Sunday, June 19, 2016

Flashback Father's Day: The Drama of Life

(This article originally was published by The News Herald in Panama City on Father's Day, June 18, 2006.)

The drama of life
By David Angier

Most parents cringe at the drama their teenagers bring into their lives, but Tony Simmons applauds it.

Even when his son, Nathan, is engaging in drunken brawls, kissing random women and acting crazy,

Tony simply smiles and watches - at times from front-row center.

In the years before Nathan, now 17, discovered acting, the drama he brought into the Simmons' household was nothing to smile about. But next weekend, father will join son on stage for a Shakespeare in the Park production of "Othello," in an activity that has drawn them closer together.

Admittedly, Tony Simmons' part is a small one - he has a few lines that he says he's struggled to learn - while Nathan takes center stage as the too-trusting and honorable Cassio, the unwitting tool of Iago's complex scheme of treachery and murder. Director Chuck Clay said he picked "Othello" - the tale of a war-weary general who returns home after defeating his enemies abroad, only to find his greatest enemy in his own home - because it seemed relevant to the times.

"Of all of Shakespeare's plays, 'Othello' is universal," Clay said. "It's something that's going on in our lives today. It has events and themes that we identify with, that we read about every day in the papers."

Act I, Scene I

Tall, lanky Nathan Simmons steps on the 25-by-12-foot stage at Gulf Coast Community College's theater lab and stops being Nathan Simmons. He's still dressed in jeans and black Chuck Taylors. His eyes are still nearly obscured by shaggy blond hair, but his mannerisms alter noticeably. He stands taller and speaks with a force that is absent away from the spotlight.

He's Cassio.

"Reputation, reputation, reputation," Cassio exclaims. "O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial."

The only time Nathan Simmons comes out is when he misses a line. He stumbles over his words, smiles, rephrases and exits. Off stage he jumps up and down in frustration, then darts to a chair to study the line.

Nathan Simmons entered his first theater class during his freshman year at Bay High School. Before then, he describes himself as "pretty anti-social." Nathan's entrance into the theater magnet program coincided with doctors finally determining, after years of misdiagnoses, that he had a seizure problem.

Doctors initially thought he had an attention deficit condition and put him on medication that aggravated his seizures. Doctors finally realized the problem when Nathan was in eighth grade, but the damage to his reputation was done. Nathan was an outsider.

"I didn't have a lot of friends," he said. "But theater is a big family, and as I got into it I grew closer to all those people."

In four years of theater, Nathan has performed in more than 20 plays. He's won awards, acclaim and found a goal for the rest of his life.

"When mom and dad see me on stage, they're really proud of me, and that makes me feel good," Nathan said. "Before I started high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. Now I have a goal to shoot for. I have a plan. I would like to major in theater and go to New York and perform there. If I can't do that, I'd settle for teaching theater."

He said he enjoys sharing his latest project with his father.

"We connect a lot more," Nathan said. "Before I joined the theater program I kept to myself a lot. Since then, I've become a nicer person, a happier person. Dad and I, we get along really well. He enjoys watching me on stage. Having him do this show is great because he doesn't have to sit in the audience this time; he can see it from the inside."

Nathan said it's nice the roles have changed in this aspect of their lives. "He's come up to me a couple of times and asked me, 'What exactly am I supposed to be doing here?'" Nathan said. "I've helped him in memorizing lines, and he's said that this is a lot more difficult than it looks. Dad's been more than willing to learn, and it's nice that he's let me be the teacher for once."

Act I, Scene II

Tony Simmons, online editor for The News Herald, is having a hard time "loosening up." He has to remember where to face, what to do and, above all else, what to say - while making it all seem completely natural. At the same time, he's got to project.

Shakespeare in the Park is a physically demanding endeavor. The actors don't have walls to bounce sound out to the audience, and it's up to the actors to make their voices carry. Simmons doesn't have a problem turning to his son for advice.

"He's having to teach me how to loosen up," Tony Simmons said. "This is an alien thing to me; these other people are just letting go. There's no sense of self, or self-consciousness, I guess, and that's something I have to learn."

His only prior acting experience was his senior play in high school 24 years ago. He agreed to do "Othello" — "because they asked me to. They assured me it was a small role. I thought this is something that Nathan and I can do together."

Tony Simmons isn't the type of father who rolls his eyes or shakes his head when he thinks about his son pursuing a career in acting - a difficult profession to succeed at. He's seen too many positive changes in his son's life occur in four years of theater to be pessimistic about the future.

"He's got a lot of promise, and I'd just like to see him take it as far as he can go," Simmons said, noting that Nathan has talent as a playwright. For now, Tony Simmons is learning to loosen his control of his son's life as well.

"I have to be almost less involved than I used to be," he said. "Nathan's found a way to make his own way."

Friday, June 10, 2016

Zen and the art of karaoke survival

Folks dancing at the party.
PANAMA CITY BEACH — I must have spent a good 15 minutes searching Google just now, and couldn’t discover the average age of first-time karaoke use.

I just experienced my first time. I’m nearly 52. I wish I could tell you it was magical.

I know singing in your car and singing in the shower are both considered to be karaoke gateway drugs. And while I’m often guilty of both of the former activities, I’d never before succumbed to peer pressure to take the stage. My son is the performer in the family. I just sit and type stories.

And I pray karaoke is not addictive, because I very nearly died from trying it just once. Then, either numbed or emboldened, I tried it a second time. I don’t remember too much after that.

We were at a 1970s-themed engagement party for one of my wife’s coworkers. The crowd at Hidden Dunes had been dancing to Bee Gees songs and other appropriately kitschy tunes, like “Lady Marmalade” (the version by LaBelle, 1974) until DJ Mike announced it was time to sing.

People dressed in glittery stretch pants and unbuttoned silk shirts clutched champagne flutes and sang “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay” (1967), “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (1976), and “Annie’s Song (You Fill Up My Senses)” (1974). And you could tell they were accomplished cover artists — doing a little dance, playing to the audience, barely watching the video screen for lyric prompts.

While most of the crowd had embraced the disco style, I was wearing a David Bowie T-shirt. The cover to “Low” (1977). Bowie, who died in January, is my greatest musical idol. I learned to pay attention to songs after hearing a noisy cassette recording of a Bowie performance taped from an old TV. The song was “Space Oddity.” The rest is legend.

What I’m saying is, if I was ever going to sing in public it would have to be a Bowie song. Also, I was pretty sure alcohol would have to be applied liberally beforehand. But I was not drinking and had no intention of taking the mic, just enjoying the people with more self-confidence who did so.

Then DJ Mike came to our table and asked me what I was going to sing. I shook my head and grinned. “Nothing,” I said. He returned to his gear and started a chant of my name. The crowd joined in. My wife gave me a smile.

Something in my brain snapped. In retrospect, that might be how horror movies start.

Like a blurry Bigfoot photo.
I opened with “Fame” (1975), my feet shifting nervously, my hands in my pockets. I saw Bowie do “Fame” twice — the 1987 Glass Spider Tour in New Orleans and the 1990 Sound+Vision Tour in Pensacola. I tried to keep in mind that he often mixed up lyrics when performing, so I shouldn’t worry about it.

Then the darkness closed in. All I recall is the video screen, the words slowly changing color before my eyes as the song progressed. I had no sense of time or of the rest of the room, or even the sound of the crowd behind the rumbling in my head.

And then it was over, people applauded, my wife grinned ear-to-ear, and I started toward our table.

“What’s your second one?” DJ Mike asked. “Golden Years?”

I froze. The crowd chanted. I realized people had been dancing while I sang.

How could I not?

The music started, a rolling guitar decrescendo that then built and built into that Carlos Alomar funk. Suddenly, a woman I’d never seen before grabbed my right arm, pressed herself close and yelled into my face — something like “I can’t help it! This is my favorite!” — and started singing along.

No offense to the lady is intended, but I thought, “So much for ‘nothing’s gonna touch you in these golden years.’” I lost the rhythm. I stumbled on lyrics I’ve sung in my car a million times. I remember looking at my wife and mouthing “Help?” She shook her head. I  was on my own.

I kept waiting for the roadies to peel the woman off of me like you see at the concerts. They never came, but honestly I was still experiencing tunnel vision, one misfiring neuron short of an out-of-body experience.

So I soldiered through. There’s a secret I’ve learned that applies to just about any situation: Give it time, and it will pass. Find your center, which for me at the moment was a video screen with color-changing lyrics on it.

You, too, can survive karaoke.