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Hurry Up and Wait

You know what isn’t healthy?  Waiting around for something to happen.  We have a need to feel like we’re in charge of our own destinies, that our actions matter.  This can be a tricky thing in the arts, where we’re so often at the mercy of other people’s decisions – whether they cast us, whether they program us, and so on.  But even then, there’s classes we can take and writing circles we can organize and all sorts of other tasks, large and small, to keep ourselves free of the malaise that sets in when we’re just sitting around our apartment, waiting.

So how am I spending the Quarantimes?  By sitting around my apartment, waiting.

It’s not that I’m inactive.  The Tuesday night reading series I co-host is still going strong; I have a new brief online project which started rehearsals yesterday, and other informal readings to take part in over the next few days, so my calendar is busy.  However, each of these involves me making sure I’m sitting at my desk, at my laptop, at a certain day and time.  All of the preparation I do for these also involves me sitting at my desk, at my laptop.  For instance, I do the casting for my Tuesday reading series over the weekend, which involves me emailing the various actors in our community.  And waiting for their replies – which, again, has me sitting at my desk, at my laptop.

Waiting.

And that’s just my creative life.  My day job is being conducted remotely; hopefully we’ll all be back in person come the summer, but for the time being, being gainfully employed consists of me sitting down at my desk, at my laptop, for nine or ten hours at a time on the weekdays.  Being in person again is dependent on people getting their COVID vaccines, which, here in New York at any rate, is a long and cumbersome process that depends on one sitting at their laptop, navigating the various city and state sign-up websites – and once again, sitting in their apartment, waiting.

Back in the Before Times, we used to refer to the grind of auditions, errands, and whatnot as “pounding the pavement,” and there was a value to it that we didn’t recognize at the time.  Even if nobody was interested in casting us, even if we struck out at every opportunity we travelled to, we were physically walking to each one.  Actively doing something, even if it was only the most mundane physical activity, allowed us to feel as if some progress was being made, somehow.  It kept us focused.  It kept us in a state of mind to keep on creating, keep on perservering.  That’s not possible at the moment.  I can go for a walk, sure – I’m luckier than most, in that I have the Brooklyn waterfront greenway right near me – but I’m cut off from everything when I do so.  To get anything done, I have to go back to my desk, and my chair, and my laptop – and feel myself slowly going to seed as I do so.

It’s not the ideal state of affairs.

And I’m not sure if there’s any way to fix it, other than wait for my turn to get the vaccine and get back to the process of rebuilding something “normal” once that’s done.  And I don’t know what “normal” will look like after this.  The one thing I do know, is that I’ve come to the end of this blog post.

And now I have to wait, until tomorrow morning, to post it.

Three Day Weekend

Ah, the three-day weekend.  That most cherished of social rituals; that glorious occasion where the free time we’ve managed to secure for ourselves at the end of the work week (thanks, labor movement!) is expanded by fifty percent, making it a length that’s actually feasible for tackling major projects.  As someone who claims to be a writer (of things other than blog posts, at any rate), but whose time has been eaten up by the demands of work and the stresses of the Quarantimes, these seventy two hours should be a godsend.  At last, a chance for me to set aside the cares of my day job, turn to one of the writing projects in the proverbial queue, and actually get something done!

Except – for all intents and purposes (except, you know, my annual income), I have two full time jobs.  Now that the Tuesdays at Nine reading series is being conducted remotely (at least until we all get our vaccines), the prep work for it is all done remotely as well.  That means reading and chosing scripts, planning casting, and reaching out to writers and actors.  Week after week.  So, along with doing laundry (I can multitask), that accounted for my Saturday.

One day down.  Two to go.

Which is fine, except for one thing.  Now that we actually can get our vaccines, those of us who qualify have to navigate a byzantine system of interlocking websites to actually secure an appointment.  We have to track when new vaccine shipments become available, and when the websites update, and the time spent doing so works out to yet another full-time job.  Here in New York, another round of appointments became available on Sunday; I won’t go into all the details, but suffice it to say that making plans for a month from now consumed my time and concentration for the day.

So that’s two days of the three day weekend gone, with only Monday left.  Twenty four hours.

Which, once you factor out sleep, and meals, and errands, results in – eight hours available for any sort of creative project?  Maybe ten?  And once I’ve gotten all of the prep work out of the way, my long and glorious three=day weekend will have been whittled down to…three hours, perhaps, of actual writing?

I’d like to think I can some measure of progress in that brief time, but I’ll try not to beat myself up too badly if I don’t.  After all, if worse comes to worse, I can always get that writing done over the next long weekend I have, which is…

-checks calendar-

 …um, at the end of March.

Sigh.

Facing the Music

I think it’s clear that with the frantic January we’ve all had – you guys realize we had a civil war for a few days there, right? – the actual start of 2021 has effectively been delayed until February.  Oh sure, we’ve been writing 2021 on our checks for a few weeks now, but in terms of the actual start-of-the-year projects, large and small, which all of us have, I’m sure I’m not alone in only attending to them now.

It’s not a major project by any means, but in terms of the time commitment, one of the projects I’ve finally committed to is going through my CD collection.  (For my younger readers, music used to be sold commercially in pre-arranged collections called “albums,” and during the brief window of time when it could be recorded electronically but not steamed electronically over the internet, the dominant means of recording and selling these albums were referred to as “compact discs,” or “CDs.”  The more you know, etc.) Like anybody, I’ve got a sampling of favorite music from various points in my life – and what with me being old and all, that covers a lot of disparate points.  As an actor, I also have a good number of original recordings of shows I’ve done, or were hoping to do, or otherwise needed for some sort of research.  And as someone who’s worked in music schools and classical concert halls for twenty years as my day job, I have piles of random CDs from over the years – free promotional copies, anthologies of various kinds – many of which I’ve never listened to.

Do I listen to all of these recordings on a regular basis?  No.  Do I need all of these?  Doubtul.  As I’m going through them, should I evaluate which I can safely give away, so as to free up valuable space in my apartment?  Sounds like a reasonable course of action.

Am I going to do that?  Of course not.

And a large part of the reason I’ll probably keep hoarding my barely-listened-to CDs is that, for a large part of my life as a theater artist, I dabbled in sound design.  “Dabbled” is probably the wrong word – it wasn’t my primary focus, but I took it seriously, did it for quite a few shows, and I like to think I was good at it.  By and large, this was in those long-ago pre-Internet days, when you couldn’t simply call up whatever you might be interested in on You Tube.  No, you needed to maintain a library of music, of sound effects, of whatever weird ambient background murmurings you might conceivably need, for shows that might never come to fruition, so you could consult it at a moment’s notice.  You needed to listen to every genre possible – gangsta rap, barbershop quartet, Balkan jazz, baroque dance suites – while constantly asking yourself what potential circumstances might arise where you’d need that particular piece.  And then you’d need to wait, patiently, for that moment to come.

Well, even if there weren’t a global pandemic raging right now, that moment isn’t going to come again.  The realities of the art form have changed; astonishing advances in technology have rendered my sound design skill set irrelevant.  I don’t need to keep my recordings for any reasons other than personal.  I know this, consciously, and yet I can’t bring myself to change my behavior, or my way of thinking.  These habits, once cultivated, are decidedly hard to get rid of.

Oh, well.  At least my cat is enjoying listening to the music.

To the Rescue

I have a confession to make.  Back when I was a youngster, introverted and devoid of much ready cash, the bulk of the movies I saw were on television.  Between the advent of cable movie channels and the rise of home video (I’m old and was there for the beginning of both of those, folks), the bulk of my film education took place alone in my room, watching classics and  popcorn flicks for hours on end.  Yes, I’ve been binge watching since long before it was cool, or even had a name.  As a result, I haven’t gone through this pandemic with any aching desire to make my way back to a movie theater, come hell or high water.  Live theater, sure, I can’t wait to be in the audience for that again.  (I’d rather be on stage performing in it, of course, but first things first.) But when it comes to seeing movies, I’m perfectly happy reverting to my youth, curling up in front of a screen in my room, and letting the story take me somewhere far away from the terrors outside.

Nevertheless, those stories are only going to get told if there’s an industry making that happen, and that industry is in a frighteningly precarious position right now.  Actually, it’s two intertwined industries that are in trouble, each one’s fragile health dependent upon the other; the studios creating and distributing the movies, and the theater chains which exhibit them.  While the studios have access to their own streaming services to help pick up the slack, their business model is still dependent on those movie theater theaters remaining open and functional, and ten months into the Quarantimes that’s far from being the case.

But fear not!  It turns out that help is on the way for at least one of the theater chains that was facing bankruptcy just a few short weeks ago.  And as with most things nowadays, that help has taken the form of pranksters on the internet.

By now, you’ve probably heard about GameStop and its stock price – when you’re referenced in the Saturday Night Live cold open, you know you’ve made it.  To summarize: various hedge funds had taken note of GameStop’s faltering business and had “shorted” the stock -effectively betting against the business, and positioning themselves to profit from its declining stock price.  (It’s complicated.  Ask your local economist for the exact details.) Assorted groups of small online investors, making use of such things as the Reddit forum and Robinhood trading app, took note of the hedge fund and started buying large quantities of the GameStop stock to artificially drive up the stock’s price and thwarting the effort to short the stock.  The hedge funds have lost billions.  Congress is investigating.  It’s a whole thing.

While GameStop has been the most heavily publicized case, these so-called Reddit traders have been artificially inflating the value of other distressed companies, notably the AMC theater chain.  As a result of their actions, $600 million dollars in company debt was erased.  At a moment when any financial drag could spell doom for the company, this bizarre stock saga wound up functioning as a magical rescue package for the industry.

It’s all very strange, in that surreal 2021 sort of way.  Bu somehow, this sort of financial chicanery, this rescuing of an industry from the predations of the rich, seems entirely appropriate to the film industry.  At least it does to me.  Perhaps that’s because the first movie I actually saw in a theater was Disney’s Robin Hood.

Zeroes

It was a momentous week, Constant Reader – and since this is a blog about my life in the arts, I’m not referring to the inauguration of a new president or the thwarting of an attempted fascist insurrection.  (Although that Amanda Gorman poem, amiright?) The cold reading series for which I serve as co-host and co-Creative Director, Tuesdays at Nine, celebrated its thirtieth anniversary.  The Naked Angels theater company began the program in January of 1991, immediately after the bombing campaign that kicked off Operation Desert Storm; shocked at the turn of events the nation had taken, and feeling the need to foster an artistic community capable of responding to such events, they created a formal workshop series to workshop brand new writing.  The hope was that by meeting so frequently, they could respond artistically to the rush of history in as close to real time as possible, the better to try and make a difference.  And for thirty years, week after week (not counting summer vacations, cuz you need those), that’s what we’ve endeavored to do.

I also turned fifty this weekend, so there’s that.

The strange thing is that it’s the former, the 30th anniversary of the reading series, that’s making me feel old this January, and not my birthday.  It shouldn’t be that way – fifty is greater than thirty, after all.  (By twenty years.  Former high school Mathletes president here.) But my chronological age is just a fact of life.  Maybe not one I should mention in a blog casting directors might read, but since not much of anything’s being cast right now it sort of balances out.  Plus, as a character actor, while the number of roles available to me at fifty may be fewer, they’re a hell of a lot better – I’m finally the right age for my character type.  As far as my health goes, I’m feeling pretty good (knock wood – there’s a pandemic, y’know).  That number, fifty, is just a simple fact of life, a particular detail about me at this particular moment.

But thirty years of the reading series?  That’s thirty years engaged in a specific task.  And while I’ve only been working with this company for the past eight years of those three decades, the timetable matches up pretty nicely with my own theatrical life.  I started acting in college; I distinctly remember me and my classmates the night Desert Storm began, huddled around the television and stupefied that we’d plunged once again into war, that we’d been manipulated into it by the sort of people who profiteer off of misery.  For these past thirty years, my hope as an artist has not simply been to find employment (although that’s kind of a big thing), but for that employment to matter, to help work towards a better society that knew enough not to succumb to that sort of corruption and cruelty.

Have I succeeded?  Has anybody?

We’ve produced a lot of good work at Tuesdays at Nine, some of it even during my tenure.  But in terms of trying to halt the decay of our society, I’m not sure we’ve made any progress.  It feels like all of us – not just my particular company, all of us – have been trying to bail out a sinking life raft with nothing more than a thimble.  And we’ve been doing this for decades.

It’s tiring.  Not gonna lie.

But then again, we are still here – and we’re still going even despite the pandemic that’s halted most theatrical activity throughout the country.  Every Tuesday, we meet over Zoom, and every weekend my co-host and I prepare to do it all over again.   And each week we manage to pull it off, all the obstacles notwithstanding, is a small victory.

At my age, I’ll take those where I can find them.

The Adventure is Gone

The carnage continues apace, Gentle Reader: here in New York, countless small businesses are closing their doors forever, victims of the economic damage wrought by the ongoing pandemic.  Arts organizations are paralyzed, as the audiences they rely upon are trapped at home in lockdown.  A small business that serves those arts organizations is in an especially precarious place at the moment, and even the most established of those businesses are in danger.

Earlier this month, it was reported that the Halloween Adventure store in the East Village would be closing permanently, another casualty of the quarantimes.  For those of you not from New York, it needs to be stressed that this was more than a simple pop-up store, another hole in the wall selling cheap costumes every autumn.  It DID sell cheap costumes, of course – well, not THAT cheap, this is New York after all – but it sold more elaborate pieces as well, along with theatrical make-up and magic kits and prop weaponry and gag items of every imaginable variety.  The store took up an entire city block, a dark and labyrinthine wonderland crammed stocked with the contents of everybody’s inner thirteen-year-old’s gleeful imagination.  It was an institution, and there was nothing like it.

Since it was open year round, it was a mecca for theatre folks needing props and make-up, especially for those of us toiling in the low-budget world of Off-off Broadway.  My make-up is still stocked with purchases I made from that store; any false mustache I needed came from its stock. (I couldn’t always grow my own, you see – there was this one time I played a bodiless head who only had a mustache in one of his three vignettes.  It was the nineties.) I’ve stocked a one-act of mine with blood packs from its shelves, worn at least one of its wigs onstage, and spent the better part of a summer picking feathers out of my laundry that came from a feather boa I needed to pick up there as a prop, for reasons I can’t even remember any more.  I’m sure it made sense in context. 

I’ve been going there for a long time, in other words.  And that’s what’s throwing me for the biggest loop as I process the news of this closing.  For you see, everybody who’s mourning this store is mourning the loss of a tradition, a fixture of the theatrical scene for as long as anybody can remember.

But the physical store I’m talking about, that macabre shrine on Fourth Avenue, only opened in 1996.

In other words, it’s been around the New York theatrical scene as long as I have.  (Slightly longer, in the name of strict accuracy – I moved back to my home town in spring of 1997).

It’s strange to think that an institution has been around as long as I have, or if you prefer, that I’ve been around as long as that institution.  And it SUCKS to think that the institution in question, which once again is my age, has reached the end of its lifespan.

It’s got me in a macabre frame of mind.  And now I don’t even have a place to buy a suitable costume to suit the mood!

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