27 September 2007

Many Happy Returns

No doubt you're all wondering why you've not heard from me on here in a while. Further, your frustrations over that (if frustrations there be) are about to be further compounded by this entry, the purpose of which is not to write so much about me as about someone who is very dear to me. He isn't even an actor (at least he hasn't been [in the traditional sense] since high school), but today is his birthday, and his family is just as clever as he is, so one of his sisters invited all of we--his 'blogified friends--to dedicate an entry to David Mr. Younce today. It is my pleasure to do so.

It's little known, but Dave Younce is actually a 350-year-old werewolf who belongs to all the important secret societies, including The Knights Templar, the Free-Masons and the Illuminati. He helps to keep this information discrete through a manipulation of seemingly inconsequential circumstances and details that somehow cumulatively result in a complete opacity of actual information. These masterminded manipulations require a comprehension and pattern recognition to perceive that is so vast, no normal man may achieve it. For years, the doctoral-level theoretical mathematicians at all the major American scientific universities have had their equivalent of a regatta, by way of a contest to be the first to determine what Dave will do next. To date, only two, Mensa-level mathematicians have succeeded. One promptly disappeared on an ill-advised expedition to the Amazon. The other immediately went insane. Dave is a figure of mystery and illusion who must never be gambled with, deceived (as if such a thing were possible) and who will swiftly assassinate irritating people with the power of his mere intention.

Not really, though. (As far as I know.) But Dave is one of those people about whom one has stories that seem almost of necessity fictional. I have spent the past few days trying to decide what is my best Dave story. Truly, there are too many to choose from. There's Dave the frustrated genius, who conceives ideas for engrossing fiction like each was an easily-dispensed pellet of Pez. There's Dave the adventurer, who appreciates better than anyone else I know the merit of following through on what seems a crazy idea. There's Dave-as-Mickey-Goldmill, who is always in one's corner for incidents from encouraging work on a project to understanding how tough life can get. There's Dave the Mastermind, who, you'll suddenly discover, has thought five steps ahead of you on a given day and, actually, is the reason you're where you are, doing what you're doing, that day to begin with. To top it all off, he's just a great, great friend--the kind you are always grateful for.

This last characteristic is perhaps the source of one of, if not the, best Youncey stories I have.
The best thing I can say about my experience of the summer of 1996 was that Dave was a huge part of it. It was the summer after our freshman years of college, his at BYU and mine at VCU. However it happened, we ended up hanging out more that summer than we ever managed in high school, and did I ever need it. I was working at a mall branch of Circuit City, in a bizarre state of quasi-break-up with my girlfriend and just generally confused and pissed off. So Dave and I passed the summer in good part talking about girls, drinking late-night Slurpees and having strange adventures. We would give one another "assignments," things to write or accomplish or retrieve that made mundaneness of growing up much more interesting. One day, Dave's assignment to me was to meet someone on a train platform toward sunset and speak specific words to him; something along the lines of, "No news is good news."

Well, I followed through, and sure enough there was a large man sitting alone on the platform, wearing unnecessary sunglasses and reading a newspaper. (The "man" was a mutual acquaintance, Chuck, but I didn't really know him well and for a minute of surveillance there I really thought I was dealing with a stranger.) What followed were hours of adventure as Chuck drove me to another location to meet another contact. I was completely out of control of my circumstances, and all my "contacts" were in character, mysterious figures who fed me tidbits of story but never answered a question directly. They were all mutual friends (including my erstwhile girlfriend--a deliciously dangerous twist), a network of game-playing cronies who executed this amazing real-life theatre. From train station, to park, to bank, to highway, every person I met had new information for me about my ultimate goal: to confront the mysterious "Condor." It went off beautifully, and mind you this was before everyone in the world had cell phones. The only glitch I knew about happened at the end, when the last contact dropped me off at the wrong end of the field behind my house, the end Dave had parked at. I knew I was to meet the Condor on that field. When Dave saw me crossing the street toward his car, he hopped out and addressed me by my codename. I was so into the game, however, that I thought it was a trick or test (no one who knows him would put it past him) and insisted on getting to the field. I did, to find a mini arena for our final confrontation. Dave eventually joined me (presumably after chewing out the last contact a bit) and we went to meet everyone who had been involved at a local restaurant.

Why that story, apart from not having had any experience like it before or since? Because it shows just how far Dave will go for a great experience with friends, his love of detail and creation, and because it demonstrates just how cool my friend Dave Younce is. Happy birthday, Youncey. You're (still) the best.

10 September 2007

As Far As I Go

It seemed so simple: Rent a car, in order to commute between Prohibitive Standards rehearsals in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and the extended performances of As Far As We Know at 45 Bleecker Street in Manhattan, New York. Maybe you'll feel a little strung out, but you won't miss much back in Scranton, and hey, you'll achieve in a very strong manner that continued connection to your theatrical home you always struggle to maintain when you're doing the regional theatre. It's a win-win.

Wrong wrong!

There's a line in Kevin Smith's Dogma that springs to mind here. "Any moron with a pack of matches can set a fire. Raining down sulfur is like an endurance trial. Mass genocide is the most exhausting activity one can engage in . . . next to soccer." To that short list, I would choose to add working on two different shows in two different states (and by states, I mean every possible definition of the word). I was warned of this by a thesis defense I witnessed in college. A brilliant actor (who immediately ceased to act once he achieved his Master's, as I understand it), Greg Guy DeLeonardis, mentioned in his thesis defense that he would never again rehearse two shows at once. Both shows suffered, yet neither quite as much as he.

Now, for myself, I can't say that I suffered any great defeat or anything of the sort. It was simply exhausting to vacillate between the different mind states required by each show, much less adding a vacillation betwixt Pennsylvania and New York. In retrospect, too, it may be that any suffering the shows experienced was owing more to other circumstances than my own strung-out demeanor. But more on that later. Simply going between broad, physical comedy and quasi-Epic theatre with a dash of naturalism was a difficult transition. I have difficulty with such a stylistic shift even with months between productions. It seems no matter what I do to prepare for that kind of transition, some remnant of the last style I worked in remains hopping about in my brain. I suppose I had thought that my character in As Far As We Know was developed enough that I could slip back into him like he were my favorite pair of jeans; still, on the opening of the re-up, I found myself more a thinking actor than a feeling one.

As I say, there were other factors involved in this. There could hardly have been more, in fact. In addition to Laurie making some important changes to the play itself between The Fringe and the re-up, the space was vastly different from that we had become so accustomed to playing in. Essentially, take the Flamboyan space in CSV and turn it sideways with the addition of some more-awkwardly-placed poles and curtain slits for entrances, and you'll have some idea what we were confronted with at 45 Bleecker Street. The tech, which I was excused from owing to my commute, was apparently disastrous. Laurie was out of town working on a new job, and she tore back into town on a $500 flight after hearing how our opening night went.

The most interesting snafu that night--for me, that is--was the failure of the video to play. It seems the video projector will go into rest mode, or some such thing, if not set properly. This it did, and so the first video cue failed to play. It's not a particularly necessary cue. That is, not particularly necessary to the action on stage, but it is, however, necessary to cue Lea McKenna-Garcia to begin her drill sergeant rant about the war. The end of which is my cue to stop furiously doing push-ups. (You may be able to see where this is heading.) Fortunately, as I began to approach push-up 40 or so (Yay, personal best for single set!) and my back started to twitch involuntarily (Boo, muscle spasms!) Lea summed up the predicament and I was saved a trip to the ER.

There were plenty of other interesting diversions from the play as it is written that night, lending the whole thing a bit of the quality of a Zuppa del Giorno production. Suffice it to say, it was a godsend that Laurie could return to set things right. The successive performances just got better and better, and I think we may have even got the thing 'round to its lovable old self by closing night. In the meantime, I continued to spirit back and forth through New Jersey in my Enterprise rental car, chanting to myself, "It's all a tax write-off, it's all a tax write-off . . .." The truth is, it was a grand time. Once some of the fires got put out, and I resolved my feelings over missing a good chunk of the work on Prohibitive Standards, I relaxed and enjoyed being so thoroughly employed in the theatre. Last week, when we were learning some fight choreography for the show, Geoff Gould turned to me and said, "We're getting paid for this." It's funny after ten years how joyful that simple thing can feel.

The big question, of course, is if As Far As We Know will have any life after this experience. That was the point of all this effort, and no startling news has yet to filter my way, no offers of space or interest or passionate replies of sponsorship. In my typical actor sensibility, I take this to be a sign of moving on. Actors get used to this attitude--somewhat, at least--through continual auditioning. "Well, that's done. Mustn't dwell on whether I'll get the call." Fortunately, I have something altogether preoccupying (read: freaking difficult) to work on for the next month or so. Perhaps AFAWK will ripple out to greater effect; perhaps not. How I feel now, if this is the end, is that we created work that was good, and that mattered. That's the kind of work that you really learn from. That's the kind of work that sticks with you through the years and, hopefully, with others as well. I feel proud of that.

This Is How We Do It

The past week has been a busy one, especially in comparison to the actual clocked hours of teaching last week, never mind my peculiar travel habits for the re-up of As Far As We Know. The bulk of the work has been to educate a group of incredibly mixed experience into Zuppa del Giorno's style of theatre . . . and, in the process, remind even ourselves of what it is we do.

That may seem odd. It seems one of the most consistent subjects I bring up on this here 'blog is Zuppa, that ever-adventurous work I've been doing pretty consistently for the past five years. When we're not doing a show, we're planning for one, or teaching workshops, or recruiting students or venturing off to Italy. Yet somehow, in all that hustle and bustle, we've gotten away from our roots--that is, creating a play directly from improvisation on a scenario. In Italy, we devoted much of our energy to incorporating Italian into the scenario. Operation Opera was as much about writing the scenario as it was improvising upon it, and Silent Lives was similar in that sense, and completely different in the sense that it was a clown show. There are entire technical elements of our original work that I had lost sight of in the rest of the machinations, elements such as David's "Newtonian Impulses" and the ways in which we strip down a scenario to its most basic elements, and strip away language as a communication tool.

So we've all been learning together. It's fascinating to watch the students toil in such unfamiliar territory, probably doing many of the same things wrong and right that I did in 2002. Fascinating, too, to watch how Sam, Erin and Geoff trust in the process so implicitly in spite of being new to it. I suppose acting experience in general (though, perhaps specifically experience with improvisation) helps actors perceive the merit in doing things as thoroughly and gradually as this process demands, in spite of having the intense deadline it does.

And then again, maybe I don't give my fellow actors quite enough credit. It's an amazing group. (And just how have I been so lucky this year as to only work with incredible people?) Which is just to say that the "new" actors to Zuppa's process are very disciplined and talented artists who somehow get it. They just get it. Thank God they do, too, because when your working with people who don't it adds a whole lot more work to an already intensive work process.

So just what is this work what takes me away from my beloved Aviary for so long? How can we have so much to do when we don't even have a scenario related to our play yet? I am so glad you asked! The bible of our little group is a book of Flaminio Scala's collection of original commedia dell'arte scenarios. These scenarios provide very little information in the way of dialogue or explanation. They begin with a character breakdown such as you would see at the beginning of any published play, but with no character descriptions as such, since the characters they they would be known by their type to the original actors. Then there is a paragraph or two about "the argument," which describes a little about back history and relationships, though generally not reaching much farther back than a month or so. Finally, there is the scenario itself, which is divided into paragraphs titled after the character or characters concerned in the central action of each. The scenario merely describes the action of the "scene," and provides no explanation as to specific actions of characters or motivations for such, so there's much to be interpreted (including the extensive use of pronouns: does "he" refer to Pantalone or Arlechino this time?). The scenarios don't even say "the two fail to understand one another because _______." They say, "they speak at cross-purposes."

So David will begin by assigning parts (in our case, occasionally assigning two parts to one actor, unconcerned with the supposed sex of the character), then he will read the scenario a few lines at a time, and we actors will fulfill its demands as he reads, rather like the theatre sports game "Typist Narrator." In this round, there's typically very little interpretation, and we can speak whatever dialogue helps us understand the action. The point is to absorb the scenario. After once through, we try again, and again, until we can run through the thing without narration. Then David gets us to run it more and more efficiently, giving us only five minutes to fulfill all the actions, then three, then one. This gets us centered on the action, and away from flourishes and embellishments that may have snuck in after several runs.

Then it gets difficult.

One of the distinctive features of traditional commedia dell'arte is very specific, very full physical characterizations. (This was part of the benefit of working with the students last week on creating grand characters for busking.) One part of effectively using such characterizations is learning to use one's body to communicate as specifically as one might with words. The scenarios lend themselves to this approach in the way they were recorded: no dialogue, only action. The trick, then, is to train oneself to speak with the body as significantly as with words. After learning and stream-lining the scenario, then, we begin on several challenges:
  • Three-Word Phrases - The actors can only speak two-to-three words at a time, and must shave down their free dialogue to what's essential (not to mention learn to really dialogue in order to create more opportunities for each other to use another two or three words).
  • One-Word Dialogue - The actors can only speak one word at a time, which drives them to use their physical life to imbue that word with as much specific meaning as possible. I.e., saying love comes to mean love that wrenches me in confusing directions whilst lifting my heart into my mouth.
  • One-Word/One-Gesture Unification - Closely related to many impulse-passing exercises we warm-up with, this challenge is perhaps the most challenging (well: for me, anyway). The idea is that a scene is about passing energy back and forth, and to do so with as much commitment as possible. This is the challenge that gets us closest to the traditional style of performance. One actor begins it, with his or her body, creating a continuous motion that communicates his or her need until he or she passes it off to the scene partner with a single word punctuating the end of the motion. THEN the actor must suspend in that pose until his or her scene partner passes the changed impulse back in the same manner. (It feels very unnatural to western actors trained in "naturalism," but really it's just a different rhythm to applied to the same concept of unification.)
  • Dance Through - After One-Word/Gesture, this one is typically a relief. Plus, it frees actors to make different, less-obvious choices with their characters and actions. This challenge allows NO language, only physical action, to communicate the story. Music is played throughout (we used Strauss waltzes, but I've enjoyed this with mixes of different types of music as well), and the actors are encouraged to allow the music to inform the manner in which they play the scene. Not only does this relax the actors into using physical choices to communicate, but it helps strip away physical "language," those gestures that have agreed-upon definitions, such as the thumbs-up or flipping someone the bird.
As you might imagine, after going through all these different versions of a scenario, one learns it pretty well. To keep things fresh, we often switch roles around somewhere in all this, so everyone pays very close attention to everyone else's scenes. In this way, we actors really learn the scenario, and not just "our part" in it. (...B.S., B.S., my scene with Arlechino, B.S., B.S., ...) As you may also imagine, this work helps us learn what to expect from one another in general, our strengths and enthusiasms, and builds tremendous ensemble mentality. We also work, amidst all this, on developing an instinct for the "comic three;" not just as a comedy rule, but as a method of tracking an improvisation and patterning the rhythm of interaction. A joke between two people generally has two developing beats and a punchline. If an action repeats, it does so in segments of three(s). And when acting with our scene partner, we receive his or her impulse, suspend and process it a beat, then send it right back out again. Threes are helpful.

I have the benefit or having seen how impressive the results of this groundwork can be. It helps to create a show completely unique and rewarding to a western (and I believe any) audience, and allows us to get very comfortable with that strange crisis of the moment on stage that improvised shows create: What will happen next? The audience doesn't know because we don't specifically know. It's all life. Through this work, however, we know where we are when we float in that uncertainty. Next week we begin developing the scenario with Steve, and we begin that period of rampant change and uncertainty, when sometimes all one wants is for someone else to make a decision and write us a pretty little script. Together, however, we will find the courage to not know what the hell we're doing.

03 September 2007

ZdG Busking Workshop Days Six & Seven: Busking Heaven

It's remarkable how things come together for a show. One of the more brilliant moments of the film "Shakespeare in Love" is a line bestowed upon Geoffrey Rush's character of Philip Henslowe, as an explanation for the bizarre and spontaneous nature of the way in which shows seem to pull themselves together: "I don't know. It's a mystery."

I don't think it would be an overstatement to say that the classes leading up to our debut at La Festa Italiana were increasingly tense. The students, for the most part, really didn't know what they were going to do with themselves for three hours of improvised performance. Some were thrilled and eager; most seemed suspended, waiting for some kind of intervention from above. At the same time, we as teachers (and, more relevantly at this time, collaborators) allowed our workshop sessions to become rather less structured. We had to, which I found very interesting. It was time to let the students take more direct charge, to communicate with them on a level of equals. Even as we prepared them in the last hour before entering the liveliest stage of all, it was more a projection of authority and leadership than the actual stuff. It was their show. We were now just players in it.

One of the last "taught" segments of the workshop was demonstrating aspects of solo performance and bit development. I performed my clown for them (not to great effect--I was feeling very drained) and a greenshow bit from way back during my days at Porthouse Theatre. Then Dave and I encouraged them to perform special skills one at a time. It was a very good transition into their situation of the next day, choosing people one at a time to hold their own on stage, and helping them see what material they had to use in creating something diverting. Some used skills they had already learned, most resorted to creating scenes out of their developing relationships with one another as characters. It was good, and a good way to end the workshop of the night before we convened at TNT to brush up and perform. Both terrifying and uplifting.

The next day so much happened that it's hard to relate. We warmed them up with improvisations out and in character, and David Zarko came in to give notes on each character (most of his notes consisted of encouraging everyone to broaden their characterizations physically). At the same time, Heather and Sam arrived to observe our foray into performance. Erin would arrive during the festival, nearly completing our cast for Prohibitive Standards. From the rest of the day, and our experiences of the entire week, we would that night choose four students to join our cast. For the time, however, as Dave and I suited up and joined a family (he a Verdeloni, I a Rossolini), there was only the huge endeavor before us. We would walk down a street in character, into a teeming crowd of unsuspecting Italian enthusiasts, and start a fight.

Start a fight we did. As we entered the town square, already attracting attention with our bizarre costumes and shapes, the families formed two groups and we began the argument: OUR restaurant is better; YOU stole everything good you know from US. It had been agreed that we would stick to larger groups until everyone had gotten more comfortable with the walkabout, but it seemed to me that, as they dispersed to dispense red and green ribbons amongst the crowd (we SO didn't make enough of those), everyone took to wings. I didn't see a fellow performer for nearly a half an hour, and I worried they were huddled somewhere, avoiding the show. I couldn't have been more wrong. Every single performer took to the show like they had been born in character. It was beautiful. I only wish I had been able to observe more--being in character myself ("Uncle Bruno"), I couldn't rest for more than seconds at a time. In fact, after two hours Heather approached to gauge my feelings about wrapping it up an hour early, feeling we had more than accomplished our task and that energy was waning. I couldn't have agreed more eagerly. Busking, truly, is a sport for the young.

We concluded in a spirit of relief and excitement. It seemed everyone had a remarkable time, and I made sure we gathered in the cabaret room at the theatre for stretching and debriefing. It was marvelous to hear everyone's stories from the day, good and bad, because everyone seemed to have enjoyed themselves and have learned something genuinely new from the experience (I being no exception to this). Finally, we had to say goodbye, and it was mostly sweet, since everyone felt accomplished and most were off to other Labor Day festivities. The bitter came when I had to acknowledge that only a few of our groups of eleven would be continuing on to do the show. It was necessary, to nod to the transition as we entered into it, and I hope everyone perceived how grateful I felt to all of them for their work and daring. I'm honored to have had the experience of each of them in my life.

That night we selected our four, and now we have the full cast. The week of training in the inimitable Zuppa del Giorno style begins next, and our college students are not the only ones to receive the benefit of it. Three professional actors in the this project have no idea what to expect either. And, frankly, it's been a year and a half since Heather and I have put up a full Zuppa production, and some three since we've done so with David Zarko.

So there's a lot to (re)learn.

01 September 2007

ZdG Busking Workshop Day Five: Nature Abhors a Doormat

Okay. I'm reading my own title, and I'm struck by how insane this idea was. Let's get a group of mixed-experience, barely formed personalities together and take just six short days to equip them with the skills necessary to perform improvised scenarios at a public event. Then let's just plunge them into said event, a trial by fire, if you will. Six days should be a enough, right? To train them from the ground up, have them create wholly original characters and develop them all into a scenario, right? Oh, and hey, since that's so simple, LET'S DO IT IN THE FIRST WEEK OF THEIR RETURN TO/ENTRANCE INTO UNIVERSITY.

I may have reached my own panic stage of this process. Hence the somewhat difficult title of this post, and my own use of logic in analyzing the details of this workshop. Silly Jeff: Logic has no place in the theatre.

You're probably thinking of "doormat" in terms of the standard allegory or personification--a person who allows themselves to be walked all over. Indeed, nature probably does abhor such people. (Can't be sure [Nature and I haven't been on speaking terms ever since she made me 5' 8 3/4"], but I'm pretty sure Darwin will back me up on this [Darwin! Represent! What what!].) However, I actually mean it in the sense of a metaphor taught to me early in my own college experience. I believe it was my freshman-year acting teacher, Mr. Hopper . . . though as someone awfully prone to axioms he gets most simple lessons ascribed to him . . . who advised us, "When you come to rehearsal, wipe your feet at the door." He wasn't simply advising fastidious tidiness, but a different respect of the space. You're there to work, and whatever emotional turmoil your day may have consisted of, it shouldn't interfere.

However. That's a lesson in professionalism, and theatre has the interesting distinction of basing its business upon rather un-"business-like" behavior. Theatre is a study of nature, specifically human nature. I don't believe a true distinction can be drawn between how we feel in our lives and how we feel in our work. We can compartmentalize all we like--we can be damn good at it--but the truth of the matter is that we are who we are, as ever-changing and inconvenient as that may be. An artist learns to use it, to appreciate it for what it is, and maybe even engage it rather than try to shut it away.

Last night one of our actors surprised us. We were walking about the room in our burgeoning characters for La Festa Italiana, in a sort of guided exercise in which Dave talks the actors through exploring specific physical and emotional qualities in their characters. It came to a stage in which the characters were to begin interacting with one another, and we tried to emphasize the need for an intention, a want that can only be fulfilled by other people (this is key to successful walk-about characters in a busking performance). One actor was adamant about refusing contact--it had clearly become their intention to avoid. In the discussion afterward we spent some time discussing helpful and difficult aspects of character, and in so doing we came to the isolated actor. I was about to explain how it is less helpful to make a character who has no reason to be out in public for this venue, when they explained that a relative had just been diagnosed with cancer and painfully disintegrated into weeping.


So there we are, standing in a circle, as this poor student weeps. The actors on either side reach around them for the supportive, non-suffocating hug, and I sort of lose my sense of reality for a moment. I've had students lose control in class before, but never one so mature and with such a personal reason. At some point, seemingly hours later, I approach the actor and get eye contact to say that if they want to step out for a minute that's okay. They do, and we say a few words to wrap up that phase of the session before giving everyone a break. As is to be expected, several people are affected--and some very deeply--by the emotion, and it takes us a while to get back to the workshop. But we do. And we get back on the plan, after a quick, spontaneous game of
catch to lead back in. The upset actor even eventually rejoins to observe and re-involves themselves at the end.

We have a day off now, during which time we've given them plenty to think about. At the end of class we divided them into their respective families, and asked them to come back on Sunday with a costume, a prop and a piece of music that expressed their characters. Our workshop Sunday will be the day before the performance, and we'll have five hours with them all to get them ready. We have a lot to get done yet. But they'll come with everything they have, and that will get us through.