Sunday, April 27, 2008

The History of Drama (Part One)

Some time ago, I was at a Hollywood dinner party when our hostess abruptly steered the conversation toward what was clearly one of her favorite subjects: fate. Zeroing in on me, she asked “Didn’t you always sense it was inevitable you would become a writer?” I told her “no,” but in truth, it had been a long time since I’d thought about it and the question sort of stuck with me the following day. Was my profession inevitable? Was I, in fact, born to it? I hadn’t come from a particularly literate background. My father’s family were staunch German farmers who lived in far away Illinois. We rarely saw them and although they were a little quirky around the edges, they paled in comparison to my mother’s family who had us surrounded on all sides. My Mom had sprung from a large and high-spirited clan, all of whom had married early and often; producing dozens of scrappy offspring and scattering our genes far and wide through the hills and hollers of eastern Kentucky. When you included the stepchildren, in-laws and the occasional bastards, the definition of who exactly was “family” grew even larger. Everybody was always broke, which probably wasn’t entirely their fault. God knows, eastern Kentucky in the 60’s and 70’s wasn’t exactly the land of opportunity. In fact, I seem to remember pretty much every commodity being in short supply. Except for one: Drama.

Being deeply religious people, my parents felt it was their duty to open their home to anyone who was in trouble – and in our family, somebody was always in trouble. If you were in the middle of a nasty divorce, if your spouse was cheating on you, beating you or stalking you, you came to us. If you were laid off, trying to kick drugs or just getting out of jail, we were your first stop. If you could no longer support your children (or had just gotten a little bored with them), you could drop them off with us for a couple of years. As a kid, I loved the constant chaos. Nothing made me happier than to come home from school and spot a strange car in the driveway. That meant a fresh supply of hardship had landed on our doorstep and I would get to hear the whole gruesome (or hilarious) story over dinner. When the phone rang in the middle of the night, I knew there would be a spectacularly juicy news item waiting for me at the breakfast table.

The family basically broke down into two camps: the comedians and the tragedians – and both were equally adept at fucking up their lives. Whether told in first-person or arriving via the family’s intricate grapevine, their stories were never less than fantastic! The evictions, the miscarriages, the terrible accidents, the torrid affairs, the drunken brawls, plus every form of disease and disaster imaginable -- All described in language so vivid, each tale was guaranteed to sear itself into your memory forever. I can still recall one relative’s stroke being described as so bad, “It was like a grenade went off inside her head.” Nothing ordinary ever happened to any of us. Every situation was always the most dire anyone had ever witnessed. Each wound was the most horrific the doctor had ever seen. Had the car had skidded one inch further, it would have toppled off the bridge. If the gumball had not been dislodged from the baby’s throat at that precise second, it would have been curtains for sure.

Like many young people, I reached a point where I began to reject my family. I started doubting the veracity of these stories and the whole crew just seemed luckless and embarrassing. Their endless parade of misfortune depressed me, but no matter how far away I moved, there was no escaping it. In an effort to keep me connected, my mother would send lengthy hand-written letters (four-pages, front and back) crammed with bad news. Oddly, in between the items about my aunt’s tumor (the largest ever recorded) and my cousin’s conviction for statutory rape, she would squeeze in a paragraph about how many tomatoes the garden had produced or causal remarks about the weather. I began to realize that drama was such a part of our family’s life that my mother didn’t even recognize it as such anymore. It was as common as the sunrise.

Then one day when I was living in New York, I received a letter from my mother so unintentionally hilarious that when I read it to a friend, she laughed so hard I literally had to pick her up off my kitchen floor. That letter became the basis for the first full-length play I would ever attempt. That play (co-written with a writing partner) opened a door that would change my life forever. It was also the beginning of my realization that all those years of listening to my family spin their outrageous tales had in fact been a master class in recognizing which part of a story could be funny, which part held the most drama or suspense and how to leave your listeners panting for more. It had never occurred to me that this inherent skill; this knack for knowing how to grab your audience and pull them into a somewhat fictionalized adventure could be considered a “job skill.” Who knew there were people out there who would actually pay you real money just to tell them a decent story – something my relatives had been doing free of charge for decades on end.

I’d like to close this particular chapter in the history of drama by telling you that my family remains (for the most part) unchanged. A new generation has arrived to replace the storytellers of my childhood and having been trained at the feet of the masters, they rarely disappoint. The biggest change is not them. It’s me. I’m no longer embarrassed by my family or their exploits. I adore them (albeit from a distance). I’ve come to understand that their lives are far more complex than any casual onlooker would suspect. They trade in a peculiar form of love and if I have anything resembling talent, I got it from them. I imagine that if I tried to thank them for this unintentional gift, they would look at me, utterly perplexed and probably fill the awkward silence with a story about my second cousin cutting off two of his fingers with a table saw or my niece’s trailer burning down with her entire doll collection inside.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being awkwardly middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/
This essay can be emailed to a friend by clicking on the small “envelope” icon below.

7 comments:

mckric@mac.com said...

David,
I laughed and felt such a connection suddenly with you as I read your latest blog. My mother's family is from Corbin and Williamsburg and Jellico (TN) and so many little towns in Eastern KY and is filled with an enormous amount of the same mix of drama and comedy. My grandmother had 18 children and though my mother left when she was 17 to move up north (I was born in Canada) I always looked at her family as this strange mad group of people who were somehow connected. When my grandmother died, there were 11 living children, 44 grandchildren, 80+ great grandchildren and 30+ great grandchildren. On my grandfather's side it gets even crazier with the second family, etc. I too went through the part where I was fascinated, then embarrassed and now as I near 50 embracing of them in all their craziness. Thank you for sharing that and making my Sunday a little more enjoyable out here in LA. It's a crazy world and as I move into the acting and writing world I realize just how much I can bring to my table based on that shared history with them.

mckric@mac.com said...

sorry, I meant to sign off on that post and forgot.

Michael Kricfalusi

april barnett said...

Once again you never fail to entertain! Reminds me of my own family - bless their hearts.

Anonymous said...

David,

I absolutely love this latest blog entry. How wonderful to hear a story about recognizing the true value of your crazy family. I too went through a long stage of embarrassment about my family (How could some of them do this embarrassing thing, or that? How could they vote Republican?), only to recognize that I embarrass them in my way, and despite all of this embarrassment, these are good, caring, helpful, wonderful people in their own crazy ways. (What is crazy, any way? Don't we all come from crazy families?) This comment isn't terribly coherent, nor does it have much of a point other than to say, as usual, reading your post is a delightful way to start the week. :-)

Christopher

Michelle said...

David,

This post was hysterical and wonderful. And damn near poetic - "to her the drama was as common as sunrise."

Michelle
www.girlchildpress.com

Dwight said...

David,

I had to laugh as I read this story because, as you know, I grew up in Eastern Kentucky. It is truly a different world from LA and the scale tilts from good to bad in both directions. Just as there is good and bad in every person, there is also good and bad in every community. I couldn't wait to move away from my childhood roots and now I look forward to my yearly visit to the area where I was raised. I have yet to find another place like Eastern Kentucky. It's a gem even if that gem sometimes looks like a piece of coal.

Dwight

DC Douglas said...

That was wonderful... I need to find time to read the rest... You are such a damn good writer.