Monday, March 8, 2010

'Guns, Roses, and Theatre'

I picked up a book in the bargain bin at Book People last week, 'Watch You Bleed', The saga of Guns and Roses, (The Rock Band). It’s a harrowing book, and even though I came of age a decade earlier than 'Axl' and the boys, it still pushes lots of buttons inside of me. I think the whole history of 'disfranchised' youth can be recorded at its most raw through the history of music. During the eighties, I had the fortune of going through an intense spiritual awakening, so I only followed the music history sporadically. At the end of the eighties, I made my move back into the world of theatre, so music gradually re-entered my life. Although I was aware of 'Guns and Roses', I wasn't aware of the impact they had on music at the time.

When I left the world of gymnastics and entered the first act of my theatre period full time, I was thirty-one years old. Although I'd been making that transition for several years, (I did the musical 'The Unsinkable Molly Brown' when I was twenty-seven), it wasn't until 1988 that Playwright's Workshop Theatre was formed as a non-profit organization, one year after 'Appetite For Destruction', 'Guns and Roses' first record was released. I had lived for so long in the gymnastics sub-culture and a religious environment, it took quite awhile for me to adjust to everything that was going on in the world, especially pop culture. Instinctively, it was easy for me to make a transition back into the theatrical world, as I had been reading about that sub-culture throughout my life. Although art culture always has some ties to pop-culture, it was confusing and dangerous during this period to not fall immediately back into a black hole of excess, (don't worry, I'll do that later). Years of religious study and gymnastics rigor had tempered me, enabling me to have some control to buffer me through this transition. When you are young and strong in mind and body—shear enthusiasm, (mixed with some insanity) can get you through the rough spots of trying to do the impossible. The previous ten years or so had given me a very interesting foundation to make the move I did. A mixture of God moving mountains, and very ardent gymnastics training gave me the belief that I could indeed could make something impossible happen. Mix that with some ignorance, a bohemian back ground, some circus training, a penchant for taking chances, lots of reading, a little bit of talent, lots of bullshit, and a professor at ASU who told me he thought I was a 'real' writer, and I was ready to give up my wife, my career, my gymnastic mystic, my friends, my elders, my house, my cars, and my pride, to go live on my brother's couch and become a theatre artist. It was a dark time, but I was in a place where my vision was sufficient, and years of training gave me the strength to not sleep if I had to, not over analyze, and just push my way through the tunnel. I think something should probably be said here about leaving 'the leadership by a God' and relying on my own will, which in the end, probably made it much more difficult. Still, I learned how powerful a human will can be in that place of purgatory. I learned that separation from the God that I had been studying and praying to was not such a bad thing. I was released to make my own way, with other human beings, in a climate that became a dynamic interaction free from guilt and dogma. Oh, yeah, art!

Now, 'Guns and Roses' were in Hollywood making it happen, and I was in Phoenix, Arizona, which obviously, are two very different places. Still, if you study the collective spirit of our nation in relationship to music, theatre, painting, writing, etc. as I said, there is a thread that connects them all. Popular culture is the obvious thread. 'Guns and Roses' had bit back into the destructive spirit of rock music, and spit it out again into the popular culture. In theatre, there was also a destructive nature of creating art emerging. The vernacular of language was in high 'fuck you' gear, and of course, the revolution of the seventies decade, followed by the eighties excess, gave way to a resurgence of this destructive attitude. Language amongst the younger generation became a club to communicate it was dissatisfied once again. Chaos was back for a time, and of course in the study of popular culture, 'Guns and Roses' reflected the extreme of this chaos. I can only see some of this in retrospect, and living in Phoenix Arizona at that time was akin to living as far from the artistic loop as one can get, still, the collective climate called, and new plays rose from the ashes.

Because I had been working with young people for the fourteen years before I started a theatre company, and because I had just come out of studying Christianity for eight years, I was often conflicted in my moral fortitude in letting loose this strange and decadent climate that helped create a new theatre company. During my period as a gymnastics coach, I loved studying where gymnastics came from. I was also in love with the circus, clowns, and all things theatrical in its presentation. I had also had a short but influential time training with the circus troupe, 'The Amazing Monahans', (more on that in the book). Somewhere, I had come across material of the Russian theatre, which pertained to them training their actors in the circus arts such as juggling, clowning, and various 'knockabout' routines. Because I had been involved in acrobatics and gymnastics for so long, I immediately saw how powerful this connection could be. After all, I believed that gymnastics was the most dynamic form of physical communication one could encounter. I talked my partner in a gymnastics camp I ran every summer, Mike _______, into letting me open a theatre in conjunction with a new gym he was opening. I had the wild vision of training actors to be gymnasts and jugglers, clowns, sword fighters, and mimes. So, the first incarnation of Playwright's Workshop Theatre was in conjunction with a full gymnastics training facility, including a vibrant dance program. I am still convinced if I had opened such a facility in a city such as LA or NYC, it would have been revolutionary, but I had to work where the light was on. Many of the young students I had initially in my theatre program were indeed, gymnasts in training. It was great, and I created 'Amy's Attic', a play about the circus, for these young actor/gymnasts. It wasn't unusual for many of the students I had to come straight from a gymnastics or dance class into an acting class. In the initial stages of Playwright's, this was our means of survival, classes. We had a vibrant program that was taking young gymnasts and training them in theatre. So, the initial part of my vision was working. The adult part of the program was a very different story. Although I was able to keep the majority of my adult students for quite awhile, I don't think they had much of an appreciation for the Russian circus arts. Note to self: Its always easier to take a young gymnast and train them in the theatre arts than it is to take an adult and train them in the art of gymnastics. Because the gym and the theatre was way out in Deer Valley next to the wide open spaces of the desert, it was also hard to get people to come all the way out there to train. One morning, pulling into the parking lot, a lone coyote was standing in the desert across the street. I thought, "What am I doing, trying to develop a theatre company and train people to be Russian theatre artists out in the desert in Phoenix, Arizona?"

Its interesting for me to now to express what I was thinking then, and I admit, much of it at that time I kept to myself for fear of being ridiculed for it, the ridicule would come later. For the first year, I mostly focused on the younger students, many of them who I had trained with Mike in his gym or at camp. 'Holiday in Hoopersville', a Christmas play opened as the first show formally produced show by Playwright's Workshop Theatre. It was performed by a completely young cast, and it was the raw beginning of the next twelve years of producing a diet of new and developing plays. It was magical, it was difficult. The odds were against it happening from lack money, difficult personalities, controversy, and plain old blood sport. However, if you are moving across a tumbling mat to perform four of five difficult tricks in a row, your focus must be complete, your neck depends on it. Playwright's Workshop Theatre performed some difficult tricks, in fact, there are so many that it's difficult for me to remember them all. We were the 'Guns and Roses' of the theatre world in the late eighties and early nineties in Phoenix Arizona, and we were just learning our trade. In spite of critics, limited financial resources, moves, enemies, arrogance, egos, drugs, alcohol, death, and sabotage, we went on to develop over eighty new plays, I learned as I went, and did my best to steer the ship despite the odds, it was magical.

4 comments: said...

Interesting to read of all the complications. You did give up everything to start over with theater, although I think you were very, very bored with the gymnastics world. Your bored students went with you into what they all dream of, becoming stars!
I enjoyed the writeup. When one no longer wants to be an Olympian, what next??

Cheryl said...

I never knew it was the circus you were striving for. I love that. I guess it helps explain why kids all love you. They see through to that inner circus even if you think you are hiding it.

Gerry said...

I was just trying to think where that tumbling gene came from since your Aunt Linda was just like you, always trying to walk on her hands when she was a kid until she could succeed in doing it. She could walk up and down a flight of stairs on her hands as an adult, and you could walk on your hands clear out to the road. I remember you playing the scarecrow in the 5th grade in the Wizard of Oz as a tumbler, a hit performance. I think it came through your great grandfather King as I heard stories of how agile his twin brother was who died and Grandpa bought a circus horse when he was old that could prance to a band and do tricks, but your Granddad, my dad, used to do stunts on horses like run and mount not using the stirrup, and he taught a horse to prance on its hind legs and both of them were great trainers of cow horses. I used to think the rodeos were where the cowboys showed their agility not only in riding the bulls and wild horses, but stunts they did roping on horses. These were the cowboy circuses, and LaRae, Ann, and Linda all did their tumbling feats and somersaults as cheerleaders in high school. Both your Aunt Margie and Aunt Ann had daughters who learned to tumble and somersault to the point they spent early years in gymnastics just like you did. I think there was always a connection between gymnasts and the circus where many went to show their feats. Even though the Olympics became the arena the elite gymnasts tried for and what the gymnastic coaches aimed for with their students. I was thrilled when you decided to connect your gymnastic training and coaching to theater because I know how training helps the actor to perform with his body. It surely helped your acting and those of your child actors you were so fond of writing shows for like Amy's Attic and Holiday in Hooopersville.

LaRena said...

Very much enjoyed your observations of the culture you grew up in and your transitions to theater. You made it look easy. Ha. This blog was a walk down memory lane for me as I had attended a lot of your performances whenever I could. I thought you did a great job of the Unsinkable Molly Brown at the far west theater. I loved Amy's Attic , Skimpys and so on and on. A journal of progress. Have you read "Water for the elephants?" Do you want to read it? If so I will send it to you.