29 June 2010

Existential Dread

On Sunday I had a previously-taken-for-granted treat: a day hanging out with Sister Virginia. It was Pride Day, but we didn't have terribly exciting plans. Just a little browsing around SoHo, visiting old haunts and generally enjoying one another's company. It was sweltering day, humid as it gets up here in NYC, and we were deep into conversation as we got on the subway platform at my stop, Astoria Boulevard. Can't recall what we were discussing. What I can recall, is being insistently spoken to by a stranger. You know that feeling, when you've recognized somebody wants somebody else's attention, but of course it couldn't be you, because you don't just run into people, but then - oh, wait - yes. Yes, that person is talking to you. And what they're saying, is this:

"Excuse me. Excuse me. Woman in the orange? Yes, I just want you both to know that I don't appreciate you following me."
"I don't appreciate you following me onto the subway platform."

And she marches past us, down to the far end of the platform.

So: Fine. Another New York crazy person. True, she didn't exactly bear the marks of the typical NYC loon -- she was very clean, small, well-dressed (as though for yoga or the park) -- but she did have that sheen to her glare that suggested a certain intensely unkempt morale. So: All right then. Jenny and I continue our conversation, veering only momentarily into "that was odd" territory.

And then, a few minutes later, our sudden enemy crosses back the other way.

"I guess you must be Team Shawna, but I'm Team Natalie, and you better stop bothering me." (Ed. - I can't remember what she said verbatim, but I'm pretty sure the name Shawna was mentioned.)
"I'm sorry. We don't know what you're talking about."

And she was gone again, this time the other way up the platform. So now I'm keeping a bit of an eye on her, because I'm fascinated, and she's got my fight-or-flight instinct up. I'm suddenly aware - for no particular reason - that we're on a platform suspended twenty-five feet over traffic and surrounded on either side by electrified metal rails. But, this woman walks on up in the other direction, beyond the bench and entrance stairwell at the middle of the platform, to where I can no longer see her. Me: "That is so strange." Jenny: "I just figure - crazy people, New York." And we try to move on in the conversation, but I have to admit that I'm now utterly puzzled and intrigued and somewhat scared. Chalk it up to reading too much Kafka and Pirandello. But the train comes, and there's no more sign of our little tormentor, so we gratefully garnish ourselves with air conditioning and grab a seat.

From there our conversation continues into more personal, important stuff than it had been, and I get engrossed enough to let go of trying to wrap my head around what is apparently the most dire "Team _______" conflict since Twilight. The benches on the N train run along either wall, and I'm turned facing the direction in which the train is running so I can talk to Jenny on that side. It's a fairly crowded train, but not jam-packed as yet. We proceed a few stops, nearing the tunnel that swoops us underground and into Manhattan, and I happen to turn to my left for a moment.

And there she is again. Staring daggers. In our car, not five feet from us. She was not, to be perfectly clear, NOT in our car to begin with. She was not, as far as I can tell, in fact able to monitor us from where she had been positioned on the platform when the train arrived. No, the woman who was accusing us of following her had seemingly traversed moving train cars to find the one in which we sat.

All this I realized as I instantaneously swirled back into Jenny's eye contact, not wanting to give Ms. Antagonist any (further?) reason to suspect we were passive-aggressively pursuing her whereabouts. She momentarily thereafter strode past us on down the car. I'm not even sure Jenny noticed she was ever there. And I never saw her again, for the rest of the day.

But I sure as hell kept looking for her. How could I not? I was half-convinced that I would run into her again, totally randomly, thereby inadvertently providing her with the final evidence she needed in order to prove her theory of our antagonism. I even - of course, though I tried to resist it - wondered if she might not be following us. That is to say, I resisted this thought because it would essentially mean that she had successfully transmitted her disease to me, the germs of her paranoia turned airborne and plague-like. The terrible likelihood is that I will indeed see our mysterious interloper again soon. She probably lives off the same subway stop as me, and will mistake Megan for Jenny some coincidental day and presume the whole espionage has begun all over again. To be totally frank . . . she didn't look unfamiliar. Maybe it was just the openness of her naked hostility, but I thought, maybe, I knew her somehow.

Now look: I'm not peering continuously over my shoulder or anything (not continuously, anyway) and I don't think there was anything profound to this woman's mistake. Odds are that she is simply going through some tough stuff in her life about now, and that has made her paranoid and/or quasi-psychotic. In fact, I feel bad about not being able to convince her that we at least were not out to get her. HOWEVER: Holy crap. Was I about to be in a Hitchcock or Fincher movie? Was I targeted for some Improv Everywhere prank, that just had yet to get joyous and un-terrifying? Was it performance art and, if so, who would think Pride Day a good day to have such a thing noticed?

All this has given me an idea that I don't think I'll get around to any time soon, so I'm putting out there for you, The World, to do with as you please. Friend Nat is frighteningly good - pun intended - at creating a sense of dread on stage, and his efforts at such effects along with some of my more hypothetical conversations with other friends about theatrical horror have me thinking that this might be a good, simple scenario for really creeping out an audience. The trouble as I see it with most staged "horror" is that it too-easily falls into a similar trap as many stage comedies do. That is, the burden of catharsis is often placed upon effects, or gags, rather than on human behavior. This results in camp, which has its place, but often doesn't know its place. It can creep in anywhere, like the annoying neighbor finding your dinner party. Before you know it, it's arguing politics and complaining about the wine and all your guests feel cheapened, like some terrible, overwrought and distended simile.

So: my behavior-based scary stage-play scenario thing: I imagine it starting with a romantic couple (A & B) meeting somewhere public, possibly a restaurant. One of them (B) is late, and by the time he or she gets there, they find their significant other (A) rattled by something. A explains that they just had the weirdest series of "coincidences" (see above) with this stranger. B listens, tries to calm down A, and gradually A relaxes to the point of laughing at him or herself a bit. B excuses him or herself to use the restroom, and as A sits there, he or she is approached by someone (C). Though seemingly relaxed, A shouts at the introduction of C: a waiter. A apologizes, making meaningless excuses, orders something, etc., and C leaves. B returns and A doesn't share what just happened. A gets a call he or she has to take, and steps away to take it. As B sits there, he or she is approached by someone he or she knows somewhat (i.e., though work - D) and D takes a seat. Of course, on A's return he or she recognizes D as his or her antagonist, and it all goes quietly haywire.

It's a sketch of a beginning (with lots of sex-generic alphabetical confusion, for which: you're welcome) but from there I see it getting more and more tense and scary, no idea of an ending yet. It starts out as a Pirandello-esque conflict between A and D, with B as something of a helpless arbiter with some interest in reaching a resolution, and C occasionally interjecting to keep the conflict from exploding into the public space. Which is to say, A and D have completely irreconcilable stories about their relationship that they each feel a growing need to convince B of. Cell phone usage should figure prominently, so long as it doesn't start to irritate; I imagine texting under the table, faking calls, etc. Personal revelations should be used sparingly, so it doesn't become all about what the audience doesn't know about their respective and interrelated pasts. That having been said, there should certainly be one or two revelatory twists, one preferably just prior to the act break. And in Act II...well...

In Act II, all are in a private space, and some time has passed. I'm imagining that our sympathies lie largely with A in Act I, and in Act II we begin to question that emotion, possibly because A forced one or more of them into this new, private space (his/her storage space?). Even if that didn't happen, A certainly turns cruel in his or her attempts to extricate him or herself from the conflict. Possibly physically cruel. Relationships change drastically, the stakes continue to mount, until it ends in a seemingly hopeful way. Seemingly, because there's also some tag moment at the very end, some bit of information that sets the whole conclusion into a teetering sense of doubt. That's what the audience leaves with: a sense of profound uncertainty.

There you go. Write me a play, The World, as close or as far from this scenario as you are so inspired. But please, The World, one request? Whichever of you was that antagonistic yogi -- stay away from me. Thanks bunches! Hugs!!!

24 June 2010

Versing the World

Because sometimes The Man makes shilling for him just too much dang fun:
Yes. Yes, I am looking forward to the movie. No; no I haven't read any of the books. Yes, yes I remain at heart a frustrated teenager.

15 June 2010

The Missing Cast Member

We've had two performances of Love Me thus far, with four remaining over the course of a couple of weeks, which may seem strange but is pretty par-for-the-course when it comes to theatre festivals such as this. Of the two in the bag, the first was certainly my best, but the second wasn't particularly bad. It felt not dissimilar from most second-night performances, rather off-kilter and maybe a bit flat, which I was hoping to avoid by having a day of rest between opening and our second show. I suppose it wasn't meant to be. The sophomore slump can not be avoided by mere paltry circumstance.

In any show, one rehearses without an essential member of the cast: the audience. We never know how things are going to play out, what energy and emotions the room will contain or need pumped into it until those seats have a few willing participants. This is particularly true when you are faced with a lot of direct-address material, as I am in Love Me. I knew I wouldn't know what I was doing--not really--until I had that scene member who somehow refused to show up for rehearsals, and I don't mind telling you I was pretty nervous about that. I've been avoiding clown work in large part because of the vulnerability of that relationship, and this show hinges in part on the conceit of my character being embraced from the word "go." He opens the show, and if the audience doesn't like him, or doesn't get it, well . . . shit.

Most fortunately for me, on our opening night we had a very supportive audience who "got it." It was thrilling, actually, to succeed with the first couple of jokes, and I felt that we were all on the same page and synchronous. My very first line was an addition by the director, Daryl, and is about as simple as you can get: "Hi." I'm grateful as get-out that he added it, though. In its simplicity, it transforms traditional soliloquy into a more accustomed, casual relationship. It adds ease to the whole thing, and lets the audience know that my character isn't there to narrate -- he wants to be friends. This carries through the play in very important ways, but also lets the jokey exposition that follows be not just comprehensible, but intentional:
"My name is Charlie. This is my story. His story. Our story. Or at least how I remember it. I've changed the names for fear of retaliation. If you think this is about you, it might be. That's me too. [Indicating CHARLIE.] That's actually the real me. I'm just what's going on in his head. My head. Our head."
From there, my dialogue consists of one-liners and very brief inter-scene monologues. The rest of the time all my contributions to scenes are physical work, representing at various times: 1) how Charlie feels, 2) what Charlie wants to do, but doesn't, and/or 3) guidance/criticism of his words and actions. At first I worried over the inconsistency of these representations; I thought they might be difficult for the audience to track and find cohesive. I'm finding, however, that so long as the audience accepts me as a character in my introduction, they go on to be thrilled with any complication or interruption I can add to a scene. There still exists the very easy possibility of over doing it, but I'm comforted to know that yes, the Inner Monologue (I.M.) is a scene partner they're willing to play with.

Interestingly enough, my experience with the audience has reinforced the arc that Daryl and I essentially had to create for my character. In the end, I.M. SPOILER ALERT is given the shove-off by Charlie, who has found a certain sense of self-worth that doesn't rely on his little helper SPOILER ENDETH. When we began rehearsals, I had the idea that I.M. was actually an sheer antagonist, whom we don't discover is working against Charlie until the final scenes. Daryl, however, kept working with the idea that he is a kind of bipolar guardian angel who loses his influence toward the end. As a result, when Charlie and I have our last scene, I played it as a defeat, but Daryl kept pushing for it being a kind of agreement. I went with my director, and the audience has supported this idea. They really enjoy I.M., and in this way I'm able to give them a more comprehensive character arc as well. The ending has a feeling of inevitability without being obvious, but there's no way we could be sure of that until we played it with the missing cast member.

14 June 2010

Spectacular Excerpt

So, I'm super lame, and still haven't edited the footage of The Spectacular Scrantonian Spectacular (see 2/16/10 for details) together and posted it on the interwebs and made us all famous. I guess, on some level, I fear fame and the changes it may portend. Fortunately for the world, Alicia Grega-Pikul and Kate Chadwick have no such trepidations. And so, one of my favorites from the Spectacular:

02 June 2010


"Screwball" is a term for a particular sort of comedy, but these days the particulars of the sort are a little difficult to pin down. The term originated with the coincidence of a baseball pitch and the popularity of a particular type of Hollywood movie, and so most people define a "screwball comedy" as a film from a very specific time period in which romantic entanglement provides the conflict for slapstick comedies about class differences and mistaken identities (and Connecticut?). That is all pretty clear-cut, but the term has gone on to describe other, less-specific forms that adhere to many of the same elements. A screwball comedy is not the same thing as a romantic comedy (especially lately), as it usually incorporates more farcical elements with a strong female lead. Strong, in this context, meaning she has a deliberate and dramatic effect on the story and other characters, not that she's just sassy. Given certain rises in the popularity of female protagonists and the reticence of some to use (or even know of) the farce genre, lots of things get lumped in under "screwball" these days. Personally, I use it to describe any film or play that up-ends conventions and incorporates a little light-hearted love and violence.

I consider the play I'm rehearsing now, Love Me, to be a screwball comedy. You could also call it a romantic farce, but frankly I find it just a bit too screwy for that. It has the requisite strong female leads and the struggles to overcome ridiculous romantic adversity, and plenty of slapstick. The emphasis, however, isn't on sex (except when it is) and there is that strange convention of playing someone's inner monologue. Maybe "magical realism" is applicable, but come on now: way too many dick jokes for that kind of nonsense.

I'm having an absurd amount of fun working on the show. It's hard work, and a sort of work I haven't done in some time, and for both of these reasons it is cathartic and rewarding. The overwhelming feeling I have is of returning to a very pure, unpretentious style that came naturally to me in my early twenties, which is as much as to say that this rehearsal process makes me feel younger. I hadn't realized I was losing touch with something valuable when I got serious about stylistic distinctions, clown and commedia, and the ways of effectively communicating these skills to students. I did lose touch, though. There's something to be said for working with total abandon, just throwing oneself into it and leaving every last drop of energy and idea in the rehearsal room. I used to do it instinctively, and have been thinking that because it didn't come naturally anymore, I was past it. It's nice to know not only that I'm not past it, but that it can still nourish me in a particular way.

What it does not nourish, of course, is my back, my hips, and my heretofore cherished sleeping habits. There is comedy to be had even in my journey of simultaneous rediscovery of enthusiasm and what that costs. Caffeine intake is at a two-year high, and I find myself feeling almost immortal in the rehearsal room, and drowsy to the point of being nonexistent at home. Yet in all that, I have been better about exercising in the mornings before work. Momentum is a powerful force. (So are restless cats.) I'm fairly certain that I'm losing track of myriad things, and we're going into our production week, so that's probably only going to get worse. There may be a little hell to pay down the road for letting other things slide now, but I'm not sure the tunnel vision of the push to an opening night can be mitigated terribly much. I've missed that too.

The genius of the original screwball and romantic comedies is that falling in love is a rebirth, in every sense of the term. That's why love stories make such potent genres, why television and movies try to work them into any and everything, and why we keep swallowing them up. There's trial and suffering, with the greatest of payoffs: A new life. Love resurrects, and laughter gets us through all the torment leading up to it. Maybe this all sounds too pretentious to be accurate, but even the zaniest of stories can come from profound emotions, and the satisfaction of any comedy is coming out smiling a bit more, seeing things with a little more humor. It's been fun falling in love with this sort of theatre again, strong-willed woman that she is, and I'm grateful for the bruises.