I lay a puzzle as I backtrack to earlier times

Truly great art makes me want to make art myself. Knowing me for the conceited bastard I am, you’d think the opposite: that I’d be inspired by Dan Brown novels or Oliver Stone movies or Nickelback songs to create my own rebuttals, showing them up. But bad art just depresses me. Good art entertains me. And great art compels me to run and catch up.

I thought I’d have a handle on Sleep No More, the interactive theater installation sponsored by the American Repertory Theatre. The CCE, the premier collegiate-level interactive murder mystery theater troupe, did this sort of thing twice a year. Sure, Punchdrunk Theatre, the British troupe that originated Sleep No More, probably had a higher budget and better actors. And taking Macbeth as inspiration would make things creepy. But I knew what to expect.

I had no idea what to expect.

After idling in a packed bar, Misch and I, along with twenty other audience members, were ushered into a long hallway. We were given white plastic masks, instructed not to talk but to touch anything we liked, and then led up a flight of stairs. What had been an abandoned Brookline high school a moment ago became a decaying hotel, covered with odd photographs, stuffed chairs, marked-up books and other knicknacks. Misch and I poked around the hotel lobby and the adjoining sitting room until a Hitchcock blonde with a pillbox hat hurried through the hall outside. We followed her.

We followed her down two flights of stairs, where she ducked into an office. A dozen audience members crowded along the walls, watching her rifle through a desk for something – a photograph. She stared at it, lost in shock, until a short man with a small mustache, dressed in dinner jacket with suspenders, stalked in. He snatched the photograph from her hands. He glared at her; she smiled at him, pleadingly; no words were exchanged. He seized her in his arms and kissed her. The air filled with feathers.

The two of them separated. I followed the man; Misch followed the woman.

And that’s the real genius behind Sleep No More. Not (just) the atmospheric minutiae with which they strew every room in the “hotel” they’ve created. Not (just) the wordless performances, acrobatic gyrations and haunted looks that recreate the story of MacBeth. Not (just) the nightmarish surreality created by the artful use of light, sound and space. What makes Sleep No More work is that the story changes drastically depending on whom you follow.

And you have to choose, because the characters don’t wait for you. The man I followed most of the night (Malcolm, I believe) took off at a sprint several times, forcing me to hurry in turn. This led to the image of a man in a dinner jacket fleeing down the halls of a hotel, pursued by white-masked figures: a bit of theater which the audience helped in creating. I followed Malcolm as he and the other courtiers carried off the King’s body, where it lay in state. When Malcolm and the others went to drink in a basement speakeasy covered in sawdust I followed them. Therein they played a card game of unclear meaning, which I endeavored to understand until one of them charged me with a hammer. I backed out of the way, but he wasn’t going for me: he was going for the wall behind me, to which he tacked a Nine of Spades.

And this was all before the banquet.

If these proceedings sound like a nightmare, that was the effect intended. Every element – visuals, sounds, staging, timing – contributed to a reality that looked recognizable but jerked to a different rhythm. At times I found myself standing in a crowd, watching one woman try to feed another poison. At time I found myself alone in a room with a woman and an empty crib. Had I been in another room, I might have seen a murder, or a still birth, or a drunken dance. Without a meticulous attention to detail and a genius grasp of the surreal, it wouldn’t have worked. But it worked perfectly.

See it with someone you trust.

and then this dangle got all up in my rotisserie

The Power of Positive Thinking
I dropped my camera on a kitchen floor on Friday night, taking it out to show to Lisa F. It slid a short distance, popping the battery compartment open and sending the battery flying. I reassembled it and turned it back on: worked fine! Still snapped pictures and everything.

Only later did I find that, when I switched from Take Pictures to Review Pictures mode, the camera would now wait about ten seconds before retracting the lens. This is a minor annoyance but, on the grand scale of Things That Could Happen When I Drop My Camera On Linoleum, is relatively minor. Fortune smiles upon my amateurish, grainy Facebook pics.

Spatula, Proctologist, Space Station, Etc.
Why did I have my camera with me this entire weekend? For ImprovBoston’s first annual Boston Improv Festival, which I went to most of the parties for despite only seeing one show. Will Luera, Dan Binderman, Becky Pineo and Kate Garvey* did one hell of a job putting this together, and the results kept shocking us. I had never seen the theater so packed on Saturday, not just from the out-of-towners (troupes from as far as Canada or Mexico) but from locals new to the theater. This weekend made me proud to be associated with ImprovBoston, however tangentially. I hope the theater made a truckload of cash.

I first hit up the Wednesday BIF afterparty at Asgard, snacking on comped quesadillas and watching the Mexican improv troupe lead the entire bar in a rousing chorus of “El Rey.” Misch texted me for Friday’s afterparty at Becky’s house, though she neglected to provide me directions (Lisa F. came through). I stayed there until at least 3:30, wandering the mansion Becky lives in and catching up with improv people from all over. Saturday I wanted to leave early, but then I ran into Dr. Grace at Tavern on the Square, followed shortly thereafter by the rest of ImprovBoston. So what could I do?

I only saw one show, so I made it count: Spinning Hardcore, Anna W. and Kristen A’s world-famous air-guitar punk-rock ensemble. They reduced an audience to helpless, disbelieving giggles, including several people who’d never seen them before (jaded New Yorkers, even). Following them: Focus, a four-woman improv show that delivered a note-perfect satire of The View. There was the elderly retired lawyer, the saucy comedienne, the Ivy League lawyer and the Christian mom: each fully realized and often hilarious. They discussed DJ AM’s death, historical trivia about Boston and President Obama’s speech to school children, telling them that they each had something to contribute (“well, that’s ridiculous“).

* I’m doubtless forgetting someone important.

I’m as ill as the convict that kills for phone time

An update on my various plans for the year:

Fifty Books: I passed the halfway mark on my fifty books in a year schedule in late May. If I keep my current pace I can knock out another 17 by the middle of December, which would make one calendar year.

Investment: I went with Sharebuilder after they got their act together; the low fees turned me on. I now have $x riding on a combination of overseas exchanges, energy industries and inflation-adjusted bonds. My goal now: to ignore anything these ETFs do for the next six months. Being an investor is like being a casino: you make money on the long-run percentages, not on hustling everyone you meet. I avoid the temptation to cut and run by not knowing how my investment is doing.

Writing: Comes and goes. I don’t know much about writing, but I know this for sure: you’re not a writer until you’re writing when it feels bad. If you spend a night, or several nights, in front of a largely blank screen, grimacing at every sentence you type, then you’re a writer. Any jackass can write when they feel creative or clever, just like anyone can work out if they wake up in the morning with a lot of energy.

(I’m not saying that writing is all misery. Misery is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition)

In concrete terms: at about 73,000 words of what will shape up to be a 100,000 word novel. I hit a zone this past Wednesday that should carry me for a while until I need to start making decisions again.

Performing: I like acting more than improv, I’ve realized. People tell me I’m funny and smart and full of good ideas and I say yes, thank you, but none of those traits make you good at improv. Being good at improv – from what little I know on the subject – requires energy and a willingness to throw oneself into the new. I have neither and hate both.

I like having a ‘bit’: a little piece of business or a quirk that I can use to develop a character. I like polishing a scene until I’ve ground it down to a stone. I like practicing different aspects of a character until I find the voice and posture I love. Those are acting skills, not improv skills, and realizing it has made me happier.

Also, improv’s about trust, and my chronic inability to trust anyone I share a stage with doesn’t help.

Cash: Rules everything around me.

you can find me in the club

Today being my actual birthday, I’ll recap the birthday celebration:

#: I caught up with Christine and surprise guests Meghan and Sam by getting to Common Ground early. Not early enough to avoid a cover, unfortunately. They’ve also switched to using bracelets instead of stamps, but the bar was already pretty packed with people who weren’t wearing bracelets. So I chucked mine soonest. I have hairy wrists.

#: I should have learned by now not to try listing attendees, as I inevitably forget someone and hurt their feelings. But: Joanna, Tim, Sylvia, Dan, Stephanie, Matthew, and Katie – thank you for coming out for my birthday.

#: Melissa and Fraley asked me to officiate their wedding! I accepted.

#: Someone stole my green thrift store coat at some point between 10:00 and 2:00. Stephanie used her pull with the staff to ask them to search, but with no luck. Apparently mine was the last of four coats to be taken in the evening. I love Common Ground, and I dearly love 90s Night, but this might be my last time there until the weather warms up.

#: So my first birthday present to myself – a green thrift store coat! I bought it at the same secondhand store in Allston as the last one, also for $20. It has a slightly warmer liner but feels a bit lighter.

#: Other birthday presents: Bridge of Birds, the House of Cards trilogy, Mind Performance Hacks, a sword stand for my recently acquired sword, and a big stack of graphic novels. Expect a digest on the lattermost with your next media blow.

#: I saw a bunch of two-person improv shows at IB on Sunday night. They ranged from the fantastic (Flynn/Maclean, Reynolds/French) to the mediocre (two BU alumni who just, I don’t know, god). Improv is tricky, and the two-person show is a tricky format.

#: I’m now in my late twenties.

the heat is on

Updated the default pic. There are some awesome promo stills on Marvel’s website of Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony in a half-assembled exoskeleton. But I can’t turn them into the userpics I want. So I’m settling for merely phenomenal red and gold.

Saturday, MICHELLE BONCEK, Kristen and Anna reunited for Spinning Hardcore. Joanna, Brain, Grace, Mia, Bob and I showed up to cheer them on. (EDIT: Rachel V. showed up later, owing me ten thousand dollars [SHE KNOWS WHY]) Kristen and Anna have that unspoken chemistry which makes any improv group work – an instinctive give and take with each other that makes for really fun energy. Bob also performed with Lindsay G. Afterward, we retired to the Cantab, where Diane Blue and the Fatbacks wailed through a catalog of soul and funk standards. At one point I yanked everyone on to the floor and made them dance.

Did I mention I bought a Frequent Soaker package at Inman Oasis? Because I did. They have a special in January which makes it a pretty sweet deal. My next best source of intense heat is the sauna in Quincy. The trade-off is: $7 for 30 minutes in a communal hot tub (Inman) vs. $25 for 60 minutes in a private sauna (Quincy). I’m probably going to spend the rest of the morning figuring out what the discount rates of Privacy and Walking Distance are. Maybe I’ll publish a graph. Or maybe I’ll just go soak in a hot tub.