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The Running of the Lines

I’m about to start running lines for tonight’s performance of Love & Taxes, benefitting the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  (A few tix remain! Click here for details.)  Every time I do a show that I haven’t done in a while, I run the lines — usually, just to myself, in my motel room, or wherever.  (Today I’m home!)  And it always feels as though I am entering another world: the world of that particular piece, with its rhythms and connections (and dumb jokes). And crossing that border — from civilian to story-warrior — at first comes as something of a shock: Who am I in this place?  Then, at some point, I’m finally back inside the story — and I’m no longer the daily person reeling from past to future, but a character, who lives in a story, and who gets to share that story — which has a shape (of sorts) — in the sacred space of a theater.

So … here goes!

(See you when I’m back.)

Andy Warhol: Good for Mill Valley?

Well, you can find out this Friday and Saturday, Aug. 6 and 7, when I’ll be doing my latest monologue, Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?, at the lovely 142 Throckmorton Theatre in Marin County’s very own Mill Valley.  Both performances are at 8 p.m.  For tix and info, click here.

Opening-Night Playlists

Treble ClefAndy Warhol: Good for the Jews?, my latest collaboration with director David Dower, opens tonight (March 10) at Theater J in Washington D.C., and runs here through March 21.  For each of my shows, with the help of my friends (always including Scott Rosenberg, and this time also including great suggestions from my Facebook and Twitter peeps), I put together pre- and post-show playlists of songs that relate (sometimes very tangentially) to the themes of the piece.  I don’t care as much about these playlists as I do about the shows themselves, but I still care a lot: My adolescence was made livable by WNEW-FM, which allowed its deejays to play whatever they wanted — and the way they put together eclectic sets of music that they loved (especially my favorite, Vinnie “Bayonne Butch” Scelsa) delighted and educated me.  When we first became friends in Boston in the ’80s, Scott would put together mixtapes for me: In particular, I remember listening to one — which included a great Jonathan Richman song — as I walked in the early morning along Commonwealth Ave. after my father had died.  In those lonely hours, I popped Scott’s tape into my Walkman and learned that there still was joy and beauty in the world.

Anyhow, here’s the pre-show playlist for tonight (including such themes as wandering, commerce, strangers and strangeness, doors, imagination, God, art, knapsacks, and Andy Warhol himself):

  • Dion, “The Wanderer”
  • M.I.A., “Paper Planes”
  • The Doors, “People Are Strange” (a twofer!)
  • The Clash, “Lost in the Supermarket”
  • John Cale & Lou Reed, “Smalltown” (from Songs for Drella, their album about Warhol)
  • Johnny Cash & U2, “The Wanderer”
  • David Bowie, “Andy Warhol”
  • R.E.M., cover of The Wire’s “Strange”
  • Pete Townshend, “Let My Love Open the Door”
  • The Submarines, “You, Me and the Bourgeoisie”
  • Nirvana, cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World”
  • Public Image Ltd., “Public Image”
  • Bryan Ferry, cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”
  • The Rolling Stones, cover of Smokey Robinson’s “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)”
  • They Might Be Giants, “The Statue Got Me High”
  • The Mountain Goats, “Jaipur”
  • Ida Maria, “Oh My God”
  • Amy Rigby, “Knapsack”

And here’s the post-show mix:

  • The Velvet Underground & Nico: “I’ll Be Your Mirror”
  • The Kinks, “Strangers”
  • The Slip, “Suffocation Keep”
  • Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, “Your Side Now”
  • Martha Wainwright, “Whither Shall I Wander?” (R.I.P. her genius mom, Kate McGarrigle)
  • T-Bone Burnett, “I’m Coming Home”
  • Cantor Jordan S. Franzel, “Torah Blessing” (which sounds remarkably similar to “It Ain’t Necessarily So”)
  • Jill Sobule, cover of Warren Zevon’s “Don’t Let Us Get Sick”

Feel free to offer me more suggestions — these playlists tend to keep evolving!

Un-Solo Performance: Notes on My Off-Day

What I do on stage is called “solo performance,” and people sometimes ask me (with real sympathy), “Isn’t it lonely up there?”

And I tell them, emphatically, No, it isn’t!

There’s my crew — up in a booth (possibly knitting during the long stretches between cues).  There are all the characters in my monologues — often people who are very dear to me, some of them no longer alive but very much in my thoughts and my heart as I (imperfectly) portray them.  There’s my producer, whose love of and respect for the theater I have the honor and duty to represent.  There’s my director and collaborator: these stories we create are, in a deep way, a chronicle of our evolving friendship.  There are the designers and the composer, whose beautiful worlds I inhabit.  There are my family and friends, whose encouragements and loving corrections continually run through my mind.  There’s the theater staff — working in a field that offers strictly limited remuneration but unlimited epiphanies.  There’s my own staff — my colleagues who (among other things) arrange for my travel (and that of my set and costumes) and absorb my freak-outs.  There are my investors, and those who choose to donate to the theater.  And, of course, there is the audience: changing in personality from show to show, sometimes rapt, usually adventurous, occasionally sleeping peacefully (dreaming, perhaps, of an actual drama, with multiple actors) — always granting me the enormous gift of their cumulative genius.

So no, it’s not lonely at all on stage.  As for this hotel room, however — well, that’s another story.

Greetings from Portland, Ore.!

Yes, Portland Has a Seal

Yes, Portland Has a Seal

I’m just about to do the second preview performance of Ben Franklin: Unplugged at Portland Center Stage.  I’ve been having a great time: the theater staff is amazingly friendly, helpful, and erudite; the first preview audience, last night, was warm and receptive; and, thrillingly, I’ve been able to hang out a bunch with my theatrical collaborator, director David Dower.  (We used to see each other all the time, but then he moved from the Bay Area to work at Arena Stage in Washington D.C., where he’s been doing incredible things — albeit [*sniff*] 3,000 miles away.)

Some quick highlights from my first week here (mostly spent rehearsing):

  • David and I wandered over to a local gym, and I happened to mention that I really missed my Berkeley-based personal trainer Georgia — who has made my life, previously beset by frequent back ailments, so much better.  Almost as if by magic, a trainer named Von Ray appeared.  Within a short time, somehow David and I had both committed to training with Von Ray while we’re here (seven more weeks for me, a few more days for David).  A moment later, I found myself at Whole Foods with Von Ray helping me choose my exact meals for the next few days.  Von Ray is a force of nature: yesterday was “Terrific Tuesday,” today is “Wonderful Wednesday.”  He’s been working our asses off.  Oh, and one other thing: He doesn’t allow cursing!  I said, “Look, Von Ray, I’m from New York!”  No sympathy.  Every time I curse, I have to do 25 pushups.  Yesterday, I had to do 50.  Today I made myself say things like “Jiminy Crickets!”  It felt weird.  Golly.
  • People at the theater told me I needed to check out Stumptown Roasters.  I did, and their coffee does indeed rock.  (As does their music: last time I was in there, I was delighted to hear them playing one of my all-time favorite albums, Television’s Marquee Moon.)
  • Powell’s Books!!!  In a rapidly digitizing world, it is a sensual thrill to wander through their “City of Books” (just a block from my hotel, and from the theater) and pick up actual, physical volumes.  Heaven.  (Plus, given the horrifyingly slow Internet service at my hotel, rather than Google, it’s often faster just to walk over to Powell’s and look something up.  It might even be faster to walk to Tanzania, actually.)

And in two weeks, my wife and son come to visit me here!  And today is the birthday of my youngest brother, Sam (hero of Citizen Josh)!  And Joni Mitchell is playing on my computer’s tinny speakers (“People’s Parties,” one of my favorites), and she still sounds glorious!

Gosh darn, it’s enough to make you want to cuss for joy — but I don’t think my arm muscles can take anymore pushups today.  So I’ll just sip some more Stumptown coffee, run down to get my laundry from the machines downstairs, and prepare for that second preview.  (The official opening is on Friday.)

If you know Portland, I’d love your suggestions for places I should visit. And if you know people who live around here, please suggest that they come visit me at the theater — that would be way, um, friggin’ cool!

Kindly Do the Needful

Ratna in front of the theater

Ratna in front of the theater in Chennai

“Dream as if you’ll live forever, live as if you’ll die today,” advises the late James Dean on a poster mounted in a hallway at the U.S. consulate in Chennai.  As far as I was concerned, his latter point was especially well taken: It was Aug. 14, and I was feeling quite nervous about my first performance in India, which was to take place that evening.  For months, starting back in the States, I had been brooding — though perhaps not with the same photogenic impact as Dean himself — about whether my Berkeley-centric monologue Citizen Josh would work for Indian audiences.  Now the wait was nearly over, and in a few hours around a thousand Chennai-ites would either watch me in mute horror or respond in a warmer fashion.

My guru-looking stage manager, Bob Webb, and I had been ushered through extensive security by Ratna Mukherjee, who has been working at the consulate for over a quarter century.  I have heard people spout various theories about who might be the most powerful person in India (Manmohan Singh, the scholarly prime minister?  Sonia Gandhi, the influential widow of the former P.M.?) — but I suspect that it’s Ratna who really runs the country.  She knows everyone, has everyone’s phone number, and probably knows where all the bodies are buried (or floating).  She’s the fixer: most often, she can be seen back in the corner of the room, hand discreetly covering her mouth as she explains to someone that — no matter what anyone may have told him — he must send a car to pick us up right away.  She is also one of the most charming people I have ever met.

In fact, I’d have to say that the consulate staff, as a group, are quite a friendly lot.  Ratna’s boss, Ragini Gupta, is another warm, sweet person (her husband also works there) — and, though I met him only briefly (after the performance), Consul General Andrew Simkin struck me as a kind and gentle soul as well.  Bob and I were looking through the consulate’s library for a bookcase suitable for our little set, and both of us were impressed by the range of titles — from Jack London to Ishmael Reed.  About a month before our visit the consulate had hosted a series of events on gay, lesbian, and transgendered subjects; a sweet intern from the University of Washington told me how amazed and delighted she was, just after arriving there, to be coordinating a reception for a group of transgendered Indians — not how she had pictured life in the Foreign Service!  I thought: To all my fellow Berkeleyites who complain about how our tax dollars are spent (war, corporate bailouts, etc.), here was a government institution to warm our progressive hearts (along with, you know, public schools, libraries, hospitals, transportation …).

But I also thought: Yikes! Because the hour of my first performance was approaching, and I still had no real idea how Indian audiences were going to receive it.  And that’s when the U.S. consulate’s entire computer system went down.  Ragini had just asked me if there was anything else I needed, and I had kind of jokingly responded that it would be cool if I could run through the piece with the consulate’s staff.  So she got on the P.A. system and announced that, since there was no work that could be done at the moment, people should feel free to come to the auditorium, where a run-through of Citizen Josh would shortly commence.  And that’s how I got to try out the first half of the show for a mixed audience of Indians and Americans — which greatly relaxed me for that evening’s performance.

After the run-through, consulate staffers filled me in on some of the local lingo — often a mixture of Hindu and English (Hinglish) or of Tamil (the official language of the southern state of Tamil Nadu) and English (Tinglish).  My favorite such phrase — which I’d already encountered in emails from Ratna — is Kindly do the needful.  (Is there a nicer way to ask for something important?  I think not.)  There’s also prepone, the opposite of “postpone” — as in, Actually, I already have a meeting at 6, so why don’t we prepone it to 5? And What is your good name? — which means, well, “What is your name?” but has a little bit of sugar on top.

A car — arranged by Ratna, of course — took us back to our hotel, where we passed by several truly inspirational signs: WORK IS WORSHIPLOVE CALLS FOR A RESPONSE OF LOVE.  A GOOD THOUGHT IS LIKE FRAGRANCE.  I had been casting about for a reference to replace Isadora Duncan (in a joke about how physically graceful my friend Brian Weiner is).  Ratna had suggested the famous classical Indian dancer Anita Ratnam — and then immediately dialed a number on her magical cellphone; a few moments later she had arranged for Ratnam and her daughter, who live in Chennai, to attend my performance!

Children at the Kapaleeshwarar Temple

Children at the Kapaleeshwarar Temple

The show that evening seemed to go very well (as did the joke), and afterwards I briefly met the stunning Ms. Ratnam herself.  It was with great relief that Bob (who had done an amazing job of getting the show set up) and I returned to the hotel for a brief rest.  The next day Ratna took us to the glorious Kapaleeshwarar Temple (you can see my little video here) and I led a storytelling workshop for some very talented theater students and professionals.

And then, just like that, it was time to depart for Kochi — as we began to work our way north.  At the airport, Bob and I jokingly — but also sincerely — begged Ratna to join us on our continuing journey.  Like a benevolent but weary mother sending her reluctant offspring to their first day at preschool, she just smiled and waved us toward the ticketing counter.  Life without Ratna, we knew, would be a challenge; but in all fairness, there were many others coming through Chennai who would need her magical help — doing the needful, firmly yet always kindly — just as much as we had.

[More India-trip blogging to come.  Right now I’m in Kolkata, where I’ll be performing at the American Center this evening at 6:30.]

Mystery Fruit in Mumbai

Mystery Fruits in MumbaiGreetings from Mumbai, where I am ensonced in my hotel room.  I’ll be performing Citizen Josh this evening at Mumbai University.  (Showtime is 6:30 p.m., for those of you in the area.)

In my room they’ve left these two specimens of a rather testicular-looking fruit.  Can anyone identify them?  Are they safe for consumption?  And will I respect myself in the morning?

Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?

For the past month or so, I have been working on my first ever commissioned piece: Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews? Running from — yikes! — Jan. 10-18 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco (which commissioned the work), it will be my personal response to one of their current exhibits: Warhol’s Jews: A Retrospective.

I have been delighted to spend many hours at the CJM, hanging out at that exhibit and others — and also, quite often, at their fine café, for a man cannot live on art alone.  Outside the museum, I’ve also been chatting up a number of experts on Jews, Warhol, art, and philosophy.  How much of their collective wisdom will still cling to me by the time my show opens is a very good question.  But if you come and check out any of the performances, I can promise you that they will at least look and sound beautiful — as I have had the privilege of collaborating, once again, with director David Dower, designer Alex Nichols, composer Marco d’Ambrosio, and producer Jonathan Reinis.  Also, after each hour-long monologue, I will turn into a dialoguist and interview a cool expert on one or another issue raised by the show.

You can get tix and info here.  (Your ticket to my show also gets you in to see everything at this wonderful new museum.)  And despite the very silly video preview above, I want to assure you that I will try at all times to maintain the decorum befitting this very august setting.

UPDATE: The original six shows have been starting to sell out, so the museum has scheduled an additional performance, on Thurs., Jan. 22, at 7 p.m.  Go here for details — and to see the list of incredible talkback guests for the whole run.

ANOTHER UPDATE: All the shows — including the added performance on Jan. 22 — are sold out.