I'm not completely sure what compelled me. I'm not actually a performer, or at least, not an actor. I learned that years ago, even before going to UCLA as a theater major. In fact, in high school, my theater teacher sat me down one day to tell my why he wasn't casting me in the role I really wanted in our Fall play. He told me that he thought I was one of the most passionate and intelligent students he'd ever had, and he had no doubt that I would find a career in theater if it's what I wanted; it just wouldn't be as an actor. Surprisingly, this didn't actually bother me. It just encouraged me to try other things -- tech, directing, producing -- which I discovered I enjoyed far more.
And yet, something compelled me. Maybe it was a little bit of slowly getting to know and watching the developing writing career of Kimmi; or my continuing awe at how much Rachel constantly gets done or is doing even as she always feels like she's falling behind. Or maybe it simply had to do with some personal things I've been discovering and thinking about recently regarding how I present myself or relate to people or, in fact, I suppose ... perform.
Whatever it was, about two weeks ago, I suddenly felt compelled to participate in one of the Moth StorySLAMs. Obviously, as an addict of film and writing, I'm fascinated by storytelling. As I was saying to a friend of mine at work yesterday, everybody has stories to tell. (He disagreed with me. He was fairly certain his father had none. But I digress ....) It's not having the story but being able to tell the story that counts. Whether on the page or on the screen, storytelling is both the thing about which I am both most critical and most admiring. And as a writer (meh) and filmmaker (HA!) myself, I obviously hope to think of myself as a storyteller. But also, being as critical of myself as I am, I don't always, in fact, manage to believe in my own abilities, and that, of course, leads to sometimes not even trying.
The way The Moth StorySLAM works is simple: they have a theme, and you have five minutes to tell your story. You stick your name into the proverbial hat (this time, a bag), and then throughout the evening, 10 people are selected to tell their stories. These aren't necessarily writers or actors -- anyone can do it. The stories are judged by three groups of audience members, and the best score at the end of the night wins.
After putting my name in for selection, I wasn't sure whether the "please, please, please" running through my head was a "please get picked" or "please skip me." I don't really get stage fright; at least, not when I'm on stage. But the anticipation can occasionally kill me. I downed two Heineken's pretty quickly through the first two storytellers. Halfway through the second beer, the evening's host Sara Barron called my name. Drink up!
As soon as I stepped-up to the mic, the nerves went away. Not sure why though: I wasn't really prepared. I had a few specific lines memorized; the rest of the story plotted out; but I hadn't really rehearsed. It hadn't been that long since I had last talked in front of large groups of people what with my hellish and exhausting days of Tribeca volunteer orientations, but it has been almost 20 years since my last acting class at UCLA where I had to actually memorize text and "perform" an entertainment for an audience. I never planned on memorizing my story like a monologue -- I didn't want to; I wanted it to feel more conversational and fresh -- but I did find that trying to rehearse at all was incredibly difficult. You know what's a lot harder (at least for me) than getting up in front of a a room full of 100 (or however many; The Bitter End was pretty packed last night) people? Standing in a room by myself, with nobody there to address and trying to talk for five minutes.
Anyway, I got up there; I told my story; people laughed at the right times; nobody really laughed at any of the wrong times; it felt good. It was also quite educational. I spent too much time embellishing the first half; found myself rushing a bit through the second; briefly lost my train of thought when the five-minute whistle blew even though I was very close to the end so I wouldn't go over that much; proceeded to forget not a vital plot point of the story but an important part of the telling; and then wrapped it up with the ending that I wasn't all that happy with even before I started.
My scores were OK, but as the night continued, I certainly discovered that unless you know it out of the park, going later definitely has its advantages. I followed a man who was a retired fireman. He told a really fun story about a firehouse practical joke, and aside from one moment in the middle where he actually lost his flow, stopped, and admitted to being really nervous, he did a pretty good job, certainly selling the punchline. But he was also a little like those documentaries that proliferate these days: average-made films which luckily have phenomenal stories to tell, and the subject-matter simply overcomes any flaws in technique. Again, he didn't tell his story badly at all; but it was pretty simple and straightforward and didn't really contain any surprises whatsoever. So when this really amiable, nice and even heroic guy who admitted to being baffled at his nervousness on stage since he used to run into burning buildings for a living finished, the crowd was certainly on his side, and the judges gave him all 8s. And I was next.
My scores were OK: the first judges gave me an 8.5; the second a 7.5; the last a 7. So I instantly was thinking to myself: did I do worse than I thought? I mean, the fireman was fun, but I thought I did better, and while I didn't have the big closing laugh he did, the audience definitely seemed with me and engaged all the way through. And as the evening continued and more people went, with the exception of the guy who won (who followed me, received very high scores, and was by far the most well-crafted out of all of us), I was surprised to see how some of the other scores matched-up compared to me. I felt better when, while waiting in line for the bathroom, one woman told me she loved my story and the judges had screwed me. A few other people came up to me after as well, telling me I did a really good job and seeming quite surprised when I explained I had just lost my Moth-virginity.
I meant to record myself so that I could really examine how I thought I did after and so as to recreate the text -- as I performed it -- here. Of course, I left my digital recorder at home, so that didn't happen. But if you're curious, after the jump, you can read my initial, pre-performance draft of "$18 Million" (the theme for the evening was "Money"). As I mentioned, last night was certainly different than the text which follows -- in some good ways and some not so good -- and there's a brief, but whole, section at the end I forgot to do ... but if you care, you'll get the idea.
Sadly, I can't try again at the next StorySLAM on Sept. 11 as I'll be in Toronto. The theme of "Beginnings" is one for which I actually have at least three ideas. Instead, I suppose I better start thinking about "Art" for Sept. 24 ... just in case I get picked again.
I find myself often worrying about my kids. Considering that I'm Jewish and in my mid-30s, that might not seem so odd, except for the fact that I don't actually have any. But I still worry about their financial futures. You see, my grandparents were pretty wealthy. And my parents are solidly upper Middle class. Here I am in my mid-30s and I feel like I'm just getting by. Those kids of mine ... I fear they'll be homeless.
I think this concern with money traces back at least to middle school. I went to private schools the entire time I was growing up. In 6th through 8th grade, there was a Getty in my class. In high school, that movie image of the girl getting the bow-tied convertible Mustang or the guy with the Porsche? Those were real. In fact, I never wanted for anything, and we certainly weren't poor, but in my high school, I always felt like the poor kid.
Then again, maybe it goes back further. I've known my best friend Adam literally my entire life. Our fathers went to high school together, and although we stopped being in school together after fifth grade, we always remained very close. Adam's family was rich, though. I never thought of him as spoiled, certainly not in a showy or annoying way, but he got most everything he wanted. His family always bought the latest VCR or the first and latest Apple computers. He got a new car on his 16th birthday. They had a movie screen in their living room on which every year during their New Year's party, I remember they would show "Heckle & Jeckel" cartoons. Their very large house had a grand staircase off the entryway, and Adam and I, when we were about four and five – because he's a full 18 months older than me – would roll down it claiming that we were "Fred and George falling off the building."
I was always quite close with his entire family, calling his parents "Uncle Joe" and "Aunt Debbie" when I was growing up. Because I had skipped a grade, we were in the same graduating year, but he went off to UC Berkeley while I was headed down to UCLA. We would often go to movies together in Marin County and then to this cheesy 70s restaurant – really an upscale diner – called The Peppermill. It was one of those places that served diner food but wanted to look like an upscale lounge. The bar had one of those really "swanky" oil fire pits with the round couches around it. It was classy.
Well, right before I went off to school for the beginning of my Freshman year, Adam and I went to a movie and to the Peppermill. And that's when he told me …
"So, I have some kind of huge news. My grandmother is giving us each $18 Million!" I said, "Huh?"
Apparently, his grandmother, who lived with his parents, him and his younger brother and sister, had decided there was no reason to make her grandchildren wait until she died; she would prefer to see them enjoy their inheritances, so she was giving them each $18 Million. Since Adam was the only one over 18 years old, he was the only one to get it right now though.
Adam had often tried to make me believe things that weren't true. When was about eight, he used to try to convince me that he was Robin. As in, "Batman and ...." He told me the real Batcave was under their house. Their house actually did have a few hidden rooms where his dad stored some of their most valuable art, and it was in this cul de sac right next to but elevated above the Presidio. But I was never THAT gullible.
And this didn't make much sense to me. From what I knew, his family's money actually came from his mother's side, and this grandmother was on his father's. So me being overly skeptical AND overly analytical, I peppered him with questions. But he was serious. And when the check came and I went to pay for my part, he said, "What are you doing? I'm buying. I just told you that my grandmother gave me $18 Million!"
Over the next several months, little things would come up. His roommate would answer their apartment phone saying that he wasn't there but he'd been out drinking a lot and he was kind of worried because he was starting to do some drugs, which was never really his thing. When I did talk to him, he would just tell me about how he recently bought another 100 Cds, and how he was running out of room in their apartment. He would tell me that he had taken a trip to Mexico or New York or wherever just for the weekend.
I still was really skeptical, but then, something utterly unexpected happened. A friend of Adam's from high school was, like me, a theater major at UCLA. We didn't see each other much because he was a year ahead, and we were never really friends ourselves although we knew each other and got along. I didn't actually bump into him much, but one day, out of the blue, he walks over and says, "Hey Aaron. Can you believe about Adam?"
"What do you mean? What about Adam?"
"Didn't he tell you? About his inheritance?"
Adam was 400 miles away. If Adam was playing a practical joke on me, why would he tell this guy? I mean, yeah … he knows me, but we never see each other? It would be totally random for us to bump into each other and talk about, no? That means … that means …
IT MUST BE TRUE!
And that was it. My friend Adam had actually been given, at 18 years old, $18 Million. Obviously. I mean, he would never think ahead to tell Kent otherwise.
Adam and another high school friend of his came down to LA at the beginning of their winter break. The three of us went to the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills hotel. Adam picked-up the bill. Of course he did! He was rich!
I went home for spring break, having heard more and more stories about all he was doing and all the money he was spending. The few times we had seen each other, he had picked-up the tab. And then, the day before I was heading back to school for the end of the school year, he called me.
"I have something really important to tell you."
My mind went racing. Was he going to buy me something? I didn't have a car in LA, he knew that. Was he going to help me out with a car? Was that possible? Or take me on a trip or something? It had to be something good like that. He was my best, closest friend!
"My grandmother didn't give me $18 Million."
The previous six-plus months came flooding back into my brain.
"How could you think Nanna gave me $18 Million. She doesn't have that kind of money."
"I know. I knew. But … huh?"
"It was a joke."
He was amused. I was, somehow, still baffled.
"But your roommate …"
"Yeah, he had a lot of fun with that. I kept telling him different things to tell you."
"But Kent! Why would you call Kent?"
"It worked didn't it?"
"The Polo Lounge. That was like, a $300 bill. You paid for The Polo Lounge?"
"My mom did. I told her what I wanted to do, and she offered to pay for it."
"Your mom?!?!? Your mom helped you play a practical joke on me?"
"Yeah. She thought it was funny."
I was speechless. I mean, it all made way more sense than the alternative; than what I had believed, and yet … it made no sense at all.
"When did you decide …"
"That night. I just thought, I wonder if I can make Aaron believe I inherited $18 Million."
He still holds it over me from time-to-time, although thankfully, nearly two decades later, its memory has diminished unless I bring it up. Although the part I always found most interesting was that someone else seemed to get as much if not more enjoyment out of this joke's success than even Adam. The next time I was up in San Francisco and went to his parents house, when I came in, Adam's mother -- the woman I called Aunt Debbie growing up -- said to me , "Aaron! It's so great to see you. How's school? Oh, and how was the Polo Lounge?"