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Throw Away The Script

I played the Moisture Festival last weekend. Nothing special, no headlining, no stage time, just another peon in the orchestra pit, second trombone in a two-player section. I brought my music. I even read it, sometimes. We accompanied jugglers, acrobats, clowns, dancers, aerialists, rope twirlers and a lot of so forth. Just another weird show.

A weird show with very sharp teeth. Unique in the Northwest, possibly in the country, the Moisture Festival is a celebration of a peculiar and at this point even venerable performing style which, despite its venerability, is still The Fun Stuff That Dares Not Speak Its Name. Street Theater? New Vaudeville? Comedy/Varieté? Whatever it is, people are doing it all over the place, and one of the marks of our breed (and yes, I do include myself, however humbly, in this assemblage) is our propensity to get together and boogie down.

The MF falls into a category of event that I'm passing fond of: parties disguised as public entertainments. While there are many activities that can be thought of as chiefly recreational even though they carry the trappings of profession (from my own field of expertise, a t-shirt slogan springs to mind: "No home. No job. No money. No girlfriend. But I'm in a band!"), the true uniting of one's vocation and one's avocation cannot be said to be complete until one has attended one's designated Shriner's Convention, complete with silly hats and miniature tricycles on parade. Nothing characterizes vaude nouveau fetes so much as their propensity to keep all the good parts backstage and between shows, including but not necessarily limited to bad jokes, muttered asides, mutual admiration, illicit assignations, ritual vegetable sacrifices and the crew feed. Not to mention beer.

There certainly isn't much else that serves to excuse the preposterous amount of work that goes into duct-taping and silly-puttying this dog and pony extravaganza together. Precariously staged by a skeleton staff and and an army of volunteers, the MF (that's a joke, son) manages to pack its beer-warehouse amphitheater, pay all its performers (everyone gets an equal share, even if it isn't exactly a professional wage) and even — gasp! — break even. Every year it's gotten bigger, wilder, weirder, and more popular. It must be love, cause it sure ain't business.

It can therefore be happily reported that one of the sterling features of both the onstage acts and the music that lures them on and consequently drives them off again at Moisture Fest is their emergent quality. While schedules, cues and timetables are dutifully tabulated and posted, the moment-to-moment conformance of the actual show to such paper and whiteboard conventions might charitably be characterized as approximate or even creative, in the spirit of the old military adage that battle plans seldom survive the first five minutes of combat. I myself contribute to this by forthrightly playing everything from memory, especially the pieces I've never heard. It's in my contract.

Far too many conventional theatrical professionals (on the managerial side, at least) consider timely accuracy as the ideal trait of their craft. For such overly-evolved creatures, the ideal performer would be the Tin Woodsman (heart by appointment only, additional charges may apply). Their wish has been granted in the clattering behemoths of Cinema, Radio, Television and Records (they're Super BFF-Bots!), relentless in their consistency and ruthless in their perfection. Legions of talent from the days of Keith time on down, if not the rites of Apollo, would unite in their opinion that the bosses caught exactly what they had coming. Unfortunately, those same talents are the ones left trying to cook up some soup with that Chinese-manufactured rubber chicken they were left holding when the robots came to town while the El Perfecto squad throws an all-night bash for their new automated overlords.

It's inevitable that a post-media culture attempting to redefine live performance is gonna go looking for a different primrose path to lead the audience astray along. In the words of a local mod-burlesque troupe (which I've quoted before, yes, thank you for noticing), you gotta give em "a little something they can't get at home." Especially given the presence in that home of not just a radio or tv or two or ten but Lo! <DonPardo> A MAGNIFICENT HOME THEATER INSTALLATION COMPLETE WITH WIDE-SCREEN PANEL TV AND HD-DVD PLAYER WITH 5.1 SOUND AND WIRELESS REMOTE!!!!</DonPardo>, plus any amount of iPods and Playstations scattered aimlessly about. Even if there's still 500 channels and nothing's on.

In my humble opinion (humble? Me? BWAhahahahah!), the chief genius and triumph of the Big Vaudeville Revival of the 70's was that it not only incorporated (mostly out of necessity) improvisatory design tactics but even managed to meld them into its esthetic, so thoroughly in some cases that acts that could rip open the swollen wallets of legions of screaming passers-by in the fetid depths of craft fairs and costume festivals across the length and breadth of the land fell flatter than unsalted matzo when confined and constrained to the ungaffed straitjacket of legit theater.

O'course, even the most irregular entertainer is subject to the limitations of the flesh. Nobody ever does everything different every time. It's not humanly possible. Charlie Parker used to grab horse and buggy rides through Central Park and lie on dumpsters staring up at the stars between sets, just to keep his inspiration up. And as those peerless philosophers of the boards the Flying Karamazov Brothers were quick to (repeatedly) inform us, "There's more to the theater than repetition — but not much."

Still, it's a great day in lockstep America when a style born of rebellion and wild creativity grows (or maybe mutates) into yet another niche culture blooming rank and wild in the cracks of an ever-more-deadened mainstream, hanging with the unreformed punks and goths (hippies even!), the cracked painters and the avant installers and all the rest, surviving failure and success (with a capital sucks) in equanimity and grace. Abiding.

Improvising — it ain't just for musicians anymore!

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