Thomas Bird Confronts Monsters of History - Both His and Ours

Photo by Barbara Katz

When the lights come up on Bearing Witness, Thomas Bird's one-man show at the Odyssey Theatre, Bird is standing near a bench which he informs us is outside the gates of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.  This is where the Nazis sent their political prisoners and the educated classes, the intelligentsia, where they proceeded to work them to death. This is also where the most beautiful Jewish women from all the other camps were brought, so that Nazi officers could use them as prostitutes.  Many became pregnant, at which time they became test subjects for Nazi doctors conducting whatever bizarre experiments they wanted to.  Needless to say, the endgame for these women too was death of one kind or another.

Thomas Bird is a Vietnam War veteran who served with B Company, 2nd of the 5th Cavalry, of 1st Cavalry Division in 1965-66. In 1978 he founded the Vietnam Veteran's Ensemble Theatre Company (VETCo), and, as Artistic Director, presented 26 plays both Off- and Off-off-Broadway, including the highly-acclaimed Tracers at the Public Theatre in New York. For his work at VETCo, he was awarded a Drama Desk Award for "giving voice to the trauma of Vietnam."  (He also co-produced HBO's Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam - winning Emmy, Ace and Peabody Awards - and was featured in the film The Killing Fields.)

So why did Bird's show start at Mauthausen?

Thomas Bird's father was a military doctor who arrived here in 1945 with the American forces liberating this camp.  Mauthausen was the last Nazi death camp to be set free, and the event was overwhelming for all involved.   Bird tells us that the impact on his father of seeing the skeletal condition of the living prisoners - as well as the stacks of dead bodies in shallow graves - was enormous,  In addition, something happened when Doctor Bird was tending to the surviving victims that haunted him for the rest of his life, and which Bird's father could only tell his son about on his deathbed.

Bearing Witness chronicles Thomas Bird's spiritual journey in search of his father and the bond they once shared.  I found it to be a deeply powerful piece of confessional theater, which I spoke with Bird about afterwards.

Photo By Barbara Katz

SF:  Your show is called Bearing Witness.  What are you bearing witness to?

TB:   I'm bearing witness to my father and the strong moral and ethical principles that guided him.  I'm honoring his service in World War II and trying to understand the terrible pain he experienced when something tragic happened during his treatment of survivors.  I'm also bearing witness to the killing fields in Vietnam, and all the blameless villagers who were wiped out for no reason in a war driven by body counts.  In a larger sense, I am bearing witness to the innocent victims of both wars, and the toll that has taken on our shared humanity.

SF:  Your anecdotes about killing Vietcong soldiers and about seeing your infantry buddies get killed are so harrowing, as are your reflections about what it took for you to come to terms with that experience.  Do you think that this country has similarly come to terms with what happened there?

TB:   Hardly.  It's part of our cultural sickness - maybe even the origin of it.  This country has never expressed sorrow or remorse for all the violence we did, all the destruction we inflicted in Vietnam.  We continue to believe that it is somehow weak to learn from our mistakes, and so we commit them again and again.  The business of America is business, so we deal with our guilt by making countries prosperous after we've decimated them.  But there is never any true accountability.  Never any soul-searching or moral acceptance of the result of our actions.  So the violence festers within our national spirit, and the sickness grows.

SF:  How would you say this "sickness" manifests itself in our time?

TB:  In so many ways.  Violent video games for one, which I find as appalling and deformative as the slaughter at My Lai.  School shootings for another.  The AR-15 is basically the same as the M-16 we had in Vietnam.  That was the first weapon that could shatter bones,  It's a killing machine, and it has no place in civilized society, much less in the hands of teenagers.  It's all part of this epidemic of what we called "mechanical killing" - which itself involves the loss of Empathy.  Recovering my sense of empathy is what saved my life when I was choked with guilt for what I went through in combat.  I discovered my purpose, my creativity, when I got that back.  But it's the loss of empathy, and the loss of our moral compass, that is killing this country now.

SF:  What about Donald Trump?

TB:  You mean Mister Bone-Spur, our Deny-er-in-Chief?

SF:  Right.

TB:  Yes, he gets 5 deferments - 5! - to keep from having to serve his country in Vietnam. But still he feels qualified to put down John McClain, who - whatever else you think about him - is a real hero who made genuine sacrifices for his country.  Trump is shameless, he has no bona fides, no claim to honor of any kind, and he is as far away from the real military as chocolate is from vanilla.

I am proud to have served my country, to be part of a tradition of serving in the Infantry that goes back to the Greeks.  But you have to separate the War from the Warrior.  That's something my Dad and I agreed upon.  You can be for the soldiers but disagree with the war. That is our American right, and it's at the heart of what has made this country great.  But Trump has tried to equate the two and to use this as a weapon against his critics.  Don't believe it.

That is certainly one of the things I've tried to put into Bearing Witness.  Military might is one thing, but who are we if we lose our empathy, our humanity?  That's why I cried at Mauthausen, for the way that all those innocent people were slaughtered in the Nazi death machine.  But I look around now, and I have to wonder if we've really learned anything from that terrible lesson.


Paul Dooley: Character is Destiny

At the opening of his one-man show at Theatre West, Paul Dooley lists all the other character actors that he's often mistaken for, including Paul Sorvino, Ned Beatty, Charles Durning, Pat Hingle - great actors all of them, memorable from a hundred roles, but seldom identified with just one.  They are the actors whose faces you know you know, but their names... don't quite come to mind.

So let me tick off a few of Paul Dooley's credits and see if his face begins to materialize for you:

-- Larry David's father-in-law in Curb Your Enthusiasm

-- Wimpy in Robert Altman's Popeye with Robin Williams

-- Mr Spritzer the TV Host in the Hairspray movie with John Travolta

-- Julia Roberts's dad in The Runaway Bride

-- The main character's dad in HBO's Dream On

-- Molly Ringwold's dad in Sixteen Candles

-- Mia Farrow's dad in Altman's A Wedding

-- Dennis Christopher's dad in Breaking Away

See a pattern in those last five credits?  And now you know why his show has the title it does.

As Paul tells it, he loved jokes and all form of comedy from the time he was a kid; his all-time favorite comedian is Buster Keaton, whom he reveres as a comedy god.  Paul came to New York City after serving in the Navy to try to make it as a clown.  (His original last name is Brown, but he changed it to Dooley because he thought that it sounded funny.)  He performed at kids' parties and department store openings and any kind of gig he could get, but there was enough money, and he kept hitting rock bottom.  Finally he was able to get a commercial agent at William Morris, and that saved his career.  At one point he had 27 National Commercials running at once on TV, and he was named spokesman of the year.

He was "discovered" as a movie actor by Robert Altman, who made him an important part of his ensemble for four movies. First came playing Carol Burnett's husband in A Wedding, then there was the movie that was supposed to make Paul Dooley a star.  The Perfect Couple, 1979.  Paul plays a middle-aged Greek businessman who is matched up with a bohemian rock singer (played by Marta Heflin) by a computer dating service.  For once Paul Dooley had a chance to play the romantic lead, and he did a great job.  Roger Ebert wrote, "We begin to expect an original comic achievement ... [and] we get one too, as long as Heflin, Dooley and his family are on screen.  But Altman gets sidetracked..."  The result was that the movie was largely neglected, and it rarely gets any mention, even when Altman's body of films are discussed.  (But the comically bizarre Greek family here could certainly be seen as a forerunner to the one in Nia Vardolos's My Big Fat Greek Wedding - which,  20+ years later, was anything but neglected.)

Winnie and Paul - hanging on their bathroom wall

So it was back to playing "the dad" for Paul Dooley - something that had a grim twist to it, in terms of Paul's real life. As he movingly recounts in his show, Paul and his first wife were in the midst of an acromonious divorce when she took their two children and disappeared.  Just vanished without a trace.  It's a gut-wrenching story, and one that you should really hear Paul tell.

Only two shows left of Movie Dad at Theatre West, and I highly recommend catching it.  Paul Dooley has come a long way from his upbringing in rural West Virginia, and he has become an original, an American comedy treasure, who took the improvisational skills he learned from Second City and gave it emotional depth and resonance.  Unlike most comedy originals, Paul has become a deeply happy man through his 30 year marriage to Winnie Holzman, the actress and writer who penned the musical book for Wicked.

It's a real kicker of a story.  But, again, he tells it so much better than I could.

 


F*CK TINDER: FIVE QUESTIONS FOR DAVID RODWIN AT THE HOLLYWOOD FRINGE

Writer/performer David Rodwin has returned to Los Angeles to present his new solo show F*ck Tinder during the Hollywood Fringe Festival at Sacred Fools Theatre.

Lauded by the San Francisco Bay Guardian as, “an exceptional, inspiring talent,” Rodwin's show is sure to be one of the toasts of the Fringe this year.  As he prepared for his presentation of F*ck Tinder here in Hollywood, I took some time to ask David a few questions about the work, his development process, and what creative pursuits are next on the horizon for him.

1) So you're back in LA for the Fringe Festival.  Where have you been?  What have you been up to?

I moved to San Francisco a few months after doing my last solo show Total Novice at HFF'14. I moved because my girlfriend broke up with me and an hour later, when I went out for a walk to think about how I was going to have to move out, I got held up at gunpoint. The next day a dear friend in San Francisco called me up and said “I heard about what happened. You need to get out of LA. I need a roommate. Move up." So I did.

2) What's F*ck Tinder all about?

F*ck Tinder is about kinky sex, polyamory, and acid trips. But mostly it's about the crazy we dive into when we enter the world of dating on apps. It's also a love story. The first half is about the first year I spent in San Francisco where I wanted to have fun and get freaky after being in a committed relationship while I was hearing about how people were on this insane new app which I thought was all about  “Free sex. Right now. Often weird.” I found out the weird part was true, but that was more about the people. There was far less se than I was hoping. But those awkward encounters are what make comedy. People are FUNNY. The second half is when I started wanting something more. Something deeper. And that's when I really found the weird. San Francisco weird.

3) This piece isn't your first solo show.  What's your process in creating solo work?

I worked with Spalding Gray for a while years ago and I've inherited his process for storytelling. I have other solo work that is musical in nature, for which I have a very different process. My first three solo shows were one-man, multimedia operas. I used a very different process. But for the last two shows, I used Spalding's style, which is to write an extremely brief outline, a few words to remind you of each sequence (1-5 min). Talk the story out loud with your mouth. Do it again and remember what worked well. Do it in front of an audience. Do it again and again, remembering what you did last time. Finding the words with your mouth.

I don't write the shows down until a show is set which can take dozens of performances. When I do they're just a transcription. That keeps it very lively. I see too many shows where I can tell the performing is reciting words they've memorized. Even when it's their own, it can often feel stale to my ears. The process I use can be terrifying. There's nothing to hold on to. And for me the biggest challenge at Fringe is keeping the shows on time. I could do a 24 hour version of F*ck Tinder tomorrow. In fact, I might do that for Valentine's Day next year. Partially for fun and partially to bring attention to the book of F*ck Tinder which will be released then, but you can get online one chapter at a time, in serialized form through Patreon starting June 8. Sign up for it here: https://www.f-tinder.com/book

4) Has Tinder ruined the art of courtship?

When was there an art of courtship?

Seriously though, I've been awkward around girls my entire life. I actually have an entire section in my book F*ck Tinder about the genesis of that. Sadly the live show is only an hour and I can't fit it in. Suffice to say it revolves around the prettiest girl in 5th grade making fun of me in a fictionalized story she wrote about me being a mad scientist that the teacher thought was so great she decided to share it with the whole class.

But in terms of courtship, the biggest thing today is that all rules have been thrown out the window. Especially in San Francisco. No one knows what the other is hoping for or expecting. One person's idea of courtship can be a huge turn off to someone else. I ruined a perfectly good fuckbuddy once when I told her “I like you,” that was too much commitment for her. Personally, I like to like the people I have sex with. Not her. Also, I was disabused of the notion that women in San Francisco wants to be monogamous, much less get married and have kids. In two years meeting people in real life and online, I haven't met one. Out of 120 women I dated.

I think that's peculiar to San Francisco, but the non-monogamy movement has been taking hold around the country. I wish it had when I was younger. But again, the problem of courtship is expectations. And even on Tinder, which was invented as the “Straight man's Grinder,” now many people post NOT HERE FOR HOOK-UPS. But sometimes the ones who say that in all caps are doing it because they were there for just that last week. And they don't always mean what they say, which is a real problem in a world where I demand not just affirmative consent, but enthusiastic consent. Even if I'm at a sex club.

5) What's next?

I'm directing and starring in a feature film of my last one man show Total Novice. I may eventually go back to the original title “Crackwhore Pornstar Love,” but while I'm raising the funds, I'm sticking with Total Novice. Want to invest in a movie? Check out the teaser at: www.jadelake.com