Wednesday, May 30, 2012

[Indeterminate Number of] Rights Reserved

So a lot of my thought cycles have been occupied recently, with an idea for a project I'm fairly excited about. The problem? The source material is still under copyright.

This has happened to me a couple of times, over the years, and I've written my share of letters of inquiry to copyright holders. Always to no response: I don't have anything like the resources to catch the attention of the companies/estates I've been appealing to.

The thing is, I'm a great believer in copyright law. Many libertarians aren't; there's a not-insignificant portion of the movement that ridicules the very idea of intellectual property. My response? Yes, I recognize that it's an artificial construct, but it's a *useful* one. After all, if I have zero control over the profit generated from -- or the creative expression of -- my work, then what motivation do I have to continue generating it?

(And while I'm a great lover of shared universes, and have written a *huge* amount of material in them, I'll also confess to a -- perhaps unhealthy -- protectiveness of my original work. The thought of someone else writing Penner is just surreal to me. In fact, I've collaboratively written a number of sketches and scenes featuring the character, and usually wholly rewritten his dialogue myself; I have a very clear sense of his attitudes/cadences, that other writers usually substitute with stammering.)

I recognize that I'm luckier than many, in that my imagination generally revolves around much older stuff -- I could cheerfully adapt nothing but medieval adventure stories for the rest of my career, and not run out of material that I found cool or exciting or interesting.

The broader legal/ethical question becomes, how *long* should an author's intellectual property be protected? I appreciate the argument for extending such protection beyond an author's death -- many writers have dependents, and if my work were in any way profitable, I would be pleased to know that it was continuing to support my loved ones.

Thus, the system I propose is that work should enter the public domain upon the deaths of the author's immediate family -- parents, siblings, spouses, children -- and even then, said family would have to indicate their explicit desire to maintain control of the property. Anything beyond that seems, to me, absurd.

Point is, I think there's a point where intellectual property becomes conceptually obsolete, when it becomes part of the popular consciousness. Properties like Superman and Mickey Mouse have ceased to be characters and become powerful corporate brands. Releasing such properties into the public domain would probably severely damage or sink their corporate entities, but would that ultimately be so tragic? Sherlock's status is notoriously complex, but he's thriving -- we've gotten a number of very cool takes on his story in the last decade alone.

Contemporary popular culture is an ouroboros, endlessly devouring itself. There's several branches of music devoted to sampling the existing audio that we're constantly bombarded with. Shows like Scrubs and Family Guy have made sifting through pop-culture detritus their raison d'etre. Even at my tiny end of the scale, I've had plenty of cause to be thankful that parody is a well-protected form of speech in this country.

Self-awareness, self-consciousness, and self-referentiality is this generation's watchword. Call it navel-gazing or hipster irony, it's damn near our defining characteristic. At some point, the information we're collectively bombarded with ceases to belong to any one person and becomes a part of all us. Articulating where to draw that line legally, however, can be maddening.


Fringe season is coming around the corner, and I would be remiss not to mention some of my upcoming shows this week.

Friday, June 1st at 7pm: performing a set in a fundraiser for Seldom Scene Productions at Kieran's Irish Pub.

Saturday, June 2nd at 7pm: hosting the Rockstar Storytellers Fringe Fest Sneak Peek at the Widespot Performing Arts Center in Stockholm, WI.

Sunday, June 3rd at 7pm: hosting Rockstar Storytellers: The Next Level at the Bryant-Lake Bowl.

Wednesday, June 6th at 7pm: performing a set in Sample Night Live at the History Theatre in St. Paul. Use Discount Code MEMBERS and get $5 off admission online!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Labor Theory of Comedy

(As this seems to be a series of ideas I'm continually coming back to, it might be worth noting that the following entry is pretty much the flip side to this one, and, perhaps, a logical extension of this one.)

Producing a show, depending on its scale, can be fairly labor-intensive: one of the first things my mime instructor said to me was "Every minute onstage is three hours of work." I've found the formula to be, if a bit pithy, about roughly correct for me. Every now and again I hear it suggested that it represents some great inequity (and some great iniquity, heh) that we aren't directly recompensed for that behind-the-scenes work (e.g. memorizing lines, writing press releases, etc.).

This suggestion is related to a concept Karl Marx championed (contrary to popular belief, he didn't create it), called "the labor theory of value." In its simplest expression (and with the caveat that I'm grossly simplifying an idea that's been taken to some pretty complicated extremes), it proposes that the value of a product is equivalent to the amount of labor that went into its construction. Like most of Marx's ideas, it's seductive because it just *feels* right, it *seems* just; and, like most of Marx's ideas, it falls apart after a cursory examination.

Take a chair, for example. (No, seriously, take one. This could be a while.) A skilled carpenter may produce a superior chair rapidly, while an unskilled one may take much longer. Should the unskilled carpenter then be paid more, for producing an inferior product?

(I've heard it proposed that the carpenter's training and experience should be calculated, as well, but that also sinks the theory, because training and experience do not always equal skill. I'm a much better writer now than I was a decade ago, but that's largely because I was remarkably bad. There *is* such a thing as natural talent, people who walk in off the street and pick up new skills quickly and easily. It galls me to state it, because I've really had to work at the skills I now possess, but I can't deny that I've seen it happen.)

See, but I grasp the seduction of the theory, because it's an idea I've struggled against for years. The thing is, the joke that I labored over, that I think is actually sort of clever and works on multiple levels, will always fall flatter than an eight-year-old Chinese prostitute, while the boring filler joke I wrote for a segue always hits.

(Sorry, I got nothing.)

It doesn't *feel* right, it doesn't *seem* just, but it's the reality of the stage, just as supply and demand is the reality of the marketplace.

The problem with the arts is that they're so fucking *inefficient*. Assuming 180 hours of labor for a one-hour show, and a $1,000 net profit (not including expenses!) wouldn't even clear minimum wage. (And a $1,000 profit is a pipe dream for most of us, who are struggling to stay in the black. A $10 profit is cause for a drink in celebration, and there goes your $10.) Which is why the single most sensible business decision for someone in show business may be to find a new profession.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

In Defense of Pulp and Splatter

So I was getting into makeup in the green room when a member of the crew came down, absolutely livid. She'd just been to the movies, and seen a trailer that offended her: a horror movie set near Chernobyl. And I was very good and kept my mouth shut (no mean trick, for someone as in love with the sound of his own voice as I am), but by the end of the rant my interest in the movie had leapt from exactly zero percent to well over fifty.

The thrust of her argument seemed to be that setting a horror story in the wake of a real-world tragedy reeked of exploitation. But that's founded on the assumption that horror isn't a valid or versatile enough tool to examine that stuff, and I really couldn't be further from that camp. Horror's about fear, after all, and not solely about the basic physical fears of violence and death and decay: it can can also be about the various paranoias and unease that we live with nightly, and dragging them shrieking and bleeding out of the shadows. George Romero's zombies are about more than shambling monsters. I won't say that universally the *best*, but certainly the most *memorable* horror I've seen, and the stuff that's had the greatest influence on my own writing, has nearly all had an explicitly political dimension.

Having written both, I find a lot of similarity between writing comedy and writing horror, in that they both revolve around generating a very specific physical/emotional response: laughter in one case, nausea, disgust, and unease in the other.

Actually, I think it goes *deeper* than that(TM), because the more I look over what I've just written the more I suspect that there's some element of bullshit rationalization in there. The fact is, I would be actively disappointed to go to this movie and find that they've erred on the side of good taste: I *want* an element of crass exploitation.

And here's the other parallel between comedy and horror: the school of satire I admire in both completely dismisses social niceties and audience delicacy. It wades in waist-deep into the blood and guts and swings wildly at anything in reach, and that, I believe, is the most efficient way to arrive at something meaningful.

What I'm saying is that I'm not really interested in scalpel-like precision: give me a hacksaw. Let's open up the top of someone's skull and really get our hands dirty, wrist-deep in gray matter, squeezing and poking at that big, squishy frontal lobe.

After all: there's more than one way to get cerebral.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Enacting is Exacting

STEVE: Well, we’ve only got two weeks left…
TIM: Two weeks? That’s enough time to put together a whole new show!
ALL: (laughter)

(Later, on the car ride home…)

TIM: I wasn’t actually joking.
ME: …yeah, I know.

It’s always a bit of a surreal leap, jumping between Fringe-level theatre and mid-level theatre.

(And, to clarify, by Fringe-level I’m not just including shows on the Fringe circuit, but shows produced by regular members of that community – y’know, the countless shows produced year-round at venues like the Bryant-Lake Bowl, or various pubs and clubs and cabarets around the Twin Cities. I’d say if you’re dealing with things like season announcements and boards of directors and grant applications, what you’re looking at is probably mid-level. (There’s a handful of groups that successfully straddle both worlds – groups like Joking Envelope and Walking Shadow and Four Humors – but I’d say that for the most part they’re pretty segregated.) High-level, we’re talking financial juggernauts like the Guthrie. My experience is primarily with the first two – I’ve acted in both and produced both – and since I’ll be talking about them for a bit, let’s call them "Fringelers" and "Middlers.")

For someone used to the creative chaos of pulling together a Fringeler show, there’s something that feels almost decadent about a six-week rehearsal process. I’ve acted in an hour-long show where I didn’t see a word of the script until a week before opening. I’ve done a one-man show where I wrote the final scene a few hours before opening night. I’ve done a comedy where my very first time stepping onto the stage was the performance itself. This is an environment where it’s a bit weird that I usually have a complete draft six months in advance, and that I typically have scripts under development for 2-8 years.

Thing is, I don’t think this is laziness (or not wholly laziness, anyway). I’d argue that it’s a legitimate process – the goal is not to have a neatly polished show on opening night, but to line up all the elements of the performance and turn its development into an interactive process with the audience. It’s about preserving spontaneity and wildly experimenting from evening to evening. Middlers talk about being ready for opening – Fringelers talk about having a smoothly-executed show by closing night. And this, I think, is one of the key places where the two groups stare at each other in blank incomprehension. To Middlers, the idea of changing your performance every night appears unthinkably irresponsible; to Fringelers, the idea of not making any changes after opening appears unthinkably lazy.

I want to emphasize that I’m not suggesting that one approach is inherently superior to another – they’re both valuable and valid – simply trying to express the creative whiplash I get moving between the two. The great advantage of a process like that for Steampunk Delusions is that, by the time we opened, I had a fairly tightly choreographed performance, beat for beat and moment for moment, that I usually don’t achieve unless I’ve been touring a show for a few months.

The flip side is that it represented the first time in a long time when I opened a show in which exactly zero percent of the performance was audience-tested, and I made most of the attendant mistakes – barreling through laughter I wasn’t expecting, pausing for laughter that never emerged. I’ve done this kind of thing enough that I’ve been able to make adjustments on the fly, but it’s the opposite of the problems I typically have (and am used to dealing with).


It’s always a bit strange for me to be around more traditionally-trained actors, who talk about things like feelings and methods in the context of these deeply internalized processes. One of the great reasons I was drawn to mime, in retrospect, is that it offered a tangible course of physical mastery – as opposed to most acting training I encountered, which seemed to revolve around what I was thinking or feeling at any given moment.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I once went through one of those obnoxious phases where I felt I had to spend the time leading up to the performance meditating myself into some state of brooding intensity. It puts me in mind of Chaplin’s assertion that the fact that an actor feels the need to be mentally operated upon in order to do his fucking job is a sign that he needs to seek a new profession.

A great revelation for me was that what was going on inside my head had very little to do with how well I was doing onstage. I could be truly emotional and truly feeling it and truly, totally cut off from my audience – likewise, my mind could be wandering and I could be doing a wholly serviceable job.

In fact, I’ve almost swung around to the opposite approach now, where I feel the need to be doing something silly before walking onstage – talking about comic books or dancing or telling dirty jokes – so that I’m not thinking too much about what I’m about to do until I’m actually doing it. To torture an analogy, when you’re playing a musical instrument, you ideally don’t want to be concentrating really hard on every individual note – sometimes, it’s better to just relax and play. (To torture the analogy further, I often have the sense that Middlers want their shows to be symphonies – Fringelers want to be jazz.)

That said, I find that my internal monologue onstage these days is almost wholly technical – “Hold for laughter, wait ‘til it starts to fade, okay, next punchline – she tried something new, respond to it – try a quizzical expression here, see if it gets a laugh, nope, try something different tomorrow night...” etc.


All of the above are probably reasons why I’m more comfortable identifying myself as a performer or an entertainer, rather than an actor. I’m competent when it comes to working crowds or individual moments onstage, but that’s not the same skill set as being able to embody a range of characters, which remains beyond me. The former goes a long way towards making up for the latter, but it’s pretty rare to find someone who can effectively do both.

This was perhaps illustrated most clearly for me when I started holding open auditions for my company, and when I handed my comedy monologues over, well – when I performed them, that’s what they were; at their best, effective collections of setups and punchlines. But when actual actors read them, they could make them seem organic, with, y’know, internal character logic and stuff.

That’s the kind of thing that the Middlers excel at, and that I wish I did, too. It’s also Reason #69,105 that I wish I was still able to produce ensemble work.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Delusions of Steampunk

So I finally got the chance to see English Scrimshaw's To Mars, With Tesla on our opening night -- we may be performing together, but the two shows have been developed largely in isolation from each other. Supremely entertaining, and also got me thinking about the nature of steampunk -- a bit more than working on our own show did, I suspect largely because our process has been detail-oriented -- a classic case of not seeing the forest for the trees (or the protozoa for its component atoms, to coin a glasses-stompingly geeky phrase).

(Actually, it's pretty freaking questionable to what degree either show can be called "steampunk" -- they're both period sci-fi, but neither features steam power in any meaningful way.)

I've never been hostile to the steampunk movement, but it's always left me a bit baffled -- out of all time periods and imaginative landscapes, why, in particular, pick that one to fetishize? And it only now occurs to me that its romance closely parallels that of the American West -- they both showed us frontiers, one physical, one cerebral. The aftermath of the Industrial Revolution represented a bottleneck moment for our species, when the sciences accelerated rapidly enough to make anything seem possible -- Manifest Intellectual Destiny, as it were.

It's been observed that Isaac Newton was a dude who knew the bulk of the knowable science of his day -- and that that's simply no longer possible; our collective knowledge has grown so diverse and specialized that the individual human brain lacks the storage capacity to track it all. (Hence many specialist physicians leaning on collections of reference texts: they need a diverse enough background to recognize patterns and know where to look, but can't reasonably be expected to retain every treatment for every symptom of every disease they'll ever come across.)

The nineteenth century, then, perhaps represents a kind of Goldilocks moment in the Western world: a time when some guy with a microscope could make all kinds of discoveries, simply because *so few people before him had ever tried*. With a few notable exceptions, the days of folks like Tesla and Edison throwing together world-changing inventions in their private studies are a thing of the past, and it's hard not to feel a certain longing for that.

After all, with the days of do-it-yourself science largely behind us (and surely the concept of Iron Man represents a similar longing), the newest frontiers are *expensive* -- and my observation, watching my father, among others, is that the bulk of a scientist's time is spent dealing with money -- trying to obtain it and trying to keep it. (And while grant systems have always been baffling to me, they're particularly baffling here -- where an applicant has to claim what the likely results of an experiment will be before they can obtain the funds necessary to run it, which is about as unscientific a process as I can conceive of.)

This is a recurring fantasy in Crichton's sci-fi, where a brilliant entrepreneur will finance labs to experiment freely, without the pressure of generating marketable product. The longing for a wealthy patron is both natural and unhealthy, and it's one that both artists and scientists share -- nor it is their only commonality.

After all, the career arc of most individual artists and scientists runs roughly parallel -- that is, toiling in obscurity. Shakespeare's become a household name. Academics and theatre practitioners know a few of his contemporaries -- Kit Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Thomas Kyd. How many other playwrights were doing good and worthy work that has simply fallen into obscurity? Dozens? Hundreds?

I suspect that both of our careers revolve around much the same principle: toiling away at that good and worthy work, but ultimately -- keeping the pathways open, both professional and neural, for that one-in-a-million idea that just might change everything.

Oh, and the show's pretty funny, too. Two more weekends.