31 August 2007

ZdG Busking Workshop Day Four: Character Hunting

The only complaint I have about last night's workshop was that we were relegated to the old gymnasium, owing to some dance team or other vying for our space. The old gymnasium (for those of you planning a trip out to olde Marywood U. in the near future) is a place most resolutely to be avoided. In the spirit of old gyms everywhere, it is hot, stuffy, and cavernous. The floor feels like hardwood laid on concrete, and no amount of fans or open doors solves a damn thing. We had to be sure to offer plenty of breaks for water and rest to our dozen students last night.

That's right: a dozen. We have our players for La Festa Italiana, and I am very happy both with the numbers and the spirit in the rehearsal room. The players are eager, and receptive, and last night we started them on building their characters. In spite of the heat--and perhaps, in some ways, because of that shared adversity--we really came together in the fashion of a familiar ensemble and began to work in earnest. After getting them started on building characters through all three walk-about exercises (leading centers, animals and appetites), we briefly outlined our vision of their scenario as we discussed it that morning. That is, a pair of feuding families--the Rossalinis and the Verdelonis--who own restaurants in town and are vying for the support of the public.

It's an exciting phase. They are well on their way to creating something detailed, tangible and fun that will stay with them well beyond the use in La Festa, and possibly Prohibitive Standards. There were a few surprises last night. I had forgotten just how emotionally available I had been at their ages, and some of the players took the character building to a very dark place and serious emotions. I was concerned for a time that we may have led one or two down a primrose path to self-doubt and difficult pain. We discussed it extensively, however, and found that those who went to dark places were better equipped to accept that as part of the work and move on. I tried to emphasize that all their discoveries, even those that feel like no fun, are valid in contributing to the creation of a character. I also made sure they knew, however, that they must love their character, no matter how flawed he or she may be, in order to play it for some time.

Tonight we get down to some real nitty-gritty stuff, developing specific relationships and encouraging the students to discover solo performances they can use in a public context. It's so exciting. It's so rewarding to see the tools I've been using for years--not really from any one place or specific training, but from experience and improvisation--working for other people. Not to mention learning all-new approaches from Geoff and Dave. It's great work, and I'm grateful to have it.

30 August 2007

ZdG Busking Workshop Day Three: Sifting for Wisdom

I've written in the past a little bit about the value of making mistakes. It's one of those lessons that I just keep having to learn over and over again, more recently in the form of trying to learn Italian. Last night was yet another lesson for our workshop at Marywood University, and a lesson to all of us, I think, in a willingness to make mistakes. The fact is, we learn faster with the more mistakes we make. The obstacle is, we all seem to want to "be good," to impress our peers and maintain a high status by way of proving something. Some of us (Me) have more difficulty confronting this obstacle than others of us (Friend Todd). It takes a very real courage to leap in and start trying, blind. Ironically for me, this is one of the things we are trying to teach to the students at Marywood.

Just maybe, however, it's getting to be easier for me.

Last night was not an enthusiastic success as far as my comrades were concerned, yet I found it to be very gratifying. Several of our exercises with them went a bit too long, or didn't grab their imaginations. Of course, it was a much more exercise-intensive workshop, as opposed to the game-intensive ones prior to now. This was part of our effort to emphasize a shift to skill-building for the festival performance this Monday, but also to demonstrate to the students what that work would really entail before they had to make their decisions regarding whether or not they would continue in our course. So after a few quick, energetic games to get spirit up, we delved back into exploring animal physicality, this time with an animal of their own choosing, which we segued into the improvisational game "Party Quirks," only with animals instead of psychoses or professions or some such. It was very interesting to watch them integrate (and fail to integrate) the lessons of listening and specificity from the day prior. It was also curious to see them tend to push their animal characters into an intellectual, or "clever," place instead of using simple physicality and appetites. Getting them out of their heads is proving an interesting challenge; small surprise there, what with the rest of their days probably being devoted to typical classroom education.

After the break, Paulette Merchel introduced the second half by explaining to them their upcoming choice in some detail: the time commitment, the nature of the work, etc. According to our plan, I undercut her somewhat dire announcement by entering midway in the character of Dewey Cheatem, a very broadly characterized horny old man character (imagine the personality of Pantalone with the physicality of Dottore) from our show Legal Snarls. The students were somewhat shocked by his ribaldry, but it also broke the tension, especially when he hit on Dr. Merchel. It was nice to play him again. It's a character that really knows where to go, and what he wants, so is also hopefully a good demonstration of the kind of character that makes public performance somewhat easier.

In the second half we worked with them on character impersonation, utilizing one another and their homework to observe a stranger and emulate his or her physicality. Unfortunately, many of them either misunderstood or didn't prepare the assignment, and ended up bringing in a person they already knew, which taints the observation with prejudice, making it more of a caricature than an exploration. Still, there was value in their demonstrations of these people en masse, as we stepped back and watched them work. Afterward we discussed, and tried to suggest to them a need for impartial observation and discovery.

The last thing we did was to simply sit down with them and discuss the details of what they could expect from both La Festa Italiana and Prohibitive Standards, should they be cast in the latter. This was most helpful, and gratifying, as it was clear to me that we had gained their trust and that they were interested in at least the show, even if they were cautious. I do worry that they are not too interested in La Festa (there were rather fewer questions about that, which I would expect there to be more worry over if they were planning on being a part of it), and so we've discussed--in light of that and various scheduling conflicts students have with it and Pro Stand--allowing anyone who wants to attend the workshops to continue, and just be clear about whether or not they're a part of La Festa.

Today will be very interesting. We may fall on our faces, as only a few (or perhaps none) choose to be involved with the next step. At least it's good to consider that such a mistake may lead us to making an even better choice.

29 August 2007

ZdG Busking Workshop Day Two: Accepting and Building

One of the axioms of good (or as my sophomore-year acting teacher would have preferred: "helpful") improvisation is to always accept and build on ideas your scene partner(s) put(s) forth. This is encapsulated in the phrase, "Yes, and... ," the idea being that one's response to something he or she is given should take this form. "Yes" I accept what you have established, "and" in addition I can contribute _________ to it. If both players can maintain this pattern, this energy, the scene will do a lot of work of carrying itself, and there will be less chance of the dreaded waffle. (I love self publishing; maybe there are other contexts within which I could use the phrase "dreaded waffle," but I can't think of any outside of cookbooks at present.) "Waffling" is when a scene sort of putters out, or sits still, spinning its wheels, and this is more often than not the result of "blocking."

Stick with me here. Just think of the after-show parties you'll be able to dominate with the finer points of theatrical jargon.

"Blocking" in conventional theatre refers to established gross movements around the stage. On this line, cross to the other side, etc. "Blocking" in improvisational theatre (in which there is generally very little of the previous definition) is when someone negates or "blocks" another's suggestion on stage.

"Geez, this sure is a real swell clambake."
"Yeah, or it would be, if it weren't actually a weenie roast, owing to the fact that clams are completely non indigenous for at least 100 miles in every direction."

Ouch. Not the most conducive to building a scene, not to mention trust between scene partners. This is one of the many axioms of improvisation we are attempting to impart and demonstrate to our students at Marywood. It's harder than it sounds, believe me. Nothing demonstrates this difficulty better than trying to collaborate to plan a class. Thus far, our planning sessions have taken at least as long as each class in combined discussion time, and a lot of it is owing to three guys (now four, with David Zarko cogent again [oh Heather, how I miss thy estrogenital influence]) all trying to get their ideas and priorities in. It's a good friction, the kind that makes better product, but dang: sometimes I wish we could just take thirty minutes to agree on a sequence of exercises and then go to lunch.

Last night's workshop was alternatively uplifting and frustrating for me. Uplifting because the students (Geoff and I are on a mission to keep one another from referring to these adults as "kids") are taking to the lessons so wonderfully, and listening fiercely. Even those who seemed less than engaged yesterday were fully involved last night. Frustrating, too, because I want more time with them, and that makes me impatient, which makes me feel less like collaborating with my fellow instructors and more like taking charge.

Fortunately, this less-than-helpful, semi-panic state was kept well in check last night by Dave running a great deal of the workshop. It was very game-intensive. In fact, the first half was effectively dominated by warm-up and games. Dave abandoned his Maestro persona for this class, and no one seemed to particularly notice, save for one question at the start: What's your real name?

After the games and a break, we came back in with a warm-up game, and reviewed the improvisation axioms we had agreed upon, simply stating them before trying them out. We had some discussion about this not being ideal, this terribly brief lecture, but given our time constraints it seemed the most effective way. So here's what we recommended to the students:
  • Accept and build ("Yes, and...")
  • Listen actively, responsively
  • Be as specific as possible
  • It's better to make an obvious and specific choice than a clever one
  • Make the other person look good
  • Establish a relationship with your scene partner(s)
  • When in doubt, make a physical choice
  • Rhythm is important, but allow yourself too the time to really take in what has been given you
From there we shook out, and began the game Freeze, with the adjustment that the audience stood in a circle around the players. It was thought this would be an interesting segue way into the kind of environmental performance they may be engaging in on Monday, and it kept people from getting drowsy whilst sitting. We played three rounds, with periods of groups observation--first from the players, then observers--in between. In the final round I began "freezing" pairs to give them adjustment and then asking them to continue, which worked better than I had anticipated. "Freeze. Specify your relationship. Go!" This was a largely successful period of improvisation, but we need to step up the challenges today.

From there we moved on to working on animal states, guided by Dave. They took to this well, but with some breaking of character. I attribute this to shyness about the strangeness of the exercise and the lateness of the hour, and we didn't become strict about it. Once again, an exercise that could have received scorn from people who felt silly or manipulated actually seemed to give them a better sense of effective tools incorporated in it. It really is an incredible group, and I don't relish the thought of having to choose amongst them for casting. But we're a ways off from that yet (a whole five days).

We left off with a homework assignment: to observe a stranger based on the character-building guidelines we had established thus far and bring him or her in to the workshop in some form for next class. I'm excited to see what they come up with. It's going to get very risky and challenging for them from here on out. Tonight we announce that they must choose before next class whether or not they wish to continue, to perform at the Festa and be eligible for Prohibitive Standards' cast. Thursday they will return for warm-up if they're uncertain, but largely we'll know who we've got overnight. Tonight's class marks the end of a certain period of relaxation, and the beginning of a certain period of creation.

28 August 2007

ZdG Busking Workshop Day One: Welcome to Higher Education, B%$@#es!

We have begun.

It's been about a year-and-a-half since Zuppa del Giorno's last official show, in which time we have been quite busy as a company, with two trips to Italy, numerous workshops taught in improvisation and acrobalance, and even the odd public event or publicity stunt here and there. Still, nothing quite compares to doing what the company started out to do: Create original comedies from scratch using commedia dell'arte as a living tradition. I missed it last spring (suspended for a season in order to effectuate more work in Italy) and now we are back with a very ambitious bang. Not only are we doing another wholly original production, but we are:
  • Hiring three new actors on board for it.
  • Collaborating with Marywood University's theatre production department.
  • Casting students from Marywood University's theatre department.
  • Performing the eventual product in two venues: Marywood and The Northeast Theatre.
  • Beginning by teaching a week-long workshop in improvisation, character development and busking to the theatre students, culminating in their performing in La Feste Italiana in downtown Scranton on Labor Day weekend.
It is this last that we began last night in the Mellow Wellness Center (read: gym) on Marywood's campus. For all the teaching and workshops I've done in various areas of theatre in the past five years, this is the first time I've taught one with an emphasis on busking, or public performance. And by "we," I'm actually referring to a very new group of collaborative teachers. There are three of us here, teaching approximately twenty-five students. Myself, Dave Berent (Gochfeld), who appeared in the last Zuppa show, Operation Opera, and Geoff Gould, with whom I haven't worked on stage since my first show at TNT, The Glass Menagerie. To summarize the significance of all this--Last night, after the first day of school, we spent three-plus hours teaching a workshop that was new to us, and that we are planning and modifying as we continue along.

It went quite well, all things considered. We were all rather nervous about what kind of reception to expect from students who are essentially required to attend this workshop (that's for a few days--thereafter we get to say, "Okay, if you want to continue and perform, stick around. The rest: ciao!"), but we just a few exceptions everyone seemed very eager to risk and learn. And we didn't necessarily make it easy on them. Our concession to their first day back and the mandatory nature of this event was to focus on game-playing, team-building and staying away from lessons or lectures. There were, however, punishments handed out (when games were misplayed, they were made to apologize to the class until it was accepted) and their own feedback--occasionally critical of one another--was encouraged. In addition, Dave did the whole class in character.

Dave has a clown called "The Maestro" who performs around New York with some frequency. Last night he rather merged The Maestro with one of his former teachers of clown, Gaulier, complete with costume, mustache and French dialect. The result was a very energetic, high-status, enigmatic man who occasionally took over teaching and kept the students on their toes. I was impressed by how easy this was to accept, for both them and me. Dave and I had discussed putting our own work out for critique during this workshop, but I hadn't imagined a character living an entire class out, and wasn't certain about what was to be gained. It turns out the answer is 'quite a lot,' as the students come to see the differences between us and our characters, and just how livable and continuous that characterization can be, even without lines or blocking.

In terms of our lesson plans, we're incorporating a lot of skills, but trying to base things in improvisation (and some clown) concepts. That is, building habits of listening, responding on impulse, accepting and building on others' ideas, making the other looks good, making physical choices, etc. Yesterday we played several games to build awareness and group mentality, touched on the concept of an "active neutral" state (devoid of character [even your own] but aligned and ready to make choices in an instant) and building a physical character, and we even began with some improvisation exercises. We were impressed with how much we managed to get through, which hopefully bodes well for the rest of the week. The emphasis will gradually shift from core skills to more specific ones having to do with public, improvised performance, such as using one's environment, prop acting and audience involvement.

Each day we will plan anew, based on the previous evening's progress. It's exciting to go back to school in this way, and truly, as a teacher I feel I'm learning as much as--if not more than--our students.

24 August 2007

My Much-Esteemed Friends

Hi guys. Thought for a day I would release the bizarre, quasi-instruction-video-for-non-actors tone this 'blog can often take, and just address the readers I know. You guys know about theatre, some more than others of course, but you all know at least what it's like to have an actor as a friend. So none of that this day. Just a moment or two to address the audience (as all of my favorite plays take some little time to do [see, still adhering to insane parentheses][okay: The Real Thing has no direct address, and is a favorite, but you can't deny it diddles with the fourth wall in a delightful way]) . . .

I began to utilize very early on in this 'blog some of the quirkier points of grammar I've learned from side-lining as a proofreader of academic texts. (Case [in {point: quirky} paren-] theticals.) Amongst these quirks, I incorporated the use of informal titles. Most often, this shows up in discussing friends. Friend Davey, or Friend Kelly. It could be used for anything that describes character identity, I suppose. Storyteller Davey, or Enthusiast Kelly. This comes from a rule of capitalization, specifically that you only capitalize a title in reference to a particular person, and then only when it's acting kind of like an adjective. (I'm so waiting for someone with a formal education in proofreading to comment on how backward I've got this.) So you write "George Bush is a bad president," and "I can't believe how incompetent President Bush is." Somehow the use of this title, this little adjustment, connotes respect.

I started it because I thought it was funny, while serving as explanation for the anonymous readers of the Aviary. I hate name-dropping, even that of less-than-world-renowned folk ("Oh, that reminds me of what Ted did yesterday!" "Who the hell is 'Ted'?" "Oh, you don't know Ted? Oh, you simply must know Ted! Why don't you know Ted?"), and using titles lends a old-world sense of irony to my prose, said prose being occasionally overwrought with perfect sincerity. Okay: Often. Okay: I hope my irony makes up for it.

ANYWAY, you lot, my friends (and you know who you are ... no need to incriminate anyone additional at this time...) are wonderful. Truly. I don't deserve you, but I try, and you see that, and that makes me feel even more grovel-ly. That is, when I take a moment like this one to receive that feeling. A lot of the time, most of the time, I keep myself so busy that I end up operating on assumptions about what you know about how I feel about you. Can't quite explain that. When I was about 11 or 12 (as you can attest, Davey) I was obsessed with serving my friends, defining myself by my relationship to them and how likely it was I might be able to throw myself in front of on-coming traffic to save them. High school into college was somewhat complicated by learning about more amorous love, but I was still obsessive about really listening and devoting my entire self when a friend (or, to be honest, a hopeful friend ... or acquaintance ... or total stranger...) was upset. We grow, priorities change; I accept that. Now, if you called at 3:00 AM because you were feeling insecure, you are a lot more likely to get my voicemail than me, awake by candlelight, trying to figure out how to end a tormented short story. We grow. I guess all it really comes down to is--

Why don't we see more of each other?

I know, I know: Virginia, California, even New Jersey. And I know: We're adults now. We have responsibilities, everything is tied into what we do, and there's not so much sitting around, marveling at the mystery of who we are. I get that. Still. I like you. You are rad, and I would like to see more of you.

I'm not laying blame at all here. If it came to that, I'd definitely end up holding the burning end of the punk. I'm terrible. I hate the phone, and am made anxious by so-called "free time." Most people fail to recognize me after a haircut, much less after a year apart, so I often let things slide content in the knowledge that everyone changes and grows apart. But the thing is, we haven't. Not really. Sure, there's been change. Mammoth change and minute. But I still count you my friend. And for just a moment (a 'blog entry, even; can there be anything less grand?) I'd like to acknowledge those amongst you whom I don't see enough of. In no particular order, and with the standard Oscar-speech caveat ("I really didn't expect this ... there are so many people to thank..."):

Nat - Your performance was fantastic, and I really wanted to go hang out for hours with you afterward. I wouldn't have even kicked you in the face this time, I think. We should work together again.

Kate - Through everything, you have always believed in me, which is more valuable to me than you may know. Thank you, not just for recent support on As Far As We Know, but for five years of belief.

Melissa - I loved watching Gull(ability). I love watching you taking your work and RUNNING with it. It inspires me. I only wish we still worked in the same office, or could run into each other at Java'n'Jazz.

Patrick - For the past six months I have gotten smarter and been more entertained by way of books from you, and I miss you, even though we'd have the same difficulties of scheduling even if you were in-state. I hope you're finding all you're looking for.

Walkinhomefromthethriftstore - It's become such a time-honored tradition to watch TV with you, I don't know if you know how great it still is for me to spend time with you. I'm glad you're close(er). I'm trying to take more advantage of that.

Harry - Thank you for being so open. I'm still sorry, and I hope we can talk about the whole thing soon.

Sarah - I miss you. Thank you so for the belated card and thinking you saw me in Spider-Man 3 (you didn't). Let's talk soon.

Mark - I think we're just going to have to accept that we have different goals when it comes to building a philosophy. What we never have to accept is our geographic distance making for more personal distance. I'm glad to banter over any medium, even if we never agree again.

Davey - You support me so much in my work, and you're not even here, so I never get to show you how much that means to me. You shall be rewarded with fart jokes!

Younce, Dave
- It never ceases to amaze me how much contact with you reminds me of the joy that comes of creating something, somehow even though I spend the majority of my time trying to do just that. I don't get enough of those reminders, but it's not for want of your trying. I just can't get enough.

Youmans, Dave - Your visit was the highlight of my summer, and I wish I could be there for you now. I'm on entirely the wrong kind of schedule to call you this week. Maybe I can make a theatre game out of it, and have all my students this week involved. You'll hear from me soon.

Grant & Val - I am going to visit just as soon as I can -- maybe on one of these upcoming Saturdays off!

There you have it; a great, big, steamy pile of gratitude. This is not a complete list. It's not nearly all the people I have to thank, and on a daily basis. There are still countless ex-cast-members, coworkers, teachers, students, role-players, relatives, etc. Let this stand in than, if your name happens not to appear above: Thank you.

Thank you.

22 August 2007

SO . . . MUCH . . .. BRAIN . . . 'ASPLODING . . .!

Hi. Hi. Hi.

That's kind of the rhythm of my life this week.

Hi. Hi. Hi. Very precise, slightly manic in pace. It would be mostly the good kind of stress (what "good" kind, you ask -- the kind that comes of having too much to do as a result of lots of stuff one loves...an important caveat) except that nobody's personal life takes a holiday without extreme measures, and I've had several reminders over the past ten days or so from said personal life as to how trivial some of my stress is. Which compounds it with a sense of guilt. Which is about par for the course for yours truly.

There was this week, back in college, when I essentially disappeared for several weekdays in a row. I think it was during my Junior year, and it was highly uncharacteristic of me, at least in one sense. That sense being about how I was Super Student in college. I dove into my work with untempered zeal, and didn't really start to surface until some time mid-Senior-year. In another sense, it was utterly characteristic of me, because what prompted my dive into working solitude (relative solitude) was a certain powerful emotional response to events in my personal life. So Junior year, having no increased work to dive into, I took a time out. It was quite unintentional, and I look back and marvel at how easily I did it . . . and how, even once I recognized I was doing it, the recognition didn't prompt concern for my own well-being. I finally came out of my room, and just went about my business as I always had before.

That's the kind of "extreme measure" I refer to, and it is not an adult option. Sure, everyone needs some time off once in a while, from work, from friends, etc., but short of entering an institution for the treatment of nervous breakdown there is no healthy way to rest from who one is, or one's current responsibilities. And really, I don't want to. I want to achieve, and change, and all that good stuff. Good stuff, nonetheless, can at times be overwhelming.

Another thing I did in college, a healthier and more repeated thing, was to make a B.F.L. in times of many goals, such as when finals rolled around. "B.F.L." is a reference to the PC game DOOM, which I'm not proud of, but thought I ought to own up to. It stands for "Big F'n List," and was essentially just that, comprised of everything I had to get done before a given period of time was out.

Now, for certain pragmatic reasons, I can't list all the to-dos here so, in the spirit of As Far As We Know's launching notice, I present the short list:
  • Work enough hours at day job to cover lack of pay at upcoming gig
  • Do laundry
  • Clean apartment
  • Pack for two months away
  • Forward mail to working address
  • Interview folks
  • Brush-up rehearsals for As Far As We Know
  • Two performances to "close" As Far As We Know
  • Write "closing-night" cards for As Far As We Know
  • Arrange dates to breach upcoming contract in order to perform in potential re-up of As Far As We Know
  • Figure out and arrange transportation for Pennsylvania-New York commute for re-ups
  • Plan curriculum for workshops launching Prohibitive Standards rehearsal period
  • Continue research for Prohibitive Standards
  • Contribute to Prohibitive Standards collaboration forum
  • Maintain exercise regimen, sleep schedule and sanity

I'm not trying to impress you. Okay, well, yes: I crave sympathy. But I have friends with a lot more on their plates--in school, for (a big) one--and I'm aware that all this comes from good tidings, not to mention said reminders of late about how trivial such concerns are in the face of issues such as life, death and family. So, more to the point, I list my pre-Sunday to-dos in order to set them down, make them seem more manageable and share a slice of my life when it's in this mode.

The keen-eyed amongst you may have noticed that I rather slipped in there the possibility of a re-up of As Far As We Know. (It being a mere possibility at this stage is yet another in a long line of inadvertent puns on our title.) I don't want to jinx anything, but the sentiment from our side of things is that when a show gets such press as ours has, it's a good idea to use that momentum whilst it is most momentous. This has long been the goal of our esteemed production team (read: Laurie and Kelly): to get the show supported or otherwise picked-up by a more major theatre. There's a very interesting double-motivation here--one for success in our creation, and one for success in spreading the story and awareness of the Maupin's struggle. That, I suppose, is the balance to all the hassles of creating one's own work: that you will really, personally care about getting it out there.

Which leads us to my present conflict--eager for resolution, but utterly lacking in information to resolve. Both shows are very personally important to me, and both rather rely on my presence. The Zuppa del Giorno shows have been my greatest priority, and my most evolved work, for close to five years. I love them: They are me as an actor, in so many ways. This project is far and away our most ambitious and exciting to date, with a cast of five plus student actors, and performing in two venues. As Far As We Know has been in collaboration for over two years, I've been with it since nearly the beginning, and it's also a creator/actor piece. Now it has the hope of reaching a larger audience than any of my work has to date, and I'm loathe to let go of it, even for a few performances. The two don't absolutely conflict, but decisions are on the horizon. Here's hoping the fates are pleased.

Why, you may ask, in the midst of this would he take time from his day to write here? It would actually be worse if I didn't. Somehow staying connected on the Aviary helps to keep me connected to myself, if just a bit more. Doing less has never given me more sense of peace. Doing more of what I love inevitably does.

So there's much to do before I leave. I appreciate my friends' understanding of that. Hopefully I can make it up to them before "Hi. Hi. Hi." becomes "Bye. Bye. Bye."

And not in that nice *NSYNC way, either.

Oh, get over yourself. You were right there with me.

20 August 2007

Photographs ... As Far As We Know

With just two shows left, this Wednesday and Sunday, I find myself already feeling nostalgic for this production of As Far As We Know (I just love how every time I visit the website, there's some new review quote attached--makes me feel like I'm in a movie or something). With the understanding that some of you can't make it out to the show (just because you're in Virginia [I mean: geez.]) and with the intention of enticing those of you who have no such excuse, I post below some photographs from Saturday's matinee, compliments of Sloan Alexander. These may be your last chances to catch what I modestly submit is a remarkable production; at least, your last chance as far as we know . . .

17 August 2007

Words Were Exchanged

We have had some official feedback on As Far As We Know, and the feedback has been good, which is enormously gratifying. I know reviews are not supposed to mean anything; nevertheless, they do, and not just as regards ticket sales. No, in spite of making every effort to judge my work by the process and personal standards, it remains work that exists to communicate with others, and when the dialogue is one that the audience is showing their appreciation for it make it far more worthwhile. As you know from previous entries (8/8/07 & 8/15/07), New York Magazine began by citing us as 1 of 5 of the most promising-sounding shows of the Fringe Festival, and we had a very nice 'blog review from an audience member who attended opening night.

As a result of Tuesday night's show (ironically enough for me [see 8/15/07]), we now have two more good responses: one from American Theatre, the other from Time Out New York. Actually, the one from TONY is a fantastic review, save their confusion over who is now playing the character of Connie. I do believe it's the first time anything I've worked on has ever been assigned five stars. Actually, it's probably the first time stars have been at all applied to something I've worked on, what with that generally being a restaurant rating system. And a kindergarten incentive. But I digress.

The idea is not so much that you're not supposed to care what the critics think. It's more that you're supposed to care about and believe in your work so much more. Let's face it, though: We can only have so much objectivity about our selves. People need mirrors, and the mirrors that matter most are the ones that write scathing reviews in newspapers, or 'blogs. (Picture that, if you will. [I picture a hand mirror doing that weird floaty thing Disney inanimate objects sometimes do, wrapping its handle around a quill pen.]) Anyway, when it's all said and done, I'd just as soon only ever hear about the glowing reviews. Somehow that never happens though.

Lots of actors refuse to read reviews prior to the closing of the show, most of them on the argument that they don't want it to influence their confidence or performance. And it's true--simply hearing observations on one's work in this regard, good, bad or mixed, tends to make one self-conscious, and that would be terrible to take on stage with you. This used to be my philosophy, but it's changed recently, and not because of these good reviews. In fact, it changed because of bad ones.

Back in the spring I shared some feelings here about the reviews and feedback I was receiving for my performance in A Lie of the Mind (see 4/25/07). I found them demoralizing, when taken all together. I knew that it was not my best work for a variety of reasons (not the least of which was my learn-as-I-go process with Shepard's writing), yet the reviews made me feel as though I had no right to be up on the stage at all. The show closed with good feelings all around, and some rallied to support me when I expressed this angst, for which I am still very grateful, but I had to take some time to evaluate the experience. As Far As We Know has been my first show since, and I decided to read the reviews as they came in.

My reasoning is that I don't want to work in a bubble. Art is an interaction, and I feel that as an artist (God, it still creeps me out to call myself that) I ought to allow myself the opportunity to respond to all kinds of feedback. It's true that acting is a delicate creation, and the urge to please can quickly override the sense of truth in an actor's work, but if I can't maintain my priorities in the face of opinion, just how skilled an artist am I? Some may even argue that actors in this culture don't get enough time to develop their work in rehearsal, and need to insulate themselves from uninformed feedback well into performances. Poppycock, say I. (I say it all the time, actually, which is I think part of why nobody ever wants to watch sports with me.) Once you've put yourself in front of a paying audience, you're no longer in the safety of the rehearsal room, and you better realize that. It's just a different phase of discovery, one that requires that audience. Besides, "uninformed feedback" is what we care about most. If we only wanted to perform for theatre professors, we could just stay in our little rehearsal studio and accept the sound of patting our own backs for applause.

Naturally, it's up to the individual performer whether or not he or she will read reviews during a run, or at all. I just say that it's not blasphemy to choose to hear what people are saying.

Oh, and reserve your tickets for As Far As We Know. We are a ***** show.

16 August 2007

Let's Get it On!

Two ludicrous topics today, web-loggers. The first is in reference to last Tuesday's post (8/14/07). It would seem that it's a popular choice for people to endorse Batman against any and all odds in a fight, giving him the acclaimed status of figures such as Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris and Most Guys' Girlfriends. I have Friend Adam to thank for exposing me to this (my own) bias, in the form of a string of submissions to IGN.com. It seems IGN had a survey/fantasy-football-esque event in which they paired off comicbook characters to see who would win in a fight, until they were down to a final two: (The) Batman and The Phoenix. Batman won the votes. Which is ridiculous (I concede...begrudgingly). So IGN began a series of articles inviting people to describe how Batman would win in the face of a variety of unbeatable odds, aptly titling the series "Use Your Delusion." I invite you to check it out. I daresay they make my proposed Batman vs. Wolverine scenario seem utterly reasonable in comparison.

The other ludicrousity (is SO a word) is the terrible volatility of personal relationships between artists. I am not even kidding. Sometimes it seems to me that these involve more bloodshed even than Wolverine fighting a busload of overweight babies. And understand, I'm not speaking exclusively here of romantic relationships . . . you know: "relationships." rather, I mean any personal relationship that develops between artists. But I should confine myself to actors, here. That's where most of my experience has lain, with a dash or two of dancers and writers for good measure.

We will rock your world. We will: It's science. Now, get two of us together and add a dash of affection, an ounce of attraction and a dram of chemistry and you've got one intense stew. The only problem with that stew (assuming you like stew [and intensity]) is that when it is really cooking, it means it is constantly at a boil.

Wait. I lost myself in the metaphor.

I think it's something having to do with dedicating a good part of one's life to exploring emotions others generally choose to avoid, practicing reacting out of instinct and cultivating an awareness of everything everywhere. For a start. So we apply that exploration, reaction and awareness to our greatest priorities, many of which are personal relationships. That's part of why I'm grateful for those of my friends who aren't artists (though I'm just as grateful for my fellows in the arts), because it's kind of nice to know people who can let an issue slide, or are interested in just sitting down over drinks without discussing the ramifications of society's increased isolation from itself. It's great to be uncompromising and sensitive, to have an alternative viewpoint, but it's not always good to apply this ethic to the day-to-day of personal relationships.

I think there are myriad causes for the explosive nature of relationships between artists, and I haven't the experience or interest to explore them all, but one think we can agree on, I think again, is that personally involved artists working together on a project is the most explosive situation of all. I am thinking here, of course, of my relationship with the actor who left As Far As We Know. Moreover, I'm thinking of her relationship with the producing team, with which she is/was really close. I wonder how much of the reasons for the rift had to do with personal feelings on both sides, and how much with work disagreement. I suppose I'll never really know. What I do know is that, regardless of how much you can clean up both aspects of a relationship--professional and personal--this kind of event creates a breach of trust that I don't believe ever really goes away.

So maybe the better question is, assuming they don't rip each other to shreds, how can we hope for Batman and Wolverine to find a reconciliation together? You know? Kick it over a bucket of wings and a couple of brewskis?

15 August 2007

I Second that Performance

There is a phenomenon among those known exclusively by thespians called "second-night slump." Opinions differ on the exact nature and causes of the "slump," but it is pretty universally acknowledged as something legitimate and worthy of consideration. In essence, it is a drop in energy between the opening and the next performance. Whatever truly causes it--a less personal audience, lower adrenaline, a sense of deja vu--it is a real thing that seems to me unavoidable. Opinions differ even more greatly as to whether the second-night slump is a good or bad thing. In most cases, I feel bad in it. Nothing will click and I'm off my game, or so it seems. Some directors (and, indeed, some actors) insist that the second night is always an all-around better performance. The actors are more relaxed, fluid, and the show loses a lot of the grating edges of first night. I was curious to know if, what with the Fringe Festival's bizarre schedule and our replacement actor, a second-night slump was going to occur last night. And, if so, whether it would be beneficial or detrimental.

Now I have no idea whatsoever.

That's not quite true ("...but I do lie."). The slump definitely happened, at least to me. As Far As We Know requires a certain intensity in performance, owing both to the subject matter and the style in which we've chosen to present it, and mine was slow to start last night. The engine, as it were, coughed a time or two before turning over. It began (it always begins with something small) with my missing the cue to begin the slower movement in the initial movement sequence. I caught the change of pace out of the corner of my eye and thought, "Oh yes. This bit."

Not a good sign.

I did pull out of my tailspin eventually, but not before the memory scene and the car scene were sacrificed on an altar to the Goddess of Preparation. It seems that it would be a good idea for me to run through the whole of my part in the play the day of a show. This is not something I need to do for a regular performance schedule, but having days between each show makes for strange rot in the brain. I could feel it in every marching entrance--the tightness, the intensity (commitment, as Sara Bakker chides me) wasn't there. I was at once more relaxed than I had been Saturday, and yet less in tune with the play. I felt good about my last scene, but that was about it.

Yet the feedback was very positive. It's always hard to say how much of the response is politeness and how much is genuine admiration immediately after a show, but even using my deepest B.S. filter it seemed those I spoke with thought I had a very good show. So I'm letting it go, to some extent. But I'll be sure to run through my show before Saturday's performance (enormously easier, given that I won't be coming from eight hours of desk work).

In other AFAWK news, we've had our first review. Sort of.

There's a very interesting trend in New York (and elsewhere, I suspect) in the past couple of years, and it involves an intersection between the internet and live theatre. For some time now, the only major paper left in the city reviewing theatre was The New York Times, and their word on one's show was pretty much the kiss of life, or death. That's still strictly true, in spite of independent papers making more of a mark in the last decade in that regard, but there's a host of tiny, new player on the critique scene: Bloggers. The majority of reviews we had for A Lie of the Mind were from 'blogs, and 'blogs dedicated to theatre reviews at that. In some cases this is a very, very bad thing (see 4/11/07; though not from a 'blog per se, illustrative of the potential problems of the exposure of unedited work), but in most cases the articles are surprisingly well-thought-out and composed, as evidenced by Tonya Plank's response to our little show.

I love this aspect of the internet as it is now. It's a bit like the wild west, a violent infant as prone to critical error as it is to tremendous success, a mixed metaphor (if you will) that nevertheless satisfies, because all have access to it. This I do verily dig. Someday in the future I imagine the 'bloggers will hit a collective slump in excitement and ingenuity, but for now it's still opening night, and the joint is jumping.

14 August 2007

Wait... Wait... You already posted that picture!

Yeah. Yeah, I did. And what's more, in the anarchic spirit of true artistry, I intend with this entry to break the mould of Odin's Aviary by discussing a topic seemingly unrelated to The Third Life(TM), though I'm likewise sure that I'll find a way to tie it in somehow. That topic is as follows:

Just who would win in a fight between Wolverine and Batman?

Now, everybody: Calm down. Calm right the hell on down. (Some of you may think I'm using an ironic tone at this moment, but nothing could be further from the truth; I have friends that will be offended that there is even a question about this match up--and for both sides, too.) We're going to look at this rationally, and I'm going to be as unbiased as possible. To that end, I must admit to those of you who don't yet know me (though I'm on the cover of this week's The Record . . . WATCH OUT!) that I am about as biased for Batman--in all things--as I could possibly be. Bearing that in mind, let's us begin our fair and balanced exploration of the question.

Batman would win.

Okay, I'm sorry. For reals now:

Batman would kick shorty's hairy butt.

No, no, really. Really. It's a tough call. (It is, Mark.) They're both the more popular bad boys of their respective universes--which is no doubt part of what inspired Amalgam to bring them together in their character, Dark Claw. One could make a quick argument that Wolverine's enhancements make him the sure winner, but frankly, Batman has dealt with supernatural (et al) powers before, and has a reputation for being the smarter fighter in any situation. But I get ahead of myself. Let's take a look at our fighters in some limited detail.

(Isn't it great to, every once in a while, be shameless in one's geek self? "Geeking out" is the popular term, but it can refer to any incidence in which someone unabashedly reveals their enthusiasm for anything. Why should it be such a social sin to relish anything in this world? Because not everyone will care? So what? You don't have to listen/read.)

Dealing with a brief outline of the conditions: Batman is a hero from the DC Comics universe, Wolverine from the Marvel. For the purposes of this discussion, we will be approaching the characters as being at the peak of their natural condition; that is to say, Wolvie with his standard set of attributes in the X-Men arc, Batman in his late-twenties/early-thirties...none of this sapped adamantium or Return of the Dark Knight stuff. (Non-fanboys: Anyone over geeked yet?) And they shall be comic characters, not movie characters. So sayeth I. And they shall be drawn according to their origins, with some allowance for increased anatomical awareness in artists of the latter half of the 20th century. So Wolvie is short, and Batman is not hulking. Finally, they're both to some degree anarchic good guys, with Wolverine taking the anarchy cake: He will kill; Bats will not.

Let's get it on!

Wolverine is a mutant who has been experimented upon (fact-check me here gang; I am not a Marvel dude). He has regenerative powers of shocking rapidity, but for the purposes of this discussion we're gonna go with the popular comic choice of him needing some time (one or two nights) to heal from something severe, like a dozen machine guns. He also has three foot-long claws that extend at will from his fists, which are made from adamantium, a purportedly indestructible metal. In fact, his entire skeleton is coated with a layer of the stuff, adding to his indestructibility and making him heavy as all hell. Now, the healing is a mutant power, and the adamantium is the result of a government experiment. The claws were long assumed to be part of the government's work, but a twist in the nineties suggested they were there before all that, made, at their core, of bone. Sadly, as a result of powerful amnesia, Wolvie barely knows a thing about his origins. Given his healing ability, it's possible he is really very old, but he maintains a loner attitude and an underdeveloped emotional capacity. He is trained in martial arts with a Japanese flavor, and prefers direct action to intricacy or planning.

Batman is just a dude--no superpowers. He has, however, spent every waking moment since he was six years old (or so) dedicating his life to studies both physical and mental that will help him fight crime in the urban sprawl of Gotham City, so often the argument is held that his single-minded determination is his "superpower." These studies include gymnastics, mixed martial arts, all sciences and technologies (with an emphasis on computers and mechanistic devices), detection, criminology and behavioral psychology. His mind and body are honed into excellence, and he's backed up in all of this by a huge estate and corporation left to him by his deceased parents. His modus operandi is to research and investigate the hell out of everything ahead of time and be prepared, like an inky black boyscout. Owing to his background, he is incapable of accepting loss, either of people or in achievement.

Now (and I owe Friend Mark a nod for this): chances are it would all go down in Gotham. It's not hard to imagine these two egos clashing, but given that Wolverine generally wishes to best bad guys, it would take his stomping on Batman's grounds to make Bats take issue with him or his methods. So Gotham it is. And methods it is. Specifically, Wolvie would most likely only come to such a big city if he had to, presumably in pursuit of answers about his past or to hunt a baddie, and he wouldn't announce himself to the authorities. Now, it's hard to say what DC characters would feel about mutants. Batman would have no love lost over their DC equivalent--metahumans--but he's teamed with super types before, and some much fruitier than Wolvie. He is something of a control freak, though, and Wolvie would probably pretty quickly foul up some careful lead Bats was following. Bats would sneak up on him, Wolvie would smell him coming, Bats would warn, Wolvie would yawn him off, Bats would disappear suddenly and without a trace (because you can't smell them going). It's only on their next encounter they'd fight, probably with Bats tracking Wolvie, but Wolvie aware of it, and so he provokes him by threatening to shred a house of drug traffickers instead of arrest them.

And it's on.

My preference is to judge the winner by character examination. You can spend all day debating the merits of strategy, relative invulnerability and motorcycles versus sports cars, but at the end of the day, we're talking about events in a storytelling medium. If it isn't a good story, in this context, then it just isn't feasible (much less desirable). So we'll talk here about claws and cowls, but hopefully in how they serve an outcome, not their viability strictly as weapons.

(Brief irrelevant observation here: Why in the hell does Wolverine wear a mask? Bruce Wayne has to hide his identity to function in both worlds, but Logan has never shown any sign of needing to mask himself. Hell, he's on a continual quest for his identity! That's not the kind of guy who would dig getting his disguise on. Yeah, yeah; I know when he was created it was fashionable and they were trying to make him look more like his namesake. But come on.)

The fight would be all about control and, from this perspective, with Batman as the aggressor (trying to achieve control) and Wolverine as the defender (trying to escape control). This doesn't, however, mean that Bats gets to start the fight. Wolvie would probably startle him by drawing him in and then attacking suddenly. Bats would want to keep the high ground afforded him by his aerial equipment, but would just have to keep swinging lower to suppress Wolvie until it degraded into a street-level (or rooftop) brawl. Surprises would abound. Bats would have all kinds of interesting ways of evening the odds (in the eighties it would have been a neural suppressor to prevent the claws from engaging; in the sixties a giant bat-magnet), and Wolvie would shock Bats with moves so ugly they're almost absurd. Essentially, they're both incredibly experienced, intelligent fighters, once they get past the emotions. Along those lines, Bats would be doing everything he could to make Logan lose it whilst he maintained control of himself and the environment, and Wolvie would be doing whatever he could think of to cause Bats to falter from his grim determination.

Which is why, ultimately, Batman would win.

In every fight, Bats has some part of himself standing outside of the engagement, being the deductive reasoner, that part of him that he found years before, ready to carry him on past his parents' deaths. It's this part of him that inevitably carries the Rocky-esque twists of his fights: Just when he seems most lost, we discover that Bats was merely doing what he had to to manipulate the situation into his ultimate plan. He is ultimately objective, which is what makes him a hero, rather than a revenge-obsessed sociopath with a Narcissus complex.

Which is why, ultimately, Batman can't win.

In every fight, Wolverine's spirit is indomitable. It has to be--it's all he really has. Wolverine is actually a supremely vulnerable character. When he started out, this was manifested only by his impulsiveness and relative lack of strength compared to the other X-Men, rendering him more often as comic relief than as his current status of anti-hero. As writers developed his story, however, the vulnerability came out of this incredible amnesia and a conflict between who he seems to be and who he wants to be. For all his indestructible qualities, inside he's destroyed, and it's only his fighting spirit that he can rely on.

What we have here is a conflict between essential natures, and a stricture of conventional comicbook plots. The characters and their stories are serial, and keeping a balance between continuity and ingenuity is what marketing those comics is all about. That's part of what makes comicbook characters such contemporary icons: like the gods and heroes of myth, they are defined by specific characteristics that remain essentially the same. So we can have several Robins, and Batman can get his will broken by Bane, but only if it eventually returns him to his essential character with renewed vigor. This is great for hero worship and power fantasies. This sucks for narrative, because what's really interesting about a story is how people change as a result of it.

So I propose that the fight would end with Bats getting control of the Wolvie, and having his say about his jurisdiction and Wolvie's methods. Wolvie might even find his arguments compelling enough to stop threatening him for a moment. But Wolvie will not change his ways, and Bats will be forced to expel him from Gotham, like an animal released into the wild. Another little tussle, in which Wolvie gets a claw swipe at the utility belt, to no apparent harm, and Bats will have him ready for transport. The much-battered Batman will escort a bound Logan across whatever harbor borders Gotham, and Logan will light a stoagie, turn wryly back and say over his shoulder as all his bruises fade, "Been a while since I've had a beating, but I've had worse. Bit of advice: Remember that I owe you one, bub." And with that cryptic line, Wolverine leaves the scene.

In a brief coda, Bats goes back to the scene of their first meeting to scavenge clues that may not have been obliterated by Wolvie. In departing there, he uses his fly line to span an alleyway, to discover mid-flight that it is nicked. The line snaps, sending him crashing to a fire escape. "I suppose now we're even..." he says as he rather gingerly descends the escape.

Thoughts? Comments? Complete disagreement?

13 August 2007

So So So How Did It Go Go Go...?

You know, friends can't always make it out to your show. Especially when you're not native to the city, and you do a lot of shows out of town, friends both old and new often have a great deal of trouble getting to where you're doing your work. Add to that the indelible irony of being a theatre artists--that is, most of the people you've met in your adult life are the same, and involved in their own shows you never have time to see--and it's frankly a miracle when someone you know, love and respect ends up in an audience. I think I'm fairly understanding as regards this. I'm especially touched, however, by how many of my friends emailed me this weekend to ask me how our opening on Saturday went.

It went well, y'all. Really very well.

I've not felt stage fright like I did Saturday since the opening of Noble Aspirations. With all that has changed, gone wrong and been invested in As Far As We Know, I was just a wreck starting around 1:30 and extending well past the hour of our start, 9:00 pm. It was a fair consensus that all were feeling mildly-to-greatly throwy-uppy just prior to curtain. We began our day with a blessed extra hour in the space from 10:00 to 11:00 am, in which time the actors ran all the transitions whilst the tech just tried to get more proverbial ducks in the proverbial row before that evening's great experiment. Thereafter we adjourned to a nearby playground to do a speed-through of the lines, and the tech side alighted into a colorful plastic-and-metal tower for notes. It was a gorgeous day, and we felt relaxed.

As I went my separate way afterward, however, already I began the micro-management (in essence, a failure to manage) that is symptomatic of an opening day for me. I got my hair trimmed again, which was good, but spent an hour deliberating on where to have it done. I got some film developed, which was also good, but walked twenty blocks to a place that closed over a year ago before finding a Walgreen's that still does hour development. Then, at approximately 2:00, I stalled out. I needed lunch, but didn't feel hungry, and worried about eating before the show, even though it was still seven hours hence. I had thought to go home and do little homey things, but my film would be ready at 5:00, and I didn't want to come all the way up to 23rd before the show, and there was a 3:00 showing of Bourne Ultimatum nearby and I could eat fast but I probably needed a nap at some point and and and--

Sense prevailed. After eating, I made it home and promptly fell asleep for an hour, got up and and did laundry, organized photo albums and even got to Walgreen's again before arriving for the show call. We got in a little earlier than our 30 minutes, and by the time I was there the projection drop was already up and I was put on taping down light cords. In between tech tasks, actors hurriedly checked and double-checked their props and costumes, frantically noting little differences in the space even since the morning (Who the f%$k put those ground instruments there?!). My big panic was being unable to find the t-shirt my character wears throughout, something I hadn't seen for days anyway and had been niggling at the back of my mind all day. It ended up being within the army bag--another actor's prop--and I found it way too soon. I could have used the further distraction to keep me from madly pacing backstage as the audience filed noisily in.

We had a good, big crowd, with only three out of 74 seats unclaimed. The show begins with my character's mother (that night being played by a substitute actress [a one-night-stand for her; we rehearse the actor who will be in for the remainder of the run tonight] with script in hand) entering with a box, humming to herself. Then triumphant music begins, cuing us all to enter simultaneously and enthusiastically draw yellow ribbon from the box. It's a great way to begin for me--an anonymous, high-energy entrance that introduces actors to audience without any of the stress of an opening scene. It quickly transitions into the sequence in which I do a number of push-ups (usually 24-30, by the by), and they are the easiest of my life. Nothing like show adrenaline to amp up a workout.

In point of fact, there's not enough for me to do in this show. I mean, my part is well-balanced, I think. As one of the "creactors" of this piece, I wouldn't want him to have more exposure than he already has, particularly as the show approaches its denouement. What I mean to say is that I am accustomed to sweating my way through a show, working hard and throughout, and this show in particular raises a lot of driving emotions in me that desire venting. It was not meant to be, however, so I become melancholic backstage and after the show, funneling excess emotional energy into push-ups between scenes. It's a strange state for me, and I'm curious to see if it continues into our final (read: fifth) showing.

Our first did go well, to stumble awkwardly back on track. There were surprisingly few gaffes given our collective circumstances, and them what happened were more than manageable. The biggest that I noticed was my first scene being cut a few lines shy of the end by a sound cue. Suspended in a freeze, I wondered if we would go back to get those lines and fudge the transition into my monologue--a horrible prospect. Fortunately we managed to segue somewhat smoothly into the "capture video," and I felt properly shaken up for it. From my end, the only other gaffe was that yes, indeed, I did almost trip backwards over a bench. I swear that little bastard hadn't been there in rehearsal. Ah well: something to keep me vigilant in my performance.

It's odd to have such widely spread performances. Even given the pick-up rehearsals today and tomorrow to work in the new actor, it feels like a strange interlude. Our next show is Tuesday at 7:00. We have sparse reservations, but it seems there was a reviewer in the crowd Saturday (blessing or curse?), and Joe Varca got a beautiful trailer made and up on the website, so we'll see how we do. Maybe a few unexpected friends will make it. Who knows? Regardless, I'll be thinking of them as I resist the urge to vomit profusely.

10 August 2007

Crisis of Faith

In college, I read Stanislavski. For those of us who slept through (or never even considered taking) Theatre History 101, Konstantin Sergeyevich Stanislavski was an actor, director and teacher in 19th century Russia who made a big impact on the acting world by recording his process and "method" in a series of books, amongst various other associations and theatrical victories. To put the tale overly simply, he grew up in an aesthetic that instructed acting by way of imitation, but he came to value an approach of creating a character "from the inside out," meaning to find an association or familiarity with a character within one's own emotional landscape before mucking about with the specifics of gesture and voice. This was revolutionary, and we've been rather obsessed with it ever since (even though Stan went on to study truth through physical gesture as well). I laughed out loud (and I'm still trying to figure out if that was the desired effect) at one point in his book An Actor Prepares. He's telling the story of trying to get a handle on playing Othello, when he sees a chocolate cake on a table. He impulsively plunges his face into the frosting, and returns to his mirror to continue working on whatever monologue had his attention at that time. When I was 19 or so, I thought this was the most ridiculous thing I had ever read about acting.

This morning, while waiting to cross a street, I noticed a puddle full of oil, or gasoline, and barely thinking about it stepped into the puddle to stand and wait for the light to change. You see, for the past few days I have been wearing the sneakers my character wears in the show. They're white, and need to look like they're well used in fields and garages, my character being a soldier and a mechanic. So, for the past few days, I have been reprogramming my instinct (hopefully only temporarily) to step IN every nasty spot in the park and city that I can find. Waiting to cross the street I spotted the rainbow sworls below and thought (Tin-Man like) as I stepped, "Oil!" It's rather ridiculous what a sense of victory I experienced from this.

Yesterday one of the actors in As Far As We Know quit. Actually, that's only true insofar as I've heard it. I was not there (it happened in a morning phone call between the actor and the director) and have only heard the details third-hand, so to the actor it may have seemed more like a firing, or at least an inevitability. We open tomorrow.

This generally doesn't happen. The night before it happened, as a way of pardoning all the up-to-the-curtain changes a group-developed work may involve, Laurie told a story of making I Am My Own Wife, in which the playwright came into the last rehearsal and told the only actor in the show, in sum of substance: "I have good news and bad. The good is I've solved the ending. The bad is that it means you have to come up with 13 new, distinctively different characterizations." And when I developed the first show of Zuppa del Giorno, Noble Aspirations, we spent nine months building a story, and ended up scrapping it entirely and starting fresh during tech week. So I am accustomed to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune where the theatre is concerned.

This particular plot twist, however, is surprising in a number of ways. First and foremost, actors don't quit a show two days before it opens. They occasionally get fired in such a time, but they don't quit. I've been trying to imagine circumstances under which I would do such a thing, and there are a few, none of which could apply here. So it is flummoxing. Secondly, and most baffling, most of us have been working on this show--off and on--for over two years. This is what's kept me in the game during those times when I began to question my own resolve to see it through. How could I leave off before we saw some kind of semi-glossed presentation? I don't think any one of us can claim not to have been profoundly affected by this work at some point. And maybe that's it. Maybe the actor just couldn't agree with the show we ended up making, or something. It's pointless for me to speculate in this.

You know that inevitable scene in the Rocky movies in which the match is not going well, and the chips are down, and Rocky's looking like he's going to vomit and fall in it any moment now, and we're all just waiting for him to rear up and triumph against all odds? Pepper that feeling with--to borrow a term--a little shock and awe, and you'll have the mood of rehearsal last night. We already had a new actor in, and they were doing their very best to catch up. The adrenaline of it all helped to wash away some of the sense of loss and incompleteness, but every so often you'd catch a fellow actor's eye and see it all in there. In the final stages of creating a play about a family's inexplicable loss of one of its own, we lost, rather inexplicably (to the cast, anyway), a member of our family. I really, really miss this actor. It sucks.

But...Rocky's going to get up off the floor. We will take arms against a sea of troubles. The show will go on. That's what we do. It may not be perfect, it may not even be pretty, but it will be, and we will have made it. Come to think of it, many people have contributed to what we've made who are not here now. From actors to writers to actual participants in the events that are the source of our inspiration, there are all kinds of missing people, and part of what we're learning through this is how we live through that. One thing I've learned is to find small joys during it all, to be sure not to miss them when they cross your path. That, and a little faith doesn't hurt, either.

08 August 2007

This Way to Tech Day

Or perhaps I should say: This way to tech in two hours. To be fair (fairness above all), As Far As We Know had much more time than we perhaps otherwise might’ve. We were the first to start what was sure to be a much longer day for the space itself, so the theatre wasn’t already clogged with props and costumes from other shows, and we even got in rather earlier than our stated time slot. It was just enough to get by, though. The Fringe (or perhaps it’s the space we’re in) requires part of one’s tech to be a timed run of the show. For us, that means two hours to figure out a very tech-heavy show, and two to run it. And that’s it. So we got everything rigged to run, and Jen Schreiver and Joe Varca got a start on the light, sound and video set-up and cues.

And then we ran.

All things considered, it went well. We got through the whole thing, anyway, and it clocked in within the required time limit. There’s plenty still to be worked out in every category, hat-to-tails, but we saw the bear dance, and it didn’t run wild and devour any of our volunteer tech staff. (That’s a metaphor, in which “the bear” represents “our production”…just for those of you who know nothing about the show. It contains, sadly, no dancing bears.) Mind you, I’m still terrified. We never again set foot back in the theatre space prior to opening; at least not until 15 minutes before our debut.

What jacks up everybody, methinks, beyond the already anxious position of finally showing all our cards on this former work-in-progress, is the exciting good news of last night. New York Magazine (my favorite for crosswords [Maura Jacobson, you rule!]) has us at the top of the short list of not-to-miss NYC Fringe shows. So, you know. Wow.

Apart from all the technical aspects as-yet unknown, there’s a lot of my personal process that I have yet to nail. In the space of three scenes—all of them either memory, dream or hallucination—I need to create a whole, individualized human being. In the midst of doing this, I have these funky-ass movement things to do. Abstractions: ones that will work, if only I can do them with the same intention that I might a “normal” scene with utter verisimilitude. Most of them involve walking slowly backwards. One involves walking backwards completely blind, my entire head covered by cloth. This was, of course, my invention.

And the stage and our entrances are bizarre, on the whole. The stage is a long, narrow thrust extending from thirty feet away into the midst of three seating sections. We have essentially four entrances: two from either downstage corner (from which there is only audience to hide behind) and two from either upstage side. These upstage entrances are set wide apart, owing to a backdrop that is about as wide as the stage floor is deep. In other words, for both of my backward marches I have to navigate no fewer then four right-angle turns without being able to target exactly where they need to happen.

As is my wont, I find a very apt metaphor in this (one excluding dancing bears, much to my chagrin). The show is marching blind into the fold, and the only way to make it work is to be as vigilant as possible, and as prepared as possible to make good out of the accidental. We know the stakes, and can only imagine the potential results. It is ultimately out of our hands—there are just too many factors at play. Until we get there, we just have to believe as much as possible…and work our asses off making sure that belief is grounded in enough action to match our faith.

So you better believe the next three-days-and-change will find me doing a lot of backward walking and line exploration. Abraham Lincoln spoke a great quote (one which I’ve tattooed in Sharpie on my stilt legs): “I may be a slow walker, but I never walk back.” I have to hope Abe would appreciate my position and afford me a little excuse to moonwalk my way on and off stage. I hope he would appreciate our little show, too. I think we’ve struck a nice balance concerning the issues of war and politics, even if it does present the American military as being a bit more flawed than I perceive it to function (a necessary adjustment for dramatic purposes). One who may be more politically liberal may actually feel upset with the protest letters our fictional family receives in the midst of their struggle. Then again, I have virtually no independent perspective left. I’m too close. I’m all over the place.

And I mean it literally. We had, of course, discussed this at great length, but it wasn’t until I saw our technical rehearsal today that I realized just how pervasive my face would be in the production. Those of you who know me may have some difficulty with this, especially given how few scenes I have to establish myself as a character. In the second act, images of my face literally border the entire stage, and Faith Catlin and Alex Cherington—as Jake’s parents—wear t-shirts with my face peering out from them. It unnerves me in rehearsal. It will most likely destroy the tissue of the play’s reality for them what know my actual person. Sorry gang. On the plus side, it must be great exposure for my career.

Assuming the show turns out well, that is.

07 August 2007

"I'm Not a Total Killjoy"

You were beginning to worry. Maybe this week would be only about The New York City Fringe Festival, and my appearance in As Far As We Know? Maybe the 'blog had ceased its delightfully random nature of random subjects at random times? Maybe the honeymoon is over, and you should just be buying cotton panties from here on out (they're comfortable, economical and support our nations economy)? Well, just when you were worried, I bring you freshness in the form of . . .
(How many of you got a flash of The Wonder Twins owing to that phrasing? "Form of vicious tiger!" "Form of slightly rusty bucket of water!")
Friend Mark posed me a couple of interesting questions a little (far too) long ago, and as I answered them via email (it's what I did before I 'blogged) I thought I'd really like some others' opinions on the matter(s). So, here you have the email, minus the friendly jousting of introduction:
What compels an atheist to commit acts of charitableness? I have to go a little Ayn Rand on this one: It works. It simply works. The world works through exchange and reaction, and we can not help but learn to make our exchanges profitable to our environment. The only thing limiting that degree of profitability is our personal degree of foresight. To put it another way, the most basic survival instinct says, "Yeesh, I'm hungry. Oog is fat and slow. I'll catch and kill him, and not be hungry any more." However, the longer the view our hypothetical cro-mag has, the happier (more profited) he'll be. "Hey, if I can get Oog to let me use him as bait, he'll be a renewable resource and I'll be hungry less often. Of course, I'll have to share some of the lion with him, but in the long run that'll make him more likely to let me mate with his sister. Oo! That rock looks pointy! I wonder if I can make it more pointy and use it to . . . "

Etc. Just to be clear, I'm not saying capitalism is my new philosophy. I'm pretty much sticking with Taoism, actually. It's just that in seven years and seven months, what I've come to learn about the Way is that it usually involves others, and in a reciprocal capacity. Even an atheist can understand the basic value in creating better circumstances for his/her fellow man/woman.

Now, as to what unifies Unitarian Universalists, I'm tempted to quip, "vocabulary." I'm also tempted to say, "Hey man, I didn't found the 'religion,' I was just reared by one of its ministers!" But I still feel allegiance to that faith, and do count it as a goodly one, and so will attempt to answer.

It's ironic, but in a way what unifies us U.U.s is one thing I strive to avoid in my personal philosophy: identification through discrimination. To put it another way, "WE are WE because WE'RE not YOU." U.U.s are united by--to some degree--their common belief that the other folks are wrong . . . to tell anyone that they're wrong. We phrase this delicately, that we are a non-denominational community committed to accepting the personal beliefs of all, but that's a bit of a paradox. Particularly when it comes to folks like malevolent Satanists or abortion-clinic bombers. So we hedge in the fence a bit with shared beliefs about the value of human life and avoiding a missionary mentality, things of that sort. But essentially, we all hang together because we can (nay, deem it valuable to) lower our standards of specificity for the sake of creating community.

Kind of like my answer to your first question.
Satisfied? Comments?