Wednesday, 27 April 2016

B-Movies I damn well love - "Trancers"

So look – I write hugely angry blogs and sometimes I think I'm funny and sometimes I'm aware I come across as some kind of demented insular twerp.

Sometimes. Sometimes you're the toepick so don't get cocky.

I wanted to share, then, a couple of the things I absolutely love in movies, the sort of things that tickle my pink, that make the corners of my lip areas smile like a pornstar's – smile.

Forgive the weird formatting of this piece, it's all over the shop but I honestly just can't be arsed fixing it.

A brief and selective history of B-Movies

So what the hell is a B-Movie, dominicispalmer you sonofabitch? First off, that's not cool, my mum died for your sins, you can't call her that. Second off; well, at the risk of sounding patronising to those of you who already know ( like THAT'S ever happened before ) a basic definition of a B-Movie is that of a low budget, secondarily positioned genre movie, used in a double feature with a movie that would be classified as studio grade. In the thirties forties and fifties.

See, really it relates to that golden era of Hollywood where drive-ins ruled the roost. The term itself was not used in such a derisory way as it seems to be now, and often described a shorthand affection for films that had their hearts in the right place ( and their commercial cynicism don't get me wrong ) but not the budget to supplement them.

Dodgy effects, ropey acting, wobbly sets, scenes missing and the general sense that no one was watching so they could slip in subversive messages were the order of the day.

As the fifties segued into the sixties and tv took over, the B-Movie became the exploitation flicks that still inform the movies we watch today; to get people into the cinemas one sometimes needs gimmickry. Sound familiar? Censorship was shifting, the need for subversion became the desire to shove tits, gore, cussing and more onto the big screen to draw an audience in. Which it did!

Film makers such as Roger Corman, the amazingly sleazy yet strangely chaste Russ Myers, and in particular George A Romero were coming alive during this period, and with relatively tiny budgets, and casts made up of friends, were using their exploitation savvies to explore the world around them, be it Romero's satire, Corman's biker movies, or Myer's fascination with the american landscape of breasts. 

There were a million other exploitation movie makers flitting around doing their thing – including one Sergio Leone, who single handedly created an exploitation genre unto itself in the late sixties. Italy – and oddly enough Australia – had huge exploitation industries.

So the sixties gave way with the inevitability of another Star Wars movie referencing Darth Vader's face, to the seventies.

The seventies fostered a group of cutting edge, angry, drug fuelled film makers who had come through the exploitation circuit and used it as their film school. De Palma, Scorcese, Schrader, Cameron etc all had dealings with Corman in one way or another. 

Coppola – actually a generation above the young bucks in film making terms – had been a nudie-cutie movie maker. These were intelligent people, working within the low budget system to voice their concerns about the America around them. A new golden era of movie making was booming, theoretically fuelled by independent movie makers funded by a studio system desperately in love with the idea of directors as stars bringing in the bacon. The exploitation era had given these film makers a gritty confidence in warts and all film making; they knew there were audiences out there for their work.

Then Star Wars and Heaven's Gate occurred and everything got a little bit shit. Studios panicked. Directors, already becoming bloated on their own success started getting weird. Actors were once again becoming stars. There was lots of money but no one wanted to spend it.

And exploitation movies became B-Movies once more, only now instead of being fostered by film makers like Scorcese and De Palma, they were low-grade knock-offs of existing movies – notably Star Wars - being created by independent low budget hacks like Corman and Charles Band.

Charles Band was essentially a mogul. In his time he has run an enormous amount of film companies, mostly distribution groups for his own work, almost all of which have had Full Moon somewhere in the title. He has been linked to ropey rubber suit sci-fi, soft-core porn, and horror-themed computer games. His films often have a fascination with dolls, puppets and people who have been shrunk. According to Wikipedia he has made over 300 movies, often as director, writer and producer.

None of them are particularly good.

But he also directed one of my favourite B-Movies of all time...


The Terminator” came out in 1984. It was a smash; at a time when Sword and Sorcery movies were beginning to take on a life of their own, this was a dark, driven, gritty B-Movie, given serious credo by a film maker working hard to make his low budget feel like a bonus rather than a problem.

It's a great movie, just a really well put together piece of work. It's from the eighties so it delighted in shock value but it has a story that packs an emotional wallop, strong acting and perfectly pitched action beats. In a lot of ways it's still James Cameron's best, alongside "Aliens."

Charles Band clearly liked this movie. But more, he clearly liked that it made money. It was a low budget exploitation flick with no stars ( beyond a career-fledgling Arnuhlt ) and it made money.

So he did the obvious thing – and with the aid of two company writers knocked up a knock off. Time travel detective zombie redemption romance flick Trancerswas the result.

Now, my history with this movie goes back a million years. Around the late eighties and early nineties, brilliantly barmy British film maker Alex Cox ( Repo Man, Walker, Highway Patrolman & Sid and Nancy ) hosted the BBC 2 midweek program Moviedrome. Essentially this was a selection of arthouse and oddities, headlined by a small chat about the presented film given by a smart-mouthed Cox.

Films that aired included “Trancers,” “Exotica,” “Trust,” "Night of the Comet" and ultimately “The Terminator” itself – possibly the first time it was aired uncut, if I'm not mistaken. If I am, I just made that up, which proves you can't trust me. Trust me.

I was probably sixteen or seventeen when I first saw “Trancers.” I understood what it was, based not only on Cox's upfront and honest preview review but on my own burgeoning interest in movies as an entity. I understood that it was a cheap “Terminator” and “Blade Runner” knock off. I understood that it wasn't exactly quality film making. But by Infinite Bubble did I fall hard for it.


Starting in some bleak distant future amalgamation of California called Angel City, stand-up comedian and all round tough guy, the late Tim Thomerson plays Trancer-hunting dectective Jack Deth. Trancers are strange, half-possessed half zombified humans created for no particular reason by the powerfully psychic Whistler – the man responsible for the death of Deth's wife. Mrs Deth. Mrs Deth is dead. She died. Mrs Deth died. She's dead.

When Whistler sends his consciousness down the line – or back in time – into the body of a relative in the eighties to destroy Angel City's council ( for undisclosed reasons ), Jack Deth is the only one who can stop him. Sending his consciousness back into the body of his own distant relative Phil Deth, he discovers that Whistler's ancestor is a police detective, and he's begun trancing people again. With the help of Helen Hunt's Leena, a strong-minded punk rock girl who was seeing Phil, he must find and protect Hap Ashby, a former baseball pitcher now living on Skid Row, and face Whistler in a final showdown.

So yeah – the plot is as barmy as your average sci-fi sunday. Action moments include an old woman turning Trancer and being thrown around a futuristic fifties-style diner; likewise a store Santa Claus; there's a wonderful scene set in a punk rock club where Deth faces off – in true Terminator style – against a pack of loud-mouthed punks. But what truly impresses about this movie are it's ambitions, it's scope, and the teetering edge the performances walk on – genuinely sincere, but because of the fish out of water element, still allowed a certain camp swagger to justify some of the movie's larger shortcomings. Of which there are many.

So this film essentially has it's cake and eats it; setting itself up as a futuristic sci-fi piece, replete with smokilly lit action set-pieces, some truly imaginative matte paintings and sets covering for it's absolute lack of budget, and a bubbling synth score ( more on which later ) before switching itself into a then-present-day eighties thriller so they can film in friend's houses and businesses but still call themselves sci-fi. All iced by a perfectly balanced self-awareness typified by Thomerson's toweringly gruff performance, all scowls and forties tec hardness.

I cannot stress enough how much I love this movie. It is a cheap looking rip off, of so many other, better movies, but in my mind this will always beat the over-rated "Bladerunner" for sheer entertainment value.

For me, what makes this wonderful movie sing is that ambition behind it. Everything about it is clunky, from the sometimes hilariously guff exposition to the shoddy editing and crater sized plot holing at its heart, to the laughably obvious be-wigged stuntmen scattered throughout.

Yet the script has genuine heart, with some beautifully judged zingers and great care taken in the relationships between it's characters. Check out this exchange, occurring early into Jack's arrival in 1984.

Jack Deth: What I do wrong?
Leena: I don't know, maybe you're schizo or something.
Jack Deth: What? What does that mean?
Leena: Last night you said you grew up in L.A. Today you couldn't find Cahuanga Boulevard, you put shit in your hair, you can't even remember my name
Mrs. Santa Claus: Leena! Get over here!
Jack Deth: Your name's Leena?
Leena: Did I give you my phone number?
Jack Deth: No.
Leena: Oh, thank God.

Pithy, concise, character based writing that takes great joy in placing Jack Deth amongst the denizens of the eighties and then poking fun at everyone.

The plot is essentially a skeleton to hook it's observations on the age old fish out of water story into, a variation on the Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court tale. The sci-fi is cute; silly and cute and completely harmless.

But for me, the thing that caught me back then and sticks with me now, is the strange aura of melancholy that hovers across the piece.

This is a story about a man who lost everything when he lost his wife, given the opportunity for redemption but at a possibly terrible cost. His relationship with Leena is spiky but human, and will obviously result in a case of the eighties not-gays, but there's also a wonderful sadness and humour about it – typified by his constantly missing out on Phil's sexual encounters with Leena by being dragged back to the future to give progress reports at inappropritate moments.

This sadness and sense of loss extends to the character of Hap Ashby, a once-was baseball player languishing in Skid Row, an alcoholic who has given up on life. That he will be the man who helps rid the future world of the evil Whistler gives it that “Terminator” trope of saving the future saviour of the future; but by giving him this strangely tragic background it adds to the sometimes overwhelming sense of aching sadness that powers the film.

The sadness at the movie's heart is immeasurably added to by the score; a gentle, lilting, synthy piece of beauty by Phil Davies and Mark Ryder, who have contributed scores to many of Band's movies. For what that's worth.

Rather than going down the frantic, Fairlight and Oberheim percussive route of many an action movie of it's time, seemingly inspired by Brad Fiedel's gorgeous Terminator score and the entirety of Vangelis' back catalogue, the two men created an oddly sorrow-filled soundtrack that adds huge depth to the on-screen story, guiding that overall sense of melancholia. There are of course drones, whistles, and bloops befitting it's genre and era, but just take a listen to the gorgeous end theme – a track played out AFTER the film's supposedly happy ending.

( Sharp eyed listeners might note that the above link brings one to the "Trancers III" soundtrack; this is because the score was twice recycled - wholesale - for the first two sequels. Did I mention that Charles Band was cheap? )

This is a film steeped in a strange nostalgia : one of Deth's past-times in the future is diving into the destroyed wreckage of what was Los Angeles, now covered by the ocean, to find antique artefacts. Even that little character trait speaks measures as to the ambition behind the writers intentions, their understanding of irony as the man who would wax nostalgic is sent into the very past he's searching for.

Now an artefact itself, the film hasn't weathered well on it's direct-from-VHS transfer to DVD. It's obvious failings are glaring and many. But it's charming, funny, nostalgic and sad, and surprisingly sincere given its pedigree. I often wonder what a better film maker would make of the better-than-usual quality screenplay. I'd be cool with a soft reboot, as long as they once again recycled that score.

All that aside however, I absolutely recommend this wonderful B-Movie to anyone with even a passing interest in exploitation; if you can find it. Maybe some of them illegal sites might have it - I think the statute of guilt limitations is probably up on this one.

And so...

What's next. Well my intention is to start working through many of the B-type movies that have given me such pleasure over my many years of movie watching. I'm not someone who is interested in so-bad-they're-good movies; I never have been. But I can look past low budgets and lesser movie making if there's heart, style, or ambition to flicks.

I'll be looking at films such as Sean S Cunningham's "House" quartet; the amazing "Buckaroo Banzai;" the forgotten Moviedrome classic that was "Vamp;" as well as more contemporary movies such as "Life after Beth" and "Blood Sucking Bastards."

And a promise - I have been rightfully called a writer who's work is "too wordy." So as this is my introductory piece as well as my first recommendation, I can only promise that from now on I'll be hella-shorter!

Stick with me, you gaping holes of fart. You will 
not be disappointed. And if anyone has any suggestions, statements, or comments do not hesitate to make them.

Ciao for now


Saturday, 7 November 2015

Ten Things That bake my noodle about amateur theatre - part two

"jaysus that took a long time to read..."


"i didn't like the font..."

Well there we are. My harshest critics. BUT I've taken it to heart so rest assured, this one will be ever so slightly shorter. Done fuck all about the font though. Might add a few more pictures.

Christ, don't tell me I don't listen to my audience, even if I know you're all a bunch of microdots up a spy's arsehole.

Did that even make sense? Not to YOU maybe. Idiots. So here then are my top five pet peeves of working in Amateur Theatre. With less words. And more fucking pictures.

Arseclowns all of you.

5. Committees.

Much of the pressure within the world of amateur dramatics comes from committees. Like big business or the tobacco companies, committees are theoretically – and often practically – to be feared and loathed, their undeserved arrogance forced on us like Fatty Arbuckle's erroneous rape charge, with exactly the same effect : bad feelings, stupid allegations, unreasonable expectations, too many publicly aired opinions, a failed career, and then nothing actually happens. People still drink Coca Cola though.

But what IS a committee? Well in amateur dramatic terms, a committee is made up of at least seventy nine people, all stringently against whatever anyone else thinks, their pursed lips pressed firmly together in practised disapproval as they eye anyone who hasn't been with the drama group for more than eleven years with deeply discriminatory suspicion. 

Their job is to meet every three weeks or so and come up with reasons why someone should not be allowed do what they want within the group. Then they'll congratulate themselves on it and go to the pub.

Breaking it down, most amateur drama groups have at least three to four separate committees, alongside a chairperson and some guy who does the accounts and tediously reports to everyone on the last show's returns every fucking time they meet.

The artistic committee – this is made up of people who know nothing about theatre but are charged with choosing the next forty or so plays the group are going to produce. They have been placed in this position in order to be manipulated by outside parties to agree to do certain types of play, ie those with “marketable appeal” for “bums on seats.” They have about as much artistic experience, knowledge or understanding as the day after 911. They are essentially civil servants, placed in their position by higher authorities to have no power whatsoever.

The social committee – this is the one where they organise the parties, be it after show, Christmas, Halloween, new years, birthdays, funerals, etc. This is where it's at, right here, this is the central hub of many a drama group, the go-to people, the have a laugh, kicking off, the fucking fun fun funnity of funs. Of course what this has to do with putting on theatre is anyone's guess, but who doesn't like to party? Aside from me obviously, I've established I'm an anti-social fuckshit, actively burning all bridges as I type this river of toxic slime. Why should anyone else get to enjoy themselves? Fuck that. Fuck you. Fuck everything.

What? Anyway.

The publicity committee – usually just one person, charged with arranging the distribution of posters, social media, and all other publicity material. This person takes their job so seriously, they actually grate on every other committee member's tits, partly because they're actually doing their job well and are therefore showing everyone else up. They will get a cursory thanks in the program.

The chairperson – this is basically the president of Ireland. With all the pomp and ceremony stripped of their position, these people do absolutely nothing of worth. They are there to have the real power whisper in their ear, then repeat those whispered mantras as though they are their own. They spout the party line and are usually voted in based not on their experience or ability, but because of their weak wills.

The real power – this is usually two or three people who are using the drama group to further their own agenda. They've been members for a long time, and do not like to see things change, especially when their own needs are being suited. They will be at the forefront of every vote, every discussion, their faces will be in every newspaper article, and they will be the controlling members of each and every play. They will be one of the three or four cycling directors or producers of each show the group presents. They will also continually tell you they always welcome new members, new plays, and new approaches. While actively disproving this time and time again. These people are driven by arrogance and insecurity. And everyone knows it.

The reason why committees tend not to work, however, is very simple : people. 

People by their very nature get in their own way. People refuse to believe they're wrong. People refuse to agree with others unless there's an angle that benefits them. Give people even the illusion of power and they will display levels of greed akin to Hitler every time he shifted the face of Eva Braun. People will argue for the sake of arguing, and give people a rule book to quote and you can forget about any semblance of sense to their decision making.

That is why most committees suck donkey balls.

In fact, the only thing worse than committees, are a lack of one. The irony of course is that drama groups need structure to work, someone in a – even fabled – place of authority from which decisions can be made. Take away this structure and you're left with a clusterfuck of disorganisation, pointed blame fingers, and a set of shrugged shoulders.

Here's the truth – you only need a forum of three people to run a drama group successfully. That's it. That's all you need for your committee. Any more than that, and those three people have chosen to delegate work onto others because they don't want the responsibility of running a drama group. Get rid of them, and get another three people who feel passionate about what they're doing. It's easy.

4. The assumption that everyone else is amateur except us.

This is not unique to drama or theatre. Everyone in the universe believes that they know more than everyone else, and everyone else is wrong except me. That's just a fact, and you can't argue with facts. That's just fact.

I'll keep this short, coz point number 5 went on forever and I can feel your bristles of annoyance at me DARING to use words in such a lengthy manner. Who do I think I am, Shakespeare? If you knew how many times I have been called "wordy," you'd realise the amount of times someone has given me decent advice that I've chosen to ignore in favour of contrived anger and an excuse to explode on paper. Or, what's this called? Your screen. I'm exploding all over your screen. Take it.

Point is, this is the same assumption that every amateur drama group makes – that THEY are far more professional than every other drama group around. It's bullshit. You're lying to yourselves.

Two reasons. One : you're amateur. Unless you're paying money to the cast and crew, you're doing it “for the love.” Now, I have known of several amateur drama groups who quite sneakily pay certain performers and crew – including themselves – and not others out of the returns for the show. This doesn't make them professional, this makes them scabs and frauds.

Reason two : If you are so self-obsessed that you must look to other groups before you look to your own, then you have already failed. You are operating your group from the point of view of what-not-to-do instead of through forward momentum. You've failed. Give up, there's no point continuing. Kill yourself, and in your suicide note remind us that you killed yourself better than anyone else ever has, ever.

A bit of advice from the incensed but wise – learn, gain experience, understand, and work together towards doing the best piece of theatre you possibly can. Don't give a shit what other people are doing. Just do it the best you can. I don't know why that should seem so alien to people, but there it is.

There is nothing wrong with being an amateur. It's just that you're doing it wrong.

3. “Writers should never direct their own work. They'll miss the bigger picture, they just won't be objective about their work.”

I hear this statement trotted out every few years.

The sheer pompous arrogance of it cannot be under-stated. It is basically saying that a writer does not understand their own work well enough to produce it.

Now being someone who used to write plays - until the absolute lack of respect, the sheer and ugly sneering I endured for DARING to write new plays wore me down into the shrivelled testicle sack I am now - this one is a particular bugbear of mine. I have heard it repeated many, many times over the years, and of all the amateur opinions I have heard it is one of the most bizarre, and is unfounded by actual practice.

Now sometimes it's stated by people with experience who genuinely believe this, people who may actually be a writer and simply cannot ever see themselves being a director of actors. They are not wrong in their decision. But it is THEIR decision. They would prefer to hand their play over to a legitimate director, someone who knows how to shape a piece of theatre from a set of paper-slapped wordlings. I'm not saying that every playwright should have to direct their own work, not at all.

But more often than not I hear this mantra being wheeled out by people who simply do not know what they're talking about, who are basically saying that writers lack the objectivity to deconstruct their work for stage, and are far too precious about their words to let loose.

Think about this for a second. This is basically stating that writers – the creators of a play, the characters, and the world in which those characters thrive – lack the vision to reproduce their own work. And furthermore, they will be less willing to cut or alter their work than a passionless – but objective – director will. The notion being that a writer put so much work into their play that they can't see the wood for the trees.

Now really think about that. No. Really.

Ignoring the fact that when a writer has finished a play, that is the play, that is the work from which you'll be creating your theatre, therefore why the fucking NEED to change it at all? Ignoring the bizarre assumption that a director is required to completely disregard the text in order to place their stamp on it, I want you to stop and read over that last paragraph again and think about it. Really think about it. I'll wait. Go on, have a cup of herbal orange juice and smoke a Piper Laurie.

It is nonsense to assume a writer's workload ceases the instant the play is handed to a committee.

Once again, I say this – if a writer can direct, then there is no reason why they should not be able to direct their own work. A writer, in fact who directs, can be far MORE open to workshopping it because they WANT it to work. Not only that, but the best directors will have the writer on board even if only to keep them on board for any changes that might be required.

Only insecurity and arrogance allows the director to keep the writer away; why would you actively seek to keep the one person who truly understands the play – because they created it – away from the process? It obviously makes no practical sense, but then matters of the ego rarely do. The only reason to do so is to exhibit a complete lack of respect for that person's work; because the assumption seems to be that the writer simply will not understand the director's vision and therefore must not ever be allowed to witness it.

Yes, of course there are times when a writer is being too precious about his work and so might be a cunt about it. A great example is that of the great writer James Dickey making an absolute arse of himself on the set of John Boorman's “Deliverance,” based on both the novel and the screenplay Dickey wrote. By all accounts – his own included – he shoved his musky big hands into the gears many a time, to much chagrin from the cast and crew.

So, it happens. But not always.

I'll give you a quick anecdote, and I will try and keep it short because I can feel the crosshairs on me, the mutterings under your breath of “he's a fucking writer, complaining that he can edit his own work, but when is he going to put this into practice?”

I hear ya. Fuck you, but I hear ya.

I recently directed a short piece I wrote. In the six or so weeks I workshopped it with the actors, due to poor scheduling we needed to replace a performer. It was a tough decision, however it made practical sense. But it meant we ended up one actor short for the piece.

My solution was simple – I cut his character completely out. It was a funny character, one I would have liked – as a writer – to keep. But I also recognised the need to keep momentum on the show so I made the decision to cut it. I introduced audience interaction to cover it; this interaction was not in the original script. While directing my own play I allowed for and encouraged improvisation, rewrote jokes to add punch, allowed the actors to bring their own sensibilities to the piece. I added a huge swathe of physical comedy and tics that were not in the script. I added props that were not in the play. I edited, added, deconstructed, and workshopped with the actors to make the piece work in the best possible way for the paying audience that it could.

I did all this to my own script. Please don't tell me a writer is too precious about his play.

I don't say this to brag, or tell you that my play was amazing or even special. I'm simply using it as an example in direct opposition to the frankly stupid assertion that a writer is too precious to direct their own work; and to the notion that a writer will only work toward selling their play without embellishment.

Now, the opposite of this is those writer/directors who have very specific tones and style they want to utilise. People like David Mamet or Hal Hartley, who often remove the emotions from their plays and let the bite of the words do the heavy lifting. They direct their own work in order to create that specific atmosphere they feel their plays require. Should they not be allowed to do this?

Someone like Neil Labute directs his own work so as to avoid the possibility of a director removing the acid bite of his work by softening the edges, or worse adding too much negativity to his often perfectly balanced and nuanced writing. Stephen Spielberg wrote ET. That seemed to work out okay for him. Harold Pinter often directed his own work. Chris Morris writes, directs and performs in his own pieces, working hard to get the exact tone for his vision.

Do you see where I'm going with this? It's bullshit to so explicitly state that a writer should not direct their own work. 

It's nonsense and it's such an amateur assertion to make.

2. “Bums on Seats.”

This is the shortest entry I'll give you. Standard amateur drama group practice is to present a play that has already been proven in the past, in order to secure an audience – bums on seats.

There are about ten plays in Ireland that continually move around the amateur drama circuit, with each group performing them again and again, every seven years or so. In Ireland, these are mostly Irish plays from the fifties and sixties, supposed “classics” that are supported essentially by the assumption that all an audience wants to see is an old play by a long dead playwright.

Most amateur drama groups refuse to stray from this formula of replay, and it is why it becomes hugely frustrating for a writer of new work trying to get their plays out there, or for an audience looking for new or interesting theatre.

Bums on seats belies the truth of many an amateur drama group's ethos – that they may talk the talk when it comes to art, artistic vision, and the love of the greasepaint. But the reality is they want to make money, win awards, and associate themselves with greatness by proxy. They believe that simply by putting on a play by Sean O'Casey, they are achieving a level of authenticity and artistry. They're not – they're putting on a laughably outdated play with brand recognition. For money. Often poorly.

1. “It is what it is.”

Of all the statements I have heard repeated over the past twenty years, this is the one that sucks my arse-cleft the most. I hear it so often about so many different things that it has become the one thing guaranteed to grind my teeth to powder.

It is what it is.” You know what that is? Justification and acceptance that something is shite, while taking no responsibility for why that might be. It is the worst, most ugly, pathetic and cowardly way for a participant to describe the final result of a group of people getting together to put on a piece of theatre.

If you find yourself using this term to describe the work you are doing, then you are doing something very, very wrong and you should not be asking people to pay for the privilege of sitting through the end result. When you take a shit and look at it in the bowl, it is what it is. A siren is what it is. A play should be something else.

Imagine using this statement in any other context. 

You've just had what you thought was intense and sweaty intercourse with someone you almost care about, you've put all your work into it, you've slammed when they wanted slamming, you've tried not to ejaculate within the five minute mark which has necessitated you thinking about your mother's funeral and the fact you're almost positive you heard her crying in the coffin, and when you've finished and ask your partner “how was it?” they reply - “it is what it is.”

Imagine a pilot using this term instead of righting his too steep descent.

Your father using it to describe your mother.

A waiter slamming an obviously smashed creme brulee down in front of you.

Someone forcing themselves on you.

A doctor accidentally crushing your newborn baby's head with a vice clamp, or whatever it is doctors use to yank children out of vaginas during that birth thing you people do these days.

A teacher refusing to work a little harder to help a child with Asbergers.

Do you begin to understand just how offensive this term is?

It is what it is.” The largest shrug possible. Fuck off anyone who uses this phrase. It's akin to that other nauseating mantra - “it's just a bit of fun, isn't it?” You're a moron for saying this. 

It would also be a bit of fun to watch you fall off a building into a pit of angry giraffes who proceed to use their necks to kill you.

There is a vast difference between having fun, and shrugging something off as “just a bit of fun.” A vast chasm of difference. It should never be this way. Ever. It should never just be “what it is.”

Otherwise what the fuck is the point of putting in all that effort?


I know what you're thinking – I do, I really do. Get over yourself, dominicispalmer. You're taking it all far too seriously. Yes? So? And? Isn't that the whole point of doing this theatre thing? To do it as seriously, as well as possible? Surely it is. Surely to fucking god it's more than just turning up to socialise in high-school style cliques designed to ostracise and alienate those idiots who dare to join a drama group in the vague hope of doing something good.

Here's my suggestion, amateur theatre. There is time for you to change. I feel it, I feel like all you have to do is stop and think for a second. To remix your ideals. To come to terms with the fact that a drama group is about theatre; not internal drama, never changing until the internal rot becomes the only thing keeping it together.

So here's my suggestion - take it seriously. Work hard at it. Rehearse properly. Don't assume that just by turning up and saying the lines you're creating drama. Listen to and learn from those who have experience ( and not just experience of being a member of an amateur drama group for nineteen years. ) 

Don't assume simply by taking part you know what you're doing. Respect writers work and opinions; without the writers you have no play. Remember that. A play without a director is still a piece of art. A director without a play is nothing.

Cast correctly. If someone is cast through duty, they will know it. They will look and feel like shit on the night. Isn't it better not to put anyone through that?

Work hard at getting every element of a play right, so that when the audience pay their hard earned money, you can be proud of the final product and they will have something more to say about your production than, “the sets were good, weren't they?” while you shrug your shoulders and declare "it is what it is; when's the next production?" Because you know what? That next production will be as piss as this one if you don't put in the time and respect required.

For me, I'm done. I'm out. I'm no longer supporting amateur theatre, either with my presence or my experience. I'm disillusioned by it. I have stopped writing plays. I am no longer performing, except for outstanding commitments. I hope never to work in theatre again.

What was it that tipped me over the edge? To quote the great “Seven” : it wasn't any one thing, I can tell you that.

Is it any better in the professional world? No. But it comes with perks, most notably professional attitudes and though I'm loathe to say it - the odd payslip. Not always, but most of the time. 

But I have other pursuits I want to chase. I have ambitions and goals, just like anyone else who's been a porn performer and has finally gotten out.

You won't miss me, and that's okay because believe me, I won't miss you.

It is what it is.

Thanks for your time.


Friday, 6 November 2015

Ten Things That Bake my Noodle about amateur theatre - part one

Hey folks, welcome to the world of fury, fire, and blisters.

It's been a while since I released a blog from my piston-mind of anger, my bile-duct of regret and regression, my - uh - similarly themed set of odd mixed metaphors. I make no apologies, I've never pretended that I like you and you've never told me you need me. Knobwrangler.

So, I have been a theatre practitioner for nearly twenty years, on and off, often professionally, but also quite regularly at an amateur, or independent level. I have put on a number of my own plays, created street theatre projects for teenagers, and once spent a week acting in an Oscar Wilde play I understood none of. In this time I have experienced the best and the worst of theatre.

This listy blog is based on my experiences in that time, making attempts to ply my trade as an independent writer and performer in a sea of oncoming idiocy, beurocracy, and wilful and sometimes painful ignorance and disrespect.

I might as well say now that you probably won't agree with everything that is to come. These observations are often sweeping generalisations, satirical to a degree but as far as I am concerned, as honest a portrayal as I can represent from my time in the trenches. You may dislike the tone I adopt within. You're entitled to your opinion. You're wrong, but entitled to be so. Just stay out of my way.

So as I said, I've been a theatre practitioner for a very long time, as a performer, director, producer, and what was once my first passion, as a writer. I used to love what I did. I used to want to be the best I could be. I assumed and expected that those I worked with in this field would be the same as me. I was very, very wrong. Over time my experience in the world of amateur theatre has cost me my passion, and my desire to continue as a practitioner. It's a crying shame but in the grander scheme of things, it's really no loss to anyone but myself. I'll get over it, in time. You'll get over it before this sentence finishes.

So what is an amateur as opposed to a professional and how do their mindsets differ? Well, in the most generalised of terms, an amateur is someone who engages in some activity or other for the love as opposed to for the pay. For the love.

For the love.

As I angrilly delve into the first of a two-part blog, and my first five pet-peeves of amateur theatre, please remember this : for the love.

Part of why amateur theatre is so traditionally awful, is down to the traditions behind it - generally drama groups are started by one of two types of people : those who believe they are at a professional level because they won an award once, and therefore don't need to learn anything; and those who have never actually studied theatre ( I mean studied it, as opposed to watched it on the local stage and thought, I could do that ) but believe they have seen enough to understand it. They both suffer from the same malady - grotesquely over-stated self-belief. From these two types of tendrils spread an octopus of delusions.

But wait, I hear you declarifying loudly! Who are YOU to dare to arrogantly proclaim advice from within our computer slot, you b-bearded lanky fat-suit of a man! What makes you so special? Well, I'm not. I don't think I'm better than you. I really don't. I am just someone who has had his spirit crushed by the soul-less stupidity of one too many over-spoken fools, grandly spouting shite when they should be learning from experience. I am someone who has had the passion squeezed out of him by those who would declare a love for theatre, while keenly avoiding demonstrating it. 

I'm basically fed up. And I want to scream.

Onwards, therefore, and downwards. I warn you in advance, there are cusswords in this piece. You will probably - hopefully - be offended. I live in the vain desire that you will feel physically affronted by what I have to say, as if I am personally spitting in your mouth after I've just eaten a peanut butter covered oatcake.

10. "I don't like to over-rehearse my cast. After all I don't want them to get bored."

I can't tell you how often I hear this refrain in amateur circles, and it makes absolutely not one licked paint-biscuit of sense.

It is basically pandering to your cast over your audience and is why your play looks under-rehearsed and amateur.

Surely the whole point of putting a play on is that it comes across as natural, unforced, and well-rehearsed. Or to put it another way – like you made the effort to put on a good play for your audience.

Surely therefore, the only way to do that is to rehearse them to the point that they ARE bored, bored enough at least to want to present it to an audience. This notion of not boring the cast is based on two things simultaneously – the erroneous idea of keeping things fresh; and the notion that this is an amateur cast giving up their precious time to do this show, so must be respected at all costs.

Keeping things fresh : this is bullshit, and one of the main reasons many amateur plays seem under-rehearsed and the cast unprepared, leading to sine-wave voice acting, poor line readings, “off” pacing and more dropped lines than a cocaine addict with Parkinsons. Or Robin Williams. Too soon? There's no such thing.

The only way a cast can keep fresh with the material is to become so familiar with it that they can start to play around, within the already rehearsed confines and structure of the piece. Yes, in the professional world where performers may be doing the same show every night for two years, over and over again, to the point that they begin to resemble a moveable mannequin on-stage despite their own best efforts, one can legitimately talk about keeping things “fresh.” There is a world of difference between these people, who spent a goodly portion of time rehearsing the piece before opening night to get it perfect, and amateurs who spend on average three hours a week for four weeks, rehearsing.

Not even skilled improvisers can just turn up with no preparation. They must workshop, create cast and audience controls, rehearse their structure to give the maximum amount of entertainment to the paying audience. They work very, very hard in order to make it seem effortless. They may not know exactly what they're going to say, but they understand how and where they can say it, and with experience and repetition comes timing and a seemingly off-the-cuff performance. This is the difference between a skilled performer – someone who has taken the time to prepare, research, rehearse and become comfortable with the material or the structure of the material – and an amateur who likes to “keep things fresh.”

You pander to your audience, not to your cast. Which leads me to : but this is just an amateur cast. So? What's your point? If this person has given up their time to do this play, shouldn't the assumption be that that's just what they want to do? Yes, they probably work during the day. And yes, they have a life outside of this. But this is their hobby my friend, this is something they're doing because they want to do it, because it's fun, and because at the end of the day they want to look and feel good doing it. They need structure, and they need to be pushed and if they don't respond to it, or are just here for the social life, then tell them to fuck off. Replace them with someone who actually gives a shit. The only way to get someone to the point that they look good on-stage is to work, work, and work again at getting it right. This means over-rehearsing. This means boredom with the material. This means repetition and commitment.

To put it in perspective – no one would turn up to help a dairy engineer for two hours, once a week, with no idea what they're doing, then say but this is my hobby, and I like to keep things fresh when someone complains that they're shit and don't know what they're doing. So why do amateur performers and especially directors assume they can do the same with stagecraft?

9. "Roles must be given to people who have

In other words, if we're operating through an amateur drama group – which is most likely given their pack-of-wolf prevalence over independent amateurs – the important roles in the play do not necessarily go to those who are right for them, but to those who have been long standing members/friends of the group or individuals producing the play.

This is one of the reasons why, as an audience member, you will be sitting looking at someone in their sixties playing the seventeen year old main character and thinking – what the fuck were they thinking? Which is also why it is so very rare to actually see someone in an amateur play who suits or is in any way capable of playing the role they've been cast in.

That person is either – a friend of the director; a friend of the group; someone with money; someone who works for a local paper; someone who has been a member of this group for longer than five years and therefore is deserving of any role they choose to play; over seventy, pushing ever closer to pushing the daisies, and therefore MUST be given their respect and dues no matter how old and shuddery they are on-stage; a relation of someone; someone who turned up for the audition and therefore must be cast ( though they were probably one of the above, and have secretly been asked by the director to turn up to the auditions so they can be officially cast without having to worry about someone complaining, unless – well, see number 8. )

Now, all of this respect amongst friends is good and fine and dandy, except you're then asking the public to pay money to sit through this circle jerk of monkey jizz. And that, dear friends, is when it stops being cool. Because you know what? Just as your amateur cast work hard during the day and attend your rehearsals out of love or social necessity – so too do your audience. And they're the ones who are paying you their hard earned cash to watch this ignorantly cast bilge.

Which brings me onto number 8...

8. "Fuck it, just cast anyone – the main thing is to get the play in front of an audience."

Casting your friends or your relatives is obviously not restricted just to the amateur world. Nepotism is a very hack move but it exists in all walks of life. Hell, I often cast my girlfriend in plays I've written and directed. Of course the difference is, she's a seasoned, skilled performer and I only ever cast her in roles that are appropriate to her. I often cast her; not always.

So I feel like I'm okay to cast the first stone here. If you'll pardon the phrase coinage.

One thing peculiar and relatively unique to amateur theatre is the fuck-it-we-need-to-cast this play phenomenon, whereby either not enough people turned up to your audition, or not enough of the right people. Which basically means casting from a shallow gene pool, with all the attendant bullshit that brings with it, or reaching out to people who didn't show an interest in your piece in the first place, just so you can fill a role.

Look, I get it – sometimes you need to fill out your cast. You have ludicrously chosen a play that needs seventeen people, and you only have four people cast. Two of those are your close, personal friends, one is some guy who's promised to advertise his business in your program so you don't want to piss him off, and the other is someone who's wife just died of Cancer and you need to keep his mind off it for at least three hours a week. That's cool, but what are you going to do about those thirteen other roles?

I know! Fuck it – let's just cast the play anyway. Call in some favours, cast those two people who turned up at the auditions because they saw it on Facebook and just want to do “anything” to get out of the house for a couple of hours. Ask everyone you know to either join your cast or help you find someone who will so that what you end up with is one or two dedicated people, and a bunch of others whose commitment, generally, is – at best – uneven. Perhaps understandably so, but uneven none the less.

When casting outside of auditions, the result is usually eggshells – the director and cast often end up walking on them in accommodating this person, who of course is doing them a favour by even turning up once a month to help them with their little play. When casting from those who are not right for the roles but are required if this damn play is going to happen at all damn it, well it's obvious what happens. They just cannot pull it off. The audience has to sit through their painful performances and applaud them for, at least, giving it a go while secretly reserving a special place in their own mind-hell for the director of this shit.

Sure, the play has been saved by being able to cast it. But at what cost.

Again, in no other world would you so eagerly yet half-aresedly give away a role to someone who is not equal to the task just to get the job done. Would you like your Tuscanny Rabbit in Pork Blood and Greek Belly cooked for you by someone who was brought in at the last second to fill a space despite their complete lack of experience or appropriateness in the role?

The answer is no. In fact the answer is, obviously not. You idiot. I'm going to kill you. So why are we so quick to accept it in the world of amateur drama? Personally, I would rather not do a play than conflict it's potential with such a watered down approach. I have certainly done so in the past; pulled a play I understood instinctively would not get the cast it required. I have had just enough experience of seeing my own plays fail in the hands of others, who cast from that shallow gene pool just to cast, to understand that sometimes it's just not right to continue on that path. A play can always be done some other time. Let the stars at least attempt to align before shoving this shit out there for all to see!

Of course, I am certainly not free of guilt in this regard – I am over-familiar with the panic that ensues when you realise you're one cast member short, have already booked the dates in the local Arts Centre, and have three other cast members waiting for the first read-through before they tell you they can only attend rehearsals once a month, and only on the days no one else can attend them.

In my twenty years experience, I have sometimes had the good fortune to have known and worked with some strong performers, people I have wanted to work with, and who have wanted to work with me. On the few occasions I have had to stretch out to fill a role, I have ultimately – and always - had to cast despite myself to get the ball rolling, then I have had to drop these people because of a lack of commitment ( they're doing you a favour after all ) or lack of suitability to the role, and often had to replace them with myself, causing headaches and stress and lines I didn't want to have to learn, which is why I didn't cast myself in the first place god damn it.

I'm a prick, that much must be obvious to you as you read this. I'm a prick because I don't do this for the socialising. I'm a prick because I don't like seeing one person fuck things up for others. I'm a prick because I used to care enough about my craft and art to want to get it done to the best possible standard, and I would work damn hard at achieving this irrespective of how other people – often people on the inside – perceived it. I have worked with many actors, amateur and professional, and the best - and rarest - of them have shared my passions and work ethics. That is why we have often worked together on numerous projects and why when someone upsets that balance I do not work with them again.

Despite being an obnoxious prick, I'm also a gentle person, and I don't like having to replace people, especially if one of the only reasons I am doing so is because they were cast due to being in the right place at the right time. That's not their fault and it hurts them and me to have to do it.

I especially don't like having to replace people with myself. Not because of the next pet peeve, but because I suffer from stage terrors, and have become increasingly frightened of performing. But that's for another day.

7. "Actors should never direct themselves."

This is a phrase that is often, pompously wheeled out by people who just don't know what they're talking about. Or have singularly failed in doing so themselves and therefore assume it can't be done by lesser folk.

Look, this is only true to a certain extent. The reality is, inexperienced actors should avoid directing themselves, and inexperienced directors should avoid acting in their own pieces.

That's it. It has nothing to do with projecting an ego, nor has it anything to do with not being able to get a true performance from yourself when you can't see what you're doing. An actor – believe it or not – generally shapes their performance without being able to see themselves. The director is only there during rehearsals, unless you're my girlfriend, in which case there's no escaping me. Chances are you're not, though. Lucky you. No honestly. See above comments about my complete arseholery.

I have seen far too many strong performances given by actors who directed themselves to agree with this pious bullshit, and I have had too many occasions where I have had to direct myself through necessity to accept it. Did I give the best performance I could give? Sure. Why not? I've learned my own ticks, work hard at keeping them at bay. Ego? Fuck that shit, it's just fact.

is hard to do, to direct a play with other actors when you are acting alongside them. Sometimes it feels as though you are not giving them enough attention because you are on the wrong side of the fourth wall. Sometimes you feel like you're not giving yourself enough attention, because you're focussing on giving them their dues. But can any director or actor honestly tell me this isn't the case when you are not directing yourself? Sometimes a director simply focusses on one aspect of the play to the detriment of all others. 

I have heard directors discussing the lighting with the cast at the first read-through. This is just hilariously misplaced directing and can be far more damaging to a cast than directing oneself alongside them. This is a director showing off, when he should be easing his cast into their new roles. Why should your actors give a fat fuck for how you're going to light the show? They're too busy wondering how they're going to perform their role. It also stands to reason, why would your actors be against you coming down into the trenches alongside them, and experiencing what they're experiencing? Surely that helps the cast bond? Directors - you're not generals. You are guides. You cannot guide if you have not been there before.

To say that an actor should never direct himself is an absurdly definitive statement based on, at best, a half-truth, and at worst is the most amateur of declarations. 

I can direct myself. I have done so many times. Do I prefer to be directed by someone else? Sure. Sometimes. But I have had good experiences and I have had bad experiences. I have learned from both, and the good and the bad experiences have placed me in the position that I would prefer to direct myself than be directed by these idiots again.

You want a bit of back up? Here's a list of film and theatre directors who have all done pretty good jobs of directing themselves over the years :

Charles Chaplin; Harold Lloyd; Mel Gibson; Christopher Guest; Kenneth Branagh; Robert De Niro; Mel Brooks; Clint Eastwood; Orson Welles; Woody Allen; Mel Gibson; Tom Stoppard; Harold Pinter; David Mamet; Eric Bogosian; almost every stand up comedian you could mention.

The last three names, take note of. They'll come up again later on, in part two. Am I as good as anyone mentioned above? No. Obviously not. But will I be if I keep working at it? That's a definitely maybe.

This statement, that an actor should not direct themselves, is blown out of all proportion in the world of amateur dramatics. The reality is simpler – if they can, why shouldn't they? That's it.

I'll finish this one off with an anecdote. I recently went to see a poorly staged, intermittently well acted, but generally fucking awful play. I go out for a drink after, get talking to someone who repeats this mantra that actors should never direct themselves. Within this mantra we get talking about how excellent a particular cast member was in this production we just watched. How they just got the play, understood how to perform the lines, kept the rest of the cast's momentum up when they were clearly flagging on-stage.

Don't anticipate the punchline folks. But that's right – this person they were praising, was also the director of the play. They were indeed the best thing about it, they were an inexperienced director and so perhaps should not have put themselves in this position, but they saved the show from numerous dropped lines, numerous occasions of poor ad-libbing by the other cast members, and at the end, by pacing the play with their own performance so that it rarely flagged as a result of the other performers amateur – or “fresh” - acting. They knew the play inside out because, guess what, they had done their homework in order to direct it. They were also the only one who knew their lines and how to say them.

I don't know if that's the pudding or not, but there's certainly proof in there somewhere.

6. "We're already off book!"

Of all the amateur dramatic mantras that wreck my arrogant head, this is number six on my list. They all wreck my head equally, but this just happens to be here. At number six. Right here, at number six on the list. Boy oh boy can you beat that?

So every amature director will start their production of a play with a sit around reading, and at this reading they will express a date whereby the actors must be “off book.” Because of the idiotic nature of amature dramatics, most groups assume that they only need four or so weeks to rehearse their play. They're idiots, obviously, but within these four weeks they will expect their performers to be “off book” almost instantly, so that their hands are free of scripts during the too short rehearsal period.

What this means in laymans terms is, learning their lines. Now, it makes sense for actors to learn their lines as quickly as possible because it frees their rehearsals, and indeed their performances, up to experimentation. It also makes sense for actors to learn their lines because, the nature of stage performance is that actors are not supposed to be reading from a script in front of an audience. I don't know if this is – is this one of those statements of the obvious they sometimes talk about in books and stuff?

Ignoring the fact that the very people who often say they like to have their performers fresh with the material, are often the very people who demand that all the lines are learned immediately, let's move on to a more obvious fact.

It doesn't matter 
when someone learns their lines, as long as on the night of the performance, they're not doing it from a script. Honestly. Stop, stop your chattering and your whining right now. I can hear you, muttering at me. You've been doing it for the entirety of this article. You're wrong. It does not matter when someone learns their lines. That's it. That's fact. As long as they're not using a script onstage. Stop. You're wrong. It does not matter. Pressuring someone – especially someone who works during the day, and often in the evenings, pressuring someone who has a family, and for who this stage lark is often just a hobby – to learn their lines yesterday, does not work. It just does not work, and in fact what ends up happening nine times out of ten is that they rush the learning part in order to rehearse without their script. Which leads to paraphrasing, dropped lines and more importantly a lack of understanding of where the cues are. By rushing, the lines are usually not fully learned, nor their meaning appreciated, leading to poor line readings and rushed phrasing.

How often have you sat through a rehearsal where someone has insisted on dropping book early, then spent two hours spitting chunks of line out while a terrified prompter flicks back and forth through their jagged copy of the script, desperately trying to salvage the floundering actor yet secretly thinking “just pick up your fucking script you egomaniacal aresecock!! I want to live! I just want to live! Or at least go home.”

That's because instead of taking the time to rehearse with the script, taking the time to allow the actor to naturally and instinctively learn their lines, the director has put pressure on them to put their books down. This has little to do with the play and everything to do with a director's authority and ego. And complete lack of understanding as to how people actually operate.

It doesn't work. Trust me, and if you can't, trust in the amount of poorly executed amateur shows you've had to pay money for and then sit through, where the cast all seem to be actively searching for their next line instead of acting. That's why folks. Cause they were off book before everyone else, while struggling to keep that material fresh. Sure, sometimes it's down to the fact that a person just didn't learn their lines. That's because they were the director's mother, or the committee chairperson's wife. Shouldn't have been cast in the first place.

Here's the reality, and probably part of what you were muttering at me as you read this : it is far easier to rehearse without a script in your hand. Most actors prefer to learn their lines quickly, so that they can begin to shape their performances. Most actors also prefer other actors to learn their lines, so they can shape their relationships on-stage. This is natural, and makes a lot of sense. If your co-performer is familiar with their lines, and their cues, then there is a sense of trust which lets you, as an actor, relax and concentrate on your own performance.

But the truth of the matter is this : you can still achieve much of this with a script in your hand during the rehearsal period. Honestly. If you're getting the right lines out, and the pace is flowing, isn't that better than rushing to half-learn your lines so that you can put your script down, then spend most of your rehearsals paraphrasing your cues to the detriment of everyone around you? How does this help cement a scene, cement your movements? If you're spending your time trying to remember rush-learned lines? I'm gonna go ahead and tell you this one fact – it's doesn't.

All actors generally work hard to learn their lines as quickly as possible, but they do this in two ways. 1 : outside rehearsals, generally on their own or with a partner reading opposite them and coldly correcting them when they fuck up because they don't understand what it's like to be a sensitive actor desperately trying to learn your lines for an egomanicacal yet insufferably insecure director. 2 : by osmosis, through repetitive rehearsals, locking down how to verbally, and physically represent those lines. And the best way of doing this, is from the script.

It is no great achievement to be “off book.” It IS an achievement to learn not only what your lines are, but their meaning both in relation to your own character and to the other characters around you. And that takes time, not pressure.

End of part one...

Okay, so we got through the first five! Yay! I know, I know, all the time you've been thinking, but dominicispalmer, just what the fuck problem have you got with a bunch of people meeting up once or twice a week for fun, to put on a play out of love?

Theoretically, nothing. In practice my response is this : why bother going as far as putting on a show? I have no problem with you meeting up and fannying around. But when you start asking people to pay money to view you fannying around, that's when I start having problems.

As to, out of love - where is it? In the egos of the participants, spending their nights bitching about each other and everyone else? In the hour of rehearsal sandwiched in between lengthy bouts of small talk? Where is the love?

I haven't seen it for a long time. It's been sucked out of me, slowly and surely.

I used to be passionate about more than just attacking people in my blogs. But I have spent too long listening to pompous gas-bags spouting wheat-fields of chaff, watching them pomp and ceremony around, achieving nothing more than placing a bunch of people on to a stage saying lines, and expecting friends, loved ones, and off-the-street public to pay for the privilege of entering the arch. It's not good enough. I want more.

That's what the fuck my problem is. Thanks for asking. I used to want to do it just for the love.

I'm working on the top five pet peeves of amateur theatre, so hopefully I'll have it up and out next week.

As always, please comment, say what you will, piss up a flagpole and set fire to a snake. Whatever. I don't care.

Thanks for reading