By Steven Leigh Morris
This is how the email started:
“Jenna on behalf of Facebook here with a timely story that I think might be up your alley: Three weeks ago LA Theater Director Dan Bonnell was in the middle of pitching a play he’d been working on for years to a major theater when his arm went numb. He realized right away he was having a stroke. While his colleagues called an ambulance, Dan managed to ring his wife, Lea, and speak with her while his diction rapidly began to fade. That was the last time Dan spoke…”
This was the opening volley of a pitch by Jenna for me to write an article promoting Facebook’s fund drive for Dan’s treatment. I received the pitch through Stage Raw. Jenna had no idea that I was actually there that dread-filled night, that the play being discussed at the theater was mine, that I had held the phone to Dan’s ear while he spoke with Lea, that I had experienced what she was trying to pitch me, that I had written an account of the incident on Stage Raw, and that furthermore, Stage Raw had just posted a column by Paul Birchall, mentioning the fund-drive for Dan.
Almost as surreal as witnessing the nightmare of Dan’s stroke was seeing my own description of that numbing night hurled back at me in the form of a marketing campaign.
This is not in any way a condemnation of the Facebook fund-drive itself, or of its organizer, Jacqueline Wright, or of the particularly kind-hearted people who have contributed to the much-needed benefits it will bestow on Lea for Dan’s treatment – even though Facebook is taking its own cut from the campaign. Fundraisers such as this wouldn’t be necessary if we lived in a country, like so many others, with a national health care system that actually worked. They would not be necessary if Dan’s treatment, his continually changing residences, and his long, arduous recovery were determined more by his doctors than by his insurance company, who are watching the timing of Dan’s recovery like hawks and keeping his doctors on edge.
Jenna’s email was like ouroboros – the ancient mythical image of a snake eating its own tale: There was the incident of a dear colleague evaporating in front of six witnesses, including himself; then there was me trying to tell the story; then there was Jenna trying to sell the story. At each step from incident to fiction to marketing, the awful sanctity of that night got further eroded. And to some degree, in merely trying to write about what happened, I was culpable in that erosion. Every story-teller is.
For example, I’d thought I’d heard Dan say, on the night of his stroke, that he’d helped develop new plays at Circle in the Square Theatre in New York. Another person in the room thought they’d heard the same. But a third person remembered him saying Circle Rep. Daniel Henning had raised this issue in an email reply to my post by questioning my reference to Circle in the Square (which never developed many new plays), believing Dan had more likely worked at Circle Rep. And now the subject himself, having lost consciousness, couldn’t affirm or deny. A quick scan of his online resume verified Henning’s presumption.
In an innocent blink of my eye, an entire chapter of one man’s history – all those experiences and interactions that were part of the then-burgeoning off-Broadway scene – became muddied in the story-telling, in the story re-telling.
There’s a short story by Chekhov called “The Kiss,” in which a dowdy, awkward army officer named Ryabovich wanders into the anteroom of a home where his platoon is stationed. In that room, in the dark, Ryabovich stumbles upon a woman awaiting a clandestine affair, but not with him. In the pitch black, mistaking Ryanbovich for her lover, she plants a lingering kiss on his lips – a kiss which changes his life, restores his dignity, gives him renewed confidence. Of course, when she realizes the mistake she’s made, she screams and runs from the room, but that doesn’t temper the magic he’s just felt.
The following night, by a campfire, in trying to tell the story of his sacred encounter, Ryabovich has every detail of his fateful evening cemented in his brain, but it comes out in blurps and blips. The only reaction he gets for his pains is a pornographic joke from one of his peers. And he comes to realize how, in the telling of the story, or in the attempt to tell the story, he has punctured whatever it was that made the prior night so holy for him.
So what is the point of art in general, or of story-telling in particular, if experience is so sacrosanct that it can’t, or shouldn’t, be polluted by its transformation into fiction? Such an ascetic view would put us all out of business. No more selfies. No more satires. No more paintings. No more movies. No more poems. No more plays. Just live in the moment and shut up about it? Keep the experience of it pure?
To some degree, that’s the reason that plays and poems by Samuel Beckett and Caryl Churchill became decreasingly verbose over the decades, reduced from sentences to words, to utterances, to mere sounds, to silence.
And what are the consequences of ignoring the guidance of these muses?: to live in a society such as ours, drowning in babble, an echo chamber for stories enacted in a hall of mirrors, strategically disassociated from adherence to verifiable facts, even scientific facts, what used to be called “truth.”
Perhaps our calling as writers and actors and designers is to tell stories with a fuller understanding that, however unwittingly, we damage the essences of most of what aim to represent, but we can strive to do better. Or, to quote Beckett, to “fail better.”
Because if we don’t labor to tell the truth rather than to sell it, to use allegory and fastidious research and the vast expanses of our imaginations to honor the truth of experience to the best of our abilities, who else will?
Marketing L.A. Theatre
Thanks to the City of Los Angeles, Department of Cultural Affairs, and Ovations TV, LA STAGE Alliance has just been funded to oversee the creation of twelve digital public service announcements. Each will be hosted by a different celebrity or prominent public official, and filmed in at theaters large and small, in a variety of L.A. neighborhoods, promoting the virtues of local theater.
Butcher Bird Studios (a film company) will be shooting the spots that will each have 15- and 30-second variations and will focus on inviting the public to discover a theater that may be in their own neighborhood. Each spot will refer back to a link for more information about the totality of L.A. Theater, i.e. a new website funded by The Ahmanson Foundation and created by LA STAGE Alliance. This website will feature comprehensive listings and ticketing options, local arts journalism, and reviews.
The program stemmed from last year’s town halls, in which LA STAGE Alliance traveled to six different neighborhoods asking theater-makers about their challenges. Among the top-ranked challenges cited was the need for “branding” – not of a particular show, but of the entire sector. To paraphrase Greg Crafts of Theatre Unleashed, “The problem isn’t that the general public thinks L.A. theater sucks. The problem is that the general public doesn’t even know we exist!”
This is what these public service announcements aim to address.
We’ve had preliminary discussions with the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board, the Mayor’s office, and PBS SoCal. Now that the program has been funded, those discussions about possible distribution outlets (including on public transportation and in hotels) are now resuming.
Filming is scheduled for this summer. Distribution is being timed to coincide with the launch of the new website, anticipated for January 2018.
There’s been some chatter on social media confusing the newly formed band of theaters, the Independent Theatres of Los Angeles (ITLA) with LA STAGE Alliance. To be clear, ITLA was created on its own steam, without any involvement from LA STAGE Alliance.
ITLA was created in response to the national actors’ union’s (Actors’ Equity Association) recently implemented collective bargaining agreement, which has for many small theaters increased the per-actor costs by 275%, according to one local theater’s executive director. For any number of reasons, including carve-outs within the new contract, many theaters are absorbing the blow. Those that feel they can’t absorb the financial hit created ITLA as a strategy for sustainability, recruiting non-Equity actors in order to avoid violating the union’s policies, while keeping their own theaters viable.
LA STAGE Alliance is an arts service organization dedicated to the health of the entire sector. We support the creation of theater in all of its diverse forms.