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29 Bells — Michael Parsons

December 8th, 2011 No comments

29 Bells

So, you are familiar with the saying “better late than never”? Well, here’s hoping that this is true. Over a year ago my wife and I took a trip south to Columbus to see a play by my friend and fellow playwright Michael Parsons. The play is 29 Bells, about which I wrote a blog entry when I had the opportunity to go and see a staged reading of the piece. The short point is that it is a marvelous play and it is one of those plays that has the sneaky habit of creeping back into your conscious mind periodically for what appears to be inexplicable reasons.

The reason that a play can take hold of you and constantly return your mind to it are impossible to tease out and identify; especially given that the reason will be different for each person who experiences it. For me, I think the reason the play holds my imagination and mind is that its center is on a family and the life of this family in the past. There is a profound sense of loss in this play and the true and hopeful glimmer for a recovery of some of what has passed–that is, a restoration. Parsons achieves both of these effects which have tremendous dramatic payoff for the audience member. The dark spiraling descent, cast against the all time perfect metaphor (a sinking ship), is, as one would expect: tense; but the relief that comes through hopeful emotional moments and through Parson’s natural humor, bring the audience out of the darkness at the end, yet keep the balance of emotions of the piece in place. For myself, I think of my family and Christmases past and households that were filled with people and light and humor and food and drinking and celebration. During my college years my dad’s mother passed and the center of one family blinked out. The center did not hold and the families dispersed. The light went out, and one side of the family descended into a darkness from which it has never recovered. More recently my other grandparents have passed and the same has happened. Relatives are older, families of their own, people are in different places, etc. That said, of course, now I have a family of my own and we have begun creating our own traditions and the holidays are filling again, and have been for several years, with light, and people, and humor and food and drinking and celebration. Aristotle new well that drama, like life itself, moves in rhythms and that these rhythms are meaningful: they lead us through the various emotional and intellectual events of our life. Parsons captures these very well in what is a sprawling story held tightly together.

I mention Aristotle because it is important in another way. Parsons is a more traditional playwright. That is to say, he writes plays with Aristotelian structures. Plays that are mostly naturalistic. He tends to have strong views on the subject and has admitted the challenges of not writing in this way. His concerns as expressed and his admitted challenges are somewhat surprising given that 29 Bells has some absolutely fantastic moments that show a sense of exploration beyond traditional structures. For instance, throughout the play are a variety of generic structures present: from the rapid fire dialog of the LA power lunch, to the ghost boy (Ricky Isbell) sitting at the ham radio, to the presence of a variety of media sources (radio, television, etc) in the highly dramatic ending to the first act, surreal moments–such as the names of the deceased tattooed on the back of the girlfriend (Natalie Jensen); there is love story, ghost story, family story, hollywood story, etc; and much of the work plays with time and challenges linearity. The list goes on. Parsons has very adeptly woven together a quilt of a variety of pieces of fabric that act as both independent pieces and both shine and reflect on each other–illuminating and deepening character and meaning.

The plot of 29 Bells is fairly straightforward, though thankfully the telling is not. Ian Carlyle (Jeremy Ryan Brown) is sent back to his hometown to write a screenplay about the Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank in Lake Superior in 1975. It is the same lake on which Ian’s father Hal (Jeff Potts) disappeared (guilt over his not being on the Edmund Fitzgerald–as he should have been–taking its toll). Once in his hometown Ian’s past begins to surround him like the cold lake waters and soon Ian is treading memories and beating back emotions that he did not count on. His mother (Amy Anderson) and former/new girlfriend provide much of the prodding necessary to get Ian to throw off his LA facade and become the true person he should be–one who can accept the totality of who he is, including the events of his past. That is, to become a centered person.

29 Bells could still use a bit of thinning out, a fact of which I am certain that Parson’s is aware, as there are a lot of story lines competing for audience attention: a challenge that I myself face with my most recent play Patterns. Nevertheless, 29 Bells takes several stories which combined have almost epic sweep and manages the impressive feat of joining them together while director LB Rabby keeps the pace up and constantly driving forward. Especially nice is the full cast re-telling of the night the Edmund Fitzgerald went down that dramatically and energetically closes out the first act.

Jeffrey M. Jones @ CSU

December 5th, 2011 No comments

Jeffrey M. Jones

Trying to catch up on my happenings, as a lot has been going on and I’ve been negligent in my posting. A few weeks ago I went down to Cleveland State University to sit in on a class whose guest was Jeffrey Jones. It was a pretty interesting time just sitting and listening to the stories that Jones was telling about all sorts of things, including his own writing process and current project to tales of his days with and around the Wooster Group in New York and earlier days when theater was just breaking out in the 60s with folks around like Sam Shepard and Fornes and even an early encounter with David Mamet, etc, at the theater door: “It’s Mamet, the writer.” (Sexual Perversity in Chicago). I should make clear, right away, that I’m talking about Jeffrey Jones the playwright (Seventy Scenes Of Halloween) and NOT the pederast movie star of Amadeus fame.

I also heard from David Todd, my one-time professor who now works down south at Otterbein, who had recently referred me to Jones’ blog:, which is quite interesting, revealing, and often aggressive: with Jones not being shy about his opinions when it comes to things theatrical. To tell the truth, I wish he posted more often. One entry that I found especially of this type was entitled “How Theatre Works” from 2008:; and at some point I’ll post a response to it as I found some of what he had to say quite surprising given his own style of play creation and works.

In his talk at CSU, Jones touched on how he created plays: for instance, that he has a strong interest in creating a “pastiche” of other materials, such as Harlequin romances (bodice rippers) and Nixon’s White House tapes, etc. That is creating a collage of materials and seeing what comes out of it. In terms of his process, he says that he likes to set up a rule or process and to follow it to see where it leads. For instance, on the Flea Theater website Jones has a workshop listed which discusses a process that he uses for play creation. For an even more elaborate discussion of Jones’ approach, take a look at Broadway Play Publishers.

In some ways, the very act of creating plays in this manner flies in the face of the traditional notion of the playwright as authority or playwright as author. The notion of “author” has been a subject of much speculation in general over the past thirty to forty years (See Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, etc.). For instance, what to make of a playwright such as Charles Mee and his (re)making project. Me, who does not “write” the words of his play, but instead “orchestrates” the words of others (found texts) into a play. But beyond this, the question was raised in the discussion regarding the “new trend” of “devised theater”–that is, plays being created using a physical process or a theatrical/spatial approach, rather than a scripted approach. Often you’ll find actors and a director working to create plays as an ensemble, possibly using myth, fairy tale, or other found texts as a guide that is then reinterpreted or re-constructed. This approach to playmaking often cuts out the playwright or, in some cases, has been seen by playwrights as a direct attempt to cut the playwright from the process. Jones’ thoughts on this–while being familiar with this approach under various names–including that used by the Wooster Group, or even Shepard/Chaikin–are that playwrights create story and pattern. Playwrights are responsible for the orchestration of events, and Jones felt that this is not a likely outcome from devised theater or spontaneously created pieces. Jones felt that, while actors may be able to create a character or even a series of actions that have some meaning in a given context, they are, in his experience, not likely to be able to create an overarching story, a grand pattern, and that the pieces are unfocused, and thus lose power, energy, and possibly meaning over the course of the event. Playwrights, as the name implies, are supposed to be master builders of story. Playwrights should be familiar with how story works and the energy potentials of its various constructs, rhythms, and events–be they in a beat unit, a scene, or in larger blocks across the play–even if they intend to violate these rules or work against them. Some actors may have an understanding of the constructs, rhythms, and events in story, but most do not. Directors had certainly better.

I have taken steps into this arena of playmaking by pastiche or collage, though not to the extent that Jones has, nor do I have his track record, pedigree, etc. My thesis play, Patterns, for instance, was a collage of generic forms, as well as a collage of various texts brought together to reflect and refract one another: an effort to force meaning to be created by the audience who experiences the play and, in some ways, to deny that I as the playwright am the sole source of meaning with regard to the text. (That is, not to deny my importance entirely.) My play Andrew Jackson ate my Homework: A racial farce, is another example of this approach to playmaking. The problem that I have run into, or have noted to myself, when writing plays that reject the Aristotelian dramatic structure–or at least one of the issues–is where does the play end? Or how do you craft the ending without falling into the trap of “forcing” the ending or dulling the play, somehow–that is, as Jones might have it, without killing the energy, power, and meaning. This is a question of editing and has been addressed in many locations by playwrights smarter than me, one of which I have pointed to before: an interview with Wallace Shawn in an issue of American Theatre. For Jones, the question of where or when a play ends is when you, as playwright, have exhausted the material or your ability to create new things with the material. Or, to use the words from Jones above, when you set up a rule or process and trace it out to see where it leads, it is precisely when you have run out of leads that the play must be done–in one sense. Then there is the cleaning up. For Jones, this represents the other important facet of playwriting, which he posited in a question: “is it tight”? That is, have you gone back into the work and edited every line to make certain that it is as tight and clear and clean as it can be? That there is no fat, no laziness, nothing imprecise? Has the waste from each line been removed?

The event at CSU was lively and important for me, and I look forward to my efforts at revising the plays mentioned above using Jones’ guidance and thoughts for both ending and tightening plays.

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