This afternoon, I did something intensely un-American. (Certain websites just woke up and took notice, I’m sure.)
Gave up television.
Well, nearly. I cut my cable TV package down from nearly a hundred channels to about a dozen. Eighty bucks a month becomes twenty. Pow. And I’ll try that for a couple of months, and see if maybe it’s not a great idea to Throw The Baggage Out.
This would be easier for some than for others. I thought it was going to be difficult for me until I thought hard about just how much teevee I actually watch. For the last several months: far less than I thought.
(True, I’ve made a name for myself, for jumping onto the local social media engine and doing the ol’ live-blog thing during high-profile and much-watched events like the Olympics, the Tournament of Roses Parade, and the Super Bowl, which could only be achieved by turning on the telly. I’ll figure something out…)
“Fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on,” sang Bruce Springsteen all those years ago; at the moment, the update might be “nine hundred fifty-seven channels,” but still, relatively speaking: he would still not be wrong.
In fact, on several Sunday evenings last fall, I would sit down to watch Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison visibly loathe each other, while commenting on the NFL game highlights of the day. And I would realize that the last time I’d put the TV on … was the previous Sunday when I had turned on NBC to watch them hate each other. No wonder I didn’t have to change the channel.
So I made an assessment of the TV programming that, without benefit of cable-TV service, I would not be able to watch, and would therefore kinda miss – and the programming that I thought I would miss but whose absence, as it turns out, might not make that much impact on me – and the programming that I could access elsewhere.
And I got a window into, among other things, how running-scared the television industry really might be nowadays.
National broadcast network news operations are now mainly overseen by network entertainment divisions, which oughta give you an idea. With few exceptions, local network-affiliate news operations are at least as full of fluff pieces and corporate-media-approved content as they are full of actual substantive reporting on local current affairs. With very few exceptions, there aren’t many reporters on my local stations who are actually from around here, which might lend a little depth and perspective to their work.
I’ll pop over to the BBC News website and be perfectly happy, I think.
C-SPAN: worthwhile … but again, I rarely dive for the TV when a House Judiciary Committee hearing is on. Which might say more about me than the Committee. But in C-SPAN’s zeal to present events unedited, without commentary or analysis, an awful lot of politically-expedient but factually-deficient stuff is allowed to pass, unremarked-upon. Here’s a campaign speech, totally un-fact-checked! Fun! To paraphrase Winston Churchill, C-SPAN might be the worst idea for a TV channel except for all the others that have been tried.
Once, MSNBC was my default. The erstwhile “Countdown with Keith” was required viewing. Melissa Harris-Perry’s weekend roundtables are refreshingly full of the kinds of people you never see on the stodgy ol’ “Meet the Press” or “Face the Nation” news chats. I’ll miss the ham-handed Chris Matthews or Rev. Al Sharpton not at all. I will miss the hyperkinetic Chris Hayes and and the arched eyebrow of Lawrence O’Donnell some; but given the current efforts to gradually rein in MSNBC’s left-leaning programming, those gents may not last long either. I know where to download podcast versions of kindly Doc Maddow’s flagship program, and that’ll do.
I bailed on the Weather Channel when they started naming storms, when the actual National Weather Service asked them not to. I can run to the National Weather Service website for forecasts (don’t even have to wait till “weather on the 8s”); and if I need a human to present and interpret the weather, I’ll dial up the website of New England Cable News’ Matt Noyes, who may be the best teaching meteorologist on TV.
Education, and Culture?
PBS, and specifically WGBH, one of public television’s “Original Six” -grade local affiliates? Well, NOVA. And Great Performances, when they’re great. “Downton Abbey” hasn’t grabbed me, but that may not be its fault. Public broadcasting needs to survive, because it has a better chance of presenting material that commercial sponsors might not consider worth supporting. Opera at the Met, and little tiny creatures of the Barrier Reef! Cool! … But how many times in the last decade have I specifically aimed to watch an episode of NOVA? A handful, at best. PBS’ website is full of archived wonderfulness. It’ll get traffic.
The Discovery Channel, History Channel, Learning Channel? Lately they’ve become largely mis-named.
Food Network: pardon my jump-the-shark whining: a decade ago, I could spend an evening doing teacher prep accompanied by Alton Brown, Emeril Lagasse and Iron Chef (the original Japanese version, thank you): three hours during which I might actually learn something about food and cooking. Now, thanks to the (how to say this?) non-subtle Guy Fieri and the suits who run FN, it’s all Dives, Diners and Cupcake Contests, all the flippin’ time. Pass.
At no time in the last decade have I subscribed to HBO, Showtime, or any of those premium pay-cable channels. I am content to watch them during my occasional visits to hotels. I won’t miss them … because I haven’t yet.
FX, USA Network, TNT, TBS? Packed solid with hour-long dramas that occasionally catch my interest, and with World Broadcast Premieres of a lot of movies that I didn’t spend 18 bucks on, at the theaters, to begin with. (Occasionally it’s nice, and faintly ironic, to sit for a complete three hours and confirm that I’m glad not to have spent money on any of the “Transformers” flicks.)
(I will confess that my current rather serious Marvel Cinematic Universe fixation was aided and abetted by my sudden ability to see Captain America and Iron Man and Thor upon my little teevee set. Not to mention “Agents of SHIELD” and “Agent Carter”, about which I’ll ramble in future posts. There is, however, this neat little invention called the public library, and the DVD section therein. Local, convenient, … free …)
Comedy Central: If I need to see a “Daily Show with or without Jon Stewart” segment, I can be sure that a link to the video will appear on my Facebook news feed. No worries. Syfy: now that the “Battlestar Galactica” reboot has ended (yeah, guy: several years ago!), all they’ve got are “Ghost Hunters” and complete weekends of rampaging giant alligator movies. No great loss. Game Show Network: if I need reruns of “Match Game”, or other brief glimpses of 1970s fashion disasters via “Password” or “Tic Tac Dough”, that also is what the YouTube is for.
The frantic, hyperactive Disney Channel? For me, just one thing: the new “Star Wars Rebels” animated prequel series, which is not nearly as cheeseball as it could have been … one of whose assets is the really intelligent use of adaptations of John Williams’ musical score from the original trilogy … and I can watch that online.
BBC America I kinda miss, since my cable provider inexplicably took it away from my TV set several years ago. I miss the “Doctor Who” reboot, and “Top Gear”. But again: the public library.
The local pro sports teams on TV … are also on the radio, wherein I can use my imagination. If I need video highlights, they’re often posted on YouTube almost immediately. Big game with playoff implications? That’s what sports bars are for.
The Golf Channel: … yeah, I might miss spending wintry Sunday afternoons watching folks shoot rounds of golf someplace that looks very warm and sunny. I’ll admit that.
Now, the elephant in the room:
As a kid, when I visited my grandparents in their new Florida home, I discovered the amazing invention of cable TV. No more adjusting rabbit-eared antennas: a perfect picture all the time. You kids, you have no idea that this is a big deal; but it is. Another big deal was this subset of the new invention: something called ESPN. All sports, or sports reporting, all the live-long day.
For a long time, even if ESPN had been nothing but Sportscenter all day long, I’d have watched. This was the equivalent of being a Star Trek fan and finding a channel that showed nothing but. This is gold, Jerry! Gold!
But at some point, something shifted. Might or might not have been precisely when the ABC/Disney corporate conglomerate bought it up; I’m not sure. But as soon as corporate America gets its hooks into you, your priorities are made to change; either that or you’re made to go away forcibly.
And so has it been with ESPN. Presenters? For a great long time it was Bob Ley, the late Tom Mees, Charley Steiner, Keith Olbermann, Dan Patrick, the late great Stuart Scott, and yes, the early version of Chris Berman. Somehow, ESPN’s idea of on-air talent became the smarmy Kenny Mayne, the bumbling Lou Holtz, the insufferable Stephen A. Smith, the positively nasty Skip Bayless, and a cast of Sportscenter anchors doing pale impersonations of their forebears.
The actual content? Well, since forever, commercial sponsors have been part and parcel of TV presentations, and radio before that (including “Texaco Star Theatre” and “Philco Radio Time” – and daytime TV dramas got the “soap opera” nickname from the soap companies that originally bankrolled them). Got that. But if I have to sit through another round of the “GEICO Halftime Report”, “Coors Light Cold Hard Facts”, “Bud Light Freeze Frame”, “GMC Keys to Victory”, “Budweiser Hot Seat”, or “Gatorade Cooler Talk”, I will in fact scream. At what point does it cease to be sports journalism and become commercial lip service?
In fact, so much of what passes for televised entertainment is decided upon by the suits in corporate America, bankrolled by the suits in corporate America, and sponsored by the suits in corporate America. Come to think of it, so is most of what passes for televised information – the news.
The theme emerges: beyond the Roku- or Hulu-esque services that I haven’t even investigated yet, I suspect that online resources will more than make up for the lack of pictures flying through the air in my living room. I happily pay for Internet access every month; as the FCC recently suggested, the Internet really is a genuine utility now. It truly pays for itself, by the time I’ve used it to communicate with people, research topics, track down information about local businesses, generate route maps for road trips … and track down information and entertainment over which television used to hold a monopoly. It’s possible that I’m the latest one to this party … but I made it in the door, finally.
The loss of one lone person’s cable TV payments will not affect the corporate suits or their bottom line a bit. It’ll affect mine, though; and that more than seven hundred bucks a year could come in handy somewhere else.
It’s something small I can do. Occupy My Living Room!
“Serious theatre” and I … don’t seem to bang into each other much.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy it when we do. Given the right presenters, I can thoroughly enjoy an evening of Shakespeare, for example. (In performance, ya don’t really need all those footnotes translating 16th century English; you get the gist … you just kinda de-focus your brain a bit and receive the tone of voice and body language, kinda like stepping back and getting a wider-angle view of the scenery.)
I just have much more experience with silly theatre – whether of the children’s-theatre variety or not. Slapstick and bad puns and pratfalls, and books and lyrics that you don’t need Cliff’s Notes to wrap your brain around.
One summer at the fabled creative arts day camp, I participated in the production of a show called “Left Out”, which – in short – was the first time I’d experienced a children’s musical that was a Serious Play With Funny Lines. Its climactic scene, involving the betrayal of the eventual villain by just about everyone else in the cast, was one of those very rare examples of a children’s musical eliciting gasps of surprise from its audience.
But, again, I haven’t trafficked in that sort of drama as a matter of course.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the tougher stuff.
Probably the first play I ever saw which definitely counted as Serious Theatrical Literature came courtesy of a college visit. The college drama guild was performing a fluffy little piece called “The Crucible”.
I remember the screaming, and the gnashing of teeth, and the accusations of witchcraft, and the complete and utter lack of a toe-tapping finale.
And not much else. No knock on the collegiate thespians, either. The caterwauling was convincing, and it was in the script, after all. It was impressive; but I determined (with all the life experience of a 17-year-old) that in general, I wasn’t so fond of Dark Foreboding Followed By Shrieking in my stage plays.
So, as I have endeavored in the past several years to dream up some theatrical creations of my own, audiences may note that I tend much more toward quips than angst; more toward character self-examination via brightly-lit song-and-dance than via Hamlet-esque chest-clutching soliloquy in a lonely follow-spot.
Honestly, friends … I wrote a show about chickens and turkeys in a barnyard. It wasn’t exactly entitled “Death of a Poultry Salesman”, either.
So, regarding the coming-to-grips with Serious Theatre, as well as other forms of art and performance, I’ve discovered that sometimes “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” You may not know a thing about sculpture, about poetry slams, about baroque music, about modern dance … but you go because you know a name associated with it. (How many Star Trek fans were introduced to Shakespeare because Patrick Stewart was a purveyor?)
Hold that thought.
This past weekend, I took advantage of that little gateway, and quite enjoyed myself.
I ventured into the eastern sliver of Cambridge, Massachusetts (via the newly-resuscitated MBTA) to attend a play, the final event in a fortnight-long arts festival called “We Are…”
The festival’s organizers, The Poets’ Theatre [www.poetstheatre.org], described the event as “dedicated to the subject of Identity, with a particular focus on gender and race … we will present a series of exciting poets, dance companies, and theatrical events that highlight the urgent discussions about who we are as a nation that fill the headlines today.”
So. Not silly.
And maybe not the kind of thing that I would naturally gravitate toward, as has been previously chronicled.
The play was called “Gilding the Lily”. It was a semi-biographical, ninety-minute piece about Victorian-era English actress Lillie Langtry. The play’s press materials said, “the notorious 19th century celebrity takes the stage as Shakespeare’s Rosalind, but the American critics are unimpressed. Please join Lillie as she examines her life, loves and the Forest of Arden to discover the difficult art of letting our hearts be our craft.”
Okay, there were actually some laughs.
Some of them were in response to Ms. Langtry’s quips; and some were of the sympathetic and somewhat uncomfortable variety, as the audience is reminded of the differences between how we view the world and how the world actually may be. Very few belly laughs; lots more knowing murmurs.
So, an unmistakable air of a character holding back the incursion of realities she may not wish to face directly, just yet.
It was a terrific evening.
It was a one-person show.
It was a play written, produced, performed (and, one must assume, promoted) by one single person.
There’s a reason why I always participated in school theatrical productions from the safety of the orchestra pit: I’m no good at memorizing lines of dialogue. At all. Unless I spend years living with them, and that is not hyperbole.
And a one-person show is in fact one gigantic line of dialogue. I had nothing but admiration for folks who memorize a single role in a show, and can be reminded of what they’re supposed to be doing, if necessary, by the other actors.
If you experience memory block in a one-person show, there’s no safety net. The silence, I imagine, might seem many decades long; the focus of the spotlight, blinding and unforgiving. I’ll keep my show music safely in front of me, thank you.
On top of which, if you’re presenting a one-person show of your own creation, you are laying yourself doubly or quadruply bare. This is my work; this is my performance; if you like it, that’s wonderful; if you don’t, there’s nowhere to deflect the critique. It’s all on you. No risk, no reward, they say. The rewards, I imagine, are grand. The peril, I suspect, is similarly sweeping.
As the play finished, and the lengthy ovation subsided, I leaned over to my theater-going comrade (who doubles as a lifelong friend) and whispered, “I can’t do any of that.” She chuckled madly.
I left you hanging, a while back.
There was that sometimes frustrating “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” aphorism.
This phrase more often applies to securing employment or gigs or similar opportunities for one’s self. In this case, I turned it to my advantage: I accessed a piece of dramatical artistry that I may not have actively sought out otherwise. A different sort of opportunity.
And I did so because I knew the play’s creator, and promoter, and presenter.
Her name is Susannah Melone.
Something like three decades ago, she was a creative-arts day-camp student, acting on stage in the middle of that serious play with funny lines called “Left Out”. I was a member of the camp faculty pit orchestra. And until this weekend, I hadn’t seen her live and in-person, for most of those three decades.
We camp counselors occasionally would wonder which of the on-stage kids might one day do what they were doing, but for a living, professionally … and perhaps dimly wondered if we’d ever get to see them in action.
“Yes, of course I came to your show,” I said to her afterward, when she suggested (overestimatingly!) that my presence at the show was any kind of a big deal.
For openers, it’s what we do for friends. Come and support them. Woo hoo! and Rah rah rah guys! and all that.
But via her social media postings over the past few years, I’d gotten the sense, however remotely, of the work and research it took her to wrestle “Gilding the Lily” into being, and of the perspiration and desperation and inspiration and outright love that it took to haul the thing onto stages in New York and, now, “home” to Boston.
And it didn’t take much observation to sense that this was going to be For Real.
Because along with being a producer and writer and such, she’s an Actor. A card-carrying, professional, New York City-based actor, and (to my admittedly unpracticed eye, based at least on what I saw the other night) a great one.
For the first about six minutes, as she trod the boards, I was watching my friend Susannah, whom I hadn’t seen in ages.
For the next about eighty-four minutes, I was laughing and sighing with Lillie.
That, I mused afterward, must be how it’s done.
[Here’s a follow-up to the item that was printed in last week’s edition of “The Chronicle”, the weekly newsletter of the church at which I -gig. -Ed.]
More than once, I’ve gone on and on, in this space, about how much I enjoy my church music gig. As many times as I think, “okay, have to deal with that; okay, there’s a challenge; okay, how can we do this and this and this better?” … nonetheless, we got a good thing going. To the point that, when I chat with my choral director colleagues out there in the big world (at conferences, etc.), I have to kinda soft-pedal the embarrassment of riches that I swim in … otherwise they ask me politely please to hush up. Not everybody in the world gets to hang out with that many singers and that many instrumentalists, to have that great a working relationship with the pastor, to have that much fun…
So anyway, yesterday, Easter happened.
There’s always a lot going on, on Easter Sunday. It’s a high holy! It’s a day wherein many people who don’t normally get to church … put on their finery and get to church. A chance to maybe hook them back into the church game? Or to inspire a person or two to check out the choir on a more regular basis? Let’s not hold back. Best foot forward, and all that.
Yesterday, up on the Chancel platform, we had twenty choir singers, a pack of instrumentalists, our resident Unbelievable Guitarist, some nearly-9-year-old kid who knows his way around a drum kit, and a soloist who opened the service with a cover of Kelly Mooney’s new Easter lyrics for Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”.
We didn’t have to hire a one of them. They all were members or friends of the congregation. Teens through senior citizens, every last one.
(They’re worth a ton; and their reward awaits them both in Heaven and also the next time someone sees them and says, “man! the music was a blast Sunday!” … but nothing comes out of the payroll.)
There are choirs out there with paid section leaders and soloists. There are churches who, if they want trumpets on Easter, have to put an ad on the gig board at the local university and hope someone answers it.
Happily … fortunately … not here in Sudbury.
I had a number of “moments” yesterday, and here are three:
 I don’t know that I’ve ever enjoyed an Easter service opening as much as I did this year’s 9:30am service. When Patty Helsingius gently brought the congregation along with her, to sing the Cohen “Hallelujah” refrain, in the midst of a darkened sanctuary, it felt like one of those wonderful Christmas Eve “don’t wake the kid” moments.
 We got to the end of the “Easter Wings” anthem that I’d written for choir and wind ensemble, and genuinely thought, “yep, that’s better than my imagination had expected.”
And , an odd time for a “moment”, but true: during the warmup before the 9:30 service, we were running the hymn arrangements. Somewhere in the middle of the second verse of “Crown Him With Many Crowns”, for which I’d written brass and wind parts that were, let’s say, active … I could not keep a stupid, silly grin off my face. The assembled winds were *playing the heck out of those parts*. To the point that [a] I thought we should go into the studio and record, some day, and [b] several of our choir members applauded when we got done. Now come on! Hymns are routine, straightforward, not usually the kinds of things that draw applause anyway, yes? … Well, when folks bring their A-game, sometimes it doesn’t matter whether it’s the “Hallelujah Chorus” or “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad” … it gets a response.
For me, the true joy of the day, beyond the actual point of Easter (“He is risen indeed!”) is so often (but especially yesterday) this: we do all this together, all of us on the SUMC “homegrown musician” roster. That’s what takes it to The Next Level.
It’s the kind of thing that makes the post-Easter afternoon crash feel like it was cheerfully earned.
Happy Easter, indeed.