More scenery in my diet, or what I learned from community theatre

Props will let you down; your castmates won’t

In the final scene of Wait Until Dark, in which I played the psychopathic Roat, the tormented heroine Suzy turns the tables when she flings a vase full of ammonia into Roat’s face. This occurs after Roat puts his valise on the table and pulls out a gas can, which he uses to douse the stairs. There are a lot of fluids; it gets messy.

On this night, however, when I removed the gas can, my bag tipped over the vase and its contents. Gah! What to do! We can’t go on unless Suzy blinds me with… something. Could she blind me with science? No, not an option!

So, after I spread the gasoline (it’s all just water, folks, don’t worry), I plunked the gas can on the table so Suzy would have something to throw in my face, and really, when it comes to blinding with gasoline instead of ammonia, it’s really just splitting hairs.

I said my cue and expected Suzy to pick up the can. Instead – splash! – something else in my face! Where the hell did that come from?

It turns out that when my castmate Mary “heard” the vase tip over (because Suzy is blind, you see), she went to the sink and retrieved the bottle of “ammonia” while I was spreading the “gas,” and that’s a lot of “quotation marks” in one sentence.

My point is that Mary had my back, and I had hers, because we knew we couldn’t let each other down, and we couldn’t let the audience down either. There’s no rewind in live theatre. Or paper towels.

My friend Phil is a gadget god

Speaking of props, my character protects himself with a knife called “Geraldine.” On some nights, when I pulled this somewhat phallic looking ceramic figurine out of my pocket, some in the audience would chuckle. But when I touched a switch and a blade popped out, the audience would go “Ooooh!”

Ooooh is right. What they don’t know is that this piece of machinery was cobbled together by my talented friend Phil out of Dollar Store material, bits of cutlery, toilet hardware, screws and rubber bands.

He also created a replica Geraldine that popped out of the wall when Roat “throws” it at Suzy. The illusion worked thanks to some misdirection and a blackout, but it wouldn’t work at all without Phil’s ingenuity with statuettes, steak blades, drawer slides and more rubber bands. Thanks, Phil. Or should I say, “Ooooh!”

Smoking is the coolest

My character smoked. They were stage cigarettes but they made me feel edgy and sophisticated. Don’t listen to what they tell you, kids; cigarettes are cool beans. Oh, and wielding knives concealed in dildo-shaped statuettes – also the bee’s knees.

On the other hand…

Any coolness was undermined by my Lloyd Christmas haircut. And I don’t even want to talk about the wigs.

Is that knife buzzing or are you just glad to see me?  Photo/Tanya Mueller Photography

Is that knife buzzing or are you just glad to see me?
Photo/Tanya Mueller Photography

I’m all about the boos

Like I said, I was the villain, a sunglasses-wearing, turtleneck-sporting, monologuing, scenery-chewing baddie. So getting booed at the curtain call? Better than a standing ovation. Mind you, I think most of the booers were my friends, so I probably had it coming.

Actors speak in code

I don’t mean stage lingo like “stage left” or “front of house” or “has anyone seen my wig?” I mean catchphrases and lines only people in the play understand. At home, someone might say, “I don’t know,” and I’ll reply “I don’t know, I don’t know, over and over again. I’ve heard people say that before, only she was more stubborn…” and so on, and no one else in my family will have a clue what I’m talking about, although that’s not unusual. But my castmates would get it. And that’s a lot of horse.

I don’t know if we were any good, and that’s okay

When you’re in a play, you become so involved in the lines and blocking and interpreting the character that in the end it’s hard to tell whether the production is actually any good. People will tell you it was wonderful, but people are polite, aren’t they? Even the booers.

I think our show was good, and, no, I’m not fishing for compliments. Because it doesn’t matter whether we were good, so-so or I-want-my-money-back. We did our best. We did our best as a collection of theatre amateurs – “amateurs” meaning “lovers of.” Community theatre performers do it because they love stepping out of their Walter Mitty lives to become con men, policemen, blind women and psycho killers with atrocious haircuts. They love entertaining people, making them laugh, inching them to the edges of their seats, and by doing so taking them out of their own lives for a couple of hours.

I’ve discovered that I’m such an amateur myself. It’s been over two decades since I’ve acted and it turns out I’ve needed more chewed scenery in my diet. Oh, and there’s one more thing to love…

Play pals

Two months ago, I walked into a room full of strangers and near-strangers. Now, after a brief but intense time together, I have new friends. Normally, when it comes to making friends, I warn myself, “We have to slide into this very gently,” and then, too late.

But it’s amazing how quickly friendships form when you’re pretending to stab each other. Or when you’re sitting in a dressing room shooting the breeze for an hour before the show. Or when one of your castmates gives everyone personalized business cards based on their characters. Or when one of them really does spill blood after passing out during a rehearsal. (Note to self: work on “stitches/bonding” metaphor.)

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How much fun it’s been to be so warmly welcomed by these lovers of theatre. How I’ve enjoyed spending this time with Mary, Nate, Brian, Mike, Eric, Jim, Judy, Susan-Lynn, Benjamin, Dennis, Lisa, and our 11-year-old part-time extortionist Tori ($1 per swear word), most of whom live in an entire other country, for God’s sake. How sad that I’m not likely to see them again.

At least not until next season…

small con artists

More photos at Tanya Mueller Photography and Newport Dispatch.

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Smoke defective

smokedetectorThe smoke detector went off just before 3:00 a.m. and I leaped out of bed like it was an Olympic event. If there had been an actual fire, the tumultuous flapping of the blankets would have fed the flames to a frenzy.

Oh my God!” I cried. Deb claims I flung myself across the bed and nearly headbutted her, but I maintain I hit the floor at the foot of the bed and sped out into the hall. Remember this discrepancy the next time you hear a so-called “eye-witness account.”

So, no, I wasn’t calm under pressure, but I didn’t panic. No, sir, I didn’t, probably because by the time I got to the hallway to rouse the children, the beeping had stopped, and instead of the choking fog of smoke, the floor was filled with the delightful aroma of freshly baked bread.

Death by toast inhalation – very rare.

We had put a loaf on in the bread-maker prior to going to bed, and something in the baking must have triggered the alarm. I went downstairs to check – nothing burning. I scanned the house, sniffed around the basement. Everything was fine. Well, the basement never smells fine. Everything was normal.

I went back to bed. Ten minutes later, it went off again. I re-checked the house. After the third time, another 10 minutes later, I unhooked the detector from the wall and brought it into the bathroom. I was trying to read the tiny print on the back through 3:30 eyes when it went off in my hand. Good thing I was in the bathroom. I took out the battery and crawled back into bed.

And then I lay there awake for another hour. This is what happens when you suffer a near-bread experience.

The thing is, I really wanted to sleep. It had been a tiring week, and the night before I had gone to bed while my young-adult children and their young-adult cousins partied loudly downstairs. They are all freshmen in the school of drinking, and they were cramming. I put in earplugs after a while. Earplugs do a pretty good job of blocking noise but earplugs can’t block the feeling you’re wearing earplugs.

So I was tired. We had ended the following day by driving our eldest daughter back to Montreal. As I stood in her apartment hallway, I looked up and saw her smoke detector hanging open – battery-less. “Replace your battery,” I scolded. This was after I had to squint at the sesame seeds on her counter to make sure they weren’t moving. Her housekeeping skills are a work in progress, but the battery was a priority.

With all the late nights and the travel, I should have been able to drift right back to sleep. Instead, I lay there thinking, what if there really had been a fire? Why, for example, hadn’t the at-home children sprung out of their rooms and raced for our pre-designated meeting place, the tree at the end of our driveway? When I asked the next morning, one child said he had heard the smoke detector but whatever, one thought she was dreaming, and one asked, “Is that what that was?” They were also two-for-three in recalling the pre-designated tree.

And what about the pets? Would I have to save the pets? There’s a conspiracy afoot in the house right now to acquire a puppy in addition to the full-grown dog and four cats we already have. One more puppy would be one more animal to save from the fire. And, being a puppy, it probably started the fire in the first place.

I thought about just how far I would go to rescue those pets. If I died trying to save the cat that keeps me awake at night with its snoring, I would feel pretty silly. Lying there, I thought about just how fat that snoring cat is. And then I thought that, if the fire were small enough, we could probably use the fat snoring cat like a blanket to smother the flames. It was late; don’t tell my wife.

I thought about what else we would try to save from the flames. The traditional photo albums? Or the non-traditional record albums. Hey, I’ve been carting those things around for 30 years, man! Then I thought of a better question: was there anything we would throw into the fire? Oops, there goes that sweater. It was late; don’t tell my wife.

Eventually, I did fall back to sleep, but not before realizing that our smoke detector was now sitting unplugged in the bathroom. If we die in a fire tonight, I thought, and the inspectors find this, our eldest daughter is going to be pissed!

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Somewhere over the transom

Not shown: garbage pail at foot of the door

Not shown: garbage pail at foot of the door

One week, six days, 22 hours and 32 minutes ago, I sent an email query to a publisher. A “query” is an unsolicited submission of a written work with the hope of future publication. It comes from the Latin meaning “shameless begging.” It’s rarely successful; you’re better off submitting your query through an agent, some people say, mostly agents.

An unsolicited query is sometimes referred to as “over the transom,” a transom being one of those windows you used to be able to open above an office door. You don’t see transoms too often anymore, but “over the transom” continues to exist in publishing and in the electronic age has come to mean “destined for self-publication.”

But here’s the thing about my over-the-transom query. While the publisher’s website stated that they welcomed submissions, it went on to say that they regret they can only respond to submissions that are of interest.

This is a cruel, cruel policy.

More helpful would be: “We regret that we cannot accept semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novels,” because that would cull a good third of the submissions right there. If they could say, “We regret that we can only accept fiction about sexy presidential candidates who are also wizards or wizards-slash-vampires,” that would at least give you an idea where you stand. If they said, “We regret submitting to other people’s wishes out of respect or courtesy all these years, for that has made all the deference,” you would know that this is the type of publisher you should avoid at all costs.

But this “you’ll hear from us only if we like you” nonsense is torture.

I’ve noticed this line in employment ads as well: “We regret that only shortlisted candidates will be contacted.” But they never say when that will be. We’ll contact you in a day or two, a couple of weeks, a month maybe. Just sit tight and try not to fret about your worth as a human being. Have a nice day!

The way the rationalist brain works with this “don’t call us, we might call you” policy is to always hold out faint hope. Just because it’s been one week, six days, 22 hours and 34 minutes since I submitted my query, that doesn’t mean I won’t hear.

Maybe the publisher has been really, really busy. You know how it goes; you start out your morning reading a story outline about a dysfunctional backwoods Canadian family of stone polishers – title: “Buffing it in the Bush” — and next thing you know you’re looking at your shirt and realizing you’re at the Button Tipping Point. You know the Button Tipping Point – when you can no longer ignore all the missing buttons on your pants and shirts and so you finally get out the needle and thread to embark on a sewing marathon? No? Not much of a procrastinator, are you? That’s why you’ll never make it as a writer!

Or could it be that blissful ignorance has replaced the traditional rejection letter? Blissful for the rejecter, that is. You used to be able to count on a simple “no thanks” or “this is good, but not for us” or “you stink worse than Micky Rourke after a 5K run.” Now, except through anonymous online attacks, we live in an everyone-gets-a-trophy age where we want to avoid hurt feelings at all cost, not because we’re sensitive but because we don’t want to get sued. Next thing, publishers and employers will be blocking emails so we can’t write back demanding to know “Why don’t you love me!” It’ll be just like my high school years all over again.

But I would far rather be told by a publisher that they’re not in the market for writers who make stale Mickey Rourke jokes than be left wondering indefinitely whether my emailed query might have ended up in the publisher’s spam folder and she simply hasn’t discovered my submission entitled “Girlie Be Passion Pills All-Night Love Long!!!”

Because, if I did hear back from the publisher that my submission left her wanting only to go home and hold her children close for a while, I would send my query elsewhere. Which I really should do anyway. But soon. After all, it’s only been one week, six days, 22 hours and 35 and a half minutes.

*

A version of this post originally aired on CBC Radio’s “Breakaway” on October 14, 2014. You can hear the original here.

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The skinny on skinny

Astounding, really, especially back in the day.

Astounding, really, especially back in the day (photo circa 1995).

It was a warm night, and the terrasse was open at the bar downtown. As I cycled past, a voice called out, “Hey! Where’s Waldo!”

Taunted because of my resemblance to a make-believe character.

Fictionally harassed.

It didn’t especially bother me, because, let’s be honest, my heckler wasn’t completely off the mark. Even in the dark, I appreciate that a bike helmet is not my best look. In the right light, I resemble one of those thin-stemmed mushrooms – enoki, I think, or in my case, edorki. And yet when I had to bike past again a few minutes later, I cringed in anticipation of being made fun of – a skinny guy wearing glasses and a funny hat.

#YesAllWaldos

Let’s leave the helmet and glasses aside for a moment, though in popular culture glasses continue to be code for “geek,” “nerd,” “loser,” “Clark Kent.” After all, if I wanted to, I could lose the glasses. I could get contacts or laser surgery. I could squint.

But I can’t do much about being skinny. Nor do I expect much sympathy. Why? Because I’m skinny, something we’re told, along with being rich, you can never be too much so. Though apparently that’s not the case. Continue reading

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Acting. My age.

Wait Until DarkAt one point in this play I’m rehearsing, I have to make a leap. It’s not a dance leap, not a plié. More like a pâté. A gristly splat. The springing is okay; I can still spring. It’s the landing that’s rough. Not right away – I’m in the moment, in character, and he don’t care about no stinkin’ bruises. But later, and the next day, oooh, it feels like a sacrifice for my art.

This, it turns out, is acting in my forties. It’s been half a lifetime since I did any stage acting. The last time I was in a play, Ronald Reagan was in the White House. He was an actor too. He’s dead now.

I’m in QNEK‘s production of Wait Until Dark, which opens at the Haskell Opera House next Friday. My greatest worry going into the play was that I wouldn’t be able to remember my lines. I’ve found in my forties that my brain doesn’t retain information like it used to, probably because there’s 25 more years’ worth of stuff in there than when I last acted. I believe 32 percent of that extra stuff is security passwords. Another 13 percent are episodes of “Friends.” Continue reading

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Why You Drive So Loud?

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O, tender youth with ball cap perched
And moustache like a wisp of dirt,
Upon my street and through my town
Why you drive so loud?

There’s thrill in speed, I get that, fine,
A race can spike adrenaline,
Perhaps you’re late and need to hurry,
But souped-up engines: really?

To tune one’s car, it’s not my bag,
To each his own, I always say.
Spoilers, pipes and mags: all tolerable,
I just don’t get the decibels.

I wish you’d thrust your melon out
Your window as you ride, and shout:
“I’m loud and fast cuz I’m an idiot,”
At least that would explain it.

Instead, you prop your hand upon
The steering wheel, so cool, just so,
Ignoring glares from seniors, dogs
As the engine goes “BHHRAU-BHHRAAAAAUUUGG!”

“The splendick’s murphing in the gleeps,”
I tell my dear one as we stroll,
Or that is all she hears at least
Above the Sentra’s caterwaul.

“Kids today…,” we frown and squawk
As soon as hearing’s been restored.
“Oh, great, he’s turned, he’s coming back.
Oh, wait, he’s forty-four.”

And who is this with tricked out muffler?
A youngish girl, a single mother.
Is it equal rights when noise horrific
Isn’t gender-specific?

And yet, O drivers, fast and pestiferous
With boorish cars mechano-vociferous,
I’m still far off from comprehending
The never-ending revving.

Were you neglected, you wee dear thing,
The youngest whelp of ten, thirteen?
You lacked attention, longed for fondness,
Abandoned in a lot of Hondas?

You wish to stand out in the crowd,
Impress your friends, make Papa proud?
Some strive through art, play sports, some sing
But, you, you’re just exhausting

I likewise strive to feel I’m different
Yet I don’t drive by your apartment with
Tricked out book, bright chrome upon it,
Shouting odes and sonnets.

Is this your social contribution:
Burning rubber, noise pollution?
Pushing neighbours to the brink?
Dunno; can’t hear myself think.

If you were on some circuit there, I’d
Cheer, “Rev on!” I wouldn’t care.”
But here along this peaceful bend
You are a NASCAR without the “N.”

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The hammock of regret

Jughead-186When I think of a hammock, I think of Archie and his pals. It’s usually a setup for a gag. If someone’s lying in a hammock, cartoonishly contented, you can be sure that Hot Dog is going to charge through in the next panel, or maybe Archie wrangling a runaway lawnmower. You just know that the hammock and its contents are going to go spinning like a berserk rotisserie and cause poor Mr. Andrews to suffer an upheaval and possible spinal trauma.

The chaotic comedy springs from the upending of expectations. A hammock, after all, is the epitome of relaxation, verging on Jughead-level sloth. In the suburban ideal of the golf-green, white-picket, backyard kingdom, the hammock represents refuge from all domestic chores, a reward for a lawn well done.

I have a hammock. It doesn’t spin crazily. It just lies there limp, its hanging arc like a mocking grin, and every fall it sneers, “So-o-o…, how was your summer?” Continue reading

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