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December 24, 2006

On the Road: Projections

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Since completing our trash novel a couple of years ago, The Wife and I have co-written another novel's worth of fiction. It's a comic-erotic soap opera about Hollywood that we think of as a cross between "Candy" and "The Player." It's funny and sexy; it's full of lively characters and saucey situations; and it's as up-to-the-moment as fiction can be. Not that I'm biased or anything in these judgments, of course ...

Will it ever actually be a novel? Maybe, maybe not. Our project has an oddball hybrid nature. It's half prose narrative (ie., meant to be enjoyed as on-the-page writing) and half dramatic storytelling (ie., meant to be performed). This is an approach to fiction that, so far as we know, is all our own. We didn't develop it in order to be innovative, though; we're anything but intellectual avant-gardists. We developed it for practical reasons.

Here's the problem / challenge we were facing. We both love audiences, performers, and theater -- yet we both dread the kind of labor, fuss, and expense that goes into creating full-dress conventional theater. We both love reading-and-writing, yet we both despise the typical author-reading.

So our goal was to come up with a way of presenting our work that would enable us to enjoy interacting with live audiences, that would cost nothing to produce, and that would nonetheless be a lot more rewarding for audiences than most author-readings are.

Our solution was to cook up and write our stories in half-dramatized form -- they're almost like scripts -- and to have actors do the reading and presenting. We're very, very pleased with our approach. Our events are zero-budget and informal; the actors sit on stools with scripts and read. Yet the evenings are also lively and outrageous. They're like high-spirited rough play run-throughs. The actors -- who seem to see our evenings as opportunities to jam like after-hours jazz musicians -- bring a huge amount of zing, talent, and energy to the presentations. And audiences generally seem to go away happy, feeling that they've had a fun, happenin' experience that they couldn't have gotten better from TV.

So far, we've done more than 20 of these evenings for the boho set in downtown-NYC venues. I should add that these shows are entirely The Wife's doing. I co-write with her, and god knows that I do my share of wife-maintenance as the performance dates approach. But it's her drive and her work that make the evenings come together. I sometimes joke that she's one-third writer, one-third actress, and one-third impresario.

In any case, we're by now both semi-familiar with the putting-on-a-no-budget-show-in-NYC thing. Recently, though, we've begun to present our stories outside of the big city. World domination has yet to be achieved, but we're having a good time. There we are, out on the road. Hello, America! Biggest discovery so far: The rest of America isn't very much like NYC.

What has hit me hardest is what people in the boonies -- er, out there in the Real America -- imagine about us. Say what you will about New York City people, but many of them deal with creative types on a regular basis. They know what's what, and when they meet yet another self-styled artist, they aren't impressed, they're bored.

Out there in the Real America, though, artists and entertainers seem to be more sparse on the ground. As a consequence, fantasy lives flourish and expectations are worn nakedly. We've been surprised to encounter people who look up to us just because we're "creative." We've been amazed to meet people who assume that, because we've put on a show, we actually know what we're doing. (In fact, we just fake our way by.) The biggest surprise yet: Some mid-American audience members have asked us to autograph their programs. Woo-hoo.

Because The Wife and I write a lot about sex, the expectations that some audience members bring take on an especially, er, flamboyant coloring. The most common assumption Real People seem to make is that The Wife and I live out the kinds of ribald adventures that we write about. There's another group of audience members too. These are people who feel moved to yak enthusiastically with us about their sex lives and sex fantasies. They'll wait around after the show, very politely. Then, when they've got our ear, they'll start talking earnestly about their troubles, adventures, hunches, and desires These don't seem to be deranged people, by the way. As far as I can tell, the experience of listening to our naughty stories gives them the permission to open up, the courage to be frank, and the oomph to share their secrets with someone, preferably an artist, and right now.

At first, both reactions nonplused us. We can't get enough of it when people look up to us as artists and big-shots, of course. But how to handle it when people assume that we're swingers? Or when they confide secrets to us that they've probably kept from their best friends?

At first, our responses to these people were very weak. To the group that wanted details about the real-life adventures that they imagined as being behind our fiction, we were truthful. We patiently explained that, no, we aren't worldly decadents, we're writers; that our lives consist of trying to find the time and the energy to do our writing; and that once we've gotten the daily chores and the daily writing out of the way, we're generally pretty tired. We told them that we make our stories up.

As for the second group, the people who were determined to share ... Well, initially we did our best to change the subject, and / or move on to other people. Why on earth would anyone imagine that we'd want to hear raunchy details about strangers' lives, after all?

Big mistake in both cases, we've come to realize. People who might have become faithful fans had their hopes and their fantasies crushed, and by us. Are we nuts? We can use all the fans we can get.

These days we do our best to go along with the people who meet us. It makes matters so much simpler. If they want to imagine that we're peddling lighty-disguised autobiography instead of giddy confections, then why not let 'em? If strangers want to hand us a lot of kinky sex-life stories, then why not take notes? What a great spectacle America can be, eh? It's full of such lovably whacky people, each and every one of them 150% who he / she is.

We do still encounter our share of surprises, though. After a recent show in an upstate city, for instance, The Wife (admittedly an impressive physical specimen) was approached by one guy who introduced himself to her as a submissive. As her eyes widened, he asked if she'd be willing to go with him to a hotel room, to put on high heels, and to walk all over him.

An experienced hand at these things now, The Wife overcame her surprise and handled the moment brilliantly. She thanked him for his offer, she let him know that she was glad he felt he could share, and then she turned him down firmly. Strictly. Threateningly.

Being a submissive, he went away happy. He hadn't gotten the trampling he craved, but he had been bossed around, and that seemed to be enough to make his day. My guess is that at our next show, he'll be out there in the audience, enjoying his fantasies about what sophisticates we are and dreaming up yet more things to tell us about his sex life.

People can project onto us whatever they want to, we've decided. They seem so much happier that way. And if we aren't there to make our audiences happy, then what are we there for at all?



posted by Michael at December 24, 2006


Teachout, November 30:

"...I can’t help but think of a story that Mr. Rifftides likes to tell about his old friend Paul Desmond, the celebrated alto saxophonist of the Dave Brubeck Quartet and a man who by all accounts knew his way around a bedroom, though he wasn’t one to kiss and tell:

Once when he and I were dining, a corpulent, polyestered, middle-aged couple planted themselves next to us and announced to Paul that they recognized him from an album cover and just wanted him to know that his music sure was good to make love by. Desmond took a long look at the flabby woman in her beehive hairdo and caked makeup, and the man with his paunch and cigar stub, and said, “Glad to be of help.”"

Posted by: dave s on December 24, 2006 7:24 AM

I have been reading a journal written by director of the hostel for mentally ill women: written down dialogs with names withheld.
Sometimes it is difficult to discern, who is "deranged".

The difference with you, Michael, is the writer of the journal feels for her charges. She knows they are sick. She pities them. And she tries to help.

Posted by: Tatyana on December 24, 2006 7:33 AM

You krazy kids! Sounds like fun. You can't be too terribly surprised that people are projecting, when every article about writing starts with "1) Write what you know." That message isn't some NooYawk secret.

I do have to wonder, though, who's kookier? People telling dirty stories, or people listening to them? Either way, I'm glad you pervs have found each other ;-) Be sure to drop me a line when you get to Texas.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on December 24, 2006 10:43 AM

It's great that you're getting out of the "bubble" and exploring the world and I've always felt the power of the half-narrated, half-acted story. But be very careful when leaving the place of performance at the end. The very power of the performance may stir scary things up in some individuals. Gun, knife, acid. Go out with a crowd in an open well-lit place.

I wouldn't be so paranoid except that when I was serving a congregation I was twice confronted by men expecting sex. The first time was in a family retreat context at a camp where a man simply believed that all women wanted sex and that he would be accepted as a "good thing." The second time was at my own church after services and the man became very angry when refused. He said my "duty" was to provide him with what he needed and that was what he needed.

Some people cannot distinguish between intimacy and sex and consider any disclosures to be an invitation, any refusals to be teasing. Remember that "In the Cut," the killer was one of the people supposed to be a protector. Remember that the protagonist was an overeducated liberal who couldn't see her impact on others, like that bewildered student.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 24, 2006 12:50 PM

The episode with your wife and the submissive reminds me of an old joke:

A masochist goes up to a sadist and says, "Beat me." The sadist says, "No."
Both walk away happy.

Posted by: Peter on December 24, 2006 4:54 PM

Michael, you were raised in the hinterlands and therefore you should know what a premium is placed on "niceness" out here. When people in the provinces ooh and ah over you for being creative, or praise your presentation to the skies, it may be genuine or it may just as well reflect a dread of giving offense. You'll never know. The inscrutable oriental has nothing on us just plain folks.

Posted by: ricpic on December 24, 2006 5:04 PM


Have you or your wife ever read Terry Southern's novel "Blue Movie"?

I think you would enjoy it.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on December 24, 2006 5:21 PM

Sorry for the double take, but this has just caught my eye and I simply have to share.

'You think the thing will be a frost?'
'I could not hazard a conjecture, sir. But my experience has been that what pleases the London public is not always so acceptable to the rural mind. The metropolitan touch sometimes proves a trifle too exotic for the provinces'

Yes, I'm a new convert, prostrated at the feet of radiant P.G.Wodehouse.

Posted by: Tatyana on December 24, 2006 6:14 PM

Happy Ho Ho!

Very Respectfully,

Posted by: Joe Moran on December 24, 2006 9:58 PM

Have you considered making a movie. High definition vidoe cams are now cheap. Ergo, one no longer needs a backer to make a professional quality (French new wave professional anyhow) movie. I predict a new new wave of auteur cinema all over the world, taking the place of what the novel used to be.

Merry Christmas!

Posted by: Luke Lea on December 25, 2006 12:38 AM

If you're having a good time with your wife, more power to you.

I'd give all my worldly possessions to walk onstage with Myrna again.

Get it while you can.

Merry Christmas

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on December 25, 2006 10:38 AM

I've seen a couple of the shows at Cornelia St. Cafe, and it's a good time in an intimate space. Given how small the space is though, have you considered doing without microphones? After all, the actors seem talented enough for the most part to be able to project, and the human voice itself is so much sexier naked.

Posted by: James M. on December 25, 2006 10:54 AM

I am a little surprised that you were surprised that people would want to share with you. Especially for someone who has followed the arts, who feels like Altman is almost his "father." You read about this phenomena with performers all the time. People see something in a play or a performance which touches them, speaks directly to them, and make the natural assumption that the person who did that must think like them, and how wonderful to meet someone who "knows" about feelings they have. It is often disastrous. Barbra Streisand has talked about worshipping Marlon Brando as a kid, and wanting to meet him because they must be just alike, and then meeting him... and then saying "I don't know, what the hell was there to say? We weren't just alike at all." Rosie O'Donell (believe it or not) used to fantasize as a kid, after her mother died, that Barbra Streisand was really her mother. Streisand resisted meeting O'Donnell for a long time, because she kept asking Rosie---"Are you sure you want to do this? I'll probably disappoint you. I won't be what you imagined at all." Words of experience. It's how certain public figures have gotten bad reputations throughout the years: they are caught by surprise at what they personally seem to "mean" to a fan who saw a performance, and shatter the fans expectations thoroughly. Hell hath no fury...

Posted by: annette on December 26, 2006 9:14 AM

Actually, what you say makes sense.

Geographic distances no longer isolates people from the cultural heartbeat (thank youtube,netflix and mp3 sharing programs).

But people rarely come face to face with the type of people they see on TV, in movies, etc. These are people more frequently encountered in big cities on mass transit and on the streets.

But here in Houston (the 4th largest city in the US!), people no longer walk around; they drive! It's rare they come in contact with anyone outside of their immediate circle (except maybe at church). One sociologist wrote that the urban design of a suburb is intended to reduce interactions with strangers.

With live events people welcome the possibility of interactions like that. Hey, have fun with it; if they weren't talking to you about their sex lives, they'd probably bore you with talk about Altman and Youtube.

I recently performed at a live event in Houston, and was accosted by several strange people...including a middle aged woman who worked as a clown. She was handing out business cards, talking up her "clowniness" and telling me how she decided to become a clown. Another person told me a story about film projectors from the 1960's (that was tangentially related to my performance). Well, at least, they liked my performance..

Posted by: Robert Nagle on December 27, 2006 4:09 AM


Have you ever given the performance times and locations at 2Blowhards? If so, I'm sorry I missed them.

I'm headed for a term teaching at Notre Dame again. Any Michiana* performances coming up?


* Yes, they really say that.

Posted by: john on December 27, 2006 3:17 PM

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