Watching Shakespeare: a Bard’s dozen

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 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!

 

Great Caesar’s ghost! Or not…

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.

Letting go of thinking

Here’s the funny thing about improv and letting go of thinking. When I first started taking classes and then performing, two games scared the ever-loving crap out of me: “What are you doing?” and “Da Doo Ron Ron.” For the life of me, in “What Are You Doing,” I couldn’t come up with descriptions of what I was doing and had a really hard time avoiding the dreaded and prohibited “I’m…” The reason “I’m” isn’t allowed is because it’s a form of hesitating — although we certainly hear it in the clip linked above. (Side note: although this is a ComedySportz LA clip from almost seven years ago, some of the players here are still with us.

And in the latter game, “Da Doo Ron Ron, I used to consistently stumble over my own tongue by either whiffing the rhyme or repeating someone else and always getting called outta there no later than third. Note that the linked version here is from a different city, so they do it slightly differently than we do, with the “5, 6, 7, 8” intro, and by rotating players instead of eliminating them. And, although this is a ComedySportz clip from New Orleans from over a decade ago… yeah, you guessed it. I know one of the players here, who is now on the Los Angeles team.

If you didn’t get it from the videos or didn’t watch the videos, I’ll  give some explanation. “What Are You Doing” is an opener game, and it works like this. There’s an audience suggestion of a place, occupation, or theme, like “Pet Store.” First player starts with a motion that’s totally random. Other player demands, “What Are You Doing?” And first player replies with something related to the suggestion, like, “Feeding hamsters!” but which has nothing at all to do with the gestures they’re making. Second player acts out feeding hamsters, then first player demands “What Are You Doing?” and second player describes something completely different from the action but related to the suggestion, like “grooming puppies!” It continues until someone hesitates or whiffs it entirely.

Later on in the game, there’s an extra complication. The Ref will ask an audience member, “What are you initials,” getting either two or three. After that, all of the answers to “What Are You Doing” have to start with those letters. For example, if the letters are PJB, you’d get stuff like “Projecting jelly beans” or “Pretending Jedis breathe” or “Postulating justifiable bingos,” or whatever. And it can get messy fast, but in a good way — the more nonsensical the better, because then there’s the added challenge of the players having to act out things that are totally non-existent or even impossible.

The other game, “Da Doo Ron Ron,” is a singing and rhyming game that I’ve written about before, although not by name. It’s based on the old song. The pattern is pretty simple. The Ref gets a name, then person one sings a line that ends with that name: “I met a dude whose name was Pete” — “Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron.” The next person rhymes that: “He was really very sweet,” followed by “Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron.” And now it gets tricky, because the next player has to come up with three rhymes, and fast. “Da doo doo, yeah?” “He has big feet.” “Da doo doo, yeah?” “He doesn’t eat meat.” “Da doo doo, yeah?” “He hates defeat.” “Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron.”

One of the games within the game is turning that “yeah” into a challenge to the player who has to come up with the three rhymes, as if we’re basically saying, “So, what you got?” The other complication is that each time around after someone gets called out, the tempo gets faster.

So, back to the top… way back when I was learning improv, both of these games scared the living shit out of me, but then a funny thing happened as I’ve played them more and more and let go of the thinky part of my brain. I’ve relaxed into them, and these games that used to terrify me have become two of my favorites to play. And I’ve somehow managed to pretty consistently make it to the final round in “Da Doo Ron Ron” every damn time, as well as at least carry out much longer streaks in “What are you doing?” than I ever did before.

For “What Are You Doing,” it really is a matter of not planning ahead at all, which is especially fun when we get into the initials part of it. For “Da Doo,” there is some planning, but it’s really only a matter of holding three rhymes in my head at all times, then replacing any that get used — but the important part of that strategy is listening so that I can make the switch while remembering what’s already been used.

The next thing on my “Holy crap that scares me” list? Scene games. But I’m guessing that my amazing coach already knows that, and has a plan to guide me through that nasty land mine of terror.

And did I mention that doing this thing that once upon a time terrified me has actually turned out to be  the bestest thing ever? ‘Cause, yeah… it has. Well, okay. Second bestest. The bestest wold be a human being, but they also never terrified me, so there’s that.

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 of 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

Yes, and…

The improv company I work for and take classes from, ComedySportz L.A., doesn’t just have teams or classes for actors and other performers. A big part of their business — for all of the ComedySportz Teams worldwide — is to provide training in improvisation for major companies using improv’s “unique ability to foster collaboration, inspiration, gratitude and fun.” Non-performers use these techniques for various reasons, from becoming better public speakers, to being better problem solvers who can think on their feet, to being better listeners.

I’m not plugging the company here, although if you own a business and want to do some great team-building, or want to just have a talented troupe of professional improvisers come out to entertain you, give them a call and tell them I sent you.

What I really wanted to write about was my personal experience with this synergy of art and business. One of the things that CSz (the official abbreviation) does is to have one-day intensive workshops that serve as both a refresher in basic skills for experienced improvisers as well as intros to the art form for people who’ve never done it before, whether they’re experienced actors or non-performers. My original entrée to ComedySportz was via a one-day intensive as a performer who’d never really done improv before (because it scared the crap out of me), and that got me hooked.

Since then, whenever the opportunity has come up to do an intensive and I’ve been able to, you can be sure I’ve done it — one of the great things about them is that it’s usually a different teacher every time, and that’s another way to build experience. They’ll explain things slightly differently than another teacher and see things in your strengths and weaknesses that the others haven’t.

Last Saturday, was another re-visit to the basics. This time around, there were five students. Besides myself, there was one other experienced improviser who’s also a friend of mine because of the company, and our teacher has decades of experience. The other three students, though, were not only first-time improvisers, but none of them were performers, either.

And this is where the true power of improvisation shines, and why everybody should give it a try at least once in a safe and controlled environment like this — because, time and time again, I’ve watched people who’ve never even been on stage before start out being very self-conscious and nervous and afraid to do anything, but within forty-five minutes, all of that has vanished, and they’re just going for it and having a lot of fun.

Don’t think that actors or singers have it any easier, though. I’d performed on stage a bunch of times since an early age first as a musician and then as an actor before I took my first improv class, and I was just as self-conscious and nervous and afraid, too. See, musicians and actors usually get to rehearse and frequently have sheet music and scripts, so it’s easy. Make it up on the spot? Oh no! Scary!

Except, there’s this funny thing about humans. We are natural story-tellers. We may not always realize it, but think about every single conversation you’ve ever had. You enter it with a point of view, and probably with some purpose in having it, whether it’s to ask a stranger for directions or explain to your boss why the Fergus account documents aren’t ready yet. We naturally arrange things with a beginning, middle, and ending, too, whether we know it or not.

“When I went out to my car this morning” (beginning) “there was a moose sitting on my hood” (middle, and some complication) “and I couldn’t do anything until animal control showed up and led it away” (more middle, and some resolution) “But I had to catch an Uber because my car was squished, so, sorry I’m late” (ending, along with the reason for the story).

It’s easy when we do it in real life. The trick is to realize that we do it in real life, then figure out how to bring real life onto the stage. And here’s big ol’ bonus tip for any performer or artist or writer: When you bring real life into it, you bring your audience into it. Period. Sure, you can be clever and intellectual as hell, and that’ll amuse some people, but (and, as a lit nerd, it pains me to write this…) how many people have read Finnegans Wake vs. how many people have read the Fifty Shades books? Or, beyond actually reading either, how many people in general could tell you anything about the former, vs. non-fans who could still tell you quite a bit about the latter?

So if you’ve had human experience, you already have relatable material to bring to the table. All you need to do then is to hang on to the recognizable parts of it while getting fanciful with the details. Take the mundane bits of your work life, but play them out in terms of a medieval knight and his squire. Describe the day that you had the worst commute ever because the train broke down, there was a taxi strike, and all the ride shares were on surge pricing, but you’re part of the Time Patrol trying to save Mars from certain destruction. Tell us about that stupid bureaucratic encounter you had at the DMV where a smudged line on one stupid form threatened to put your appointment off for eight months, except that now you’re Columbus in line at the Royal Trip Funding office, trying to convince some flunky of Ferdinand and Isobel to finance your expedition.

The permutations are endless. Basically, take what you know, tell it as you know it, but change the details and have fun. Maybe the characters are animals, or historical figures, or inanimate objects. Whatever. Endow them with that, then follow through.

For example — if Columbus and his crew had all been rabbits, what would the logical end result have been once those ships had been out to sea for a while?

But I’m jumping ahead and behind myself. The real point here is how amazing it is to watch non-performers go through these improv exercises and very quickly move from “Oh no, I’m scared, people will make fun of me” to “OMG this is the most fun I’ve ever had with my clothes on! What’s next?”

And that’s been my real experience. I’ve watched people be too afraid to really even make it through their class introduction without stuttering, muttering, and practically wetting themselves. Three exercises later, boom. They are dancing and prancing and making stupid sounds and having a blast with the rest of us, without a care about what anyone else thinks. A little bit later, they are coming up with scary creative stuff because they’ve turned off that censor-chip in their head — and that is where the magic happens. Stop editing, stop censoring, start being… boom. Creativity explodes.

And then we get to the inevitable end of the intensive, which ends the same way that all of the CSz L.A. shows do: Time for a jump-out pun game, and this is when something really interesting happens, every single time. All of that creativity and fearlessness in the first-timers goes away, and it’s fascinating to watch because it’s so relatable.

One of the games that we usually end these classes with is called 185, although the number may vary depending on which company or city it’s being performed in. The basic set-up is this: the players get an audience suggestion and then tells this joke:

“185 [suggestions] walk into a bar, and the bartender says, ‘Hey, we don’t serve [suggestions] here!’ And the [suggestions] say, [joke].”

(Aside: A more recent variation has the bartender say instead that the bar is closed, and I actually prefer that one because the old wording calls back to days when humans were refused service based on race or religion, even if the game only deals with objects or abstract concepts.)

Here’s an example of the joke with the blanks filled in:

“185 pencils walk into a bar, and the bartender says, ‘Hey, we don’t serve pencils here!’ And the pencils say, ‘Well, this trip was pointless.’”

Yes, these jokes are supposed to be the worst of every conceivable pun or dad joke around. And, as I’ve discovered over the time I’ve been doing it, making puns for games like this is one of my improv superpowers. However, it’s not an impossible skill to acquire, and our teacher on Saturday shared a bit of knowledge with us that I’d never thought of before, maybe because it’s what I’ve always instinctively done.

For a game like this, think about the suggestion, either in broad or narrow terms. For example, if the suggestion is “cars,” you can think about all the things a car has — wheels, brakes, hood, headlights, gear-shift, transmission, etc. — or you can think of kinds of car — sedan, limousine, Mercedes, beater, VW, Uber, etc. Then, all you have to do is come up with a phrase or sentence that ends with that word. Boom — there’s your pun game joke.

Now this bit of advice came after we’d been through a few suggestions and it turned out that either I or the other regular performer had to jump out most of the time because nobody else was taking the chance. Lo and behold, once our teacher explained, then had everybody think of one thing associated with the suggestion (tightrope walker), and told them that this was going to be their punchline, ta-da: Five jokes in a row, every one of which worked.

“185 improvisers walk into a bar, and the bartender says, ‘Sorry, we’re closed.’ And the improvisers say, ‘Hey, are you trying to be punny?’”

I didn’t say you always got good jokes, but you’d be surprised how hard an audience will laugh at the stupidest puns if you deliver them with conviction. And so I will end this tale with both a pun and good advice: How is a good performer like a prisoner?

Neither one gets there without conviction.

Thanks and good night, and don’t forget to tip your server…

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.

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.