27 October 2008

Type Face

I find it really fascinating when I can't seem to get into a particular character. We've become very comfortable with the notion that every actor has a "type," or at least particular strengths that lend themselves to one sort of character over another. Why shouldn't we accept this? Grouping by type is something with which we are not only very comfortable, but it's often a necessary, day-to-day survival skill. When I get bored, I sometimes seek out commedia dell'arte types on the street. I'm particularly fond of my ability to recognize clipboard-types even without their clipboards. Saturday I found myself walking along 10th Street when I caught the eye of a rather earnest looking man of about my age standing outside a building entrance. There was nothing special to provoke alarm about this encounter. There was no clipboard, no name tag, no eccentric clothing nor any thought-provoking "stress test" paraphernalia. Yet I instinctively knew I had come across a clipboard-type, and immediately engaged my evasive maneuvers. I averted eye contact before his mouth could quite open, and my pace became still more brisk, and once again I was saved by my trusty iPod (I should nickname him Tonto) from any cries of endorsement that may have been pelted at my rapidly retreating rear. Thanks, Tonto!

He could have been a Dianeticist, he could have been an Obama/McCain/Bloomberg supporter, he could have been lost, and now I feel like a total douche. What if he was lost? Oh well: Builds character. The point is, I narrowly saved myself at least a minute-and-a-half of free time, which was of course promptly consumed by my wait for the N train. When it comes to character-building, there's little better for it than absolute, unequivocal failure. Or so I've been raised to believe. This is part of why I'm such a nearly decent actor now -- repeated character failures. I seem to do just fine with romantic types; youngish believers; broad-strokes villains; anal-retentive authority figures; clumsy sorts and quiet intellectuals. These are "types" I can slip into with relative ease, and in various combinations. I'm rather fond of the anal-retentive romantic, just as an example. If you ask me, however, to do a volatile authority figure, or a homeless veteran, or a frighteningly aggressive gangster . . . I can't guarantee you what you're going to get, nor how convincing whatever you get will actually be. You may scratch your head. You may say, "Jeff, I asked for a broken-down farmer who's contemplating selling his wife to support his kids, and what you gave me seems more like Robocop . . . on a unicorn."

And so maybe there is something to this "type"ing. Certainly it applies to most screen work one can readily imagine. I do not begrudge the screen its intricacies. However, as a character-actor enthusiast, I can't help but feel that nothing is impossible. More to the point, I can't help but feel that anything is possible. I believe people all need pretty much the same things -- survival and joy (in that order) -- and the seemingly infinite variety of expression to be found amongst the people of the world can be emulated in great detail, by anyone interested enough to commit the time and effort. Maybe if I had more time with A Lie of the Mind, I could have developed a better grasp of Frankie. Maybe the praise I received for my portrayal of a gangster in Riding a Rocket Ship Into the Sun was merited not because I managed a unique approach to the character, but because people simply believed in me as a sadist. It's a world full of possibility! Robocops on unicorns abound, and are accepted by all!

This question of the validity of transformation, the value of a character actor in today's world, is one I have been asking myself for some time. I don't think I'll ever get a solid answer going; it's more of a meditation. Lately, my meditation has taken me into the realm of interpersonal communication. Specifically, I've been contemplating how to reprogram myself (for a play or some other socially acceptable [relatively] paradigm) to respond instinctively using someone else's emotional landscape. More specifically, to respond as such under a parameter of the feminine. More specifically still, to respond as such under a specific (told you I was being specific) female's parameter. To wit: What makes this one woman tick? Try it yourself. Imagine someone of the opposite sex whom you know and try to get inside his or her head. For the sake of anonymity and my future happiness, let's call my particular case study "Geggin." It's absurd to imagine anyone who lives in the continental U.S. having this name, and thus her identity is completely and unambiguously protected.

In approaching a character that is unlike you, it's best to lure its attention away from you with a raw steak. Toss it at least twenty feet to your left or right, then scale the . . . oh, wait. That's approaching an evil millionaire's mansion, guarded as it is by vicious Rottweilers. When approaching a character that is unlike you, forget the steak, and focus instead on its origins. Why? Because Freud says so. Why else? Well, because if we're all driven by the same categories of appetite, what's left to define us are our genetic modifiers and the story thus far. Take me, for example. I'm an emotionally sensitive person, in the best and worst senses. I get this from my parents, and from being raised in a house that advocated psychotherapy and its techniques, whilst simultaneously being an extremely loving and nigh gratuitously emotionally honest refuge. Plus my mom's a minister and my dad loves opera. Of course I listen to your problems, and respond to simple rudeness with reason-crippling rage.

In contrast, this "Geggin" grew up in a household that got through a lot by soaring on the wings of their senses of humor, said senses being made up largely of goose down and sarcasm (it's an incredibly strong-yet-lightweight adhesive, sarcasm). Thus, whereas I may respond to a particularly coarse moment of reality television with wincing, and cringing, and running into the next room to check on the aloe plant, "Geggin" can eat it up with laughter and relish and a crowing, "Oh no! Oh!" Followed, naturally, by entirely unrepentant giggles. Had we been raised in one another's environments, we might not simply switch these reactions to Rock of Love: Charm School, but it is a little piece of information that helps in understanding the background of a character such as "Geggin." Were I to play her in a show, I would do well to train myself to respond similarly to such nauseating moments of schadenfreude, and this along with other behavior practices might help me to eventually understand the mental and emotional connections that allow the unbridled appreciation of television that is utterly senseless time-wasting trash.

But let me not mislead you into seeing such analysis as being only of use to actors. Nay. Indeed, committing just a little time to contemplating others' motivations and personalities can be an invaluable aid in simply communicating with them at all. We are offered insight into people more often than we perhaps appreciate, busy as we are with defending our own borders. In a sense, this kind of perception of others' motivations is blocked by the idea of "types." We never know if the rigorously tattooed young man next to us on the subway isn't in fact an incredibly gentle chap, nor whether the old woman picking out an umbrella in the pharmacy isn't a dominatrix. We need to think we know, but we don't know, not until we open up to the possibility of it, of anything. There are a lot of advantages to being open in that way. We'll probably get more of what we want from people when we understand them with more specificity. Perhaps more importantly, being open like that may allow people to understand us better.

Whether we like it or not, actually -- because this understanding could extend to clipboard-types. Then again, maybe that guy held the secret to converting "Geggin"'s taste for VH1 into an enthusiasm for the oeuvre of Tony Jaa. Hm. I wonder if I can still catch him down on 10th . . .

22 October 2008

Creative Types

We can be pretty irritating, I know, and in an amazing variety of ways. We drive each other crazy, too, believe me. In fact, sometimes it seems like the central preoccupation in any creative type's life is trying to follow his or her process in outright defiance of any outside input whatsoever. This makes collaboration between two such types an often highly entertaining prospect . . . from the outside, at least. On the inside, there may be some hair-pulling, self-inflicted or otherwise, some eye-gouging, all standard operating procedure for we creative types. It can even seem quite subconscious, this uncooperative behavior. We're engaged in an intuitive challenge, and it piques our psychological quirks because our instincts are all we really have to back up our decisions. That's as it should be with pure creativity -- nothing is quite so original as a given individual -- but of course it sometimes leaves no room for the little things generally considered helpful to collaboration, like procedure, logic and human kindness. In fact, more often than not it feels as though the only thing that keeps collaborative artists from decapitating one another is the fact that they are, theoretically, united in pursuit of a common goal.

Yet it's something one develops a real taste for -- the creative, collaborative energy. It can feed itself and really take one to unexpected places; plus there's a momentum to it that is very motivating, very energizing. It feels good to "accept and build." So good, in fact, that when you achieve that dynamic you can find yourself wondering why everything else can't be like this. Doing my taxes should feel like this! I believe all challenges, even the most mundane and least challenging, have the potential to be approached in that spirit. I really do. But it's difficult. And fleeting. Because there's no escaping the fact that people change, and people are what it's all about, really. There's something special about being able to share and nurture that spirit, whether it's arrived at through hard work or instant chemistry and rapport. I suppose if it were easy or common, it wouldn't feel quite as rewarding.

I got a good dose of that feeling from Friend Nat last night over dinner. I feel like he kind of lives in that world in one sense or another 'round the clock. Aptly enough, Nat's the one who coined the tag "creactor" on this here 'blog (see the reactions on 2/28/07). He's very adept at taking something you give, even conversationally, acknowledging it and building upon it. That is to say, don't get into a competition with him that's at all about chasing the topper on a joke. You. Will. Fail. But then again, do get into it, if you have the opportunity. Because Nat seems to live by the tenets of good improvisation, such that even when he bests you it will be whilst agreeing with you, making you look good and helping to build on whatever came before. It's fun! I've got to figure out how he does that so consistently . . .

Also, I've got to dislodge my puckered mouth from his skinny butt. }smack!{

I don't see Nat nearly often enough, what with all the theatre'n' and the'rest'n' we're both up to. This particular encounter was owed largely to the fact that I'm presently on a brief theatre'n' hiatus until The Big Show gets mounted. (Er: opens. Er: goes up[dang it!]?) Even when we were last in a show together, we didn't get a lot of social time in. It's just the nature of the beast, it would seem. So when we meet, we have a lot to catch up on in all areas. We also, however, inevitably spend a lot of time talking about our work. It's what we both love, after all. In fact, it's just a little bit like dating the same willful woman, if said woman was in all places at all times and simultaneously dating half the population of Manhattan. But I digress. We talk about what we've just done, what we're working on, what's coming up and what we'd like to do in the future. Nat's got a play of his writing being produced at Manhattan Theatre Source come January, par example, right around the time I'll be getting good and ready to don Romeo's tights. (Oh shoot: tights. I didn't think of that possibility until this very moment...) He's suddenly busy right now, as a matter of fact. We just got lucky [dang it!].

Nat and I met whilst working on a whacky sort of show that was rather in development. We ended up performing all kinds of tasks in connection with the show that actors don't normally get the opportunity to undertake, such as revising dialogue, choreographing fight sequences and leaping from bookshelves. It was a little more than harrowing at the time, for me, because I tend toward anxiety (what? really?) and worry about the outcome when so much is uncertain. But it was great, too, and I'm still proud of stuff with which we came up. Zuppa del Giorno, at its best, works with that kind of chemistry, and with the urgency of enthusiasm more than of necessity. I can't quite imagine how much time I've spent creating something from "nothing" over my adult life, but the cumulative hours are probably a big number, and still there are no guarantees. One is never completely relaxed into the process; which is probably to the process's benefit. So it's good to be working with people you just grok. I've known this in some sense from a very young age but, as with everything else, it's one thing to intuit a lesson as a youth and another altogether to really learn and practice the same lesson as an adult. Learning (and practice) is like Jell-O(TM): There's always rooms for it.

Ooo. I should end on that sliver of sagacity right there. Copyright (c) Jeffrey Wills, 2008. All Rights Reserved.

Some people have wondered why I have maintained Odin's Aviary as I have. Friend Mark asked me back in the day how I can commit the time, and Sister Virginia put a similar thought somewhat more bluntly. I admit, it's easier at some times than others. I would love to do an entry every day. I'd also love to have a huge audience and be responsible for inspiring a horde of like-minded people. I could probably change things on the 'blog to make these things happen, the first of which would be to shorten my entries dramatically. One paragraph a day, that kind of thing. Lots of posts about funny and weird and cool and rather arbitrary things. I wouldn't consider that a compromise of my integrity, or something ridiculous like that. Look at my shared items -- that's the kind of thing I subscribe to. No, I keep up this style of 'blogitude for far more selfish reasons. It's collaborating with myself. It's a little time (okay: a lot of time) committed to accepting and building on my own ideas and philosophy. That's why I spend a page or two, building on a thought when I'm more productive, wandering and exploring when I'm less so. It's practicing and learning, and anyone who gets something out of that by reading it is, to my mind, a huge bonus to that process. That's when being a creative type feels like a most worthwhile endeavor.

The Taoists are fond of pointing out that there is a difference between the knowledge of good, and the practice of good. This, then, is my practice.

16 October 2008

"Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized..."

"Okay, 'butt-love'."

This is an exchange stolen from the script (such as it is) for The Reduced Shakespeare Company's first big hit, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [Abridged], and I quote it here to make a point. Oh yes, I'm venturing into new territory today -- an actual point. Here it is:

Lotsa people already made fun of Romeo & Juliet.

I mean: LOTS. If you just search for "romeo and juliet parody" on these here internets, you get a lot of results, in a full range from amateur to well-produced and well-known. Still more people have made fun of, made light of, and made all-comic of Shakespeare's entire canon, so that if you stacked the pages up from everything you'd have LOTSA pages. Probably they'd reach the moon and back. Maybe. Perhaps. I've no idea, really.

So Zuppa del Giorno is hardly venturing into undiscovered territory with its upcoming "wholly original" production, The Very Nearly Perfect Comedy of Romeo & Juliet. Heck: Stack Shakespeare in there as someone who made light of the story. Although the play is pirated from other adaptations of a couple of (very specifically) similar commedia dell'arte scenarios, and the biggest change he made was to make a few of the characters somewhat noble, and the story heavily tragic, he also had his fun. To put it succinctly: Shakespeare crammed just about every genitalia joke in there that he possibly could. Hamlet's "country matters" and lap-talk is minuscule in comparison. If you're reading the play, and you think he just made a reference to a particular bit of the male anatomy, odds are that he did. Even Juliet gets a swing at bat, if you will. Which is funny in more ways than one. It begs the question of whether or not ol' Will felt that a significant part of the story he was telling was simply two kids who were eager to shed trou' and bump uglies (answer: he did). I declared a theme of Odin's Aviary to be fart jokes, but I was being politic. "Richard" jokes are much more fun. (And I'm not talking "the Third," here.)

So, in a way, we're not doing something terribly original. I swear (though not by the inconstant moon) though that I'm smitten with David Zarko's concept of the story. As he's expressed it to me, TVNPCoR&J will be about people who are trying very hard indeed to keep life a comedy. In this way, we're not making fun of the play, but of people -- surely a good base for pleasing, accessible comedy, Shakespeare or no. I like this idea, the conflict, and the potential I see for this interpretation to inform the progress of the story. It's both funny and tragic, and could help us tap into a certain unpredictability that might make for a fresh experience for our audiences. It won't be a parody, or farce, or anything so self-conscious; rather, it will be a story of a community with something in common, in spite of all their violent or erotic differences. It feels, at the risk of gross generalization, very Italian to me. There's some talk of making it about a troupe of actors telling the story, but I'm not so in love with that. I'd rather represent people really living through it, trying to make their lives comedies that end well for each. But, yet again, heck: Nothing about these shows we make stays the same from start to finish. Best not to get too attached to any one idea yet.

So I'll fantasize a bit. Just to get it out of my system, you understand.

"Things get out of hand." This sums up pretty nicely for me what I'm imagining as a central action of our play. Much of the action of the basic story reminds me of children at play (and I refer to every character here, except possibly the prince) who get a little out of control with their fussing and fighting. Before you know it, someone's heart's broken, someone's eye's poked out, and everyone's pointing fingers in order to avoid more hurt. This meshes well with clown theory as I understand it, because clowns are very much like babies, or alien visitors, experiencing everything for the first time. They still have to learn concepts like "hot," much less "love." As it stands, our version will have only Romeo and Juliet as clowns, and the rest of the world populated by masked commedia dell'arte characters. This stands to drive the action right along, as commedia characters are largely appetite-driven and selfish. It's exciting to think of our first -- in five+ years of making dell'arte-inspired theatre, mind you -- masked show in general. I hope we can help our audiences see the masks as they were intended; more caricature than disguise, more revealing than deceitful.

Regardless of style choices, it will I hope retain the sense of contemporary fun that has been in every Zuppa show through the years. In our workshops, as we explored the seeming despair over Rosaline that Romeo exhibits on his introduction, we thought of having him accidentally pulling out moves borrowed from Hamlet, dressed in black, contemplating a skull wearing a red nose. I'd love to have movie posters up for other Shakespeare plays, borrowing from Silent Lives the notion of characters who learn their behavior from popular culture. The humor should come from the moment and character, not necessarily the indications of a joke in the script. Heather and I are already discussing the possible humor of feigned (or frustrated) exits, a running joke about people trying to leave stage and continually being called back. The balcony scene is a great one for this and comes to mind immediately, but also on the way to the party Romeo keeps trying to leave. The topper is the "morning after" scene, probably. Great place for a fart joke there, too, I can't help but notice. (Hopefully someone will shoot me down on this; "that may be a great idea for next year's show...") "It is the lark that sings so out of tune..."

It's at once thrilling and frightening to be so excited for another Zuppa show. After some five years' experience creating these shows in a variety of ways, I've come to learn that they can be the ultimate positive experience, or can be somewhat like Mercutio's famous monologue. Full of enthusiasm and wit to begin, but suddenly arduous and painful, too. Even Silent Lives, my favorite thus far, was something of a baptism by fire. You just never know how it's all going to turn out, and stand to save yourself a lot of pain by caring a little less. But of course, the whole point is in getting people to care a little bit more, to invest themselves in good laughter, and good tears. So there is no choice; not really. Like a good tragedy, caring this much about what I make is an inevitable progress through Heaven and Hell. Besides, the laughter is so much sweeter with a little suffering to weight it against.

It may not be an original idea, but it is a true one.

14 October 2008

Open Up


On Wednesday last (Odin's-day, oddly enough), while I was guest teaching in a high school, the school went into what was referred to as a "lock down." It was the start of second period, and the gym had just about acquired all of its students for the period when an announcement came over the loudspeaker. At least, that's what I'm told happened. I heard about it from the gym teachers, as the school-wide announcements do not penetrate the gymnasium itself, and I heard it whilst basing Friend Heather in a thigh stand for a photograph. We held until the photograph was taken, as a "lock down" doesn't particularly mean anything to us. After we got down, we asked what it meant, and were instructed that I had to go into the boys' locker room, Heather into the girls'. Okay, thought I, I'm not about to hang in the locker room; I'll go into the teacher's office.

And I did. And I wondered if I should lock the door (I understand language! [So long as it's English!]). It's a tiny office, and no one else was in there, though I could hear the raised voices of the boys in the adjacent locker room. Just as I was contemplating joining them, the male gym teacher for that period entered from there. He said a few noncommittal things to me about it being an eventful day, then turned back around and yelled at the boys to shut up, admonishing them for thinking everything's a joke, until all was silence. Then he turned back to me as if he'd barely interrupted himself and explained the situation a little better in a subdued tone. I felt bad, hearing him talk to me after he'd been so aggressive about the boys' silence, but I was also gradually coming to appreciate the motivations behind his severity.

In 1999, just a couple of months before I would graduate from college, two young men executed a plan to take their high school hostage with a murder spree that included the use of planned explosives. The whole thing was elaborately planned out, actually, and -- notwithstanding all the death and destruction wrought that day -- it could have been much worse had the plan gone accordingly. "Columbine" is now a word with tragic and unfortunate associations, probably for the foreseeable future, here in America. It's an Anglicization of the Italian colombino, which means dove, and "Colombina/Columbine" was a character popular in both the Italian and English commedia dell'arte traditions. I don't know what came first, but pictured above is a Columbine flower. Perhaps they're named for their resemblance to a dove; they characteristically hang in a shape like a dove with its wings tucked until they blossom, but they also aren't all white. Some are a rather vivid shade of red.

The main preoccupation for the gym teacher was the fact that the door out the back of the locker room seemed to be locked and he wasn't sure if he could unlock it. His feeling was that everyone would be safer in a certain back hallway, and he set about finding the key to those doors. Eventually he found it, and we all filed out of the locker room. I trailed the group, and found myself in a narrow, dim hallway that soon bent to the left and became a landing to two flights of concrete stairs that made a sort of u-turn, where there was a second, smaller landing. At the top, where I remained, were double doors that led outside and were locked with a heavy-duty wedge bar; presumably this was part of the appeal of this room, such as it was. The students all just fit on the two flights of stairs and landings, and most sat, preparing for a long wait. From the top landing, I could see everyone but a couple of boys at the base. It was cramped once people sat, but no one thought of spreading out a bit back toward the direction from which we came. We waited.

I went to one of these mega-schools that were popular to build in the 70s -- James W. Robinson Secondary School. Robinson, as we and everyone in the area called it, was named in honor of a certain Sergeant James W. Robinson, Jr., the first Virginia resident to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor in the Vietnam conflict. The school is massive, and it needs to be to hold the some 4,000 students day in and day out. I found its size intimidating when I first arrived (in spite of attending the almost equally massive Lake Braddock Secondary for two years), aggravating throughout my middle years there and ultimately it became a weird point of pride in my final months there and thereafter. I would never have admitted this at the time, though. I felt largely oppressed by my circumstances, due to too many factors to get into just now, not the least of which was simply a seeming inability to understand that I was going through profound changes. I turned it around just before my senior year, but up until that time I was increasingly falling into stereotype (or archetype, if you will). You know the type. I kept to myself as much as I could. I even took to wearing the ubiquitous black trenchcoat.

The students had already changed into shorts and t-shirts for their gym classes, and the stairwell was pretty chilly. By and large, they were very well-behaved. It was only natural that their whispering would occasionally escalate, and we'd remind them, or they'd remind each other, with a "shh!" The teacher explained to me, as I tried to look responsive without actually making any sound (I wanted to avoid any hypocrisy, and figured that lacking any rapport I ought to lead by example), that they ran drills in lock-down procedure frequently -- too frequently, he felt. It made the students take it less seriously than they ought. Then again, this particular time could be a case of an aggravated parent on campus, or perhaps a building search for contraband. He didn't name the other possibility. He didn't have to. He went on to explain that they didn't hear all the announcements in the gym, certainly not in the stairwell. So, periodically he would call his fellow gym teachers on his cell phone to see what they knew. He even called someone at the elementary school (a separate building). No one had any information for him. We shushed the students again, and he told them all to just relax.

I've been pretty quiet in my 300+ entries to date on the subject of September 11, 2001, but that's not because I'm at all removed from the experience. On bad days, I'm avoiding it; on good days, I'm rising above and moving on. Both explanations are to say that it was the kind of event that one never quite epitomises in description. You had to be there, as the old comic excuse goes. What I can say about that day, for myself, is that it has a lasting and highly personal effect on me. It's a little darkly humorous for me, these people who advertise "Never forget." The memory of it lives at the back of my head like a patient worker, occasionally pressing his button or pulling his lever. I was rather alone that day: new guy at a temp job in Rockefeller Center, the phones mostly didn't work, giving me only the briefest opportunities to touch base with my girlfriend in Brooklyn, I was trapped for hours in Manhattan, picking up news from car radios and strangers' conversation. Eventually I found my way to the apartment of the only person I knew at the time who lived on the island. He wasn't really a friend of mine, but of my girlfriend's, and his place was packed with strangers watching the news. Sitting silent on a stool there, I worried about my dad in D.C., and relived the surreal morning, with its evacuation from the 50s down the twisting, disused fire stairwell of 30 Rockefeller Center. It seemed like we'd never get to the bottom.

When the bell for change of classes rang, no one needed to be shushed. It seemed to remind everyone that time was passing, and the longer we had to wait, the more likely it seemed that whatever motivated our lock-down was a dire circumstance. Minutes after the bell rang, the whispering started up again amongst the boys. As our time in the stairwell passed the hour mark, I stretched against the railing and the cold, and some of the students began to be more aggressive in their efforts to make sense of the situation, or at least lighten the mood. Some were playing a silent game (save for occasional involuntary victory cheers) that involved flicking out digits on both hands against one another. Some asked me who exactly I was; they'd never gotten an explanation on what they were doing in class that day. Others tried to nap or discuss quietly. One young man seemed to continually take it on himself to take charge of the mood and, by and large, he was pretty good at disrupting expectation and continuity with his joking. He seemed popular with the class, in a jester kind of way. Soon, talking to no one in particular, his kidding turned to half-serious plans for what to do when someone burst in with an automatic weapon. It was on everyone's mind. You'd occasionally hear one of them add a onomatopoetic gun noise to his whispered conversation. The jester was still trying to be light, but he was scared too, and losing his audience, boys getting variously agitated into signs of despair, or aggression. So I took a gamble. "Hey, seagull," I said in a normal tone of voice (he was wearing a t-shirt with a seagull silhouette on the front), then whispered, "If you're going to plan for us, whisper it." Then I offered a wry smile, hoping he'd get me. He did, simultaneously embarrassed at being caught out and pleased with the attention and the hushed chuckles of his peers. The tension did not stay away for long before mounting again.

After about a hour and a half of nothing, we got the call that the lock-down was over, and we could return to our third-period classes. It didn't quite engender the relief you might imagine, though everyone was pleased to march out from the chilly stairwell. We all returned to the locker room and changed, then walked out into the brightly lit gym to learn what we could. The students quickly took to the halls to access their community of gossip. Heather and I soon learned that the official announcement had actually stated that classes could take place -- just in the same locked room, until further notice. None of the gym teachers heard that. I felt a little ashamed at my relief over not having had to teach an hour-and-a-half gym class, but not at my hiding with all the men. It was the only sensible course of action, given the information we had. As we watched students flow out from the doors that faced onto a windowed hallway, one of the gym teachers said, "Look at the cop car pulling away. See that dog in the seat? It must have been a drug search." We went on to teach an abbreviated third period before leaving campus for lunch, a necessary diversion. The beginning of our last class for the day, seventh period, was interrupted a few minutes in by an announcement from the principal. He congratulated everyone on a clean report for drugs, including some students themselves who had been pulled from their classrooms. In something of a tangent, he went on to admonish those older students who were violating traffic laws when driving off school property, and let them know that they could expect an increased police surveillance along the road at that hour. "But overall: good job today."

When I was in high school, I was often very angry. I was also, often, terrifically depressed. I'd have a lot of answers for you if you asked me why, and I believed in them very much. I was creating so much -- my world view, my appetites, my self -- at such a frenzied pace that it was important to me to know the things I knew. We complain a lot about teenagers' personalities, but in terms of life stages it's really where the rubber meets the road, more often than not. All that ambitious, energetic emotion for learning that children have meets all that complex, interactive consequence that adults enjoy. It's confusing even without the sea change that released hormones bring to . . . well, everything. It's exciting. It's terrifying. Particularly for those of us who've been through it already, and understand the potential for disaster, and feel responsible for them.

It's hard to write about this without offering some sweeping verdict on it all (harder still, in some respects, not to relate it back to government or religious issues). That's not what I'm writing for, though. I'd like to avoid that. Instead, I mean to do what I do with other, less traumatic events here at the Aviary. That is, write out my experience in an effort to come to some kind of better understanding about it. Opinions must enter into it: I don't agree with using a "lock down" as any sort of practical device for something other than an immediate emergency. To wit, I disagree with using it to facilitate investigation, or set an example for teenagers to let them know they stand a chance of being caught at something. Yet I appreciate its necessity for preparedness. It seems extreme, but if you read the details of the Columbine incident, it's evident that the scenario was disastrously mismanaged by the authorities. Of course it was -- it was virtually unprecedented. And if the authorities have to shape up procedurally, so ought the schools. We drill for the potential of fire, of earthquake. This is another kind of natural disaster.

But. "Natural" does not mean it is without cause. Quite the opposite, in fact. I've read the details, and I saw Elephant in the theatre, and I wore a black trenchcoat through high school, and played Doom and fantasized about all sorts of socially morbid scenarios, and I still don't presume to explain the reasons behind Klebold and Harris' actions. What I do mean is to suggest that regularly cowering in a darkened room and being forbidden to speak might, just might, be more a part of the problem than of any sort of solution. Giving a society (and what else is high school than a constantly evolving society?) a little information and then turning their ignorance back on them as a kind of preemptive punishment, that's frustrating. In fact, revolutions have been begun for less. Unfortunately, most teenagers aren't yet capable of revolution, of the organization and long-view perspective required to make a social change. What they are capable of is making louder, more extreme choices until someone hears them. Hell: Most of my so-called choices in high school, in retrospect, were little more than reactions. Teenagers are exceptional at reacting, and we discount that ability at our, and their, risk.

Let people talk. Listen. Please.

12 October 2008

Three Hun Dread

The last of these I did was "One Hun Dread." Why -- oh why -- would I skip the poor, hypothetical "Two Hun Dread"? Why, instead of attempting to memorialize my two-hundredth entry, did I write about coulrophobia (see 1/28/08)? Well, Dear Reader, 200 simply isn't a terribly interesting milestone for me, especially after 100. It would be too much like clockwork and, besides, 300 is a really impressive number, absurdly chiseled abs or no. After all, threes are funny, and the over-riding (and often over-ridden) theme of this here 'blog is something called The Third Life(TM). So happy Three-Hun-Dread, Odin's Aviary! If I were a wizard of web video, I would compose and post a montage episode a la Three's Company ('twould feature things like my earliest entries with their charming naivete, the entries that got me in hot water with a director, and a misty-eyed moment from the recent birth of Loki's Apiary). Alas, I am not, so instead I'll stick to my usual thing and write at excessive length on a variety of subjects conjoined with a barely cohesive argument.

Me, I'm a pretty big fan of anniversaries. They're usually charted by increments of time, but I feel that anniversaries are essentially an honoring of cycles, and so feel justified in marking them by a number of occurrence as well as by specific dates. What, then, is the cycle I'm celebrating here, apart from the mechanical fact of this being my 300th entry? It seems to me that this 'blog is a cycle of examination more than anything else. I'm grateful for every opportunity I can take advantage of to make a little more sense out of myself and my work, and the Aviary has been an incredible (and [it seemed at its inception] somewhat unlikely) tool in helping me to focus my consideration of my work, as well as to present that consideration for public review and accountability. The Aviary averages a very modest 30 page loads a day, but the key there is that I never can be sure who's reading. Think of that what you may, it leads me inexorably to the conclusion that honesty is the only policy reliable enough on which to base what I share here. I try not to think of it as therapy, but must confess that it serves similar purposes.

It's better than that, though, because all of you are reading and -- occasionally -- contributing. It's a dialogue, albeit one dominated by my topics and moderation, and this is key to the sustainability of the 'blog thus far. I have to admit that I function much better with an audience. Even the idea of an audience improves my performance. So thank you, Dear Reader. Even if you've never commented here, you have motivated me beyond any journaling experience prior to this moment. And this one. And this one.

There's no substitute for real-world experience and communication, of course, and I've had quite the dose of both in the past week. My days were spent teaching high school, my nights in auditions and rehearsals, and my weekend contained a wedding and a reunion. (Small wonder then that I have anniversaries on the brain.) I would think occasionally during this time of this here 'blog entry, aware it was coming up, worrying at first it might land in the midst of my North Pocono journaling, then wondering what on earth I had to say about the Aviary and life in general now-a-days. I came up with nothing conclusive, which is in keeping with my usual approach here. My experiences over the week, however, have had some culminating effects on me. It's been a little like living on a television show; it's been that episodic. This week has very little of the promise of such unique experiences, which is just fine. It gives me time to reflect. It also gives me time to prepare my constitution as best I can for Saturday . . . my bachelor party. (After which there may be a little break from 'blogging, the which may involve much laying about and nursing inescapable injuries to my physique and psyche.)

Weddings can be seen as first anniversaries or, at least, the promise of anniversaries to come. At the wedding I attended on Saturday, the father-daughter dance was especially beautiful. I noticed, as they danced, a recent father sitting with his daughter on his lap and I wondered if he had in mind what I did. We don't dance with great regularity now-a-days. This makes the father-daughter dance a little archaic but, then again, it also increases the likelihood that it is indeed the last time a father will dance with his daughter. Ceremonies like this are sort of our opportunity to lay out our intentions to the world and say, "Okay: Sock it to me." They're deliberate, and so can be perceived as a little stale or obligatory, but I actually find most of them to be quite bold and as a result necessary. We never know which promises are made to last, which dances will be our last, and so it is quite important to occasionally stand in the face of chance and conduct a simple ritual. It says, "This is what I will do, this is who I am." And at anniversaries, we get to relive that moment, whether it worked out for us or not.

It's part of my philosophy that our smallest actions have far-reaching effects (see 9/10/08), both in terms of time and space (geeks: relax; not implying they're mutually exclusive parameters). What, then, of our more grand actions, our lives lived out through continuous practice and commitment and recommitment? I'd start by suggesting that what we perceive to be our "grand actions" are probably, mostly, woefully inconsequential in comparison to how important they seem to us. My 300th entry, just as an example. But regardless of how our perceptions of our actions compare to their actual grand-scheme import, I believe they benefit from continuation. I believe in commitment as being something valuable in and of itself, if for no other reason than the fact that it keeps the story moving and, thereby, keeps it unpredictable. Is it a comedy or a tragedy? What note will it end on? The difficulty in perceiving the results of our long-term actions accurately lies very much in our involvement. This is a forest? Is not. It's just ... um ... a lot of trees ... a surrounding of trees ...

This part of my philosophy is one of the things about me that keeps me coming back (keep on comin' back) to theatre. In theatre work, the process is long and developmental, and collaborative. You get to see the ping-ponging energy of ideas passed in real time, in a real space with (relatively) real people. Even into the run of performances, the actions keep developing, keep changing, keep contributing something new to the dialogue-at-large. Everything we do has the potential to work this way, I think. It's just that theatre work affords me the best opportunities that I've found thus far for doing it well. And hey: If you want to really witness first-hand the repercussions of sustained work, go teach high school theatre. Seriously. Talk about changes. Changes are all anyone's about at that age range, though they hardly notice it, for all the changing taking place (see above: forest/trees). Last week's work afforded me so very many opportunities to reflect on my own high school experiences that I came out of it with an unanticipated sense of clarity. Who knew teaching gym classes was a route to clarity? I'm savoring said clarity for as long as it may last. Oh look: it's a forest!

I had yet another unexpected return to high school last night, when I met Friend Kara for dinner. She was in town visiting her dad, and managed to make a little time to reunite in person, our Facebook(R) reunion a thing accomplished weeks ago. Kara was my very first, really real girlfriend, and we were both deeply involved with the theatre program at good ol' James W. Robinson Secondary (What the...?! When did they get that Georgetown-looking clock installed out front?). On the heels of my first high school immersion since attending, Kara and I caught up and reviewed our notes. There was surprisingly little talk of theatre, actually, possibly because Kara has in recent years moved on to other long-term activities. We focused instead on the delights of adult perspective on youthful dramatics, and on acknowledging that for all that additional perspective, we don't feel all that different from who we were when we met. These people we've been, they live on, and get added to. Like a good collaboration, the process of understanding oneself has a lot to do with finding agreement and building upon it. "Yes, and..."

It's good to have the opportunity to look back on the building, and forward to more of it. Wheresoever it may lead.

10 October 2008

North Pocono High: Day 5

It is done. Our five-day residency at North Pocono High School under the auspices of the NEIU wrapped today, and I must admit that it has been even more of a learning experience for me than I had anticipated. It's a good policy the NEIU has, of ensuring at least an initial five days' work for new rostered artists. It was coincidence that ETC had an association with Geri Featherby, and she snatched us up for these free (for the school, that is) introductory days. It may have a made things easier on us, ultimately, to be supported and endorsed by a teacher who knew so well what kind of work we had created, and what we could offer the school. I still feel that we learned an incredibly useful lesson or two about curriculum-building and teaching within a high school setting. Going in, I felt fairly prepared, backed up by years of experience teaching workshops to all manner of groups. Now I know how wrong I had been, and how much I've not only learned, but have yet to learn.

Wherever possible, we wanted to make today about pulling together the various experiences of the week into unified, practical application. The approach we took in the Shakespeare class was to put a lot of control into the students' hands. We began warming up before the period began, and spent very little time with it in the actual class period, in order to maximize class time for scene work. We divided them into their groups for their assigned scenes for Taming of the Shrew, then split them in two halves for Heather and I to work amongst. For approximately half an hour we moved from group to group, offering suggestions for the work they would present to their peers at the end of the period, emphasizing the lessons in specificity, improvisation and character-building that we taught throughout the week. I had three groups, and had to move rapidly between them. If it hadn't been so busy, it would have been frustrating, to have so little time. However, we saw progress, and at the end every group performed a part of a scene to good improvement. I watched and enjoyed, bitter-sweet with the desire to continue working with them, excited to think of Zuppa del Giorno's approaching foray into Shakespeare's world. At the end, we thanked them, and they thanked us back, all like fellow collaborators. I hope to see them again before too long.

The gym classes, of course, didn't have the same daily consistency of our other courses, so there was very little emotional context to our work for those two periods. We learned some good lessons on how to wrangle massive groups for acrobalance yesterday, and applied them to good effect. Both yesterday and today I used squat-thrusts for the initial warm-up, and noticed that these worked well if you didn't warn the students what they'd be doing. I asked them to squat, then go into a plank (or push-up position), then squat again and stand. Then I just did the same thing all together with a four count, and everyone quickly got the idea with a minimum of commentary. It helps with such exercises to be a little competitive with the teenagers. (Helps, that is, until the next morning.) Aptly enough, both classes were disrupted in one way or another. The first lost their seniors for a group picture, nearly halving our group size. Something of a relief, frankly, for at least my voice. At the end of the second class, a fire drill went off. Still, we got good training squeezed in there. Even if we didn't get to know our students much in these classes, we did become pretty friendly with the teachers, and that was very rewarding. I really feel there was a progress in which they were skeptical of us to begin with -- having very little information as to what to expect from us -- and ultimately came to be satisfied with what we had to teach and how effectively we did it. We discussed teaching techniques for such bizarre circumstances as only a P.E. class can offer, and a couple of the teachers even volunteered that they'd love to get a group to see The Very Nearly Perfect Comedy of Romeo & Juliet.

Exactly how to culminate our work in the acting class, our last class of the whole experience, was a subject of much discussion betwixt Heather and I. Ultimately, we agreed that it would be good to structure it as much as possible, but to hand the actual creation of a scene or scenes over to the students. We began them with another game, then worked on group counting up to 20 (in which they succeeded). Then we did some "Yes, and..." storytelling in a circle, in which each person contributes a line to a developing story. This ended up being a little superfluous to what they created, but it was our idea that they could use whatever story was told there for source material for their assignment. The assignment was to, within assigned groups ("assigned" because even by the end of the week clear divisions were visible in the class social dynamic), create a scene with a beginning, middle and end, incorporating one rhythm of three, one pratfall and specific first and last lines of spoken dialogue that would be the same for all groups. The topper was that they had only one minute to discuss this scene -- enough to sketch an outline, not enough to avoid improvisation. We did a couple of rounds of this. It was effective insofar as it got the students working together with a minimum of fuss and put an emphasis on improvisation as an acting tool. I still wanted to take them a little farther out of their safety zones, somehow, but have to concede that for many of them this is an ambitious goal for five days' work. I smiled a lot in their presentations, thinking of how much they had to offer to this work, how real they are when they are (however momentarily) focused on the problem at hand more so than their own insecurity. At the class' close, we thanked one another, and a couple of the students who had peeped maybe twice during the whole week went out of their way to say goodbye. I respect my teachers so much more today than I had before this experience.

I don't know what the future holds for the relationship between Zuppa del Giorno and the NEIU. It had been our hope that this partnership would allow us to enhance our presence in a community at large, and compensate us to a degree that made a full-time commitment to that outreach sustainable. However, the NEIU paid us for this initial contract as though Heather and I were a single artist, under the heading "Zuppa del Giorno." The pay is still decent (which just goes to show what a generous organization they are), but won't quite justify my continuous participation when weighed against the time spent away from employment in New York. So, unless we can reach a different understanding, Heather may be in large part taking over the practice of this particular branch of Zuppa del Giorno. I hope not, though. I hope not, because through this experience I can see the tremendous potential for taking our work to another environment and integrating it and ourselves. I hope not because this week has been tremendous for all involved, I believe, and I also believe it will only get better with more experiences. Most of all, it's simply wonderful to participate in discovery.

09 October 2008

North Pocono High: Day 4

This has been an incredibly physical day for us. I'd say it stands close to our rehearsal process for Legal Snarls for sheer continual physical work. (Though not even close to Silent Lives, for which we each became demi-gods of falling down, and from great heights.) In Shakespeare we worked on character archetypes, in P.E. we moved ahead into actual acrobalance instruction, which we continued into the acting class. Most exhausting, really, was the second gym class, for which we have somewhere from sixty to seventy students, the same class we had third period Monday. I could use a good, soothing cup of tea with lemon and honey. Fortunately, my only obligation tonight is dinner with Friend John Beck. I'll be sore in the morning, but not for lack of rest and placid recreation.

It was a fitful night of sleep for me, I confess. We were tackling a lot of new stuff today, and I suppose I was still riding out my left-over anxiety from yesterday's interruption. Heather and I allowed ourselves a slow internal warm-up in the process of getting coffee, getting there and getting into a constructive mental space. By the time our first class started filtering in, though, we had found ourselves again, and the class went great. Our sponsor there, Geri Featherby, happened to be there to observe, and wasn't disappointed by the physical characterizations we managed to coax out of that room full of teenagers. It's a lot of fun to explain to high schoolers that, yes, it's perfectly valid to try different things, to add their own interpretations to an ongoing cultural conversation. As we explained to them commedia tropes like the dottoring Dottore, full of hot air, and the greedy Pantalone's money-pouch placement (directly over his codpiece), they saw how free they were to interpret a character. Eventually we had a sort of runway demonstration of their contemporary takes on the archetypes. It was very funny, very original, very gratifying.

The P. E. classes were ones we had a lot of uncertainty about. How can we teach safe acrobalance to so many? You may recall that Friend Patrick and I had a similar class size at the KC/ACTF of 2007, but that was all college-age theatre enthusiasts. Here were we dealing not only with a mixed group of high-school ages, but ones who had neither heard of our work, nor had any immediate context for what we relatively strange persons were about to subject them. In acrobalance, there are inescapable challenges regarding trust. It seemed we had unintentionally set a similar challenge for ourselves and our students simply in proposing to teach them this skill. It went . . . great. Really. It did! My voice may be a little gravelly (read: extra sexy) for a week or more, but the students were attentive and interested and -- and this is really the best part -- daring. We just taught them an angel, the most core move of the style of acrobalance I learned, but that's plenty scary enough. And everyone had a go for at least one turn of basing, flying or spotting (potentially the most important position). Some tried more than one role. We had them in groups of four, created by first having them make a pair and then match themselves to another pair, which I strongly recommend. It saved time, and got people interacting as members of a team more immediately.

As I said above, the day ended with still more acro! This time with our theatre kids. We taught them a thigh stand (just to mix it up a bit), and I was reminded of how effective this work can be with ensemble-building. There are all different types in this class, and I suspect all different motivations for being there. In working on thigh stand, we did it all together, one pair at a time, with everyone else spotting in a tight circle. It was a great feeling. The pair was insulated by their peers, and in this way we managed to get some people to participate who might otherwise have quickly bowed out. I would have preferred that everyone try either flying or basing (a couple opted only to spot) but we had a majority anyway, and some tried both positions. At the end, there was a very good feeling of accomplishment in the class, which is something we've been struggling for most of the week with them.

Rest. Meatloaf (the food; not the music). Tiger Balm (TM). Tomorrow we close the show.

08 October 2008

North Pocono High: Day 3

Today was, in many ways, unexpected. We ended up teaching two-and-a-half classes today, because just as we were ready to start the second period, the school went into a lock-down. I was confused by this; I'd never heard the term before. For those of you who haven't spent a lot of time around a high school in recent history, a lock-down is a sort of policy enacted in the interests of the students' safety in a time of crisis, or investigation. On notice, everyone goes into their respective classrooms and lock the doors. Well, one of these got timed for today in such a way that we missed out on teaching second-period Phys. Ed. class. To be fair, the announcement apparently informed people that they could continue teaching (it seemed it was simply for a drug check; they brought in drug-sniffing dogs), but they don't get all the announcements in the gymnasium and so we spent over an hour sitting, silent, instead. It's a good practice, given what can happen in a school these days. I was completely unaware of it prior to today.

Before all that, though, we had a great Shakespeare class in the auditorium. Our emphasis today was on the improvisation tenet, "When in doubt, breathe out," and we worked with the students on diaphragmatic breathing, enunciation and diction, and projection. I've been using horse stance to encourage the students to have a strong base for their breath, and they kind of hate it, but in a good, collective groan kind of way. It's working; they're really learning to relax the parts of their bodies they're not using, to ground themselves and deliver powerful voice from the diaphragm. After breathing drills and vocal warm-ups, we ran them through a diction drill, using:

"To sit in solemn silence
on a dull, dark dock,
in a pestilential prison
with a life-long lock,
awaiting the sensation
of a short, sharp shock
from a cheap and chippy chopper
on a big black block."

Then we practiced as a group throwing our voices to the back corner of the auditorium and delivering dialogue with power, before taking individuals up on stage with a line from their scene work and working them through clarity and intention in delivery. Heather and I would take turns coaching the student on stage and standing at the rear of the space, checking for clarity and projection. It was continued good work from this early group. Sadly, time got away from us again and we didn't get to everyone, but we made sure the rest of the class paid attention and practiced good audience habits. Hopefully some of what we do will stick, and they'll continue a practice. Tomorrow we plan to explore the use of character archetypes in Shakespeare (which I'm very much looking forward to), and we'll be back in the auditorium Friday to pull it all together.

Our one gym class was abbreviated to just barely a half an hour, so we kept the freshmen and sophomores in their street clothes and sped them through stretching and the most basic partner balances. Everyone was fairly hyperactive after the excitement/anxiety of the lock-down, but we managed to come together by the end of the half-period, and circle push-ups are always good for a bonding experience. We've ended every class thus far with this conditioning exercise. The way it works is that you have everyone in a circle (a rather large circle in our case) and put them in the "up" position of a push-up. When you tell them they only have to do one push-up, they relax a bit. When you tell them we're doing them one-at-a-time, and everyone must stay in the "up" position until we're through, they groan, but don't quite grasp just how hard they'll be working by the end. As it progresses, the energy builds, people moan and groan, but they're enduring together, so that by the end you can give them a choice: to keep it up, or join you in a set of ten or twenty push-ups more. Maybe this seems like torture to you, Gentle Reader? I can only say that, if you're there, you feel the camaraderie afterwards.

In our last class of the day, we revisited improvisation and set some new challenges for the students. We began with more team-building games -- group counting again, and blob tag. After a quick review of the improvisation principles, we set the students to two games: What Are You Doing? and Sit, Stand, Lie. In doing these, we asked them to remember to respond with a "Yes, and" attitude, and all that good stuff. WAYD is good for getting students to react impulsively, and rely on one another for their actions, and SSL reminds the participants that they need to pay close attention to one another if they hope to build a story together. The interesting thing about game play in this context is trying to keep the emphasis more on teamwork, less on competition. The games tend to teach themselves in this regard; they work better when people are working together. However, more inexperienced improvisers need encouragement to leave their safety zones, to trust their scene partners more and more . . . and still more. It was difficult to invite this observation in such a short time, but that's just the nature of a school day. If we get one thing across in our remaining days in this class, I'd like it to be a priority for fostering trust, for creating ensemble. Tomorrow we'll tackle this by way of acrobalance work. The physical can often be a quicker teacher than the conceptual.

07 October 2008

North Pocono High: Day 2

Remember when I posted about the infamous "sophomore slump" that inevitably occurs with a second night's performance? (See 8/15/07.) Of course you do! Well: It's more of a guideline than a rule, actually. Today we had a great day of teaching, in our every class. It would be foolish to try and attribute the success to any one general factor. Suffice it to say that whatever else may have contributed, we knew better what we were about today, and so did the rest of the school, and that seemed to grease the wheels just enough to allow everyone to relax and enjoy more.

In Shakespeare we latched on to the improvisation tenet, "When you get stuck, do something physical." Using it as a kind of theme for the day's (read: 43 minutes') work, we warmed them up quickly, played a quick game, and then ran them through three variations on developing strong physical characterization. Typically, we spend at least three workshops of 2-3 hours each on this part, but we wanted to at least point out the tools for them to return to if they are so motivated in future work. We had them walk the room on a grid, taking away the burden of decision-making a bit, then guided them into different postures using body-center specifics, animal forms and appetites to help them discover interesting shapes, pacing and rhythm. They took to it beautifully. My only regret was that we ran right up against the bell, leaving no time to review and process in stillness. We had also hoped to review their texts with them for physical cues and clues to their characters today. We've decided to attack some vocal work (in the large auditorium) tomorrow, and then integrate both days' work into the text Thursday, instead.

Physical Education was much the same for our first period as it had been yesterday, and today was another day for taking our time to lay a groundwork of physical awareness. Neither period had the immense numbers of Monday's third-period class. In the second period, however, we had our first freshman/sophomore group. They did very well indeed. In fact, it was easier to hold their attentions, by and large. It's clear to me that when we see them again on Friday, we'll need to take it slow, make sure everyone is both supported and challenged. Tomorrow is our big challenge in P.E., however, as we'll only see those two classes the one day. With period three today, we demonstrated some of our acrobalance to give them an idea of what we were training them for. It was well-received, and I think we'll start both classes with that tomorrow. And maybe, just maybe, we'll get to partner-stretching sooner so we can go farther with it and offer them some of the insight the classes who have us twice this week will receive.

Finally, the acting class. We had a much better day today. Our strategy for incorporating more game play certainly helped, but I think also the students had simply come to trust us a bit better over the twenty-four hours between. We began with a very quick warm-up, then played "Grandma's Footsteps" (otherwise known as "Red Light/Green Light"). That got them alert, and we brought them in for group counting up, wherein one person counts one number at a time, listening for their turn, trying to get up to a certain number. This was a nice way of reincorporating them as a team while maintaining a sense of play. From there we moved into some of our standard exercises for learning about rhythm, comic threes and stops, or doing one thing at a time. Still in a circle, we did spit-takes, trying to find a distinct beat in each moment (drink - process - spit) and then a rhythm as we continued around the circle. After that, we did the dollar-bill exercise, wherein the students are asked to cross the room on their way to somewhere, discover a dollar bill on the ground, and make off with it. We spent some time on this, and they accepted adjustments very well I thought, neither fighting them nor cowering from repetition. We ended working on staged trips, and trying to make them spontaneous and an event. They did very well and seemed to enjoy the technique work. Tomorrow we see about working that into the improvisation groundwork.

I'm exhausted and, frankly, expect to be every evening this week. We're having some callbacks for background players for The Very Nearly Perfect Comedy of Romeo & Juliet tonight from 7:00 to 10:00., for which I need to be both acute and participatory. I'ma go nap now . . .

06 October 2008

North Pocono High: Day 1

Today I and fellow Zuppianni Heather Stuart had our first day as artists in residence at North Pocono High School; we're teaching all this week, four classes a day -- one Shakespeare, two Phys. Ed. (yes, you read that right) and a theatre class. This is our first go teaching under the auspices of the NEIU, and we've been pretty excited about it. So often with the workshops we have to have an intense but brief experience, and never get to follow a progress with a group of students. This week, we'll start what I hope is the first of many chances to help students evolve over some time.

Shakespeare is a new class for us to be teaching, but particularly apt, given our upcoming project. Heather and I decided to offer the students our techniques for developing a show, improvisation and characterization, all through a Shakespearean lens. We were pleasantly surprised to find the students particularly eager and bright at first period. They are working on scenes from Taming of the Shrew, and some have already begun to memorize. Our plan was to review (in a scant 43 minutes) the basic tenets of improvisation, and then structure the rest of the week around those tenets as they apply to exploring and developing Shakespeare. After a quick warm-up, we led the students through a few exercises to get them accepting and building, making the other look good, being specific and breathing and making a physical choice when they got stuck. We ended the period with genres, asking them to perform their scenes in the round and inviting their classmates to jump in to help build the environment when necessary. Then we introduced a genre -- James Bond film, Western, etc. -- for them to adapt the text to. They took to it like they were on fire, and we were very pleased. The rest of the week we can really focus on specific techniques and approaches with this class.

Physical Education we were, I must admit, a bit nervous about. We've taught highly physical classes and workshops before, but never have we needed to incorporate the specific goals of a P.E. program and environment. We would have two rather large classes (30 to 70) in a row in a large, echoed gymnasium, and the classes we see Monday and Tuesday we meet again on Thursday and Friday, due to their rotating-day scheduling. Our approach then was to spend a good amount of time on the stretching and preparatory activities for partner balance, then instruct one-to-two acrobalance moves later in the week. We had the whole class form a circle, and led them through some of our more interesting stretches, making a point of first running them through some aerobic exercises to shake out the initial hyperactivity. It was surprisingly effective to keep the group focused simply by staying in the middle and pausing at key points; Heather and I stayed back-to-back, eyes watchful as though we were defending a hill. As the group warmed up and became accustomed to the activity, we switched to partner stretching, getting them adjusted somewhat to physical contact and communication. The students paired off by approximate height and we took them through pulling assisted stretches. The response was good. In that environment, the most hopeless response you can get is apathy, and we had very little of that. Afterwards, we heard good feedback, which is all the better for us as it spreads into the halls and informs the approach of our future students in these classes.

The last class of our day was a theatre one, after a break, and we also endeavored to teach the students the tenets of good improvisatory theatre, this time in a bit more detail. We were a little surprised to find this class a good deal more bashful than the first period. But then again, it was a greater mix of ages, and by seventh period some of the hyperactive energy so critical to good teenage productivity has worn thin. We warmed them up, then took them through more advanced improvisational exercises than those we used earlier in the day. They responded well, but we still had some showing fear at the end. Our goal with these students is to train them toward learning to work in Zuppa del Giorno's style, to regard a scenario, or a string of actions, as their script and to get a little more comfortable with putting their own ideas into what they're creating, making strong choices that are unique to them.

It was a good start. Tomorrow we have some modifications to add to each class, based on what we learned today. In Shakespeare, we plan to begin looking at methods of creating a strong physicalization for a character, using a combination of textual clues and personal physical exploration. Gym will be basically the same approach, but we'll have our first freshman/sophomore class, which should tell us a lot about how to proceed with the rest of the week. We may also do some demonstration of where our work with them leads, showing off a few of our more impressive acrobalance moves. For the theatre class, we intend to incorporate more game play, to disarm some of their defensive responses and get everyone into a team mindset. To this end, we're teaching some of our comic techniques: threes, one-thing-at-a-time, lazzi and the like. If they get comfortable performing their own work for one another, they'll be a hair's breadth from doing it outside the classroom. There's a strong possibility for our returning in the spring to work with them on their production of A Midsummer Night's Dream; the potential for tracking so many students' development over such a prolonged period of time is a very exciting prospect indeed.

04 October 2008

"Words . . . Words. Words."

"Hasn't it ever happened to you that all of a sudden and for no reason at all you haven't the faintest idea how to spell the word 'which'? Or 'house'? Because when you write it down you just can't remember ever having seen those letters in that order before?"

Don't fret. I'm not about to go on another Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead quote frenzy. I've just got words on the brain, and when I wrote the title to this post (I almost always start with a title, oddly enough, and rarely change it after writing the post -- even the automatic cursor placement of Blogger assumes you want to write the entry first) I had the experience of looking at the word "word" and thinking, That can't possibly be how "word" is spelled. This post title comes from an audition I had for Hamlet, years and years ago (read: 1999). Polonius asks Hamlet what he reads, and Hamlet famously replies in a three: words words words. A lot has been made of his response. A lot has been made of every damn thing Hamlet says. I, being a bit of the clown Hamlet warns the players to avoid, made a gag out of it, pointing to one page (words), to the facing page (words) and then turning up to Polonius to deliver my assessment: Words. I probably unconsciously lifted this from Gibson's delivery, but ol' Mad Max milks it WAY too much and kills the rhythm. So sayeth this guy. [Lifteths hands up, pointseth thumbs inward.]

I'll be having an increasing emphasis on Shakespearean topics as time progresses toward The Very Nearly Perfect Comedy of Romeo & Juliet. Next week, in fact, I'm teaching a Shakespeare class with Friend Heather of Zuppa del Giorno fame out in the autumnal splendor of the Poconos. (It really is a tough job sometimes...) It'll be a new class for us to lead, and we're planning on modeling it after what Zuppa does naturally, taking the week to teach the students how to approach Shakespeare's text using character archetypes and a specific, creative physicalization. We figure they get plenty of emphasis on the text as it is in regular class, and our work will give them new tools to apply. Still and all, words are rarely as important as they are in interpreting teh Bard. (That felt wicked, using LOLspeak with Shakespeare. WthTFth, Jeffeth?) I love Shakespeare. You might not know it, to look at my resume, but I do. In preparing to teach, I went out to ye olde storage space and unearthed my Bardic textbooks. In my Linklater book I found folded a journal of mine from college and, reading it, I was reminded of exactly how much I love that language, those words.

As I performed in a reading last night, I got to thinking about words, and how expressive they can be in so many more ways than literal meaning. My character in the reading was given a lot of open-ended ellipses, which can be difficult to interpret with specificity, particularly with only a few hours' rehearsal. The playwright suggested that I play the character with more emphasis on his neuroses than I had in rehearsal, so as I performed I explored the ellipses as spaces dictated by interrupting thoughts and emotions, rather than cognitive stops. It worked rather well for me, and got me listening to the "music" to be found in the follow-through of lines. There's this general rule for Shakespeare, that its effective and, in most cases, desirable, to carry one's energy directly through an entire line; indeed, right on through a page's worth of "line." Why does this work so well with verse? Think of it as a song. A mediocre song with a good hook that lasts three minutes or so works fine. But a six-minute tune that engages you the entire time, leading your emotions to all different places, there's nothing quite like that.

Another notable Shakespearean repetition is in King Lear: "Howl howl howl howl!" It's a cry of anguish from Lear, turned nearly animal from his misadventures and, ultimately, his daughter's death. It is in its way an aria. The only thing a performer has to guide him (or her, why not) is a nod to the cadence suggested by the rest of the verse and their emotional state at the time. "Howl" isn't even a word, per se, but an onomatopoeia. Language is a beautiful medium in which to work, and the real grace notes are in nothing so much as the spoken delivery. I'm looking forward to returning to a study of that.