I wrote part of this in a comment to another entry, but thought it might of general interest to Hamilton and/or Sondheim fans, of whom I luckily have many on my f-list, so I pulled it out and expanded it. Er. A lot.

Hamilton makes fantastic use of repetition, especially of the repeated phrase whose meaning changes with context. The most striking uses of this are “I am not throwing away my shot” (sometimes just “my shot” or “shot”) and “Wait for it.”

The historic Hamilton occupies a specific spot in American common knowledge. In my experience, before the musical came out, if you asked the average American who Alexander Hamilton was, you’d get something like this: “He lived during the American Revolution. He was… Uh…. Secretary of the Treasury, I think? Something like that, anyway. He was shot and killed in a duel with another politician, Aaron Burr. [That is probably the only thing the average American knows or recalls about Aaron Burr.] Oh, yeah, and he's the dude on the ten-dollar bill.”

What both cracks me up and gladdens my history nerd heart about the sheer unlikeliness of the entire existence of this musical is that previous to it, Hamilton was not one of America’s iconic political figures, like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson (or, in terms of people who weren’t president, Harriet Tubman or Martin Luther King.) Nor was he obscure enough to be cool. He was in the exact "One of those dead white guys" zone where people interested in his period know a lot about him, because he really was important, but the average American knew exactly what was in my paragraph above, and no more. (If they’re a leftist, they may have the impression that he sowed the seeds of making America a plutocracy but probably didn’t intend that. Or that may just be me. If I recall correctly, my grandfather hated him for exactly that reason.)

But in popular consciousness, he was just above the level of someone like Paul Revere, where everyone can spit out “The midnight ride of!” upon mention of his name, and then, “Uh… He warned everyone that ‘The British are Coming!’” (Wikipedia has this note in his entry: "The British are coming" redirects here.) And that’s it. In general, no one who isn’t otherwise interested in that period (or economics/the Coast Guard/etc) has thought of Alexander Hamilton since high school. Whereas Americans who are otherwise not knowledgeable of history often have actual opinions on, say, Thomas Jefferson. (If you’re younger than me, you probably heard a lot about his slaves. If you’re my age, he had a sort of demigod status in high school history classes, which makes his takedown in the play especially hilarious.)

You notice that the duel figures prominently in common knowledge. People who know who Hamilton was at all always remember the duel. This is probably because 1) duels are cool, 2) Hamilton was the only important person in American history who was killed in one. (I guess unless you count Button Gwinnett. But I’m pretty sure nobody counts Button Gwinnett except autograph-collectors and people who enjoy unusual names. For the former, his signature is the rarest of any of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. For the latter, just FYI, a dude named Peru Italian Blackerby Ping served in the Kansas state senate in the mid-1800s.) Anyway, just in case you don’t know or forgot about the duel, Hamilton tells you about it right in the opening number. Miranda does not want that to be a surprise.

Burr shot and killed Hamilton, and every time you hear the word “shot,” that goes through your mind. And like any good tragedy, you know what’s coming but you want to scream, “No! Don’t do it!” So “wait,” in the sense of “stop,” also brings the duel to mind.

OMG, this got long )
rachelmanija: (Staring at laptop)
( Feb. 6th, 2016 03:20 pm)
I really think this song works best if you hear it the first time not knowing it's coming. So I'm spoiler-cutting the entire entry. Once again, "Hamilton" refers to the character in the play, not the historical person, unless I say otherwise.

Read more... )
Due to being sick, by the time I even heard of Hamilton, the Broadway hiphop musical about Alexander Hamilton, it was the hottest thing ever and its fans were pushing it with so much zeal that I was actually put off. I figured it could not possibly live up to the hype.

Also, except for Sondheim, I'm not a huge musical theatre fan, and though I am a history nerd, I'm not much into American history in general, except for the Vietnam war and to a lesser extent the 1930s and 1940s. I find Hamilton's period particularly uninteresting. Hamilton would have to be a staggering work of heartbreaking genius to get me to like it at all. Previously, Gore Vidal's novel Burr, which is indeed pretty great, was the only work set in that period which I liked or even did not find excruciatingly boring.

So I am a little hesitant to put up a post which is inevitably going to make non-converts feel the exact same way I did, and make them even more reluctant to try it. However…

I consider Sondheim to be the genius of American musical theatre. In my opinion, no one has ever even come close to matching him, so far as my personal taste is concerned. Sweeney Todd is my favorite of his plays, and I also think it's objectively his best, insofar as that can be objective. I say this not to say that Hamilton is like Sondheim (though it does have noticeable Sondheim influences) but to explain my own personal standards when I say that Hamilton is the only musical I have ever heard that I think is as good as, and I already love as much as, Sweeney Todd.

I now see why Hamilton is so popular in fandom circles, and why its fans are so enthusiastic. For one thing, no one is going to listen to the whole thing if they don't like it early on, and it seems to be something that either people love or are totally indifferent to. So you only hear from the fanatical fans - everyone else didn't even finish it.

That aside, Lin-Manuel Miranda pretty clearly identifies with his own character of Alexander Hamilton. (When I mention Hamilton, I mean LMM's character, not the actual historical guy.) He wrote him as an immigrant and a writer, a man who came from nothing and fought his way up, a man who ran off at the mouth and was told off for thinking he was the smartest in the room (because he often was). He wrote Hamilton as writer, and as a misfit whose intelligence annoyed others even as it made him notable. No wonder so many fans identify!

I have never identified with a fictional character as much as I identified with Hamilton in certain songs and lines. One song in particular is not only a beautiful song, but is about the defining act of my life - the one moment, if I had to pick just one, that sums up the core of my self. It's a song about what makes me who I am.

I've written about that too, but Miranda wrote it in music, which I could never do. He wrote lines that I could never write, not because he's a better artist than me (though he probably is, and I say probably because, like his Hamilton, I do generally think I'm the smartest in the room so I'm not sure) but because only he could write them, just as only I could write what I write. Lin-Manuel Miranda's surely never even heard of me, but he wrote my soul into a song and put it on Broadway.

I assume that's because it's his soul too. I think it's the soul of a lot of writers and artists. Though the particulars are directly applicable to me in a way that's really unusual, and I would not be surprised if some of you have been biting your tongues not to say, "Rachel, you HAVE TO listen to Hamilon because you will identify SO MUCH, let me link you to this one song that is SO YOU."

I heard that song and I was glad that I lived long enough to hear it. I felt as if, had I died the day before, what I would regret most was that I never got to hear that song. I felt that way when I saw Sondheim's Assassins and Sweeney Todd, when I saw The Kentucky Cycle on Broadway, when I saw the first X-Men and Lord of the Rings movies, when I went to Japan for the first time and saw monks practicing kyudo in Kita-Kamakura and autumn leaves falling at Eikan-do temple.

Again, this isn't about my taste and whether it matches yours - it's about that shock of joy at something you experience for the first time, and fall in love with at first sight. It's as if you exist solely so you could experience that moment.

I'm not going to name the song because I managed to be unspoiled for the show, and so it came as the most amazing, poignant surprise. Maybe it will be for you, too.

(I'll talk about it later, in a spoilery post, along with other spoilery things. Obviously the historical events are known; I'm talking about artistic moments, and there are many delicious surprises there which I don't want to ruin.)

If you are unfamiliar with Hamilton, I think watching these two videos will tell you if you'll like it or not. I think if you don't like these, you probably won't like the rest either. I suggest that you watch the videos in this order. They both should actually be watched, as one is a performance and one includes lyrics.

Lin-Manuel Miranda performs an early version of the opening number at the White House

My Shot

The entire thing is streaming for free at Spotify.
Lin Manuel Miranda performing the opening number of Hamilton - his history geekiness is so endearing.

The whole thing on Spotify for free.

I am slowly listening to this. It's very dense, especially since I'm not familiar with that period of history other than reading Gore Vidal's Burr and getting briefly obsessed with the duel and the question of who shot first (Burr. Also, Hamilton's shot went wild because he'd been hit, not because he deliberately fired into the air, give me a break) and I just have the album - there doesn't seem to be a video available. It's pretty great though. If you like Sondheim, you would like this. I'd say listen to the first three tracks (through "My Shot") and see if you like it. I love the way it combines hiphop with Broadway, both lyrically and musically. It's really clever and catchy.
One of the worst jobs I ever had was as PA (Production Assistant) for a company that shot commercials. I ran errands for up to eighteen hours a day for sixty dollars a day. One night I got so exhausted that I fell asleep while driving back from a shoot, and woke up six lanes over, still moving at sixty-five miles per hour. Then I found what I thought was a good parking space in front of my house, parked there, and collapsed. The next morning I discovered that the space had been empty because it had a fire hydrant, and my ticket wiped out my entire earnings for the day that had almost gotten me killed. I quit.

But before that happened, I arrived at office early one morning and opened the lobby door. The lobby was typically packed with actors if auditions for the next commercial were being held, so it was no surprise to me to find it full. But to my shock and horror, this morning it was full of clowns! Clowns of all genders, shapes and sizes! Clowns in full makeup and costume! Clowns sitting in every chair, clowns leaning against the walls, clowns gesticulating and twisting balloon animals!

Up until that moment, I had thought the phrase “reeled back in horror” was a figure of speech. I reeled back in horror, fetching up against the door. Then I yanked the door open, fled for my life, and slunk back into the office via the rear entrance.

This was in the mid 1990s, when commercials were even more surreal than is common nowadays. I frequently saw commercials where I never even figured out what was being advertised. This may or may not explain why Holiday Inn commissioned a TV spot in which three dwarf clowns and a great big fat clown chased a tall skinny bald clown through a Holiday Inn.

“Every lobby has free computer access,” explained a portentous voice as the clown chase hurtled through the lobby and past the computers. As the skinny bald clown raced across the surface of the swimming pool, and his clown pursuers fell in and then floundered after him, the narrator added, “All our swimming pools are fully heated.”

What if the house was filled with his evil clown confederates?! )
This one's short but sweet.

I was stage managing an evening of short plays by the playwright I hate more than any other, John Patrick Shanley. How do I hate him? Let me count the ways:

1. Except for portions of Moonstruck and the one brilliant line in Joe vs. the Volcano, "The lights! They're sucking out my eyeballs!" his writing sucks. It is cheap, pat, phony, overly slick and mannered, and twee.

2. His plays exemplify the "Nice Guy" phenomenon, in which a certain type of man always complains that women reject him because he's a nice guy and they want abusive assholes, when the real reason they reject him is because he's whiny, passive-aggressive, smug, self-righteous, and sexist. Similarly, many of his plays give lip service to feminism while portraying women as brainless bimbos who secretly long to be dominated.

The worst example of this was in some play of his in which a woman shows up with a black eye, and tells her female friends that she and her husband got in a huge fight, she deliberately pissed on the bed, and he punched her. But that cleared the air, and now they love each other more than ever! The friends are horrified and say that she should leave him. She retorts that if feminism is really about letting women make their own choices, then it shouldn't deny her true and meaningful experience. BAAARRRRRRFFFF.

3. In college, some of my friends and I got tickets to see his four-person play, Four Dogs and A Bone. Every minute was torture. A few days later, we were at a restaurant when we overheard a man at another table saying, "The actors were good, but the script was so bad, it was like watching four guys trying to lift a Mack truck."

I said, "Excuse me, but are you talking about Four Dogs and a Bone?"

He was.

Anyway, there I was, stage managing his abominable play. The lighting designer had over-designed given the electrical capacity of the theatre, so I constantly had to unplug and re-plug plugs at the patch bay to get it to work. The patch bay was under the lighting board in a very small space, so if I managed to not stick my finger in the socket, I'd bang my head instead. It was torture.

The only bright spot was the hot light board op with whom I shared the very small booth. He was a tall skinny black guy with a shaved head and the sort of banked intensity which romance novels often describe as "smoldering." We didn't have much time to talk, as we both came to the production late, but we worked well together and our brief conversations had been quite congenial. I decided to cunningly sound him out to see if he had a girlfriend (or boyfriend.)

"Soooo," I said one night, "You ever go get a drink after a show?"

"I don't drink," he said.

"Ah," I replied. "Hmm." I was about to suggest a snack instead, but he was already on a roll:

"I don't drink," he repeated. "I don't go to bars. I don't go to clubs. I don't dance. I don't take caffeine. I don't smoke. I don't do drugs. I don't eat meat. I don't have casual sex. I don't get piercings. I don't party. And I don't do small talk."

"Really, no small talk..." I mused. "How does that work when you go on dates?"

Even before he spoke, I knew what his reply would be: "I don't date."
I was once hired as the stage manager for a professional production of a new, avant-garde German satire, which was to premiere in the USA after a production in Germany. The German director and one of the German actresses were coming with it, but the rest of the cast was American. In the first scene, lights came up on the male lead lying on his back in the middle of the stage, masturbating. It was that sort of play.

The German director and actress (who was also his girlfriend) were fantastic: talented, charming, and all-over lovely. The leading American actor, who was responsible for my presence, was also a good guy. Unfortunately, that left the remaining American actors: the leading actress, the second-lead actress, and a male character actor.

I liked the male character actor up until opening night, when he gave me a token of his affection, tucked into an envelope along with a kind note thanking me for my work. It was a Xeroxed page of racist jokes.

The leading actress was quite famous from having played the wholesome, all-American, and perfect Mom on an old, long-running, wholesome, all-American TV show. Lest she find this and sue me, I will not use her real name, but rather a pseudonym. I’ll call her Mrs. Dalton. She was an evil harridan who took pleasure in making everyone around her miserable. Once she stomped out of a rehearsal, and I had the surreal experience of chasing her through the halls of the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, screaming, “Get back in here and finish the rehearsal, or I’ll report you for breaking your contract!”

The second-lead actress—I’ll call her Marlene-- was well-known in Los Angeles as an acting teacher. It wasn’t that she was a bad human being. It was that she could not remember her lines. The day before the opening, she had still not learned her lines. On opening night, she jumped ahead twenty pages. I prayed, “Please please please let someone else notice and get her back on track!” But, as if they were hypnotized, everyone else continued from where she had jumped to. But the part she had skipped contained crucial information without which the entire rest of the play made no sense.

So I decided to call a cue that would be an unmistakable signal to the other actors to go back. But I had to talk the light and sound people through this, because they were now completely lost, and it involved jumping five pages forward from where we were supposed to be. But at least it wasn’t twenty pages forward. And it was the only thing I could think of that would definitely force the actors off their current track. But by the time I’d gotten the techs ready, they actors had all continued on from the wrong place for several minutes and were now twenty-five minutes away from where they should be.

I called the cue. In the middle of Marlene’s sentence, the lights blacked out on everyone but Mrs. Dalton. A spotlight shone into her pop-eyed and horror-struck face, and treacly piano music began to play. With an audible gulp and in what was clearly a programmed response, she began the monologue that went with the cue. When it was over, the rest of the play continued as it was supposed to go. Unfortunately, however, when it got to the five minutes that we’d already been through, we were forced to go through the entire thing again.

The centerpiece of the entire play was a very long family dinner scene. The director decided to have the sole food be a life-size bull’s head, horns included, made entirely of crimson Jello. Mrs. Dalton hacked off great slabs and hurled them, quivering, onto everyone’s plates. It was pretty funny. Especially since the prop woman kept screwing up the recipe. One time she forgot to put in the sugar, which made the actors all make dreadful faces, gulp down their mouthful, and take no more. Another time she put in too much gelatin. They didn’t react to this when they first bit in, but slowly, as their mouthfuls turned first to pebbles, then to sand, and then to dust, without ever dissolving into a substance they could swallow without choking, they each gave up and spat it out.

The stage hand was an arrogant jerk. When we did a scene change during intermission one night, when I thought the audience had all gone to the lobby, he refused to obey my instructions on how to get a large piece of furniture through the door. It slammed into the set, knocking off a large piece of plaster.

“Do it MY WAY, you fucking idiot!” I shrieked. “YOUR WAY just destroyed the set!”

When we emerged onstage with the furniture, we were greeting with a round of laughter and applause from the audience members still in their seats.

And then the house manager tried to create a lawsuit )
The play I was stage managing was Maria Irene Fornes’ Mud, which deserved a better production than it got. I kept getting lines from it stuck in my head, due to its hypnotic, rhythmic quality: “What do you do when you open your eyes? I work, jerk!”

It’s about a woman who gets involved with two men; one of them shoots her in the end. For reasons that I don’t recall, the director decided to build a small shack to perform it in, and seat the audience inside, on benches up against the walls.. I was stationed outside to do sound effects and so forth. This was at UC Santa Cruz, which is itself built in the middle of a big redwood forest.

I had to mix up a bowl of stage blood every night, and sling it over the actress playing Mae when she dashes outside. She is then carried back in, soaked in blood, and dies onstage. The night before the play opened, I heard the actress in soft, intense conversation with the director. I listened at the door because I’m the sort of person who listens at doors, and also because it is often a danger sign when Method actors get into intense private conversations with the director.

“I’ve read that when people die… well,” said the actress. “They… um… lose control.”

“Yes?” said the director in a tone far more encouraging than I would have used under the circumstances.

“So… when I die… Should I?”

“Should you what?” asked the director, now sounding a bit less encouraging.


There was a long pause.

“Well…” said the director. “If you really feel it…”

I flung open the door. The guilty parties recoiled guiltily.

“If you pee, you can clean it up yourself,” I informed the actress.

The actress decided that she was unlikely to feel it to that extent.

Earlier in the play, I had to reproduce puking noises when one of the actors goes out and is supposed to be barfing into a toilet. I did this by slowly pouring a large can of chunky chicken soup into a pan of water, while the actor stood next to me and made vomiting noises. (He clearly did not feel it to the extent of actually puking.)

These props and the rest not pre-set onstage were all on a big table outside. Since everything right outside could be heard inside, I decided to open the can of soup before the play began. This worked fine the first night, to which only one audience member showed up and so the director had to go and offer to give him tickets for a later performance, pointing out that it might be weird and uncomfortable for him to be stuck alone in a shack with three actors emoting for his sole benefit. He said he’d be fine, to the annoyance of the actors, who did feel weird and uncomfortable.

The next night, I suddenly heard a stealthy lapping noise. I looked over and there, two feet away, was a big fat raccoon, sitting on the prop table and drinking the soup. I was in a quandary. If I so much as shooed it, the audience would hear. I waved my arms at it. It ignored me. I found a 2x4 (we were near the prop shop) and levered it off the table. It glared at me, then waddled away.

The next night I turned my back for a minute… and heard a stealthy lapping noise. The raccoon was back, drinking the soup again. And this time, it had brought a friend. I once again made use of the 2x4.

The next night I weighted down the soup can and watched the table like a hawk. Suddenly, three raccoons materialized. They stared at me for a while, then left when I wielded the 2x4. The next night, there were six. This time they queued up. I was hard-hearted and did not give them any soup.

If the play had continued running, the raccoons might have achieved enough numbers for a jury. As it was, the shack stayed up long after the play closed, and I am pretty sure some of them moved in.
The theatre department at my high school was entirely inhabited by a theatrical in-crowd, which largely overlapped with the generally popular kids. So I was never involved with it until its teacher retired and the entire theatre crowd quit en masse. Seeing an opportunity to do something where I wouldn't be a total misfit, I promptly signed up for theatre with the new teacher, a young guy who I will call Dan.

Dan, who had an entirely new group of students to work with, was sweet but perhaps not the sharpest knife in the drawer. He decided a very appropriate play for high schoolers would be "Snow White." Since the Disney version is copyright, these dwarves were named Wicky, Blicky, Flicky (etc) and Quee, the shortest of them all. I was Quee. Of course.

Snow White was a bit of a diva. She did not like the Prince, she did not like the dwarves, and she especially did not like me. She was supposed to be kind and loving to the dwarves-- the dwarves often commented on how very kind and loving she was-- but in all her interactions with us, her utter loathing was quite visible. And every time the Prince hugged her, she curled her lip and held herself away. (The Prince was a block of wood who could not pronounce "beloved" with three syllables. Unfortunately, he had a lot of lines addressing Snow White as "My be-loved.") The dwarves did not like me either. I think the only people who liked me in high school were the librarians, the chemistry teacher, the art teachers, and Dan.

Apart from the fact that the play was terrible and only the Wicked Queen could act, we also had some technical issues.

One was that Snow White was supposed to be carried in "in a coffin all made of the clearest crystal," as it was repeatedly described in dialogue. But Dan didn't know how to do this, so the coffin was all made of the opaquest plywood. But he refused to alter the text, claiming that no one would notice.

There was also quite a lot of scenery on wheels that took forever to maneuver, in long, long, long, interminable, noisy blackouts.

But the worst problem was the mirror. The mirror's dialogue was recorded. But due to some glitch, the words were completely incomprehensible, though you could hear the inflections quite clearly. It sounded exactly like the teacher in the Charlie Brown movies: "Wah wah wah wah wah? Wah! Wah WAH wah wah."

Dan insisted that everyone would be able to understand it. The Wicked Queen, during the actual performance, simply repeated everything it said:

Wicked Queen: "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?"

Mirror: "Wah WAH wah wah wah wah wah wawww."

Wicked Queen: "Snow White's the fairest of them all? NOOOOO! Not Snow White!!!"

There was a scene in which I was supposed to get dunked in a water barrel. But since we only had one costume, they were supposed to pour a bucket of glitter over my head, not water.

Did I mention that no one liked me?

On the night of the performance, with evil glints in their eyes, the two dwarfs, whom I will call Jim and Sue, dumped a full bucket of water over my head.

It so happened that there was a scene change right after that. The lights went down. I leaped out of the barrel, grabbed Jim by the collar, slammed him up against a large piece of plywood hedge on wheels, and punched him in the face. (It's possible that there were reasons why no one liked me.)

"It wasn't my idea!" gasped Jim. "It was Sue! Stop hitting me!"

With a snarl, I flung Jim to the floor, and dashed off in pursuit of Sue-- now vanishing backstage. I caught her and punched her. She said, "It was just a joke. You can't HIT people over a JOKE."

"I AM hitting you over your stupid joke!" I yelled. But it occurred to me that she had a point.

I dashed to the costume shop, ripped off my soaking wet costume, flung on another and totally random costume, and bolted back around the pitch-black backstage area to get to my next scene on time... And tripped and fell headlong into the coffin made all of very hard and very sturdy wood. The edge of the coffin slammed right into my solar plexus and knocked the wind out of me. I lay sprawled in the coffin, unable to breathe, thinking incredulously that I could not possibly die from running backstage, right? Right? Then I regained the ability to breathe, and lay there gasping like a beached fish for a while. Then I remembered that I was undoubtedly late for my entrance.

I leaped up, hauled ass in a slightly more cautious manner, and skidded onstage. There, to my surprise, I found myself face to face with Snow White. I had missed my entire scene and interrupted the next one, which was her solo monologue. We stared at each other.

"What are you doing here?!" she shrieked. "You're ruining my scene! Go away!"

"Er," I said. "I beg your pardon. I had to... er... find new clothes... since mine were drenched... in a stream... that I fell into. Goodbye!"

I ran offstage. Only then did I remember something that the script had earlier made quite a point of: alone amongst the dwarves, Quee did not speak.

The next morning I learned that the lights had malfunctioned along with everything else, and instead of a real blackout, they had merely dimmed. The entire audience had seen me slam Jim into the scenery and clock him. I'm sure that was the highlight of the play as far as they were concerned. It certainly was for me.
rachelmanija: (Princess Bride: You keep using that word)
( Nov. 4th, 2007 05:57 pm)
In a recent conversation in which we talked a bit about slang terms for women's genitalia, I was reminded of the story of the Snatch Song. It was told to me by an old theatre professor, Gary Gardner, who specialized in playwriting and musicals, and I will now share it with you.

There is an old musical, The Fantasticks, which has a song about a kidnapping, but inexplicably, instead of using the word "kidnap," they use "rape." It was written in the 1940s, I think, but that is still bizarre. It's otherwise nauseatingly wholesome.

Gary was asked to come critique a rehearsal of this musical, which was done at a Catholic boys' school, before it opened. There he discovered that, feeling that the word "rape" was too risque, even used in a non-sexual context, the director, who was a monk, has substituted the word "snatch."

Twelve-year-old boys are singing:

A pretty snatch!
A literary snatch!
An obvious open schoolboy snatch!

Gary told me that the most embarassing moment of his entire life was taking a monk into the men's room and explaining to him what snatch meant.
If you all haven't been reading the comments to my entry on the worst and/or most embarassing plays I've ever seen, in which other people recount their experiences with same, you are missing the best part. "I still have no idea why the Duke in Measure for Measure was four vampires."

This tale, like the one about Delbert's masturbation monologue, concerns a play that was not incompetent, but rather embarassing, over-the-top, pretentious, and ostentatiously shocking. But this one requires background.

When I was getting my MFA in playwriting at UCLA, I and the other six students in my class took a seminar on playwriting from the legendary professor Leon Katz. (ETA: Added link to his website. Please do not e-mail him with a link to this post...) Leon was a majesterial gentleman with a deep voice and a white beard, rather like King Lear. He was brilliant and famous and avant-garde. One day in class he began telling us about the most profound theatrical experience he had ever had.

"It was in the sixties, of course," he said. He went on to describe what struck me as a pretentious, touchy-feely, anti-war, hippie play. It sounded awful. But Leon was obviously deeply moved by the memory, and the class was very small-- ten or twelve of us sitting around a table-- so we all sat in respectful silence. "And at the end, the actors all stripped naked. And, in a gesture of solidarity, so did the audience. And then we all left the theatre together, and marched out into the New York streets, stark naked."

"HAW-HAW-HAW!" The laugh exploded out of me like a small bomb, entirely without my consent.

Leon turned on me. Leaning across the table, he hissed, "You post-Reaganite philistine, you make me sick!"

I forget what happened then, but I think I may have had to leave the room to recover, as I am prone to hysterical laughter. I do remember that I was utterly unable to make any response to Leon other than gulp snarf!

This incident became legendary in the theatre department. Years later people were still saying to me, "Oh, so you're the post-Reaganite philistine."

Anyway, toward the end of the seminar, Leon invited us all to a staged reading of a play he had written. It was called Swellfoot's Tears, and it was a re-telling of Oedipus Rex set in a concentration camp. Because otherwise it would be too cheerful, I guess.

We all showed up at the now-defunct bookshop Midnight Special for the reading, which was held in a back room with no door. That is, it was totally open to the rest of the bookshop, and any browsers in the back could see and hear the entire play.

Leon was reading the stage directions. In his grand voice and with great relish, he declaimed, "Center stage is a ten-foot pillar of shit that drips blood."

I realized then that this was going to be another exercise in stifling the hysterical cackles that longed to emerge.

Leon continued, "Enter Big Pink Cunt."

For a moment I thought that was a prop, but when the actress began to speak, I realized that it was her name. The characters all had names like that, resulting in lines like, "Hey Big Pink Cunt, bring me Jack Off In My Ass!"

Then followed two hours of abuse, degradation, violence, misery, and shit that dripped blood. The audience squirmed. The actors, however, appeared to be having a great time. I don't think I've ever heard actors project so well. Innocent bookstore patrons kept drifting toward the back, whereupon they would either flee instantly in horror, or else hang about for five minutes in incredulity, then get bored and drift away.

I have always wondered if that play ever got a professional production. If so, I bet the stage manager just hated having to deal with the shit that dripped blood.
I was going to do a post on "the five worst plays I've ever seen," but then I realized that some of the most entertainingly bizarre live theatrical events I've witnessed from the audience (as opposed to having been involved in the production) were not bad, exactly, or not entirely so, but more misconceived, over-ambitious, better suited for a different audience than the one that was actually present, or just plain strange.

If you enjoy this post, I would be thrilled if, in your own journals or in the comments here, posted on your own five most peculiar theatrical experiences when you were in the audience.

5. Delbert's one-man show. I don't remember what the name of this was, but when I was in grad school for playwriting, the seven playwrights in my class attended the thesis production of the grad acting class, in which fifteen or twenty of them performed ten-minute one-person shows that they'd written themselves. After ten or so well-acted, competently-written performances on the theme of "My childhood sucked, but I forgive you, mommy/daddy," we had been lulled into a sense of security. And then came Delbert.

He was a scrawny platinum blonde who looked like a British punk rocker, who proceeded to give a performance of burning intensity on the theme of his complex and tormented relationship with masturbation. He delivered his lines in a deliberately stilted manner, with emphasis in unusual places, and he had a sound system set up so that sometimes a recording of his voice would echo his last few words.

Delbert: Sometimes I go to a porno shop to buy my porno mags. Sometimes I take my porno mags home. But sometimes I just can't wait. Then I sneak behind the shop, into an alley, and then I rip off the covers and masturbate. (Pause.) I wonder why I do that.

Delbert on tape: Do that, do that, why I do that.

Delbert: Sometimes I stick my finger up my ass when I masturbate. (Pause.) I wonder why I do that.

Delbert on tape: Do that, do that, finger up my ass, ass, ass.

I should mention at this point that I and the other six playwriting students were sitting in the front row of a very small black box theatre, approximately two feet from Delbert and his finger. I was sitting next to Lori, an extremly sweet evangelical Christian who did not, as she put it, "cuss." When the lights went to black, without consulting or even looking at each other, all seven of us, like a single organism, leaped up and fled the theatre.

4. The tongue play. This was also during grad school, and was a play written by a playwriting grad student who was not in my class. It was about a man who had no tongue.

It was deliberately unclear whether he had lost his tongue to tongue cancer or whether his daughter had bitten it off when he stuck it down her throat. It was also unclear whether he had actually molested her, or whether he was insane, or where the play was taking place, or whether Tongue Man was imagining the whole thing and did, in fact, have a tongue. Yeah, it was pretentious, but on a line-by-line basis, it was actually pretty well-written. The reason it goes on this list is that it was practically a one-man show, and it was performed in entirety as if the actor had no tongue.

Imagine two hours of "I' I 'o-eh-eh ou, I ah o 'ah-ee." You could mostly figure out that he was saying something like, "If I molested you, I am so sorry," but... Two hours. Of no tongue.

In what will become a recurring theme in these stories, the grad playwrights fled the scene without congratulating the playwright, and then convened in the women's bathroom to speak without tongues and laugh maniacally.

3. The head play. This was some very famous classic German play, and I cannot for the life of me recall which one. (ETA: Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening.) A bunch of us, this time undergrads, drove out to see a mutual buddy star in this extremely long production as an emo young man who spends the whole play moping and contemplating suicide. I realize that this could also describe Hamlet, but at least Hamlet has sword fights.

For two hours and forty-five minutes, it was merely long and dull. Then the hero meets a ghost, a buddy of his who had blown off his head. The way this was portrayed was that the chest and shoulders were built up in a frame over his actual neck and head, and he carried his head under his arm. However, his voice clearly emanated from the middle of his chest.

This struck us all as hilarious, but since there were eleven of us in an auditorium that seated 300, and we all knew the star, we stifled our laughter until the ghost tossed the hero his head, exactly as if he was doing a basketball lay-up. Then the floodgates burst. We all burst into hysterical laughter, and continued laughing like hyenas for fifteen minutes, until the end of the play. Every time we started getting it under control, the ghost would speak from his chest, and we'd go off again. Once again, the moment the play was over, we eschewed our planned congratulations and instead fled in shame.

2. Lord of the Rings. Yes. The entire thing. In two hours, I believe, though my impression at the time was "six or more."

This was a strange vanity production put on at a local theatre by a friend of my parents, which was why we went to see it. We were under the impression, as well, that the woman who adapted (undoubtedly without permission), directed, composed music for, and played Galadriel, was doing it with and for children.

However, when the play began, it turned out that although indeed, all the actors but her were kids, it was actually a paen to the wonderfulness that was the actress/Galadriel. No doubt my memory is distorted, and the shapelessness of the production didn't help, but I recall it as two hours of mobs of children scampering about the stage, singing the praises of Galadriel while she blessed them in a lordly manner.

We fled without visiting her backstage as we had planned. My Dad remarked, as we hastened to our car, "I wonder what the parents of those kids thought when they found out that their little darlings spent two months learning hymns of praise to Julie."

1. The Goddess is Awake. Never ever go to a play that the same person wrote, directed, starred in, and composed the music for, is all I can say. Especially if he's named Elon Skyhawk.

Elon had proposed this to the Theatre Department, and as senior student I had been on the board that rejected it. When, undaunted, he produced it independently, the entire board showed up to see it.

We sat in an open-air auditorium. Suddenly a man in a gorilla suit appeared. He slowly walked through the audience to the stage, periodically roaring and checking his wrist watch. The he left. Elon Skyhawk emerged. His play, which bore a curious resemblance to LOTR, was entirely composed on Elon majestically declaiming environmentalist rhetoric while scantily clad undergrad girls worshipped at his feet. For two hours. In the end, the gorilla, who apparently represented capitalism and consumerism, reappeared. Elon banished him, and the scantily clad undergrads sang a hymn of praise.

It was a tough call for first place between this and number four, but I give it Elon for, in addition to all his other sins, temporarily making me want to cut down forests just to spite him.

Dishonorable mention to the play about a husband and wife doing role-playing, for featuring the immortal and oft-quoted line, "Put on the dog mask, you BITCH!"
I suspect that everyone who loves books has a special fondness for some very specific type of story, of which there may or may not be enough in existence to form a sub-genre. (If it's Regency comedy-romances or cozy mysteries with elderly protagonists, you're in luck.) Especially if there's not all that many of them out there, aficionados will buy every one they see, immediately, and enjoy it even if it's not actually very good.

Here are my favorite weird little sub-genres:

1. Troubled teenagers in mental hospitals, group homes, experimental shape-up-or-ship-out boot camps, etc.

I will also read about troubled children in institutions, like Torey Hayden's true stories of special ed. This genre has huge appeal to me. I like ensemble stories full of quirky characters, and ensemble stories in which each character has not only quirks, but lovingly described individual mental illnesses or horrific traumas are the quintessence of that sort of thing, as far as I'm concerned. There's tragedy, dark comedy, therapy scenes (I love therapy scenes), and generally an uplifting ending where the main character, at least, manages to overcome her interior and exterior problems and rejoin the rest of the world. I identify with the teens, of course, but there's also a bit of wish-fulfillment in the idea that they get to work out their problems together and surrounded by adults who both know about their problems and care about them. (The horrendous, uncaring instirtution is an entirely different genre.)

In this genre, my favorites are probably John Marsden's Checkers and Susannah Kaysen's memoir Girl, Interrupted. Patricia McCormack's Cut was OK but not great, and I didn't much like Brent Huntzinger's melodramatic Last Chance Texaco.

2. Mutant kids. Trapped in a world that fears and hates them! Why yes, I did not fit in as a child or teenager. X-Men, Alexander Key, Andre Norton, Tamora Pierce (unusual magic substituting for mutant powers), Brian K. Vaughan, John Wyndham... this is actually a pretty big genre. The requirements are an ensemble cast of young people, each with their own special power, and they are very very lonely and misunderstood until they find each other. And no, I don't like Slan. Can't take the writing style.

3. Backstage dramas. More ensemble casts! More talented people who are misunderstood (or in some cases, understood all too well.) And lots of comedy! Bonus points for the show reflecting the lives of the characters. A lot of the best of these are movies or plays, but there are some good books with this plot. Robertson Davies' The Lyre of Orpheus and Tempest-Tost come to mind.

Recommendations for backstage dramas, troubled institutionalized teens, mutant kids, or troubled mutant institutionalized teens who put on a show books that I might have missed?

And what are your favorite weird little sub-genres?
rachelmanija: (Ed among the ignorant)
( May. 26th, 2005 04:30 pm)
I posted this on someone else's LJ, but it was in response to a locked post, so I'm re-posting it here:

Once upon a time in Santa Cruz, which for those of you not from California is a college town filled with granola hippie artsy types, a group of hipper-than-thou theatre students decided to put on a performance piece that would really freak out the squares and prove how cool they were. The piece was called "The Mud People." They would strip naked, cover themselves in mud, and crawl from one end of the campus to the other, fetching up in the middle of the theatre department.

On the Day of the Mud People, the Mud People arrived bright-eyed, bushy-- um... perhaps I shouldn't go there... and early. They stripped naked in the woods (for UC Santa Cruz is built in and around a forest), covered themselves in mud, and began to crawl. They crawled and crawled, over gravel and brambles and other uncomfortable things, but soon became puzzled by the lack of mundanes to freak. Where was everybody? But the Mud People, of course, were too cool to use a pay phone (and had no change, anyway, for they had no pockets) so they just kept crawling. Hours later, they arrived at their destination, baffled and annoyed that they had met absolutely no one but an unflappable senior or two and a number of unimpressed squirrels.

The theatre department too was utterly empty. Thoroughly disappointed, the Mud People showered, dressed, and went home. It was not until the next day that they discovered what had happened. Being too cool to check the calendar or discuss their plans with others less cool than them, they had been unaware that the day they'd chosen for their grand event had been an administrative holiday.
"I have never really been any good at stage makeup. Before the photo call for Henry V I made the fatal mistake of listening to a fellow actor who had watched part of the dress rehearsal from the gods. 'You're so fair, lovey. We can't see your eyes. You've got to fill in your eyebrows and use more mascara.' Never listen to advice like that. As a result of all this I am now haunted by pictures of that production in which I look like Joan Collins and Groucho Marx."

Branagh's film of Henry V started a chain reaction of events which caused me to major in theatre and later get a master's degree in playwriting. His autobiography, written before the film was released but after it was shot, seems to be out of print. I was able to obtain a copy in NYC, though, and I bet it's in a lot of bookshops.

If you're even remotely interested in theatre, and probably even if you're not, this is a tremendously fun book. Contrary to persistent accusations of being full of himself, one of the great charms of the book is Branagh's self-deprecating humor and his willingness to regale us with stories about embarassing moments and horrible or uninspired performances. I found the book very inspirational when I was younger(I checked it out of the library repeatedly) because it portrays a boy with a little native talent and a lot of flaws who manages, through hard work and careful study, to turn that little bit of talent into something quite extraordinary.

The other notable thing is that it's extremely funny. Especially if you've done some live theatre. It's full of hilarious anecdotes about lost props, improvisatory Shakespeare, mad Australian directors, and those ideas which seem so good in the rehearsal hall...

Regarding a new play about Olympic athletes:

"With only days to go we received the last scenes of the play, and many of us were still confused by the convolutions of the plot. I still don't know whether the leading athlete had taken the drugs or not, or whether the 'drug' was actually a placebo. Fortunately by the time we reached this point in the play my character was cracking up and it was quite conceivable that he had no idea what was going on."
No, I don't mean Anne Rice. I mean this account of the making of David O. Russell's latest movie, whose preview looked quite intriguing:

"Mr. Russell shouts: "Eeeeee! Eeeee! Keep rolling!"

Mr. Hoffman: "We're rolling. What's `Eeeeee'?" There is no response, but Mr. Law keeps emoting.

On the next take, Mr. Russell lies on the ground, just behind Lily Tomlin, but out of view of the camera. Perhaps he's trying to add to her feeling of unease in the scene. "Most likely he was looking up my skirt," she deadpans while watching the playback a few minutes later.

It seems impossible that a film set could feel any less formal — but come lunchtime, it does. Mr. Russell sheds the rest of his clothing, leaving only his boxers, and starts to exercise — first jumping rope, then sparring with his personal trainer, right on the sidewalk of the suburban street. Many of the actors and crew join in. They, however, keep their clothes on."


The article, which is well worth reading in entirety, reminded me of the years I spent doing theatre. I majored in it as an undergrad, focusing on stage management, and then got my MFA in playwriting. I also spent a few years stage managing professionally in LA.

One of the things which became clear to me early on was that a rehearsal hall, like the set of a film or TV shoot, can very easily turn into an echo chamber. Everyone inside thinks they're doing brilliant work, there's a real and thrilling excitement in the air... and then the show opens to universal puzzlement, sneering, or worst of all, boredom. And the scary part is, if you're honest with yourself, nine times out of ten you don't think the audience is wrong. You realize that all of you were wrong. You were creating garbage and somehow you never noticed.

This is why it's good to invite outside observers whose judgement you trust to take a look at your work. Whether you're working in a team or at your desk all by your lonesome, sometimes your ideas about what your doing can become completely detached from the reality of the work and float away like a blimp. Sometimes, as seems to have happened to Russell, you decide that indulging in raving semi-consensual insanity is a really good idea. Sometimes, as seems to have happened to Anne Rice, you conclude that everything you touch is gold and should not be sullied by anyone else's thoughts. Most commonly, you think it's complete garbage and would ruin your reputation if anyone saw it. But whatever you think, it's not a bad idea to get someone else's take on it. Maybe they will prevent you from inserting a totally meaningless dream sequence into your revival of a classic play which the hero is trussed up in leather bondage gear and suspended from the ceiling while all the other characters emerge from the wings and march around him in a circle, chanting "Schnapps. Schnapps. Schnapps."

Or maybe they won't. But it's good to give them a chance. Think of how wise it would be if authors would ask their friends if they would read the letter they're planning to send to their critics, and taken the friends' advice on whether or not to actually mail it. Think of how much pain David O. Russell could have saved his actors from if he'd turned to that New York Times reporter and said, "Give me your honest opinion: Is my behavior on the set producing great work, or am I just embarrassing everyone and making myself look ridiculous?"

In other words: if the whole world thinks you're wrong, that should not be taken as proof that you're right.

This has been your Anti-Lone Individual Standing Firm Against The Masses public service announcement for the day. Thank you.


rachelmanija: (Default)


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