On Sunday, I saw Hamilton in Chicago. I'm not quite sure of the full extent of what I learned from the experience, but it's lingering in my mind, and it's making me think.
I've listened to Hamilton a lot. Not as much as some, but more than others. I'm a mid-grade Hamilfan. I can't sing all the lyrics of "My Shot," but I can do a good job with "You'll Be Back." For me, Hamilton has been a solitary experience, usually while wearing headphones, sometimes in the car. But theatre, by its very nature, is a communal experience. You experience it with others, with both those you know and those you don't.
Seeing Hamilton live has had a massive effect on how I see the show and has shaped the way I originally heard specific songs. Songs that I usually would skip, such as "That Would Be Enough," are now essential. My wife rested her hand on my knee at the lyric "I relish being your wife," and that did it. The song's meaning changed. It became personal. Now, it's not simply a song about Hamilton and Eliza, it's also about Chris and Rachael. It's about us. And you have to believe that Lin Manuel Miranda inserted much of himself in there as well. Moments of the show feel vulnerable, too vulnerable to not be personal.
Another observation. There was this survey going around on my Facebook about musicals. It asked people to list the musical they loved, hated, thought was overrated, thought was underrated, and more. A lot of my friends filled it out, seemingly angry that their friends would put things considered to be solely entertaining or trite or fluff. God forbid if someone were to enjoy Cats. Some friends never filled it out, afraid of someone passing judgement on their tastes or their intelligence for what they love. It's crazy, man.
What does that have to do with Hamilton? The audience on Sunday laughed a lot. And cried a lot. The show shifts on a wide, emotional spectrum. Also, the show is both low art and high art. It's entertaining and smart. It's playing in two worlds at once: hip hop and musical theatre. Those two traditions are at odds with each other at times, but they allow for something new to be created. To adapt a Hamilton lyric, theatre is wide enough for entertainment and emotion. A piece of theatre is wide enough for comedy and drama. An audience is wide enough for laughing and crying. We forget that. We forget that high art and low art don't have to be mutually exclusive.
If we make art that is not simply for ourselves, but of ourselves, then the success of something like Hamilton isn't surprising. It's not that Hamilton rewrote the rules of theatre. The rules of theatre have mostly been the same: write what you know, bare yourself onstage, be vulnerable, and tell a good story. Instead of doing things "traditionally," Lin Manuel Miranda did things his way. He was true to himself and the way that he expressed himself. It's the authenticity of expression that grabs me every time.
Be true to yourself. Be true to the way you express yourself. Don't jump on bandwagons. Express yourself with authenticity and heart. Open wounds. Give a sly smile. Put it on stage. Allow your audience to laugh. Allow them to cry. Allow yourself to laugh. Allow yourself to cry.
One more thing. An hour or so before I saw Hamilton, I saw news on Facebook that my theatre professor, steven marc weiss, had died. steven's first year at my undergraduate college was my senior year. I didn't know what to make of him at first. steven was one of the very few people who called me Christopher instead of Chris. (I’m not capitalizing his name because he wrote in all lowercase. Once he was asked why, his answer? “I’m pretentious.”)
I often spoke to steven about animation and cartoons; he spoke to me of German art films and classical music. He impressed me with his knowledge and artistic integrity. I remember going to his house for the first time and walking into a small dining room that had built in bookshelves on each wall, floor or ceiling. They were filled with CDs of classical music, organized by composer, then by conductor. He surrounded himself with what he loved. I always saw him as superior in a way, but he saw me as an equal. Me with all my low art tendencies. The world is wide enough for me and steven. And he knew that. He relished that. He supported that. He supported me. And I'm going to miss him.
Here's a portion of an email from steven that I received in 2011. I'm so grateful to him.
"you remain, for me, one of the special "elite" among coe's theatre alums, one whose dedication to his craft is virtually limitless, who cherishes ensemble and puts his work before himself. for me, you are the embodiment of stanislavsky's charge to "love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art," and i shall always respect you for that!
My wife has been on a research trip since Wednesday, so I’ve been on my own with my son Jack since then. I’ve taken Jack to rehearsal on Wednesday and Thursday. It’s been really fun (and somewhat stressful to be honest) to have him there. Jack enjoys seeing the actors; he loves playing pretend. He was a little disappointed that he didn’t have his turn to pretend being an animal. Wednesday, he wanted to be a manatee. Thursday, he wanted to be a bunny. And yesterday, he was a kitty. I let him play on the stage when the actors went on a break. He’s having a difficult time understanding that the actors aren’t just taking turns pretending to be animals, they’re actually following a script! During breaks, Jack wants me to be Penny while he pretends to be an animal. It’s adorable.
As far as the play, it’s going amazingly well. Joe Bishara is a beast in the best possible sense. He drives hard and fast and expects you to keep up. And to the credit of the cast, they do. Each actor has come a long way, and they keep making new choices to further refine their characters. One thing that Joe told them yesterday is he doesn’t want talk down to the audience members. Yes, we’re creating a performance for an audience that includes children, but they deserve authenticity. It’s the same reason I like Doc McStuffins so much: they tackle emotions and situations from an authentic place. (Notice I didn’t say we’re creating a performance “for children.” I know there will be adults in the audience, too. It’s a very deliberate choice to say that I’m writing for “audiences that include children.”)
The progress of the cast was especially striking yesterday. Jack and I skipped rehearsal on Friday; the kid needed to get to bed early... And so did I quite frankly. Yesterday, there were so many moments that were solidified and strikingly different from just a single rehearsal that I missed. That’s not to say there wasn’t work to be done, but the progress was clear. The three leads have come a long way and, if they continue the hard work I saw yesterday, they’re going to rock things out on opening day this Friday!
As for me, this week is going to be fun and busy and somewhat overwhelming. Tomorrow, I’m spending most of my day at West Broad Elementary School, reading the book of Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras. The students will also meet Emma Shachter who plays Penny! I have five sessions of 30 minutes a piece with a five minute break in-between. I’m excited to share the story with them and answer questions the students (or teachers) might have. Before I meet with them, I have an interview with Fox28 for a segment on Good Day Marketplace that will air on Thursday!
I’ll be at every performance of Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras this weekend, so come say hi! I’ll have copies of the book with me, so you can pick up your own copy if you haven’t already gotten one. I’m very proud of the work being done by all the artists involved. I can’t wait for you to see this show!
I’m going to begin with a personal story, one that has been eating at me for 13 years. It has frustrated, angered, and saddened me and has been given much too much power over me. It’s not as sordid as it sounds, but it’s intensely personal to me.
In the spring of 2001, I was finishing up my BA in Theatre by spending a semester in NYC, tooling around the city, having an internship at PS 122, and devouring as many plays, concerts, and museums as possible. It was one of the most defining experiences of my life.
I had also applied to the directing MFA program at Columbia University and was fortunate enough to have an audition, supervised by the great Anne Bogart. I had the great fortune to throw up into a trash can in front of her after cramming a peanut butter and jelly sandwich into my mouth. That's not the story, but it's a fun detail... There were around 20 of us that were called in to audition and we all went around the circle, telling people our backgrounds or what "defined our experiences," how we defined ourselves, and told a vision from our futures. When it came to me, I said that my ethnic background was Mexican-American (I wasn't using the term "Latino" at the time, mostly said "Chicano."), but said that I didn't want to be defined by that. I wanted my work to stand for itself. I said that my experience was defined by Disney and Jesus Christ Superstar. I said that a moment from my future was to be brushing my teeth and having my future son run in saying "Daddy, cartoons are on!" and my future self rushing out to join him.
A few other people gave their answers and then came Ricky. His name might not be Ricky, but I remember it being Ricky... Anyway, he begins by saying, "I'm Mexican-American, Chicano," and then he turned and gave me the dirtiest look I've ever, seriously ever have received and said, "And I do define myself by it." He gave a story about his grandmother working as a migrant worker and went on and on, getting choked up, and everyone in the room, nodding along with looks of understanding at him and looks of derision at me. I wanted to say, "Dude, my grandma was a migrant worker, too, but that wasn't my experience. That's what I meant." But I couldn't interrupt, I was totally blindsided, but it didn't stop there.
Later on that day we were divided up into groups of three and would each create a little vignette in three parts. When we watched Ricky's, he had two people, one walked over to the other and said, "Hi, I'm White." The other person said, "I'm White, but I don't call myself White." All throughout he looked at me with a look that said, "Gotcha, shithead." Ouch. I bubbled with anger and it completely threw off my groove. I couldn't confront him; I was too busy trying to be a good director, I couldn't waste my time trying to argue and defend my answers to an innocuous question about self-definition and my personal answer. Why was he personally attacking me in this process in front of all these strangers? I'll never know. But it's eaten at me for years because he defined himself one way and looked down on me for not defining myself the same way.
Now, let's get to what this has to do with playwriting. I don't usually write autobiographical plays. Yes, as Julia says in Books & Bridges, "There [are] elements" of life that find their way into the DNA of my plays, but I'm not revisiting specific moments of my life. I have written one autobiographical play, (interestingly enough during my semester in NYC) which was about a hellish week in Atlanta, Georgia in which my girlfriend dumped me. Yay. I wrote that play because 1. I needed to and 2. Because the playwright who was mentoring me demanded "write what you know." No one has ever read that play and no one will. It wasn't meant to be read or performed. And I haven't revisited another specific moment in my life to write a play about... until last night.
This 31 Plays in 31 Days challenge has been exhausting and somewhere in my day, Ricky and the episode at Columbia kept flashing in my mind. I didn't want to write a play about it. It was too upsetting and I didn't want to be exposed. Also, I have found that, in my experience, when people revisit their personal histories, they often revise their personal histories, too. They usually use the autobiographical play to win a fight they previously lost, to get the last laugh, or to, as experienced by Sam Beckett (Quantum Leap, not the playwright), "put right what once went wrong." And that always seemed wrong to me. One playwright said (I wish I could remember who), "Just because it happened to you, doesn't mean it's interesting."
I really didn't want to write about Ricky, but I did. I didn't have the time to fight it before my deadline of midnight to finish the play. I hated writing it. But I challenged myself. I wasn't going to give myself the best lines, the zingers, the witty lines that playwrights who write these autobiographical plays often do. I wasn't going to give myself an advantage. I wasn't going to assume that I would win the argument. I was going to give Ricky his due. I was going to speak from his experience (a made up one based on what I remember and sprinkled, ironically, with experience from my family's personal history), and would make his argument as strong as mine. I was going to see things through his eyes, but was also going to give myself my chance to express what I wished I had expressed at the time. There are a great deal of therapeutic, cathartic "fucks" that fly in my dialogue, but the play I created speaks to a few issues that I think are important to talk about.
One is the label of "Latino playwright." Do I want to be labeled as a "Latino Playwright?" Does it make people judge my work differently if I am labeled as a "Latino playwright?" If I want to be simply known as a "playwright," does that make me a bad Latino? Ricky would think so. I would think that it's akin to a woman wanting to be known as a "playwright" and not placed into the category of "woman playwright" as if "White, male" is implied by the word "playwright." Isn't that equality to not be labeled or categorized as "other?" If anything, can't I be an "American playwright?" It's bad enough to be "emerging," must I be labeled further?
This is something that I've been struggling with, and I think I've found the answer, or, rather, my answer. You can read it in the play "Walls." I never wanted this play to be read, but because I've vowed to put all of my plays written for the 31 Plays in 31 Days challenge on my website, it's out there.
After last night's, I've lost my mind. I'm emotionally spent. So, today's play is about a giraffe in a necktie and a warthog in a bowtie. It's on the website, too. It's called "Second Hand."
Enjoy them both.
And please, I beg you, my fellow theatre-makers, however you define yourselves, however you choose to label yourselves, be excellent to each other.