Being a creator/actor (somebody, please, provide me with a better term than this) is downright tricky.
The process for The Torture Project has been an original one the entire way, owing mostly to relying so much upon the regular creative input and interpretation of it's entire cast and burgeoning crew. Similar to the development of The Laramie Project (and, indeed, the director/co-collaborator [we artists love our slashes][and parentheses] of Laramie, Moises Kaufman, is serving as a mentor on our show) this show was developed through improvisations and individually planned performance pieces inspired by real-life circumstances. Where we part company from Tectonic Theatre is that we have done more extrapolation, to create a piece of fiction rather than an accounting of an event. So my character is not named Keith "Matt" Maupin, rather Jake Larkin. Yes: The lines between can get confusing. Particularly during a brief stage when we used our own names during the improvisations.
So last night, the first rehearsal of our re-up, everyone brought in an assigned scene (/performance piece) he or she had prepared. Mine (see 2/27/07) was a quasi-clown-style piece based upon definitions I finally found online for various categories of unaccounted-for people during war time. I was to show these definitions through various filters, essentially, on a kind of journey from sense, to nonsense, to chaos and back to sense again. I was to use light sources, architecture, possibly music, definitely audience involvement and various styles to communicate it all. In ten minutes. These assignments invariably remind me of a particular summer ('96, I believe it was) when Friend Younce and I would trade creative assignments with one another every week or so.
It was not altogether successful. Laurie, our project leader, basically loves performance art (though she may not know it) and is always very complimentary of my work. This was no exception, but I felt I failed to make it tight and timed in the way I liked, and toward the end I felt almost completely without control in the piece. Which, for simple acting, can sometimes be good. But for clown, or performance art, it's more like dance. I believe. Timing is more important than verisimilitude.
The piece began as a press briefing (with a direct light facing me), at which I told them to pay close attention and read seven or so terms and their definitions off of index cards, ending with, "Any questions?" Then we switched to a sort of military classroom (with that direct light behind me) and I played an over-the-top drill sergeant grilling them for definitions of the various terms. After leaving that scene in disgust, the direct light was traded for the room's overhead fluorescents, Sara Bakker played a Midwestern teacher and announced my next character to an elementary school class: Casualty Assistance Officer Clown. I entered in a clown nose and tried to teach them about the terms, but got flustered, eventually dropping my cards and getting them out of order, and one of the students stole some. Bright Eyes' "False Advertising" began to play and I searched for the missing cards, finding them nowhere and growing more and more upset until I collapsed on the floor and the lights were shut off. After a five count, the lights came back on, and I arose and removed my nose. Now I was a lost soldier, searching the ground for something but unable to find it. Not recognizing my surroundings, I weep and pound my chest until I find something. I slowly pulled out from my breast pocket a long ribbon of paper with the terms and definitions on it. As I pulled it out, I read the terms one by one. Then, as the music faded, I read this:
"The United States' Department of Defense (DOD) lists a military serviceman as MIA if 'he or she was not at their duty location due to apparent involuntary reasons as a result of hostile action and his/her location is not known' (Department of Defense 1996, p. 5). In addition, three criteria guide the accounting process for missing personnel by the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office: (1) the return of a live American; (2) the return of identifiable remains; and (3) provision of convincing evidence why the first two criteria are not possible."End o' scene.
Don't get me wrong: I got my point(s) across. It just wasn't very satisfying in a dramatic or performance sense, I suppose. That may have had a lot to do with my feelings about the assignment from the get-go. Character exploration? Kick ass. Term definition? Um, does spelling count?
It was great to be back in rehearsal, however; especially with folks as talented and professional as them what comprise Joint Stock Theatre Alliance. During the evening I helped out with three other scenes, two of which I had to improvise in. This is very, very difficult, even were the subject matter not as heavy as these scenes happened to be. Simply doing kitchen-sink improvisation is tough. It takes sensitivity to your character that I readily admit I have a ways to go on with good ol' Jake. The scenes themselves, however, added necrotic poison to the blow dart: the first was Jake telling his mother he had joined the Army (compliments Faith Catlin's assignment) and the second was an imagined scene, if Jake's girlfriend back home had had an abortion of the baby he had never known about, and then they fought about it as though he weren't missing. I hope I held my own. I fear I was too soft in the first, too hard in the second.
It's an interesting problem. We're showing the most private moments of people I've really never lived among, so I have yet to find a reliable character model to observe in person. Jake's a middle-class, pro-nationalism kid who worked at Sam's Club and grew up in the late nineties. Does he curse? (I'm playing it he does, but not around his family.) What music does he like? (I'm guessing post-grunge crud like POD or . . . I don't even know; it's too depressing to think about.) What's important to him? (Really.) These are the questions one can glean from the text when rehearsing a script. In our world, we're baking from scratch.
Well, nearly scratch. There's this pre-mixed war and domestic situation that in most cases we just have to add water to.