Curate This, Josh McIlvain, Christopher Munden, photo by Said Johnson

I Hate This Art

Murals, Facades, & Other Lies

When Julius asked me to curate content for Curate This I knew I’d have to have an article about how terrible the murals in Philadelphia are, because 1) he works for Mural Arts, 2) the murals in Philadelphia are emotionally empty, poorly rendered, politically naive ugly shit, and 3) I’m an asshole. Fortunately, I have a friend, Josh McIlvain, who views mural “arts” the same way. I met Josh when we both wrote for an evil non-profit; we used company time reserved for boosting the profile of the chemical industry to set up a series of literary anthologies. Josh is artistic director of Automatic Arts, information manager for FringeArts, and an all-around good guy and fellow asshole. He’s my favorite playwright in Philadelphia, and his plays are pretty good too.

-Christopher Munden, curator

Characters:
MANNY A: male, 50s., glasses.
MANNY B: female, 30, glasses.

A and B are playing the same person, MANNY, side-by-side. While they share the same space and story, they should be played by very different types: different genders, different ages, different style of dress. They should not try to both act like the same character, but individually show the character as two different possibilities. They share a belief in the same essential truth, and they exist side-by-side in the same set of circumstances.

Setting:
A community hearing about the Murals Project, attended by community leaders, local government officials, and interested neighbors. The audience plays the role of those gathered at this meeting, and MANNY is speaking directly to the audience as if they were characters gathered for this purpose.

A long banquet table is set out, with a black cloth covering it. Two folding chairs are behind the table, facing the audience, for A and B to sit in. In the manner of government hearings, there is a bottle of water, a plastic cup and two bar napkins to place the cup upon, one set of these items for A and one set for B. At a larger venue, they should have microphones with table microphone stands.

MAKING the WORLD a BETTER PLACE through MURALS

Scene:
MANNY A and B walk out to the table and take their seats. They open their water bottles and fill their cups with water, screw the caps back on, take a drink, place cups back down, move napkins towards them, and place the cups on one of the napkins. These actions should be in unison, though the movements do not need to be perfectly synced up—they should appear natural. However, only at two other spots in the play do they take simultaneous action. They should not be imitative of each other otherwise.

MANNY

A: I painted murals because I wanted to make the world a happier place. My specialty were paintings, several stories tall, of proud, contented men and women, shoulders squared, looking up at the sunshine, a new dawn, some shit, a collage of types—the farmer to the social worker to the medical doctor, young and old, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, mixed-race, every once in a while a Native American. I thought, we all thought, that positive, uplifting images, especially of those who persevered against great odds, people on the street would look up at these happy, positive images and maybe think happy positive thoughts? Where there had been an ugly gray spackled façade now you had a colorful picture of people working a garden, coming together as a community, celebrating their heritage. We were communicating in images—what message did a blank, gray wall make?

(B turns her head, looking at A.)

What did that say to people? Our pictures could make that little difference which maybe could make all the difference—a gleam of hope when you’re feeling down, an extra push as you face a challenge, a bright light of encouragement to help support your dreams, the fight against discouragement. Look, we changed this wall, you can change your life.

B: But the strange thing, I later came to think of, [turns back to audience] is why would all these people, these giant humanoids we painted on the sides of buildings, why would they be looking around at these decrepit, run-down, bleak and depressed pot-holed streets and crumbling sidewalks, with smiles? If they could see, their faces would be full of rage at what the hell did you drop me in this neighborhood for?

A: The murals ran the gamut of scenarios—they still do. Some are landscapes and farming scenes, some are manufacturing tableaus for neighborhoods that once had manufacturing and now have squat, nature scenes with animals and people—peaceable kingdom stuff—in neighborhoods that have no nature except for the spindly trees growing out of decay and the alley cats and stray dogs. Kids like the ones with animals. I once got a commission for an animal mural, but it didn’t work out. I painted a giant house cat playing with a ball of yarn. I thought it would be comforting, but it actually freaked people out to see this four-story house cat staring down at them. Made people feel like mice. Lasted two months before it was whitewashed, and another mural went up, this time of wondrous children observing a sundial, touching it, touching a sundial—what they hell does touching a sundial do? Truthfully, I thought the cat was a little scary too. If a house cat really were that size no doubt they would bat you around like a cat toy, get you caught on his claw and then fling into a wall, you know, on the third try, because it would take a few times to get you off his claw.

B: This shift in perspective, a cute thing made large—suddenly becoming a thing of terror—was the beginning of my dissatisfaction with the murals. Before then I had been a true believer. Save the world, one mural at a time. Paint over your blight with positive images and colorful hues and downtrodden folks can look at those murals and become uplifted and it’s a brand new day, by golly I will pull myself up by my bootstraps, and go out and change my life for the better. And suddenly, instead of the same old same old, it’s a neighborhood of opportunity zone—jobs are made, enterprise is created, the mercury-poisoned earth in the abandoned lots suddenly yields a golden crop and the people rise up singing, all because we transformed a gray wall into an image of hope and pride.

A: Like putting a new coat of paint on a prison. I bet in a prison there’s a lot of talk about a new paint job, I bet everyone has an opinion about it, because there’s nothing else to talk about.

(A and B remove their glasses. They clean them with a napkin from the table in silence. They put their glasses back on.}

People would come up to me, tell me what a nice job I was doing and that felt good. It’s nice to see someone finally starting to clean up the neighborhood. But at the end of the day, the sidewalks are still cracked and everyone still slumps by, going back to their shitty lives. Sure there are shitty lives everywhere, but in a shitty neighborhood, there are more shitty lives.

B: We had community help, making the community part of the process, teaching them, I don’t know . . . the way to paint over their troubles with images of hope and pride and perseverance. The funny thing is, if you see a mural like that, you just assume it’s a shit neighborhood, right? They don’t put uplifting murals in neighborhoods where people are already uplifted, right? In the neighborhoods where someone doesn’t have to commute on a stinky bus two hours for a minimum wage job at a drug store, you don’t have murals. In an uplifted neighborhood, they’d be like, hey, don’t put that shitty mural there.

A: But they learned to paint, sort of, learned team building. There’d always be a couple people who got laid because of it, so that was a plus. Everybody feeling good about themselves, good time to get in on that.

B: But what did they do really—the wall’s still a wall. You can’t do anything with a mural, can’t even walk on it. It’s still just a wall. There’s something brutal about a wall, especially a wall that tells you everything that you’re not.

A: There was one I worked on where one of the central figures was a blacksmith, hammering on his anvil, a proud figure. It was a mural about the pride of craftsmen, and the blacksmith also symbolized the forging of strong neighborhood bonds. You know, a metaphor, subtle as a hammer. Doesn’t matter that aside from a renaissance fair, the craft of blacksmithing is extinct. There’d been a foundry in the neighborhood at one time. But seriously it had been gone for thirty years. And it had been an incredibly dangerous place to work. This old guy was talking to me about it. One moment he’s saying, when the factory shut down, this neighborhood went to hell, that it was a damn shame, and the next moment he’s telling me what a terrible place it was to work. That every three months someone was either maimed or died on the job. And somehow it was always employee carelessness, and people got burned all the time, sometimes badly. But nobody was there hammering an anvil. Wasn’t a bunch a metalworkers with their individual workshops making horseshoes. Plus the whole neighborhood smelled like poison when the wind blew the wrong way. But people seemed to like that one. Workers pride. Now that’s work, real work, I like that. We got to have more of that. I began to question the people who I worked for, like what are we doing painting these images of things that people don’t have, I don’t think visualization is going to turn things around, I think the problems may be deeper than that.

B: We’re starting a discussion, is what Bronson would say. Bronson was the mural guru. We give people something to talk about, and maybe that can be a starting point for an idea. People need ideas, people need to be empowered by the power of their own ideas. And then what? It’s an entry point, it’s a beginning.

A: They’ve been painting these things for like 20 fucking years and it’s always a beginning.

B: The last one I did was a farm, harvest time, the fruits of labor spilling out of baskets in a neighborhood where everyone was living off of food stamps. Think about it, here’s a big basket of apples. Each apple is bigger than your head. You could feed an entire family with one of those apples. Don’t they look delicious? Sorry, not for you! Why not, instead of paintings a picture of a garden do you not build a garden? Maybe the soil is so full of toxins that anything you’d grow would be poisonous, if you were lucky enough to grow anything at all. I once knew a guy who talked about living on the beaches of Mexico and eating thistle. You can survive off of thistle, he’d say.

(A turns his head, looking at B.)

So instead of the farm, I painted an empty lot full of thistle, big thorny thistle plants, a three story building covered in thistle, made your skin crawl just looking at it. People would ask me, what the hell is that? And I’d say thistle! You can live off of thistle.

A: I got about three-quarters done before they took me off the project. [Turns to audience.] They said I needed a break, and gave me a month of paid leave. I mean, they’re very considerate, they were concerned with my feelings, and the stress. They were upset that someone who had been with them for so long could go off the deep end. Only I didn’t go off the deep end, I had woken up. Sure, there was stress, but I had woken up.

B: I couldn’t tell them, they still have a dream, and you can see it in their eyes, and the way looked at me, so caring and concerned. A casualty in the war. Your whole thing is bullshit, I wanted to say. But it would be like telling a creationist that no, the world is more than five thousand years old. Because people choose fantasy over reality. Because every objection is always met with, well, it’s true that there is still much work to be done. Still a long road to go down. We’re just one organization. But these murals, we’ve established a legacy, people think they’re great—I tell people what I do, and they think it’s so great. We’ve come so far, but we’ve got so much further to go . . . and I’m seeing this long, long path through shitty block to shitty block with these stupid murals like guide posts, guide posts to what? To each other. That’s all it is—it’s a path for itself. It’s the insanity of not facing a problem.

A: Took me a while to find a job, a year or so, wasn’t sure what to do. They put me on unemployment. So thoughtful. I spent a lot of time indoors, watching TV. Then I decided I needed to get out so I started taking long walks about town, but I’d always see the murals and seeing them didn’t make me happy. First they pissed me off, but then I just stopped caring, and then I started seeing them the way I think most people see them, something you don’t care about, another wall, that’s it. Another fucking wall in the city.

B: Thank you, no questions.

(A and B rise from table, give a slight nod of acknowledgment, and exit room. The end.)

MAKING the WORLD a BETTER PLACE through MURALS premiered November 1, 2013, as part of Nice and Fresh performing arts series at Moving Arts of Mount Airy in Philadelphia, PA. With Steve Lippe as A and Emily L. Gibson as B. Directed by Josh McIlvain.

MAKING the WORLD a BETTER PLACE through MURALS from Automatic Arts on Vimeo.

Photo by Said Johnson

Chris Munden, Sean Lynch, Curate This, Feed the Piranhas

Real Talk

Feed the Piranhas: A Poem by Sean Lynch

Of all the authors I’m curating this week, Sean Lynch is my most recent acquaintance. He appeared on a short-run podcast I co-hosted to promote his poetry collection Broad Street Line. I was struck by the way his verse was informed and infused by political awareness, while remaining grounded in the concrete details of the everyday people affected by elite political decisions. This focus on accessible, independent, politically informed work can also be seen in Whirlwind Magazine, which he edits. I asked Sean to submit a piece on the real issues that art can address, and he did, using his art.

—Christopher Munden, curator

The shooters are invisible from the artist’s point
of view, beyond those dunes firemen ignite
fuses that cause colorful explosions

because the sky seemed too blank
a canvas, bodies of gold light live
out their finite lives like fish that float

above the beach and boardwalk stuffed
with herds of tourists, sparks spread
in predicted paths toward the abstracted

as ash rains on wood and eyes aimed
in arcs traced thousands of miles east
through the ocean that separates minds.

A holy land erupts again.
Phosphorus clouds
hover above cages

where smoke pours in like blood brewed
in boiled over data. The artist is asked,
“what’s wrong?” There’s no easy answer

except that fireworks disturb too few
Americans without ptsd, everything out of context,
everyone commoditized. The artist glances

at young men in blue who holster death machines,
sport childish faces, pimples, and crew cuts
or even Mohawks in mockery of the extinguished natives.

These officers of the peace laugh at girls
wearing booty shorts stamped with male names.
This is the Wildwood boardwalk

where toys made by the enslaved a half a world away
sell as bounty won by local boys for lust,
where the feasting Gerasene swine arrest

a dreaded kid who stole some paltry item
and will be branded criminal for life.
They’ll shoot him if chance begets

the moment, but Jesus will not drive
this legion into the sea. No one
bears witness on the boardwalk.

And yet something doesn’t feel right
to the man commissioned to draw a child.
And the parents cajole the artist

as to why he can’t do his job
any faster; it’s just a caricature.
The artist is no longer immune to violence.

Close by in a makeshift
storefront aquarium more consumers
gather. A hooded boy dumps the contents

of a plastic cup
down a PVC pipe
as two young girls film

the scene with smart phones
waiting, gazing at the tank now
clouding under a sign that states:

“Feed the Piranhas
a live goldfish!!!
$3.00 each or 2 for $5.00.″

As sharp teeth turn yellow bodies into red clouds
and deafening explosions are cheered
by the crowd, the artist places final touches

on the piece – then turns the easel to show
a swarm of jets dropping bombs
over the naked child’s decapitated head

as the kid’s corpse is covered
in luxury goods: jewels, designer clothes,
electronic gadgets and the like.

The parents gasp and grab
passing authorities to nab the perverted
artist who sits in catatonic disassociation.

Then a smile appears as the officers
place handcuffs onto his wrists,
since the fireworks have finally subsided.

Icarus, Dear Disgrace, Love Penelope, Chris Munden, Curate This

FAIL!

What Would a Nervous Breakdown Look Like Here & Other Urgent Questions

I met Penelope when she was recently separated from her husband; she married as a Texas teen and came to Philadelphia as a newlywed. They would separate and reconnect and re-separate. She moved away and returned, trying different things: crime reporting, Occupy, investigative reporting on a corrupt Caribbean island, ill-fated love. Through each misadventure, Penelope would become more disillusioned and more radical, but never hopeless. And after each supposed failure she’d show me a better piece of creative writing. She now has multiple publications and her first novel was accepted for publication by Scarlet Leaf Publishing House. For some of us, our failures drag us down; Penelope’s seem to drag her up.

– Christopher Munden, curator

Every time I move somewhere I evaluate my surroundings by asking what would a nervous breakdown look like here? I ask that question in the same way that other people ask: what is the feng shui of this residence going to do for my waistline? Or will the rent go up due to gentrification? Or where is the nearest green space or Whole Foods? I think about who is there, the neighbors, and the accommodations, and I think of them all in terms of madness. I have a commute, back and forth, about a three year long commute. It helps not to have roommates. I look for wider than average streets, old buildings with good architectural bone structure. A river nearby is like finding a vein in the body of nature which we all share. Lower density is best, too.

/ / /

When I was 25, and my mom was kicking me out of the house, I had to call my uncle, her brother, to come assist, to cool things off. I was barefoot in the backyard because she had locked me out of the house before I could put shoes on. I had my cell phone and my cigarettes. She had just attacked me in the kitchen. I had been living there, again, for two weeks. I was broke, attempting to leave my husband, “bipolar,” unemployed and carless. I was putting away groceries. We were fighting. I had borrowed the car when she didn’t want me to, to go to the store. And I had failed to put the toilet paper roll on the thing when it ran out, and I had not placed the bathmat over the lip of the tub, which had to be done because otherwise the fourth cat—the forlorn, clearly autistic, runtish low-man-on-the-feline-totem pole—would vent his rage at his status by peeing on it. (You’ve seen the movie Misery with Kathy Bates? Well, the penguin always faces 45 degrees Southeast! She loves you dearly; she’s your biggest fan, but you can’t leave with both your legs on.) Plus I was ignoring her. So she came up behind me and threw me onto the floor and tried to wrest my iPod lanyard off my neck, like, through my neck, because my neck was in the way, and my head and my face. It wasn’t exactly strangling, but it wasn’t exactly not.

/ / /

When my uncle came, as we were putting some of my bags in his truck, he said, “There has to be a novel in this somewhere.”
He was trying to be sweet.

/ / /

Over and over again, people have called me “resilient.” At this point, I think, I’d rather be called “diligent” or even “succulent.”

I am like that old mobster who must sit in a restaurant at a table or booth facing the door. I am waiting for myself to show up. I am an importer/exporter of the past at the same time that I am a refugee from it. I write little these days, but most of my current stuff is my real life revisited. I must admit I think of them as puny consolation prizes compared to my fiction. Like this essay I kept trying to write when I was running at a local park and instead I got the above poem to come out first. It was a precursor work. The essay is about the time in the Virgin Islands when I dated a drug dealer who told me that he had killed three people and then gaslighted me by fucking me up the ass and texting me that I/he/we were HIV positive.

Misadventure. Yeah. You must, you must, write about it. It’s so much fun. The same way you must endure poverty, have bouts of mental illness, go to the tropics or die an expat, live in a boarding house, be a journalist, be wildly sexual or at least pretend to be in print, work for social justice and befriend at least one Communist leader in your life. You must collect and absorb and obey clichés until one day you look down and you’ve grown a dick and people are calling you, in Spanish, Papa Hemingway. Misadventure, disgrace, I call it now, is a cliché you must collect in order to be a “real writer,” which is itself a cliché.

As suicide is the last cliché, you must earn that, too. Ain’t no such thing as a free career in this world.

But first you must live it: misadventure, disgrace. Which means that in order to write about it, the drama in your life must be two things: strong and worthy of words, even when you yourself are not, even when the pain and humiliation feel unspeakable.

I’m talking about the time I was arrested in the deep backwoods of Kentucky for public intoxication but I actually thought I was still in Tennessee. And I wasn’t even drunk. And I mooned my arresting officers. They added the charge “resisting arrest.”

I’m talking about the time I was so manic I wandered in the middle of the night into a tent of Evangelicals, then thought I was levitating—hell, I think they thought I was levitating—because a storm came in and the strong winds uplifted the tent flaps and some of the flimsy benches they were using as pews. I went to sleep on such a bench by the woodburning stove, and a woman from the congregation came up to me, put a blanket over me and asked me: “are you an angel?” And I said, again, manic, “Ma’am, if I am, I don’t know it yet.”

I’m talking about a completely undocumented spiritual life underneath the life you think you live. Friends and family who have been in the military have said this line to me: “They break you down completely and build you back up again.”

But you can leave the military.

I’m talking about escaping from a mental hospital and hitchhiking back to home in nothing but a hospital gown, panties having been taken from me, no buttons or zippers, just homely sheets split down the back.

I’m talking about my best friend calling me in the midst of a similar misadventure— she was running away from Girard Medical Center in a sweatsuit, security guards in tow—and asking me, “What should I do?” and me telling her, as I am getting dressed for work, “Run faster.”

I’m talking about same best friend calling me years later and telling me about the poetry scene in Philadelphia becoming claustrophobically bipolar and academic at the same time. “D. and C. and A. shredded up Kafka texts and made suppositories out of them. Also, they are smearing monuments and statues of Betsy Ross and Benjamin Franklin with their menstrual blood and semen in some bizarre invocation ritual. These people have PhDs, Penelope.”

“This is why I don’t do poetry anymore and live in Connecticut,” is what I said.

Some scenes are heavy on misadventure. They are not to be missed, but not to be embraced either.

/ / /

I think I read somewhere that in his stories drawn from his real life, Hemingway managed to make everyone around him, particularly rival writers, look like twerps and sniveling, uppercrust cowards and intellectual tightwads and himself look like a manly hero. Supposedly this is historically inaccurate. Imagine. The ego.

Let me be clear here, I’m being arch. I’m not an advocate for this pattern of self-destruction and self-excoriation and self-redemption through art. As a writer, I’m not an advocate for self-anything, at all. Because it’s all cyclical, and once you start on this path it hooks you the way Benzadrine got Kerouac and heroin got Burroughs. And because there’s a tendency to develop a tolerance.

But you can quit drugs. To live this kind of life is to be bested over and over again by demons of your own making. The last thing you want to do is to develop a tolerance to that.

For the longest time, I was a self-help book junkie. I hated them. I thought they were vile, inferior products. I couldn’t stop buying and reading them. I think my baseline happiness level jumped a few increments when I quit that shit. Same with therapy, which is proof of its success.

In my twenties, I hated myself. In my thirties, I tend to hate the world. Maybe in my forties I will hate just…men? You see how this is progress, in that old, “awful rowing toward God” sort of way?

/ / /

In kindergarten, I was a hyperobedient child because, again, white trash violent parents. My first day I peed my pants. Here’s how: The teacher had explained the rules of kindergarten to us. One of the rules which was different from pre-K was that we had to ask for permission to go to the bathroom. We couldn’t just get up and go. We had to ask silently, by the use of a hand signal. We had to make a fist and put our thumb through our fisted fingers and hold our arm up in the air. When the teacher touched your thumb, it meant you could go to the bathroom.

After she explained the rules to us, she gave us an assignment to do. Then she sat with her back to us. I had to go. Really bad. I used the hand signal. My powers of five-year-old logic told me that this would not work, given the logistics of the room, but if I had just had the rules explained to me, and if one of the rules was that you did not voice your request, and if another one of the rules was that you did not get up from your chair without permission…Well, I waited, fist raised, until all the blood drained out of one arm, then the other. Then I pissed myself in front of everyone. Then the other children told her what had happened, she turned around and made me fetch paper towels and clean it up myself. She made everyone else watch. The next day I was transferred to another class, which I thought had to do with the peeing but was more likely because I had tested out of that group in reading ability. Still. For the rest of the year, I refused even to sit down in a chair for long periods. Damn private school. Damn school.

/ / /

When I wrote the essay about the drug dealer trying to convince me I had AIDS, it was the first and last time that I had ever written anything and felt a cathartic release from it. I resisted it, the feeling of having calmly conquered something painful through writing, because that seems to be another clichéd idea non-writers have about writing: that it can do that, that there are selfish benefits, writing as therapy, etc… I had never bought into that idea. Writing was always about what I could bring to an audience, not the other way around. But it’s not always one or the other; they are not exclusive categories, and there are some misadventures, disgraces, so deep that, potentially, everyone stands to benefit. Just like sometimes, in real life as opposed to fiction, there are real villains and cowards and intellectual tightwads.

/ / /

It’s very barren in psychiatric wards. The humans there are very barren; the mind goes barren there. This is called healing, by some, because they are barren, somehow. They already were, and they are in charge, and this is how they got to be in charge.

/ / /

A disgraced person is a hundred times more likely than everyone else to question authority, and that can be a great boon to an artist. But the greatest thing I have learned from my misadventures is to seek unadulterated joy and fulfillment (fulfillment is different from achievement) and to know that I must cultivate a life that only includes writing. I used to include quotes from Hemingway in my personal essays about my mom, my family life, the drinking, the fights, the psychiatric disorders: “stronger in the broken places.” What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger bullshit. That was before I met Jackson ‘Jax’ Teller, the Hamlet-like protagonist of the TV series Sons of Anarchy. ‘Jax’ is heading up an organization of community-minded, gun-running motorcycle club outlaws in a made-up town in Northern California called “Charming.” They are fiercely opposed to franchise outfits such as Starbucks getting into “Charming,” which is kind of like Bridgeport, Pa, which is kind of like walking out into 1968, replete with Pabst-swilling, Gadsden flag-flying white supremacists and it’s weird. Anyway, ‘Jax’ writes letters to his sons, as his father, the patriarch of the motorcycle gang, did before him. To pass on wisdom. In one of these letters, he writes:

“Maybe that’s the lesson for me today, to hold onto these simple moments—appreciate them a little more, there’s not many of them left. I don’t ever want that for you, finding things that make you happy shouldn’t be so hard. I know you’ll face pain, suffering, hard choices, but you can’t let the weight of it choke the joy out of your life. No matter what, you have to find the things that love you. Run to them. There’s an old saying—that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger—I don’t believe that. I think the things that try to kill you make you angry and sad. Strength comes from the good things, your family, your friends, the satisfaction of hard work. Those are the things that will keep you whole, those are the things to hold on to when you’re broken.”

This is the truth: the things that try to kill you just make you angry and sad. They don’t make you stronger, or a better writer. You have to be that from the get go, and give a damn about yourself and other people, in equal measure. In the end, it’s happiness, highly unoriginal but highly selective in who it endows, happiness, happiness and caring, neither danger nor vainglory, that is the most bad-ass thing.

Run to it. Send notes back.

/ / /

Dear Disgrace,

Every time I see you,
you look so different.
I almost don’t recognize you.
I see a pretty woman in the park,
and I think you are late,
so late this time. You might not
even show up. But, just in case,
before you do, I should go up
to the pretty lady and tap her
on the shoulder and warn her
you are coming, that I have
an appointment I can’t get out of,
but, for her, the pretty lady, it might
not be too late.

So, I do, and then you turn
around, and then I realize
it’s you, the pretty lady;
you were early. Then
I can’t run away from your
awful, radiant but
same-old face. It would be
awkward to run. It would
look weird.

I apologize for being late
to our meeting, and then
you are polite to me
while you knife me
in the groin.
“It’s all right,” you say.
A twist and a thrust later:
“I knew you would come
eventually.”

Sly bitch.

Until next time…
Different time? Same place?

Love,
Penelope

P.S. I love what you’ve done with your hair.

i love philadelphia, John Rosenberg, Curate This

Crossing the Border

real straight up and down motherfucking talented artists

John Rosenberg came to Philadelphia from California, put on a bunch of great plays in a converted industrial building in Kensington, then left Philadelphia for California. We became friends, and I asked him to write about his thoughts on the city and its theater.

– Christopher Munden, curator

i love love love love love love love love love philadelphia. when i think of philly i think yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes. My lady friend for eternity is from philadelphia so what is not to love? It is white wine and 24 packs of tall cans of becks for $20 and parliaments my wife bought and fuck i should really eat something i didnt eat dinner i should eat a cheesesteak from little petes before going to bed for work the next morning. it is quarters of xanax when i got to work, 30 minutes of work spread over eight hours while working on a play and then printing out a copy after my boss left and regional railing it home and hooray my wife wants martinis and then smoking all her cigarettes and watching tv and working on a play.

philly is where i figured out for the most part how i wanted to try to do whatever the fuck it is i do, which is write plays and find actors to be in them and then put on the play and hope the actors die before i have to pay them.

philly is where i hit the fucking lottery and got the chance to have my very own theater i could rent for $6000 a year in kensington.

philly is where i got not legally married to my wife.

philly is where a dude asked to rent the theater and then stole all the fucking lights but got caught by a neighbor.

philly is where my wife’s father threatened to kidnap a site reviewer from the pew foundation.

philly is where i was on a ladder in the papermill theater trying to turn on a ceiling fan for a fucking actor and the fucking ladder collapsed because i am an idiot and i fell 15 feet onto my elbow and there was a piece of my elbow floating but i didnt have health insurance so I just left it the fuck alone for three months

papermill, photo by @dopez, Curate This, John Rosenberg
The Papermill Theater, photo by @dopez

philly is where i learned to get an idea, not wait on it but find an actor who wanted to work and write the thing and put the motherfucker up.

philly is where a critic got stopped by the police after one of our shows because they thought she was a prostitute.

philly is where a cast got an outstanding fucking review and a fight broke out during a pick-up rehearsal.

hello! i hope you are working on a thing. maybe in your head or in whatever medium you do shit. but i hope you are working on a thing. i hope you are working on the thing and planning on putting it on somewhere in philly. i hope you pay to put it on and don’t wait for someone else to do it for you. unless your shit is super good or you got it like that.

i really think it is fantastic when people make stuff and then put it on. it is the fucking best.

it is hard to do and hard to earn respect but it is the best. it is YES YES YES.

there are people who are straight up and down real motherfucking talented artists and get their shit put on by the pew foundation or fringearts or the powerhouse theater companies in town and win barrymores and shit. People like Gaby Revlock and the young dude who does shit with the people that i cant remember his name but he is a nice dude and knows how to go about getting his shit done. Not Brad. Fuck. What is his name? I can do this without looking it up. He wrote the play shitheads that azuka is putting on.

i dont have the courage to send my shit out so i like to do it myself.

chris the brit asked me to write this thing on my time in philly. What is heehaw is i just did my taxes from my time in philly. i should have done them before, yes, but i dont have the courage to send my shit out.

My wife and I did seven full length shows and a bunch of shorter things from september 2010 to feb 2014 in a warehouse in kensington called the papermill. i think we spent about $30,000 and made about $1.00 in ticket sales.

there is a way to talk about this stuff without it reading like glory days shit and you had to be there bullshit. i am sure there is, but i am unsure how to do that. maybe by mentioning i think i made about $1500 in ticket sales and spent over $30,000 to play make believe. this does not include late penalties from the irs. i am also sure that my shit is never gonna be as great as it was there, so boo-hoo for me, hooray!

the papermill is still there as of this morning. You should rent it and put on a play. Why the fuck not?! Rent it and tell people to see the show! take the market frankford line and get off at somerset. ask anyone where the local theatre is, because you are there to see people play make believe as they trot lightly on the boards. they will point you in the right direction.

Queen of All Weapons press release, Curate This, John Rosenberg
Queen of All Weapons press release

i miss that shit hella but thank the fuck god i got out of there before someone got fucked up. THANK FUCKING GOD. i used to say that the papermill was the most dangerous theater in america and that shit was slightly true. you could get fucked up coming to see a hella fresh theater show in soooooo many various ways. you could get in a car accident, but whatever. you could get your ass beat getting off at somerset. highly unlikely, but i also did my shows during the day. you could decide that you wanted to take the edge off before a show and get pills or a bag of something and there was no better place to do that than at the somerset stop. you could be a season subscriber to hella fresh theater and die from the fucking mold or the asbestos. you could come see a show in the dead of winter that we heated the theater using open flamed propane tanks and this thing best described as a jet engine/banshee and one of the actors could have kicked it over and KABOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM. you could have died from boredom from the bad shows i put on or attempted to drink away the pain from the show you saw OH MY GOD I SHOULDNT HAVE SMOKED IN BED AFTER THAT TERRIBLE SHOW BUT I WAS SO DRUNK BUT NOW I AM IN HEAVEN AND CAN SEE ALL THE THEATER I WANT FOR FREE.

i consider myself a philly playwright, whatever that means, hooray. i would get sick before every show i put on. i would feel terrible until the actors for the show got to the theater. it is a terrible thing to say, but actors make me feel safe. i love them. i look forward to when i will be able to use cyborgs and not have to pay them.

my time in philly was shaped by my friendship with josh mcilvain. he interviewed me for the fringe back in 2010 because of the space in kensington. we saw each other’s work and saw enough in each other that we respected so we became friends. josh is a super real playwright and is a great fucking writer and knows what he is and what he isn’t. we read each other’s stuff, gave notes, took turns directing each other’s shows. the thing i miss most about philly is working with josh. he has his eye on getting put on by companies and shit because he isn’t a moron, but josh is devoted to making new shit and putting it on. his nice and fresh series is an awesome vehicle for artists looking to show their new polished work. if you are gonna do a nice and fresh, don’t be a useless talent, help set up and clean after the show.

Doing theater in los angeles is like in philly, except it isnt. there is a theater alliance here in los angeles and it seems as stupid and worthless as the philly shit with the barrymores and large companies acting like they care about the work and the idea of community in theater. there are people banging out great work, people putting on stuff just to get noticed and people using it as a step ladder, just like philly.

i have put on three shows in our apartment in los angeles. All of them are plays that take place in apartments. i dont think it was good because it was in an apartment. it was good when it was good and bad when it was not good. actors have a few great shows, a few not great shows. one actor kept sleeping in our backyard without our knowledge or consent. I am right now trying to figure out how to turn our living room into an russian airport for a play called let it snowden.

photo by john rosenberg, Curate This, I love Philadelphia
An apartment becomes a Russian airport. Photo by John Rosenberg.

but hooray! kiss my dog pussy with the negativity and just do some new work! everyone is a champion! If you are working no a thing and want someone to read it or want to run an idea by someone, email me at hellafreshtheater@gmail.com.

Header photo by Josh McIlvain.