Don Fried — Playwright & Author

Posts Tagged ‘Darwin

I was listening to NPR on the car radio while I was driving to the theater tonight for my last performance as Darwin in the Lincoln/Darwin plays.  There was a piece about Hillary Clinton exchanging gifts with her Russian diplomatic counterpart.  It seems she tried to give him a “reset” button, as a tongue-in-cheek fillip for both countries to reset their relationship.  Except the State Department folks got the word wrong — Russian is one tough language — and instead of using the Russian word for “reset,” they used the word for “overcharge.”

It got me thinking of the classic marketing blunders that I collected during my years in international business.  Here are some of my favorites.

When Coca-Cola first came to China, there were hundreds of ways that the words “Coca-Cola” could be rendered in Chinese.  (Chinese is a tonal language, with five tone levels.  A four syllable word can be pronounced 5 to the 4th power ways.)  It turned out that the one that sounded best to the ears of the American boss, and the one which was used for the introduction of the product in China, meant either “bite the wax tadpole,” or “pregant horse.”  The Chinese employees were too polite to tell the boss what he had done, and sales of “Bite the Wax Tadpole Cola” were — well, let’s just say they were less than forecast.

Eventually, someone told him what was going on, and they changed the name to something that sounded identical to him, but meant “nectar of the gods, you will have a thousand sons.”  Sales skyrocketed, and the rest is history.

When Ford introduced the Pinto in Brazil, there were few sales to men.  It turns out that Pinto is Brazilian Portugese slang for “small penis.”

Another Brazilian marketing blunder was made by Waterman pens.  At the time, Waterman’s U.S. advertising slogan was, “It won’t leak and embarrass you.”  The translator wasn’t all that good in Portugese and used the word, “embarrazer.”  Sounds like “embarrass,” doesn’t it?  Wrong.  It means “to make pregnant.”  So until the advertising program was changed, Waterman pens in Brazil wouldn’t “leak and make you pregnant.”

Remember the old Coors advertising campaign, “Turn it loose.”  The translator for a South American ad campaign didn’t understand just what the benefits of the product were, and Coors was released with a campaign to help people move their bowels.

I’ve got hundreds more, but I’ve got to get to into my Darwin costume now and start practicing my phony British accent.

500-pound-gorilla3When I was a kid, I was so focused on what I was doing and what I wanted, that I tended to ignore everyone who I didn’t think would be of immediate use to me. All too frequently, that resulted in my footprints being on people’s foreheads. Yeah, I was a self-centered jerk!

Now I spend a lot more time trying to be nice – or at least helpful – to everyone. Mind you, I’m still not what most Boulderites would define as a nice (read “enlightened”) person. I’m not nearly enthusiastic enough holding hands and singing Kumbaya for that. It’s just that the older I get, the more evidence I see that “What goes around comes around.”

Don’t get the idea that I believe in divine justice, either. But if there are lots of people who “owe you one” then sooner or later, some of it is going to be repaid. And since it’s a mighty complex world out there, you never know who it is who can do something nice for you, so you’d better be nice to everyone.

And the converse is true. If you are an asshole to enough people, it’s bound to come back to haunt you. (See my gloating post, “May they all get halitosis . . .”)

What brings this to mind today is a column by John Moore, the theater columnist of the Denver Post. He came to see Friday night’s performance of “Separated at Birth: The Lincoln/Darwin Plays. (My play, “The Debate” is one of the works in “Separated at Birth” and I’m acting the part of Darwin in it.) I’d expected to see a review of the plays in the Sunday paper, but instead there was a piece about the fact that at the recent Colorado New Play Summit, a panel of theater leaders from throughout the U.S. had spoken with such delight about the impending fall from power of theater critics in traditional print news media. (“Death of Criticism: Careful What You Wish For”)  Moore calls it “grave-stomping,” and part of the piece details the many benefits that critics provide the theater community.

I tend do agree with him, but I can certainly understand the reaction of the panelists. Theater critics are renowned for being frequently brutal in their reviews of plays and the people who create them. Either they have had so little regard for those people that they just don’t care, or they thought that this is the way to sell more newspapers and magazines. Probably both.

Contrast this with a critic who has reviewed several of my plays (to avoid being accused of pandering, I won’t mention his name). That critic always manages to be gently even-handed in his reviews, pointing out the good along with the bad. The audience gets the idea, but even when a review of my play was less than glowing, I couldn’t help but feel fairly treated and supportive of the columnist.  That’s just to show that there is an alternative to brutality in theater criticism.

But that’s the exception, rather than the rule, and now that print media is in crisis, there are seems to be an inexhaustible supply of people lining up in gleeful anticipation of stomping on the graves of the theater critics.

So let that be a lesson to all you 500 pound gorillas, you muscle-bound beach bullies. All the rest of us may be 98 pound weaklings today. But you may not 500 pounds and muscle-bound forever.

the-debate-3The opening of my play, “The Debate,” about Charles Darwin was this past Saturday night.  I’m playing the role of Darwin in it.  That’s me, hamming it up in the picture.

When Madge Montgomery, the Artistic Director of the Theater Company of Lafayette, spoke to me about submitting a script for their Lincoln/Darwin play festival (Lincoln and Darwin were both born on February 12th, 1809), I knew relatively little about either man.  Having lived 20 years in England, I was more intrigued with the idea of writing something about Darwin, and I had a feeling that more of the submissions were going to be about Lincoln.   So I went on-line and spent about 15 hours reading everything I could find on Darwin, his family, his colleagues, Victorian England, ….  Then I headed off to the University of Colorado library and got out Darwin’s autobiography, as well of that of Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s protege and self-proclaimed “bulldog.”

When I started the research, I didn’t have any idea what I was going to write about.  One thing that I was certain of was that I didn’t want to write about the controversy over whether or not evolution is scientifically valid.  (Of course it is.  Sorry, Creationists.)

But since I’ve started as a playwright, I’ve found that when I immerse myself in a subject, something invariably presents itself that has to be written.

In this case, I soon became caught up in Darwin’s description of his relationship with Huxley.  Darwin had formulated the bases of the theories of evolution and natural selection by the time he was 29, but he realized what social, religious and political dynamite he was dealing with.  So he spent the next 20 years gathering more evidence and biding his time.  Then a colleague named Wallace sent him a letter with many of the same ideas, and Darwin rushed “Origin of Species” out in a few months.  A year later an impromptu debate occurred at the Oxford Museum of Natural History pitting the supporters of evolution against the Creationists.   Darwin, who was ill and house-bound most of his life, wasn’t at the debate, but Huxley was and defended Darwin’s theories.

In Darwin’s autobiography, he talks about how he would constantly chide Huxley for being so aggressive in attacking everyone who dared to question his (Darwin’s) theories.  In contrast, Darwin was deeply into being a gentleman scientist and believed in dealing civilly with everyone.

The action of my play occurs a few weeks after the Oxford Debate, when Huxley comes to Darwin’s house to tell him about what had transpired.  And the “Debate” of the title refers to both the Oxford Debate and the heated debate that Darwin and Huxley engage in on a scientist’s responsibility to take into account the potential impact of his discoveries before making them public.

Thoughtful stuff for a loose cannon like me, who has a habit of deciding what he thinks needs to be done and declares “Full speed ahead,” huh?

The next day, I did a gig as Darwin at a Unitarian Universalist service in the area.  The Unitarians, and the Universalists in particular, claim Darwin as one of their own.  After speaking with the Reverend, I made up an extract from the play that seemed relevant to the theme of their service.  In costume and with my phony British accent coming and going, I addressed the congregation.  They seemed to enjoy it, and it was a real kick for me.

I’d never been to a Unitarian service before, and I must say that it was a revelation for me.  Much of what I heard was what has been going through my head for the last 50 years.  It was a lot like coming home after a lifetime away.

After the service, a woman came up to me and said that she thought she’d worked with me many years earlier.  It turned out that we had trained together in Chicago in January, 1974 (!!!) before flying together to Iran and teaching English as a Foreign Language in Tehran for the Iranian army.  (See “Up close and personal — with your chicken thighs” and “Banging on doors, yelling ‘Those Bastards.’ “)

Small world, huh?  Amazing that she’d recognize me after all these years.  I guess it’s because I’m succeeding in my obligation to live forever and stay young and beautiful all that time.  On the other hand, I do have a painting in the attic that’s getting old and ugly!

kill-bill

The day before yesterday I went to the theater for a costume fitting for the role of Darwin in my play, “The Debate.” I told the theater’s artistic director about the latest award for Shakespeare Incorporated. I then made a comment to her similar to the one I included at the end of yesterday’s post. I’m afraid I delivered it with a great deal of animosity and more than a few expletives.  “I hope those &^#$%$# @!#$*#s at the XXX playwright’s club that wouldn’t let me in last year are feeling really stupid!”

“You shouldn’t focus on revenge,” she responded. “You should be happy about what you’ve accomplished.”

It got me to thinking. She was right, of course. It can’t be healthy for me to work for six months on a play, and then spend a year or more marketing it, primarily for the purpose of exacting petty revenge on people who never cared about me to begin with, and have certainly long since forgotten the offense they gave me.

It can’t be healthy, but I’m afraid it’s a large part of what inspires me and why I write. (Along with it enabling me to be “Large and In Charge.”)

I’m one of those after-the-fact geniuses. Come on, admit it, you are too! After any sort of confrontation or unpleasant situation, I start “shoulding” all over myself as I think of all the clever things I should have said or done. (“Shoulding” is pronounced disconcertingly similarly to “shitting”.)

“I should have told him to [Clever Response 1].”

“No, I should  have [Clever Response 2].”

“What I really should have said was [Clever Response 4,873].”

It goes on for days or weeks. Or years. And the more I feel that someone has won a point on me, or even worse, given me a personal affront, the longer I’m going to obsess over it.

Given that I can’t help myself and am going to obsess about it anyway, being productive and creative to achieve revenge seems to be a more mature, socially acceptable alternative than, say, putting burning bags of feces on their porches and ringing their doorbells at 3 a.m.

I’ll give you an example.  The first short play that I wrote was presented in a single performance at a fringe festival in February, 2007. Note that when I write I spend hours working on every line of dialog to get them perfect.  But the actors in my play were either unwilling or incapable of learning the lines. At some point, I imagine they had probably read the script, but they seemed determined just to take the general idea and ad lib their way through the play. When they questioned a line at the end of the second scene that didn’t make sense, my response was often, “Of course it doesn’t make sense. It might have if you’d used even some of the lines that I wrote for the first scene!”

The lead male was the worst offender. In addition to being unable to remember the lines, he had a crippling case of stage fright.  It might have been helpful if he had told us about that before we cast him!

Then, 36 hours before the performance, he showed up to a rehearsal with a machete and threatened to start “cutting” people. The director immediately fired him and went out and bought a shotgun. I ended up having to play the part myself, which I couldn’t come near to perfecting on such short notice. In the performance, one of the other actors had a wardrobe malfunction and didn’t come out on time, so the rest of us stood around like idiots for what seemed like hours.  Overall, it was a nightmare.

On the airplane flying back to Denver the next morning, I was so angry and upset that I realized that I was either going to kill somebody or I was going to have to find some other way to exact revenge. So I came up with the concept for Red Herring, and the first outline was done before the plane landed. In Red Herring a frustrated playwright starts playing dirty tricks on the cast and crew of his latest production. But the tricks all go drastically wrong, and the victims are more seriously injured than the playwright had intended. The lead actor of the “play within the play” is the one who bears the brunt of the damage.

Red Herring is having its world premiere in June, 2009. Of course I’m excited about having a new play produced, but it will be particularly satisfying to see that lead actor take it on the chin again and again.

There is an old Afghani saying that has made it into Western culture in numerous books and movies.  “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” I say, serve it hot or serve it cold, but make them EAT IT!

“Wanted: actor to play homeless man for 2 hours Saturday morning. No pay, but you can eat lunch with us afterward.”  That’s what the email read. It was sent to everybody on the mailing list for the University of Colorado’s Department of Theatre & Dance.

With the beard that I’m growing for my upcoming role as Darwin, I realized that I certainly looked the part. As a sometime actor, being convincing as a homeless person sounded like an interesting challenge.  And as a playwright and author, I find it useful to experience as many different situations as possible. So I emailed back. “I’m a 57 year old actor, with grey hair and a scraggly grey beard. Attached is a JPEG. Let me know if you want me.”

A few hours later, back came a response. “We’re a Christian student group on campus and we’re doing a series of exercises that we’re hoping will help our students get a better understanding of what it means to be a man.  (Not that any of us organizing the event have it all figured out, but hey you have to start somewhere, right?)  The exercise I want your help with is about ‘accepting responsibility.’  Normally this means accepting responsibility for living a “moral” life and looking out for your friends, and that’s good, but I want to expand that idea.  The participants are going to have a short time to get from on place to another.  I’ll also give them a “hindrance,” like tying two guys’ ankles together.  I’d like you to dress as a homeless person and position yourself somewhere on their route. Make up a compelling story, and when they come by, ask for their help in taking you somewhere out of their way.”

At 10:30 the next morning I was sitting on a low concrete wall on the appointed route. I was dressed in some ratty old clothes that I normally use for painting around the house, and had my cover story devised and rehearsed. Along came four students, two of them with their ankles tied together. I kept my eyes down until they were opposite me.

“Hey, could you guys help me for a second?” I asked, half looking up. With barely a glance, they walked past. Strike one, but I figured they deserved a second chance. “I could really use some help,” I pleaded after them, my voice cracking. One of them stopped and looked back. The others stopped a few steps further on. “You go on. We’ll catch up” the one who had stopped said to the two tied together.   They hurried on, and he and the fourth student came back to me.

“I’ve been staying at the Homeless Shelter on North Broadway, and I was supposed to meet somebody at a place called Half-Fast Subs to talk about a job painting houses. I walked five miles down here, but someone told me that I’d gone a block too far. Now I’m feeling really bad and I’m afraid I’m going to pass out if try to make it back on my own.

“Do you want us to walk you over there?” asked my benefactor? Bingo! “That would be great,” I responded. “I don’t want to fall and crack my head open.” I put an arm around each of their shoulders, and we set off, followed by the stares of dozens of curious passersby.

They walked me to my destination, about a block and a half away, while I told them the sad story of my life. I used to own a painting contracting business, but I’d had some bad luck and …” We reached Half Fast, where they dropped me off, and they ran off to catch up with their colleagues.

“God bless you,” I called after them.

An hour later, changed into regular clothes, I walked up to the picnic table in a nearby park where the four students and their mentors they were having lunch. They smiled at me without recognition, and then four jaws dropped in unison. I introduced myself, and the event organizer explained what had gone on.   Then we discussed the exercise and all agreed that both missions had been accomplished – theirs and mine.

don-as-unaccompanied-minor

Don as a "grey-bearded, homeless, unaccompanied-minor" in one of the cartoons from "Ups & Downs"

I guess it’s natural to yearn for things you can’t have, and my yearning for a beard goes way back.

I was fairly late going through puberty, and even when it finally arrived I wasn’t all that good at it. So while my high-school and college friends were all displaying manly five-o’clock shadows and growing impressive full beards, I was cultivating 6 or 7 straggly hairs on my chin.  When those hairs got long enough that they curled up on each other several times, I could almost kid myself into thinking that what I had was a beard.  But then some young lady that I thought was attracted to me would make a disparaging remark about my “Sillygoat scruff,” and reality would set in with a bang.

Fortunately, moustaches can be made up of 6 or 7 really long, straggly hairs — or so I imagined — so by the time I was 23, I decided to abandon my beard attempts and try my luck with a moustache.  (By this time, Rhonda and I had left Iran and moved to Germany, where I was teaching English as a Foreign Language to American soldiers.  Yes, you read that right.  But that’s another story.)  Within a short time, however, it was evident that 6 or 7 really long, straggly hairs on my upper lip didn’t look much better than 6 or 7 really long, straggly hairs had on my chin.

Then I discovered moustache wax!  I bought a big pot of the stuff and a tiny brush, and devoted much of each day to dipping the brush into the pot and stroking my upper lip horizontally away from my nose in both directions.  And when I wasn’t dipping and brushing, I was pulling and twisting.  All day long — dip, stroke, pull, twist; dip, stroke, pull twist.  Very therapeutic, really.  It gives you something socially acceptable to do with your hands when you get nervous.

And it worked!  After 4 or 5 months, I had what appeared to be a respectable handle-bar moustache.  OK, it was mostly dark brown goo, but that wasn’t obvious to anyone who kept their hands off my face.  Boy, was I proud of that moustache.

One morning, though, I didn’t pay attention when I was shaving my lower lip and cheeks, and when I looked up, the tip of one side of my pride and joy was gone!  Nooooo!  I trimmed the other side to match it, but got it too short.  Back to the first side.  Back to the other.  Back.  Forth.  By the time I finished, I had a nice little Charlie Chaplin (Hitler!) moustache in the center of my lip.  That wasn’t exactly the thing for an American to have on his face in Germany in 1975, so off it came.

The next year, I started work for a computer company that had a rule against facial hair, and for the next 20 years, my urge to grow a beard was frustrated.  But unbeknownst to me, by the time I was in my early 40s, all those little hormones that had been so recalcitrant in my youth had finally decided to pay me a visit.  And when my company lifted the ban on facial hair, I went on a beard-growing orgy that lasted  — well, it’s still going on.

Rhonda has always hated beards, and generally refuses to get too close when I’ve got one.  So every year or so, I shave, get a fix of affection, and then grow the beard again.  Now that we live apart most of the year, it’s not so much of an issue.

don-beard-1

A tanned, bearded Don at the end of the trek through the Alps

Usually, I keep the whole affair reasonably neatly trimmed.  But a few weeks ago we started rehearsing a play that I wrote on Charles Darwin (see the Plays tab, and look for “The Debate”), and I’m playing Darwin!  In preparation, I’ve been letting the beard grow since my son David’s wedding in mid-September.  The play closes in early March, so that’ll be 6 months growth in all.  By that time, I’ll be a Rip Van Winkle lookalike.

In the meantime, though, my beard is as long as it’s ever been, and I’ve discovered a number of interesting things that it’s good for (in addition to the obvious one of keeping my face warm in a Colorado winter).  First, I’m a big fan of spare-ribs.  Now, by licking my moustache hairs, I get to continue tasting the barbecue sauce for hours after the meal is finished.  Yumm!  Second, after I wash my face or take a shower, my chin hairs become a water reservoir of considerable volume.  That will be very refreshing on warm days and could be a life saver the next time I trek through the desert.

Perhaps most important though, the beard is enabling me to go undercover while doing the research for my latest play, “Postville.”  The play has a number of characters who are Hasidic Jews.  You know, the ultra-orthodox guys with the black coats and hats and the long beards!  In doing my research, I’ve been spending time with the Lubavitch community in Boulder, and they’ve been very welcoming and helpful.  But it has been pretty clear to everyone that I am an outsider.  Now, with each passing week, I come closer and closer to disappearing into the crowd.

Over the next 3 months, I’m sure I’ll come up with lots of other fun things I can do with my beard.  I’ll keep you informed.