Saturday, February 28, 2009

Behind the Curtain...

This past week has offered three brief moments when I feel I've peered behind the curtain...

--Watching the live news on CNN. I answer a phone call - quick conversation - turn back to the television. And it's repeating. Not the story merely being covered again - that happens all the time with these looping news cycles...but literally, the television is repeating...same newscaster...same words...same bad joke at the same time... I check my DVR to make sure I have not hit rewind. Nope. Live. Again.

--The man at the gym. A very sweaty man. A very sweaty man who does the stair-mill nearly every day for over an hour without even listening to an iPod. He pours sweat onto the machine. Puddles form on the ground around the machine. And I guess it's gross but oddly, I have always found him to be an inspiration for endurance. Until I was doing the stair-mill next to him. About thirty minutes into my own workout, I feel a presence. A staring. I turn to the left. He is staring at me. A statue. Shark eyes. I get an image in my head -it bleeds into my physical seeing - he has a knife. He is butchering men in dark spaces. Gore everywhere. He comes back into focus, the macabre images returning to their dungeon. He does not look away. I look away. I look back. He is back to working out. And I know that a serial killer is sweating like mad on the machine next to me.

--Taking a walk through the neighborhood, the streetlamps start going out. This has happened before. Five in a row. As I pass them - within a foot of walking by - black out! Dark. After number five, I turn back to stare at the darkened street. I whisper, "light the way" - You see, I did this the first time at the Americana Apartments in Killeen, Texas when I was 7 and escaping the angry home of screaming Mom and new Dad - they went dark and I said, "light the way" - and they did. When I was 7, they came back on. All at once. And this time - 29 years later - I say the magic words again - and they do - they came back on...all at once.

What else is back there?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Why Theatre Prompt

So I have been in residence as a professional playwright for Literary Arts as part of their Writers in the Schools program. In simpler terms, I am a WITS teacher. For fifteen weeks at Grant High School - once a week - I have taught playwriting to freshmen in what's called the Access Program - sort of a Talented and Gifted class...and also to third year theatre students...and also to seniors in a creative writing English class.

Tonight, students from various Grant classes (mine and those of other WITS teachers) will have the opportunity to share their work at an open mic "slam" - at Fleur de Lis Bakery and Cafe at 3930 NE Hancock - 7:00p. part of this annual event, the writers in residence are asked to share a piece of their own. In past years, I have chosen monologues from Rubber 'n' Glue, The Vespiary, and Darkstep and Dawning. This year - without anything "high school appropriate" to share, I decided on something more fun. On my final day just this past Tuesday, I asked the students to rant on paper about "Why theatre?" I gave them nothing else. That single prompt. I told them that from their rants, I would take inspiration and write a monologue addressing that question. I took their ideas - some direct quotes - and certainly their passion. And I gave myself only one hour to write.

Here is the monologue - which I will publicly read this evening. Knowing that most of this was influenced by the young may add a sparkle to the day of those who occasionally fall into "theatre depression."

Why Theatre?
a monologue by
Matthew B. Zrebski
inspired by the rantings of
students at Grant High Shool in WITS classes
All Rights Reserved 2008

Why theatre? Why theatre?

Wha - what kind of question--? Are you trying to make my blood--? I -I -I mean did someone drop you on your--? Okay, okay, hold up! This is like one of those I-have-a-real-job-why-don't-you?-why-spend-time-doing-all-that-artsy-fartsy-no-one-cares conversations, right? Is that it? You think no one cares? No one--?

Let me tell you - people care. They care so much that theatre is like some addictive disease - like a drug - but a love drug - one with no end - that's how much they care. But unlike money and created "black and white" truths and antiquated paradigms that cage and sink you into coma-like reality TV show trances - theatre is present. Present. It's in the "now". It gets in your face in the moment. No separation. No big screens and 3-D glasses and ear buds and shuffling your play list! It's a white room filled with containers of colored paint. And when that color starts to's raw energy out to you back to the stage. Thoughts - straight to you and back. Feelings - slamming at you and back. Back and forth- a rhythmic dance between artists and the audience - a ritual - one that goes back to the caves and campfires and hunts and the many, many Gods. That's why theatre.

Why theatre? Why not?

Maybe because it can't be genetically modified and produced in twenty-seven different sweat shops. Maybe because it's the virgin child of silent thought. The knot between the ribbons of emotion and voice. Maybe because it is a Teleporter from anywhere to anywhere - another person's shoes to wear. Or maybe because in that small bite fed to us in a performance, we can attempt to dissect and determine something for ourselves. Or more simply, maybe people want to make believe. To be four again. The magic. The suspension. Imagination. The stillness coming to life. The thrill of a single spotlight. Not the rut - but the possibilities. Anything is possible. No, those aren't ropes and cardboard clouds - that man is flying. Don't we all need to fly?

Why theatre?

You mean because there are movies and television - why theatre? Because film and television can perfect the performance - gloss the delivery - stamp into forever and perfect the product? Well, first let's get real, tons of movies suck! Commerce and stars and red carpets and who are you wearing...? But that aside - and I love movies too - brilliant art form - but does it replace - ? Are you suggesting it should--? That's been the suggestion since talkies started - but theatre is still here! Perhaps less "perfect" - less " glossed" - but you know what? There's more "real" there. People are imperfect - people are flawed - people are not glossed over with soaring soundtracks and CGI and line-line-joke comedy and run-in-slow-motion-on-the-beach-and-kiss endings. Back to basics - that's why theatre - it may be nothing but one person standing in front of you, telling a story - basic, pure, and resonant.

And this is where you accuse me of elitism and trying to assert my views onto your experience of life. But what are you experiencing? Do we experience anything in this day to day numbing up- the-down-escalator daily assault of zombified reality? Do we? I don't know. And humans need to experience. That catharsis that comes from live, crackling communion with storytellers. The walls expanding just a bit - different points of view - an attempt at some semblance of universal awareness - so that in those private moments in the darkest places, you know we are not alone.


I am not alone.


There will be no final black out. There will be no final curtain. There will be no final playbill left to whither and rot and flake away into some wind just because you ask me why theatre? It is mine - it is yours - it is his and hers - and you may not know it yet, but that doesn't make it not true. So I'm telling you.

Theatre will never die.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


Ever have a day when you feel you're living a fraction of a second behind or ahead of everyone else? It's like when the sound isn't quite synced up with the visual in a film - and you wonder is it me or is the sound fucked up? That was the good part of my day.

I awoke completely out of sorts. I felt like I'd had nothing but fever dreams all night. A splitting headache screamed hello to me just as my eyes cracked open, and my legs wobbled zigzaggedly as I got out of bed to turn off the alarm - which is across the room for very good reasons. I figured this was simply a result of the very spicy Thai food I ate last night as part of our stay-in Valentine's Evening - which also included watching the three Peanuts Valentine specials on DVD. (On a side note, we discovered that Michael really is Charlie Brown and I am Schroeder.) But as the day unfolded, things only went more askew.

I drank my coffee. I drank a liter of water. I ate some protein cereal. I did some stretches for my achy muscles. I tried desperately to fling off the muck - whatever it was. But the tension was building within - heart rate rising - dizziness coming on. Yep. Anxiety. This was going to be what I have come to call "one of my bad days." I would almost welcome the full-on panic attack. If you Google it you get told they last only a few minutes, and as long as you remember they are harmless and cannot cause any permanent harm, then they get easier and happen less frequently. Problem is - my panic attacks are in slow motion. They tease first from a distance by pouring a little kerosene in my stomach and lighting it on fire. Then they attach rubber bands to the back of my scalp and pull me slowly towards the floor. Then they nuzzle my chest with brick noses that weigh a ton and prevent me from breathing. And then worst of all, they slide into my thoughts and make me wonder if I - like my grandparents, my mother, and other relatives - if I too am battling a kind of madness. And this can last anywhere from an two days.

Dread already break-dancing in my gullet, I discovered that my sister's phone had been disconnected. And then I discovered through friends that she has not been seen for a few days. And then I did the perfect thing...I went to Portland Center Stage where I had my ticket to see How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found by Fin Kennedy.

My intellectual assessment of this experience is quite simple. This is the best show I've seen on a Portland stage in maybe five years. The play is dramaturgically daring and refreshingly contemporary in style. The themes resonate deeply. The acting was superb all the way around - with particularly fine turns by Cody Nickell and Ebbe Roe Smith. The scenic and lighting and costume designs were in perfect alignment - and Jen Raynak's sound was what I call "stupid-good". I mean can this woman get any better? Jesus. And Rose Riordan has put on Midas gloves this season and turned her shows to gold with knock out direction. She's always strong - but the match up of her aesthetics with both The Receptionist and now, this production...well, it makes for some fine, FINE theatre.

My personal / emotional experience was nightmarish at best. I can't think of a worse place to be than this production if someone is anxiety prone - or having an ongoing long attack. The design and space configuration is deliberately claustrophobic. The sound is loud, disturbing, and coming at you from all sides. The lights menacingly strobe and toggle between colors. The set explodes forth one nightmarish surprise after another. Blood flows from noses and knuckles. Characters are either mad, going mad, or were already mad to begin with. And in this performance, I had an assist-dog in training behind me who - bless his canine heart - was terrified by the sound and lights and kept trying to get up and run down the aisle. And I kept thinking, my sister has disappeared. And then at one point, I found myself weeping as I watched the character "Adam" laughing himself into tears in a bathroom - and I thought...this play is about me. And then I looked around, and I thought, this play is about everyone. And then I thought, this play was not a good idea today. And then I thought, this play is perfect for this day.

I walked out of the theatre, looking stoned, I'm sure. And what happens next? So back up... Before the show, I saw a cute gay couple sitting in the lobby. One of the men looked very familiar. After the show, they were a few people behind me as we were exiting the theatre...and as I got to the middle of the lobby, I turned around again - determined to figure out this familiar face...he sure looked like...

And the guy makes eye contact with me and says, "Are you...?" and I say, "Mike?" And he nods. And we hug. Yes. Mike Ryan. College classmate, one year ahead of me at SMU. Brilliant actor. He now teaches acting at Santa Cruz. I had a huge crush on him in college and was envious of his girlfriend. It's been fifteen years, and now he's introducing me to his boyfriend, and I think, "Damn, the missed opportunities!" Turns out he came up here for Valentine's Day with his boyfriend and he's good friends with Cody and Kate - who are both in the show - and...

blah-blah-blah-serendipity-rah-rah-reunion-kiss-kiss-buh-bye- see-you-on-Facebook!

And this made me think further about identity and how people change and how I have changed and how life changes me and how I change my life and what keeps us from all running away? And then I sat in the lobby eating pretzels and drinking a coke, and I worked on my new play while I waited for Michael to get off work, and I talked to various PCS folks, and we all love the show, and on and on...and it was nice, but it wasn't altogether real, because the sound was still not in sync. Not fully. I was sitting in the lobby. But really, I had no idea where I was.

Now it's late. I found my sister. I had dinner. I had a mini-breakdown talking to Michael. I watched Big Love and The United States of Tara. I have posted many congrats on Facebook to the "Disappear" folk. And all I can do now is go to bed and wonder about tomorrow. Will I wake up and will things once again feel steady?

Do they ever?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Oh, Father

Teaching a class yesterday, one of my high school students spoke of spending time with his daughter this weekend. I shared with him that I had been a high school pregnancy - that my mother had me at seventeen - and that my eighteen-year old father did not stick around. I told him I was proud of him for committing to his child - that there had been many times in my life I'd wished to know my father. This seemed to mean a lot to this kid.

It was an odd moment for me...a deep haunting crept into my lower belly and did not leave the rest of the day. I wrecked my diet on the way home from class by buying nachos and gobbling them up like the drug of choice they are. I sat numb in front of the television for hours.

In the summer of 1997, only weeks before moving to Portland, I did meet my father. My last name comes from my adopted father - but my birth father is named Bill Whitley. And I found him through a national search service. The call to his home that summer was one of the most terrifying things I have ever done. I think it took me more than five days once I had the phone number and address to actually dial. I did not know what his life was like. I did not know if he had a wife - or kids - or if they knew about me. I had no desire to inject myself into his life and create misery.

Luckily, all went quite well. I said, "I'm Laura Peterson's son." And he said very plainly and calmly, "I thought this call might come one day."

Turns out, he lived only twenty minutes from me, a little north of Dallas. Only days later, I traveled to meet him, his wife (who was remarkably close to my age and very kind) and my three half siblings...all little children. And days after that, Bill Whitley - also a trumpet player in high school - also a composer...came to see my musical Hunger at Youth Could Know Theatre. And at that show, he was reunited with my mother. And I watched them talk in the mother had been desperately in love with this much so she wanted to consume him...I'd heard a lot about him as a little kid...and now they chatted like old friends...laughing and talking with awkward pauses, then moments of was beyond surreal.

Bill and I talked twice after that on the phone. Once in Dallas. Once when I got to Portland. And for reasons I cannot explain, I never reached out again. And he never reached out to me. I literally have no idea why. Later, when asked, I would say that as nice as he had been, I did not find him that interesting...that it made no sense to build a friendship...but that was a complete lie. And I don't know why I lied. Or why I would be so mean. I don't understand any of this.

After eating myself into a coma on the couch, I found myself at the computer looking for him. The contact info I have is long defunct. So I Googled away...and luck was on my side. His graduating class of 1972 at Belton High School has their own website. A nice one. And in February of 2008, Bill Whitley had been found by his classmates - and there was his email address.

I looked at his high school picture...this awkward eighteen-year old whose features I share. I looked at how thin he is in the photo - and thought about how stout he was when I met him - and I realized I took the same physical path...(it's not nachos, you see - it's genes!). And...I wrote him an email. And I sent him pictures. I told him I regretted losing touch. I told him I'm human...and these blood connections haunt me...and I hoped to hear from him.

My mother and I have not seen each other in nine months.
My adopted father and I have not seen each other or talked in nine years.
And...maybe the father I never had will write back. And maybe he'll become more constant than the others. Is that the motivation?

As I said, I don't understand any of this.

For now...I wait.

(That was the end of my post. As I signed in to publish it to the blog, I discovered his reply email. I am deeply moved by it - and will share some small excerpts...)

From Bill Whitley to Matt Zrebski: 2/7/09

"I remember when she told me she was pregnant. It scared me half to death and I wasn't very kind to her. I didn't want to believe her and I rationalized my way out of it although down deep I knew she wouldn't lie. I was a stupid, young and scared kid. I got to go on with what I wanted to do and your mom was forced to grow up fast. It wasn't fair and I'm not proud of it! The fact that she apparently never told you that I was a selfish SOB is proof of how good she is at heart..."

"It's good that you've decided to stick to what you love to do. Even if things are hard, you'll be happier in the long run. It's taken me a lot of years to realize that. I didn't do it, and I've always had regrets. Follow your dreams! Try your best to never quit on them...I'm trying to learn how to play trumpet again. My dream is to quit work and be one of those old guys you see on one of the side stages at the jazz festival..."

"I'll look for some pictures to send you. We should at least be able to recognize each other. It's really good to hear from you and I'm glad you're doing OK. I enjoy hearing about what you're up to. By all means, stay in touch. Take care, Bill."

And now, I sigh big and deep...and light a candle...and cry a little...a lot...and try to embrace the wonder of this life...and its many paths, twisting, turning, over and over...

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Winter Juggles

Yes yes yes!!! I know!!! Oh, how I have juggled...

I have posted very little as of late. Since my last post I have:

-- re-drafted my play, The Bathing of Christopher End and submitted it for consideration to the 2009 JAW Festival at Portland Center Stage as well as to Kitchen Dog Theatre's New Plays Fest.

-- read and critiqued 217 ten-minute plays. Did you get that? 217

-- conducted extensive research on my next play project, interviewing people around the country via phone.

-- begun teaching two new courses at the Greenhouse School of Theatre

-- staged Open City for PlayGroup as part of the Fertile Ground Festival.

-- fought a sinus infection...still going...

-- been rejected by CoHo productions for a production of my play, Boy. :(

-- revisited cult classics What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Videodrome, and Blue Velvet.

-- become addicted to Big Love (season 3) and the United States of Tara (inaugural season).

-- written a new song I like called February Snow and have done a rough recording.

-- become very fond of canned Mandarin oranges.

-- decided not to go to grad school after all - then reversed that decision - then reversed it back - and now am in limbo.

-- received more hassles and scares from the IRS.

-- attended a community forum on new plays and found myself talking very candidly about the close of Stark Raving Theatre - for the first time in public - even if limited.

-- seen Apollo at Portland Center Stage and am glad that Nancy Keystone is a theatre artist.

-- hated people posting hideous pictures of me on Facebook.

-- cried hard almost every day.

-- laughed hard almost every day.

-- wanted to disappear.

-- wanted to take the stage.

And now, I will work to post more on this blog...