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.

Theatre Thursday: Of plague and playwrights

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 gather 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 run-through 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.

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.

Sunday Nibble #12: Selfie harm

Here in California, the first lockdown happened in the Bay Area — generally, San Francisco, Oakland, Silicon Valley, and surroundings.

If you don’t know the state, San Francisco is about 345 miles on a straight line northwest of Los Angeles, or a 30 minute flight, or either an 8 hour drive up the windy coast or 5 hours or so up the middle of the state on the I-5, depending upon how willing you are to hit 90 mph. most of the way.

For perspective, from the southern to northernmost points of England, geographically, it’s 424 miles on a straight line, although you’ve got to fly over Wales to do that. If we measure on a straight line that only passes through England, then it’s about the same distance.

I bring this up because one of the advantages California has is that we’re big. The state is also composed of the major urban areas that are separated by shitloads of empty or sort of connected, but by suburbs that long-distance freeway traffic doesn’t even touch.

That and, especially in Southern California, we live in our cars. San Francisco, not so much, but that’s why they locked down first and have been fairly successful at flattening the curve.

Today, L.A. and the entire state has been on lockdown for 23 days, and it seems to be working, although we’ve still got at least another 8 days to go, if not more. California’s program has been dubbed “Safer at Home,” and I can’t help but think that this is true after running across a Wikipedia list online of people who were injured or died while taking selfies.

The reasons for these accidents are attributable to animals, drowning, electrocution, falling, fire, firearm, transportation, and “other.” The top three causes of death were falls, drowning, and transportation. The greatest number of incidents were falls, but the greatest number of casualties were due to drowning.

The top five countries for selfie deaths, in order, were India (70), the United States (18), Russia (13), Pakistan (8), and Australia (5) — although China only having 2 on the list could either be accurate, or just more of their downplaying of tragedy. Who knows?

Trains on their own accounted for almost as many deaths as drowning since they can cover three categories — transportation, electrocution, and falls.

The greatest number of injuries in a single incident happened during a fire at a bakery in Chennai, India, when people refused to move away from the building while taking selfies. The incident saw 48 people injured due to burns.

Chennai was also the location of a train death, when a student celebrating his 17th birthday climbed on top of a train car and then touched a live wire, resulting in his electrocution. Oh. And this made him fall off of the car as well, so it was a trifecta.

Not to make light of these deaths, but a lot of them are pretty Darwin Award worthy. People trying to get selfies with animals, particularly elephants, seem to have a high fatality rate, accounting for 45% of all animal deaths.

As for falls, let’s just say that cliffs, bridges, balconies, and other high places are not the best locations for a shoot.

And, getting back to the Darwin Awards, one of the most spectacular and stupid selfie deaths took place in Russia when a young man pulled the pin out of a live hand grenade and posed with it. (Some accounts say it was two men, but most only refer to one victim.)

He was blown in half, but the camera and selfie he texted to a friend survived, which is how authorities knew what happened. This, among other incidents, led to Russia issuing a Safe Selfie guide. Meanwhile, Japan banned selfie sticks from train stations.

To come around full circle, where people are not self-isolating and practicing social distancing right now, they are being just as stupid and foolhardy as all of these people who died or severely injured themselves because they thought they could take a selfie in a dangerous place, lost focus for an instant, and then lost so much more.

Stay home. We’re not out of the woods yet. And, if you must go out, remember: Six feet apart, or someone winds up six feet under.

Momentous Monday: Interesting times

There is an alleged Chinese curse that did not come from China at all and which may not have even been meant to be a curse when first mentioned by Joseph Chamberlain. The phrase goes like this: “May you live in interesting times.”

The implication, of course, is that interesting times are dangerous ones.

Right now, in the spring of 2020 C.E., the entire planet is living in interesting times, and I have a feeling that all of human history is going through a process of change that will be marked and noted by historians from here on out.

Congratulations, fellow humans. We are indeed living through a profound moment that will leave a different world behind, and those of us who survive it will be able to tell future generations, “Yeah. I was there. We never saw it coming, but it changed everything.”

At the moment, the day to day changes may seem weird and trivial — or not — but consider this. When was your last normal trip to the grocery store? When was the last time you found everything on your list? Why is there still no goddamn TP?

Or eggs and skim milk — those are the weird shortages, actually, because America just makes so goddamn much of both. Oh, sure, we’re lousy with over-priced “organic” bullshit eggs, as well as 2% and Whole milk, but if you’re into non-fat, you’re out of luck.

And get away from me with recommending any kind of “milk” that didn’t come out of a mammal, because that’s not milk. Coconut, almond, soy, whatever? Yep. Not milk. You’re drinking nut juice.

How does that sound?

Gas prices have dropped but that’s okay, because no one is driving anywhere. Those of us who can work from home are maintaining. Those of us who can’t… well, it’s a whole new world.

Certain people seem to think we can end the American lockdown by Easter, which is April 12. Cooler heads say, “Hell no.” This may go on through May or June, and seeing as how the U.S. suddenly became the most infected country in the world on March 26th, the idea of “It’s all over by Easter” is irresponsible as hell.

And remember that this is a pandemic, as in “It doesn’t just affect your town or county or state or country.” This is worldwide. And, as I mentioned above, this one is going to go into the history books along with some of the greatest hits of Events that Changed Everything.

For example:

476 CE: Fall of the Western Roman Empire. The long-term result of this little collapse was the creation of what would become modern Europe. Freed from the yoke of one oppressive empire, various local tribes — which had been allowed to maintain their culture in exchange for providing fealty, soldiers, and taxes to the mothership in Rome — were suddenly free to discover their own identities.

1206 CE: Genghis Kahn begins his conquest of Asia, and almost takes Europe as well. He wiped entire countries and civilizations off of the map, and changed the course of history in Europe forever.

1492 CE: Columbus is allowed to begin the exploitation of the New World, which will lead to an eventual super power that will basically become the new Roman Empire. In effect, this is the continuation of what the Fall of Rome started in Europe

1776 – 1815 CE: A motherlode, from the American Revolution through the French Revolution and the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. The monarchical system is basically ripped out of power forever. It starts when those pesky colonists (in the land conquered by the Europeans who existed because Rome fell) rebelled against their mother country and won. France followed by rebelling at home and winning, only to wind up launching the next would-be dictator because they let the “party purity” assholes take control of their revolution. That would-be dictator (Napoleon) was defeated by the British, who had lost the American Revolution. Monarchy in Europe was mostly told to fuck off from this point forward.

1917 – 1918 CE: Double whammy of the Russian Revolution and The Great War. The former would lead to the first successful, long-term revolutionary state (France didn’t make that cut for reasons noted above), while the “Great War” would lead to a sequel, WW II, which would lead to all kinds of things, including the Cold War between the aforementioned Super Power and the USSR

1990 CE: The collapse of the USSR, apparently (but not really) ending the Cold War and pushing the U.S. into the number one spot.

2020 CE – ???: Worldwide pandemic and lack of leadership possibly ends in the collapse of the U.S., leaving China as the world’s last super power; and the independent Republic of California as a major player in the world economy, although we could also see the creation of the country of Pacifica, made up of Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, and Arizona.

Or… we could somehow manage to get our shit together and survive this whole thing, but I’m not crossing my fingers at this point. We still have to figure out how to have a national election through all of this and, no matter what anyone might think, if the election doesn’t happen, the President doesn’t stay in power.

Rather, his time in office expires on January 20, 2021, along with the Vice President, and the Speaker of the House. Rules of secession would turn the presidency over to the President Pro-Tem of the Senate.

If we still have a government by that point, of course. Enjoy your sheltering in place, and I’ll see you on the other side.

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. No more movie theatres at the moment. No more 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.

This 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’s 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 have taken 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. Just not for John.

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)

Sunday Nibble #10: Plus ça change

It seems that any sudden societal upheaval in America follows the same basic pattern as the COVID-19 situation, as follows.

  1. Rumors of something bad coming, ignored.
  2. A little bit of the bad thing happens, the media starts to mention it.
  3. A couple more bad things happen, and suddenly the media turns it into a trend.
  4. Continue escalating hype until people freak.
  5. Store shelves stripped bare.
  6. The government fails to react.
  7. Shit gets real.
  8. The government finally sort of does… something?

Specifically, I’m thinking of the L.A. riots, which were nearly 30 years ago, but the same pattern seems to apply to the AIDS crisis (without the hoarding but with the freaking, I think) and it probably applies to the Watts Riots and the Spanish Flu and every other sudden crisis.

But I’m having a definite déjà vu over this one, even though I was a far younger and very naïve person (politically and otherwise) back on April 29, 1992. Okay, same day of the month as this post, a month early, totally unintended.

But that April day was when Los Angeles exploded in violence because the police officers who had beaten Rodney King for no reason were acquitted.

From what I remember, the story broke by the minute, and my dad freaked out about it as soon as he heard the verdict. Of course, he had lived here through the Watts Riots, so he had previous experience. I did not.

Time to stock up on everything, said he, and the stores were insane — much like they were a week before all of California shut down ten days ago.

Water and TP aisles empty, a lot of other essentials practically gone. Well, you know the drill. You all just lived through it.  At the time, though, the assholeishness of it didn’t occur to me because I was still working on installing that whole self-awareness subroutine, but, looking back… yeah. Even my dad had been a greedy asshole about it. Everyone had.

The shutdown due to the riots lasted all of about five days. And, on top of that, I realized that my dad really shouldn’t have been so worried. It was Woodland Hills, way out in the West Valley, aka “The place all the white people moved to in the 60s in order to avoid sending their kids to school with non-white people.”

Poetic justice: I went to school there with a lot of non-white people, and now a lot of the part of Woodland Hills I grew up in and where my parents lived is now heavily Hispanic. I love it. It was when this influx began that all the scared whypipo moved to the Simi Valley.” (My parents tried to join the exodus, but no one wanted to buy their house.)

As for Simi Valley, it’s the home of the Reagan Library, which tells you everything you need to know about it and its demographics. They wanted the place built there, even though the only real connection he had to the city was that he was once governor of the state.

Oh, yeah. One other thing Simi Valley: It was also the venue to which the trial of the cops who beat Rodney King was moved, apparently, with the ultimate defense goal of finding a jury favorable to… the cops. Why would that jury be favorable? Because so many police officers lived there.

And then LA. exploded into violence over a jury verdict delivered in a different county. But that explosion never got anywhere near Woodland Hills because, of course it didn’t.

Now, the eight steps at the top of this article seemed to have taken place all in one day in the case of the L.A. riots — maybe because it threatened rich white people?

Other times, events have moved in much slower motion. Reading the history on it, in the case of the AIDS crisis it took well over a decade to go from point 1 to point 8, and point 6 was intentionally extended, most likely causing the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

And in our modern age, we’ve gone through the cycle in a hyper-fast manner. Still slower than the L.A. riots — or maybe not, because all of the trial drama and build up for that  one took months.

But when it came to Corona Lockdown, we went from 1 to 8 in about three months at most, also stalling for far too long at 6, and we all reacted in the same damn exact way.

Let’s be greedy little bitches and grab everything we can.

And that is wrong, wrong, wrong.

I think that the key, though, is in step 7, as in when shit gets real, but for the 1%. First off, when they realize that they are not immune — and we’ve already had an A-list actor and spouse, several members of Congress, and various other celebrities test positive.

Second is when this realization is going to make them start spending their money on fixing shit, and they’re going to realize that they only caught it because the people they depend on do not have the same access to health care and income security that they do.

All the sheltering in place in the world does no good if their maid has to take public transportation because she can’t afford a car or insurance, and can’t take sick days off if nobody pays her for them.

If a billionaire can’t work for a month it makes no difference, because all of their passive and residual income from investments or rents and royalties keeps rolling in. Until, of course, the stock market tanks and their investments become a bit less valuable, and that’s another thing that makes them think about how helping others will help themselves.

Did I mention that the maid and all those other low-paid workers who interact closely with the billionaire probably don’t have the best health insurance or lowest deductible plan, if any?

And that Mr. or Ms. 1% doesn’t even really notice the help much so that they certainly don’t notice when the maid is coughing all over the counters while cleaning them, or that they themselves have a habit of leaning over their personal assistant from much closer than six feet while telling her what you need her to schedule, all because they’re trying to stare down her top.

They won’t even put two and two together when they suddenly feel feverish, because the only way they’re going to decide to get tested is if they come down with full-blown symptoms or if they hear that someone in their social circle has tested positive or reported symptoms.

Even then, and even if they test positive, they aren’t going to do a thing to help anyone outside of their circles until the big red flag is hoist.

That’s right. We won’t see really important action from the 1% until the grandest event of them all: Somebody in their class dies from this virus — and that is inevitable. Once that happens, you’re going to see mountains moved like never before to block the spread and find a cure.

Just look at how the straight community’s tune changed the second that Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive. Hey, there’s a reason Magic is still alive and a year older than Rock Hudson was when he AIDS killed him. You do the math.

Yep. Suddenly, death comes calling on their kind and the 1% goes socialist harder than your Bernie bro nephew who’s majoring in PoliSci at Berkeley.

“Pay the peons to stay home and the hell away from me! Give them all the health insurance they need for free so they don’t make my family sick. And let’s do something about all these homeless. No more evictions for now, everyone gets enough money to pay their rent. Ah, hell. Here’s property I bought and never developed, cover it in motor homes. Just keep the homeless the hell out of where I am, okay? And figure out how everybody who can works from home. Give ’em the equipment to do it.”

It’s Scrooge the morning after the four ghosts visit. Sad, but if they’re paying for your Christmas goose, just shut up and cash the checks, no matter how big an asshole your Scrooge was up until their sudden revelation.

Kind of ironic but fitting, really, that the deadly virus of “Trickle Down Economics” that Ronald Reagan foisted on America in the 80s — and which directly created the shitshow we’re living now — might actually start to trickle the hell down because of another deadly virus.

See, the big flaw with “trickle down economics” was the assumption that if you gave rich people more money, they would liberally toss it down on their subordinates, everyone would get raises, and it would be good times.

In reality? Not so much. The only trickle down the working class experienced was getting pissed on by the owners.

The fatal flaw of capitalism is that people — no matter their social status or personal wealth or lack thereof — tend to act, on an anonymous playing field, in their own best interests and no one else’s.

Yes, there are definitely altruistic human beings. Mr. Rogers’ “helpers” do exist, but they are few and far between.

In capitalism, which is a zero sum game, most of the players will only be altruistic when incentivized, and the incentive that works the best is to steer them toward an action that, while serving others instead of themselves, will ultimately cost them less in the long run.

Death is the great equalizer, after all. Not to mention that there is no one so rich that they wouldn’t trade their entire fortune in exchange for fending off death. If our modern robber barons can pull the same trick for only a quarter of their fortune, they will think it had been worth the price, and their selfishness might ultimately leave the world a better place.

We shall see.

Theatre Thursday: The house is dark tonight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The coronaviruses say, “As you should be.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Momentous Monday: Questions that plague us

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.