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The Learning Curve

produced at the 14/48 festival, 1/9/04, theme: Busking

(LIGHTS UP on a sign that reads: "AMATEUR". Lights crossfade to: A smarmy host facing the audience with a big smile.)

LANCE: Greetings, friends. My name is Lance Donaldson. I've been busking for the last seventeen years on street corners all around the world, from Berlin to Sao Paolo, from Geneva to Constantinople, from Dubuque, Iowa, to Davenport, Iowa. During that time, I've picked up a few tricks, and now I'm here to share them all with you, during this exciting instructional seminar, "To Busk… Is To Live." It's a cold, hard world out there. You'll face muggers, murderers, and children. You'll face extreme temperatures, blizzards, and some very unfortunate smells. But all that pales in comparison to the rewards you'll receive: several dollars a day if you're lucky. So let's not waste any time! It's time to live! It's time… to busk!

(He crosses center as LIGHTS RISE on the rest of the stage. We see three people: TAMMY, LINDA, and TED.)

LANCE: First, I'd like to introduce you to our crew of brand spanking new buskers. (turns to TAMMY) What's your special busking talent, Tammy?

TAMMY: I'm going to play the guitar, Lance, and I'm going to sing. I'm going to play the guitar AT THE SAME TIME that I sing, dig? I am going to be an all-singing, all-guitar-playing, all-busking Tammy of goodness.

LANCE: (moves past her to LINDA) And how are you going to busk ‘em dead, Linda?

LINDA: I'm going to juggle, Lance, and I'm going to dance. I'm going to juggle, I'm going to dance, and occasionally, if the mood suits me, I'm going to bring out my leetle monkey. My leetle monkey, he's going to have a leetle hat on, and he's going to do leetle back flips.

LANCE: Little back flips? That's just-

LINDA: Leetle.


LANCE: Leetle back flips. Well, that's just outstanding, Linda. Trained monkeys can be such a huge help… as long as you've got leetle diapers. (He laughs obnoxiously and for several beats longer than he should. Then he moves on to TED.) And how about you, Ted? What kind of magical, mystery busking have you got planned?

TED: (no real emotion) I am going to kill the President.


LANCE: Well, you do have to set your sights high in this business.

TED: I have laser sights.


LANCE: (to the audience) Well, that's fantastic. Now the most important thing to keep in mind is the pivotal task of choosing a location.

TAMMY: I'm going to need a spot with good acoustics, where my singin' and playin' can reverberate around and make me sound all hot!

LINDA: I'm going to need a wide open spot where's I can throw them torches and machetes, and where my leetle monkey can do his leetle monkey dance!

TED: I'm going to need a good clean shot at the fucker's forehead.

LANCE: Next let's talk technique. Being a master at your craft is the foundation of your busking career. But there's something else you're going to need. It's called presence. You're going to have to woo your audience. You're going to have to draw them in to your performance. You're going to have to seduce them. Tammy, why don't you try?

(TAMMY steps forward & switches to an adorably sweet folk singer persona)

TAMMY: Oh, y'all have just been so kind, and I really just want to say, from the bottom of my luscious little heart, that y'all have honestly been the BEST street corner I ever played on. And I really want to give you something back. So now, here's a tender love song… from me… to you. It's called… (emotes each word) "Pour Some Sugar… On Me."

LANCE: Sure thing, Tammy, meet me backstage after the seminar. (He laughs obnoxiously and for several beats longer than he should. TAMMY smiles nervously, quickly steps back into line.) How about you, Linda?

(LINDA steps forward. She adopts a vaguely Charo-like persona.)

LINDA: And now I am going to perform perhaps my most dangerous trick yet. You have seen me fearlessly juggle the deadly blades of desire. You have seen me nearly succumb to the smoldering torches of lust. And now… now you will see me cuddle the terrifying monkey of incontinence!

LANCE: Careful there, Linda, I think you may need an extra license for that. (He laughs obnoxiously and for several beats longer than he should. LINDA glares at him as she steps back in line.) All right, Ted, let's see what you got.

(TED steps slowly forward.)

TED: (still no hint of emotion) Die screaming, you shit-slurping baby-raper.

(Pause. TED steps back. LANCE turns to the audience, pretends he didn't hear that.)

LANCE: Well, I think it's just about time for our first coffee and donut break.

(Nobody moves.)

TED: He does rape babies.

LANCE: Will you just stop?


(LIGHTS UP on a sign that reads: "INTERMEDIATE". Lights crossfade to: TAMMY, playing a guitar and singing. ROGER saunters on.)

ROGER: Hey, Tammy.

TAMMY: Oh, hey, Roger. Slow day?

ROGER: My day went to hell. There's some kinda parade or something down on First, they got the whole damn street blocked off from Park all the way down to the Hilton. I can't get anywhere near my corner.

TAMMY: Aww… well, you can share mine if you want. We can take turns. I worked up a new song, listen! (salsa style) "With one breath… with one flow… you will know…" (pause; she forgets next lyric) Well, I'm still kinda working on it.

ROGER: No, it's good, you're working up new material, that's a real solid step. Lots of folks, you know, they never really take it to the next level, they just get their ten songs down and that's all they ever do. They're not thinking about their craft, you know?

TAMMY: I only know six songs.

ROGER: Say, on the topic of new material, I learned a new trick the other day. (he fans a deck of cards) Pick a card, any card. (she picks one) You got it memorized? (she nods) Now I want you to eat the card.

TAMMY: Really?

ROGER: Yeah, just chew it up and swallow it.

(She shrugs, pops it in her mouth, chews it for several bites.)

TAMMY: (mouth full) Tastes pretty bad.

ROGER: That's a good, professional gloss on that card.

(She swallows.)

ROGER: (waves his hands all hocus-pocus-y) Now I will magically find your card in this deck. (he pulls a card out and shows it to her) Was your card the Jack of Diamonds?


ROGER: Really? (she nods) Shit, this deck is fucked now.

(LINDA enters in a huff.)

TAMMY: Hey, Linda!

LINDA: Hey, Tammy. Hey, Roger, fancy meeting you here.

ROGER: Parade?

LINDA: Those jerks pushed me off my corner at four this morning, something about closing the streets and I could come back in eight hours. My leetle monkey will starve to death in eight hours! And today was the day we were gonna premiere our new stunt!

TAMMY: Well, why don't you premiere it right here, Linda?

LINDA: (hopes brightening) Really, you mean it? We worked so hard on it!

(LINDA turns to the audience, adopts her vaguely Charo-like persona.)

LINDA: And now, ladies and gentlemen, my leetle monkey and I will perform our most death-defying stunt yet. In a miraculous motion, my leetle monkey will leap onto the top of my head, where he will dance an amazing tango, and as he does so, I will juggle three flaming torches and hop around in a circle on one foot. But even that is not death-defying enough, for before my leetle monkey ever leaves the ground… I will set him on fire.

TAMMY & ROGER: Oooooh.

(LINDA makes an elaborate show of lighting a torch.)

LINDA: And now, leetle monkey, let us begin.

(She lowers the torch to her leetle monkey, then rises and begins juggling torches.)

LINDA: And so, my leetle monkey is ablaze, and so also do I begin my juggling. And now… now, my leetle monkey LEAPS into the air! (pause) And now he LEAPS into the air…

(A concerned look. She stops juggling.)

TAMMY: They warned us there would be unfortunate smells.

LINDA: Leetle monkey? (pause; forlorn) Ah, shit, he tried to tell me he wasn't ready, but I just didn't believe him.

ROGER: Well, look on the bright side, you don't gotta feed him today.

(BOB dashes in.)

BOB: Say, guys, did you hear about the presidential motorcade?

ROGER: What presidential motorcade?

BOB: The one that's got all the streets blocked off all the way down to the Hilton!

TAMMY: I thought it was a parade or something.

BOB: No, it's a presidential motorcade!

LINDA: Hey, anyone seen Ted lately?

(A loud gunshot is heard offstage. Long pause as they all take in the direction of the gunshot. Then TED enters, forlorn, his entire chest covered in blood from a gunshot wound.)

TED: Fucking Secret Service.


(LIGHTS UP on a sign that reads: "PROFESSIONAL". Lights crossfade to: CHARLIE & LANCE, facing the audience, as television commentators.)

CHARLIE: Welcome back to our coverage of this year's Summer Olympics, and what promises to be a very exciting event – Competition Busking. I'm your host, Charlie Higgins, and here to help call the action is four time busking champion, Lance Donaldson. So who's got the inside track tonight?

LANCE: It's a tough call, Charlie. The French pulled out a surprising early lead, fielding a dark horse team that included a comedian, a violinist, and a caricature artist who only works with pig's blood. Then out of nowhere, we saw the Argentineans leap to the front with their team of a naughty snake charmer, a tricycle stunt-rider, and a folk-dancing economist. If the Americans are going to place in this event, they've really got to turn up the heat.

CHARLIE: Let's meet the American team now.

(TAMMY enters, in spandex if possible.)

CHARLIE: Tammy, you're leading the charge. Are you ready?

TAMMY: (all business) Well, Charlie, as you know we suffered a humiliating loss at the World Cup when I totally went up on the words to "Copa Cabana" and my guitar accidentally exploded. But I've been training hard ever since, and tonight, I'll be singing "The Devil Went Down To Georgia" in Latin, while simultaneously singing "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" in Hebrew. I'll be accompanying myself on a cutting edge Stratocaster, prepared with an alternative, Pythagorean tuning system that allows me to produce "Arthur's Theme" using overtones and unstable sonorities.

CHARLIE: Best of luck, Tammy.

(She nods and jogs off.)

CHARLIE: She's on the field… the crowd falls silent… and she's off!

LANCE: Look at how far she's come, Charlie.

CHARLIE: You're really left in suspense – it's just so fresh, so new, maybe this time, the Devil does win Johnny's soul!

LANCE: I'm feeling emotions I haven't felt in years…

CHARLIE: Sadness? Elation?

LANCE: No, Charlie… it's that loving feeling.

CHARLIE: And wait… some kind of surprise finale…

LANCE: (excited & stunned) It's "I Feel Pretty" in Yiddish! The crowd's going wild!

CHARLIE: The Argentineans must be nervous. And now, here comes the relay competitor for the Americans.

(LINDA enters, in spandex if possible.)

CHARLIE: Linda, you've got to be proud.

LINDA: You ain't seen nothing yet, Charlie. I'm about to juggle a bowling ball, a chainsaw, and a grand piano, while tap dancing barefoot across a wading pool filled with rusting razor blades. As I do this, my ferocious leetle hedgehog will be gnawing a hole in my stomach, feasting on my innards and cackling his leetle hedgehog cackle. And for the grand finish, I am going to swallow my own head.

(She jogs off.)

CHARLIE: There she goes, Lance… will you just look at that little hedgehog!

LANCE: Leetle hedgehog.

CHARLIE: Yes sir, that's quite a cackle on that hedgehog.

LANCE: Look at how deft she is keeping that grand piano up in the air… and all while her feet are being sliced into horrible, bloody slivers of flesh.

CHARLIE: She's going for the head… she's going for the head… HER HEAD IS INSIDE OUT, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!

LANCE: If I were an Argentinean right now, I would be shooting piss out of my eyeballs.

CHARLIE: This event is the Americans' to win or lose, with just their anchor competitor left.

(TED enters, in spandex if possible, displaying no emotion as usual.)

CHARLIE: Ted, what's your strategy for keeping the lead?

TED: I am going to kill the President.

(He exits.)

CHARLIE: We've got a lot of presidents in the crowd tonight, but something tells me the President of Botswana doesn't have much to worry about.

LANCE: He's handling that weapon exactly like he'd handle a woman, Charlie.

CHARLIE: With severe, murderous intent?

LANCE: Exactly.

CHARLIE: Let's watch.

(LIGHTS FADE on CHARLIE & LANCE. A small POOL OF LIGHT comes up on TED, who faces the audience resolutely.)

TED: I just can't help it. (pause) I hate that fucker.


[This play is widely regarded by those who were there as one of the worst plays ever witnessed at 14/48. It was my first time writing for the 14/48 festival, and I made every single rookie mistake you could possibly make. If you're ever writing for 14/48 and you hear the advice "No three act plays," it's possible this is the play that caused that gem of wisdom to enter the vernacular. I don't think this play is terrible, mind you – at best, it does achieve a certain uniform mediocrity, with some funny bits scattered haphazardly about. But it's pretty much all concept and no dramatic tension, which is a recipe for yawnsville. The characters have no real motivation for doing anything you see them doing. And it's thoroughly over-written for a show that is only going to get a handful of hours to rehearse; I had this mistaken notion that the ten minute time limit meant that I should cram TEN! FUCKING! MINUTES! worth of dialogue and business into the script. Bad plan. The actors hated it; the director wound up having to cut the entire middle scene just to get this out the door; the show wobbled madly in performance and was one of those "I can't believe I had to just sit through that" kind of 14/48 experiences. The play I wrote the second night was a dramatic improvement, but it didn't erase the impact of that first night from anyone's minds. At the after party, I'm sure no one actively pointed at me and laughed, but that was the general vibe, and it lasted quite a while; I didn't get invited back to write for another three and a half years. At any rate, you might think I'd want to bury this script deep within the bowels of the earth, but in a perverse way, this play is a tiny but distinct part of 14/48 lore, and I still have a tiny but distinct soft spot for it. Let this script stand as a cautionary tale: it's seductive to let the imagination roam completely free, but in the long run, it's usually best to just keep it fucking simple, stupid.]

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