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.

The saddest part about any sportsman’s death

To be honest, news of Kobe Bryant’s death on Sunday didn’t really hit me that hard. Sure, it’s sad, especially because his young daughter died with him — along with seven other people I don’t see anyone publicly mourning. But I’m not a sports fan in any way, shape or form. I consider organized sports to be a huge waste of time and money. So Kobe was only ever in my consciousness as some guy who — I think — played for my home team, and I don’t even know whether he was active or retired. And it was… basketball, maybe?

Now that paragraph is going to infuriate a lot of people, but that’s kind of my point, and the point of this piece. The only time I ever see straight men of the uber-masculine “he-man” sort show any kind of emotion is when a beloved sportsman dies or suffers some kind of tragedy. And yes, it’s always a sportsman, never a sportswoman.

Case in point: the sports media couldn’t have given two wet warm shits about HIV and the AIDS crisis until Magic Johnson announced in 1991 that he was HIV+. Suddenly, it was wailing and gnashing of teeth, and to all of those sports reporters AIDS was the worstest thing ever. Ironically, Magic is still alive, but it took this very weird cult-like behavior around sports figures to start to turn the tide.

And it’s only certain sports. Contrast the reaction to Magic Johnson with the reaction to Greg Louganis revealing, in 1995, that he was HIV positive. He didn’t get the same outpouring of bro love. Instead, he was criticized for daring to injure himself and bleed into a pool in 1988 when he knew that he was HIV+. (No, Magic did not receive any criticism for fucking a ton of women after he was diagnosed. That got crickets.)

By the way, Louganis is also still alive.

Panem et circenses. Bread and circuses. You might recognize that first word as the name of the capital in the Hunger Games series. The idea is to provide meager nourishment and spectacle in order to distract people from the real issues of the day.

And organized sports certainly provide the circus, along with the illusion of nourishment. But what about the deaths that should have given everyone pause in just the first three weeks of this year?

Qasem Soleimani – was it legal or not? Hans Tilkowski, Luís Morais, and Khamis Al-Dosari, all sportsmen who died way too young, but you don’t care because they’re not American and played soccer. Silvio Horta, who wrote for TV and film. Neil Peart, oh yeah, I’ll give you your bitching and whining over that. Elizabeth Wurtzel, bros say “who?” Edd Byrnes, actor we’ve all forgotten. Buck Henry, actor and writer we should not have forgotten (“Introducing Lord and Lady Douchebag!”), Christopher Tolkien, son of J.R.R. and keeper of the LOTR stuff; Efraín Sánchez and Pietro Anastasi, two more footballers. Er, sorry. Soccer players; Hédi Baccouche, former Prime Minister of Tunisia; Terry Jones, Welsh actor and comedian of Monty Python fame; Jim Lehrer, American journalist.

And yet… the straight white male world only loses its shit over the loss of a person whose talent was bouncing and throwing a ball.

Pardon me for intentionally trivializing, but it really is infuriating when any celebrity death goes into bread and circuses mode and distracts from the really important stuff going on. Yes, let’s take a moment to be sad about it — but let’s not allow it to make us forget all of the far worse things happening right now.

Yeah, Kobe is dead, and I’m sorry for his friends and loved ones, but for all of the impact he actually had on my life (total: zero) I’m not going to waste a lot of time thinking about it. And if it seems like the time I took writing this article was focused on… thinking about him, no, it wasn’t. It was more invested in thinking about all of the other people we’ve lost in the first 26 days of 2020.