If you’ve been following my blogs here on Stage 32, you’ve probably figured out by now that I’m someone with a more or less severe personality type. For me, the holidays are a time when everyone else finally leaves Los Angeles and I can work without being surrounded by distraction or noise. Typically, my colleagues come back from vacation to find that I’ve finished one more screenplay and gotten myself caught up on a mountain of work besides.
While my wife is working tirelessly to sway this particular quality of mine in favor of a more joyful holiday celebration, the holidays with which our culture presents me are not holidays with which I feel any enticing connections. As my annual wrap party, New Year’s Eve is a big night for me… but that’s really it in terms of my calendar celebrations. My annual clock tends to run more along the lines of theater seasons and production schedules, and my celebration is weighted towards the milestones of showbusiness. Opening nights and wrap parties are my Thanksgivings. My family, in large part, is made up of the people who have shown up for me over the years. Indeed, the whole reason we call it “showing up” is because that’s something showpeople do for each other.
Every now and again, someone at those parties or events will catch me sneaking outside to pour out a drink upon the earth. My intention is always to make this moment as quiet and inconspicuous as possible… but it’s a ritual born of joy, and it’s worth sharing. Dear friends, here is what that libation is all about:
Like most people from the East Coast theater community, I’ve seen things happen in old, empty theaters that I only talk about late at night after I’ve been drinking for hours with my showfamily. Right now is certainly not “that” time, but I will point out that in the theater we have a tradition of calling the light we leave on to keep people safe when walking out onto a darkened stage the “ghost light.” Even if you dismiss the notion of theater as a place of spiritual power, even if you’re intellectually unmoved by all the lives that were lost before showbusiness started becoming more regulated in the mid-20th century, you must at least acknowledge that we are a people devoted to preserving and curating the past.
Our theater is largely written by forebears whose shows have been performed many, many times since they were originally staged. New writers seek, more than anything, to join that esteemed repertory. Similarly, our cinema is studied, revived, preserved and curated with devotion. Our “green room” stories are all about the performers and productions we deify, and our study of dramaturgy preserves the practices and the context that created our worldwide industry of showbusiness as it exists today. Spiritually speaking, we are a people who live with one foot planted firmly in the past.
Here’s a little bit of my own pop-psychology, and it’s one of the few ideas which I will never allow science to reclaim from me: Practice is how we turn the essential discipline necessary to our craft into a simple, automatic question of habit. As we put more and more time into our work, we build the neural pathways necessary to make that work as effortless and reliable as possible. Eventually, habit relieves our brains of the need to worry about fundamental matters of craft and we can shift our focus to the work that makes our projects unique.
Slowly, time and effort transform us into masters who do most of the work for which we are acclaimed automatically and unconsciously. Our attention winds up invested in details and issues too specific and arcane for anyone to really care about but us, and at the same time, our work starts to feel more or less bulletproof. All those habits, all that programming that we’ve laced through our brains, winds upcoded into our work on an unconscious level.
When we memorize and rehearse a text, we work that text into our brains until it’s a matter of habit. Our brains are building the neuropathways to do everything that text requires of us, without having to ever think about it. When a writer first creates a script, the writing itself is a product of their habits and neural pathways. In the process of writing, those habits are converted into words and transcribed onto the page. In a very literal sense, memorizing that script means converting those words back into a syntax of neurology and habit and putting them into our own brains in turn.
If you’ve rehearsed a lot of Shakespeare’s plays, you’ve literally downloaded the programming from William Shakespeare’s own head into yours - using his writing as basically a very labor-intensive hard drive. If you’ve been performing Shakespeare regularly, consider how much your choices in life must be affected by the habits and impulses you’ve picked up from this man! How much of you actually IS WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE?
If theater people seem to all have the same sense of humor, that’s because we’ve all rehearsed a shit ton of Neil Simon plays. Neil Simon is one of the only contemporary playwrights that has plenty of laughs, plenty of stakes, and is still very family-friendly. For that reason, we all learn his work as kids in community theater.
Have you ever noticed how we all talk like Aaron Sorkin characters? That’s because Aaron Sorkin is a theater person who downloaded the same programming we did. Dramaturgically speaking, I’m pretty sure Neil Simon got that particular sense of humor - directly or indirectly - from Vaudeville. All of us got Vaudeville comic timing hammered through our skulls by doing Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Literally, Neil Simon programmed us all to joke and party like it’s Brooklyn in the 1920s.
If you’re a younger theater person, right now you’re probably thinking “This guy’s full of crap. As if I were ever hung up on some boring-ass irrelevant middle-class play about blue-collar goofballs trying to make it in showbusiness! Just because I love flapper couture, prohibition bars and cirque does not mean that working in community theater programmed me with some crazy 1920s… SHIT OK, I FEEL SEEN.”
Kid, I know the feeling. If you’ve never read Quantum Theory, our upcoming sci-fi heist movie, you’ll see when the movie comes out… it’s basically Neil Simon with super high stakes and a ton of science fiction thrown in. For us, the whole reason this movie is so important is that it feels like home.
Spirituality aside, these writers are alive in our neurology. Our teachers, mentors, and loved ones come from all across the ages of our craft. Even for a showperson with the most rigid, literal, scientific mind, time and legacy can become very fluid concepts.
For all these reasons, I take my relationship with Uncle Bill Shakespeare very personally. To me, he’s a mentor and a colleague more than some kind of genius figure concealed behind an ancient conspiracy theory. Sometimes, I do things in my work that I know would make him feel happy and proud. Sometimes, I can feel him shaking his head at me in frustration.
If I’m being totally honest, I have the same relationship with Neil Simon. Because he only died last year, this isn’t a comment I feel completely comfortable making… but I know he’s watching me. When we know a person’s work by heart, they’re always with us.
Here is where my snake oil neuroscience collides with my spooky theater upbringing. Because I never actually feel alone, no theater is ever really empty. Someone is always watching and keeping me company. Maybe it’s Uncle Bill. Maybe it’s Neil Simon. Maybe it’s someone I admire or love, or maybe it’s someone I desperately wanted to work with before they died. Sometimes it’s a person I did actually work with, and who we lost along the way.
The first friend I ever had who actually worked on the movies and in the world that drew me to Hollywood in the first place was composer Basil Poledouris. Anyone in my family will tell you just how much of an impact RoboCop had on me as a child. Some of my very first memories of watching a movie and feeling the joy and connection of being in an audience came from watching Conan with my cousin Billy when we were little. Anyone who knows those films will agree that Basil’s work has everything to do with how well they’ve endured.
Is Basil out there in the house, watching my shows? You know he is. For one, Basil always showed up for people. For another, I don’t believe he would ever pass up the chance to share a glass of rum with William Fucking Shakespeare.
Charlie Chaplin. John Hurt. Carrie Fisher. Robert Altman. Obviously, there’s a list. My point is that these are the people out there in the house when I stage a piece of theater, or make a movie, or even release a web show. When opening night finally arrives, this is the crowd I’m playing to… which means this is the standard to which I’m holding myself from the moment I start developing a project.
Too many people in this town give themselves permission to stage or release inferior cinema, theater, and television. “All the great work has been done already,” we tell ourselves. Hopefully, we’re keeping the legacy of the past intact by simply being “good enough.” Right? RIIIIGHT?
No. Under no circumstances. Not only do the spirits of the past wish for us to elevate our craft, not only do they demand it, but they’re going to have to sit through all the crap we’re putting out there whether it’s worthy of them or not. Remember, no theater is ever really empty!
How many of the shows you’ve worked on would you ever want your heroes to actually see? My very last line of defense against the lazy craft and poor showpersonship is the understanding that Uncle Bill is going to be sitting there in the audience regardless. In my heart, so is Basil.
Ugh. No. I can’t do that to them. My shame alone would kill me. While I’m phoning in my work, who’s out there putting on a show where the “ghosts of showbusiness past” can actually relax and enjoy themselves? Someone has to.
We all have to.
Hopefully, after a lifetime of service, I’ll be hanging out in that gorgeous theater lobby in the sky - and I’ll be sipping a very pleasant wine, waiting to see what shows our forebears are putting on now that they’re all working in the same company. Here and now, I’m honored and blessed to have the inspiring, challenging, delightful colleagues and showfamily that I have. My people are performers and craftspeople with whom I feel very proud to be sharing the stage at the curtain call. By their side, I know I can face my audience with dignity and grace… so long as I remain worthy in the strength of my craft, and in the support I provide to my community.
With all of that being said, I will ABSOLUTELY be pouring booze out on the sidewalk or behind the theater before I open a house. When I can afford it, I’ll have someone dump a case of the very best liquor that money can buy - and a bottle of Morgan’s for Basil besides.
Don’t just lean on the work. Get them lit. You never fucking know.
As the days grow short, as Los Angeles begins to empty and to quiet down for a month of somber rest, and as I start finding myself alone with my work a little more regularly, I tend to reflect on what I owe to those who bestowed my craft upon me. Let me never forget, on opening night, to take some time with the ghosts. Let us all remember that even if we don’t believe in ghosts or magic, that no showperson is ever truly alone.
Happy holidays to all my showpeople. Pour one out for Uncle Bill, will you? Red wine is the best. He’s not picky about the quality.
Writer, director, and producer Tennyson E. Stead is an emerging leader in New Hollywood with a lifetime of stage work, a successful film development, and finance career, and a body of screenwriting encompassing more than 30 projects - most recently including the upcoming Emagine Content sci-fi tentpole Atlas Uprising. His company, 8 Sided Films, leverages an ensemble of actors and film professionals who share Stead's craft and commitment, as well as the risk mitigation offered by those showbusiness practices built over centuries of the collective experience and passed down as tradition and dramaturgy, to bring creative and financial sustainability to Hollywood.
Here is a list of the articles Stead has written for the Stage 32 community:
REALITY CHECKS FROM AN INSPIRATIONAL CRIPPLE:
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