30 April 2010

Comedy in Truth

I was walking home from a dinner with Friend Alison the other night when she started recounting stories of various klutzy moments in her life. In particular, she mentioned a time that she was walking down the street and walked directly into a wall so hard and unexpectedly that she 1) fell right on her butt with 2) legs splayed and 3) skirt up over her head. I, of course, thought this was classically hilarious, and suggested we should get her a camera crew and a YouTube channel, just in case it happens again. She balked at this notion, and we moved on to stories of when we have tripped and fallen UP stairs . . . but I think I can bring her around.

Alison (and I) fall, unexpectedy and dramatically. I own a cat who humps himself to sleep at night. Wife Megan's occasional, inadvertent experiments with grammar. The Internet. These are all funny things--comedy--and all happen without any prompting or effort. In life, comedy is easy and plentiful. In acting, we can make it very difficult for ourselves.

It's a kind of magic trick, a well-executed comic bit, requiring a certain sense of dramatic flare and sleight-of-hand (or foot, or butt, etc.). Except in this trick, the performer is fooled almost as much as the audience. When I teach pratfalls, I regurgitate a good bit of advice that is so timeless, I can't begin to remember who first told me of it. The best way to execute a convincing trip, is to actually trip. You simply trail your back foot over your front heel as it's taking a step forward, so you then have to catch yourself on the other side of that step. That's not the trick, however: anybody can do that. No, the trick is in believing that there is no possible way you will trip, even as you set yourself up for it. That's what makes it spontaneous, and that's what allows everyone to believe the real payoff: your reaction to just having tripped.

Way back in the day, now (we're talking 2001, people), I played a broadly comic character in a little original production called The Center of Gravity. Moe Franko was the owner of a gas station, a sort of arrogantly naive fellow who was pretty crass 'cuz he just didn't learn any better. (I grew a mustache for the role; me + mustache = comedy.) At any rate, my hands-down best laugh of the show was one in which a strikingly attractive young woman visits the gas station and is introduced to my character. It's already been established that I'm freshly returned from using the facilities, and when we shake hands, she makes a face, to which I reply, "Oh don't worry, it's just water. It's not urine or anything." Their handshake disengaged, Moe turns away, and his face registers every little realization of how awful the thing he's just said is and, by extension, how awful he probably is. It got a laugh, every single time.

Which can totally and utterly ruin a joke. Anticipation is one of the worst sabotage factors of a good gag, and it applies both to the performer and the audience member. I have botched a perfectly good gag innumerable times through this very error. So why didn't it ever take down the water/urine gag? Well, I was quite young and the woman playing the interloper was exotically attractive, and I had a mustache (no, you don't get a photo). So that covered a lot of the sincerity bases in terms of the given circumstances -- I really did feel a little excited, and awful, and embarrassed. Perhaps more importantly, the line felt like something I might say, minus the Texan twang, of course.

I'm thinking about this because I just signed on to act in an original comedy performing in June. The role is probably going to require me to stretch my comic imagination, by the prospect of which I'm both excited, and slightly intimidated. It's good to remember that, ultimately, being real is what makes things really funny. I like this about comedy, that it is served best by truth and belief. Sure: It's all very rehearsed, and calculated, like any bit of good theatre. But all of that is for naught if we can't believe in it in the moment. The impact isn't what's funny; it's the way we deal with it afterward. Not the action, but the reaction, and the best reactions come from that very moment, and no other place.

29 April 2010

The ACTion COLLECTIVE: ACT V, scene ii - Personal Character - Find Your Voice

"Everything you create comes from here."

Last night The Action Collective held our second in a series of workshops focused on character building, and our first to be led by a guest artist:
Raïna von Waldenburg. Raïna is a teacher of Andrew's from NYU's experimental theatre wing, and we met with her a few weeks ago to discuss the possibility of leading a workshop with us, one based on her I Am One Who program of workshops. You can read more about her and her program on the Facebook invitation for the event, but here's a snippet of a description of the approach and goals:
"In a series of improvisations that require the actor to exist in the (power of) now, he/she will be faced with judges, habits, blocks, quirks, and latent talents that he/she has pushed aside. By literally inviting these undesirable parts of him/herself into the work, the actor suddenly has access to impulses that are alive, surprisingly truthful and emotionally resonant. The actor will learn to channel these impulses into acting that is present, open and honest, not forced, pushed or fake."
So: important and intimidating stuff. I was reminded, by her description of the technique and at times in practice, of the initial work Friends Heather, Todd and I did with Grey Valenti learning red-nose clowning. It involves that kind of sheer vulnerability and sincerity -- the very sorts of things I've been working rather hard (though somewhat subconsciously) to avoid in the past year. It also, however, has some important distinctions from that Lecoq-esque clown work, as I was to discover in the course of the evening.

An important part of the process has to do with identifying personal "judges," or voices of criticism within our own hearts and minds, and understanding them as characters. Raïna led each of us from theorizing what these individual, major judgments may be, through exploring them as people and finding a dialogue with them, right on to turning our judges into very promising characters in their own rights. She was incredibly present and listening and, though the work progressed very evenly over the course of three hours, you could tell that she was constantly responding to what was happening in the room, adapting our direction based on the "conversation" between students and teacher, or seekers and guide. Moreover, she did it all in such a way that we really had to give ourselves over to the work, because that was all we had to work with. Yet it was never strict, or forced. At least, not forced by her; there was plenty of forced work going on, whenever one of us got defensive or confused in an exercise.

A personal example: After some discussion of our personal judges, we began the exercises with practicing being open and available--present--with an audience. No need to do anything in particular, just don't retreat inward as you maintain eye contact and connection. This gradually developed in our observations and discussions into an informal rating system of 5 to 1 for how open we felt, 5 being not at all, 1 being as open as possible. One exercise along these parameters that she gave us was to start at 5 with everyone, and at some point in the course of 30 seconds flip into a 1 state. I found this really, really difficult (never really did get it) and in the course of my efforts, Raïna encouraged me to give voice to whatever impulse was preventing me from doing something so simple (my words, not hers). Eventually in the course of another 30-second attempt I twisted up my right elbow and neck in some abstract expression of frustration and sneered, "F@#$ this...." And that was good. And that was what we needed to move forward. Admitting my judgment of the exercise was how I could develop further into the work.

I think it's pretty safe to say that everyone last night learned something close to the level of a personal revelation or two (or, in my case, about a half-dozen). We were all working very hard, bravely, vulnerably and sometimes even without personal constraint. By the end, we were one-by-one improvising entire scenarios comprised of just us, and all the judges and judged that battle daily within us. Here was one of the important distinctions from the clown work that I've done, and the one that very nearly made me too defensively to effectively do the work: the naming of our judges. This requires a level of discussion and reflection that I believe actors tend to resist, because we're conditioned to -- afraid, aptly enough, of being judged as narcissistic and cerebral. And we resist it because it's frankly terrifying to acknowledge, to encourage, our judgments of ourselves. Adam Laupus made a pretty concise observation about it last night when he said that by naming one's judges, you begin to take their power back from them.

Apart from all that personal benefit, however, is a benefit of pure acting technique. This is an amazingly wonderful practice that bridges that strange divide between practices that help prepare for rehearsal and ones that are actually useful in rehearsal (for example, you would not [should not {yes; I'm judging}]) pull out the Meisner repetition exercise in the middle of rehearsing the last scene of The Glass Menagerie. This I Am One Who practice gives us a way to connect better with ourselves and our audiences, but also adds a powerful tool to the character-creation toolkit. It's genuine and impulse-based, breaks us out of habit, and it literally creates powerful characters for an actor to use. It's not often these days that I feel that sense of my perception of the acting process expanding, a feeling that I came to expect regularly in my studies at college. Last night, I felt that again, and I'm grateful to Ms. von Waldenburg for that.

In this sense, last night's event was a tremendous success for one of the goals of The Action Collective -- to provide actors with a space to do the work for which there is little time (or, in some cases, too much judgment) to accomplish in a typical rehearsal process. To enrich actors, instead of merely offering support. We may soon be making changes to the way the AC works, and what kind of work it takes on, but I'm encouraged by this latest workshop to maintain that priority. It's too important and too rare to neglect.

21 April 2010

Kick-Ass: A Follow-Up

WAY BACK in November of 2008, when I still had hair (I still have hair), I encouraged you folks to go out and read a little comic called Kick-Ass. I had only read the first issue at the time and, thereafter, I read only through the third or so. (Out of eight? I can't be bothered to Google this?) When I wrote that there 'blog post I promised a movie was in production and, last weekend, said movie opened in wide release. And last night, I observed the playing of said movie. This, then, is my response.

RESPONSE. NOT a CRITIQUE, or even a REVIEW. Just to be clear. Though there will be SPOILERS, me mateys. (Gatling jetpack. Wha-tah! How's that for timing?)

I'll preface this with a few interesting facts about this particular movie deal and my particular choices with regards to how I ingested this morsel of mixed media:
  • Obviously, I was sold on the concept (as I understood it) straight off.
  • I elected not to pursue the comic very far so I would not spend the whole movie comparing the two.
  • The comic got the movie deal from practically the first issue (can't be bothered to Google) and subsequently delayed releases of its issues in an effort to release the final one in the story arc as close to the opening date as possible.
  • The last issue of the comic that I did read -- though this was not a factor in my decision to stop reading -- I found a little off-putting.
  • I like comics, action movies and underdog stories.
To be brief: I enjoyed the movie a great deal.

All right, goodnight everybody! Tip the lamb and try your waiters!

[Then he just went on, and on, and then on about the damn movie...]

Those of you fervently tracking my 'blog, eager to analyze my responses to comicbooks and their cinematic interpretations in particular, may be reminded here of my rant on the impracticality of superheroes (see 2/14/08). It's true: Superheroes are entertaining mythology, and an answer to almost nothing practical. In that sense all this hubbub about the moral issues supposedly addressed in Kick-Ass are simply a mess of malarkey. (Points: "hubbub" and "malarkey" in the same sentence.) This film is not immoral, it's amoral, and one simply has to accept that as an aspect of the genre in order to approach it on terms remotely related to its intentions. It's reminiscent of Japanese manga in this sense (not to mention in much of its imagery) -- indulgent fantasy that knows it is indulgent fantasy. Is it immature and irresponsible? Totally. It's a teenager, and that's apt for its story.

That having been said, if this film catches on big, kids are going to emulate and probably get hurt or killed. One can easily argue that such kids will be stupid to begin with, because the movie more than emphasizes the catastrophic physical danger of vigilantism, and one would be right, but one would also be missing the point that many kids are stupid, because they're kids. They haven't had enough experience to reliably process this kind of information with some sense of distance. I know this, because I literally fantasized about sneaking out to "fight crime" when I was a teenager. I didn't see why I couldn't, nor that doing so was in itself criminal, nor even what that actually meant. More on that later. Point: This is an irresponsible movie. End of point.

I had a hell of a good time watching it. I may even buy it when it's released on DVD/Blue-Ray/DRM-FreePsychicImpression, if for nothing else than to revisit some of the brutal, beautifully choreographed "fights." (There was maybe one actual fight in the movie; the rest of the sequences were, to coin a phrase, "heroes" owning "villains.") This film takes a good ol' power fantasy that fanboys have had for at least half a century and just gives it a good, hard nudge into a more relevant setting. Relevant, but not in any sense realistic or naturalistic. Some may be fooled by the many parallels -- far more than even the new Batman films -- between the movie's environment and reality, but to those people I would say only this: Gatling jetpack.

Things I liked:
  • The action choreography was a really rather interesting blend of tropes and innovation. For an (amoral) example, Hit Girl straight-up kills bad guys, which is really the only way an 11-year-old could be expected to defeat adults, and many of the ways in which she does this are completely over-the-top, but also gratifying in their efficiency.
  • It did not pull punches in any sense, and was not aiming for any PG-13 rating, which allowed teenagers to be non-idealized and consequences to be heavy (when actual consequences were audacious enough to appear in this movie).
  • There was a very dark humor throughout, to the extent that I can see why some people seem to think the humor ended about midway through.
  • Nicolas Cage. I know. I KNOW. He still made gratingly huge acting choices, but if ever there was a movie in which they seemed apt, this is that movie. There was also a fanboy level of appreciating that he was for a long time thought to be Tim Burton's first choice for a very different interpretation of Superman(TM). In particular, the cadence of speech he used for Big Daddy was an astonishingly bizarre, yet recognizable, riff on Adam West's Batman. Fun; lots.
  • The movie and comic took a nice risk in actualizing a commonly held fantasy with creativity and specificity -- namely, answering the question of what might happen if a teenager followed through on his power fantasy.
Ironically, this last point was what initially intrigued me with the concept, yet also provided my biggest disappointment with the film. I was already rather resigned to this disappointment from the last issue I read (in which Hit Girl makes her splashy entrance) and from the tone of the movie previews, but I can't shake it completely, because I really wanted to see the movie I had fantasized about way back in November of 2008.

The only actual fight that takes place in the film happens about a third of the way in, and involves Kick-Ass fighting three guys in defense of a fourth whom they have chased into his path and proceeded to beat on. This is months after our hero's initial confrontation, in which he is stabbed and then hit by a car, then takes a little time-out to recuperate in the hospital. Before jumping in, he tells a nearby teen to call 911. The fight goes awfully for Kick-Ass, but he manages to first distract the attackers, then straddle the victim and keep them at bay with two batons. He doesn't win in any conventional sense. In other words, he doesn't beat them, but he endures mortal danger until they have to flee, owing of witnesses and the increasing risk of the intervention of the police. I liked this scene in the comic. I love it in the film; the lighting and dressing is gritty, and the direction is frenetic enough to communicate the utter confusion that the fight entails for our hero, while staying removed enough to allow us to distinguish just enough specificity to appreciate the story of the encounter.

The movie I wanted to see -- am in fact left still wanting, quite badly, to see -- is one that continued along that line. It's shortly after this point in Kick-Ass that Big Daddy and Hit Girl are introduced as supposedly more capable superheroes (in fact: vigilantes), complete with tremendous budget and revenge subplot, and everything is amped up. This is the movie (and, I suppose, the comic [the chicken-and-egg here is nigh inconceivable]) they wanted to make and, as I said, I enjoyed it a lot. It's just: What if? I mean this question both in terms of the comic/film, and in terms of continuing what I felt was the set-up and development of the beginning of the story.

What if when our hero gets in over his head, no one is there to bail him out? What if he revisits the hospital? What if he gets involved in the world of crime so deeply that his boundaries start to blur? What if he drops out of school? What if he inspires other teenagers in both directions, heroics and villainy? What if he has to choose whether or not he'll use firearms? What if he kills someone, or even just witnesses murder, and there are actually psychological consequences? What if, somehow, through it all, he actually gets quite good at fighting crime -- what does that entail and lead to in reality? What if he discovers he can't make a difference -- but personally needs to, anyway?

Lately a lot of hybrid superhero movies have been produced, many of them setting themselves in decidedly naturalistic worlds (Defendor comes to mind) but none that I know of approach the idea in such a straight-forward way. No one has made this movie yet, and I'm afraid no one will. Even I balk at writing the story, because I have some pessimistic views about how it might be received by producers and audiences alike. Certainly last night's audience by-and-large would not be pleased with the movie in my head. Yet I'd really like to see it. I think it would be entertaining and interesting, and that it would continually surprise its audience with events that occur with such veracity that anyone can imagine the same thing happening to them. Not to mention that it's the kind of story that is best served in film; no other medium could express it with such specific verisimilitude.

I think it's a shame that Millar and Romita, the creators of the comicbook, didn't go in this direction, but they did create one hell of a ride that probably many, many more people will enjoy. I know I did. The movie does what it says it is.

05 April 2010

Gary C. Hopper


"Theatre is my life!"

I received most of my formal acting training in the undergraduate program at Virginia Commonwealth University. Lots of factors contributed to my decision to attend college there. For example, I didn't make it into William & Mary; had I, I would have definitely gone, and my parents would definitely be much poorer, even to this day. When I enrolled, I wasn't even committed to being an actor -- I was just in the habit of approaching colleges as an actor, or theatre student, because that was the mode in which they were most likely to have already heard of me, through the conferences I attended in high school. I still had an abiding love of all things literature (except Dickens [even to this day]) and hoped to double-major.

VCU was an interesting program, one whose curriculum was in a state of near-constant flux during my four years there. Teachers and administrators came and went. In fact, the gentleman I auditioned for was no longer there by the time my first day arrived. This general situation caused me a good deal of angst during my time, fretting over the state of my and and my fellows' education. (To be fair, causing me angst in those days was not by any stretch a challenging maneuver.) Not to put too fine a point on it, I was often pretty pissed. At the most difficult times of that struggle, I think the only thing that kept me enrolled was returning to the foundation we actors received from the guy who insisted he teach each and every incoming freshman actor: Gary Hopper.

Mr. Hopper was, and delighted in embodying, an amiable terror to the freshmen. He made it clear, with a blistering smile all the while, that we were there to work and, furthermore, to work with enthusiasm. I can still hear his voice in my head as he jogged around the room with us in our daily warm-ups, quasi-facetiously pepping up our teenage slack-i-tude with interjections of, "Acting!" and "Theatre is my life!" There's a philosophy of teaching, I believe, that makes good use of the teacher as a character, as someone intriguing and idiosyncratic, who fascinates and keeps one on one's toes. This approach makes the students a little bit like gladiators, wily and ready to adapt: engaged -- if it works on them. It certainly worked on me, but it's an approach that is full of risk and takes a lot of commitment and energy. Sort of like, you know, good acting.

Now, I don't know if Mr. Hopper intends to be as eccentric as he can be, nor whether it's to this end. My guess is he does, but I also believe most of his idiosyncrasies are ones he comes about quite honestly. He really is a man who sees the purpose in life to be inextricable from living with energy and intention. He really would like to yank the cigarette out of every smoker's mouth, then have them thank him for saving minutes of their lives. And yes, theatre is his life. In my time he directed one main-stage show per year, and often a second-stage or regional show to boot, and these were always, always something to experience. Every show wasn't for every audience member, but that goes with his territory. That's risk-taking, and that's art. I could tally off every show of his from the Fall of 1995 to the Spring of 1999, and would enjoy the hell out of it, but just take my word: Must Sees.

Of course, I was involved in a few of those. As a sophomore I ASM'd his Little Shop of Horrors, which involved various misadventures with a turntable (oh, that f&#$%ng turntable), Intellabeams and an honest-to-goodness motorcycle. And, as a junior, I did what I'm afraid was an astonishingly mediocre job in his adaptation of the play Stand-Up Tragedy, which, Gentle Reader, involved risky stunts and fights, a life-size, bleeding Christ sculpture and -- most terrifying -- me, rapping. Finally, in my senior year, I had the excellent good fortune to work with Gary on a farce: Hotel Paradiso. Holy crap: THAT was FUN. I'm not sure any show I'd done before has influenced my adult career so specifically and completely. I knew before Hotel that I had a unique (being kind here) sense of humor and an appreciation of pratfall, but it was this show that taught me how important these were to me.

In fact, I probably owe the man royalties (nothing substantial, I regret to admit). Firstly because I believe to this day -- in spite of years of experience prior to college -- that I didn't learn how to act until I studied with Gary. It can be hard, more than a decade on, to trace the sources of one's techniques back to their origins. In spite of this, I very definitely carry on in a specific G.C.H. tradition, both in my acting and in my teaching. "Actors must be athletes," is an axiom that gets included in every single commedia dell'arte or acrobalance workshop I lead, and a great many of my exercises and challenges are taken directly from the Hopper repertoire. I still score my scripts, feeling somehow delinquent if I haven't done so by opening night, and I continue to subject my poor, poor actors, when I direct, to the STOP method of line memorization.

STOP is a good way to illustrate the infuriating and exacting way Gary has of demanding not just better, but the specific best from his actors. In this exercise, everyone gathers in a tight, standing circle, and we run lines, with the stage manager (never the director; I learned how important this is the hard way) on book. Whenever someone misses, transposes or paraphrases a single word, the SM says, "Stop." And only: "Stop." It's then up to the actor to repeat the line and, by the timing of "stops" figure out his or her mistake, and correct it. Believe me: It is not for the weak (nor the humorless).

Of course, college is about a hell of a lot more than the classes one takes, or even the productions a theatre student may be a part of. Gary had his small, yet profound, influences on me there as well. None of it is of general interest, all of it proved very important to the person I've become. College for me was personally tumultuous, and very probably that was a result of my own doing, and growing. I suspect that is not uncommon, yet when you're in the thick of it the experience is a rather difficult one of which to take a long view. Gary's spirit, his approach to challenges and belief in rooting all that ecstatic expression in solid groundwork, provided me with an example of how to be both exuberant and responsible in life. Plus, without ever tearing me down (more than I needed it) he constantly reminded me not to take myself too seriously. To say I'm grateful to him doesn't quite cover it.

Sometimes when I'm in the midst of a warm-up on a tougher day, I'll start (quite unconsciously) whispering to myself "Acting!" and "Theatre is my life!" And I smile, and I can't help it. Gary's spirit is unsentimental and infectious, and it would appear I remain infected to this day. Happy birthday, Gary, and thanks for all you've done for us.

02 April 2010

The ACTion COLLECTIVE: ACT V, scene i - Physical Character

It seems strange to write about last night's workshop; I suppose because I led it, but that doesn't actually make any sense: I write here all the time about my own work, The Action Collective is something of which I am one of two founders and last night was a great start to incorporating workshops into our regular schedule of events. It went well, the new (to us) space was perfect (replete with five-flight walk-up warm-up) and I was duly (and unsurprisingly) impressed with the work that each attendee cranked out of it. Perhaps what's tripping me up about it is that even though this was our fifth event, neither Andrew nor I actually led the previous ones. We kind of try to set up a mechanism for each evening, and we nudge it along and try to set people at ease, but in that this was our first workshop I really functioned as a leader. And I guess I feel a little odd reviewing myself at this time. I plea the fifth, regardless of whether or not it actually applies to my circumstances.

So instead, I'll bare my plans and schemes. Below is the outline I prepared for the workshop (apologies for the lack of indentation; I have wrestled with Blogger, and I have definitively lost). I wish I had some photographs or video as well, but alas, I am not a multitasker. You should take me to task, though, Dear Reader. Read it. Agree, disagree, let me know what confuses, and what you want more information about. I've led many a workshop in my time, but they're normally for amateur or inexperienced actors (occasionally, for non-actors) and the real challenge this time was to tackle similar material in a way that would be helpful and entertaining for experienced performers. I think it was helpful. I'm less assured about the entertainment value, but I was tremendously entertained by their work, so: Yay me!

Act V, scene i Lesson Plan

There are two basic situations of physical character creation -- characters created from cues in a script or other supporting material, and those created from scratch and/or in improvisation. The key priorities these have in common are:
  1. Distinguishing physical characteristics of character from physical characteristics of actor.
  2. Creating physical characteristics that enhance the story.
  3. Living through the characteristics, as opposed to demonstrating them.

In this workshop we will aim to learn and share methods of creating and distinguishing physical choices for a character, refining those choices to serve the larger picture, and incorporating those choices into instinctive behavior.

I. Introduction
A. Introductions all around
B. Introduce AC, Jeff & Andrew
C. Introduce ACT V & scene i
1. Goals
2. My background
D. Introduce Megan
II. Warm-Up
A. Megan's Yoga (15 minutes)
III. Groundwork - Distinguishing the Choices
A. Review viewpoints grid
B. Teach "active neutral"
C. Request "neutralizing" techniques
IV. Scratch/Improv. Techniques
*. Request improv. techniques
A. Body centers
B. Appetites
C. Animals?
V. Script Techniques
A. Introduce Laban vocabulary
1. Body
2. Shape
3. Space
4. Effort
a. space - direct/indirect
b. weight - strong/light
c. time - sudden/sustained
d. flow - bound/free
B. Text analysis in relation to Laban
1. Adjectives about character
2. Verbs & nouns by character
3. Rhythm and pace experimentation
4. Word from a hat
C. Request script techniques
VI. Unification
A. Practice, practice, practice
B. Respect the space/mask
C. Externalize the inner-work
1. Passing impulse
2. Props
3. Passing ball
VII. Wrap-Up/Discussion

01 April 2010

Theatre Is Dead

We like to have fun here at The Aviary, as verbose and pretentious as we can sometimes be. (For example: Referring to ourselves in the collective third person.) Theatre, after all, is all about the play, and so it would be contradictory to approach writing about it without a certain sense of playfulness. Occasionally, however, we have to address serious issues the severity of which no amount of levity can affect. In that this 'blog is about a personal journey as much as it is about larger issues of a fulfilling life and artful journeys, naturally some of these more-serious topics are going to cut pretty close to the bone, and come up here as a result of being personally important to me rather than due to timely relevance or any particular external instigation. In this case, however, the issue is both personal and timely.

The theatre is in serious danger of being killed off. I'm not leaning on hyperbole by phrasing it in this way -- I very specifically mean to suggest a murder. It's a killing by little pieces, a sloughing-off of life as if by erosion, and so it is insidious in the extreme. An alternative form of entertainment is taking over the theatre's former place in our lives, and we may not even appreciate the threat, simply because we are so entertained by it. This form of entertainment is characterized by flashy effects, easy laughs, baser instincts and extremely brief demands on our collective attention span. Moreover, as impossible as it may seem, it is spreading rapidly in popularity by merit of its availability and relative lack of expense, both to produce and to enjoy. There is no greater threat to legitimate theatre, nor has there ever been or likely will be again if we don't take a stand against it in a timely manner.

The new entertainment I refer to is, of course: "The Vaudeville."

Naturally, I know you will react dismissively to this assessment, but I beg of you to hear me out. I, too, rejected the premise when initially it came to me. Though it may seem absurd in the extreme to regard this cheap, new-fangled idiom as any kind of threat to the grandeur and history of the theatre, I have noted several indications of late which suggest that The Vaudeville is not only encroaching upon the theatre's domain, but that it threatens to wholly and utterly usurp said domicile. You will argue against it, naturally. I can not hold this against you. But forgive me whilst I demount any and all of your protests:
  • The theatre has stood as a standard of verisimilitude for too long to be torn asunder by the actions of gag men. While patently true in its own sense, this argument is actually irrelevant to the particular threat at hand. Of course The Vaudeville can never hope to approach the sheer reality of a truly produced theatrical endeavor; no amount of colloquialism can hope to make up for the utter lack of design and artistry. However, dear friends, note that the equation has reversed in the case of The Vaudeville. It does not seek to imitate life, because life is imitating it. Why, just the other day I approached a fellow in the hopes of acquiring a newspaper, to which request he replied, "Hang it for a tick, guy. My Bob's ah'summin'." Needless to say, I did not remain to inquire who or what constituted this man's "Bob," or in what state of which it could be said to be "ah'summin'." No, recognizing the idiomatic language of the small stage, I departed in terror of this Vaudeville language, or "VAUL-speak."
  • The Vaudeville, unlike the theatre, does not elevate our beings; in fact, it degrades us with its total lack of style or substance. Again, Dear Reader, I must agree. And yet again, I must with great regret dissuade you of conventional priorities. That is to say -- and I say so with tremendous apology and concern -- the larger audience may not be interested in having their beings elevated. I KNOW, I know: It is an horrifying concept. Yet all my observances of late suggest that people seem to want their entertainment to, above all else, entertain them. This The Vaudeville does exceedingly well, albeit with prattling mechanics and base, visceral humor. Of course we all respect and admire the astonishing word-play of Mr. Shakespeare, particularly when a seasoned actor may truly take his time over each, and every, word . . . but how can we not but laugh when any fool falls to his bumpkin? It is base, as I say, reflexive, even instinctive, but there can be no denying its immediate effect. Laughter-as-opiate can only draw, however gradually, more and more addicts from our ranks of thespian-enthusiasts down to the cellar of The Vaudeville.
  • But the theatre is an event, a special and discriminating experience that must be planned for, researched, sacrificed for, and ultimately - we may occasionally hope - baffles our expectation! Reader: I know, and I empathize utterly with your devotion. But kindly brace yourself for this next: A growing number of people are valuing convenience. Convenience! It's true: there is nothing so wonderful as the sheer effort involved in attaining the hard-earned income for a ticket to the theatre, attempting to attain that ticket, and thereupon spending more money and time on the ceremony surrounding a trip out to the theatre. Can anything afford greater satisfaction than this? Of course not! The idea is pure tomfoolery! Yet imagine for a moment, if you will, a whole neighborhood of people who are never afforded the opportunity to experience this reward. And why? Because just down the block is a tiny space that costs not two bits to enter, and wherein food and drink are all served amidst a rabble of conversation and entertainment. Terrifying, isn't it? Just. Down. The block. Not two bits, and anyone can not only attend, but contribute to the evening's experience.
Chin up, my friends. We must show no fear in the face of this threat, and stand confident in the continued importance--nay, necessity!--of the theatre. But a threat this The Vaudeville is, and will continue to be, unless we prove our superiority. It is not enough, comrades, to be resolute yet docile in our stuffed-velvet seats. We must rise up, and resist the new order and its slavish devotion to progress with our greatest weapons: Consistency and Ostentation. It is only by relentlessly doing things specifically and exactly the way they have always been done that we can hope to overcome this entertaining, inexpensive and inclusive so-called "theatre." We can do it, my friends. Onward, my histrionic soldiers, onward...

(Happy 1st o' April, one and all!)