02 December 2011

Submission: The Indoor Kids

Found on Gearspedia.
Update, 12/12/11: Great googily-moogily, I was awarded something for my efforts. The Indoor Kids just emailed me to let me know they'd selected me for one of their prizes - The Art and Design of Gears of War. It's a book, which is probably better for my brain than an Xbox.

To find out how I acquired this prize, read on...

Recently, one of my favorite podcasts - The Indoor Kids - announced a contest, the prizes for which include an Xbox 360. The theme of this contest is Gears of War, a third-person shooter game with which I have limited experience at best. Still, since I had played the game a bit and I'm on something of a gaming kick again (see 3/23/09 & 1/31/07) I thought I'd give it a go with that most powerful and not-at-all-cliché medium: The Personal Narrative. Enjoy.

Dry Spell

I don't own a console system, for a few different reasons. I haven't had one since I was about eight or so, when our dad brought home a knock-off Colecovision bought from some shop on one of our trips to one of the many membership campsites we attended along the East Coast. The thing had an integrated keyboard - though for what exactly I never discovered - the kind that had the keys just printed on overlaid, pebbled plastic so you had to jam your knuckles again and again to even get it to acknowledge a keystroke or two.

I remember the display was various shades of orange, and that we had to change the dial on our old TV with a clenched fist to access its feed. We played a knock-off Pole Position (my personal favorite, though I kept wishing the cars could shoot, like a knock-off Spy Hunter), a knock-off Pac-Man, a knock-off Asteroids, and the television barked those electronic grinding noises that passed for sound simulation at the time. It was magic, even if I knew it wasn't the genuine article. That machine cast a spell that kept me coming back to it and trying again, in spite of whatever serial programming or Technicolor cartoon might be on.

The main reason that I don't own a console system is a similar one to why I don't buy Chewy Chips Ahoy! at the grocery store (unless I'm drunk). If it's in the apartment, I will wring it dry, 'til I'm dehydrated and there are rings around my eyes. My awareness of my own lack of self-control saves me from many things (unless I'm drunk). Video games are among these, kept company by puppets and baked goods.

A few years ago, however, I rediscovered an antidote to this approach. When the Knock-Off Console kicked it, which couldn't have been too long after we first exposed it to actual electricity, my dad resolved never to buy another. He'd seen the mountaintop, and was satisfied there'd be no greater heights; particularly if it was going to continue plumbing the depths of his wallet. In desperation, I left the house, and found my friends. Here an actual Colecovision, there a Nintendo. This guy had a VGA monitor, that girl could afford Super Mario 3. But piecemeal gaming was bound to make me fall behind, and by the time I went away to school the trickle had dribbled out completely.

Still found money for Chewy Chips Ahoy! somehow, though.

Anyway, a few years ago my sister moved in with her boyfriend, a nascent stand-up with a love for comicbooks and video games. Once I got over the idea of him being some kind of stealthy, geek Lothario, I started hanging out. I fell into that familiar pattern, but with a new twist: co-op play. The game of choice for this was, of course, Gears of War.

I'd never played anything like it, even when sampling the latest fare at one of those kiosks at Virgin stores, edging my way around familiarly eager eight-year-olds. In terms of co-op, GoW has a dynamic that's particularly rewarding, and Dom is a great character to play when you're kind of fresh to the whole thing. I still think sometimes of that duck-and-cover motion out of nowhere, like I used to see Tetris shapes in every building and street sign. We would play with those tremendous senses of frustration and accomplishment that let you know when you're really in a game. I hadn't felt that compelled to "try again" when we bombed on a mission since Commander Keen; and that, my friends, is saying something.

All good things end, and eventually my sister and her boyfriend broke up. I'd be lying if I said I considered any part of that break-up more tragic than the sudden clamping off of my GoW supply. I can't complain - I got a good year of GoW and the first few scenes of GoW2 out of it. That probably seems like scraps to live on, but they were some tasty scraps. It's probably for the best, but I can't help wondering if I'll get to experience how GoW2 ends someday. If I'll get to try again.

01 December 2011

Dream Log: Church of Improv

Found here.
It's rare that I remember my dreams.

I woke up this morning in the midst of a very vivid one. I was taking an improv class from Amy Poehler and Matt Walsh, founding members of the Upright Citizens Brigade. It was taking place in an elementary school in my old town. In fact, I believe in my mind it was supposed to be the same elementary school in which my church used to convene, before they raised the funds for their own building. Though in retrospect, it looked more like a cross between a smaller school (right up the hill, in fact) that my mom once substituted in and the ConEd educational facility in Long Island at which I occasionally work.

I got there early; so early that I had no one to guide me to the right room. But soon enough Amy and Matt came along and I was nervous to be there, and didn't know anyone at first. Matt asked me to help him set up, and suddenly started giving commands with urgency, moving desks and opening blinds, etc. Somehow I knew I was helping him with an object lesson, which he soon revealed to the class. Something about energy and agreement. I was happy to have provided a good example.

After not too long in that class, someone pulled me aside. It was a 50-60 year-old woman from my mom's current church, in fact. She and I stepped outside the building, and she started giving me keys - two sets of keys. I was given to understand that they were the keys to everything she needed keys for: her house, her car, everything personal. She was giving them to me because she couldn't go back home, and wanted me to keep them safe for her.

While she was doing this, my actor friend strolled up, blithely unaware of the seriousness of the situation. He was there for the class. I shooed him away with a look, and the woman never really knew he was there. I assured her that I'd take care of her keys, but that she'd be taking them back soon enough. We parted, and I set off to look for my friend, who had wandered off around the side of the building. I had been really surprised to see him there, and really wanted him to join the class.

After not too long I found him inside, in a different part of the building. It didn't take any convincing for him to join - he seemed just to not know where it was. As I walked him back to class - now a bit concerned that too much time had lapsed for me to return to it - we came upon two more of my friends who were there for the class (Friends Patrick and Melissa, in point of fact) and we all went in together.

It was fine to just jump back in, and class continued apace.

And then my alarm went off, the cat jumped off the bed and I think I elbowed Wife Megan before awkwardly knocking myself out of bed like my limbs were on fire.

11 November 2011

Tiny Black Specks

Ed.: This was supposed to post on Halloween this year as a companion piece to Pavarti's post of the same story from another perspective. Alas, I was too occupied with more important writing-related work (I'll get no arguments from Pavarti) to finish it, so I'm clocking it in late. Sorry, super-fans!

Photo by "Murfomurf."
Even as the seeds of our relationship's destruction were being sown, my first love saved my life.

Let me back up a bit.

I got sick a lot as a kid. I have to some extent been a method actor all my life, which is to say that I've felt that believing the circumstances wholly is the best way to a convincing performance. A healthy dose of masochism doesn't hurt either. Odds are that about half the sick days I took in high school were more like anxiety days, or self-flagellation days. Still, I believed them, even without that important DefCon 1 of childhood illness: the antibiotic.

You knew if you actually went to the doctor, and the doctor actually prescribed something, then you were sick, real and true. In the autumn of my senior year of high school there was a lot going on, and I really did get sick. I was put on just such an antibiotic, and deemed therefore fit for society once more. I was glad for that, since the day was a holiday, and my favorite one at that. On Halloween Day, 1994 - a Monday, as it is this year - I returned to school, fortified and ready for all the excitement once more.

The thing I will always remember are the tiny black specks.

It could have been caused by anything. My mom always gave us a double-dose of whatever antibiotic we were prescribed right away, to jump-start the blood levels. I could, in fact, be allergic to this particular cocktail of micro-organic missile, as my every doctor's form has reflected ever since. Or maybe, just possibly, I rushed through my regular breakfast routine that morning without stopping to consider that the semi-viscous substance suspending my Rice Chex in that bowl was, in fact, milk. And maybe, yes, there was a certain bovine injunction on the side of the orangey, childproof bottle. I may never know.

I may never know because the day itself is an astonishing blur. Not the kind of blur one associates with tremendous speed or urgency, either. Rather, the sort of blur that happens when something is smeared across, or great heat melts something, or some synthetic psychoactive drug chooses to make a mess of your internal relativity. Or, as was the case with me that Halloween Day so long ago, all three, concurrent and consecutive (see note about internal relativity).

Sometime not too far into the school day, maybe after first period, I started to feel nauseous and following fast on the heels of that sensation I vomited into a garbage can. I had the nurse call my mom. Luckily for me, she worked at an elementary school just down the road and had the time to swing by to take me home. I remember lying on my left side in the back of our maroon minivan, trying not to be sick even as I contemplated whether I was making the right choice. I was feeling better. Maybe I could make it through the day, and on into the night's festivities. This thing could still be saved.

It's difficult to remember these events, but not solely because of my altered state. No, as with many other times in my life that proved to be turning points, I've blocked out a lot of details of sequence and experience in my memory. Although I recognize I have a tendency to get mired in my past, I also have a great deal of trouble letting go of my own volition, and so I frequently and by default "forget." That is, "wall memories off where they are forced to live in confinement forever and/or until some silly, silly suggestion that I give them some air is made." It's a bit of an effort to dredge some of this up.

At the time, in the fall semester of my senior year, we were rehearsing a show called Stage Door, in which I played the closest thing to an antagonist the story had. Senior year represented a sea change in my high school experience, having gone far too quickly from chubby band nerd to skinny, upperclassman, leading-man-somewhat-by-default drama nerd. My dearest, passionate, first true love was a junior, but making more headway in choosing a college for the next year than I was. I had also - extremely unexpectedly and as a result of an acting exercise brought to us from a summer intensive our stage manager attended at Northwestern University - recently fallen for my co-star.

A memory doesn't have to be painful for me to quietly wall it away in the intervening years, just embarrassing. This one happens to be both.

I think I went straight to bed when I got home that morning. I think I might've tried water and toast at some or several points, in the hopes of hanging on to the idea of healing. I think I heard the phone ring once or twice. But I know that by the time the phone started ringing I had already vomited at least three more times, and resigned myself to staying in the bathroom. Eventually, the floor of the bathroom became the best place I could imagine and so I laid there, years before I would ever experience the divine punishment of alcohol. By the time I heard the front door opening and my girlfriend's voice calling my name, I was pretty certain it was  a hallucination.

The door to the bathroom was closed at first. Was the bathroom door closed at first? At this point it's all a mess of fingerpaints in my mind. She was always lightly on the goth/punk side - Doc Martens strapped on over fishnets, but a girlish giggle as easily and likely as a throaty guffaw. I'm not sure, but I think my guardian angel was even more punk that particular day, in a nod to the holiday. Regardless of when I let her see me, I somehow remember bright sunlight coming in from the open door downstairs, that same door that still displayed the knuckle-dents from when I punched it in frustration the previous May and broke my metacarpals. The pain of that was fresh in my mind, and it had nothing on what my abdominal muscles were going through as I spasmed and vomited yet again.

"Jeff, I'm calling your mom."

That's a bold sentence when you're a teenager, for any occasion, but especially when you've just skipped school to check on your sick sweetheart. I didn't try to stop her. I stared at the results of my latest heaving in the bowl, and was baffled. Nothing but a little clear fluid, but swimming with tiny, black specks. It was almost funny.

Later, in the emergency room, they would tell me that those black specks were the scrapings of the bottom, the digestive granules produced by the...bile duct? Something. By that time I had been on an IV for dehydration for hours, so I really should be able to remember. Strange that I would let that particular detail go. Maybe it takes days for dehydration to kill you, even when it's accelerated by an allergic response (or whatever) but I certainly wouldn't have made it to the emergency room until late into that night if it hadn't been for my girlfriend knowing it was time to break the rules.

She's always had that kind of unconventional clarity. That's the quality, I think (though also to a lesser degree the fishnets) that made my initial attraction to her so strong. I think of her as one of those kids who never knew they weren't an adult, and now that she is an adult she's got all that assumed authority the years bring to back up her keen perception and audacity. I'm proud we're still friends after all these years, after long stretches of no contact, after I shoved the self-destruct button quietly down on our relationship, after all kinds of personal emergencies and my inauspicious and unrelenting crush on her that started it all.

Having now lived twice the number of years I had then, I'm not sure I can claim any greater wisdom. Nowadays, a lot of the gusto of that time of my life seems smarter than where I am. Certainly not all of it, but much of it. Teenagers have an emotional sincerity from which we can always learn a little something. While age may not have increased my wisdom, distance has bettered my perspective.

I can see now that it was all a little funny and a little horrible, and even that those two aspects are usually paired up to some degree. I see past the imagined drama and the true consequences that it's a story about people who love each other. In fact, struggling through the melting, smeared mess of my memory of this event has helped me see myself a little clearer, even as the teenager I was, the woman who loved me, the girl who surprised me, our teachers and parents and friends of that time fall farther and farther away, into the distance, into tiny black specks.

11 October 2011

Subterranean Design: Qanat Irrigation & Adventure

Hello, nerds!

Those Mexican qanats are
a bit out of controlsville.
All right, you're not all nerds. But if you have any interest at all in the subject to which I am about to link, you may be on the nerdlier side of the coin. I've finally gotten around to a writing assignment Friend Younce handed me back in the spring, and it's up at our joint venture, Subterranean DesignQanat Irrigation & Adventure explores some of the more exciting design aspects of desert gravity-irrigation techniques.

Okay, I'm going to have to ask you to CALM. DOWN. Get ahold of yourself! It's actually far more interesting than I thought. On a related note: Hey, who's got two thumbs and is a raging nerd...?

30 September 2011

Rom Com

Found here, and I heartily recommend.
It might surprise some people to learn that I really like romantic comedies, but I do. I like the genre, and I like a format in which we laugh at what's really a huge concern for most all of us, and then - when it's done well - really feel the emotional tug of the narrative at its climax. As I've said before, high and believable stakes make for the best comedy.

The trouble is, most "romantic comedy" by conventional Hollywood standards misses the mark for me, and there may not be much worse than a bad "romcom" that's neither funny nor emotionally effective. Such misses just end up making us feel trivial, having wasted two hours of our time on something superficial that purports to represent us.

Now, this is not a Harold & Maude argument, or anything like that. I love that movie, but it tends to get plucked as an example of an unconventional genre movie, one that proves its case by being the exception from it. I like far more conventional fare, like My Best Friend's Wedding. Of course, that one defies convention in certain ways, but the mechanics are true to the genre. Others I appreciate include Charade, When Harry Met Sally, and Punch Drunk Love.

I'd like to do a romantic comedy of some kind, possibly even a web series. I think it's a format that's perfect for that kind of story, especially if you're looking to build a longer episodic story. Mine would have two people who really need one another (not just pretty faces that you want to be) with intention, less misunderstanding and more genuine conflict, and it would probably use New York City for its backdrop. (Just to ratchet up the difficulty of filming, I suppose.) I'm going to do some thinking on this.

And you? What would your romcom consist of?

22 September 2011

Everything Under the Sun 3: Favorite Productions

Everything Under the Sun is a short series of posts we'll be doing here at the Aviary, motivated by a potential collaboration on a project that might end up being sort-of/kind-of personal. I have what amount to assignments of exploration of my own interests in particular areas, so I thought I'd put them out there to provoke any responses that you may find irresistible.

Favorite Productions
(With, it must be said, some apologies. Loving certain shows more than others does not decrease my love for said others. I love you both, all, in part and sum, uniquely, whoever you may be. If my choices here enrage you, you may want to evaluate the weight you give to my opinion, rather than my opinion itself.)
Ten Little Indians
As my first show approaching any kind of production value, it's hard not to choose this one. However, I believe it ranks for more than just the thrill of beginning. With all the tumult and confusion of becoming a teenager, I still manage to understand that I found something thrilling and fulfilling about theatre with this show. Maybe the first hints at how a show and a role can be believed, rather than just enacted.

The Dining Room
Great play, to begin with. The production I was in was an abbreviated version and student-directed. I had given up theatre for a couple of years in high school (apart from an almost stunt-trick audition for Midsummer Night's Dream) and this production of Dining Room was something of a return. Because it was student-directed, I could engage in a real dialogue with the director about ideas and process. I remember it as a wonderful experience of how simple effective theatre can be (mar it as I'm sure I did with over-performing).
Illustration cropped from a work by Ted Michalowski.
The Three Musketeers
This was only my second main-stage role in college, and I played d'Artagnon. If you'd asked me at the time, I never would have guessed this would be among my favorites. The production seemed to me to be plagued with indecision, uninspired writing and unbalanced trickery, plus I was naturally insecure about playing someone supposedly dashing and a fencer to boot when I hadn't even touched a foil before. Yet it set a lot in motion for me and introduced me to conventions I love to use to this day: live music, transforming set pieces and 3/4 staging. If it weren't for this production, I might not have ever gotten involved with physical theatre.

The Bacchae
Another student-directed production, this one was a graduate student assignment, and for about a month in our program just about every grad student was directing some undergrads in a Greek tragedy. Fun month, let me tell you. I played Pentheus, and had some good incentive at the time to explore unrepentant rage. The production was a relatively colloquial translation economized into a fluid one-act, and featured the gods Apollo and Dionysus seated on either side of the stage at the start. My destruction at the Bacchanalia was portrayed in a dance in which I was stripped just shy of naked and the women smeared stage blood all over my body. Later, when my mother awakes from her trance to realize she isn't holding a lion's head, but her sons, I walked slowly up behind her, stopping just at the point she sees that she's killed her son. It was an abstract, visceral and I think very effective production.

Hotel Paradiso
And now for something completely different. Hotel Paradiso was something of an adaptation of a translation of a French farce, directed by my favorite acting teacher. I'd previously played a lead role in a contemporary tragedy under his direction, but Hotel Paradiso's Maxime turned out to be a better fit for me. Essentially, I learned from this production that my sense of comedy had roots in traditional farce, and that the physical comedy I started with as a little kid could carry me into a great adult work. I simply had a blast feeling the symphony of a well-coordinated comic play.
Cropped from a photo by Jimmi Kilduff.

The Hatfields and the McCoys
Ridiculous. So ridiculous. Theatre West Virginia was my first professional contract, and it is a classic, outdoor, summer-stock theatre. They produce two standard shows every summer, and one change-up. The historically obligated show is Honey in the Rock, the story of West Virginia's secession from Virginia, and the real crowd-pleaser is The Hatfields and the McCoys. It's violent and sprawling and sad and funny by turns. In addition to running around a huge space, firing guns and wielding knives, I got to play dual roles as a McCoy in act one and a Hatfield in two and make them as physically broad as I liked. It was ridiculous fun.

The Glass Menagerie
For a little while, David Zarko wasn't sure if he hadn't miscast between myself and the actor playing Tom. In fact, I remember the common response I got when I mentioned I'd be appearing in The Glass Menagerie was, "Oh, you're perfect for Tom." It wasn't too long before David realized it was the best way to go, however, and I definitively agree. "The gentleman caller" surprised me with his depth, and his earnest insecurity. This show began my long collaboration with David and Electric Theatre Company (née The Northeast Theatre ["TNT/ETC"]), and was a beautifully simple and sensitive production.

Circus of Vices and Virtues
A raw space in a former bathhouse in Brooklyn. Self-generated work. Allegory and agit-prop. Clown and monsters, and lots of aerial acts. Pieter Bruegel the Elder and the second Bush era in government. I was young and passionately committed to any work, and the dark imagery and new, dance-like world of this most abstract show impressed me so much that I worked on it off and on over a course of two years.

A Vietnam-War-era drama that plays loose with time, I got to play a young man at various stages in his life in Summertree until he ultimately dies, in the war and on stage. I loved the way this play had a clearer emotional through-line and cause-and-effect than a chronological approach, and though I know that ultimately I could've turned in a better performance I'm still proud of where I and the rest of the cast got with the material.

Plus they built a climbable tree with a swinging rope and an actual swing on stage, so you know I had some fun with all that.

One Perfect Rose
Pictured, clockwise: Melissa Riker, Leah
Abel, Bronwyn Sims, Jen Colasuonno &
yours truly.
Ah, One Perfect Rose! This was ostensibly a children's show, created by Kirkos - the circus-theatre troupe of which I was a founding member - and performed at the old Chashama home of The Bindlestiff Family Circus, on 42nd Street. It was a "fractured fairy-tales" story, with a different act/routine for each tale, hung on a somewhat chaotic framework that involved Snow White and Rose Red, Mother Goose and my character, a rather anal fellow named Phineas Grimm. I got to use direct address, do a bit of circus in a severe-yet-clownish sort of way, and even fell in love in the end (an ending I actually wrote myself). Bliss.

Silent Lives
Photo by Sally Wiener Grotta.
Some common themes here: self-generated work in a raw space, highly physical, and more than a little melancholy in-between moments of manic hilarity. This was also undeniably one of the most successful original shows created by my commedia dell'arte troupe, Zuppa del Giorno. The silent-film informed show was performed to live music and entirely without dialogue, and introduced me to two very influential mediums: clown work and the great silent comedy tradition.

Over the River and Through the Woods...
Compared with the rest of these productions, this probably wasn't as formative to my aesthetic, but it couldn't be more dear to me. An crowd-pleaser, we performed it every year for three years at TNT/ETC,  and it was in the third year that I reached the exact age of the character. It got to be hard not to think of  my fellow actors as my grandparents. It's strange to think I almost turned down this role - it had been suggested to the theatre by my Laura from Glass Menagerie for she and I, and they subsequently didn't cast her, plus I initially saw my character as a frustrating exercise in playing the frustrated straight man again. I was, of course, wrong. The show is hilarious, and there are moments I only have to think of playing that bring me to tears. And I'm still considering the final thoughts Nick shares with the audience.

The Very Nearly Perfect Comedy of Romeo and Juliet
Heather Stuart as
Juliet Capulet.
At some point, actors have to begin letting go of famous roles they didn't get to play before aging, and I had begrudgingly released Romeo before Zuppa del Giorno came up with this concept for tackling Shakespeare. In a world full of commedia-masked and grotesque characters, Romeo and Juliet are two red-nosed clowns who find one another. Somewhat amazingly, our concept worked quite well, I thought. It was a far-from-flawless production, but every piece of it found something profoundly good. And for me, there was something magical about playing young lovers once again with my long-time collaborator Heather Stuart, both of us older with the youthful permission of the clown nose.

The Spectacular Scrantonian Spectacular
Well, gosh. This wasn't even theatre, and I hardly performed in it. Somewhere between cabaret and vaudeville, TSSS was a little second-stage pet project of mine wherein I gathered some of my favorite performers from New York and Scranton to create a weird evening of variety in the same smaller ballroom in which Silent Lives was performed. It was all brought together over about 48 hours from start to finish, and was fun, pretty, and pretty funny.

I feel like I've gotten a lot of clarity about my tastes and influences by going through my resume like this. Please keep in mind both that there are shows I've participated and loved that didn't make it on to this list, and that this list is by no means about which ones have been influential. If either were qualifications, I'd have included shows such as As Far As We Know and Noble Aspirations. No, these are just favorites, and in spite of how much importance we place on that word growing up, it implies some malleability and prejudice. Perspective, in other words.

19 September 2011

Injurious Harm

Found here.
Wife Megan and I have been preparing for a couple of aerial silks performances this weekend at The Gowanus Ballroom (henceforward, "TGB"). TGB is a very cool space - a former factory that now serves double-duty as a metal shop and an art gallery, and it would seem they're eager to have as much aerial performance in it as they can get as well. I've been looking forward to this opportunity in particular, as it would be my first professional aerial gig, and I really love the space itself.

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, I've hurt myself a little too badly to carry on.

I'm fine. I mean, I'M FINE. I feel a little silly, in fact, since our teacher very recently had a serious injury that's keeping her off the silks. (Hers had almost nothing to do with the inherent dangers we tend to think of for climbing arts - while she was standing on the ground, a rigging hook fell from the ceiling onto her hand, which is miraculously unbroken but very swollen.) By comparison, my ailments are exceedingly minor. I have a strained right shoulder, and a tweaked left. Were I in Cirque du Soleil (henceforth, "CdS") or some such company, these would indubitably be suck-it-up injuries.

Well, I'm not in CdS. ("What?" I know: right?) Giving it twelve hours after the second tweaking, in which time I napped, took some pain medication and got a decent rub-down, I made the decision I have the luxury to make. In my experience, the reason these sorts of things happen in threes is not because of some cosmic predestiny or communique, nor because it's funny (though, Dudes: it totally is). No, they come in threes because some moron decides he doesn't have to listen to the world around him. I'll not be that moron.

Today, anyway.

That's not to say I feel good about the decision. Why write about it if I feel smashing? No; even past the call, I'm struggling with it. I don't question it in any rational sense. Hauling myself up and catching myself down a thirty-foot ribbon is not what the doctor ordered for a couple of twinged shoulders, and a bad or even hesitant performance doesn't add to my fellow conspirators' performances in any way. Our fearless leader even made sure we knew going in that the commitment was negotiable for this kind of concern.

What is difficult about this is the lost work that went into rehearsal. What is difficult about this is that this is the second time in a row that a silks performance of mine was compromised by health concerns (see 5/25/11). What's difficult is taking the long view, and returning to the dual considerations that:  1) I might need to give silks a rest for awhile, find something else in the physical arts to study; and  2) I am older than I once was, and that's all I'll ever be, because that's how life works.

Stupid life.

I try not to think about things this way, that I'm getting too old for anything. It makes far more sense to me to think that as I age, I need to keep improving my approach to physical arts so I can work smarter and be prepared and more attuned to my body. Of course, part of the beauty of physical expression is that it can be so pure and independent from analysis. This sets us up for a classic showdown: Body versus Mind. Will Mind's rationale wither under the indomitable impulse-control-problem of Body, or will Body be left baffled, staring into an empty corner at its own mortal shadow whilst Mind proves irrefutably that it is the very construct of reality?! Sunday, SUNDAY, Sunday! Two enter the octagon, only one may leave! Except that, oh, well, they kind of need one another after all so let's all sing kumbaya, ma' lord, oh lord, kumbaya...

Anyway. It's not a complete write-off. When I was last in Scranton I finally retrieved my first pair of stilts, which had taken up residence there for almost two years now. My plan is to perform a sort of metalworker character, a tall guy from a different time dropped into the art space and trying to find his way to Gowanus, unable to recognize that he's already there. It's a theatrically satisfying idea, regardless of how physically simple the act ultimately is.

It's funny. I've been practicing my stilt-walking after work on the odd afternoon since I got the pair back, just taking a walk around the block to reacquaint myself with the sensation. It's difficult to avoid the cliché about bike riding, but there are things I forgot about stilt-walking. Primarily, how taken with it people are. Just carrying the stilts around invites folks to ask questions, and actually walking on them (the stilts; less-so the people) inspires an incredible repetition of jokes and questions. ("How's the weather up there?" has become to me a challenge to make my response as original as possible in contrast.) I engage in this repetition too. My line is, "It's easy. I could teach you in an hour." And it's true. It took me five years to learn to ride a bicycle, and fifty minutes to walk on my own on stilts.

People very rarely take me up on the offer, however. I think I've taught only two folks in nine years. Most people have talked themselves out of it before they've even considered the possibility, which I think is a shame. Sure - you could fall, you could get hurt. Worse, you might even have to give up. The catch is that the best opportunities available are within that risk. It's those painless injuries of never trying that really tear me up.

16 September 2011

The Third Place

Compliments of Friend Davey: check out this slideshow of "third places" (though I like "great, good" places even better). Davey also points out how this ties in to my writings on The Third Life(TM). If I remember correctly, I cribbed the idea for TTL(TM) off of a series of short plays a friend of mine from college produced, all set in a coffee shop, that third place for so many of us. Perhaps she had read Oldenburg's treatise on the subject.

Everything Under the Sun 2: Fictional Figures & Archetypes

Everything Under the Sun is a short series of posts we'll be doing here at the Aviary, motivated by a potential collaboration on a project that might end up being sort-of/kind-of personal. I have what amount to assignments of exploration of my own interests in particular areas, so I thought I'd put them out there to provoke any responses that you may find irresistible.

Fictional Figures of Interest

Batman (Dionysus) & Superman (Apollo)
It should be pretty clear by now that comicbooks experienced a kind of new golden age of interest in the 80s, prompted in no small part by Superman: The Movie's release in 1978. I was Superman for Halloween from a ridiculously low age for a few years. Once I was also Batman, and happened to get my picture in a local paper in that costume. My burgeoning teenage years were ushered in by the nearly-maudlin interpretation of Batman in 1989, and that locked me on a perfect course of obsession for the character. Frankly I think a significant cause of our current superhero movie boom has to do with all those kids like me growing up on them and now being in positions of power - decision-making and simply spending power.

The analogy of these two "World's Finest" and the Greek gods is not perfect. It is, in fact, pretty weak. It's just that there's a personal connection there for me. I played Pentheus in a college production of The Bacchae, which was the introduction to me of the idea that there was an essential opposition between Dionysus' chaos and Apollo's order. Batman is really all about order, but when viewed through a certain lens (e.g., Miller's Dark Knight Returns) he's a rule-breaker as opposed to Kal-El and his strictures of right and wrong. So personally, I see these two characters as representing different sides of me.

Superman is the ideal, an exceedingly humble person who has enormous power that he wields with faith. Not the religious overtones so many interpretations lay on him; rather, faith in goodness and human spirit. (Incidentally: really bugs me when he's portrayed as the Second Coming; seeing as he was created by two Jewish guys, if anything he's the First.) Miller calls him the Big Blue Boyscout, and I don't always see that as an insult. I was a boyscout.

It's only natural that I connected with Batman with such intensity when I was turning 13. The glasses I started wearing in 4th grade - that thrilled me at the time for the Clark Kent parallelism - had contributed to a wealth of factors making me a less-than-desirable layer of the social strata. Real adult problems were just starting to come through the bright-colored camouflage of childhood, so someone who turned adversity to their advantage, who had to grapple with seemingly uncontrollable emotion and impossible odds ... well. He's pretty badass, that Batman.

James Bond
I am no James Bond, nor would I want to be. But: I was raised on the movies by my dad, and they have indubitably influenced me. Plus there's a lot Wayne and Bond have in common.

Winnie the Pooh (NOT. DISNEY.)
This would be among my earliest, if not the earliest, influence on my imagination and understanding. My mother read me these stories with all the voices, just as hers had done, and I still can't help but use the characters as archetypes when analyzing group dynamics. I think something about my mom's reverence for the character of Pooh also influenced my thinking about philosophy. The Tao of Pooh is by now something of a cliché, but I certainly do find a lot of truth in Taoism.

Friend Davey is responsible for introducing me to the fantasy genre back in sixth grade with the Taran series, the Myth series and Narnia. In case it wasn't already growing obvious, I'm a sucker for the hero's journey when it comes to my fiction, and few have told that story as comprehensively as Lloyd Alexander when he takes Taran from young scamp to embattled leader.

I know. I KNOW. He's another one who caught me early but, even now as well-aware as I am of his many foibles, I less-than-three Hamlet. I have an alarming affection for righteous murderers with daddy issues.

John MacClane
Case in point. (Don't try to tell me he doesn't have daddy issues.) Die Hard is another of those movies I affectionately share with my dad. And it's incredibly over-revered, to the point of being another cliché. But I love it so. I can't get enough of a guy as absolute underdog, in a finite space, just getting the job done any which way he can. A hero flawed as hell, and in the end he's rewarded for his suffering with love. I mean: damn.

Perseus/Theseus/King Arthur
Speaking of flawed heroes. They don't all belong together - this is another personal lumping going on. In fact, Arthur really has a different brand of hubris than the other two. But they are each in their own way a crusading hero who meets with tragic just desserts. I like quests. I used to operate from them more, but they still appeal to me a great deal. Life is exciting to me when it's a puzzle, or a maze, or a dance with destiny.

I had the good fortune to play Romeo - albeit a comic one - well past my prime for the role. He's a good archetype for me and the protagonists I've played in my youth. Hopeful to a fault, believers all. So I've always identified with Romeo and his longing. But I've also always wanted to play Mercutio, and always tried to give it up. I'm not born to be the wild one, but I'm drawn to them. A little of the old order/chaos dichotomy at play here. (Though once again it's nuts to associate Romeo with anything approaching "order" on his own.)

Speaking of tragic lovers. The nice thing about the dream king's blighted love life is that it's a consistent background action to his stories, until it isn't anymore and it destroys him (or he allows it to, depending on your view). In high school Friend Dave recruited me to pose as Neil Gaiman's Morpheus for a photo project, and gave me access to the whole run of the Sandman comics to boot. Still enjoy reading through them all to this day. He values duty and responsibility in a darker way than the Big Blue Boyscout. I wouldn't say I identify with Morpheus exactly, but I definitely had a touch of his brooding style in my teendom. I still want a pet raven.

Where are you? You're here! In his aviary! I took that name for the 'blog because of his ravens - Huggin and Muninn, thought and memory - but I like this old God with his one eye. There's something about Norse mythological figures that's satisfying from an iconic perspective, and I like this feeling that Odin has the wisdom of an old father, and a lot of the fallibility you expect from Greek gods. And let's not even get into how many of the characters on this list are Christ analogues at this point. Of course, my view of him is rather colored by how Mr. Gaiman has portrayed him in a couple of different mediums.

Martin Blank
From Grosse Pointe Blank, the John Cusack semi-satire film about a mercenary hitman returning to town for his ten-year high school reunion. This movie really resonated with my sense of humor, with its swift dialogue and plenty of deadpan, and Martin Blank is interesting as someone capable (all too capable in some regards) who's trying really hard to work some things out with very little success.

____________, P.I. (The Noir Protagonist)
If you scramble a lot of these together with a dash of my nostalgia for a time when men wore hats when they were outside, it's not hard to come up with the prototypical anti-hero. He's beaten down, he's got a job to do, he can't help but give you a peek past his gruff exterior to see that he might've really loved that dame ... once. It's not original. Men just love this shtick.

Well, this is quite a little list of heroes and anti-heroes. I could blame the media, but the fact is that from my beginning that's what's connected with me. Interestingly enough:

  1. I haven't played too many outright heroes.
  2. I haven't included here many of the archetypes I commonly portray on stage (reactionary straight man, fish-out-of-water, young idealist, etc.) nor much along the lines of commedia dell'arte archetypes.
I'll let the jury decide the why and wherefore of all that, though.

11 September 2011


Fourteen is a dangerous age for boys. Things get a bit incongruous, just when you start to think you've got a few things figured out about how life and other people work. In my case, I also switched schools and had some new health complications that left me feeling pretty unstable, even hormones aside. So it may not exactly come as a surprise that I soon began spending my unsupervised afternoons after school at a large storm-drain tunnel with friends, learning how to blow things up.

Amateur arson is of interest to most boys, and I and my friend were boy scouts anyway, so we were well acquainted with some of the more expressive properties of fire. Burning plastic action figures was a popular form of this expression. One day while we were messing around with an open flame in his backyard, his brother pitched a small aerosol can onto the fire. We ran for cover, but after some uneventful time, his brother went to investigate. Lucky for him (and us) the bottle was nearly empty of whatever it had once sprayed, because it blew apart with a loud pop but only a small hiccup of flame. Giddy laughter ensued, and so did our afternoon sojourns to the tunnel.

It ran under Burke Center Parkway, and always had a little bit of a stream running through it connecting one of the many creeks that ran through the woods of our hometown. The walls were adorned with hasty graffiti at either end, and you could stand in the center and still have almost a foot from your head to the ceiling. We'd lay out a few wet logs for a baseboard to suspend our fire over the rivulet that ran through the tunnel, then set to burning a few disposable artifacts from my friend's vast collection of forgotten toys. We quickly realized that, though the smell wasn't exactly what you would call rewarding, burning plastic could make a very hot, very long-lasting flame.

I can't recall if it was our first trip there or not, but one day I brought a few spray paint cans harvested from my mother's craft collection in our basement. We set a few of our boyhood toys burning into a significant little inferno, and laid a large, full can of red spray paint in it. Then we ran for cover. I remember in particular that I and another of the hangers-on who were drawn to pyrotechnics ran a little too far to see, so we cautiously marched back a bit to see my friend's brother once again being the first to approach the as-yet uneventful inferno.

The tunnel amplified and directed the sound of the explosion, firing sound waves northeast and southwest and a jolt through our chest cavities. A belch of heat followed. A bright orange ball of flame worthy of Hollywood expanded from the fire, and a host of boys shouted in sudden, unabashed surprise. It would inspire us with its terror, and our experiments in delinquency from there on out would grow more and more bold and irresponsible. We thought we understood what a miraculous bit of grace it was that my friend's brother came away completely unscathed, but we didn't really. I don't think there was a single one of us who could have conceived of the reality of that kind of crisis.

Some ten years later, I returned to rehearsal on the debut of an original comedy entitled The Center of Gravity. It was a broad-strokes comedy with existential underpinnings, set in small-town Texas. Nevertheless, it was obvious to us now that we would need to change several references to "ground zero," a term that had less personal implication to us just a few days prior. What wasn't immediately obvious was how bad the air quality in lower Manhattan - where we were rehearsing in a free, abandoned office space in the West Village - would be. I was the one to call it quits first. We were losing precious days of rehearsal, and there was a certain shared ethic at the time of "getting back to it," but I could feel the particulates in my throat and the smell was everywhere.

After about an hour of watching the news and the Science Channel's series on rebuilding on the World Trade Center site, I stepped out of my apartment building in Queens today to buy a coffee from the Italian bakery down 30th Avenue. It was gray out, but cool and not humid, and I took a moment to look up and down the avenue. I smelled something familiar - synthetic materials burning, definitely some plastic. It seemed to be strongest up the avenue, away from Manhattan, which was both comforting and confusing. The first thing I looked for was panicked people. I have an instinct for this now, whether it's in person or on Twitter, as I did a couple of weeks ago when the office building I work in started swaying with the aftershocks of an earthquake.

A family was out on their stoop, chatting away. A woman in a red t-shirt looked at me as she walked by. No one was panicked. No one was coming out of their buildings to look around like me, no one was crying, holding one another or hunched over the open window of a parked car, listening to the radio. No one was walking determinedly away from somewhere, or even in a daze, wandering as though searching. After a few seconds, I decided that either it was a minor burning somewhere or I had simply imagined it. I'm not normally given to that kind of suggestion, but it wasn't inconceivable. I left my stoop to get my coffee.

Coffee's all done now, and instead of starting the dozen things I intend to do today, I've written this. While writing, my sister called to see if she could spend the night tonight on her way from Cape Cod down to her home in Baltimore. I'm grateful for that. I've missed her since she moved away from the city a couple of years ago, and I think the personal impact of today's anniversary is something I'm having some trouble articulating for myself. Sisters are good for clarity, whether anything ever really gets figured out or not.

I'm seeing a lot of people sharing their thoughts and feelings today, and I'd just as soon have kept mine private. Particularly because I can't really tell you what they are, exactly. I'm very lucky, and very grateful, to have made it this far in life intact, with so many of my friends and family still with me. I think gratitude is a thing we can always use more of, especially in the face of tragedy or inexplicable circumstances. It's a good emotion from which to make decisions and judgments.

Thank you.