Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Christmas Carol

I haven't done a lot of acting. Not in any real sense anyway. Not compared to many of my friends who are professional actors. I had the lead in my third grade production of Boots and his Brothers. In fourth grade I played a vulture in an adaptation of Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears a Who. I was Will Scarlet in a sixth grade musical version of Robin Hood. I did a little improv as part of a college program I worked with, but then in 1990 I moved to Pittsburgh and met a bunch of people who took improv and theater very seriously. I was so impressed and intimidated by them I never participated (though I stage-managed one show and have had a couple of small parts in locally produced movies since then).

My one real experience on the stage came my senior year of college when some friends and I staged A Christmas Carol.

It was something of a guerrilla production. It was December, 1982 at Waynesburg College (now University). At the time there was not a drama department at Waynesburg. The details are a little fuzzy but I believe the previous Drama professor had left and the administration was not sure there was enough interest on campus to justify hiring a new one. It was a small college, around 600 full time students at the time (there are a lot more now), so they may have had a point. Nevertheless, a lot of us were not pleased at this direction.

So we decided to put on a play.

I'm not sure why I got so involved. I had not been part of the drama department prior to this. I guess some of it was just a belief that the Arts are an important part of education. It was a creative process, so that intrigued me. I'm pretty sure that at least part of my motivation was just standing up to the administration.

The primary movers in this production were my friends David Ealy, Julie Smith, and myself. It was the end of the Fall semester, so we were all up to our ears in papers and finals. Because of the time of year we chose A Christmas Carol. We didn't actually find a version of the play. We wrote an adaptation of it based on the original story. It was a public domain property so we didn't have to worry about licensing fees or any of those types of financial matters. It was relatively short and hit the primary moments of the story without a lot of filler.

We went to the administration, told them our plan and asked for support. Their response was mixed. They said we could do it, but there was no faculty advisor to help us out, or any money available for a budget. There was an old playhouse on campus, but it was closed down and all of the heat and electricity had been turned off, so we couldn't use it. They did give us a key and said we could make use of any of the props, costumes or anything else we could find in there.

So we spent a lot of time wandering through a cold, dark building searching for things we could use. We did pretty well for ourselves, and the sense of adventure was worth every minute (even the moment when a stack of old flats fell over on David).

David, Julie and I began the process of looking for actors through flyers and word of mouth. Luckily, due to the small size of the campus this was not that difficult. We managed to pull in a lot of support in a fairly short period of time. We scheduled auditions and cast the roles. We all worked on props and backdrops, painting and hammering in the same dark, abandoned playhouse. We rehearsed in spare classrooms and dorm rooms.

Since we couldn't use the Playhouse we had to come up with another solution. The third floor of Miller Hall, the college's administration building, has a large open chapel with beautiful stained glass windows and a cathedral ceiling. There is not a stage, so we decided to build one. We scrounged every three-foot riser on campus, carried them up three flights of stairs, arranged them in a large rectangular pattern in the front of the hall and covered the cracks between them with masking tape. The painted backdrops and props were installed in a frenzied time crunch.

We weren't allowed to do this until the day before opening. This meant we didn't get a chance to block out the play in it's actual location until the stage was complete. Our first dress performance of the entire show was in front of our opening night audience.

We didn't sell tickets. The performance was free. We put up flyers and told everyone we knew. We ended up doing two standing room only performances.

We enlisted the Lamplighters, the college's choral group, to sing Christmas Carols as people came in. It added to the festive ambiance, but it served another purpose as well by covering up the sounds from backstage.

Except there was no real backstage area, just a narrow space between the backdrops and the wall. The actors all got into costume and makeup before the doors opened and then hid back there for the whole show, quiet as mice.

David took the lead role of Ebeneezer Scrooge and spent the entire performance on stage. Julie had no desire to be on stage so took on the roles of director and stage manager, and probably worked harder than any of us. I forget who played most of the other roles simply because I have lost track of and forgotten many of my collegs friends in the last thirty years.

I played the role of the Ghost of Christmas Present. I wore a long, green robe edged with white fur and carried a staff that was probably seven feet tall. There was a holly bush growing outside of one of the women's dorms and both nights someone went out and clipped fresh sprigs of it to fashion a wreath around my head.

I would like to say that the performances went without a hitch but that's not exactly true. There were no major glitches, but a couple of moments stand out. Tiny Tim, the five or six year old son of a friend of mine, said his one line wrong the first night. He realized it right away and looked mortified but it was sufficiently adorable enough that the audience forgave him. Ralph, the guy who played Marley's Ghost, simply could not remember his lines. Ever. The first night I noticed that when he was on stage he was holding his arm out in front of him, gesturing menacingly the entire time. Turns out he had written his script on the white cloth sleeve of his costume. On one of the nights the chains he wore got caught in the cracks between the risers, so Ralph recited his entire line from the edge of the stage, shaking the entire set every time he tried to move forward.

In the end we were successful. The hall was filled with people from the community, not just the college, all of whom seemed to really enjoy it. One of the Deans congratulated us and said that we had managed to bring the Christmas spirit to campus in a way that had been lacking.


And most importantly it convinced the administration that a Drama department was worth having. They hired a Drama professor and reopened the Playhouse. Since then the old Playhouse has been torn down (it was in pretty bad repair), and a new performance space was built. It's probably arrogant to believe that Waynesburg University would have never had a Drama department again if not for us. But in the winter of 1982, with the help of Carles Dickens, we pulled off a little Christmas miracle.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Nothing but... So help me, God...


Recently I went to an art opening featuring the work of my friend Genevieve Barbee. For those who don't know, Genevieve, in addition to being an artist, runs an amazing podcast called the AP Collector. I've appeared on the show twice; once to talk about my own own work and once alongside Marcel Walker to discuss the Chutz-POW! Comic.

Genevieve calls herself a collector of stories. When I arrived at the venue I saw that her podcast recording equipment was set up. After greeting me she asked a simple question (a question she asked everyone at the event).

Truth or Dare?”

I chose Truth. We sat down at her makeshift studio and she said, “Tell me one true thing about yourself.”

I could have said something like, “I like bacon,” or “I have brown eyes,” and that would have been the end of it. But I wanted to say something more meaningful than that. I think I failed. In that moment, wanting to be honest and truthful, I found it very difficult to say something really true, something meaningful. I suddenly felt like anything I could say was just too private. I ended up saying something like, “I'm a writer, all I do is lie. Maybe that's the answer... one true thing about me is that I'm a storyteller.”

Lame.

My reaction surprised me, mainly because if you asked me in less formal circumstances I would tell you that I'm an open book. Apparently that's a lie I've been telling myself as well. Although, maybe I am an open book, but it's a book that just happens to be fiction.

This morning when I finally decided to write about this after ruminating about it for weeks the following quote was posted by a friend on Facebook.

"That was my father's final joke, I guess. A man tells his stories so many times that he becomes the stories. They live on after him. And in that way he becomes immortal." – From the movie Big Fish.

Our lives, our personalities, are a the result of what we have experienced, of what has come before. But those events are gone, consigned to the past never to be repeated. All we have of our past experiences are our memories, and Memory is a notoriously unreliable narrator. Our memories are not exact replicas of the facts. We never really have access to the truth of what happened. Our memories become the stories we tell ourselves, not a representation of what really happened.

So what one true thing can any of us tell about ourself that isn't in some way, inadvertently or not, a lie?

Stories grow and change in the telling. Every time we replay a memory or tell a story from our life we are reinforcing the narrative that exists in our mind, which may bear little resemblance to the actual facts of what occurred. No two people experience any event the same way, so the memories they have of it, the stories they tell, are different.

This feeds on itself. As we experience more of life and discover more and more of who we are we tell the stories that reinforce our self-image. You would think most of us would want to present ourselves in the most positive light but that's not always the case. Think about it... we all know those people who describe themselves as unlucky, or bad with money, or hot-headed. Their life usually illustrate these descriptors. They have become the story they tell. In many cases people are told these stories, are convinced they are true, when they are too young to know who they really are. It is far too easy, even as an adult, to become trapped by someone else's narrative.

I'm fascinated by this dichotomy between history and memory, fact and fiction. They overlap and create new patterns and become the story of the world.

This tension is something I play with in my novel Bedivere:The King's Right Hand. Bedivere is one of the knights of King Arthur. Now old he is telling the story of his life. He is very aware of not only his failing memory, but also of the fact that the tales of King Arthur and the knights are already becoming legend.

If I may quote myself:

Historians have come to me since I have taken up residence here... They want to know specifics... I cannot answer most of what they ask. For all their focus on details they miss the most important element, the human one. No matter how much they are able to chronicle and reconstruct, they still get it wrong.

The bards touch on the heart of matters, but they could care less about the actual truth of events. Tales of dragons and enchanted knights are more interesting than lists of supplies and the minutiae of running a kingdom. For all of their insight into human nature, like the historians, they too get it wrong.”

In one part of the story Bedivere is discussing Sir Tristan, who in my version is as much a bard as he is a warrior. Bedivere says that Tristan is “a liar, the way all the best storytellers are.”

All of which may be an overwrought way of justifying why I couldn't reveal something really personal. Those who know me well know that I am comfortable sharing intimate details of my life. The older I get though it seems that there are fewer and fewer people who really know me well. While I meet new people and make new friends easily they rarely achieve the depth that older friendships did. Maybe that's age. Maybe the old friends are the people who were there when I was figuring out who I was and now that I have a much better idea of who that is I don't feel the need to share as deeply. So many of the most significant stories of my life, those that truly form the person I am, are far enough in the past as to be completely unknown to newer friends.

And in some cases, in some of the most important cases, my story overlaps with other people's stories. Overlaps in a way that prevents me from telling it. Part of it is not my story to tell. Some of the most true things in my life involve others and to tell them would be a betrayal of those people. I'm sure the story I would tell would surprise them, and be very different from the story they would tell of the same events. There is truth in both versions, but they are separate truths.

So what have I learned from this wrestling with the truth? Maybe I'm not as open as I think I am. Maybe I'm not as honest, primarily with myself. That there are more parts of me that I still feel a need to protect than I thought. That I'm still vulnerable. That I can be very open and honest but I'm picky about who I choose to share with. That I am protective of others as well as myself. That a simple question can still send me off soul-searching.

But even though I'm aware that my memories are unreliable and that my stories have changed the past, I will keep telling them. With age comes new insight. The stories change as I do. So do their significance. In the end all we really leave behind are the stories others tell about us.


What do I want on my tombstone? I used to think the simple words, The End would suffice. Now I'm happy with To Be Continued...

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Chutz-POW!: The Comic Book – Fritz Ottenheimer


It was a bright, sunny yet freezing cold early March morning when I met with Fritz Ottenheimer, the subject of the final story in the Chutz-POW! collection. Fritz and his wife Goldie welcomed me into their home and were very gracious. Fritz is a small man, in his late 80s. He reminded me of my father, at least in terms of general build. He was more than willing to talk about his experiences in Germany and in World War II. Here's the first page of his story, with art by Christopher Moeller.




Fritz was very humble about his contributions and accomplishments, giving most of the credit for being Upstanders to his parents who helped smuggle many people across the German border into Switzerland when he was a boy. His family immigrated to America in 1939 while he was still a teenager. In 1945 he returned to Germany as a member of the U.S. Army to fight against his homeland.

My impression of Fritz is that he is a brilliant and well-read man who has spent much of his life trying to understand the Holocaust and the larger questions about life and humanity that it raises. He spoke with insight, compassion, and dignity about every topic that came up. He wrote a marvelous book about his experiences called Escape andReturn: Memories of Nazi Germany that goes into far more detail than we were able to cover in the hour I spent with him.

I've known the artist, Chris Moeller, for probably twenty years or more. He is an illustrator, comics creator, and one of the more gifted painters I've been privileged to know. I knew Chris was at the tail end of major and very personal graphic novel project so I didn't really think he would be available. To my delight, he said yes. Chris's art stayed very true to my original script. There were places where I told him very openly that while I knew what words needed to be on the page I didn't know what would be the best images to accompany them. In those cases he had carte blanche to do whatever he thought worked best. I wasn't disappointed. His storytelling instincts are golden.


Chris's work includes JLA: A League of One and JLA: Cold Steel. He was the cover artist for the Vertigo Comics series Lucifer and Batman: Shadow of the Bat. He has provided illustrations for Marvel, IDW, FASA, Topps, West End Games, Wizards of the Coast, Blizzard Entertinment, WizKids and White Wolf Games. He created a pair of creator-owned graphic novels called Iron Empires: Faith Conquers and Iron Empires: Sheva's War, currently available from Dark Horse Comics. He recently self-published the thrid book in this series, Void, through an amazingly successful Kickstarter.

Whew...


Fritz Ottenheimer was enthusiastic about the whole Chutz-POW! project, understanding the message we are trying to share. It was Fritz who provided the quote, without any prompting from me, that is on the back cover of the book. I think this sums up the goal of this comic and the educational legacy we hope it leaves, better than anything I could have written.

When you're acting as a superman, you're teaching your children to be supermen.”






Friday, August 8, 2014

Chutz-POW!: The Comic Book – Dora Iwler


The third story in the Chutz-Pow! anthology is that of Dora Iwler. As a teenager Dora managed to escape from Nazi captivity, twice! Here's the first page of her story with art by Dave Wachter.




Though it is the third story in the collection it was the last story I wrote. Dave was working on another major project and told me he couldn't even think about doing this one until at least April. That gave me extra time. I needed it. Maybe it was because I knew I was writing this one last that I just couldn't really grab the thread of Dora's narrative. I read the research I had on her but for some reason the details of it didn't stick in my head. There were elements of Malka Baran's story that I conflated with Dora (mainly the post-concentration camp events). Buried in the tons of research I had I suppose some loss of detail was natural. I do think that I was so focused on the previous stories that I just didn't allow myself to really focus on her until the others were finished.

In the end this turned out to be a good thing. For page count reasons Dora's story needed to be only four pages. As I delved into her story I realized that it was as rich as any of the others. I had already felt constrained by page with every other story. Now what?

Luckily by this time I was more aware of my tendency to overwrite these scripts. I tried very hard to condense Dora's story into specific but powerful images. Luckily I was aided in this endeavor by the amazing art of Dave Wachter.

I met Dave around five years ago when he moved to the Pittsburgh area. Since then his professional comics career has exploded (see his bio/credits below). Due to other projects Dave had fairly limited time to work on this story. As I expected he turned the assignment around in a fairly short period of time and gave me four beautiful pages.

Dora's story proved challenging for other reasons as well. Her experiences included a couple of scenes of pretty intense violence. Now obviously the entire Holocaust was filled with violence, but in the other stories in this volume it was peripheral to the anecdotes I chose to relate. But with Dora it was a central part of her experience and survival. I needed to find a way to show the violence that wasn't exploitive or voyeuristic but that also didn't sugarcoat it. This book is going into middle and high schools as well, so a PG-13 rating was in my mind. On a personal level I also felt that if I was too graphic in this depiction it would be like committing the violence against Dora again.

I found a way to address this in my script and Dave's art perfectly conveys the horror without being graphic.

Dora's spirit of resistance and defiance are perhaps her defining characteristics. I hope this story does justice to that.

Dave Wachter’s professional career includes his artwork for Robert Bloch’s That Hellbound Train, Godzilla and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the mini-series Night of 1,000 Wolves (all from IDW Publishing). In 2012, he was nominated for the Russ Manning Most Promising Newcomer Award in comics, and he was the artist for the mini-series Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem for Dark Horse Comics. In 2014, Dark Horse will release a hardcover edition of his Eisner and Harvey Award nominated web-comic The Guns of Shadow Valley. You can see more of his work at http://davedrawscomics.blogspot.com/ where he recently posted a process blog about working on this project.

As a fun personal note that has nothing to do with Chutz-POW! I wanted to share this. In one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles issues Dave drew he drew Marcel Walker and me into one of the scenes. I've pasted it below.










Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Chutz-POW! Cover Synchronicity

Marcel has talked about his process creating the cover for the Chutz-POW! comics anthology. You can read about it at his blog. What I want to mention in this short blog is a great little visual synchronicity that happened a couple of weeks ago. First, here's the cover as a visual reminder.

Art by Marcel L. Walker

As I mentioned in my last blog my father, Keith Wise, served in the 7th Armored Division in World War II. When I showed him a proof copy of the comic he started talking about some of his experiences. Dad doesn't really talk about the more difficult experiences of the War. He drove a jeep and was part of the division that held Saint Vith against the German assault during the Battle of the Bulge.

While we were talking he brought out a small well-worn booklet that he was given after the War detailing the activities of the 7th Armored. I had seen this book before but it had been a long time.



The booklet is an overview of what the 7th Armored did during the war with tons of pictures and and maps of their route through Europe, ending near the Baltic where they met the Russian Army.

When I turned the book over and saw the back cover I was stunned.



I had completely forgotten this image, and Marcel never saw this picture until well after the book went to the printer. Our cover was simply meant to be.




Monday, August 4, 2014

Chutz-POW!: The Comic Book – Moshe and Malka Baran

The second story in the Chutz-POW! anthology is actually two stories in one. Moshe and Malka Baran met in a displaced persons camp in Austria after World War II. They were married and spent the rest of their lives together. Though their experiences during the Holocaust were very different I thought it was important to tell them as one tale, linking their lives both before and after they met. Given the complexities of telling two stories in one this ended up as the longest story in the book at eight pages.



Here's the first page of their story with art by Marcel (M.L.) Walker.


Moshe was a partisan resistance fighter. He lived in the forests and swamps of Poland for two years fighting a guerrilla war against the Nazis. One of the questions that people seem to ask when trying to understand how the Holocaust could have happened is, “Why didn't the Jews fight back?” Historically speaking there are probably lots of answers to this. Moshe's answer is direct and simple.

I fought back!”

Malka was imprisoned in a labor camp when she was a young teenager. She spent over three years there, wearing the same clothes, forced to clean shell casings in a Nazi war factory. She survived until the camp was liberated. But there is another piece of her story that is so amazing that it sounds completely unbelievable, though completely true. It's the focus of the story in the book, so I won't relate it here in full, but...

Malka and the other women prisoners kept a small child in their barracks, hidden from the Nazi guards.

In all of the stories I tried to use the actual words of the Upstanders wherever I could. These were their stories and in most cases their words carried more weight and were more powerful than mine. In the case of Malka this was not only easy, but was also a joy. Malka was a poet and spent much of her life trying to communicate her experience through her art. In her written words and in interviews, both on paper and on video, she was elegant and powerful. For many of the panels in this story I decided to just step out of the way and let her speak.

The story was drawn by Marcel Walker and of all my scripts this is the one that went through the most structural change from the written page to the final artwork. Wanting to tell both of their stories in the same piece presented a structural challenge that was unique in this volume. I essentially wrote Moshe's story, then wrote Malka's. The question then was how to unite the two. In my thumbnails I played with having one of them in its entirety, followed by the other, then uniting them on the last page. I toyed with the idea of alternating pages, one at a time for each of them.

For the framing sequence I came up with the idea of the older versions of them speaking at an event, telling their stories to an audience. This allowed some leeway in the way the stories were presented.

Marcel read the scripts and rearranged the information I gave him, maintaining the stories I wrote but presenting them in a sequential order I hadn't considered. It made the story stronger (you can read his process blog about drawing this story HERE).

Marcel and I added a personal reference to the story.

My father, Keith Wise, served in the 7th Armored Division in World War II. He drove a jeep for his company Captain, William Borcherding.

In Moshe's narrative he relates how, near the end of the War his group of partisans joined the Russian army. He then recounts how they met the American Army near the Baltic in the first week of May, 1945. My father was there, so Marcel drew him into the story.




Dad has told me stories of meeting the Russians and sharing food and cigars with them. When I read Moshe's story I remembered those stories. Now I realize that the chances of Dad and Moshe actually having met are remote, but it made for a very personal connection for me that I felt I had to slip into the book.

Marcel Walker writes and draws his own self-published comic book called Hero Corps. You can read more about his work at http://www.marcelwalker.com/





Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Chutz-POW!: The Comic Book – Les Banos

The first story in the Chutz-POW! anthology is that of Les Banos. I don't want to rehash all of the details of the story here. That is what the comic book is for. Here's the first page, with art by Mark Zingarelli, to serve as an introduction and teaser.





Les's story was one of the most compelling and exciting stories I worked on. His adventures as a double agent would fill a graphic novel. His life should be a movie, not only for what he accomplished during the Holocaust and World War II, but for the remarkable life he led after. There were so many parts of his life, so many anecdotes, that I had to cut for space.

One in particular stands out to me. I don't have the research in front of me any more, so I am reconstructing this from memory. Some of the specifics are vague, but if there is ever a continuation of his story in any form, this is a tale that needs to be told.

Once, when Les was serving as an SS officer, he was in what appeared to be an abandoned house. I don't remember why, other than his duties took him to investigate this house. While there he heard sounds, human sounds, coming from a grand piano. He lifted the lid and found two young Jewish girls, sisters, hiding inside. They were scared, of course. Les smuggled them out of the city into the hands of his contacts, saving their lives.

This is a gripping tale in itself, but it is what happened much later in his life that gives it resonance.

In Pittsburgh, years and years after the War, Les was attending an event where Holocaust survivors were telling their stories. As he listened to one woman speaker, she recounted how she and her sister had hidden inside of a piano and been rescued. Les met the woman after the event. The sheer randomness and synchronicity of this encounter is magic.

I wanted all of the stories in this collection to have a different structure and a different narrative feel. Les's story was the first one I worked on, and given the nature of the research I had done I ended up approaching it more as a documentary than as a story-like narrative.

I was blessed to have this story drawn by Mark Zingarelli. Mark is a freelance artist who stays really busy. I knew that he was working on an original graphic novel with writer Joyce Brabner (the widow of Harvey Pekar of American Splendor fame). I assumed he would simply not have the time to work on the Chutz-POW! project, but I had to call and ask. To my delight he said yes. When I was telling him about the different stories I was writing it was Les Banos that Mark wanted to work on.

Mark has been a friend for several years now, but his career in comics pre-dates my affiliation with him by many years. In addition to his recent graphic novel work and freelance illustration Mark contributed art to American Splendor and Weirdo. He was also part of the original explosion of independent artists working at Fantagraphics in the early 1980s. He was part of a crowd that included Peter Bagge (Neat Stuff, Hate), Dan Clowes (Lloyd Llewellen, Eightball, Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, Ghost World), and Robert Crumb (way too many things to list). During this time Mark produced a comic called Real Life.








Working with Mark was an education. I have a habit of overwriting. If you follow this blog regularly you already know this. There's a reason I'm more of a novelist than a short story writer. Though I have written for comics before it has been awhile. It's difficult for me to gauge how much room there actually is on the page for images and text. In this case the problem was compounded by the amount of detail in Les's story. The documentary style I had chosen was a little choppy and disconnected. The first draft I sent to Mark was much too wordy and overcrowded with information. 

Mark called me to talk about the script. He was gentle, but the bottom line was there was no way all of what I had written was going to fit in six pages. I deferred to Mark's expertise. He has far more experience laying out a story than I do. The final version that appears in the comic is due to Mark's editing of my script and playing with the layout of the pages as much as it is to my original draft. The story is stronger for this.

And if Mark and I ever get to work together again I promise to give him more of a comics narrative than the documentary style story he got this time around.

Les Banos passed away in 2008. Many people who had known him for years did not know of his experiences as a double agent. Apparently, like a lot of people, he simply didn't talk about it very much. In one of the documents I read in the research someone asked him in the 1990s why he had never told anyone about his time as a double agent. His response?

“I didn't think anybody would believe me!”

We believe you, Mr. Banos, and I feel privileged to be able to bring your story to the world.




Mark Zingarelli's new graphic novel with Joyce Brabner is called Second Avenue Caper: When Goodfellas, Divas, and Dealers Plotted Against the Plague. It's due from Hill and Wang (the graphic novel imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux), in November, 2014. You can see more of Mark's work at his Facebook page HERE or at his House of Zing Website HERE.