Friday, July 25, 2008

Who Am I Rooting For?

So today I attended my first baseball game – well, ever. It was immediately preceded by a frantic ten-minute phone call in which I asked Liz to “tell me everything I needed to know about baseball.”

ME: So, who am I rooting for?

LIZ: The Royals.

ME: The Royals. Are they…good?

LIZ: Yeah, they’re a good team.

ME: No, I mean, are they, like…good, y’know, morally?

(long pause)

LIZ: Sure.

I quickly memorized the basics – three strikes, four balls, three outs, nine innings – got my beer and my hot dog, and settled into an American rite of passage. The game itself was…pretty uninspiring. The Royals got creamed, seven to one, and we all got healthy sunburns, which will undoubtedly cause us to look like a set of patchwork quilts when we do the underwear scenes in the show.

Turns out that we got a number of positive reviews on the local website – we’re number three in terms of ratings, and the most-reviewed show of the entire Festival thus far. So, that’s exciting – hopefully the taciturn response of our opening audience was a fluke.

Aside from my usual angst at being compared to Woody Allen yet again, one review said something to the effect (and I’m paraphrasing, since I don’t have internet access – this tour diary is being updated by one of my staff) that I needed to decide whether or not I wanted to be funny. I guess it was a pretty glib line, but it stuck in my head and struck close to one of the many things that I struggle with in this show.

Thing is – when I first started doing all this, I was very concerned about my ability to be funny, and all of my energy went in that direction. I’m not nearly so insecure about that anymore – I’m reasonably confident that I know how to hit the stage, work the crowd, and generate laughter – and yet, oddly enough, there’s now some weird level on which I kind of resent it. I hit a point where I get sick of the audience laughing, and that frustration has manifested itself in the script. So I lapse into preachiness or anger or ten thousand other things that seem to exist to get the audience to stop laughing, shut the fuck up for ten minutes, and respond differently. And I’m not entirely convinced that that impulse of mine is unhealthy.

It’s worrisome, because it’s dangerously close to the attitude that “I know better than the audience,” which rarely leads to anything worthwhile. But at the same time, my workmanlike approach to generating laughter in the audience has left me with a lot of resentment towards them, and a lot of questions about what the hell point there is to what I’m doing. Was Karl Marx right when he described the kind of entertainment I produce as “opiate for the masses?” Possibly, and possibly there’s nothing wrong with that – but I find it profoundly unsatisfying.

“Who am I rooting for?” seems to be a recurring question in all of the reviews. And of a lot of my career, too – I’ll never be a great comic, because I get bored with cracking jokes all the time. But I’ll never be a great tragedian, because I can’t seem to get through a serious point with a straight face. So when they ask which side I’m on, I guess I’m not really sure – and I don’t know that the play would be better if I was.

Saw a bunch of Fringe shows in the evening, too. At one venue, Charla leaned over to me and pointed at the ceiling. The room was lit by a brand-new electrical line and set of light bulbs, embedded into decaying wood. It was a largely abandoned building that had had the barest skeleton of a set thrown into it to create a theatre space.

And that’s so much of what I love about Fringe. I know that our tech was pretty intensely frustrated at our initial rehearsal – but complaints that we don’t have a light board seem to me to be largely missing the point. The sloppiness, the synergy, the spontaneity, are largely what this kind of work is all about. As far as I’m concerned, as long as I get to go to a place I’ve never been before, down some cheap whiskey, and tell a few bad jokes – that’s what this is all about. Everything else is just footnotes.


Anonymous said...

i know you have a tendency to grandstand about your art, but karl marx's "opiate for the masses" was organized religion, and not fringe theatre...

phillip low said...

Fair catch -- I like the phrase, and started using it to apply to entertainment years ago, since I think his argument applies. I've obviously used it so much that I'd forgotten the original context.

And not that I'm necessarily prepared to deny the charge of grandstanding, but it would surely be at least polite to sign your name to the accusation.

anonymous fan said...

grandstanding is marketing andmarketing is a necessary evil in our business.

no accusation, just a knowing wink.

anonymous fan said...

phillip low said...

Holy shit -- James, is that you? I'm pretty sure that you're the only Japanese acrobat I know. (Uh, unless someone I know is playing it very close to the chest.) How the hell are you?

anonymous fan said...


I'm OK - roughly the same shape you are in judging by your most recent posts: burnt out and ready for a break.

Keep it up, and I'll catch you in person soon.

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