Friday, July 15, 2011

Made in Oregon gets up close and....

JAW’s Made in Oregon series comes to an appropriately heady climax on Sunday evening with Personal, a new play by Portlander Brian Kettler directed by Jessica Nikkel.

Brian, we don’t often get treated to dramas like Personal in the theater; to me it’s thoughtful investigation of the nature of identity that nevertheless plays like a like a thriller. Apart from just being told a good story, what do you hope audiences will take away from seeing your play?

Well, I love thrillers about memory and identity, and I certainly see Personal fitting into that genre. I hope the audience comes out of the play feeling angry, hopeful, and maybe even a little scared. Personal is written as an attack against unrealistic portrayals of happiness and fulfillment, especially in celebrity journalism. I hope that Personal inspires some sort of catharsis in its audience.

We are all humans, we all fight through pain and muck, and we all have some sort of gap between our ideal selves and our actual selves. I think just about everyone has looked at the beautiful people in magazines and felt crappy about themselves. I hope people come out of the play realizing that we are not alone, we all share the same shit, and we have to help each other through it.

Personal debuts this Sunday, July 17, at 8pm on the Main Stage of the Gerding Theater; no reservations are required, and admission as always is freefreefree.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

MIO continues with Continuum

What is real in a hall of mirrors? That question comes to the fore at Made in Oregon this Sunday with Patrick Wohlmut’s Continuum, directed by Stan Foote. Commissioned by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, this tense cat-and-mouse game will stick in your head a long time after the actors have taken their bows.

So Patrick. Continuum is a play of many reversals, and we have to revise our beliefs about the characters several times during it. What does this say about your world view as a writer? Do you feel that human character is essentially a constantly shifting work in progress?

I do believe that. Many people tend to think of themselves as presenting different faces to different people at different times. I think the truth is more complex than that, more rooted in the Buddha’s observation that (depending on who translates it) either “What we are is what we have thought,” or possibly, “What we think, we become.” I think our personality encompasses the full sum of anything we are in the habit of thinking, and that different situations bring out different parts of us. We don’t have many faces; rather, like Walt Whitman says, we are all large, and contain multitudes that may seem contradictory depending upon the situation in which we find ourselves. However, those aspects are not contradictory — they are all, in fact, us. That means that different people and situations reflect us in very different ways. The world is a hall of mirrors, and we see different aspects of ourselves in everything.

That’s why I tend to appreciate — and try to use — an aspect of playwriting that Paul Castagno describes in his book, New Playwriting Strategies. He describes a trend set by playwrights such as Len Jenkin and Mac Wellman, where character-specific dialogue is eschewed in favor of sometimes rapidly shifting vocal strategies, meaning that several speech genres — ways of speaking — can emerge in the course of a scene, an act, or a whole play. I’m not a die-hard adherent of this strategy of writing, because I think that people do tend to fall into specific speech patterns; it’s not all chaos. However, there’s something in that flexibility of character that attracts me and rings true.

Continuum plays this Sunday, July 17, at 4pm at Gerding Theater. Admission is free and no reservations are necessary, though I’d advise getting there early if you like sitting up close.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A banner year for Made in Oregon

Antartikos, a powerful new play by Andrea Stolowitz, kicks off JAW’s Made in Oregon weekend this Saturday. I’ve listened to this play several times in rehearsal and I’m always moved by it; I think you will be, too. I hope to see you there this weekend.

Andrea, while clearly Antartikos is not your personal story, it’s also evident that it comes from a very personal place within you. That’s unusual nowadays, when so often real feelings are cloaked within layers of irony. Will you feel exposed or vulnerable when people hear the play performed?

Hearing the play for me is always hard. The play is about saying goodbye to those you love and about accepting the ultimate closure that happens when someone dies. It is hard for me to hear because it makes me feel those things, but also because it is exposing the way I think about the world — a kernel of sadness I have — to people who don’t know me. It feels like suddenly everyone knows more about me than I know about them and what they know are the feelings that I never really talk about.

On the other hand, what I ask of my audience is to go to a deep emotional place with me, and if I weren’t willing to go there, neither would they be. So in the end it is an even exchange. I write plays to create that shared experience with an audience, so even though it feels raw to hear it, I am proud of the experience it creates. In my view, anything you care about and share with a room full of others will always feel raw. But isn't that why we are alive?

Antartikos is directed by Gemma Whelan and performs this Saturday, July 16 at 4pm at the Gerding Theater. No reservations required and always free of charge.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Where to be this weekend

This Saturday kicks off the JAW Festival with....well, moi-même. Funnily enough, I believe my Community Artists Lab happens to be the first event this year. Enrollment for the Lab is closed, by the way; I only mention it to pique you.

More importantly, the big event this weekend is Made in Oregon, where four of Oregon's most intriguing playwrights will share their latest work with you. Matthew B. Zrebski's new opus, Forky, debuts this Saturday, July 16, at 8 pm on the big stage.

Matt, part of the fun with a new play of yours is that all bets are off when it comes to content, style, voice – you name it. No two MBZ plays are alike. Where did this play come from? Will any demons get exorcized in the course of our seeing Forky?

I think more than any play I’ve written, this one reflects my age. At 38, I can no longer pretend that one day I’m going to be an adult. I am an adult. Like it or not. Life is “now.” The future, though still something to dream about, is less about “what I will be” and more about “how I will grow as I am.” And at it’s most basic, Forky is about the choices we’ve made to reach this adult self – and how we deal with that both literally and spiritually. God, could that sound more banal? I suppose a sexier way to describe the play’s genesis is to reveal the first visual image I had: someone dancing romantically with a giant dead sperm. I mean, of course, right? Sexy! And from that image, the tone and content of the play emerged. I hope it’s both silly and devastating, earthly and ethereal – but mostly, I hope it’s a swift and thrilling 80-minute ride for the audience . . . maybe even entertaining. Who knows?

Sunday, July 10, 2011


Never fear, this blog will not become all about Mac (see previous post). But I feel compelled to add the story of his death, because in describing I may get a small measure of closure.

The days leading up to last Thursday were fraught with a confused tangle of worries, fears and hopings against hope. When Mac became mired in a depressed funk, unreachable and unresponsive, I turned again to Patricia Schaller, animal psychic extraordinaire.

Maybe you remember Patricia from her first house call to my home about two years ago. This time, when I made the phone call to her, she was already tuned into Mac. Immediately she said, “He wants to go but he has something to tell you first.” We made an appointment two days later, for that Thursday.

By then, Mac was so bad off — struggling for breath, wincing from pain — that I worried he would die before Patricia could get there. Yet he was working so hard to stay in his body that it occurred to me he might be living just for her visit. And I believe this turned out to be true.

Patricia was expected at our home that last day at 3pm, and it had been a terrible day, beginning with — well, never mind all that. Suffice it to say that Mac was more dead than alive by the afternoon; he was lying on his favorite bench, the one by the picture window, gasping for air. At 2:30 — a full half-hour before Patricia was expected — Mac stood up, shook his ears out, jumped down from the bench and wagged his tail. We gaped at him.

“Patricia must be drawing nigh,” I said, thinking maybe she had just left home or exited the freeway or something. Just then there was a soft knock at the door and we knew what Mac already knew — she was there.

Once in, Patricia got on the floor and looked directly in Mac’s eyes, nuzzling him with her nose. They communed silently for a few minutes, with a look on Mac’s face of immense relief. Patricia had James and I do a meditation/visualization to calm down Mac’s breathing — and yes, this actually happened — and then she began to channel information.

Right away after that, Mac announced through Patricia that he had two important things to say. The first, not surprisingly, was that he wanted to get out of his body and be free, but he needed our help to do that. Patricia explained that the vet would arrive soon and help him to do that, and he thanked us. The second thing was much as he wanted to go, he also wanted to come back and live with us again. He said he liked being a dog and hoped he could be that again, but it was okay if it was something else. In a year or two, we were to look into the eyes of animals until we saw the one that was him again.

For James this was getting really woo-woo; he wasn’t sure what to make of it. But he could see the merciful effect Patricia was having on Mac. There was nothing Age of Aquarius about that. The dog was focused wholly on her.

Those were Mac’s message in essence. Patricia also conveyed some very personal things that came from her. After a time I started urging her to go — she refused to accept any payment from us (it was a gift, she said, but I don’t know why we deserved it), and I knew I was not her last errand of mercy that day. Twice, though, Mac asked her not to leave and she stayed. Finally I convinced her she must go, which now I regret. The little guy might have appreciated having something he could communicate with directly when the end came.

An hour after Patricia departed, another soft knock came at the door. This was Dr. Lori Gibson, from an organization aptly named Compassionate Care, which performs in-home euthanasia. At the sound of her knock, Mac wagged his tail for the last time. Did he think it was Patricia returning? Or was he welcoming his deliverer, along with the plan for releasing him from his body as it had been explained to him.

Lori was indeed compassionate; she carefully explained what was going to happen. I held Mac (who was back on his bench now) and his back legs trembled — a revealing sign that could indicate fear, but more often for him indicated anticipation. Lori explained how one shot would sedate Mac, and when we were ready, the second shot would stop his heart.

We were there at the moment I had dreaded since he was a puppy —the moment of saying goodbye. But we had already said our farewells and expressed our love through Patricia. All that was left was the actual send-off. So Lori administered the shot, and just like that, Mac disappeared. All we had was the body of handsome old dog with no spark of animation in him.

Lori wrapped up Mac’s body in a blanket. She tucked in his legs on each end, so he looked like he was running. James picked up the body and carried it into Lori’s van and she drove off. We went back indoors, stricken and distraught. Our beautiful, soulful boy was gone.

We cried for hours, then got in the car with some food and drove out to Sauvie Island. Dark clouds fringed the foothills, and rays of sunlight burst through them at one point, the way they do in those old-timey images where the rays are meant to suggest God. We looked at each other and said “Mac.” We ate our picnic dinner near where the road ends on the island, looking at the birds skimming the water and talking about Mac.

Then we went home to face a house without him in it. Not physically in it, anyway. Ever since then I’ve been talking to him as if he were here. Don’t worry, he doesn’t talk back, but I get impressions of feeling from him, and derive great comfort from these “conversations.” You’ve seen TV shows where characters die and then their survivors keep on talking to them in subsequent episodes? Turns out that’s no metaphor.

The days since have been very, very hard. Most of our friends understand; they’ve been through this or at least have the empathy to intuit how it must feel. Some others, I am sure, think “what a lot of fuss, it was just a dog.” But I always felt Mac was not a dog at all, and was actually someone I’d known from somewhere else in the cosmos, someone who was just visiting me here on a prolonged stay.

We got to borrow him for a while, then we had to return him.

Do you remember the first season of Six Feet Under, from way back in 2002? A woman with a tear-stained face asks one of the morticians the eternal question: Why do we have to die?

His answer: To make life important.

That may not be the only answer. But it will have to do for now.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Dog gone

Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

We always liked to refer to MacHeath, our Kerry Blue Terrier, as the Clown Prince, because his disposition was so antic. Fiercely independent, he only wanted to be touched when he was in the mood (though he was always in the mood for brushings). He let us know when he wanted to go for a walk, and to get him to eat dinner, you had to all but provide a menu and a fresh rose in a bud vase.

Mac died today, aged 14 years, 1 month and 18 days.

People always say you know when it’s time to put your dog “to sleep.” We didn’t know until just today, when we moved beyond certainty. During Mac's last few weeks, he alternated terrible days — seizures, mental confusion, difficulty breathing — with bright days when, though he was clearly an old dog getting older fast, he was still very much the tenacious terrier. Completely present mentally, still urging us to toss the rubber ring for him that had been his favorite toy since puppyhood.

Letting him go today was one of the hardest decisions of my life. But his leave-taking was as good as it could possibly be. An extraordinarily compassionate vet came to the house; we all sat by his favorite squirrel-watching bench together, James and I both holding Mac, as his last breath went out and did not come back.

Gone. Like snow on the river, goodbye.

In fact those were my last words to him. Goodbye, old friend.

Yet I guess I started my farewells last fall, when Mac’s terminal illness first came to light. At that time I inaugurated an odd form of spiritual exercise: taking the occasional walk around the neighborhood without him.

Don’t worry, he still got plenty of walks — three a day, sometimes more. But increasingly I was aware that our walks together were numbered. My solitary strolls were therefore rehearsals for a day when Mac would no longer be around to accompany me.

Today I realize how patently fatuous that exercise was. Mac’s shadow is everywhere I look.

This will always be so when I walk the familiar routes. During Mac’s blessedly long life, we had thousands of walks (eight years’ worth here in Portland) and countless car trips together. He lived for his outdoor adventures, and delighted in peeing on as many trees and shrubs as possible, scratching up the ground afterward in triumph. Up until just a few months ago, that dog still rushed from tree to tree like a kid on a Halloween outing.

I can only hope that in time my circumambulations and their constant reminders will become joys — celebrations of Mac’s long and happy life — rather than the sorrows they are now.


Mac was born in Pinetop, Arizona, the only male in a litter of three pups, the offspring of champions. His breeder, Kathy Bergen, was a devoted caretaker of the Kerry Blue breed; she put us through considerable correspondence and a couple of phone interviews before she was satisfied Mac would have a good life with us. And thus, at 12 weeks old, Mac undertook what must have been a terrifying adventure, leaving his first family to spend several clamorous hours in the dark hold of an airplane, only to wind up among strangers at LAX.

But he adjusted immediately to his new home in South Pasadena; he didn’t cry even on his first night with us. He astounded the trainers in his puppy classes by learning every command on the first try.

Among many favorite activities, Mac loved to ride in the car, and moving up to Oregon was a high point in his life. We came up three weeks in advance of James — Mac and I together on a journey that lasted two days and had several adventures. He was thrilled with it all: the dazzling array of new scents and sights, the constant forward motion. And he loved his new home in Ladd’s Addition, where he must have sniffed out every square centimeter on our first night there, when we wound up dozing on sleeping bags.
That following year I put a lot of energy into hunting for a permanent home, and Mac was a born realtor. Every new house held promise; he was as happy looking in the front windows and scoping out the back yard as he was inspecting the rooms inside. He was always a purposeful pooch who appreciated a sense of mission; unlike many dogs, he rarely liked to sit idly and just relax. He wanted to always be doing, much like a human being.

Until this past year, of course, when he probably spent more time asleep than awake.


With dogs as with humans, it’s natural to berate oneself for the ways things might have been better for them. I regret that we never got Mac a canine companion. We expect so much of our animal friends, and our major expectation is that they will automatically adjust to our ways. Mac was a bright, inquisitive dog who appreciated as much stimulation as the world could give him; if I could have a do-over, I would get him a pal from his own species, to keep him company during the many lengthy days I used to spend working in the theater.

Too late for regrets, though. There’s nothing left to do or say, except to reiterate:

Mac, my beloved comrade. Goodbye, old friend. You are lost and gone forever, but doggie, we will never ever forget you.