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My Summer with Irma

 

This is a story about precociousness rewarded, and about being a small, unjaded part of something wonderful. It starts, as some stories do, with caffeine, and a photo of an anesthetized dog.

 

 

In the summer of 1990, when I was 10, the Asolo did a production of a camp comedy called The Mystery of Irma Vep, a famously raucous romp of a “mystery” set primarily in an old English manor house, in which two actors play a dozen or so characters. My dad co-starred alongside another longtime Asoloite, the late Eric Tavares. Ma stage managed.

 

One of Dad’s main characters was Jane, a maid who spoke (according to his interpretation) in British falsetto, sort of like a cockney Julia Child.

 

Early in the show, Jane goes off on a little monologue about her former master, Miss Irma Vep, and how Miss Irma had a pet wolf named Victor. Jane’s telling her current master, Lady Enid (Eric, in a wig and fuchsia ballgown), that the children of the household used to ride around on Victor, which the wolf didn’t like but tolerated because he was so devoted to Miss Irma.

 

You see, Jane goes on, Victor preferred relaxing with his master. “His ’appiest hours were spent stretched out at Miss Irma’s feet,” Jane would say, in Dad’s sing-song, H-dropping, East-London-by-way-of-Alabama delivery, “his huuuge purple tongue lolling out of ’is mouth.”

 

This is the nonsense that pops into my head when I see dogs with their tongues out: “His huuuge purple tongue lolling out of ’is mouth.”

 

Brad Wallace as Jane Twisden, in her sleepwear. 

 

It was a fun show, even—or perhaps especially—for an awkward pre-teen, bawdiness notwithstanding. A real hold-on-tight comedy bull ride that used every ounce of its gimmick with no room for neuroses. Everyone got tossed around a bit, in an exuberant way.

 

That glorious gimmick. Early in the play, after another chat between Jane and Lady Enid, Jane would exit stage left, leaving the Enid alone on stage for what seemed like the briefest of moments. Eric had just one line in that moment—a quick rebuke of Miss Irma’s scowling portrait—when from stage right, the tweed-clad Lord Edgar (also Dad) barged in through the manor’s front door with a full-size, taxidermied wolf under his arm: “ROUGH WEATHER!”

 

Without fail, the audience roared. It’s a joyous gag—not just the stuffed wolf and the sudden entrance, of course, but the sheer hysterical, manic magic of it. A heavy-set, big-bosomed, dark-haired woman in a maid’s outfit had just left the stage, as, it seemed simultaneously, the same person entered from the other side as a posh, bald man in a suit.

 

Eric greeted him with a kiss.

 

Dad and Eric kept up this frenzied chemistry throughout the show, a dozen different characters between them, telling a preposterous story that travels from the English countryside to Egypt and back again, with physical comedy and prop gags and Vaudeville jokes and mummies and werewolves and vampires and heaps upon heaps of silly voices.

Rough Weather

With both parents involved in the production, I’d been, as usual, a mindful bystander as the process unfolded. From line memorization and script prep through rehearsals and tech, I’d watched professional adults assembling the meticulous, almost mathematical architecture of broad comedy. But nothing matched the stomach-twisting joy of the performance itself, those months of effort dissolved into an instant seeming easiness, and all of that energy multiplied exponentially in the guffaws of the audience. What fun, when something so ludicrous can be transcendent.

 

After seeing it from the house, I rushed to ask Mom if I could sit backstage for a performance. It wasn’t too far-fetched a request; I’d enjoyed a childhood of backstage wanderings and knew well to follow the rules (No. 1: Don’t touch the props). Still, I’d guessed that this was a different beast.

 

The whole thing already felt like a family affair: Mom and Dad and Eric, of course, but also the backstage crew, helmed by head wardrober Hilare, a British expat whose whole family was close with ours, and stagehand Darrell, a bearded, impish 20something who’d often babysat my sisters and me. At least, I argued to Mom, I wouldn’t be imposing on total strangers.

 

Ma relented, but put me on a short leash. The backstage process for this show was delicate and chaotic, and, it seemed from her concerns, the mere presence of one little fifth grader could easily derail the whole thing.

 

Her cautiousness enthralled me even more.

 

She brought me along on the next matinee and set a chair backstage left, a full 20 feet away from the costume racks and wig tables. That was my spot, and I was to stay in it, because she couldn’t stay there to supervise me. As soon as she called places from her booth way back behind the mezzanine, I was to sit in that chair and stay put, hands and arms inside the ride at all times. Silence, of course, was a given.

 

In the darkness behind the set, just beyond the audience’s view, sat an arsenal of costumes, wigs, hats and props. Hilare and the three other wardrobe women, clad in black and armed with tiny maglites, performed distinct roles for every costume change. The moment between Dad’s and Eric’s every exit and entrance was, offstage, a three-second whirl of choreographed actor-decking.

 

But from my vantage back by the rigging, it might as well have been a rugby scrum. The chair was not shaping up to be the immersive backstage experience I’d hoped for. Not yet, anyway.

 

Fortunately, it was summer and I was 10 and both of my parents were at the theater six days a week anyway. Since I hadn’t screwed anything up the first time, Ma didn’t put up too much fuss when I again asked to sit backstage for another performance. And again. And so forth. It became a given that after dinner (and for matinees as well) I would accompany Mom and Dad to the theater and take my spot in that chair. A straight run is catnip for an obsessive little brain. It was easy to go all-in.

 

As one of the costumers later told it, show by show, that chair came closer and closer to the action. As I remember it, I was very much invited; in fact, I’m sure the wardrobe team insisted I join them—a point I later made clear to my mother. (I was still convinced my mere presence could knock the show’s clockwork akimbo.)

 

Soon enough, there I sat, arms-length from the ladies as they worked, whirling.

 

Eric Dad

Eric Tavares as Lady Enid, with Dad’s Jane

 

 

The quick-changes relied on precision choreography as well as clever costuming. Both actors wore a base layer of long-sleeve dress shirt, vest, tie, trousers and simple black shoes. To become a be-suited male character, all they had to do was throw on a jacket. And possibly, sometimes, a pith helmet.

 

The women’s dresses, which appeared complex and luxurious, were in fact all one big piece—heavy beanbag boobs and everything—that velcroed in the back. To become their primary female characters, Dad or Eric would toss off their previous trimmings and dive arms-first into the big dress-frock that was being held up by one of the costumers, as another wardrobe assistant sealed the velcro and yet another topped them with the appropriate wig, perhaps exchanging a feather duster for a meat cleaver in the process.

 

Then, just to make it extra impressive, the actor often dashed off behind the crossover to make a mind-blowing entrance from the other side.

 

Brad Wallace as Lord Edgar, with Eric Tavares as Alcazar.

 

Performance after performance, I kept coming back to my chair, clad in my own kid-size all-black T-shirt, jeans and shoes. This is where Hilare once explained to me that sometimes black dyes were made from a red base, which is why the crew’s black outfits sometimes glowed red in the dim, blue backstage light. Irma Vep is what I think of, even now, when I see black clothing in the dark.

 

Once I was always over their shoulders, the costume ladies found a fun game in coaxing me out of the chair and coaching me into the roles that were becoming so well worn to them. I had the small sense of being a novelty—a little kid being played with—but participating in the process was irresistibly fun.

 

They handed me Jane’s heavy maid’s getup, stood me in the proper spot and made sure I presented the costume just so, arms held high, the open back facing away from me, sleeves open and clear.

 

In a moment, my dad raced offstage, threw off his tweed jacket, and there I was, eyes peering over the frill. He dove his arms into the sleeves, donned his wig, and in a flash was off again. I was left terrified and thrilled, like I’d high-fived a jockey mid-race. No crises, no stumbles. The show stampeded easily on. I picked up the discarded tweed jacket and hung it in its spot.

 

The team arranged such adventures for me again and again—a gown here, a fez there—and then back to my chair.

 

These intermittent, three-second, chaotic costume changes constituted only a portion of the time spent backstage. While both actors were onstage performing, the backstage team busied themselves cleaning up the quick-change carnage, readying their stations, and then sitting poised, waiting.

 

Well, not always. Not quite.

 

As the run progressed, the whole cast and crew, as happens, went a little mad.

 

Onstage, Dad and Eric stayed in character for the audience but found moments to catch our eyes, too, and make faces at us. Backstage, the grown women in my midst responded by putting flashlights up their noses.

 

During one long lull in the show, I’d been sitting obediently in my chair, though the rest of the costumers had wandered off. After a few quiet moments I saw the women returning in a pack behind the crossover, stifling giggles and…buttoning their shirts?

 

Looking across to the other wing, I saw Darrell, eyes closed, rolling on his back, holding his stomach and kicking his legs in the air in a silent laughing fit.

 

What did you do?!” I whispered.

 

Hilare whispered back, “We flashed him.”

 

And so it went. An absurd, blissful routine seen through elementary school eyes. Charlie Bucket Goes Backstage.

 

Then one afternoon, trailing my parents, I arrived in the green room to learn that one of the costumers had injured her wrist—not terribly, but enough to hamper her in her duties. And there I was, literally waiting in the wings, a fully prepped, miniature understudy.

 

At some point in a child’s self-conscious precociousness, inching toward validity, you hit the Uncanny Valley of adulthood: You’re just grown up enough to know that you’re very much not one of the grownups; and you know full well that all of the grownups know this, and no matter what, you’ll never really join them until you’re older. And by then, all of this will be something else entirely.

 

But boy did they let me play at it anyway.

 

I slid into the role of wardrober No. 3, by now comfortable with what changes happened when and where; which Styrofoam head held Jane’s wig and which was for Lady Enid’s; when to bust out Eric’s caftan and where to put it when they were done. I could stand confidently on set but behind the curtain during the Egypt sequence, watching Darrell swap out the fresh mummy mannequin for its decrepit counterpart.

 

The injured costumer, still a lovely supporting angel, stayed and supervised. The chair was all hers.

 

 

Every performance ended in triumph for the team. Rightly so, the wardrobers had been included in the curtain-call staging from the get-go. After Dad and Eric took their bows, the two men turned and gestured toward upstage center, where the four women in black appeared, arms overflowing with costumes, to cheers from the audience.

 

I don’t know quite when in the run it happened, but I still carry this crystal-clear image in my head of the pack of them, heaped with dresses and coats and wigs and shawls, just moments before walking onstage to take their bows. In that moment, they’re turning back, facing into the wings to where I sat, and waving at me, once again, to join them.

 

I hesitated. More than anything else, this would seem my most egregious violation of the “sit in the chair and don’t bother anyone” command. Plus, I could pretend to be a grownup in the dark, but in full view of the audience I figured I was still just a kid being humored. I was afraid of breaking the spell.

 

But with a few shows’ coaxing, they got me out there anyway. Holding my own load of livery, standing onstage with the team, looking past my Dad and out over the 400 strangers, awash in applause. Still spellbound.

 

My poor mom. She’d left me in the chair, safely out of the way, and gone off to do her job. And next thing she knows, moments before the curtain falls, she turns around to see her 10-year-old literally in the show.

 

 

You’d think that was the moment. You’d think that was the very best bit. But then you would’ve missed the point of the story: that all the best bits happen behind the scenes.

 

Another matinee, another routine arrival in the green room. This time, the four women greeted me with a tiny present in green paper. I unwrapped it to find my own little backstage maglite, just like the rest of the ladies in black had: dark blue casing, adjustable beam in a nostril-sized lamp—perfect for finding wayward wigs or taunting unruly actors.
 

I gushed my thank-yous, slipped it in my pocket, and went on to take my spot in the dark.

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Friday Evening: A Play

The Characters:

MOM:
A Midwestern savant

HANNAH:
A Floridian idiot

The Scene:

A TV room in Florida.

ACT ONE

SCENE ONE

MOM and HANNAH watch television. The music indicates an interlude in the television program The Great British Bake Off, during which scenes of pastoral landscape are tradition. In this case, the characters perceive an animal of presumably British origin. 

HANNAH: WHAT IN THE HELL WAS THAT?

MOM: [Incredulous, celebratory.] It was a chicken! [Beat.] There are all kinds of chickens.

Long pause.

MOM: You should look up chickens.

Fin.

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Spoooooky October Recommendations

 

Ten mostly brief, somewhat off-the-radar things to read, watch and listen to this (and every) Halloween. Most of this stuff isn’t terribly new, but they’re all things I tend to google every year to put me in the October mood, so it’s satisfying to put them all in one place.

 

Binary System Podcast #98–Horror Movies

Last October the siblings and I sat down to discuss some of our favorite scary films, and then we delved into other Halloween-y things (many of which are also mentioned in this post).

 

It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers

An aggressive ode to fall décor.

 

Two-Sentence Horror Stories

Some of these could use some gentle editing, but they are, by and large, still chill-inducing.

 

Wooden Overcoats

OK so it’s not explicitly Halloween-y, but it’s an audio sitcom about funeral directors, so it’s sufficiently dark (and clever, and wacky).

 

Selfie From Hell

A 90-second scary movie—the video equivalent of those two-sentence horror stories. Every time I decide to watch this, I have to almost physically force myself to keep my eyes open through to the end.

 

Bear Hugs

A seven-minute comedy/horror film about one family’s struggle with Build-a-Bear. One of the darker things you’ll ever laugh out loud at.

 

The Truth, “The Dark End of the Mall”

A quiet night at the bridal store, when in walks a disheveled stranger…

 

Snap Judgement Presents: Spooked, “A Friend in the Forest”

The “storytelling with a beat” radio show presents this seasonal podcast series of people describing their supposed real-life encounters with the supernatural, accompanied by a custom soundtrack. Go ahead and suspend your disbelief and sink into the ambience. There are scarier Spooked stories than this one, but the atmosphere (not to mention the Irish accent) is delightful.

 

Story Etc., “Fear”

A deep dive into fear and fiction, with discussions about what scares us and why we like it, interviews with performers and creators, and a couple of creepy audio pieces. (And check the show notes for links to all sorts of scary stuff that gets discussed in the ep.)

 

Text Messages from a Jack-O-Lantern

A really weird way to feel happy and then sad about Halloween.

 

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International Podcast Day

podcasts

 

In honor of international Podcast Day and my inability to post regular blogs, here are some podcast recommendations nobody asked for. (“Writeups Nobody Asked For” could be an alternate title for this blog. So many blogs, really.)

 

I’ve already spent a couple years hyping a number of established podcast sensations like The Guilty Feminist, My Dad Wrote a Porno, No Such Thing as a Fish, The West Wing Weekly and Wooden Overcoats. Here I’m going to highlight some of my more recent and/or less-frequently hyped discoveries.

 

Griefcast: Comedian Cariad Lloyd talks to a guest (usually another comedian) about a loved one who’s died. The conversations include loving memories of the person, their life and relationships, as well as the circumstances of their death, and the aftermath. As she says in her intro, Lloyd lost her father when she was 15, and she since developed a borderline obsession (in a charming way) with death and how we handle it.

 

This podcast, too, is a big hit and an award-winner, and listening to these conversations week after week can really affect the way you think and talk about death and grieving. It’s heartfelt and earnest without being cloying, with plenty of levity because, y’know: comedians. It’s catharsis and a sense of expanded humanity, like an aural hug.

 

All of the eps are great, but go ahead and start with Robert Popper. It’s amazing.

 

Do The Right Thing: Also an established hit, it’s a comedy quiz show in front of a live audience pitting two teams of comedians trying to figure out the right thing to do in emergencies or socially awkward situations. As follows the British live comedy panel show tradition (or, say, our Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me), the quiz questions double as prompts for the comedians to do their thing, and through some kind of comedic wizardry, DTRT always winds up being frenetic and hysterical and frequently very very dark and dirty and sweary. It helps that the core team—host/creator Danielle Ward and “team captains” Michael Legge and Margaret Cabourn-Smith—are unequivocally ruthless with one another, so the comedy floodgates are always wide open from the get-go.

 

They haven’t released any new episodes since I discovered it last Christmas, but it looks like they’re recording more now, and there’s a big back catalog to go through in the meantime. Might as well start, as I did, with the most recent ep, which early on contains the phrase “vagina boat.”

 

Worst Foot Forward: Two comedian friends (Dubliner Barry McStay and Geordie Ben Van der Veld) and a guest (usually either a comedy performer or an expert on the topic—often both) pitch ideas for the world’s worst thing in whatever the week’s category—from the worst horror movie to the worst monarch to the worst cocktail. In a similar vein to NSTAAF, there’s something satisfying about a podcast that requires its participants to do research and come prepared, so you get a great blend of comedy and fascinating trivia.

 

World’s Worst Horror Movie and World’s Worst Actor are good pop-culture-y ways in, but even less familiar topics—footballers, for instance—result in fun, funny, fascinating chats.

 

Things Wrong With Things: I feel as though all of my one-sentence summaries of this one fall well short of its charm and instead sound reasonably unappealing:

 

  • Hyper-articulate meditations on utter nonsense.

 

  • A low-key Irishman and a chatty Brit discuss everyday annoyances and other issues.

 

  • A rambly drive-time radio talk show about…things.

 

  • Like if Rosencrantz and Guildenstern never got summoned to Elsinore.

 

I think those are all technically accurate, but you’d have to add “…in a lovely, funny way.” The two guys (Will Green and Michael O’Mahoney, whom the website describes as “a failed actor and a drunken poet”) start with a few topics in mind—their own, or things suggested by listeners—with the idea of highlighting, as it says, the things wrong with those things—could be a restaurant or a movie or just a thing that happened to someone once.

 

Still not sold? The thing is, they have an easy commitment to following their own conversations off into absurdity. Whereas in a normal conversation, suggesting that Birkenstocks have a sexuality would be its own punchline and then back to the topic at hand; here they follow through: If Birkenstocks have a sexuality, then what is the sexuality of other shoes? Like the most relaxed, easygoing comedy improv game of “Yes, and…” Like, you’re listening to two people have a casual, low-key chat and then find yourself going, “Hang on, why are we talking about how best to marinate our phones?”

 

There’s also something very satisfying about how articulate they are. No matter the ridiculousness of the statement, it will be well said. Or as Will says at one point, “That nonsense you’ve just spouted has a lot of charm to it.”

 

There haven’t been any new episodes after the original 10, but it seems a second season is afoot. Start at the beginning to hear the development of various gags (the WTF Slaw campaign, Jehovah Mathsman, etc.).

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And Just Like That

The rhythm from the tracks kicks up an afternoon din, the limping rattle-thump putter of an old propeller, and I’m out the door and up the road and into the open, trying to catch a glimpse of the three-car train over the trestle, the pong-pong-pong of crossing warnings, a swirl of racket like seagulls over a patch of churning ocean, startled-split by the burst of a whistle like a blowhole breaking the surface, one deep breath giving way to the slap and slink of a tail disappearing into a twist of eddy, and just like that the great thing is gone again.

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To All-Beef Patties I’ve Special Sauced Before

 

I don’t think I’m a particularly picky eater. I can only think of one category of food I full-on can’t deal with: olives. If I were at a dinner party and the host served a dish fully infested with olives, the battle between my taste buds and my social self-consciousness would be epic. Just thinking about it makes me sweat. And spit.

 

But what else? I’m not a fan of salmon, smoked or seared or raw, but I don’t think I’d struggle to eat it at knifepoint. I tend to remove the tomato slice from my hamburgers, but I’m learning to tolerate—even enjoy?—little bites of it here and there, more and more, on nachos and bruschetta. I’ve enjoyed a few raw oysters over the last year or so. Chewed ‘em and everything. Saltines and horseradish are my gateway drugs.

 

I don’t mind the other end of the culinary culture spectrum, either; I can find sustenance in a pinch: ballpark hot dogs. Pretzel hot dogs. Deep-fried hot dogs.

 

So if my culinary adventurousness is not to be overly praised, per se, neither is it to be dismissed.

 

And yet I’ve never had a Big Mac.

 

Way back when I was a Happy Meal tot, I couldn’t do McDonald’s cheeseburgers. I had a thing about American cheese (which I’ve since overcome) (not that there’s much merit in that). The gentle, unobtrusive creaminess of processed cheese freaks me out. See also: avocados. But in adulthood I’ve learned to love both Haas and plastic-wrapped Kraft horror—albeit both need to be paired with something assertively salty and firm to keep them in check. Otherwise, it’s like they’re up to something. I’m still worried those creamy little bastards are angling for some creepy, subversive flavor-groping.

 

And Big Macs, when I was a child, were like cheeseburgers for grownups. (I had to google them just now to make sure the cheese was automatically included—and no don’t sing the damn song at me I don’t care.) The sheer volume of the sandwich, yes, but also the “special sauce.” Oh, that Special Sauce. A mystery goo whose only identifiable ingredient is relish, a substance that brings dubious tang and horrifying texture to an otherwise creamy condiment? No thank you. No thank you very much.

 

Hang on, did I compare avocados to pedophile grooming up there? Huh. I…I might have, yes.

 

Anyway. All this to say, none of my childhood aversions are really factors anymore. I can get behind American cheese. Relish is fine in tartar sauce and Thousand Island dressing—the latter being, essentially, Ur-Special Sauce. I no longer have reason to fear Big Macs. (The scariest thing now is that, according to Wikipedia, Special Sauce is made with “store-bought” mayo, which seems sketch as fuck.) I’m even starting to find them, as a concept, vaguely appealing.

 

I still haven’t tried one, but where once I’d ruled it out altogether, now that First Big Mac experience feels imminent. And my culinary universe will be that much wider.

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I Remember It Being Hot

 

I remember it being hot, I think. Even at 9 a.m. or whenever it was, in the morning. The sand was hot, the topmost layer, at least, and the water felt cold, at least at first. And still we’d storm into the waves and thrash and make ourselves breathless, and our throats hoarse and our mouths and lips salty with sea, some of which we’d swallowed in exuberance, accidentally.

 

After we’d spent however long forever in the sun, maybe Mom—or would it have been Dad?—would march down to the shore to tell us that breakfast was ready. And we’d wrap ourselves in sandy towels and trudge—joyfully—back up endless unsteady quartz powder and through sea-oat tunnels finally to the shade.

 

Australian pines (an invasive species, they’d want you to know now) make windy whistling whispers up high and drop marble-size cones that hurt like the dickens to step on, so we three kids danced toward the picnic tables or sometimes remembered to put on our flip-flops, and we sat with wet bums on wood benches, hungry.

 

The prep work would have begun hours earlier, before we’d even gotten out of bed, the baking and packing, cracking eggs into mason jars to be scrambled, stored and transported, and then cooked on an old pan over a gas camp stove alongside bacon, Pillsbury cinnamon rolls kept warm under tinfoil. Morning-squeezed orange juice from the trees in our back yard, Valencia and navel, and an Army-green thermos of fragrant black coffee for the grownups.

 

That the beach had, for a time, taken precedence over our tiny mouths’ pre-breakfast begging says something about the beach. About that beach in particular, and perhaps about our ages then, pre-adolescents and urgent, first and foremost, to splash.

 

When you’ve spent a small hour gasping and giggling in the Gulf and swallowing brine, scrambled eggs feel in your mouth an easy creaminess, and cinnamon rolls hearty and replenishing, and fresh juice is vibrant and tart in a way you can only crave most when you are tired and salty, morning sunburned, and in need of sweet, cold moisture.

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