Momentous Monday: Curtain Down

Although my days on stage are probably over, I can’t believe how formative they’ve been. I will miss them.

It has now been approximately one year and seven and a half months since the last time I set foot on stage to do an improv show and, at this point, I think I really have to resolve myself to the fact that I will never perform in front of a live audience again.

It’s sad, but it’s reality. The first big block happened when COVID shut down the theaters, including the improv theater I’d been performing at. We sort of went on hiatus, with most of the four companies still doing Zoom shows or meeting regularly that way, but then at some point the parent company basically dissolved everything else, so that the Sunday Team, College League, and Rec League were officially disbanded.

I’m not even sure at this point if the Main Company still exists or not. By a fluke of timing, the company had decided to give up their too expensive lease on their old space effective on April 1st of that year — a decision made before COVID would have wound up sticking them in an arrangement they could not have afforded had they stayed.

Ever since that time, though, I’ve been meeting weekly with Rec League members via Zoom, and for a long time we would have a quick catch up, followed by an hour or two of various Zoomable improv games.

In the last few months, though, the group sizes and enthusiasm for doing games seems to have waned a lot, and it all seems to correspond to the second shut-down after that single week at the beginning of July when it looked like we were going back to normal but then the Delta Variant reared its ugly head, even threatening the fully vaccinated.

Also, our fearless leader, who used to also be the education director for the improv company and Rec League Coach, has taken on a new career as an audio book narrator and, since he can do that from anywhere with a home studio set-up and an internet connection, he’s leaving town and moving far away in January.

A lot of my friends seem to be moving out of California as well, although I don’t think it’s so much a knock on the state — which is wonderful — as it is the realization that they can suddenly do what they in a place that is a lot less expensive because they’re suddenly not tied down to a physical office location.

Hey, I’m considering it myself. I just have to decide whether I want to move in-state or out, whether I want to be closer to my mom’s family and make my ancestor’s journey in reverse, or whatever. I do think, though, that I would like to be some place more rustic, where I can have a nice house, a few acres of forest, and multiple large dogs, and where nature can recharge me.

One thing I’ve learned on my summer and winter camp trips in the last couple of years to Big Bear: When I go to a place like that, I sleep much more easily than I do in the city, wake up with the dawn, and find nothing more enjoyable than to wander off into the woods on my own as the sun is just rising and the morning mist is lifting, perhaps to encounter a stray deer who seems just as curious as me as I do about them.

Not that I’m not really into city living, either, but I could use a balance. Let’s say… 67/33 rural to city? But also 99/1 liberal to a-hole.

Yeah, hard balance to manage, I guess, until enough of us disperse and turn all the red places purple.

Back to the original thesis, though: Even if the improv company comes back and starts up its education department and the Rec League again, I’m still not sure that I’d go back, or be able to. The main reason there is that this having been sheltered in place for so long has reverted me to who I was before I found improv, and that’s not good.

When it comes to performing on stage, that has been a part of my life since forever, despite my being a total introvert. Well, once upon a time, until I figured out that I was an ambivert.

But from when I started doing elementary school plays all through drama and band in junior and high school and college, and then bands after college and theatre as an adult and improv way too late in life as an adult, the thing I realized was this.

Sure, I was an introvert in person, afraid to engage with people, except that I could be an ambivert when I was dealing with people I had already made friends with and trusted.

I only became an extrovert, though, when I had an instrument and music or a character to hide behind.

“Okay, so I get to put on this costume and play with these props and say these lines that aren’t mine? Cool. So I don’t give a flying fuck of what those people out there think, because they’re thinking it about my character not me.”

Or… “All right. So I’m standing behind these keyboards and playing notes and singing back-up and I’m half-naked because that’s just the band style right now, and we’re surrounded by screaming fans. Fuck it. They love us, and I’m having a religious experience with my bandmates anyway because, music. So I am invulnerable!”

And this is really why performing was such a big part of my life for such a long time. It was something I never expected that I’d get into and yet I should have figured out from the get-go that I would have. After all, I had my first music lesson when I was seven, and one of the first awesome “toys” my parents bought me was a rape-recorder with a microphone, so I started impersonating radio DJs and creating my own characters.

That, and lip-syncing to records in my bedroom, most of which were Broadway soundtracks. Yeah, that should have been my parents’ first big clue right there.

Although, after my career as a playwright and writer took off, if you’d asked me, “Are you also an actor?” I would have said “Oh, hell no.” And I would have been lying.

More honestly, I should have said, “Yes, but not a really good one,” and that’s certainly the case. I never did do leading roles, but I never wanted to. Why? Leads have to learn way too many lines and work far too hard. Much better to be the weird background business, and I kind of made it my specialty to play “weird background business.”

I’ve done way too many police officers and guards, random monks, a dozen ensemble roles in one piece, Jesus-y stand-ins, depressed bears, other animals in general, a raft of “Christmas Carol” characters culminating in the Ghost of Christmas Future (i.e. The Grim Reaper), and roles on and off stage in far too many musicals.

So how I could have not really considered myself both an actor and a playwright this entire time is kind of beyond me. However, there’s one big note. Until I started learning improv, which wasn’t all that long ago, I never applied my acting skills to real life.

There was me on stage — Extrovert. And me IRL — Introvert. And never the twain shall meet.

Or did they?

Actually, after I got into improv was when my introvert personality began to slip way IRL, and I became so much more of an extrovert that it was ridiculous. Why? Most likely because that’s when and how I learned to play myself as a character — maybe. Or, barring that, it was when I learned how to apply the insulation of a stage persona IRL.

And it all got better after that.

But, sadly, as I said, I have to believe that those days are over now. I have no idea what’s coming next, only that this plague has changed us. Maybe I’ll take to the stage again some day — but it may be far away and in a very different context. Wish me l….

Nope, sorry. Tell me to “break a leg.” Thanks!

Friday Free-for-All #69: Phobia, city, actor, trend

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.

What would be the worst thing to have a phobia of?

This question reminds me of a quote attributed to Morgan Freeman, although he never said it. “I hate the word ‘homophobia.’ It‘s not a phobia. You are not scared. You’re an asshole.” It came from a now suspended Twitter account called Tweets from god that used a picture of Freeman from the movie Bruce Almighty, where Freeman played god.

Now, granted, it has a lot more impact if you hear it in his voice.

So, by definition, I’m not going to include things that are called phobias, like homophobia or transphobia, because they do not come from fear, but rather from ignorance and hatred. Oh, they are very bad feelings to have, to be sure, but I doubt that anyone seriously starts quaking in fear on sight of member of the LGBTQ+ community.

If they did, we wouldn’t have any hate crimes because the would-be attackers would be running away.

So, if we get into true phobias, which do induce panic and anxiety if not outright terror, there’s a very long list of them. Probably the worst and most debilitating one to have, though, would be anthropophobia, which is a fear of all other people, regardless of the circumstances under which you run into them.

This includes not just random strangers, but rather everyone — friends and family included. It sounds like a perfect diagnosis for Emily Dickinson, actually. She could write you a mean poem, but would prefer to never see you in person.

It’s far different from and far worse than social phobia, which was reclassified as social anxiety disorder anyway. At least with these two, you can go outside and conduct routine business without going into a total panic attack. But if you have anthropophobia, then you should probably live alone in an isolated shack on a remote, unpopulated island, and hope that you don’t also have cynophobia.

What city would you most like to live in?

The main consideration is somewhere that’s not going to be burnt out in a heatwave, flooded by rising tides, or have more than a handful of Trump 2024 campaign signs within the county limits, with four of those preferably all being on the same property.

Then there’s the affordability issue, because this question has both “money is no object” and “you have to be able to afford it” versions.

Without regard to affordability, I’d probably opt for the Bay Area, preferably a place from which San Francisco would be easily accessible at any time, but in more of a flat, suburban layout — I’d rather have a modest house on a big lot with a pool and privacy than an in-city Victorian with multiple floors, big rooms and windows, and no yard space.

So it would definitely be either to the east or south of the City, although swimming pools don’t seem to be that common up there. San José is also an interesting option. It reminds me a lot of L.A. and the San Fernando Valley, and isn’t that far from San Francisco, either.

If we want to go realistic, then I’d have to take my California income to somewhere where it would buy me that house and yard — but since I work from home, my location is a little less important. The trick, of course, is finding a place.

I wouldn’t want to be anywhere prone to tornadoes, so that leaves out a big chunk in the middle of the country. And while I love thunderstorms and the like, those places also come with ridiculous heat and humidity in the summer. I can handle Palm Springs, even if it did get up to Death Valley temps, because there’s no water in the air and it’s easy to sweat and cool down.

But I’ve been in much cooler yet more humid weather in Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York and… no thank you. a dry 110°F (43.3°C) summer day in Los Angeles is far more pleasant than a humid 95°F (35°C) summer day in Pennsylvania any day.

Okay, we can get a touch muggy in L.A. because we’re near the ocean — but the canyons between the L.A. Basin in the south and the San Fernando Valley in the north keep a nice airflow going that also helps dry the atmosphere out and, even on the hottest of days, we often get fog up along the ridgeline that is Mulholland drive, where the trip up from one side turns into the trip down into the other.

And, honestly, if the affordability thing were not an issue, I’d probably stay in L.A. and buy the house here.

If you were an actor, what kind of roles do you think you would be good at?

There’s no “if” on this one, and I know what kind of roles I’m good at. For one thing, I have an affinity and knack for playing non-human characters — a depressed bear, a Jesus figure with supernatural powers, the Grim Reaper, a zombie Pope… those are a few of my favorites that I’ve actually done.

And yes, while a couple of those were in human form, I consider their powers as putting them into an entirely different category.

When it comes to humans, I’ve discovered an ability to play ones that are awkward and easily intimidated, or who are only brave when the danger has passed. For example, I once played a friar who kept his mouth shut until after the threatening knights had left the building, and then he went off in a fiery and threatening monologue solely for the benefit of his fellow monks and the women hanging around in the cathedral.

I did this a lot in improv, too, choosing to play a so-called “low-status” character because it’s fun to be the butt-monkey in a scene. Yes, that’s a real term, although you can use “chew-toy” if you prefer.

I also love ensemble roles, because it affords a chance to work closely with fellow actors and create the background and mood that supports the leads. Hey — I’ve got no problems at all using my concentration to put focus on the most important speaker on the stage at any given moment, and it’s also a lot of fun.

Of course, I have had my time playing the villain, and in those cases I find that going 180° from who I really am is the key — big, loud, brash, and bigoted. Although, if you want to learn how to play a villain the best, go no further than studying Alan Rickman’s performance as Hans Gruber in Die Hard.

All of the best villains have two traits in common: 1) They’re the hero in their own story, period. 2) They do not show their villainy by being threatening or loud or over the top. The scariest villains smile and whisper.

What trend are you tired of?

I’m not sure whether I’m more tired of the endless parade of super-hero movies of of social media influencers. However, as Marvel starts their 4th wave, it sounds like they might be getting tired of the super-hero thing as well, and might be taking the characters but putting them in different genres.

Ironically, as a kid I was into DC but not Marvel. As an adult, I can tolerate the occasional Marvel film, but have found nothing to like in any DC movies except for both Deadpool films but, then again, he was the super-hero who could say “fuck.”

If only they could do a Deadpool/Star Lord crossover…

Now, Wandavision was good, although I could not get past the first half of the first episode of Falcon and the Winter Soldier. I haven’t ventured into Loki yet, but I probably will once all of the episodes are up.

As for the influencers, I do have to admit that there are a few TikTokkers I’ve wound up finding via Instagram and I do follow if only because I find them amusing. But, at the same time, they generally don’t seem to be trying to sell me anything, and are often genuinely funny and entertaining.

Oh, they’re probably marketing stuff out their asses and it’s just that I’m nowhere near their likely target demographic of teens. But that’s okay.

I think that the bunch which infiltrated my feed are all kind of related, and as far as I can tell, they’re based in Orange County, California. They may or may not collectively be called The Squad. But some of the names are The Stokes Twins (Alan and Alex), Brent Rivera, Ben Azelert, and Jeremy Hutchins.

Generally, they all alternate between short comedy routines, well-choreographed TikTok dances, lip-synced dialogue moments, and pranking each other. Speaking of which, I remember reading that the Stokes Twins were arrested sometime last year in Orange County for pulling a prank involve a fake bank-robbery escape through a crowded outdoor public mall, although that story vanished from the news, and they never mentioned it.

Maybe they’re actually as rich as their videos make them seem, and they just bought their way out of it.

Now, speaking of apparently rich as hell, there’s Danny Duncan, who somehow crept into my feed, and I’m very ambivalent about him. on the one hand he often comes across in his videos as very warm and genuine, and someone who truly cares about his friends and family.

On the other hand, he can quite often be a quite destructive little asshole doing his own private version of Jackass, Jr. Now, he’s almost a decade older than the squad, but I’ve watched him destroy his own Tesla intentionally, give one away to a fan in a contest, pull all kinds of stupid stunts in moving vehicles (including driving at ludicrous speeds in traffic), and destroy a door with his head.

I’m not sure exactly how he became rich and famous, either, despite trying to find the answers on-line. He sells a ridiculous amount of branded (and somewhat overpriced) merch with slogans like “Virginity Rocks,” “Fet’s Luck!” and “Big Dick Is Back,” and at at least one point in the past went on a multi-city tour with live shows that seemed to constantly sell out.

One of his other venues is Danny’s Cream Pies, which has long existed in Florida, with a restaurant made to look like a walk-up ice cream truck. His products are stupidly cheap ice cream and the like, and ridiculously expensive merch.

He opened a second store in Los Angeles earlier this month, on Fairfax near Canter’s Deli, with the same menu and prices, and during its opening weekend, the line to the door ran multiple blocks. Granted, it was stretched out by social distancing, but it was still of 70s blockbuster movie proportions.

And I’m still not sure how I feel about him. On the one hand, he’s obviously had huge success doing this, is generous with his fortune, and a generally accepting all around when it comes to age, physical ability, sexual orientation, and so on.

But he also still has that chaotic and destructive energy that often makes him just seem like a fourteen-year-old boy who can afford to destroy whatever he wants just because it’s fun.

The scary part, really, is that he has so many fans who don’t seem to have any issues with the negative parts even as they focus on the positives.

And that’s probably the biggest issue with influencers. Their influence is quite obvious and visible. Whatever entity is managing it behind the scenes is hidden.

Like I mentioned, some of them don’t even have any visible sponsors, although the branded clothing can be obvious. And a lot of them do giveaways like they’re McDonald’s or Coca-Cola. The Stokes Twins often have YouTube competitions with friends where they pay the winner $10,000, for example, and while they sell some of their own merch, they don’t seem to plug it all that often.

Still, every last one of these kids is clearly just the marketable front for someone who’s raking in the big bucks thanks to their online work. And remember what they say: If a huge company offers you something for free, beware, because what they’re really selling is you.

Influencers are just the far more subtle version of product placement and celebrity endorsements.

Sunday Nibble #56: Town and country

I really consider myself a city dweller through and through, and enjoy the liveliness and bustle and sheer scale of large urban areas. I was born in Los Angeles — East Hollywood, actually — and grew up in what I guess would be considered an exurb of the city rather than a suburb.

But the exurb I grew up in happened to be pretty well-developed even at the time. It was, however, about as far as you could get from Hollywood and Downtown L.A., seeing as how our city limits shared its western border with L.A. County proper. Cross that line and you’d wind up in Ventura County.

It was a major bedroom community for the rest of the city outside of the San Fernando Valley, though, and for most of my life growing up, my dad worked right next to Century City. In fact, his office building at 10000 Santa Monica Boulevard abutted the border between Beverly Hills and L.A.

They were on the Beverly Hills side, but my dad could walk a block and wind up in Century City, which was a development actually designed and built by the architectural firm he worked for.

It opened in the mid-60s, but really felt like the city of the future and definitely stood in for just that in a lot of TV and movies shot in the 60s and 70s.

Now, from when I was around about nine years old or so, my dad started taking me to the movies, either in Century City or Hollywood, and once I hit my teens, it was a big treat to catch the bus by my middle school once we were dismissed and ride it all the way down Ventura Boulevard to Hollywood and Highland to meet my dad and go see a movie.

To this day, Hollywood and Highland is the “landing point,” if you will, for public transit from the Valley into the City. It’s the first Metro Red Line Station on the other side of the hill — or the last one if you have a city POV.

At the time, it was about an hour and a half bus ride — actually, it still is — even though it could theoretically be about twenty minutes by car outside of rush hour. Then again, the old 83 bus didn’t take the freeway, and it made stops. But it got me there.

So dad and I would go to Grauman’s Chinese, or the Egyptian, or the El Capitan, or sometimes he’d drive me to another part of town, like Century City, and we’d see a movie together, and it was awesome.

It’s a big part of why I made the stupid decision to try to become a film director only to realize too late, in film school, that my talents weren’t geared toward directing, but rather writing. I would have been an English Major, Spanish or History minor otherwise, I suppose. Or any mix of the three.

But the combination of films we went to and all those trips on public transit through urban corridors also gave me a major interest in Science Fiction, and I whiled away a lot of those bus trips imagining that I was actually on some sort of futuristic monorail or, if I got really creative, that we were on an interstellar craft.

Yeah, I was a total nerd. Still am.

But… besides movie night with dad, there was one other thing in my childhood and teen years that I loved more than anything else, and it belies me being a city boy. That is, a couple of times a year, usually around Easter and Thanksgiving, and sometimes in the summer, mom and dad and I would travel up north about 350 miles to visit my dad’s mother and stepfather on their farm in Atascadero.

Oh, my parents and grandparents always called it The Apple Orchard, but it was a farm as far as I was concerned. But first some backstory.

My dad’s mother was actually born in Oklahoma but wound up in Kansas, where she met her husband, who worked for the railroad, which connected Topeka, Kansas, to Victorville, California. Important later.

She always lied about her birthplace, though, saying that she’d been born in Missouri and had traveled to Kansas when she was three with her family by covered wagon.

Cute story, but… I eventually found official documentation that told me she was born in Oklahoma, and by the time she was three, they had cars and shit, so she didn’t make any trip in a covered wagon.

What she did do that was amazing — and she never bragged about this — was manage to be a single parent raising two boys after her husband basically abandoned the family when the kids were 15 (my uncle) and 12 (my dad). And she was working as either a hotel maid or waitress at the time.

Oh yeah… the other little detail is that my uncle was born way sooner than nine months after my grandmother and grandfather got married, and he was born in… Victorville, which is also where they got married.

So what it seems like, since she was 18 and he was 19 at the time, is that grandpa knocked up grandma, it became a scandal back home, abortion was out of the question, so they fled west. Interestingly enough, though, all of grandpa’s immediate family followed, and they all wound up in Los Angeles.

Grandma’s family, not so much.

But back to the single mother raising two sons. Said sons went off to war and grandmother married her second husband, and from that point on seemed to realize the value of investing in real estate.

So I know that she variously owned homes in Burbank, then Pacoima, and then a house in Atascadero proper and then, ultimately, The Apple Orchard (cough — farm) further up in Atascadero, which was fourteen acres abutting a creek and with its own well.

The two of them built their own house on the property despite being in their 60s by that time, and the only thing they didn’t do on their own was dig the basement and pour the foundations.

Oh… one other thing to mention is that to me, Neva and her second husband Sam were always my grandparents, even though he was really my step granddad. Meanwhile, to my much older half siblings, who had known my biological grandfather, Sam was just “Sam.”

I never met my actual grandfather because he was a resident of the mental hospital in Camarillo for more than half his life and you had to be eighteen to visit. He died when I was thirteen.

But back to city boy/country boy… to me as a kid, The Apple Orchard was magic for a ton of reasons. First off, it was its own little enclave at the end of a long dirt road, with this simple house that was always brightly lit and smelt of the wood stove.

It had a basement with all of my grandpa’s audio equipment — and he was quite the audiophile — but also, there was a slope behind the house that led to the rest of the property. The first chunk was my grandfather’s iris garden — although “garden” really isn’t a big enough word for what he had going.

He was actually pretty well-known as an iris breeder and pioneer in creating new types, so this part of the place was basically a huge experiment in action.

At the bottom of the slope was the poultry pen, with ducks and chickens and roosters, and the Evil Fucking Goose. I call it the EFG because it would spread its wings and hiss at everyone, plus the bastard nipped me more than once. Best revenge was the Easter Dinner when that fucker was the greasy main course. No regrets.

Beyond here, though, there were several storage buildings full of amazing artifacts from my grandparents’ lives, and then just more wilderness.

Meanwhile… on the upper half across from the house, this was where the sheep and pigs lived, and I totally loved going over there to hang out with them. Pigs are very smart and affectionate and, actually, so are sheep.

Walk into a group of them and show some respect, and they’ll just smile and “Baaa” at you for days. Plus rubbing their wool with your hands is one of the best moisturizers ever. (Look it up, it’s called lanolin.)

On top of all that, a bunch of peacocks lived in the trees in front, and the neighbors in the house beyond that had horses, and yes, I spent plenty of time at their fence just talking to and petting those beautiful animals.

So combine all of that with waking up in the mornings to the smell of wood fire and bacon, then walking outside into frequently cool crisp air to just listen and realize that what you were hearing was almost total silence, only broken by the occasional caterwaul of a peacock, baaa of a sheep, distant burbling of the creek, or wing snap of a flock of birds taking flight, and it was another kind of paradise.

Oddly enough, this world fed into my Science Fiction thing as well, so that in addition to one of my themes in writing it being, “Wow, what great things can we bring in the future?” another one is always, “Okay, so what if we fuck it up and have to go back to living in simpler times?”

Of course, in my modern life, since I’ve finally landed a position that is 100% remote work and which may only necessitate occasional travel, I really might be able to live anywhere I want to. The only drawback is that it would be more of an effort to visit IRL friends I care about but, then again, there’s always Zoom, and if I move to some place more like my grandparents’ farm, then I may become the incentive to be the one visited instead of having to do it the other way around.

Who knows? The decade is young and the plague isn’t over, but anything can happen. And, as far as I’m concerned, I’m happy with either city or country. All I need to bring along are my brain and my senses.

Well, and the computer and internet, too.

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