Excerpt: The Deception of Surfaces

from chapter 3:

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The classroom was a converted sound stage. A large rectangle, it contained a raised platform in front of one of the short walls. This platform took up about a third of the floor area, and was where the students acted. Behind the platform, the short wall was covered with light green felt. On each of the downstage corners, a video camera was mounted on a swiveling, articulated and telescoping arm, operated by the teacher. There were three other cameras on less elaborate arms: one down stage center, and one each on the right and left edges of the platform. Above the platform, 25 lighting instruments could be swiveled, focused and re-gelled at the push of a button. Large speakers hung from the ceiling to the left and right of the stage.

Above the downstage edge of the platform and suspended from the ceiling was the “master monitor” –  Double M for short – a large hi-def TV screen. This was the focal point of the class, the people on the platform were seldom observed directly. Students observing sat at individual stations: a chair facing a computer screen and key board on a desk. These were called “student consoles”. There were two rows of six consoles lined up facing the platform. For classes larger than 12, students either shared consoles or used mobiles to hook into the master feed through wi-fi. Students would ask questions by typing them as instant messages into a crawl which slid across the base of the master monitor and stayed there, until either answered or deleted by the teacher. This way, questions could be asked while a scene was in progress, without disturbing the actors. Students could also text each other console to console, but this was frowned upon by faculty.

Behind the rows of students, and raised slightly higher than the platform at the other end of the room, was the teacher’s console. Resembling the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, it was a self-contained video and audio control center, where the teacher controlled the cameras and added effects to the students’ scenes using a large array of lit-up colored buttons, slides and dials. He had small video screens which formed an editing unit, and what he created went up on the master monitor. His editing choices, final cut or any aspect of his decision making could be fed to the student consoles. There was also a small camera at the his console, and at the beginning of class, teachers could begin with a speech or lecture. And, after arriving a bit late that day, this was exactly what Hendo did. His puffy, sweaty and bearded face appeared on the Double M as he pulled on a headset mike, looming like a deranged man-in-the-moon over the assembled students. The texting began, discreet messages popping up on student consoles.  Carly to the students: Everyone comfortable?

“Sorry, sorry,” huffed Hendo, his thick hands dancing around the console and darting to his brow to wipe away little beads of moisture, “had a . . . had a conference . . . got a little waylaid! Sheh! Sheh! Interesting word! Sheh! Sheh!” This was Gene’s odd little half laugh, half breath-burst meant to signal that he had just told a joke. The studio lights dimmed and Gene’s face grew more bright on the Double M.

Carlos to the students: Been a while since you been way laid, Hendo?

Chaz to the students: If anyone asks, I’ll be jerking off under my console during this next bit. A murmur of laughter rippled through the studio.

“Oh! Delayed response, huh?” Gene smiled on the big screen. “C’mon now, stay with me! I used to do stand up in New York!”

Chaz to students: And may God forgive you for it.

“Alright, okay, I’m already hearing too much typing. Settle down. Now.“  Gene rubbed his face and leaned into the little camera on the console.

Fatimeh to the students: Mommy, I’m scared!

“It occurred to me just now that you’re all gonna graduate soon, and so I feel a little speech coming on.” A flurry of typing on all consoles. Gene pecked a button on his console. A groan in the studio. “No. Texting. Each. Other. I’ll turn it back on when we start the work. So – I know some of you may be having some questions about what the future may hold for you. And it’s only natural that you should. You’ve spent four years here studying to become actors, and you know the world doesn’t owe you a job, so I could understand if you should have some doubts, some fears. Well, I have some good news and some bad news.” Petey slipped in to the studio, a beam of hallway light making Gene squint for a moment, his image fading. “Miss Robbins, glad to see you. There’s a console for you across the room.” Petey sat on the far side of the second row and switched on her console. When she settled in, Gene continued.

“First the bad news, and let me set this up by telling you how it used to be, and how we arrived here. When the meltdown occurred in 2012, most of you were, wait, let me do the math, not my strong suit – Sheh! Sheh! – most of you were what, twelve? Fourteen? I was 52, okay? When the twin towers fell and you were all in diapers, I was 40 – no, 41 – anyway. Point is – I have the benefit of some perspective, and I get paid the big bucks to share that perspective with you. Sheh! Sheh!

Used to be, and I know some of you know all this, but it’s important so it bears repeating, used to be that anything you could make you could send anywhere else in the country – anywhere – in a day.  So let’s say you make, I don’t know, plastic widgets. So you make them here in Philly, next day they shows up in San Fran. Bada bing, bada boom. There really was no such thing as distance. Actors were flying back and forth, coast to coast, all the time. Well, the A-list actors anyway. So what happened? Oil creeped up and the dollar got week gradually at first, and then in 2012 all the chickens came home to roost at once. The Arabs turned off the pipelines, the airline industry collapsed, just vanished, GM and Chrysler went belly up and the agri-industry nose dived. No gas, no trucks, no way to get food, grain, livestock around. And your plastic widgets? Cost you three times as much to make them as before, you couldn’t get them delivered anywhere, and – oh yeah – even if they got there no one had the money to buy them. You get the point. I’m telling you: it was like waking up in a different country. Suddenly, we were damaged goods. You all remember the riots. Everybody just freaked out.  It’s a deep, deep hole and we’re still climbing out of it. Nobody wanted anything we made. Well, almost nothing, and here’s the good news.

So people can’t feed themselves easily, their cars are useless pieces of scrap metal, getting across the country costs $5,000 for cheap seat on a flight the goes once a week – who needs actors? Right? We gotta be like, the whale shit of the economic food chain. Right? Wrong. ‘Cause just like in the 1930s the hunger for entertainment didn’t wane, it grew. Think about it. When times suck, you want to go for a walk and look around? You want to see the people growing their little veggies in community gardens, and hauling each other around in rickshaws? You want to think about all the things you used to have, all the things you used to buy, all the money you used to control? I don’t think so. Sheh. Sheh. What you want is escape. You want fantasy. You want to be taken to a place not at all like the one you live in, a place where you can be more dangerous, more sexy, more funny than you actually are in this crippled country we live in. And who can do that? You can. Actors can do that. That is the service you provide. And so here’s the good news. You are in great demand.

Ladies and gentlemen of the class of 2020, I offer you this: the market takes care of its own. Unable to sustain its bloatedness, the entertainment industry contracted in the few years after the meltdown. Used to be, everything came from one of two places: New York or L.A. Movies and TV were made mostly in those two cities. But now, with transportation being so expensive and with production time shortened to almost nothing, we have the ten regional networks – Northeast, New York Metro, Mid Atlantic, Southeast, Midwest, Texas Plains, Mountain Plains, Southwest, Northwest and California. Here’s the genius of the market: it will always find the most cost effective way to deliver the goods. So now, we have ten autonomous producing entities, developing and producing programming for smaller geographic areas. Each network can tailor it’s production to the needs and tastes of its audience, and use home-grown talent – like you! And the best each region has to offer gets purchased by other networks and seen in other areas.

The market takes care of its own, and you are its own. Back in the day, an actor was a schlep without a pot to piss in, a pretty girl in a restaurant trying to do plays for chrissake. Now, there’s a whole new world of work waiting for you. Doesn’t matter what your classification is. 1As will be pin-ups and action heroes. 1Bs will be best friends, complex villains, sensitive types. 2Bs wll be characters, psychos, fat funny guys. 3Bs will be specific ethnic types, home makers, Moms and Dads, average Joes. See? There’s work for everyone, as long as you feed the market what the market needs. It will take care of you. The MAN has your health care all lined up, and soon, after the graduation screen tests, you’ll be off on your first jobs. There’s a reason why UArts and the MAN work together in designing this curriculum. We want to train actors who will work all the time. In order to do that, we need to understand the industry. How best to do that? Ask the industry to explain itself, which is what we’ve done by designing the sequences in collaboration with the executives from the Mid-Atlantic Network. “

Carlos pretended to be obviously asleep. A titter arose in the room.

“So here’s what we know: the industry is driven by digital media. No sets. A few exterior sequences. 75 to 80 percent of your work is done in front of a green screen, and the wizards drop in the location around you from out of the computers. You are acting with your partner in front of a green wall up there, but – as we have been studying – the audience will see you hunkered down in the Amazon during a thunderstorm, or in Antarctica, or a back room in some shitty dive and you’re doing a drug deal – whatever. And I mean: whatever. There’s nothing the wizards can’t do, so you have to be incredibly facile and adaptable, and carry with you the ability to pretend to be somewhere you’re not. This is key: this ability to trick yourself.

So – worry less. It’s useless. It makes you a less effective actor. As long as you understand what you are to the market you serve, you’re gonna be fine – hell, you are all a lot better off then most of the people in the country, who are just trying to get their lives back in order, even now. Okay. Enough of me right? Sheh! Sheh!” Gene tapped a button on the console. “Okay, ask away, do your worst!”

A small greyed-out box appeared as a thick stripe on the bottom of the Double M: the place for questions to be asked. Gene’s heavy face waited awkwardly above it. No text appeared there. Gene grew exasperated. “Hello? Anybody out there? No questions?” Then:

Henry: What happened to theatre? 

Gene exploded into laughter. “Theatre? THEATRE? Oh my God, ah ha, ha, ha, ha! It died is what happened! Sheh, sheh, sheh! Look, I worked in the theatre, if you want to call that beggarly existence work. It was dying before the meltdown and the meltdown put a merciful end to it. It only lived into the 21st century because it had convinced the government and rich dilettantes into giving it an allowance to make up for what it couldn’t come up with itself. It was never a viable economic model. There was no market for it. What? You gonna ask people who’ve lost everything to pony up a hundred bucks to watch Shakespeare?” From the darkened room came a kind of shout from a female voice. “Hello? What was that, a question?” Gene pulled his headset off. “Hello?” He put it back on. “Look, ask your questions on the screen, okay? Anyway, this town used to be stinking with theatre. I was a director of some note.  But – what can I tell you? – it was an indulgence, and the market wants necessity.”

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