In For a Penny: Dead Men tell No Tales

Charles Lewis contemplates the Great Beyond.

“Death Found an Author Writing His Life” (1827) by E. Hull

“Death Found an Author Writing His Life” (1827) by E. Hull

“I’ve got my own life to live
I’m the one that’s going to have to die
When it’s time for me to die
So let me live my life the way I want to”
– Jimi Hendrix, “If 6 was 9”, Axis: Bold as Love

Funny thing about writing a play about death: it makes you think a lot about dying. Who knew? And if you want to get technical, the play in question isn’t actually about death, but the lack thereof. Let me explain…

I’m writing the Opening Night Party play for this year’s SF Olympians Festival. You may or may not recall that last year I occasionally dedicated this column to exploring the development process of said festival. If so, you may also recall that my final entry, “A Pre-Post-Mortem”, attempted to take an optimistic look at death, a frequent topic in a festival revolving around Greek mythology. Many Greek myths look at death not as the end of the journey, but rather the beginning of the next journey. For them, death wasn’t something to be dwelt upon – for lack of a better term – as it is today. Still, they acknowledged it as an inevitability and possibly one step closer to achieving greatness.

The Egyptians are a different story all together: everything was about death. EVERYTHING. Perhaps that’s not fair – it may be more accurate to say that they were about life, which they felt continued after death. But that doesn’t change the fact that quite a lot of those lives were spent in preparation for their inevitable deaths. And when they did die, everyone took notice.

Remember, these were once decked out in shiny Tura Limestone.

Remember, these were once decked out in shiny Tura Limestone.

So when writing for a Greek mythos fest that’s now added Egyptian gods for good measure, it’s no surprise to find death at every turn.

Except, of course, in my play. The script (working title: It’s a Fucking Dylan Thomas Poem!) is about characters for whom, shall we say, death is not a problem. No matter how much harm they inflict on themselves or each other, they never need to worry about shuffling off this mortal coil. It’s not quite a Tuck Everlasting situation, but they live lives (that they believe are) without consequence. Well, when you live your life knowing you can get away with anything, you’ll eventually ask yourself what the point of living is. And what’s the point of asking that question if you’re never going to die?

Naturally I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about dying. Not taking my own life – when you’ve known as many people as I have who attempted suicide right in front of you, it kinda puts you off the idea – but just what will or won’t be said when I’m gone. It’ll be completely out of my control, but that doesn’t stop me from contemplating what would be said, if anything at all. As I’ve been tinkering with this script over the past few months, I began to notice that whenever I’d seriously start to write notes or dialogue, a celebrity would die. (Not my fault, I swear!)

Such high-profile deaths inevitably lead to a lot of fawning eulogies, as well as some scathing posthumous criticisms. For me, the most interesting comment came after Prince’s death. With no legal will specifying the division of his $300m estate, Time asked Snoop Dogg if he’d made preparations for his family. He doesn’t. “I don’t give a fuck when I’m dead.”

As much as I disagree with the callous way a multi-millionaire refuses to make sure his family is protected once he’s gone, I have to say that I admire his response. He seems to understand the way the futility of worrying about something that will be completely out of his control. Though I don’t agree with how he does it, I like how he accepts the fact that he only has control for a finite amount of time, then everyone will be on their own.

Of course, it’s still Snoop Dogg, so he was probably high off his ass when he said it.

The problem with never wanting to talk about death is that it makes you unprepared for it. What both confounds and fascinates me about the characters I’m writing is that they’re unprepared for what life has in store when death never comes. They have to find reasons to keep living because it’s the one thing they’ll always do. What does that do to a person’s sense of health, spirituality, or ability to form lasting relationships?

I’m not quite sure, but as I keep writing, they’ll find out or attempt to die trying.

Charles Lewis III want you to celebrate life and art by contributing to this year’s Olympians Festival Indiegogo campaign. His script will be read during the Opening Night party on Sunday, October 2nd.

In For a Penny: Life on Mars

Charles Lewis on Bowie.

Yes, he was on Soul Train.

Yes, he was on Soul Train.

“It’s only forever. Not long at all.”
– David Bowie, “Underground”

It was about this time last year that I wrote an entry about how much I don’t like my birthday. It isn’t for the sake of being dour, nor is it a day when I walk around full of self-pity (self-deprecation, maybe), I just don’t see the big deal of causing a fuss over my waking up another day. I’ll gladly celebrate the birthdays of others because I love when my friends are happy, but I never mention to them when mine comes up.

It’s only rarely that I let the day bog me down with thoughts of mortality – not even I am that morbid. But this past weekend, I found myself unable to escape those thoughts. It was this past weekend that someone with whom I share a birthday passed away. No, it wasn’t Sarah Polley, Stephen Hawking, or Elvis Presley (who I’m sure has been dead for quite some time), but the incomparable David Bowie. Even if I didn’t share a birth date with someone I admire – who died days later, no less – the fact that I turned 35 and he 69 caught my eye. I’m literally one year away from being half his age.

But again, rather than dwell on the tragedy of his passing, I became fascinated by the ways he chose to spend his final days. Apparently, he was composing the songs for a theatrical musical… about SpongeBob SquarePants. I didn’t see that coming. But what else should we have expected from a man whose life and career were defined by unabashed theatricality?

Bowie-Tesla-lighting copy

When someone I admire dies, I tend to feel a sense of shame that I didn’t know more about them before reading about it, but I’m glad when they put a lot of things into perspective. That’s why I was thrilled to learn that Bowie’s aforementioned theatricality is a direct result of his training in theatre. He actually began training as a mime under Lindsay Kemp and would later take the title role in a critically-acclaimed performance of The Elephant Man. I say this puts things into perspective, because the man was a capable actor. Usually a musician will take the leap into acting (and vice versa) just as way to expand their public profile. Bowie brought a confidence and self-awareness to the roles he played.

Like most people my age and younger, I was introduced to him as the spandex-wearing Goblin King of Jim Henson’s musical, Labyrinth. Yet, when I think of the role of his that truly left an impression on me as a young man, it was his single scene as Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Most portrayals of Pilate that I’d seen – both before and after – often portray him as a moustache-twirling who takes a lot of pleasure in flogging this somehow-special Jew in public. Scorsese and Bowie took a different approach. Their Pilate is calculating and intelligent, but he recognizes that this Christ fellow (Willem Dafoe) is also intelligent, if not calculating. Pilate slowly takes steps towards him in an attempt to unravel the enigma of this man who oddly has the public up in arms. When he sits beside him, it’s a subtle way of showing equality between them, despite their official stations, but the scene ends with Pilate acknowledging that he wouldn’t want to be in Christ’s shoes.

For a man defined by grand flamboyance, it’s a wonderful showcase of nuanced characterization. As a budding teenaged actor who was in the middle of his own spiritual crisis, both the scene and the performance left their mark on me. And as that same teen began to ask more and more questions about his sexuality, there was something comforting about figures like Bowie and Prince who showed me that the well-worn tropes of masculinity and femininity were really just costumes in the theatrical production of life. In Theater Pub’s upcoming Morrissey Plays (opening this Monday at PianoFight), one of my characters – who, by all other indications, is hetero – proudly declares that he’d have sex with the eponymous singer because “Heteronormative gender rules don’t apply.” I learned that by watching Bowie.

As you read this, you’ve probably all come across the news that actor Alan Rickman just passed away. If you have any connection to Bay Area theatre, then you already know that Impact Theatre in Berkeley will be closing its doors later this year. We all know that nothing lasts forever, be it a cherished sanctuary or even life itself. As cliché as it may be, it really does come down to how your living days are spent, rather than constantly dwelling on when the end will come at last.

We might not all be able to be groundbreaking musicians, talented actors, parents of award-winning film-makers, and married to supermodels, but those things wouldn’t be unique if everyone could do them. You don’t have to worry about sharing a birthday with someone more accomplished than you, just celebrate you. A guy named David Jones taught me that.

Charles Lewis III takes solace in the fact that he still shares a birthday with Sarah Polley, an actor and director he’s always admired.