My name is Ivan Bellman . . . duh.

When Andy Horwitz (aka Mr.Roboto) first talked to me about writing for Cultureslut, he asked that I chronicle my adventures from the road while traveling around on this grant I was on. The idea of letting my demons loose on a website was attractive as to alleviate my electronic friends and neighbors from the SPAM I’ve been spewing for years.

The grant is funded in part by a government organization with a bit of a controversial history. In fact, the grant is technically called “a Program” for these very political reasons. I didn’t want the NEA or TCG to come under fire nor did I desire some dork to Google my ass to find that, Ivan got into a fight with a drag queen while snorting Ritalin in the bathroom of some Midwestern bar while he was supposed to be observing some opera rehearsal.’

So I took on said persona, a nickname from college given to me by the TD of the Theater Department at Skidrow College. I thought this way I could write uncensored simultaneously making it tough for my patrons to take back the money.

A couple of people have outed me along the way – the female diaspora of Iowa City would just as soon watch me burn.  But, by enlarge, I think my career suicide was somewhat entertaining for those who chose to play along. Now I am almost out the door and I’m taking Rockee, my ex-BBFF, with me.

I have finished the grant. They still owe me one more check but I have realized how little people care about what happens to their tax dollars these days. Our politics are reactionary at best. The concept of “Selling Out” doesn’t exist anymore. Currently, there is no form of protest that can withstand the mainstream. This includes murder, the one crime I haven’t committed unless you count that of my alter ego who dies here and now by my own keyboard.

Below you will find my unexpurgated Final Report from The National Endowment for the Arts/Theatre Communications Group Career Development Program for Directors and Designers 2004-2006. It’s long and rough, just the way Daddy likes it. The writing is . . . well, feel free to judge for yourself . . .

Goodbye IB! Don’t forget to write!!!

Love~
Me

Theater is Not Enough

Act I

I am in the process of writing a book. The idea came out of necessity as I began to become mentally unhinged about halfway through my time on the CDP. This rather intense state of neurosis was the result of a change in attitude towards my vocation. This shift was not a welcome one. I fought the encroaching reality with everything I had. I lost.

Two years ago the future was pleasantly alluring. I had just been employed to direct a play for the LAByrinth Theater Company at the Public in New York. I put off plans to visit my grandmother in Iran as the political situation between Us and Them was brightening. When I gained acceptance into the CDP, it seemed as if I had finally arrived as a professional director.

The play at the Public proved to be a disaster. The only thing more baffling than not being fired was not quitting. I stuck with it because I believed the content of the play would provide some illumination into the ongoing war in Iraq. The reviews were positive but, sadly, focused on the good looks of the actors over the story’s pathos, let alone any larger issues. The converts to whom I was preaching were now also blind and deaf.

The hapless feeling of making art that was ineffectual propelled me to spend some time in Washington DC. I had a mind to leave theater for what they call “Political Advance”, which has to do with creating environments for politicians to campaign and give speeches. I ended up masquerading as a college student to raise money for grassroots lobbyists.

I flirted with the idea of quitting being a director of plays but, ultimately, being accepted into the CDP was too big an opportunity/honor to turn down. I also booked two well-paying undergrad directing jobs. It seemed as if the American Theater needed me, at least for the moment. So I resolved to give it one more try.

When I started back up again, my work was on fire, perhaps because I had recovered my career from a near death experience. I began to plan my future adventures on the CDP. My directing tends to lean towards the more conceptual side of things so the Program’s selection panel thought it would be best to observe actor based theater . . . get away from my hero worship of avant-garde directors and the like.

The theater-actor town of most renown is Chicago. I attacked that city with deep enthusiasm. In seven days I had seven meetings with different theaters and I saw six plays. To describe my meeting with Martha Lavey at Steppenwolf as surreal would be an understatement. It ended with her offering me an assistant director position on a play that loosely dealt with September 11th.

Upon my return home, the romantic relationship with which I was engaged went sour. This did not bother me as I was still feeling the zeal of being on top of my game. Being subsidized by the CDP to run around the country was exhilaratingly righteous. However, somewhere along the line I had acquired an anxiety about getting on airplanes. I didn’t think about it at the time, preferring to simply medicate my newfound terrors away.

I then traveled to UCSB for their Summer Theater Laboratory. I crashed on my friend’s couch, attended workshops daily and showings of work in the evenings. Not having the normal pressures of directing was the height of decadence. It was also perhaps the end of my artistic adolescence. I took some playwriting workshops, which were oddly empowering. My writing was taking on a new voice somewhere between linear and stream of unconsciousness.

After California, I sustained an injury that haunts me still. A combination of a nasty spill on a skateboard compounded by long distance running led to strange pains in my left leg. My hip swelled up to the size of small cantaloupe. Doctors, pills, x-rays, injections . . . how I landed two more jobs that book-ended the AD gig in Chicago will take some investigating. It’s all a bit of a fog at current.

When I showed up at the University of Rochester to direct Tracy Letts’ KILLER JOE, my loss of weight (down 20 lbs. to 145) sparked concern in my employers. I checked myself into an emergency room where I was promptly given more drugs. I took the prescription but refused the ones they offered on the spot as I had driven myself to the hospital.

Two days after KILLER JOE was finished in Rochester, I was to start my AD job. On my way home, my car skidded off the road into a snow bank. Was I dead? (It was the weather as I had flushed the remainder of my Vicodin prescription down the toilet.) No, but for the next six weeks I entertained thoughts of suicide. My psychiatrist put me on Prozac; my few remaining friends (read: two) talked me down out of many a mental tree and the ex-girlfriend tried everything short of a restraining order to keep me away. Two weeks of rehearsal in New York were followed by four more back in the Windy City before I was contracted to direct in Iowa.

My brief tenure in Chicago was a waste. Maybe it was bad timing but, to me, everything about that environment smacked of narcissism. Theater is so endangered that it’s own survival eclipses the content of the stories it wants to tell. The only good thing about that job was going over emails I sent out when my building was evacuated on September 11th. This was when the seeds of nihilism were planted along with my new fangled fear of flying, both of which came into full bloom as my serotonin levels waxed to the tide of the chemicals I ingested.

Intermission

Tracy Letts is a brilliant actor and a successful writer for the theater. He acted in the play I assisted and, as I mentioned, was the author of one I had directed in Rochester. I thought it was ironic that his play BUG only broke even after it’s two year Off-Broadway run . . . . Our value system as it relates to money in the US is frightening. Qualities that I hold in the highest esteem are worth nothing monetarily. So how does one make a living doing what they love if what they love does not warrant a living?

Act II

On the day I was packing up to leave Chicago for Iowa I learned that my grandmother in Tehran had died. Then, once in Iowa, I received a call informing me that it was not possible to travel to Iran to study Ta’zieh and meet contemporary Iranian theater artists under the auspices of the CDP. This was regretful but understandable. The diplomatic situation with Iran has gone to hell in a hand basket. With no US Embassy in the whole country, there was no way one could, in good conscience, send an American citizen to Iran by way of US government funds.

As a consolation, I was given permission to travel to the Philippines to attend the ITl/UNESCO World Congress. The idea was to obtain firsthand knowledge as to make subsequent forays into international theater. Maybe someday in the not so distant future I will be able to attend the International Theater Festival in Tehran. I would consider such a journey a small but luminous triumph over all the negativity that clouds the times in which we live.

By the by, the production in Iowa was on the same order of disaster as my gig at the Public. Again the product was above par but the process drove my collaborators and I to the brink of working at Starbucks or finding a full-time temp job. I guess I had come full circle or maybe I was just tying the knot on this particular wrinkle in time.

Salvation in the form of an Epilogue

A curious thing happened to me while I was in Manila: I saw a lot of bad theater. Bad theater is not extraordinary. Theater is hard and good theater is rare. What was remarkable was that I couldn’t be happier watching bad plays. It wasn’t about content. It was about listening to people who I never heard speak. This was not a bunch of upper middleclass blue-hairs in the Midwest watching a play. These were artists talking to other artists. This was again preaching to the converted but at least it felt like church.

I wasn’t there to see television actors play roles that were clearly beyond them. And I wasn’t there so I could maybe shake Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s mother’s hand in the lobby. I went to support people who, like myself, traveled thousands of miles for the very same reason . . . with the exact same unknown quantity on their side of the equation. There was no hope of the shows presented in Manila to be “picked up”.  And there were no prizes as there are in Edinburgh or the New York Fringe.

The object was just to participate in the dialogue. That’s it.

To quote my CDP application, “I would like to create a synergy between my artistic pursuits and my career.” What I have learned in the past two years is that the energy it requires to perpetuate a career from “within” the theater is so great that it forces one into isolation. I would rather live and work “outside” the establishment so that I can bring things of value back to share.  I’d rather take the risk of being forgotten by the community than become so self-absorbed that I am ignorant to the rapidly changing world.

I am not so juvenile as to say, “I am never directing another play ever again.”  Nor will I bitterly proclaim, “I quit the theater!” I look back on my C/V with fondness . . . even a little nostalgia.  Now, I simply want to find another way to earn a living so that directing plays is not my bread and butter. Then maybe it won’t be so precious. Maybe then I will be able to speak and listen with the clarity I found abroad.

In conclusion, I would like to comment on two aspects of the CDP that would be impossible to duplicate in another environment. First off, the diversity juxtaposed against the compatibility of all the Program’s participants was uncanny. I relish in the fact that I would not have had so much as a conversation with the other directors and designers had we not all been selected. Secondly, Emilya Cachapero and Sheela Kangal transcended their responsibilities as administers of the Program to provide me with guidance that one only finds in the closest of friends.

The development of my career during my time on the CDP is secondary to that of my humanity.

Thank you very much.

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