Theatre Thursday: Aphra and Edna

(Okay, I’m a day early on this, but since Theatre Thursday is today, I’m going with it.)

On April 16 and 279 years apart, two pioneering women writers passed away. One was British, born in 1640 and died in 1689. The other was American, born in 1885 and died in 1968.

The former was Aphra Behn and the latter was Edna Ferber. You may or may not know those names, and you probably don’t know any of Ms. Behn’s works, but you’ve definitely heard of a couple of Ferber’s, whether you’ve seen them or not, especially if you’re a film or theatre nerd.

Still… Aphra Behn was the trailblazer who made a career like Edna’s even possible, and while she was not the first published playwright in Restoration Era England, she was the most prolific female writer of the period, and the second most prolific overall after John Dryden.

And yet, like Shakespeare, little is known of her early life or even origins. She may or may not have been a spy in Dutch Suriname for King Charles II of England, although she probably did marry a Johan (or Johann or John) Behn. The marriage didn’t last, but she kept his name, crediting herself professionally as Mrs. A. Behn.

She actually was a spy for King Charles during the Second Anglo-Dutch war of 1665, and worked in Antwerp. Ironically, being posted to Antwerp spared her the ravages of the plague that swept London in 1666.

Of course, the king didn’t exactly reimburse her for her expenses as a spy, so she returned to England in poverty. It was only the re-opening of the theatres and the need for new plays that allowed her to earn a living.

In fact, she was one of the first English women to earn her living by writing, so she set the path for future generations. She also didn’t shy away from sexuality or sexual subjects — a scandal for the time, even though male authors likewise didn’t. For example, her poem The Disappointment is all about a young shepherd who just plain loses his boner while he’s trying to satisfy a nymph.

But now from the Aphra to the Edna, the latter being a 20th century writer whose works tended to feature strong female leading characters, along with a major secondary character who belonged to a particularly oppressed class, frequently for ethnic reasons.

Edna Ferber herself was Jewish, and America wasn’t exactly so open-armed towards Jews at the time she wrote, but that identity was important to her as well. Then again, it helped that she won the Pulitzer at 40 for her book So Big. The follow-up novel to that, Show Boat, became the basis of a hit musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein.

She was a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, featured in the film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, starring my patronus, Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Another notable work of hers, Giant, was adapted into the film of the same name, which starred James Dean and Rock Hudson, among others, garnered both of them Oscar nominations, and won the award for Best Director for George Stevens. What a lot of people miss about this film is that the character played by Mercedes McCambridge, Luz Benedict, is pretty much coded as a lesbian in 50s movie terms. Strong woman, doing a man’s job, no male love interest around — and dies because she tried to take on a man’s role and literally couldn’t handle a horse.

No, really. That happened.

Still, when it came to slamming their heads through glass ceilings for writers (sort of), these women were two of the pioneers. Even then, J.K. Rowling might not have been successful if she’d published as Joanne Rowling. Anne Rice did make a mark for herself under her own name in the 70s, but… unlike J.K., who was a billionaire until she gave too much away, Rice never got that rich, despite creating a bigger fictional universe.

And one has to wonder — was it because she didn’t have a male first name?

In case you’re doing the math, Rice has written close to 40 books, most of them in the Vampire/Gothic universe she created. Rowling is up to about… maybe a dozen-ish? And yet, J.K. makes a lot more money than Anne.

To be fair, though, Rowling’s kiddie wizard genre just naturally has a much larger fan-base, and the vast majority of her income no doubt comes from the movies and merchandising. Have you seen the prices on the stuff they sell in the Wizarding World section of Universal Studios?

Meanwhile, Rice’s series of vampire chronicles were never as family friendly and will always appeal to a much smaller, niche audience. It also didn’t help that while Hollywood managed an excellent adaptation of Rice’s first book in the series, Interview with the Vampire, they totally whiffed it when they combined her next two books in the series into Queen of the Damned.

Never a good sign when you replace your A-List leading actor with a lesser-known performer. Or try to combine two books that are already full stories into one movie that doesn’t do justice to either. The Queen of the Damned was, I think, the last book in the series I’d read before Prince Lestat came out. The only way to do it justice would be to adapt the entire story, as it’s told in the book, as a limited streaming series.

I suppose, for Rowling and Rice, these are all rather “first world” problems to have — and I put that phrase in scare quotes because it doesn’t mean what everyone thinks it means, since it’s a political designation, not an economic one.

But Madams Rowling and Rice, and all other female writers in the modern English-speaking world, got where they are thanks to the pioneers who came before them. Edna Ferber helped pave the way in the 20th Century, and Aphra Behn stepped through the door to start the journey in the 17th.

The fact that both of them died on the same day of the year is just one of those strange coincidences that strengthens the connection between them across time.

Image: Portrait of Aphra Behn by Peter Lely, c. 1670. Public domain. 

Theatre Thursday: So put another dime in the jukebox, baby

June 18, 1815: “My my, At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender

April 6, 1974: ABBA wins the Eurovision Song Contest for their song Waterloo, which has nothing to do with Napoleon, really.

April 6, 1999: the jukebox musical Mamma Mia! premieres in London’s West End. The date, obviously, is not a coincidence.

But now the theme of this piece probably makes sense, since it is Theatre Thursday. So I’m not writing about Napoleon, famous battles, or Swedish pop groups. This is about the concept of a jukebox musical, which I have to say I find somewhat abhorrent with a few exceptions.

If you’re not familiar with the term, here’s what it is. A jukebox musical is a show that takes existing musical works, either a collection of popular tunes or sometimes the collected works of a particular band or artist, and then uses them to create a story, although one that’s generally not about that band or artist — with exceptions, more on which later.

Note that concept albums that became musicals, like Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Evita are not jukebox musicals since they were created like traditional musicals, just released as soundtracks first.

No — a jukebox musical is a collage made out of pre-existing material. And the problem with this sort of backwards creation is that it forces the story into the music, rather than letting the music flow from the story. And, of course, if you’re working with a group like ABBA, with a lot of hits, there’s the need to jam every one of them in there, even if it includes Waterloo, whether it fits the story or not.

Another big danger is that it just turns into a concert loosely wrapped around a story — q.v. 2005’s Jersey Boys, documenting Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and infamous for the number of fistfights that would start in the audience every single night at intermission.

The concept of jukebox musicals really started in America with film rather than stage, and some of them are quite famous and actually good — Singin’ in the Rain, Meet Me in St. Louis, and An American in Paris being just three examples.

But the granddaddy of jukebox musicals is arguably John Gay’s 1728 opus The Beggar’s Opera, which took popular ballads of the day as the soundtrack of its story, which was stylized as a parody of Italian opera of the time.

Ultimately, it gave us the decidedly non-jukebox musical The Three Penny Opera by Brecht and Weill, which gave us the song Mack the Knife, which you probably still know from the linked version despite Bobby Darin having made it a hit in the late 50s and having last performed it just before his death in 1973.

Ironically, Darin’s music was used in the 2016 stage musical Dream Lover: The Bobby Darin Musical as well as the ambitious but incredibly miscast 2004 biopic Beyond the Sea, in which Kevin Spacey, already in his 40s, tried to play Darin at all stages in his life, keeping in mind that the singer started his career very young, basically getting into songwriting at 19 before dying at only 37.

Though they not always successful — hits like Mamma Mia! are the exception, not the rule — the number of jukebox musicals has exploded in each decade since the 1980s, with nearly 50 produced in the 2010s and three already planned for 2021, although there’s no telling whether they’ll happen now.

So what’s the appeal of the genre? Sadly, a vast majority of audiences prefer the familiar over the novel. Also, from the producer’s side of it, if they’re a large company that already owns a bunch of intellectual property (IP), like a huge star’s song catalog, then they don’t have to pay extra to use it, so they save a lot on material.

Not that they might not still spend the money, but Mega Studio Pictures paying hundreds of thousands to license music owned by Mega Studio Music Group is just an accounting trick that allows the former to deduct the cost and the latter to use the income to appear profitable. It’s no different than you or I transferring money from checking to savings.

With major companies like Disney and other studios getting more involved in Broadway productions, because the shows have just gotten so expensive, it was an inevitable move, really.

But, again, this leads right back to the big ho-hum drawback of large venue jukebox musicals focusing on a single artist or group. They can easily come across (and do) as nothing but overblown concerts with fancy sets, an attempt at a story, but with none of the original stars.

Yes, Sting did appear in productions of his musical The Last Ship — but that wasn’t a jukebox musical. It was all original material he wrote.

I’m trying to think of a single stage jukebox musical that I’ve liked, and I can’t. Okay, I can think of one series of such shows but it’s a specific sub-genre, in that they use the jukebox format to create mash-ups between particular artists and authors.

Officially known as the Troubadour Theater Company but usually referred to as the Troubies, they do shows that take text from authors like Dickens or Shakespeare, combine this with the music of a specific artist or group, and give us musicals like A Christmas Carole King or Julius Weezer.

They work because they were never supposed to be serious in the first place while still presenting a distillation of the original stage story that is accessible to all audiences.

Oddly enough, though, the format seems to work a lot better on film than it does on stage — maybe because the need for film to make things literal works against everything just looking like a concert.

One very notable example is Moulin Rouge!, which used modern pop and rock songs in a story set in 1901 Paris, but part of the reason this worked so well is that the script was written first with the songs very carefully chosen, and nothing proceeded until Baz Luhrmann had acquired the rights to every last one of them. There’s only one original song in the film, the haunting Come What May, but this is common for every Hollywood jukebox musical. You can’t get an Oscar nod if the song wasn’t written for the movie, after all.

Another great example of one that works is the Elton John biopic Rocketman, but that’s because it brilliantly relates the songs to the life of the composer rather than putting them in the context of performance. There are only one or two moments where we actually see the Elton character performing one of his songs for an audience, but those bits are frequently parts of a bigger fantasy sequence.

And, of course, there’s the classic 1952 film Singin’ in the Rain, which happened because producer Arthur Freed wanted a vehicle to pimp out songs he and Nacio Herb Brown had written during the early talkie period (1929-39). It was all about owning that IP again. Fortunately, the result was a film that is still funny and timeless to this day.

In case you haven’t seen it, it takes place in the late 1920s, right as movies went from being silent to “talking pictures,” something which caused huge turmoil in the real-life industry. A key plot point is that one of the biggest starlets of the era looks beautiful, but has an accent and a voice that would make a chainsaw sound like James Earl Jones.

It’s an early 50s parody of the world of about 25 years previously — which seems to actually be the standard human parody cycle. Think about it. If you were going to make a film today about people struggling with a huge change in how things are done when it comes to media, wouldn’t the rise of the internet and mid-90s be the ideal target?

And if you haven’t seen Singin’ in the Rain, that’s even more of a surprise, because it happens to be what I like to call one of the Warner Bros. ATMs.

I worked for Warner Home Video just after the turn of the century, and loved it, but the marketing people behind it sometimes did… questionable things in search of a buck. Hence, the Five ATMs: Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Singin’ in the Rain.

Why ATMs? Simple. Warner Bros. owned the rights to all of them and, whenever it looked like the company was going to have a bad quarter because some property had crashed and burned — which happened a lot back then (The Adventures of Pluto Nash? Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever?) — they would quickly whip out yet another special edition boxed set of any or all of those films, either adding more bonus material, special booklets, or collectibles (especially with Oz), or just going all whiz-bang on the packaging, calling it a limited edition #th anniversary set, and charging a premium.

By the way, I think I still have original, rolled theatrical posters for Pluto and Ballistic, in case anyone is interested in buying one or both.

As for all of those special releases, people bought them hand over fist. Oz was particularly egregious. Sell the exact same special edition box set as last time three months later, only now it comes with a special Tin Man ornament instead of Scarecrow. Whoosh — product out, money in.

It’s that lure of the familiar once again. But that was exactly how a jukebox worked: If you wanted to hear that song you liked one more time, you had to pay for it. Again, and again, and again.

Hm. Maybe that remake of Singin’ in the Rain, called Torrentin’ on the Net, should be all about how piracy came about, as people got tired of having to pay over and over for slightly shinier but not always better versions of the same old shit.

Image (CC BY-SA 2.0), used unmodified, Vintage Jukebox by Mark Sebastian.

Theatre Thursday: Theatre is the original VR

Something I’ve said for a long time is that live theatre is the original virtual reality, and the only shows you can see in 3D without special glasses.

Also, unlike their recorded and edited cousins — audio, film, video, and streaming — each live theatrical performance is a unique moment in time that will only be experienced by one audience ever, and will be experienced by each audience member (and each performer) in a completely different way.

In a way, I feel sorry for actors who do recorded and edited media, because they really don’t know which performance it’s ultimately going to be. They might do 23 takes of a scene in front of a green screen, have no idea that the director will ultimately settle on number 17, although maybe with a little tweak and morph so that the last beat or two of take 13 actually takes over.

And if it’s a two shot with another actor, the final shot you see on screen may actually use performances from two different takes, seamlessly woven together. It’s the film version of Photoshopping a group picture from multiple shots to make sure everyone’s eyes are open.

And that’s before all of the effects and whatnot are added, and maybe the actor was in a mocap suit anyway, because they’re really only providing the physical movement and overall kinesthetic emotion and facial movement to a performance that will turn into a twelve foot tall purple alien with big yellow eyes.

Meanwhile, a stage actor could play that same character with clever costuming, props and choreography — a couple of cast members lift them for height, a little light change and lots of fabric create the big purple body, and a pair of grapefruit with big black circles on them held Pale Man style become the eyes.

Not to say that one is better than the other. They’re just different. But the game kind of changes when all of the venues are shuttered because of a plague. Movie theatres in Southern California have only just kind of sort of opened, but there are still no live shows.

All we’re left with is streaming, and the question: Is this the end of both the cinema and live theatre?

Well, don’t bet on it. In 1606, theaters in London were shut down because of the plague, and this was in the middle of runs of three big hits that are still famous now: King Lear, Macbeth and Volpone.

Last year, Broadway lost shows like Moulin Rouge: The Musical, Six, Company, Mrs. Doubtfire, Caroline, or Change and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, among many others. Some may be rescheduled. Others may never happen. And it was the same in London, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle… everywhere.

In L.A., Center Theatre Group had to close The Book of Mormon revival tour early, for example.

This hasn’t stopped many of those performers from performing, and a number of Broadway stars took to singing to their fans from home via social media. In a way, this actually makes live theater even more intimate, because every single viewer has their own personal front row center seat — and they get to see the same show that everyone else does.

Can you imagine? Going to see the original staging of Evita on Broadway, and Patti Lupone sings every number right to you? Okay, except without all of that stagecraft, because she’s singing it to you solo and a capella from her living room. Still… rather intimate and impressive either way.

London certainly has a number of previously saved streaming performances to watch. And while it’s anecdotal because I can’t share the link here, two friends of mine managed to do live streaming improv, cell phone to cell phone, with the performance between the two phones put up via another friend’s third phone.

It was a very impressive and clever use of technology. And Zoom isn’t just for meetings. I’ve seen colleagues in theatre now use it for company meetings, as well as group practices.

Is it still theatre in this form, though? Yes. I happen to think that all performing arts are ultimately theatre, whether they happen on a stage or a screen. In 2012, I performed in a number of pieces around the city that took place in public spaces as part of Playwrights Arena’s Flash Theatre L.A.

We performed everywhere from a pet store parking lot to a cemetery in South Los Angeles; in a nearly dark public courtyard with only the uplights illuminating the walls to shine on us when we needed them, in Union Station downtown, and so on.

The cemetery performance and Union Station were two of my favorites — the first because we created a long and elaborate, intricately choreographer Danse Macabre in which I started out as a disgruntled grave digger, then snuck behind a tombstone to change into the guise of a skull-faced pope.

We also had La Llorna and a lot of Día de los Muertos style face-painting in a collision of Medieval Europe and modern Latin America, taking place in a cemetery with a large proportion of black residents, since for a long time in the city’s history it was one of the few places open to them.

What I loved about Union Station was how the show started and ended. We quietly came in and took our places as if we were people waiting for a train, but then slowly stepped out and joined the performance, which involved a twelve-foot tall puppet.

When it was over, after we read out a bunch of real-time tweets we had solicited beforehand, each of us then strode off into the crowd to make our exit by becoming “normal” people again.

We were never on an actual stage for those shows, but it was still theatre. It’s still theatre no matter how big the CGI effects are.

But it’s not only the film and TV people who can forget this. The theatre people can too, in the opposite direction, and sometimes ignore the concept that media and tech can work onstage — or that theatre can happen onscreen in real time — as well.

Back in about 2012, I saw a wonderful production of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, which is basically his fictional biopic and guilty confessional about the death of Marilyn Monroe. Oh… he’s not confessing to killing her directly. He’s feeling guilty over not doing enough to save her life, seeing as how he was married to her at the time.

That’s right — the blonde bombshell dumped the jock (Joe DiMaggio) and married the smart nebbish. Nerds of the world, take heart! That would be like Scarlett Johansson dumping Ryan Reynolds for John Green.

Oh, wait. She did dump Ryan. She just wound up with the SNL nerd instead of the internet one.

Anyway, as originally staged, when characters aren’t onstage, they sit in high backed chairs upstage. Occasionally, one of them will have a flashback monologue, which they deliver by standing in place.

The twist on this the director pulled was having everyone backstage, but when their monologues came, live ghostly video of the actor backstage would be projected on the two side walls of the actual stage. (It was performed on a partial thrust stage.)

Miller was probably borrowing from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which was the first major play to be performed without an actual set — in the days when Broadway was all about realism — and with the entire cast seated onstage when not performing.

This production of After the Fall just took the original concept and modernized it.

But long before video and high tech, tech has always been a part of theatre, from Grand Guignol’s elaborate illusions used to create shock and horror, to the elaborate stage machinery of 18th century opera and earlier.

The opening of the film The Devils by Ken Russell does a pretty good recreation of 17th century French theatrical staging and mechanics:

The interesting question, really, is which media are going to survive this modern plague? If our entertainment venues are limited for long enough — at least, as long as they really need to be to help us survive this — then this just may be the end of the cinema as we know it.

Sorry, Marty, and David. To paraphrase Norma Desmond: “Films are big! It’s the screens that got small.”

People may become too accustomed to just watching at home, and thanks to all of their online hanging out with friends, they may finally remember what the important part is. So expect streaming parties, either as virtual hangouts or IRL, to become the new norm.

Also expect an end to the blockbuster spectacle once people have been reminded through all of the scaled-down-to-mobile shows and performances what theatre is really about: the interactions between characters that happen because of an inciting event.

Notice, by the way, that in any online discussion of the latest hit streaming show, people aren’t talking about the effects or the spectacle or any of that. They are talking about the characters, what they do, and why people like it or don’t like it.

As for theatre, it will survive because, after all, it has for thousands of years and through many difficulties. Plus, when it’s not some overblown Broadway show with a ridiculous budget and inflated ticket prices, it can be cheap to do, easy to stage, and affordable for everyone.

It just may be that “too big to fail” turns into “too big to stay.” Movies and TV turn into intimate events at home or maybe in small clubs. Meanwhile, all of that small theatre that’s always been there goes on. Only, this time, people will have a renewed appreciation of it.

Think about this for a moment. What genre do escape rooms fall into? Not film, and not TV. Nope. They are a type of immersive theatre in which the audience is also part of the cast.

Image (CC0 1.0)

Theatre Thursday: Fact and fiction

About six hundred and eight years ago, Henry V was crowned king of England. You probably know him as that king from the movie with Kenneth Branagh, or the BBC series aired under the title The Hollow Crown.

Either way, you know him because of Shakespeare. He was the king who grew up in Shakespeare’s second tetralogy. Yes, that’s a set of four plays and since it was his second, Shakespeare sort of did the Star Wars thing first: he wrote eight plays on the subject of the English Civil war.

And, much like Lucas, he wrote the original tetralogy first, then went back and did the prequels. Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V were written after but happened before Henry VI, Part 1, Henry VI, Part 2, Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III.

Incidentally, Henry VI, Part 1, is famous for having Joan of Arc (aka Joan la Pucelle in the play) as one of the antagonists. Funny thing is, that name wasn’t slander on Shakespeare’s part. That’s what she preferred to call herself.

Meanwhile, Richard III, of course, is the Emperor Palpatine of the series, although we never did get a Richard IV, mainly because he never existed in history. Well, not officially. Richard III’s successor was Henry VII, and Shakespeare never wrote about him, either, although he did gush all over Henry VIII, mainly because he was the father of the Bard’s patron, Elizabeth I. CYA.

If you’ve ever seen the film My Own Private Idaho, directed by Gus Van Sant and staring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, then you’ve seen a modern retelling of the two parts of Henry IV.

Now when it comes to adapting true stories to any dramatic medium, you’re going to run into the issue of dramatic license. A documentary shouldn’t have this problem and shouldn’t play with the truth, although it happens. Sometimes, it can even prove fatal.

But when it comes to a dramatic retelling, it is often necessary to fudge things, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. It’s not at all uncommon for several characters to be combined into a composite just to make for a cleaner plot. After all, is it that big of a difference if, say, King Flagbarp IX in real life was warned about a plot against him in November by his chamberlain Norgelglap, but the person who told him the assassin’s name in February was his chambermaid Hegrezelda?

Maybe, maybe not, but depending on what part either of those characters plays in the rest of the story, as well as the writer’s angle, they may both be combined as Norgelglap or as Hegrezelda, or become a third, completely fictionalized character, Vlanostorf.

Time frames can also change, and a lot of this lands right back in Aristotle’s lap. He created the rules of drama long before hacks like the late Syd Field tried (and failed), and Ari put it succinctly. Every dramatic work has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and should have unity of place, unity of time, and unity of action.

A summary of the last three is this, although remember that Aristotle was writing about the stage. For film and video, your mileage will vary slightly.

The story takes place in one particular location, although that location can be a bit broad. It can be the king’s castle, or it can be the protagonist’s country.

It should take place over a fairly short period of time. Aristotle liked to keep it to a day, but there’s leeway, and we’ve certainly seen works that have taken place over an entire lifetime — although that is certainly a form of both unity of time and unity of place, if you consider the protagonist to be the location as well.

Unity of action is a little abstract, but in a nutshell it’s this: Your plot is about one thing. There’s a single line that goes from A to Z: What your protagonist wants, and how they get it.

Now, my own twist on the beginning, middle, and end thing is that this is a three act structure that gives us twenty-seven units. (Aristotle was big on 5 acts, which Shakespeare used, but that’s long since fallen out of fashion.)

Anyway, to me, we have Act I, II, and III. Beginning, middle, and end. But each of those has its own beginning, middle and end. So now we’re up to nine: I: BME; II: BME; III: BME.

Guess what? Each of those subunits also has a beginning, middle, and end. I’m not going to break that one down further than this. The beginning of the beginning, Act I: B, has its own BME, repeat eight more times.

The end result is 3 x 3 x 3, or twenty-seven.

And that’s my entire secret to structure. You’re welcome.

But because of these little constraints, and because history is messy, it’s necessary to switch things up to turn a true story into a “based on true events” work. Real life doesn’t necessarily have neat beginnings, middles, and endings. It also doesn’t necessarily take place in one spot, or in a short period of time.

So it becomes the artist’s job to tell that story in a way that is as true to reality as possible without being married to the facts.

Although it is also possible to go right off the rails with it, and this is one of the reasons I totally soured on Quentin Tarantino films. It’s one thing to fudge facts a little bit, but when he totally rewrites history in Inglorious Basterds, ignores historical reality in Django Unchained, and then curb stomps reality and pisses on its corpse in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I’m done.

Inglorious Misspelling is a particularly egregious example because the industry does a great disservice in selling false history to young people who unfortunately, aren’t getting the best educations right now.

Anecdotal moment: A few years back, an Oscar-winning friend of mine had a play produced that told the story of the 442nd Infantry Regiment. They were a company composed almost entirely of second-generation Japanese Americans during WW II, and joining the company was the alternative given to going to an internment camp.

Of course, being racists, the U.S. government couldn’t send them to the Pacific Theatre to fight, so they sent them to Europe, and a lot of the play takes place in Italy, where the regiment was stationed. And, at intermission, my playwright friend heard two 20-something audience members talking to each other. One of them asked, “What was the U.S. even doing in Italy in World War II?” and the other just shrugged and said, “Dunno.”

So, yeah. If you’re going to go so far as to claim that Hitler was killed in a burning movie theater before the end of the war, just stop right there before you shoot a frame. Likewise with claiming that the Manson murders never happened because a couple of yahoos ran into the killers first.

Yeah, Quentin, you were old, you were there, you remember. Don’t stuff younger heads with shit.

But I do digress.

In Shakespeare’s case, he was pretty accurate in Henry V, although in both parts of Henry IV, he created a character who was both one of his most memorable and one of his more fictional: Sir John Falstaff. In fact, the character was so popular that, at the Queen’s command, Shakespeare gave him his own spinoff, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Hm. Shades of Solo in the Star Wars universe?

Falstaff never existed in real life, but was used as a way to tell the story of the young and immature Henry (not yet V) of Monmouth, aka Prince Hal.

Where Shakespeare may have played more fast and loose was in Richard III. In fact, the Bard vilified him when it wasn’t really deserved. Why? Simple. He was kissing up to Elizabeth I. She was a Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII who, as mentioned previously, was the son of Henry VII, the king who took over when Richard III lost the war of the roses.

The other time that Shakespeare didn’t treat a king so well in a play? King John — which I personally take umbrage to, because I’m directly descended from him. No, really. But the idea when Willie Shakes did that was to draw a direct contrast to how Good Queen Bess did so much better in dealing with Papal interference. (TL;DR: He said, “Okay,” she said, “Eff off.”)

Since most of my stage plays have been based on true stories, I’ve experienced this directly many times, although one of the more interesting came with the production of my play Bill & Joan, because I actually accidentally got something right.

When I first wrote the play, the names of the cops in Mexico who interrogated him were not included in the official biography, so I made up two fictional characters, Enrique and Tito. And so they stayed like that right into pre-production in 2013.

Lo and behold, a new version of the biography of Burroughs I had originally used for research came out, and I discovered two amazing things.

First… I’d always known that Burroughs’ birthday was the day before mine, but I suddenly found out that his doomed wife actually shared my birthday. And the show happened to run during both dates.

Second… the names of the cops who interrogated him were finally included, and one of them was named… Tito.

Of course, I also compressed time, moved shit around, made up more than a few characters, and so forth. But the ultimate goal was to tell the truth of the story, which was: Troubled couple who probably shouldn’t have ever gotten together deals with their issues in the most violent and tragic way possible, and one of them goes on to become famous. The other one dies.

So yes, if you’re writing fiction it can be necessary to make stuff up, but the fine line is to not make too much stuff up. A little nip or tuck here and there is fine. But, outright lies? Nah. Let’s not do that.

Theatre Thursday: Sometimes, the movie is better: part 2

Hey — today was Rosa Parks’s birthday! And Ida Lupino’s! And mine! Show some love, whether it’s by commenting, subscribing, or dropping by that tip jar up there.

Last week’s post was all about how the film version of Cabaret was much better than the original stage musical, although that musical was based on a play that was based on a book.

This time around, the derivative work started out as an off-Broadway musical that went to Broadway and then to film, so there aren’t any other layers to unpack. The stage show premiered in 1967 and hit Broadway the next year. It took just over a decade for it to make it to film, directed by a Czech immigrant to America, Miloš Forman. And, honestly, there’s a really good reason that he can relate to political protests in 1968.

Or, in other words, he showed how an immigrant can get a better handle on life in America than most Americans can and in this film, he nailed it.

But back up a bit. The original stage show was a pretty shallow review that only ever got attention because the cast got nude, they sang dirty words, and explicitly mentioned issues of race and vaguely protested the Vietnam War. That was pretty much it, and the thing really didn’t have any kind of plot beyond that, nor much of a real relationship between the characters.

Honestly, the script is a hot mess, more interested in abstract symbolism than in anything else.

But when this whole thing becomes a movie at the end of the ‘70s, Miloš gets what was going on in the ‘60s, and, bonus points, decides to take the approach of staging all of the musical numbers in real life. In other words, he’s going throwback old school — the exact opposite of the Cabaret approach — and, oddly enough, he makes it work.

Oh. Did I mention that part where the original stage show really didn’t have any coherent story? Right, I did.

This was the other big thing that this version brought to the table through two simple tweaks: Take the Lead Couple (a musical tradition), remove them from the hippie tribe, and make them the fish out of water (Claude and Sheila), then eliminate the concept of secondary couple entirely, and replace it with the rest of the core Tribe: Berger, Woof, Hud, and Jeannie — any one of whom could have been in a couple with any of the others.

In case you’re wondering, this is the show I’m writing about.

Hair (1979)

Much like the film adaptation of Pink Floyd — The Wall would three years later, Hair begins in relative silence as our lead character, Claude Hooper Bukowski (John Savage), leaves his house in Oklahoma. It’s a foggy and probably very early morning. Sound and colors are subdued and muted as Claude’s father drives him to a roadside bus stop in the middle of nowhere.

We won’t know for sure until almost the last shot of the film, but this is most likely the summer of 1967, which tells us something else: Claude is no poor boy from the sticks, as his father insists on giving him $50 cash, in case of emergencies.

Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $390 now.

Claude hops onto the bus and sets off for New York City, and this is where the music begins as he gets closer to his destination. By the way, Forman makes the very interesting choice to have the camera track from right to left instead of the other direction. I don’t know whether he was just confused about American geography, but the tradition in film here is that right to left means going west, while left to right means going east.

So, in other words, to an American audience, the instinct is to feel like Claude is heading to California.

On the other hand, having come from Czechoslovakia, this may have been a very conscious choice on Forman’s part, representing a metaphorical journey to the west, from an oppressive, gray place to the land of freedom and color.

As soon as we hit Central Park and the opening number Age of Aquarius fully kicks in, we definitely explode in a riot of color in more ways than one. The entire cast of the movie was about as diverse as possible, and we pretty much have every ethnic group represented in the opening, with several interracial couples included.

Here, the costuming (and, naturally, hair) also manages to be spot-on, avoiding any of the usual media screw-ups when it comes to portraying the look of a fairly recent youth culture a decade after the fact.

There’s a lot to unpack in these opening six minutes, and they’re worth watching.

We’re a witness with Claude as he stumbles into this be-in in the park, and we also meet The Tribe — Berger (Treat Williams), Hud (Dorsey Wright), Woof (Don Dacus), and Jeannie (Annie Golden) — who will become that all-important collective secondary couple.

Here, Claude also has his first vision of Sheila (Beverly D’Angelo), clearly a member of the patrician class, as she rides with two chaperones. She and Claude spot each other, and both are clearly smitten.

There’s also a lot of magic going on, and one particularly delightful moment comes when two mounted policemen approach the group. Most of the flee, but a brave duo of dancers remains, and their movements seemingly control the horses, making the cops powerless. It’s a really nice touch along with everything else.

The choreography here and throughout is stunning, and I have to give a big nod to Twyla Tharp, who does remarkable work, and pops up onscreen several times. This was her first of five film credits, a small part of a very long and illustrious career.

It’s very interesting to contrast her choreography with Bob Fosse’s in anything he did, but particularly Cabaret. Fosse was all about control through the concept of isolation. What this means in choreography is that a dancer should have precise control of any particular part of their body at any time, right down to a fingertip or a toe.

This is why a lot of Fosse’s moves seem to be intentionally robotic or jerky, with emphasis frequently being given to, say, just the hands, or the way a dancer tilts their head. Compare the choreography in the clip above to this bit featuring Fosse himself, with Gwen Verdon, in the film adaptation of Damn Yankees.

On the surface, it may seem like those are loose movements, especially given the tempo and tune, but if you watch closely, they are anything but. And you can also see the emphasis of ballet in Fosse’s work.

Tharp’s work in Hair, in contrast, seems to defy gravity, and clearly combines influences from tai chi and gymnastics. The dancer’s bodies are loose and limber, and rather than clearly controlling themselves, they seem to be drawn along by external forces.

It’s a perfect visual metaphor for the film, in fact.

Now one thing about the original is that it has a bunch of character intro songs at the beginning that don’t really introduce the characters. Sure, they give an actor something fun to sing, but they didn’t really have any greater meaning. Here, they become background to the more important thing happening, which is actual character development.

One of the first and most important of these is right after Claude meets The Tribe. They ask him for change, and he wonders why he should give it to them. At first unmoved by their claim that Jeannie is pregnant and they haven’t eaten for two days, he finally tosses them what’s probably half a buck — about $3.90 now.

Now, one of the things that happens in the opening is that The Tribe comes across Sheila and company on their horses, and Woof sincerely asks if he can ride for just five minutes, because he’s never done it and he’s always wanted to. Naturally, they refuse.

But as soon as Berger realizes they have enough money, what does he do? He makes sure that his friend gets his wish. They rent a horse and go for a ride and, when they catch up again with Sheila and her chaperones, Forman puts Woof’s intro number to perfect use.

It’s a little ditty that I like to use as an audition piece and it’s called Sodomy. It has exactly 23 words in its lyrics. Five of them are references to sex acts, none of them involving missionary sex, and two of them refer to basically the Indian Big Book of Sex.

Naturally it scandalizes the two older women with Sheila, although it’s not clear whether she’s so upset. Still, the trio rides off, passing Claude. Moments later, the horse that Berger and Woof were on runs by rider-less, and the Tribe implores Claude to catch.

Remember: Claude is from Oklahoma, so he does, and takes the opportunity to show off some trick riding skills to Sheila, only to have them go one way at a fork in the trail while he goes the other. Another potentially intentional move by Forman: Sheila and company go right. Claude goes left.

The other intro numbers, which do have some powerful political content, come together during Claude’s first night in New York, after the Tribe has convinced him to hang out with him, then get him higher than fuck. In short order, the titles of these numbers are Colored Spade, Manchester, and I’m Black/Ain’t Got No.

The first one, performed by Hud and the people of color in the cast is basically a litany that throws just about every racist slur about black people right back at the white people, and Hud owns it here — clearly the original intention of the number.

It may seem un-PC now, but in reality it’s a clear and early example of “taking back the words.”

As if to emphasize that, Manchest is Berger introducing (and speaking for) Claude, and significantly all of the people of color vanish. Poof, instant erasure, as Berger describes Claude as being from Manchester, “England, England, across the Atlantic Sea.” It’s the American Empire in a nutshell.

Everyone returns and launches into the number Ain’t Got No, which is a litany worth repeating now, because it describes the true struggle that was going on at the time. It wasn’t about black vs. white. It was, and is, about have vs. have not.

After all, in this song, it’s all of the Tribe and hippies singing together.

Then morning comes, Claude wakes up, and starts to head off on his own. He’s about to leave when Berger notices a newspaper on the ground identifying Sheila, who is having her debutante party that very afternoon.

Side note: This means that she is probably sixteen. Since Claude comes to New York in response to being drafted, he’s probably not that much older. Pay no attention to the casting of actors who were 28 and 30 at the time the film was made.

But, again, Berger ignores logic and reason to help give a friend their dream. When Claude balks at crashing because he wasn’t invited, Berger replies, “Do you want to go to a party with me?”

And that’s the end of just the first act, which has already packed in a lot more character development, relationship, and meaning than the source material did in its entire length.

I could continue the deep-dive through the rest of it but that could easily turn into a 10,000 word post so, instead, I’d just urge you to see it. It’s currently available on Amazon Prime — I’ll leave you to search it yourselves because I’m not trying to monetize.

But the message of this film, which comes through much more clearly than it did in the stage show, is far from dated. The struggle we’re in is one of greed vs. community, fear vs. love, and hatred vs. hope.

Just substitute the concept of forcing people to go fight in the Vietnam War with the concept of forcing them to go back to work during a pandemic because, economically, they have no choice.

The rich could always wiggle their way out of the draft, whether it was via student deferments, daddy knowing Congressmen (they were all men then), or bone spurs.

The poor, not so much, unless they were willing to do things that would ruin their lives in other ways, like pretend to be homosexual, or insane, or flee to Canada — although one of Jimmy Carter’s first acts when he took office was to pardon the so-called “draft dodgers.”

Kind of seems familiar now, though, right? Hole up in your well-stocked mansion with no worries about where the money is coming from, lobby your Congressperson, Senator, or Governor to end the lockdown — for the people who work for you and earn you your money — or fly off to your private island.

Or… go back to work without proper PPE, maybe via public transportation, without health insurance, while you’re taking care of your kids and your elderly parent, and take your chances.

Watch Hair, listen to the message, and then do something. And remember: in the film version, Berger goes full on Jesus mode in order to help his friends.

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.

Monday’s marvel: The unsinkable Cynthia Cohen

I started a new Monday thing of spotlighting my talented friends. Check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. Those covered a triple-threat actor, improv artist, and impressionist; a filmmaker, editor, and writer; an artist, writer, and actor; and a dramaturg, teacher, and mentor, respectively. This time around, we’re going to meet an old friend of mine who managed to make her way as a single mother with a career who still raised an amazing daughter.

I first met Cynthia Cohen when we were both practically embryos, right after I joined the Golden West Playwrights, the core group of which is still going to this day. I tell the story of how I wound up there elsewhere, but the short version is that very early in my first serious day job in an office after college, I met a much older woman named Lou Tappon, and she found out I was a writer.

She happened to be a member of a playwriting group that met on Saturdays, and she invited me to check it out. That group was run by an amazing man, Jerry Fey, who never charged us a cent, which is astounding, if you think about it.

He had started teaching playwriting in a UCLA Extension class and while he discovered that he loved teaching, he hated academia, which is why he took his show on the road. Lou was one of a couple of students from that class he invited to come along, and Cynthia joined up shortly after he’d struck out on his own. I’m pretty sure that she’s the only holdover from his first adventures in teaching on his own.

I actually turned out to be the first big success of the group and Jerry got to see my premiere full-length production at a major LORT theatre, South Coast Rep, but, sadly, he didn’t live very long after that.

Cynthia was standing right next to me on the morning we all showed up for class and Jerry didn’t. I was somehow nominated to call him on the lobby payphone, and whoever answered the phone told me, “I’m sorry. Jerry died last night. Liver cancer.”

Now I didn’t have to say a word on hearing that before Cynthia just let out an “Oh no.” She knew me well enough even then to know that I’d just heard really bad news. And yes, all of us in that group have wondered two things since that day.

First, did Jerry know he was dying when he set off to teach for free, and this was his way of giving back to the world in the time he had left? And, second, was it really liver cancer, since a certain other disease was ravishing the artistic community even in the early 90s?

But what his legacy created was the Golden West Playwrights (GWP), a group that kept on meeting and growing without him but in his memory. Although we eventually drifted away from the regular meetings, we kept in touch, and there are about ten of us who are still in contact to this day.

After Jerry died, we all sort of nominated another amazing writer in the group, Babs Lindsay, to take up the leader mantle, and I wound up as sort of her permanent Vice Scribe, or whatever you want to call it. She moved to Seattle years ago, but whenever she comes back to L.A., we try to make it a point to all get together.

Meanwhile… Cynthia and I have been orbiting each other constantly since back in the day. We’ve never lived far really apart physically, but we also have that connection where, even if we lose touch for a few years, reconnecting feels like it’s only been minutes.

I was at her wedding, and I was there (along with the Golden West Playwrights) when she told us that the father of her daughter wasn’t going to stick around. I won’t go into too many details other than to say that this was one of those moments that showed her true character, strength, and resilience.

I know that the rest of the GWP and I just wanted to strangle that asshole for what he did to her. Cynthia, on the other hand, proceeded to do what she had to do in order to raise her daughter, give her an excellent education, and guide her to grow into the amazing, talented, and intelligent adult woman she has become. She is going to be as successful — if not more so — than her mom.

Oh, right. I mentioned that I was the first breakout success from the GWP, but the great irony is that I started at the top and worked my way down. Meanwhile, Cynthia managed to work her way up.

She is, in fact, the person who got me my first TV job, which also led to my one and only actual credit as a TV writer. She wound up working as script coordinator on the original Melrose Place, but when she got promoted to writer, she reached out to me and offered me the job and I said yes on the spot.

That was really one of the best gigs I ever had in terms of co-workers, absolutely interesting work, and really nifty perqs, annual bonuses, and swag.

And all of this fun happened because Cynthia trusted me enough to make the recommendation. The biggest irony was that I’d never watched the show before I worked on it, but that really didn’t make a difference in catching up and catching on.

Hey, I didn’t know shit about Medicare when I started my current job, and look at me now. Yay…?

Our Melrose days were actually before her marriage days, but since then I’ve been around for the birth of her daughter, and that daughter becoming bat mitzvah. I also sat shiva when Cynthia’s father unexpectedly died. And Cynthia has always been around for me.

If you were to ask me what one word I would use to describe her, it would be this: “Survivor.” Life has tossed some weird curveballs at Cynthia, but she has never not taken up her bat and hit them out of the park in response.

And she’s adaptable. I know her work very well from the GWP days, and how her sensibilities don’t always line up with what she’s gotten paid to do for TV, but I’ve been in the same boat.

And something I didn’t know until today. She’s also got some advice for all of you.

Nu! Who knew?

Closed theaters don’t mean there is no audience

I only had this revelation recently, and particularly because the company I work for hits its busy season beginning October 15 and running until December 7 every year.

Well, actually, our physically busy season starts back in late August with all of the preparation to get everything ready to shoot out of the starting gate on October 15, but prior to the latter date, our phones are pretty quiet.

Regular readers know why, but here’s the explanation again. After a long career during which I spent about 99% of my working time in entertainment that finally went to shit because a certain D-List Celebrity got sucked into Scientology and let his company go down the toilet so that he had to lay off everyone, I wound up jobless for a while, but then landed in the field of health insurance.

Specifically, I now work for an agent/broker who only handles Medicare because he very brilliantly realized a few years ago that Boomers are right now slamming through the gates of turning 65, so he’ll have potential new customers for years — and with Gen X right on their heels.

At about the same time I left the lucrative full-time day job ghost-writing for afore-linked person, I also started doing improv, which went great until everything, particularly live entertainment venues, slammed shut in early March of 2020, at least in L.A.

A few weeks later, our offices also shut down for a while — spring and summer are our slow season — so I was out of work again for about four months, only making tentative attempts at coming back from the start of July, but only then by working remotely and part time.

Eventually, though, I finally came back full-time, initially remotely, but then by necessity in the office once the onslaught began. Fortunately, we’re a very small operation, the other agents do work remotely, and the three of us who are regularly physically on-site work in separate rooms.

It helps that the “office” is actually in the boss’/owner’s house, so that  we literally are in separate rooms — the back office is one bedroom, the boss’ office is another bedroom, the front office (me) is the living room, and the variously shared secondary agents’ office is the den.

Now I started this job in August of 2019, so got thrown into it all right before the madness started, so everything through December was on the learning curve and stressful, and it only felt like I was getting a handle on it when it all shut down in March.

You’d think that a four-month gap in work might totally wreck all sense of what I’m doing, but it really turned out the opposite, and this time around, instead of hating and fearing phone calls from clients — which are almost constant now — a few things happened.

What primed the pump, though, was nearly five months of basic isolation, with my only outside contact via electronic devices or the occasional brief transaction with a store clerk, so I actually found myself looking forward to the ringing phones, because it meant that I got to talk to human beings again!

After that, two things happened.

Number one: Everything I’d learned about how all this works is kind of stuck in my brain, so I don’t need to ask anyone else every single time about everything. I’ve also learned what questions to ask in order to get the info I might need if I’m going to have to pass it along to someone else.

Number two: This is the big flash I had recently: I realized that I’ve started to approach phone calls like improv games and scenes in this sense: It begins when I answer, and we’re going to create the platform of who, what, where, which I’ll either get by listening to how you introduce yourself or by asking a couple of questions.

From there, it’s on to complication/conflict — meaning, really, the reason you’ve called — followed by resolution — I figure out how to route your call or whether I need to take a message — and then tag/punchline/resolution — I tell you what happens next.

The funny part is that in improv, the one thing we really, really want to avoid in scene games is what’s called “transactional,” which means any situation involving an interaction between two people that is about some product or service passing between them when they have no prior emotional connection.

In other words, a scene in which a person comes into a bakery to buy a birthday cake, or someone brings their car to a mechanic, or someone else goes to a florist for flowers… it’s really, really hard to make those interesting without a moment of a-ha, like the customer suddenly realizing, “Oh, wait… didn’t we date in high school?”

Now, admittedly, every phone call I get at work by nature is a transactional scene, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t move it to that personal level, and that’s where the game and the improv comes in.

And it is entirely based on listening and yes-anding. I look for those personal details I can use to connect. A lot of my boss’ customers live in the town I grew up in, so I’ll latch onto that. “Oh, I know that place. I went to [Fat Dead President] High School.”

Or… I often have to ask someone’s birthdate, and if it matches any date relating to me, my parents, siblings, or grandparents, of course I’m going to mention it.

If someone says, “I don’t know how to fill out these forms, they’re so confusing,” then that gives me the ultimate empathy dive in. “Oh, I know,” you say. “Before I started working here, I was clueless, but it’s not as complicated as it seems. What do you want to know?”

And so forth. The point being that once shit got crazy on the phones this year and I was stressing out at the beginning, everything got easier as soon as I realized that every phone call was just a possibility to play a scene game with a stranger as a partner and to “Yes, and” the hell out of them.

That has made this year’s Annual Enrollment Period ridiculously stress-free, and has also allowed me to feel like I’m still doing theater, if only for an audience of one at a time.

Image source: Billy Hathorn, (CC) BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday’s mentor to many: Che’Rae Adams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatre Thursday: The worst collaborator

It’s funny how sometimes it can take forever between the time you write something and the time it winds up on stage. I think I was just lucky with my first two full-length plays, which were produced within two years of each other and, more importantly, not long after I finished them to the point that I felt like they were shareable.

Two others, no, not so much. Bill & Joan, my play about William S. Burroughs and the fateful night he shot and killed his wife, I actually finished writing not long after that first full-length went up and I finished it before the second one was produced. I had a lot of readings at the time, and some interest, but nothing happened until years later, when one of the actors involved in those readings got in touch with me and said, “Hey, can I pitch this to my theater?”

I said yes, and we pitched it to the current board for that year, meaning that I got to sit face-to-face with French Stewart, whom I absolutely adored from 3rd Rock from the Sun. And… he and the other two turned us down. I still think he’s awesome, though, and it was clearly a case of, “Yeah, I don’t see a role for me in this,” which was absolutely true.

Nevertheless, my actor champion persevered, and when we pitched it to the new triumvirate board the next year, they said yes. And so began the very, very interesting process of suddenly collaborating on a play with the most difficult of co-writers of them all: Myself, from the beginning of my career, looking back from the well-established middle.

Oh boy. It was going to be a difficult job overhauling this one and, in fact, I’d have to say that I threw out at least a third of the original script, if not more — a lot more — and rewrote vast swatches of it. Now it might seem paradoxical to do that. After all, if it was good enough to get picked up to be produced, doesn’t that mean it was good enough as it was?

Short answer: Hell no.

That’s what’s so amazing about the process of rehearsal and working with a director and an amazing cast. It’s all about discovery, reconnecting with why you created a piece in the first place, and (especially with the perspective of so much time between origin and outcome) the ability to suddenly see the flaws with utter clarity.

One of these days, I may go back and do a comparison of the draft we started with and the one we ended with, but I know that we got to the extreme of me combining characters in different ways, adding some and dropping others, and this play was even my incentive to go back and re-learn Spanish to the extent that I am now pretty damn fluent in it.

Why? Well, the main action is set in a jail in Mexico City, and from the beginning, the two cops doing the interrogation spoke a lot of Spanish. However, when I first wrote it, it was my badly-remembered high school Spanish that had abandoned me some time during college. With the help of two Hispanic actors in the roles and a lot of self-study, it suddenly felt like I was crafting those lines as carefully as I crafted the English.

And the entire time, it was an experience in confronting my younger self every day, understanding why I’d written what I’d written, but then realizing, “Wow. I really have learned a lot since then, haven’t I?”

Earlier this year, rehearsals had just begun for another play of mine that isn’t quite as old as Bill & Joan, but which I did write in another lifetime and which is also very different than my other full-lengths, which are all either based on real people or set in historical periods.

This one, Screamin’ Muskrat Love!, is a modern day farce with the tag line “Sex, money, real estate. That’s what family’s for.” There was actually an attempt at producing it with the same director back around the time I wrote it, but that fell apart unceremoniously.

In this case, re-reading the thing in preparation was a lot less cringe-worthy. Then again, this play was more mid-career and benefited from coming after the time I’d spent actually working in film and TV and after multiple professional stage productions.

The weirdness in this collaboration, though, really came more from the inspiration rather than the execution. Unlike my other plays, as I’ve mentioned, this one is set in the modern day and was inspired by events in my own life, not to mention that the primary motivation I gave to one of the lead characters happens to be my own as of yet un-obtained dream.

Not to mention that real-life tragedy intervened and put me off the thing for a while only five months after our ill-fated first attempt.

The thumbnail version of Screamin’ Monkey Love! Is that it’s a story about two brothers who both want to inherit their father’s house and secretly conspire to do so. The older one hires a woman to pretend to seduce the father in order to marry him and take over the place in the traditional way — either she bangs Dad to death or takes it all in a divorce, but then turns it over to other brother per an agreement they’ve made that I won’t say too much about lest I give away too much of the plot.

The inspiration for the whole thing was finding out that my father, in his 80s, had met a woman, in her 20s, at the grocery store, and she had gotten flirty and whatnot with him, and this sent up red flags and alarm bells for my half-sister and me.

Hey, I know what personality traits I inherited from my dad, and it was clear that we had to act fast. It was also very clear that she was probably Romani, and they are known for this kind of thing: Meet old man shopping alone in grocery store, assume that he’s a widower with means, make a move.

The other inspiration was, of course, is the fact that I have always wanted to own a house but, being a Gen-X person in Los Angeles, that was never at any point remotely in reach without me having been a venal and heartless asshole at some point.

So… combine the two elements, ta-da, there’s the play. The first attempt went well until it didn’t, and then six months later, my dad died and evil half-sister announced, “Oh, by the way, his house is in my name. Don’t even try.” Never mind that she had taken advantage of his Alzheimer’s to convince him that I was invading his home every night with friends and slowly making him paranoid about me. But that’s a completely different play that I might write one day.

The house in question would be the house that I grew up in and she didn’t, incidentally. The only possible house I could have ever owned, and her absolutely (pardon the expression) cuntiness in this moment turned me against her forever and, frankly, made me shelve the play because… bad memories.

I guess that time heals all wounds and, if there’s real justice, time will wound all heels, so jumping back into this play, was just a romp and all of the darker connotations had fallen off. So the challenge there was to collaborate with my younger self while being able to ignore the crap that I know younger me went through right after, all while younger me had no idea that he would.

I did give myself a distraction from that one, though, without even knowing it, because one of the intentions I set for myself in writing the piece was to hat tip two of my playwriting idols, Joe Orton and Oscar Wilde and, in fact, the entire finale of this play is an intentional nod to The Importance of Being Earnest in more ways than one.

Still… the glibness of my younger self in tossing this one off did give me pause at a few points when I had to stop and ask, “Damn, too harsh?” Until I remembered, “Nah. Not the audience’s family, and too long ago for me to really care. Proceed!”

Except, of course, we didn’t, and only a couple of weeks before the scheduled opening on April 3rd, everything shut down. So Screamin’ Muskrat Love!  because the only play of mine to actually be in production and not happen. Twice.