Letter to J, 27 December 2010

Dear J--

I have a half-written response to your last kicking around somewhere, and I'll be sending that quite soon. Suffice to say that I love you dearly, and I can't guarantee I won't punch this new Orpheus in the face if I ever meet him, but ultimately, you must do what you must, and I must support that. And my own heart knows how critical it is to love and be loved, and I know what I myself have done to those around me, to those close to me, in the name of such passion, and thus, even as I myself have desired you, and tested y own heart against my own truths, I know your heart is true, that you do what you do for the right reasons and meaningfully.

That aside, I write tonight in crisis. I'm getting as drunk as I can at my neighborhood bar. These days I work at an independent living program for adolescent male sex offenders, which is, as you may surmise, arguably the toughest job I've ever held, which means something, coming from the likes of me.

Tonight, the devil came to pay me a visit. Tonight was one of the toughest shifts I've ever worked--I'll even say right now THE toughest. And keep in mind I've worked with deaths on the scene, several times, and brawled with drunks twice my size, and I've had a twelve-year-old pee on me during a performance.

The shift had 3 distinct phases:

1. I had to ask two guys for U/A drug tests. Now, I've done roughly a million of these in my professional life. Asking grown men to pee in a cup for me is, disturbingly, practically second nature. What was different this time is that I was required to U/A two adolescent male sex offenders, who themselves inevitably have histories of trauma as well as perpetrating abuse. This made a situation already awkward, triply so. It was pulling teeth just to get these guys to comply in the first place (because normally, we do saliva swabs but tonight we're out of saliva swabs so we had to do pee-in-a-cup tests, which require staff to witness the test in order to verify that the client isn't substituting someone else's urine or such.) My guys were none too happy about this.

2. My friend S is looking for an extra hand in her wig dept at OSF, and she thought of me. The contract is ten months.

Now, to be clear, OSF is, for me, the Theatre equivalent of Josef Stalin. I've seen I don't know how many embarrassingly crappy plays there, even as I've seen some good, sterling work, too. (I'd guesstimate the ratio at 1 in 4.) What gets me is that S' offer is $12/hour with unbelievably good benefits, albeit at the Josef Stalin of Regional Theatre in the US as I regard these things. Wheras my current work at Janus Youth's Buckman House pays all of $10.05 an hour, with bullshit benefits, and I'm doing essential work for my community, and it allows me to pick and choose the theatre that I believe in.

I'm convinced there's no right answer to this situation. So much crap springs from OSF, and is perpetuated by their aesthetic, that I don'[t know if I could endure that proximity intact. On the other hand, Buckman House is arguably the most difficult position I've ever held, and I took a pay cut to do it. I've lived beneath the federal poverty line and without health insurance ever since I left the County Library 7 years ago.

3. Tonight, one of my buys disclosed to me the full extent of his offenses. This guy is very warm, very positive, very outgoing, has a good heart, and has some physical and mental limitations. He's bonded with me as a trusted staff member that he feels he can confide in. And tonight, what he disclosed to me... consider the worst, most terrifying scenarios available to your imagination, and then explode them. T's demons are so insidious, so horrifying that I can hardly bear writing about them even as obliquely as this. The SBD therapists at Buckman, who between them have over 30 years experience in the field, have both told me that T's is the worst, most difficult case they've ever seen. For myself, knowing what I now know in his own words, and having dared to verify even the barest facts in his case files, I basically want to stab my eyes out.

Usually, I'm really awesome at being resilient and steady. I see my own work, in a continuous line from Hooper Detox and DePaul straight through now, as a means of fighting living monsters. I'm not even doing the real fighting--obviously, my guys are--and the monsters are basically immortal, confined in each of us, and so each day is a long, grinding, simmering confrontations between these hotly confined forces of good and evil, long hours of patient listening, and the most pig-headed, jackass-stupid and stubborn arguments I've ever had in my life, and then these terrible nights that you just can't predict, that you do your best to be ready for, and now here I'm holding on with all the poetry and philosophy, all the art I know, and all the training I've had, and all the people I love, I'm holding it all in my heart as closely as I can, just to get past this night.

I'm in no state to make any kind of decision on the OSF gig. I've a healthy legion of projects running right now, plenty in train. January and February will hustle past me with alarming quickness, just as these last several months have. I'm at a stand, though. For all my effort and care, I've no community to speak of, no peers who share my values. Even R and CH, they're too invested in a complacent performance world for me to be able to get behind. I can't say I know what to do instead, I wish I did. I've only my own arrogant conscience, my slowly percolating projects, and these monsters to watch day after day, out of which I barely eke out my living...

Know that I adore you, and I'm sending you as much New Year Luck as I can spare--




Letter to M., 13 October 2010

Dear M,

I hope things are going well with you in LA. As per usual, I've missed you a great deal.

We never really had a proper summer here, the weather constantly shifting from one extreme to the next. Taking that as my cue, it seems I never really gained my footing over the course of these last few months. It feels as though I've worked very hard for very little pay, and given a great deal of myself to my friends with almost no support in return. For some reason, it's getting harder and harder to remember my role in the decisions I make, and it gets that much easier to cultivate the old patterns of resentment and isolation, which I've known far too well for far too long.

These days I work with adolescent male sex offenders in an "independent living" program, adjudicated youth who have completed their sentencing and treatment requirements. Our program is the final gateway to their reconstructed lives.

Aside from housekeeping duties like medications, record-keeping and head counts, the real meat of my work is in listening and counseling, perhaps two steps shy of true "therapy," but nevertheless delicate and deeply draining, arduous work. Some shifts are sleepy, uneventful parcels of hours, with only the monotonous routine of the hourly headcounts and medication distributions providing any kind of tempo. But most shifts are a complicated dance between this mandated monotony, and successive waves of the most melodramatic, infantile, or the most terrifying and insurmountable emotional and physical crises imaginable. I walk out of most shifts with the full spectrum of emotions firing simultaneously--something I know I've come to value as the ultimate criteria in all my work, theatre- and day-job, and thus I know it's a dangerous high, a kind of addiction that I've engendered for myself. It leaves me exhausted, but I do love it so.

Similarly, in my theatre world, I've been blessed with a steady current of meaningful, exhausting but ultimately limited work, at an unreliable tempo. It's a distinct advantage to know enough to know when to say no. And it becomes a most effective advocate, when meaningful work, difficult work does cross my path, and here I have this internal process, bourne of expensive experience, that goes to great pains to show how a potential project may be either worthwhile or utterly wasteful. I'm surprised, honestly, to feel utterly grateful for this tremendous fund of experience that I draw from on a daily basis. I'm surprised because I know how often I've felt hemmed in and weighted down by the very same thing.

Currently I'm working on a strange, beautiful little project for a local playwright's group, a monologue set in a suburban backyard, kind of a nervous breakdown extended over 8 pages. there are about 7 or 8 playwrights in the group, and as a fundraiser they've commissioned themselves to write short pieces, all taking place in and around a specific house belonging to one of the writers. I'm given to understand that most of these pieces are monologues. Each piece has been given a site in the house--dining room, bathroom, kitchen, basement, etc. I have no idea how much of an audience to expect, or how big this house is (I'll be visiting it for the first time Friday night, and performing on Saturday). being in the backyard, I definitely feel I got lucky with the luxury of an epic space, ample room to really test and explode things.

New work, specific work--work that's about clearly defined and illuminated people or ideas, and not merely pretty ciphers or overwrought cleverness--more and more I gravitate to this level of ambition and performance, and, surprisingly, away from Shakespeare. We are all at the mercy of our own growth, I suppose.

There have been a predictable succession of passing infatuations, incipient relationships collapsing under the burden of my neurotic misanthropy, or her comparatively uncomplicated worldview, whichever comes first.

Choosing to be worthy enough, whether of exceptional work, or deep love, or simply of a good night's rest, or gratifying sex--for a long time I assumed the choice to be worthy of all this was a simple choice. But as I watch my friends struggle with devastating breakups, and as I experience myself the price my "career" pays for my "principles," to me it seems too simple to say that we choose these things. None of us, so far as I can see, can be so emotionally ruthless and inwardly numb as any of these catastrophic circumstance expect us to be.

Increasingly I'm finding what I thought to be wisdom is really mournful courage, sometimes grim and sometimes joyful.

I wonder if any of this makes sense, or resonates in any way outside of my own head. The next PlayWrite workshop I'm teaching and leading begins next week, after the experimental monologue, and as this will be at Portland Night High School, one of our more disaffected sites, I'm aware that my growing nervousness affects everything I work on, including this letter.

I miss you more and more as time rushes by.

lots of love,



Letter to E, 8 August 2010

Dear E--

As you know, I, too, spend a great deal of time thinking about how not to waste my time. You mentioned (back in June) how you feel both young and fresh and jaded and cynical, an ambiguity to which I closely relate.

Particularly in the (weird, sad) world of dating. I've had enough relationships, enough experiences now that my List of Danger Signs to Watch Out For now practically encompasses every woman I've ever been attracted to who may themselves be attracted to me. Which is perplexing, to say the least. I like to think that, over time, I've explored and learned enough to be an emotionally competent, if not accomplished, partner (wow this letter got ridiculous pretty quickly). So in some ways, it's basically as though I've grown shy just as I'm beginning to get good at stuff... if that makes any sense. I suppose it's also true that I've always been, not shy, it's not quite the right word, but rather a deep distrust of masculine heterosexual norms, that makes me reticent to initiate things like flirtations and such. (My professional experience in mental health and addictions recovery communities only enhances these tendencies.)

Thus, the more I know and the more experienced I get, the higher my threshold for action becomes...

Lately, in [my professional world],I've gotten to know some new colleagues socially. It's surprised me how many people I consider my peers identify themselves as polyamorous, and how nuanced the meanings are within that label. Seen through the lens of my clinical world, at one level I can't even distinguish between 'polyamorous' as a healthy intimacy norm, on the one hand, and what could quickly be labeled impulsive emotional promiscuity, clinical classifications meant to be independent of moral judgment (though clearly pretending to be free of value judgments, in anything regarding sex and intimacy, is a tricky proposition at best).

It's not my place--nor is it really my function as a friend--to in any way evaluate or diagnose the emotional behavior of my friends and colleagues. Now, I can't help but frequently access, and positively benefit from what diagnostic skills I do possess. But in relying on that boundary--to not treat my friends as patients or clients--I'm given to seeing and understanding a great deal more.

A similarly ambiguous experience occurs whenever I get really drunk or high, or witness friends or partners so doing. Conversely, I've dated women in recovery, and experienced myself the awkwardness of being on the other side of a (in her case, much more stringent) boundary. In all of these instances, I'm as much an observer of my own interior tensions--between wanting to engage and enjoy myself, on the one hand, and awareness of my professional obligations the next day, on the other--so much so that the actual experience of drugs or alcohol becomes magnified by the act of self-observation, a heightened awareness--which, so I'm told, is frequently the point--that can be just as exhausting as a day at work.

In this context, I strongly relate to your stated need to scream and holler from time to time, particularly at the frustrations of an obstinately ignorant world. Where your indignation springs from righteously progressive feminism (and that substantiated in spite of so hostile an establishment as the Catholic University of Portland), mine is the brittle and corroded residue of the thousand little compromises of the working day world, compromises only ever made for the sake of the merest outliers of our identities. By which I mean, the petty situations, where we're asked to stay late to finish work properly belonging to others, where we're asked to tone down intrinsic differences for the sake of unity and workplace solidarity, where the priority of doing the right thing is abandoned for the sake of the convenient.

These are the ethical and moral characteristics, I think, behind questions as innocuous as, "what play should we do next, and why?" or, "should I apply for that position knowing I would have an uphill battle to deal with, knowing what I know?"

I do agree with your observation that theatre is a place where we can create ourselves, in the fullest sense. I guess in my experience, much as I love and am devoted, ultimately, to that ideal in theatre, I've experienced too many dissonant creations. Caught in the tremendous exhileration of self-creating, we too easily neglect to listen to one another.

It is the classic struggle between discipline and liberty. Focus dissipates in favour of giving ourselves, and to each other, free rein to establish our own individual presences. I worry at how strong work requires some version of this struggle, this tension, to in some way play out in just about every rehearsal process I've ever known. When I was less experienced, I felt this was a fair price to pay. Now, I'm not so sure.

Where your lovely letter needed swelling string music, mine, by contrast, needs some howling, plaintive Northern soul.

I hope your summer is going splendidly. Look to hear more soon--




Excerpt from my Letter to C.

Dear C,

I work with this population every day. They come from all walks of life, have all kinds of faith, have experienced terrible abuse, or no history of abuse at all.

1. None of this is your fault. These things simply happen, an artifact of our world we live in. You're both loving parents and it's clear you've been amazing in raising J. and K. to be strong and vibrant people.

2. This gets better. An experience like this can be empowering and defining for J., and for K., given time and healing. This does not need to define her negatively.

3. Her diversity of friends can be a strength. People with different perspectives unconsciously show us different ways of looking at the world. That kind of wisdom does not come easily any other way. If there are obviously negative or harmful individuals associating with J., then of course they should not be tolerated, but otherwise, it's important to examine what we do not know before passing judgment. The worst case scenario (which I've seen in my professional work countless times) is the forced isolation of an individual, which only fed a stronger resentment and anger and catalyzed worse behavior later.

4. There does not need to be a reason. Drug-seeking behavior is a disease, not a character flaw. We do not need reasons to have a cold, flu, or cancer. There are things we can do to make us more vulnerable, like smoking or wearing wet clothes or whatever, but that's not a guarantee, nor is it really a reflection of our moral values. My point is that it's easy to cast judgment and say that someone is a bad person because they sought out drugs. But we are not bad people because we catch colds. At bottom, these are flaws in our neurological chemistry that we all have in subtly different ways, that manifest differently.

Some people drink. Some people have a temper. Some people get unstoppably curious. These are all examples of impulsive behavior that, when they act on it, trigger our brain chemistry to react with an adrenaline rush, and what is called, 'the dopamine cascade', where the chemicals and hormones in our system make us feel excited and energized, like the world is a fascinating place. In and of itself this is not a negative thing--it's how we experience all forms of pleasure. But when our system learns that the same physical actions result in the same pleasurable feelings consistently, our system starts prodding us to do those same physical actions over and over again. This is the basis of addiction as we currently understand it. The same chemical reactions happen in alcohol addiction as in drug addiction, pill-seeking, gambling addiction, sex addiction, etc., etc.

There is always hope. J. now has a precedent to reach out for help. That's something that the vast majority of individuals who have had similar experiences struggled to find and did not find. She has a strong support network. I have every confidence, from a professional as well as a personal perspective, that she will emerge from this stronger and healthier as a result.

Please know that I'm thinking of you all, and I'm willing to visit with J. and K. whenever possible.




Excerpt from my Letter to C

...It's true; I am, in fact, a hopelessly addicted letter writer. It began years ago, when I was doing a fair amount of traveling in AmeriCorps, then on my own, then on tour with various productions. Letters kept my friendships healthy, and nourished me in a way journalling never did.

My passion for stamps is purely ancillary to my love of writing and reading letters. Whereas most stamp collectors favor cancelled stamps and postmarks, I collect stamps purely for use, and particularly the interesting postage of other countries, no matter how remote the possibility may be of me writing from the Ukraine, say, or Bhutan.

In these recent years, letter writing thrives in my work environments, which typically involve long hours of minimal activity punctuated by highly concentrated moments of tremendous emotional heavy-lifting. (I work at a local nonprofit agency serving a broad range of at-risk youth. This particular program deals with young male sex offenders in residential treatment.)

In that context, I entirely agree with your point about mail being like flowers: it's astonishing, really, how an almost insubstantial gesture of awareness can have such a restorative effect. In that respect, it has a bit in common with live performance--I believe it's by disarming our expectations, by disclaiming that it's just for a limited run, that live theatre is capable of the tremendous insights and the real work; and likewise, that these merely ephemeral letters, simple bits of paper with scarcely more forethought than a grocery list, can and have kept me sane, simply by being signed, sealed and delivered. I've witnessed deaths firsthand, immediately before me, and I've worked long hours with clients, co-workers, friends and loved ones grappling with honest-to-goodness life and death issues; and in every instance, the most meaningful breakthroughs were made only after grasping the gesture that counts for more than just the sandcastle it seems to be. Like letters, or theatre, but also heartfelt apologies, or admitting responsibility, or letting go of resentment, or choosing to go, or stay...


Excerpt from my Letter to J.

Dear Pirate,

It is not beyond the realm of possibility, that I might get my shit together and somehow contrive to visit you, much the way the Mongol horde visited central Asia, or the plague visited Egypt. I say possible, but many kinds of things are possible in June, and I must await the ripening of certain possibilities before I could possibly say, with any certainty, whether California has cause to dread my approach, whether it's time to start digging trenches and evacuate the non-combatants.

Truly, by this point in 2010, I'd hoped to be far better grounded than I yet am, to have a firmer grasp on things. But I continue as impoverished and uncertain as ever before, though I am at pains to remind myself that I'm rich with evidence of the worthiness of my decisions.

Thus, my days are brimming with good things. I spend too much time sleeping, and I wish I were more assertive and more thorough in my works and days. But the core of it is true: I have the rudimentary tools necessary to be of use to my friends and my community, and if I'm not in action as often as I'd like to be, at least those few actions are memorable ones, and there's a great deal I can point to that would be worse for my absence.

I'm writing to you now, having just seen a production of The Cherry Orchard at one of the new little repertory theatres in town. It was a fair-to-middling piece, but I don't necessarily hold that against anyone. The production carries a number of dear friends and colleagues--though I'm happy that so many work so often, it is wearying to see the same tactics employed repeatedly to unvarying effect.

But neither are my friends helped by the script, even in this new translation of Stoppard's. Surely I'm not the first to remark that Chekhov simply wrote the same play over and over again; or, at the very least, our contemporaries regrettably keep designing, directing and performing roughly the same structure, just with slightly different verbiage. I can certainly understand how this state of affairs came into being; actors, but particularly actresses of a certain age practically groom their own social circles to reflect the family and class dynamic reiterated repeatedly in Seagull, Vanya, 3 Sisters and Cherry Orchard. All the more frustrating as I'm certain that each of those scripts are authentic and expansive enough to be capable of fresh discoveries, if only we could free ourselves of the oppressively predictable Stanislavsky legacy.

No doubt I'm shamefully neglecting Chekhov's real achievements, and the context in which he worked. And we all operate in reaction to our immediate predecessors. It is of some consequence, I expect, that during our time Chekhov ranks as worthy either of emulation or reaction.

The night before, a dear friend gave me an extra ticket to see Maya Angelou at the Arlene Schnitzer concert hall--which, in spite of its primarily concert function these days, is in fact a close contemporary of the Geary in San Francisco in all kinds of ways. An epic space in the old style, back when they designed prosceniums--proscenia--with diligence and affection, before the ruinous influence of amplification. The space was absolutely packed, as to be expected. I was apprehensive, at first: my fuzzy memories of Clinton's first inaugural are of a splendid voice, resonant with first-hand experience of all the salient points of 20th century America. But when I read her poetry, even when I was very young I thought her work simplistic and maudlin.

I'm happy to say that I was much impressed. As a presence Angelou is worthy of the space, even if she doesn't technically fill it. (It's a surprising and saddening effect of amplification, I believe. Surprising because I would have thought a broader range of artists would've developed a likewise broader range of technique by now. As you and I know well enough, it's about so much more than mere volume, and even if shackled to a page, the tactical possiblities for connecting with an audience are myriad.)

But Dr. Maya Angelou is now roughly 80 years old. If she wants to sit onstage with a mike stand the whole time, and some nice Stickley furntiure as a backdrop, I'm down with that. As to my impression of her poetry, I found that her mind and her heart animate her work the way the sould does the body. She herself delivered a very telling remark: she is not a writer who teaches, but a teacher who writes. It is no wonder, then, that I found so little to be moved by on the page.

More even than her own work, Angelou spoke of the poetry that saved her life, poets and writers that convoyed her through terrifying times. It was all deeply inspiring. Throughout I was conscious of the fact that she is among the last of the living generation that ended Jim Crow; she told us of the six or seven large white men who tried to lynch her uncle, mirrored 40 years later by the six or seven large white men in crisp uniforms, sent by the first black mayor of Little Rock, to escort her to that same uncle's funeral with all due ceremony.

She said something very important to me: she said that we've all been paid for. We wander our lives with these massive burdens of ignorance and shame, we brood and worry against the impossible debts we live with. And those are real debts, to be sure. But the only way to lend any meaning to centuries of slavery, violence, pogroms, autos-da-fe... is to own them all as our ancestors, all those innumerable and forgotten victims. "I am a human being," Terence says. "Nothing human can be alien to me." Whether lovely and glorious or terrifying and worse, the roots of all that suffering extend into each of us, bequeathing us with equal heritages of hope and horror. And the only possible meaning this could have, is to decide that all that sacrifice means something to us, for us. We've been paid for. Our time here is the only gift they could have given us, from out of the terrible reach of all that trauma.

And it is a gift, for it removes the question of owing anything to anybody. Or if we do, it is only to convey the limitless balance of our own redemption forward to those who come after us.

In writing this all out--and it's important to note, if it weren't altogether obvious already, that these are my own faulty and incomplete glossings of what Maya Angelou said--it strikes me that the rhetoric reflects no small amount of St. Paul and St. Augustine, but bursting the prism of Christ into endless refractions of sacrifice, not one Son but countless Stars illuminating all of us.

The current Prefect for the Congregation of the Faith, which is what used to be called the Holy Inquisition, is a prelate named William Cardinal Levada, who was previously Cardinal Archbishop of San Francisco, but before that Archbishop of Portland. When I was an altarboy it was a fading distinction to serve at the Masses he celebrated, for he was always a dour and grumpy, self-involved cipher, and people seemed to have neither understanding nor regard for ceremony in my day. It is an interesting question, if the grumpy Cardinal, now effectively the Grand Inquisitor, had been even a little bit kinder in his orthodoxy, then maybe today I might not be so wholly heretical.

For it's true that, as far as Maya Angelou goes, I lovingly embrace my heresy. And that anachronistic distinction between heresy and orthodoxy, for which otherwise intelligent and godly people tortured and burned one another for 20 centuries, still endures in the stigma of mental disease, in the which paradigm I am like the agnostic masquerading as a Dominican in my line of work...

...wow. I really had no intention of wandering so far into my lapsed Catholic consciousness when I began this letter. I blame your infernal influence, and my growing awareness that June is already destroying all my time and money, which of course feeds my growing, lapsed-Catholic guilt at failing to visit those I love. But Maya Angelou says I'm paid for, so fuck you, Cardinal Levada.

Congratulations on opening Opus! I should like to hear more about it, and of your no doubt sterling work. When next you visit Portland, there will be a whole battery of fresh discoveries to convey to you: midnight waffle carts, a new apartment and roommate, how best to crack a bullwhip.

I am so happy things go so well with you, in just about every quarter of your world, as far as I can see. Except that, once again, you've abandoned your partner in the middle of a hell of a case, chasing down your damnfool crazy-ass hunches while the real detectives do all your work for you. Chief says nobody wants to partner with you ever since you 'accidentally' shot that state trooper last year. You know that poor guy still has to wear a poop bag because of you? They put him on the dispatch desk so he could keep his pension. Chief keeps sending me down there to make nice so the staties don't jam up our caseload. It's like hanging out in an overturned portapotty. I hope you're happy.




On PlayWrite

So this is the third time I've been asked to MC the semiannual PlayWrite Showcase. I find this kind of thing challenging. It's a delicate task to set the right tone for this work, enough that people understand what's going on, but not so much that the whole event becomes maudlin or cheap. Below is the full draft of my intended remarks; in the even, the wider-angle-lens paragraphs about the world around us were truncated, understandably, and just like both other times I've done this. (I still feel that the wide-angle-lens about art and truth and fear is essential to say, though. And I really wanted to wear the red dress a friend lent me for the occasion, but that, too, was vetoed, in consideration of more conservative sensibilities that may or may not have been attending. Yet another instance of how the good and progressive broad-minded ones always get shafted by fascist homophobes.)


Thank you all so much for joining us this evening. I'm Paul Susi, proud actor and coach on the magnificent PlayWrite team, and I've been detailed to help walk you through what we're doing tonight.

For those of you new to PlayWrite, here's how it works. A crack team of 8 or 9 professionals helicopters in to one of any number of underserved youth organizations, right here in Portland. The first four days are spent urgently exploring the core of what makes a strong play: conflict, tactics, character--and all that makes a strong character: needs, secrets, fears. We strip away whatever feels settled, whatever feels like a story. If there's any hing of a predetermined plot, or of a character's inevitable fate, it's the coach's job to challenge the writer, at the very least that the writer might earn their conclusions, really learn and experience themselves what they propose for their characters.

To that end, we spend a lot of time encouraging our writers to be specific. How does it feel to be a hungry buffalo? How would a fat rattlesnake move? Does a calculating, edgy knife experience rage? And--my favorite question as a coach--why?

This is what makes the coach's job so ticklish, and so crucial. Like Chiron, the half-man half-horse tutor of Achilles and Hercules, the coach readies the writer for epic things, but we do not, we cannot fight their battles for them. We can't even answer the very questions we so endearingly ask, over and over and over and over again. Our object always is to spur our writers to discover their own truths, and face their own fears.

And this, in my view, is the real core of what any of us do in the arts. In our daily lives, this reality we all share binds us with terrible truths, things so powerful that we as individuals only dimly grasp their meaning: ballooning oil spills, police violence, or the death of a lover, or the loss of a home. And we fear what we so dimly understand: we fear the stigma of addiction, the blind rage of a child, the burden of consequence, the loneliness of the labels we wear.

All great art--insofar as such a thing could possibly be defined--all great art operates on the things we know to be true, and the things we fear. As artists we seek to reshape and reveal, discovering for ourselves these things we all struggle with, in our own desperate way, every waking day. In this seemingly small and inconsequential act of creating something our own, the great and terrible truths and fears that surround us become subject to ourselves. From slaves and debtors, we crown ourselves monarchs and heroes.

In the typical PlayWrite workshop, the heavy lifting happens in the second week, when the writer faces the blank page alone, the coach writing down the writer's words only, and no two such journeys are ever alike, and no the most accomplished and brilliant writer in the world can ever write the plays that these writers have given us. If they cannot say what needs to be said, then no one can, and we are beyond fortunate that they chose to write. They chose.

Now, tonight, you'll hear what they chose to say, and how they chose to say it. Sometimes it's a single speech. Sometimes it's a full-fledged play. And sometimes the writer commits to a whole new level of work, shaping their words into music. They all chose to share this tonight, but not every writer could choose to be here tonight, for all kinds of reasons. Nevertheless, we acknowledge every writer's work, even if it's with a simply, empty spotlight. We are here tonight not only to celebrate what they've given us, but to experience for ourselves the reshaping and revealing of our own truths, our own fears, profiting by their extraordinary journeys. Think on this--no other art form so critically requires a living audience to complete itself. This work is never finished, never can be finished, unless and until you join us in this room, tonight. This is your cue to turn off cell phones, pagers, recording devices of any kind, things that flash, buzz, vibrate or explode. Consider this your initiation, o heroes, your rite of passage, for by turning off your ipad, you join an epic confraternity older than Aeschylus.




Excerpt from my Letter to K.

...Only recently does it feel like I'm emerging from this past harsh winter. In many ways, I'm actually still quite lost in it. 2009, redemptive and astonishing in some ways, predictably decimated and besieged my spirit. Life and work deteriorated into a terrible and humiliating crush of stuff, just STUFF that never stopped pushing and crushing. I began 2010 prepared to seek vengeance for 2009's abuses; now I'm approaching yet another birthday with even just a little bit more exhaustion and dismay as before, and an even longer tale of indignities for which to seek satisfaction.
As demoralized as this may sound, however, there is, in fact, a great deal of joy in my days, grand little pieces in which I take some pride, things that are worthy of my love--
--for that's where my great bitternesses and griefs are all rooted, so far as I can see: as I grow older, the citadel of my pride only strengthens, and I rush that much quicker to the conclusion that the world is not worthy of my love. This citadel grows out of grief; it is in fact a lament written in bluster, for all the heart-blood poured out quite uselessly, as much for myself as for others.
There is something true, here, though. I know enough to know that my pride, my heart-blood is worth something, and I feel its wastage practically as an act of aggression:
How dare they? How dare they drop the ball at Copenhagen? How dare they tolerate such crappy work in this theatre community? How dare they continue to sanction such grievous acts of police violence in this city? How dare they...
I do not mean to draw neat equivalencies between all of these things, and it's true that I do little enough to justify how personally I take all of this. Still, to me, that only underscores how tough this problem is. For I am notorious for my emotional firewalls: I have few close friends, and fewer of these know enough to begin to understand my impossible families. My professional world in the addictions-recovery/mental health community exists in an entire other universe from my performance community, as that is likewise almost literally a hemisphere away from people I care quite deeply for, and that quite apart from my families entirely.
The problem here is that I am the flying bridge linking all of these emotional provinces. And so volatile are they all, that a full-fledged crisis in one of them never fails to somehow coincide with another crisis, in an other emotional province... And I have a hard time defying the accusation that I am, in fact, the agent of crisis, transmitting from one such remote emotional province to another...
Oftentimes, my vestigially Catholic self will take quite seriously the Apostle's enjoinder, to live each moment as a sacrament (I forget which Apostle so memorably said this). And so I lurch from project to project, meeting to meeting, day to day desperately seeking to expiate my all but sinful contagions. As silly as this sounds, I cannot help but point out the etymology of the word, 'tragedy,' translated literally as 'goat-song,' from whence 'scapegoat.' My theatre and my work are the sacrificial offerings I make to atone for my unwitting crimes. But by that measure, I'm failing indeed.
Again I reiterate that there is more joy, in my day-to-day existence, than this angstiness allows for. Right now I'm teaching at Rosemont, a residential rehab for adolescent women in custody for behavioral and/or substance abuse reasons. I'm teaching with a group called Playwrite, Inc--a local nonprofit that leads two-week workshops teaching at-risk youth how to write plays. At the end of those two weeks, their works is staged with professional actors. Both as a teacher and an actor, this is the finest work I do.
Concurrently, I'm rehearsing, and am about to open a production of 'Madeline and the Gypsies' at NW Children's Theater. I'm playing the Strong Man, and I'm having an extraordinary time. Secret: I've always loved the Madeline bookes. That alone is more than enough to counter my habitual theatre people misanthropy...
...I did not mean to ramble at such length, and in so scattered a fashion. Know that this is all by way of saying, in my own, inscrutable way, that your friendship and company is much missed...




Excerpt from my Letter to E.

...I hear you.

A part of me says that all of us are unsuited for one another. Since we each contain Whitman's multitudes, what right can we possibly have to find the suited one? Who themselves may or may not be looking? In this context, 'settling' is not a compromise. It is almost a moral imperative.

In my chequered history of intimacy (which reads like an Abbott and Costello oral history of the Thirty Years' War), the good bits are where my flawed insuperable multitudes clamor a kind of harmony against her flawed insuperable multitudes. Such things cannot be choreographed, not really...


Little Strokes

There's this thing that happens, when you're driving along in unfamiliar territory, and you're trying to follow directions while you're noting the world around you. Because you have to look, you have to pay attention, to note the landmarks and the curvings of the roadway, so you know where to turn, where to stop, where to go slower and so forth. It's basic sense to do so.

But it's so easy to lose track of the directions, or of the landmarks, or of both, really. Unfamiliar territory is by definition devoid of routine, cannot be taken for granted, does not behave according to predictable rules, otherwise it would be familiar. Things change, detours and washouts and new buildings happen all the time, and maps and directions can lie, sometimes egregiously.

I believe I've been following just such flawed directions, navigating an even more tortuous landscape. I know I haven't been faithful to those directions as I ought to have been. And the ground continually shifts beneath my feet as I go.

A beautiful moment happens, when you realize that you are not where you expected to be. For a fraction of a moment, anything is possible. Down is up. South is east. One way could be any way. You get your bearings and you move along, but in that tiny piece of a moment, I believe that your heart is suspended in a forever place, a seam of realities that unzips into the next piece of concrete information, from which you take your point of departure.

There are moments when I as an artist realize that I am not as good as I thought I was, that my narrow field of expertise is precisely that narrow. In the Great Library of Potential Achievement that we all borrow books from, what I thought was the sum total of everything there is to be said on a given subject only turned out to be half a shelf from the discard handtruck. There is so much more to be said, so much more to learn. My ego, of course, winces and crumples to realize such things. But the other half of me honestly savors this. It is what I imagine the exhileration feels like, after you've jumped but before you pull the ripcord on the parachute. I'm immensely grateful.


paulmonster-white noise


little specks of red under their beaks

I was walking home in the afternoon, on a cold, misty day. It didn't look like daylight, or any kind of light. It was like the absence of light, of any kind, and it was breathtakingly lovely.

Houses were half-built, lights glowed warmly, trees were suggestions of trees, only so high. And about my feet, too, there was a flowing swelling of mist, and my clothes were beaded and heavy, and even my breath swirled and ebbed in front of me.

There is a park across the corner from where I live, auspiciously named Unthank. It is a wide plain with a baseball diamond, and a long, tall row of swaying trees curving across the breadth of it. Beyond the trees, a play structure and a basketball court huddle awkwardly, like afterthoughts. At night, when the sky is clear, you can see the stars quite clearly from here, with a wider view of the night sky than anywhere else (though you must be careful lest the wandering police shoot you for doing nothing much at all, particularly at night and in my neighborhood).

This afternoon the plain was covered with seagulls, hunting worms. They almost seemed afloat in the mist, and the grass appeared and dissolved beneath them, and they chattered and stooped lazily in the not-light. For some reason, I could clearly see the little red specks on their beaks, and their pinions were so specific and just so. From time to time one would watch me warily, and one or two of his comrades, also, before deciding all at once that the meals before them were more interesting.

I was fascinated, and a little terrified. I'd never seen so many seagulls away from the ocean, and so calm. I hear them, from time to time, lost, I suppose, in the labyrinthine tributary watersheds of the Willamette and the Columbia (I don't imagine them to be all that bright, the more I think about them). And I then think of myself, a little bit lost, a little bit hopeless, and surprisingly calm, too.