31 July 2007

New Hampshire Log: Day Six—All Good Things

Just to mention: all the photography from my New Hampshire section compliments of Jen Schriever. She's got a great eye, no? ("Yeah; some people think she has two." <--thy movie quote)

Everyone seems hungry to have more time to work on their acting. It’s an interesting aspect of this way of working that the actors have to rather prioritize in order to find enough time to create a sufficiently well-rehearsed performance. I’m not sure it’s entirely unhelpful. Having to fight for what you want—as most actors will agree—makes for good energy. It’s good to be a little hungry. Then again, some creation isn’t possible without a relaxed, un-self-conscious environment. For my part, I hope our New York rehearsals prioritize scene work a bit more. In the meantime, I’ll grab every moment I can with my scene partners to clock in rehearsal together.

Our last day here in New Hampshire began, for me, with a trip to Hanover with Mike The Great to pick up some breakfast at the Dirt Cowboy, some toiletries and office supplies from CVS and some Joe (in box form, an impromptu tradition this week) from Dunkin’ Donuts. On our way, we were practically silent, but the coffee revived us considerably. This is good, because it turned out to be a sweltering day, and every move a little more of an effort. We began rehearsal with where we left off, a little after the (former) act break. There isn’t much for me to do, as Jake’s further disappearance from the environment of the story is crucial. People are forgetting him, and so I only show up in one “charivari” and one of his sister’s memories/hallucinations.

It may be very funny for people who’ve heard me talking about this show for years now (indeed, some of them having had to accept it as a reason I couldn’t work for or with them) to see it and see so little of me…live, anyway. Maybe they’ll think all that time was spent photographing me, somehow. At any rate, my heart and soul is in this show, for better or worse. It’s, oddly enough, like a hypothetical story of my sister. The relationship between Jake and his twin sister in our story is crucial, and very much informed from my end by how I feel about my sister, Virginia. It’s an incomparable relationship, and it’s a great experience to get to demonstrate some of it on stage.

There is, built into the corner of a rafter of our rehearsal barn, a nest of baby swallows. We’ve charted their progress through the week, and it’s rather remarkable how quickly they develop. When we arrived this morning, one was lying dead on the floor, having fallen from the nest. I scooped it into a cup and laid it to rest in some of the shrubbery off the beaten path. Then, later in the day, one more dropped out directly in front of Joe Varca as he exited a scene. It died shortly thereafter. It’s a curious reminder of the facts of life in the midst of our story of an unimaginable circumstance.

By the end of our rehearsal period for the day, we had worked through our new script once. We spent another half an hour cleaning the barn and prepping it for an audience that night. The “stage” was set in a ¾ round, with four entrances but—owing to our lack of actual wings or backstage space—no areas to cross over from one side to the other without traversing the stage area. We have some uncertainties about our set-up at the Fringe (every show gets no more than 15 minutes set-up time for each performance, and the prior show will alternate, so we’ll never know exactly what we’re facing when we get in to begin) but this is the closest we could imagine until we get into the actual space. The guano was vacuumed up, and a variety of bizarre seating laid out in the form of beds, car seats and lawn chairs. Then it was a two-hour break for dinner.

It’s hard to say how the showing went. The barn somehow held onto the day’s humidity, despite our best efforts to air it out, and we were all anxious about what we had to show and what kind of response we could expect, not to mention our wondering exactly what we would each forget to do. You see, it wasn’t a question of if: We had revised so much so many times, and run some bits only once that day, so I think it’s safe to say each and every of us was prepared to bite it at least once. At the same time, we were so excited to have something cohesive to show at last (and excited to see the damn thing for ourselves) that we couldn’t care too much what went wrong this run.

So how about our show? Well, it has more of the catharsis I craved on last writing, but it’s owing in large part to a device that concludes the show, and I would prefer that it hinged on scene work. As you might imagine, the bulk of the show is difficult to judge without some time to pull together the acting, but I’m pleased with the momentum it seems to be beginning to acquire with the overlap of scenes and the emphasis on the military’s role in the story. Some of the staging is entirely too symmetrical for my tastes (I prefer asymmetry in general—creates more tension) but that’s already being broken up a bit, and may continue to as we progress. Overall, I feel good about what we’re headed to present, and look forward to seeing it blossom further.

It’s raining now as we drive our way back to Manhattan, and my mind drifts out over the landscape, floated on scraps of New Hampshire memories. (Hey, by the way: Joe Varca’s a freaking punk. I’m so glad I don’t look like him anymore.) I’m watching a movie tonight, just to take my mind off Art for a little while, and ease my heart away from lakeside sunsets.

27 July 2007

New Hampshire Log: Days Three–Five—Where We Think We Are

Forgive the lapse. It has been three days of intensive work, with continual switches, changes, reversals—just sort of a seemingly endless exploration. My frustration with the openness of it all came to a head last night, when, after running through the second act and finding it lacking any drive or purpose, we were given an assignment to compile seven moments of the government solving a problem of media exposure throughout the play. I don’t know; maybe I was just tired after a long day, but I couldn’t pull it together to be open and fulfill the request. Fortunately my fellow actors (particularly Joe Varca) had a better attitude at that moment. It was all I could do to stay silent.

The things I kept wanting to say: It’s not about the media, it’s about the family’s descent into hopelessness; giving us another assignment doesn’t provide a solution to the structure of the story; adding bits won’t streamline the play. I got some of it said in the discussion after portraying our media moments, and Laurie has been very concerned about my reaction to the changes they’ve made to the play since last night. And, indeed, the changes they made streamlined the play into more of a story about the family. The choice to do so cut my scenes by half. I would be lying if I said that didn’t disappoint me, but when I can think about it clearly it’s a small price to pay for a more concise story, and I still count myself lucky not to have been cut from the play entirely.

Lots and lots has gone on since Day Two, but it’s hard to chart it all chronologically. You can imagine—with the gap in my writing—that we’ve been awfully busy. In some ways, it has felt like a prolonged tech day, at least in the sense that there has been a lot of time spent just being available for that unpredictable moment when one might be needed. This is in particular due to the “movement theatre” aspects of the show, which are characterized by transitions between scenes in which multiple characters enter to express some part of the situation at that point in the play. (For these moments, the director[s] have adopted a term I learned working with Cirque Boom. Charivari [shar-ee-var-ee]. In circus, it’s a term that describes the sequences typically at the beginning and end when all the acts come out at once and show a little of their stuff. The term comes from a village tradition [can’t remember where exactly, but it lives on in Creole settings] of surrounding the residence of a newly married couple to shout and bang pots and pans.) This kind of constant but uncertain availability we call “hurry up and wait.”

The pity of this is that it can feel like a waste of time, but the fact is that Laurie as creator/director, Christina as on-call playwright, Joe and Jen as all-around-technicians/designers and Kelly as actor/producer are working ‘round the clock and very, very hard. Not that the actors aren’t, but we do have periods when we can zone out for a bit (horrible practice for an actor, but sometimes it’s the only way to rest). As for me, well…. I’ve never been this muscle-bound in my life. I don’t mean that as a boast about my size; I could probably get up to 300 push-ups daily and still just give the effect of a rather slender baseball player. I mean it literally. Trying to get just moderately bigger (plus all the prolonged moments of standing at attention as we work through some sequence or other of the play) has me feeling about as flexible as a frozen flank steak.

It is having some outward effect. My fellow cast-mates are very encouraging in this; especially Kelly, bless her heart. They compliment my body with sincerity and joking cat calls. This has led to an interesting situation, in which the publicity guy we’ve hired called to complain that the pictures they had sent him for advance publicity aren’t “sexy” enough. So parts of day five were spent sweating my buzz-cut off in a separate cabin, trying to take a “sexy” photo that encapsulated the play a bit. I can’t say as I was thrilled with the results, especially toward the end of the day, when all the exhaustion of working in 90-degree weather was showing in my face. (Rather than, “Hi, you’re fascinating and I kind of want to see you naked,” my face says, “Howdy; I smell like guano and can only think about a cold beer.” I have to let it go, though. That’s just not my job, plain and simple.

The last day also started for me with filming our recreation of Matt’s capture video in Faith’s cellar. In a desert boonie cap I sat on a broken wicker chair, bare bulbs illuminating the concrete wall behind me and Alex Charington to my right, face obscured and hands grasping a reproduction M16. We tried all different versions, people kept making noise above us, and through it all I tried to maintain in my imagination the actual circumstances of Matt’s capture, and remind myself how he behaves in the actual video. It was awful and difficult. It can’t begin to compare to what he actually experienced.

It hasn’t been all tormented scenarios and constant script revision. There has been swimming at the lake, jogs through the woods and camaraderie. One of my favorite things about rehearsing here, oddly enough, is the half-court basketball set up behind the barn. I absolutely suck at b-ball, but just dribbling and shooting by myself has been a great way to loosen up on breaks (not to mention the way it keeps me away from the temptation of the group of smokers in front of the barn). Last night we even—in spite of universal exhaustion—gathered around a lakeside fire to relax and chat for a bit over s’mores and wine. This led to a mass skinny-dip in the lake, from which I abstained. Call me crazy (crazy!) but the day of rather objectifying photography took the wild hair right out of me.

Part of the cause for this celebration was that as a result of our Wednesday night crisis (and a sleepless night for the production team) we now have a play that may clock in at under 90 minutes, with what we are calling an “ending” and everything. I’m very pleased with this, of course. It means we’re better prepared to show what we have so far to the locals on Friday night. I don’t, however, particularly like the ending. I’m suspending actual judgment until I can see the whole thing together (which may not be until a week from now, once we’re rehearsing in New York), but it seems to me too technical, and lacking in the catharsis I know this story engenders in all of us. Now, one could argue that because the story itself is so unresolved, that such is how the play should responsibly end. To me, however, part of what we have to offer in creating theatre is the magic of a pure emotional release. We have all been moved to tears by this story of a missing soldier, and have to communicate that as well as the facts to our audiences.

Soon I’ll be back to subways and divorces. It will be good to reconnect with my life at home, but I always miss the sunsets and maddening, uplifting, beautiful work.

New Hampshire Log: Day Two—This Man’s Army

It’s fascinating to be reading Simon Callow’s Being an Actor during this process, and hear his (young) voice in frustration over the direction Joint Stock is taking. I often feel this way about our work in UnCommon Cause (formerly Joint Stock Theatre Alliance, a not-too-subtle nod to the original company), but I’m aware that these feelings have varying degrees of validity. (Which is good, because my expression of these feelings in this here ‘blog got me in a brief period of hot water with Laurie at the start of the summer.) Most of the time, any frustration I feel has to do with this: “Oh holy Hefeweizen! Can’t we just work on scenes and have directorial decisions applied to us and get the hell on with it?" Ah-ha-ha. No, Jeff. That sort of defeats the two years of patient, sensitive work we’ve already invested, don’t it? The whole point of this manner of work is that it challenges everyone involved to be truly involved, and that creates beautiful, nuanced effects you just can’t get from a three-week rehearsal period with an unalterable story and script.

It’s a little bit like Mr. Miagi’s training in The Karate Kid; you spend months painting and washing and seemingly suddenly you can deflect the blows of a superior opponent.

Or perhaps it’s a bit like boot camp. Monday was dominated by training in military ways and means, one of our new strengths being the presence of a former Marine in our current cast, in the form of actor Mike (Yes, yes—I will get his last name already!). In the morning Mike took me through my military paces, in part under the supervision of Tracey. It was reminiscent of many things I’ve experienced in my life: years of Boy Scouts (I had already made this connection in the character, and try to wear my Boy Scout belt to every rehearsal), marching band, martial arts and Suzuki training. The appreciation of discipline is a real help to me in this particular research. I have also always wanted to be a warrior in some sense (as much as violence goes against my personal philosophy) and can appreciate how American military training prepares one for this. We worked on the proper forms of standing at attention, at ease, basic marching and how a drill instructor or sergeant might put a soldier through his or her paces—that being the most fun for me, a chance to briefly test my efforts at conditioning thus far. I didn’t do so bad.

At the same time, it’s something I will never fully appreciate. Months of being ridden as hard as you can take, and harder, and the sense of accomplishment and belonging that arises from it. Mike spoke of a drill they would do in which someone would throw something to the ground and shout “grenade!” The training for this is to hit the deck with one’s feet pointing toward the grenade, presumably to reduce the potential damage to vital organs (though I can think of one vital organ I’d feel rather in danger from that angle). In every drill of this, if some guy were a foot or two away from the “grenade,” he’d actually fall on it. This soldier would be promptly punished with PT by the drill instructor, but the behavior wouldn’t change, and the reason is the platoon itself. As we have a line in the play saying: There is not one man in the armed forces I would not willingly die for. Imagine that commitment, that feeling.

Thereafter, Mike, Abby Royle and I drove out to Hanover for lunch and errands. My particular errand was to get the dreaded buzz cut. To my surprise, it bothered me from the first moments of rehearsal to have hair so contradictory to the character, and besides, it was becoming clear that the more filming of the multimedia aspect we could get done ahead of time, the better. The barber shop I found was the old-fashioned kind, and I was the only one there who didn’t know the barbers (barberettes?) themselves. When I got into the chair, however, it was the best experience I could have hoped for. I showed the woman a picture of Matt Maupin (in spite of our apparent complete difference of appearance) and she worked on my cut in painstaking detail. That may not have been necessary, of course—in boot camp it would just be 3–4 quick swipes of an electric razor. Nevertheless, it looks terribly authentic, and the reception I received from my peers upon returning was very encouraging. Whoops and flirtation as I approached the barn—made me feel all of twenty five again.

The latter part of rehearsal, our first evening one, was spent orchestrating more group movement scenes. Between that and military training, there’s little else I’ll have to do to remain in shape. To build a greater shape, however, I’m working between actual working moments to eat protein and hit the deck. I have my moments of checking in to make sure that the military mind-set isn’t overwhelming the character himself, but so far it isn’t a problem. That’s one definitive benefit of working on a show for as long as this one; the character is there already, and all else is layering.

24 July 2007

New Hampshire Log: Day One—God & Country

The actor’s life is filled with trials and tribulations (to quote the Bible, by way of Andrew Lloyd Weber). He or she is often put in a situation in which his or her schedule, personal freedom and overall individuality is somehow removed, or at least de-prioritized, by the process of creating a show. Actors are whisked away to remote locations, deprived of sufficient sleep and a million little things they are accustomed to having choices about, and all for the sake of a show that may or may not have significant resonance in their careers and memories. It could be over when it’s over, simply a drop in the bucket of New York theatre and their own resumes.

That’s why, when at all possible, such sacrifices for art should be made in country as beautiful as the bulk of New England is.

On Saturday I climbed into a rental car bearing New Hampshire plates with three of my fellow performers and drove the lot of us up to Lyme, New Hampshire, so we could begin our rehearsals for the New York Fringe Festival the next Sunday. It was gorgeous day and, apart from not being able to get my iTrip to work with the rental car (dang you, antiquated peripheral device), it was a simple, direct drive up. Upon depositing actors to various houses (everyone is being put up by volunteers from around the area) Faith Catlin, Kelly van Zile and I reclined for just a moment with drinks before I walked two doors over to my digs. It was nice. Faith and Kelly were my introduction to Vermont/New Hampshire some four years ago, when Faith cast me in her production of Summertree.

We’re rehearsing in Signal & Noise Productions’ acquired space—a barn off of Loche Lyme. Smells of guano permeate the area, but it’s an impressive amount of space with fascinating levels, and when we step outside we’re a hop and skip (minus the jump) away from the lake. This means swimming and sunning during lunch, which means bring on the bat poop! The barn is part of a property that also doubles as a cabined vacation getaway, and they have food service and wireless internet. So we’re pretty well-off, all things considered. (Which is really good, since the other show in my life—Prohibitive Standards—is in full development swing and needs as much internet attention as I can spare.)

This phase of rehearsals for As Far As We Know began with a table reading of the new script by faithful resident playwright Christina Gorman. The new script has acts and arcs and everything, so this is very exciting. It also has whole unwritten scenes (which we the actors will be first devising/improvising, upon which Christina will write more), unconnected older scenes that may not function anymore (the which will either be cut or moved or transmogrified) and clocks in at 120 pages. So we have our work cut out for us. As Laurie Sales, our esteemed director said, “We are basically trying to squeeze three weeks’ worth of rehearsal into one.” That consideration having been made, I was worried about our pace as of the end of Sunday’s rehearsal. After the read-through, we managed to stage about seven pages of material. This with a staged-reading presentation for the residents of Lyme on Friday night, and a single tech rehearsal in New York two days after those rehearsals begin and four before our opening there.

But to hell with that worry! A) It’s not my job, and B) the work was so good. We began with Laurie’s new co-director, Tracey (I’m gonna get her last name I swear), taking us through some very helpful movement exercises, akin to what Zuppa del Giorno does in training its actors. She’s planning to have us practice movement as three distinct types we may all be portraying in the course of the play: principal character, soldier and townsperson. Sunday was for our principals, and all of it works toward ensemble building. We began by “walking the space,” wherein the group tries to always be moving but keep the stage balanced, without clumps of people forming. Then she had us find our common step, without looking, so that our steps were falling altogether simultaneously. From there we moved to paces, that which we already established being level 1, and moving up to 4 (as fast as possible), remaining apace. Zero was a freeze, then -1 through -4 below a normal pace. It was very challenging to keep together, especially when it came to changing paces on a clap, making an unspoken group decision as to what pace we’d switch to, and doing so without pausing.

Then it got really interesting. Basing it off this work, we found character physicality from 1 to 10 (so Zuppa, that). I discovered some helpful character notions very fluidly from this, pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to just be an actor for that time. I hope it’s a trend that keeps up during this process. What I found was that Jake’s training lived in his torso, between his shoulders where the contraction is for standing at attention (chest out and, coincidentally, where my chronic soreness is from preparatory push-ups), but his character is in his arms. He’s a mechanic, an athlete, and his arms bring him everything he values. He is unselfconscious about them, but they swing with some weight at his sides. In finding this, and most likely as a result of allowing my chest to open up, I felt rather suddenly emotional, near tears. It’s not uncommon to feel that kind of release in this work, but its reasonable quality doesn’t make it any less valuable, so I’m keeping that feeling in mind.

What was most exciting (possibly more to me as a teacher than as an actor) were the final exercises, in which we tried many variations on connecting with our fellow actors. Tracey variously asked us to keep one, then two and three actors in our peripheral vision at all times, then imagine a string we had to keep taut between our character’s physical center and another’s, then practice at keeping an equilateral triangle between ourselves and two other characters. This produced fascinating movement and shapes, real, direct connections between us on stage and provided great illustration of how connected we could all be, as actors and characters, with one another in each scene or tableau.

There scenes we worked thereafter were very much in keeping with the Joint Stock Theatre Alliance/UnCommon Cause style. (Incidentally, Friend Patrick got me Simon Callow’s On Being an Actor for my birthday, and I’m just reading about his interactions with the original Joint Stock in England.) We were given assignments to modify scenes; specifically to encapsulate Major Ainsley’s phone call within a movement piece inspired by a church service, and to interrupt a memory scene of Jake with phone messages from friends and neighbors concerned for the family after hearing of his disappearance. These went well, but what was most encouraging was the sense, as Laurie shaped them, of making choices that would survive, on the whole, into a performance.

Last night after we adjourned I went to Laurie’s digs to watch what footage she had of Matt Maupin’s first video, the one the insurgents sent back to prove he was in their captivity. She only had short, silent clips included in the local news coverage of the vigil his hometown held, but they were powerful. After the viewing a great many of us adjourned to conversation on the porch, but my mind stayed with the imagination of that situation. We may film a kind of re-enactment of that tape, with me in Matt’s stead, and we may not even use it if we do. Still, the weight of that responsibility is a unique consideration in my work in this show.

16 July 2007

Self-Aware . . . ed

Self-awareness is a fascinating aspect of the human condition. It will blow your mind to think of it for very long. I mean, dude: You're only able to think of it because you possess it. It's an almost inconceivable cycle of reciprocation, like the chicken and the egg, or Siegfried and Roy. An endless spiral in and down, forcing us to wonder if infinity owes more to inner space, than outer.

I swear I'm not snorting the pot.

It is fascinating to me, though. Self-awareness seems to be a uniquely human condition, though this may simply be a result of we being the only ones we understand, verbal communication-wise. I mean, maybe a dolphin (maybe even one in S&R's Secret Garden, which just scares the crap out of me) can conceive of thinking "I am," and is maybe even capable of expressing it, and we just can't relate. I'm inclined to think, however, that we are the only ones on this planet who can think about what (or worse: who) we are. It's also my opinion that such a gift creates as many problems as it solves.

Take, for example, suicide. Other creatures can starve themselves to death, it's true, but we seem to be the only ones who can plan our own deaths, not to mention come to perceive nonexistence as a preferable condition to life itself. This is the big (possibly biggest) down side to self-awareness--the way it can wreak havoc with a simple life of stimulus and response. The urge to examine is inherent in us as a species, and I suppose it was inevitable that such an urge would eventually come to be focused upon our selves. On about a par with self-destructive behavior as an unwelcome result of self-awareness, is bad acting.

What? Well, it's on a par for me, anyway.

There are few things quite as miserable as suffering through a performance in which the actors are self-conscious. The young, I suppose, pull it off with a certain earnest quality; but the older the actor, the less forgivable this heinous crime of art. Nothing will destroy the verity, and suck the wind out of the sails of a show faster than even a single actor who seems to be aware he or she is anything but the character he or she is playing. I'm not speaking to style, here. If your play includes the actors as characters, well, fine (see 6/29/07 for my general responses to such defiance of classical structure), but even in such cases the moment of action has to be believed in. Self-consciousness destroys that more effectively than any other distraction, and lots and lots of we actors (we thousands, we stand of others) spend lots and lots of our time working on reliably attaining a state in which we can do the deed without thinking.

Enter an Eastern perspective. This summer, my father and a fellow member of my mom's church are writing a sermon together (UU Breakdown: Most American UU churches apply to their ministers the agrarian tradition of summers off, in which time the parishioners get their chance to shine from the podium. Most parishioners, though not farmers, tend to apply this schedule to their church-going, as well.), the which is largely based on drawing connections between spiritual beliefs and quantum physics. The sermon, I believe, was inspired in large part by this: The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics. I know nothing of physics (for that, try Friend Chris [he doesn't write for Spider-Man; the other one]), but I've read my share of more eastern thought, and find the connections very, er . . . connected. Taoism--my particular favorite--speaks of all things beginning in unity before being split into "the ten thousand things." It also incorporates a concept called wu wei (无为), often in the axiom: wei wu wei. The first means roughly "without action," the second, "action without action," which is often interpreted as "effortless action." To put it another way, the idea is that there is a way of achieving things without using a lot of effort. Now, paraphrasing philosophy is tricky enough business, but trickier still when the book you're interpreting is a combination of personal and ruling philosophies, possibly written with a particular ruler in mind.

This combination of personal bias and undefined terms makes the Tao Te Ching rather like any acting textbook. But I digress. At great length. Shamelessly.

It is appropriate, to me, that terms such as physics, action and philosophy should find unity in a discussion of the craft of acting. In Taoism, wei wu wei speaks to the idea of there being a way of all things (tao) that it is our tendency to interrupt or otherwise interfere with through our actions and deliberations; therefore, the best way of achieving goals is to be sure one is going with this way, or at least functioning with an awareness of it. The more one achieves this, the more his or her actions will arise from stillness. Similarly, the actor (her role named by the very stuff of her craft--action) must be an expert listener and, after long hours of exploration and decision making about her actions, live in the moment without choreography, true in the moment, one with the way. A true moment on stage must be like a force, such as that term is defined in physics--just as inevitable, just as simple.

It's a tricky business. We have to be self-aware to manipulate ourselves into belief in the first place, and then we have to abandon all self-awareness to allow that belief to breathe, if only for the span of a moment. It's a state I have thus far found comparable to states of prayer, meditation, inspiration, intoxication and what many Western religions refer to as the Holy Spirit. Even the Old Testament God chimes in on the subject: אהיה אשר אהיה (if, by "the subject," you mean this bizarre set of connections I've been attempting to make).

So best of luck with finding your tao in all things. And don't stick your head in a tiger's mouth, ever, much less make a career out of it.

12 July 2007


I have, at present, one of those marks on my body that begs to be explained as a violent wound. There is a large purple welt on the inside of my left bicep, and it could easily be believed to be the result of one or more of the following:

  • This guy grabbed me with his right hand so hard, I had to punch him in the nose to get him to let go.

  • I'm studying Filipino stick fighting.

  • Paintball, dude. Paintball.

Sadly, none are the case. No, my manly disfigurement arose from carrying an air conditioner home from the store. In other words, from my obstinacy. I could have taken a cab and been home in a jiffy, bruiseless, but I hate cabs and had assured myself that the air conditioner, to quote my own thoughts, "isn't that heavy and hey--useful plastic straps on the outside. I'll be fine." Of course, what probably exacerbated the hematoma (SOMEbody's suffering from SAT score envy) was the prompt application of push-ups after the air conditioner was actually installed.

I'm not trying to seem like a tough guy here. Wait. Well, actually, that's entirely the point. I am trying to seem like a tough guy. In August, unCommon Cause will at long last mount a finalized (somewhat) production of As Far As We Know as a part of the NYC Fringe Festival, and in said production I will be playing a captured soldier. The gentleman my role is based off of is a large, fit guy, and though I'm making no claims to be imitating him, one could definitely get a better impression of me as a soldier if I actually had pectoral muscles. So over the next few weeks I will be eating big breakfasts and making my arms very, very sore.

An actor's relationship to his or her body is an interesting one. We're probably second to models in our interest in keeping our physique attractive (with possibly a greater emphasis on functionality--definitely, when it comes to our voices) and are eligible for all the same benefits and foibles of behavior that can arise from that interest. There are some things that just can't be helped (apart from significant surgery), such as height, body type and facial features. The better among us learn to use such features to their advantages. Most dedicated actors, however, also feel a certain sense of responsibility (or just plain ol' fun) in modifying their appearance in ways appropriate to a given role. There are some very extreme examples of this from film (such as Christian Bale betwixt The Machinist and Batman Begins), but it applies to the stage as well. The difference is that the stage at once hides more details (such as wrinkles) and demands more drastic effects to succeed in modifying appearance (such as Antony Sher's ordeals in transforming himself into Richard III).

(A) An (hopefully) interesting observation:

Not much has changed over the years (and years [and years]) of theatre history. Actors with a reputation for altering their appearances for roles are commonly known as "character actors," unless they've achieved celebrity status, in which case they're often known as "bold," or "crazy." (Gary Oldman is a fascinating hybrid in that he's internationally known, and rarely looks at all the same between roles.) Lead actors, particularly in film, actually have a vested interest in maintaining similar looks between movies. It makes them more recognizable and type-able, and very often is rooted in their best, or most attractive, look. Apart from the tastes of the general public (or rather, because of those tastes), this consideration arises out of lead roles almost invariably being involved in some romantic plot or other. Take this back to the commedia dell'arte tradition, and one finds it awfully familiar. In classic commedia dell'arte, the innamorati, or lovers, never wore masks, whereas almost all of the other characters did. The exceptions to this rule were some of the female "servant" characters, presumably because they were meant to also be seen as attractive, though perhaps in a less romantic sense.

Anyway, I'm not in terrible shape. My doctor (when I actually have the insurance to be able to afford her) tells me that I'm keeping myself in good exercise, at least internally speaking, and simply as a matter of course I tend to get in a little stretching and exercise every day. That habit suffered the most it has in years over this last winter-into-spring, what with my injury and the uncertainty surrounding it, but I now feel well-returned to the habit of regular exercise. (Of particular help in this was teaching "physical acting" to high schoolers last week.) Of course, I would be in better shape if I still had my weekly Kirkos session to look forward to, but in many ways the circus skills I've been learning the past few years are what got me in good shape to begin with, and I return to them on my own. It's just easier to push oneself when one isn't . . . er . . . just one. So: I'm a reasonably healthy thirty-year-old man with several extracurricular skills to apply to the pursuit of the desired effect.

That effect being HUGENESS.

It ain't gonna happen. At least not in time for this incarnation of As Far As We Know. It's just too basic a change to affect in such a short time and, unless the show goes far, it's not a body state I'm enthusiastic to be in. When I was a kid, I would have eaten it up. My body ideals were formed by superheroes, and in large part that means no chest can be too huge, no abdomen too rippled. Now, however, having worked on circus skills and developed a better-informed interest in things like martial arts and le parkour, dexterity and speed are more important to me. Perhaps, too, age is a factor. The past year has taught me a lot about what it means to age in the physical sense, and as I grow older, I want to be more agile, not necessarily stronger. Nevertheless, I'm curious to see how effectively I can emulate an all-American soldier in just a month.

I had to come to a certain peace about my body image a while ago. As a kid, I was overweight until I was about 16, whereupon I grew no taller, but over a period of about two-to-three months I lost 40 pounds. No lie. I went from weighing 160 pounds (at 5'8'', very little of it muscle) to 120 (still rather lacking in muscle), which also directly led to my getting some for the very first time ever. And by "some," I of course mean "anything, at all." That detail may seem tangential, but I'll come back to it. I never really understood why the change happened then, or so suddenly. Looking back, it's easy to file it under teenage hormones. It was hard to say at the time, though, because I had wished for it for so long, silently, and it happened so suddenly I wasn't even aware of it until people started commenting on it. Still, I hesitated to do anything with my transformation, not really getting around to it until college, when I was quite unexpectedly cast as d'Artagnon in my school's production of The Three Musketeers. I had never known what it was like to really work on something so intensely physical until I had to train for the fencing in that show, and I ended up loving it. I love having to sweat for my craft.

Some few years ago, I had a little sit-down with myself. "Self," said I, "Let's me and I get together on this body-image thing." It was prompted by an observation from a friend, who wondered aloud if what drove me to be so disciplined about pushing myself in exercise (said friend caught me on a good stretch) was the subconscious worry that someday I would mysteriously revert and regain that extra 40 pounds of baggage. Fear is a powerful motivator in drama, but I try to avoid it in the rest of my life . . . whenever possible. I realized that I was associating being loved, even being worthy of love, with something impermanent and mysterious to me. So I made an agreement with myself that I would try to judge my body more by what it could do than what it looked like. Friend Kate and others were pivotal in helping me come to this conclusion by introducing me to circus--something concrete I enjoyed and could aim for--and since then I have made every go of it.

Of course, one can't always avoid an exterior analysis, particularly in a profession as image-conscious as my own. The important thing for me is to keep that interior (though now, shared with all seven of my 'blog subscribers) priority, even in the face of others' stunning physiques, or casting directors who look at me like I'm a Hot Pocket that didn't get enough time in the microwave. In those instances--as when I'm working to create HUGE pectoral protrusions--I just keep thinking, "I can hold a handstand 0.7 seconds longer than I could last year, and climb things like a spider-monkey." This makes my willingness to literally cause myself pain, inside and out, in order to create some unkown version of myself a bit weaker. But it also makes my journey to whatever I'll achieve far more rewarding, and spontaneous.

Now I have to go do some push-ups. And post an ad on Craigslist to pimp myself out as an air conditioner mover.

I'm Brian Dennehy, Dammit

I had a curious experience last week. My Dad has a birthday coming up, and his choice of celebration was to spend it with us seeing a show in New York. Which, you know, makes it kind of like our birthdays as opposed to his, but he hasn't figured that out yet and we are loathe to draw notice to it. His choice of show was Inherit the Wind, but sadly it closed before his actual birthday. Not one to stand on custom, dear Dad bought tickets for a performance the Friday of the show's closing weekend. It was a great show, thought I, and my parents said they enjoyed it much more than the film, which they of course rented in preparation for their theatrical experience (neither of them attempted to tackle the book). Even my sister and her fella' (Friend Adam) enjoyed it, and they had been dreading the experience for months once they researched what the show was actually about.

A couple of days later, on something of a whim, I had another entertainment experience of a somewhat different variety. Sucker that I am for cartoons of any sort, I found myself sitting in a movie theatre packed to the projector with minors, watching a story about the struggles of a young rat who eschews convention to become a connoisseur of all things edible. Ratatouille is the latest Pixar flick, and I have to confess that my feelings about it were about as ambivalent as my sister's and Adam's were about Inherit the Wind, prior to the experience. I was, in part, coaxed into it by a review I read that heaped praises upon the animators for their close study of the movement of classic physical comedians. Which is to say, I was drawn by the strange mix of excitement for new possibilities and dread that they are gradually rendering me obsolete.

And just what in the holy hinterlands do these two things have to do with one another? Well, Google it out a bit, and I'm sure you'll put it together.

Go ahead. I'll wait.

Hint: The clue is in the title. Of this post. That underlined thing at the top.

You got it! It's Teh Dennehy. He's the voice of a fatherly rat, Django, in the aforementioned Pixar flick, and in Inherit the Wind he played the side of creationism in the form of "Matthew Harrison Brady". The essence of my experience was in watching Ratatouille and thinking, over and over, "Where have I heard that voice recently...?" (It appears as though my inability to recognize celebrities on the street extends to recognizing their voices out of context.) Eventually I put it together, and spent a lot of the rest of the movie marvelling at the eccentricities my and Teh Dennehy's (barely comparable) careers share. Odds are that when he was working on the rat thing, he probably hadn't even been offered Inherit the Wind yet, and yet they neatly overlapped in execution, allowing me as audience member to indelibly associate them. And perhaps they were more related than was at first apparent. The Disney money Dennehy made from playing a disapproving father (rat) may have allowed him to take what we have to assume was a lower-paying gig on stage.

The tradition of stacking "prestige" projects with crowd-pleasers is ages old, and not limited to film actors. It's an interesting aspect of a career that includes a degree of choice. Which is to say, a career with enough success that others offer you roles, instead of you constantly offering yourself like a dessert menu during the post-dinner lull at a restaurant. I believe, however, that the variation in choice of roles is based on a common ethic, regardless of degree of success or intention for calculated results. Said ethic:

Ya' never know.

(I am reminded here of an imitation of a random woman Todd, Heather and I met whilst working on Silent Lives. The show was performed in [and, in part, based on] the Hotel Jermyn in Scranton, a building that had been converted mostly to housing for senior citizens and one that now serves as home to The Northeast Theatre. In various silent-film-era costumes we'd bounce from the abandoned ballroom on the second floor to the common area on the first for the bathroom, and there would always be a circle of octogenarians there blithely minding their groceries and gossip until we'd suddenly show up, a flash from their youths. Anyway, the snatches of conversation we'd pick up from them [once they accepted we weren't there to mock their youth {well, not exactly, anyway}] have stayed with us still. The woman we quote most had two gems I remember. The first: "Always cook with fennel. I get real bad gas, and fennel clears that right up. Ya' gotta cook with fennel." This with a strange, nasal sort of dialect blend that I associate with 1940s Poconos somehow--midway between a Jersey and a Pittsburgh. And the other jewel, chanted at least three times without pauses: )

Ya' never know.

It ain't exactly hope. It's a more cynical admission of just how unpredictable the business is, and how mysterious the forces of fortune can intervene in an actor's life. It's a mantra supported as much by great missed chances as it is by ones somehow caught. To mine a previous example, imagine kicking yourself for scoffing at that show you were cast in for which they wanted you to sing and dance with a Muppet-style puppet, said kicking because the show moved to Broadway and won a Tony. Or, imagine yourself as Nikki Blonsky, the brand-spanking new starlet of the brand-spanking new Hairspray movie practically plucked from the halls of her high school.

Those who subscribe to the "Ya' never know" school of thought do know one thing, however. That is, whatever you are giving a chance, when you walk into the first audition, the first rehearsal, the first performance, you give the "never know" chant a rest long enough to give yourself this little chirp:

I'm [insert name here], dammit.

10 July 2007

Live Free or Die Hard or Make Something People Will Love

Yeah, okay. I caved yesterday and saw it. Sometimes the lowest common denominator appeals to me, I confess. At present I'm reading about the creation of A Streetcar Named Desire, from the debut production through the Kazan film, and I'm blown away by how viscerally Brando lived during his twenties. I feel as though I've positively wasted the last decade of my life (though perhaps retained a bit more cleanliness in general), and last night I wasted two more hours of it. If Brando had had action movies, would they have helped slake some of his youthful lust and mischief? Probably not. And, while on the subject, would I have felt more fulfilled by two hours of casual sex, a la Marlon? Probably not.

Then again, an acting class might not have been a complete waste of my time.

It's a strange stew I prepare for you today, seasoned with Desire, Die Hard and day-job interruptions. (Best part about being back: Time for 'bloggage. [Ability to pay for groceries also ranks high on the list.]) I was greeted when I sat to email today by an unaccustomed missive (stop it, jerk) by an unusual email from Friend Anna. She writes:

"I'm writing my paper on creativity, and was fielding thoughts with some people on the matter. ... What is creativity? What does it mean to be creative? (Are there certain characteristics you think of?) [And, is it a matter of inborn characteristics or influenced by upbringing and social environment? Is it innate talent or something that can be learned? Some scholars propose it is simply a matter of skills learned through hard work, a matter of motivation and discipline, not that anyone is innately more creative (genius) than anyone else. That is, it's conscious effort, they don't believe in it coming from unconscious.]"
I know so many people in school right now. It really does make them smarter. Is that an effect of age? Because, God knows, school didn't seem to make anyone smarter the last time I was in it. The most reasonable thing to do before responding to such questions would be to define my terms, terms such as "creativity," "genius" and "it." But as John McClane teaches us, it isn't reason that makes America so great; it's a willingness to do viciously risky and self-aggrandizing stunts involving the maximum amount of property damage. In that spirit, I dive right in.

First of all, let's release the concept of "artistry" from this discussion. Great artistry is its own creature, a thing born from arduous study, disciplined work and having a craft or technique. It's great, I love it, and maybe no great work can be great without it. Fine. But in our interests today we're exploring the nature of creativity, not artistry.

I would separate "creativity" from "genius." To my mind, creativity is a quality all possess. In a spiritual context, I believe it is our awareness of having been created (and not necessarily by an omnipotent deity--an awareness that we begin and end suffices) that compels us to emulate the process with our own actions, be this via child birth, entreprenurism or performance art. In a pragmatic context, I see a sense of creativity as one of the later stages of the evolution of intelligence. After one learns to perceive tools out of the objects around them, one may eventually come to refine such tools and create their own. In short, creativity to me is simply abstract thought, which some people take to greater extremes than others.

One interesting feature of abstract thought is the ability to conceive of concepts. (Is that redundant? John McClane wouldn't care. I don't care.) The real brain-twister is contemplating whether concepts are of themselves spontaneous creations on our part, similar to ancient peoples creating gods to explain the bits of the world they couldn't better understand, or master. In other words, have we created the concept of, say, love, in order to explain (or at least name) what seemingly illogical and irrational forces make us act like absolute idiots. Me, I tend to discount the notion of spontaneous creation. I am a fan of the law of conservation of energy, and believe that kind of balance applies to a great deal of reality. Similarly, for example, I agree that there are a finite number of stories in the world, and we just seem to create new ones by recombining, deconstructing and re-conceiving these few. To put it still another way, we are all inspired in our "creations" by everything that already is, around and within us. To this end, I don't really believe in genius, per se. There is no great, mysterious inborn gift that is only bestowed upon a few.

Then again, when I was faced with Michaelangelo's David (and listen: photographs will never express this work), not a force in the world could have convinced me it wasn't the result of genius.

Not even John McClane killing a helicopter with a car.

So my overall opinion is this: The magic of the original Die Hard had a lot to do with where the star was at that point in his career (spunky with something to prove, because he was an acknowledged television star but not by any means celebrated) and where the director was coming from (John McTeirnan tells us on the commentary that he wanted to find the joy in this otherwise harrowing tale). There's a synergy to it that came from taking risks and improvising, something that could never hope to be duplicated in a sequel. When A Streetcar Named Desire was brought to film, it brought together the Stanley from the Broadway cast and the Blanche from the London cast, and it should have exploded. Brash, method Brando set off against Lady Olivier (Vivien Leigh) seems a formula for an insane working environment. Yet it worked beautifully, and it never would have happened if the rules had been followed or sense had prevailed.

Whether it really exists or not, the creative person needs to believe in genius. Maybe, in looking back on a creation, we can readily name its sources and the whole thing seems like a masterminded manipulation of common elements. Yet the feeling of creating something good, of being in a creative spirit, isn't like that. It's a chartless territory, a blank page or a silent room. People often ask authors where they get their ideas from, and it's easy to say, "Oh, I was a closeted homosexual who grew up in the south, so . . . you know . . . ." I believe that it's belief that ideas come from. Creativity springs from a confrontation of nothingness with faith in that intangible genius that we can never prove, but that always intervenes.

. . . Eventually. Yippie-kiy-yay . . .