Thursday, 26 July 2012

Now We Just Need a Title...

Hello Friends.

A few years ago, I was an usher/ticket-taker for a one-woman show. Normally, I loathe one-person shows, but this one-person was one person I particularly liked, and I was all too happy to rip tickets and find seats for her tour-de-force performance.

The perk of being the usher/ticket-taker at a play is, if the play isn't sold out, you can take a seat in the audience for free and watch the show. On opening night, I did just that, and sat back comfortably to experience the performer's unique journey, or whatever is you're supposed to do at those things. The show was humming along, I was thoroughly enjoying myself, and then the actress (let's call her Diane) looked to us, hopefully. "And every night, we'd go to the bar and drink and sing! Who wants to come sing with me?" She happily scanned the opening night crowd, as I shrank in my chair. An uncomfortable murmur went through the audience. People busied themselves by looking through their purses, or fake-coughing. I prayed someone else would step forward when Diane's gaze met mine and we locked eyes. She looked at me pleadingly, I could almost hear her thoughts. "Come on, James," she looked to be thinking. "Help me out! Nobody else will! For god's sake, I'm dying out here!"

I broke her gaze. I fake-coughed. I pretended to be engrossed in my wristwatch. Finally, after what seemed like an hour of cajoling, a young woman volunteered, sang half the Flintstone's theme, and sat back down, to hearty applause. Diane finished her show to a standing ovation, and I caught up with her in the lobby after the show. We hugged and I congratulated her, and she said she was glad to see me, and we were perfectly nice to one-another, but we both knew what I had done or rather, what I hadn't done. I hadn't come to her rescue by simply raising my hand. I couldn't do it. I let her die.

Dream: Avoid audience participation forever.

Goal: Achievable. It seems like I'm continually running the risk of being called up on a stage to do some stupid thing, despite my complete lack of enthusiasm for it. However, there must be something about me that tells performers, "Yeah, that guy! He'll do whatever we tell him, nyuck-nyuck-nyuck!" But someone like my dad, for instance, whether it's his appearance or demeanour, you would never ask him to be part of a scene, shout out a suggestion. He'd look at you like you were crazy, and perhaps suggest you learn a trade of some kind.

Plan: Until I can manifest that inherent quality that says, "Please ignore me, this demeans us both", I will simply remove myself from situations that require audience participation. Situations like:

Improv comedy shows. A few words about improvised comedy: When improv comedy succeeds, it's like nothing you've ever seen. It's like watching a perfect golden orb fall out of the sky and split into two perfect halves through which an eagle majestically bursts forth, flies through a hoop of fire, and soars through the horizon, fast and free. When it fails it's like tripping over a dead fish and falling into a bucket of sewage. And based on what I've seen, and I'm sorry Improvisors, it fails 90% of the time, or more. A group of hilarious, zany comrades will get onstage and take suggestions from the audience to build a scene, with variables like occupation, activity, and location. It's like a live action Mad Libs with all the potential for embarrassing filth (eg. A gynaecologist going to the bathroom in Hell). And again, the best improv teams in the world can make this stuff fly, and everybody else dies slowly and painfully up there.

When I first moved to the big city, I took in a show at Second City, which is one of the most famous sketch and improv training grounds in the world. They had put together an SNL-style sketch revue and it was hysterical. I laughed all the way through, I couldn't believe homegrown talent was producing such amazing work. Then they invited the audience to stick around because after the sketch set they had rehearsed, they were going to do an improv performance! I stayed in my seat, delighted, and watched, disbelieving, as it all went to hell. This group of performers who, just moments earlier, had the entire audience eating out of their hands with their well-crafted comedy, were now a desperate showcase of zany tics and quirks and unbearable "look at me!"-type stunts. One guy lapsed into the worst Cosby I've ever heard. And anyone can kind of do a Cosby, you just sort of let your language deteriorate, but this guy was doing a ham-fisted, borderline racist homage and one of the other performers said, "Hey Dad, I'm dyslexic!" which was a take on Theo Huxtable, which is an always timely and hilarious reference. Now I'm not saying I could do this any better myself. Quite the contrary, I did improv in high school badly, and knew enough to never try again, but every part of me gets tense and queasy in the audience for one of these things. I see the naked desperation in a performer's eyes as they frenetically demand suggestions for something that might salvage a scene, and I just can't bear to be there.

Similarly, I can't participate in 50/50 draws, or raffles, or anything where a winner of something is announced over a microphone and somebody comes to the front to collect their prize. I will throw out or ignore any ticket stub, and forgo winning anything just to not be that guy, because everybody hates that guy! Think about it, if the prize is a good one and you win it, everybody's mad at you because they didn't get it for themselves. If the prize is bad and you win it, you're stuck with a shitty prize you have to carry around until you can re-gift it at Christmas. Either way, not worth the strife.

Speaking of strife, being on the other side of audience participation is no picnic either. For a few summers, I performed in shows for children. It was fun almost all of the time. They were funny, well-written shows, I got to be sing songs and goof around with a different group of kids a few times a week all summer long, it was a good gig. The only problem was that every show I did had a dreaded part in it where I, as one of the actors, would have to pick out a Mom or Dad to take part in a bit we were doing. I understand the appeal of that conceit. Kids think it's hilarious when grown-ups act silly, and it loosens to kids up sing along with the songs or do the wacky dances or whatever. But getting that first Mom or Dad was the worst job in the world. Dads plain didn't want to do it, or participated so grudgingly, looking daggers at me the whole time, that I suspect some of them are still mad at me, wherever they are. Moms were more game, initially, but so afraid of looking stupid that they would simply refuse to do certain things, leaving us hanging onstage, desperate for a way out. I always begged to cut the Mom or Dad parts, but my pleas fell on deaf ears. However, I must also thank the truly standout Moms and Dads who wore the crazy hats, did the silly voices, and gave it a hundred percent up there with us. You're the dream participant, and that's just your cross to bear.

I even chafe at orientation exercises at school or work. You know, those silly games where you say, "I'm Jumbled James, you're Devilish Dave, she's Boring Bernice" and so on. Or when a boss or team leader says, "Just tell us your name a little something about yourself." I always want to respond, "My name is James and I wish I was dead."

Sometimes I'm afraid that my reluctance to participate in something for fear of embarrassing myself or looking stupid is symptomatic of a larger problem. That I'm a misanthrope , and that what I'm actually afraid of is participating in my own life. I know this guy we'll call Pete who participates in life like he's gunning for a promotion. He pursues passion and projects, be they personal or professional, literally all over the world. He's spent his adult life travelling the globe, and not in a flaky tourist way either. He seems to establish all kinds of connections, make strides in a variety of industries, only to take off again for something new. By contrast, I had a dining companion last night (who's equally successful in personal and professional endeavours, by the way) say, "I think I'm just going to give up on the world." He's not a depressive or anything, but just meant that he's tired of hearing about how fucked up the planet is, the myriad of ways we screw up life for ourselves and each other. He's content to claim his corner of the world, with his husband and his dog, take necessary trips for work and family obligations, but otherwise draw the shades and live happily ever after. I think I vacillate between Pete and my dinner date. The part of me that winces, "Oh god, please don't call me up onstage, Diane!" seems to fly in the face in the joy I experienced singing silly songs and wearing a variety of wigs with groups of children every summer.

I think the difference is that I need to plan. When it comes my life, I'm willing to take centre-stage sometimes, but not to throw the script away. That's why, as hard as it is to face another big move, I'm so grateful to have Jonny, my favourite co-star, with me along the way. Goodness knows, without him, I'd be dying up here.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

If You're Ready to Learn...

Hello Friends.

Did you ever get into an argument with someone who's unwavering belief in their own opinion is their only defence, even when faced with facts and figures that prove the contrary? Like if someone were to say to you, "They stopped making any good music after 1994", you might call that person's opinion highly subjective, then run through a list of records or musicians that you think are great, and the first person says, "Nope." And when faced with more evidence, a louder and more definitive, "NOPE!", maybe with a head shake?

That method of reasoning is extremely frustrating, but seems to dominate discourse on any topic these days, subjective or not. Someone like Bill O'Reilly might challenge a guest on his program, "Give me one reason why the passing of this law makes any sense to you." And the guest will say, "Well, Bill, if you look at the case of X v. Y in 1996, several wrongfully accused men would have been exonerated because..." and Bill will go, "Nope" and then "NOPE!" It's wilful ignorance. It's saying, "I would rather accept my version of events versus what is actually true." This is a trait I loathe in other people, and so it is rather hypocritical of me to ignore this trait in myself.


Goal: Achievable, I hope. I don't know when it was that I became hardwired to resist learning new information. When I finish school I suppose I thought, "Well I've got a degree now. Fuck you, knowledge! DONE!" and clapped my hands smugly. But even in school there were teachers I resisted, information I wouldn't retain, brain parts I couldn't activate. I took Computer Science 100 as my required Science class, for example (it was a lax degree) and could not absorb a single fact. Nothing was less relevant to my interest, I figured, so why bother thinking about any of it and risk wrinkling my smooth, be-pimpled forehead? But now I face overwhelming examples of topics and fields of study I know nothing about and I truly believe I'm ignoring them at my peril. I've gotta give a pep talk to my brain here, lest I atrophy into a mindless mush waiting for the new Racing Car Robot Tits Beer Gun movie to come out.

Plan: Identify and discern those topics which I could stand to research a little further, like:

Canada. What's your deal, home country? How come so much of you is one way, but then the rest of you is another? Why does it cost so much money to buy groceries in Nunavut, for example? If it's an issue of transportation costs, why is there no subsidy to cover them? Also, Canada, why do you make it so expensive to travel through you? How come I can fly to Cancun for less money than I can to fly to Regina?

Violence. How come it's so easy for me to ignore violent crime as long as it's over twenty minutes away by car? Why do we continue to glorify gang culture when it is so clearly a destructive path for everyone involved? How many people have to shoot each other dead in the street before we give a shit?

Aioli. What are you? Why are you on every food I order in a restaurant? Can I buy you in a store? Are you fattening? Can I get a different kind of aioli? Is it organic? Is organic still a thing?

The guy from Avatar. Who/where is that guy? You know what's cool? I can't help but think the lead guy from Avatar's relative obscurity is somehow his own making. Gonna Google him, brb... Okay, the guy's name is Sam Worthington. I feel like Sam Worthington was an actor making the rounds, ended up in a room auditioning for James Cameron, got the part in Avatar and then was like, "This is all too much. I need to sit down." And then he did! Hey celebrities complaining about the perils of fame, take a lesson from Sam Worthington. That guy was the lead in one of the biggest movies in the world, at least from the past few years. I don't know anyone who didn't see that movie, and he was in nearly every scene. But I don't know if he has a girlfriend or a boyfriend or what his next movie is or where he had dinner last night. He probably did the requisite amount of press appearances for his movie, then found a home in some non-Hollywood place and was like, "See you in a bit if they make Avatar 2, gonna just sit here and make waffles on Sundays." Good for you, Sam Worthington. Out of respect, I'm not going to learn anything about you.

While we're at it, I'd like to remain wilfully ignorant of YOLO, Pinterest, Dance Moms, bath salts. Can't be bothered.

I would like to know more about political prisoners, guerrilla film-making, Shawn Atleo and his ties (or not) with Harper, reunited twins who have led eerily parallel lives, and The Green Party. I don't know why learning is something that becomes more challenging the more you do it. It's kind of the opposite of any other pursuit. It's trite, perhaps, but true that the more I learn, the less I know. But that shouldn't stop me, or any of us, from reading a newspaper, attending a lecture, and uncovering our ears during an argument, daring ourselves to be wrong.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Culture Shift...

Hello Friends.

I don't know whether it's all this 2012 talk, or the fact that I recently went up a jean size again, but I feel like change is afoot. I don't mean change for me personally (though I am in the midst of a move and new job hunt), but rather a larger, sweeping change in the culture.

I sometimes think about people who came of age in different time periods, like the sixties or the twenties, and wonder what it must have been like to be alive during that time. Did young people know, for instance, that they were living through a massive societal change? Did they appreciate it?

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that our generation is doing just that, and I want it on record that I acknowledge it and I dig it too. People of my generation lived life before the internet, experienced it's introduction into the culture, and now see it as integral to their lives. I was a teenager before we got the internet in our house, saw it as a cool diversion for a few years, and now I can't imagine my life without it. We are globally connected in ways never before possible, which seems to have alternately expanded and shrunk our entire universe. It's as if a growing segment of the population is comfortable playing high-stakes poker with wealthy elite in Japan, developing long-distance romance with with a chat room friend in Germany, keeping track of the every move of a favourite celebrity, but unable to sit at a bar and actually speak to real people in real time.

In spite of, or maybe because of, all these changes in a relatively short time, I feel like there's more to come. Consider how saturated the average North American adult is with pop culture every day. We can watch any tv on demand, get ten thoughtful, inspirational, or funny memes on our Facebook feed every couple of minutes, see new jokes literally within seconds as amateur and professional comedians alike update their Twitter accounts. There has to be a breaking point where we get sick of it all, and demand something new.

Dream: Anticipate and predict sweeping cultural change.

Goal: Achievable. You know how Call Me Maybe is the hit of the summer? I predicted that shit back in February! So, yeah, I think I know a bit about the way the wind is blowing.

Plan: Based on where we've been, determine where we're going. I anticipate a rise in:

Street culture. I think there's bound to be some pushback to our Facebook, LinkedIn, Twittered existence, by people who refuse to put anything online. Unpluggers, they'll call themselves, or Luddites. I predict more bands refusing to make websites and instead playing killer live shows that people only know about by showing up to the venue. Strange theatre companies suddenly creating appointment plays again, where nothing is recorded, and nothing is preserved. I know hipsters think they already do this, but I think hipsters yearn for nostalgia where these unpluggers will seek to create things anew, and hipsters love things ironically, but I think ironic detachment is on its way out in some respects.

For instance, comedy. Free form rants peppered with non-sequiter one liners seems to be all the rage in comedy these days. Comedians have Twitter accounts which limit tweets to 140 characters (not words, characters), and so Stephen Wright-style witticisms ("I spilled spot remover on my dog, now he's gone") seem to be the rage. I love this trend, I attempt it myself, but we're gonna get sick of it soon. There's only so many non-contextualized throwaway lines you can hear until they stop being funny, and the proliferation of them in all forms of media continues unabated. I watched a few minutes of The Big Bang Theory the other night, a show I'd never seen before. They had canned laughter after every single line. Every line! No scenes built to anything, it was just a series of bad jokes, but The Big Bang Theory is one of the highest rated shows on tv. I predict a future where comedy is based more on the slow burn. The story joke that builds and builds, like comedians of old. Tig Notaro kind of works like that now, and John Mulaney too and both of those people have a rehearsed, precise form of delivery that seems to fly in the face of the off-the-cuff style preferred by other popular comedians.

To that end, television is going to change too. We've been so inundated with reality shows, that I predict the medium will be turned on its head when one brilliant executive decides to hire some really realistic-sounding mumblecore actors, a script writer who writes just the way people talk, and just writes out the next season of Big Brother. Stage the entire thing, but toss in more scandal and betrayal than usual, I bet we'd be riveted. Even the most critically acclaimed scripted television now is starting to look less polished and is the better for it. Consider the gritty, documentary style of Louie, or the stark honesty of Girls. That seems to have attracted more fans than the slick and speechy Newsroom or a polished but laughable reboot of Dallas. I predict a future of auteur television where the vision of one talented writer/director trumps the focus group mentality of a room full of executives who "know what the public wants." There will be more Lena Dunhams and Louis C.K.'s and I'm really looking forward to it.

Finally, and I really hope I'm right about this one, I think we have no choice but to love our neighbours a little bit more. Seems to me we're culturally losing faith in what we used to look to, be they politicians, religious leaders, news media, even celebrities. There's a growing appetite for equality in the bedroom and boardroom, political correctness appears to be turning from whiny rhetoric to the new standard in manners, we just want to get along better, and I think we will. When I worked the late afternoon/evening shift at a drugstore, I'd walk down a street filled with kids who had just gotten out of school and were walking home together. It was unbelievably heartening to notice that when these groups of kids would break off to go home, or down different streets or whatever, they'd hug each other. When I started to notice it, I made a conscious effort to track the huggers, and it was almost every group of teenage kids, guys and girls both, that would greet or part ways with a hug. Sure, the guys did that bro-hug thing, but even that is so different from anything I remember from my days in school. Maybe it's a small trend that doesn't mean anything, but if we're striving to be more tactile, more connected, more "in this together" than before, doesn't that signal some kind of revolution? I hope so. I want to be a part of it.