Theatre Thursday: Remembering my real second language

As this time of lockdown and uncertainty goes on, what does become clear is that large, live events are probably not coming back soon. Live theatre, movies, concerts, and sports may take the rest of this year off, if not longer. Likewise, the fate of amusement parks of all kinds seems uncertain, or at least will be drastically changed.

Right now, we do have certain areas that have insisted on becoming field experiments, and by the time you read this, it may become clear whether the people who ran out to bars without masks last week did the right thing or made a stupid sacrifice.

Concerts may survive on live-streaming pay-per-view events for a while, and movie theaters may rediscover the drive-in, although those take a lot of real estate. Then again, indoor malls may now be officially dead, so look for their parking lots and large, blank walls to be easily converted.

Live sports are another matter because, by their very nature, they often involve full-body contact, and nobody is going to be going all-out on the field while wearing any kind of mask. Without quarantining every player, official, and support staff member, and testing each of them constantly, it’s just not feasible.

Even then, what about the live fans? It might be possible to limit attendance and assign seats so that social distancing is maintained, but that relies on trusting people to stay in the seats they’re put in, and as we all know, if someone is stuck in the outfield nosebleeds but sees plenty of empty space on the other side behind home plate, they’re going to try to get there.

One unexpected outcome is that eSports, like Overwatch League, may become the new sports simply because they absolutely can keep the players and fans apart while they all participate together.

See? The prophecy is true. After the apocalypse wipes out the jocks, the nerds will take over the world!

As for live theatre, it’s hanging on through a combination of streams of previously recorded, pre-shutdown performances, along with live Zoom shows. And, again, this is where the magic of theatre itself is a huge advantage because, throughout its history, it hasn’t relied on realistic special effects, or realism at all, to tell its stories.

Okay, so there have been times when theatre has gone in for the big-budget spectacle, but that goes back a lot further than modern Broadway. In ancient Rome, they were staging Naumachia, mock naval battles, but they were doing them as theatrical shows in flooded amphitheaters, including the Colosseum, and on a large scale.

And they’ve gone on throughout history, including Wild West Shows in the U.S. in the 19th century right up to the modern day, with things like amusement park spectacles, including Universals Waterworld and Terminator attractions, and Disney’s newly minted Star Wars Rise of the Resistance attraction,

But these big-budget spectacles are not necessary for theatre to work. All you need for theatre is one or more performers and the words.

Theatre is one of the earliest art-forms that each of us experiences, probably second only to music. And we experience it the first time, and every time, that someone reads to or tells us a story, no matter how simple or complicated.

Once upon a time…

That is theatre, and that’s why I know that it will survive eventually — but not right now, at least not in a familiar form.

And yes, this is a big blow to me on two fronts. First, I know that I won’t be doing improv or performing for a live audience for a long time. Second, I know that I won’t be seeing any of my plays performed onstage for a live audience for a long time.

This current plague quashed both of those options, shutting down my improv troupe and cancelling a play production that had been scheduled to open in April, then postponed to May, then postponed until… who knows?

But I’m not marching in the streets without a mask and armed to the teeth demanding that theatre reopen because I’m not selfish like that.

First, it’s because I still have a venue in which to tell stories and write and share, and you’re reading it right now, wherever in the world you are — and I see that I do have visitors from all over — in fact, from every continent except Antarctica, but including Australia, most of the Americas and Europe, some of Africa, and just about all of Asia. Greetings, everyone!

Second, I realized quite recently that this whole situation has inadvertently handed me the opportunity to get back into the first art-form that I officially trained in but never pursued as a profession for one reason: I loved it too much to turn it into the drudgery of a career, and always wanted to keep it for my own enjoyment.

Okay, sure, I did use it a few times from middle school through just after college in order to entertain others but, again, I was doing it for my own enjoyment.

That art-form is music, and I consider it my second language, because I started taking piano lessons at seven — and I was the one who cajoled my parents into letting me do so. The end result was that I was never really into playing other people’s stuff because, once all that music theory landed in my head and made sense, I started making my own.

That seems to be a common thing with my brain. Learn the way the modules work, start to stick them together to make them break the rules while still working. This is probably also the reason why I took to programming and coding early, and why I abuse Excel the way that I do.

Dirty little secret: Music is just math that sounds good. However, the great thing about it is that music also takes all of the pain out of math because it turns it into feelings. When I’m playing, improvising, and composing, my brain is absolutely not thinking in terms of what specific chord I’m playing, how it relates to the others, how it’s going to get from Point X to Y to make Z make sense, etc.

The thing about music and me is that its rules are buried so deeply into my subconscious that, well, like I said… I consider it to be my second language. And, when you’re fluent in any language, you don’t need to think. You just speak, whether it’s via your mouth and tongue, or via your heart and fingers.

So… live performance has been taken away from me by this virus for a while but that’s okay — because online research and ordering still exist, and stuff is on the way. So… I’m diving back into the most direct, emotional and, most importantly, non-word-dependent form of communication humans have ever invented.

Watch this space. Or… well, listen.

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

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.

Theatre Thursday: Difficult withdrawal

Fortunately, our lockdown still allows me the creative outlet of writing, and it’s made it easy to keep up with my ambition to post here every day. But otherwise, I’m stuck in the house with the dog, other than the weekly trip for groceries, and the very occasional side errand.

Did you know that health insurers seem to have an aversion to taking payment via any method but mailed check? It probably has to do with HIPPA, but it’s damn annoying. It means I have to find an open post office that also actually has an open slot to put the mail in. And no, I couldn’t tell you the last time I’ve spotted a corner mailbox anywhere around here.

Oh, and stamps. Still, at least it’s a stealth mission I only have to do once a month, and I can avoid people while doing it if I work it right. The same is true of the ATM. There’s a little-trafficked outdoor one down the block from me, and when I have run into people there, everyone has done an amazing job at maintaining distance and only using one machine at a time.

These withdrawals, though, have nothing to do with the title of the piece. The hard part is not being able to go onto a stage and perform in front of an audience right now.

As of this writing, it has been about seven-and-a-half weeks, or fifty-two days, since I’ve done improv in front of a live audience, and it is… difficult.

Yes, we’ve continued to do shows via Zoom, but that’s just not the same. It becomes more of an exercise in staying connected with the team, which is very necessary and helpful, but it’s not performing in the same sense.

At our last meeting, someone joked about adding a laugh track to the session, and I was tempted to pull out the sound effects machine and do it — although it wouldn’t really be the same.

There’s nothing like the thrill of experiencing an audience’s live and immediate reaction, whether you’re doing comedy or drama. For example, one of the most exciting experiences I have as an improviser is when we’re doing a rhyming game like Da Doo Ron Ron, where the first two players come up with a single rhyme each, and then the third has to come up with three on the same word.

It’s an elimination game, but here’s the fun part. When you’re down to three players left, the same person is going to get the triple rhyme every time, and I’ve gotten such a reputation at being good at the game that, more often than not, this is the point when the ref puts me in that number three spot.

And there have been times when I’ve made it through three or four rounds — maybe even five — without messing up, and in that case, every time around, I can hear the audience’s anticipation and excitement just crank up, especially when I pull it off. Then, when somebody with only one rhyme whiffs it, I can actually feel the appreciation that I made it through.

Of course, there are other ways to get a reaction from an audience, and one of my favorites came from the time I played a depressed, unicycle-riding bear in an adaptation of a John Irving short story. What? Like you didn’t think of his name as soon as you say unicycle and bear?

There was one long scene where most of us were standing upstage while two other characters were doing their shtick in front of us, and I’d been given license to do business by the director, since that scene was not terribly essential to the plot.

The actress playing the grandmother character was wearing this fur stole with glass grapes on it, and so I decided that the bear thought they were real. At one point, I went over and tried to eat them, and she whacked me away with her clutch.

But before I went for the grapes was when I got the big reaction. See, I’d figured out that if I put these little hard candies from Trader Joe’s in my mouth before the scene and just let them sit there, I’d build up a lot of saliva. So I’d eventually notice the grapes, then start to obsess on them, then kind of sniff at them, and when I sensed that I had the audience’s attention, I let my mouth open a little, tilt my chin down, and wham! Drool cascade to the stage.

This would elicit an amused but disgusted “Ew!”, at which point, I’d go for the grapes, grandma would do her biz, and the audience would eat it up.

Although I was also part of the human chorus in that show, the bear had exactly four words of dialogue, right before dying, but it always felt like I did so much more without saying a thing through the rest of the show.

That one was a magical experience.

Another role where I had about the same number of words (all in Spanish) but again got to play everything through energy and body language was as The Dreamer in Tennessee William’s extremely idiosyncratic and weird Camino Real, which I described at the time — I think accurately — as a ton of fun for the cast, not so much for the audience.

I was basically a leather-clad pseudo-Jesus in intense eye-make-up hauling around a blind Virgen de Guadalupe, fending off the forces of evil at the end, and intimidating the hell out of the audience with my eyes alone. Seriously — black eye shadow above, silver below, can turn your eyes into deadly weapons.

Bonus points: We didn’t limit our playing area to the stage for that one, so we were all up in the house. Like I said, a ton of fun for us, not so much for the audience.

But right now, I’d be grateful for any show to perform live for living people. Yes, it’s kind of ironic that my original trajectory was never supposed to be as a performer. Truth be told, I actually kind of sucked in my middle school drama class, which discouraged me until I basically got dared into it in college — see the above link.

At the moment, it looks like there will be at least two more weeks of this, if not more — and, honestly, I do expect more, at least in sane states like California.

At the moment, I’m reminded of some of my lines from that college play I got dared to audition for, and then cast in:

For ill or good, let the wheel turn.

For who knows the end of good or evil?

Until the grinders cease

And the door shall be shut in the street,

And all the daughters of music shall be brought low.

Stay home, stay safe, tip your server.

Image source: Ghost light at WildWood Arts Center, Little Rock, AR, by Jon Ellwood. Used unmodified under (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Theatre Thursday: Aphra and Edna

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: Fact and fiction

Six hundred and seven years ago today, 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: 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. No more movie theatres at the moment. No more 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.

This 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’s 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 have taken 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. Just not for John.

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)