Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Bombay Beach Club

A fair criticism of me as a writer would be that I am ‘scattered,’ ‘unfocused,’ ‘directionless,’ and just plain ‘distracted by the world around him.’  Others might see me as a prodigious producer of a preponderance of written material in many different forms. I plead guilty to both charges and can only shrug my shoulders in admittance that I am all of those things and probably more.


So if I’m heavily weighed down by a long list of projects-in-progress, why would I even consider writing yet another play at this time? Ask anyone addicted to running, work or a plethora of other addictive habits why they do what they do. The answer is usually because ‘they have to.’ So, simply stated, I have an idea for a play that’s been burning a hole in my brain and it needs to be released.

The storyline began simply enough when several years ago my editor came to California and suggested we take a ride down to the far eastern end of the Valley to a place called Slab City. Of course, to get there we first had to pass by a dead sea and a place called Salvation Mountain. It gets even weirder from there.


This was the first time that Sharon and I encountered the underbelly of the Coachella Valley. These are the parts of the Valley that most tourists, visitors, and locals-alike never see or care to visit. You won’t find them listed in ‘points of interest’ or top tourist destinations…and for good reason.

This is where the ‘under-served’, ‘don’t want to be found’, ‘unaccounted for’, and ‘those on the lam’ come to hide. It also presents a warm, inviting cocoon for artists, bohemians, addicts, and the like to congregate and flourish.


Our trip began safely enough with a return to the Salton Sea. That briny morass of faded dreams, high hopes for the future and dead fish scales underfoot. The Salton Sea is California’s largest lake measuring more than 35 miles long and 15 miles wide in spots. It has a surface area of over 380 square miles and sits at 332 feet below sea level. The sea was created back in 1905 as the result of an accidental break in a canal cut into the Colorado River. For 16 months, the river ran unchecked into the lowest area around; the salt basin which became the Salton Sea.


By the mid-fifties, the Salton Sea had become a major recreational water resort area for Southern California. But two hurricanes; Kathleen in 1976 and Doreen in 1977, caused such wide-spread damage to neighboring farm lands that the runoff caused a major increase in the salinity of the sea. That, in turn, caused major fish-kills and bird-kills and created such a major issue with noxious odors that residential development came to a stop.


It will take years, perhaps decades, before the sea might possibly return to its past glory. More feasibility studies will be made, more funding sought and grand schemes hatched. The possibilities for commerce, recreation and development are enormous.


Salvation Mountain is one of the premiere examples of folk art in the middle of nowhere America. The site has become a mecca for those influenced by and intrigued with this kaleidoscope of painted hills, crude cave dwellings and religious scripture. The cave’s paint can and hay bale construction would challenge even the most daring of spelunkers.


The artwork is made from adobe, straw, and thousands of gallons of lead-free paint. It was created by the late Leonard Knight (1931-2014). A deeply religious man, Knight created an art piece that encompasses numerous murals and areas painted with Christian sayings and Bible verses. Knight’s philosophy was built around the ‘Sinners Prayer.’


The old mountain carver is gone now and replaced by Jesus People and their small hugging kids. Many visitors bring paint to donate to the project and a group of volunteers has been working to protect and maintain the site.


Slab City, otherwise known as ‘The Slabs,’ is a snowbird campsite used by recreational vehicle owners alongside squatters from across North America. It takes its name from the concrete slabs that remain from an abandoned World War II Marine barracks of Camp Dunlap.

It’s estimated that there are about one hundred fifty permanent residents (squatters) who live in the slabs year-round. Some survive on government checks, others just want to live ‘off the grid’ and a few come to stretch out their retirement income. The camp has no electricity, no running water, no sewers or toilets and no trash pickup service. Sounds like a dry run for the apocalypse.


Despite the free shoe tree on the way into town and the free library, most of the residents have sectioned off their trailers, tents and sleeping bags with tires, pallets, or barbwire. Free is free unless it comes to their piece of the desert then even squatters want their personal space recognized…along with their art.


No trip to Slab City would be complete with a swing by East Jesus. East Jesus has been describe-ed as an experimental, sustainable art installation. It’s is a colloquialism for the middle of nowhere beyond the edge of services. Made from discarded material that has been reused, recycled or repurposed, East Jesus encourages visitors to imagine a world without waste in which every action is an opportunity for self-expression.


I think West Satan is a simply a suburb of East Jesus. I found this second art gallery-in-the-sun fascinating and mind-expanding. It was like tripping out without the acid and a glimpse into the lives of those who don’t want to be a part of ‘any scene’ here in fantasy land or the rest of the world. All of which leads me to the reason for writing my next play which is entitled: Bombay Beach Club.


I’ve always been intrigued by a sun-bleached tattered cluster of trailer homes strewn alongside the Salton Sea half way to Slab City. Its name, ‘Bombay Beach, North Shore,’ always seemed like the perfect title for a play. I had to swing by just to satisfy my curiosity.



With apologies to Slab City, Bombay Beach isn’t much of an alternative. Its housing seems beaten down by the harsh summers and its distance from civilization. We drove down its main street and intended to stop to ask directions until we looked into the dead-eyes of one young woman shuffling down the gravel roadway. One stare was enough for us to gun the engine and ‘get out of Dodge.’


That was all it took for my pea-brain to begin churning out images and scenes and even some dialogue. It was one fleeting snapshot of an odd-ball collection of characters gathered someplace nearby. That momentary image burned a strong impression on my creative stance and has been there ever since.

Now, years later, that vapid fleeting image has crystalized into a storyline (in the form of a new play). ‘Bombay Beach Club’ is now edging out other projects to garner more of my attention. Its gestation period is almost over and ready for birth into my next play. The tag line is simple enough: ‘Bombay Beach Club; a coffee house for crazies…or is it.’

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Elephant And The Owl

 So what causes a person to step out of line, out of character and away from their everyday routines and move in a new direction? For me, it was usually unintentional and probably just impulsive and ‘in the moment.’ Whatever the reason or motivation, the outcome was often life-changing.




It had no discernable beginning and I doubt it will ever end. It could have started when I volunteered for Vietnam because of the hazardous duty pay or maybe acting on stage for the first time or running my third marathon when I still hadn’t come out of a serious injury or a score of other self-imposed encumbrances on my long, slow journey through life. 


We are all the products of our choices. Decisions made a lifetime ago can still influence and direct our present-day lives. There have been a number of times ‘I’ve seen the elephant and heard the owl.’ In truth, I am a better person for all those experiences.

The saying:  ‘I have seen the elephant, I have heard the owl’ is an American colloquial phrase that refers to gaining experience of the world at a significant cost. It was a popular expression in the mid-to-late 19th century throughout the United States beginning with the Mexican-American war and beyond.


Pioneers would speak about ‘seeing the elephant’ in their journeys west. James Michener in his novel ‘Centennial’ made it a key point in the life of one of his characters. For that young adventurer it was an experience that left him shaken to the core and uncertain about his future.

Over the years, the phrase has become immersed in western novels, war stories and more poignant storytelling such as Margaret Craven’s wonderful novel ‘I Heard the Owl Call My Name.’ It’s been referenced in many bible stories highlighting those watershed moments and end of life experiences some biblical characters have faced. 


It’s been argued that you don’t really know who you are until faced with a catastrophe or a near-death experience. Some will say that our best life experiences come through affliction and challenges we never expected to encounter. It might be an athletic event like my third Twin Cities Marathon that stretches your abilities to their absolute maximum. I’ll never forget the unbelievable pain I had to ‘gut’ through to make to the finish line.

Now to take that argument one step further I might also suggest that for many people the act of planting ones feet on a stage could be akin to ‘seeing the elephant.’ There are a number of octogenarians and their younger compatriots who have agreed to do just that through RAAC in Rosemount, Minnesota.  But for me, before RAAC, came the Little Theater in Chattanooga.

My first experience with Community Theater started back in Tennessee in 1972. I had left public television in Minnesota to spread my wings in the Deep South.

It was a crazy time because I found myself labeled a damned Yankee in King Conservative’s Court. The Southern attitudes and prejudices against the North were still very much alive when I arrived as the new production manager at a public television station in Chattanooga, Tennessee. 

 


I loved the city, the people, the new friends we met and our weekend jaunts around the Southland. My work experience should have held me in respect among my peers. Unfortunately it was my Northern linage that did me in. The stations production crew was as prejudice and un-welcoming to Northerners as anything I’d ever experienced. 



Fortunately the Chattanooga Little Theater became my refuge. It was a welcoming respite from the bigotry and ignorance I experienced at work. I crewed on the first play of the season and then acted in three more. Around the end of our fourth play I was offered a new job in Maryland and my brief, ever exciting career as a thespian came to a sudden halt. But not without some interesting observations.


I observed there’s a latent thespian in many of us. But some take it far more seriously than others. I was of the latter party. It was a challenge. I was and still am an introvert so the bright lights, grease paint and applause did little to sooth my nervousness and fright on stage. 

I think a lot of those actors found their true selves on stage. Much like politicians whose only claim to fame is their small town title, these folks truly embraced their new pretend persona. It made them feel accomplished and whole and fulfilled. I never reached that level of self-satisfaction. I was always more interested in the story-telling aspect of the theater and not the acting part of it. RAAC offered me that opportunity.



The RAAC senior theater project has been a wonderful proving ground for three of my plays. RAAC was started in 2007 by four area residents who had been serving as advisors to the city about possible future use for a church that was closing in town. Their final recommendation was that the church be rededicated as a community arts center.

Some of those seniors may ‘see the elephant’ while others might ‘hear the owl.’ But either way, vision or not, it turned out to be a great experience for all of them. Not for the racing hearts or sweaty palms and memory-challenges but simply because when called upon they met the challenge head-on. They took a chance and risked the fear and trepidation of failure for a chance to do something challenging, something exhilarating, and something that many of their colleagues could only hope to accomplish. Not a bad legacy in one’s twilight years.




Creating plays has always been part of my writing arsenal. The Coachella Valley has a plethora of theaters and theatrical groups. Thus far, two of my plays have been produced there. Yet there is still a portfolio of other plays just waiting to be discovered.



For me it’ll be just another jump-start to add to my work load back in Palm Springs and hopefully land a production there as well. Either way, produced or not, writing plays continues to be fodder for my over-active imagination and a wonderful excuse to keep body and mind active and moving.

And always on the lookout for the elephant and the owl.


Tuesday, November 15, 2022

The Widow has Found a Home


Back in December of 2018, Polly found a very welcoming and appreciative home here in the desert. The audience welcomed her with attentive listening and open hearts. I hope it can happen again for the Widow.


S2S was the perfect place to tell Polly’s story. ‘Polly’s Amorous Adventure’ was performed at the Script2Stage2Screen venue. S2S is an innovative performing arts organization for the development of original productions on the stage. It is a performing arts project of the Unitarian Church of the Desert (UUCOD) in Rancho Mirage, CA.

‘Polly’s Amorous Adventure’ is a play about a woman’s polyamorous relationship with two men. In theatrical terms, it was seen as a farce and played as such. Yet it was imperative to me (as the playwright) that the director and actors understood the seriousness of this kind of relationship for some people.

A polyamorous relationship is defined as a romantic relationship with more than one person. What distinguishes it from a classic love triangle is that all the partners know about each other and are accepting of those other relationships. It can pertain to men or women or a combination of both.



We (the director, myself, and the actors) had fun with the characters but always treated the subject matter with respect and honesty. Our audiences truly appreciated that approach. I’m expecting the same for my second play coming up at S2S.



‘Polly’ had a full house both evenings and the audience seemed to really enjoy the outstanding performances of our actors. I’m hoping the magic of those two evenings will repeat itself with my next play being performed this weekend at S2S. It’s called ‘Widow’s Waltz.’ Although it follows a totally different storyline, it is, I hope, one that is just as fascinating, thought-provoking, and entertaining.



The fact that ‘Widow’s Waltz’ found a venue is a minor miracle in itself. COVID-19 and the domino effects of the pandemic radically changed the theater world for a long period of time. Yet even with a year and a half of dormant theaters and empty stages, playwrights didn’t stop writing. World-wide, these talented stage crafters were pounding away at keyboards, writing pads, tablets, and blackboards to create novels, plays and screenplays.



When S2S announced that they were accepting submissions of plays for their 2022-2023 season they were surprised and delighted when more than eighty submissions came in, some from as far away as Thailand. All of this for just eight performance weekends available.

‘Widow’s Waltz’ was born in Palm Springs about the same time the city shut down and no one knew what to make of this strange and frightening virus that was causing such fear and consternation world-wide. The genesis of the play came from my own experiences among our myriad of friends here in the desert, especially our gay friends.



My wife, Sharon, is the hostess-with-the-most. She relishes large and small gatherings at our house. Holiday events and small dinner engagements are her specialty. At most events we always seem to have one or two guests who are older, single, and gay. Not surprisingly (I’m a writer, right!) it got me to thinking about them; their lifestyle and being alone without that someone else. All seem to have a plethora of friends, associates, companions, and buddies. But that’s different than being a couple. Thus was born ‘Widow’s Waltz.’

I won’t give away too much of the play except to say that our director, Morgana Corelli, a veteran actress, is quite adapt at taking my script and honing it into a tell-able, inviting story on stage. Her choice of actors makes me feel very confident in saying: ‘They’ve got it’ and my play is in very good hands.



The play was a challenge to write. Unlike ‘Polly, I don’t have silly yet serious characters, a Doctor Ruth kind of PC with a bent toward sexual liberation and innuendos popping up all the time. ‘Widow’s Waltz’ is a more serious study of the human condition but with humor and pathos mixed in. Character studies, personal motivation, external as well as internal, and conflicts always present numerous challenges in the writing process.

Now it’s time to see if the audiences find the characters and their real-life story as satisfying to see as I had to write them.



Performances began at 7:30pm on Friday, November 18th and Saturday, November 19th. The Unitarian Universalist Church of the Desert is located at 72425 Via Vail,Rancho Mirage, CA 92270.

Hope to see you there.