24 April 2007

Holler if you Hear Me


I just want to give a shout-out to my peeps.

Actually, I hate Peeps(TM). They're just glorified puffed sugar, like diabetes-inducing rice cakes. But I know some people who love the Peeps(r), and I love the people who love the Peeps(patent pending) so, ergo, ipso facto, I love the Peeps(k) too, and must shout it out unto them. This entry, thus, is for ma' Peeps.

Some of y'all (most of my peeps hail from Virginia [though Northern {which was going to secede just like West, until they realized they had no natural resources}]) may have wondered where the Aviary went for the past three days. Some, in fact, may have panicked, and I offer my most profound apologies to just those panicky some. It's all right. It's okay. You can cry without shame, and I will hold you just as long as you need to be held. Maybe a little longer. Why not? No one's looking. And maybe, if that's too warm for you, you can just go ahead and take your shirt off. That's cool. We're just friends hugging here. And if that hug gets a little rubby, you know, if the, fingers get curious and the breathing gets throaty, hey--

Whoa. Where was I going with that? Oh right: Jail. For lewd 'blogostomy.

Where have I been? Well, I was ill. Again. Yeah. Thas' right. Because I rule so bad. There are aspects of my reputation as a performer that I quite enjoy, such as being unerringly punctual (unless I miss rehearsal altogether, eh, TPers?) and always having some outlandishly overwrought physical choice to contribute. The one I'd just as soon not have continue, however, is my proclivity for infection during the course of a show. I was wicked good at that in college (starring in The Three Musketeers with a swollen throat and fever of 102) and thought I had whipped it (whipped it good) in the early years of my adulthood, but the past year+ now has brought the return of the leprous liturgist. This time it was a head cold that fell into my throat, which created the intriguing aspect of never knowing if my voice would go out in the middle of A Lie of the Mind last weekend.

Owing to how we've staged the show, with cross-fades in lieu of blackouts, after the act break I end up lying mostly motionless on my side on a box for about twenty minutes at the top of our Act II (Shepard's Act III) before being suddenly woken to proclaim a somewhat lengthy monologue. Well, last weekend it was always a crap-shoot whether or not I'd have any voice whatsoever after my little silent nap. The worst was Friday night. I sat up and started talking, and it was like trying to rattle a piece of papyrus, my larynx had gone so brittle. I made it, thankfully. In fact, I got some compliments on how effectively I played the character's fever. Which I took. What? That's valid.

The other thing is, I plowed through my congestion to take yet another trip out to the sticks. Or, as it is more commonly known to those what live there, Scranton, Pennsylvania--home to all things Northeast-Theatre-like. I was there to go on a sort of first date. Zuppa del Giorno is beginning to collaborate with a few community groups for our upcoming projects, among them Marywood University and the Scranton State School for the Deaf. We were to attend a rehearsal for the latter's production of Grease, and while there show them a little something of what we do, too.

Yes: Grease. Yes: School for the deaf. I recognize that this smacks of a really poor set-up for some even worse punchlines. Such is not my intention, however, as the high schoolers we met that day probably have gone right out and found every single website associated with us they could. Gang, if you're reading, I can only hope I half rocked your world like you rocked mine.

As it was going to be just Heather Stuart and I to perform our half of the bargain, we planned to do our clown piece, "Death + a Maiden," and had to allot time to refresh it before unveiling its silly splendor for what we imagined to be culturally jaded teenagers. We had the theatre to ourselves, and that is a fairly big space. Well, huge from a struggling New York actor standpoint. I was reminded, between gasping for air without the use of my nose and chugging Alka-Seltzer Cold concoctions, of the sacredness of space for a performer. As Heather and I struggled to feel our roles again, to polish our beats 'til they shined like the top of the Chrysler Building, I thought of how it would be yet four more months until Zuppa rode out our new debut, and wondered what work lay before us.

Heather, as I have mentioned previously, has moved out to Scranton, and before we took to the stage of the deaf I got my first look at her new place. It's really nice; idyllic, in a Benny and Joon kind of way. The entire time I was there, she and David Zarko cracked jokes about how long I was going to wait before caving and moving out there myself. It's hard to say if they had any idea how much I'd thought about it in recent months. Still, their jokes peppered my appetite for New York adventures in a very appetizing way. Just tonight I was out past my bedtime, catching a mixed bag of short plays. How I would miss that sort of thing.

Before we even met the students at the Scranton School I felt simultaneously like I was dreaming and like I had returned to Italy. Obviously, all the faculty there use sign language. Not so obvious is who amongst them can speak as well. As in Italy, I found myself having to remind myself to look to the person being translated, rather than the translator, and as in a dream I began to sense the sense of a language and culture I had virtually no exposure to prior to the moment. It was a matter of only seconds before my mind began making connections and understanding the tone of some of what was being "said," if none of the words or symbols used. That would have been fascinating enough, but we were there to the meet actors who were native to that country.

In a gymnasium with a stage built into one end we met about twenty young actors and technicians who couldn't hear a word we said. Our introductions and conversation all flowed through the hands and lips of a translator or, often, several, as others "mirrored" what was being said in order for everyone to get what was being said. There were still kids more interested in what they had to say at the moment than what the class was discussing (one I think I even caught making something of a dirty joke with his pals) but in this context such side conversations were easy to let be . . . one just kept his eyes on the ball. Like all first dates, it was awkward at first. It was funny, actually. No one was quite sure what he or she was doing there, or what the other wanted from them. Eventually we determined that the home team would show their stuff first, so they brought us chairs as we sat back to see a scene from Grease.

Five girls played the sleepover scene, and broke into gesticulated song with "Frankie my Darling." ("Frankie my Love"? I don't know. I don't know Grease. Or sign language, for that matter.) There was no music--they were still working on getting their speakers rigged to vibrate the stage so the actors could feel the beat--but somehow the actors kept in perfect sync with one another. As they signed, a translator spoke, always about a beat or two behind their delivery. By the end of the scene, we weren't laughing at the translated lines, but at the delivery, silent and as literally inexplicable as could be, simply because we understood the characters and their feelings based on the acting and, somehow, the tone of the signing. Actually, it was some of the most naturalistic acting I have seen from high schoolers, and I wonder how much of that has to do with their living first and foremost in a physical language.

When they finished the scene, we applauded. There was an awkward silence. I mean, even hands were silent. We didn't know what was to come next; but I asked a question. Did they begin with a table reading, as we usually do? From this the actress playing Sandy launched into an explanation about how English is a kind of second language to them, signing being the first, and that there's no direct translation between the two. After all, it isn't like sign language evolved from a romantic or Latin-based language. It is its own entity, and so any time a script is performed in it, the whole thing doesn't just have to be translated, but transliterated. The interpretation an actor must perform begins at the level of the very language they choose, and thus there's an added dimension of reaching agreement between everyone in their understanding of the script. We asked them if they ever improvised, and had to spend some time explaining the very concept to them, so Zuppa may end up really giving them something different.

Finally, we took the stage with our little clown piece, and I was nervous as can be. Would they get it? Would they be insulted by the noses, or the style? Would the piece hang together without their hearing the music, getting the auditory jokes? At first it was silent. My entrance as a red-nosed Death usually elicits a healthy chuckle, but not this time, and I suddenly wondered how laughter came out of people unaccustomed to using sounds to communicate. Would I recognize it?

I did. Shortly after my entrance, I took an illustrative swing with my plastic scythe and the handle bent, hinging the blade back on itself cartoonishly for an instant before straightening out again. The laughter was some of the sweetest I've ever heard. From there in we were all set. They laughed at our courtship--an interesting parallel, the first-date scenario realized within a first date--and oo-ed at the acrobalance. When we finished, they clapped and we took our bows. There was a very brief question-and-answer session, akin to those following matinée performances at the theatre, in which one gets the impression everyone there is much more interested in lunch than information. But then class was dismissed, and every student came forward to shake our hands. When they saw we were not in a rush to go, they flooded us (in a necessarily one-at-a-time fashion) with questions. One boy said he loved "this clown stuff" and wanted to know if we'd teach him. One wanted to know if we'd be back the next day. One wanted to know if my character knew his kiss would kill the girl before he did it.

I can't wait to work with these kids again. Zuppa's becoming a sort of incorporation of different communities, and it's an exciting prospect. We speak of commedia dell'arte being a living tradition in our shows and workshops, and now it seems we're paying the tradition back a little for all the life it's given us. So let this entry be a shout-out to all the people who've supported Zuppa del Giorno along the way. And to our new friends at the Scranton State School, I raise the roof. You guys can teach me a cooler gesture when we work together in the fall.

3 comments:

walkinhomefromthethriftstore said...

That's so cool! One of the shows in my top ten was a production called Ophelia by the American Theater for the Deaf. They chopped up a bunch of Shakespeare plays to make one centering on Ophelia, and it was soooooo bad-ass. They had one guy and one girl doing the voices and all the other actors were signing. When Ophelia drowned she walked between a row of actors while the voice person did the speech where she lists all the flowers, and some of the actors signed the flower names, and others made wavy water motions. I can't lie, I was cryin' like Morissey.

Jeff Wills said...

Indeed, that sounds bad-ass. (I keep thinking about sound-related vernacular since visiting people who have no concept of it: listen, sounds like it, I need more cowbell...) The only thing more bad-ass is your coining th phrase "cryin' like Morissey," which shall forever more be a part of my lexicon.

Anonymous said...

http://geekologie.com/2007/04/amazing_cardcraft_robot_goes_u.php