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.