My life as a performer
One theme that runs through my whole life to date is that I like to perform. Making other people smile, laugh, think, and feel gives me great satisfaction. It is both a way to feel connected to others, to garner attention, and to give something pleasurable to others.
The early years
My earliest memories of giving performances were my puppet shows. I was fond of stuffed animals and from time to time I’d put on a sort of show for the family with them, enacting some story I’d concocted. Eventually, this escalated and I took it upon myself to do puppet shows for the other neighborhood kids. I recall one such occasion where I was up on a flat first story roof and dangling my stuffed animals tied to strings as if they were marionettes, bouncing them around as I delivered the dialog and narration. As I recall, vaguely at best, these were extemporaneous performances invented more or less on the spot. This was somewhere in the ages of 7-9 I think.
A while later I acquired a tape recorder and a cheap microphone. With these, I started to create my own “radio show.” It consisted largely of sketch comedy routines inspired by the Muppet Show and comedy albums my father was fond of. Each was a kind of high concept piece, unscripted but with a definite aim and a sense of what the joke was. I kept the two resulting 90-minute tapes for some years until they got recorded over by accident. Not the greatest material but it gave me pleasure to listen to what my younger self had thought would be funny.
Around age 13 came an outlet that would become a lifelong pursuit; Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games. My memory is that my Grandparents bought me the red D&D starter set as an out of the blue birthday gift. I’d never heard of D&D but I liked dragons quite a bit. I really didn’t quite understand what it was at first, but I carefully read through the materials trying to imagine what it would be like to actually play. Only later when I met other kids that played in Alaska, did I start playing in earnest. It was not long before I was running games and creating adventures for my friends to experience. The more I played, the more dramatic my performances became. I don’t just run a game, I put on a show. I’ve been entertaining friends and strangers this way for more than 30 years now.
Getting seriously silly in high school
In Jr. High and Highschool I really started to up my entertainment ante. School provided a number of opportunities for performances and I gobbled them up. Whenever there was a chance to read a play out loud, I was raising my hand. Whenever we could perform a skit in class, I wrote my own script and recruited others into the performance. If I was to read a story out loud, you could be sure all the characters would have “voices” of their own. My sophomore year I decided to try out for the school plays and join the drama club. That is when things really started to take off.
I acted in 4 full plays during my time in high school: Design for Murder, Midsummer Nights Dream, Arsenic and Old Lace, and Look Homeward Angel. Most of my roles were character parts, which suited me well. Design for Murder was the first. I played the butler (who didn’t do it) but had a fair bit of action on stage including a fun death scene. In Midsummer Nights Dream I played Flute, which was a small but fun part where I do some falsetto in the play within a play portion. Arsenic and Old Lace was probably our best performance. Here I played brother Johnathan, made famous in the film by Boris Karloff. Finally, in Look Homeward Angel, I played the role of William Oliver Grant in a pretty melodramatic part. The last play we put on I worked as Technical Director of the play rather than as a member of the cast, consequently I can’t actually remember what the play was, only its sets and lighting.
In addition to the plays, I was part of the Debate, Drama, and Forensics team. I participated in about as many events as I was allowed to. Debate was the most involving, but I also did duet acting, humorous interpretation, extemporaneous speaking, radio readings, dramatic interpretations, and my personal favorite; Reader’s Theater. Reader’s Theater is basically reading a play aloud, or as I looked at it, performing radio dramas. I started by adapting The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy for the format and then started adapting the old radio serial The Galaxy Rangers, which was a huge hit at the competitions.
And still, it was not enough! I also had my own ballet/comedy troupe called the Russian Cornflakes. We started out performing a kind of bawdy comedy ballet routine to the Nutcracker Suite for the school talent show. We wore dance tights, tank tops, and strange hats while talking in broad Russian accents. The original performance was a sort of absurdist ballet. We came in second in the competition but were the clear crowd favorites. We went on to perform at school assemblies and a public library. We added sketch comedy to our lineup, mostly adapted Monty Python sketches, but also some of our own invention. In one spin-off project, we started doing very short teleplays as part of the schools morning intercom announcements. Heady times.
Even my mandatory volunteer opportunity for school ended up with some kind of performance work. I was on the Teen Family Planning Advisory Board, which was sort of a focus group of teens for an effort to promote contraception and safe sex to high school age kids. I remember thinking at the time that most of what we did was entirely useless but one product was a self-produced commercial for the Family Planing offices in which I played a “dude” who knocked up his teen girlfriend. It was wretched but it did end up laying on TV once or twice.
Ye Olde Acting Gig
After high school, I didn’t do much in the theater. I worked my way through college and I just didn’t feel like I had the time for College level theater commitments. I was more focused on computers, role playing games, and trying to get a degree before I went into complete default on my credit card debts from school. I did participate in Debate, but not to the extent I did in High School and only during my last year of Colledge. About the only stage acting, I did since was to show up to Improv performances and jump into the action when permitted.
Curiously, my only paid acting work were at Renesance Fairs. When I was in Jr. High and Highschool, my father had been the organizer of the Anchorage Arts Council Renesance fair. While I was a page in the queen’s court in one of the early years, mostly me and my friends would hang out all day at the fair, try to meet girls, and generally get into mischief of some sort. We even did a somewhat disastrous performance as the Russian Cornflakes where we did a kind of ad-lib parody of the Princess Bride. We were paid for the performance and mostly did not earn our pay.
I had more success years later, after Colledge, as part of the Three Baron’s fair, a sort of spiritual successor to the one my father ran. It was organized by a group of fans who used to attend the old fair regularly, roleplaying as a group of Arab traders. On my return to Alaska, I decided to try out for the fair and was picked up as one of its paid court members. Again, I did pretty much everything I was allowed to. In addition to numerous court shows, I was in a version of Hamlet where the audience throws tomatoes at the players and another short half hour semi-improvised play where I had the pleasure of causing the rest of the cast to break character and burst out laughing with one of my improvised jokes. I spent much of the day running from one performance to the next and having an amazing time. I was even voted “Most Manliest Man” by the cast at the end of the season, much to my delight.
Back to basics
I returned to role playing as my most common outlet for performance. That and the usual being goofy to entertain friends. I did some live action role playing as well, where instead or just verbal performances you dress up and act out a character. My wife and I first encountered one another at one of these during a science fiction convention though it was long before we actually met and started dating.
My work life as an IT professional didn’t have a ton of opportunities for performance, but when they were there, I none the less jumped at them. Unlike most developers, I really liked giving presentations and talks about the work we were doing and to teach new skills to the team. I always tried to add an element of showmanship and humor to them, something you almost never see outside of a big IT convention. I often considered doing acting again, but between working and playing games, I felt I had a pretty full and fulfilling life.
Gaming leads to podcasting, podcasting leads to rapping?
It was gaming that kicked off my next type of performance work. By this time I was married to Anne and we were both playing Dungeons & Dragons online, a computer version of the role-playing game. It had, and still has, a great community of players, one of whom, Jerry Snook, started up a podcast. He had called for some segments and I decided to contribute one on analyzing and taking advantage of the complicated rules for the game. Eventually, Jerry took a job with the company, and Anne and I took over as hosts of the podcast. We ran the show for about two years before, in turn, handing it off to another host. For our final show, we performed an episode live at GenCon, which was a real blast.
Also that year at Gencon, we ended up in a strange Dungeons & Dragons game that was recorded and sold on video as “The world’s worst dungeon crawl.” This was the brainchild of a guy known at the time as the Dungeon Bastard who did silly video segments as a kind of personal trainer for D&D players. It was a real blast for me, but pretty stressful for Anne who does not share my love of being the focus of everyone’s attention. That said, she’s pretty entertaining in her own right and was, in fact, the inspiration for the event. Her letter to the Dungeon Bastard asking how to get me to run more games was answered: “put me in the worst game possible” And that is pretty much what took place, except of course that it was also awesome and fun.
One artifact from our podcasting days was a rap song about kobolds I put together for one of the shows. I do not have much of a singing voice, but rap is something I can handle. I wrote the lyrics and downloaded “beats” from a website that has thousands of tracks you can license. The result was not exactly a masterpiece, but one fan liked it enough he asked me to perform it live as part of an awards ceremony he was hosting for a small gaming company I wrote for. I’d performed in bands a few times, most in in school and once with one of my father’s bands, but never as a featured player. The live rendition of my Kobold Rap was my one and only starring musical performance. Click on the link and listen if you dare!
And that is pretty much my performance history to date. No doubt further performance adventures lie in my future. I don’t often look for them, but whenever they cross my path I am quick to snatch them up and do my best to entertain.
But is he any good?
I’ve never tested myself in a truly competitive acting environment other than during high school competition. I’ve had some performances that I’d say were pretty bad over the years. In some cases, I just wasn’t as prepared as I should have been, in others I simply missed the mark on connecting with my audience as I’d intended. That said, most of what I’ve done was received favorably and I got a lot of accolades and attention from those I’ve performed for. Mind you, my ego being what it is, I tend to remember praise much more than criticism.
I’m lucky enough to be somewhat handsome and I’ve got a strong and versatile voice. Those two things go a long way towards having stage presence and moving an audience. I also feel like I have a good intuitive feel for storytelling and drama. I never actually studied acting as a craft beyond taking the drama class in high school, and our teacher focused far more on stagecraft than acting itself. My performance is at its heart, just me pretending to be someone else in some unusual situation while trying to tell a story.
There is a little more to it of course. For me, performance involves turning something on that I normally keep switched off. I can best describe it as full engagement. When I want to really engage and entertain people, I really focus on them and try to connect. Eye contact, facial expressions and voice tone all play a part and the end result is a sort of connection. Once connected, people want to follow you, to laugh at your antics, to feel your rage, to cry at your pain. It’s a two-way effect, you signal your engagement, and then they respond. Usually, when a performance is about to occur, they want to respond which makes the engagement much deeper and easier. Then I just channel as much of my energy and focus into that connection and the performance itself as I can muster.
When in the Barons Fair, I once had another cast member tell me that on first seeing me, he didn’t think much. I was just some big guy lurking around in costume. But then, when I took the stage to do some character work, it was like some light went on and I owned the stage and everyone’s immediate attention. He said it was almost a shocking change. Beyond being flattered, it was that comment that got me thinking about what it was I was doing and I came to the above explanation of initiating a connection with the audience. I tend to think people who are not natural actors, are in truth holding back from that connection as it is kind of a scary and powerful thing. It’s also a real thrill.
So in my heart, I think I’m pretty spiffy, but at the same time, I recognize I am not a professional and I don’t have the training nor the experience of a truly great actor. I’m just a somewhat gifted amateur, and like many things, better that many other amateurs, but not nearly as good as those who truly dedicate themselves to what they do. Role playing games might be an exception to that. I’ve put in near countless hours as a player and game master and I like to think I’ve got real chops there. Mind you there really aren’t any professional D&D players in the world just yet and if there were, I suspect they’d also be more polished that I at the craft.