Friday, May 03, 2024

Red Letter Poem #205

 Red Letter Poem #205





We Know



The time will come, we know, when one of us,

catching a summer chill,

takes on the fulltime, lifelong chore of being ill;

or something sidesteps all that fuss,

some blow we won’t have leisure to discuss—

one absent-minded footfall on a hill,

or too close to a cougar’s kill.

Soon or late, one will prove the obvious.


The other, paperwork and speeches done, will come

home to the thought of home, wanting a drink,

a kiss, not to be there another year or twenty.

In that too spacious minimum,

at least for a time there will be time to think

back over plenty.



                        ––Charles O. Hartman




In her essay "Disruption, Hesitation, Silence," Louise Glück wrote: “I do not think that more information always makes a richer poem.  I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence.  The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary.”  It seems to me that Charles O. Hartman has taken her suggestion to heart.  He has crafted here an elegant, if painfully reticent, sonnet; but the reason for the poem, the constituents of that hovering “we”, and the fearful apprehension that is propelling this speaker’s train of thought––little of this is addressed outright.  The artfulness of the piece serves to both reassure and undermine the reader, all at once––which, to my mind, is a fitting response to the precarious moment being contemplated.  Though the poem commences with a line in iambic pentameter (and certainly the meditation beginning to unfold does call to mind the sort of discourse Shakespeare relished), its rhythms then become more unpredictable; we find ourselves on a stormier sea.  And while the poem steadies us with the regularity of its stately rhyme scheme, the barometer of unseen forces is plunging and I can’t help feeling that, at any moment, our little boat could capsize.  “It is analogous to the unseen for example,” Glück went on to say, “to the power of ruins, to works of art either damaged or incomplete.  Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied: another time, a world in which they were whole. . .”.  I imagine the late great poet smiling as her fellow-practitioners, like Charles, go on inventing new ways of approaching that emotional whirlwind, establishing that core silence within their poems.


It's been some time since Charles’ New & Selected Poems (Ahsahta Press) made its appearance; and perhaps you, as I, have been waiting for a new collection from this wonderfully-adept, musically-inventive poet.  Having previously featured poems in the Letters from his manuscript-in-progress, I was delighted by the news that Downfall of the Straight Line, his eighth poetry collection, will make its debut from Arrowsmith Press this very week.  Because of the poet’s nuanced style––conjuring much more in our minds than the poem ever specifies––I look forward to engaging with each new text.  And how many provocative phrases are echoing inside today’s poem!  I literally feel swept away by the cascade of l’s, by the fragile iambic heartbeat that returns with: “the fulltime, lifelong chore of being ill”.  And how adroitly he avoids a head-on reckoning with that most devastating of fears: sudden loss of the beloved––“or something sidesteps all that fuss,/ some blow we won’t have leisure to discuss”.  To love someone deeply is to know that, sometime along the hazy path ahead, one of you will be forced to mourn the other––“to prove the obvious”: that our mortality is far more than a literary device, and this fate makes no exceptions.  “We know”, the poem tells us––but do we really, or do we tend to engage in intellectual conceits and artful gestures to blunt the force of that knowledge?  And then, as if it were simply unbearable to contemplate the death itself, our protagonist skips right away to the aftermath of the funeral, coming home to an empty apartment, buffering sorrow perhaps with a drink, not yet prepared to allow reality to sink in. 


Just now, after stopping to read the poem yet again, I felt compelled to set language aside––to stand and simply look out at the day.  And there: my wife, on her hands and knees, out back in the garden, planting alstroemeria.  The utter pleasure visible on her face; her hands caked with dirt––as she’s done with abandon since she was a girl.  And when I return to the keyboard, to Charles’ lovely bruise of a poem, this is what I am experiencing: an elegy for the plenitude we, too often, only comprehend in hindsight.  A great bell has been struck––not within the borders of the piece but somewhere outside it, somewhere in the speaker’s life we are not privy to in this reserved and well-appointed sonnet.  We are taken though, by the waves of reverberations as they slowly fade, until only a deep ache remains.





Red Letters 3.0


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Thursday, May 02, 2024

Director, Playwright and Artistic Director Kate Snodgrass: A Theatre Hero...


Interview with Doug Holder

I have always admired the work of Kate Snodgrass. I have attended and reviewed many of the plays she put on when she was the artistic director of the Boston Playwright's Theatre. As a teacher myself, I can appreciate the work she has done hatching the minds and careers of many young theatre professionals 

Kate Snodgrass is a Boston-based playwright and theatre director. She was the artistic director of the Boston Playwright's Theatre until 2022. She was a professor of the practice of playwriting in the English Department  of Boston University. Snodgrass won the 2012 Elliot Norton Award for excellence in theatre.

She co-founded the Boston Theatre Marathon. Snodgrass is a former Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival National Chair of the Playwriting Program,  and a former vice president of StageSource, Inc.,.

This is only the tip of the iceberg in the accomplished career of  Snodgrass.

You have been described as a theatre hero. What do you feel were your 'heroic' efforts for the stage over your long career?

Yeah, the word “hero” is suspect, isn’t it? When I think of a hero, I think of someone being afraid for her own life but trying to save others anyway. That’s not me. I wasn’t afraid (except when I thought no one would show up at the theatre). I did a job because I had/have a passion for new works for the stage. I still want all of us dramatists to have equal opportunities, for all of us to be able to see our work on stage with wonderful actors/directors/designers and in front of an audience. It’s a goal designed for Sisyphus, and the one thing I can say for myself is that I haven’t given up. Yet.

I have taught playwriting for many years, but again, the heroism of that is suspect, too. Can any writing be taught? I don’t know, but I believe playwriting can be “learned” with experience and dedication. It’s the students themselves who make their decisions on whether or not to walk through the door that’s just been opened, so if they get better, it’s on them. I wish I could take the blame for all the good plays my students wrote, but…then I would have to take responsibility for all the bad ones. Nope, “hero” doesn’t fit here either. If anything, I’m a worker: Sisyphus again.

Do you think opportunities for theatre production have increased or decreased in the Boston area, since you first cut your teeth in the biz?

Yes, I think opportunities for new work have increased in Boston over the last 30 years. I came to writing for the theatre later than most (in my 40s). I was an actor first, and back then (1970s-80s) new plays were everywhere. It was thrilling—Shepard, Pinter, Shange, Fornes, Shaffer... But when I first moved to Boston in 1987, new plays were not so prevalent. Elliott Norton had retired, and NY shows were no longer coming to Boston to “try-out.” Plays were being written, but they weren’t getting produced. This is why Bill Lattanzi (a wonderful playwright and friend) and I talked the local theatre companies into staging the Boston Theater Marathon (back in 1999). We hoped that it would encourage the producers to consider commissioning lesser-known playwrights. I’d like to think that the BTM has helped. And thanks to the unflagging resolve of workshops like Playwrights’ Platform and the like, Boston writers are still at it. The Huntington and ART are producing new works while the smaller fringe companies—thank goodness!—are relying on new work (Moonbox, Company One, Fresh Ink, Teatro Chelsea, Sleeping Weazel, to name only a few). Now if we can just talk some of the mid-sized companies (SpeakEasy or The Lyric Stage, for example) into taking a chance…! I know that they are trying to stay afloat financially during this difficult time after the Pandemic, so I give them a nominal pass for now, but…still. New work is the beating heart of the theatre, and the excitement of it sells tickets. Surprise!

Can you tell us about the germ of the idea for the 10 minute play marathon you developed?

Bill and I wanted to connect living playwrights with living companies, period. We thought…if an artistic director actually KNEW a playwright and had success (even with a 10-minute play) with that writer, they would be encouraged to produce a longer work. Production is where playwrights learn their craft. And it is not a solitary journey; it’s filled with other artists learning their crafts, too. Designers, directors, actors…and writers need to be produced in front of an audience! Bottom line. Readings can only go so far until you hit a wall of confusion. Plus, when we approached the producers at a StageSource (the long-time organization of New England producers and theatre artists) meeting, to their credit all of them said “Sure!” I suspect they thought it would not go on for long, but here we are in the 26th year of the BTM and counting. Considering that it’s a charity event (no one gets paid), and no one theatre benefits from the proceeds, the community itself benefits and so does the audience.

There is art and craft in writing a play. How does a playwright bring out the art in his or her work? Does good craft bring good art?

Wow. What a question! I’ll try, but…Yes, there is an art and craft to writing a play. The craft, I suspect, is gleaned by the playwright over time and experience in how an audience perceives the story itself and the way that particular story is told. These are two different things, and they are symbiotic. The three-dimensional space of the theatre is different than, for example, the way we perceive a film or a novel. This is why production is so vitally important to a playwright. What will the audience feel when they’re sitting across from me? How far can I go, and when?

As for bringing out the “art”? Personally, I don’t think about this when I begin to write; I write because I have a singular point of view or because I want to discover how I truly feel about a certain subject (or person or thing or…you name it). “Art” is for the audience to decide. But craft is different. Craft CAN be learned and must be exercised, so we must keep writing to learn the best way to convey our messages. All this has to do with our choices of characterization, of plotting, of theme, etc. Learning how to tell a story using your own “voice” seems daunting, but it’s not difficult. If we stay true to the truth of our vision, “voice” comes naturally.

Finally, good craft doesn’t necessarily bring good art in my opinion. Just look at your television. There are plenty of well-crafted stories out there. But are they art? Does that make them as complex and deeply moving (see tragedy/comedy) as, say, the statue of David? As the Mona Lisa? As Hamlet? As…Woyzeck? Only time will tell us about “art.” My money is on “craft.”

One of your well-known plays "Haiku" deals with a young autistic woman, who in moments of lucidity is able to recite beautiful haikus that she wrote. I think in some ways that happens with all writing and art. I know when I write a poem there is a kind of haze and confusion at first, and then a burst of clear, creativity comes through--this goes back and forth in the process.

Yes, the writing experience is just that! Confusion, questioning, and then if we’re lucky, if we keep at it…we lose ourselves for moments at a time when everything is effortless and “right.” We find the truth as only we know it.

What do you think you accomplished as the artistic director of the Boston Playwrights' Theatre?

This is a difficult question to answer. I suppose my accomplishments will show themselves over time. I’m proud of the work I did, of the students that I helped (or hindered), of the community connections that we made, of the nationally-recognized playwriting program which I oversaw. You can view our students’ works all over the country—in theatres and on the screens—and I’m proud to have been associated with the difference those writers are making. I hope that the work at BPT will continue in my stead over time and that BPT will be able to help even more writers find their place in the world.

Now that you are in retirement—what does the future hold?

Another difficult question! I’m always asking myself “How can I help?” whether it’s about the theatre or the environment or some lost cause (democracy, I fear). Right now, I’m still in the shallows but not yet swimming. For the theatre…I might write another play; time will tell. For myself…I’m taking a French class and just finished my second semester in French (whew!). I hope to travel. I hope to read. I hope to play the piano. I hope to paint. Now that I don’t have to sign any academic applications, I’m free! It’s somewhat daunting, but also, you know…exciting. I’m taking suggestions.

Monday, April 29, 2024

Review of A Strange Loop, a play by Michael R. Jackson


A Strange Loop

Review of A Strange Loop, a play by Michael R. Jackson

Joint production of SpeakEasy Stage and Front Porch Arts Collective, at the Calderwood Pavilion through May 25, 2024

By Andy Hoffman

The musical, A Strange Loop, winner of both a 2019 Pulitzer and a 2022 Tony for Best Musical, takes the audience deep into the confused, proud, and self-loathing mind of Usher, an ambitious young man wrestling with a plague of Thoughts, personified and set to music. Overweight, black, and gay, Usher wonders if he can ever succeed in the creation of a musical. While the book-and-music originator Michael R. Jackson asserts that A Strange Loop isn’t autobiographical, he acknowledges that “I have felt everything that Usher has felt.” Like Usher, he worked as an usher on Broadway after graduating with a degree in musical theater while working on what would become A Strange Loop. The distinction between autobiography and a play entirely set in the mind of a younger writer remains more hopeful than actual.

Jackson has created a compelling story, filled with hummable music and memorable characters, masterfully recreated at the Calderwood Pavilion in a joint production between the SpeakEasy Stage and the Front Porch Arts Collective. Maurice Emmanuel Parent has directed Jackson’s story to take its own course with unobtrusive staging and beautifully subtle touches in props, costumes, and set design. The play rests heavily on the performance of Kai Clifton as Usher and he carries it with extraordinary grace. The funny, bawdy songs keep your toes tapping, even if the lyrics would get you arrested if you sang them aloud on the street. The music recalls what Jackson terms his “Inner White Girl” in one of the songs; he even name-checks Tori Amos, Liz Phair, and Joni Mitchell – all artists who turned their internal conflicts into art.

A Strange Loop derives its title from a Liz Phair song of the same name. Usher says at one point that he wanted to license the song for the show he’s writing but that Phair’s people declined. Phair’s song title itself comes from Douglas Hofstadter, whose seminal 1979 book Gӧdel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which looks at the recursive works of these three figures as symbolic of internal neurological structures common to all people. It’s this recursive and self-referential process Hofstadter calls a strange loop, where internal thoughts eventually return to the self, no matter what other person, object or concept they seem to be about. In this

musical, in which Usher imagines conversations with his parents, sexual experiences, visits to the doctor, consultations with his agent, and expressions of self-loathing, challenges the audience to maintain the hard connection between what we see on the stage and Usher’s internal workings. Usually we recognize what we see performed – while clearly a product of the playwright’s imagination – we accept as real within the confines of the play. In A Strange Loop, everything happens inside Usher’s mind and none of it is ‘real’ except as a representation of Usher’s own struggle with identity.

A Strange Loop opens with Usher’s ‘Thoughts’ – all the play’s characters other than Usher are just Thoughts – neatly arranged in a grid around him. As the musical progresses, these Thoughts emerge from their boxes and harangue Usher about his weight, his creativity, his gayness, his uncertain gender, his job, his parents, and the size of his genitals. Like most people in their twenties, Usher’s Thoughts return frequently to sex with questions about what’s normal and how close Usher himself comes to that uncertain measure. Usher struggles not only with his Thoughts but also how to end the play he’s writing in the play. As he tries out one ending after the other, invariably with Usher’s back to the audience, one of the Thoughts points out that the ending isn’t only about resolving Usher’s conflicts; its also about the audience. “They have to know when it’s time to go home.” Kai Clifton records an extraordinary performance as Usher at the center of A Strange Loop, but the Thoughts – played by Grant Evaen, Davron S. Monroe, Jonathan Melo, Aaron Michael Ray, De’Lon Grant, and Zion Middletown – appear in rapid sequence as a bewildering array of characters from Usher’s mind, from his mother (caught between love of her son and love of Jesus) to Harriet Tubman (reminding Usher of his obligations to his ancestors). They deserve as much credit for representing what passes through Usher’s mind as Clifton does for presenting Usher himself. It’s an extraordinary evening of theater. While some sequences could afford to be cut or tightened, overall the musical brings the audience face-to-face with the unexpected. That’s a rare accomplishment in itself.