Monday, November 16, 2015

Make Plays, Not War

When I signed up for a seven-hour marathon of theater in a church gym about bugs taking over the earth, the last thing I expected was it to be relevant to current events - or that it would give me hope for humankind.

But that's what happened when I attended closing night of the crazy-genius Honeycomb Trilogy by the promising playwright Mac Rogers.

The night before, ISIS had wreaked terror in Paris, killing over 100 people, and I had to wake at 4:15am the day of the plays to go in to CNN to produce an hour of live coverage anchored by Michael Smerconish as the (heart-)breaking news still was developing. It's what CNN does best but you wish it never had to do it.

It was one of those seat-of-the-pants broadcasts where behind the scenes guests kept being moved in and out of slots as different technology glitches and availabilities shifted underfoot - and the writing for the teleprompter was often still wet when Smerconish was reading it.

Amanpour on the cene with Deputy Mayor Patrick Klugman
Right before the gifted Christiane Amanpour went on the air live with the deputy mayor of Paris, someone in the control room suddenly wondered aloud: "He's going to speak English, right?" Luckily he did. (Looking at the playback now (right), I see we had the wrong clock code on the screen, showing NY time instead of Paris.)

Smerconish did a great job - even booking two of the guests himself the night before while on a Stairmaster - and pushing back when guest Mike Huckabee turned the actions of ISIS against all natives of the countries where it's housed. Afterwards we all went home to nap.

But I had to wake up to get to the first of the three plays, which started at 2pm  My girlfriend and I had first heard the plays touted by a Facebook friend who works in theater, and I then read the Times review by Alexis Soloski, whose taste I trust.
an exhilarating D.I.Y. saga at the Gym at Judson, imagines an Earth subjugated by an apian race. Over the course of these ambitious dramas, which you can and should see in a marathon showing, a Florida family introduces, abets and opposes these insectoid overlords, the People of the Honeycomb.
It certainly promised to be unlike anything I had seen in decades of New York theatergoing - half of the curiosity was how the hell they would pull it off on a single set.

Just before heading into the theater on Washington Square South, we noticed that groups had assembled in the park to memorialize the killings in Paris, and a French flag had been hung in the Arch (which Stanford White had modeled on Paris's Arc De Triomphe.) (right). 

How homespun an experience were we in for? The person behind the lockbox checking off our names from the ticketbuyers list was the playwright himself.
Scene from Advance Man, the first play in the Honeycomb Trilogy 
The set was a drab American living room, and the large, committed cast totally was attuned to Rogers' witty and lively scenario  The plot involves a group of astronauts who return to Earth from Mars disillusioned enough with their mission and its purposes to welcome a hive of bug creatures who hatch and eventually take over earthlings' bodies. It turns out that one of the astronauts who is behaving like a stroke victim has a lot more going on. From the moment they figure out what's going on, the daughter and son of the lead astronaut take opposite sides in the battle for who will dominate earth going forward.

Between the first and second plays, when we stepped outside for fresh air, we discussed how eerily prescient the playwright's view was about how Isis perceives itself and what havoc has ensued -- and we saw that the Arch had been "painted" with colored lights to mimic the French flag.

For the second play, taking place years later, the same set had been transformed - sort of like the Clybourne Park living room set change between acts -- into a post-takeover hideout for the rebels led by the daughter., where pregnant women are given haven to give birth away from the aliens, who have enslaved earthlings.

Scene from the second play, "Blast Radius"
The first act was a little wobbly, and I worried that we were in for a long night But it ended up totally involving as the drama unfolded about who is "right" about the future of the planet, and how people behave given the choice to let an invasive species co exist or not. (Amazingly, the only sign of an actual giant bug we ever see in seven hours is a severed leg, and it doesn't diminish the reality they've created.)

When we went outside for dinner before the finale, we were completely enmeshed in Rogers' vision, all the more potent for what had been happening in the real world vis a vis immigrants.  In the third play, more years have passed and the brother and sister are portrayed by older actors. One is in power and the other is the rebel leader. Both are right, both are wrong, and they wrestle with the conflicts that have torn their family and their world apart.  It was by far the best written of the three plays and the vision became clear, but it wouldn't have had the impact without sitting through the first two.
Hannah Cheek and Stephen Heskett in "Sovereign"
As we walked out into the night, we discussed how this is exactly the kind of nuanced art that is the antithesis of the world that the primitivist warrirors of ISIS are trying to create with terrorist acts, and which they probably wouldn't understand if they were forced to sit through it. But it's what makes the rest of us humans and why we have to give it up for Rogers and his cast and crew -- and all artists who help us try to figure this all out.  It is a pure expression of the opposite of terrorism.

As we walked out from the final play at 10:30pm, wiped out, the transformation of the Arch was complete. And it mirrored the trilogy's own arc of triumph over the forces of ignorance and simplemindedness.
playwright Mac Rogers

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Tale of Two Game 5's

The Mets weren't supposed to be anywhere near the World Series in 1969, or in 2015. But they got there both times. And so, somehow, did I, attending Game 5 of each. But the tales are quite different -- and not just because of the disparate high/low outcomes.

In 1969, you couldn't buy tickets the same day as the game from your computer.  Designated Hitters had not yet ruined the sport. You couldn't buy a lobster roll at the stadium. Pitchers regularly pitched complete games. The winning players' World Series bonuses were $18,338. And Fox Broadcaster Joe Buck (right) was only six months old, so he couldn't yet be held responsible for being a babbling idiot.

Even though the New York Metropolitans weren't born until a year after me, I was predestined to root for them.

My mom grew up in Brooklyn and had snuck into Ebbets Field with her nanny to watch Jackie Robinson play. So there was no WAY I was going to root for the Yankees.  My dad luckily had been a New York Giants fan, so when both teams moved West for the 1958 season, they got married, and waited around for a new expansion team to be formed from a draft of cast-offs from around the league with names like Choo-Choo Coleman, Marv Throneberry, and a couple of over-the-hill former Brooklyn Dodgers to get fans out to the ballpark (which in 1962 was the Giants' old Polo Grounds), including Clem Labine, Don Zimmer, Joe Pignataro, and Gil Hodges. Their debut record was historical: 40 wins and 120 losses.

Mom at the Museum of the City of New York, 2007
Mom kept cheering. She wasn't just a lifelong sports fanatic. her moods literally rose and fell with the daily travails of her teams. She listened to hockey playoffs on a transistor radio at temple services (I'm pretty sure she cursed out loud when circumstances turned dire), wrote letters to the Port Authority to complain about construction on the Whitestone clogging the road to Shea Stadium, and later in life frequently called the sports radio station to opinionate as "Judy From Scarsdale." She had elaborate superstitions about causing the Mets to do well or not, one of which included saving a half-eaten Nestles' Crunch bar for years in our freezer because she'd been in the middle of eating it when something Amazin' happened.

As the first-born, I knew no other way to live. She took me to my first game in 1968 when I was seven and she soon took all three sons. We sat in the top deck, seats were $1.30, and I learned to keep score.  Way before fantasy leagues were a twinkling in Las Vegas's eye, I was playing make-believe baseball games in my room with playing cards and dice, keeping track of batting averages and ERA. I sent self-addressed stamped envelopes to players c/o Shea Stadium and got back autographed pictures. I went to signing events and met them in person.
My souvenirs: 1969 Mets Taylor, Frisella, Koosman, McGrw, Kranepool
And I started keeping scrapbooks.
Yes, that's groovy Contact (TM) paper on the right. 
By starting when I did, I got an incredibly warped sense of how easy it is to win a World Series. Because in my second season of conscious fandom, the hapless Mets,

Friday, September 18, 2015

One More Time

Where the hell does the time go?

That's what I found myself thinking tonight, when, thanks to a Facebook alert from a friend, tonight I got to see Joe Jackson play the intimate space at Iridium, a taping for a PBS series called "Front & Center."

Jackson, a striking, lanky figure, opened with a few solo piano songs, then was joined by a band that included his original bassist, Graham Maby, who propelled him through his catchy, spiky first hit, "Is She Really Going Out With Him?"
Jackson & Maby Redux (photo credit: David Steven Cohen)
Sprinkled among the familiar tunes, Jackson highlighted  a half-dozen songs from an upcoming album called "FAST FORWARD," explaining that the title refers to a Time Machine concept, in which you can propel yourself far enough into the future that looking back on the present, you can make sense of it.  It seemed an apt concept the day after the GOP Debate circus, and the Arab-American teen arrested for bringing a clock he built to school, and -- well, pick a story.

But it also was a Fast Forward for me personally,

When Jackson released his first album, Look Sharp!  I was finishing high school -- and my musical taste had just graduated from the Eagles and Queen and Yes to Springsteen, the Clash, Graham Parker and Elvis Costello.  Jackson was in the proto-punk vein, full of high energy snark, tunefulness and wordplay.

And -- by whatever means we found out about concerts and bought tickets back then (radio? a trip to a department store ticket outlet?) -- I got to see him play live a few weeks before I went off to college. (I  had to check the below ticket stub for not only the date but the venue. I have no recollection of trekking to the the long-gone Calderone Concert Hall in Hempstead, Long Island. And yes, that says $8.50.)

After a second similar (and excellent) record, the same year, I'm The Man, Jackson left punk behind. (I raved about Beat Crazy in my college newspaper, but it didn't propel it up the charts.) 

It feels like he was always unjustly viewed as a wanna-be or also ran -- even though his heritage album of all jazz music, Jumpin Jive, was recorded at the same time Costello recorded his country album Almost Blue - and actually was released first! (That was a confusing year to be a fan of British New Wave LPs). He also had a bigger hit than Costello ever had with "Steppin Out," which coincided with MTV, but he never again had such a huge audience. 

In the intervening years, I haven't been a devotee but also didn't drop him; I kept collecting songs I liked, and live  albums that included  cover versions that he made his own of acts like Steely Dan, Bowie, and the Yardbirds. 

And tonight, after playing "my only nostalgic song," the wistful "My Hometown," he said he was going to play the song that was the first one he ever played live -- when he was 16.  

Wait. I did some quick math -- that was 9 years before I saw him perform on Long Island -- which itself was THIRTY SIX FRIGGIN YEARS AGO. 

Fast Forward, indeed. 

The below video isn't from the Iridium show --  but it's the song he played, so it'll have to do until we fast forward to the show airs in January. Hasta la vista. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Remembrance of Bike Rides Past

Feb 2005, "The Gates" 
A recent NYC history blog post about a statue fragment - more on that in a moment - reminded me how much a simple half-bike attachment (pictured above) ended up playing a key role in my maintaining a connection to my daughters after my divorce.

As a freelancer working at home whose wife worked full-time, I'd been more involved as a caregiver than most Dads. I bought a tag-along for my bike, and installed a seat on the front bar for my younger daughter, and we often tooled around the city to appointments on it -- in those pre-bikelane days often riding on side streets and even sidewalks to avoid traffic.

Central Park dogs
The rides were filled with adventures we wouldn't have had any other ways; once, we passed a parked bus, and the driver used his PA system to inform me that my daughter was not pedaling and simply taking a free ride, shaming her into action.

Weather permitting, I'd take my older daughter across the park to her school on the east side, and we would count the numbers of dogs we passed (once we hit 100!) or clock the number of different state license plates we spied.

After moving out, I wanted to do everything I could to provide continuity and stability. But all I could afford was a one-bedroom sublet -- on alternate weekends they gamely slept on the pullout couch -- and then I got a TV writing job in L.A., which would help me pay for their schooling, but pull me even farther from them.

The kids were able to visit me, and took a quick shine to year-round beach weather and showbiz; my older daughter even made an impromptu cameo in an episode of West Wing. (That's her smiling at Bartlet as he takes the stage around the one minute mark.)
But I didn't want to lose a foothold of their real lives back in New York.  My younger daughter was just starting kindergarten.  Luckily, my boss let me take a few three day weekends to return to the city to maintain custody.  Unbenownst to my kids, those visits also usually included a trip to lawyers' offices or court to hammer out the divorce details, so it was important to me as well to have as much normalcy outside those difficult hours.

The bike came in handy as a way to extend our too-brief time together -- instead of putting them on a school bus, we'd have the adventure and conversation during the trip. (It also, it turned out, absolved my older daughter of the social discomfort of explaining to busmates why she wasn't getting on the bus at her usual stop, something I hadn't anticipated.) The "tag-along," as we christened it, gave us an identity, even a community; we'd excitedly point out other parent-child bike combos en route.

So even after my sublet ended, and I stayed in hotel rooms and apartment swaps, I still kept the bike around and took them to school on it when weather permitted. We fell into a regular route across the park and then emerged at Fifth Avenue south of the Met, and trial and error taught me the least-travelled street was East 80th. We started to look forward to the regular sights as reassuring talismans: the "Doggie Gym" on First Avenue (right) became so popular we'd actually leave for school earlier so we could stop and watch through the windows.

But our most beloved marker along the route was a head. A lopped-off statue head, sitting idly next to some trash cans outside a brownstone just east of Madison Ave. on 80th street. We became so fond of it we would wave and yell "Hi, head!" We had no idea where it was from, or what it was doing there, but it was definitely one of those "only in New York" sights.
Of course, the girls grew up. My younger daughter moved from the front-seat to the tag-along, and my older daughter rode her own bike (see photo up top, at Christo's remarkable Gates exhibit).

The tag-along was not without its mishaps: in 2005, I was  trying to be safe by riding my daughter to school on a sidewalk, I was surprised by a car pulling out of a recessed garage (left). I stopped short, and the whole weight of the bike and a half and its two riders -- landed on my ankle, tearing a ligament.

I limped her the rest of the way to school and then straight to the orthopedists. It was the beginning of the end of the era.

Trying to keep the three of us together, I did briefly own a tandem bike that I tried to hook the tag-along to, but it was laughably unwieldy.

Eventually I passed the tag-along to a neighbor with an age-appropriate daughter. I've moved back and forth to LA a half-dozen times for work my kids are now in high school and college, and now if I am lucky enough to grab either for a bike ride it's on adult bikes.

But yesterday I got an email from the Ephemeral New York about the sculpture head that brought me back -- and made me wonder about its magic powers. It turns out the New York Times' architecture critic Chritopher Gray had explained its origin in 2004 -- right around when I was doing my school shleps.
The house at No. 52...was owned until 1998 by Jerry Hammer, a theatrical producer, who now lives in Beverly Hills, Calif., but left the statue when he sold the house. Mr. Hammer said that in the 1960’s he was riding in a limousine with the developer Zachary Fisher, who motioned to the old Ziegfeld Theater, at 54th Street and the Avenue of the Americas, and said he was going to demolish it for a new office building.
Mr. Hammer said he pointed to a limestone head on the front of the building and asked Mr. Fisher for it as a joke. “Then,” he said, “about four months later, I hear noises outside, and it’s a truck with a crane, and a head, and they ask me where I want it.”
So the head came from the Joseph Urban facade of the old Ziegfeld theater -- built in 1927, financed by William Randolph Hearst, first home to the musical Showboat, later a movie theater and then a TV studio (Perry Como and the Emmys both broadcast from it.)

I think the woman is one of the two flanking the upper part.
So what's the magic power? All these years later, both my daughters are firmly ensconced in the theater, both at their schools and in their lives. Maybe that head was an augur.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Music of My Mind

Lester Bangs and his music collection
What do songs mean to us? Why do certain songs evoke sense memories so strongly? Where were you when you heard song X?

I was given a jolting reminder of how personal our experience of music can be watching the recent workshop production of "How to be a Rock Critic," the one-man show about Lester Bangs by my friends Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank.  During the show, Jensen-as-Bangs deejays maniacally through a vast catalogue of LPs from the Troggs to Iggy Pop while expressing trenchant, anarchic opinions and interweaving personal experiences from  journals.

One story in particular haunted me. In 1968, Bangs was living next door to a Hell's Angels hangout and witnessed the gang-rape of a woman -- to the strains of "I've Been Loving You Too Long" by Otis Redding (who had just died at 26 in a plane crash).

Bangs was haunted by his inability to intervene. And having heard the story told as the track plays, I am now never going to be able to hear that song again without associating it with that scenario.

Oddly enough, that same Redding song had previously evoked a very different kind of memory for me, personal and tender. It was used in a scene in the movie that was the very first set I ever visited, 1985's coming of age story Heaven Help Us starring Mary Stuart Masterson and Andrew McCarthy. (Song starts around the 1:00 mark)

The movie's director, Michael Dinner, had himself been a musician (and now directs on Justified and Masters of Sex). I actually tracked down his album Tom Thumb The Dreamer, which was pretty good. (Doing a little research now, I was reminded that his studio band included Elton John's rhythm section and James Taylor sideman Waddy Wachtel.)

When I hear the song, I don't just think of the set visit, which was exciting for a 23 year old reporter, but also all the missed opportunities and heartbreak around it.  The movie, a sweet autobiographical piece originally called "Catholic Boys" by a memorable hippy 40 year old named Charles Purpura, never found its audience; my piece never got published; the magazine I'd written it for soon went out of business. (I did end up profiling Mary Stuart Masterson for New York Magazine when she starred in John Hughes' now-forgotten Some Kind of Wonderful.) 

And then the memory was evoked last year, when I saw the name Charles Purpura again. I was taking over a TV writing class at NYU, stepping in for a professor who had passed away suddenly, at the age of 48, four weeks into the semester. On the office door of the professor who recruited me, Charlie Rubin, was the nameplate, CHARLES PURPURA.

Turns out, after only two other produced credits -- A CBS Schoolbreak special that won him an Emmy and Humanitas award, and a disastrous Justine Bateman/Liam Neeson/Julia Roberts rocker 1988 movie called Satisfaction -- Purpura had settled in to teaching at NYU -- and passed away at 59, in 2005, but his nameplate is too embedded to remove.* [SEE POSTSCRIPT BELOW]

We all have our associations with songs as personal as these, where one opening verse can trigger a host of memories. Inspired by the Bangs show, which spends some time on the Van Morrison album Astral Weeks, I recently dug out Morrison's Moondance and listened to it start to finish -- something I never do any more in the age of iTunes and shuffle.

And I suddenly remembered that it had been my boss's repeated soundtrack when I was building sets as a teenager at a local regional theater. Hearing the less-radio-played tracks of the album brought me right back in a sense memory to that time.

Do you have a specific memory attached to a certain song? Write back in the comments!

Meanwhile, Glad Tidings to all.

POST SCRIPT: After this "went to press," Prof. Charlie Rubin emailed me the following update about the nameplate:
I kept Charlie's name there because he was Mark Dickerman's best friend, and when Mark went to Singapore to run Tisch Asia for two years I inherited Charlie's office which Mark had inherited after his best friend died.  Charlie was beloved by the students.  He had a sign on his door that read STUDENTS JUST ENTER/All Other Please Knock.  His son, Will, might be the most talented kid I've met here (well, tied with 2 others).  I kept Charlie's name on the door because of Mark, and because Will drops in on me now and then.  I also thought it was a respectful thing to do. 

Then last summer they repainted the Department and brought in new furniture and one thing they did was scrape Charlie P's name off, and when I came back, a CR nameplate was up instead.  I had thought that was part of the point in keeping CP there -- I'm well-enough known, and still here, I didn't need a nameplate.  I wanted Charlie's name there.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Song Writing -- plotting NASHVILLE 209 through music.

Michael Lohmann's cool Orson Welles like shot of Layla crying backstage
When you write on a TV show, you only get to actually "WRITE" very sporadically. Most of the job entails being locked in a room with fellow creative eccentrics (ten, on this show) and bashing out stories while trying not to gain too much weight being forcefed lunch and snacks.

So when after the first 8 episodes, the spinning wheel  landed on me, I was READY. What's different about Nashville, and what I was excited to use as a springboard, was the music. Obviously, I had to first pick up "the batons" from the previous episode and move them down the field toward what we knew had to happen in the next episode -- an end of 2013 cliffhanger.

I needed stories that made emotional, narrative, and musical sense. (I also had a private agenda of doing stories that would bring as many of the myriad characters together, because I'd seen other episodes compress under the pressure of delivering scenes for so many storylines -- and besides, we were due for throwing awkward, secret, reunited and ex-couples Scarlett/Avery and Zoey/Gunnar into a room together.)
While music is the trickiest part, it can also be a great organizing principle. We have at least three songs each episode. With rare exceptions, we use only original songs (ie that haven't been made famous by recording artists). Our actors actually sing, we have to rotate who performs, the songs have to make sense in the story, and have to be recorded in advance and played back on set. Though you usually see only a minute or so on the show, full songs are recorded and filmed, released on Itunes, YouTube, and soundtrack albums.  While our cast doesn't tour to support them, we recently cracked the country Top 40 with a Scarlett/Deacon duet, "This Town."

So to answer the questions I've been asked by screenwriting students:
Do writers write the songs? (No!)

We have a weekly meeting with Frankie Pine, our music supervisor, where we lay out future needs and she plays us contenders on her laptop. The ultimate decision lies in the hands of show creator Callie Khouri, Music Producer Buddy Miller, and showrunner Dee Johnson, but we all weigh in. It's an exciting and scary part of the process because we're always up against time deadlines.

What do you put in the script? (Dialogue with XXXXX until the songs are finalized, usually during the last week.)
How do you decide who will sing and where to put them in the show? (I'll just use my episode to illustrate.)

I set about to reverse engineer my stories from which performances I wanted to see, musically and storywise. Two involved pairing up people for the first time, for selfish -- and story-- reasons.

1) Chris Carmack and Hayden Panettiere. Will and Juliette -- and the actors who play them -- are two of the show's most charismatic young performers and we'd put them on tour together, yet they'd not had a scene together since Juliette gave Will the gig pre-opening for her and the ambitious, scheming Layla. I wanted to up the ante and get them on stage together, so I cooked up a plot in which Juliette is threatened by Layla, demotes her, Will invites Layla to duet with him -- so Juliette trumps her by grabbing the mike. So their duet would not just be a musical moment, but a power play, even a flirt.

Juliette steals Layla's mike backstage.

2) Aubrey Peeples. Cast as Layla Grant, the up and comer Eve Harrington of the season, 19 year old Aubrey hadn't gotten a chance to show off the amazing pipes that won her the role. (No, it was NOT because she was in Sharknado). And when Aubrey visited the writers room, I learned she played guitar -- something that would distinguish her musically and visually from Juliette, and show her as more of a musical threat. I decided we'd open the show with Layla overstaying her allotted opener's time onstage by playing an encore,  provoking Juliette's wrath.
Lohmann's three cameras capture Aubrey
Callie and Frankie dipped into our pool of 100 songs and Nashville Songwriters and found two perfect tunes: "Tell Me" for Layla (<- click on the link for the backstory video) and "Can't Say No to You" for Will and Juliette. Both were shot on the same day, on our soundstage, which has the ability to be CGId into arena or even stadium. I thought it might be the hardest day of the shoot, but the crew has mastered how to shoot songs. Director Kevin Dowling, a veteran of dozens of episodes of TV as well as feature films and theater, had his easiest day. Our tireless, hilarious cinematographer Michael Lohmann had three cameras going, all of them in motion. Our guitar master Colin Linden sat behind the monitors to make sure handwork matched the guitar playing.
Video Village during music scene:
Cinematographer Michael Lohmann, Performance Consultant Colin Linden, Brad Stella (dad of Lennon and Maisy), Director Kevin Dowling, Script Supervisor Allison Hughes Stroud
3) Chip Esten and Lennon Stella (Deacon and Maddie). Another situation of pairing two charismatics for the first time. The Stella sisters, who first charmed the world with a simple YouTube video, are pure gold on the show -- people can't get enough of them. But the plotline of the show had added a wrinkle we hadn't explored musically: At the end of Season One, Deacon and Maddie both learned that he, not Teddy Conrad (Eric Close), was her biological father. This at first led to near-tragedy, but they'd been taking babysteps toward reorienting their relationship, and I felt it was time to see them actually sing together.

When my colleague Wendy Calhoun (veteran of Justified and Revenge) returned from the Nashville filming of her episode #204, she reported to me that the local hipster clothing store, Two Old Hippies, had a weekly open mic for teenagers on Sunday afternoons.

This sparked a whole story in my head. Being a divorced dad, I know the complications in multiple parental units attending a kids' event -- and this one had the extra oomph of Teddy being threatened by Deacon's paternity of Maddie. Throw in Teddy's new wife Peggy (Kimberly Paisley-Williams), who everyone loves to hate, and it's a powder keg. Drama is conflict.
Biological dad, step mom, dad, mom. Rehearsal at Two Old Hippies. 
I devised a plot in which Maddie asks Deacon to give her guitar lessons, straining her parents, and then escalates when she invites him up on stage. It was decided for story purposes to re-use the song "A Life That's Good" that the show had set up as an old Deacon solo song.  (Maddie had sung it with her sister Daphne after running away in Wendy's episode. )

My episode also has a bonus song, which my bosses and I chose from a bunch of songs we could afford rights to.  We needed the closeted Will to act out and get injured. The original pitch had been an homage to the roof-to-pool jumping scene from Almost Famous, but production exigencies changed the plan to a dive off of a bar.

So we needed a song that would motivate him to get up and start dancing and singing along. We chose Keni Thomas's "Gunslinger," which had just the right touch of dumbass braggadocio.  It was fun to add the lyrics to the script, and Chris Carmack was so into the scene that, even though they'd flown in a stunt double, he insisted on doing the bellyflop himself.
When I got to town I went to Two Old Hippies in person to scout the real Open Mic. Of course there were only a few people there (though as with everything else we show of the city on our show, that will probably change). The 14 year old girl I saw, however, was great, if unpolished. It made me feel happy I was giving the place some p.r.And in fact MaryLynne Stella is arranging for Lennon and Maisy to play there next Sunday.

Episodes film in the order that makes the most sense to production, not the order of the script pages, and the two big performances -- Layla's opener and Will/Juliette, an Act Three moment -- both didn't film until the 8th day of an 8 1/2 day shoot.

Even Maddie and Deacon's performance at Two Old Hippies, because of time of day issues, were shot reverse order: first the aftermath fight on the sidewalk, then the performance, and then everyone's arrivals. Brad Paisley came by to watch his wife film.

Even though the shop had to shutter for the morning, between takes the cast and crew ended up spending more money than a typical morning consumer crowd would have. We used the store's actual emcee, employee Matt Walbeg, a musician himself, as the emcee, and when his intro proved too short to cover a camera move, supervising producer Michael Waxman had him add the phrase "Home of peace, love, and rock and roll."

Everything came together and the cast and crew kicked ass. The three songs not only anchored the episode, but all three of them will be on Season Two's first CD of songs.


Episode link:

Song purchase links:
A Life That's Good (Maddie & Deacon version):
Can't Say No To You:

For more inside info on the songwriters of some of this season's songs, check out:
also follow and like: 

Nashville's Day in Court

Bill Myers and his unseen handiwork.
One of the busiest days on set for Nashville episode 209 was Lamar's appearance in court for a bail hearing, with Rayna looking on. We were downtown in a working courthouse (Nashville loves the show and bends over to accommodate us). There were tons of extras, awkward filming angles, a lot of important moments (it was one of the show's act outs).

One indicator of how chaotic things got: halfway through filming the scene, it was discovered that one of the flags behind the judge's head clearly said "STATE OF NEW HAMPSHIRE." Turns out someone in the art department had thought we needed a dark blue flag to replicate a federal court, but hadn't actually read the flag, or expected it to be more tightly furled. We ended up having to cut around it.

But one of the most labored over items in the court also does not appear  in the episode, so I wanted to pay tribute to it here. As I was surveying the scene, I saw that one of the extras was doing a courtroom artist sketch of Lamar and Rayna. It stopped me in my tracks -- it was really good. My reporter's instincts took hold and I asked the man about himself. And I was amply rewarded for my curiosity.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

"If I Read Only One Book This Year...."

I used to read a lot more. (I used to write more, too, but that's for another time.) Specifically, I read more books. After my kids arrived, I started reading to them at bedtime, and for many years that served as my book time. I sort of fell out of the habit, except on vacation.

And since the incursion of the internet, I have mostly been reading things I click through to -- newspaper, magazine, blog....okay, cat videos, too -- anything but a book.

Partly my fall-off has to do with the sense of urgency conveyed by the Internet. Also with my now needing reading glasses; I'm more likely to listen to a podcast.

 Colson Whitehead and Patricia Cornwell readers in transit.
But it's also about my lack of patience. Most of the things I read (or listen to) online, I can finish in one sitting. Books require the kind of commitment that I only get -- or afford myself -- on vacations. (I am not one of those hardy citizens who can read literature on subway trains or in Starbucks, grabbing half-chapters here or there. I need a purer environment.)

And my to-do list keeps piling up exponentially. When I moved two years ago, I shed boxes and boxes of books I had once read or would never read, or had inherited from my parents -- and still wound up with more than our new shelves could contain (and more than I will ever read).

2012 also delivered more than the usual tumult of distractions: I worked four jobs (five, if you count temping), moved back to NYC from L.A., saw a kid off to college, and of course there was all that stuff to read about the election. Meanwhile, I kept going to friends' book parties, buying the books, and piling them on a chair. I kept hearing about other books I "had to read" and would take comfort if someone said an ending was disappointing. Bullet dodged!

Before December, the only book I finished was The Art of Fielding, a nicely observed thinking-person's soap opera set at a smalltown college, revolving around a baseball phenom and his tormented mentor. I enjoyed it, but thought, well, that the ending was disappointing. It was a solid double; I still craved a home run.

Heading to Christmas break, I finally chose to crack the one friend's book I had been half-craving, half-avoiding: The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe, in which he recounts the final months of his remarkable mother's life as she's treated for pancreatic cancer and they both read a lot more books than I will read in my entire adult life, and share insights into books, living and, of course, dying.

"We are a pretty awkward society when it comes to talking about dying," Schwalbe muses two-thirds of the way into the book. "It's supposed to happen off-stage, in hospitals, and no one wants to dwell on it too much." What he's accomplished is an approachable, human way of discussing death -- even with the person whose life is slipping away.  As he says, his mother taught him "reading isn't the opposite of doing -- it's the opposite of dying." 

I was craving it because I knew their discussions would provide useful shorthands on dozens of books I might never get to; I was dreading it because I had both my parents die suddenly, in 2007 and 2009, with hardly any of the preparatory time Will had been afforded to make the most of his time with her.  And though I did get my dad to do his oral history, instead of doing it as a series of interviews with me, as I'd envisioned, he chose to dictate it at work and have his secretary type it up -- of a piece with his personality, which was always concerned worried about "to-do" lists and formal when it came to emotional stuff.

Will Schwalbe
Will, a former book editor himself who started the website Cookstr, is more of an acquaintance or Facebook friend (that modern term); we'd met through a mutual friend 20 years ago, he wrote a book with another mutual friend, and we occasionally run into each other. So however he presented himself in the book would be as new to me as if reading about a fictional character.

Soon I was identifying with all his inner torments: about his tendency to make superficial connections between people without considering the consequences, or to interrupt people with his own anecdotes instead of really listening and appreciating theirs.

Mary Anne Schawlbe
Rosalind Russell in a fur
In many such self-deprecating moments, Will is comparing himself unfavorably to his mother Mary Anne, who is, by any standard, a truly remarkable woman. After attending Brearley, Harvard and drama school in London, she went from working for theater producers (once wearing Rosalind Russell's fur and jewels back from London trying to pass them off as her own), to admissions officer at Harvard, to college counselor and then head of upper school at two tony New York private schools, to a late in life career as an activist for international refugees, visiting danger spots, working with lepers, amputees and mutes, and organizing a national library system for Afghanistan. All the while remaining a deeply religious person. Even in the hospital, she would see someone who couldn't afford medication and write a check for them on the spot. How could he help but feel inferior?

But in one aspect, Schwalbe is very much his mother's equal: he's an avid, avid reader. In bookstores, besides the usual happenstance ways we all find books, he adds, "superstitiously, I almost always feel the need to buy any book that I knock over."

And so when Mary Anne was diagnosed, it didn't take them long to hit upon the organizing principle to their new extra time together at doctors' appointments, chemo infusions, and the like: They would read, or reread, books, and discuss them.

The authors are as diverse as W. Somerset Maugham and Moshin Hamid and Thomas Mann (aided by Ritalin, she plows through Mann's 1500-page Joseph and his Brothers, one of the few Will, without pharmaceutical aid, simply gives up on). The subject matter might be the mind-body connection, spirituality, contemporary autobiography, or dated period pieces. They even read my friend Sheila Weller's book Girls Like Us about Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon. They don't always agree about the books, they don't always even like them, but they always learn something from them.

The lessons are both simple and profound, and worth remembering. They read Patricia Highsmith's lesser-known. partly autobiographical The Price of Salt, originally published under a pseudonym because of its lesbian love story. Mary Anne tells Will the protagonist reminded her, "When you walk around New York, or really anywhere, you see so many people like that young woman -- not desperate but still sad and lonely. That's one of the amazing things great books like this do -- they don't just get you to see the world differently, they get you to look at people, the people all around you, differently."

And Will extrapolates from that discussion why his mother always -- sometimes exasperatingly to him -- took the time to acknowledge nearly everyone she encountered: strangers, store workers, receptionists, nurses.

And his own book becomes the culmination of his mother's example. Seemingly effortlessly organized around chapters titled after just some of the hundred or more books discussed, it's actually an incredibly complex and life-affirming journey, exactly what one needs when one is feeling overwhelmed.

Will's whole life, his mother demanded prompt thank-you notes from him and his siblings, and tried to impart them that the thanking itself was a pleasure. He didn't get it.

Then in the book, when she's getting sicker, he starts trying to write her one for a Christmas present and gets stymied; he kept straying into what he thought was a premature eulogy.
What I suddenly understood was that a thank-you note isn't the price you pay for receiving a gift, as so many children think it is, a kind of minimum tribute or toll, but an opportunity to count your blessings. And gratitude isn't what you give in exchange for something; it's what you feel when you are blessed--blessed to have family and friends who care about you, and who want you see you happy. Hence the joy from thanking. 
So -- thank you to all my friends and family this holiday season. And thank you, Will Schwalbe.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Sandy's Haves & Have-Nots

New York Subway map, post-Sandy
"How are you doing?"

That's what people from all over were asking as we weathered Hurricane/Post Tropical Storm Sandy.

Our answer felt kind of embarrassing. Because when the storm hit and divided the city into the haves and have-nots, we fell above the power-grid equator of 30th street. So all we had was extra vacation days, impetus to take long walks, and survivor guilt.

And I did a lot of posting on Facebook.

I mean, of course we heeded all the warning preparations.  I went to the local supermarket and CVS where people had cleared the shelves of bottled water and batteries and candles [right], but otherwise supplies were plentiful. Back home, we filled a tub with water "for non-drinking purposes" in case the power (and thus water pumps) went out, brought in the furniture from the balcony and closed up the windows.

Then it started to get warm so we opened them again. With nothing else to do but wait, we began catching up on back episodes of Homeland and Breaking Bad. I mean, a lot of episodes.

I went on Facebook to see the News Feed.  There was a kind of almost giddy energy to the anticipation, mixed with skepticism about all the dire prognostications.

People shared fun photos, like the one in the New York Times of Hasids gathered at the beach watching surfers before the storm hit [right], or the photoshopped tracking map that likened the storm's progression to its namesake in Grease as she got progressively skankier.

Others made jokes about how they were still finishing up their supply of Y2K crackers and water.

It started to feel like we had been hyped. By noon Sunday, city area schools and businesses had already announced they'd be closed both Monday and Tuesday. Friends -- especially those living north of the city, where they had no real weather change yet - starting griping. By Monday 4pm, all the city had experienced was some drizzle. Yet the subways shut down at 7pm, and the buses  followed at 9pm.

Sure, we heard the accelerating wind whistling through closed windows like a tea kettle. Felt the 100% humidity, saw the wall of clouds in the sky.  So we kept switching over to TV news to make sure we weren't missing something.

And I began trying to be useful the only way I could -- making my Facebook "News Feed" literally that, sharing updates both large and small. At first, most of my postings were meant to entertain during the endless wait, but soon things got serious.

Early on, local and national news reporters were mostly notable for their hypocrisy,