With no power comes no responsibility

Any geeks out there?

If you’re a true, serious geek, and you live in the Toronto area, then chances are you know about that Fan Expo event that’s happening this weekend at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

Lots of interesting famous people gonna be there. The Shatner, for one. David Cronenberg, for another. Also Peter Mayhew, better known to the masses as Chewbacca, and to princesses as This Walking Carpet. And Stan Lee, and a bunch of folks from the 1960s Batman show, and Spike from Buffy, and one of those Star Trek alien guys with the forehead wrinkles, and a lot of other dudes whom I don’t know because I don’t watch enough TV these days.

That alone should persuade you to come. But if you’re looking for a sweet little cherry on top of the geek-heil sundae… I’ll be there too.

Yes, just as I did last year, I’ll be manning the Burning Effigy Press table part-time at the Rue Morgue Festival of Fear, along with Monica S. Kuebler and Claire Horsnell. Please stop by our table, say hi and buy a bunch of books or chapbooks. We’ve got a few new titles to show off, as well as some older ones you might not have yet. And I’ll also be selling copies of my CD, Clown with a Coat Hanger.

Just like those big celebrities at Fan Expo, I’ll be perfectly happy to sign autographs. You can even take a picture with me, if you really want. Best of all, I won’t be charging, like, $40 for the privilege. Even though I need the money far more than those other guys do, hey, I’m good like that.

Nobody’s asked me to do a forum or Q&A, though. Maybe I need to slay more vampires first.

Live long and prosper, Captain Solo.

Grouch on a Couch: Reflections

“I see no harm in telling young people to prepare for failure rather than success, since failure is the main thing that is going to happen to them.”
— Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus

So, in case you haven’t heard, I spent the last six or seven weeks doing a one-man Fringe show, Grouch on a Couch, in Ottawa, Hamilton and here in Toronto.

This was a pretty big undertaking, for me. An attempt to use Muppet characters as metaphors to tell some unpleasant yet important truths about life, it was my first one-man show and my first theatre production, a relatively ambitious and deeply personal project that took more than nine months of sweat, money and hard work to put together.

Will I do another show for next year, or the year after? Will I ever do this again, period?
At the moment, I don’t know. What it depends the most on is my financial health. Grouch on a Couch has cleaned me out. I had a sizable savings account at the beginning of the year, and it is rapidly shrinking. Now I really, really need a new day job. This show cost me a lot more than I got out of it, at least financially. That’s what you get for being dedicated to your craft.

I suppose that in the big picture, it makes sense that Grouch on a Couch wasn’t as successful as it could have been. After all, Grouch is, perhaps more than anything else, about failure itself — and about the frustration of what it’s like to be the eternal underdog. No matter what he does, the Grouch is always going to be in Elmo’s shadow. That’s just the way it is. There’s nothing he can do about it; it has nothing to do with what he earns or deserves. It’s all rigged against him, and he has to learn to accept that in order to adjust better to the world.
Grouch on a Couch may have the same problem. Even if my show had been a timeless masterpiece, there was no way it could have competed with the charming, corporate-sponsored magician, or the kewl and gnarly rock opera with the sexy dancers, or the quirky absurdist comedy with the zany gunshot noises.

That’s not to suggest that the experience didn’t have its wonderful and satisfying moments. There were many.
Our opening night in Hamilton was amazing. So were our closing nights in Ottawa and Toronto. There is no better feeling than knowing you’ve given an audience, even a small one, a good show that they really liked, that made them both laugh and think, that perhaps gave them a fresh, if unsettling, new way of seeing the world. When one random stranger told me that my show was the perfect commentary on her whole life, it meant so much. When a good number of my friends, both old and new, came out to my last Toronto show and gave me a rousing response, I felt it profoundly. I made many new friends along the way. It sounds so trite, but there are moments from this journey that I’ll always remember.

I almost quit this project around mid-to-late February, for a multitude of reasons. I persevered out of the old “Finish what you started” and “The show must go on” ethics. Sometimes I wondered if giving up would have been the wiser and braver choice. Even at the best of times, when we had a good show and the audience loved it, I still wondered if this whole thing was a mistake and maybe I should have thrown it away, collected half the Fringe entry fees back and just focused on getting a real job again. Why was I putting so much effort and expense into a show that so (relatively) few people wanted to see?

I’d like to think it wasn’t a mistake, if only because enough intelligent and discriminating people I met seemed to sincerely enjoy the show — enough to make it seem worthwhile. (And a few of them were reviewers, too.) Contrary to what many professional, “legit” theatre folks will tell you, the main purpose of doing a work of theatre isn’t to make a lot of money or to become “famous”. It’s to express yourself, to entertain a group of people and, if lucky, screw with their perceptions of life.


This whole entry was originally going to be much longer and rantier. And in three parts. I had stuff to get off my chest. I wanted to sound off on a lot of things that frustrated me about the process of doing the show. First, I was going to rant about the difficulties of promoting the show and how disappointed I was that fewer people came to it than I’d hoped. Then I was going to tell the story of how a lot of well-meaning yet terrible advice caused me to spend a needlessly large amount of money on it, as well as detail the mountains of early discouragement that almost spurred me to quit when I’d barely started. And then I was going to complain about how a few critics and other people totally misunderstood and misrepresented the show, and so on.
But then, I guess, the better part of me took over. Maybe I’ll save the more angsty draft for the future, for another time when I’m not as concerned about stepping on toes or burning bridges.

I’ve already implied some of the disadvantages the show had in competing with others. In addition, maybe my sensibility is too subversive and non-mainstream for Fringe. (Even though that’s what Fringe is supposed to be about…) I don’t know how to write hopeful, uplifting messages, because I’ve found that in real life, hope and encouragement have always set me up for grotesque disappointments. I don’t know how to create conventional, wrapped-up happy endings without coming off as false, because I haven’t experienced enough happy endings to depict them accurately. If you’re going to complain that my humour is too full of negativity and pessimism and cynicism, all I can do is sit here and shrug. Just like the Grouch and his worthless plastic bag of broken sporks, cracked juice containers and used condoms… it’s what I’ve got.

As for the money:
I wasn’t expecting to make much of a profit, if any at all, from Grouch, especially if I was travelling with it. Losing my shirt, however, wasn’t part of the plan. I originally thought this was going to be a simple, scaled-back, inexpensive show, and then I was shamed and patronized into doing it in a more complicated and expensive way. The lesson: Don’t treat a simple, dinky little one-person show as if you’re remounting Cats. Not worth it, no matter what the so-called experts tell you.

I won’t say anything too specific about the reviews; after all, we did get a few positive ones. And the negative ones generally missed the whole point of the show anyway. Besides, it’s dangerous to respond to reviews, even if you’re in the right, because you can easily come off as an egocentric or oversensitive whiner, like, say, James Cameron or Kevin Smith.
But I did find it, let’s just say, baffling to read reviews and online comments implying that the show was nothing more than fifty minutes straight of anger, hatred and cheap shock humour. Really? Pray tell, what show were they actually watching? Seth MacFarlane Presents: Taxi Driver, Starring Mel Gibson? Because that doesn’t sound much like Grouch on a Couch, a show that I, my collaborators and many audience members I spoke with felt was more of an emotional roller coaster, with a variety of different levels and tones. What’s the point of the show, after all, but that an angry, grouchy person has more sides to him than just anger and grouchiness? (It’s not like I was subtle about it.)

Let’s take what may be my favourite moment in the show. About three-fifths into it, the Grouch reenacts his childhood, when he was so desperate to get away from his father’s rages that he holed himself up in his room. There, he learned to make the best of things by playing games with household trash. Onstage, we set the scene to Joe Raposo’s wonderful song “Imagination”. I most certainly did not write this scene out of anger or cynicism. I wrote it out of sadness and pathos — but also out of a kind of joy, because I wanted to show how the Grouch found some small morsel of happiness and a creative outlet in the most unlikely source, early on in life.

Zach Counsil, a well-regarded Ottawa actor and theatre-community member, told me personally that he thought this scene stood out as beautifully written and staged. So did a few other people. And why shouldn’t they? After all — I wrote the bloody thing from the heart, fa Chrissakes. I wrote it partly from life.
To some varying extent, we all know what it’s like to be a lonely child. We also know what it’s like to have to make do with limited resources in order to create our own modest means of happiness. I do too — more than some people. I won’t get into it, but yeah.

I wonder if some media people were out having a smoke during this scene. Or during most of the play’s second half. Even if you thought that scene didn’t work, you could have at least used it as an example of how the show was about far more than just being angry and cynical.


I mentioned one reason why I’d like to think that Grouch on a Couch was not a mistake, in spite of all the lost money, disappointing turnouts, mixed reviews and so forth. Here’s another: Believing it was would be proving the Grouch right.

That’s the irony of it all. The Grouch believes that the notion of success through hard work and faith is a lie. He believes that there’s no point in trying, that if you can’t get it right the first time, then it wasn’t worth doing. He believes that you’re better off living a lifetime in trash and isolation than taking any personal risks or trying to better yourself. Is that the world we want? By saying that Grouch on a Couch was a total waste of time that wasn’t worth doing, I would be validating all of the Grouch’s most depressing beliefs. I wanted to see him proven wrong.

Where do I go now? No frickin’ clue.
All I know is, I need a job. I don’t know what I’m going to do now in terms of spoken word or theatre or writing. My event schedule is literally empty: this is the first time in a long while, perhaps even five or six years, that I don’t have any scheduled gigs coming up. Not even a guest-hosting spot. I have some ideas, for sketches or stories or even another Fringe show, but I don’t know if they’re any good. In the meantime, if you’re looking for somebody to brighten up your literary or comedy show with at least ten minutes of sardonic monologue and satirical storytelling, drop me a line…