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A Dog Walks into a Bar…

July 1, 2012

Any artist can tell you, to put in a really great performance you just have to master an ability to get super comfortable with the spaces you’ll be filling up.  Know what your energy is going to interact with, what it bounces off and what kind of changes that makes in it.  Then there’s blocking around the set, lighting, and film or T.V. work means endless geometry – angles this, coverage that.  An audience on a pin head.

a sample studio set

the term you’re looking for is ‘fourth wall’

I could make a joke about a particular television director here, but I’m already barely employable.  Rest assured, though, it’s as good as said because I’m not creative that way – you’ve probably already figured it out yourself by now.  Obviously, I won’t be earning a living crafting one-liners, either, so I’m going to keep my snout shut.  I’ve got rent to pay.

But really, lots of guys, talent, crew, trainers, anyone who worked with me, they’ll tell you that my creativity is in the way I can tamp down the stage, let it settle like a blanket thrown out for a picnic.  Just get everything perfectly hush.  Just slip it on.  Like an old collar that’s leather has stretched perfectly to the muscles of your neck.  A good performance is just wearing the space as easily and confidently as slipping that old collar over your ears.

Of course, I totally fucked my shot after pissing on everyone in the business, so it doesn’t matter if I can do it or not, right?  But I’m just saying, in case it makes a difference for anybody else out there.  You know.  Trying to be profound to strangers, the only people who don’t know me well enough to know any better.

I started out part of industry royalty, born into a great family name.  Learning the boards, looking at performance as an art to speak through, to master; none of that really mattered, even without any of the effort I put into my career I would have had it all.  But I knew early on I wanted to be able to look at myself in the reflection in my watering bowl and feel pride.

So I worked at it tirelessly.  Other talent was just chasing after the dummies, fetching the retrieval weights, waiting for the biscuit rewards.  I was committing passages to memory out of Pal’s autobiography.  Pal, the doggie drag-queen who started it all, the first Lassie.  His sons, and then grandsons, and then their nephews, whole squirming litters of puppies still slick with placenta had a shot at real glory, if they were bright enough.  The first animal superstar.

Everyone had great expectations of me.  My mother’s line going back four generations had been modelling for the Walton, Co’s, Ol’ Roy dog food packaging and advertisements.  A dynasty of border collies, one paw up, red tongues lolling out between the lower front teeth.  A stroke of luck in what political ethicists call the natural lottery guaranteed me the fast-track in the trained animal industry.  First print, then a crossover into stage and film.  After a few dozen early successes, and it was smooth sailing.  My representation agency assembled a team of people to support my ascendance.  I was the Sun King; I even managed to land a live-in girlfriend, this hot Pekinese bitch who went right into heat after a few G and T’s.

At some point, the constant time around sycophants, the constant contractual negotiations between third- and fourth-party interests, I began to crack up.  I was looking at the people around me promoting this ascent, engineering each victorious step, and I started thinking – what if everyone’s only interested in the blood-line?  I felt used, is how I saw it then.  Now I can recognize it as cowardice.

So I began proclaiming to chauffeurs, masseuses, strangers in bars – everyone who would listen – in that rebellious way a bratty adolescent will, I began insisting that the responsibility of my family name was an unfair burden.  Then gradually I dropped out altogether.  Showed up late, stoned on painkillers.  Didn’t show up at all.  Bit a few hands.  My name started to mean something different from the family name.  I got my wish.

When you stop caring about something but everyone else around you is still pushing and loading all their efforts behind achieving it, they can get real shitty real fast once they feel their investment has been compromised.  It’s like betrayal.  Even if they didn’t look at you – a four year old border collie who still, given the chance, will roll in cow patties, proving Felson’s opportunity theory of crime –  as a helmsman, still, for all the handlers, trainers, agents, booking staff, the press team, your groomers, you are that individual.  To just bail on them, well that’s worse than a slap in the face after filling their duties for so long.  Everybody hated me.  I was blacklisted, first in the production studios and networks, then even the rodeo circuits where the real fuck-ups end up, even they saw me as a liability.

After a few debts pile up, your credit rating can make a steep descent.  This can keep you up nights drinking.  Under so much booze, it’s pretty understandable that you might doubt past decisions and get into some pretty undignified situations trying to undo what’s done.  This is nothing you’ll ever want to tell your children.  Once you’ve hit bottom and righted yourself out again, though, there are lots of things you can do for minimum wage in a recession economy, and lots of AA chapters that don’t mind a collie coming to meetings.

First, you have to hit bottom.

I was working in the barrel cellar at a bar, changing out the CO2 tanks for the soda, rotating the beer kegs, scooping old mouse carcasses out of half-dried syrup spilled from leaking bags of cola mix.  This is in some stagnant town outside the Black Hills in easternMissouri.  I was one of the only guys in the area who wasn’t able to trace their family back five generations, kissing cousins not excluded.  Also, I was a mostly black dog, so everyone already had cause to look at me sideway.  One afternoon on a day off work, I was drinking heavily and watching day-time television in the town’s other bar, when I blacked out and began insulting some of the patrons.  Five or six hours later, I awoke bloodied and chastened in a holding cell in the local police station.

It seems one of the female officers was on patrol that evening, and received a call that a pedestrian was lying by the side of the road near the town’s centre.  She managed to bring me around and get me up on all fours; I remember she offered me a ride, but I refused, slurring about how I could walk home from here, it wasn’t far; as I made to start moving away, that’s when she noticed the broken bottle of tequila rosa on the ground.  She begrudgingly took me in for processing, and that’s when she found the bag of marijuana on me.  Written in sharpie on the baggy was the legend, “this is NOT marijuana.”  The boys at the station all had a chuckle about this, I find out later.  In the mean-time, they took prints from my paws, and the blood from where I’ve been fighting gets caked all over the little cards they use.

They let me post my own bail in the morning, and I’ve used my one phone call to ask off sick at work.  When I go in the next day, everyone at the bar knows what happened.  One of the kitchen guys, he’s friends with the janitor at the station – everyone is congratulating me for successfully camouflaging my Schedule C controlled substance.  The manager is less than happy, tells me I shouldn’t have lied about the cause of my absence.  One week later, she fires me over a missing bottle of rum from cellar, calls it theft, calls the police in.  I’m back at the station for processing.  The woman cop, combing through my fur again looking for contraband in my coat.  “At least this time you’re not all beaten up,” she says.  It’s eleven in the morning and I’m standing for mug shots.  This is rock bottom.  I’m staring up, all the way to the top of this impossibly deep well I’m in, and I can see the studio sets, the Ol’ Roy kid actor who was my master back in the ’98 campaign.  I know I’ll never be there ever again.

So here’s the litmus test now – if I can look at myself from the perspective of me at fourteen (that’s two in people years), and have two (fourteen) year old me be even remotely all right with six (thirty-five or so) year old me, I mean just a shred of respect will do, then I can live another day without feeling like I’m at the bottom of that well.  I don’t get on the boards anymore, but I have been doing some teaching projects with one of the great-grand-nephews of Sparky, the original Purina Puppy Chow springer spaniel.  We host a few workshops each month.  If you know any up-and-coming animal talent in need of some classes on poise and delivery, send them our way.  Anyhow, I have to be going; I’m a sponsor now in AA, and we have a meeting in twenty minutes.

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