Been & Going

[TRENCHES] Let’s All Become Theatre Critics!

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The population of working theatre critics in Los Angeles is now decimated. Wild controversy within the community as to the effects of this sea change persists. Will we be forced to shoulder the burden of professional malcontent with a series of flashy crowdfunding efforts? Will we languish in the sewer of illegitimacy, relegated to the cultural wasteland-that-was of showcase pieces and overfervent improv fringe? Will we even notice?
Rather than think it through or meaningfully contribute to the conversation, I’d like to personally empower YOU, the swarming hordes of my dozen readers, to launch your nascent career as a Featherquill Sassypants Los Angeles Theatre Critic! You too can stomp on the futile hopes of hundreds, you too can damn fragile talent in less than three hundred words, you too can wield the intoxicating power of the Confirmation of Arbitrary Mediocrity. Come with me, you shall be as Gods!

1. The purpose of a critic

As a critic, you’ll be expected to dislike and summarily dismiss all but the least comprehensible work. Anything pedestrian is beneath you and a simple reiteration of plot points with some salty prose is all that will be required. If you find yourself at a piece that is challenging and obtuse, it will be your sworn duty to read as much into it as possible, overextending your knowledge and showcasing your sheer brilliance.
Lesser mortals will cower beneath your wisdom. Lost souls will flock to your whimsical prose and find meaning in a bleak universe. It is your calling to be the authoritative voice of a conversation between the artist and the community. Don’t let it bother you that it is the last mad cry in long-emptied room.

2. Train up with these handy bullet-point exercises!

This is where we’ll build the real muscle you’ll be working with. Get ready to dig deep! We’re going to transform your permissive, flabby aesthetic into a hard-assed, opinionated damnation machine!

•   Practice sneaking into places and reducing them to a single-paragraph life story.
•   Find ways to use the word “pedestrian” as pejoratively as possible.
•   Go to dinner at a new restaurant. Find a way to make the experience your worst ever. If you can’t find anything wrong with the meal, critique the server flair, ambiance, decor, clientele or the fact that they served you.
•   Look for the hundreds of people that work very hard to make your day-to-day life better. Make a point to ignore them; if they were so good at what they did, you’d be a king by now.
•   If you ever have trouble finding fault with something, think of all the ways the world owes you.
•   Take a moment to reflect on how impossibly difficult it is to make anything of value. Laugh at the cretins who try anyway. They are the lowest form of life.
•   Apply your meager understanding of design culled from half-watched Tim Gunn reruns and a textbook you didn’t read in college. You obviously know more than people who got an MFA. For one thing, you weren’t stupid enough to get an MFA in anything. Suckers!
•   Know in your heart that you are a better director than anyone who has passed up the chance at a stable family, generative career or prospects of legal compensation for hard work. Crucify the unworthy.
•    Bitch about parking.

3. Start your own publication!

Did you know: it’s absurdly easy to publish in the semi-dystopic future we all inhabit? A variety of easy website-building tools are available to you, ranging from intimidating offerings like Wix, Squarespace and WordPress to the more pedestrian options of Blogger and Tumblr. All you need is a sassy hundred-and-fifty-word bio and a picture of you leaning disinterestedly toward the camera.
Boom! Now you’re in the biz! Start harassing producers, theatre companies and front-of-house staff for the industry comps you know you have coming to you. If you ever get push-back, casually mention your fifteen dozen Twitter followers and your regret that they will not receive your glowing praise. It doesn’t even matter that most of them are bland automatons you cleverly acquired after Googling that twitter bots were a thing!
Take it to the next level by creating your own awards, preferably distributed a few months in advance of whatever significant community-vetted awards are offered in your market area. You’ll give your dear friends and concubines warm fuzzies while roundly shitting on the popular kids who never talk to you at the real award parties.

4. Burning out? Pump the brakes!

Sooner or later, you’re going to have to bail on this glamorous lifestyle. It’s not your fault; the weight of legions of mediocre offerings will take their toll and damage your soul. It’s a triumph of the human spirit that you lasted this long. The time is for you to make a bunch of vague pronouncements about the steady death of the art and then recede to the lukewarm oblivion of half-realized 99 Seat Plan vanity projects from which you rose.
Like mighty Cthulu submerges into the evanescent waters shrouding R’lyeh, like the pillowy loam upon which Lord Dracula’s coffin rests six feet under, like the worryingly irradiated jetstreams on which Mothra sweeps in slumber, you shall become one with that which you once railed against. You shall look upon the latest generation of critics and nod with satisfaction: they will never spit such bitter shit you once lovingly crafted. Your work is done; sleep, dear one.

A word of warning: if you ever catch yourself genuinely enjoying a moment that dozens of people have conspired to painstakingly craft, despite the wage of profound fatigue and at great personal expense, you’re out of the club.

[TRENCHES] Exit Strategy

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Suffering from the crippling lifestyle addiction of theatre? Allow me to aid you in the road to recovery from this soul-sucking half-life dedicated to willfully ephemeral art. It’s not that awful-hard.
Before we begin, I must caution you that my psychological credentials extend to a few walk-on sight gags, wild hair and a lab coat I use for private-time funsies. I believe that ranks me somewhere between doctors Phil and Laura, perhaps on par with Dr. Pepper. Allons-y!

Do you catch yourself:

• Drifting from wage-slave stopgap to entry-level slop trap working long hours to support theatre?
• Prioritizing rehearsals, auditions and theatre shenanigans over your family’s needs?
• Unable to control the amount of theatre you engage in?
• Needing to see more and more theatre to happen upon an experience that seems worthwhile?
• Seeing theatre during matinees, for long periods of time or alone?
• Giving up other hobbies or interests to pursue theatre?
• Displaying physical signs of theatre dependence, such as weight loss, hair loss, ulcers, high blood pressure or pallor?
• Taking work in theatre even though it continues to cause and exacerbate your health problems?

Many like you have already identified their reliance on theatre. One of the first steps away from the roar of the paint and the smell of the crowd is identifying the highly useful skills you have developed in vain. You may be surprised to discover your formerly fruitless career has simply been preparation for an actual life of fiscal sustainability!

• Lighting techs: Park yourself near the entrance of office rooms. Charge an operator’s fee for each lighting change.

• Sound guys: Start charging consulting fees for all the tech support calls you get from friends and older relatives.

• Projection designers: Stop getting tricked into making plays into shitty movies on stage and just make movies.

• Company managers: I don’t know what you do. I’m not sure anybody does. You’re probably getting boned into doing a bunch of work nobody else wanted to do.

• Scenic designers: Obviously interior design isn’t going to work if you don’t tell people you totally fung shui.

• Carps: You can get paid slightly less to lift things in the freight industry! Now your hobby is a job!

• Administrative staff: There’s ample room for you to fritter away money on things nobody wants in Government!

• Career ushers: Don a cape and cowl. Run around the cheap-seat movie theatres shushing problem patrons and stealing the brighter text-a-ma-phones. YOU ARE THE HERO GOTHAM DESERVES

• Actors: Everyone in retail spends eight hours a day desperately hoping and pretending to be anyone but themselves.

• Musicians: You don’t make any money and won’t anyway. You might as well play those parties you keep getting invited to; at least you might get beer.

• Scenic painters: Somebody has to chalk all those coffeeshop signs. With another degree or two, you could one day intern for that person.

• Lighting designers: Go into stand-up comedy. Tell stories of the adults you’ve hired to hang lights and their shenanigans. If you struggle, you can always fall back on the ten jokes you’ve overheard at every hang ever, including a blackout gag rendition of “Blinded by the Light.” Seriously, how is it everybody thinks they’re the clever one.

• Stage managers: You realize there are millions of professional managers that work nowhere near as hard as you do, right? I mean, like, they might make one spreadsheet. You can still go large at parties.

• Composers: Look into ringtones. It’s a burgeoning business, or at least it was in 2005.

• Props designers: It’s called Etsy. Don’t pretend you don’t already know. It’s the worst kept secret of Los Feliz.

• Costume designers: I’m gonna go with Etsy again.

• Playwrights: You know, I’m bored; take your old plays, Papier Mâché them onto baskets, Etsy.

Ways to transition

 • Walk from one gig.

• Run screaming from the building.

• Perhaps fire?

• Teach the young children of the creative team some extremely articulate insults. This will be difficult; their parents are theatre people.

• Tell a director, producer, cast member, lead actor, publicity person, artistic director or the press exactly what you thought of the last show you worked on with them.

As soon as you establish reasonable boundaries and a take-no-shit attitude, the theatre work will dry up overnight! You’ll be free to recklessly enjoy your life of productive excess, without worrying that-
Shit. Well, apparently, trying to bail just makes people add a couple notes to your fees. Okay, I’ll get back to you when I finish the tech I just got hired for…

[TRENCHES] The Seven Deadly Songs Pt. 2

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Back to the formidable list of the Seven Deadly Songs. Read the first part here.

4. Bohemian Rhapsody

In the second century, ancient Celts wielded powerful magic to craft a small, second moon called “New Bohemia” from asteroidal debris stolen from Druid standing stone sites. It is said inhabitants of this paradise were sustained purely by music, the “sweet wind which blows any way, like fate itself.” It was not uncommon for residents to live for hundreds of years, speaking a now-lost tonal language that relied on conversational harmony.
Not having any of this, in the fourth century, the demon Aeshma ascended to spread wrath and fury to the slender, bardic ponces. Perverting New Bohemia with a bloody citadel, the demon forced its new subjects to suffer in prisons where music was outlawed for hundreds of years. Once a century, the demon Beelzebub would visit to cast a curse upon the prisoners, causing them all to speak in unison, a favorite gift Aeshma called the “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
In the seventh century, a descendant of the prophet Zoroaster was born and ordained as an avatar of Ahuramazda, the Brilliant Wisdom. Tasked with slaying the demon Aeshma and returning the inhabitants of New Bohemia to Earth, where their music and ability to speak in harmony instead of cruel unison could be restored. After a pitched battle, Aeshma fell, but not before the demon Beelzebub infected the great hero with a terrible curse that bound his soul to a bowl of burning cinders for over a thousand years.
A great time later, after the New Bohemians were returned to their moon and set adrift throughout the solar system to later orbit a planet with far fewer demons, Ahuramazda took pity on the hero and re-incarnated him as a human child. The child’s name was Farrokh Bulsara and displayed the prodigious gifts of the New Bohemians from an early age. One day, the Brilliant Wisdom visited Farrokh and gave him a vision of New Bohemia’s history, from the horrible battle to its new home in orbit around the planet Mercury. Rising to his feet, the man declared it his life’s work to commemorate the great work that had been done so long ago, taking the mantle of Freddie Mercury.
The first time “Bohemian Rhapsody” was ever heard, it was performed in its entirety by Freddie Mercury, alone. The strain of recounting such a story – as well as singing the complicated harmonies a capella and alone – put enormous stress on Freddie’s vocal cords, an injury he would never fully recover from. He would continue to sing of great heroes and their feats until his mortal body’s death.
Invoking the tantalizing power of the music of ancient Celts opens a portal to war-torn New Bohemia. The demon Aeshma reaches through this to all those who listen to the saga, causing them to thrash about in wrathful rage, only to be slain again by the rich harmonious refrain.
There are some who suggest that, if one is not cautious enough to finish the song – or worse, play it backwards – Aeshma may rise from the distant past to steal the rich voices of us today, much as it does to anyone foolish enough to attempt this song on their own.

3. Sweet Caroline

On the 7th of December in 1913, a powerful Oni demon from Japan awoke from exiled slumber in the middle of an exhibition match between the White Sox and Giants. Furious, yet grateful for its release, the Oni attached itself to the strongest player from the winning team, the White Sox. The pesky demon rode back to the United States with the team, taking up residence at Comisky Park and wreaking minor havoc, mostly in latrines.
In 1919, after the “Black Sox” loss to the Cincinnati Reds, the demon lost interest in the team and wandered the streets of Chicago, making mischief here and there, waiting for a powerful “red” victor to haunt.
All was more or less well until Game 3 of the 1932 world series. After a spectacular display by a somewhat celebrated player by the name of George Herman “Babe” Ruth Jr., the demon became enamored of the mystical energy surrounding the Bambino, drinking deep from a gypsy curse placed upon him by the frustrated girlfriend of a theatre producer. In the demon’s twisted understanding, the combined strength of the “Red” and its treasured symbol, the “Sox,” presented an opportunity to rain misery on a scale it had dreamed of since being so rudely awakened nineteen years prior.
The demon – now referring to itself as the Bamboni – relocated itself by its own means to its new shrine, Fenway Park, where it proceeded to utterly ruin the career of the Red Sox for many decades to come.
That is, until a powerful wizard who rose to prominence as a musical entertainer recorded a powerful binding charm in 1969. Calling his power from precious stones, Neil Diamond reached into the future and crafted the spell with the knowledge that it would one day be played at the park, thwarting Bamboni’s mischief by incremental measures until the demon was beat back in 2004.
As a desperate attempt to remain a troublesome (if no longer corporeal) force, the demon left Fenway and sought refuge in the spaces between the binding words of the song’s chorus and refrain. To this very day, anywhere the song is played amidst groups in revelry (of which only one need have blood of Bostonians), the Bamboni calls the crowd to chant in the quiet spaces of the song so that it may sneak out and work its terrible mischief on all those gathered.

And if nothing else, it’s a fucking great way to rile up a crowd of Massholes, which is reason enough to leave it alone.

2. Don’t Stop Believin’

An anthem of broken hearts pieced together from the travelogue of a band of wayfaring holy men doomed to an interminable quest, most people sing this as a tribute to the 2003 movie “Old School.” They do not realize that this fable of near-loss and woe is a talisman against the endless tricks of Satan himself. Causing the lovelorn and faithless to doubt their convictions for decades, the mighty necromancer Steve Perry used the power of his enchanted voice to bind the parade of hopeless souls to the strength they feel lacking in every low moment.
Singing this song in a bar is relatively easy, because you don’t have to sing a single word. The power in the verses is strong enough to summon the voice from anyone who hears it, united in defiance of the Devil’s perverse will. Try humming bits of it to yourself while walking down the street; you may frighten those who walk in the Dark Prince’s shadow. The enchantment brings peace and contentment to all those stuck on a fruitless journey, except perhaps the Filipino dude they got to replace Steve Perry. I promise I’m not bitter because, after a disappointing audition, they decided not to take me.

1. The Unknowable Horror

The last and most powerful song is a peculiar beast. The Assyrian demon Pazuzu seized upon the upstart Karaoke backing track company known as “Sunfly” and imprinted its likeness in the minds of those working there. Pazuzu lurks in the intro to every song, waiting to find the piece most resonant to the assembled company and strikes out with the fury of the southwestern winds. He brings drought and storms hiding in the most-played (and subsequently often most-butchered) piece from any establishment.
This could be a little-known yet oddly well-appreciated 80s synth-pop hit, or Wrecking Ball by Miley Cyrus.
The warning signs that Pazuzu is attacking are a pronounced dryness in the throat, a desire to leave the bar immediately and possibly a massive brawl breaking out somewhere in the bar. If three comely lasses of uncertain virtue begin to dance in revelry before the stage without their shoes, this can also indicate the thrall of the Scourge of the Southeast.

Go with peace, and know that dark things sleep beneath. I have to back and watch all of Buffy and Angel in sequence.

[TRENCHES] The Seven Deadly Songs pt. 1

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I have, let us say, a hobby.
Over the last eight years, I’ve occasionally lingered in karaoke bars. At least one night a week, in fact. In further fact, rather more frequently; it is not unkind to suggest the average is closer to the neighborhood of three-to-five nights weekly. To wit, I believe five hundred nights of in-the-field observation is a conservative estimate.
We may have left hobby territory and arrived at the crossroads of obsession and masked vigilante.

In my capacity as self-appointed karaoke Batman – or perhaps Doctor Strange? –  I’d like to extend to you a friendly warning. Ancient words of power have been locked within deceptively milquetoast boppings of pop, words that may be invoked to bring misery and despair. Only through mastery of eldritch forces may one attempt to unlock these powerful spells for the common good. To engage their limitless power in mere jest or mirth is to court ruin.

I speak, of course, of the Seven Deadly Songs.

The Seven Deadly Songs no woman or man should chance to utter, particularly into a microphone that has drank more than any regular patron of the establishment.

Beware these, in no order or hierarchy:

7. I’ve Got Friends in Low Places

This fable of a lovelorn man, desperate to win the favor of a woman above his station, is played out repeatedly throughout history. However, spurred by the early days of feminism, dark legions of Succubi held a conference and unilaterally agreed to amplify the suffering of thoughtless dudes. This lead to a noticeable uptick in self-effacing ballads betraying bitter ignorance of one’s entitlement. Country music has sucked ever since.
Singing this song is a one-way ticket to making everyone in the bar hate you, especially if performed unironically (because come on: dick move, we all know we’re in a low place, you don’t have to drag us down and advertise we know you, too). Otherwise, it mostly results in drunken country howling.
If you’re super lucky, the least disinterested audience members join in for a pity refrain.

6. Total Eclipse of the Heart

A little-known fact: legendary songsmith Jim Steinman briefly dabbled in the dark arts. In the very early eighties, he succeeded in conjuring the gorgon Medusa, famed creature of Greek myth. After a lengthy correspondence with the cursed creature, he became hopelessly infatuated with her salacious tales of the demon world.
At the height of his fascination with the demon’s exploits, he penned what he felt to be an essential tribute to the creature, so perfectly encapsulating the curious duality of the demon’s obsessions set against her revolting nature (as the song compels one to “turn around”).
As was his wont, he entrusted this fell ode to the voice of Bonnie Tyler.
Secretly regarded as a powerful witch, Steinman had no knowledge of the folly to which he was a party. Now, this demonic ode bids young maidens to turn away from the paralyzing visage of the gorgon, while singing praise of her all-consuming desire. The rite is often unwittingly shared by at least three women, much as the original myth of Medusa was split into the three Gorgons by hapless men desperate to fracture her power. Medusa cackles with evil glee at this tribute, staring molten daggers through the verses and pulling lost girls toward her siren song.

This evil riff also inspires interpretive dance, the most objectionable endeavor under the watchful eyes of a scornful God (behind autoerotic asphyxiation, which He finds somewhat laughable).

5. Summer Lovin’

This is just a shitty thing that girls do to their boyfriends, especially if they feel like they aren’t getting enough attention. There’s not really any demons here; I just hate listening to it.

If you think this is terrifying, tune in to the chilling continuation of the Seven Deadly Songs next week.
Until then, mostly I’ll just be here, watching way too much Buffy.

[TRENCHES] New Year’s Resolutions

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Waffling in the foggy afterglow of the annual feast of excess? Burning through the dying embers of the cruel afternoon’s hangover, promising “never again” but not entirely sure what? Working in theatre and looking for a cheap laugh?


New Year’s Eve Resolutions for Theatre Professionals

  • I will not wait until places is called to sprint for a quick pee.
  • I will not wait to check that my cell phone is turned off until the first blackout; I will handle my business during the not-really-popular-anymore pre-show music.
  • I will not pick any song off of a soundtrack, except where explicitly used for comedic effect.
  • I will not, under any circumstances, tell the designer what the actual budget is. They will only ask for twenty to eighty percent more; whores will have their trinkets.
  • I will not discuss moulding with anyone, ever.
  • I will only say the word “wainscotting” five times this year.
  • I will not reveal that I plan to fix anything with EQ, a paint treatment, diffusion, reverb, Viewpoints, haze, sheet plastic, a working iPhone prop, the box-step, a metatheatrical cop-out, a big dance sequence or video design.
  • I will not hire a video designer for this play simply because it’s not interesting enough. I will hire a video designer to provide sexual relief to the cast and crew.
  • I will not write a character who only appears for less than three pages at the end of the play, despite having never been mentioned prior.
  • I will not forget to turn off my comm beltpack LED/LCD/Disco Party Light before changing scenery behind a scrim.
  • I will not murder anyone in the chorus or principals simply because of bad diction (again).
  • I will consider at least one option prior to resorting to gaff tape.
  • I will not tape together cables with duct tape. Wait; I will not tape anything together with duct tape.
  • I will not call rehearsals before the last preview or opening, except for understudies or to give gifts and/or promise people how awesome they actually aren’t.
  • I will not call the understudy for every preview unless they’re actually worse than I am at the part and/or could use a big break.
  • I will not write solos with more than three weird time signature changes. Actors are distracted easily and this can make the sequence difficult to cue.
  • I will check the schedule several times throughout the week, not fourteen minutes prior to the curtain on the first – and unexpected – matinee.
  • I will invest in a clock-ass-god-damned-radio for the times that my phone fails to wake me for said unexpected matinee.
  • I will not send more than one e-mail a month to my mailing list, and even then, I refuse to release anything to my subscriber base that does not feature at least one funny picture of a cat doing something stupid.
  • I will not rely on Facebook Events, a hastily compiled trailer and a single reviewer from Goldstar as my PR.
  • I will not allow the theatre to run out of flat black, black gaff, glow tape, binder clips, toner or vodka.
  • I will not hire only one sound guy for tech. If nothing else, they have the best jokes/drugs.
  • I will not resort to aggravated assault should a patron request a temperature change in the theatre, regardless of age or blood alcohol content of the patron.
  • I will not write a play set in a Manhattan apartment. Fuck it; anywhere in New York.
  • I will not obviously play Candy Crush, Words with Friends or Facebook during tech.
  • I will not sign in five minutes early just so I can run next door and have dinner before half-hour.
  • I will  not show up to any call drunk, high or otherwise intoxicated without enough to share.

[TRENCHES] So you’ve decided to see a friend’s show!

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Bless your heart. You’re a saint amongst sinners, a dessert amongst dinners, a steak on a friday Lenten vegan lentil hellhole and a breath of fresh air in a stale locker room of morning-after beer farts. You have elected to do the impossible, step up and offer yourself as sacrifice to Dionysus.
You have agreed to see a friend’s show.

Already, you’ve outed yourself. You’re not clever enough to invent rapidly convincing weekend-evening plans to distract your theatrical friends. Like a chorus of corpses reanimated by nefarious radiation, they’ve closed in on your hiding place and pounced, fervently masticating on the warm, stringy tendons of your no-longer-free time.

[NOTE: I apologize for any Walking Dead references I may make for the rest of this piece, because I’m very impressionable and watched the entire series in the last three days.]

All is not lost, true believer! You may, in fact, suffer an experience that might cause you to have an honest reaction. Admittedly, this reaction will most likely be revulsion, despair or fatigue of the soul. Despite all this, you may yet encounter an inspiring moment.
When struggling through the least-crafted, no-budget dreck you’ve been dragged into by someone you casually slept with, feel free to play this game: What Outstanding Thing Can I Comment On? You may please yourself simply with your own ingenuity in devising things to harmlessly compliment.

For those in a less happy predicament, allow me to offer you some guidance. First off, you’re going to want to rely on Prefabricated Compliments. This is an advanced Jedi negotiation tactic that states irrefutable facts in a strictly complimentary way. For example:

  • That was an effectively dark black that you painted the stage with!
  • When those lights turned on, they stayed on until they were turned off!
  • I certainly believed that all of the actors were capable of walking across the stage at times!
  • Entering the theatre proved surprisingly effective and effortless!
  • Wow! That was a show!

If that doesn’t fully satisfy the awkward postshow conversation, you can rely on the next level of preparation, the Impossibly Positive Question. You must not ask questions that can have anything but a positive answer. Examples of What Not To Do:

  • Fantastic! Will you be extending?
  • How are the houses so far?
  • What have your reviews been like?
  • Where will you be touring?
  • You pay your people super well, right?

Good Questions to Ask generally fall along the same lines as good first date questions:

  • Have you worked with (select an actor, designer, etc) before?
  • Do you work here often?
  • Did you have trouble finding the place?
  • Who’s your hairstylist? I’m very impressed.
  • Try the fish. It’s lovely; I had it once with some friends at a birthday thing.

Should the worst occur and you get caught badmouthing the piece, perhaps around the creative team or fragile actor types, you can rely on these quick solutions:

  • Immediately begin talking about someone’s hair.
  • Set fire to something. Most small theatres are laughably non-compliant with emergency codes and should readily combust, providing an effective distraction. Many theatres, however, do not have a ready means of escape (despite legally mandated preshow announcements) so this is not a first choice.
  • Ask if anyone would like a drink. Take advantage of the ready yes to pardon yourself and escape.
  • Ask if anyone would like to smoke some weed. Take advantage of the ready yes to pardon yourself and escape.
  • “But at least it’s not Andrew Lloyd Webber!” – this is especially effective if it is, in fact, Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Congratulations! With this handy guide, you’ll suffer as little as possible from your terrible decision to befriend/take pity on/sleep with that incredibly attractive theatre person. In the future, never admit aloud that your plan for the evening is eating a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and watching all of The Walking Dead. Also: don’t watch all of The Walking Dead in one sitting.

[TRENCHES] The Bitter Human Costs of Living Awesomely

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Enough with the goofy hat shtick.

By which, I mean: I have a couple rad ones cooked up, but I couldn’t be bothered to write them in a timely fashion. There’s literally too much Parks and Rec for one day off. Instead, I’m going to walk you through the mental yoga of priority management. This is the most elusive skill a professional theatre artist technician dude may not choose to exercise.
With the musical on which I am currently working drawing swiftly to a close, I found it telling to reflect upon my crazy show-biz lifestyle. In bitter spite of the reek of social, familial and professional commitment drawing me astray, I have stayed the course to show up thirty minutes early to my show run commitment and the fifteen minutes of real work it usually entails.
I joke; I sell the commitment short. For tech week, you can expect ten-to-sixteen-hour-days, sometimes even longer. For previews, you have roughly the same schedule, but whatever weird last-minute kludge fix you enacted in the heat of the moment has to last for the duration of an actual show for paying patrons. For the actual show run, you mostly just sit around and pray that nothing has broken, right up until it has, then you cancel everything and come in early to fix it. Even that is a broad stroke rough pass. Let me leap ahead to what you can expect to miss.
Over the course of this one job, I missed:

2 memorials; one for a beloved professor who – perhaps ironically – taught me to enjoy musicals.

1 funeral, but those are generally a bummer and the snacks are a let-down.

2 wedding receptions, one of which I may not actually have been specifically invited to in the socially responsible classical sense.

5 job offers from better paying short-run gigs

3 design opportunities, shirking my higher calling to pathologically work harder than my pay grade to provide an invisible service to an ephemeral craft whose labor’s fruits are tacitly ignored.

A sprawling desert wasteland with a sick-ass crunchy skyscape. I would see that as kind-of a bonus on social life terms.

Your social life, with a few more lizards.

3 Vegas Trips with gorgeous and flirtatious nubile women, and I guess also some dudes who know how to have a good time. Which I have never developed in regards to Vegas. Usually I crash in a cheap hotel room somewhere, smoke inside and drink beer on the strip because America.

176 hours of Cat Buddy Time®, tabulated by cross-referencing passive-aggressive stress pee and the loving hamburgering of my extremities. Such majestic creatures. The grace. What dignity.

1 naked calendar shoot. This one really chaps my grits, because the twenty pounds I lost in the process of tech for what I lovingly refer to as this aluminium monstrosity fits me better than the Fashion-District-cheap suits I slap on to look like a presentable person.

1 sketch shoot, the audition for which I inadvertently nailed at a surprisingly effective read-through. Pro tip: if you don’t absolutely want the gig, refrain from being awesome during the generative process. Sometimes that shit sticks. In fact, stay home. Don’t make friends and avoid associating with anyone who has “projects.” These people are sick, and you must fear them.

15 shows good friends had been in/worked on/somehow wanted me to see. This feels like a combination of a tithe, social commitment and, occasionally, low-caliber bullet dodged. There are undocumented benefits to being busy.

3 movies I thought it would be rad to check out, but, whoops, I guess. I’ll watch it on my phone in six months. I’m sure Gravity wasn’t as spectacular as nearly everybody cannot agree it may have been.

3 band gigs and/or cabaret performances by friends. This may have some overlap with the freewheeling Vegas ladies, so the collateral damage may compound on this particular metric.

1 night of Culver City’s mayor honoring the cast of a show I worked on. I want to believe he had a stovepipe top-’em hat, one of those british bling-ass mayoral necklaces and perhaps a staff. Also, in the City Hall of my mind palace, he was seven-foot-four and barrel-chested. I base the entirety of this image completely divorced from reality, having met the Mayor at various sundry events in the past. He’s a nice enough fella though.

4 birthday parties. Again, potential Vegas overlap. Perhaps I know a lot of showgirls? My priorities are beginning to leak here.

6 friends who were in town but I was too wiped-out, busy or asleep to see them. Sometimes all three.

9 friends making guest appearances on TV shows which I completely neglected to TIVO, because I don’t really have that. How I Met Your Mother, Parks and Recreation and Community may as well be the Jury Duty of Los Angeles comedians. You know, like those CIS: Law and General Procedural things were for all those intensely weird, whispery dudes that take classes in Hollywood. You know, before they stopped making those shows because, you know, who has time.

28 gradual expirations of pre-packaged vegetable or salad mixes I completely neglected even to open. Parenthetical note, that did not deter them in any way from contributing to the general funk of my disarrayed Van Nuys apartment. Clever readers that may recall earlier inferences to the cat in residence may find reward in my acknowledgement of his ready contribution to the olfactory disaster I barely sleep in each day.

As many as five (perhaps? who can count?) assignations, trysts, lusty noontimes, clandestine paramores or other assorted calls-of-booty.

3 farewell shindigs, but fuck them anyway.

They worry about you. Call them. Unless they've already forgotten.

You used to have a family, right? They’re somewhere. Maybe Facebook?

48 coffee dates, but people don’t actually go on those anymore, right? I mean, that literally does not happen. It’s like asking someone “how’s it going” while mutually understanding either party lacks the fundamental interest in another person’s human condition. This is Los Angeles, and I am not your therapist. Unless I am, in which case, thank you for your candor in not yet reporting me to the pertinent mental health authority.

8 holiday themed parties comprising four holidays of significance. Ghosting the Columbus Day Fancy Dress and Ugly Sweater Cat Fashion Parade and Luau was perhaps the bitterest pill.

Almost every episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I take this as a personal kindness; sorry Joss.

Untold multitudes of karaoke scheduling fails, because I was either A. At the wrong place, B. Working late or C. Already deep in another karaoke adventure working late in entirely the wrong place.

2 family members visiting from out of town that I would otherwise totally bail to see, but they never see my shows, so screw them.

250 necessary hours of restful sleep, offset by borderline illegal stimulants and stress adrenaline. I’m comfortable with my identity as a cortisol junkie and recalcitrant chemical insomniac. You can’t fix me with your science. Not until they build robots that can solve my problems for me. Please don’t tell me if we have those; daddy needs his go-go party fun-time fix.


All of this. This litany of miserable human wages. ONLY ONE SHOW. Corwin, you had ONE JOB.

That’s how hard I work, folks. That’s just the stuff I can even remember. And usually I’m working on at least five damn shows at once. It’s not a glamorous life, but the parties are great. Well, they’re okay. Sometimes we get Taco Bell.

[TRENCHES] Sound Designer

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Good day. Let us today examine the hat of the Sound Designer. Usually, a wizard’s cap covering a bald head or a ridiculous hairstyle more at home in a Lord of the Rings movie than walking amongst people. Come to think of it, I rarely see sound designers walking amongst people. I think they have all mastered the ability of social invisibility, which may be a requirement. They may, in fact, be ninjas but this is pure conjecture.

The sound designer’s chief concern is the eldritch, mystic art of audio reinforcement. Their work concerns the rich panoply of technologies ranging from playback devices, retrofuturistic sonic transducers and, occasionally, enrolling an intern to beat two irregular bits of wood together rather loudly in the back of a barn.

As a result of the incredible depth of knowledge and attention to detail required for the position, it is a frequently agreed-upon understanding that the sound team will also be responsible for solving everyone else’s problems. This usually manifests itself in the immediate and universal requirement to hear any conceivable thing going on within or outside of the theatre at a moment’s notice, as well as possibly see it too, and also all of the internet right now. It is at these moments of imminent necessity that invisibility is a sound designer’s greatest asset.

Few other professions so totally engage the full array of talents demanded of the sound department despite financial compensation, except for every production intern everywhere in the history of ever. It’s a bit like being the only grandkid at the Thanksgiving dinner with a degree in computers and being then expected to function as the extended family’s IT department. It’s also a bit like being a mailman, if you were also asked to handle delivery of water to firefighters, critically injured patients to hospitals and indiscriminate public brutality to the LAPD. I’ve forgotten precisely which theatre department each of those metaphors correspond to, being that we all have a passing familiarity with extinguishing fires and extending percussive force to obstreperous equipment.

Never content to sit in one seat for a particular length of time, the sound designer is always in motion, slipping effortlessly through the shadows and baleful cries of “my headset isn’t working!” to detect any remotely audible embuggerance that can utterly destroy their work, such as noisy air conditioning, a particularly self-evident beer fridge or a spotlight operator who won’t turn off their “Harlem Shake” ringtone during showtime, despite all appeals to their basic human decency.

The enemy, in this case, is the wide spectrum of audible frequencies which were invented in the early thirties by german scientists for the precise purpose of bumming everyone out. Often fragile and spectacularly out of control, the archwizards in the sound community have discovered extensive methods for the control and even propagation of these frequencies, usually whispered at low volume to the small imps that live and work within pro audio gear. Their allotted work time, paradoxically referred to as “quiet time,” consists of near-constant blasting of what they call “pink noise” to mask these incantations, regarded as closely-held professional secrets.

Typical show procedure involves waiting patiently through almost interminable production meetings while other, more legitimate designers from different departments argue about the emotional connotation of a specific shade of blue (often coming to bitter blows). After months of enduring such discussions, the designer can then look forward to the immensely satisfying creative endeavor of deciding which is the best bit of the somewhat overplayed popular MP3 music the director downloaded off of LimeWire or YouTube in a fit of drunken solipsistic rage the night before.

With a deep power and a robust low end.

The Mighty SM 58, strongest of all known Microphones, wielded by the god Thor. I think he worked for Metallica.

A sound designer’s toolkit (or “grimoire”) is deep, due to a lifetime of pursuing out-of-the-box solutions for notoriously underfunded budgets. To accurately portray the peculiarly specific quality of, for example, a Maine Coon Cat being thrown backwards in time through a liquid vortex and emerging intact atop a 1976 Dodge Charger driven by John Wayne, a designer may rely on many tools. Specialized computer software, for instance, which streamlines the protracted process of calling a circle atop a pentacle and communing with the Dark Lord for aid. Known only as “ProTools,” this software requires specialized hardware that runs off the blood of innocents, which counts for the curiously high turnover rate in sound internship programs (with spontaneous, complete madness rounding out the remainder).

Once all of the scraps of show program are arranged in order of sephirotic prominence as laid out by Achmed the Mad in “Yamaha Sound Systems: A Primer,” the process of tech can then begin, at which point the designer spends fifteen minutes routing the audio to dozens more speakers than are strictly necessary. After the lighting designer finishes their cigarette, having arrived thirty minutes late, the sound designer’s chief mission becomes attending to the video and audio monitoring by every person of every other person in the theatre at all times, punctuated by brief interludes of severe intoxication.

Once the lengthy process of tech is complete, the delicate gossamer web of crafted sound is ready to be completely destroyed by a swarming mob of patrons who have somehow mastered operating an automobile yet cannot be bothered to silence their “Fur Elise” and stock iPhone Marimba cell phone ringtones. If a sound designer manages to survive the lengthy process of public torture lovingly referred to as “previews” without bludgeoning themselves to death with their totem, the surprisingly sturdy Shure SM 58, they can look forward to the opening night party. Looking only out of the corner of your eye, you may just see them, barely visible in the corner adjacent to the snack table, weeping softly to themselves about the horrible prices their soul will pay in the hereafter.

[From the Trenches] Deck Audio

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The meters start to blur together after a while.

So many meters.

Hey folks! I’m gonna cycle through a variety of hats I’ve worn in the past from the trenches of backstage theatre. Let’s have a look at all the unique and delightful personalities that were never happy just working real jobs. Starting off is one near and dear to me, the Deck Sound. It’s usually a doo rag or skull cap.

Deck audio. These are the pale folk who are responsible for strapping invisible microphones to sexy girls and sweaty guys. The job is slightly more invasive than “TSA Screener” and involves slightly more embarrassing pawing-up-on-of grannies and exposure to radiation, albeit in the form of wireless transmitters and receivers (which, for layman’s sake, I’ll refer to as “sprinkle pixie magic talk-talk box,” because explaining how they actually work makes slightly less sense).

The enemy? Sweat. A single, wayward drip of sweat can be the difference between a solo like whoa and a no-go show. At any point in the performance, the natural juices produced by performers performing may collectively overwhelm ridiculously expensive, sophisticated technology and wreak audio sweaty hell on earth.

Typical show procedure involves waiting backstage in mortal fear, cresting before each expensive lead performer’s big production number. Salty little fuckers perch on the tip of a practically disposable microphone, playfully toying with the thought of ruining your day. It can drop at any point, although likely when most deleterious to your career. It then becomes the deck audio person’s job to dive into the performer’s unmentionables and wrestle out whatever pertinent technology they have successfully destroyed this performance, only to instantly and invisibly replace it before the next time they are expected on stage. Most performers I’ve worked with are amicable to this, but I’ve always imagined the life of a professional performer to be rife with moments of career-critical stripping.

Consider this: hundreds of thousands of dollars and hours have been invested in design and development. We now have the best wireless microphones we’ve ever had in the history of humanity, barring some sort of lost Egyptian technology using, perhaps, reeds and crocodile paste. It’s a triumph of the human spirit that talented performers continue to innovate methods for completely destroying our technology simply by using it.

Were I to paint with a broad stroke, I suppose I would suggest working deck sound is a bit like chasing a pink unicorn made entirely of marshmallows through a crowd of sugar-starved eight-year-olds: at times, peculiar in retrospect. That said, there are precious few professions for cisgendered heterosexual males with non-medical technical training to paw with impunity through the undergarments of attractive young women and be thanked for the effort. Nothing’s really all bad, I suppose.