Page to Stage: Smart Moves and Funny Business

How many times have I rolled my eyes at our local “newspaper” for running the same story twice. Then, yesterday, I did it myself!  I posted “The Deep Dive” story several weeks ago before my brain’s post-covid shutdown. Today, here’s the new content I wanted to share.

In my Zoom class, “Inside the Rehearsal Room,” the actors– Kate Eastwood Norris and Cody Nickell—started adding movement to the script for Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers, which they’d been working on in previous sessions. Led by Theatre J artistic director Adam Immerwahr, we saw the now-familiar first scene taking shape. Would the character ideas they’d explored in their deep dive into the script actually work on stage?

Norris and Nickell are married, so their living room became the covid-bubble “set,” with sofa, coffee table, bookcase, and cameo appearances by the couple’s cat. Ground rules established where entrances and exits would be, which furniture could be sat on, what could be moved, and so on, to give the actors the greatest flexibility in engaging with what was, after all, a very simple layout. Even though they were in their own familiar living room, “The first time you’re on your feet is always nerve-wracking,” Nickell said. The actors don’t know yet where to look, or what to do with their hands, which is why, as Immerwahr said, “Actors love to touch furniture!”

In blocking scenes, he encourages actors to “avoid the magnet of the chairs” and has them delay sitting down as long as possible. Once they sit, it’s awkward to find the right moment/motivation to get up again. There can’t be just random movement, or movement for its own sake; rather, the staging should convey the emotional points. Similarly, in fiction, a character’s movements need to have motivation. Not just him lighting a cigarette or her brushing back to her hair to break up the dialog.

Too, there may be embedded stage directions in the script. An example from Red Hot is when Barney (hopeful of having a fling with Elaine) asks her if she wants a drink, and she does. That gives him an excuse to stand up. If he’s only just sat down, then pops up again, the jack-in-the-box action underscores his indecisiveness.

At this early point in play rehearsal, actors are balancing getting their lines and knowing where to stand and when to walk. Ideas have to be tested. Here’s one that worked on several levels. Elaine wanders around, checking out the apartment as they chat. She reaches the bookshelves, takes down a book, looks at it, and tosses it on the sofa. Barney—scrupulously aware of not leaving any evidence he’s been in his mother’s apartment—picks up the book, and as Elaine moves away, nervously returns it to its place on the bookshelf.

Even though the staging process takes a lot of attention and time, Immerwahr said that, in general, a rough cut of the staging can be accomplished in about two rehearsal days. There’s a physical fight between Elaine and Barney near the end of the first act, and, for something like that, they would wait for the fight director to be on hand.

In part because of the placement of the lights, the actors’ movements have to become part of their muscle memory. However spontaneous an action may appear, the staging for a multi-person scene is almost never improvised. It’s set in stone, in the stage manager’s notes.

Page to Stage: The Deep Dive

Once the preliminaries are over—the table read, the initial preparation–it’s time for actors and director to buckle down to the real work of rehearsing a new production. Leader of my Zoom course on the rehearsal process, Adam Immerwahr, artistic director of Washington DC’s Theatre J, let us see how they dissect every line.

As an avid audiobook fan, I’m well aware of how a talented narrator wrings so much more juice (and often humor) out of a text than I’d get from scanning words-on-a-page.

Immerwahr pointed out that Shakespeare, with his scant stage directions, forces director and players alike to figure everything out. It’s fantastic training. And he, with actors Kate Eastwood Norris and Cody Nickell, the actors helping with this course began figuring out our “test-case” play, Neil Simon’s comedy, Last of the Red Hot Lovers. As the play opens, middle-aged restaurateur Barney peeks into the door of his mother’s apartment. He believes she’s away for a few hours, and he’s arranged an assignation for the afternoon—a first for him. He calls out, “Hello? . . . Mom? . . . .”

We don’t get any farther before Immerwahr asks, “what would Barney have done if his mother had answered him?” Nickell’s reflections on that possibility suggests a number of ways to approach that very brief line. Is Barney hesitant? Apprehensive? Confident? We fiction writers use adverbs to convey a character’s state of mind, though these days using too many modifiers is increasingly frowned upon. Just as actors have to determine what body language and intonation will achieve their intent, writers have to avoid becoming lazy—tossing in an adverb when more precise language and “stage directions” might be more effective.

In posing such questions to the actors, Immerwahr is trying to nudge them in a particular direction, toward a common understanding of what’s really going on in Barney’s head and in the play itself. Text and subtext. It’s painstakingly slow, and even actors who are not in the scene benefit, Nickell said, because “they have to get on that train.”

Neil Simon’s long stage direction describes how Barney fusses around the apartment, checking his watch, trying not to leave evidence he’s been there, shutting the blinds. These simple actions show the audience how nervous and indecisive he is. He makes a chatty, unnecessary phone call to his restaurant and in the middle buries his real questions: “Did my wife call? . . . And you told her I’m at Bloomingdale’s?” Ah, his alibi is intact, and we also learn is that he’s a clumsy liar.

Bringing out a multitude of revelations from such seemingly commonplace actions and dialog demonstrates how much art is involved here. As an audience-member, you get the “right” impression of Barney seemingly effortlessly. With a good performance, you don’t believe the role could be played any other way. But, as Immerwahr emphasized in a class last fall on how to watch a play, “everything’s a choice.”

This is just one of many entertaining Theatre J classes launching this spring, expressly designed for people who love (and miss) live theater. I find they give me new ways to look at my writing too. Check it out!

A Place of Paramount Peace?

Sometimes a long-ago web post urgently needs an update. In September 2016 I wrote about the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir the beautiful new Hindu temple in nearby Robbinsville, New Jersey. I’ve taken visitors there. It’s fantastic (in both senses) and a multimillion dollar operation.

But, there’s a dark side. Brought to the United States to construct the temple and associated buildings were Dalits, members of the lowest caste in India, also called “untouchables.” The temple has been open since 2014, but only last week was a lawsuit filed in federal court changing that the BAPS sect had recruited the workers under false pretenses, then exploited them. The FBI and other federal agencies are now investigating, according to Annie Correal’s story in The New York Times. It also revealed that the BAPS organization “has strong ties with Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Modi gave a eulogy at the funerl of the sect’s spiritual head.

According to the lawsuit, working conditions were severe. Workers were told they would be working four to seven hours a day and 20 to 25 days per month. Instead they were required to work 13 hours a day and rarely had a day off. For this, they made about $1.20 per hour. Workers had to live in trailers on BAPS’s 162-acre property and not talk to anyone. The lawsuit claims they had to pay their own way to the U.S. and, upon arrival, their passports and visas were confiscated. They were stuck.

“Because so many Dalits are socially, politically and economically disenfranchised, they are more easily exploited by duplicitous individuals and powerful groups,” said Johan Mathew, director of Rutgers University’s South Asian Studies Program.

You can read my original article here.

The Rehearsal Process: Preparation

Actors and directors prepare for the initial stages of play rehearsal in many ways. A Zoom class I’m taking, led by Theatre J artistic director Adam Immerwahr, showcased some of those approaches. He said he starts by focusing on the ideas of the play (this is not the plot). A lengthy close read, noting every time the audience receives a new piece of information, helps him because “the job of the director is to represent the audience.” From then on, he’ll make sure that fresh information comes across clearly.

Experienced actors Cody Nickell and Kate Eastwood Norris described how they prepare for rehearsals. Norris said she tries to suss out why she was cast! If she knows why the director envisioned her in a particular role, she can emphasize that element—physical, vocal, emotional—and have a leg up on fulfilling the director’s vision.

She reads the play several times and pays special attention to what other characters say about her character—their impressions have to ring true to the audience. Among the marks she makes in her script are indications of all the places where “things change.” If she has a monologue, she starts memorizing the words but not, she said, the emotions.

Nickell approaches the early rehearsals of each play differently, depending on how many lines he has, whether there’s a monologue, how he fits into the story, whether dialect is needed, and so on. He likes to ask a lot of questions, to make sure he’s on the same page with the director and his scene partners.

In this class, Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers is being used to demonstrate how the rehearsal process works. The actors had several “aha! moments” in an earlier table read of Act I. Norris talked about how her character (Elaine) uses humor as a shield. It seems defensive and habitual. For Nickell, whose character Barney has a long monologue at the end of the act, a lot depends on the lead-up to that moment. How much of what he says then has he told himself many, many times over? As Immerwahr said, such an explosion of words must have been building in his head during the whole act.

One idea the three are exploring is that Elaine is ill, and when she says “I myself passed away about six months ago,” she’s referring obliquely to an actual fatal diagnosis. This interpretation, says Norris, helps explain Elaine’s aggressive, almost bitter humor and her desperation to connect with Barney.

An impression I’m clearly coming away with is how collaborative the process is. Of course, each participant depends on the others to know their lines and stand in the right place clutching their martini. As important, in fact maybe more so, they each rely on the others to create a shared and coherent version of the emotional truth of their words and actions.

This terrific class is just one of many Theatre J classes launching this spring, expressly designed for people who love (and miss) live theater!

Jewels That Made History

American Ancestors recently featured an entertaining session with author Stellene Volandes, editor-in-chief of Town and Country magazine and author of Jewels That Made History: 101 Stones, Myths, and Legends. As jewelry is considered one of the decorative arts, it often hasn’t been taken seriously. Volandes likes to look below the surface to uncover what the piece was designed to convey. Immediately, you think of Madeleine Albright and her carefully curated collection of pins!

Now I look more closely at Queen Elizabeth II, too. Her predecessor, Elizabeth I, used her jewels to express her power. That association was the reason the Justinian code said only the emperor could wear pearls, sapphires, and emeralds. Charles I was beheaded wearing his pearl earring, a symbol of his power & status. With the development of the cultured pearl industry, which accounts for virtually all pearls sold today, they are less rare and, therefore, less precious.

Volandes credited Queen Victoria with creative use of her impressive supply of jewelry, pointing to her use of a coronet (small crown) as a holder for her hair arrangement, as shown in an 1840 painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter.

Not just royalty has made a statement with their jewelry choices. Volander said the development of Art Nouveau, which influenced all the decorative arts, can be linked to the opening up of Japan, which inspired a whole new aesthetic tradition. Receptivity to Eastern influences was, in turn, a reaction against the Industrial Revolution.

When the French wanted to erase the legacy of their aristocracy, the leaders planned to sell the crown jewels. Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of New York’s Tiffany & Co., palace of breakfasts, bought many of them in the 1800s. He knew his clientele was hungry for items with a royal provenance, and the act brought him the sobriquet “King of Diamonds.”

One of Tiffany’s best-known gems today is the 128 carat yellow diamond that Lady Gaga wore at the 2019 Academy Awards. She was only the third person to wear it. Tiffany paid $18,000 for it (uncut) in 1877. Now, it’s “basically priceless.”

Read my Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box, by Madeleine Albright, 2009. Order here from Amazon or shop your local indie bookstore

Jewels That Made History: 101 Stones, Myths, and Legends, by Stellene Volandes, 2020. Order here from Amazon or shop your local indie bookstore

I Love Streaming!! Recent Finds

News of the World is a 2020 movie starring the ever-genial Tom Hanks and 12-year-old Helena Zengel, directed by Paul Greengrass and written by Greengrass and Luke Davis (trailer).

The Civil War is over, and former Confederate Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is traveling between the ramshackle towns of north central Texas entertaining the (mostly illiterate) residents with his readings from newspapers. It is, literally, the news of the world he brings to their muddy doorsteps.

Traveling between gigs, he encounters a busted wagon, a hanged man, and someone running through the trees. It’s an eight-year-old (approx.) girl, kidnapped by the Kiowa years before from a German-speaking settlement in the Texas Hill Country. She speaks only Kiowa. With little exposure to white culture, she longs to return to the Indians, while he’s determined to return her to her family against her will, and her will is formidable.

Together, they encounter a number of fairly predictable lowlifes and have some nevertheless tension-filled adventures. The depiction of immediate post-war Texas was of particular interest, as much of my family moved there from Central Tennessee and other places in the South. The rougher elements are not folks you’d want to tangle with!

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 88%; audiences: 89%.

Les Parfums (Perfumes) is a 2019 French romantic comedy (subtitles) we watched through our local independent movie house’s website (trailer). Written and directed by Grégory Magne, it stars Emmanuelle Davos and Gregory Montel, who played Gabriel in the wickedly funny tv series, Call My Agent.

She’s a “nose”—someone who’s cultivated her sense of smell to the point that she’s created perfumes and developed scentscapes for boutiques. It’s a job that requires high sensitivity, and she’s afraid of losing it. Meanwhile, she’s very much the diva. Montel plays her much put-upon chauffeur, desperate to hang onto his job so he can gain partial custody of his daughter.

Unlike so many American shows, she’s a person with a real job and an interesting one, and you see her doing it. Montel is his bumbling self, who brings unexpected skills to the task of accommodating her.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 100%; no audience rating.

Page to Stage: The Table Read

Washington DC’s Theatre J has a new Zoom course on the play rehearsal process, led by the theater’s artistic director Adam Immerwahr (pictured). If you, like me, have wondered how a creative team goes from black type on white paper to vibrant, full-color theater—full of action, song, and emotion—in just three to four weeks, this class is a brilliant idea. Helping Immerwahr are popular husband-wife actors Cody Nickell and Kate Eastwood Norris.

The class began with a session on the table read, when the director and all the actors get together to go through the script—“the first time the words are shared,” as Norris described it. If you were cast in a play, at the table read you might find you know some of the actors well, and some—say, the person playing your mother, or your lover—may be complete strangers. At the table read, you also may have a chance to see mockups of the set and the costumer’s ideas, a sort of tangible creation of a new reality.

The table read also suggests how the other actors work, their process. A few may come to the table with all their lines learned, “off book,” as they say; others will still rely on the printed text. Norris said she may have ideas about how a character should present herself, but since each character should be shaped by what the other actors do, she tries “to be respectful of other people’s choices” or, as Nickell said,  “to stay as open as possible to the room.”

In this course, the play we’re walking through is Neil Simon’s 1969 comedy, Last of the Red Hot Lovers. If you’ve seen this play (or movie), you’ll recall it involves a nebbishy middle-aged husband who decides to spice up his life with an affair. Trying out his powers of seduction with three different women (in three acts) proves disastrous in each case.

Immerwahr’s pre-rehearsal pep talk gently guided the actors toward his ultimate vision. If you remember this play, you won’t be surprised that Immerwahr admitted up front that the play has challenges. Not only is there some racist language in act two, but it’s misogynistic and might have trouble being appreciated by “Me, too” audiences.

Immerwahr’s strategy for lessening the negative stereotypes of the women characters—the sexpot, the crazy lady, the moralist—is to have one actor play all three. This not only suggests different sides of the same person, but opens the possibility there are many others. In other words, “women have many sides; we’re showing you three.” Like a sphere, a well-rounded person may have an infinite number of “sides.”

He further held open the possibility that at the end of this fictional production, in the scene with the man’s wife, she too be might played by the same actress, as if “he was looking for his wife all along.”

Finessing the racism also will be tricky, and Immerwahr advises staying in the era of the play, avoiding intonations and mannerisms of 2021. Evoking the world of fifty years ago “will be our friend.”

Tips for Screenwriters: Police Procedurals 101

ICYMI this “Shouts and Murmurs” satire by Paul Rudnick in the March 22 (I’m catching up) issue of The New Yorker had me laughing out loud.

Here are a couple of Rudnick’s surefire script ideas.” The main character should be a “troubled male detective whose marriage has crumbled because he works too hard and cares too much”; his ex-wife should be “glimpsed only through a screen door”; if the detective is female, she should have a ponytail (that way she can have long, sexy hair at dinner but keep it from blowing over her partner’s eyes and blinding him as they case the bad guys).

Oh, and be sure to write in a fresh-faced (and fresh-mouthed) tech person who can instantly find any details whatsoever on anyone. For example, Rudnick says, he can instantly tell the detective: “Your suspect dropped out of business school three weeks ago, he’s had contact with three known militia members, and he’s headed east on 168th Street in a stolen van.” Plate number?

Read the whole piece, you’ll get a good laugh. Here on Facebook, the author community airs frequent laments.“Enough with the ‘Girls’ book titles.” Or “Not another flawed police detective hunched over her whiskey!” Or “How many serial killers are there, really. Outside of books and movies, I mean..” We all have our favorite pet peeves in television scripts and topics, the too-tired tropes and cliched plot devices. What sets your teeth on edge?

It’s Shorts Season!

No, not the kind that guy’s wearing!

The short films nominated for Oscars are on view via various streaming outlets. We watched the five “live action” nominees over the weekend and while, year after year, all the films aren’t necessarily funny or uplifting, they’re almost always interesting.

Consciously or unconsciously, the creative teams behind this year’s nominees must have been immersed in the George Floyd aftermath, because four of the five deal with a character’s interaction with uniformed authorities–police, border guards, corrections officers, most of whom are frustratingly intransigent. The fifth nominee lacks cops, but deals with building understanding between people with totally different backgrounds.

“The Present” by Farah Nabulsi documents the struggle of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, where even the simplest act leads to a morass of difficulties. Performances were good, but the story is predictable. (Tastes differ. IndieWire liked this one best.)

In “White Eye,” an Eritrean immigrant buys a used bicycle, which turns out to have been stolen. The bike’s owner wants it back. The police know only one way to react. Nice twist at the end.

“Feeling Through” involves a young, homeless black man who encounters a blind and deaf white man and helps him across the street. Produced by Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin, it’s a feel-good movie that shows the blossoming of an act of kindness.

“Two Distant Strangers” is an urban Groundhog Day with guns. A young black man repeatedly dreams about (foresees?) a dangerous confrontation with an older white cop. In any version of reality, can this ever turn out OK?

In “The Letter Room,” Oscar Isaac plays Richard, a surprisingly genial corrections officer who screens prisoner mail. (The film was written and directed by Isaac’s wife, Elvira Lind.) One of the death-row inmates receives numerous steamy letters from his girlfriend, and another begs Richard to make sure his daughter’s letters haven’t been lost in the system. Two nice reversals at the end.

A Notable True Crime Anniversary

Dutch Room, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Photo: Sean Dungan

Shortly after midnight, thirty-one years ago today, two fully uniformed Boston policemen were let into the indifferently secured Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. But they weren’t cops; they were thieves. They tied up the two security guards and proceeded to wander the museum, stealing what appeared to be an almost random collection of paintings and art objects, retrieved the video footage from the security system, and departed.

Thirty-one years ago this morning, the daytime security guard located and released his colleagues, the museum staff were brokenhearted, the real Boston police arrived, trailed shortly thereafter by the FBI. While the haul was essentially priceless, it has been collectively valued at more than $500 million. It was the largest art crime and the largest property theft in U.S. history, and it remains unsolved. Netflix is taking it on now; details below.

The museum offered a huge reward—now $10 million. No takers, not in over three decades. From the first, FBI agents theorized the theft was the work of low-level organized crime figures. When the statute of limitations on the theft ran out, the FBI confidently predicted some mug would finally come forward with information. Crickets. Then they said fugitive mobman Whitey Bulger, might hold the key. Whitey was finally nabbed in California in 2011. He died in 2018, without a chirp. They engaged another New England mobster for help, but he died last fall, apparently without providing any. In fact, for thirty-one years, the FBI has periodically predicted an imminent resolution to this spectacular crime, and each time, nothing.

My short story “Above Suspicion” was published in 2018 in the Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine (Issue 26). It suggests an entirely different scenario. My thieves are two Massachusetts General Hospital surgical residents, recruited by a European fence. The docs are impoverished by years of medical training, and, on reflection, happy to have a substantial nest-egg to start their practices. Here’s how it answers the key questions the crime has raised.

1.How did the thieves talk their way into the museum against institutional policy? Do you know any surgeons? If they can’t convey a sense of authority, no one can.
2.Who hired/organized them? A man from Europe, a fence unknown to U.S. authorities or mobsters.
3.Since stealing art is child’s play compared to getting rid of it afterward, what happened to it? They stole items “to order.” The fence pre-sold them to people who aren’t fastidious about provenance.
4.Why did they overlook several more valuable works? Again, the buyers made their choices.
5.Why has no word leaked out? The European believed two doctors, unlike low-level mobsters, would never reveal his crime in a drunken confession or to a stoolie cellmate.
6.Why, with all the valuable art on display, did they steal two low-value Degas sketches? Those works were for them, one apiece, as a reminder.

Fictionalizing a real-life event has constraints. While I could make up the characters and the means for getting the works out of the country (sewn into the upholstery of a couple of showy vintage Cadillacs), I kept the core details of the crime completely true-to-life, fitting my fiction into a box of facts. Each time another FBI prediction falls flat, my theory remains standing. (smile)

I’m eager to see what Netflix does with this story. A four-part docuseries, This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist, is coming April 7.

My reading (Amazon has a three-book deal on these books):

The Gardner Heist by reporter Ulrich Boser, Order on Amazon
Priceless by FBI Art Crime Team founder, Robert K. Wittman – Amazon link
Stealing Rembrandts by Gardner Museum security director Anthony M. Amore and reporter Tom Mashberg. Amazon link