Theatre Thursday: When things get meta

It’s hard to believe that it’s been nine years now since I was blessed to be part of Playwrights’ Arena’s amazing project in celebration of their 20th anniversary called Flash Theatre L.A.: 20 in 2012.

What this involved was a playwright creating a short piece designed for a specific environment, most often also involving singing and dancing, then a rehearsal period on weekends, usually at the then home of Playwrights’ Arena at the Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC) which, I can tell you, felt like the most New York experience possible in L.A., especially if one took the Metro down to Pershing Square, walked to the theatre, and it was a misty morning on a weekend in February.

Good times.

During that year, I performed in 13 out of the 20 performances, which took place everywhere from the very west side to the very east side of town, and from as far south as the Adams District to as far north as Silver Lake — although a lot of our stuff happened in Downtown L.A., which is where the performance I’m thinking about took place.

It happened in Pershing Square, so was within walking distance of the theater, and it was a piece called Meat by Donald Jolly. (The original idea had been to stage it further east in the warehouse district, with most of the cast lying in the back of a truck, but that was beyond our means.)

The division of roles were: A) The “meat,” which were a bunch of people in skimpy bathing suits with all kinds of anti-capitalist slogans drawn on them; B) The radical faeries, who would ride in and save the day, and C) The Authorities, who would try to stop all this shit from happening.

I was cast as one of the two Authorities, and my counterpart was an actor named Bill. I’d worked with him a few times over the whole Flash Theatre thing, and we had definitely bonded because we were about the same age (i.e., older than a lot of the other cast members), had the same weird sense of humor, and had already been cast in roles that got weirdly intimate and, even though he was straight and I was not, it worked out, because he was cool about it and I wasn’t attracted to him anyway.

Funny how that works.

But… getting back to Meat… We all marched from the theater to Pershing Square, and this got a lot of attention mainly because there were a ton of half-naked people on the streets of DTLA, plus a number of them also decked out in glitter and boas and riding scooters or the like. Then there were these two white guys dressed like Secret Service.

We got to the venue. We took our places. And just as I was about to launch into, which meant that I was supposed to charge our audience and tell them, “Nothing to see here, please disperse,” an actual security guard got up in my face and told me that we couldn’t perform there.

Well… that was kind of a problem. I knew that I couldn’t launch my own character in his face and tell him to step off, because that wouldn’t end well. At the same time, the idea of a muggle screwing with my show really pissed me off.

So I did the only thing I could do, which was to give him the look of death and slowly point at Playwrights’ Arenas artistic director, who I knew for a fact had it covered when it came to the whole “Yes, we can perform here” angle.

The guard headed over to talk to Mr. Rivera, I launched into my shtick (and actually scared the shit out of a couple of good friends standing in front because I committed to it so hard), Bill got into it as well, and the whole thing finally came off, ending with the Radical Faeries glitter bombing the Authorities and wrapping us in boas until we wound up mesmerized and dancing together to the music that had started playing, which I think was the song Sway with Me.

But it was definitely my weirdest Flash Theatre experience ever, because someone who was the real-life version of the character I was about to play tried to fuck with what we were all about to do, and I essentially managed to misdirect him so that he could be neutralized, exactly like my character and Bill’s in the show.

Wow. Trippy.

Postscript: Years later, I volunteered for the annual Playwrights’ Arena fundraiser, Hot Night in the City, just before the year of COVID, and my job was as off-stage announcer and various wrangler of stage equipment. I was stage left, and the other guy was stage right, and we were also working various other prep stuff together for a long time.

He looked familiar, but we didn’t recognize each other until we finally did. It was Bill, and the reason we didn’t recognize each other is that we’d both lost a shit-ton of weight since 2012, and both for very similar reasons.

This was also when I found out that he was about five years younger than me, but my journey had been through congestive heart failure that had led to a weekend in the hospital, me quitting smoking, diuretics squeezing a lot of that weight out, and then a change in diet doing the rest.

In Bill’s case, he had to have a triple bypass or something like that, but otherwise the same idea. That experience led to major lifestyle changes for him as well.

It was a very weird reunion. But again, very meta. He and I got cast in the same roles for theater. We just had no idea that we’d be cast in the same roles in real life.

Small planet, eh?

Image source: Downtowngal, (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

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