Things I learned in 2020

What a long strange year it was. I was mostly locked up at home except for groceries for four months, then added in work (sometimes remotely, sometimes in the office) for another five. I’d gotten my last official haircut in February, finally broke down and shaved my head in July, and am now getting close to picking up the clippers again — although not going as short now because, FFS, it’s winter.

In May, I lost my dog. She was old, and the tough sort who hid the fact that she was ill until it was too late, but I also like to think that she knew what was coming and just noped out. A lot of my friends lost pets this year as well, so that theory could actually be the truth.

Every month since March brought its own new disaster to the point that I can’t even remember them all. My one social appearance this year was right near the end of December, when I attended the small masked and socially-distanced funeral of the mother of one of my oldest friends.

Two days before New Year’s Eve, I found out that my boss’s wife lost one of her oldest friends, which also affected me because I’d gotten to know him for business reasons, and I’ve become close to her as well.

Americans have become distanced from the reality of death, but Europe was and is drenched in it because of their historical plagues. Just look up Le Danse Macabre, which was a constant. In the Americas, Hispanic and Latino culture gets it. The gringos… not so much.

Other insights from the año horrible…

  1. I’ve gotten to that point at work where, as I’m going through someone’s prescription list, I know exactly what’s wrong with them just by the drug names. Diabetics, people with major heart disease, transplant recipients, and cancer patients now just jump out at me. “Oh. Taking that, got this. Right.” And yes, I know whether you’re taking those boner pills just for sex, for high blood pressure, or because you have an enlarged prostate. It’s all in the dosage and monthly refill amount. Plus, if it’s for the boners, your wife will probably be adding a telltale prescription of her own.
  2. I’ve finally drilled Spanish so deeply into my brain that I caught myself reading a paragraph in Portuguese and understanding all of it before I realized, “Oh. This isn’t Spanish.” Can’t understand a word of Portuguese if it’s spoken, but most of it is either the same as Spanish or the differences follow such regular rules that it’s completely intelligible in print.

Plus I finally got the opportunity at work to help out a client by explaining something in Spanish after he asked me if I spoke it, and finally my mouth was dumping out the words without my brain stopping to translate from English — and discussing a technical subject, to boot. It’s what I’ve been aiming for over the last eight years or so.

  1. We get a ton of robo-calls at work, but they can be quite fun to mess with, and I’ve figured out how to identify most of them. First off, if the caller ID comes up as just a city name or a long number that starts with a “V,” that’s probably one of them. Also, we have four incoming lines that ring in the order 1, 4, 3, 2. If a call comes in on any line not in order, it’s probably also a robo-caller that dialed at random — for example, 2, 3, or 4 ring when there’s nobody on 1, 2 rings when 1 and 4 are busy, etc.

These calls fall into a few categories: pre-recorded BS, usually about Google/Yelp listings, car warranties, solar panel rebates, etc., which get hung up on instantly; cold calls trying to sell home contracting services, to which I reply, “Oh, we have people already. Bye.”; calls soliciting donations for some police or firefighter fund that always seem to be the same person with the airline pilot voice and are probably also recordings; and, my favorite, people trying to sell Medicare insurance, particularly supplemental plans.

I love these because 1) It’s illegal to make cold calls to try to sell health insurance, especially Medicare, and 2) I have different ways to fuck with them, depending on how busy we are.

If we’re super busy, I’ll just say, “Oh, hey, we’re insurance brokers and we sell Medicare plans, too.” This usually creates a silent reaction that is nonetheless audible and a sudden hang-up.

If we’re not busy, then I’ll play along for a bit, ask questions designed to make them stumble or say something they shouldn’t, then say, “But I thought it was illegal to make cold calls to sell Medicare plans…” If they argue that one, then I hit them with the “We’re insurance brokers” bombshell.

  1. I absolutely despise salesmen cold-calling who will try every trick in the book to get to the boss without telling me why, and some of them can get quite pushy about it. Fortunately, I’ve been given absolute permission to gate-keep the hell out of them, and the more that they insist they have to talk to the boss to explain it because they can’t tell me, the harder I push back.

They never want to leave a name and number, but often set themselves up by asking, “When is the best time to call and reach him?” My reply: “Never.” Yes, we do have ethical sale people out there, but they will actually say what they’re selling, leave a message, or offer to email information for consideration. Those people, I like. But the ones who get mad at me for doing my job, which is to insulate the boss from their bullshit because his time is worth a lot more than mine at work? Yeah, I have no problem escalating the pushback. None at all.

  1. Improv and acting skills definitely translate into the workplace, and it’s made taking phone calls so much more pleasant for me and, I assume, our clients. During our busy period, the phones would ring constantly, and I’d frequently be the only person not already on a call, so I’d wind up fielding a lot of them.

Once I answer a call, it’s all about “Yes, and” with the client — listening to what they tell me, then steering the scene, as it were, by asking the right questions in order to figure out as quickly as possible how to handle the call. Can I answer their question? If not, do I know who can? And how can I get the necessary information for that person?

This process also involves empathy because, unfortunately, our demographic (Medicare patients) happens to have a higher mortality rate than the general population. Too many times now have I spoken with a client who has either lost their spouse or had one or the other of them diagnosed with cancer, and I’ve trained myself to instantly respond, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” And I mean it.

Keep in mind that before this whole lockdown thing and for personal reasons, I was very awkward about such references, and my more likely response would have been, “Oh.” Which isn’t empathetic at all.

Finally, I do take opportunities to latch onto little things, like if the client shares a birthday with a family member or close friend of mine (or, once, me) and point it out, or if they’re a close neighbor, although without being too specific, because that would be weird.

Something I’ve discovered, especially in the case of older people who have lost their spouses, is they just want somebody to talk to. I try to pre-empt that during our busy season, but if it’s a slow day, I consider it a part of my job as well to just chat with them after I take care of their questions.

Hey — it counts toward taking care of their mental health, right? And mine. So that’s part of our service. And, to me, it’s like having a bunch of grandparents calling me all the time, which is nice because I never met either of my biological grandfathers, and lost my grandmothers when I was 17 (maternal) and 23 (paternal).

For some weird reason, too, I get a lot of compliments on my phone voice, which is weird, because I’ve heard recordings of my speaking voice, and I don’t find it attractive at all. But I’ve actually had a number of senior women and at least one senior man flirt with me because of my voice.

You know. Basically, “Oh, you have a great voice. I’d love to see the whole package.” And yes, at least twice in those exact words from someone in their 80s.

I’m not offended by what could legally be considered sexual harassment though because, A) I’m in a privileged class anyway (male); B) They’re old and they can say whatever the hell they want; and C) I really do appreciate the positive feedback and compliments.

And, given current COVID restrictions that may extend until summer, they’re not likely to show up at the office anyway.

Oh… which reminds me…

  1. We wouldn’t be locking down again now if people had only done the right thing back in March for a couple of months. Part of that rests in the laps of people who just could not be bothered to stay at home or wear a mask in public, but a bigger part of that lies at the feet of a certain faction in our Federal Government, which couldn’t be arsed to pay everyone a living wage over the time period they couldn’t work, and across all industries.

If it had been economically feasible for people to just stay home but still be paid enough to live on, we might have stomped this down by last July. Instead, idiots started going on Spring Break in May, and it just got worse from there.

Plus which, not everyone got any kind of meaningful relief, and the biggest irony was that minimum wage workers who did lose their jobs made far more with the government’s $600 a week unemployment bonus than they would have if they’d kept working.

Which is what screwed all those minimum wage workers who were considered essential, by the way. Been to a grocery store lately? Other than health care professionals, those people are your frontline workers.

2020 was a difficult and horrendous year in which the wise among us made sacrifices, a lot of us suffered loss of loved ones and loss of employment or both, and each month brought some new disaster, natural or manmade  — Fires! Hurricanes! Riots! Kobe!

But a lot of us survived it and looking back at what I’ve learned in this year and how I’ve personally changed, it wasn’t all bad.

The year just past was a crucible in the scientific sense: A vessel in which metals can be heated to very high temperatures. Of course, the purpose of this is to transform them, usually by combining them with other metals, or by melting them to pour into molds in order to take on a new form.

Yeah, 2020 felt like it did that to all of us. Some of us have come out as stronger alloys, while others have been molded into completely new forms. Unfortunately, it still produced a lot of slag, but maybe that, too, can be recycled into something better in the months to come.

Image source Pixy.org, (CC0) Public Domain

Closed theaters don’t mean there is no audience

I only had this revelation recently, and particularly because the company I work for hits its busy season beginning October 15 and running until December 7 every year.

Well, actually, our physically busy season starts back in late August with all of the preparation to get everything ready to shoot out of the starting gate on October 15, but prior to the latter date, our phones are pretty quiet.

Regular readers know why, but here’s the explanation again. After a long career during which I spent about 99% of my working time in entertainment that finally went to shit because a certain D-List Celebrity got sucked into Scientology and let his company go down the toilet so that he had to lay off everyone, I wound up jobless for a while, but then landed in the field of health insurance.

Specifically, I now work for an agent/broker who only handles Medicare because he very brilliantly realized a few years ago that Boomers are right now slamming through the gates of turning 65, so he’ll have potential new customers for years — and with Gen X right on their heels.

At about the same time I left the lucrative full-time day job ghost-writing for afore-linked person, I also started doing improv, which went great until everything, particularly live entertainment venues, slammed shut in early March of 2020, at least in L.A.

A few weeks later, our offices also shut down for a while — spring and summer are our slow season — so I was out of work again for about four months, only making tentative attempts at coming back from the start of July, but only then by working remotely and part time.

Eventually, though, I finally came back full-time, initially remotely, but then by necessity in the office once the onslaught began. Fortunately, we’re a very small operation, the other agents do work remotely, and the three of us who are regularly physically on-site work in separate rooms.

It helps that the “office” is actually in the boss’/owner’s house, so that  we literally are in separate rooms — the back office is one bedroom, the boss’ office is another bedroom, the front office (me) is the living room, and the variously shared secondary agents’ office is the den.

Now I started this job in August of 2019, so got thrown into it all right before the madness started, so everything through December was on the learning curve and stressful, and it only felt like I was getting a handle on it when it all shut down in March.

You’d think that a four-month gap in work might totally wreck all sense of what I’m doing, but it really turned out the opposite, and this time around, instead of hating and fearing phone calls from clients — which are almost constant now — a few things happened.

What primed the pump, though, was nearly five months of basic isolation, with my only outside contact via electronic devices or the occasional brief transaction with a store clerk, so I actually found myself looking forward to the ringing phones, because it meant that I got to talk to human beings again!

After that, two things happened.

Number one: Everything I’d learned about how all this works is kind of stuck in my brain, so I don’t need to ask anyone else every single time about everything. I’ve also learned what questions to ask in order to get the info I might need if I’m going to have to pass it along to someone else.

Number two: This is the big flash I had recently: I realized that I’ve started to approach phone calls like improv games and scenes in this sense: It begins when I answer, and we’re going to create the platform of who, what, where, which I’ll either get by listening to how you introduce yourself or by asking a couple of questions.

From there, it’s on to complication/conflict — meaning, really, the reason you’ve called — followed by resolution — I figure out how to route your call or whether I need to take a message — and then tag/punchline/resolution — I tell you what happens next.

The funny part is that in improv, the one thing we really, really want to avoid in scene games is what’s called “transactional,” which means any situation involving an interaction between two people that is about some product or service passing between them when they have no prior emotional connection.

In other words, a scene in which a person comes into a bakery to buy a birthday cake, or someone brings their car to a mechanic, or someone else goes to a florist for flowers… it’s really, really hard to make those interesting without a moment of a-ha, like the customer suddenly realizing, “Oh, wait… didn’t we date in high school?”

Now, admittedly, every phone call I get at work by nature is a transactional scene, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t move it to that personal level, and that’s where the game and the improv comes in.

And it is entirely based on listening and yes-anding. I look for those personal details I can use to connect. A lot of my boss’ customers live in the town I grew up in, so I’ll latch onto that. “Oh, I know that place. I went to [Fat Dead President] High School.”

Or… I often have to ask someone’s birthdate, and if it matches any date relating to me, my parents, siblings, or grandparents, of course I’m going to mention it.

If someone says, “I don’t know how to fill out these forms, they’re so confusing,” then that gives me the ultimate empathy dive in. “Oh, I know,” you say. “Before I started working here, I was clueless, but it’s not as complicated as it seems. What do you want to know?”

And so forth. The point being that once shit got crazy on the phones this year and I was stressing out at the beginning, everything got easier as soon as I realized that every phone call was just a possibility to play a scene game with a stranger as a partner and to “Yes, and” the hell out of them.

That has made this year’s Annual Enrollment Period ridiculously stress-free, and has also allowed me to feel like I’m still doing theater, if only for an audience of one at a time.

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

A little cure for the Monday Blues

As might be obvious from some of my posts, I do have a day job — in the field of Medicare insurance — and from October 15 to December 7 every year, it’s the annual enrollment period, or what we like to refer to as our tax season.

So… I’ve been working seven days a week, plus overtime most days, and it’s not going to let up for a while, and this can have an effect on keeping up with the regular publishing schedule.

Don’t worry — The Saturday Morning Post installments of The Rêves are written and scheduled well into March, and the Friday Free-for-All questions are actually easy to do because they’re prompted.

But I might be doing more recycling or shorter mid-week posts up to Thanksgiving, at which point I’ll have a special treat as I bring back a month-long feature from last year’s holidays.

Meanwhile, I wanted to give a shout-out and a plug to an incredibly talented young actor, comedian, singer, writer, dancer, improviser, Disney park super-fan, and all-around swell guy I know: Zach Timson.

Some of you might even know him from a little online thing called the Who Was? Show. (In that clip, he shows up briefly as Henry VIII.)

Anyway, I’m fortunate enough to know him IRL through ComedySportz, and his talent, despite his youth, never ceases to blow me away. Here’s just one sample.

His big ambition is to one day be a cast member on SNL, and if it’s still around, I have no doubt that he would be if he makes the right connections. If you liked the clip above, do yourself a favor and go browse around his other videos.

Oh. Did I mention that he is one of the most amazing voice impressionists I have ever heard? If he doesn’t make it on SNL, he could still be the Rich Little, Billy Crystal, (insert famous impressionist here) of his generation.

I was fortunate, in the days before the lockdown, to meet a wide range of people via ComedySportz, from our College League on up to senior members of the company and those I played with in Rec League.

But the most important thing it taught me was that you should never discount someone’s ability to teach you just because of outer appearances like age (lack of or too much), physical ability or disability, or experience or ability in actually doing improv.

That last one might seem paradoxical, but sometimes it takes seeing something done… I don’t want to say “wrong,” so maybe I’ll just say “not well,” in order to make you understand how to do it better.

I certainly learned that one in trying to help beginning writers improve their work over many years. The ones who taught me the most were, again paradoxically, the ones who seemed to learn the least from me.

Of course, when a master of their craft walks into the room and starts teaching, it’s obvious in a second, and I have also learned over the years from many brilliant mentors, like the late Jerry Fey, who guided me from being a novice writer to a produced and award-winning playwright in a very prestigious regional theatre, or Rick Steadman, who got me into and then made me reasonably good at improv.

Which is the long way around of saying that Zach — and all of his teammates on the college league — have taught me a lot (as mentors) about doing improv, how to be funny, how to relax and just have fun on stage. But if I’d ever looked at any of them and thought, “Yeah, they’re just kids. What do they know?” I never would have learned a thing.

Listen always to the generations above and below yours. The elders have experience, while the youth have passion. Unite the two of those in yourself, and oh, the places you’ll go.

Image courtesy of Pixy#Org via CC0 1.0 license.

Theatre Thursday: How I wound up here

I never intended to go into acting in any way, shape, or form. I still consider myself a writer first, a musician second, and person who’s not afraid to go onstage or speak in public with or without a script third. And yet, here I was, up until March 2020, performing onstage without a script two or three times a month and loving every second of it.

It’s an odd road that brought me here with some interesting steps along the way. My earliest theatrical experience was the obligatory elementary school play. I don’t remember the first one beyond that I played some sort of a woodsman with a group of other boys, all of us armed with cardboard axes. I do remember the second, an adaptation of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

I probably remember it because I had lines and everything and was kind of a featured character. I’m pretty sure the character I played was a boy named Obi, and he was a big deal in it because he was lame. Since he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t follow the other kids when the Piper lured them off, and so became the sole witness to tell the grown-ups what happened. I think this was around fifth or sixth grade.

In middle school and high school, I mostly floated around band instead of drama, although the two merged when I played piano in a middle school production of Bye Bye Birdie. Yeah, kind of anachronistic by that point, but the music is fun and it’s a safe show for that demographic while pandering to being about rock music.

I also wrote my first play as a final assignment for my AP English class. The teacher asked us to write a parody of something that we’d read during the two semesters of the class, and I hit on the idea of writing a two act musical that parodied everything. It became pretty epic, combining A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Crime and Punishment, Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger (we dodged The Catcher in the Rye because the teacher thought we’d read it when we hadn’t), various works of Shakespeare, and I don’t remember what else.

All I do remember was that it took the various characters from the stuff we’d read and tossed them into our very own high school, had a few songs that I actually wrote the music and lyrics to, and I got an A+ on the thing despite the teacher later admitting that he hadn’t had time to read the whole thing. It was over 50 pages, after all, when I think most other people turned in four.

One memory I do have from the experience, though, was when I excitedly tried to tell my father about it, and his reaction was basically, “Why the hell are you wasting your time doing way more than you have to when the assignment was to just parody one thing?”

Yeah, way to be encouraging there, Dad. I was doing way more because I got inspired, and that’s what’s kept me going as an artist ever since. So the A+ was kind of my personal vindication.

This was the same English teacher who taught a class that combined film history with filmmaking, an art form I loved ever since my dad took nine year-old me to one of the frequent revivals of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was frequently revived because every time a film at one of the cinemascope theaters around town bombed, they would toss this film or one of a handful of others up for the remainder of the originally booked run time. 2001 re-ran a lot in the 70s and 80s. The other great love it instilled in me was of the genre of science fiction, especially so-called “hard” science fiction, of which the film is a great example.

The appeal to me of hard science fiction is that it tries to follow the rules of real science without relying on making stuff up or defying reality. This means that Star Trek is a bit squishy and Star Wars is totally flaccid, but I’m still a Star Wars homer because that series caught me as a kid and has kept me as an adult, and Kylo Ren became my new favorite character with his first appearance, never mind cementing it with his last.

So, in what in retrospect was probably the stupidest decision of my life, I went to film school to major in screenwriting. The thing I didn’t realize at the time was that my sensibilities were nowhere near the mainstream and would never mesh with Hollywood in any way, shape or form. I didn’t really know or appreciate it at the time, but I had pretty much already learned how to write. What I should have done was majored in something practical that would have made me a lot of money early so that I could then stop working for other people, invest, and then have the whole artsy career thing.

Yes, if I had a time machine, that’s the life-path I would go back and beat into my 16-year-old self. “You’re either going to study some business thing, like get a license in insurance or real estate, do it for a decade and hate it but cash out, or you’re going to hit the gym with a personal trainer and then become a model or porn star or both and love it but then cash out. Then you can pretty much be what you want to be.”

So I hit college and film school and in the middle of my first semester I get a call from a theatre professor who had been talking to one of my film professors, who had mentioned to her that I played keyboards and owned a synth. “Would you be interested in playing for the musical we’re doing this fall?” she asked.

“Oh hell yeah.” It was an obscure piece written by the people who created The Fantasticks, an off-Broadway musical that ran for 42 years. The one we did, Philemon, was less successful, most likely because it’s a lot darker and basically deals with a street clown in 1st century Rome who winds up impersonating an expected Christian leader in order to out Christians in a Roman death camp only for the clown to actually try to inspire a revolt and it doesn’t end well for anyone.

But… I had a great time doing the show, made a lot of new friends, and got talked into auditioning at the next semester company meeting for the next show. I did it mainly based on the fact that “There’s no way in hell I’m going to get cast in a play as an actor.”

I got cast. And since doing a show gave credits, not to mention that I’d started college basically a semester ahead thanks to credits from high school AP classes in English, Spanish, and History, I had room to add a minor. So what did I do? I added two — theatre and psychology.

Oh, look, Dad. I’m overachieving again.

I performed in or was on crew for at least two shows per semester from that point on, although three or four were the norm, especially after I’d gotten involved with the Del Rey Players, who were essentially the “amateur” theatre club on campus.

By the time that college was over, I’d written a couple of not-that-good screenplays, but had really connected more with theatre in general, and all of my friends were theatre people, not film people. (There was a lot of crossover, though.)

Still, I had it in my head that I was going to go into film, but I started writing plays. My first after college “real” job was working for the Director’s Guild pension plan offices because, again, I was naïve enough to think that that was close enough to the industry to get in (hint: it was not), but it is where I met a woman, Thana Lou Tappon — although she went by just Lou — and when she heard that I was into theatre, she invited me to join up with a playwriting class she was in, and that became a life-changing moment.

The teacher and mentor I met was  man named Jerry Fey. Basically, he somehow wound up teaching a playwriting class as part of the UCLA Extension for a semester and realized two things. One, he loved teaching. Two, he hated the bullshit that came with academia. So he tapped his favorite students, and set off on his own. And to his great credit, he did it for free.

It was in his group that I created and developed the first-ever short plays of mine to actually be produced, and then wrote the first full-length that was produced and not just anywhere. My debut as a playwright was at a little theater called South Coast Rep. Basically, it’s the Center Theater Group of Orange County or, if that means nothing to you, one of the many regional theaters that is Broadway equivalent without being on Broadway.

In fewer words: I managed to start at the top. And that’s not to blow my own horn but rather to honor Jerry, because none of that would have happened without his guidance and input… and then, not more than a year after my premiere, he didn’t show up for class one day and I was the one to make the phone call from the theater which was answered with the news that he had died the night before. Official version: Liver cancer. Real reason? We’ll never know. I do have to wonder, though, whether he knew back when he started teaching for free on his own, and was giving back in advance of his inevitable demise.

But what he left behind was a group of people who kept going as a workshop for years, dubbed themselves The Golden West Playwrights, and we are still friends — hell, family — to this day.

Flash forward past other produced plays, one of those plays getting me into a Steven Spielberg sponsored screenwriting program that was fun but led to nothing except for a close friendship with a famous science fiction writer, then winding up working for Aaron Spelling, and the same play getting me my one TV writing gig, and then winding up in a playwrights’ group at another theater company, The Company Rep, only to balls up enough to audition for one of their shows and make my return to the stage, this time doing more Shakespeare, playing every guard, officer, soldier, and whatnot in The Comedy of Errors, and doing it with a broad comic Irish accent — something that inadvertently led to me doing a Michael Flatley impression in the show that brought the house down. Yeah, the director’s idea, not mine, although I accidentally suggested it.

Other roles I did with that company include the Spanish speaking Dreamer (aka Jesus stand-in) in Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, which only ran for 60 performances on Broadway, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come along with about eight other characters in a musical version of A Christmas Carol and, my favorite, Duna, the depressed unicycle-riding bear in a story theater style adaptation of The Pension Grillparzer from John Irving’s The World According to Garp. (Holy crap. I just remembered that one of the shows I played piano for in high school happened to be Story Theater, by Paul Sills. Whoa!)

Anyway, the nice thing about playing the bear was that it was an entirely physical part, no lines, and I pretty much got to just run with it. There was one moment in particular that I loved. During a long monologue by a character in the foreground, I let myself be fascinated by the glass grapes decorating the stole worn by the grandmother character to the point that I would suddenly drool big time — actor secret, hard candy in the corner of the mouth right before entering. That would get a nice “Ewwww!” from the audience, and then I would go and bite those grapes and Grandma would fend me off with her handbag. It was a beautiful moment of silliness, and I loved it.

That company eventually folded and I went back to working for home media and then a celebrity website with a play or two produced in the meantime. And then things went weirdly full circle.

I didn’t mention that my previous experience with improv also happened in college. First was when I did a radio show my freshman year with fellow students. We started out scripting the thing as a half-hour sketch show, but when it became clear that we couldn’t create material fast enough to keep up with production we moved into improv mode, although our use to lose ratio became ridiculous — something like record four hours in order to get twenty good minutes.

And compound that with me just not being able to come up with anything good, so I had to drop out. At the other end of my college career, we attempted an improv evening at an after party with the aforementioned Del Rey Players, but I couldn’t do that without going incredibly dirty and not going anywhere else with it either.

So, end result, while I liked improv as a concept and audience member, I feared it as a performer. And then I found out that one of the actors involved in one of the plays of mine that was done in the ‘10s also happened to teach improv with a company, ComedySportzLA, that was located in El Portal Theater — the same place where The Company Rep had been when I joined it, ironically.

I knew that I loved to watch improv but had had bad experiences trying to do it, but what better way to find out whether I could? So I went to see a few shows, then started taking classes, and then wound up actually doing improv for real live audiences and, holy crap.

If I had that time machine now, I would go back to my fifteen-year-old self and say, “Okay. Find the job that will make you the most money in the fewest years — it will probably involve computers and the internet — and go take improv classes as soon as you can. Hell, if your high school doesn’t have a ComedySportz team yet, convince your drama teacher to get one and do it right now.

Yeah, that would have been the much faster route to now. On the other hand, I’m not complaining at all about how I wound up where I wound up. Just wondering whether one slight tweak or another in the past wouldn’t have put me in a completely different place.

But… don’t we all?

Image: Philippe De Gobert, Grand room at Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, Belgium, (cc) Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication.

P.S. On Monday, February 17, the ComedySportz Rec League is hosting their 11th anniversary show and pot luck. You should come see us. PM for details. 

Never stop learning

I think that the last time I was physically in a classroom was about fifteen years ago, although it happened pretty randomly. At the time, I was a member of a theatre company that was renting space from a group called Deaf West, since that company was on tour at the time and not using their space. As part of this arrangement, those of us who chose to studied ASL with one of the company members who wasn’t on tour.

It was a great experience both in terms of learning about a new culture and bonding with each other until our teacher landed a dream job as liaison for the community. That was the good news. The bad news was that it meant he had to move a few hundred miles away. However, there were continuing education classes available nearby at a school in Burbank, so a few of us dropped in one evening.

We started with the beginner’s class, but the teacher soon realized that we were already too advanced for it, so she led us down the hall to an intermediate class, where we soon realized that it was too advanced for us. After that one experience, the dream of learning ASL fizzled, which was a shame. But just because we’ve left the classroom behind doesn’t mean that it’s time to stop learning.

When were you last in a classroom? Some of you probably still are, while some of you may not have been in one for years, outside of the inevitable parents’ night for your own kids.

Next question: When did you last learn something new that was not related to your job? And by “learn something new” I don’t mean picked up a new fun fact on the internet or heard some juicy gossip. I mean actually studied a skill or subject in an effort to master it.

If the answer to the second question is a longer time than the answer to your first, then I have some advice for you. You don’t need to be in a classroom to learn, and you shouldn’t stop learning new things just because you’re no longer in school.

Now, I know the excuses a lot of people probably have. Number one: “Learning new things is hard!” Number two: “Learning new things is expensive!”

As for number one, it’s really not that hard at all. The only block is the thing you stick in your own way that says, “No, I can’t!” Now you might think that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy but it’s not, because you need two people for that — a self-fulfilling prophecy means that one person’s preconceptions color their perception of another person, no matter what the reality is.

So you’re off the hook in that regard. Your negative thoughts will only stop you from learning if you put them there and then let them. If you want to learn a thing, the only obstacle in this age is not a lack of resources, it’s the lack of you trying.

Imagine if you’d had that “No, I can’t!” response to learning to walk or talk. You’d still be stuck in the corner babbling incoherently and relying on your parents to carry you everywhere. Short of actual physical impediments to learning — e.g., a blind person is probably not going to become a photographer or race car driver — the only impediment is the defeatism between your own ears.

In addition to not telling yourself “No,” there’s one other very important part of learning: You have to be willing to let yourself fail and then learn from that. Nobody is perfect at anything on their first try. Even if they have beginner’s luck, like someone landing a hole-in-one on their first ever tee-shot on a golf course, that success is not going to repeat without practice.

To continue the golf metaphor, when you’re starting out you’re going to get far more bogeys than pars; you’ll miss the target more often than get near it. But the more you keep trying, the closer you’ll keep getting until you find yourself consistently golfing at par or below.

If you’re learning a new language, you will forget or mix up words, and you will mess up the grammar. If you’re learning how to play baseball, you will strike out, and you will drop the ball — at first. And that’s okay. It’s how humans work and how we figure things out. If we never make mistakes, or never admit that we have, then we have no room to grow into.

So there go those hurdles. What about the other one — learning is too expensive?

Well, that reason used to be valid. But even then, not really. There were and still are things called libraries, where anyone can have access to books and other materials (including audio and video) on any subject for free. And for the last 25 or so years, we’ve had this thing called the internet, which is the world’s biggest, vastest library. If you have access to that — and if you have a smart phone or computer, or if you’re reading this, then  you do — then all of the knowledge in the world is at your fingertips, and resources for what you want to learn are just as far away as a simple search.

Sure, some things cost money, but a lot don’t. Funny thing about humans — some of us who acquire knowledge love sharing it for the sake of passing it on. And if you’re already paying money for a streaming or music service, then you probably have access to videos and podcasts on your subject via those, so it’s really a free bonus included in an amount you’re already willing to fork over.

To get you started, Business Insider has compiled a list of ten free learning sources for everything from general knowledge through coding and SEO. Although it’s a couple of years old, all of the sources listed are still available, although the Microsoft Virtual Academy appears to be scheduled to shut down in 2019.

Speaking from personal experience about that list, a few years back I discovered Duolingo, a language-learning website and app, and have been using it ever since. It alone won’t make you fluent in a new language, but it will get you to a point where you’ll be comfortable enough to fill in the gaps with other online resources.

As for learning things way after school, I have some personal experience. For example, once I graduated college and no longer had professional IT people to help with computer issues, I basically learned how to be my own a PC mechanic, and have installed, built, rebuilt, repaired, rehabbed, recovered, and re-everythinged a ton of computers in my day. It was education by necessity, since there was no way I could have afforded a professional back in those days.

One of my proudest moments was when I figured out — without any manuals or guidance — how to internally rewire a keyboard that was designed for one system to be compatible with another. Of course, I don’t have any official certifications for any of this and, unfortunately, it’s one of those fields, like being a doctor or lawyer, where you really can’t just walk in and say “Hey, I can do that” without a piece of paper that says you can and get a job. Oh, if it were, though…

But life and learning goes on, and here are two recent examples, long past the day they handed me my degree. As I mentioned above, I’ve been relearning Spanish after having learned it and forgotten it in high school, and my only expense has been voluntary costs for Spanish language magazines and books I bought to study with or read, many of them gotten cheaply at a local used book store.

In addition to Duolingo, I’ve also relied on Spanish-language radio and YouTube channels to improv my listening skills, and my car has pretty much become a language immersion zone. Bonus points: I’ve become very familiar with a lot of Latin pop and rock spanning the last few decades, and could karaoke my way through a handful of songs.

Another really helpful way to learn your target language? Set your phone and computer to them. If you’re really ambitious, do the same for your social media. You’ll pick up all kinds of vocabulary very quickly,

I’m also currently working my way through my first novel in Spanish and, although it’s a translation of the English book Ready Player One, I’m really following it easily. I’m not cheating, either because I’m waiting to finish the book before I watch the movie. And yes, it’s a YA novel, but that’s probably my Spanish level at the moment anyway. Cool how that works out, right?

The other example is improv, which I’ve also discussed here on this blog. While I’ve always loved to watch it, I didn’t start to study it until about two years ago. I had never done it because the mere idea terrified me. What — go on stage without a script and just make stuff up? Yes, I’m a writer and an actor but writers take time with their words and actors get scripts and rehearsal. Throw both out and go there and… whaaaat? No. I thought I could never, ever do that. But the chance came up, so I took it. (Note: This part was not free, but the minimal cost has been worth it. Don’t negate my thesis over that, please.)

Anyway… trying to do improv scared me through all of those early classes and even after I’d actually started doing it weekly onstage. But then a funny thing happened. I let go of the fear and started having fun and, suddenly, improv became enjoyable, and the more I learned how to do it, the more I learned how to be myself; I was hitting fewer bogeys and even landing some eagles.

Ironically, the big secret was learning how to shut up my writer brain and let my body take charge. And this tapped into another skill I had avoided learning for way too long only to find out that I enjoyed it: Dancing. But that’s a whole other story.

The same thing happened with Spanish. The more I forgot about the little grammar Nazi in my head and just strung words together with abandon, the easier it got to speak, and letting people know that they could correct me if I got it wrong and agreeing to not take it personally just helped with the learning. Lather, rinse, repeat.

And probably the key point in learning a new thing is to never take correction personally. This is the flipside of allowing yourself to fail. Unfortunately, a lot of teachers are bad at giving correction without making it personal (like every math teacher I ever had, who loved to fling insults). But the best teachers give correction by suggestion or question. “That was great, but have you considered…?” “Amazing, but now let’s try it this way…”

Now, I’m not saying that you have to learn a language or improv, but what I am saying is this: No matter how old you are or how incompetent you think you might be (you’re not) pick a thing you would like to learn, and go take a shot at it. If you can’t afford lessons from the pros, don’t worry. You’ve probably got a local library and can find tons of instructional books. You can probably also find groups of willing volunteers who do the same thing and want to help. That thing can be… whatever. Quilting. Scrapbooking. Trainspotting. D&D. Gaming. Activism. Sports. Fanfic. Cosplay. Improv. Please let it be improv… or playwriting. Yeah, I’m a theatre nerd at heart.

But I love all kinds of nerds. And, full circle. The common thread, I think, about us nerds, is this: We never stop learning about whatever interests us. We need to spread the word to the muggles, and it’s this: Never stop learning, ever. Period. Full stop. Learning to humans should be like swimming to sharks: To stop is to die. Unfortunately, way too many people chose to die when, instead, they could really enjoy living.

A/B test

Linguists have long debated the topic of whether the language you speak affects and changes the way you think, or indeed creates it, but Stanford researcher Lera Boroditsky believes that it does, and about a decade ago her studies did indicate some surprising things about how language can change the way a person perceives space, time, and relative location.

I won’t go into them here in detail since that’s not the point of this post, but there is an aboriginal tribe in Australia that gives spatial directions in absolute terms, based on compass directions — “What are you holding in your northwest hand?” Consequently, not only are they always aware of their location relative to the compass points, but they think of time this way as well. Ask them to arrange a series of photos in chronological order, and they will do it from east to west no matter which way they’re facing.

If you think about it, that makes perfect sense: Time measured from sunrise to sunset; from dawn to dusk.

She did also notice some cognitive changes when they taught English speakers to use the same kind of terms as other languages. For example, they’d ask their subjects to think of durations not as “long” and “short,” but in terms common to Greek and Spanish speakers: little, a lot, and big. They also had English speakers think of time the way Mandarin speakers do — not horizontally and left to right, but vertically, from top to bottom. Yesterday is up and tomorrow is down. Once they started to think in these terms, English speakers started to perceive time vertically as well.

Different languages can change personalities, too. Someone who is shy and reserved in one language may be outgoing in another, and their degree of fluency may also affect the type and depth of change. It’s also a matter of whether someone is bilingual but monocultural, or bilingual and bicultural. In the case of the former, it’s generally a speaker of language A learning language B in their own A-speaking country, largely free of cultural influence from B. For example, a native-born American studying Japanese, but only in the U.S. in school.

In the latter case, the speaker of A will grow up either in the original country of the A language and culture before moving to learn the B language in the B culture, or will grow up in the B country with parents and possibly grandparents who grew up in the culture of A. For example, someone who was either born in Turkey or born to Turkish immigrants to Germany, who either learned only Turkish during their early schooling and then German after emigrating, or who grew up in a household in Germany where Turkish was the primary language, but learned German in school.

I know from my own experience that my personality changes when I speak Spanish. Me hace mucho más coqueto. It makes me a lot more flirtatious. And while I’m technically bilingual but monocultural, the culture of Southern California is so heavily influenced by Latin America in the first place that it takes actual effort to be monocultural here. Then again, the western third of the U.S. used to be Mexico before we manifest-destinied the shit out of it, and two whole continents belonged to the natives and their expansive empires before the Spaniards and Brits toddled along and screwed that up.

Yeah, in English, I tend to digress to lecture a lot. I don’t do that in Spanish so much, either, unless it’s explaining some fascinating thing I discovered about the language to a fellow learner.

Onward!

Another aspect of language is the one that creates group personalities, and part of successfully joining any particular group is picking up on their own specific terminology and slang. Not knowing the terms will immediately peg a person as an outsider. This is very true of improv, and at ComedySportz we jokingly say “We are not a cult,” because some of our warm-up games certainly sound like we are.

But if you eavesdropped on a conversation between a couple of improvisers and had no experience, you’d be totally left in the dark hearing terms like Bunny Bunny, 185, Canadian cross, heel and face, “lean into it,” space work, VAPAPO, Harold, scene game, jump out game, head-to-head, brown-bag, groaner, piano torture, and (#) things.

Some of those terms are even unique to ComedySports and improvisers from other companies might not know them unless they’ve seen CSz shows. Now, if you’ve read my previous post, you probably know where this is going.

Since I started working in the field of health insurance, I’ve been learning a completely different set of words and expressions, a lot of them initialisms or acronyms, and by now I can reel them off by memory: AEP, Part D, MAPD, Plan F, Plan G, effective date, “Original” Medicare, Med Sup, HIPAA, ePHI, open enrollment, re-shopping, CMS (with a whole different meaning than in the internet world), guaranteed issuance, birthday rule, SEP, and on and on.

In all likelihood, unless you’ve ever been on Medicare, worked in a related field, or have helped an older relative navigate its rapids, you probably don’t know what many or any of those terms mean. I sure didn’t just over a month ago. Now, I’m rattling them off fluently with my co-workers.

But, at the same time, I’m now taking on more and more responsibility for explaining the things that I legally can to clients who phone in (I’m not an agent, so can’t recommend plans, or quote prices, or that kind of thing), and the calls are becoming more frequent since we just sent out a massive mailing to let everyone know that it’s time to re-evaluate their Medicare Part D, which is the insurance that covers their prescriptions. Long story short, insurance companies change their formularies, or lists of drugs that they cover, every year, and announce the changes effective January 1st on October 15th. These can make huge differences in cost, especially if a plan suddenly drops a particular drug, or another one has a price increase for a certain tier.

Thus begins the AEP, or annual enrollment period, which runs from October 15th to December 7th. Have I bored the hell out of you yet? It’s actually a lot more fascinating than it might sound, and for me it’s a good insight into the monster we’d be up against with any attempt to make Medicare for All work, especially if it maintains its weird four-part structure.

This brings me back to the language thing, though. In essence, I’m helping people understand a foreign language that I’m only just learning myself, and when I’m on the phone I can already feel my personality change. For one thing, I speak a lot more slowly than I usually do, and my entire manner slips much more into friendly but neutral customer service voice.

And yes, it’s a lot different than my phone personality when I was doing customer service for the Dog Whisperer’s website or when I’m dealing with customers who call the ComedySportz L.A. office or box office because, again, those are different worlds and different languages.

I’ve also quickly learned to become much blunter with people who aren’t clients. It’s amazing how many sales calls the office gets, especially with sales people who try to do so in the guise of already having some sort of business or client relationship with the boss, and he taught me a great question to ask: “Are you calling to buy something from him, or to sell him something that will increase his business?”

Not that this will get them through, but at least I’ll take a message instead of hang up on them.

The real trick, though, is to not get caught up in the confusion that a lot of callers have — and they’re totally right to be confused, since this is either entirely new to them if they’re just turning 65, or because every so often there’s one sudden big change (like this year) and I’m dealing with a number of people anywhere from their mid-70s to mid-90s. A lot of them at that age don’t like change, so they just try to shut it out. Plenty of them don’t mind change and don’t shut it out, of course, but I don’t seem to get those calls.

The end result of it all, though, is that I find myself in the same split-personality world I was in way back during my first office job right out of college, before I went into that almost-exclusive entertainment-related career: normal person by day, creative freak show by night. Bilingual and bipersona, to coin a phrase. The secret is being able to switch back and forth.

The stage fright paradox

Long-time readers know that in addition to being a writer, I also have some background as an actor and, for the last couple of years have been doing improv. I originally got into acting bass-ackwards in college. My first semester, one of my professors found out I played keyboards, and asked if I’d be in the ensemble for a musical another professor was directing. I agreed, did the show, and had a great time, plus made a lot of friends in the theater department. The next semester, I was invited to the theater department intro meeting and those friends dared me to audition for the show right after the meeting. I did, figuring no way in hell would I get cast.

I got cast, then went on to become a theater minor, doing a few more shows and directing some and really enjoying it. Plus, it was a good experience to help my playwriting ambitions, and here’s advice I’d give to any aspiring playwright: Even if you think you’d suck at it, act in a stage play at least once. It’ll make you a better writer because you’ll understand what actors have to go through to bring your words to life.

As for the improv, it was one of those things I’d always loved to watch but the idea of doing it scared the crap out of me. Then the chance to actually learn it from brilliant teachers came up, and I figured, “Okay. I’ll either totally suck and it’ll justify my fear of doing it, or I’ll get over that fear and have some fun.”

Option two ensued, and now, instead of it scaring the crap out of me, I live to do some improv onstage — which led to another really interesting realization recently. But first… some background.

What do you think is the most common fear among people? Death? Spiders? Heights? Germs? Snakes? Nope. Time after time, surveys show that the most common fear humans have is… public speaking! (Insert dramatic chipmunk music.)

That’s right. Most people would rather die, kiss a tarantula, walk on the ledge of a skyscraper, lick a sidewalk, or make friends with a boa, than get up in front of their fellow humans and talk. And that’s just weird. Well, at least it is to me.

Full disclosure: My three big phobias are death, amusement park rides with long vertical drops, and being the cousin who draws the short straw in the “Go with Nana to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve” contest. (You fuckers… next year!)

So there’s the context. I have no fear of public speaking or going on stage and performing. But I recently realized something even weirder: The more people there are in the audience, the better. It’s almost like that many faces looking back at me from the dark just makes my brain lock into some weird super-focused zone. The more people there are watching, the more chances I’ll take — and that is exactly what we’re supposed to do in improv. Make bold choices, take big chances.

For some reason, it also makes me spin off into characters that aren’t me — something I have trouble doing with small houses — as well as get emotionally connected and crazy in a scene. Again, what I should be doing, but what it takes that extra set of eyes to get going.

And it’s something I never would have suspected I could have done before I took the chance and started studying improv (which scared the hell out of me, remember?) in the first place. And making up characters and lying is something I’ve done in this article, if you’d like to go three paragraphs up and drop one phobia from that list.

Yes, that’s right. What do improvisers do? Get up on stage and lie to people convincingly. And the bigger the crowd we can lie to, the better. It’s kind of like how believing in fairies resurrects Tinker Bell. The more the merrier and all that. Although it does make me wonder whether politicians become consummate liars precisely because they have large audiences.

I asked some fellow performers, and they all seemed to agree: When it comes to audience size, the more the merrier, especially if they don’t know the people in the audience. One friend told me, “I find it more enjoyable for me as a performer when there is a larger audience rather than… small,” adding that an audience of strangers can be easier, because “In front of strangers there are no expectations and they can be surprised; whereas in front of friends, they already expect you to be funny or do something weird.”

I can definitely relate to that one. If I don’t know the people watching I actually feel more comfortable because I’m coming at them as a blank slate. They don’t know who I really am or what I really sound like, so I can ratchet up the characters and voices and such. Another thing I’ve found is that the bigger the house the better, as in theater size. The largest house I’ve ever performed for was at the L.A. Theater Center downtown, to a capacity crowd of maybe three or four hundred, and, surprisingly, every ounce of anxiety or stage fright just disappeared. Another friend concurred on that, saying that it’s “easier to perform in a large house with strangers. The audience feels more removed. It makes it easier for me to escape into the world of the play. In a small house, I can see and hear everything from the audience. It’s very distracting to me.”

Not everybody agreed to the large house theory, though, and one of my fellow improvisers split the difference, preferring a medium house. “A house with a dozen or fewer seems to suck the energy right out of the room. A house with more than a hundred seems to disburse the energy in a million directions.” They also didn’t preclude friends, although with a qualification: “It’s harder for me to perform in front of other performers; I feel like I’m under scrutiny. It’s much easier to perform in front of non-performing friends. I feel like they’re there to support.”

My sentiments were perfectly echoed in one other comment, though: “I love performing for strangers. I can really let go of ‘me’ and be a larger character.” Yep. Give me that room full of strangers, and I will get so large it scares even me. In a good way.

One other improviser put it nicely: “I prefer performing for strangers. There’s less consequence and no grudge match I have to deal with afterwards if they tell me they loved or hated the show.” I’ve experienced the same thing as a playwright, and I remember one fascinating conversation after a short play of mine, when I got into a discussion with an audience member who didn’t know who I was and who started ripping specifically on my piece. I could see my friends out of the corner of my eye ready to dive in and pull me off lest I started beating his ass, but to me it was actually very helpful and not at all an insult to hear a stranger speak honestly about their reaction to my work because they didn’t know it was mine. It was clearly just a matter of my piece was not a fit for his taste, and there’s nothing I can do about that, after all. Right? He didn’t hate the craft so much as the subject matter. It’s like my utter disdain for gory horror movies. A lot of people like them. I don’t. My dislike doesn’t mean they’re crap. It just means they’re not my cup of tea.

Exception: Theatre of Blood with Vincent Price and Diana Rigg, which  I love. The film is so classy that it transcends the genre. But I do digress…

One other notable comment from one of my respondents, regarding pre-show angst: “Much of that anxiety goes away once I’m on the stage,” and I have to agree. Actually, almost everything bad goes away once I go on stage. Am I feeling nervous? Under the weather? Stressed? Angry? Insert negative emotion here… Yep. Stepping out of reality and into that other world tends to take away everything but the immediate relationship between fellow performers and the audience and it is wonderful.

Performing is really the best therapy in the world for all ailments physical and mental — and I’m not kidding. I’ve gone on stage with the flu, sprained joints, right after a nasty break-up, in the midst of a panic attack, and during or after who knows how many other setbacks and infirmities. And, in every case, as soon as the lights went up and the show started, bam! The thousand slings and arrows of the real world melt, thaw, and resolve themselves into art.

The Play That Goes Wrong

The Play That Goes Wrong” seems to be a bit polarizing. I have friends whose reactions were “Meh.” I have friends whose were like mine: Loved it. Then again, I’ve always loved “Noises Off,” which is another British play with a similar conceit, in which we watch an amateur theater production go off the rails. In “Noises Off,” there are three acts and a rotating set, so we see the first act as the audience would, the second from the wings, so stage and backstage at once, and the third is only backstage. It’s three looks at the same show, so by the time we get to the end, we know what got screwed up onstage and finally get to see why it happened.

The Play That Goes Wrong” takes a more linear approach, so we see one performance that gets increasingly wonkier. The show-within-a-show is ostensibly an Agatha Christie manqué murder mystery set in a stately mansion. The actor who plays the detective, Chris Bean as Inspector Carter (in reality, Evan Alexander Smith), not only directed the play, he designed costumes, made props, etc., etc. And if you do go to the show, your enjoyment will be greatly enhanced by reading the fake actor bios and whatnot in the playbill info for “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” because they will add so much to the play for you.

Is this necessarily a good thing? Well, considering that the show starts well before curtain with the stage manager and tech dude futzing with the set (and hilariously involving an audience member in what turns out to be foreshadowing) while two of the running crew wander the audience, frantically trying to find a lost dog, I’d say yes. There is no fourth wall here at any point after you enter the theater, and that’s half the fun. There was even one moment when an audience member shouted something to the actor on stage, and I could not figure out whether it was an usher, or just someone who really got into the spirit of it. It certainly set up the rant from the character that followed, and it says a lot about the writing and performing that he got exactly the reactions he needed from us to make successive lines make sense.

Or maybe there was a lot of ad-libbing and improv of the order of things. Hard to tell which.

As for the show itself, I think the big reasons it amused me so much were these: First, I’ve done a lot of theater in… let’s say, low-budget circumstances… and things are always going wrong, people are forgetting lines, missing cues, breaking props, and so on. Oh, sure. Never to the disastrous scale seen here, but this is just the nightmare cranked up to 11. Second, as an improviser, I was incredibly amused by the conceit that the actors are going to stick to the script as written no matter what happens, dammit! And this is what gets them into the most trouble.

For example, at one point, a character enters to get a pencil for the detective, but it’s not where it’s supposed to be. He finally exasperatedly grabs what is very obviously an antique key to the door, still calling it a pencil. All of the characters are working very hard to try to ignore everything that’s wrong around them. Improvisers would embrace this, acknowledge the weird, and run with it.

A perfect example is when one character refers to a portrait on the wall, saying that it’s the father of the brothers in the story and that one of the brothers is his spitting image. But it’s actually a painting of a dog, which in the real life of the play is the same dog the stagehands couldn’t find before the show. The characters continue to play it as if the portrait is human. Improvisers would have gone right to it actually being a dog portrait, but that being the most normal thing of all, and would have come up with one of a dozen ways to justify the brother being its spitting image.

The performances are amazing, and the physical feats as well as the timing here are just mind-boggling. Several characters apparently get whammed really hard by errant parts of the set, and we have stage combat, acrobatics, what amounts to juggling, and several physically tricky exits of characters carried, dragged, or dropped  by others through doors and windows. As for all that “whamming,” which quite often involves hits right to the face and multiple knockouts, I know how this is done, but it was done impressively and convincingly and at more than full-speed.

This is definitely a show that probably has a good hour of slo-mo combat/action practice before every performance.

And as for the acting… it takes an amazingly talented cast to take a bunch of actors as characters who aren’t so great, and make them bad in just the right ways. There are no standouts because everyone was exceptional. Dennis Tyde as Perkins, the butler (Scott Cote) has somewhat of a problem when it comes to remembering or pronouncing obscure words, like “fakade” or “kianeedy,” (façade and cyanide), and this becomes a running gag that leads to a meltdown. Cote draws this character perfectly. As Robert Grove playing Thomas, Peyton Crim the actor brings a very Brian Blessed bigger-than-life vibe to the whole thing, and his physical work, especially when trapped on a lofted playing era threatening to collapse is amazing. Jamie Ann Romero, in real life, plays Sandra Wilkinson who plays Florence, the female lead, who can’t seem to keep it in her panties, at least figuratively, and her affairs with several characters seem to be the catalyst for the murders. Romero is brilliant at giving Sandra just enough talent to be not that talented, but way too declamatory and funny as hell, and watching her morph from Gatsby flapper to a demented and battling Betty Boop is hilarious.

I’ve already mentioned Evan Alexander Smith as Chris Bean, man of many hats, and our detective, Trevor. Not only does he hold the center of the piece together, but he does it as a man who, in his reality, is about to fall apart since this show is his baby, and it isn’t going well. In fact, the moment when he finally breaks character and lets loose is one of the highlights of the whole show.

Then there’s Ned Noyes as Max and Arthur, the trust fund baby, and it’s clear from his fake bio that he’s probably only here because he donated a shitload of money to the company. He’s also the only character who, as an actor, plays two roles but the clue to that is, again, in that bio. He breaks character and the fourth wall constantly, fawns and prances for the audience in many “Wasn’t I clever, there?” moments, and gives a huge bit of fan service in the second act. In short, Noyes makes us love his character for all of his shortcomings as an actor and it’s clear that he, himself, as an actor is just having a ton of fun up there. (Well, everyone is.)

A murder mystery needs a victim, and we open with Jonathan Harris as Charles, the victim, played by Yaegel T. Welch, caught at lights up in the first of many mistakes. His Harris is an actor who can’t quite play a convincing corpse, which is problematic in a murder mystery, but perfect in a play like this. The harder he fails at it, the harder we laugh.

Rounding out the cast are Angela Grovey as Annie Twilloil, the stage manager, and Brandon J. Ellis as Trevor Watson, the light and sound operator. They are also the only two American characters in the play. (Again, read those fake bios, people, they’re worth it.) Trevor is only here to get a credit needed to graduate, and he’s not a theater person. Meanwhile, Annie seems to have a terror of being seen by the audience at all. That’s another reason to get there early and watch the pre-show, not to mention that specific things she does then actually turn out to be more foreshadowing of what happens later.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but both Annie and Trevor wind up involved in the onstage happenings more than they want to be, and Grovey and Ellis nail it in character to a T, but in two totally different ways. Annie is initially terrified to be there, but after a moment of audience approval, she suddenly opens up and steals the stage — quite literally later.

Meanwhile, Trevor clearly doesn’t want to be there at all, and especially not when he’s suddenly put in an awkward situation that becomes one of the biggest moments in the second act. (Kudos to Ellis for just going for it as an actor, by the way.) Also impressive: While he spends most of his time during the show scrolling on his phone between cues in the “booth,” which is played by a mezzanine level box, he is still able to take focus exactly when the script needs it, and also plays the audience brilliantly. Of course, I happened to be sitting dead center in the main Mezz, which was right where his eye-line went, so he and I kind of developed a weird little thing during the show.

Not that I have any complaints about that. Nor did Max. But I do digress.

The other two really impressive things about the show are, well, of course the script, and the tech. Script first… the thing to remember is that the murder mystery story here really doesn’t matter, because that’s not what we’re following, but it still made sense. But on the level above that, what really impressed me — and I don’t know how they did it unless there was improv involved — was that certain moments got exactly the emotional response needed from the audience to justify the next lines of dialogue, and this happened multiple times. In fact, when Chris Bean melted down onstage, it happened about five times in a row in the same scene.

The other is that, beyond the timing and juggling of the actors, the physical working of the set was perfect, and whoever designed it deserves All the Awards. We had things falling off of walls, or randomly suddenly staying, a door that became a character on its own, a lofted playing area of many surprises, a stage elevator that, behind the scenes, was way more complicated than this fake company should have attempted — hey, lights and a ladder, maybe instead of a practical lift? — props that either vanished or fell or flew apart, flats that decided to, um, take a bow, recalcitrant doorknobs, and on and on and on. It was a set built to fail, and it fails spectacularly, bit by bit, over the course of the show. The set was, as Trevor describes it, “a death trap.”

The most impressive thing is that the timing of set failures is just as exacting as that of the actors, and I would love to interview the tech people and find out how they did it all. I’m suspecting a ton of remotely controlled magnets and levers (probably via MIDI?), and a third running crew member beyond sound and lights in charge of all the effects.

But I’m just gushing now. As a theater kid, I loved the show just because. As an improviser I loved it even more just because because. Most of the muggles watching with me seemed to love it, too. If you fall into any of those categories, see it if you get a chance. This run ends on August 11. And then before or after, stream “Noises Off,” a 1992 movie version of that play starring Carol Burnett, John Ritter, Christopher Reeve, and Michael Caine, among others.

Meanwhile, this play goes wrong in all the right ways.

Theatre Thursday: It takes character

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Skeeze  from Pixabay.

How to be funny

Drama is easy. Comedy is hard. Why? Because, too often, we try to write the funny instead of the reality.

I’ve written both comedic and dramatic scripts, so I can tell you beyond all doubt that it is much, much harder to write comedy than it is to write drama. I should know. Over the years, I’ve had more than a few readings of comedic plays that I’d developed in workshop, and everyone in that small room without an audience thought the jokes and situations were hilarious. Hell, even I thought they were hilarious on re-reading, and I can be one of the harshest critics of my own work. And then we’d come to the reading with an amazing cast, quite often made up of actors I’d specifically written for, knowing their strengths and kinds of characters they could play well. Then we’d get it out there for an audience, read it straight through — and from the reaction you’d think that I’d written the darkest of tragedies. Not a laugh nor a giggle nor a titter.

This is why, as a writer, learning how to do improv is so important — it will inform your writing. (Not, however, the other way around, but that’s a subject for later.) For a long time while learning, I would aim for the funny while doing improv. A clever idea, a funny line, a weird character, whatever. My brain would tell me, “Oh, this would be hilarious here,” and then I’d do it, and sometimes it would work and a lot of the time it wouldn’t, and my teachers would give me the encouraging look a parent gives a child when they say something really cute but stupid, then proceed to give me a note.

I appreciate every opportunity like this, though. Honest criticism is the only way to learn, and I needed a lot of it. But, sometimes, the best way to learn about your own mistakes is to watch someone else make them, and recently I wound up working with a fellow student who is genuinely talented and very funny — but he would always aim for the punchline as well, and that’s when I realized what the problem was. But let me back up one second for a technical explanation.

There are really two types of routines (or in the parlance of my improv troupe, games) that improvisers do, ignoring short vs. long form for the moment. There are scene games and there are so-called “jump out” games. Now, for the “jump out” games, which are essentially a series of dueling one-liners, it’s all about the jokes and the funny and the humor. You might not be familiar with any of the games our group does, but if you’ve ever seen “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” then you may know of games like “Scenes from a Hat” and “Props.”

In the former, the host will read out a prompt, like “Things you can say to your dog that you can’t say to your partner,” and then the improvers will jump out, make a quick joke, then go back to their spot. (“Sit!”) With the latter game, two teams each get their own weird prop or props, and they have to alternate coming up with as many funny uses and lines for it as possible — for example, if the props are two traffic cones, a quick Madonna impersonation will probably happen.

All very funny, very fast, and none of it would create an entire evening of satisfying comedy. They’re more like punctuation.

Scene games are, well, what they sound like. There may or may not be an audience suggestion, but then the players are let loose to interact with each other, and that’s the key word. Interact. And the secret to scene games, and to comedy in general, is to never go for the funny. Go for the relationship. It isn’t about the jokes. It’s about the reactions, in context of that relationship, and where they go. And the humor comes from that.

Imagine two people walk on stage and you have no idea how they’re connected. Then one of them says, “Nice hair,” the other one says, “Oh, shut up,” and they exit, end of scene. Not very funny, was it?

But bring the two people on and let them establish their history. Maybe they’re siblings, or parent and child, husband and wife, lovers, co-workers, best friends, worst enemies, whatever. And they don’t exist in a vacuum, so they’re somewhere, and they each want something. And then, once we have that framework, we have something else very important.

See, what makes comedy happen is its relatability. That is, when the audience identifies with the characters or situation, they empathize, and it’s that empathy that leads to the comedy. The reaction is either “Oh, I’ve been that person” or “Oh, I’ve put up with that person” or “Oh, I’ve seen that happen,’ and it leads to the laughs.

During a space work class recently, I had this insight while doing a scene with another student that, to me, felt like it really didn’t go anywhere, and it all started with him creating an invisible revolving door and entering a hotel lobby. I entered after, and we quickly established that he was a tourist in New York and I was a local — and then I proceeded to appear to be rude, but when his character called me out on it, mine would explain that I wasn’t, it was just the way New Yorkers did things, and we’d patch things up until my next offense.

And my offenses were not coming from a place of, “Oh, what would be funny here?” Rather, they were coming from a place of, “Okay, he’s a yokel, I’m urban, he just said that, so how do I (in character) feel?”

I found myself very present in that conversation with him. I wasn’t trying to think of anything funny to say, I was just listening and reacting. At the same time, I was thinking, “Shit, we must be boring the hell out of everyone else right now.” But we went on. And on. And on… it seriously seemed like a good ten minutes, although I’m sure it wasn’t.

And when it was over, the teacher jumped up and asked the rest of the class, “Wasn’t that totally engaging?” And they agreed. “I could have watched that all night,” he told me and my scene partner, and I was kind of bowled over.

I was also reminded of Nichols and May. If any of my readers know them, they probably know them as the film directors Mike Nichols and Elaine May, but many eons ago they were an improv comedy team. I only learned about them because my grandfather was a record collector. He would buy boxes of LPs at garage sales, pull out what he wanted, and then leave the “crap” for me and my cousins. Well, his definition of “crap” was “anything recorded after 1950” and “anything spoken word,” so I wound up with quite a collection of stand-up and comedy albums from the 50s and 60s — Newhart, Carlin, Bruce, Berman… and Nichols and May.

And the thing about Nichols and May is that they did not go for the jokes. They created relationships, and then created the emotional stakes, and subsequently the drier and more matter-of-fact they got, the funnier it got. Sure, they would pull out old tricks like repetition (the rule of 3s!), callbacks, sudden tilts, and so on — but everything was about the relationship between the two characters.

I hadn’t even thought of their stuff in years and hadn’t listened to them since I was a kid, but this little improv lesson in character and stakes as comedy builders brought them back to mind tonight. Here’s a particularly great example that begins with one of the most basic and common relationships of mother and adult son, and then spirals right off into hilarity that probably every one of us can relate to, but it’s all built on the emotional reactions from one to the other. Not a joke in the bit, and yet, you’ll be laughing your ass off.

Here’s the thing: while all art should reflect the truth in some way, comedy needs to be ten times as truthful as drama. Why? Because drama may depict travails and tragedies we have not gone through ourselves, but which we can understand. But for comedy to hit, we have to relate to the situation and the relationship, and everything else. We cannot laugh at a universe we have not experienced, and we cannot make others laugh until we show them that we have also experienced that universe.

One other way to put it: Drama shows other people being strong. Comedy shows all of us being weak — but, in exposing our weaknesses, sharing our vulnerabilities, and coming out better and more honest for it on the other side. That’s why laughter is cathartic. Humor is the great leveler. A sense of humor is the most important thing any of us can have.

As Mel Brooks put it, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”


Image of Mike Nichols and Elaine May by the Bureau of Industrial Service for CBS Television