The latest installment of the Fertile Ground film and speaker series that I curate for the Ukrainian Institute of America invited senior producer Daniel Lombroso of the The New Yorker to talk about the films of documentary-maker Nadia Parfan. We had a full house, they had a lot of questions, and we had a terrific conversation about what The New Yorker looks for in documentary, as well as Daniel’s process of working with Nadia to create the short, “I Did Not Want to Make a War Film.” The evening was proof, yet again, how hard documentaries can hit, especially when the filmmaker has a sense of humor as impish as Parfan does.
Nadia is also founder of Takflix – a Ukrainian streaming service that pays 50 percent of proceeds to the artist, and 10 percent to Come Back Alive – a foundation providing assistance to Ukraine’s military.
I’ve written, animated, and directed a new animated short, on the Tuskegee Airmen. We had an incredible team on this project, starting with the immensely talented Julian Dwyer creating the illustrations. It also included historians Daniel Haulman (retired historian of the US Air Force and author of The Tuskegee Airmen Chronology) and Todd Moye (author of Freedom Flyers), story doula Alisa Kwitney (author of G.I.L.T., Mystic U., Cadaver and Queen, and many others), the voice talents of actor Tony Melson, my production partner Alex Tuller, and many others including the staff of curators, educators, and archivists at the FDR Presidential Library. Special thanks to the New York Community Trust for the grant that funded this project. Enjoy this stills gallery:
I haven’t mentioned in this blog that I wrote, animated, and directed a short film for the FDR Presidential Library, illustrated by my long-time friend Richard Prouse, and production managed by Alex Tuller. That film, which was named a finalist in the New York Animation Awards in January, today was named a Semi-Finalist for the Flickers Rhode Island Film Festival, an Oscar-qualifying festival.
No, I have not updated this blog in ages. Yes, I need to. Good news is, I don’t have time to do that because I’m insanely busy, but I can start from the things happening today.
Will we qualify for an Oscar? No. We’re semi-finalists, not finalists, but please rub more salt on that wound.
But seriously, they had over 7000 submissions for 350 slots. I’m so incredibly honored that this little film, created for education, made it through adjudication in such a prestigious festival.
Last month, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin released his new country album “These Blazing Fingers.” This month we take you behind the scenes of his music video shoot with CMT-Award winning director Wes Edwards. Featuring US Treasury spokesperson and former Fox News Commentator Monica Crowley.
This video was an experiment with my sketch partner Theresa Moriarty to see if we could film our parts entirely independently of each other and make them work as one sketch. My part was filmed by Alex Tuller. Mini is played by my nephew Rex. And Wes Edwards plays himself.…
Gotta keep busy during lock down, so I dragged Alex into shooting a comedy sketch, and my friend Theresa helped virtually. I don’t do impressions, so I can’t say my Mnuchin is spot on, but my Mark Meadows is so uncanny it’s freaking me out.…
When I’m a little kid I just want to tell funny stories like my Uncle Andy. He’s the one in the middle of the picture — below my mom and above Aunt Mika — with his tongue out.
You know someone like him. The whole space brightens when he walks in the room and everybody laughs before he leaves, whatever the situation.
Eighteen years ago at the wake for his mom, my Baba, we’re all shell shocked, the room is silent. Baba was a force of nature, a crazy, super-talented artist — emphasis on crazy — and an academic with a work ethic no one should try to live up to (I won’t bore you with the details of the 11-volume encyclopedic history of Ukrainian music she assembled). So much talent, so much ability. And wonderfully incompetent in the role of doting mother and grandmother.
But she tried hard.
Andy breaks the silence at her wake by saying, “When I quit drinking, Ma comes up to me and says, ‘I’ve been talking to Mika and she explained how important this is for you, and I want to help. So I’m going to quit drinking too.’ But Ma, I says. You don’t drink. And she says, ‘I was going to quit coffee, but that would be too difficult.’”
Andy brought Baba back into the room for me. For all of us, because we all had a story like that about her, and somewhere under the sadness we understood that she’d always be with us. Laughter heals. Andy never said that but he knew it to his core.
The day Andy dies, about a month ago, my cousin Alana and I are sitting at the kitchen table in the Toronto house where my grandparents lived, having tea and talking. This is what my family does. My Baba and Dido sat at this table having tea and talking. My mom, Alana’s mom (my Aunt Mika), and our Uncle Andy sat around this table having tea and talking. We’ve seen this our whole lives and now it’s our turn.
Sitting there with Alana, I have a revelation but don’t want to say it out loud because it feels a little self-centered. Then she says it so I don’t have to: “You and Andy have a lot in common.”
How is it just occurring to me that my Uncle Andy is my biggest influence?
I write my first song because of Andy. This is in Atlanta where my parents live. Andy’s at Oglethorpe University, I’m four, my sister Krissi’s an infant. Andy’s babysitting us. I’ve got the kitchen sink full to the top with water, soap bubbles, and my boat collection, and I’m flooding every corner of the room. Krissi is busy flooding also — diaper after diaper after diaper.
When my mom calls to check on us, Andy says, “Well, Dean wants to join the Navy, and this kid keeps shitting and shitting and shitting.”
At which point, Andy hears four-year-old Dean in the kitchen start singing, “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit,” and keep singing it til the parents get home.
I still think it’s the best song I’ve ever written, and it’s got Andy all over it.
Maybe two or three years later, I discover the stereo in the dining room at my grandparents’ house. You remember those old stereo cabinets? Big wooden furniture, you slide the door to the right, you’ve got a stereo, to the left, the record collection? Andy’s record collection.
I’m sitting at the dining room table, headphones on, stack of records in front of me, and Andy starts sorting through what I’ve missed. He hands me Taj Mahal’s Live at Fillmore East record, The Real Thing.
“You gotta listen to this one,” he says. “He’s got four tubas in his band.”
Now, six-year-old Dean is thinking the exact same thing you are: “Does anybody need to hear a band with four tubas?”
But if six year olds are experts at anything, it’s at tuning in to people’s energy, and you can’t look away from the electricity coming off Andy when he talks about music. There was no one I trusted more, and the music he played for me was raw and real and human, the type of music that heals in that same way laughter can.
To this day I still listen to The Real Thing. It’s that good. And he kept putting blues records in front of me, and then country, and then jazz. But it’s only now that I hear that early music in every song I write and perform. It’s now that I look back and understand he made that music so much a part of me that when I moved to New York City to go to college, I got cast as the blues singing plant Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors.
When I’m nine Andy catches me on the floor of his room reading through his collection of National Lampoons. “Kid, why you keep going through my stuff?” he says, but he can’t stop himself from showing me more, and it’s the same excitement he brings to music.
He hands me the Blues Brothers album Briefcase Full of Blues, and when he’s not explaining who’s in the band and where else I’ve heard them, he’s telling me about Saturday Night Live, and oh, you gotta listen to this Steve Martin record.
Nine-year-old Dean takes all that back to Atlanta and everywhere he goes. I write my first sketch comedy, a live bowling tournament broadcast by Howard Cosell where last year’s champion has a bout of diarrhea that drowns an entire city, performed into my dad’s Dictaphone. Okay that last part was stupid. Dad grounds me and I don’t get to go to Six Flags.
But that doesn’t stop Dean from taking his new love for comedy to fourth grade, which lands him in detention until he graduates from high school. In that time, Dean will only manage three days without some sort of detention or KP duty.
All thanks to my Uncle Andy.
But within a year of graduating college, I land my first regular humor column in an international magazine, go on to write for publications on five continents, and when I stop doing that, I realize that my ability to write a punch line could pay a lot of bills in advertising.
And in the past two years, I toured a comedy and music show around the US and UK, all that time telling funny stories like my Uncle Andy, playing music that grew out of what he played for me. But I didn’t understand that’s what I was doing.
All those years ago when my dad grounded me for being silly, I understood why. He wanted what was best for me. And thank God my Uncle Andy was there to remind me, “No. This is the good stuff.”
He was always teaching me, always supporting my interests, especially when I worked for him for two summers in his general contracting business. Andy taught me how to build and fix things. One day we’re working on my grandparents’ cottage, screening in the front porch so Baba can get some peace from the mosquitoes, and he’s showing me how to cut molding. You want them just right, so they fit tightly in place and stay there without nails or screws.
“If you’re gonna bother to do something,” he says, “you do it right.”
I hear him say that every time I work on my house, and sometimes I’d call him for help, although I try not to call too often because I don’t want to be that relative. But when Alana and I are sitting at the table at my grandparents’ old house, my Aunt Mika says, “Andy would tell me every time you called. It really meant a lot to him.”
I wish I’d known that. I have so many more things I need to fix.
But he took care of that too, by showing me that the people you love don’t really leave. They’re still in the room, and every time I pick up a tool, or sit at my desk to write my next project, I can hear Andy’s voice and the whole space brightens.
(Live on the stage of Theater 3 at Surgeon’s Hall in Edinburgh, image by Chris Scott.)
Let me tell you about Suicide Wednesday. As prepared as I was going to Edinburgh Fringe, I did not know about Suicide Wednesday, and it’s important to share what I learned.
Imagine you’ve spent the past two years getting your show ready for the biggest arts festival in the world, a three-and-a-half week run alongside some of the best stage performers on the planet, roughly 4000 shows every day, all competing for attention. You come to a place like this to prove yourself.
And by that first Monday, you have. Yeah, preview audiences were slow. Of course they were, nobody in Edinburgh knows who you are. But by Monday, you’ve got this beast of a festival figured out: a raucous, nearly sold-out crowd and multiple industry people in the seats. At the end of the show, one of those people isn’t just tweeting about you, he’s emailing you about a UK tour. Let’s set a meeting he says, and you email him back immediately.
This wasn’t so hard. Some people just have it and you’re one of the lucky ones. Although it gets in your head a little. A lot. By Monday evening you’re an ADD tornado of whirling joy and ego, burning enough energy to light this town for the run of the festival. But it feels good. This is fun.
You have trouble sleeping Monday night – hard to come down from that – and when you wake up Tuesday, you’re starting to feel what they call Fringe Flu. No time to stay in bed though, you need to get out into the streets and flyer for your now-successful show. So get some LEMSIP, that’ll will help with the cold, and check your email to see what industry guy has to say.
Nothing. No email yet from industry guy. Shake it off, grab your flyers, head out.
But it’s hard pitching your show to people on the street today. All that energy you had yesterday? What goes up must come down, and you realize you’re feeling the onset of depression like an addict coming off a serious bender and looking for his next score, which also describes how people are seeing you right now. You’re not selling them anything in this state, except maybe your need for rehab.
That’s okay. One day of not flyering won’t hurt. At least that’s what you think until you walk out on stage and there are five people in the audience.
So far, today is less good than yesterday. But it feels more than less good. Your emotional swing has it feeling catastrophic. Doesn’t matter, you don’t want another empty house tomorrow, so you take your sickness and depression and flyers back onto the street after your show. But now something different is happening. Everyone you approach is saying the same thing.
“I’m catching the bus home today.”
Fringe’s first audience exodus has begun, and the new people haven’t arrived yet. You check your sales for tomorrow before you go to bed. Two tickets. Note to self: don’t check sales before bed again. You check your email. Still no word from industry guy. Note to self: don’t check email before bed again.
You lie awake and stew in self loathing over Monday’s hubris and today’s inability to recapture yesterday’s brilliance.
You wake up Wednesday quite possibly the most exhausted you’ve ever felt, and you use the term “wake up” loosely since you haven’t slept. Seriously, you can barely lift your legs, this isn’t normal.
But it is. The adrenaline that’s been carrying you since opening six days ago has just run out. What did you expect? You don’t have an infinite supply of the stuff. And to top it off, you make the mistake of checking your sales and your email again, neither of which have changed since last night.
You’ve been ghosted. Twice. By the Fringe audience and by your industry guy. Why did they even show up on Monday? You hate them. Unless they turn up again, of course, in which case, they are totally awesome.
You down more LEMSIP, put on your winter layers and rain jacket – Edinburgh in August – and drag your sick, depressed, exhausted ass out into the drizzle to see if you can find anyone to hear your story today. And the few people on the streets still say the same thing.
“I’m catching the bus home today.”
Before you walk out on stage to perform, you dose on throat spray and hope you can hit the high note in the second song. You walk out, the lights come up. Five people in the seats.
Afterwards you foolishly ask the box office about tomorrow’s sales. Zero, they answer. Zero advance tickets. And you have three more weeks of this.
Suicide. Fucking. Wednesday.
The full weight of Fringe has hit you. Right in your cocky mouth.
Full disclosure, this didn’t happen to you. It happened to me, and the crazy thing is, this is the reason I went to Edinburgh. Sort of. I went to prove myself, to find out if I can hold my own on a stage at a festival with some of the best performers on the planet. To learn if I have it in me to go out there every day and find the audience to fill those seats. To somehow connect myself to 5000 years of theater history and generations of traveling performers who’ve gone somewhere and put on a show.
Proving yourself comes with trials. That’s kind of the point. And while a lot of us ask the question, “Do I have the energy to persevere,” we don’t all get the opportunity to ask it about something we really want. Edinburgh was that opportunity for me.
But when you hit dark moments like Suicide Wednesday, what you want can become clouded. You’re suffering, you’re not having fun, you’re not making money, now you get to find out if this is something you really do want.
Performing at Edinburgh is something every young performer should experience. If you can make it through this moment and still want this, it’s what you should be doing. And if you realize it’s not what you want, there’s no shame in walking away. You’ve discovered something valuable.
The shame is if you walk away because you’re afraid of doing the work. As someone who spent years (okay decades) not doing what he wanted because he was afraid to find out whether he could, this was the moment I finally got to discover the answer.
Do I belong here? Do I have it in me?
And on that Wednesday, sick, exhausted, dejected, by myself in a city I don’t know, I had to decide if I had three more weeks of this. in me This is not a moment that is exclusive to theater. It’s the dark night of the soul. The oldest stories we have talk about this moment in our lives.
I want to tell you that I dug deep, grabbed my flyers, put a smile on my face and went back out into the street. But that didn’t happen for another 20 minutes.
And let me add this: just because you throw a tantrum, email your publicist telling her you’re done, you’re not flyering another day, you’ll still perform but from now on you’re on a theater-going holiday, it doesn’t mean you won’t feel differently when you’ve calmed down. In 20 minutes.
Then you’ll remember the question your mentor asked you: “Aren’t you willing to suffer for something you want?”
Then you’ll make another batch of LEMSIP, fill your thermos, wrap a scarf around your neck, grab a stack of flyers, and discover a deeper source of energy than you knew you had. You’ll go back out into the streets and make a couple dozen people laugh hard enough that they might buy tickets to your show.
There have been other moments like this in my life, where I had to take stock of myself and ask if I had it in me to do the work even when it looked like there was no hope of success. And there are times that I didn’t have it in me. I walked away because it was clear this wasn’t something I wanted.
I feel zero shame about those moments, and those were some of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made. But I’ll never be as proud of them as I was of the moment I picked my depressed, sick ass off the floor of my Edinburgh apartment and walked back out into the street with those flyers.
And two days later, my Friday house was nearly full. I have never appreciated a group of people so much in my life, never been so humbled to share my story, and so determined to keep going.
By the time my last week rolled around, just five shows left, I had …
The Isabel Sandoval film Lingua Franca (starring me, well… me in a cameo) is a contender for the Best Film Award in this years Official Competition at the London festival. Writer, director, actor Isabel Sandoval is the first transgender director to compete in Official Competition.
Official Competition titles will screen nightly across the Festival in the two premier screens of the Vue Leicester Square, with a red carpet-style reception for the attending filmmakers each evening. The Festival invites audiences to share responses to films seen in Competition throughout the Festival at #MyLFFAward.
BFI says: “A beautifully performed character study and an incisive critique on race and immigration in modern America, writer/director Isabel Sandoval (who also takes on the role of Olivia) has crafted a deeply moving work of great intimacy and insight. “
Isabel Sandoval’s film Lingua Franca, about a transgender woman under threat of deportation, is one of 11 films (out of 900 submitted) selected for this year’s Venice Film Festival. I play Chad in this film. I’m a little bit excited about this, here’s the article in Variety.…
Killy Dwyer invited me onto her awesome radio show Mock-U-Mental (okay, maybe I prompted the invite). I got to share the two hours with the funny and talented T-Spoon, aka Katie Haller. We told stories, we sang songs, I ran out early to catch my train. Honestly, it’s everything you want in a radio show. Here’s a link to give it a listen:
As I rewrite Voice of Authority for its Edinburgh run, I’ve had to cut some of my favorite Zachary stories so I’m sharing them here. Zachary was my mentor, a Balanchine dancer, and the choreographer of the Metropolitan Opera in NYC. He’s also a character in my show.
For the past several months of working on my video series Big Trouble, I’ve learned that a lot of my friends have never been in trouble. They’re either too good, or too good at getting away with it.
I am not one of those people. Neither was Zachary
But there are different ways of getting into big trouble. Sometimes it happens for all the wrong reasons, like my $19 million lawsuit with the US government. I quit everything I cared about to make money instead, and I learned how fast that money can go away.
Sometimes you get into big trouble for all the right reasons. Pick any number of martyrs from history who stood up for what they believed in.
And sometimes, you get in trouble for both. This story is one of those times.
The Army is trouble from the day Zachary arrives. Or maybe Zachary, a 20-year-old ballet dancer who never stopped smiling, was the trouble. He’d just been drafted the same week that Agnes de Mille cast him in Oklahoma!, which kills me. Original cast for one of the most successful musicals in Broadway history and suddenly your drafted? Although as Zachary would point out, he didn’t know it would be a success at the time.
“I only ever wanted to be a dancer and that’s all I ever was,” he’d say to me. Often. He felt the need to drive that home because I can be very slow to process imparted wisdom.
When Zachary gets to basic training in 1943, he discovers quickly that smiling is frowned upon, a lesson he learns through peeling potatoes and cleaning toilets with a toothbrush. He also learns that doing your barre work every morning doesn’t go over so well.
“You have to do it or you lose the muscle,” he’d say. “They’d all be screaming, ‘What the hell is this sissy doing?’”
For his first six months Zachary has no friends. Then he meets his people, starts performing in shows, and all that focus on his barre work, on always being a dancer, pays off. He gets transferred to Special Services and Major Melvyn Douglas’ troop in Calcutta, India.
If you’re not familiar with Oscar-winning actor Melvyn Douglas, neither was I when Zachary said his name. He starred opposite Garbo in Ninotchka, a film I’ve never seen but I’m still impressed.
Zachary, now a sergeant, continues to do his barre work every morning, at the white picket fence outside the compound where he lives.
“One day I’m doing my barre and a servant hands me a note. It says, ‘I see you are a trained ballet dancer. So am I. Please meet me for tea.’”
That’s how he meets Kira, a former star with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which was the Who’s Who of the dance world in the 1930s. If you were a big deal, you danced or choreographed there. Kira’s husband Boris had also danced with the company, although in Calcutta he was better known as a tiger hunter and the founder of the 300 Club, the first integrated club in India. It was based on London’s famed 400 Club, although more exclusive.
By 100 people.
Kira is living dance history and still in her mid-30s. She and Zachary pick up a cabaret slot at the 300 Club, and she starts teaching him classic steps from the Ballet Russe.
Now maybe you’re asking yourself, where’s the trouble? It looked like it was going to happen in basic, but this sounds great.
The trouble happens in Kashmir, but if I’d started there, you’d be lacking context now.
It’s at this point that Kira goes to Kashmir for monsoon season – “As all the best people do,” Zachary says – and tells him he has to see it so he should get a weekend pass.
“I arrive and Boris isn’t there,” Zachary says. “I wasn’t expecting that. Then Kira goes and gets us a job dancing cabaret at one of the fanciest hotels.”
That got so complicated so quickly. On the one hand, this is a dream come true. On the other, this is your worst nightmare.
Let’s say you’re a single, 22-year-old from a poor family in Philadelphia and you’ve only ever wanted to be a dancer. Suddenly, you find yourself with the opportunity to be in one of the most beautiful places in the world, working at a luxury hotel, and learning ballet from someone who danced with the world’s greatest company.
Are you true to yourself as an artist? You’ve only ever wanted to be a dancer. Or are you true to yourself as a soldier?
What would you do?
And just to make this easier for you, a strikingly beautiful ballerina is inviting you into her bed while she’s away from her husband. Remember, you’re a 22-year-old boy.
“I go AWOL. Big time AWOL. Four months,” says Zachary.
It’s a scenario that fills me with envy and dread all at once, the fear of getting into trouble going head on with the fear of missing out.
I hate to admit it, but I’d hightail it back to Calcutta and miss out on the one thing I cared about, although probably not until after I’d slept with the married woman. And I’m mad at myself for that choice right now, even though I never actually made it.
“Kira had worked with all of the greats in Paris, but she wasn’t just teaching me the great Russian ballets,” he tells me. “She’d been studying Indian dance so I was learning that too,” Zachary says. “Every so often I’d see someone I knew and they’d say, ‘Shouldn’t you be in Calcutta with Major Douglas?’ I’d say something like, oh I have dysentery, I couldn’t possibly go back.”
He defies the Army and he’s true to himself, and what he learns influences his life as a dancer in New York and as the choreographer of the Met. But it shapes his life in India first.
“We stayed on a houseboat called the Star, and every morning the servants would wake us with fruit and hot coffee and sprinkle lotus petals over our heads,” he continues.
That’s something that only happens in movies.
When he gets back to Calcutta, Boris points a tiger rifle at his chest and says, “I never want to see you again.”
Also, something that only happens in movies.
And Major Douglas says, “Not a word, Private Solov. You’re losing all of your stripes.”
Again, feels like a movie, but it’s Melvyn Douglas this time so that makes sense.
You know that feeling when you just want to get out of town? For Zachary it happens just when he’s got back into town. So he says to Douglas, “I want to see China, I want to see Burma. I’m putting together a touring show!”
“Good riddance,” says Douglas.
Zachary’s tour does fifty shows in fifty nights for soldiers who are away from home, living in a tropical jungle with bugs, and storms, and bombs dropping out of the sky. And now, they don’t mind so much that he does his barre work in the morning. They’re grateful to have the chance to relax, maybe even to laugh instead of fear for their lives. This is what Zachary can do for people and will continue to do for people for the rest of his life.
And everything he’s learned, from Kira, from Special Services, from touring, all of that serves as part of his foundation when he choreographs for the Met, then his own company, then the companies in Atlanta, Dallas, Kansas City, San Francisco, and a list that goes on.
When Zachary returns to Calcutta from his tour, Major Douglas says, “Great job, Zach,” and gives him his stripes back. That is the right kind of trouble. But he doesn’t see Boris or Kira in India again, and that’s the kind of trouble that breaks your heart.
Dean Temple’s comedy solo show Voice of Authority, a true story about getting sued by the US Dept of Justice for $19 million and saved by his mentor Zachary Solov, will be at the Phoenicia Playhouse Jul 5, 59E59 Theaters in NYC Jul 17–21, and at theSpace@ Surgeon’s Hall at Edinburgh Fringe Aug 2–24. Follow him on Twitter @deantemple, Instagram @thatdeantemple, and follow the show on facebook.com/deantemplevoa…
In this episode, Mary can compete with me when it come to getting in big trouble. Her story is about heroin dealing at age 13. All I did that year was set a toilet on fire. I’ll tell that story another time. Mary Goggin is a New York based actor born to Irish Emigrants and raised in the Bronx. Her solo show Runaway Princess, a hopeful tale of heroin, hooking and happiness, is currently touring the fringe circuit. marygoggin.com…
“Hellooooooo!“ Zachary says before he’s even opened his door. You know how your dog greets you when you come home, tail wagging so hard it looks about to break off? Zachary greets you with just as much verve, but more Ethel Merman than Labrador.
And today, he’s even dressed to go, so I don’t have my typical 45 minute wait while he gets ready. It’s the first real day of spring and he wants out of his dark little cave of an apartment.
His 81-year-old legs have trapped him inside during the cold weather. Zachary needs to be around people and inspiring things he can absorb and talk about. He needs connection, and he finds that everywhere he goes, sometimes to my great embarrassment.
But I also like that feeling of connection, I just often don’t know how to open myself up to it. So I put up with embarrassing moments to live vicariously through Zach.
Outside we blink in the sunlight like the other million vitamin D deficient New Yorkers emerging from hibernation. I have at least two winter layers I need to shed before bikini season. No I don’t own a bikini, and I probably won’t shed the layers either.
“Let’s take the M2 bus up Madison,” Zachary says.
I’ve spent most of my life in New York in a monogamous relationship with the subway. I don’t do buses. They stop every other block. You feel like you’re getting nowhere. But the bus is right outside his 58th Street building and the subway is three blocks away.
I think the exercise would do him good. Zach’s a retired dancer, used to have calves like oak trees, all this gnarled muscle. These days they look like twigs, and how do you get that muscle back if you’re not going to walk?
We get on the bus at 58th and as Zach pays his fare he asks the driver, “Does this bus stop at 103rd?”
“101st,” the driver answers.
I want to be grumpy about losing the bus-subway battle, but right away I notice how nice it is. There’s daylight on the bus, almost feels airy. Might have to have an affair with the bus.
We’ve only gone 10 blocks when Zachary shouts up to the driver, “Can you stop at 103rd Street?”
“This bus stops at 101st.” Not even a smile from the guy.
Zachary starts to sing. I’d say the bus is 70 percent full, and 50 percent can hear him, and I’m looking around to see who’s amused and who’s annoyed.
Then this older woman with white hair and soft, smiling eyes leans in, “My husband used to sing that song to me. He loved going to the Loews movie palace on 175th St.”
“That song was a big hit with the German and Jewish vaudeville crowd in the 1930s,” Zachary says. We reach 90th St.
“Can you stop at 103rd?” Zachary shouts up to the driver, and you can see the driver shift his focus forward.
“Come on, driver, stop at 103rd,” someone else shouts, but the driver is having none of this.
The older woman stands and puts her hand on Zachary’s shoulder, “I wish you all the best, even though I haven’t figured out who you are.”
I don’t tell her Zachary used to dance for Balanchine, that he used to be the choreographer of the Metropolitan Opera House, that in the 1930s he was a childhood radio star on the Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour. I don’t say anything, I just watch and wonder how he does it.
When we reach 100th St., Zachary asks one last time, “Do you stop at 103rd?”
This time the driver turns around and stares. “This bus doesn’t stop there.”
We get out at 101st and walk the rest of the way to the Museum of the City of New York. We’re going to see the Automat exhibit, Horn and Hardart, the restaurant that used to sponsor the radio show Zachary did.
You know that feeling when you step off the street and into a museum? All the chaos and the noise disappears and everything is quieter and cooler. The exhibit is right on the first floor and you can see people moving through it. They’re silent, isolated even though there’s a crowd, each one trying to take it all in without disturbing anyone else. One step in Zachary plants his feet, takes a deep breath and belts out a song:
Less work for mother And she’ll understand Less work for mother Just lend her a hand She’s your greatest treasure Just make her life a pleasure Less work for mother dear
“I used to sing that on the radio!” he declares, standing a bit taller, planting his foot.
And now everyone in the exhibit is looking at me like I can’t control my toddler. They don’t understand, no one can stop Zachary from doing stuff like this.
Besides, for him, Horn and Hardart was all about making a racket. One of his acts was tap dancing. On the radio. In roller skates. Here’s a recoding to prove it:
As you can hear, it’s just as bad an idea as it sounded when you read it. Complain about the internet all you want, but this was what they had for entertainment in the 1930s.
And slowly, every person in that exhibit, except for one, lone, cranky woman off in a corner, has formed a circle around Zachary. One of them is even crying because she hasn’t heard that song since she was a little girl. And now Zachary has an audience. They want to know all about the Automat first hand.
They called the Automat because you got your food through an Art Deco, coin-operated wall, glass panels with little knobs you turn to open.
“After the radio show, they’d give you a stack of nickels and you could go get whatever you wanted,” Zachary says as they slowly walk through. “You’d walk right up, put your nickel in, and get your pumpkin pie. That’s helluva treat for a kid.”
But those 81-year-old legs start to fail him and he shoos people away, which never happens. Zachary loves his audiences, needs that connection that comes from telling his story.
Age wins this time so we sit on a bench until he feels better. He’s just not ready to go home yet. Not to the dark. Not to being alone.
“We should go to that famous coffee shop,” he says.
I can’t think of a famous coffee shop on the Upper East Side, but I’m excited at the idea of discovering some old New York treasure I’ve never known about. “What coffee shop?” I ask.
In this episode of Big Trouble, Clare Solly thinks her height makes her impervious to weed only to take a trip down paranoia lane. Clare is a confessed seltzer addict and is a California writer/actress/singer living in NYC, has a couple of Off-Broadway credits and is the author of the novel The Time Turner. She is also now the Apprentice Director of The Bechdel Group (thebechdelgroup.com). Her website actinglikeclare.wixsite.com.…
In this episode of Big Trouble, Simon knocks a guy out cold on the subway for getting in his face, and you don’t get in a face this pretty without consequences. Simon Rogers is an actor, model, and founder/owner of three NY-based talent agencies, now living and working in LA.
I’m six years old, first grade, PE. We’re trying softball for the first time and I want to swing that bat so badly I can barely stand it. I’m obsessed, like some mouth-breathing drunk across the room who can’t stop staring. But I’ve never swung a bat, and even at six, I don’t want to look like I don’t know how, so I quietly blend into the background. I don’t even try.
Why would admitting you don’t know how to do something feel like failure? To a six year old? It’s not like you’re born knowing how to swing a bat.
This is something I end up doing, over and over, for most of my life. I don’t want to admit I don’t know how to do something because I can’t stand the thought of making myself that vulnerable. And for most of my life I let that get in the way of doing some of the things I want to do most.
Maybe it’s the family of artists who raised you to believe that you’re either born with it or you’re not – although they’re talking about talent. And they never do clue you in as to whether you were, in fact, born with it.
Maybe it’s the hyper-competitive schools where admitting you don’t know how to do something is a ticket to eye rolls and ostracization.
“You don’t know how to do that? What are you, a baby?” You might as well be the kid who wet yourself in home room.
Or, maybe it’s your first work environment where if you don’t know how to do something some other intern gunning for a salary is willing to lie and say they do.
“Me? I know how to do everything. I was born that way.”
I was not born that way, but I’m only just willing to admit that now. And this is between us, so keep it to yourself.
Although, lately I’ve had to admit not knowing how to do things because I need help from my friends who do. And I’m sure you’re thinking, if you can’t be vulnerable with your friends, who can you be?
No one. I can be vulnerable with no one. Unless I’m on stage, and that’s an entirely different thing, and the subject of this story [LINK].
So what’s bringing on this sudden and masochistic thirst for knowledge?
Getting your first show ready for Edinburgh Fringe has that effect. You encounter a litany of things you don’t know how to do, at least if you’re me. You’re on very real deadlines to produce very good work or you have the potential to fail in a very big way. It’s unsettling in a way that encourages you to try new things.
Like real world vulnerability.
So you don’t ask yourself, how could I have reached middle age and not know how to do these things? You already know the answer to that question.
But just as an example, when I’m 20 years old, I’m in a play in New York City. I’ve made my way in with the cool crowd, which is both awesome and high maintenance. You know them: the hot theater girl with legs from floor to ceiling, the super-talented, triple-threat guy, the cool, British, my-dad-is-a-West-End-producer guy.
Then there’s the other crowd, who is really just one person: the enthusiastic, wants-to-learn-everything-about-theater geeky guy.
Geeky guy says, “I can’t wait to graduate and go to a really good acting school.”
Triple-threat guy and hot theater girl whisper in unison – and out of earshot of geeky guy – ”Ugh, acting school. You’re either born with it or you’re not.”
Twenty-year-old Dean quietly makes note to self: “Acting school = not born with it.”
And 23-year-old Dean gives up on acting because he has no idea how to make something like that work in the real world, but he isn’t going to admit that out loud. So he doesn’t go to class and he doesn’t learn those things that would probably be extremely valuable when getting a show ready for Edinburgh.
That much-younger Dean has a luxury that I do not. Time. So I get over myself and ask my friends for help. Help with writing. Help with acting. Help with promotion. Help with all of it because I basically know nothing.
This week I ask a friend to help me understand why I’m doing this. Why this show? Why now? Why Edinburgh?
I aim high because I think that will push me that much harder. This friend is a reporter who has interviewed some of the most prominent artists of the past 100 years. Household names, assuming yours is a house with an interest in art. She’s reluctant because she knows what this means, how hard she’ll have to be on me. She’s one of the toughest people I know, so I won’t get away with any bullshit.
As someone who never wanted to admit not knowing how to do something, bullshit became my greatest skill. And I am very good at it. As someone who reads my work, you might already know this about me.
But no one is good enough to bullshit an old school, tough-as-balls reporter with no patience for it like my friend. That’s apparent from the moment we sit down.
“That’s bullshit,” is the very first thing she says. “You’re telling me the same tired thing that everyone says. I hear that and I’m moving on to the next person because there’s nothing to see here. What makes you worth my time?”
Up to this point of my life, I haven’t been able or willing to answer tough questions about who I am or what I want. It’s too vulnerable, and I’ve been too afraid to discover once and for all whether I was born with it.
Going there hurts, but I’m realizing that hurt is a growing pain. And while I didn’t expect growing pains in middle age, the urgency of time passing me by makes them a lot more tolerable.
I’m also realizing that when you admit you don’t know something, people who do become surprisingly generous with their knowledge. To think of all the things I could have learned in all those years. But this piece isn’t about regrets. It’s about avoiding them.
Why this show? Why now? Why Edinburgh?
Because if I don’t do this now, then I never will. Because I created this show to take to Edinburgh. Because, this show isn’t an end, it’s the start of what I wanted but gave up at 23. Because Edinburgh is the greatest performing arts festival in the world and I need to prove myself there.
And because I couldn’t tell this story when it happened. I would have been humiliated and ostracized. But telling it now isn’t embarrassing for me. I’m over it. Although it might just be embarrassing for the US Department of Justice.
So I’m coming out of the closet as someone who doesn’t know how to do this. And I’m learning that’s how you get it done.
Dean Temple’s comedy solo show Voice of Authority, a true story about getting sued by the US Dept of Justice for $19 million and saved by
the choreographer of the Metropolitan Opera, will be at 59E59 Theaters
in NYC Jul 17–21, and at Surgeon’s Hall at Edinburgh Fringe Aug 2–24.
Follow him on Twitter @deantemple, Instagram @thatdeantemple, and follow the show on facebook.com/deantemplevoa…
The Muff satirizes all the elements you see at a typical Moth show.
You’ll see the storytelling types: The Crier, The Rambler, The
First-Timer, The Stand-up Comedian, The Fake Newbie, The Survivor….
Or course everyone’s name will be picked from a bucket as
Come see the fake drama! The scoring! The drunken judges! The celebrity
name-dropping host! 2 Theremins signaling to wrap up stories
And of course, the bucket – where all names will be picked.
Featuring: Michele Carlo, Jamie Brickhouse, Susan Kent, Jake Hart, Glen Heroy, Robin Gelfenbien, Harmon Leon, Richard Templeton, Adam Selbst, Sean O’Brien, Colleen Hindsley, Sarah Chandler, Dean Temple …
As part of the East to Edinburgh Festival at 59E59, Voice of Authority will do a preview run of the EdFringe version of the show, July 17-21, 2019.
Currently working on a rewrite of the show with editing/writing direction from NYC comedy veteran Veronica Mosey, which is very exciting and also fun. And Carol Lee Sirugo will be stepping up from creative consultant to the role of director for this EdFringe run.…