Orion’s Left Foot as Measured by Stellar Parallax

I hauled my ass over to the polling place Saturday afternoon. I’d spent most of the day nursing a cold with endless glasses of guava nectar mixed with plain Topo Chico and watching Hulu.com.

Bonham Elementary School is only eight blocks away, but as I was in self-pity mode, I grabbed the keys to my truck and drove.

There were only three things to vote on. Just candidates. No bond issues or propositions. Just: Mayor, City Council Member for District 1, and SAISD School Board member for District 1. I was in and out in maybe five minutes. No other voters to stand in line behind. There wasn’t a candidate who I was thrilled to vote for. Oh well. It’s done. Unless there’s any run-offs.

Okay …. I just checked the results. None of the three races I voted in will result in a run-off. Two of the three folks I voted for won. I won’t say who’s who, but our new Mayor is Julian Castro. Mary Alice Cisneros has held her seat on the city council for district 1. And Ruben Cuero has made it onto the SAISD school board.

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Friday night I ambled over to the Jump-Start Performance Company to attend the first night of a two night performance of the Renaissance Guild’s ActOne Series.

I can only assume that most everyone was out watching Star Trek. The Renaissance Guild (either the best or the second best theater company in town, depending on my mood) usually fills whatever venue they call home. These last few years it’s been at the Jump-Start Performance Company (either the best or the second best theater company in town, depending on my mood). I think there were only 100 or 120 people in the audience. About half capacity. Blame it on JJ Abrams.

I try and make every performance of the Renaissance Guild. The ActOne Series is a must. It’s an evening of one-act plays. Each with a different playwright, director, and cast. I like theater. But I also have a more pragmatic agenda. As a filmmaker I like to know what sort of acting talent we have in San Antonio. And events like the ActOne Series as well as Theater ASAP are prefect situations to see a large number of talented actors doing what they do best.

Angela Bennett, one of my favorite actresses, directed one of the plays. That was another reason for me to be there. I had taken my seat and was flipping through the program. I looked up. Angela was walking up the central aisle. I stood up to give her a hug. She was with another woman who looked very familiar. They sat down behind me. I turned around and asked the other woman what I’d seen her in. She reminded me that she was, along with Angela, in “Fabulation.” Then I remembered her. It was Stephanie Hicks.

She mentioned something about the comments in my blog follow the performance of “Fabulation.” “I was one of the lackluster performers,” she said wryly. “Yeah, you were great,” I gushed. “You and Angela as the two tramps in the jail cell was totally brilliant!”

(However, when I got home last night, I tracked down my old blog entry. There was mention only of Angela and Jenelva. As I recall, I had written a long-winded “review,” but I had scrapped most of it. That’s not to say Stephanie was lackluster. In fact, she was great. She stole the scenes she was in from everyone.)

I glanced back at my program. Stephanie was also one of the directors.

Because I have never directed theater, I really don’t know what it involves. Angela wanted me to give her my assessment at the end of the night. This would be her first time as a director, and she wanted feedback. She’s been acting professionally for over a decade. In fact, she’s landed minor roles in major TV shows. A true working actress.

But as I sat there watching five one act plays, it occurred to me that the world of theater is dominated by the work of the actors. I don’t know who is more superfluous, the writer or the director. A good actor can make a bad script an amazing thing. And maybe the most important thing for a theater director to do is to give the actors important and immediate feedback. “Look, you might feel like what you’re doing is fine, but it’s really not working.” And this is why the best theater directors have a deep background in acting. And this also explains why improvisational comedy is often so painful to watch — the performers on stage lack that critical distance. They can’t see themselves from the point of view of the audience.

This, the 13th ActOne Series, had five pieces. Three serious dramas. Two comedies.

It occurred to me that when you’re limited to a one act format of no more than 20 minutes, it’s hard to make serious stuff work. Farce is the way to go. With tragedy or something serious like social commentary, you really need time to develop the protagonist enough so that when he or she makes that profound discovery, the audience gives a damn. This is why most serious short plays aren’t about the protagonist learning something profound. They’re mostly concerned about the audience understanding the rules of this universe. That ah-ha moment when you realize, ah, this room they’re in represents Hell. The audience is given a handbag of clues and by the final curtain the message is revealed.

Comedy, in a short piece, is easier — you can end with an action. You create tension. You break that tension. Comedy can function well with only a thesis and an antithesis — a set-up followed by a punch-line. Tragedy needs to end with a message. That additional component, the synthesis. (Perhaps we’ve moved on from Aristotle’s model, but, for the most part, I don’t think so.) A lot of baggage to carry for a one act play.

Maybe that’s why the first two plays were fundamentally unsuccessful.

“A Very Lovely Dress” suffered from a very unpolished script. The actors did a fine job. But the O. Henry reveal at the end was unsatisfying and unbelievable to me. I needed to know these characters for a longer period of time before the carpet was pulled out from under my feet and everything was recontextualized. The message carried some heavy social commentary. But it was crudely delivered. Personally, I’m exhausted by these overwrought theater pieces dealing with the direct action of “terrorists” and suicide bombers without allowing the narrative to contain information about the generational anguish of oppression and struggle.

“Tiny Dancer” also didn’t sit right with me. And it took me a bit to realize why. It’s a monologue, wonderfully performed by Colisia Bayles. Because the information is placed up front, I don’t feel like I’m spoiling anything when I say that our protagonist introduces herself as “a dead whore.” The lights come up with a young woman lying on a table with a toe tag. She’s in the morgue. She sits up and addresses the audience. She begins to talk about her life. How she came to this situations. And her story is all about her love of dance. Stripping was the only dance form that paid money. She still went out and auditioned for “real” dance roles, however, she paid the bills as an exotic dancer. Sure, she claimed to put most of that stripper money “up my nose.” But damned if I can recall a single line in the piece about her turning tricks. Now back during my misspent youth, I worked as a DJ in a burlesque theater. Very few of the strippers worked as prostitutes. So, the playwright was falling back on asinine cliches. But wait. During the Q&A session, playwright Trisha Sugarek said she made it a point never to fall into cliche. All I can say, Trisha, is if you have a character who is open enough to call herself a “dead whore,” we need at least one example of her performing sex for cash. Taking your clothes off for money doesn’t make you a whore. Sure, a character might believe that about herself, but you need to make me understand that fact.

“10,000 Cigarettes.” This was so welcomed after two clunky scripts. Wonderful acting, directing, and writing. The playwright is an Australian. The piece involves four women sucking away on cigarettes. They rhapsodize about their love of the thin white tube. It’s presented almost like a monologue, but delivered by four people, often with one finishing the sentence of another. Constant chatter. And the women have to slip into various accents. I know nothing about Jodie McMaster, Scharlette Donald, Natasha Dillahunt, or Dialis Molina, except that they have really weird names … and that they can really fucking act. Their timing was amazing. It’s a very strong piece. And Stephanie Hicks should be proud of the solid tone and clever pacing she got from these amazing women.

“Ask Roberto!” A wonderful farce. Rigel Nunez is the director. Everything about this piece is perfect. “Ask Roberto!” is sweet, playful, and salty. And this can be placed on the poster. Roberto is played by Albert Penuelaz who I don’t think I’ve seen before. He reminds me of a somewhat younger Fisher Stevens, a great combination of petulance and charm. He played opposite Sophia Bolles, and they were great together, playing their entire interaction over a telephone.

“Be More 282.” This was the final one-act of the night. Directed by Angela. A very powerful piece. As I said earlier, a one-act tragedy works best when the audience is piecing together the universe of this play — not really following the development of the characters. Okay, I’ll go ahead and spoil the story line. We are in a limbo state with two characters who are dead, in fact, murdered. She’s a pregnant young wealthy blond. He’s a young black reformed gang-banger. They are both trapped in this shadowland, awaiting their bodies to be found and identified. And they are both aware just how much energy is being used in the world of the living to find their killers. The girl is still on the front pages. The guy, well, because of his ethnicity and social status, his name remains unpublished. In fact, so many young black men die in our country, he keeps remembering his name differently. He represents all young African-American men who die of violence and who never are reported by the press, never named. And he knows that all of those young men he represents, none will get the sort of attention as the blond.

All in all, a great night of theater. I hope Saturday night saw a larger attendance.

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Rigel Nunez. What a kick-ass name.

When I typed it out, I found myself wondering just how far away it is to Rigel.

You might recall that Rigel is one of the brightest stars in the heavens. It’s very easy to find. You know how to spot Orion? Of course you do. Rigel is Orion’s left foot. I was a bit surprised to discover that Rigel’s distance is open to dispute. It seems it’s too far to be measured with fine accuracy via parallax measurement. Let’s pull out an easy to use guestimate. 750 light years away.

Wow. That’s pretty far for an incredibly bright star. I mean, our closest stellar neighbor is Alpha Centauri (or more aptly, the binary system of Alpha Centauri AB) — only 4.37 light years away. (Seems we can get pretty accurate when objects are that close.)

And so I started thinking, 750 light years, that’s really something. If we imagine a spherical space with us in the middle and Rigel at the edge — a big ball of Milky Way with a diameter of 1500 light years — just how many stars would be in this area? In short, how many stars are closer to us than Rigel, the sixth brightest star in the sky?

Well, it’s a rather involved problem. The first item needed is the density of stars in our stellar neighborhood. The Gliese catalogue gives us a density of 0.12 stars per cubic parsec in our neck of the galaxy. (The density is not a constant as we move away from our system, but we’ll go ahead and use this number anyway.)

A parsec is 3.26 light years.

So, Rigel, at, say, 750 light years away, is 230.06 parsecs distant.

Okay. We can now use the basic measurement of finding volume for a sphere.

v = (4/3) * pi * r3

Volume equals 4/3 times pi times radius cubed.

Fine. This comes out to: volume = (4/3) x (3.14) x (230.06)^3

Volume = (4/3) x (3.14) x (12,176,524.5)

Volume = (1.33) x 38, 234,286.9

Volume = 50, 966,304.5 cubic parsecs.

Number of Stars = Stellar Density x Volume

(0.12) x (50,966,304.5)

Approximate number of stars 750 lights years away or nearer would be 6,115,957, rounding up. I’m horrible with math and I’m using this iPhone as a calculator. So I might be very wrong.

What do we think when we realize that the sixth brightest star in the heavens is competing with six million stars closer to us? That’s one bright star. Also, there are millions of stars closer to us than Rigel which have never been seen by a human being without a telescope. On clear nights (were we to visit both hemisphere), we might be able to discern, with the unaided eye, about 9,000 stars.

And just what do we learn from this?

Clearly, I can be quite creative while procrastinating more pressing work.

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