Theatre Thursday: Remembering my real second language

As this time of lockdown and uncertainty goes on, what does become clear is that large, live events are probably not coming back soon. Live theatre, movies, concerts, and sports may take the rest of this year off, if not longer. Likewise, the fate of amusement parks of all kinds seems uncertain, or at least will be drastically changed.

Right now, we do have certain areas that have insisted on becoming field experiments, and by the time you read this, it may become clear whether the people who ran out to bars without masks last week did the right thing or made a stupid sacrifice.

Concerts may survive on live-streaming pay-per-view events for a while, and movie theaters may rediscover the drive-in, although those take a lot of real estate. Then again, indoor malls may now be officially dead, so look for their parking lots and large, blank walls to be easily converted.

Live sports are another matter because, by their very nature, they often involve full-body contact, and nobody is going to be going all-out on the field while wearing any kind of mask. Without quarantining every player, official, and support staff member, and testing each of them constantly, it’s just not feasible.

Even then, what about the live fans? It might be possible to limit attendance and assign seats so that social distancing is maintained, but that relies on trusting people to stay in the seats they’re put in, and as we all know, if someone is stuck in the outfield nosebleeds but sees plenty of empty space on the other side behind home plate, they’re going to try to get there.

One unexpected outcome is that eSports, like Overwatch League, may become the new sports simply because they absolutely can keep the players and fans apart while they all participate together.

See? The prophecy is true. After the apocalypse wipes out the jocks, the nerds will take over the world!

As for live theatre, it’s hanging on through a combination of streams of previously recorded, pre-shutdown performances, along with live Zoom shows. And, again, this is where the magic of theatre itself is a huge advantage because, throughout its history, it hasn’t relied on realistic special effects, or realism at all, to tell its stories.

Okay, so there have been times when theatre has gone in for the big-budget spectacle, but that goes back a lot further than modern Broadway. In ancient Rome, they were staging Naumachia, mock naval battles, but they were doing them as theatrical shows in flooded amphitheaters, including the Colosseum, and on a large scale.

And they’ve gone on throughout history, including Wild West Shows in the U.S. in the 19th century right up to the modern day, with things like amusement park spectacles, including Universals Waterworld and Terminator attractions, and Disney’s newly minted Star Wars Rise of the Resistance attraction,

But these big-budget spectacles are not necessary for theatre to work. All you need for theatre is one or more performers and the words.

Theatre is one of the earliest art-forms that each of us experiences, probably second only to music. And we experience it the first time, and every time, that someone reads to or tells us a story, no matter how simple or complicated.

Once upon a time…

That is theatre, and that’s why I know that it will survive eventually — but not right now, at least not in a familiar form.

And yes, this is a big blow to me on two fronts. First, I know that I won’t be doing improv or performing for a live audience for a long time. Second, I know that I won’t be seeing any of my plays performed onstage for a live audience for a long time.

This current plague quashed both of those options, shutting down my improv troupe and cancelling a play production that had been scheduled to open in April, then postponed to May, then postponed until… who knows?

But I’m not marching in the streets without a mask and armed to the teeth demanding that theatre reopen because I’m not selfish like that.

First, it’s because I still have a venue in which to tell stories and write and share, and you’re reading it right now, wherever in the world you are — and I see that I do have visitors from all over — in fact, from every continent except Antarctica, but including Australia, most of the Americas and Europe, some of Africa, and just about all of Asia. Greetings, everyone!

Second, I realized quite recently that this whole situation has inadvertently handed me the opportunity to get back into the first art-form that I officially trained in but never pursued as a profession for one reason: I loved it too much to turn it into the drudgery of a career, and always wanted to keep it for my own enjoyment.

Okay, sure, I did use it a few times from middle school through just after college in order to entertain others but, again, I was doing it for my own enjoyment.

That art-form is music, and I consider it my second language, because I started taking piano lessons at seven — and I was the one who cajoled my parents into letting me do so. The end result was that I was never really into playing other people’s stuff because, once all that music theory landed in my head and made sense, I started making my own.

That seems to be a common thing with my brain. Learn the way the modules work, start to stick them together to make them break the rules while still working. This is probably also the reason why I took to programming and coding early, and why I abuse Excel the way that I do.

Dirty little secret: Music is just math that sounds good. However, the great thing about it is that music also takes all of the pain out of math because it turns it into feelings. When I’m playing, improvising, and composing, my brain is absolutely not thinking in terms of what specific chord I’m playing, how it relates to the others, how it’s going to get from Point X to Y to make Z make sense, etc.

The thing about music and me is that its rules are buried so deeply into my subconscious that, well, like I said… I consider it to be my second language. And, when you’re fluent in any language, you don’t need to think. You just speak, whether it’s via your mouth and tongue, or via your heart and fingers.

So… live performance has been taken away from me by this virus for a while but that’s okay — because online research and ordering still exist, and stuff is on the way. So… I’m diving back into the most direct, emotional and, most importantly, non-word-dependent form of communication humans have ever invented.

Watch this space. Or… well, listen.

Friday Free-for-All #10

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What skill or ability have you always wanted to learn?

This one is easy. I have always wanted to learn how to create visual art by hand. Oh, sure, I learned how do it with a camera as a kid because that’s one of the things my dad did and shared with me; and I’m pretty skilled at graphic design with a computer, but drawing, painting, sketching, and all that kind of visual art has always eluded me.

I have friends who do it, and do it quite well.

Now, oddly enough, I once attempted sculpting and was actually good at it, creating a pretty detailed and accurate human bust as part of a larger art project that I never quite finished. See, I have always been into puppets, and at one point had quite a collected of animal hand puppets acquired over the years.

Nowadays, it’s limited to one, and the largest I ever owned. It’s a sheepdog puppet named Barkley, who was a gift from an ex’s sister and her girlfriend as a thanks for us hosting them on a visit to L.A. and after I’d mentioned in a toy store that I was into puppets.

He was livid that they’d spent so much. Then again, he was toxic, and I dumped him long ago.

But I kept Barkley, and for a long time I worked on that marionette. The reason for the clay sculpture was to create the basis for the mold that would be covered with wood paste and sanded down to become the head and shoulders of the thing.

I was following instructions from a book, and got so far as creating the basic body — arms, legs and all — as well as the clothes to cover it. What I never got to were the hands, feet, and stringing it up, mainly because those last limbs were hard to find at scale, I wasn’t going to sculpt hands, and I never nerved up enough to go out and buy baby shoes in the right size.

So my handless and footless marionette was abandoned over a decade ago when I basically had to evacuate with only the essentials, and that was my one brush with any kind of practical art.

Oh, sure, I’ve attempted to draw and sketch and cartoon and paint, but always with… laughable results. It’s kind of like if you put my writing skills and my arting skills on a scale, the writing side will slam down so hard that it’ll launch my non-existent arting skills to beyond the Moon.

And that’s what I wish weren’t true. I’d love nothing more for the both of them to be equal.

Number two on the list is to learn a stringed instrument — guitar first, banjo or fiddle second, except that that’s kind of a weak get, because I learned how to play bass long ago, and it’s got strings, just fewer, and easier fingering for people like me with really big hands.

Then again, the instrument thing is a cheat, because music does translate over. If I know on a keyboard that a fifth is this many keys apart, for example, it’s easy to learn the idea that a fifth is one string over and this many frets down, an octave might be two strings over and so many frets, and all the other intervals are at easily relative places.

Hell, I grew up playing an accordion, and the bass system on one of those is much closer to the method that stringed instruments use. So the only problem I ever had with learning to play a stringed instrument was the contorted position I had to twist my left hand into.

There was never any such twisting on the accordion. Or, maybe there was, but I just didn’t notice because I was only seven years old. Still — the Circle of Fifths is the universal key to being a musician. As far as I know, there is no such similar thing that covers being a visual artist.

While visual art does have a similar Circle of Color, it teaches you nothing about how to do that art. But — epiphany — I’ve just realized that the Circle of Fifths does nothing on its own to teach you how to do that music.

A-ha moment.

And so… my artistic modes are mostly audio and technical, with an accidentally successful foray into tactile that I have yet to repeat. I would love nothing more than to get into the visual, and learn how to sketch, draw, or paint stuff.

I guess it could happen, but I just need to find time to do it…

Oh, wait. We’re on quarantine now. Sweet…