Screenplay Reading of Citizens Band

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.

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The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at the MuCCC

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.

But you don't have to take my word for it: you can go to his site and download the whole monologue as a PDF and read it for yourself (it's licensed with his unique open-source-like agreement).

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.

So stepping out of the writing, and stepping out of the monologue and the performance, there's an interesting twist to the story. NPR radio show This American Life had Daisey perform an abbreviated form of the monologue for the January 6, 2012 show. But then they did something unprecedented: on their March 16, 2012 show, they retracted the episode, claiming that Daisey lied.

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.

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Polite Company at the MuCCC

It's been a while since I went out to see improvisational comedy. I feel like I kind of burn out on it — after all, it can only be as good as the audience, the performers, and the circumstances. In addition, I tend to hang out with some pretty funny people so it's not uncommon for some extremely hilarious things to come out of it (for instance, I have brought up several times the idea of a Faustian superpower wish that goes awry when the power is revealed to be pooping delicious chocolate — and the comedy of failing to convince anyone that it is indeed true).

Anyway, I headed over to The Multi-Use Community Cultural Center (MuCCC) (142 Atlantic Ave.) to see the public debut of Polite Company Improv Sketch and Comedy. They were indeed funny both in their improv and in their sketches. I really appreciated that they catered to me being in their audience rather than targeting evangelical Puritans and forbidding swearing of any kind. (Seriously: the show doesn't need to stop if someone says "fuck" once.) Of note was their final sketch which was shockingly offensive, but ultimately quite funny.

Afterward I walked over to The Bamba Bistro (282 Alexander St.) for the after-party and got a chance to chat with the crew. (By the way, Bamba Bistro is a pretty upscale-looking place that draws people who like to be seen in upscale-looking places and, on this night, rowdy improvisers and their friends and fans. I'll add that friends raved about an astonishing meal here years ago and I assume that would continue to be true.) The two women running the troupe are engaging and focused — hopefully we'll see Polite Company shows for years to come.

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Being an Injured Superhero at the MuCCC

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 LoungeMySpace link (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.

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Seeing a Performance of Rossum's Universal Robots at the MuCCC

I went to see Rossum's Universal Robots (R.U.R.) at The Multi-Use Community Cultural Center (MuCCC) (142 Atlantic Ave.) with a group from The Rochester Speculative Literature Association (R-SPEC). When I was in high school, I read the play in English class. It seemed okay back then and I did remember it, but it was amused for my feelings for it all those years ago to bubble back up.

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.

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