28 January 2008
I heard recently (can't recall where) that a fear of clowns was the universal fear of all children. I know some adults who would postulate that children ain't the half of it. Clown fear, or coulrophobia, is prevalent. Of that there can be no doubt. Check some articles, my fine, feathered readers: and a-one, and a-two, and a-three. I hardly feel a need to provide references for this phobia, however. It seems to be universally understood that clowns are, under the right, or wrong or, for some, any circumstances, scary. Friend Davey backs this up. He doesn't like clowns, either (though apparently the Puck from Neil Gaiman's Sandman he's just hunky-dorry with), and one of his best friends is a clown. It's tearing our nation apart! It's brother against brother! Cats and dogs, living together; mass hysteria!
And that is what I think the fear of clowns comes down to. Someone, please, tell me if I've got it all backward. I'd love further insight into coulrophobia. (And while you're at it, please break down the etymology of that word, too.) To me, who only fears the certain, intentionally scary clown, it comes down to anarchy. People simply don't know what a clown will do next, and on top of that, clowns are the ultimate breakers of the fourth wall, or the audience-performer separation. We can't exist without you, audience. If a clown gets his foot lodged in a trashcan, then stumbles around until accidentally setting himself on fire, and no one's around to hear the screams of agony, did the clown really get his foot lodged in a trashcan and stumble around until accidentally setting himself aflame? The sad answer is: No, my dear audience. No.
I love clown work. I was introduced to it as a performer by a fellow clown, Grey Valenti. Friend Grey graduated from the Dell'Arte school, is a member in good standing of Zuppa del Giorno, and directed our only full-length clown production to date: Silent Lives. I think it's safe to say that Grey feels she learned a lot from clowning--the which she does in the general Lecoq/red-nose style--and applies those lessons to the rest of her life. I was very cautious to enter that world for quite a while. Rather like my few flirtations with attempting dance, I would find myself feeling lost in the work, a stranger in a strange land, and quickly become discouraged. Add to that all the aspects of clowning that actors are trained not to do, such as acknowledging the audience or drastically modifying one's behavior on stage in response to them, and you have yourself a pretty scary little world to enter . . . even without the intimidation of how personal clown work is. The idea is that one's clown is unique to one's self, thriving on our unexpressed emotions, and that the more difficult a time the clown is having, the funnier it is to the audience.
Taken from that perspective, I wonder if persons suffering from coulrophobia might not start to feel some sympathy for the clowns they meet.
It's unfortunate that, in our community at large (I'm speaking here of the U.S. of America, people), a "clown" has the stigma that it does. Google images of "clown" and (as of the date of this writing) you get that whole "birthday-clown" package, replete with elaborate face paint, grotesque colors and ginormous shoes. You also get Google suggesting you try searching for "scary clowns." The allegory here is very nearly self-evident. I don't know a lot about how the birthday clown(TM) became the prototype clown for us. I can assume influences from what I know of clown history, but that's just what they'd be: assumptions. I do go so far as to suggest, however, that the birthday clown is the result of a certain competitive and/or capitalistic philosophy we tend to adopt, knowingly or no. Drive anything to a certain point of extremes, and it will become grotesque.
These things do not a clown make. We've got clowns we love (or hate) unabashedly, without fear, surrounding us in our culture. Certainly two of the greatest silent-film comedians were clowns (I'm not sure I'd classify Harold Lloyd as one; I see him as beginning the swing toward more naturalistic comedy), and possibly the birthday clown has borrowed from their pedestrian wardrobe. Dr. Stephen T. Colbert is a clown, and I don't mean that in the derogatory sense. I mean that he is an iconic comedian, heavily dependent upon his audience, and who is developed out of the particular personality of a performer. The fact that he is also a scripted telelvision "host," more verbally motivated than driven by pratfall, is simply an adaptation to the time, and has evolved from other, more Western traditions of clowning. I believe Simon Cowell may be a clown, too. If he really behaves the way he does on American Idol at all times in his life, well, then he's not, and I pity him.
The funny thing about clowns (ha-ha), is that we are essentially children. I've spoken to a lot of people with theories from all sorts of places about why this fear of clowns. My sister recently insisted that the "traditional" clown face-painting taps into a primal fear of death, that children see a white face and know instinctively that it means a dead person. Could be. Lots of articles suggest that clowns are chaos-makers, and most mythologies contain some such figure, which is often associated with animalistic behavior. A fear of clowns, then, is a survival instinct, a defensive reaction to something outside one's community that has found its way in. (Never mind that many Native Americans figured this clown figure--Raven--for having created the world.) I can dig it. Me, though: I think people are threatened by the anarchy of a person behaving child-like. That is, in ignorance of "the rules."
As I grow older and (ever-so-slowly) more mature, I value what the clown has to teach me more and more. The clown takes nothing for granted. The clown makes mistakes regularly, and makes them with absolute commitment, and sometimes they even work out for him or her, in which case he or she never comes to view it as a mistake. The clown sees purpose in everything, understanding in nothing. The clown is selfish in its needs, yet absolutely dependent on the love of others. The clown, in short, makes me feel a little less an "adult, " and a little more human.
Which, I admit, can be scary.
18 January 2008
This entry is not about the formative experience that watching the above-mentioned situation comedy was for me. Nor is it about using proper punctuation in titling. It is, however, about company. Or rather, companies. Or rather, theatre companies. And threes are just funny, as any self-respecting reader of this 'blog by now knows.
I have been a part of several start-up theatre companies at this point, and I have been in-on-the-ground-floor-ish of several original shows, the which is a bit like being a part of the beginning of a repertory company (just one that is guaranteed to disband at some point [probably a month or so from the first rehearsal]). I'm sure there are many who have been a part of more over the course of a decade, but I've had my share. A brief history:
- Just after junior high (which is 7-8 grade in NoVa), my drama teacher at Lake Braddock started his own summer theatre camp, producing children's plays he had written, which were mostly adapted fairy tales or adaptations of existing plays. I attended two summers, the first two, and looking back I'd say it was safe to suggest that he had very little idea where to begin. He just began, and it was begun. As far as I know, that "company" disbanded when he switched to teaching high-school theatre at a different school.
- In high school, every show was like a company beginning and ending, in the compressed nature of intense teenage experiences. The one we really felt we owned, however, was our competitive improvisation troupe. That one ended, for me, in graduation, but as far as I know continues on through the years at good ol' James W. Robinson.
- In college I fell in with a group which eventually came to be called Lacquespace (sp?) Enesmble, or Theatre, or Productions, or something like that. It was essentially formed from the frustrations of a writer who wasn't getting what she wanted from the curriculum and actors who were tired of not get cast, either for grade restrictions or simply because they went unnoticed. The group put on several well-meaning, hard-working productions. I acted in the first and wrote something for another. At a class meeting (read: me: geek: I was '99 theatre class president), I suggested that we needed to get involved to keep Lack-space alive after we garduated, and the woman who got it started misinterpretted it as an attempt to wrest control from her. Still, I believe it continued beyond our departure. When I graduated, a younger woman was at the helm, steering it toward geurilla theatre.
- It took me a while to get settled, upon graduating college and moving to New York, and for some time there was no possibility of knowing enough people to strike up an organization. Then, about a year into my residence, the seeds of two such start-ups were planted. From the group that produced a show entitled Significant Circus would eventually come the circus-theatre troupe Kirkos, and from my work with David Zarko on a farce entitled Der Talisman I would come to be included in the formation of Zuppa del Giorno, the contemporary commedia dell'arte troupe. Kirkos enjoyed a few years of productivity, but now exists more as a talent-funneling organization than anything else. Zuppa del Giorno, of course, is still going strong in Scranton--as well as annually in Orvieto--and for that I am grateful.
- UnCommon Cause (formerly known as Joint Stock Theatre Alliance) began the process that would eventually become As Far As We Know almost four years ago, and nearly three years ago I was invited to join it. This does not a company make, but after two-odd years of working with a group on a single project, one does develop a certain sense of family.
Recently I got an email from Friend Nat, one he had sent to about a dozen theatre folk he is familiar with, testing the waters for the enthusiasm people would have for starting a theatre company. Shortly thereafter, Friend Avi contacted me about the possibility of collaborating together (in spite of his current busy-ness with grad school) on a script or show. Avi and I have already met and agreed to do mutual research. Getting together with Nat (Hi, Nat!) is like trying to barter for clothing in a refugee camp (totally a mutual difficulty [Hi Nat!]). Finally, prior to both offers, I was contacted by David at The Northest Theatre about the possibility of joining in an effort to set up a resident theatre company there starting next season.
For most actors like me--that is, who dig "straight" theatre productions and are of not-too-great fiscal ambition--the idea of becoming a part of something like a permanent company is awfully tempting. "Repertory" theatres, as they are often called, are scarce in America these days, at least in comparison to how many there used to be. Now, every actor is a sort of "free agent," every theatre an economic liability that relies on celebrity draw and its elder community for staying afloat. (You notice I'm not backing this up with anything--this ain't wikipedia--and you are free to disagree.) A company, or even a single venture, with any staying power (and staying-with-me power) is very appealing to me. This is part of why "university theatre," or the track of going back to school, teaching and eventually getting tenure, is so sought after. It occupies more and more of my thoughts these days.
However, I am also a little gun-shy about starting something new, about doing it all over. That's understandable, I think, given one perspective on the past twenty years o' life. In some senses, how far have I gotten? Where am I now? Many people--myself occasionally included--look at my life and wonder at why I should be in such an insecure, unestablished place at my age. It's not uncommon for me to be written off in a lot of people's opinions as anything from undisciplined to inconsequential. Ah: But. In the past twenty of my years--and especially in the past ten--as an actor and creative collaborator, I have had experiences I wouldn't trade for a 41" flatscreen TV. Through all the beginnings and endings, misunderstandings and perfect chemistry, I've created my own work in little communities of people who care, and it has made me a better person. I have no doubt. Whatever is the next, best choice for me and my life, it will be a choice that leads me to as much of this sort of experience as I can handle.Take a step that is new, y'all. Take a step, that is new . . .
15 January 2008
14 January 2008
13 January 2008
12 January 2008
Well, I . . .. I should have seen this coming, I suppose. I noticed we were spending less and less time together, and in the time we spent . . .. Well, you were becoming more and more critical, weren't you? It was almost as though you were searching for something to criticize, some fault that would justify an end. You never found it, and I guess it just got to be too much. You say it's not me, it's you. Hey: I understand. There's no need to take it all on yourself. After all, we were both in this together. We . . . we had some good times, didn't we? Well. You take care of yourself now. Keep on . . . keep on truckin'.
After five years, my incredible day-job is coming to an end. It's not a complete surprise. There are a lot of factors feeding into this little change, and most of them have nothing to do with me. The only one, in fact, is my habit of leaving town to work theatre jobs, and frankly I always thought that fact would end this job for me sooner than five years. For that, my boss deserves lots more credit than she might owe apologies for not keeping me any longer. That's life, man. Then again: Holy crap! I haven't had to submit my day-job resume anywhere for five years! I got comfortable, which I suppose is the kiss of death for any artist, even if it has only to do with his or her sideline.
Lots of people don't consider my working for a lawyer my "sideline." It's difficult, given my current circumstances, to think of it that way myself. I do, however, and with good reason. Whatever the primary source of my income is, who I am has a lot more to do with the time spent pursuing the rest of my life. I guess the same can be said for most people. Making the life we want for ourselves is incredibly difficult, and most of us accept a sort of trade-off with continued hopes for further perfection. My boss is a lawyer, I'm pretty sure, to provide for her family. Maybe she likes being a lawyer a bit more than I like (er, liked) being a clerk, but it's not dissimilar from my money from hours of thankless desk work being spent to support myself as an actor. And I could go on like that for the rest of my life, barring disaster (which, I realize, is like saying "apart from the life bit").
We always want more, don't we? It got us from primordial slime to primordial political structures, and it drives us still. I've spent some time trying to eradicate desire from my life. Many religions and philosophies concur on this being a good effort to a contented life, but I've come to decide it's a good effort for a balanced life, one not run by desire. We need desire, of all kinds, to keep life moving. Maybe true inner peace is what retirement's for.
How does an artist make a family? Some of them make their family out of the people they work with. Some consider their friends their family. Some bury their artistic impulses for other priorities, and some try to and end up blowing it. A very few, it seems, marry, have or adopt children, and manage to support it all with their well-marketed artistry. I'm here to say: that rules, and my hat's off to you folk. I'm working that out. It ain't easy, neither financially nor personally.
But, in that context, it's hard to say whether losing this job was a set-back, or a step forward.
06 January 2008
And the next day we slept in and then geared up for warping--er, I mean, molding the young minds of today's north-eastern American collegiate actors. It's always hard for me to concentrate much on anything else when I know I have a class to teach soon. It's a little like coming up to an audition for a part I really want. The night before the class, there were the usual festivities to attend to. We had a very entertaining dinner with Debra Otte--a long-time friend of Heather's and David's--and her friend Ingrid, then watched the "Fringe Competition," wherein students enroll the day of, receive given circumstances to incorporate and a theme and create a short entertainment for that night. Thereafter, it was free booze in the "faculty lounge." "Free" being a relative term, of course, because there's usually the trade-off of some very awkward, though generally well-intentioned, conversations to be had. And all through these myriad events, my mind wanders . . . will any of Deb's students take our workshop ? . . . is this "Fringe" work indicative of the general interests of the students ? . . . does the fun of our workshops really qualify us as "faculty" to be partaking of faculty fringe benefits, and if not, do I at this moment care an iota . . . ?
Finally the day came, and we turned no one away (in spite of the class being limited to 26 and having far more than that sign and show up) and we had a ball. Unique to this workshop was our attempt to squeeze in a little bit of everything from what we teach in Italy into the two hours allotted (we asked for four, over two days). Everyone took to it very well--including us, I believe--and after two hours of partner-stretching and balance, improvisation, physical communication and character exploration, we wearily took to the road and drove all the way back to Scranton in time to meet with David about plans for the future. Hauling my butt into bed that night was an effort, but falling asleep wasn't. I had visions of clown awkwardly dancing me to sleep . . .
01 January 2008
The first is a selection of moments from our first show, Noble Aspirations. This show was completely structured improvisation, and we were still finding our style. These clips feature myself, Todd d'Amour, Zac Campbell, Richard Grunn, David Zarko and Grey Valenti. As I understand it, only one of us was Equity at the time, and he allowed for the show to be taped and shown. Here you have it:
Let's just hope that one day this finishes loading, because the next is an excerpt from Silent Lives that we performed on demand (and without rehearsal) for one of our potential collaborators in Italy. It was taped on my digital still camera, propped on a theatre seat. So: Not awesome quality, once again. But it was a thrill to have this excerpt on file, all the same. The clip features me, Heather and Todd again. It is a point in the show when the two ingenues want to romance one another for the first time, but are too young to know how, so the fantasy of Rudolph Valentino intervenes for some much-needed lessons in amour. Incidentally, it's my understanding on both of these next videos that there's no Equity conflict because they were filmed out of the country:
Finally, a very, very raw representation of Death + A Maiden, Heather's and my clown piece. David Zarko gives us our introduction. This piece was directed by Grey Valenti. It's heavy with musical cues and props--none of which we had in Italy when we made a command performance. This was the first time Heather and I did the piece, ever, without the music, and we adapted a trunk of arbitrary items to represent our standard props. In this piece, a toilet brush is a mirror, a sword replaces a scythe, etc. So it may be a bit tough to interpret this. I play Death, who falls in love with the woman he's fated to dispatch of: