Posts Tagged ‘Pink Floyd’

RIP, Josh Fischel; or A Big Man Leaves a Big Hole Behind

Friday, September 29th, 2017

I met Josh Fischel in early 2013. He died yesterday, September 29, 2016. No, that can’t be right. That would mean everything I experienced of and with this man took place in less than four years. That can’t be right.

The first three things I learned about Josh were probably the first three things most people learned about Josh when they met him: he was a big bearded man with a big voice and big plans. Josh was always looking toward the next bigger and better thing he could put together. In 2013, that was RIOTstage. The idea was to create a new niche in the Long Beach theatre scene by staging edgy, raucous musicals. The first two were to be Tommy and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

He never got there because it turned out he was a little too good at putting together big ensemble musical performances of a more eclectic nature. Like the time he brought together two-dozen musicians to perform Abbey Road—which was only the second half of the show. Or the time he and a string quartet did Elvis Costello’s The Juliet Letters, then after intermission had a 13-piece band he put together do Pet Sounds in its detailed entirety (strings, horns, tympani, sleigh bells, glockenspiel, guïro, the whole shebang). Or hey, remember those times he transformed huge city spaces to do Let It Be, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and The Wall?

That’s just a few shows. During the same time period he also played his own music throughout the country and abroad. He co-created and curated the Live After 5 series. And of course you know about last weekend’s Music Tastes Good festival. He did all that.

He didn’t do it alone, of course. One of his great talents was bringing together the necessary talent—musical, administrative, logistical, technical—to hit whatever target was in his sights. For every one of his projects during these last four years, invariably the individuals he handpicked for a given project were mightily impressed with the new people they got to work with.

I think the reason so many different people got to work on Josh’s big ideas was his ability to see people as specific, idiosyncratic individuals and to treat and employ them as such, very consciously (as he once told me) putting them in positions to contribute uniquely and successfully. On several occasions I was lucky enough to be one of those individuals, and more than once Josh asked me to venture outside of my comfort zone. I was always willing to go there when he asked, because when Josh put his faith in you, you began to believe.

His communication style is something I will miss greatly. To be sure, Josh could do the charismatic diplomacy thing that is probably requisite for any impresario, but on a more personal level Josh would not hesitate to let you know when he was annoyed or pissed off. He would listen to your idea and accept it if he agreed, but he had no problem unceremoniously shooting it down if he didn’t. He did not pretend to like everyone equally—or at all—just as he did not hide his affection.

One of the best bonding experiences Josh and I had came out of a misunderstanding that got me partly thrown off RIOTstage’s Americana. During the initial stages of production I was a consultant and contributed some content. I was also slated to perform, but a few poorly-phrased e-mails on my part to an assistant who didn’t know me well enough to get where I was coming from led to his feeling it would be best if I were replaced in that capacity. We talked it out, patiently and earnestly, and came away from the conflict with no hard feelings and a better sense of each other’s character. He asked me to be a part of several projects afterwards. That’s the kind of guy he was: when you resolved an issue with him, it really was resolved.

I was honored to be in his confidence, a role I enjoyed because—as he told me on numerous occasions—he valued my reactions and that I knew how to keep my mouth shut when he wanted to talk about something that wasn’t for public disclosure. That’s not a story about what a fab friend I was, but an example of how Josh saw people for the individuals they are, and how good he was at letting his friends know how he felt about us.

No reminiscence about Josh can rightly exist without thinking about Abbie, his wife and partner. I add the latter title because “wife” doesn’t really get to the heart of it. It was clear even to those of us who aren’t new-agers that they were spiritual partners. Her warmth and support—which extended not just to him but outward to everyone they knew—sustained him in whatever he did.

I imagine it must have sustained him in what turned out to be his last days, as he plowed through the finish line of Music Tastes Good with little sleep (I asked him over coffee a couple of weeks ago if he was getting enough sleep: he just rolled his eyes). I imagine it’s part of what made it possible for people like me—people who knew about his health struggles of the past year or so, people who couldn’t help noticing how much worse his hearing had gotten, people who were startled when they hugged him at how emaciated his frame had become—to be caught completely off-guard by his passing yesterday.

But what also made it such a shock was that he was just Josh fucking Fischel, a boss, a force of nature, too big to fail. When he gave me that big Josh grin Sunday as I congratulated him for launching Long Beach into a better future, the kind of future he always dreamed of for this city he loved heart and soul, I could never have conceived that he’d be gone in just four days. I only imagined that his future would be what he said it would be: a couple of weeks wrapping up Music Tastes Good details, a three-week European sojourn with Abbie, then on to his next big thing. After all, isn’t that the way these last four years have been: Josh says, Josh does?

Just four years? That can’t be right. It’s not right. It’s true, but it’s not right. There is nothing right about Josh being gone so soon.

The loss of Josh leaves a big hole in the Long Beach community (and beyond), a hole that will never be filled. But the fruits of his too-brief presence can never be rotted by something as mingy and base as death. “There’s a lot of untapped talent in Long Beach, a lot of people who just aren’t getting seen or heard,” he told me two-and-a-half years ago, when much of Long Beach was still getting to know him. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to create RIOTstage. […] There is so much talent around here—it just needs to be harnessed. I’m not saying I’m necessarily the guy to do that, but I’m definitely going to be one of the guys.”

You definitely were.

*Photo credit: Matt Maguire
*Yes, the crude double-entendre of the title is intentional. Josh loved that sort of thing.

Tom Stoppard’s DARKSIDE @ the Garage Theatre

Monday, August 3rd, 2015


Tom Stoppard’s Darkside, incorporating Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon

the Garage Theatre, 2015-Aug-01

***WORLD PREMIERE STAGING (a big deal in the little berg of Long Beach)***

If you didn’t know otherwise, you would never guess that the Garage Theatre’s presentation Darkside is not merely their interpretation of this Tom Stoppard masterwork, but partly their own world-premiere creation. Darkside, you see, was written as a radio play, which director Eric Hamme and company have so effectively and affectingly forged into a live production that it comes off as if it was always meant for the stage.

Emily McCoy (Maribella Magaña) has a problem. She’s at university studying a bit of philosophy, and she’s increasingly troubled by her investigations into the status of the Good, particularly as highlighted in thought experiments proffered by Prof. Baggott (Paul Knox). Is it Good, for example, to divert a runaway train full of passengers from plunging off a cliff if in doing so you kill an innocent boy playing on the tracks? It’s a consideration that transports Emily from lecture hall to a murky, mountainous landscape, where she meets up with the now-deceased boy. They are soon joined by the superhero Ethics Man—it’s Baggott behind the mask—who floats down to earth after taking his doomed plane’s sole parachute, leaving his fellow passengers (a banker and a politician) to go down with the airship. “I was a utilitarian consequentialist,” Baggott explains, “but I’ve been forced to reexamine some deeply held convictions. “[…] Ethics Man is [now] a Nietzschean egoist. […] The rules are made by whoever has the will to make them.”

We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore, and for someone in search of the Good (Nietzsche wasn’t), such ratiocination doesn’t satisfy, so Emily treks ever deeper into the dark woods of her psyche, becoming her own sort of thought experiment, fantasizing how she might address the masses on the subject:

They know the world is fucked if something isn’t done. They know what has to be done. They don’t understand why nobody is really doing it. The system is locked somehow, they don’t know why. They’re looking up at me. Can Emily McCoy save the world? I explain it to them as if I’m talking to children. When I’m done [… t]hey sit there, stunned. But next day fucked-upness is on the turn, like floodwater starting to go down. Glaciers, rain forests, pollution, destruction, starvation…

“What do you say to them?” the Boy asks. “That’s the part I’m still working on,” she says. It’s intractable work, though, and it’s driving her mad.

Because Stoppard’s exploration of where to find the Good in a world without a reliable roadmap is relatively (i.e., for Stoppard) straightforward, you almost overlook its brilliance and beauty. But Hamme makes all the right moves to bring it home. One of the most powerful comes halfway through the odyssey (which is only an hour long), when Emily gets the chance to live out her fantasy—within her fantasy, at least—by addressing that mass of lost, searching humanity. From on high she holds forth passionately, mouthing words we hear as the wordless wailing of Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky”, a cry in the wilderness soaring to the heavens before melting down into the closing words of Emily’s plea:

The earth is a common. You can’t save it for yourself, but you can save it for others, and the others will save it for you. The other is us, and we are the other. We are of a kind. We are natural born to kindness, which means to act as our kind, as kin to kin, as kindred, which is to act kindly. What is the Good? It is nothing but a contest of kindness. To be unkind is against nature [… W]hen we live for trickery and gain, we turn against nature, and nature will turn against us.

As he makes his case for true humanity, Stoppard serves up the wit and repartee well familiar to fans, while making us care for Emily as a real, live individual. Baggott, too. He’s not just Ethics Man, but a soul increasingly troubled by the conundrums he’s been teaching all these years, particularly when he sees what they’re doing to his favourite pupil.

Not a little of the credit here goes to the actors. No matter the pith or moment, Magaña and Knox never speechify, encasing each word and idea in feeling flesh and blood. It is Knox as much as Stoppard who makes Baggott not simply Emily’s mentor but also a fellow sufferer; and Magaña communicates so viscerally in the play’s final scenes that the emotional substance could be grasped even if her articulations had no more literal meaning than the “Great Gig in the Sky” vocal.

All in all the acting is pitch perfect. Stoppard is so quick with substance that it’s important for a production to keep the audience hanging on every word, and the cast manages the trick throughout. The standout supporting role is Matthew Anderson as the Witch Finder of Emily’s fantasy and an asylum doctor back on this side of the rainbow. His menace as the former is palpable, a smoldering intensity you feel in your shoulders.

Anderson’s performance is one place in which Hamme’s Darkside differs sharply from the BBC Radio production (which aired in 2013). Whereas the BBC’s Witch Finder holds forth with a quick, jaunty wryness, Anderson’s pacing is so wrathfully slow that it would fall flat on the radio despite his riveting delivery, lacking as it would his commanding visual presence. Steven Frankenfield’s Boy is another point of departure, opting for youthful earnestness in lieu of the worldweary tone of the BBC’s Boy. Overplay this angle and the Boy would reduce to caricature, but Frankenfield never bends so far.

Despite the Garage Theatre’s limited budget and space, Hamme has so deftly created a visual component for Darkside that you half-expect that Stoppard’s script must have come with instructions, To be opened in case of staging emergency or some such. For example, when the Banker (Jeffrey Kieviet) and Politician (Craig Johnson) arrive on the scene (“everyone here [i]s a thought experiment”), Kieviet and Johnson move with perfect synchrony as they hold forth, embodying the insidious collusion intimated by their words. Another fine Hamme interpolation comes near the play’s end, when Emily and the Boy waltz to “Us and Them”, a touching moment in its own right and an evocation of Stoppard’s Arcadia apropos of Stoppard’s own Darkside evocations (The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, Chinatown) of our shared cultural milieu.

It is only because the Garage Theatre frames Darkside so finely that its minor imperfections show up on radar at all. Chief among them is relying upon the audience to suspend disbelief during a couple of scene changes requiring a moveable platform to be wheeled into position. Because Stoppard’s script flows from one scene to the next without a single break (the music of The Dark Side of the Moon connects many of the dots), ideally nothing visual would impede the aesthetic flow. But there’s simply nowhere to hide in the intimacy of the Garage. You can’t argue with any of Hamme’s blocking, though. Plus, the combination of music (raised to the perfect volume when it stands alone aurally), visual projections along three walls, and the always strong, occasionally spectacular lighting minimize the intrusions.

Elsewhere, Hamme and company have covered all the bases. The costuming is simple yet meticulous (Anderson’s Witch Finder outfit is immaculate), and the relatively few props in evidence, such as the many torn pages that litter the sandpit of a stage, are used by the actors to great effect.

While discussing the Garage Theatre’s challenges in their first-ever staging Darkside, Stoppard opined that every scene would difficult to stage, when not impossible. Nonetheless, the Garage has built upon Stoppard’s script an edifice wherein the playwright’s moving meditation on ethical civilization and its discontents comes into clearest view. Perhaps difficult or seemingly impossible tasks—such as finding a common locus for the Good—are not always as unobtainable as they seem.

Tom Stoppard’s Darkside, incorporating Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon • THE GARAGE THEATRE (251 E. 7th St., Long Beach 90813) • 8PM THURS–SAT, JULY 31–AUG 15, AUG 27–SEPT 19 • $15–$25 • TICKETS, INFO:

(Seating is VERY limited, so you best buy your tix in advance.)