Theatre Thursday: The ghost light is still burning

I haven’t performed on a stage in public for one year, three months, a week, and a day now and at this point I don’t know when I will again. Except for the main company, the rest of the improv troupes that used to be part of the whole have disbanded and although our Monday night Rec League group has met and practiced via Zoom the whole time, it’s just not the same.

As I see live theatre start to sneak back into reality, it just reminds me of how much I miss the experience of performing — and the great irony of that is that I never set out to be an actor or improviser in the first place. My goal was always to be a writer. I just fell into the acting accidentally.

Like probably everyone, I’d done a couple of elementary school plays, but didn’t really think of those as acting. In my first, I was one out of six lumberjacks with construction paper axes and no, I have no idea what the play was, except that I don’t think it was Little Red Riding Hood but it was staged right in the classroom.

In my last year of elementary school, we did do a production of The Pied Piper of Hamlin and we did it on the actual stage in the auditorium. I actually had a fairly featured part — a young boy named Obi. Since he was lame, he wasn’t able to follow the piper with the rest of the children, so he was the only one who knew what could happen and was able to tell the adults.

I had a big speech and everything, although we had a glitch. There was a student who transferred to the school a fairly short time before the performance but, in the interest of having everyone participate, the teacher cast him in a speaking part. Not having had enough time to prepare and rehearse, he totally forgot his lines — which were all in the same scene that was my big one.

Since none of us were particularly good at ad-libbing, the production sort of slid off the rails until someone finally ran on and handed him the book — although he did wind up repeating the speech that was my cue, which got awkward, since the only thing I knew to do was to repeat my scene as well.

When I did get into drama class in middle school, I really sucked at it, so that made me performance shy except for playing piano and keyboards for a couple of musicals. In college, I had no intention of pursuing theatre, except that the music thing came up to lure me back in.

One of the theatre professors heard from one of my friends that I owned a synthesizer, so she contacted me to ask if I wanted to play in the combo for the musical she was directing that fall, which was my first semester of freshman year.

It sounded like fun, so I figured, “Okay, what the hell,” and did it, and it was a game-changer. There were four of us in the combo — piano, bass, drums, and synth. The musical was an odd little show called Philemon, originally produced off-Broadway in 1975, although it never really went on to become a hit, more on why in a moment.

What’s most notable about it, though is that it was created by the same team that had created The Fantasticks fifteen years earlier, and that show still holds the record for longest continuous run of any show in the U.S. The off-Broadway premiere was in 1960 and it didn’t close until 2002.

It could be argued that San Francisco’s Beach Blanket Babylon had a longer run, premiering in 1974 and not closing until 2020. However, it did change venues and it was also a very topical review, so the numbers, performers, subject matter, and lyrics were changing constantly, so it could just as rightly be argued that it wasn’t really the same show or in the same category.

But I was talking about meeee! Back to Philemon: It’s actually a very dark show. Set in third century C.E. Antioch during the Roman occupation, the premise is simple. The location is a Roman prison (concentration camp, perhaps?) holding arrested dissidents, Christians among them.

The rumor is that a famous Christian leader, Philemon, is coming to liberate them. The Romans would really like to figure out who the Christians are but in order to do it, they need a fake Philemon. It just so happens that an amoral street performer and clown, Cockian, has just been arrested, but the head of the camp has an offer for him.

You’ve probably figured out that the offer is to pretend to be Philemon and flush out the Christians, and the story goes from there. The songs were actually surprisingly good and fun to play, and since we were sitting behind the set which was covered with scrims, we could see everything onstage while the audience could not see us — at least not until our curtain call moment, when a change of lighting revealed us.

One of my favorite stories from that play involves a number in which I played a single note as undertone during a monologue, slowly bending the pitch down. I quickly figured out the trick of putting a pencil under the key so I could just focus on the pitch bend, but noticed something else during the course of the run.

This monologue was a speech given by a character who had been discovered to be Christian and sentenced to be flogged to death, and the actor in the role convinced the director to let him do the scene nude — which actually made sense in context. Of course, they kept it tasteful for the audience and most of the rest of the cast was sitting under the upper level of the set at that time, so they couldn’t see anything.

The band, however, had front row seats for Liam’s backstage entrance and butt-ass naked climb up the ladder to that platform, so we got to see everything. But that’s not the interesting part.

No — it’s that I started to time how long I had to play that single note while we were in dress rehearsals, and it started out at about two and a half minutes. But then, once the audience came in, Liam’s performance got more and more dramatic and emotional every night. By the time we closed, that note was almost six and a half minutes.

That’s called milking it.

The next semester, my friends from Philemon talked me into going to the theatre department’s first meeting, then egged me into auditioning for the next play. Figuring that there’d be no way in hell I’d get cast, since I wasn’t even a theatre major, I auditioned — and got cast in a fairly prominent speaking role.

Well, damn. And then I became a theatre minor, did a bunch of shows in college with both the theatre department and the school’s student drama club, and enjoyed it all immensely. But after graduation, I hung up my performing hats for a while and just focused on writing.

I think, by that point, I’d taken to just performing in real life, so didn’t really need an artificial stage. Plus the format of the writing workshop I belonged to consisted of all the writers getting together weekly and then doing dramatic reads of each other’s pages, and I got quite a lot of practice at cold reading and acting, not to mention a chance to perform. I was involved with various groups like that for years, right up until I made the switch to improv.

Of course, writing would eventually bring me back to performing, and this happened after I had joined the writing arm of a theatre company that was on the verge of collapsing. That would have been Actors Alley at the El Portal Theatre, and once it did blow up, somebody else created The Company Rep from its ashes.

At first, I just stuck with the writing group, but after they had moved to a larger theater and announced that they were doing Camino Real, I just had to jump back in again, and so I did. I auditioned, got a really great part that was mostly non-speaking, so very physical, and although I’m sure that show was sheer torture for the audience, it popped me right back on that performing horse again.

The Company Rep didn’t last too long, but I did manage a few really fun roles as well as tech gigs during that time. And then, the biggest irony was that when I got into improv, it was with the company that occupied exactly the same 99-seat space within the El Portal Theatre that Actors Alley had died in and The Company Rep had been born in.

Full circle, then, when the improv company shut down in 2020.

“We’re actors. We’re the opposite of people!” That’s perhaps my favorite line from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which is a wonderfully loopy meta take on Hamlet. Indeed, the whole Stoppard masterpiece is just one of Shakespeare’s most renowned plays as seen from the POV of two minor characters who are summarily dispatched by the melancholy Dane when he turns the tables and alters a letter.

But it’s true. It’s probably the case for a lot of actors, but when we’re not onstage, we can be introverted, awkward, and shy. Throw us on stage, though, with or without a script, and that’s when we’re given permission to come alive.

If only theatre weren’t still dead right now. But, as I said in the title, the ghost light is still burning, so there is still hope that we’ll be back, bigger and better than ever. Hey — a little plague couldn’t stop Shakespeare, right? It’s not going to stop us.

Friday Free-for-All #21

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 is the most comfortable piece of clothing you own?

A lot of people might not consider it clothing, but I do, and the answer to the question is: the outfit my mother made for me.

That may be a bit euphemistic, but a lot of people, particularly Americans, freak out over the real answer. The most comfortable piece of clothing I own is my own skin.

I mean, for one thing, no matter where I go, I’m always wearing it, no matter how many other layers of crap I have to cover it up with. But, when I don’t need all that extra crap, it’s gone, and I suddenly feel my most calm and comfortable.

And when I’m around other people who feel the same way and we’re all wearing the same outfit, nothing could be more, well, comfortable.

Right now, I can hear the Americans clutch their pearls while people from most other continents just nod. (Not all of them, but I’m not going to call out anyone not from my culture.) Perhaps they’re labelling me a nudist right now with some disdain, but that misses the mark.

The better term is naturist, and it simply means someone who prefers to be nude when they can be, and outside if possible and permissible.

Here’s another clue-in for the uninitiated. In English, at least, there are two words: naked and nude. Essentially, they mean the same thing — without any clothing or covering. However, functionally, they are very different.

When someone is naked, they don’t want to be. There is a sense of shame and embarrassment in being naked, as if a person was stripped of their clothing and dignity.

Meanwhile, if someone is nude, it’s because they want to be, period. No shame, and no embarrassment. So, basically, I’m never naked, but often nude.

So why is “nudist” wrong? Mostly because textiles (people who prefer wearing clothes) conflate nude and naked, then assume that being in either state only implies one thing.

S-E-X.

And nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, my route to naturism happened in probably the least sexual ways possible. Number one, I was raised in a suburban, white, middle-class neighborhood — but throw on top of that a mother who was a lapsed Catholic who nonetheless never let go of the guilt and body shame.

Or, in other words, naked was nasty. And I remember many a time when she, my dad, and I would be watching some movie on cable in the den, and no matter how violent or gory something was, she didn’t bat an eyelid or make a move to shield young me from it.

But… flash a single bit normally hidden by someone’s “bathing suit area,” male or female, and she would cluck in disgust at my father, announce, “Oh, I didn’t know that this was one of those ‘nudie’ movies,” and he would change the channel while she reminded me that I had homework to do.

However, I grew up at the very ass-end of the era when P.E. in school was still associated with communal showers — in fact, I think I literally hit middle school a class year before it was phased out one year at a time.

To younger readers who might be boggling at the idea that yes, we all were expected to get nude together in the locker room and go shower, that ain’t nothing. Apparently, it wasn’t until about the 1970s that schools finally ended the practice of requiring swim classes and practice to be done in the nude.

Swimmers were segregated by sex, of course, but apparently this was a tradition rooted in history, and it went back to the 1920s. The only likely explanation is that once upon a time, swimsuits were made out of wool — this was before things like nylon and polyester — which meant that they shed fibers, took forever to dry out, and weren’t exactly that comfortable, either.

Apparently, girls were required to wear swimming costumes — not just for modesty, but also because of menstruation.

But to save schools the expense of doing all the boys’ laundry every day, not to mention wear and tear on the filters, they did away with the suits. And, again, this wasn’t that weird. It wasn’t until around the turn of the 20th century that bathing costumes even really existed, mostly because it wasn’t proper for women to go out into nature before that, and because boys and men didn’t need the formality.

Many decades later, it was still totally normal to get naked and take a shower in a locker room. And so, my first year in middle school and the first Friday of P.E. class came the day when we were finally required to do so.

By this point in my life, I’d only ever been naked around my parents, mostly at bath time and, to be honest, I think it had been a while by this point as well — certainly before I’d hit puberty, which actually got me early, in about fifth grade.

But there we were, and factor in the possible weird points of me also being around friends, some of whom I’d known for most of my life, some not quite as long.

But we’d been given the rules, so off my clothes went, and a funny thing happened as soon as I was nude and marching down the aisle between the benches to the showers.

I didn’t care. It didn’t bother me. It didn’t seem to bother my friends, either. The only thing that seemed to be going on was a strange and silent acknowledgement and admiration toward those few of us (myself included) who had already pubed out from those who hadn’t (most everyone else).

I think there was only one kid in our incoming class in the entire school who had refused and worn a swimsuit — and he was mercilessly mocked and teased for it.

Otherwise, I just felt like it was a secondary P.E. uniform, not unlike the school color shorts and T-shirts we wore out on the field. And I certainly wasn’t feeling anything sexual. Rather, what I was really feeling was this: “Wow. I bet my mom would freak out if she knew I didn’t really care about this.”

And, true to form, at dinner that night, she asked me about the whole thing — clearly, the school had been in touch with the parents to “warn” them about the Big Day, which was the first Friday of the semester.

“Did you have to… shower together today?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Were you embarrassed?” she asked.

My honest answer would have been, “Oh, fuck no. Why would I be?” But the way she’d asked it made me think I had to make her happy, so I lied and said, “A little.”

Once I’d gotten to high school, I only had to do the locker room thing for a semester, but then I joined marching band, which counted as physical education but also didn’t require any of the locker room stuff — boys changed into uniform in one of the music classrooms, girls in the other, and no need to showed because, “They can’t possibly get that stanky during a football game.”

Narrator: “Yes. They could.” But at least they dry cleaned them for us every week.

Still… middle school had knocked the shell off the walnut, as it were, and that was that.

One insight I can provide about being a naturist is this: far from being vulnerable without clothes on, it can actually make you stronger. I learned this firsthand when friends invited me to a clothing optional pool party at their place.

I happened to get there first and adhere to the dress code — and then everyone else who showed up turned out to be a fucking textile. So it was one naked man (me), and eight not-naked people. You know who felt uncomfortable during the whole thing? Hint: It wasn’t me.

And they didn’t feel uncomfortable because they were all looking at my dick because this happened to be a group of gay men. It also wasn’t because I had the most fantastic, ripped body at the party, because I didn’t. I was just average, and at least a few of them were actually really hot.

Nope. Quite simply it was because they did not feel comfortable in their own skins.

So in the dynamic of this situation, I wound up having all of the power because I had none of the fear or insecurity.

That’s because I was wearing an outfit I felt (and feel) totally comfortable in — and if you want to learn to do the same, well… Bea Arthur, bea naked.

Besides, if you’re still working from home and not via Zoom — why not?

Screamin’ Muskrat Love!

UPDATE, March 16, 2020: As the COVID-19 situation rapidly evolves, we have decided to postpone the show for the safety of our cast, crew, and audiences. The new premiere date is tentatively May 8, 2020, but watch this space for future updates.

UPDATE, July 5, 2020: And, as we will remember from history, theatre ended in March of 2020, at least for a while, so Screamin’ Muskrat Love! was put on permanent hold when it became clear that May wouldn’t work, either. Ironically, this is the second time this same play almost made it into production, with the same Producer/Director but then, due to circumstances beyond our control, it didn’t happen.

Hey, fans… if you’re in Southern California and want to come down and see a farce that I wrote, now’s your chance. It opens April 3rd at Defiance Theatre Company, directed by Charlie Vaughn, and with an amazing cast. Here’s our trailer.

Hell, that makes me want to see it, and I wrote it. The play itself was actually based on true events from my own life but which were then spun way out of control. But I’ll be writing more about that next Thursday. Stay tuned!

(Warning: This play contains adult themes and nudity. PG-13 at least; possibly an R.)