Last year I wrote a screenplay titled "Citizens Band". I thought it was pretty good so I have been fiddling with it. I tried to get friends to read it, but only a couple did, and I got positive feedback from each one. So I continued.
I sent an e-mail to someone I met at a production company but jee never got back to me. That was about three days before the submission date for the BlueCat Screenplay Competition. But I waited because you can submit early and they will review your submission, then you can submit again for the contest and be reviewed again.
I thought the next logical step was to host my own screenplay reading. I sent an e-mail to a major local theater but never heard back. The MuCCC was supportive but alas booked solid for the year. I got started a bit with one person but jee dropped out for jeir own project so I got in touch with Phil Frey of ShakeCo: The Shakespeare Company who agreed to direct the reading.
Over the course of the last few months, I reformatted the script as a stage play (essentially adding a "Narrator" character who speaks the action.) I was looking into having copies printed but it would have cost close to a hundred bucks for 10 copies. Since I already have a [used] HP LaserJet 4000, I finally gave in and bought 3-hole punched paper for it. Unable to find recycled paper, I went with sustainably-grown eucalyptus paper. Over the course of 800 pages or so, it affected the paper feed mechanism and I had to hand-feed the last 40 pages to finish the set. But I digress.
Phil got hold of some actors, and we did a rehearsal on April 13. I was surprised to find so many errors — I thought I had edited pretty well. It was good to hear it out-loud for the first time (although I had to read quite a bit of it myself to fill in for missing actors.) In the end, I changed 45 of the 88 pages. (And I figured out to clean the RF5-2490-000CN Feed Roller [on pages 8-52 and 8-53 of the service manual for those reading at home] with a homemade vinegar-citrus cleaner despite the advice to only use water.)
April 20 was the official reading at the Flying Squirrel. I didn't realize when I scheduled it (I actually didn't have much choice to fit everyone's schedule) but it overlapped the closing night of the High Falls Film Festival which may have prevented a few people from coming. Anyway, I had no idea how many people would show up so I made a lot of food. In the end it was only five people: just a few friends of mine. We were even short on actors and I had to read and my friend Ali read as well. Once again, it was good to hear it out loud and the feedback I got was very valuable even if it was kind of all over the board.
So now I need to go back and edit again. This time, more substantial changes to the structure of the story. One suggestion about gender roles led to a realization to let go of my love for the characters and to make sure their actions are for the interest of each one of them and not due to my love of the outcome. I also want to make some changes to get them on the road quicker (eliminating unnecessary exposition), and I'll move a local party to a destination along the way.
And here I thought it was pretty good already. Well, I still think it's pretty good. I just need to make it excellent.
I went to Geva for the script-in-hand reading of The Curious Case of the Watson Intelligence. I've been to readings like this before and I've almost always enjoyed it. To put an optimistic spin on it, I speculate that playwright Madeleine George started with a functional script a few weeks ago, but in the process of tweaking it, the changes started to get quite radical. By the time it was time to get ready for a performance, it was nowhere near ready. As such, the whole play made little sense.
I think I understand what she was getting at: it seems an inordinate number of assistants happened to be named "Watson". There's Thomas A. Watson of Alexander Graham Bell fame, Sherlock Holmes assistant Dr. Watson, and most recently, the name of IBM's artificial intelligence computer that competed on Jeopardy. And looking back, all the Watsons as assistants share a certain privacy of personal affairs, and share being remembered as nearly machines — as tools that helped others complete their projects.
In drawing that parallel, she wanted to make some kind of literal comparison to the mechanical nature. As she mentioned in the discussion afterward, we continue to flock to technology and that makes us more mechanical than if we didn't.
But aside from an interesting premise, the play was severely lacking. Not only was the plot (two and a half intertwined stories) barely tied together, but I couldn't bring myself to get fully engaged because I found all the characters consistently more unlikeable than likable. But the biggest problems were numerous unresolved allusions: who, if anyone was actually artificial? if the intent was to show the parallels between various Watsons, why did they grow ever disparate? does George know that Eliza shares the name with an early computer program that eerily mimicked talking to a person (what we might call a chatbot today)? if Eliza and Merrick were supposed to be reasonably competent, why were they both portrayed as pathetically helpless? how could Eliza and Merrick have had a relationship she is a cutting-edge programmer from the 2010s but he appears to exist in the world of rotary phones and typewriters like he never left 1977?
It was like going to the shooting range, throwing a bunch of bullets on the ground and asking, "so how's my accuracy?" In the talkback, the audience barely said anything about the play. I think it's because nobody had a clue where to start — the only thing that came to my mind was to say that I thought near-genius computer scientist Eliza welcomed her nerdy stalker into her bed far too easily.
I am hopeful, however, that George can turn this around and make something interesting an enjoyable. But sometimes despite the aphorism, the show should be cancelled.
I was tired of running all around and today I had a full afternoon and evening of events to try and attend — heck, it's Sunday and I don't feel like leaving the house. Alas, I did go to just one thing: I headed to The Multi-Use Community Cultural Center (MuCCC) (142 Atlantic Ave.) for a reading of The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. I really didn't have much background (despite curating the events calendar on this site, I don't actually read much into descriptions) and I only recalled a passing interest in attending.
It is a monologue written by Mike Daisey and performed/read by Spencer T. Christiano which is a first-person account of how a fan of technology (and especially products of Apple) became disillusioned by visiting a factory in China. Christiano did a fantastic job voicing Daisey, who interweaves three tales: one is his own, personal relationship with technology, the second is the story of Apple, and the third is the story of his visit to Shenzhen, China. I found his style fantastically conversational and personal. The way he writes about technology demonstrates a deep understanding, and he genuinely seems like an eyes-wide-open kind of guy who is willing to lay any judgmental views right in the open.
I was drawn in to the story quickly. I grok the lust for technology, and his description of that experience fits with my own (for an example, one of the things he loved about his first computer — an Apple IIc — was that the keyboard was in Garamond; if that makes no sense to you, then you might not fully appreciate his geekery.) I have a fairly good understanding of the origins of Apple, and Daisey's details fully corroborated my own. And when he began describing the "retail" side of Shenzen, it fit with what I had heard, such as when SparkFun visited there (although I far more appreciate his description, "Shenzhen looks like Blade Runner threw up on itself. LEDs, neon, and fifteen-story-high video walls covered in shitty Chinese advertising: it's everything they promised us the future would be.")
So when he started talking about what the "manufacturing" side of Shenzen was like, I could only assume it was just as accurate. I realize it's a logical fallacy — a twist on the "ad hominem" fallacy — where I believe a fact to be true solely because I found other facts true.
He then outlined the conditions in the factories which were different from, and, by my gauge, worse than what I had envisioned. I had an impression of workers on an assembly-line putting together and testing electronics.
But I didn't expect it to be in gigantic rooms where absolute silence is enforced. I didn't expect such a lack of machinery (it's cheaper to pay a Chinese worker to install a screw than to make a machine to do it, presumably until some astonishingly large scale.) I didn't expect there to be suicide nets on the outside of the building. I didn't expect regular working hours to be so extreme (although the government-approved union-busting and blacklisting would naturally make that so). I certainly didn't expect these factories to employ the "best and the brightest" — a college education in China gets you a job assembling iPhones.
But then, like I say, you can read all about this yourself in a far more engaging and entertaining form.
Now this is unique, first because it's the first time This American Life actually retracted an episode. But more important, it's not a retraction because the facts of the account are false, it's because they didn't happen to Daisey personally as he had claimed. According to the after-performance discussion with Spencer T. Christiano, producer John W. Borek, and director Kelly Webster, Daisey does not dispute the fabrications and says it is a work of theater, not journalism. On the Star Wars Modern blog titled What Mike Daisey Did Wasn't Fair – It Was Right., John Powers puts it better than I can: "when did Ira Glass graduate from being a talk radio Casey Kasem to NPR's Dan Rather?"
I'll briefly mention that there's a flurry of activity about this. My take [I'd add, "as if you care", but you, dear reader, are indeed reading this, so I'll meta-self-referentially say it parenthetically] is that journalists like to believe the rules of journalism produce a work that is closest to reality. The truth is, no writing is remotely close to the truth. No account of any event — be it written, photographed, filmed, or recorded — has ever been an adequate substitute for reality. However, it is a new truth, just as this blog entry is a new essay that's about a new performance of a new monologue by Mike Daisey which is a new transcript based on new performances of Daisey which is a new account … umm … etcetera.
But what I think is so valuable about The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is the way it paints a picture of the hierarchy that exists. A journalist could play by-the-book and quote a business person, and a worker, and a technology geek, and a Foxconn liaison, and Steve Jobs — and they could never manage to put it together to describe the chain of events. For instance, here's an attempt to explain the hierarchy I'm talking about:
An evangelical Apple geek eagerly awaits the newest product from (although having never met the man)
… Steve Jobs whose staff designs a new version of their latest product and sends a representative to Foxconn in Shenzen, China to meet (a group of strangers, both in relation and in culture)
… the representatives at Foxconn and they all go to dinner and mingle and go to the shiny factory meeting room and discuss the product when the Apple representative asks to see the factory floor, so the Foxconn people make a call to (knowing they should show an idealized version)
… the factory manager who sets up (not wanting to lose work and get fired)
… a mock factory — well, a real factory floor with real products, but with the child labor replaced by their oldest workers who (desperate for employment)
… go along with the charade and work hard and say all the right things so the representative can report back about the great working conditions (all the while wondering why American workers can't be so happy for work).
So go back in that list and find the bad guy — find the person who caused the dangerous working conditions, or the child labor. This is where journalism falls down: there is no person who is at fault.
Those parenthetical phrases are key: they describe the gaps that are filled in by the systems we have. Ergo, it is the system itself that is the problem. The system rewards people for making small lies to preserve its own profitability and we humans have created this new life form.
Last Friday I headed out on JetBlue on my way to Las Vegas for my brother's 40th birthday. The last time I got on a plane was in October, 2001 for his 30th in Denver, and I've avoided it because of all the security insanity I kept hearing about. I didn't have any trouble, except that I left all kinds of identifying bangles and baubles at home — no LED ring, no Leatherman tool, no fun custom-made electronics of any kind. And I selected JetBlue because I heard they were pretty good. Indeed inflight services were perfectly adequate. They also brag about how much legroom they offer, but coming from riding Amtrak, I could not fathom having any less legroom — presumably my knees would be the backrest for the person in front of me.
I amused myself during the flight by using the in-flight locator channel (on the seat-back video) to identify interstates I had travelled on my way to and from Burning Man, barely able to recognize the moving semis from 7 miles above. Anyway, we did arrive late enough that I missed the Friday night show my brother was attending (for the second time in my life, I was delayed to change a tire on the plane, an occurrence I calculate must happen about 20% of the time.) Nonetheless, I got checked in to The Excalibur Hotel and Casino (3850 Las Vegas Boulevard South, Las Vegas, NV) and settled in. My brother gambles enough that his mLife card (tied to all the MGM properties) gained him free hotel rooms for himself and for me. The room was unfortunately not as luxurious as I had come to expect, but it was nonetheless comfortable (akin to a Holiday Inn room with no coffee maker) and it had an excellent view of the strip. When I got together with him and his friends, we headed out and stopped at Diablo's Mexican Cantina at the Monte Carlo (3770 Las Vegas Boulevard South, Las Vegas, NV) for some drinks and so I could get something to eat. Food cost about twice as much as it does in Rochester, but any at that price was consistently very good, and I stuck to drinking non-alcoholic beer which hovered around $6 with tip per bottle.
Saturday was my brother's birthday and we had sushi for lunch. Three of us did one of the green-screen lipsynch videos at a kiosk which ended up looking quite amusing. That night we saw Zumanity in The New York New York Hotel and Casino (3790 Las Vegas Boulevard South, Las Vegas, NV) — an adult-themed Cirque du Soleil show. It was fantastic. Although for the most part I was mesmerized by beautiful bodies (mostly exposed if you must ask) performing astounding feats, I was enchanted by the story in the "Tissus" segment with a man swinging on silky ribbons attempting to catch the attention of his muse. At the climax when they both go flying off I inexplicably teared-up, finding the whole thing wonderful.
Once we got done with the show we headed to one of the newest casinos on the strip and selected a place to eat: Scarpetta at The Cosmopolitan (3708 Las Vegas Boulevard South, Las Vegas, NV). As it was very expensive and fancy, I opted to have a dish I didn't recognize: "moist-roasted capretto" described only as "rapini, pancetta & potatoes". For my fellow philistines, it's goat (presumably baby goat, as Google Language Tools kindly translates the phrase "moist-roasted kid") in a zesty sauce not unlike a brown gravy. (It was further refreshing to worry not about bones as I usually do eating such animals at Indian restaurants.)
My brother left mid-day on Tuesday, and I was there until late at night for the red-eye back to New York. Although everything we saw and did was flashy and impressive, it was solely done for the love of money. I was pretty okay for the first couple days, but the whole soullessness of it all drove me nearly mad by the middle of Tuesday. I was biding my time trying not to gamble (I lost about $50 in all, so not too bad, I guess) by sitting out in the warm weather and reading Great Expectations (for the first time as an adult not for any school). I talked with this guy for a bit on the street and he claimed to be England's first rapper — one Raymond Witter (also an author on LuLu) and he was one of a few who wasn't outright selling something.
Earlier in the week, I met a woman who seemed friendly enough, but I was led away from her on suspicion that she was actually a prostitute. I didn't believe it, but on the last day, I met another woman at another casino and after a too-brief chat, she offered to "go upstairs". It was so sad to not be able to make any human connection (save for other vacationers and a few chatty bartenders) … except, presumably, for money. The "alluring faÃ§ade over emptiness" theme is echoed right down to the thin veneer of the Las Vegas strip over a burnt-out city (which I explored a little of on a morning run on Monday) that only supports the constant construction of its appearance and, apparently, the numerous office furniture stores needed to accomplish that end.
I read about the Injured Superhero Show at The Multi-Use Community Cultural Center (MuCCC) (142 Atlantic Ave.) and decided I to go. I have a green coat with light-up question-marks on it and I figured I could make something up if need be. (I bought the coat at a thrift store a few years back: it's a woman's raincoat that fits me perfectly and it is completely day-glo green. Naturally I couldn't resist. I added the question mark motif for Burning Man a few years ago and have used it at night there for a while. It's also been a Halloween costume, and now a superhero outfit.)
I had no idea how it was going to work, but I suspected something between an audience of passive superheroes to interactive improvisation. All I knew for sure was what the website said: "Injured Superheroes will be cast the night of the show. If you are interested in auditioning, please come in costume to [the MuCCC Theater] at 7 PM. Those injured superheroes auditioning will be admitted for free." I probably should have planned ahead more, but I arrived pretty much right at 7. I guess most people got a little instruction … maybe just for the actual theater actors. Anyhow, the way it worked was the "Baron of Bureaucracy" was interviewing injured superheroes to determine whether they should receive disability benefits, or if a new job was available. I decided I'd be the "Socratic Defender" and became disabled by being so sure of myself that I was unable to ask questions to find truth in the world.
I went up second (after Catwoman, now retired from crime, was distressed after devouring most of the village of NIMH.) I had hoped the Baron would devise a way to trick me into asking a question. In the end I accidentally did, so concluding my need for services. As the show progressed, the Baron started trying to solve people's problems.
In all, the show was a lot of fun — sort of a group-improv kind of thing that most people handled just fine. I talked with the crew afterward and I was one of a few (if not the only person) who came in "off the street." Five of us decided to go out afterward, in costume. We originally tried to find some "bar full of straights" to inflict ourselves upon, but couldn't think of something that would be attended by an unsuspecting crowd, and actually open on a Monday night. In the end we went to Lux Lounge (666 South Ave.) Although I'm sure people noticed, few seemed to care. I think we got more looks because it was Arts and Crafts night and they may have briefly thought we had made our costumes that night. Nonetheless, it was nice to get out and meet new people once again. Hopefully a new superhero-themed show is not far off and we'll get to do it again.
The gist is that Ehrenreich is an essayist who, in 1998 and 1999, left her comfortable upper middle-class lifestyle to try and make it as an unskilled worker in America. She did three experiments in different parts of the country; each time she attempted to find work under the best circumstances. What she found was that she was not able to hack it. The short of it is that minimum wage is not a living wage for a single person, so she was doomed to failure by attempting to both find shelter and food on those wages, succeeding only when she worked two jobs 7 days a week.
I was not particularly surprised by any anecdotal facts presented. Perhaps it was people like Ehrenreich who opened this world to me so I can say that now, or perhaps it was my own observations. Nonetheless, I wasn't "shocked" to hear that cleaning people don't know how safe the cleaning products were, or that some people innovate by living in their car at a hotel parking lot to save on housing costs, or that single mothers can'tt afford the luxury of competent child care. Through the narrative, I found myself empathizing with … er, no: pitying them.
Because I wasn't shocked, I did have a hard time understanding the perspective of Barbara (Ehrenreich's narrator character). It seemed she was constantly appalled that people didn't have luxuries that she did, or that some people had to do jobs that she found distasteful. I wondered, looking around at my fellow attendees whose demographics were dominated by 50 to 70-year-olds, if there really was others who believed like Barbara? But, as it was revealed later, only a few people among the several hundred in attendance had ever even hired cleaning staff. Apparently Barbara was not as similar to this theater's audience as expected.
Afterward, I was disappointed to realize that nothing has particularly changed in 10 years and I wondered, as always, how can I help fix this? As I mentioned in the discussion that followed, I think it's an absolute myth that people will seek the cheapest prices on everything. As it stands, I look for local goods made and sold by independently-owned small businesses using quality, responsible parts or ingredients. And, if I had a way of knowing, I'd add "with workers who all earn at least a living wage." I have weaned myself from the allure of dollar-store garbage, and now look for quality and reliability: and I'm willing to pay many times more than the cheapest version of whatever I seek. But maybe I'm as myopic as Ehrenreich — that I'm the only one out there.
And finally, despite my best efforts, I found I gravitated toward Barbara's point-of-view more than I thought. When I left, I stopped by Lux Lounge (666 South Ave.) and I couldn't help but look at my friends in a different light. With such a diverse crowd, I know some earn enough, but others might just be scraping by on whatever work they can get. Eventually I realized what I think Ehrenreich missed: money isn't the most important thing for everyone else. Although they have their share of frustration and challenge without enough, they don't wallow in the misery Barbara expected in the play's other characters.
[P.S. Yes, this was posted on Friday after the main page was updated. If you noticed, I can't speak to whether that makes you not crazy.]
I was intrigued that the performances of the racially-charged play Dutchman at The Flying Squirrel Community Space (285 Clarissa St., formerly the Flower City Elks Lodge) would be followed by a moderated discussion on racism so I headed over.The play was written by Amiri Baraka and first performed in 1964; it was later made into the film Dutchman. Although the dialog and situations were a little dated, the core story of a black man seduced-then-ridiculed by a white woman is still haunting and strong.
Rakiyah Tapp acted as facilitator for the discussion and did an excellent job keeping people communicating. She noted that there are three kinds of racism that tend to stratify into levels: [if I remember correctly] individual, institutional, and systemic. Systemic racism provides the discriminatory rationalizations for institutional racism (at the organization-level) and individual racism (one-on-one between people).
I started out by saying that I felt that "racism is taking culture too far". (Of course, I always seem to start with something that makes no sense and ends up alienating everyone, some of them for the entire night.) My point was that we're all biased by our stereotypes based on our first impression of someone, but racism is when those stereotypes obliterate the individual before us. I suggested that we should train ourselves to treat every new person as an individual and ignore cultural cues — at least at the outset.
In the ensuing discussion, it became clear that white-on-black racism is unique among the ways individuals discriminate against one another because the systemic component is so deeply ingrained. (In fact, the play's climax brings this idea to the forefront.) As such, no suitably complex analogy is available for whites. For women, gender bias is deeply ingrained, but it is not nearly as tenaciously sinister as racism, and for white men, there is no systemic discrimination of any appreciable magnitude. So the mechanisms I used to bond with another person — commiseration and analogous stories — not only fail, but backfire tremendously as I'm reinforcing my own lack of understanding.
So I step back from my original argument and simply say that what I do (declare all cultural and ancestral markers irrelevant when I meet a new person) is an attempt to break the back of systemic racism. Like any "good progressive" I discourage racial stereotypes and other divisiveness. But I'm also aware of how I appear to other people — particularly children. I was raised in a country where systemic racism has continued to thrive, but I choose to buck that and adapt my behavior to treat people as equally as I can. As time goes by, it becomes more and more natural to do although I can still hear the echoes of prejudice quite well.
The play starts off with Helena, the daughter of the president, visits the robot factory with the intention to liberate the robots as if they were human. In this, we are dumped into the misogynistic world of 1920 Czechoslovakia de Karel Capek (despite it being set in some undefined future). It was intolerable. The Helena character is borderline mentally disabled, a staple of female characters written by men who never listened to a woman. (I even recall hating Helena in my high school reading as well.) The robot factory is on an island, and (naturally) exclusively operated by men. Even the robots were almost exclusively men [which you may have noticed didn't change in storytelling until writers realized that robots were not superior to humans, at which they started being female] except for one: a replica of Helena who was "useless as a worker" because of her whimsical ways.
But okay, I grit my teeth and did my best to not be overwhelmed by that central theme.
The story trundles along, revealing the robots to be organic things akin to super-smart, human-looking, genetically modified animals. It's clear that Capek is making a statement about the ideal worker in either a communist or capitalist world: one that works tirelessly, has no internal drive, and that requires virtually nothing in the form of pay. The robots (naturally) revolt and (despite their intelligence and realization of a finite lifespan) kill off all the humans. Except for those in the factory, at least for a while. They enslave the factory operators in an attempt to extract the formula to make more robots. But all is not lost for humanity and its attempt to be a god, for Helena R. (the robot) apparently has a function after all — at least in not-so-subtle implication.
Aside from introducing the word "robot" into the lexicon, I have to say this play offers really nothing else. It combines man's desire to be a god, the oppressed rising up against their oppressors, and an overwhelming dose of "women are only good for housekeeping and making babies." I want to say that an adaptation would be improved by eliminating the misogynistic overtones, but it so central to the plot that it seems an insurmountable task. At least the actors did their best with it and did a fine job with the script-in-hand reading.
It's been a while since I did something outside my comfort zone. Part of that is that my comfort zone is much larger than before, so finding new things is itself a challenge. Nonetheless, performing still panics me, so I decided to go to the Story Slam at Writers and Books (740 University Ave.) It's hosted by Carol Roberts and organized (for now) as a way for people to tell a 5-minute true story. It was fascinating to enter among a room of strangers and leave feeling quite a lot closer to them through just one personal story. I decided to tell the tale of the $20 I found after the High Falls Film Festival in 2003 that led to me losing my job — I wrote about it when it happened as well.
Anyway, the idea is similar to The Moth StorySLAMs, although minus the competition. Some were better than others for various reasons, but it's not so much a "slam" as it is just a way for people to connect. I'll probably go back next month, although I expect it to be much different as I would feel like I met half the people there this month.
After a rocky start with the A/V system, Adam Frank got things started. He spoke about the artificiality of the conflict of science and religion. Basically his argument was that science enhances religion because it lets us see more of the world, and if you're a believer in a creator, seeing more of what was created is a good thing.
Larry Moss was next, speaking about his "Airigami": creating art with balloons. At first blush, the whole thing seems as thin as a metaphor using balloons would be if written here. But because the medium he uses is so accessible, he's able to create sculptures with people who don't even share a common language — and he has. Many times. On the one hand, it's astounding and on another, obvious. Definitely one to think about (and hopefully, a lecture that will be prominent on TED's own website).
A nano-scale chemist and physicist Todd D. Krauss provided insight into some of his work (as several other lecturers did). Although I didn't find that his talk met my lofty expectation of an "idea worth spreading", he did bring up an interesting bit of new technology: cadmium-selenium nanoparticles. The fascinating thing about them is that they fluoresce different colors of light based on their size. As such, one can create whatever colors they want using the same material.
What he did not touch on that I wish he had was the ramifications of nanoparticles and organic life: specifically, isn't "little particles stuck through cell walls" one of those triggers for cancer? And while he dispelled the myth that artificially-intelligent nanobots will kill us, I think he did a disservice by neglecting to even approach the topic of nanoparticles doing damage in much more banal ways.
Finishing up the night was Geva Comedy Improv who, sadly, were not able to finish their performance in the time allotted.
Overall it was definitely worth it to take time off to see it. But I hope that in the future, things are a bit more refined.