5/6/21: Somewhere (2010) — Faith and Boredom #poetry

5/6/21: Somewhere (2010) — Faith and Boredom #poetry

Boredom is a state adjacent to wonder. Boredom falls when one thing is over and necessity has been taken care of … what now? who now? how now?

I haven’t been bored in years. I appreciate my current boredom. Necessity has always been back of mind and desire in the front. No room for full wonder … always a problem to solve … always a riddle … never just an open space … or more accurately only an open space for a narrow window of time … the time to write something that I like … but never that window as a constant state of being, never the sense that I am writing my life like a poem, facing an empty page and listening for what is true … never that luxury …

Boredom and wonder happen in comfortable, safe places … the Chateau Marmont, the Carlyle Hotel … my recliner, Amazon Prime Video … my headset is on, and tuned into nothing … that whooshing sound … a cloudy day beyond the sliding doors, gentle on my eyes …

The guy in this movie sits still but doesn’t know it. Then it’s a girl, a drink, a long shower, a road … the old escapes don’t work anymore.

The old dead life invades the ennui. Boredom beats bullshit. It’s confusing when you don’t know that something is over. It’s OK. You work your shit out in purgatory.

Boredom is a blank canvas that starts talking back. Not so blank anymore.

Wonder is not knowing. Wonder is humbling. Humble brings peace. Vulnerability is liberating.

I want credit for my ideas here. They aren’t Sofia Coppola’s.

I want to be seen, to be recognized. I don’t want the world where I was ignored or worse, misinterpreted. It’s not about fame or fortune. It’s about connection. Hollywood ain’t nothing compared to poetry.

A writer is not a person of action. A writer is a witness and a witness needs to testify.

This movie might be better as a short story. It’s still a pretty good movie, though. A lot of seemingly mundane uneventful scenes — the action is interior. The acting and directing does the short story trick — double though.

Sofia Coppola is brave. This isn’t a show about nothing. It’s a show about being and nothingness.

I can’t keep Elle and Dakota Fanning straight. They are both good.

Boredom comes when you know yourself, but you don’t know where to go.

I got over “I’m sick of” …

I’ve done “This is who I am” …

now I’m on “where do I go?” …

This guy just lays around and eats and drinks and occasionally has sex …

Why isn’t he fat? Talk about a good metabolism …

I must be bored … I’m giving this movie the Mystery Science 2000 treatment …

Mystery Science 2000 bored me … an escape that didn’t work …

Back to our regularly scheduled poem …

This guy lives in a hotel … the rich homeless live in hotels… this piece is a sequel to “Nomadland”

The more bored I am the more abstract and experimental my writing becomes. …

untethered …

freedom in search of …

I stroke my face with a disposable razor to catch stray hairs missed in my morning shave …

I got a new IPad … it took me two days …

by the time I got the screen protector and case and extra charger cables … are you bored yet?

I had a four hour conversation with an old friend … that was fun …

I stopped writing for a while …

I’m tired of the reach of this blog …

another old friend told me to ask my subconscious for opportunities to be published and forums and audiences where I could do readings and talk and to keep at it … (he had asked me what was my ideal “theater” and I told him published in collections and/or series in a periodical; and staged readings where I read my pieces and talk around them … I also said maybe teaching the ethical presence class that I developed in higher ed, but I am editing that part out … I don’t need the day job money now, so fuck it … I just want to write {and talk} …)

It was good advice, I’m doing that …

He also said to ask my subconscious for direction as to what I can do proactively … I’m doing that too …

Pointedly he said “repeat” …

Boredom is a prayer … an act of faith …

Growing something is different than building it …

It’s not the old places or the old ways … this is something different … it’s not job interviews, and auditions, and writing submissions, and networking, and trying to fit in …

My old friend (of the four hour conversation) told me “You want to be paid fro doing exactly what you want to do” …

Exactly … I’ve never been precisely in this space before, and in fairness to me, I don’t think too many people have either

I don’t think babies are conceived during intercourse. I think they are made when the lovers lie next to each other in their respective solitudes, unsure whether they feel like getting out of bed or not.

Oh, here’s the scene where he realizes that he doesn’t know what to do. His epiphany. He’s crying, but it’s good … how much time in my life have I spent doing nothing? I’m not sure, but it was a lot, and it was time well spent.

Man, this guy can eat … he’s making me hungry …

You’re lucky if anxiety turns into boredom and if depression turns into patience and faith. You’re lucky if you are bored, if you aren’t preoccupied with survival and have the opportunity to … whatever …

(I believe in luck … no way you make things happen alone … we are carried to our destinies transported by the gravitational pull between our bloodstream and the time space continuum …)

He gets out of his sports car and starts walking and its over … and he’s starting over … holding on to what matters and tossing out the rest …

THE END … on come the credits and the director’s favorite songs …

All good movies are personal to the filmmakers and their audiences …

I’ve wanted to see this movie for a long time …

Life is paradoxically most interesting when you are bored, and vaguely aware that a new iteration of your life is waiting for you …

Somewhere …

this year of the pandemic has been one of the best years of my life …

Copyright 2021 Richard Thomas

Clouds of Sils Maria

5/4/21: Facebook gave me this memory to share — I wrote this piece about a movie I didn’t like six years ago today. I like the writing and I like the place this piece has in the development of the writing. It foreshadows later work.

The Rick Blog

clouds of sils maria

Clouds of Sils Maria is a new art film. The clouds of the title refers to a natural phenomena in a part of the Swiss Alps. When conditions are favorable a river of dense mist snakes its way down a significant stretch of mountain valley. The clouds are symbolic in the movie of the reality of aging and the nearly intangible river of life. This picture has all the depth of The Lion King.

Paula and I saw this pretentious piece of garbage about bored and boring rich and famous people who create problems for themselves because they can’t think of anything else to do at the Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park. The filmmakers hoped we would be fascinated by this tale of witless narcissism supported by seemingly endless means. The owners of the movie theater catered to our comfort. We sat in very wide thickly cushioned leatherish…

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4/30/21: Allen v. Farrow (2021) — It doesn’t matter what people believe – the truth is what matters. #poetry

4/30/21: Allen v. Farrow (2021) — It doesn’t matter what people believe – the truth is what matters. #poetry

Mia Farrow alleges in this documentary that Woody Allen told her, “It doesn’t matter what’s true – it matters what people believe.”

After watching this four part series, I have no beliefs related to the accusation that Woody Allen molested the daughter that he adopted with Mia Farrow, Dylan Farrow, when she was seven years old in the early 1990s. I also have no sense of whether or not it is true that Woody Allen is guilty of incest and pedophilia, or if Mia Farrow manipulated her little girl to use her as a pawn in order to exact revenge against Allen because he left Mia Farrow for her then college aged adopted daughter, Soon Yi Previn, and subsequently married Soon Yi Previn when Allen was 51, and Soon Yi was 21, thirty years his junior.

Kurosawa’a film “Rashomon” explores how several characters have different, sometimes wildly different, perceptions of the same circumstance. “Rashomon” considered the reality of point of view. No two people can stand in the same place at the same time, therefore our sense of the happenings of the world are necessarily always personal and subjective. I’ll add that the same person can have a different perception of the same situation depending on which modality of thought he or she applies in making his or her determinations.

Many of these different modalities of thought are represented in Allen v. Farrow. Most of them have everything to do with belief, and little to do with truth.

“It doesn’t matter what’s true – it matters what people believe.” If Woody Allen said this, he was asserting the primacy of public relations. I used to believe that Woody Allen was above public relations. He made his two movies a year, and played his clarinet at Michael’s Pub every Monday night. He didn’t acknowledge awards, and blocked out the outside world. His entire focus was on his work and his personal life. My view of Woody Allen derived from my unconscious acceptance of the messages of Allen’s very sophisticated public relations activity. Allen was not the detached artist (or at least aspiring artist) that I had imagined. He was a powerful man, of high status and influence. He represented an image of artistic purity that had nothing to do with reality. Allen consciously pursued societal success, and enjoyed his status with the public, critics, film industry professionals and the wealthy and intellectual elites of Manhattan. Allen’s skill at public relations does not necessarily make him a pedophile, but he did work to control the narrative revolving around his relationship with Mia and Dylan Farrow. Mia, and later Dylan and Ronan Farrow, played the same game with increasing success over time.

The truth has nothing to do with the charm, appeals for sympathy, persuasive arguments and strong expressions of outrage that are the common currencies of public relations.

The law requires evidence and rigorous procedure, but ultimately the results of legal proceedings still fall in the purview of belief instead of truth. A Connecticut prosecutor never filed charges against Allen, because, he says, he thought putting then seven year old Dylan on the stand would not be in her best interests. A child welfare investigator in New York City, believed Dylan and Mia, but said that the investigation was taken away from him by “higher ups” who protected Woody Allen.

The law aspires to finding out the truth, and responding to that truth justly, but the fact is that the law is limited. It can only, at best, reach a determination of what society will accept as the truth. Innocent people are punished and guilty people get off scot free every day.

Many people identify with Woody Allen, and don’t want to believe the worst about him. Many people identify with Mia and/or Dylan Farrow, and want to believe that they were wronged and deserve justice.

If people don’t identify on a personal level, they may view the controversy as a political one. They might see women and children as being abused by powerful men. They might see powerful men being slandered by vindictive women.

It doesn’t matter what people believe – the truth is what matters.

So how to get at the truth?

Regular readers won’t be surprised that my answer is “art”.

Mia Farrow was involved with the late novelist Philip Roth after her time with Woody Allen ended. Philip Roth could have written a great novel about this entire affair. It definitely deserves that type treatment, not the true crime docudrama provided by this potboiler of a TV series.

Fiction gives more of the truth that matters here, than the definitive Perry Mason climax that Allen v. Farrow teases, if never fully brings forth. The truth is that we can never really know what happened in these people’s lives. We can’t know who they are or what they did or didn’t do. We can look at the situation and empathize and imagine. We can discern and not judge and maybe create something that allows us to understand a little more about what it is to be a human being.

I don’t write fiction exactly, but I write about my personal experience. This piece for example, is about my experience watching Allen v Farrow. My thoughts were about living and speaking my truth.

I made some personal decisions while I watched this series. I rejected for my own life ever courting the status and power and success that are so important to Woody Allen. I always thought that Woody Allen was what I call a “near artist”. He sold himself as an artist. He sometimes achieved art, but mainly he is an entertainer.

There was discussion in Allen v. Farrow about the need to separate the life of an artist from his or her art. I disagree with this true -ism, at least when it comes to the area of public relations — the conscious manipulation by the artist of what people think of the artist. Allen makes a lot of choices in his movies currying favor with the people he wants to think highly of him. He has a lot of intellectual and artistic characters. He argues for his romantic proclivities — “the heart wants what it wants” is one of his famous lines. Allen cultivated popularity in the movie industry. Every actor (and every other kind of film professional) wanted to work with him. An artist can’t make strategic decisions and be true to his or her art. An artist listens to his or her inner voice, and listens to the world that he or she encounters. The artist then reports what he or she found out faithfully.

I always react a bit when someone describes what I write as an opinion. I write to attempt to understand the truth. I don’t always get there. Sometimes I get it wrong. Always, I only go so far — no matter how deep I get into something, I always wind up on the edge of a new mystery. That’s why I write the next day.

Allen v Farrow is more about how the filmmakers look at things than about the conflict in that unhappy family. The truth is that I stopped thinking about Woody Allen’s alleged crime, or the nature of Dylan Farrow’s pain. The series presentation was so thin and incomplete, I got no reliable understanding of any person, crime or issue.

What I did get was a chance to meditate about many of the forms of thought control that distort our lives: infotainment (Allen v Farrow itself), public relations (Woody Allen’s canny manipulation of people’s view of him as a person), elite authorities (expert psychiatric witnesses), lawyers and investigators (the justice system) and the push back of muckraking reporters and their subjects (adult Ronan Farrow of Vanity Fair and adult Dylan Farrow speaking as part of the Me Too Movement).

Nothing in the previous paragraph is the truth. It is just the stuff of the truth.

Where is Philip Roth when you need him? Oh yeah, he’s dead. Well don’t look at me. I don’t know enough about the world that Woody Allen, Mia Farrow and their kids live in to write about it. So I write about what I do understand — what I thought and felt while I watched this program.

Copyright 2021 Richard Thomas

4/27/21: Nomadland (2020) — A World of Natural Abundance #poetry

4/27/21: Nomadland (2020) — A World of Natural Abundance #poetry

I don’t have a house, but I am not homeless … a line from Nomadland

We wander through existence on an Odyssey. When we are young we misname life, “our search”. When we are older, if we are well – intentioned, wise and maybe a little lucky — or is luck better named “grace”? — we name life properly, “home”.

The world is an abundant place. Society is a Waiting for Godot wasteland. The film opens with the protagonist, Fern, peeing in scrub brush on the side of her new home, the road. Life happens somewhere off to society’s side. We put our trust in powers that just use our bodies, minds and souls as so much fuel, and we freak out when they fire us, kills us … just let us go … they tell us we are garbage, no longer of use. They do us a favor.

Society sells art as an extra, a leisurely frill. Society lies. Art is what sustains us. Art is an underground river of goodness that flows beneath the illusion of our social misery.

My father was born poor — not lower middle class — poor. He often said, “God will provide”. And God always did. The money, the job, the friend, the community, the insight, the inspiration always arrives in the nick of time for people who love … people who love other people, people who love real work …. real work is art … real work serves God, the worker’s soul and feasting guests …

No real work is done for corporations … real work is done for one’s family and/or for one’s creative and authentic and personal human impulse and/or for one’s community and/or for humanity as a whole …

Businessmen say that they should be honored because they “create jobs”. Businessmen imply that they sustain life.


We are part of nature. Nature sustains itself when society doesn’t fuck with it.

Our suffering ends when we leave co -dependent society, brave our independence and open ourselves to interdependent bliss.

Sometimes, our abundant journey wanders through employment for business. We do the man’s chores, but we work for God’s purpose.

In the early 1990s, I was flat on my ass in New York. I only had a couple of hundred dollars left. I thought that I would have to go home again to my parents’ house in humiliation and defeat. I went to a pay phone and called my answering machine. A nice guy who managed the inside sales room at the New York Law Journal had called. I had done some temp work for him a few months before. He was offering me a full time job. God provided. It wasn’t glamorous or prestigious. But it was the next thing that I needed. I had to learn how to take care of myself. And I needed to be with good people. And George Barber, the manager, was good people. He was a nice looking guy with a beard who had seven kids and drove a cab for extra money. I was a good salesman but I wasn’t an easy personality, and he was patient with me. George Barber was a wise young man who took care of things, and he knew that I was meant for more professional things. I asked him if I could come in to the office early and use the fax machine to apply for more appropriate jobs. He said sure thing. I didn’t have to lie or sneak around. (I don’t do that anyway. I get physically ill whenever I try. Part of God’s abundance is a matter of biochemistry.) Good people understand each other. They don’t have to play games. (My gag reflex at lying and manipulation is an abundance GPS device.)

Years later, I was working as a lawyer and felt finally established in both the natural and social worlds. I set out to take myself a wife. I wasn’t lonely. I wanted to experience intimacy with another person. I had never done that. I signed up for eHarmony.com. I went on around 80 coffee dates in about a year’s time. Now, a coffee date is not really a date. It’s a “relationship” interview. Dates, on the other hand, if I can recall that long ago, are fun. They aren’t goal oriented. You really want to see the movie, eat the meal, kiss the girl. No, these coffee dates are not dates, but for me, they became more than relationship interviews … they turned into research for an informal, uninformed approximation of an anthropological study. I called it “The Habits of the Middle Aged American Female (40 to 60) in the New Millennium “. My findings were inconclusive, and I lost interest.

I didn’t connect with anybody on eHarmony.com and I gave up. I went to dinner alone at Garcia’s in the Lincoln Square section of Chicago one night. I didn’t feel like going home so I stopped in at this little German bar down the street. I don’t drink very often and I rarely go to bars — and I’m never alone when I do. I got my Diet Coke and stood at the end of the bar. I had no intention to talk to anyone. I just wanted to stand or sit somewhere that wasn’t my apartment. This guy came up to me. He looked a little like George Barber. He said, “Why are you alone?” I thought, “I beg your pardon.” Thankfully, I didn’t say it. He didn’t wait for my answer, he knew. “You aren’t getting any younger, you should be with somebody.” I told him about my experience with eHarmony. “Oh that’s not for you. Those women are conservative on eHarmony. You are progressive in every way. You should go on Match.com.” I repeat — I had never seen this guy before in my life. I took his advice, and the first and only woman that I met through Match.com was Paula, who became my wife. We have been intimate for ten years and counting. God provided. Intimacy was the next thing for me, several things removed from learning how to take care of myself. Life has its prerequisites.

I had the opportunity to work and the opportunity to love. Freud says that those two things are the whole Megillah. But once those are achieved, life has its required refinements to be reckoned with. Intimacy changes, deepens and grows. We wake every morning as two new people, and marriage is like a probe into space charting maps of new galaxies. Intimacy is a commitment to all of the transformations of the two souls involved. And work is a process of atonement — a unification of all of one’s talents, inclinations, aptitudes and experiences. Each step of the way, a new transformed vocation emerges to complement the ever changing person and the ever changing natural world, a new trip that needs fresh opportunities and God provides …

the improviser begat the marketing professional that begat the corporate lawyer that begat the ethics lawyer that begat the trial lawyer that begat the professor that begat the writer … each chapter ended with doubt and fear … I had to learn every time that God provides … all the begat words are over-simplifications, and that’s why they change into something else … writer, poet, seems a big enough word to handle me, my penultimate atonement, until I am ready to simply be a human being, but that will come near journey’s end and then I will remember and say good bye, and die …

In each chapter before my current role as writer, I was certified in some way. I was trained and hired professionally as an improviser. I was hired as a marketing professional. I was licensed as a lawyer. I was granted an appointment as a professor. God provided each time, manipulating society to give me what I needed in order to do the work that he intended for me.

My new chapter has new requirements. As a writer I certify myself. I make a claim that I can write. No employer tells me that I can do it. I passed no “writing ” bar exam. I am not a freelance writer looking for a job. I am not looking for a publishing house whose overall business model I can serve. I am not submitting pieces to publications in the hope that they find my take on things suitable for their readers.

I don’t have a publishing house or relationship with some publication, but I am not homeless. I don’t trust society. I trust God. I am past the time of putting my hat in my hand and borrowing George Barber’s fax machine. That’s what God wanted then, not now. I don’t think it’s pride. Maybe it’s a little self -protection.

My opportunities to share my writing more broadly will happen naturally, like all the other great things happened to me. God is a natural thing, not a supernatural one. God is everything that is right and just and honest and kind. God feels right. Natural feels right.

We walk alone. We kid ourselves that we belong anywhere. We belong on the road. Everyone we meet is new to us, even the ones we’ve known for years.

I thought Nomadland would be an “issues picture” — something about the economy and the social safety net. It might be that on one of its lower levels. But it’s a poetic piece. It’s about the nature of existence — the existence of nature … existence in nature … the discernment of the illusion of society and the truth of nature …

God — I feel that I have to define this term because it immediately shuts some people down and immediately gives some people the wrong idea — God is the natural you (and me and everyone else) … that exists inside of you and beyond you and God is the connective tissue that hooks up your inner world with your outer world … God only lets you know what to do a step at a time … God often sends you off in directions that seem like detours, but are little abundance jogs … stops to pick up what you need …

We free ourselves from codependence and go on our way alone and then find each other as needed for whatever amount of time as needed during our mission to serve God’s purposes, and thus be nourished by His or Her natural abundance …

Our sweet memories are happy ones of people, places and things that we love … nouns that we love … memories of abundance past, prototypes for abundance future …

Our bitter memories are sour ones of people, places and things that we were merely attached to, our codependencies …

A job is for your attachments, work is for who and what you love …

The last line of the movie says


That line betrays Chloe Zhao and Frances McDormand, the auteurs behind this beautiful picture. They are not bleeding heart liberal interlopers observing a remote phenomena with dewy eyes. The nomads, real people, play themselves in the movie. Chloe and Frances play themselves too. Chloe and Frances could tell this story because it is their story too. Chloe and Frances didn’t merely become nomads for a short while, or play act as nomads. The nomads who live on the road are just another version of themselves.

It’s everyone’s story whether they can see it or not.

An abundant God provides us our complements in nature. Chloe Zhao shows me portraits of myself, using faces that I’ve never met and locations that I’ve never seen.

We are strangers to one another, connecting and finding love in one another’s strangeness. We see ourselves in the faces of strangers.

We all have to depart.

We wander socially distant through a landscape designed by Samuel Beckett waiting for something that’s right there with us.

All of our tangible needs are provided by what is invisible.

In the nick of time.

My writing is for all who see through society and live in God’s natural abundance, whether you know it or not. You are my friends, my readers, my publishers.

It’s easy to see through society if you stay poor, no matter what natural abundance you get to use in a particular moment. My father never forgot that.

My father died, and so will Chloe and Frances, and you and me. We will have finished our tasks in service of God’s purposes, and He will take care of us every step of the way.

If we lived forever, there would be no tenderness.

And we need that.

I’ll see you down the road.

Copyright 2021 Richard Thomas

4/26/21: The 93rd Academy Awards — The Oscars We Needed, a Review #poetry

4/26/21: The 93rd Academy Awards — The Oscars We Needed, a Review #poetry

Show business was missing at the Oscars last night. Thank God. When people are in trouble, the artists step in, and the salesmen disappear. When people need inspiration, direction and hope, poetry takes over and entertainment takes a walk. We need truth right now, and escapism could destroy us.

This was the most serious Academy Awards show, probably, of all time. It certainly was the most serious Oscar show that I’ve ever seen. We always need serious, and we need serious now, probably, more than ever.

The pandemic made the proceedings intimate and small. There weren’t any loud comedians and musical numbers roaring like plane engines over a cavernous auditorium. Instead we had at least the appearance of a community of artists celebrating its good work in a venue built on a human scale. Smiles were the result of warm human interactions, not crafted jokes.

There was a non – performative aspect of the entire show. Good film making is oddly technical and non – performative. The theatricality of the typical Oscar telecast puts film professionals strangely out of their element. Film is projected by machinery. That automation spares artists the trouble of having to project themselves. Engineers make sure that faces are seen and words are heard. In filmmaking, artists can just concentrate on shaping their images, free of worries about amplification. Even the loudest effects of filmmakers are created with quiet, delicate precision. Los Angeles’ Union Station replaced the Dolby Theater as the site of the Oscars for one year, for pandemic reasons. The change liberated the nominees and the presenters. There was seemingly little of the usual showing off, or the usual subtext of competition. What was celebrated was not the best of the best, but rather the inclusion — and potential for real human connection — of everyone.

Deaf people, black people, Arab people, Asian people, European people, old people, beginners, women … I am sure I am missing more groups … all given equal time, all given their due. The winner for Best Live Action Short Film was honored with the same intensity as the winner for Best Picture.

The show itself not only brought diverse equity to the lists of nominees and winners — the presentation itself was different. This was an Oscars for a nation and world that senses that it has to change. There were no apologies for speaking simply and clearly about social justice. There was no self-consciousness in handing the microphone repeatedly to people who previously had been rarely heard, if at all.

This was not an evening of make believe. Paul Raci, a child of deaf parents, and a rock musician, was nominated for a movie that was about, among other things, deafness and rock music. Black actors represented several movies advocating justice for their people in America, while the nation faces a great reckoning about the killing of African-Americans through inequities related to policing, public health, the labor market and other aspects of a systemically racist social system.

The Best Actor winner, 83 year-old Anthony Hopkins, didn’t show up to accept his award for “The Father”, a story about an elderly man’s descent into dementia. Hopkins visited his father’s grave in Wales instead, and tweeted a video reading from the gravesite of Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”. This unseen moment was truly poetic and unsentimental. There was nothing self – serving about it. We are lucky in this moment to have a 78 year-old President who is beyond the time of life when personal ambition is important. These old men and their respective seas, Biden and Hopkins, are out applying their mastery in an attempt to heal the world. The Oscars are old too — 93, and they looked it — warm-hearted, slow, downsized and wise …

The Oscars theme was to make the show look like a movie … this movie said that if we listen to each other, and take care of one another, and honor what is best in us — our kindness, our intelligence, our seriousness, and enjoy each other, celebrating our differences and recognizing our commonality — we will be more than all right.

The 93rd Academy Awards showed us what authentic community looks like. Let’s see if we can pull it off in the rest of the world.

Artists are on a frontier, not reforming the present, but rather creating incomparable values for the future.

Copyright 2021 Richard Thomas

4/25/21: The Children’s Hour (1961) — Part II, Anatomy of a Slander #poetry

4/25/21: The Children’s Hour (1961) — Part II, Anatomy of a Slander #poetry

I was wondering about slander. I was feeling the delicious liberation of realizing that negative relationships only endured in my psyche because of attachment and not love, and I was able to cast toxic people and experiences from my memory as surely as they had already been eliminated from the external and concrete details of my existence.

But then …

another question arose … what of the slanders of my detractors? Did they take something real from me, damage me in some way? Was I lacking in skills of self – protection, and was there something for me to learn in that regard?

I knew the law has criminal and civil causes of action for slander, and compensates damages resulting from slander when proven. But I wasn’t looking for a legal answer. I wanted an existential one.

Slanderers had interfered with my general reputation in the community, that I was part of at the time, and they had affected how individuals who treated me with affection and even admiration acted towards me after the slander occurred. Positive circumstances turned negative as friendship and social position turned into suspicion and insult.

Was I damaged existentially by slander, and if so what were the existential remedies?

I was not damaged existentially by slander. Slander actually helped me.

I came to this conclusion with the aid of Art, that great mentor in all questions existential and human.

I tried to think of a movie that dealt with the theme of slander. The only one that I could remember was Lillian Hellman’s story, “The Children’s Hour”. “The Children’s Hour” provided me with useful instruction.

Slander is not the act of an individual. It is the act of a community. In “The Children’s Hour”, Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine are headmistresses who own a private school for young girls from wealthy families. It looks like a beautiful place. The girls ride bicycles and have piano recitals and study elocution.

One young girl hates the headmistresses. She overhears the aunt of Shirley MacLaine’s character imply that MacLaine is a lesbian who loves Hepburn’s character. The girl tells her grandmother that she heard that MacLaine and Hepburn were lovers. The grandmother then creates all sorts of problems for the headmistresses, ultimately destroying the school, Hepburn’s engagement to a doctor played by James Garner, and causing MacLaine’s character to commit suicide. It is later revealed that this it is actually true that MacLaine is a lesbian that loves Hepburn. Slander can be related to a true fact. The lesbianism is not the issue. The intolerance of the lesbianism is the lie. The grandmother’s and the general community’s condemnation of MacLaine’s character is the toxicity in the story. Hepburn’s character was not a lesbian, but what if she was?

Slander is a way that communities purge themselves of people who are better than they are. Every character in “The Children’s Hour” reveals either moral weakness or lack of personal integrity and strength, with the exception of Audrey Hepburn.

Poor Shirley MacLaine succumbed to the slander and killed herself, giving the haters what they wanted.

James Garner’s doctor doubted that Hepburn loved him because of the lie, and proved unworthy to be her husband.

The little girl was an insignificant mediocrity who ignited the conflagration for petty and childish reasons.

MacLaine’s aunt was bigoted against her own niece, and reviled and humiliated MacLaine for her entire adult life.

The grandmother persecuted Hepburn and MacLaine because of her personal prejudice.

The parents who removed their children from the school followed a herd mentality instead of making moral determinations for themselves.

Hepburn and MacLaine were great teachers. Hepburn was a great person, who remained loyal to her friend MacLaine after she knew about her lesbianism. Hepburn thought and felt for herself. She wasn’t corrupted by the bullying community pressures.

The movie’s last scene takes place at the funeral for MacLaine’s character. Hepburn attends and then walks silently away. She walks past the doctor and the grandmother and the crowd from the community with focused integrity, and on to her new life.

Slander is a way that communities purge themselves of people who are better than they they are.

It doesn’t have to be lesbianism. The smartest person might be purged. The artist might be purged. The saint might be purged. The good person might be purged …

The superior person, the person of excellence is a threat to the toxic group. The group has its power structures and has its hypocritical substitutes for actual mores that it doesn’t want threatened.

Toxic communities are collections of terrified people who huddle together in order to maintain an illusion of safety. The toxic community promises security, but is really only committed to maintaining itself. The frightened members of the group think they are protecting themselves, but they actually become slaves to an abstraction that they have created. The biggest fear of all becomes opposing the community in some way.

Whenever the superior person honors his or her reason or conscience or divine inspiration, and deviates from the conformities of a toxic group, slander will occur.

The answer to slander is to walk away as Audrey Hepburn did at the end of this story. She walked out of her old life and on to her new one. This action is often called courageous, but it is actually the sensible choice. The other alternatives are self-destruction like MacLaine’s character, or self-betrayal like Garner’s.

Communities can be motivated by true values or motivated by fear. The most dangerous place to be is to be surrounded by fearful people.

The lie of slander reveals the truth about all those who participate in it.

Live in truth.

Be guided by truth.

And you will find appropriate friends and lovers and communities artistic and otherwise. You will lose nothing except exposure to the mentality of the people of the Lie.

Copyright 2021 Richard Thomas

4/24/21: The Children’s Hour (1961) — Beyond Second City #poetry

4/24/21: The Children’s Hour (1961) — Beyond Second City #poetry

The jealous and immature slander the worthy and try to bring them low. Institutions and relationships are finite things. The values that animate them live forever. It is those values that are important, not the places and connections. Places rise and fall. Lasting bonds cannot be destroyed by lies. Infantile meanness serves a purpose. The trivial reveals itself and the serious is set free.

How do I make the world realize who I am, what I want and what happened?

I want the world to understand that I have nothing to do with Second City — a name loaded with spiritual significance for me once, and now is just another tacky brand name. I renounce my association with Second City. I don’t renounce what I learned there or what I felt there. It was exactly the right place for me to be at a time when I was young, and is exactly the wrong place for me to be associated with in my life and career as a mature artist. Something wonderful happened for me at Second City long ago. Some wonderful directors and teachers worked with me there. Some of the others in leadership positions were mediocre but that is to be expected. Excellence is a rare commodity. Some of my friends and colleagues were artists, and most of the rest were at least nice enough people. Everything wonderful about Second City was almost immediately betrayed from the moment it emerged, and it completely disappeared years ago. Now it has descended into total farce into its grave that is under new ownership.

As recently as September 2020, I felt that there was hope for Second City to still represent something of value. I was wrong. I no longer loved Second City. I was just attached to it. This attachment was holding me back to a degree as an artist. This attachment is the one error in the collection of writing that I include below. But the rest of what I have written is quite good. It describes what was so worthy about Second City, and it describes what was so worthless about Second City. The worthless won the one-sided power struggle — in this case good didn’t oppose evil, it just walked away — which was the smart thing to do.

I went to Second City to grow in my own vision of art and life. As soon as my vision outgrew Second City’s vision it was time to leave. I left. When I returned years later I found the place small minded and limited and — childish.

Naughty children get afraid and jealous of the brave who grow up, and they try to ruin the reputations of the worthy. The worthy threaten the kids — if worthiness caught on the children would be forced to abandon their arrested development.

I do not write today because I am bitter or unhappy or even hurt. I am concerned that I would ever be associated with what Second City and the improvisation community has turned into — all of the redeeming qualities have retreated to higher ground. Second City is part of my body of work — the first chapter, but my body of work is no longer part of Second City. I have ambitions for my writing and my life. I work hard at a serious endeavor. I don’t want people to discount me because they think that my writing or life resembles anything like the mean childishness of the culture of Second City, and much of the improvisation community that is adjunct to it.

The writing that I have attached here was written when I understood much about my relationship to Second City, but has two significant flaws. I was still attached to Second City and the improvisational community, and I still believed that embers of worthy value still flickered there. I am detached now, and know that there is no hope for those empty institutions.

I am proud of my associations with my early mentors Paul Sills, David Shepherd, and Fred Kaz. I have warm feelings for friends that I made at Second City. I admire some of them as artists, and have affection for even more as people.

But Second City is over for me and so is improvisation. The values remain — but I need a superior creative community, and collaborators that are real artists — and even more loving friends. I need kind, smart and honest people to fill all the requirements of all the various roles in my life.

I am the admissions office for who I associate with and Second City and much of the improvisation community need not apply.

9/9/20: Sam Wasson’s “Improv Nation” — The Confusion of Art and Show Business #poetry #essay #PoeticEssay #improvisation #SamWasson #MikeNichols #DelClose #SecondCity

When Sam Wasson called me a few years ago to interview me as part of his research for his book on improvisation, “Improv Nation”, I was excited. He said that he wanted to write a book about improvisation as an art form. That was a topic of great interest to me.

Wasson and I have different definitions of the word “art” however. Consequently, he largely ignored what I had to say and misrepresented my views, and even my background in the form, in the slight mention that I have in the book. In fairness, my views about the art of improvisation were in an earlier developmental form than they are today. I was trying to find my place in the improvisation community, and was learning, at first painfully and then happily, that I had no place within it.

So Wasson’s confusion was similar to my waning confusion.

My confusion related to improvisation has ended. You cannot serve art and show business at the same time. They have contrary aims. Art is about truth, show business is about money, popularity and power. Some artists share their creations through the marketing mechanisms of show business, somehow making all relevant decisions regarding the work without compromise to commercial pressures. Sometimes, art does make money, popularity and power, because the truth and audiences’ need and desire for the truth happen simultaneously, maybe even miraculously. Just as often, the audience doesn’t want the truth, and prefers an “escape” into its prejudices. Show business will willingly offer either option to make box office receipts grow.

I don’t think there has been a good book written about the essence of improvisation since Viola Spolin’s “Improvisation for the Theater”. There have been decent works about the history of improvisation, but none of them really deal with the essence of the form. And most of these historical books tend to be hagiographic — written by improvisers for improvisers —a kind of “Lives of the Saints of Improv”. There has never been a really critical work about what it is to improvise since Spolin. Many amplifications of what she wrote are out there — but Spolin is the seminal work, the best consideration of what improvisation “is”.

Tellingly, Spolin’s book is interactive. You can only understand improvisation by doing it, and the depth of your understanding matches how goo you are at improvising. In the 1980s, Paul Sills said that I was a great improviser. I don’t mention this to promote myself. I say it because I have done the work at a high level that gives me a right to participate in this discussion.

I should be limited in my criticism of improv writing since I have no interest in writing such a book myself. I think these short pieces honor that limitation.

I commit myself to creating my own art which is beyond improvisation. I learned a lot about creativity as an improviser, but I have transcended the form — my art is beyond improvisation. I think improvisation’s greatest contribution has been introducing artists to the basics of group and individual creation. The artists have always matriculated to more sophisticated forms. I think improvisation’s original sin is how it has been co-opted by show business, advertising and marketing. Spolin’s tenets have been corrupted to … sell shit.

The opposite of the artist is the salesman. Sam Wasson can’t seem to distinguish one from the other.

“Improv Nation” isn’t about the art of improvisation. It’s just a current rendering of the myth of improvisation.

Spolin’s improvisational practice was at once accessible and challenging. It was democratic in that it was open to anyone who showed up. Its values demanded the best in all participants.

Spolin has been bastardized by the commercial improv “schools”. The improvisational practices are open to everyone — that’s where the money is, but the values are simply the prevailing fashions and attitudes of the greater society. Art, on the other hand, stands outside of society and reflects it, so society can see its vices and virtues and act accordingly.

The “schools” and most current teachers claim Spolin as an ancestor while ignoring her idealism and rigor.

I don’t think much of what calls itself improvisation today is improvisation at all.

And any claims to artistry in these “classes” is mere sales puffery.

As a former improviser and former student of the founding generation of improvisation — Sills, Shepherd, and to a lesser extent Sahlins, I feel no kinship with the hostile takeover of improvisation by commercial interests.

Improvisation is not only not an art form as most often practiced currently. It is actually anti-art.

Second City has teamed with the University of Chicago Business School in the application of improvisational instruction to the training of business professionals. I am tempted to rest my case. Business almost always assumes primacy in any relationship — they don’t call it the almighty dollar for nothing.

Something can be art or business. There is no possible compromise. Business might be employed in a secondary way to further art, but it can never lead.

What has happened in the history of improvisation has happened in other sectors of society, including commercial real estate. Artists move into an undeveloped area. They innovate and create interest and vibrancy. Real estate investors see opportunity. They infuse capital. They market to expand the audience for what the artists have created. The dark anti-arts of marketing corrupt the pure artistic visions. Something new is born. What is left of the art in the area are museum pieces — dead things. Actual living artistic process moves on to different neighborhoods …

much as the true artists of improvisation emerge from the improv cauldron and create with purity elsewhere.

Wasson has a commercial writer’s sense of what sells. He claims that “Improv is America’s farthest reaching indigenous art form.” He is right that Improvisation writ large has had a big impact on popular culture. He is wrong that improvisation has had a big impact as an art form in American culture.

I agree with Viola Spolin’s famous introductory line, “Anyone can improvise.” It is a wonderful first line for a teacher. But I will add a caveat — not everyone can improvise as an artist.

Art is an elite experience. Talent is required. Development of that talent in craft, but mainly in values is required.

Anyone can play football in the backyard. Few can play in the NFL.

The selling of improvisation as an art form that anyone can do leads to a lot of ignorance and arrogance around “improv’s training centers”…

and also a cruel bait and switch for naive people who think they can take classes and become movie and TV stars.

There is an Improv Nation of lost souls chasing impossible dreams of little value, dutifully paying tuition for nothing with money they don’t have.

Wasson offers a thesis for his book — improvisation is an art, but really doesn’t follow it up with any depth. He fades into the fallback position of past writers about improvisation — biographies of the stars who cut their teeth as improvisers early in their careers.

“Improv Nation” is not about the art of improvisation. It is ultimately about improvisation’s commercial success. I find that perspective to be hardly groundbreaking and of little interest. Of course, it is a great addition to the industry that lies to people and says you can be a combination of Picasso, Einstein, Bill Murray and Marilyn Monroe if you just come pay us and play some some games.

Wasson descends into who-slept-with-who gossip when discussing the early Compass and Second City eras when improvisation was actually an art leading the culture instead of calculating ways to exploit it. It is a telling distraction. If he really went into an in-depth analysis of the work of the likes of Paul Sills and Nichols and May, it would destroy his flimsy hypothesis for the book and he’d have to start over.

Mike Nichols saw limitations in the artistic potential of improvisation and Del Close thought improvisation was an art form in and of itself. I worked with Mike Nichols and Del Close and have great admiration for Nichols and no admiration for Close. I think a comparison of the two men’s bodies of work can rest my case on the false claims regarding “improv” as an art form.

A recent piece on Nichols:

6/25/20: Mike Nichols #poetry #America #movies #theater #improvisation

Some of my beats are America, movies, theater and improvisation. All of those beats are in trouble right now, and also on the brink of great opportunity. Today’s segment is a song of praise that surprised me about a man who surfed time from Hitler to Obama, adapting and thriving as a human being, artist and businessman — in that order — maintaining his core and transforming his approaches to stay timely, relevant and healing until the end.

Mike Nichols was a nice man

a good man

a man from another time

I worked for him briefly

He made me feel like I was a genius and the next big thing

He did that for most everybody

He loved actors

and writers

and audiences

He personified the best of what Second City could be

during and after

he hit a sweet spot that touched art and commerce and being a mensch

He was very smart

and very warm

I didn’t set out to praise him so today

I started with the idea that Mike Nichols’ life and work and career are already of a time gone by

never to return

Nichols tracked the arc that America followed from culture to markets

he died before our descent into fascism

but he surely saw it coming

he knew it

he saw it as a seven-year old escaping Nazi Germany

and he never forgot it

He was a hybrid American

a refugee

A paradox

The ultimate insider

deflecting all eyes

from his role as precocious outsider

That was his ultimate magic trick

a master of disguise

Therefore …

He wasn’t as innocent as most of the rest of us

He knew how dark Man could be

But also how light

He was Einstein’s cousin!

What kind of crazy strains of goodness and brilliance was at his childhood dinner table

from the lesser members of the family who shared that gene pool?

He was a bard of how psychological and sociological attitudes affected ordinary people’s behaviors

His work, to me, seems to be about always finding a route to kindness, empathy, humanity

through a field of weakness, quiet desperation and temptation

He wasn’t nice just to be nice

Like everything else about him

he knew that it was smart to be nice

He got the most out of his colleagues with the sweet attitude

and he relied on them greatly

Nichols was less a creator and more of an arranger of other people’s talents

He had remarkable taste

Like a great baseball manager he knew how to put his players in the optimal positions and situations in order to win

Working that week for Mike Nichols was a great experience for me

Very instructive

Turns out, I was just a brief visitor to his world

I don’t do what Mike Nichols did

I just tell the truth

He was more subtle

He told as much truth as the audience could hear

He listened to the audience

and like a master politician

he led them as far as they could go and never went farther than what they were ready for

It’s my job just to tell the truth

I don’t think one approach is better than the other

Both are needed

Nichols was, and I am an untrained intellectual

Our type isn’t certified to understand things

We just look

I retreated to Mike Nichols yesterday afternoon

watching old videos in my sanctuary

as America goes through its necessary unraveling

and begins to

at long last

deal with racism

and capitalism

and sexism

and all the other abstractions we attach

to our fear, ignorance, arrogance,

stupidity, meanness and cruelty

and old, dead, man of the past

Mike Nichols

was less an escape

and more of a balm to me

Nichols made a lot of money

and made a lot of art

but as I watched him get progressively older in his interviews

those material things

were revealed to be means and not the end

I liked him much more than I expected to

The man dwarfed the prodigious body of work

and the gold medal career

Mike Nichols had a special life

My week with him was a special week

Nichols saw the world’s darkness with the eyes of refugee from Hitler’s Germany

its potential delights as a golden boy who enjoyed stratospheric early success

and its moral responsibility as a spoiled boy who more than anything wanted to grow up to be loving man

When I was with Mike Nichols for a week

I was in awe and nervous for that week

Stunned by the movie stars and New York intellectuals that I sat by

He was impressed by all of that too

but never to the exclusion of what really mattered

and now I see why fate sent me into that brief close proximity to Mike Nichols

and to my distant appreciation of him in the subsequent years

culminating with my video viewing yesterday

and it has nothing to do

with Hollywood


show business


art even!



Copyright 2020 Richard Thomas

Recent pieces on Close:

8/16/20: The Guru #poetry #essay #PoeticEssay #Improvisation #Teaching

Another recycled anecdote

of the dead guru

of the dead performance form

with all the secrets of success and life

primarily for actors

(they are particularly susceptible to this kind of bullshit)

but for other people too

conquer your introversion

make it in show business

let your freak flag fly

and if you do none of the above

at the very least be hip


too cool for school

Be a bum with a difference

All cults don’t involve God

The Guru remembered

He once acted with coleslaw  in his pants

“Is it true?” the aging acolytes of the dead Buddha giggle

Um, no

The Guru was an off and on drug addict with horrible personal hygiene

He sneered at the establishment with an insincere conspiratorial grin

a horrible actor who taught acting

every once in a while he shows up in an old movie

in small offbeat parts

he never got a good one

He was the thesp equivalent of a novelty act

When a director wanted a strange or unreal moment

or wanted to warmly remember their youth in improv class before they went off and made a living at it

The Guru was their man

He wasn’t really cut out for a profession which required access to one’s vulnerability and personal feeling

But he was a hell of a businessman

A real innovator

His insight was that you could corporatize anything

even the drug abuse and faux spiritual habits

of a bum

and the basic creativity 101 insights of a failed artist who never finished the job of developing his gifts

Afraid and lazy

like all salesmen are

If he hadn’t made himself into the King of Improv Teaching

he might have set up shop at the train station

seducing teen runaways into white slavery

He had many students who became successful entertainers

Let me tell you something about teaching

School is like Vaudeville

A lot of people go through it

They get experience

good and bad

no matter who the teacher is

and some of them use their brains and talent to figure out how to be successful

I’ve done a lot of teaching

I taught improv for several years

A lot of my students have been successful in show business

Probably a better percentage than the Guru’s

A network talk show host

Several TV writers and show runners

An Oscar-nominated actor

sitcom stars

and a lot of my students have been successful in other fields

and life in general

Here’s the thing



This isn’t false modesty

I think a lot of myself

as a person and as an artist, writer

And I am a good teacher

It’s just that teaching is a gig and it’s not a big deal

teaching is just a job where you manage an environment where people can work before they have the opportunity to be paid for that work so that you can do the work that you love that no one pays you to do

Universities don’t look at teaching as the primary thing in selecting their tenured faculty

They look at the research and the writing

But the Guru was a big bum

salesmen are bums

and bums are cunning

they spot people’s weaknesses

and they exploit

I have no idea where the coleslaw story came from

But I am sure the Guru never did it

Probably he heard that someone else did it

and pounced

a homely outre’ move

turning working and middle class life

into bohemian subversion


because that’s the nihilistic message isn’t it

it’s all bullshit

get the drug

get the attention

get the applause

there ain’t no love

love is for suckers

This is the message of the salesman

I’ll answer your need

Methadone for the soul

The first hit is for free

This con man

(who was a human being too, he had many warm moments with people — why not, gangsters and white nationalists are good to their dogs — sometimes … )

was just trying to get over

He lost his main enabler

and he figured out a way

to periodically walk into a theater

and preen in front of wide-eyed disciples

intone rambling monologues

sprinkled with occasional tidbits of useful information

while a shoe box was filled with tens and twenties

Then he would take the cash

go back to his chaotic and filthy apartment

get high

and read comic books

The crock of shit life

led to a great legacy

a theater devoted to the spirit of the Guru’s blather

Several books glorifying the Guru

written by reporters and academics who don’t understand theater or the creative process

all of which is relatively harmless

There is a lot of jerk-off material available so people can distract themselves

But one aspect of the Guru’s immortality sucks

He was the founder of a shit “improv” culture

as insensitive and disrespectful

and banal — don’t forget banal

as the Guru was himself

Circle jerk improvisation

sniggering about navel lint

or some other insignificance

a siren call to lives without purpose or excellence or value

the prison of the adolescent clique

never transcended

love. work, marriage denied

The existential equivalent of sitting on a rug cross-legged

with your ne’er do well no exit friends

sucking on a bong

The fond memories of the Guru aren’t about the Guru at all

they are nostalgic remembrances of a moment of youth

that his adherents lust to make permanent

But here’s the thing about moments

they always change into something else

and Paradise becomes Hell in a split second

if you don’t let it go

Here’s one more thing about all the students who become successful, independent agents of their own lives

The alumni winners that are the Guru’s top marketing bullet point

they aren’t really “successful”

They are in process

moving on

just like the rest of us

Here’s the thing about improvisation

How can someone teach you how to do it?

It’s about meeting the unknown, right?

The games, the rules, the forms

are false equivalencies

to the unfailingly surprising transformative instances of life

The Guru has nothing to do with that thrilling and/or terrifying reality

He just took credit for it

killed it and pressed it onto a microscope slide

The sweet people who worked with him remained sweet

The bitter, cynical pricks got a license to spread his gospel of denied despair widely

to the four corners of the earth

Impostors of importance

selling something of no more importance than fame

or even more cruelly for the less gifted and misguided masses

a dream of fame that will never come

The famous find no satiety in their prominence

the frustrated obscure are blocked from the opportunity to move on to the deeper and glorious satisfactions of life

so they light candles to honor the dead Guru

and give outsized attention to each other and compete in petty power games

in a sad

and pathetic (I use the word sorrowfully and not with meanness)


imitation of life

exiles from art

and ordinariness

The Con Artist Guru and his marks

generations of denial

and unconscious suffering.

Copyright 2020 Richard Thomas

11/5/19: The Definition of Success

I think Del Close was an asshole. He directed me briefly at Second City when I was just hired and he was about to leave. I have a few memories of him. I saw him yell at a baby. I saw him enter the theater with vomit stains on purple corduroy pants.

He liked me initially. He gave notes to me like “you beat the other player with a stick in that scene.” He encouraged me to dominate. I wasn’t interested. His enthusiasm for me and my work waned.

I knew Close just before he reinvented himself. He was ending his codependent relationship with Second City and was about to strike out on his own. He exploited his bohemian appearance and sold himself as hip and edgy. He did drugs and had a pedigree as a beat intellectual, but he had the values and aspirations of an insurance agent. His core attitude never transcended the foolishness one hears growing up in the neighborhood. He wouldn’t let it. There’s no money in that.

It’s an artist’s job to reflect the whole world, not merely his audience.

Close was no artist.

Close’s legacy is the iO theater. I’ve never seen anything on the stage of the iO theater that I enjoyed or admired. I haven’t been there often. To me, the place has the feel of a Trump rally. It’s a crude and stupid place.

iO is a place of ignorant name-in-the-paper ambition. It rejects excellence.

iO is a museum, a wax museum. It hasn’t furthered the art of improvisation. It sells it. It’s a training ground for noisy TV commercials and insipid sitcoms.

I think “yes, and”, which has become the international mantra of improvisational theater, is bullshit. Agreement with everything that is initiated by anyone leads to denial of the real.

The classes at iO and Second City offend me as an educator. They sell a base level success. Embrace mediocrity as a means to popularity.

It may strike you that I have some ax to grind here — some personal animosity. I truly don’t. It’s my job as a writer to separate high and low. No one ever makes these criticisms. I find what is happening in these “improv factories” to be morally repellent.

I saw a Conservatory graduation show at Second City a few years back. A lady sat next to me. She was a nurse who worked for film studios. She knew Sylvester Stallone. Her son was in the show. He was awful. The show was terrible. The students lacked craft, the directors didn’t know what they were doing. Yet, the woman was convinced that her son was going to be a star, and that this improv “training” was worth his dropping out of college.

He would be a better improvisor if he went to college. What an evening with vampires. People with nothing to say shouting look at me! look at me!

There is something cultish going on in “improv” education, reminiscent of Trump and Scientology.

When I was in the resident company at Second City, sometimes people looked at me with foolish awe. “How do you learn your lines?” “Do you get nervous?” “You met Eddie Murphy?!?!” Improv training as it stands at iO and Second City exploits that innocent, stupid immature take on life, and capitalizes on it. Real education and art would transcend it.

Bernie Sahlins was my director and producer when I was at Second City long ago. He told me “you don’t want to be famous doing shit work in show business. You are an artist.” Bernie was a sophisticated man, and he gave me great advice at a formative time.

I learned my lessons more from people like William Blake and Herman Melville than from Del Close. Both writers worked in the commercial realm and then walked away from it. They knew that the market corrupts. They weren’t salesmen. They were interested in what life was saying to them, not in what people want to hear.

Close told me when Gilda Radner’s obituary was international news, “We’re bigger than the Beatles.”

What a cold morbid fucker.

My job at Second City was like a school for me, but it was actual work with people who had done accomplished work, not classes taught by people who never did accomplished work, when I worked there in my 20’s and early 30s. Like any other school, I had some good teachers, I made some good friends and I dealt with a lot of assholes.

But it was just a school.

And I graduated.

I’m not part of it anymore. I’ve created my own art — which has transcended all that I learned. Many Second City alumni have done the same thing. Others are like middle-aged and older former high school football players who are trapped in memories of a state championship game played in the last century.

One of my friends from Second City is very well-known as a commercial actor, and he has done excellent work at that trade. He also has written some very good plays and has tried to get them produced. He felt dissatisfied with his hit TV show that he also occasionally wrote. He felt limited by commercialism. His journey to get his worthy work produced led him down the road of exploitation. He found open doors, but they were the wrong doors. People wanted to exploit him. Little theaters wanted to use his name to sell tickets. Actors and directors saw him as a gravy train and flattered him and gave him false support. When push came to shove, and people had to take the next step —- take a risk, put their own skin in the game, they were nowhere to be seen.

The outer rings of success are rings of hell. Fame, money and popularity, like beauty, fades.

William Blake lived a life of joy. He supported himself running a print shop and making art. It is said he lived his life in obscurity, but that’s not true. He connected with people in a real way. Melville said “fuck struggling to get published.” (I paraphrase.) He worked as a customs inspector. The result was Moby Dick. Their successes were not within the capitalist definition of success.

Conventional wisdom says that Blake and Melville were obscure. I say that they knew the world and were more known to the world than Del Close or John Belushi with their eyes on the grosses, the ratings, the box office, their brand and other drugs.

It is moronic to calculate success by counting dollars in the bank or likes on Facebook.

An artist limits himself when he caters to his audience.

A commercial artist is like a scientist who works for a tobacco company. All of his findings are bullshit.

I was in the Second City resident company when John Belushi died. Bernie sent our company to the funeral. I was walking into some gathering related to the memorial in a line with famous people. Hundreds of people surrounded as we made our way to the entrance. They shouted at each individual who passed. “Bill Murray!” “Dan Ackroyd!” When I passed they shouted “Nobody!”

This did not hurt my feelings. I smile as I remember it. I thought then what I think now —

who could possibly give a damn about what these people think? What a burden — to restrict yourself to some lowest common denominator — what a lousy job show business is for the successful and for the strivers …

My brother is a prominent judge — considered very important  in his community. When my father died in 2009, word got out to the entirety of the Illinois Bar. A few hundred showed up for the wake and funeral. My father was buried at a lawyer’s networking event.

I didn’t like it, but to my brother’s credit, he didn’t either. He wanted to be a judge because he believed in the Law. He liked being able to spend more time with his kids than he would if he worked at some big firm. He didn’t like all the ass kissing and schmoozing — all of the using. He was in the same boat as my friend the TV star.

When my mother died it was just family and a few close friends. The death notice was posted right before the funeral, which was held on an inconvenient Monday morning. We only wanted the people who really loved her there.

We wanted meaning, not spectacle.

I consider myself very successful. I’m not rich and I’m not famous. But I was a very good improvisor, and a talented trial lawyer, and I am a very good writer and a very good  teacher. I have a good marriage, and good friends. I’m a concerned citizen. I live my life as an artist, and I’m good at it.

A teacher at iO recently challenged my claim of success. He said, “Success isn’t about what you think, it’s about what other people think.”

Au contraire.

Copyright 2019 Richard Thomas

Wasson argued that Close ultimately had more influence than Nichols.

Not with me — obviously.

Art may have its day soon. The artist is usually called upon when the people are in trouble. When they feel more secure, they enjoy having their asses kissed and indulging fantasy.

Wasson calls the current long-form improv team “T. J. and Dave” as “brilliant” and exemplars of Del Close’s vision. I’ve seen the team perform three times. T. J. is a good actor, Dave not so much, and their scenes had no substantive content. For example they did a scene in which they superficially improvised some exposition related to exploring the nature of death, and then retreated into jokes about getting high in a cemetery work shed. Their audience was a group of iO improv students. The theme of the evening was “look we are making money at this”.

Exhibit B for the plaintiff in the case of Nichols vs. Close.

Wasson ignores improvisation as practiced the world over. This American “improv” is an efficient tool of cultural imperialism. There is a poetic aspect in the improvisation of other countries that Americans would be wise to learn from — and international improvisers would be well-served to have a greater skepticism about much of the improvisation they are too willing to embrace as influences from the United States.

Tina Fey claims that “improvisation will change your life.” She is wrong. Art is what changes lives …

and improvisation needs more of it …

I close with a piece that I wrote about my experiences with Second City. The piece was one of the most read and positively commented upon segments that I have ever published, and, of course, ignored by Second City …

because it is a business and not a place of art …

6/8/20: Open Letter to Anthony LeBlanc, Interim Executive Director of Second City #SecondCity #poetry #oralhistory


My name is Rick Thomas. I am an alumnus of the Second City – Chicago Resident Company from the early 1980s. I am also an exile from Second City. I’ve always been an outlier on the fringes of the Second City tradition. I didn’t pursue a career in show business. I am a writer, a lawyer and a college professor. Please check out my website at http://www.richardthomasjd.com and my blog at http://www.richardsteventhomas.wordpress.com. Those links will tell you more than you want or need to know about me.

I have always been interested in improvisation, acting and writing as art forms more than Second City as an institution.

I want to give you a bit of an oral history of my experience with Second City in the hopes that it might be helpful to you in your time of systemic change.

My relationship with Second City has always been mixed. I have some friends who I got to know there, good friends —- and there are people associated with Second City who have done work that I greatly admire.

But there also has been much about Second City that I have been ashamed of, and I have been hurt by Second City as well.

I am writing this as an open letter because I want anyone who is interested to know that I have never been a part of any of the institutional or onstage racism that has occurred at Second City, and that I have also been anti-racist for a long time. I have suffered within Second City culture for my values, and ultimately have had to disengage and go my own way — which has actually been good for my art and my career.

I also am going to make some pretty direct observations here, but it is not my intention to be harsh.

For example, I know and like Andrew Alexander. I think he is a very good and well-meaning guy.

My goal here isn’t to punish or chastise. It is to contribute to a conversation that hopefully leads to improvement in the future.

OK, here are some anecdotes from my personal experience at Second City:

1982 -1983: As a young improviser in the resident company, the natural development in my personal voice gravitated to discussion of social issues. I came back stage during a set and senior cast members were getting high and mocking me “Rick is getting heavy again.” This was my introduction to an anti-intellectual, anti-social justice strain in some but not all Second City performers. It seemed the idea that was encouraged was to sound smart and have “reference level” but not really to say anything. I think the reason for this was to be sure not to alienate any of the paying customers in the audience. The unspoken ethos was to be hip, but not transformative.

Also in this period, Bernie Sahlins, who was the producer/director called me into his office and said that he wanted a “floor” to our content onstage, but he didn’t want to get too far ahead of the audience. I rebelled against this, and eventually this led to me leaving the company. I think Bernie was saying that Second City was show business and not theater. I think that Second City needs to be theater.

Later, Bernie, who I loved by the way, took me to lunch at Nookie’s down the street. He told me one of the most helpful things I ever heard. He said, “You don’t want to do some stupid sitcom. You are an artist. You are better than that.” That was wonderful for me, but damning for Second City. I think Second City should be better than that. I think the world is demanding now that a theater be just that — A THEATER — and take sides. I think Second City has to do a lot better in its training and casting and direct its efforts to smarter audiences of greater quality than ignorant bus tours etc. Andrew’s great mistake was giving the conservative white exurban point of view its commercial due — if Black Lives Matters gets a benefit, cops should get half the proceeds. What the Trump administration has taught us, and what I knew in the ancient history of Chicago main stage in the 1980s is that you have to take sides. Evil has been falsely presented as a debating point. Second City has to do everything it can to speak the truth.

I had a conversation with Kelly Leonard, another person that I think very highly of, a few years ago. He had shared a “positive” review of a Touring Company show in Colorado, I believe, that praised Second City  for not taking sides. This was a satiric review that radical right wingers could enjoy. Kelly was happy about that review. He spoke about a colleague he had on the corporate side at Second City who was a Republican and had a right to his point of view. That all sounds very reasonable and liberal even, but I think Kelly was making an error. Oscar Wilde or some other great writer said, “There are some people that I wish to offend.’



I think Second City has done much better aiding people in personal transformation than on the social side of the ledger — but the personal work is never complete without addressing the social as well.

In my period on the main stage in the early 1980s, Bernie introduced me to Paul Sills, the founding director. Paul introduced me to David Shepherd. I loved both Paul and David very much.

Paul and David were socialists. Paul spoke to me about police misconduct at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and how Second City became a refuge for demonstrators beaten during police riots. In the 1990s, I did a video workshop with David in the Hamptons on Long Island no less — that had a very diverse group of participants. David’s thing largely involved giving unheard people a voice. This constructive radicalism is a big part of Second City’s artistic and social tradition and I hope as its leader you reclaim and restore it. The current issues are not new — that’s part of the problem.

I once did a cartoonish gay character in a scene in one of Paul’s workshops. He got pissed off and growled “comic books.” I got the point —-artistically, socially and as a matter of personal development. You need teaching like that. I’m willing to teach for you, by the way — under the right circumstances. The people who founded Second City were artists and intellectuals. They had life experience. They were thinkers. I think you have to pick up your game in terms of the quality of your teachers and instruction in the Training Center. I taught with some of your Training Center faculty when I taught Professional Presence using improvisation as a pedagogy at UIC. I found my colleagues ‘approach lacking. I don’t think that they knew a thing about improvisation. The Training Center was a good business model and a lousy artistic one. Those levels, the conformity of mastering the “games’, the dumbing down and making everything fun … all is anti-improvisational and anti-creative. I was around the Training Center briefly in the early 2000s. I felt like Frankenstein being chased by the villagers. I was taunted for things like being smart or taking a stand. I had a guy lecture me on why 42nd Street Porn Peep Shows were superior to Pulitzer Prize winning plays. Faculty held their turf. Students rebelled against being challenged in workshops and demanded party games. It was an awful place — artistically and educationally. I went to teach at universities where I knew that I would be in a more serious atmosphere.

I want to say again that this is MY EXPERIENCE. I am not painting with a broad brush or saying good things weren’t going on — but I am telling you problems that are part of the organization that you have inherited.

An interesting thing about the way that Paul and David taught was that they did not want their methods to become sacred script. Improvisation, like any art form, is a process and in a state of constant revolution. I have always felt that I wanted to honor Paul and David’s values and to do improvisation, writing and teaching my own way. I think Second City should do that too. I am not an old alum saying that we did it better in the old days. In fact, we didn’t and today requires the new. I don’t like reminiscing for the sake of it. I live in the present and the future. I am writing you because I see opportunity in Second City’s current challenges. There is enough of a strong foundation to build on, and enough mistakes and sins to learn from to  make a better future.

Bernie hired Ed Greenberg as a director while I was at Second City. Ed is another nice guy, very progressive and woke — but he was wrong about one thing. I was taking suggestions from the audience one night and some young guy yelled out “Lech Walesa licks pussy!” This was at a time when Poland was fighting a non-violent war of liberation from Soviet Russia. I was repulsed by the ignorance of this drunken audience member and the insensitivity to the courage and suffering of the Polish people. He was also mocking me for being intelligent on stage. I got angry with him. I wasn’t cute or clever. I told him he was ignorant and spoiled. Ed told me that I was too angry. Ed was wrong. I was right. Ed wasn’t angry enough. John Quincy Adams knew that black lives matter. He said so. The point isn’t just to say what is right after the social change occurs. That’s just show business. The point is to be outraged now whether it is popular or not. That’s what a theater would do.


In 2017, former Second City Director Tommy Giannis, briefly directed me in a one-man show. Tommy directed the acclaimed Pinata Full of Bees. The show was based on my writing in my blog. I was trolled by some white nationalists on my blog. Anti-fascism and anti-racism have been major themes of my blog since I started it in 2014. Tommy suggested that I invite the white nationalists to my show. There was no fucking way that I was going to invite Nazis to my show. I put them in a category like pedophiles — it is necessary to shame and ostracize them and punish them — folly to engage them in a dialogue. Again, I was wrongly criticized as too angry.


1990s to today:

Since my time on the main stage I have interacted with Second City and its offshoot iO from time to time. I was always treated with respect by Andrew and Kelly and some old friends. But … I have also been hurt in those interactions, and I think my personal wounds are connected to a larger problem.

I never received the respect with the overall Second City community that I deserved.

Paul Sills saw my one-man-show in the mid -1980s and said that I was the greatest improviser that he ever saw, and compared me to Lenny Bruce.

I had a nervous breakdown shortly thereafter and I had to mend myself personally.

At age 50, I became a lawyer and ultimately a professor. I developed my writing. I taught using improvisation in colleges.

I was never accepted back into the improvisation community. I was a loser because the community became so  sitcom-centric — defining the only type of success as that of fame in the world of entertainment.

Many non-entertainers — psychologists, business professionals etc. applied improvisation to their professional objectives to very good results and I applaud them.

But none of those people are as accomplished at improvisation itself as I am.

I had and have much to teach improvisers — both in classes and also in sharing my work (writing and performance) but I was not given an opportunity to do so.

Oh soME old friends included me — Jeff Michalski and Jane Morris, Dan Castelleneta and Deb LaCusta — but other than that all doors were closed.

And even in those situations, I was constantly fighting people who didn’t want me there.

This jealous guarding of turf …. this resistance to being challenged …. this resentment that somehow I had been away and therefore didn’t deserve a seat at the table anymore — and they didn’t like me anyway because I talked smart, and I talked truth — not show business kiss ass nonsense.


Of course, as an old white guy, a legitimate question to ask of me is what do I have to offer to people of color?

I have found that racism and other discriminatory oppression has been a common theme of almost all of the students that I have taught at Lewis, UIC and Loyola. I went to higher ed because my tribe rejected me. The problems are the tribe’s and not mine. And now that the tribe is recognizing its blindness — I think I may be well-positioned to help Second City get back on the right track in a big way.

My teaching uses improvisation through speech and writing to empower students by removing the internalized obstructions placed upon them by the power structure.

I am not writing you to beg for a job. My commitment is to my own work, not to fitting into some corporate scheme. But if Second City has mutual goals, I’d love to help.

I’ve been right on anti-racism and improvisation as an art form.



I, and others like me, young and old, can save your ass now. Bernie used to talk about the tension between commerce and business. Second City has gotten into trouble because it has tilted too far to the business side. You can be the leader who charts the institution’s course back towards art.

I have worked my entire adult life to further the arts of improvisation and writing, the causes of social justice, and individuals in their human development. I don’t wear the blinders of show business. I am highly educated and broadly experienced.

You need me right now.


Rick Thomas, Chicago Main Stage ’81 -84

Richard Thomas JD, LLC Ethical Presence TM Consulting

1000 E. 53rd St. Unit 405, Chicago, Illinois 60615



Copyright 2020 Richard Thomas

4/18/20: Dark Saturday #poetry

Optimism dies hard in an American

I am an American

I was taught

more than taught


in a cauldron of Americanism

that “the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice”

I was shaped by Martin Luther King

even before I understood who he was

but today

I am unburdened of hopes and dreams

I am facing reality

and reality hurts

Breaking and tearing and pain

I saw a sweatshirt

worn by a helper

“look for the helpers” — Mr. Rogers

a sweatshirt with a quote from Pope Francis

an Argentinian

a country more aware of how it has disappointed God than the United States is

The quote:

The world tells us to seek success, power and money; God tells us to seek humility, service and love.

That’s the truth

creation is in constant conflict

good always contends with evil

evil with good.

No arcs

just a mess

We had to leave the house today

We saw working class people walk streets purposely


bereft of self-esteem

exposing themselves to disease

and horrible death

with annoyed resignation

chum for the leviathan capitalism

Homeless people beg at red lights

the walking dead.

An evil Republican donor

is quoted as saying that a person’s worth is determined by how much wealth he or she creates

but the evil is more widespread than merely in obvious villains

a holocaust is occurring in nursing homes

howls of demented fear echo across the land

and let’s face it

really how many see tragedy in the pain of people with faded and broken bodies and minds

death at 96 gets a shoulder shrug

death on Medicaid — well how much care for them do you expect

what is the cost benefit analysis

they aren’t productive

they haven’t been fully alive for years

junk in human junkyards

give them up for scrap

even the newly sainted Democratic governors see it that way

the technocrats know that the junkyard nursing homes

are an irredeemable bridge too far

we could never do what needs to be done

and pay the creditors

and dividend the investors.

working class



the stupid — young and middle-aged people

with blank expressions on their faces

unaware of the moment

the context

the danger

the ramifications

idiots bumping into things and each other

on the aging streets of Chicago

and my mind

my mind

gets away from me

a pleasant ride with my wife

intruded upon by seemingly random memory

but related to all that I saw

in the once familiar neighborhoods

made strange by isolation and history

a sick feeling feeling in the pit of my stomach

of an awful memory

the toxic imps of malice

trying to disrupt

the illness of shamans

every moment of the present brings me to the past

I open a vein

and bleed

in order to awaken empathy

to learn something and then teach it

I had a friend

check that

he was never my friend

I thought that he was

but he was on one side of Pope Francis’ equation

and I am on the other

He died recently

he was sick for a long time

the last time I saw him

he shamed me

called me “unsuccessful”

and told me not to write the “serious pieces”

and “get back to the jokes”

he was dying then

and he condescended to me

he was told by friends of his and a wife

who I had rejected

as stupid, superficial and mean

they told him to condescend to me

“you’re better than that loser”

I had made my peace that these people had ruined an art form that I loved

long ago

and how they made sure that I had no place in the venues that they worked

which was fine with me

My vision

my work

was certainly more important to me than any association with them

but I thought my assumed friend was different

I thought he was kinder and deeper

he wasn’t

he chose them

and not only because he needed the wife and the extended community for his survival and comfort

he thought they were right

He had been using me

he always sort of looked up to me

but wasn’t so sure

he was torn between the two sides of Pope Francis’ sweatshirt quote

he went with the dark side

dark Saturday.

So, we were estranged when he died.

I don’t feel bad about that at all.

Our “friendship” was an illusion.

I used to go see him every week.

I brought him his favorite pastry.

I sat in his bedroom and joked.

I read his scripts and text book — they weren’t very good

I read him my writing and teaching — they were very good

My mother died when he was doing OK before his final decline

I didn’t hear a word

I was reading some of my writing the last time that I was at his house

and his wife rudely interrupted me

She teaches at 3 crude and ignorant schools that I decided to avoid long ago

I don’t feel badly that I missed his death

or of course that I will never see her again

I miss the illusion of their friendship

and I am wounded by their attack

I realize that I knew them at a stop in my unending journey to self-esteem

Self-esteem not in the pop-psychology way

Self-esteem in the existential way

For the more that one is conscious of the sides of Pope Francis’ equation

the more one knows one’s own value

and then suffers shamanic pain

on the way to wisdom to share

so here’s the wisdom:

America is fucked up

She thinks what is worthless is important

and what is precious is expendable

The evil side of the papal equation is vicious

the good side makes it feel bad

then the good side has to fight through the misplaced shame

and reaffirm the value the value the good side was born knowing

a knowledge the evil tries to destroy

and the evil side unconsciously knows its evil

but denies that knowledge

and so corrodes itself.

Eventually evil destroys itself

and a lot of innocent collateral damage

The arc of the moral universe does not bend toward justice

the moral universe is a chaotic place

evil implodes

good is martyred

good comes back to life in the brief pauses after evil is shattered

and for a time things seem OK but evil re-groups

and good lets its guard down

and suffering begins again

I don’t have much hope for the world today

America is debating human life versus money

It seems so backward

The Pope described the way things are

It is a stupid debate

I don’t have much hope for the world today

But I have a lot of hope for me

I don’t think I’ll be any better

I think I have always been good and a martyr for good

sometimes sidetracked by illusion

but I’m sadder and wiser

getting ready to be more more effective

unburdened of hopes and dreams.

Copyright 2020 Richard Thomas

And Now a Word from Sir Anthony Hopkins #poetry

And Now a Word from Sir Anthony Hopkins #poetry

Thank you Corie Skolnick for sharing this wisdom from Sir Anthony Hopkins …

Let go the people who are not prepared to love you. This is the hardest thing you will have to do in your life and it will also be the most important thing. Stop having hard conversations with people who don’t want change.Stop showing up for people who have no interest in your presence. I know your instinct is to do everything to earn the appreciation of those around you, but it’s a boost that steals your time, energy, mental and physical health.

When you begin to fight for a life with joy, interest and commitment, not everyone will be ready to follow you in this place. This doesn’t mean you need to change what you are, it means you should let go the people who aren’t ready to accompany you.

If you are excluded, insulted, forgotten or ignored by the people you give your time to, you don’t do a favor by continuing to offer your energy and your life. The truth is that you are not for everyone and not everyone is for you.

That’s what makes it so special when you meet people you have friends with or reciprocated love. You will know how precious you are because you experienced what is not.

The more time you spend trying to make yourself love for someone who is unable to, the more time you waste depriving yourself of the possibility of this connection to someone else.

There are billions of people on this planet and many of them will meet with you at your level of interest and commitment.The more you stay involved with people who use you as a pillow, a background option or a therapist for emotional healing, the longer you stay away from the community you want.

Maybe if you stop showing up, you won’t be wanted. Maybe if you stop trying, the relationship will end. Maybe if you stop texting your phone will stay dark for weeks.That doesn’t mean you ruined the relationship, it means the only thing holding back was the energy only you gave to keep it.

This is not love, it’s attachment. It’s wanting to give a chance to those who don’t deserve it You deserve so much, there are people who should not be in your life, you will understand.

The most valuable thing you have in your life is your time and energy as both are limited. When you give your time and energy, it will define your existence.

When you realize this you begin to understand why you are so anxious when you spend time with people, in activities, places or situations that don’t suit you and shouldn’t be around you, you are stolen in energy.

You will begin to realize that the most important thing you can do for yourself and for everyone around you is to protect your energy more fiercely than anything else.Make your life a safe haven, in which only ′′ compatible ′′ people are allowed to you.

You are not responsible for saving anyone You are not responsible for convincing them to improve. It’s not your work to exist for people and give your life to them!

Because if you feel bad, if you feel compelled, you will be the root of all your problems at your insistence, fearing that you will not return the favours you have granted. It’s your only obligation to realize that you are the love of your destiny and accept the love you think you deserve.

Decide that you deserve true friendship, commitment.” true and complete love with healthy and prosperous people. Then wait and see how much everything begins to change and change, that’s for sure, with positive and good energy people, don’t waste time with people who are not worth it, change will give you the love, the esteem, happiness and the protection you deserve.

4/17/21: Becoming Mike Nichols (2016) — Poetic Careerist #poetry

4/17/21: Becoming Mike Nichols (2016) — Poetic Careerist #poetry

Orson Welles found poetic achievement in career failure. Mike Nichols found poetic achievement in career success.

Mike Nichols was a man of great personal charm, strong intellect and diligent work ethic. He had amazing taste. He innately knew how to behave with people. He was warm and confident. He knew what he wanted and he was kind. His qualities were irresistible to the people with the money, and all the artists that he made his movies and plays with, and audiences, and critics. He was destined to be successful from the start, and there was no secret about it. Everyone could see it. He was obviously great.

People offered Mike Nichols opportunities to do interesting things that he had never done before. Paul Sills cast him as an improviser. He learned about scenes, acting and his own creativity and knew when to leave. He intuitively knew that improvisation is an education, not an end in itself. Later, he understood that as an analytical proposition.

Next, he was satisfied doing comedy. He was making good money, dating cute women and working only two hours a night. He could have stayed in that phase of arrested development forever. Successful people are many things including lucky. He was lucky his comedy career ended. His partner Elaine May wanted more. So Nichols was forced out of comedy and after a period at loose ends, he became a director. Then smart took over again and drove the rest of the way. Elaine May wanted more and Mike Nichols got more … and more …

Mike Nichols learned how camera lenses worked when filming a movie in three days. No one taught Mike Nichols a thing. No one had to … He figured everything out. Mike Nichols did the jobs that he got so easily. He did them well. He was hired, then hit it out of the park — repeatedly. Mike Nichols was a careerist who turned his social and financial opportunities into art. He did not have to work to develop a poetic sense. You either have that or you do not. A poet does a thing with a dimension that uses it to point to something bigger. As literal as the stuff of poetry might seem, it is never really literal. Mike Nichols did the amazing, uncanny, natural (for him) and unselfconscious thing of making money in a way that was about something more than making money.

Nichols wasn’t about being Mr. Success. He was about doing the job. When a person is great at their work, and knows that work in the context of their life that work becomes poetry, becomes art. It doesn’t matter what the work is. When the work involves writers and actors and art directors and cinematographers and musicians … well, the Force is strong in that one.

Anything done well can be a poem. A meal, a staging for a house that is for sale, a sonnet, a basketball game … Nichols accomplished what Welles said was possible. Welles loved Hollywood and wanted it to be about quality. He wanted Hollywood movies to be poems. Hollywood wasn’t ready for Welles. It was ready by the time Mike Nichols came along. Welles confronted Hollywood. Nichols seduced it. He learned the art of seduction from Elaine May. She said that in art and life when in doubt seduce. Nichols used his powerful charm to get what he wanted — and what he always wanted was to do an excellent job.

Nichols did entertaining and socially relevant films but they always were ultimately about what it is to be a human being. Nichols made movies and plays of the social moment, but always in the context of eternal humanity. Humanity is eternal and therefore poetic. The humanist is as connected to the divine as the truly religious. The differences are just semantical. We watch Shakespeare today because what is eternal in man is unchanging. Nichols saw that in everything that he did. He directed a comedy revue like Spamalot in the same way that he directed a great American drama like Angels in America. He saw the same intangible in comedy and tragedy, serious art and entertainment. He found the humor in the most dramatic scene and the meaning in the most frivolous scene.

Nichols was self – reflective, but not overly so. He found himself in his material, but only realized it after the fact. Welles knew that he was a poet, and so did Nichols. Welles thought about his poetic nature constantly. Nichols wore his poetic nature lightly. I am not making a competitive comparison between the two geniuses. Welles was the greater director, Nichols was the greater producer … they both pointed people in the direction of the divine within us and around us … the wonderful thing about the poetry in life is that is expressed by such different people in such different ways … when there is a resonance in one’s heart in the observation of something within another person that touches one’s soul … that is love, that is peace, that is harmony, that is beautiful diversity … what a great experience that I have had … reconsidering these two filmmakers … the martyred genius and the recognized master, and seeing their commonality. Success and failure are ultimately irrelevant. Poetic achievement is the thing.

Mike Nichols was famously well read, but he wasn’t the most well read. The playwright Tony Kushner said that whenever he mentioned a book that Mike Nichols hadn’t read, Nichols went out and read it in full by the next time they met. That tells me that Nichols was a working intellectual — his knowledge was a tool. Someone like Kushner was not only more knowledgeable but also had the greater mind. But Nichols greatness lay in his appreciation of great minds, and like a great football coach he knew how to showcase the qualities of other geniuses so that they could be the most effective and successful.

Nichols was a politician. He was connected and knew how to leverage relationships to achieve desired results. He told a story with a lack of pretension that few other people could pull off. Jack Warner the head of Warner Brothers fired Nichols during the post-production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? because Warner was afraid of the Catholic Legion of Decency that could condemn the movie and severely hurt the box office. Nichols got word to Warner that he was friends with Jackie Kennedy and that she would do him the favor of sitting behind the monsignor from the Legion of Decency at his screening, and telling the monsignor what a beautiful and moral picture “Virginia Woolf” was. Jack Warner rehired Nichols. A film director paints with money and power and connections.

Mike Nichols used his worldly acumen to further art, and to get rich and famous … but he wore his worldly ambition as lightly as he wore his poetic sense. He won an Oscar for The Graduate. His next picture Catch 22 wasn’t as well received. Nichols felt relieved. Now he could just work without pressure. Work — he focused on his work and everything else took care of itself … in this world and in all other dimensions.

Nichols calculated being popular. He was involved in so many hits. But he was not a prostitute seeking the audience’s approval. Commercial movies and plays were the medium for his art. He wasn’t a bully, or a liar. He was adept at so many areas of life. Too often complimentary aspects of being human are presented as binary choices. You can have money, but you can’t have poetry. You can have poetry, but you can’t have power. You can have honesty, but you can’t have charm. It’s all nonsense. The human being is an amazing creature.

Nichols knew his own gifts and he knew his own limitations. He took advantages of all of his opportunities. He did excellent work and was a good friend and colleague to those who knew him. He was given a lot, and made a lot of what he was given. If that’s not poetry, I don’t know what is.

The lesson from Nichols for lesser mortals of fewer abilities comes from an example he must have absorbed from Paul Sills his director with the Compass Players. Sills made theater out of who and what was available — the people and performance spaces and thrift shop props that he could get his hands on. Sills looked for each individual’s personal genius and tried to use that inspiration in the creation of his productions. Sills was as great as Nichols — he just had less material to work with concretely and in the realm of social skills. It makes no difference. Both men were poets who changed the world by pointing to the world’s essential eternal nature, the realm of living that men and women tend to forget.

Many other film and play directors had the means to make the impressive outward shows that Nichols made in his prominent career. But few of those others turned Hollywood and Broadway into poetry — and that made all the difference.

Copyright 2021 Richard Thomas

4/16/21: Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (2014) — The Redefinition of Success #poetry

4/16/21: Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (2014) — The Redefinition of Success #poetry

I woke up thinking of sweet times. I was a little boy and there were two elite movie houses in Rochester, the Monroe and the Riviera. We usually went to the Monroe. The elite houses played the big movies, the wide screen Technicolor epics and the grand musicals. “Lawrence of Arabia”, “How the West Was Won”. “My Fair Lady” and the rest of them. We saw all of them. We was my mother and father and brother and my Aunt Dee, known to me and my brother as “La”, my Aunt Clara (“Geek”) and my Uncle Nello (“Nunc”). My aunts and uncle were nicknamed for the sounds my brother created for them as a little baby. The Monroe and Riviera were special places. The seats were bigger than at the other theaters. The seat cushions were plumper and softer and covered in red velour. The auditorium smelled great. The whole place was so clean. The curtains opened at the start of the movie. They were heavy and long and gold braids adorned their tops and bottoms. Everything was so special. The theaters were special, the movies were special, we were special and I was special. Everyone went to a lot of trouble to make a good time — the filmmakers, the theater owners and my family. The family dressed up for the good movie. We were really nice to each other. We got warm feelings when we saw the others smile and laugh. We had patience for all of each other’s questions. We were very happy, but we weren’t thinking about being happy.

There are things that I’d rather do than write this morning. (I’d write later.) I wish I was doing happy work without thinking of the work as happy, teaching my class to people who are worth it, in a school administered by people who appreciate what I do and would never interfere. I wish I was creating and being social with a community of artists. We would support each other in our respective genius, and we would welcome audiences who were worth it.

Once you have known love, in yourself and in other people, once you have known love when you are at rest and when you are doing something special, you are wrecked for life. Rosebud.

I don’t have the work and the community that I love at the moment, so I write. (I’d write under any circumstances, but a writer always wants more.) An artist can feel like an exile futilely trying to remind the world of the existence of love. An artist isn’t an exile. Orson Welles wasn’t an exile. Welles loved the world and saw it for what it was. He courageously embodied love anyway. Sure part of the world opposed him — the rich and powerful part. But the humble people, artists and other simple people loved him back. Love is not what you do. Love is what you are, and that colors all that you do. First you accept your identity and then you commit to it.

Young Orson Welles was a prodigy, so young Orson Welles did works of pure love, no questions asked. The genius Welles was incapable of self betrayal. That natural immovable integrity was his genius. He wasn’t looking for an argument with the money men. He knew about everything except the full meanness of the world when he made Citizen Kane — and he knew a lot about the world’s meanness — just watch Kane. The world came down on Welles with two feet. William Randolph Hearst fought a war against the movie which was so honest about what Hearst was. Hearst used his newspaper chain to keep audiences away from Kane. RKO had given Welles full creative control of the picture. But they frustrated him when it counted most. Hearst was threatening movie houses with refusing their advertising if they screened Kane. The movie couldn’t get full distribution. Welles wanted RKO to put up circus tents in cities and towns and get the film to its audience that way. RKO was afraid of Hearst too. They refused Welles’ innovative distribution strategy. This was the first time of many that the institutional power structure thwarted Welles in his creation of a Hollywood made of love. The money men knew Welles was great, and they knew that they were whores. So they shamed love, and made false claims about the value of prostitution. Welles was labeled difficult for the honorable act of making a good movie. Welles was labeled a commercial failure because the commercial men wouldn’t allow his picture to make money. Kane never would have been a huge commercial success, but it would have done well enough to not be condemned as an impractical waste of money.

A writer can do without the money men. He or she can write love letters, put his or her messages in bottles and wait for a response. A great Hollywood film director of Welles’ era was destined to be a failure in the conventional sense. Welles was the first great Hollywood film director. The first always fails in the conventional sense. The first betrays the conventional sense. By the 1960s and 1970s many fine directors almost routinely made Hollywood movies that were also works of art. Welles not only inspired those directors’ art, he also liberated their careers.

A film director’s art, even when a film is modestly produced, costs a lot of money. Welles had contempt for money. Money was a nuisance for Welles. It was a pressure to get money to make movies, and a pressure to earn money once they were made. Orson Welles was the first director to see the artistic possibilities of Hollywood. There were prior directors who saw film as art. Welles saw the large commercial film as the stuff of art. He saw the comings and goings of life in the world as art. He did not envision his art to be anything different than the stuff of life itself. Welles’ first allegiance as a filmmaker was not to film, but rather to being a human being. He wanted to do right by his fellow man and woman.

I have written in the past that art is an elite experience. I was wrong. Everyone is an artist. Our lives are our art. Love is the elite experience — love is higher and better than all other possible experiences. When we love we are art, and when we love what we make of our lives is art.

What do we do with our every day lives — how do we convert them into these works of loving art? I have never gotten on with people in positions of authority, not because I envied their power, but rather because they unfailingly attempted to force me to betray my love. There is no owner’s manual for love. A dictionary can’t define love. All worthwhile art provides the defintion. I can’t describe the state of being in love in an abstract way. I just know how it feels. Love moves a person. And that movement is how you convert your everyday life into a work of art. I, and no one else, can tell you anymore than that. The beauty of the world, its infinite variety, both in nature and in what is worth a damn in civilization, is the product of the infinite impulses of love. How can anyone tell you how to do it? How can you compromise it in order to sell something or placate a tyrant? No boss, or current state of public opinion or gossip in the neighborhood, can deter one who loves from doing what he or she has to do.

Welles’ conventional failure as a Hollywood movie director … his many frustrations, his poverty, his unfinished works, his masterpieces which seemed to shame the rest of his body of only promised work … is ironically his great success as a human being, and therefore as an artist. Welles showed anyone with eyes to see what Hollywood could be. Hollywood’s rejection is evidence of Orson Welles’ success.

Hollywood forced Orson Welles to invent independent filmmaking. Hollywood was too mean and cheap to give Orson Welles his due. So Orson Welles was a beggar or took work he could care less about to finance his personal productions that rarely came to completion.

Art is success as a human being. Nothing worth a damn was ever done for the money, the power or the fame.

Art gets an audience by dint of sheer luck. Whenever I feel sorry for myself for writing in obscurity, I’ll think of Orson Welles. I get lucky every once in awhile too.

A life of art is a simple life. One just keeps loving and working out of love.

Orson Welles reminds me of Flannery O’Connor in one important way. They both suffered many scars of love, and did so with very fine good nature. O’Connor was denied most everything that we normally associate with a successful life except great talent and a notable career. Welles was denied the pleasure of completion. He never got to fulfill his massive potential. Paradoxically, he did fulfill that potential simply by never stopping. Flannery O’Connor never knew carnal love, but in her short life she was the embodiment of love. She and her father loved each other with such beauty and purity that her life and writing testified to what love could be, and shamed all men for not wanting her.

Sweet thoughts are sad thoughts. One could curse the knowledge that love is possible, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

A life of art is love, and struggle, and conventional failure, and incredible luck, and constant mystery — art and love throw you into the unknown, and dissatisfaction — life, art and love always ask for more — they claw at you and nag you to that which has value … the scorecard of places like Hollywood don’t matter …

From the Disney movie, Pinocchio … the lyrics to the song “When You Wish Upon a Star” by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington

When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you

If your heart is in your dream
No request is too extreme
When you wish upon a star
As dreamers do

Fate is kind
She brings to those who love
The sweet fulfillment of
Their secret longing.

Like a bolt out of the blue
Fate steps in and sees you through
When you wish upon a star
Your dreams come true

Orson Welles fulfilled his secret longing even if it didn’t look like it, and many people knew it when he was alive, and know it now, and will know it in the sweet hereafter— knew, know and will know that he isn’t the genius that never made good on his promise, as those who advertise have advertised, he is everything that he could have been, and be — now and forever …

and for the so many people who knew, know and will know Orson Welles, and others like him (including themselves) …

Fate is kind
She brings to those who love
The sweet fulfillment of
Their secret longing.

Everyone has had at least one moment like a moment at the Monroe and the Riviera to remember …

and such memories beget life, art, a life of art, and the art of living …

Rosebud …

Copyright 2021 Richard Thomas