21 December 2009

Dreamscapes & the Common Journey

A little while back, I found myself -- rather through the invention of necessity -- exploring the surreal in a clown performance I created and performed. Lately I've been wondering if that experience might have opened up a new avenue or two in my creativity, as I fantasize about more and more bizarre images on the stage of my mind. This is new-found. You could always describe me as a bit weird, but outright "surreality" has never been a thing I've been interested in creating, much less for the sake of itself. I love the absurd, the sublime, and am just as psyched for the opening of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus as the next guy, but using it in theatre is a terribly delicate balance. And I have been burned, many, many times before, my friends.

And yet. Yet I find myself dreaming of some particular world that's more a dreamscape than anything specific to history or the here-and-now. It's influenced by a lot of things, and may prove easily categorical, but for now it seems to me to be unique. This is not my idiom, and so I feel a little at-sea. Delighted, too, of course; otherwise why would I be returning to it again and again? I'm challenged by it. I keep looking for a story in its midst, something on which to hang my hat. Surreal or no, I can't bring myself to stick with something creatively unless I'm somehow meeting an audience halfway. So, you know: no worries there, O my vasty Audience.

The surreal or fantastic really is just an idiom, not a goal or even a path. It's become a bit elusive in recent years, as fiction in every genre has accepted everything from "science fiction" to "magical realism" into its official ranks. Things that used to be sublime are given categories and named. And I love those domesticated notions, don't get me wrong. It just makes it a bit trickier to make something to a surreal effect.

The trick, I think to making a successful yet surreal bit of art is to aim not for the "surreality." Rather, aim for a pure connection with the audience. Maybe there are glowing eyeballs replacing your old ones (to take an example from my little piece) and maybe that is really interesting to think about in an allegorical way, but what the audience is there for is a connection that allows them to identify with you and be reminded of themselves. So it's not about how cool glowing eyes are, but how they make you feel and function, and what then you do with them. Actually, more immediately and most importantly, it's about your instinctive response to them. This I think might be my favorite part of Terry Gilliam's movies -- amidst all this strange, inexplicable stuff is a continuum of watching people respond in specific ways, emotionally, instinctively. That's the scalpel of the sublime, after all. There's little-to-nothing of a cultural commonality, so you damn well better have a human one there.

How shocking that a born-and-raised U.U. like myself would find that situation appealing.

This is part of why the silent comedians were so successful within the idiom of the surreal. (And if you disagree with me about that, shut up, you're stupid.) The formula -- if you can call it that with all the pioneering they were so busy doing -- is of a low-status, accessible character getting into big trouble and struggling to win out over it all whilst incident after incident happens to her, and she has to react. We have to react, instinctively, no matter how little sense may apply to what we perceive. Heck: How much sense could it make to be watching projected shadow and light and be having a hysterical response to it? (Just as much sense as it did to have the same reaction to performers on a stage, or Plato's cave shadows, to answer my own rhetoric.) The supposedly surreal surrounds, and it's a fool's game to try and create it from nothingness. All it takes is a little nudge of people's perspective.

I may be nudging soon. We'll see. It's what my brain wants, anyway. Come along?

20 December 2009

Nyuck Nyuck OOF! Bleaah...

One of the things I find interesting about the silly season is how miraculously it makes me multi-task to the point of forgetting really basic priorities. It's a little bit like how I remember skiing to be, back in my gilded youth when I skied somewhat regularly. I would get going on the up-and-down of it all, five o'clock would roll around and I'd begin to wonder why I felt dizzy and my eyes had dried up in my head. I don't forget to eat and drink around Christmas, but it's close. I was fortunate enough last week, however, to have a nice, centering ACTion Collective event to anchor me in spot for a bit. Just long enough to plant a cream pie in my merry face.

This, our third event -- ACT III: Nyuck Nyuck Nyuck -- was an intimate and rather relaxed affair. The "cocktail hour" period was spent with all in a single, spontaneous circle of chairs, which was a first. We had a total of about nine there, including Andrew and myself, partly a result of three last-minute cancellations due to holiday complications. None of this was surprising, of course. We wondered in planning ACT III whether it made sense to adhere to our not-yet-a-schedule in the face of everyone's holiday, and decided we should, for a variety of reasons. Several of the people who did attend last Thursday's event specifically scheduled their holiday plans to make time for it, and we learned a lot as a result of the smaller group.

The goal of the evening was to play comic two-hander scenes as well as possible when they are selected at random. We emailed the scenes in advance, save a couple that Friend Nat brought in that evening, and asked everyone to have a passing familiarity with them so they wouldn't be handed a scene with absolutely no context. Of course, how much of those attachments people chose to read was out of our control, and it seemed that some were more familiar than others. Nevertheless, no one was quite out to sea, and some people really brought on some interesting work . . . both intentionally, and accidentally. Nat himself chose a scene from Moliere's Tartuffe that, for reasons of an error in transcription, switched the roles midway. He and his scene partner rolled with it, though, and it was a very nearly seamless transition -- it became practically a deconstruction of the scene. Moreover, with the smaller group everyone had a moment or more to really shine and create something memorable.

Our game mechanics did not function quite as well as I had hoped they might, and it's difficult to identify exactly why that might be. Certainly part of it was that very few people were willing to repeat a scene that had gone before, which led to a deflation of a big part of our idea: that actors would build on one another's work. I had every title in the hat twice, to safeguard against this possibility, but it quickly became evident to me that there was in our group no enthusiasm for repetition. I think we'll return to this idea with a different (and stronger) structure, because I'm excited by the possibilities in collaborative character-building and scene-work. When it is the focus of an event, I think we'll have some very interesting results.

The exercises were bookended by a set-up and a payoff (though I muffed the timing of the set-up a bit by brazenly forgetting to mention it until we had already started). We started (almost) out by mentioning that, by the end of the evening, someone would be hit in the face with a pie. This was Andrew's idea at some stage of brainstorming, but I was 100% behind it. Zuppa del Giorno has been trying to incorporate pie fights into our shows for years, and I was eager to see it in action. Fortunately for me, I was eager to see it from any perspective. What we did not reveal until later in the evening was that it was a choice between myself and Andrew as victim of the pie toss, and that everyone was going to vote. It would seem I was a little too expressive of my enthusiasm for this idea, however, because the decision to have me picking shaving cream out of my nostrils 60 seconds later was in fact unanimous. Pow. Right in the kisser.

10 December 2009

Ba-Dum. Ching...?

Comedy is profitable. It's true. Everyone wants something different from their entertainment, and everyone's sense of humor is uniquely calibrated to some extent, but I think we can all agree that everyone feels better after a good laugh, and few people actively seek to avoid a situation in which they might be tempted toward laughter. It is possibly the most socially acceptable form of catharsis, ranking right up there with the sneeze as a fairly uncontrollable expression of release. Sure, there are "inappropriate" laughs galore, but we're generally pretty forgiving even of these . . . especially in situations in which social pressure to be moral is at a minimum. As a result, comedy is very bankable.

I have mainstream comedy (Define my terms? Heck no -- let's keep this as subjective as possible.) on my mind lately owing to several factors, not the least of which is that the next ACTion Collective event is devoted to comic two-hander scenes. You better hang on with both hands: It's going to be a crazy one. As a result, I've been gathering one-liners and dialogue-based comic scenes from a variety of different traditions, and it's got me thinking both about how important comedy is to business, and how much the two have intrinsically in common. Don't agree? How many major television studios have banked on trained actors for sitcoms, and how many have banked on up-and-coming stand-up comedians? Your honor, the defense rests. Bitterly.

Both comedy and business are modeled on a fairly direct interchange, one related to profit. For one it's money and the other, laughs, and in both cases if you're not growing then you're in trouble. As I read through comic dialogue from the recent past all the way back to the 17th century, I'm struck by how little has changed in all that time. The individual lines have gotten shorter (unless part of the joke is about how long someone speaks) and of course the phrasing has changed, but the rhythms and effects are frankly standard. Particularly looking at two-person scenes, in which communication is really broken down to some pretty basic, ping-pong dynamics. (Hacky-sack would be a better analogy [parenthetically].) A couple of people bat something around until a certain synergy is reached, which results, we hope, in some payoff.

Is this all that different from tragedy and non-profit organizations? (Not that I'm relating the one to the other, mind. [That's for a separate 'blog post {parenthetically}.]) Is tragedy not interested in profit of a different tender, and organizations in payoff in less materialistic ways? Certainly. And then again, no. It's less accountable with these forms, more subjective, and the structures are more complex. We can tie all sorts of genres and business models into this, but there's something about commercial business and comedy that goes naturally hand-in-hand. If for no other reason than because funny makes money.

Certainly that proves true in my own life, because I'm outrageously wealthy. Wait . . .. It does relate, in some way. I just had it. Damn. Oh well . . .

OH RIGHT. I mean to say, in terms of the jobs I've attained. See, in this context, the work is its own payment; which may be why I'm not - parenthetically - outrageously wealthy. Huh. Oh well, I'll figure that all out tomorrow. The point is, I think that the comedies I've been in outweigh anything else by a ratio of something like 5:1. It's what the people want, and I am more marketable as someone who can repeatedly fall on my ass than I am as someone who can make you think of your mother/father/first girl-and-or-boyfriend with a twinge of heretofore unacknowledged regret. Them's the breaks, kid.

Fortunately for us, comedy is a hell of a lot of fun to do, usually. Business, too, if you can get in the right mindset. Lately I've been trying to perceive my money-making as a night of comedy. Thus far "farce" might be a better term, but I'm slowly edging toward"parody," in hopes of eventually hitting "satire" and am confident that -- someday -- I'll have them rolling in the aisles over pure, profitable comedy.

07 December 2009

Zuppa: The Next Course

Traditionally, we know what our Zuppa del Giorno show is going to be at least a year in advance, if not more. That seems funny to write, especially with how much I write about the process starting from nothing at the beginning of the rehearsal process. Yet both are true. We never start out with a show, and we always end up with a show, yet at least a year in advance we know what the show is going to be "about." The first would be about updated commedia traditions, the second about the Marx brothers, the third about silent film comedians, etc. One needs to know that much in advance so one can research, and plan, and gather materials for the horrifying moment when one finds oneself in an empty space without a single indication of where to go next, surrounded by folk who have as little clue (and at least as much anxiety) as you do.

In effect, Zuppa has officially now skipped a year. Owing to the ambitious nature of our last original work, and a focus on advancing our study abroad program, In Bocca al Lupo, we took a little break. Recently, however, David Zarko asked us to pool some ideas for the next endeavor into wholly original (or at least creatively stolen) show material. Here is what I emailed him, off the top of my head and verbatim:
  • Mummer's (or guiser's) Play: adaptable to public spaces, most characters performed in disguise or with mask - Wikipedia link. They usually have to do with good versus evil, and involve some element of resurrection. Prepare an original show utilizing style elements; perform in a different space every time. If at ETC, in ballroom, second stage, shop, lobby, abandoned rooms, etc. Scranton, all over, including weirdness like bowling alleys. In Italy, piazzas, but also tourist spots and museums.
  • Show set in a circus. I've resisted this for some time, but we really should attempt it some time. Doesn't have to be circus intensive, but can include stilt-walking and other street-theatre conducive elements.
  • The Great Zuppa Murder Mystery. Classic isolated scenario, names after Scranton locales and exit signs (Lord Dunmore Throop). Either played straight, or played a la coarse theatre -- more a play about players trying to put on a murder-mystery play, but not having their act together. OR, totally meta-: a real murder is supposed to have happened during a performance of a murder-mystery play that is being put on by coarse actors who are incapable of getting anything right.
  • A play about religion. I don't know -- religion is funny. Maybe a play about mythos and superstition, as well, or instead of. Zuppa's vampire play.
  • Another silent show, but based in something besides silent movies. This isn't really an idea. Sorry.
  • Collaborations with mixed media: visual artists, musicians, writers, dancers. The idea being that we highlight the ways in which everyone uses improvisation by performing alongside folks, united by some storytelling commonality.
  • Oh and also: A really real vaudeville show (There were some plans to incorporate a significant vaudeville presence into Prohibitive Standards, but they never crystallized. - ed.). With guest artists.
I'll probably have more ideas over time and, as is perhaps evident, I'm not especially sold on any of these in particular. Zuppa's mission statement when it comes to our original shows (in as much as we have one) is to illustrate the living traditions of the commedia dell'arte that permeate our culture, and inspire our audiences to learn more about that interconnected culture. Hence ideas that hearken to older forms, or hang on the twin cousins of homage and parody.

So what do you think, Gentle Reader? Seriously -- Which of these ideas would you like to see our merry, rotating band of "creactors" make a whole new show of? Or, better yet: What are your ideas...?

01 December 2009

La Commedia e l'Aula

Dear God, do I ever hope I've written that title right.

Day the last, I taught once again for one of Suzi Takahashi's classes at City College -- a "Movement for Actors" class that consisted of actors and non-actors alike, and I had less than a couple of hours in which to introduce them to the commedia dell'arte, in particular about how it can apply to physical characterization and character archetypes. I type a sentence such as that and it occurs to me that it must sounds dreadfully boring to the average Joe or Jane, one unaccustomed to seeing this work. That's a danger of "studying" commedia -- it all starts to seem academic at best, irrelevant and inaccessible at worst, and these are not adjectives that should ever have anything to do with the form, ever. So I try to avoid study, and focus instead on practice, which is an effective strategy in general for getting young men and women fresh from four days of eating and loafing to be involved.

I love guesting into Suzi's classes, and yesterday was no exception. The students were willing, focused and fun to be around (after a bit of a gradual warm-up period) and I found several applications that will be useful in future workshops. For example, I gave a generic pose for the three basic status types -- a deep stance for zanni, a lifted straight one for innamorati and a bent one for vecchi -- and periodically shouted out one of these types, for which they'd rush to assume the pose. It worked great for keeping them alert, teaching them the classes and getting them thinking physically (in particular because the Italian names had no literal meaning yet, so they could just be immediately associated). Having to abridge my usual material to make good use of time led to some interesting discoveries as well. A quicker pace kept the students from getting too wrapped up in right and wrong, so when it came to creating their own Capitano character they were more apt to drop the form elements they had already learned in favor of observed behavior.

There is something about teaching workshops that really fulfills me, and I often wonder if I would lose some of that feeling if the occasions to teach were more frequent, less special. Certainly there's a lot about regular teaching that a workshop instructor gets to be exempted from: long-term lesson plans, getting to know the students well (by which I mean, by name) and dealing with any amount of administrative concerns. The consequences, too, are mitigated by the brevity, which can also cast a bit of a glow on a workshop teacher as something new and fleeting, to be valued somehow more intensely than the teacher one sees day after day. Yeah, jeez: there's a lot of liberty in being a workshop leader. Yet the thing that gives me a sense of fulfillment more than any tricks I figure out or insights I have has more to do with the students than the class.

What's really amazing about sharing the commedia dell'arte perspective with people is watching them take it in their own way, at their own individual paces, and then suddenly run with it. That's got little to nothing to do with me, or even the material, and everything in the world to do with an individual person finding through the process a spark that lights them up. Maybe it's a moment of "I get it!", or perhaps it's one of "I give myself permission...", but whatever it may be for a given person, you can watch it happen around the classroom like popcorn. Here's where the commedia workshops and the acrobalance ones converge, in this infectious energy that spreads around in different patterns every time, but always results in more trust and bravery, and somehow, a new sense of community. It's really inspiring.

I've had a lot of experiences in the past year that have been seeming to say to me something literal and specific: Make community. That's it. There's a whole lot of different ways to do that, and I'm actively involved in a few of them, from starting up The ACTion Collective with Friend Andrew to working to stay better connected with all my friends, far and wide. Soon there'll be directing a show to add to the community-building pile, with a little luck. From the rehearsal studio to the Internet to visiting home (and other homes) it's a bit of ground to cover. I'm grateful that the small space of a couple of hours in a classroom can be part of that, too.

25 November 2009

Theatre: The Original Social Media

Teenagers are not dumb.

The movie adaptation of Interview with the Vampire came out in theaters in late 1994, plopping it right into my senior year of high school, and bringing Friend Davey and I to Springfield Mall one fine day to see it. Malls, at the time, were one of the few social milieu available to us in our particular environment -- not that we ever talked to anyone there, but that was more us than the environment, I think. At any rate, Springfield was well-waned in popularity at the time, making room for the cleaner, generally fancier Fairfax Mall, so it was strange that as we were leaving the movie I thought I saw someone I knew. Thought, that is, only for a moment. Where at one moment I thought I had seen a familiar pair of eyes and a flash of radiant hair, there was nothing when I checked back. Well, that wasn't so odd. I had just spent a couple of hours in the company of some rather charismatic vampires, after all.

These kids today, with their so-called vampires, glimmering and psychic and whatnot . . .
I have zero insight into what social conditions exist for the teenagers of today. They have ten thousand methods of communicating, but who knows how well that works, unless you're one of those who is newly double-digited in age? What I do know is that it's in our teenage years that it grows imperative that we become social creatures, and that a lot of our energy is spent solely on figuring that out. Not all that long ago, a teenager wouldn't be allowed out to a movie without a guardian or chaperon of some kind, terrified as we were of the assignations that might occur. Apart from serving as a rather absolute method of birth control, I can't see that there'd be much point to such restrictions anymore -- they'll only go and render 3D avatars of themselves on 2nd Life and get on with getting to know one another as well as any teenagers could ever hope to.

"Social networking media" has changed a lot of things about our methods of communicating, though it remains to be seen if the content and intention of that communication has changed dramatically. Truth be told, it is in many ways returning us to older forms. Facebook, for example, seems like a kind of oddly tiered public forum until one considers that for years upon years the borders of social circles were similarly enforced, only by money and class instead of who you know (as though the concepts were so extricable). MySpace felt like a sort of coliseum of kill-or-be-killed customization and lecherous advertising by comparison, and Twitter is . . . uh . . . man, I still don't know what Twitter is supposed to be. It feels a bit to me like the one-liner exchanges detectives on a stake-out have, or hunters gathered around a fire, except every single person everywhere is there.

They are all public forums, and there's a mistake in supposing this is something new. An easy mistake, really, because for a long time we've all been pretty focused on privacy. There's nothing wrong with that, obviously. I like my privacy too, but all things in moderation. Time was, being entertained was a social occasion. (I'm about to blow your mind.) A theatre was the place that one would do all this stuff we're now excited to do through computers. Performers and audience alike would have all kinds of dialogue, assignations and accidental encounters. They'd chat, they'd collaborate; I'm sure some of them even occasionally tweeted. That was part of the point -- not to hollow out our private space and be polite to those around us and avoid physical contact, but to engage. We all want to engage. That's what theatre is for.

Now, I'm not going to turn this car around if you all don't start using theatre for what it's for (but give your brother back his shoe, or I will). However, I like the world much more when we're all more engaged. Going to the movies to be alone is ridiculous, in other words, and one cannot live by Netflix alone. By God, yes, please: 'blog & tweet & Xbox & make that avatar dance. It's great stuff. But also, every so often, do something to see and be seen in the flesh, because when we just seek to entertain ourselves in isolation we are little more than soulless bloodsuckers, feeding from our own veins.

I should end it there, and the girl I glimpsed outside of the movie way back in 1994 might remain a figment of our collective imaginations.

On Sunday night that girl and I did some very out-of-character things. First among these was that we were out on a Sunday night; second was that we were seeing a movie; and third was that we were seeing a hopelessly, shamelessly (and I do emphasize here the utter lack of shame) popular movie on its opening weekend. These things are bad enough anywhere, but particularly redolent with practical difficulty in New York City, so I bought tickets in advance and cased the joint to find out where the inevitable line might form, and we spared just enough time to get a little oxygen out of our bloodstreams before joining said line well in advance of the opening of the doors. It was kind of nice, actually. Everyone knew why they were there, and some of us seemed more embarrassed by it than others, but no one could judge; not really. As happens with this sort of meme, this zeitgeist, casual conversations formed amongst strangers. Is this the line for tickets, or a seat? Did they say when the doors would open? I got here just in time, I guess. Look: No one's under 25 here, and there are guys! Lots of guys!

Oh, they try hard to give us plenty of material with which to accuse, but it's true: Teenagers, they are not dumb.

19 November 2009

The Horror, The Horror...

Do you think anyone has yet mashed up Brando's famous delivery in Apocalypse Now with shots of men in traditional Jewish garb dancing traditional Jewish dances? If they haven't, the Internet is a failed experiment.

Sunday last I participated in a staged reading of Friend Nat's latest playscript: Pierce, or, A Ghost of the Union. The story is a ghost one, surrounding the presidency of Franklin Pierce. Nat excels at creating these unlikely mash-ups of supernatural tropes and (supposedly) more lofty and academic material; he's a smart guy who loves Japanese horror films and the work of Stephen King, and his previous plays have included Any Day Now (kitchen-sink drama and zombies) and The Reckoning of Kit & Little Boots (classical tragedy and time-bending magical [sur]reality). So as unlikely as the combination may seem, it really rather works in the hands of someone who can encompass all the contributing factors, such as Nat.

It reminds me of Friend Geoff, who is lightly obsessed with the hope that a stage play can be genuinely terrifying, and not just existentially, but immediately as well. I've seen two shows that scared me rather well: one was The Pillowman, the other a smaller-scale production but awfully well done from Friend Avi's group, Creative Mechanics: Fall of the House of Usher. Pillowman served up a series of shocks, in effect, that cumulatively broke my sense of trust in the narrative, whereas Usher was all-around creepy, seeping into me throughout by way of some incredibly weird and committed performances. Pierce is fascinating to me because it seems to adhere so directly to the rhythm of a horror movie, the way such movies often function like roller-coasters, undulating and setting you up over and over again for bigger and bigger drops. This is a far more delicate feat in the theatre than on the screen, though. It takes pitch-perfect balance. It's almost like comedy in its daring: Nowhere to hide or obfuscate your intentions -- you are there, and everyone knows this, to make people laugh. Or in this case, shudder with fear.

Theatre used to do this, you know. Theatre used to do it all, even with equivalents to the glorious orangey fireballs and computer-rendered creatures. It did it all, because it had to. It was all we had, and then just as now we liked being scared, made sad, laughing, and all the good junk in between. Somewhere up the line there started to come these other vicarious, verisimilitudinous experiences, and somewhere not too far beyond that theatre started to place a priority on distinguishing itself. By and large, I think this was good for theatre; I love exploration and a pursuit of specificity, and one of my favorite admonishments I received in college was to, damn it, find what theatre can do that no other medium can. That has served me well, and I'm still making discoveries in that vein. However, it irks me somewhat when specificity leans its way into limitation, and anyway movies do not have exclusive domain over anything having to do with entertainment, with the possible exception of having made and spent astronomical figures on it.

So: Fear. It makes for some pretty powerful catharsis. That's what all the scary movies are about, after all -- inciting some kind of visceral, emotional response from us that we somehow find comfort in (or at least afterward). As with any play or movie, the catharsis needs a good story on which to hang its hat, even if it's a very simple one (such as, mildly troubled family stays in hotel, gets stranded and violently disintegrates) and Pierce achieves that with a variety of contextual details such as slavery and impending secession, government and politics, and the strange evolution of the idea of "the media." Perhaps most satisfying, absolutely every character is changed by the events that unfold. In that sense, horror could be called a curious combination of comedy and tragedy (perhaps the eleven-fingered love child). It progresses with a comic rhythm of set-ups and deliveries, yet results in a tragic change, a horrible finality.

Then again, my favorite horror movies have that coda in which it is implied that the horror, the undeniable lack of control, is inescapable and cyclical and bound to repeat itself. Human behavior, at its most horrible. Now who wouldn't cast politicians in such a story?

18 November 2009

The ACTion COLLECTIVE: ACT II - A Tale of Two Screens

On Monday Andrew Elliott and I hosted the second ACTion Collective event and, despite some initial concerns about the responses we received to the invitations, it turned out to be even more rewarding and fun than the first event. It looks like we can learn after all!

We had about a dozen in attendance, which means we would have had more than for our first, had not a few unfortunate last-minute cancellations come our way (wash your hands and sneeze into your elbows, kids). Of that group, nearly half were new attendees, either folks we'd invited before who couldn't make ACT I, or "second generation" ACTors, who were invited by folks who were in attendance for ACT I. (We like the word "ACT.") This time around, the scenes were much shorter, and pulled from draft film and television scripts. We changed the names and such to help camouflage the sources somewhat, gave everyone about twenty minutes to rehearse, then presented them. We also had a gimmick for deciding who went next, granting whomever could guess a given movie quote the power to choose the next group to perform. This worked remarkably well in a number of ways, but perhaps the best result was that we had time to do two rounds' worth -- and fortunately, Andrew and I had prepared enough scripts for this.

ACT II really acquired the feeling of a party as the evening progressed; the good kind, the kind where you not only know almost everyone, but you're also really glad to have a chance to reconnect with them. We served drinks and small food again, and there were groups of two or three who knew one another to begin with, but the atmosphere didn't really develop until everyone had watched and done a little work. Then there developed a sense of gamesmanship, and play, and the simple enthusiasm for exploration that comes of exploring together. It was great. By the end we were gently ribbing one another over our respective abilities (or lack thereof) for celebrity imitation, and laughing aloud at impromptu pratfalls. Oh yeah: And I got to see some seriously cool acting.

It really was a tremendous time and, in addition to that stand-alone reason to feel encouraged to continue, it resulted in a lot of specific clarifications in what The ACTion Collective's ever-evolving mission statement and function should be. There was definitely a spirit created by the room that I found myself wanting more of, a sense of play that encouraged more work and more risk-taking. This is a very important aspect of creating good work, yet it is an oft neglected one as well when it comes to the rehearsal process. It's definitely a component of our ambition with this project, to provide fellow actors with more of what they need. It may seem odd to non-actors that we sometimes need to be reminded of how much fun what we do can be, but I think this is true of almost any work. And acting, in addition to being play, is most definitely work.

Now Andrew and I are feverishly collaborating to come up with a best-of-both-worlds event for December, and I am excited by the prospects. It's a somewhat dodgy time, what with being between holidays and during prime party season, so attendance may be a problem. No work is ever wasted, however. Especially when you're having a good time doing it.

11 November 2009

Incentive, Product and Paying to Play

The ACTion Collective certainly has me thinking in some different directions these days. "What?" you ask, cautiously curious. "What? What is this 'the ACTion Collective' of which you speak?" Oh, Gentle Reader, how can I explain it? I could direct you here, here or here for mentions of the good ol' AC on this here 'blog, of course, but why do that when I can just as easily send you to...

Why indeed?

One of the primary concerns Andrew and I were discussing that led to forming the ACTion Collective was the way in which actors end up paying for their craft. True, the more dedicated ones often get paid for practicing it, and would never consider literally paying for the privilege; would they? The sad fact is, we do. Even working professionals pay for classes (either to study, stay in practice or network), pay for memberships and pay for the various expenses related to being one's own business, always looking for new work. In fact, even when we are paid for work, many of us (certainly a majority) are taking a generous cut out from some more profitable thing we maintain between acting jobs. Thus the overall effect: we are losing money. It can be hard to enjoy your work under these conditions, much less thrive in it.

In a short five days, we will have our second event, and Andrew and I are hoping to keep a growing momentum with these events. Ultimately, we want the thing to be a bit more self-sufficient so we can have events more frequently, open it up to members to take initiative and generally get the "action" part fulfilled. To that end, we've begun discussing the possibilities for non-profit business models, as well as methods of presenting and marketing the ACTion Collective to people. And amongst those people we effectively have to "sell": actors.

This seems odd at first, but the more I think about it the more sense it makes to me. At a first glance at our fledgling organization, an actor might think, "What's the catch?" And that's at best; at worst, s/he might think, "Poppycock (or other expletive - ed.). I'll not waste my time and energy on something other than getting that part in that play / movie / commercial / showcase." We're used to being used in some way, frankly, and so focused on getting paid for something, anything we do that free stuff doesn't make much sense to us. Sometimes, we don't even value it. Because it's free. This is human behavior stuff, and actors are a really stubbornly human bunch, we are.

So, at least until we gather ourselves in the comfortable folds of some kind of reputation, for now we are examining the incentives and potential products of our homespun organization. One of the things that I really like about it (dangerous that - liking things only leads to misery when things have to change, as they inevitably do) is the intention of combining play with craft, and the balance of those two elements is something we spend a lot of time discussing. Because we can always hang out a banner that reads, "Free wine!" We'd probably get half of New York's actors to every event. Similarly, we could make that banner simply say "art," and get a tremendously interesting influx of crafts-folk. But we want it all. (We're actors.)

How do we put games into the craft, so that both combine to create synergy? How do we invite the social aspect to foster real connections between people, so that we're getting somewhere substantial with our fun? What will draw people in, both to participate and invest? What do we produce, ultimately? Fortunately, there's no shortage of ideas for events. We've also gotten a very positive verbal response from almost every person we've invited to join in on the community, and many of them have submitted ideas and requests. The great thing is, that's my main incentive. Just making some kind of contact with great people is motivating; actually getting to be involved in their work is a uniquely rewarding form of payment.

07 November 2009

Causal Coincidence

Oh. Hello. Been waiting here long, have you? Here, let me just get out my keys, and . . . . Wow. Which one is it again? Oh right: "Aviary." That makes sense. And to the door which is now, open again. Huzzah! Hello! Welcome! Your back-order of ponderous pontification awaits!

Theatre and technology have in my mind of late been taking interesting waltzes together. This is owing largely to my new adventures in administration with the ACTion Collective, which incorporates a lot of models from Internet media and business, because Collaborator Andrew and I are raging geeks. It also, however, has a thing or two to do with personal discoveries I've been making about my interactions with others. For example, in acknowledgement of finally emptying my inbox (upon purchase of a so-called "smart" phone) I decided that from here on out I would reply to every single email I receive. Previously, I did not, because I saw it as a waste of time and a furthering of compulsive behavior. Now I'm finding that I get much better responses and results from the people I'm corresponding with when I always reply in some way, not to mention the better results I get from myself by always trying to find something to add. It's a very basic idea. It's also a core tenet of good acting.

Look for a future post regarding my ideas about theatre being the original "social media." Breathless anticipation, thy name is 'blog . . .

One particularly interesting overlap I find in the folds is the way in which theatre and electronic mediums of communication reflect our social behavior back to us in often startling and crystal-clear ways. I recently read an alarming article (link to some salty language and disturbing behavior) that addressed the strange privilege we all seem to feel now to be reporters rather than people involved in what's going on around us. We've always been drawn to vicarious experience, even before YouTube and video games, and some of us are drawn to involvement in the creation of such experiences. The voyeur impulse is strong in all of us, I think, because we continually need to refresh our sense of belonging -- self-awareness can be oddly isolating. Do others feel things the way I do? If only I could see into other people...especially when they think they're alone.... There's more to it than that of course. It's all really rather complex.

Which brings me to a term I'm using lately to describe a phenomenon I've particularly noticed lately: causal coincidence. It's difficult for me to discuss this idea without getting inured in issues of philosophy and religion, but it's not my aim here to expound on those aspects. No, I'm just standing back and marveling at the way Twitter works, and how similar I find it to the way in which acting work comes my way. To (t)wit -- a large number of tiny incidents, relatively unrelated, somehow culminate into a large or significant effect. I say "relatively unrelated" because it's difficult (impossible?) to determine all the interactions in something with as grand a scope as Twitter's network, or the casting community of New York. I think of fractals, Escher progressions and helices -- tiny, basic elements that develop seemingly of their own accord into complex structures. Issues of cause and effect seem almost meaningless in this context.

In 2003, I decided that a good way to spend my birthday would be by starting it out going to an audition, so I did. In spite of a strong audition, it didn't seem I'd get the part -- they were looking for someone who played the piano -- but through a series of incidents, I did. We ended up incorporating my circus skills, which took it in quite a different direction. That show led to returning to work with the same theatre in subsequent summers, and seeing a show that involved my costar from the first show. That show grabbed my attention, and I mentioned admiring the work to the director. Years later, I was invited to join their new project, in which I became deeply involved for a couple of years. A lot of change went on for me during that time, including both rather seriously injuring myself, and acquiring the most raw strength I've ever had, and much as a result of both I made a return to circus studies, which in turn has me now seeking out playwrights and performers to create my own circus theatre.

And off of all that, myriad other unexpected challenges and opportunities. You could point to any one action in my career and see how it indirectly led to things amazingly other, and maybe that's just life, but it's brought into sharp relief when you consider the question of cause, or coincidence. I see it as both. More specifically, I see coincidence -- that is, any correlation between (relatively) unrelated actions or events -- as often being causal, and I see a certain mass effect when these causal coincidences coincidentally accumulate.

Maybe another definition of the whole question is in order, but I'm not going to be the one to make that happen. What I'm going to do is embrace the function, however it functions, and make the most of it. To be involved, and not merely reporting.

Though the reporting can be pretty great, too.

26 October 2009

In the Name of Action

Last Thursday The ACTion Collective made its big debut, rounding up roughly a dozen incredibly talented and daring actors for an event that invited them to bring scripts to be performed that very same night with minimal preparation, in most cases working with someone new-to-you. It was an experiment, a game, and I think a rousing success. Certainly preparing for it and the results we achieved roused enthusiasm in me for another such event, and so far the feedback has been positive enough to warrant that response. People had fun, and people have ideas for more fun along similar lines. As I've stated before, I'm a big fan of beginnings and the energy they engender. I think I'm becoming more and more appreciative of continuity, though -- particularly when it's my work I'm talking about, of course.

Our work, I should say, because a lion's share of the preparation for Thursday and for laying the groundwork for ACTion Collective at-large was achieved by Friend Andrew. It's been frankly inspiring (and only a little frightening at times) to work with such a reliable and responsive collaborative partner. We all have our projects, and we actors are notoriously wicked when it comes to neglecting one to serve seventeen others, and I am certainly guilty of letting slide a thing or two, here or there, from time to time . . . uh . . . over and over. I never realized before, however, that this occurs most often because I don't receive a response on my outgoing work soon enough. Such is not the case with Andrew, even remotely. It probably helps that we're both geeks (and getting geekier by the hour). We may as well call the Gods of Google our silent third(s?), and Andrew's a Mac, I'm a PC.

The event itself ("ACT I," we've taken to calling it) was a giant collaboration, in fact, which is part of why I wanted to do it in the first place. Fostering a sense of collaboration empowers actors, I believe, and also lends us some perspective on the many reasons that people with other jobs in creating theatre (or film, or what-you-will) may not always understand us. I was concerned about ACT I feeling too much like a potluck, without structure, yet wanted to allow room for participant contribution in a social setting. We found a nice balance -- people even contributed food and drink without prompting, and took every challenge we threw out at them with grace and eagerness. I think next time we'll feel more at ease to structure, leaving the freedom up to folks' own sense of proportion. The experiment is ongoing, but it definitely feels as though it's going forward.

Some of the contributing ideas to ACTion Collective, in no particular order:
  • It's called a "play" for a reason. (This is paraphrased from somewhere - Dario Fo, perhaps?)

  • Actors need to be empowered, because much of the audition and rehearsal processes can and do (intentionally or non-) relegate the actor's craft to a low priority.

  • Unlike other creative artists, actors need other people in order to act, because without them the equation isn't balanced, and the work is incomplete.

  • As actors, we can instinctively be in competition with one another, but this sabotages what we want to achieve in myriad ways -- see above.

  • The typical model of work-flow for a working actor largely puts him or her in the position of relying on others' decision-making for when they work and what they work on.

  • An actors' work is always, always better when s/he can combine the relaxation of game-play and experimentation with the desire to work toward the most effective expression of a script, which one doesn't always have the time or permission to achieve in a necessarily short rehearsal period.

  • Acting takes practice; good acting takes regular practice.

  • It's fun.

  • Most actors are willing to work for the sake of the work, but we must resist it in the interests of a sustainable career; being free to focus on the craft on a regular basis, without such worries, empowers us to make sure we value the rest of our efforts as we should.

  • Networking is not enough; we need a community.

  • Action begets action.

It's exciting work in an exciting time. At first, I was going to describe a bit of what happened, the little challenges and victories that came about, the laughs, and of course the pumpkin fudge, which doesn't sound natural but is an amazing and delightful adventure of the taste buds. But the fact is, it loses something in translation. Words will not suffice. It's not enough to hear about it, or even witness it.

To know it, you have to do it.

21 October 2009

Collecting Work

It's a little bit funny (this feeling inside...?). I wrote on the 7th about the madness brought about by not having acting work. That was a post I had actually begun some time before, but was a little too busy to complete for a week or so. The irony of such circumstances did not strike me at the time, focused as I was on just getting the dang thing out there. The distracting business was not largely of a theatrical nature -- though there's always the odd assignment here or there -- and so I was full up on the madness of which I wrote. There may be no money in it, but an empty acting roster can apply a similar pressure as that of an empty wallet. Incidentally, John Malkovich is famous for (among other things) having said, "I've always felt that if you can't make money as an actor, you're either incredibly stupid or tragically unlucky." John, I hope I never have the chance to discuss this little pearl with you.

Right here and now I can officially state that I am beginning to feel overwhelmed with theatre work. Not acting work, mind you. It is looking increasingly as though October's posts to the Aviary will not escape the single digits (again; we haven't done that since May) and though the primary culprit for that remains el jobbo del day, lots and lots of theatre work has officially chimed in on the effort to rid me of free time, with a cheery "hihowareya?!" The change is a result of a combination of factors, everything from the new phone to the approaching holidays. Not that I'm complaining, mind you, but it feels a like a drastic switch of mental state, which is generally how I've come to expect these things to occur.

The primary occupier for the past month has been a very new and exciting venture with Friend Andrew: The ACTion Collective. Tomorrow night we are hosting a slew of our favorite people to work with, who will be coming together to perform short readings of material that they themselves provide, and that we cast in the room. The idea is to gather actors together in a social setting in which they can also enjoy and explore their work without the pressures of a rehearsal process. Friend Patrick, who accepted one of our invitations, compared it to how jazz musicians get together to play music when they're not "working." That's the short-term goal. In the longer term, we hope to keep doing events such as this, with similar priorities placed on the acting, but also to build a very functional community (not just network) of theatre artists who enjoy learning from one another. We've done a lot of groundwork in the past couple of weeks on the supposition that ACTion Collective has a future beyond Thursday's event, so it's an exciting time.

In addition to that, a couple of directing possibilities for yours truly. I can't be very explicit about these, since they are rather nascent and involve other people's work, but both involve shorter works the which I will be taking no small amount of creative control of. Hopefully, they will prove less complex than that last sentence. It may seem odd that I would suddenly not only be directing, but be directing two projects. And it is. However, it's also partly because the projects are linked in interesting ways, and one affords me the opportunity to gear up for the other. The current work aspect of both at this point involves meeting with people and bouncing around ideas and philosophical opinions related to theatre. It's pretty great. It's also coming up on pretty important that I make serious headway with them both, so I'm glad Thursday's event is Thursday, and not, say, two weeks from Thursday.

I don't know what all this will lead to. I have a plan, of course, a course in fact that I'm hoping the work at least weaves in and out of, but if experience has taught me anything it is that man plans, God laughs. I usually feel most at home and fulfilled when I'm absorbed in theatre work, and now there's the added benefit of it being exactly the sort of work I want more of in the world. There's also the risk of putting my money where my mouth is, of which I am not unaware (read: completely freaked out). And the strangeness of acknowledging that it isn't acting work. Yet it's wonderful stuff. Gathering work means you're gathering people, bringing together a lot of talent, and a lot of just great people. And right now, I'm not sure that it gets any better than that.

12 October 2009

Mad Silks

Since May, I have grown very accustomed to "rug burn." Although, really, in the case of silk work it is more accurately referred to as "really insidious synthetic-fiber abrasions that you don't feel at first but then, later, after the endorphins have had their say, burn-baby-burns." Imagine someone giving you an "Indian burn" with an elastic fabric, over and over again, in really creative locations on your body, and you'll have some idea. I've had to resort to the standard outfit for this work, in fact, which (it is my humble opinion) looks much better on the lady folk. And even with my elastic-coated frame, the occasional burn gets by, and this spandex-type stuff does nothing for the drops in which one's thigh is forcefully jerked away from one's pelvis by an eight-foot fall. (Batman must have bionic shoulders.) As Instructor Cody quotes and quips, "If you don't want to get hurt, take up knitting."

I love it, though, and not just for all the climbing involved (see 8/17/09). One thing that's very cool about silks is that it requires a certain understanding of manipulation that can be almost magic-like in its effect. Though it involves more conditioning and less trickery than basic acrobalance, they have in common a priority placed on technique. With acrobalance, it's about learning to draw lines of gravity straight into the ground, and pitch weights against one another into balance. In silks, it's about learning the various methods by which one can wrap oneself up and unravel, quickly, thrillingly, beautifully and safely. (Beautifully is the one I rather need work on; seems I'm genetically predisposed to NOT pointing my toes.) It's very challenging to memorize the different manipulations -- largely because they are as much manipulations of your person as of the fabric -- and my progress is slow. If I could take class with more regularity it would be going faster, but for now it's two steps forward, one step back.

Last Saturday I attended my first class without Wife Megan for company. She is deep into her yoga-certification training now, and that means every other weekend I am once again a swinging bachelor, between the hours of 9 and 5. I am, it must be admitted, the only male I have ever seen at this silks class. This is not all that surprising. Silks are graceful equipment (at least in visual effect) that require a great deal of flexibility. That and, well . . . a significant portion of the wraps and binds concern themselves with one's center of gravity. IF you know where I mean. I could be accused of pulling a high-school Home Ec. move here . . . and, okay, I'm not going to try to complain about being surrounded by athletic women. Okay? I credit us both with more intelligence than that. (Of course, I'm the one who puts his wedding tackle at risk every silks class, so...) But that's not what brought me to silks.

There is something really incomparable about facing a physical and mental challenge, simultaneously. One's emotions can't help but get involved in it, yet one's emotions are often not incredibly helpful in such circumstances. One often thinks to oneself, You are some kind of *^%$(*@ idiot, you crazy stupid...where's your hand? Do you even know where your hand is right now? Not that one, the other one! whilst suspended ten feet in the air, with blood pooling within one's skull. It's great. It's great because it's just you, and you are all you've got to go on when it comes right down to it, where the rubber meets the road. Or, I suppose, where the silk meets the skin. You get scared, you get angry, you get confused -- all those things you generally try to avoid feeling. And then, quite unexpectedly, you save yourself. Maybe it was an accident. Maybe you couldn't recreate it on purpose, and you go three more classes before anything like it happens again. But eventually, you're falling, and exactly the way you're supposed to.

But you'll still get crazy rug burns.

07 October 2009

We All Go a Little Mad Sometimes

In terms of irrational behavior, I believe the actor without work will rank right up there with most persons under the influence of psycho-reactive narcotics. The actors with no future prospects of work, well . . . it's a good idea to stay away from the likes of them. Even their Facebook updates are likely to be tinged with a sense of desperation. "Jeff Wills is Why do they all hate me so much...?!" Just, you know, as a completely hypothetical example.

Perhaps it's all a bit misguided -- an unfortunate cycle that comes as a result of having to prove we are, in fact, actors. It can be difficult to justify oneself as an "actor," and have the average person regard that classification as something more than a description of one's favorite hobby. Even if you went to school for it, perform internationally, get paid for it on a (semi-)regular basis, there are two qualifications people look for when you make the claim of being actor. 1) Have they seen you in anything? 2) Are you working on anything right now? So yes, there's a certain compulsion there, which is awful for everyone: for you, for the work itself, and yes, even for the people you end up talking to at parties. Ever wonder why you meet so many actors who can't help but tell stories in any given conversational context, stories that invariably lead back to their life and work? This is why. It's called (by me, anyway) résumé-ing. It is obnoxious and ingrained, and a lot of the work of that ingraining is done by the very people who end up resenting it.

Ironically enough, I'm pretty sure that this technique is a terrible way of actually getting work. When it comes to getting people to think of you for projects, a much better conversational tactic for all involved is asking questions and making your side of things predominantly about responses, rather than volunteering stories. It generally makes the person one's talking to feel interesting, and encourages excitement about their interests, and as far as the conversation goes allows one to learn a thing or two to boot. This has interesting parallels to the techniques of good, interesting acting as well, in which the emphasis is on listening, reacting intuitively and making the other look good. It just adds up. It makes sense, it builds things and leads to usually pleasant surprises.


However, we all go a little mad sometimes. (For some reason madness is particularly poignant when set against the backdrop of a tea party, or other social setting.) Personally, the only way I could imagine having more regular trouble with this most basic of social concepts would be if I were genuinely socio- or psychopathic. (Commentators, please leave thy opinions on this last at the door....) Is it a troubled mental pattern on my part? Nature, or nurture? Could it simply be that I'm in the wrong damn business? Do other actors start thinking to themselves, "I'm getting to old for this crap," at age 25? And just what is it that keeps me comin' back, a'comin' comin' back?

Well, as far as character flaws go, I have a few. I'll man up to that. I'd like to think that if I was perfect, I'd be pretty boring. One such flaw is a tendency to take everything seriously (even comedy) and feel feelings very deeply. (I may have to rename the 'blog; Feeling Feelings Very Deeply has a nice sort of quasi-ironic ring to it.) I'm not saying that I am a feat of human emotion or anything like that -- I state this as a flaw. It is the bit of me that responds to arguments being had by total and complete strangers by shrinking into a speck on the spot, or the bit that could unabashedly cry over seeing an overweight person unable to sit on the subway. And, as evidenced on March 12, 2009, this little personality quirk comes out in full force when it comes to anything related to casting. In that instance, it didn't even occur to me to hold my ground in responding to RunningGirl. From start to end, I was ruled by emotion.

There's a commonality here. The typical actor neurosis and my personal neurosis both stem from continual feelings of inadequacy. Now, sure, many people would never admit this as a cause of their résumé-ing behavior, if in fact they could even recognize the résumé-ing (it's a turn of phrase that will sweep the nation). How can we have such awesome stories if we're inadequate? Plus, where do we lay the blame of causation? Our feelings, or the social aspects and stigmas that encourage those feelings? The very questions involved are enough to make anyone feel a bit inadequate, if over nothing else than over our ability to understand ourselves.

I've gone a bit mad just contemplating it.

What's desperately ironic about the whole thing is that this is a business and a craft in which being unique is one of the best traits to possess. Trying to be what others want is not what acting is about (good acting, anyway) and the best work is accomplished by those who can make unusually effective choices -- emphasis on "unusually." I'm a firm believer in the idea that the more understanding we can have about who we are, the better our work will be. Inadequacy springs almost entirely from holding oneself to someone else's standards or, often, to our perception of their standards. Everybody's got a little madness in them. There is no normal. And freeing ourselves from the idea of normalcy is part of what people really love about good acting. Show me how to be true, and I will show you how much you can be loved for it, warts and all.

But if I don't get some real work soon, I'ma kill somebody.

28 September 2009

A Phone, Yes. But Smart...?

Those of you who follow me like hawks on Twitter (the many, many people who are all up in my @AcroRaven junk) know that I found a convenient excuse to make the plunge into so-called smart-phone territory. I coyly tweeted from the purchase, "no, not THAT smartphone," thereby piquing the curiosity of the entire nation. Well, Nation (I will someday be Colbert's body double), peek at this. That's what I done and got myself. And so far, I'm pretty happy about it.

Ironically enough, it's actually a much better phone-phone than the last I had. The sound quality's better, the overall ergonomics: entirely better. So I feel non-silly about that. And I have to admit that the purchase has me on some much better habits of communication so far. Something about being alerted to incoming emails keeps me vigilant about sending them back out, and that leads to better communication and more things getting done. It also lends itself to more things being on my plate at a time, of course, but that's rather what I was asking for when I joined this technological demographic, idn't it? That and, naturally, endless Sudoku puzzles.

Friend Sarah and I have occasionally exchanged emails about a collaborative theatre project that addresses information and communication technologies and what effects they've had on our behavior. The irony of this is that Sarah lives in San Diego, and frankly the only reason we can begin to contemplate such a collaboration is because of the devices that have developed in the past five years for exactly this type of communication. I have a rather love/hate relationship with the new forms, particularly with regard to how they've influenced theatre, but there's no escaping their relevance. We can outright deny them, sure, and there's value in that approach, but frankly I'm enamored of them all. The prospects of Google Wave are exciting to me, I must confess. Would I rather sit in the same room as people, read their faces and experience their energy (or be aware of a lack of it) first hand? Yes, a thousand times. Yet I also get a charge out of being connected to friends and collaborators in Pennsylvania, California and the United Kingdom.

Now I am a giant leap closer to being entirely plugged in to the "ambient awareness" of which so many write. I can let anyone who may be listening know where I am and what I'm doing in great detail at the very moment of my existence. I've done a bit of this, but frankly, I can;t keep up the way others do. If I tweeted and Facebooked-it as much as others, I'm not sure I'd actually be accomplishing anything else. Yet many do, and I suppose I envy them a bit. perhaps I'll get better at this whole thing with time, but I'm not certain that I want to get better at it. I rather like having this many choices about how I communicate with folks, but the choice itself is defeated if it gets to the point at which I'm serving the mode, rather than the mode serving me. So in spite of my recent acquisition, people will still be hearing from me in person quite a bit. In fact, I rather miss the days when it was a little more socially acceptable to show up at a friend's door. Now such a surprise would be considered rather creepy by all sorts of otherwise friendly and open people.

I know someone who had this advice for his child upon her moving to New York: YCNYDLNYCY. That translates into, "You change New York; don't let New York change you." (I wonder if he ever sent this advice via text?) It's a fairly inspiring bit of caring wisdom, and can easily be applied to all sorts of information-technology applications. (I'm tempted to type YCHTMLDLHTMLCY [and so I have] but I don't really know what I'd be saying with it.) It's impossible to deny, however, that the relationships in any case are utterly reciprocal, if not nigh symbiotic. We can't change anything without it changing us right back, and we're not adrift in a world that is rapidly dehumanizing us, nor one that is creating splendid multi-cultural interconnectedness, either. As thinking, feeling, viscerally connected creatures, we are engaged in this dialogue and responsible for every aspect of it. I embrace that, to my modest capability, and with a little luck it will help me to create with a little more truth, a little more connection.

K thx bai.

21 September 2009

In Defense of the Small Theatre

A popular phrase in the theatre addresses the generally accepted philosophy of a regularly working actor: There are no small parts; merely small actors. I confess to you now -- I have not even a small idea what this is supposed to mean. It has been quoted at me my entire life, and I have gone from bafflement to frustration and back again pondering the ambiguity of the saying. (Most theatre traditions seem intentionally ambiguous; the Freemasons have nothing on us.) Does it mean the actor that worries over the size of his or her part is a small-minded individual? Does it mean a part comes across as small only when the actor lacks sufficient panache with which to fulfill it? Does it in fact mean, "Listen kid: Ya' gotta start somewheres..."? (My theatre-authority inner-voice always sounds like a cigar-chomping box-office manager from the '40s Bronx.) I smile, and accept, and usually think, Well, at least so-and-so's using theatre terms, so the form can't quite be on its dying gasp...

This weekend past I had the opportunity to see two shows, which inevitably invites comparison. One was rather modest in scale, the other a hugely financed Broadway play, transplanted from London. Now, these are not forces I consider to be in any sort of opposition to one another. Are Broadway shows a threat to regional theatre? God, no. Does regional theatre stand for some kind of principle against big-budget shows? Nope. So why am I writing about them together? What on earth could the Electric Theatre Company's production of The Dining Room have to do with Donmar Warehouse's of Hamlet?

Apart from both plays dealing with the passing of a way of life in some larger sense, very little. My comparison comes from a feeling of renewed appreciation for more intimate theatrical settings. It's very convenient, of course, for me to favor smaller theatres. ETC is where I do most of my work, after all, with its 99ish seats and relatively low-ceilinged performance space. Amor fati, as they say. Yet my appreciation of the venue in general goes beyond that, to much more objective criteria. I have to admit that the budgets are paper thin, the productions can be rocky and unrewarding as often as they are surprisingly professional and transportive -- this is the smaller theatre. Nothing is tried and true, not even the occasional Neil Simon imperative. I even love circus, and would like nothing more than to rig up ETC with trapezes and silks and slides, and it ain't gonna happen any time soon. Broadway can do that. I've seen it. Broadway can spend thousands of dollars on textured paint alone.

My biggest complaint about the production of Hamlet is one I would normally quickly let go of: to wit, the set. Who cares, right? Hardly the focus of any serious lover of Shakespeare. Yet it especially bothered me for its grandiose melancholy. The set was essentially very minimal: Virtually no furniture, except for moments when modest thrones were brought out on a small platform, and all was on stage level, except when a few panels were removed to accommodate the grave-digging scene. Huge, granite-looking castle walls ascend on all three sides of the playing area, with a similarly grandiose door at the back. The trouble with all this, as I saw it, was that it felt to me like the play was being dwarfed by gloomy nothingness. They achieved some very nice visual moments with snowfall outside the door, and shafts of light or the odd curtain, but for the most part the minimalism and darkness served not to aid the story but to point up how out of place such a human drama felt as it took place in a giant theatre. I would have loved to see the exact same show...only closer.

In The Dining Room, A.R. Gurney winds his exceedingly clever, heartfelt and economical way through various stages of dining room culture in America. The play is a standard, really, of theatre departments and regional theatres -- very accessible and good for a small cast. I performed in a shortened version myself in high school, one of the first shows I did there. The ETC production was very good, honoring all the humor notes and serious moments with equitable specificity without losing touch with the audience, nor playing it too out. What struck me the most about the show, however, was how inviting it felt. Hamlet worked rather hard at making us feel that we were involved in the action -- starting off with an image of a mourning Hamlet alone (or with us) in the middle of that huge stage, keeping him close to the proscenium throughout and even going so far as to put us on Polonius' side of the curtain for his eventual murder. Hamlet wanted us involved, but had to fight for it. Dining Room had us involved simply because we felt we were in the same room.

I am not saying that a theatre being small in scale or structure is a virtue unto itself. The theatre created there still needs to be and do good for its community, and certainly Broadway has to power to influence a far greater (in size, that is) community than any regional outfit. However, comparing these close experiences have allowed me to formulate a theory of which I'm fond. It's widely proposed that live theatre is dead or dying, and I can see many an example to support this belief. I don't believe it, personally, because I believe live theatre will always exist for humanity in some form or other as a part of what defines it. (That, and because I remain unmoved by the argument that "fiscally nonviable" equates to death.) However, there's little use in denying that theatre is rather unappreciated by the majority, at least as compared to its former glories. It is sad, for those of us who love and respect it, to see that our love is rare, but rare it is. We'll always be engaged in some degree of uphill battle to let theatre live. I acknowledge that struggle, the Sisyphean CPR, if you will.

Here is my theory: In this state of affairs -- and I doubt very much this is the first time theatre has had to widely fight for its right to party -- what matters most, what makes the most difference and does the best things for people, is so-called small theatre. There is where you'll feel your life changed. There is where a show fulfills its full potential, and where the dialogue really matters to all involved. Yes, there's every possibility that you'll be bored out of your mind or not believe in a moment of it, and that horrible risk is not levied at all by spectacular effects or the relative proximity of movie stars. But if you remember what it feels like to be opened up by a story, if you weigh the risk against the possibility, small theatre is the best bet. The possibilities in a space of a hundred or so are thousands of times greater than in a space of thousands. There is no small act of theatre, only small responses to it. In short (har har), small theatre is really, really damn important.

I'm thrilled to realize that.

14 September 2009

A Job + A Love

Last week I had two very different experiences with acting, neither better than the other per se, but both interesting to me. The first was an industrial with Lancer Insurance, a company with which I've worked once before, the other a surprise staged reading of Our Country's Good, by Timberlake Wertenbaker. As you might imagine, the first one paid (rather well) and demanded virtually no emotional depth, and the second I did for free and take my word for it: very rich with emotion. It's funny, but emotions can get rather short shrift in an analysis of acting. Critiques rarely mention them directly, and actors are discouraged from "playing emotion," as well they should. Still and all, it's an essential ingredient, and in one way what we're all there for. I think we're a little embarrassed by that, frankly, and that it contributes to our approaches to emotion. Yes, of course -- the actor must live the moment and play intention, not merely synthesize specific emotions. Yet we all seek that connection, that direct emotional interplay that only occurs between two people sharing the same space.

The industrial involved trekking out to Trenton and lingering in a parking lot behind a strip mall for most of the day. There Lancer had constructed a bus accident, hired on a couple of other actors, plus a group of their own employees to play passengers. I was fortunate enough to recommend one of the actors, Jason Carden, and so I had something really cool to do with the inevitably ample down time: chew the fat with a friend from college. To my great surprise, the other actor there was one Jason Griffin -- with whom I had worked on a completely other industrial, gained through completely other means, with no discernible connection. (To my even greater surprise, I actually recognized him.) The shoot involved a long period of waiting, followed by a short period of very brisk, camera-in-hand shooting. As I mulled over my position as an insurance adjuster, I thought how similar a position he's in at such a scene. He arrives at something that's a really big deal for others, where the stakes are high, yet is expected to make rational decisions and, ultimately, it's just another day's work for him.

Sunday's reading was another reunion of sorts, as all the friends of one Cynthia Hewett who could be found surprised her by being the fellow actors and audience in a reading on her day-of-birth behalf. There is this network of folks who were involved in the founding of The Metropolitan Playhouse (now under different management) of which both Cynthia and David Zarko are members, and it seemed they were all there that night. This meant that I was the youngest of the actors involved (an experience I haven't had in a while) and relatively outside the dominant social network. I knew one or two others, though, and it was a great reading. The play is full of humor and pathos and interesting characters, and working on it (however briefly) with such pros made the thing crackle nicely. Plus, every person was there for Cynthia. It must have been one of the most open and involved audiences I've ever had the pleasure of performing for. It was one of those acting experiences that reminds me of why I love it like I do.

It shouldn't be all that difficult, bringing together the work we do out of love and that we do out of necessity. I'm inclined to believe, in fact, that the separation is not only artificial, but of our own making. Subconsciously, perhaps, I like having the two separate, because it makes me inner world simpler to imagine acting as more pure, money-making as more virtuous by merit of it involving discipline. If you asked me, of course I'd say immediately that I'd like the two together, please. But just maybe some part of me has an interest in preserving that dichotomy. My hope is that acknowledging that possibility is a help in learning to overcome it a bit more.

Because buses or the colonization of Australia, gratis or paid, I really do love this work.

11 September 2009

Two Influences

I was 24 years old when it happened. It was a gorgeous day -- I mean really, really beautiful. The kind of advanced autumn day that is both bright and slightly cool and, once I thought I was relatively safe and had let someone know that, I sat in Central Park and watched the people go by. It was a fairly surreal thing to do but, then again, even the most common of things felt strange that day. I sat on a park bench just east of Sheep Meadow and watched as dozens of people in suits and carrying briefcases walked north through the park, no one particularly rushing, most people seeming slightly dazed, or even simply surprised, like me, that it should be such a beautiful day. This was before the twin towers actually fell down, you understand. That hadn't even occurred to me as a remote possibility.

Of course I can't say for certain, but I'd wager that any artist living in and around New York City on September 11, 2001, has lingering effects in his or her work thereafter. You wouldn't have to actively explore the issues or circumstances, or even the relevant emotions, to exhibit this influence. No, I see it coming out in myriad little ways too, without our even trying. Of course, many do try. Friend Kate often did in her work with Kirkos, but particularly in the last full-length piece she created with them/us, Requiem. Directly or indirectly, we all had a profound personal experience, and we all keep returning to it in the hopes of making a little more sense of it . . . or at least of ourselves, afterward.

I have never quite tackled it head-on in my work. I did some agit-prop theatre that referenced the following war in Iraq, and I wrote a bit on it, even going so far as to start a play all about three people's personal lives leading up to the big day. (I still plan to return to that someday; feel it was a bit too big for me at the time.) I even fantasized a little choreography for a dance about it, and I am in no way a choreographer of dance. In fact, it's interesting to me that I took my creativity over the tragedy into dance, if but in my mind. I think there's a reason for that. I'm not sure, but it may say something about how abstract it felt at the time, unknowable -- just a series of visceral experiences that couldn't be ordered into anything particularly narrative or thematic. It felt, and I suppose it still feels rather, like an experience not meant to be understood.

It's curious to me, also, how profoundly I felt this year's anniversary. In previous years certainly I paused to reflect and (especially in the few anniversaries immediately after) even took some private time to remember and process and grieve. Yet this year, I was rather emotionally floored for a few days. I didn't know anyone personally who died in the attacks that day. Not that it's necessary to justify my response, but in seeking explanation there's no light to be shed in that direction, and what particular significance could the eighth year after hold? It was terrible, of course, and they say all New Yorkers have some kind of collective response around this time, our stress levels instinctively rocketing up. Still, this year seemed different, somehow.

I have an opportunity that's up-and-coming to make a show of my own. Actually, it's a commitment to provide a show for ETC's side stage program, Out On a Limb. When I submitted my proposal, I wrote about presenting something that explored a more intentional incorporation of circus and physical skill acts into scene work. That's something I've always wanted to see, and it seems the perfect time to explore it. It remains a very unformed idea, without even a story to back it up yet, and I find myself wondering if this could be an opportunity, too, to explore my responses to the events of 9/11. If it proves to be, it still won't be my focus or specific goal. Primarily, I want to fuse reasonably naturalistic acting with ecstatic and impressive movement.

An interesting personal coincidence related to 2001 is that it was the year that I met David Zarko -- now artistic director of ETC (not to mention the guy responsible for most of my professional acting opportunities) -- and in the same year was my introduction to circus skills. In many ways, it was the year-of-birth for who I am now as a creative artist, so it's bound to hold quite a bit of sway over anything I make. When it comes to that infamous day, I'm glad that in addition to all the horror and confusion, I especially remember what a beautiful day it was. There's something in this that comforts me.