29 June 2007

Poetics (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Downtown Theatre Scene)

The very first show I did here in New York was one I auditioned for within my first two weeks of moving here. I wasn't even going to audition. I felt like it was a bit quick for me, and I barely had a day job yet. But, considering it was why I moved there in the first place and that my then-girlfriend was auditioning as well, I screwed my courage to the sticking place and auditioned and got a part (girlfriend, not so much). The show was called 13th Avenue (this would be the 2000 production, not the 2003 I just found out about), and it was an experience. I learned a lot about doing theatre in New York (especially original scripts) in a very short amount of time. I won't go into details about the show (you can thank me later), but I will say that it was an interesting experience in meta-theatre, being a show entirely about "below 14th Street" characters and performing it at the Gene Frankel Theatre, just south of Astor Place.

Not too long after (say, two or three shows later) I wrote a play (no, you can't read it [looking back, it's pretty terribly done]) called Tangled Up in You that addressed two subjects I had trouble getting my head around: the nature of love/obsession, and the downtown New York theatre scene. I was very much influenced by every experience I had had thus far in terms of the shows I had been involved with in the city, and my perspective hasn't changed that much in the years (SO MANY YEARS) since. In spite of it being the only sort of theatre I've done in the city thus far, I'm not a big fan. I wonder at a lot of aspects of it. Who are these people who choose to experience this extremely varied, often distressing genre of theatre? What do they want, or expect from it? Why does the more-adamant downtown theatre scene so often seem driven to avoid entertaining or providing catharsis? What drives so many of my fellow "creactors" and sundry to invest so much in shows I find so often incomprehensible, or unnecessary?

Get not me wrong. I'm a part of this movement. I have worn the Bauhaus costume. I have pretended my hair was on fire. It's just that, at heart, I'm a really basic guy . . . at least in terms of my appreciation of theatre. Just look at my sense of humor, and the work I've done the most of: Zuppa del Giorno. I like the classics; I like fart jokes; I like stories that surprise us, but accomplish a sense of ending. Call me simple. It's how I roll. I'm a fan of the unities. For those of you who managed to avoid Theatre History class (and this would include a great many theatre majors I know personally), "the unities" is a colloquialism used to refer to a parameter for tragedy described by Aristotle in his treatise on the subject: Poetics. Namely, a set of conditions that helps define, or rather contour, the shape of a tragedy. For instance, a play having a beginning, middle and end, and themes and actions complimenting each other. Aristotle mentions the word "unity" a lot in this document. Twelve times, actually. Eleven, if you're not including headings.

Last night my plan for the evening was very basic. I figured I needed rest, given my travels behind and ahead, and I knew I needed to do laundry and pack before a brief visit to my hometown this weekend. So the plan was only complicated slightly by needing to see my sister later that night, but it was a singular, welcome complication. Enter the complication master, stage left . . .

Todd d'Amour, ladies and gentlemen! Let's give him a big hand!

Actually: do. At about 2:00 yesterday Mr. d'Amour calls me at my office, completely freaking me out by leaving this voicemail, "Non esisto. Forse." ("I don't exist. Perhaps.") It doesn't take me too much longer to figure out who it is, and soon after I'm hearing the master plan. It seems Todd is inviting me and fellow Zuppianna Heather out to see a show with him at The Kitchen, one which features a favorite (downtown) "creactor" of his, David Greenspan. Oh, man. Now I have to change my sedate plans. Have to, you see, because when Todd calls it's always a good time. When Todd calls in relation to theatre, it's a good time with the potential to be life-changing, with reduced risk of hangover. So I anted up, and was in and rolling.

But I had my doubts. The show(s) was(were) The Argument & Dinner Party, based respectively upon Aristotle's Poetics and Plato's Symposium. The theatre was at Nineteenth Street, but way over between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, which somehow makes it in every respect way more downtown. And the guy taking me to this extravaganza is part of the team responsible for Stanley [2006], which, though I loved it entirely, is exactly the kind of "downtown theatre" that perplexes me under different circumstances. We were only on the wait list for the show, this decision to attend being rather last-minute, and as we sat in Trailer Park awaiting the time of reckoning on that point I found myself perhaps not minding so much if we didn't make it in.

Of course we did. Only six folks did, but we four were first on the list, thanks to Todd's enthusiasm to get our names there early. The space was cavernous, and immediately made me wish we were seeing some kind of circus show. Sadly, I knew the first act was simply a man talking. I sat and waited for the entrance I had read about in reviews all day--said man simply walking on and beginning to talk, sans cell-phone warnings or lights dimming. And then it happened. He came in, and started talking, and the first thing I noticed was that he had a slight sibilant lisp. "Oh man," I thought. "How rough is this going to be?"

That's the trouble with expectation. It's the dumbest human capacity ever.

The Argument was the best thing I've seen on a New York stage in years. I'm still mulling over what exactly it was about it that made it so engaging for me. It's possible that it was owing largely to the performer's charisma. Mr. Greenspan has a remarkable talent (skill?) for making himself inviting on stage, not just taking it by force, but literally giving you the option and making you feel as though it is continually your choice to pay attention to him. It's also possible that my interest in the subject matter--that is, the construction and mechanics of an effective living story--dominated my insecurities vis-a-vis the downtown scene. My fellow gaming geeks will no doubt agree that the construction of a good story is a topic of conversation that can inspire endless debate. Finally, there's the possibility that it was sheer empathy on my part. I've had to create my own work and hold a stage alone before (though rarely have the two conditions coincided [thus far]) and I am impressed on quite a personal level when I have the opportunity to witness someone achieving both.

But I hesitantly contend that there was a fourth factor to my renewed opinion of the scene. When I was doing 13th Avenue, the writer/director said something about going to school for years to learn all the rules and, with that production, intentionally breaking every one. I have since heard this sentiment expressed variously and in various contexts, and it invariably makes me hitch my shoulders in an effort not to throw a piece of furniture into something(-one) breakable. As I've said, I'm something of a classicist, but I feel I have good reason. Like an actor who (to pick a personal foible) makes a choice that gratifies his performance more than the story, people today are eager for an excuse to "break the rules." So eager, in fact, that this act is more often excused than it is actually motivated. I don't trust most people to understand the rule they're breaking well enough to understand what they stand to achieve by breaking it.

Watching Greenspan willfully but sensitively break some of "the rules" in his performance and creation of The Argument and, better yet, making it work in light of those rules was thrilling. I believed he understood each choice, and trusted the reasons behind them even when the literal purpose eluded me. Best of all, he was quoting these thousands-years-old "rules" to us as part of the performance. I can't even say for sure if it was theatre in the technical sense (Friend Geoff and I have a running discussion over the merits [or lack thereof] of the dreaded monodrama), but then again I suspect that's how the Greeks felt when Thespis (so it's rumored) stepped out of the chorus and began orating all by his lonesome. I can understand why the appeal of being such an originator might draw some artists to some unfortunate conclusions. Just remember, you lot: Picasso could really draw.

Sadly, Dinner Party did not thrill as The Argument did, and didn't even really entertain me until Mr. Greenspan actually entered the stage at the last. It debated the nature of love, and so should have held me pretty good (love being the only subject more likely to inspire discussion in me than "poetics"), but alas it succumbed--in my humble opinion--to my fears for the evening. Some people really loved it, methinks.

That may be the real lesson in all this: Downtown theatre is a gamble, and some of us are addicts.

27 June 2007

The Complete American's Guide to Travel Abroad in: Italy

Buon giorno, and welcome to Italy! As an American who has been there at least twice, I feel a certain obligation to advise you as to the proper behavior for a visitor to Italy. We have an obligation to maintain our country's level of respect in the world at large, and keep a reputation for being the adaptable, culturally aware citizens of the world that all countries perceive us to be as . . . Americans. Now, I've made every mistake there is to make, so I feel terribly qualified to advise you in your adventure as you prepare to visit a land of wonder, delight and not nearly as much body odor as France. (Or so I hear. I have yet to research A.C.A.G.t.T.A.i.:F. Waiting for some grants to come through...) Let's begin, shall we! Avanti!

First: Don't panic. There's a variety of preparations we, as Americans, feel we need to do before leaving our borders, and most of them don't apply to Italy. You don't, for example, need to apply a Canadian maple leaf to your rucksack, or practice saying "aboot" instead of "about." Italy doesn't care. They can't bring themselves to hate an entire nation for the actions of a few people. They had fascism, after all. Or rather, it had them, and they just kept on eating pasta and waiting for it to blow over. That having been said, do worry about gypsies. Yes: gypsies. I'm serious. A friend of mine had a pair of gypsies approach him at the train station, one shouting to distract while the other got into his fanny pack. When he shouted them off, one of them kicked him in the shins. So even if you have a run-in with a gypsy or two, don't escalate. It will only end in tears. For you.

Second: Avoid unnecessary confusion. For example, when the plane successfully lands in Italy and everyone starts clapping, know that it's not because the plane normally doesn't land successfully. They're just enthusiastic types. If you go with your instincts (for example, to clap when others are clapping) you'll save yourself a lot of hassle. Similarly, don't try too hard to figure out the iconic road signs. Go where arrows point. Avoid red things. If you try to spend time figuring them out, you'll accidentally cut off or run down a moped. This is the most telling sign of Americanism in Italy: Inability to track mopeds in traffic. Give it time. It's like catching a fly with chopsticks.

Third: The waterless, lidless toilet is actually a "bidet." If you pee in it, you'll be okay. If you do anything else, just leave the country. Just go, because explaining that is something you'll never, ever live down.

Fourth: Just because you can get wine with every meal doesn't mean you should right away. You have to train up to that kind of thing, kid. Quarter carafe, half carafe, then the full monty in the midday sun. I haven't looked up the American heat stroke and dehydration case statistics for Roman hospitals, but I know what I'd find.

Fifth: Go ahead and speak the language. The worst you'll get is confused glances, not like in French-land where they interrupt you to avoid any further desecration of their beautiful vernacular (Again: This is just what I hear. I can't back it up. But isn't it only natural for human beings to despise the French, just a little?). In fact, Italians will apologize to you for not speaking your language. In their own country. When was the last time you did that for Miguel, the bag-packer at your local grocery store who actually lives here?

Sixth: If you have to drive, get one of those "cute" little European jobbies. If you get a USA-style vehicle, you will regret it as you try to navigate a road that was originally designed by an Etruscan wheat farmer. Also, be sure to know how to drive stick. Also, friggin' go! It's not that they don't have speed limits, it's just that nobody cares. Don't be that guy (or girl).

Seventh: There is an etiquette to the food, but it's tricky. Italians won't really give a damn if you order red wine with fish (That's the French. [Well it is!]), but don't you go ordering an after-dinner cappuccino. That's strictly a breakfast coffee, and you will be mocked. Relentlessly. I speak from experience. Also, if they don't offer grated cheese, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DON'T REQUEST IT. You may think grated cheese was intended for any pasta under any circumstances, but they do not. I'm still trying to work this one out in detail (look for A.C.A.G.t.T.A.i.:I2 in stores next spring) but for now, just don't ask. Finally, yes: They eat cookies, orange soda and chocolate frosting for breakfast; everything Mom wouldn't let you have. Just go with it.

Eighth: Stop it. Whatever you're doing, just stop it. Chances are it's very uptight and oddly disturbing to the people around you.

Ninth: They will be late, whomever you're meeting. Count on it, and plan to meet in places like bars (which, to an Italian, is like a cafe) or gelaterias so you have something to do, because no matter how late you arrive, the person/people you're meeting will be at least a half an hour later. You are an amateur at this, no matter how chronically late you may think you are. Similarly, avoid making plans, because you will often find that you aren't. They are simply accommodating your bizarre desire to pin down life into time slots.

Tenth: Don't muck about with hand gestures with which you are unfamiliar. In fact, try to avoid gesticulating at all. You may think it makes you appear "more Italian," but you're dealing with a specific and codified language unto itself, and you'll probably end up sticking your foot right in your mouth. Figuratively and literally. I mean, half the Italian insults are hand gestures. Along these lines, be sure to shave under your chin regularly.

Eleventh, and final: Shake out your shoes in the morning. There be scorpions here. SCORPIONS! (Or, as Friend Heather is fond of referring to them: "Aaaaooohhhhohmygodohmygodohmygod!")

Heed my advice, Americani, or face the wrath of becoming exactly the ugly touristi that Italians are too polite to complain about to their faces.

Especially the bit about the toilet.

ITALIA: June 25, 2007

Here’s how it works in Italy. You get up early. (Don’t worry, that gets justified later in the working plan.) For breakfast, you have very little. (Again: Bear with me.) Then you get right straight to work, usually before it even strikes 9:00. This is part of why coffee is such a valued invention in the boot-shaped nation. Around 1:00 or 2:00, you’re pretty famished, and it is coming on HOT. I mean: HOT. It’s not there yet, but the promise is extant, and you won’t be able to work much longer without food or shelter. So, owing to your tiny breakfast, you have a huge lunch, preferably three courses with water and wine. Now it really is really HOT, and the only thing that makes sense is to go to sleep. Only mad dogs and Englishmen would be about their business after such a meal and in such sun, so you go take a nap in order to digest and allow the sun to burn off a little. Two hours later, say around 5:00 or 6:00, you get up feeling rejuvenated and get back to whatever work you were up to earlier in the morning. You only have a few hours in which to do it, so it goes quickly, and by 8:00 or 9:00 you’re out to walk around and enjoy the cooling night. Maybe you have a little dinner then; it’s the best time for something like pizza. You’ll be up until at least midnight, and maybe later, meeting and greeting and getting up to whatever you generally do with your free time. Then you go to sleep again, but you won’t need to for too long (given your midday siesta) before you’re up to do it all again.

Today we woke early to finish as much of our food as we could manage, pile our towels and sheets and sweep out our home of the last two weeks. Heather bid adieu to il Gatto—the cat who adopted us during our stay (I kept trying to get them to name it something other than “the Cat”)—and we drove into Orvieto for some last goodbyes and to drop off our recycling. Before too long we were back in the car headed for Rome, sans bottle and cans and with a gagillion LinguaSi brochures and a few new gifts for loved ones.

Finding the hotel we were to stay in for the next twenty-four hours was a challenge. It’s quite close to centro, but Rome is laid out according to thousands of years of cart trails and paths. It’s even more confusing than Washington D.C. With David as navigator, we eventually made our way to the place, compromising our morals a bit with oncoming-traffic-challenging U-turns and desperate spins around traffic circles. The room was tiny, but air-conditioned, which we haven’t really had in the two weeks of our stay. We dropped our stuff and marched off to find a restaurant for lunch. The waiter was a real charmer, speaking a mélange of Italian, French and English, and he gave Heather the hardest time. It was marvelous (sorry Heather—it really was), and we left smiling and probably remained that way until we collapsed into our air-conditioned beds for a couple of hours. This was the hottest weather we had yet known on the visit.

A couple of hours and a new shirt later, we were up to do what-you-will about the streets of Roma. Eventually we decided upon visiting the Villa Borghese, a huge park with lots of areas and interesting features. After a few wrong turns, and allowing time for David’s enthusiasm for architecture (there are some beautiful buildings here, but I inevitably find the challenge of navigation distracting) we approached the Museum of Modern Art, which lies across the street from the main entrance to the villa. We climbed a huge set of stairs to discover fascinating spaces of trees and neoclassical sculpture and monuments. People were all over, enjoying the shade or resting from tourism. From a few signs, after walking about a bit, we discovered the reconstruction of the Globe Theatre we had heard about was nearby. Sebastiano had worked on building it, and we had wanted to see it the last time we were in Borghese. So we set out to.

Eventually we found it across the way from a huge track that looked to be for racing horses. It looked fairly authentic from the outside, and we walked all the way around it before we could find a space over the fence to peek through an open door, drawn as we were by the sound of some rustic music being played. Our limited view revealed the stage, covered in dust but being danced on by a large group of people. Huh, thought we. Perhaps a rehearsal. Heather and I postulated, based on the men wearing boots that covered their knees and the nature of the dance, perhaps for Much Ado About Nothing. This happens to be my favorite Shakespeare play. Hey gang, we suggested, let’s check the front to see what their season is.

Molto Rumore per Nulla opened their season…the next night. The night we were supposed to be flying back to America. We raged (raged, I tell you) at the injustice of it all. We went away to fume and admire gorgeous garden features, and of course aimed our way back by the theatre to see what we could see of what was going on there later. This was around 8:30, and the attori seemed to be outside chatting on their phones, lounging. Some were playing badminton, of all things (a favorite show-time activity of Heather and I). We hemmed, and we hawed, and I did everything I could to encourage David to go make introductions through the fence, short of actually suggesting that. We lamented Todd’s absence; this is what he’s made to do, to make instant friends and get us in to the party…even when he isn’t the only one who speaks the language with gusto. David wished aloud for him. I continued to say things like, “Hm…if a bunch of foreign actors asked to see our dress rehearsal…how would I respond?” Heather grew increasingly ironic in her commentary on how we had been sighted, ergo clearly stalking the company.

And then, dear goodness from above, David approached the fence and, after a while of hanging there, got the attention of a slender blonde man (one who had been involved with the badminton). I could barely make out what was being exchanged, but I picked up on the shift in tone as David introduced the fact that we were actors. It was touch-and-go, but the actor he spoke to was on our side and asked us to wait while he consulted his director (also playing Beatrice in the show). We anxiously awaited his return: “Ritornorette alla nove.”

And so, after fifteen minutes to find one food cart in one huge park, we returned at 9:00 and were let into the theatre for their final dress rehearsal. It’s a great reproduction, as far as I could tell. Anyway, it felt great to be in there. That’s rather underplaying it. I was thrilled. From where we sat, in the first floor of the benches, we watched the moon crown over and through the open roof, lighting up the sheets stretched across the stage in preparation for the start of the show.

It was magnificent. Didn’t get a word of it, of course (not entirely true, because I’ve got bits memorized), but it was definitely the best production of it I’d ever seen. As I sat there, savoring the play, I thought about a lot of things. They mostly had to do with the strange paths a life can take, how it can seem like what we want is never exactly what we get, yet what we get can—at just such moments—suddenly seem better than what we could have imagined. It’s a romantic place, Italy, in every sense of the word, and doubtless the last day of our visit was having its effect on me, but it also felt like a tiny, apt miracle to be in that theatre, watching a play we essentially had to ourselves. When the play finished, we wanted to stay but understood what comes after such an effort and how tiring such work can be, so we left. But we made sure to exit across the pit while the cast was gathered on stage, and we waved goodbye and wished “buon spectaculo” to our benefactor.

He waved back and called out, and the entire company joined him, “Grazie ragazzi! Ciao ragazzi!”

We walked late into the Roman night, eventually finding and enjoying Fontana di Trevi for a while. Maybe the clown version of Romeo & Juliet is just a dream, but we had one last Italian-inspired thought on it while there: to make the poster an homage to La Dolce Vita with Heather and I (or Todd, or whomever) wearing clown noses in the fountain. And, of course, before leaving to walk the silent Monday night streets of Rome, we cast coins over our left shoulders and into the fountain without looking back.

It’s a tradition. It guarantees your return.

ITALIA: June 24, 2007

Sunday, and the last day of official business for Zuppa del Giorno’s Italia Feste 2007!. We begin by rising early to discover we haven’t the necessary supplies for a proper Italian breakfast. Which is to say, we’d run out of bread. So for the morning we played “Starving Russian Peasant Family,” making a game out of our desperate situation so the boy (read: David) wouldn’t panic. I went out in search of pane afterward, so we wouldn’t go without for lunch, which turned out to be quite the adventure. I had forgotten that most of Italy shuts down on a Sunday morning, and so ended up driving about all over in search of an open store. I ended up in Orvieto centro and buying the most expensive groceries of the whole trip, but also having one of the best communication experiences in Italian so far. So I made it back victorious, light of heart and light of wallet.

Lunch was huge, breaking our Russian Peasant fast and keeping in mind that we had a lot of business today and a late dinner planned with Lucianna. For once on this trip I partook of all the courses. It was not difficult, particularly with the bottle of Orvietan white we had saved for our last full day in town. After cleaning up our leisurely lunch we made good time into Orvieto and the piazza of LinguaSi to meet with Piero in follow-up to our initial meeting concerning next year’s program.

We might’ve planned to be more Italian, as Piero came with Sebastiano in tow around a half an hour after the agreed meeting time. Ah, Italia! Accompanying them was India, the most important woman in Sebastiano’s life, I think. His Roman Mastiff dog. Have you seen Cujo? How about Turner and Hooch? Combine those looks and make it bigger. The breed comes from ancient Roman battlefields, but this beast was sweet as a muffin.

Our meeting with Piero went just fine. His responses to our ideas about and changes to his proposal were entirely positive, to the extent that I was fairly embarrassed by my anxiety about it. There was definitely something there for me to learn about the art of negotiation, as it were. His attitude seemed to be that as long as we were still working together, as long as something was happening between us, he was getting what he wanted. Perhaps this isn’t always a good approach to take in instances when what you want is very specific, but I’m certain it creates an atmosphere of positive collaboration and continued possibility.

From there, in common Italian style, we went to coffee instead of Andrea’s as planned. Actually, that’s manipulating the circumstances a bit. We had some questions at that point about whether or not India would be welcome in Andrea and Natsuko’s apartment, especially given her advanced pregnancy, and couldn’t get a hold of Andrea to ask, so stopped to refresh ourselves. By the time we got to their place—to discover the dog would not be a problem so long as we were all on their terrace—it was close to 5:30. Andrea had invited over Hanna, one of the administrative staff of Teatro Boni we met the prior week, and in spite of how tired he was from having returned from work away, the meeting progressed.

This was an interesting movement forward, as it was the first time Andrea and Sebastiano would meet, and they seemed to me very different sorts of people. Andrea is very much a country mouse, wildly enthusiastic about working creatively in a broad range of comic areas and who enjoys being silly and fun, whereas Sebastinao is what you might imagine from an urban, more “method” actor, seemingly serious about his craft and constantly concerned by his career. We were hoping they could work together, simply because they are actors and we know them both. This was the primary point of the meeting, and if we could get well along with that we could move on to the specifics of our vision for next year.

It took me a while to figure out, owing to the two speaking so fast in Italian, but they found at least some common ground. I still suspect one is not necessarily the other’s ideal partner, but David is confident that getting to the point of actually working together is the main thing, and that both are sincerely interested in working. Should differences arise, they’ll be ironed out or shaved off in collaboration, simple as that. And we began the collaboration almost immediately (once we got past the obvious—there’s no money for this on either end, there’s no precedence for this in any of our gathered experiences, there’s no money to be made by this [that’s not quite true {LinguaSi offers a lot of opportunities for us to teach even when we’re working on our own show}]) swapping ideas about what was exciting about working together. Before too long, we had to escape to let Andrea finally sleep, and all parties left it seemed in a spirit of hopefulness about the future.

During the meeting Lucianna called to inform us that her train had literally broken down outside of Rome, and she thought she’d have to stay there overnight. This was crushing, as she’s one of our best friends here in Italy, but there was little we could do about it so we agreed to keep our 9:00 reservations for the terrace of Antica Rupe without her. It was a great place to have our last dinner in Orvieto, sentimental and fine. While there we excitedly babbled about the meeting, and got on the subject of one of the ideas for our collaboration: a clown version of Rome & Juliet. This may sound simple, but we had a great time talking out the possibilities and I would not be surprising to find it’s what we agree to by October, our decision due date.

Midway through our dinner we got a welcome call at the restaurant informing us that Lucianna would indeed be joining. She caught something like three different trains to make it after all, and not too long after she phoned in her order, she was there. It was marvelous to see here again, as flustered and tired as she must have been. We established that we still wanted to do business with her, and had no idea what that now meant (we’ll be between Orvieto and other cities like Bolsena and Pitigliano most of the time), and she was fine with that. So the remainder of the evening was spent just enjoying each other’s company. The waiter ended up hitting on Heather pretty hardcore, too. We were glowing. Lucianna has that effect on us.

Late late late we headed to bed, to rise the next day for Rome. We’re spending the night there before heading to the airport for our flight back to the States. Feels like we’ve been gone a month. Could stand a month more.

ITALIA: June 23, 2007

As our Italy trip begins to wind down here, we refocus on planning for next year. This morning, between breakfast and lunch, we met for two hours to discuss tomorrow’s meeting(s) of the minds. We’re scheduled to meet with Piero at 3:00 to further discuss his proposal for next year’s course structure (a plan which, though the three actors were enthusiastic about at the time, has since come to seem limiting in some ways), then at 4:00 to get Sebastiano together with Andrea at Andrea and Natsuko’s place for a couple of hours to meet and discuss potential creative collaboration. Finally, much later that night, we get to see Lucianna again as she returns from visiting Giorgio, to discuss with her what aspects of next year’s logistics she’s interested in being involved with.

So today we began the discussion from my desire to achieve a better understanding of what we were coming to the table with on all these meetings. The good prospects of our collaboration with Andrea—and through him hopefully Angelo, the talented commedia actor we’ve seen on video—and Sebastiano have shifted our focus from the entire trip being about training American and other students, to spending half of it seeing what we can create (hopefully the beginnings of a show) with Italian artists.

The proposal as it stands now—our proposal to ourselves—is to arrive at the start of June and spend three weeks in rehearsal and meetings with whatever Italian actors we can, with the aim of training and creating a show together. During this time we Americani would also be teaching classes in theatre et al to the interested students at LinguaSi, as a way of incorporating the school more and potentially making more money while we’re here. The fourth week is when the American students would arrive for a week of intensive Italian classes through LinguaSi, during which time we would have our last week of rehearsal with the Italiani, hopefully to present some kind of show to those students at the end of the week (“This is what you’ll be doing by the end of your time here.”) Thereafter we would enter the last two weeks, in which time our training of the students in theatre and commedia dell’arte would commence, enhanced by association with genuine Italian commediani and culminating in a performance in Italian at the end of that period. It occurs to me now that we could also, in that time, research possibilities for taking our professional Italian/American show to the next phase and new venues.

It’s an exciting proposal, and after our meeting I feel more confident about everybody getting something of what they want out of it. It includes the prospect of bringing Andrea over to America to perform at The Northeast Theatre, and of taking Silent Lives, eventually, to Italy. I still have some concerns, but they’re of a scope impossible to deal with at this stage. This plan relies on grant funding for the first half of the trip, something we have historically had no luck with as regards getting to Italy. Hopefully our new collaborations will change our luck with that. It’s also a great deal of time to be out of the country. This is tempered by the fact that we’d be working on our own theatre at this time and the long-term pay-off of that, but it’s likely it will make it close to impossible for Todd and his rapidly burgeoning New York career, and we’ll have to be sure of a certain degree of income for ourselves to even allow the possibility. None of these concerns, however, tamp my enthusiasm for the scope and aspect of this proposal. It seems possible. It seems exciting and necessary, and where the program needs to head.

Our meeting evolved in to a discussion of the differences between Italian and American mentalities, the purpose of our show here and discussions of the profound effects this place has had on us so far. It was a lovely talk that extended past lunch, and gave me the idea to do a ‘blog entry upon my return on The Complete Idiot’s Guide to What Not to do When Visiting Italy. I’m certainly qualified to write such a guide.

I spent the siesta happily exercising (my pelvic floor dysfunction has become mercifully manageable through stretching and, probably, wine with every meal) and bounding about the yard working on my handstand and toward an aerial (just one, God, that’s all I ask [and a non-broken neck in the process]) before we loped up to Orvieto. And finally, finally, I posted to the Aviary. I mean: DAMN. It seemed as though it just wasn’t meant to be until we were about to leave. I swung by StatCounter to see how my absence had affected readership, to discover it had dwindled to about four hits per day, except ever-fruitful Wednesday, which kept some buoyancy around twenty hits. What is it about hump day that makes everyone read ‘blogs? Is it the height of working-day boredom, perhaps?

After Orvieto we sped off to Sant Angelo to see if either David’s friend Mauro or a feste (the event, not the Shakespearean character) were about. Neither were, so we continued on to Bolsena to have dinner on the lake and walk the site of last year’s busking victory. As we strolled up to the fountain where we had performed the Valentino excerpt last year (through a bustling gardening market with live blues music [Todd, you would have had to guest perform.]) we found it looked as though it had been brushed up a bit, possibly painted and repaired. People strolled about admiring orchids and petunias, but I stood imagining dancing with Italian children to Todd’s incomparable rendition of “At Last.”

23 June 2007

ITALIA: June 22, 2007

Here’s where we went wrong, yesterday: When in Italy, you need to have desires, or goals. It is a land of great passion, desire and appetite. HOWEVER, no desire should ever, EVER take greater priority over your next cup of coffee.

Which is to say, listen to yourself and go with it. Don’t make yourself dopey by foregoing a good meal in order to get in the car to Florence quicker. You’ll only end up settling for roadside food and a caffeine insufficiency too late to really turn things around for you. Today we took this lesson to heart. First of all, our adventures of the previous day and the lateness of the hour of our return permitted us to sleep in quite a bit. I myself slept until 12:30, a normally unheard-of feat. When we were all up, the priority was a good meal. We knew we had the show in Pitigliano to attend later this night, so felt justified in moving at a simple pace and structuring things around when we accomplished them. This is why Italians are always late, and rarely frustrated.

So we had a nice lunch, and planned to visit our favorite little store in Orvieto for groceries and a visit with its proprietor, Vera. Doing this with no particular rush, we found we had plenty of time to eat, David swam and I exercised and acro’d on the lawn a bit (at one point looking up to find one of our neighbors on her porch watching with an expression that suggested a combination of fear and confusion), and we drove off to Orvieto feeling pretty fine. Once within its walls, Dvaid did some errands whilst Heather and I had cappuncini, used up our internet café cards and bought a plant for Vera. (The woman continually, unrelentingly takes lots of time to happily speak with us, not to mention gives us free bottles of wine and soda, when we visit her; we’ll never catch up on the gift front; she’s too good.) After a while we wound our way to Vera’s and had a lovely visit, incapable of escaping without having the wine we were trying to BUY from her hoisted upon us for no charge.

This entry—most of these later ones—grow more and more about a vacation than acting, theatre or The Third Life™. That’s one of the reasons we came here, I admit. As artists, we really don’t get “vacation time.” As Todd noted while he was here, so long as we get to do our work we generally don’t feel a need for vacation. What a lot of people outside of the effort of a Third Life® have trouble understanding is that we do work when we go out of town for a show, or take time for a tech week. The fact that we’re generally happier and better adjusted when we return just makes some people assume it was more like what sets them right, namely a couple of weeks out of the year to lie on a beach and sip margaritas, or some similar activity. As actors (and a director) our “vacations” coincide with our work, in part because that work is of necessity a third thing in our lives. It thrives most in these times we aren’t working to support our livelihood or focusing on a personal life. In other words, when we make time for it.

Not that I’m not grateful to be typing this on a sunny, vine-laced terrace in Europe, and not that it’s not luxurious and relaxing. I just wanted to express that observation to clear a little air.

So after dinner we headed to Pitigliano to see their production of Othello, or (as we shall henceforth refer to it):

La Strage del Teatro.

We had our warnings. Looking back, we had numerous cautions. And, I suppose, the worst of all possible outcomes would have been a show that sort of awkwardly straddled the fence between decent and sucky. Finally, to paraphrase Bernard in Black Books: “Enjoy. It’s dreadful, but it’s quite short.”

First of all, stupido Americani that we are, we arrived a half an hour before the time listed on the poster to have a gelato and take in that glorious Pitigliano sunset again. In so doing we witnessed the lead actor arrive, and one of the other, more punctual actors greet him at the door already in costume, said costume comprised of a lot of black gauze and satin. The doors didn’t open until the hour posted on the poster, and the show (if such a thing it may be called) didn’t begin until 10:00. Ah, we thought, let us remember this timing for when we plan a performance in Italy.

Imagine every parody, every farce, every pretentious off-off Broadway show, movie or skit you’ve seen, the subject of which is theatre or theatre life, roll them into one and make everyone speak Italian. You’ll approach what we witnessed. I have often thought it interesting, though etymologically difficult, how similar the words “tragedy” and “travesty” are. The idea has been made flesh. And black satin.

I’ve just conferred with my comrades, and there’s just no way to encapsulate all that was wrong with this show. Think of an aspect of theatre, and make it horribly, horribly wrong. David seemed to think that the director was someone who had seen a style of theatre in Rome or elsewhere Italian and decided that’s what he wanted to do, regardless of the show involved. I credit the director with less direction and more pretense and personal indulgence. Every character was dressed in black, gauze and satin, against a black backdrop. There was music during every interlude, of which there were dozens, and there was interpretive dance by non-dancers. Plus the acting was bad to the point of a approximating a slide show on what not to do on stage.

Redeeming qualities? Well, it was interesting to note—by way of this production and conversations with Andrea—that apparently not much Shakespeare is done in Italy. The language doesn’t translate well, and given the physical background of Italy’s theatre tradition, a language- or poetry-based theatre must seem fairly inaccessible to the general public. So what’s popular where Shakespeare is concerned (and he must be very concerned indeed), and was what we saw yester night, is to take the story and not the text itself. This is very interesting to me for two reasons. The first is that we would pretty much never think of doing this in the English-speaking countries unless the play was mere inspiration for an entirely different setting or conflict (West Side Story, for instance). The language is a major purpose of the plays for us, in other words. Secondly, transliterating Shakespeare strikes me as very similar—or perhaps a reverse-engineering—of what Shakespeare did to the commedia dell’arte plays he may have witnessed as a youth; plays such as may influenced A Comedy of Errors or All’s Well That Ends Well. Finally, for all the pretension of the director, the actors themselves were very earnest and modest in their efforts. This reminded us of Michael Green’s Coarse Acting plays, but it also reinforced for us that what we experienced was overall a positive experience, more full of good intention than an actual; disregard of or disrespect of us as an audience.

We drove home happily counting the Shakespearean clichés and regaling one another with our reinterpretations of favorite foibles. If the mark of a successful play is the continued effect it has on its audience, then this production of Othello was indeed successful.

Too successful, in its way.

ITALIA: June 21, 2007

Imagine, if you will, a strange land full of trickery and delight. Delight, that is, if you were reading about it or watching some fetching cartoon about it. Today we went down the rabbit hole, we went through the looking glass, people. And I’m here to tell you, messiah-like, that living it is not nearly as enjoyable as witnessing it happen to other people.

Given all the good fortune we’ve experienced in Italy thus far, it seems only apt that there’d be one day of payback, and we have only ourselves to blame. Babel-like, we set our sights too high. Looking back, we have named it il Giorno del Circolo, because we simply could not escape circles--directional, mental and traffic. The day started with trying to drive a memorized local route to Firenze. After about an hour of confusing signage and increasingly rural roads, we found ourselves on what had to have been one of the highest mountain cities in Umbria, Allarona. We stopped to take in an amazing expanse and ask for directions. Turns out we had driven a good hour around a gigantic, rural circle, to find ourselves only 20 klicks from Orvieto once again. So we returned to Orvieto (with some further difficulty, I might add) to get our bearings and decided to head out to Firenze on the autostrada (uninitiated Americani, read: “interstate”). Of course, we had planned to stop in an intermediate town for lunch, but the hour was late and after a little under an hour on the autostrada David suggested we stop at one of the pull-off stations for eats. It’s tough to get lost when you go nowhere, after all.

And boy, are the service stations off the autostrada nowhere. It was bizarrely uplifting cum depressing to see this side of Italy, or perhaps greater Europe. It told me that the pervasive (invasive) culture of convenience is not limited to America’s purple-mountained majesty. The whole establishment was hoisted above the autostrada, so you could be rocked to dreamy consumption by the coastal sounds of cars topping out at 100 mph. It was the most expensive and least satisfying meal I’ve ever had in Italy, though it still beat anything I could have gotten in such an establishment in my native land. So there’s hope yet for Italia. After this strange meal, it was back on the road.

But now for a town called Arrezzo, which none of us had been to before. We decided we were so behind, and perhaps we didn’t have the courage and stamina at that point to take on Firenze. Arrezzo is one of the towns we looked into as having theatre festivals when we were applying for grants to travel here, so it seemed logical that we might find an interesting environment there. Off we went, little aware of what we were in for.

Arrezzo is a town I think I might enjoy under other circumstances. It’s fairly small, but big enough to hold a lot of history and contemporary entertainments. It felt a bit like a university town, with some 3,000 years of history behind it. We dove in and visited the largest park and a giant cathedral, but quickly had to get back to the car as we could only pay for a couple of hours of parking at a time (circles). On our second trip we wound our way around until we finally found an exhibit of Piero della Francesca in a local museum. A famous renaissance artist, he lived in the town for some time. Oddly enough, most of his extant work is in frescoes…the which you can’t exactly export to museums. So, though it was very well done, the exhibit was something of a tease. Thereafter David suggested we find dinner in Fiesole, a neighboring town of Firenze. (I think he was generally disappointed with Arrezzo.) Feeling at least somewhat successful with having found the exhibit, we agreed, hoping it would fulfill some of our Firenze jones. The bells of the church whose lot we parked in heralded us out of town as we headed out in the car…once again.

Fiesole was quite easy to find, in spite of some anxiety owing to signage on the way. I bought a road map of all of Italy at the service station (How’s that for an investment in the future?), so we at least had some perspective on where we were headed this time. It is a town on a high hill (mountain?) to the northeast of Firenze, with a beautiful view of the city. We had a very lavish dinner—with complementary champagne, of all things—at an outdoor restaurant with a view of the city below, a place David had had dinner at ten years prior. The dinner rejuvenated us so that we felt empowered to seek out a great gelato place David remembered from the same era, in Firenze.


We had ourselves quite a little drive around the city, ensnared continually by traffic circles with little-to-no indication of where we wished to end up. I suppose we spent the better part of an hour trying to locate the general area we hoped to inhabit, with no success. We just couldn’t catch a break, so we eventually just tried to find the autostrada again, which led us to some very interesting parts of town. Heather: “Is she for sale?” Jeff: “I think so.” Two blocks later eliminated all doubt, as a bevy of scantily (or non) clad roadside stress-relievers dotted our periphery. In case your needs should ever lay in such a direction whilst in Florence, head to where the buses park between routes. It’s like a supermarket over there.

I took over the driving once we got going on some local roads out of town. It was nearing 1:00 AM at this point, and eventually I found the autostrada near Siena, and eventually we coursed our way into our driveway, at just about 3:00 AM. Where did we go wrong (apart from, directionally, ever which way)? That’s a tale for another time. For now, we’ll just put this day to rest.

ITALIA: June 20, 2007

Okay: I was a bit hasty when I encouraged you to avoid thinking of Bevagna’s “Medieval Festival” as though it were an American “Renaissance Festival.” The similarities are, in fact, quite arresting. The only distinctions appear to be that 1) The Medieval Festival is taking place in a town of the appropriate age, and 2) A Renaissance Festival includes dragon puppets and magic satchels and things of this nature. In all other things the two resemble one another quite closely. This town has even erected some pseudo-historical structures constructed from cast fiberglass and molded polystyrene, the ethos behind which we have been scratching our heads about all the live-long day.

It has been a long day. So long, in fact, that by 5:00 we had had enough and David rented us a room in a nunnery ("get thee to"), and we had a nap. It was well worth it. Prior to that, the day started at 6:30 in the morning in order to try to arrive in Bevagna on time to meet Andrea and Natsuko when they got there. The drive was intense—almost two hours, and full of the most winding roads I’ve ever driven on. I’m pretty certain there were a couple of times there when we traveled back in time a little, the road curled back on itself so impossibly. We split the drive with a quick stop for breakfast and a walk in Todi. We didn’t stay long. My impression is that the city is built on a spire. You walk steeply uphill to its center, and jog in a sort of controlled fall to get back to where you parked. When we got through all that, we didn’t land in Bevagna until 11:00ish.

When we met up with Andrea and Natsuko in the central piazza, we all five promptly headed off to a bar for l’acqua and caffe. It was an incredibly hot day, just getting warmed up. When we could justify sitting under umbrellas no more, we headed off to visit with one of Andrea’s friends who was also working in his quarter. The “Medieval Festival,” it seems, actually dates back to the time it honors. Bevagna is divided into four quarters known as gaiti, or gates, which refers to the town having essentially four walls, each with its own entrance. Back in the day, the gaiti were fiercely competitive. Each had there own church, their own laws, etcetera. It got so territorial at times that the gaiti would put up chains across their borders, and anyone caught on the wrong side would be killed. (Suddenly Romeo & Juliet becomes credible in a whole new way.) The festival continues in this tradition with—we hope—less bloodshed, by forming itself as a competition in authenticity and entertainment between the four quarters. Andrea’s role in all this was to a play a sort of wandering clown for Gaite Sant Giorgio.

His friend whom first we met is a painter of icons and frescoes. This was an amazing visit. We went into the workshop he had set up for the event, and it’s hard to imagine anything more genuine. I couldn’t stop taking pictures. Essentially, he gave us the full tour and lecture on his technique, hours before he would be expected to do it for the public. From color making to charcoal graphing to gold leafing, it was fascinating. I couldn’t even understand a fifth of what the guy was actually saying, and it was still fascinating.

Afterwards we all went to lunch together in the main courtyard of Sant Giorgio, where later that night the quarter’s feats would be held. Sheets were hung at intervals, over tables still stacked atop with their benches, and we met other performers and artisans of the gaite who were there for their midday meal. And, essentially, we were served a full Italian meal with wine amidst really charming and interesting people…for free. Guests of Andrea. This is the least of what we owe this man. It was a marvelous meal. After that we followed the man in charge of running the coin-stamping site into his cool basement workshop, were he minted each of us a medieval Perugian coin. Then Andrea walked us around the town to visit the other quarters, the outlet for the town’s water supply and one of the churches. Finally it was time for him to prepare for the evening at his digs in the quarter’s nunnery. (Get thee to one, go!) This was when our fatigue drove us to rent rooms there, and we napped until past 7:00.

When we woke, famished, the evening’s festivities were just getting under way. David couldn’t wait for one of the feasts to squelch his hunger, and we weren’t in a hurry to disagree (though I admit I might have waited for the experience) so we dove into the only open restaurant we could find in town. While there, Andrea found us, and whilst in character. He had donned a medieval tunic and accentuated it with his customary (and costume-ry) props, like a helmet and the collapsible sword I used for a scythe in our clown piece, and an ashtray breastplate, and was wearing a Pantalone mask. He was wildly funny, carousing with every person in reach like a drunken soldier on holiday. We agreed to meet up later for a drink, and we were off to the central piazza again to people-watch during passagiata. Everyone was out to impress that night, from packs of pre-teen boys to elderly couples walking hand-in-hand. We agreed that the festival was really just an excuse for a super-passagiata.

After wine with Andrea and Natsuko David decided he was feeling spry and we left our monastical digs to drive the two hours back to the agriturismo. I was asleep before we got out of Toscana. The love of this country wears me right out.

ITALIA: June 19, 2007

I’m allergic to Italy.

There’s really not much I can do for it. I could conceivably go to an Italian allergist, but the need to communicate in specific nouns baffles me even in contemplation. Something here—and I do so hope it’s just the current season and living in an agriturismo—is making me congested, sneezy, water-eyed and headachedy. No fair. No. Fair. In addition, I am like Nutella™ for every G.D. creepy crawly that inhabits this country. I don’t know if it has to do with my sheet-white flesh, or some biochemical odor, or what, but I have about three or four new mosquito, spider and ant bites daily. Finally, I tan like a little bitch. (You may have noticed an effort on my part to avoid using specifically explicit language in this ‘blog. It’s a conscious decision, and I adhere to it even in breaking it. Sometimes the colloquial is the only language to express an abstract idea with sufficient specificity.) I tan like a little bitch—like the new convict who lets an old-timer beat him on the first day then spends the rest of his term conning cigarettes off other felons for said old-timer. The only parts of my body accustomed to absorbing vitamin D are my face and forearms, and somehow the rest of me is covered by clothing at the peak opportunities for breaking the curse. The end result is that I have a farmer’s tan that degrades into a partial wife-beater tan, and my legs either burn irreparably or never change from lily, making me at best a perpetual mood ring of melatonin.

In spite of all this, I love this country. The more I see of it and experience it, the more I love it. New, old; refined, decrepit. Love it.

Today we began with a light breakfast, than headed straight of to il lago. It was a lovely day for it; not too sunny, but warm. The weather is growing altogether (“the weather is warming”) warmer here as we move past the actual one-year anniversary of our arrival last year, June 17/18. As soon as we hit the lake, I took off on a jog, which I needed in part because I strained my right hamstring during our impromptu clown performance yesterday. (How do you like that, Todd? Twenty-four hours missing you and already I’m experiencing sympathy pains.) It was great. I headed out to a nearby harbor town, walked the piers for a bit, then jogged back. It helped clear my sinuses, further convincing me my difficulties are allergic, not viral. We must have spent a good three hours at the lake, during which I mostly sunned, but you can’t go there and not surround yourself with that clear water at least once.

We were directionless thereafter—a first for us since arriving. I admit my impatience with that encroached a bit on my experience of our time, but overall it was great to have such a day. We drove around an unfamiliar side of the lake seeking a boat tour, but could find none that would allow us to stop at an island as we desired. So we drove from town to town, admiring architecture and vistas while all of Italy enjoyed its afternoon siesta. David began seeking out properties for sale, rather in earnest. This is a possibility he’s always flirted with, and it was bitter-sweet to see him taking specific, albeit preliminary, action toward it.

Eventually, after some acqua frizzante and cappuccino, we directed ourselves to the mountain town of Pitigliano. We were rather famished, having had a movement-filled day and skipping lunch (never again), but the city would prove more distracting than our hunger. It’s gorgeous, if just a bit touristi moded. It’s in Toscana (Tuscany, tu Americani [I know: you’re smarter than I am.]) We walked the long and short of it. It’s one of these cities that dates back to the Etruscan era, carved out of the rock of the mountain itself. The clock tower is fascinating; it’s clearly an Etruscan structure that has been enveloped at its bottom half by the stucco of the Catholic church constructed next to it. From one side of the town you can see a vast, lush valley with multiple waterfalls ensconced. The walls tower over the valley on three sides, and some version of Italian crows (smaller, with silver–gray heads) circle at the city’s height and make their homes in holes in the outer wall. If I hadn’t fallen in love with Orvieto first, Pitigliano would have swept me off my feet.

Perhaps most exciting about our visit was also our most accidental. On the walk in from parking, we noticed a poster in a shop window for a local production of Othello going on the 22nd and 23rd. I suggested we could catch it, setting our imaginations in motion, but without any real information to sustain the fantasy. On our second trip through the city gates, after circling the place once idly sightseeing, Heather noticed a sign of a pair of doors for a theatre. David poked his head in, but said the lights were off. As we left, a man popped his head out the door, so we spoke to him. Turns out we had found the back door, and this was indeed the theatre producing Othello this weekend. We inquired about tickets, and he popped in to find someone who could help us. He returned to tell us she was coming, and in the awkward, semi-improvised chit-chat of differing nationalities David asked him if he worked for the theatre. No, no, he said, “Lavoro attoro.” Oh really, what part? “Otello.” So the lead actor and house manager sold us tickets in the balcony for the Friday evening show, at 9 Euro a head. We left wishing him “in bocca al lupo,” and hoping for ourselves we could corner him afterward to talk to him about our purpose here.

Even on our day off, we managed to conduct some exciting business. Plus I finally get to see a show in Italy. Tomorrow we’re off to a new city to see Andrea perform in a medieval festival, an all-day affair I encourage you not to think of as an American Renaissance Festival. I now make my way quasi-drunkenly under the covers, sniffling and sneezing contentedly.

ITALIA: June 18, 2007

This morning we awoke early to take Todd to the train into Rome, where he would catch the subway to the airport, where he would fly to Perugia, where he would then fly on to America. He had about three hours of sleep the night before, so hopefully he is able to sleep on the longer leg of his flight. We have a similar timing for our flight out next week, and I’m not looking forward to it. To depart at 2:00 in the afternoon, spend eight hours in the air and arrive at 5:00 in the afternoon is not only weird, it’s exhausting. They’d best not expect much from Todd at work tomorrow, or me next week.

It’s sad to have him go. Everything is a lot quieter, and we’re all adjusting gradually to the energy shift. We truly do adjust in his absence. Heather and I become more outspoken, and David takes more (albeit calmer) prerogative, but it’s never as adventurous or—frankly speaking—dangerous when Todd is absent, and as students of theatre we miss that when it’s gone. We’ll try to promise him not to have too much fun without him, but it will be a challenge. We are in Italy.

The rest of the morning was spent in Orvieto, dropping off laundry (YAY!) and visiting the farmacia and an internet café. I was supposed to have posted last week’s entries today, in fact, but changed bags and neglected to bring my wireless card. Hence the entry bearing this same date, yet containing nothing but an apology. When I finally do post these entries (under one entry, methinks) I’ll have to attach pretty much all of the existing labels, and maybe a few more.

Lunch was at our old favorite for it last year (mainly “favorite” because they made a deal with the language school that included free wine), Antica Cantina. The owner didn’t seem to recognize us, but he’s something of a craggy sort and may have just been under-whelmed to see us again. Afterward we picked up our laundry and arrived at Piazza Cahen to meet Andrea somewhat early, so we had a walk around a park attached to the piazza that overlooks what I believe is the south end of Orvieto. It was gorgeous. I’ve never seen it before. We quickly found Andrea and headed back to Teatro Boni to try on his props-acting workshop for size.

So much happened, it’s hard to encapsulate it all. (Sorry Todd—we really tried not to have anything worth noting happen after you had to leave.) We took our time warming up, which Andrea left to us, wanting to experience our style again, and we moved into partner stretching with him. This may have been pushing it a bit. The last, wherein you lift you partner, back-to-back, proved to be a bit much for him as a base. He didn’t seem seriously hurt, fortunately. We rapidly moved on to his workshop. He laid out a variety of props, both mundane and somewhat constructed to his purposes, and instructed us to take our time choosing one, then exploring it in our own isolation. He had several helpful (not to mention original) suggestions on how to approach this discovery, including to find all the sounds it can make and to consider the materials it is constructed of and where they come from. He went off to do some business for the theatre, which ended up taking longer than expected. That was fine with us. The music he put on ran out while we never did find an end to the exploration of our respective objects. It was the kind of work you never really find time for in a rehearsal process…but probably should.

When Andrea did return to break us from our trance, we discovered we were joined in the audience by the director of their current show (a Plautus play), Cesare, and a secretary of the theatre, Hanna. I swear, none of we three had any idea they had come in. I still wonder how long they watched us “exploring.” Andrea’s next assignment was to demonstrate three alternative uses for the objects we had chosen. David’s whisk and pot top became a wine bottle and tray, a mirror and comb, and a paintbrush and palette. Heather’s thermal blanket became a superhero cape, a cobra, jiffy pop and a balloon. My round wicker basket became (I couldn’t resist over committing) a helmet, ear horn, parachute, canoe and combination back hump and/or knap sack. Then Andrea, in what seems to be his inimitable style, requested we improvise a monologue incorporating our respective prop(s). I lucked out and got to go last on this, giving me the most time to think, and constructed a story (of a football player surviving a plane crash in the Himalayas) that I ended up actually feeling fairly satisfied with. It was a good day; good to see we could keep moving forward with Andrea in spite of losing our Alpha Communicator, and the workshop ended happily on all sides.

Actually, we had another surprise, as Andrea requested we present something of our work for Cesare and Hanna at the end of the workshop. Heather and I were quite taken aback. We couldn’t see doing the Valentino excerpt without Todd, and our other piece, the one that only involves we two (Death + a Maiden) is prop heavy, and timed in large part by a soundtrack. In the spirit of the workshop (and, I suppose, Italy) however, we attempted it. Heather used a milk crate for a chair, a sort of slender boa for a hair bow and a toilet scrubber for a mirror. I used the thermal blanket for a cloak, a collapsible Chinese long sword for a scythe and a spaghetti spatula for flowers. Sans music, which was a first for us, and sans rehearsal (read: fight call) of the acrobalance and momentum moves involved. It went great, all things considered, was well-received and full of discovery for us both. Plus we got another piece of "Zuppa in Italia" ("Italia della Zuppa"?) on film, impromptu though it may have been.

The adventure did not end with our day’s “rehearsal.” Afterward we five, plus another friend of the theatre, joined up for drinks at a local bar (“bar” in Italy is what we’d think of in America as a café) and getting-to-know-you. Then the subject of an amphitheater in town came up. It was being restored, and they hoped we could see it, though they joked it might mean “breaking in.” Well, we drove across town, and the place was indeed locked up. To my surprise, we actually did break in. At the encouragement of the others, Andrea, Heather, David and I climbed over an eight-foot wall and walked about the amphitheatre. It was heavily under (re)construction, with a giant, net-covered scaffolding in front of the yawning proscenium arch, but you could see how wonderful it would be. On the way back to Orvieto, after goodbyes to our new friends, we fantasized about Aquapendente’s first annual Shakespeare festival opening with our clown production of Romeo & Juliet, or Measure for Measure.

The day ended quietly, with we three opting to make a dinner of leftovers back at home base after dropping Andrea off. Night settles on slowly now, for a change, and with utterly allergic sinuses but completely fulfilled heart and stomach, I’m off to read Coarse Acting until I fall into increasingly vivid dreams.

ITALIA: June 17, 2007

Today—Todd’s last day—though we had grand plans involving visiting lots of people and spending time at il lago di Bolsena, we ended up spending most of the first part of the day sitting around the table on our patio and discussing Zuppa at large and our fall plans in specific. This fall’s show ties in so many elements and so much community involvement that it’s almost ridiculously ambitious. We’ll begin by teaming up with Marywood University’s theatre students (and possibly students from the Scranton State School for the Deaf, though finding sufficient resources for that is looking difficult) to teach them busking and street theatre. (Which we’ve never actually taught before. Heather is fond of quoting Kurt Vonnegut…approximately: I call all my workshops this, then talk about whatever I feel like.) After a week of this, the students will perform on Labor Day at a street fair held in Scranton. From that experience we go on to select the more promising performers to be cast in roles in Prohibitive Standards, and train them for the next week in our distinctive style of commedia dell’arte. “Distinctive” is a nice word, and I’m sticking to it as my catch-all adjective.

Our discussions of just what Prohibitive Standards will be will be posted to the show’s collaborative ‘blog in good time (read: when I get back to free interwebzitude), but in the meantime, here are some notes from the meeting (bear in mind that it ain’t over ‘til the commediani do their final pratfalls):

Style: Incorporating three styles—farce, seedy & bright commedia? Romance?

Devices/Settings: Vaudeville stage/cabaret appealing in that it gives an instant place for students with acts. The better can also interact with the main characters, perhaps evolve plotlines. Environmental seating for audience. Start with flashback to history behind scenario? Character who tells story, or backstory, who is unrecognized on some level. Masked? It’s a special place. Speakeasy? David inclined to no: too cliché, more interesting to acknowledge Prohibition as a law that just didn’t take. Well-funded refuge from the outside world? Train up and running in this time.

Plots: Coming of age amidst gangsters and vaudeville performers? The hard-bitten member of that world throwing him or herself in front of the train? Two brothers—Johnny Dangerously—living in the two worlds? Story of Jermyn (research)?

Todd’s involvement in the show at this stage is tenuous, bordering on completely impossible. I shan’t say much more about it at this stage, and hope for the best (for the show, selfishly) but we’re remaining open to a variety of possibilities. We will, however, have at least three central actors (I’m still hoping for four) plus whatever student actors we can effectively wrangle. I’m much more excited about the subject matter this year than I was for Operation Opera, and looking forward to the research that will be required of me for July and August. Hopefully I will feel more capable of the comedy by the end of that period as well. Something about my recent forays into drama and naturalism has me wanting to do something different with my comic performances. Not make them more serious, but somehow more nuanced, whilst retaining the absurd physical reality. How? Non lo so, ma forse…

Once we finally got off our butts, we were off into Orvieto to meet Andrea for a guided tour of some of the countryside. There’s a tremendous hike from the duomo to Porano that Todd and I wanted to make, but it would have been too much time, so instead we drove to a cappucine monastery on a hill opposite Orvieto. Andrea spoke with the padre, who then very kindly gave us a tour of the entire facility and sent us off with free postcards. Andrea took over as we marched up the mountain, admiring views and vegetation. We passed a middle-sized wheat field that whispered in the breeze, and farther along he took us into several Etruscan tombs. It was a beautiful jaunt, and further amplified my respect and admiration for Andrea as a person. Un molto gentile huomo.

We were fairly famished after our hike, and headed back into Orvieto for dinner. The restaurant we hoped for, Pizzeria Charlie (really—it’s good), was closed. In the nature of all things Italian we ended up at a restaurant we had all expressed a desire to get back to this trip, l’Antica Rupe (chiuso il Lunedi, per gl’informatzioni), with a beautiful terrace overlooking the duomo. There we learned the pope had flown by the city in his helicopter that day, which we just missed. (I want a helicopter I can call “my helicopter.”) Andrea left after a beer to attend to his pregnant wife, Natsuko, and after dinner we went to Piazza del Duomo for our favorite place for gelato. Sitting on the steps of the duomo as darkness fell, I thought about how blissful it would be to live in a place where the accustomed activity after dinner was to have a walk around to say hello to whomever you pass.

The night ended early in the interests of getting up early enough to get Todd to the train on time. My allergies were ballistic after all our time in the fields and woods, so I had a little of David’s Airborne® and retired to read some of Heather’s Coarse Acting scripts (if you’re in theatre and haven’t experienced Coarse Acting: go out, buy a book or two and lock yourself in a soundproof room to avoid irritating your neighbors with guffaws). I quickly drifted off, to wake suddenly to the sound of Todd’s packing, thinking I had already slept the night through and it was time to get up and out. But I was deceived. It was mezzonotte, and there were hours to go before goodbyes.