Basically, I Wish I was Lin-Manuel Miranda

Basically, I Wish I was Lin-Manuel Miranda

My current obsession is the soundtrack to the Broadway musical Hamilton. If you’re reading my blog then I suspect you are in some way a theatre person, and so I will assume you’ve heard of this show. If you haven’t yet listened to the soundtrack, I suggest you do so right away. I don’t usually connect with musical theatre soundtracks if I haven’t seen the show, but this one hooked me from the beginning. It’s really something extraordinary, and for a whole bunch of reasons that would make a swell separate post, but which I probably won’t write because I’m not going to New York any time soon.

No. Here’s what I’m thinking about: The Broadway run of Hamilton is currently sold out for the next three months. It is so popular that before every performance, they hold a lottery for $10 front row tickets. Large crowds gather outside the theater, and members of the cast, along with occasional guests, come out and entertain people while the drawing takes place. All of this is extraordinary to me. You see, I think of my hometown, Chicago, as a theatre town. There’s TONS of theatre here. Literally hundreds of companies producing all over the place. But I don’t think we’ve ever had anything that inspired that level of enthusiasm and excitement among our audiences. I suppose the Hypocrites have come close. The 12-hour epic All Our Tragic sold out both of its runs, and its Gilbert & Sullivan shows remain popular. But I’m not aware of any show since I’ve been in Chicago that had crowds gathering outside hours before showtime just hoping for a chance at a ticket.

So I have questions. Is Hamilton really that much better than anything we have going on in Chicago right now? (It might be. Like I said, that sound track is really good.) Are theatre audiences in New York just that much more enthusiastic? Is it just the quality of the show that inspires this kind of response, or is there more to it? If so, what?

In short, what can I do to inspire Hamilton-level enthusiasm in Chicago audiences? Because the idea of showing up at my call time and getting to wade through a crowd of excited theatre-goers who are hoping to be one of the lucky ones to get the last few remaining tickets that day… well that sounds pretty great.

Okay. Back to work.

Posted in Theatre
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The Fallacy of Meritocracy: Wrapping My Head Around a Concept

The other day, the posting of this article caused something of a buzz among my Facebook friends who are involved in theatre. I myself linked to it, with the (admittedly naive) observation that I agreed with parts of it, but other parts left me scratching my head. The discussion the article engendered was, shall we say, spirited. In particular, some artists (who are white) got defensive and tried to argue that they have been doing their best to encourage diversity and inclusion by insisting that when their companies hold auditions, actors are chosen not by the color of their skin but because they are “the best person for the job.” This prompted responses from several artists of color who rightly pointed out that the white artists were A) being defensive, and B) trying to argue that they’d already done their part. Taking some time to think about and re-read the responses, it was clear that I and several of the other white artists were looking for some sort of absolution for the whole issue. We wanted our fellow artists to say to us, “No, you guys are cool. We’re not talking about you. It’s those other assholes who still haven’t gotten the message.” We believe we are deserving of this absolution because we think we operate as a meritocracy.

It was literally two weeks ago that I learned there was a “thing” about this idea of meritocracy, and it bugged me for days. A meritocracy, in simple terms, means, “the best person for the job.” How, I wondered, could that be a bad thing? Wasn’t that the goal? If it’s not the goal, then what is?

Here’s the thing: Like capitalism and communism, meritocracy looks great on paper but you run into snags when actual people are involved. The problem is bias.

“But I’m not biased!” you say. (You did say it. I heard you. Or at least you thought it quite loudly.) And I like to think that most of my white friends, are, like myself, progressive thinkers who make an effort to avoid consciously judging a person based on the color of their skin. But it’s that “consciously” part that is at issue. It’s easy to post an audition notice that says actors of any ethnicity will be considered for a role. And it will feel good to say that you saw a broad cross-section of the Chicago theatre community at your audition. And you will be proud to say you gave the role to “the best person for the job.” Even if that person is white. Which they very well might be. And because of inherent bias – the kind you probably aren’t even aware of but which instinctively tells you which train someone is likely to get on at a downtown L platform – it’s probable that they will be.

That’s not an indictment. I’m not accusing every white theatre artist of being a closet racist. I’m saying it’s how our brains work, because of the culture in which we were raised, because of our education, because of the entertainment we’ve consumed, because of who our friends and family were when we were first conceptualizing the ideas of “us” and “them.” And I know for a fact that it happens because I thought back on the various audition processes I’ve been a part of over the past few years and realized to my own horror and embarrassment that I have done this exact thing. So many times I thought I was being hip and progressive by saying, “Yeah, sure, this role could be played by all sorts of people!” But when it came down to it I retreated to my comfort zone and chose the person who was the most like me.

So, here’s something I can do: From now on, if I’m casting a role and I think it could be played by a person of color, I need to just go ahead and fucking cast a person of color. If not enough people of color are coming to audition for me, then I need to go find them. If I’m serious about diversity and inclusion, and I really want that reflected in my work, then I need to rewire my liberal brain and embrace the idea that here and now, the color of a person’s skin can actually be one of the things that makes them “the best person for the job.”

It’s a small step, but I feel pretty confident about it. I would certainly welcome any further thoughts about it.

Posted in Theatre
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Outlines (or, I’m Still Learning How to Write)

The four full-length plays I’ve had produced (with a fifth coming next fall!) are all adaptations. I confess, I enjoy the process of adaptation immensely. There is something immensely satisfying in that moment when I find that thing that will take the feeling I had reading the book and deliver it to an audience, watching a similar story on stage. I say similar story, rather than the same story, because it’s just not the same. It cannot be. Take The Count of Monte Cristo, for example. If the length of the audiobook is any indication, it takes over fifty hours to read. There’s no way the two-and-a-half hour play I wrote is the same story. For me the novel is source material. It is a mine, from which I will extract the metals which I will then shape into the small jewel that is my play.

Holy shit that sounds pretentious. Did you see that? I just called my play a jewel. I gave myself the embarrassment shivers.

Anyway…

I have been attempting to focus on more original work. I mentioned in a previous post that I have a few goals in mind: A play for my horror theatre company, a novel. The work has not been going well. I spent half of September slavishly forcing myself to hit a page count goal on an original script. I got pretty far into it but my enthusiasm for the project decreased by degrees day by day until it just stopped being fun. I didn’t know where the story was going. I was filling pages with padding and fluff in an attempt to stretch a weak notion of a story into 1.5 hours worth of staged entertainment. I was bored. And pretty soon I quit. To my shame.

I’ve been thinking about it, trying to figure out what went wrong. Why did I get bored? Why don’t I get bored when writing an adaptation? Can I only write adaptations? I don’t supposed there would be anything wrong with that, but I selfishly want to put my name on something that is MINE ALL MINE. But I’m not the kind of writer that has stories and language and characters bursting at the seams to get out of my brain and onto the page. I have lots of little nuggets of ideas. I just need that blueprint to figure out what to do with those nuggets. That’s what the source material does for my adaptations. Original works, however, don’t come with such a blueprint.

And then one of my favorite authors, Chuck Wendig, posted this on his blog. It’s a post about outlining, which is something I knew many writers did but which I hadn’t figured out, because my only real experience with outlining was the version taught in junior high school, and at which I was not very good. But it turns out there are as many versions of outlining as there are authors who use the technique. I had always found the idea of discovery writing – just letting the words flow and seeing where the story takes you – to be very romantic, but for me it just hasn’t gotten the job done. I think it might be time to give outlining a serious try.

SO… I’m going to go back over the stuff I wrote in September and see if I can figure out where it was headed. I’m going to mine what works and from that I’m going to try building an outline. I will try to make it as detailed as I possibly can. I’ll spend some time on this, because the next step will be to take that outline, and adapt it into a play. (See what I did there?)

Should be fun. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Posted in Uncategorized

Pebbles

In a scene from the 1965 movie The Agony and the Ecstacy, Michaelangelo (played by Charlton Heston) receives a massive block of marble. He explains that the sculpture he intends to create already exists, hidden within the block. All he needs to do is chip away at the block until the artwork within reveals itself. I have since heard more than one author describe writing in a similar way: The story is already complete. The act of writing simply reveals it.

I have had some time to think about my own writing process, and I’ve come to the conclusion that nothing could be further from the truth. (For me. I’m sure for other writers it works to think this way. But not me.) When I’m trying to write a story, I don’t find myself laden with a massive wealth of raw material like the block of marble. Instead it’s like the story is a massive stone tower I need to build. I can visualize it – a lofty structure with levels and balconies and crenellations, windows that peek into darkened chambers, staircases that climb to dizzying heights, or twist deep into the earth below. The highest point touches the clouds. But… when I look at my materials, I’ve got a couple handfuls of pebbles. I’ll lay those pebbles out as best I can, and then it’s a long wait while I go and find more pebbles. Frequently I get discouraged. The pebbles are so small, and the tower they are supposed to become is so huge. I’m never gonna make it. Maybe I should scrap it and try to build a small tower with the pebbles I have. Turns out, they’re the wrong kind of pebbles for that kind of tower.

Things have been frustrating lately. I feel like I’ve been dealing with a lot of rejection, in both my writing and acting lives. Not any more than usual, exactly, but a few things timed out to make me extra aware of it this week. It’s not a pleasant sensation. I find myself questioning my life choices more than usual, wondering why I couldn’t have found a simple 9 to 5 job in a cubicle somewhere and at least enjoyed decent health insurance while keeping most of my bills paid. But no, I decided to make a go of it as an actor instead. I’ve spent the last few years trying to find and keep work that would also allow me to drop whatever I’m doing at a moment’s notice so I can go out on auditions for commercials, TV shows, and the occasional movie. Aside from the very rare booking, what I’ve gleaned from the experience is that I should have tried it twenty years ago. It stayed exciting for a while, but lately it’s been feeling less and less “worth it.”

So I’ve been wanting to write more. I have a play for Lifeline Theatre in development, to be produced a year from now. I really want to write an original horror piece for my horror theatre company, WildClaw. And I want to write… other stuff. Novels and short stories. I want to develop a respectable catalog of work.

So I sit down and I fire up my laptop… and I stare at these goddamned pebbles.

Posted in Acting, Theatre, Writing

Puppy Poop: The Hugo Awards

Damn. Almost got it in on time. Oh well.

Anyway, I wanted to post a quick blurb about the Hugo Awards. If you are a fan of science fiction and/or fantasy, you know about the Hugos. And you probably heard about all the excitement this year, what with the Puppies, both Sad and Rabid. If you haven’t heard, there are places like this Wired article that explain it very well. But to sum up: A small cadre of conservative writers attempted to take advantage of a loophole in award rules and nominate a slate of writers whose work, they felt, was more in line with “traditional” SFF. They did manage to get quite a few of their writers on the final ballot. Their efforts proved fruitless, however, as none of the writers on the Sad/Rabid Puppies slates took home awards. In fact, in categories dominated by those writers, the fanbase voted that no award be given rather than give an award to Puppy-supported work. In essence, the fans declared that science fiction and fantasy have evolved. They’re not giving trophies to the people who haven’t yet come out of their caves.

I’m thrilled by the response. While I’m not a voting member, I still follow the Hugos as a genre fan, and count on the annual list of nominees and winners to let me know what to read next. This year I had to put that on hold, because I cannot bring myself to take reading suggestions from Theodore “Vox Day” Beale. Read what he has to say in that article I linked. You’ll need a shower afterward.

It was ugly, but in the end the good guys won. And as for what I’ll be reading next, I have Tobias Buckell’s handy alternate Hugos list to go by. Time to settle in with a good book.

Posted in Reading
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I Was Totally Going to Call You

Um. Hey. I know. It’s been a while.

Yeah, I said I was gonna be here more. I said it was gonna be like it was before, when things were good. And I haven’t kept my promise. I’m sorry.

What have I been doing? Oh, you know. A little of this, a little of that. Writing? No, not so much, no. Sadly. I’ve got some ideas I want to work on, that I’m kind of excited about. And something I’ve been working on for a while is moving forward and will see the light of day in about a year. That’s going to be fun. I can’t wait until I can talk more about it.

I have been reading a lot. I mean, A LOT. As a new company member with WildClaw Theatre, I have to read all the submissions for Deathscribe. (I get them with all identifying information removed, so if we’re friends and you submitted, I don’t know which one was yours and I don’t know if you’re a semi-finalist.) There were a hundred qualifying entries this year. I had a blast reading them all. The company will get together in a couple of weeks for the Culling, when we determine the five finalists. Get ready for news about that at the end of September. Deathscribe is Monday, December 7th.

Let’s see, what else? I got a new pair of running shoes. Please do not ask how that has been going.

In the meantime, I’ve been working. I’ve got a long-term temp gig, and a couple of freelance jobs that are helping me keep the bills paid. Nose to the grindstone. That sort of thing.

Anyway. Yeah. You’d think I’d have more to say after a month. And I might. But maybe I want to save some. I’ll try to be back tomorrow. No promises, though.

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Ear Infection

I have an ear infection. If anyone wants to know what I’m doing, and why I haven’t done anything productive, that is my simple answer. Ear infection. I cannot concentrate on anything else. My left ear canal is swollen and in pain. Advil helps, a little. So does flushing it with warm saline solution. For a little while. But it always comes back. And even if the pain is stifled (still pounding at the door, but the lock is holding for now) there’s still the matter of not being able to hear correctly. I can hear, at least, so that’s something. But everything on the left side is just a little muted and dull. The louder and sharper noises are, the more apparent the disparity is. When cars pass by with their stereos thumping I get dizzy. And even when it’s nice and quiet, I can hear the difference. There’s this constant white noise in my left ear, reminding me that I am infected. Infected. Infection.

Damn it.

I’m giving it a couple more days, I think. If it gets worse I’ll have to swing by the clinic. It better not get any fucking worse.

Posted in Uncategorized
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I Want to See This Movie

Posted in General Awesomeness, Movies
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An Atheist in Church

Comedian Jim Jefferies has a stand-up bit in which he talks about how he tries not to be a “bad” atheist. He says he once skipped a friend’s wedding because he refused to set foot in a church, but since then he’s mellowed and realized that such an attitude is just pointless. I have never been so extreme in my opinions that I refused to attend a wedding or anything, but I have often wondered about what is the appropriate level of participation. You want participate enough that you don’t seem like some sort of aloof asshole, but not so much that you’re being a hypocrite.

A few weeks ago I attended a funeral at Catholic church. It’s been a few years since I attended a church service, and it was interesting noticing the subtle adjustments that have been made. Nothing major, really, but I noticed a few of the call-and-response sections were just a little different from what I remembered, and the sang a few songs I don’t recall having heard before. The ceremony was for my wife’s grandmother, and I was asked to be involved. I was a pallbearer, and did a reading. It was the least I could do for my family, and I was happy to do it. Sitting in the church, I listened along to the songs and readings and prayers and whatnot. I stood when everyone else stood, and knelt when everyone else knelt. I felt no reason to make some sort of statement. But I didn’t sing along, and I didn’t recite the prayers. That would have been insincere. I didn’t take communion – that would have been insulting to the people around me. They wouldn’t have known I wasn’t Christian, but it still felt wrong to play along to that degree.

I have no real conclusions here. It’s just something I’ve been wondering about.

Posted in Atheism

“Why Aren’t You Writing?”

This is a question I’ve been trying to ask myself more and more, whenever I catch myself being lazy. I like writing. I feel better about myself when I have written. And I do in fact have some professional obligation to produce content. That sounds onerous, but when I think about it I get excited. So why is it so easy to get lured away from writing? Is it because there is hard work involved? Because there is, no doubt about it. But is that it? I wondered if maybe it’s because I already spend so much time staring at my laptop and other computer screens for my day job, but really, when I’m not writing I’m usually farting around on my laptop anyway. So that’s not it.

Without any real answers, I’m making an effort to call myself on it more. Whenever I could be writing, but am not, I ask myself why. The idea is, if I don’t have a good answer to that question, I should probably just go ahead and write something.

And that’s why I wrote this blog post today.

Posted in Writing

© 2016 Christopher M. Walsh