Friday Free-for-all #22

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

If you had a personal mascot, what would your mascot be?

This is actually a rather easy question to answer, because if I were ever to get a tattoo, it would be this animal. People who know me might think I’d say dog or wolf, but that’s not it. My choice is both more fabulous and less real.

My personal mascot would be a phoenix, not to be confused with the mythical Russian firebird (Жар-птица) or the Native American thunderbird — although the latter is considered a relative.

All three also happen to be models of cars, although to be honest the only one that’s visually appealing to me at all would be the Pontiac Firebird, especially later models — although the emblematic bird decal on the hood is a must, even though it seems to have only been a thing during the second generation in the 1970s.

But that isn’t my firebird because mine isn’t a car anyone really remembers, plus it uses fire in a different way. The Russian firebird launched its flames outward. The phoenix self-directs them.

You’ve probably heard the legend. The phoenix is a very ancient bird to begin with, but every so often, it will return to its nest, spontaneously burst into flames, and die in the fire — except that it doesn’t, and the bird is resurrected anew and young again from its own ashes.

That’s something I’ve done in my own life, metaphorically, over and over again. The phoenix regularly faces catastrophe, but survives. I hate to give any attention to a transphobic TERF idiot, but here’s a bit from the Franchise that Shall not Be Named in which a phoenix does its thing.

Certainly, the entire 2020 experience is setting me on this course again, since it managed to take away so much of what I knew and loved and did. I am finally about to sort of get back to work, most of it remotely from home, but at the same time I have, for the moment, lost live theatre, as audience and performer, as a part of my life until who knows when.

I also miss seeing friends in person, the comfort of a hug, and the warmth of a voice that comes through air instead of wires.

I have a feeling that 2020 is going to turn a lot of us into phoenixes, or at least cast us into the fire. Whether we come out of the ashes or not is entirely up to each of us, but it is always better to decide to persevere and win than it is to give up.

And if you’re having trouble dealing with the flames, reach out. Even if we can’t (well, really shouldn’t) touch physically right now, we can do it emotionally across the distance. Think now about what you’re going to be once the flames subside and you poke your head out of the ashes, comfortable in the familiar and nurturing home of your own nest, born anew to take flight on your next adventure.

Yeah. I’ll take that mascot, please.

Theatre Thursday: It takes character

As 2020 has become “The Year without Theatre,” it’s still important to remember that the show must — and will — go on. While neither I nor any of my friends are currently performing live, we’ve found ways to do it virtually, usually via Zoom.

I’m still doing improv every Monday night remotely with the ComedySportz L.A. Rec League. We just don’t have any audience besides ourselves. But despite not having live venues at the moment, it doesn’t mean we’re not creating.

A question I get a lot as a writer is, “Where do your characters come from, anyway?” The answer varies, depending on what format I’m working in.

For stage plays, I usually, but not always, base them on real events, so I have at least those historical figures to start with, and can find plenty of material on their temperament, etc. Of course, every good historical fiction requires its fictional characters, and these I will generally discover in figuring out how to tell the story of the main character.

For example, I have a play about the famous mathematician and philosopher Hypatia, who was assassinated by a Christian mob in 415 C.E. In that play, I have four historical characters: Hypatia; Isidorus, her husband; Nestorius, a former student (and rumored lover); and Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria.

Since the play deals with themes of rationality vs. religion, history vs. myth, and loyalty vs. belief, the made-up characters I created were a current student of Hypatia’s as an echo of Nestorius, and her two servants, young women who represent another opposing faction in the discussion, one Jewish and the other Christian.

As for how I developed those characters, when I write my plays I prefer to do them in workshops with a regular group of readers, so I start with a direction and voice for the character, write the first draft before I start reading it in short chunks, and then let the interpretation of the actor I’ve cast help guide rounding out and refining that character.

The play of mine that’s about to go up, Screamin’ Muskrat Love!, is not based on historical figures and really isn’t based on real people, but the germ of the play did come from my real life  Basically, as he was getting up in years — and after having been a widower for longer than he’d been married, my father met a young woman in a grocery store who seemed to take an interest in him.

And when I say young, basically she was in her late 20s and he was well past Medicare time. Can you say, “Taking advantage of?” My wicked half-sister and I teamed up to push her out of Dad’s life, but in the process I learned about the very common scam where young women con artists (always working with their families) will look for older men shopping alone in grocery stores, usually during the day, then arrange to bump into them and show lots of attention.

The ultimate goal is to hook up, move in, marry up, and then inherit everything out from under the actual family. I totally get why a man my dad’s age would fall for it, though. At least to a point.

Anyway, only the idea of a young woman seducing an older man with the ultimate goal of cheating his kids out of his house made it into the play. I put a lot of twists and turns into it, also made it my tribute to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and then turned it into a door-slammer of a French farce.

As my director likes to remind me, “Do you know what the most expensive part of a set is? A functional door. I counted. You know how many doors you wrote into this? Eight! You wrote eight damn doors!”

(Okay, he wasn’t really pissed, he was taking it as more of a directing challenge, but it was yet another educational moment for me as a playwright.)

At least every single one of the eight gets good use. And, like my other plays, I developed each of the characters based upon the actor(s) who regularly read them in the weekly developmental sessions.

Screenplays are a little trickier if only because they are a lot harder to develop in “read it out loud” workshops, and that’s because, unlike plays, the action parts take a lot of precedence, and there’s nothing more boring than listening to someone read paragraphs of action split up by sparse dialogue.

Sometimes, I’ll do a developmental reading version of a screenplay, which means that I’ll make a copy of the file, and then cut down all of those actions to their bare essentials, putting the emphasis on the dialogue, but it’s a lot of extra work that can actually completely change the feeling of the entire thing.

On the other hand, editing down action to get all the points across in minimal space is never a bad thing, and can actually make the script tighter overall.

But because I don’t develop screenplays with a real cast regularly reading them, I resort to different techniques, which are also the ones I use for short stories and prose.

These basically involve a combination of modelling and mental improvisation. By modelling, I’m not talking about strutting down a runway. Rather, I’m talking about finding some real-world example or person to base some aspect of the character on, and then going from there.

It really depends on emphasis. Do I need a really strong visual for this character, or is it more personality and behavior? Or is it a little bit of both? I do find though that for works with a lot of characters that it’s most helpful to base parts of them on people I know IRL or images I find online, but these are only the most superficial parts.

I like to create a visual reference, which is simply a document with each of the characters’ names and a picture of what I think they look like. That’s because I’m a very visually oriented person. Your mileage may vary, but the idea would be the same. Find whatever evokes your creativity and cements a personality in your head, and then come up with exemplars for that.

The names you give your characters can also help as well, and I am never above going for the symbolic, although I will try to hide those in really, really obscure ways. The novel I’ve been excerpting in the Saturday Morning Post, by the way, has 38 named and significant characters.

Some of the minor ones were shorthanded to remind me of which friends I’d tossed into the mix. Meanwhile, the major ones are Easter eggs to be found — crack the code, predict the story. But, interestingly enough, while the minor characters might be real people dropped in as cameos, the major ones never are.

Why? Because I’m not writing about people I know. I’m writing stuff inspired by bits and pieces of the human condition. So I might borrow one friend’s face just to give me a visual or emotional anchor, but then graft on another friend’s personality, toss in a few traits of my own, leaven with some funny real-life story I heard somewhere, blend judiciously, and then turn to the improv.

See, long before I started doing improv as a performer, apparently I was doing it as a writer. I just didn’t know it. My technique since forever has always been this: Plan nothing ahead, just start with the idea, toss a couple of characters into the scene, and let them do their thing. You give them the particulars of location and relationship. They do the rest.

But, just like with improv as performed, there has to be a character before there can be anything else, which is why all of these little writerly inspirations and visualizations. I guess for me personally, the mantra is “If I can see it, I can be it.”

Well, at least on the page. The funny thing I’ve discovered in doing improv, as opposed to improvising characters in my head, is that as a performer I am actually very physical and visceral. I can find a character very quickly if I change my voice or take on a posture.

Visualizing won’t do it for me on stage. But if I start to speak in a particular cadence or tone or accent, or stand a certain way, it’s like I’m suddenly possessed and the character takes over.

When it comes to writing, the secret is attitude, as in the character’s point of view. The real focus, though, is on what the character wants. That was the number one thing that my playwriting Jedi master Jerry Fey imposed upon me.

Every character has a need. That need is the most important thing in the world to them, whether it’s making coffee this morning or winning the race for Prime Minister. Giving each character a strong need and never letting them deviate from wanting it creates stakes, and this creates drama (or comedy) and compels your audience.

That much is true in all creative writing in whatever format, and definitely in improv. If a character doesn’t need something, we don’t care.

And, by the way, in comedy, the stakes are actually much higher than in drama. Why? Because in drama, the stakes are realistic: Detective Margaret Davis wants to solve this case even though the DA is against her. Doctor Johnson has to cure her patient of an unknown disease. Gerald wants to save his marriage from his wife’s drinking problem, but her family is no help.

In comedy, the stakes are even higher because they are ridiculously trivial: Sheila would kill to win the baking contest, but so would her opponent; Arnold goes to great lengths to cover things up after he lies about his height and age to a prospective Tinder date, but his best friend gets wind of both and is interested in her as well; in order to not get fired for excessive tardiness, Arnold goes to extreme measures to gaslight his boss and bribe his coworkers, but one of them won’t be bribed…

One of the masters of turning the trivial into high comedy is Rowan Atkinson, especially in his persona of Mr.Bean. He can turn something as simple as moving a tea cup into he most elaborate of farces simply because the character is thwarted in his attempts — and the more he tries and fails, the more vitally important completing that simple action becomes.

So the TL;DR of the piece is this: Writers and improvisers create their characters out of whole cloth, with no real basis in reality, but we will sprinkle a combination of people we know and like, people we know and don’t like, people who are famous, pictures we find online, and humans we see wandering around, toss it into the food processor in our heads, and come out with a people salad that isn’t one bit you, although it might be a bunch of bits of you and other people we both know.

So I guess the real answer to the question, “Where do you get your characters from?” Is: I just pull them out of my ass.

Hey — since that’s literally true of a few of them over the years, I’d call it a fair answer.

Image by Skeeze  from Pixabay.

Wednesday Wonders: Jon on Scarne

Just a little over one hundred and seventeen years ago, a guy named Orlando Carmelo Scarnecchia was born in Steubenville, Ohio. You won’t recognize that name. Seeing as how he died in 1985, you might not recognize the name he became famous under. But if you’ve ever enjoyed a magician doing card tricks, played pretty much any card or dice game, or counted cards in blackjack (at least, if you did it his way) then you know the name John Scarne.

Now why is a magician, card manipulator, and author of books on gambling showing up on a Wednesday Wonder post? Because there’s a corollary to Clarke’s Third  Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The corollary is “Any sufficiently advanced magic is the product of technology.”

Magic tricks have always been based on scientific principles. They are a combination of mathematics, physics, and psychology, and sometimes throw in chemistry, geometry, and topography, for good measure. Of course, the best magicians wrap all of that science in the arts, so that the perfect illusion (“Illusion, Michael. A trick is something a whore does for money.”) is a full-on performance wrapped up in a story, supported by stagecraft, acting, music, and the whole nine yards.

Of course, note that the word “stagecraft” is kind of meta, because what we in theatre call stagecraft is often what illusionists call magic, so it’s an infinite loop there. A magic trick is stagecraft. Stagecraft is a magic trick. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But what Scarne did goes even beyond all of that, and one look at this card manipulation film of his from the 50s should convince you of that. Yes, I’ve studied magic enough to know that he’s using all kinds of tricks, like false deals and double lifts and so on to do what he’s doing but… at the same time, while the trick seems focused on the Aces, he’s not manipulating four cards at once here. He’s controlling eight — and all of them in a specific order, full speed ahead.

One of his more famous appearances was as Paul Newman’s hands in the movie The Sting. Newman’s character shows some pretty impressive card manipulating skills, all done by Scarne, but if you watch that video clip take special note. At the beginning, we cut to the hands with the cards. Then, at 0:36, the filmmakers pull their magic. The hands move out of frame at the top just long enough for Newman to put his own hands back, then pull off a not so fluid full-flip of the fanned deck, as the camera casually tilts up to make us think that those were his hands all the time. Ironically, I think that the insert shot of the flubbed attempt to bow shuffle was actually Scarne and not Newman.

But knowing that part of the trick brings up an even bigger issue. The only way they could have shot this was with Scarne behind Newman and reaching around, meaning that he had to do all of that manipulation of the cards totally blind.

Let that register, then go watch that clip again as he keeps the Ace of Spades right where he wants it. And nice symbolism on the part of the filmmakers, since that card is traditionally symbolic of death, and death both real and imagined play a big part in the film.

So how does magic trick us?

A lot of the time, it uses psychology and subverts our expectations. An obvious move to do something innocuous, like pull a wand out of our coat pocket, might in fact hide one or more surreptitious moves, like grabbing an object to be produced or ditching an object to be vanished, or both, or something else. One of the best demonstrations of how this works was given by Teller, of Penn & Teller fame, on their show Fool Us.

Anyway… that video will teach you almost everything you need to know about sleight-of-hand.

Another way that magic fools us is to play with our perceptions of space, and as mentioned in the link above, the Zig Zag Illusion is one of the best examples of making the audience think that something is impossible while hiding the secret right in front of them. I happen to own several pocket versions of this trick, one involving a rope and the other a pencil, and the principle is always the same. The Zig Zag Trick involves deceptive optics, psychology, and misdirection.

Of course, one other big trick in magic, especially in card tricks, is math, and I’m going to give away one that I love to do to make friends go “WTF?” Here’s the effect: I deal out 21 cards, then ask then to mentally pick a card, not tell me, but only tell me which one of three piles of seven cards it’s in. I gather up the cards and then deal them out again, and ask which column their card is in.

This is where I pull the stagecraft, playing up the idea that I have psychic abilities while dealing out the cards, Here’s the trick. When you hit the eleventh card, set it aside, face down, then deal out the rest. This sets you up for the ultimate brain scorch as you casually turn up that eleventh card and ask, “Is this the one you chose?”

And of course it is, and your victim squees in amazement. And how does it work? Simple. It’s all math. Each step of the way, you take the pile of seven cards with your spectator’s chosen card and put it in the middle. Since your piles are 3 by 7, the end result is that the first pass will force the chosen card to turn up somewhere between 8 and 14 in the pile. Next time around, it gets jammed to being either 10th, 11th, or 12th, and the last deal nails it. Although, pro tip, after the second deal, the chosen card will be the fourth one in the chosen column, and the 11th one you deal out. So… much opportunity for building up the reveal while reminding your mark and audience that they chose the card freely, and never told you which one it was and, bam! Is this your card?

And, if you followed the instructions, it absolutely will be. Bonus points: Once you understand the math behind it, you can vary it on the fly, so that it’s not always the 11th card — 4th or 18th will work as well. You can even change the total number of cards, provided that you’ve memorized where the target card will finally be forced to.

Scarne totally got all of this, but it really feels like his insights have been forgotten 35 years after his death. ‘Tis pity… Now pick a card.

Talky Tuesday: Let’s talk structure

Life in lockdown, now with broadband internet (long story) and always with Amazon Prime. Tonight’s viewing pleasure was the 2008 buddy stoner comedy Pineapple Express, and looking at it as a writer, I have to say that this thing is perfectly structured, at least going by the bullshit rules that the late and not lamented Syd Field tried to push on everyone.

In a way, it reinvents the screwball comedies of the 1930s as a modern road trip bromance, and all of the heavy lifting is done by its stars, Seth Rogen and James Franco, in a script written by Rogan and Evan Goldberg, and directed by David Gordon Green.

But what I’m really looking at here is the story structure, and it follows all of the beats, as Rogan’s character Dale plods through his life as a 25-year-old process server who’s dating an 18-year-old high school girl (yes, eww, despite what he says), only to one evening witness a murder committed by a drug kingpin and a dirty cop.

He runs to the only safe haven he can think of — the apartment of his pot dealer Saul — and thanks to a particular unique strain of pot that gives the film is title, the feces hit the rotary oscillator early on, and then everything escalates from there.

What’s great about this film is that it makes us really care about these two guys in the first act and then, exactly twenty-seven minutes in, pulls the rug out. For the next hour, it’s a game of out of the frying and into the fryer… then into a deeper fryer, and so on and so on in a beautiful Matryoshka trick of “How much worse can we make it for these dudes?”

Hint: End of Act II… it looks like all of Dale’s relationships have gone down the toilet, including his safety net Saul, and entirely because he happens to smoke pot. It goes surprisingly deep for a film that starts out looking like it’s just about a couple of lovable goofs who love to get stoned.

Bonus points: Corrupt Cop Lady and Kingpin mistakenly determine that Dale and Saul are evil masterminds who are dangerous that they make the Yakuza shit their kimonos. (Yes, the film only ever specifies that the Big Bad’s nemeses are “The Asians,” but casting and language hints strongly indicate Japanese.)

But, back to the film and its structure and story.

The end of Act II moments, in terms of the characters are absolutely heart-rending and devastating. This is when we realize how much Dale and Saul feel about each other.

And at the very end… Dale and Saul can and do kill for each other, and for all intents and purposes, this film isn’t an action/adventure flick. Rather, it’s a romance about two dudes. At the beginning, Saul is just some dude Dale buys his weed from. By the end, Saul is the bestie forever that Dale would and will die for.

Meanwhile, toss in the apparently invulnerable Red, who both accidentally rats out Saul and wants to be his bestie, and the real end-game of the film is a hetero-polyamorous gang bang, at least above the table, in a diner right out of Pulp Fiction.

Momentous Monday: Paul Verhoeven

Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch director relocated to America in the 80s and who himself turns 82 in just under two weeks, is actually one of the most amazing and underrated directors of all time. The main reason for this is that once he came to America, he never abandoned his European sensibility, so while it looked like he was making genre movies, he was constantly perverting the genres.

Audiences just didn’t get it.

Then again, I think he’d been like that from the beginning. I have to say “I think,” because I didn’t hear of him until his 1980 film Spetters, and only after it finally made its way to America via the arthouse circuit. Even then, the only reason I deiced to see it was that it had sort of gay themes, three cute male leads and one hot female, and equal opportunity nudity.

I next ran across his amazing The Fourth Man, sort of a twisted next-generation Hitchcock thriller that did not disappoint and, again, involved a flawed and yet gay protagonist — keeping in mind that this was a straight director working in the 80s, and, again, while his gay male character flawed, so were his straight ones — and he was never not sympathetic to any of them.

I didn’t see his true brilliance until I saw Soldier of Orange, probably his most personal film because it dealt with the Dutch Resistance as the Nazis invaded — something Verhoeven experienced and survived as a child. This, along with his earlier films, are probably what helped make Rutger Hauer an international star, by the way, although he got noticed long before Verhoeven finally came to America and worked with him there.

That would be 1985’s Flesh + Blood, a medieval drama and not one of Verhoeven’s most memorably, not to mention that it feels a lot like Hauer’s very recent turn in Ladyhawke, with Matthew Broderick and Michelle Pfeiffer.

But then Verhoeven got a whole lot better. Or, in other words, he dropped his Dutch sensibility on the series of big budget Hollywood films he proceeded to direct for the next fifteen years, lampooned the hell out of his adopted country, and subverted the hell out of genres.

So… here are six American Films by Verhoeven, some beloved by critics and some blasted, but all of them masterpieces in their own right.

Hint: There’s a common theme in all of them and… surprise… it’s been there all along in his other works. I’ll just start with his big American Blockbusters.

RoboCop (1987)

Verhoeven burst onto the scene big time with the way-over-the-top violence of this one, starting with officer Murphy having just about every bit of his body blown off graphically, and then including such best hits as Jose Ferrer’s character knee-capped before being blown up, a guy being shot in the nuts through a woman’s skirt, Eric Forman’s dad being stabbed in the neck, unfortunate ginger being toxic-wasted into a red stain on a speeding car and, finally, the big bad being fired, shot, and dumped out a window in, admittedly, one of the worst-animated doll-arm death-falls in all of cinema.

On the other hand… what Verhoeven meant and only a few people got was that this film was absolutely meant to be an over-the-top satire of American culture of the time. And it was all right there — this was the dawn of the Reagan Era, when public prisons were being privatized, police forces were being militarized, and loyalty to company meant everything. Ironic, then, that Verhoeven made his hero a man turned robot, since this was also during the rise of home computers. His hunch was that pure technology would defeat human evil, and he might have been right.

Total Recall (1990)

Forget the abysmal remake of this film. The original is pure gold, because it pretends to be a Schwarzenegger action flick — but it’s not. Sure, he’s the hero, but the brilliant thing about this film, and where it actually pays attention to its source in the works of Philip K. Dick is this: The entire “vacation” that Schwarzenegger’s character buys is, in fact… entirely fictional.

He gets what he pays for: “Blue Skies on Mars.” He is exactly who we see that he is at the beginning, he hasn’t changed at the end, and it has all been a fantasy vacation. Notable, he didn’t bring his wife along. In fact, in the dream, his wife is the villain’s consort, so make of that what you will. This flick is just another brick in the wall of what Verhoeven is getting at. And, then…

Basic Instinct (1992)

This film got a lot of flak at the time for making the villain a lesbian, or at least a bisexual woman, but that was also missing the point. Why was this character not actually the villain but, rather, the heroine? Flashforward…

Showgirls (1995)

And, once again, Verhoeven satirizes America so hard that no one gets it. In a lot of ways, Showgirls is the flipside to Basic Instinct, but look back. That’s his thing. He works in pairs. And this was the hardest he’d satirized anything until his next film… While, on the surface, the film seems to be all about the tits, in the end, it’s really about the power of women. After all, who makes it out alive finally?

Starship Troopers (1997)

If you take this film on face value, you’re not going to get it. But, really, it’s the logical extension of Verhoeven’s RoboCop world. You’re especially not going to get it if you’re a fan of the Heinlein works it’s based on, mostly because Heinlein was kind of a Libertarian douche, by which I mean “selfish child who thought he was better than everyone else,” q.v. Ayn Rand.

But, in American terms, Verhoeven was always an outsider, and this is one where he went for it. While pretending to go all-in for American jingoism and bullshit, he actually made an incredibly anti-war movie, and made it funny and biting satire at the same time.

Hollow Man (2000)

Forget the recent Invisible Man, a shallow attempt by Universal to become Disney. This film, twenty years ago, is the real deal. It basically is The Invisible Man, under a different title, casts a Hollywood heartthrob, and then Verhoeven lets him do everything that any toxic male asshole would do, given the power to be invisible. And naked. And both at the same time.

And this film happens to be the key to all of the others, because the thing that Verhoeven has been toying with and exposing all along, even back to his Dutch films, has been this: Toxic Masculinity. And there’s not even a question about that. Now, I haven’t seen any of his films post 2000 — Black Book, Tricked, Elle, and Benedetta — but I have seen enough of his works to think that it’s the whole toxic male thing he’s been railing against since the very beginning of his career.

And why shouldn’t he? After all, it’s what the Nazis used to ruin his childhood and his country, right?

Sunday Nibble #24: Queer as Folk

Recently, the British series Queer as Folk from 1999 popped up on Amazon Prime, and I had to give it a watch again. This is not to be confused with the American series, which ran from 2000 to 2005 and was inferior in every way, just like the American The Office was a pale and bloodless imitation of the amazing British version.

What? While the US has adapted more than a few British shows into American versions, they’ve only hit gold twice: All in the Family and Sanford and Son.

So, yeah… The American QAF sucked ass. The American The Office sucked ass. Fight me. Oh, crap, that’s right. The U.S. even tried to adapt Red Dwarf. And… no, thank you. And the U.S. version of The Prisoner equally sucked ass.

They can’t even do Australia right — the original Kath & Kim is brilliant. The American version, despite the presence of the amazingly talented and funny Molly Shannon, just fell flat. If you get a chance to see the original, do so. It is just as bust-your-side laughing hilarious as the best of Ab Fab. Oh, right — American tried to ruin that one, too, but it never got off the ground.

Meanwhile, let’s get back to the British version of Queer as Folk. Helmed by Russell T Davies, it is both deeply personal and universal and, hindsight is 2020, he made one of his characters a total Doctor Who nerd, six years before he himself went on to be the showrunner who brought New Who back in 2005.

Who is a running theme in the series, including a moment when the two leads list off all of the actors who had played the Doctor to date, ending with: “Paul McGann (pause) — he doesn’t count!” The sentiment at the time, but since changed as the 8th Doctor was brought into canon.

But I do digress…

I watched both series of the show when it first aired, and then hadn’t been back since. Watching it again now brings back those memories, but also reminds me how time and perspective change feelings about art.

At its core, QAF is about a trio of gay men in Manchester in the late 90s, when there’s a thriving gay life on Canal Street (although the sign has been graffitoed to omit the “C”) while the world outside of this Boys’ Town is still quite homophobic. We also meet their many friends, family, and lovers who are rather put-upon by two of the trio, to put it charitably.

Our trio are Stuart (Aidan Gillen), Vincent (Craig Kelly), and Nathan (Charlie Hunnam). In order, they are the insensitive, mindless whorebot, who only cares about his next conquest; the caring friend who tries to meet someone, tries to take care of everyone, and fails at both; and the underage twink who throws himself into a world he doesn’t understand, only to wind up too emotionally deep and over his head on his first real night out.

In other words, it’s a show that is complicated, deep, and truly edgy — as opposed to fake edgy.

So… when I first watched the show, I also happened to be in my slut-boy days, regularly cruising my local equivalent of (C)anal street and, somehow, managing to pull tail without even trying. No, seriously. The big irony was that I was too shy and insecure to approach anyone, but once I learned to give a long enough stare and smile, it was like I had a magnet in my pants. They came to me, I said yes, deal done.

Although, unlike Stuart, who railed a fifteen-year-old (of age in Britain) the youngest I ever went after I was twenty-five was nineteen, and, again, he asked first.

When I first watched the show, I thought, “Ah, okay. I relate to Stuart.” He’s the one who hooks up with everybody, has no attachments and, anyway, isn’t this show about him? Not that I found him attractive because, to me at that time, he just looked old.

Funny how Stuart later grew up to be Littlefinger and, meanwhile, Nathan grew up to be… a lot of people.

Watching again with the advantage of perspective and maturity, one thing is abundantly clear: Stuart is an absolute shit. He doesn’t care about anyone but himself. His picking up Nathan in the first episode is the inciting incident for the whole series, but to Stuart it’s just a hump and dump. As he explains it when Nathan shows an interest in more, Stuart’s reply is, “Why? I’ve had you.”

The thing that really jumps out on a repeat viewing is that although Stuart is 29 and Nathan is 15, the teen is far more mature than the adult — not by much, but at least he manages to sometimes step out of his own self-centered bubble to think about someone else, and he is the direct catalyst for the denouement between the other two.

Vince is the heart of the piece, the one guy who does deserve love and happiness but can’t get out of his own way to achieve it. Partly, he’s stuck on Stuart, although their relationship will clearly never be anything but platonic. Also, he doesn’t believe that he’s worthy of anyone’s love. The punchline is that he’s more worthy of it than either Stuart or Nathan.

I’ll catch up on Series 2 shortly, although that one was a lot different than Series 1, at least in format. The first series consisted of eight half-hour episodes. The second and final series comprised two fifty minute episodes, so felt like a two-part movie, which is a shame. This world and these characters could have easily supported so much more.

The Saturday Morning Post: Prologue

Here’s a little teaser from “The Amateur’s Guide to Making Your Own Miracles,” and you get to read it here first. This is the prologue.

Since the work I’d been serializing here ended its last installment last week, I have to switch gears. I have other works to serialize. I just have to figure out which one to do next. Meanwhile, here’s the second piece I published on the site nearly three years ago. It’s the prologue to the book that was the original reason for starting this site, but even as I finished writing the first draft, life brought more complications — and those were the years before 2020! From here, you can follow the links through to the other chapters, if you’d like.

It’s Saturday morning of Labor Day Weekend, 2017, at around seven in the morning. I’m 6,500 feet up in the mountains just below Big Bear, a couple of hours outside of Los Angeles, and I am lost in the woods.

That isn’t a metaphor. Distracted by some deer running through the trees and my own thoughts, I have wandered off of the path and have no idea at the moment how to get back to camp.

Oddly enough, I’m not that concerned. The weather and the landscape here are beautiful, and the only sounds I can hear are nature, as the many birds and chipmunks living in the area are waking up and starting their daily struggles for survival.

I’m up here because I’ve come to an adult “summer camp,” which runs for the whole long weekend. We’re staying at an actual YMCA camp which is available because schools are back in session, so there are no more kids for the camp to rent to. We’re staying in cabins with bunks, although the braver ones have brought their own tents and are roughing it outside. Meanwhile, those with less bravery but more money are staying in their own RVs back up in the parking lot.

I’m not concerned about getting lost because I’ve just had a gigantic epiphany, but I have to rewind to the previous afternoon for a moment. When we had all arrived at the camp on Friday — a diverse assortment of men with ages ranging from late 30s to early 90s — the leader and organizer of the group greeted us and gave each of us a tiny gold safety pin.

They do this camp three times a year, although this was my first visit, and every camp begins with the same ritual but a different object — last time, it was a key, for example. The object comes with simple instructions. Paraphrasing wildly here, they are:

“This pin symbolizes this session of the camp, but its meaning will be unique to each one of you. Some of you may come up with what it means right away. Some of you may not. But the important part is that the meaning of this safety pin is yours alone, and it’s most likely that no two will be the same.

“And you never have to share the secret of that meaning with anyone else…”

Up with the sun, and before my sole bunkmate, I had wandered into the woods, seen the sheer beauty of nature and the pure power of running deer, got lost — and found my meaning of that safety pin.

I’ll share it with you eventually, but finding that meaning was the culmination of a journey that had begun exactly one year and one week earlier. But before I can tell you what I discovered in those woods, I have to tell you the other story first…

Read Chapter One.

Friday Free-for-All #21

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What is the most comfortable piece of clothing you own?

A lot of people might not consider it clothing, but I do, and the answer to the question is: the outfit my mother made for me.

That may be a bit euphemistic, but a lot of people, particularly Americans, freak out over the real answer. The most comfortable piece of clothing I own is my own skin.

I mean, for one thing, no matter where I go, I’m always wearing it, no matter how many other layers of crap I have to cover it up with. But, when I don’t need all that extra crap, it’s gone, and I suddenly feel my most calm and comfortable.

And when I’m around other people who feel the same way and we’re all wearing the same outfit, nothing could be more, well, comfortable.

Right now, I can hear the Americans clutch their pearls while people from most other continents just nod. (Not all of them, but I’m not going to call out anyone not from my culture.) Perhaps they’re labelling me a nudist right now with some disdain, but that misses the mark.

The better term is naturist, and it simply means someone who prefers to be nude when they can be, and outside if possible and permissible.

Here’s another clue-in for the uninitiated. In English, at least, there are two words: naked and nude. Essentially, they mean the same thing — without any clothing or covering. However, functionally, they are very different.

When someone is naked, they don’t want to be. There is a sense of shame and embarrassment in being naked, as if a person was stripped of their clothing and dignity.

Meanwhile, if someone is nude, it’s because they want to be, period. No shame, and no embarrassment. So, basically, I’m never naked, but often nude.

So why is “nudist” wrong? Mostly because textiles (people who prefer wearing clothes) conflate nude and naked, then assume that being in either state only implies one thing.

S-E-X.

And nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, my route to naturism happened in probably the least sexual ways possible. Number one, I was raised in a suburban, white, middle-class neighborhood — but throw on top of that a mother who was a lapsed Catholic who nonetheless never let go of the guilt and body shame.

Or, in other words, naked was nasty. And I remember many a time when she, my dad, and I would be watching some movie on cable in the den, and no matter how violent or gory something was, she didn’t bat an eyelid or make a move to shield young me from it.

But… flash a single bit normally hidden by someone’s “bathing suit area,” male or female, and she would cluck in disgust at my father, announce, “Oh, I didn’t know that this was one of those ‘nudie’ movies,” and he would change the channel while she reminded me that I had homework to do.

However, I grew up at the very ass-end of the era when P.E. in school was still associated with communal showers — in fact, I think I literally hit middle school a class year before it was phased out one year at a time.

To younger readers who might be boggling at the idea that yes, we all were expected to get nude together in the locker room and go shower, that ain’t nothing. Apparently, it wasn’t until about the 1970s that schools finally ended the practice of requiring swim classes and practice to be done in the nude.

Swimmers were segregated by sex, of course, but apparently this was a tradition rooted in history, and it went back to the 1920s. The only likely explanation is that once upon a time, swimsuits were made out of wool — this was before things like nylon and polyester — which meant that they shed fibers, took forever to dry out, and weren’t exactly that comfortable, either.

Apparently, girls were required to wear swimming costumes — not just for modesty, but also because of menstruation.

But to save schools the expense of doing all the boys’ laundry every day, not to mention wear and tear on the filters, they did away with the suits. And, again, this wasn’t that weird. It wasn’t until around the turn of the 20th century that bathing costumes even really existed, mostly because it wasn’t proper for women to go out into nature before that, and because boys and men didn’t need the formality.

Many decades later, it was still totally normal to get naked and take a shower in a locker room. And so, my first year in middle school and the first Friday of P.E. class came the day when we were finally required to do so.

By this point in my life, I’d only ever been naked around my parents, mostly at bath time and, to be honest, I think it had been a while by this point as well — certainly before I’d hit puberty, which actually got me early, in about fifth grade.

But there we were, and factor in the possible weird points of me also being around friends, some of whom I’d known for most of my life, some not quite as long.

But we’d been given the rules, so off my clothes went, and a funny thing happened as soon as I was nude and marching down the aisle between the benches to the showers.

I didn’t care. It didn’t bother me. It didn’t seem to bother my friends, either. The only thing that seemed to be going on was a strange and silent acknowledgement and admiration toward those few of us (myself included) who had already pubed out from those who hadn’t (most everyone else).

I think there was only one kid in our incoming class in the entire school who had refused and worn a swimsuit — and he was mercilessly mocked and teased for it.

Otherwise, I just felt like it was a secondary P.E. uniform, not unlike the school color shorts and T-shirts we wore out on the field. And I certainly wasn’t feeling anything sexual. Rather, what I was really feeling was this: “Wow. I bet my mom would freak out if she knew I didn’t really care about this.”

And, true to form, at dinner that night, she asked me about the whole thing — clearly, the school had been in touch with the parents to “warn” them about the Big Day, which was the first Friday of the semester.

“Did you have to… shower together today?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Were you embarrassed?” she asked.

My honest answer would have been, “Oh, fuck no. Why would I be?” But the way she’d asked it made me think I had to make her happy, so I lied and said, “A little.”

Once I’d gotten to high school, I only had to do the locker room thing for a semester, but then I joined marching band, which counted as physical education but also didn’t require any of the locker room stuff — boys changed into uniform in one of the music classrooms, girls in the other, and no need to showed because, “They can’t possibly get that stanky during a football game.”

Narrator: “Yes. They could.” But at least they dry cleaned them for us every week.

Still… middle school had knocked the shell off the walnut, as it were, and that was that.

One insight I can provide about being a naturist is this: far from being vulnerable without clothes on, it can actually make you stronger. I learned this firsthand when friends invited me to a clothing optional pool party at their place.

I happened to get there first and adhere to the dress code — and then everyone else who showed up turned out to be a fucking textile. So it was one naked man (me), and eight not-naked people. You know who felt uncomfortable during the whole thing? Hint: It wasn’t me.

And they didn’t feel uncomfortable because they were all looking at my dick because this happened to be a group of gay men. It also wasn’t because I had the most fantastic, ripped body at the party, because I didn’t. I was just average, and at least a few of them were actually really hot.

Nope. Quite simply it was because they did not feel comfortable in their own skins.

So in the dynamic of this situation, I wound up having all of the power because I had none of the fear or insecurity.

That’s because I was wearing an outfit I felt (and feel) totally comfortable in — and if you want to learn to do the same, well… Bea Arthur, bea naked.

Besides, if you’re still working from home and not via Zoom — why not?

Theatre Thursday: So much for stage fright

The one thing I miss most of all during these strange days, other than hanging out with friends, is being able to go on stage and perform. I know that it’s something that a lot of people wouldn’t miss because they’d never do it in the first place, but I’m feeling the loss, and so are my many actor and improviser friends.

Studies seem to show that the one thing people fear the most, beyond death and spiders, is public speaking… and I just don’t get it. Then again, I’m a performer. Put me on a stage, give me an audience, and I am on. And it doesn’t matter whether I have pre-planned words to speak, like doing a play or giving a speech, or whether I’m totally winging it by doing improv.

To me, an audience is an invitation to entertain.

On top of that, to me, the more the merrier. I’ll take an audience of hundreds over an audience of dozens or fewer any day. The energy of a large house is infectious, and whenever I’m with a cast that’s in front of a big crowd, we all can feel it in each other’s performances. The intensity level and connections between us all go way up.

And it’s not an ego thing. It’s not about “Oh, look at ussssss!” It’s the people on stage thinking, “Look at them.”

We can see and hear you out there, and speaking for myself, if I’m doing comedy, there’s nothing I appreciate more than hearing a good laugh. If I’m doing drama, then there’s nothing more satisfying than the silent intensity of dozens or hundreds of captive eyes and minds.

Every time I go onstage, I have to wonder why anyone would fear doing it. Because here’s a simple truth that performers just know but which muggles might miss: The people watching you in the audience are a lot more afraid than you are.

Why is this? Two reasons. The first is that the audience gets to sit in the dark and be anonymous, while the performer doesn’t. You’d think that this would put the performer on the spot, but it’s quite the opposite. In fact, being in the spotlight gives the performers all of the power — and if you’ve ever been in the house of a large professional theater with a name actor onstage when someone’s cell phone rings audibly, or people are taking pictures, you’re seen this power being used with a vengeance.

This touches on the other reason for the fear: That an audience member is going to wind up being forced to participate somehow — that’s been a hazard of modern theatre ever since Bertolt Brecht broke the fourth wall, if not even earlier. Audiences can get spooked when the actors notice them and interact with them.

I’ve seen it as an audience member most obviously when I went to a production of Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, which is a piece of environmental theatre first created in the 90s that casts the audience as the wedding guests. (A modern example of the form: escape rooms.) The audience starts out just sitting in the chairs under the outdoor tent for the ceremony, which is not without its family drama, although this part plays out a little bit more like a traditional play.

It’s when everyone moves inside to the banquet hall for the reception that things get interesting. Well, at least the cast tries to make them so. The audience is seated at various tables, with one or more actors planted at each. Now, I have to assume that each table had a similar set-up facilitated by a different family member. At ours, the Tina’s mother came over to tell us that Tina’s ex had come to the wedding uninvited, but that was okay. He was fine as long as he didn’t drink, so she was putting him at our table and asked us to make sure that he didn’t.

I wound up sitting next to the actor, and I sure played my part, making sure to vanish his champagne and wine glasses before he could get to them, but not only was no one else playing along, they weren’t even interacting with him. Now, I’m sure the inevitable arc for that actor is to figure out how to get “smashed” no matter what, and the character gets really inappropriate later on, but nobody at my table was trying, and I’m sure it was true at others.

I finally got to the point of abandoning my table and chatting with anyone who seemed to be a player, and damn was that fascinating — not to mention that they seemed grateful as hell that somebody was interacting with the character they’d bothered to create. I learned all kinds of things about what was going on, family dirt, some of the Italian wedding traditions, and so forth.

That’s what you have to do as an audience member when you go to environmental theatre. That’s the contract! So if you’re not into it, don’t go see those kinds of shows.

On the other hand, I’ve seen it from an actor’s POV more than a few times, and in shows that were not necessarily advertised as environmental theatre, or were not even announced as happening beforehand. In those cases, I can understand the audience discomfort. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t fun to put them through it, at least in those situations.

Those situations have also been some of my favorite show memories, though. I was in a production of an Elaine May play, Adaptation, that posits life as a game show with a large ensemble cast. I think that only the host and star of the show-within-the-show played one character. The rest of us played a ton and our “offstage” was sitting in the audience, meaning that we had plenty of asides delivered directly to whomever we wound up sitting next to between scenes. Or, sometimes, we’d turn around and deliver the line to the people behind us or lean forward and deliver it to the people in front of us, which startled the hell out of them.

I also performed in a series of Flash Theatre performances done all over Los Angeles over the course of an entire year and staged by Playwrights Arena, and a lot of those involved interacting directly with our audience, which were a combination of people who knew about it beforehand and (mostly) whichever random folk were in the area when it happened. That is perhaps the most immediate and real fourth wall breaking because there was never a fourth wall in the first place. Or, rather, the audience is inside of it with the cast, even if everyone is outside, and a lot of the shows were. It’s the ultimate environmental theatre, staged with no warning and no invitation.

Even when the play wasn’t designed to break the fourth wall, a director’s staging can make it happen, and I had that experience in a production of Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real, where I basically played Mexican Jesus.

It’s one hot mess of a show that only ran sixty performances originally in 1955, when Williams was at the height of his powers, and I can say for certain that while it’s really fun for the actors to do, I felt sorry for every single audience we did it for. And I am really curious to see what Ethan Hawke manages with his planned film version of it. Maybe that medium will save it, maybe not.

But… our big fourth wall break came when the actress playing my mother (aka “Thinly Veiled Virgin M”) held the “dead” hero in her lap, Pietà style (while I was secretly getting a workout using my right arm to hold up his unsupported shoulders under the cover of the American flag he was draped in), and during her monologue, which was a good three or four minutes, every actor onstage except Mom and “dead” hero (there were 26 of us, I think) started by locking eyes with somebody in the audience house left and then, over the course of the speech, very, very slowly turning our heads, making eye contact with a different audience member and then a still different one, until, by the end of the speech, we were all looking house right.

Ideally, the turning of our heads should have been imperceptible, but our eye contact should have become obvious as soon as the target noticed. I should also mention that since I was down center sitting on the edge of the stage, the nearest audience member to me was about four feet away — and I was wearing some pretty intense black and silver makeup around my eyes, which made them really stand out.

Good times!

I’m glad to say that what I’m doing now — improv with ComedySportz L.A.’s Rec League — is designed to never make the audience uncomfortable, so that no one is forced to participate in any way. And that’s just as fun for us on stage, really, because the participation we get via suggestions and audience volunteers is sincere and enthusiastic. And if our outside audience happens to be too quiet or reticent during a show, we always have the Rec League members who aren’t playing that night as convenient plants who will take up the slack after a decent pause to allow for legitimate suggestions.

Yeah, I won’t lie. I definitely enjoyed those times when I got to screw with audiences. But I enjoy it just as much when we go out of our way to bring the audience onto our side by making them feel safe. I never have anything to be afraid of when I step on stage. I’d love to make our audiences realize that they don’t either.

Image by Image by Mohamed Hassan via Pixaby.

Wednesday Wonders: Kenneth Essex Edgeworth MC

Just over 140 years ago, an Irish astronomer, economist, and all-around jack of all trades you’ve never heard of known as Kenneth Essex Edgeworth was born.

You probably have heard of Gerard Kuiper, though, or at least the belt named after him. Since Kuiper was of Dutch descent, that first syllable is pronounced with a long I, so it’s not “Kooper.” The first syllable rhymes with kite. (If you’re an L.A. local, it’s exactly the same as Van Nuys, and for the same reasons that I won’t get into here, because they’re complicated.)

Anyway… Kuiper was about 25 years younger than Edgeworth, died just over a year after him in 1973, and wound up with his name on something that Edgeworth originally predicted and described.

Okay, sometimes it’s referred to as the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt, attributing the discoverers slash theorists in the right order, but that’s generally mostly not the case, so that Kuiper really is kind of the Edison to Edgeworth’s Tesla.

But Edgeworth was ahead of his time in other ways. Only eight years after Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 and declared the eighth planet, Edgeworth was expressing his doubts, saying that it was too small to be a planet, and was probably a remnant of the bits and pieces that came together to create the solar system.

He was certainly vindicated on that one, and it was part of the same ideas which gave birth to what should be called the Edgeworth Belt, but which didn’t catch on until Kuiper got in on the act in the 1950s.

Maybe a big part of the problem was that Edgeworth was more of an armchair astronomer. While he published papers, he was a theorists and not an experimenter. Then again, Albert Einstein was a theoretical physicist, not a practical one, and his theories changed the way we view the universe.

Edgeworth’s could have changed the way we view our solar system, and he also hypothesized what later became known as the Oort Cloud — named for another damn Dutch astronomer, Jan Oort, who once again came to the party long after Edgeworth proposed the idea.

When Edgeworth was a child, his family moved to the estate of his maternal uncle, who was an astronomer, and had an influence on young Kenneth. Later, the family would move to the estate of Edgeworth’s paternal grandfather, where he would develop engineering skills in his father’s workshop.

He went into the military, joining the Corps of Royal Engineers, and was posted to South Africa, where he served in the Second Boer War. His military career continued through World War I and beyond, and he retired in 1926.

However, between the Boer War and WW I, his uncle submitted his name for membership in the Royal Astronomical Society, and he was accepted for in 1903. By this point, he had already written papers on astronomy, since one of them was read at the meeting during which he was elected. He studied international economics during the Great Depression and wrote five books on the subject in the 1930s and 40s. He also published various papers on astronomy, covering subjects like the solar system, red dwarves, star formation, and redshift.

It was also at this time that he published his thoughts on Pluto, as well as the existence of both the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud.

After he “retired,” he published a series of letters and papers, leading to his book The Earth, the Planets and the Stars: Their Birth and Evolution, which was published in 1961. He published his autobiography, Jack of all Trades: The Story of My Life, when he was 85, in 1965, and died in Dublin in 1972, at the age of 92.

His contributions to the Kuiper Belt and Oort cloud weren’t acknowledged until 1995, although he did have an asteroid named after him in 1978, 3487 Edgeworth. Yes, a comet would have been more appropriate, but those are only named after their discoverers, and after October 10, 1972, Kenneth Edgeworth wasn’t in a position to discover anything new.

But while he was around, damn what a life. And what an unsung hero. Proof yet again that, sometimes, the ideas that sound utterly crazy at the time turn out to be the truth.

I wonder which unsung geniuses we aren’t listening to now, but whose visions will be obvious in a generation or two.

Image: Kenneth Essex Edgeworth, year unknown. Public domain.