Theatre Thursday: How I wound up here

I never intended to go into acting in any way, shape, or form. I still consider myself a writer first, a musician second, and person who’s not afraid to go onstage or speak in public with or without a script third. And yet, here I was, up until March 2020, performing onstage without a script two or three times a month and loving every second of it.

It’s an odd road that brought me here with some interesting steps along the way. My earliest theatrical experience was the obligatory elementary school play. I don’t remember the first one beyond that I played some sort of a woodsman with a group of other boys, all of us armed with cardboard axes. I do remember the second, an adaptation of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

I probably remember it because I had lines and everything and was kind of a featured character. I’m pretty sure the character I played was a boy named Obi, and he was a big deal in it because he was lame. Since he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t follow the other kids when the Piper lured them off, and so became the sole witness to tell the grown-ups what happened. I think this was around fifth or sixth grade.

In middle school and high school, I mostly floated around band instead of drama, although the two merged when I played piano in a middle school production of Bye Bye Birdie. Yeah, kind of anachronistic by that point, but the music is fun and it’s a safe show for that demographic while pandering to being about rock music.

I also wrote my first play as a final assignment for my AP English class. The teacher asked us to write a parody of something that we’d read during the two semesters of the class, and I hit on the idea of writing a two act musical that parodied everything. It became pretty epic, combining A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Crime and Punishment, Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger (we dodged The Catcher in the Rye because the teacher thought we’d read it when we hadn’t), various works of Shakespeare, and I don’t remember what else.

All I do remember was that it took the various characters from the stuff we’d read and tossed them into our very own high school, had a few songs that I actually wrote the music and lyrics to, and I got an A+ on the thing despite the teacher later admitting that he hadn’t had time to read the whole thing. It was over 50 pages, after all, when I think most other people turned in four.

One memory I do have from the experience, though, was when I excitedly tried to tell my father about it, and his reaction was basically, “Why the hell are you wasting your time doing way more than you have to when the assignment was to just parody one thing?”

Yeah, way to be encouraging there, Dad. I was doing way more because I got inspired, and that’s what’s kept me going as an artist ever since. So the A+ was kind of my personal vindication.

This was the same English teacher who taught a class that combined film history with filmmaking, an art form I loved ever since my dad took nine year-old me to one of the frequent revivals of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was frequently revived because every time a film at one of the cinemascope theaters around town bombed, they would toss this film or one of a handful of others up for the remainder of the originally booked run time. 2001 re-ran a lot in the 70s and 80s. The other great love it instilled in me was of the genre of science fiction, especially so-called “hard” science fiction, of which the film is a great example.

The appeal to me of hard science fiction is that it tries to follow the rules of real science without relying on making stuff up or defying reality. This means that Star Trek is a bit squishy and Star Wars is totally flaccid, but I’m still a Star Wars homer because that series caught me as a kid and has kept me as an adult, and Kylo Ren became my new favorite character with his first appearance, never mind cementing it with his last.

So, in what in retrospect was probably the stupidest decision of my life, I went to film school to major in screenwriting. The thing I didn’t realize at the time was that my sensibilities were nowhere near the mainstream and would never mesh with Hollywood in any way, shape or form. I didn’t really know or appreciate it at the time, but I had pretty much already learned how to write. What I should have done was majored in something practical that would have made me a lot of money early so that I could then stop working for other people, invest, and then have the whole artsy career thing.

Yes, if I had a time machine, that’s the life-path I would go back and beat into my 16-year-old self. “You’re either going to study some business thing, like get a license in insurance or real estate, do it for a decade and hate it but cash out, or you’re going to hit the gym with a personal trainer and then become a model or porn star or both and love it but then cash out. Then you can pretty much be what you want to be.”

So I hit college and film school and in the middle of my first semester I get a call from a theatre professor who had been talking to one of my film professors, who had mentioned to her that I played keyboards and owned a synth. “Would you be interested in playing for the musical we’re doing this fall?” she asked.

“Oh hell yeah.” It was an obscure piece written by the people who created The Fantasticks, an off-Broadway musical that ran for 42 years. The one we did, Philemon, was less successful, most likely because it’s a lot darker and basically deals with a street clown in 1st century Rome who winds up impersonating an expected Christian leader in order to out Christians in a Roman death camp only for the clown to actually try to inspire a revolt and it doesn’t end well for anyone.

But… I had a great time doing the show, made a lot of new friends, and got talked into auditioning at the next semester company meeting for the next show. I did it mainly based on the fact that “There’s no way in hell I’m going to get cast in a play as an actor.”

I got cast. And since doing a show gave credits, not to mention that I’d started college basically a semester ahead thanks to credits from high school AP classes in English, Spanish, and History, I had room to add a minor. So what did I do? I added two — theatre and psychology.

Oh, look, Dad. I’m overachieving again.

I performed in or was on crew for at least two shows per semester from that point on, although three or four were the norm, especially after I’d gotten involved with the Del Rey Players, who were essentially the “amateur” theatre club on campus.

By the time that college was over, I’d written a couple of not-that-good screenplays, but had really connected more with theatre in general, and all of my friends were theatre people, not film people. (There was a lot of crossover, though.)

Still, I had it in my head that I was going to go into film, but I started writing plays. My first after college “real” job was working for the Director’s Guild pension plan offices because, again, I was naïve enough to think that that was close enough to the industry to get in (hint: it was not), but it is where I met a woman, Thana Lou Tappon — although she went by just Lou — and when she heard that I was into theatre, she invited me to join up with a playwriting class she was in, and that became a life-changing moment.

The teacher and mentor I met was  man named Jerry Fey. Basically, he somehow wound up teaching a playwriting class as part of the UCLA Extension for a semester and realized two things. One, he loved teaching. Two, he hated the bullshit that came with academia. So he tapped his favorite students, and set off on his own. And to his great credit, he did it for free.

It was in his group that I created and developed the first-ever short plays of mine to actually be produced, and then wrote the first full-length that was produced and not just anywhere. My debut as a playwright was at a little theater called South Coast Rep. Basically, it’s the Center Theater Group of Orange County or, if that means nothing to you, one of the many regional theaters that is Broadway equivalent without being on Broadway.

In fewer words: I managed to start at the top. And that’s not to blow my own horn but rather to honor Jerry, because none of that would have happened without his guidance and input… and then, not more than a year after my premiere, he didn’t show up for class one day and I was the one to make the phone call from the theater which was answered with the news that he had died the night before. Official version: Liver cancer. Real reason? We’ll never know. I do have to wonder, though, whether he knew back when he started teaching for free on his own, and was giving back in advance of his inevitable demise.

But what he left behind was a group of people who kept going as a workshop for years, dubbed themselves The Golden West Playwrights, and we are still friends — hell, family — to this day.

Flash forward past other produced plays, one of those plays getting me into a Steven Spielberg sponsored screenwriting program that was fun but led to nothing except for a close friendship with a famous science fiction writer, then winding up working for Aaron Spelling, and the same play getting me my one TV writing gig, and then winding up in a playwrights’ group at another theater company, The Company Rep, only to balls up enough to audition for one of their shows and make my return to the stage, this time doing more Shakespeare, playing every guard, officer, soldier, and whatnot in The Comedy of Errors, and doing it with a broad comic Irish accent — something that inadvertently led to me doing a Michael Flatley impression in the show that brought the house down. Yeah, the director’s idea, not mine, although I accidentally suggested it.

Other roles I did with that company include the Spanish speaking Dreamer (aka Jesus stand-in) in Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, which only ran for 60 performances on Broadway, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come along with about eight other characters in a musical version of A Christmas Carol and, my favorite, Duna, the depressed unicycle-riding bear in a story theater style adaptation of The Pension Grillparzer from John Irving’s The World According to Garp. (Holy crap. I just remembered that one of the shows I played piano for in high school happened to be Story Theater, by Paul Sills. Whoa!)

Anyway, the nice thing about playing the bear was that it was an entirely physical part, no lines, and I pretty much got to just run with it. There was one moment in particular that I loved. During a long monologue by a character in the foreground, I let myself be fascinated by the glass grapes decorating the stole worn by the grandmother character to the point that I would suddenly drool big time — actor secret, hard candy in the corner of the mouth right before entering. That would get a nice “Ewwww!” from the audience, and then I would go and bite those grapes and Grandma would fend me off with her handbag. It was a beautiful moment of silliness, and I loved it.

That company eventually folded and I went back to working for home media and then a celebrity website with a play or two produced in the meantime. And then things went weirdly full circle.

I didn’t mention that my previous experience with improv also happened in college. First was when I did a radio show my freshman year with fellow students. We started out scripting the thing as a half-hour sketch show, but when it became clear that we couldn’t create material fast enough to keep up with production we moved into improv mode, although our use to lose ratio became ridiculous — something like record four hours in order to get twenty good minutes.

And compound that with me just not being able to come up with anything good, so I had to drop out. At the other end of my college career, we attempted an improv evening at an after party with the aforementioned Del Rey Players, but I couldn’t do that without going incredibly dirty and not going anywhere else with it either.

So, end result, while I liked improv as a concept and audience member, I feared it as a performer. And then I found out that one of the actors involved in one of the plays of mine that was done in the ‘10s also happened to teach improv with a company, ComedySportzLA, that was located in El Portal Theater — the same place where The Company Rep had been when I joined it, ironically.

I knew that I loved to watch improv but had had bad experiences trying to do it, but what better way to find out whether I could? So I went to see a few shows, then started taking classes, and then wound up actually doing improv for real live audiences and, holy crap.

If I had that time machine now, I would go back to my fifteen-year-old self and say, “Okay. Find the job that will make you the most money in the fewest years — it will probably involve computers and the internet — and go take improv classes as soon as you can. Hell, if your high school doesn’t have a ComedySportz team yet, convince your drama teacher to get one and do it right now.

Yeah, that would have been the much faster route to now. On the other hand, I’m not complaining at all about how I wound up where I wound up. Just wondering whether one slight tweak or another in the past wouldn’t have put me in a completely different place.

But… don’t we all?

Image: Philippe De Gobert, Grand room at Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, Belgium, (cc) Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication.

P.S. On Monday, February 17, the ComedySportz Rec League is hosting their 11th anniversary show and pot luck. You should come see us. PM for details. 

Life is a…

One of the earliest things I can remember, oddly enough, is the soundtrack to the musical “Cabaret,” specifically the title track as sung by Liza Minelli, but also the opening number, “Wilkommen,” which may have inspired my love for languages, and the song “Money,” which probably introduced me to the idea that you could have two different melodies going on at the same time. Ironically, I would not see the entire movie in a theater until I was in a film class in college despite home video and all that, but this was probably for the best. It’s really something that needs to be seen on the big screen first. (And yes, this was also the film that basically screamed at me “Being bisexual is a thing!”)

But… prior to all of that, this was probably the show that infested my baby brain with the idea of Musical Theater is amazing, and made me want to perform. And the title tune, of course, features the very famous line “Life is a cabaret.” Well… duh.

Life is a performance. Life is art. Life is dance. Life is creation. If you don’t think that it is, then you aren’t living life. You’re just going through the motions. But if you take charge of your own movements and emotions, and then take every step in your day as if you’re onstage and entertaining the masses, then you are going to have a really good time. And this is what taking those early lessons to heart and going on to make life a performance has taught me. You can either be the show or the audience. But being the audience is boring as hell.

Life sure as hell is a cabaret, ol’ chum. Life is performance. Life without performance is not life at all. So consider this when you go into the muggle world (if you must), but I know that you know it if you’re an actor, singer, artist, writer, performer, whatever. It’s what Saint Shakespeare told us. All the world’s a stage. And we are but mere players on it. But play we must, and play we should and shall, because in taking up our roles we can make this planet a better place.

The only people who don’t play are the ones who are afraid of life and living. And they avoid playing by lying and not being themselves and blaming everyone else. Improv is about “Yes, and?” Guess what? The people who aren’t improving themselves are all about, “No, not.”

Nothing will stop the fun faster than “No, not.” Nothing will make the fun more amazing than “Yes, and?” So choose wisely. But keep in mind: Life is a cabaret, old chum. Life is a cabaret.

Influences, influencers, the influenced

I seem to be slowly developing a following here, and it’s not all people I know in real life. In fact, it’s mostly not people I know in real life. And a lot of you seem to like what I’m doing, and I’ve gotten positive comments and messages, and I appreciate them all. This next sentence is going to sound like a mega-tautology, but here you go: I write what I write here because I’m a writer, and what writers do is write.

In other words, this all began as an exercise in keeping my chops up. When I started this blog, it was right after the end of a decade-long gig which involved, in part, ghost-writing a weekly column for a certain D-list celebrity. Since I was given a ridiculous amount of free-rein, I basically took their philosophies in one subject area and applied them to human psychology and self-improvement, and got to at least enjoy the praise vicariously. I made the words. D-lister got the thanks. Go figure.

So it’s nice to actually get the positive comments myself, finally.

But this also reminds me of my own adventure with a columnist. The Los Angeles Times used to run daily columns by a writer with the most generic of names: Jack Smith. When I was a kid, my parents subscribed to the Times, and I used to read his column regularly, but one of them stuck with me. It was about the etymology of the word “undertakers,” and this sentence in particular, referring to the U.S. Civil War, jumped out: “…undertakers used to follow the armies like prostitutes, not to pleasure the soldiers but to embalm them.”

It stuck with me enough that I eventually wrote an entire play about undertakers, a prostitute, and the Civil War, called Noah Johnson had a Whore… (Later productions would try to drop the last three words from the title only for me to learn an important lesson: As offensive as they might seem, those words effin’ sold tickets.)

Anyway… this was the first full-length play I ever wrote, the first of mine ever produced, and I wound up starting at the top. It won an award from and was first produced by South Coast Rep, which is basically the Center Theater Group of Orange County. In other words, big time. It was an amazing experience that I will never forget and, to this day, I happen to have one of the 19th-century style wooden coffins from that production sitting in my living room as a coffee table as a constant reminder. (Note: Yes, coffins and caskets are different.)

But… to quote another produced play of mine, “I do digress…”

Because my play won a contest and turned out to be a big deal and got a lot of PR at the time, SCR reached out to the Times and Jack Smith to get a comment about the whole thing, since he had given me the idea in the first place. And not only did he respond, but he came down to see the show, I got to meet him, and then he wrote about it in another one of his columns.

Yeah, talk about an ultimate fan-boy squee moment. It was all really overwhelming for a baby playwright. And then the show closed and life went on.

Jump cut: About 2010. An old actor friend of mine remembers one of the plays I wrote not long after Noah, but had long since abandoned. Called Bill & Joan, it was about a fateful night in Mexico City in 1951 in which the writer William S. Burroughs shot his wife Joan Vollmer in the head and killed her in front of horrified party guests in what may or may not have been a game of “William Tell” gone horribly wrong. I was inspired to write it because Burroughs was one of my early influences as a writer. Unfortunately, right around the time I started to shop it, David Cronenberg released his film version of Naked Lunch, which infuriated me on two fronts. First, it really had nothing to do with the book (and mostly de-gayed the entire thing). Second, in order to come up with a plot, they did the whole “Bill shoots Joan” storyline, which killed the market for my play.

But… the actor who had read one of the young roles ages ago remembered the play and was now old enough to play the lead, so he got in touch, we pitched to his theater company and… they turned it down on the first pass. (This particularly hurt because one of the artistic directors at the time was French Stewart, whom I have always admired the hell out of.) But, persistence paid off, so we tried again the next year, with a new artistic board (they change every year by design) and ta-da!

So the play opened at the beginning of 2014, to coincide with the centenary of Burroughs’ birth. Bonus points: His birthday was the day after mine and, as we found out in pre-production, his wife’s birthday was the same as mine. Whoa!

But the best and trippiest part was that this whole process became a collaboration between me and my younger self. I hadn’t looked at the play in years, so looking at it again effectively put a third pair of eyes on it, even if those eyes were still mine. When I’d written the play, I was the same age as one of the hustler characters Bill lusted for. When it was produced, I was only a tad older than Bill was when he killed his wife.

Combine all of that with an amazing director, dedicated production staff, and a killer cast, and I think that the whole thing turned out well. But the icing on the cake came after the Burroughs estate sent a spy to see the play, he reported back that I had plagiarized Bill’s words, and we got a cease and desist. This being small theater in L.A., that notice came after we had closed, so the one producer who was and is a major asshole dumped it on me. I replied by just sending them the play, and the ultimate vindication came from James Grauerholz himself.

If you don’t know who he is, you don’t know your Burroughs. He was a fan who wound up being Bill’s secretary and personal assistant in the 1970s and stuck with him to the end, and hence became executor of the estate. In other words, he is William S. Burroughs’ living representative on Earth. It’s not even clear whether they were actually ever lovers. Honestly, probably not, but Jimmy is the fiercest protector of Bill’s legacy.

And his response to reading my play? (Which didn’t quote Burroughs, but just made shit up in his style.) Paraphrased: “There is no plagiarism here. We give you our blessings to produce this play.”

So on the one hand, I’m really flattered to realize that I duped some people into thinking I quoted a literary idol instead of wrote in imitation of his voice. On the other, I am super honored that Hand of God told me, “Yes, oh yes. You can do this. Carry on.”

And that’s a lot of words to get around to saying this: If you appreciate a writer’s work, let them know. We are solitary creatures who do not trust feedback we get from friends and family, because with rare exception, they will tell us we’re brilliant. (If you have a friend who will tell you to your face that something you wrote sucked, hang onto them, because they truly are a friend.) But when the compliments come from strangers, they are the best kind of validation.

And if you are a writer yourself, then  just hang on, do what you do, and trust in yourself until someone else says, “Hey… I like this.”

Because nothing feels better than that.

Image: From the Sacred Fools Production of Bill & Joan; Betsy Moore and Curt Bonnem

The stage fright paradox

Long-time readers know that in addition to being a writer, I also have some background as an actor and, for the last couple of years have been doing improv. I originally got into acting bass-ackwards in college. My first semester, one of my professors found out I played keyboards, and asked if I’d be in the ensemble for a musical another professor was directing. I agreed, did the show, and had a great time, plus made a lot of friends in the theater department. The next semester, I was invited to the theater department intro meeting and those friends dared me to audition for the show right after the meeting. I did, figuring no way in hell would I get cast.

I got cast, then went on to become a theater minor, doing a few more shows and directing some and really enjoying it. Plus, it was a good experience to help my playwriting ambitions, and here’s advice I’d give to any aspiring playwright: Even if you think you’d suck at it, act in a stage play at least once. It’ll make you a better writer because you’ll understand what actors have to go through to bring your words to life.

As for the improv, it was one of those things I’d always loved to watch but the idea of doing it scared the crap out of me. Then the chance to actually learn it from brilliant teachers came up, and I figured, “Okay. I’ll either totally suck and it’ll justify my fear of doing it, or I’ll get over that fear and have some fun.”

Option two ensued, and now, instead of it scaring the crap out of me, I live to do some improv onstage — which led to another really interesting realization recently. But first… some background.

What do you think is the most common fear among people? Death? Spiders? Heights? Germs? Snakes? Nope. Time after time, surveys show that the most common fear humans have is… public speaking! (Insert dramatic chipmunk music.)

That’s right. Most people would rather die, kiss a tarantula, walk on the ledge of a skyscraper, lick a sidewalk, or make friends with a boa, than get up in front of their fellow humans and talk. And that’s just weird. Well, at least it is to me.

Full disclosure: My three big phobias are death, amusement park rides with long vertical drops, and being the cousin who draws the short straw in the “Go with Nana to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve” contest. (You fuckers… next year!)

So there’s the context. I have no fear of public speaking or going on stage and performing. But I recently realized something even weirder: The more people there are in the audience, the better. It’s almost like that many faces looking back at me from the dark just makes my brain lock into some weird super-focused zone. The more people there are watching, the more chances I’ll take — and that is exactly what we’re supposed to do in improv. Make bold choices, take big chances.

For some reason, it also makes me spin off into characters that aren’t me — something I have trouble doing with small houses — as well as get emotionally connected and crazy in a scene. Again, what I should be doing, but what it takes that extra set of eyes to get going.

And it’s something I never would have suspected I could have done before I took the chance and started studying improv (which scared the hell out of me, remember?) in the first place. And making up characters and lying is something I’ve done in this article, if you’d like to go three paragraphs up and drop one phobia from that list.

Yes, that’s right. What do improvisers do? Get up on stage and lie to people convincingly. And the bigger the crowd we can lie to, the better. It’s kind of like how believing in fairies resurrects Tinker Bell. The more the merrier and all that. Although it does make me wonder whether politicians become consummate liars precisely because they have large audiences.

I asked some fellow performers, and they all seemed to agree: When it comes to audience size, the more the merrier, especially if they don’t know the people in the audience. One friend told me, “I find it more enjoyable for me as a performer when there is a larger audience rather than… small,” adding that an audience of strangers can be easier, because “In front of strangers there are no expectations and they can be surprised; whereas in front of friends, they already expect you to be funny or do something weird.”

I can definitely relate to that one. If I don’t know the people watching I actually feel more comfortable because I’m coming at them as a blank slate. They don’t know who I really am or what I really sound like, so I can ratchet up the characters and voices and such. Another thing I’ve found is that the bigger the house the better, as in theater size. The largest house I’ve ever performed for was at the L.A. Theater Center downtown, to a capacity crowd of maybe three or four hundred, and, surprisingly, every ounce of anxiety or stage fright just disappeared. Another friend concurred on that, saying that it’s “easier to perform in a large house with strangers. The audience feels more removed. It makes it easier for me to escape into the world of the play. In a small house, I can see and hear everything from the audience. It’s very distracting to me.”

Not everybody agreed to the large house theory, though, and one of my fellow improvisers split the difference, preferring a medium house. “A house with a dozen or fewer seems to suck the energy right out of the room. A house with more than a hundred seems to disburse the energy in a million directions.” They also didn’t preclude friends, although with a qualification: “It’s harder for me to perform in front of other performers; I feel like I’m under scrutiny. It’s much easier to perform in front of non-performing friends. I feel like they’re there to support.”

My sentiments were perfectly echoed in one other comment, though: “I love performing for strangers. I can really let go of ‘me’ and be a larger character.” Yep. Give me that room full of strangers, and I will get so large it scares even me. In a good way.

One other improviser put it nicely: “I prefer performing for strangers. There’s less consequence and no grudge match I have to deal with afterwards if they tell me they loved or hated the show.” I’ve experienced the same thing as a playwright, and I remember one fascinating conversation after a short play of mine, when I got into a discussion with an audience member who didn’t know who I was and who started ripping specifically on my piece. I could see my friends out of the corner of my eye ready to dive in and pull me off lest I started beating his ass, but to me it was actually very helpful and not at all an insult to hear a stranger speak honestly about their reaction to my work because they didn’t know it was mine. It was clearly just a matter of my piece was not a fit for his taste, and there’s nothing I can do about that, after all. Right? He didn’t hate the craft so much as the subject matter. It’s like my utter disdain for gory horror movies. A lot of people like them. I don’t. My dislike doesn’t mean they’re crap. It just means they’re not my cup of tea.

Exception: Theatre of Blood with Vincent Price and Diana Rigg, which  I love. The film is so classy that it transcends the genre. But I do digress…

One other notable comment from one of my respondents, regarding pre-show angst: “Much of that anxiety goes away once I’m on the stage,” and I have to agree. Actually, almost everything bad goes away once I go on stage. Am I feeling nervous? Under the weather? Stressed? Angry? Insert negative emotion here… Yep. Stepping out of reality and into that other world tends to take away everything but the immediate relationship between fellow performers and the audience and it is wonderful.

Performing is really the best therapy in the world for all ailments physical and mental — and I’m not kidding. I’ve gone on stage with the flu, sprained joints, right after a nasty break-up, in the midst of a panic attack, and during or after who knows how many other setbacks and infirmities. And, in every case, as soon as the lights went up and the show started, bam! The thousand slings and arrows of the real world melt, thaw, and resolve themselves into art.

The Play That Goes Wrong

The Play That Goes Wrong” seems to be a bit polarizing. I have friends whose reactions were “Meh.” I have friends whose were like mine: Loved it. Then again, I’ve always loved “Noises Off,” which is another British play with a similar conceit, in which we watch an amateur theater production go off the rails. In “Noises Off,” there are three acts and a rotating set, so we see the first act as the audience would, the second from the wings, so stage and backstage at once, and the third is only backstage. It’s three looks at the same show, so by the time we get to the end, we know what got screwed up onstage and finally get to see why it happened.

The Play That Goes Wrong” takes a more linear approach, so we see one performance that gets increasingly wonkier. The show-within-a-show is ostensibly an Agatha Christie manqué murder mystery set in a stately mansion. The actor who plays the detective, Chris Bean as Inspector Carter (in reality, Evan Alexander Smith), not only directed the play, he designed costumes, made props, etc., etc. And if you do go to the show, your enjoyment will be greatly enhanced by reading the fake actor bios and whatnot in the playbill info for “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” because they will add so much to the play for you.

Is this necessarily a good thing? Well, considering that the show starts well before curtain with the stage manager and tech dude futzing with the set (and hilariously involving an audience member in what turns out to be foreshadowing) while two of the running crew wander the audience, frantically trying to find a lost dog, I’d say yes. There is no fourth wall here at any point after you enter the theater, and that’s half the fun. There was even one moment when an audience member shouted something to the actor on stage, and I could not figure out whether it was an usher, or just someone who really got into the spirit of it. It certainly set up the rant from the character that followed, and it says a lot about the writing and performing that he got exactly the reactions he needed from us to make successive lines make sense.

Or maybe there was a lot of ad-libbing and improv of the order of things. Hard to tell which.

As for the show itself, I think the big reasons it amused me so much were these: First, I’ve done a lot of theater in… let’s say, low-budget circumstances… and things are always going wrong, people are forgetting lines, missing cues, breaking props, and so on. Oh, sure. Never to the disastrous scale seen here, but this is just the nightmare cranked up to 11. Second, as an improviser, I was incredibly amused by the conceit that the actors are going to stick to the script as written no matter what happens, dammit! And this is what gets them into the most trouble.

For example, at one point, a character enters to get a pencil for the detective, but it’s not where it’s supposed to be. He finally exasperatedly grabs what is very obviously an antique key to the door, still calling it a pencil. All of the characters are working very hard to try to ignore everything that’s wrong around them. Improvisers would embrace this, acknowledge the weird, and run with it.

A perfect example is when one character refers to a portrait on the wall, saying that it’s the father of the brothers in the story and that one of the brothers is his spitting image. But it’s actually a painting of a dog, which in the real life of the play is the same dog the stagehands couldn’t find before the show. The characters continue to play it as if the portrait is human. Improvisers would have gone right to it actually being a dog portrait, but that being the most normal thing of all, and would have come up with one of a dozen ways to justify the brother being its spitting image.

The performances are amazing, and the physical feats as well as the timing here are just mind-boggling. Several characters apparently get whammed really hard by errant parts of the set, and we have stage combat, acrobatics, what amounts to juggling, and several physically tricky exits of characters carried, dragged, or dropped  by others through doors and windows. As for all that “whamming,” which quite often involves hits right to the face and multiple knockouts, I know how this is done, but it was done impressively and convincingly and at more than full-speed.

This is definitely a show that probably has a good hour of slo-mo combat/action practice before every performance.

And as for the acting… it takes an amazingly talented cast to take a bunch of actors as characters who aren’t so great, and make them bad in just the right ways. There are no standouts because everyone was exceptional. Dennis Tyde as Perkins, the butler (Scott Cote) has somewhat of a problem when it comes to remembering or pronouncing obscure words, like “fakade” or “kianeedy,” (façade and cyanide), and this becomes a running gag that leads to a meltdown. Cote draws this character perfectly. As Robert Grove playing Thomas, Peyton Crim the actor brings a very Brian Blessed bigger-than-life vibe to the whole thing, and his physical work, especially when trapped on a lofted playing era threatening to collapse is amazing. Jamie Ann Romero, in real life, plays Sandra Wilkinson who plays Florence, the female lead, who can’t seem to keep it in her panties, at least figuratively, and her affairs with several characters seem to be the catalyst for the murders. Romero is brilliant at giving Sandra just enough talent to be not that talented, but way too declamatory and funny as hell, and watching her morph from Gatsby flapper to a demented and battling Betty Boop is hilarious.

I’ve already mentioned Evan Alexander Smith as Chris Bean, man of many hats, and our detective, Trevor. Not only does he hold the center of the piece together, but he does it as a man who, in his reality, is about to fall apart since this show is his baby, and it isn’t going well. In fact, the moment when he finally breaks character and lets loose is one of the highlights of the whole show.

Then there’s Ned Noyes as Max and Arthur, the trust fund baby, and it’s clear from his fake bio that he’s probably only here because he donated a shitload of money to the company. He’s also the only character who, as an actor, plays two roles but the clue to that is, again, in that bio. He breaks character and the fourth wall constantly, fawns and prances for the audience in many “Wasn’t I clever, there?” moments, and gives a huge bit of fan service in the second act. In short, Noyes makes us love his character for all of his shortcomings as an actor and it’s clear that he, himself, as an actor is just having a ton of fun up there. (Well, everyone is.)

A murder mystery needs a victim, and we open with Jonathan Harris as Charles, the victim, played by Yaegel T. Welch, caught at lights up in the first of many mistakes. His Harris is an actor who can’t quite play a convincing corpse, which is problematic in a murder mystery, but perfect in a play like this. The harder he fails at it, the harder we laugh.

Rounding out the cast are Angela Grovey as Annie Twilloil, the stage manager, and Brandon J. Ellis as Trevor Watson, the light and sound operator. They are also the only two American characters in the play. (Again, read those fake bios, people, they’re worth it.) Trevor is only here to get a credit needed to graduate, and he’s not a theater person. Meanwhile, Annie seems to have a terror of being seen by the audience at all. That’s another reason to get there early and watch the pre-show, not to mention that specific things she does then actually turn out to be more foreshadowing of what happens later.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but both Annie and Trevor wind up involved in the onstage happenings more than they want to be, and Grovey and Ellis nail it in character to a T, but in two totally different ways. Annie is initially terrified to be there, but after a moment of audience approval, she suddenly opens up and steals the stage — quite literally later.

Meanwhile, Trevor clearly doesn’t want to be there at all, and especially not when he’s suddenly put in an awkward situation that becomes one of the biggest moments in the second act. (Kudos to Ellis for just going for it as an actor, by the way.) Also impressive: While he spends most of his time during the show scrolling on his phone between cues in the “booth,” which is played by a mezzanine level box, he is still able to take focus exactly when the script needs it, and also plays the audience brilliantly. Of course, I happened to be sitting dead center in the main Mezz, which was right where his eye-line went, so he and I kind of developed a weird little thing during the show.

Not that I have any complaints about that. Nor did Max. But I do digress.

The other two really impressive things about the show are, well, of course the script, and the tech. Script first… the thing to remember is that the murder mystery story here really doesn’t matter, because that’s not what we’re following, but it still made sense. But on the level above that, what really impressed me — and I don’t know how they did it unless there was improv involved — was that certain moments got exactly the emotional response needed from the audience to justify the next lines of dialogue, and this happened multiple times. In fact, when Chris Bean melted down onstage, it happened about five times in a row in the same scene.

The other is that, beyond the timing and juggling of the actors, the physical working of the set was perfect, and whoever designed it deserves All the Awards. We had things falling off of walls, or randomly suddenly staying, a door that became a character on its own, a lofted playing area of many surprises, a stage elevator that, behind the scenes, was way more complicated than this fake company should have attempted — hey, lights and a ladder, maybe instead of a practical lift? — props that either vanished or fell or flew apart, flats that decided to, um, take a bow, recalcitrant doorknobs, and on and on and on. It was a set built to fail, and it fails spectacularly, bit by bit, over the course of the show. The set was, as Trevor describes it, “a death trap.”

The most impressive thing is that the timing of set failures is just as exacting as that of the actors, and I would love to interview the tech people and find out how they did it all. I’m suspecting a ton of remotely controlled magnets and levers (probably via MIDI?), and a third running crew member beyond sound and lights in charge of all the effects.

But I’m just gushing now. As a theater kid, I loved the show just because. As an improviser I loved it even more just because because. Most of the muggles watching with me seemed to love it, too. If you fall into any of those categories, see it if you get a chance. This run ends on August 11. And then before or after, stream “Noises Off,” a 1992 movie version of that play starring Carol Burnett, John Ritter, Christopher Reeve, and Michael Caine, among others.

Meanwhile, this play goes wrong in all the right ways.

Great Caesar’s ghost! Or not…

Here’s a flashback to March of 2019, back when theatre was still a thing and the world was (relatively) normal. Ironically, I originally posted this story a day short of exactly one year before ComedySportz was scheduled to leave its space at the El Portal in order to perform as a touring company before finding a new space in the fall. Ironically, that turned out to have been the best decision possible, as it kept the company together while freeing it of the financial burden of the space. A lot of other small theater companies were not as lucky.

As my regular readers know, I do improv comedy for the ComedySportz L.A. Rec League on Monday nights, as well as work box office for the company, which is located in the smaller space in the historic El Portal Theater, which has quite a history.

It was built in 1926 and housed both vaudeville shows and movies. It was badly damaged in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, although fortunately restored to become a live theater, with three performance spaces. The smaller one, where ComedySportz is now resident, was originally occupied by Actors Alley and then later briefly by The Company Rep before they moved.

In an ironic full-circle, I joined that company as a playwright while they were at the El Portal, then continued on to act with them as they moved to the NoHo Arts Center and the former location of the Deaf West Theater, where I received a glowing review for my turn as a depressed, unicycle riding bear.

So that’s the background on the building. The other thing to keep in mind is that both Debbie Reynolds and Marilyn Monroe used to come to the place to watch movies when they were kids, and the main space and our theater are named after them respectively. The other is that it is an ancient tradition to believe that all theaters are haunted by ghosts.

Note: I don’t believe in ghosts at all, but I do believe that there are certain psychological and physical factors that can make people think they’ve seen them.

Now to the real start of the story. Recently, I had to pull double-duty running the box office and working as house manager on a night when we had shows at eight and ten in the evening. This meant that I had to come open up at six and stick around until the last show and the notes afterward were over, so I was there until midnight.

As part of the closing up procedure, I have to go up to our booth to shut down the light and sound boards and computer, and then have to make sure that there’s no one still working on the main stage. This means I get to go into the main theater lobby, which is deserted, and then into the main stage itself.

That night, I walked into the space, which was dark except for the so-called ghost-light, and called out asking if anyone was there, and for some reason, I got a sudden chill. You know the feeling, right? It’s like every hair on your body suddenly stands up and you feel that electricity travel from your feet to your head. It’s an ancient reaction common to mammals, and if you’ve ever seen a cat puff up or a dog raise its hackles, then you’ve seen it. It’s a defense mechanism designed to make us look bigger when we’re feeling unsure, although it doesn’t really work as well for humans, mainly because it doesn’t affect the hair on our heads and the hair on our bodies (for most of us) isn’t think enough to make us really puff much.

I wrote it off as the psychological weirdness of walking into a dark, cavernous space all alone late at night, then jokingly waved at the stage and said, “Hi, Debbie!” before heading back out to close up.

The next evening, I was talking to Pegge, the Managing Director, and Steve, the House Manager, of the theater and told them about this, and Pegge immediately told me with complete sincerity, “Oh, no. The ghost’s name is Robert. Don’t worry, he won’t hurt you.” She went on to explain that he was the theater’s original accountant back in the 1920s, and people always saw him dressed very formally, with a high white collar. According to her, there’s also a female ghost who would escort patrons to their seats and then vanish.

Steve explicitly stated that he doesn’t believe in ghosts either, but that he has had a number of people over the years independently mentioning seeing both of them and giving identical descriptions of each, generally wondering, “Who was that person I thought I saw before they just disappeared?”

It’s all rather intriguing and now I want to experience these phenomena just to try to figure out what could be creating these illusions in people’s minds. It is a very old building, and late at night also tends to be preternaturally quiet because the really high ceilings and carpeted and padded interiors like to eat sound.

Also, the single source ghost light on stage tends to create deep shadows and bright highlights, and high contrast lighting like that can create all kinds of visual tricks. Finally, the place does sit right above the L.A. Metro Red Line subway tunnel and has for 20 years. I can often hear the rumble of trains passing beneath the lobby, and the connection between low frequency infrasound and ghosts has been established. That’s exactly the kind of sound a rushing subway train might create toward the back of a large space.

Back to that ghost light, though. It’s a romantic name, but is also known as the Equity light, after the actors’ union. Its real reason for being there is to keep people passing through the space after hours from walking into things or falling into the orchestra pit. `

As for why there’s such a belief of ghosts in theaters? I’m not sure, but maybe we can blame Shakespeare, because he certainly loved the trope. Hamlet Sr.? Banquo? Richard III’s nightmare before Bosworth field? Both parts of Henry VI and the only part of Henry VIII? A whole family of ghosts who visited Cymbeline? (A rarely performed and underrated play, by the way, that manages to be both gross and funny at the same time.)

And, of course, there’s the titular ghost for this post, who also gave Perry White of Superman fame his famous catchphrase.

So I’ll be keeping an eye out for Robert and the nameless female usher in future days, and will report back on anything unusual I experience. This is definitely going to be interesting.

Have you seen or experienced anything you’d call “ghost-like?” If so, how do you explain it? Let us know in the comments!

Image: Painting, La morte di Giulio Cesare, by Vincenzo Camuccini, c. 1806. Public domain in the United States.

Theatre Thursday: It takes character

As 2020 has become “The Year without Theatre,” it’s still important to remember that the show must — and will — go on. While neither I nor any of my friends are currently performing live, we’ve found ways to do it virtually, usually via Zoom.

I’m still doing improv every Monday night remotely with the ComedySportz L.A. Rec League. We just don’t have any audience besides ourselves. But despite not having live venues at the moment, it doesn’t mean we’re not creating.

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.

Friday Free-for-All #19

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.

If you opened a business, what kind of business would it be?

This is one of those questions I’ve known the answer to for years, and yet one which has had the parameters for actually doing it change so much in the last three months that the real answer has become something quite different.

Or, maybe not, but let’s start with the pre-plague version.

If I opened a business, it wouldn’t be so much opening my own as it would be facilitating and giving a home to something my friend Che’Rae Adams started, called the Los Angeles Writers’ Center. (LAWC.) It’s a similar idea to Playwrights Horizons in New York, although on not quite as grand a scale yet, but could get there.

In its ideal, pre-plague form, it would have served as a school, developmental center, and production/performance venue, ideally funded by grants, donors, and ticket-sales as a non-profit so that the playwrights would not have to pay tuition while the performers would be paid.

As the idea developed, I realized it would also be the perfect place to fold in ComedySportz L.A. as a second tenant in a building with multiple performance venues, allowing them to have their shows and classes as well, but as a subsidized part of the LAWC.

To go full-on insanely ambitious, those venues would be in a mixed-use commercial/residential property adjacent to a Metro station, but here’s the catch: none of those residences would be luxury properties, and none would be for sale. Instead, they would be available as very low- or no-cost rentals to the artists involved with the company below.

Income that wouldn’t accrue to the non-profit but which would cover operating expenses of the residential and commercial areas of the building would come from the very carefully selected commercial tenants resident on the first one or two floors, designed to cater to our audiences, staff, students, teachers, and artists-in-residence.

Our major goal would be diversity and inclusion, with the primary intent of presenting work written, created, and performed by artists from the BIPOC and LGPTQ+ communities. And while this doesn’t mean that we would never do Shakespeare, it does mean don’t be surprised if you see a production of Richard III set in Feudal Japan with an all-Asian cast, The Tempest recast as an African folk tale, The Scottish Play set as a struggle between native Indians and the Raj, or a First Nations and Native take on Romeo & Juliet.

But no, you would not be seeing an all-white version of The Wiz, thank you. Never, never, never, never, never!

On the other hand, a lesbian version of A Streetcar Named Desire or a gay version of A Doll’s House (with Nora as a twink who’s finally over it) or a transgender, pansexual take on Guys and Dolls could be very interesting.

But all of those are new stagings, re-imaginings, and adaptations. The real purpose and fire of the LAWC would be original works by new voices (new by exposure, not by age — we’re diverse in that way, too) developed via a collaboration of the writers, actors, directors, and dramaturgs of the LAWC, along with a series of readings to get audience feedback.

The ultimate goal is to keep creating seasons to present in our own theater.

Well, it was. The question now is whether and when live theater — or any live event in a venue that holds more than a hundred people — is ever coming back. And, if it does, is the staging going to have to be something new, different, and never before explored?

Will live theaters essentially become a stack of private boxes set in a tower of circles all the way around the stage, enclosed in glass with sound piped in, and occupancy limited to up to six members of the same household who have shown proof?

And how would that effect relative costs it tickets were per box instead of per-person? I’m sure that single theatre fans would pretty quickly revolt.

Do we instead reduce all theaters to 99 seats or less but have multiple shows per day in order to get enough people in? Or would that be too abusive to the casts, as well as forcing them to risk longer exposure times?

Do we turn all theaters into elaborate versions of Pepper’s Ghost, in essence turning the cast into real-time “holograms” to protect them from the audience and vice versa, basically using a 19th century stage trick?

Does being cast in every show from now on out require fourteen days in complete quarantine before rehearsals even start, and how is that paid according to union rules?

Are Noh theatre and Commedia dell’arte about to make a comeback because of the masks?

Too many questions, not enough answers.

I’d still like to make this business happen. I just don’t know what form it would take in the near future.

Theatre Thursday: A Bard’s dozen

Quarantine is hard, so in lieu of not posting anything, here’s a blast from the past, an article posted in April 2019, in honor of the Bard’s birth, but which is still relevant today.

I am a huge fan of Shakespeare, so keep that in mind and… here we go…

One of the most remarkable things about Shakespeare is that the psychological truths in his plays are so universal that they offer themselves up for endless adaptations and recreations. They can be staged as faithfully as possible to the actual look and feel of whatever era he was writing about, or be stretched and bent into just about anything else. A lot of people may not know it, but the seminal 1950s science fiction film Forbidden Planet is somewhat based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and when you can easily leap from 17th century romance to 20th century science fiction, it says a lot about the original writer.

The other amazing thing about his works is this, and something I cannot emphasize enough to someone who fears getting into Shakespeare: Yes, it may be hard to read his words on the page, but watch them acted by brilliant performers, and you’ll be sucked in in a second. The language barrier will vanish while the emotional power will take you over.

Here then are half a dozen straight adaptations of his works, followed by half a dozen that only took inspiration but still delivered powerful stories because, after all, the Bard of Avon was a powerful story-teller.

Straight Adaptations (Most to least faithful to the original era of the story)

  1. Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Probably one of the Bard’s best-know works, which also gave us West Side Story and  Romeo + Juliet, this tale of star-crossed lovers was best told and most accurately cast in Zeffirelli’s version. Unfortunately, years later, the actor Bruce Robinson, who played Benvolio in the film, took part in the #MeToo movement, when he revealed that Zeffirelli sexually harassed him on set.

  1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999, Kevin Kline)

This is one of the most over-produced Shakespeare plays ever, possibly because it’s really the least substantial, but at least this version managed to nail things down definitively with an amazing cast. I mean, come on… Kevin Kline, Roger Rees, Sam Rockwell, Stanley Tucci, Rupert Everett, Michelle Pfeiffer,  Dominic West, Calista Flockhart, Christian Bale, and David Strathairn…  how much more stellar could you get?

  1. Henry V (1989)

Branagh. Shakespeare. Say no more. He is one of the most definitive Shakespearean actors — in fact, he can rightly tell Laurence Olivier to fuck right off (because, honestly Olivier wasn’t that good as Hamlet or Richard III.) But Branagh has brought us multiple Shakespearean adaptations, from Hamlet to Henry V to Much Ado, and all of them are brilliant. Still… his turn as director and star in the pivotal film in Shakespeare’s amazing “War of the Roses” cycle knocks everything else out of the park.

  1. Hamlet (1990)

Despite the allegations about Zefferelli mentioned above, he still gave us a version of Hamlet that rang true, even if Mel Gibson was way too old to play the hero and Glenn Close was way too young to play his mother. Branagh did it six years later, but his exercise was way too academic. Zefferelli’s is visceral and gutsy, and definitely blew Olivier’s bloodless 1948 attempt right out of the water. Unlike Branagh’s, Zefferelli did not adapt the play mostly uncut — which is why his version only runs 2 hours and 14 minutes, while Branagh’s is just over 4 hours.

  1. Richard III (1995)

This is my second favorite Shakespeare play starring one of my favorite actors, Ian McKellan, and the reimagination here is brilliant. It takes this War of the Roses and sets it in an imaginary world where the UK went through a civil war in the 1930s and the fascists won — at first. McKellan plays the humpbacked anti-hero with all of the nasty glee necessary, and is aided and abetted by an amazing cast. (Full disclosure: My actor’s dream would be to play Gloucester/Richard III through the whole cycle of plays he’s in, from all of the Henry VI’s through Richard III… He’s just that amazing a douchebag of a character.)

  1. Titus (1999)

And this is my favorite Shakespeare play, despite most Shakespeare scholars considering it problematic, but in Julie Taymor’s adaptation, it takes off and sings. Her first and most brilliant move was setting it in a Rome that is not specific, but is eternal — it could be anywhere from the time of Julius Caesar to the time of Mussolini, or maybe even Fellini, and it all works. On top of that, the cast is amazing: Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Colm Feore, Harry Lennix, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Angus Macfadyen. If you’re not sure about Shakespeare, this is probably your best entry point.

Reimaginations (Nearest to furthest)

  1. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

Quick catch-up: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor characters from Hamlet. In the play, they are two old school pals of Hamlet, and they were brought in by the villain to lure Hamlet onto a boat-ride intended to lead to his death. However, Hamlet turns the tables, re-writes a letter and, instead, sentences these two to be executed in his stead. This play, by Tom Stoppard, makes R&G the lead characters, with the actions in Hamlet in the background, and becomes an existential comedy. In the film version, directed by Stoppard, Tim Roth and Gary Oldman essay the lead roles, with Richard Dreyfuss appearing as the lead player — more important here than he was in Hamlet.

  1. Ran (1985)

I saw this film at one of the revival houses in L.A. and went in knowing nothing about it, other than that it was directed by Akira Kurosawa. I was about one act into what I thought was some traditional drama set in the shogun era when my brain suddenly clicked and I realized, “Holy crap. This is King Lear.” And it was. Other than a gender swap up top regarding who inherits what, the rest of it is pure Shakespeare, and there are a lot of moments that really stand out visually, particularly the mad king wandering unharmed through a castle that is being pin-cushioned by arrows, and the summary execution of Lady Kaede, which indicates that maybe her blood pressure was a bit too high.

  1. Scotland, PA (2001)

Another odd little adaptation, but one which gets the source material entirely: This is Shakespeare’s story of ambitious monarchs writ large brought down to human scale, and it totally works. Yes, it’s set in a real place, and manages to reset all of the drama of Shakespeare’s original in the context of the petty squabbles inherent to a fast-food franchise. Surprisingly, though, this does not blunt the drama from the Scottish Play one bit.

  1. West Side Story (1961)

As if you didn’t know, this is Romeo & Juliet, updated and with an utterly amazing collaboration with seasoned pro Leonard Bernstein writing the score and newbie Stephen Sondheim providing the lyrics. This was lightning in a bottle, almost perfect in every way from Broadway onward, and the movie adaptation is one of the most incredible musicals ever filmed. The talent on tap is over the top, the numbers are choreographed to perfection (thank Jerome Robbins for that), and put this down as the second best adaptation of Romeo and Juliet ever filmed.

  1. 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

Also known as The Taming of the Shrew (see how the titles rhyme?) this is another Shakespeare update that is admirable for bringing the bard to a new and younger audience. It’s the same story in a different setting: Petruchio… er, Cameron, wants to date Bianca, but her dad is stuffy, so won’t let her date anyone until her older sister Kat hooks up. Enter Patrick Verona (see what they did there?) who will try to, well, tame that shrew. This all takes place at Padua High School, and it’s all a lot better than you might think it’d be from the description.

  1. Theater of Blood (1973)

All right. Question one: Do you like Shakespeare? Question two: Do you like Vincent Price? Question three: Are you a fan of horror movies? Well, if you answered “yes” to at least two of those questions, this is your lucky day. Theater of Blood is an amazing film in which Vincent Price plays a disgruntled Shakespearean actor who did not win a critics’ award, so goes on to bump off each of those critics following his most recent season of Shakespeare plays. The cast of critics is an all-star bunch of British actors of the 1970s, Price is abetted by the amazing Diana Rigg (what ho, Game of Thrones fans!) and we get the amazing combination of Price and Rigg doing Shakespeare, a comedy gore-fest, and a metric buttload of fantastic British actors, well, acting. Keep your eyes out for murders based on Julius Caesar, Troilus & Cressida, Cymbeline, The Merchant of Venice, Richard III, Othello, Henry VI: Part One, and Titus Andronicus. Price’s character fails, however, with attempts at Romeo & Juliet and King Lear. Oops… spoilers?

What is your favorite Shakespeare play or film adaptation? Let me know in the comments!

Theatre Thursday: Sometimes, the movie is better part 1

In the cases of adaptation, a frequent lament of fans of the original is that the movie version just wasn’t as good. We most often hear this about adaptations of novels, both graphic and non, but the same is true of plays, particularly musicals.

The big trick in adapting live theatre to cinema is that the latter is a lot more literal whereas the former has no need to be literal or realistic at all. This is why some shows that work so well on stage fall kind of flat on film. The Fantasticks is a really good example. Being a sort of reverse fairy tale — in which a pair of neighboring fathers conspire to have their children fall in love by forbidding them from seeing each other only to succeed in that to see the relationship go sour — the less literal and, well, more fantastic, the staging is, the better.

A more recent and spectacular example of how film’s need for realism can destroy an adaptation is Cats. Not that that show works on stage at all. In my humble opinion, it commits the cardinal sin of being boring, with no one to really root for. It’s my second least favorite musical, right after the mess that is Rent.

As with any adaptation, changes in the plot or other elements may be necessary for various reasons. When novels are adapted, this often means combining characters and dropping subplots, since a full-length novel is really enough material for a mini-series rather than a single film. (Novellas fare better at more direct adaptations.)

While stage works may more often than not follow a similar structure to film, there are still cases where storylines are dropped — or added — and there’s also the issue of changing times. For example, the original stage version of The Fantasticks, which premiered in 1960, includes a number called “The Rape Ballet.”

Now, it’s explained in the song that this is “rape” in the ancient sense of abduction, and since the character who leads in it has been hired by the two fathers to fake the abduction of the daughter in order to allow the son to be the hero and end the “feud” between the fathers, and he explains that he’s using the word in that sense, that’s how it was originally justified.

Yeah, that fell by the wayside eventually. By the time the movie came out in 1995, the number had been replaced with “The Abduction Ballet,” with none of the connotations of the earlier version.

(Oddly enough, I was involved with a theatre company in the ‘00s that produced the show, premiered it on September 11, 2002, and used the “rape” version of the number. And the artistic director was an old hippie woman. Go figure.)

A lot of the time, the original is better. But, every so often, the changes, particularly when they involve story or focus, can make an okay stage musical into an amazing film. Here are some of my favorite examples.

Cabaret (1972)

The film version of Cabaret is actually a fourth generation adaptation. It was based on the Broadway musical of the same name, which was based on the legit play I Am a Camera by John Van Druten, which was in turn based on the short novel Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood.

Oddly enough, Isherwood played the character based on himself in the original Broadway run of the play in 1951. And while there’s a gay couple in his original novel, his character is apparently not and he pursues a relationship with Sally Bowles — who is British. There’s also not a hint of gay in the first film adaptation of the non-musical stage adaptation, and certainly not in the Broadway version.

The whole thing gets pink-washed, although Isherwood bears some of the blame for that. So it’s kind of a surprise that when notorious heterosexual womanizer Bob Fosse gets the project, one of his big innovations is restoring the homosexuality of the male lead. The other is making all of the songs in it diegetic. That is, the musical numbers are moved into the Kit Kat Club, where Sally Bowles (now American) performs, with the two exceptions being a record that Sally puts on in her room and a sudden nationalistic Biergarten rallying song begun by a member of the Nazi Youth.

The other big changes are in the treatment of the secondary couple, and the relationship between Brian (aka Isherwood), Sally, and Max — a character dropped from the stage musical, but brought back.

In the stage musical, the secondary couple is largely played for comedy and are cast as much older. The woman is Sally’s landlady and her suitor is also an older gentleman. A lot of the numbers that got dumped in the transition were theirs. Oh — a word about “secondary couple,” for those not up on musical theatre conventions.

Quite often, although not as much in the modern era, every musical would have two couples, the leading couple and the secondary couple. Both of them would fall in love, with one couple’s story mirroring the other. Usually, one half of each couple would be connected. Most often, it was divided into the boys and the girls. The most common relationships would be either siblings or best friends, with either set being one or the other or a combination of both.

Of course, there are other ways to mix and match. In Cabaret, the film, the couple are Fritz and Natalia, and Natalia is an English student of Brian’s. She’s a member of a wealthy Jewish family. Fritz is apparently a Protestant, so Natalia’s parents won’t allow them to marry. This leads to one of the most poignant moments in the film when Fritz shows up on Natalia’s doorstep at night, then hesitantly announces “I am a Jew.”

As for the other relationship in the film between Brian, Sally, and Max, who is a wealthy Baron, it turns out that Brian and Sally are both… as Natalia asks in a language question and Sally answers to Brian’s horror, “How do you say ‘screwing?’” Bumsen.

I’ll be polite and translate that into Yiddish instead of English: Max was shtupping both Brian and Sally, although neither of them knows that up until a confrontation between the two that has one of the most darkly funny dialogue exchanges in film in three sentences.

All the while, by placing the musical numbers in the club, some performed by Sally but a lot of them headlined by our Emcee, who serves as a Greek chorus, those songs entertain and distract the in-film audience while commenting directly on what’s going on in the film.

One of my favorite numbers in the whole film speaks directly to Max’s attraction to Brian and Sally: He’s rich.

Some interesting notes on this number: First, it’s the only one in the film that Joel Grey and Liza Minelli really have together, because there had to be that star moment, and it replaced a number that, in the stage show, is performed only by the Emcee and Kit Kat Girls.

Second, there is a strong hint that the Emcee is creeping on Sally Bowles and, while she doesn’t appreciate it, she kind of has no choice, so the more intimate moments in the choreography here are colored by that and add an extra layer to the whole thing. If she doesn’t perform with him, then she’s not going to make any money.

Finally, note that a lot of the Emcee’s choreography here is based on traditional dancing that would have been done by Jewish men during things like weddings, especially during the silhouette part behind the scrim at the end. Nothing is ever said about the Emcee’s religion in the film and, in fact, there’s the strong implication that he’s a staunch supporter of the Nazis, but this idea will color later adaptations, more on which below.

This diegetic music idea is one that the film adaptation of Chicago will pick up in 2002 and, while the film and stage versions of that show are equally good, Chicago won the Oscar for Best Picture along with five others. Cabaret won eight Oscars total, but not Best Picture. The only reason I won’t insist that it should have is that it lost to The Godfather.

By this point, full disclosure. I discovered Cabaret as a tween because my paternal grandfather liked to collect records by buying up lots from garage sales and antique and thrift stores and the like, but he was only looking for jazz music from the 1950s and before.

So anything else — which included rock, pop, and musical soundtracks — went into boxes that were fair game to me and my three cousins whenever we visited. My oldest cousin (seven months younger than me) was only into hard rock and that kind of crap, which I never was.

The other two were really too young to care. So that left me to dive into all the weird shit — meaning musicals and stand-up and so on. Grandpa also apparently didn’t like big band, swing, and classical. Score!

So I found the original Broadway soundtrack of Cabaret, gave it a listen and immediately wanted to play the Emcee. This was long after the film had come out, actually, but I eventually learned that it existed, although I didn’t actually see it until a screening in a college class on film musicals.

When I finally saw the stage show, a year after I graduated from college, I realized, “Wow. The movie was so much better.”

Flash forward. When Cabaret was restaged by Sam Mendes in 1993, it picked up elements from the film, made Brian/Cliff’s bisexuality even more explicit, and hypersexualized the emcee, now played by Alan Cumming. And the biggest change to that character also makes for a really chilling ending.

In text and song, not much different from the original. In context… hang onto your socks.

I can’t help but think that this update was informed by the movie musical and Fosse’s choreography of his Emcee, which Mendes and Cumming ran with. And the last little bit here takes it on to a whole other level, just like the movie did in the 1970s.

Stay tuned for next week’s installment

Image author IsarSteve, licensed under (CC BY-SA 3.0), used unaltered.