2021: The Rebound Year

“When the pandemic is over…”

Again and again, this phrase came up. I spoke it. I thought it. All through 2020, I fantasized about the things I would do when COVID-19 was under control. Not that I was hopeful. The lockdown lasted for months. “Vaccine” was an unspeakable word. My first furlough was followed by a second. The waiting was long, and longer still because we didn’t know how long the isolation would last. Even now, I wear masks on a regular basis.

On January 1, 2021, I stared into a void. My temporary teaching position would end in a matter of days. My freelance gigs were all frozen. For the first time in 20 years, I had no prospects whatsoever.

I do count my myriad blessings. I know very few people who contracted coronavirus. My household was largely unscathed, largely thanks to good neighbors and social safety nets. My wife was relentlessly supportive; we found much to enjoy about my “house-husband” status. And I will always marvel at our global tenacity, the war our human species waged against an ubiquitous enemy that no one could even see.

2021 was a case study in “making something from nothing,” and I have taken nothing for granted. I charged into this year as intentionally as a writer can. I have always prided myself on never wasting time; in the singular lifetime I assume we’re allotted, what time is there to waste? And as I look back on these past 12 months, I am astonished what has unfolded. People have reached out from the most unexpected corners. The world has gradually re-blossomed, and so have the opportunities I’ve so desperately sought.

Here is a look back on this remarkable, rebound year.

Quarantine Pastime: Making Short Films

In one creative burst, I started producing short films in lockdown. Then, at the urging of my buddy Bill Holman, I started sending them to film festivals, because why not, right?

I conceived of Mannequin years ago, but I never actually filmed it until December 2020. I had basically storyboarded every frame in my mind, but I couldn’t bring myself to spend $15 on an actual mannequin. At last, I found two free hours in my home office. I filmed every shot, including the stop-animation sequences. And I was mighty proud of the final picture.

Mannequin was a hit on social media, and my Facebook feed was full of positive feedback. After some hesitation, I sent Mannequin to several festivals around the world–which sparked an obsessive submission process over the next few months.

In total, Mannequin won three awards for Best Short, in Europe and India.

Emboldened, I made a second short, Cut! Like its predecessor, Cut! found inspiration in Pixar shorts: It’s a cute, wordless story about inanimate objects coming to life. It also harkened back to my adolescent years as a competitive epee fencer.

Cut! screened at four film festivals, in Providence, Los Angeles, New York, and Toronto.

A labor of love, The Invisible Thread started as an unproduced stage play in 2001. (So, yes, 20 years ago, soon after I graduated college). The original title was Life in a Box, and the story evolved considerably in the intervening decades. I filmed the short at home, while my wife was at work, and I conscripted friends to call or record themselves (in order to maintain social distancing). There are a few shots I wish I could do over, but in general, The Invisible Thread is exactly what I hoped it would be.

Thread has screened in Providence, Los Angeles, Ireland, Spain, and the United Kingdom, and it won Best Short Film at the Tagore International Film Festival.

Accolades from the Rhode Island Press Association

I worked for Providence Media for three years before I went on furlough. We parted on very good terms, of course; the pandemic had made childcare impossible, and I couldn’t sustain my journalistic endeavors while also caring for a rambunctious six-year-old. Luckily, I still write for the company’s many magazines on a freelance basis, including an arts column for Providence Monthly, so in a way, it’s like I never left.

Still, I was floored to receive good news from the Rhode Island Press Association: I had apparently won five awards for my 2020 coverage. These included:

  1. Profile/Personality Story
  2. Short News Story
  3. In-Depth News Story
  4. Investigative/Analytical Story
  5. Food/Dining Story

I’m not sure how I “placed,” but in September RIPA will host a banquet, and I’ll find out whether I’m first, second, or third in each category. Lots of people (admirably) shrug at awards, insisting that the joy of their craft is reward enough. I am not so humble; after years of writing in solitude, I get giddy about this kind of endorsement.

New Day Job: Videographer

In an unexpected twist, I landed a job at The Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, where I am their lead (and first, and only) videographer. This role has been a euphoric turn of events–wonderful colleagues, lots of creative leeway, and an arsenal of professional equipment at my disposal.

My very first project was to start a baking series, showcasing pastries and desserts from the Jewish diaspora:

I’ve supplemented this with short documentaries for the Jewish Rhode Island newspaper:

I can’t overstate how much I’ve enjoyed this job, how challenged and fulfilled I now feel. I have loved my writing career, and I continue to write vigorously for a range of clients (including Jewish Rhode Island, the Alliance’s monthly newspaper), but I love the technical challenges of multimedia, and the limitless possibilities that lie ahead. Plus there’s the pleasure of embedding myself in Rhode Island’s Jewish community, from whom I have already learned so much and plan to learn so much more.

Gigs at the Wilbury Theatre Group

I’ve been out of the live theatre loop for several years, so I was ecstatic to receive an invitation from my friend Brien Lang–to create a short animated video for the Wilbury Theatre Group. The virtual fundraiser was set up as a kind of variety show, and the theme was “It’s (Not Quite) the End of the World.” I basically had carte blanche to riff on this theme, so I made a high school drama featuring dinosaurs.

I ventured into new territory with this one, blending stop-motion with animation effects. The Wilbury and I had such good chemistry that they invited me to produce another for the Providence Fringe Festival, this one based on the Persian story of Zahhak. This short served as an introduction to the live performance and featured the “limited animation” style of 1970s Hanna-Barbara cartoons.

Hopefully, these will be the first of many collaborations with the Wilbury.

The RIHS Archive Remix Film Festival

While producing a story about Becca Bender, film archivist at the Rhode Island Historical Society, I stumbled into a rare opportunity: The Archive Remix Festival. The idea was to take digitized footage, which has been gathering dust in the RIHS library for decades, and use it to produce an original, experimental film. The films were projected outdoors on the big-screen, and in locations across the state. Getting to lie in the grass and watch so many cool shorts was a highlight of the summer.

Mine was called “Hope,” which combined the poetry of Emily Dickinson with the one-word motto sewn into Rhode Island’s flag.

Cycling South Coast

When the High Holy Days arrived, I found myself with a good deal of vacation time. So I packed up my new Dahon folding bike, took the train to Boston, met up with friends for a few days, rode around the city, and then took the ferry to Provincetown. From there, I biked the length of Cape Code and South Coast, arriving (140 miles later) at my home in Rhode Island.

One of my goals of this trip was to complete a circuit: In 2020, I biked in the opposite direction from New Haven, CT, to my front stoop. Connecting the two routes, I have pedaled across nearly all of the Southern New England coast.

Block Island Film Festival

This film festival stood out, partly because Block Island is part of Rhode Island, and not some distant city; and partly because the festival screened a documentary that is close to my heart: The Painter.

This short doc chronicles the artistic career of Jason Hamel, who is paralyzed from the neck down and clutches a brush in his teeth to paint. I met Jason because I was writing a story about him for SO Rhode Island magazine; his experience was so striking, I asked to make a film about his life. To date, this is one of the great honors of my life.

The festival was virtual this year, as a wise precaution against spreading COVID, but the experience was warm and wonderful, and I was humbled to receive a Lighthouse Award for Best Director.

Art!

I’ve been sketching since my earliest days, but it was parenthood that revived my artistic pursuits in earnest. Drawing with pencil or charcoal was an easy way to pass the time, when my son was watching movies or needed some quiet time. It’s something we can do together, including tandem drawing, YouTube tutorials, and the ever-amusing “Exquisite Corpse.”

I’ve now been a semi-serious art student for the past three years, which snowballed during COVID and has resulted in experiments I never dared to attempt in youth. I have no idea what I’ll “do” with all these pieces, if anything, but it’s been quite the joyful pastime.

Momentum Magazine

This year, as my obsession with cycling kicked into high gear, I stumbled into a book called On Bicycling. I thoroughly enjoyed reading through this anthology of essays and polemics, and then I learned where the book had come from: Momentum Magazine, an online periodical about cycling culture based in Canada. The tone and subject matter were exactly what I had always sought, and I started to pummel the editorial staff with queries.

I am currently writing for Momentum on a semi-regular basis, including gear reviews, and absolutely loving it.

RISCA Scriptwriting Fellowship

Just when I thought the year couldn’t get any more redemptive, I received an acceptance letter from the Rhode Island Council on the Arts: I had been named one of two Screenwriting/Playwriting Fellows for 2022. This comes with a generous grant and the expectation that I will write more scripts in the coming year.

The fellowship itself is a tremendous honor, and I am breathless to even speak of it. But what really struck me were the panel’s comments. Applicants don’t send a bio, budget, or statement of purpose, just a sample of their creative work in a given medium. (Painters send pictures of paintings, composers send sound files, etc.) I sent RISCA a TV pilot, which is close to my heart but has rarely been seen by anyone.

Here is what they wrote:

There is no better way for a writer to finish the year than to receive such soul-lifting praise. From where I’m standing, 2022 is looking like a very exciting year, indeed.

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Making a Book Out of Sound

Vermillion Cover

This spring, I’ve finished a long-delayed project—recording the audiobook of The Mysterious Tongue of Dr. Vermillion. The book compiles five paranormal mysteries, amounting of 8.5 hours of intrigue, suspense, and snappy one-liners.

Not since the playgrounds of my childhood have I enjoyed such unfettered creativity. Throughout my life, my interests have wandered in many directions at once—in Pittsburgh, I would write magazine articles during the day, study literature in the evening, and perform in stage plays and comedy shows on weekends. I have dabbled, aggressively, in a range of media, from poetry to documentary filmmaking. I love all of these, and I hope to dabble much more in the coming decades.

But there is something especially liberating about The Adventures of Elizabeth Crowne, the short stories I began as a serialized podcast around Halloween in 2016. Typing out each manuscript, I can indulge the “vintage” language I have always loved. I can research the Roaring Twenties to my heart’s content. When recording the podcast, I can read aloud—one of my favorite pastimes—and perform the many characters, mimicking a range of accents and temperaments (albeit with mixed results). Atmospheric music has always been an essential ingredient, and musician friends have been exceedingly generous with their compositions. In the most recent episodes, I’ve started incorporating “foley” sound effects as well, dabbing the auditory landscape with blots of realism. Parenthood makes theatre rehearsals an impractical pursuit, never mind filmmaking. In front of the microphone, though, anything is possible.

Which is why this audiobook is special to me. It’s not just a “straight read.” I have taken the best parts of the podcast (music, audio filters, overlapped dialogue) and applied them to the audiobook. The result is still a body of prose, which relies most heavily on the verbal images; yet I mean the experience to be bolder, more complex, almost cinematic in its delivery. The “transcripts” in the book have been rendered in the style of a wax-cylinder recording. In places, characters interrupt each other, talk over each other, match revelations with musical crescendos. The audiobook remains a homemade project, and there are technical weaknesses, including the endurance of my own vocal cords. Naturally, I hope such gimmicks aren’t necessary for a listener to enjoy the characters and plots. But if there’s anything I love, it’s an audacious experiment, this one in particular.

I can’t assess the quality of such a solo project, since there is no agent or publisher to laud its virtues. At this point, I am no longer self-conscious (as I once was) about crafting these eccentric works in isolation. Some friends have reported reading the Dr. Vermillion paperback in a single afternoon, barely pausing to warm up their tea. Conversely, one friend said he stopped around page 10, because my writing style was “trying too hard.” (A valid criticism). While the podcast has nearly broken 40,000 downloads, and listeners live everywhere from Pittsburgh to New Zealand, few close friends claim to tune in. As my friend Brandon put it: “I know you. I don’t need you to ‘read me a story.’” It can be weird, hearing a familiar voice that’s also disembodied. So for the first time in my career, most of these fans are strangers, and I have no idea what their impressions are.

All I can say is that this audiobook is almost exactly what I envisioned, and I am euphoric to finally share it with you.

An Audio Journey: Misty Fjords

In late 2017, I traveled to Ketchikan, Alaska, to spend some time with the Forest Service. I was an official guest of the Voices of the Wilderness Artist Residency Program, a dynamic collaboration between professional creatives and U.S. forest rangers. My purpose: to spend a week paddling through Misty Fjords, a massive national park nestled into the Alaskan panhandle.

Things did not turn out as planned—but I still came away with a 46-minute audio documentary and an unforgettable experience in our northernmost state. I met wonderful people, enjoyed some pleasant surprises, and learned a great deal about the Forest Service and all the labor and love they dedicate to our wildest spaces.

I also learned a great deal about nonfiction podcasting—something I have yearned to do in earnest for some years—and although I would have now done many things differently, this is exactly the kind of production I would like to continue doing. “Airmail” is the working title for an ongoing series, produced in roughly this manner; and I am eternally grateful, to Aubrey and Sue and all the other folks I met up north, for giving me the motivation to create it.

From the Archives: “Making Rent”

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Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The following essay first appeared

in Open Salon, in October of 2011

 

“How would you like to see Rent,” my friend Kayla recently asked me, “in a barn?”

“Absolutely,” I said.

So we drove two hours, from Pittsburgh to Loretto, Pennsylvania, to visit the Cresson Lake Playhouse. This is the pinnacle of rural community theater: The playhouse is, in fact, built into a converted barn. The parking lot is gravel and grass. Cider and cocoa are sold from what appears to be an old tool shed. By the time we took our seats, the house was packed, and everybody seemed to know each other.

Rent at the Cresson Playhouse was not what you’d call “good.” It was positivelyawesome. The set was dark, stripped-down, and covered in graffiti. The actors belted their rock-arias with appropriate passion and tonal flair. There were hiccups – Roger had a paunch and kept singing flat, and Mimi Marquez was a delicate blonde. Lyrics were lost to faulty microphones. But the good far exceeded the bad: stunning voices, sharp dancing, not-bad acting, and a magnificent Angel. That is, Angel the AIDS-infected drag-queen who repeatedly makes out with her beefy, African-American, anarchist boyfriend.

That Rent was a joy to watch is beside the point. The point is that Rent was produced at all. Earlier this year, the rights to Rent were released to regional theaters, yet Cambria County isn’t the first place you’d expect to find a production. This is the region Pittsburghers derisively dub “Pennsyltucky,” a county that’s mostly white, very well-armed, and almost completely Christian. Public schools close on the first day of hunting season. These towns were founded by farmers and coal-miners, and many have crumbled. Yes, towns like Loretto are unfairly vilified, but this show was a genuine surprise.

To refresh: Rent was composed in 1996 by Jonathan Larson. One of the great tragedies of Broadway history, Larson died of an aortic embolism during Rent’s first preview, so he never saw his many Tony Awards or Pulitzer Prize. The play was a Broadway behemoth, and touring shows traveled the world.

I was 16 when the show debuted, and as a drama club kid who sang tenor in the school choir, Rent was a revelation. Based loosely on Puccini’s La BohèmeRent concerns a bunch of artists squatting in a run-down apartment building. Half are gay, half straight. One is addicted to heroin, most are HIV-positive, and all of them are dead broke. But they’re snarky, eloquent, and creative, and they muddle through their challenges with something like dignity. For a super-liberal Vermont teen, Rent seemed like the future – a sonic scrapbook of bohemian life.

I’ve heard the recording a few hundred times, know much of the libretto, and I saw it (once) in New York. Among true Rent junkies, this is a ho-hum relationship. Some fans have seen the live show dozens of times. They can sing the songs, play them on guitar, and have choreographed dance-moves to the soundtrack. Before there was “Glee,” there was Rent.

But like most period-pieces, Rent has evolved with time. For one, it’s no longer the “end of the millennium,” as one song proclaims. For two, AIDS is no longer the pandemic plague it once was; tests are faster, the people infected live longer, and the full-blown terror has subsided (for good and ill). Third, and most damning: The Rent lifestyle is no longer feasible. Mark, the resident filmmaker, turns down a lucrative TV job because “that show is so sleazy.” Tom, a philosophy professor, loses his job at a university, so he just bums around for awhile. And Angel, the story’s cross-dressing messiah-figure, seems to wander around spreading love and kind words. These were all delightful pastimes in the 1990s, when American feared neither war nor recession. Artists who blew their resources in New York could always take a Greyhound to California and mooch off a dot-com.

These characters are less appealing today. I was stunned, in 2005, when Chris Columbus directed his bizarre film version. What place did Rent have in the Bush Years? The United States was fighting two wars and openly condoned torture. The gay rights movement had reached a cultural plateau. The East Village had traded broke bohemians for well-heeled hipsters, and the stock market was flying a kamikaze mission. So who cared about a bunch of dropout artists? In the world of Glenn Beck and Pat Robertson, what are HIV and homelessness but godly punishments? Is there one shred of Rent that your average Tea Partier would not abhor?

Indeed, some sentiments are hard to swallow, even by lefty Vermonters who once loved the show. In the song “What You Own,” Mark sings lines like “leave your conscience at the tone.” Such gripers can’t survive in the 21st Century. Roger, the sulky musician, is hardly a character at all – he’s just a sad dude with a guitar. Rock-stars and filmmakers are no longer reliable for sturdy liberal sentiments, and most of Rent’s themes can be boiled down to a few bumper stickers. The play would never be created today, much less garner a Pulitzer Prize. By the time Trey Parker parodied Rent in Team America: World Police (calling it Lease), the show had long lost its context. The era of Rent is nearly as distant to us as Saturday Night Fever.

Still, Rent will probably survive, as it should. As I sat in the audience of the Cresson Lake Playhouse, I wondered how this down-home crowd would respond to same-sex kisses, simulated sex, abusive cops, and crass hobos. Would folks walk out, furious that Obama socialists had infected their town? All my fears dissipated by intermission. Deep down, Rent is about more than bohemian life. It’s about love in a time of dying, unconditional friendship through poverty and decay. Take away the grungy outfits and endless pop-culture references, and Rent is still La Bohème – a story of youth and perseverance. As the cast bowed and reprised “Seasons of Love,” the Thursday-night crowd stood and clapped along. Guys in baseball caps and old women in sweaters smiled and wept. If Rent can find a home in a Cambria County barn, it can find a home anywhere. And that can only help.

And Then I Wrote a TV Pilot

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Last week, I finished a TV pilot. The story is a paranormal mystery. The protagonist is a snarky young woman with intense curiosity. The landscape is misty; the tone is macabre. And if this script became a TV series, I would devour every episode, twice.

The pilot is adapted from my podcast, The Adventures of Elizabeth Crowne, a pulp fiction series that started as a hobby and has ballooned into a franchise of recordings and books. Not long ago, my friend Bill Holman—actor, cinematographer, Renaissance man—urged me to turn the podcast into a TV series. The writing reminded him of BBC’s Sherlock. (He was the third person to say so). With its gritty historical setting and fantastical twists, the stories begged to be broadcast.

The prospect of a pilot already excited me. Then, at the behest of my publisher, I put together a “book trailer” for the latest Elizabeth Crowne novel, which added fuel to the flames:

More than ever, I could see the stories. I could imagine recognizable actors in the roles I had devised. The prose-y descriptions of the podcast felt so easy to translate into “action,” and, in turn, into visuals on a living room screen.

I hesitated for two reasons: First, I know the odds are long. Every bar-back and bell-hop in SoCal has a hard drive full of original pilots, and few of them are ever even read, much less optioned. The last thing a Hollywood producer wants to see is a script from an East Coast playwright, especially a playwright who hasn’t written a play in years.

Then there’s my odd relationship with television: I grew up in a very rural town, and I didn’t really understand what cable was until I was a teenager. I didn’t own a TV set for much of my adult life. When I started writing about television for MSN.com, I did most of my research at friends’ houses (which gave us an excuse to hang out), or I rented entire seasons of Lost and Big Love from Blockbuster. When Netflix started streaming, I discovered the joys of binging—but even now, I’m choosy. The sight of a TV switched on during daylight hours makes me physically ill.

Yet I’ve also come to embrace the “New Golden Age of Television,” as the critics boldly describe it. A two-hour movie now feels quaint by comparison, when the narrative canvas can stretch for years and years. The untamed possibilities of Netflix Originals and Amazon Studios now seem infinite. For screenwriters, this era is a gold rush: Producers are hurling money at new dramas and comedies, desperate to keep up with viewers’ bottomless appetites. The odds are still long, but they don’t feel as long as they used to.

My pilot is an experiment—a clunky, oily hotrod, assembled from spare parts, waiting in the garage to be taken for a spin—but dear lord, was it fun to write. From everything I hear, Hollywood is a cold and caustic place, and industry people get cynical fast. Yet more than one screenwriting coach has said it: Write what you love. Believe in what you’re doing. Such sentimental advice has always startled me, coming from such world-weary writers. I’ve composed countless scripts over the years, mostly for stage, sometimes for screen. But nothing has seemed quite so worth believing in.

A Complicated Sky

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“Are you going to miss anything about Arizona?” a friend asked recently.

We were sitting on a patio, at a bar, on one of my last nights in Phoenix. I had lived in Arizona for two momentous years. I would miss a lot of things—people, mostly, but also hiking trails, sitting outside, well-paved asphalt, and all the cacti. I would miss the easygoing attitude and indifferent dress code. I would miss dust storms and real Mexican food. I would miss the life-changing opportunities the city had leant me.

“Anything you won’t miss?” asked my friend, helpfully adding: “The heat?”

“I don’t mind the heat,” I said, although the summer heat wave hadn’t yet descended on the Valley of the Sun, so I was still full of pro-summer bravado. “One thing I won’t miss—the sky.”

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