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Landing an Agent

August 15, 2017

To many authors, the search for an agent or manager begins to resemble the quest to locate a mythical creature.  One may come to think they have a better chance of locating a Roc in its natural habitat.

Certainly, this was my case for many years.  And like many success stories of this genre, it came about due to the confluence of hard work and good fortune.

First, the hard work:  Over the last fourteen years, I have completed five screenplays, one teleplay, three one-act plays, and one two act play.  And two novels.  Plus, nearly 100 poems.  That’s a lot of writing.  It may not be Alexander Hamilton (or L. Ron Hubbard) prolific, but given I have worked as a teacher each of those fourteen years whilst battling Parkinson’s, I’ll take it.  Most of my dramatic writing I have brought to the playwright’s lab at the Pulse Ensemble Theatre in New York City.

The woman who runs the lab is a superb screenwriter and playwright—Ms. Lezley Steele.  She is also an excellent teacher.  When you workshop a script with her lab, you always get superb feedback. Plenty of criticism, of course, but it always comes with ideas on how to fix the problems, and praise for what does work in your script.  I always left the lab feeling that no matter how much revision I had to do, I was capable of doing it.  Most of the playwrights I’ve met who know Lezley agree—no one gives better feedback.

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Ernest Thompson

I am also proud to call Lezley my friend.  Our friendship has allowed us to stay in touch and encourage each other through both our creative endeavors, and the roadblocks life sends our way.  When I had completed my two act play, “Invincible Summer,” Lezley was kind enough to read it. She has actually read multiple drafts, always providing me with her high level of advice.  After one of the revisions, she announced much to my surprise that she would like to send my play to her agent.

I was flattered, but also cautious. Even if he agreed to read it—which he may not—there was no guarantee he was going to want to represent me.  Soon thereafter, Lezley informed me that she had contacted her agent and he was willing to read it. Thus, I sent off my play to Mr. Earl Graham.

And then I waited.

One day in March, I walked outside my school building and noticed a voicemail on my phone. A number I didn’t recognize.  A New York exchange.  I played it back: it was Earl, wanting to talk to me.  As my dear friend Darlene put it: “He’s not calling to tell you he hates it.”

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Jason Miller

Indeed, he called to tell me he loved it and wanted to help get it placed in a theatre. He also wanted to meet me for lunch soon.  So, during my April vacation, I took the train down to the city and had lunch with my agent.  I’ll be honest—I love that I get to say that.

Earl is an incredibly warm man, who told great stories about his career in theatre, his life in New York, and the fascinating people he’s known. I learned that he has represented some impressive clients, such as Ernest Thompson (“On Golden Pond”) and Jason Miller (“That Championship Season”—also Oscar nominated for playing father Damien Karras in “The Exorcist”)  He reiterated how much he loved my play, how much his assistant loved it , and how much his partner did.  He was also clear—it is very hard to get a new play in a theatre.  It would likely take a while, and it may not happen at all.  I need to be patient and have realistic expectations.  But if he could get someone to read the first twenty pages, he felt strongly they would be hooked–like he was. I understood the challenges he laid out, but I am still grateful to have this man in my corner.

After Earl agreed to take on my play, I had planned on contacting Lezley to tell her.  It appears though, Earl beat me to it.  I opened my in-box to find this message from her:

Earl called me today with the wonderful news that he is going to work on getting your play done.  He thanked me for sending him a beautiful play.  He said he cried when he read it.  I am so pleased.  I’ve given him other playwright’s plays before (just a few) and he has had no interest in them.  So I had my fingers crossed.

And even though it annoys her when I tell her so, I will always be grateful to Lezley.

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On the Passing of Robert Hardy (1925-2017)

August 15, 2017

Many Americans are unfamiliar with the name Robert Hardy.  Some Harry Potter fans will recognize him as the actor who portrayed Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic, in several Potter films.  My familiarity with him goes back much further.

When I was in junior high school, I became an enthusiast of the “All Creatures Great and Small” book series by James Herriot. I was equally enthralled by the BBC television adaptation which ran for seven seasons, spread out over thirteen years.  Robert Hardy played the relentlessly memorable character of Siegfried Farnon.  Siegfried was a superb veterinarian, highly skilled and competent at his job, but was also plagued with a poor memory.  He could be stubborn and self-righteous, yet kind, generous and charming.  He was always unwilling to accept blame for his mistakes, yet was an incredibly patient and effective teacher and mentor.  In short, he was a complex and multidimensional character. Hardy sank his teeth into this splendid role, and put on what my father would describe as a “clinic in acting.”

“Watch carefully,” my father directed as we watched an episode. “Notice the shifts in his facial expressions, the changes of tone in his voice.  The subtle adjustments in body language.” My father went on to explain that these were not an actor’s choices, but instincts—they couldn’t be taught.  All the great actors had them, and the best part was the audience was usually unaware of these actions; they just knew the actor was good.  I developed an affection for Hardy, the character he played, and the series itself. It is the only television series of which I posses each and every episode.

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Hardy, flanked by his “All Creatures” castmates Christopher Timothy and Peter Davison

But Hardy was so much more than that.  He made a name for himself as a young man playing “Henry V” on stage.  His research into Henry became so extensive Hardy ended up writing a book about the Battle of Agincourt.   He also became so fascinated with the longbow–a key to British victory in that battle—that he became one of the United Kingdom’s leading experts on the weapon.  While a young student at Oxford, he had the good fortune to study with both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  He also befriended a drama student named Richard Burton. They would remain close friends until Burton’s death.  One of Sir Richard’s biographers described Hardy as Burton’s “sane friend.”  Lord knows the man needed one.

He also played Winston Churchill countless times on television and stage (including a one man show in Paris—in French).  Many accomplished actors have given great performances as Churchill.  None of them were better than Hardy.  None of them.

Perhaps more important than any of that, Hardy was a kind man, generous with his time. I know this personally.  Last year, I read on the BBC website that Hardy would soon turn 90.  I had always wanted to write him a letter, and express to him my appreciation, and I thought—if I’m going to do it, I should do it soon.  I located his representative on IMDB, and mailed the letter.

A few months later, I received a reply. That was surprising enough, but the letter he sent me was hand written.  A few excerpts, subject to handwriting interpretation:

“My Dear Fellow,

Thank you so much for your letter.  I am always delighted to hear from my American friends, and surprised when they fail to mention Harry Potter! I am thrilled my work on “All Creatures” meant so much to you.  It was a brilliant show, and I am very proud of my association with it. I especially enjoyed your description of what your father said about my acting. How wonderful it must have been to have a father who enjoyed and knew the arts.  While I am very sorry he passed away so young, always be grateful his last words to you were an expression of pride.  Most of us are not so fortunate…

Given what you describe as his great love of words, I imagine your father was a reason you became a poet and a playwright.  I therefore have no doubt he is still very proud of his son…”

Very truly yours,

Timothy Sidney Robert Hardy.”

Adieu, Siegfried.  Rest in peace.

Staging an “Invincible Summer”

January 24, 2017

And now for some good news.  This happened back in October, but I seemed to have difficulty finding the time to write about it.  The wait is over…

On October 9, 2016, at the DeSotelle Theater in Manhattan, I experienced the very first staged reading of my play “Invincible Summer.”  It was a great to have a play that had been rattling around in my head for a year and half finally performed on stage by actors, under the tutelage of a veteran New York theater director.  I learned a great deal from the process, and I am so grateful to have gone through it.

It all started last January, when a friend of mine named Larry Leinoff (who is also an excellent playwright) expressed admiration for my play and encouraged me to stage a reading.  He felt it was ready, and it also happened that Larry runs a company (Stage Dot Org) that puts on staged readings!  We talked back and forth for months while I worked on the play, received feedback from Larry and others (including a dear friend and another great playwright, Lezley Steele).  By early summer, I was happy with the play and ready to begin organizing my reading.

invincible

Larry recommended a director that he knew and thought highly of:  Tom Herman.  We met for lunch in August, and I was grateful that Tom liked my play and was very interested in directing the project.  After some discussion, we agreed upon a date, and worked hard on making the reading happen.

One of the first things I learned was that staging a reading is a complicated process.  It takes time to find the right performance space, the right actors, and to agree on rehearsal times, all within the budget you have chosen to work with.  Of course, whenever you have smart individuals with strong opinions working together, you are going to have disagreements.  That is inevitable.  There were times when it looked like the reading might not happen; there were times when it seemed as smooth and as effortless as painting a polar bear in a snowstorm.

By late September, we had a venue, a cast (Rob Skolits, Marca Leigh, Brian Henry, Adrian Naccari, and Tamara Daley–I also recruited my colleague Emily Blanchard to come and play piano), and an official program designed by Melissa Nosal, a former student.  We had a reading!

Happily, it went very well.  The cast worked extremely hard, and put on an entertaining and professional performance.  It was exhilarating to discover how much of my play worked and also to get a sense of what didn’t work.  There were about 25 people in the audience, 15-20 of whom had come down from Connecticut to see the reading.  I was very grateful to all of my friends who were willing to make that trip.  They all gave me great feedback–much of it positive, but also some very helpful critical feedback that I know has made the play better.

Lezley is now helping me get the play into the hands of other professionals who can get it produced.  When I expressed my gratitude to Lezley, she wrote this in an email:

You don’t have to be grateful to me.  I believe in your play. Not just that it is a well written play but also because it is topical, and dare I say,  commercial.  I also believe in you.   Having a play produced is a nightmare.  You have to have the right personality to get through the process.  I believe you do….I forgot to mention that I was moved to tears twice while reading the script.

It appears I have reason to be hopeful.

Trump: What to Expect

January 24, 2017

Given we have inaugurated a new President, one who is likely to have a significant effect on the direction of education policy, I thought it appropriate that I comment upon him.  I was recently asked through email the following question, so I thought I would share it and my response:

Do you think that Trump and his (horrifying) cabinet will be moving to give states more control over their laws? How will that affect the way things are governed? Surely poor states will be really hurt?

Given that  Donald Trump really doesn’t care about policy, his philosophy of governance is really Mike Pence’s.  I think Trump basically ran for three reasons:  1) to feed his enormous ego 2) to improve his business portfolio and c) to eliminate and reduce taxes and regulations he didn’t like.  Anything else he doesn’t care about.  So, if it’s Pence’s philosophy, I think we can expect this:

An administration that cares about states’ rights as long as it comes to things like a) not paying health care costs for poor people b) privatizing education c) eliminating business taxes d) reducing regulations that protect citizens and the environment e) gerrymandering congressional districts and f) making it harder for black, poor, and older people to vote.  Essentially, the right wing-American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)-Koch Brothers hit list.

They will not be interested in states’ rights when it comes to women controlling their own bodies; making it harder for businesses to refuse to serve gay people; preventing discrimination against transgender individuals;  preventing the racial profiling of blacks, Latinos, south Asians, or middle easterners; stopping the growth of charter schools; limiting the purchase of assault weapons and instituting thorough background checks; and selling medical or recreational pot.  All of these are things that a Trump/Pence administration would not be able to tolerate, and we will find their “pro states’ rights” ideology will suddenly disappear when it comes to these issues.  I think it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that Pence is kept awake at night with the thought that he knows there are people doing these things and he has no way to control their behavior.  This is, after all, the governor who signed an anti-abortion law so stringent that a woman was sentenced to twenty years in prison for…having a miscarriage.

Add that to a secretary of education nominee that doesn’t believe in public education and doesn’t know anything about it; an energy secretary who doesn’t believe in the department of energy (when he’s able to remember that, at least), and doesn’t understand the department’s responsibility; and a secretary of housing and urban development who thinks the Egyptian pyramids were hollow and used as granaries. I suppose he does live in a house, which is the subtotal of the entire experience in his new area of expertise.  What we therefore have to look forward to is a troubling combination of ideologues and incompetence.

There will be some nuance to this, of course.  Marijuana has turned into big business, so the Trump/Pence administration may have to leave that alone.  Also, they’re going to find it really hard to fuck with Jerry Brown, because he governs such a huge percentage of the American economy.  There will be citizen and interest group push back, and some of it will be successful.  But overall, things are about to get very dark.

Rock Steady Boxing

August 28, 2016

There are a number of tools I use in my “fighting Parkinson’s” tool box–yoga, massage, resistance bands, twice daily walks, medication, and a careful diet.  I have just added a new one: boxing.  Rock Steady Boxing is a program designed to use the techniques of boxer training to help fight the symptoms of Parkinson’s.

You may be reading this and thinking “wait–Parkinson’s patients are boxing each other?”  If so, not to worry.  We don’t get into the ring and and go mano a mano.   I think I could make a case that a boxing match between two Parkinson’s patients would be the worse thing ever.  Our training is centered around “working the bag.”

When I arrived the first day, I was assisted by a young Latina named Rihanna (no, not that one).  Rihanna works at the Bare Bones Boxing gym in East Hartford, Connecticut, and is herself a boxer.  Indeed, she wore a t-shirt that loudly proclaimed “I FIGHT LIKE A GIRL!”  She was very kind and helpful, and wrapped my hands in no time at all.  It would have taken me the better part of the day to do what she did in about four minutes.

Then, I was introduced to Stan, my boxing coach. Stan is a professional, who has coached boxers for years.  He was trained in the techniques of Rock Steady Boxing, which are designed to improve balance, coordination, and cognitive function.  Stan is a very nice guy and an excellent coach.  After two decades in a classroom, I know a good teacher when I see one.

rocksteady

Stan got me hooked up with some gloves, and helped me fasten them in place.  In the center of the gym are rows of bags (probably between 25-30 of them).  This is where the class would take place.  We worked on warm ups that focused on our balance, and stretched out our arms, shoulders, and legs.  During the class, we would follow specific punching sequences (left twice, right twice, left once) that require us to also move our feet.  We would sometimes pause to lean into the bag, then do push-ups against the bag, and then leg lifts while pushing the bag.  We would also jog through the rows of bags, hitting each one with our opposite hands.  All of these exercises require balance, careful breathing, and specific focus on the sequences.  In short, everything that is good for me to exercise.

The class was also great fun.  Stan doesn’t like the hip hop/rap music many of the professional boxers prefer to train with.  The good news is when Stan’s teaching, he gets to pick the music and he loves classic rock.  So do several members of the class, as it turns out.  Want to see an awesome sight?  Then stop by the gym some time and see a dozen Parkinson’s patients punching bags while loudly singing along to the Beach Boys.

Stan is also great at making us laugh while encouraging us to keep pushing.  During the first class he shouted “This bag is Parkinson’s!  You don’t bitch slap Parkinson’s!  You punch it!”

I was also touched by how encouraging the professional boxers are towards the members of the class.  Many come up and talk to us, clearly aware of who we are and what we are doing, offering us encouragement and showing us great respect.  I never thought a boxing gym would be such a positive, supportive environment, but this one is.

My yoga teacher/massage therapist giggles every time I mention the class to her.  I assume it’s because she’s trying to picture me boxing, and that image makes her laugh.  To that, all I can say is…yeah, okay.  Point taken.  She will have plenty more chances to laugh at me, though–I’m a regular now.

 

If you are interested, her are three earlier posts relating to Parkinson’s:

Coping with Parkinson’s, Warding off Depression

Yes, I Am Grateful

Observing World Parkinson’s Day

Awkward Conversations with my Superintendent, Part Three

July 9, 2016

If you haven’t yet done so, read part two here.

It was clear from his invitation he wanted this to be a one-on-one meeting, but given his accusatory tone, I certainly wasn’t going accept those terms.  So I invited a union representative.  Given the superintendents’ response, it also appeared he didn’t have a clear comprehension of this issue, and seemed unaware of the consternation and frustration experienced by the faculty.  Thus, I invited two other teachers who would have been directly affected by the schedule changes to convey their concerns and clarify the extent of the problem.

The meeting day arrives and he is shocked to discover he is not meeting with me alone.  He tells me “I just wanted to have a conversation with just the two of us about why you made this decision.”

I responded that if that is the meeting he wanted, he should have sent an email that was far less accusatory.

He replied that he just wanted to understand me better.

I said, “Then don’t send an email that suggests you’ve already made up your mind.  There is a way to invite someone to have that sort of conversation. That wasn’t it.”

“Oh. Well, I’m sorry if you felt intimidated.”

“It wasn’t a matter of feeling intimidated,” I replied.  “You send a message like that, the only way to interpret it is confrontational.  If you’re bringing confrontation, then I’m bringing a union rep.  I invited the other teachers here because I wanted to make sure you had a clear picture of what was going on.  Frankly, it doesn’t seem like you do.”

Bad-Boss-new

He went on to reiterate what he said in his message: that he couldn’t understand why this would be a “first response” to the situation, and why I didn’t try to go through channels to solve this problem.  I pointed out that this was not a first response—indeed, it was a last resort.

At this point, the other teachers jumped in, and made it abundantly and passionately clear that they had been going through the proper channels for weeks and had gotten nowhere.  After that, the conversation took a surprising turn.  The superintendent made it clear he was aware of what’s been happening, and knew about the conversations between teachers and administrators.  Indeed, he supported the decision to make the schedule changes, along with the administration’s reluctance to contact the state for guidance.  Thus, his confusion had nothing to do with a poor reading of the situation; he just didn’t understand why I was personally involved.

As far as he knew, my name had not been mentioned in any part of these conversations.  He also pointed out I wasn’t at a key meeting where it was discussed, and it wasn’t going to affect my classes directly.   In short, it had nothing to do with me.  He was clearly under the impression that I had recently stumbled upon this situation, and took it upon myself to go rogue and call the state about something that was clearly none of my business.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” I replied. “This is all the staff has been talking about for the last two months. I have been involved in most of those conversations.”

“It has?”

“YES!” This was shouted in near unison from all of us.

“Trust me,” I continued. “I am well aware of this situation, and every step that has been taken to resolve it.  And students don’t have to be in my classroom for me to care about them.  If you think that’s the sort of teacher I am, then you clearly didn’t collect enough data about me.”

He gave me something less than a kind look.

In spite of this, the meeting ended well.  His misapprehensions about me, I think, were largely cleared up.  He also had a clearer perception of the extent that the faculty had been upset by these proposed schedule changes; it appears the building administrators had downplayed our frustration and anxiety.  Although he wasn’t happy with me, I think he understood where I was coming from.

He also took credit for the abandoning of the schedule change plan.  That was fine—I didn’t care who took credit for making the right decision, as long as it got made.  Plus, the fact that he was now pretending that he was responsible for stopping the changes suggested to me that he wanted a better option.  And as luck would have it, I gave him one.

A couple of days later, I got a note from a colleague: “Just wanted to thank you for doing the intelligent thing and contacting the state. Much appreciated!”

Hey, someone had to.

Awkward Conversations with My Superintendent, Part Two

July 8, 2016

If you haven’t yet, be sure to read part one here.

I volunteered to call because, after two years as a union president, it wasn’t my first rodeo.  I knew who to speak to at the state; I knew also how to phrase the problem in a way that it would be easily understood. I also knew how to interpret the careful language any representative from the state would use as a response.  And frankly, I knew I had less to fear in terms of possible retribution. Would the district actually go after the popular twenty-year veteran with Parkinson’s?  Probably not.  It wouldn’t be ideal PR for the district.  Mind you, there were no guarantees of my safety, but I certainly felt safer than others.

The short version of the district’s plan was that they felt in order to comply with a certain aspect of special education law, the schedules of approximately twenty special education students were going to be rearranged.  Moreover, this was going to be done nine weeks into the school year.  Moving a student’s schedule to accommodate their needs is nothing new—indeed, special education students have something called an Individualized Education Program (IEP).  This program is developed to serve the best needs of the student.  The problem is that the school administration was not going to consider the students’ individual needs when making these schedule changes.  They were going to make the changes based on whoever’s schedule was easiest to move.  In short, they were going to make changes based upon the needs of the administrators, not the students.  The irony here is that the IEP is filled with really valuable data on a student’s need—data being willfully ignored.

leader-needed

Throughout this process, teachers kept asking: can we call the state?  Can we see if there’s another way to comply?  If this is what we have to do, then fine—but can we check?  In response, the teachers’ requests were either ignored, or teachers were told the district didn’t want to call the state for fear of a punitive reaction.  We pointed out repeatedly that it’s not in the state’s interest to be punitive—this is a case of following federal law, and if a school district is sanctioned, the state can get in trouble as well.  They would likely be willing to  work with the district and find a solution.  We were told the district’s plan was the only option.

Since the district leadership wouldn’t call, I did.  I had a very productive discussion with a representative from the state department of education.  She then asked if it was permissible for her to contact our special education director.  I said yes, please do.  And as expected, I was told my name would have to be used.

Two days later, I received a cryptic phone call from the woman I spoke to at the state, saying she had a very “useful, positive” discussion with the special education director.  The next day—the last one before the schedules were going to be rearranged–all of the affected teachers were sent an email from the principal informing them that students would not be moved.

I was happy that my phone call worked, but I knew the other shoe was going to drop soon.  The following week, I got an email from the superintendent:

I would like to meet with you regarding your recent call to the state  It has not been my experience, anywhere that I have worked, that a person would call the state without first having sought clarification on an issue with district colleagues, including building and district admininistration (sic).  While the state is a resource for districts, it is also a monitoring and authority agency.  As this is an anomaly in my experience, I am trying to understand why you would find this necessary as a first step in problem solving.  It would be helpful if we are able to discuss this.

So I agreed to meet with him, but I certainly wasn’t going to do so alone.

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