Tuesday, March 27, 2018

On Being an Actor. The Long Haul.

Some of the best actors I know have never made a movie. They have never been in a Broadway show. They have never starred in a TV series. They work hard, they take class, they audition, they have day jobs, they commute to small theatres to do good roles in order to keep their chops up and, perhaps, have someone see their work. Sometimes, they move to smaller regional markets and work in Portland or Phoenix or Dallas or Chicago. They pay off their student loans, shell out hundreds of dollars a year for new head-shots, and hope their new agent might get them more paid work this year than their last agent did last year. It's not the glamorous Hollywood red carpet stuff you see on Entertainment Tonight. It is the work-a-day slog of countless journey(wo)men actors across the country. Well-trained, talented, dedicated.

David Fox-Brenton and Benjamin Stewart in "Sherlock's Last Case" at the Mayfair Theatre, Santa Monica, CA
Most of you reading this have probably never heard of an actor by the name of Benjamin Stewart. Benjamin was one such actor. I had the pleasure of working with him on several occasions throughout my career. The first time was at the Grove Shakespeare Festival in Garden Grove, CA. While we didn't act in any shows together, we were in a couple seasons simultaneously. I was a young actor with drama school and 10 or 15 shows under my belt and Ben was the mainstay character actor in the company. Later, I would be instrumental is his casting as Dr. Watson (pictured above) at another theatre I happened to being working at as a producer (and box office manager!). Many years later I would call on Ben again, once at a professional regional theatre company I had founded as well as a Shakespeare festival I was fortunate enough to briefly lead in Arizona. The last decade or so of his career he spent constantly on stage at the Arizona Theatre Company in Tucson and Phoenix. Benjamin was  fabulous actor. Did he have a career? Absolutely. A fine one. Did he make a lot of money? Hardly. Never made a major motion picture. Never had his name above the title. Never walked a red carpet at the Oscars or the Tonys. He was an actor, though, and audiences who were fortunate enough to see him perform were moved to laughter and often tears.

Also in the picture is David Fox-Brenton, another one of those excellent career actors you've never heard of. Interestingly, both David and Benjamin passed away in June of 2013 just 17 days apart. Both were 70 years old. It doesn't really mean anything, since to my knowledge this was the only play they were in together. But, I just just think it's interesting.

Nationwide, there are about 160,000 members of SAG-AFTRA and about 50,000 members of Actors' Equity. Granted, not all of these people are actors, per se. Some SAG-AFTRA members are journalists, radio personalities, hosts, musicians, etc. Also, many AEA actors are also members of SAG-AFTRA, so there is going to be some crossover. Remember though, these are just the union actors. There are easily (I'm guessing here, but I'll stand by it) at least as many non-union actors as there are union actors. Maybe more. These would include young actors just starting out, actors in smaller markets (i.e., NOT Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago), actors who have dropped out of the union in order to pursue their craft in ways not allowed by unions restrictions. These kinds of actors are no less professional, no less talented, no less dedicated than their union counterparts. Should you join one of these unions? Maybe. That union card is a badge of honor for most of us. But if you are just starting out, think hard about it. Sure, you'll feel good about the fact that you have the card, but once you take this step, you will cut yourself out of lots of acting opportunities - student films, indie productions, intimate theatre shows. It's a tough call. One of a thousand you'll make over the years.

For our friends and family, it may be a little difficult to accept that there is no magic key to unlock the door to financial success as an actor. No secret handshake. No one guru with all the answers. No special workshop that will suddenly alert studio executives you have arrived. There is no ONE way, no one person, no one role that will automatically launch an actor into Emma-Stonedom or Ryan-Goslingville.

  Left to Right: Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon.
It is also frustrating to understand that the timetable is different for everyone. How many parents and spouses have insisted that their  talented young thespians have a "five-year plan," a "Plan B."  Pure and simply, no one can do that. It is different for each and every actor. Some of you will hit quickly, others will start later, still others will become Benjamin Stewart. Bryan Cranston (of Breaking Bad fame), for example was 44 when he finally made a name for himself in Malcolm in the Middle. Stage actor Sidney Greenstreet made his film debut when he was 61 playing Kasper Gutman opposite Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. There are no rules and you can't make any.The universe will not listen.

Being an actor is hard work. The work isn't just on stage or in front of the camera. It's involves all the other stuff that gets layered on our creative life. Taking classes, reading scripts, watching films and TV (yes, that's actually part of the job), researching and preparing for auditions, the auditions themselves, commuting to all these things, sitting for photographers, networking, volunteering at the small theatre where we are a company member, the list is long. Oh, yeah, plus we have to make a living at the same time.

As silly as it sounds, being an actor is a calling more than a career. Those of us who have been doing this a while will tell you that we don't chose acting, it chooses us. People become actors because they  have to. They have little choice in the matter. I've seen talented, passionate actors return to it after being away for 30 years, simply because it is who they are. Acting is how they express themselves, how they relate to the world, how they process emotions and meaning in life. The first time you were bitten by the acting bug, a career as an actor didn't matter, did it? You just wanted to be one! It was the joy of the work, the intensity of the process, the passion for the words, the pleasure of the community. It was the smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd. 

While all this may seem grim and hopeless, it isn't. Quite the opposite. The life of an actor is a full one. Hope, ambition, variety, emotion, knowledge, close friends, and lasting relationships. Scene study class is therapy. A long run in a good play is safe haven. Your time on set is educational and inspiring. Thousands of talented, young actors stream to LA and New York year after year to start building their resumes and begin their journey through characters and stories and emotions. Thousands more, older and wiser, with loads of experience ranging from Simon to Shaw to Shakespeare still persist and persevere in regional theatres, stock companies, tours, and tiny converted store fronts. Each looking for the play, the role, the opportunity, the coach, the mentor, the director, the tribe that will connect with them, nurture them, create with them. 

In short, you are not alone. You never will be. You will become part of a tribe of creative people, encouraging each other step-by-step. You will help each other make new projects and find new voices within yourself. You will have support when you feel like you'll never work again and you will have applause when you take your bows or land your first big series. It will not be what you thought it would be, but it will be a uniquely personal experience the whole time. Enjoy the ride, even the bumpy parts. It doesn't matter if you are a Benjamin Stewart or a Meryl Streep. You are an actor, do the work of one...wherever it leads. That is part of the fun.

Places, everyone, places.



Thursday, January 4, 2018

In Defense of Hollywood, Again

2017 was  a tough year for Hollywood. Hell, it was a tough year for the nation. For the planet, even! With Awards Season upon us, we are about to be bombarded with more angst. We are about to hear from...wait for it...actors. We are about to watch award shows where (gasp) people say things that we might not like. 

About a year ago, Meryl Streep, arguably the greatest film actor of her (or any) generation blasted then President-Elect Trump. So began the Twitter wars - well, a Twitter war - waged on the "Hollywood elite." Hollywood. That monolithic, hypocritical, evil-headed hydra that is out to promote it's liberal agenda. That nefarious conspiracy bent on corrupting our children and poisoning the minds of our lawmakers. That factory of fantasy that dares to make us think about alien invaders, hope for superheroes, long for true love, fight for free press, indulge in crazy sex, and maybe even fall in love with a hairy monster (or even a slimy, scaly one).

In an article shortly after Streep's acceptance speech for the Globe's Ceceil B. DeMille Award, Timothy Stanley in CNN Online (Hollywood, Spare Us Your Hypocrisy), launched some very typical arguments - all of which we have heard before. Now, granted, much of what Stanley says in the article is fair and he certainly seems to agree with Ms. Streep's fundamental points. Yet, he, like so many others, creates this strange Hollywood specter that most of us in the industry simply do not know and have never participated in. Hollywood casting is hypocritical and bigoted. Hollywood is unfair at best, out-right discriminatory at worst. Hollywood is a Trumpian corporate greed machine concerned only with profit. Hollywood is a red-carpeted Skynet just waiting to drop a mind-controlling virus into our neural implants while we shove popcorn in our pie-holes.

These tired, old arguments are all far more complicated than the 35 year old Brit, Mr. Stanley, makes out. It's a deeper, more nuanced issue that few actually ponder before spouting off their opinions about "Hollywood." There is no "Hollywood." Hollywood is a phantom concept too often used as a scapegoat. There is no big tall building where bloated, cigar chomping movie moguls sit around conspiring over which white, British, male actor under 35 should get the next big role in Saw 9. Not every movie has an action figure licensing deal attached. Not every movie does a billion dollars worldwide at the box office. Do these things happen? Yes, they do. Rarely. No matter what you hear, actors (and other creatives, for that matter) are not interchangeable cogs in some giant golden gear cranking out lucre. 

"But," you are saying, "Harvey Weinstein!" 

According to the Motion Picture Association of America (yes, the MPAA members are the six "major" studios, but the data is real), there are somewhere around 400-500 "major" movies created in the U.S. every year. In 2015, over 2,300 dramatic features were submitted to to the Sundance Film Festival. Add to that some 1,800 documentary features. Add to THAT the countless short films that pop up out of every graduate film school across the country. Oh, and the U.S. is only #3 on the list of the world's top movie producing countries. We're behind India (Bollywood) and Nigeria. Nigeria! The people making these movies range from struggling young artistes with very specific points of view and very distinct, personal stories to tell all the way up to the giant blockbusters with budgets in the hundreds of millions. Hate to tell you, but there is no great and powerful puppet-master pulling the strings to all these stories. The handful of perverted assholes you hear about do not represent the vast majority of people in the world making movies for all the RIGHT reasons.

Do bad things happen in what is commonly called the "movie business?" Yes. Is there corruption and under the table dealings? Certainly. Is it always fair? Hell, no. Are there casting problems up and down the industry? Fuck, yea. Have been for a while. Will be in the future. Do we need to do better? Yes, absolutely. 

Casting, in particular, will never be perfect. Ever. There will always be something at issue in the process of casting.  So long as actors want to act, so long as opportunity is not afforded those who desire to pursue a career in acting, so long as theatre and film and television are viewed as hobbies for young people and not respected as actual industries of excellence and advancement, so long as those who attempt to study in order to learn the art and craft of the actor are marginalized or dissuaded from doing so, the playing field will be uneven at best.

When actors take classes or go to drama school they are taught that the purpose of learning their craft is to create characters. They are trained in voice and movement. They take classes in history and literature. They sing and dance and wear masks. They believe in and pursue the notion that they can play any part with the right amount of dedication, study, training, and talent. How many white actors have aspired to play Shakespeare's Othello? How many black actors have dreamt of playing Hamlet? Should performances of John Merrick in Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man be restricted to only actors with similar physical deformities? Should the role of Elisa (played by the fantastically gifted Sally Hawkins) in The Shape of Water have gone to an actual deaf mute actor? Is it unfair for a highly talented actor to play a disabled war veteran if that actor does not have that exact disability? Actors long to explore character and experience. They strive to experience and empathize with the wide variety of challenges set in front of them by playwrights.

I know what you are going to say. You are right, this isn't the 1600s, or even the 1800s. There actually ARE actors of color, actors with physical challenges, women actors who can play female roles instead of the men that used to play them in Shakespeare's day.  I get it. Look, this ain't easy. But to tell an actor, any actor, that they cannot be allowed to play a part because they are not perfectly typecast flies in the face of every reason the actor becomes an actor. I once directed a play that had a character who was 75 years old. I auditioned 200 actors. Not a single 75 year old actor came to auditions. Not a single 60 year old actor came, either. I cast a 50 year old and aged him up with make up. Am I ageist for doing so? Should my theatre have done a different play with more easily cast characters? Should I have kept looking? Hired a first-time actor?  Don't blame actors for the parts they get. It's a hard game.

Art is not segmented into the neat pie charts of population demographics. Not film, not theatre, not painting, not literature, not music. Art does not represent the masses. Should it? Perhaps. Maybe. Should it strive to be welcoming and fair? If anything should, art should. That said, art is also messy. It is subjective and devoid of the black and white that defines other parts of society. It is shades of grey and rainbows of color that many people just can't focus on.

If we must wield a sword of blame for all of this imbalance and unfairness, let's use it to hack at a country whose very culture oppresses those with points of view, those with stories to tell, even though we claim this is not the case. Blame family members who demand productivity from their loved ones instead of creativity. Blame a government that does not support the arts to any truly significant degree, so much so that young humans of color have no opportunity to create their own stories or even dream of doing so. Blame a system of education that is more concerned with children's test scores than actual knowledge. A place where these same children are not allowed to dream of a world in which they are valued. Where dreams of most young people are sacrificed for a notion that education of any kind, if you can afford it, is a job factory rather than a place of gaining consciousness and understanding. Education should never be just about choosing a career. In a perfect world, our schools would be dedicated to creating well-rounded human beings full of information AND imagination. After their schooling these same human beings would be full to the brim with questions of the cosmos, overflowing with an appreciation of nature, AND know how to balance a checkbook. They would understand civics, appreciate history - everyone's history, AND love poetry. They would be passionate about literature and the arts, they would respect other cultures and colors and creeds. These kinds of humans could adapt to any profession. Any job. They might even become filmmakers.

To clumsily paraphrase Shakespeare, The fault is not in Hollywood, but in ourselves.

Oh, back to Meryl Streep. If you are one of those people that think actors should not publicly voice their opinions on anything other than acting, I will welcome your silence at the bar when my Packers are playing. Unless you've played pro football, zip it.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

New Year 2018

The "New Year" is my favorite holiday. Hands down. (Okay, okay, maybe tied with Thanksgiving. But it's super close.) When you think about it, it really shouldn't be a holiday at all. It's just a day. A man-made reckoning of the passing of time. Nobody's birthday is attached to it. No famous battle started or stopped on this day. No historical screw up that evolved into a party. Just another day, but yet - not. The fact that we all - all of us, all over the world - decide to celebrate the simple act of turning a page in a calendar is important (as well as fun).

New Year celebrations for me have always been contemplative. No, not in a gazing at my navel meditation way. In a clearing out the file drawers of my life way. More like what you do at tax time only with joy and mindfulness instead of angst and anxiety. Know what I mean? The end of a year is rather like taking all the memories from that year and visiting them one more time. Like so many snapshots, some beautiful, some not, we take one more glance at them before we box them away and put them on a shelf. We write the year on the box in big, bold Sharpie in case we need to reference it in the future. Put a little smiley face next to the year if it was a good one. A frowny face, perhaps, if it was laced with difficulty or sadness. This box then gets slid right next to the others in chronological order.

Then we open a new box. Empty. Clean. It has that new box smell. It waits for tender memories, exciting new adventures, new selfies, new challenges, new everything. This new empty box calls to us quickly, daring us to start filling it up. Boxes hate being empty.


Throughout the year, I've noticed many people post pictures on their social media sites of themselves in their "happy place." All of these pictures have one thing in common. There is, usually, only one person in the picture. Of course, someone probably took the picture so there would have been at least two people, but the happy place referred to is typically the happy place for the person in the picture. Alone. These happy place pictures are always very beautiful. Tropical beaches, peaceful harbors, snow-capped mountains, sun-kissed pine forests. Stunning pictures worthy of Arizona Highways or Popular Photography. Not "happy."

I think what people mean by "happy place" is "quiet place." Those are two different things. When I think of a happy place, I think of , well, you know...happy! Joy, gladness, laughter, friendship, love, camaraderie, jokes, stories, food, wine.  Personally, my happy places always involve other people. Drinks with a friend as we solve the problems of the world or settle an issue with our significant other can be a happy place. Dinner with loved ones where we catch up on stories and lie a lot and laugh more is definitely a happy place. Watching a play in a crowded theatre as we hold our collective breath. Concerts where everyone knows the words. Museums where people crowd around a masterpiece. Happy places, too. I had a happy place this year that took me by surprise. For the first time ever, my daughter and I were at the zoo (momentous event in itself). Hardly a quiet place, definitely a happy one. She and I were standing together - shoulder to shoulder. My arm around her waist. A throng of other zoo-goers hustling and bustling by. We stood in the middle of this polite chaos, watching as her husband and eldest daughter laughed at some animals with my wife. Two people watching three people as they leaned on a railing to see the flamingos. Happy place. Shutter click. Into the box.

When we wish each other a Happy New Year, we are NOT hoping that we each have a long string of quiet days where dogs don't bark, babies don't cry, and the restaurants are silent with the sound of old people gumming their mashed potatoes. We are saying "have a great time this year!" Fill your new box with amazing things. Have a million happy places not just one. Have your quiet time, sure. We all need to decompress, slow down, take a breath, reboot. Just don't confuse quite for happy. There is nothing quiet about happy. Happy is laughter and love. Happy is friends and family. Happy is sometimes messy and marvelous.

The passing of one year to the next is the one time of year when the sole purpose of the holiday is to wish that the person next to you - wherever you are - has a happy year. That is worth celebrating. That is why it is my favorite.

HAPPY New Year, Friends. Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Wayne's Folly, or Why You Need to Eat Your Peas

When I was a kid, my mom made me eat peas. Canned peas. They were gross. Yeah, you could blame it on the technology of canning back then or you could, like I did, blame it on my mom for cooking the already mushy, gag-inducing little seeds beyond anything remotely acceptable for consumption. I worked out this amazing con to get out of eating my peas: I started helping my mom "clean up" after each meal. I would grab everyone's silverware and the used paper napkins and take them into the kitchen for her. Silverware in the sink, napkins in the trash. Any good con takes planning. I knew, eventually, we were going to get served peas. I was prepared. Serve the peas and I was going to shovel those little bastards into my napkin and get them into the garbage before anyone was the wiser. It worked, too. For a while. Then everyone noticed that I went from complaining non-stop about how terrible peas were to cleaning my plate of them. Hum. So much for my plan. Busted on week three of the Great Pea Stratagem.

Years later, I would nervously revisit peas. Not canned, of course, but frozen. I liked them. In fact, I really, really liked them. Next came fresh peas. Then different kinds of peas. I am now a certified pea fanatic.

That's right, I'm using a pea analogy to talk about musical theatre. Boom. Mic drop. Bet you didn't see that coming.

Every playwright has their "problem plays." William Shakespeare had All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, Henrik Ibsen had, well, everything, and Stephen Sondheim had Merrily We Roll Along and Follies. Ultimately, I think every problem play can be overcome with creativity, intelligence, a great cast, and thoughtful collaboration with a deft director. Or not. In some cases, the play is not to blame, at all. The peas aren't the problem. It's how you cook them.

Tracie Bennett as Carlotta Campion
Follies has been, until recently, a problem play for me. I love everything Sondheim and I have seen this musical staged a few  times. Each production was - off. Was Follies a love letter to the theatre or an indictment of a bygone era? Is it about dreams deferred or the futility of hope? Is it a fantasy? A domestic drama? A psychological character study? Sure, sure, it's got a couple well-known tunes (if Streisand sings it, it must be good, right?), but I was never really able to wrap my head around it as a whole piece of theatre. Then, I saw Dominic Cooke's production from the National Theatre (thank you NTLive and Fathom Events).

Follies. Stephen Sondheim. 1971.  It debuted on Broadway and was was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and it won seven of them. One of the seven was not Best Musical.  Lights, Costumes, Scenic Design, Direction, Choreography, Score - yes. Alexis Smith won for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musial. The musical itself got snubbed in what was a pretty lightweight year on the Great White Way. In it's day it was the most costly show ever produced on Broadway. It was also a financial failure, losing it's entire investment. Full scale revivals have been few and most of the notable remounts have been "concert" versions, which in my mind, while entertaining, cannot deliver on the whole of the play - the juxtaposition of one's youthful dreams against one's mature regret.

To be sure, this is a bleak musical. Beautiful, but bleak. For fear of sounding a little arrogant and old, this play is also not for young people. If you are under thirty, sorry, but you don't know jack shit about this subject matter. Which may explain why it took me so long to really understand it. As a person of a certain age, Sondheim has held a "mirror up to nature" for my generation. Maybe that's not fair. Maybe I should say, instead, that this is a play for people who have lived. Really lived. Made decisions, tripped, failed, succeeded, been scarred, been scared, loved hard, laughed loud. If you have ever questioned the very meaning of your life, ever wondered "what if?" ever thought that maybe you could have been better, gone elsewhere, done something else, seen the future, avoided the past. 


Imelda Staunton as Sally Durant and Janie Dee as Phyllis Rogers
The brilliance of Cooke's take on the play is how he weaves the ever-present younger selves of Sondheim's characters through the staging. Never a doubt that the older versions are still yearning for a "do over." Just one. Tracie Bennett's Carlotta delivers a breath-taking version of "I'm Still Here." I mean that, literally. A moment of transition in the middle of the song will take your breath away. She parleyed an exquisite piece of technical acting and combined it with a brilliant lyric. I didn't see it coming. "The Road You Didn't Take" hit me like a ton of bricks when Phillip Quast's Ben , basically, sang my own life's insecurities back at me. With each song and each line of dialog, this production uncovered an emotional experience I don't ever recall having with a musical before. Imelda Staunton's Sally will break your heart with some of the most specific acting choices I have ever witnessed. "Losing My Mind" leaves you no doubt about the characters intent or state of mind. Brilliant. The stand out for me was Janie Dee as Phyllis. It is her play. Her cynicism, her resolve, her biting disappointment. "Could I Leave You?" is a show stopper and all her. Well...her and Sondheim.

What makes the National Theatre's version of this play so remarkable is its clarity. Cooke's direction is crystal clear. He never waivers in how he presents the emotional inner workings, past and present, of the characters. There are no protagonists in this play. There are no antagonists. Everyone is flawed. It is painful. The pain and regret at the very core of this musical is at once the show's greatest achievement and also the reason it has probably failed to be a commercial success over the years. Each performer has made specific, artistically distinct choices about their character. Choices that, more often than not, do not square with other productions you may have seen.  Choices that not merely ground the character, but that also inform the other characters in the play. This is an actor's play, start to finish, and this cast shines every step of the way and the director lets them.

This is not an easy play. You do not leave the theatre hopeful and happy. You leave pondering your own life, questioning your own decisions. There is a pressure in your chest while Sondheim's music still rings in your ears. 

If you are able, go see this production, even if you think you might not like it. It's not easy to grow up. It's not easy to admit you made mistakes. Wrapping your peas up in a napkin isn't the answer, though. Eat your peas. You'll grow to like them.




Monday, December 18, 2017

Comfort Food

My mom was a terrible cook. She was. My brothers are going to disagree with me on this, I know. In fact, I think that's them calling me now. This is not to say that I don't look back fondly on meals from my childhood - I do. I remember them as very delicious. Mostly, anyway. The whole reason for this post is based on the love I have for my mom's cooking. But my dear mother was no Julia Child. She worked crazy and difficult hours in a casino coffee shop, so the meals she prepared were quick and simple. They were as nutritious as the era would permit. We always had a meat, some kind of vegetable and a starch (that's what we called carbs back in the day). On Monday nights she worked the "swing shift." My dad would throw some wienies in a pot of baked beans and we boys would chow down in front of the TV with Howard Cosell and a two-quart bottle Pepsi. All this was normal for our household. We didn't know what we didn't know.

Until I was about 16 years old, I thought the oven was just a place you stored pots and pans. Harvesting vegetables was a simple matter of digging the can opener out of the junk drawer and ripping through that can of peas without cutting your finger off. We also didn't have any of these new age food lubes. No EVOO, no peanut oil, no coconut oil (puh-leeeze), no flaxseed oil. My mom had bacon grease in a one pound Hills Bros coffee can (or maybe it was Folgers). Sound familiar, boomers? Thought so. I never once saw my mom change that bacon grease. I saw her add to it after frying up some Farmer John's. I saw her take from it before frying up some tacos or hamburger patties. Never saw her empty it out, clean the can, and start fresh. Pretty sure it was kinda like sourdough bread - you always need some of the original "starter" to keep it just right.

Mac and cheese seems to be a common comfort food. Every restaurant on the planet nowadays has macaroni and cheese on the menu. It usually runs around 10-14 bucks and is made from 8 kinds of smelly goat cheese. That is a rip off. Everyone knows, the only real Mac 'n' Cheese is made by Kraft, comes out of a blue box, and all you gotta do is mix the orange dust with a whole stick of butter and a half cup of milk. Brussels Sprouts? My mom never roasted Brussels Sprouts. She never added pancetta or balsamic vinegar or truffle oil. Didn't marinade them in the tears of a mermaid or braise them in aged Yak Butter. She boiled them. Boiled the shit out of them until they were soft enough to eat. Steaks? Fried them in bacon grease in a big honking cast iron skillet that we would clean over a campfire once a year on a hunting trip in the Ruby Mountains. Put that sucker over the fire, let it get red hot, scrub it out with a battery terminal brush...viola...good as new. Meat loaf? Really? It's a giant hamburger patty that you slice.

Some things she made did take time. Her famous homemade chicken noodle soup is legendary. The noodles were made from scratch, too. The deliciousness that was this soup was probably due to the salt shaker she emptied into every batch. Thanksgiving is always a chore, right? Face it, no one's Thanksgiving meal is as good as your mom's. Ever. Only thing is, all American Thanksgiving meals are pretty much exactly the same. Admit it. It's really hard to screw up a turkey. You got your giant genetically modified bird (the bigger the better), your root vegetables (candied yams and mashed Russet potatoes for us), your chopped up stale bread (always Mrs. Cubbison's - I told you, mom was busy), and your variation on cranberry sauce which you only eat once a year because...well...it's awful (ours was canned Birdseye. Sliced. Gross).

Comfort food. All of it. Whatever you ate as a kid becomes your comfort food as an adult. Sometimes you put you're own twist on the classics from your childhood. You'll add an ingredient. You'll cook it in glass instead of the hand-me-down aluminum pan that still has baked on residue from that stew that went wrong in 1995. You'll swap a cheap Chardonnay for chicken broth. Yet, at their very core, the recipes remains the same. Caloric, rich, simple. More important, though, memorable.

The whole point of comfort food is wrapped around emotions not flavor. It's the joyous memories that flush your face when a serving of Grandma's Galumpkis hits the table. When you dip your spoon into that pot pie, it's your mom's voice saying expertly, "Careful, it's hot," as she passes the salt shaker down the table. The string of grilled cheese getting stuck on your chin. The flavor is the memory not the taste.

Sometimes comfort food may evolve out of friendship as well as family. After acting school my best friend and I were roommates for a few years. We made a tradition out of drinking Jameson's Irish Whiskey late at night while reading Shakespeare out loud or trying to impress a date (often both). I still drink Jameson's and whenever I pour myself a glass I think of my friend even though he only lives about a mile away. And, yes, I consider Irish Whisky a food. Our exploits in that little apartment off Fairfax will live on so long as that distillery in Cork continues to produce.

We all have something. A BBQ rub (never enough cumin), a pot pie (always turkey), a spaghetti sauce (no sugar please), a pastry (croissants).  That one food that evokes a vivid memory of someone we hold dear. With every bite we slide effortlessly into a warm place or a sweet adventure.  I have several enduring "comfort foods." Two of my favorites are my mom's baked chicken (the only time the oven was ever used for it's intended purpose and something we make to this day often) and homemade candy.  Specifically, my mom's homemade Christmas candy. Each Christmas, Colleen (my mom) and Jackie (her sister) would team up to produce a staple of the entire family's holiday celebration. Honeycomb, taffy, nougat, divinity, peanut brittle, caramels, pralines, and of course, the obligatory fudge. They are both gone now and I happily took up the mantle although not on their scale. That would be like Milli Vanilli trying to sing Sondheim. No, I am not as good at it as they were. My annual attempts are no where near as delicious. Yes, it is a lot of work. More work than I ever knew. But for a few days every year, I get to relive a few moments with my mom in a tangible and very real way. The recipes are incantations of sorts. Maybe closer to a meditation on  my mother. The pages faded and the margins penciled with alterations in her perfect cursive. If read out loud (which I must often do to make sense out of the fractions of spoons and cups), they are chant-like, magically switching on a time machine in our kitchen. The spatula, a magic scepter, that channels her deft wrist and determination. My awkward pouring and ham-fisted measuring forever chasing her perfect eye and effortless grace with sugar and vanilla and heat.

Her caramels and chocolates made up for every overcooked floret of frozen broccoli; excused each spoonful for canned zucchini; forgave the mashed yam, the iceberg lettuce, and each well-done fried pork chop.

Whatever your comfort food is and whatever it represents, I hope you have lots of it over the holidays. Just maybe hold the salt a little and back off on the butter. Oh, and don't forget to take all the pots and pans out of the oven.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Christmas Movies: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Bad title for the post, I know. Of course, "The Good the Bad and the Ugly" is not a Christmas movie. It was released on December 23 in Italy, so I guess there could be an augment made for including it a list of "Christmas movies," but that would be dumb. Plus, if you have to put quotation marks around the term Christmas movie in order to describe it as one, then it shouldn't be considered as one. Many movies released during the holiday season are not Christmas movies at all. Christmas is simply a time when many people head out to the cinema during their time off or to get away from the in-laws. Box office matters in the movie biz and big movies get a place on the schedule. Okay...blah, blah, blah.

I love movies. All kinds of movies. There are good movies, bad movies, and merely mediocre movies. There are how-did-this-POS-ever-get-made movies and OMG-I-have-to-see-this-again-right-now movies. There are awful movies with brilliant performances in them. There are movies that we enjoy very much even though we know they are not very good. There are movies we hate even though Rotten Tomatoes tells us the critics LOVE them and our film snob friends tell us they are the best movies of all time and the 22 year old director with the silly hair is a genius. Movies, like all art, are subjective. I get it. But Christmas movies have rules.

Yes, they do.

For example (these may seem harsh to some), here are some things NOT allowed in Christmas movies. Let's not even call them rules, okay? Let call them guidelines.
  • A Christmas movie cannot be an action movie. Sorry, "Die Hard" is not a Christmas movie. No. No it is not. It is set during Christmas. But that is the only thing Christmasy about it. You may watch it during Christmas. It may have a Christmas song at the very end. Not a Christmas movie. I really like Die Hard, but no. Batman Returns? Hell no. Let's call these kind of movies, "Christmas Adjacent."
  • A Christmas movie cannot be a concept movie dressed up as a Christmas movie in order to capitalize on the idea of being a Christmas movie. Bad Santa is not a Christmas movie. Hold on, hold on - I know it was a pretty successful, R rated, black comedy that lots of people liked, but that doesn't cut the pudding. You cannot share it with your kids and grand kids. Well, you could, but then I'd have to cal social services on you. 
  • Just having a Santa Claus character in it doesn't automatically make it a Christmas movie. Also, having cute girls in Santa outfits dancing to "Jingle Bell Rock," doesn't magically elevate Mean Girls to Classic Christmas Movie status. That is cheating. Or marketing. Might be marketing.
  • Horror movies cannot be Christmas movies. Just no. Admit it, I'm right on this. Watch them at Halloween? Fine. Dress up as Scary Santa or Ax Murderer Rudolph. Great, whatever flies your sleigh (slay?) Just don't think they should be played every single Christmas while the family is over for pie and wassail. 
  • Any movie with the characters of Pee Wee Herman or Ernest P. Worrell are not Christmas movies. Full stop. You know it, I know it, we all know it. Let's make sure that never happens again, please Hollywood.
I cannot just list everything that Christmas movies aren't. Besides, you'll get used to knowing a real Christmas movie when you see one. This is just the high level stuff that you need to know now that you are getting serious about the subject.

You don't always need Santa Claus, St. Nickolas, Father Christmas, or Kris Kringle. That would get boring. Also not required is your reindeer or your elves or your snowmen. Unless you can find the perfect voice actors, this can be problematic anyway. Everyone knows reindeer and elves and snowmen have to talk and the voices have to be perfect. Nobody wants a snowman to sound like Kristen Chenowith. An elf, maybe. There are, however, some themes that must be present. Not all need to present in every film, but a true Christmas movie will have many of them neatly weaved together.
  • The Ebeneezer Syndrome (also known as the "Scrooge Complex"). Charles Dickens created the perfect "meaning or Christmas" story in A Christmas Carol. Any movie putting a spin on this theme qualifies as a true Christmas movie. Doesn't matter if it's any good or not. Yes, it hurts to say that, but...that's life. Examples are Scrooged (Bill Murray), An American Christmas Carol (excellent and overlooked), Scrooge (the musical with Albert Finney and one of my favorites), The Muppet Christmas Carol (the Muppets AND Michael Caine? Puh-leeze.), and Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol. Basically, any story where a soulless curmudgeon is redeemed by cuteness and nice people. 
  • It's Silly, But I Believe. Similar to the Ebeneezer Syndrome except a little kid, instead of an old geezer, is the asshole that finally comes around to believing in the spirit of Christmas. In the process of this happening, elsewhere in the movie somebody who is stuck up falls in love with somebody who is nice and they live happily ever after. Miracle on 34th Street. CLASSIC. Edmund Gwenn is the best Santa ever. 
  • True Love Conquers All. Even when it sneaks up on you through a serious of hilarious interludes and often romantic singing and dancing. If you don't watch White Christmas and/or Holiday Inn every single single year, you'll know why I choose to ignore you at Trader Joe's. Love, Actually has become a contemporary classic. I will say, right here, right now, it is one of my favorites. Watch it with a significant other and I guarantee you will love it. You might even get lucky later that night. It's that good.
  • Don't Be a Dick at Christmas. This is more a motif than a theme, but it turns up in the best Christmas movies. It differs significantly from the ES above, since the Xmas Dick is not universally hated by everyone during the course of the year. Only at Christmas. The Christmas jerk is always redeemed by love, faith, children, or the supernatural. In the The Bishop's Wife, David Niven's character is a rather insensitive priest who is very close to losing his fabulous wife to an angel played by Cary Grant (of course). It's perfect.
Finally, there are a few other very significant things Christmas movies must have. In fact, these may well be THE MOST important elements to any actual, for reals, authentic, sure fire, play-every-year-and-never-get-tired-of-it Christmas movie. They have to be a little sappy. It's the one time of year where we really are expected to wear our hearts on our sleeves and go all-in for a little schmaltz. There has to be a romance. Doesn't have to be all "Beauty and the Beast," but love is the reason for the season after all, right? And last but not least, every Christmas movie  must have heart. Heart. Compassion. Empathy. Call it what you Like. Every other holiday can have a little slice of snark, a little bite of bitchy, a chunk of cynicism. But Christmas movies should really remind us that it's never too late to be a good person. Hopefully, we won't shoot our eye out in the process.

Purely as a public service, I will leave you with Wayne's Christmas Movie recommendations:
  • Shop Around the Corner (1940) 
  • Holiday Inn (1942) 
  • Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
  • Star in the Night (1945) 
  • It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
  • Miracle on 34th Street (1947
  • The Bishop's Wife (1947)
  • Holiday Affair (1949)
  • White Christmas (1954) 
  • Scrooge (1970) 
  • A Christmas Story (1983)
  • Love, Actually (2003)
  • Elf (2003)
  • Get Santa (2014) 



























Monday, December 4, 2017

Words Mean Things



Books. Plays. Movies. Lyrics. Poems. Speeches. Conversations. Whispers.

Words.

With so many ways to communicate with each other, yet such a limited amount of time to say any of it, we humans spend an excruciating amount of our very lives thinking about saying or writing things (aka using words), but then not actually saying or writing any of them. Why is this? Whether there are issues of the head that require resolution or matters of the heart that must be shared to find relief, we often wait too long to put them into words. Often never doing so.

Even in our daily lives, when we are forced to communicate, we increasingly tend to choose NOT to use words. They take too much time to hammer out with our thumbs on the face of a smartphone. We use abbreviations (LOL, OMG, I <3 U, txt me) or emojis. I have found myself spending so much time looking for the perfect emoji on my phone for a message that I could have written a whole letter in the same amount of time.

I am as guilty of these word related transgressions as any modern human. Moreso maybe. I do find occasion to jot something down when I have something on my mind. A letter. A card. A terrible poem. A Tweet. A Facebook post whose very brevity is intended to convey a whole range of thoughts and emotions. Those usually come out alright. At least they come out. The beginnings of a play. The first five pages of a movie. Those are, more often than not, slower to manifest themselves.

Where I fall down, though, is in saying actual words to actual people. Now that I think about it, this may be one of the reasons I wanted to be an actor. I loved saying other people's words. They saved me the effort of trying to be poetic or meaningful all by myself. (I've always been a better speaker than a writer, anyway.) I loved the sound of other people's words as they came out of my mouth. I could control how they were uttered even though I had no input into their creation. How often to we crib a movie quote to make a point? A Bible verse to teach a lesson? How many times has a Shakespearean Sonnet been whispered during a night of romance?

Some might argue this whole point with me. Some would say that actors become actors to express emotions. But actors cannot do this, even, without words. Actually being able to say them and move people by how well you can manipulate them is an actor's stock-in-trade. How effectively you can make people feel things by wrapping your mouth and tongue and teeth around sounds, is how you are measured. How you can make people believe that what they are seeing on stage or on film is real by the way you utter words, is your passion as well as your job. If you are really good at these kinds of things, then this is what makes you stay an actor. For an actor, words are transformative.

Words are also power. I had a boss once that was very disrespectful to everyone in the office. Everyone. None of us would say anything when this behavior occurred because, A) we were afraid of losing our jobs, and B) we knew nothing we said would possibly change this person. So we all endured. We would keep our words bottled up. Stifle our feelings. Contain our anger and insult. Then one eventful day, one person called the boss on the shit. Boom. The floodgates opened. What we hadn't considered was that all the while that we did NOT say anything, we were missing out on the therapeutic nature of words. Words can level the playing field, clarify, and correct.

Words can also be used as weapons. In real life, people can sling words to hurt, to insult, to control. How often do we sling barbs carelessly at a loved one in order to manipulate an argument or trick someone into a response. Weapon-words are hard to take back. They are like a bullet. Once they pierce the skin, they often get lodged there, infecting the surrounding tissue and causing lasting scars even after the surgery of removing them has long passed. Even after an apology, the sting and swelling caused by a weapon-word takes a while to mend. (A great example is the bullshit rudeness of people who say, "I'm just being honest." I hate that. I have NEVER heard that phrase used for anything other than being hurtful. In a way the speaker can shield him or herself from the responsibility of their words simply by saying, "I'm just being honest.")

My own use of words is often tested. While I try to be specific and articulate, yet still thoughtful and creative, I often doubt my results. Misunderstandings happen all the time, right? We all say things we wish we hadn't then dig ourselves ever deeper trying to figure out the structure and shape of the new words that will make everything better. Words are a responsibility.

I would never suggest that everyone has to tip-toe through their lives weighing each word like so much diamond dust. But there are times to do so. Often. Not to sound too much like a scold or an out-of-touch headmaster, but there are times we should, at the very least, be mindful of what actually comes out of our mouths and from our fingers and thumbs. Not just for others, but for ourselves. Anger can make us sloppy. Love can make us sappy. Emotions push every conceivable button in us. But like anything we work at, we should always want to be good at what we do. We should, as human beings blessed with the gift of language, desire the ability to communicate with each other in the best possible ways. We should also never take this gift of words for granted. In art, in love, at work, at home, at play, in politics, words mean things and we should ultimately ask ourselves to be good stewards of them.

This whole post is, actually, a very good illustration of my own challenges in using words. Admittedly, I just spent about an hour writing this, when I really should have just posted this quote from Tom Stoppard's play The Real Thing : 

"Words … They’re innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they’re no good any more… I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you’re dead."

Okay, well, I guess I'll keep working on it.