Harlan Ellison

I have No Mouth and I Must Scream – A playwright’s response to #Ferguson

One of my favorite writers is the incomparable Harlan Ellison. Harlan once wrote a short story about a fickle “god” (in reality a computer) who manipulated and changed and warped a group of people for it’s own amusement. In the end there was one man who had no mouth and had to scream. Can you think of something so horrible? A need to scream, a warning to shout, anger to release, fear to vocalize and yet you have no mouth.

I am not that man. I have a voice. I am a writer, a wordsmith, an artist, a talespinner and a storyteller. I have a few publishing credits and a few people who follow me on Facebook and Twitter. I have a blog (obviously, you’re reading it now) and a few followers there who may read it (like you). I come form a place and background of some privilege (not as much as some, but more than others.) I have been blessed to travel to parts of the world that some of you never will go, I have stood on a volcano in Guatemala and on a beach in the Philippines. I have seen these countries natural beauty but also the dark side. Children in hospitals crying out and street urchins reaching, begging for a dollar. I’ve seen homes, shacks, that were barely liveable and offered no protection, let alone amenities. I have cried over the things I’ve seen. I can still feel the pull on my shirt of children going “Joe. Joe. Hey Joe, gotta dollar Joe?” 

But I haven’t just seen poverty in foreign countries. I’ve seen it here too. I spent formative summers in high school working on Mississippi Delta, working on homes that should have been demolished, or watching dozens of people living in a house made for a few. 

Some people will say I shouldn’t say anything even if I have a voice. To them I say, “If I don’t speak up who will” or as the famous saying goes “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” So I will not stay silent, not about Ferguson, not about ISIS, not about arts in schools and arts education or any other subject I feel passionate about. 

There are people out there, in American towns like Ferguson, MO, who until two weeks ago, probably felt they didn’t have a voice. I KNOW that they felt they didn’t have a voice. I’ve heard their stories, people I know who are African-American and have experienced fear that what happened to Michael Brown, might happen to them. Fear, anger, and a lack of a voice lead to violence. When you answer violence WITH violence, the result is simply MORE violence.

When I was a kid, my folks had a gas grill, one day I was told to light the grill. I went outside, turned the gas on to high like I had done hundreds of times before, and went to light the match. Nothing. The wind was blowing and the matches wouldn’t take. I got more matches and finally got one to light the grill. However, I spent so much time messing around with the matches that when i touched the match to the grill, a flame leaped out and toward my face. I was lucky, I singed a few eyebrow hairs that’s all. What I didn’t know is that while I was trying to lit the grill to control the fire, the gas was building up until it “popped”.

That’s what happens when you have no voice. The gas just builds and builds and builds until it explodes.

I don’t have an answer, I wish I did. I pray I had an answer. I wish I could definitively say that if there was greater emphasis on arts in school, in painting, drama, writing, dance, etc, that the voiceless would find their voice. I think it helps. I know it has helped me, but that seems like such a simplistic answer in the face of such racial turmoil.  So maybe we need a little more arts education.

I want to say that if we just talked better, opened up communication and learned from one another these things wouldn’t happen. And that would help, I’m sure of it. I know my personal views on certain issues (not related to race) changed when I met people that believed different than I did. So maybe we need a little more communication.

I don’t know the politics of race that well, but I’m a student of history. I just finished a couple of plays that, at least to me, resonate, in these troubled times. One is about a young girl who moves to Lawrence, KS with her family at the dawn of the Civil War and why they moved there (to stop the tide of slavery). The other is about the most unlikely Civil Rights advocate you can imagine, a “bad guy” professional wrestler named Roscoe “Sputnik” Monroe, who was responsible for the intergration of Memphis, TN in the 50s. Sputnik Monroe’s story particularly struck me. Here was the most unlikely of heroes, an ordinary guy, who saw and injustice and fought for it. He was arrested six times, he was threatened and he threatened to give up his livelihood if there wasn’t intergration and it worked. I dont’ know if this is the full answer, but we could use a few more Sputniks, good men who aren’t afraid use their voice to speak for those that can’t.

You may feel you have no mouth and you must scream, but I assure you, you do, just try.


The Issues With Rights

A good friend of mine posted a video on Facebook the other day of a group called String Theory Quartet. They describe themselves on their Facebook page as:

A string ensemble at Cornell University dedicated to playing your favorite nerdy TV, movie, and game themes as well as music by popular artists.

Which makes them awesome. What makes them even better is that they are AMAZING at what they do. The video that introduced them to me was their melody of music from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog, which I consider to be one of the best musicals of the past decade. They did an amazing job rearranging the music and paying tribute to it in their own manner.

After viewing the video, YouTube suggested similar videos, many of which were “live on stage” recordings of various people doing Dr. Horrible. This disturbed me. Not because the productions were bad (that I don’t know I only briefly watched one, I turned it off before the first song, but I’ll get into that in a minute), but because the productions were, essentially, illegal. You see, the rights to Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog have not been released for general use.

From the Dr. Horrible website:

Sorry to say: At this time, no license requests are being reviewed or granted with respect to performances of Dr. Horrible. We appreciate all the enthusiasm and support, but for now we are not licensing it.

Additionally, no rights to Commentary! The Musical are available to license.

If and when this decision is reversed and we once again will license the rights to perform Dr. Horrible, we will post that
information here for you. In the meantime, thanks you for caring enough to even find your way to this page to read this. You are awesome. For realzies.

– J,J, M & Z

I would love to direct a stage show based on this musical. I was watching it just the other day with my brother and told him that I would love to cast him as Captain Hammer. But again, the rights aren’t available.

What am I getting at here? Well, the one production I started to watch said in the description that:

The show became one of the most successful in the history of the [theater name removed–ER], and earned critical praise from many of the local critics.

The YouTube video also begins with an ad and has three ad breaks in it. Meaning that the poster is generating some revenue from people watching the video. Joss and Jed Whedon, however, are not receiving any monetary compensation from this company for their work however.

Now the Whedon brothers are both very successful and a few dollars they would earn from selling the rights, they probably don’t miss. But that isn’t the point of this. The point is, as a theater producer you don’t have the right to make money off of something you don’t own. What you are, in fact doing, is stealing the creators’ work for your own profit.

I’m a playwright and it scares me to think that one day I’ll get a Google Alert message that someone is doing one of my plays and I will have no knowledge of it and get no compensation for it. I am not a multi-millionaire that may or may not notice the lack of money from this production coming into my pocket. But it doesn’t matter if I am or not, the rights are mine (and my publishers) just as the rights to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog belong to the Whedons. And if you want to use our work and use our rights, you  need to pay. As one of my idols Harlan Ellison says in the documentary, Dreams With Sharp Teeth,

“I don’t take a piss without getting paid for it.”

Later he says:

And the problem is, there’s so god damn many writers who have no idea that they’re sposed to be paid every time they do something, they do it for nothing! Gllg, Gllug! They’re gonna look at me! I’m gonna be noticed! Hhh-hhh! Hhh-hhh!

Hey I’m guilty of this as well. I’ve said “I need to build up my name” or “think of the free publicity”. Yeah I’m still trying to collect on what was promised me from the last free show I did. You  gotta pay the writer, pay the writer, pay the writer, PAY THE WRITER! Did I say that enough times? How about once more?


Okay, end of rant, catch my breath.

And for those wondering what Joss Whedon thought of String Theory Quartet’s use of his music? Well he tweeted this:

So I’d say he’s okay with what they did.