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.