Tuesday, December 17, 2019

'A Christmas Carol' at Serenity Gardens (12.16.19)

Not my typical kind of show... but pretty fun nonetheless. Photo by Kat.

As the old saying goes, when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Or, when life hands you bronchitis, make a complete fool out of yourself by doing the weirdest live performance that you've ever attempted.

Perhaps I should back up a bit. I'd been dealing with something that is, unfortunately, quite familiar to me. Starting a number of weeks ago, I'd noticed that I was wheezing a bit. There was an annoying whistle while I was exhaling, especially at night, and I was getting coughing fits from time to time. This is never a good sign, but in my typical fashion, I decided to ignore it and hope it would just magically go away on its own. I should also note here that as a smoker for decades, there's always that niggling thought that perhaps my wheezing and coughing fits meant that I was actually close to death in some way. But I try not to get paranoid, at least very often, and besides, I was super busy with work and life.

Well, it didn't go away. I was feeling pretty ill and the coughing and wheezing seemed to be worsening, so last Thursday, after a particularly bad morning of breathing problems the day before, I went down the street to Ocean Medical here in Redondo Beach. Ocean Medical is an urgent care center for most people; for me, they've been my primary care physician for the past 25 years or so. I like them. After an examination which showed me to be otherwise healthy with the exception of my poor lungs, a diagnosis of bronchitis was given... something I've had far too often in life and that probably would be less of an issue if I didn't smoke, which is a whole other story. But my fine medical professional Casey prescribed me a strong antibiotic along with a steroid and an inhaler, and within a few days, I was feeling a million times better. Note: yes, I'll be finishing my antibiotics. People who don't finish their antibiotics are dangers to the entire world, creating superbugs from the strong bacteria that survive the initial onslaught. But I digress.

What, you don't take selfies in the exam room? Whatever. I can't be the only one.

Did You Have a Point To All This?
Yes. Yes I did. I was scheduled to do my bi-weekly live music show at Serenity Gardens in Second Life on Monday December 16, and as I mentioned, I was starting to feel a lot better. But there's a big difference between a person feeling well enough to, say, work and go grocery shopping and do laundry, versus standing and singing at full volume for a full hour. Singing requires very strong lung power (which should seem obvious, but sometimes isn't for people who've never done it on a professional basis), and while I'm definitely getting better and better, I was not yet in a place where I could confidently do my typical Zak Show.

The obvious solution would be to cancel the show, and on Saturday, I came within moments of just messaging Ilsa Flannigan who runs Serenity Gardens and letting her know that I simply wasn't healthy enough to make the show. She'd have understood and it would have been fine; these things happen all the time with live performers, especially here in the middle of sickness season. She'd have easily found someone to sub in for me that night. No big thing.

But I really do enjoy my shows there, and missing one night of a bi-weekly show means you're missing for a full month. But I knew singing was out of the question. As an experienced musician, I knew that one option would be to simply get out my guitar or keyboards and do a full hour of instrumental music with no singing at all... but it's been my general observation that audiences in Second Life are either into that kind of thing or not, and frankly my crowd really enjoys the more intimate and personal aspect of a show with vocals. So then, a thought occurred to me, and it wasn't a new one; I'd considered this possibility on many other occasions but never went through with it. What if, I thought, I did a show that wasn't based on music at all? What if I spent an hour telling some kind of story instead? Talking, while still taxing, isn't nearly as hard as singing, lung-wise.

Scrooge McClaxton, professional dramatic actor. Photo by Nina Rose Setner.

I made the decision there on the spot. I'd do some kind of storytelling or acting performance instead of singing. But what to do? Well, it's the time of year that in music or other kinds of performance that the holidays are an expected theme... and there was one story that had been integral to my life around Christmastime my entire life. It was Charles Dickens' classic 1843 tale A Christmas Carol, sometimes popularly known as Scrooge due to its memorable main character. So I set about thinking through what I'd want to do for a good performance of the short book. Being who I am and wanting to put on a memorable show, my mind went to the full extreme of building a set and rehearsing a special version of the tale and having multiple avatars in SL to enact the whole thing. Then I remembered that I had less than two days to pull this off, so I scrapped all of those ideas and settled on getting an appropriate Scrooge-looking outfit (was there one available on the SL marketplace? Of course there was), and a Victorian-era chair, and just reading the book. This... almost worked.

Timing and Pacing
let me tell you a little difference between playing music and acting in a play. When you go to a concert, there's no real expectation of what songs are going to be performed, or how many of them will be done. If I have an hour-long set, this ranges somewhere between 11-14 songs, depending on the length of each tune and the time I spend between songs chatting with the crowd, and other typical factors. No one knows or cares if I get through all the songs I might have planned to play; each song is a little three- or four-minute self-contained work of art.

But a movie or play or other acting performance is very different. It is a longer single work with a start, a middle, and an end, and randomly skipping any of these parts leads to a less than ideal experience for the audience. Sure, you have episodic presentations like a TV series where you can have small parts of a story spread out over a long time frame... but I didn't have a long time frame. I had exactly an hour between when Grace McDunnough's set ended ay 6:00 and Aaron Cabot Jones' set started at 7:00. Had I planned this out weeks ahead of time, I could have gone through and heavily rehearsed and edited and planned out what would fit well in an hour time slot while still getting across the meat of the story. But no, I had a day, basically.

I will say that fortunately, my audiences in Second Life are very forgiving. While I did manage to get through all of A Christmas Carol before my show ended, I had this realization with about 20 minutes left in my show that I had well over half the book still to go, including all of the most important plot elements. I think I'd just started the visit from the ghost of Christmas past at that point. Yeah. So I started "fast forwarding" through the story in ways that were neither graceful nor unnoticeable. In fact, I think I said, "And then several other things happened!" a few times while frantically scrolling my iPad's Kindle app to find the next point of the plot to which I could jump. I found myself laughing about this, and my crowd all understood this as well.

Usually my audience is dancing, but many of them struck an appropriate pose for story hour. Photo by Kat.

On the bright side, while I'm not a very experienced or well-trained or perhaps talented actor, I managed to maintain a small level of consistency while trying to do 11 different voices in various Victorian-era male and female and ghostly English accents. I'd like to think that the majority of people couldn't do that, or at least would be smart enough to not try. But I did, and sometimes, that's what it's all about. Make the effort. You don't have to be great. No matter what it is that you find yourself doing... singing, acting, dancing, cooking, crafting, and much more... if you're trying it and enjoying it, you're miles ahead of the person who never even tries.

So I'm quite happy with the silly dramatic performance I did last night, and apparently I wasn't the only one. Ilsa told me after the show that she had a number of people requesting that we make "Holiday Story Time" an annual event, and with a little more time to prepare and plan and rehearse, I'll bet it could actually be something really good, as opposed to being good in spite of itself as last night's show could charitably be called. Bah! Humbug!

Huge thanks to everyone who came out to Serenity Gardens for this unusual Zak Show, with special thanks to those who helped support the show!
Triana Caldera, Maurice Mistwallow, Kat Claxton, Harley Wytchwood, Kitzie Lane, Barbara Mixemup, Celeste Ewing, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!

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