Tuesday, May 26, 2015

THE PLOT AGAINST SMALL BEGINNINGS

An unmarked benefit, probably one of the few, of being older, is having been in the world when things did not seem so dire.  Among the Biggies, like war and pestilence and nobody really caring, all of which have been here as long as Man (and Woman, too, though she has only lately come to count, but still not enough) is the diminishment of the Creative Spirit and support of it, certainly in the U.S.A.  I know, sadly, how old I am, because my play, a not-bad-comedy cost a hundred and fifty thousand to bring to an opening on Broadway, but failed because it was badly cast, the director was fired, a terrible one replaced him, I had a crazy producer,  I was giving birth to my daughter at the time of its opening, Mel Brooks was a close friend but probably not close enough, so he and Annie Bancroft, his glorious wife, for whom I had actually written it, drove with me and Don back to the hospital opening night, but was doing another play instead, because "I've never played a hunchbacked nun before," she had said.
    A hundred and fifty-thousand dollars might now possibly buy you a good reading with an okay cast, seated on folding chairs in a room upstairs somewhere in the theatre district. It is all insane, overpriced, and, from the little I could stand (and did) seeing when I was in New York, not very good, with the exception of Chita Rivera who made one bend of leg that told you what musical theatre used to be about, and my hearing that the old Fosse Chicago was very much on its legs.  Nothing else on Broadway felt worth seeing, including the one play that was supposed to be powerful and meaningful that I stood through and was sorry,(Fun Home,) Skylight, overrated, with its leading man who flailed his way through almost all his speeches, The Curious Incident of the Dog, etc., that I left at intermission, crossing the famous Rue to see the musical that is, sadly, a compendium of many wonderful Gershwin songs, an American in Paris, that mostly brought to my mind how lucky I had been to be in that city when it was really alive with beginnings that were not  angry and destructive, but all about Creativity.  I saw some others I cannot even remember enough to be disappointed about, another unadvertised benefit of getting older.
      But I did come across something that should give anguish to and hopefully cause to bring to action everybody who cares in the least about theatre, good or bad, and that is the struggle now that is going on with the small theaters, 99 seats or less: the attempt to make them pay minimum to exist, which will result in their going out of what little business they have.  It is a vile move on the part of Actor's Equity, and I ask whoever reads this if anyone does, to pass it along to an angry or at-least-somewhat-involved Activist, to protest, and, hopefully, try to do something about.  Strange to have come across this on South Beverly Drive, and not New York-- but then there was little about New York that felt like positive discovery, besides the Quaker Meeting House, with its rows of places to sit and believe in Something, quietly.

RETURN TO NON-WONDERLAND

So I have come back to the wrong side of Wilshire in Beverly Hills, not quite the upmarket zip code, this place which is, apparently, the closest thing I have to a feeling of belonging, besides Bryn Mawr. If irrationality and sentiment prevailed, I could imagine myself for the remainder of my life, in the tower high above Rock, writing if I could write, singing if I could sing, and laughing, if there was anything to laugh about.  The aura of Peace that enfolded me when I stood on that campus was palpable, probably a contradiction in terms and/or feelings.  But there it was, and there it will probably stay. I am safely tucked, for the moment, into my Bryn Mawr sweatshirt, which I don't believe they actually had in the days I was a student, or maybe even when I went back to write The Women Upstairs, my comedy of ancient Greece-- what the women were doing upstairs while downstairs Plato and the boys were having their Symposium.  That was a magic, unexpected moment under the aegis of Mabel Lang, the great scholar of antiquity in letters, who managed to infuse me with everything I didn't really know and even now am puzzled  I grasped, it was all so fretted with knowledge and wisdom in spite of its being funny.  I remember best the moment after the great success of the onstage presentation in Goodhart Hall, when I brought Mabel flowers to thank her, in her lined-to-the-ceiling-with-books office, and her saying: "But I should be giving flowers to you!!!  I've never done anything creative before." And with that word she danced, literally spun around her office, that withered, (to the eye at least,) old scholar.  I understand now people who go back to their universities and tower out what is left of their days.
     I am genuinely scared,  a feeling I do not easily put into words, at the prospect, or lack of it, of what lies ahead for me.  The world, if one allows it to come in, seems more insane even than usual.   I was having a great time writing the screenplay for what I was sure would be a charming, funny romantic comedy, based a bit on my adventure in Amsterdam, using that as a jumping-off point.  Then I took a break for my New York visit, which I imagined would strengthen me, my originality, and my capacity to create.  Instead, the harshness of that city was palpable.  There is little to lift the spirit, besides the flouted happiness of George Clooney and the retirement of Letterman who I never found really funny.  Of course, if you're lucky and you let it in, there is always God with Whom I had a momentary encounter at Quaker Meeting in New York.  
    I met some beautiful people there whose names I unfortunately did not put safely away, primary among them a lovely woman who actually said to me after I had announced myself as a newcomer:"Are you the Gwen Davis?"
    And it turned out she was a true reader, someone who had actually enjoyed my writings. So between that and the wondrous Barbara Conaty, a reviewer for the Library Journal who some years ago lauded me and so lifted my life along with my spirit,  I understood that I had not gone un-read, and so unappreciated.  Once in my career I had the support of my most successful writer friend, Mario Puzo, during his glorious reign with The Godfather.  But he got mad at me for writing too much.
    It seems and is less than lovely to need approbation.  But it has been very hard through some of these years since Bryn Mawr where I really knew people read and responded and even cared,  to reach out to a world mostly empty of embracing minds.  And then of course there is the stunning surprise of realizing one has grown unmistakably older, something you never anticipate and, if you're smart, certainly never focus on.  All the same it happens, if you are lucky.
    So I am back now in my overpriced little floor-through, hoping the muses will know where to find me.  The weather, to which I have never paid much attention, is unaccustomedly cool, not promising to stay that way.  I met a lovely woman on the way home from the post office which they blithely think will stay in business-- I'm not so sure, and I think Ben, who started it and believed in after-life consciousness, if he's around, is probably appalled, communication, like everything else, having become overpriced, with all the options meaning an end to reasonable service.  At any rate, this lovely actress tells me that equity is trying to force a minimum on even the 99 seat houses, which means they will go out of business.  If any of you care about the survival of theatre in the US, please do something.  The worst experience I had in New York was in theatre, where everything on Broadway seemed overpriced, less than wonderful (except for Chita) and several stories less than uplifting.
     I realize and know that I am old, but I still remember falling to my knees at the ice cream parlor in front of Bob Fosse, to thank him for all he had done, his actually engaging with me, and writing me from wherever he was to go for not nearly long enough, before leaving the planet.  Where are the Greaties?  Or even the Good-Enoughs?
     Where is Frank Loesser when you need him, even if he was a shit?

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A DAY AT BRYN MAWR

So as the universe seems to love me, from the Story point of view, I spent today at the wonderfully unlikely college I went to: Bryn Mawr.  My Freshman English teacher, Sandra Wool, who wore no underwear, opened her eyes quite wide at me a little way into the first semester after I had written a few papers and expressed a few thoughts, and said "I would have thought Bennington."
     It was quite the most elegant place on the planet.  Beautiful young women in sweaters and saddle shoes whose fathers or uncles were Everybody. That you could be in the same room with them and they were kind, was some kind of Miracle.  It was a privilege more than enough to make up for your beginnings in Pittsburgh, with your father trying to kill your mother, and the police coming, --years and a storied lifetime later, (THE MOTHERLAND), his becoming the mayor of Tucson, and a Republican yet.
    So to return there on this Convocation day, whatever that means,
with the raising of tents and the setting up of chairs on the lawn for the graduation to come, was kind of an out-of-soul experience. Most apparent was the truth that nothing has really changed, except the approach to sexuality, which is now everywhere pointed out and pointed to, and I, as an admittedly old lady--that still comes as a surprise--find unnecessary and borderline funny.  I just don't think that factors into how well you learn, or how much.
    The college otherwise looks exactly the same as it did all that many years ago, except for the weather-streak marks on the roof between Pem West and Rock that I used to run over at night to sing my songs to Muggy, the prettiest girl in the class, that she was kind enough to applaud and encourage my doing more of, not seeming to mind being disturbed.  It was a different world then: only the setting seems exactly unchanged.  I feel good about that, although I am still stunned by how old I am. Well, if you're lucky to live long enough, that happens.
    Had lunch in the Deanery-- we did have quaint names-- with beauteous Wendy Greenfield, in charge of alumnae, which it seems I am, and she is as bright and lovely as one would hope such a figure at Bryn Mawr would be.  Afternoon I took in the campus, with its glorious trees siding Senior Row, its wonderful, great-stoned Gothic arch, roofs (why isn't it rooves?), glorious and unchanged since I was a Junior, my most memorable year because that was the one with the Show in it, that I wrote most of the songs for, and had the comedy lead in. With Miss McBride saying to my mother: "This was the most memorable theatrical event since Katharine Hepburn was an undergraduate here." And my mother looking after her, saying"Who was that?" as though she were saying "Who was that masked man?" And my saying, still barely able to speak, I was so overwhelmed, "the president of the college." And my mother: "I thought it was the washerwoman."  
     So that will tell you all you need to know about my mother, except that you had to forgive her because she was funny and smart and very beautiful as well as crazy.  All these decades later, it plays out, because I have been to the best college in America, and so had a leg up that was twenty feet long.

      
    

Thursday, May 14, 2015

OUR HEARTS WERE OLD AND SAD

Having come from lunch with Victor Navasky, long editor of The Nation, and still holder of the most enlightened opinions and generous attitude towards those who are not as smart, one imagines he/she could live in New York.  This POV prevails for about twenty-five minutes, half a shopping excursion, and part of a taxi ride trying to get back to where one habitats in New York, where one might have been tempted to stay to try and take it on, had not sanity returned within a few blocks, along with the inability to breathe. 
    I apologize for sounding stuck and/or judgmental, since one of the great gifts the universe has sent me in my visitation here is the unexpected friendship of this remarkable man, who approached me a few years out of our respected Quaker colleges, he, Swarthmore, I Bryn Mawr, the latter assertively uncommitted to any belief other than intellectual excellence, but it still was founded by a Quaker. "Are you Gwen Davis?" he asked me at some event.  Knowing who he was, as wasted as my life had seemed up to that point, I waited for an attack.  Instead, I received one of the major rewards of my life: being taken seriously by this brilliant, earnest (in the best sense) and unexpectedly funny man, who makes the world seem and become in many ways a better place.
    This has been a less than joyful return to this city I keep imagining might work for me, which presents itself as ever more crowded, unloving, and unbreathable.  If I were alone in this feeling I would dismiss myself as judgmental and looney, both of which I admit I am to an impressive degree.  But if a person were a truck, he could die between 23rd Street and Columbus Circle.
    Lunch with Victor, however, at the Union Square Cafe, inhabited by the remaining smartly coiffed white-haired people as well as the ghosts of Literature, Magazines, and Caring-About-the-Written Word past and what there is of the non-e-mailed Present, one believes by the end of the meal this might be what there is of the Future, with Careful Footing.  But by the time one gets what is fancifully called Home-- that which Mama thoughtfully provided on Central Park South-- one realizes one has been deluded.  Even those left alive who went to P.S.9, the Great public school when there were such things on West End Avenue, realize that is a bygone era, along with cheap theatre tickets.  Spelled with an 're.'
    So it is with sorrow in my heart along with an itchy left breast from the pollen that I plan to return to the lack of inspiration of Beverly Hills, the wrong side of Wilshire, which, though still overpriced, is plenty costly.  First, though, I plan to go to Bryn Mawr, the right side of the tracks, to check out my beloved Alma Mater.  It probably served me better than my actual one, except in the way of material provided, and this nest across from the horrible buildings that are going up all over for the people so rich they don't actually live here.  What a world! What a world! as the wicked witch who was probably a good person in real life said in The Wizard of Oz, in a time when everything bad wasn't made into a musical. 
     

Thursday, May 07, 2015

GOD IS IN HER(?) HEAVEN

So here I am back in New York, at the height or depth of allergy season, and I don't mean to sound like an old(er) woman, but I am.
Have been suffering sniffling through several days wondering why I am here, but I do love the theatre, to at least I did.   I am hopeful, therefore-- I have some commitment to Bryn Mawr, my Alma Mater which means Soul Mother, and it is, so I must use sentence construction that sounds educated though arch-- that something will be wondrous.  Both things I have seen so far were disappointing, but my mind is open, as opposed to my nose, so we shall see.
      This evening I am attending a wine-tasting with probably the most glorious sips this side of the Loire, at the home of a Bryn Mawr woman with history and glasses at her fingertips, as well as the finest wines offered by an anonymous donor-- I know who she is, and am honored to have her in my spiritual corner rooting for me as she is the smartest person to have gone to Bryn Mawr which is truly saying something.  Everything thus far in this allegedly great city has been less than satisfying, -- and that includes meals, things seen, and breathing.  I wonder if all those New Yorkers like Dorothy Parker we admired who used to have lunch and be witty had hay fever, if hay fever maybe hadn't come into the Spring scenario yet, or if there were just so many things to be secretly besieged and unhappy about, a runny nose was nothing.  It is not in my Nature, I don't think, or at least hope, to be a kvetch, in the tongue of my forebears.  But it is annoying, especially when there has been nothing thus far to lift the spirit, besides the little babies who wave back at you even though they don't know who you are, or why you are being friendly.
       Most disillusioning thus far has been the highly touted On The Town, which features brilliant dancing that still manages to be incredibly boring, and goes on for fucking forever-- a crudeness of language I use only because that illustrates how dreary it made me feel.  I had the privilege and thrill of rubbing elbows through his cape-- I think it really was, --with Leonard Bernstein one summer when I went to Tanglewood and actually sang Beethoven with a group of people who could really read music, as opposed to me who only pretended to, but still managed to sing what was called for.   He was as handsome and dashing as everybody said, and seemed not to mind the friction on his elbow or the fact that I was a girl.  But his music, besides the greatness when it worked, was boring when it didn't, and whoever put the show on should have edited.  And the woman doing the part of the lady taxi driver, which my beloved friend Betty Garrett originated all those many years ago, whom I will not grace with a mention, was truly obnoxious in addition to grossly overweight which supposedly added to the comedy unless you had once been a fat girl, which I was, so I know with discipline you can get past it and become who you really are.
     All in all, I see how short-tempered and unforgiving I sound and maybe have become, as there has to be a reason to rejoice in being here, and so far that is neither the weather nor what I have seen on the less than Great (and not so) White Way.  I must, however, blow a big kiss to the man who has put up the money to refurbish the theatre, as it is several adjectives up from Glorious, complete with popcorn and meals in your seat during intermission, darling (they seem to be) women bringing them, and charming costumes that must have cost an additional small fortune.  
    So I hope everybody will go as long as they don't mind being restless.  Alas.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

THE THE_AH-TERrrr

I went to Bryn Mawr, where Katharine Hepburn went.  Very late in my day there, Katharine Hepburn came and gave a talk, very nervously, as a scholarship was given in her name, and, I would imagine as a (loving) contingency, she had to address those of us who were interested in the the-ah-terrr.  I took her cup of tea from her anxious hand, and she thanked me with as full a heart as a great actress should show when she was someplace she would really rather not be.  "I suppose I'm supposed to tell you how Bryn Mawr helped me in the thee-ah-terrrrrr," she wavered.  "But I cahnnn't."  I of course loved her as much or more for that than anything else, and it has usually been incredibly easy for me to love her, and the thee-ah-terrr since.  But alas, not for the last few years, when there has been little to lift my spirits on Broadway, besides revivals of Bob Fosse, and those not quite as wondrous as they should be.
      But last night I went very off Broadway to the Union Square Theatre and saw the tongue-in-cheek, lickety-split rendering of 
39 STEPS, the revved-up re-do of the Alfred Hitchcock classic. With a cast of 4 that could much more easily be dozens, it lifts the curtain and the spirits on an evening of merriment and revelry, that moves as fast as it is witty.  Starring Arnie Burton, Billy Carter, Robert Petkoff and Brittany Vicars, that last particularly impressive because you don't know until the curtain call how prettily she smiles, the performance is so intense.  Everyone else is just as riveted and riveting, but one of them has a mustache, which makes it easier to look serious.
    The soul, as much as the heart is lifted by an experience like this, especially since the night before one had dropped a heavy wad of cash uptown on SKYLIGHT, starring the multi-fingered Bill Nighy, so admired and admirable in many British films, who, alas, never stopped waving his hands around, as though they were demonic dancers in an overwrought musical about Hell.  More entrancing was Carey Mulligan, who, as a critic once said about T.S. Eliot or someone equally worthy, "does not disappoint."  This, in spite of how pretty she is, and how often we have seen her in everything these past few years, frequently in things like The Great Gatsby which DO disappoint.  She is more than outstanding, though the play has not much of a spine and seemed to me, and to bright friends coincidentally in the audience, confused as to its purpose and extraneous in one of its very few characters, unless something was about to occur afterwards in the way of sort-of-incest.  A truly wasted pile of cash and a dangerous setting in the event of fire, there being not an easy exit unless you broke down a wall.
     All in all, better go downtown and see 39 STEPS.

Monday, April 27, 2015

RE-BEGIN

So I have returned to New York for what I hope will be a happy time, but by my own philosophy, I understand that is up to me.  I went back to Quaker Meeting on Sunday, after a lifetime of moving from Faith to Faith, with Faith only in Faith, having come to what I am sure is some kind of wise conclusion, that what the Quakers believe, i.e.: that That of God is in everyone, especially Jack Kornfield, with whom I have also had the pleasure of studying, is the Truth.  Naturally that does not hold true for murderers or sociopaths, whom I will try to avoid.  But I bussed and ambled through the streets of New York yesterday with a sense almost of Peace, and could actually imagine being happy here, so will give it a shot, though without bullets.
      Most of all I hope I will write something worth reading, bringing to Life, and/or remembering.  I still define myself by what I create, which is probably a little neurotic (a lot?)  But then it might lead to something worth reading and/or remembering, and even though the book business is out of business, to seems to be, (very convincingly,) there was still someone on the plane reading, and I myself am making a stab at Donna Tart, who appears to be struggling valiantly and wordily on.  It has been a long time since a work of words fully captured me, and I feel a tightness in my soul at approaching the theatre, appalled, in a happy way at what has won the award(s?), the adaptation of Kind Hearts, as I didn't consider it that good.  By which I mean good enough: the way things used to be when there was an Abe Burrows, or a Frank Loesser even though in real life (mine) he was a shit.  But then I was twenty, and thought if someone was gifted that had to mean they were a decent human being, ("Moss and I have a show in rehearsal in Connecticut," he said to me.  "And we've used a couple of your songs."  "What about money?" I said, when I was able to get words back.  "Write your family," he said.)
     So it turns out that the ones in my life who have appreciated me are the educators, Mrs. Schatteles at P.S. 9, and Miss McBride at Bryn Mawr, and I am going to end up when I end appreciating them, giving what I have to give to some kind of scholarship commemorating them.  I would have liked to leave a musical, or at least some songs or melodies to lift the spirits.  But I understand having lived this long that the great gift is Life itself, and I have to leave that behind and can't give it to anybody.
     It is very unlike me to be looking at the world with an eye towards leaving it.  But I appear to have slowed down somewhat, though I went back to my old (it isn't really) health club yesterday and actually swam for a half hour, something I haven't done in LA where it is more natural and expected to swim, because the people I expected to be kind and generous aren't.  Thrilled to be still able to move, and ecstatic that the woman who came to meet with me in Beverly Hills was wrong when she said  I couldn't leave anything less than a million to some future Aspirer, I begin again.