truth hurts


Forever seeking the “oh shit” moment

It’s a rare but transcendent sight in professional wrestling: the slow epiphany. Here’s how it works (or did when I watched wrestling, anyway – a period of my life that ended roughly 25 years ago):

Two wrestlers have teamed up to be on the “bad” side. Often, one of them is “foreign,” representing the enemy du jour (today, it might be a BP exec). A tag team match ensues, and after much drama and cheating, the bad guys have knocked out the ref and are mercilessly pummeling the good guys. Only…something’s wrong. One of the guys – the “foreign” one – is breaking the rules, the bond, whatever bound them in the first place. And then the crowd senses it. Something big. Something wonderful. One of the bad guys is just standing there, watching the other as he pummels his hapless opponent. He’s…troubled. He’s thinking. He looks around the arena – the crowd is building to a fury. The pummeling continues. He looks at his partner. The crowd sounds like a Concorde. We see it in his face…”this wasn’t part of the deal. This isn’t right. I’m…I’m better than this.” And then…it happens. He approaches his partner. He taps him timidly on the back. The partner ignores him. He does it again, more forcefully. The partner pushes him away. The crowd has never known bliss like this. Their throats will be sore for a week. They don’t care. The guy does it a third time. The partner stops the pummeling and faces him. Our man smacks his partner with the fist of a thousand furies. The partner is stunned, but doesn’t go down, so our man performs his signature move – preferably, a jump-kick to the chest – and his partner is out cold. The crowd will need to do laundry when they get home.

I write all this not just for the juicy (and not a little guilty) nostalgia, but because it occurred to me that the slow epiphany is a rare thing in entertainment. Instead, when we’re lucky we get something just as sweet: the sudden realization, an event I like to call the “oh shit” moment. Raymond Carver used to keep a 3” x 5” card on his wall with a quote from a Chekhov story: “And suddenly, everything became clear to him.” Carver liked the mystery behind the phrase, but I like visualizing that moment, when in a flash the subject saw the big picture clearly and it changed his life. Such a rich visual – he stops mid-speech, his eyes widen, his mouth opens a touch, and maybe, if we’re lucky, he even drops his coffee cup and it falls in slow motion, breaking as it hits the floor and Keyser gets away. Oh shit.

Say, this corkboard is made by Quartet! Isn't that a funny - OH MY GOD.

Does this ever happen in real life? We cling to our worldviews so tightly, we fight against anything that contradicts what we have chosen to believe, we barely listen to other points of view. We brag that we have friends with different political views, but we are careful to counter their arguments without really thinking about them, lest they dent our belief system. Perhaps we allow a change of heart now and then, but it’s a slow process. So here’s a case where professional wrestling is actually pretty true to life. Let THAT sink in for a bit. Still, even wrestling can’t afford to let things take a truly natural course. It would take too long to watch someone truly deliberate in real time – the audience would never stand for it. “Is he gonna turn on ‘The Libyan Liberator’ or not? Cause NASCAR is on in an hour.”

I yearn for one of these. Not cheap shots at wrestling fans – I already feel bad about that. No, it’s the epiphany I seek. The slow ones might be great for riling up the crowd, but I want one of the fast ones. I want to suddenly “get it,” to drop my glass (not if it’s full of Smithwicks, Samuel Smith’s, or anything that begins with “Glen”) and freeze for a moment while the implications of what I’ve just figured out wash over me.

In short: I want everything to suddenly become clear.

I don’t think that will ever happen. I’m too slow on the uptake, too careful, too considerate, too damn stubborn. Even if I did figure out in a flash that Verbal had just made up his whole story, I’d probably have another sip of coffee and say “Say, I just thought of something…you don’t think…nah.” Maybe eventually, in bed that night, I’d get as far as “Huh…that fellow may have snowed me.” But even then I’d fight it.

I know I’m not alone here. I’m sure I try to load my plays with epiphanies and “oh shit” moments to make up for the lack of them in my life. And why not? Some of the best moments of true drama are based on the Sudden Realization that Changes Everything. (Side note: I’m not talking about those movies where a clue is discovered and the killer’s identity is revealed. Those moments are supposed to happen, and while they’re generally fun, they’re not nearly as satisfying as the bombshell that rocks our hero’s world.) It’s a cliché, maybe, but when it comes about honestly, there’s nothing as jaw-droppingly satisfying as a great “oh shit.” (Yes, you can remove the “oh” from that last sentence and it still makes sense, maybe even more sense, but seriously…try to stay with me, people.)

But man, are they hard to do. They only work when the timing is just right – when the audience catches on just seconds after the character does. I’ve been successful once or twice – one of my favorites comes in The Trophy Wife, one of my early dramas. A couple – a man and his mistress – has plotted the death of the man’s wife, and the man lets something slip that allows the mistress to figure out that he has killed before. It happens as she’s talking – her sentence just stops midway, her mouth opens in horror, she drops her coffee cup in slow-motion (just kidding about that last part…I think). He starts talking again, she cuts him off and asks him a very direct question – and, hopefully, the audience figures out the answer at the same time she does and has to catch its collective breath.

So that one kinda works, but I’ve failed far more often than I’ve succeeded. For every successful “oh shit,” there are a dozen that fall flat, usually because the audience is already ahead of the character. Nothing more excruciating than waiting for the hero to catch up. Sometimes, the opposite is true – our hero suddenly “gets it,” but…gets what? Watch the movie of A Few Good Men and you’ll see Cruise suddenly figure something out, leave his meeting, drive to the victim’s place, look in the closet, and – EGAD! His clothes are still there. This clearly Means Something, but damned if can figure out what it is. He explains it to us later, but frustration has already set in: if we don’t get to share in the moment, what’s the point?

I’ll continue to seek the perfect moment of epiphany – in story, and in life. Since I no longer watch wrestling, I’m hoping to go the Chekhov route and experience a full-on, shameless “oh shit.” There have been some great ones in movies: “All’s you’d need is a target tracking system and a big spinning mirror and you could vaporize a human target from space!” “Johnny Ola knows these places like the back of his hand.” “(looks at penis of the girl he was just making out with).” Those moments are as iconic as they are rare, so naturally I long to create one – almost as much as I long to live one. (Well, maybe not that last one.)

So...THAT'S new.

Either way, once it happens, I hope I can actually act on it. Playscripts may not always reflect real life, but I think both need a jolt of cheap, impulsive drama now and then.

Besides, I have enough coffee mugs. I can afford to drop one.

I’ve become quite the Twirp lately – follow my Tweets!

truth hurts

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!


truth hurts


Songs I have been trying to rewrite for years

Every writer, every musician, every artist is basically a thief. We don’t mean to be, but we can’t help it. We create because we love, so naturally what we create resembles what we love.

Now, there are people who intentionally swipe someone’s words, music, and ideas and try to pass ’em off as their own. I’m not talking about these plagiarists, who are sad criminals indeed. I’m talking about the rest of us, who wear our influences on our sleeves, who create in a (probably) vain effort to capture that spirit that first drew us to the art we love. We may be thieves, but we’re thieves of passion.


Anyway, I just recorded a new album, All This Life, and it contains 15 songs that absolutely found their roots in other, better, songs. At this point in my old age, my thievery has created something of a pop-culture gumbo, a giant stew of musical contraband with too many influences (hopefully) to be traced to any one artist. In fact, it might someday be accepted as my own personal style. Until then, though, you can probably trace my creations back to any one of these wonderful songs, which are listed in no particular order (although the first song is undoubtedly first for a reason). There are hundreds more, but these are the first ones that popped (ha ha! “Popped!” Cause I’m writing about pop music!) into mind.

NOTE: I didn’t include certain songs that have informed my love of rock music from the start – “Johnny B. Goode,” say, or “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” or even the entire Beatles catalogue, because, well, that stuff has influenced EVERYBODY. Even Miley. Maybe not Justin.

“Back on the Chain Gang,” The Pretenders
Pretty much every song I come up with is my attempt to write “Back on the Chain Gang.” Chrissie Hynde hasn’t written a bad song yet, but even if she did, her delivery is so raw, sexy and honest that she could transform it into something sublime. But “Back on the Chain Gang” contains something so hugely emotional and transcendent that I get caught up in it every time. And oh, the song – a guitar lick at once jangly and melancholy (not to mention that amazing, descending triplet lead), a postpunk folk groove, a metaphorical lyric so sweet and mournful that it almost makes you forget the song is an upbeat rocker. Chrissie never overdelivers, and her restraint is as fascinating as the rest of it. I long to create something that contains so much emotion in such a pop-friendly package.

“Little Wild One (#5),” Marshall Crenshaw
Sweet, simple, and sexy, “Little Wild One” is a hard-rock screamer disguised as rockabilly pop. Crenshaw’s nifty ode to seething heartbreak seems so simple, but his delivery is full of such an intense, restrained passion that you cannot help but fall into it. Then you realize how well the melody blends with the lyrics – the high notes in the chorus just make the whole thing more emotional. And then comes the bridge, which almost feels like another verse, in which Crenshaw’s yearning can’t be contained in one vocal track – it becomes three. And the whole time, it’s a rocker with a great, twangy guitar. “Little Wild One” is everything pop/rock should be, and proof that the simplest melody and changes can allow for the most direct, intense communication.

Tie, “Vienna”/”A Matter of Trust,” Billy Joel
Billy’s The Stranger is the first album I remember buying on my own. I like to think I used my own money, but how does a 7-year-old make money, besides scanning the couch cushions every few hours? Anyway, I wore that sucker out, even if I generally tuned out on the last two tracks (and who could blame me). “Movin’ Out” was the song that attracted me, but more and more I was haunted by the gorgeous “Vienna,” which combined a folk-ballad aesthetic with enigmatic lyrics and a tough-as-nails delivery. To this day, I haven’t been able to figure out the mysteries of the melody, but I’ve written a lot of songs trying.

Meanwhile, “A Matter of Trust” is just the perfect pop song. Great groove, simple but effective changes, a fantastic, circular melody, and is there a better key for power pop than D? The weak production on The Bridge lessens the punch, but it’s there on 12 Gardens, Billy’s latest live album. It’s amazing – the groove is right there from the beginning, and there aren’t a lot of detours, but man, does it soar.

“Darling Be Home Soon,” The Lovin’ Spoonful
Simply the most romantic song I know. Sebastian and the boys start with a calm folk melody and capture what it means to be in love in such a beautiful and mature way that it still brings tears to my eyes – and best of all, there’s not a trace of sentimental pap. I’m still trying to learn how to build a song so honestly.

“Dried Up,” Ass Ponys
I love so many tunes by the Ass Ponys, the late, great combo from Ohio (which fortunately lives on, in a fashion, as Wussy), but I think “Dried Up” is the one I’ve been trying to catch up with the most. Like all the Ponys songs, it combines true Americana soul with a healthy dose of punk, and tells a novel’s worth of stories in just a few lines. It’s also painfully honest, a screed that captures the true, sad nature of nostalgia (“you’re moving like a poem/and it hurts to see you going”) like the best Carver story. Whenever I get caught up in my own metaphors (or, worse, “poetry”), I try to think of “Dried Up” and how so little can accomplish so much.

“Unsatisfied,” Replacements
I started listening to punk in high school, and fell in love with the fierce, stripped-down energy, the anger, and (of course) the huge chunky guitar chords. But it took the ‘Mats to teach me that true punk attitude and penetratingly honest lyrics with soaring melodies aren’t mutually exclusive. I suppose some churlish infidel could label this as a building block to “emo,” but really, it’s a burst of passion that just happens to kick ass.

“Don’t Wait Up,” Richard Julian
If you don’t know who Richard Julian is, I strongly suggest you stop reading this post right now and remedy that immediately. I was a fan of his even before I knew he grew up right down the street from me, and he just keeps getting better. Like all the best songwriters, he plays in all styles, from funk to blues to country. But while my favorite song of his changes every day, “Don’t Wait Up” is the one that continues to amaze me with how well it creates a mood, a time. Even before the line “there’s frost on Memorial Day,” you’re feeling it, thanks to the incredible guitar work and subtly descending melody. Every time I set out to write a new song, I think about how I can capture a feeling as well as “Don’t Wait Up.” Haven’t gotten there yet.

“Sleepwalker,” the Kinks
I’m not saying it’s my fave Kinks song, and it’s certainly far from their best. But at a time when I was just teaching myself to play guitar, that “Sleepwalker” lick – a variation of “Louie, Louie” (but then again, aren’t they all?) with a huge sound and a beat you can dance to – informed about 90% of my songs from the time. And even now, it reminds me that there is nothing like a great, simple, chunky chord sequence to kick off a 3-minute rock song.

“Buddy Holly,” Weezer
“Buddy Holly” is a simple, funny little pop song with the guitars turned up to eleven. As one who loves simple, funny little pop songs and guitars turned up to eleven, it was quite a revelation to hear one song that encompassed both. See also Veruca Salt’s “With David Bowie.”

“No One Like You,” The Scorpions
Okay, judge if you must, but I love this shit. I know the first line on my CD is “a winter’s tale plays in my head as I come undone,” but still…give me some crunchy power chords and a singer who knows how to wail about how chicks are hot and stuff and I’m one happy boy. And before they became the poster boys for wussed-out powerless ballads, the Scorpions fuckin’ ROCKED. And here’s how – they could switch from beautiful guitar ballad to pounding hard rock in the space of one song – thus, “No One Like You.” They never really got the respect they deserved from the metalheads, who like to poke fun at diminutive, balding Klaus Meine and his almost ridiculously high caterwaul (of course, those same lunkheads fawn all over Geddy Lee, who admittedly has better hair). But I love the Scorps because they brought a healthy dose of power chord punk to the scene; they were unafraid to mix complex, melodic guitar lines (“Still Loving You”) with the most basic, any-kid-can-play-that-after-one-month-of-lessons licks (“Rock You Like a Hurricane,” anyone?). So even in my most introspective shoegazer tunes, I’m always thinking about big, chunky guitar chords.

Rockin’ in the Free (if you steal it) World,

truth hurts


An ongoing list of overheard theater fallacies

I’m incredibly fortunate – I actually make money in the arts. As the administrator for a community theater and a published playwright, my paychecks are directly related to all things theater. It’s a wonderful thing.

It also lends me a particular perspective. I hear from all types, including eager young actors, cynical techs, disillusioned writers, egocentric directors – and you can pretty much switch adjectives and objects at will. And so when certain clichés start to take form, I have the advantage of placing them in a certain context. Thus, I present to you an ever-expanding compendium of theater fallacies. Have you said, or believed, any of these pearls of wisdom? I know I have.

“It’ll Sell Itself!”

Usage: We need a hit, so let’s produce ‘The Sound of Annie of Oz Grease Superstar.’ No worries – it’ll itself!
The Reality: No. It won’t.

There are certain staples out there that community theaters know – just know – will be successful. We learn this from experience. JCS always seems to bring the crowds, right? And hell, the grandparents alone will pay back the exorbitant royalties of Annie or Wizard of Oz – so bring on the moppets! But it don’t always work out that way. Sure, parents and grandparents will come see their precious little snowflakes, and rock musicals tend to bring out the curious non-theater types. But hoping the name alone will entice the crowds is a big mistake. After all, once a title is part of the zeitgeist, it’s probably been turned into a movie and produced into the ground by every theater in a 30 mile radius…so much of your target audience has been there, done that. Your particular production might be the greatest thing since that bass solo in “You Can Call Me Al,” but the name alone won’t be enough to entice the crowds.

And here’s the trickier part – the people choosing theatrical seasons are, by definition, “theater people.” They possess a certain taste and insight that much of our target audience does not. You and I can name the musical that won the Tony last year – can they? When it becomes available, we theatergeeks will jump all over it, but we’re not the ones buying tickets, we’re the ones auditioning and finagling our way into free seats. Things like “Tony and Pulitzer winning” look great in marketing blurbs, but they don’t translate into sales. And I won’t even get into the production itself, except to say word-of-mouth is a powerful tool…few things can kill a show like a cast who discourages friends & family from coming to see it.

So what DOES sell a show? Damned if I know. Damned if anybody knows. Hell, look on Broadway, where it’s all movie tie-ins and celebrities – even Disney can’t tell a hit from a flop until it’s way too late. On a local scale, the only thing that really seems to work is the unadulterated enthusiasm of the production crew itself. Seems that if the cast & crew love what they’re doing, people will come.

“If the cast & crew love what they’re doing, people will come.”

Usage: See above entry.
The Reality: Not so much.

I’m not saying it hurts. I’m just saying that no amount of cast loveydovey is going to promote a show. If said loveydovey translates into grassroots promotion – poster hanging, phone calls, impromptu street performances – it helps. But I’ve seen many shows that faltered despite the genuine enthusiasm of the cast & crew. Sometimes, the audience just doesn’t feel the love (in simpler terms, the show ain’t as good as the cast thinks it is). But often, I think those producing the show begin to assume their love is contagious, and will spill out into the atmosphere, enticing viewers like the smell of a bone entices Tex Avery dogs. It doesn’t. I’m thrilled for those in theater who have a wonderful experience – that’s what it’s all about. Now go hang some posters, willya?

“It’s all politics.”

Usage: You know why no one will produce my play and/or cast me? I don’t know the right people. It’s all politics.
The Reality: Yes, but not quite like you think.

Theater people are notoriously…unique. Think about what we do – we devote much of our lives to either pretending we are someone else or enabling others to pretend. At some level, we are constantly auditioning, showing someone our most vulnerable side so that they may judge us and decide our fate. Or, worse yet, we ARE the judges, watching person after person (often our friends, but not at that moment) parade their talents so that we can decide whether or not they fit into our “vision.” Our level of personal security is…oh, let’s say “skewed.”

Therefore, when things don’t go our way, it is very easy to blame the politics of theater. No one will produce my script because I don’t know the right people. They won’t cast me because I don’t have a chummy relationship with the director. And there might be some truth to the matter.

However, there’s an inherent surrender in comments like these. The truth is, theater – local or otherwise – is a small business, as the awesome Gary Garrison will tell you. If you don’t have connections, MAKE THEM. Lord knows I knew nobody in the playwriting biz when I started, and I can now count many amazing and successful writers among my friends…and those friendships have led to opportunities I never imagined. And really, all I did was send emails, go to productions whenever I could, and generally make an effort to connect with my fellow writers, to learn from them, to listen to them, and (especially?) to drink with them. I’ve had the luck and fortune to be able to travel, to take classes and seminars, to visit – granted, not everyone has that luxury. But isn’t that (along with odd abbreviations and kitty pics) what the internets are for?

And as for you actors & directors – yep. All things being equal, a director will choose someone they know & love over working with an unproven entity. Again, though – theater is a small, small world, and your rep, good or bad, will get around. Trust me. No one wants to work with people they…don’t want to work with, whether the gig is paid or volunteer. So how ‘bout your connections? Take a good, honest look at yourself and your history. Did you spend time complaining about the production to your fellow castmates, people who were actually having – or trying to have – a good time? Did you talk smack about your fellow actors to your friends, leaving said friends wondering what you’re saying about them to others? Were you obnoxious during auditions? A frequent absentee during rehearsals? (Let me tell ya, folks – if you must have a vice, make sure it ISN’T being the guy who calls in sick all the time.) Trouble-makers come in all shapes and sizes, and “insecurity” is no excuse…we’re ALL insecure, brother. When it comes down to it, them what duz the castin’ are going to choose the nice, supportive person over the talented painintheass every time. Politics? Not really. Just common sense. Being at the helm is a hugely daunting task – every move gets second-guessed, not least by yourself. Those of us who do it want to make things as stress-free as possible, and that means keeping the nasties at bay.

Now, this doesn’t mean there aren’t back-scratchers out there, just like there are in every gig. And it doesn’t mean good actors & writers aren’t getting screwed out of great roles & shows because those in charge had their blinders on. But if they’d rather work with an old buddy over you, hey – it’s their loss. And probably a theatrical venture you’d rather not take. In the meantime, please remember that the best, most lasting connections start by being friendly and supportive, even (especially) behind backs.

More shattered illusions coming soon to a post near you…