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June to December, 2021, in the land of the endless pan damn demic.

Lots of dark, empty theaters this year. Although it’s a low bar, may 2022 be better.

A production of A Fish Story is now scheduled for a full run at the Sea Ranch “Barn” in September. Because it’s autobiographical and funny (at least that’s my intention), I’ve volunteered to do talk backs after each performance – two weeks’ worth. They put on a production of another comedy of mine a few years ago and the two or three talk backs I did then were so much fun (knowledgeable, curious people, drawn from northern CA, Oregon, Idaho, and Utah), I’ve been eager – for two plague-dominated years – to get in front of their real, live, not Zoomed audience again. Most of the plays put on by this theater are written by famous but dead playwrights, so they’re eager to talk to the ones still alive (even though not so famous).

That play is also a finalist for a production at the JET Theatre in Michigan. Won’t know if it goes further until the end of January or early February.

I have since attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in the beautiful hills of Tennessee, leaving memories of mixed emotions about the next few years of American literature.

I now have copies of the Best Monologues for the Stage, Men, 2021, published by Smith & Kraus this winter. It’s their annual anthology of monologues that may be used by actors and directors for auditions and/or examples of the power of short-form language on stage. What stays with me is that they chose a speech given by a 16-yr-old kid in my play, Tracks, to be included with so many others monologues written by well-known playwrights and performed by adult actors in theaters across the US. I’m proud of that.

That same full-length play is in the hands of a publisher, who showed interest, and will let me know the results of their analysis at the end of January.

And to add an off-the-grid digression, I submitted an early draft of Tracks to a grant program sponsored by the National Park Service – just before all hell broke loose, and public programs were shut down. If you were chosen, you’d be given free room and board at a house in one of their more idyllic locations, along with several thousand dollars, to spend a month working on your chosen script. This past week, two years later, as things are opening up, I received a note from them, complimenting what I sent two years ago and asking that I resubmit that same application for consideration in 2022. I’ll be sending that later today. If I’m chosen, it’s for a month on Maui, Hawaii. I can deal with that.

I’m currently working on a play about the past five years and those to come. I’m trying very hard to avoid pandering to cancel culture, trigger warnings, wokeness, virture signaling, et al, in short, an “agenda play.” Instead, I’m trying to write a compelling narrative that features deeply-wrought, credible characters. Good luck to me.

Post pre-post pandemic, or let’s go with May to July, 2021

Leaving for the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in three days, and I’ve already been contacted by agents who want to meet while I’m there. The dance begins…what to show that is authentic, but exhibits marketing potential? And then there are the master classes, where each of us attending must appraise the work of the others attending. But we are warned about harsh judgements and negative tone. Not everyone should get a trophy, however. I’ve been named “the man who calls bullshit” by some who’ve worked with me. In this changing culture, is candor still welcome? If so, can I take as well as give? I will find out soon.

Southwest Theatre Productions in Austin promised last year to move one of my plays – Life is Mostly Straws – to this year, so it could be done with a real audience. Waiting to hear.

The Garry Marshall Theatre in Burbank (you remember Garry Marshall I hope) just notified me that one of my full-lengths plays – Not Waving – has made it to the semi-finals of their annual competition. With a nod to the god of coincidence, when I was single and living on the upper west side of Manhattan, my apartment was on the floor below his sister’s (Penny – a wonderful director with a memorable, throaty laugh). My former address proximity will probably not figure in the judging, however.

Now waiting for the mail from Smith & Kraus, who has published a monologue from Tracks, my dark but also funny take on teenage suicide – referenced in my earlier post. My copies should arrive soon.

All for now. I have to begin packing.

Pre, but almost post, pandemic:

January of 2021 to the present (early May).

It’s been a while since it’s been a while.  Time to catch up…again.  Can procrastination be treated?  I’ve tried wine, which hasn’t worked, but does provide some pleasant side effects.  Perhaps the cure is my remaining in oblivion, the world forgetting one who forgets to remind the world of his existence? Ugh. Diagram that sentence. I promise to catch you up by being what I define as brief.

I’ve been invited to the Sewanee Writer’s Conference (Jul/Aug), a fairly big deal – Google the remarkable history of the Sewanee Journal.  Because I was invited (based on submitted work), the Tennessee Williams Foundation pays two thirds of my tuition.  They put me up and keep me busy with teachers and readings and agents and everything literary, but it’s my responsibility to act like I know what I’m doing.

Smith & Kraus, one of the theater world’s best-known publishers, liked a monologue from my latest full-length teenage play, Tracks.  It is spoken by a 16 yr old boy, which makes me even more proud of being published this fall in their 2021 anthology of the year’s best men’s stage monologues.

One of my short one-acts, Thank Emily, after winning their national competition, is being produced at the end of this month (May) by the Geneva Theatre Guild (NY).  Last year, in that same competition, another short play of mine, Statin Eye-Land Fairy, also won and was produced (virtually then) by them. Two for two.  I like how that adds up.

In Louisiana, there’s a national competition called the Inkslinger Playwriting Contest, sponsored and produced by the theater program at Southeastern University. As of this writing, one of my full-length dramas, Life is Mostly Straws, has moved from submission to the semi-final round of judging. Fingers crossed.  I’d love a win there to be the reason I go to Louisiana for the first time.

One of my favorite comedies, A Fish Story, was supposed to be produced last year by a wonderful theater group in northern California, located at the “Barn” in Sea Ranch.  A few years ago, they produced another comedy of mine, entitled A Question of Words. I was there for several talk backs and we all had a great time.  The audience is knowledgeable and articulate and draws from the whole north west. The organization produces two plays a year, often by famous but dead playwrights. So talk backs are infrequent, and thus a big hit – both for them and me. The pandemic pushed their schedule out a year.  Since this play is autobiographical, I told them I’d attend every performance and be happy to do a talk back after each. Can’t wait.

Based on work submitted in February of this year, I’ve just been awarded permanent writer-in-residence status at the Writers’ Colony in Dairy Hollow, AK.  I can use it as a writing retreat whenever I want, as long as there is a room available.  Based on the photographs, it looks like something out of a fairy tale – in all the best ways.  I only wish it were closer.

End of update – may the next 7 1/2 months be as productive and rewarding as the first 4 1/2.

Theater Review: Life is Mostly Straws

Cathy Salustri
Theater Review: Life is Mostly Straws

Literary masturbation.

No, wait, that’s not right. It isn’t masturbation if you do it with a group, is it? In that case, Life is Mostly Straws serves more as an exhibitionist verbal orgy, and that’s OK. More than OK, really: It seems every other off-center show we feature this week deals with pratfalls and Jack-Tripper-esque scenarios. By contrast, Life is Mostly Straws relies on the power of words to convey its message.

While I expect nothing less from the Studio@620 (I’ve yet to leave their events unimpressed, but I keep trying), Bob Devin Jones direction of Richard Manley’s well-crafted script satisfies nevertheless.

Manley divides this play into two acts. In the first, we meet all four characters: brothers David and Noah (played by Chris Jackson and Christopher Rutherford, respectively) and their respective partners Joanna and Sydney (Georgia Mallory Guy and Kylin Brady.) Of the two brothers, David has chosen a financially secure path while Noah has pursued a career with words in academia. Joanna, David’s wife, has a secret, David must deal with a colleague’s suicide, Noah hides a professional disappointment, and newcomer Sydney must navigate this WASP-y-as-hell family as they do this all before and after dinner in Act One.

The bulk of the action takes place in David’s home office, the focal point of Bob Devin Jones’s set design. Let’s talk briefly about that: The Studio is not a proper theater and is far too small to get away with “it looks good from 50 feet” mentality employed by set designers in larger houses. The set and dressing, therefore, radiate wealth and power (at least, in part) because cheap furniture painted for the theater wouldn’t look as good at 10 feet, which is roughly the distance between the ottoman onstage and the front row.

The important thing, though, is that the set works, which allows us to immerse ourselves in what happens on it. And what happens is we witness the raw power of language and how it can delight — and destroy. If Act One sets a sunny stage with witty repartee reminiscent of a (somewhat dark) Neil Simon play, Act Two sends us down a cruel hallway paved with verbal abuse and emotional destruction.

Some parts are predictable — it’s clear, for instance, Manley wants us to assume Noah is fucking David’s wife when he clearly isn’t — while others — namely, David’s propensity for emotional abuse — come as a shock. It shouldn’t; both men spend the first act showing us conversation as sport and driving home how David plays to win.

The publicity for this play beats us over the head with the hardships endured by the brothers as children and how well-adjusted they seem at the play’s outset. While David alludes to that childhood, we know it more from the advertisements about the play than the play itself. Onstage we see only two brothers tied to each other and, as the play progresses, fighting to stay tied and, finally and only on Noah’s part, separate.

Life is Mostly Straws’ heart beats with language and its power. Because of that, it must have been tempting for the actors to fall in love with the words and nothing else; fortunately for us, they don’t. Audiences share an intimate space with this foursome, and the players forces the audience to share their emotions. I certainly did. There’s not much to say about the actors, incidentally, because Jones cast well and each performer did their jobs well. When you go to see Straws, you won’t think about Jackson’s technique (precisely honed to be a lovable bastard) or Rutherford’s subtext of lovable geek (hopefully intentional.) The women, although minor roles in comparison to those of the brothers, help tell the story well. That’s not to say the production doesn’t have its shortcomings; it does (and more on that in a moment), but the way the words work appealed greatly to me, because the actors delivered them with skill and precision.

Now, about those shortcomings: In short, the changes this production makes to Manley’s words don’t work, namely the end. Since I think this is a show that deserves a few hours of your time, I won’t ruin it for you by telling you what they changed, but the ending is not performed as written, and the one The Studio uses is far more predictable than the one Manley wrote, which, after a vibrant, well-acted show, comes as a letdown and feels like a betrayal.

Beyond that, there’s not a lot about this production that won’t appeal to fans of verbal performances. It’s cerebral, but not so much so that everyone can’t enjoy it. It’s witty, but it’s not a comedy. It’s tragic, too, but it’s not a tragedy.

Simply put, it’s worth seeing. Those are all the words I have; I’ll leave the rest to Manley.

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