Friday, June 22, 2012

Literary Nonsense

Damn, June has just sped on by. 

It's been a deluge of activities from most sectors of my life: as a father (the endless end-of-the-school-year events); as a brother (my sister's wedding, which was so beautiful and magical we felt we were in a Nora Ephron rom-com); as an actor (hosted a party for the Kung Fu Panda folk--hey, we won four daytime Emmys!); as an Alien aficionado (I liked "Prometheus"—shut up!); as a writer—

Uh, in that sector, not so much. 

Because of my scriverly neglect, I thought I'd offer you a little smorgasbord of academic fun, something for the intelligentsia in all of us. Don't worry— no "Prairie Home Companion," I promise.

First off, from The Onion, an apocalyptic warning from the poets of America. The printed version may actually be funnier than the video, but you can get both here (I tried to embed the video but it's being cranky—sorry). I cringe and laugh at the same time while watching this.

Next up, something for you "Fresh Air"fans, a side of Terry Gross you may not have seen before:

Have you tried "Wordle" yet? It's a website where you can upload the entire text of whatever writing you're working on, and it'll generate word art based on the words you most frequently use. The program disregards the small words, so you don't end up with an image full of prepositions and conjunctions. It only takes a second to work, and you can spend HOURS adjusting the colors, the format, the orientation of the words... you wonder where my time goes. I put in my manuscript of "This is How It Begins" and here's what came back:

Besides looking super cool (especially printed up on photo paper) I like how it makes you view your writing by condensing all the 84,000 words you've written into just the top 100 (or 150, or whatever you designate). For instance, I knew Emily would figure largely in the design, but I thought Liberace would be a bit more prominent, given how much he figures in the story. I love how the accordion is nestled right above Emily's name. 

For those of us forging ahead with their writing projects, my sister Susan found a great site which offers up a marvelous list of writing tips from famous authors:

The authors include Neil Gaiman, Henry Miller, George Orwell and Margaret Atwood. I especially liked Miller's #3, 6 & 10:

3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.

—And Atwood's last two:

9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.

10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­isation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book. 

Walking the dog yesterday morning, I came upon a young coyote nestled in the leafy ground of a front yard one house away from me. The front yard! He was supremely unconcerned that a man and his slavering dog were coming towards him; indeed, he didn't even get up from the little bed he had made for himself. I thought at first that he must be hurt, he was letting us come so close, but then, when Rowdy made a sudden lunge towards him, the coyote got up, walked two steps further, scratched, and then settled himself down again. He was six feet from the road! I imagine he knew I have not been working on my coyote book for a few weeks now, and was telling me, "If you're not going to make an effort, I certainly won't!"

He's right. It's back to work. Joyously!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Getting' My Monk On

Smooth head.

I like the feel of a perfectly shaved head, but poor Doug visibly recoils whenever his hand accidentally grazes my shiny noggin. Yes, I admit it feels a bit... reptilian in its smoothness, I'll grant him that, but it can also look hot, yah? I've gotten positive feedback from two of the gay dads at school pick-up... 

Doug's not buying it. "Get some hair on there," he commands.

In a way, guest-starring on this tween sitcom is a lot like theatre. In hour-long dramas, you jump right in. One quick rehearsal for the camera, touch up, do the scene, set up the reverse angle, shoot again, and move on. Here, we've got a whole week of blocking the scenes, rehearsing them, having a run-through, playing for the Powers That Be (which are legion), getting notes and a new script the next day. Lines come, lines go. You try not to take it too personally. Sometimes people disappear during this week, too, but luckily our posse of guest-star monks survives intact.

You'd think my Buddhist practice would help in playing a monk (though they call them "warriors" in the script for what I'm guessing are politically sensitive concerns), but it's a mixed bag. Yes, I know how to bow, how to sit in meditation, how to hold my hands, only— it doesn't make much of a difference. They are not too concerned about verisimilitude, here, especially when they've got us Shaolin monk warriors learning how to hip-hop dance.

Yes, hip-hop. Oy. My younger shaved brethren jump into it with great aplomb, and the older Grandmaster does his own shaking to great effect, but my body doesn't quite get the popping and the locking. I desperately try to stay out of the scene ("Oh, I think I'm getting the robes at this point...") but escape it I cannot. It's a shuffle move I've seen Benjamin doing perfectly without any thought at all; with me it's like I'm having a seizure while doing the Charleston. Oh, couldn't we all just waltz a little? I decide that I'll be the confused senior monk warrior who's not quite "down with it." Comedy gold, people! Comedy gold!

Everyone is unfailingly polite, the crew, the stunt people and most especially the young stars. Young, the operative word is YOUNG.  One of the teenagers offers me a fist to bump and I just stare at it blankly. What's that there, Sonny? You want I should I hit it on on the top or the side or what? Who's can say? "You have much to teach me, young grasshopper," I murmur politely.

Everything runs smoothly except... there's one line of Cantonese.

Those of you know have read of my last desecration of the Chinese language would think I'd have a plan down. I did, gentle reader, I did! The line said "(In Cantonese gibberish)" and I thought, huh. At least they were honest about not caring what was said as long as it sounded good. So I called my sister Michelle and we worked up an easy line in Mandarin. So far, so good.

Wise Monk? Or Dr. Evil...?
That line lasted a day.

The second day of rehearsal, the second AD called me over and asked if I knew any Cantonese or did I have a friend who did? Seems they did want something authentic, but, as per usual, there was no one to come up with a translation. Sigh... sound familiar? The writer found something with Google Translate, but that is not a very reliable creator of the spoken language. Luckily another cast member who also had one line of "cantonese gibberish" put out a status update on Facebook, and one of his friends called in with a translation. She sent him an email with it written out in English as best as she could do figure it, and then did me a huge favor of calling me on my voicemail and saying it over the phone.

This version lasted the entire four days of rehearsal, plus the weekend off, with me drilling it, drilling it in my head (side note: why is it so damn hard for me to learn one line of Chinese? I've learned French, I'm working on Spanish; I even learned Greek for bit... usually I consider myself good with languages— why is Chinese such a bitch? I'm beginning to think it's me. Ah, that'll be at least two sessions worth of therapy...) I played the line on tape, pretending it's a Pimsleur lession. When the first day of taping came around, I thought I had it down.

Then came the taping.

Taping the show is simultaneously ridiculously fast and and agonizingly slow. They tape the whole show in two days, never leaving the giant soundstage for any piece of it. Cameras wheel back and forth between sets, while technicians speedily dress the next scene. Using four cameras, there's little need for multiple takes of the same scene, and because the lighting stays virtually unchanged, there's no waiting for a lighting set up. Rehearse with cameras, and go! They get enough to piece together a scene and then BOOM! It's on to the next setup.

Because everything runs swiftly, though, you are expected to be close by (ie. in the soundstage) while you wait for your scenes to come up. No retreating to your dressing room to catch up on Facebook and watch Downton Abbey.  In theatre terms, it's like having a tech, an opening and a closing, all in two long days.

On the first day of taping, I'm in my orange robe and pants, feeling very open and monkish warrior-ish, filled with inner peace. I bow to all and mean it. Then I'm introduced to Standards and Practices. This friendly woman  (a dead ringer for Michelle Obama) informs me that they've learned I don't really speak Cantonese? and that they want to make sure that what I'm saying is really accurate so would I like to meet with someone tomorrow before the scene who knows Cantonese to go over and refine what I have and would that be okay?

Inner peace, inner peace, inner peace... WHAT ARE THEY THINKING?

I explain about how I wish this person could have been there, oh, five days before, how I need time to work on it, to make it sound as authentic (translation: not laughable) as possible, and for the good of the shoot I should get this new version as soon as possible. She says she'll try to arrange for it to happen later on that day, but I've got this horrible feeling of dread welling up.

And here is where serendipity rears it's lovely bald head. One of the Shaolin monk warrior extras (atmosphere, we like to call 'em) who is standing by as I freak out to this woman, actually knows Cantonese. He offers to listen to what I've got and correct it, in advance of my meeting with the studio. He listens to my Asian butchering, and gives me the actual, correct words. Lets me know what each cluster of syllables means, so I'm not just making it up. He records the line into my iPhone. 

Good karma! Good karma!

Turns out the words are not too far from what I've been saying, and they're easier to study because I actually know what I'm saying. It passes muster with the studio and I have a night to work on it.

The next day, it turns out I speak the Chinese on my last scene of the day. You'd think that would be easier, that it would give me more time to study, but actually it's worse. In the morning you're fresh, you're focused. After seven hours of waiting and taping, not so much. There's no relaxation between scenes—"Must. Study. Line...", and I have to avoid the post-lunch stupor (I eat very little, no flan for me). I have that sentence rolling around my head all day long it starts to become this dread behemoth.

Finally, we reach the scene. Three takes and BOOM we're moving on. The director's happy. the writer's happy, and, most importantly, S&P, who has come down to watch, is happy. I don't know how she would quite know if I nailed it, but eh, it was a good approximation. More sense, less gibberish. Big sigh of relief, and I am instantly, insanely hungry. 

Yes, the orange robes were fun to wear, but— man, do I love voiceovers.