Monday, November 16, 2009

Adventures in Theatre 

“What a Drag!”

            I’m not sure why it started. Nobody in family, to my limited knowledge, ever did it so genetic predisposition is out. It’s like a mutation, I guess. It just kind of happened.

            When I was in kindergarten I got tapped to play the title role in “The Little Drummer Boy”. I was much cuter then and a blonde with big soulful brown eyes. Despite the fact that I had no lines, I took the role very seriously. The ox and lamb had nothing on me in terms of keeping time (I’ve always had rhythm), and I did it with great solemnity. It was a hit. There were tears. And at the tender age of 5 I became hooked on something more addictive than crack: Applause.

            From that point I went out for anything and everything. I was lucky enough to go to Rose Avenue Public School in Cabbagetown (In the 60’s it was a good school, I have no idea what it’s like now). Rose Avenue had what they called a “choir” program, but it actually did musicals. Luckily I could sing (I also ended up in an actual Church choir around this time, for reasons I don’t remember. I blame Davy and Goliath).

            The “Choir was run by Mrs. Donaldson. She usually had a big blond beehive going on and wore a lot of makeup, but taught me one of the most valuable things I’ve ever learned.  She taught me how to project. This has been both a blessing and a curse along the way, because I’m really good at it. The upside is that it doesn’t matter if it’s a 750-seat auditorium (like I worked on in High School) or a smaller venue, you’re going to hear me. The downside was that it took me a while to learn when and where to use this power, and when it was better left in the utility belt.

            So in grade school I began acting, more or less, regularly. Unconsciously I began to pick up tools like timing and the beginnings of characterization. I wasn’t aware of this, because I was having too much fun. I learned I could make people laugh and, if applause is crack, laughter is heroin.

            I suppose that the zenith of my grade school career would have been in 5th Grade. We were told we were doing a version of Cinderella, and I’m thinking “ Oh swell, there’s nothing in that for me”(I was already painfully aware that I wasn’t cut out for leading man parts). But I was wrong. This is not unusual. I’m wrong often, and I’ve come to terms with it.

            Mrs. Donaldson took Sean Nee and myself aside, and I figured it was to give us the bad news that we weren’t going to be in the show.

If you’re my age and grew up in Toronto, you’ve seen Sean Nee. Remember those big posters they used to with a curly-headed forlorn kid sitting on a curb, with a bag of Oatmeal cookies in front of him, and the tagline “To Some kids, Dad is just the name of a Cookie”. That was Sean. He was a professional. He had an agent,commercials and everything. He was also a nice guy. i liked him.

                        (If the Google search turned up the right one, he’s now an Oxford Educated Ecologist who specializes in studying genetic engineering, among other things. This would make sense as A) He was English and B) He was “wicked smart”. If it is you, Sean, I apologize for the following revelation)

            So when the 3 of us were alone Mrs. Donaldson began speaking in hushed and serious tones. I wasn’t sure why it was hushed since were the only ones in the room, but I went along with it.

            “I have an idea for Cinderella, but I want to ask you two first to see if it’s okay. If it’s going to work I need my 2 best actors.” She said, quite seriously.
            That should have tipped me off. Mrs. Donaldson was never one to ladle out the positive feedback, a trait I would unfortunately inherit as a director. She expected you to do well, and if you didn’t, you’d hear about it.

            She took a deep breath and then said “I want you two to play the Ugly Stepsisters”

            There was a pause. It was a long one.

            In the Schoolyard Survival Manual there are certain rules that are laid out. Somewhere in between “Don’t have a funny name” and “Don’t have your mother bring you a snack at recess” is “Don’t be Different”. There are subsections to that one based on race, body type, and of course sexuality, even in grade school. I was already working at a disadvantage in terms of the funny name rule (subsection: “A name that can be changed to be funny”. At the time my last name was Boyes) and the different rule (subsection “Fat Kid”).  All I needed was to be parading around in girl clothes. It was bad enough I was an actor. That was already suspect.

            For some reason we decided that stealing the show trumped school survival, so we did it. And it worked. Our first entrance brought the house down, and for the rest of the show we upstaged Cinderella unmercifully. At the end of the day we escaped the wrath of the schoolyard. They were too busy laughing.

            I’ve only done drag on stage 2 other times. Once when I was producing “Les Belles Soeurs” for Theatre Etobicoke when we couldn’t find an old lady to play the senile, wheelchair bound mother of one of the women, who basically sits in the background and does nothing…

The other was when we did Rocky Horror at the Kingsway, the Brighton or the Roxy or whatever theatre was showing it. Somewhere in the archives at City TV is me on the New Music in full Frank N Furter drag for the 5th anniversary of RHPS at the Roxy. Damn near won the lookalike contest, but I lost to woman from Michigan.
             The punchline is that my Uncle Ted, who hadn’t seen me in 10 years and despite the wig and heavy makeup, recognized me on television.

            I think the last time he saw me was as the ugly stepsister.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

                        Mr. Scary

With everyone it’s a little different. In my case it basically starts in the pit of my stomach and starts making its way up my spine. Once it hits the central nervous system, the party really starts. It can range from a coughing jag to the utter conviction that I’m going to drop dead any moment. But it’s all the same thing, anxiety, jitters, panic, call it what you will. It’s the fear.

Everybody gets it. The degree varies. For some it’s a mild irritation. For others it’s paralyzing nightmare that controls everything they do. Unfortunately mine tends towards the latter category. Sometimes the simplest things require a major effort.

I’ve been dealing with this since early adolescence. Around the time I moved from downtown to the suburbs, it started to kick in, and in really odd ways. I was dealing with a number of issues at the time. My mom was remarrying so I was demoted from my position of “man of the house”. I didn’t know anybody in the new neighborhood and I’m not the most gregarious person on Earth. I was getting my own room, which was a good thing, but also gave me a sense of isolation. Let’s face it; I was easy pickings for the right disorder.

You know those ads with Digger the Happy Yellow Foot Fungus? He struts around looking for fertile feet to move into and multiply. I picture something like that for panic and anxiety disorder (I don’t really differentiate between the two). Mr. Scary. He’s a Disneyesque skeletal figure, has fangs, and for some reason wears a top hat and tails, with spats on bare bony feet. I have no idea why. I’ve always liked Fred Astaire, so it’s not about that. It’s probably an intimidation/status thing. Mr. Scary dresses better than I do.

Anyway it was about that time I had my first encounters with Mr. Scary. I remember the first one specifically. In the days before I slept with the television on all night I slept with the radio on all night. I had a pillow phone plugged into my transistor radio. By the way if you were born in the 70’s or later and you’re reading this, this is at the dawn of cable TV so there weren’t many stations that went all night, no VCRs, or the Internet. Insomniacs had fewer options, and I’ve always had trouble sleeping. Actually, in retrospect, when we moved was when all that started.

So I was in bed listening to the radio. I preferred the sound of a human voice to music for sleeping, so at 12 I started listening to the CBC. Everything was fine until I came across this show that was on Mondays after midnight called “Gotcha!”

“Gotcha” was possibly the easiest show the CBC ever produced. It consisted of a well-voiced actor reading macabre short stories with weird music and the occasional sound effect in the background. I searched the net for a sample of the show but couldn’t find one. Apparently the show has vanished. Normally the stories were lightweight but not always.

So one night I was in bed with the radio on and the Voice started reading “The Premature Burial” by Edgar Allan Poe and it scared the living crap out of me. I’m not talking about giving me the willies or the wiggins. It struck some primal in me that I had never felt before. Bear in mind that I had been raised to this point on a steady diet of monster movies, novels and records, and they never scared me. Famous Monsters of Filmland was my favorite magazine. Nothing ever frightened me as much as that story did on that night.

“The Premature Burial” is Poe at his paranoid best. It starts out with several documentary examples of people having been pronounced dead, only to wake up in a coffin. One particularly nasty example is of somebody waking up on an autopsy table screaming, “I am alive!”

The protagonist of the story suffers from a form of catalepsy that causes him to fall into a state so closely resembling death that only a doctor can tell the difference, and even they sometime miss it. Our hero is so frightened of being buried alive that he goes through elaborate precautions in his funeral preparation, having a custom made coffin equipped with a bell that rings above ground, in case the worst happens. Of course the worst happens, but happens nowhere near his funeral and he wakes up in what he thinks is a plain wooden coffin terrified.

I don’t know why the story affected me so much; I only know that it planted some thoughts that previously hadn’t been there. My mortality was suddenly a totally viable concept. Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Scary has entered the building. He has yet to leave it.

From that point it escalated. This totally irrational all-encompassing dread would hit me at any given moment without warning, and I couldn’t tell anyone because it would sound crazy.

Mortality was just the beginning. After many years of watching Vampire movies, I suddenly became convinced, not only of their existence, but that I was about to become their victim. I would get uneasy when the sun went down. The windows in my room had to be closed and locked. This went on until I came to the realization that Vampires didn’t go for religious people, so I started wearing a cross and reading the Bible. This was all well and good until I got to The Book of Revelations, which tipped me over the edge. I became obsessed with the end of days and that it was happening right then.

If I didn’t actually have a nervous breakdown then it was damn close. On dark days I would hide in my house awaiting the inevitable. One day when the weather abruptly went from sunny to stormy very quickly, I went home at recess and didn’t come back. I cowered in my room knowing that the end was nigh.

This went on for over a year.
Then Mr. Scary abruptly left and it was suddenly over…

At least that episode was. I came to the realization that this was not a good way to live, and that when the end came there wasn’t much I could do about it so I might as well get on with whatever was left. Gradually there was clarity and I could function, but I was never quite the same after that.

When it came again, it was just as unexpected. It was also 15 years later.

At this point I should also mention that I also have depression issues. Have had since I was a kid, and they pre-date the first anxiety/panic attacks. Yeah, I know. It never rains, but it pours.

I was in the middle of directing “A Streetcar named Desire” when Mr. Scary made his a return appearance. I would not recommend directing a Tennessee Williams play about the descent into madness, when one is descending into madness of a sort. I certainly didn’t enjoy it.

There were no Vampires or End of the World scenarios this time, just an overwhelming sense of impending doom. I hid out in the apartment a lot because I knew going out was just asking for trouble.

This was about the time that depression kicked in about the same time, forming something of a mental one-two punch. At a certain point the constant bombardment of “Life Sucks” and “You’re going to die” is not the World’s Greatest Affirmation. It tends to make one question whether continuing on this plane of existence is all that it’s cracked up to be, and I did begin to wonder about that.

Then, in a rare moment of lucidity, I came to the realization that I was contemplating suicide over a “community theatre production”. This epiphany sent me to get help.

The thing about help, though, is if its wrong it hurts or, worse, it does nothing. The initial diagnosis was incomplete because it didn’t address the panic issues. Apparently anti-depressants are supposed to deal with anxiety, but sometimes it just doesn’t work, so you have to add to the cocktail. So initially Mr. Scary went away for a little while. But he was liable to come back any time without notice. The first and (so far) last time I did summer stock, I became paralyzed with an anxiety attack that just wouldn’t quit. It was like good-old-fashioned-8-year-old homesickness multiplied 10 times. I walked around like a zombie for a day or so ‘til I could get back home. The kicker was I was on meds at the time. They just weren’t enough.

I’ve lost jobs because of Mr. Scary. I couldn’t get a driver’s license because of it. It’s hurt relationships. It gets in the way of my creative work. It affects my life everyday. During the early part of rehearsals for “Chorus” I was going through a major dual-tiered episode, where it became, despite the presence of the best cast and crew in the World, a struggle just to get to rehearsals. The pills help, but he still lurks. I know the warning signs now so, I can usually head it off.

I’m not a coward. It’s something of a point of principle that I try to face my fears. This is a chemical thing that I control with a prescription. I function in the real world, but sometimes it’s still a struggle. I suppose it always will be.

So why am I writing this? I’m trolling for sympathy? True confessions time? I’m trying to over come writer’s block? I had nothing better to do?

I don’t know. I guess I’m trying to make sense of something I don’t quite understand, and seeing it in writing helps. If somebody else reads it and can identify I hope it can help them look for what they need. And sometimes I just sit here typing and go with whatever happens to come out.

But mostly I wrote it ‘cause Mr. Scary didn’t want me to.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

THE DAY KLAATU SAID WHOA! (Warning! Spoilers!)

When I saw the trailer for "The Day the Earth Stood Still" I knew it was going to be trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with D and that stands for dumb.

Just to set the record straight, I'm not one of those classic movie geeks who's against remaking any and all old movies. Some of them work. Both Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments are remakes of silent films. Victor/Victoria is a remake of an old German film. And lest we forget "The Maltese Falcon" had been made twice before Bogart stepped into Sam Spade's shoes. "Fistful of Dollars" is a remake of "Yojimbo" (Unfortunately they didn't stop there. So is "Last Man Standing")

So, no, I'm not anti-remake. But I also think it's kind of silly to set yourself up for a fall.

There are certain movies that were done right the first time, and there's no real point in attempting to try to get lightning to strike twice. "Citizen Kane" leaps to mind. "Children of Paradise" is another one. So is "The Day the Earth Stood Still"...

This isn't a case of "don't mess with my sci- fi classics.". John Carpenter's version of "The Thing from Another World" is equal to Howard Hawks' version, and maybe even a little more claustrophobic. Phil Kaufman's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" is just as paranoid as Don Siegel's. (We'll leave "The Invasion" out of this) I haven't got a problem with a remake that recognizes what made the original work and expands on it.

"The Day Klaatu went Whoa" doesn't do any of those things.

Where to begin? Keanu is too easy, in fact his flat acting style sort of suits Klaatu to a point. Jennifer Connelly is just okay (But the waif look doesn't suit her at all). John Cleese is wasted for the 5 or so minutes he's on screen. Kathy Bates is her dependable self as a Hilary Clinton style Secretary of State (Apparently the President doesn't deal with Alen Invasions). The Smith kid is annoying, but then in this version he's supposed to be...

Hey! We may have something... This version...Yeah.

Remember how in the original the Aliens...Okay the One Alien and his badass Robot comes to Earth because of Nuclear proliferation and impending space travel threatens the peace they've struggled to maintain for centuries "As long as you went about killing each other it was none of our business,,,"etc. Remember the theme of Non Violence? Sort of the cornerstone of the original? Remember that?

Okay, now forget it...

This Klaatu hasn't come to negotiate. This Klaatu has come with the Universe's Final Solution to Earth's environmental issues...Yes, that's right. Earth's Environmental issues are a threat to the rest of the Universe,,,No , not really. What's being threatened are billions of other species on Earth and the answer and the solution is to rescue all the others and 86 the one that's causing all the trouble. You know...Us. Not the US...You and me. The Universe's final solution is not unlike Himmler's, only a tad more comprehensive.

Kinda misses the point, of the original, don't you think?

The major culprit in this disaster is the script written by David Scarpa. It is gratuitously stupid which is sad because what it's based on is so smart. I'm not a science type, and I got lousy marks in it in High School. So maybe it's just that I've seen enough movies to know that if an extraterrestrial object is on a certain trajectory, then abruptly changes course, and then accelerates, my first assumption isn't going to be that it's a big meteor about to have a devastating impact on Earth. I would assume that some intelligence is guiding it. But lets go back to the meteor scenario. Having determined that Ground Zero is going to be New York City, my next move is not going to be to round up the leading scientists of the day (all of whom seem to be the same age) and ship them to where the meteor is about to impact. Wouldn't it be a better idea to get them as far away as possible to deal with the resulting crisis in relative safety? And this is just the first 10 minutes...

And Gort apparently is now an acronym for Genetically Organized Robotic Technology... I know. I said "Huh?!" too.

I could go on, but there's just too much. I will touch on something that I found a little irksome. I mentioned Jaden Smith playing the kid. I'll admit that when I saw the trailer, I thought "Cool, Jennifer Connelly has a bi-racial kid in this version". She does not. They go to great lengths to explain that the boy is a product of a previous marriage between Connelly's deceased husband and his previously deceased wife, presumably both African American. Connelly is merely the step mother, which gives the kid an excuse to behave badly toward her. I'm probably wrong but I kept thinking cop-out. Why couldn't he have been her kid? The separation anxiety from the death of one parent should have been enough to explain the kid's behaviour. I mean c'mon guys, you just elected a bi-racial President...

There is a plus side to this Movie.

The studio released a 2 disc special edition of the Original as a tie in.

It's on sale at HMV and costs less than 2 tickets to the remake.

I heartily recommend it.

Klaatu Barada Nicto...Big Time!
What the Dickens?!

Tis the season, as they say. No, not baseball season. I mean the Festive Season and all that stuff. Virgin Birth, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, you know...Stressmas...

Yes, Christmas comes but once a year, thank Christ...

Don’t get your undergarments in a tizzy.

It stopped being a religious celebration a while ago. Let’s face it, if Christmas actually had anything to do with the birth of Jesus Christ, it would be happening in May or June when he was actually born, depending whether you believe the historians or the astronomers. The ironic part is that we celebrate the birth of Jesus on what was an ancient Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia. But then you already knew that. Besides, if we’re really celebrating Jesus’ birthday, how come he’s not the one getting the presents?

Christmas is about swag and bad television and movies to sell swag, and swag apps.

Celebration of Christmas actually wasn’t all that big a deal until the Victorian era. If Cromwell and the Puritans had had their way, way back when, it would have been scrapped altogether (Pagan Celebration and all that).

And I blame Dickens.

You know, Charles Dickens. What's wrong with Christmas leads right back to Ol' Boz's doorstep.

So the story goes that Charles Dickens was in financial debt and wrote what he considered to be a low grade potboiler ghost story and gave it the sarcastic title of “A Christmas Carol.” (“A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas” is the full title, which just makes it worse if you ask me, and nobody did.)

You all know the story. Ebenezer Scrooge, really cheap bastard, gets redeemed by his equally cheap bastard dead partner and friends just in time for Christmas. God bless us, every one. There have been a couple of hundred different adaptations of it. Every sitcom and cartoon has done a variation on it.

Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” was an immediate hit. It touched all kinds of nerves, and that has a lot to do with Charles Dickens’ talent as a writer. He was the master of the guilt trip. Hell, his entire body of work is pretty much based on it. Anybody read Oliver Twist?

In “A Christmas Carol” Dickens tells his, by this point in his career, worldwide audience that they don’t do Christmas right. “You’re not happy enough. You’re not singing and dancing enough, and more to the point you’re not being generous enough. You’re not GIVING enough” is essentially what he’s saying. And, apparently, the general public thought he was right.

Ever since, retailers everywhere have owed him a percentage.

I hear a chorus of you crying, “No, Michael, you’re missing the point of the story! It’s about the joy of family and helping your fellow man.”

To which I respond, quite simply, “Horse Radishes”

“The Spirit of Christmas” didn’t exist as a phrase or a concept before Charles Dickens foisted it upon an unsuspecting world, but we’ve been dogged by it ever since. This concept also served to make Christmas a competition. Think about your own family. Who among us hasn’t had that fleeting moment of resentment when somebody gets what we perceive as a better present than we did. Can I get a show of hands?

You may say I’m a cynic (and you’re probably right) but I’m not the only one. Based on the success of “A Christmas Carol”, over the next bunch of years, Dickens wrote a new “Christmas Book” or story pretty much every year. And they usually made scads of money, not as much as the original, but enough. He also toured with “Carol,” and his one-man performances became legendary and are recreated to this day. They still make a lot of money.

So, when you’re at home with the family and the annual fight breaks out, or you don’t get what you were expecting, or you are depressed because you can’t afford to get something for everyone, or you’re just not feeling in the Christmas spirit, remember to give credit where credit is due. Blame Charles Dickens!

But don’t blame Jesus. It isn’t even really his birthday