Memory Lane, part 2
Yesterday I posted a bunch of flyers I made for my monologue shows back in the late 80s – early 90s. Today I’m posting a bunch of flyers I made for various play productions during the same time. Don’t forget to click to enlarge.
I made this card for a reading at New Dramatists. It was something of a coup for me to get into New Dramatists at the time. I was on the fringe of the fringe of New York playwrights. I eventually made it to the inside fringe of the fringe.
High Strangeness is an odd little play about a family in the Midwest that has fallen apart — the father has quit his job and bankrupted the family, the mother has cancer, the children have fled. I was able to write about all this with great authority, since that’s what happened to my family when I was a teenager. In reality, I didn’t know what to make of the destruction of my family, so I wrote a play that suggests that everything that happened to my family could be explained by the idea that every one of us had been abducted by aliens.
The image on the flyer was typical of what I was drawing and painting at the time. I was keen on religious paintings for a while, and I loved how, for instance, a saint would be pictured with the method of his or her death, so the illiterate viewer would know which saint it was supposed to be. I did a lot of portraits like this back in the late 80s, figures surrounded by the icons that identify them. And, of course, with this card I was suggesting, in my dry way, that aliens were the new gods.
This show went up in April of 1989. It was a two-hander about a doomed romance between an advertising guy and a client. On the left is the original, on the right is one of the Xeroxed card that went out to people. That shows you the difference of how they looked. The image, like many of my flyer images, was cut from an advertisement.
The production of this show was a nail-biter. I hired a set designer who came highly recommended, and all through rehearsals he told us that he was working on the set. When the load-in day came, however, there was no set, and no designer. The director reached him at home and learned that he was wasted on something or other and had just kind of blown off our show. So we were opening in three days and we didn’t have a set. The director and I hastily improvised what ended up being a really cool set — we took our rehearsal furniture, covered it with white canvas, then painted the canvas with corn starch. The canvas conformed to the shapes of the furniture, but the effect was some kind of weird ghost set. It was cheap and effective and it looked great, which is my favorite kind of set.
The Users Waltz is a play about a love quadrangle between a psychic, an artist, and the two "ordinary people" who love them, all of which is neatly laid out in the international-restroom graphics around the edge of the central image. For those not interested in supernatural hoo-ha, the central image is the Three of Swords, which is, in the Tarot deck, the card of "heartbreak." if that’s not obvious from the illustration. The play, at its root, is about how "special people" somehow always get to do whatever they want while "ordinary people" always have to cater to them. The lovers at the center of The Users Waltz behave abominably, but are always forgiven because they have something that their admirers do not. The "special person" thing is something I would return to many times in my plays, the weird way that talent seems to excuse all sorts of anti-social or aberrant behavior.
I like the way this one turned out. Dead House at the End of the Street came from a half-understood analysis of my name. "Tod" is German for "dead," and "Alcott," in one translation I’ve heard, means "house at the end of the street," meaning that the Alcotts, back in Olde England, were the family who lived at the end of the street. I have no idea if that’s accurate, but once I had the phrase "dead house at the end of the street," I knew I had to write a play with that title.
Dead House has three scenes. The first shows a teenage boy who’s trapped in an empty house with his outrageously abusive father. The second scene shows the teenage boy now a man in his 20s, trapped in an apartment with an outrageously abusive woman. The third scene shows the boy/man and the father, now both dead, in the afterlife. The first two scenes were pretty accurately autobiographical, although the real-life woman stopped short of bludgeoning me to death. The play is about how bad relationships stem from bad parenting, although I didn’t really understand that at the time.
One Neck was my commercial breakthrough, as far as it went. It’s a play about a serial killer who crashes a dinner party. At left is my original for the very first reading of the play, starring future Venture Bros guys James Urbaniak and Steven Rattazzi, and then the flyer for a much later reading at the Public Theater, starring Mr. Rattazzi and future TV star Camryn Manheim.
I had so much fun making these. I loved going to town with the Xerox machine at Kinko’s. The font is straight from my Royal Portable, enlarged and distorted and grunged with the best high-contrast gunk Xerox could cough up. I did the same thing with the central image. That’s me, standing in front of my house in Crystal Lake, the same image I’d used for an earlier monologue show, blown up and up and up on the Xerox machine until it completely degraded. I loved the way it came out in red, it still looks completely evil to me.
The Public Theater, for some reason, liked the way I designed cards and let me go ahead and design one when we had the One Neck reading there. I have no idea why, their people could have come up with something ten times more slick on a moment’s notice. The central image, of the skull on the esophagus, came from a t-shirt I had back in the day, a t-shirt covered with old-timey anatomical drawings. Oh what fun it was to Xerox at t-shirt at Kinko’s.
I had been toiling for many years prior to One Neck with the cumbersome, exhausting process of submitting plays to regional theaters and contests. I never got anywhere with that. The artistic directors, or their readers anyway, would always like the plays but never enough to want to stage them. Which is fine, but at the time it got me really depressed — I really wanted to be a Major American Playwright back then.
So I told myself: what I need to do is write a play so blatantly shocking that it is impossible not to react to it. So I came up with this play where a guy shows up to a comedy of manners and kills everyone. The dramatic idea was: it’s a comedy about wealthy socialites, until suddenly it’s a Grand Guignol about torture and murder. I promised the reader one thing, then gave them a sucker-punch of a switch.
I knew I’d hit on something when the first agent I sent it to called me up and told me: "This is the best play I’ve read in seventeen years of agenting, and I just called to tell you that I can’t represent you because it would be immoral." I thought, well, that’s a reaction. After the first reading (the one with the red flyer) a director I’d worked with many times said to me that the play was a disgusting, repugnant failure. I grinned and rubbed my hands with glee at that reaction, since I’d just witnessed an audience laugh and scream and squirm through the reading. Any reaction was fine with me, as long as it was a reaction.
At one point in the off-Broadway run of One Neck, I was sawing off the head of Allison Janney with an electric carving knife (I played the killer in the NY production), and there was a kerfluffle in the audience. I stopped the show and came downstage to see what the matter was — a man in the middle of the audience had passed out from fear. "It’s all right," he said, coming to, "The same thing happened to me during Silence of the Lambs."
After the success of One Neck, it became a little easier for me to get readings and such done. Tulpa is a play about a woman whose life is turned upside-down when a psychic (the same character as in The Users Waltz) comes to stay at her apartment. "Turned upside-down" is probably an understatement — she winds up dead, then brought back to life. The play eventually received a first-class production with the good folks at Target Margin Theater, but this card was there to advertise the first reading. As you can see, I was going for a "messy" look, even messier than usual for me.