Sunday, October 14, 2012

Strutting, fretting: A brief history of my dalliances in drama

I’ve generally been content to keep my creative output grounded on the printed page. Every now and then, though, I’ve been gripped by the allure of the livelier arts. Here’s a brief spin through my none-too-impressive career as a playwright, thespian and general defacer of the legitimate stage.

This play was front page news. Seriously.
Trouble in Toothopolis (1987)
I took my first bow as the telejournalistic soul of the besieged city of Toothopolis, ace reporter Sidney Smiles. Toothopolis was a community on the cutting edge of dental hygiene, and thus a constant target for the Cavity Creeps, a shadowy terrorist organization bent on spreading its dogma of mandatory sugar consumption and minimal tooth-brushing for all citizens.

The play captured young Sidney’s career-making exclusive interview with the boastful Chief Creep, played by a burly fifth-grader named Clay. As I attended an elementary school with a collective body of 90-odd students, grades 1 through 6, the cast was a curious jumble of body sizes and stages of maturity. I believe that jarring visual was immensely effective in capturing the subtly surrealist vision of the team of self-loathing Crest marketing interns who crafted this opus.

Portrait of the artist as... well, something or other.
Sadly, I don’t remember any of Sidney’s lines, but I do know that I got to carry an old-timey microphone and wear a tie, a button-down shirt and a fishing hat with a “PRESS” badge. Despite those fancy trappings, I managed to avoid the pitfalls of child stardom. On the other hand, at least one of my co-stars went on to become a registered sex offender, and I have no evidence that it wasn’t tangentially related to Trouble in Toothopolis.

Baseball play whose title I've scrubbed from my memory (1990)
By fourth grade I was fairly well established as the leading literatus of my 14-student class at Leon Elementary. As such, Ms. Schuttemeier paired me up with Katie Pottinger to write a sketch for our end-of-the-year field day. The only thing I recall about our joint writing sessions is arguing about who was better, The Beach Boys or Michael Jackson (I voted for the former), but if I know my 10-year-old self I probably steamrolled most, if not all, of Katie’s suggestions. I certainly doubt it was her idea to write a zero-to-hero story about a hapless baseball team.

The plot was essentially this: a losing baseball team practices hard. A rival team steals their signals. The two teams meet in the big game. The worst player on the losing team hits a home run and they win. If you have to wonder who played that home run hitter, you didn’t know me before the realities of adulthood drained the bulk of the arrogance out of me. I named the character “Lefty” because it sounded like a good baseball name. When Ms. Schuttemeier suggested that Chad Anderson, who was actually left-handed, play the role, I claimed that the kid got the nickname because he had “two left feet.”

The final production was a cosmic rebuke of my youthful hubris. When I wrote the climactic scene, I failed to take into account the fact that I was a terrible baseball player. Even for a skilled batter, hitting home runs on command in front of an audience is a difficult task. For me it was impossible. Ms. Schuttemeier clearly recognized this in rehearsal, when she told the actress playing the umpire to fake losing track of the count if I exceeded my three-strike limit. As it turned out, I swung and missed no less than six times. On the seventh pitch, I managed a meager foul tip. I squared up to take another cut, but Ms. Schuttemeier bellowed, “RUN, LEFTY! RUN!” I lurched out of the batter’s box and circled the bases as my co-stars committed an impressive series of intentional errors to avoid tagging me out and negating the premise. Everybody cheered when I crossed home plate, as the script demanded, but at that point it was all I could do not to cry.
Mr. Clinton’s Neighborhood (1992)
1992 was the year when I discovered late night talk shows. It was also the first year of the Clinton presidency. Both of those factors informed the sketch I wrote for my 8th grade talent show, a gag-packed spin through the Clinton White House. I didn’t outright steal any jokes from David Letterman or Jay Leno, but I definitely mined their pop-culture riffing and established caricatures of the presidential household. 

I played Bill Clinton (oh yeah, like I was going to let anybody else grab that plum role) as a put-upon schlub who just wanted to get away from the hassles of office and enjoy some junk food and saxophonery. Unfortunately, he had to contend with a stream of stereotypical complaints from his family and hangers-on. (Tipper Gore, for instance, stopped by the office to gripe about Bill spending too much time with those devil-rockers Fleetwood Mac.) The show was ultimately stolen by Matt Swigart as a poorly housebroken Socks the cat and Justin Carlisle in drag as a mopey Chelsea. The Sparta Middle School gymnasium roared with laughter as Justin flopped into my lap, flipped his kinky blonde wig out of his face and told me all about the mean kids at school. It was possibly the most validating moment of my budding writing career.

Arne and Ole. Seriously.
Last Chance High (1993)
My middle school’s theatrical productions were purchased from an educational company that specialized in bland musicals designed to showcase a full classroom of unambitious junior high schoolers. This particular play was about juvenile delinquents attending a “Maximum Security Public High School” run by a fascist principal named Bronco Ranchwear (played by the inimitable Matt Swigart). It was an awful play, most notable for having music and lyrics written by the team of Arne Christiansen and Ole Kittleson, which are pretty clearly pseudonyms adopted by Scandinavian fugitives.

I played Bobo Elliott, a punch-drunk former prizefighter working as the school’s “fire drill instructor.” (Yeah, I don’t know.) Bobo’s defining trait was having taken too many blows to the head. My characterization drew heavily upon Big Moose from Archie comics, in that I spoke slowly and said “Duh” a lot. I thought my performance came off OK, but the show was again stolen by Justin Carlisle in drag, this time as an insane lunch lady with a passion for spaghetti pie.

Star Trek sketch (1996)
I’ve never been much more than a casual Star Trek fan, but when I was called upon to write the senior skit for Sparta High School’s homecoming assembly, something about the Roddenberryverse just clicked. I wrote up a little trifle about life on the U.S.S. Hilltopper (named for our rival school’s mascot) and, as usual, gave myself the best role: Mr. Spock.

Basically, Captain Kirk (Matt Swigart again) was at wit’s end dealing with a crumbling ship, an incompetent crew and a secretly treacherous First Officer. Eventually the ship was stormed by the invading Spartan hordes (the senior football players in a pandering cameo) and Kirk was carried away screaming. It was jingoist hokum – the whole thing ended with me literally waving a Sparta High flag – but I was pleased with the mild subversion of casting my school in the villain’s role. Plus I got to dye my hair black and wear big, fake pointy ears over my big, real pointy ears! (Sparta lost the actual football game, incidentally. We were pretty consistent at that.)

Talent show sketch (1997)
Speed parodies were old hat even in 1997, but rural Wisconsin is pretty lenient in its demands for currency. So when I was called on to write some filler material for the Sparta High School talent show, I cast myself as the Dennis Hopper to Steph Wachter’s Sandra Bullock and Matt Swigart’s (of course) Keanu Reeves. The premise was that some unseen psycho was threatening to derail the talent show if the hosts didn’t complete a bizarre scavenger hunt. I can’t recall the specific threat. I want to say it was a bomb, but that seems like it would’ve been ixnayed even in the pre-Columbine era.

Anyhow, my actual performance was mostly limited to mock-menacing voiceovers in between acts. We also shot several video remotes following Steph and Matt’s quest for triple-buttered popcorn, Kathie Lee Gifford brand pantyhose and other sundries. This was mostly an excuse to showcase a number of Sparta’s cherished cultural hubs, like the movieplex, the grocery store and Wal-Mart, but it also gave me a chance to make winking background cameos in each scene. I am nothing if not Hitchcockian.

Café Tertiary (2004)
As a final project for a grad school short story class, I decided to explore the roles of tertiary characters in short fiction. My bright idea was to write up a short play in which background players from many of the short stories we’d read over the course of the class gathered in a small cafe to discuss their lots in life. I tried to write each character in the style and dialect of his or her original story, which made for an odd jumble of Flannery O’Connor, Haruki Murakami, Vladimir Nabokov and others. My professor liked it enough to stage an impromptu reading in our next class. As much as I relished the opportunity to chew the scenery as Colonel Sartoris from Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” I can't imagine the audience for a play featuring a major role for Angry Sandwich Man from Aleksander Hemon’s “The Question of Bruno” extending much beyond the door of Megan Stielstra’s Thursday morning Short Story class.