Wednesday, March 30, 2011

On Literacy, Literature and 20-Year-Olds

This is the way my mind works. Something seemingly relevant pops up; I weigh whether to share it; share it if it's the right weight. Anyway, here's an example.

Random Mills Class Memory #1

I'm sitting in what is reportedly Perry Mills' toughest class: Arts Inquiry, aka Aesthetics. The report is true. This is no easy class. I'm scared, and I'm loving it.

One of our required texts is The Theatre and Its Double by Antonin Artaud. A dangerous text to introduce to an impressionable 20 year old. Consider:

Never before, when it is life that is in question, has there been so much talk of civilization and culture. And there is a curious parallel between this generalized collapse of life at the root of our present demoralization and our concern for a culture which has never been coincident with life, which in fact has been devised to tyrannize over life.

And, truly terrifying to a young mind recently entered into a reportedly serious academic institution (that report only being minorly true):

Either these systems are within us and permeate our being to the point of supporting life itself (and if this is the case, what use are books?) or they do not permeate us and therefore do not have the capacity to support life (and in this case what does their disappearance matter?)

Which I bring up, as example, in order to demonstrate the seriousness of this class and the basis for approaching the very nature of what thinking about culture might mean (what thinking itself might mean, perhaps) and in order to share this funny anecdote:

Mills: ...which is why, no matter what, Artaud can't be fully trusted.

Student 1: Wait, why?

Mills: Because even though he may be brilliant, he was a drug addicted lunatic who wrote a penpal letter to Hitler and gave terrible advice about moving.

Student 2: About moving?

Mills: What part of your body are you supposed to use to lift something heavy?

Student 3: Your knees.

Mills: Right. Now turn to page 34, fourth paragraph down.

(We do. Artaud suggests that, "as everyone knows", heavy lifting is meant to be done with majority pressure upon the lower back.)

Mills: Clearly bad advice, right?

Student 4: How do you do that? How did you remember where he says that?

Mills: I read the book.
Which brings me to...

Random Mills Class Memory #2

Mills suddenly brings up Flannery O'Connor (I do not remember the context).

Mills: ...which you can see come up in something like "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" or, more likely, in "Everything Rises Must Converge".

There's a palpable blankness in the faces of his audience, if blankness can be said to palpate.

Me: I love Flannery O'Connor.

A pause. Mills looks visibly disturbed.

Mills: Okay, are you serious or you're just fucking with me now to waste class time?

Me: I'm serious. I read her back in a community college class in Alaska. I got chills when I read "A Good Man Is Hard to Find". I really didn't see that ending coming but when it did it made total sense. Inevitable, right?
The look on Mills' face went from disturbed to something that I can only describe as a faint brush with pleasure. We went back to business immediately after but I'm sure this fact touched him: someone in his class had actually read something serious.

I deserve no statuette or cookie for having read, or even for responding to, a typically assigned piece of American literature. But it gives me pause, even 12 years later, to realize how rare it was for Perry to come across a student who had done either or, certainly, both.

When I consider the context in which a mind like Perry's resigned itself to spend an enormous amount of its time -- sifting through a mill of 20-year-olds who don't read, need to be forced to do so, and who are notoriously hard to get to noticeably respond to anything subtler than a gas line explosion -- a great deal of understanding forms. Or, if a mind is sympathetic to the nature of such a choice and its consequences, should form.

Imagine a bright dog placed on a deserted island trying to convince a cluster of fallen coconuts that running for several hours a day has lasting benefits. The dog proves this by running several hours a day. The coconuts remain still.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Son of Alcumus

When I consider the people who have played essential roles in my adult life – family, friends, professional colleagues and teachers – I can, with ease, narrow the list down to two people who have served, and continue to serve, as my most esteemed mentors.

One of these men is Edward Albee, the three-time Pulitzer prize winning playwright who unknowingly assumed the role of my mentor in 1998 when I first read his play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Within a couple of months of that seminal moment I began writing plays myself and wound up in Valdez, Alaska, where I won my first playwriting award at the Edward Albee Last Frontier Theatre Conference. I went on to win the same award two years later and had the chance to meet the man himself, who took to my play and invited me to attend his classes at the University of Houston in the spring of 2001, which I did. Within a few months of that, I moved to New York City where Albee offered me jobs as his personal assistant and as secretary of his foundation – posts I have held for over 9 years.

My other mentor, and the one without whose guidance and encouragement I would not have begun to write plays (nor obviously have met Edward Albee, nor proceeded along the focused career path I am currently on) is Professor Perry F. Mills.

I met Perry Mills in the spring quarter of 1998, a few months after moving to Bellingham with the intention of matriculating as a creative writing student at Western Washington University. I quickly discovered that, due to the registration system’s tilt against transfer students, there was no room for me in any creative writing course in the English Department. Frustrated, I sought advice from my student counselor who recommended I try the theatre department. Skeptical, if as yet uncynical, I walked over to the PAC.

When I arrived to the first session of Playwriting 386, I noticed that a lively, larger-than-life guy in sweat pants and t-shirt stood center stage, greeting students with a jibe and exuberant grin. My first thought—no doubt aided by the enormous set of keys he had dangling somewhere on him—was that this was a friendly facilities-custodian [read: eccentric janitor] finalizing the room for the semester, kidding around with the theatre students he obviously knew quite well. What surprise when I discovered that this was the man set to lead the class.

If first impressions are to be both remembered vividly and taken with a grain of salt, one must imagine (and sympathize with) Professor Mills’ likely reaction to the purple-haired waif sitting in the back row. If he thought that he had some goofy young punk in his midst—someone out to waste his and the class’s time by avoiding work and sliding on to the next discardable hobby—he was dead wrong and would soon learn so. And if I thought I had some affable janitor in front of me I, too, would soon discover otherwise.

When Professor Mills asked that two students attempt the terrifying – to dare to write a short play by the next class session – which was met largely with blank stares and leaden hands, I can’t say I remember exactly why my own arm shot up to volunteer. What I can say, for certain, is that this planted seed grew in me so rapidly that within three months of this first day in Professor Mills’ class I was standing in Valdez, Alaska, being handed a framed certificate, and a check for $1000, thinking ”Holy shit, I can really do this.”

I went on, during my remaining years at Western – which concluded by my being designated the 2000 Graduate of the Year, the official awarding of which I requested Perry present, which he did with characteristic warmth, humor and, dare I say, unselfish pride in my accomplishments – to take every single class Perry taught. It was during one of these many courses -- the Greco-Roman Playwrights Course, as I remember it -- that I wrote a note to the man on a small scrap of paper which I may or may not have ever actually handed to him.

It said, simply:

”You are a magician. You take the realization of my own ignorance and transform it into a bright, burning anger before my eyes.

That anger was what I then transformed into initiative, ambition and fortitude—traits which have ceaselessly assisted me -- and continue to assist me -- through the tricky navigation of a tough professional theatre world. And it's pretty damned unlikely I would have ever discovered that precise alchemy on my own. This is what, to my mind, a mentor is for.

I write this as an addendum to my first post on this site and belatedly so, due to the exigencies inherent in living and working in one of the most ferociously consuming American cities. Better late than never, I suppose, and as thorough as I need it to be in order to set the stage for what I intend to talk about next.

Stay tuned. My hope -- as well-intentioned and four-lettered as anyone else's -- is that the next post will forward this story a bit further, and show up with a less severe gap in time than this one has.

Jakob is a professional playwright living in New York City, working as the assistant to a much more famous professional playwright also living in New York City whom you now know by name. He’s married to a woman whom he met at WWU over 11 years ago, who has managed to brainwash him as thoroughly as Perry Mills has, but somehow manages to be better looking if easier to kill.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

A touch more noise, or: "Hi, there"

Blogs are like microwaveable burritos. They’re ubiquitous, popular, unhealthy in even modest immoderation and totally unnecessary. Also, any fool can have one almost completely regardless of his or her financial status or education level.

And I don’t like them.

I don't like self-aggrandizement -- which is what a lot of blogs seem to be around for. That's why I've never had my own website or blog, still don't (never mind how much my career likely suffers from the lack). I don't like how off-topic most blogs seem to get. I don't like the aggressive, often insane rants that pop up in the comment strings. I don't like the word "blog", which is like a portmanteau in decline -- as if two syllables take that much more time to say than one (though I would love it if these things were called "bdiaries").

But I'm getting off-topic already.

When I was asked to begin contributing to this blog, I had to ask myself the same question I would if I were being offered a microwaveable burrito: why should I?

While my junk food camparison has lost all traction by this point, the questions begin to multiply.

For whom am I writing this?

Are they the same people who will read this?

Am I helping or hurting the subject by furthering public scrutiny?

Why should I add any more noise to this noisy and noisome web of a world?

And so on.

Obviously, when a blog is about oneself, these questions can be easily fobbed off with a glib answer, or never arrive in the mind at all. But when the blog is about someone else -- someone who wouldn’t ever have a blog himself -- the questions, if the blogger is a critical enough thinker, or ethical enough feeler, what have you, make themselves ever present.

Anyway. Short story long. I care a lot about the person behind this bizarre situation. I don't like blogs. However, what I dislike more than blogs is the weird and confused tone that the current conversation has adopted. So, here I am, a little more noise.

For the simple record:

I was a student of Perry Mills in the late 1990s.

I took every single class he had on offer.

The only reason I didn’t take more was because they were finite in number.

I owe him a debt of gratitude for saving my educational career.

I owe him a debt of gratitude for encouraging me along the road toward my professional one.

In the years since graduation, Perry has become a dear friend.

I think I can provide some background color to this terrible story that might offer, if nothing else, a little context.

In case any of these points triggers a response in the reader, such as:

He’s biased!

He won’t be objective!

He’s a Mills lover! He's brainwashed (if he has a brain at all) and can’t be trusted!

Well, I can only reply:

- Yes, I am biased. Done.

- I don’t believe in being objective here -- I’m neither a journalist nor a forensic lab technician -- I’m a friend and former student of a man who’s being vilified in a hysterical, runaway-train fashion; the accusations being made against him, and the reasons for his suspensions and the subsequent court cases have fallen well out of sync, especially in the comments of many people who seem to be half-heartedly following the story on various blogs, and I think I might at least offer a slightly more informed, slightly less hasty, somewhat less aggressive response to it all.

- Who among us is not "brainwashed" by the comments, suggestions, urgings, unfulfillable wishes, and comings and goings of the people we respect, appreciate, and love? If, indeed, "brainwash" is the appropriate word for it?

(And why should you trust me? You don't know me. If I sound untrustworthy -- don't.)

In the 12 years or so that I have known Professor Perry Mills, I have not agreed with, appreciated, nor digested every last thing he has said, done or cooked. Have I agreed with a great deal of it? Perhaps. Have I appreciated the majority of it? Certainly -- at least for the intention behind the actions. Have I digested with full gusto? I’ve tried, but the roasted garlic that one time really did me in.

Intention. I think that’s going to be the bottom line in any and all of my future posts here. I wish, if nothing else, to offer a chance to look in at the intentions at play within this story.

We don't prosecute intentions in this country, we prosecute the crime!

I'm not a prosecutor either. Add that to the list.

Intentions. Something worth examining, often overlooked when fear of the unknown comes in to play.

So, what are my own here? Or, back to the fundamental question or questions...

Why am I choosing to add my own voice to this noise? And for whom am I writing this stuff?

I hope that in successive posts that will be as clear to you as it is for me.

Jakob is a professional playwright living in New York City, working as the assistant to a much more famous professional playwright also living in New York City. He’s married to a woman whom he met at WWU 11 years ago, who has managed to brainwash him as thoroughly as Perry Mills has.