I suppose I know a few people who had a great 2010 – marriages, kids, jobs, success, blah blah whatever – but for most of us, 2010 was the suckiest suck that ever sucked. This was the year that seemed to heap loss and disease on us, that brought us ever closer to national doom, that made it clear that not only don’t we know what the fuck we’re doing, but the universe is clearly out to destroy us while we cover ourselves in oil and elect idiots. So good freakin’ riddance, 2010. Go away, and take your boring-ass movie with you.

But hey – the year may have been dark, but it’s full of diamonds, or at least nasty little bits of glass we can pretend are diamonds until they cut off our fingers. So, in the spirit of pure optimism, here are ten terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad things from 2010 that I found a way to enjoy. Happy New Year.

CHRISTINE O’DONNELL

"Campaign fraud? Get out of here, you!"

God help me, I love Christine O’Donnell. I love everything about her. Well, okay, I don’t think I love her politics, but then again I have no idea what they actually are (which is fine, because she doesn’t either). No, I love her because although I’ve never met her, I GET her. She tries to be a “celebrity,” she tries to be a “politician,” she tries to lay down threats and such, but she cannot hide her true identity: she is a mess. She’s a smart woman with no sense of reality or responsibility. People like that are all kinds of fun to hang with. They say great things, even though it can be tiresome taking their 2 AM phone calls or reading their rambling, semi-existential Facebook posts. They stay with you at the bar after everyone’s gone home. They have grandiose plans about their own future, even while their present suggests they’re just one lateness away from being fired by Starbucks. And there’s the rub: O’Donnell is a mess who accidentally found success. I resent that the “Tea Party” hung their hopes on her perky but always a little terrified face, just as I resent that her wacky statements made her an international punching bag. “Leave her alone,” I wanted to shout at the late-night hosts who picked on her – “she’s OUR problem!” (I’m from Delaware.) I tell you, even her lies are endearing – her first date was to a Satanic Altar! She’s privy to information about the Chinese! God talks to her! She knows mice with human brains! I even liked that she pulled the “I condemn the until now nonexistent rumors that Mike Castle is gay” card – hell, I thought that old trick was dead in the water, but not for Christine, who probably has no idea just how shameless she is. As of this writing, she’s being investigated for campaign fraud (those surprised that their campaign donations to O’Donnell paid her rent or subsidized a bowling party clearly had no idea who they were dealing with), and she’s handling that exactly as I hoped: by blaming everyone she can, spewing easily-disputed lies and slander at her former staffers, at the watchdog group who accused her, even at Joe Biden, who she thinks is seeking revenge on her (for losing!?). And that’s her saying this stuff, not some random spokesperson – she’s basically taking what should be a late-night IM discussion to the public. You gotta love it! Me, I hope she beats all the charges and finally answers my invitation to see a show at the Wilmington Drama League. She would’ve liked Chicago.

HOWEVER: She’s writing a book. That’s bad. An embittered O’Donnell won’t be NEARLY as endearing. I do worry that she’ll lose her Cathy Guisewite charm and go full Palin – if so, we’ll have lost her forever. Hang in there, darling. You can put off that water bill for one more month.

SIDING WITH JAY

"But...but I have a masturbating bear!"

Team Coco can suck it. Not that I don’t like O’Brien – I do. The hipster doofus is cooler, funnier, younger, and pretty much superior to Leno in every way. I like his goofy, ‘pataphysical take on comedy, even when he overdoses on irony. But then came the Late Night Wars, and I stood nearly alone against all my friends in support of Leno. Why? Because I knew that Leno was blameless, was just doing his job, and had nothing at all to do with O’Brien’s poor ratings. But oh, how Team Coco cried foul. Leno ruined O’Brien by providing him with a crappy lead-in. Leno needed to step down and give O’Brien a chance. Leno needed to stop taking “cheap shots” at O’Brien in his show. Never mind that O’Brien’s lead-in was actually the local news…his show was failing for months before Leno’s (admittedly shitty) 10:00 show started. Never mind that Leno had already stepped down and given O’Brien a chance – he could have turned down the 10:00 spot that he was never comfortable with anyway. Never mind that Leno is widely known as a nice, generous fellow in the biz and allowed – even invited – Coco supporters onto his show. And never mind that if O’Brien had a better contract, he would probably still have the Tonight Show spot today – until he was canned for poor ratings again. Truth is, both he and his show were better geared for a 12:30 spot, but Team Coco (god, what an annoying name) decided that because their boy was funnier, he must be in the right – and, therefore, a victim of Leno’s draconian tactics. Bullshit, boys. Leno deserved to “win,” and not just because his contract was better – because, like it or not, his brand of comedy has more appeal. Leno’s ratings are currently not only higher than O’Brien’s ever were, but he’s beating Letterman – even in the 18 to 49 age range everyone seems to love. For more info, check out this excellent Cracked.com article that gives it a nice summary.

HOWEVER: The LNW’s got us all arguing over the fates of multi-millionaires with shows we hardly ever watched. We’re saps, we are. Still, it would have been a hell of a thing if Leno actually DID choose to retire. Sure, it would have sucked for Leno’s writers (although, seriously, screw those hacks), but eventually O’Brien would have gotten the sack and Leno would have been rehired. I could live on the delicious hipster tears that would’ve followed.

TSA SCREENINGS

Hot.

Ah, terrorism. You can’t say that Americans don’t want to be safe, even if safety means overreacting to any conceivable threat. Someone could theoretically put a bomb in a shoe? Put those shoes through an X-ray! Someone could make an explosive out of a liquid? No more than 3 ounces of any liquid on a plane! Someone could hide something in their clothes? Go naked! Well, okay, do the next best thing…look through our clothes and pat down our privates! Truth is, I don’t really know what to think about the TSA these days. While I think we’ve taken overreacting to silly new heights with the new x-rays and regulations, I also think putting up with the occasional grope is just about the least we can do to keep ourselves safe. But, especially considering our country’s weird hangup with nudity, it sure is fun to talk about. I never thought there’d be an issue the ACLU and the “Tea Party” would agree on until the TSA started giving us a whole new brand of porn. And that “don’t touch my junk” idiot? What a perfect representation of the “protect me from terrorism but don’t inconvenience me in any way” generation. Love it!

HOWEVER: I get chills every time I see a report of someone easily getting through even the latest scanners. Can we maybe stop demonstrating how easy it is to bypass security and blow up our airplanes?

THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE

I bet she kills at Guitar Hero.


So some Dutch creep makes a movie about people whose faces are sewn to other peoples’ assholes, and voila! The nation has the first flick in a long time where just the idea of it is enough. Seeing it is completely unnecessary – once you know three people are forced to eat each others’ shit, what more do you want? (Well, two people, anyway – being in the front isn’t all that bad, although it must suck to get an itch.) I’ll probably never see it, until it comes on network TV in sitcom form (it’d be a fine lead-in to Two and a Half Men), but it’s still my favorite movie of the year. Way to go, creepy Dutch guy. Oh, and all credit goes to Roger Ebert for, as far as I know, being the first to abbreviate the movie as “~~~”.

HOWEVER: A sequel is already in the can, and it sounds like the same movie, only the centipede contains 12 saps instead of three. This is bound to be a letdown. Why couldn’t the mad scientist dude work on other insect hybrids instead? I’d much rather see a Human Aphid, a Human Stinkbug, or even a Human Slug. Hell, I know a few Human Slugs.

JOE MILLER

(Photo withheld. You’re welcome.)

Miller is the Alaskan the “Tea Party” candidate who managed to outseat Repub incumbent Lisa Murkowski in the primaries. Murkowski, of course, then ran as a vote-in candidate and, according to almost everyone, handed Miller his hat. The only holdout is Miller himself, who is going to such astounding lengths to declare himself the winner you’d think the Tea Partiers threatened to teabag him if he lost. First, he demanded that votes with “Murkowski” spelled even a tiny bit wrong should be thrown out – will of the voter bedamned! Even if he got his wish (he didn’t), he still would’ve lost by over 2000 votes, but that didn’t stop Miller, who began throwing an EPIC hissy fit, claiming massive voter fraud, making up new laws, even insinuating that his own volunteers were too stupid to monitor the counting. He filed suit after suit, all of them thrown out. He claims it’s about “principle,” even though he clearly has none. And as of this writing he STILL hasn’t given up – and that’s why I like him. Miller, with his smug, half-assed growth dusting a face even his mother must want to punch, has gone from textbook dick into some sort of pantheon of assholeness, and you have to admire his spirit. Factor in his incredible arrogance (he once tweeted that he was “house hunting” in DC a good month before the election), his dogged attempt at thug-like tactics, and his shady past (he was once disciplined for sneaking into government computers – apparently Scooby and the gang caught him), and you’ve got yourself a candidate for Douchebag of the Gods. Anyone with that kind of ambition is a-okay in my book.

HOWEVER: GOD, would I love to punch his greasy face.

KE$HA

Those poor, overcrowded bacteria.

In a pop world where “I’m so fly” is pretty much the only stance anyone’s willing to take (click here if you dare), it’s kind of refreshing to find a Ke$ha. Not only does she sing about brushing her teeth with Jack and getting naked with questionable folks, but she really gets into character, smearing her face with last night’s glitter and generally looking like her skin feels and smells of Screwdriver. Is her music listenable? Well, that depends on your def of listenable, I suppose…it’s all been done, it’s bubbly and auto-tuned to death, so at least she’s literally incapable of singing a bad note. But the music’s not the point. With her “I’m not only a bad girl, I’m kind of unhealthy too” stance, she’s pretty much the only one out there evoking true punk these days. I actually kinda suspect ol’ Ke$h might evolve into an interesting artist – it’s nice to see someone actually admit to being a mess (check the lyrics to “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes” – not since Fiona Apple has an ingénue been so honest about screwing up). For now, she’s got a unique place in the biz, and you have to give her some credit, even if you don’t necessarily want to touch her. Sure, it’s all a pose, a joke, but at least it’s an entertaining one with a little imagination. I suspect Ke$ha knows what she’s singing about.

HOWEVER: Man was it a shitty year for disposable pop. Last year was fantastic…what the hell happened? And I’m not even talking about Bieber…tweens need their pinups too. No, I’m saying after the fury of “My Life Would Suck Without You,” “Single Ladies,” and “Waking Up In Vegas,” what the hell did we get this year? One decent Pink song and that “Teenage Dream” thing? It’s no coincidence that the best song of the year was called Fuck You. Come back, Gaga, all is forgiven.

EXTENDING BUSH’S TAX CUTS FOR THE RICH

We must protect this American.

It’s not about the issue itself, or my own politics. I’ll accept that some believe the super rich deserve a tax cut (even though I suspect most of them know precisely how to protect their money from the evil gumment). What I really love is how, thanks to the effective thuggery of a few key Repubs, pretty much the ENTIRE REPUBLICAN CONGRESS has to pretend that protecting Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of Americans is the most urgent, pressing issue in our country. By “banding together” to protect the interest of (let’s face it) the ones who essentially fund their campaigns, the Republicans have cast away any doubts about what politics is really all about: an elite few who take care of each other. Somehow, I suspect even the heartiest “Tea Party” members have a hard time believing that the bottom 98% couldn’t use a taste of that tax money…but for now, they’re essentially stuck keeping their opinions to themselves. I’m reminded of the flap when Avenue Q was voted Best Musical largely by theater owners who thought, based on cryptic comments from the producers, that the show would tour – when the producers announced they were opening in Vegas, those owners publicly cried foul, exposing the dirty little secret at the heart of the Tony voting.

HOWEVER: It’s only going to take a few Repubs to cave before they all must cave. I think they’ll do it, too; there are still some elected officials who care more about governing than getting reelected. I think.

BRISTOL ON DWTS

God, I'm a dancer! A dancer dances!

I didn’t watch Dancing With the Stars, but I didn’t have to – I loved the vicarious fury of the fans who could not understand how Bristol Palin survived week after week. Now, I don’t know much about Bristol, but she seems like someone harboring a lot of resentment. One day it’ll explode and we’ll get an exposé on Miss Sarah the likes of which we ain’t seen since Christina Crawford ratted out Joan (what’ll Sarah’s catchphrase be? I vote for “No…black…boyfriends!”). Anyway, there’s no question that Sarah’s fanbase was all but instructed to vote for Darling Bristol, but I gotta admit, I was happy she stayed in there for so long. Why? Because it was such a perverse capsule of all that is wrong (right?) with politics and entertainment. Here was an untalented person allowed to remain on a dancing show (with “Celebrity” in the title, no less) thanks to voters loyal to her mom…is there a better summary of our current political atmosphere? No, I say, no, not until Bobby Jindal forms the New New Monkees, featuring Snooki on the turntables and that “Rent is Too Damn High” fellow on the tambourine.

HOWEVER: Okay, I lied. I actually did watch a bit of DWTS, and while it seems mean to pick on Bristol, it’s fair to say her dancing ability perfectly matches her acting. Still, my weird little point about polintertainment holds up.

MO’NIQUE’s OSCAR SPEECH

"Who was gonna beat me, Penelope Cruz? Bitch please."

If you believe that the Academy Awards represent the absolute worst in self-fellatio by a crew of pampered effete insiders, a way of heaping “legitimacy” on what amounts to a bunch of whiny kids in plastic, adult bodies playing pretend for a living, then you GOTTA love that an overweight black woman stepped up on stage and said “I would like to thank the Academy for showing that it can be about the performance and not the politics.” Self-congratulatory and dismissive of the other performers? Sure. Dead-on? You bet. Mo’Nique, a so-so comedienne who apparently gave a fierce performance in Precious, refused to campaign for her prize, which was partly because she knew she was a lock, but mostly because she just didn’t give a shit. It was equal parts arrogance and cut-through-the-bullshit-we-know-it’s-all-a-game bluntness – and good for her for not feeling the need to project the cringe-worthy ersatz “humility” that most actors spend hours rehearsing in front of the mirror.

HOWEVER: a little grace would have gone a long way. Sadly, “Arrogant Black Woman” has become a stereotype now, and provides more fodder for the racism – subtle and not-so-much – that continues to permeate pop entertainment. If Mo had bothered to thank – hell, even acknowledge – the other nominees and her fellow Precious people, her speech might have actually had an impact. Instead, for many it was a dismissible, arrogant lecture. Oh well.

KEVIN SMITH’S YEAR

"I like the word 'fuck.' As in...'Fuck Bruce Willis.'"

Kevin Smith is not a horrible thing, but between getting kicked off a Southwest airplane for being too large and getting lambasted for Cop Out, his stab at mainstream buddy cinema, he had a pretty rough year. To make matters worse, Cop Out was clearly a disillusioning experience for the man, as his one-time hero Bruce Willis apparently turned out to be an insufferable diva on the set (who knew? Besides everybody, I mean). However, the way Smith handled his year is rather wonderful – with blunt honesty, humor, and grace (take note, Mo’Nique). He tweeted, blogged, and podcasted all about the air affair (“Kevin Smith: too fat for the sky?”) with disarming and even-handed candor, giving voices to both Southwest employees and spokespeople and even other passengers who have endured similar treatment. He also demonstrated the power of Twitter as a tool not just for self-promotion and aggrandizing, but for airing genuine outrage in a positive fashion. As for Cop Out, it’s certainly ragged, but it’s a perfectly entertaining, lazy-Saturday kind of movie with some big laughs – which, I suspect, is exactly what Smith was aiming for. And I understand it made a nice little profit. Here’s hoping 2011 provides Smith with fewer humiliating airplane experiences (especially considering he had even more travel woes in December with Virgin) and that his new horror flick Red State finally earns him respect as a real director, and not a clever kid with a camera.

HOWEVER: Much as I enjoyed Cop Out, it was awfully casual – I might have felt ripped off if I paid to see it on the big screen. And the snippets of Red State I’m familiar with (he shows clips on his live podcasts and posts the audio for free) aren’t filling me with confidence. But I hope the movie works, because Smith is not only terminally likable, he still represents the kind of DIY-auterudom I’ve grown to love.

Treat yourself this year by following me on Twitter!

Granted, my life is weirder than many. But I’ve found all of these useful in real life (whatever THAT is).

  • “What a pisser.” – Airplane
  • “Well, let’s not start sucking each others’ dicks quite yet.” – Pulp Fiction
  • “Haven’t you ever heard of suspension of disbelief?” – Ed Wood
  • “They found a peanut, all right, honey. They found a peanut of death!” – Tromeo & Juliet
  • Shakespeare is cool.

  • “Keep watching the sky, MacIntyre.” – Local Hero
  • “You are tearing me apart, Lisa!” – The Room
  • “Work, work, work, hello boys, have a good night’s rest? I missed you.” – Blazing Saddles
  • “Now I’m gonna stick ya.” – Nothing but Trouble
  • “I suppose you think you raised hell.” – Miller’s Crossing
  • Are you giving me the high hat?

  • “Here come two words for you: shut the fuck up.” – Midnight Run
  • “Your mother’s a tracer!” – Chasing Amy
  • “It’d take a man with an awfully big set of balls to make a bet like that.” – Diggstown
  • I know these three don't inspire confidence, but trust me, it's great.

  • “Well then I just hate you, and I hate your ass face!” – Waiting for Guffman
  • “Gimme back my hand!” – Evil Dead 2
  • “Doesn’t that suck? I just hit you for no reason.” – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
  • “You fucking broke my sitar, motherfucker!” – Dig!
  • Dig?

  • “Only stupid people have good relationships.” – Ghost World
  • “Well, fuck me gently with a chainsaw!” – Heathers
  • “Suck-ass son of a bitch!” – Used Cars
  • “Let’s go get sushi and not pay.” – Repo Man
  • “Average is dumb.” – American Splendor

BONUS: Not useful in everyday life, maybe, but deeply true:

  • “I don’t like when somebody comes up to me the next day and says, ‘Hey, man, I saw your play. It touched me; I cried.’ I like it when a guy comes up to me a week later and says, ‘Hey, man, I saw your play… what happened?’” – Tootsie
  • That is one nutty hospital.

Got some more? Register and leave a comment!

And for heaven’s sake, follow me on Twitter!

or,

Forever seeking the “oh shit” moment

It’s a rare but transcendent sight in professional wrestling: the slow epiphany. Here’s how it works (or did when I watched wrestling, anyway – a period of my life that ended roughly 25 years ago):

Two wrestlers have teamed up to be on the “bad” side. Often, one of them is “foreign,” representing the enemy du jour (today, it might be a BP exec). A tag team match ensues, and after much drama and cheating, the bad guys have knocked out the ref and are mercilessly pummeling the good guys. Only…something’s wrong. One of the guys – the “foreign” one – is breaking the rules, the bond, whatever bound them in the first place. And then the crowd senses it. Something big. Something wonderful. One of the bad guys is just standing there, watching the other as he pummels his hapless opponent. He’s…troubled. He’s thinking. He looks around the arena – the crowd is building to a fury. The pummeling continues. He looks at his partner. The crowd sounds like a Concorde. We see it in his face…”this wasn’t part of the deal. This isn’t right. I’m…I’m better than this.” And then…it happens. He approaches his partner. He taps him timidly on the back. The partner ignores him. He does it again, more forcefully. The partner pushes him away. The crowd has never known bliss like this. Their throats will be sore for a week. They don’t care. The guy does it a third time. The partner stops the pummeling and faces him. Our man smacks his partner with the fist of a thousand furies. The partner is stunned, but doesn’t go down, so our man performs his signature move – preferably, a jump-kick to the chest – and his partner is out cold. The crowd will need to do laundry when they get home.

I write all this not just for the juicy (and not a little guilty) nostalgia, but because it occurred to me that the slow epiphany is a rare thing in entertainment. Instead, when we’re lucky we get something just as sweet: the sudden realization, an event I like to call the “oh shit” moment. Raymond Carver used to keep a 3” x 5” card on his wall with a quote from a Chekhov story: “And suddenly, everything became clear to him.” Carver liked the mystery behind the phrase, but I like visualizing that moment, when in a flash the subject saw the big picture clearly and it changed his life. Such a rich visual – he stops mid-speech, his eyes widen, his mouth opens a touch, and maybe, if we’re lucky, he even drops his coffee cup and it falls in slow motion, breaking as it hits the floor and Keyser gets away. Oh shit.

Say, this corkboard is made by Quartet! Isn't that a funny - OH MY GOD.

Does this ever happen in real life? We cling to our worldviews so tightly, we fight against anything that contradicts what we have chosen to believe, we barely listen to other points of view. We brag that we have friends with different political views, but we are careful to counter their arguments without really thinking about them, lest they dent our belief system. Perhaps we allow a change of heart now and then, but it’s a slow process. So here’s a case where professional wrestling is actually pretty true to life. Let THAT sink in for a bit. Still, even wrestling can’t afford to let things take a truly natural course. It would take too long to watch someone truly deliberate in real time – the audience would never stand for it. “Is he gonna turn on ‘The Libyan Liberator’ or not? Cause NASCAR is on in an hour.”

I yearn for one of these. Not cheap shots at wrestling fans – I already feel bad about that. No, it’s the epiphany I seek. The slow ones might be great for riling up the crowd, but I want one of the fast ones. I want to suddenly “get it,” to drop my glass (not if it’s full of Smithwicks, Samuel Smith’s, or anything that begins with “Glen”) and freeze for a moment while the implications of what I’ve just figured out wash over me.

In short: I want everything to suddenly become clear.

I don’t think that will ever happen. I’m too slow on the uptake, too careful, too considerate, too damn stubborn. Even if I did figure out in a flash that Verbal had just made up his whole story, I’d probably have another sip of coffee and say “Say, I just thought of something…you don’t think…nah.” Maybe eventually, in bed that night, I’d get as far as “Huh…that fellow may have snowed me.” But even then I’d fight it.

I know I’m not alone here. I’m sure I try to load my plays with epiphanies and “oh shit” moments to make up for the lack of them in my life. And why not? Some of the best moments of true drama are based on the Sudden Realization that Changes Everything. (Side note: I’m not talking about those movies where a clue is discovered and the killer’s identity is revealed. Those moments are supposed to happen, and while they’re generally fun, they’re not nearly as satisfying as the bombshell that rocks our hero’s world.) It’s a cliché, maybe, but when it comes about honestly, there’s nothing as jaw-droppingly satisfying as a great “oh shit.” (Yes, you can remove the “oh” from that last sentence and it still makes sense, maybe even more sense, but seriously…try to stay with me, people.)

But man, are they hard to do. They only work when the timing is just right – when the audience catches on just seconds after the character does. I’ve been successful once or twice – one of my favorites comes in The Trophy Wife, one of my early dramas. A couple – a man and his mistress – has plotted the death of the man’s wife, and the man lets something slip that allows the mistress to figure out that he has killed before. It happens as she’s talking – her sentence just stops midway, her mouth opens in horror, she drops her coffee cup in slow-motion (just kidding about that last part…I think). He starts talking again, she cuts him off and asks him a very direct question – and, hopefully, the audience figures out the answer at the same time she does and has to catch its collective breath.

So that one kinda works, but I’ve failed far more often than I’ve succeeded. For every successful “oh shit,” there are a dozen that fall flat, usually because the audience is already ahead of the character. Nothing more excruciating than waiting for the hero to catch up. Sometimes, the opposite is true – our hero suddenly “gets it,” but…gets what? Watch the movie of A Few Good Men and you’ll see Cruise suddenly figure something out, leave his meeting, drive to the victim’s place, look in the closet, and – EGAD! His clothes are still there. This clearly Means Something, but damned if can figure out what it is. He explains it to us later, but frustration has already set in: if we don’t get to share in the moment, what’s the point?

I’ll continue to seek the perfect moment of epiphany – in story, and in life. Since I no longer watch wrestling, I’m hoping to go the Chekhov route and experience a full-on, shameless “oh shit.” There have been some great ones in movies: “All’s you’d need is a target tracking system and a big spinning mirror and you could vaporize a human target from space!” “Johnny Ola knows these places like the back of his hand.” “(looks at penis of the girl he was just making out with).” Those moments are as iconic as they are rare, so naturally I long to create one – almost as much as I long to live one. (Well, maybe not that last one.)

So...THAT'S new.

Either way, once it happens, I hope I can actually act on it. Playscripts may not always reflect real life, but I think both need a jolt of cheap, impulsive drama now and then.

Besides, I have enough coffee mugs. I can afford to drop one.

I’ve become quite the Twirp lately – follow my Tweets!

A little while ago, I worked on a fantastic community theatre show and had a wonderful time. Seriously, it was one of those perfect storms where great talent met great attitudes, and even the problems were kinda fun (in retrospect, anyway – I’m deeply grateful to those who saved the day more than once).

And then it occurred to me that there was something amiss with the show: we had no divas. None. How did this happen? In most shows there’s at least person who demands attention for just…demanding attention, one person who dumps a bowl of cold oatmeal on an otherwise hot breakfast buffet of a theatrical experience (I know, it’s a bad metaphor, but I’m hungry). And then I realized that the last show I was in was also diva-free – in fact, it ain’t easy to remember the last time a diva or two all but ruined my good time.

Seriously…what the hell? Where have all the divas gone? I know they’re out there. Used to be you could count on two or three divas per show – sometimes, you’d take bets on who could steal the most focus and waste the most of the cast’s and director’s time. Maybe they’re keeping to themselves, refusing to compromise the experience for everyone – but that only means they were never true divas to begin with. More and more, show people are being nice, magnanimous, and kind to each other.

This will not stand. Divadom is a tradition that must not go the way of the Walkman, or MySpace, or Terrence Trent D’Arby. So to that end, I have provided a primer that will hopefully rekindle the proud flame of divadom, a state of being that transcends talent and gender (that’s right, fellas) and casts a ray of dark on an otherwise sunny production. Enjoy.

AUDITIONS CAN BE FUN.
I know what you’re thinking. “I have to audition? But this is MY part – I’ve wanted to play it ever since someone told me a couple months ago I’d be perfect for it!”

True dat. But in this business we call show, we all must go through the humiliation of an audition from time to time. So make the best of it – have fun! Think of it as a social opportunity. Chat with your friends. Laugh, dance, talk – do whatever you must to stay “loose” until it’s your turn (the louder the better – it keeps your vocal cords lubricated). Don’t worry about being distracting the directors – they should be focused on the auditioner, and if not, well, it’s hardly your fault they forgot their Ritalin, right? And certainly pay no mind to the person auditioning – if they’re bothered by you, they are clearly not focused on their song or their monologue or whatever their doing to eat up your time.

When they call your name, remember, it’s important to be relaxed. So take your time. By all means, finish your conversation before taking your turn on stage. This will give the (correct) impression that you don’t really need to be there – you’ve got far better things to do. What director wouldn’t be impressed by that? Besides, it was rather rude of them to interrupt you.

If the show is a musical, you probably have a piano player there to accompany you. Unfortunately, piano players don’t like you and will purposefully mess up your song. You’ll have to let them know quickly that you’re onto their game by 1) pointing out where, in the sheet music, you start to sing (i.e., “I sing here, where the words begin”); 2) stopping them at least three times during your audition when they play that one wrong note that threw you off, and 3) rolling your eyes at the director and your fellow auditioners when you are finished, making sure they all know who is to blame for THAT disaster.

When you leave, remember, humility is the key. So be humble. Let everyone – EVERYONE – know that your audition was a TRAVESTY, that you usually perform SO much better than that. You’re sick, of course (don’t forget to cough), and people are just being so mean to you today. Accept the inevitable “oh, no, you were great” comments with a barely perceptible nod, and then go back to your friends…and let the fun conversations continue!

RANK YOUR NEW CAST.
So you did the director a solid and accepted a part in the play. Way to go! Now it’s time to size up your new castmates – after all, this will be your family for the next several weeks. And, just like family, there are some people you like (leads), some you tolerate (featured), and some who simply aren’t worth the gift of your company (ensemble, tech, directors). Figure out who’s who early in the process. If you aren’t sure who’s who yet, just go by who’s the cutest (after you, of course! ROFL!)

But what if that bacterium of a director gave someone else YOUR part? Well, that’s a horse of a different feather, but the proper diva is ALWAYS a good sport. Prove it by constantly offering to help that role-stealing pleeb with the part. Give them line readings. Lots of ‘em. And don’t forget to ply them with sincere compliments, like “wow, even though you’re way too old for this part, you’ve got a really interesting voice” and “if you like, I can hit that note backstage and you can lip-synch” and “gosh, I never thought of this part being played that way. Huh.” This way they’ll know you’re in their “corner,” as they say in the biz. Remind them how sick you were at the audition.

BE FRIENDLY – TALK ABOUT YOUR CASTMATES!
People love to talk – and what’s more interesting than other people? Nothing, that’s what! And who’s more interesting than the people in your cast? No one, that’s who! So talk about them and talk often. People love being talked about – it makes them feel important. However, some people are so sensitive – they apparently don’t appreciate the attention you’re giving them by discussing their talent (or lack thereof). So just to be safe, only talk about people when they’re not there to overhear. Don’t worry…if they show up, you can just immediately start talking about other people in the cast and their lack of talent. It’s the circle of life!

REHEARSALS – UGH!
Certainly, you need to attend some rehearsals, so the other actors will know your blocking so they can stay out of your way. But what’s with this schedule the directors gave you? Did they ask if you WANT to rehearsing on those particular days? Hells no! But still, there it is in writing. They must have put some thought into it, right? Please. They’re directors. As we’ll learn later, they’ve got the brain capacity and security level of a chorus member. (Lulz!) Besides, they didn’t think to consult you about your schedule and ask for your conflicts, did they? Oh, they did? Well, that was a long time ago – how were you supposed to know whether you might make plans on future rehearsal nights? So don’t worry about it. Just show up when you feel like it. Oh, you should definitely call (or better yet – text) them and let them know you’re not coming – after all, you’re a good sport. Make sure you give them a one-hour warning. In other words, if rehearsal starts at 7:00, let them know you’re not coming by 8.

Weirdly, some directors get all yelly when you do this repeatedly. OMG, what is their deal!? Discuss this with your castmates – you’ll feel better. Directors are SO unreasonable. What are they going to do, replace you?

NOPE. YOU ARE IRREPLACABLE.
Especially after they’ve fitted you for costumes.

DIRECTORS ARE DIRECTORS IN NAME ONLY.
You know how they say “those who can, do, those who can’t, teach?” No? Well…they say that. Anyway, here’s the theater version: those who can, act, those who can’t act do tech, those who can’t do tech do costumes, and those who can’t even do that have a cousin or something who directs. Seriously, look at these other people in the cast – would they even be here if the director knew what he or she was doing?

So what can you do? You can help! Offer constant suggestions, like “my character doesn’t want to do that” or “yeah…I’m going to say this instead.” If this doesn’t work, a silent stare – with arms folded – will often convey the message of “your idea is bad” without forcing you to say the unpleasant words “your idea is bad.”

Of course, some directors, perhaps because their “title” has the word “direct” in it, don’t appreciate input from the actors. But “director” also contains the word “or,” as in “or, I can just do what I want” (Fun fact: it also contains the word “ire!”) Just remember, you can always allow the director to believe he or she is in charge – right up until opening night. Then, you’re free to fix their mistakes, put yourself in center stage where you belong, and take long pauses before each of your lines to draw attention to yourself. There – you just “fixed” the show. And you’re not even asking to share directing credit, even though you totally deserve it. Stupid director probably won’t even thank you.

YOU PROVIDE THE TALENT. LET THEM DO THE WORK.
The tech people aren’t going out on stage to sing and act, are they? ARE THEY? No, of course not. Can you imagine? LOL! No, entertaining the masses is your job. Their job is to, like, move sets or whatever. Sometimes…seriously, this happens…they might ask YOU to move something, to position a prop, to stand on your “mark,” whatever that is. Can you believe the arrogance? Still, there’s no need to remind them of their place in the world – remember, some theatre people can be so sensitive. Besides, that would require actually talking to them (ick! Lol!) and there’s certainly no reason to do them THAT. Better to just shake your head sadly and walk away.

TECH WEEK = BLECH WEEK!
It is the first day of tech week (a really stupid week to begin with) and these people simply do Not. Know. What. They’re. Doing! Seriously – you’ve been rehearsing for, what, three months now? You’ve done YOUR job – you know almost half of your lines, and the rest were stupid anyway. Why can’t these fungi get it right?

Okay, hold on, superstar. Just take a nice deep breath (and another shot of Kahlua). After all, without lights, and…whatever else the tech people do, there would be no stage for you to shine. Remember: these are techies. If they were actually good and smart and stuff, they would be actors. So you have to encourage them. Smile at them. Call them “hon” or something. Let them know you’re on their side, and that you’re a “good sport” who will “get into the spirit” of this ridiculous day.

For an hour or so.

But even then, there’s no reason to raise your voice at the sad little people in the black turtlenecks. Instead, try greeting every “Hold Please!” with a loud, audible sigh (every now and then, slap your thighs for emphasis. Try it – it works!). Now your director might ask you what’s wrong – how rude! If something was wrong, you would have said “something is wrong,” right? But still, there’s no reason to get upset, because you know the one rule of tech: downtime = your time! While they’re adjusting the lights – take a break. Visit the necessary. Take a little walk. Have another drink. Don’t worry, when it’s time to start again, someone will find you. Eventually. If they care about the show, that is.

Hang in there, kid! In a few days the vermin on the tech crew will go from hopelessly stupid to pretty much stupid. You know what that means – showtime!

IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT. BUT IT IS SOMEONE’S FAULT.
You know what’s fun about live theatre? Anything can happen! And anything will. And here’s the thing about show people: they are vicious! (Not you, of course.) They are mean, spiteful creatures who love to point the finger of blame. Which means that sometimes – sometimes – that finger of blame might be pointed at you.

“You missed your mark,” they’ll say. “That wasn’t your line – you were supposed to say ‘I love you,’ not ‘Ohmygod I totally forgot your name,’” they’ll whine. “That was MY song!” they’ll bleat. “You were supposed to be in that scene! Why are you in the dressing room on the phone?” they’ll whimper. Etc., etc. You see? Vindictive little trolls.

So how can you defend against this? Same way you drive: with a good offense! Sure, things will go wrong – it’s theatre, it’s full of morons who constantly screw things up. And sometimes you have to remind people of that, lest they point the finger at you. You missed your cue? That’s because the light was totally in your eyes. Said the wrong line? That’s because your costume makes you look hideous (besides, your line was better). Didn’t come out for your scene? Well SOMEBODY (probably that weaselly person who wears the headphones backstage) obviously forgot to tell you. Accidentally sang someone else’s song? Clearly the prop person had the glass in the wrong place, totally throwing you off. Oh – and no matter what, don’t forget – you’re sick. Terrible, terrible cold, all due to the assistant director’s 8-month-old sneezing in the theater a few minutes before you arrived. Seriously, you are REALLY sick, which you should still be reminding people on your third mudslide at the aftershow party.

REMEMBER: WE’RE HERE FOR YOU!
When it comes down to it, who is actually the one saying lines (better ones than the “playwright” wrote…we should totally call those people “playwrongs,” LOL!) and singing songs during a show? Why, you, of course! Well, a few other people too, but whatever. So always remember that all these sad little creatures running around backstage, all the vaguely unpleasant faces you’ve been seeing over the past couple of months, all those names you skip over in the program to read your bio again – they’re all here to facilitate your performance. It’s kind of touching, in a way, I guess. Sure, they’ll probably (definitely) screw up and ruin everything, but they’re here, and they’re trying. So be sure to be a gracious diva and treat them with kindness. “Kindness,” in this case, means never learning anything about them – after all, that would violate their whole purpose for being here! But you know what? Learn their names. Yeah. Seriously. Well, not ALL of their names, that would be insanity. But you’d be amazed how far knowing one or two names will get you (hint: take notes). After all, which sounds better: “Um…you. One of you idiots forgot to put my water in its place, and I go on in 20 minutes. Fix it.” Or: “Charlie, one of you – wait, it was…(checking your 3” x 5” card)…Lisa – forgot to put my water in its place, and I go on in 20 minutes. Can you fix it, Chester? Er, Charlie?” You see how much friendlier that is? It’s impressive, too. Why, ol’ Charlie will be so delighted that a star like you knows his name (even if it’s not actually “Charlie” – it’s the effort that counts) that he’ll ALWAYS make sure your water is in its place, and he’ll probably bitch-slap Lisa after the show. See? The circle of theatre is complete.

Congratulations, my friend. You have successfully achieved Diva Status, Theatre Division. Now stop reading this article, which was written by someone far beneath you, and charge up your cell phone – you’ve got auditions to attend!

Divinely,
Matt

or,

Songs I have been trying to rewrite for years

Every writer, every musician, every artist is basically a thief. We don’t mean to be, but we can’t help it. We create because we love, so naturally what we create resembles what we love.

Now, there are people who intentionally swipe someone’s words, music, and ideas and try to pass ‘em off as their own. I’m not talking about these plagiarists, who are sad criminals indeed. I’m talking about the rest of us, who wear our influences on our sleeves, who create in a (probably) vain effort to capture that spirit that first drew us to the art we love. We may be thieves, but we’re thieves of passion.

Or…something.

Anyway, I just recorded a new album, All This Life, and it contains 15 songs that absolutely found their roots in other, better, songs. At this point in my old age, my thievery has created something of a pop-culture gumbo, a giant stew of musical contraband with too many influences (hopefully) to be traced to any one artist. In fact, it might someday be accepted as my own personal style. Until then, though, you can probably trace my creations back to any one of these wonderful songs, which are listed in no particular order (although the first song is undoubtedly first for a reason). There are hundreds more, but these are the first ones that popped (ha ha! “Popped!” Cause I’m writing about pop music!) into mind.

NOTE: I didn’t include certain songs that have informed my love of rock music from the start – “Johnny B. Goode,” say, or “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” or even the entire Beatles catalogue, because, well, that stuff has influenced EVERYBODY. Even Miley. Maybe not Justin.

“Back on the Chain Gang,” The Pretenders
Pretty much every song I come up with is my attempt to write “Back on the Chain Gang.” Chrissie Hynde hasn’t written a bad song yet, but even if she did, her delivery is so raw, sexy and honest that she could transform it into something sublime. But “Back on the Chain Gang” contains something so hugely emotional and transcendent that I get caught up in it every time. And oh, the song – a guitar lick at once jangly and melancholy (not to mention that amazing, descending triplet lead), a postpunk folk groove, a metaphorical lyric so sweet and mournful that it almost makes you forget the song is an upbeat rocker. Chrissie never overdelivers, and her restraint is as fascinating as the rest of it. I long to create something that contains so much emotion in such a pop-friendly package.

“Little Wild One (#5),” Marshall Crenshaw
Sweet, simple, and sexy, “Little Wild One” is a hard-rock screamer disguised as rockabilly pop. Crenshaw’s nifty ode to seething heartbreak seems so simple, but his delivery is full of such an intense, restrained passion that you cannot help but fall into it. Then you realize how well the melody blends with the lyrics – the high notes in the chorus just make the whole thing more emotional. And then comes the bridge, which almost feels like another verse, in which Crenshaw’s yearning can’t be contained in one vocal track – it becomes three. And the whole time, it’s a rocker with a great, twangy guitar. “Little Wild One” is everything pop/rock should be, and proof that the simplest melody and changes can allow for the most direct, intense communication.

Tie, “Vienna”/”A Matter of Trust,” Billy Joel
Billy’s The Stranger is the first album I remember buying on my own. I like to think I used my own money, but how does a 7-year-old make money, besides scanning the couch cushions every few hours? Anyway, I wore that sucker out, even if I generally tuned out on the last two tracks (and who could blame me). “Movin’ Out” was the song that attracted me, but more and more I was haunted by the gorgeous “Vienna,” which combined a folk-ballad aesthetic with enigmatic lyrics and a tough-as-nails delivery. To this day, I haven’t been able to figure out the mysteries of the melody, but I’ve written a lot of songs trying.

Meanwhile, “A Matter of Trust” is just the perfect pop song. Great groove, simple but effective changes, a fantastic, circular melody, and is there a better key for power pop than D? The weak production on The Bridge lessens the punch, but it’s there on 12 Gardens, Billy’s latest live album. It’s amazing – the groove is right there from the beginning, and there aren’t a lot of detours, but man, does it soar.

“Darling Be Home Soon,” The Lovin’ Spoonful
Simply the most romantic song I know. Sebastian and the boys start with a calm folk melody and capture what it means to be in love in such a beautiful and mature way that it still brings tears to my eyes – and best of all, there’s not a trace of sentimental pap. I’m still trying to learn how to build a song so honestly.

“Dried Up,” Ass Ponys
I love so many tunes by the Ass Ponys, the late, great combo from Ohio (which fortunately lives on, in a fashion, as Wussy), but I think “Dried Up” is the one I’ve been trying to catch up with the most. Like all the Ponys songs, it combines true Americana soul with a healthy dose of punk, and tells a novel’s worth of stories in just a few lines. It’s also painfully honest, a screed that captures the true, sad nature of nostalgia (“you’re moving like a poem/and it hurts to see you going”) like the best Carver story. Whenever I get caught up in my own metaphors (or, worse, “poetry”), I try to think of “Dried Up” and how so little can accomplish so much.

“Unsatisfied,” Replacements
I started listening to punk in high school, and fell in love with the fierce, stripped-down energy, the anger, and (of course) the huge chunky guitar chords. But it took the ‘Mats to teach me that true punk attitude and penetratingly honest lyrics with soaring melodies aren’t mutually exclusive. I suppose some churlish infidel could label this as a building block to “emo,” but really, it’s a burst of passion that just happens to kick ass.

“Don’t Wait Up,” Richard Julian
If you don’t know who Richard Julian is, I strongly suggest you stop reading this post right now and remedy that immediately. I was a fan of his even before I knew he grew up right down the street from me, and he just keeps getting better. Like all the best songwriters, he plays in all styles, from funk to blues to country. But while my favorite song of his changes every day, “Don’t Wait Up” is the one that continues to amaze me with how well it creates a mood, a time. Even before the line “there’s frost on Memorial Day,” you’re feeling it, thanks to the incredible guitar work and subtly descending melody. Every time I set out to write a new song, I think about how I can capture a feeling as well as “Don’t Wait Up.” Haven’t gotten there yet.

“Sleepwalker,” the Kinks
I’m not saying it’s my fave Kinks song, and it’s certainly far from their best. But at a time when I was just teaching myself to play guitar, that “Sleepwalker” lick – a variation of “Louie, Louie” (but then again, aren’t they all?) with a huge sound and a beat you can dance to – informed about 90% of my songs from the time. And even now, it reminds me that there is nothing like a great, simple, chunky chord sequence to kick off a 3-minute rock song.

“Buddy Holly,” Weezer
“Buddy Holly” is a simple, funny little pop song with the guitars turned up to eleven. As one who loves simple, funny little pop songs and guitars turned up to eleven, it was quite a revelation to hear one song that encompassed both. See also Veruca Salt’s “With David Bowie.”

“No One Like You,” The Scorpions
Okay, judge if you must, but I love this shit. I know the first line on my CD is “a winter’s tale plays in my head as I come undone,” but still…give me some crunchy power chords and a singer who knows how to wail about how chicks are hot and stuff and I’m one happy boy. And before they became the poster boys for wussed-out powerless ballads, the Scorpions fuckin’ ROCKED. And here’s how – they could switch from beautiful guitar ballad to pounding hard rock in the space of one song – thus, “No One Like You.” They never really got the respect they deserved from the metalheads, who like to poke fun at diminutive, balding Klaus Meine and his almost ridiculously high caterwaul (of course, those same lunkheads fawn all over Geddy Lee, who admittedly has better hair). But I love the Scorps because they brought a healthy dose of power chord punk to the scene; they were unafraid to mix complex, melodic guitar lines (“Still Loving You”) with the most basic, any-kid-can-play-that-after-one-month-of-lessons licks (“Rock You Like a Hurricane,” anyone?). So even in my most introspective shoegazer tunes, I’m always thinking about big, chunky guitar chords.

Rockin’ in the Free (if you steal it) World,
Matt

or,

An ongoing list of overheard theater fallacies

I’m incredibly fortunate – I actually make money in the arts. As the administrator for a community theater and a published playwright, my paychecks are directly related to all things theater. It’s a wonderful thing.

It also lends me a particular perspective. I hear from all types, including eager young actors, cynical techs, disillusioned writers, egocentric directors – and you can pretty much switch adjectives and objects at will. And so when certain clichés start to take form, I have the advantage of placing them in a certain context. Thus, I present to you an ever-expanding compendium of theater fallacies. Have you said, or believed, any of these pearls of wisdom? I know I have.

“It’ll Sell Itself!”

Usage: We need a hit, so let’s produce ‘The Sound of Annie of Oz Grease Superstar.’ No worries – it’ll itself!
The Reality: No. It won’t.

There are certain staples out there that community theaters know – just know – will be successful. We learn this from experience. JCS always seems to bring the crowds, right? And hell, the grandparents alone will pay back the exorbitant royalties of Annie or Wizard of Oz – so bring on the moppets! But it don’t always work out that way. Sure, parents and grandparents will come see their precious little snowflakes, and rock musicals tend to bring out the curious non-theater types. But hoping the name alone will entice the crowds is a big mistake. After all, once a title is part of the zeitgeist, it’s probably been turned into a movie and produced into the ground by every theater in a 30 mile radius…so much of your target audience has been there, done that. Your particular production might be the greatest thing since that bass solo in “You Can Call Me Al,” but the name alone won’t be enough to entice the crowds.

And here’s the trickier part – the people choosing theatrical seasons are, by definition, “theater people.” They possess a certain taste and insight that much of our target audience does not. You and I can name the musical that won the Tony last year – can they? When it becomes available, we theatergeeks will jump all over it, but we’re not the ones buying tickets, we’re the ones auditioning and finagling our way into free seats. Things like “Tony and Pulitzer winning” look great in marketing blurbs, but they don’t translate into sales. And I won’t even get into the production itself, except to say word-of-mouth is a powerful tool…few things can kill a show like a cast who discourages friends & family from coming to see it.

So what DOES sell a show? Damned if I know. Damned if anybody knows. Hell, look on Broadway, where it’s all movie tie-ins and celebrities – even Disney can’t tell a hit from a flop until it’s way too late. On a local scale, the only thing that really seems to work is the unadulterated enthusiasm of the production crew itself. Seems that if the cast & crew love what they’re doing, people will come.

“If the cast & crew love what they’re doing, people will come.”

Usage: See above entry.
The Reality: Not so much.

I’m not saying it hurts. I’m just saying that no amount of cast loveydovey is going to promote a show. If said loveydovey translates into grassroots promotion – poster hanging, phone calls, impromptu street performances – it helps. But I’ve seen many shows that faltered despite the genuine enthusiasm of the cast & crew. Sometimes, the audience just doesn’t feel the love (in simpler terms, the show ain’t as good as the cast thinks it is). But often, I think those producing the show begin to assume their love is contagious, and will spill out into the atmosphere, enticing viewers like the smell of a bone entices Tex Avery dogs. It doesn’t. I’m thrilled for those in theater who have a wonderful experience – that’s what it’s all about. Now go hang some posters, willya?

“It’s all politics.”

Usage: You know why no one will produce my play and/or cast me? I don’t know the right people. It’s all politics.
The Reality: Yes, but not quite like you think.

Theater people are notoriously…unique. Think about what we do – we devote much of our lives to either pretending we are someone else or enabling others to pretend. At some level, we are constantly auditioning, showing someone our most vulnerable side so that they may judge us and decide our fate. Or, worse yet, we ARE the judges, watching person after person (often our friends, but not at that moment) parade their talents so that we can decide whether or not they fit into our “vision.” Our level of personal security is…oh, let’s say “skewed.”

Therefore, when things don’t go our way, it is very easy to blame the politics of theater. No one will produce my script because I don’t know the right people. They won’t cast me because I don’t have a chummy relationship with the director. And there might be some truth to the matter.

However, there’s an inherent surrender in comments like these. The truth is, theater – local or otherwise – is a small business, as the awesome Gary Garrison will tell you. If you don’t have connections, MAKE THEM. Lord knows I knew nobody in the playwriting biz when I started, and I can now count many amazing and successful writers among my friends…and those friendships have led to opportunities I never imagined. And really, all I did was send emails, go to productions whenever I could, and generally make an effort to connect with my fellow writers, to learn from them, to listen to them, and (especially?) to drink with them. I’ve had the luck and fortune to be able to travel, to take classes and seminars, to visit – granted, not everyone has that luxury. But isn’t that (along with odd abbreviations and kitty pics) what the internets are for?

And as for you actors & directors – yep. All things being equal, a director will choose someone they know & love over working with an unproven entity. Again, though – theater is a small, small world, and your rep, good or bad, will get around. Trust me. No one wants to work with people they…don’t want to work with, whether the gig is paid or volunteer. So how ‘bout your connections? Take a good, honest look at yourself and your history. Did you spend time complaining about the production to your fellow castmates, people who were actually having – or trying to have – a good time? Did you talk smack about your fellow actors to your friends, leaving said friends wondering what you’re saying about them to others? Were you obnoxious during auditions? A frequent absentee during rehearsals? (Let me tell ya, folks – if you must have a vice, make sure it ISN’T being the guy who calls in sick all the time.) Trouble-makers come in all shapes and sizes, and “insecurity” is no excuse…we’re ALL insecure, brother. When it comes down to it, them what duz the castin’ are going to choose the nice, supportive person over the talented painintheass every time. Politics? Not really. Just common sense. Being at the helm is a hugely daunting task – every move gets second-guessed, not least by yourself. Those of us who do it want to make things as stress-free as possible, and that means keeping the nasties at bay.

Now, this doesn’t mean there aren’t back-scratchers out there, just like there are in every gig. And it doesn’t mean good actors & writers aren’t getting screwed out of great roles & shows because those in charge had their blinders on. But if they’d rather work with an old buddy over you, hey – it’s their loss. And probably a theatrical venture you’d rather not take. In the meantime, please remember that the best, most lasting connections start by being friendly and supportive, even (especially) behind backs.

More shattered illusions coming soon to a post near you…

or,

Why it’s Good to be Old.

Unless the Mayans were right (but their calculations were just a bit off), I will turn 40 this year. There was a time when ‘40’ = ‘OLD,’ and not just because I was a child…because 40-year-olds were grownups. They had careers, families, responsibilities, they talked about their cars and their mortgages and their lawns, they worked late and went to bed early. They wore fedoras, too, and not ironically. In fact, they dressed up a lot, and not just for funerals. They drank grownup-sounding drinks like Old Grandads, Rob Roys, Gin Gimlets, and Osteopolitans. They entertained themselves with “cocktail parties” and watched exotic shows like Laugh-In and Kojak. In short, they were mysterious, wizened creatures who did god-knows-what when 9:00 came and we were in bed.

But even though I’ve got the years, I’m not one of those creatures. I’m not 40 – I’m in my 23rd year of being 17. Seriously – have I really changed since then? Have any of us? I have the same fears and insecurities, the same interests, the same – well, I was going to say “wardrobe,” but that would be misleading, since my 1987 closet wasn’t exactly acid-wash or leather-tie free. But my taste in clothes is essentially the same – jeans, t’s and sweaters, the occasional crumply sport shirt or flannel. Maybe that’s symptomatic of my own personal Peter Pan Syndrome, but honestly, I don’t think it’s just me. Most of my friends-of-a-certain-age are simply aged teenagers, struggling to reconcile their grownupy responsibilities with their overwhelming urge to go play.

With that in mind, there are definitely advantages to being a crone, and they don’t just involve liquor. So here are a few great things about being a fogey.

Stay off my lawn.

1. I am never bored. Seriously – if I have a few hours to myself with nothing to do, I am blessed. I will browse the cooking shows, re-read Entertainment Weekly, or even sit silently. And I will treasure that break from my to-do list. Seriously, I pee on your boredom, son. (As long as my prostate isn’t acting up.)

2. I don’t need plans. Much of my teenage weekday energy was spent making sure I had something to do on Friday & Saturday night. That speaks more to my social status than my age, maybe, but still…the geeze in me has zero problem with a weekend on the couch.

3. I can do shit. Vague? Yeah, but still true. I can do shit right now, right away. Tattoo? Yep, I can go get one right now. New speakers? Done. I don’t have the money? I’ll wrack up debt (you know that line the grownups told you about how you’ll have to pay those credit cards eventually? It’s a lie, child! Buy tons & buy often). It’s not that I have no one to answer to, or no responsibilities. It’s that at some point, you realize you might not be quite as invincible as you once thought, and you stop thinking about doing stuff and you just…do it.

4. This IS my future. We’re always preparing for something. Preparing for the next school day, for your family, for your job, for your retirement. But again…it’s not until you’re in the middle of your life that you realize what you’ve been preparing for is RIGHT NOW. This might be a crushing disappointment to some, but still, the pressure of living day-to-day actually living isn’t nearly as daunting as the pressure of planning, of preparing, of trying to cover your bases.

And finally…

5. I don’t care. That’s a little misleading, but it’s catchier than the truth – I get to choose what I care about. In theory, I suppose we all do, but you youngins are constantly reminded that you must care about this, about that, about the world, the nation, disease & death, college, parents, friends, lovers, work, money money money…it’s tough, man. And the sad truth is, we don’t always have that much care in us. And somewhere around the time when our doubled age is deep into grandpa territory we realize that some things just need to drop from our care list. We don’t sweat it, either – someone else will pick them up. Someone else will worry about global warming (we’re all doomed, kids), Yemen, that friend who never calls, that increasingly large crack in the ceiling. This doesn’t mean we don’t worry – worry is a grain of fear in all of us, no matter how many years we’ve packed away. But there are few things as liberating as actually deciding NOT to care about something that was taking up room in yer heart. It’s a good thing, friends – that extra care gets refocused on the good stuff. You’ll see.

That’s it for now…I’ve gotta go do grownup stuff now, like buy something and shave places that really shouldn’t have hair. Peace out, whippersnappers.

or,

Now THAT’S how you end a year.

God bless Google Alert. Usually it notifies me of an intertubes post from, say, 2006, but today I got a good ‘un:

IndyWeek’s Picks for Best Live Theater of 2009

My comments: I am equally honored and humbled. Honored, because North Carolina’s Indyweek is an excellent publication that respects the arts (eight critics for theater alone! How much space does YOUR local paper give the arts?) and takes criticism seriously – no free passes. And humbled, because “Green Eggs & Mamet” was part of a 10-show festival that was one of the best I’ve seen. It included Mark Harvey Levine’s LA 8 AM, Jennifer Maisel’s “Fissshhh,” and Stephanie Alison Walker’s “Melt” – three plays (among many others) that blew me away with their creativity and passion.

If I’m ever quoted for anything theatery, I hope it’s this: Playwrights don’t write plays. We write scripts. A play is the collective effort of many people – actors, directors, tech people, even the audience. And each of them is equally vital to the production. Maybe the audience is the most vital – if a play is performed in an empty theater, did it make a sound?

So thank you to everyone who created theater in 2009 – all of my comrades in playwriting and everyone who acts, directs, works backstage, ushers, bartends, reviews, and (maybe most importantly) supports theater by going to see shows.

Sentimental? Maybe. It’s New Year’s Eve. Gimme a break.

or,

How to write a musical for fun and profit

Check THIS shit out. I’ll wait.

It could be fantastic. Seriously, it could. One of the great things about playwriting is that, in theory, anyone can do it. We’ve all seen plays, we’ve all had conversations, and to quote Captain Stillman, the only way to learn is to do it. And look who we have here: Stephen King, storyteller extraordinaire. John Mellencamp, who…ah…well, “Uh Huh” was a great album. And a bevy of talented and semi-hip singers. Should at least succeed as a great curiosity, right?

Of course, the playwright/composer in me is feeling a sensation of rueful laughter, dread, and out-and-out contempt (imagine Whatever Happened to Baby Jane-era Bette Davis chuckling over her fourth Rob Roy – that’s the feeling) that these non-theater punks think they can just waltz into my medium and cash in. After all, just because anyone can write a play doesn’t mean they should – playwriting is littered with failure, with unseen and unheard plays, with wonderful pieces of work that find themselves in a corner three pages from the ending with no way out. It’s taken years of mistakes for most of us to begin to understand the mysteries of the stage, to learn how to adapt story structure, to write dialogue that make actors look good, to use the very limitations of the stage to create worlds far larger than one can imagine – and the best of us STILL struggle to turn in a decent script.

Besides, look how many non-theater pirates have fallen on their rich little faces while trying to craft a play. Look at Tim Robbins – his satire Embedded is, by most accounts, a cartoonish bore, which came as happy news after I saw his obnoxious comments about theater on The Daily Show. And let’s not forget how Paul Simon turned himself into a theatrical cautionary tale with The Capeman. And while hiring Bono to write the music for a musical about Spider-Man SOUNDS like a great idea (if you’re on peyote, that is), early reports and delayed openings hint that epic disaster might be in the cards for Julie and the gang (the jury’s out, of course, but they’re salivating). It’s enough to make one treat themselves another Scotch. (Ah, Mr. Morangie…you beat out Miller, Close, and garry/ross as my favorite Glen.).

But still and all, I wish King & Kompany well. I’m not one of those who laments the brand-naming of Broadway – honestly, it would have died completely without Disney, so if Mel Brooks and big green ogres keep people buying tickets, so be it. Besides, sometimes our beloved boards DO need a good shaking up – look at Passing Strange and, before that, Hedwig and the Angry Inch – two shows that genuinely shook our idea of how to tell a story through music. Just because many of us find Stew’s contempt of musicals obnoxious doesn’t mean the man’s not a genius.

Still, though, I reserve my right to schadenfreude if Stephen and John discover that proficiency in one or two artistic mediums doesn’t necessarily translate to the stage. Besides, if it does fail, you know Uncle Steve will write a fantastic essay about it.

or,

How to avoid playwriting by spewing a few meaningless opinions

Has it always been this way, and I’m just now figuring it out? Or is this a 2009 thing? When did pop/rock become dominated by women? Why is it men are stuck with heavy but banal dirges on finding second chances and being all hurt n’ stuff while women get to explore every avenue of music and emotion?

Beats me. But nearly every bit of pop that made an impact (on me, anyway) was delivered by women this year. Even the reliable rockers like the Foo Fighters and hip hop provocateurs like Kanye forgot to be interesting (on record, anyway). You have to head into indietown to find men who aren’t stuck in “everything I know, I learned from Nickelback” territory.

Fortunately, the ladies – and a few of the indie fellows – came through this year. Below are my choices for the good stuff – and some of the bad. Enjoy, friends!

Oh, and as always, these opinions are solely those of the author. Where do I get the nerve?

THE BEST POP SINGLES OF 2009

“I Do Not Hook Up,” Kelly Clarkson. Oh-h! No-o! Kelly’s defiant roar of pride is pop at its most pure, most joyful, most fun – it’s everything disposable music SHOULD be, and more. Heck, the only reason we aren’t unanimously crowning it “The Pop Single of 2009” is because “My Life Would Suck Without You” is so damn good too.

“Sober,” Pink. I know it was released in 2008, so it’s a bit of a cheat, but most of us found it after January, so it counts. Good thing, too…Pink’s finest hour is perhaps the best song of any year. Some of her rock tracks suffer a bit from quick-paced formula (short verse, loud catchy chorus, repeat), but “Sober” is so strangely complex, emotional, and lyrically & musically risky that it’s an instant classic. You hear it, and you want to hear it again. And geez, how about that video?

“Zero,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Listening to “Zero” – to all of It’s Blitz!, actually – takes you (well, me, since I’m old) back to the glory days of New Wave, back when indie music felt new and pure and not so damned self-conscious and ironic. “Zero” is a sincere delight – plus, thanks to Karen O’s very adult and sexy voice, it’s a great transcendent rocker.

“Single Ladies,” Beyonce. Overplayed? Sure. But not only is “Single Ladies” a magnificently punchy, genre-defying slice of attitude, it has a genuinely odd structure that keeps you guessing, even on the 300th listen. Listen to those changes under “if you like it/then you should’ve put a ring on it”…not exactly cookie-cutter chords, are they? Besides, nobody knows the power of a well-timed “oh-oh-oh” like our own Miss Fierce.

“LoveGame,” Lady Gaga. So what was YOUR favorite Lady Gaga song of the year? Many swear by the odd mashup of “Bad Romance,” some still love the sneaky “Poker Face,” still others prefer “Just Dance” or “Paparazzi.” All fine choices, but with its bold dance-all-night synth lick, sexy-sweet come-ons, and Grace Jones-evoking chorus, “LoveGame” is my fave Gaga jam to date. Still, what’s truly amazing is that we all have a pet song by Ms. Germanotta – love her or hate her, you still love her.

“Day ‘n Night,” Kid Cudi. Try to classify this one – stoner hip-hop folk, maybe? Kid Cudi takes us on a lyrically adventurous trip into his mind, letting the simple, hypnotic melody and haunting synth licks guide us into pop bliss. Even as it keeps a foot firmly in iTunes-happy territory, it could be the most original song of the year.

“Sometime Around Midnight,” Airborne Toxic Event. I know…they’re named “Airborne Toxic Event.” They wear wool caps and skinny jeans, too (I assume, anyway). But here’s a song that takes the offbeat observational skills of Okkervil River and infuses it with the kind of sincere emotion you don’t expect to hear from indie folks…and then the music just builds and builds until it surrounds your soul. Plus…it rocks. If there’s a post-hipsterdom movement in 2010, this song will kick it off.

“People Got a Lotta Nerve,” Neko Case. It sounds a bit like a throwaway at first…jangly guitars, subtle hook, an almost effortless vocal. But then you catch those lyrics and sneaky, sexy chorus, and you hear that really odd and disturbing second verse, and you realize Ms. Case knew what she was doing all along…and then, just as it’s soaring into pop bliss, it all ends. But oh, while it lasted…

“Battlefield,” Jordin Sparks. Every American Idol finalist record is loaded with pop potential – hooks galore, repetitive choruses, a chance for the singer to hit a money note or two. Unfortunately, they almost always sound like what they are – pop ditties composed by committee, stripped of idiosyncrasies and personality. “Battlefield” could have been one of those, but Ms. Sparks gives it just enough emotion to let it truly soar and become something sublime. It’ll get stuck in your head for days, but you won’t be sorry.

“Heavy Cross,” Gossip. I’m a big fan of Beth Ditto, but I was a little disappointed when I first heard the disco-singed “Heavy Cross.” I thought it too dense, too processed, too far removed from the awesomely spare, pokey dance punk of Standing in the Way of Control. But the more I listened, the more I loved – sure it’s disco, but it’s damned good disco, sexy, rocking and satisfying. And the Divine Ms. Ditto refuses to get lost in the mix – she delivers a powerful vocal that gives the whole enterprise a healthy dose of sexy soul.

“The Rake’s Song,” The Decemberists. You have to go all the way back to the Violent Femmes’ “Country Death Song” to find another awesomely catchy song about, er, murdering your own children. Of course, Gordon at least had the courtesy to feel bad about what he did…not Colin, who sounds relatively pleased. Creepy as hell…and really fun. Which just makes it more creepy. And fun.

“Waking Up in Vegas,” Katy Perry. Katy’s got a fantastic look, and she got off to a slyly provocative start with the strictly PG “I Kissed a Girl,” but with her limited range and by-the-numbers delivery, she’s going to have to count on great material until she finds her own voice (if she ever does). Fortunately, “Waking Up in Vegas” has got a killer chorus, a great beat, and a sense of humor – everything a disposable summer pop song needs to cross the line from good to great.

“1901,” Phoenix. Now that radio is in such a weird place and MTV and VH1 barely show videos, I suppose there’s a case to be made for licensing as a means for launching little-known acts. But what a freakin’ shame that Phoenix’s towering bit of electronica will forever be associated with car commercials.

Honorable Mentions:

“Honey West,” Betty. I don’t think it was ever a single, but man, it should be…Betty’s paean to a forgotten 60’s TV detective is a delightful rocker.

“What Are You Like,” Indigo Girls. Subtle production and a great groove make this one nearly irresistible – unless you’re a diehard Indigo Girls fan, in which case you’ve essentially heard it before. Still, it’s a good ‘un.

“Me With You,” Brian Turner. A great songwriter turns in one of his very best. When BT drops his CD, get in line for a copy – it’s gonna be awesome! In the meantime, go to Brian’s ReverbNation Page and give it a listen.

THE WORST POP SINGLES OF 2009

“No Surprise,” Daughtry. Look, I don’t object to the sentiment, or even the guy’s voice. No, my problem is that every note, every chord, every drumbeat in this humorless dirge is more predictable than the last. The absolute nadir of overproduced, oversung, oh-so-earnest white-boy “power chord” pap.

“Second Chance,” Shinedown. I stand corrected.

“Gives You Hell,” All-American Rejects. Damn you, Green Day – you see what you did? You inspired guys like the All-American Rejects, who think they’re being “edgy” with their braggy, twee little kiss-off song, in which they crow about sleeping all day while their ex has to, like, have a real job. Obviously, this little bastard struck a chord, since the song was a smash. But “obnoxious” and “slickly produced pop” are a bad combination, and “Gives You Hell” is the worst of both worlds.

“We Made You,” Eminem. Eminem’s “comedy” songs used to have some zip. But more and more they belong on the Dr. Demento show. He’s still got a raw talent, but this one’s dumb and irritating.

“I Gotta Feeling,” Black-Eyed Peas. My God, the Peas have grown lazy. If their habit of repeating a single word to fill in the gaps in poorly-metered lyrics isn’t bad enough, now they’re not even bothering to rhyme, write melodies, or provide an interesting beat. Sure, it’s catchy, but so is a pre-programmed drum n’ bass track on an old Casio keyboard.

“Use Somebody,” Kings of Leon. These guys came loaded with hype as the next big rock band, and hell, maybe they are. Truth be told, the only bad part of “Use Somebody” is the chorus, where the title is repeated in a choked whine over and over until the song becomes nothing but an aggravating little earworm.

“3,” Britney Spears. Shouldn’t a song espousing the manage-a-trois be, y’know…sexy? Not this time. Britney sounds as detached as ever, and the beats are tired and square. Imagine what Lady Gaga woulda done with this one and you can see the trouble Britney might be in.

“Fireflies,” Owl City. It’s okay to admire Ben Gibbard. It’s okay to ape his voice and inflection. It’s even okay to give your track the exact same cheap-synth sound you might find on any Postal Service song – we all gotta start somewhere. But it’s NOT okay to give your song the most maddeningly cloying lyrics in recent history. Seriously…the hilariously vague ”everything is never as it seems” is the best line on the track. Even Spandau Ballet would have rejected “Why do I tire of counting sheep/when I’m too tired to fall asleep.” (Maybe.) By the time 10,000 lightning bugs are holding a sock hop, you’ll want to heave 10,000 meals.

Dishonorable Mentions:

“Good Girls Go Bad,” Cobra Starship. I get that the, er, Cobra Starship (ugh) are going for humor with their contribution to junior-high dance playlists across the country. We should encourage that, as humor is too rare a thing in pop music. But still…what an inane little song. Too silly to be truly offensive, but too stupid to be anything but annoying.

“1 2 3 4,” Plain White T’s. I don’t think it’s horrible, exactly, and I give them all the credit in the world for miraculously avoiding one-hit-wonderdom. But Lord do I hate that chorus. It’s the equivalent of setting a 4th-grade love note to music.

COULD GO EITHER WAY…

“Party in the U.S.A.,” Miley Cyrus. You either love it or hate it. The haters find it pandering (absolutely) and overproduced (certainly). The lovers are too busy moving our hips like yeah.

“If You Seek Amy,” Britney Spears. I love the chorus, even though it’s based on an old joke. I love the throwback “oh baby baby’s” in the verses. But something so “outrageous” shouldn’t be so forgettable. I dunno…either it’s too dumb, or not dumb enough.

“Boom Boom Pow,” Black Eyed Peas. The epitome of “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.” And it’s so big and infectious that yes, dammit, you even want to dance to it. But oh, the brain-dead lyrics…so stupid, off-putting, and unnecessary that they almost kill the fun.

“She Wolf,” Shakira. An infectious groove, clever lyrics, and a nifty chorus are compromised (for me, at least) by Shakira’s less-than-inspired delivery, making what should be a pop masterpiece into something mostly forgettable.

“21 Guns,” Green Day. Green Day were always a commercial-minded pop band in punk-poseur costumes – but there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as the music’s good, which it usually is. “21 Guns” basically picks up where “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” but it’s not quite soaring enough to make up for its soft-pedaled repetition and “perfect” (thanks to studio manipulating) vocals. Still, I catch myself singing it an awful lot.

Anything by Taylor Swift. She’s got a knack, that’s for sure, and she’ll be around a long time, but her songs tend to get away from her. “Love Song” is catchy but cloying and lyrically ragged (at best…has she READ the stuff she’s referencing!?), “Fifteen” walks the line between sympathetic and condescending, and not even her pure n’ innocent voice can keep “You Belong With Me” from sounding a bit creepy. Give her a few years and she may just be onto something.

Well there you go, my friends – keep on rockin’ in the new year!

Love & kisses,
Matt

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