30 June 2011

Five Hun Dread: The Sacred & Profane

In the waning days of 2006 I started this here 'blog in the interests of exerting a bit more control over  my online presence. It probably speaks volumes to my misconceptions about the Internet that I imagined I could "control" my online presence, but at the time I had just had a website put up for me, and simply wanted to contribute to that effort in a more personal way. After a short time, I found a guiding principle for the 'blog, which I decided would be used to explore and expound upon my efforts to live what I called "The Third Life." That is, a life lived outside of conventional norms and perspectives, one that aspires to be about more than just home and work, that incorporates something else (see 12/19/06, but also, and perhaps more interestingly, 2/21/08).

In the five years since I started the Aviary, one or two things have changed. I've been involved in myriad productions of great variety, including one low-budget sci-fi film and several original collaborations, traveled to and performed in Italy four times, and performed an extended-run NYC Fringe show that I helped develop. I got to play Romeo, well past my freshness date for that particular role. I moved three times, once between Brooklyn and Queens, and I took up aerial silks. Friend Andrew and I dared to experiment with a performance collective.  I've acted, written, choreographed, directed, curated and devised. In that time I also changed day jobs and taught in various capacities, including joining a UK-based corporate training company. Most significantly, my sister moved out of the city, and I married a woman I've known and loved since I was seventeen.

For a little over a month now, my evenings and a significant part of my weekends have been devoted to rehearsals for and performances of a play called Sacred Ground. It was written by my fellow As Far As We Know collaborator, Christina Gorman, and is the first time I've worked with her since we departed that show. Sacred Ground also represents the first naturalistic drama in which I've acted in the city since Lie of the Mind - which, as some may recall, did not garner me the most magnificent of notices. Well, it's only taken me about four years to get over that, and so I've been dutifully applying my craft to a rather down-to-earth, straight-forward drama. And I've enjoyed it. And I'd say I've even done a fairly respectable job.

It was very interesting, returning to a conventional off-off-Broadway rehearsal schedule in NYC. Rehearsals went rather late, and something about that - combined with working with all-new people (other than Christina), and tackling something by which I was more than a little intimidated - came to remind me very poignantly of how I generally existed in my 20s. There was almost literally no stopping, from day job, to rehearsal, to wherever life took me next. I'm just not as resilient now, and the hours came to take their toll on me toward opening. There were dark circles under my eyes and dark thoughts crowding my spare moments. I really felt the personal sacrifices I was making to be a part of this play, and that was another difference between the 80-hour weeks of my 20s and now.

I have loved the part. My character, Father William, is one with whom I can uniquely identify. There was even a time when I contemplated going to seminary (though never have I contemplated converting to Catholicism) and his sensitivity and passionate need to help were another reminder to me of my earlier decade. I can't, of course, speak to how successful I've been overall with my portrayal of him, but he has felt to me like a good match for my particular personality and skills (in spite of the lack of opportunity for self-effacing pratfallery). The experience of the show, trials and rewards and all, has felt redemptive of a few lingering personal regrets in a lot of ways - fulfilling exactly what I wondered about its potential when I auditioned for it.

It's also got me thinking about acting in a different way. It's strange how the process tosses us around, a profanity of effort for one sacred experience. It's incredible how hard actors have to work, yet for ultimately so very little ownership of what they create. At best, actors co-own a collection of moments. For stage actors in particular, those moments are as temporal as anything in life. Theatre actors have to sweat through constant insecurity and uncertainty, stand up for their perspective and submit to others' needs in rapid turns, and the immaterial reward is to stand in front of a large group for a time and accept the possibility that they are "with" him or her in a given moment. God in heaven, why would anyone do this for less than big money, or at the very least a livable wage?

This perspective on acting has been developing with me for some time now, but my experiences on Sacred Ground have helped me put it into more cohesive language and context. In part, I can understand this view because of some of the challenges I experienced directing The Puppeteers. During that process, I continually found myself vacillating between the perspectives of a new director doing his best to make something a little daring and different, and that of myself as an actor in a Zuppa del Giorno show. It's often said that the best quality an actor can have is the ability to access a child-like self or state. I have to wonder if actors are given any choice in the matter, really. Every scrap of their work is entering an unknown world head-first. They are effectively forced to make mistake after mistake after mistake, and surrender themselves to forces they've no hope of fully comprehending.

Nearly five years on from my first post - and on this, my five-hundredth - the landscapes of many things have changed. Not the least of which is the landscape of the Internet itself. I've succumbed somewhat to the more-visual and less-verbal style of the "tumblelog" here and there, posting tiny entries that do nothing so much as capture (and attempt to render somewhat less temporal) brief moments of contemplation. I thought, however, that I'd return to a bit of my former style for this post. At least the length and varied direction is a return. My tone, however, has undeniably altered. Well, it's still pretentious and overwrought - don't get me wrong. It's also less immediately gratifying, I think, and looks a little farther into the horizon.

When I examine my life now, I've got no true regrets. That was one of my goals as a college student, about to venture into adult life and trying to make sense of what I wanted from it - to have no regrets. At the time, that meant pursuing a life as a professional actor, heedless of anything else. Now, my personal "Third Life" has more in it than that, and some potential for a greater richness of experience. It's taking a certain amount of courage to embrace that, to embrace everything I want. But I've done it before. I'll do it again.

22 June 2011

Wonder Woman, Christina Hendricks and the Womanly Body

Or: A Blatant and Frankly Uninspired Excuse to Post Photos of Christina Hendricks

Maybe it's just my recent stint on Pavarti K. Tyler's (nee Devi) 'blog, but lately I've been mulling over some of my opinions on more risque subjects. (Well, more risque than normally occupy this particular space, anyway.) Today I found a couple of items that reminded me of one of these long-held opinions. The first such item had to do with Christina Hendricks' long-held desire (longevity at least in Internet scale) to play Wonder Woman, and her Drive director Nicolas Refn's claim that not only was he interested in bringing that particular character to the big screen, but that Hendricks would be his...er...woman. The second had to do with Refn's particular take on the character and her world, insofar as he's dreamed it up.

These public discussions about Hollywood casting rarely yield results, even when they're held after the movie deal has already been picked up, much less so when every single person involved in the conversation is speaking hypothetically. Now, too, studios are banking way too many dollars on their superhero franchises to leave decisions about casting to people standing so far from the board room. Case in point: Donald Glover for Spider-Man. An amazing groundswell of support (though, too, controversy) responded to the suggestion he play Spidey for the reboot, and that sure didn't work out. So I'm not banking on a Hendricks/Refn Hellenic team-up any time soon.

What the possibility does raise is a couple of issues I'd like to address.

The first is the as-yet-unspoken gimmick of one of the few lauded curvy celebrities playing a superhero who is also - let's face it - a sex symbol. (And feminist symbol; and if you don't believe me, do a web search for "William Moulton Marston" and "wonder+woman+bondage." [With safe-search activated {Of course.}.]) Christina Hendricks has somehow tread a brilliantly slender line in her career, being both of ample figure and widely regarded as sexy (and in some [these] circles, to "sexy," please append "as all hell"). And lest we forget, a damn fine actor, regardless. So we can say Ms. Hendricks would be an unconventional choice for the Woman, yet a potentially popular one. Sex sells in Hollywood.

Detractors would complain that she isn't hot enough, or that she's fat. Neither is the case, by a long shot. Would-be supporters might argue that of course she's sexy - just look at that bust. To whom I must respond, of course that doesn't hurt (not in a bad way, anyway) but if you think that's why she's beautiful, you're missing it by a-mile-and-a-half. And finally, some really, truly, well-intentioned fanboys might cry that she has the nerd pedigree for her Firefly connection, and that with a dye job and some sit-ups they will welcome her with loving arms. Add to that a few of us who might even feel a little earned self-righteousness from endorsing a full-figured super-heroine. I am no better than these hypothetical people, but all of these miss the point when it comes to Hendricks as a good choice for Wonder Woman's boots.

Christina Hendricks would be a brilliant Wonder Woman (particularly if paired with a director with real ingenuity, like Refn) because she understands all the complexity involved in and strength needed for navigating  life as a determined woman with a powerful - not to mention inescapable - sexual identity. Not only has she had to see past the limitations of others' assumptions, but she's succeeded in being associated with good work that she presumably has a personal appreciation for. In some ways, this is a scenario in which any woman finds herself, in some way and on a daily basis. I just happen to think Hendricks is well-qualified to portray that fight with unique grace and sensitivity.

Issue the second that this brings up for me is perhaps a less socially significant one; yet more important personally (I'm somewhat ashamed to admit). It also brings up a criteria that might put my dear Ms. Hendricks to the test, in a way.

Women who work wear muscle.

Look, I'm not a body-building fetishist, any more than girls who lust after brawny Hollywood hunks are. Taken to extremes, muscle mass is often freakish and Geiger-esque. The trouble is, ideas of contemporary beauty seem to limit us from finding any developed musculature on women appetizing. What is that? And why must it be used as an excuse for me to suffer through another fight scene such as this:

I mean: really.

The bad examples are too numerous to relate, and I can only think of a few positive ones; among them, Terminator 2 and G.I. Jane. T2 is of course well known for how impressive a transformation Linda Hamilton made. In particular, she went from making an especially soft impression in 1984 to a very lean and angular one. I don't mean to detract from that at all - it was impressive - but I also have images of Ms. Hamilton spending quite a bit more time on aerobics than anyone in her character's situation likely would. To wit: still an emphasis on weight loss. G.I. Jane's Demi Moore did quite a shade better, daring to wear biceps and actually demonstrating her strength on film.

These examples remain in the minority, however. Most Hollywood images of powerful heroines still favor slinky dresses and long legs over developed shoulders. Sometimes this leaner physical type is handled better than others. Smart fight choreographers put such nimble minxes in fights in which they get to move fast and use lots of kicks and lower-body advantage (real advantage, rather than the fetishistic "leg lock" depicted in the video above), and intelligent directors offer plot-related explanations for ballet-bodied ladies putting the smack down on crews of mercenaries.

But please to be noting, if you will, the distinction between the way the admittedly wonderful Summer Glau looks, and the way a woman (Bridget Riley) who spends her days actually working on fighting does:

(To her enormous credit, Glau does manage that scorpion kick much better than Riley.)

I know movies are not reality, and that men don't always rise to similar challenges, either (it would seem the Internet hasn't favored us with a capture of Kilmer's shirtless scene in Batman Forever). In recent years, however, Hollywood has held to a truer physical standard for their male superheroes, and I'd like to see a little courage in applying those standards to Wonder Woman, whenever she finally appears. Some may argue that women don't put on mass in the same way most men do, and this is the where the topic really does get a little personal for me.

They do. They so do. It may not always read the same on women, but hard work = muscles. I have had the pleasure of working with female circus performers off and on during my acting career, and in particular in the past two years as I've studied aerial silks I've gotten to see women physically transform over the course of time. I can say with absolute confidence that when a women practices pulling herself up a few yards of fabric once a week for a month or two, not only do her arms get more defined, they grow larger muscles. Girls have guns, gang. Respect.

That's it. In sum: Christina Hendricks, with some push-ups, as Wonder Woman: Yes. The larger issue is that I believe the predominant opinion of feminine beauty pretty much sucks. My two little opinions above don't even begin to cover it, of course. Plus they address my personal preferences just as much as Hollywood's bias, I suppose. That's all completely subjective, but I know female fighters have real arms, and nobody in this lifetime's going to convince me Christina Hendricks is less than beautiful or talented. But I pretty much expect the accusations of personal taste to start rolling in, so...hang on...lemme just get my latest issue of Guns & Curves in hand so I can read it (for the articles) at my leisure as the flame-war commences (I should be so lucky, to have such readership)...

10 June 2011

Don't Know What Exactly They've Got Against Shaw...

... but with coffee this good, I don't exactly care, either. Taking myself out to a belated birthday lunch at Queens Kickshaw feels like a very mature, 34-year-old decision. And look how pretty!

08 June 2011

Sacred Ground

I've been spending so much time at Stella Adler Studio lately I'm starting to mistake it for home.