Trevor Moore House Party

A couple weeks before Christmas in 2020 I heard my 9-year-old daughter and wife laughing at a teevee show. I went in to the family room to find them watching a Disney Christmas special. For the next few days my daughter raved about the show, and my wife said it was really funny, and both said there was an even better Disney Halloween special that they’d binge-watched after the Christmas special. My daughter’s sense of humor can usually be trusted (as can my wife’s), so I gave in and watched them with my kid. ‘Halloween House Party’ and ‘Holiday House Party’ turned out to be really good. Both were kid-appropriate sketch comedy shows performed by Disney actors on covid hiatus that still managed to be funny. The host segments were pretty lame but the sketches were great. So I stuck around to the credits and the name that popped up was Trevor Moore.

Trevor Moore I

That was a name I first heard in 2000. I was working a local theater company called Live Arts. Now a giant silver non-profit theater on Water Street, Live Arts was then a squat brick non-profit warehouse space on Market Street. I was hired as one of two ‘dramaturgs’. Dramaturgs assist playwrights in commissioned works, read submitted scripts, and aid productions with research. At Live Arts these were brand-new positions allegedly created because a donor wanted to support new works. (In the world of non-profit corporations, however, much like the world of for-profit corporations, one never learns the truth of these rumors.) I didn’t study theater in college but since the 90s I’d been neck-deep in Charlottesville’s budding theater scene, (Shockingly, Charlottesville had one.) and I’d had a lot of experience with new works both as a playwright and a producer. My fellow hiree was K____. Although she had little experience in hands-on theater and none with new works, she had a degree and a lot of experience with non-profit organizations, so it was a good pairing. The Artistic Director, hoped K could help Live Arts bring in grant money. K was organized, competent, and friendly and I liked sharing the job with her. We split support work for the season’s mainstage plays (For the record I got Cripple of Inishmaan, Candide, Teresa Dowell-Vest’s new commissioned play, Vinegar Hill, and maybe something else?). The official new works program never seemed to materialize so while K concentrated on the grants, I concentrating on booking shows for our 40-seat black box theater called the ‘LAB’ (which stood for ‘Live Arts B’).

The LAB.

Most non-profit theaters have these secondary spaces created for alternative, intimate, and cutting-edge programming. But due to the realities of the theater world these second spaces usually end up being just the smaller venue for the season’s plays that alternates with the bigger venue. (Which is how the 2nd space, no longer called the LAB, mostly functions in the silver Live Arts of today.) The LAB had not yet made that transition so there were real opportunities. I loved the space and I really did make it a vibrant and original venue for the year I held the keys.

Live Arts on Market Street shared a mixed-use building with offices, a small hippie school, and lots of apartments, wrapping around a courtyard. The layout meant I could use the building’s lobby and bathrooms as the LAB’s lobby and bathrooms, and a counter just inside the LAB entrance meant that one person could both sell tickets and serve concessions–and even make a few bucks from the tip jar. (Shout out to Brooke Plotnick who worked a lot of shows that year!) I created different types of contracts for the space so experienced performers could rent it outright and complete newbies could partner with Live Arts (basically me) to produce it (in which case we’d keep the money), or we could split responsibilities and profits 50/50, and I created a fixed lighting grid so acts could load in and out quickly. The result was we had a busy and productive year including: Russell Richards staged a satirical puppet show, Stevie J reprised his popular one-person show, local songwriters recorded a live album called King of My Living Room, I hosted and produced a variety show as part of the Festival of the Book in which locals presented 5-minute live interpretations of famous novels (marked by a kitchen timer), a new UVa group called Third Man produced a stripped-down version of Glengarry Glen Ross (Third Man would go on to produce plays in New York for several years, including many scripts that I wrote… so I ended up doing well by doing good), Amanda McRaven produced Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologs, plus the LAB was one of the venues of the first ever Summer Theater Festival, which I was privileged to play a role in designing. I tried to get the word out that the LAB was available, and the word got out. And I did all this with no grants or external budget, since the shows paid for themselves.

Amid all this, a friend named Aer Stephen, called to tell me there was a high-school kid who had a cable access show that would be perfect for the LAB. The story I remember Aer telling me (which may not be what he told me) is that he’d heard that Trevor Moore had a sketch comedy show on a Christian cable network because the idiosyncratic owner of the network thought he was funny. But viewers complained so Trevor Moore moved his show to Charlottesville’s cable-access channel. I’d never seen the show–didn’t even own a teevee till decades later when my wife ruined me–but this seemed like what the LAB was made for. So phone calls happened and a meeting was set.

We met in the LAB one afternoon sitting on folding chairs with the sun streaming in the metal windows. Trevor was very tall and thin with teenage skin, and a tranquil demeanor, so tranquil he barely seemed to blink. But what was unusual was Trevor came with an entourage. There was a middle-aged husband and wife who identified as Trevor’s writers, I think. (Who ever heard of a cable-access show with writers?) Also there was another teenager who was as short as Trevor was tall, and as jumpy as Trevor was placid. He looked back and forth at Trevor to gauge his reactions to everything I said. Basically he was a sidekick, which is a terrible thing to say about a teenager, but there it was. He seemed exactly like the Ed McMahon guys who sit with the late night talk show hosts before the celebrity guests come out, and I always wonder if they really like their jobs. Anyway I went over the rules and talked through the options. Trevor never appeared nervous, curious, excited, or surprised. He just gazed at me in his tranquil way. So we booked a date, signed a contract–I think it was a 50-50% split–and awaited what I think was one rehearsal on Saturday morning followed by two shows back to back.

On show days I would usually come by to open the building and set up the box office. I never sat to watch rehearsals from beginning to end because I felt the performers had enough to worry about without the landlord around. But I always came and went and listened from the wings to make sure what would appear on stage didn’t involve death, injury, or future lawsuits. I remember that Trevor’s show was a mix of live skits, short video segments, and parody songs. The best bit was a fantastic impersonation of Steve Irwin, the late Australian teevee host of Crocodile Hunter. Trevor Moore really embodied Irwin’s manic joy and recklessness with precision, generosity, and a decent Australian accent. The rest was more forgettable. I do remember not liking some of what I took as mean-spirited (I think he was making fun of homeless people or something like that). I find a lot of entertainment pointlessly mean-spirited (Pinter, Mamet, South Park, most stand-up comedy, anything Bill Maher has ever done) but I know that most people feel differently. I certainly never expected LAB shows to abide by my tastes. Come showtime the house was packed, which is a producer’s pleasure, and the audience loved it, which is a producer’s dream. Plus they looked like newcomers to Live Arts which sated the staff member in me. They delighted in Trevor and he in them. It was another successful show in a year of successful shows. When it was over we settled whatever needed settling, I congratulated him, and that was that. I would have invited him back for the following year, but my time at Live Arts didn’t last.

Unfortunately…

Corporations are a mess, and that’s just as true of non-profits as for-profits. Individuals accomplish all kinds of wonderful things in both kinds of corporations that’s despite, not because of, the organizational structure. Corporations are legally governed by boards that over time lose hands-on knowledge of what the organizations do, while the work is done by employees (and/or volunteers) that have little direct knowledge of what the boards do. So executives (Artistic Directors, Managing Directors, etc) must play bridge the gap, which in practice means playing both sides against the other or they’ll lose their jobs. This fuels a culture of upbeat mendacity at all levels. Lauren Halvorsen writes a wonderful newsletter (Nothing for the Group) about the mess of the theater world (I wish her posts on Artistic Director scandals and resignations were collected in one list). If you doubt me go there. The point is, I accomplished all this because I was prudent and discreet about it. Certainly I couldn’t tell the Artistic Director we were staging a live version of a teenager’s cable access show. “Joel, don’t we already have a youth education program? Why here? Why now?” Mostly, I was waiting to launch the long-awaited new works program. I imagined commissioning multiple short plays to be staged in the space.

One week the AD approached me. “Joel, if you’re free why don’t you come to the board meeting this week.” He’d never invited me to a board meeting, and I beamed my what-a-good-boy-am-I glow imagining the public acknowledgment I was to receive. The meeting was in the black box theater main space. When I arrived the board members were lingering around a table making small talk. It was in an open space set up for a play rehearsal. I skirted them and headed toward a handful of other non-board-member attendees sitting in some chairs along a riser. I sat beside K and we swapped hellos but her smile was thin as if she were nervous. The meeting was called to order. Chairs screeched, binders opened, important people laughed in their officious way.

The board began with preliminaries and transitioned to minutes and reports. Then the Artistic Director was called to report on a new project. He rose and announced that, as everyone was aware, our dramaturgical department had been given a donation of several thousand dollars several months ago to develop new works. I was not part of that ‘everyone’. My eyes shot to K, but she avoided my gaze. The AD continued: Live Arts had just commissioned a dance troupe for a piece exploring through movement the McGuffey Reader (a 19th century text written by a Charlottesville educator). The AD boasted the amount that would be given to the troupe for the research, rehearsal, and creation of the show. I had never heard of the project or the donation, but I noticed that the amount the troupe would get what use up that entire donation. Also that particular dance troupe to my knowledge had never done work involving texts or historical materials. I looked around but everyone else in the room seemed to know what this was about. I realized that I’d been invited here for the sole purpose of making it look like I knew and approved. My boss had given my entire budget to a dance troupe without even telling me, and my partner K had gone along with it, also not telling me.

In the following weeks I made all the excuses one makes when working in these situations, excuses for K, for the AD, for the system, for me to be so stupid. But I couldn’t shake the gnawing disgust. I stayed in the job through the first Summer Theater Festival and to finish the shows I’d booked. Then I gave notice and left. The LAB sat empty for several months until a playwright named Todd Ristau got permission to use it for a Saturday open mic and another volunteer, Jessica McCoy, got involved as well. Both worked for free. The commissioned dance piece ran in the following season but title changed to Primer. It was an exploration of the dancers’ own memories of childhood education with no trace of the McGuffey Reader text or any historical material. We could have commissioned the same piece for 1/2 to 2/3 of what Live Arts spent and used the rest of the money to commission scripts.

Trevor Moore II

New York 2009. I’m living in Astoria, Queens and performing with comedy groups at the Magnet Theater on 29th Street in Manhattan. Magnet Theater was and is a small, comedy improv theater, that along with Upright Citizens Brigade and People’s Improv Theater, operated completely differently from the non-profit world I knew in Charlottesville. Being able to compare and contrast those two worlds was endlessly fascinating, and intimacy of the Magnet reminded me of the LAB. For my pre-show routine I usually got off the N train at Harold Square for a mind-clearing stroll. But on that day for some reason I was walking toward the theater down 8th Avenue. It was summer, so not yet dusk, and I happened to look up and notice a giant billboard several blocks farther south. Beneath the title ‘The Whitest Kids U Know’ were five young slightly-geeky young men in that slouchy alt-band pose of a million publicity stills, but with shorter hair, no middle fingers raised, and their names printed. Next to a familiar-looking twenty-something was printed ‘Trevor Moore’.

Sure enough, this ‘Trevor Moore’ looked just like an older version of the Trevor Moore from a decade ago! Even though I still didn’t own a television (my future wife and I had just started dating but hadn’t moved in together) I recognized the billboard’s IFC logo as a cable network. That kid had got himself a teevee show! Good for him! He’d been so organized, industrious, and agreeable. I wondered whether that sidekick kid was one of the other kids in the picture, and if not, where was he now and how did he feel about his friend’s success? I felt bad that I’d never learned his name. And were the older couple writing for the show? I should have remembered their names too.

Speaking of names, I hated Whitest Kids U Know. Just cringy to me. I get that it’s a joke, but it seems lazy. And impracticl. What if they saw a brilliant black comedian and wanted to add him or her to their lineup? Do they change their name? ‘Whitest Kids U Know’ reminded me of that casual meanness I felt back at some points in Trevor’s LAB show. But again, I know that I’m picky in the way that most people aren’t. I told myself when I got to Magnet I would ask the other performers, who were all younger and more teevee-literate, if Trevor’s show was good and/or if it was successful. Also I should check out clips on YouTube. Also I should keep Trevor in mind should I ever get back into non-profit theater and need donors for some project. But as soon as I got to theater I started thinking about my improv troupe, and the audience, and the space, and the wonder of it all, and forgot all about Trevor Moore.

Trevor Moore III

Big Blue Door. In 2012 my wife and I (now married) moved back to Charlottesville with our new-born daughter and started Big Blue Door. It was largely based on Magnet (with permission) plus ideas of our own thrown in. I taught improv and storytelling and we had big monthly storytelling shows called Big Blue Door Jams. As the improv program grew and my wife went back to work, I opened a studio in McGuffey Art Center (Which is named coincidentally after the school it resides in, which was named after the educator who wrote the McGuffey Reader that the dance troupe was supposed to, but didn’t, use. Big Blue Door was very successful–as successful in its own way as my time at the LAB but without the mendacity and corporate drama. Best of all the hours were more predictable so I had the flexibility to be with my daughter as she grew up. As far as my lifelong interest in organizations, Big Blue Door certainly proved to me that the Magnet model, despite flaws of its own, worked much better than the non-profit model.

Then the pandemic hit. Schools closed, my wife was trapped working from a desk stuffed into our bedroom (with a computer table I’d screwed together from 2x4s), and Big Blue Door was annihilated. My daughter, a spirited and intense child, was especially hard hit by the lock-down. Since moving in together my wife and I had owned a television, and since moving back to Charlottesville we’ve it’s been attached to an antenna for network shows, but when covid came my wife took the initiative to buy us an Amazon Firestick. And that has Disney Plus. My daughter immediately started watching a lot of Disney. And I mean A LOT of Disney. Which meant–given the tiny size of our house–I listened to A LOT of Disney.

When it comes to corporations Disney out-corporates them all, of course. Things I hate about Disney teevee: the broad farcical style of the adult actors/characters; all the geek and nerd characters; the moral dubiousness of child actors in general. It’s hard to completely enjoy a show wondering how many kids on it will end up dead at 24 from drug overdoses or alcohol-induced drowning on houseboats in Sausalito. Fame at any age is unhealthy, for kids it’s deadly.

Things I like about Disney teevee: Female lead characters; Talented teen actors; The writing of some of the shows. For those in need of programming to watch with your own 9-year-old daughters consider Sydney to the Max, Liv and Maddie, and particularly Just Roll With It, a live studio show in which a buzzer sounds part-way through and the audience votes on what happens next. It’s goofy but funny, and it reminds me of improv and the Magnet and Chicago somehow. Best of all the parents are less ridiculous than the parents of say, Liv and Maddy. (Credit to directors, actors, and writers for this.)

Meanwhile the world outside was a mess. Charlottesville was and is in many ways still in tatters from the Alt-Right protests of 2017. During the lock down Live Arts, not able to use its stages, ran a series of video retrospectives put together as fundraising. A year per episode with Live Arts luminaries being interviewed. (Not chronological years; the ‘seasons’ of theaters run fall to summer, like college years.) When time as a dramaturg rolled around, I was somewhat surprised that the invited guests were Jessica and Todd, since they didn’t get involved in Live Arts till the following year. I was more surprised when, as discussion turned to the LAB, the interviewer assigned them credit for all the shows that I’d produced, and downright shocked that they accepted it. (Jessica seemed a bit reluctant. Todd not so much.) My wife was listening and was gobsmacked. For me I was just glad my daughter had refused to listen to these videos because they were ‘boring.’ I could picture having bragged to her about my intentional, deliberate, and strategic LAB program and having looked like a liar. The story was now that the open mic had bred a natural effusion of creativity that had led to everything else, chronology-be-damned.

So 2020 grinds along miserably. I hoped I could bring back classes in the fall but Epsilon killed that. I’d completed two successful terms on the McGuffey Executive Council but now watched as some of my favorite ideas and programs fell by the wayside. Fall turns to winter and I’m worried about money and my future and my sanity. Then in December I heard the laughter, and my daughter compels me to watch the Disney Holiday House Party and the Disney Halloween House Party. And they’re good. And they’re written by Trevor Moore, and the two lead adult actors in Just Roll With It were in the specials. So I google their names: Tobie Windham and Suzi Barrett. Both are really good actors. In their parent roles both are solid, smart, and funny. They even manage to convey genuine emotion despite the broad Disney house style. And now in the House Part(ies) they get to show more range. Windham nails a skit about a bittersweet monster hiding under a bed. Barrett nails a skit about a ghost who tries to haunt newcomers in a house only to end up doing their laundry. Then in IMDB i notice that Just Roll With It is written by Trevor Moore.

I couldn’t have been prouder. Seeing him on a billboard as a successful performer I felt happy for him, but seeing him as a writer for Disney I felt happy for everyone. I know that writing shows for kids will never be cool like being a young man in a comedy troupe, but giving work to actors like Tobie Windham and Suzi Barrett and writing something my own kid can enjoy is what life and art are actually about. That’s why I ran the LAB and quit the LAB, and went to NY and left NY to start Big Blue Door. I wanted to yell out the window, Hey everyone, that kid grew up to be writer skilled enough he can throw together a funny sketch show for out-of-work Disney actors! I thought of Aer Stephen (the guy who’d connected Trevor to the LAB). He’d moved to Los Angeles, and I wanted to call him and ask him if remembered Trevor. But I’d lost all my old phone numbers when I dropped my I-phone in a cup of water. I should write through Facebook. But things came up and I never did.

Aer, it turns out, did remember Trevor. In the summer of 2021 he wrote me on Facebook to ask if I knew that Trevor Moore, the kid from back in the day, had died. He sent a link. Trevor’s death was referred to as an accident, which in Hollywood could mean dying by heart attack while snorting cocaine off a Vegas prostitute. The vagueness wasn’t reassuring. Aer said Trevor was married with a child, and my first hope was that his kid, growing up without a father already, wouldn’t be double-burdened by some shameful death. I hoped the truthfulness of Trevor’s old Steve Irwin impression came from some reckless instinct of his own, and his death was truly an accident. My second hope was for all the performers who relied on him as a writer. There are always funny young men waiting to do funny things, but when a talented writer dies people lose good jobs, jobs on the shows where everyone can take pride in what they’re doing. For the child actors in Just Roll With It I hope they don’t end up dead at 24 from drug overdoses or alcohol-induced drowning on houseboats in Sausalito. As for Suzi Barrett and Tobie Windham, I hope the only hope worth anything to a good actor: I hope they keep getting work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s