Tuesday, August 30, 2005

An Allegorical Experience in Art and Culture

Its been a very busy week, but I finally have a few moments to spend with my lonely blog. Just hours ago I returned to Utah from Las Vegas, where I spent an enjoyable two days and far too much money on fun but frivolous things like clothes, a pair of sunglasses, and tickets to a preview night of "Avenue Q" (which won the Tony for Best Musical over "Wicked" and totally deserved it, I don't care what you other theater people say - it was so good). But what I want to talk about, mainly, happened the night before I went to Vegas, during our Saturday evening performance of Macbeth.

Macbeth started last Thursday, and its been going pretty well. The audiences have been a rather decent size considering the venue is difficult to locate and, lets face it, we're doing not just a Shakespeare play but a bloody tragedy dressed in punk/goth clothes. Thats not generally what appeals to the theater going audience of Utah Valley (whose average age is over 100), but we've had some very interested and appreciative audiences, so I guess miracles can happen. If you haven't seen it yet, you really should. Remember, www.arte-ut.org.

The Castle Ampitheater where we perform, though rather hidden, is a great place to put on a play. The stage overlooks a perfect view of the valley and the sunset. The only problem with it is that it happens to be within half a mile of a water park called Seven Peaks, which hosts dance/swim parties on weekends and likes to play really bad music really really loud (really bad music is almost always played loudly, have you noticed? I think its to obscure the poor quality of the music by blowing people away with the decibels. But I'm being a snob again.)

The music is pointed towards the mountains, so that it won't disturb homes near the water park - which means its pointed straight at our play. The sound echoes perfectly off the mountains behind us so we can hear every beat of the bass and every grunt and moan of the singer. Suddenly, during Act 3, Macbeth got a hip hop soundtrack that literally drowned out everything people on stage were saying. We were shouting, but it was hardly any good. Performing Shakespeare is rather difficult; performing Shakespeare well is extremely difficult and requires an immense amount of concentration. In addition, watching and enjoying and understanding Shakespeare requires some mental focus and concentration on the part of the audience as well. Its certainly not passive entertainment, like action movies, where you can just switch your brain off and enjoy. Not that there's anything wrong with that kind of entertainment, I enjoy it myself often; but Shakespeare is different and, potentially, more rewarding. A huge distraction like loud music is almost enough to make one stop the show and go home. There seems little point to continue if the actors can barely even hear each other. It makes the whole production seem a bit unprofessional, which of course it is but we don't like to be reminded of that fact.

But more than that, I realized, while standing off stage in a frustrated rage, that the whole situation was a good representation of something much greater. Here we were, a rag-tag bunch of players trying to perform some classical theater to an audience that, for all intents and purposes, wanted to see it. And then there is the forces of mainstream entertainment and popular culture sounding out louder and more powerfully than we ever can, drowning us out, making us irrelevant, outdated, unspeakably unmodern. We don't seek to destroy pop culture, we have no wish to force our art onto those who aren't interested. Our Shakespeare was not intefering with their techno, so why should their techno interfere with our Shakespeare? Why is the music so loud, so flashy, so stimulating and exciting, if not to force itself onto as many people as possible, to swallow everything up? (I'm speaking metaphorically here) I felt like David against an impossibly huge Goliath who I had no wish to fight, but who sought my death anyway. But I'm dramatic that way.

In Vegas, we stopped in the nice mall area of the Venetian hotel to watch a group of performers in Italian Renaissance clothing sing music from famous operas. They were really good, but the small crowd that gathered to watch was unimpressed. They were either old people who were sleeping or couldn't hear, or people stopping to admire the costumes before pushing on. When the group finished, they bowed graciously. I was the only one clapping. Everybody else kind of yawned and went looking for more beer and slot machines. I thought that by clapping, loud and clear, I could at least get some people to feel like they ought to be polite enough to applaud the effort of the performers, but it was no use. The crowd seemed mostly apathetic, one of the most pernicious diseases of our time.

I know I can be a snob. I try really hard not to force my qualitative judgements on what art is good and what is bad onto other people. I try not to say that what I enjoy is substantially better than what you enjoy, because I hate it when people do it to me. But I am reminded how far I am from that ideal when things like this happen, because I can't help myself from thinking that Shakespeare really is better, more important, and more enlightening than the dance party music, or that opera is better than slot machines, and that therefore the whole world is upside down. I may say "To each his own," and really try to mean it, but the truth is sometimes I'm as snobby as anybody else in feeling that I'm right and everybody who disagrees is crazy or uncultured. That makes me feel guilty, but perhaps this confession will make me feel better.

But don't point the finger of blame at me; you do it too, you know you do. I guess we're all a bit of a work in progress. But between you and me, that work would be a little easier if SOME people would turn their damn music down.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Open Mouth, Insert Foot

I don't quite fit in socially at work. It's not that I don't like the people I work with, its just that I come from quite a different background than most of them do and consequently we don't really have much in common. Most of them, for example, do not have college degrees, enjoy country music, do not speak English (in some cases, have never heard of Marcel Proust, John Locke, Patroclus, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Laurence Olivier, Thomas Pynchon, James Taylor, David Sedarris, or Spencer Green, and think I'm showing off when I use "big" words like "effeminate" and "sequential." And yet, despite all this, I'm consistently the one saying stupid things and generally giving the impression that I'm a big idiot. As witnessed by the sorry scene that happened Friday afternoon:

I'm not a rude person. Its never my intension to offend, and in fact I feel I put a lot of effort into being non-confrontational, considerate, sympathetic, and approachable. The idea of me being rude is about as likely as Fox News actually being "fair and balanced." (OK, so I've said that one before, but come on. On Fox, Republicans are Republicans, but Democrats are always "the Dems." I constantly hear things like "next we'll be discussing the effect of the tragedy on the market… and of course on the victim's families too." Anybody who wants to tell me there is a liberal bias in the media has got to try to explain Fox News to me first.) So, I'm not rude. But sometimes, I'm very very stupid.

A lively conversation started around my work area in which I was not involved. This was mostly because they were discussing benefits they get for being full-time employees of Nestle which I, as a temp for now, do not get. The discussion drifted towards paid vacation and paid leave of absences granted for special circumstances. One of my co-workers is very pregnant and looking forward to her couple months worth of maternity leave. Another middle-aged lady said, "You know, if your spouse dies you only officially get three days paid leave of absence!" The group was sufficiently disgusted with this information, and began making jokes about it. They began inventing things that the company might say to a poor employee whose spouse had just died to justify expecting them to be back to work in three days. These comments were directed to the woman who had brought up the information, as if she were the aforementioned poor employee.

"Here at Nestle we like to focus on life, not on death. So come back to work!" my supervisor joked. Everybody laughed. There was some more jovial discussion, and suddenly I remembered something I had seen or heard someplace and realized it would make a perfect addition to the growing frivolity, thereby integrating myself into the social circle of my collegues and receiving the ego-boosting thrill of hearing people laugh at something I said and think me witty. And so, like a total moron, I said it.

"Your morbid fixation on your spouse's death is disturbing," I added. The reaction of the group was unforseen. There was an immediate, awkward, tense silence. The smiles and laughter that had filled the room for the last ten minutes were gone, leaving no trace of where they had once been.

"Actually, my spouse did die," said the woman, defensively. Then she added, in light tone that somehow indicated that she was offended, "I bet you feel really bad now."

I did. I felt terribly, awfully, horribly bad. I did everything but melt into a little puddle on the floor. The group sat in silence for a moment, then somebody tried to make a joke to lift the mood ("Wow, some people sure are mean, aren't they!") but it didn't work and the group slowly disbanded in a somber mood. I opened my mouth to try to explain, but it became clear to me very quickly that it didn't matter anymore what my intentions were or what explanation I could possibly offer to defend myself. Nothing I could say would do anything but make the situation more painful and awkward. So I turned back to my work and finished the day in silence.

Later, though, I tried to figure out what was wrong with what I said. How could I have possibly been expected to know? And what was so different about what I said that made it offensive when the jokes of the others were received with laughter? It didn't make any sense to me, unless she did not recognize that I was making a joke, speaking as the voice of the hypothetical boss in the situation I thought we had implicitly created for the sake of argument. Perhaps she thought I was really speaking what I thought, that I was actually being callous and unfeeling. Perhaps my dry wit was too subtle to be picked up on... no, thats probably not it.

By some stroke of cruel fortune, I had to work most of the morning today in close proximity to this same woman. Right off the bat, I could feel a tension between us. She spoke to me as little as possible, and with a somewhat frosty tone. I said nothing, not know what I could possibly say to ease the situation. This continued for a few hours until I entered her area to find something and she spoke.

"So," she said, tentatively, "do you work every Saturday now, then?"

I said that I do. She said, "How'd they get you to agree to that?"

"I guess I'm just really stupid," I said, meaningfully, hoping it would do for an apology.

"You're just the low man on the totem pole, thats how it goes," she said.

That was that. But later, she came into the room where I was busily removing frozen entrees from their packages, and offered me some cookies she had baked that morning in the company ovens.

"Take one of each kind," she said. This gesture of goodwill I took to be a peace offering, a sign of reconciliation, and even though I have been on a diet I accepted her gift.

"Thank you," I said, and she smiled and left. Everything is going to be ok, I thought, watching her leave. Everything.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Announcements

Ok, so I'm so completely busy with rehearsals I have no time for the blog right now. Let me announce when my plays are now, though.

Macbeth
Aug. 25,26,27 ; Sep. 1-3, 8-10, 15-17
House opens at 7:30, show starts at 8:00
Admission is $7.00 for students with ID card, $9.00 for everbody else
The 25th of August is a preview night, and its cheaper. I think its $5.00.

It's an outdoor theater with stone steps for seating so feel free to bring a blanket or a pillow to sit on. Its kind of hidden, so here's how to get there:

1300 East Center Street
Provo, Utah 84606

From I-15, take exit (Center Street) east toward the mountains. Follow Center street until it passes 900 East. (As if you were going to 7 Peaks Water Park). Just past 900 East the road will bend to the left. Instead of following the bend, turn right onto the Utah State Hospital Campus (please observe posted speed limits). When you come to a round about (round planter box), turn left and follow this parking lot around to the left. You can park in this parking lot, please do not drive up the hill to park. The Castle Amphitheater is up the hill from this lot, follow the road up the hill on foot.

More information can be found at www.arte-ut.org

You can also come see me in:

Hamlet
Sep. 21-24 @ 7:30, with a matinee on Saturday (I don't know what time for sure) tickets are $9.00 for students, and 11 or 12 for everybody else I think. kids are cheaper and its a children's theater production so feel free to bring them!

Performances will be in the Nelke Theater, in the HFAC on BYU campus. There should be signs up around campus soon.

Well, there you have it. Come and see some Shakespeare, it will be good for you.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Fat Matt, Part 2

I'm no longer fat.

Ok, so I never was fat, really. But I was certainly heading that way. I was plagued with nightmares of myself at forty watching TV from my bed while eating a drumstick, so large I could not support my own weight, and then dying of a heart attack. Nothing I could do was stopping the inexorable process. I would stop gaining weight, then lose a pound or two, then suddenly gain a bunch more. More and more of my pants were going into the "do not fit anymore" pile.

The final straw came when we saw the costume designs for the upcoming production of Macbeth that I am in. My costume requires me to wear a very tight shirt, which looks really good in the rendering, but I worried about what it might reveal. I pulled the shirt I was wearing back from behind, making it look tight in the front so that we could get a preview. "Uh-oh," said my director, the lovely and talented Barta Heiner, "looks like you got a little extra flub here," and she grabbed the part which I hate the most, those awful love handles. And, indeed, they were quite noticeable. I had convinced myself that I was the only person who noticed, but somebody else pointed them out it was all too clear something had to change. "What should I do?" I asked, desparately. "You must change your eating habits," she said simply.

Whats wrong with the way I eat? I eat a whole bunch of Stouffer's food at work, not mention bagels, toast, cereal, and carbs of all kinds. I sit at work and do nothing physical, then come home a fairly sensible dinner of pizza, or chicken and rice, or something of that sort, followed by a big bowl of ice cream! Oh, and I eat sweets. Lots and lots of sweets. I had no idea how much of a sweet tooth I had until I took a step back and looked at it. My absolute favorite are the big sugar cookies with a thick layer of pink frosting they sell in every vending machine around here.

So maybe she had a point. I had long known that my diet had to change, and especially that I had to cut back on sweets. I was advised over a year ago by my wise yoga instructor to eliminate processed sugars from my life. It went something like this:

Me: "Sensei, I come to you for advice and direction. Tell me, how can I live and full and happy life? Speak your wisdom, and I shall obey and follow."

Him: "Matthew-san, not easy the path of peace and enlightenment is. Ready are you to face its trials?"

Me: "Yes, sensei, I will do anything which you direct."

Him: "Then, my child, listen closely you must. Beware the dark side of sugar! Shun it from your life, and happiness you shall find, and peace."

Me: "YOU'RE CRAZY, YOU OLD COOT!"

Ok, so it didn't go exactly like that. But my version is much cooler, don't you think? The point is that I realized finally that I had to make some sacrifices if I wanted to look good and live long and prosper. You see, there is more than simply vanity at stake here. I'm an actor, it runs in my blood, and for the next several years the only kind of parts that I can expect to be cast in are the young lover type of role. Thats my type. I cannot be competitive, especially on a professional level, for those kind of parts with a pot belly. Nobody wants to see a Romeo with tiny biceps and huge love handles. As an actor, your whole body is your instrument and it must in good shape to be used to its full potential.

So I changed my diet. No more sugar. Cut back on carbs. All that good stuff. Get plenty of exercise. And I'm pleased to say that its working very well. I've always had a high metabolism, and by eliminating the yucky stuff I'm able to let it do its work. I've lost 12 pounds in the last month, and continuing to fall. My excess flub is going. Come see me in Macbeth, because I'm going to look hot!

I've never had cravings for a specific food before, though, and every now and then I brake into a cold sweat like a junkie in withdrawals, and my whole body aches and screams out in monstrous rage, "SUGAR! CANDY! COOKIES!" and I am forced to bring all my willpower to bear and say, "No longer shall these primal urges rule my destiny. I am in control now! Begone!" And just like that, the urges subside and, being gone, I am a man again.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Dog Blog

Given that I am still a young and virile twenty-something, one might expect that I would have some exciting and wild plans for the coming weekend. However, those who know me well would tell one that this is rather unlikely, given my history. They would in this case be wrong, I am proud to say, and ought to be ashamed of their quick and thoughtless judgements that I am inherently boring; because this weekend I'm spending the large bulk of my time babysitting my mother's dog... er... dogsitting her dog. So you can see that I'm not going to be doing anything boring or uninteresting because, really, how much more interesting.....um... can... you...... get?

This dog has been a member of our family for some years, and yet I referred to it (rightly) as my mother's dog. He was her baby from the very beginning, and they've always had a special relationship that the rest of us couldn't quite understand. But I should go back to the beginning.

The story of the dog really starts a number of years before he actually came into existance. We'd had a number of pets off and on, growing up; dogs, cats, and..... well pretty much just dogs and cats. Well, what did you expect, a llama? We had not, as a whole, had very good luck with dogs. One died barely two months after we got it, another disappeared without a trace, and another fell in with the wrong crowd, became quite permiscuous, and then disappeared without a trace. There were two black labs, though, that didn't die or vanish, but had to be sold when we moved into town because they were always on a caffeine rush and we wanted our new neighbors to actually like us.(To this day, whenever one of us is acting especially spazzy or hyper, we are said to be "acting like Max and Hogan!") There were a few cats now and then, which did live slightly longer but tended to be generally ignored.

One night my father had a very vivid and bizarre dream, which he shared with us the next morning when we were all in the car on the way to church. In the dream, my brother Blaine had brought home a funny looking dog which he named Mr. Chalky. The family found this to be pretty humorous; my sister kept saying the name over and over and giggling, and my father had to pull the car over to the side of the road to wipe tears out of his eyes from laughing so hard. Perhaps the least amused was my brother, who seemed to think we were making fun of him somehow. He quickly got sick of my sister saying "Mr. Chalky!" to him and then collapsing into a pile of girlish titters. So, eventually, the joke passed as jokes so often do.

Years later, my mother really wanted a dog. Just a small dog, one that wouldn't be too hard to take care of but which can give her comfort now that all her children are grown and in school all day. She somehow convinced my father, and before we knew it she came home one day with a little Shitsu male puppy. Immediately, we all knew that the dog's name had to be, you guessed it, Mr. Chalky. Only my brother objected to the idea, having never been fond of the name and embarrassed, I think, by his role in my father's dream. So a compromise was struck. The dog would be called by his initials, MC. Emmy, for short.

So we've had this dog for a number of years now, much longer than we were successfully able to keep any other pet. He's very well behaved, and as I said responds so well to my mother that sometimes I think they have a telepathic connection.

I lost the dog once. I went outside and left the door open, and didn't notice he followed me out, eager for my attention. I went back in, closing the door and leaving him outside. I'm sure he probably waited near the door for awhile, expecting somebody to come and get him, but then he realized he'd been betrayed and went off exploring. Some old lady found him and brought him in her house, by which time we'd realized what had happened and I was searching all over our neighborhood, racked with guilt. He was gone for nearly a week, and we had pretty much given up hope. My mom, putting on a brave front, had even begun referring to him in the past tense: "Well, he was a good dog." We found him though, but I still feel guilty.

Given the bumpy history between me and MC, you can understand why, once my family left me alone with him for the weekened, it was a bit awkward at first. I decided to clear up matters right away.

"Ok, listen here, dog," I said, "I know we've had our problems in the past, but thats all behind us now. And for the next few days, I'm in charge around here. My opposable thumbs and cognitive development alone make my species superior to yours so by right I'll be calling the shots, though I am talking to a dog so that suggests I have problems of own. However, I know my mom lets you get away with just about anything, and lets you order her around like you're some kind of prince or maharajah or something but things are going to be different with me. You'll eat when I feed you, and eliminate waste from your body only when I take you outside. What do you have to say to that, huh?"

The dog hopped up onto the couch next to me, made himself comfortable, and yawned in a bored, haughty sort of way, as it would be beneath him to listen to my speech. He scratched his ears, licked my hand once, curled up to sleep, and was generally heart-meltingly adorable.

"Too-shay," I said, speaking phonetically because my French spelling is rusty, and moved over to make him more comfortable.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

To Blog Or Not To Blog

As many of you know, I’m something of an actor. Currently, I’m rehearsing for two plays at the same time, and they are both Shakespearian tragedies: Hamlet and Macbeth. On a totally unrelated note, I’ve been really depressed lately for some reason.

So, anyway, I’m up to my eyeballs in Shakespeare, but then, being an English major, I’ve been deeper than that before. But, really, what is the deal with this guy Shakespeare? Why is he still so appealing to so many people after four hundred years? Is it the nifty vocabulary, the hypnotic iambic pentameter, the presentation of deeply essential human themes? Or is it the dirty jokes, the cod pieces, the silly banter? In my opinion, the secret is clearly the cod pieces, but a lot of other people think there's more to it.

My English professors taught that Shakespeare was part of the “holy trinity” of the mighty English writers, along with Milton and Chaucer. But wasn’t Shakespeare just some guy trying to write plays that pleased Londoners enough to keep giving him money? Didn’t he steal all the plots of his plays from other plays, stories, and books? Some of his characters are flat, his plot twists unbelievable and predictable. Husbands are always getting jealous, women are always dressing up like men, people are always stabbing themselves. I’ve met more than a few people who claim that Shakespeare is quite overrated.

Most of the members of my generation find the Bard to be mind-numbingly boring. This is, I think, due not only to the archaic language which impedes comprehension, but also because of the subconscious link between Shakespeare and that really boring old hag of an English teacher you had in high school. You know, the one who droned on and on monotonously about Stratford-upon-Avon and Elizabethean comedy, while you sat there wanting to stab your own eyes out and not realizing that you were as close as you were ever going to get in high school to condoned sexual humor and salicious references to various obscenities. Shakespeare is like a second language; once you get a hang of that language, its not at all hard to understand. But even then, there are lots of people who think he’s not as hot as the Western tradition has made him out to be. So why’s he still so popular today?

On the one hand, we cannot deny that Shakespeare has turned into something of a brand name for both humanities academia and high-brow theater. He is familiar and bears the reputation of the best of the best, whether you feel this is deserved or not. People know who he is, even if they aren't familiar with any of his work. He therefore has immense selling power amongst certain circles, and so its easy to understand why his plays are often performed, from a purely commercial sense. Theaters need money, and Shakespeare sells. Plays by Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare, would not draw the same size of crowd (unless you are one of those who think that Jonson actually wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays, but that theory is ruthless mocked by Shakespearean purists).

On the other hand, I must confess that I believe there is something more here than just tradition and capitalism. I think that Shakespeare has endured because his writing really works. Being something of a nerd, I enjoy how words sound, and what it feels like to say them. Shakespearean verse flows of the tongue in an extremely gratifying manner. I can’t get enough of it. His plots may not be of his own invention, and often are fairly ridiculous, but the shape of his words and sentences and speeches is something to be admired. He can express an emotion which I can understand perfectly from my own experience, and do so in more beautiful language than I could ever dream to come up with on my own. Take this speech from Hamlet:

What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused.

I do not know
Why yet I live to say 'This thing's to do;'
Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
To do't.

Is this not what I was feeling just last week, when I lamented that I wasn’t doing anything with my blog, with my life? When I was feeling that there is so much I could be doing, and should be doing, but wasn’t? Was, in fact, merely sleeping and feeding? And here Mr. Shakespeare has said it better than I ever could. Well played, Will. Bravo. And I could quote a million lines with a similar effect.

If you think you don’t like Shakespeare, or you’ve never been able to get into him, I really think you ought to give him a chance. Come to my house and I’ll introduce you to some fine plays and/or films based on those plays. And, better still, come see me in Hamlet and/or Macbeth in September! I’ll be posting my performance times later, once I have more information. And just in case the exquisite verse and world-class acting aren't enough to draw you, I’ll be wearing a cod piece!