Monday, April 2, 2012

Reefer, My Madness

Directed by Christian Hepcat Heppinstall
Graphic Design & Image Capture by Richard Larson

Reefer, My Madness

My madness with reefer all began when I was fired from directing a show about marijuana—Reefer Madness the Musical – because I had sent an eBlast promoting it that wound up in the hands of a big funder who wanted nothing to do with it because the Michele Bachmanns, in D.C., would torpedo the funder for pushing drugs by cutting their funding from the Department of Education (DOE) – the same department Rick Perry wanted to ax if his dream of the presidency had been realized.

Whew, but really, that’s what happened. My madness with reefer ended only a few months later when my aged mother – who suffered from cancer —rejected marijuana because the high made her feel too odd and wobbly. Wobbly is a concern at 90 years of age, especially when she hasn’t yet had that fall that breaks hips. Plus, things were hard enough with the cancer that eventually killed her.

How could this be that I was fired by a well-known transgendered director of a very liberal arts organization that had been founded by out, proud and loud fags who became Alaska’s most vitriolic marriage proponents, you ask? I myself asked this question a lot and it took until April 2011 – six months after I was fired in October 2010 –to get the answers. 

Jimmy Harper's first inhale turns him into a bad boy. Director: Hepcat

But let’s back up and talk about myself and marijuana. I’m neither a user nor a buyer nor a pusher of the weed. I do support its legalization – a hot button issue in California, my new state of residence, especially in my new home of Oakland, an urban metropolis dotted with medical marijuana dispensaries, including four approvals by the City Council for new medical marijuana dispensaries. And Alaska, where I was fired, has had a possession law for years. So why was I fired?

It all began when the organization in question – VSA/OutNorth –hired me as its temporary marketing director. Low on funds as usual – its chronic problem – it asked me, the most out and outrageously reputed theater director in Alaska –to direct some shows, knowing that those I had directed – Rocky Horror; Hair; and a live political satire about gay marriage, DADT, DOMA and porn (of all things) in its venue in times past had brought in oodles of cash and new patrons for its other programs.

Sounds like a win-win for both sides. The organization had a new director who had never run a company before, but who was a well-known transgendered performer whipping transgender issues nationally. Those who had run companies before in Alaska in the arts – and were highly respected for their work – were tossed aside so that this person could be hired and bring the org some culturally hip renown and potentially more contributions.

At the annual board meeting I floated the idea of starting with Reefer Madness the Musical (among five other titles) due to its excellent musical score, script and cult following that would be sure to pull in an audience; this suggestion came after long discussions with said executive director who enthusiastically supported it. Unanimously, the board and executive staff supported the idea with huge chuckles and knowing winks with stories of college puffing sessions. Off to a good start.

Jimmy Harper didn't listen to Jesus so he is about to be executed. Director: Hepcat
So, in marketing the show, I put out an eBlast that also touted other programs, such as a lesbian film festival. These ran in what is called a Patronmail, an electronic eBlast to the org’s patron base, et al. To garner attention, I included a satirical call for recipes for the “Reefer Madness Marijuana Cookbook” and provided a hyperlink to the State of Alaska Medical Marijuana Program, directing the curious or needy to the official legal pages explaining how it all works in Alaska. A good deed for the public and a satirical wink about recipes in a state with famous possession laws. Oops.

Oops again. The D.C.-based funder – VSA – choked when it received the eBlast and promptly cancelled a huge annual grant Out North unwisely relied upon for two-thirds of its operating budget for five years running. Talk about putting all your eggs in one basket. In the space of five days—over Veterans’ Day weekend – I was both fired as the marketing director on Monday, but also fired by the same unanimous board on Tuesday.

Not so fast. I held the rights of performance from the publisher in my name, which meant I could take the show with me wherever. And that is what happened.

I met with the entire band, cast and crew. I explained the situation to them and put it to a vote that Wednesday. They were horrified by what had happened, particularly the Facebook denunciation of me by the executive director. The vote was unanimous to move the show and to put a letter to the editor in the Anchorage Daily News instead of Facebook.

I was stunned. How could I be fired by this cutting-edge, very progressive organization notorious for tweaking the Collective Social Nose of Alaskans with performing and visual arts presentations addressing just about everything naughty and misunderstood? I received huge support as did my cast, but no one could understand why Out North did such a thing. 

From one puff Jimmy Harper goes to hell with Satan's dancers. Director: Hepcat

Out North dispatched a delegation of VIPs (including a representative from U.S. Sen. Mark Begich’s staff) to the VSA office for a sit-down to examine the situation and see if the grant money could be returned. VSA calmly explained that the current and prevailing political winds (i.e. Tea Party and their ilk plus all the usual suspects running for office in 2012, including Mr. Obama, who is fighting hard against medical marijuana) made VSA quite vulnerable to losing its DOE funds because many loud politicians wanted that department shuttered. Aside from that, VSA had no problem with the outrageous content of art presented yearly by Out North. That said, VSA couldn’t be seen giving funds in support of marijuana or lesbian film festivals. Gag. Really? In 2011? Yes, really.

So what’s an organization to do when such a huge grant is yanked? Well, hysterically fire those responsible for associating grant funds with such art projects for one. That worked really well in hindsight. 

What that knee-jerk response did do was publicly challenge Out North’s 26-year reputation for presenting in-your-face art. It looked like they bowed to conservatives, and essentially that’s what it did with hopes of holding onto the Big Money.

Fast forward to March when the executive director tearfully appealed to the Municipal Arts Commission for funds to replace the VSA funds. In this meeting I was further denounced as a menace to arts organizations by two of the commissioners. This embarrassed the Anchorage Ballet, on whose board I was president, when those commissioners chastised the Ballet ED for having me as the board president: i.e. I am too risky to have in that position.

If only those making the denunciations knew the whole story – one I didn’t find out until a month after this hearing. Out North scored the largest award they ever got and the largest in 2010: $16,000. Peanuts versus the $80k VSA yanked.

Meanwhile, over at Providence Hospital Oncology Center, the hospice team signed up my elderly mother and I to be legal carriers of state-issued medical marijuana cards.  Oh, the irony.

Funny thing, though, with these cards: Alaska has no such dispensaries as we have here in California. So Alaskans have to break the law to obtain marijuana. To further the irony, an Out North staffer offered to do just that! Did I obtain pot for Mom? I’ll let you answer that one. But let me ask you: What would you do if it was your parent or loved one suffering from cancer? 

"The Brownie Song" finds Jimmy Harper cavorting with other reefer addicts.
Director: Hepcat

Let’s continue the irony. The oncology center hospice team has cancer survivors on its staff. They were lovely. They sent us a bunch of what? Marijuana food recipes! Heck, the things you can put pot in besides brownies.

I didn’t know about any of this stuff nor did my nonagenarian mom. The recipes were all nicely bundled together like a cookbook with hand scribbled notes wishing us well and giving a few cooking or baking pointers. All so very Hallmark with a personal and loving and totally sincere touch.

I confess to tears upon receiving it knowing that mom and I were embarking on a new road in her living with cancer. How lovely some people can be.

I then embarked on a brief study of marijuana culture in the U.S. It seems we really are having the Pot War of all Pot Wars, and here I get caught in the middle of it.

Propaganda from 1930s America that the Tea Party and Taliban would approve of.

Folks, I’m just directing a show about marijuana that everybody saw in college and laughed at during the midnight cinema showing. This musical is about the hysteria surrounding good kid gone bad –Jimmy Harper –who, with one puff, becomes a reefer addict. It addresses the anti-pot hysteria and frenzy fostered by William Randolph Hearst and his press organs in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Hysteria? Frenzy? Tea Party? America in the 2010s? You betcha!

Yet, all kidding aside, we are culturally at war. Here in the Bay Area I’m bombarded by stories of government repression on the federal and sometimes local level against the medical marijuana industry: growers, dispensaries, retail suppliers, etc. The Obama administration has reversed course and is now having federal agents raid such businesses in California – a state that has already legalized medical marijuana. In Sacramento, four state big shots supported the Obama onslaught. And this morning, six blocks north of my apartment building in downtown Oakland, the Feds busted Oaksterdam University! Who says Obama ain't tough on crime?

Back in March, when I was directing my final show in Alaska – Cabaret – Mom was given a little bit of a pot brownie. She flew and had hallucinations about jumping out of a window. Her radiation oncologist –who had prescribed Marinol – had never heard of such a thing. But he then advised trying Marinol, which we did. Little clear gel tablets. Six for about $100 since Medicare won’t cover them for anybody under Section D unless in cancer chemotherapy or an AIDS-patient. I took one and Mom took one. I slept fine. She crawled the walls.

Damn, so this didn’t help her sleep either; she was a chronic insomniac, something that exacerbated her cancer by making her more tired and less energetic. The Marinol pills were accidentely knocked down the drain by me in my bathroom; I laughed bitterly as I watched them disappear.

My mother--Allison--who at 90 got her State-issued medical marijuana card for terminal cancer. In Alaska she would have been forced to break the law to obtain marijuana to treat her nausea and give her appetite. Reefer Madness would be the last of my shows she was able to see. She loved it.

So, from mid-October to late March, I went mad with reefer. Yes, despite having been fired because of it and having it rejected by Mom, the madness was tempered by the excellent musical theater production that came out of the flames of hysteria and destruction.

A merry band of socially-inspired  brothers and sisters formed in this cast and they thumbed their noses at censorship and the selling-out of artistic principles for Big Money. Reefer Madness the Musical ran mostly sold-out shows and garnered a bunch of good press and notices for my actors and band. A hit. Redemption.

In my favorite Anchorage bar – The Cheechako/Reilly’s – I was advised in April to take the High Road. Others whom I respect had offered the same advice. It was the advice I got all along. And I took it. I never said anything adverse officially or publicly, even when my name was being dragged through the mud in a very public forum where everybody knew me and my work.

So why am I writing now? It’s important during this Cultural Pot War we are fighting in this country for all those to tell the truth who have been screwed by pot’s opponents for supporting medical marijuana and legalization in general. What happened in Anchorage, Alaska, and Washington, D.C., in October 2010 between Out North, VSA and myself is a cautionary tale and a community lesson painfully learned for all involved.

There are morals to my story. First: Art has no master to fetter it; don’t let the bullies tell you, the artist, what you can or can’t do because they won’t fund you. Second: When you run an arts non-profit organization truthfully spend restricted grant funds or let other non-profits  who are better placed apply for and spend those funds. Third:  When you publicly libel and blame blameless folks, exercise good manners and apologize for your social transgressions.

And fourth: Take the High Road. It feels great...
The great finale of Reefer Madness the Musical.
Director: Hepcat

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