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Saturday, March 26, 2011

My Memesonic Apron

In addition to working at a psychiatric hospital, I also teach theatre to impressionable youngsters.

(Of course I do.)

Mostly, I do private audition coaching and monologue work, on an individual basis which, I guess, the word "private" implies. Just me and the student, one-on-one, sparring intellectually, dodging each other's witticisms and engaging in the kind of reparte that, I suppose, college professors find stimulating during office hours.

Occasionally, we also do scenework.

I'm fortunate enough, pretty much, to have my pick of the litter. A student gets recommended to me, or referred to me, or suggested to me, and I get to give thumbs up or thumbs down whether I want to work with him or her. For the past year, I've been working one-on-one with a fine, upstanding young man whom I will call Jack, because that's not his name. Jack is a rabbi's son, comes from a pretty well-to-do family, and travels quite a distance for our lessons, which is kind of flattering. I have little doubt that there are perfectly suitable and competent acting instructors closer to his front door, some of whom would probably be willing to travel to his front door. But I'm not. I make him schlep out to see me, and, for the past year, he has done just that.

Apparently, it's paid off. Last month, he applied to and auditioned for, and just got accepted to my alma mater. And I didn't even have to grease a single wheel.

Jack works hard, and he works on hard material. I throw challenging playwrights his way-- Sam Shepherd, Harold Pinter, Arthur Miller, Samuel Beckett, Israel Horovitz, just to name a few. He doesn't blink, he doesn't say "I can't," and he never comes to class unprepared. He knows I would kill him.

We have a great relationship. I'm casual in demeanor with him, loose with my language, but, when it's time to work, it's time to work-- I'm supportive and encouraging, but I'm also firm, demanding, and, when I spy bullshit, I call him out on it. If he's mugging or indicating or phoning it in, it does not continue. He likes to be called out. "Nobody's ever done that to me before," he says. Well, welcome to Hell, son.

Sometimes, the hour we have together stretches into an hour and fifteen minutes, or an hour and a half. We philosophize, we story-tell, we talk shop, but also we talk life. I remember one conversation recently we had about television. I was in the midst of enjoying a significant amount of "The Carol Burnett Show" sketches on YouTube, and I asked Jack,

"As someone who has grown up completely saturated by and with reality television, can you tell me honestly, from your perspective, why television is all shit nowadays?"

He smiled at me.

"Uh-oh, I just said something cantankerous about television, and I also just used the words 'nowadays' and 'cantankerous.' Did I just age in your eyes by forty-five years?"

Jack laughed.

"Yeah, you did. You talk like my Zayda." Then, like in our lessons, he got serious. I could tell it was coming by the way he furrowed his brow. "Look, what is reality TV? Shows like 'Teen Mom' and 'Jersey Shore'? They're people behaving badly-- like idiots. Assholes. And what is everybody obsessed with? The latest YouTube clip of some asshole doing something idiotic."

"Right, or it's a cat belching the French alphabet," I chimed in, "or a baby creating a telescope out of a paper towel roll."

"Yeah," Jack said, "and that's all bullshit, and I think the television producers and execs see us going ape over this dumb, mindless crap and they say, 'That's it-- that's what they want to see!'"

As someone who spends an inordinate amount of his day off watching Tim Conway breaking up the late Harvey Korman with just a knowing, sideways glance before an expertly-placed bit of improv, this precient statement by my pupil struck a chord in me.

"It's as if there's nothing well-crafted anymore, like, the market for that has simply dried up," I complained, as an elderly man might when confronted by a poorly-constructed corned beef sandwich at a faux-deli.

"Right, that's because there's nothing well-crafted online either. It's all drug-addicted retards doing crappy animation in their basements being funny or 'Shit My Dad Says' or blogs that are all just pics and videos or other shitty user-generated content, like, I don't know if you know what a 'meme' is--"

I stared at him.

"I want to murder you right now," I said. He cracked up.

"Okay," he said, "sorry, but, like Double Rainbow guy-- like, that's just total bullshit and, in two weeks, nobody's going to give a shit about that,"

"Right, because this culture is so vapid and ridiculous that a video of a 4-year-old ballerina dancing with a terrier is going to take the country by storm."

"Right," Jack agreed, "we're all about the next meme. Who can share what with whom first. That's what we're all about."

And that talented sonofabitch is right. And that gave me pause. What also gave me pause was that an eighteen-year-old high school senior suddenly suspected that I might be too old, no, perhaps too out-of-touch to know what a "meme" was.

Though he sometimes places his foot strategically inside his mouth when he's in my company, he is a smart kid. But I'm sure my alma mater will fix that.

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