Want to help us make a story?

Lathgertha_by_Morris_Meredith_WilliamsIn six days, Vince and I are going to take A Big Risk. We’re going to get on a plane (Vince hates flying) and go to Minneapolis, Minnesota. There we’re going to hand a script to a room full of people, most of whom I haven’t met (first-draft readings take a pint of my blood), and we’re going to read it, rehearse it, record it, and make a serial podcast out of it.

This is Jarnsaxa Rising.  Ancient Norse Gods use humans as pawns to battle each other. When an ancient giantess takes human form to engage in eco-terrorism, a corporate team tries to stop her, and learns who the real enemy is.

Vince testing our portable recording setup.

Vince testing our portable recording setup.

The script is stylistically different for me, in narrative and in craft. I’ve never written science fiction or fantasy before. Adjusting to audio drama is also new for me. Vince has done a lot of sound engineering and still experiments with it for fun. He’ll be performing all of the sound engineering and writing all of the music. We made a sketch comedy podcast episode to prove to ourselves we could do it. Now we’re getting involved with other people and going on a journey.

Carin Bratlie believed in me enough to produce Traveling Light years ago, and now we’re going to go take a leap of faith together again. She’s assembled a solid, smart cast, and she’ll be directing.

Now’s your chance to be part of our trip.

We are 14% funded on the Indiegogo campaign that will fund this project. The podcast will be produced and be available online for your listening pleasure this autumn, whether we reach our funding goal or not. As I write this, twenty-one people have said, “Hell, yes, I want to support this story.” You can join us.  

They say life is a bowl of cherries in Minneapolis.

They say life is a bowl of cherries in Minneapolis.

Right now I feel like my viscera is all clenched up in the center of my chest from excitement and anxiety. I’m rewriting the big final battle of the story, and I want to make everyone proud.

Things are looking up!

Georgia O'Keeffe, photographed by Alfred Steiglitz. Good things are happening.

I’m pleased to announce that Wide Open Spaces will be read as part of the Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival this summer!

Wide Open Spaces is the play that I wrote about Georgia O’Keeffe, and her personal changes that made her the painter we know today. It has forty-some odd characters played by eight performers, and takes place in one room and all across America over three years, so this is going to be a good experience. I’m really excited about this, and grateful that the festival coordinators see what I’ve seen in this story.

Philadelphia’s never had a theatre festival specializing in work created by women, before this year. Ms Fest at Plays & Players was a huge success, so the energy of supply and demand is high for a women’s theatre festival.  Currently, the PWTF is raising funds to make the festival happen, and you can support this project.  They have four days left to meet their fundraising goal, and donations are tax-deductible. 

I know so many people who complain at being left out of opportunities. There’s so much “they don’t want me because I’m too (x, y, z) for them” that I hear, and I want to be in a culture of saying “yes, and.”   This is one of those times where we can step up and build the sandbox in which we want to play.

Speaking of building your own sandbox, progress on Jarnsaxa Rising continues. In addition to the script, I’m working on “meet the artist” posts for the podcast’s blog. Every time I open up my e-mail, see the performers’ headshots and read their bios, I get all warm and giggly inside. This project is going to be Really Good.

And, of course, if science-fiction-fantasy podcasts are your thing, you can join us on the journey.

IMG_3686 And last night it rained, finally, so the garden is getting wild again. The red lilies are blooming and doubling and trebling, and the morning glory vine has started to fight with the lavender, but they’re no match for the mint, so I have to get in there and break up some of this battle.



Mint vs. Lavender vs. Morning Glories. QUIEN ES MAS MACHO?

Mint vs. Lavender vs. Morning Glories. QUIEN ES MAS MACHO?




Things that keep me awake at night

Lathgertha_by_Morris_Meredith_Williams Once upon a time there was a playwright who was really, really bored.

She sent a Facebook message to a friend, a director, who was never bored, halfway across the country. The message was, “I need something new to write about, throw me a prompt.”

The director said, “Just above the 60th parallel in the Baltic Ocean, a team of researchers arrives at an abandoned wind farm, to investigate some unexplained energy surges. They discover that the wind farm has become sentient. And hungry.”

The writer said, I like this, and she researched and thought and imagined. Five years later, we have this:

Smøla Wind Farm, Norway. Photo by Bjørn Luell.

Photo by Bjørn Luell

Jarnsaxa Rising

It seemed like a great play idea, with multiple characters and the wind turbines themselves being played by actors who rotated giant rain sticks, as if the gods and humans and everyone were all embodied in the wind turbines. But the story was too unwieldy. It made more sense to break it into episodes and do it as a podcast. So, basically, it’s a science fiction fantasy revenge tragedy that takes place in a dystopian future and the ancient past.

and that’s what I’ve been up to lately.

round box brooch swedish So, I’m writing the script. I’m eight episodes in, with hopefully only two more to go. although two of the episodes may get merged into one. Vince is doing all the sound engineering. Carin is directing, she’s found a cast, and we’re going to Minneapolis to record it in July. We’ll edit the files in August, and launch the podcast in the fall.

I’ve been taking a Coursera course, called Sagas and Space, about Norse culture and how they thought about themselves. It’s been inspiring and helpful, particularly Terry Gunnell’s guest lecture on “Spaces, Places, Liminality and The Supernatural in The Old Nordic World.”

I’ve been learning a lot about Indiegogo. This is our campaign, in case you like this and want to help. We’re just over 5% funded, with 41 days to go. I get about two messages a day from people who want me to pay them to retweet the campaign or add it to a directory. which feels like adding my needle to a haystack.

woman holding-headphones-listening-to-music

“OMG! This is, like, SO much better than Serial!”

Tonight, I have writer’s block. I know what needs to happen next, everything is outlined. As I write, I feel like I’m stumbling. There’s a lot of new things that I’m learning: writing purely for audio instead of live audio-visual performance, using episodes, using non-linear narrative. some information is missing, and I don’t know what it is, but without it, I can’t confidently move forward. I’ll get it, I just have to find it. I also know that writing doesn’t come from inspiration, inspiration comes from writing.

Fortunately, I have a really good cast, good people who have said, “sure, I’ll climb aboard your wagon.” I just want to make sure I don’t disappoint anyone.

I wanted to go to bed early tonight, so I can get up early tomorrow. It was hot today and it’s supposed to be hot tomorrow, so I’d like to have some of the cool hours of the day at my disposal. I want to get up early, pull weeds and water the flowerbeds before the rest of the world gets moving. The local amateur pyrotechnic aficionados are setting things off, which upsets the dogs. They’re being pretty good about it, but I can hear them shuffling around anxiously.

I think I’m just going to lie down and listen to an audiobook, and hope that settles me down.

Anyway, this is what’s keeping me awake lately.

Orphan Black Is My Personal Trainer

Not only are the Sestras of Team Leda my personal trainers, but also, as a result, I can survive car crashes, get stabbed through the side with rebar, run, fight, shoot with accuracy, and dig a grave through a cement floor. Impressed?

Don’t be. I may be exaggerating. Let me back up a bit.

During the summer of 2013, I lost about eighteen pounds. This happened through a combination of hopping up and down on an elliptical machine at Planet Fitness, and eating mostly blueberries and almonds in order to win the respect of  [popular Philadelphia actor and local vegan] Doug Greene. It was fun, for a while. Then,
a) I learned that Doug Greene’s kindness is so vast that he really doesn’t care if I eat things which can not be easily foraged, and

b) The televisions at my local Planet Fitness succeeded in driving me out of there. That’s right. The terrorists’ televisions won.

Here’s the battle. I had a pretty good system for making regular exercise part of my life. Roll out of bed, pull on the pile of work out clothes I thoughtfully placed [okay, dumped] on the floor next to the bed the day before, put earbuds in ears, and with my gym only a few blocks away, I’d be at the gym and on the elliptical, chugging along to “Doctorin’ The Tardis,” before I really woke up.

OB1-596x335  Unfortunately, the Wall Of Televisions across from the elliptical machines were extremely distracting. The morning parade of anorexics, invented health scares, and celebrity bullshit which passes for news drove me far away from sense and sensibility. One day I saw Olivia Wilde, being interviewed about her role in a movie in which her character allegedly liked to drink a lot of beer. I thought, she doesn’t look like she’s ever touched a beer in her life. She’s as light and luminous as a snowflake. She probably eats nothing but organic arugula and pure mountain spring water. Then, some weird part of me thought, you could look like that if you ate only twelve handfuls of almonds a day. It’s possible. And just look how much better her career is than yours.

Fortunately, some reasonable part of my brain (the part that likes eating, moving around and having cognitive function) said, NOPE, that’s not a healthy mind set. I got my priorities in order. After that, the televisions at the gym made me so angry, that I stopped going to the gym. Music wasn’t enough to keep me going, with TV flashing and flickering away in front of me.

OrphanBlack_S2Ep10_251-596x335 Recently, I was talking with some friends about how I wanted to write a Tv drama spec script for my portfolio. My co-worker Kevin suggested that Orphan Black might fit my sensibilities. I hate sitting and spending copious amounts of time staring at something without doing something else along with it, so I thought, I’ll watch it at the gym. I bought the iTunes season pass for the first two seasons, and away I went on Leda’s Big Adventure.

This show is absolutely ideal as a companion for cardio, especially if you’re stuck indoors at one spot*. Its style, as a one-hour adventure-sci-fi-drama- is ideal for a 45-minute workout.

ob121-596x335  TV writing is formulaic, even for a genre-defying show like Orphan Black. Dan Harmon’s narrative structure method shows this formula best. Essentially, with a 40-45 minute show, you’re going to have moments of tension every five or six minutes. Every other moment of tension will be a major moment of tension, and they will increase in intensity throughout the story.

To try to make things simple, these are your big turning points of story.
1) A person is in a place of comfort
2) But they want something
3) They enter an unfamiliar situation
4) Adapt to it
5) Get what they thought they wanted
6) Pay a heavy price
7) Return to where they started
8) Having Changed.

OrphanBlack-Ep5-1-596x335In the case of a serial thriller like Orphan Black, you’re not going right back to the beginning, necessarily, you’re only back to square one in the sense that you’re still fighting The Bad Guys. Your favorite clone makes progress, but not enough for her to win freedom for herself and her family.

So, when you’re working out, these points of tension will make you move faster. The first ten minutes or so, even if they start with Sarah or Cosima or Allison or Helena in a major pickle, are at least a pickle with which the viewer is familiar. The episode is establishing itself, and this gives you time to get warmed up. After about ten minutes, our heroine gets presented with a new difficulty, and that makes the tension pick up. Usually, by about fifteen minutes into the episode, there’s a bar fight, a critical code to be cracked, or a chase that makes the viewer more tense. So, the natural response is to do what? Move faster. Each conflict increases the tension, leading to a plateau, and then another increase, until the inevitable cliffhanger ending, which leaves the viewer wanting more.

OrphanBlack_S2Ep9_20-596x335Mirror Neurons being what they are, we can’t not get tense along with our favorite characters. Every time they get into trouble, we do what they know they should do; tense up, and run, or fight. It’s a perfect thing to keep you going when you’re at the gym. There are some exceptions, however. When Paul pressed the stolen (spoiler object) into the palm of Felix’s hand, I hauled on the brakes on the elliptical foot pads so hard that I almost fell off of the machine. So, be careful. This show is not to be taken lightly.

It’s true that many television shows follow this formula, and probably any one-hour drama or police procedural could fit the bill. Why not just go to the gym a couple of hours after dinnertime, and catch one of the many variations on CSI or Law & Order? Because this is Orphan Black, and it’s a whole new modus operandi in story.


The more things change, the more they stay the same.

One actress, Tatiana Maslany, plays the main characters, all of whom share the same DNA, but are as different as chalk and cheese. Each of them has secrets, and has to pretend to be something she’s not. Anyone who wants transformation, or has just had a very bad day (why else would you get on an elliptical machine?) can empathize with Clone Club. The clones battle and support each other in similar but unique voices, much as different facets of one human’s personality. Yet they all work toward a common goal; independence and safety for themselves and their family. Because one actress plays all the roles, the viewer gets pulled into the concept of transformation. The body becomes immaterial; what matters is the clones’ desires, actions, and manners of self-expression. For someone who’s trying to get more exercise, this hits home. Ultimately, the premise of Orphan Black is, “Is biology destiny?” Is our body all we are, or can be? For all women, we want to feel like our bodies are less important than our personalities, thoughts, and desires. In the case of Orphan Black, the human body is a part of oneself, but not the entire existence.

OrphanBlack_HelenaGallery_02-596x335  Having this show accompany me as I work out makes me more excited to go to the gym. It makes me think about the body in terms of strength, health and autonomy. It distracts me from all of the usual chatter in which we engage, concerning fitness and working out. Maybe I’m not doing this because I want to look like the women on The Today Show or Good Morning America. Maybe I’m doing this in case I ever have to dodge a sniper’s bullet or run for my life or fight off a bunch of armed goons. The characters on this show are flexible but tough, capable of change, but focused, and always moving up. It’s the best workout companion I’ve ever had.

I have not yet seen Season 3, other than the occasional trailer or sneak peek. Like I said, I don’t have cable (although Episode 1 of Season 3 is available online. BUT FOR HOW LONG???). As far as I can tell, some of what the new season concerns is how big business (i.e., Dyad), can control the human body, how the government and military can get involved (such as in the case of copyright), and what people can do with their bodies. These ideas scares me, particularly since we see this all the time. We see it when women starve themselves to fit a business’ idea of what a clothing size is, when people make choices about food, self-care, residence or birth control based on what corporations say is safe and healthy. I’m glad this show is exploring these ideas, in an interesting and inventive way.

And no, I never wrote the spec script, because I was too busy being in love with the show. I probably will eventually, anyway. Wide Open Spaces made the semi-finalist level for the National Playwrights’ Conference at The Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, so I can’t possibly be that bad at this whole thing, right?

Don’t go changing to try and please me.

Philadelphia’s Mural Arts program is really cool, but it’s only a small part of the many arts organizations who contribute to the life of this city.

Philadelphia Arts Advocacy Day probably sounds like something involving tall skinny women wearing all black and chunky jewelry sipping chardonnay and complaining about the callouses they have on their check-writing hand. And who’s to say it isn’t? Any tall skinny woman who wants to sip chardonnay and complain about arts funding is a friend of mine, as long as she keeps donating to the arts organization of her choice.

But seriously, folks. The Philadelphia Cultural Fund is likely to be reduced for fiscal year 2016. Last year arts advocates convinced Mayor Nutter and City Council to approve an increase in the funding, to $3.14 million. This year, we’re only asking that the budget not be reduced. We’re not asking for an increase (though that would be really nice too). We’re just asking that it not be cut (to the 1.84 million that Mayor Nutter has proposed).

In order to have cool things that make a place livable, such as summer camps, street fairs, orchestras, nifty little painting and writing classes, and endless productions of Shakespeare to make us all feel smart, you have to have cultural funding in your city budget. If you want to be a great city, you have to have great art, and that means great money. We’re not even asking for more money, we’re asking just to keep the number the same.

The NCAR Arts Vibrancy Report is Southern Methodist University’s index of supply and demand for cities’ arts, culture, and how their governments spends money on them. It’s a way of quantifying a major contributor to a city’s livability (aside from jobs, climate, pollution, transit, and so on).  While Philadelphia’s Avenue of The Arts may seem like a vast buffet of entertainment and provocation, our city didn’t even make the top ten. For cities with populations over one million, Philadelphia came in 13th, right under Denver. 

A bearded hipster-lookin' man with some plush creatures that look really cool.

You guys, please, please, don’t let Denver be cooler than us. Please.

 That’s right. Philadelphia was outranked for vibrancy by DENVER, COLORADO. This aggression will not stand, man. 

The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance has created a guide of simple ways that you can communicate to Mayor Nutter and City Council that the Philadelphia Cultural Fund is important to you, and that you don’t want it reduced. I read the useful and helpful pre-written letter provided, and re-edited it for my own (nefarious?) purposes to send to my council person, Bobby Henon.

The letter I sent is below.

I highly recommend that if you

a) live in Philadelphia, or its surrounding counties (Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery, yes, this affects you too)


b) like things other than sports sometimes,

that you click, tweet, write, make noise, whatever. Make that happen. I mean it. Here’s the guide. It’s not hard. Easier than Candy Crush.

Thank you.

Dear Councilman Henon,

Thank you for all the hard work that you’re doing for Tacony and Mayfair. I moved to Tacony when I married my husband, and in the past eight years I’ve seen a lot of positive change. For example, the Tacony Storefront Improvement Program was long overdue and is a great asset to our neighborhood. Here is another way that life in our district can be improved, that’s also very important to me.

The Philadelphia Cultural Fund’s budget allocation is at risk. As a writer, artist and arts supporter, I’m writing to urge you to save the Philadelphia Cultural Fund (PCF) and keep the budget allocation at $3.14 million for the fiscal year 2016.

As you already know, last year Council appropriated an additional $1.3M for PCF, bringing its allocation up to $3.14M. This additional funding allowed PCF to dole out larger grants and reinstate the Youth Arts Enrichment grants. This grant provides project support for arts-education programs serving K-12 students in the Philadelphia School District.

Funded projects directly address the priorities of reducing youth violence, reducing truancy and drop-out rates, and increasing the percentage of School District graduation rates and graduates going on to college.

They give kids something positive and productive to do. This is something that our district desperately needs. We have tons of young people wandering the neighborhood, and no opportunities available to them beyond sports. For kids who aren’y interested in or good at sports, there needs to be meaningful activity. Furthermore, participation in arts programs helps increase emotional intelligence, making people less likely to engage in violent or destructive activity.

There are many people in Tacony and Mayfair who are just plain bored, and live to complain about renters or people who are different, and watch television. Events such as the Mayfair farmers’ market and street fairs give residents the opportunity to interact. It’s great that this is happening, but we need more. The Devon Theatre has been sitting idle for years. It’s a tragic joke that the past artistic directors abandoned it. However, it would make an excellent space for Theatre Philadelphia companies to give performances. People in our district need intellectual and emotional stimulation that art and culture provides, in order to lessen violence, drug use and crime. The arts also enhance local businesses; people who attend arts events are more likely to spend money near by, such as for dining and parking. The Philadelphia Cultural Fund allows for better opportunities not only in District 6, but throughout the region.

Mayor Nutter has only appropriated only $1.84 million for the PCF in his FY2016 budget. Please encourage Council to act and ensure that PCF is flat funded for Fiscal year 2016.

Please allocate $1.3M for the Philadelphia Cultural Fund.

Thank you again for your hard work, your time, and your attention to this important matter.


Lindsay Harris-Friel

we’ll find a place where there’s room to grow

Paul Williams wins a Grammy in 2014

Paul Williams wins a Grammy in 2014 for his collaboration on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. Photo by Allen J Schaben, Los Angeles

Before you think this has turned into a Paul Williams Stalker Blog, let me give you a little bit of background. Matt Casarino (friend, playwright, singer-songwriter, performer and half of the band HOT BREAKFAST!) and I have been discussing the Paul Williams documentary, Still Alive.

It stuck in our craw, collectively, as you might say. Were this a dog park, the documentary would be that weird tree root sticking up out of the beaten earth that we both kept sniffing, chewing, and trying to pull out, before realizing it was stuck to something much more insidious.

As dogs will, we are compelled to keep gnawing and pulling at that tree root until it sticks up out of the ground, and let the sun and rain hit it, until it grows leaves.

I think what’s frustrating both of us is that Kessler had the opportunity to interview Paul Williams, a person who tapped into the collective unconscious and spun out some amazing songs, and he dropped it. Matt and I both wish we could get a Google Hangout interview with Williams, to ask the really important questions (just how sleazy were the infamous El Sleezo dancing girls?) and just listen and let the man talk, for crying out loud.  What’s the science of his songwriting? What’s the process? True, there’s no specific formula to make something that tugs at your emotions, but Williams’ decades of work is close to Joseph Campbell’s decades of study of myth.

Matt Casarino on stage at The Baby Grand, Wilmington, DE

Matt Casarino on stage at The Baby Grand, Wilmington, DE

Initially, when I saw the movie and it bothered me, I started to write an e-mail to Matt about it. Matt knows the science of what makes pop songs and stories engaging, so I wanted to know his thoughts about the movie. Then I really got on my high horse and posted my rant publicly. Matt wrote me back, and was kind enough to allow me to post his continuation of the conversation here.

Both of us feel like this movie misses a point. Matt showed me that it hits another, very interesting mark.


Without further ado: this just in from Casarino.


The first 45 minutes of Still Alive are maddening. Frustrating as all get-out.

I understand documentaries can be as much about the filmmaker as the subject – whether or not they’re seen on-camera, the director/editor is the one shaping the narrative into the story they want us to see. But while a little personal context is fine, good LORD, man, you’ve got one of the most interesting fellows in the world in front of you, and you’re talking about yourself? Shut up, step aside, and let Williams talk.

My frustration reached its apex during the Vegas scene. After a few awkward shots of Paul’s wife, we see shots of her repeatedly interrupting the band rehearsal to ask the musicians how many comps they want as an annoyed Williams looks on. I turned to Jill and said “this is bullshit. It’s a cheap shot. Kessler is deceptively editing the film to make her look intrusive.” This was followed by Kessler’s v/o, as he opines that Williams is clearly annoyed that his wife is ruining this trip.

That’s when it hit me – I’ve been duped. Kessler isn’t clueless. It’s not just this scene that’s unfairly edited – it’s the whole movie. He’s doing this on purpose. He’s painting himself as a dopey, gooey-eyed fan, and purposefully leaving in all the shots “normal” documentaries leave out – the awkward and uncomfortable confrontations, the sideways glances given to increasingly intrusive cameras. He’s going behind the scenes of his own movie.

And with this method, he ends up showing us a side of Paul we otherwise never would have seen.

He could have given us a sitting-on-a-couch documentary, in which Paul takes us through his life, his various projects, his process, his highs & lows, all that stuff. That would have been very satisfying, honestly, because Paul is a fascinating man and has spent decades learning how to charm the camera. But we wouldn’t know Paul like we do now. We wouldn’t see the very real, often deeply uncomfortable moments when Paul is just barely too polite to tell Steve to go eat a handful of crap. We wouldn’t see an exhausted Paul telling Steve he’s all “Paul Williamsed out,” or telling Steve his questions are condescending and insulting. Those are real, honest moments, and very telling.

And they never would have worked in a “normal” documentary. They would have been jarring, making Paul come off as irritable, unpleasant, ungrateful. But here, we get it. We cannot believe this drip is botching his Paul Williams documentary, a movie he’s lucky to be making. When Paul’s values overtake his courtesy and he incredulously calls out Steve for being shitty, we’re on his side. It’s a great moment, albeit terrifically hard to watch. But if Steve were “invisible,” if the movie was more of a talking head documentary, that moment would make Paul appear irritable and combative. But because we’re as exasperated as Williams, we see a man determined to be present, to accept his past without regretting it. Paul’s not telling us how he feels – he’s showing us. Remarkable.

And Steve takes the hit. He lets himself be comically obtuse, mistaking Paul’s obvious sarcasm for an actual invitation. He lets Williams and his wife glare at Kessler and the camera with a sort of polite contempt. He’s a simpering wuss in the Phillipines, whining about the food and terrorists. He asks jerky questions that seem designed not to provoke answers, but to make Williams feel bad. Christ, he even dresses like a drip, with his oversized, droopy t-shirts, wrinkled pants, and stooped posture. Doesn’t he know he’s in a movie?

But by being the bad guy, he lets Williams be the good guy. That incredible moment at the end, when Williams watches a video of his coked-up 1983 persona with horror, absolute disgust, and embarrassment? That probably couldn’t have happened in a “normal” documentary. In this one, where the jerky filmmaker has been pushing for this moment for years and Williams has been resisting it, it becomes the entire point. It reveals the soul of Paul Williams.

Now, this revelation doesn’t mean I loved the movie. It’s still kind of hacky. Kessler lays it on way too thick, especially in his v/o that opens the movie, when he tells us how much Paul meant to him as a child. He overplays his hand, becoming so unlikable that the movie itself turns off-putting when it should be riveting. And he can’t resist unnecessary, gratuitous intrusions, like the campy clip from The Karen Carpenter Story. Even if his indulgence is a put-on, it’s still indulgence, and often maddening.

Paul Williams performing in Brian diploma's movie, Phantom of the Paradise.

Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a picture of Paul Williams playing a piano? Here, he’s at least got his hands on one, in Brian de Palma’s film Phantom of the Paradise.


Worst of all, the doc really doesn’t spend enough time on Williams’ extraordinary life. I get that Paul isn’t interested in telling old war stories, but there are some important questions that need to be asked. Who first noticed that he was a good songwriter? What movies mean something to him? What songs mean something to him? Who else does he admire? What was it like filming Phantom of the Paradise and The Muppet Show? How did he get sober, and how does he stay that way? What of his family, his children? The portrait of Paul Williams is incomplete without these questions answered. I suspect the middle ground between the vérité doc we got and the This-is-Your-Life doc we wanted is amazing.

But I still like the movie. I find Williams more fascinating, and wonderful, than ever. I want to be his friend, his confidant. And you know what? Now I don’t want to know certain things. I don’t want to know the lurid details of his drug habit. I don’t want to know his songwriting process. I don’t want to know how he channels sadness and depression into his work.

Well – I do want to know those things, but now I don’t think they’re any of my business. Now that I’ve seen Still Alive, I’d rather give him a little space, let him think about his next golf game and where he might want to take his family on vacation.

If I were writing soundbites, I’d say something like “Still Alive isn’t the Paul Williams biography you want, but it’s the one you need.” Thank Cthulhu I’m not a soundbite writer, because that makes me want to stab myself in the nipple. Instead, I’ll say this: I’m glad I saw Still Alive. I like this Paul Williams – a wonderful old guy who’s been through hell (and heaven) and still performs to make a living while helping thousands of people get and stay sober, a guy who’s lost more than he’s won but is happy with what he has. I’d still like to smack Steve Kessler on the back of the head for all the opportunities he missed, but I’d also like to thank him for letting me meet the real Paul.


It’s very true that Still Alive inverts traditional documentary conventions, to make us rethink privacy, loneliness and intimacy, particularly when those things are pushed against fame.  I’m grateful to have friends like Matt, with whom I can have these conversations.

You’ve almost convinced me I’m real

Paul Williams accepting the Academy Award for the song "Evergreen."

Paul Williams accepting the Academy Award for the song “Evergreen.”

Last night we watched the documentary, Paul Williams Still Alive. It was okay, but problematic. It might be interestingly problematic. Stick with this, because there is a point. I promise.

Basically, this guy, Stephen Kessler, was amazed to find out that award-winning, chart-topping soft-rock songwriter and television personality Paul Williams was not dead. In his joy and amazement, he set out to make a documentary about his childhood hero, hoping that maybe it would culminate in the two of them having a sleepover and staying up all night watching old tv clips from his many appearances and swapping tales of 70’s celebrity wacky times. Probably sitting in a pillow fort, wearing their pajamas and drinking Kool-Aid.

Result: the documentarian becomes the documented, and the experiment in narcicissm becomes really freaking tragic. It’s worth watching, if you want to see how what could be a very good documentary can go totally tits up.

This movie’s most annoying attribute is not Kessler’s strained relationship with Williams’ wife, the shaky filming, or the fact that Williams knows how run an interview and  how to direct a documentary better than this guy. It’s that not once does he touch on Paul Williams’ songwriting process.

Kermit The Frog and Paul Williams

Kessler does not spend any time discussing Williams’ collaborations with The Muppets. Unforgivable.

Kessler concentrates on the fame, tv appearances, booze, drugs, and sobriety, all the things about which Williams doesn’t want to talk, what should be the painful third act of your documentary, a part of it, not the end goal or sum and substance. We see Williams touch a keyboard once in the entire film (other than archival footage), and then only for a second. Paul Williams is now the president of ASCAP, and I can’t imagine a better advocate for the rights of songwriters. Although I have to admit I’d love to hear a discussion between him and Jonathan Coulton about songwriters’ rights in a mixed media world. I think Coulton’s experience with audience relationships and the Internet would be interestingly balanced by Williams’ decades in TV, film, and recording.

Kessler totally missed the fact that when you hear a Paul Williams song, you know it’s his, even if you don’t know the title, and haven’t been told anything about it. He has a particular style, once stamped on a song, which pulls the listener in, and then turns just as soon as a comfort level is established. He has an aural relationship with exposition, conflict, escalation and resolution which makes the listener always want a little bit more.

Kessler’s documentary is watchable, and shows us an intimate and painful side of a guy who has made a lot of people happy for many years (particularly in the Phillipines).  But it doesn’t show Williams’ productivity, never asked once how he worked on music while getting clean, or how he works on music now. THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT STUFF. This is the kind of thing that helps artists and listeners and ARGH ARGH ARGH Come on, pal. Grow up.

The documentary was made in 2011, so it was made years before Williams became the president of ASCAP, and long before Daft Punk would have tapped him for involvement in their work.

Paul Williams wins a Grammy in 2014

Paul Williams wins a Grammy in 2014 for his collaboration on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. Photo by Allen J Schaben, Los Angeles

If you listen to this, even without Williams’ unmistakeably unique voice, you can hear his style, despite the layers of electronica and Daft Punkiness of it all. Particularly at about the three minute mark, where the music fills your head with curly-haired women in glittery gowns twirling under colored lights, and Muppets playing sax and juggling silk handkerchiefs. But then the song widens and deepens, and this is the work of a really grown-up master of the art form. This might not be The Only King Of Pop, but he’s certainly a King Of Pop.  This is The Phantom of the Paradise and Evergreen.

So, yeah, nice try Kessler, but before you spend a lot of time on the tree’s tinsel, why not water its roots?