Theatre Thursday: 120 days to go

Today, September 2nd, marks the start of the eighteenth month of our COVID adventure in the U.S. Everyone had thought that it would all be over by last spring, within a year, but we were wrong.

Despite large numbers of people being vaccinated, there are still breakthrough cases of the Delta Variant, meaning that people who are fully vaccinated can still be infected, albeit generally with much milder symptoms.

Those of us who are fully vaccinated may have to get booster shots to protect against Delta or other variants, and everything is up in the air again.

Unfortunately, some people — among them governors in a couple of very conservative states — seem to be actively doing everything they can not just to prevent but to prohibit local jurisdictions from imposing actions like mandatory masking (especially in schools) or requiring proof of COVID vaccination to work at or attend school, depending on whether the children are old enough.

They’re also blocking requirements for people to be vaccinated to attend certain public events.

As a result, case rates are going up, ICUs are filling up, and people are dying — including a number of very vocal anti-vaxxers and people who have called COVID a “hoax.”

If we had shut down in March 2020 and then not tried to open up in July of that year, waiting instead until September 2020, we might have greatly reduced the spread of infection. It would have also been nice to have the vaccines rolling out in great numbers well before — oh, when was it?

January 20, 2021-ish. But we wound up having to start to shut things down again in March of 2021, with another failed attempt at re-opening in July, and here we are, going through it all over.

September 2 means that there are just 120 days remaining in 2021, but whether this marks the last year of this plague and a turning point when we do beat it or just marks the lead-in to our third plague years is anyone’s guess.

It’s an interesting date, though, because on September 2, 1666, the Great Fire of London began and it burned for five days, destroying a quarter of the city — and this happened on the tail-end of London suffering through the Black Death — the bubonic plague that had struck in 1665.

Now, you’ve probably heard the story that the fire had a silver lining because when it burned down so many houses in impoverished neighborhoods, it drove out the rats, which took the fleas that carried the plague with them. You’ve probably heard it, but the story is not true.

It was probably just a weak attempt at the time (or even years after) to say, “Hey. The fire wasn’t all that bad a thing, really.” Stiff upper lip and all that rot.

If there was a silver lining, though, it was this. The 17th century in general had not been fun for England. First of all, after Queen Elizabeth (not yet the First) died, she left no heirs, so the country had to go to Scotland to find a King, bringing James VI on down — although in England, he reigned as James I.

His assuming the throne essentially united England and Scotland, sort of — ask the Scottish their feelings on that — and he was succeeded by his son Charles I in 1625. However, Charles I really didn’t get along with Parliament, and there was a lot of argument between them.

Charles I believed that monarchs ruled based on divine right — quite possibly because his father was the dude who put the “King James” in “King James Version” of the Bible. But Parliament saw  Charlie boy’s “divine rights” as an excuse for tyranny, which made the king do things like tax the rich.

It eventually came to a head, as it were, Charles I was put on trial, deposed and executed. The driving force behind it was a guy named Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan who took over as Lord Protector once the old king — well, mainly his head — was out of the way.

Cromwell definitely ranks high on any conceivable list of History’s Greatest Assholes. One of his notable acts was shutting down all theatrical performances because, again, he was an asshole and a puritan douche. He also didn’t treat Ireland all that well.

After the English Civil War, he held power for almost five years. Oddly enough, his reign ended on September 3, 1658.

His reign ended because he died, but it was due to disease, not execution. Fear not, though. After the monarchy was restored and Charles II, son of I, took up the throne, Oliver’s body was dug up and he was executed posthumously, his head winding up on a pike in a prominent location in the city.

This happened, fittingly, on the 12th anniversary of the execution of Charles I, which put a nice set of bookends on the whole ugly affair.

Charles II brought back culture and the arts and all that good stuff with a vengeance, and the theatres opened once again. One of the new theatres that opened during what became known as The Restoration was the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane. It opened in 1663 — and then closed down because of the plague. But it did survive the Great Fire of 1666, and kept on going.

Well, at least until 1672, when it burnt down. It was rebuilt in 1674, with a third iteration constructed in 1794 and the fourth and current version erected in 1812.

Moral of the story? Kings and leaders come on go, as do plagues and cities. But art and creativity — and especially theatre — just keep going on, and on, and on, no matter what apparent temporary darkness may befall them.

We’re in the thick of it again now because some people are too selfish and uncaring to do the right thing to help everyone. Sadly (for them) these people will either wind up having to be very lucky, or they’ll die. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground any more.

So mask and vax — or don’t. Just accept the consequences if you choose not to, and don’t beg some doctor to save your life.

Sunday Nibble #64: Out of the ashes

As of today, it will have been fourteen days from my second Moderna vaccination, so I am now technically immunized against COVID — well, at least most strains, although it’s not clear yet whether this vaccine also works against COVID-19 variants alpha, beta, or gamma.

In case those designations don’t look familiar, it’s because they’re new, and are designed to follow the same recently introduced guidelines that ended the practice of naming a virus or flu strain for the area it was first spotted.

So I’ll be keeping my mask on in public for a while even though California is set to end the requirement on June 15th. It’s still not clear whether Los Angeles County is going to follow suit, though.

But the main thing is that it does feel like we’re reaching the beginning of the end, at least in some places in the U.S. But even as we slowly emerge back into some form of more public and social life, the signs of what we lost are starting to become apparent.

It reminds me of another great plague, the bubonic plague that struck London in 1665. It hit the cities particularly hard because they were crowded and unsanitary. A lot of people who could fled to the countryside as the city of London basically shut down.

This included a 23-year-old Isaac Newton, who found himself isolated in his country home in Woolsthorpe. As a result, he started to develop his theories of optics and gravitation, as well as create (or possibly rediscover) calculus.

Then, in September of 1666, London burned down. The Great Fire, as it became known, devastated everything within the old Roman walls as it tore through the city over the course of four days. The problem was a lot of wooden construction, jammed together haphazardly, but the actions of the Lord Mayor didn’t help at all.

Fire-fighting practice at the time was to create firebreaks by demolishing adjacent buildings that weren’t burning so that the fire couldn’t jump, and then focus on the structures that were on fire. But Mayor Thomas Bloodworth was having none of that. In a classic and short-sighted case of “buildings are worth more than people,” he refused to authorize the tearing down of a lot of warehouses because they couldn’t contact the owners.

Ironically, if he’d just had two houses torn down at the beginning, they might have stopped the thing at the bakery in which it started.

That’s not the only irony, though. The fire itself actually helped end the plague because it either killed or drove out the rats that were infested with the fleas that spread the infection.

Now, Los Angeles hasn’t burned down. Sure, lots of Southern California likes to burn up regularly, but our irony is that we tend to only lose rural neighborhoods while the cities, which are mostly concrete and steel, stay intact. But the city has burned metaphorically and, in a lot of ways, what we lost over the last year may have inadvertently helped slow down the spread of our plague as well. And, unlike Bloodworth, our mayor actually did the right thing, even if far too many people got selfish and bitched and complained instead of following the rules from the beginning.

Yes — if we had all just completely locked down and stayed at home for the first six weeks, we probably would have slowed things way down. But we didn’t learn the lesson that Bloodworth ignored as well: Sometimes, in order to save a lot of businesses or properties or homes, you have to intentionally destroy a few.

In fact, as of February 2021, Los Angeles County had lost the most small businesses of any county in the U.S. These were mostly restaurants and bars, small retail stores, salons, and gyms. The general category of “personal services business” was particularly hard-hit, especially because there were so many such businesses in the county.

But there were bigger victims. Larger retailers like Fry’s Electronics folded, and K-Mart and Sears shuttered a lot of locations. A huge movie chain, Pacific Theatres and Arclight Cinemas, shut down permanently, putting the status of L.A.’s historic Cinerama Dome in limbo. (That one particularly hurts because my dad was one of the architects involved in its creation early on in his career.)

Surprisingly, AMC survived despite rumors of it going bankrupt in 2020, and it’s now re-opened and thriving. And at least some of the arthouse cinemas live on, like the New Beverly, which just re-opened this past week. Of course, that one is owned by Quentin Tarantino, who’s got the money to have kept paying for the lease while it was dormant.

Just too bad he insisted on opening it with one of his history-mangling messterpieces.

As an antidote to that, the Nuart also survives, and that’s good news, although they do seem to be focusing on longer runs of obscure documentaries instead of the “you can’t find this online” arthouse stuff they used to thrive on. And, sadly, nary a sign of the return of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Yet.

Then again, that film is rapidly creeping up on 50 years old. On the other hand, it was so far ahead of its time and so much in tune with current attitudes that I don’t see why it wouldn’t still play with current Gen-Z audiences.

Don’t dream it… be it.

Between the original film and the 2016 TV remake (which decidedly does not suck), it covers all of the LGBTQ+ and BIPOC bases. Although the fact that they missed getting that remake done during the 40th anniversary year is just sad. But bonus points for casting Tim Curry as the Criminologist.

So… do I think that everything is going to go back to normal in a couple of weeks? Oh, hell no. And I’m going to be keeping my mask on for a good while after this. Why? Because being able to unmask depends entirely on having been fully vaccinated, and I still don’t trust people enough to not lie.

I mean, come on. People have no problem lying about their untrained mutts being “therapy dogs” in order to bring them everywhere — even though, legally, “therapy dogs” are not a thing, and it’s only trained service dogs that should be allowed.

Not to mention that the anti-vax crowd actually crosses political lines. You’ll find just as many on the far right as on the far left. Yes, for different reasons, but same end results. They’ll refuse the shot, but then lie about it in order to regain their “freedom.”

So even as Southern California and Los Angeles pull that phoenix trick and rise from the ashes, I’m still going to take precautions. Meaning that this mask is staying on my face in public until we’ve vaccinated the fuck out of everyone and/or there have been no new cases of COVID-19 of any form diagnosed in the state for at least three months.

So… see you next fall, maybe?

Theatre Thursday: Of plague and playwrights

Although the possible anniversary of his birth in 1564 and the definite anniversary of his death in 1616 isn’t until tomorrow, April 23, I thought it was worth re-running this tribute from April 23, 2020, in which our world became a lot more like the world Shakespeare was plunged into ten years before his death. He’s been gone for 405 years, but only physically, of course. He’s left an incomparable imprint on all of western literature and the English language that we feel to this day.

We’re not really sure whether April 23 is the day that William Shakespeare was born, but it was the day he died. I don’t have any particular connection to that date otherwise, but I feel that I now have a stronger connection to the Bard, because both of us had plays shut down due to a plague.

For Shakespeare, it was in 1606, when the theaters were shuttered right after, or perhaps during, his premiere productions of King Lear and Macbeth. By the time productions resumed in the winter, and had moved out of the open-air theaters, the all-boy companies who had portrayed women onstage were a thing of the past, and shows were often candle-lit.

After the plague year, Shakespeare only wrote one more tragedy (Anthony and Cleopatra) and one more history (Henry VIII — although he may have written that one earlier, since Elizabeth I died in 1603.).

Otherwise, everything that came after was based on myth or legend, and this is when he created some of his most atypical works: Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, Pericles (often considered Shakespeare’s weirdest), Cymbeline (a very black comedy), The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and The Two Noble Kinsmen (probably co-written with John Fletcher.)

Now, while the play I had shut down is probably far less consequential than any of the Bard’s, it was still difficult. The only mitigating factor was that theater in California went dark a couple of weeks before we were scheduled to open.

However, I was fortunate in two things. First, that the director, theater owner, cast, and I all gathered on Zoom to toast the cancelled opening night and get to know each other — unlike all but one of my other shows, I’d been unable to attend rehearsals for this one. Second, later on, the director, cast, and I got together on Zoom for a private performance of the show.

Now, granted, it’s a very physical farce that pays tribute to Oscar Wilde, Joe Orton, and other writers who have influenced me. So, let’s just say that it loses a lot of that physicality when it’s just talking heads in little boxes. On the other hand, the cast still gave it their all, and my faith in the director’s choices and the actors’ abilities was not misplaced.

As a writer, it’s a rare thing when seeing your own work performed can still move you emotionally, mainly because you’ve lived inside it for so long, so it technically doesn’t have any surprises. And yet, with a brilliant cast, the humor or the drama all come flying back at you because they bring their own surprises.

I only create the characters in my head, but the  premiere cast makes them their own and cements that interpretation, and that is why I love the collaboration of theater, even if sometimes it can’t happen directly.

When I do get to develop a work through rehearsal, incredible things happen. But even when I only get to give occasional notes or am inspired to do rewrites, incredible things still happen.

That’s the magic of theater, and no plague or disaster or worldwide shutdown can ever stop that permanently. It can only put it on pause, but the art-form will keep coming back, over, and over, and over again.

Finally, in honor of the possible birthday of Willie Shakes, here’s a little music video version of a number from a show I was lucky enough to see onstage before everything shut down, and which I absolutely love. The show is a musical comedy called Something Rotten, and it posits the idea that Nick and Nigel Bottom were rival playwrights to Shakespeare in 1595.

Jealous of his fame, they enlist the help of Nostradamus’ nephew to use his psychic powers to figure out what Shakespeare is working on so that the Bottom Brothers can steal it. Needless to say, Thomas Nostradamus falls short of the mark, to hilarious effect.

The interpretation of Shakespeare is… unique, to say the least, but it fits the conceit. Here is the always fantastic Christian Borle as the Bard, in a role for which he won a Tony. Enjoy!

Image: William Shakespeare, public domain via (CC) BY-SA 4.0.

Theatre Thursday: Theatre is the original VR

Something I’ve said for a long time is that live theatre is the original virtual reality, and the only shows you can see in 3D without special glasses.

Also, unlike their recorded and edited cousins — audio, film, video, and streaming — each live theatrical performance is a unique moment in time that will only be experienced by one audience ever, and will be experienced by each audience member (and each performer) in a completely different way.

In a way, I feel sorry for actors who do recorded and edited media, because they really don’t know which performance it’s ultimately going to be. They might do 23 takes of a scene in front of a green screen, have no idea that the director will ultimately settle on number 17, although maybe with a little tweak and morph so that the last beat or two of take 13 actually takes over.

And if it’s a two shot with another actor, the final shot you see on screen may actually use performances from two different takes, seamlessly woven together. It’s the film version of Photoshopping a group picture from multiple shots to make sure everyone’s eyes are open.

And that’s before all of the effects and whatnot are added, and maybe the actor was in a mocap suit anyway, because they’re really only providing the physical movement and overall kinesthetic emotion and facial movement to a performance that will turn into a twelve foot tall purple alien with big yellow eyes.

Meanwhile, a stage actor could play that same character with clever costuming, props and choreography — a couple of cast members lift them for height, a little light change and lots of fabric create the big purple body, and a pair of grapefruit with big black circles on them held Pale Man style become the eyes.

Not to say that one is better than the other. They’re just different. But the game kind of changes when all of the venues are shuttered because of a plague. Movie theatres in Southern California have only just kind of sort of opened, but there are still no live shows.

All we’re left with is streaming, and the question: Is this the end of both the cinema and live theatre?

Well, don’t bet on it. In 1606, theaters in London were shut down because of the plague, and this was in the middle of runs of three big hits that are still famous now: King Lear, Macbeth and Volpone.

Last year, Broadway lost shows like Moulin Rouge: The Musical, Six, Company, Mrs. Doubtfire, Caroline, or Change and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, among many others. Some may be rescheduled. Others may never happen. And it was the same in London, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle… everywhere.

In L.A., Center Theatre Group had to close The Book of Mormon revival tour early, for example.

This hasn’t stopped many of those performers from performing, and a number of Broadway stars took to singing to their fans from home via social media. In a way, this actually makes live theater even more intimate, because every single viewer has their own personal front row center seat — and they get to see the same show that everyone else does.

Can you imagine? Going to see the original staging of Evita on Broadway, and Patti Lupone sings every number right to you? Okay, except without all of that stagecraft, because she’s singing it to you solo and a capella from her living room. Still… rather intimate and impressive either way.

London certainly has a number of previously saved streaming performances to watch. And while it’s anecdotal because I can’t share the link here, two friends of mine managed to do live streaming improv, cell phone to cell phone, with the performance between the two phones put up via another friend’s third phone.

It was a very impressive and clever use of technology. And Zoom isn’t just for meetings. I’ve seen colleagues in theatre now use it for company meetings, as well as group practices.

Is it still theatre in this form, though? Yes. I happen to think that all performing arts are ultimately theatre, whether they happen on a stage or a screen. In 2012, I performed in a number of pieces around the city that took place in public spaces as part of Playwrights Arena’s Flash Theatre L.A.

We performed everywhere from a pet store parking lot to a cemetery in South Los Angeles; in a nearly dark public courtyard with only the uplights illuminating the walls to shine on us when we needed them, in Union Station downtown, and so on.

The cemetery performance and Union Station were two of my favorites — the first because we created a long and elaborate, intricately choreographer Danse Macabre in which I started out as a disgruntled grave digger, then snuck behind a tombstone to change into the guise of a skull-faced pope.

We also had La Llorna and a lot of Día de los Muertos style face-painting in a collision of Medieval Europe and modern Latin America, taking place in a cemetery with a large proportion of black residents, since for a long time in the city’s history it was one of the few places open to them.

What I loved about Union Station was how the show started and ended. We quietly came in and took our places as if we were people waiting for a train, but then slowly stepped out and joined the performance, which involved a twelve-foot tall puppet.

When it was over, after we read out a bunch of real-time tweets we had solicited beforehand, each of us then strode off into the crowd to make our exit by becoming “normal” people again.

We were never on an actual stage for those shows, but it was still theatre. It’s still theatre no matter how big the CGI effects are.

But it’s not only the film and TV people who can forget this. The theatre people can too, in the opposite direction, and sometimes ignore the concept that media and tech can work onstage — or that theatre can happen onscreen in real time — as well.

Back in about 2012, I saw a wonderful production of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, which is basically his fictional biopic and guilty confessional about the death of Marilyn Monroe. Oh… he’s not confessing to killing her directly. He’s feeling guilty over not doing enough to save her life, seeing as how he was married to her at the time.

That’s right — the blonde bombshell dumped the jock (Joe DiMaggio) and married the smart nebbish. Nerds of the world, take heart! That would be like Scarlett Johansson dumping Ryan Reynolds for John Green.

Oh, wait. She did dump Ryan. She just wound up with the SNL nerd instead of the internet one.

Anyway, as originally staged, when characters aren’t onstage, they sit in high backed chairs upstage. Occasionally, one of them will have a flashback monologue, which they deliver by standing in place.

The twist on this the director pulled was having everyone backstage, but when their monologues came, live ghostly video of the actor backstage would be projected on the two side walls of the actual stage. (It was performed on a partial thrust stage.)

Miller was probably borrowing from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which was the first major play to be performed without an actual set — in the days when Broadway was all about realism — and with the entire cast seated onstage when not performing.

This production of After the Fall just took the original concept and modernized it.

But long before video and high tech, tech has always been a part of theatre, from Grand Guignol’s elaborate illusions used to create shock and horror, to the elaborate stage machinery of 18th century opera and earlier.

The opening of the film The Devils by Ken Russell does a pretty good recreation of 17th century French theatrical staging and mechanics:

The interesting question, really, is which media are going to survive this modern plague? If our entertainment venues are limited for long enough — at least, as long as they really need to be to help us survive this — then this just may be the end of the cinema as we know it.

Sorry, Marty, and David. To paraphrase Norma Desmond: “Films are big! It’s the screens that got small.”

People may become too accustomed to just watching at home, and thanks to all of their online hanging out with friends, they may finally remember what the important part is. So expect streaming parties, either as virtual hangouts or IRL, to become the new norm.

Also expect an end to the blockbuster spectacle once people have been reminded through all of the scaled-down-to-mobile shows and performances what theatre is really about: the interactions between characters that happen because of an inciting event.

Notice, by the way, that in any online discussion of the latest hit streaming show, people aren’t talking about the effects or the spectacle or any of that. They are talking about the characters, what they do, and why people like it or don’t like it.

As for theatre, it will survive because, after all, it has for thousands of years and through many difficulties. Plus, when it’s not some overblown Broadway show with a ridiculous budget and inflated ticket prices, it can be cheap to do, easy to stage, and affordable for everyone.

It just may be that “too big to fail” turns into “too big to stay.” Movies and TV turn into intimate events at home or maybe in small clubs. Meanwhile, all of that small theatre that’s always been there goes on. Only, this time, people will have a renewed appreciation of it.

Think about this for a moment. What genre do escape rooms fall into? Not film, and not TV. Nope. They are a type of immersive theatre in which the audience is also part of the cast.

Image (CC0 1.0)

Momentous Monday: Questions that plague us

From March 2020, three days into first COVID-19 lockdown, before we knew the extent the plague would reach or how long the lockdowns and social distancing would last.

It can easily be argued that Europe conquered the Americas not through armed assault, but via unintended biological warfare. While Christopher Columbus and those who came after arrived in the New World with plants, animals, and diseases, it’s the latter category that had the most profound effect.

This transfer of things between the Old World and New has been dubbed The Columbian Exchange, Thanks to the European habit starting the next century of stealing Africans to enslave, diseases from that continent were also imported to the Americas.

Of course, in Europe and Africa, everyone had had time to be exposed to all of these things: measles, smallpox, mumps, typhus, whooping cough, malaria, and yellow fever. As a result, they either killed off a large number of children before six, or left survivors with natural immunity.

Influenza, aka flu, was the one exception that no one became immune to because that virus kept mutating and evolving as well.

Depending upon the area, the death rates of Native Americans were anywhere from 50 to 99 percent of the population. And they didn’t really send as many diseases back as they were “gifted with” by us, although Columbus’ men did bring syphilis home to Europe thanks to their habit of fucking sheep,

Of course, conquest through infection and violence is nothing new, as the 1997 book Germs, Guns, and Steel by Jared Diamond posits.

Nothing will freak out a human population faster than a deadly disease, especially one that just won’t go away, and the plague, aka The Black Death, regularly decimated Europe for three hundred years. It had a profound effect on art during its reign, which stretched all the way through the Renaissance and on into the Age of Reason.

But one of the positive side effects of that last visit of the plague to London in 1665 is that it lead to the Annus Mirabilis, or “year of wonders” for one Isaac Newton, a 23-year-old (when it started) mathematician, physicist, and astronomer.

Just like many students are experiencing right now, his university shut down in the summer of 1865 to protect everyone from the plague, and so Newton self-isolated in his home in Woolsthorpe for a year and a half, where he came up with his theories on calculus, optics, and the law of gravitation.

He basically kick-started modern physics. His ideas on optics would lead directly to quantum physics, and his ideas on gravitation would inspire Einstein to come up with his general and special theories of relativity.

Meanwhile, calculus gave everyone the tool they would need to deal with all of the very complicated equations that would lead to and be born from the above mentioned subjects.

And if Isaac Newton hadn’t been forced to shelter in place and stay at home for eighteen months, this might have never happened, or only happened much later, and in that case, you might not even have the internet on which to read this article.

In case you didn’t realize it, communicating with satellites — which relay a lot of internet traffic — and using GPS to find you both rely on quantum physics because these systems are based on such precise timing that relativistic effects do come into play. Clocks on satellites in orbit run at a different rate than clocks down here, and we need to do the math to account for it.

Plus we never would have been able to stick those satellites into the right orbits at the right velocities in the first place without knowing how gravity works, and without the formulae to do all the necessary calculations.

There’s a modern example of a terrible pandemic ultimately leading to a greater good, though, and it’s this. America and a lot of the western world would not have same-sex marriages or such great advances in LGBTQ+ rights without the AIDS crisis that emerged in 1981.

AIDS and the thing that causes it, HIV, are actually a perfect match for the terms you’ve been hearing lately. “Novel coronavirus” is the thing that causes it, or HIV. But neither one becomes a serious problem until a person develops the condition because of it, either COVID-19 or AIDS.

But getting back to how the AIDS crisis advanced gay rights, it began because the federal government ignored the problem for too long and people died. Hm. Sound familiar? And, as I mentioned above, nothing will make people flip their shit like a life-threatening disease, especially one that seems to be an incurable pandemic.

And so the gay community got down to business and organized, and groups like ACT-UP and Queer Nation took to the streets and got loud and proud. In 1987 in San Francisco (one of the places hardest hit by AIDS), the NAMES Project began creation of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, commemorating all of the people who died of the disease.

And a funny thing happened going into the 90s. All of a sudden, gay characters started to be represented in a positive light in mainstream media. And then gay performers started to come out — Scott Thompson of The Kids in the Hall fame being one of the early notable examples, long before Ellen did.

Around the time Thompson came out, of course, a famous straight person, Magic Johnson, announced in 1991 that he was HIV positive, and that’s when people who were not part of the LGBTQ+ community freaked the fuck out.

Note, though, that Magic is still alive today. Why? Because when he made his announcement, straight people got all up on that shit and figured out ways to reduce viral loads and extend lifespans and turn AIDS into a not death sentence, like it used to be almost 30 years ago.

And almost 40 years after the crisis started, we seem to have finally created a generation of young people (whatever we’re calling the ones born from about 1995 to now) who are not homo- or transphobic, really aren’t into labels, and don’t try to define their sexualities or genders in binary terms in the first place.

On the one hand, it’s terrible that it took the deaths of millions of people to finally get to this point. On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, this current pandemic will inspire a similar kind of activism that might just lead to all kinds of positives we cannot even predict right now, but by 2040 or 2050 will be blatantly obvious.

Stay safe, stay at home, wash your hands a lot, and figure out your own “Woolsthorpe Thing.” Who knows. In 2320, your name could be enshrined in all of human culture for so many things.

Momentous Monday: Us and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year

It’s no exaggeration to say that 2020 has been rough on everyone. It started with Australia on fire and the death of Kobe Bryant, and then just went pear-shaped from there.

We hadn’t even made it to the start of spring when everything went on hold. For me, “normal” started to leave my world in early March, when my improv company shut down — cutting me off from one job as well as a weekly chance to perform that I truly enjoyed.

It came to a full stop on March 20, when Los Angeles shut down a day after San Francisco did. In a lot of ways, I was fortunate because I’d had an unemployment claim from earlier in 2019 that was still active, so didn’t have the problems signing up for it that other people apparently did.

Although I didn’t get the full amount of unemployment because I hadn’t worked enough in the target periods they looked at, that extra $600 per week from the Federal government helped (thanks, Congressional Democrats!)

So, I stayed at home mostly, with weekly masked trips to the grocery store, and it was amazing to see how quickly the two places I regularly went to — RiteAid and Ralphs — adapted. At the same time, though, a lot of Americans acted like selfish little children.

Some states were slow to react if at all, the Federal government totally dropped the ball, and while places like New Zealand got a handle on it (it helps to be an island nation), the U.S., not so much, so that as of now over 200,000 people have died.

Every month seemed to bring something new. In April, we had rumors of “Murder Hornets,” which didn’t really pan out, but then May brought us the death of George Floyd. This on top of so many other murders of Black Americans at the hands of the police set off a wave of fury and protests, which had the side-effect of finally making White American racists reveal themselves.

The end of May brought us people who just couldn’t resist celebrating Memorial Day without masks or social distancing, boosting the plague numbers even more.

It wasn’t pretty. And natural disasters didn’t help. Puerto Rico was pounded by multiple earthquakes of greater than magnitude 5 at the beginning of the year when they still haven’t recovered from hurricane Maria in 2017.

June brought us a couple of gun-toting lawyers threatening protestors marching past their house, and July had more protests, violent counter-protests, and the like.

In August, wildfires started in the west and the Administration started fucking with the USPS. By September, the entire west coast was on fire, while the gulf coast and other points in the south were being slammed by one hurricane or tropical storm after another.

And, of course, 2020 also brought personal disasters to a lot of us. Back on May 1, I lost my beloved dog Sheeba, who was almost 16. She didn’t even start to show symptoms until Monday night, and was gone by Friday afternoon.

A lot of people I know have suffered similar losses. Maybe it’s just a matter of selective attention because I went through it, maybe not, but a lot of my friends seemed to lose dogs or cats this year. And many other lost people, friends and family, to diseases not necessarily COVID-related. There were a notable number of cancer deaths, too.

And then there are those friends of mine who suddenly have to deal with parents of a certain age and declining mental condition who are going to require either placement in a senior care center or some other professional care, and the need for the young to stay away from the elderly in the wake of this pandemic just complicates issues enormously — especially when the kids live in an entirely different city than their parent or parents.

But all of these things, every single damn one of them, pales in comparison to the biggest disaster that has befallen the U.S. yet this year, and has put us into unknown territory that we are going to have to navigate through very carefully.

I’m talking, of course, about the death last Friday of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. She was the last bulwark protecting the Supreme Court from falling into fascist, reactionary hands for a generation, and the greatest hope of progressives was that she’d live until the inauguration, then announce her retirement as soon as Joe Biden was sworn in.

I won’t even get into the utter hypocrisy of Mitch McConnell saying he’ll ram through whomever Trump nominates when he refused the same courtesy to Barack Obama because “it was too close to the election” (eight months beforehand)  when this one comes up less than seven weeks before.

So… call your senators, especially if yours has an R after their name. Remind them of the 2016 “McConnell Doctrine,” and demand that they follow it. Let the Voters Decide!

And then damn well vote in November, and vote like the future of this country depends on it, because it does. Do we fully become Nazi Germany circa 1939, or pull back from the brink and return to sanity?

That choice is in your hands… for now. But if we fuck it up in November, we may lose that power forever, and this experiment in Democracy ends.

Sunday Nibble #26: The year that probably wasn’t

Tomorrow, it will be four months (if you count by days) since word came down in the city of Los Angeles and then the state of California that we were going into lockdown. That’s 122 days, or just over 17 weeks.

We had a grace period until noon the next day for all non-essential services to shut down. Now, technically, since I work in the field of health insurance, we are considered essential in a pandemic. However, at the same time, since we all work out of the boss’s house, it would be really unfair to have our germy asses marching in and out all day. Not to mention that several of our employees are higher risk.

So… the high-risk staff started to work at home, as did some of the other staff. I came in on that last day to take some files from the office to one of the homeworkers, and then… onto unemployment to wait it out at home.

I managed to luck out because I had an unemployment claim from earlier that was still active as of March, so there was nothing new to open. Apparently, that was not the case with a lot of people, who wound up waiting weeks or even months before their money started coming through.

Now, I didn’t qualify for the full amount, but the bonus $600 a week from the federal government sure helped, as did that stimulus check — and you can bet that a lot of it went right back into the economy for stupid things like rent and food.

The stimulus actually covered the new tires and battery that I’d desperately needed but had put off and, sadly, helped to cover the end-of-life costs for my dog Sheeba in May. Funny thing, too, and something that fiscal conservatives don’t seem to understand: Give poor people money, and they will throw it right back into the economy and create jobs and boost profits.

Give rich people money, they will shove it into some bank account, probably offshore, where the only people who will benefit are other people with way too much money who shuffle it back and forth where the only product is more money — for them — but not more jobs for anyone else.

Of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses, and I did start to notice all of the strange physical and psychological effects. Although I couldn’t see any of my friends in person anymore, at least I could contact them on social media, and the more we all talked, the more we realized that we were all being abnormal in the same ways.

Loss of appetite. Lack of energy. Inability to fall asleep. Inability to focus. General anxiety or depression or panic, or any two or all three. The most disturbing dreams, many of which involved being in zombie films or caught in crowds without masks.

But we persevered, and we coped. We made it past the Great TP Shortage of 2020, and eventually all settled on our preferred form of mask (I’m a fan of the head-gaiter/paper surgical combo myself), got really good at dodging people and maintaining six feet, and wound up ordering more shit online in the course of four months than most of us had in the previous four years.

Personally, I took the opportunity to get back into music because — stimulus again — after the dog and the car, I was able to get a really cheap yet really good MIDI keyboard (and still have money left over) and start to compose and play. (I already had stuff like the digital multi-track recorder and composing/scoring software from a past life.)

Also, by the time July rolled around and it was pushing six months since a haircut, I just bit the bullet and took the clippers to my head, so that the nine-inch long mop was reduced to stubble. Basically, I pretty much shaved it, or at least went a phase or two shorter than a crew cut. The biggest surprise was that I actually didn’t mind the look.

I’m not the only male in my general group of friends to have done this, by the way. It just took me longer to take the plunge. But I should be good until at least December now.

But then July rolled around and just a few days ago, the state of California and the city of Los Angeles announced, “Oops. Y’all screwed it up, so we’re pushing reset and starting over.”

Luckily, this was right after I’d finally gotten stuff set up so that I can now work from home — HIPAA compliant secure-connected laptop and phone line to the main office, although it took a lot of rearranging of… everything to make it work.

And it looks like we’re all going to still be sheltered in place for as long as this takes, but that’s kind of okay. In a lot of ways, technological advances of the last twenty or thirty years have prepared us for this.

I had a great conversation about it with the boss the last time I swung by the office, which was earlier last week to pick up the remote phone as we discussed the future, and how everything was going to be different after this year.

For one thing, we both agreed that companies are going to realize that they actually can let their employees work remotely, that stuff still gets done, people are probably happier with a better life-work balance, and the companies can also save a fortune as well.

Why? Well, a few reasons — it probably cuts down the likelihood of sexual harassment issues enormously if people aren’t working face-to-face and if most interactions are in group video meetings where everyone is a witness.

But the biggie, we realized, is this one: companies will need a lot less space to function in. Instead of needing tens of thousands of square feet of office to house all the various departments and necessary support functions, like restrooms and breakrooms and meeting spaces, even a major company may only need, at most, something the size of the average nail salon or storefront fast food joint — a place for the receptionist to mostly handle incoming and outgoing physical packages and mail, and a backroom for the server and network facilities.

Everything else? Stick it online. The big loser, though, will be commercial real estate, but that has several upsides.

First off, it means that all of those buildings and land are going to need to be repurposed, and if local governments play it right, it means this: A sudden abundance of new and affordable buildings and land for cheap housing, possibly with no need for wholesale teardown and new construction, but also plenty of jobs for construction crews to come in and do conversions.

Anyway… every acre of land could provide 36 housing units of 1,200 square feet each — which is pretty generous for an apartment, but remember that when you’re dealing with converting an office building, you multiply each acre by number of stories.

A small repurposed ten-story building could provide a hell of a lot of housing, even if the bottom floor is taken up by those aforementioned reduced-footprint businesses. And an acre is a lot less than a city block, which many office buildings span easily, in both directions.

Of course, another probable victim of all of this will probably be malls — both of the indoor and strip variety, which just adds a whole lot more land that can be repurposed to housing.

There were more things we figured would never recover, but that should be enough for now.

In any case, in the future, I think that 2020 is going to go down as something like “The year that never happened,” or “When everything changed.”

This probably is not going to be a bad thing at all, really. We just need to stick it through to the end. It looks like the sane states will be keeping their heads in until November, but that’s exactly the point when we need to emerge in force to make sure that we never face a disaster like this again.

Theatre Thursday: Difficult withdrawal

Fortunately, our lockdown still allows me the creative outlet of writing, and it’s made it easy to keep up with my ambition to post here every day. But otherwise, I’m stuck in the house with the dog, other than the weekly trip for groceries, and the very occasional side errand.

Did you know that health insurers seem to have an aversion to taking payment via any method but mailed check? It probably has to do with HIPPA, but it’s damn annoying. It means I have to find an open post office that also actually has an open slot to put the mail in. And no, I couldn’t tell you the last time I’ve spotted a corner mailbox anywhere around here.

Oh, and stamps. Still, at least it’s a stealth mission I only have to do once a month, and I can avoid people while doing it if I work it right. The same is true of the ATM. There’s a little-trafficked outdoor one down the block from me, and when I have run into people there, everyone has done an amazing job at maintaining distance and only using one machine at a time.

These withdrawals, though, have nothing to do with the title of the piece. The hard part is not being able to go onto a stage and perform in front of an audience right now.

As of this writing, it has been about seven-and-a-half weeks, or fifty-two days, since I’ve done improv in front of a live audience, and it is… difficult.

Yes, we’ve continued to do shows via Zoom, but that’s just not the same. It becomes more of an exercise in staying connected with the team, which is very necessary and helpful, but it’s not performing in the same sense.

At our last meeting, someone joked about adding a laugh track to the session, and I was tempted to pull out the sound effects machine and do it — although it wouldn’t really be the same.

There’s nothing like the thrill of experiencing an audience’s live and immediate reaction, whether you’re doing comedy or drama. For example, one of the most exciting experiences I have as an improviser is when we’re doing a rhyming game like Da Doo Ron Ron, where the first two players come up with a single rhyme each, and then the third has to come up with three on the same word.

It’s an elimination game, but here’s the fun part. When you’re down to three players left, the same person is going to get the triple rhyme every time, and I’ve gotten such a reputation at being good at the game that, more often than not, this is the point when the ref puts me in that number three spot.

And there have been times when I’ve made it through three or four rounds — maybe even five — without messing up, and in that case, every time around, I can hear the audience’s anticipation and excitement just crank up, especially when I pull it off. Then, when somebody with only one rhyme whiffs it, I can actually feel the appreciation that I made it through.

Of course, there are other ways to get a reaction from an audience, and one of my favorites came from the time I played a depressed, unicycle-riding bear in an adaptation of a John Irving short story. What? Like you didn’t think of his name as soon as you say unicycle and bear?

There was one long scene where most of us were standing upstage while two other characters were doing their shtick in front of us, and I’d been given license to do business by the director, since that scene was not terribly essential to the plot.

The actress playing the grandmother character was wearing this fur stole with glass grapes on it, and so I decided that the bear thought they were real. At one point, I went over and tried to eat them, and she whacked me away with her clutch.

But before I went for the grapes was when I got the big reaction. See, I’d figured out that if I put these little hard candies from Trader Joe’s in my mouth before the scene and just let them sit there, I’d build up a lot of saliva. So I’d eventually notice the grapes, then start to obsess on them, then kind of sniff at them, and when I sensed that I had the audience’s attention, I let my mouth open a little, tilt my chin down, and wham! Drool cascade to the stage.

This would elicit an amused but disgusted “Ew!”, at which point, I’d go for the grapes, grandma would do her biz, and the audience would eat it up.

Although I was also part of the human chorus in that show, the bear had exactly four words of dialogue, right before dying, but it always felt like I did so much more without saying a thing through the rest of the show.

That one was a magical experience.

Another role where I had about the same number of words (all in Spanish) but again got to play everything through energy and body language was as The Dreamer in Tennessee William’s extremely idiosyncratic and weird Camino Real, which I described at the time — I think accurately — as a ton of fun for the cast, not so much for the audience.

I was basically a leather-clad pseudo-Jesus in intense eye-make-up hauling around a blind Virgen de Guadalupe, fending off the forces of evil at the end, and intimidating the hell out of the audience with my eyes alone. Seriously — black eye shadow above, silver below, can turn your eyes into deadly weapons.

Bonus points: We didn’t limit our playing area to the stage for that one, so we were all up in the house. Like I said, a ton of fun for us, not so much for the audience.

But right now, I’d be grateful for any show to perform live for living people. Yes, it’s kind of ironic that my original trajectory was never supposed to be as a performer. Truth be told, I actually kind of sucked in my middle school drama class, which discouraged me until I basically got dared into it in college — see the above link.

At the moment, it looks like there will be at least two more weeks of this, if not more — and, honestly, I do expect more, at least in sane states like California.

At the moment, I’m reminded of some of my lines from that college play I got dared to audition for, and then cast in:

For ill or good, let the wheel turn.

For who knows the end of good or evil?

Until the grinders cease

And the door shall be shut in the street,

And all the daughters of music shall be brought low.

Stay home, stay safe, tip your server.

Image source: Ghost light at WildWood Arts Center, Little Rock, AR, by Jon Ellwood. Used unmodified under (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Sunday Nibble #14: Maprilay 57th

As our lockdown drags on, the days and weeks bleed into each other in an ultimately mind-numbing routine of solitude. Yes, there are those occasional virtual breaks to meet with friends, and if those aren’t anchors to sanity, I don’t know what is.

I may also finally wind up being equipped to work from home since, surprise, my day job is considered an essential business, it’s just that when this all started, only the licensed agents were already set up with the necessary security on their home computers — HIPAA regulations, you see.

That may restore some semblance of normalcy. Or not. It’s honestly been hard enough to focus on anything, and a big part of that of course is due to the whole uncertainty of “Where is the money going to come from?”

Oh, there’s unemployment, but it’s not enough. There are promises, as yet unkept by the Federal government, of supplementing everyone’s unemployment by $600 a week, which would go a long way. There are also those stimulus checks, which are taking their sweet time.

And while my state and city have banned tenant evictions for non-payment of rent, with the ability to pay back skipped amounts over 12 months, landlords have still been trying to evict people. Although that in itself would be a good trick, because the courts are mostly closed and the sheriffs aren’t evicting.

My one daily routine that gets me outside briefly a few times a day is walking the dog. I live in a gated garden complex, so I never have to leave the grounds, and my dog is very old, so she doesn’t like to walk all that far. But even in our short forays, I have started to notice the changes in nature around us, and they are interesting, to say the least.

The most obvious one is how clean the air is, how white the clouds look, and how much more rain we’ve had the last month or so. It’s also been a lot colder than it’s been this time of year for ages, and I have to think that the combination of limited vehicle, aircraft, and watercraft traffic has something to do with it.

And that wouldn’t be at all incorrect. While it varies by area, weekday weather and weekend weather can be very different, and Southern California has always seemed to be one of those places fond of weekend storms. Since we’ve essentially been on a long weekend for just over a month now, it’s not a big surprise.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that there are suddenly a lot more bees buzzing around one particular bush near my back door. And I know you’re probably thinking, “Hey, it’s spring. That’s when bees come around, right?”

Well, yes, but… since my dog has always loved to nose around this bush, when there are bees in it I’m very aware, because she also likes to snap at tiny flying things, and I really don’t want her getting stung in the mouth. This bush is right near a doggy poop-bag station, so it’s been a common stop on our walk for years, even when those walks were a lot longer.

This is the first time, really, I can remember it swarming so much. This is also interesting because about a month and a half before everything went down, a neighbor reported that there were a bunch of dead and dying bees on the sidewalk just to the north of the complex, which is on the opposite corner from where I am.

The second thing I noticed was the sudden apparent disappearance of the two most common forms of wild life around — crows and squirrels. The crows in particular would make themselves very obvious, especially around sunset, when a large and cawing flock would circle the tall trees on the north end, eventually settling in for a little murder before nightfall.

I haven’t heard or seen them in such numbers for a long time. I did see two very quiet crows wheel by today, but they flew off.

It’s been the same with the squirrels. A couple of the magnolias seem so have their resident tree dogs, who delight in stealing oranges off of those trees, and then hauling them up to eat. Even when the squirrels are not around, the tell-tale gnawed fruit always is — and, again, I haven’t seen that in a while.

What I have seen, though, that’s new: a bunch of tiny brown finches flittering around in the branches, chatting with each other. It’s a sound I hadn’t heard before, but now it’s abundant, and it’s not like a normal bird chirp. It’s more like they click at each other.

It’s like the entire miniature ecosystem around here has shifted, and I’m sure there have been a lot of other changes as well that I haven’t seen because I’ve pretty much been limited to an area with a 0,6 mile radius, which is half the distance from where I get my dog food to where I get my groceries. I’m somewhere in the middle.

At the moment, we’ve got at least another three weeks to go, but that’s subject to change, and it’s entirely possible that large gatherings will be banned on into 2021. That may even apply to everything from small theatre on up, and that’s where the real uncertainty comes in.

We could easily be facing a year without any public rituals of any kind, religious or secular. Well, ideally. Unfortunately, we have people who still think that just being in a church, synagogue, or other religious setting will protect themit won’t.

It leads to the strange paradox where any such gatherings might lead to a lot more deaths, which would lead to a lot of funerals, except that those funerals shouldn’t happen because they’ll just lead to a lot more funerals, and so on.

And yes, it will decimate if not devastate industries: funeral homes, wedding planners, caterers, florists, tailors and tux shops.

On the other hand, a lot of us under a certain age have been living a lot of our social lives online already for a while, so in a way we’re well-suited to the changes, and can probably deal with virtual… everything.

It’s not impossible. It’s just lonely. But, do stay home. Wear a mask or face covering when you do go out, and when you do on those very rare occasions, pay attention to nature. I do think it’s trying to tell us something.

Sunday Nibble #13: Taking pause

I don’t know what designation historians will come up with for the year 2020 — or even if it will be limited to just one year — but it will definitely be one of those great cultural markers that represents a hard stop, an irrefutable before and after point in human history.

It’s also going to have that significance in every single country and culture on the planet, and I can’t even think of a precedent in all of human history. There are certainly hard stops that had far-ranging though limited effects, like the fall of the Roman Empire, the end of the Aztec Empire, and the Reconquista, to mention three that mostly affected the western world.

Larger regions were affected by things like the Napoleonic Wars, and both the Great War and its unimaginatively named sequel World War II — but there were places that largely escaped the direct influence of those events. Asia, Australia, and most of Africa were untouched by Napoleon.

The World Wars may not have directly threatened every country on every continent, but may have indirectly changed things for them. It certainly changed world politics forever by leaving us with the Cold War and its aftermath.

This current plague is different in that no country on the planet has escaped it, and no person in the world is unaffected, period.

It’s as if the entire planet has become London in 1666, when the entire city was shut down by plague. The bad news there is that the thing that effectively ended it was the Great Fire of London, which destroyed densely populated and impoverished areas, driving out the rats that carried the fleas that were the ultimate cause of the disease. The true human death toll isn’t known.

Contemporary writers claimed that few people perished, but the fire burned so hot that entire communities could have been cremated without leaving any evidence behind.

It does feel, though, like we’re going to see another Great Fire in a metaphorical sense, as old institutions and ways collapse, never to exist again. If the lockdowns and lack of governmental help last long enough, then we may see widespread revolutions. At the very least, there may be general strikes that will starve the ruling classes of their income.

There is hope in the darkness, though, and I see it whenever I take the dog on a very limited walk and look up at the sky to see how clean it is. We’ve also had a lot more rain here than we’ve had for a while, and it’s unseasonal. It feels like the planet has decided to take a shower and clean up while we’re all inside.

I have friends who are at home sewing masks and others who are making videos or hosting shows on Zoom to keep people entertained. Still others are making sure that friends get things they need if they don’t have them, all while social distancing.

My improv group has been meeting regularly on Mondays via Zoom for some mutual self-care and to perform, and the main ComedySportz L.A. improv company itself has been having online shows that have been selling out every Saturday night.

I’ve seen very little in the way of stupid directly and for the most part people are maintaining social distance and wearing masks. The few moments of stupid I’ve seen haven’t been recent, and were in the grocery store, when a large group of people, generally youngish, and clearly probably not all living, together would come in to hit the liquor aisle and then all stand really close to each other.

Currently, the only stupid I’ve seen are the very few people who’ve gone to the grocery store without a mask or, extra special stupid, they’ve had a mask, but it’s pulled down so that it doesn’t cover their nose.

Sigh.

I do think that there’s a special place in hell, though, for a few Instagram “influencers” I’ve noticed who are still going out into the world to shoot their “OMG this is so fucking important” bullshit. I won’t mention names of the offenders, but one in particular was stupid enough to post time-stamped video of a bunch of unmasked people working in what I assume is some sort communal office space, or a group of people riding in the same van very close together.

Oh yeah, in that one, the person shooting also shows the speedometer, and ass-boy is doing 125 mph down the highway — while one of the group is standing in the back of the van.

I will mention one influencer who’s doing the right thing: Juanpa Zurita, who is stuck in isolation with his entire family somewhere in Mexico. They’ve been spending their time making masks and face guards for health care workers, not going outside, as well as pranking each other, and otherwise just being entertaining.

So, I don’t know. Maybe future historians will call this period “The Year When the World Stayed at Home,” or “The Great Pause,” or “The Global Reset.”

Another name for it might be “The Darwin Awards Ultimate World Championship.”

I am doing my best to not win any awards in that competition, and I hope that you are, too. Tomorrow was originally supposed to be the end of the lockdown here in L.A., but it was extended to May 15 over a week ago. I’m not holding out any hope that that date won’t be extended, either.

But whatever it takes to pull the planet through this, let’s just team up and do it.