Friday, July 8, 2016

First Jobs InThe Theatah (Plus Propmaking in the Stone Age!)

Before I have to disappear for a while thanks to some upcoming surgery, I wanted to at least get this out there.  So -- Chapter 3 in my story, for what it's worth.

After graduating with a 5-year degree in Drama, it was time to look for paying work.  At that time there was a massive "cattle call" style audition for something called the South East Theater Conference, or SETC.  Mostly it was used to help cast the giant "outdoor dramas" that were more popular back then than they are now.  Shows like "The Trail of Tears" and "The Book of Job" which ran all summer long in outdoor theaters, largely as tourist attractions.  But there were also dinner theaters and regional theaters doing casting as well.  I ultimately accepted an intern position at a dinner theater in Lexington, KY, which was supposed to offer room, board, a very small salary and a chance to learn the trade by working with more experienced professionals.  Sadly, it was grossly misrepresented and the interns were essentially slave labor.  Or at least indentured labor.  I did not learn anything new, but in fairness I was given the chance to put what I had learned at U.Va. into practice.  I did stage lighting, sound, prop creation, scenery building, and so forth.  The "room" turned out to be a cot in the basement of the owner's dad.  The "board" was dinner theater leftovers.  Luckily my sanity was saved by the fact that my roommate at U.Va. also took the same internship and we were thrown into it together.  I learned how to make props and dress sets on the cheap, by borrowing and scrounging and exchanging ad space in the programs for something essential (like, say, an antique candlestick telephone or a vintage lava lamp.)  I mostly wanted to perform, though; not intern as a stagehand, so I was always auditioning and lobbying for a chance to audition.  The owner was very reluctant to lose his cheap labor force, though, and resisted mightily.  I finally got a decent speaking part in "Fiddler On The Roof" and when the show closed, I was dismissed.  Not for anything wrong that I had done; hell, I taught them more about props and sound than they ever taught me.  I think the owner was just tired of having me try out instead of working in the shop.

I did leave them with some great stuff that I had learned how to do.  I built a vacuform machine for things like door moldings and set trimmings.  (A vacuform machine is basically a wooden frame that holds a sheet of thin plastic which you soften using heat.  Underneath this frame you place a mold of whatever you want to duplicate.  The top frame fits snugly over the bottom frame -- the one with the mold -- and is connected to a vacuum cleaner.  You put the softened plastic over the mold while sucking out the air and bam! instant mold.)

 A basic home-made vacuform machine.


 Photo courtesy of Punished Props: A vacuform machine with the mold in place, and with the molded softened plastic.  You can turn out as many copies of the mold as you need to make.

Another neat trick I left them with:  Making a bell with instant urethane moulding foam.  Instant foam is a two-ingredient product: you add Ingredient One to Ingredient Two and you get a growing mass of insulation-type foam.  If you place Ingredient One in a cup and add Ingredient Two to the center, it will "boil over" the rim of the cup and form the shape of a bell when it hardens.  It's versatile stuff, and in the days before EVA foam carving, it was used for a ton of different things.  Here's an incredibly boring video about it from the manufacturer:  



When I was actively making props, urethane foam and light woods like balsa were the tools I most often used.  Today's propmakers are doing insanely creative things with materials we never dreamed of using.  Things like floor mats and a moldable material called Worbla are de rigeur work materials for props and armor, and being from another age, I have almost no experience with them.  About the only props I've made recently are a lightsaber hilt (from leftover plumbing materials) and a steampunk style Doctor Who sonic screwdriver.

My homemade lighsaber.  Yoda is not losing any sleep.

And that's pretty much it.  About ten years into my career as an actor, I was still working children's theater and dinner theater.  It was fun and rewarding, and for the most part paid the bills, but then I began getting more and more sick from Crohn's Disease.  I also began having other autoimmune-disease related problems that have since been diagnosed as things like rheumatoid arthritis and some weird neurological degeneration thing similar to ALS that affects my sensory nerves more than my motor nerves and has caused peripheral neuropathy.  When I collapsed on stage during a performance and turned out to need a transfusion of 11 pints of blood thanks to an internal hemorrhage (thanks to Crohn's) I knew I had to seriously start looking at my life.  I didn't think I could continue to live out of my suitcase as an itinerant performer any more.

I basically decided to look at things I loved.  I knew I didn't want to do anything that would directly or indirectly harm the environment, and I knew I loved books and reading.  I knew that my favorite work-study job back in college had been at the library.  So I learned to become a librarian.  I eventually met my wife, had a kid, and stayed in the library business a lot longer than I would have been able to stay an actor.  Ultimately I had to quit that job, too, because of poor health. 

Which brings me to today.  I am effectively disabled thanks to autoimmune disease.  I find it difficult to leave the house most days because I am chained to the plumbing, so to speak, but thanks to the internet I don't feel as trapped as I certainly would have a generation ago.  I have a wife and a daughter whom I love very much, and to whom I dedicate these scribbles.

For what it's worth to you, that's my story.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Another Interruption


Once again, I find myself interrupting my (admittedly) sketchy attempt at autobiography to write about tragedy and stupidity.  Britain has voted to leave the European Union.

This is perhaps the stupidest thing Britain has done since Neville Chamberlain came home with that infamous non-aggression "piece of paper" from Herr Hitler.

It leaves me depressed for the future of my own country.  If Britain, a nation I have always admired for a variety of reasons ranging from pop culture to high art, can behave with such ignorance, then anything is possible, even the stringing together of the words "President" and "Trump."  This is the same kind of isolationist idiocy that has some people in my country clamoring for a giant wall to keep immigrants out, to close borders to an entire faith, and to turn our backs on those poor bastards who are simply fleeing horror and turmoil in search of a better life for their children.

It is a knee-jerk reaction to troubled times and it will bring nothing but trouble.  My understanding is that weather (of all things) may have been a factor:  the weather across Britain was bad and so only the more passionate, those who wanted to leave, bothered to show up at the polls.  And with what result?  The British pound is already at a 31-year low as of this writing, and the results were only finalized a few hours ago.  It is all part of this same idiotic movement to "take our country back" when in fact there was nothing wrong with the country in the first place.  It is, in short, STUPID.  As stupid as electing a racist, misogynist, jingoist blowhard with bad hair will be if America follows suit in November.  I hope that, if nothing else, we take the British vote as an object lesson in the importance of showing up to vote.

We shall see.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Some Adventures In College Theatre (Plus Leonard Nimoy!)

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.  (Well, not really; I never can keep any kind of a schedule with this blog, but this is the sequel to the earlier post "My Story, FWIW.")  Have fun.

In college I abandoned any ideas that I or my family had about me practicing law and began thinking in earnest of a career in the theatre.  I took my first acting class under an amazing teacher named Robert "Buzz" McLaughlin and actually began to feel like this could be a thing for me.  I auditioned for everything, from major productions down to workshops but never got a nibble.  The reason most often given to me was that I was too damned tall.  I am 6'5" (or was; I've shrunk some as I've gotten older) and at the time the Drama building (Minor Hall!  Appropriately named!) was one of the shabbiest buildings on campus.  The theater was a converted lecture hall and it was essentially a shoebox on its side.  If you were over six feet tall, you looked like you were hitting your head on the lights.  And it was a damned shame, because that school put on some amazing productions in that tiny space.  But I plugged away, and kept taking classes.  The voice and rhetoric teacher, Art Greene -- who is the voice of William T. Sherman in Ken Burns' "Civil War" documentary -- helped me get rid of my New Joisey accent, Lois Garren taught me how to move, and LaVahn Hoh taught me how to build props and scenery.

And then we got a new building.

And when I say a new building, it was a brand spanking new building, with two state of the art theaters -- one traditional proscenium stage, and one big experimental black box with flexible seating.  A lot of thought and planning went into how best to open the building.  The Powers That Be decided that the first play would be presented in the big black box theater and that it would be "Of Mice And Men" by John Steinbeck.  A play with a role in it that nobody could tell me I was too tall or too big to play: the huge (and hugely tragic) Lennie.  I auditioned, and it was the most agonizing process I ever experienced; nothing I went through professionally ever even came close.  There were more callbacks for this show than ever before in the history of the department.  There are eight male roles in the play, and the director kept calling back nine actors, including me and one other big guy.  It didn't take a genius to figure out where he was having trouble making a decision.

The director was a guy who went on to become a great mentor and friend to me, but at the time he didn't know me from Adam.  At the third or fourth callback, he had with him as advisors the two acting teachers, Buzz McLaughlin and another professor who never seemed to have much use for me.  He never cast me in anything, and was never warm or even civil in my years at U.Va.  Again, I didn't need to be an Einstein to figure out that Buzz was rooting for me and the other prof was rooting for the other big guy, and the poor director just couldn't figure out what would work best.

The day they posted the final cast list I remember just standing there looking at my name in complete disbelief, for a really, really long time.  I thought it had to be some kind of mistake.  I had been cast as Lennie.

I nearly did not make it onto the stage.  About halfway through the rehearsal process I had my first major attack of Crohn's Disease and had to be hospitalized.  Luckily I did NOT need surgery, that time anyway, and was able to get back to the show.  It went very well.  The play was staged sort of in the round, with audience on either side.  (The technical description is "alley" staging.)  People were inches away from the actors and the immediacy was very powerful for those of us on stage.  The show ended in a standing ovation after every performance, which I never got to hear, because I was temporarily deafened by the gunshot that kills Lennie at the ending.  We had borrowed the Colt six shooter from the local county sheriff (even though the script calls for a Luger) and an unwadded blank was shot off a couple of inches from the back of my head each night -- so close that I could see the flame from the barrel shoot past both my ears.  I look back on it and shudder, because if we had ever slipped up and used anything other than unwadded blanks, I would have been killed.  But people loved the show, I survived, and the new drama building was off to a great start.

I went on to do several more major productions, including one of my favorites, the Gestapo Major in Kurt Vonnegut's "Happy Birthday, Wanda June!"  That show was U.Va.'s entry in the Kennedy Center national college drama competition.  I was starting to build my resumé.

And like the other drama majors, when I wasn't in a show, I worked on it, learning to build props, paint, make scenery, and so forth.  Meanwhile, I was doing other things, like working as a disk jockey at the college FM station, and also working on getting guest lecturers with the Speakers' Union.  Now, I had been involved in Star Trek fandom since the show ended in 1969.  I was one of the Trekkies who helped organize the first Star Trek con in New York City in 1972.  My dream was to bring in a cast member for our speaker's program.  We found out that Leonard Nimoy was available and somehow we made it happen.  He came and addressed a crowd of thousands in our basketball arena, showed the Spock's Wedding episode ("Amok Time") and fielded questions for over an hour.  I made my first prop for this, a phaser.  I remember that it was fairly screen accurate, it did light up, and it did feebly make a sort of phaser-ish sound with the cheapo sound board that I had cannibalized from some kid's toy.  I actually got to use it during Nimoy's presentation when some guy cosplaying as a Klingon stood up.  Nimoy laughed his butt off.  Afterwards some of the speaker's committee went out for a beer with Leonard, me included.  I was on cloud 9.  Or at least Omicron Ceti Alpha 3.

Those were fun times.  But before I knew it, though, it was time for graduation and the dreaded Real World....

Friday, June 17, 2016

Unbelievable

A few weeks ago, the presumed Republican Presidential candidate, Donald Trump, did something pretty awful.  (Well, he's always doing something awful, but this was awful even for him.)  He made reference to Senator John McCain in a speech, saying that McCain was "not a war hero" because during the VietNam war, McCain "allowed himself to be captured."

Remember, if you will, that Donald Trump's military experience consists of whatever he may have learned at a military-type academy for troubled rich kids.  He probably learned how to march in step, make his bed and peel potatoes and not a whole hell of a lot else.

I felt pretty bad for Senator McCain.  I thought that it was a terrible, horrible thing to say about another human being; that Trump was completely clueless about how his remarks would feel to a man who spent years in a grim captivity by an unsympathetic enemy.  The fact that these remarks came from a man who was ostensibly the leader of his party must have made them sting all the more.

Cut to today.  After today, I wouldn't piss on Senator McCain if he was on fire.

We are currently in the aftermath of a horrible mass killing.  Some demented dirtbag who will not be named by me killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, a club for LGBTQ people.  It was a Latin Night party at a gay club in the theme park capital of the world, which, as John Oliver said on his program, is proof of the greatness of America -- that we have Latin Night at a gay club in the theme park capital of the world.

The country is grieving.  The LGBTQ community feels threatened.  Terrible things are being said by the Christian Right, one preacher in San Diego going so far as to say that Orlando was now safer because 49 pedophiles had been killed.  Liberals want gun controls restored so that we no longer sell semiautomatic weapons, weapons which have no purpose other than the murder of as many people as possible in as short a time as possible.  Conservatives are stinging over the threat to their gun rights and to their notions of traditional morality, whatever the hell that is.

And then Senator McCain comes out with this filth:

McCain Says President Obama Responsible for Orlando Killings

Go ahead.  Click on the link.  According to the Washington Post article, McCain said in a speech that President Obama is directly responsible for the 49 deaths because the Islamic State came about on his watch as President.  This is an ugly, hideous, horrible, awful thing to dump on another human being.  It is also obviously untrue.  If anyone other than the actual murderer bears any responsibility, one might argue that the blame falls squarely on all of the congresspeople who allowed the ban on assault weapons to lapse back in 2005 -- years before Obama became President.  But you, Senator, were squarely in your seat representing Arizona, and you let it happen.

I blame you, and all your do-nothing cronies who are too afraid to give up the tens of thousands of dollars in blood money that you receive from the NRA.  I frankly consider your remarks to be treasonous.  They are certainly poisonous, and unfair.

It's time for you to retire, Senator McCain.  And maybe to have your head examined.  You may have been a hero once, sir, but no longer.

No longer.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Tonight, I Am In Despair

Early this morning, a deeply disturbed man took an automatic weapon and some other instruments of murder into a gay club in Orlando, Florida, and embarked upon what is to date the worst mass killing in the history of our nation.  I will not name him.  I also will not engage in listing the other "top" mass killings.  I do not believe that any of them deserve so much as the merest footnote of a mention in history.  They need to remain in utter anonymity.

The reasons for this morning's tragedy are all snarled up in hatred.  Hatred for the other, for the different, for those who disagree with someone else's notions of morality or propriety; of what is or is not sacred; of what is or is not "right" and whose deity is the "only" deity.  We know from the killer's own father that he was recently "set off" by the sight of a gay couple kissing.  We know that he called 9-1-1 to declaim his allegiance to the Islamic State, whose repugnant philosphies degrade women, gays, lesbians, and transgender people; a "state" who calls for the deaths of all whom they deem different or who subscribe to any beliefs not theirs.

As I said, tonight I am in despair.  As a so-called child of the 1960's, I once had hopes of a world of universal peace and tolerance; a world which would someday see the triumph of the Golden Rule and the ideals of "Star Trek" (yes, "Star Trek") which say that we are greater because of the infinite diversity in infinite combinations of all people.

Instead, I find myself living in a society which is increasingly divisive.  I remember that in the past, on the day after a presidential election, the two sides shook hands and got on with the nation's business.  Now I live in a country where disagreement leads to paralysis.  I go (or I should say "went" because I have resigned my membership) to a church which destroyed itself because the congregation disagreed over whether or not to buy a property in a neighborhood that was not very nice.  I can think of no situation these days where when the votes are counted, the losing side shakes hands, accepts the results, makes the best of it, and gets on with life.

Like any parent, I fear for my child in this horrible society.  It's a society where my daughter cannot go out alone safely; where she must be paranoid about what she drinks and eats if she wants to be safe; where she has to hide behind headphones and books to escape harassment on public transportation.  Any father these days fears for his daughter's safety.  But when you add to this the fact that my daughter identifies as bisexual, and that she is in a relationship with a transgender female, I transcend fear into utter terror.

Tonight on the Tony awards, Frank Langella said, "When something bad happens, you have three choices: you can let it define you, you can let it destroy you, or you can let it strengthen you."  He meant it as a message of hope and solidarity.  But while I refuse to let this tragedy define me, I fear that it will destroy me, because I can take no strength from living in a country which utterly, absolutely, and completely refuses to acknowledge the danger and the damage caused by the insane permission of the sale and use of automatic weapons with large magazines.  These weapons serve no purpose other than the killing of human beings.  They are not used for sport, or for any other purpose.  All they do, despite protestations to the contrary, is kill as many people as possible.  And we have no political will whatsoever to end this.  If the murder of dozens of elementary school children could not galvanize us into action, the deaths of fifty-some gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people certainly will not.

Earlier I spoke of the repugnant philosophies of the Islamic State.  The philosophies of so-called gun rights activists are no less repugnant.  The philosophies of Christian extremists who are already expressing the repellent idea that those gay clubgoers somehow deserved to be murdered are also no less repugnant.  The hatred and misogyny are overwheming.  They are fueling and fueled by in all too many cases religious belief and the idea that "my god is the only god, and anyone who believes differently needs to die."  Moreover, that to die in the process of killing for this idiocy will somehow grant favored status in the next life.

I cannot believe in a next life.  I cannot believe in any god.  I cannot bear to hear even the survivors thank a nonexistent "invisible friend" for their "miraculous" escape, because the implication is that those who did not survive were somehow not deserving of the miracle.  Not one of the victims of the latest tragedy, or any of the tragedies, deserved what happened to them.  I am trying desperately not to let this latest horror define me, but I feel no strength.  Only despair.

Friday, June 3, 2016

My Story, FWIW

So one of my friends wants to know a little bit about my past history.  I thought it might be nice to do that here, since I can edit and use actual punctuation and stuff, as opposed to on, say, Facebook, where an accidental bump of the "Enter" key puts all of your mistakes on the record forever. Plus the other two people who actually read this might find it interesting.

I did not grow up in a very functional home, so much so that I knew I wanted out at a very early age.  I started delivering papers when I was 10.  I started doing under-the-table child labor at a local plant when I was 12 or 13.  I always had a part-time job during school and a full-time job in the summer.  For the four years of high school I worked at a local supermarket and by the time I was a senior I was head cashier, in the retail workers' union, and making almost as much as my dad thanks to union overtime for working double shifts on Saturdays and Sundays.  All of this is by way of saying that starting at age 10 I began socking money away so that I could get away once I graduated from high school.

I got into a good school, the University of Virginia, with a decent scholarship and had what I thought was enough money to support myself.  Imagine my surprise when, the day before I left New Jersey for Virginia, I went to the bank to withdraw my money and found most of it gone.  My parents had been taking money out all along, just about as fast as I was putting it in.  From age 10.  I was expecting to withdraw close to $7,000.00.  My balance was $23.11.  Not a number you forget.

On a side note, this explained why I was forbidden to go to my prom.  I would have had to make a withdrawal for tickets, tuxedo, limo and flowers and would have discovered the loss before my parents were prepared to have me do so.

So I got to college with very little money.  At my high school graduation I had been awarded the Drama Scholarship, a whopping $400.00, which I still had -- thank my lucky stars I never deposited that check -- but otherwise very few funds.  I had to find a work-study job, fast, to buy books. Then I found out that my parents had not bought my meal ticket so that I could be on the food plan.  They used the money to make a mortgage payment.  Again, as with my bank account, they never told me.  I lived on care packages from my grandmother and -- literally -- scraps for that first year.  I was not allowed to work more than 20 hours a week or I would lose my scholarship, so I learned the true meaning of living paycheck to paycheck.

Somehow I got through that first year.  I stayed in Virginia, found a good summer job waiting tables, and kept my own damn money from then on.

Believe it or not, my family still held onto this fantasy that I was going to major in something pre-law-ish, go to law school, and become a rich lawyer who would then take care of them financially for the rest of their lives.  I did sort of buy into that myself, for a while, deciding to major in history, but that was before discovering the Drama Department.

You might have noticed I made mention of a high school drama scholarship a little earlier.  My activities in drama were a major source of contention and strife all through high school.  My father was dead set against any involvement, probably because he thought it would somehow "make me gay" (although the word "gay" was not in common use back in 1967.)  I was forced to drop out of the first play I was cast in so that I could try out for the baseball team.  Now I need to go on record with this:  I do not have the sports gene.  I don't enjoy watching them.  I am no good at playing them.  I rarely know what to say about them because I don't follow either college or professional anything.  So you can imagine how my tryout for the baseball team went.  I missed out on a chance to be in my first play for nothing.

But I stuck with it.  Eventually I was cast in other plays, and got bigger and bigger and parts.  I was very nearly president of the drama society when I was a senior, and played major roles in both the fall and spring productions.  So when I got to University, you can be damned sure that my liberal arts class requirements were going to be covered by classes from the Drama Department.  And they were. More on this soon....

Friday, April 22, 2016

Can't Take Credit

I can't take credit for this quote, but I can tell you that I agree with its sentiment wholeheartedly:  With regard to all the phoney transgender bathroom controversy bullshit, I personally grew up in a house with just two unisex bathrooms, and we all turned out OK.

THIS IS NOT AN ISSUE, PEOPLE.  Like Bill Maher just said, if you look like a guy, use the men's room; if you look like a woman, use the women's room, and if you're a big guy with a beard wearing a dress, hold it until you get home.