doctors, pharmaceutical manufacturers & priorities

This past weekend I worked with students at Kaneland High School to create a new play, which they’re producing in November. It’s pretty exciting, and I’ll write more on the process tomorrow.

But, today, I received an email from the director, my mother, and I want to address it. The question regarded how I characterized doctors in the play based on one line:

“The videos he left behind for me to learn were FAC-inating! Legalizing, regulating, doctors sharing with patients! That’s me. A regular Dr. Like Seuss…only I make the things he wrote about HAPPEN!”

This character talks about his father, who was a pharmaceutical manufacturer (the target here, not the doctors), and he taught his son how to make more drugs (after all the adults died). The character’s created a place where he enslaves other teenagers to create “chemical candy” for his own personal pleasures. I’m not trying to say all doctors are “bad.” That’s a gross generalization, and it’s not what the play is about. The note took issue with the idea that I’m demonizing doctors as people don’t provide any real service, or who are only feeding patients medicine that doesn’t really help them.

Doctors do “share drugs with patients.” General practitioners put people on anti-depressants all the time as a “band-aid” for bigger problems (or for people who don’t have problems at all). I’m certainly not suggesting we get rid of doctors. This whole scene, which takes place in an old pharmaceutical manufacturing plant, is a commentary on the Pharmaceutical industry focusing all their time on making drugs like Zolft, etc., spending all their money marketing these drugs, and not spending the same time and money on vaccinations for HIV or H1N1 flu virus. There is no reason we shouldn’t have a vaccination for either of these viruses; however, people are chomping up Prozac and Paxil like candy.

Every year overdoses from prescription medications are growing, and it’s due, in part, to doctors over prescribing and patients having too much freedom to get whatever drug they want whenever they want. To wit: “1 in 5 teens has abused a prescription (Rx) pain medication. Cocaine, Ecstasy and methamphetamine are each roughly half as prevalent as prescription drug abuse.” These companies are poisoning our youth (and our adults).

The other problem I’m addressing is Americans (especially) eat fast food, sit in front of computers and televisions for hours on end, and when our bodies start falling apart, we wonder why we need surgical procedures and extreme diets to aid our ails. We need to maintain our bodies, not fix them when they break down.

If we continue allowing pharmaceutical and insurance companies to drive production based on “making people feel better” and “if you can afford it,” doctors continue being slaves to these companies. This is where I believe some doctors have gone wrong. They rely on quick fixes that only temporarily help – or worse yet, they make people believe they were helped when they’re only sedated (ironically, this sedation also contributes to the sloth-like society in which we currently live). They receive kick backs from pharmaceutical companies, and that is a real shady game.

Do I think doctors are generally good, save and improve lives? Of course I do. Do I think pharmaceutical companies have grip of addiction on many Americans and push their agenda through compromised physicians who are paying for a summer house, a speed boat or a new car? Absolutely. Greed drives the companies, and greed drives these doctors.

As far as the moment in the play, the note certainly made me think about this issue more in depth, and if anything, I realize I need to clarify what the scene says. That’s the best thing to come out of this. If the play gets better, this whole thought tangent was worth it.

play for students

The past few weeks have been filled with writing my first new play in two years. Really, I’ve not written a new full length play in almost four years. There’s many reasons for that, not the least of which has been my focus shift toward curating and producing others’ work. It’s been great producing, but I’m extremely happy to return to the creative. A couple weeks back, I spoke to an artistic director/producer friend of mine at another NYC theatre company, and I asked her what she is doing these days. She said she is getting back to acting and directing, which was what she originally got into the business to do. We laughed that we started our companies so we could create our own work, but the administrative rigors of producing and fundraising have kept us from creating original work of our own. She was very happy to be back in the creative saddle again.

So am I. Recently, I received a commissioned from a high school in Elburn, IL to write a play for their students. It was doubly exciting to have this request come from none other than my own mother, Ilene Carter. For eight years she’s taught theatre at Kaneland High School and she’s directed the fall play and spring musical. She has her Masters in Theatre Education from NYU, and she’s been inspiring teenagers to enter the business of theatre for over ten years. She spearheaded a campaign to build a new 750 seat auditorium at the high school, and the referendum passed, which afforded the district to build a beautiful palace of a theater. It’s larger than most Broadway stages, has state of the art sound and lighting (better than that in most professional New York theaters) and a hydraulic lift on which an entire orchestra can lower down and up into the pit. It’s pretty sweet. And my mom was a big part of it coming to pass. She’s retiring from teaching this year, and after saying we were going to do this year after year, it’s finally happening. You can imagine my anticipation as I prepare to fly to Chicago today and work for three days with her students.

My biggest concern on writing a play for students (aside from certain “moral” restrictions…read: no swearing) was writing something distinctly for their voices. I didn’t want to write some glossed over After School Special issue play, and I didn’t want to write a play where teenagers were playing adults. It had to be about them…for them. How to do this? Easy. Create a world in which adults don’t exist. I devised a story that takes place in the not-to-distant future where everyone aged 9 years and older was wiped out by a world-wide pandemic. The play, itself, unfolds 10 years after all adults were wiped from Earth, and the children, who are now teenagers, live at outposts created by their parents who hope by leaving the few remaining children video lessons (they use power from solar panels for power to view the videos, but don’t have enough real electricity to run much other than small household appliances) hopefully, they will learn what they need to rebuild humanity.

At the top of the play, the tribe receives an S.O.S. distress signal from another outpost in Old Chicago. Nothing else. No audio, no video, no written communication. Only S.O.S. After much debate, the tribe sends a band of seven out to determine who or what may be on the other end. Through the trials of their quest, they learn more about themselves and humanity itself.

Mom cast the play last night with all 31 students who auditioned. I wrote it with large group scenes so as to include as many students as possible, so I’m glad she was able to incorporate everyone who wanted to participate in this unique experience. I’m heading off to catch a plane now, and tonight we’ll have our first read through of the script. I hear they are very excited to be working on a new play. Some are hypothesizing how the play ends. Some are science fiction freaks geeked about the future setting. Some are aspiring playwrights and will just be sitting in to learn about process. It’s very cool.

Boarding the plane now. More on the first read through tomorrow…

plays in peoria

The New York Times reported new National Endowment for the Arts chair Rocco Landesman is going to visit Peoria, IL to see what plays there. Peoria is my hometown. I was born there, and I moved to Canton, IL, which is about 30 minutes from Peoria, when I was 9 years old. At 12, I started working in community theatre in The Fulton County Playhouse. Just before I moved to New York City to study theatre, I had the honor of performing in Big River, Metropolis and Lucky Stiff, all produced at Eastlight Theatre in East Peoria, IL. Central Illinois theatre was integral to who I am.

It was at Eastlight I first had exposure to Actors Equity Association, performing with a guest actor from Chicago. It was at Eastlight I performed in a Midwest regional premiere of Metropolis. It was at Eastlight I decided to become a professional in the theatre. The opportunities I received at Eastlight and The Fulton County Playhouse taught me the essentials of what I do every day. I learned how to build sets, how to act, how to write, how to run sound (with lack of barking recordings, I found myself backstage “playing” the dog in Steel Magnolias), and how to work as a team.

When I read the original interview in the NY Times last week, I was put off. I didn’t say it out loud to anyone, but I was. I needed a few days to digest it. There’s always a stigma on community theatre. I get it. It’s for people working as doctors, lawyers, teachers, chiropractors, and IT techs that have decent voices, did theater in high school or college and still have the bug. It’s not professional, it’s not as good as Chicago theatre, and it’s certainly not Broadway. But, if one delves into the New York theatre scene, a vast majority of theatre artists trying to make it in this unforgiving business work as bartenders, waiters, temporary assistants, nannies, paralegals, and real estate agents. They are New Yorkers, pursuing careers in theatre, but they do other jobs to pay the rent. These artists return to regional theaters and grace them with their talents, inspiring young people to pursue insane lives as vagabonds, directors, raconteurs, clowns, actors, designers and artists. We’re all artists. We all matter. We’re just having different experiences.

The Peoria Players Theatre, Cornstock Theatre, and The Peoria Civic Center, which brings in professional national tours of plays and musicals like Broadway Bound with Zeljko Ivanek, (who’s career I’ve followed since I was in high school) and Cats (of course) are other wonderful Peoria theatres that inspired me through their productions and programming. I would be remiss in not mentioning them. Though I never worked for those theatres, many of my former colleagues did. They still invigorate the city of Peoria, IL. They produce plays from Broadway and Off Broadway, bringing New York playwrights to the Midwest. They encourage young people just starting off to passionately pursue this profession.

Fortunately, Kathy Chitwood, executive director at Eastlight, and Suzette Boulais, the executive director of ArtsPartners of Central Illinois had the tenacity to reach out to Mr. Landesman and challenge him. I’m very proud to know Kathy, and I wish her all the best when meeting with Mr. Landesman. From what I’ve heard he’s a tough nut, but he’s a fair one. Mr. Landesman said of Kathy and Ms. Boulais’ invitation to visit Peoria, “I think it’s something we’re all going to have good fun with. It’s great for the Peoria folks — having some attention. And we can make a statement about the N.E.A. — we do intend to be everywhere. I’m looking forward to it.”

Eastlight’s recent production of Rent is just closed, but if it’s like any of the shows they produced 15 years ago, it was professional and well acted. They include outstanding singers that bring the Heart of Illinois together to drink theatre in like an oasis in the desert. I’m happy to hear Mr. Landesman is visiting in early December when Eastlight presents its annual production of Joseph and the Amazing Technecolor Dreamcoat. It’s a fantastic representation of what they do.

There’s a reason for the old saying “Will it play in Peoria?” They’re cultured. And the only reason they are cultured is because its theatre companies bring plays like Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? and Lindsay-Abair’s Rabbit Hole to their stages. When you see a mob of high school students craning their necks in Times Square, blocking the sidewalk because they are jazzed that they’re going to see Avenue Q or Hair on Broadway, it’s because of these fine artists living in Peoria and thousands of other smaller cities across America. They are our life blood. If we cease to support them, we cease to exist. It is very important Mr. Landesman understands this when he visits.

One more thing – I have to credit two other people when touting my current career path. Jim Carter and Ilene Carter are my parents, and without their encouragement and support as I worked my way through these estemed institutions (existing longer than most New York theatre companies) I would not be a playwright, producer and advocate of theatre in all its splendor. Thanks to them for all their support.