Friday, February 27, 2009

In which it starts to Come Together

Today is Saturday, and if it's Saturday then Missy must be coming over to the house for a trial costume fitting. And along with Missy is her friend, Bob. Bob is a painter who also does makeup and hair, and Bob is here to design the Millicent Makeup. Bob has the requisite makeup kit, wig block and wig, and is busily working on the wig while Missy and Barb fuss with the costume. Turns out that the first fitup is really pretty close -- doesn't need much alteration, and Missy decides she'll just finish it off here in the living room.

Saturday also probably brings Nathan over. Nathan comes into town every weekend, and often swings by to see if we're doing anything Interesting. Parading around in Ghastly garb certainly qualifies as Interesting in Nathan's book, so we spill the project beans, at least the ones that have directly to do with the putative show itself. This is the mostInteresting thing Nathan has heard all day, and Barb starts warming up some walks and voices in various pieces of costume. Bob has made some big ol' hair and is trying out some makeup ideas. Nathan and I proffer useless suggestions, Barb dismisses most out of hand in an Interesting voice. Something's coming together here.

Saturday also brings the mail, which today includes a letter from WLEX that does not include a contract but does include the list of movies. I pride myself on knowing more than a little pottytinkle about monster movies good bad and insipid; but I haven't heard of half of the movies on the list. More to the point, neither apparently has the compiler of the Psychotronic Encyclopedia. Fortunately, he has heard of at least the first one, an Italian opus titled The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave. I read the synopsis to assorted giggles, switching back and forth from Wally Balloo through Leonard Plinth-Garnell voices to Val-speak, and I remember a bit that David Copperfield pulled at the Opera House in the spring. On the first night of the run, some fashionable Lexingtoons came in about ten minutes late to their very-near front row seats. Said Copperfield (a nice guy offstage) had already done his big opening and was doing some card tricks; he stopped, sat down on the edge of the stage and conversationally said, "Well, we played some music and then I came out and there was applause and I did this disappearing trick and it was pretty cool and then I came in from the back and everybody clapped and then we changed the lights and brought this out and I did a couple of card tricks and then you guys came in and that's where we are. Are we good? we're all caught up? Okay, let's get back to the show." Huh, sez I. That could be a running bit: Barb does a recap of the movie to date, and the movie is so ridiculous that if she just describes what you've seen you can't help but make people laugh. So every week she catches people up and we call it ... Ketchup Theatre.

And you can build a little stage with a curtain and everything just for Ketchup Theatre, sez either Nathan or Bob. I'm not too happy about this You stuff, because that's what it's going to be -- no more building from WLEX ... but this could be something real simple, like a Punch and Judy set, just some plywood and a couple of flippers to stand it up, and a paint job; we could knock this out tomorrow and be done with it.

Okey dokie, Barb -- think we could do this as a running bit? Plug it in after the first hour of movie or so, for the people changing channels?

"Daaaahling, that would be maaaaaahvlus!" This with the first fitting of the wig. Where'd that voice come from? "Dunno, but it feels right." It does, at that.

Missy is Done. Bob steps back to admire his handiwork. Barb is definitely obscured, and the makeup is definitely not going to be easy for her to put on by herself; eventually, yes but not right away. So, Bob ... doing anything Thursday night? Wanna come over to the teevee station and do the makeup? We'll probably have to make some changes anyway once we see it on teevee. Bob's up for it, especially after we throw in dinner. Nathan wants to come, too -- this looks like it could be fun. Sure, why not? We could use some moral support.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

In which a Bridge is Built, and JD begins Hoovering in the Background

Predictably enough, Jerry and Katie the WLEX Designers, are politely unimpressed. The general response seems to be why would anybody spend so much time elegantly drafting crap?

Some design and shop chitchat starts to uncover a mystery wrapped within a riddle, and no doubt if we dig a little deeper we'll unearth an enigma: Seems the word is out around WLEX that We are Troublesome Artists; but there is also counterword that We're OK, Just a Little Weird. Huh: so far as we know, we've only had dealings with two people from WLEX -- Bill, and long before Bill the remote video guys recording The Nutcracker at the Opera House. I thought the tapings went pretty well -- they were pros, had to deal with a show that was staged and lit for people in the audience and not teevee cameras and did not order up tons of additional light for broadcast but fixed things electronically -- and I dropped the names I remembered. No longer with, oh well, then where are these Outed Words coming from, anyway?

Well, it would seem that Bill's nose is out of joint (oh, well), but our hidden champion is JD.

Excuse me? JD? About 40, about my height, from St. Louis?

Yeah. You know him?

Um, yeah. JD was one of three Vice President of Keeping the Students in Line during my college years, who accepted the position the year that said students decided to host their own college revolution, as seen on teevee. JD, along with Julius Hunter and Ed Rollins, were tasked to, um, manage the revolution somehow. Double-plus unfun times. JD was also the official advisor to the campus filmmaking club, where he rode herd on our assorted zany artsy-fartsy hi-jinx; and while the lot of us had vey different tastes, he never overrode anybody's proposal as long as the proposal showed a semblance of structure and budget. He saved his fire for the screenings, where he would rip the product, but only if you went off the approved plan. His critique was in essence What you put up on the screen is your business; your production values are my business. I expect to be able to see what you photographed, hear what you recorded, and follow what you edited. Beyond that, you're on your own.

A while ago. So he's here now, huh?

Katie n Jerry allow that he is indeed, as a recently hired Vice President in Charge of Just About Everything, including Bill; and that while the company jury was still out on him he seemed to know his stuff, and he thinks you probably know what you're doing so we should humor you.

Interesting. So ... you gonna humor me with this set?

Oh, sure. We see what you want. It's ... interesting. Could be fun. Don't see how we can get it done for your taping. And you know, we don't have a teevee or a chair you can use.

I just happen to have a solution for those items that won't cost you anything except some time. Interested? Do you have a truck, or can you get a truck? Why don't you drive around the neighborhood south of Loudon Avenue late Sunday afternoon. People are going to be putting their trash out for Monday morning. Just drive around, and pick up the nastiest, rattiest looking chair and console teevee you find on the curb. Pick up anything else that looks interesting, while you're at it. We only need the chair and the teevee for Thursday night. Anything else you can give me is gravy.

Katie n Jerry look at me, and I see the beginnings of smiles at the corners of their mouths. Katie speaks for Jerry: "That ... would be fun. We can do that."

Hump cleared here, boss. We establish that the sketch should be used as a concept drawing, not a final plan. They suggest some adjusts -- some are minor, some aren't; and I tell them to do whatever they think is right. I tell them again that I'd rather have a piece finished for show than rushed for rehearsal. They say they think they can get the center part completely ready for Thursday, tweaks n all; if they think of anything else, they'll call me. I say if you think of anything else, just do it and surprise us.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

In which Lemons are Squeezed

Let's put some marks on the paper and zero in on this environment:

We'll need an entrance/exit, someplace that can serve for standup bits, a landing place for solo spots, and something that can serve for twosomes. And that blue backing is part of the mix, so we need access to it as well.

A comfortable path of travel is audience left to audience right. So we'll reverse that. That would put the entrance in the extreme right location, which sites it near the real door to the studio. Maybe we can use that at some point.

There are three lighting hotspots, so we'll have to cheat either the standup bit space or the duo space. Don't know how we might use the duo space, so we should put something there as a placeholder -- but let's not do full design development just yet; park a couple of the nondescript backings there and leave it for now. Let's focus on what we know we'll need.

Might as well play off the Masterpiece Theatre/Alaistair Cooke association, so the host solo spot/landing place will be in the vacuformed library. And we could use a chair; but not a comfy library chair; we want the nastiest, rattiest chair we can find, and I know how we'll get that for free. And we're not "reading great books", but "watching dumb movies", so we could use a teevee. Might be cool if the teevee was fed program that we can control; should just need a piece of coax and an adaptor, but this is a building full of teevee engineers -- they can figure that part out.

If we go with the Wee Concept, everything talks or potentially talks. But we don't have puppeteers to work these things. But we can cut portholes into the flats, and we can hand stuff through the flats -- thank you, Thing. We can also hang sleeves with gloves, and various limbs, from parts of the set -- doesn't make any sense, but we can reach in from the back and manipulate them live. It would be funny to have these things hanging there doing nothing in establishing shots, and then they suddenly start moving during a bit.

We've got a fake entry piece, so we'll put that near the real door; it might be interesting to show Barb coming through the real door, then coming through the set entry.

It all needs layers upon layers of detachable Stuff, but most of the detachable Stuff needs to be semi-permanently affixed; according to Da Rules, we don't have time to attach anything on site, the whole thing needs to be plopped in place in fifteen minutes or less. So maybe we start with one layer stapled on, and add Stuff throughout the run. That will buy time to solve the detachable problem. It would be cool to have the set like a Louise Nevelson piece, just a bunch of shadowboxes full of "toys"; but we don't have time or money for that. Yet.

That's it. Layers of junk. Some loose, some fixed. Slash some color across it that offsets the costume colors -- maybe find some kids and turn them loose with spray paint. Let's just draw this up to scale, color it, and we'll take it in to WLEX's scene designers tomorrow. It will be interesting to see what they think.

Monday, February 23, 2009

In which we see the Future Site of Our New Home

We pick up messages While We Were Out: Missy's ready to come over and show a costume design. We're pumped, our minds awhirl with th' cosmic possibilities of it all, come on down! Missy shows us a sketch that's a riot of big hair, neon blues and greens, layered with blacks and topped off with a pink wifebeater emblazoned with the word Arrgh! What's that about, Missy? "I don't know, it just looks cool." Doesn't look like anything we imagined, even during the thousands of miles of brainstorming; doesn't look like anything we would imagine; doesn't look like anything we could imagine.

We love it. Alls we gots to do is run it past WLEX, just to make sure they don't have heartburn with it.

Bill hates it. It's one thing to hear someone talking about a monster movie teevee show that isn't going to look or be like the monster movie teevee show you imagined and sold to your Higher Authority; it's quite another thing to hold in your hands incontrovertible evidence that said teevee show will never, cannot possibly ever look or be like the show you imagined and sold to your Higher Authority. We say all the words -- new, spontaneous, ad-lib, freewheeling, unique -- the response is, "Well, if this is what you want/if you think you can make your show work/I hope you know what you're doing." Lotta second person impersonal pronouns there, few to none first person plural pronouns; this somehow isn't sounding much like a Notice to Proceed, much less a Ringing Endorsement of Creativity, but we press on: so, can we get some advance money released for costume materials? The crickets return in full chorus, then Bill agrees to get a check cut. While we wait, he takes me to WLEX's scene dock, which is in WLEX's studio.

WLEX at this time is a smallish cluster of connected buildings off Russell Cave Road, on the fringe of an industrial park. There's a main front entrance that's open during business hours; the reception area is a circa-70s living room, with a big console teevee that shows the broadcast feed as well as studio feeds. There's a long central hall that runs lengthwise through the main building; going down the hall one way takes you past the management offices and conference room to the news operation, going down the hall the other way takes you past the production offices and carrells to the studios and support areas, and then past the guard post out to the parking lot. There's one studio; it's about twenty-five feet wide by sixty-ish feet deep, maybe a twelve foot ceiling. The News Set takes up most of the rear of the studio: a big desk with three or four seating pods, monitors and blue panels behind the main desk; a map of the US on the wall to camera left, with magnetic letters and little weather symbols, a large-scale map of Kentucky to the left of the US map. A plate glass window: the control room. There's a wall-mounted speaker box above the window, with a standard 8" speaker in it; what's that? Three pedestal cameras, some pointed at the news set, others pointed at the not-news set: a shower-curtain cyc that covers the short wall, stopping short of about twelve feet of drywall painted blue. Ah, this must be the famous Chroma-Key backing I heard so much about. But I thought that a proper Chroma-Key Backing consisted of a trade-secret fabric of a certain Pantone blue. You can see the drywall seams on this bad boy; what's up with that? There's a cluster of lights over the News Set, and maybe a dozen or so lights pointed toward the Not-News Set.

Bill turns the lights on for the Not-News Set: "This is where you'll do your show." He explains the studio rules: your set can't be set up during news, because it would distract the news anchors; you can't move or touch the lights, which have to be left as is for the Sunday morning public affairs show; you get the three studio cameras, that's it, and oh by the way they don't move during show; your set has to be carried out, set up and lit in fifteen minutes, because the crew doesn't get off lunch break until 12:30, and you're live on the air at 1 so you'll probably need a few minutes to go over the opening of the show with the crew, but you can't talk to them while they're doing the news or eating lunch. And you can't use the blue wall, because it'll take too much time to set up a shot and you won't have the time.

I'm not sensing that there's a lot of support for this here show, logistical or otherwise. But I can ignore warning signals with the best of 'em, so I pace off the available space, identify where the lights are focused -- three hot areas, including the Blue Wall, roughly equidistant from each other and the shower curtain; and ask to see the scene dock.

The scene dock is behind the News Set; it's about eight feet square, at best. It's really a sound lock between the news set and a kitchen that appears disused: seems this was the breakroom until fairly recently, and nobody's formally claimed this area yet. There is a very small, very random collection of odds and ends, a trunk, and a dozen or so flats of some kind or other, including some badly painted vacuformed panels that purport to be a library. Take some measurements, take some notes; Bill observes that there's not much to work with.

"We can make this work." Damned if I know how, but we can.

"Today is Wednesday; can I have a scene design for the staff designers by, oh, Friday afternoon? We've budgeted the weekend to build your set."

Forget about ordering anything; forget about buying anything, for that matter. And I'm not hearing tools, or smelling sawdust or paint, or detecting anything that might suggest that there's a carpenter or painter, or for that matter another live human being lurking about. When in doubt, give the benefit of the doubt:

"We can make this work."

Sunday, February 22, 2009

In which Szygny is Attained

On the road o discovery, many conversations led to:

Millicent. A Millicent is formidable. A Millicent is always right. A Millicent knows the world is divided into Our Kind and Not Our Kind, Dear. A Millicent's Kind is limited to a small circle of perhaps one. Not Our Kind persons' rightful job is to serve Our Kind, and be quick about it.

Millicent explains things to people who are too dull to grasp the true meaning of it all, with patrician grace and marginally clenched teeth.

Millicent is not Zany. Don't know how we're going to resolve this, but Millicents are not Zany. Marthas are Zany. Maybe the Zany stuff goes on around Millicent, and she doesn't acknowledge it.

Millicent is above it all. Millicent is not connected to the movie. Millicent is not connected to the show. There's tension between Millicent and everything around her, which Millicent controls by explaining away.

This seems to be leading us to lots of words, but not much action: how is Millicent going to become an Actor (in the sense of doing things that shape and direct things, as opposed to passing judgment on what happens)?

We puzzle on this through two short stops prior to a few days in Boston. Rambles in Boylston take us into various funky stores that are completely self-contained and disconnected: a bookstore blaring Little Richard, where we pick up a Psychotronic Encyclopedia, a joke shop where we pick up a bagful of Cheap Laffs, a toy shop where we pick up another bagful of windup toys and noisy clattering things. Somehow, stuff is going to have to run amok throughout this show and Millicent is going to approve of it. Control it? Mmmmmmaybe -- a cool n collected Presence Overseeing It All, and the Complicated Plans Themselves provide the heat for the show.

We have tickets for Forbidden Broadway; it's the only live show in town, and while it's not what we would prefer (zany actors making fun of serious thee-ayter), it's the only live show in town. We're seated at a table with Cindy and the other Steve, from Minneapolis. They want to know everything about everything, as well as passing opinions on everything about everything. For our part, we're tired of working The Millicent Problem and let go of it for the night. And it would seem that zany actors making fun of serious thee-ayter by going for the soft pompous underbellies that only insiders know about ... that's interesting. It's easy to make fun of Les Miz. It's smart to make fun of Les Miz by singing about how easy it is to manipulate an audience into cheering by taking a bunch of Noble College Stoonts singing this particular progression of notes, putting this particular group of types here and that particular group of types there, moving impossibly heavy scenic stuff this way n that, and then waving a flag -- a red flag, mind you -- to top it all. And here's a table full of people who get the joke upon joke upon joke.

Post show, we're talking about this n that, what they do, what we do, where we're all going in life, comfortable conversation, and Barb talks about acting. The other Steve n Cindy are fascinated by this -- she's an attorney, he's an engineer -- and it leads naturally to what are you doing next? They think it's the best that she's doing a teevee monster movie show next, and they have all kinds of ideas about things that they wished monster movie shows did. We're listening, letting it wash over us mostly because they're on a roll and we couldn't get a word in edgewise anyway, and the conversation turns to Count Floyd, Joe Flaherty's SCTV monster movie host. Count Floyd's shtick is that he's trying to sell scary movies that he knows aren't scary, and he grows more and more desparate in trying to drum up enthusiasm from a cold audience. So we're watching a character who knows that his show is collapsing around him and can't do anything to stop it because the movie is a fixed commodity; and our Algonquin Table begins deconstructing the character. It doesn't work as an ongoing bit because panic is not inherently empathic: we're laughing at the character, and after the third go-round or so who cares? But then why does Wile E. Coyote work and Count Floyd doesn't? Aren't they the same thing? No, because Wile E. Coyote is a Genius who is bound and determined to outsmart calamity and won't accept that calamity is a Super-Genius.

And then somebody says, What if the host knows how bad the movies are and spends the whole program working against the movie? What if the host knows how the whole thing is supposed to work -- the movie, teevee, everything -- and goes through the whole program undercutting everything so that it doesn't work?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

In which we arrange for Haute Couture

Barb, are you okay with all of this?

As long as we don't get sidetracked, it could be fun. As long as this little adventure doesn't become fulltime, doesn't replace her real acting, doesn't take time away from the ubergoal of Getting Out, as long as it's fun -- yes, let's do it.

Okay, first things first: ultimately, it's all going to fall on you to carry it off; what do you need?

Barb sees improv acting as an exercise best kept in a closed (classroom, rehearsal) environment, not as public performance in and of itself. Improv is a tool to unblock what the person would be inclined to do; as performance, she thinks it's about as interesting as watching a concert pianist play scales. She is not happy with the emphasis on improv as the entirety of the show, but sees some possibility of changing Bill's mind if we can show him something that looks like what he thinks improv is, but is better. Meanwhile, we have to at least try to deliver an apparently improvised show. Since her improv exercises consist of reacting to changing stimuli, she needs a lot of changable stimuli: lots of color, lots of things to handle and play with, lots of stuff all over the place, lots of cues where you wouldn't normally find cues.

Clutter; color; objects everywhere. Things that make noise when they're handled. Doesn't sound like a black costume in a gray set to me. We start talking about improvised teevee: my frame of reference is Ernie Kovacs and Jonathan Winters, she doesn't go back that far, let's talk about now and not twenty years ago. So who's doing improv teevee now?

Well, the big three in summer 1985 is SNL (meh), SCTV and Pee Wee Herman. SNL really doesn't count; it started out as a roughly equal partnership between the Second City actors and the National Lampoon writers, but success has gone to everybody's heads: the current crop of writers is content with cheap shots and laff lines, and the current crop of actors is content with funny voices and mugging. SCTV is a lot cleverer, almost too clever: it maintains its internal consistency at the expense of pulling off a complete show, so individual pieces of any given show are always funnier than the whole show. What's Pee Wee doing in there?

The Pee Wee Herman Show started life as an improvisatory goof on 50s local kids teevee shows by the LA comedy troupe The Groundlings, one of whom eventually finds fame n fortune as (wait for it) Elvira. It found its audience among the LA hipsters (big surprise there), morphed into a running midnight show that was eventually taped by HBO and offered up as part of its occasional comedy specials. This yielded Mr. Wee a national audience of some size, which rationalized a movie or two, which somehow convinced CBS to offer Mr. Wee a series deal -- as a real kid's teevee show.

I am convinced that when future historians t-t-t-talk about my g-g-g-g-generation, their entire commentary will be reduced to four words: What Were They Thinking? And in retrospect, what was a no doubt hip n moustacio'd CBS programming exec thinking in slotting Mr. Wee into Saturday morning kidland? But there he was, offering the strangest looking n sounding half hour broadcast outside of the Soviet Union. And from a visual standpoint, everything about Mr. Wee's environment and cast was the answer to an improviser's fervent prayers: everything moved, talked, and appeared strangely enough to steer any actor straight to terra incognita.

If we wanted to do something like with the tools available in the-then world o Lexington visual n performing arts, bon chance amigos. Everybody knew everybody else, and had known everybody else forever; it was very difficult for anybody to do anything new, because everybody knew how the other person would react. Generally speaking, nobody was coming in to Lexington with new ideas: not into a comfortable middle class marketplace where conflict was defined as the Sacred Knights of Wildcat Basketball predictably whaling the poop out of their hapless opponents (or else). This was why we were seeking escape, not settling in and accepting a vaguely comfortable fate.

But in the previous year, the ballet company had imported a modern dance troupe from Seattle for a year's residency, no doubt to bring in someone doing something different to recharge its own work. As far as said troupe's impact on the ballet's wprk went, the experiment failed miserably: whatever the merits of the troupe were, discipline and respectful cooperation weren't part of the package, so the performances flamed out publicly and spectacularly. But the troupe brought Missy n John with them as their production staff, and they were another story entirely.

Missy n John knew their craft, delivered what they promised (on time and on budget), and their stuff worked mechanically and visually. Missy was the costumer, John the all-other-production-stufferer. Being Left Coasties, they lived and breathed the Left Coasty art world, specifically the stuff coalescing as Grunge -- their stuff could never have been mistaken for Kentucky stuff. It was authentic, and from the stagecraft perspective it was well-made: it held up to the stresses of dancing in, around and on it. We could find people who could imitate this kind of stuff (we could do that ourselves if we had to), but the result would be a forgery: as long as you didn't look too close it would do. But we were going to depend on set n costume for thirteen weeks of inspiration. So if we needed something outre, then it stood to reason that we needed to go to the best people for outre we knew. Who, fortunately, had elected to pitch their tents in Lexington for another year -- maybe something having to do with the lack of year-round rain -- and see what happens. We do these things when we are Young.

So I called Missy, and after swearing her to secrecy described the project in general: late night teevee, improv, thirteen weeks, monster movies, hostess carries show, yada yada needs costume and set, modest to indifferent money at best but big honkin' credit at the end of each show (playing two ends against the middle here, boss), interested?

Missy was polite, they had lined up work with UK's theatre department that started up with the fall semester, felt that they had to impress the new bosses first n foremost, maybe someone else might be interested?

Well, someone else might be interested but you all are uniquely qualified to pull this off because you're ... well, you. Everybody else is ... not you. We really think that you're the only people with the vision we need to make the project work.

Flattery, even sincere and heartfelt, gets us somewhere. But this is a monster movie show. Anybody can put Barb in a black gown with a hoodie and call her Elvira.

Yabbut, we weren't exactly thinking Elvira. We were thinking more Pee Wee Herman.

A pause. A good costumer has to have a good sense of humor. I knew Missy was good. Her reply, as best as I remember it, went something like this:

"A Pee Wee Herman monster movie show? Bwah-ha-ha-ha!" And she's in for the costume.

It's a blank piece of paper, Missy: give us something Barb can work with and key off of. Our needs are: she's got to be mostly unrecognizable in the outfit, she's got to be able to get into it without a dresser, wardrobe and makeup can't take any more than an hour, she's got to be able to move in it, she's got to be able to play the costume, it's got to be machine washablem, it's got to hold up for at least thirteen weeks without maintenance. Other than that, go for it. Think John is interested in the set?

Well, that's John's business; and as it turned out John wasn't that interested in the set. His first assignment for UK was producing shop drawings and getting its shop ready for the year's construction; this being before CAD, shop drawings were still handmade, which takes hours; and the shop ... needed a lot of work: seems "maintenance" wasn't a high priority for his predecssor. He's not comfortable taking time away from a new paying job to take on any outside work; and he's not sure that the publicity would be career-enhancing vis-a-vis UK. But maybe he could touch up whatever we came up with.

I'll take .5 of the loaf. Besides, we've got to pull the set from stock units anyway; it will be easier to do that once we have the costume locked.

So we load the car and head east, secure in the knowledge that when we get back we'll know what Millicent looks like. Meanwhile, we've got hundreds of miles ahead of us and a lot to talk about. We've got three weeks to figure out who Millicent is.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

In which the Deed is Done, Dirt Cheap

Okay, so let's just all review what the expectations are; and pretend that we the putative Talent don't know nothin' about th' normal n customary expecations of teevee shows and teevee show folks, being but poor simple-minded theatre types:

The form of the show will be: an introduction to the movie, a certain number of internal bits or activities determined by the number of commercials sold each week, and a close. That mysterious internal number is going to probably be five, but it could be more; "less" would not be a Good Thing. We will all be in a Happy Place if each segment times out to two minutes, more or less; some could run to three minutes, but that should be the exception rather than the rule. Therefore, we are expected to deliver roughly twenty to twenty-five minutes of wacky improvised host antics weekly. The movies are ninety to a hundred minutes each; so if theyre chopped up into six equal pieces, there will be at least fifteen minutes to come up with the next wacky antic sequence. Plenty of time for a talented improviser to come up with something. We'll take that last under advisement, but we shall as the lawyers say so stipulate.

The show will be live. Audiences love live teevee; it's like watching Evel Knievel go over Niagra Falls in a barrel. The fun is knowing that he might not make it over to the other side. Not so sure we relish the thought of sleeping with the fishes in real time, as long as we're churning that metaphor, but we'll take that one under advisement, too.

WLEX is in for thirteen weeks, beginnning September 13. That will take the show through the all-important fall ratings sweep period. A show's market share is established by the ratings sweeps; the ratings share drives the prices that can be charged for commercial time on the show. The goal is to do better than the period is currently doing; any improvement is good. Improvement means we get to stay and play the next round; status quo or dare we say it decline means going home. Fair enough.

WLEX will pay for a costume, and will provide a set. We will arrange for the costume and will provide for reasonable maintenance of the costume. If we have suggestions or ideas for the set, WLEX will be glad to entertain them. The set will have to be produced from materials on hand, there is no budget for construction. This works.

The show will be broadcast from WLEX's studio facilities, using the available facilities and the existing studio crew. There will be no live remotes or field trips, no bringing in of preferred personnel. The standing news set is not to be touched, shown, hinted at or alluded to; this is entertainment, but news is News. We hear you. Wonder why this is being emphasized? Let's remember this for later.

WLEX will reimburse Barbara for her services as a performer. This will be on a contractor basis, with a single fee-for-service of fifty dollars per show as sole compensation. The engagement can be terminated at WLEX's sole discretion at any time. Okay, "contractor" implies that there will be a contract between Barbara and WLEX. Say, hoss, we'd like to review that there contract before we formally agree to anything. If we learned nothing else from adventures in Ruckus Arenus and the esteemed Headus Rattus therein, it's that a) the contract always favors the issuer and b) everything's theoretically negotiable, but only before you sign.

What about expenses? What is this word you use, "expenses"? We know nothing of such things. Well, there will be certain consumables such as makeup; and there will also be props and other consumable items from time to time. What is this new word you use, "props?" We know nothing of such things, also and additionally. Since the show is supposed to be improvised, that means that Barbara will need constant stimuli -- new things to use, react to, play with, all in the name of keeping the show fresh, interesting and how you say zany. We understand budgets; there is surely some money set aside for contingencies, so this can be a not-to-exceed figure and we're responsible for any overage. We'll have to run the numbers, but we can probably work something out. Score!

We'll all have a camera run-through in the studio Thursday evening, September 4. You will arrive with costume and makeup; the set may not be ready, that's on us and our input to the design process. Agreed. We'll try this approach you suggest. Based on the camera run through, you'll make whatever adjustments necessary to be show-ready September 13. And the crowd goes wild.

We'll send you the list of movies once confirmed. Are the dates confirmed for the movies? Only the first thirteen. Can we suggest some sequences of movies, or some air dates, for movies that don't have confirmed air dates? We'll be glad to consider your suggestions. Getting control of the content here, boss.

So, when can we expect to see the form of contract? Have a good vacation, come back with lots of good ideas, and we'll see you in a couple of weeks.

In retrospect, it would seem that our Chump Detectors probably should have been taken in for some serious alignment after this meeting. But that's only if you look at this as a business deal. As far as we were concerned, we won the most important point: this can be a monster movie show, a teevee show unlike anything else seen on sleepy ol' Lexington teevee. And it won't cost WLEX any more than what they were already willing to spend. We'll just de-onerous that there contract a little, flesh this thing out a little, and we're good to go.

But first, I have a couple of phone calls to make.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

In which the Plot Thickens

Okay, full disclosure. I wanted to do this more than Barb did; but she's the actor, the personable one, the fearless one, the friendly one who puts people at ease. I'm the intense scary guy who doesn't talk to people he doesn't know, who's compelled to be the smartest guy in the room. People watch Barb, she carries her plays. If she doesn't want to do this, it's not going to happen: there's no host and they can just run the movies. Somewhere around now I begin to see what this project could be -- dimly, dimly, but there's a Show somewhere in this. And right now, Bill's the only one with skin in this game -- whatever is going on in his hierarchy, he's the one who sold his management on going way beyond their Usual Suspect Comfort Zone to entrust a big-deal project to a complete unknown with no teevee track record. He's pushing back for a reason that makes sense to him, and it is his project. Let's think kindly of him in the Now, because if he hadn't taken the risk there'd be no You-Know-Who's You-Know-What, and let's pull back on the self-aggrandizement a point or two.

And this isn't exactly what happened. But something like this did, sort of.

We start trying to find some common ground. We agree that beyond the title, the character's name, and a slate of bad movies there's not much more to this thing. Bill's got the movie list; apparently movies are sold in packages, and he's deliberately set out to get the worst movies available. So the movies will be known to be, and will be sold as, the worst movies available. That's something we can work with. But a misspent lifetime watching bad movies teaches one that the irreducible truth about any given bad movie is that at some point the Guilty Pleasure of watching a Bad Movie wears off, and the moviegoer is stuck with said irreducible truth: this movie stinks, and my time is better spent watching paint dry. Most sensible people know this and deftly avoid the Bad Movie with the same grace used to avoid a person mumbling to himself while shuffling down a sidewalk. Very few people will intentionally seek out the Bad Movie; and those that do might hang around in a movie theatre to protect their investment of actual cash, but given a free movie on teevee with no upfront cash investment and the option of surfing away or going to bed (we are still talking about 1AM Sunday, right? About the time people start ... crashing?), you can't hold the audience for very long. So this show really is going to have to be held together by what the host says or does. The audience will come in for the opening of the movie, but will only stay around so long as they're interested in the host.

We're all good with this; so let's take it another step.

So you're at home, SNL has just blessedly gone off the air (sorry, we know there's nothing you can do about it, you've got what NBC gives you, but we used to watch it; it's just a collection of unfunny catch phrases that the audience laughs at reflexively, it loses momentum after Weekend Update, it closes with self-congratulatory weepiness and a slow blues, and the only reason people aren't turning the teevee off is because they're too tired to get up or they've lost the remote, one) -- aaaaaaaaaand then what? What if the next thing you see is like nothing you can watch on any other available channel? What if what you see and hear is so off the wall that you can't believe it? What if you're watching somebody or something so outrageous that you stick around to see if they dare to do it again?

Yeah, yeah, that's it. That's what we want.

See, the people who are going to tune in for the movie already know that the movie stinks. Once they confirm that it stinks, they can cross it off their Bucket List and move on. So we can't just give them EC Vault o Cheese puns, or dissert on the movie itself, or whatever -- that can be part of the mix, but not the whole thing. If the point is to nibble away at Channel 27, why not tive them something that they'll never see on Channel 27?

You're losing me, here.

The show stands alone from the movie it supports. Maybe it interacts with the movie, maybe it doesn't. But we know what the audience's expectations are, and we mess with those expectations. They're expecting Vampira, Elvira, Palmyra, whatever; they're expecting bats and cobwebs and crypts and dry ice. And that's what we're not going to do.

Okay, I get that. You're not going to do the show we want you to do. And I can see your thinking, and it's ... different. I'm not saying I agree with you, I'm not saying I disagree. So I know what you're not going to do. What are you going to do?

The storyteller wants desperately to have Barb break in with "Daaaaaahling!" But that didn't happen. Neither Millie, nor the show, burst forth fully formed.

We did come around to this, generally:
  • Let's try something different.
  • We can always go back to Bye-bye-ra.
  • We'll have something workable fleshed out when we get back from vacation.

Bill was good with that. Because he had scheduled studio time for a run-through the week after we got back. We could try this idea, see what happened, and if it didn't work well we'd have a week to put together a ... more traditional show.

Monday, February 16, 2009

In which we learn the significance of the B

As expected, the phone did not ring; the mail did not arrive; and life did go on. Of course, we may have neglected to provide Bill with an address that he could mail to; but the whole proposition seemed so far-fetched, while the life stuff was a bit more pressing.

We were more and more becoming convicted that wherever Home was, it wasn't Lexington. But we had been in Lexington long enough to have run out of excuses for putting down roots: we were either going to live there or somewhere else. Barbara rightly insisted that we choose instead of drift. One thing was clear: there was no possibility of professional advancement for either of us, if that was important (and it was) -- the glass ceiling was a good six foot thick, and we could look forward to Windexing it at best. Barbara felt called to conservatory acting training, and so we made a deal: we'd both spend the next year working on getting out, whoever landed the better opportunity the other one would follow. Barb set about looking for graduate acting conservatories, I set about looking for buildings with management opportunities, and we planned a vacation road trip to scout out some possible areas. Itineraries were planned, Trip-Tiks assembled, reservations made.

Occasionally we'd tiptoe around That Bizarre Meeting: Did it really happen? Were they really serious? If we were to do this, what would we do? Would our credibility, such as it was, be forever shredded if we were known to be affiliated with (dare we say it) commercial entertainment (bwah ha ha ha)? Could this be the end of Rico -- shilling for hemmorhoid unguents? After a few weeks we decided that the ancient and noble theatre tradition of the "We'll call" blowoff had been invoked, and so we pronounced closure and prepared for a road trip o discovery.

A few days before we left, Barb said "You might want to listen to this message we got today." She punched up the answering machine, and lo it was Bill, just wondering if we had picked our character's name yet, since the station was about to issue a press release describing the show, the character, and the first episode's air date.

In the immortal words of a then-favorite Ruckus Arenus radio transmission: WTF? Over.

Which was the gist of my return of Bill's call the next day, during which we confirmed that neither we nor Bill were doing a particularly good job of saying what we meant, or listening to what the other person was saying. Both Barb and I had drawerfuls of proposed theatrework that went nowhere after the initial feelers; Bill assumed that since we didn't definitively say we were Out, and had in fact expressed some vague interest, then we must be In. In our experience, the producer or director (or directing producer) assembled the package and the team, championed the project, and kept the project moving forward; in Bill's experience, if you caught the pitch you ran with it. In any event, WLEX was committed to a September 13 air date; counting on his fingers and toes that was a little more than a month off, so we probably ought to have a character's name by now. So ... what was it? And why wasn't Barb returning the call, since they were really only interested in her?

Deep breath. Time to channel some Ruckus Arenus High Moral Tone:
Barb was not aware that vague polite interest constituted binding legal commitment. Barb makes her career choices, as do I, and we support each other's choices. Barb's long-term career choices do not include Lexington at this time. Now that we understand that you are serious about this project, I will be glad to discuss this with her tonight, and We will get back to you with Our joint decision tomorrow. If We decide to go forward with this project, We will commit tomorrow; if not, at that time We will provide you with the names of performers who We think could pull this off. It is not Our intent to leave you in any kind of lurch, and We apologize for any misunderstanding, but in any event, We are going on vacation and will not be back for ten days.

Quick soul mate soulsearch: Do we want to do this? Not really, but it is a paying gig. It's thirteen weeks; probably won't go anywhere; wouldn't hurt to have a teevee gig on the resume for later. It's one night a week, after everything closes; you could continue with real theatre and blow in and do this; they want it adlibbed, anyway. I can't adlib an entire show. I'll help; I can structure it for you, it'll be like comedia; you've done comedia. I don't want anyone to know it's me; we could handle that with costume and makeup, and you never take a credit. Just because this is monster movies doesn't mean that we have to do what they expect -- if we did something else, they can't second-guess us. Will this hurt us professionally here? If we're leaving, who cares? and we can't pretend that we might stay. Can we do this? We can do this together if we want to, and we can walk away from it when we want to. If nothing else, it's not Serious Art, and we're tired of competing with the Serious Artistes; we could have some fun doing this. We're in it together; we talk to Bill together; and when we're done, we leave together.

Okay, so ... let's make a mark on the blank piece of paper: what is this character's name, anyway?

We started writing down names. No internet, no search engines -- this is ancient times, using human memory only; bots n spyders are part of the marvelous future yet to be revealed. Two columns, first and last names, pulling names out of memory; pull out the bio of W.C. Fields, pull out the S.J. Perelman books, pull out the Edward Gorey books, list everything that looks -- different. No puns, no Cryptkeeper stuff. Break that down to ten combinations we like, and let Bill make a decision: if he's going to produce, he gets to make producerly decisions.

Bill doesn't like the package deal: he's only interested in Barbara, if I'm around that's her business. Barbara stands her ground: both of us, or neither of us. Bill's only paying for one: we don't care about that, pay Barb, but deal with Steve on the business side. Barb's the talent, but Barb wants Steve to handle the visuals and shape the overall show: we have our people, he gets no credit. Steve's not interested in putting your people out of work, if you've got people who are supposed to do this then they're the experts and let 'em do it. We just haven't seen any evidence of that, so -- when do we meet the designers? Um ... we don't have designers. So who's doing the costume? The makeup? The set? Um ... we thought you'd handle that. We'll provide the studio and the studio crew. Do you have a budget for costumes, for makeup, for sets? Do you have an inventory? Anything you can pull? We have some stuff, but not really costume stuff ... We know people. We can handle that. We can give your people sketches, pull set pieces from your inventory, bring in some dressing. No credit! None of those union people! We already agreed to that is this about union? and the union doesn't design. Whoever you've got, we use; if you don't have someone, we'll take care of it. We'll make our arrangements; you cover hard costs only. Such as? We'll get the costumer, you pay for the fabric; we'll handle makeup design and application, you pay for the makeup; set a not-to-exceed if that helps, and we'll cover the overage.

Bill doesn't like it; but he can live with it. Done. Handshake. Now, about the name ...
We just happen to have a list; we thought since it's your project you should pick the name.
"How about ... Millicent B. Ghastly?" B? Well, if it means he's buying into it ... what's the diff?
Barb is gracious, pours oil on the troubled waters: "I liked that one, too."

Sunday, February 15, 2009

In which the Enterprise is Christened

Bill was on a roll now. Sensing that the fishy was hooked, he dropped that the putative show had a working title which was (wait for it) Monsterpiece Theatre. Like Masterpiece Theatre, only not on PBS and not with great works of British literature but with ... monster movies!

I heard the sound of crickets in my mind. This is usually about the part where Barb shoots me the "Get me out of here" look. One of us tactfully remarks on the witty pun, because that would have been the polite thing to do, given the free lunch and all. But, still, monster movies -- the hundreds, nay thousands of hours I spent watching monster movies in my misspent youth, from the classic Universal horror package endlessly rerun on the St. Louis indy station through the AIP cheapos run after school on the ABC affiliate competing with the Three Stooges, to Saturday afternoons at the no-longer Fabulous Fox and the Rio Show gorging on the Godzilla canon; monster movies are a certain cultural touchstone for certain kinds of folks and truth be told, it would be kind of cool to be part of that.

During my purgatory in Bloomington, with its two or so teevee options, I came across one Sammy Terry, broadcast out of Indianapolis (Indynoplace, Naptown ... and these were terms of endearment used by Hoosiers, what were we sophisticates from the Gateway to the West supposed to think? Sakes!) Sammy's show was about as cheap as it got -- badly painted sets (badly painted, I later learned, by slumming IU scene painters), spooky organ music under wretched puns oversold by a citizen made up in black and white housepaint who kinda looked like the screaming guy in the Munch painting -- teevee to set your teeth on edge; it had the sole beneficial effect of reminding one that time was a-wasting and making one's pile o schoolwork strangely attractive. "Ever hear of an Indiana show ... Sammy Terry or something?" I asked.

Turns out Bill did; shouldn't have been surprised. He was a hotshot teevee executive, he should know about this kind of stuff.

"We wouldn't have any interest in something like that ..." Barb shot me another look. We? Signals getting crossed here, folks ... we have an interest in getting out of here, forgetting about this and getting on with our lives.

Bill also picked up on the pronoun. "Well, we're really only interested in your wife. It's not a big deal; we just want someone to come in, do the show and leave. It'll all be ad-libbed, anyway. We aren't going to make a big deal out of this."

Then why do it? "Well, something like this doesn't need a lot of stuff. But if you don't want to make a big deal out of this ... why do it?" Barb unlaxes; discussion back on script. Wrap this up. "See, if you want improv get an improv person. Improv guys work off of scripts; they might not be written, but improv actors work out a structure that they riff on in performance. Who else are you thinking of? Who would Barb be working with?"

Well, no one. The show would be built around Barb. The show would be Barb. There wasn't anything in the budget for anyone else. Unless Barb wanted to pay for them out of her pocket. The crepes were starting to curdle.

"Is there some kind of a set ... some kind of treatment ... document ... anything that sort of ... sets the rules for the show?" Anything at all that would make Barb any kind of comfortable with this?

It was Bill's turn to hear the cricket song. The pitch was the sum total of the concept. In other words, a blank piece of paper.

I looked at Barb. "What do you think?"

Barb politely said, "It could be interesting. But I'd like to see something in writing. I don't want to get tied down into something. I want to continue acting in other shows." And we want to continue with the plan to Get Out of Lexington in a year.

It was Bill's turn to unlax a little. Of course this wasn't exclusive, or even long-term. For its part, WLEX was looking at this really as a short-term project: initially thirteen weeks, through the first ratings period. Then they'd take a look at the show's ratings: they had already bought the movies, or were going to buy the movies, or had a movie package in mind that they were going to buy, so they were committed to thirty-nine weeks of movies. If hosted movies scored better ratings than the unhosted movies currently in the time slot, then the hosted show would continue; if not, why we all can just walk away friends.

Barb allowed that thirteen weeks didn't seem like too bad an idea, but she wanted to think about it. I picked up my cue: "Well, we're visual types. Could you ... write up a page or two about what you're thinking of and expect? Then we could react to it, tell you what we'd be willing to do, and maybe we could come to some kind of agreement? Because you guys are the ones putting money into this, it's just time for us ... so wouldn't it help to have something written like a business plan?"

This seemed sort-of OK to Bill. He wasn't thrilled; he wanted a commitment and got a nibble, but that's all he was going to get today. So he promised to get us something in writing, and we promised to wait until we heard from him. Check hurriedly called for, paid, thanks and handshakes exchanged, doors scooted through.

Barb: "Do you think he's serious?"

Steve: "Nah. Let's see if he actually sends us anything. If we don't hear from him in a week, let's forget about it."

Saturday, February 14, 2009

In which Bill makes a pitch

It was Channel 18's idea. We just happened to catch the pitch.

In April 85 Barb got a call from a producer at Channel 18, who wanted to take her to lunch. Being married n all, she thought it best if we went as a tag team; we knew the wiles of the Lexington theatre community and who could guess what deviltry might be on the mind of a so-called teevee producer? Best to show the Couple Front, just in case; it helped Barb to be more comfortable with the meet and I can always eat on somebody else's dime. So after establishing Bill's bona fides, to the extent that he was a known producer at Channel 18 and did have an expense account, we agreed to a lunch meet at The Magic Pan. The Pan was conveniently located in the Mall at Lexington Center, so I could get back to my day job in the arena; plus we liked the food. If you're getting a free meal, you might as well enjoy the food.

Bill arrived, and after his initial surprise at the two of us, exchanged the requisite pleasantries and got down to the Secret Plan. It seemed that Channel 27 generally owned the local teevee market at the time, which was somewhat galling to the good folks at Channel 18. They had, or were about to, come into a fair pile of cash from the sale of some underperforming assets, and were looking to put some of that money into programming to make dents into time slots where they thought Channel 17 might be vulnerable. One of those time slots was following Saturday Night Live, which was going to have a new and presumably much stronger cast in the fall; Lorne Michaels had taken the show back and was tasked by NBC to restore it to ratings glory, yada yada yada. Channel 27 seemed to be happy with endlessly programming movies in the 11:30PM slot, and Channel 18 thought that given a strong lead-in by SNL, the right kind of program could make a little dent into Channel 27's dominance. We enjoyed our soup as he continued.

This was the Age of Elvira, who was establishing a very big presence on that there cable teevee, the sworn enemy of over-the-air teevee; but if that brigand Bertolt Brecht could steal ideas with impunity why not our man Bill? It seems that Channel 18 had made some inquiries about acquiring the Elvira show outright for the Lexington market; but whatever riches were going to fall into their laps were apparently not enough for the likes of Elvira. So the fallback position was to develop a homebrew Elvira. Which is where Barb came in.

The good execs over at Channel 18 had agreed that if a local sufficiently Elvira-like presence was available, then it stood to reason that a homebrew Elvira could be brewed. The problem, as they saw it, was that there were no local sufficiently Elvira-like presences to be had for ready money in central KY: they had surveyed the local acting scene and found it wanting. This was believable; we knew the local acting scene as well as anybody, and it wasn't exactly teeming with strong personality actresses, much less strong comic actresses. People were generally either Taking their Art Seriously (goes with the territory staked out by post-college actors), or performing for a hobby (goes with the territory for geezers). It was at this point that Bill took a left turn at Albuquerque, and the waiter delivered the crepes.

Bill had taken it upon himself to scope out various local auditions in search of the perfect proto-Elvira, and had come upon Barb auditioning at Studio Players for The Man Who Came to Dinner, the Kaufman and Hart vehicle with the immortal star turn entry line "I may vomit". The director had called for improv auditions, and Barb had responded with improvs that had at least Bill rolling in the Bell Court aisles. Bill had inveighled whoever needed to sign off on his discovery to join him in watching the ensuing production, and they had concluded from Barb's performance that She Was Their Girl. Hence the free soup: was Barb interested in becoming Channel 18's Elvira?

Well, acting is acting and paid acting is better than unpaid acting; but since I was supposed to be the practical one, I had a few questions besides the obvious "Are you nuts?", which didn't seem to be the most polite opening statement. We at least knew enough brazen careerism to appear interested, and while imitating another actor's shtick was out of the question there seemed to be a decent opportunity somewhere in the proposition. So after stipulating that there would be no Elvira-imitatin' goin' on in these here parts, we wondered what the suits at Channel 18 saw as the connection between Elvira and Barb. That was easy: Barb took chances on stage. True that. So anyone who was willing to take chances on stage was tailor-made for live teevee.

Excuse me? Live teevee? After Saturday Night Live live teevee? Which, if I remember properly, ends at 1AM Sunday morning live teevee?

This was necessary, Bill explained, in order to have the proper sense of daring n danger to the show. He wanted a show in which anything could happen, might happen, and did happen. No rules. Ad-libbed. Wacky, zany, spontaneous. Not for the teeming masses, but for a dedicated cult audience. For which he was offering the princessly sum of fifty dollars per show.

"You want Robin Williams for fifty bucks a week," I summarized.

"That's it exactly," said Bill. I suspect he missed the irony.

"We'll think about it."