Derailing the Stage Choo-Choo

According to a friend and director with whom I have worked on many productions, there are two kinds of train in acting.  Both are bad.

The first is the locomotive that crosses the stage whenever there is a worryingly long gap between lines of dialogue (his own hyperbolic figure of speech meaning that there was a silence long enough for an entire train to traverse the performance space before the next line was delivered).

The other is the choo-choo of poor diction.  This is the one on which I will be focussing for this post.

A year ago, the same director asked me to assist him with his college production of Hedda Gabler.  I was a “diction monitor” of sorts.  At each rehearsal, I would sit in the audience with my iPad and do nothing but listen to the words the actors were saying.  I cared not for characters or line delivery or the way they carried themselves.  My job was to note every garbled syllable and any otherwise unintelligible word they spoke, and, boy, did I have a field day with it.

Scores of spoilt lines of dialogue I scribbled hastily on my Apple device, day after day.  I took no prisoners; every actor in the show was guilty of sloppy diction at least once, and I made sure to embarr — I mean inform each of them of their slip-ups at the end of every rehearsal.  Some missed their final t’s, there were some dropped h’s, we had some “yers” and “fers” instead of “yours” and “fors” and some even travelled across the Atlantic mid-play and said “git” when the word was actually get.

But the most common errors, by far, were those that occurred when words like did and won’t preceded the word you.  The results, all too often, were abominations such as “dijoo” and “wonchoo.”  And examples of these littered my notes every evening.

Constructions like those are the namesake of the aforesaid theatre tank engine to be avoided – the choo-choo.

But it’s hard to blame the actors.  That’s just the way English speakers speak, generally speaking.

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General Lee speaking.

They’re naturally-occurring sound developments, the dijoos and the wonchoos.  And they occur on both sides of the pond.  To illustrate:

“Would_you come here for a minute?”
“Don’t_you see it?”

The areas in bold denote the consonant clusters [dy] and [ty], respectively.  However, this /y/ sound isn’t a true consonant.  /Y/ here, in reality, is a clipped long /e/ sound.  (Say “ee-oo,” and then say it again with as little “ee” as possible, and that’s the word you.)  As such, it has a tendency to alter the quality of the /d/ and /t/ sounds (the English dental stops/plosives, for those interested in knowing the technical term).

To form perfectly the words “would you” and “don’t you,” the tongue must perform some degree of acrobatics.  When articulating the /d/ or /t/, the tip touches the alveolar ridge (the flesh immediately behind the upper incisors) before retreating; the sides of the tongue then press against both sets of upper molars, creating a “U” through which air passes to form the /y/ (or long /e/) vowel before relaxing somewhat whilst the lips become pursed to form the final “oo.”

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Note the locations of the alveolar ridge and hard palate, colloquially the “roof of the mouth.”

In rapid or casual speech, however, we often cheat a bit.  Too much travel for the strongest muscle in our bodies.  We can’t be bothered to make either the plosive consonant or the /y/ vowel, so we combine them; the tongue lands somewhere in the middle and calls it a day.  Well, the “middle” happens to be hard palate territory, which is where the blade of the tongue goes to make the palato-alveolar affricate consonants.  Most Anglophones know these as the /j/ and /ch/ sounds.

The outcome of such shortcuts, therefore, are our esteemed friends, “wooja” and “doncha,” who are here in the places of “would you” and “don’t you.”  Turns out “got you” and “what you” couldn’t attend the party, either, so they sent “gotcha” and “whatcha” in their stead.

But, wait, it gets crazier.  This phonetic process also occurs with the clusters [sy] and [zy].  The sibilant consonants /s/ and /z/ are also affected by the /y/ in some words, becoming the palato-alveolar sibilant consonants, [sh] and [zh].  We just don’t notice them because many such words underwent this sound change several centuries ago, and the resulting pronunciations are now the standard.  Some examples:

  • pressureassuresure (all these words used to end with a “syoo-er” sound)
  • words ending in -tion (words like temptation used to be pronounced with a final “see-yuhn” but are now reduced to “shuhn” – my Renaissance festival castmates should be quite familiar with this rule)
  • measure and vision used to take the [zy] pronunciation (sounding approximately like “MEZ-yoor” and “VIZ-yuhn”) but are now reduced to [zh]

Historical instances of the assimilation of the [dy] and [ty] clusters can be heard in the words soldier and nature, which are decidedly “SOL-jer” and “NAY-cher.”  Never will you hear a sane English speaker pronounce them “SOL-dyer” and “NAY-tyer.”

The word education is overwhelmingly pronounced “eh-joocation” and issue is most commonly “ISH-oo.”  These differ from the above in that they are not quite universal, but only the most careful and posh (or pretentious) pronounce them “eh-dyoocation” and “ISS-yoo.”

In especially British and Australian dialects, this yod-coalescence (the proper term for the phenomenon I’ve been describing) has led to peculiar pronunciations of words that incorporate the “liquid /u/.”  (Liquid /u/ is in words like cube and fume – you pronounce them with a quick /y/ before the /u/.)  Across the pond and down under, this still applies to “tu-” and “du-” words such as tutor and duke.  While an American might “toon” his guitar, an Englishman might “choon” his.  While two Americans might engage in a sword “doo-el,” two Brits might engage in a sword “jewel.”  An American knows that the day following Monday is “Toosday,” but an Englishwoman might know it to be “Chooseday.”

This principle also explains why I say “s-CHEW-dent” instead of “student” and “YouChewb” instead of “YouTube.”

Sean Connery does not assume things; he “a-shooms” them.  Now that we’re done making fun of him, he can “re-zhoom” what he was doing.  You get the point.

So, to recap:

[ty-] —–> [ch]
[dy-] —–> [j]
[sy-] —–> [sh]
[zy-] —–> [zh]

But what if I told you that yod-coalescence happens in other languages, too?

Let’s examine for a minute the Latin word diurnus, meaning “day.”  It would have been pronounced roughly “DYOOR-noos.”  Note the /dy/ cluster.  Both the Italians and the French inherited this word, but its pronunciation evolved in each language.  The Italians say giorno [JOR-noh], not “DYOR-noh.”  And the French say jour [zhoor].

A Latin word for “eat” was manducare, literally meaning “to use the mandibles; manducate; chew.”  Again, both the regions that would become France and Italy kept this word, but their speakers dropped a syllable or two and changed the quality of the /d/ consonant.  In Italian, the verb is mangiare, while its French cousin is manger (source of the English word of the same spelling, which is that from which horses eat).

Lesson over.  The stage choo-choo is demonstrably natural in speech, and not just in English.  And it’s not a recent linguistic development; it’s well-grounded in our language.

I’ll even go so far as to say that the other side of the spectrum, hyper-articulation, is equally harmful to an actor’s performance, if not more so.  I’ve seen several different actors laughably hit every single consonant of every line they delivered, and I couldn’t take any of their characters seriously.  Over-enunciation made them sound pompous unintentionally and made me focus on the words they were saying rather than how they were saying them.  And this is coming from someone who over-enunciates even when not on the stage.

Conversely, the railed passenger vehicle of the playhouse can be an instrument to bolster an actor’s performance.  Knowing exactly where to enunciate and where not to can make lines sound more natural and believable.  A couple choo-choos here and there can lend themselves to the appearance of a more laid-back character.

All that said, I do not necessarily endorse the thespian multi-carriage machine of transportation.  A performance space with less-than-ideal acoustics may not permit more relaxed diction.  Get the words out, but don’t be too forceful.  And go easy on Ol’ Tommy.

thomas the tank engine

Verdict?  Let your own discretion be your tutor.  Or “chootor.”

Confessions and Repentance of a Cisgender Refuser of “Singular They”

About a year ago, I squared off with somebody on Facebook over the prospect of “singular they” as a preferred personal pronoun.  Except I was not arguing on the side you may hope I would have been.

When I learnt in the spring of 2015 that some people who are outside the gender binary actually identify as they, I knew that it would not bode well for me and my penchant for immaculate grammar.

My initial thoughts were, “How did we, as a society, screw up so royally that these people had no recourse but to hijack the third-person plural pronouns to suit their singular needs?  Surely the English language has a fail-safe, a provision for a situation like this.”

Historically, the pronoun he was always used to refer to a person whose gender is unknown or to refer to a member of a mixed group, as in the sentence, “Any in favour should raise his right hand.”  Many popular adages begin with the words, “He who…” without regard for the subject’s gender.

This usage of the masculine third-person singular pronoun is analogous to the usage of man in certain contexts.  When one speaks of “when man first walked the earth,” he means the human species – not men or women specifically.  Similarly, when Neil Armstrong proclaimed as he set foot on the moon (or a film set) the words, “…one giant leap for mankind,” he wasn’t referring to the male half only.

With these facts in my utility belt, I jumped into the aforementioned argument on Facebook.  My goal was to convince the other party that, for people who identify outside the binary, using gender-neutral he is just as, if not more viable than using singular they.  The former is more historically supported and is arguably less clumsy.  My argument was never about potential ambiguity in writing – let me be clear on that.

The debate ended amicably, I’m happy to state.  But it got me questioning my stance on the matter more than ever.  It’s become increasingly clear that my linguistic rhetoric is irrelevant when feelings are in play.

I wouldn’t classify my former self with bigoted assholes who refuse to adopt “singular they” for the sake of quashing the non-binary cause.  I always counted myself among the more sympathetic, those seeking alternative solutions through the application of logic and reasoning.  To the oppressed, however, there is hardly a difference between the two groups.

The unoppressed telling the oppressed that they shouldn’t feel a certain way because of “X, Y and Z” is about as effective as telling someone who suffers from depression to “cheer up” or someone with anxiety to “just relax.”

As a cisgender (meaning my gender aligns with my birth sex) man, no, I do not and will not ever understand the dysphoria that some people experience when they are misgendered.  I do understand the discomfort of being misaddressed, however.  I refer to myself as Joseph and nothing else.  I have never gone by Joe, and it genuinely hurts when people call me that.  It also hurts when people use the wrong surname to refer to me.  I can only imagine the pain of those who are denied their preferred personal pronouns.

Honestly, though, the whole notion of being attached to a certain pronoun is foolish to me.  Personal pronouns, by nature, are not personal; they are, paradoxically, quite the opposite.  Their primary function is to play substitute for your name – your true identity.  They make sentences impersonal.  But I suppose all that’s easy for me to say because I have no qualms with being referred to as a he.  Maybe I don’t get to make that call.

And, because it is unrealistic to do away with third-person pronouns altogether, we need to work with what we have.

Contrived pronouns such as ze/xe and zir/xem simply will not do.  I admire the effort put forth by wordsmiths within the gender-queer community, and I appreciate that they are proposing solutions that would please everybody, but I sincerely doubt that their inventions will catch on.

I’m aware that Sweden recently (1960s) coined the gender-neutral pronoun hen to exist alongside han (he) and hon (she).  It might work in a country of that size and with a population that small speaking Swedish, but English is an anomaly.  There are so many varieties in so many regions with hundreds of millions of speakers worldwide.  Thanks a lot, Great Britain.  The sun never sets on your empire, huh?

The pronoun one does not work when referring to a specified individual, as in the sentence, “Taylor tied one’s shoes.”

So, we come back to they.

Proponents often point to uses throughout history by prolific writers.  Jane Austen was known to use “singular they” rather frequently.  Even the Bard himself used it on occasion.

There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend

–  Antipholus, The Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene iii

Moreover, rhetoric like that featured in the following image has been employed recently to illustrate that we already use “singular they” in casual conversation:

using-singular-they

These are pretty compelling arguments.  One problem, though.  These usages of “singular they” are not the same as the usage of referring to a known, specified person.

I will do my best to articulate exactly what I mean here without sounding too abstract.

In the above example, Person 1 says, “Oh no, someone left their cell phone.”  In his mind, this “someone” could be any person – male, female, gender-nonconforming, whatever.  Anybody can lose a phone.  The image in his brain is of multiple people, that is, a pool of options, if you will.  Therefore, this group of potential persons logically requires they.  We do this all the time.

Now, let’s say we’re dealing with someone named Taylor.  (I don’t know why I keep using the name Taylor – it’s just the first unisex name that came to mind.)  Taylor prefers the pronoun they and is known personally by the people in the following exchange.  Taylor is not some hypothetical human within a group of possible candidates.  Taylor is real, definite and specified.  Here’s how the exchange might sound:

“Hey, I saw Taylor hop in their car.  Where are they going?”

“I think they have to go to work.”

In those sentences, someone less acquainted with Taylor would have, without hesitation, used “his/her,” “is he/is she” and “he has/she has.”  This is because Taylor was understood to be a certain individual.  In a less-acquainted person’s mind, Taylor is one person and therefore logically requires a singular pronoun like he or she.

I hope that this accurately illustrates the reluctance of well-meaning people to use “singular they” the way non-binary persons wish – even when they do it all the time in conversation anyway.  I know that this is how it works in my mind.  I might be totally wrong about others, but I’m pretty sure I’m at least on the right track.

But… a year of rumination on the subject has shown me that my mild discomfort in this novel usage of “singular they” does not compare to the distress and cognitive dissonance suffered by those less fortunate than I – those who are not content with English’s admittedly flawed gender system.  These people should not need to change to accommodate something that humans crafted; our craft should change to accommodate them.

And it has in the past.

The Old English words for “he” and “she” were he and heo/hio.  By the 13th century, natural phonetic evolution made the pronunciations of he and heo/hio converge.  Apparently to avoid confusion, the word seo/sio (used in Old English to mean “the”) soon supplanted heo/hio.  This replacement evolved in pronunciation as well and became she.  Parallel developments occurred in German and Dutch with their pronouns sie and zij, respectively.  Also note that we say her, as opposed to “sher” – her represents the survival of the original h-form from Old English (hire).

She, an integral word in our language, was re-purposed and became the dominant feminine singular third-person pronoun through persistent use.  Circumstances demanded it.  And now we have circumstances that require that we find a new word for the genderless singular third person.  It is with great regret that I say I fear that it may be too late for English, as a whole, to adopt a new word.  But our best shot is they.

And, if it makes them happy, I’ll use it.

Ownership Of The Video Game

Games, historically, have been for the player or players.

The word game comes from Old English gamen, which carried meanings of “joy, fun, amusement.”  Gamen is a common Germanic compound; cognates include Old Frisian game “joy, glee,” Old High German gaman “sport, merriment,” Swedish gamman “merriment” and several others.  All these are combinations of the Proto-Germanic elements ga- (collective prefix) and mann “person,” the latter being the ancestor of the English word man.  This compound thus conveys the sense of “people together.”

The primary goals of games are to pass time and to foster companionship.  Games have always been for our entertainment in some way, whether they be displays of athleticism in sports, wit-battles in chess or brief amusements that children make up for themselves.

Video games, a subset of electronic games, involve interaction with a user interface to generate visual feedback on a video device (as opposed to audio games, whose feedback is solely audible).

Some of the earliest video games were simply pongdigital recreations of games and sports that had been around a long time.  Pong (1972) was nothing more than an electronically-rendered game of table tennis.  Pong and the like had the same player-centric goals as their “real-life” counterparts; the only difference was that they now could be played on a screen.

Those who created, or developed, these primitive softwares vied merely to provide the most functional and accessible product in the infantile market.  Any other gimmick was secondary.

With the advances in hardware of the next couple decades, however, came more complex and sophisticated video games.  Games were no longer just a couple moving pixels.  Better technology meant superior graphics and more detailed game environments – and thus greater room for creativity.

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1994’s platformer Donkey Kong Country, a pioneer of 3-D graphics in console gaming.

While early computer role-playing games (RPGs) had involved personal player narratives for quite some time, games of other genres were beginning to incorporate set, unchanging plots for the player to experience through gameplay.  Some game development studios were building video games with story in mind and started employing cinematics, or “cutscenes,” for the player to watch between levels.

By the early years of the new millennium, many games being created were fully voice-acted and required significant amounts of animation.  Music had evolved from the beeping melodies of Super Mario Bros. to full orchestral scores with dynamic and layered sounds to complement the player on his journey.

After a few more years, it became commonplace for major game development studios to utilise motion-capture (mo-cap) technology in their animation.  Video games now have an unprecedented level of detail in their characters and can present more nuanced stories.  Games that do this particularly well, such as Heavy Rain and The Last of Us, have been known to evoke sincere emotional reactions from players.

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A scene from 2009’s Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.  On left, actors performing in mo-cap garb; on right, the same scene rendered in the game.

Today, the development of major video games (referred to as “triple-A” titles) is not unlike that of a film.  A video game no longer is exclusively about gameplay.  The typical group behind a AAA video game project now has hundreds of employees.  In addition to the requisite programmers, studios now hire writers, directors, actors, sound designers, music composers and sketch and concept artists, among others, to bring a game to life.  And they have ludicrously large budgets to accomplish this.

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Big-budget franchises like Call of Duty can afford to put Kevin Spacey in their games.

The amount of work involved in the development of the well-made video game is staggering, to put it lightly.  The process is a far cry from the early days of a group of computer geeks, numbering no more than fifteen or twenty.  Video game development had established itself as a multi-disciplinary artistic medium on par with other artistic media like literature and cinema.

However, video games as such are unique in that they require player input via a controller or a keyboard and mouse.  What happens on-screen is directly influenced by the player, whereas a novel or a film or a painting is the same every time it is viewed.

This means that the player is still the key component or ingredient that makes a video game a video game (after all, a video game without the game part is really just images on a screen).  And this, in turn, means that the game needs to be engaging and fun.  If it is boring, then it’s more of a chore or work than it is entertainment, and people won’t play it.

The expectations of gamers have always leant toward immersion.  They want an escape from the harshness of real life, to be immersed in a fictional world where they can do things they could not or would not do in the real one.  Immersion is achieved chiefly through stimulating gameplay and realistic visuals, although there are other methods.  Some of the most popular video game franchises in the industry that employ these pillars of immersion fall into the genres of action, open-world and first-person shooter (FPS).  Grand Theft AutoThe Elder Scrolls and Call of Duty all are wildly successful commercially because they adhere to what the average gamer expects of an immersive experience and do it well.

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Hijacking a car in Grand Theft Auto V

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Engaging a frost troll in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

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Campaign mission from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Developers understand all this, but, at the same time, they have an artistic vision that they want to realise.  A vision that may be thwarted by being tied down by the tried-and-true gameplay mechanics and tropes of yesteryear.

So, is the video game primarily a toy for the consumer’s enjoyment – or is it primarily a creative vehicle for the developers?

It may be true that the developers do not owe the consumer anything, and it also may be true that nobody is forcing anybody to buy the developers’ product, but, at the end of the day, it’s the consumer’s dollar that keeps the developers afloat.

An independent game development studio must take this risk into account when crafting its games, but developers owned by a publisher (a relationship akin to a musician signed on with a record label) have no choice but to bend to the will of their financial overlords, who make broad creative decisions in accordance with what they know gamers like and will purchase (or will beg their parents to purchase for them).  These decisions often hamper the creative potential of the developers and, in some cases, can undermine the essence of a beloved franchise.

There is a great deal of evidence that the story of Halo 5: Guardians was substantially weakened (if not microsoft_studiosruined altogether) through interference from the publisher, Microsoft Studios.  While developer 343 Industries’ debut Halo game, Halo 4, featured a strong, powerful and critically-acclaimed story, many fans were displeased with it – mainly because its tone was starkly different from that of the original trilogy and because one of the series’ most treasured characters halo_guardianswas killed off.  It is believed that, following such poor reception from the fans, the script of Halo 5 underwent a number of significant rewrites relatively late in its development upon the urging of Microsoft, most notably the senseless revival of the dead character and her asinine relegation to villain status.  The story was supposed to be the best and most riveting to date, but it fell flat because the developers were forced to abandon their original vision.

Conversely, the multiplayer side of Halo 5 flourished because of fan input.  The general consensus is that it is superior in almost every aspect to that of Halo 4, and it’s largely because of the whining—er, I mean constructive feedback—of the community that ensued following 4’s release.

But I digress.  The point I am trying to establish is that, with a video game franchise like Halo, the ownership may be ambiguous.  It could be argued that the members of a fanbase with that much creative influence are the true “owners” of the game.

More conservative gamers might say that this is the way it should be, for the developers to listen to the buyers and to tailor their games accordingly.  Those more liberal in the matter might say that the developers should not be total pushovers by allowing the consumers to dictate what goes into the studio’s product.

Me?  Well, I suppose I have an obligation to take a stance here, as it is often considered bad creative etiquette to raise philosophical questions without even attempting to answer them.  Interestingly, my doing so is, itself, an instance of yielding to consumer pressure to alter my content.

I’ll cop out and say that I’m middle ground.  I feel that the player absolutely does have a say in the video games he buys.  But it cannot be denied that there has been a shift from the player-centric goals of the video game to goals more artist-centric.

In Defence Of The Dialect

Every Wednesday at noon, my Uncle Louis and a few others gather at La Roma Pizzeria to dine and speak principally in Italian.  I join them when I can.  There, I go by Giuseppe, and my uncle is Zio Luigi.  Our collective is sometimes called “il gruppo italiano” (“the Italian group”), and one might say that we are one of the final vestiges of social italophony in the Utica-Rome area, a relic of a bygone era in a region that was once marked by widespread and deep Italian heritage and influence.

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Anyway, at one of these luncheons, my uncle used a word that garnered confused looks from others at the table.  It was quickly resolved by one of our guests that the word was dialectal and not standard Italian.  This did not come as a shock to my uncle, as he has said time and time again that the Italian dialect that was spoken in his home when he was a boy was a combination of Italian, Spanish and Latin (the linguist in me questions the veracity of this claim), but this is neither here nor there for the purpose of this post.

I wish to bring the spotlight on the old man who provided the proper Italian word for the idea that my uncle was trying to express.  Now, mind you that he is one of the humblest and most gracious and most well-spoken people I have talked with, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for him.  Because I was aware that he was born in Italy and is a native speaker of Italian, I decided to enquire further about the way the language is spoken in the motherland.  He happily explained to me that Italy is finally united under a common standard tongue after centuries of provincial variation; this matched my admittedly shallow understanding of Italian language history, which comes from two semesters of Elementary Italian in college, informal Internet research and playing Assassin’s Creed.

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Our guest authority on the Italian language went on to say that dialects are nowadays rightly reserved for the home.  That these dialects are not correct and should stay private.  This was a touch off-putting.

I couldn’t let that one go.  Using my reasonable linguistic rhetoric (with the caution not to offend the genuinely kind and well-meaning elder), I employed the Socratic method to query him into a corner and expose the fallacy in his notion of Italian dialects.

I asked for his agreement (successfully) with the following:

“Italian, like other Romance languages such as French, Spanish and Portuguese, comes from Latin, yes?”

“And would you say that all these languages are recognised as their own sovereign modes of speech with their own unique rules?  That is, do they all have ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ ways of being spoken?”

“Then how about twelve hundred years ago?  They’re older forms of the languages – but still distinct from each other, yes?”

“Let’s go back a couple more centuries.  They aren’t still French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, are they?  No, but would you consider them slightly evolved forms of the regional variants of Vulgar Latin?”

“So, if they’re just dialects of Latin at that point, are they incorrect forms of that language?”

A cheerful smile manifested on the aged man’s thitherto vaguely grave countenance as he said, “I see what you are saying.”

Dialects seem to carry a feint negative air.  They are unjustly felt as second-rate to what is considered standard in a language.  They are sometimes branded with such demeaning labels as “regionalism” and even “slang.”

Such attitudes are poison and will cloud the judgement of writers, orators and so-called linguists everywhere – and that veritably wise and knowledgeable twenty-one-year-old fresh out of undergraduate school with a BA in English.

I believe that this ill treatment of dialects comes from a flawed perspective on how languages grow and develop.img_0543

Dialects are not to be seen as tree branches stemming from the trunk, the standard; they are better visualised as their own individual trees growing alongside the standard, all from the same patch of earth.

Let’s use English as a template for this concept, as it’s safe to assume that it is the first language of most people who are reading this blog post.

If we examine English in the U.K. as it stands today, we’ll note the innumerable flavours scattered therein.  If we were to time-travel back to the Middle Ages, we would make a similar observation.  This is because there was as much differentiation in the language back then as there is now – or at any other point in history.  (Indeed there wasn’t just one Elizabethan vernacular.)

There were four main dialects of Old English, or Anglo-Saxon: Mercian, Kentish, Northumbrian and West Saxon.  These, along with the lesser dialects, had been on their own evolutionary courses for quite some time.  They didn’t just spawn out of nowhere.  img_0544They were brought over to Britannia by sundry Germanic tribes – chiefly the Angles, Saxons and Jutes – that left northern Europe.  And they didn’t all arrive at the same time, either; this was a migration of many peoples over the course of centuries, beginning when the Romans vacated the island.  That which we call “Old English” is actually a collection of closely-related languages spoken by different groups of people in relative proximity to one another.

What does all this mean?  It means that the English dialects today are, by and large, continuations of their ancestral mediaeval dialects, each with its own grammar, lexicon and phonology.  And those, in turn, were continuations of related Germanic tongues pre-migration, two-thousand years ago and prior.  They all grew up alongside the one lucky dialect that would become the standard for “English.”  And that’s the very problem with setting a language standard in the first place: to call one dialect the standard is to imply that related dialects are recent offshoots of it – and not separate self-governing entities that are equally ancient.

It pays a certain amount of respect to be specific when referring to the language of a particular region.  In some pockets of Scotland, it might be more appropriate to call their language “Scots” instead of “Scottish English,” despite its obvious strong kinship with Standard English.  Similarly, it is erroneous to call the languages spoken in Lombardy and Veneto “Lombard Italian” and “Venetian Italian.”  Lombard and Venetian are merely two of the many “dialects” that developed independently from one another in the area we now call Italy, but Tuscan (toscano) is the one that would serve as the basis for Standard Italian.  Again, they all have strong linguistic similarity to the standard, but they are better referred to as their own languages.

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(Remember that the country of Italy as it exists today has been around only since the late 19th century.  Before the unification, the peninsula was composed of numerous city-states.)

These dialects do not swear fealty to the country that happens to envelop them and are not owned by the country’s most privileged dialect.

Therefore, no, a “dialect” in such a case is not a second-rate version of the language standard; it is a first-rate version of itself.

All right, cool, so how about dialects that do branch off the standard?

Let’s suppose that, centuries ago, the Hebrew-speaking Jewish population in Central Europe began to adopt the language of an unspecified German dialect.

Initially, these Jews would be speaking some bastardised version of what was considered standard for the variety of German they were trying to imitate.  It was assuredly German, but with some peculiarities.  They were pronouncing words differently because they were mapping Hebrew phonology onto them, and they were sprinkling Hebrew words here and there as well as re-purposing German words to suit their culture.

There’s no doubt that, at some point, people who spoke this variety of German the “correct” or “proper” way started to view this emerging vernacular disdainfully.  I imagine that they would have said that their German was being butchered.

Nevertheless, it was concluded that this “inferior” Jewish take on their language was here to stay, and so people began calling it a dialect.

In time, this dialect had acquired its own identity, complete with its own rules and conventions.  People finally started to recognise it as its own language.

Today, we call it Yiddish.

This raises an interesting question about the validity of other dialects in other languages.  Is African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or “ghetto speak,” truly ruining Standard American English?  Or is it merely following its own evolutionary path?

Here’s the thing with dialects and languages: the difference is mostly arbitrary.  Given enough time, derivative dialects become their own languages.  Dialects ignore the imaginary lines humans draw and call national boundaries.  Some dialects are so ancient and distinct that they aren’t really what most people consider dialects at all.

Sociolinguist Max Weinreich popularised an apt saying about them:

“A language is a dialect with an army and navy.”

Heart Unending

Death is not convenient.  There are always so many “I should’ves” and “Why didn’ts.”  My aunt, who had been vigilant and by my grandmother’s side at all times during her final couple days, hadn’t been gone ten minutes on a quick trip to the store when it happened.  And it seems that nobody answers their phones when it matters most.

Death is not romantic.  There was no point during my grandma’s final moments at which she gazed at me or my mother.  No point at which she offered wise, comforting parting words.  There were no meaningful words for me to utter, either.  There was no fade-to-black, no curtain call, no thunderous applause.  Only tears from my mother – and speechlessness from me, her son, a man of twenty-three years who had never witnessed death and lacked the savvy to cope with it as it occurred before his very eyes.  Effectively a child, I struggled with processing this event, all the while not knowing how to console my weeping mother and trying to pacify my sister’s whimpering and trembling small dog, whom I was holding.

Several hours later, I watched as two strangers from the funeral home hauled the corpse that once housed my grandmother onto a wheeled contraption and strapped it down.  They pushed it outside and loaded the cold, lifeless body into their van as everyday luggage.

Death is awkward.  Death is matter-of-fact.  It cares not where you happen to be or what you happen to be doing at the time.  And it does not wait till you’re good and ready to face it.


My grandmother was born Elena Ceci (pronounced “CHEH-chee” or “CHAY-chee”) the tenth of August, 1933 in Rome, NY to first-generation Italian-Americans.  Like her siblings, her name was Anglicised, hence “Helen.”  (My Uncle Alex was born “Alessandro,” my Uncle Vinny “Vincenzo,” Louis “Luigi” and Angelo – well, “Angelo.”)  She and her brothers represent the last generation on my mother’s side whose first language was not English.

Through my many conversations with her, I can say with great confidence that there is at least partial truth to the popular Central New York axiom that, in those days, all the Italian-American families in the area knew each other and were likely at least distantly related to each other.

Helen did nothing to subvert the stereotypical notion of an Italian-American grandmother, with her unrelenting enquiries about our states of hunger as well as her unbeatable family recipes, which included meatballs and a seemingly infinite repertoire of baked treats, but also her warm heart that never stopped caring about the welfare of those around her.

She always seemed to put others before herself.

I remember numerous sick days off school passed at her former residence on Bedford Street.  My stepfather would drop me off there on his way to Rome Free Academy because both he and my mother were working full-time, and I couldn’t be left home alone.  On such days, I would either watch cartoons or play a dice game with my grandma – a game our family calls simply “Dice.”  But never Monopoly.

Fast forward to May 2014.  My mother, my brother and I were living together in a section of a Utica house, but we were splitting up.  My mom had decided to move in with her then-boyfriend in Oswego, and my brother was moving in with his father.  I still had an Associate’s degree to finish at Mohawk Valley Community College, so my only real option was to move in with my grandmother in my birthplace, Rome.  And she welcomed me with open arms.

This was when I feel I really started to connect with my grandmother.  By then, I had reached my early twenties.  I had matured a bit.  I was no longer encumbered with the brattishness of childhood and was past the hormonal deluge of adolescence.  In essence, I was finally able to sit and converse with her.  Instead of itching to return to my video games and get to the next level or worrying about impressing women wherever I go, I learnt to enjoy her company and become her friend.

It was not uncommon, especially in my first year of living with her, for me to join my grandma in the living room for dinner in front of the TV.  Whenever I was around in the evening, I made sure to warm up a couple chicken patties and pour a glass of milk or juice in time for Wheel of Fortune at 7:00, followed immediately by Jeopardy!  It was a pretty nice routine.  And emptying the dishwasher, taking out the trash, grabbing things just out of her reach, occasionally helping her prepare food and running errands for her was a measly price to pay for living so comfortably.

I count myself fortunate and honoured to have lived with her these past two and a half years, being her helper and friend.  I loved hearing her stories of how suave and funny and diligent my grandfather was – or of their travels to Spain and how they used Italian to converse with the locals through limited mutual intelligibility – or how she was ridiculed in school for not being able to remember the word doorknob and having to substitute the Italian word for it.

In the summer of 2015, during my first season with the Sterling Renaissance Festival, my mother and I received terrible news that my grandmother had been diagnosed with cancer in the mouth.  She had survived breast cancer roughly fifteen years prior, but doctors weren’t so optimistic this time.  It had spread so much that a goodly portion of her tongue would need to be removed and surgically replaced – and her first medical consultant told her that she could not survive such an operation.  She ended up going through with it, but at the cost of her speech and feeding faculties.  Her new, makeshift tongue lacked muscles, making swallowing and the formation of certain consonants nigh impossible for her.  My mother would return from Oswego to live with us in Rome and tirelessly play nurse for Grandma over the next year.

Alas, as we all know, cancer is never fully eradicated from the body.  Just a couple days shy of Halloween 2016, she needed to be rushed to the hospital.  The cancer re-emerged and had made it to her lungs.  She was discharged after a week, but this time with an expiration date.  She received hospice care throughout November and into her final days before checking out at 11:13 yesterday morning, the sixth of December.

If nothing else, my grandmother was astonishingly physically resilient.  That’s for sure.  And I might add that, had she given up on life a year ago (a fair choice that was absolutely on the table), she would have missed all my accomplishments.  In buying one more year of life, she saw me graduate from community college, she saw me depart for the summer to live my acting dream at Sterling and she saw me land a steady, gratifying job this fall.  I’m glad she was able to live long enough to see some closure to my efforts these past few years.  She passed with the knowledge that I found some success in my life.  For her, joy came from perceiving others as happy, so I know that she was content when her time came.

Helen was a devout Catholic.  I may not be a Christian myself, but I need to respect her resolve.  Even past the age of eighty, she was making efforts to attend mass at St. John’s and frequently made donations to the church.  I do not know what happens after death – or whether the “soul” lives on – but I do know that she drew her last breath with the sincere belief that she would be reunited with her husband – my grandfather – who died nearly twenty-five years ago.  And that is an oddly comforting thought.

In my life, I have been fairly shielded from the deaths of loved ones.  My aforementioned grandfather (and namesake) passed mere months before my conception.  I’m not acquainted with my father’s side of the family, so any deaths thereof are meaningless to me as well.  None of my friends from school and elsewhere has died.  The worst I ever experienced were the losses of pets and distant relatives.  But this one, the death of my grandmother – it hits, and it hits hard.  I have, through the years, observed helplessly as so many of my friends suffered terrible losses and commenced periods of mourning and grief.  All those things had always been foreign concepts to me.  But I no longer need to imagine what they’re like.

I’m not asking for your sympathies or your condolences.  I’m simply honouring my grandmother’s memory.  There aren’t many things I believe in, but I do believe in respecting the dead and their wishes.  The departed have no voice, but we can ensure that they’re not condemned to oblivion by reminding others of their existence – by talking about them and sharing stories about them.  The ancient Egyptians had the notion of a “second death” – approximately seventy years after your corporeal death – when the world forgets you ever were.  This blog post is but one small effort of mine toward this end of allowing my grandmother to live on.

Normally, I wouldn’t share a loss like this on Facebook.  Like, ever.  I know all too well what happens.  I’ve seen it too many times to count.  Somebody makes a heartfelt post about how “the world has lost a beautiful person” and that the person “had such a positive effect on me,” blah, blah, blah.  Invariably, the post receives a slew of likes (or other reactions).  Most people will see the post pop up in their news feeds, think, “Oh, that’s so sad,” and resume scrolling and view some funny videos and memes that their other friends shared that day.  Maybe they’ll leave a comment with their regards.  But most of them are the brief, shallow, unoriginal cookie-cutter reliables like, “I’m sorry for your loss,” or, “My prayers are with you and your family.”  As if they are trying to express concern in the most efficient manner possible so that they can escape the guilt of not having said anything and still quickly get on with their own lives.  I don’t mean to sound cold, but don’t waste your time or mine with them.  Such condolences are about as mindless as the knee-jerk reaction of telling an armed forces veteran, “Thank you for your service,” and chances are that I will respond to your comment with as much sincerity and enthusiasm as you took to type it.

Yes, I am sad this week.  But hark!  I, Joseph Scott, the bereaved, hereby absolve you of any imagined obligation you may have to wish me your sympathies and/or condolences.

If I truly were looking for attention, you’d know.  Trust me.  After spending an entire summer pretending to be an impoverished, hungry beggar, I think I know a little about the art of making people feel sorry for me.

But I’m not.  Because I’m not doing this for me.  I’m doing this for my grandmother.

Huh.  I recall a conversation I had with her some time ago regarding old age.  I brought up that many older folks are just young people wondering what the hell happened.  They’re trapped inside bodies that weaken every day, and they wish they could reclaim the physical capabilities and attractiveness of their youth.  I asked for her opinion on the matter.

Her response?

She proclaimed, in the proudest, most indignant and resolute tone of voice, “I earned these wrinkles.”

What a champ.

Freddie Mercury…25 Years Later

Today, the 24th of November, 2016, marks the twenty-fifth freddie-diamondsanniversary of the passing of the legendary Freddie Mercury.  Yep – that’s a full quarter century without Freddie.

Best known as the flamboyant frontman of the rock band, Queen, Mercury boasted an impressive vocal range and power, which, coupled with his godlike stage presence, ensnared audiences.  He was the face of a musical juggernaut that, if not dominated, undoubtedly helped shape the progressive rock, glam rock and arena rock scenes throughout the ’70s and well into the ’80s.

Freddie was an accomplished songwriter, having penned and composed many of Queen’s greatest hits, including We Are the ChampionsKiller QueenSomebody to Love and, of course, the one song that every casual listener mentions when he claims to be a Queen fan, Bohemian Rhapsody.

fullsizerenderHe was also a capable instrumentalist (even if Freddie himself believed otherwise), as proven in his deft piano-playing heard on numerous Queen tracks.  He even knew his way around a guitar as well and would join his bandmates on rhythm guitar whenever his rockabilly number Crazy Little Thing Called Love was performed live.

Mercury was a stubborn perfectionist who settled for nothing short of immaculate in the studio, and he also made it clear to fans that he wasn’t afraid of trying new things, as one can tell by the distinct change in Queen’s sound in the ’80s (for better or for worse).  He was an artist who took risks and stuck to his guns.  And, while he appreciated the support for his earlier work and achievements, he was never overly-reverent to his past and understood the hazards of complacency as well as the importance of continuing to grow.

I discovered several years ago the dangers of blindly idolising people fullsizerender-1when I learnt some harsh truths about John Lennon and the way he lived his life.  This is why I take care in the manner in which I speak of Freddie Mercury.  It may sound almost hypocritical of me to say he is not to be worshipped, but merely honoured and respected – given how much I listen to Queen music and the fact that I dressed as Freddie for Halloween this year.  That being said, however, I can see how one might be tempted to glorify his being; he was, after all, truly awesome.  And it sucks that the word awesome has been severely weakened through overuse – but I invoke its strong, intended meaning; Freddie Mercury filled his audiences with tremendous awe.

Above all else, Freddie Mercury was a man.  A mortal man, subject to the same flaws that you and I possess.  Perhaps this fact makes him all the more admirable.  Unfortunately, as a human, he was also susceptible to the same diseases that plague people.

What’s remarkable is that, despite living within an increasingly frail body after being diagnosed with HIV in 1987, Freddie would continue to record music for four more years, providing material for Queen’s final three studio albums: The Miracle (1989), Innuendo (1991) and Made in Heaven, released posthumously in 1995.  In fact, he was still soldiering on mere months before he retired to his deathbed.  Queen’s lead guitarist, Brian May, said the following of his dying friend’s attitude during his final days of recording:

“He just kept saying, ‘Write me more.  Write me stuff.  I want to just sing this and do it and when I am gone you can finish it off.’  He had no fear, really.”

May also said the following of Freddie’s last vocal performance on the track Mother Love in the spring of 1991:

“He still had astonishing power in his lungs at that point.  I really don’t know where it came from.”

Freddie’s sheer willpower to press on and continue doing what he lived to do – and to do it well – in the face of his mortality is the ultimate “fuck you” to Death – and is that which earns him my respect.

It may or may not be common knowledge that the offstage Freddie Mercury was a stark contrast to his crafted stage persona, but I feel that it’s important to mention either way.  Freddie was quiet and shy when not performing – especially around people he didn’t know well (he rarely consented to interviews).  Throughout his life, he counted extremely few as “friends” and found it difficult to be close with others.  And details of his personal life are scarce because he was always tight-lipped about it.  These are all traits to which I effortlessly relate.  When I think of the great frontmen of rock history like Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey and Mick Jagger, I don’t feel with them the human connection I feel with Freddie Mercury.

Freddie Mercury would have been seventy years old this past September.  His ashes currently reside within the earth in a location known only to his sole lifelong friend, Mary Austin, who stole away from prying eyes two years after his cremation to ensure that his final resting place and remains would never be found and defiled by obsessive fans, per Freddie’s request.  Austin continues to honour this final wish and plans to take the secret of his whereabouts to her grave.

Now, I’m not big on supporting instituted holidays, but I’ll indulge the expectations of American society this Thanksgiving day to express my gratitude for the existence of this man, Freddie Mercury, and the exquisite music he created.  He’s helped me through a few bad days.

Thanks, Freddie.  Rest easy.


It wouldn’t be a Joseph Scott blog post if there weren’t some sort of list, am I right?  Sit tight, for I am about to educate you on good Queen music.  (Or leave – that’s fine, too.)  Welcome to Queen 101.

The following list includes some of the finest and most well-crafted – and least known to casual listeners – songs in the band’s catalogue.  Really, I could have simply included their first five albums, and that would have sufficed, but, in an effort to streamline this section, I’ve elected to pick out a mere ten roses within a garden of lilies.  I think you’ll find that these beauties aptly demonstrate the diversity and innovation in Queen’s music – and why it is foolish to attempt to categorise the band within a certain genre.

*For the best music quality, I recommend wearing headphones/earbuds.  That way every part is balanced the way it was intended in the studio.

Doing All Right – Queen (1973)

From their eponymous debut album, Doing All Right was written by Brian May and Tim Staffell while they were members of Smile, the band that would become Queen.  It features a gentle, floaty, piano-led first couple of verses before picking up the tempo at 1:50.  You can hear Freddie seem to channel Robert Plant as he sings, “Should be waiting for the sun/And anyway, I’ve got to hide away.”  Then, at 2:05, the reins are loosened, and the rest of the band commences the loud, guitar-driven hard rock section.  This song is a good example of Queen’s early Led Zeppelin-inspired sound.


Ogre Battle
– Queen II (1974)

A live favourite for several years, Ogre Battle was already well-established in the Queen repertoire by the time the band recorded its first album, but they decided to wait till their cleverly titled Queen II to record it, once they had more studio freedom.  This song opens with a gong hit played in reverse to give the rising sound effect before leading into a thrash metal guitar riff written by Freddie.  This song is literally about a fight between two ogres – songwriting doesn’t get much cooler than that.  May’s guitar work here is superb and complements the fantastical lyrics quite nicely.  Freddie’s ogre screams are also a lovely touch.


The March of the Black Queen
– Queen II (1974)

Queen II was all about trying new things.  You like Bohemian Rhapsody?  Think it was an important milestone in popular music, with its distinctive multi-part structure?  I’d like for you to meet BoRhap’s older brother, March of the Black Queen.  He’s darker.  Grittier.  Seen some shit.  Heavy, gloomy descending riffs from guitar drag you down to the hellish atmosphere of the chorus as you’re charmed by impish, shrieking vocal harmonies.  You’re given some time to breathe at three minutes in as Freddie delights you with a gorgeous piano ballad section, but at 4:20 the March resumes.  A smooth guitar outro seems to wind the song down to a peaceful conclusion at 6:06…Just kidding!  Jolting piano chords wake you as the song picks back up, only to be cut off after about twenty-five seconds; it segues into the next track on the album, Funny How Love Is.


Stone Cold Crazy
 
– Sheer Heart Attack (1974)

Whenever people tell me that Queen isn’t metal enough for them, I show them this song.  This is basically speed metal before it was cool.  It’s no surprise that Metallica covered this one.  Just listen for yourself.  Queen really could do it all.

39′ – A Night At the Opera (1975)

This science-fiction folk tune is one of my absolute favourites of any Queen song from any album.  Brian May – who has a PhD in astrophysics, mind you – sings of a group of twenty astronauts who embark on a space mission to search for a replacement planet for a dying Earth.  Their mission, while successful, is met with a melancholy revelation upon the explorers’ return.  Because of time dilation, their one-year voyage was an entire lifetime for those on Earth – and all their loved ones are either substantially aged or deceased.  The fact that Dr. May was able to convey all this in two brief verses is a testament to his songwriting capability, which I daresay is equal to, if not superior to Freddie’s.  I know – blasphemy.


The Prophet’s Song
– A Night At the Opera (1975)

While Night At the Opera is best-known for Freddie’s Bohemian Rhapsody and bassist John Deacon’s You’re My Best Friend, the unsung genius of this album was Brian May.  If Queen II was a college science experiment, then Opera was a peer-reviewed lab study.  By 1975, May was tinkering with studio effects to achieve new and unique sounds with his guitar and to alter vocals.  His composition, The Prophet’s Song, is a case in point and is a heavier number about a wise seer’s vision of a great flood that will wipe out civilisation.  Freddie’s singing of May’s haunting, apocalyptic lyrics is powerful and chilling, and the overlapping technique in the vocal section from 3:23 to 5:51 is pure ear candy.  Clocking in at nearly eight and a half minutes, it is the longest song in the Queen catalogue.  This fact, combined with a complex arrangement and excellent production values, makes it easy to see why kids love the taste of Cinnamon Toast Crunch fans often call Prophet’s Song Brian May’s Bohemian Rhapsody.


The Millionaire Waltz
– A Day At the Races (1976)

Criminally unknown masterpiece.  Freddie’s piano work and vocals, John Deacon’s bass lead, May’s guitar – everything is spot-on here.  It’s crisp and tidy.  The hard rock middle section from 2:21 to 2:47 never fails to give me chills.  I can’t think of a more enjoyable piece of popular music to which to waltz.


Sheer Heart Attack
– News of the World (1977)

You’d think that this track would be from the album of the same name from 1974.  Pfft.  Too mainstream.  Queen will put their music where they damn well please.  Stick it to the man, man.  Rebel against authority!

Drummer Roger Taylor hadn’t quite finished Sheer Heart Attack for the 1974 album, and it underwent significant musical changes in the next three years – namely the adoption of a punk sound, which had overtaken England by the late ’70s.  The funny part is that Taylor felt that many British punk bands lacked talent – and then proved that Queen can do it better.

Also, the squealing you hear around two and a half minutes in is simply guitar with an effect to make it high-pitched.  Your sound isn’t messed up.


Dreamer’s Ball 
– Jazz (1978)

I love the juxtaposition of the electric and acoustic guitars in this one.  Freddie’s singing is as charming as ever, complete with those sweet trademark Queen harmonies.


Innuendo
– Innuendo (1991)

Queen’s final masterpiece.  Inspired by Zeppelin’s Kashmir, this song employs a steady drum beat under a turbulent, rising wall of sound in its verses as an ailing Freddie Mercury provides a cynical social commentary with such phrases as, “While we live according to race, colour or creed…” and, “Our lives dictated by tradition, superstition, false religion…” only to be answered in a positive, anthemic chorus of Freddie wailing, “Oh, yes, we’ll keep on tryin’!” over May’s driving guitar melody.

After the second chorus, the song transitions to a softer sound for a spell before Yes guitarist Steve Howe comes in with a flamenco guitar chord progression.  Then, just shy of the four-minute mark, Freddie takes a page out of his old playbook and leads a brief operatic section, culminating in a fast, but meaty dual-guitar solo before returning to the theme for one more verse and chorus.  Eat your heart out, Bohemian Rhapsody.


Thus concludes today’s session of Queen 101.  See you next week.


Before I wrap this up, you might have noticed that, of all the songs I included, not one of them is from an ’80s Queen album.  Most are from the ’70s, with the last one being from the early ’90s.  There’s a good reason for that.  Let’s just say that Queen hit a rough patch from about 1980 to 1989.  They got it together by the end, though.

“But, Joseph, I thought you said that it’s good for artists to try new–”

THEY HIT A ROUGH PATCH, ALL RIGHT?

Of Sterling Worth

“Then raise a cup to Warwickshire, 

where fellowship we find.

And though we traverse wide the world,

our hearts remain behind.”

 

By May of 2015, my mother was growing weary of my unemployed state.  Annoyed, even.  She was living in Oswego at the time and had been strongly urging me to apply to work at the nearby Renaissance festival.  It was a sensible suggestion, as working there would allow me to exercise my community college-acquired basic acting and character techniques, and I would have a place to stay each weekend.  One problem, though.

Thitherto, I had passed my summers participating in “SummerStage” musicals at the Rome Capitol Theatre.  They were great fun and kept me busy in what is otherwise a lazy season of the year for me.  When I’m routinely getting cast in such entertainments, why would I leave my comfort zone and seek employment in a strange place?

In the year 2015, the musicals chosen were The Addams Family and Legally Blonde.  I don’t think I need to say any more.

I looked up the festival’s phone number online and proceeded to call it.  I scheduled a job interview for early June.  After I hung up, I noticed on the website a page outlining the responsibilities of the Bless the Mark Players, the paid troupe of actors of the Sterling Renaissance Festival.

Intrigued, I read everything on the webpage.  I hungrily took in every paragraph – every job detail – whilst attempting to construct a fantasy that auditions had not long come and gone.

Weeks later, back in reality, I somehow was deemed fit to work at Sterling and was hired as a gamer –  Master of the “Pyllow Fyghts,” to be precise.  And the Axe Throw for one weekend.

My  distinctive blue hat earned me the moniker “Master Blue Jay.”

As an employee, my duties were not unlike those of the actors; I was required, through maintaining character and dialect, to uphold the illusion that our patrons were in 1585 Warwick, England.  I even got to, on rare occasions, interact with some of the characters who happened by the Pyllow Fyght arena, which I was forbidden to leave throughout the nine-hour work day, save for on lunch break.  The Queen herself and her court even stopped by a few times and generated crowds for me in an area that otherwise received very little traffic.  I know not whether these characters visited me because they sincerely enjoyed interacting with me – or did so out of pity.  What I do know is that their presence meant the world to me on days marked by such a deprivation of human interaction – which was pretty much every day of the 2015 season for me.

There was something else of which I was certain.  I also knew that everything I witnessed during their visits with me – their quirky characters, their visible foibles and virtues, their unspoken inter-character conflicts, their chemistry, their camaraderie – I wanted those.

From the beginning of June through the middle of August of this year, I had the impossibly-overstated privilege of being a member of the Wyldewood Players for the Sterling Renaissance Festival’s 40th season.

Cast as the lowest of the low (or so I believed), I was on board as one of three “mud beggars.”  (We all learnt in a styles lesson that, because beggars required a licence from the church, they were technically of station higher than those of the ne’er-do-wells such as highwaymen and pirates, who were outside the law.  Not that anybody in his right mind would bow to a person covered head to toe with mud.)

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Pretend it’s chocolate.

So, yeah.  Mud.  I worked in mud.  A lot of it.  We three beggars were responsible for the renowned “mud shows” each weekend.  The whole premise of “Theatre in the Ground” (a clever play on the phrase “theatre in the round”) is that these low-lives have likely heard pieces of well-known stories and perform bastardised retellings of them at the town mud pit (don’t ask me why there is a town mud pit), all the while becoming progressively filthy.  The mud show’s description in the festival programme aptly reads, “Classic tales told by idiots in a mud pit.”

The tales this season were the classic Dante’s Inferno, which has been a mud show staple for years, and the all-new The Prodigal Son, which I and the other two beggars helped our instructor write.  It’s a great feeling to know that I contributed material to one of the festival’s most lauded attractions.  It was an even better feeling whenever audiences laughed at the stuff I added.  Now, truth be told, I didn’t add a tremendous amount to the script, but I did manage to put in a brilliantly terrible pun.

The mud pit itself (which we affectionately called “Cressida”) was a character of its – *ahem* – her own.  She was high maintenance.  She required watering between every faire weekend (sometimes on the weekends) and constantly accrued twigs and rocks and grass and other undesirables and needed them removed, lest we cut ourselves up lunging into her belly-first.  And don’t even get me started on the wildlife that persistently tried to call her their home and sometimes even made guest appearances on our shows.  Who knew that maintaining a hole filled with mud was so much work?

I did not live on site.  I was one of five guys staying in a house in Oswego about fifteen minutes away, while the rest of the cast stayed in lofts on the festival grounds.  Our humble urban abode was swiftly dubbed the “Bearded Bungalow,” an alliterative reference to the fur upon all five of our faces.  (That number became four within a week because the actor playing the mayor’s son was mandated to be clean-shaven.)

The actor who came up with the name also took it upon himself to do some complementary illustrating on a piece of plywood, which rested nicely above our doorway.

It was a trade-off, living at the Bungalow.  We didn’t need to worry about getting eaten alive by flies, gnats and mosquitoes like our wood-locked cohorts did.  Got a surprise bowel movement in the middle of the night?  Bathroom’s just down the hall – couldn’t say

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Feels good, man.

the same for our friends who had to grab a flashlight and walk hundreds of feet to the privies.  All the other basic amenities (i.e., running water, kitchen, washer and dryer) were also readily accessible for us, and living in the city meant that supply stores (mainly Walmart) and restaurants and bars were either within walking distance or a short drive away.  Leaks were virtually nonexistent.

 

There were real downsides, though.  Living off-site meant waking earlier for rehearsals, and the money that we weren’t spending on insect repellent went toward fuel for our cars, which we exhausted more rapidly because we were always

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Feels bad, man.

commuting.  And while our castmates could easily run to their lofts on break should they need something at rehearsal, the Bungalow Boys had no such luxury.  We were up that proverbial creek without a paddle if we forgot something in Oswego – like our lunches or extra jackets.  And, yes, you read that correctly – jackets.  The second week of rehearsals in June was so windy and cold that we had people in winter coats and others huddled together under blankets.  As for the less provident (like me)?  Sucks to suck.

The worst part about living off-site, however, was that the festival grounds never really felt like home to me.  Having to drive there always meant that I was eventually going to depart that same day.  I had no dwelling, no sleeping place on site.  Everything felt borrowed.  Foreign, even.  The buildings, trees, lanes, critters and sounds of nature there – our playing area known as Warwick – I didn’t get to live among them.  I merely visited them.  This fact made it difficult for me to establish that vital connection between character and space.

The other worst part was the tangible disconnect from the rest of the cast.  The goings-on on site were often irrelevant to me because of my absence.  I think I missed out on a great deal of bonding in the crucial early days of June.  Of course, our living apart wasn’t as consequential the first few weeks because we were, for the most part, either together rehearsing or sleeping.  But come July and more free time, our segregation was more felt.  This was only exacerbated by the fact that there was no Wi-Fi at the Bungalow and spotty or nonexistent cell phone service on festival grounds, severely limiting communication between the two residences.  We five in Oswego truly felt cut off at times.

(To give you an idea of just how out of the loop I was without web access, I would never have known that Pokémon GO had released had I not been told, and I wasn’t aware until I returned to Rome in mid-August that Harambe had become a meme.)

On a side note, there was a silver lining to the lack of Wi-Fi where we lived.  For weeks, I was able to enjoy life without being a slave to social media.  Didn’t need to worry about matters and petty drama back in my hometown.  Didn’t need to worry about other obligations and checking my e-mail all the time.  Life was simpler for a little while.  I went for walks around the beautiful port city that is Oswego.  I toured the maritime district and watched the tranquil descent of the warm sun over the horizon.  And evenings without Internet access forced me to come up with another way to occupy my time till I was ready to sleep; upon the suggestion of one of my castmates, I kept a journal.  I have an entry for every single day from mid-June to mid-August chronicling my experiences, my feelings, my awkward moments, everything.

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We rehearsed all day, six days a week throughout June, resting Saturdays.  A typical day of rehearsal included workshops in character development, imagination, improvisation and language/styles led by various instructors; in the latter half of the month, more focus was brought to street encounters and scripted small group scenarios (e.g., the “Trial and Dunke,” the mud shows, the “Queen’s Duel,” etc.).  We began each day with yoga-inspired physical warmups, followed by vocal warmups, followed by the rehearsal of several period-ish songs from our extensive repertoire, any five of which plus “Auld Lang Syne” we performed at the end of every faire day for the “Final Pub Sing.”

As you might have guessed, the language workshops were my favourite.  It was one of the few times during the rehearsal day when I felt knowledgeable and felt like I had some merit as a member of the cast.  It was liberating to be able to take my sweet time forming my sentences, embellishing every detail with fancy, exciting parlance as the Elizabethans did – and to revere each word as if every mundane utterance were the most important statement to pass through my lips.  It was satisfying to speak with such precision and puissance – to say exactly what I mean and to do so with authority.  In essence, I was finally in an environment where I was encouraged to speak as I write and not the other way round.

My sole disappointment with regard to language is that we were not taught Original Pronunciation (OP), the general accent of the Elizabethans and the way Shakespeare’s plays would have sounded when they were first performed.  (I discussed OP a bit in my blog post from April.)  In lieu of a more historically accurate accent, we were taught three distinct dialects: upper class, which was spoken by the Queen and her court and a couple officials in Warwick and bears great similarity to posh modern-day English accents; country, which is spoken by the working/middle class denizens of Warwick and blends elements of Scottish, Irish and Cornish and is the closest we had to OP; and lower class, which was spoken by the poor, uneducated and vagabonds and resembles Cockney speech.

 The rationale for eschewing OP in favour of these three dialects is twofold and understandable: it was 1) to give variety to the speech of characters and to make their stations more apparent and 2) to strike a balance between sounding historically accurate and what the typical American patron believes is a period English accent.  All this being said, however, at least I can say that, despite phonological anachronism, all three dialects employed Elizabethan idiom, that is, vocabulary and phrases and sentence structure that were of the period.  It’s all about making it sound just different enough to be entertaining to the audience without compromising intelligibility.

Improv kicked my arse.  The lessons I was taught at Sterling often contradicted the purposes of acting games from college, and partaking in the improv exercises was an ordeal and far more stressful than it should have been.  I should have been eager and restless to stand up and participate when a new group was requested.  But I wasn’t.  I felt like every action I did and every sentence I bullshitted was wrong and fucking up the scene for everybody else, especially when I was receiving no reactions from those watching.  Which made me doubt what I said or did, which made me lose confidence in myself and made me distrusting of my scene partners, which then made my choices in future improv work reserved and feeble – and thus creating a vicious circle of poor improvising that saw, at best, meagre improvement in two and a half months.

In retrospect, I believe that my biggest block, at least on faire days, was my prioritisation of language over character and creating entertaining interaction with patrons and other characters.  I probably could have sacrificed sentence perfection just to get a few more damn words and ideas out before I lost the interest of those around me.  I’ll shamelessly give myself some credit, however, and say that I tended to excel with small groups and in simply engaging them in casual conversation.  Too bad these encounters went largely unnoticed.

Despite my shortcomings, I did not walk away from Sterling unequipped.  The single, most important thing to do during improv that I can advise is to listen.  Relax and listen to your scene partner – and trust him.  Other things to keep in mind are letting go of preconceived ideas – if your scene partner (or a patron) makes you an unexpected offer, do not cling to your vision of how the scene should play out and just go with it; do not ask questions unless it provides meaningful information (questions dump responsibility on the other person); do not negate information (if your scene partner says you’re married, then you are married!); make strong, specific assumptions (giving yourself a character helps immensely); remember that not everything needs to be funny; and, finally, stop talking about doing a thing and start doing the thing.

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I can’t help but feel also that the job would’ve been easier as a seven-year-old.  I’m only half-joking.  One of the fundamentals of interactive theatre is fierce imagination and spontaneous creativity.  When you endow patrons (give them names and occupations like “Robert the Blacksmith” and assign a relationship between them and your own character), it is not unlike assigning special roles to your parents and siblings and friends when you were a young child playing make-believe.  Our wise director did tell us one day at rehearsal that a lot of what we do at Sterling does not require learning, but unlearning.  Unlearning societally-indoctrinated impediments to our imagination gained during the transition to adulthood.  Much of my education this summer was better described as a reversion to more juvenile tendencies such as speaking before thinking (as opposed to thinking before we speak) and not asking for permission.

My character had a troubled upbringing.  Not in his reality, but mine.  Developing the beggar, Peter, was a struggle for me.  I sought to avoid clichés and to bring something a little bit more fascinating to the table.  I ultimately succeeded, but there was a very alarming lack of progress until a few days shy of opening weekend.  Even then, though, I would have to say objectively that Peter, overall, was a weakly designed character within the context of the festival.  There were certainly creative nuances about him, but his richest, most exciting and engrossing aspects I quickly found to be virtually unplayable to an audience.

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Behold Peter, the rockiest mendicant in Warwick.  (Photo credit: Andrew Lesny)

Still, many people, castmates and patrons alike, took a liking to Peter, if only for his superficial and behavioural features.  There was something oddly charming about that quiet, leaf-munching, stick-gathering beggar.  I and my mud-brothers were commended frequently for how well our characters contrasted with and complemented each other.  Each beggar was distinct in speech, posture, gait, demeanour and activity, and yet we worked so well together.  Though I did not achieve everything I wanted with my character, at least I can rest with the satisfaction of knowing that nobody else can ever play Peter exactly the way I did.

I must confess that I’m getting a little choked up, typing all this.  There are so many more things I could talk about, but this post is long enough as it is (approaching three thousand words upon composition of this paragraph).  Yet, in bringing this post to an end, I feel that I’m finally putting my time at Sterling to rest, despite having left over a month ago.  How fitting that I publish this at the beginning of fall – now that the revels of summer have ended and I must from my dream awake.

I wish I could tell you about all the belly-grippingly hilarious moments from rehearsal.  About all our inside jokes.  About the goofiness of social events like Christmas in July.  About how we would all sing along to Lost Boy7 Years and I’m Gonna Be, the songs in our warmups playlist every morning.  About how good it felt to see the joy and delight we brought to our patrons displayed upon their visages after a faire day.  About the admirable loyalty of our die-hard “Rennies” and Family/Friends of Faire as they accompanied us on our adventures every weekend.  About the inexpressible magic of performing and getting drenched alongside my boon companions amidst a deluge on the final weekend.

But even if the length of this post weren’t an issue, I’m not sure that I could sufficiently articulate such ideas.  You would think that an entire summer of practicing heightened speech craftsmanship would render me capable in such an endeavour, but the aforementioned items are things to be experienced, rather than recounted.  My words simply would not do them justice.

I thought arriving the 2nd of June was tough.  I was on edge, making sure I had everything before I hopped in my car, all the while dreading living in a strange place with people I had yet to meet.  Wondering what rehearsals would be like.

Packing up the 15th of August was even tougher.  I couldn’t fold a few shirts without having to sit back down on my bed and breaking down in tears.  I kept my weeping private for the sake of my roommates.  It was a hard afternoon for me.

I miss the routine.  The simplicity.  The certainty that I was going to see my friends at rehearsal the next day.

When I started writing this post, I was sure that I wanted to end it with the festival’s parting phrase, “Merry meet, merry part and merry meet again.”  But that makes it sound like it’s going to be a long time before that happens.  I don’t even know whether I’ll be on cast next year; that’s largely out of my control.

So, thank you all for reading this whale of a post.  Thank-you to those of you who made the trip out to Sterling to support me in what may have been a flash in the pan.  And, to my family in Warwick…

See you tomorrow.

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