31 May 2007

Stop Giving Me Paying Work. I'm Busy.

Wouldn't it be nice? (And do you now have that Beach Boys song stuck in your head?)(Well, you do now, don't you [And how many of you think instantaneously of the montage in Roger & Me when you think of that song?]?) I'd love to say that. More to the point, to be able to make a majority of my decisions based on something other than money. The common cure to capitalism leaving you cold is to make so much money that it becomes "no object." Apart from being common, this may be the only known "cure." Can you "sense" my "scepticism" by my use of "quotes"?

Sometimes I feel like the title of this 'blog should be "Don't Get Me Wrong": Now, don't get me wrong -- I'm hoping to win the lottery someday. (Without ever playing? Yes. Without ever playing.) I will not kick thirty million dollars out of bed. Mostly because I would be smothered to death by it, and what a way to go. I'd love to be rich and famous. There. I've said it. I've put it out there, universe. Now, according to The Secret(TM), I should be getting smothered to death any day now. (And for those of you who followed the link, I beg of you: Stop playing on the conveyor belt of the universe.)

The issue of income is a constant one, but perhaps not quite so piquant with the odor of fear as when a person of modest income (read: me) finds him or herself in a position of A) Needing to spend a large amount of money, and B) Likely to soon incur large expenses owing to a lot of work coming up. Now, for a lot of people (I nearly typed "most people"--a wicked assumption on my part) a lot of work equates to more money. Not so in the case of struggling . . . well, anybodies. You're struggling. That's the unspoken struggle. You're not getting paid (or not getting paid much) for the thing you spend the most of your time on. Actors, at least, can have a certain limitation on this poverty when they pursue their careers in the most conventional sense. That is, we have to struggle to actually get the work, whereas visual artists or musicians or comedians can pretty much plunge themselves recklessly into a continuing downward spiral of self-nullifying, non-paying struggle. Yet an actor can, if said actor is so inclined, fulfill the same prophecy on his or her self. They just have to self-produce. That's the fast lane to destitution, right there.

It's not as bad as all that, I must admit. I am adopting a cynical tone for the purpose of humor, but (and maybe this is just the weather, and a cold coming on) it is rapidly growing darker than I really feel. It's great to do what you love, in almost any context. It's a trade-off, a blessing and a curse, to make your job your love, and vice versa. It's a little chicken-and-egg, but perhaps that's why so many actors one meets seem to have something to prove.

The other day I plopped down $2,400 in money orders to secure my new apartment. I had thought, due to a misinterpretation of the ad, that it needed only to be $1,600, and so part of my time spent off the day-job clock securing this apartment involved running out to my bank and acquiring another money order for $800 (and acquiring one more service fee of $5, thank you HSBC). Thankfully, I had it in checking. Often times, I don't. My account balances are a dance of heart-warming delicacy, between the needy Checking and the generous--albeit nary well-endowed--Savings. (There's also a much-neglected IRA, but he doesn't feel inferior, just unappreciated.) I got it done, and keys in hand, and then it was off to spend money on van rental and cleaning supplies. And soon I'll be off to Italy, where it is not exactly clear--as the whole venture now must be bank-rolled by the artistic director--whether or not we'll receive any per diem or such. Between gigs this summer, I have probably eight full weeks of day-job money to fund an upcoming 12+ weeks of low- or no-pay acting.

But it is ever thus. Especially in the summer, when everyone gets inspired to work. Inspiration can take one a long way, and not just into credit card debt. I schedule my summer work regardless of budget--to a certain extent--assuming I can maintain enough liquid flow through discipline or fund-juggling to make it through, and then make up the differences and debts in the Fall. I do it this way because one never knows from where one's next job is going to come, because the work can fuel itself longer than I might imagine at first assessment and because it is freeing, which is a quality an actor really can't overrate.

This is my last full week of work at my day job before beginning the sporadic and varied travel involved in my real job. It's important that I work as much as possible in order to squeeze out as much hourly waging as possible, in spite of having a new apartment to adapt and writing homework for As Far As We Know and the big three-O coming in for a landing this weekend. I'll do it, all the while contemplating the experience of working with Italian comedians. Of course, the best part about working in Italy is that my cell phone won't work there.

There is absolutely no way that my boss can find me to offer me paying work.

30 May 2007

Panic Panic Panic Panic Panic ... wait. Yes: Panic.

So today was the first day, since starting this Aviary of Odin's, that I came into work with plenty of free time, and didn't feel remotely like doing an entry.


Perhaps you think I'm overreacting. Perhaps I am. I've been sitting here, between assignments, trying to conceive of what innocuous reason might be attributed to this change. I've considered: having finished my apartment hunt, coming up on a birthday, not having worked in a while ("a while" in this context being two weeks) and my recent forays into "interior massage," as my physical therapist(s) refer(s) to it. None of these offers me decent enough explanation, so I begin to fear the worst.

Odin's Aviary may be going the way of every previous attempt at journaling I've ever ventured, and losing relevance in my grand scheme of things.

I don't want to jump the gun on this. I mean, one day of waning enthusiasm in a five-month run is hardly a death knell. Still, it worries me. Prefer my day job over my 'blog? What's next? Preferring collating over memorizing lines? Choosing to compile uncontested divorce papers over practicing my handstand? That was part of the idea in starting this thing in this way. If there's one thing in my life I'm unlikely to lose enthusiasm for--not to mention one thing I need to be aware of losing enthusiasm for--it's my pursuit of fulfilling work, and a fulfilling life thereby. So the panic seemed a bit more justified in that context. This isn't just some private diary for recording my thoughts on who I'd like to sleep with (Rachael Leigh Cook, I'm looking in your direction...), but a gauge for and exploration of my choice of The Third Life(all rights reserved).

So what do I do in my office-ensnared panic? I turn to the interwebzizines for comfort. Fortunately, I didn't resort to YouTube or some such nonsense, but turned instead to one of the great gifts of these worldwidenettingz: xkcd. Wherein I found this.

And I was struck by how funny I found it. It's so CRUEL. So cruel. But it's a delicate thing, too, up for interpretation. If there was a punchline, even one preceded by an ellipse (suggesting a pause) it would lose its charm. Instead, the punchline is the silence. I love that. I love how funny a silence, even (or perhaps: particularly) an awkward or painful one, can be. The lack of information is a significant part of the humor. Similar to Buster Keaton's stoneface, a stick figure can reveal nothing about the slighted character's reaction, and we are instantly compelled to identify with it, to interpret the blank according to our own experiences and needs.

AND THEN Friend Todd, amidst a flurry of emails confirming travel plans (apparently I am to be the Sherpa of Todd's toiletries; no sacrifice too small for our art), recommends to the kernel group of Zuppa del Giorno this article. For those of you unfamiliar with Bill Irwin, for shame. Plus: You're probably more familiar than you think (he was in the music video for "Be Happy" and made an appearance on The Cosby Show . . . so everyone knows his face, if not his name). A lot of his self-generated, clown-style work is silent, though now he is clearly transitioning into more conventional theatre. He's an amazing physical performer.

All of which serves to reorient my mind toward work, and thereby away from panic. Now I'm thinking about how my noseless clown (dubbed Lloyd Schlemiel in some circles) came to life the last time I was in Italy, and how little I've done with him since, and how the few times I have revisited him it's been surprisingly fulfilling. I'm thinking about the pure joy of the first time I stilted in the New York Halloween parade, silently communicating with hundreds of revelers from the middle of the Avenue of the Americas. I'm thinking about how easily I can post my work online now, and the possibilities of that.

I'd be panicking, but I'm too excited.

Abandonment Issues

I know. Shh, shhh . . . it's okay. Everything's going to be . . . okay now. I'm back.

I am so sorry I left you for so many days without an update on my life and times. You must have felt hollow inside, devoid of hope and desperate for some word of me. Perhaps you even considered desperate measures in the interim, such as calling or emailing me. Well, I think we can all say with a sigh of relief that it did not, ultimately, come to anything so drastic as all that. Though some did text message me. I won't name names here. We all do things from time to time that seem reasonable at the time, yet in retrospect make us woozy. And I won't be held responsible for anyone's wooziness.

It is, in a way, apt that I abandoned the 'blog for a good four days. Not merely because my readership seems to drop drastically in the period between Thursday and Tuesday (What is it about midweek that makes folks flock to me weblog?), but because in this particular case I did nothing remotely theatrical. I didn't even think about theatre that much, if you can believe it. It's true. I would venture to say I made not one allegory betwixt theatre (or acting) and anything else. What could possibly inspire such aberrant behavior? Let me put it this way:

I have an apartment now.

Oh yes. The deed is done, if you'll forgive the pun. It's not exactly what I was looking for, but it's pretty durn close. A "cozy" studio (for $800 a month, it can be as cozy as it wants) on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, just a hop and a skip (no additional jump necessary) away from southeast Prospect Park. It'll do for a year, and hey: It may do for a good bit longer, depending on how things go.

All that remains is to actually move. Then my thirtieth birthday will follow hard and fast upon. Then I'll be in Italy. Then Pennsylvania.


Maybe I should get used to keeping up the theatrical allegory whilst doing a million other things. Like the training sequence (gonna need a montage) in Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins.

You know packing to move is kind of like acting . . .

24 May 2007

That Is The Subject To Which I Am Referring!

It's a joke. It doesn't translate very well when typed. Friend Adam used to be quite fond of celebrating a victory--his or someone else's--by jumping up and shouting, "That's what I'm talking about!" (That's what he used to say. Now it's usually, "What! What!" As in, "What do you think of me now?") I got to sharing/mocking Adam's enthusiasm by chiming in with overly formal versions of this phrase, said with the same enthusiasm. Ergo: That is the subject to which I am referring! Other faves include:

  • That is the topic of my conversation!

  • That is what I am expositing upon!

  • That is the approximate meaning of the words I am speaking!
Silliness, but it taps into a very personal aspect of my humor; specifically, the self-deprecating aspect of it. More specifically, mocking my formality, relative intellectualism and very sincere desire to join in the fun of rowdier, more relaxed personalities. It's interesting to me to think that, to some of my friends, I am that type. I do crazy things, like go to Italy and forego income for a month, or stilt walking, or standing on a platform in front of hundreds of people and crying. I have a job at a desk, and yet I insist on risking my health (usually sans health insurance) in order to elicit a few gasps or chuckles from people who probably haven't even paid for the privilege to see me do so. But most people I know, other performers, see me mostly as the conservative type.

This is on my mind today owing mostly to the apartment hunt. (ALL HAIL THE APARTMENT HUNT! ALL SERVE THE APARTMENT HUNT!) It's hard for me to phone strangers, to visit their apartments and stroll through neighborhoods that are A) unfamiliar, and B) usually not terribly similar to where I come from. I have lots of actors friends who rule at this sort of thing. Absolutely rule. They walk in a room smiling, shake your hand and make you feel like you're the one they've been looking for all day, yet not in a way that's overwhelming or artificial. Somehow they do it in a way that just makes you want more of their attention.

It seems like a natural extension of their craft. If you think about it, it means every part of their day is in some sense acted. We always talk about wanting to act more, we actors, and complain of not having enough opportunities. These may not be the exact circumstances we crave, these moments of conversational dexterity, but it incorporates a lot of the same skills, and it feeds so nicely into creating more opportunities for the real thing. Practice, praise, good vibes and more work, what's not to love about it?

This, however, is not me. I have my moments, true, when I captivate attention, but never in a sense that puts people at ease. Gets them excited or, at best, laughing suddenly, sure, but never relaxing or enticing them. In fact, my best bet for charming the socks off people is to trip when I come in the room and just keep up that clownish energy throughout. I used to perform in shows this way, always going, always with a forcefully klutzy energy. Hopefully I've learned enough to back off of that now and again on stage. In life, it has become balanced with a slightly more limited resource of energy and an almost complete intolerance for bullshit. Which is to say: I don't have time for this, people. Let's just say what we mean and mean what we say, and if you don't care, you don't care, and that's fine. I frequently don't care.

You've had a hard day, and want to share the details with me? Yeah, I don't care. I just want me coffee, thanks. You feel insulted to be the one who has to proctor the auditions when the show doesn't actually even need replacements right now, and want to at least feel like the actors coming in to audition find you attractive? Yeah, I don't care. I just want a job, or at least to feel like I'm fulfilling my obligation for useless auditions. You really, really enjoy walking around your apartment naked except for combat boots, and what's so wrong with that, and if that isn't cool with your roommate she should just get married already? Yeah, I DON'T CARE. I just want to find an apartment, get to the rehearsals for As Far As We Know already and get the hell off this subway car.

Sometimes it seems as though to be a high-functioning member of contemporary society is to be capable of dealing with a lot of bullshit. I am not functioning highly. I am done with this. But can I really be done with this? If it's going to make me unlikable and, worse, threaten my ability to get cast? I'm not talking about being a genuine person here. I want to be that regardless of my attitude toward bullshit. It's like the difference between having a great performance in which you didn't really feel in it, and the great performance in which you felt somehow like you were transcending all the pretense and sleight-of-hand to really embody the story. I want the latter. It's not enough to do good, but to do good right.

is the matter under discussion in my 'blog entry!

23 May 2007

Hand Out some Beat Downs

There was a campaign not too long ago comprised of various people in major cities spending a day outside offering free hugs. They came with signs, they shouted it from the rooftops, they made videos of their days and posted them to YouTube and Google Video. It was interesting, the responses they got to their efforts. Sometimes I watched and thought, "What is wrong with America, that we should be so resistant to no-strings physical intimacy?" Other times I thought, "What is wrong with these people? Why must they trumpet their offer and be so missionary about it? What are they trying to prove?" I was reminded, too, of the few times I've been enlisted to help out at a kissing booth. I always avoid it, and I don't know which is a worse hypothetical scenario in my mind: having to kiss someone I find unattractive, or finding someone who doesn't want their dollar to go toward getting to kiss yours truly.

Actors are a touchy-feely (touchie-feelie?) bunch, mostly. Those who aren't are usually pointedly so, and one gets the sense it's a bit reactionary to the whole phenomenon. I think I fall somewhere toward the middle, but it's hard to say (people always think they're moderate, just like they all think they have good taste). I avoid spontaneous backrubs, but I like to hug hello and goodbye. When I'm required to do a stage kiss, I usually approach it tentatively in the first rehearsals to make sure nobody's getting swept away or grossed out, and when we do a "trust exercise" I'm all about being there totally and allowing myself to be dropped if that's how it's going to play out. So you can judge for yourself where I fall on the scale of touchafeelarockability for yourself.

What's a real sign of physical intimacy, though, is the relationship within which you can feel comfortable resorting to physical violence.

I'm sorry. I seem to be writing about violence quite a lot lately. The reasons, it seems to me, are multitudinous. I miss my circus activities (amongst other physical distractions), which are just not possible now, bringing me to explanation deuce: I am at present constantly moving, never getting anywhere. That is what it is to apartment hunt and work nearly full time at an office job. This too shall pass, I know, but in the meantime I would really enjoy some stage combat gone awry, or even a very little Fight Club action. Kick my ass. Somebody. Please?

All right, all right. Put your damn hands down, all of you.

Oddly enough, Friend Davey (who really should have a 'blog of his own for me to link to at this point [Constantine...I'm looking in your direction...so to speak...]) addressed a similar desire via email to our little Burke gaming cabal today. And I quote:
"Someone knocks you down or splashes you with liquid at a party, or a myriad of other things, what are we to do? If you get all huffy you are typically seen as irrational and possibly immature. If you stand and take it you are less of a man. If we fight we are arrested for fighting. There is no more 'satisfaction' to be demanded. Now I'm not trying to sound like a 'things were better when...' guy, b/c I hate that party almost as much as the 'things will be better if...' folks on the other side of the isle; but seriously: some part, if a little or a lot, of the decades-old trend of public shootings, violent abusive children, arrogant talking-head political-wonk crap has got to be laid at the feet of the fact that we can not hit somebody if they are being a jerk. Rush Limbaugh and too many others to name would be much better people if someone had just popped him one years ago so that he knew where the line was. Students would not abuse their teachers in school if they were put in their place with a spanking at a young age."
Davey goes on to confess he's a bit off-kilter at the time of writing, but today I'm with him. Friend Patrick expressed a similar sentiment not long ago, and Davey's tirade was in part inspired by his reading Friend Nat's latest entry. Ergo, it is not an isolated phenomenon, this lust for physical "satisfaction" amongst we men. (At least, not isolated to just me. Perhaps I befriend the violent type.)

I half-jokingly propose this: in addition to "trust exercises," we incorporate, as a regular part of the rehearsal process, "pwn3d xrc1z3s" (that's "powned [read: abused or humiliated in a head-to-head challenge] exercises" to the uninitiated). These exercises would never involve falling backwards into someone's arms, or closing your eyes, ever. They would function more along the lines of paintball, or bloodsport. The point would be a different kind of trust. The saying, "There are no atheists in the trenches"? That. That would be our point.

Insane, I know. Just wait until we're teaching it in the corporate training workshops.

22 May 2007

"When there is nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire."

I have spent far too much time here at work trying to find the source for this quote. What I have mostly found, are 'blogs. Endless fields of 'blogs. The quote, as I know it, is a vocal sample at the start of a song called Your Ex-Lover Is Dead, by The Stars. It sounds rather like Orson Welles to me, but it could very easily be someone trying to sound like Orson. No clue. It's frustrating. I really need to know who said this, and as a part of what.

Because I want to tattoo it on my chest.

Just found it. It's the lead singer's father, a noted actor. (Dag! No wonder I was having trouble finding it.) Yet I am still context-less, apart from the album itself, which is mostly about breaking up and breaking down. (Such a novelty in a pop album.) It sounds so much like a classic quote, and Mr. Campbell is noted for his association with The Stratford Festival, so the possibility persists. In the meantime, I'll just have to go on ascribing my own meaning, on which more in a moment.

This is one of those strange things from strange places. The album was released some three years ago, and I'd never heard of it. The song came to me in the form of a mix CD made for me by a relative stranger (though we did pretend to tromp together through deepest Africa once) from Camp Nerdly. He handed it off to sort of drop cargo on his way out, originally intending--I believe--to barter with it at the Nerdly goods swap. It's all scratched up from transport and informal packaging, and I frankly couldn't be sure it would load into ye olde iTunes successfully. Yet it did, and weeks later it is rapidly scaling my "Tha' Jams You Can't Leave Alone" chart.

What does it mean? Not the fortuitous and coincidental nature of my acquisition, mind you, but the words: When there is nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.

Well, kids, for me this is a pretty direct statement. I mean, I do spend some time involuntarily picturing men in the arctic north who've set fire to everything and are now drawing lengths of rawhide to see who gets shoved in the flaming pile of sleds, dogs and clothing. But I quickly transcend such an image to my usual metaphor: acting. Also: life. Generally: inseparable, when you're doing something right.

As Friend Patrick might put it, fire has been a recurrent symbol in my life lately. Literally and figuratively, come to think of it. I loved my parents' fireplace back in Burke, Virginia, and lots of rituals surrounded it in the winter months. Whenever I get the chance (the last such chance being a rooftop barbecue last Sunday, and prior to that, Camp Nerdly), I put myself in charge of the fire. It's methodical and physical to build, dangerous and unpredictable in practice, but also warming, soothing and inspiring. So perhaps it's natural for me, especially now, to link the notion of fire with acting. There's a great quote from Slings and Arrows about why actors act that I can neither remember, nor find online, but it says something about why anyone would want to return to normal life once they had experienced the kind of truth one can achieve through a successful performance on the stage. That's setting yourself on fire.

As for having nothing left to burn, well, here's a couple of different thoughts on that:
  • Maybe that's the job of the actor, to find that level of stakes and desperation for the appropriate moments on stage. Not every character is despondent, but every good character should want something so badly that he or she comes to a point--at least once--of not knowing what to do about it.

  • Use it.

  • That happens all the time to most actors in America, and dare I say the world. Even when our personal or financial lives aren't a shambles, we tend to work ourselves past all endurance on parts we play until either epiphany or disaster occur. Either we pull off the trick of a phoenix . . . or we don't.

Of course, none of this probably has much of anything to do with what the songwriter(s) intended. But that's the beauty of pop music, isn't it? It means what you most need it to mean at the moment you need it.

When there is nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.

17 May 2007

Read Me?

Before you ask: My butt feels okay today, inasmuch as a butt can that is apparently seriously damaged.

Some have expressed confusion at my schedule, of late and upcoming. I can't begin to imagine why. I suppose it could have something to do with the way in which I myself never actually know what I'll be doing much in advance of a week beforehand. Such is the life of the unrepresented, slightly-whorish-about-work actor. (Come on. Everyone's a little whorish about the stuff they love.) So I thought I would give an update on what I think is happening for me this summer. What I think is happening, mind you. You don't get to hold me to this, because I don't get to hold anybody to anything they promise me regarding work and travel. Them's the breaks.

Some of the more niggling questions of late:

By-Stander of Innocence: Hey Jeff, how come you aren't in Italy right now?
VERY good question, helpful By-Stander. I myself am often amazed by life's little surprises. It turned out that we did not achieve our enrollment quota for In Bocca al Lupo, and thus it seemed we weren't able to go. Then David Zarko, artistic director of The Northeast Theatre, asked us if we could apply for grants and pay part of our airfare as actors. To the first we said yes, the second, no. We did not get the grants, and most of we lot are pretty shallow-of-pocket. Suddenly David pipes in again, saying, "Well, what the hell! I want to go with youse guys, and--being that I am gradually becoming the real estate baron of Upper Left-Hand Scranton--if we make it a two-week trip I can afford to take you." So we were on again, for the last two weeks in May. But then one of us had show conflicts with that time, and David thought we could get better prices later, so now we are positively, definitively going to be there the last two weeks of June. Maybe.

B-SoI: Soooooo . . . how comes you hain't been writing about teaching with Wingspan Arts all month, then?
Well, when I left off teaching with Wingspan at the start of May, it was with the idea that I had two weeks to find a new apartment before going to Italy, and very little money to accomplish this. Now I have a little more money and Italy is put off, but I am still, technically, apartmentless. So it's best for both me and the youth of America that I NOT be compelled to invoke any disciplinary action upon them.

BSoI: Enough said. Do you miss it?
Badly. I miss the kids, and Alex. Hopefully the timing will work out that I can see their final presentation before really, truly (maybe) leaving for Italy.

BSI: And what of The Torture Project and Joint Stock Theatre Alliance? Are they still going strong? Are you still strongly going along with them, or have you been left at the side of Collaboration Road with nothing but a few creative notions wrapped in a handkerchief tied to the end of a stick?
Er . . . . That's very poetic, By-Stander. Are YOU by any chance involved with a collaborative theatre project?

BSI: Who isn't?
Indeed. Well, refer to a previous entry of mine (5/3/07) and you will see that the above project has miraculously transformed itself unto a show entitled As Far As We Know, created by a theatre company now monikered as UnCommon Cause. Same bat-people, same bat-project, different bat-names. And yes, as far as I know, I'll still appear on stage. (Speaking of which: Todd. I need those work-out tips NOW.) In fact, As Far As We Know shall grace one of the stages of the NYC Fringe in August. So we're gearing up to hustle and bustle to create the most fully realized version of the show to date. With a script, and everything. Hopefully we'll maintain some of the homey effects, like string lights. String lights make everything pretty. Currently, along with several writer meetings prior, we're planning to escape to New Hampshire once again at the end of July to get some focused development done.

BI: Wait, wait. At the end of July? Won't that conflict with projects you've mentioned previously? The Exiled, and something with Friend Melissa's company, Kinesis Project Dance Theatre?
Yes and no, happily and sadly. The Exiled (which I keep thinking of as Teh Exiled; consider it, Nat...?) was not accepted into the Fringe, obviously because the Fringe only accepts fluffy, unresearched and underdeveloped material. Wait. No. Um . . . I guess . . . LOOK! A SEAGULL! {sound of hurried footsteps, fading into the distance} But never fear: Friend Nat fully intends to mount the show all the same (fan as he is of mounting things), possibly at the end of August, when all of this Fringe-related madness has blown over. Kinesis, however, I had to bow out of, owing to conflicts at both ends of the project's development. This makes me very sad, as it is hardly the first time I've had to abandon both Friends Melissa and Patrick--creatively speaking--and their faith in me probably can't take much more. That's not to their discredit AT ALL. Quite the contrary. I just basically owe them a percentage of all the cash I make from other shows I end up doing during the time we had planned to work together. Guys, your checks for 72 cents are in the mail.

B: Okay. I'm starting to get the picture here. So you'll be around more than usual this summer?
Yes (if by "more than usual" you mean, "at all"), and I have aspirations of many open acrobalance sessions in Central Park as a result. I will, of course, keep my hungry public updated on the progress of that as it develops.

B: Great! So the rest of the summer, you'll be busy, but around--
Ah, not quite. There is also a week at the start of July--from the 2nd to the 6th, to be precise--when I will be in Pennsylvania teaching children ages six to sixteen about the glories of physical theatre and acrobalance.

b: I see. BUT, apart from that, your summer will be spent in and around the Big Apple, and of course in the fall there's so much going on here you'll need to stay local--
Er. Um.

b: . . . What?
I, uh. Starting August 27th I'll be out of town for over two months collaborating on the newest Zuppa del Giorno show, Prohibitive Standards.

: . . .

Sorry. Sorry. It's like this: See, I work really hard at my craft. The only thing that limits me in this is the opportunity to do so in any context that supports the rest of my life, which opportunity is unpredictable in occasion and duration. So when I get to do it, and in a context in which I really, personally care about the work itself . . . well, it's not to be missed, no matter how much it may rattle the equilibrium of my life at large. Hence the mad schedule, and feeling all warm and fuzzy inside the more theatrical obligations I have to run around to. It doesn't make sense. It does, however, make me happy.

By-Stander of Now Somewhat Less Innocence: But how's your butt feeling?

Quiet, you.

16 May 2007

I Just had a Man's Hand in My Sphincter

Just in case you missed it:
I just had a man's hand in my sphincter.

And hey:
I paid money for it.

What's more:
I bought drugs from him afterward.

I'm starting to stray from the truth here; technically, I didn't buy drugs from him. I paid a service fee, and one of the services he provided was to punctuate my already surprising experience with free drugs. I don't know how else I expected my urologist to investigate my recent pelvic muscular pains. MRI perhaps, or that nifty pressure-tapping that they do on your tummy to check for cysts? Well, there was pressure all right. My prostate got the most unromantic massage I have ever experienced.

I apologize for the graphic content of this entry, y'all. I thought about it for a good, like, ten minutes, weighing the pros and cons as the smell of anal lubricant and latex lingered in my nostrils, and my buttockal region wept silently to itself. In some ways, it is unavoidable, as it is the thing foremost in my mind.

Wait. Wait: Straying from the truth again am I. (Fortunate am I spirit of Yoda inhabits self.) The foremost thing in my mind is still finding a new place to live. Apartment hunting trumps anal violation! That's right. You heard it here first. At least, I certainly hope this is the first time you've heard it.

Ultimately, it was rather disappointing. I'm led to understand that the prostate is quite the erogenous zone, and that under the right circumstances a little donut pokin' can even feel pleasant. These, however, were not the right circumstances. Even if it hadn't been a fifty-something guy with a brusk demeanor, these circumstances were terribly, terribly wrong. For it seems that, why yes, I was right back in January when I told said doctor that I thought there must be muscle damage in addition to the chemical epididymitis. (He chalked it up to indigestion. Yes: indigestion. Leaving only the question, "If I sue, would I get the money in time to put a down payment on a Manhattan loft?") We (See how collective I am in my grammar?) ascertained that there was muscle damage by the EXCRUCIATING PAIN produced when Mr. Brusk pushed against the right side of my prostate, as opposed to the complete absence of such on the left side. Interestingly enough, he went right-left-right, and at first touch I thought that was how the prostate was supposed to feel when poked, and remained mute. Then I felt the left side and thought, "Huh," then I felt the right side again and said "Ouch." Of course, what I was really thinking was, "Dear loving merciful cats make it stop." (So, Patrick? Points to me for my own denial of pain.)

I have been prescribed more of the anti-inflammatory, and given a prescription to attend physical therapy. He knows of at least three therapists who deal with "pelvic floor dysfunction." (Allow me to specifically state that, apart from pain, there is nothing "dysfunctional" about my pelvis. Just in case anyone wondered.) I've given them calls to discover that none (repeat: none) of the physical therapists who specialize in this . . . specialty . . . are in-network for Cigna. To which I respond: "W.T.F. (Where's The Fairness), Cigna? Just what is my astonishingly high, $25 co-pay for, anyway?" So Monday I'm seeing someone anyway, and paying out the nose for it until I ascend the steep hill that is my $350 deductible, which will probably occur just as my Actor's Equity Insurance runs out, June 30.

Other funny moments from my experience today:
  • "Don't worry. This isn't pleasant for either of us." - Well, I mean, personal vanity aside, I'd prefer that at least SOMEbody in the room be enjoying themselves.
  • Sitting down back in the man's office after it was said and done and I had re-troused. I was not prepared for that sensation.
  • "Don't you need to go to the bathroom?" "Uh...no." Should I?! Is that the natural response to this sort of thing?! Throw me a frickin' bone here!
There's a universal axiom in acting that can be summed up in two words: Use it. It comes in two connotations, both with essentially the same meaning. The first is used to refer to incidents from one's past. If you ever suffered from racial discrimination, you use those feelings to help you discover Othello or Shylock. If ever you sustained a serious paper cut, you use the memory of it to key into what it might be like to be The Black Knight and have your arm/arm/leg/leg off. The other context for "use it" refers to your emotional state the night of a performance, when it's simply too overwhelming to shut out completely. Hopefully, most of us aspire to live in the moment on stage, but every so often some powerful performances have been generated using the "use it" method. I remember performing a show not long ago during which a cast member had a dear relative die the day of a show. It was a comedy with tragic elements, and when we got to the cathartic denouement, it played with such truth and depth that no one in the room escaped with their resolve in tact.

This may be one of those acting lessons that does not necessarily translate well into life in general. If your boyfriend just dumped you for a younger woman, you probably shouldn't "use it" at the office. ("No, you didn't email me the status report. JUST BECAUSE MY BIOLOGICAL CLOCK IS ACCELERATING DOESN'T MEAN WE CAN LET THE COMMUNICATION BREAK DOWN!") If reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra blew your mind with revelation this morning, you may not want to carry it with you into your volunteer hours on the suicide crisis hotline. ("Dude, you couldn't be more right, actually. I mean, what proof of existence is there beyond our earth-bound, temporary senses? It's all eternal recurrence. And I . . . dude? You still there?") Similarly, my experience did NOT help me at the day job today. At all. Nor with apartment hunting.

But someday I'm going to have a hell of a scene in some play, somewhere.

15 May 2007

Serious Injury: Serious Option

There is a loverly BritCom benamed Black Books that covers the antics of a triptych of wacky friends and their exploits. The introductory episode presents us with the main character, Bernard Black, owner and operator of a small bookstore in London, faced for the first time with having to do his own taxes (as his accountant, it seems, is rather suddenly on the lam from MI5). About midway through the episode, Bernard discovers a helpful clause in the instructions for completing his "accounts," which states, in sum and substance, that if the filler-outer gets seriously ill or injured, he is exempt from filing his taxes. Upon reading this, of course, Bernard sets about on a series of failed attempts to irreparably maim himself. A ridiculous notion, and obviously a formula for comedy.

But I daresay this falls into the "it's funny because it's true" category.

Somebody make me unresponsible for finding my new apartment, for the underpinnings of an entire law practice, for putting my personal life in order (Is a personal life ever really "in order"?), for healing my body and for scheduling my theatrical commitments. Somebody hit me with a brick (Patrick?), kick me in the face (Nat?) or rerupture the frail hydrostatic pressure preventing my urine from invading my ballular region (Myself?). Actually, skip that last one; there's simply got to be a better way. But the first two I'll take! I actually thought to myself last night, looking for the subway in BedSty, "This neighborhood = not so great. Maybe I'll get mugged and I can retreat into a passive-aggressive hole for two weeks until this whole apartment hunting thing blows over." Alas, 'twas not meant to be. I still have the same finsky in my wallet, and my psyche remains arrogantly intact.

That last might fall into the "it's funny because it's blatantly false" category, actually.

I can feel the edges of my psyche curling up in retreat from all the B.S. of the hunt. (Trivia tidbit: My psyche is actually a potato bug.) Yesterday I saw two places, both of a goodly size for my modest needs. The first was in crap condition, however, and they wanted $650 there and then, non-refundable and unrelated to rent or an additional broker's fee, to secure it. Lots of promises for new windows (I lived for two years with windows with holes in them in Richmond) and a working intercom, the which I could always comfort myself with as I wrote out my $1,000 check every month for at least a year. The second was a really nice place, and could have been mine for a check there and then for a month's rent, which was lower than advertised: merely $875. But I felt pressured, and so didn't take it there and then. Which was good, because come to find out the reason all the new security had been installed was because the building's only (ginormous) neighbor across the street was a mandatory acceptance homeless men's shelter. Social conscience aside, not the sort of foot traffic I wish to submit me and mine to.

Tonight bodes more of the same. Leaping from inaccessible place to inaccessible place, calling to apologize for lateness and trying to suck up without falling into a myriad of traps and pressure situations. Tonight I am aiming for three places, which I tried but failed to do last night. Hopefully they will not all be wastes of time. Hopefully, all my problems will be solved by 9:00 PM tonight. But I'm not counting on it. There's nothing I'm counting on, at this point.

Except perhaps a friend with a hobbling post.

14 May 2007

Roller Derby? I Haven't Even MET Her Derby!

Friday last I had myself a bit of an adventure, in the lovely Garden State of New Jersey. (Oh, how I can't say enough good things about New Jersey, and all its loveliness! My God! The state's beauty is only out won by its inherent and seemingly effortless virtue! Hail unto thee, New Jersey! Hail unto thee!) Friend Kira has taken up a new pastime, and Friday night was her first official bout. That's right. Friend Kira is gone and joined the army of awesomeness that is the Garden State Rollergirls.

Seriously: Awesome. Roller derby combines many of my greatest loves--dual identities, loud music, theatre, humor, violence and women. Tough chicks, to be more specific. Ever since joining the circus, I have had a pointed appreciation for tough chicks, and these were some of the toughest I have ever seen. And their skate names rule: Skarzipan (Kira), Jenna von Fury, Slam-n-Legs, Layla Smackdown and, my personal favorite, Belle N. Somebashin'. Roller derby comes with my highest recommendation.

Kira's team is dubbed The Northern Nightmares, and last Friday they went skate-to-skate with Jersey City Bridge & Pummel, and therein did they prove themselves worthy of the gods' acclaim. (Sorry--I've been reading a lot of Mary Renault, and it has me thanking Zeus and fearing Poseidon.) Which is to say, the NNs wiped the floor with Bridge & Pummel. You may read Kira's somewhat inebriated account of the bout here. I agree with her perspective on the thing: B&P were playing at a distinct disadvantage, but playing hard nonetheless. I hope Kira feels further motivated by her contributions to the victory.

It's been very interesting hearing about Kira's progress through this experience. It's been quite physically arduous for her, and she makes no effort to avoid admitting that she's the slowest of the team, yet she has stuck with it and has a kind of passion for it that surprised me at first. I don't credit myself with an appreciation for activities that I'm not naturally talented in. (Hell of a sentence, that. Shall we try again?) THAT IS TO SAY, when I don't show any kind of aptitude for a thing, I generally cease to work at it. It's hard for me to keep up an initial enthusiasm in such cases, and this has come to haunt me in the past year. I was not allowed to quit at learning Italian, because I simply needed to speak and understand it better. I suppose I could have quit trying in my performance of A Lie of the Mind and saved myself a lot of heartache, but the alternative of phoning it in was simply not an alternative for me. I would have had a much better time of it if I could have quickly gotten past the kind of automatic self-loathing that such occasions give rise to. It's something to work on.

Kira's experience also reminds me of a kung fu class I enrolled in with Friend Mark back in 2000. I eventually quit the class, out of frustration with the structure of the school and the time demands of trying to attend it and support my acting career, and those energies quickly found some outlet in my circus studies. But the reminiscence I particularly remember from Alan Lee's Kung Fu/Wu Shu Academy was the trial class Mark and I took together. Mark is a multi-degree blackbelt in Tae Kwon Do, and I think while he was staying in the city he just wanted to keep in shape and encourage me toward martial arts. So I found the school and he joined me in testing it out. In the trial class, we were sequestered into our own group of two and a teacher took us through our paces. One of the training methods employed by that school is to incorporate conditioning at the beginning and end of the class, which helps both to make the simply workout more efficient and keep the muscles trim--the ideal of this lithe and quick style of fighting. So one of the first things our private teacher that day asked of us was thirty push-ups.

When I look back on it, I wonder if he wasn't being a bit soft with us. At the time, however, I remember thinking, "Did he say thirty 'push-ups'? That can't be right." I don't believe I had ever done over ten push-ups in a row before in my life up to that point. When I was young and chubby, I simply couldn't. When I got older and slim, I didn't see the point. The only physical activity I had really been interested in at that point was the common pratfall, the which really only requires a willingness to take your lumps. In college I was cast in a production of The Three Musketeers that taught me a thing or two about stamina and flexibility, but nothing of the benefits of strength. The instructor did say "push-ups," and I did end up doing them, and more.

The next day, I couldn't raise my arms from the elbow to anything sharper than 90 degrees. I looked mighty funny, I assure you, trying to eat and brush the hair from my eyes. I was borderline injured from the exertion, yet I wanted nothing more than to do it again. I knew, somewhere in the back of my mind, that my incapacitation was a sign that I had done something seemingly impossible. I had transcended. I had broken past a barrier, and it hurt like hell, and it felt amazing and wonderful.

It's not every day we are presented with an opportunity to become more. Or is it? Maybe the opportunity is always there, but we only recognize it when circumstances align a certain way. Whichever the case may be, it is a cause for celebration, that effort to transcend. So I celebrate you, Skarzipan. Thanks for the inspiration. As soon as I find a new apartment, I'm going to install my pull-up bar and sign up for the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

10 May 2007

"Do You Believe in Unlikelihoods?"

So I'm moving. Again. Since I first arrived in New York, I have moved six times. Which really isn't that bad for a struggling New York actor. Combine that with the constant travel associated with doing regional theatre on a regular basis, however, and it comes to seem a bit pointless, investing oneself in any particular place. The place I'm leaving, for example, I never really spent much time on making my own. It always seemed transitional to me. I've come to decide it's important, however, to have a home base that I care about. So this cycle around, I'm playing for keeps, and looking for a place of my own.

So the 'blogination may be somewhat lacking in days to come, in order to afford me more time to peruse the craigslist.

Much has been written already regarding the importance of an artist having his or her own space, from Virginia Woolf to Julia Cameron, but it can be easy to give such a notion lip service without actually appreciating the value of such a thing. Personally, I feel much more capable of good work when my work area is clean and clear (which creates an endless internal battle akin to that between Ra and Apep as my stacking impulse vies for dominance). It's not surprising then that occupying one's own space and taking control of it would help one feel in more control of his or her life. This is my hope, at any rate. A friend of mine in As Far As We Know signs off her emails with a quote from Flaubert: "Be steady and well-ordered in your life so that you may be fierce and original in your work."

"Il faut écrire des choses très folles en ayant une vie très rangée."

I don't speak French, so if the above is wrong: Bite me.

The first challenge is, of course, finding such a place. I don't know how it compares to other mejor metropolitan areas, but New York is certainly the worst of my experience when it comes to this process. It's akin to trying to get hired for an acting gig, actually. The supply of gigs/digs is so small, and the demand for them so large, the whole process is rendered ridiculous to the point of seeming pre-civilized. There is no point in looking ahead of time if you're looking to rent, because the day--the very day--that a good apartment is posted, it is taken. This creates a rather bloodsport, kill-or-be-killed environment, in which otherwise harmless-looking people will leave work unexpectedly and lurk around decrepit buildings with blank money orders clutched in their starving grasp. I carry a blackjack myself, just in case I see someone who looks wealthier than me approaching an available apartment.

The second challenge--which deserves just as much anxiety, really--is to, upon finding said place, make it both mine, and helpful to my work. These would seem to go hand-in-hand, but in my experience they do not. For example: I love movies. That's pretty natural for a young actor, methinks. I also have a lot of compulsive behaviors. Pretty natural, that, for a somewhat introverted thinker such as myself. Now, making the place my own in an immediate sense means setting up a nice, comfortable couch with the television prominently placed, surround-sound speakers installed about, and room for friends. HOWEVER, such a comfortable set-up, taking up so much space, makes it way too easy for me to get all habitual, then compulsive, about my movie-watching.

So it's a delicate balance, as with everything else.

Except moving, in which delicacy will get your ass killed.

09 May 2007

One Hun Dread

This is my 100th post, which means I'm averaging about 20 per month, which would probably make Odin's Aviary the most successful journal I've ever kept ever, even if I stopped right now, never to write another word here again.

But I won't.

Special thanks, too, to my fellow nerds of Camp Nerdly for their interest in my first Nerdly post (see 5/7/07), for they did--in one day--double my readership. That's right! I had almost twenty-five new readers that day! What what! StatCounter.org almost 'asploded!

Owing to this momentous occasion, it seems fitting either to:
  • Look back on the Aviary's droppings from the past, a la Three's Company's annual episode comprised entirely of weakly incorporated clips from previous seasons;


Accordingly, I shall do neither. Instead, I shall write a bit more on this concept of The Third Life(patent pending). (Thanks to Jason Morningstar for unintentionally motivating me to revisit this theme. I owe you the user manual to The Turtle Amulet.) When I began this 'blog, way back in the halcyon days of my youth--December 2006--I began it without purpose, and my first entry simply declaimed that fact in an effort to change it. Shortly thereafter, I found a subject both general enough and compelling enough to make daily writings addressing it a realistic possibility. Not satisfied with having purpose, however, I felt compelled to give it a name that I culled from myriad personal cultural references, thereby assuring that no one would have any concept of just what in the hell I was referring to when I used said name. I dubbed this subject The Third Life.

The Third Life refers to the examined life, the one intentional, with something significant in addition to working and family/friends. I tend to see the third option as something artistic in spirit, but that is a personal bias and anything can be done artfully, so I would modify that condition to exclude only "hobbies." If it's a "hobby," it ain't your "Third." Conversely, simply aiming to make something creative in nature into one's career does not qualify. Take my goal of becoming full-time in my professional acting, for example. If I achieve this aim, it does not necessarily mean that I am living The Third Life. It's not about material success. It's more about working in the spirit of truth.

Kinda dippy sounding, I know. Nevertheless, I mean it. In acting it can be pretty easy to accidentally fly through a show on automatic pilot, or act for audience response more than the truth of the moment on stage, and I see this in life as well. Have you ever felt like you were suddenly woken from a kind of zombie-like routine you were barely aware of? Have you ever driven yourself (and those patiently tolerating you) crazy with trying to please everyone, or in other cases only yourself? These are things I feel happen to me when I slip in life, when I wander off this incredibly difficult path I've chosen for myself. Some people do just fine living a "normal" life artfully, or not worrying the art to living. Me, I need to have a pursuit, an exploration, akin to religion. Not that I'm looking for answers, necessarily. Maybe meaning. Maybe something else entirely that will surprise me.

There may come a day when I stop acting. Well, maybe not "stop acting." I don't think I could ever do that completely at this point; it will live through whatever I do from here on out. But there could come a day when I cease the struggle to be an actor in the no-holds-barred sense of the role. Indeed, in the progress of building this here weblog I have more than once wondered, "Have I started this thing only to have it record the cessation of the career I began it to support?" (Yes, I use this kind of vocabulary and syntax when I'm thinking to myself. That should clear a lot up for you vis-a-vis my writing style and considerable pauses in conversation.) I frequently try to imagine myself as a teacher, or even a writer (a career that vies for that esteemed category of "Most Impossible to Make a Living At"), and fantasize that life would be so much simpler down those paths. I don't know if that's necessarily true, but at times it's hard to imagine anything being more difficult than what I'm doing now.

Inevitably, I stop for a moment in these thoughts, and look around me, and realize that there's nothing I'd rather be doing. Teaching might offer me more security in life. Writing may encourage an all-around more peaceful existence. Being a paralegal . . . well, that would still just all-around suck. The point is, I am still doing what makes me happy, no matter how miserable it may sometimes be. Maybe someday what makes me happy will change. If it does, I hope I'm up to the challenge of recognizing that.

A couple of nights ago I had dinner with a friend, a fellow actor who had just returned from a week-long gig out of town that involved some friends and a teacher he hadn't worked with in a long time. He came back energized to take his craft by the bootstraps and heave it back onto its feet, and it was inspiring. I thought about how some of the best people I have ever known, people who just impress the hell out of me in one way or another, lead these kinds of "unconventional" lives. They pursue family (blood or otherwise), career . . . and something else. However I can find it, that's the life for me.

And now I've got sea shanties stuck in my head.

08 May 2007

Oh And Hey

If you haven't yet checked out the link to the left for BibliOdyssey, do yourself a favor. Its awesomenessitude is unparalleled.

Let the Games Begin

So I'm still thinking muchly about Camp Nerdly and with what I came away from it. The connections between it and some of my other work--in a theatrical milieu--are striking. Here are some of my thoughts on this . . .

As Far As We Know: A show developed through the combination of elements from actual events and improvisational explorations of the ramifications of those events on the people involved. I was reminded of this show whilst playing Dogs in the Vineyard, what with the cultural fact/fiction overlap and the issues of faith and violence that are predominant to that particular game. I played a character taken from Mormon history, who believed in blood-letting being good for the purification of the soul. (This is based in biblical quotation, believe it or not. Mormons do not believe this now.) It was hard to find a way to play this character with sincerity, since his beliefs were so different from my own, and I feel very strongly about issues such as missionary work, the concept of sin and the pursuit of violent means for a peaceful end. Playing a soldier in As Far As We Know has helped me explore some of these issues, and so playing Dogs in the Vineyard was made more difficult for me given my inability to disassociate from the implications of its story. This difficulty made for a good game, because it's a game that thrives on conflict, internal and external. Rather like theatre.

In Bocca al Lupo: This isn't a show, but an entire program involving traveling to Italy, taking Italian classes and teaching commedia dell'arte to American students, all of it culminating in a show in that style performed in Italian, for Italians. The Camp Nerdly experience was reminiscent of last year's first contact with Italy, in that at first I felt incapable of contributing anything due to the language barrier, but eventually I learned to express myself to good effect. Moreover, I had two experiences directly relevant to the work I do in In Bocca al Lupo: I was constantly trying to pick up the rules as I went along, and I got to participate in an improvisation class as a student (whereas lately I have invariably been the teacher). There is much to apply from these experiences to my teaching. (Is there no word, in any language, to encapsulate the phenomenon between student and teacher in which both are constantly learning from one another?) Mistakes can be learned from in terms of improving one's craft, but still others can serve to simply blow the doors off conventional wisdom, and thereby make new rules. Game-playing generates desire in addition to goals, which in turn can fuel a performance. And what of the element of chance? We in theatre talk a good game when we spout off about audience interaction and ad lib dialogue, but most of our efforts at creating theatre are concerned with removing elements of chance. How many of us would be willing to trust a plot change to a chaotic mechanic element?

Zuppa del Giorno: This is the connection that felt most fruitful for me. In fact, it may merit an entire entry of its own some time this month, but for now a few observations. For our first show as Zuppa del Giorno (the mad-cap contemporary commedia dell'arte troupe) each actor was asked to build four characters from scratch, based on an appetite or desire and with certain details fleshed in. These characters were applied to a scenario we had already begun to conceive of, and there was a back-and-forth between the two as we tried to work out the entire show. It was a rather painstaking process, particularly because we were doing it for the first time, but eventually we developed a show called Noble Aspirations. Playing Inuma with Clinton R. Nixon while at Camp Nerdly, I and my fellow journeypersons created an entire world in under two hours, and somehow without once screaming at somebody for holding up the process. Now, that hardly compares--in terms of priorities--to the work of Zuppa. We have many additional pressures upon us, not the least of which is to create something accessible to a wide community of audience members. Yet there was something in the Inuma system that was highly effective, and which must be applicable. Our Zuppa shows are almost always created from very specific given circumstances (see the development sites for Operation Opera and the burgeoning Prohibitive Standards), just as the Inuma system works. Even putting Inuma aside for a moment, most role-playing games have something interesting to add to the method of creating a character, either from scratch or from the given circumstances of a script.

One interesting thing to note when comparing role-playing with theatre is a term used in the former's circles: conflict resolution mechanism. This term refers to the dice rolls, or the card draws, or what-have-you device used in determining things otherwise undetermined, such as whether or not you can succeed in leaping from a moving car and survive. In theatre, very generally speaking, there is no conflict resolution per se, apart perhaps from the comedies that supposedly end happily when everyone gets married off. Conflicts can transform, but the moment they become resolved is the end of the show, because the audience came to see a fight. "The show must go on" is not simply an axiom expressing an actor's work ethic, but the spirit of theatre in general. Is it any wonder that so much of our entertainment (including role-playing games) is motivated by battle or violence? It's a tireless metaphor for individual struggle.

If a "conflict resolution mechanism" existed in real life, we'd have nothing to tell stories about.

07 May 2007

Stranger in a Strange Land

After work on Thursday last I hopped on ye olde Chinatowne bus and eventually found myself back in my homeland of Northern Virginia, or NoVa. Friend Younce picked me up from the heart of DC's Chinatown (something like a four-block area, but I was smack dab in the middle of it [forget it, Jeff; it's Chinatown]) and drove me unexpectedly to an IHoP in the center of . . . well . . . Centreville. There, much to my pleasant surprise, waited friends Davey and Mark. I had not expected to have time to see them, given the weekend's unusual activity. We ate pancakes, and were generally rowdy. They threw us out, in fact. Not for the rowdiness, so much as because we failed to realize that their "Open 24 Hours" sign referred only to Fridays and Saturdays, and at midnight we showed no signs of slowing down. What can I say? That's how we roll. We bid le IHoP and Davey and Mark adieu, and Younce and I went to rest up for our adventure.

I mean adventure rather literally in this context.

So Friday morning we were up-and-at-'em, headed directly to the Costco to purchase absurd amounts of meat and dairy products. This took some time, and we ended up visiting a great many grocery stores, for we were working from a very specific list. Then it was down to Prince William Forest for to begin said adventure . . .

Camp Nerdly(TM).

Yes: Camp Nerdly. The brainchild of Friend Younce and several other role-playing enthusiasts, Camp Nerdly is exactly what it sounds like. For a whole weekend, some nigh-on-seventy nerds, geeks, dorks, dweebs and INSERT DEGRADING-CUM-CHIC TERM HEREs gathered in the woods and did what they do best. No; no, neither awkward conversation nor mind-bending computer programming. Something else. To wit: role playing. In a vasty variety of forms, excluding (as far as my experience goes, at any rate) only the sexual variety. (In part to supplant this unfortunate connotation, many geeks refer to it as "gaming" instead.) I was there. I participated with enthusiasm. Hi. My name is Jeff Wills, and I am a nerd. Now, how in the hell did I get here?

Let me give you a little background. I was, for some time, one of those kids that wasn't good at sports, didn't wear cool clothes and couldn't really parlay my wit into regular entertainment for my peers. I like to think I was a dork. Some may have viewed me as a nerd (much more of a lost cause), others as a geek (I seemed, but never was, really that smart, though), but I stick with dork. The glasses pushed me toward nerdlydom, but I also had this compulsion to jump around and perform that didn't quite fit with that image. So: dork. So were my friends (Yes you were! Don't lie! You know it!) and around age eleven or so, the games began.

We started with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game (very big at the time), and rapidly gave it up for Rifts. When I got into high school my social circle shifted and widened, and it became overnight sessions of Dungeons & Dragons and a game simply titled Vampire. Toward the second half of high school, I started attending these sessions less and less. My time was getting taken up more and more with after-school and weekend theatrical adventures, and by the end of my sixteenth year I was being exposed to (and enjoying the exposure of) girls, which can of course wipe just about any slate clean. There were a couple more-notable gaming adventures thereafter, but college was the final nail in the role-playing coffin. I would turn all my energy to training to be, and eventually being, a professional actor. For about a decade, that would receive almost all of my creative energy. R.I.P., Rifts. Dust to dust, Dungeons & Dragons.

Turns out role-playing games are immortal.

Either that, or I only slew my appetite for them with a boffer weapon.

You have to appreciate that, at Camp Nerdly, the nerds are hardcore. Hardcore! I'm not kidding. I spent a good deal of the first twenty-four hours intimidated as hell, and I will own up to it. It would be easy to claim that I was surrounded by weirdos that I had nothing in common with, to chalk my awkwardness up to their unfamiliar eccentricities, but such a claim would ultimately be a ruse, and not the clever variety. No, I was intimidated by them: by their insider knowledge and their sheer mental acuity and flexibility. One of the first "games" I witnessed actually arose out of conversation between two of the Camp's organizers, Dave Younce and Jason Morningstar. Before anyone uninitiated had arrived (aside from yours truly, that is) Younce invited Jason to tell the story of how he had slain the devil to earn his last name ("Lucifer" translating roughly into "the morning star"--I knew that much . . . from comics . . .). Off they went into a conversation worthy of long-form improvisation you might catch at Second City or Upright Citizen's Brigade, tying together ideas as though they had known the connections all along, and roping in passers-by to reinforce the tale. They didn't get to finish it, owing to Nerdly duties, but it was my first hint of how different this experience was going to be from any I had before.

When I last gamed, it was a pretty simple formula. One guy (or girl [yes-so there were girls!]) would sort of narrate a story that could change to a greater or lesser degree by the actions of characters, each of which was dictated by a player. Normally the objective was to win glory or overcome adversity for this character you were playing, which is in keeping with most teenager's power fantasies. The element of chance (Sure you use your vorpal sword, but does it actually injure the dragon?) was brought into play by attributing numbers to a set of skills the character possessed, and rolling dice to gauge whether or not those skills succeed in a given scenario. (You need to roll a fifteen to twenty to lob off a wing, and...you roll a one. Um. You pretty much just jacked yourself in the jaw.) Lots of control there for the one leading the game. If he (or she) don't say it, it don't happen.

The games I played last weekend, however, were completely unlike that. In fact, only one game I played had an established story going in. Almost every story began and ended with the players. Dice almost never came up as decision-making tools, and rather than goals of glory or redemption, they were of a good yarn. To sum it all up, I spent a weekend hiking, chopping wood and sitting down with accomplished storytellers creating really engaging, collaborative fiction. In brief, here's what I fell into:
  • Ganakagok - Man, did I luck out starting with this. It's a game set in an ancient Eskimo world, and we played it outside as the weather chilled and the sky darkened. Great stuff. Each person played a single, self-generated character, the game master gave us some elements to start off with and the rest was dictated by our choices and the drawing of cards specific to the game, each of which had an Eskimo word and various associations for it printed on it. We took turns telling our character's parts of the story, but each character could contribute within the system to another's tale. Blew my mind.
  • City of Brass - A more sort of established card game, this was set in the first French explorations of Africa, which sounds heavy, but included challenges to overcome such as "Cobras!" So it was wacky fun, too. Each player had a stock role to play ("Explorer," "Doctor," "Naturalist") and we played them to the hilt. Lots of fun, betrayal, and flesh-eating bacterium.
  • Inuma - Possibly my favorite, the first half of this game was a very effective system of building a world, or reality, starting with cultural standards (Alice in Wonderland, Professional Wrestling) and winnowing down to specifics. We ended up with a world that was an alternate dimension to our own, mostly water, with a sort of civil war between an oppressed, shape-shifting crow race and humans. AWESOME. We played in it after we built it, and I have rarely felt such a satisfying meld of understanding and discovery in improvisation.
  • Improvisation Workshop - Yes! Jason Morningstar and Friend Remi have had improvisational theatre training (which explains much of their skillz) and they ran workshops in it. It was great to experience this from the student side again after instructing all the Zuppa del Giorno workshops. I went in imagining I could relax into something I finally knew. I came out appreciating just how challenging the essentials of my chosen craft are.
  • Dogs in the Vineyard - This game is the one that had the most pre-planning, yet it still had a flavor of verisimilitude that some naturalistic theatre doesn't have. The world is a sort of fantastical/historical account of early Mormonism, in which the players play enforcers of the faith, or folks who root out evil in their midst. What's fascinating about it in the conflict system, which rewards one score-wise both for clever uses of character traits and for the experience gained from failure. Friend Younce ran this one, and his personal knowledge of Mormon history made it especially choice.
  • Zombies! (UniStat) - My last game of the run, this one was a very relaxed sort of system wrapped around a very fun concept. The world was a dystopian society inured in zombies, and the remaining humans have become super-powered free-runners, or traceurs, to adapt. Lots of action and dark humor to this one, as though punctuating my experiences with a reminder that it's all in the name of fun.
You may wonder what I take from all this as an artist, or someone professing to value The Third Life(r). I mean, the people who typically play role-playing games are comfortable enough to afford the free time and invest money in supplies. Can they be the teachers of artists? I argue yes, and for two reasons. The first is that gamers are participants in The Third Life, moreso for their apparent and supposed "disconnect" from reality. They build worlds, and live in them, and it doesn't get much more Third than that. The second is that this fun, this "escapism," is intense work that takes as much talent as skill. And good gamers make it look easy. They're storytellers in the best sense, not only believing in their tales, but living through them. You're in their world every time you pick up a book or watch a movie or simply daydream. At my best, I'm one of them. And after this weekend, I'm really, really proud of that.

I'm a gamer. And I roll 20s, bitches.

03 May 2007

Serving One's Country

Worry not. I am not about to chime in on the political a la Friend Nat (although if naughty words were permissible there, Nat would already be employed by The Nation). Rather I write to update the confused and huddled masses (Readership of Odin's Aviary now in the double digits! What what!) on the status of that collaborative project celebrating its second birthday some time soon. That one that I occasionally travel to Vermont/New Hampshire for, and what deals in large part with the war/conflict/mess-o'-potamia in Iraq. That Project, if you get my meaning, mentored by Moises Kaufman and occasionally exhibited in workshops around the Isle of Manhattan.

Why am I being so coy about the name? Because, dear friends, we have a new working title. Yay! I am so pleased. Telling people about The Torture Project had gotten old long ago. It reminded me of the conversations I have with strangers when I'm wearing my stilts. "How's the weather up there?" "You really drank your milk, didn't you?" Except it was usually something like "And is the project torture?" (Answer: No. Except when I have to hold the Shabaq position for five minutes.) Plus, the name just wasn't appropriate after about the first year of development. We got stuck on the word as a guide instead of a label. So the TP's new moniker...?

As Far As We Know

I like it. It sums up a lot about the show as far as we've developed it, and is less obscure than a previous consideration for a title: DUSTWUN - Duty Status: Whereabouts Unknown. But that's not all, folks! To add to the total anonymity of the project, the producing company has also changed its name. Joint Stock Theatre Alliance is dead; long live--

UnCommon Cause

I also like this name, but I'm uncertain as to why they changed this aspect. It may have been because the project itself is taking a dramatic new turn. It may also be that there is, in fact, already a Joint Stock theatre company out there. The only thing I miss from the old name is the word "alliance." Good word. UnCommon word, if you will, and it pretty accurately describes what the producing directors aspire to in their working style.

So what, besides nomenclature, has changed? Well, it remains to be seen. What has definitively happened is that our directors have received an almost unheard-of amount of input from the real hometown of Keith "Matt" Maupin. Last Saturday we met for about four hours, just to cover a fraction of the photographs and interviews they returned with. It was exciting and humbling, and made me wish I could have been along for the ride. There's promises that the entire company will make a trip out there soon, but that seems a pretty grand undertaking to me, and may take time. In the meantime, the next step is a series of biweekly (Wait...wait.... That means twice a week, not every two weeks, right? I'm almost positive...) rehearsals through June to explore new avenues in the--frankly--new show. Our first assignment being to take the transcriptions of interviews with assigned people from the community and present a short piece illustrating that person (or those people).

And I've been chosen to do two of Matt's commanding officers. This was the assignment I hoped for, though I have no idea what I will do with it creatively yet. I've spent so much time trying to imagine a military head-space that I'm eager to have actual examples. Also, these guys know Mat. They just do. It's insane to imagine. One anecdote sticks out from the Saturday session. They said Matt would carry around a rubber ball (I wasn't clear if it was like a bouncy-ball, or racket ball, or what) to play with to combat the urge to smoke. I don't know if I'll ultimately be playing the soldier character in our story--there's some concern that I look too old--but I carry a liberty dollar coin with me to combat smoking/nail biting, and it meant something to me that there's at least one, small commonality between I and my character's real-life counterpart.

There's something else, too. Patriotism. I fret sometimes over the distinction between patriotism and nationalism, but there's no use denying that I feel like a patriot--at least in the sense that I believe in my country in ways it doesn't always live up to. Now, if someone had asked me at age nineteen to serve my country by going to war, I probably would have turned them down. I fear bodily harm when it comes to flying metal, and would have felt ill-equipped for the challenges. Nevertheless, I believe hard in this idea called America. I grew up in the Boy Scouts, for f%$k's sakes. This is something I'm eager to explore in my work on As Far As We Know. What is it that takes people a step farther into patriotism, to the extent that they feel justified in killing and dying for it?

Of course, fanaticism and fear are powerful imitators of just about any conviction, and that can lead to really irrational decisions. (For example: Break me a freaking give.) People need belief as much as they need food and water. I just hope, personally, that belief is something that saves lives without taking them.

02 May 2007

"I'm Not Even Supposed to Be Here Today..."

Everyone knows that one: Clerks. Why quote Clerks? Some of you may guess by the first sentence of the next paragraph.

Yesterday I took the New Jersey Transit to the end of the line (this particular line endeth at Long Branch) to participate in a reading of Justin Warner's play American Whupass at the New Jersey Repertory Company theatre. It's a play I've been involved in readings of for some time now, and I was lucky enough to fall in with Justin when he was just starting to do readings of it in his apartment. I say lucky because I really enjoy the script. It's not like As Far As We Know (formerly known as The Torture Project) or Zuppa del Giorno; there's no need for me to sell my first-born to make it happen. It's got its own momentum, and it's being spearheaded by Justin. I just show up and try to do the best job acting that I can.

The which is interesting work, because every time I read the script it's a little bit different, and adjustments are required. It's a comedy, with very broad (and occasionally coarse) humor, nevertheless Justin manages to make every character a believable person to one degree or another, mostly by way of giving them real objectives to fight for and real motivations for those objectives. It seems basic, but you might be surprised how many playwrights fail to do this. (Myself included.) The character I play, for example, is a new campaign manager on an incumbent senator's campaign. He initiates morally corrupt actions on the senator's behalf, but he does it and defends it with the utmost sincerity. He really believes it's for the best, whatever has to be done to get a good man in office.

That + professional wrestling jokes = Lot's o' fun per Jeffe.

So I take this seemingly endless (hour and a half) ride out to the theatre, and when I get off the train it is so non-urban I panic immediately. Will I understand the directions to the theatre? Will streets be numbered, or just named? Fortunately, 3rd Avenue is indeed 3rd Avenue (not even "Third," but "3rd") and I make good progress. As I walk, I reflect on my experiences of New Jersey, and begin to better understand it's reputation elsewhere for being a little, er, blah. The sections of town I'm coursing through are very reminiscent of those parts of Scranton that have yet to receive the benevolent wand of gentrificated (is so a word) commerce. Only with shorter buildings. It reminds me, at times, of the environment Clerks was filmed in. Which makes enough sense, seeing as how Kevin Smith and that whole crew hail from somewhere close by.

I finally get to the theatre--a modest enough building crammed full of performance space and show photographs--and am instantly reminded of several things I really should have thought of before making the trek. Specifically:

  • The Laramie Project had its New Jersey debut there.

  • Friend Briana worked there for an entire summer, thereby earning her Equity card.

  • The core of UnCommon Cause (the artist formerly known as Joint Stock Theatre Alliance) probably attended this theatre whilst growing up in the Garden State.

So I go into the building, and am very kindly pointed back to where the actors are convening in the main space. There are only a few there yet, and I greet the returning actors, and I deal once again with not one of them recognizing me from previous readings (a regular occurrence in any venue, I assure you). Then I greet a new guy, and he looks familiar, and I almost start the inane "You Look So Familiar To Me Have You Ever Done Shows In The Yucatan?" game. But I don't. Some brain cell in me still operates to save my foot from being consumed by my mouth, occasionally, and fortunately it kicked in just then.

Because this guy was this guy.

Yeah. Brian O'Halloran was in the reading. As well he should be, because he works with the theatre all the time, and Friend Briana actually did another reading which I believe he directed shortly after her stint at N.J. Rep. So I should have put it together faster. As it was, I spent a good deal of time stealing looks and trying not to look as though I were trying to decide if he was who he is. Friends will attest: I am terrible at recognizing celebrities off the screen. Just awful. So I doubt the heck from myself at all times on such matters. Eventually the work of rehearsal took my mind off it completely, and then we broke for a ten. I was starving, having only had a light breakfast, but there was only time to get something from the theatre's concession stand. It was day time on a Monday, so no one was working it, and I could not espy me a money box, or jar, or bear-trap (Oh, you want to be a capitalist, do you? No hand for you!). Just as I was contemplating leaving me booty atop the counter, in swept Mr. O'Halloran to save the day. He took my money and handed me my Milky Way and presumably put the money where it needed to be. I only know one further thing about the experience:

Dante Hicks sold me a candy bar.

Yes. I have been officially Clerked. It was good for me. I'd do it 36 more times, if I could. But seriously, folks, it was at that moment, that divine conjunction of circumstances, that I became certain of his identity. Here's the thing: That's how down-to-earth he was. There was, as far as I observed, no mention during the day of his cult status, and he did a bang-up job with his part. His role was to play a variety of callers-in to various radio shows, and he made them each different in funny and convincing ways. To sum up: Modest, funny, talented and generally nice (insofar as one can tell over eight hours) guy.

And I managed not to ask him which he liked better, Jedi or The Empire Strikes Back.

The reading went very well, I think. I did feel I had done a better job in rehearsal than in actual performance, but we got a lot of of positive feedback from what we were assured was a very critical group. The whole thing was done in conjunction between Justin, N.J. Rep and a company also from New Jersey called Luna Stage. Apparently there's some hope that the show will be produced by one or both some time approaching 2008 (the big election year). It's interesting to consider a possibility so far in advance. Of course, I'm certain I would have to audition for a full production, so one never knows. If it was meant to happen, it will.

"A word of advice, my friend. Sometimes you gotta let those hard-to-reach chips go."