Thursday, March 30, 2006

My secret thespian life

I've neglected to post anything for a while. I'm working on a post called "Why I Am Not a Libertarian", but it's fairly long already and I'm having a hard time getting everything I want to say come out right. In the meantime, here's some randomly embarrassing information that you didn't know about me.

I've always been kind of into theater. In fact I've always been something of a ham, which is why I found it so natural to become the host of a public access TV show and set up a radio show. I could never make it as a real actor, though.

The first time I can remember acting was when I was somewhere around age 6-8, and I played Haman in my Jewish school play. I didn't want to play the bad guy, but my mom convinced me that it would be fun. She made me a cordouroy beard, I sneered and ranted, and at the end of the play I was physically dragged away from the king by the kids playing guards. It was a terrific time.

When I was about eleven, my parents signed me up to be part of an enormous cast of kids in a local Santa Fe production of "Oliver!" I didn't get the title role, and I think that's all that might have been open to a kid my age. I didn't even get to be one of Fagin's kids, who were very prominent on stage. Nope, I was a street vendor. I did get to sing as part of a large chorus of other kids and adults in a lot of musical numbers, though, and my favorite part was dramatically trembling in fear as Bill Sykes stormed across the stage. I had a rocky time with some kids that I didn't get along with, but I also made a couple of good friends, and one girl (I learned secondhand) had a crush on me. I never did anything about it.

The biggest impact I got from that experience, though, was professional training in how to do a cockney accent from a professional director. It opened my eyes to all the different ways people talk, and from that day on I started privately rehearsing all the accents I ran into. Southern, French, New York, Upper Class Twit, Irish, German, Surfer Dude... I worked on them all for my own amusement. I also enjoyed watching My Fair Lady, which we'd recorded off the Disney Channel.

My dad also took me to a local performance of HMS Pinafore that year, and that triggered a lifelong fandom of Gilbert and Sullivan. In fact we enjoyed the performance so much that dad hired the director, Manos Clements, to direct my family in a performance of The Mikado for my bar mitzvah two years later.

In high school, I also learned to juggle and I picked up a book on ventroliquism. I did a ventriloquist act one year at summer camp with a monkey puppet. I think it bombed, but then again, at least half the acts were preteen girls with lame choreography dancing to cassette tapes, so any comedy routine was a welcome break. I also participated in a lot of other skits at camp.

In high school I considered being in the acting club, which was called Olions. Basically I did one very poor audition in sophomore year, got offered a part as an extra, snottily decided I didn't want to do it if I couldn't be in a main part, and didn't bother trying out again. Thus did my career focus shift to professional geekdom. I did, however, join the speech team, and I participated regularly in an event known as "humorous interpretation", where I would do one man skits involving multiple characters. It was a bit like standup comedy working off someone else's scripts. I did a Monty Python bit called "The Bookseller" one year, and I killed. I should have kept doing that one the next year, but I switched to a Sherlock Holmes spoof called "The Defective Detective" which still did pretty well, but my Python was better. I still have most of it memorized.

I also got involved in French class skits for several years in a row. In my senior year, we did a skit based on "The Wizard of Oz." I was the witch. And not to be modest about it, I think I was personally responsible for nearly all the funniest material in it. In the first scene where I met Dorothy, when I couldn't get the ruby slippers, I whipped out a pair of sunglasses, folded my arms, and said in my best Terminator voice: "Je serais de rentre." ("I'll be back.") Near the end of the skit, when they throw water on me, I scream for a few seconds, then laugh, then open my cloak and reveal that I'm wearing a clear plastic thing. "J'ai une veste impermeable!" I cackle ("I have a waterproof vest"). In rehearsals, they always pretended to throw water on me. In the live version, the bucket was full. Needless to say, some of my screams were real.

In my senior year, I joined the school chorus and learned to sight read music pretty easily. I started out in the general purpose chorus -- I think the title of the class was "I'll pretend to like singing for an easy A." However, I took to it so easily that halfway through the year, I qualified for the All-State concert and then was promoted to the much smaller, elite chorus class, "Encore".

I continued singing through college. I took a class called "Symphonic Chorus", which I discovered was a student gateway into the community chorus, where I remained for all four years. I got to perform in some incredible pieces, including two versions of Carmina Burana, one time fully choreographed with professional dancers. The dancers were hot, but I didn't get to watch them much because I had to focus on the conductor. Nor did I hook up with any of them.

As I approached my last year of college, it was clear that I would have to be in school for an extra year, but I would easily meet the requirements of my Computer Science degree in that fifth year. I had some extra cushion time, so I started considering what sort of blow-off classes I would take. I wound up taking Acting 1, Acting 2 (summer session), Playwriting 101, and Set Design. I hated set design, so I dropped it. 3d games were a new thing then, and I was playing with the Duke Nukem 3d level editor, so I had an idea that set design would help me learn more about constructing 3d worlds and lighting. Ultimately I decided that wasn't where my interest lay, and of course I wound up not in games but in web development. Which is fun too, and more secure.

Anyway, my acting classes were when I knew for sure that acting would never be more than a fun diversion for me. The teachers had an awful time getting me to stop smiling during serious scenes that I was entertained by. I discovered that it's easy to memorize dialogue and understand the mood, but very hard to convince people that you're actually a character instead of an audience member. I also had a chat with my Acting 1 teacher who told me what a miserable life it is to be an actor unless you are one of the incredibly rare and lucky few who hit the big time. I'm not much of a gambler, so I decided that I'll stick with computers, thanks.

I do have something to show for my playwriting class, though. Here's the play I wrote for my final class project. And I gained a greater appreciation for storytelling and movies, which has stayed with me.

My theatrical "career" pretty much ended when I graduated. I joined another community chorus in San Jose, but then I moved to Santa Cruz after just a few months, and it wasn't practical to commute all the way back. So I didn't do any more performance until years later, when I discovered the joys of being on The Atheist Experience.

One last thing I still do is read to the driver on long car trips. I love reading books out loud, and I have an opportunity to do it with my wife, Ginny, and my sister Keryn. I still do characters and accents. Right now, Ginny and I are reading A Clash of Kings, second in the "Song of Ice and Fire" series, which is just about the most awesome fantasy series I've ever read. It's slow progress, which is frustrating because I'd like to just read the whole thing, but I enjoy the experience more with my wife. To Keryn I'm reading Ender's Game, which I've already read many times before, but it's new to her.

I've discovered that my favorite character to voice in the "Ice and Fire" books is Tyrion Lannister, the brilliant angry dwarf. My favorite Ender character to voice is Bonzo Madrid. After all these years, I still love playing evil. Thanks, mom.

So if you kept reading this far, you must be just fascinated by my life, so thanks for listening. But I'll get back to politics and religion soon, I swear. Stay tuned for "Why I Am Not a Libertarian".


  1. Anonymous11:33 PM

    I'm on the 3rd "Ice and Fire" book. It's been pretty good. Definitely enjoyable. (I'm somehow rooting for Arya.) However........... I've heard your accents both on the atheist tv show and on the non-prophets. I must confess - and please don't think this too awful: I think you need to improve the accents. They don't come off as very realistic to me. But still, I'm so damn very grateful you take part in both venues.

  2. Noooooo! My last illusion is shattered! My ego is forever crushed! Sob, sob, sob.

    All righty, then, I'll keep the day job.

    I love Arya and hope she pulls through, but our favorite chapters are those on Daenerys. Although I must confess that I have a bad time doing female voices. But I like Queen Cersei. >:D