Color us nuts, but when the invitation came to perform at the Forbidden Puppet Cabaret this past weekend, we first said yes and only then realized that we didn’t have any suitable short pieces that we hadn’t already performed in the many past cabarets, especially since this one had a specific theme: The Summer of Love. But we’d already said yes and didn’t want to fink out. So we made a new piece. In twelve days. And I’m happy to report that it was a slam-dunk success.
We had puppets and props for a piece we did a while ago called The Death of Howdy Doody, in which an old man at the point of death wants to make a confession to his granddaughter before embarking into the unknown. Grandpa had been the lawyer who was forced to dismember and burn the original Howdy Doody puppet as part of a successful suit by the puppet’s creator, who’d been deprived of the substantial merch rights and retaliated by yanking his puppets right out of this wildly successful TV show. The producers had a new and different puppet made, that freckled insane dunce whose face went down in history, and they didn’t want the original disheveled dork to claim that he was the first Howdy Doody. The original’s creator happily accepted his big bucks and surrendered the puppet. It was cremated in a barbecue on the lawyer’s desk, so the story goes. In our story, the old man’s son had been entranced with Howdy Doody and would have been appalled at this story, hence the confession.
OK, rewrite the script to center on the wonderful, colorful inspiring stories that the old man had told his son and his granddaughter about how he’d hitchhiked from Omaha to San Francisco in 1967, and how it changed his whole life. The catch is, he lied. He was in Oakland, never crossed the bridge, and kept his hair short to sell wall-to-wall carpet. Now he wants to confess to his granddaughter.
She hears the truth, briefly deflates, then goes on to tell the old man that his stories had changed her life, that she doesn’t care that they weren’t true, and thanks and forgives him. He dies in her arms while she lullabies him with All We Need Is Love.
Performance is a blind date; you’ve never met the audience before, but you will be incredibly intimate, an improvised tango of response. Over a series of performances of a given piece, you get some idea of how this will go, but the first time is, well, the first time. You only get to do it once. Our audience was grand and generous, and we got the huge laughs and tearful responses that we’d hoped for.
A long time ago we had the temerity to call ourselves bards. Itinerant storytellers, the weavers of context (thanks to Caroline Casey) for our fragmented society. The ancient bards had their heads full of crafted and memorized songs and stories, but as they moved from village to village, they also wove new stories that connected folks who would never see each other in the flesh. Our collective memory, so to speak. If this is going to work, the new stories have to strike a chord in the new hearers—Oh yeah, that was me!
So we did a daft one-off, brought our refurbished story to a new campfire, and now move on.
I live my life multitasking, so you’d think I’d get used to it. As a performer, when I go onto stage, I’ve probably directed, designed, and co-written the piece, and in each of those minds—entirely different minds—I can’t help taking notes, even as I’m trying to focus totally as actor. So I ought to be able, by this time, to move suavely from one identity to the next.
It doesn’t always work. This month, our obsessive focus has been on a copy-edit of our novel GALAHAD’S FOOL, scheduled for publication next spring. The editor had many minor notes, some major ones, and even small changes sometimes reverberate like that fabled Chinese butterfly whose wing-flap will do us all in. We’re working against the deadline of flying off to visit our daughter in Italy in September, so to stay on schedule with the publication, we need to get it finished to everyone’s satisfaction.
At such times, we welcome distraction. As legend has it, the groundhog retreats if he sees his shadow, but I’d think it more likely that he’d just yell, “Party time!” and come out of his hole doing a festive jitterbug. For myself, anything that lures me out of the cesspool of my brain is a welcome distraction, and the more the merrier.
This week, it was first a performance at the Forbidden Puppet Cabaret in Vallejo, with a span of preparing a short sketch and then a wonderful reception. And then a reception-preview event by a San Francisco theatre ensemble who are dear friends.
The latter event was informal, friendly, about 25 people, with snacks and short showings of works-in-progress. And for me it was an occasion for self-analysis. Such occasions I welcome but they’re rarely occasions for joy.
In gatherings, I can sometimes set my head into a gregarious mode and survive; more often I gravitate to the snack table, to the drinks, then to a corner and at last start spelunking down into my own head as far as I can. Once I get down there, there’s no way out. That hasn’t changed since high school.
I don’t like to think people notice how alien I feel, and I don’t like to feel no one notices.
Are some of us born with the gene that asks, “What am I doing here?” or is it endemic to our social order? I could believe that the others, smiling and chatting away, are inwardly rife with anxiety, straining to keep their heads above water, but I sincerely hope not. We need more occasions for celebration, connection coming together, not fewer. So I hope I’m in the minority. Or at least I feel I should hope so.
It passes, and I look forward to RSVPing the next invitation. I’ve gotten past adolescence in a number of aspects, so I have hopes for more spirited human interchange in my eighties—five years to get there, and meantime I’ll haunt the snack table.