Sunday, August 28, 2005

365 days later

One year ago today, I exchanged vows with the love of my life. While holding a grinning Boston terrier. What more could a man hope for in this world?

I hope David knows what a remarkable man I think he is. There is no one who knows me as deeply as he does. We often read each other’s minds, just walking along. We can have intense conversations. We can be silent together. We’re so fortunate.

We’ve been together for coming up on four years now. It feels like we’ve always been together, and yet like we are still discovering one another.

As I obsessively watched the web feed from a Louisiana television station tonight, gripped with thoughts of the devastation that Hurricane Katrina is beginning to unleash, I wondered what we would do if we were suddenly forced to evacuate – if a hurricane were bearing down on Baltimore. I was heartsick reading that pets are not permitted in the New Orleans shelters – it’s too horrible to think about.

I know David and I would grab Goblin and do whatever we had to do to reach safety. I would hopefully tote my laptop along, as it is the repository of my life’s work so far, but if I had to leave it, too, I would. It’s terrible to contemplate that, with the way the world is going, the fact is that we may very well have to flee someday with only the clothes on our backs, and each other.

This seems to be a grim thought on a day which is an anniversary of a joyous ceremony, but it reaffirms the depth and seriousness of the bond. Sometimes all you have is each other. And a Boston terrier. And with that, you can make it through any dark and terrible night.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

That eternal thing that keeps us up at night

I'm working on one of my freelance writing projects that involved interviewing a number of people working on a musical that's opening on Broadway this fall. The piece will ultimately be read by students, so at the end of each interview, I ask whoever I'm talking with if he or she has any words of advice for young people who are interested in the arts. This is what the director of the show had to say (this is unedited, right off the tape.)

I think the most important thing is to know why. I know that sounds funny. What I have learned, I guess, over the years is that people who stay in theater stay because there’s something about them, something key about them, that can only come alive when they’re working in theater. It’s not about the glamorous things, or whatever. There’s something that is just essential about yourself, and that you want to keep telling stories, and you want to keep making that contact, or you want to keep designing the world of the play -- because you know that you are in your place, you know you are what you’re supposed to be when you’re doing that.

I think most of us, not to get too psychological about it, I think most of us on some level know that eternal thing that keeps us up at night, you know, keeps us awake, keeps us getting up in the morning. Because frankly, it’s not a glamorous business. There are glamorous moments. But in the percentage of the time you spend on a show, they’re very minor. It’s not that. But satisfying your need to connect is why you get up and do it. The rest of it falls in place.

One of the shows that I've written, and have seen through productions both wonderful and disastrous, is about that same idea -- that you have to find that eternal thing -- to find your place, when you know you are what you're supposed to be when you're doing that.

I feel like I've been on a track, this same track, since I was fifteen or sixteen years old. The words of this interview really resonated with me -- it's satisfying a need to connect (a different show of mine contains almost those exact words.)

So now, it's waiting for it to fall into place. I have faith.

But I'm waiting.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Violins on television

We went out to dinner with two friends: one has been enjoying her summer by perfecting her recipe for cherry pie, as she is preparing to enter the baking competition at the state fair; the other has been enjoying his summer by being pursued by all manner of men from coast to coast.

We ducked out of a gallery opening to the cheap and quirky Southwestern restaurant next door. As we waited for a table, Pursued Friend told me the story of the West Palm guy he was sort-of dating.

"He's fine and everything, and I'm sort of into him, but he does math."

As P.F. is also a schoolteacher (foreign language), I thought, oh, well, here we have a Romeo and Romeo story: can they bridge the differences in their respective subjects to find true happiness in the teacher's lounge? Does he talk in abstract concepts? Is he always graphing parabolas? Is he too fond of solving for x?

"So, wow, he's a mathematician -- he teaches math, or ... ?"

Blank look.

"Meth. He does meth."

Oh. That. Oh, yes. Bad. Well, that's completely different.

Never mind.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

A low hi-jink threshold

For some reason, I'm obsessed with hidden-camera "prank" shows. Not so much "Punk'd" although I've watched it (my loathing for Ashton Kutcher and his shtick outweighs my interest in the pranks.) I was hooked on "Candid Camera" way back when (when I was a kid, they had the syndicated version with Jo Ann Pflug. Pflug. Pflug. I just love saying it. Flooooog. The Pfff is silent.) I loved Candid Camera for it's clunky, Reader's Digest squareness.

When we first got TiVo, one of my first "Season Passes" was set for "Scare Tactics", with the frightening Shannen Doherty (since replaced by the even more frightening Stephen Baldwin.) I don't know, something about dumb twenty-somethings screaming as Bigfoot runs around their RV - I found it squirm-inducing and yet hilarious.

(Another weird bit of synchronicity: Both Pflug and Baldwin are apparently born-again Christians. Could they be just too comfortable with perpetrating fraud? Just wondering.)

The best-slash-worst moment in "Scare Tactics" was the episode in which the appearance of a little person made up to look like a genetic rat-man mutation sent the flitty prank victim into a fit of the screaming meemies. He was the gayest gay who ever gayed, and it was fabulous. "Aiiiieeee!"

David put up with my "Scare Tactics" addiction, but there was plenty of eyerolling. My latest find in the prank-show department was the appropriately named "Hi-Jinks", in which "parents prank their kids!" Each episode features a celebrity - Richard Kind as the world's worst waiter, Susan Sarandon standing in for her own wax figure and scaring the bejeebus out of a student tour group.

We have debated whether or not "pranking your kids!" is a fun family activity, or the cruelest thing ever. I had to watch the show, though, just after having spotted my younger self in the promos. One of the pranks involved a stuffed bear; parents bring the ordinary bear home, and after a few weeks replace it with a bear who talks (a hidden actor, watching the kids and the bear on video, supplies the voice, talking with the kids.)

Some of the kids just giggled when the bear piped up. One delightful child decided to beat the bear senseless. "Ow! Ow! Ow!" But Tiny Crumblord just fell right into conversation with Mr. Bear.

Bear: "Hi."

Tiny Crumblord (not at all surprised, but happy to have a new friend): "Hello!"

Bear: "What's for dinner?"

T.C.: "Chicken nuggets."

Bear: "Is that with that honey dipping sauce? I like that."

Then later, Tiny Crumblord has to convince his in-on-the-joke parents. "But he was talking to me, Mama!"

OK. There's a lifetime of cynicism and suspicion just waiting to happen, once he finds out the his new friend, Magical Bear, is instead the Bear Operated By Friends of Your Parents Who Just Want To Mess With Your Head.

I kept expecting my stuffed rabbits to talk. I almost demanded it. But, no.

There's something about seeing people's reactions to a pre-planned and controlled situation which appeals to me - which explains why I'm in theater, I suppose. It's also why I was always the Dungeon Master in our games of D&D, and why I love rigging up a haunted house when Halloween rolls around.

When I was around nine or so (well, it could have been ten or eleven, who remembers?), I spent a summer with my grandparents in Florida; one of my many cousins was also there, and he and I, being close in age, hung out together a lot. I think we must have been reading fantasy novels or comic books - or possibly have even been exposed to the late 70s early version of D&D. Anyway, somehow we started spinning stories about a big black crow that kept hanging out in a hollow tree near our grandparents' house. Somehow this evolved into leaving notes for the bird - I don't remember why. And of course, those notes would demand an answer, which I of course wrote and snuck into the tree, so as to keep our fantasy game going and make it more interesting. It certainly did that: when my cousin figured out that it was me, he got very mad. I couldn't believe that he'd actually believed it was all real. I couldn't believe he'd be angry just because I wanted the game to have some mystery to it. My uncle, who is just five years older than I am, smugly said, "Well, what a tangled web we weave ..." I couldn't explain that it wasn't like that, I never thought it was a deception, just a game that got out of control. We all want to believe in some magic or some mystery.

We won't be making a habit of watching "Hi-Jinks" - it's cute, and it's always fun watching Susan Sarandon pretend she's made of wax, but it doesn't push those buttons for me. Or maybe, for the Tiny Crumblord who wonders why his blue bunny never says anything, it pushes them all too well.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

This is how my brain works

Okay, just to give you some insight into the dustbunny rodeo that is my brain, here is the kind of trivia that routinely obsesses me:

In the 1967 Valley of the Dolls, the tiny, uncredited role of "Stage Manager" was played by an unknown Richard Dreyfuss.

In the 1981 television remake of Valley of the Dolls, the tiny, uncredited role of "Stage Manager" was played by an unknown Nathan Lane.

In 2004, Dreyfuss was hired to star in the London production of the musical The Producers, stepping into the role originated by Lane. He was later fired; the producers of The Producers claimed he was not physically up to the role. Lane was flown in to replace him. A very Valley of the Dolls-ish story.

In other news, meet Dennis Hensley, who is as obsessed with Match Game as I am. Click on his links to see his live recreations of Match Game, with Jennifer Elise Cox (Jan from the Brady Bunch movies) as Elaine Joyce, and Marcia Wallace as herself.

I knew I would love the site right from the opening page, which recreates the "Dynamite" magazine logo. I would always order "Dynamite" when we had our Scholastic Book sales at school.

You should also check out "Evie Harris: Shining Star" on this site, a sort of precursor to the movie Girls Will Be Girls - I rented this on a whim and it has become one of my favorites. The design is amazing - shot in the director's house, apparently.

And, trivia note, both Richard Dreyfuss and Nathan Lane were fired from their small roles as "Stage Manager" on the production. Weird.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

First whiff

While I was walking Goblin the Dog yesterday, fall blew around the corner. It wasn't too hot of a day, but still a little muggy and summery; a breeze came scattering leaves through the little street garden we were walking past, and it felt dry and chilly and quiet, like autumn. And today, you can definitely tell that change is in the air. There's an undertone of fall, even though the cicadas are still buzzing away. My brain is waking up from its summer slumber - a good thing, too, since school begins next week and it's time to get all professorial again.

When I first moved to New York, it was September of 1989; I didn't move until after Labor Day, but it was still warm and unbelievably humid. There was a day when I was walking uptown, and crossed the street, seemingly right through a cold front. On one side of the street, it was warm and muggy summer, and on the other, crisp, dry fall. You could actually feel the wall of cold air as it pushed its way downtown.

Around that same time, somebody took me to my first real cabaret in New York. It turned out to be a performance by a guy who had been a graduate student when I was in undergrad in Arizona. He was sort of a like a big blond football player type, and you wouldn't really imagine him doing cabaret. There he was, doing his act, intoning his "patter": "But hey, it's almost autumn. I love autumn."

And his next song was, of course, "Autumn."

It was my first inkling that, hey, not everyone in New York is really all that good. Whew!

But I did love that autumn.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Sparkle, Lisa, Sparkle

The weekend, I've been indulging in a guilty pleasure: watching Valley of the Dolls. Not the movie with Patty Duke and Susan Hayward; no, this is the 1981 made-for-television remake. It's sort of like binging on ice cream - really cheap store-brand ice cream that comes in a gallon bucket and has little ice crystals in it from melting and refreezing in the store.

(If you haven't seen the original, pry up that rock you've been dwelling under, and go rent it. You haven't lived until you've seen Patty Duke's rendering of the immortal lines: "Boobies! Boobies! Boobies!")

I'm only about an hour and a half through this four-hour extravaganza, but already I'm having flashbacks to 1981 (I actually caught this on television the first time around.) We hadn't quite shaken off the 70s at this point - in scene after scene I kept wondering, what the hell were people doing with their hair back then? Lisa Hartman stars as Neely O'Hara, who in this version is some kind of rock singer. She's done up in the baby-pink makeup colors of the time, with her hair brushed out like cotton candy. Her make-up artist-turned-boyfriend-slash-manager in this version is a Jon Peters-alike, who starts slipping her pills on the set of her debut film, a bizarro musical called "Fanfare." The few scenes we see seem like an implosion of the dancing sailorettes from "Anything Goes" with crappy seventies rock-combo lounge music. Crooning out tunes in a Captain Stubing uniform is none other than ubiquitious 70s game show host Bert Convy, as the doomed singer Tony Polar.

If you all refer to your texts, children, you'll remember that Tony Polar is the young, handsome singer who falls in love with showgirl Jennifer North, who discovers from his controlling older sister Miriam that Tony has a congenital disease which will shortly kill him, and will be passed on to the child Jennifer is carrying. Got it?

Well, the key words are young and handsome, and with all respect to Mr. Convy (who tragically died of a brain tumor), he was almost fifty at the time this was made. Carol Lawrence, playing his "I'm ten years older" sister, was actually only a year older. (The opening credit sequence has an odd shot of Ms. Lawrence; it's one of those credits where they show shots of all the actors as their name comes up. When they get to Carol Lawrence, it's a shot of the back of her head. You know she's going to do the "turn-around-and-act-surprised" thing that you see in these kinds of sequences, but the shot stays on the back of her head ... and she's not turning around ... just not turning around. I was wondering, is this role actually played by Carol Lawrence's stunt double? Or Cousin Itt? Finally, of course, she does turn around and act surprised.)

Jennifer North, played in the original by sweet Sharon Tate, is played by Veronica Hamel, Joyce Davenport from Hill Street Blues (recently reduced to spraying a white streak in her hair as Lily Munster in Meet the Munsters.) It's an odd choice. I think she's also a good actress (we'll overlook Beyond the Poseidon Adventure) but she's tough rather than innocent. And she does her best to generate some chemistry with Bert Convy, but that's above and beyond what almost anyone could do.

Another sign how times have changed: they made the daring choice to have Jennifer go for an abortion, at Miriam's urging, when she learns about Tony's condition. The scene in the hospital is short, with Jennifer dressed in a dark suit being led down a corridor by a nurse - actually well done.

Then Jennifer does what anyone would do, which is go lay around in a garret in Paris, getting drunk and high, until she is picked up by a glamorous blond lesbian painter.

The third lead is Catherine Hicks, who was the whale-keeper love interest in Star Trek IV, and currently the mother in "Seventh Heaven." She plays Anne Welles, played by Barbara Parkins in the original. In that version, Anne starts out as a "career girl" secretary and ends up improbably becoming a cosmetics model. In 1981, they actually had an interesting take on this character: she is a young entertainment lawyer who starts climbing the ladder toward studio mogul-dom, the way a lot of women did in the 80s. Her scenes involve a lot of discussion of contracts and options and distribution deals, and seem fairly accurate (unlike the bizarre movie she is helping to produce.)

I'm realizing that I'm making this movie sound not all that bad. Don't get me wrong. It is dreck, oh yes it is. The hair, the clothes, the awful pseudo-rock music: bleah. Strangely, they lured Dionne Warwick into singing the theme song -- she also sang the (different) theme to the 1967 original.

This show is also a classic example of how far the art of lighting has come: every scene has one strong, flat light, with deep shadows everywhere - classic TV lighting. In contrast, I just read an article about what goes into the cinematography of Six Feet Under, which has the most amazingly subtle and beautiful lighting.

Okay, if I'm critiquing the lighting, you know I'm in too deep here.

I have to get back to watching: Jennifer is with the blond lesbian, Neely has just won Best Supporting Actress while strapped into an outfit that makes her look like an escapee from Cirque du Soleil, and Ann is wearing sensible pleated skirts and being rejected by David Birney for not dropping her career to follow him across the globe.

Anybody want a spoon? There's plenty to go around.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Please excuse Crumblord

"... he had a tummy ache."

I have a note to explain my absence. It's signed by my mother (she's used to this sort of thing.) So what homework have I missed?

Although I was your usual little brainiac-genius, there were many periods when I just didn't like school. Usually it was fine, but every so often I just couldn't face it. My mother had a refreshingly direct attitude toward school - she has often said that the only reason she sent us to school at all was to make friends, as she suspected we were smart enough to be unlikely to learn anything there that we didn't already know. So, after a while writing normal notes like, "Please excuse Crumblord's absence, he had the sniffles," she decided to just tell it like it is.

"Please excuse Crumblord's absence from school. He did not feel like going."

This was received rather frostily by the school administration, but really, what were they going to do about it?

Occasionally my mother would drive me to elementary school - looking back, I cannot imagine why, as we lived literally across the street. This must have been my extreme procrastination kicking in. I remember one instance in particular when she, wearing a nightgown and robe, drove me to school in our white Datsun; she didn't just pull up in the front circle drive, but drove right up onto the sidewalk and deposited me in front of the office. These days, she'd be in danger of being some kind of Fox News Channel story. "Nightgown Mom Goes Beserk!"

Even in high school I was perpetually late and treading the line with absences. My sophomore year, the chemistry teacher had a policy that if you were late, don't bother coming to class. Luckily for me, I was a whiz at chemistry, because I missed the bell many times.

It all came to a head when I got into college, and no one was making me go to my early classes. So, I didn't go. After a high school career of As and the occasional B, I was flunking out of every class except my theater classes. What to do? It was a horrible combination of procrastination and sleep deprivation.

I still am a sleep junkie (8 1/2 hours is perfect for me if I'm caught up on sleep - otherwise it can be 9 or even 10 hours), but for many things I'm actually early. When I was having to commute to NYC from Baltimore on the days I was teaching, my train was at 5:30 in the morning. This got me into the city with enough time to eat a leisurely breakfast, read the comics page, and still be the first faculty member into class. (I hope I don't jinx it now. Eeesh.)

So, pardon my absence. I was doing many things - putting on a show, lecturing on a cruise ship (who knew people did such things?), recovering from a stupidly acquired sunburn, writing articles, having the summer blahs. For much of the summer my brain has felt like a gelatinous mass of uninteresting thoughts (most of which were variations of "When is Battlestar Galactica on?") But now I'm back. Lucky, lucky you.

Pssst. Can I borrow your notes for the quiz tomorrow? I swear I'll pay you back.