Sunday, August 22, 2010

Happy 90th birthday, Ray Bradbury — A bit about Mr. B and me

Today is Ray Bradbury's birthday. His 90th. Whoa.

Los Angeles has been communally celebrating with Ray Bradbury Week. As for me, I sent an email to Mr. Bradbury's agent asking about securing the rights to create a new theatrical adaptation of The Martian Chronicles for Seattle's Book-It Repertory Theater.

Like so many people out there, my history with Ray Bradbury starts with devouring The Illustrated Man, Fahrenheit 451, R is for Rocket, The Golden Apples of the Sun, Dandelion Wine, and especially The Martian Chronicles when I was in junior and senior high school. Since then I've always kept up with his writings, and carried those old paperbacks with me as I moved here and there and elsewhere across the country for college or career or coastal views. Here in my office I have three different editions of Chronicles. So, yeah, it's one of my touchstone "desert island" books and he's been a writer I've happily grown up with. Even when some of his work has been subpar and his personal proclamations slip into right-wing crankitude like Grandpa Simpson waving his cane, he still occupies special bookshelf space in my heart and his best work remains eminently re-visitable "comfort reading" decades on.

Like me, Bradbury has always possessed a love for the theater, for good stories well-told by skilled, talented people on a stage in front of willing audiences. Not surprisingly then, he has adapted The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, plus a dozen or so of his stories, for the stage.

Years ago, while working on my M.A. in theater, I hit upon the notion of producing and directing a couple of his plays, adaptations of his stories "Kaleidoscope" and "Pillar of Fire." Meanwhile, creatively indulging a long-time love of astronomy, I worked as a show presenter and educator in the local planetarium. So what better place to stage the show than in the planetarium?

Aided by like-minded artists, musicians, and actors, we used the facility's unique visual technologies to place our strong repertory cast — the newly inaugurated Glass Goblin Theater Company — on an audience-encompassing Martian landscape, in a futuristic graveyard, and even adrift plummeting through deep space. All scene changes, plus special visual and audio effects, were as easy as a flip of a switch on the planetarium control console.

Best of all, A Night of Delicate Terrors: 2 Plays by Ray Bradbury went live with active cooperation, encouragement, and input from the plays' author. During the rehearsal phase, Ray — he asked me to call him Ray, insert fanboy squeal here — and I exchanged a large amount of mail and spoke on the phone a number of times, with him sending me his thoughts on theater as well as articles he'd written and even his own copies of scripts he'd created.

My goal was to create a kind of theater that was (1) entertaining and meaningful to traditional theatergoers, (2) "modern" in a way that attracted and engaged people who never before had set foot in either a playhouse or planetarium, (3) commercially viable (we made money!), and (4) consistent with Ray's notions and philosophies about an "intimate" theater that provides a physical, elemental experience that's not just three-dimensional TV. We succeeded.

My one regret was that he was unable to join us at the show itself. So afterward I sent him the press notices and a collection of production photos. Much later I was pleased to hear from his publicist that a copy of the show poster hung in Ray's dining room. A framed copy inscribed by Ray in silver ink hangs here in my house. (Just moments ago as I sit here, while Google-searching for the Martian Chronicles image at the top, I discovered that two years ago someone at liked that poster well enough to cop-and-crop it for their own Happy Birthday piece on him.)

The show was a hit. It capped my Master's degree in theater, after which we staged another show in the same venue, Lunacy, a seriocomic satire about the history of women in space exploration.

Together those shows opened a door to a (wholly unanticipated) career in the planetarium field with a position as Astronomer Intern at the renowned Strasenburgh Planetarium in Rochester, NY. My boss there, the chief producer, was also a theater man with his own company, so he appreciated the value of enhancing the 60-foot dome with a dash of showmanship when carrying audiences to the stars.

Later, that feather in the cap took me to Portland, OR, where I was hired as the planetarium production coordinator at the big science museum there. It was a job I loved and one that afforded still more creative high points (playing in the Star Trek universe among others).

Ray and I maintained our correspondence. He sent me his script to Leviathan '99, a deeply poetic (probably too much so) space-going radio play interpretation of Moby Dick. Along with it was a cassette tape of the BBC production starring Christopher Lee. I pitched hard for it as a new project at my new planetarium job, but the higher-ups wouldn't bite. It put me in the uncomfortable position of having to say no to Ray Bradbury. Crap.

At the console, Strasenburgh Planetarium
I'm not doing planetarium work now, but I miss it and its unique stimulations and creative opportunities dearly. Mr. Bradbury — back to respectful formalities now — and I have exchanged some mail and Christmas cards over the years. In one of them he included one of his poems, "If Only We Had Taller Been," and before I read it I wondered, Is this about me being only 5'4"?

My story, "Great Works of Western Literature," appeared in the Sept. '94 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction along with Bradbury's "From the Dust Returned" (which he later expanded into a novel).

More recently, he and I have shared space in a college textbook, one of those fat Norton-style literature anthologies. It's the 4th edition of Literature and Ourselves: a Thematic Introduction for Readers and Writers (New York: Longman, 2003), for courses in second-semester freshman composition and intro to world literature.

Within the 1500-page collection, among the Virginia Woolf and Geoffrey Chaucer, nestled there between Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Vonnegut, Poe, cummings, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Joyce, Oates, Eliot, O'Connor, and other deep-hitters, my previously published novelette, "What Dreams Are Made On," was reprinted as part of the thematic section Imagination and Discovery. Its prose fiction segment includes Mark Twain, Woody Allen, Ray Bradbury, me, and Louise Erdrich.

On a preface page kicking off that section, the editors paired us up for some student deep-thinkery:
"...You might choose to explore what Ray Bradbury is implying about our present by showing us one version of the future in 'There Will Come Soft Rains,' or you might ask what Mark Bourne is saying about human nature as he describes people who fill their lives primarily with vicarious experiences...."
My byline appearing near his in a literature textbook was pure kismet; I had no idea what else was going to be in that section until I received my copy of the book. It was both thrilling and humbling, and you bet I sent him a little note about it. My fiction, such as it is, has not again (yet?) been represented in such august company. Oh, and please excuse me while I give another fanboy shout: Woody Allen! Mark Twain! Holy shit!

As I mentioned at the top, earlier this week I wrote to his agent. I did so at the suggestion of his daughter/manager and at the behest of the Book-It Repertory Company, who have been itching to apply their own impressive "Book-It style" to a Ray Bradbury title or three during its twenty years as a mainstay in Seattle's theater scene. They have approached him before, but a deal couldn't be struck. So maybe I can provide a friendly "in" as a liaison between two creative forces I enjoy so much. My hope is that I'm the one who gets to adapt The Martian Chronicles. Wouldn't that be cool?

In the meantime, here's another personal birthday greeting — this one from Rachel Bloom of the Upright Citizens Brigade (oh, to be back in New York again!) — that, boy oh boy, sure has made the rounds this week.

Fuck Me, Ray
Watch more comedy videos from the twisted minds of the UCB Theatre at

To answer the first obvious question: yes, apparently the man himself has seen it.
Addition: "$#%@ Me, Ray Bradbury' girl meets Ray Bradbury" at

According to this interview with the well-read Ms. Bloom in the Seattle PI's Booktryst blog:
"Writers are thus the pinnacle of intelligence. While actors are great and awesome, writers literally create new worlds from scratch. What is sexier than that? Personally, I don’t know why every person out there isn’t dating a writer."
So, to answer the second obvious (to me) question: Yes, suddenly I have an even greater incentive to finish this novel. In the meantime, Rachel, may I interest you in some of my published short fiction?