Monday’s mentor to many: Che’Rae Adams

I started a new Monday thing of spotlighting my talented friends. Check out Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. Those covered a triple-threat actor, improv artist, and impressionist; and a filmmaker, editor, and writer; and an artist, writer, and actor, respectively. This time around, we’re going to meet a friend of mine who helps creators become better at what they do.

I first met Che’Rae Adams eons ago when she produced my second ever full-length play to see the light of day onstage in a professional production, but she’s been a champion of my works ever since. And not just mine, but everyone’s, whether developing, producing, or directing.

Although she vanished for a while to go get her MFA in Ohio, she definitely came back into my life in a big way in the later 90s, and especially after she founded the L.A. Writers Center in 2006, also allowing me to be very involved with that. Although I don’t think I have any official title, I did co-write the book she still uses to teach her methods to writers.

At the same time, before I left LAWC to focus on improv, she and the other members helped me develop a hell of a lot of work there, both stage plays and screenplays. I can’t even count how many works I cranked out through her Monday night advanced classes.

The thing about her is, though, that she does this constantly for writers of all levels, nurturing and mentoring them and taking very personal interest in the development of their works and the improvement of their skills.

And I can tell you that this is no easy task, because I co-taught a few workshops with her, and it just bent my brain. It’s one of those weird cases of when you’ve done something for so long you’ve internalized it so much that you just can’t explain it to anyone else.

That’s my problem with trying to teach writing or music. My brain is at the point of only being able to say, “You do this because… duh,” which is no way to teach at all. If I want to try to teach, I have to sit down and force myself to work out the steps and, ta-da… that’s why I feel like I can do in writing, like I do here, but never spontaneously in person.

Che’Rae, on the other hand, is just the opposite, and I’ve seen her give many a lightbulb moment to both newbie and seasoned writers — myself included.

Of course, beyond our professional relationship, Che’Rae and I have become really good friends over the years to the point that she really does feel like she’s my true sister — and she has always, always been there for me when I’ve needed her, tossing me that life preserver a couple of times when I reached out for it.

One of the biggest impacts of COVID-19 for me, in fact, has been that she and I (and our regular game-night crew) haven’t been able to hang out together at all since March, 2020.

This didn’t stop her from producing a successful Zoom reading of my play Strange Fruit, Part One and Part Two, in August and September — but it’s still not the same.

Beyond her incredible artistic skills and ability to teach, she has a gigantic heart, with empathy and compassion to spare, and will not hesitate to give what is needed to those who ask. Plus, just being in her presence is always a huge dose of instant comfort.

She is one of my several human anti-depressants, and while chatting or Zooming online helps a little, it can’t compare to being together IRL in the same space. And missing her annual Thanksgiving gathering because I’m pretty sure it’s not happening doesn’t help either.

But… there’s always the art, and neither she nor I nor her students have given up on creating and producing that during this really weird year. If you’d like help in developing your own play, screenplay, or one-person show, you cannot go wrong with Che’Rae.

Monday meal: Two ladies, two bitches (Sunday Nibble #31 Part 2 of 2)

This started as a “Sunday nibble,” but became an all-you-can-eat buffet, so I’m splitting the profiles of two women who have had a profound impact on me into two parts. In case you missed the first part, his is the second of the two ladies. The bitches were two of the female dogs I’ve owned, who were also influential in my life This is part two. Here is part one.

 

Betty

She wasn’t all that young when she taught me, so I’ll assume that she’s either dead now or very old, but I had a very interesting relationship with one of my two high school AP English teachers. She was Ms. Betty Bivins — well, she went by “Mrs.”

She was a wide, thick-set but not heavy older woman with red hair that may or may not have been henna. My overall impression of her was that she consisted of squares and cubes with Conan O’Brien’s hair-do before he became famous for it, and a penchant for textured pantsuits that resembled flocked wallpaper in tones of either orange, red, or green over white or cream.

The word formidable comes to mine in both talent and personality, and this is appropriate, because she was my first actual Grammar Nazi.

I hated her for it from the start. But by the end, everyone in the class and I knew all the rules backwards and forwards, and for the semester I wound up in a regular (not remedial) English class (the why explained below), the grammatical and technical abilities of those kids were clearly nowhere on our level.

What she did was this: She gave us a list of common grammar and spelling errors, like mixing up it’s and its, or confusing your/you’re or there/they’re/their, along with commonly misspelled words like, well, “misspelled,” or “privilege,” and whether to use “affect” or “effect.” (That one has a sneaky hidden triple point score, thank you psychology!)

I think there were something like fifty items on the list, and she had a master book with our names down the first column and the rule numbers at the top, with two check boxes under each rule all the way down.

When we turned in a paper, if we messed up a rule, she’d make a check in the book and mark it in red on our paper with the rule number. If we ever made the same error twice, that particular paper would fail no matter how good it otherwise was, and that would affect our overall grade.

I know that one because of her, by the way.

She was, in effect (see what I did there?) the kind of editor I became, and young me wasn’t happy about it at first, especially on that one day when I screwed up and “it’s’d” when I should have “its’d.”

Now, I kept a diary back in the day and I remember finding it as an adult and reading through it, very amused for two reasons. One was that I didn’t really write about any of the more… interesting stuff that happened in my life (Narrator voice: “Sex. He means sex. Mostly masturbation, but also sex.”)

The other is that in those first days of high school, I raved about most of my teachers, and then would just tersely note: “Xth Period. English. Hate it.” And no, I don’t remember what period it was. I do remember reading, as an adult, my entry on the day I got my first mark in the Big Book of Grammar sins, though. “Xth Period. English. Bitch, bitch, BITCH!”

But, of course, stubborn little bitch that I am thanks to Mom, I was determined to never fuck up anything in the Big Book again, and I didn’t. And I started to realize that Ms. Bivins really encouraged my writing. A lot. And eventually, we clicked, and during my second semester, she was my favorite teacher and AP English was my favorite class, second place a tie between AP History (Mr. Sholl) and Spanish (Ms. Navarro).

There is a point to mentioning AP, too, which is going to come up in a second. “AP” stands for “Advanced Placement,” and this is a high school track that actually counts as college credit. In fact, because of all my high school AP classes, I actually started college as a second semester Freshman and could have technically graduated a semester early, but instead stupidly took on two minors. And an extra semester of debt.

So we get near the end of first year, I’d been telling Ms. Bivins about a science fiction novel I’d been working on. I think I may have even bravely given her some pages, and she suggests, “You know, you could write this next year as an independent study in lieu of your English class, with me as your advisor…”

Side note: although it was (cough) a few years before The Purge, that science fiction novel was basically that, but set in a distant dystopian future. And, ironically, I was given the idea by a fellow student who was already in the “regular” English class first semester and he explicitly pitched it as, “I think this is an interesting idea, but there’s no way in hell I could ever write it, but you could.”

I titled it Free for All, and I actually still have a printed manuscript of the damn thing around here somewhere.

Anyway, what reason was there to say “No?” to something that could become the next great YA novel? So we created the pitch for the independent study, she got it approved at the school level and, as far as I knew, it was good to go before summer break according to someone at LAUSD downtown.

I came back that fall for the new semester, and when I got to what was supposed to be my independent study class, Ms. Bivins welcomed me with a look on her face that made me think her entire family had just died in a fiery car crash.

She explained that only that week, during the student-free day before classes started (aka “yesterday”,) some ass-clown administrator downtown had said, “Wait. You can’t do a core class like English as an independent study!”

But here was the Catch-22. I couldn’t just go right back into the AP English class either because, reasons. So I found myself being escorted by a very sad Mrs. Bivins to a regular English class already in progress, where I spent a semester in hell because it was just so goddamn boring.

It felt like repeating the curriculum and reading level from back in middle school — Tom Sawyer and Lord of the Flies and the like. Been there, done that. And, like I mentioned, the level of English written in that class was, well… average, really. If you’re not sure what that is, go read the comment section for any online newspaper or media website, then count the number of times you cringe because of the writing. Yeah, that level.

Now, it wasn’t that these people were stupid. It’s just that not everyone is good at language arts in general, or their own native language in particular — never mind if they’re not a native speaker. I get that. I’ve known Medical Doctors and PhDs in other fields who couldn’t spell or string together a coherent written sentence to save their lives, but they are good at what they do.

And I cannot count on all my fingers, toes, and other parts (i.e. hair) the number of plumbers, handy-people, mechanics, cleaners, and so on who don’t speak much English at all, but who light up in Spanish when I tell them I understand — and who are ridiculously good at their jobs.

Seriously, if we ever have a disaster in space, all we need to do is send up a Mexican with some duct tape, PVC pipe, a tile knife, a couple of adjustable wrenches, a mallet, one black plastic trash bag, and a friend, and that shit is coming home safe and sound.

(Note to anyone taking issue with the last paragraph: It was a humorous way of saying that the ingenuity of people from Mexico or of Mexican descent never ceases to amaze me. White people whine and call a professional. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans look at the problem and solve it. Period. They could MacGyver their way out of anything. And that, in a nutshell, is the difference between growing up with privilege and not. But I do digress…)

As for all those wypipo who never learn how to English… in a lot of cases, they do learn their own technical jargon very well, so you might be surprised to see that lawyers aren’t necessarily literate outside of their particular bailiwick. They can write briefs, arguments, and opinions all day, but ask for an essay, and it ain’t gonna happen.

Hint: this is why paralegals really exist. To fix the regular English screw-ups that sneak into their bosses’ stuff so that they don’t look stupid in front of the judges.

But here is the insidious thing: In Mrs. Bivins shooting for the Moon and missing so that I landed back with the muggles for a sad late summer and most of autumn, she actually did me a gigantic favor without ever having to explain a thing, because I don’t think she even realized it, either.

Let’s get back to that “AP” part. See, it also happened to be that most of the people in all my AP classes were also people I’d been in classes with all through school since about first grade, provided that we all went to the same three schools. So, minor cast changes along the way, but for the most part, we seemed to wind up on the same train from age 6 to 18.

Now, it made sense in elementary school when we all spent the entire day in one room, with one teacher. But once we popped up into middle school and the sudden wonder of six different classes, six different rooms, and six different teachers, it should have gotten more random.

It didn’t. So on day one in middle school, there I was in home room, with mostly all the same people I’d been in class with on the last day of elementary school — and that continued on through the days and the years.

The only place it seemed to break down was in P.E., but I can’t help but think that this was strictly engineered by the sadistic coaches, who wanted to toss a bunch of jocks and nerds all together in one locker room at the same time, and then tell them, “Shower time!”

Yeah, we had to nude up and do that back then. I didn’t mind at all, But it was the only class I could remember that seemed to mix all levels of students, from advanced on down. Then again, while any typical period might have dozens of different classes in dozens of different rooms at the same time (my school were huge), P.E. had all of them at one time, in one place.

But the exception proved the rule. The only time I had class with people I wasn’t always in class with from the beginning was in the only class that did not test intellect, only physical ability.

Oh yeah… we’d all gone through that one at about twelve years old. I remember failing miserably on all counts so, while those of us from many levels did P.E. together technically, I was still lumped with my fellow nerds in the same Coach’s group, and at least he was less of an asshole than the others.

That didn’t stop them from having us do things like play flag football against the group full of aggressive jocks. It was like The Hunger Games, except with less death.

Still… why all of this grouping?

Well, ultimately, it was because all of us, around the beginning of 1st grade, were given an IQ test in that wonderfully systemically racist way of perpetuating “white superiority,” seeing as how IQ tests were originally created by big fans of eugenics.

But we took those tests and, unbeknownst to us, we were sorted into groups. I happened to wind up among the top tiers — “Gifted” and “Profoundly Gifted,” although I never heard those words until years later. But the end result was that our cohort, who were tested as well above-above average on the alleged “IQ” test were fast-tracked to…

Well, honestly, privilege. Now, granted, it was Los Angeles, so at least our gifted group was not 100% white, and everyone in it earned it. But here was the problem. Well, two problems.

One is that the particular IQ test they were still using at the time was later determined to have an enormous cultural bias, which did tend to weed out people from lower socio-economic backgrounds of all kinds. The other is that, because of this test, the top group got more resources and attention than everyone else when, ironically, we were the ones who probably needed it the least.

Put Mrs. Bivins in a “regular” English class, and she could probably bring them up to “our” level in a semester. Meanwhile, give us the rule book and make it a challenge for us to catch each other’s errors and… same result, cheaper method.

But this forever opened my eyes to how our entire school system is not really interested in improving everyone. Rather, it’s only interested in dumping everyone in their proper box, from Alpha to Epsilon, and doing form a very early age.

Sound familiar? It should. That’s Huxley’s Brave New World right there. Which, come to think of it, Mrs. Bivins did have us read during our second semester. So… maybe she had always planned ahead, and was setting up an object lesson she knew that I’d get? I don’t know. All I do know is that she, more than anyone else, gave me the push onto the path of pursuing this crazy “be a writer” thing.

Image source, Mohamed Hassan via Pexels. Licensed for free use.

Friday Free-for-all #24

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What could you give a 40-minute presentation on with absolutely no preparation?

Wow. This is an interesting question because, honestly, there are so many possibilities. My strong points are musical theory, film history, English language and grammar, history in general, and astronomy. I could also include theatre history, playwriting, character development, improv, and dog training.

Hell, I could probably also talk my way through forty minutes on Medicare, but I also know enough about the industry to know that I shouldn’t. Well, technically, can’t. So we’ll leave that one off of the list.

The strongest and easiest one for me? Musical theory, I suppose, because as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I really consider music to be my second language after English. So I could easily go on for forty minutes or more on the 12-tone system, the Circle of Fifths, how chords are related to each other and so on, and how everything is really based on a series of combinations of duotones that are just either Major or minor intervals.

And if I happen to rip through that before the forty minutes are over, don’t worry. You’ll get an entire course in musical history from the Baroque Era right up to the modern day

Or, if you prefer, a history of film, decade by decade, from the late 19th century to the early 21st, with plenty of juicy details about scandals galore. Gasp!

Then there’s my quick course in “How not to Make Common Mistakes in English,” which will walk you through how to remember differences between similar words, e.g. “To connects two things, so it isn’t too long,” or dealing with using pronouns properly, which is an exercise in omission. That is, Rule Number One, you always come last. Rule Number Two, get rid of all of the other pronouns and see if it makes sense.”

Ergo, if you write, “Myself and him went to the store,” step one is to put yourself last: “Him and myself went to the store.” Now, get rid of the other pronouns in turn and see what you get.

“Him went to the store.” Wrong.

“Myself went to the store.” Also wrong.

So the sentence you’re looking for is, “He and I went to the store.” Simple and straight forward. I don’t know why so many people make this mistake. It’s just lazy speaking, period.

And my five dollar lesson on who and whom: Rephrase what you’re saying as a statement with the singular masculine pronoun, and see what happens. That is, do this:

Original: To (who/whom) did you give the book?

Rephrased: I gave the book to (he/him).

Correct: I gave the book to him/To whom did you give the book?

Original: (Who/whom) lives here?

Rephrased: (He/him) lives here.

Correct: He lives here/Who lives here?

And when the pronoun is “he,” then the other one is who; when it’s “him,” it’s “who.” The big tell on this is that “m” ending, which is the only reason I don’t teach it with “she” and “her,” because it’s just easier to remember that letter.

Generally, “whom” will be the indirect object of a sentence; the person who received something. “Who” will be the subject; the person who does something.

Regarding history, I can give a good amateur spiel on all things Roman through about Constantine, but especially during the era of the so-called Twelve Caesars, and cover American history and politics from the Civil War on.

When it comes to astronomy, I am a total cosmology geek, and I could nerd out on your asses with anything form the history of the universe to how stars work, how planets form, what black holes and neutron stars are, how astronomy relates to chemistry, why time travel or faster than light speeds are not possible, and even a bit of quantum physics.

If that’s too much, then strap in for some theatre history, from its origins which probably pre-dated the Greeks, but that’s where we start dating it in the West, and just stay prepared for a really wild ride.

Playwriting and character development? Yeah that comes right after music for my personal fluency, but it’s also harder for me to teach only because it’s become so intuitive.

I can ultimately pull apart my musical talents and explain to you why, for example, a C Major chord followed by an E7 chord is so satisfying, even though the latter contains the augmented fifth and major seventh of the former, but that’s all because it leads back into the relative minor, which shares a key signature with your starting place.

But, when it comes to me trying to explain how to structure a story, the only thing I can say is that Aristotle’s “beginning, middle, and end” thing was sort of right, except that each of those also have their own beginning, middle, and end (we’re up to nine), which would leave us with how to structure each of three acts.

But, oops… Each act, with its own beginning and end, has one of each for, well, each beginning, middle, and end. So now, we multiple nine by three, get twenty-seven, and boom.

Those are the blocks you build any dramatic story with.

Funny story: Music tends to work in blocks of four, put two blocks together, you get eight, repeat over and over, you get a song. Three and four only play together well in units of twelve, and one of the most ubiquitous forms of American music is the song based on the twelve-bar blues pattern.

Basically, it involves three “acts.” The first is four bars of the dominant chord, generally referred to as I. The next four shift up for the first two, then come back down. The first two are built on the fourth note of the I chord, so are referred to as IV.

In the key of C, the IV is F, which is straightforward: C, D, E, F. Boom.

So the pattern, in the key of C, so far is:

     C Maj | C Maj | C Maj | C Maj |

     F Maj | F Maj | C Maj | C Maj |

Finally, the last four bars follow the pattern V, IV, I, V. That’s because the V is a natural bridge between the I and IV for various complicated reasons.

This gives us, BTW, the landing pattern of:

     G7    | F Maj | C Maj | G7    |

Oh yeah… jumping back a bit… the V is the fifth note based on the one or tonic, which gives us C, D, E, F, G. And why does G work so hard in leading back to C?

Because reasons. But here are two big easy ones, even though this might sail over heads for the moment. F and C get along because the only accidental in F’s key — Bb — also happens to turn C’s dominant, i.e. V, aka G, into a minor chord. Long story, don’t ask.

Meanwhile… in a major scale, G hates F, because her seventh is an F#. However, drop that to a regular F, she suddenly becomes a G7, and 7th chords are just hardwired in our brains to lead right back into the dominant chords.

And that’s the funny thing hiding in the progression above. Yeah, sure. It starts out I, IV, V, but that final V chord happens to have both the IV and V in it, without any of those messy annoying sharps and flats, and, yeah…

We wind up landing so damn hard back home that it should be obvious.

This is also the secret of doing musical improv. Follow the rules, and you  can make anyone seem like a genius, because they have nowhere else to go.

And then… where was I?

Friday Free-for-All #11

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What would you do if had enough money to not need a job?

Make my own job, of course.

Ideally, it would be enough money to live off of after buying a house and equipping it with spaces for writing, making music, recording podcasts, and shooting and editing video. I’d probably also host a weekly writing workshop there and, given enough space, have a performance salon on site where interested artists could come and create in whatever media they wanted to.

What? It’s an open-ended question, so I’m dreaming big.

Another nice feature would be either a guest house or a couple of bedroom suites for hosting visiting artists or housing local artists who just need a break from paying rent for a while.

And all of it absolutely dog friendly.

Now, if that Lotto win (and that’s the only way this would ever happen) went beyond the mid-seven figures into anywhere with eight figures or more, then the next step would be to give the L.A. Writers Center a permanent home and endowment while making sure that ComedySportz L.A. also had a home space for, oh, I don’t know — a dollar a year?

If I had enough money to not have a job, then I would be able to do what I love — which is creating — except with the ability to give away the output for free, or at least at cost with no net profit.

Oh, hey… I’m doing that giving it away for free part right now even as you read this!

But given funds beyond my wildest dreams, I could do so much more by supporting local theatre by self-producing my stuff on their stages and then maybe even making every show pay-what-you-can among those who could, and totally free to those communities who need to be exposed to the arts.

I’ve had way too many people tell me that I should be a teacher, and while it’s a noble idea, I know that it’s not something I could actually do in person for a couple of reasons.

One is that while I have no problem speaking in front of a large group of people, my stream-of-consciousness tends to hit the rapids really quickly, at the risk of leaving everyone behind to drown when the raft overturns.

Another is that I’m a really fast talker, and I have this weird hybrid accent that makes a lot of people in Southern California ask me, “Where are you from?” Welp, I was born in Los Angeles and grew up here, but for some reason I inherited a weird combination of my mom’s nasally east coast speed-talk with a few strange vowels, then had that layered with a heavy dose of my dad’s mother’s flat Kansas twang.

Filter that through the actual SoCal accent and it turns into a weird fast nasally drawl of no particular time or place, but for some reason people try to peg me as Southern.

Well, yeah. Southern California, not Southern U.S. Big difference.

Anyway, the more into a subject I am, the faster I talk about it and the sharper the corners on the transitions. Or, in other words, I should never be allowed to stand in front of a crowd and spontaneously teach people.

This is why I’m a writer. Although I also type really fast, somewhere north of 90 wpm when I get going, so even in this format, I can sometimes shoot five hundred miles off course before I realize it and have to reel myself back in.

I have the same issue going when I work in Excel. The formulae and whatnot are planted into my brain so that I just go on autopilot, and dog forbid anyone ask me to explain what I’m doing while I do it.

But when it comes to composing music (not improvising) and editing video, I necessarily have to do it much more slowly, and if I were able to refocus on these two elements again thanks to no need to “work” for money, it might be a good thing. The thing about both is that they involve basically creating larger works in tiny increments, with lots of layers being put down over the same territory, over and over.

I’ll give a music example. Even if you’re creating digitally, you need to do it track by track, and depending on the complexity of the score, you can easily hit 8, 16, 24, 32, 64, 128 tracks or more.

Now while you might be able to math out a track for a whole song, you’re still going to need to listen to it to make sure there are no glitches. Let’s posit a song that’s three minutes long.

Okay, track one — probably percussion or bass — laid down, review, then fix.

Track two will probably be the one not chosen for track one, bass or percussion — lay down, review, then fix.

Track three and on upward will probably start with the backing instruments the supporting chord progression, and then you’ll finally get to the lead lines and solos.

And, again, at every step of the lay-down, you have to listen to the whole damn thing to spot glitches and fix them, then listen to see if the fixes worked.

So if you’re doing a three minute song with 24 tracks, expect to listen to each track at least twice, and… you’re looking forward to at least 30 hours editing time, if not more.

Video editing? Complicate that further, since you’ll be combining several layers of video, effects, and sound effects, and again reviewing every one of them multiple times.

Writing? Much simpler, I suppose, since at least you only have one track to keep reviewing and editing over and over, instead of a group of tracks that keeps growing on every pass.

So… given enough time and money, I’d love to teach people on pre-recorded video or audio, but I’d probably hire an editor to whom I could give guidance, because I just haven’t had the patience to do it, and even this late into the lockdown, I’m not sure I still do.

But… I do digress. If I no longer needed to work for a living, then I would art in order to live, and help friends do it. Ooh. There’s your TL:dr. Enjoy!