Monday, December 22, 2014

Q414


The back end of this year has been pretty good to me.

For the first time, I earned a living wage while performing on stage.  The opera (at least, Chicago’s Lyric Opera Company) pays on multiple scales, and I was in the category that compensates for having skills above and beyond “wear this” and “stand there”.   

Because I performed with the Lyric, I joined a union.  I am now a member of the American Guild of Musical Artists, which means I have health insurance through my job just like a real-life adult. 

I got married.  A small ceremony in our living room was wonderful – there were only eight people in the room, including my Lady Love and I.  Because we handled it so small, we got to have it faster than if we’d planned a big production, and we got to do the whole thing cheaper than most people spend on invitations alone.

I got cast in a film.  It’s called Thrill Ride, and hopefully it’ll be released in a reasonable amount of time.  The story was written by the son of the director, who died from a brain tumor at the age of ten.  This film is not only a father’s way to remember his lost son, but funds from the movie are going to research the rare disease the boy had.  To be asked to help tell his final story is an unique kind of honor.

Because I’ve had enough on-camera success lately, I joined another union.  I’m now a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild / American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which means I’m now permitted to swim in a larger pool.  I’ve succeeded in this industry to the point I now have people looking out to ensure a minimum standard for my work and compensation.  This is finally starting to look more like a career than a hobby.

I got an extremely part-time job as a standardized patient with Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science.  It pays well and it’s honorable.  I’m not a healer, but this work helps me to train future medical professionals to practice empathy and professionalism.  Hopefully I’m helping doctors to not just heal their patients, but allow them to feel respected and cared for. 

I got cast in a role that has nothing to do with my physicality, but rather because of my talent – Akvavit Theatre’s Blue Planet.  The majority of roles I’m asked to audition for are named things like Tall Man or Burly Guy.  There’s usually a height requirement.  Of course I should audition for those things, but I rarely get opportunities like this one where people ask me to analyze text or access vulnerable emotions like I practiced doing for three years in graduate school.

Most recently, I finally got to actually sit down and watch a production of A Klingon Christmas Carol instead of immersing myself in performing it.  It was pretty neat to know the show so well I didn’t have to read the translated supertitles.

These things have come together to remind me of a few important lessons.  Whether for love or for money, the things that come into my life won’t stay, but neither will they stay gone.  Success is not linear, and failure is not permanent.

Now I bet if I can lose five pounds before the year is out, I can lose the next fifty, too.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Anvils and Gravy


On the one hand, you can say that my buddy Josh and I picked the perfect night to see a play.  Not just because the show itself (an adaptation of the novel Monstrous Regiment) was good.  The play was, in fact, awesome.  But who should be seated in front of us but our former stage combat teacher?  Who would then invite us to an audition he’d be holding early the next week? 

My response to just about any audition invitation is Why not, man.  Get out there.  I’m at a point in my career that I audition for just about anything as long as it pays more than zero dollars (or not, depending upon the time commitment).  The size of the job does not correlate to the amount of dignity, respect, and effort I put into my work, therefore I don’t spend much time in awe over any single gig’s career advancement probability or paycheck potential.  Maybe later I’ll be important enough to be discerning.  Until I have the power to say no to a project, all jobs are equal.

That being said, Nick Sandys is not just one of the best known fight choreographers in Chicago, he’s also been known to compete against himself for Best Actor in multiple productions in the same year, and is the Producing Artistic Director of one of the most acclaimed theatre companies in the city.  So yeah, I follow Nick’s suggestions with the same level of consideration I’d give to a crispy firefighter who’d suddenly found his way into my smoky bedroom at 3am.

Nick and I exchanged emails the following day, and a few evenings later I found myself with about fifty other guys in the canteen of the Civic Opera House, a building I hadn’t been to since my graduation more than two years prior.  I was wearing clothes I could easily move in, chatting with Josh, waiting our turn to “move around and do a combination w/ [Nick], maybe some drumming” which is the totality of what I’d been told to prepare. 

Sure enough, we learned and executed a short (intentionally sloppy) fight sequence, then spent some time proving just how unqualified we were to simultaneously march and clap in a given syncopated rhythm.  Then we took turns clapping either in time or wildly out of time with one another, each according to his inability.  Okay, it wasn’t all bad, but the memories of two men working together to make the precise tick! tock! tick! tock! of a grandfather clock don’t stand out as much as the sound of two other men who worked together as well as a brick being introduced to a blender.

A few days later I was emailed a callback notice from a man whose job title is Super Captain, which is so badass I had to sit down for a minute and absorb that.  I finally learned the name of the play I was auditioning for.  Perhaps I should have been paying more attention, asked more questions.  Perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered.  Anyway, when I looked up the key words “anvil” and “Trovatore” I found a video on YouTube which was, as I’d later learn, The Met’s remount of the production I was now auditioning for, which had originated in Chicago.  

More important was the revelation that I was going to be judged on my ability to play the anvil for the famous Anvil Chorus.  Yes, it’s famous.  Yes, you know it, whether or not you know you know it.  Go ahead and look it up, but I’ll save you a bit of time and let you know there doesn’t seem to be a version with Bugs Bunny, which remains the only disappointment in this whole venture.  Well , that and the fact that our man Bill dresses not at all like the Super Captain I get on a Google Image search result.

I acknowledge that women have it worse, but I also have the opportunity to feel inadequate when comparing my physique with that of other men.  By no means am I a small man, but compared to the guys in the video (and this particular audition room) I’m downright frumpy.  The doughy calzone to their lean cuts of beef.  The plush cushion to their wood-carved furniture.  They have abs like cheese graters.  I have abs like a cheese eater.  As far as I can tell, I’m the only one who hasn’t engaged in conversation over the merits of various types of bench press. 

But I can keep a beat while slinging a three foot long sledgehammer.

So now I get to perform the signature element of one of history’s most iconic pieces of music to a potential audience of 3,500 people – all while earning a living wage. 

One could accurately say that Josh and I got this gig by chance.  Once we were cast we even talked about how lucky it was we picked that night to go to the show, how fortunate we were to have been assigned seats right next to Nick, how serendipitous that we were available to audition on short notice.  If just one of these elements had been different, we wouldn’t have this opportunity.  All of this is true.

But we also got this gig because we goddamn earned it.  We didn’t just earn it at the audition, either.  We earned it by working with Nick for years in graduate school.  We earned it by keeping our skill set high and our professional reputations clean.   We earned it by being reliable, and by being charming as hell.  We earned it through years of trying.

We won the lottery by buying tickets.  Lots and lots of tickets.

Gigs don’t last long in this world.  Never more than a few months, and that’s only for stage productions.  On camera work is likely to last only a few days, and something for the radio might take as long as an afternoon.  Auditions, therefore, happen a dozen or more times a month, and if you have a success rate of ten percent, you’re doing a hell of a lot better than I am. 

As far as I can tell, there’s never any such thing as having made it in this career.  I’ll never get to relax, never get a single piece of work without having to prove myself all over again to someone new.  Anything I get will begin and end in less time than it takes the leaves to change.  And work doesn’t show up simply because I deserve it, and it doesn’t care whether or not I’ve earned it, or that it’s my turn, or how many times over I’ve paid my dues.  The world owes me nothing, and if I’m not consistently pressing myself into service, then I won’t be ready for the bigger opportunities when they rear their heads.  This is why every gig tastes like a mixture of chocolate and ashes.

But from now until Thanksgiving, it’s all gravy.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Fromunda


History will never remember the things you almost did.  The planes you never boarded, the jobs you didn’t get, the kisses you kept to yourself, these belong only to you.  No pictures taken, no stories told, no witnesses.  Only false memories generated by your own imagined potential will remain, and no one but you will mourn their passing or mark their anniversaries.  These are your private, empty spaces of regret, sometimes pockets and sometimes chasms, never to be filled, and the greatest mercy you can give yourself is to nail some boards over them, mount a poster of your favorite heartthrob, and move on.

But the ghost of one of my almosts keeps knocking, so I hope no one minds if I take it out for a little exorcise.

I almost got to see Richard Cheese in concert.

I became a fan in 2005 with the release of Aperitif for Destruction.  I’d been made aware of a few songs from his previous album, I’d Like A Virgin, but not until I experienced his music through the filter of watching my friends enjoy him did I develop an appreciation of my own. 

Man Singing Jazz Standards with Large Orchestra is one of my first favorite musical genres, one I discovered thanks to the likes of Harry Connick, Jr. and Robbie Williams, later with the tunes of Michael Buble and an exploration of Frank Sinatra.  Richard Cheese combined this aesthetic with the sensibilities of one of my childhood heroes, Weird Al, threw in some risqué subversiveness, and rarely recorded a track longer than two minutes.  Each song was designed to have maximum comedic impact with great musical talent, without extraneous padding, and by god he does it well.

He also sings within my vocal range, if at my upper limit.  This meant I could absolutely sing along (and well) while driving, a pleasure usually not afforded to me – not with my favorite music, anyway.  Singing along with a Richard Cheese album served as my vocal warmup in the days of recording voice-overs with FUNimation.  A thirty minute drive to the studio gave me enough time to suck down a cigarette and wash it down with a can of Coke while powering out a few of my favorite tracks before going in to record.  Combined with my elation of calling myself a Working Actor (at least for the day), the music cemented my mood firmly in the positive a few times a week for a good two years.

I’m not usually one for going to concerts.  Mostly because I can’t stand the crowd, but the biggest hurdle was my job in the service industry.  I usually couldn’t make it to a concert without taking a Friday or Saturday night off work, which doubled (or tripled) the cost.  There also aren’t many artists I enjoy enough to bother with an entire concert.

But a Richard Cheese album gave little tastes of his live experience.  A bonus track here and there provided the opportunity to hear him banter with the audience, a pinhole view of a larger experience I ached to enjoy if he ever came to my town. 

In February of last year I was in a professional slump, so I made myself feel better when I purchased a pair of tickets to see Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine at the Chicago House of Blues.  I didn’t realize just how badly I wanted to see him until I saw the tour dates and info, up to and including the fact that it was promised to be the last time he’d be in Chicago at least 2015. 

The tickets came in the mail – I opened the envelope for a single peek, then kept it next to my computer (where I spend a significant percentage of every day) where I could glance at them warmly from time to time if I ever needed a little pick-me-up.  The show was four months away, so I even had time to let it slip onto the back burners of my consciousness while I attended to other things, namely my career.

Holding out for a higher-paying job (or even a living wage) is a nice fantasy, but the truth is no one is likely to pay you as an artist until you’ve proved you’re not in it for the money.  No one who pays will hire you if you’re inexperienced, so the only way to get experience is to work for a stipend that’s almost enough to buy a week’s groceries if you don’t buy booze or meat.  So I counted myself lucky when, in early March, I was cast in a new play with a young theatre company.  It didn’t even pay enough to cover the cost of traveling to rehearsal, so I considered the net financial loss as a post-post-graduate education credit.  Perhaps one more line on the resume would lead to greater successes.  Eventually.

What I did not realize when I accepted the role was a scheduling conflict – opening night was the night of the Richard Cheese show.  When my Lady Love pointed this out to me, my heart sank into my boots.  Well, shit – not only did I feel honor bound to remain in my professional obligation and miss the concert, but I’d be out eighty bucks for the tickets.  The show was only paying me fifty.

I did a feasibility assessment on my ability to show up late and still catch something worthwhile.  Doors opened at HoB at 7:30, and our show, though short, didn’t start until 8.  After travel time I figured there was no way I could get to the concert before 10.

I took my story to eBay in the hopes that I could at least recoup my financial loss.  I presented the tickets on a seven-day auction that would end at noon the day of the show, challenged bidders to please allow me to live vicariously through them, and promised that any dollar amount above and beyond the face value of the tickets would be directly donated to Richard Cheese himself.  A string of gut-checks followed:

The auction had only four bids, the last one being a few hours after the auction began.

The winning bid was $10.50.

When I contacted the winner by email, she responded: “I already bought tickets. So sorry.”

One month after the show, Richard Cheese cancelled the remainder of the tour and, citing health issues, announced his retirement.

…fuck.

The worst bit wouldn’t occur to me for a few months.  Since I’m not a frequent concert goer, I had forgotten that “Doors open at 7:30” does not mean the show begins at anything like 7:30.  Indeed, a venue the size of the House of Blues would have taken quite a lot of time for people to file in, grab drinks, let those in the VIP section order dinner, etc.  And of course there would have been an opening act or two, concerts always have those, plus setup and breakdown time for each one.  There’s not much chance Richard Cheese would have been set to take the stage before 10:00.

I totally could have made it by 10:00.

…double fuck.

I don’t usually get excited in anticipation of an event, not anymore.  More than once, a genuine life changing experience evaporated before potential became actual.  My first marriage engagement, lasting more than three years, fell through six months before it would have taken place.  My second engagement, about a year in the making, suddenly ended six weeks before the wedding.  For eighteen months I took thrice-weekly Russian lessons, and either sold or donated any possession larger than would fit into a suitcase, so that I could move to Moscow for no less than four years, to study and build a career as an actor – only to learn, a month before my departure, that a handshake agreement is only as good as the paper it’s printed on.

These events and various, smaller others are why I reserve enthusiasm, but I made an exception for this this concert, and . . . well.  It’s not the most awkward letdown of what had been a surefire thing.  But now I’m engaged to be married again, and I keep hearing the mocking words after the last one failed: “Maybe your next engagement will be over just six days before the wedding, and your next one will fail six hours before, and . . .”

Let’s just say I hate countdowns.  It hurts too much when the timer never hits zero.

Monday, September 22, 2014

History Repeats


When I was a sophomore in high school I joined the wrestling team.  I no longer recall what appealed to me, exactly.  I was already on the football and track teams which filled my fall and spring, respectively, so maybe I was looking for something to do during the winter. 

I do remember my first day of practice.  It was the Monday before Thanksgiving, and as a football player, I had been unavailable for practice before that day.  There is a hierarchy of sports, after all, and Texas proves the rule with no exceptions.  We only had one official wrestling coach, but we had three assistant volunteers, at least of two of whom were of blood relation to one of the team.

I was an hour late due to the required off-season football weight training (again, hierarchy).  Stepping into the windowless, fluorescent-lit, white-walled practice room was much like walking into a greenhouse in winter.  The sour air was moistened by the kind of sweat, testosterone, and aggression that only a dozen and a half teenagers could generate. 

Roger was the one of the volunteer coaches.  He stood as high as my chest, was built like a fire hydrant with only slightly more hair, and was immediately assigned to assist me that evening.  I spent the next two hours being forcibly removed from (then rapidly reintroduced to) the effects of gravity.  Walking into Roger was exactly like walking into a turnstile that moved at the speed of a blender.  He seemed to think that simply tripping a man took too long before he hit the ground.  I wasn’t just thrown; I was spiked.  I’ve been in gentler car wrecks.

Fathom my surprise, then, when I was told I’d be representing the team as a heavyweight against two schools the following evening . . . on varsity.  We had a JV team, but no.  Apparently it was the consensus that my human rag doll impression would be best witnessed by the maximum possible audience.

Tuesday night provided maximum embarrassment opportunity.  A wrestling singlet is called a leotard in any other context, and I couldn’t bring myself to put mine on until I saw someone else wearing one first.  The headgear looks like a jock strap with a protective cup both in front and in back, so having my ears covered by one made me feel like I was the victim of a locker room prank.

They didn’t have the slim-fitting wrestling shoes in my size because of course they didn’t, so I was required to wear my own comparatively bulky Nike Pump knock-offs.  For all the times I was asked where my actual shoes were, I may as well have been wearing the box they came in.  The referee wouldn’t even let me onto the mat until the coach apologized and explained on my behalf.

Finally came my first match.  I was pinned in 47 seconds, which was actually better than I had been expecting.

I reminded myself that I was new at this and got ready for my second match.  Mostly this involved sitting in a metal folding chair at the end of a row of my teammates, studying the space between my feet, and being very still in the hopes that no one would look at me. 

Time again for me to take the mat, and I screwed up my determination as best I could.  I knew I couldn’t win, but I didn’t want to lose as badly as I had the first time.  I never found out exactly how, but I was somehow flipped and folded, not at the waist, but rather at some point between my navel and the bottom of my rib cage.  I quit moving as soon as I couldn’t breathe.  Never before or since have I had such a close-up view of my own balls.

It took 41 seconds.

People win awards and recognition and say they’re humbled by it.  That’s not being humbled, folks, that’s being honored.  You want to feel humbled, see what it’s like to fail to stop someone twisting you up until the only thing you can smell is your own undercarriage.  Try it with a gymnasium full of people watching.  Try it with someone keeping an official record.

My opponent released me, and I stayed on my back for a moment to reinflate.  The referee eyed me with a mix of sympathy and humor and held his hand out to help me back to my feet.  Once I was up he leaned to a distance were only I could hear him, and said, “First day, huh?”  Perhaps he thought it would make me feel better.  I didn’t sense any malice.  Only pity.

I remember stepping outside under the guise of cooling off, which of course didn’t take long since I hadn’t broken a sweat.  There, amidst a quantity of pavement only a public school could provide, I sat and tried to figure out why anyone thought this would be a good idea.

At some point I realized how wrestling operates as a team sport.  At a wrestling meet, each team provides an opponent for each of fourteen weight classes ranging from 103 pounds to “heavy”.  Points are scored during each match for various moves: takedown, reversal, escape.  After three two-minute rounds, the point spread determines the number of points awarded to the team to a maximum of five.  If a wrestler pins his opponent, the match is over and his team gets six points.  If a team has no wrestler for a given weight class, it’s a forfeit, and the opposing team gets six points.

My team had no heavyweight before I joined.  Getting pinned, i.e. losing as badly as one could possibly lose, was the exact same consequence as my absence.  I was benefiting the team just by putting on the outfit and standing in the circle against no one at all.

I was placed on varsity to be filler.  A punching bag with my picture on it couldn’t have done any worse.  The only one with anything to lose was me.

Fast forward twenty years, and I’m graduating with a Master’s in Fine Arts from an Acting program rated one of the best 25 in the world.  I’m represented by a reputable and respected talent agency with no interest in the voice-over experience I’d had before I moved to Chicago.  This is true for two years.

A month ago, this began to change.  They called me in for one VO audition, and the next week they called me in for another.  Then another the following week, and two the week after.  By wondrous coincidence this began just a after I began a voice-over class for the purposes of brushing up my skills and doing a bit of networking.  When I thanked them for bringing me in lately, I was told they had decided to try me out because they had no one who fit my “sound profile.” 

Filler.  Nothing to lose. 

I gave my heart to the wrestling team for the rest of the season.  The coaches taught me a few techniques.  At the start of practice someone might show me a new move, and tell me I had to do it 100 times before I could go home (wax on, wax off).  I trained, I drilled, and slowly I began to conquer.  Every Tuesday there was another meet, and every Saturday another tournament.  Sometimes I’d get pinned, and sometimes I had the least points at the end of 3 rounds.  Sometimes I’d win.  I never placed higher than 3rd in a given tournament, but I earned half a dozen medals.  Nearly every week my parents would receive a Pride-O-Gram from my assistant principal with a clipping from the local newspaper when Head Coach Johnson singled me out in interviews about the team.  

I competed in the state championship, and got as far as the 2nd Consolation round – two rounds away from finals. I finished the season with a win-loss record of 21-21.  Of my 21 wins, two were forfeits in my favor, one was by points . . . and the other 18 were by pin. 

At the end-of-season banquet, my teammates made awards for everyone, and I got the only one that wasn’t a tongue-in-cheek joke: Best Attitude Award.  Coach Johnson gave me the trophy for Most Improved Wrestler and gave me significant attention during his speech about the season.

I never wrestled again.

Now I’m an artist, a performer, and I’m trying my damnedest to make a living.  Sometimes people bring me in because I’m the best, and sometimes people are taking a chance on me, and sometimes people bring me in because they have nothing to lose.

All I have to do to eventually succeed is remember and employ the lesson I already learned.  Train, drill, persist, develop new skills, and with time, no one will ever again make me smell my own balls.

Not without consent, anyway.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Bragging Rights – OR – Earning the Paycheck – OR – What the Fuck Did I Agree To?


I’d never been an understudy before this year, and I’d never wanted to.  It’s like the ‘friend zone’ of the theatre world; you’re only good enough to fill in if the guy they really want isn’t around.  Otherwise, just sit in the corner, quiet and ignorable, and pay attention just in case something goes wrong.  But when I was contacted with an understudy offer that paid more than any two gigs of the previous year – on the strength of that alone, how could I say no?  I have a cat to feed.

The role was for a character that first appears on page 69 of a 74 page play, another in the line of “be large and just stand there” roles that make me stare longingly at the Master’s diploma on my fridge.  I really wanted one other role in the show – the antagonist of a fight scene, described blow-by-blow in the script, taking about 4 pages in unbroken paragraph form.  For some reason they didn’t even audition this role.

On the first day of rehearsal I learned that part had been filled – by the playwright.  Who is also co-director of the play.  Who is also the company’s founding Artistic Director.  So okay, this is his sandbox.  He owns the toys, he signs the checks, he puts in the work, he rightly gets to do what he wants.  Still, it would have been nice to have had a chance to prove my worth.

A few weeks into rehearsal I got an offer to understudy a second role in the show – the one I initially wanted – along with a comparable bump in pay.  Whee!  It was nice to have recognition of my stage combat skills, even if it was only as a backup.

Watching fight rehearsals was unnerving.  Both men were not only capable, but spry.  I’m not spry.  I knew I’d have to modify some of the more acrobatic moves they were doing.  The set was constructed specifically with this fight in mind, reinforced to ensure it could hold the weight of them leaping to or being thrown upon various bits of ledge, furniture, chandelier.  I thought about the difficulties it would present should I need to fill in, being a few inches taller and 75 pounds heavier than my counterpart (not an exaggeration, I asked). 

Our first understudy rehearsal was scheduled for the Thursday afternoon after the show opened.  Imagine my consternated confusion when my phone rang at 6:30 Tuesday morning, the light of the screen searing my eyes with my stage manager’s name.  I usually hit the sack around 2:30, so I knew I was in no proper mental state to absorb whatever information she had to tell me.

Sure enough, the other actor was injured.  I’d need to fill in for him starting Friday, possibly for the rest of the run.  I bet if I ran her voicemail through a voice stress analyzer, the machine could have convinced me she had a gun to her head, and I was in no better shape.  I’d just been told I had three days to learn and perfect what the other two men had been practicing for two months.

Naturally, I had three other obligations that same upcoming weekend.  I had two shows to host, one Friday and one Saturday, plus I’d promised to create a new boylesque routine for another event Saturday afternoon.  Writing intros for a single show takes me at least three hours to research and practice.  I have never tried out a new boylesque routine without running it through my troupe’s rehearsal at least once, but I was out of time.

It’s not the most stressful situation I’ve ever been in, but it certainly kicked in my fight-or-flight response.  At some point in the last few years I’ve become aware of a struggle with my inner child.  Not the one who wants to shirk responsibility and fulfill every hedonistic desire, he and I are cool, but one who will recognize a challenge and crumple into frustrated tears.  His screams of incompetent fear compete with my motivational poster mantras, and that fucker is a passionate little doomsayer and he is loud. 

The trick is to not let him have a head start.  As soon as I feel him twitch, I cuff him to an arm chair, slap some duct tape over his mouth, and sit him in front of the cartoons of my childhood heroes:  Silverhawks, The Real Ghostbusters, TMNT, and Christopher Reeve as Superman.  Every one of these characters was one who didn’t ever despair, because they didn’t pause to reflect on the consequences of failure.  They just got shit done.

My first rehearsal was 10pm Wednesday night, since the theatre was otherwise occupied with tech rehearsal for a children’s show which shares our stage.  I spent two hours with the fight choreographer running out of gas and questioning my life choices.  Fortunately I proved to myself that I had, in fact, been paying adequate attention during rehearsal.  I quickly absorbed almost every strike, every dodge, every throw.  Unfortunately I felt the anguish of only getting half the necessary amount of sleep and two beers before rehearsal. 

I scared myself with a glance in the mirror.  My red-rimmed eyes and pale, sweaty face looked like I hadn’t slept in two days nor seen the sun in eight months, but then I realized that was literally the case, calmed down, and headed home.

The following day our tech crew came in to add some extra reinforcements to a few things to accommodate my increased bulk. Late Thursday night I worked with the other actor for the first time.  He learned to aim his punches higher, I learned to duck lower, and together we learned how much more hang time he gets when I’m the one throwing him.

Friday’s call was two hours early to give us one more chance to perfect things; it was also the first time I had to discuss the acting portion of my character and his motivations with the directors.  I’ve learned that being an understudy is a lesson in prolonged, impotent frustration.  Watching someone else make different, though justifiable, choices escalates me from a mental state of, “That’s interesting,” to “YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG.”  It’s like watching someone else play a video game and it’s never my turn.

It’s more difficult for me when I’m studying a role that’s being played by the man who wrote the part and is co-directing the play.  I never got the benefit of watching him discuss his choices with the director.  Fortunately for me, he swallowed enough painkillers to come in early and clarify what I would certainly have done with a vastly different interpretation than he’d wanted.

I carried off the fight with one small hitch.  Towards the end of the fight I get punched and knocked backward into the proscenium wall.  I have to aim carefully in order to miss the foot of a staircase, a few shelf corners built into the wall on one side of my target area, and a fancy fountain on the other side.  Luckily I know how to distribute my weight and area of impact evenly, so I hit simultaneously from shoulder to hip without doing myself an injury.

The drywall wasn’t so lucky.  I’d been under the impression it was stone and mortar.  The theatre wall now has a wall-gina approximately 2 feet wide, 4 feet tall, and 1 foot deep.  This instigated many repetitions of “THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS,” at me, to which I call bullshit.  A1) In my book “nice” things aren’t so damn fragile, especially when those things are WALLS, and B2) there’s a very nice rug now hanging on that very wall.

The three other obligations were carried off with aplomb, though for the first time in my burlesque hosting history I straight up reused some introductions wholesale from a previous show.  My new boylesque routine accomplished everything I’d intended.  My Lady Love’s fundraiser brought over $1,000 to a worthy cause.  And after performing in the Sunday matinee of the play I had to stick around for our first actual understudy rehearsal so I could help teach the fight to the other guy’s understudy.

My adult life isn’t inspired by the heroism of the fictional characters of my childhood, but I do use symbols remind myself of the kind of man I want to be.  I wear these symbols on my jewelry, and I have them imbedded under my skin.  I spy them amidst my new bruises, and I feel proud to have lived up to the ideals they represent.
I’m ready for the next challenge.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Communication Breakdown

I could not give less of a shit about the Grammar Wars.  Here’s why you shouldn’t either.

The spirit of a law is always, always more important than the letter.  Following the letter of the law is what turned Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell into a bad thing.  It started off as a well-intentioned policy of inclusion; prior to 1992 it was permissible for a military recruiter to ask an applicant whether he was a homosexual.  If the candidate answered yes, his ability to serve could be denied outright.  The spirit of DADT was to prevent that discrimination.  The spirit was you’re not allowed to ask after someone’s sexuality and use their answer against them.  The spirit was that you cannot be compelled to give information regarding your own sexual orientation and thus be prevented from service for doing so.  The intended end result was that military discrimination against homosexuality was now over.

Then some asshole nitpicked the letter of the law and the whole machine just went right on discriminating for another 20 years.  “It says you’re not allowed to tell anyone you’re gay!  You told!  You’re out!”  Picking apart the wording of the law turned it around to serve the very discrimination it was created to prevent.  To adhere strictly to the letter of this law was to be willfully ignorant of its purpose.
Naturally this can be seen as an argument for greater consistency and specificity in our language to prevent such confusion.  The entirety of the debate about the 2nd Amendment can come down to the placement of a single goddamned comma.  But if I left the comma out of the sentence, “Let’s eat, Grandma!” no one would mistake my meaning unless it was for the sake of either making a joke or to point out their own superiority.
An unavoidable truth is that language itself – both written and spoken – is constantly evolving.  We don’t use punctuation in a modern society the same way we did 200 years ago, or 200 years before that, or in another 200 years from now, and thus we’ll never find an answer by guessing what someone meant solely by analyzing the specificity of text. 
I spent a couple of years working in a corporate environment, which meant there were some people with whom I communicated solely through the written communication of email.  I remember shaking my head at one woman who consistently asked for help using the words “Please advice.”  The very instant I typed those words just now, Microsoft Word made a little blue squiggle under the word “advice” because it knows it’s the wrong word to use here.  The word should, of course, had been “advise”.
But you know what?  I knew what she meant.  I could have wasted energy by throwing my metaphorical hands into the air in confusion.  I could have asked her how I was supposed to offer pleasure to an abstract concept, feigning ignorance until she tracked down the nature of her minor spelling error.  I could have reveled in how much smarter I am, mirthfully imagining her writhing in frustration as I – her grammatical savior – elevated her understanding to my own level of enlightenment.  Instead, I answered her question, we got our work done, and went on with the rest of our lives.
The same idea applies to the uses of there/their, its/it’s, your/you’re, and to/too/two.   Some people consistently use those words incorrectly, true, but never does it ever change the meaning of the sentence.  If ever you’ve been bent out of shape about someone using the wrong homonym, ask yourself:  did this cause you to misinterpret the intent, or did you use your Context Clues and figure it out? 
For example: occasionally there pops up a debate of which city people think of when someone says, “The City,” the popular answer being New York City.  But how in the fuck do people think those two words are said devoid of context?   Has anyone ever begun a conversation solely with those two words?  Why would you do that?  If someone approached you and said, simply, “The City!” would you then respond, “Ah yes, I know which city you mean.”  Or would you perhaps request a complete sentence that would enable you to know what they meant?
That’s where the grade school homonym lesson comes in.  If someone tells you, “Your great,” or “Your sweet,” you wouldn’t be suddenly lost in the conversation.  You wouldn’t ask, “My great what?” or say, “My sweet . . . apples?  What do you mean?  Why are you just typing random words?”  Not unless you were being a dick, anyway.
I actually am sensitive as to why this bothers people.  Some of us worked very hard to get good grades in school.  We were told that communication skills were of paramount importance.  I get that.  I agree with that.  Communication is important in art, in science, in relationships, in lawmaking.  It’s frustrating to see someone succeed while putting in less effort, or with less care.
But criticizing a stray comma or an unnecessary apostrophe doesn’t improve communication any more than eating a pie on March 14th makes you better at math. 
Seek to understand your fellows rather than criticize and dominate them, and we’ll actually evolve much faster.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Blink

Suddenly, it’s a year later.

The last regular writing I did was to promote a show I was in: the 2012 production for A Klingon Christmas Carol.  Each week I’d discuss my perspective on the rehearsal and production.  Prior to that I’d write from time to time about what was going on in my life, or stories from the past for which I’d finally found an entertaining way to tell. 

Then we hit January, and I spent the month in Southern Illinois filming a movie I wasn’t allowed to talk too much about.  I can say that it’s called Dig Two Graves, but more than that I wasn’t certain what I was allowed to say – a project in production likes to keep some secrets – so I decided to play it safe and say nothing.

In February of last year I hit a professional lull.  It was the first time in eight months that I had no idea what my next job was going to be.  I’d spent the previous March to December losing 35 pounds, but in January alone I put on 40.  Also, my long-cured back troubles resurfaced in full force.  My finances were more desperate than usual.  I hit a fit of depression that made my new relationship suffer.

Then things picked up professionally.  By the first week of April I had booked my next four shows, which would carry me for a ten month span in which I’d be either in rehearsal, performance, or both simultaneously.  I even booked my first three commercials (in increasingly important roles) and was featured on a major network TV show for the first time.

I never talked about these things because they either felt too depressing when I was low, or too much like bragging when I wasn’t.

But I suppose the biggest influence over shutting myself up came from the discovery of The Paper Machete, a weekly Live Lit show that featured essays on news topics of the previous week.  I found the show entertaining, engaging, but most of all it felt important.  Naturally the perspective of many of these pieces were filtered through the thoughts and feelings of their authors, but it was always larger than the person who wrote the piece.  As opposed to my own writing, none of the pieces could have been titled, “Here’s Why You Should Care About Me This Week” composed of a tale of why their lives either suck or are full of victories to be envied.

I want to be a writer.  I don’t begrudge people who write about themselves (even though I despise the term Creative Non-Fiction), but when I do it, it just feels so shallow.  As a result, I write nothing.

Worse than writing nothing is what I choose to do with my time instead.  I play more video games and watch more TV.  I become more of a consumer than a creator, and I feel I lose the right to call myself Artist if I’m not spending time creating some form of art.

Worse, if I write nothing at all, my writing gets rusty.  Then, even on those occasions I do manage to say something, I find I’m saying it poorly, and the joy is sucked out of being creative.

And now here I am again.  At the same time of year, I have no acting gig lined up.  I’m overweight based upon the clothes I used to fit into.  And I have nothing important to say.

But I’ve learned that saying nothing gets me nowhere, and I have less self-respect than if I merely say nothing important. 

I’m still trying to find my voice, but I think I’m done caging myself.  I don’t let the opinion of others bring down my mood, compromise my values, or alter my appearance.  Why should it be any different with my art?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Oh, You Watch Star Trek?

On November 17th, I was asked to participate in an episode of The Nerdologues: Your Stories, whose monthly storytelling sessions turn into a podcast.  On December 23rd my portion of the podcast was released!  The whole episode is great, but the recording of just my bit is here for the purposes of shameless self-promotion and also for my mother, who would only skip the rest and just listen to my story anyway.


video“Exactly what in the nine hells ever made you think you were worthy to stand close enough to me to breathe the same air?  Go back to your sweat smelling ass cave and rot so I can go back to pretending you don’t exist.”

Or, at least, that’s what it sounded like she said.  The reality was far more innocuous but had the same impact.

It was high school, and it was the middle of the 1990’s, and I had a dozen acquaintances but no friends.  I existed in a no-man’s-land of being both a jock and a nerd and doing neither very well.  It’s not that I was trying hard but incapable, it was that I didn’t care enough to try hard enough to be good at . . . well, anything.  I was on the varsity football team . . . third string.  I was taking the Advanced Placement Chemistry class . . . I got a 1.

And I don’t remember which class it was, but there I sat when someone from across the room called me over.  Her name was Bekkah (B-e-k-k-a-h), and she had very curly red hair, and it was a simple, “Hey, Mark, come over here,” that beckoned me.  So I did.  Bekkah, whom I knew, introduced me to Bonnie (B-o-n-n-i-e), who had straight dark hair and bore the mystery of someone I didn’t know, but I knew the company she kept.  Probably she lived in one of the wealthier neighborhoods than mine.  If I had known what a trust fund was, I would have suspected her of having one.  Not disparagingly.

I sat.  We chatted.  Later I would learn that Bonnie had confided in Bekkah that she, Bonnie, thought I, Mark, was SO hot, and wanted to talk to me but didn’t know how to approach me or what to talk about.  This is what prompted Bekkah to call me over.  But by the time I learned that little bit of information I was no longer capable of being flattered by it.  I’d been instead flattened by such a powerful rebuke that was totally unfair yet completely true but made me question my whole worth as a human being.

I no longer remember exactly how I phrased it, but it came out that I watched Star Trek.  And 47 seconds into an otherwise pleasant conversation, her smile dropped, and she said to me simply, “Oh, you watch Star Trek?  Go away.”

As I walk-of-shamed myself across the classroom back to my own desk,  I remember thinking That’s it?  That’s all it takes?  I was stunned that the whole quality of my character was weighed, measured, and completely dismissed as unworthy because of something so trivial as a single TV show I liked to watch. 

It wouldn’t be the last time.  When I was 12 I got a Next Gen communicator pin that I still had when I was 19 and happened to be wearing when I was rear-ended (gently) by another driver on a short stretch of road right by the local mall.  We pulled over, inspected the damage.  There was none that I could see, so I declined to take her information because I didn’t see the point.

Then suddenly she asks me, “What is that?” and pointed to my chest.  “That” clearly had nothing to do with the cars, so clearly she was starting a new topic.  Slowly it dawned on me that she was continuing the conversation.  It’s weird to me when women do that.  I’m like, Oh, is – is this flirting?  Am I being flirted . . . on?  I don’t  . . . I’m not sure . . . what . . . I’d better say something back . . .

Well by now I’d grown accustomed to people dismissing me because of the things I enjoyed, so I was in the habit of hiding that bit of information before people got to know me better.  But it was too late.  There it was, out in the open, pinned to my shirt.  I had been about to say, “It’s a Starfleet comm badge,” but if she didn’t already know that, that wasn’t going to explain anything, so I said instead, “It’s a Star Trek pin.”

But I may as well have told her, “It’s the remnants of an uncooked egg, which spent three days decomposing in the sun before being farted on by a cadre of fat Lithuanians before finally being cracked open and spread across my sweatshirt,” because that, at least, would have justified to me the scorn in her eyes when she said to me, clearly giving me another chance, “Why are you wearing it?”   

If you’d been a casual observer of this exchange, standing just beyond earshot, you might have believed my answer – being composed of four words – to be one of the following.

a)      I like the smell.

b)      I like Star Trek.

Because without another word, she simply got into her car and drove away.

These exchanges and so many like them are what make me feel, today, like I’ve stepped into a Rod Serling anti-nightmare where the nerds have taken over the popular cultural landscape.  It’s like we were wizards (from 3rd edition before the balance issues got sorted out in 3.5) who lost our hit points real easy at lower levels while the fighters and barbarians dominated the board, but now that we’re all epic level we found out that the cultural power balance has shifted in our favor, so we’re safe and secure in our towers lobbing intellectual H-bombs into every major movie theatre near you that you couldn’t possibly understand because we know you never even HEARD of Joseph Campbell and your degree requirements only included, like, one physics class and while you’re crumbling like the ignorant, low charisma score havin’ meat shields we knew you to be, meantime the children of the people you used to scorn and/or beat up for fun are “bronies,” who not only have a safe community in which to share their love of a particular piece of pop culture, but they also have parents who have a first-hand understanding of what it’s like to be mistreated for life choices that don’t harm anybody.

So thank you, Bonnie, and all the all the he-Bonnies and she-Bonnies that came after you, for you taught me to treat people better than you treated me, and elevated the quality of art that I am capable of producing and perpetuating.