27 June 2008

Shopping Out Our Work

Yesterday I ventured out to Pennsylvania to once again teach a workshop with Friend Heather under the auspices of Zuppa del Giorno, our contemporary commedia dell'arte troupe. The workshop took place on Marywood University's campus, and was about five hours long. All of this is exceedingly normal. From our first production, Zuppa del Giorno has been teaching more and more workshops, either as educational appendages to our shows or as independent entities that spread the word of us and hopefully bring in more students, not to mention occasional income. Marywood University is gradually becoming a regular collaborator with The Northeast Theatre (last fall we worked with their theatre department to create Prohibitive Standards), and I have just about learned the routes between New York City and Scranton so well I could probably walk them if I had to (and gas prices being what they are...). This venture, however, had a distinctive element. It represented our first foray into the world of "corporate training."

Several of my friends work for companies that shop actors out into the corporate world to lead seminars in communication and team-building. Some time ago, it became apparent to we lunatics at Zuppa that this was an occupation well within our reach. We have over the past several years taught amazing things to people, I modestly confess. We usually come out of such sessions impressed with how well they went, and what everyone learned not only to do, but about themselves. That learning includes us, I'm hasty to add. Every time I try to teach new people how to execute a reasonable thigh-stand, I learn something new. Crazy? Sure. Crazy gets the job done really well in my little world.

Friend Heather has been particularly interested in getting the Zuppa del Giorno corporate education arm out there and swinging for the fences ever since she picked up and moved to Scranton. By and large, that move has been a good one for her. She's doing more acting work than ever since, and good work at that, and she's finding for herself a particular sense of community that those of us here in New York view with a certain envious uncertainty. ("That seems so great, that kind of intimate society; yet, where would I hide?") Hell: The Northeast Theatre is even ushering in a new era by becoming more of an ensemble company, of which Heather is a member, heralded with a name change and everything. More of that ahead. In the meantime, Heather still owes to Caesar what is owed to Caesar, and her desire is to be paid in full without the addition of another mind-numbing day job. Hence her particular enthusiasm for getting "Corporate Zuppa" to hit a homer.

Now, Thursday wasn't exactly our official corporate debut. In fact, it was a sort of paid audition for the Marywood staff who handle events and marketing, to see if they'd be interested in sort of advertising such workshops as part of what they can offer to private interests. Like most universities these days, every summer Marywood hosts conferences and such to keep up the rent payments and stay active in the commercial community. Our being a part of that would certainly provide a lot of opportunities we might not otherwise have. So we had ourselves a sort of dry run for adapting our skills (audiences only like theatre troupes with skills) to the "corporate" milieu.

It was, um.... It was okay. I think, by the end, everyone had enjoyed themselves at least a little bit. We definitely got a lot of helpful feedback, both from the experience itself and from discussion with the dozen-or-so participants afterward. It was a bit jarring, I must admit, to discover myself teaching a class of people who were required to be there. I mean to say, although we've taught high school classes under similar circumstances, this was a rather new domain. The bosses of the two departments required their employees to attend, and not all of them were happy to be there. In fact, the anxiety was increased by their ignorance of what exactly we were going to be subjecting them to. I was surprised, about two-thirds of the way through the initial warm-up, when I tried to help someone figure out a stretch we were doing. We were stretching our hips and glutes, and she had turned her torso the wrong way from her knees. I informed her she should twist the other way and, misreading me, she prepared to unfold her legs and turn everything in reverse. Realizing my miscommunication, I stood up from across the circle and said, "Oh, no--" preparing to demonstrate just for her. When she saw me coming, though, she immediately went on the defensive, saying, "It's me, I get confused, no, don't touch me!" I stopped in my tracks. "It's okay. I'm not going to touch you. It's okay."

But it threw me. I'm not going to lie to you. What I should have done was take a moment to acknowledge feeling affronted, and then move on both internally and externally. I did okay. I acknowledged she was scared, saying, "It's okay, I'm not going to touch you," and backed away. What I failed to do, however, was either find an alternate way to engage her or to put the rest of the class at ease after that kind of confrontation. I was surprised, to be sure, and it would be easy to chalk up my failure to simple shock over suddenly being confronted. But it was more than that. I took it personally, somehow. I reeled back, at least internally, and Heather took over for a moment or two. It made sense that the woman would respond the way she did. How often does the average person find themselves seated in an uncomfortable, confusing position on the floor while someone standing comes at them? I understood this logically; emotionally, I was offended. I didn't feel I could help it. It's a terrible feeling, that you and your work are unwelcome, and I never get used to it, and actors confront exactly this situation on a daily basis.

As I say, the day resolved itself, and everyone got involved. There was even a sort of blossoming from that particular woman as the course moved on. She went from flicking off her boss (totally permissible given the exercise we were doing) and exclaiming her hatred of having to be there to being one of the more engaged and entertained people overall. I can't take any credit at all for that evolution, and we were assisted by the fact that these people all generally had a rapport prior to the workshop. (I quiver at the thought of working with a group of people who are strangers to one another.) The work, however, does its work, and Heather and I can at least take a little credit for creating the most nurturing environment imaginable for risk-taking (short of installing emotion-sensitive airbags throughout the room [which, frankly, would be hilarious--you could distinguish the moment anyone started to feel insecure in themselves because they'd be immediately engulfed in pillowing]).

We're finding our balance. The course is predominantly aimed at using improvisation exercises to teach communication skills, but we reference acrobalance a bit (I'd like more, but can't quite figure how to do that without excluding injured or more corpulent folks) and are trying to develop ways to communicate the unique collaborative techniques we use in creating shows together. I'd like, frankly, to shift the focus off of improvisation, because I feel it's the least unique training we have to offer and that our enthusiasm lies elsewhere. (Plus improv's got a certain stigma built-in, thanks to its widespread use in such venues and the popularity of The Office [US].) I enjoy improvisation, so maybe it's just a way of incorporating it in a new way. Several times during the teaching I thought of the tremendous success of the Jeepform game The Upgrade that I played at Camp Nerdly 2. Some of the overt game theory applied in that particular improvisation may be a good model for easing people out of their fears and trepidations. Then again, that was another case of having all willing participants.

I'm remaining positive ("yes, and..."), but in so doing avoiding a strong reaction I had to the experience. There was something in that refusal, that fear reaction from the participant, that made me feel a complex wave of negativity. Verbalized that response would, compressed within less than a second, sound something like this, "Okay, I won't touch you! Hey, guess what? There's stuff I'd rather be doing too, but I've come here in spite of my fears and in the hopes of creating something together. I can tell that's unwelcome, and that pisses me off royal. I get enough of that in auditions. In fact, next time you want an actor to lay off, try 'thank you...'. Just like that: 'THANK you...'. Every actor will immediately understand that you aren't buyin' what they're sellin', and get the hell out of there just as fast as he or she can. In fact, maybe I'll do that altogether. No one wants a live experience, no one wants to connect, no one wants a leading man who can't bench press the state of North Dakota. So I'll just go, all right? Will that make your life so much better? Will that make it so much easier? MY. PLEASURE."

I'm glad I didn't go there at the moment it happened, but I'm also glad I went there just now. I'm not looking forward to our next go at corporate training (this feeling always reminds me of my private trombone lessons in high school, which I regarded with inevitable terror), but I'm aware that it's simply a challenge to be overcome step-by-step. I do like challenges. I just don't like when people think they have something to gain by avoiding them.

25 June 2008

Viva Italia, Due!

Last I wrote a bit about our journey with the original show, Love Is Crazy, But Good, forgoing a lot of the details about how the show changed in that process and what it finally came to be. That may be an entry for another day. Today, however, I write about some of the interactions we had with our Italian comrades, and the business and theatre opportunities that sprang up around us all like Periwinkle(s?).

Our original collaborators in venturing to Italy were the good people at Lingua Si in Orvieto; specifically, David's friend Piero Salituri. We met with Piero a few times whilst visiting, never for very long, as he is a very busy man (and we weren't sunning ourselves overmuch, either). You walk about Orvieto with him, and good luck making it a quick one, because he will know absolutely everyone you pass. We had an amazing time our first year in Italy, taking classes through Lingua Si and then watching our students suffer through those exact same classes with malicious schadenfreude. Or, in my case, watching them and wondering how they can talk the Italian so good that fastly. It's a great school with great teachers, and their philosophy of cultural immersion as the best route to learning a language goes right in time-step with our approach to introducing commedia dell'arte to American students. This time around, Piero proposed that we help him in an effort to bring Umbrian culture to America's universities. He runs these visiting workshops at universities, with segments about Italian art, language, theatre, cooking, etc., and it sound just like a perfect opportunity to associate our program, In Bocca al Lupo, with the educational communities here. An exciting possibility for promoting two great adventures.

I wrote previously a bit about our work with Angelo Crotti, someone with whom I was very excited to meet, and with whom I was not in the least bit disappointed. We found some common ground with Angelo over the course of several days, bringing him in to the folds of our friendship (and, I hope, we into his) almost as closely as our friend and fellow actor Andrea Brugnera now is. Andrea came to teach and perform in America a couple of months ago under the auspices of The Northeast Theatre (see 3/24/08), and it is our ambitious hope to bring him and Angelo over not just to work with us, but to work with us on our clown'n'commedia version of Romeo & Juliet. More on that ambition anon (Get it? "Anon"? Aw, geez...) but even if R&J doesn't go quite as planned, working with Angelo proved a gratifying experience for everyone, it seemed. It was in the final stages of our staggering toward performing in Il Theatro che Cammina that we really came together with him, finding the common ground in developing gags together. Between that experience and watching his workshop with Andrea's students, we discovered that in spite of differences in training and experience, Zuppa's aesthetic and technique is dramatically aligned with Angelo's. We work in threes, we attempt to make sequences that build, and value clear, specific action executed with a greater emphasis on timing than volume or exuberance. As we worked with Angelo bit-by-bit that Thursday before our performance, it felt like a homecoming to me; this lunatic Italian was doing more of what I wanted to be doing than I was.

Il Teatro che Cammina brought us a couple of interesting new contacts as well. The organizer of the truly impressive affair, Alessio Michelotti, is a very friendly friend of Andrea's whom we didn't actually meet until her picked us all up from the train station in his subcompact (thank God for low production values). We were tense, and perhaps not the best company over lunch. At lunch, however, we did meet Natalie Ravlich and Miner Montell who, together, make up the circus/theatre company Tilt. In the nature of festivals, we ran into Natalie, Miner and Alessio severally through the day into night, which was very, very good, because it afforded us the opportunity to seem marginally more normal and sociable. Alessio left us feeling informally welcomed back to the festival next year, which we take to mean we did good (enough). David suggested to me, upon viewing the rest of the entries to that spectacular spectacle, that the best thing to bring to it would be something very physical and trick-heavy, without too much effort toward character development and such. My mind instantly hoped for a space in the schedule/budget for fledgling circus and street-theatre productions. As to Tilt, it's hard to say if our paths will ever cross again, but I felt very at home with them and hope they do. They reminded me of circus friends back in New York.

It might have been easy, after the first Saturday of only two, to take the rest of the time to rest on our laurels. Well: It was. Very easy. And we loved it. All twenty-four hours of it. Then it was back to work with meetings of various kinds with Piero and Andrea to discuss specifics for upcoming ventures. Though we didn't exactly have a meeting with her, we did spend some time with Hanna Salo, when we also taught a class to Andrea's students at Teatro Boni (in Aquapendente), a theatre that is rapidly becoming The Northeast Theatre's sister stage. The class was utterly fascinating to me, so you'll forgive me getting briefly off-topic here with business, though it may be largely because of that class that our connection with Teatro Boni in general was left as strong as it was. Essentially, Heather and I taught some tumbling and acrobalance to eight Italian-speaking, predominantly non-actor young students. The language barrier was not absolute, but it was present, and we had to begin without Andrea to help translate. It was an amazing experience, and we owe a great deal of it to the willingness and gradual enthusiasm of the students. David excitedly video-recorded our journey that day, starting with a warm-up, basic tumbling, then moving on to basic acrobalance. To make up for my horrid Italian, I had to keep demonstrating movements in various ways, so I was utterly exhausted by the end. It was, however, very much worth the effort.

Perhaps the most personally exciting possibility for me as regards our work with Teatro Boni has to do with a space we visited (read: broke in to) last trip around -- the outdoor amphitheatre at Aquapendente. Last visit, this space was under refurbishment. That work is just about done, and Teatro Boni is working to get the equivalent of grant money to allow us to perform Romeo & Juliet there on our return next year. It would be a tremendous experience. The space is beautiful and ideal for Shakespeare. Just the thought of performing there motivates me to work as hard as possible to make it happen. In November, Heather and David are aiming to return to Italy to perform and to cement opportunities. I will probably not be joining them, seeing as how I will have just tied the knot, thereby missing a lot of work, being very poor and wanting to spend some time with my wife that is not spent planning a wedding (by then we'll be moved on to planning the honeymoon). November, however, is when a lot of important groundwork will be laid.

All of that was a lot, and we earned ourselves a much-deserved break, which we planned to spend sight-seeing in Sienna and Florence, and did so. The next day, not feeling quite so much like traveling again, we opted for more local fare. Marybeth had yet to see Civita di Bagnoregio, one of our favorite locations, and Heather and I had planned to take photographs there for R&J promotion, so on our second-to-last day we returned to "Civita."

Civita is a beautiful, tiny city on a hill, which you can find pictures of everywhere. (In fact, the moment after I got home I spotted it all over a frickin' DiGiorno commercial.) Our first visit there, over two years ago, was a big contributing factor to inspiring the Romeo & Juliet production. When you visit, you can see why. It's ancient, established by Etruscans (or earlier) and surviving through the Romans on into the eighteenth century, when an earthquake took out three-quarters of the place. In recent years it has been rebuilt and refurbished, some of it to the detriment of its particular history. Nevertheless, it is uniquely appealing, and captures everyone's imagination. We visited twice, once while it was still light out, then another time to walk off yet another incredible meal at Hostaria del Ponte. David disappeared for a time during our evening visit, a thing surprisingly easy to do in such a small town, then showed up with a light on inside. He had run into some people and chatted them up. Turns out they were among the very few people who not only lived in Civita, but had grown up there. As he was leaving their company, one of them said (in Italiano, of course), "You should do a show here."

So. The next day we returned, talked to people in charge, photographed the town square for staging purposes, and tried to get the mayor on the phone (he was out of town that day on business). Everyone we spoke to, however, seemed optimistic and enthusiastic about the idea. In November, Heather and David will meet with the mayor and whomever else, and on our next return we hope to bring an environmental staging of a clown'n'commedia Romeo & Juliet to Civita di Bagnoregio's public square.

Of course, we haven't built the show yet. But when has that ever caused us problems before?

23 June 2008

Viva Italia!

Ciao, bello/a. Come stai? Buono/a. Io? Bene, bene, grazie. Ma ho stancissimo, perche sono "jetlagged." Forse. Anche forse perche molto movemente questa volta in Italia.

Believe it or not, my Italian has improved, despite the evidence to the contrary that I willfully submit above (the which is all kinds of wrong, and took me about an hour to put together). It is still woefully inadequate, though, and I'll have to do something about that in the coming months, because Zuppa del Giorno's prospects in Italy -- not to mention other work in conjunction with Italian artists -- is blossoming. We are in the springtime of our, uh . . . soup.

Sorry. Still blaming the jetlag.

Well. I really wanted to catalogue the whole trip day-by-day, as I did last June, but since I killed my laptop in the (actual) spring, and as we tend to go a bit rustic when we visit Madonna Italia, it was not to be. I could try to recreate that effect but, well, it would be pretty boring. Not because we did so little, but because we did so much of the same thing in our first week. We WORKED. As you know from my last entry, Heather and I had to throw a show together specifically for this visit and (as you know from either experience or my previous writings or both) such a process takes exactly as long as it takes. No rushing it. Which means you either give it the time, or you don't. We did, and to the greatest extent we could manage between two American cities and mired in the swamp that is jetlag.

The flight out was delayed an astonishing four hours, all told. It was just Heather and I -- David and the theatre's stage manager, Marybeth Langdon, had preceded us on the 6th. For those of you who've never flown overseas, let me tell you: There is no good time to do it. I thought we were all set, flying overnight. I would just sleep through the thing, losing hours left, right and center, and awake at about noon in sunny Italy. Instead, I slept for maybe a combined hour-and-a-half and awoke around 4:00 in a somewhat less-than-sunny Italy. In fact, it rained daily for the entire first week, and some nights we built a fire in the divinely-bequeathed fireplace our little villa provided. Altogether oddly arduous. But enough of the fluff; on to the stuff.

We've developed our own little community of artists and business folk in central Italy, and that became evident as it determined our schedule on this trip. Rehearsals for Love Is Crazy, But Good were broken up with (and, in one case, integrated into) daily meetings with various of our contacts. Normally these were meetings that coincided with meals or coffee, which is the nice thing about our particular experience of Italy. And, because the US-dollar exchange rate is horrible horrible horrible at present, this often meant inviting folks to lunch or dinner at our place out in the country. (Fortunately for us, David Zarko is a masterly amateur chef.) And that meant that Heather and I spent a lot of time on the patio, either eating or developing the act.

One of our most exciting departures from this scene was to spend time with Angelo Crotti, a new friend there whom we met through Andrea Brugnera. Angelo is an Italian actor specializing in commedia dell'arte and other forms of comic physical theatre; he's been practicing it all his life, and it shows, as he travels internationally to perform and teach. Our introduction to him was to watch him teach a class in traditional commedia dell'arte forms and lazzi to some of Andrea's students, the day after Heather and I arrived. He did some fascinating stuff, that we'll promptly steal and incorporate into our workshops. Perhaps unavoidably, we eventually got wrapped up in the action, in spite of our jet-lagged states. He showed us some incredible animal forms that demanded serious physical commitment AND conditioning, and we were generally working up quite a sweat for a while. LOVED IT. Then we made the mistake of sitting down on a break, and both Heather and I promptly engaged in a struggle against overpowering needs to sleep. That was okay, we figured, because Angelo began the next section with brief lectures on the commedia masks and their corresponding characters. As the comfortable Italian speech pranced merrily over us, he moved on to asking the students to take a mask and perform a solo bit of dialogue with the audience in it. Good, good . . . watching students . . . mustn't take their time away from them, now . . . just . . . watch . . .

Huh-uh. We sure did get called on. "No, no," I feebly protested in my pigeon Italian, "Studenti. Studenti. No occupado (was that Spanish, Jeff?) questa volta." They weren't having it and, frankly, I was a little sick of myself as I said it, too. But, damn, was I spent. It turned out the students were working with Angelo the next day as well, so there was plenty of time for everyone, and up I went to choose a mask from the edge of the beautiful Teatro Boni stage. There they all were, and I waited for one to speak to me. I'm pretty familiar with commedia masks, but have trouble distinguishing sometimes, mainly owing to a certain amount of misinformation I've processed in the years of my informal education on the subject. For example, I had learned at some time that Pantalone had a long nose, because he was "nosey" and a phallic character. Well, he often is, but it turns out that Capitano is the one more famous for having a prominent phallus on his face, and Pantalone can have a hook or squarish nose as well. So I stood there, throwing out my presumptive conclusions, and just picked a mask which appealed. It was yellow-brown-er than the rest, with no hair accents, but lots of wrinkles and a hook nose. The point of the exercise was to improvise the mask's nature based on how it looked and felt, but I felt obliged to announce I didn't know who I had gotten as I left the stage to make my entrance. Turns out I had gone right ahead and picked up Pulcinella.

Pulcinella holds a certain fascination for me, not the least of which is owing to a desire Heather and I have to someday create our own show based on the Punch & Judy puppet theatre of Victorian England ("Punch" was inspired by commedia troupes' various "Pulcinelli"). He's also a tricky one, as his overall shape seemed to evolve from a couple of different regions of Italy, and thereby his personality can be a bit more mercurial than some. Plus he rarely gets mentioned in what I've read and heard about the standard characters; he's well-known enough, but somewhat amorphous. Typically--from what I understand--he's a trickster, with a hunch back and a prominent belly. At that moment, however, I tried to wipe all that from my mind and briefly regard the mask offstage (as Friend Patrick taught me to do) for clues about who he would make me before breathing in and putting him on.

Let me just interrupt myself to say that, though it read as a certain groggy fear at the time, it was an absolute thrill to step out on a classical Italian stage and perform in mask for a couple of actors trained in commedia dell'arte.

My mask (for truly, I made no effort toward Pulcinella once I set foot on stage) worked pretty well for me, I think. Everyone performed through a sort of guided interview with Angelo, which was interesting in this case owing to his emphatic English and my god-awful Italian, but we did get along. I began as a rather obstinate fellow, with a supportive cushion of arrogance around him that held up his body in quirky ways -- a hip raised, hands bent outward from the wrists, bird-like neck, all very vain, yet through energy instead of ease. It was (I believe) as though I knew I was the greatest, yet also knew I had to convince everyone else of it as well. I thought of the Italians (to generalize grossly for a moment) and how they all seem to be great about putting what they've got out there and loving it, and so I did that as a guy who really didn't have anything to brag about, but didn't know it. Eventually Angelo quizzed him (me) on how to seduce a woman, and I claimed complete expertise, saying and demonstrating all it took was a rapidly thrust hip from me. He had me bring up a couple of students and work it on them, and I got to play with success, selling something as success, and undeniable failure which is promptly denied. It was great fun.

Angelo -- who is also simply an incredibly funny guy, with what seems like a kind word for everyone and an endless need to be active -- also helped us with our piece two days later. The beginning of that rehearsal, I can confidently say, was the lowest point of my mood and confidence in what we were planning to perform on Saturday. We demonstrated what we had first thing, and it suddenly felt woefully inadequate, trite, and a really, really bad idea altogether. It was Thursday, two days before we were set to perform in Il Teatro che Cammina, and it was grim. I was embarrassed, frankly, and frustrated with the circumstances of our constantly pulling things together at the last minute, never seeming to have the money or time to develop or explore, and all that was really a jagged veneer of emotion covering fear: maybe I'm just not cut out for this work. Ugh. So bad.

Keeping with the Tarantino/Rashomon theme here: The performances on Saturday were not an unqualified success. We had two showings of the ultimately half-hour clown show, the first at 9:00 pm, and the last at 11:00, all as a part of a festival that took over the town with predominantly physical spectacle such as dance, circus-theatre and street performance. (For once, we were probably the least physically eccentric act on the bill.) Our first show made me want to crawl under the stage and hide; David came up to us afterwards and said, "Well that wasn't that bad," thereby straining his otherwise stalwart reputation for honesty. The second show, however, hummed. It had sound failures on both ends, which should have been fatal for a predominantly choreographed show, but the audience was with us and we all had a tremendous amount of fun and at the end, I felt I had earned their kind applause.

What happened between the two shows was this: We intended to use our little break of less-than-an-hour to explore and see other shows and generally try to forget we had another to do. Instead, we were invited into a building next door by some very kind older gentlemen who had a great view of our stage from their windows. They wanted to make sure we knew we could use the bathroom there (which we needed) and while we were there I discovered that the fly on my costume had popped permanently. I tried to ask them for a paper clip or something, explaining my situation through gesture, and they set about raiding office supplies for me. One withdrew a binder clip. "I don't think that'll work." Then he pulled out a stapler, jokingly. "Ci, ci! Parfetto!" I cried, and he, hesitating somewhat, handed it to me. I promptly stapled my wool pants closed with the knowledge that within the first ten minutes of the show I'd tear them off anyway. They found that pretty amusing, and then one of them reached into a drawer and pulled out scissors, gesturing mischievously toward my crotch. Here we were, almost completely incapable of communicating with language, and the lazzi was flowing. From there they invited us all to sit with them, and Heather worked her Italian magic on them. A friend of theirs, Silvano, the oldest yet, visited, was introduced to us, then came from out of the back room with wine and water for everyone. We relaxed. We laughed. And, after all that, Silvano worked to rope audience in to our space for the second show, possibly single-handedly ensuring us that our little courtyard performance would be full for its closing.

The hours spent working with Angelo on our piece were similar to our time with the old men, and this commonality was also in the spirit Heather and I found in our second performance. Angelo took us through what we had in terms of structure, and broke it down into bits -- bits we had already, and bits we inspired him to add. Given a little time to overcome our initial shame and frustration, we found with him a familiar game of discovery, getting excited about our connections and ideas, and really building from one moment to the next. It was brilliant. It reminded me, suddenly and unexpectedly, and from the midst of a recent history of disappointing efforts on my part, of what I love about this work and what keeps me excited about it. With Angelo we returned to our sense of play, with the old men we rediscovered our love of people, of communication, and in the final shot at the show we finally figured out how to have fun with it, and with our audience. Hell: It even happened in a three, looking at it that way!

That performance wasn't the be-all-end-all by a long shot, but it was shot of life that I had certainly been looking for lately. Maybe our enthusiasm had something to do with knowing we were being relieved of a great stress after our final show, and maybe our ease with the audience had a lot to do with their greater numbers and better understanding of what to expect. Nevertheless, coincidence or hard work or that lovely synchronicity of the two, it was a beautiful thing. And it didn't take much longer for the sun to start shining in Umbria again.

04 June 2008

Love is Crazy, but Good

It's not my kind of title, but who knows? Maybe it's appealing to Italians. I do appreciate the ambiguous meaning suggested by applying the idiosyncratic usage of the phrase, "but good." As in, "a whole lot" (at least in American slang). This, of course, is the title applied to Zuppa del Giorno's latest original effort, the which I began writing about here.

Friend Heather and I began work on this piece not too long ago, and we're done . . . as far as rehearsing in America goes. Originally, we were scheduled to perform in Italy the day after we flew in, but fortunately saner minds prevailed, and we'll have some three jet-lagged days to focus intensively on further development and polishing before springing this wonder on the unsuspecting Italian audiences. Few people aspire to "develop" and "polish" in the same stroke. Such is the genius of necessity. So when you imagine me sunning myself on Mediterranean shores, sipping grappa and ogling Italian supermodels engaged in their unified quest to avoid any tan lines -- revise that slightly, and picture me instead jumping around and falling down a lot with a desperation to find something, anything, that feels original and worthy of public acclaim.

It's not that bad, actually. We'll have to work our comedic tokheses off, but we're at least in familiar territory thematically. Here then (by which I mean: now) is the present scenario for Zuppa del Giorno's mostly-new, almost-original show: L'Amore e' Mazzo, ma Buona:

Meeting G’ma & G’pa: An old couple enter from back of “house,” arm-in-arm, taking seats if they are available. They can’t see, and move forward, trying various positions. G’pa is sneezy and distracted. G’ma is fussy and protected. They are carrying on an argument. “Apples!” “Pears!” They get to the front, impatient now for the show to begin. All that’s on stage is a suitcase, with two red rubber balls atop it.
Inciting Accident: G’pa accidentally loops G’ma’s handbag on his arm. He rises and tries to disentangle himself, not at all sure how this thing became attached to him, making his way blithely up onto the stage. G’ma follows him up on stage, trying to disentangle him and getting a few good whacks in the process. On stage, G’pa finally gets the thing off, and it lands on the floor downstage of the suitcase. He pokes it with his cane to make sure it’s dead, then shuffles off to greet people, leaving arthritic G’ma to bend down and pick it back up. She does so, very, very slowly, and falls backward. G’pa is oblivious to her efforts, as she rolls back and forth, not quite able to right herself. Eventually she yelps, he notices her, then comes over to point her out to the audience and laugh at her. Whilst he does so, she knocks his cane out from under him. He falls, and she uses the cane to get up. Then she gives it back to him and he gets up with it. They fall against each other and descend to sit on the suitcase, exhausted.

The “Youthenating
Discovery of the Noses: The two yelp as they sit, then extract a red rubber ball (red noses) from beneath each of their bums. The balls falls out of their hands; they’re on strings. G’ma doesn’t know what to make of it, puts it away. G’pa plays with his, swinging it by the string, accidentally hitting G’ma in the head. She swats him back, and he begins sneezing incessantly, which brings him to standing. She rummages in her purse for a tissue and either 1) Pulls out the ball/nose, unaware it’s not a tissue, or 2) can’t find a tissue and chooses to use the nose instead. G’ma puts the nose to G’pa’s face, and he stops sneezing. When she takes her hand away, however, the red nose drops off again, and he begins sneezing again. She tries again, with the same result. On the third try, she notices the string and loops it around G’pa’s head to hold the nose on. It stays; crisis averted.
Nose Conversion: G’pa inhales through the new nose. It feels pretty new. He inhales again, and it draws him upright. He inhales a third time, and he’s young. He clicks his heels and looks around. G’ma is horrified by the transformation. G’pa tries to convert her, convince her to put on the other nose. She swats him away with her purse at each attempt. First his hand, then his head, then his unmentionables. Finally, G'pa winds up from a distance and throws the nose at her. It hits her square in the face. When she rights herself again, the red nose is stuck to her nose. G’pa tenderly wraps the cord around her head. Pause. G’ma “whoop-ee!”s with vigor. The two test out their youthenated bodies a bit, and begin to feel warm. G’pa takes off his hat, facing the audience. G-ma removes her shawl. They get into a turn-taking competition on entertaining the audience with their disrobing, the Woman at one point hiding in the audience to remove something, the Man audaciously flinging his pants off. At the bottom, they are dressed in brightly colored tank tops and shorts or skirt, and they are the Boy and the Girl. The Boy begins a game of tag with the Girl. They play for a bit, then the Boy tags an audience member, and it involves the whole audience. After this calms down (or they calm it down with a whistle) the Boy and Girl applaud the audience and sit exhausted together on the suitcase. [Music: Tu Vuo' Fa' L'Americano]
Rediscovery: Sitting on the box, the Boy and Girl relax and relive moments from their recent game of tag. Some gentle nudging, some playful imitations. In the midst of this cheerfulness, they pause, and a moment of romantic tension develops between them. [SFX: Sp-kang!] The Boy quickly breaks it, then runs off. Eek! The Girl is left alone, uncertain of the cause.

Solo de la Girl
Lecoq-clown sequence based on interaction with the audience, which incorporates the following:
a) Why did he run off?
b) Is it me?
c) Look better – dressing – bow bit.
d) Audience helps with bow.

Girl Woos Boy
The Boy enters in the midst of ecstatic pretend play, possibly as a pirate, perhaps as some other pertinent P-word. He stops suddenly when he sees the Girl, and disguises what he had been doing somehow. The Girl, with the audience’s help, decides to woo him.
She finds a stuffed dog in the suitcase, and offers it to him. He misinterprets it, playing roughly with it and interacting with the audience. She gets another idea, and begins writing him a love note on several pieces of paper. Meanwhile, he finds himself allergic to the dog and starts sneezing. As she hands him notes, he uses them to catch his sneezes, ruining them. On the third note, he pauses to look at it, then blows his nose in it and tosses it away. Finally, she finds a box of chocolates in the case and offers it to him. He is delighted, and begins trying them as he strolls away. She follows him. He repeatedly bites into a chocolate and, finding it unpleasant, tosses it over his shoulder, hitting her in the head. The Girl gets fed up, pummels the Boy with it all, and exits in a huff.

Solo de la Boy
a) The Boy is mystified by the Girl. He enlists audience’s help in understanding it, and making himself more presentable.

Boy Woos Girl
The Girl re-enters, and the Boy does his best to make it up to her. He’s better dressed now, and maybe shows off a little with a cane he’s found. He’s got her interest, but now what?
Valentino Sketch mod (this is a modified form of a sequence from Silent Lives for which we're hoping we can use the audience to be an advisory character, rather than our missing performer): i) Boy enlists various or single audience members to teach him how to woo the Girl.
ii) He follows their examples, badly, making a mess of it each time.
iii) Finally, the Boy simply asks the Girl to dance, which is a success. [SFX: Sp-kang!]

Dance, Dance, Dance
The Boy and Girl dance, slowly at first, then gaining momentum and doing progressively more intricate and impressive partnered movements. Incorporate dance sequence from Death + a Maiden (see 5/29/08 for last performance of this piece, which includes a dance segment). By the end, they have matured, and are now the Man and the Woman. They stand facing one another, holding hands, and the Woman kicks the Man in the shin. He falls immediately to one knee, still clutching her left hand. [The dance music segues directly into Pachelbel’s Canon (and Gigue in D major for three Violins and Basso Continuo)].

Determined Wedding
At the end of the dance, the two are in positions for the bride’s processional. Everything that can go wrong with the wedding, does, including: the bride keeps falling down in her processional, but refusing to be helped up by the groom; once she gets to the head of the church, they have trouble getting her veil lifted, leading to her wearing the Man’s top hat and he wearing her veil; the ring is missing, then the Man gets distracted swatting a fly as he’s supposed to put it on her finger, and she follows his hand with hers as he gestures; in her attempts to put the Man’s ring on him, he keeps sneezing, and they get it stuck on the wrong finger. In trying to get it off, elaborate acrobalance happens. Finally, finally, the two are married, and they sit, exhausted.

White Moment
This kind of moment was explained to Heather and I, when we were learning our clown style, as a suspension in which nothing happens, but something changes. It can be quite powerful. Friend Grey describes it as "the angel passing through."
It's also a terribly handy name for a section in which you have no idea what to do.

They Are Old Anew
The noses disappear, and the final article of clothing goes on, and the two are G’ma and G’pa once again. They start to quibble again, and it’s back to the strife of their entrance. They try to regain their youthful movements, but hurt themselves. They try to run off, but can’t stand properly without one another. G’pa starts sneezing again, and G’ma is out of tissues and starts to curse the heavens. Then she notices something in her handbag. She pulls out two roses, and places one over G’pa’s nose. He stops sneezing. She places the other over her own nose, and they inhale simultaneously. On the exhale, they smile at one another. They exit, and music comes up. [Music: To Vuo' Fa' L'Americano]

il Fino

We've definitely got our work cut out for us, but when you consider that we started with nothing, it's pride-inducing to have this much. (When you consider that we started with four years' worth of collaboration in almost precisely this medium behind us, the result is somewhat less than spectacular, so I try not to consider it that way.) This scenario will definitely change as we continue to work on it across the Atlantic, but I think the general ideas of a couple growing up together and exploring love will remain the same. That's our . . . oh . . . what's that word . . . ?

Idiom, sir?

Yes, yes! Our idiom!

03 June 2008

God Bless the US

Last night, after a weekend's worth of rehearsals, I was involved in another staged reading of Justin Warner's play, American Whupass. (You may recall my last encounter with this play [and with the dude from Clerks] over a year ago.) When last we left American Whupass, it was slotted to be performed in New Jersey in the fall of this year. Since I hadn't heard anything more about this production since, I thought to myself, "Aw. They found someone else. Aw. Poop." Exactly like that. I enjoy the play very much, and continually find new things to pursue in portraying "my" character in it, Terry Bowen, campaign-manager savant extraordinaire. To my pleasant surprise--and, I'm sure, Justin's extreme frustration--the play was dropped from production, which is why I hadn't heard hide nor hair since, until Justin emailed me asking me to audition for a new group producing a reading of it. Theatre Resources Unlimited is producing staged readings in the next month for a panel of producers to provide feedback, and AW was put up in this series last night.

The venue is an interesting one. By and large, the intention of the reading series is to give feedback on producing a given play; that is, getting it up in a venue, marketing it, etc. This means that for the first time we were performing the play without the intention of getting feedback for improving the script itself. We were hoping to present the best product possible, in order to win over producers interested in doing just that. It remains to be seen where the play will get next as a result, but Justin is a brilliant worker, and there's little doubt that he'll pursue its production to the last. Incidentally, Friend Todd is appearing in the third installment in this series, which is the conflict that prevents him from joining Zuppa del Giorno in Italy this month. Small enough, world?

I had a hell of a good time working on this play again. I always do, but this time was different in many ways. We've never had so much time to work on the play itself in prelude to performing it, and we had a very insightful and professional director in Nancy Robillard, who saw me personally through a lot of discoveries about my role. (To top it all off, we were rehearsing in a penthouse in Tribeca, which ain't half bad. Bill Fairbairn was amongst our cast, and his apartment ain't half bad, lemme tell you.) American Whupass is a play that deals in logical absurdities, yet it's all grounded in real-life examples and motivations. I've written about its unique quality before, so I won't go on at length, but I will take a moment to observe that it's strange that such a quality should be so unique. People love this brand of comedy, at once ridiculous, yet perfectly believable. It goes back to ancient Greece. Why should it be so rare these days?

It all went down at The Players Theatre, a cool space with a narrow seating area that was very evocative of a sense of depth. (Of course, no backstage space to speak of because we are, after all, talking about New York real estate.) I think the reading went well. We had some good audience reactions, and Friend Kira was in attendance to provide some complimentary words afterwards. It's just possible, though, that I played my role a little too close to the cuff.

Bowen is a duplicitous dude who starts out seeming very Johnny America, only to reveal more and more his win-at-any-cost perspective. I've played him variously over a span of nearly three years now (That's nearly like a quasi-successful sitcom [if said sitcom just featured the same episode with minor variations over and over again]!), and what appealed to me at first is still my favorite aspect: He believes in what he's doing, and that the results make him "the good guy." An actor can get down with that, man! It's also great to play him completely straight in the beginning, when he seems pure, with an awareness of his orchestrations behind the scenes.

However, the play has a kind of "avalanche of absurdity" effect, integrated not only into the writing but also into the dramatic action, and I think I missed the boat on riding that this time around. My affection for playing Bowen straight should have relented a bit more, and I should have let myself get a bit more wrapped up in the action. A classic example: When the daughter of the senator Bowen is trying to keep in the Senate enters the race against him, Bowen tells the senator, "You've got to stop her before it's too late, Wayne. There is no template for this. No template!" I understand this moment implicitly. It's best when "No template!" comes screeching out almost involuntarily. The man's career hangs in the balance, not to mention the public safety of hundreds of the senator's constituents. On Monday, I played the line very sincerely, but failed to allow my voice to crack, which is something that has happened in every other reading of the scene I've ever done. A small thing, to be sure. The devil is in the details.

To what do I attribute this change? I'm so glad I asked. I've been mulling it over for a little while, and have a few possible explanations. The first, and simplest, is just as I've said above: I'm enamored of playing the character straight. He functions well in this way and, oddly enough, feels more loathsome to me by the end (which I relish). The second is that I may be making this change in my performance in general these days; as I grow older, I'm looking for subtler cues and effects, ways of accomplishing the same things without as much noisy energy as I might have opted for in earlier years. This venerable-sounding choice should also be viewed in the light of fairly regular feedback I've received over the years that my choices as an actor need to be "toned down," or that I need to be "calmed down" for a straight play. In other words, the choice may not be all chosen. So we'll call that point of possible explanation "second-point-five." Third and lastly, it may just be my body feeling different. I can't deny that the sensations from my body are a huge part of my acting, and in recent years (be it a result of age or injury or what-have-you) I've needed to work more to generate that more-manic energy that drives screwball comedy.

I'd like to find a way in to that energy again for myself. Recently I've responded better to the clown work in part, I think, because it contains built-in silences and a sensitive response. Sure, it can be back-breaking and impulsive, too, but it feels essentially sensitive to me. Screwball is different, and it's something I can do very well. I don't ever want to lose that. In reading Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You've Never Heard Of, I gained a new perspective on how our supposed definitions of high- and low-brow culture came about. As a young nation, we screwed that up pretty good, in my opinion, and have stuck to it. Redeem screwball, friends. Go a little crazy now and then.