I Am Dreamcast (A Play)

This is an extremely short “play” I wrote in 1999. I recently rediscovered it in a folder of old projects, and it made me laugh. On the inside, because I don’t laugh out loud all that often.

Here it is, with a few tiny things cleaned up after a fresh reading, as I originally wrote it 18 years ago. Oh, if you don’t know, this is what a Dreamcast is/was. Enjoy.

I Am Dreamcast

A play by Paul Fidalgo

Blockbuster Video store, 1999.

PAUL, an employee, early 20s, and JUAN, the manager, late 20s, are behind the counter, working on scanning in VHS videotapes which are stacked up in various piles, or prepping new releases or some nonsense like that, putting tapes into cases and whatnot. We see them from behind the counter, which is upstage of them.

JUAN stops suddenly, straightens up, and says…

JUAN: I am Dreamcast.

PAUL: You are?

JUAN: I am Dreamcast.

PAUL: Really.

JUAN: You…

PAUL: Yes?

JUAN: You can play Crazy Taxi on me!

PAUL: My god.

JUAN: I am-

PAUL: Dreamcast.

JUAN: Yes, Dreamcast.

AMY, another employee, 20s, enters.

AMY: What’s with Juan?

PAUL: He thinks he’s a Sega Dreamcast.

AMY: What?

JUAN: I am Dreamcast.

PAUL: See?

AMY: Why?

PAUL: I don’t know. Maybe too much exposure to all these games.

JUAN: I have a 128-bit graphics processor.

PAUL: Yeah, you see what’s funny about that is that I don’t think he would actually know that.

AMY: Wow.

JUAN: I am normally retailed at $199.99.

PAUL: This is kind of cool.

JUAN: I am Dreamcast.

AMY: He’s just fooling.

PAUL: I don’t think so.

JUAN: Grrrrr!

PAUL: What?

JUAN: Grrrrr!

AMY: He’s growling.

PAUL: Why would the Dreamcast growl? I never thought of it as, you know, scary.

AMY: Well…

JUAN: Dreamcast!

AMY: Ssh! This is why I think he’s kidding.

PAUL: No, I think Juan believes the Dreamcast is a monster, that he is a monster.

JUAN: I am Dreamcast!

Enter CUSTOMER, approaches counter

CUSTOMER: Excuse me.

JUAN: I am Dreamcast.

CUSTOMER: What?

PAUL: Nothing.

AMY: Can I help you with something?

CUSTOMER: My kid wants this video game, um, Tony Hawk?

AMY: For which system?

JUAN: Dreamcast!

CUSTOMER: Um, no, the Nintendo one. N64.

PAUL: Yeah, Juan, Tony Hawk isn’t on the Dreamcast yet.

AMY: (To CUSTOMER) Let me see if we have it. (Types on computer.)

JUAN: Um.

PAUL: Yeah?

JUAN: Um.

AMY: Yes?

JUAN: Grrrr!

CUSTOMER: A monster! Run!

End

Immeasurable

I have lately discovered in myself a kind of sympathy with a certain flavor of religious belief and practice, which, when approached from a very particular angle, I find relatable, even laudable. To be clear, I don’t mean religion in the sense of unquestioning belief in absurd cosmological claims or even magical thinking about some silly “universal spirit” or what have you. This has more to do with things like yearning, reverence, discipline, peace, and one other thing.

That other thing, interestingly, is part and parcel with the very ideals I work to promote in my professional life advancing reason and secularism: Doubt.

It’s kind of a funny thing. I live a life positively drenched in doubt. My self-doubt is, of course, the stuff of legend, and it spills over into grave doubts about all manner of external things, from the intentions of others to the sustainability of human civilization. I’m just not so sure about any of it. No, that’s too flip. I deeply distrust all of it. Everything. It’s, as they say, crippling.

At the same time, I have a mind that strives for certainty. This is to be expected from someone with Asperger’s (which I only became aware of a few months ago), and true to the stereotype I grasp for recognizable patterns and hard-and-fast explanations for everything. Perhaps this was a primary factor as to why I found the secular-skeptic movement so appealing: Well at least I know those people are wrong!

This need for the concrete is, I think, a major reason as to why I soured on the arts about a decade ago. I didn’t feel like its benefits to humanity were sufficiently tangible. At the time I was making these considerations, things were very dark in American politics (which looks rosy compared to today), and I felt that all hands were needed on deck to fight back and make the world a better place. I did still believe that performing Shakespeare had the power to do some good, but that the effect I could have was too small, too localized. I needed to expand my do-gooder blast radius.

Politics, I thought, would bring concrete solutions, eventually. Successes there would do more than lift the spirits of a few upper-class theatre-goers; they would improve society as a whole, helping people who needed it, as opposed to just those who could afford a ticket to a play.

But I think I was missing something, something I couldn’t be expected to understand at that time in my life, at that age. I’m not sure I understand it now, but I do think I undervalued what I was doing at the time. But I couldn’t quantify it, I couldn’t see it. I doubted it.

I couldn’t live with that doubt. The irony of course is that I now utterly doubt the ability of politics and advocacy to make lasting positive change, given, you know, how things have shaken out.

But aside from the abysmal state of things in that particular arena, it remains that political advocacy is largely mechanical. Yes, of course, there is as much poetry as prose involved in the whole mess of politics and government, but all of that poetry is meant, in the end, to get some dials adjusted on the machinery of government; to get particular gears of society to move or speed up, and get others to slow or stop. Meaning can be measured.

I couldn’t measure what made a performance of Othello or As You Like It meaningful, just as I can’t measure the meaning of the songs I write and record, or even the meaning of these words. I have metrics for attention paid, surely, in clicks, downloads, listens, views, likes, shares, tweets, and all that. But there is no measuring the impact, no quantifying to what degree the world has gotten better as a result, if at all. Indeed, I have so little understanding of this that I often doubt the things I do have any meaning at all.

In the quantifiable world, the readings on the gauge are very grim. The wrong gears are moving, the right gears are being removed from the inner workings, and the dials are pointed in all the wrong directions. It is dark. And I realize this darkness is due to an emptiness, a void. It’s not a lack of good ideas or good campaign strategies. It’s a void in the human heart, a vacuum instead of open air. It is dark.

The thing about darkness, though, is that little lights become really freaking important. I’m directing a production of Into the Woods with the local university, and it might be great, or we might just eke out a passable showing by the skin of our teeth. But that’s not really the point. The point is that this group of young people are throwing their hearts and minds and energies into telling this beautiful story with this beautiful music that is full of joy and pain and fear and yearning. Whatever happens, I am certain that this show will be a little light in the dark. It already is. Before it’s even been performed, it’s already made the world a better place, made all those who have been a part of it, myself included, better people.

I can’t measure that. But only in this time of darkness do I realize how badly we need it anyway. How bad we’ve always needed it, and always will.

Here’s a thing I read recently by Dougald Hine that helped focus my thinking about this:

Art can teach us to live with uncertainty, to let go of our dreams of control. And art can hold open a space of ambiguity, refusing the binary choices with which we are often presented – not least, the choice between forced optimism and simple despair.

These are strange answers. For anyone in search of solutions, they will sound unsatisfying. But I don’t think it’s possible to endure the knowledge of the crises we face, unless you are able to draw on this other kind of knowledge and practice, whether you find it in art or religion or any other domain in which people have taken the liminal seriously, generation after generation. Because the role of ritual is not just to get you into the liminal, but to give you a chance of finding your way back.

If religion, for you, is something that is not about theological certainties or following the revealed will of the creator of the universe, but like art is about yearning, reverence, discipline, peace, and doubt, then I think I am beginning to understand that. I can’t take at all seriously any claims about some mystical being or force that has willed us into existence and interconnectedness. But I am interested in a way of thinking that yearns for this connection, that reveres the vastness of our knowledge and ignorance, that partakes in a discipline to explore and strive for this connection, that seeks and achieves moments of bliss, harmony, and peace in this practice, and that doubts every bit of it, so as to power the continuation of the cycle. Maybe that’s what faith is supposed to be about, or what it ought to be about anyway, having faith that there’s something to strive for. Against all evidence. 

This is what the arts, the humanities, are for. Not only their products, but the practice, the making, the discipline. That’s what’s holy about one more goddamned performance of a show I’ve been doing for a year. The ritual. This is what I think I missed all those years ago, or was not yet capable of understanding. It’s what I think I misunderstood about certain key aspects of religion, and what I suspect the vast majority of religious people misunderstand, or neglect, as well.

My Aspie brain struggles painfully with this. “Why bother” is the mantra of my subconscious mind whenever I even consider undertaking some effort in writing, music, or what have you, especially given that I am not making my living this way anymore. “To what end?” asks my brain. “What good will it do, for you or anyone else?”

Daunting, invigorating, and frustrating, the only response is that it is, in every sense of the word, immeasurable.


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Performing Artists, Kill Your Guilty Conscience

My amazing and talented wife Jessica recently did some voice work to help another actress prepare for a film, for which she was paid. She was told today, however, that the film project had been canceled. This, of course, happens sometimes, and it’s not has though Jess was going to be in the thing, so no harm, no foul for her.
But then she admitted to me that she felt a twinge of guilt for accepting payment for her work now that the film won’t actually go into production. When she said this to me, I think my eyes bugged out of my head, and I may have dropped whatever I was holding. Had I been sipping a beverage, I probably would have done a spit take over my laptop keyboard, necessitating a puppy-dog-eyed trip to the Genius Bar.

Guilty? For being paid for your work? I made the comparison to someone who might have built an object: If someone had constructed a set piece for the film, and the film was canceled, no one would think that the builder shouldn’t be paid. Work done is work done.

But somehow with artists, I think particularly performing artists, there is a feeling that what we do doesn’t really count as work, and that if we happen to get paid for it, it’s just icing. A happy coincidence.

Part of this is fueled by raw economics. The supply of performers (actors, singers, dancers, etc.) is far, far, far greater than the demand for them, which leads to performers doing ungodly amounts of work for nothing, and in many cases, actually paying to work in order to get “experience,” get “exposure,” and really, get “exploited.” (Say the word “showcase” to an actor and see if you can detect them dying inside.)

There’s also something about the evanescence of performance work, particularly live performance. You do it, and the work then flitters off into the ether, perhaps captured in recordings or memory, but now passed.

Finally, there’s the trope that’s related to the idea that one must “do what you love,” which can easily be misinterpreted as “since you love doing it, doing it is payment in itself.” Actors and other performers are made to feel that they are privileged just to be allowed to ply their craft at all, and that it is only a rarified few who should deign to feel entitled to compensation for it. It can feel to some as almost impolite to expect to be paid for performance-art work.

And I get it. I have been there. As someone who is usually drenched in self-loathing, I know what it is not to value one’s own labor. Adulthood and the oppression of debt and expenses has changed me a great deal, however, plus I’ve been out of the performing arts workforce for several years now. Raw necessity has hardened me somewhat when it comes to expecting fair compensation, even for work that I might do on my own time for nothing anyway. (Music, for example.)

Here’s the key difference: If I choose to do creative work on my own (and on my own terms) for no payment, all for me, that’s my decision. If you want me to do similar work for you, on your terms, you must pay me. The two are not related, but we sensitive artists types are primed to conflate them.

Back to Jess. Her work in this case was not even “performance” per se, but using her talents to help another performer with their vocal work. It was a kind of training. So it’s not even as though she got the chance to spread her creative wings and practice her craft at its fullest for the sheer joy of it. She did contract training work. And yet she still felt bad for accepting her compensation.

It makes me more than a little angry that our culture has been set up this way, so that my brilliantly talented and already overworked wife would feel bad for being paid for her services, done in her extremely scarce spare time. And it happens to all manner of creative professionals, not just performers but writers and designers too. Because it’s “creative,” it doesn’t count as real work.

Get paid. If you also happen to enjoy that work? That’s the icing. And it’s irrelevant. Get paid fairly for your work and treat it like the business transaction it is. Everyone else does.

If We Were Taught to Feel

As I’ve noted several times before, one of my favorite promotions of Shakespeare, and indeed of all rich and substantive art, comes from the panhandling man interviewed in Al Pacino’s documentary Looking for Richard, who says:

Intelligence is hooked with language. And when we speak with no feeling we get nothing out of our society. We should speak like Shakespeare. We should introduce Shakespeare into the academics. Know why? Because then the kids would have feelings. We have no feelings. That’s why it’s easy for us to get a gun and shoot each other. We don’t feel for each other. But if we were taught to feel, we wouldn’t be so violent as a people. . . . [Shakespeare] did more than help us, he instructed us.

I’ve always felt this to be true. I sense that I become a better person through deep exposure to things like Shakespeare. I believe that people who experience a quality production of Shakespeare (or any rich play), or who delve into meaningful works of literature, genuinely become better people for it. That’s why, even with no evidence beyond the anecdotal, I always felt that as small as the effect was, when I was doing great Shakespeare, I was helping make the world a little better.

But it never occurred to me that you could prove it.

Well hold on to your butts. Here’s Pam Belluck in the New York Times:

A striking new study found that reading literary fiction – as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction – leads people to perform better on tests that measure empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.

The authors of the study, published by the journal Science, say that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity. They theorize that reading literary fiction helps improve real-life skills like empathy and understanding the beliefs and intentions of others.

Holy crap, right?

One of the reasons I left theatre to go into politics was to have a bigger impact, to do more to make the world better than galumphing around in dopey costumes and speaking in iambic pentameter could.

Now? Well, maybe it’s time to pull those tights back on.

Binge Theatre

Mike Daisey is doing something very different in the world of theatre: a 29-night monologue, which will clock in at 44 hours of performance. Mike says that every night of All the Faces of the Moon will be a stand-alone piece, to which anyone could “walk in cold at any point and have a very satisfying evening,” but that experiencing every night’s monologue will expose a fully realized story.

Now, I’m amazed at the pure chutzpah and daring of this kind of piece, but I’m also very interested in what ideas this might introduce into the art form of theatre performance in the context of the Information Age.

One fascinating part of Mike’s project is the reassuring fact that every night’s performance will be available as an audio podcast free of charge.

Now, that’s just nice to know for folks like me who very much enjoy his work and would hate to miss this kind of groundbreaking work. But upon consideration, the concept begins to resemble, say, a serialized radio play. Or, really, a “season” of a television show.

Well then, you have to think, what about video? On Twitter a few months ago, I asked Mike what to me seemed like an obvious question, but maybe wouldn’t occur to most folks who don’t think much about theatre: What about getting it on Netflix?

Mike had an answer, if slightly coy:

@PaulFidalgo Working on that now. And it will definitely be available for podcast binge listening, daily while it is running.

In a second tweet, he simply says, “We’re working on it. ;)”

So I wasn’t crazy. It’s not clear that Mike is working specifically with Netflix per se, but clearly there is an attempt to allow for “binge watching” of All the Faces of the Moon, just as someone might do with Game of Thrones or Orange is the New Black.

And this all makes me think, well shit, Mike, you might be inventing a new way to do theatre. I don’t have it all worked out in my head, and maybe it’s served best in the monologue/stand-up format, but I think we’re on to something: Theatrical, live-audience performances available on streaming video services, and not just single plays, but also series — long-running “seasons” of plays or one-person shows. There’s something here, and what Mike is doing with podcasts and potential deals with video streaming services may be the first taste. I think that’s exciting.

The Veracity and the Vicissitude of Mike Daisey

Listening tonight to the nearly-unbearable “Retraction” edition of “This American Life” in which Mike Daisey is taken to task for his fabrication of details about his experiences in China, I kept waiting for Daisey to more effectively counter the assertion by Ira Glass that people who come to see a monologue expect that every word of it is true.
Perhaps it’s because Glass and the myriad bloggers and reporters feasting on this story are themselves journalists, and therefore can’t help but expect something like this to be akin to what they do, a retelling of actual events. And perhaps it’s because my roots are in theatre that I feel like Glass is wrong; one may not even think about it consciously while watching a show, but I feel that people on the whole do understand that a show is a show. I know that when I saw Daisey perform his excellent How Theatre Failed America in DC a few years ago, I certainly had no illusions that he was giving a 100% factual account of his life in theatre. Of course he was going to embellish, exaggerate, and invent. Why? Because he was spinning a tale, based on facts but not relying on them, that told a larger truth.

I understand that at least as far as “This American Life” and, perhaps even more damning, his op-ed in the New York Times are concerned, it’s the packaging of his story that matters. It does indeed sound as though Daisey offered his play as an entirely factual retelling and therefore worthy of being used as such on the show (and that his manufactured experiences could be written as though they were actual reportage for his New York Times piece). There’s no excusing the presentation of fiction as fact to news outlets.

But I have to wonder at “This American Life” for even wishing to do so with Daisey’s play. If they wanted to use his piece as a springboard, why not simply excerpt some pieces of a performance, make clear that what we’re hearing is a story told by an actor in a play, and then delve deeper into the very real, no less serious issue at hand? Why even decide to hand essentially an entire episode over to what they know is a piece of theatre? Glass says not killing the show after being thwarted in their attempts to contact Daisey’s translator was their big mistake. I think their big mistake was in thinking that a play might possibly be, not just the inspiration, but the substance of one of their reports. I find it hard to believe, but I am forced to believe, that Glass and company are as naive as he claims they are when it comes to credulousness about the veracity of performance art.

I don’t know what Mike Daisey was thinking. He’s such a brilliant writer and performer, and I think it would be a genuine, substantive loss to the culture if we were to lose what he does because of this — particularly since his larger motive was so crucial, so real. I can only presume that the idea of getting his show on “This American Life” and of getting to be treated with a kind of reverence by the media became con-fused with that larger motive. He is an actor, after all, and we are nothing if not attention whores of the worst kind. (Hey! Go download my music!!!!) I wish so badly that he had handled this all so differently. All he had to say to Glass, to the media, to his audience, in any subtle form he wished, that his play is just that, a play, but that it is based on many true events and reports. Done.

I also wish that when Ira Glass pressed him as to whether it was acceptable for his play to be in part constructed of fictions that he had said, proudly, that the art of storytelling has a different goal than journalism, and that his job is to get his audience to think and to feel something. Daisey does that extremely well, and the things he wants us to care about remain worth caring about.

Side note: I am more than a little sickened by many of the tech bloggers and journalists whose work I usually think extremely highly of, but are now dancing on Daisey’s reputation’s grave, almost delighted that Daisey is facing this new firestorm. This seems to me to be borne out of nothing other than their own desire to not have to feel anything about the source of the gadgets off of which they base their careers. Now they’re off the hook, so they believe, and they have someone to put in the stockades for his heresy. It’s deeply disappointing.

David Mamet Exchanges One Herd for Another

The National Review has a must-read cover story on David Mamet’s (de)evolution toward conservatism, and despite my loathing of everything the magazine stands for, Andrew Ferguson does a marvelous job of putting Mamet’s beliefs into context, and exposing his subject’s reasonings and inconsistencies.

And that’s what catches my eye. For as something of an idiosyncratic liberal (my sympathy for nation-building, my alignment with Sam Harris on our conflict with radicalized Islam, and other positions which I feel stem from a liberal humanism but challenge liberal orthodoxies), I can see why Mamet feels like he must turn accepted conventions of progressivism on their heads, but the evidence from Ferguson’s piece suggests that Mamet has, as Ferguson even suggests, traded one set of unquestioned tenets for another.

For example, in a new book, Mamet goes on the attack against Bertolt Brecht, a hero to we theatre folk for his revolutionizing of the form, and to liberals for his attacks on capitalism and war. But Mamet saw a problem. From the National Review piece:

The reverence came to an end when [Mamet] finally noticed an incongruity between Brecht’s politics and his life. Although a cold-blooded—indeed bloody-minded—advocate for public ownership of the means of production and state confiscation of private wealth, he always took care to copyright his plays. More, he made sure the royalties were deposited in a Swiss bank account far from the clutches of East Germany, where he was nominally a citizen.

“His protestations [against capitalism] were not borne out by his actions, nor could they be,” Mamet writes. “Why, then, did he profess Communism? Because it sold… .”

This is disingenuous, it seems to me. I don’t profess to know anything about Brecht’s biography, but at least in the abstract, this much is true: Brecht was not operating within a communist utopia, he was operating in a world in which one had to protect one’s work within the context of capitalism and ownership. What does Mamet expect? That Brecht should have thrown his works into the public domain and denied himself an income all in the name of ideological consistency? To do so would have been akin to playing under the rules of baseball in the middle of a football game. One must operate within the world in which one finds oneself. Does Mamet propose to deny himself the use of highways and police protection because he doesn’t like the government?

Later in the piece, Mamet rails against what truly sounds like a ridiculous example of local government overreach that truly was absurd, involving the regulation of how folks had to maintain their hedges on private property. But Mamet takes this aberration and inflates it to represent “all government”:

“It made no sense,” he said. “But this is how government works—all government. I saw there’s no difference between the hedge commission and the U.S. government. It’s all the same principle.”

No it’s not, actually. Local pols over-regulating something banal for whatever parochial reason is not, in fact, the same as, say providing for the common defense, guaranteeing basic human rights, or even regulating the monstrous health care industry. This is the kind of overgeneralization that Mamet seems to think is a unique sin of liberals.

Mamet focuses very much on what he sees as the ‘liberal herd,’ in which folks of one ideology react in tandem regardless of even their own best interests. Lefties like myself attribute this kind of behavior much more to the right, particular in regards to teabaggers or theocrats. But Mamet thinks that the right’s uninformed mob rage is less of a problem than, say, liberals’ nausea over the prospect of a Palin vice-presidency:

“So I was watching the [2008] debates. My liberal friends would spit at the mention of Sarah Palin’s name. Or they would literally mime the act of vomiting. We’re watching the debates and one of my friends pretends to vomit and says, ‘I have to leave the room.’ I thought, oh my god […] This is the reaction of the herd instinct. When a sheep discovers a wolf in the fold, it vomits to ward off the attacker. It’s a sign that their position in the herd is threatened.”

Mamet runs into the herd instinct every day.

“I’ve given galleys of The Secret Knowledge [his new book] to some friends. They say, ‘I’m scared to read it.’ I say, ‘Why should you be afraid to read something?’

“What are they afraid of? They’re afraid of losing their ability to stay in the herd. That’s what I found in myself. It can be wrenching when you start to think away from the herd.”

As one who wanders regularly from the herd, I agree, it can seem wrenching if one cares about what the rest of the herd thinks. But Ferguson does a service by putting a mirror up to Mamet’s complaint:

The conversion is complete: This is not a book by the same man who told Charlie Rose he didn’t want to impose his political views on anybody. At some moments—as when he blithely announces that the earth is cooling not warming, QED—you wonder whether maybe he isn’t in danger of exchanging one herd for another. He told me he doesn’t read political blogs or magazines. “I drive around and listen to the talk show guys,” he said. “Beck, Prager, Hugh Hewitt, Michael Medved.”

Yeah. You think global warming is a hoax and you listen to Glenn Beck and his raving ilk. Welcome to your new, angrier, dumber herd, David. Make sure you don’t get out of step. I hear this herd is particularly merciless to its own when they stray.