Theatre Thursday: Remembering my real second language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once upon a time…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch this space. Or… well, listen.

Sunday Nibble #17: Julep

In late April, a friend shared a link to one of those “write a short play” fast contests that I happened to run across a bit late in the process. If I remember correctly, that one was sent out on a Friday evening with a deadline of Monday afternoon. I didn’t see it until Saturday night.

Called the Quarantine Bakeoff, it’s based on the bakeoff playwriting concept created by Paula Vogel. Here’s how it works: all of the writers get the same “ingredients,” usually four or five things, with an extra “bonus” ingredient, to be used or not. Then, they get a short period of time — usually 48 hours — in which to write a short play.

The Quarantine version was created by four theatre students at the University of Minnesota, and the idea was to give their acting students something to do during quarantine and lockdown. The goal was to choose about ten of the pieces to be read live via Zoom session streamed on YouTube.

Anyway, like I said, I didn’t get the ingredients until late, but cranked out my piece in short order and submitted it on Sunday. Near the end of April, I found out that mine had been chosen. And the other great part about it was that the pieces chosen came from all levels of writers, from elementary school students through to a few professionals.

In watching the whole evening as probably the most credited and experienced of the contributors, it was actually really encouraging, because in seeing the works from an eight-year-old, a team of twelve-year-olds, a couple of high school students, a few college students, a couple of grad students with professional credits, and me, I was basically watching my entire education as a writer unfold before me.

I saw the same approaches and shortcuts I’d taken when I was young, as well as the shift in subject matter from being about the plot and idea to becoming about the people and relationships. The latter held true for the more professional writers whether they were telling their stories in realistic or abstract ways.

They just closed the entries for their third quarantine bakeoff today, and of course I entered, because how could I not? I am totally expecting to not be chosen because I already had my chance, though. It’s just that the first one gave me a short play that I’m proud of and that I can submit to contests in future. Plus it was a lot of fun.

The link below goes directly to my piece, Julep, at about two and a half hours in, although you can watch the entire piece if you want to. Fun fact: Mine is the only one in which they had a technical glitch, and the guy who was supposed to read the stage directions had his camera freeze up. Unfortunately, the others weren’t on the ball, so the piece was presented without.

However… knowing this would be on Zoom, and because I tend to not overdo them in short pieces anyway, there really aren’t a lot of stage directions to miss. The one big thing is that he characters alternate making increasingly stronger mint juleps for each other, with the final slapping of the mint sprigs before placing them as garnish used as punctuation.

That particular drink happened because two of the “ingredients” were Wild Turkey and sprig of mint, by the way. But it became a metaphor for the story I tell. Watch if you feel so inclined, and enjoy.

Unfortunately, I can’t embed the video here, but you can follow this link to watch.

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.

Theatre Thursday: Aphra and Edna

On April 16 and 279 years apart, two pioneering women writers passed away. One was British, born in 1640 and died in 1689. The other was American, born in 1885 and died in 1968.

The former was Aphra Behn and the latter was Edna Ferber. You may or may not know those names, and you probably don’t know any of Ms. Behn’s works, but you’ve definitely heard of a couple of Ferber’s, whether you’ve seen them or not, especially if you’re a film or theatre nerd.

Still… Aphra Behn was the trailblazer who made a career like Edna’s even possible, and while she was not the first published playwright in Restoration Era England, she was the most prolific female writer of the period, and the second most prolific overall after John Dryden.

And yet, like Shakespeare, little is known of her early life or even origins. She may or may not have been a spy in Dutch Suriname for King Charles II of England, although she probably did marry a Johan (or Johann or John) Behn. The marriage didn’t last, but she kept his name, crediting herself professionally as Mrs. A. Behn.

She actually was a spy for King Charles during the Second Anglo-Dutch war of 1665, and worked in Antwerp. Ironically, being posted to Antwerp spared her the ravages of the plague that swept London in 1666.

Of course, the king didn’t exactly reimburse her for her expenses as a spy, so she returned to England in poverty. It was only the re-opening of the theatres and the need for new plays that allowed her to earn a living.

In fact, she was one of the first English women to earn her living by writing, so she set the path for future generations. She also didn’t shy away from sexuality or sexual subjects — a scandal for the time, even though male authors likewise didn’t. For example, her poem The Disappointment is all about a young shepherd who just plain loses his boner while he’s trying to satisfy a nymph.

But now from the Aphra to the Edna, the latter being a 20th century writer whose works tended to feature strong female leading characters, along with a major secondary character who belonged to a particularly oppressed class, frequently for ethnic reasons.

Edna Ferber herself was Jewish, and America wasn’t exactly so open-armed towards Jews at the time she wrote, but that identity was important to her as well. Then again, it helped that she won the Pulitzer at 40 for her book So Big. The follow-up novel to that, Show Boat, became the basis of a hit musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein.

She was a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, featured in the film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, starring my patronus, Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Another notable work of hers, Giant, was adapted into the film of the same name, which starred James Dean and Rock Hudson, among others, garnered both of them Oscar nominations, and won the award for Best Director for George Stevens. What a lot of people miss about this film is that the character played by Mercedes McCambridge, Luz Benedict, is pretty much coded as a lesbian in 50s movie terms. Strong woman, doing a man’s job, no male love interest around — and dies because she tried to take on a man’s role and literally couldn’t handle a horse.

No, really. That happened.

Still, when it came to slamming their heads through glass ceilings for writers (sort of), these women were two of the pioneers. Even then, J.K. Rowling might not have been successful if she’d published as Joanne Rowling. Anne Rice did make a mark for herself under her own name in the 70s, but… unlike J.K., who was a billionaire until she gave too much away, Rice never got that rich, despite creating a bigger fictional universe.

And one has to wonder — was it because she didn’t have a male first name?

In case you’re doing the math, Rice has written close to 40 books, most of them in the Vampire/Gothic universe she created. Rowling is up to about… maybe a dozen-ish? And yet, J.K. makes a lot more money than Anne.

To be fair, though, Rowling’s kiddie wizard genre just naturally has a much larger fan-base, and the vast majority of her income no doubt comes from the movies and merchandising. Have you seen the prices on the stuff they sell in the Wizarding World section of Universal Studios?

Meanwhile, Rice’s series of vampire chronicles were never as family friendly and will always appeal to a much smaller, niche audience. It also didn’t help that while Hollywood managed an excellent adaptation of Rice’s first book in the series, Interview with the Vampire, they totally whiffed it when they combined her next two books in the series into Queen of the Damned.

Never a good sign when you replace your A-List leading actor with a lesser-known performer. Or try to combine two books that are already full stories into one movie that doesn’t do justice to either. The Queen of the Damned was, I think, the last book in the series I’d read before Prince Lestat came out. The only way to do it justice would be to adapt the entire story, as it’s told in the book, as a limited streaming series.

I suppose, for Rowling and Rice, these are all rather “first world” problems to have — and I put that phrase in scare quotes because it doesn’t mean what everyone thinks it means, since it’s a political designation, not an economic one.

But Madams Rowling and Rice, and all other female writers in the modern English-speaking world, got where they are thanks to the pioneers who came before them. Edna Ferber helped pave the way in the 20th Century, and Aphra Behn stepped through the door to start the journey in the 17th.

The fact that both of them died on the same day of the year is just one of those strange coincidences that strengthens the connection between them across time.

Image: Portrait of Aphra Behn by Peter Lely, c. 1670. Public domain. 

Theatre Thursday: The worst collaborator

It’s funny how sometimes it can take forever between the time you write something and the time it winds up on stage. I think I was just lucky with my first two full-length plays, which were produced within two years of each other and, more importantly, not long after I finished them to the point that I felt like they were shareable.

Two others, no, not so much. Bill & Joan, my play about William S. Burroughs and the fateful night he shot and killed his wife, I actually finished writing not long after that first full-length went up and I finished it before the second one was produced. I had a lot of readings at the time, and some interest, but nothing happened until years later, when one of the actors involved in those readings got in touch with me and said, “Hey, can I pitch this to my theater?”

I said yes, and we pitched it to the current board for that year, meaning that I got to sit face-to-face with French Stewart, whom I absolutely adored from 3rd Rock from the Sun. And… he and the other two turned us down. I still think he’s awesome, though, and it was clearly a case of, “Yeah, I don’t see a role for me in this,” which was absolutely true.

Nevertheless, my actor champion persevered, and when we pitched it to the new triumvirate board the next year, they said yes. And so began the very, very interesting process of suddenly collaborating on a play with the most difficult of co-writers of them all: Myself, from the beginning of my career, looking back from the well-established middle.

Oh boy. It was going to be a difficult job overhauling this one and, in fact, I’d have to say that I threw out at least a third of the original script, if not more — a lot more — and rewrote vast swatches of it. Now it might seem paradoxical to do that. After all, if it was good enough to get picked up to be produced, doesn’t that mean it was good enough as it was?

Short answer: Hell no.

That’s what’s so amazing about the process of rehearsal and working with a director and an amazing cast. It’s all about discovery, reconnecting with why you created a piece in the first place, and (especially with the perspective of so much time between origin and outcome) the ability to suddenly see the flaws with utter clarity.

One of these days, I may go back and do a comparison of the draft we started with and the one we ended with, but I know that we got to the extreme of me combining characters in different ways, adding some and dropping others, and this play was even my incentive to go back and re-learn Spanish to the extent that I am now pretty damn fluent in it.

Why? Well, the main action is set in a jail in Mexico City, and from the beginning, the two cops doing the interrogation spoke a lot of Spanish. However, when I first wrote it, it was my badly-remembered high school Spanish that had abandoned me some time during college. With the help of two Hispanic actors in the roles and a lot of self-study, it suddenly felt like I was crafting those lines as carefully as I crafted the English.

And the entire time, it was an experience in confronting my younger self every day, understanding why I’d written what I’d written, but then realizing, “Wow. I really have learned a lot since then, haven’t I?”

Currently, rehearsals have just begun for another play of mine that isn’t quite as old as Bill & Joan, but which I did write in another life time and which is also very different than my other full-lengths, which are all either based on real people or set in historical periods.

This one, Screamin’ Monkey Love!, is a modern day farce with the tag line “Sex, money, real estate. That’s what family’s for.” There was actually an attempt at producing it with the same director back around the time I wrote it, but that fell apart unceremoniously.

In this case, re-reading the thing in preparation was a lot less cringe-worthy. Then again, this play was more mid-career and benefited from coming after the time I’d spent actually working in film and TV and after multiple professional stage productions.

The weirdness in this collaboration, though, really came more from the inspiration rather than the execution. Unlike my other plays, as I’ve mentioned, this one is set in the modern day and was inspired by events in my own life, not to mention that the primary motivation I gave to one of the lead characters happens to be my own as of yet un-obtained dream.

Not to mention that real-life tragedy intervened and put me off the thing for a while only five months after our ill-fated first attempt.

The thumbnail version of Screamin’ Monkey Love! Is that it’s a story about two brothers who both want to inherit their father’s house and secretly conspire to do so. The older one hires a woman to pretend to seduce the father in order to marry him and take over the place in the traditional way — either she bangs Dad to death or takes it all in a divorce, but then turns it over to other brother per an agreement they’ve made that I won’t say too much about lest I give away too much of the plot.

The inspiration for the whole thing was finding out that my father, in his 80s, had met a woman, in her 20s, at the grocery store, and she had gotten flirty and whatnot with him, and this sent up red flags and alarm bells for my half-sister and me.

Hey, I know what personality traits I inherited from my dad, and it was clear that we had to act fast. It was also very clear that she was probably Romani, and they are known for this kind of thing: Meet old man shopping alone in grocery store, assume that he’s a widower with means, make a move.

The other inspiration was, of course, the fact that I have always wanted to own a house but, being a Gen-X person in Los Angeles, that was never at any point remotely in reach without me having been a venal and heartless asshole at some point.

So… combine the two elements, ta-da, there’s the play. The first attempt went well until it didn’t, and then six months later, my dad died and evil half-sister announced, “Oh, by the way, his house is in my name. Don’t even try.” Never mind that she had taken advantage of his Alzheimer’s to convince him that I was invading his house every night with friends and slowly making him paranoid about me. But that’s a completely different play that I might write one day.

The house in question would be the house that I grew up in and she didn’t, incidentally. The only possible house I could have ever owned, and her absolutely (pardon the expression) cuntiness in this moment turned me against her forever and, frankly, made me shelve the play because… bad memories.

I guess that time heals all wounds and, if there’s real justice, time will wound all heels, so jumping back into this play, it’s just a romp and all of the darker connotations have fallen off. So the challenge here is to collaborate with my younger self while being able to ignore the crap that I know younger me went through right after but which younger me had no idea that he would.

I did give myself a distraction from that one, though, without even knowing it, because one of the intentions I set for myself in writing the piece was to hat tip two of my playwriting idols, Joe Orton and Oscar Wilde and, in fact, the entire finale of this play is an intentional nod to The Importance of Being Earnest in more ways than one.

Still… the glibness of my younger self in tossing this one off did give me pause at a few points when I had to stop and ask, “Damn, too harsh?” Until I remembered, “Nah. Not the audience’s family, and too long ago for me to really care. Proceed!”

Things that won’t leave us alone

One thing that a lot of actors have to face is getting known for only one role, despite their ability to do other things. Mark Hamill, anyone? But it doesn’t only happen to actors. In my case, I seem to have become known for three things, depending upon whom you’re asking.

One is my first-ever produced full-length play, and I like to joke that I started at the top and failed downward since that play, Noah Johnson had a Whore…, was produced at South Coast Rep. It had a subsequent production in San Jose, but also got me a TV writing gig, and there are apparently plenty of people who remember it.

Second is a quote I gave to a reporter almost sixteen years ago, ironically while in rehearsal for a play of mine that didn’t happen then, but which is going to this coming April. Ronald Reagan had just died, the L.A. Times sent reporters out into various communities for comment and, since we were rehearsing in a storefront in West Hollywood, this reporter waltzed in to get a reaction from the gay community. I happened to get quoted, and expressed my displeasure. I’m happy to report that the conservative media almost immediately tried to claim that the facts I stated were bullshit, which I consider a feather in my cap.

But the most weirdly persistent one is an analysis of the film The Big Lebowski that I wrote back in 2000. Not so much a review as a deep-dive into its themes, this one has gotten me fan mail and comments galore, and has taken on a life of its own. It’s been anthologized in the book Lebowski 101, quoted in various film blogs, included in critic’s lists, and even cited as an authoritative source by AI-driven college essay generators, even if one of them feels like it just simulated a stroke, although I take the mention as a high compliment. It must mean that the original is back-linked all over the place.

The intro to the piece is probably worth quoting here, but if you want to read the whole thing, follow one of the links above.

I missed The Big Lebowski in its original theatrical run because it wasn’t around long enough to catch. Grossing less than eighteen million dollars, a critical gutter ball, it was a big comedown from two years earlier, when the Coen Brothers’ Fargo was drowned in praise, nominated for seven Oscars, and awarded two. In my opinion, The Big Lebowski is as good a film as Fargo. So, what happened? People didn’t get it. They were expecting a simple comedy about a stoner who bowls, got something more like Raymond Chandler on Ecstasy, then missed the metaphor anyway.

Many of the Coen Brothers’ movies travel in the guise of genre films while being something entirely different. They even played with this idea in Barton Fink, in which the titular Clifford Odets-esque playwright is brought to Hollywood to write a “Wallace Beery wrestling picture.” Fink recycles his Broadway hit into the form, but his wrestling picture is about man’s existential struggle. In Fink, the befuddled producer, who is only interested in meaningless genre crap, is a stand-in for those moguls and critics who don’t understand great art and so pee all over it. Or, worse, they stifle the artist, silencing him because he doesn’t play by the commercial rules.

The Coen Brothers are not big on genre rules. They pretend to be, then run off in more interesting directions. The joy of watching their films comes from seeing expectations waylaid and getting whisked along with them to much more interesting places. The Big Lebowski pretends to be a modern day Philip Marlowe style kidnapped girl in distress story with a hippie burnout bowler standing in for Raymond Chandler’s private dick. All of the conventions of the genre are there — the mysterious threat to the detective, the assignment that isn’t what it seems, the double and triple dealing and the hero caught in the middle of multiple counter-plots that don’t concern him. At the same time, this classic detective noir plot is perpetrated on the sunny streets of L.A. or in brightly-lit interiors. There’s nothing noir about the look of the film at all. Call it film blanc.

That’s the framework. The walls and ceiling of The Big Lebowski are something else altogether, and it wasn’t until almost the last scene of the film that what the Coens were getting at hit me. But, hit me it did, like a bowling ball in the solar plexus, and everything that came before suddenly made perfect sense. The plot went from being as narrow as a bowling alley lane to being as deep as the Pacific Ocean. That’s a rare trick, when a filmmaker can turn on the lights exactly when they want to and what you’ve been watching snaps into absolute focus…

Yeah, that and another 2,210 words somehow got me published. Go figure.

Playwrights write down rites just right

An interesting quartet of heterographs in English are the words rite, right, write, and wright. While the latter three are frequently used with prefixes, the first three also stand alone, and the first one is never prefixed. The second of these has multiple meanings in… well… its own right.

I’ll start with the one I don’t need to go into depth on: Rite. This is the word describing any kind of ritualized ceremony, and you can clearly see that “rite” and “ritual” are related. Rites can be either religious or secular in nature, and they sometimes mix. Weddings and funerals can be either or sometimes both, while baptisms and confirmations are strictly religious. Graduations tend to be secular except in religious schools, although the only religious elements then tend to be an opening invocation or prayer and, sometimes, an optional Mass afterwards. The pledge of allegiance and national anthem are both secular rites. It’s a toss-up either way whether initiation ceremonies for certain organizations like the Masons are religious or secular, although most fraternity and sorority initiations are certainly the most secular of rituals.

Of course, if you and a group of friends regularly get together for Game Night, or Game of Thrones Night, or, like me, do Improv, those are also rites by definition, and again of the most secular kind. Note that all theatre is a rite because it’s structured and has its rules and way of doing things. Not surprising, considering that theatre originated as a religious ceremony in the first place and then grew out of it.

Next is the one with multiple meanings: Right. In its first definition, it refers to some action or thing that people are assumed to have the privilege to possess without meeting any special conditions. That is, a right is a thing you can do, a belief you can hold, or a thing you can own. Of course, “without special conditions” is itself a conditional statement, since in most places rights are established via laws or Constitutions. After all, while the American Declaration of Independence says that our unalienable rights include the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, it’s predicated by the statement that it’s a self-evident truth that all men are created equal (emphasis on “men,” naturally), and followed by the idea that governments are created in order to secure these rights.

Note that, at the time, slavery was legal, and in the new country called the United States of America, only white, male, land-owning men over the age of 21 got to vote. No one else needed to apply. So those unalienable rights were relative after all.

Another meaning of the word “right” is the direction — the hand on the gearshift side (if you’re American and drive manual transmission) or the arm on the opposite side of your body from most of your heart (unless you have situs inversus). There’s also the “right hand rule,” which is used in math, physics, and 3D animation, and is basically a way of visualizing how three directional axes move at once. In the 3D animation world, these are X, Y and Z — generally left-right, forward-back, and up-down.

And then there are… well, damn. The dictionary lists 48 different definitions of the word “right,” as adjective, noun, and adverb. I’ll be right back after I read them all…

(See what I did there?)

Okay, are we all right as rain? Good. Let’s move on to the next one. That would be the word write, which is what I’m doing right now (make it stop!). And while this one technically has 17 definitions, they all really boil down to the same thing: to put information into some form that is inscribed onto a surface via abstract characters that represent sounds, syllables, or concepts, whether ink on paper, hieroglyphics on stone, electrons on computer chips, or notes on a musical staff. The act of doing so is the word write as a verb: to write.

The last of the quartet is wright, and he’s a sad little camper because he has only one definition: a worker, especially one that constructs something. He also never appears alone.

Now let’s get to some compounds using the last three and clear up some confusion. For example… you wrote a play. So does that make you:

  1. A playwrite
  2. A playwright

Well, it’s a play and you wrote it, right? Yes, but you also created it, and this is one of the specific uses for… wright. You constructed a play, so you’re a playwright.

Okay, so you’ve written the play and now you want to make sure that everyone knows you own it so they can’t steal it. Time to file it with the Library of Congress. So do you get:

  1. Copywright
  2. Copywrite
  3. Copyright

Hm. Well, you’re a playwright and you don’t want it copied. Oh, wait. Wouldn’t a “copywright” be someone who makes copies? Then maybe… oh yeah. You wrote it, so you’d write the copies, hence you’d copywrite…? Wrong? Of course. Because what this word is really saying is that you have the right to copy the work, since you own it.

Here’s an easy way to remember. When the word “write” is prefixed, it always refers to the style or method of writing, and not really the person. It’s only a person if the word ends with “writer,” but note that “copywrite” is never a verb. You can’t say “I copywrite for XYZ Blog,” but you can say “I’m a copywriter for XYZ Blog.”

As for words that end in “right,” immediately ignore any that actually end in “wright” or in other words that overlap, like “bright,” or “fright.” You’ll find that the few of these that exist really just modify one of the many other meanings of “right.”

And then there’s “wright.” What’s really fascinating about this word is that there are so many occupations, many long forgotten, that not only use this word, but have given names to the English language — and which also remind us of all those other occupational names, and not obvious ones, like Baker.

Playwright I’ve already mentioned. But what would you go to a wainwright for? No… not someone who designs your Batmobile. Although maybe. A wain was a farm wagon or cart, so a wainwright was a cart-maker. And if that cart were going to be a covered wagon, he’d probably need the services of a cooper to make the metal ribs to hold up the canvas. He’d probably also work in close partnership with a wheelwright, who does exactly what you think.

Side note: Ever heard the word “wainscot?” It isn’t related to wagons, but to wood. It’s one of those fun cases of similar sounding words coming from different origins entirely.

Other wrights you might have seen: shipwright and millwright, both of which should be self-evident. And a lot of these wrights would have relied upon the work of smiths, who are people that work with metal. Pretty much it’s a game of “metal+smith” and there’s the occupation. That’s because the word “smith” meant “to hit,” which is what metal works do to form their molten raw materials. Hm. I wonder whether “smith” and “smash” are related.

And then there’s “blacksmith,” which brings up the question, “Hey — why not ironsmith?” The simple answer is that iron used to be called “black metal” because that’s what it looked like in its unoxidized form — ever seeing iron filings? For similar reasons, tinsmiths are also called whitesmiths. Compare the word “tinker,” who was someone who repaired household utensils, most of which had probably been made by smiths. Or maybe potters.

Another fascinating thing about these occupations is how persistent they become as last names. I mean, there’s Rufus Wainwright, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gary Cooper, Will Smith, Josephine Baker, TV producer Grant Tinker, the fictional Harry Potter and the very real creator of the fictional Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter.

But the real point here, as always, is how four words that sound exactly alike but which are spelled so differently and have such different meanings managed to land in the language through very different routes, because that is what makes English so interesting, versatile, and difficult. I’d probably be right to say that it’s a rite of passage for everyone who’s trying to learn how to write English to mess this stuff up until they meet a wordwright to help them. I hope that I can fulfill that occupation and set things right.

Good night!