The spoiler paradox

In the last few days, I’ve accidentally stumbled across big spoilers for both Avengers: Endgame and the most recent episode of Game of Thrones. Now, I have friends who have posted online that if anyone spoils either or both of those things for them, then the person doing the spoiling is going to be unfriended.

Here’s the funny thing, though. According to a study done by Nicholas Christenfeld, a psychology professor at UCSD in California, although most people say that they hate spoilers, in reality, they actually enhance enjoyment, whether somebody was part of a particular fandom or not.

One of the most archetypal examples, perhaps, is the film Citizen Kane. I’m going to spoil it in the next sentence, so brace yourselves. “Rosebud” was his sled. (It was also William Randolph Hearst’s nickname for something else, but that’s beside the point.)

Oh noes! Movie ruined, right? Probably not. I’d had it spoiled for me long before my first viewing of the film in a high school movie history class, but it didn’t matter. Why not? For me, it was because I got to enjoy watching how the characters in the movie figured out what I already knew, as well as to enjoy all of those moments when they went down the wrong path thinking they were right.

A follow-up study by Christenfeld confirmed this even more. And think about it for a moment. Shakespeare is still being produced and adapted to this day, and so are a lot of other classic plays, but everybody knows how they end. Unless you’re maybe a middle-schooler who hasn’t read it yet, you know who dies in Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. But it doesn’t matter. You know who Keyser Söze is, or what’s in the box in Se7en, or who Luke’s daddy is (or Kylo Ren’s parents, for that matter.)

That doesn’t make these things unwatchable. And here’s another way to look at it. How many times have you re-watched your favorite film or TV episode/series or play? Did knowing what was going to happen wreck that experience in any way at all?

The answer, obviously, is “No.”

Another example from my life is Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None — which we first read in middle school English class, but at least we were fortunate enough to not be subjected to it until the book had gone through name changes in order to purge the title of not one but two absolutely racist terms. I didn’t manage to see the movie version until I rented it long after I’d read the book, but knowing who did it and how did not detract from the experience in the least. In fact, it made it more interesting because I was in the know, as I mentioned above, and seeing everyone else being totally oblivious to it all just made me, as an audience member, feel smart. (We’ll ignore the fact that this version changed the original ending. Argh!)

So, coming back to the present… a funny thing happened before I got around to watching Avengers: Infinity War. I had the whole gotdang thing spoiled for me — who got snapped away, who got killed before that, everything. Did it spoil my enjoyment of the film? Not one bit. Now, full disclosure: I am not a Marvel Fanboy. In fact, I’ve only seen a few of the movies, and really couldn’t care less about the franchise. Likewise, I never got into the Game of Thrones TV series (although I love the books), although I can appreciate them as art, and I do not begrudge their fandom one bit. Hey, if you like either or both, great. Just don’t look down on me for not being into them, and don’t give me crap for being a Whovian and Star Wars nerd. Deal?

(I will judge you if you’re a fan of gore porn horror movies, though. Seriously — what is wrong with you that you call that shit entertainment? On the other hand, since Titus Andronicus is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, did I just go full hypocrite? Or did I just say, “Hey, gore porn creators, class it up a bit, okay?” I mean, GOT did definitely steal at least one big dinner bit from Titus. Thanks, Arya!)

Now, back to one, as they say in the film biz. I know how Endgame ends, what happens to whom, and yadda yadda. Does that infuriate me or make me not want to see it or unfriend people? Oh, hell noes. It makes me want to enjoy the experience of seeing how they make those things happen. Same thing with the most recent episode of GOT. Ah, so she did what to whom? Bring it, and show me how.

“Spoilers” don’t really spoil anything. We only try to pretend that they do. But, as Professor Christenfeld has demonstrated, they most likely actually enhance the experience.

So when I tell you that I was really surprised when Tony Stark killed Jon Snow, don’t hate me. Thank me. I’ve just helped you enjoy both of those franchises even more.

How to develop super powers

If you’ve ever been to a party in a private residence — or any place with multiple rooms, actually — then you’ve no doubt experienced this phenomenon. Inevitably, people will wind up blocking doorways, particularly the one to the room with the food in it. Now you’d think that folk would instinctively realize that these things are made for walking through and not standing in, but their instincts seem to kick in the exact opposite way.

It isn’t just parties, either. I’ve seen it happen at the entrances to small theaters, where people will gather in the lobby and just outside the doors afterwards to chat and completely block the way in or out for everyone else. They do it in front of bars and restaurants if they gather outside to vape, although in those cases they usually wind up blocking the entire sidewalk. If seems to be a general rule that any sufficiently large group of people will expand to completely block whatever space is available for them to stand in.

I’ve even seen this happen in the lobby of the El Portal Theater, which stretches the entire width of the old Art Deco building and maybe twenty feet or more from back to front. When there’s a large enough audience for the main stage waiting in the lobby before they open the theater, the group will manage to spread out until they have created human walls that block the place side to side and front to back. They’re also particularly good at obliviously standing in front of the desk where I sell tickets to our show, backs turned to it, seemingly unaware that they are, in fact obstructing access for my patrons.

My personal bête noire, though, is the person in the grocery store who single-handedly manages to block the entire aisle because they place their cart on one side and then stand between it and the other side of the aisle to stare at the shelves as if they’ve never been in a grocery store before. In case it’s not obvious, you and the cart should stop on the same side, always. (These are probably the same people who stand in the middle of the escalator, one hand on each railing so that nobody can walk up the left side of the escalator to pass them.)

I’m not the only person to ask why this happens. I have to wonder if it’s a mammal thing. After all, my dog has a habit of standing in the kitchen doorway facing across the opening, and she’s big enough to block the whole thing. She’s particularly prone to doing this if I get up to go into the kitchen, and then she’ll just look at me as if she’s wondering why I stopped.

I found lots of anecdotal suggestions for why this happens, ranging from “people are just selfish and not self-aware” to more academic examples, like a human tendency to not feel safe in wide open spaces, hence gathering in the narrower, “safe” spaces. There’s also something to be said for the idea that people are more likely to run into each other in these chokepoints and start conversations, and so wind up sticking there — you run into an old friend as they’re coming out of a restaurant and you’re going in, for example. It’s much more likely that you’ll start chatting right there, rather than them going back in or you turning and walking back out.

The same may be true at parties, especially where a lot of the guests may know each other. You’re talking to Betty and Ralph in the living room, then decide to go grab another soda. You head for the kitchen and bump into Peter, who’s coming out of the kitchen at just that moment. You haven’t seen each other in a while and neither of you realized you were both at the party. Now, in your mind, you’re just heading in to quickly grab a Dr. Pepper. In his mind, he’s just coming out with a Coke, so you’re both thinking in terms of “I just came to do something quick.” Except that the quick has now been transformed by what becomes a conversation. Ta-da! You’ve just become victims of the doorway magnetism effect.

That’s just my thought, but I think you can see how this gets magnified in a situation like the theater lobby, because most of those audience members have specifically come with friends and family, and what else are they going to do before they go inside and take their seats? Talk. And they’re going to talk in little arrays of people made up of however many are in their group, whether it’s just a couple or a larger gathering, like a birthday outing. Each of these is going to become a separate entity, but since they’ll be turned inward from each other, they’re not really going to notice how close they’re standing. In effect, they’re spontaneously creating a human foam composed of bubbles and strings that will naturally expand to fill the space.

This still doesn’t explain the a-holes in grocery store aisles or on escalators, but I think it does explain the door blockers. My only suggestion for preventing this is to be very aware of when it’s likely to happen, and then be the one to initiate steps to avoid it. If you run into that friend coming out of a place, walk them a few steps away from the doorway to play catch up, and if you’re the one coming out, walk back in with them and move to the side. If you meet in a doorway at a party, it’s pretty much the same. If you’re on the way in for a soda, you can tell them to wait right there to the side and you’ll be back in two seconds, and then bring them fully into the other room. Or, of course, you can always just go into the room with them, because a conversation with an old friends is a lot more important than getting that soda right now, right?

Then again, self-awareness is a cure for a lot of society’s ills. It would certainly fix the aisle and escalator problems as well. And, as I’ve written about before, the skills we learn doing improv are all about developing awareness — not only of ourselves, but of everyone around us. The endgame to managing that is developing what appear, to ordinary people, to be super powers. They aren’t, though. They’re just the common human skills of observation and listening.

Image: Ivan Bandura, riot police blocking the way to the parliament building on Sunday night in Kiev, December 8, 2013.

Hindsight really is 20/20

There were three particular things that my parents did when I was a child that seemed random, but it wasn’t until years later that I had the sudden adult “A-ha” moment of realizing what was probably going on. By then, my parents were no longer around to ask, but I think I guessed their reasoning accurately.

The first one was me getting my Social Security card at seven years old.

Second was not long after that, and my parents decided to sell the suburban starter home they’d bought right after getting married in order to buy something fancier.

The last was a few years later, when my parents met with my dad’s uncles, none of whom I’d met before.

While these this may seem like normal family things, it wasn’t until I looked at other events that happened around the same time and had my “A-has.”

Getting social

First, the Social Security card. Before Ronald Reagan was president of the U.S., kids didn’t need SSNs. (I think the reason for the change was to prevent tax fraud via deductions for fake kids.) It was normal to only get one when you were going to start working, so the usual earliest age would be about sixteen for a high school job, although definitely by senior year, since it would be needed to apply for college and (gack!) student loans.

My paternal grandmother didn’t get hers until she was 35 — but that’s because that’s how old she was when they started issuing numbers. Did I mention that my dad was on the older side when I was born? I should, because that feeds back into the whys later on.

Anyway, one day we go to a government office and I’m clueless, so I just scrawl my signature on a form and that was that. Eventually, this fancy blue card comes in the mail with my name, signature, and nine-digit number on it, although my parents quickly lock it in their infamous “metal box” that lives in our linen closet, apparently a repository of Important Adulting Documents. (Insert ominous musical sting.)

Were they going to send me into child labor or something? Nope. This was not long after my dad’s older brother had a heart attack well before he hit his 60s. He survived, but I think it put some sort of fear into my parents. It wasn’t long after that a special “heart health” diet from my dad’s doctor became a permanent fixture on the side of our fridge — although the way my mom cooked, it was obvious that “heart health” back then meant something entirely different — lean red meat, alcohol, sugar, and sodium were apparently A-OK!

What I realized years later was that the only reason they got me an SSN was as a preventative measure in case Dad wasn’t so lucky with his heart and suddenly dropped dead. I had to have the number to get the Social Security death benefit, so they were really just looking out for me.

House for sale

As far as them deciding to try to sell the house two years later, it wasn’t until I realized this was right after my youngest half-brother from Dad’s first marriage turned eighteen. As in no more child support to pay — and Dad’s ex-wife had remarried right about the time he did, so he never paid much in alimony. He was free and could afford a bigger monthly payment.

Sadly, we never did sell that starter home and move on up to a fancy two-story house with a pool that would be worth millions now but which was, relatively speaking, ridiculously cheap then. I’ve often wondered how different my life would be if that had happened. I would have changed elementary schools, and every other school I went to.

Say “Uncle”

As for the third “A-ha…” My dad’s uncles — aka my great uncles — fascinated me as a kid for a lot of reasons. First, they were the only male relatives of that generation on my dad’s side I’d ever met. One of the four brothers died when I was two. Meanwhile, my dad’s dad had been in a mental hospital since forever and I wouldn’t have been able to meet him until I’d turned eighteen.

He died when I was thirteen, but apparently it was on the horizon for a while, so I met my great uncle Glenn first, and he fascinated me because he was the oldest human I’d ever met: seventy-six. He’d been around to see so much history I’d only read about!

I remember Glenn coming to our house a couple of times, and then we went to have dinner with great uncle Rolland. He was the last born of the four brothers (well, four out of six who made adulthood) and was a decade younger than Glenn. I liked Glenn, but Rolland scared me for some reason. He just seemed… well, he seemed to have the same mean streak that my dad’s brother, the uncle who’d had the heart attack, had. He lived somewhere way out, like Gardena or Glendora or one of those towns that’s lost in the great urban-suburban sprawl that stretches between Downtown L.A. and the top of Orange County in one direction and between L.A. and Long Beach in the other. What? L.A. County is bigger than some countries. (97, to be exact.)

This was something else that gave me pause years later — that my parents drove that far to have dinner with him. See, my parents weren’t big travelers except for very special occasions. Hell, maybe it was an emotional thing? We lived less than five miles from where my dad’s brother and wife lived — literally the third freeway off-ramp after the on-ramp — and we only made that trip a few times, too. It was the same with other friends of theirs who didn’t live too far away, but we rarely visited.

But here we were, driving forever. And if you can’t make minor in-town trips for close friends or family, then what incentive, exactly, is making you go this far? I didn’t know then because during the dinner with Rolland, I distinctly remember being sent out of the room to “play,” which, of course, even at that age I knew meant, “Oh, they’re talking ‘adult stuff.’”

The content of that adult stuff became abundantly clear years later while my dad was in the hospital for the final time, I was in the house I grew up in alone, knew the location of the infamous metal box (and of the key) and took a look inside. That’s when I found the explanation for what had been going on.

I mentioned the bit about his dad being locked up in a mental hospital, but hadn’t known the reasons for it. I’d always assumed that grandpa was basically insane. But, according to documents in the box, he had abandoned his family twice, despite being ordered back by the courts after the first time. When he walked out the second time while his kids were barely teenagers that was apparently enough for Grandma, who managed to get a non-scandalous divorce (probably the only way to do so at the time) and then got his ass locked up. Why? Well, because, in that day, no sane man would abandon his wife and kids and, honestly, admissions standards for mental hospitals were a lot less stringent. (Q.V. American Horror Story: Asylum.)

Oh, wait, we also had mental hospitals back then. And in California, even after Governor You-Know-Who. (Insert Reagan call-back here.)

Anyway… around this time, grandpa had started to show signs of dementia, and of needing to be checked out of the mental hospital and into a nursing home, and my dad filed papers with the court asking to be exempted from any familial or financial responsibilities for this action, citing the above abandonment. I’m guessing that maybe his brother did the same, but this would have meant that the ball would have landed squarely on the shoulders of grandpa’s two surviving brothers, Glenn and Rolland. (Grandma avoided any responsibility via that long-ago divorce.)

So those meetings were probably some combination of my dad justifying his position and my great-uncles trying to resist or negotiate. Ultimately, I think my dad won, and my grandpa wound up being relocated to a nursing home not far from where Rolland lived. When my grandpa died, I didn’t see my father shed a single tear, although he lost it when his mom died — ironically two years to the day before my mom, Dad’s wife, did.

And, even more impressive, my dad managed to somehow win over the mean, nasty uncle although, to be fair, a degree of blackmail or coercion might have been involved, because certain jokes my dad and heart attack Uncle made back in the day pretty much telegraphed that the entire family considered Rolland to be an alcoholic, and this was back in the days when “Hey, that was funny!”

Or, in other words, not now.

How parents change

This got longer than I’d expected, but I hope that it inspires people to get introspective and ask themselves, “Okay, why did my parents do that thing they did when they did, and what didn’t I know then?” This is mainly because as humans we go through stages with our parents that play out like this:

  1. Birth to puberty: My parents are the bestest. They know everything. I love them and trust them and I want to be one of them when I grow up and marry the other one when I grow up and yay!
  2. Puberty through college: Gah. I hate these people. They don’t know anything and they are so uncool, and could they stop going through my stuff and telling me what to do, and I’m going to put a lock on my bedroom door, and I swear if they ever catch me pleasuring myself I’m going to scream and when can I just move the hell out of here and be me!?
  3. Sometime after college and before thirty: Oh, wow. I can talk dirty with Mom and she doesn’t care? Dad actually knows what he’s talking about when it comes to life advice? They like my SO more than me? Holy crap. They’re people… shit. They’re human. Goddamn… they had to do what to… whoa.
  4. Branch split: Get married and have/adopt kids: Yay! Free babysitters who seem to love to do it! Get married/partner up but don’t have kids: Yay! People we can have holidays with who love our partners (more than they love us… whut?) And they can cook!
  5. Branch split 2: After they die and you’re young: Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck! Why’d that happen? What do I do now? After they die and you’re old: Console the kids (if any) about losing their grandparents; console yourselves with or without kids that your parents had good, long lives, and did what they did for reasons. In either case keep their memories.

What apparently random decisions did your parents make when you were a kid that didn’t make sense until you considered them as an adult? Tell us in the comments!

Amazing animal adaptations to the human world

If you think that animals haven’t continued to evolve in the wake of having wound up in the middle of human cities and culture, then you haven’t been paying attention. Our friends — furry and otherwise — are catching up to us. And why not? Some of them try to emulate us as much as possible, while others are just really good at reading our body language. Others still are good at figuring out patterns independent of our behavior, while a final group doesn’t think much, but knows how to follow instinct.

Let’s start out with our emulators.

It’s a typical Monday morning as you make your way from your house on the outskirts of the city to the subway station for your regular morning commute to your office downtown. You get on the train and take your seat, armed with the newspaper or touch pad or smart phone as the usual distraction, when you notice a half dozen or so unaccompanied dogs casually enter the last car with you and, like any other commuter, take their seats. They sit or lie quietly as the train heads off for the city and, as you stand to get off at the central station, so do they.

This would be an unusual sight in most major cities, but to the residents of Moscow, Russia, it has become quite routine. In the twenty years since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the changing face of this metropolis of nearly twelve million has forced its population of stray dogs to learn the ways of their human counterparts. By night, they live in the deserted industrial areas outside of the city, a canine population last estimated five years ago at 26,000. By day, they head downtown, where the people are and, more importantly, where the free food is, and they do it the same way the humans do.

No one taught the dogs how to navigate one of the world’s busiest subway systems. They have managed to figure it out on their own, and have also learned the concept of traffic signals. Stray dogs have been observed waiting for the light before crossing the street, and they aren’t just taking their cues from humans – they exhibit the same behavior when the streets are devoid of people. What they do take from humans are their lunches, and some enterprising dogs will use a well-timed bark to startle a hapless pedestrian into dropping their shawarma onto the pavement, to be snatched away by the successful hunter. When not using this technique, they will scavenge from dumpsters, or just hang out in busy areas waiting for the inevitable handout. They’ve also been known to exploit human psychology by sending in the cutest puppers in order to do the heavy-lifting of begging for the whole pack.

Yes, these dogs are playing us.

Why they have figured out these tricks is fairly obvious: their environment changed when downtown was revitalized and they had to adapt. How they do it, though, is another question, and zoologists are still studying them to figure it out. The dogs can’t read signs, so their subway navigation, which includes getting on and off at the right stops, is still a mystery, as is their ability to obey a traffic light on their own. It would be one thing if they had been trained – but they have not.

This isn’t the only example of animals adapting to the human world. The next group are the pattern seekers, who use repetitive and predictable cues to figure out how to safely navigate the space in order to feed.

In Japan, crows have been observed exploiting roads and traffic in order to crack nuts that they can’t themselves — but the most remarkable part of this is that they use the traffic signals to tell them when it’s safe to go into the road to fetch the good stuff.

Next is the animal to exploit humans by using instinct over intellect, although ultimately a bit of both: Clever Hans, a horse that appeared to know how to do simple sums and count, until it was determined that what the horse was really doing was reacting to subtle human emotions given away as the horse approached the answer. Hans could literally tell when he’d hit the right number via tapping his hoof until the humans reached maximum excitement, by which point he’d learned that “Decrease in excitement means stop.”

At least this is a few orders of magnitude above the animal that reacts strictly by instinct, with no intellect involved — the “avoid that moving shadow and get out of the light” reaction common to cockroaches, who are far less intelligent than horses. They don’t think about what they’re doing or why. They don’t have the brain capacity for that. Instead, they just automatically skittle away from things perceived as danger. This is a very common behavior among animals, and in fact extends all the way down to single-celled organisms, which will also instinctively and automatically swim away from chemical signals that they consider unpleasant or dangerous.

That’s how survival and evolution work, and it’s how life on Earth evolved from being mindless single-celled organisms that only know “swim toward food, swim from trouble” to the complex primates that seem to be top of the food-chain for the moment and, at least for now, have developed our technology far enough to start to fling ourselves out into the solar system.

And that process is also how we inadvertently help all of our domesticated animals to evolve, so it shouldn’t be any surprise that as we develop more technology and empathy, our companions develop more empathy and intelligence. Sure, I don’t know whether it’s us or our pets getting smarter, or if it’s a mutual act, but whichever it is doesn’t matter. The only important part is that we seem to be increasing the emotional bond between ourselves and our animals that are above the purely instinctual level, since most of that latter group seem to be nothing but pests.

Maybe this will lead us to a meatless world, or at least one where all of our meat is grown in labs or fabricated from plant products. If you’ve never seen dancing cows, happy goats, laughable lambs, pet pigs, or even redeemed raccoon and frisky ferrets, you should. The more I learn about animals, the less I want to eat them.

Watching Shakespeare: a Bard’s dozen

I am a huge fan of Shakespeare, so keep that in mind and… here we go…

One of the most remarkable things about Shakespeare is that the psychological truths in his plays are so universal that they offer themselves up for endless adaptations and recreations. They can be staged as faithfully as possible to the actual look and feel of whatever era he was writing about, or be stretched and bent into just about anything else. A lot of people may not know it, but the seminal 1950s science fiction film Forbidden Planet is somewhat based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and when you can easily leap from 17th century romance to 20th century science fiction, it says a lot about the original writer.

The other amazing thing about his works is this, and something I cannot emphasize enough to someone who fears getting into Shakespeare: Yes, it may be hard to read his words on the page, but watch them acted by brilliant performers, and you’ll be sucked in in a second. The language barrier will vanish while the emotional power will take you over.

Here then are half a dozen straight adaptations of his works, followed by half a dozen that only took inspiration but still delivered powerful stories because, after all, the Bard of Avon was a powerful story-teller.

Straight Adaptations (Most to least faithful to the original era of the story)

  1. Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Probably one of the Bard’s best-know works, which also gave us West Side Story and  Romeo + Juliet, this tale of star-crossed lovers was best told and most accurately cast in Zeffirelli’s version. Unfortunately, years later, the actor Bruce Robinson, who played Benvolio in the film, took part in the #MeToo movement, when he revealed that Zeffirelli sexually harassed him on set.

  1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999, Kevin Kline)

This is one of the most over-produced Shakespeare plays ever, possibly because it’s really the least substantial, but at least this version managed to nail things down definitively with an amazing cast. I mean, come on… Kevin Kline, Roger Rees, Sam Rockwell, Stanley Tucci, Rupert Everett, Michelle Pfeiffer,  Dominic West, Calista Flockhart, Christian Bale, and David Strathairn…  how much more stellar could you get?

  1. Henry V (1989)

Branagh. Shakespeare. Say no more. He is one of the most definitive Shakespearean actors — in fact, he can rightly tell Laurence Olivier to fuck right off (because, honestly Olivier wasn’t that good as Hamlet or Richard III.) But Branagh has brought us multiple Shakespearean adaptations, from Hamlet to Henry V to Much Ado, and all of them are brilliant. Still… his turn as director and star in the pivotal film in Shakespeare’s amazing “War of the Roses” cycle knocks everything else out of the park.

  1. Hamlet (1990)

Despite the allegations about Zefferelli mentioned above, he still gave us a version of Hamlet that rang true, even if Mel Gibson was way too old to play the hero and Glenn Close was way too young to play his mother. Branagh did it six years later, but his exercise was way too academic. Zefferelli’s is visceral and gutsy, and definitely blew Olivier’s bloodless 1948 attempt right out of the water. Unlike Branagh’s, Zefferelli did not adapt the play mostly uncut — which is why his version only runs 2 hours and 14 minutes, while Branagh’s is just over 4 hours.

  1. Richard III (1995)

This is my second favorite Shakespeare play starring one of my favorite actors, Ian McKellan, and the reimagination here is brilliant. It takes this War of the Roses and sets it in an imaginary world where the UK went through a civil war in the 1930s and the fascists won — at first. McKellan plays the humpbacked anti-hero with all of the nasty glee necessary, and is aided and abetted by an amazing cast. (Full disclosure: My actor’s dream would be to play Gloucester/Richard III through the whole cycle of plays he’s in, from all of the Henry VI’s through Richard III… He’s just that amazing a douchebag of a character.)

  1. Titus (1999)

And this is my favorite Shakespeare play, despite most Shakespeare scholars considering it problematic, but in Julie Taymor’s adaptation, it takes off and sings. Her first and most brilliant move was setting it in a Rome that is not specific, but is eternal — it could be anywhere from the time of Julius Caesar to the time of Mussolini, or maybe even Fellini, and it all works. On top of that, the cast is amazing: Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Colm Feore, Harry Lennix, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Angus Macfadyen. If you’re not sure about Shakespeare, this is probably your best entry point.

Reimaginations (Nearest to furthest)

  1. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

Quick catch-up: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor characters from Hamlet. In the play, they are two old school pals of Hamlet, and they were brought in by the villain to lure Hamlet onto a boat-ride intended to lead to his death. However, Hamlet turns the tables, re-writes a letter and, instead, sentences these two to be executed in his stead. This play, by Tom Stoppard, makes R&G the lead characters, with the actions in Hamlet in the background, and becomes an existential comedy. In the film version, directed by Stoppard, Tim Roth and Gary Oldman essay the lead roles, with Richard Dreyfuss appearing as the lead player — more important here than he was in Hamlet.

  1. Ran (1985)

I saw this film at one of the revival houses in L.A. and went in knowing nothing about it, other than that it was directed by Akira Kurosawa. I was about one act into what I thought was some traditional drama set in the shogun era when my brain suddenly clicked and I realized, “Holy crap. This is King Lear.” And it was. Other than a gender swap up top regarding who inherits what, the rest of it is pure Shakespeare, and there are a lot of moments that really stand out visually, particularly the mad king wandering unharmed through a castle that is being pin-cushioned by arrows, and the summary execution of Lady Kaede, which indicates that maybe her blood pressure was a bit too high.

  1. Scotland, PA (2001)

Another odd little adaptation, but one which gets the source material entirely: This is Shakespeare’s story of ambitious monarchs writ large brought down to human scale, and it totally works. Yes, it’s set in a real place, and manages to reset all of the drama of Shakespeare’s original in the context of the petty squabbles inherent to a fast-food franchise. Surprisingly, though, this does not blunt the drama one bit.

  1. West Side Story (1961)

As if you didn’t know, this is Romeo & Juliet, updated and with an utterly amazing collaboration with seasoned pro Leonard Bernstein writing the score and newbie Stephen Sondheim providing the lyrics. This was lightning in a bottle, almost perfect in every way from Broadway onward, and the movie adaptation is one of the most incredible musicals ever filmed. The talent on tap is over the top, the numbers are choreographed to perfection (thank Jerome Robbins for that), and put this down as the second best adaptation of Romeo and Juliet ever filmed.

  1. 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

Also known as The Taming of the Shrew (see how the titles rhyme?) this is another Shakespeare update that is admirable for bringing the bard to a new and younger audience. It’s the same story in a different setting: Petruchio… er, Cameron, wants to date Bianca, but her dad is stuffy, so won’t let her date anyone until her older sister Kat hooks up. Enter Patrick Verona (see what they did there?) who will try to, well, tame that shrew. This all takes place at Padua High School, and it’s all a lot better than you might think it’d be from the description.

  1. Theater of Blood (1973)

All right. Question one: Do you like Shakespeare? Question two: Do you like Vincent Price? Question three: Are you a fan of horror movies? Well, if you answered “yes” to at least two of those questions, this is your lucky day. Theater of Blood is an amazing film in which Vincent Price plays a disgruntled Shakespearean actor who did not win a critics’ award, so goes on to bump off each of those critics following his most recent season of Shakespeare plays. The cast of critics is an all-star bunch of British actors of the 1970s, Price is abetted by the amazing Diana Rigg (what ho, Game of Thrones fans!) and we get the amazing combination of Price and Rigg doing Shakespeare, a comedy gore-fest, and a metric buttload of fantastic British actors, well, acting. Keep your eyes out for murders based on Julius Caesar, Troilus & Cressida, Cymbeline, The Merchant of Venice, Richard III, Othello, Henry VI: Part One, and Titus Andronicus. Price’s character fails, however, with attempts at Romeo & Juliet and King Lear. Oops… spoilers?

What is your favorite Shakespeare play or film adaptation? Let me know in the comments!

 

Playwrights write down rites just right

An interesting quartet of heterographs in English are the words rite, right, write, and wright. While the latter three are frequently used with prefixes, the first three also stand alone, and the first one is never prefixed. The second of these has multiple meanings in… well… its own right.

I’ll start with the one I don’t need to go into depth on: Rite. This is the word describing any kind of ritualized ceremony, and you can clearly see that “rite” and “ritual” are related. Rites can be either religious or secular in nature, and they sometimes mix. Weddings and funerals can be either or sometimes both, while baptisms and confirmations are strictly religious. Graduations tend to be secular except in religious schools, although the only religious elements then tend to be an opening invocation or prayer and, sometimes, an optional Mass afterwards. The pledge of allegiance and national anthem are both secular rites. It’s a toss-up either way whether initiation ceremonies for certain organizations like the Masons are religious or secular, although most fraternity and sorority initiations are certainly the most secular of rituals.

Of course, if you and a group of friends regularly get together for Game Night, or Game of Thrones Night, or, like me, do Improv, those are also rites by definition, and again of the most secular kind. Note that all theatre is a rite because it’s structured and has its rules and way of doing things. Not surprising, considering that theatre originated as a religious ceremony in the first place and then grew out of it.

Next is the one with multiple meanings: Right. In its first definition, it refers to some action or thing that people are assumed to have the privilege to possess without meeting any special conditions. That is, a right is a thing you can do, a belief you can hold, or a thing you can own. Of course, “without special conditions” is itself a conditional statement, since in most places rights are established via laws or Constitutions. After all, while the American Declaration of Independence says that our unalienable rights include the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, it’s predicated by the statement that it’s a self-evident truth that all men are created equal (emphasis on “men,” naturally), and followed by the idea that governments are created in order to secure these rights.

Note that, at the time, slavery was legal, and in the new country called the United States of America, only white, male, land-owning men over the age of 21 got to vote. No one else needed to apply. So those unalienable rights were relative after all.

Another meaning of the word “right” is the direction — the hand on the gearshift side (if you’re American and drive manual transmission) or the arm on the opposite side of your body from most of your heart (unless you have situs inversus). There’s also the “right hand rule,” which is used in math, physics, and 3D animation, and is basically a way of visualizing how three directional axes move at once. In the 3D animation world, these are X, Y and Z — generally left-right, forward-back, and up-down.

And then there are… well, damn. The dictionary lists 48 different definitions of the word “right,” as adjective, noun, and adverb. I’ll be right back after I read them all…

(See what I did there?)

Okay, are we all right as rain? Good. Let’s move on to the next one. That would be the word write, which is what I’m doing right now (make it stop!). And while this one technically has 17 definitions, they all really boil down to the same thing: to put information into some form that is inscribed onto a surface via abstract characters that represent sounds, syllables, or concepts, whether ink on paper, hieroglyphics on stone, electrons on computer chips, or notes on a musical staff. The act of doing so is the word write as a verb: to write.

The last of the quartet is wright, and he’s a sad little camper because he has only one definition: a worker, especially one that constructs something. He also never appears alone.

Now let’s get to some compounds using the last three and clear up some confusion. For example… you wrote a play. So does that make you:

  1. A playwrite
  2. A playwright

Well, it’s a play and you wrote it, right? Yes, but you also created it, and this is one of the specific uses for… wright. You constructed a play, so you’re a playwright.

Okay, so you’ve written the play and now you want to make sure that everyone knows you own it so they can’t steal it. Time to file it with the Library of Congress. So do you get:

  1. Copywright
  2. Copywrite
  3. Copyright

Hm. Well, you’re a playwright and you don’t want it copied. Oh, wait. Wouldn’t a “copywright” be someone who makes copies? Then maybe… oh yeah. You wrote it, so you’d write the copies, hence you’d copywrite…? Wrong? Of course. Because what this word is really saying is that you have the right to copy the work, since you own it.

Here’s an easy way to remember. When the word “write” is prefixed, it always refers to the style or method of writing, and not really the person. It’s only a person if the word ends with “writer,” but note that “copywrite” is never a verb. You can’t say “I copywrite for XYZ Blog,” but you can say “I’m a copywriter for XYZ Blog.”

As for words that end in “right,” immediately ignore any that actually end in “wright” or in other words that overlap, like “bright,” or “fright.” You’ll find that the few of these that exist really just modify one of the many other meanings of “right.”

And then there’s “wright.” What’s really fascinating about this word is that there are so many occupations, many long forgotten, that not only use this word, but have given names to the English language — and which also remind us of all those other occupational names, and not obvious ones, like Baker.

Playwright I’ve already mentioned. But what would you go to a wainwright for? No… not someone who designs your Batmobile. Although maybe. A wain was a farm wagon or cart, so a wainwright was a cart-maker. And if that cart were going to be a covered wagon, he’d probably need the services of a cooper to make the metal ribs to hold up the canvas. He’d probably also work in close partnership with a wheelwright, who does exactly what you think.

Side note: Ever heard the word “wainscot?” It isn’t related to wagons, but to wood. It’s one of those fun cases of similar sounding words coming from different origins entirely.

Other wrights you might have seen: shipwright and millwright, both of which should be self-evident. And a lot of these wrights would have relied upon the work of smiths, who are people that work with metal. Pretty much it’s a game of “metal+smith” and there’s the occupation. That’s because the word “smith” meant “to hit,” which is what metal works do to form their molten raw materials. Hm. I wonder whether “smith” and “smash” are related.

And then there’s “blacksmith,” which brings up the question, “Hey — why not ironsmith?” The simple answer is that iron used to be called “black metal” because that’s what it looked like in its unoxidized form — ever seeing iron filings? For similar reasons, tinsmiths are also called whitesmiths. Compare the word “tinker,” who was someone who repaired household utensils, most of which had probably been made by smiths. Or maybe potters.

Another fascinating thing about these occupations is how persistent they become as last names. I mean, there’s Rufus Wainwright, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gary Cooper, Will Smith, Josephine Baker, TV producer Grant Tinker, the fictional Harry Potter and the very real creator of the fictional Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter.

But the real point here, as always, is how four words that sound exactly alike but which are spelled so differently and have such different meanings managed to land in the language through very different routes, because that is what makes English so interesting, versatile, and difficult. I’d probably be right to say that it’s a rite of passage for everyone who’s trying to learn how to write English to mess this stuff up until they meet a wordwright to help them. I hope that I can fulfill that occupation and set things right.

Good night!

Follow a different map

In our most recent Monday night improv workshop, we practiced a particular exercise called mapping, and it’s absolutely amazing when it’s done right. The short version of the concept is this: the performers are playing one scene, but playing it emotionally and even with a lot of the same dialogue and beats of a completely different scene.

Ideally, the main scene will be something every day or innocuous, while the scene it’s mapped on is something huge and emotional. Or, if the main scene is something big, the mapping source is as different as possible, especially in emotional tone.

Some examples from tonight: A woman telling her husband that they’ve switched to drinking 2% milk, but doing it as if she’s surprising him with the news that she’s pregnant. A convict is about to be executed, but he plays the scene like it’s the college graduation he’s long looked forward to. A new employee on her first day at an office supply store is being shown the ropes, but she plays it like a young woman about to lose her virginity.

Now here’s the trick when doing it in improv: ideally, it’s done without warning. Maybe the suggestion is “realtor showing a house,” but one of the players choses to play it as a professor at a very pricey university chastising a student who isn’t doing their best. Once they’ve established the realtor and client relationship, then that player starts to throw on the mapping, at the very least in emotional tone.

If they do their job, their scene partner and the audience will pick up on it at about the same time, and then the game is afoot. If the partner gets what the initiator is mapping, then it’s time for another improv magic trick on stage, as the scene becomes about two different things at once.

In the case of the new employee/virgin exercise tonight, it became hilarious — and bonus points for the entire scene playing within our family-friendly rules despite the subject matter. The adults would get it while the kids would hear it literally as someone nervous about the job. But the more the new employee talked about concern over her first time, the more the other employee piled it on, advising her not to use a certain brand of stapler, and eventually telling her she was bringing in a couple of warehouse employees who’d been “doing this all day long.”

I think the line that killed everyone in the house was the new employee saying, “I want to take it slow. I hope there won’t be a hole-punch involved.”

For my part, as a performer, I was the executioner to the convict excited for graduation mapping, and it really turned out to be fun as hell to play. There was just something ludicrously joyous and yet simultaneously dark about these two men sharing an ebullient moment over an event that, in the reality of the scene, would be truly terrible, but which was, because of the mapping, a cause for celebration. We even planned for the convict’s grandparents to attend, and hold his hands during the big moment — although I did advise him to tell them to wear thick, rubber-soled shoes.

It was going to be an execution by electric chair with friends and family, the dropping of balloons, and people tossing their caps into the air.

It’s a really powerful creative technique, because it doesn’t need to be limited to just improv, and I’m seeing uses for the concept in my writing already. I think I may have unintentionally done this a few times in short plays or scenes over my career, but now I know how to do it purposefully. It adds a certain surrealism to things, but can really up the stakes, elevating the mundane while retaining a strange but consistent logic.

To me, it seems like a hidden variation of one of the techniques we use when improvising Shakespeare as a genre, which is called metaphor. In it, one of the ways to create flowing and poetic language off-the-cuff is exactly that: create a metaphor for something and then run with it.

For example, “My love for thee is fire, that burns so bright that all who see are blinded, and so hot that naught is left but the smelted gold of the purity of our hearts, and let anyone who’d try to quench these flames perish in them, for I shall never let the bellows of my soul allow our amorous inferno to starve…”

(Yes, that was written as improv.)

Now take that a step back and think about a scene where a librarian is checking out a patron, but decides to play it as a fireman evacuating a burning building.

P: I’d like to check out — 
L: Oh my god, what are you doing? Come on, come on, let’s go!
P: It’s... this is for a homework — 
L: You want to die for that? Why haven’t you read Fahrenheit 451 already?
P: I... hadn’t gotten around to it?
L: Well, great. Literature is definitely an escape, isn’t it?
P: Why do you seem so alarmed?
L: Because that’s my job!
P: What about my cat up that tree?
L: Don’t worry. We’re on it...

And so on… and so the scene becomes an entirely different thing. And in case you’re wondering about where one player clued in the other that they got the game, it happens in line seven, with the word “alarmed.”

Making the right choices in mapping helps to create two of the most important elements of comedy: contrasts and the unexpected. By treating the mundane as spectacular — or vice versa — you instantly create humor by defying audience expectations. The contrast itself creates the air of the unexpected. With the execution/graduation example, that happened almost immediately. The audience knew the suggestion was “prisoner on his last day,” but then the other player bounded in and opened brilliantly with, “Oh, boy. I’m sure excited about today!”

But where mapping can go wrong is if the subject and the map are too close to each other, in which case you don’t get those really beautiful extremes. I tried to find a video example of good mapping to link here, but I could only find one and there were too many results to wade through, because the terms improv and mapping also apply to jazz musicians, which most of the videos were for.

The one that I’m not going to link, while it explained mapping very well, had a terrible example: a man trading in a horse for a new one, but doing it as if he’s at a car dealer. Can you see the issue there? Both scenes are transactional, and are basically about getting a new vehicle. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for novelty. Not that it can’t work as an improv bit on its own, but it doesn’t take full advantage of the exercise.

Transaction scenes are actually tricky for mapping because it can be difficult to come up with a map that isn’t itself a transactional scene. In these cases, it’s better if the mapping revolves around something besides the transaction. For example, the customer may secretly be in love with the seller and is just using the transaction as an excuse to see them. Or, with the horse example, maybe someone is telling their in-laws that they’re divorcing their kid.

The one transaction scene that does work is itself a game, though, called Shopping Spree or Shopkeeper, depending on where you play it. It’s a guessing game probably better seen than described. Here’s our great ComedySportz Manchester team playing it at the Edinburgh Fringe Fest*. The big difference here is that we play it as a team vs. team game instead of one team, so each team is working from the same list of seven items, one team down and the other team up, the first to hit four winning. On top of that, each clue-giver gets 20 seconds. Consequently, the Manchester version is a lot less frenetic than ours is.

Half the fun is in the audience, who’s in the know, watching the shopkeeper not getting the clues. It’s also not a boring transaction scene because it’s not about the transaction at all. In fact, it’s just another form of mapping. In this case, the game itself is the map, but that’s kind of how improv works in general

*Fun inside baseball fact: ComedySportz has a red team and a blue team, but in the Manchester team video, one of the players is wearing a black and white jersey. This is because he’s playing as the “DJ,” or designated jokester, who alternates playing for both teams when there are only two members on each. In L.A., we don’t have a special jersey. Rather, the DJ wears one over the other and puts it on or takes it off as needed — although we also very rarely resort to DJs.

Antique map image of Leo Belgicus by Claes Jansz. Visscher, is in the public domain.