Saturday Morning Post #86: The Freedom of Disguise (Part 3)

In this short story, we visit the world of small theatre in L.A. and one producer/director secretly using the artform to help his actors improve themselves.

Here is the next short story from my collection called 24 Exposures, which I wrote over 20 years ago, the first of three installments. This one is set in the world of small theatre in Los Angeles, something with which I’m very familiar as audience member, writer, techie, and performer. This story focuses on the Gloria O’Ferral Theatre Company in Hollywood, and its owner, Bill, who believes in creating his characters in order for his actors to have huge breakthroughs and learn about themselves. His latest effort involves Max and PJ.

Fifty minutes later, Bill crept back into the theatre, careful not to make any tell-tale noises. He snuck up to the darkened booth and edged to the glass. He looked down at the stage and smiled. He’d gotten the acting breakthrough he’d hoped for.

Max and PJ were on the bed, shirts off, PJ on top, making out like a couple of horny teens. If he could get that onstage, everything would work out. Max started pulling PJ’s pants off and PJ made no objection, but Bill knew they’d had enough rehearsal for today. He snuck back downstairs, opened the front door quietly, then slammed it, making sure it was quite audible. He turned on the lobby lights and dawdled, counting to fifty before he entered the theatre.

Max and PJ were sitting, keeping their distance on the stage, shirts on, although PJ’s was inside-out.

“Hi guys,” he called out. “How did it go?”

“I think I get the scene now,” PJ explained, Max covering a laugh and a glance.

“You two want to try it once, then?” Bill asked as he took his seat in the front row.

“Sure,” PJ replied, moving to the bed, Max joining him.

“Okay. And, lights are off, anticipatory laughter from the audience, cue the maid, she turns the lights on — go.”

Max and PJ looked at each other, startled. Significant comedy pause… and then they vacuum-locked their faces together, PJ wrapping a leg around Max, Max dragging PJ in with both hands and the moment was beautiful. It really would bring the house down, the big revelation when everything else made sense.

The boys finally broke and looked at Bill, who applauded. “Excellent,” he said. “We’ve got a winner on our hands.”

And indeed they did, at least for this third of the cast. All through the rest of rehearsal, PJ was flying, nailing everything, not holding back at all. Bill had broken the wall, freed his talent and he saw that it was very good.

One down, two to go…

* * *

The secret was always discovery, not revelation. With actors, it was like training lab rats. Never show them the cheese, let them wander the maze and think they figured it out themselves. Donna was great at figuring things out, but lousy at letting herself realize she had.

Then Bill saw her walk into a car. She was coming to rehearsal and happened to arrive at the same time as Vince, and they were both crossing the street, talking but not looking at each other, at least not openly. Since they were jaywalking, they had to go between parked cars and Vince lead the way, but Donna was paying no attention at all and — wham!

Right into the side of a big, brown American beast, rebounding, stopping. Bill heard her call out, “God, I am so stupid.” Vince hurried over to Donna, took her arm gently, probably asking if she was all right. He guided her between the cars to the sidewalk, looking very concerned. She kept nodding, looking for the hole to crawl into, but Vince’s concern was completely genuine.

They both spotted Bill, walked toward him.

“You didn’t see that, did you?” Donna asked him.

“See what?” Bill lied. “Hey, guys, you know what? Your director did a stupid thing tonight. Come on inside.”

They entered the theatre and Bill explained his faux pas. He had intended to work with Mark and Donna, but had called Vince instead. It was too late to fix that, and anyway all of Vince’s scenes were fine. But would Vince mind reading Mark’s part tonight, working with Donna?

And of course he wouldn’t, and so they did, Vince reading from the script as Donna played the scene — and played it with something much different than had ever appeared opposite Mark. That was, of course, the plan. Donna’s character was supposed to be madly in love with Mark’s but afraid to say it, until this moment in the play, when she confessed her love. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, Mark’s character was madly in love with her, et cetera, et cetera. Each of them was supposed to think they were talking about someone else.

Suddenly, it played beautifully. Donna was a little giddy and shy and hesitant, and so was Vince and the whole thing positively reeked of two people crazy about each other but unable to just say it. Artifice catapulted to reality, and Bill gave himself a mental pat on the back. This show was going to come together like none of the others ever had.

And by opening night, it did. He’d heard rumor among the company that Donna and Vince went out for coffee one night, then dinner and a movie soon thereafter. The grapevine reported that Vince finally admitted he was crazy about Donna but was still in the middle of getting a divorce, something he’d kept secret though, so he hadn’t dared say anything to her. But, as soon as it was final, would she…? And she would and they did, eventually, and on opening night, their acting soared.

So did PJ’s and Max’s. The curtain call got a standing ovation and the opening night party was rambunctious with the joy of success.

Except that Max was standing alone afterwards, PJ nowhere in sight. Bill walked over to him. “Good job, Max. But where’s your leading man?”

“He’s not mine,” Max explained, looking around. “There he is.” He pointed and Bill looked, seeing PJ talking to other cast members, his arm around a young man who wasn’t part of the company.

“He’s got a boyfriend already?” Bill asked, amazed.

“He’s had him for six months,” Max said. “He finally decided to let the big secret out.”

“And you?”

“You cast us on purpose, didn’t you?” Max answered.

“Okay, I confess,” Bill said. “I did. I thought…”

“No, I appreciate it, really. He’s a good kisser. He’s just taken, that’s all.”

Bill smiled, nodding. This play had been more of a success than he could have hoped for. He excused himself, started to walk away when Max continued. “And Vince and Donna. And Mark and Loretta. Funny how every time we do a show, some new couple gets together, isn’t it?”

Bill stopped, looked at Max, wondering if he’d figured it out yet. Maybe, but Bill wasn’t going to tip his hand. “Funny how theatre works that way, isn’t it?”

“Very funny,” Max answered, and Bill was sure his secret was safe. “So what’s next for us, Little Billy?”

“Oh, you’ll see,” Bill replied. “You’ll see.” He made a mental note. Max had mentioned once that he never thought he’d be able to do nudity onstage. That was an actor’s block that needed to be removed, one more step in Bill’s big mission. And removed, it would be.

All their blocks would be removed, eventually, and they would be better people for it. True love would be discovered and true talent revealed and Bill’s company would continue to be one, big happy family. That was the promise he’d made when he’d cashed that big check, the promise he’d continued to keep. It was the price he’d agreed to pay for his windfall, but it was a debt that constantly paid him back with happiness.

His fear had been removed, and he was going to do his best to do the same for others, for this big, wonderful company. His children, his stars.

Because stars were meant to shine, after all, and the show would go on.

Significant dramatic pause, and then Bill exited to his office, already working on his next play, hoping for another rousing success.

* * *

Theatre Thursday: So you want to be a playwright, part 2

This is the second part of a playwright’s advice to people who want to become playwrights. Part 1 appeared last Thursday.

The first part of this article appeared last Thursday, and it just got too long for one piece, so here’s the rest of my advice to beginning playwrights and other people crazy enough to want to be involved in a life in theatre.

Write every day, and then write some more

Write, write, write, a little bit or a lot every day. And don’t feel compelled to just dive into a full length and go. I didn’t. The best approach — and, oddly enough, most marketable — is the so-called 10-minute play, for which there are contests all the time, and I think that my first four or five produced works were all within that limit.

Working with plays of this length makes it a lot easier to write every day, but there’s another big advantage to the form.

It teaches you how to write perfectly formed scenes, because 10 to 20 minutes really is the ideal scene length for any play, although some may go as short as seven. If you can do a strong beginning, middle, and end in that length of time, then you can essentially write 9 to 12 short plays that chain together and advance the overall plot and, ta-da — full-length!

Side note: this formula is also the secret of writing for film or TV. If you want to do half-hour, for example, perfect writing the seven-minute scene. For one hour, aim for nine to thirteen minutes.

The best description I’ve ever read of a one act or short play is this: The playwright’s job is to bring a stick of dynamite on stage at the beginning and then somebody strikes a match at the end. And… scene.

This is exactly the approach I took to that full-length I mentioned after having written a bunch of 10-minute plays, and I think it’s why I ultimately wound up getting produced. Well, that and I copied the elevated linguistic style of late 19th century playwrights, since the play was set in 1865.

Character first, plot later

Also, in structuring your plays, do not focus on plot. Rather, focus on your characters. Define each one in terms of who they are, what they want on a day-to-day basis, who or what they would kill to actually have it, who they think they are, who the other characters think they are, and so on.

Toss all of these into the pot and stir, and then you’ll have your plot — because if you let your plot drive your characters, then you just get sitcom or soap opera, and that’s crap.

Jumping back to Shakespeare, Richard III is a great example of this. The story is not about what Richard does to become King of England. Rather, it’s about why he does it.

We enter the story through his insecurities and needs, and then follow his personality, which drives everything else he does, from having his own brother drowned in a barrel of wine to ordering his nephews be executed in the tower of London to accusing his brother’s widow of being a witch, and so on.

But every one of his vile acts comes out of his needs and wants because the only thing he must have is the Crown of England. It’s a singular focus, but it makes for a very strong character and powerful play.

Also, to Shakespeare’s credit, he actually created this arc and these needs for Richard over not one but three plays — Henry VI part 2 and  part 3, and Richard III.

If you’re really adventurous, check out what’s known as the Eight-play Henriad, which includes Richard II, Henry IV part 1, Henry IV part 2, Henry V, Henry VI part 1, and the aforementioned three plays.

And then… go read August Wilson’s Century Cycle, which actually covers a slightly longer time period — and much bigger changes — than Shakespeare’s Henriad. And yet… is still driven by the needs of the characters involved.

I’ve written a play, so now what?

Look for playwriting groups or classes in your area, then join one. The best ones will involve no drama besides what’s on the pages and will be safe spaces that nonetheless provide valid criticisms and suggestions on the work.

The best format is generally just a bunch of writers sitting in a circle and, at each meeting (usually weekly) everyone brings pages — usually 10 to 12 (there’s that short play advantage again), then assigns roles to the other playwrights and the piece is read and then discussed.

And don’t worry whether the other writers can act or not. Sometimes, as with watching bad plays, you can get a really good idea of whether your dialogue works when it’s read really badly. If what you’re trying to say comes through, then you’ve succeeded, so try not to bite through your arm during the reading.

The best of the writers’ workshops will also periodically hold fully readings of works that the teacher and writer think are developed enough, generally beginning with one class session dedicated to a read-through of the entire piece, often with invited actors, and then a public reading designed to elicit feedback.

I cannot stress the importance of all these things enough in developing new work. No one can create in a vacuum. Bonus points: Sometimes, you can get lucky in casting an actor, and their performance will actually inform how you rewrite and tweak the part. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me.

Okay, now I’ve finished the play. So now what?

Okay. You have that play or that stack of short plays, so what do you do with them? The best route, really, unless your aunt is a theatrical agent or your cousin is a producer, is to enter contests and/or if you’ve been involved with a small theatre company as part of the doing all the things part, see if they’re open to considering your works.

There’s a lot of material out there, especially at the larger theaters, and if you submit directly if they have an open policy, it can take years to get a response. I think I once heard back from a theater something like six years after I’d submitted, and by that time, although they mentioned the title when they rejected it, I didn’t even remember the play off the top of my head.

Most importantly, never give up. My personal record for length of time between developing a play and seeing it produced was about twenty years — and that was actually the second full-length I’d ever written, which I started on the heels of the first one, which was produced within a year or two of me finishing it.

It was also the strangest collaboration ever, because I was essentially working with a dead playwright — myself from twenty years earlier — and fixing mistakes I’d made at the time. Ultimately, the whole thing turned out amazing.

Someday, I’m actually going to go back and try to figure out how much of the original “final” draft I threw out and how much was totally new.

Image: Moliere, by Mcleclat, (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday Morning Post #85: The Freedom of Disguise (Part 2)

In this short story, we visit the world of small theatre in L.A. and one producer/director secretly using the artform to help his actors improve themselves.

Here is the next short story from my collection called 24 Exposures, which I wrote over 20 years ago, the first of three installments. This one is set in the world of small theatre in Los Angeles, something with which I’m very familiar as audience member, writer, techie, and performer. In the first installment last week, we met Bill O’Ferral, owner of the Gloria O’Ferral Theatre in Hollywood, having just opened another successful original play and starting work on his next — but he has ulterior motives, as he believes in creating his characters in order for his actors to have huge breakthroughs and learn about themselves.

The first read-through had been hilarious, with Andy and the actors constantly cracking up. Only a few minor rewrites required, then they were good to go.

PJ was waiting for Bill afterwards, when everyone else had gone.

“Hey, PJ, what can I do for you?” Bill asked, ushering the actor up to his office.

“I like the play, a lot,” he said when they were upstairs. “How are you going to stage the… some of the stuff?”

“You’re worried about kissing Max, aren’t you?”

“Well… a little.”

“Let me tell you my theory of comedy. The more intensely real the actors play it, the funnier it is. The magic word is ‘commitment.’”

“Yeah, but all three times?”

“My other theory of comedy. First time, warning. Second time, reminder. Third time, brings the house down. Fourth time, never.”

“Okay, but… why do they kiss, anyway?”

“Because… your character thinks he’s in the room with Stella, and the other guy thinks he’s with Elaine. This is it, they’re finally alone, or they think they are, with the woman of their dreams, wham. It ain’t gonna be a peck on the cheek. And then the maid walks in and turns the lights on. Boom. Funny.”

“Okay, but the second time — “

“You think you’re with Elaine now, and he thinks he’s with Stella. Only this time, both guys are much hornier, because now they think they’re finally with the women of their dreams, et cetera, et cetera, funnier.”

“Right. So why — “

“And the third time is kind of the point of the play, when the lights come on and the two guys see each other, significant comedy pause… and realize they’re the man of each other’s dreams. Set up, topper, reversal, house down.” God, Bill thought, I sound like some alta cocker ex-Vaudevillian. “Look, it’ll be a riot, people will remember you. You want to get noticed as an actor, this is the perfect part.”

“Okay. But it’s comedy, I’m more of a dramatic actor.”

“Weren’t you the one who told me you wanted to try doing comedy?”

“I… yeah. But I thought more like, you know. Verbal, like Neil Simon, wordy, witty… Comedy. Not farce.”

“Farce is the ultimate extension of comedy. Much more difficult to pull off. If you can do farce, you can do anything.”

“Really?”

“Think about it. How many Oscars does Tom Hanks have? Do you remember ‘Bosom Budd…’ No, of course you don’t. Well, it was a farce, and that’s where he started. And he was wearing a dress.”

“Tom Hanks?”

“Yes.”

“But he didn’t kiss anybody, did he?”

“I don’t remember, but probably. Because it was a farce.”

“They’d never let men kiss on TV.”

“Not in a drama, no, because a drama is all real and serious and scary. But comedy, you can get away with a lot more.”

“Oh.”

“Anyway, don’t worry about it. I’m not even going to get to that in rehearsal for at least three weeks. Maybe four.”

“Okay. Can I think about it?”

“You will anyway. But in four weeks, I think you’ll be ready.”

PJ nodded and left the office. Bill hoped this wouldn’t be a problem. Maybe hearing an audience laugh and knowing he did it would loosen him up eventually.

Bill also wished he could convince him to stop going by PJ and use his full first name, Peter. The initials sounded like a kiddie actor or a porn goddess. Of course, that meant he would absolutely have to change his last name. Or maybe not. Memorability was a plus.

Still. His last name was Packer.

His parents were either incredibly naive or terribly twisted.

His middle name was Johnson.

Twisted.

* * *

Donna was bumping into the furniture again.

Normally, this would have been a problem. However, Bill had written exactly this awkwardness into the part and it was working like a charm. Funny how she didn’t start doing it until Vince was at the same rehearsals. Yes, Donna was doing a scene with Max, Vince wasn’t even on the stage, but Bill knew exactly why she had turned into a fumfering schoolgirl. He made no comments about it during rehearsal, even though he could see that it was annoying the hell out of Max — but that was part of the idea, too. Max was a nice guy, but the part he was playing needed to have the limits of his patience tested. That’s what Bill was seeing on the kid’s face right now and it was perfect.

“I am such a clumsy, big-footed ox,” Donna whined to him afterwards. “I’m sorry, I was lousy up there today.”

“No you weren’t,” Bill said. “You mean you weren’t acting all that stumbling around?”

“No — “

“Well, you fooled me. That’s exactly what the scene needs to work.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Of course Stella is awkward, she’s madly in love with this guy, but she can’t tell him. You see?”

“Oh…”

And Donna smiled, sort of, a rarity, and went on her way. Bill saw Max sitting in the front row, looking at his script, sulking. He walked over to him.

“Hey, Max, nice job up there.”

“Wasn’t easy. She was — “

“All over the place, I know, I told her to do that. And I need you to remember that anger, use it. That’s what makes the scene work.”

“Really? But it’s a comedy.”

“A lot of comedy is really very angry underneath. Remember, you think you’re madly in love with Elaine and you’re trying to go talk to her, and Stella won’t leave you alone. You’re too polite to tell her to go away, but you let just a little bit of your annoyance show. You’re like a teapot waiting to blow its whistle, except that it doesn’t happen until the next scene.”

“Ah…” Max nodded, conviction in his eyes. “Of course. Now it makes sense. Thanks.”

Bill gave him an encouraging smile, then went onstage to work with Vince and Loretta. Vince was staring off into the house. “She’s good,” Vince said.

“You mean Donna?”

“Yeah. I had no idea she was such a natural comic actress. I’m jealous.”

“Well, keep an eye on what she does. Study her, and you’ll learn a lot. Now, let’s get cracking, act one, scene four, Martin and Elaine, you each think the other one is madly in love with you, but you’ve both been misinformed, let’s take it from the top…”

And they ran through the scene, Bill noticing that neither one of them was quite crackling like they should. Loretta never had that problem with Mark onstage. Those two clicked. Of course, they’d been dating since the middle of rehearsal for their last show. Max and PJ had that chemistry onstage, too, more or less, with Max enthralled and PJ distracted, which would make the ending work perfectly. They hadn’t rehearsed any of Vince and Donna’s scenes yet, by design, nor had they gotten to the big moment between Max and PJ. But they were going to, soon, and that particular rehearsal would be crucial to making this whole thing work.

Max and PJ, right. Bill turned toward the house, where the two were sitting, different rows, not together. “Guys,” he called out, “This is going to take a while. Could you two go up to my office and run your lines?”

Max hopped to his feet while PJ dragged his stuff together and stood. Bill watched them leave, then turned his attention back to Vince and Elaine. An hour with them, then it was time for act two, scene five.

That was exactly why PJ was so broody tonight. The kid was still nervous. Bill had assured him many times, “It’s only acting. None of it is real, you’re just playing games up there.” PJ always nodded and agreed, but it hadn’t seemed to have sunk in yet. It had better, tonight, or Bill just might trash this whole project. No sense re-casting at this point. But, as a director, he had a lot of tricks left to use. That was always the secret — make the actor find it in him or herself for real, then remember it, use it, be it.

If PJ and Max could manage their big scene, the others would be easy. If they couldn’t…

But Bill pushed those thoughts from his mind as he worked with Vince and Loretta.

* * *

Act two, scene five. The kiss.

Max was sitting on the bed onstage, PJ on one of the chairs, as Bill explained his approach. They weren’t going to start right in on the scene. Instead, they were going to do some exercises. He had the two actors stand toe-to-toe and hold their arms out, placing their hands palm-to-palm. Max complied like a trooper, but PJ was being sarcastic, making jokes, trying to distract himself.

“Now,” Bill said, “Here’s the hard part. I want you two to look at each other, so the ends of your noses are touching, and stare right in each other’s eyes. And you’re going to stay that way until you can do it for three minutes straight without looking away or losing it. Ready?”

“You better not get snot on me,” PJ cracked.

“Ready…” Bill reminded.

PJ nodded, put his nose to Max’s, then scrunched it up and shook his head to make it an Eskimo kiss, stepping away and laughing.

“Sorry. Sorry…” he called out. “Okay. Here we go.”

They assumed the position again, but after about thirty seconds, PJ lost it once more, letting out a snorted laugh. He apologized again, got back into place, but it just wasn’t working. Bill paced, thinking. After about five tries he’d reached his limit. “All right, all right, let’s try something else.”

“What are we trying to do?” PJ asked. “I mean, if you tell me — “

“It’s called trust,” Bill answered. “You two have got to trust each other completely if this is going to work.”

“I trust him,” PJ insisted.

“Then kiss him,” Bill shot back.

PJ made a face, then planted a perfunctory peck on Max’s cheek.

“Excellent,” Bill dripped out with sarcasm. “When Max plays your grandmother, that’ll be perfect.”

“Can we just try the scene?” Max asked.

“Fine, let’s just try the scene,” Bill gave up. “Max, come here a second.”

He pulled Max aside, where PJ couldn’t hear them, whispered. “Do me a favor, help snap him out of this for me.”

“How?”

“One word. Tongue.”

“You want me to — “

“If you don’t mind.”

Max laughed, smiled. “Okay. As long as you admit it was your idea, because he’s going to freak out.”

“No problem.”

The actors took their places, kneeling on the bed, arms around each other. Bill sat in the front row, called out, “All right, the lights are off, lights off… maid enters, lights on. Go!”

Max and PJ looked at each other, startled. Significant comedy pause… and then nothing, and then Max took the initiative and flew into the kiss and two seconds later, PJ was jumping away, wiping his mouth.

“Hey, hey. Gross. Jesus, he fucking frenched me.”

“I know,” Bill called out. “I told him to, that’s what his character would do. And yours.”

“No one’s going to see that.”

“I can see it fine from here.”

“Can’t we do a stage kiss?”

“Not in a theatre this size, not if you want this to be the funniest moment in the show. Come on, you want the critics to call you a wimp, PJ?”

“Sorry,” Max whispered.

“Not your fault,” PJ replied.

“Okay, let’s try this one,” Bill stood. “No tongues, but do the kiss and I want you to imagine it’s a wrestling match. Both of you try to push each other off the bed. Got it? Take it again.”

They repeated the scene, but this time the kiss looked different, more real, sort of, the two of them locked together in combat. One of Max’s legs slipped off the bed, but he braced himself against the floor, pushed back. The two of them toppled the other way, sliding to the floor, Max on top. He pinned PJ’s arms, lips still together, but then PJ turned his head away.

“Okay, uncle, you win.”

Max sat up, staying on top of PJ, and turned to Bill.

“How was that?” he asked.

“Better,” Bill said.

“Dude,” PJ called out, “Up, up. You’re busting my nuts.”

Max climbed off and they both sat on the floor, looking at their director, who was looking contemplative.

“Well?” PJ asked.

Bill rattled his fingers on his script, other hand pressed to his lips as he thought about it. He couldn’t recast and change Max’s part to an actress, that would undo too many other threads in the piece. He couldn’t replace PJ. Anybody else would be all wrong for this role. But what to do? Finally, he stood up again, grabbing his briefcase.

“I think I might be the problem here,” he announced. “I’m making you both self-conscious, and that’s unfair of me. So, I’m leaving. But — you still have another hour of rehearsal scheduled, and here’s what I want you two to do. Give each other a backrub. Keep the clothes on, it’s just a stress thing. And while you’re doing it, the massagee is going to tell his life story and answer any questions the massager has.”

He walked to the door, Max and PJ silently nodding, watching him. Before he left, he turned back and said, “I’ll be back in exactly sixty minutes. And remember, it’s all about the show. The play’s the thing, and all that.”

He turned off the houselights as he left, then ran up to the booth and adjusted the lights, dimming them and bringing up the blue gels they still had hung. He waved good-bye to them from the booth, killed the work lights up there, then made sure they heard him exit out the front door, then went down the street for a late bite to eat. The rest was up to them.

* * *

Theatre Thursday: So you want to be a playwright, part 1

Here is a playwright’s advice to fledgling playwrights who want to know what they should do to get good at their craft.

Recently, an old friend forwarded some questions to me from the grown-up child of another friend of his. They recently graduated college and want to become a playwright, and they had four questions.

I answered those and started to include answers to an unasked fifth question that was soon longer than the other answers combined, at which point I realized that I should share this with everyone.

Of course, how I really wanted to respond to them was with a hearty Michael Scott, “No. No! No, dear god — No!” Why would anyone want to become a playwright now, when we don’t even know what the state of theatre will be in five years.

It’s entirely possible that only Broadway and the larger regional theaters survive. On the other hand, we could see a lot of small theater companies pop up to replace the ones we’ve lost and could end up with a huge needs for playwrights — as long as those playwrights don’t expect to make a living at it.

So my best advice would be go into real estate or become a plumber, and then let playwriting be the side gig that you enjoy doing.

But here is my advice, and this also applies anybody who wants to go into any aspect of theatre, like acting, any of the creative design, directing, producing, etc. Just substitute your discipline where applicable.

Curtain up…

Learn theatre history

Study western theatre from the Greeks to modern day, and theatrical traditions from other parts of the world. Japan has a particularly rich theatre history, as does China.

So does every other part of the world. African theatre came out of ancient rituals but — surprise! — that’s exactly where western theatre came from, too. Indigenous peoples in the Americas and Australia had their own forms of theatre, with Incan tradition being particularly rich.

Keep in mind, though, that theatre and traditional culture in all of those continents was muzzled and replaced with the European version once the invading colonizers arrived. In modern times, Latin American theatre is basically western theatre, as is the case with Canada and Australia.

Sometimes, an historical style can be the perfect way to stage a modern piece or ideal style in which to write a new one. For example, I saw a production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge that was staged as a Greek tragedy, and it worked. Blood was raining onto the stage by the time it was over.

The director and producers also wisely reduced the cast size since they were not working in the heyday of Broadway in the 1950s, when plays would frequently have fifty or more actors on stage. The incidental neighbors and passersby were cut and were not missed.

Also keep in mind that some country’s traditions do not tell their stories in chronological order, while in others, movement is just as important as dialogue. These can all become brushes in your palette and the hues you use in creating your own works.

Read plays

Read lots of them, from all eras and areas. Definitely read as many of Shakespeare’s works as you can. Books with is complete works are easy to find and not that expensive — there’s one sitting on my coffee table right now, and I think I have a couple more floating around.

A very important note: Don’t be afraid of the language. Pay attention to the psychology of his characters because he was a master at it. If you follow what the characters need, the language will become clear.

I once played your basic Shakespeare cop in a comedy, and even though the character only had a few lines and mostly served for physical comedy in other scenes, the Bard put enough bread crumbs in there that it gave me my entire character arc and needs — the dude was only interested in the money — and that gave me something to play.

This production also demonstrated how completely adaptable Shakespeare’s works are. The play was The Comedy of Errors and the director staged it in a very colorful 1980s sitcom world. I wound up playing my character as a traditional cop, but with a very heavy stage Irish accent, and had a huge scene-stealing moment in which I and three women in the cast suddenly started River-dancing before being chased off stage by one of the sets of brothers.

Yes, this is the one with not one but two sets of identical twins, separated at birth, and while the director cast two actors with a very strong resemblance as the older brothers, she cast as the younger siblings one black actor and one very white one but dressed them identically — and it worked because the world allowed the audience to just buy into the conceit.

Now, if Shakespeare’s language is a problem at first, watch some of the better film adaptations, because good actors and directors can put the message across — anything by Branagh or Zeffirelli, for example. Do try to avoid Olivier, though. While he’s acclaimed as an actor, I find his Shakespeare performances to be dull and bloodless. No pun intended.

Try to read plays from all the major theatrical eras — Greek tragedy and comedy, medieval Miracle and Mystery plays, Commedia dell’Arte (although those weren’t so much scripted as improvised from stock characters using loosely planned scenarios), and all the major playwrights around Shakespeare’s time, mainly the Bard, Moliere, and Calderón de la Barca or any of the Spanish playwrights working in that era.

Take a quick trip through the Restoration (both comedy and drama). You can find a list of 10 plays you should read here. Be sure to veer around that bit during the Enlightenment when not a lot original was being created but Shakespeare was being bastardized, and then pick it up with Wilde, Shaw, Ibsen, O’Neill, Williams, etc.

On certain playwrights, avoid the plays everyone knows and go for the obscure. For example, with Arthur Miller, skip The Crucible and take a look at the aforementioned A View from the Bridge or After the Fall. With Neil Simon, if you must… (sigh — his stuff comes from a place of such white privilege…) The Prisoner of Second Avenue does at least get a bit deeper into relatable problems.

Once you get past those (i.e. the end of the American Classical phase in the 1950s), look for playwrights who speak to you.

Next up, pick the playwrights you like, and steal their style. There’s no shame in this as a beginning playwright — as long as you’re not stealing their plots, of course. I remember modeling my first attempted (never finished) full-length on the general moods and character types of Tennessee Williams, and to this day, my works are still mostly influenced by Williams, Wilde, Joe Orton, and Tom Stoppard, along with various film directors — for stage, mostly Nicolas Roeg, because I picked up his knack for telling stories out of chronological order, instead telling them in what I call “emotional order.”

Read more than just plays

I’ve always been interested in history and so read a lot about the subject and historical figures, and with only two exceptions, every one of my full-length plays has been based on historical events or real people — although one of those exceptions was a black comedy set during the American Civil War, and the other was inspired by, although not based on, events in my father’s life.

Since history tends to repeat itself, always look at history from the perspective of how it relates to our times, and either mimics current events or provides a contrast. And look at history from other than the victor’s version. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a western written from the Natives’ point of view, at least not on stage — and the few western films that did look favorably at America’s indigenous population still had to have a white character taken into the tribe as the POV character.

Of course, you don’t have to stick with history. Reading about science can lead to important moments in time, as well as very interesting characters — Tycho Brahe certainly had an interesting life (and ridiculous moustache), for example.

Mythology can be a rich source of stories no matter where in the world it comes from. Greek and Roman theatre were pretty much steeped in their mythologies, and all of the MCU and DCEU superhero films are just modern western mythology, even if some of the characters are blatantly lifted from other western mythologies. Yes, I’m looking at you, Thor and Loki.

Even beyond this, just read about a subject that interests you. It can be computer gaming, skateboarding, scrapbooking, parkour, hiking, knitting, kayaking, camping — literally whatever. That’s because reading about these fields of interest can immerse you in those worlds and can suddenly give you ideas for settings and characters for plays.

If you know enough about a subject by reading up on it, you can then create an authentic world on stage and populate it with real, relatable people. For example, the world of knitting, which seems like the most innocent and innocuous hobby in the world, can be fraught with politics and controversy — and the most prominent knitters around today are not senior citizens, but 20-something women. Who knew?

Go to the theatre

Go see plays as much (and as safely) as you can. And while it’s always a nice treat to catch the latest touring musical or prestige play, you’ll learn more by seeing new works produced by small and mid-sized theaters (when they’re back in business again), because some of them will absolutely suck — and you’ll learn more sitting through one bad play than you will sitting through twenty Broadway hits.

Why? Because after a play that just misses the mark, it’s your turn to ask, “Why didn’t it work?” Was it the production and acting getting in the way, or was it the story itself?

If the former is the problem, that can give you great insight into how to actor- and director-proof your works without being obvious. If it’s the latter, then you get to be the dramaturg and fix the story in your head.

Not to mention that I have gotten more great ideas while watching bad plays — and ideas that had nothing to do with that play, but which might have been inspired by one element on the set or a particular character or costume — that bad theatre is perversely worth it in getting a creative education.

Do theatre

It’s always been my belief that anyone who wants to be involved in theatre as a writer (or actor, director, or designer) should do as many jobs as possible at least once. That includes helping to build and strike the sets, running sound or lights or both, directing a play, even if it’s a short one, and acting.

Yes — if you want to be a writer, you need to act in at least one production. It doesn’t have to be a major role. You just need to go through the process, including performing in front of an audience, in order to understand what you shouldn’t do to your actors.

For example, never write a costume change for a character who is onstage at the end of one scene and onstage at the beginning of the next unless you know that a designer can create a quick-change version. Otherwise, start the subsequent scene with some other character or business to give the actor time to change.

Or, if you’re writing for a smaller theater with a limited budget, try to keep it all confined to one set with as few operating doors as possible — did you know that working doors are one of the most expensive things you can install on a set? I didn’t find that out until I wrote a farce with eight of them.

Once again, I got rolling on a subject that just became too long for one post, so check back next Thursday for the second and final part of my advice. Thanks for reading!

Image: Moliere, by Mcleclat, (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday Morning Post #84: The Freedom of Disguise (Part 1)

In this short story, we visit the world of small theatre in L.A. and one producer/director secretly using the artform to help his actors improve themselves.

Here is the next short story from my collection called 24 Exposures, which I wrote over 20 years ago, the first of three installments. This one is set in the world of small theatre in Los Angeles, something with which I’m very familiar as audience member, writer, techie, and performer.

Opening night and the play was working like a charm. Near the end of the first act, Bill knew he had a success on his hands. He’d cast the leads perfectly, and their big emotional scene was dynamite onstage. They had achieved something beyond chemistry, and the entire audience was riveted in dead silence. That was always the measure of the success of a piece — the cough ‘n shuffle factor, Bill called it. Make an audience stop doing both of those things, and you knew you had them in the palm of your hand.

When the moment finally came, the big moment, when Mark and Loretta suddenly expressed their forbidden love and kissed for the first time, the audience gasped. In the world of Bill’s play, the priest and the nun had just crossed a line, broken taboos, connected… And Bill could see from his vantage point in the booth that these two weren’t just stage kissing. As the fade out on the first act came, Bill smiled to himself. Everything he’d just seen onstage was incredibly real.

As the play ended and the audience applauded the curtain-call, Bill left the booth and went down the dark, warm, narrow hallway, down the hollow-thudding stairs and opened the lobby doors. It was a small place but all his, one of hundreds of small theatres scattered all over Los Angeles. He’d been smart enough to pick a place near the great off-white way in Hollywood, along with all the other small theatres, near a subway station. It was named the Gloria O’Ferral Theatre, in honor of his mother. He wasn’t in this business for fame and riches.

The usher opened the theatre door behind him and the flood of houselights poured forth. The small audience snaked out, cigarettes deploying among the few who smoked as soon as they hit the sidewalk. Bill went back into the theatre where some of the cast were already wandering among the seats, ready to party. “Good show, everyone,” he called out. “Excellent work.”

“Author, author!” someone yelled back. It was Andy, the stage manager.

“What’s next, Little Billy?” That was PJ, one of the actors. Everyone called Bill “Little Billy” because he was six-foot-five.

“Oh, you’ll see,” he said with his best enigmatic grin. He did have a very specific part in mind for PJ, and thought he was ready to tackle it. Bill just hadn’t fine-tuned it all yet, so he didn’t want to tip his hand.

The party was as much of a success as the show, with everyone in a great mood. Somebody took over the sound system and kept an endless techno-beat going, and the company were dancing on the stage or schmoozing in the aisles. Bill looked around the room proudly. There were fifty people in the company, and he felt like they were all his children, even though he was only forty and, while most of them were in their twenties and thirties, there were a number of members older than Bill. Of course, the company felt like a family and quite a lot of them literally became family. They’d had eight marriages, all of them still together; half a dozen gay and two lesbian couples that had met here; and one very Bohemian ménage between two straight actors and a goth actress named Brigid. Yes, the place was incestuous, but in a good way.

Then Bill noticed Mark and Loretta, off in a corner together, his arm around her. It looked like the ninth marriage might be on the way. If not now, then definitely by the end of the run. It always amazed Bill how the veneer created by acting could make two people incredibly intimate insanely quickly. That was the truth highlighted by falsehood, the freedom of disguise. It was the secret of all great acting and all great art — revealing everything while appearing to conceal it.

He spotted PJ, sitting by himself on the edge of the stage, watching the dancers. He was an interesting kid, with a lot of raw talent, recently arrived from one of those flat, green midwestern states. But there was something holding him back so far, a certain timidity whenever parts got too intense, especially if they involved any degree of sexual tension. Bill had no idea what the wall was. Maybe it was just the insecurity of youth. But he was determined to crack it and make PJ a great actor.

Insecurity. That was the word for Donna. She was a walking neurosis machine, and she was off in her own corner, too. Bill didn’t even have to follow her eyeline to know that she was staring at Vince, resident young male romantic lead in the traditional mode. Donna was always staring at Vince when she wasn’t asking anybody she could buttonhole, “Do you think… does Vince like me?” It was as annoying as hell, but Bill knew better than to tell her the obvious because she’d crack like an egg. He’d seen the result once when Loretta had finally snapped at Donna.

“Why don’t you just fucking ask him instead of all of us?”

Donna fled the theatre in tears that time. She was a champion at fleeing in tears. Bill would have to write that into a play soon.

He really wanted to do something to help her, but he knew that telling Vince about her obsession would be risky. Then again, how could he not know about it? Everyone knew everything here. Or most everything. But Donna had reached the point in her delusion that she was saying things like, “He’s a Libra and I’m a Cancer. That’s a good match.”

But how would she ever know…?

Maybe that was the problem. People never wanted to know the answers to their most burning questions. Certainty would leave an unfillable vacuum behind, and fire can’t burn in a vacuum. Bill knew that every question answered always led to more, and those often led to interesting adventures, but that was a lesson he preferred not to force on people. Such things were always better discovered than revealed.

But Donna had spotted him and swooped, and now she was standing there, eyes darting to the floor when they weren’t staring at him with bothersome intensity. There was chit chat, mixed with random compliments, then the inevitable Vince question. “Do you think he’d go out with me?”

“Donna,” Bill gave her his most encouraging smile, “Why wouldn’t he? Have you asked him out?”

“Oh, he doesn’t know I exist.” She said more, she always did, but Bill wasn’t listening. He was already working on the next play in his head.

Bill’s eyes wandered and he saw PJ, who had been cornered by Natalie. She was talking and he was mostly listening, often gazing past her at the dance floor, at nothing in particular. But no, Bill knew, it was someone in particular. He could just never figure out whom. PJ was very sly about that — it was impossible to tell which company member had caught his eye, and he was as reluctant to approach as Donna.

Well, at least he didn’t talk about it. But Bill was going to figure it out. And he’d figure out a way to solve that acting problem, too.

But he had half of his next play cast already.

* * *

Gloria O’Ferral was Irish as far back as anyone knew. Her great-grandfather and his brother had arrived in the nineteenth century, via Ellis island. The name had originally been Farrelly, but underwent an immediate metamorphosis upon arrival.

Contrary to popular myth, though, the names were not changed by disinterested employees on Ellis island. Rather, the immigrants self-reported and, depending on circumstances, that could lead to big changes right there. Some were illiterate and couldn’t even spell their names, so you might wind up with Connelly, Conelly, Connelloy, Conley, Coneley, and so on in the same family.

Others wanted to sound less foreign, so a name like Schmidt might become Smith. Still others were proud of their heritage, and that was the case with Gloria’s ancestor, who proudly added the O’ prefix that his family did not have, then simplified the rest. Farrelly became O’Ferral.

Meanwhile, his brother couldn’t spell the name in Gaelic, where it had about four hundred letters, half of them “H,” so he just simplified it and scrawled it out the way he thought it was spelled in English, so he became a Fearl. Of course, they were both dead now…

As was Gloria O’Ferral. That had been thanks to a little sloppiness at the dialysis center she’d been going to, and their failure to completely purge the cleaning fluid out of a machine before jacking it into her. Ironically, she died half an hour before her pager went off announcing a kidney had been found. Bill, only child, widowed, orphaned, had finally been encouraged by his friends to pursue a lawsuit, and the payoff (after attorneys and taxes) had still been like winning the lottery.

He bought his dream, the theatre, and his other dream, a house, and still had enough left in the bank to live like a corporate executive on investment interest alone for the rest of his life. It had driven the dialysis center into bankruptcy, which was only the cherry on top of a sundae whose sweetness could never make up for the bitter dish in which it was served. But Bill could make up for it and would make up for it. His theatre was more than a hobby or a vanity project. It was a mission.

When his attorney had handed him the check and Bill counted the zeroes, an amazing thing happened. All of Bill’s fear and doubt vaporized. He didn’t have to do it anymore, didn’t have to justify himself to the world. He didn’t have to need or want, he didn’t have to kiss someone else’s ass. There was only one thing to do with that kind of windfall. Share it.

He invited his five closest friends to dinner a week after he got the payoff, and under their dessert plates, each of them found a check for two hundred thousand dollars. Two months later, he was showing off his new house and three months after that, was giving a tour of the theatre just before it opened. They were not a huge commercial success at first, but word of mouth started to spread, and eventually they were selling out. The location didn’t hurt, either. It became easy to get actors to join the company. Then again, it was always easy. Bill didn’t charge any dues, and the word “free” was thespian catnip.

And in two years, they had a thriving, happy company and the theatre critics only had to say “at the O’Ferral,” and everybody knew where that was.

Another show over, and Bill was spending his days writing the next one. That was how he liked to work. Concentrate on one project from beginning to end, then let it go after opening night and dive into the next one. He’d have a good first draft finished by the time this six-week run was over, or extend the run if he wasn’t ready yet. Then, he’d work it with the actors for two or three weeks, polish it up and start rehearsal. There would always be another play running during this process, but Bill left those to Andy to choose and direct, reserving only the right of casting approval for himself.

That was the key to it all for him — casting. He’d actually postponed plays if a particular actor wasn’t available. He was always very specific in his writing.

The next play was a romantic comedy. That was also in keeping with his pattern, since the previous play had been a tragedy. It was going to be something of a bedroom farce, involving three couples, lots of entrances and exits and missed cues and misunderstandings, with everything resolving itself at the end. Vince was a natural for the lead, and so was Donna. Anyway, Bill was always encouraging her to do comedy, and this was the perfect chance.

PJ had the doe-eyed innocence that made ribald situations even more amusing. Maybe Mark and Loretta would want to play the other couple. That just left one part open, the role that would be paired ultimately with PJ’s character. At the moment, Bill didn’t have a clue who to pick. He didn’t know enough about how this play would end, and that often dictated a character more than anything else.

He was still wondering about it a week later when they had a reading in the theatre of one of the plays Andy wanted to do. PJ was in the audience and Bill mentioned the role for him at intermission. PJ was excited about it, wondering who he’d be playing with. Bill told him he wasn’t sure yet, asked if PJ had anybody he wanted to work with.

“What about Brigid?” he asked.

“Hm…” Bill pretended to think about it, but Brigid was all wrong. A goth was already comic enough and he was doing farce, not satire. Besides, he was waiting until he could cast her as Lord Byron’s doomed sister, Augusta.

It was after the show, during the milling around time, that Bill noticed PJ off talking to Max. That’s when it hit him, and the play solved itself before his very eyes. Of course. If he matched up two actors as the third couple, then the comic implications multiplied. Suddenly, anybody could be suspect with anybody else. It was perfect. As he wove the knots in his mind, they all collided to form the tapestry with the answer. Yes. Start out with the male couple not knowing they’re gay, and using that complication to drive the other two couples together, apart and back together again.

He rushed out of the party and upstairs to his office, where he locked the door, turned on the coffee pot and started his frantic typing.

* * *

Saturday Morning Post #74: Hit On

In another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, two women go out to a bar to find the right men — although what they’re looking for is not what it seems. Keep in mind that all of these stories were set in 2000-01, when the internet was still in its infancy, long before any social media, even MySpace, were created.

“Well, this should be a piece of cake tonight,” Melinda said, checking her lipstick in the women’s room mirror.

“Yes, but a guy has to earn it first,” Stacey replied, plucking a stray hair from the front of her red dress. “I saw Kevin at the bar, by the way.”

In unison: “Loser.”

“How do I look?” Stacey asked, twirling for Melinda.

“Fabulous. Of course,” Melinda replied.

“Likewise.”

Stacey and Melinda gave each other thumbs up and knocked knuckles in encouragement. They did look fabulous, both of them, in skin-tight, low-cut, backless dresses that left just enough to the fervid imagination of the men outside that they’d want to make it reality in an instant. Melinda had dubbed the color “Fuck Me Scarlet,” although Stacey had said it might be more appropriate to call it “Fuck You Rhett.” Whatever color it was, put it with six-inch stilettos and blonde hair, and they’d be the center of attention outside. Which was the only problem, but they’d chosen this bar specifically for its layout. No use competing, after all.

“After you,” Melinda said. “I’ll give you three minutes to get to the back room, then I’m hitting the bar. Good luck.”

“Thanks,” Stacey said, then took a deep breath, stomach in and chest out (though she needed to do neither) and headed out the door. Melinda watched her go, thinking that the two of them had a really unfair advantage. But, why not? Men had so many other advantages in life, after all.

Melinda pretended to go over her make-up as women came and went from the restroom, all of them shooting her that look that said, “Bitch.” Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful, Melinda thought to herself. Hate me because no one else will look at you once I walk out that door.

And she was right. Three minutes later, she made her entrance, strutting out the door and to the bar, where the bartender, Dan, was already working on her drink, which he gave to her with a wink. “Haven’t seen Stacey tonight,” he said. “Is she here, too?”

“Of course,” Melinda said, leaving a generous tip. “We always hunt in a pack.”

Dan laughed and Melinda took her drink to an empty corner table and waited, watching the crowd watching her. She knew it wouldn’t take long — it never did — but the whole key was selectivity. No use grabbing the first man to approach her, was there?

The first one approached her in eight seconds and sat down before he said, “Is this seat taken?”

“That depends,” Melinda answered. Maybe he had potential. About in his mid-thirties, very tan with very blue eyes, and no wedding ring. Melinda made a mental note — that was a very expensive suit he was wearing. Suit and tie, in a bar. Not unusual with the after-work crowd, but on a Saturday night?

“So, what are you all dressed up for?” she asked.

“For a lovely woman like you,” he answered. Hm, Melinda thought. That was either completely sincere or absolute bullshit. She’d bet on the latter, but there was always a first time. She took a sip of her drink.

“Come on, what’s the real reason?” she prodded.

“Actually, I’m on my way home from work.”

“On a Saturday? Poor baby…” She gave him one of her encouraging smiles, noticed there was no wedding ring, but on his right hand, there was a hell of a nugget of gold.

“Aw, it goes with the business, sometimes,” he tossed out. Melinda considered taking the bait, then saw the Rolex peek out from his left sleeve as he took a swig from his beer.

“And what business is that?” She feigned interest.

“I’m a doctor.”

“In a suit?”

“Medical conference.”

“Aah.” Well, that changed the game. Maybe. Melinda had met plenty of doctors who were complete jerk-offs. She’d met a few who were nice guys. The question was, which one was this guy?

“What kind of medicine do you practice?” she asked, betting it was gynecology, or at least he’d make that lame joke, nothing she hadn’t heard before.

“I’m a pediatrician, actually,” he said. “But I specialize in juvenile oncology, which is — “

“Cancer. So, you treat kids with cancer, then?”

“Pretty much.”

“Successfully?”

“As successful as I can be in this field, I guess. I win some, I lose some…” He let it hang there, gave her a hopeful look.

“What was this conference all about?”

He hesitated, looking down, fishing for the answer. Finally, he said almost apologetically, “It was… they gave me an award, Children’s Center. Volunteer work, that kind of thing.”

“Wow,” Melinda said, putting her hand on his, hoping he wouldn’t take this the wrong way, thinking about his profession, all those kids. All that time. “Look, you seem like a really nice guy and everything, but — “ Whispered for emphasis, “I’m not alone.”

“With friends?”

“Boyfriend. And he’s kind of… big. And jealous. And I just saw him come out of the men’s room — “

The doctor jumped up quickly, almost dropping his beer, muttered a quick, “Sorry,” and skulked away like a whipped puppy. “Oh well,” she thought. He just wasn’t quite right. But now, she’d put the alarm out. Every guy who’d seen her shoot the doctor down and thought he could do better was now planning his move.

She waited, glanced toward the bar and saw Kevin. He was some dweeb Stacey had known for years, one of those friends who was always on the party invite list, even if he was kind of a dick. Neither Stacey nor Melinda saw anything in him. He was a skinny kid with kind of a goofy face and eyebrows that belonged on a dead Russian Premier. Anyway, they’d known him so long that neither of them ever thought of him in that way, although there’d been more than a few parties when he’d gotten drunk and maudlin and stayed long after everyone else and made inappropriate innuendoes that usually ended with him puking his guts up and then collapsing on the living room floor. Melinda had never seen him leave this place with anyone, but that didn’t seem to stop him. And he was looking her way, dammit. If he came over, she’d never get rid of him and he’d ruin everything.

She gave him a stern look. He just raised his beer to her and grinned, a gesture that always pushed his squirrelly cheeks up and made him squint. If anybody on the planet deserved a smackdown, it was him.

Whew. Some businessman took the stool next to Kevin’s, and the kid was drunk enough to turn his attention that way and go off into one of his whinging “I’m not a bad person” monologs.      The music switched to an old ELO song, amped up with a thudding techno beat underneath it, even though this place had no dance floor. That was another reason Melinda and Stacey had chosen it. Guys all seemed to think that one dance entitled them to monopolize the evening, but to refuse the request automatically labeled a woman as an aloof bitch, and then no one would approach. This way, elevated on her corner stool, Melinda was a queen to be approached, due homage to be paid.

And it was, another half dozen times, never long between attempts, but every guy was just wrong, for one reason or another. A salesman, just divorced. A plumber, widowed father of two whose mother-in-law had seized the children in an ugly custody battle. Some college kid who had obviously been egged on by his friends and who seemed in danger of wetting himself in nervousness the entire sixty seconds he was at the table. The older man who had tried to impress her with a few cheesy magic tricks, and actually did, more for his guts than his talent. The male model who was a knockout, but as dumb as a stick and, even though he had potential, he was too inherently sweet and stupid for Melinda to seriously consider. Although, everything about that face had been beyond perfect…

She checked her watch and wondered how Stacey was doing. The back room always drew the bolder crowd, the ones who would work an entire place before settling in for the kill. That was where the guys who regularly got lucky went. Melinda reminded herself that, next time, Stacey would get the bar. It was only fair, after all.

And then someone set a full glass down in front of her and sat. Melinda looked over at Kevin, who was watching. He winked and, although she couldn’t hear it, she knew he was making that girly little giggly sound he always did when he was being particularly naughty.

“I believe that’s a Midori margarita, no salt,” the man said.

“You’ve been talking to a friend of mine.” Melinda said, taking the glass.

“You know that guy?” the man asked.

“Oh, yeah. I mean, we’re just friends, nothing else.”

“He’s kind of…”

“A jerk? Most definitely. I hope he didn’t talk your ear off.”

“Oh, he did. But I hope it’ll have been worth it. My name’s George, by the way.” He held out his hand.

“Melinda,” she answered, shaking his hand. It was warm and dry, a very firm handshake and he looked her right in the eye.

“So, what’s a beautiful woman like you doing sitting here all alone?”

Well, again, that was either incredibly cheesy or utterly sincere, but there was something about this guy that made her think it was number seven on a list of his standard lines.

“I’m not alone right now, am I?” Melinda shot back, taking a slow sip from her glass, sensuously licking a stray drift of icy green off the edge before she put it back down.

“True,” George said, hands grasping what looked and smelled like a vodka martini. That was when Melinda noticed the wedding ring, paused to think about it.

“So, George, what do you do?”

“I’m an attorney,” he boasted. Melinda’s alarm bells went off, ringing “potential.”

“Ooh. What kind of attorney?”

“Bankruptcy, evictions, that kind of thing.”

She bit her lip. Maybe not. “I see,” she said, feigning interest. “So, you help people file bankruptcy, keep their homes, like that?”

“Actually,” he said, half smiling, “I work for the creditors’ side of things. More money on that end.”

“Aah,” Melinda said, and thinking to herself that creditor rhymes with predator, and this could be the guy. He wasn’t half bad-looking, either. She reached across the table, twiddled his wedding ring with her finger. “Do you handle divorces, too?”

George laughed, self-consciously held up his hand, took the ring off and put it in his pocket. “Oops,” he said. Melinda faked a laugh with him.

“You’re a naughty husband, aren’t you, George?” Melinda said, leaning forward, pursing her lips.

“It takes two to tango,” George answered. Before Melinda could demand what he meant by that, he added, “My wife isn’t exactly the paragon of faithfulness.”

“Paragon…” Melinda repeated. You didn’t hear that word very often in this kind of place. “You’ve caught her cheating on you?”

“Haven’t caught her, no, but a guy can tell.”

“How so?” She stared into his eyes, hanging onto his every word. This was getting very interesting.

“She’s completely lost interest in sex, for one thing,” George explained, drawing the word out. “And, I don’t know, I just get that vibe from her, that there’s someone else.”

“And what’s sauce for the goose — “

“Exactly.”

“How long have you been married?”

“Eight years.”

“Kids?”

“Three.”

Three kids, lovely wife, probably an expensive home, several cars, maid, nanny, gardener. She wondered if George was banging the nanny. Or the maid. Or both. He had that look about him — the look of a horny fucker who could get it when he wanted it, one way or another, and did. He telegraphed that life story on sight. Probably from a rich family, went to a good school, got everywhere on connections and landed in some cushy, high-paying job helping giant corporations squeeze money out of poor people. His wife had probably been the gorgeous sorority girl — probably still was — and he’d inevitably leave her somehow in a year or two or when the kids were in college, end up with some new trophy wife half his age who would get all the glory in his later years when he lucked into some high-profile political position, a wife who would get everything when he died prematurely of a stroke…

He was perfect.

Melinda took his left hand in both of hers, looked right into his eyes.

“George,” she said, “If your wife isn’t doing her job, she’s an idiot.”

“Tell me about it.”

She lifted his hand to her mouth, wrapped her lips around his index finger, eyes locked on his all the time. His lip curled as she gave head to his digit, then she pulled away, blew ever so gently on the gathered saliva, let his hands go and took a sip of her drink.

She took a quick glance past George, saw Stacey crossing the bar, shooting a look her way. She was with some wiry, nasty redneck looking young guy with a mullet and crappy moustache, whose muscles bulged out of his tank top, tattoos snaking down both arms. Stacey gave Melinda a little smile and nod, then turned to the guy she’d picked up, said something to him, gestured for him to wait outside, she’d be right back. He nodded and went out the door and Stacey hurried to the restroom.

Melinda looked at George. “We can go back to my place,” she said, breathlessly. He was halfway to his feet before she finished, holding out his hand for her to take. She stood, making sure to brush against him as she did so. They started for the door. When they were almost there, she stopped him, gave him a quick kiss. “Give me just a second, George,” she said. “I have to go to the little girl’s room.”

“Hurry back,” he said.

“Wait for me outside, I’ll be right there. Tiger.” She leered with her eyes, then hurried off to the restroom. George watched her swivel away, let out a low whistle, then went outside.

Stacey was washing her hands as Melinda came in and joined her.

“So?” she asked.

“Lawyer. Married. Asshole. You?”

“I’m not sure, but I think mine’s some kind of white supremacist.”

“So, who gets to do the honors?”

Stacey pulled a quarter out of her clutch and flipped it. Melinda called it in the air, “Heads.”

“Heads it is,” said Stacey. “Have fun.”

“Oh, I will,” Melinda said, starting for the door. “Meet you around back.”

Stacey nodded and Melinda left the restroom, heading for the door. She passed Kevin at the bar, swatted him on his bony little ass and whispered in his ear, “Thanks, goofball.”

He muttered something incoherently and trembled in another of those annoying giggles as Melinda headed for the door and stepped outside into the cold night air.

Both men were waiting for her as she emerged, and they both turned when she came out the door. George came and took her arm and the redneck jumped forward, blurted, “Hey!”

“What?” George demanded as he started to lead Melinda for the parking lot. The redneck grabbed George’s arm. “What the fuck you doing?”

George threw his arm off. “I think you’re making a mistake, buddy boy,” he said. “Get your hands off me.”

“Get your hands off her.”

“Sorry. I saw her first. Loser.”

The redneck threw the first punch, which George took rather well, only stumbling back half a step before he threw another one in return. As the fists and expletives started flying in earnest and a flashbulb went off somewhere, Melinda kept walking, unnoticed, around the side of the bar, got in the car that was waiting with the engine running, Stacey behind the wheel. She drove for the exit slowly, both of them watching the mayhem out front as the bouncers and half the patrons emerged to alternately cheer on and discourage the two men who were trying to take each other apart.

Stacey pulled out of the lot, turned left and drove. Melinda laughed and looked at her. “Score two more for our side,” she said.

“This really is too damn easy,” Stacey said.

And they drove off into the night, laughing and recounting each other’s pick-up attempts, promising that they’d do it again next week.

Damn, was it fun being identical twins.

Saturday Morning Post #70: How to Keep a Mistress Happy

In another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, This one, obviously, was born out of my great love of and affinity for dogs.

Alvin was in the doghouse again.

He couldn’t understand what had gone wrong this time. He’d tried everything he knew to make her happy, but nothing worked. The more he tried, the more she seemed to hate him. What else could he do? He had no idea right now, but he’d have to keep trying. He wanted to be liked again, that’s all. It was starting to rain.

He crept backwards as far as he could, curling up, trying to keep his face out of the falling water. He put his muzzle on his paws, infinite sadness in his eyes. He wanted to cry. Instead, he just whimpered a little, wondering. What did he do wrong? He’d thought he’d done everything right.

He closed his eyes and listened to the rain, now coming down steadily, thunking on the doghouse roof. He let out a pitiful whine. From somewhere, her voice yelled back, “Shut up.”

For three years, things had been great. Master was about the earliest thing Alvin remembered, and they had fallen in love on sight. Alvin’s first memory of Master was being lifted out of a cardboard box high into the air, seeing the rest of his litter scampering around below him, being held up to a human face. It was a nice face, big, and Alvin could smell food. He was too young to recognize exactly what the smell was, but there was something edible on the man’s breath, and Alvin licked his nose, tail wagging. That seemed to seal the deal, and then Alvin was sailing along, under the man’s arm, into the big box that made noise. It was a comforting noise, very deep, and the whole thing swayed and jiggled and Alvin felt very safe here and he fell asleep. He woke up as he was being set down in a big place, the cold floor stretching away past what his young eyes could focus on. There was food, there was water, and a hundred fascinating things to explore and smell and play with.

And Alvin grew, and learned the rules and hung by his master’s side when he was there and longed for him when he wasn’t. Alvin made sure their territory was safe from every intruder, except for the ones that Master welcomed. They were the ones who were friends, accepted into the pack’s space, and Alvin greeted them with an excited tail wag, although he’d quickly learned that the usual effort to jump up and wrestle was not accepted for some reason.

Alvin was a big boy by the time he was a year old. When he greeted Master, it was their custom for Alvin to stand on his back paws, and his face came up to Master’s chest. Master would lean down and make accepting noises and Alvin would lick his nose again and would recognize the sound he’d come to associate with happiness and status and everything’s fine in the world. “Good boy. Who’s a good boy?”

Alvin was number two dog, favorite of the pack leader, and he was in heaven. Sometimes, when other people came over, he’d find himself left outside or shut out of the bedroom. He couldn’t understand why, at first, and never knew when visitors came if it was going to be one of those nights. After a few times, he’d finally figured it out. The visitors who took Master away from Alvin all smelled… well, different than Master, but the same as each other. There’d be a strong aroma like the garden out back, but there was also another smell, one that was a little familiar to Alvin from the dog park, but also different. He didn’t have a name for it, but he came to know that this particular smell meant he’d be sleeping outside of his room that night.

The exact smell never quite repeated, though. It was a series of variations with one strong note beneath that only a dog could detect. A series of different visitors who never came back. Then there were the regulars, the ones Alvin had come to recognize from their scents and their voices. When they came over, Alvin was part of the pack. They fed him and played with him and let him hang out while they sat around looking at people running around beyond that strange window in the box in the den.

Then, one day, Alvin recognized the other scent again, a particular other scent that he’d smelled before. He didn’t even have to think it when this one hit his nose. This person had been here once and was back again. And then again, and then more often. And suddenly, sometimes, Master would go away at night and not come back. Alvin had learned to dread those evenings when Master came home from work and spent a long time changing that stuff he wore and came out of the little room covered in smells — dusty wood, sharp mint, something pungent and leafy, something else like pepper and vegetables. Those were the evenings when Alvin would sulk, lying on the bed with his saddest expression, hoping he’d get to go along, his tail wagging despite himself when Master came over to pet him and say the words Alvin had learned to hate to hear. “Take care of things, I’ll see you later.”

Sometimes, Alvin would follow Master to the door, begging with his eyes to go along, but it never worked. Alvin would go back upstairs, shoulders hunched and tail down, lie on the bed and let his sadness drag him to sleep — although he would always awake and lift his head up at the slightest promising noise, even though he knew Master would not return until it was light outside again.

He always smelled different when he came back, and Alvin noticed that it was always a hint of that familiar smell on him, that other scent, that particular scent. And the human who carried that scent started to come by more often and spend more time and Alvin realized the pack had grown. This was the only human with that particular scent who ever sat with Master in the den watching the strange window, and Alvin would lie at their feet, very happy to be with them.

Then, one day, he caught something else in that scent and he realized something he hadn’t known before about humans. This visitor was in heat. Master had never been in heat for as long as Alvin had known him. So that was what it was. Just to be sure, Alvin walked over to the visitor, put his nose between her legs and sniffed. Unmistakable. It was different than the dog heat smell in most ways, but there were telltale aromas that were only associated with that time of year. It was certainly an interesting and complicated smell, although there was nothing arousing about it to Alvin. He sniffed hard, just to make sure he was right.

“Alvin!”

Oh oh. He felt the visitor’s hands pushing his shoulders, then the yank on the collar from Master, the words he hated. “Bad dog. Bad dog. No.”

That evening, the visitor left instead of staying the night. Alvin hoped that this wasn’t his fault. He was only curious, nothing more. But the next time she came, Master put Alvin in the yard before he let her in the door. And the next time, and that became the pattern now, and Alvin came to dread hearing the familiar footsteps, catching that familiar scent from outside, hearing the doorbell.

She didn’t like him. He’d done something wrong, but he didn’t know what. He’d even given her a dog’s most friendly greeting, but she’d pushed him away. That was bad. That was terrible. Dogs rarely got along again after that sort of thing. Was it the same with these tall animals?

Alvin and Master were spending less time together. Master and her were spending more. Alvin found himself frequently sitting on the back porch, staring in through the window, seeing them there, so close and yet unreachable and it was his fault. If only he could make her like him again.

But how?

She obviously liked Master. She liked him a lot. Alvin watched them through the window. Maybe, if he was very, very good, he’d get a chance to make up with her. And then he’d make her like him, he really would, and everything would be fine and the three of them would be a pack and Alvin would be in heaven.

Alvin watched them through the windows, studying them, memorizing everything that Master did.

* * *

One evening, a long time after, Alvin heard the familiar sounds and caught that particular smell outside, and he sulked to the back door, waiting to be put outside. Only this time, for some reason, he wasn’t. Master opened the door and she came in. Alvin snapped to attention, his entire body wagging. This was his chance. Now was the time to use what he’d learned. He was very excited. Things could be the way they were before.

He ran over to her, practically bouncing, ears down to show her his proper status. And she reached down to pet him! She scratched his ears and said those words, “Good boy.” And Alvin knew how Master always said hello to her, how it made her so happy. He jumped up, put his paws on her shoulders and licked her mouth, tail wagging furiously.

“Alvin, goddammit.”

And he was outside again.

He didn’t understand. He’d shown humility, he’d given her a proper human greeting. What had he done wrong? He watched them again, trying to figure it out. They walked slowly through the living room, Master’s arm around her. He brought her to the dining room table, opened a box and handed her a bunch of flowers, like the ones along the front walk. And Alvin could tell that this made her very, very happy. They licked each other’s mouths and she didn’t get mad at Master. It didn’t bother her when he did it. Why not?

He watched as they kept licking and sniffing each other in the dining room, and then they started wrestling, pulling off those things that people always covered themselves with. Master won the wrestling match and she wound up on her back, throat exposed, kicking her hind legs as he held her down, but she really seemed to like this. Alvin could smell their happiness, even outside. They sniffed and licked each other everywhere, wrestled some more and then finally just lay down for a long time.

Alvin paced around the porch, circling, thinking. What was he missing here? What was it?

He was still wondering when Master let him in later. She was still here. Alvin could hear her. But he didn’t get a chance to try again, not tonight, and so he fell asleep staring at the closed bedroom door, and he had fitful dreams that made his legs twitch and his lip quiver in a noiseless bark and when he woke up again he was still very sad.

* * *

One day, later, Master took out the leash and said the magic phrase. “Want to go for a ride?” Alvin let out a happy yelp, started jumping up and down, running to the front door. They went outside and got in the big box and the world went past them, Alvin hanging his head into the wind, ecstatic, sniffing a thousand things and seeing dozens of people.

Then, as they started to move slower, he caught a hint of something familiar. He’d never seen this place before, but there was a trace of aroma. Her. They were near her. He’d have another chance. He welped in his happiness and Master laughed as they stopped moving and the rumble died down. Alvin couldn’t wait to get outside, he was practically pawing at the door as Master went around and opened it. Alvin bounded outside, ran to the nearest tall object and lifted his leg, leaving his mark so they could find their way back later. Then he ran up a walkway, toward a door, Master following.

The door opened and it was her. Alvin scampered over, twisting at the same time, head down and ears down, trying to look very small. He approached her and stood there as Master shouted, “Alvin, wait.” She leaned over and scratched Alvin’s ears. He was so happy. She liked him. He was about to jump up and lick her face when something stopped him, a twinge. That’s right. Bad dog. His tongue darted in and out of his mouth, but he kept it away from her and he must have done something right, because she said the words she’d only said once before. “Good boy.” His tail wagged furiously, wapping into Master’s leg as Master leaned forward and licked her face.

They went inside and it was a new place, with a hundred fascinating things to explore and smell and play with. Alvin ran from room to room, sniffing and looking, always coming back quickly to make sure Master was still there. And the place smelled a lot like Master, and like her and… and Alvin was inside. He was part of the pack.

He ran back to where she and Master were standing and watched as Master handed her something. She gave off that happy aura again as she opened the small box, pulled out a small bottle. She gave a little squeal and hugged Master very tight, kissing him. Alvin sniffed and caught a faint hint of that familiar gardeny smell. But where had it come from?

Alvin tried not to do anything, not until he knew what the right thing to do was. He lay down nearby while she and Master sat together, not approaching even though they were eating. Too risky, and he was in a strange place. He didn’t want to be left behind.

They were talking about him, looking his way. He heard his name, heard “Good.” He held his head up, wagged his tail. Master patted his leg and Alvin walked over, put his head in Master’s lap, got his ears scratched. And she reached over, scratched the white spot on his chest. Could it really be? Was it working, did she like him now?

Alvin moved away from them, rolled over on his back, tail wagging. Maybe she’d wrestle with him, and he’d let her win so she’d know he knew who was in charge. She and Master laughed and Alvin barked, then the two of them got up, carrying plates, left the room. Okay, that was odd. They didn’t want to play? Where were they going?

Alvin peeked into the kitchen, where she was standing at the counter, Master standing behind her, making noises in her ear. There was clanking, running water, then silence. She picked up the small bottle Master had given her before. He took it from her hand, and then sprayed her with it and the gardeny smell got very strong. Alvin could tell it made her happy.

Master squirted her with it again. It was an overpowering smell, a hundred different things mixed together. Gardens and cooking smell and… Alvin cocked his head to one side, took a deep whiff. Was it? His mind processed and he sniffed again. That was very strange, but yes, he was sure that’s what he smelled. Along with all the flowers and spices and other things, he definitely smelled cat pee. That’s what it was, all right. Cat pee? That was very strange.

Master sprayed her neck, then put the bottle down and stuck his face there, inhaling deeply. She laughed, turned her head, looked at Alvin, smiled. She smiled. She smiled at him. She wasn’t mad at him anymore. Alvin rushed over, circling next to them, wagging his tail. She held her hand down and he sniffed it. Cat pee. Flowers and cat pee and she was happy. She liked him now.

And it was Master’s cat pee. Of course.

Alvin gave a happy yip, turned, lifted his leg, and gave her some scent of his own and knew she would be happy and everything would be fine — and then there was yelling, Master swatted him very hard and he found himself in a strange yard again, kept apart and he couldn’t understand it. He just couldn’t understand it at all. Why hadn’t that made her happy?

They left him outside all night. The porch was covered and it was warm enough, but that wasn’t the point. He was outside, out of their territory. He’d been cut from the pack longer than he’d ever been before, and he couldn’t even see inside this place to know that they were still there. Alvin was miserable. Dawn came and he opened his eyes, but he knew it would still be a long time before Master came back. He had to make it up to them, had to say he was sorry somehow.

He wondered, “What would Master do?” Had she ever been mad at him? It didn’t seem like it. He’d realized his mistake, though. Cat pee. Not dog pee. Big difference.

Flowers.

She always had that flowery smell, except sometimes in the morning, and she was always very happy when Master gave them to her. Alvin sat up, looked around. He got up, walked into the yard and did his morning business against a tree, then sniffed. He caught the smell he was looking for, went around the house.

Flowers… There were a bunch of them here, and they always made her happy. How could this be wrong?

Alvin stuck his nose in the flowers, tail wagging, problem solved.

* * *
She screamed.

Alvin had never heard this noise before, and it startled him. Of course, he hadn’t expected her to open the door yet. He hadn’t finished arranging things. He looked up, long uprooted stalk in his mouth, wagged his tail. A clump of dirt shook from the stems and fell onto the porch next to the pile of flowers.

Master appeared behind her, looked down. His reaction was not what Alvin had expected, and he quickly found himself dragged outside and put in the big box, all alone, nothing to do and nowhere to go for a long time. All the way back home, Master didn’t talk to him, didn’t look at him, and when they got home, Alvin got pushed out into the backyard for most of the day, even though no one else was there.

So, it was back to being put outside every time he heard her sounds and caught that particular scent, and she didn’t even really look at him through the windows anymore, no matter how hard he tried to get her attention. She kept coming back and dawn kept getting further from nightfall and it kept getting colder outside until it was that time of year again when Alvin always grew a little fat and shaggy and his breath would fog the window, make it harder to see inside. It had been a long, long time since he’d even gotten near her. Almost forever.

Then, one night when she was there, very late, it started to rain and Master came downstairs and let Alvin into the dark house. Alvin couldn’t remember the last time he’d been inside with both of them. He wagged his tail, but moved very slowly, very carefully, not wanting to do anything wrong. He followed Master up to the bedroom, but the door closed before Alvin could go in. Still, he was inside. He lay down and watched the door, waiting.

He could hear sounds from inside, like they were baying at the moon, and a strange squeaking. Alvin sniffed, moving his nose toward the door. Yes, they were both in there. He sniffed again and then the unimaginable happened. The door quietly popped open. Alvin pushed it with his nose. It swung wider and he lurked inside, headed toward his bed and quietly got in. They hadn’t noticed him. They were too busy.

Alvin watched, his eyes adjusting to the dim light. She and Master were wrestling again, he thought. He could see both of them on the bed, moving around, but —

Alvin lifted his head, stared. No, this wasn’t wrestling. He knew this. Every dog knew this, whether they’d ever done it or not, it was just one of those things. She had her back to Master and he was behind her and they were mating and Alvin could tell both of them were extremely happy. Maybe, then, they wouldn’t be mad at him when they were done.

When they were done, Master got up and went into the small room, not noticing Alvin in his basket. Mistress — that’s who she was now, after all, those were the rules — also got up, went to the dresser, fiddling with something. Then she said, “Dammit,” which Alvin knew was a mad word, but she hadn’t said it at him. She hadn’t noticed him, either. Or had she? She must have, because all of a sudden she was kneeling on the floor, head down, moving her front paws around, sniffing the carpet.

Alvin had never noticed it before, but even though humans didn’t have tails, they had all the other parts that dogs did. And here she was, offering it to him and it had made her very happy with Master. This was it, this was the answer and everything was going to be wonderful again.

Alvin got out of his basket and went to her and now he was in the doghouse and it was pouring rain and everything made him very sad, there was nothing he could do anymore, nothing he could do right, nothing. He whimpered, then howled.

“Shut up,” her voice shrieked from the darkness.

But Alvin just kept howling, louder and louder, a mournful noise. He didn’t care anymore. If he couldn’t make her happy, then he’d make her mad. At least it was something, at least it got him noticed. But he’d have his revenge. After tonight, that was it. He was just going to ignore her, not even say hello. He wasn’t even going to look at them through the windows, and she’d know. She would know how mad he was at her and he would never be her friend.

Alvin stopped howling. Everything was solved, then, and he felt very relieved. He went to sleep a new dog, and even the sound of thunder didn’t disturb his slumber.

His dreams were even pleasant. It was a sunny day, and he and Master were playing in the park. Just the two of them and nobody else.

Wednesday Wonders: Kenneth Essex Edgeworth MC

Just over 141 years ago, an Irish astronomer, economist, and all-around jack of all trades you’ve never heard of known as Kenneth Essex Edgeworth was born.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking to the air

Recently, a new feature popped up on WordPress, which is what I’ve been using to publish this site. They’ve added the ability to generate podcasts directly from posts, and I decided to give it a try, with the first episode going up on June 30.

While it’s entirely possible to read and record everything myself, production of a single podcast is a bit more complicated than just writing and formatting an article, so I’ll be using their AI voices to help. Overall, the reading isn’t half bad, although they do still have a tendency to misread somethings.

For example, the year 2021, when written that way, comes out as two thousand and twenty-one instead of twenty twenty-one. And sometimes, it doesn’t know what to do with non-English words.

For example, in one story, it pronounced the Spanish sauce “mole” like the English word for the burrowing mammal. Unfortunately, there is no accent in Spanish since the emphasis is already where it should be, on the “O,” so no clue that way. Oddly enough, in the phrase “holy moley,” which came later, it did pronounce it the right way but, obviously, spelling the sauce wrong wouldn’t work for the printed article.

Unfortunately, it’s not possible to edit the text that’s copied into the sound file generator, which seems like a drawback.

Otherwise, it’s a fun process. I will record the intros and outros with background music and add incidental transition music and the like, but I’m leaving the heavy lifting to the AI because it saves me a lot of time.

Besides, the results are probably a lot more pleasant than people having to listen to my “Where the hell is he from?” accent for a full episode. If you don’t believe me, just listen, and, forgetting anything I’ve told you in this blog, tell me where I’m originally from. I just had too many different regional inputs growing up and somehow picked up on them all.

I am convinced that my hometown has no real accent because it kind of has all of them, and they wind up mixing and matching.

As for the podcast progress, I think I’ll start it out at once per week, and will be recording already existing articles from the blog. Of course, that’s how the system works. The podcast recorder will only pull and convert text from published articles.

At the moment, meaning July 5, 2021, the first episode is only available on Spotify, Pocket Casts, Breaker, and RadioPublic, but it should be available on Google podcasts some time soon.

Spotify seems to be the one that shows up right away, and the rest are listed in the order they were published over a couple of days. Of course, this whole process could speed up with subsequent episodes.

I never thought I’d have any interest in doing the podcast thing, but I don’t hate it so far! So this could be a short experiment or it could turn into something else. Stay tuned to this space for updates.

And yes, this is a short post, but it’s a holiday weekend in the U.S. as we celebrate our independence — officially, it was on Sunday, July 4, but people have been shooting off fireworks all week long and the Federal holiday is today, Monday.

But happy Independence Days in advance to the visitors from my top twelve countries which are, in date order, January 26, March 26, May 5, June 12, July 1, July 14, August 10, August 14, August 15, September 16, October 1, and October 3. I won’t mention any names. You can figure out who you are.

Image source: Kevin Campbell from Pixabay. (CC) Simplified Pixaby License.

The Saturday Morning Post #69: Pamela Rewarded Part 4

CONCLUSION. Previously: Pamela is an Emmy award-winning TV producer without a show, and she’s been desperately trying to get back in the game, but so far has only faced rejection, because everything she pitches is too much like her old show. Meanwhile, she’s also dealing with her recalcitrant children — son Walter, who took a dive out of his bedroom and seriously broke his arm because of her controlling nature, and daughter Althea, who despite having her every whim indulged seems bitter and resentful. Pamela has arranged for the social event of the season to mark Althea’s 18th birthday, but none of the invitees have replied. Instead, she’s hired 350 extras for the evening, hoping that Althea won’t know. Here’s the last installment.

The extras arrived in dribs and drabs on cue, and by seven-forty-five the party looked like a gigantic success. Althea still wasn’t down yet, but that wasn’t unusual. Strangers made her nervous, and she’d have to be coaxed. Pamela had allowed her to invite a friend, but the friend hadn’t shown up yet. When she did, whoever it was, Althea would loosen up.

Walter was another matter. He attacked the bar the second it opened up, even though Pamela had told him not to drink tonight. He was already weaving pretty well when he stumbled up to her as she stood by the stairs, waiting for the guest of honor to descend.

“No more for you tonight,” she said sternly, taking the glass out of his uninjured hand. “You’re barely 19 anyway. And I don’t want you ruining this evening for your sister.”

“You don’t want me ruining it for you.”

“Walter, what is wrong with you? You used to be such a good boy, but now look. Acting like a cheap drunk, falling down and hurting yourself. What happened? Is this what a year in the dorms has done to you?”

“Don’t worry, I’m not going back there.”

“I know, we’ve already settled that. And I think it’s a good thing.”

“No. I mean, I’m not going back there. My first semester, I applied to NYU — “

“But you got accepted to S.C. — “

“No, no. I mean, while I was a freshman and they accepted me. I’m transferring.”

Pamela stared at him, then sipped from the glass in her hand. “You want to run that by me again?” she said.

“I am going to NYU in September. I’m moving to New York next week.”

Pamela laughed. “No you’re not.”

“I’m an adult and you’re not telling me what to do. It’s bad enough I went to a college I didin’t want to. Don’t make it worse.”

“How have I made it worse?”

“Let me live my life.”

“How have I made it worse, Walter? Look around you, look at all this. This house. Your car, expensive clothes. Have you ever not had anything you wanted, and you have the nerve to stand there and tell me that I’ve made your life worse?”

His lip trembled and he bit it, staring at her with barely concealed fury. “I am going to NYU,” he finally spat out, low, his voice cracking.

“Then you’re paying for NYU,” Pamela shot back, “Because I’m not. I’m only paying for USC.”

“Only paying. That’s the problem, that’s the goddamn problem.”

“Watch your language.”

“I’m going.” He pushed past her and started up the stairs. “And fuck you.”

She dropped the glass, screamed for the maid to clean the carpet, then headed up the stairs, going to Althea’s door and knocking as she tried the knob. Locked. She had to find out who kept putting the locks back on after she’d have Oded remove them.

“Sweetie, are you coming down soon?”

“Just a minute.”

“Everybody’s here, they can’t wait to see you.”

“I said just a minute.”

“And you have to open your presents. There are lots of presents.”

Silence, then she heard movement inside, voices. Strange, Althea was supposed to be alone. Then she opened the door, already in her party dress and Pamela saw the boy, standing over by the vanity.

“Mom, Dale. Dale, mom.” Althea noticed Pamela’s horrified reaction, added, “You said I could bring a friend.”

“I meant girlfriend.”

“So I brought my boyfriend. Excuse me.” Althea stepped past Pamela, toward the stairs.

“Wait, wait. What do you mean ‘boyfriend?’” Pamela asked. “You don’t have a boyfriend.”

“Yes I do, his name’s Dale, that’s him.” Dale had emerged from the bedroom and Althea took his hand, pulling him toward the stairs. When the hell did she even meet someone to become a boyfriend, Pamela wondered. And where could Althea have met him? she didn’t know any black people. She didn’t know any people.

But before Pamela could say a word, Althea smiled at her and said the one thing that could possibly shut her up at this moment. “Don’t make a scene in front of the guests,” Althea whispered, and then she and Dale were bouncing down the stairs, holding hands.

Pamela grabbed the banister to keep from swaying. Oded came out of his room, saw her and bounded over.

“Great party, huh?”

“Fasten your seatbelts,” Pamela said. Then, “Oh, never mind.”

* * *
“Surprise!” the extras yelled, hitting their cue and getting their line right as Althea made her entrance.

Pamela had done her best to distract her daughter downstairs, latching onto her and taking her around to meet the guests, but the poor girl looked incredibly bored and didn’t say much of anything to anyone. Finally, she shoved Pamela’s arm off her shoulder. “You’re crushing me,” she said, moving three feet away and signaling for Dale to join them.

“Should we open your presents now?” Pamela cheered.

“Isn’t there a band or something?” Althea asked.

“Band first, then presents?”

“Okay.”

And the show went on and Althea stood by her mother’s side during the first song, then whispered in her ear, “I’m going to dance with Dale,” and wandered away. Pamela nodded, keeping an eye on them. Althea stopped briefly to talk to Oded, and then she and Dale faded into the crowd and onto the dance floor. She turned to watch the group play and then Oded popped up with a drink, standing at her side.

“They’re pretty good, huh?” he said.

“Not really,” Pamela told him, “They only charge like they are.” And it was true. The second song sounded just like the first, which sounded identical to the third, all of them variations on the theme of “Ooh, do you love me, girl? I love you.” It was all so hormonally puerile, except that these five boys all looked like virgins, and one of them was obviously queer — not that he’d know it for another decade.

It was over soon enough and then it was time for the presents, except that Althea was AWOL. Pamela and Oded looked everywhere for her, but she was nowhere. Pamela stomped up the stairs, beelined to Althea’s door and knocked as she grabbed the knob. It wasn’t locked. She flung the door open, finding the room empty.

Finding the room almost empty. There was an envelope on the floor, addressed simply, “Mom.”

She read the letter three times, stunned. The short version was, “I’m leaving. You suck.” The long version was three handwritten pages, every sin Althea thought Pamela had ever committed, every normal thing she hadn’t let her have. She shoved the note in her pocket, went downstairs and grabbed the microphone.

“Okay, thanks, party’s over. Everybody, out, out. Go. Home.”

And the extras scattered like ants, Pamela’s one-hundred-dollar guests, boy band long gone and unopened presents stacked on tables. The yard was devoid of partiers in five minutes, Pamela standing on the stage, alone as the caterers began to clean up.

She didn’t remember starting to do it, but certainly enjoyed it when she found herself in the middle of flinging boxes to the ground, kicking in fancy wrapping paper, hurling expensive foreign electronics into the pool, heaving fragile items hard into the flagstones, half-screaming all the while.

She’d trashed everything and overturned all the tables and had turned toward the car, which was concealed under a huge drape on the back lawn, when Oded raced up to her, grabbed her arm.

“Pam, stop it. This isn’t helping. She’ll be back.”

“No she won’t,” Pamela sputtered, pulling out the letter and shoving it in Oded’s arms. He took it but didn’t look at it. He was staring at her.

And then Pamela knew. Oded and Althea had been talking at the party. And Oded hadn’t seemed particularly surprised to meet Dale. Oded knew, he knew everything, he was in on everything. Just another one in a long line of people to betray her and plot against her, and it all made sense now. That was why Walter did what he did, why Althea had run away.

She raked her nails across his face, drawing four long red gashes down his left cheek. He jumped away. “Ow. What the hell did you do that for — ”:

“Get out.”

“What?”

“This is all your fault.”

What?”

“You know what I’m talking about. You hate me, you always have. Well, I’m done with you. Good-bye.”

She turned her back on him.

“Come on, Pamela. We’ll find Althea, we’ll bring her back.”

“You have fifteen minutes, and then I’m calling the police.”

There was a long silence, then Oded finally spoke. “All right. Okay, I’m gone. But you know what? You are one severely fucked up lady. And you can just kiss…” He balled up his face in rage, then shook his head, turned his back and walked away.

But Pamela wasn’t looking and she didn’t acknowledge him at all, and finally she heard him stomp across the patio, into the house. It was Dennis all over again, in its own way.

She went inside later, making sure Oded was gone, then poured herself a drink and stood in the living room, just staring at the Emmy. It was a beautiful statue, really. Majestic and hopeful. A Grammy was stupid, a Tony was way too small and an Oscar was too plain. But this one was perfection. It was all she’d ever really wanted.

She thought she heard a strange buzzing sound from somewhere, cocked her head to listen, but then it stopped. Maybe she’d had too much to drink. But then something hit her nose and she sniffed. Smoke? Was somebody smoking in the house? Great, she thought, Oded is back.

She went into the foyer, but there was no one there. The front door was locked. But she could still smell the smoke…

And then the buzzing again, and she knew what it was. One of the smoke detectors, the one at the top of the stairs. She looked up, and saw the smoke billowing down the hallway, gathering in a slow-forming pool at the top of the stairwell. She raced up the stairs, looked into the hall, which was already obscured. There was a flicker of flame from the distance, heat drifting toward her.

And there was Walter, emerging from one of the bedrooms, coughing. He stumbled toward the stairs, stopped and looked down at her, still holding the burnt-out match in his hand.

“Walter…” was all she could say.

“You’re going to pay for it,” he answered. And then the door to Pamela’s room swung open on a gust of flame and huge ball of black smoke coughed into the hall, drifting around Walter, above Pamela. She reached forward, grabbed for him and got hold of his bad arm, pulling him toward the stairs.

“Out,” she said. “Get outside. Now.”

But he sat down, refusing to move.

“Walter, don’t do this.”

“Which one do you really care about more?” he asked.

“Which, who?”

“Which thing, mommy. Me or the house?”

“I care about you, Walter. Now get out of here.”

“Don’t you think you should be calling 9-1-1?”

“Get your ass downstairs right now.”

She could hear the crackling flames, roaring into the hall, the smoke getting thicker, every alarm upstairs going off. She didn’t have to call 9-1-1 and Walter knew that. The security company had already been notified.

“Who’s paying for NYU?” Walter asked, waving smoke away, his eyes watering.

“We’ll talk about it later,” Pamela said, grabbing the front of his shirt, trying to pull him up.

“We’ll talk about it now,” he replied.

“You can go to NYU if you get out of this house right now.”

“Swear?”

“Yes, I swear, goddammit, now move.”

With a smug grin, Walter got up and hurried down the stairs, Pamela following. He was at the door when she suddenly remembered, turned back toward the living room.

“Leave it,” he said.

“No,” she answered.

“Okay,” he replied, walking back to the bottom of the stairs. “You can take it or me out, not both.”

“Stop screwing around.”

“I’m not screwing around. Which one is more important to you, me or that lump of brass? It’s D-Day, mommy. Or maybe that should be V-Day. You know. Victory. Yours or mine, but not both.”

There was a sudden creaking from the back of the house, then a crash. Pamela could see the flicker of flames through the dining room doors, and then the smoke started pouring in. Something in the kitchen had gone up fast, and then flames exploded through the dining room, licking at the living room doors, flanking the display case.

In the far distance, sirens trembled, approaching and receding slowly, up the canyon roads.

The flames were advancing, crawling around the walls now, crawling toward it. They were reflected in the polished gold, highlighting it, making it shine.

Pamela stepped into the living room, started toward the statue, but then the flames roared up, cutting her off. There was nothing she could do but watch as the walls blackened and the fire crawled ever closer to the winged lady.

She backed out of the room, heading for the front door. Walter wasn’t sitting on the stairs. Maybe he’d finally done something sensible.

She opened the front door and the flames in the house roared up, jumping at her. She ran, down the drive, hearing now the terrible crackling of shattering wood and the wail of the sirens finally arriving on the other side of the front wall. Walter wasn’t there. But he had to have gotten out. He had to.

She turned and looked at the house, which was belching hot yellow and black smoke from its entire upper floor, downstairs windows glimmering. From where she stood, she could see through the front window, through the living room doors, could just catch a glimpse of the edge of the statue, flames now dancing at its base. And then the vision was gone, buried in the cataclysm and firemen were racing past her, two men in white uniforms taking her arms and leading her to a stretcher and an oxygen mask.

But they couldn’t save the house, nobody could, not even Pamela. Everything burned, even the garage, the Emmy reduced to a melted, blackened thing and Walter… Walter gone.

And Althea and Oded. She had worked so hard to make everything exactly perfect, and it was all gone so easily and despite the oxygen, or because of it, she started hyperventilating and wound up in the hospital anyway. The baskets of flowers and the Things Executives Sent were lovely, but none of them came with job offers. They all wrote notes about how terribly tragic her loss was, and if she needed anything blah, blah, blah. But the blah blah blah meant nothing. None of it had meant anything. And six months later, somebody else produced her story, fictionalized, as a movie of the week.

It won four fucking Emmys.

* * *