4 August
ibrews

This is a very special week of Breaking Bad events for me. I’m riding on the air of my first viral video, which just so happens to be Breaking Bad-related, and the entire cast is in NYC promoting the upcoming final season of the show. The week’s not even over, but I’m already surprised by how much I’ve been ruminating on the various frustrations of the super-hyped events I’ve attended. I’ve been to two so far, but I’m sure the third and fourth will suffer from similar problems, so I may as well talk about it now.

 

So let’s talk about it. The first event was at the Museum of the Moving Image on Sunday evening, where Charlie Rose “moderated a discussion” (read: interviewed) the creator of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan. In the past, I’ve always enjoyed Charlie Rose. He’s an enthusiastic and curious guy, interested in a wide swath of topics from academia to pop culture.

 

But he was absolutely the wrong person to be interviewing the Vince Gilligan in front of an overflowing audience of superfans. How do I know we were all superfans? Because we all had to buy our tickets online within the first 10 seconds they went on sale, and anyone who managed to acquire standby tickets waited in line for hours. People were so excited by the prospect of being near Vince Gilligan, that the Museum of the Moving Image sold out tickets for their second theater, which merely presented a livestream of what was going on in the first. And remember, Vince isn’t known as some star actor or even director. First and foremost, he’s a writer.

 

Charlie Rose is not a superfan. How could he be? He doesn’t have time. Though he professed to love the show, my guess is he’s seen a couple episodes, and has supplemented that by reading press clippings from the various television critics who shower it with praise. But this is the first problem: that disconnect. When he calls himself an “avid fan,” the audience immediately thinks ‘oh great, he’s like me!’ So when he calls the main character “Walter Washington” or asks why Walt didn’t rise to the top of his chosen profession and is stuck teaching at a “community college,” he can’t be surprised to hear audible groans from the audience he’s now alienating.

This is what happens when the audience is filled with people who are more passionate about the guest and their work than the interviewer is. All this on top of no audience Q&A, and cringe-worthy moments like when Charlie merely states “The Boston Bomber was a fan of Breaking Bad”… and then veers the interview in a completely different direction.

 

Flash forward to the next night, with David Edelstein interviewing Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, and Vince Gilligan at the jam-packed SoHo Apple Store. Now, Edelstein is a guy who I’m fairly certain has seen the entire series, but he still overestimates his worth as an interviewer. So much so in fact, that he took up more than half of the scheduled audience Q&A portion with his own questions and ruminations. Worse, he seemed to be under the impression he was leading us all down deep, uncharted territory. But what David and Charlie were both blissfully unaware of is that most of the people in their audiences already knew the answer to every question they asked. Any half-hooked Breaking Bad fan has already heard a thousand times the story of why Vince Gilligan championed Bryan Cranston for the role of Walter White, or the story of the networks that rejected Breaking Bad including the-one-with-people-that-said-they’d-love-to-buy-it-but-they’ll-get-fired-if-they-do. We’ve all heard how Vince was grateful for the network notes that Jane shouldn’t be killed by direct action by Walt in Season 2, and the fact that Vince and the writers are happy with the ending to the series.

 

These are softball questions that allow the guest to basically turn off their brain and recite stories from rote memorization. Would it kill them to ask a question Vince and the others haven’t already answered a thousand times? Vince and the cast are all intelligent people; I’m sure they can handle a few sparks in their brain. For example, here’s some of the questions I’d like to ask Vince that I don’t believe he’s encountered:

  • Why haven’t we met Walt’s mother? Since family is such a central element to the show, and other anti-heroes (i.e. Don Draper, Tony Soprano, et al) have all been strongly-defined by their maternal relationships, was there a conscious effort to keep his mother from playing a larger element in the series, or was there a time when she was going to be part of the action?

  • Was there ever any consideration to have a flashback to Walt and Jesse back when Jesse was in Walt’s class? (kind of don’t want to ask this, because I’m really hoping there’s a scene in this final season… just thinking about the contrast between where those two are now and where they must have been then gives me goosebumps).

  • Are we ever going to learn why Don Eladio was so afraid of killing Gus? Is Walt in any danger of this retaliation?

  • How does Vince imagine Season 5 would have looked if all 16 episodes had to be written in one season? Would they have hit a lot of the same checkpoints but through different means, or could Walt have gone in a completely different direction? Were there some ‘thinkers’ that the extra time allowed the writers (like the pest-control meth lab setup), that probably wouldn’t have made their way into the show because the writers would have had to be writing too fast? How similar would the ending have been?

  • In September of last year, before the final season of writing really got underway, Vince stated several times that he and the writers knew what the ending was, but they were open to let a better idea come along. Did a better idea come along? Or rather, how close is the final ending of the show to what they thought it would be at that time?

Yeah. I mean, maybe it’s extreme to expect moderators to keep track of all the questions that have already been answered (though a simple google search before their interview wouldn’t kill them). But I think the real problem is a lot of them are stuck in the mindset of an interviewer before the internet, when it was nearly impossible for the audience as a whole to know a great deal about anything. Back then, if someone gave an interview, maybe it ended up in the newspaper, maybe it ended up on the nightly news, but then it is done. Over. Kaput. No reruns, and no way to search for that interview without the effort of visiting a library or visiting some kind of archive center. Today, it’s all on youtube, wikipedia, reddit, and facebook, and will be forever. And guess what? A lot of fans spend countless hours reading up on these interviews, then taking to forums to debate the meanings behind certain answers. A good example is Vince claiming the end of the series represents a ‘victory for Walt.’ What does that mean? Is he the only one left standing? Does he want to die, and thus when he is killed he’s happy? Was his only goal to be recognized as Heisenberg, and he finally gets the recognition he wished for?

 

Still, in the age of the superfan, I think a good interview is more than just asking questions that haven’t already been answered. After all, you also don’t want the interviewee sitting there the whole time going ‘Gee, that’s a great question, but I’ve never thought about it so I’ve got nothing to say.’ Probably the most interesting question David asked was about where Jesse’s head is at at the beginning of this coming season. Questions about what a character is thinking/feeling can be insightful with a good actor, and can help us get inside a character to help us speculate where they’re going. And I’d much rather hear Aaron Paul talk about that then tell us for the fiftieth time that Jesse was originally supposed to be killed off in the first season and aren’t-we-all-glad-he-wasn’t??

 

The most interesting moment of the Charlie Rose interview came from a complete faux paux: Charlie asking, “why did you choose to include me in the second to last episode of the series?” And frankly, there’s a part of me that’s upset by this slip, because despite Charlie laughing it off with “my check’s still in the mail, right?”, it was a spoiler. Because now we know things go national. We know there’s going to be a very special episode of Charlie Rose talking about Heisenberg’s meth empire, probably speaking to Skyler about being married to this guy, or maybe even Hank about what it was like having him Walt under his nose all these years. So boo, Charlie. If you were a genuine fan of the show, you’d never have made that mistake.

 

I’ve never been to Comic-Con, but I’ve read the blogs of some who have, so I know I’m not alone. In the age of superfans, where people wait for hours to breathe the same air as cultural icons, moderators need to be more than someone whose seen a couple episodes. They either need to be just as much a superfan as the audience and keep up with them, or back down, let the audience Q&A take over, and limit their role to serving as a pure electrical conductor between the auidence brains and the brain of the guest.

 

Every time someone gets to share a room with their idol, for some people it will be the best moment of their lives. Is it too much to ask that they at least get to learn something new?

 

______________________

 
**UPDATE:**

Wow. Just got back from my final two panels, and it’s good to know I wasn’t crazy. There is such a thing as a good moderator, even in today’s world. Emily Nussbaum, the TV critic for the New Yorker, is perfect. She absolutely embodied everything above that I said I wanted to see, and more.

 

First off, I got to see her talk to Dean Norris (Hank) and Betsy Brandt (Marie). Five minutes in I was already far more engaged than with the other interviews, and I realized why: she was letting them talk. Her questions were carefully considered, to the point, and helped draw some fantastic stories/food for thought out of these actors. Nothing about her stage presence felt like she was celebrating herself (very much a problem with Charlie and David)– she positioned herself as subservient to the guests, clearly knew a ton about the show, and made a genuine effort to get these two talking about things they haven’t talked about before. Betsy Brandy was crying through most of it! Emily asked questions about their final day at work, developing their relationship together, how they built their backstory, and even piggy-backed off questions they’ve been asked before (the whole ‘purple’ thing had some new shades added).

 

Even better, she moved on to the audience quickly. I also appreciate that she took responsibility for calling on us (David just said ‘Oh… I don’t know.’), and I was fortunate to be picked. There were some more serious questions I wanted to ask, but after Emily keeping everything so profound and deep, I decided to lighten things up a little by asking: “will we see the return of Hank’s rock collection?” setting Dean Norris up for a perfect “dammit, they’re MINERALS!” though unfortunately no answer on whether or not the collection would return… so I’m going to assume no.

 

Next panel up, Vince, I was still a little worried about question-ask-again-itis, but I needn’t have been. This one was even better. Even Vince noticed, many times commenting “wow, what a great question. No one’s ever asked me that before,” then several times launching into some delightful, never-before-heard story. Only a couple times did this run afoul, but I don’t fault Emily at all. One of my favorite questions she asked expounded upon how many an interviewer have commented on how Walt seems similar in many ways to Vince. Emily is the first interviewer to take that observation further, commenting how it’s clear that fame and fortune have changed Walt a great deal over the course of the show, so how have fame and fortune changed Vince? Unfortunately, it seemed to be a little too inward-looking a question, so Vince didn’t have a great answer, but still… what a great question.

 

She also made the most of her short time with him. At one point, she asked if the writers have ever had a huge debate about driving the story in any particular direction, and Vince immediately started to tell the Jane story, again. Thank God Emily had the gall to interrupt him and say “thank you, but a lot of us are familiar with that, and I’d like to hear something new.” Of course I heard a few grumblings in the audience like ‘what’s the story?’ to which I simply wanted to shout ‘Google it!’

 

Soon it was to the audience for some more great Q&A. A sad end to the story: I was the person Emily called on to ask the last question, but someone else took the mic mistakenly thinking she called on them. Oh well, at least his question was similar to one of mine up above: he asked about all the threads the show seems to carry, and if we would ever learn more about Gus Fring’s past in Chile. Vince tried to be coy and leave some hope, but basically made it clear that we’re past that point in the story and anything the audience could speculate about Gus is now more interesting than any story they could go back and tell. Ah well, at least that’s one less thing to focus on as we approach these final 8 episodes.

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31 May
ibrews

A-

A quick word: I’ve never liked Neil LaBute. I fell asleep during The Mercy Seat, found Fat Pig funny but lacking in substance, and The Break of Noon was one of the most worthless experiences I’ve ever had at the theatre. I was ready to give up, but I’m glad I didn’t.

 

Hoo-rah!

  • A well-crafted play with a sense of dialogue and pacing that’s been worked over, refined, and reworked to the point where it achieves a remarkable level of honesty.
  • Perfect set design: one very detailed sliding set (the break room of a factory), and simple benches and props to evoke the additional scenes.
  • The four characters were previously seen in ‘reasons to be pretty’, taking place a few years earlier, but this truly is a standalone companion piece. I would love to see the older show, but I didn’t feel like I was missing anything important. Ultimately I think LaBute benefited from building on characters he already had a strong grasp on.
  • It was revealed in the talkback (see below), that the first play focused on Greg’s journey, whereas this play brought a gratifying arc to each of the four characters. Greg was my least favorite character, so I’m glad we were given this 2 hours with each character going on an organic journey with lovely moments of reversal and discovery.
  • Back to the crafting of the play: excellent choices of what scenes to show and not show. The play feels sequential, but actually covers a fair span of time with a number of important events happening offstage (Steph confronting Carly about the baby, for example). The fact that you remain in the moment is a testament to the precision of the scenes we are seeing.
  • Lovely acting by the entire cast. It was fun to see Jenna Fischer (Pam from The Office) play a borderline insane clingy irrational woman. Leslie Bibb (that reporter from Iron Man 1&2) as Carly reminded me a lot of a friend I lived with in Richmond, VT who works the graveyard TSA shift at Burlington Airport. She brought a much needed sense of common sense and practicality to the show. Josh Hamilton was appropriately charming (though infuriating in his indecisiveness) as Greg, and Fred Weller brought a surprisingly nuanced performance to the role of the most super-ego-lacking character, Kent. Without trying to convince us Kent and Greg are best friends (a common contrivance I find hard to believe in plays of this nature), they share enough circumstances in common that it makes sense for them to have the few conversations they do, and they work as an excellent counterpoint to each other; Greg reluctant and reserved about every choice, while Kent dives in head first, usually bruising himself in the process but feeling much more alive.
  • Love Kent’s line, something like “So I walked up to the guy in the bar, and I tapped him on the shoulder, probably less hard even than I just tapped you, and he turned around, and I punched him. And I was willing to leave it at that and let it go, but he had to take it further.” De-lightful.

Blech…

  • Music was strangely chosen and far too loud in between scenes. This seems to be a stylistic choice of LaBute across all of his plays, and I’m yet to see it work as effectively as he seems to think it does.
  • Nitpicky but something I was still very aware of: the various contrivances brought about to stop a character from leaving the scene. Some conversations that certainly would take place across multiple locations in real life were compressed into one (a Trader Joe’s Parking Lot, a school bench, a restaurant waiting area), and in at least one occasion I knew what was supposed to be a big conversation later at, say, an IHOP almost certainly wouldn’t take place there, and everything important was about to be told to us now.
  • Except for Carly who needed to be in uniform, very poor costume choices. Nothing any of the characters wore gave me a better sense of who they were, and in a few cases (particularly with Steph), it just confused me.
  • Nothing brought me to tears. This is important to me. Let me be clear again– this was an incredible ‘slice of life’ play, but none of the characters tugged on my heartstrings enough to pull me close on their emotional journey. This isn’t a flaw of the writing or the characters (who were very true to life), but simply who they were and my lack of empathy for them.
  • Ultimately I found Greg to be too indecisive, to the point where he just kept hitting the same ‘nothing’ beats and I was frustrated to not see the show move things along. Out of the cast of characters, I would only want to be friends with Carly and maybe Kent.

 

Tales from After the Show…

 

Leslie Bibb led a fantastic talkback along with one of the MCC’s artistic directors (Will Cantler) and the associate general manager (Jessica Chase), providing great insight into the development of the show and LaBute’s writing/directing process. LaBute’s relationship with the MCC was covered in detail, and Leslie spoke at length about what draws her to pursue theatre when she’s clearly doing fine at film and television. I also got to ask her about how the play evolved from when Neil first gave it to them, to the point where it was now in previews and she had a ton of fun with the audience taking us through that experience. She showed us her script and it was full of slashes and chunks of dialogue moved to other pages and subtext and just, wow. Looked like the writings of an insane person, but in the best possible way.

 

Download the full 30-minute talkback here.

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30 May
ibrews

The only full-length play I’ve yet finished, ‘Mr. Nice Guy’,  is a play I sincerely believe deserves a full-fledged production. I wrote the original version of the play in late 2007 when, during a slow rehearsal of Vaclav Havel’s The Memorandum, I was pushing myself back and forth on an office chair and realized my abdominal muscles were actually getting quite sore. Then I imagined how ridiculous it would be to try to market an office chair as a workout device. Then I found myself wondering what kind of person might not only feel justified in selling such a thing, but revel in their own brilliance for it. The idea merged with a different play idea I had brewing, one about my dad being a ‘yes man’ who could never say no to anyone, and I used that play’s title as the stage name of the lead character: Mr. Nice Guy (aka Felix Hasselbury).

 

That Christmas Vacation I splurged out 90 pages of what struck me as a fascinating premise to explore: a couple consisting of an attractive no-nonsense female (Sybil) and Mr. Nice Guy’s number-one fan (Michael) seek to sue Mr. Nice Guy when his latest product (the Abjacker 2010) gravely injures Michael. Felix, a master deflector, spins this anger into job offers, and the rest of the play follows Felix’s flailing attempts at seducing Sybil while Michael deals with the crushing disappointment of a childhood hero who has no time for him.

 

The play was given a further boost of energy when, during auditions, I asked an actor I had cast in a previous original play to give the part an ‘absurdist’ reading– something wacky and really out there to stretch the other auditioners’ imaginations. I had already promised the actor, Nilus Klingel, that I wouldn’t cast him, so off the simple direction ‘maybe give him a crazy accent’, he came out guns blazing with something totally and wonderfully unexpected. What I had pitched as basically a fast-talking, greasy, used-car salesman came out of him like the lovechild of a Strongbad/Ron Burgundy/Antonio Banderas/Gob Bluth orgy. It clicked– he had the casting room in stitches, and agreed to do the show.

 

Ultimately, the 2008 production was a ton of fun, but unfortunately suffered from a lack of rehearsal time, a refined script, or an audience (I think twelve people saw the play in all). You can see bullet points of that production in this video, as well as the commercial we filmed to open the show here.

 

Over the past 5 years (still can’t believe it’s been that long), I’ve found myself often wondering how the show could be redone. In that time, I’ve taken scribbly stabs at how I might revisit the play,  I’ve written a short prequel called ‘Felix Hasselbury Gets a Job‘, and I’ve edited together a ‘Roofie-Os’ commercial out of 50 minutes of absurd, mostly improvised footage spawned by a song I wrote for my comedy duo ‘A Crooked Boner.’

 

Finally, starting last month, driven by some unknown force, I took an honest pass at reworking the play. Is it improved? Certainly. Could it use further workshopping and refinement? Indeed! But that’s what’s so wonderful about doing a play reading out loud: it instantly calls attention to poorly-worded lines, jokes too-in-love-with-themselves, and dead-end subplots. I had the pleasure of hearing my words read in the middle of a pot luck picnic in Prospect Park (say that five times fast) by Alex Schmidt as Michael, TJ Clark as a Jamaican/French version of Mr. Nice Guy, Elizabeth Bull as Sybil, Beryl Tayte Johnsen-Seeberger as Assistant, and Morgan Shaw reading the stage directions. We also had an audience nearly as large as the one for the original show!

 

So it’s on its way. Onward to the next draft, and soon I’ll start sending this monster out into the world of competitive submissions. Wish me luck.

 

More links:

Photos from the original production
Photos from the reading
Audio from the reading
Script from the reading

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22 April
ibrews

A-

Okay okay, so I shouldn’t really be reviewing this because it was put on by the theatre group I cofounded while at Syracuse, WhAT (Warehouse Architecture Theatre), but this is a good moment for reflection.

First of all, I had nothing directly to do with this production. WhAT was founded in Fall of 2006, and I was deeply involved in everything it did until my graduation in May of 2010. Three years later, I was invited by the current trio to come see WhAT’s final production involving people whom I personally knew, before the group goes on to be run and operated entirely by people I don’t know. Passing of the torch kinda stuff. Anyway, it was a thrilling weekend of old friends and new, and I now feel super confident in the future of my baby.

And here’s some thoughts on the show:
— LOVED LOVED LOVED the cardboard set designed by Beryl Tayte Johnsen-Seeberger. It made the scenes where character comment on the beauty and tax-deductible quality of this amazing desk all the more hilarious. And when things fell apart, it allowed the actors to riff on what an old house they’re in! Lines like ‘She’s dead!’ and ‘So is my desk…” were gut-busting. Oh, and all the cardboard weapons, complete with Easter Eggs like a lightsaber, were delightful. And the cardboard crossbow actually worked!
— a lot of the dialogue was presented with a certain wooden style that I wasn’t a fan of at first, but grew to love as the play progressed.
— really fun show as its written. I saw the movie with Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, but didn’t remember it that well, so all the twists and turns were delightful. I love the meta commentary throughout as the main characters discuss writing the show that they are now in, and even bring up things like scenes that seem to be missing that include important information about key characters (just like in the real show!)
— Ethan Blank almost died! I flashed back to our second season in Spring of 2007 where the giant green wall we made for our Picasso at the Lapin Agile set almost fell on AJ, and Jon Yoder almost became Batman to save her. Anyway, Ethan was getting choked in what was even supposed to be fake within the play, but he passed out and woke up backstage having no idea where he was. Yikes!

After the show, I gave a little presentation to keep up the whole ‘passing of the torch’ motif. Just for fun, here’s the pdfs of the presentation I gave, and the presentation I gave on behalf of Danton. At the cast party I got to spend more time with the awesome new folks who will be running WhAT from here on out, and the only thing that makes me sad is NONE of them are architecture majors, even though WhAT currently still does most of its performing and rehearsing out of the architecture school in Slocum Hall.

This makes me wonder if my archie friends and I who did WhAT throughout school are strange. Myself, and most of them, I’m confident would have joined a theatre group like WhAT if it already existed. The architecture school is so laser-focused on just architecture, I think we all would have gone crazy without any other creative outlets. Maybe there’s too much hostility toward WhAT because sometimes they’re too loud and bother the students focused on their studio projects? Maybe not as many of them enjoyed theatre in high school as I thought? Or maybe none of them have any idea what a huge bonus it is to your job prospects if you leave school as a well-rounded individual with many talents.

Alas, this lack of architecture majors is truly my only regret, but I am proud and humbled by WhAT’s legacy as it lives on, soon entering its fourteenth season!

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1 April
ibrews

I need to write more and submit more plays to more competitions. I’ve been telling this to myself since I came to live and work in NYC nearly 3 years ago. Thus far, the best I’ve been able to do is consistently submit to the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Festival every year. So yeah, shifting gears from all the board game design and architectural competitions I’ve been involved with over the past few months, I managed to craft  a new short play.

This started when Liz and I were talking about how we should formally introduce ourselves to the new neighbors in our apartment building. Liz suggested that she might bake a pie for them. For some reason, my immediate reaction was — “Don’t do that! They’ll think it’s poisoned.” Why did I think they would think that? I have no idea. But it was a fun impetus to start writing about the kind of person that would immediately assume that a welcome pie from some neighborly neighbors was poisoned.

Below is the script as it stood when I submitted it last night, after a few drafts and a couple readings with some very generous friends (Elizabeth Coulombe, Daniel King, Nilus Klingel, Morgan Shaw, Danton Spina, Ian Nicholson). I’d love to keep up readings for future plays– it makes such a huge difference to hear my words said out loud, and it’s also just a boatload of fun.

Anyway, while I’m quite happy with it as it stands, I do think there’s some more opportunity to play with the following:

  • Make it more clear that the mirror Pete holds is actually a super-high-tech computer that provides real-time simulation data informing him how to proceed with a conversation. 
  • Maybe give Dahlia a sleeker personality. After all, the idea is that Dahlia is a whirlwind of a salewoman, while Pete is not as comfortable in social situations but is the tech wizard.

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