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)

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.

Theatre Thursday: It takes character

As I write this, a lot of legit theaters around the country, including my own improv company, have gone temporarily dark to help do their part to prevent spread of the coronavirus. “Dark” in theater lingo means that there’s nothing playing onstage that night. I will still be doing improv on Monday nights. We just won’t have any outside audience. But the show must go on, and so must this blog./

A question I get a lot as a writer is, “Where do your characters come from, anyway?” The answer varies, depending on what format I’m working in.

For stage plays, I usually, but not always, base them on real events, so I have at least those historical figures to start with, and can find plenty of material on their temperament, etc. Of course, every good historical fiction requires its fictional characters, and these I will generally discover in figuring out how to tell the story of the main character.

For example, I have a play about the famous mathematician and philosopher Hypatia, who was assassinated by a Christian mob in 415 C.E. In that play, I have four historical characters: Hypatia; Isidorus, her husband; Nestorius, a former student (and rumored lover); and Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria.

Since the play deals with themes of rationality vs. religion, history vs. myth, and loyalty vs. belief, the made-up characters I created were a current student of Hypatia’s as an echo of Nestorius, and her two servants, young women who represent another opposing faction in the discussion, one Jewish and the other Christian.

As for how I developed those characters, when I write my plays I prefer to do them in workshops with a regular group of readers, so I start with a direction and voice for the character, write the first draft before I start reading it in short chunks, and then let the interpretation of the actor I’ve cast help guide rounding out and refining that character.

The play of mine that’s about to go up, Screamin’ Muskrat Love!, is not based on historical figures and really isn’t based on real people, but the germ of the play did come from my real life  Basically, as he was getting up in years — and after having been a widower for longer than he’d been married, my father met a young woman in a grocery store who seemed to take an interest in him.

And when I say young, basically she was in her late 20s and he was well past Medicare time. Can you say, “Taking advantage of?” My wicked half-sister and I teamed up to push her out of Dad’s life, but in the process I learned about the very common scam where young women con artists (always working with their families) will look for older men shopping alone in grocery stores, usually during the day, then arrange to bump into them and show lots of attention.

The ultimate goal is to hook up, move in, marry up, and then inherit everything out from under the actual family. I totally get why a man my dad’s age would fall for it, though. At least to a point.

Anyway, only the idea of a young woman seducing an older man with the ultimate goal of cheating his kids out of his house made it into the play. I put a lot of twists and turns into it, also made it my tribute to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and then turned it into a door-slammer of a French farce.

As my director likes to remind me, “Do you know what the most expensive part of a set is? A functional door. I counted. You know how many doors you wrote into this? Eight! You wrote eight damn doors!”

(Okay, he wasn’t really pissed, he was taking it as more of a directing challenge, but it was yet another educational moment for me as a playwright.)

At least every single one of the eight gets good use. And, like my other plays, I developed each of the characters based upon the actor(s) who regularly read them in the weekly developmental sessions.

Screenplays are a little trickier if only because they are a lot harder to develop in “read it out loud” workshops, and that’s because, unlike plays, the action parts take a lot of precedence, and there’s nothing more boring than listening to someone read paragraphs of action split up by sparse dialogue.

Sometimes, I’ll do a developmental reading version of a screenplay, which means that I’ll make a copy of the file, and then cut down all of those actions to their bare essentials, putting the emphasis on the dialogue, but it’s a lot of extra work that can actually completely change the feeling of the entire thing.

On the other hand, editing down action to get all the points across in minimal space is never a bad thing, and can actually make the script tighter overall.

But because I don’t develop screenplays with a real cast regularly reading them, I resort to different techniques, which are also the ones I use for short stories and prose.

These basically involve a combination of modelling and mental improvisation. By modelling, I’m not talking about strutting down a runway. Rather, I’m talking about finding some real-world example or person to base some aspect of the character on, and then going from there.

It really depends on emphasis. Do I need a really strong visual for this character, or is it more personality and behavior? Or is it a little bit of both? I do find though that for works with a lot of characters that it’s most helpful to base parts of them on people I know IRL or images I find online, but these are only the most superficial parts.

I like to create a visual reference, which is simply a document with each of the characters’ names and a picture of what I think they look like. That’s because I’m a very visually oriented person. Your mileage may vary, but the idea would be the same. Find whatever evokes your creativity and cements a personality in your head, and then come up with exemplars for that.

The names you give your characters can also help as well, and I am never above going for the symbolic, although I will try to hide those in really, really obscure ways. The novel I’ve been excerpting in the Saturday Morning Post, by the way, has 38 named and significant characters.

Some of the minor ones were shorthanded to remind me of which friends I’d tossed into the mix. Meanwhile, the major ones are Easter eggs to be found — crack the code, predict the story. But, interestingly enough, while the minor characters might be real people dropped in as cameos, the major ones never are.

Why? Because I’m not writing about people I know. I’m writing stuff inspired by bits and pieces of the human condition. So I might borrow one friend’s face just to give me a visual or emotional anchor, but then graft on another friend’s personality, toss in a few traits of my own, leaven with some funny real-life story I heard somewhere, blend judiciously, and then turn to the improv.

See, long before I started doing improv as a performer, apparently I was doing it as a writer. I just didn’t know it. My technique since forever has always been this: Plan nothing ahead, just start with the idea, toss a couple of characters into the scene, and let them do their thing. You give them the particulars of location and relationship. They do the rest.

But, just like with improv as performed, there has to be a character before there can be anything else, which is why all of these little writerly inspirations and visualizations. I guess for me personally, the mantra is “If I can see it, I can be it.”

Well, at least on the page. The funny thing I’ve discovered in doing improv, as opposed to improvising characters in my head, is that as a performer I am actually very physical and visceral. I can find a character very quickly if I change my voice or take on a posture.

Visualizing won’t do it for me on stage. But if I start to speak in a particular cadence or tone or accent, or stand a certain way, it’s like I’m suddenly possessed and the character takes over.

When it comes to writing, the secret is attitude, as in the character’s point of view. The real focus, though, is on what the character wants. That was the number one thing that my playwriting Jedi master Jerry Fey imposed upon me.

Every character has a need. That need is the most important thing in the world to them, whether it’s making coffee this morning or winning the race for Prime Minister. Giving each character a strong need and never letting them deviate from wanting it creates stakes, and this creates drama (or comedy) and compels your audience.

That much is true in all creative writing in whatever format, and definitely in improv. If a character doesn’t need something, we don’t care.

And, by the way, in comedy, the stakes are actually much higher than in drama. Why? Because in drama, the stakes are realistic: Detective Margaret Davis wants to solve this case even though the DA is against her. Doctor Johnson has to cure her patient of an unknown disease. Gerald wants to save his marriage from his wife’s drinking problem, but her family is no help.

In comedy, the stakes are even higher because they are ridiculously trivial: Sheila would kill to win the baking contest, but so would her opponent; Arnold goes to great lengths to cover things up after he lies about his height and age to a prospective Tinder date, but his best friend gets wind of both and is interested in her as well; in order to not get fired for excessive tardiness, Arnold goes to extreme measures to gaslight his boss and bribe his coworkers, but one of them won’t be bribed…

One of the masters of turning the trivial into high comedy is Rowan Atkinson, especially in his persona of Mr.Bean. He can turn something as simple as moving a tea cup into he most elaborate of farces simply because the character is thwarted in his attempts — and the more he tries and fails, the more vitally important completing that simple action becomes.

So the TL;DR of the piece is this: Writers and improvisers create their characters out of whole cloth, with no real basis in reality, but we will sprinkle a combination of people we know and like, people we know and don’t like, people who are famous, pictures we find online, and humans we see wandering around, toss it into the food processor in our heads, and come out with a people salad that isn’t one bit you, although it might be a bunch of bits of you and other people we both know.

So I guess the real answer to the question, “Where do you get your characters from?” Is: I just pull them out of my ass.

Hey — since that’s literally true of a few of them over the years, I’d call it a fair answer.

Image by Skeeze  from Pixabay.