31 October 2007

Happy Halloween. We're all gonna die.

As though worries about the environment and global strife were not enough, it appears that the science fiction writers were right once again. I refer you to this link, courtesy of Friend Nat. Read it, if for nothing else, for your own safety and those of your loved ones:

30 October 2007

Ain't No Party Like A "The Office" Party . . .

Some of you have been awaiting this post for a while now. Like, about three days. Man, am I sorry it took me so long, but when you have an experience as profound as I recently have, you have to allow yourself at least a little time to let it settle in. See if you don't. When you return from a pilgrimage, you need a little "me time" padding at the end. I'm not even sure I'm ready to write about this, but, then again, maybe it's good that I try. Maybe, just maybe, it will further me in understanding the experience.

Last weekend I traveled out to Scranton for work. This is by no means an unusual experience. In fact, nearly half of my adult acting career has been spent in affiliation with The Northeast Theatre or their commedia dell'arte branch, Zuppa del Giorno. Hell, I go out to Pennsylvania all the time, too, to catch other shows in their season, visit friends and perform or teach workshops at events outside the theatre. Love Scranton. It's like that friend you had in high school about whom everyone else's response was, "You hang out with him?" (I probably was "that friend" more often than I had one such.) But you know what they all don't. That, in spite of appearances, this was one of the coolest friends to have, if you took the time to truly get to know him. So: Yay: Scranton!

Scranton was having its biggest event in recent memory last weekend: The first annual "The Office" Convention. A couple of months ago I received an email from TNT informing me of this and asking me--along with all their other previous improvisatorily trained (some of them by me, he admitted with trepidation) actors--if I would not like to contribute to a semi-improvised performance in conjunction with said convention. I deliberated a bit. It sounded like a custom-made suckfest, to be honest with you. Improvising in a mall? For an audience who was there to see celebrities? I have participated in events before that I have since blocked from my memory, lest they convince me never to mount the boards again in my whole life ever ever (perhaps a future entry will be devoted to The Dreaded Borders Incident from our efforts to promote Noble Aspirations). Ultimately I decided to go for it, however. I love the show and improvising in general and, frankly, realized it can never hurt to brush sleeves with working television actors.

Various things came to be in the intervening weeks. I spent two months night-and-day improvising to create and perform Prohibitive Standards. Friend Sam came to be inscripted to direct the event, and Friend Steve to craft an initial scenario. Finally, just about every cast member but the five most major was confirmed to attend, and at least one--Oscar Nunez--had promised to perform with us in our little shopping mall adventure. Last week, in my few days back in New York before heading out again, I tried to save up energy for . . . well . . . I knew not what. But I had lots of indications that, whatever it was, it was going to be surreal.

The first of these occurred around 4:00 PM Friday, when we New Yorkers were scheduled to meet our ride on the corner of 32nd Street and 8th Avenue. It was a dismal day of swelling, cold rain when we individually happened upon the realization that there is no 32nd and 8th. It is one of those rare idiosyncrasies of midtown New York city planning, a result of Madison Square Garden and the main branch of the post office on either side of 8th, like enormous children engaged in a game of slot car racing. We knew our ride was "a limo being sent out for us." There were four of us, and we promptly set about keeping our eyes open for a regular old town car, debating whether it would have Pennsylvania or New York plates.

When we found our ride at last, we found it was a white, stretch, SUV limousine. No foolin'.

Bear in mind: The actors were being paid a $50 food stipend for the weekend. They did, to their great credit, put us up in a very nice hotel.

Further surreality came upon us as we arrived in town late, due to weather and confusion. After getting checked in to the hotel, we all sqeezed into David Zarko's Prius (penance for our boat trip out) to be driven to the rehearsal, already in progress, in The Steamtown Mall. (Or: "The Mall at Steamtown," depending how posh you wish to sound.) We walked right in through the front doors to discover an informal sort of party going on. Everyone of our cast of non-Office folk, about a dozen, was there on a stage in the dead center of the mall that was decorated with huge replicas of the cast members' faces. There were also several people representing the Scranton Chamber of Commerce, who had brought with them a cooler full of wine and beer. I wasn't planning to partake. Then I found out we weren't working from a written scenario, and were just going to be assigned characters that we were welcome to throw out as well. For three hours we were brought drinks as we tried to choreograph a concluding brawl to our as-yet-unknown scenario. I had to concentrate to avoid imagining scenes from the film Dawn of the Dead. The perk for me (continuing our foray into the surreal experience) was to wish aloud for a paper shredder on stage, and actually have a maintenance man bring one down in a matter of minutes.

The next morning we were rehearsing in the theatre (there is no rest for capitalism) and had a few more actors to incorporate, so the brawl changed completely. We also did character interviews as a way to explore our burgeoning, soon-to-be-realized-whether-they're-ready-or-not characters. We also did a little Viewpoints(TM) work for a warm-up. What else did we do? Let me see.... Um.... It's all kind of a blur, really. Over the entire three hours there was a mounting sense of dread, born in part from the recognition that there just wasn't enough time to create something reliably good. The best we could do was plan an entrance and exit, promise to try not to interrupt one another and give the rest to God. There are, after all, no atheists in foxholes.

At 1:30 we came to the mall in pieces, and all was chaos. The stage area was already teeming with fans being warmed up by schwag give-away and a local team mascot (who, as it turns out, can do a wicked handstand IN A GIANT PENGUIN OUTFIT) and various of our cast didn't have their cell phones in their costumes, so it was nigh impossible to get together on anything. Once, miraculously, we were all in the general area of the stage, assuring eager audience members that we wouldn't be blocking their view much longer, everything held in place for a good twenty minutes. Not a one of us knew what was going on, and there was no one to tell us. We moved in our entrance groups from side to side of the stage as an emcee (likely self-appointed) berated the crowd with commands to clear the stairways, and threatened to forcefully expel them if they acted up in the presence of the celebrities. I was reminded of high school pep rallies, and contemplated the possibility that there may be no such thing as a terminal velocity when it comes to that plummeting feeling one gets in one's stomach at such times.

Then, unexpectedly, I was buoyed. A family asked me and my comrades (as we nervously awaited some sign from above for when to take the stage) if we were part of the entertainment. We informed them we were, and they were instantly excited and bashfully asked if they could take their picture with us. As we got into place to have our photograph taken, they explained to us that they were "stockholders," which meant that they had paid a good amount for a ticket to all the events this weekend. Big fans of the show, and they were just as excited to get a moment with us--we working stiffs (with occasional limo benefits)--as they were to be there at all. We had to cross to the other side of the stage for our entrance (again), and bid them a fond farewell. That's part of what's great about "The Office"; it makes heroes out of regular joes.

Well, the performance itself was chaos, utter and complete. We all entered the stage at once, rather than as a start to our story. Friend Geoff, thank goodness, and his scene partner Will had been warming up the crowd for about twenty minutes as bumbling security guards, so our entrance as relative nobodies had a strong enough precedence so as not to seem utterly random. No sooner had we sat down at the long table, when the performers from the show arrived to screams of delight. Oscar, Daryl and Andy (the other one) sat down with us, and we were off. No one could hear us, of course, because the acoustics were God-awful and the mikes were all set at different levels. Control of the "meeting" bounced between Friends Heather and Sam, who were just trying to keep the ball passing to the cast members. Oscar seemed most at home in the chaos, spinning off some really wonderful replies. Daryl was a crowd favorite, and eventually really got the spirit of the thing. Andy, poor guy, seemed a little confused. I can't say as I blamed him.

For my part, I quickly gave up on speaking. I wasn't near a mic, and could tell anyway that only the cast members were going to get substantial laughs for speaking, invited as they are into everyone's home once a week. So I became shameless quickly, an eager accountant who kept standing up from the table when he was referred to, and had to be asked to return to his seat.
The climax of my performance, quite clearly, came about in establishing a conflict with one actor who was playing an environmentalist and kept complaining about Dunder Mifflin's recycling policies. At one point I took the shreddings of report pages from the shredder's canister and threw them in his face. Shameless? Yes. But effective. I found three times to do it, and the third time coincided with the ending brawl, in which I made sure to cover a good portion of the audience in paper as well. If any show executives were watching, I probably dropped a nuke on any possibility of their being impressed with my performance. But, hell: the crowd loved it.

That was the note the performance ended on, and we got good applause for it. It was fascinating to watch the actors from the show get wrangled (eventually) off the stage by their respective assistants, whose job, it seems, is to be abrasive so the stars can be genial. They were just that--all of them--and I was impressed with how ready they had been to play a mall with us. Thereafter, we collectively sighed and were hosted to dinner and an open bar on the second floor of The Banshee. The cast broke up there for various destinations. I went with a small group to the nearby, quaint little town of Waverly to watch another amateur production: A haunted house, hosted by theatre students of Friend Michaela. As we wound our way through bloody dioramas, startled by the occasional thrust arm or sound effect, I thought about how useful fear is, and wondered how much of it I would visit upon myself just for that feeling of relief, and occasionally satisfaction, when it passes.

26 October 2007

Notions (Part 1 of ?)

  • A Punch & Judy themed show with Friend Heather, incorporating elements from the entire history of the characters, but ultimately modern and strange and funny.

  • A monodrama about my relationship with comicbooks and superheroes(TM). I started this a few years ago, creating thirty-odd pages of single-spaced, freestyle text, and ended up with a last couple of pages that were pretty effective. Also, Friend Patrick and I took some moments in a room to work on physical bits for it (though I probably never mentioned that was what I was doing, Patrick).

  • A clown version of Romeo and Juliet, in Italian and English. Zuppa's been bouncing this around since our last trip to Italy (see most of June '07) as a possible collaborative project between ourselves and our Italian counterpart(s), though now it seems a little too ambitious for a first project, not to mention whilst trying to tour Silent Lives at the same time. Still, it grabs my imagination. What I imagine is a largely silent production, with all in clown noses which are gradually stripped away as the lives of the characters become more perilous.

  • A werewolf novel that I haven't made real progress on in years ("Been working on that, what, three years now?"), but continually think about and occasionally daydream into.

  • A clown film I keep taking notes on, wherein a working stiff in New York gets magicked into a clown accidentally, which renders him completely amnesiac about how to get through a day in the city, but also grants him acrobatic ability. It would be filmed entirely on location, with strangers and actor friends playing various urban creatures, and ultimately be a sort of love poem to the city, along the lines of J. Alfred Prufrock. "If I thought my answer were to one who could return to the world, I would not reply, but as none ever did return alive from this depth, without fear of infamy I answer thee." Translation by G.B. Harrison et al., eds. Major British Writers.

  • To use Friend Patrick's Sukeu mask in performance.

  • To construct a stilt costume incorporating arm extensions with working hands or claws, possibly along the theme of a praying mantis.

  • To engineer and construct homemade stilts with jumping capability.

  • To pick up the trombone again, much to the chagrin of my neighbors.

24 October 2007

Across the Universe

I swear, Davey, I'm not completely ripping off your format.

I caught this film last night and I must say: It was Taymor-tastic. Julie Taymor directed this much-anticipated movie, which uses songs from The Beatles' repertoire to narrate the emotional upheaval of a few fictional characters living through the 1960s in New York City (and a little of Ohio, New Jersey and Liverpool). I say much-anticipated, and I speak solely for myself. This movie has been on my radar for some time, filmed as it was predominantly in New York, and I'm a hugemongous fan of Taymor and The Beatles.

Most people know Taymor from her movie adaptation of Titus Andronicus, or her work developing the popular Broadway adaptation of The Lion King (or, her upcoming collaboration with U2 and Sony to produce a Spider-Man musical, about which I am [mostly] speechless [it's going to either be the coolest thing ever or forever ruin my impression of her artistry]). Those who still love shows that only live for a few weeks at a time, however, know her from farther back as a director who merges to magnificent effect all kinds of cultural expressions, particularly puppetry. Across the Universe is likely the most mainstream, Hollywood-happy film Taymor has yet made, though it's hard for me to say because I have still not seen her Frida. Yet she still manages to incorporate more-theatrical elements at times, such as huge puppets, mask work and "penny arcade" sequences (as she refers to the animated montages in the Titus commentary).

I have to agree with the The Washington Post review that laments the unspectacular story and theatrical unity of the whole thing. I expected more from Taymor. However, I believe this review neglects the intentions of the piece as well, which is the poison pill of any critic that swiftly renders his or her critical virility utterly inert. As I understand it, Taymor aspired to create a story based solely on The Beatles's music and lyrics and the cultural goings-on of the period in which they were created--preferably a story with resonance to a contemporary audience. In this aim, I believe she succeeded, whether or not I appreciated the end of the film. (I didn't. There needs to be a separate 'blog entry for my feelings about double conclusions in films of late.) And ultimately I don't believe the film should be judged on its merit as an outstanding or well-constructed musical, because I don't believe it was aiming for that specific genre. Nor should it be judged on how profound a statement it made. The Beatles, after all is said and done, were pop musicians. On that basis, I find the movie a success because I enjoyed it.

Puppets and pop music are figuring into my creative life a lot lately. Or, rather I should say, figuring into my fantasy creative life lately, because it's all in my head, nothing done got creatited yet. Heather and I continue to express mutual enthusiasm for creating a Punch & Judy act betwixt us (a plan put somewhat on hold during performances of Prohibitive Standards on account of my breaking her toe with a chair), and I just keep thinking more and more about the kind of theatre I want to make for myself, which invariably incorporates popular music. Part of the satisfaction for me of the "homework assignments" during the development of As Far As We Know was the awareness that it meant I got to use one of the many pop (or indie) songs that had been scratching my itch of late.

So how does one begin to find one's creative voice, one's unique expression, in all of this? How do you encompass all the vast and profound experiences of thirty years into a moiety of melodrama? I've no idea. But I do believe I'm gathering material for my nest as we speak. The female creative influences of my life share some qualities in common that I seek to emulate, or at least steal with great admiration. A certain approach to creation as perception, a sort of found-object art, only with people and behavior rather than only objects. A release in the surreal, in the way interpretation of something common can make us notice it anew. Compassion, garnished with perspective. And meanwhile the many men of my motley career continue to offer their common, yet still sustaining, examples to follow: the value of discipline and having something to prove, the energy inherent in competition, the unique forge of approaching some things on one's own.

And why now? Why am I becoming, slowly, so hell-bent on directing something, or at least creating something to call my own? Is it the same urge that drove me into play writing after working showcases for a year here in New York, a frustration with things not going my way, or is it a realization that I can't get by on the same skills I used in my twenties, or is it something deeper? It's a curious, and somewhat unrelenting, urge.

I needs me some puppets!

22 October 2007

As They Say In This Biz, That's All There Is...

So Prohibitive Standards has had its last call. Yesterday we ran the scenario for the last time, and received our last applause. I have, of course, work coming up to comfort myself with. This weekend is the The Office convention at which a large group of TNT actors (including this guy) are performing, and then there's the chance of participating in First Look again, the acting company of NYU's graduate playwriting class. That latter comfort is doubly so, as the playwright providing the material in this case is an old friend and comrade of the boards, Avi Glickstein. Thereafter, no work is waiting, and my intention (the which we hope will finally be fulfilled in part owing to publicly confessing it here) is to enroll in an audition class to brush up the old chrome. All good things. Still, one goes through a feeling of some grief whenever a show comes to a close, especially when it's one you've made yourself.

Some retrospective analysis is owed, too. I realized, just before we opened, that I was playing three-and-a-half characters (I'll explain in a minute) and that each of them had something to tell me about where I stood with myself right about now. When a "creactor" works on a show with his or her fellow "creactors" and "crewriters" and "credirectors" (Nat: my readership may never forgive you that term) some of that creactor's personality and personal life inevitably end up in the show. Get closer to the particular contribution of the given contributor, and you get closer to his or her story. In the case of the creactor, this is his or her character creations. So: My characters . . .

My primary character (that is to say, the one with the most involvement with the story) was Joe "The Barber" Barbara. This was an actual gangster of the time, about whom you can read more at the Prohibitive Standards research 'blog. I made great efforts to steadfastly ignore and refute any historical accuracy in my portrayal of the goon. I think it's probably very unlikely that he was even in Scranton in December of 1933. So my Joe ended up being a rum-runner on the run with his girlfriend (Heather Stuart reprising her most popular role of Miss Dimple) making a last shipment to the Jermyn on their way to settle down in Kansas. He was a control freak, accustomed to using the threat of violence to turn negotiation to his advantage. He also suffered from a strange phobia, whereby he passed out whenever anyone touched him. His arc was to bluster about trying to beat everyone at everything, gradually realizing throughout that control isn't terribly satisfying, and that to be truly safe he has to allow himself to be a little vulnerable.

My secondary character was Buddy "Bud" McPherson, a Scranton cop who had a working relationship with the owner of the Jermyn's supper club. Bud was an orphan with strict morals who grew up under the tutelage of the church and savored stage performance all his life, from vaudeville to musical theatre. He also was a teetotaler, and prided himself on his ability to stay on the straight and narrow. Unfortunately, he was also a total coward. Bud feared just about anything that moved, and only succeeded as a cop in how amenable he was to compromise (a suitable tactic in the permissive nature of Prohibition-Era Scranton). His arc was thinly penciled into this show, as he was more of a device than a fully formed character. Most of his transformational experiences took place offstage, in the form of finally resorting to drink to try and overcome his cowardice. Every time he entered, he was a little more intoxicated, until finally he makes his last entrance to confess his failing. In so doing, he comes to realize that nothing was quite as bad or threatening to his person as he had made it out to be in his imagination.

Finally, my tertiary (and a half) character was an anonymous hobo. Anonymous, that is, until the end, wherein it is revealed that he is in fact John J. John, long-lost husband of Rosie O'Grady, the supper club's owner. That revelation ends a series of revelations in which it is revealed that Joe and Bud are also their long-lost sons. (The men of the family all fell overboard off the Titanic, feared to be lost for all time.) But before all that, the hobo is just a hunched, obscured, mumbling and shuffle-footed vagrant who wanders in off the street. No one can understand a word he says, but he's on a mission to find John J. John (having no idea that he is him) in the hopes that he can return the man's bond certificates to him and acquire from him some information as to his own identity. For twenty-one years, J.J.J. has had amnesia and scoured England and the east coast of America for hints as to his true identity, but he makes no real headway until he drinks the scant remains of Rosie's bathtub gin (brewed from a batch of perfume called "Total Recall") the which instantly returns his memory of himself as a sophisticated, articulate and successful businessman.

Above all, the hobo was my favorite role to play. There's something about a (virtually) silent character that I find very appealing. I think, to me, it's a bit like classical music, the way it invites the audience to have their own experience, rather than spend effort trying to interpret a lot of verbal specifics. Plus, it's just beautiful. People gathered in a room, in silence. It was a welcome contrast to much of the rest of the show. My second favorite character, Joe, also ended up in an unspoken scene with a character we included who represents a young (and uncharacteristically slender) Orson Welles. The thing that was great about Joe was that he was literally all talk. Threaten as much as he liked, he could never actually touch anyone; until, that is, he let go of the need to get his own way. Bad was fun at times, those times mostly having to do with when I was working against his cowardice. J.J.J.-realized had a mere cameo, but he did allow me to say, in my own take on David Niven, "Where the devil am I?!"

What does it all mean? Well, I think I'll leave it largely up to interpretation. Them what know me probably read along and thought, "Yeah, that sounds a lot like Jeff." I find it interesting that I ended up creating and playing characters who all--one way or another--didn't know who they were. I also find it interesting that I played twin brothers, one sensitive and cowardly and the other a menacing blowhard, and never the twain shall meet. Beyond that, I think my creations and interpretations were largely very similar to my efforts in recent years to move past the doe-eyed, milquetoast type in comedies. Last Zuppa show it was a lazy drunkard git cum tarnished opera diva, and now Heather and I are aiming to make a show based on the Punch & Judy tradition. I may never leave behind the Harold Lloyd/Pedrolino type. I guess I wouldn't want to, not wholly. It's just good to try to explore all the angles of one's self, especially in a medium so conducive to that exploration.

Prohibition is over, the noble experiment concluded. Who needs a drink?

16 October 2007

I Did It My Way . . . With a Little Help From My Friends

Lately I have been wondering where I am headed with this whole Zuppa del Giorno thing. That seems a fairly natural consideration at this point. I mean, I just turned thirty years of age. For the past five years I have given a significant portion of my career time to working in this milieu, and in that time we have achieved many of the seemingly impossible goals we set for ourselves, such as simply maintaining an improvisatory theatre troupe for so long, going to Italy to teach, learn and perform, and developing work that honors and (I believe) advances a tradition of theatre oft neglected this side of the Atlantic. Add to that the homecoming nature of Prohibitive Standards (with David as director again and returning to completely improvised dialogue) and there's very little reason to worry over a need for personal reflection.

Yet I worry. In spite of investing so much and believing even more in embracing the unknown, it is disturbing to feel a lack of drive in this work. Perhaps it's very simple: We still don't know what next year's mainstage show will be, thus I have nothing specific to keep ruminating on at odd moments during the year. I think, however, it has as much to do with that uncertainty as it does with a certain frustration on my part. This frustration may best be characterized by a metaphor concerning the actual action of performing improvisation.

To wit: In long-form improvisation, one needs a certain familiarity at least with one's stage partners. In commedia dell'arte, this is enhanced by established bits of business carried from show to show, called lazzi. It's necessary to have some things understood. However, it is equally necessary to have a sufficient balance of completely spontaneous, unrehearsed moments--to have them, recognize them and take advantage of them. That's what gives the form its life, its truth and the lion's share of its joy.

And here am I (in the larger picture [the one in a five-year frame]) feeling as though it's all planned out. The scenario has solidified to the point whereat it is almost calcified. And more significantly, I feel as though I don't have quite the same things to contribute to breaking it up as I used to. When I started this work, I was twenty-five years old, with most of my background in stylized comedy sampled from sitcoms and farces. I leaped in headfirst, heedless of danger, and accepted everything I was told. My energy was boundless and I was determined to do wild things with unrelenting abandon. So it seems to me now, at any rate. Over half a decade, I have changed, and the work has been through many changes itself. It's difficult to distinguish between the two, speaking quite frankly. What changed in a given circumstance? It or me?

I suppose that's just one of the mysteries of life. And these changes in direction can't always be controlled, even when they're perceived to be happening. The challenge is to change with them, and carry the momentum forward. Accept and build. "Yes, and...."

What fun is it, knowing exactly what to do next, anyway?

15 October 2007

I Heart Improvisation

Way back at the end of our first week of running Prohibitive Standards, I began a 'blog entry, the which I have not returned to since my first true day off. I quote--here, after the second week of performances--said beginning:

"We had our first genuinely difficult performance of Prohibitive Standards yesterday. It was the end of our opening weekend, a weekend in which we performed five shows (or six, if you include our invitational dress rehearsal) after weeks of arduous development. We were bound to lose some steam by the time we got to that final show of the week, and it didn't help that our audience was the smallest and least responsive yet. (There are a number of blessings/curses to performing on a university campus, not the least of which is some guaranteed audience numbers . . . as a result of the show being a requirement for theatre and history classes.) I can't ever shift blame for a disappointing show onto an audience, however. Even a show as dependent on audience involvement as this one.

"All comedy is rather dependent on a receptive audience. I mean, that's how you know you're reaching an audience with a comedy: laughter. Immediate response. Now, improvisational comedy, that's the most potentially insecure comedy of all. Think of how the form has translated into television and film thus far. Both the Christopher Guest films and--to a greater degree--a show like The Office depend on awkward scenarios and seemingly oblivious characters for their humor. There's an interesting overlap of what I've been doing in relative anonymity for my entire acting career and the American public's interest coming up: The "The Office" Convention in Scranton, PA. I and about fourteen other actors affiliated with The Northeast Theatre will be doing an improvised performance as a part of the event, directed by Samantha Phillips and written/structured by Steve Deighan."
Where am I going with this, you may ask (if, indeed, you are even bothering to check my 'blog after such extended absences)? Well, after two weeks of performing this entirely original piece, I have to confess that some rather brutal reality checks have been in order. The first of these is to admit that our relative success in the opening weekend had rather to do with an extended version of "opening night syndrome." For you non-theatre-o-philes, this is the phenomenon whereby all community theatre sustains life. Essentially, it is the equation effort + community involvement = mutual necessary success. In other words, when ensconced in a community that comes to need your success to verify itself, success is somewhat guaranteed in the response from said community. They are supportive in spite of themselves, because they have come to value you as a representative of their community.
That's not to say we didn't work very hard, nor that Marywood's opinion is invalid in any way. Rather, it is to say that we didn't have the opportunity to face the real challenges of actors and collaborative playwrights until the glow of opening a unique effort faded and died. Rather farther, it is to say that we have begun--in this second season of three--to find a sincerity and danger to the show that we could barely conceive of in our packed houses at Marywood.
So seems it to me, as biased and involved as I may be at this time.
This weekend, we came upon the remarkable stage of development in which we toyed with core elements of the show. All the things we were terrified to play with when we finally got a working plot on its feet--intentions, motivations, lazzi--have become fair play, and just in time, too. It was getting terribly stale, and hope was draining like hooch into a 1916 sewer. The last two shows we've done were well received, but more importantly we found truth in them again. And this time, the truth is born of the moment itself more than the desperation of making something comprehensible (of course, a sense of desperation doesn't hurt, either).
I acknowledge: this has been a terribly abstract entry--particularly for them what haven't tried to succeed at long-from improvisation previously. I hope to remedy that in later entries. For now, try and relax in this little axiom:

"Getting it 'right' is ridiculously unproductive. Make mistakes constantly, and make them boldly, or suffer from limitation and stagnation."

01 October 2007

Making a Stand(ard)

Hi. I was wondering if I could be let back into your life. You can't see me now, so I'll just let you know that I'm standing, in a trenchcoat, outside my car, holding a boombox over my head and looking mournful. Sure, the boombox is playing "Life Is just a Bowl of Cherries" rather than something romantic that we got freaky too (like "The Thong Song"), but that's just because I'm stuck in the '30s, and can't get out. At least, not until October 21.

Some people are genuinely upset with me for being so absent. Not so much on the ‘blog—that, at most, inspires increased frustration with work-induced boredom—but more in general. I never write. I never call. The least I could do is ‘blog every now and again, just so you know I’m still alive as you sit there, reading in the dark without your glasses, two miles in the snow uphill both ways. I am sorry, truly. I have had a worry or two of my own, you know. Nothing to rival your worries, and of course the greatest worry I have is that something terrible would happen to you and I wouldn’t know about it because I have been so selfish, and unworthy of your thoughtful consideration. You have, at the least (as you lie in traction from your tragic tractor trajectory) this comfort: It has been in the name of Art.

And fart jokes.

Look here to see what has been so occupying now that I’ve not been available. Oh, I can’t trust you to links! It’s Zuppa del Giorno’s first original creation in a year-and-a-half: Prohibitive Standards. If you do take the “here” link above (and how much better it is to live in the here and now), you’ll see that a tremendous amount of work has gone in to creating this show, and the ‘blog(s) don’t hardly reveal but half of the actual salt-water work (that is: sweat and tears [thank you, Friend Kate]) what’s gone into this production. The rehearsal room, after all, is where all the material for Zuppa’s shows really springs from, and for the past three weeks we’ve been gathering in a room (or two) to make our baby.

I had previously attempted to ‘blog about the process of that, but never got very far, because I was constantly off to learn music, or watch movies, or try to master a front handspring. OR, to balance my life. Because that’s a special effort too, when you’re an actor of somewhat modest means working out of town. It’s important to acknowledge that aspect of The Third Life©. From balancing one’s checkbook, to reminding one’s parents that he or she is not, in fact, home to be visited, to maintaining some sense of home and personal identity amidst characterization and shacking up in someone’s guest room, the traveling artist has a lot to contend with. Not that it’s not without its perks, either. New experiences are fantastic fuel for creative endeavor, and it’s easier to obsess (constructively, we hope) without frequent reminders of responsibilities.

One of my previous attempts at ‘blogging on this process was entitled “A Host of Angles.” I’ve written to some extent already about the unique process of creating a show from improvisation in my experiences with UnCommon Cause Theatre and Zuppa del Giorno, but never since opening the Aviary have I been so close to the process, nor has it culminated in quite the same way. Prohibitive Standards will be performed in a structured improvisation style. It will never solidify entirely. It will always be different. This means that the same concepts applied to making the show from the ground up will be applied in making it work when the curtain goes up. That creates an intense energy in which one has to set rules for oneself in order to be ready for anything that could happen on stage. We’ve constructed a scenario—or sequence of necessary actions—as our rules, within which we can play and stretch and improvise. In this way, the energy of a performance is very much like live sports, for both the participant and the observer. Everyone’s eager to see what happens next.

But “A Host of Angles”? Well, the most impressive reminder I was receiving about this process when I came up with that title (a lifetime ago, on September 15) had to do with the abandonment of structure and the necessary mastery of the elements of a play involved in creating one by committee, from scratch. In a more standard process, there is a sequence of events and a hierarchy of authority. Typically, the play passes from playwright to producer to director to actors, with very little passing back, and each party has a sequence of gradual development that results in a finished product. In creating a show in the living tradition of commedia dell’arte, however, everyone fills each role in some fashion all the time. One moment you are discussing character arcs, the next you’re leaping around imitating a boiling tea kettle, and still the next you’re trying very hard to be open and objective as you argue for more time for acrobatic training. Rehearsals end, of course, eventually, but they never really do, because everything you see, feel and do at all times goes into the soup, and as a producing playwright directactor, you never stop thinking about and discussing the show. Rather than a sequence of creation, you are coming at an intangible goal from every angle at once, and a lot of the time it feels as though you’re completely wasting your time, spinning your wheels while nothing productive takes place. But I leave out here, as something too obvious to mention, a critical ingredient in this creative soup: Faith.

However we got here, here we are, with a complete scenario that we may even manage to remember and properly reproduce on preview night, this Thursday. It has been a tremendously ambitious project, involving collaboration with Marywood University, regular workshops and training sessions with students and a good deal of marketing. Not everything has turned out the way I had hoped: the student actors are not as involved in the story as I would have liked, there's less emphasis on vaudeville than I had imagined and our physical daring, so prominent in the last two shows, has taken a backseat (necessarily) to an intricate story. However, I am very proud of what we’ve made, and excited to add an audience. Everyone is doing something they never thought they could do before, including me.

What new am I doing? I’d like to keep it a surprise for anyone who can make it out. Let’s just say that my embouchure hasn’t been in this good a shape since I was fifteen.