Theatre Thursday: The house is dark tonight

As of now, Los Angeles is six days into the lockdown, it has been eighteen days since I last worked box office for ComedySportz L.A., and seventeen days since I’ve done improv on stage, and I have to tell you that the last two have been the hardest part of the whole social distancing and isolation process.

Not that I’m complaining, because shutting down all of the theaters, bars, clubs, sporting events, and other large gatherings, as well as limiting restaurants to take-out only, are all good things. Yes, it does cost people jobs — I’m one of the affected myself, and dog knows I have a ton of friends who are servers or bartenders — but California has also stepped up in making unemployment and disability benefits much more readily available.

And maybe we’ll all get $1,000 from the Federal government, maybe not. The down the road side benefit of this human disaster is that it may just finally break our two-party system in the U.S. and wreak havoc with entrenched power structures elsewhere. And, remember, quite a lot of our so-called lawmakers also happen to belong to the most at-risk group: Senior citizens. So there’s that.

But what is really hurting right now is not the loss of the extra money I made working CSz box office (although if you want to hit that tip jar, feel free — blatant hint.)

Nope. The real loss is in not being able to see and hang out with my family regularly: the Main Company, College League, and Sunday Team; as well as doing improv with the Rec League every Monday night.

And with every week that passes when I don’t get to take to that stage, I feel a bit more separated from the outside world, a bit less creative, a bit less inspired.

I know that I shouldn’t, but honestly, improv in general and Rec League in particular has added so much to my life for the last two and a half years that having to do without it is tantamount to asking me to deal with having no lungs. And no heart.

185 coronaviruses walk into a bar and the bartender says, “Sorry, we’re closed.”

The coronaviruses say, “As you should be.”

And no one laughs. It’s not a time for laughter, but it is a time for support. And while I can’t do improv in real life with this wonderful funny family of mine, I can at least reach out to them all and say, “Hey. How are you doing?” I can also reach out to my loyal readers here and ask the same question.

It’s been amazing, because several of my improviser pals have started doing podcasts or the like. I can’t name names or link here, but I’ve got at least one improv friend who has been doing virtual shows in which he somehow manages to broadcast phone-to-phone routines through what must be a third phone.

Another friend of mine has been reading various scripts, screenplays, or fan fiction live online while also getting twisted on various intoxicating substances, and it’s been hilarious. Then again, he’s hilarious, and although he’s fairly new to the company, he quickly became one of my favorite players.

Okay, so the upside is that I’m now free Friday through Monday evenings again. Yay?

Maybe. The downside? I still don’t know who, out of all my friends and loved ones, is going to die. And that includes me.

But when you have fiscal conservatives like Mitt Romney suddenly advocating for what is pretty much the Universal Basic Income idea supported by (but not created by) Andrew Yang, you can easily come to realize that what we are going through right now, in real time, is an enormous paradigm shift.

More vernacularly, that’s what’s known as a game-changer.

The current crisis has the clear potential to change the way society does things. It may accelerate the race that had already been happening to make all of our shopping virtual, as well delivering everything with autonomous vehicles or drones. In the brick and mortar places that do remain, you may be seeing a lot fewer actual cashiers and a lot more automated kiosks.

This is particularly true in fast food places. McDonald’s alone has been on a push to add kiosks to 1,000 stores per quarter since mid-2018. Compare that to Wendy’s, which the year before set a goal of putting the machines in only 1,000 stores total.

They’re even developing the technology to let AI make recommendations based on various factors, like the weather, or how busy the location is.

But as these jobs go away, ideas like Universal Basic Income and cranking up the minimum wage become much more important — especially because people in these minimum wage jobs are, in fact, not the mythical high schooler making extra cash. Quite a lot of them are adults, many of them with children and families to support.

We are also already seeing immediate and positive effects on the environment due to massive shutdowns of transportation and industry. Scientists had already shown how airline travel contributes to global warming because the shutdown of flights for three days after September 11 gave them a unique living lab to study it in.

And remember: That was pretty much a limit on foreign flights coming into the U.S. What’s happening now is on a very global scale. We’re suddenly dumping fewer pollutants into the atmosphere, using less fossil fuel, and generating lower levels of greenhouse gases — and it already has been for longer than three days, and is going to be for a lot longer than that.

One of the must sublime effects, though, has been in one of the hardest-hit countries. In Italy, the waters in the canals of Venice are running clear for the first time in anyone’s memory, although this didn’t bring the dolphins to them nor make the swans return to Burano. The dolphins were in the port at Sardinia and the swans are regulars.

While a lot of the specific environmental recoveries are true, a lot of them are not. Even NBC was taken in by the hoax that National Geographic debunked.

There’s something poetic in the irony that, as humans have been forced to shut themselves inside, animals do have opportunity to come back into the niches we displaced them from, even if only temporarily.

It’s not always a good thing, though. In Bangkok, the lack of tourists — an abundant source of free food — led to an all-out monkey war between two different tribes.

All of this is just a reminder that all of us — human, animal, and plant alike — live on and share the same planet, and what one does affects all of the others.

The ultimate example of that, of course, is a pandemic. It now seems likely it all began with patient zero, a 55 year-old man from Hubei in Wuhan province, who was the first confirmed case, back on November 17, 2019. But the most likely reservoir from which the virus jumped to humans was probably the pangolin — just more proof that it’s the cute ones you always have to beware of.

It may seem strange to start on the topic of theatre and veer hard into science via politics, but like everything else on the planet, it’s all interconnected. Art, politics, and science are opposite faces of an icosahedral die that never stops being thrown by the hand of fate.

Or by completely random forces. Or it’s a conspiracy. Or it’s all predictable if you have enough data.

Stay safe out there by staying in, wherever you are. See you on the other side but I hope to keep seeing you through it on a daily basis. I’m not going anywhere, dammit.

Image Source: Fairmont Theater, (CC BY-ND 2.0) 2009 Jon Dawson. Used unchanged.

Friday Free-for-All #6

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.

Is there any art or artist you are really into?

Oh, there are a lot, and it depends on the medium. I’ll start with a link to an artist I’m a big fan of because I’ve been a close personal friend of his for pushing two decades, and that’s Michael Lightsey.

And I’m not just saying that because we’re friends. I also happen to think that he is one hell of a talented artist, and I envy his abilities. I have two of his works hanging in my home — one a large abstract canvas and the other one of his amazing pencil portraits of me that is so accurate in its depiction that it’s uncanny, and which  was a Christmas gift at the end of the year in which I almost died.

Other visual artists I’m really into are a nice example in contrasts. I’m a big fan of Salvador Dalí, for example, for his surrealist works, but I’m also a huge fan of Michelangelo, mainly because he focused on the representation of human beings, and did it so well. Of course, he’s tied in this category with Da Vinci and Caravaggio. And yes, the homoeroticism of the works of the latter three have a lot to do with my interest in them.

If we’re going for pure modern kitsch, then yes, I have a soft spot for Norman Rockwell, but he could also be quite politically progressive.

Moving from visual media, let’s go to music. My three “classical” influences (although that just means “stuff before the 1950s” nowadays) would be Beethoven, actually classical composer who created romanticism; Gustav Mahler, a late romantic composer who ushered in modernism; and Dmitri Shostakovich, a modernist who has had more influence on modern Hollywood film scores than you’d think. Hint: Everything John Williams has ever written came out of a blender loaded with Shostakovich, Gustav Holst, and Carl Orff.

Moving into the truly modern and post-modern age, I’d have to give you Pink Floyd, Godley & Crème (who created the idea of morphing long before CGI in their video for Cry), and OK Go, who just blew the socks off of the idea of what could be done in music videos over a decade ago and haven’t stopped since. Not to mention that they are all just the nicest guys ever.

As for movies, give me my quartet of Hitchcock, Kubrick, Russell, and Gilliam, each of whom made pretty much nothing but perfect films, and three of whom are, sadly, dead.

All four of them had a huge influence on my creative life. Hitchcock taught me how to build suspense and raise the stakes while also subverting the usual tropes by playing into them and then making a big left turn. For example, one of his most suspenseful chase scenes doesn’t happen in a claustrophobic space. It happens in a wide open field in North by Northwest. And in what is probably his most well-known work, Psycho (spoiler alert for a 60 year-old film) he kills off the heroine played by the big-name actress in the first thirty minutes.

As for Kubrick, he taught me that films and all art should always be about big ideas, and that every story was more than the sum of its apparent parts. A lot of critics accuse him of being cold, but I never saw that. In fact, my favorite work of his is 2001: A Space Odyssey, because it spans the course of hundreds of thousands of years, doesn’t have a single protagonist, and asks really, really big questions while attempting to give answers.

Plus it created my love of science and science fiction. I didn’t really get into his other works until I was an adult, and by which point he’d created all but one of them before dying, but I devoured them all and could find no wrong in any of them. And each one is about something much bigger than the apparent genre.

Ken Russell, meanwhile, taught me to take no subject seriously, and just have fun with it. One of the things he frequently did were biopics, and he loved to do them out of order, or in the style of the art of the artist he was portraying. Go figure. Again, as with Kubrick, I don’t think I’ve ever met a Russell movie I didn’t love. Well… theatrical release. The stuff he started to shoot once he retired to his estate and thought he discovered green screen and social media is, well… kind of bad. But we don’t speak of that.

Otherwise… he banged off a series of solid hits that I devoured on the revival circuit (because, for some reason, most of his stuff never hit home media, and still hasn’t) He managed to turn a really shitty rock opera by The Who into a fairly decent movie called Tommy (although Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Alan Parker’s adaptation of it in the early 80s would blow Tommy out of the water), as well as create brilliant adaptations of the Weekend at Byron’s during which Frankenstein and Dracula were conceived (Gothic) and a mostly exacting staging of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome as a play-within-the movie Salome’s Last Dance, in which the conceit is that Oscar’s banned play is being staged in a Cleveland Street brothel (i.e., gay boy whorehouse in an area that the law was about to come down on hard because several politicians had been indiscrete.)

Finally, there’s Terry Gilliam, who started out with a silly comedy troupe you might have heard of, but then he went on to direct some really amazing shit. Where he really caught my attention was with Brazil, the best version of 1984 ever made, but he just kept getting better. 12 Monkeys knocked it out of the park, plus it proved that Brad Pitt could act and Bruce Willis could play more than Bruce Willis on screen.

Then again, Gilliam has always had a knack for actors. After all, he cast Uma Thurman in one of her earliest roles, and likewise cast Jonathan Pryce, and Andrew Garfield as leads. He also cast Heath Ledger in the lead before Brokeback Mountain and long before The Dark Knight, but also had the distinction of having directed Ledger’s last film. Oops.

And the only remainders, who were influences on my playwriting, you can look up: Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, and Joe Orton.

The Saturday Morning Post #4

Continuing excerpts from my novel of L.A. in Short Stories plus one Novela, here is part of Chapter 4. If you want to catch up, check out the first one here and the previous one here. The one thing to remember is that each of the 13 short stories is narrated by a new character, and the novela is told from an omniscient point of view tying it all together. Oh yeah.. there was also that whole earthquake thing earlier in the day…

Incidentally… This happens to be my 200th post. Wow. 

DANCING ON THE EDGE

“All the best boys are gay.”

That’s what she said after I’d taken her in my arms and mentioned my boyfriend, and it made me really happy to be rescuing her from her wrecked post-quake apartment. It got even better when my landlord, Madam Wei, invited her in as permanent second house mother. This had been a really interesting week, and also kind of difficult for me and Tony. I mean, even though we lived in a basic dorm situation, we had also managed to arrange a totally gay room, so that “sexin’ the BF” (or anyone else) was not at all weird. Plus we’re performers, so having an audience also wasn’t weird.

It was probably our artsy schedule in the weeks before the quake more than anything that had kept us from banging, but the second after the quake, the only thing we could think of was consolation fucking, and hard. Not that we did it right after, but once we’d all come back home after playing rescue squad up and down the street and giving the naybs a free (non-sexual) show on the street, you bet your ass that Tony and I finally got down to it. It was after midnight, the place still had no lights or electricity, or anything else, but we both hopped up onto my top bunk, and I railed his ass like there was no tomorrow. Which, honestly, there might not have been, since we’d kind of lived through a mini-apocalypse today.

The following dawn, I woke up with my morning wood pressed up against his hot ass, and shortly thereafter, in it. Lather, rinse, repeat before starting our day, and then in the evening I let him rail me long into the night (we’re both vers), and nobody in our room objected.

The whole thing with Cindy had really kind of affected me, and by the time we’d made it through the aftershocks and Tony and I were done cumming all over, on, and in each other, all I could think about was the shape of her apartment when Madam Wei and I went in to get her out.

See, I’m from L.A., but I was born in ’06, so this was my first major earthquake. The last big one was a little over thirty-five years ago, although I’d heard Madam Wei talk about that one a few times. Anyway, it means I’ve got no reference for things like what we saw in that building. I’m used to rooms having level floors and all the walls are at right angles — or at least some sort of normal angle.

This had been like walking into a Dali painting, although to hear Madam Wei describe it, she does exaggerate a bit. She makes it sound like the entire apartment was on its side, but if that had been the case I never could have gotten Cindy out of there without a harness, rope, and pulley. Yes, one side was definitely lower than the other, but it was more of a natural ramp than a precipice. The real reason she couldn’t get out is that she just couldn’t get a grip on the floor. Luckily, the shoes I was wearing had really rough soles.

Apparently, a major feature of disasters like this is that it’s the only time neighbors in L.A. actually meet and talk to each other — another lesson from Madam Wei — and it was pretty amazing to watch. By Friday, the third day after the quake, Cindy figured out where we had come from. She’d been staying in a six‑person tent one of her neighbors had pitched in front of their building, and so she was also in the loop when, on the day after, she and the other tenants were given one hour to go in, with fire department escorts, to retrieve whatever valuables, documents, and clothing they could. After that, the building was red-tagged, meaning that no one was allowed to enter. It would probably be torn down eventually.

“I remember when there were red and yellow tags all over the city,” Madam Wei had explained to us at dinner that evening. “After Northridge — that was the quake in the 90s — a lot of places were condemned. At least there is a good side to it. Every time after, there are fewer places that are destroyed because we learn how to build better.”

She looked a little pensive but then went on. “Because of their history with my country, I have no love for the Japanese,” she added. “But one thing they have done is learn from their earthquakes, which China has not done. Every year, their buildings and cities get safer. Ours… well, my homeland’s…” She sighed and trailed off.

Cindy retrieved what little she could, mostly clothes, a few sentimental items, and a small, metal lockbox that presumably contained either documents, valuables, or a combination of both.

On Friday afternoon, as I helped her bring her stuff up to her new quarters, she told me, “You know, it’s funny. Not all that long ago, like around the turn of the century, if you asked someone what one inanimate thing they’d save if their house was on fire, they’d always answer, ‘My photo albums.’ Nowadays, no need, because all of our photos are on our phones or in the cloud. Hell, so are most of our vital documents. Does this place have a safe?” she abruptly asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe. It was an office building once. Madam Wei would know.”

“Madam… oh, you mean Alice?”

“Yeah, her.”

“I’ll have to ask.” Her tone suddenly became playful. “So, when do I get to meet your boyfriend?”

“Uh… you kind of already did. Tony, down in the lobby?”

“The real hot blond one with the sexy smile?”

“Yeah, but he’s not really blond,” I explained. People think he is because of that platinum streak he dyes in his hair, but he’s actually brunet.”

“Wow,” she exclaimed. “You’re right. He does have very blond skin, though, if that makes sense.”

“Yeah, I guess, if you’re thinking more surfer-blond than Nordic-blond.”

“Is he Scandinavian or something?”

“No. Italian.”

“Really? He hardly looks Italian.”

“Northern. That’s where all the fair-skinned, sometimes blond Italians are.”

“I had no idea,” she replied. “Learn something new every day. Are you Italian?”

“Nah. Mexican. Well, Mexican-American… Fourth generation Angeleno.” I always had to pause to count in my head back to the right number of tatarabuelos to the ones that were born during the Mexican Revolution and brought to El Norte by their parents when they were children. Their children were the first native generation, born in the 1930s. So my great-great-grandparents came here. My great-grandparents were born here.

“That’s impressive,” she said. “Most people I know weren’t born here. I’m from Minnesota, but only second generation. My grandparents were all from Israel.”

“And yet, you’re blonde,” I said, teasingly.

“Well, they weren’t born there since they were born in the late 30s. Their grandparents were Ashkenazi Jews from Germany who hid from the Nazis in Belgium during the war, then immigrated in 1948 when Israel became a country.”

“Wait… you’re old enough to be only two generations from the Holocaust?” I asked.

“Honey, I’m old enough to be your grandmother.”

“You know, funny thing, my mom’s grandma is still alive. She’s 93, out in Rowland Heights.”

“Have you checked in on her?” she asked, clutching my forearm and showing utter concern.

“You kidding? Abuelita Ramona texted me five minutes after the quake. She’s old, but she’s really on it.”

I didn’t even realized it until we finish our conversation and I head back to my room that, well, we had a conversation, and it had been easy and spontaneous, and the thing is, that’s not something I generally do with strangers. It takes me time to break the ice. But with Cindy, she just created a natural trust in me, and an ability to share everything. I’m really going to like having her as our second house mother, which Madam Alice had already explained to me and Tony was going to be her new function.

Oh — and seeing her with the dogs and cats is inspiring. She clearly loves all animals and they love her. Even our white German shepherd Dan-xiao, whose name means “timid,” took to her immediately.

Friday night is another street show for the crowd, this time starting with the dance before moving to a second-act long-form improv show and ending up with a bunch of scripted comedy scenes. At the same time, our visual artists deploy themselves up and down the streets to do paintings, sketches, caricatures, and sculptures of willing subjects, collecting small donations for their efforts, which are all going to go to the Red Cross.

Oh yeah. They finally move in on Friday and set up their tents and shelters, and at long last people are getting hot food and “new” used clothes. One of the best things they bring are free phone-charging stations that are fast. Since we’re all going on well over 48 hours without electricity, a lot of people’s phones are either dead or in severe power-saver mode. A lot of us, like me, are realizing that while they’d be important later, taking lots of pictures now is not the best use of our batteries. They also have apparently set up functioning and open WiFi. There are rows of porta-potties, as well as shower tents, and various government field offices providing everything from EBT sign-ups to vouchers to outright cash disbursements.

Some of the guys in my room quickly dub it “Federal Row,” and the waggier ones among them jokingly say things like “Oh noes — we’re getting the socialisms!” even though most of us are hardcore socialists to begin with.

They’ve also set up OLED displays everywhere, and they’re showing the news, although a lot of it is being streamed in from outlets in other cities or international sites. This is when we all finally get the three bits of information that every native Angeleno starts asking themselves at the first sign of shaking: How big? How far? And does it get a name?

We finally get the answer. 7.3 Roughly fifty miles east and slightly south of Downtown L.A. And it’s now being called the Riverside Quake. We also get news that communities like San Bernardino, Redlands, Fontana, and Rancho Cucamonga, among others, have been severely damaged. The Moreno Valley has been particularly hard hit, with fires everywhere. If you’re not from L.A., you won’t quite get it, but these are places that most Angelenos only normally think of as things they see on freeway signs on the way to somewhere else, like Palm Springs or Vegas.

Suddenly, everyone does seem to care.

Theatre Thursday: So much for stage fright

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.

A note to astute readers: A very early, very incomplete draft of this story was accidentally posted last Thursday. This is the real one. Sorry about that!

The Saturday Morning Post #3

Continuing excerpts from my novel of L.A. in Short Stories plus one Novela, here is part of Chapter Two. If you want to catch up, check out the first one here and the previous one is here. The one thing to remember is that each of the 13 short stories is narrated by a new character, and the novela is told from an omniscient point of view tying it all together. One thing you did miss is that there was a major earthquake in the previous chapter. The next takes place in the aftermath.

THERE’S ALWAYS A WEI

The first thing I think of is 1994. At the time, I was living in a house in Woodland Hills, not that far from the epicenter, and it felt like someone picked the place up, dropped it, then shook it violently for a while until someone else took over and started shaking it harder. It really seemed like one earthquake on top of another. It was also long before dawn, right before 4:31 in the morning.

Today’s quake didn’t do double duty, but it certainly bounced and rolled like no one’s business. It was just past two thirty in the afternoon when it hit, and I was down in the laundry room in the basement of my place, talking to a couple of tenants, when the Earth moved.

One of them was from L.A. and instinctually ducked under a folding counter. The other was not, and turned into a statue, so I grabbed her and pulled her under the other counter. The machines danced a few inches away from the walls, plaster dust trickled from the roof, the rumbling was horrible, and the shaking was scary. The laundry room door slammed open and shut several times — proof that the old “Stand in a doorway” advice was not good. When everything finally settled, the lights had gone out. The L.A. native and I were laughing in relief, while our immigrant (from North Dakota) was crying her eyes out.

We consoled her, then grabbed the emergency flashlights that were plugged into the wall outlets. Best investment I ever made. They’re always fully charged, and when the power goes out, they turn on. Every room and hallway here had them. We made our way upstairs and to the lobby, then continued to the second floor and the dark hallway.

The only thing I could think about the whole time was whether my babies were safe. I was relieved to see that the second floor was still there. At this point, most of the doors of the occupied rooms had opened, and the residents were poking their heads out, two from each room holding flashlights. The same was probably happening downstairs in the studios.

“How are you doing, my children?” I asked, and they all eagerly answered, “All right, and you, Madam Wei?”

I swear that their enthusiasm keeps me alive. And I replied, “I’m fine, and here’s the news. No rent next month because of this disaster, but let’s put on a show!”

This was greeted with cheers and applause and genuine sounds of concern and, really, if this natural disaster seems to have done more damage than it felt like, then not only May, but June, July, August, and maybe even September might be free. And if the government doesn’t pony up… Well, I hate to charge people to learn, so let’s get back to that in six months.

The good news is that there are no injuries. Some of the dogs and all of the cats have gone into hiding, although Jun, our ten-year-old yellow Lab, is acting like we’re all playing some exciting game and she  wants in on it, and Chanming, the one-eyed, five-year-old German shepherd, is his usual stoic self about everything.

People and pack accounted for and safe, it’s time to start assessing the damage. Needless to say, anything that wasn’t nailed down is all over the place. Fortunately, I’d taken the great advice from friends to earthquake proof as much as possible, so that we didn’t have cabinets flying open or falling over, and all of the important things, like monitors, theater lights, sound and light boards, and so on were firmly nailed down, so to speak.

Our hanging lights were always triple-chained to the grids and gobos and gel frames were very securely attached to the units. Our catwalks were also anchored to the walls at both ends, unlike a lot of theaters I’d seen where they were suspended on chains and could swing freely. I could only imagine the kind of damage one of these could do to the paint and plaster if it slammed back and forth repeatedly, especially in a black box space like ours.

Alonzo, one of our chefs who had been in the middle of making lunch, confirmed that the automatic gas shutoff had done its job. Fortunately, he hadn’t been boiling or heating anything on the stove at the time, although three of the half-dozen six-foot long subs he’d been preparing to cut up and share with everyone had found their way to the floor, ingredients scattered and lost.

It’s probably about twenty minutes after the quake now, so probably about three. That gives us about four and a half hours to sunset, and close to five until the end of civil twilight, so I begin planning in my head.

While I don’t have the fondest memories of my homeland — at least, not its government — there are a few things rooted in me by my upbringing that are invaluable now. One is a sense of regimentation and focus, so the ability to know what to do and when to do it. We were also a country prone to massive earthquakes. When I was 20, a 7.8 quake destroyed the city of Tangshan, about a two hour drive west of Beijing. My university assembled a team of “volunteers,” and I’m sure you know what those quotes mean, although, honestly, most of us wanted to help anyway, because it was just in the nature of our upbringing: Your comrades need you now!

I learned more about disaster relief in the week that we were there than I ever thought I’d need to know. We set up emergency shelters, helped find survivors under the rubble, performed first aid, offered rudimentary counseling, ran our equivalent of what you’d call soup kitchens, and coordinated with various NGOs that arrived to help, as well as with the Red Army.

Ultimately, all we really wound up doing was helping the few survivors. Oddly enough, most of them were coal miners who had been underground at the time. Over a quarter million people died in that quake — possibly a lot more — and it’s called the second or third deadliest in recorded history. That’s for the planet, not for the country.

So I know my way around this stuff. The power is probably going to be out for at least three days if not more, and maybe intermittent when it comes back. There are five thirty-gallon water heaters in the building, so that would be enough drinking water for everyone for four days. We do have a pallet of bottled water in the back, so about 1,200 bottles, which is good for another nine days almost. The gas won’t be back on until someone comes out to physically reset the shut-off. Food in the fridges and freezers might last for a couple of days if we’re very judicious about opening the doors. Otherwise, we’re going to be dipping into the canned good so, other than tons of tuna salad, everyone is going to be mostly a vegetarian for the next few days.

The plan pops into my head, and I explain to everyone. First order of business, go grab the surviving sandwiches in the kitchen and be done eating in fifteen minutes. Then, we’re going to hit the streets. There are 40 of us, including me but not the chefs, so we’re going to split into four groups of 10, each one going a different cardinal direction for as many blocks as they can cover in half the time until they need to be back.

Our goal is to see what’s up with the rest of the neighborhood, and help whomever we safely can, reconvening here by 7:15 p.m., at which point the chefs, who’ve been guarding the fort, will see what kind of dinner they can whip up for us. At 7:45, we’re going to take our generator and lights out into the street, and perform for the neighbors — mostly some improv, with musical acts, and whatever choreo or scenes people are working on.

I explain my reasoning behind this, which my kids get instantly. “We are doing this to keep everyone’s morale up during these dark days, and we are going to do it every night until the power and some sense of normal comes back.”

That got enthusiastic applause.

When we all emerge into the surprisingly harsh daylight, it’s clear that things are not normal. We can hear car alarms and distant sirens, and smell smoke in the air. People are standing all up and down the block looking bewildered, and several buildings to our south have lost their façades or collapsed into the street. I’m amazed that our building looks so undamaged. Then again, it’s retrofitted many times over the year. That’s one of the reasons I bought it.

I remember a moment after the 1994 quake when I’d stepped outside and started chatting with a neighbor, and he told me, “Yep. The only time people in L.A. meet their neighbors is right after a disaster,” and he was right. I’d never seen half of these people before, but as my team headed south and started talking, I realized how many small business owners were in this neighborhood, along with tons of renters. The really funny thing was how many of them told me, “Oh, yeah. I’ve been meaning to come see something at your place, but never found the time.”

“Well,” I told them, “The show tonight is free. Come around just after sunset.”

We came to an old brick Korean Church that had splatted into the street and, unfortunately, the quake had hit right in the middle of their afternoon service. I had flashbacks to Tangshan as I looked at the dusty red pile and spotted a few hands frozen in death above the rubble. My best guess was that there were no survivors here unless the place had a basement, so I led my group on.

Farther down was a newer apartment building that had, for want of a better term, knelt north. The area over the entrance to the garage had collapsed, so that the upper three stories were not level. Basically, the north end third floor was at the level of the south end second floor. Most of the tenants here seemed to be standing in front, but I decided to ask: “How many residents do you think there are, and is anyone obviously missing?”

There was silence and muttering, and then one woman raised her hand. “Cindy in 306,” she said. “She’s retired and kind of a shut-in, but takes care of everyone’s dogs, so she’s probably home.”

“Thanks,” I tell her. “Oh, by the way, I’m Alice.”

“Edna,” she introduces herself. “I own this place. Well… this mess, I guess.”

“Where is her apartment?” I ask.

“There,” the woman points. It’s the top right corner, the part that has dropped a story.

“So… that front corner apartment?” I ask. She nods. “Right,” I reply, then turn to Adam Melendez. He’s one of my current favorite tenants. Mostly a dancer, also a poet. He’s gayer than anything, doesn’t apologize, and is incredibly masculine. He’s also 6’5” and works out. He could probably bench press a pick-up truck. In other words, the ideal rescue team member. “Come with me. We have work to do.”

He nods and follows me without hesitation. We pass through the entrance — the glass lobby doors have been thrown off their hinges, so no need to deal with buzzers that wouldn’t work anyway, then pass into the open court and take the wobbly stairs up to the third floor. When we get there, it’s like walking down a steep hiking trail, but we take it slowly, because every step is met with a complaint from some creaky board or another. It truly feels like one wrong move will bring the whole house of cards down.

We finally get to the last door, which is marked 306, although it’s ceased functioning as a door. When the floor collapsed, everything else went wonky, so the door itself has been ejected into the hall and the jamb is a weird parallelogram. Square peg in a funky hole. We move the door out of the way and enter the apartment, only to find ourselves involuntarily skating down into the far left corner, which is where the bedroom is.

“Anybody here?” I call out.

“Help!” comes the weak voice.

I smile to Adam and he takes my arm and helps me walk down the incline and through another wrecked doorway. Once inside, we find the woman, Cindy, who is basically lying in the corner of the room which is now like the bottom of sno-cone cup, if that makes sense, and it’s clear that she can’t get out. She’s maybe in her early 60’s with long blonde hair and black polyester off-the-rack dress. No shoes, and very much an Earth-mother vibe. I can smell the ashtray from here, which is so anachronistic that it boggles my mind — I thought that everyone in L.A. quit smoking around twenty years ago.

Anyway… she looks so grateful and Adam has no problem working his way down into the corner and then picking her up like she’s nothing. She fawns over him a little bit until he tells her, “Wow, my boyfriend would love to hear that,” at which point she just beams and says, “All the best boys are gay,” and this makes me feel all the better about saving her.

We manage to get her back up the hall, down the stairs, and out the door and, again, get applause, which surprises me because, really, isn’t this what we, as humans are supposed to do? Why are you applauding things that should not be extraordinary?

All right, maybe another culture gap. But, onward, as we continue our rescue trek. I think we’ve made it about ten blocks when Janisha, whom I’ve appointed time monitor, calls it. “Halfway to sunset.” There’s a building in flames about three blocks away that I’d love to help with but, reluctantly, I accede and announce, “All right. Time to head home and pick up what we’ve missed.”

We make it back at five minutes after seven, behind one group but before the other two, which both make it back before seven fifteen. Inside, we find out that our chefs have whipped up an amazing chicken salad — five pound cans of chicken plus gallons of mayo (which does not need to be refrigerated, contrary to popular belief), — along with celery, parsley, onions, paprika, lemon juice, and tomatoes. They stuff this into a bunch of pita bread they had on hand, then side it up with coleslaw and tons of canned corn. Although the corn isn’t heated, it is buttered, thanks to the pump-jugs of the liquid stuff we put on the popcorn at our theater concessions.

After we eat, we head to the street to perform and, thanks to all four of our teams having informed everyone along the way that the show is happening, we have quite the crowd waiting as we come outside. We decide to use the sidewalk in front of the theater as our stage, and begin with a musical number, something one of our members has been working on, but which seems appropriate now, a song called, “Walls Came Down.”

Metaphorically, it’s about the end of divisions between people, but taken literally, I suppose it applies to an earthquake. Either way, though, in the wake of this quake, those walls between people have come down even as the walls of buildings have. By the time it’s over, people are crying and hugging each other and applauding. Then, we launch into the improv and get people laughing.

My one big rule when we do improv is this: “Don’t be dirty.” Maybe it’s my Chinese heritage in action, maybe not, but there’s really no need to be rude to be funny. In fact, you can be funnier when you don’t have that crutch — and tonight, my kids follow that rule right down the line, and the audience loves it. After the improv, it’s a mini dance concert, an intermission, and then some solo singers and bands. After that, there are some acting scenes, both dramatic and comedic, before another intermission and a late night improv show.

And we only have three aftershocks during the whole thing, one minor one in the middle of the first improv, which the players manage to incorporate beautifully, a slightly bigger one during the first intermission, and the third moderate one about three minutes before we end the show and invite everyone to hang out and chat. In my experience, this is unusual. We did have the one big aftershock half an hour after the first — that’s almost a guarantee — but haven’t felt much since. Then again, when you’re walking around, sometimes it’s hard to feel them.

It’s about 11:30 when we’re all done, and have told the audience to keep coming back as long as the power is out, and then we all head inside and upstairs and to bed. It’s sort of surreal watching the flashlights dance up the stairs and eventually blink out as everyone vanishes into their rooms. I’m finally left with the chefs, Alonzo and Aki, who assure me that everything will be fine. I’m not so sure, but let them retreat to their rooms, then head out into the street, where I listen to the silence, and take a deep breath of the smoke and dust and everything else noxious that this event has blown into the air.

Los Angeles is not going to be the same for a long time, but I am going to do my best to help fix it.

Photo credit: Wilshire Boulevard, Korea Town, Los Angeles, ©  2016 Jon Bastian

Theatre Thursday: The worst collaborator

It’s funny how sometimes it can take forever between the time you write something and the time it winds up on stage. I think I was just lucky with my first two full-length plays, which were produced within two years of each other and, more importantly, not long after I finished them to the point that I felt like they were shareable.

Two others, no, not so much. Bill & Joan, my play about William S. Burroughs and the fateful night he shot and killed his wife, I actually finished writing not long after that first full-length went up and I finished it before the second one was produced. I had a lot of readings at the time, and some interest, but nothing happened until years later, when one of the actors involved in those readings got in touch with me and said, “Hey, can I pitch this to my theater?”

I said yes, and we pitched it to the current board for that year, meaning that I got to sit face-to-face with French Stewart, whom I absolutely adored from 3rd Rock from the Sun. And… he and the other two turned us down. I still think he’s awesome, though, and it was clearly a case of, “Yeah, I don’t see a role for me in this,” which was absolutely true.

Nevertheless, my actor champion persevered, and when we pitched it to the new triumvirate board the next year, they said yes. And so began the very, very interesting process of suddenly collaborating on a play with the most difficult of co-writers of them all: Myself, from the beginning of my career, looking back from the well-established middle.

Oh boy. It was going to be a difficult job overhauling this one and, in fact, I’d have to say that I threw out at least a third of the original script, if not more — a lot more — and rewrote vast swatches of it. Now it might seem paradoxical to do that. After all, if it was good enough to get picked up to be produced, doesn’t that mean it was good enough as it was?

Short answer: Hell no.

That’s what’s so amazing about the process of rehearsal and working with a director and an amazing cast. It’s all about discovery, reconnecting with why you created a piece in the first place, and (especially with the perspective of so much time between origin and outcome) the ability to suddenly see the flaws with utter clarity.

One of these days, I may go back and do a comparison of the draft we started with and the one we ended with, but I know that we got to the extreme of me combining characters in different ways, adding some and dropping others, and this play was even my incentive to go back and re-learn Spanish to the extent that I am now pretty damn fluent in it.

Why? Well, the main action is set in a jail in Mexico City, and from the beginning, the two cops doing the interrogation spoke a lot of Spanish. However, when I first wrote it, it was my badly-remembered high school Spanish that had abandoned me some time during college. With the help of two Hispanic actors in the roles and a lot of self-study, it suddenly felt like I was crafting those lines as carefully as I crafted the English.

And the entire time, it was an experience in confronting my younger self every day, understanding why I’d written what I’d written, but then realizing, “Wow. I really have learned a lot since then, haven’t I?”

Currently, rehearsals have just begun for another play of mine that isn’t quite as old as Bill & Joan, but which I did write in another life time and which is also very different than my other full-lengths, which are all either based on real people or set in historical periods.

This one, Screamin’ Monkey Love!, is a modern day farce with the tag line “Sex, money, real estate. That’s what family’s for.” There was actually an attempt at producing it with the same director back around the time I wrote it, but that fell apart unceremoniously.

In this case, re-reading the thing in preparation was a lot less cringe-worthy. Then again, this play was more mid-career and benefited from coming after the time I’d spent actually working in film and TV and after multiple professional stage productions.

The weirdness in this collaboration, though, really came more from the inspiration rather than the execution. Unlike my other plays, as I’ve mentioned, this one is set in the modern day and was inspired by events in my own life, not to mention that the primary motivation I gave to one of the lead characters happens to be my own as of yet un-obtained dream.

Not to mention that real-life tragedy intervened and put me off the thing for a while only five months after our ill-fated first attempt.

The thumbnail version of Screamin’ Monkey Love! Is that it’s a story about two brothers who both want to inherit their father’s house and secretly conspire to do so. The older one hires a woman to pretend to seduce the father in order to marry him and take over the place in the traditional way — either she bangs Dad to death or takes it all in a divorce, but then turns it over to other brother per an agreement they’ve made that I won’t say too much about lest I give away too much of the plot.

The inspiration for the whole thing was finding out that my father, in his 80s, had met a woman, in her 20s, at the grocery store, and she had gotten flirty and whatnot with him, and this sent up red flags and alarm bells for my half-sister and me.

Hey, I know what personality traits I inherited from my dad, and it was clear that we had to act fast. It was also very clear that she was probably Romani, and they are known for this kind of thing: Meet old man shopping alone in grocery store, assume that he’s a widower with means, make a move.

The other inspiration was, of course, the fact that I have always wanted to own a house but, being a Gen-X person in Los Angeles, that was never at any point remotely in reach without me having been a venal and heartless asshole at some point.

So… combine the two elements, ta-da, there’s the play. The first attempt went well until it didn’t, and then six months later, my dad died and evil half-sister announced, “Oh, by the way, his house is in my name. Don’t even try.” Never mind that she had taken advantage of his Alzheimer’s to convince him that I was invading his house every night with friends and slowly making him paranoid about me. But that’s a completely different play that I might write one day.

The house in question would be the house that I grew up in and she didn’t, incidentally. The only possible house I could have ever owned, and her absolutely (pardon the expression) cuntiness in this moment turned me against her forever and, frankly, made me shelve the play because… bad memories.

I guess that time heals all wounds and, if there’s real justice, time will wound all heels, so jumping back into this play, it’s just a romp and all of the darker connotations have fallen off. So the challenge here is to collaborate with my younger self while being able to ignore the crap that I know younger me went through right after but which younger me had no idea that he would.

I did give myself a distraction from that one, though, without even knowing it, because one of the intentions I set for myself in writing the piece was to hat tip two of my playwriting idols, Joe Orton and Oscar Wilde and, in fact, the entire finale of this play is an intentional nod to The Importance of Being Earnest in more ways than one.

Still… the glibness of my younger self in tossing this one off did give me pause at a few points when I had to stop and ask, “Damn, too harsh?” Until I remembered, “Nah. Not the audience’s family, and too long ago for me to really care. Proceed!”

The Saturday Morning Post #2

Continuing excerpts from my novel of L.A. in Short Stories plus one Novela, here is part of Chapter Two. If you want to catch up, check out the first one here. The one thing to remember is that each of the 13 short stories is narrated by a new character, and the novela is told from an omniscient point of view tying it all together. Also,  these are not the entire chapters, just a taste of the first act of each.

* * *

SOUTHBOUND TO DOWNTOWN

This job actually turned out to be pretty sweet. All I have to do is go downstairs and across the street every morning to catch the B Train to Pershing Square, then take the short walk to my boss’s condo. Normally, I catch the 8:11 to get there. Technically, I could take the 8:23, although it wouldn’t allow me time to grab and eat my usual breakfast at Starbuck’s at 5th and Hill before making it to his place right next to Bunker Hill.

The schedule changes when he has late night/early morning meetings with overseas clients, and last night was one of them, in which case I catch the 10:11 train. Since he shifts his lunch schedule on these days, I shift my breakfast. The only rule on these days is that I don’t enter the condo/office before 11 a.m. on the dot, although I also seem to earn bonus points for being on the dot. As usual, I wave my phone and the door automatically unlocks. I know well enough to stay on the southwest corner, where the kitchen and offices are located, until he eventually emerges, usually around 11:45, from the other side of the place.

Those 45 minutes are mostly taken up by me dealing with toks, messages, and other random crap. I usually finish with all of it just about the time that my boss finally emerges from his quarters with a cheery, “Good morning, Adrian. How are you doing?”

I inevitably lie and say, “Oh, great. And you?” And he generally answers in one of three ways. “Meh,” “Fantastic,” or “Amazing.” I’d long since learned that only the latter answer is desirable, because it means that he’d sealed a really great deal the night before, and he tends to be rather generous when that happens.

Oh. His name is Toby Arnott, by the way. International marketing. He’s 35, which makes him only eight years older than me. I admire him and I fucking hate him.

“I’m doing okay,” I reply to him. “And you?”

“Amazing,” he answers, and I swear it gives me an erection. Why not? The first time he gave me a bonus after “amazing” it paid off my student loans. The second time, I managed to make a down-payment on the condo in a NoHo hi-rise I’m now living in. Oh, sure, I have two rent paying roomies, a lovely gay couple in their 30s who help with the mortgage, but I don’t mind. And my view of the NoHo Metro, Kaiser’s Medical Office Building, and points south and east is amazing.

By the third and fourth times, I decide to be smart and squirrel the money away as an emergency rainy day fund. Today is the fifth time.

He taps away on his phone, gives me a smile and raised eyebrow, then gives one final tap before he waltzes off to the kitchen. I hear the incoming ding but don’t dare swipe for the longest time. I mean, knowing him, it could say anything from “You’re fired” to “Here’s half my company.”

As I hear him happily whistling over the sound of the gurgling coffee maker, I finally bite the bullet and open the message, figuring it would be something trivial.

It isn’t. Every other bonus he’s ever given me has been five digits. This one is six, and I’m not sure whether to pass out, cum in my pants, run out the door screaming “I quit,” or all of the above.

Oh, and the first digit in that number is a six as well. If we’re going to get technical, the exact number is $623,451.26. I later learn that this is the net amount on an actual payment of $1,000,000, but the real question is “Why?”

See… guys my age get really suspicious when older people — men or women — get really generous. Our natural inclination is to think, “Okay. You’re paying because you want to fuck me, right?” And yeah, while I consider myself basically straight, in the past, and I’ll admit it, there were times when I took some cash to make ends meet and did things I wouldn’t normally have done.

Honestly, I consider it all to be training as an actor, nothing more nor less. Can’t act it if you haven’t done it, right?

But, anyway, I look at this number and my head is swimming. Is this real? Is he fucking with me? I know for a fact that he’s straighter than I am, so he’s not trying to get into my pants. And it’s just a number on screen, not a deposit to my bank yet. But if it’s real… holy fuck. Condo paid off tomorrow. Shit, everything paid off tomorrow. And condo and balance turned into the next step up. A house — which is generally an impossible dream for someone my age in this town.

Toby comes out of the kitchen with a cup of coffee in one hand and two fake egg McMuffins on a plate in the other that he makes in the really over-priced machine in there. He gives me a smile and a nod.

“Great work, Adrian. By the way, that should have hit your account by now.”

He heads back around to the residence part of the condo and, as soon as he’s gone, I’m logging into my banking app on my phone. My hands start shaking and my knees go weak as soon as I see that he’s not lying. That exact amount has been direct-deposited into savings, just like my regular paychecks, only a lot bigger.

I also start getting messages from a VP at my bank immediately saying that we should meet to discuss my change in finances. I ignore them as fast as they come in.

It also takes all of my willpower to not scream out “Holy fucking shitballs, yes!” But then I feel something else.

On the one hand, it’s been great working for this guy. Toby has taught me a lot and treated me well and, to be honest, the hours are easy, there’s paid time off and benefits, I get to run a lot of errands for him, meaning I get to drive his Tesla, and, face it, the bonuses are ridiculous. Nobody my age is making this kind of bank without being, well, a major asshole or a full-time porn star.

Although that’s kind of my one hesitation. See, Toby tells me all about what he does for a living but, at the same time, he doesn’t seem happy about it at all. “Kid,” he often tells me, “Don’t ever go into marketing. It’s the quickest way to lose your soul.”

“Yeah,” I want to reply, “But it sure as hell seems like the quickest way to make a shitload of money.”

I don’t reply this, though, because, apparently, the “shitload of money” part has ceased to interest him. And, of course it has, because why else would he have any interest in throwing so much money my way when he has no interest in throwing anything else (i.e. his cock) in the same direction?

There is one thing I’ve learned about him in the year and a half I’ve been here, and it’s that he tends to get very generous with me when he’s feeling very guilty about something else. I know that he’s making these crazy deals all the time. “Amazing” means I’m getting a bonus. “Fantastic” means he made a deal, but I’m not getting anything. “Meh” means he didn’t make any deals, although I’m never sure whether it’s because he didn’t have anything scheduled or that he didn’t manage to do it.

The first time I got an “amazing” and a bonus was about six months in, but about half an hour after that, he started telling me this story about something that had happened to him the night before. I didn’t make the connection at the time, nor did I after my second bonus. But the third time around, I realize that these are the only times he shares things like this with me. Otherwise, it’s all business talk and advice on marketing.

I don’t really remember the details of any of those stories other than they all involve Toby having a sense of failing to help someone when he could have, and while he never makes it explicit, I get the impression that he’s giving me the money to make himself feel better about what he considers a failing.

So this morning, as I remember how terribly grateful I am for the AC up here because it’s another scorcher of an April day, I get started on updating Toby’s calendar based on toks, various texts he’s sent me on priorities, so-mes and my own refined sense of how he does things and what order he prefers to deal with them. But I know that I’m not going to make it that far, because in about fifteen minutes, I’m probably going to be getting the latest Toby Tale of Failure and, sure enough, he comes out of the other side of the condo exactly fifteen minutes later like clockwork, returns the plate to the kitchen, asks me what’s next on his agenda — vid con with New York in twenty minutes to recap last night’s deal — and then casually leans on the wall next to my desk and starts telling his story, almost as if he’s delivering a monologue to no one.

I’ll spare you the details because I also don’t feel comfortable sharing Mr. Arnott’s personal 411s, but I will say that it involved a very late-night celebratory run for ice cream that had an unfortunate ending for an individual not my boss — and not his fault — but which still apparently left him feeling very, very guilty for not having done the right thing.

It’s moments like this that I really wonder whether he isn’t a saint who just went into the wrong business. I mean, if I felt one half as guilty about shit (in this case, literal) on the day-to-day as he does about these minor things that inspire him to basically gift huge sums of money to his personal assistant, I wouldn’t make it through a week.

It’s weird, really. I mean, I’m just a starving wannabe actor who lucks out with this gig at the right time. Since I’d arrived in L.A. five years ago, I’d been living in this funky sort of art commune in Koreatown. It was an ancient two-story 1920s brick and stone office building that some crazy-rich woman bought and converted into a weird hybrid of hostel and studio. Her name was Wei-Tso Yung. Although she had adopted the American name of Alice, everyone called her Madam Wei.

She had apparently been a big deal in Peking Opera back in China up until the 1980s, but then the form had started to fall out of favor for a lot of reasons. She had tried to explain it to me once, and the best I could gather is that the language it was performed in had become archaic and modern audiences didn’t understand it. Think Shakespeare to American ears, only times ten. The storylines also pre-dated Maoist China, which became problematic.

When the whole thing was modernized, especially with creative duties moving away from the performers and to the writers and directors, she rebelled, which didn’t go over well with the government. While on a concert tour to Singapore, she sought asylum, and eventually wound up in America, where she taught singing and movement successfully for a number of years, along with performing with a touring Peking Opera Company in America that followed the traditional ways — if you had to translate it anyway, the archaic language didn’t matter. She had also invested in various franchised businesses which had turned out well for her, mostly nail salons, liquor stores that made most of their money selling lottery tickets, and photographers specializing in actors’ headshots.

And so, when it came time to settle down to do what she really wanted, Madam Wei decided that it was to use her wealth to help creative people. And why not? By her calculations, she could spend twenty million a year, get nothing back, and make it to a hundred and twenty without going broke…