Have you ever been to a Fringe Festival? It's a really easy way to see theatre on the cheap. Small theatre companies are placed in variety of venues around a city and perform plays in them. Often, these ventures are incredibly creative. I've seen fringe shows comprised of puppetry, clowning, pantomime, and other performance techniques that make parents wish they had sprung for a Dale Carnegie seminar. I kid, but when it's done well, theatre like that is incredibly absorbing. But then there's the other kind of Fringe play popular at small festivals because no large, legitimate theatre would ever support such self-indulgence: the autobiographical one-person show. You guys, I don't have a lot going on right now, a lot of bad ideas seem more credible in times of desperation, but be a love and shoot me in the face if I ever turn Big City James into a tour-de-force one-man extravaganza. I've seen approximately one good autobiographical one-person show about a woman with an incredibly interesting life who left her home country to come to Canada and faced incredible odds. I've seen about a dozen one-person shows where a breathy narcissist has a fake realization and says, "I'm gay and that's okay!" Blackout. Applause. Or, "I forgive my parents, and I forgive...myself." Slow fade. Johnny Cash's cover of Hurt swells. Applause.
It's not just that I'm a snob and an asshole (though that's a big part of it). The fact is, this kind of confessional vanity is so personal, but often so poorly executed, with phony gestures of humility and grace, that if I'm sitting in the (small, sparse) audience, I just wish I could crawl into a hole and die. It's not embarrassment, exactly. It's a sharper, less empathic feeling. It's the reason I read Fringe Festival programs very carefully and don't attend evenings of slam poetry. Simply put, stuff like that makes me cringe.
Dream: Reduce my yearly instances of cringe by 50 percent.
Goal: Achievable. I surely suffer from an extremely low cringe-threshold, and I think I always have. One would think that a BFA in Theatre: four years of touchy-feely, sitting in circles and crying, embodying a pencil, breathing from your testicles nonsense would have helped me embrace the cringe-worthy events in life, but it may have only exacerbated the problem.
Plan: Avoid the following people or situations as much as possible (at least 50 percent of the time):
The inappropriate public speaker. I was at a wedding last month--a family wedding I was otherwise very pleased to attend. My cousins and I were drinking too much over at the kid's table when the emcee announced that, in lieu of clinking glasses, people who expected the bride and groom to kiss had to approach the microphone and recite a poem. My blood ran cold. Most people can interpret that simple instruction with middle-of-the-road platitudes like, "Roses are red/Violets are blue/I'm glad you are married/Can someone give me a ride back to the Travelodge?" But there's always an asshole at these things who has to say or do something wholly inappropriate. Sure enough, some drunken moron nobody knew gets on the mic and, to the tune of Skinnamarinky Dinky Dink, launched into a recitation about his own penis. I bolted to the bathroom and stayed there until I knew it was safe to come out.
The loveable loud child. Kids are great. They see the world anew with wonder. They brighten the otherwise dull world surrounding them. They can't finish pizza so you get more than your fair share because their stomachs are small and stupid. But, like the drunken wedding toast, nothing makes me embarrassed on someone else's behalf quite like a child addressing a large audience. Do you remember that show Kids Say the Darnedest Things? Where a child would tell Bill Cosby in earnest about Basghetti and Meatbulbs and Bill would turn to the audience drily, like "Can you believe this stupid kid?" Oh man, I loathe that. It serves no purpose in the world. The kid doesn't know he's being an idiot, so he can't tell why everybody is laughing at him. And the audience chuckles, perhaps thinking, "Oh the innocence of a child!" But what if you were up there and we laughed at your fuck-ups? When I'm talking to a contemporary who says words like, "Conversate" or "Agreeance", I don't go "HA HA HA! YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT WORDS ARE!" So how come we get to do that with children?
Open mic comedy nights. God bless and keep open mic comedy nights and the saints who run those rooms. I have done a few myself (and bombed, thank you) and it is petrifying. But sitting in the audience watching someone crash and burn is the worst feeling in the world, especially when the performer is clearly unprepared. I'll say this for my own performances, at least I was working from a script. Every bad joke, no matter how bad it was, had been written and memorized and practiced by me for weeks. So at least the audience wasn't laughing because I wasn't funny, not because I got up there and froze. I barrelled through my seven minutes like a champ and when they didn't laugh I went even faster to fill the silences (Sample joke: "Anybody see footage of that smoking baby on YouTube? It's really sad, but the upside is, I heard he got a part on Mad Men." You have to remember, I told that joke in 2010--it was really topical, you guys. Are you laughing yet?). But SO many people get up there so completely petrified that they have nothing to say. One guy told a Matthew Shepherd joke that (naturally) went over poorly and he said, "I guess I should stop" and walked off. Another woman proceeded as if she was getting huge laughs, the absence of which was made all the more obvious by her milking of the joke. "I went to the beauty parlour the other day and they had age-defying cream and wrinkle-prevention cream and I said, 'Hey, where's the anti-death cream?'.... 'Could I stock up on some anti-death cream, please?'... 'I'm going to bring the car around, can you load it up with anti-death cream?'....'Anti-death cream!'" She was just milking that anti-death cream business and also no one says beauty parlour anymore and even if they did, they'd be referring to a hair salon. Good god!
Emotions. I can appreciate how special it is to have a real, one-on-one emotional experience with a friend or loved one. I don't mean to minimize that at all, and I hope I'm good company in those situations. But if I don't know you and you fall to pieces, what exactly is the protocol there? I started a new job, and on my third day, my manager walked in, awash in tears. "James..." he whimpered, dissolving into sobs. "I'm sorry, I just need a minute!" he said, knees buckling and leaning against the wall. I was, as you can imagine, paralyzed by my own sense of unease, but also genuinely concerned that my new boss had his world come crashing down. Finally, when he was well enough to continue, he asked if I minded starting my shift solo because, "My girlfriend's rabbit died!" I mean, can you even? Or one time, I was waiting outside a Booster Juice and a girl got out of her car on her cell phone yelling, "THEN ALL I HAVE TO SAY IS FUCK YOU!" and then she threw her phone on the ground and it smashed (!!!!) and she screamed, "WHY ARE GUYS SUCH ASSHOLES?!?!" I just stared back at her (or more accurately, at her broken phone pieces) until, blessedly, someone yelled, "Funky Monkey!" and I said, "Oh that's me" and claimed my smoothie. Maybe it's how I was raised (by robots), but you don't just...express yourself like that. Not that my family is cold and uncaring, but we'd rather chew our food more thoroughly if it meant not discussing something important, and I think most of us would much prefer to see a bartender than a therapist.
I'm sure a therapist, or at least someone more attune to human behaviour than I am, would point out that my susceptibility to cringe at these things says way more about me, my own failings, my own narcissism, than it does about the situations themselves. I can't bear witness to any discomfort because then it becomes my own. It's as if I've inherited the sensitivity of my mother along with the utter disdain for all forms of bullshit from my father. But I can't blame them for my problems anymore. I forgive my parents and I forgive... myself.