This Thursday, I presented my final interactive history presentation of the 2016/2017 school year, and yesterday I attended my company’s end of the year meeting, a celebratory day of reflection. In that selfsame spirit of reflection and celebration, I here present a short depiction of this past year’s noteworthy happenings in the little world of Philip. (If you’d like to let me know about your year, leave a comment below. It’s FREE!)
Over the course of this past school year, I presented two hundred and fifty-five interactive history presentations to over seven thousand students. Each of those presentations was two and a half hours long. During them, I talked constantly, all while attempting to hold the attentions of a room full of grade school students. To do so, I used every trick I knew, including funny voices, props, costumes, and the corniest jokes ever conceived by humankind. While doing so, I myself transformed from a person who was reluctant to work with students to a person who draws great meaning from the practice. (For more info about this new teaching job of mine, click HERE.)
To get to these presentations, I drove over seven thousand miles, replacing as I did so three tires on my newly acquired (used) car, its brakes, and (several times) its variously required fluids. I drove more in this past year than I have in all previous years combined, as this was also my first year owning a car. Needless to say, my driving skills have markedly improved, although my fiancée will be the first to say there is still capacious space available in my skill set for further improvements. I am now intimately acquainted with the traffic patterns of Orange County, having also traveled for work to the Central Coast, Central Valley, Imperial Valley, and the Mojave desert. I camped in Joshua Tree and hiked in Yosemite. I even saw the Salton Sea!
This was my first year with a steady, non-acting job. It was my first year having weekends off. It was my first year paying for my own health insurance. It was also my first year paying for my own housing, as I have in the past always worked theatre jobs that provided housing or crashed (briefly) with family and long-suffering friends. This year I signed a lease for a condo with my fiancée, Chelsea, and speaking of Chelsea, this year I proposed to my fiancée Chelsea. Chelsea and I get married in 19 days, and if my last few posts have seemed to focus more and more on Chelsea and I as a couple doing couple things, it is because we are getting married in 19 days, and everything else seems to pale in comparison to that brazenly florid fact.
This upcoming summer is also my first summer in seven years without an acting gig, unless you count getting married as a theatrical event, which I am tempted to do. There are, after all, so many similarities. There will be a rehearsal. There will be an audience in attendance. Chelsea and I will both be in costume. And, we will have lines to say! I may in fact put the wedding down on my theatrical resume, which is currently collecting cobwebs.
Why don’t we leave things there for now. I’ll be back next week with a proper essay.
This will come as no surprise to the older, more experienced members of my readership (you mighty horde of three), but when you are in a relationship, “firsts” - by which I mean the first time you and your beloved do something together - adopt a strange, possibly unearned significance. These moments just feel important. The first time you kiss. The first time you cook together. The first time you go look at pets. These firsts carry weight. They seem in their own small way to foretell how your whole relationship will go in the long run. Whether they actually do or not is, of course, not for me to say. I am neither prophet, wizard, nor weatherman. Telling the future is not my job.
I simply mention this peculiar truth about firsts by way of introduction. This is the story of my fiancėe Chelsea and I’s first shared camping trip. We went to Joshua Tree on Thanksgiving weekend of this past year. Because this was our first camping trip together, it was always going to carry that odd aura of The First Time. So, when I went and actually proposed marriage on Thanksgiving Day, it did very little to calm the thing down in terms of our expectations. This was now our first shared camping trip as a newly engaged couple. Gasoline had met open flame. The whole trip was suddenly catapulted into the STRATOSPHERE OF VERY HIGH EXPECTATIONS, which I believe is the very highest level of our Earth’s atmosphere, the one right before the whole thing just melts away into the vacuum of space. Naturally, when your expectations are up that high, there is no way to go but down.
This is a tale that could easily run long in the telling, so let’s stick to the highlights and primary plot points. There is no need to concern ourselves with specific details of private emotions and personal squabbles. I don’t care to write about that, and you don’t care to read about it. As we discussed last week, my fiancėe and I see the world differently. Chelsea is an optimist, and she loves camping. I am a pessimist, and I am indifferent to camping. Armed with those two character nuggets, I am sure you can paint in all the dialogue yourself.
Let us begin.
I proposed on a Thursday, and we left for Joshua Tree bright and early that Friday, our hopes and our heads held high. We left early so as to claim a camping spot in the park, not knowing at this point that the whole park had been full to the brim for the past two weeks. This was what we found out hours later, after driving around the park for several of those hours, peering at each and every site in the park only to find that each spot was, indeed, well and truly taken.
With our hearts bruised but not yet broken, we left the pristine wilderness of the park and purchased a spot at a campground five miles or so away. Joshua Tree is beautiful. This campground was not. It featured a dusty little man-made lake, a village of camper vans, and a rusty metal sculpture garden. Joshua Tree features fascinating topographical features -- hills, cliffs, and boulders abound. The Joshua trees for which the park is named dot the landscape in memorable fashion. This campground was out in the flat, barren desert. Chelsea, being an optimist, was disheartened. I, having assumed the worst from the first sign of trouble, was disheartened that she was disheartened. Amidst this mood plunge, we proceeded to pitch our tent.
Naturally, this took a whole lot longer than you would want. Pitching a tent always takes longer than you would want. But two things made it particularly frustrating this time. Firstly, the tent we had borrowed from friends was designed to hold 6-8 adults. In turns out that the larger the tent, the more severe the headache it causes. Also, just to warn you, pitching a tent in the desert is inherently worse than pitching it elsewhere. Tent pegs are designed to be driven into dirt that will hold tent pegs.
Sand is not dirt.
I do not recommend pitching a tent in the desert.
But, we did get the stupid thing up in the end.
Fresh from the struggle, we abandoned our campsite for dinner at Pappy & Harriet’s, a delightful joint in Pioneer Town, which is a fabricated Old Western town where they used to shoot Old Hollywood Westerns. It has since been turned into a tourist trap. The wait for a table was lengthy, but we finally got a spot, and the evening passed pleasantly enough. We returned to our camp site with thoughts of building a cheery fire.
Surprise! We couldn’t get the fire started in the dark. I am a pessimist, but this was a blow to my pride specifically. I was a cub scout once, many moons ago, and for some reason this fact made my own inability to get the wood to light somehow personal. Disheartened yet again, we turned in for the night.
Morning brought new frustrations. I’ll spare you details. Let it suffice to say that one of us - I will not specify who - had forgotten to pack a frying pan, and essentially all of the food supplies we had brought with us required that frying pan. I will also clue you in on the fact that you cannot make a frying pan out of aluminum foil. IT DOES NOT WORK. And if you are going to borrow a frying pan from a group of frat boys camped nearby, know that you must wash that pan first.
Rallying from our day’s frustrating start, we headed into the park. To our vast relief, the afternoon went well. Hikes were had, snacks were consumed, and the gorgeous natural beauty of Joshua Tree did much to lift our spirits. We left the park well before sunset, making a quick detour to civilization to buy a frying pan and lighter fluid. I was determined to get a fire started before dark, and Chelsea had plans to fry some pork chops for our dinner.
Surprise! We returned to the campground to find our tent completely collapsed, its fabric whipping about in the brisk wind that was now blowing across the desert. We attempted to put the tent back up, but it rapidly became clear that with the wind picking up the way that it was, our large tent (built for 6-8 people, remember) was essentially a huge sail. The force of the wind in this huge sail just kept pulling the tent pegs out of the sand.
Again, my friends, I must remind you, SAND IS NOT DIRT. Sand and tent pegs do not get along.
Some kind retirees from a camper van nearby attempted to help us, but it soon became crystal clear that this tent was just not going to stay up. With hearts now utterly dashed, we looked around us and realized that the weekend was pretty much a complete bust. There was not enough room in our vehicle to sleep comfortably, and it was decided, after discussion, that we should pack up, fry our pork chops, and at least enjoy dinner before we headed back to civilization.
We had finally gotten the stupid tent folded up (which also takes longer than you’d want), when we turned and saw the storm rolling in over the desert.
There it was, a veritable wall of wind and rain, racing directly our way. It looked like something out of a film.
This understandably hurried our packing. The rain began to pound down around us just as we got the last of our things into the car. The wind was so strong by this point that the tents of other campers, who were still out for the day, were quite literally blowing away across the sand.
In the car on the way home, we reflected that our trip, though on paper a complete failure, and actually been the best case scenario for the set of circumstances we had faced. Our tent was not built for a desert. And, if it was going to collapse, at least it had the decency to do so during the day, when we were not inside it. The whole thing would have been much worse at night. And, if I had been able to get the campfire lit the night before, we never would have come back to camp so soon, in time to break everything down before the rainstorm arrived. Breaking down a campsite in the dark in the middle of a rainstorm would have been so much worse than the frustrations we had had to face.
So, there you have it. Sometimes bad things really do lead to good.
Of course, sometimes they don’t, but then life will insist on being mysterious.
Just promise me you’ll never pitch a tent in sand. We’ll leave it at that.
This past Thursday, my fiancée and I prepared Beef & Broccoli, an Americanized Chinese dish familiar to anyone fond of a so-bad-it’s-good Americanized Chinese takeout place. To be clear, we made a paleo version of Beef & Broccoli, because we are attending a wedding in 35 days (our wedding), and it seems necessary at this point to take drastic dietary steps. We then negated these drastic dietary steps by pouring this paleo Beef & Broccoli over rice, because we like rice. It’s our wedding after all, and we can do what we like.
As we prepared this dish together, Chelsea refused to allow me to look at the recipe. This was because she said I would over think it. She has, by now, caught on to the fact that I am a man who likes to follow directions. I am the type that assumes directions are there for a reason. Deviation from the directions seems, to me, to be a wantonly foolish move. Who knows where such radical measures may lead? My bride-to-be prefers to “wing it.” In her view - a perfectly plausible one, let me hasten to say - the directions are suggested parameters in which to freestyle. She enters into the business of cookery with a free spirit. For her, the world is open to play.
Our approaches to life, therefore, are intrinsically opposed. As you already surmised, Chelsea is an optimist. She assumes that if she ventures out into unexplored terrain her own wit, moxie, and charm will be there to keep her safe from harm. And, thus far in life, she has been proven (mostly) right. She has plenty of wit, lots of moxie, and a whole lot of charm. Usually her freestyling ends with a positive note. And, as you have already gleaned from the above, I am her opposite. I have a carefully calculated view of the world. I assume that my limitations are significant, and that the Law of Entropy applies to life. To my mind, chaos looms about us like a grim-faced specter, and we must venture forth plans firmly in hand in order to successfully combat this significant foe. Chelsea blithely expects the best, while I glumly assume the worst, being, as I truly am, a pessimist. And, thus far in life, I have (mostly) been proven wrong.
This pessimism has characterized me from a young age. My father once confessed to me that he considers himself responsible for this. It seems that in 4th grade there was a writing contest put on by my school. The writer of the best essay (or whatever the 4th grade equivalent of an “essay” is) would receive a $50 prize, a huge sum to someone in the 4th grade. My father says I wrote my essay in a great flurry of excitement and then walked around for days chattering enthusiastically about what I would do with the money. I seemed convinced of my own literary invincibility. My father grew concerned for me, fearing that defeat might crush my young spirit, and so he sat me down and gently introduced me to the notion that I might not actually win the money but that that was alright. My father said that after this revelation I was noticeably bummed. After I failed to win the money, I was shattered still further. My father feared for years that he had broken me in some way.
Naturally, when my father told me this story, I told him to forget about it. I doubt that that writing contest was the primary cause of my negative mental lens. Personally, I believe this slant in my mentality goes back to the year before, when we moved from Fort Wayne, Indiana, the city of my birth, to Brookston, a small town 2 ½ hours west (though still in Indiana). I remember being tremendously excited to move. It sounded exciting. I had never moved before.
It ended up being a difficult transition. I was slow to make friends at my new school. I can still remember walking around the playground in the third grade, praying to God, because I felt that He was my only friend. (This sounds heartbreaking, but just know, I was a dramatic child. I also remember talking to the school counselor for long sessions for no real reason; it just made me feel special. I felt important, speaking with a counselor. I also remember peddling my bike to the edge of that Hoosier hamlet, only to stop and gaze dramatically out over the cornfields, dreaming of adventure in far off places. It seemed like the sort of thing the young hero in a book would do, and so I did it.)
I was just starting to win friends and influence people – or the 5th grade equivalent of that, at least – when we moved again, this time to Southern Russia. Things were even harder with this second move. Personally, I think that it was this double uprooting that created in me the expectation that life tends to take dark turns for the worst.
But enough of this depressing reminiscence! The point is, I am a pessimist still, though, as I mentioned before, I have mostly been proven wrong. I am constantly shocked to discover that the world floats on despite my fears. I forever expect things to be three times worse than they end up being, even on days when things do go wrongly. I have always defended this pessimism with the following argument:
As you have probably already surmised, this argument is logically sound but self-evidently sad. And, for the record, let me announce that the Beef & Broccoli with which we began this ramble ended up tasting great. It was a little off at first, seeing as we did stray from the recipe, but with a few waves of her riff-tastic wand, Chelsea magicked the dish, allowing us to enjoy a delicious dinner. I am exceedingly fortunate to be life-partnering up with such an opposingly compatible soul. Her positivity and fearlessness draw me out of my shell and compel me towards new experiences. Providing balance, my own desire to plan and my awareness of possible complications have helped as well, allowing us to better weather times of turmoil.
Next week, join me for the tale of Chelsea & I’s ill-fated trip to Joshua Tree, the camping adventure we undertook the weekend after I proposed. (SPOILER ALERT! It did not go well.) Things went poorly, lessons were learned, and it could not have been more perfect. Until then, take care.
I hereby lay out, before my readers and potentially (if improbably) the entirety of the earth, my confessional. This is the story of my first audition, and if you think this is going to be a tale of triumph, you are unspeakably incorrect.
Let me begin this tale of terrible sorrow and ignorant woe with a brief acknowledgment. This was not, strictly speaking, my first audition. That took place in elementary school, when for reasons unknown I won the enviable role of Steve in the kindergarten choir’s musical production of Blue’s Clues. The choir was in kindergarten. I was in 5th grade at the time, specially chosen to portray the role of Steve because, I can only assume, of my prodigious talents, apparent even then to our choir instructor, Mr. Potts. Naturally, I then went on to never perform again until high school, when out of boredom and a sure and certain feeling that I would not make the basketball team, I tried out for the school play.
But, let us leave these tiresome, entirely trivial caveats behind us and cut straight to the heart of our present story. Let us rejoin our hapless hero, me, during my Freshman year of college, when, for reasons that I shall explain in but a moment, I was forced to try out for the fall musical.
Like many a fool before me, I had arrived at my college (Huntington University) without having picked a major. This was, I thought, practical. I would only change my mind, I reasoned, and so it made sense to get things going without the pretense of certainty and feel my way out as I went along. The dean had kindly, therefore, recommended classes based on my high school activities, and had signed me up for not one but two beginning acting classes. This sealed my fate, as it was a requirement for all beginning acting students to audition for ALL of the university’s productions. The first production open to incoming Freshman was, as I am certain you will agree, a vehicle that simply SCREAMED for my involvement – a musical version of Little Women. What could be more perfect for an average sized man such as myself, who had never sung a show tune in his life?
At the time, I considered myself a "funny man," destined to act (if at all) in PLAYS … comedy ones. A serious musical role was not something I aspired to in the slightest. But, class requirements, after all, being class requirements, I dutifully prepared for my audition by not really preparing at all, because I had no idea how you would do that. When told by a concerned observer that I would need to bring sheet music for my musical audition, I responded with an honest, if alarming question, “What is sheet music?”
This should alert you to the depths of my ignorance.
A brief word of explanation might be in order before we proceed to the inevitable unpleasantries. We are not all, it’s true, musical theatre people, and some of us may not be aware of how a standard musical theatre audition is meant to go. Typically, this is the order of events:
Needless to say, I knew nothing about these expectations, and, safe in the fortified city of my own ignorance, I made no extra effort to find out what was truly required of me. I simply prepared in my own quiet, completely incorrect way.
I picked a song I was familiar with (Pure Imagination from the Gene Wilder classic, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), and I printed out the lyrics…just the lyrics. As I eluded to earlier, sheet music was not something which I knew how to find at the time. I was, it must be said, and in the truest sense of the word, an idiot. I practiced singing my selection, but I did not memorize the lyrics.
The day of my doom dawned dark and early. In my memory, it was a very stormy day. Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled. Tornado watches were in effect, although it may have been a perfectly sunny day – memories are like that. I nervously arrived at the Arts building and paced about with the other auditionees, awaiting my appointed time slot.
Eventually, my name was called, rolling out like the tolling of a far off church bell.
I entered the room and proceeded to desecrate the very foundations of the theatrical art form.
Allow me to list for you my manifold errors:
A few days later, I returned to the site of my shame to gaze morosely on the freshly posted cast list. Imagine my surprise when I saw that I had been CAST. It was a small role, but it was a role. As a willing young man possessed of a beating heart and a mouth capable of forming sounds, I was deemed too valuable of a commodity to be lost by the tiny Huntington University theatre department. That I lacked any knowledge or talent in the realms of music or theatre or musical theatre was a fact that could be remedied in time, or so those charitable professors decided. They needed bodies to fill the stage, and, at the very least, I had a body, if not a very impressive one.
It was only later on, at the end of that school year, that my eventual acting instructor, Jay Duffer (who was a guest director at the time) confided to me that, having seen my first audition, he had thought me to be completely tone deaf.
At the time, he was completely correct.
One final note. That audition was filmed. Someday, I would like to find that DVD, if it still exists. I would like to watch it once, and then I would like to lock it in a box and drop kick that box into the Pacific Ocean. Anyone who tracks the DVD down is welcome to watch the travesty with me.
But only I get to drop kick it into the ocean.
In my defense, it was a very hot day. It’s important that you remember that. Weathervane Playhouse’s main theatre was climate-controlled, but it was still remarkably warm, especially if you happened to be onstage behind the red curtain wearing a vintage three-piece suit, which is precisely where I was at the time, clad in just such a suit. I was seated (jauntily, it must be said) in a plush armchair on wheels, and for reasons I will explain shortly, I was sitting under a white sheet, which covered both me and the armchair. This did nothing to help the heat. In one hand, I held a glass of iced tea, which looks like Scotch from stage, and in the other hand I held an unlit cigar. Beside me sat a side table with a lamp. This side table was also on wheels.
Everything was set for the start of a play called The 39 Steps, a parody of the Hitchcock film of the same name, a 1930s spy thriller set in England. Here was the plan. As the play began, the curtain would be drawn back, trumpets would blare, and the sheet would be dramatically whipped off the armchair, just as I launched into an epic opening monologue with the words, “London, 1935!" As I spoke this monologue, in a flawless British accent, the chair and the side table would be slowly pushed forward towards the edge of the stage, imitating the slow motion close-ups used in films (hence, the wheels). The people who were to do the pushing, my cast mates, Matt and Carlos, stood ready, one behind my chair, and the other behind the side table. At least, I assume they stood ready. I, as you'll remember, was seated under the aforementioned sheet and could see nothing.
When a play is to begin, in case you are unaware, the stage manager, whose job it is in part to wrangle the actors, comes to the dressing room and calls out, “Places!" This means the actors should take their positions for the start of the play. This is both a formality and a necessity. Actors are people, after all, full of flaws and foibles, and we are not necessarily to be trusted with knowing when to be where. Our stage manager had already called places, and that is why we were all dutifully at the ready.
After the actors are at places, the stage manager heads to the booth and calls for the show to begin. Before the show starts, lights are dimmed, and often a curtain speech is made, wherein someone greets the audience, informs them of the rules of the room, and emphasizes that all cellphones are to be silenced on pain of death, perdition, and Dante-esque levels of entirely justifiable eternal stress and suffering. These days, this speech is often a recorded announcement, short and to the point, but sometimes, at smaller theatres, the curtain speech is given live by someone like the Artistic Director of that theatre. This latter, live option was how the curtain speeches were done at the Weathervane Playhouse.
Six years have passed since that summer, and I honestly don’t remember many details about these particular curtain speeches. But I do remember they were significantly longer than you would wish them to be when you were standing or sitting at places, waiting for the show to start. The audience, no doubt, needed to hear all these details (now forgotten by me) about the snacks available in the lobby, and the exciting other shows on offer that season, but we behind the curtain, at places, waiting to begin the performance, had heard it all before. Really, to us, these speeches couldn’t be short enough.
On the night of our story, I sat under that sheet, at places, waiting, for a particularly long time. It’s important to emphasize that. And, I must insist, in my defense, that we all remember that it was a very hot day, and that it was very warm under that sheet.
One final note. Weathervane Playhouse was (and still is) a summer stock theatre, which means that we performed one show at night, while we rehearsed the next show during the day. On the night in question, my cast and I were performing The 39 Steps, but our day had been spent busily rehearsing Big River, a truly beautiful and, it must be stated, possibly overly long musical adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In it, I played the Duke, part of a conniving duo of confidence tricksters who, as you would expect, filled their stage time by taking advantage of dupes. The Duke, played by me, spoke in a Southern accent, because everyone in Big River speaks in a Southern accent, because it takes place in the American South. Remember this, because it’s important.
And so, there we all were. There I sat, in a heavy woolen suit, exhausted after a long day’s rehearsing, hidden under a sheet in a comfortable chair. It really had been a long, hot day, and it was very warm and still under that sheet.
You can probably guess what happened next.
I fell asleep.
The next thing I knew, there was a grand blare of trumpets and the sheet was rudely, if dramatically, ripped from my head. I awoke with a start and launched confidently into my line, grateful that I remembered where I was and which line to say, and that I had not, in my slumber, spilled the fake Scotch.
"London!" I cried, "1935!"
And yet, something was wrong. In my awakening haste, I had, understandably, if now famously, reverted to the SOUTHERN ACCENT which I was presently using during my daytime rehearsals. I had just yelled, "London, 1935!" in as hillbilly an accent as it has ever been uttered in. In that moment, Alfred Hitchcock rolled over in his grave, which is no small feat for man who was, in life, quite remarkably rotund.
But if in that moment Hitchcock was rolling, my fellow cast mates were also pushing, pushing me irrevocably towards the edge of the stage, just as we had rehearsed and performed countless times before, shaking with laughter as they did so. It was completely understandable, but it did nothing to bring me comfort in my distress.
I don't know if you are the sort of person who “does” accents. I don't know a thing about you. Who are you? How did you happen upon this blog? But if you do happen to be an American, and more specifically an American with a relatively standard, middle-of-the-road accent like myself, you know that it takes some effort to adopt a more interesting accent. It has also been noted by the sorts of people who make a habit of doing accents that Southern American and standard British, or "Received Pronunciation" as the snobs call it, are not without a sort of similarity. You may try both now if you wish and are able. Perhaps you will agree with me. However, I mention this last point to you only to say that it is devilishly hard to switch from one to the other once you have one going -- especially if you have just woken up, and have launched into one of the accents completely by accident. You hear that the sounds are wrong, but it's a hell of a thing to try to jump lightly from one to the other, laughing off the mistake.
I could clearly hear that the sounds were wrong. I knew it. And yet, the fanfare continued its fanning, and my friends, pushing me on, continued to howl with controlled mirth, and I, poor fool that I was, continued my speech, slowly and awkwardly morphing from a Southern huckster to a cool British gentleman throughout the entirety of my now somewhat soiled opening speech.
I was saved, I think, in part by the fact that the trumpets were quite loud and that most people who see theatre (in America, at any rate) are quite old and hard of hearing. In any event, everyone in the audience was quite kind, and no one mentioned my gaff at the end of the show. Of course, these were the very first lines of the show, and by the time an audience has hacked their way through the confusion inherent in the start of a show, and maneuvered through two whole acts to the end, they have probably forgotten most of it anyway.
At least, that’s what I tell myself after a significant misstep on the stage.
My friends have never let me live the moment down.
And nor should they.
Your recent comments have been noted, and, as requested, here is your essay on PUTIN. It may be argued, from a purely logical stand point, that accepting requests somewhat undermines the entire conceit of this blog, titled, as it is, ESSAYS NO ONE ASKED FOR. However, let’s just choose to collectively ignore this discomforting technicality. In the very broadest possible sense… who cares?
Now, I can make no claims to defend Putin the MAN. I have never met him, and to be honest with you, I have not kept up on his recent doings, other than noting with a distant (yet growing) sense of dismay the usual tremor and hum of the 24-hour news cycle that now beats upon our collective brows like a never-ending, doom-proclaiming DRUM. I have not even BEEN to Russia since the winter of the 2007/2008 school year, when I passed (pleasantly) the first Christmas break of my college career amongst family and friends in the snowy city of Moscow. This last fact makes any insider info I may possess on the current state of the Russian mind essentially ONE DECADE OLD.
However, I did live in Russia for 7 years, and I would certainly like to think I learned SOMETHING while I was there. So, what I WOULD like to do with this essay is to try and explain why Putin is POPULAR in Russia, even while he is decried for his seeming villainy all throughout the rest of our troubled world. To do this, let’s look at three differences in the way Russians view the world as contrasted with a stereotypical American view. This is part two of a series, so if you didn’t catch last week’s blog, click HERE to do so.
RUSSIANS ASSUME THEIR GOVERNMENT IS CORRUPT, BECAUSE OF COURSE IT IS.
As Americans, we like to pretend the world is a just and righteous place. Now, yes, as we age into adulthood, we all acknowledge that things aren’t PERFECT, but even the most jaded among us still tend to appeal to some sort of higher code of Law. We assume, at least, that laws are (for the most part) there to protect and defend our rights to life, liberty, and all the rest of it. At the very least, we would say this is the goal that we are working towards, and we all talk as though we think this may (someday) come to pass. There is some shared belief amongst us, divided as we may BE, that laws, in the end, ought to be obeyed.
Russians DO NOT think this.
After seventy plus years spent under a repressive, Communist government, where “Big Brother” was an active, terrifying REALITY rather than a lackluster reality television show, the assumption that laws are there to help people has, in Russia, become laughable. Russians just ASSUME everything in their government is corrupt. This is because, generally speaking, everything in their government IS corrupt.
Even now, 25 + years after the fall of the U.S.S.R., the Russian legal code remains an instrument of paralyzing complexity and confusion, and the system is riddled through with poorly paid government employees taking advantage of that fact. From what I understand, multiple contradictory laws are often all still simultaneously on the books, and it is up to officials to “choose” which they would like to enforce. Like I said, these officials are poorly paid, so bribes are simply a part of doing government business. They aren’t even looked at as a shameful thing. “You scratch my back, I give you your permit” is essentially the law of the land. Therefore, the fact that corruption charges are easily leveled at Putin is SHOCKING in our neck of the woods, but it is taken as dull, self-evident fact in Russia. This is just how things work.
RUSSIANS SEE THINGS THROUGH AN “US VS. THEM” LENS.
Seeing as the running assumption in Russia is that laws are crooked and the government is not on your side, YOU pick YOUR FRIENDS, YOU trust YOUR FRIENDS, and YOU help YOUR FRIENDS, because THEY help YOU. In a world where there is no benevolent higher authority to turn to, it is up to you to help yourself. This reality is what gives groups of Russians who work together their “mob family” type feel. This is how things work there. You make your friends in school growing up, and at university, and at your first jobs, and then you all move together as a kind of pack, helping each other out along the way. You trust each other, and you help each other out.
So, when Putin seems like an obvious “mob boss” to us, moving about with his gang of oligarchs, making moves that solidify his wealth and power, as well as the power and wealth of his friends, this just seems normal to Russians. The fact that he is in CONTROL of the corrupt government does not make him the cause of its corruption. It’s an “us vs. them” world, after all. In this view, we’re all just doing the best we can – even Putin.
RUSSIANS ARE READY TO RISE – THIS IS THE TRUE NATURE OF PUTIN’S “STRONG MAN” APPEAL.
In order to REALLY understand Putin’s popularity, let’s do a simple role reversal. Imagine, if you will, a world where the United States’ economy buckles and then crumbles into dust at the end of the 1980s. By the 90s, the Union has been dissolved, and several states (let’s be real - California and Texas) have become their own countries, with the majority of the states forming a severely weakened Federation. In this imagined world, the U.S.S.R. is now the only true world super power. Communism has been vindicated. Capitalism, in the end, has turned out to be nothing but a grotesque delusion. All our grandparents’ savings and their pensions went up in smoke in the economic catastrophe that preceded the U.S.’s downfall. The older generations are hopelessly disillusioned. The younger generations aren’t sure what to think…at first. Soon, Soviet styles, pop music, and movies begin to dominate the world’s youth culture. (Admittedly, that last part is the hardest bit to imagine, but just go with me.)
Now imagine a charismatic former C.I.A. member begins to gain power in the new U.S. Federation. We realize, in a world desperate for oil, that we are sitting on vast energy reserves. America begins to flex its muscles again, standing up to the U.S.S.R. We annex Texas. Then California. Now, just you try and tell me that the American public wouldn’t love that former C.I.A. guy. We totally would!
If you imagine this scenario for even a second, you’ll begin to understand how Russians see Putin. I’m not saying this scenario is a perfect analogy, but it gives you the gist. Russians are very ready to rise from the ashes of their past, and someone like Putin, who offers to lead them with a firm and determined hand, has a strong appeal.
To try and explain some of Putin’s weirder moments, often featured here in America primarily in memes, I recommend this excellent video by Vox. Their “Explained” series is often interesting and sometimes informative. There is so much in this world, after all, that desperately requires some explaining. See you next week.
Last week, I announced a new series on the importance of acting, live theatre, and the FUTURE of the American theatre. Someday I may actually write those essays, soaked through (as they no doubt will be) with enough self-importance to choke a moose, but that day is not today.
Let’s talk about Russia.
Russia has, thanks to our recent election and the subsequently ratcheting levels of international tension, itself been the subject of much spilled digital “ink” of late. Now, I will not claim to know much about these international tensions, per say. I am not an expert with up-to-date, insider info on the hopes, dreams, aspirations, and potentially evil schemes of various leaders of State. But I did begin visiting Russia in 1992 at the age of 4. No, I was not a globe-trotting, independently-operating C.I.A. spy as a TODDLER (although – ding, ding! – MOVIE PITCH). I was simply tagging along with my parents on cultural exchange programs held after the fall of the Soviet Union. These summer trips continued until the year 2000, when in a fit of religious fervor, my father relocated us permanently to Russia, where I continued to live until 2007 when I left for college. So, I CAN make the humble claim to understand SOMETHING about Russia as a country, and something about the way Russians see the world.
Allow me to lay a few facts before you. If this topic is of interest, let me know with a comment below, and I may continue down this path with a part two.
Let’s begin with a simple difference between Americans and Russians.
RUSSIANS FROWN FIRST AND SMILE LATER.
This may sound minor, but if you think about it for even a short stretch of time, it will begin to hint at how differently our two cultures see the world. As Americans, we are raised to always present a friendly, smiling mask to the world. We are told that this is polite. Later, after we know someone, it becomes culturally appropriate to act grumpy if we are really having a bad day. Russians are raised to think the exact OPPOSITE. There is no cultural pressure there to pretend to happy. Everyone walks around Russia, therefore, looking grim and glum and as grumpy as can be. Later on, when you know someone in Russia, when you trust that they are a friend, THEN you can act happy if you want. Consequently, when Americans arrive in Russia, grinning and acting friendly to try to be polite, Russians think they look insane at worst and silly at best. This is simply the result of having completely opposing expectations in our two different cultures.
RUSSIANS ARE ALL OR NOTHING.
Russians are indescribably passionate people…. once you crack into that gruff, grumpy exterior that they present to strangers. As such, they either care more deeply about a thing than you ever imagined was possible, or they could not possibly care less.
One funny example of this is the fact that in Russia there is no such thing as high school sports. At Hinkson, the private, English-language academy I attended in Moscow, they did their best to mimic the experience of high school sports for our mostly international student body, arranging for soccer and basketball games with neighboring Russian schools. What this meant, particularly in the case of basketball, was basically that we would either be playing the equivalent of that school’s gym class, a group of rowdy young Russians just looking to goof off and show up the international students, or we would be playing the Young Olympian School, a group of towering future stars. That is the essence of Russian effort. They either don’t give a fig, or they are hell-bent on being the best in the world. There is no middle ground.
Another funny example of this all-or-nothing viewpoint is the fact that Russians find our American obsession with being thrifty and bargain-hunting hilarious. This is a thoroughly foreign concept to them. Americans, even rich Americans, will always brag about finding a deal. If I find a leather coat that is normally $275 and I get it for $99, then I, as an American, will brag about that, even if I have a cool 25 million in the bank. Russians believe in CONSPICIOUS consumption. If they can afford it, they will buy the most expensive thing in the store and parade it around. They want it all, or they will settle for nothing.
Let’s wrap up with one more difference for now.
RUSSIANS ARE LITERALLY STUCK (CULTURALLY) IN THE AMERICAN 50s
Until the 1990s, the U.S.S.R. was entirely cut off from the rest of the world by the so-called “Iron Curtain,” a term which I believe was first coined by Winston Churchill. The metaphorical construction of this wall began shortly after the end of WWII and reached its full flowering by the mid-1950s. THEREFORE, in a way that is hard for us in America to comprehend, Russia is in many ways STILL IN THE 50s, culturally speaking.
Picture an early episode of Mad Men, if you have ever seen that excellent AMC television series. THAT IS RUSSIA. Modern feminism has yet the arrive there. Men are real “men”; women are real “women”. The men all buy into a notion of tough, rugged manhood, drinking hard, never showing pain. The women are all out to get married, all dressing to impress, all accepting the inherent misogyny of the system with alarming alacrity. Most people still smoke, as though cancer did not exist. And, on an even sadder note, racism is scarily prevalent, to an extent that makes our racial woes in the States seem tame, and there is precious little regard given for the rights of the LGBTQ community.
I certainly cannot defend this strange backwards streak in Russian society, and I will make not attempt at the feat. I would simply point out the strange, time-capsule nature of their world. They are a society that was frozen on ice by a repressive regime while a lot of positive change happened elsewhere in the world. This does not make their views acceptable, but I hope it gives you a little insight into how their views came about. After all, it was not so long ago that the majority of Americans held the same views. There, but for the grace of God, go we.
I am tempted to write an essay next week explaining the popularity of Putin. Placed into the context of his culture, country, and time, he makes more sense than you’d expect. Please let me know in the comments below if this is of interest. If not, I will return next with a decidedly different offering. I will make no effort to predict what this will be. I tire of writing myself into corners. Have a pleasant Friday, and enjoy your weekend.
This week, let’s quickly wrap up the series I promised on interesting places where I’ve worked. Precisely NO ONE is insisting I do this, but I am a man of my word (at least, I try to be), and it would definitively IRK the obsessive-compulsive half of my head if I failed to even half-heartedly ATTEMPT to fulfill my foolhardy I.O.U.
This is, incidentally, the eighth entry for this weekly blog. We are now two months in to this word-heavy voyage, and I have been giving some thought as to the direction in which I would like things to head. I believe I have struck on the course we shall next chart, but before we press on, setting sail for distant shores, let us once more glance back. To save time, we’ll do all my past places of employ at once in one go.
Let us, then, sally promptly forth in EFFICIENT fashion, touching BRIEFLY on each theatre in turn. These are ALL excellent establishments, each worthy of much gushing and long tributes in song, but our attentions are limited and life itself all too short. For clarity’s sake, we shall proceed chronologically.
Timber Lake Playhouse
Located deep in the heart of rural Northern Illinois, between two cornfields and across from a campground, sits the awesome institution that is Timber Lake Playhouse. To imagine it, picture your typical summer camp complete with sketchily constructed cabins, spider-infested showers, a central campfire, and various communal buildings. Now imagine someone pushed all these buildings together into a tight, though erratic formation around a THEATRE, added a scene shop, a costume shop, and some storage, and then called it a day.
I did my first round of professional summer stock at TLP. It paid almost nothing, but they provided free housing and free food, so with no bills and nothing else to do in the middle of nowhere but rehearse and cause trouble, it was really the perfect way to begin the strange Bohemian life we actors so often lead. They do amazing work at TLP. They take it very seriously. The choreography, particularly, is topnotch. I, it must be said, did not dance there. That probably had something to do with them taking it seriously.
My second summer of stock, as they call it, was spent at Weathervane Playhouse in Newark, Ohio, which had only recently been renovated. Formerly, it had been open to the elements, boasting only a roof with no walls around the stage and bleachers. I am UNSPEAKABLY GRATEFUL that I arrived after walls and AIR-CONDITIONING had been added.
My time there was mostly defined by the strong bond the cast developed. I do not know how housing works there now, but in the summer of 2011 they had rented an entire dormitory at a steep discount from Denison University, just down the road, and everyone stayed there together, each with their own room. The actors stayed on the top two floors, with the techs staying on the bottom floor. The entire thing was like a mad slumber party whenever we were not in rehearsal or performing. It was entirely too much fun. No one got much sleep. But we were all young and crazy and it didn’t matter.
Blue Gate Musicals
I have worked twice for Blue Gate Musicals - once right out of college, and once again in 2015. Originally founded in Shipshewana, Indiana by the owner of the Blue Gate Restaurant and a few compatriots from Nashville, the company now runs shows at four different locations in four states, specializing in producing original musicals based on best-selling Amish book series, which are REAL things that sell in the MILLIONS.
It all sounds like some sort of SNL skit, but it is all very real. And it is brilliant business. The shows are produced at established Amish tourist traps in picturesque parts of our country and sell out to people guaranteed to be interested in the subject matter. Blue Gate is EXTREMELY clever when it comes to understanding its audience and marketing its products, and I would actually like to discuss some of the lessons I learned there in a later essay. For now, let’s move on.
In the fine state of Michigan, just above the border from the slightly finer state of Indiana (state of my birth), in between the storied cities of Battle Creek and Kalamazoo, right next to M-96, you will find a 400+ seat Equity theatre constructed out of an old dairy barn. This, my friends, is the Barn Theatre. Originally founded in the 40s, it is an amazingly ramshackle old structure, every inch utilized and ONE-THOUSAND PERCENT HAUNTED. It just IS. If you don’t believe in that, fine, but YOU try going into that basement by yourself after everything is shut down and YOU explain the footsteps, etc. I DARE YOU.
At the Barn, like at many places, unless you are a union company member or a guest artist, you are a member of the “apprentice program,” which is code for hellish internship. Let me stress that I say this fondly, as internships are a widely KNOWN TO BE TERRIBLE, and you should know what you are getting into when you sign up. I did. It was hard work, and stressful as all hell, and in the end, we did a lot of great shows and good work. Stress dissipates in the end, and you are left with only the Art that you made.
Oregon Cabaret Theatre
I love all these theatres, but I currently love the Oregon Cab the MOST. It is a lovely place, run by lovely people, located in the beautiful town of Ashland, Oregon, which is a hilariously perfect POSTCARD of a town populated entirely by wealthy retirees, hippies, and tourists. The theatre is in a deconsecrated, classily remodeled Baptist church, complete with upper balcony seating and a gorgeous, antique chandelier from a 1920s movie house that hangs above the audience. It is dinner theatre done RIGHT, with a complete wait staff, an amazing chef that works wonders, and a menu with specials that change for every show. I cannot speak highly enough about it. If you are ever in Oregon, check it out.
As an actor, one of the really special things about OCT is that it is TWO BLOCKS away from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which is a world-renown theatre company that produces Shakespeare, other classics, AND new works. Very rarely, when working in regional theatre, are you near enough to another theatre to get to see theatre yourself, so it is a genuine pleasure to be able to walk down the street and see multiple shows at a place as legit as OSF. So, go check both places out. If OSF’s production of Coriolanus bums you out, go see a song-and-dance piece at the Cab!
Maples Repertory Theatre
In the humble hamlet of Macon, Missouri there sits an old, crumbling opera and vaudeville house called the “Royal Theatre,” which is the current home of Maples Repertory Theatre, a formerly community theatre now gone professional. It is a small town, and the only thing that keeps a professional theatre running there is tremendous community support. Right down the street is the train tracks, and right next to that is a large factory that manufactures chicken nuggets. They probably make other things, too, but you can definitely tell they make chicken nuggets, because when the ovens are on, that is just about the only thing you can smell in that part of town.
The rehearsal space for the theatre is a block across the way, on the second floor of another tumble-down building right above the costume shop. The room possesses a memorably antique floor that creaks dangerously whenever large casts of actors are dancing. I can only imagine how the costumers feel, peering anxiously up from their sewing machines, no doubt praying fervently that the actors tap dancing over their heads continue to remain comfortably ABOVE them.
I could, of course, continue to ramble on and on and ON about the many intricate eccentricities and detailed specificities of these theatres, but let us end there for the present. In the coming weeks, I would like to begin looking forward, examining first why I think acting (and live theatre in particular) is increasingly vital and relevant in today’s world and then looking at ways I think theatre companies could work better in today’s economy. If you would care to join me, I will see you next week. If you wouldn’t, well, the internet is LARGE. I am sure someone else has some drivel posted which would better please you. I wish you well.
Last week we began a series of essays on interesting places where I have been privileged to perform. Fret not, my friends, this series will continue in due time. But for now, let us leave the pre-proscribed path and strike out on a merry (if brief) detour into the trees.
I just returned this evening from a last second work trip up to Northern California. Every so often, when a presenter with CWE is unable to work, schedules are shuffled round so that we can cover all bases with the staff that we have. This week’s shuffle demanded that I fly up to Oakland International Airport, rent a car, crash at a hotel, cover the necessary programs the next day, then fly back, all in the space of 24 hours. I was informed of this exciting development as soon as I checked my phone after yesterday’s presentation. My flight was already booked. Take off was in four hours.
For some, this unforeseen fork in the road would signal a magnificent gift from the famously fickle Fates. Here I was, on a Thursday, almost, but not quite, to the weekend, awash in the drably expected tides of the regular and routine, and here was ADVENTURE calling. Here was a chance to do something different, to strike out into the wild yellow yonder.
But to me, it just seemed stressful. In all honesty, that was my first reaction.
Which I do regret.
I am not by nature adventurous. I prepare. I anticipate. I take carefully calculated risks. And though my life has included many trips and much travel, it is not something I do for its own sake. And I do not always react positively to surprise. Travel can be fun, but it can also be tiring – and risky. Things go wrong. Planes are delayed. Left to my own devices, I am ashamed to say that I would probably be a creature of complete routine, blazing through life with my nose very much to the grindstone, meeting goals, but forgetting to smell most every rose along the way.
So tonight, as I type out this latest post, I find myself reflecting on the fact that life is not just a checklist. It is far more than simply a sequence of hoops through which we must jump. Life is the journey. I write these words – trite, but true – more for myself than for you. This is little more than a note to self, digitally penned after a quick and successful, if unforeseen and initially stressful flight to the North.
The trip went fine. To the surprise of no one, Northern California is beautiful. There are fates indescribably worse than driving it’s winding, if slightly confusing, roads through tunnels and green, green hills flecked with trees.
Life happens. It just does. And when an unforeseen fork in the road confronts you, ready or not, remember to take a breath and choose to see the adventure. Because it is a choice. Yes, Philip, I am talking to YOU.
And if anyone finds themselves staying at the Diablo Mountain Inn in Walnut Creek, take a walk down the road. Less than a half mile down you will find the Home of Chicken and Waffles, a soul food joint that is DELICIOUS. I recommend both the chicken and the waffles. And the grits.
Last week we talked about my current job as a full-time presenter for CWE. This week, I would like to begin a new series of essays looking at interesting places where I have worked as an actor. The regional theatres that still dot our land, grimly sticking to their guns in the face of hard times and tough markets, passionately offering art (and a few laughs) to their surrounding populations, are each unique, memorable, and well worth describing. Let us begin with the theatre that has most shaped the dubious set of performance skills I now wield.
As you may or may not know (probably not), I spent what amounted to several YEARS of my life working at an immensely specific little theatre called The Great American Melodrama & Vaudeville. (Yes, that is the actual name of the establishment.) It sits on a particularly dusty and easily overlooked stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway near Pismo Beach, California in the dodgiest bit of the Five Cities, which are five little beachside hamlets that melt into each other and may as well be the same place, but ARE NOT, as they will insist on insisting.
First founded in 1975, the Melodrama was conceived as a throwback theatre. As the name suggests, it offered classic melodramas and vaudeville revues of the sort that had been performed popularly all throughout the country prior to the all-consuming advent of movies and television. Retirees in the 1970s had grown up going to see such entertainments, and the throwback format worked well at the time. The founders built a stage in the corner of an old hardware store, threw up some tables and chairs, and called it a theatre.
Forty years later, that theatre is still up and running. After several extensive rounds of renovations over the intervening years, the place is barely recognizable as a former hardware store. Here is a picture:
These days, of course, the outdated “melodrama & vaudeville” format doesn’t really resonate with modern audiences, so the Melodrama produces mostly spoofs, comedies, and musicals. (Think Saturday Night Live on a smaller budget, sans cameras – that is essentially the vibe.) Seven shows are produced a year, each one consisting of a two-act main show followed by a third act “revue” composed of silly songs, dances, and skits. Performances take place most weeknights and all weekends FIFTY WEEKS OF THE YEAR. If that sounds exhausting, it CAN be. But it’s also wonderful and worth it. Beginning in 2012, and over the course of three different contracts, I put in 29 months at the Melodrama, performing in 16 different shows. That sounds like a lot, and it FELT like a lot, but the number is peanuts compared to the storied greats who have their pictures up on the walls there. I know several people who have easily done 50+ shows.
Here is the description of a night at the Melodrama, plucked straight from the company’s website. I don’t feel bad stealing these words, because I wrote them.
“Performances at the Melodrama are fun for the whole family. Guests arrive and are ushered to their seats to the sounds of live, honky-tonk style piano. Our snack bar is open prior to the show and during intermissions. It serves stadium-style fare such as soda, beer, wine, nachos, hotdogs, popcorn, and the like. The snack bar is staffed by the actors performing that night, adding to the lively, interactive feel … As the theatre’s name suggests, many shows are performed in a classic melodramatic style, with patrons encouraged to cheer the hero and boo the villain. An evening at the Melodrama promises affordable fun and laughs for all ages.”
If you ever find yourself in California’s Central Coast, lost, or killing time, I would encourage you catch a show. They are great. It is schlock of the first order, but produced with care and skill.
My years at the Melodrama taught me many things that actor training doesn’t necessarily cover these days. Shows there are performed with no mics, so I learned how to be loud in a healthy way. There are virtually no effects; it’s just you and some lights on stage in front of a paying crowd, so you learn how to be entertaining without any tricks. When you are acting in spoofs and homespun comedies, often the lines you are saying are … well, there is really no good way to say it. Often you ARE FORCED TO SPEAK HORRIBLY CORNY DIALOGUE. You learn how to take a terrible turd of a joke and polish it as bright as you can. You learn to rock lackluster lines.
And above all, the Melodrama taught me to ignore the so-called “fourth wall”. In modern theatre, the actors pretend to not know the audience is there. They do their scenes as though alone. In classic melodrama, where the audience boos and cheers and sometimes yells out adlibs of their own, you can directly address the crowd. They are there in the scene with you. It is a decidedly strange thing, but the sensation of improv-ing along with the crowd, creating a fun, humorous moment TOGETHER, is absolutely addicting. I miss it when I perform at more traditional theatres.
Looking back, some of my favorite moments at the Melodrama were when I would spot a kid in the audience who was completely captivated by the silliness and theatricality of the show. I would think, I’m tired, I am sick of these dumb jokes, but that kid is having the time of his life. So, I’m gonna finish this one for THAT kid. He deserves it.
And I suppose that ties nicely in with the work I do now.