Thursday, July 28, 2016

"Going On (Expressing Two Meanings: 'Going Onstage' And 'Continuing On' Should The Double-Meaning Be Foggily Unclear And When You Have To Explain Them It Invariably Is"

It was an illuminating contrast.

In the course of a few days I had experienced attending a show – Beautiful: The Carole King Musical performed at the cavernous Pantages Theater in Hollywood – capacity: 2703 seats; I did not count them, I looked it up later – and a production of Bill W. and Dr. BOB at Theater 68 (so named because the company’s founder had sixty-eight cents in the bank when he established it) – capacity:  45 seats; those ones I actually counted – located in North Hollywood, which should not be confused with the actual Hollywood, the actual Hollywood including swarms of tourists and the stars’ names immortalized in the sidewalk and North Hollywood, comprised primarily of people overshooting the actual Hollywood, arriving in North Hollywood by mistake.

At the performance of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical I attended, the Pantages Theater was full – we were sitting in “Row YY”, giving us visual access to the packed auditorium in front of us, my assumption without turning around being that “Row ZZ” was totally occupied as well. 

At North Hollywood’s Theater 68, there were thirty-four attendees (again, I actually counted them), the 45-seat venue filled to about three-quarters of its capacity.  (If you exclude the two free-standing bridge chairs leaning against the back wall, should they be needed to accommodate the “overflow.”)

Do you see what I’m getting at?

Two shows performed before audiences.  So in both cases, it’s show business. 

But in reality, it’s Neiman Marcus versus The Ninety-Nine Cents Store.

At (“ball park”) a hundred dollars a ticket, we’re talking about one theater taking in approximately a quarter of a million dollars per performance, as opposed to a production, which, if you use two paper towels in the Men’s Room, you have virtually erased the struggling theater company’s profit margin.   

Am I getting my point across here?

We are talking about, although under a similar umbrella, two remotely related varieties of the entertainment business.

And I wonder – and I am aware of this observation dripping with condescension, which, despite my loftiest intentions, I am unable to extricate from my thinking process and consequently from this commentary – do the actors in this shoestring operation ever compare the two disparately scaled productions and go…

(DEBILITTINGLY DISHEARTENED)… Geez. 

I understand the energizing elation of “Let’s put on a show.”  I experienced it originally at camp.  More recently, visiting our tiny log cabin in Indiana, I felt it watching the Dunes Summer Theater rendition of The Pirates of Penzance. 

You have to believe me about this.  We have seen shows on Broadway and in London.  And I’m telling you, in terms of energy, talent and execution, that Indiana production of The Pirates of Penzance was as exhilarating as any stage show we have ever attended.

I recall bounding over to the man we had learned was the show’s director at intermission, bursting with enthusiasm and high praise, and learning in the course of our conversation that, during the extended “off season”, the director’s “day job” was laboring in a local factory.

Knowing my facial reactions as well as I do, I am certain they betrayed the genuine agonization I felt for a clearly talented director, relegated to doing what he was demonstrably meant to do as a parenthetical sideline. 

Directing a Gilbert and Sullivan classic in the summertime and then returning to the “production line” in the fall?  The reality ate agonizingly at my innards.  It was inconceivable to me that that that could possibly be enough. 

The thing is…

Who am I to say it’s not enough? 

And who am I similarly to say that performing in a three-quarters full 45-seat theater in North Hollywood isn’t enough?

“Satisfaction” is a matter of attitude.  Of which mine has never once been considered “Top-of-the-Line.”

I made it to the “big time”.  And who themselves wouldn’t want to?  But – adopting an alien perspective for only this paragraph – directing in the summer is better than not directing at all.  And performing in a show playing to thirty-five people is an exultational windfall compared to receiving the message:  “You know the part you tried out for in that North Hollywood production?  We are giving it to somebody else.”

We happened to know one of the actors performing in Bill W. and Dr. BOB.  (We actually went there to see him.)  When we approached him after the show, there was this palpable sense of our friend’s being “lit up” by the jolt of “electricity” you get (almost exclusively) from performing in front of an audience.  The actor compared it how he felt when he was a wide receiver for his Nebraska Cornhusker football team, the difference in “crowd size” (thirty-five versus seventy thousand), he explained, being of negligible consequence. 

What he appreciated was the physicality of both experiences.  And you could sense its residual effects following the show.  The guy was literally – well, not literally – “on fire.”

It’s amazing how “Poor you” converts quickly to envy, witnessing the rewards of an activity you have been consciously deriding.


(Exposing the wish you yourself were onstage anywhere.)

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

"Loose Ends"

I was planning to include this part yesterday in my talk about structure and the deviation therefrom but I discovered it did not fit the overall, well… structure of yesterday’s post.  It’s ironical the way that works – an example of what I am talking about showing up in the writing like that.  I guess I can’t help myself.  I am a generically “Structure” kind of a guy.   Sometimes to a head-scratching degree.

Watch me in a restaurant.  I have given the server my credit card and my wallet sits on the table, a reminder to return the card to my wallet when I get it back.  But here’s the weird (an embarrassing because it’s me) part.

I am incapable of allowing that wallet to sit in a diagonal angle to my body – it has to sit “squarely” in front of me.  That is simply the “right” way a wallet on a table is supposed to sit.  It’s at an angle, any angle and it’s like, “I gotta fix that.” 

I have tried… deliberately tried… leaving my wallet sitting crazily askew on the table, thinking, “What’s the big deal?”  I have no idea.  But I know it is a big deal, because after a startlingly brief, pressure-filled interval, I find it impossible not to “square” that old wallet of mine up.  

That’s structure.  Knowing… or at least believing unalterably… that there is a “right” way of things, triggering an overpowering compulsion to make “wrong” right.  Otherwise it’s like… “What?  You want me to leave it that way?”

People like me, I think, are attracted to sitcom writing for that very reason.  Being of limited duration, the sitcom genre is first and foremost about structure.

Writing half-hour comedies requires you to hew insistently to the superhighway of the episode’s main (and sometimes secondary) storyline.  There is not a second for extraneous side trips or humorous digressions.  (I know Seinfeld deviated from that format, but theirs was a series about nothing, so they could.  Even Seinfeld eventually developed a structure they then habitually adhered to.  The more “nothing” they inserted – a conversation concerning the strategic placement of the second-to-the-top button on a man’s shirt, a talk about how often you should trim your toenails, or whether a day can actually feel like a Tuesday – the more they were following their own established template.)

The thing is…

Wait.  Continuing hammering home the point…

You need structure… says the man who cannot leave his wallet angled on a table for five seconds without “losing it” so where exactly is his credibility.  Still really, you do.  Without structure, you’d be flying off everywhichway.  No sense of where you are going.  No sense of what you are trying to do.

A work without structure… well, have you ever seen a four year-old’s crayoning?  It’s a mess.  A mess that goes on the refrigerator door, but come on.  Delicate feelings aside, it’s chaos. 

KRAMER:  (SCARILY UNHINGED)  “Take it away!  I can’t look at it!”

Structure brings requisite order to that chaos:  Selective editing, choice of words, modulation of emphasis.  (Among other things.  I do not teach this for a living.  You want the whole story?  Sign up at a school.)

Under the oppressive time pressure of sitcom writing, structure avoids the necessity of “reinventing the wheel” on a weekly basis.  Though they may radically differ, especially the off-network programming, every show has its own way of handling things, offering variations on that imaginative template in their subsequent episodes.  But there is always a blueprint to follow.

You need order.  You cannot say that too often… although I possibly have.  I mean, it’s not the Army – SOLDIER:  “I don’t know, I just felt like marching in circles today.”  DRILL SERGEANT:  “YOU CAN’T DO THAT!”  But reliability is important.  To the writer as well as the audience.  REGULAR VIEWER:  “Why is The Good Wife wearing a clown suit in the court room?”  THE GOOD WIFE SHOW RUNNER:  “We thought we would try something different.”  REGULAR VIEWER:  “Dress that woman correctly or we are not watching anymore!

Here’s the Bottom Line:  If there is no “right” way of doing something, how would you know when you are doing it wrong?

Still, it is important not to wear out your welcome.  Continually doing things the same way breeds thudding familiarity, earning you a ticket on the Express Train to Passé.  The “well told story” notwithstanding, something eventually’s got to give.   

The question is, where exactly do you draw the line?  You know you have to change your approach.  But to what degree, and what exactly would that look like?

Examples of breaking the mold versus adhering to the tried-and-true abound everywhere.  Consider the current presidential candidates.  Trump:  Barely coherent (somebody called it “Drunken Wedding Toast Mode”) but difficult to ignore.  Hillary:  Could not be more orderly.  Could not be more “What else is on?”

Forget who you’re gonna vote for.  Be honest. 

Who puts on the better show?   

Structure is comfortably reliable.  But “off the cuff”, skillfully executed, can be mesmerizing.

Personal example:

My mode of piano playing shoots for metronomical accuracy.  I play the notes on the page.  I watch my hand placement on the keyboard, my overuse of the foot pedal.  When I’m finished my teacher explains what I got right and what I still need to work on, his assessments based on the collective belief that there is “a right way of playing the piano.”

My step-son-in-law Tim sits down at the piano, and what comes out is original, energetic, unfamiliar-sounding…

… and I cannot take my ears off of it.  The word “liberating” comes to mind.  It’s like he is playing an entirely different instrument.  In a style that is uniquely – and compellingly – his own.

Now don’t expect a guy who needs his wallet to be straight to champion “Throw out the rules.”  But put me down for loosening things up.  You need a version of that in every endeavor.  Christianity loosened up Judaism.

“What’s the big deal about pork?”

That worked out for them.  Notice, however, that they did not toss the Old Testament into the trash bin.   They appended their new stuff onto the end of it.

Whoa.  How did I get here?

Hmph. 


Maybe I’m more flexible than I think.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

"Fighting The Format"

When I started out in half-hour comedy, I noticed that all the episodes we did invariably included six scenes – no more and no less.  Being curious about this seeming obligatory structure, and also inwardly though never outwardly rebellious – “outwardly” can get you in trouble – I asked the master of multi-camera comedy James L. Brooks (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi) how come there were always six scenes. 

His answer was that it seemed to work better than way.

That answer was not entirely satisfying to me.  Although Brooks appeared to be correct – a six-scene format did seem the most successful way of telling the story – it was not like, to that point, the show had tried it any other way, leaving the answer a less than comforting

“We do it that way because we do it that way.”

We have visited the Kahala hotel in Hawaii, like, twenty-five times.  When we try another Hawaiian hotel, the experience never satisfactorily measures up.  Leading me to wonder, is our preference for the Kahala because it is incomparably fantastic, or because we are habitually familiar with it?

Do you see what I’m analogizing here?

Is something right because it’s right, or is it right because it’s what you’re traditionally used to?

… is what I’m saying.

(By the way, Seinfeld, which was filmed like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi shot as many scenes as they wanted to.  And that turned out just dandy.  So there’s that.)

This question of structural inviolability returned to my mind after reading…

Wait.  Just a second.

On one of those rare occasions when I secured a movie writing assignment, the producer handed me a stapled “Instruction Guide” delineating the precise elements required for a successful screenplay, according to the teachings of noted mythologist Joseph Campbell. 

“All great movies follow this format,” I was instructed.  The implication being,

“Follow it assiduously or you’re wrong.”  (And, not coincidentally, you’re fired.)

When it comes to writing – as opposed to assembling Ikea furniture – I am not enthusiastic about following instructions.  I like to figure things out for myself. Without the assistance of Joseph Campbell whom I had seen once on PBS and he wasn’t funny.  It seems stupid to follow directions.  I’m a writer, dammit!  And they’re telling me “connect the dots”?

The problem is… two things.  Possibly three, I have not written them yet.

One:  Based on evidence of repetitive similarities in mythological storytelling throughout the ages, Joseph Campbell could actually be right.  Two:  I am temperamentally not a risk taker.  If there’s an authoritative roadmap available, though I may reflexively grumble a little, I invariably surrender to it.  

What are my options?  A tried-and-true direction.  Versus…

“I’ll think I’ll go that way.”

Leading to immobilizing writer’s block due to “unlimited options”, or a standard fifty-page episode ballooning to hundreds of unusable pages, followed (in my darkest fantasies) by my employer handing me a plane ticket back to Toronto.

I may reactively disagree.  But I do not want to see winter.

Now…

I just finished a book (on Kindle) entitled The Secret Life of the American Musical (2016) written by Jack Viertel (whose decades-long credentials scream “I know my musicals.”) 

In his book, Viertel deconstructs the essential elements in classic musicals, covering (although not exclusively) Broadway musicals’ “Golden Age”, which for Viertel spans from Oklahoma (1943) to A Chorus Line (1975) where they began telling stories in a more fragmented manner.

Distilling key moments in successful musicals, Viertel assembles a credible template for subsequent endeavors.

I’ll give you some examples, though not all of them because that will spoil the book for you, and I can’t remember them all.  (And it is dificult to re-find stuff on Kindle as there are no designated pages.)

An “Opening Number”, Viertel instructs us, should reflect the conceptual intention of the show.  The out-of-town tryouts of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum famously floundered until a “show doctor” brought in to save the production observed that the audience was confused by what kind of evening in the theater it was.  Hence the introductory insertion of  “Comedy Tonight”, telling the audience, (READ GARRY MARSHALL-STYLE):  “It’s a comedy.  You laugh.” 

And from then on, they did. 

Ditto the issue with Fiddler on the Roof.

When badgered by the director to tell him what their show was about, exasperated lyricist Sheldon Harnick finally explained, “It’s about tradition.”  To which the director replied, “Then write a song about that.

They did, the song “Tradition” providing at the outset the classic musical’s theme. 

Because of that “Tradition”, everyone knew what the show was about and what the audience was expected to do.

Other mandatory elements in the time-tested architecture of musicals are the explanatory “I Want” song:  “All I want is a room somewhere…” (My Fair Lady), the
“Conditional Love Song”:  “If I loved you…” (Carousel) and the raise-the-roof “Eleven O’clock Number”:  “You Can’t Stop The Beat” (Hairspray.) 

The “Creatives” may place their inimitable stamps on the specifics, but, according to Viertel, even “nothing-before-like-its” like The Book Of Mormon seem still to accommodate the “Necessities.”

Of course, there are exceptions.  Viertel dutifully includes such deviations from the rules.  (But be prepared for the punch line.)    

“This {having cited an exception} underlines the reality that good musical theater writers rarely write to the pattern, even though this book keeps describing the pattern they don’t write to… The best writers are always trying to break the mold they perceive in their predecessors and their mentors… and yet when the dust settles, the result often fits the pattern anyway.”

Because, according to Viertel, and Jim Brooks, and Joseph Campbell…

There is one.

But honestly,  (bringing us “full circle”, reflecting a contrarianity lessened not significantly by age)…

Is there?

Monday, July 25, 2016

"A Flashing Glimpse At The Way You Wish Things Would Always Work (If I May Speak For You As Well As For Myself)

It is so amazing when this happens.  And yesterday, it happened twice.  Which, due to its unfortunate rareness, does not make it twice as amazing.  It makes it virtually miraculous.

I’ll begin with the easy one.

There was a bulb burned out on one of our ground floor ceiling lights.  My familial assignment – along with eliminating spiders – is to unscrew the burnt-out lightbulbs throughout the house – “throughout the house” making the job sound more significant than it actually is – and replace the dead lightbulbs with lightbulbs that light up.  (Doing it the other way around is supremely unhelpful.  That’s not from experience.  Some things you just know.)

The bulb-changing procedure itself is relatively simple.  A capable monkey could handle it.  Lacking an available monkey, the responsibility falls to yours truly.

This time, however, there is a tiny glitch.

Executing the bulb-changing operation requires a small stepladder.  We have one of those; I have used it many times before, changing lightbulbs.  At this moment, however, we have no idea where it is.

Dr. M recently took the stepladder outside to pick some grapes from the overhanging pergola we had asked our gardener to wrap the vines around.  And no one had seen hide nor hair of it since.

This is the opposite of the stories I am telling today.  This is a “stuff mysteriously disappears” story, with no conceivable explanation as to where it has gone, a genre I do not care for, any more than I care for its opposite, stories where there are numerous explanations for some occurrence and no indisputable answer as to which explanation is correct.  In both cases, the resultant sensation is…

“Hold me.  I’m in a scary world I do not understand.”

No one enjoys this precarious uncertainty.  (Or am I just speaking for myself?)

Anyway…

I recruit a chair from the kitchen table, placing it directly under the defunct light bulb.  I climb onto the chair.  I reach way up, my reach becoming an uncomfortable stretch, because the seat of the chair is lower than the top rung of the missing stepladder.  (I do not wish to make this action more dramatic than it is, but after a certain age, a hyper-extended stretch leads to an immediate chiropractic phone call for an “adjustment.”)

Barely grasping the lifeless light bulb, I meticulously unscrew it, and I replace it was a fresh one.  I descend from the chair, I flip the appropriate wall switch…

… and the bulb immediately comes to life!

The effect is quasi-Biblical in its intensity.

“Va y’hee or v’ haya or.  (Translation, for the Hebraically challenged:  “Let there be Light; and there was Light.”)

At that moment, I could imagine how God felt after a similar accomplishment, His achievement personified by a struttingly confident,

“Still got it.”

That’s an extraneous, albeit rewarding, side issue.  The significant point here is this:

On this achingly infrequent occasion, a situation has worked out exactly the way it is supposed to; well maybe not “supposed to”, but the way you hopingly want it to.  There is a procedure for handling a problem, you carry out that procedure… and it works.

In a world of stepladders that go “Poof!”, I cannot over-emphasize how satisfying that is.

And then yesterday, it happens again. 

Learning of the saddening passing of Garry Marshall, I wanted to post that wonderful scene from Albert Brooks’s Lost In America, to remind you of his (now unavailable) specialness, and parenthetically cheer myself up.

Accessing YouTube, I click on “Safari”, where I am confronted with the dreaded:

“You Are Not Connected To The Internet.”

After following the protocol I have been drilled in for retrieving the Internet – unplugging the modem before unplugging the router, then plugging the modem and router back in in that particular order, which I do again and again, believing that if doing something is unhelpful once you do the same thing over and over until it works (it being the only option you have besides swearing at the machine)  – I finally throw in the towel and call Matt, who takes care of our computers..

Matt arrives that evening, and, after some diagnostical concentration, he announces,

“Your router is broken.”

I immediately hear two things – one revealed in a code Matt has no idea he is speaking.

My simultaneous translation of “Your router is broken” is:

“What happened was not your fault.”

To which my reaction is,

“Phew.”

Second, reflected in Matt’s going down to his car and returning with a replacement router which he installs and the Internet’s immediately back up, is a repetition of the earlier in the day’s

“Va y’hi or, v’haya or.”

The performed “miracle” had occurred once again.  A thing is broken, you execute a simple maneuver… and it’s fixed!

Can you imagine how exhilarating that is?  Why?  Because for one glimmering moment – or in the case of yesterday, two glimmering moments…

The world worked the way you wish it would always work – predictably and successfully.

Now, if we could just find that missing stepladder.

Yup.  There’s me, wanting perfection.

Discontent with an unparalleled “Two-out-of-three.”

Still, the thing has to be somewhere, doesn’t it?


I mean it only makes sense.