karen Carpenter Story. Even if his indulgence is a put-on, it’s still indulgence, and often maddening.
Worst of all, the doc really doesn’t spend enough time on Williams’ extraordinary life. I get that Paul isn’t interested in telling old war stories, but there are some important questions that need to be asked. Who first noticed that he was a good songwriter? What movies mean something to him? What songs mean something to him? Who else does he admire? What was it like filming Phantom of the Paradise and The Muppet Show? How did he get sober, and how does he stay that way? What of his family, his children? The portrait of Paul Williams is incomplete without these questions answered. I suspect the middle ground between the vérité doc we got and the This-is-Your-Life doc we wanted is amazing.
But I still like the movie. I find Williams more fascinating, and wonderful, than ever. I want to be his friend, his confidant. And you know what? Now I don’t want to know certain things. I don’t want to know the lurid details of his drug habit. I don’t want to know his songwriting process. I don’t want to know how he channels sadness and depression into his work.
Well – I do want to know those things, but now I don’t think they’re any of my business. Now that I’ve seen Still Alive, I’d rather give him a little space, let him think about his next golf game and where he might want to take his family on vacation.
If I were writing soundbites, I’d say something like “Still Alive isn’t the Paul Williams biography you want, but it’s the one you need.” Thank Cthulhu I’m not a soundbite writer, because that makes me want to stab myself in the nipple. Instead, I’ll say this: I’m glad I saw Still Alive. I like this Paul Williams – a wonderful old guy who’s been through hell (and heaven) and still performs to make a living while helping thousands of people get and stay sober, a guy who’s lost more than he’s won but is happy with what he has. I’d still like to smack Steve Kessler on the back of the head for all the opportunities he missed, but I’d also like to thank him for letting me meet the real Paul.
It’s very true that Still Alive inverts traditional documentary conventions, to make us rethink privacy, loneliness and intimacy, particularly when those things are pushed against fame. I’m grateful to have friends like Matt, with whom I can have these conversations.
Last night we watched the documentary, Paul Williams Still Alive. It was okay, but problematic. It might be interestingly problematic. Stick with this, because there is a point. I promise.
Basically, this guy, Stephen Kessler, was amazed to find out that award-winning, chart-topping soft-rock songwriter and television personality Paul Williams was not dead. In his joy and amazement, he set out to make a documentary about his childhood hero, hoping that maybe it would culminate in the two of them having a sleepover and staying up all night watching old tv clips from his many appearances and swapping tales of 70’s celebrity wacky times. Probably sitting in a pillow fort, wearing their pajamas and drinking Kool-Aid.
Result: the documentarian becomes the documented, and the experiment in narcicissm becomes really freaking tragic. It’s worth watching, if you want to see how what could be a very good documentary can go totally tits up.
This movie’s most annoying attribute is not Kessler’s strained relationship with Williams’ wife, the shaky filming, or the fact that Williams knows how run an interview and how to direct a documentary better than this guy. It’s that not once does he touch on Paul Williams’ songwriting process.
Kessler concentrates on the fame, tv appearances, booze, drugs, and sobriety, all the things about which Williams doesn’t want to talk, what should be the painful third act of your documentary, a part of it, not the end goal or sum and substance. We see Williams touch a keyboard once in the entire film (other than archival footage), and then only for a second. Paul Williams is now the president of ASCAP, and I can’t imagine a better advocate for the rights of songwriters. Although I have to admit I’d love to hear a discussion between him and Jonathan Coulton about songwriters’ rights in a mixed media world. I think Coulton’s experience with audience relationships and the Internet would be interestingly balanced by Williams’ decades in TV, film, and recording.
Kessler totally missed the fact that when you hear a Paul Williams song, you know it’s his, even if you don’t know the title, and haven’t been told anything about it. He has a particular style, once stamped on a song, which pulls the listener in, and then turns just as soon as a comfort level is established. He has an aural relationship with exposition, conflict, escalation and resolution which makes the listener always want a little bit more.
Kessler’s documentary is watchable, and shows us an intimate and painful side of a guy who has made a lot of people happy for many years (particularly in the Phillipines). But it doesn’t show Williams’ productivity, never asked once how he worked on music while getting clean, or how he works on music now. THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT STUFF. This is the kind of thing that helps artists and listeners and ARGH ARGH ARGH Come on, pal. Grow up.
The documentary was made in 2011, so it was made years before Williams became the president of ASCAP, and long before Daft Punk would have tapped him for involvement in their work.
If you listen to this, even without Williams’ unmistakeably unique voice, you can hear his style, despite the layers of electronica and Daft Punkiness of it all. Particularly at about the three minute mark, where the music fills your head with curly-haired women in glittery gowns twirling under colored lights, and Muppets playing sax and juggling silk handkerchiefs. But then the song widens and deepens, and this is the work of a really grown-up master of the art form. This might not be The Only King Of Pop, but he’s certainly a King Of Pop. This is The Phantom of the Paradise and Evergreen.
So, yeah, nice try Kessler, but before you spend a lot of time on the tree’s tinsel, why not water its roots?
Today I took a huge risk, which un-nerved me to my very core, the name for which not even Autocorrect recognizes. I tried steeking.
Steeking, for those of you who aren’t knitting geeks, is the process by which knit material is cut and sewn to make it into something else or smaller or whatever. In my case, I had pretty much given up on the project, and figured I had nothing to lose by trying out the process.
I tried knitting a hat, using Plymouth Yarns’ Gina in 0001. I wanted a loose, slouchy hat which would cover my ears, without mushing my hair irretrievably flat against my head. So, I looked at Bohoknits’ Sockhead Hat (which is a terrific pattern) and modified it to accept the different gauge of this thicker yarn.
I also wanted a diagonal rib for the 4″ band at the hat’s brim, because I think it’s more interesting to knit. Unfortunately, despite measuring my melon and taking careful notes, I ended up with a giant family-sized salad bowl of a hat.
In this case, a normal person who wanted a hand-made custom-fit hat should do one of two things:
2) Frog, or unravel, the knitting, and start over.
Unfortunately, when it comes to clothing myself in cold weather, I am more stubborn than rational. So, I know that if you run wool through the washer on a warm cycle, it will shrink. This process is sometimes called felting, and sometimes called tragedy. I decided that this hat was so big it could afford to participate in an experiment in shrinkage. So, not only did I run it through a clothes washer on a hot cycle, I ran it through a hot dryer.
For what it’s worth, let me show you how pretty the stitches looked before felting.
I also have to say that this yarn is as soft as a baby lamb’s earlobe. I knew felting would take away that feel. But baby, it’s cold outside.
So, a risky hot water wash and hot air dry later, I ended up with a hat that felt more tightly knit, but, guess what, was EXACTLY THE SAME DAMN SIZE. This is truly a testament to the resiliency and durability of Plymouth Yarn. I’m sure they make a yarn specifically for felting projects. If you want a yarn that won’t get ruined in the wash by mistake, I recommend this. And yes, it’s 100% wool.
Meanwhile, I still had a fuzzy floppy fruit bowl. I thought, I give up. I can’t frog it now, because it’s about 50% felted. I tried wearing it, and it flopped and any breeze threatened to blow it off my noggin. Finally, I folded up part of it and pinned it with a safety pin to make it fit more snugly.
Then I remembered steeking. I’d read about it in some knitting books, but never actually done it, nor seen it done. I looked up some YouTube tutorials on the process, and saw that it required more skill and foresight than I had for this project. Today, I said, screw it, I have nothing to lose at this point.
I measured out how much had to go, turned it inside out, and sewed a row of stitches across the hat, making a dart.
Then I took a pair of scissors and a deep breath, and cut the extra part off.
And here’s what I got:
I like it. It fits, it’s comfortable, it looks cute. I am running it through another hot wash to see if I can get the new stitches to felt and mush with the rest of the yarn, so that seam will be more durable.
So, yeah; it’s been a while since I’ve last posted here. I’ve been applying for jobs and submitting scripts to opportunities. My track record has averaged one submission a day since last May. So far I’ve had a few good things come back (for example, The Wreck Of The Alberta had a reading with Athena Theatre Company, and it went Really Well, they’re good people). But it must be reading season, because I haven’t heard much lately.
If you are, or plan to be, in the Los Angeles area on Thursday, November 13, you owe it to yourself to head down to Casa 101 Theatre in Boyle Heights to see Teatro MOZ.
Tickets are now available for a showcase of Latino-American love for the man whose voice helped redefine masculinity, Morrissey. The short plays are all culled from a nationwide call for submissions. I took a gamble with my friend, DJ and cultural connector, Rhienna Renee Guedry. We wrote a play about bicycles, not having sex, and woman-loving-women who love Morrissey, and sent it in, crossing our fingers and clapping our hands because we believe in fairies.
A few weeks later, we were fortunate enough to have our play, Pretty Petty Things, chosen as a finalist.
Unfortunately, I’m unable to get to Los Angeles from Philadelphia right now. BUT, if you can, you should! The cast is not only talented and skilled, but also gorgeous. The show promises to be a tour de force, complete with live musical performances and a lot of sweet and tender hooliganism. It’s only playing for one night, Thursday, November 13, at eight pm.
How often do you get to see a theatrical event that combines Latino contemporary life and California culture with the Anglophilic pop sensibility of the former frontman of The Smiths? Come to Casa 101 Theatre, 2102 East First Street, Los Angeles, California, 90033, for a singular dramatic event.
Bill Hader hosted Saturday Night live this past week, and, surprisingly, ranked historically low ratings. Despite Hader’s status as an SNL favorite and his new movie, The Skeleton Twins (with fellow SNL favorite Kristen Wiig) out in theaters, even I didn’t watch it. I like Bill Hader, particularly for his bizarre portrayal of Julian Assange.
The one character that seems to resonate most with the zeitgeist is his adorably esoteric nightlife pundit, Stefon. His mannerisms- the face-covered giggle, the sleeve plucking- remind me of my nephew, and his love of surreal entertainment usually cracks me up.
Honestly, I think I’ve been to some of those parties, particularly when Vince was playing with The Absinthe Drinkers. Preponderance of guests with mechanical arms? Check. Improvised jazz theramin? Check. Woman using a live python as a hair ornament? Check. Three witches making out under a giant paper-mache tree? Check.
Two things bother me, though. Hader’s inability to keep from laughing on camera rubs me the wrong way. I don’t find it as endearing as the character. It’s wonderful to be reminded that this is live, and chaos can happen, but it just seems like whoever’s operating the teleprompter is playing a joke on the audience.
The other bothersome thing is when Stefon’s love of the freak-show element becomes the disturbing recurring gag about human machines, which inevitably turn into some kind of riff on dwarf-tossing. If it were a woman being shaken until she says “ask again later,” it’d be rapey; if it were a person of color, it’d be censored. True, Stefon’s descriptions are lavished with variance in ethnicity, gender and age, but a person being used as a machine seems less consensual and more cruel.
Peter Dinklage has appeared on SNL’s Weekend Update, as a Drunk Uncle, and he was no stranger to cruel humor. It’s surprising that SNL’s writers would continue to make the human machine joke, if the popular, award-winning and really fucking smart Dinklage is a friend of the show. What I’d really, really, really love to see, is for Stefon to get started on one of his explanations of human traffic cones/fire hydrants/boom boxes/suitcases/kites/piñatas/Magic 8 balls/whatever, and have Dinklage slowly, deliberately, roll up right next to him, just out of his line of sight.
I mean, come on, writers. If you’re going to do rough comedy, do it in an interesting way.