Theatre Thursday: The house is dark tonight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The coronaviruses say, “As you should be.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatre Thursday: It takes character

As I write this, a lot of legit theaters around the country, including my own improv company, have gone temporarily dark to help do their part to prevent spread of the coronavirus. “Dark” in theater lingo means that there’s nothing playing onstage that night. I will still be doing improv on Monday nights. We just won’t have any outside audience. But the show must go on, and so must this blog./

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.

All the world’s a stage…

Once upon a time, a certain G-word was so commonly applied to theatre people that there’s even a famous musical with it as the title, and it was casually tossed about to refer to Broadway performers for ages. It’s now pretty much considered to be a racist and derogatory term, but how it came to also be applied to theatre people says a lot about the commonality between one profession and one ethnic group of uncertain origins.

That group, properly known as the Roma (although that G-word actually splatters over to several other groups) is mostly known for being itinerant workers, often fortune-tellers, who wandered from place to place, with no fixed location, and that is how the term spilled over to actors and theatre people in general.

Like the Roma, actors and theatre generally didn’t get a lot of respect throughout history, and they didn’t tend to stay in one place for long. During the Medieval period, acting troupes would go from place to place on pageant wagons, which you can think of as primitive RVs or tour buses that opened out into stages with scenery and entrances and exits and the whole shebang.

It really wasn’t until the end of the Medieval period and beginning of the Renaissance that rich people started to keep troupes of pet actors to entertain, although these troupes still might tour, and acting wasn’t their day job, per se. Ironically, the need for these players to go tour and play elsewhere planted the seeds for the commercialization of the profession.

Things stabilized by the time of the late Renaissance, and especially by the time of Shakespeare and, through various ups and downs, companies of actors became the norm.

But not venues. For some reason, most performers seem to be denied owning real estate, and that’s where we get back to the late Medieval/early Renaissance model. “You can entertain us, but you have to pay for the privilege now.”

And this brings us to modern day theatre in America, and the reason for this particular post. I’ve written many, many, many times here about the improv company I belong to, perform with, and work for, and as has happened before and will happen again, a company is pulling up stakes and leaving its current theatrical home, but that’s okay. This happens all the time.

There’s an interesting irony here, because just over twenty years ago, near the end of the last century, I joined a group called The Company Rep, which is now so defunct that the only way to find them online is to know the names of shows they did and get very specific. They were born from the ashes of a group called Actor’s Alley, and the latter ended and the former began on the second stage of the El Portal Theatre.

This is significant, as you’ll see shortly.

The Company Rep (or TCR) did a couple of shows there before moving on, and our next location was at was then called the American Renegade Theatre, where we put on shows like Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, The Comedy of Errors, and a war protest reading of Lysistrata as part of a world-wide project on the propitious date of 03/03/03.  Hey — I still own the T-shirt!

After that, we moved to Deaf West to use their space while they weren’t because they were on tour, and did some great shows, finally folding in 2005 after the world premiere of the original musical Rosenstrasse.

In the case of that company, I think it was that we were a little to out there to manage to capture a large audience. Oh, we had a small base of loyal fans, and shows I acted in during those few years were among my favorites. I mean, where else could I have played Glitter Jesus, a riverdancing Irish cop, a depressed unicycle riding bear, a bunch of 19th century British types, and Death?

Well, okay, in improv, all that and more. But the significance of the space this company was born in is that it was exactly the same theater where I first met that improv group, ComedySportz L.A. Hell, not just the same theater, the same space within it.

And that is part of the reason that both TCR and CSzLA chose to move on. It’s great to have a nice performing space — which it definitely is — but it can be really hard to establish your brand when the building your in has a different name splattered all over it. Sure, CSzLA got marquee space (which I don’t remember TCR ever having) but it was on the south side of the bay window shaped marquee only, which means that it was pretty much only seen by commuters coming home from and not going to work.

Important distinction, because if you plant the idea in the morning, people are going to remember and wonder about it during the day and maybe find out how to see the show. Get them in the evening though, and the only thing they’re focused on is getting the hell home.

The other thing that made both troupes move out was that their ideals did not exactly line up with those of management. TCR and CSzLA were and are not about making money. They are about making entertainment.

Flip that to figure out what they were dealing with, and the supreme irony is that the Dickens villains in both stories two decades apart were the same damn people.

Imagine that.

But… our moving on is a good thing. This is the beginning of a summer tour, traditional a time when audiences fall off. But now, unencumbered by a permanent location (and having to pay out the nose for it), it’s time to put the L.A. back into CSzLA.

Both experiences remind me what theatre people are all about. Theatre. And maybe that’s the age-old story continued. Rich people who own shit really hate poor people who create stuff, and so it’s the perpetual destiny of the performing artist to have no fixed address for their art.

But you know what? We thrive on that. It’s impossible to name any theatre company in any city that has not been through at least one change of address (if they’re relatively new) or through more than a handful if they’ve been around a while. It’s the nature of the beast. And, sometimes it’s necessary to fire up the pageant wagons and hit the road, and that’s okay.

Or to borrow space from other thespians and do the equivalent of theatrical couch surfing, and that’s even better.

It may seem paradoxical for me to say that having no fixed location is better, but it really can be. Why? Because if we perform in one spot, there may be people in another who will never go there.

This is an infamous L.A. problem. It’s hard to get people from south of Mulholland to come into the Valley for damn near anything, and nearly impossible to get anyone from outside of the Westside to go there or people from the Westside to venture out to anywhere not there.

People in the West Valley won’t go farther east than Encino or farther south than Ventura Boulevard. Meanwhile, nobody wants to go downtown or into Hollywood unless they’re there already (proving that they’re completely ignorant of how easy Metro makes that), and Glendale, Pasadena, and beyond might as well be separate states if you’re in any of the aforementioned places, and vice versa.

So here’s the big benefit. If our company has no fixed home, we can go anywhere. We can haul our pageant wagon, so to speak, to where the audiences are, and we can do what the big-ass fixed places can’t: Get out there and directly meet new people and develop audiences that we just might get to defy the traditional L.A. “no go” rules.

And we’ve already seen this work with our college league, because we’ve certainly gotten regular audience from places as not so far away as La Crescenta and as hell-and-back far as Riverside/Upland. It’s all about incentive.

Yes, and… a theatrical troupe is not the building it’s in . It’s the people who are in it. Um… the troupe, not the building. So don’t worry. We are going to be more than fine. We got this. When we heard the news, our reaction wasn’t “Oh, shit!”

It was and always will be, “Yes, and…?”

Theatre Thursday: Cracking the shell

Recently, I was given a reminder of what was past for me, as well as a demonstration of what is present, with the realization that the dividing line was set in October, 2016, when I went to see my first ComedySportz show as an audience member.

In January 2017, I took my first class, Improv 101 and, over the course of the following year I completed the curriculum. In January of 2018, I started performing with the Rec League, and I haven’t looked back. A Rec League “season” is one calendar quarter, so as of April, I will be starting my 10th season.

However, a couple of weeks ago in February, we had our 11th anniversary show, which is always a big deal. And this time, I finally talked my older brother and his girlfriend into coming to see me perform. The nice thing about our anniversary shows is that we have a potluck with the audience afterwards, which is not our normal M.O.

And at this potluck, as I talked to my brother’s girlfriend (I really want to call her sister-in-law, although she’s not), I noticed that my brother (well, half-brother, same Dad, different Mom) was sitting on a chair in the corner, not interacting with anyone.

It was in that moment that it struck me. Before I’d gone through the improv classes, that was me at any party where I didn’t know a lot of the people there. I would become a total wallflower and just observe, not interacting with anyone.

That was my reminder of what was past. The demonstration of what is present came six days later before our Sunday Team show. Normally, I only work box office at the theater, but every so often, a house manager won’t make it or they couldn’t schedule one, so I do both jobs at the same time, and this was one of those days.

As Box Office Manager, I only sell tickets, check people in, answer the phones, and deal with that kind of stuff. As House Manager, I also have to set up and sell concessions; supervise the ushers; fire up the theater including setting the thermostat and turning on the sound and light equipment, the projector, and the lobby TV; give the players their call times, usually starting at fifteen minutes before the show and leading up to “places;” deciding when to open the house for audience; and, finally, cuing the keyboardist and announcer to start the show.

Now combine those two, give us a really big house, and it can be a fun night where I really earn it. Both jobs involve a lot of interaction with the public, although it’s mostly transactional, so I never really any changes in my behavior.

However, on this particular Sunday, one of the players brought an old friend along and they arrived at the actor call time, meaning that the friend was more than an hour early for the show itself. He got to hang out in the lobby with me and our one usher, and we got chatty pretty quickly, and it was somewhere halfway through our rather long conversation that I realized, “Holy crap. Before I did improv, I never would have been able to manage this, not in a million years.”

In my previous incarnation, he would have wound up doing most of the talking, and I just would have smiled, nodded, tossed in the occasional “Mmhmm,” and not offered much of anything.

Now? I had questions, I had stories to share, the conversation flowed and covered a lot of interesting topics and I didn’t feel shy or inhibited one bit.

Am I suggesting that improv is the magic cure for being socially awkward or shy or introverted?

Oh, hell yes, I am. I know who I was before improv and I know who I am after. And yes, the process started a little bit during my last phoenix trick about six months before I started improv, but it was everything I learned in improv that just cemented the direction I’d kind of started heading in without committing.

Yes, after I almost died, I became a lot less self-conscious, but improv gave it focus and purpose. Every conversation with a stranger becomes a chance to play a new scene game, except with the ComedySportz golden rule in mind: My job is to make the other players look good.

So if you do have any kind of social anxiety, or your kids do, or you just want to learn how to be more outgoing, go take some improv classes — especially if you do any kind of sales or marketing, although it also helps with customer service.

End shameless plug, but why should I have any shame about it? To paraphrase the late Sy Sperling, I’m not just a ComedySportz employee, I’m a client. And they cracked my shell of inhibition like a walnut under a sledgehammer.

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 am, 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. 

The second oldest profession?

Acting is an odd profession. It’s all about pretending, but doing it in a very real way, at least emotionally. Stage combat, physical injury, death, making out, and love scenes are all faked, of course, but done in a manner that makes them seem real.

In one play of mine, the finale of the first act was one character shooting another in the forehead from across the stage right in front of the audience with the blood and apparent bullet hole appearing live, without cover. It was a brilliant piece of work by the director, tech crew, and actress.

A different play involved a man apparently being murdered in his drunken sleep by a young man wielding a metal hammer, and this was a simple case of misdirection. Timed to a black-out, the younger actor raised the weapon, apparently aimed at his victim’s head, then brought it down — and missed just as the lights went out, hitting a part of the bed rigged to give us the sound of the impact.

That one got gasps from the audience every night.

Another odd thing about the profession of acting is that it’s about the only mainstream one (not counting stripper, prostitute, or porn star) in which a person can get nude in front of their coworkers and customers and not be charged with sexual harassment. Well, at least as long as they keep it in the context of the show. (Note that I’m lumping models who do nude photoshoots or who sit for artists in with actors, because what they do is a form of acting.)

This “nudity in acting” thing has actually led to some interesting exceptions in the public decency laws. Los Angeles County, for example, specifically exempts “persons engaged in a live theatrical performance in a theater, concert hall or similar establishment which is primarily devoted to theatrical performances.”

Other jurisdictions have similar laws while some others don’t. This situation arose when the Supreme Court basically punted on the issue of obscenity in 1973, leaving the decision up to local communities. At the same time, there really aren’t any Federal prohibitions on nudity in places like National Parks, although if they are co-run by a local state or county, then the latter’s laws will take precedence.

But the subject was acting, and one of the very necessary things any cast, acting company, or other assemblage of performers absolutely needs to have is trust — in themselves and in each other.

Trusting yourself comes from within and grows as you train and progress, but your fellow players can also help build your self-trust even as you come to trust them more. Any dramatic production, particularly theatrical, can be compared to a company of soldiers preparing for battle. This isn’t to trivialize what soldiers do. Rather, it’s to emphasize that what happens on stage relies on a cohesive unit that functions as one.

With scripted performances, the emphasis is on following that script and the blocking, not deviating from what was rehearsed while bringing full emotional truth to it, all while experiencing it as if for the first time.

Improv is a little bit different creature because, of course, there is no script. I know there are people who doubt that, but trust me, it’s true. If we do plan ahead, the extent of it is to decide beforehand which particular games are going to be in the show, but this is really more to make sure we don’t bore the audience by having a lot of similar games being played in one match, as well as to make sure that our players and referee are familiar with the rules of what they’re going to be playing that evening.

Otherwise, we really do make up everything on the spot.

And that takes a special kind of trust because we’re going in without a script and without a safety net. Well, without a safety net beyond each other.

One thing about improv that can actually be a problem for some people at the beginning: Anybody can be anyone. That is, when you jump on stage with one or more scene partners, you won’t necessarily be playing your own age, gender, or orientation. We once had a very delightful moment in which a (real-life) father and college-age daughter wound up playing a father and teen-age daughter — except that she played him and he played her, and it was hilarious.

I’ve played boyfriend to a girlfriend played by a younger straight man; mother to a pair of daughters, one played by an older man; and niece to an uncle played by a younger woman, to name just a few.

Improv can also get very physical very fast, especially when we’re sending up particular genres, like romance or a Tennessee Williams play, or in some games that demand it physically, like Big/Little and Moving Bodies. Then there’s always the infamous “cleave” move when the genre that comes up is Shakespeare. It’s basically an abrupt pull in and embrace that looks like the cover of a bodice-ripper, and can be hilarious when it happens between two men in a context other than anything romantic.

“ANTONIO: Nay, thou villain dog, dark not my door, lest I draw sharp steel to you implore.”

“PETROLIO: What, good knave, a threat do you intend? ‘Tis just one way to bring it to an end.”

[PETROLIO cleaves ANTONIO to him. ANTONIO drops his sword and gasps.]

The key point is that one of two things happens. Everyone establishes what their boundaries are and everyone else respects them, or everyone makes it clear that they don’t have boundaries. Surprisingly — or maybe not, because improvisers are all a little weird — I don’t really hear a lot of boundaries being set among our team members.

Or maybe it just gets back to that really trusting each other part.

Since last Monday was the first Monday of the month, it was workshop night for the ComedySportz L.A. Rec League, and it was all about team-building through creating trust, which generally makes for a pretty intense and physical night.

One of the more interesting exercises involved us forming a giant human knot with fourteen people. Step one: Stick out your right hand and take the right hand of somebody in the circle not on either side of you. Step two: Repeat with your left hand and a different person. Step three: Untangle yourselves from the knot.

One of the things that becomes obvious from the get-go is that this is not a trivial problem. You’ve got arms over arms and under arms, and people that seem impossibly blocked from swapping places with each other. But, eventually, we start to figure things out and give each other instructions — “You step over their arms, but duck under theirs.”

“Turn around to your left, then bring your right arm over your head.”

“You get low and we’ll pass over you.”

And it didn’t seem to take all that long until we’d managed to untangle the knot. The big surprise is that we wound up in a circle with every other person facing out except for three people together all facing the same way, which was probably the point where the last two hands joined.

In the second round, the only rule was that we could not talk at all, and we didn’t even manage to do much in the way of untangling, which was a fascinating mini-lesson in communication. Even though we were trying to communicate through body language and facial expression, that somehow didn’t translate, and we only seemed to be able to make the knot worse.

We also did a sort of circular version of a trust-fall, although I prefer to think of it as vertical crowd-surfing. Called “Willow in the Winds,” one person stands in the center with everyone circled around, and then they fall. The rest of the group catches them and pushes them in another direction and the process repeats. Basically, it’s a game of pass the person while letting them almost fall but never really.

To the group’s credit, most of the people on the outside (yours truly included) eventually opted to go into the center, and I have to say that it was a very Zen experience, at least once I learned to just let go and let myself actually fall and trust that everyone would be there. And they were, even if a few times I wound up dipping pretty low, and it also became obvious which parts of the circle were physically stronger than others.

The most surreal exercise also turned out to be the most relaxing. I think it was called “Belly Circle,” and it was pretty much that. One person lied down, then the next person lied down with their head on the first person’s stomach. The third person did likewise to number two, and so on until we’d made it all the way around and the last person wound up with their head on the stomach of the first person.

I wound up with my head on the stomach of one of the tinier women and the head of one of the tinier men on mine, and like I said, my reaction wasn’t discomfort or anything like that. Rather, it was very, very relaxing. And why not? I was suddenly a sandwich, and the bread happened to be two people I already trusted a lot in the group. I could have easily fallen asleep then, and I think a lot of other people on the team felt the same.

And that’s kind of the ultimate trust thing, primate edition: The ability to fall asleep with one of your fellow “monkeys with thumbs” somehow touching you.

Full circle back to the “acting is weird” thing. It’s really only weird if you aren’t an actor or improviser. If you are, then you get it. We travel in a different world, have different rules and boundaries and, oh yeah — mostly only share those with our fellow performers.

And, anyway, it’s all just pretend, right? Except for all of the real that happens right there on that stage in every performance.

Going completely out of my head

I took a circuitous route into the world of improv performance and although I’d had acting training as part of my minor in college and have appeared in various theatrical productions both then and in the more recent past, my primary focus was behind the scenes as a writer. I hadn’t had any formal improv training up until a few years ago.

Now, as an actor, I didn’t have a problem developing and holding onto a character, and as a writer I was creating them all the time, generally acting them out in my mind as I transcribed their words. Of course, it’s a lot easier to do it in these situations because you have the one luxury that improvisers don’t. Time.

So when I was playing an entire Shakespeare show with an Irish accent, I had the time to learn it and practice it and make it stick because it had become second nature. Likewise when I played a bear, or the trippy Spanish-speaking mystical Jesus stand-in in Tennessee Williams’s weirdest play, I had rehearsal time to make all of the discoveries in the text and the performance in order to hone the character.

Contrast that to improv, where if you’re lucky you might get a character prompt and have twenty or thirty seconds to think about it while the referee explains the game to the audience. More likely, though, you only get mere seconds, if that, as the ref turns to the audience for a scene suggestion and you won’t know what it is until they turn back and shout, “Your suggestion is earbuds. Players, are you ready?”

“Yes!”

Whistle. “Begin!”

And that’s all of the character development time we get. Early on, it would always trip me up and I’d wind up playing myself because I was too busy trying to come up with the “platform” of the scene — who, what, and where — for however many of us went on stage to start, or to fill in  if somebody provided part of the platform.

What? Create an entire character on top of that? Are you crazy?

As I’ve written about previously, I learned that my big challenge was letting go of thinking, but it wasn’t until our ComedySportz Rec League coach and improv mentor shared a particular technique with us that I suddenly started to make big breakthroughs.

It’s called VAPAPO, but I’m only going to discuss a couple parts of the acronym so you can get a taste. If you really want to know all about (and get some great improv advice that applies to life as well), you can go buy Jill Bernard’s Small Cute Book of Improv for only five bucks plus two dollars shipping. It’s only fair, since she created the method.

There’s a logical split between the two halves, with the APO being a more advanced and trickier take on the VAP, so I’ll just explain the first three letters and how they helped me.

In case it wasn’t clear already, VAPAPO is a quick character development technique, one that can be activated instantly at the top of any improv scene and quickly drop you into a character. And remember, it doesn’t matter what character you land on. It’s even good to surprise yourself, because that will take you further out of your head and lead to more discoveries and surprises for you and the audience.

So… what do the V, A, and P stand for? Voice, attitude, posture. Pick one, dive into it, and boom. Instant character.

And it really does work. We recently spent an entire workshop practicing each one of the letters, and I surprised myself with what I came up with. For example, Voice is simply that, and a great place to just play around. Experiment with what it’s like if you speak higher or lower; use an accent or dialect; alter the natural rhythm of your speaking between staccato and drawn out; whatever you can imagine. Then take whatever voice you landed on and live it the character it creates.

You’ll find that focusing on the voice affects everything else you do in the scene. For example, in one exercise, I started playing around with a very drawn out, Mid-Atlantic sort of accent, and it wasn’t long before it affected everything else, so that I was standing very upright with my chin in the air, literally looking down on everyone else, and boom — judgmental, elitist  critic of everything was born.

Of course, quite the opposite happened when I let my voice become very become very… stutter… and doubtful about… everything, doubling back, restarting, repeating, etc. And suddenly I found myself with very submissive and docile body language, though still a lot of energy. It’s just that all of that energy was suddenly be expended in self-defense, self-deprecation, and justification attempts of everything. Instant neurosis!

The second letter, A, is for attitude, which just means picking a general outlook on life. Is this person optimistic, pessimistic, hopeful, cynical, naïve, jaded, or whatever? Grab one and run with it. Now imagine how it can change a scene. Let’s say the other performer begins with, “Margaret, happy birthday. I made your favorite breakfast for my favorite daughter. Pancakes!”

Grab an attitude and stick to it, and you could reply with…

“Pancakes, mother? Seriously? You know I’ve eliminated gluten.”

“Pancakes? Oh my god, my favorite. I love you mommy! Did I mention that’s why I’m never moving out?”

“Pancakes. Waffles. Toast. Whatever. Brent dumped me. Life is bleak and meaningless…”

Or so many more, because in improv there are no right answers.

Note that not only do these give your character a strong point of view, they give the other improviser something to react to in an equally strong way, It’s a gift in both directions.

And this brings us finally to P, which is for posture, although you can also think of it as physicality. Basically, it’s everything your body is doing and, personally, I’ve found it to be my strongest “get out of my head” tool. If I just throw myself into some odd shape or movement and follow that, voice and character tend to follow automatically.

Of course, it does work the other way around, where the voice or attitude will tell the body what to do, but for be the advantage of working from the body up instead of the brain down is twofold. There’s the obvious and aforementioned getting out of my head, but the other advantage is that it’s often good to start a scene with some silent space work instead of just launching into the dialogue, so taking the posture/physicality approach kills two birds with one stone.

It gives you something to do and creates your attitude about it in silence while allowing a moment for the voice and character to emerge.

There’s an old joke from my stage acting days that usually emerged when doing period pieces that were not in modern dress, and it was this: “When in doubt, play the costume.”

Funny thing is, it works. Why? Because the costume can dictate your posture or physicality without you even having to try. Imagine that you’re playing in some Victorian era show that has all of the women in bustles, corsets, and high-heeled buttoned boots. Or that puts the men in high, tight starched collars, waistcoats and tails. That gives you a much different physicality than, say, a cast in jeans and T-shirts, or full Elizabethan regalia, or doing a nude scene.

In every single case, you’d move differently as a human and an actor. The trick for improvisers is that we don’t actually have the costume, we have to imagine it, but if the suggestion for your scene is, say, “hazmat clean-up,” what a gift from your audience is that? Because, from the get-go, you’re suddenly wearing one of those bulky hazmat suits, and everything else about you comes right out of that.

Or it should. And the best part is that even if you have three or four performers onstage all doing the hazmat suit thing, the experience of being in it will affect each one of them differently, so that you won’t get a cookie cutter. Rather, you’ll get a smorgasbord.

The following quote is apparently from Jill, but it came via my improv mentor and I can’t find a link back to an attribution for her, so please take this as another plug to buy her book, because it’s full of gems like this that, again, reply to the real world as well: “The fact that you don’t have the same life experiences or perspective as everyone else on your team is your superpower. The ways in which you are uniquely you are an asset. Improv that stays the same and draws from the same well is dull and will die out. You’re necessary. Shoot across the sky and illuminate the night.”

And that, dear readers, is how you get out of your head and experience the wonderful juggling act that is doing improv.