A Great Big Cloud of Smoke

If anyone from federal law enforcement is reading this, it's purely a work of fiction, and any resemblance to actual musical theatre artists, stoned or not, is purely coincidental.

Now that I got that out of the way.

If you're my Facebook friend, or if you've known me for longer than ten minutes, you know I smoke pot. And I'm very vocal about it. In a weird way, stoners are kind of like gay people thirty years ago (and in some cases, still today) -- in both cases, it's relatively easy to "pass" among civilians. But like gay people, stoners won't get their full rights and respect until they come out of the closet.

Now in fairness, and to mix my metaphors, that ship sailed a loooooong time ago for me.

I first smoked pot in 1986 (thank you, Dave Englehart!), but then smoked only two or three times a year (usually only at cast parties) for a long time. When we did Hair in 2000 and again in 2001, I smoked a ton, but just during those two runs. In 2004, due in large part to the reelection of George W. Bush, I started smoking pot every night and I started writing my musical Johnny Appleweed. Both of them turned out to be extremely therapeutic.

And in writing Johnny Appleweed, with a wise, itinerant stoner as the title character, I really thought a lot about pot, about what it does for me, why I use it, why I like it. Two of the songs I wrote, "Cannabis Dei" and "The Scheme of Things," do a pretty good job of explaining my stoner philosophy.

Here is the slam-esque triologue before "The Scheme of Things" on the video, describing what it's like to be stoned. Of course, your mileage may vary.
My mind had opened, in the truest, deepest sense of the word, and the opening brought with it a remarkable sense of well-being, a kind of healthy, informed apathy that let loose its grip on my neck and shoulders, allowing me a kind of relaxation that I had never felt before. 

That, and my feet felt like sponges. I realized in an instant that the way most people describe being high is all wrong. It doesn’t dull you, it doesn’t shut you down – it re-tunes your frequencies, it re-focuses your brain waves. Stoners can watch television with the sound down, not because they’re too stoned to care, but because they’re no longer watching the program; they’re watching the shapes, the pixels, the lines, the play of shadows, the ever more super-charged commercial graphics rocketing out into the electric of the ozone like Superman in front of a green screen, and those colors… the way blues share something with reds…

And likewise when stoners listen to music, we stop hearing just the melody and the words, and instead we hear inside. The space between, the timbre of the instruments, the pulse of the guitar against the bass, the rise and fall of individual violins inside a group of twelve, the patterns of rhyme and the dance of consonants, the way the pitches begin and then fade away, some faster than others, some never really fading away completely, the color of the notes. And the textures. The way the air moves in front of you to make way for the music.

We stoners experience the world in a way the uninitiated will never even imagine. Certain things just don’t matter anymore, money, career, gadgets, all the accoutrements of status and rabid patriotism, and only when you’re straight again, do you realize that those things didn’t matter when you were baked because they really shouldn’t matter.

The human brain processes four hundred billion pieces of information per second, but we’re only aware of two thousand of them. Marijuana dials down that editing system and opens up the Floodgates of the Mind – like a circle in a spiral, like a meal within a meal.

So now you have your pick of all those amazing, interesting little pieces of information, all those bits and bytes that usually get sorted out without our knowing it. Now the things that are supposed to be important get lost in a sea of everything-ness, no longer gripping our reality quite so tightly, now allowing new things to come swimming along, relegating the “important” things to a small swirling eddy of neuroses just over the horizon, out of sight out of mind.

In short, the holy bud sweeps away from your brain all the bullshit that keeps you from being the happy, thoughtful, engaged person you really are, a fully realized being like Yoda or Gary Busey. And the trivia washes back to shore…

But let's get down to it. There are three reasons I use pot. First, it boosts my creativity by disabling my internal editor, which in turn makes brainstorming far more fruitful. When I'm stoned, ideas come to me (whether I'm writing or figuring out staging) that my unstoned mind would immediately discard as ridiculous. But having access to those more ridiculous ideas often leads me to incredibly funny and/or creative and/or powerful moments. I'll tell you a little secret. I never work out staging anymore without being stoned. 

One side note -- I can't really do anything left-brained when I'm stoned. So I always do "office work" for the day, numbers, correspondence, reports, grants, etc., before I smoke.

The second reason I use pot is medicinal. I get very stressed out by even the most trivial everyday obstacles, delays, hassles, etc. And that stress then turns into physical symptoms, headaches, stiff neck, jaw clenching, stiff back, indigestion. And if I smoke pot at the end of my day, I'm able to let go of all the craziness and trivial ickiness of the day. In my mind I see it like a spaceship expelling its garbage into space. When I describe this process to friends, I call it "taking out the psychic trash." It allows me to not accumulate all that crap to the point of feeling overwhelmed.

Todd Schaefer and Jeffrey Wright in New Line Theatre's I Love My Wife, 2010.
And finally, let's be honest, I use pot because IT FEELS GREAT. It makes me mellow, relaxed, content, easily amused, easily engaged, easily distracted. And let me tell you, if you're smoking the good stuff, "couch lock" is a real thing. You sink into a comfortable couch, stoned as shit, and you just don't want to move. You don't even want to lift your hand to use the TV remove. You can, of course, but if you had your druthers, you won't, because that's how utterly comfortable you are. And this, friends, is couch lock. And it's awesome.

And of course, on top of everything else, researchers are constantly finding new medical marvels that pot can achieve, for sufferers from AIDS, cancer, Parkinson's, glaucoma, and lots more. A few years ago, a university study showed that pot smokers have better lung capacity and a lower incidence of lung disease than tobacco smokers and non-smokers. Studies have found recently that pot has some inhibiting effect on cancer cells, but researchers are still trying to figure that out why, how, and how much. (Although I will add this, studies have also shown that when kids use pot before their brains are fully formed around age 25, researchers think that pot might inhibit some brain development.)

At long last, marijuana is escaping its long-held stigma, which was based on a whole intricate fabric of lies and fake stories created back in the 1930s by a creepy guy named Harry Anslinger, to pass strict pot laws in the states in order to get rid of blacks, Latinos, and jazz musicians. It won't be long before it's fully legal. 

Cast of New Line Theatre's HAIR, 2008
I did oceans of research into the hippies of the 1960s when New Line produced Hair and I then wrote a book about the show. Real hippies believed there were good and bad drugs. As I wrote in my book, Let the Sun Shine In, the “good” drugs were mind-expanding, psychedelic drugs like marijuana, peyote, mushrooms, and LSD, that helped them find peace and spirituality (“the mind’s true liberation”). The “bad” drugs were those used only for escape, like alcohol, nicotine, tranquilizers (like valium), cocaine, and heroin. Bad drugs shut you down; good drugs open you up. Bad drugs distort your perception; good drugs expand your perception. I really believe that.

When I smoke pot, God's Goofy Green Goodness unlocks the cage of my rational mind, and lets my creativity and imagination run wild. And when that happens, I create far more interesting work, more surprising, more insightful, more resonant, more impactful. If it's good enough for John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Allen Ginsberg, Bill Maher, Willie Nelson, and so many others, it's good enough for me.

I often half-joke that our country wouldn't be in such shitty shape if more of us -- especially our leaders -- would smoke a bowl before bed every night. Here's one of my favorite lyrics, "A Great Big Cloud of Smoke," the finale from Johnny Appleweed, about how weed will save America.
I’ve traveled ‘cross America,
And everywhere I sense
All of those seeds I’ve planted bursting forth;
It’s waiting to commence.
It’s morning in America,
But something isn’t right;
The mighty redwoods calling out,
“Does someone have a light?”

There’s a cloud over America,
But not the kind that’s good,
A shroud of fear and ignorance,
Right here where Dylan stood.
We have to burn that cloud away
Before our people choke.
We’ll burn away injustice and
We’ll blow in cleansing smoke.

For a great big cloud of smoke is risin’,
Stand and breathe it in.
Just hold it in your lungs and know
The smoke can help us win.
Yes, that soft, sweet-smelling smoke is comin’,
Rollin’ ‘cross the land,
It’s tellin’ us to take a hit,
Rise up, and take a stand!

It’s our existential clock that’s buzzing,
Shaking us awake.
Reminding us to think about
The liberties we take,
The ways we’ve disconnected
From the lessons we have learned.
But light the torch and feel the flame,
And watch the bastards burn…

For a thick, sweet cloud of smoke is risin’,
Stand and breathe it deep.
Stop listenin’ to the pundits
Like you’re semi-conscious sheep.
Yes, a great green cloud of smoke is brewin’,
Can’t you hear it hummmmmm…?
It’s time to take our country back;
There’s great things yet to come.

Sure, that sweet and silky smoke is sailing,
Right across our skies,
And all we have to do is simply
Open up our eyes.
Yes, a great big cloud of smoke is comin’,
Showin’ us the way.
So get your ass up off the couch,
And raise your voice today!
Have your say!
It’s a bright, new smoky day!

Johnny lives in you,
All the things you’d love to do,
Twice the wisdom, twenty times the fun.
Live like Johnny lives,
Give the gift that always gives,
And don’t believe in everything you read.
And thank the Lord for
Johnny Appleweed.

Now I ask you, could anyone have written that lyric not stoned???

I expect it will be pretty soon that pot will be fully legalized for adults. That will be nice, but I won't hold my breath (see what I did there?).

And until I get my life back and we're able to make theatre again, my pot will be even more medicinal than usual. I need a real-life Johnny Appleweed. Then again, maybe that's me...

Long Live the Musical! And Pot!