27 February 2010

Commedia Day

Last Thursday, I failed, and was generously rewarded for it. The manner in which I failed was by opting out of performing with other talented artists for the International Day of Commedia dell'Arte, and I was rewarded by instead sitting in the audience and getting to enjoy multiple fascinating, commedia-inspired performances. It was quite moving, actually, to see such a concentrated example of the commedia dell'arte approached as a living tradition, which is an ethos Zuppa del Giorno has long espoused but rarely heard echoed back so specifically. I should have stepped up, and regret my own rather ironic sense of un-preparedness (is SO a word) to perform an improvised form, but regret nothing about attending the evening.

A couple of acquaintences with whom I've wanted to work -- Brian Foley and Billy Schultz -- performed and were involved in pulling it all together, in association with Fiasco Grande Productions. It was an evening that seemed to aim to inform as much as it entertained, and all within a sort of informal framework of each act presenting itself with little explanation, then that performer hanging around a moment to introduce the next. I appreciated this, because it lent a feeling of inclusion, but it may have made some who were expected a more refined production feel awkward. In particular, I enjoyed a description of the commedia dell'arte given in prelude to the whole thing, by a gentleman named Stanley Allan Sherman. Mr. Sherman had that immediacy about his demeanor that is so essential to good commedia, and can be rather intimidating or unpredictable to folks unaccustomed to that sort of ride. He reminded me a bit of our friends Andrea Brugnera and Angelo Crotti, and I wanted to talk to him more. A young student was interviewing him before the show, and I was giddily elated to hear he designed the mask for a famous professional wrestler, Mankind, and that he based it upon Arlecchino's visage. Living tradition, indeed.

The evening included commedia tropes, clown routines, satire, buffon and acrobatics, and tons of just lovely silliness. There wasn't much traditional scenario work -- Brian came closest I think with a lovely solo piece reminiscent of the lazzi of perhaps Arlecchino or Pedrolino -- but I was pleasantly surprised to see transformational elements such as masks and wigs. Billy participated in a structured improvisation with a great premise: that of an international competition for paper airplane construction and flight. This was the piece that most reminded me of Zuppa's initial original work, insofar as it was essentially a use of commedia techniques and archetypes in a more contemporary context. I was later blown away by the comical mastery displayed by the Acrobuffos. They ripped it up, stitched it back together and made the whole audience more alive with laughter.

The purpose of this International Day of Commedia dell'Arte, as I understand it, is to bring a wider appreciation and understanding of the commedia dell'arte to the world in the hopes of getting it acknowledged as the major cultural influence upon western civilization that it has been. (So, you know: modest goals.) In the US, Faction of Fools seems to have taken up the bulk of the mantle of this promotion of "intangible heritage" and is doing an accountable job of mobilising troupes and players into action. It's a bit regrettable that, here on the northeast coast, the day takes place in February, given that outdoor performance would be both historically appropriate and good for advertising. Nevertheless, the day is a great idea that I hope carries ahead full steam into the coming years and toward its eventual aim. The Commedia dell'Arte is alive and well and almost no one seems to know it. I'd like to believe we can change that.

As to my failure, I paraphrase that towering Capitano Sinatra: Regrets, I've had a few. As much as it was scheduling and insufficient time to prepare (yes - to prepare my improvisation) I think it was also a feeling of being quite out of touch with my craft, not having performed in the style since last summer's trip for In Bocca al Lupo. This evening rejuvenated that sense of connection, better than I could even have imagined, and has my imagination whirling again with archetypes and acrobatic gags. Who knows what will come of it, but I know that it will be driven forward by two things: the first, to never again be caught unawares for a similar performance opportunity; and the second is this feeling that I just walked into a room and found a panoply of old friends in the form of commedia characters. Thanks for that, everyone.

26 February 2010

Virginia Elizabeth Wills

My sister was excellent at coloring. Remember how this used to be a quality one looked for in one's friends? We're talking around age 5 or 6, here (oh yeah, not admirable anymore, no siree, never impressed by that now that I'm an adult and have more important thing with which to be concerned) when you'd look over to that certain someone's desk as they labored over a coloring book similar to your own, and see that amazingly contoured section of pure color, evenly distributed with barely-perceptible strokes that nonetheless enhance their portion of the drawing, lending it an illusion of depth and texture. That good. And I -- as will no doubt shock those of you familiar with my "handwriting" -- I, was not. Am not, to this day. But when I was around age 8 or 9, I felt something had to be done about this sibling disparity, and so I convinced Jenny (don't ask about the nickname; that's a whole other story I never quite get right) that it was in fact far more fun and creative to make a horrible, ecstatic mess on the page.

Siblings have uniquely fascinating relationships, I find, and it's difficult to write about my sister without writing about myself, but I'll try to keep the Jeff-ness to a minimum. It's been said that theatre (and art in general) holds a mirror up to life. In this sense, I think siblings are a kind of interactive theatre to one another and -- especially in the case of just the two siblings, close in age -- there's an ongoing argument about who's in the audience, and who's got the stage.

My sister and I almost never argued when we were younger. (We've more than made up for it in our supposedly "adult" years.) We fought a bit, occasionally vying for control of the space, but by-and-large we didn't have it in for one another. Competitiveness (mostly my own) was the only stumbling block I can think of now, and even that circumstance rarely occurred; we had and have one another's backs. In fact, the only other competitive moment I can recall from our shared youth was when I discovered what a naturally great actress she is. And that doesn't really count because I knew, right away, I couldn't hold a candle to her, so no need to compete. I remember very clearly her performance of a couple of small roles in some select Shakespeare scenes during her junior high years, and being totally shocked at how believable she was. Jenny wasn't acting, she just was, and as if this isn't impressive enough in an adult actor, she was something like 12 years old, that time of life when ABSOLUTELY EVERYBODY is awkward and either pretentious or oblivious. And so, when in the next year she starred in another junior high production, this one Beauty and the Beast, and the high school drama teacher I was trying so very hard to impress made sure to say to me, "Well, we've got to get her," I wasn't at all surprised. Frustrated as hell, sure, but not surprised.

I could keep on this tack of things at which Jenny is amazing, but no longer does much of (I guess I can't say for certain about the coloring...) were it not for the fact that she's gone on to commit herself to doing incredible and important work. Jenny committed herself to more school than I can even fathom contemplating, and is now a nurse practitioner. You know about nurse practitioners, right? Those are the ones some people are opting for going to instead of doctors now-a-days because they're qualified, open and often more involved. Smarties, with a lot of influence. And she's not any ol' NP, my sister. No, she's a neonatal nurse practitioner, meaning she's dealing with the most delicate of lives and most harrowing of circumstances. Sometime amidst her near-decade of higher education, right around when she moved to New York, Jenny began going by her given name of Virginia. This was strange for me for a long time but, though she offered utterly pragmatic reasons for it at the time, it makes a perfect kind of personal sense. She's a different person now, one dealing with life-and-death decisions daily in a theatre I wouldn't set foot in, even had I her training and emotion for it.

My sister Virginia is still blessed with a kooky sense of humor, a passionate commitment to her perspective, powerful intelligence and sense of right and wrong. She still makes inappropriate observations in far too loud a voice, and illustrates a fervent disdain meeting me on time, ever. She's still far prettier than she realizes, and far more empathetic than is good for her, and she still is rather immediately liked by just about everyone she meets. She is different now, too. In the first place, she has taken control of her life and overcome some remarkable personal odds in a way that has taught me a lot about setting a good example for one's own family. In the second, she's recently left New York for a promoted position at Johns Hopkins, which involves authority and driving a hybrid car and all different sorts of things I as a near-naturalized New-York artist can no longer make much sense of.

And in the third, today she turned 30.

Happiest birthday, kiddo. Thanks for coloring outside the lines with me.

22 February 2010

The ACTion COLLECTIVE: ACT IV - It's All About You

On Thursday last, The Action Collective fired up its first event of the new year. (January we devoted our energies instead to internal structuring and producing our very first newsletter, which we hope to make a regular, monthly occurrence.) I wasn't sure what to expect from this one. It was different in that we were asking for a great deal more preparation from our actors than we have to date: we asked them to write a scene. The scenes were then cast in the room, and performed after only a quick read-through "rehearsal" with some notes from the writer. Andrew and I committed ourselves to the same assignment, in keeping with our ethos that we are members of the Collective along with being the ones who make it run. We were mercifully (for us, and all involved, I think) saved by the bell from having our pieces performed. It is in part because of this that I can say with absolute confidence that all the scenes that night were really, really good.

(Actually, for all I know, I would have been the only writing liability of the evening. Andrew's good at, like, everything, so he's probably good at playwriting too. [Jerkface.])

I was eager to have another event after such a break, but also uniquely nervous, given that exposing my writing makes me way more anxious than exposing, say, myself on stage. It's entirely debatable which of these is actually more revealing about a person, but I tend to feel more in control of the latter, I suppose. That's part of what was amazing about the whole thing -- people brought it. It got broughten. And by "it," I mean risk-taking, specific choices and strong results. Andrew and I have talked about producing a show through The AC for as long as we've talked about the organization itself, and last Thursday showed me that member-generated work would not only function in this, it could be relied upon entirely.

Here we had actors working with other actors' scripts, and it created what I found to be a unique synergy of like-mindedness. We could quickly grasp what our fellow artist had intended, because we spoke similar languages, and this resulted in the actors being pleasantly surprised by what accessible material they had to work with, and the playwrights (some of the same people, in their turns) being surprised by what could be brought to their words. It was win-win, in other words, and as the evening progressed it seemed we all grew quite proud of one another. Feedback flowed more easily, and people started to feel truly at home in the process. Just when I think The AC has achieved the sense of community I was aiming for, the next event shows me a new and promising way to allow that sense to grow.

Friend Nat (who was in attendance) coined a term some three years ago on this here 'blog: "creactors." The Chimeric nature of that word is really grotesque, which made me laugh, and so it has since been a tag on many a post here ever since. It refers to actors who also create their own work with skills outside of those traditionally associated with acting. In other words, actors who write, choreograph, direct and produce, paint and draw, etc. It covers most people, actually, but only ever refers to those who take the risk of creating their own work. And ACT IV brought it home for me that The Action Collective is a group that is perfect for "creators," and already has many talented ones actively involved in shaping it. Which couldn't please me more.

Except that it will; it holds great promise, and opens up the possibilities for what our fledgling community can hope to achieve. Andrew and I are excitedly gathering resources for the next event and newsletter, as well as for long-range plans for the year. Watch this space (or, you know, the AC 'blog, Facebook and/or Twitter pages). It's all about you, after all...

16 February 2010

The Spectacular Scrantonian Spectacular! : A Spectacular Summary

Well, we did it. It may not be topping the charts anymore, but I and some generous friends of mine, we put on a show; a variety show; a "spectacular." On a personal level, it was a really nice adventure for me. I got to produce something I want to see more of in the world, and though it was really my first time producing something completely solo, I got to experience that anxiety (comparable, frankly, only to the anxiety I felt in the week leading up to my wedding) in a familiar environment at ETC. In fact, this was sort of my Zuppa show for the year, as Zuppa del Giorno is on an indefinite hiatus from our show-making. Maybe that explains the anxiety -- I was squeezing two months' worth into about two days.

The greatest disappointment of the show was really a fairly insubstantial, and familiar, one. That is, the audience turn-out and (presumably) corresponding community awareness. I worked quite hard at getting that part of it supported and improved from the theatre's usual struggles yet, given the fact that the event was only $5 with an open bar, have to concede defeat. This short-fall is one thing when you know you're doing something experimental or otherwise unpopular, and much the same thing when the product turns out below expectations for one reason or another. Neither was the case here, though.

My performers...were...AWESOME. Seriously. You should have been there. AWESOME. I can admit to some bias, but really, I am quite cynical when it comes to productions of which I'm a part; especially when I have some creative control beyond the actor's usual lot. I'm here to tell you that unless you were one of the 30 or so members of the audience, you missed out. Fortunately, I'm here to sum it up for you a bit. I may post video in the coming weeks, too, with the performers' permission. In the meantime, some pithy-tude and photography, the latter taken largely by Ms. Alicia Grega-Pikul.

The real process began with the arrival of the performers around 2:00 the day of the show. That gave us approximately four-and-a-half hours in which to look at what we had, what we needed, and string it all together into a pleasing shape. Billy Rogan and I -- with a little very helpful directorial assistance from Heather Stuart -- spent some small time Sunday figuring out the framework that we as MCs would use, but apart from that it was done on the day. Kate Chadwick, Richard and Sheridan Grunn, Patrick Lacey, Billy and I in the room, figuring it all out. The experience was especially solitary because neither the administrator of the second-stage program nor the technical director of the theatre were in town. This made for a kind of hectic weekend of prep for yours truly, but was also truly nice when we nervous jumpers-in (of the head-first variety) got down to brass tacks. Six of us in a space, working. It would have been a mess if I had performers who were especially insecure or needy. Such was not the case. So as people showed me their pieces, other people searched for props, and still others went about experimenting with linking their performances with other folks. And by 6:30, we knew what we were about.

That's a total lie, but not knowing exactly what we were about was part of the idea in the first place. So...

There were pre- and post-show slideshows during the mingling and sipping. The pre-show one was made entirely of sketches of people's visions of the future as they imagined it between 1890 and 1920, which I loved having projected across a shredded ballroom from the 1800s. When we got underway, I said a few introductory words about Scranton and vaudeville, and then introduced Billy, who was late due to mingling with the crowd. Billy and I opened the show by establishing our relationship as guys who had different ideas of wanting the show to be good -- me uptight, he relaxed, which segued nicely into his playing one of his songs to open. We set Billy up so he could move about, but had a nice old easy chair stage left for home base. This worked really nicely, so that he belonged on stage, but didn't have to distract from the more independent performances. Billy's a very versatile and charismatic performer, as both musician and comedian, and I owe a tremendous amount of the show's function to his presence. In fact, you really should be listening to his music while you read this, just for mood's sake.

Hard on the heels of Billy's lyrical opening came Richard's Urbano's Kitchen, in which a rather mad-looking Italian chef unleashes dish after dish upon an unsuspecting restaurant. Richard has the kind of dash that can pull this kind of act off, and that's a rare quality. Essentially, the act consists of him excitedly throwing trash on the audience in the form of yarn spaghetti, paper farfalle and plastic-bag salad. Richard has a way of doing this that compromises none of the anarchic spirit, yet feels somehow inviting, and he had the perfect counterpart in his Vincenzo, a slow-moving old man played by his four-foot son Sheridan. He and Billy were really a one-two punch at the top, relaxing and then getting the audience laughing in turns.

After that it was more music, this time in the form of an a capella performance from Kate. She took the stage gently after a brief introduction from me, and explained her Irish roots before proceeding to sing a favorite Irish folk song of her grandmother's. Kate has a beautiful, strong and well-trained voice, so we can be forgiven for not immediately recognizing Beyonce's Grammy-winning Single Ladies. As this pop song rolled out in a grandly nostalgic, traditional style, the audience went to stitches. What was really funny was that it took awhile to get through this pop song in that style, which -- rather than seeming to run long -- made the song and our appreciation of it only feel funnier and funnier. And did Kate crack a single ironic smile? She did not.

After that it was Patrick's turn to take the stage, and Patrick had some very cool things up his sleeve. I set up one of his props -- a kind of glowing crystal ball -- and bantered a bit with Billy as he prepared to play the music he and Patrick had put together just hour before. As he played eerie electric wobbles and loops and...uh...sworls (technical musical term) Patrick emerged from far stage right curtains as an impossibly tall fortune-teller. This was a new mask, and a new piece, and it was thrilling to watch Patrick debut it. The audience was geared up for more comedy, which I think actually made some of them nervous as this seven-foot woman floated to the crystal ball. She looked into it briefly, then began to convulse and collapse, until she was just a heap of fabric on the floor. Then the fabric began to twitch and convulse. Billy's music ceased, and out from under the fabric emerged a transformed creature (a cat, though debate rages on). The audience loved this piece as Patrick did something he does brilliantly, and the crystal ball becomes a cat toy as the piece transforms into something utterly playful. And, for this one, there's already video.

The piece segued directly into one of Billy's songs, a playful number called Perambulate, and after that, it was up to me and Billy to clear the stage. I came out on my stilts to ham it up for a bit and remove the prop while Billy removed the abandoned costume, and then Ms. Kate Chadwick returned, sans introduction (I think; Kate, check my miserable memory) carrying her singin' stool. The stool was a ruse, though. Billy took a seat in his easy chair as she set foot on the dance floor, setting off a click from her heels. My goodness! Tap shoes! How did they get on there? Kate does a little tapping, much to the audience's delight, and then Billy mocks her a bit by thumping out rhythms on his guitar. They get into a comic duel, which gives way into Billy's Ravi Shankar, a very energetic, rhythmic song of his with thumps and ticks that accelerate throughout. They perform a duet. THEY MET THAT AFTERNOON, AND THAT NIGHT, THEY DID A TAP'N'GUITAR DUET. I, for the record, have never, ever done anything to be so lucky as to have these people performing on my program.

Patrick then performed his masked movement piece, Emro Farm, a moving sort of dance that tells the story of a woman living on a farm -- a single place -- for her entire life. It's hard to explain this piece with words, but it's easy to describe the effect it had in the context of the evening. Patrick really grounded the whole affair with his contributions, lending it a chance to be more than just a "spectacular," allowing it to have moments of meaning and reflection that I for one am enormously grateful. Emro Farm is repetitive movement set to beautiful, occasionally melancholy, music, and the final repetition ends in silence. Due entirely to my mismanagement of rehearsal time (all four hours of it), Patrick was interrupted a bit early in this final silent repetition. I think it still worked, however. I was very fond of the transition we found. Sheridan's character, Vincenzo, enters upstage at his glacial pace, stands center and opens up one of the props for the final act: a music box. This gentle interruption of the silence and gravity of Emro Farm was really quite wonderful, and allowed Patrick's character to leave the stage in character, which was essential to the mood he had created.

The last act of the evening ended us on a playful high note, as once again Rich took the stage as Urbano. This time, it was Urbano's Circus, a rollicking puppet show of sorts that mirrored the spirit and content of the whole evening's variety nicely. With his (t)rusty assistant, Urbano wheels out a grocery cart full of eccentric puppet performers who leap (are thrown) through the air, run about (remotely controlled) on the ground and generally act up in their particular routine. It involved audience participation, gleeful imagination and of course Rich's persnickety, anarchic orchestration. He had a wonderful gimmick for it, too, in which Vincenzo would at his command open different electronic greeting cards in front of a microphone for theme music. Flight of the Valkyries never sounded so apt. It wrapped up with an unwrapped "fin" sign -- perfect punctuation on which to end the show and lead us into our curtain call.

We said goodbye, I on my stilts, and I took off my hat as I bowed, unleashing a torrent of ping-pong and bouncy balls on the unsuspecting audience and performers. Billy played a new composition on which he's working, and the evening segued into chat and another slide show, this one of black-and-white photos of strange human endeavors. The balls may have been a slight misstep on my part, as a certain segment of the audience decided to begin a bit of a war with them (resulting of course in my getting absolutely BEANED in the temple by a bouncy ball) but the mood seemed entirely jovial and it was nice to have everyone lingering afterward -- a sure sign of a job well done, as far as I'm concerned.

Attendance expectations aside and owing nearly entirely to my performers, I feel it was a resounding success. I hope the participants feel the same. Probably the most resounding lesson I take away from the experience is that when producing this kind of show, the performers are all -- get good ones, and then make them as absolutely supported as possible, on stage and off. They will be amazing. Spectacular, one could say....

15 February 2010


The photos from which these GIFs were created were taken in the final twenty minutes or so of my last headshot session with Jimmi Kilduff, back in 2008. I've never GIFed it up before, and thought I should give it a shot. As you will see, these are from a site called GIFninja, which I found easy enough to use, if not entirely reliable. They're not terribly smooth (not the site's fault) but, then again, neither is clowning.

This was a really fun photo session, in particular this portion of it. Jimmi was really enthusiastic about my shameless clowning, and as an actor himself had some good ideas about how to perform for his camera. Someday these may make it on to the ol' homepage, but my web designer is frankly exhausted. (She has a very demanding husband, you see.) Until that time, feel free to steal them and use them as you will and make me exceptionally famous and sought-after in the process. I do hereby permit it...

gifninja.com Create custom animated gifs at gifninja.com!

11 February 2010

Billy Rogan @ The National Underground

I totally owe the world (IN ITS FEVERED ANTICIPATION) a post about my project what went up Monday last: The Spectacular Scrantonian Spectacular! But that will take a little while of digesting and -- in the meantime -- one of my performers for that, Mr. Billy Rogan, Esq., will be appearing right here in New York. So I must shamelessly plug him. Not solely because he performed with us, and not only because he kicked butt when he did, but primarily because he is an extraordinary talent, and generally good, funny fellow. You should go, World. You should go in droves to see Billy play his git-box. Delicious (and good-for-you) details:

Billy Rogan plays @ The National Underground
159 E. Houston St. (between Allen and Eldridge, upstairs space)
New York City
(212) 475-0611

I met Billy as a result of needing a local musician to join Zuppa del Giorno in the development of our 2005 show, Operation Opera. He performed with us, proving himself an able improvisational actor as well as a talented and dedicated musician. Since then he has released an album and expanded his original work tremendously, performing broadly both in New York and around the greater Scranton area. He's far more qualified to talk about his music than I am, but I have to say that I love his style. He has a percussive, energetic mode of playing that gives way to incredible lyrical passages without losing any of the urgency or tempo. Beautiful stuff.

Don't take my word for it. Go and enjoy...