rueful laughter

A little while ago, I worked on a fantastic community theatre show and had a wonderful time. Seriously, it was one of those perfect storms where great talent met great attitudes, and even the problems were kinda fun (in retrospect, anyway – I’m deeply grateful to those who saved the day more than once).

And then it occurred to me that there was something amiss with the show: we had no divas. None. How did this happen? In most shows there’s at least person who demands attention for just…demanding attention, one person who dumps a bowl of cold oatmeal on an otherwise hot breakfast buffet of a theatrical experience (I know, it’s a bad metaphor, but I’m hungry). And then I realized that the last show I was in was also diva-free – in fact, it ain’t easy to remember the last time a diva or two all but ruined my good time.

Seriously…what the hell? Where have all the divas gone? I know they’re out there. Used to be you could count on two or three divas per show – sometimes, you’d take bets on who could steal the most focus and waste the most of the cast’s and director’s time. Maybe they’re keeping to themselves, refusing to compromise the experience for everyone – but that only means they were never true divas to begin with. More and more, show people are being nice, magnanimous, and kind to each other.

This will not stand. Divadom is a tradition that must not go the way of the Walkman, or MySpace, or Terrence Trent D’Arby. So to that end, I have provided a primer that will hopefully rekindle the proud flame of divadom, a state of being that transcends talent and gender (that’s right, fellas) and casts a ray of dark on an otherwise sunny production. Enjoy.

I know what you’re thinking. “I have to audition? But this is MY part – I’ve wanted to play it ever since someone told me a couple months ago I’d be perfect for it!”

True dat. But in this business we call show, we all must go through the humiliation of an audition from time to time. So make the best of it – have fun! Think of it as a social opportunity. Chat with your friends. Laugh, dance, talk – do whatever you must to stay “loose” until it’s your turn (the louder the better – it keeps your vocal cords lubricated). Don’t worry about being distracting the directors – they should be focused on the auditioner, and if not, well, it’s hardly your fault they forgot their Ritalin, right? And certainly pay no mind to the person auditioning – if they’re bothered by you, they are clearly not focused on their song or their monologue or whatever their doing to eat up your time.

When they call your name, remember, it’s important to be relaxed. So take your time. By all means, finish your conversation before taking your turn on stage. This will give the (correct) impression that you don’t really need to be there – you’ve got far better things to do. What director wouldn’t be impressed by that? Besides, it was rather rude of them to interrupt you.

If the show is a musical, you probably have a piano player there to accompany you. Unfortunately, piano players don’t like you and will purposefully mess up your song. You’ll have to let them know quickly that you’re onto their game by 1) pointing out where, in the sheet music, you start to sing (i.e., “I sing here, where the words begin”); 2) stopping them at least three times during your audition when they play that one wrong note that threw you off, and 3) rolling your eyes at the director and your fellow auditioners when you are finished, making sure they all know who is to blame for THAT disaster.

When you leave, remember, humility is the key. So be humble. Let everyone – EVERYONE – know that your audition was a TRAVESTY, that you usually perform SO much better than that. You’re sick, of course (don’t forget to cough), and people are just being so mean to you today. Accept the inevitable “oh, no, you were great” comments with a barely perceptible nod, and then go back to your friends…and let the fun conversations continue!

So you did the director a solid and accepted a part in the play. Way to go! Now it’s time to size up your new castmates – after all, this will be your family for the next several weeks. And, just like family, there are some people you like (leads), some you tolerate (featured), and some who simply aren’t worth the gift of your company (ensemble, tech, directors). Figure out who’s who early in the process. If you aren’t sure who’s who yet, just go by who’s the cutest (after you, of course! ROFL!)

But what if that bacterium of a director gave someone else YOUR part? Well, that’s a horse of a different feather, but the proper diva is ALWAYS a good sport. Prove it by constantly offering to help that role-stealing pleeb with the part. Give them line readings. Lots of ‘em. And don’t forget to ply them with sincere compliments, like “wow, even though you’re way too old for this part, you’ve got a really interesting voice” and “if you like, I can hit that note backstage and you can lip-synch” and “gosh, I never thought of this part being played that way. Huh.” This way they’ll know you’re in their “corner,” as they say in the biz. Remind them how sick you were at the audition.

People love to talk – and what’s more interesting than other people? Nothing, that’s what! And who’s more interesting than the people in your cast? No one, that’s who! So talk about them and talk often. People love being talked about – it makes them feel important. However, some people are so sensitive – they apparently don’t appreciate the attention you’re giving them by discussing their talent (or lack thereof). So just to be safe, only talk about people when they’re not there to overhear. Don’t worry…if they show up, you can just immediately start talking about other people in the cast and their lack of talent. It’s the circle of life!

Certainly, you need to attend some rehearsals, so the other actors will know your blocking so they can stay out of your way. But what’s with this schedule the directors gave you? Did they ask if you WANT to rehearsing on those particular days? Hells no! But still, there it is in writing. They must have put some thought into it, right? Please. They’re directors. As we’ll learn later, they’ve got the brain capacity and security level of a chorus member. (Lulz!) Besides, they didn’t think to consult you about your schedule and ask for your conflicts, did they? Oh, they did? Well, that was a long time ago – how were you supposed to know whether you might make plans on future rehearsal nights? So don’t worry about it. Just show up when you feel like it. Oh, you should definitely call (or better yet – text) them and let them know you’re not coming – after all, you’re a good sport. Make sure you give them a one-hour warning. In other words, if rehearsal starts at 7:00, let them know you’re not coming by 8.

Weirdly, some directors get all yelly when you do this repeatedly. OMG, what is their deal!? Discuss this with your castmates – you’ll feel better. Directors are SO unreasonable. What are they going to do, replace you?

Especially after they’ve fitted you for costumes.

You know how they say “those who can, do, those who can’t, teach?” No? Well…they say that. Anyway, here’s the theater version: those who can, act, those who can’t act do tech, those who can’t do tech do costumes, and those who can’t even do that have a cousin or something who directs. Seriously, look at these other people in the cast – would they even be here if the director knew what he or she was doing?

So what can you do? You can help! Offer constant suggestions, like “my character doesn’t want to do that” or “yeah…I’m going to say this instead.” If this doesn’t work, a silent stare – with arms folded – will often convey the message of “your idea is bad” without forcing you to say the unpleasant words “your idea is bad.”

Of course, some directors, perhaps because their “title” has the word “direct” in it, don’t appreciate input from the actors. But “director” also contains the word “or,” as in “or, I can just do what I want” (Fun fact: it also contains the word “ire!”) Just remember, you can always allow the director to believe he or she is in charge – right up until opening night. Then, you’re free to fix their mistakes, put yourself in center stage where you belong, and take long pauses before each of your lines to draw attention to yourself. There – you just “fixed” the show. And you’re not even asking to share directing credit, even though you totally deserve it. Stupid director probably won’t even thank you.

The tech people aren’t going out on stage to sing and act, are they? ARE THEY? No, of course not. Can you imagine? LOL! No, entertaining the masses is your job. Their job is to, like, move sets or whatever. Sometimes…seriously, this happens…they might ask YOU to move something, to position a prop, to stand on your “mark,” whatever that is. Can you believe the arrogance? Still, there’s no need to remind them of their place in the world – remember, some theatre people can be so sensitive. Besides, that would require actually talking to them (ick! Lol!) and there’s certainly no reason to do them THAT. Better to just shake your head sadly and walk away.

It is the first day of tech week (a really stupid week to begin with) and these people simply do Not. Know. What. They’re. Doing! Seriously – you’ve been rehearsing for, what, three months now? You’ve done YOUR job – you know almost half of your lines, and the rest were stupid anyway. Why can’t these fungi get it right?

Okay, hold on, superstar. Just take a nice deep breath (and another shot of Kahlua). After all, without lights, and…whatever else the tech people do, there would be no stage for you to shine. Remember: these are techies. If they were actually good and smart and stuff, they would be actors. So you have to encourage them. Smile at them. Call them “hon” or something. Let them know you’re on their side, and that you’re a “good sport” who will “get into the spirit” of this ridiculous day.

For an hour or so.

But even then, there’s no reason to raise your voice at the sad little people in the black turtlenecks. Instead, try greeting every “Hold Please!” with a loud, audible sigh (every now and then, slap your thighs for emphasis. Try it – it works!). Now your director might ask you what’s wrong – how rude! If something was wrong, you would have said “something is wrong,” right? But still, there’s no reason to get upset, because you know the one rule of tech: downtime = your time! While they’re adjusting the lights – take a break. Visit the necessary. Take a little walk. Have another drink. Don’t worry, when it’s time to start again, someone will find you. Eventually. If they care about the show, that is.

Hang in there, kid! In a few days the vermin on the tech crew will go from hopelessly stupid to pretty much stupid. You know what that means – showtime!

You know what’s fun about live theatre? Anything can happen! And anything will. And here’s the thing about show people: they are vicious! (Not you, of course.) They are mean, spiteful creatures who love to point the finger of blame. Which means that sometimes – sometimes – that finger of blame might be pointed at you.

“You missed your mark,” they’ll say. “That wasn’t your line – you were supposed to say ‘I love you,’ not ‘Ohmygod I totally forgot your name,’” they’ll whine. “That was MY song!” they’ll bleat. “You were supposed to be in that scene! Why are you in the dressing room on the phone?” they’ll whimper. Etc., etc. You see? Vindictive little trolls.

So how can you defend against this? Same way you drive: with a good offense! Sure, things will go wrong – it’s theatre, it’s full of morons who constantly screw things up. And sometimes you have to remind people of that, lest they point the finger at you. You missed your cue? That’s because the light was totally in your eyes. Said the wrong line? That’s because your costume makes you look hideous (besides, your line was better). Didn’t come out for your scene? Well SOMEBODY (probably that weaselly person who wears the headphones backstage) obviously forgot to tell you. Accidentally sang someone else’s song? Clearly the prop person had the glass in the wrong place, totally throwing you off. Oh – and no matter what, don’t forget – you’re sick. Terrible, terrible cold, all due to the assistant director’s 8-month-old sneezing in the theater a few minutes before you arrived. Seriously, you are REALLY sick, which you should still be reminding people on your third mudslide at the aftershow party.

When it comes down to it, who is actually the one saying lines (better ones than the “playwright” wrote…we should totally call those people “playwrongs,” LOL!) and singing songs during a show? Why, you, of course! Well, a few other people too, but whatever. So always remember that all these sad little creatures running around backstage, all the vaguely unpleasant faces you’ve been seeing over the past couple of months, all those names you skip over in the program to read your bio again – they’re all here to facilitate your performance. It’s kind of touching, in a way, I guess. Sure, they’ll probably (definitely) screw up and ruin everything, but they’re here, and they’re trying. So be sure to be a gracious diva and treat them with kindness. “Kindness,” in this case, means never learning anything about them – after all, that would violate their whole purpose for being here! But you know what? Learn their names. Yeah. Seriously. Well, not ALL of their names, that would be insanity. But you’d be amazed how far knowing one or two names will get you (hint: take notes). After all, which sounds better: “Um…you. One of you idiots forgot to put my water in its place, and I go on in 20 minutes. Fix it.” Or: “Charlie, one of you – wait, it was…(checking your 3” x 5” card)…Lisa – forgot to put my water in its place, and I go on in 20 minutes. Can you fix it, Chester? Er, Charlie?” You see how much friendlier that is? It’s impressive, too. Why, ol’ Charlie will be so delighted that a star like you knows his name (even if it’s not actually “Charlie” – it’s the effort that counts) that he’ll ALWAYS make sure your water is in its place, and he’ll probably bitch-slap Lisa after the show. See? The circle of theatre is complete.

Congratulations, my friend. You have successfully achieved Diva Status, Theatre Division. Now stop reading this article, which was written by someone far beneath you, and charge up your cell phone – you’ve got auditions to attend!


rueful laughter


Why it’s Good to be Old.

Unless the Mayans were right (but their calculations were just a bit off), I will turn 40 this year. There was a time when ‘40’ = ‘OLD,’ and not just because I was a child…because 40-year-olds were grownups. They had careers, families, responsibilities, they talked about their cars and their mortgages and their lawns, they worked late and went to bed early. They wore fedoras, too, and not ironically. In fact, they dressed up a lot, and not just for funerals. They drank grownup-sounding drinks like Old Grandads, Rob Roys, Gin Gimlets, and Osteopolitans. They entertained themselves with “cocktail parties” and watched exotic shows like Laugh-In and Kojak. In short, they were mysterious, wizened creatures who did god-knows-what when 9:00 came and we were in bed.

But even though I’ve got the years, I’m not one of those creatures. I’m not 40 – I’m in my 23rd year of being 17. Seriously – have I really changed since then? Have any of us? I have the same fears and insecurities, the same interests, the same – well, I was going to say “wardrobe,” but that would be misleading, since my 1987 closet wasn’t exactly acid-wash or leather-tie free. But my taste in clothes is essentially the same – jeans, t’s and sweaters, the occasional crumply sport shirt or flannel. Maybe that’s symptomatic of my own personal Peter Pan Syndrome, but honestly, I don’t think it’s just me. Most of my friends-of-a-certain-age are simply aged teenagers, struggling to reconcile their grownupy responsibilities with their overwhelming urge to go play.

With that in mind, there are definitely advantages to being a crone, and they don’t just involve liquor. So here are a few great things about being a fogey.

Stay off my lawn.

1. I am never bored. Seriously – if I have a few hours to myself with nothing to do, I am blessed. I will browse the cooking shows, re-read Entertainment Weekly, or even sit silently. And I will treasure that break from my to-do list. Seriously, I pee on your boredom, son. (As long as my prostate isn’t acting up.)

2. I don’t need plans. Much of my teenage weekday energy was spent making sure I had something to do on Friday & Saturday night. That speaks more to my social status than my age, maybe, but still…the geeze in me has zero problem with a weekend on the couch.

3. I can do shit. Vague? Yeah, but still true. I can do shit right now, right away. Tattoo? Yep, I can go get one right now. New speakers? Done. I don’t have the money? I’ll wrack up debt (you know that line the grownups told you about how you’ll have to pay those credit cards eventually? It’s a lie, child! Buy tons & buy often). It’s not that I have no one to answer to, or no responsibilities. It’s that at some point, you realize you might not be quite as invincible as you once thought, and you stop thinking about doing stuff and you just…do it.

4. This IS my future. We’re always preparing for something. Preparing for the next school day, for your family, for your job, for your retirement. But again…it’s not until you’re in the middle of your life that you realize what you’ve been preparing for is RIGHT NOW. This might be a crushing disappointment to some, but still, the pressure of living day-to-day actually living isn’t nearly as daunting as the pressure of planning, of preparing, of trying to cover your bases.

And finally…

5. I don’t care. That’s a little misleading, but it’s catchier than the truth – I get to choose what I care about. In theory, I suppose we all do, but you youngins are constantly reminded that you must care about this, about that, about the world, the nation, disease & death, college, parents, friends, lovers, work, money money money…it’s tough, man. And the sad truth is, we don’t always have that much care in us. And somewhere around the time when our doubled age is deep into grandpa territory we realize that some things just need to drop from our care list. We don’t sweat it, either – someone else will pick them up. Someone else will worry about global warming (we’re all doomed, kids), Yemen, that friend who never calls, that increasingly large crack in the ceiling. This doesn’t mean we don’t worry – worry is a grain of fear in all of us, no matter how many years we’ve packed away. But there are few things as liberating as actually deciding NOT to care about something that was taking up room in yer heart. It’s a good thing, friends – that extra care gets refocused on the good stuff. You’ll see.

That’s it for now…I’ve gotta go do grownup stuff now, like buy something and shave places that really shouldn’t have hair. Peace out, whippersnappers.

rueful laughter


How to write a musical for fun and profit

Check THIS shit out. I’ll wait.

It could be fantastic. Seriously, it could. One of the great things about playwriting is that, in theory, anyone can do it. We’ve all seen plays, we’ve all had conversations, and to quote Captain Stillman, the only way to learn is to do it. And look who we have here: Stephen King, storyteller extraordinaire. John Mellencamp, who…ah…well, “Uh Huh” was a great album. And a bevy of talented and semi-hip singers. Should at least succeed as a great curiosity, right?

Of course, the playwright/composer in me is feeling a sensation of rueful laughter, dread, and out-and-out contempt (imagine Whatever Happened to Baby Jane-era Bette Davis chuckling over her fourth Rob Roy – that’s the feeling) that these non-theater punks think they can just waltz into my medium and cash in. After all, just because anyone can write a play doesn’t mean they should – playwriting is littered with failure, with unseen and unheard plays, with wonderful pieces of work that find themselves in a corner three pages from the ending with no way out. It’s taken years of mistakes for most of us to begin to understand the mysteries of the stage, to learn how to adapt story structure, to write dialogue that make actors look good, to use the very limitations of the stage to create worlds far larger than one can imagine – and the best of us STILL struggle to turn in a decent script.

Besides, look how many non-theater pirates have fallen on their rich little faces while trying to craft a play. Look at Tim Robbins – his satire Embedded is, by most accounts, a cartoonish bore, which came as happy news after I saw his obnoxious comments about theater on The Daily Show. And let’s not forget how Paul Simon turned himself into a theatrical cautionary tale with The Capeman. And while hiring Bono to write the music for a musical about Spider-Man SOUNDS like a great idea (if you’re on peyote, that is), early reports and delayed openings hint that epic disaster might be in the cards for Julie and the gang (the jury’s out, of course, but they’re salivating). It’s enough to make one treat themselves another Scotch. (Ah, Mr. Morangie…you beat out Miller, Close, and garry/ross as my favorite Glen.).

But still and all, I wish King & Kompany well. I’m not one of those who laments the brand-naming of Broadway – honestly, it would have died completely without Disney, so if Mel Brooks and big green ogres keep people buying tickets, so be it. Besides, sometimes our beloved boards DO need a good shaking up – look at Passing Strange and, before that, Hedwig and the Angry Inch – two shows that genuinely shook our idea of how to tell a story through music. Just because many of us find Stew’s contempt of musicals obnoxious doesn’t mean the man’s not a genius.

Still, though, I reserve my right to schadenfreude if Stephen and John discover that proficiency in one or two artistic mediums doesn’t necessarily translate to the stage. Besides, if it does fail, you know Uncle Steve will write a fantastic essay about it.