22 December 2008

Tropic of Gemini

I unintentionally read the anti-Romeo&Juliet a little while ago: Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer [link NquiteSFW]. It is putting it rather on the glass-half-full side of things to say that the book served as a cleansing of my cynical palette before I embark on one of the more profound studies of innocence. When I finished Tropic of Cancer, I put it down with a victorious sigh, relieved that I would never have to read it again. Friend Patrick is flummoxed by this behavior in me, my determination to finish any book I've started, no matter how awful the experience. (I did give up on this book last Spring, though, because it is just freaking shite.) I can hardly explain it myself, except to say that it is perhaps a deeply ingrained habit. Whatever the cause, I generally read only one book at a time, and when I start a book, I finish it, or it finishes me.

Tropic of Cancer very nearly finished me.

It's a little troubling to have so loathed a book that has come to be widely regarded a classic. It's supposed to be a work of considerable genius, and has been praised unequivocally by folks like Orwell, Mailer and Vonnegut -- all writers I greatly enjoy and admire. This isn't the first time I've not enjoyed a classic. I've often not enjoyed Dickens and Joyce. And by often, I mean just about every time I've curled up to give them another read. I do believe, however, that this is the first time in my adult life that I've taken such an active distaste for an accredited author's work. That is to say, it is unique in my experience to feel revulsion for something I've read, and perhaps this speaks more to Miller's genius as might any actual critical response I could make. It's not prudery, per se -- I love vicarious sex and violence, whether that's a good or bad thing. Love Anais Nin, so far loathe Miller. So what is it?

It is, I believe, the cynicism. The sheer, unrelenting, unapologetic cynicism. To hear Miller tell of it, I would not have made it out of 1930s Paris alive; there are suicides in this book, and they are all-too understandable to me. It seemed as though every character maintained his or her existence merely to progress to the next selfish experience, and after not too long I was utterly bogged down in the sense of hopeless, purposeless puppetry. I read Of Human Bondage not too long ago, and it was almost as if Miller had taken Carey's latter (also frustrating) selflessness and turned it on its ear so hard it went into coma. Miller's narrator (or voice, depending on the ratio of memoir to narrative at a given moment) is given to short sentences of profound and usually brutal imagery and metaphor that definitely would have appealed to me when I was sixteen. Now, they strike me as naive and self-centered and, as far as I was able to tell, the narrator undergoes no lasting change in the course of the story. Was there even joy in this story, really? Miller is famous for philosophically sucking the marrow from life, but this seemed more to me like continually jumping off a building for the three seconds of the sensation of flying.

What this is really about then, for me, is a struggle to process my experience in reading the book. How did, or will, the book change me? You could make the case that it won't . . . but that I feel it already has, and what remains is to understand that effect. It hasn't sapped my hope, at least. If anything, it makes me rail against its perspective, which seems so short-sighted and inconsequential that I want to grab the narrator by the neck and just shake him until he snaps out of it (or something else snaps). Why do none of these people believe in anything? What drives them to write, or do anything lasting, if it is all about survival and gratification? Maybe these are the questions Miller wanted us to ask, or maybe I'm just to narrow in my perspective on the era. If I had to say what effect the book has had on me, I'd guess at this point that it has strengthened my resolve to help and inspire others through my work. And I have to confess that I hope Henry Miller would've hated that.

Lest this read as some offended rant against a slice of literature history, I will say that at times I felt the raw power of Henry Miller's control of the language, and his willingness to savor words without making them self-important or inaccessible. Some of his ideas rang out, too, despite my prejudice against the perspective of his narrator. I wrote earlier in the month about the supposed virtue of beauty in art, and a strong argument could be made for there being a unique and important beauty in Miller's work. For me, however, I'm thrilled to go work on a love story very soon (and possibly even more thrilled to finally be on to reading it on the subway). The love story, for some people, and I'm going to do my damnedest to make it a guilty pleasure to begin, and full of consequence and beauty at the end. And maybe that's what Miller meant.
But I really have no idea.

19 December 2008


I didn't want to make a big deal out of it, you know? I mean, you let people know the date once these days, and you're getting greetings on that date every single year -- from emails and comments and MySpace and Facebook and da, da-da, da-da. It's endless. I'm not sensitive about it, mind. I think every passing year is an accomplishment. Sure, the work may not have quite the same vim and vigor as it did in earlier times, but I like to think that's balanced out now by a sort of tempered harmony between enthusiasm and effectiveness. And besides, sometimes you just want a quiet day of reflection instead of some big celebration; a little time to contemplate times that were and where we are now. You know, like an adult.

Plus, I forgot.

Yesterday marked the second anniversary of Odin's Aviary. (You can check out how I celebrated the first ovah heeya.) Yep, without a clue in my head on how to proceed, I popped on Blogger(TM) and chose some pretentious style elements and wrote a tiny missive out to the 'blogosphere. The rest, as they say, is history. I haven't directly addressed The Third Life of late, but that's partly because I feel it's a concept that's inherent in most of what I do, hence most of what I write about. It's where I live most of the time, and for as long as I can remember. In some ways working to live "fully, freely and honestly" is everyone's ambition, and in other ways it's a unique responsibility for the would-be artists amongst us. This is not a unique idea (it's not even a unique name, as we learned early this year), but it's one that continues to resonate for me, and this here 'blog has proved an invaluable resource for helping me to stay true to that course.

Some highlights from the Aviary in 2008:
  • One-hundred thirty five entries thus far, including our 300th.
  • Visitor traffic has increased by about 50% over 2007. W00T!
  • 5/22/07 remains the most-visited entry, proving that quoting pop music has virtue, and perhaps that sharing a question is more common than sharing an answer. But in 2008, thanks to Reader GeorgeW, we got our answer to this question! This means I can no longer count this entry as popular for its own reasons -- it got posted here. Perhaps I should advertise on this entry . . .
  • In second and third places for popularity (in hits): 2/6/08 and 2/20/07. It would seem perhaps that people read me more when they're trapped by snow. Which I choose to take as a non-specific compliment.
  • October was far and away the liveliest month here for visitors, owing perhaps to the Aviary being used as a kind of report for review by the powers that be at North Pocono High whilst I was teaching there.
  • Virtually all of my referred traffic comes from people doing searches on Google Image. 'Bloggers, take note: use pictures. Me, take note: start citing photographers.
  • Outside the US, we're biggest in Canada, but in recent weeks there's been a surge of interest in the UK (thanks Dave) and Germany (thanks...uh...wait, what?).
  • We had the launch of a sister (er: brother?) site this year: Loki's Apiary. His star is on the rise as I refer to him as continuously as I can possibly justify (Loki's Apiary).
  • Loki's Apiary offers you a concise view of what I've been up to when not typing here, of course, but for a novella view of my working-year 2008, here are my highlighted entries for each month: January [Losing Work], February [Reading Loud and Clear], March [Recovery], April [I'm Not a'Scared of You], May [Ta-Da], June [Viva Italia - 1&2], July [Friendly Neighborhood], August [Writing Wild], September [Health, Wealth & Wisdom], October [Open Up], November [The Rest is Finally Silence] and (on estimate) December.

It's been a hell of a second year, Dear Reader, and I thank you for whenever you may have tuned in. The entries usually slow down here when I'm traveling, and I'll be all over the place in the coming weeks, in many cases nowhere near a glowing box of interweby goodness. As you warm your hands by the dying embers of your monitors, think of me, and be merry. Eat and drink, too, or you'll die. I'm not a medical doctor, but I have it on good authority.

18 December 2008

Furious Scribbling

Last night I had the much-anticipated reading of my new play, working-titled Hereafter. Which is to say, for the first time, this work was heard aloud. It was only heard by me, and the actors involved, of course, but still and all . . . cool.

And it went well. Hell, first things first -- memorize these names, because they are amazing talents who ought to be heralded throughout the land: Friends Patrick Lacey, Laura Schwenninger, Briana Seferian, Wynne Anders, Dave Berent, Geoff Gould and Todd d'Amour. They had, I assure you, the hardest job in the world making sense of my cobbled-together "play," and did it brilliantly. I laughed, I cried, it was better than . . . well, they were better than Cats; MUCH better. Can't say so much for the "play," as such, just yet. I only hope they understood that my moments of out-loud laughter and quiet sadness weren't a bit to do with my writing. I'm rather sick of my writing, just now. It was them, pulling out miracles of surprise from my strung-together words, and finding unique life all their own. Their performances, if nothing else, motivate me to continue working to give them a better playground to explore.

My plan: Based on all the information I have now (and Friend WHFTTS' advice, of course), I am 100% certain that I must put the play away for at least a month, which should be easy given my upcoming schedule. Before I do that, however, I'm compelled to tinker just a bit, then do a little more writing on themes and ideas -- not dialogue. I think I'll reorder the scenes according to some of my notes, save it as a new draft, but not read it in that new sequence until after the break. Then I need to flesh out my notes from the reading while they're still a bit fresh, write a little on the ideas both new and observed, and file all that away for review later on. So when I come back to it I'll have two versions to compare, then detailed notes to incorporate; plus hopefully I'll be detached enough by that point to be unsentimental about it all.

I rather improvised my method of taking notes last night, but found it to be very effective. I was concerned about being too involved in writing in my copy of the script to catch everything the actors were doing, but after the fact my only regret is that I didn't make an audio recording. My hand-written notes worked out well. I printed a page for each scene beforehand, with the scene number, title and characters involved at the top, so I could focus on each scene one-at-a-time. When it came to taking notes, I figured out a little code for myself: A "+" preceded any notes to the good, a "-" to the bad, a "?" for things to be pondered and examined later, and quotation marks themselves whenever citing actual dialogue. In this way I have a sort of instant cursory quantification for a given scene. I also circled the titles of scenes that might need to be cut, to differentiate between the experience of "wow I can't believe how well this is working was I supposed to be writing oops" and the experience of "aw crap."

Still a bit giddy with a sense of accomplishment (I must confess), my feeling is that roughly half the scenes work on a basic level, and half do not. Of the half that don't, two may be cut altogether, so it may become a one-act play after all is said and done. I am still considering the possibility that the best thing for this collection of scenes is to leave them just that, to not construct them into a unified play, but it's a slimmer possibility now that I've had a reading. That may be why, in spite of some really awful malfunctions that became agonizingly apparent in the reading, I feel so optimistic now. Hearing my work helped convince me that there is a strong basis on which to construct a whole play of some kind. That's exciting. That's gratifying, whatever work may lay ahead (hint: a lot). Ultimately, I'll have to wait until after my time away to know for certain, but still and all -- good feelings.

This may be the first time that I've really felt the process of writing working for me. In the past, as I've said, it's remained such a private, sacred experience for me (no matter how many people I showed it to) that it was easily dropped, or frustrated, or simply uninformed. It's taken me awhile to accept some of the things that allow for a good working balance in this, things like distance and objectivity, experimentation and failure. I'm much more comfortable (not that I'm actually comfortable, but still) with process as it applies to rehearsal. Together in a room we all make asses of ourselves until, bit by bit, we accumulate enough good bits to make something cohesive. And the work is never really done. And I suppose that's exactly what we accomplished by reading through Hereafter last night. Or rather not accomplished, but kept going. It feels by turns gratifying and terrifying, and it feels right.

15 December 2008

Useless Beauty (All This)

Great song. I'm not a huge Elvis Costello fan, but every so often one of his songs hits it out of the park for me, and this would be one of those. Friend Heather, who is a much better devotee of Costello, introduced me to it. I'm not sure if I've ever discussed this here, but songs rarely resonate for me based on their lyrics. This is a thing that drives some people (such as Wife Megan) a little crazy, but I can't really help it. Or, I don't want to. I like being better attuned to the song than I am to the lyrics. I don't have a whole lot of clear, intuitive behavior that doesn't get second-guessed by my intellect (such as it is) -- I'm keeping this one. This is all just to say that words to this song are brilliant, but it's the feeling of the chorus that carries me away.

Last night I saw the Alvin Ailey dance company for the second time in my life, and they were just as affective as I remembered. Poke around the site a bit and you'll soon see that the company members are gorgeous, and I assure you that without seeing them move, you don't know the half of it. Their work is passionate and specific, and it is a real treat to spend time experiencing their artistry. The first time I saw them was some five or six years ago, and I didn't know what I was in for then, so was doubly appreciative. I wondered if the blush of first impression would have faded a bit for me this time around. It didn't.

Of course, their beauty -- physical and kinesthetic -- is far from useless. Even if one were to be stupid enough to see dance as a generally useless expression, Ailey's work and the work he's inspired since wouldn't be lacking in usefulness. It always expresses something about a specific culture or movement that we couldn't quite learn in any other medium. Watching last night though, immersed in all that keen beauty, I got to thinking about the supposed virtue of beauty. Or rather I should call it the disputed virtue, since beauty as either cause or effect in "good" art has been a hotly debated aspect of art since time-just-about-immemorial. I think about it quite a lot myself, in the context of an actor who can't help but notice that some very pretty, very untalented folks get rather far rather fast. But last night, engulfed by it, I started thinking in less jaded terms about the role of beauty in artistic expression.

A girl I knew in college and I were taking a walk in our fairly new home of Richmond, Virginia. I remember passing an old, decrepid brick building, with exposed and broken pipes and a fire escape, all various shades of red and rust. I wondered aloud what it was that was drawing me to ugliness lately. My friend replied, "What makes you think that's ugly?" And she was right -- it was beautiful. Thinking of that run-down building as ugly was a preconceived judgment on my part, based on ideas about good and evil as they apply to structure, society, prosperity, etc. It's an easy mistake, as beauty/ugliness is in itself about as subjective a concept as I can imagine. It has as much to do with an emotional response as with anything else, and emotions are not binary. I suppose part of what impresses me about Ailey's work is that I'm immediately confronted with stupidly beautiful people, and then that experience of beauty is surpassed in strides (literally) by the beauty of some particular movement or shape they create.

Of course, I'm sure there are some who will disagree.

Actually, the subjective nature of beauty and ugliness (and all gradients thereof) gives me some hope for capital-T Truth playing a significant role in our work. One of the most famous (read: most cliched) quotes about Beauty and Truth having a relationship come from poor, too-soon-departed Keats:

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

It's one of those that I can go on considering in different lights throughout my life, I think. (That has proven true thus far, anyway.) You've got to love that the essence of the argument is the only bit in quotes; the idea that it is all we (or it [the urn]) know, and all we (or it [you know: the urn]) need to know, is all Keats. In other words, it's up to us whether we know it or need to know it, but history itself tells us that that Beauty = Truth, and vice versa.

Why am I going on about a (beautiful) poem? Because it forms the basis of a relationship between Beauty and Truth that is key to my assertion. That is, the commonality between perceptions of beauty is founded on a more shared, communal sense of Truth. In other words, given just how incredibly individual is everyone's opinion about what is ugly and what is beautiful, it makes sense to me that there must be a contributing factor to all those disparate opinions that allows them to find common ground in some cases -- that common factor being Truth. In my humble opinion. Capital-T Truth, mind you, which has less to do with empirical facts and more to do with feeling, with instinct. I think an innate sense of this Truth is that in which we're all participating when we come to an mutual appreciation of Beauty.

Certainly one can have beauty without Truth (one can have it, thanks to advertising and such, any time one wants it); hence my capital-B Beauty. Otherwise known as Glory, Spirit, Love, etc. I wouldn't have called seeing Alvin Ailey a religious experience per se but, then again, it did rather feel like going to church ought. There were times I felt lost, others when I felt as though we were going through the motions a bit, then suddenly a time without a sense of time, when I felt lifted out of myself and part of a whole I had barely felt myself in just moments prior. Then it would end, as all things must I suppose, and seem just as brief as it had infinite when it was happening. It's difficult to define or even describe a unifying experience, even though all of us have at some time or another felt it, probably because most of our intellect comes of division, of making distinctions. So you have to live the moments of unity. And should we creators and makers and artists try to make Beautiful work?


10 December 2008

Ride the Snake . . .

I'm experiencing an interesting fluctuation of mood regarding the upcoming reading of my play. Maybe this is normal; it has been so long since I confronted the possibility of my creative writing being read aloud that I can't say I remember quite what it was like. I remember some anxiety, sure, but not this strange undulation of emotion. I never know how I'm going to feel when I think about it, one moment to the next. Sometimes I feel elated and excited, other times it seems like the stupidest idea I've ever had, and one bound to be my ruination. There's a variety of anticipatory strata in between. Compared to prepping for an audition, this should be a relief. For an audition, I usually feel less and less prepared as the date approaches, so experiencing alternating good feelings should somewhat compensate for the others. Yet I feel pretty unnerved. There is a very loud voice in me that's shouting, "Back out of this! Do it now!"

Yes, that voice often takes on the characteristics of early-90s Schwarzenegger.

I have had such a mixed bag of experiences in exposing my writing to the public -- even limiting it to theatrical writing -- that have happened over such different times of my life that it's impossible for me to predict my reaction, much less others'. One of the first theatre pieces I ever wrote has been well-received several times; people have loved it. And a piece from far more recently was excerpted in performance at a party a few years ago, and it stank up the room. I mean, hoo, was it bad. That's part of why I'm having the reading, quite honestly. I want to find out what happens and, if I can, keep up such exposure so that I do develop a better sense of how my writing is going.

Not that others' opinions are my yardstick for the quality of my writing but, you know: come on. I want it out there, else why would I write it (typed the 'blogger)? I'll be reminding myself left, right and center on Wednesday next (huh...I didn't plan for it to be on Odin's-day...weird) to consider my opinion first, but I won't kid myself so far as to say that I'm not calling my actor friends there for the purpose of their feedback. Revision, as I've said, is very difficult for me. I tend to hold the memory of the original draft and all that went into the process of creating it as sacred, and thereby fail to adequately re-evaluate it, much less revise. Friend WHFTTS is renewing its efforts to write more gooder too at the moment (and hopefully from now on), and we're having some very interesting meta-conversations about our personal challenges. Both of us, it would seem, regard involving other people in our processes as a necessary step to overcoming something. In my case, the something to be overcome is a quasi-mysterious barrier in the way of revision.

I think the emotions I'm experiencing these few days have to do directly with that barrier. I think that barrier (if I may anthropomorphize for a moment) knows I'm gunning for it, and it feels right at home. "Hey, listen," says My Barrier, "wha-what do you need change for? Huh? I mean, with me you know where you stand. Right? Who knows what will happen to you without me here...?!" Then My Barrier beats his chest twice and throws out his arms in the universally accepted I-am-all-that-and-a-bag-of-chips-besides gesture. But it's too late, My Barrier. My Mind's made up, in spite of your emotional sniping, and I shall be resolute in my continued work after hearing the reading. I'm putting you on notice! I shall not be deterred!

: backs slowly away, maintaining eye contact, makes it through door before shuddering collapse to ground :

Just imagine next Thursday's post. Should be a doozy.

09 December 2008

Fair Winds

Last night I attended what was a first for me: A staged reading of a musical. Tom Diggs, of NYU's First Look fame from some time ago, wrote the book and lyrics, and invited me out for it by replying to my email about Blueprints. This could be the most direct evidence of the importance of simply being present in the New York theatre community as it relates to contacts and casting: People call on the people they've heard from recently. More evidence of this was to be found in my own efforts to assemble a cast for my upcoming reading -- I had a couple of people respond as unavailable, and when I searched my files for replacements, I realized I had neglected a whole throng of good possible actors for the roles. Why? Because I hadn't spoken to them in a while. But I digress.

Once Upon a Wind is a musical that concerns itself with the story of two children coming of age in WWI England. Jay d'Amico wrote the music, and Jeremy Dobrish directs, which was an unusual coincidence -- Friend Todd is now appearing in Spain, a play he directed for the MCC in 2007. I was impressed as all hell with the cast. I find readings to be difficult to act, given the restraints of physical movement and all the conventions involved (such as music stands). These people gave a very effective reading with full song. A small feat for musical-theatre types perhaps, but I was impressed as hell with them: Molly Ephraim, Alex Brightman, Laura Fois, Kavin Pariseau, Marcus Stevens and Ken Triwush. Oran Eldor gets a lot of credit for that, I'm sure, as the musical director and (I assume) pianist. The reading was a part of the TRU Voices series at The Players Theatre, exactly the same venue at which I performed in American Whup-Ass last spring. It's a showcase for plays seeking production, and specifically focuses on getting feedback and advice from accomplished producers.

The play also concerns itself with an interesting phenomenon in England at the time -- the Cottingley fairies. It takes some inspiration from the story, I should say, and it's a story I have some familiarity with. When I was very young, I went through a period of some obsession with "paranormal" occurrences and sightings. I wasn't so much interested in ghosts, rather with mythological or prehistoric beasts that might, in fact, exist. So I had read a little something about Elsie and Frances and their faux photographs, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the reading I was watching would be using that kind of source material. As you might imagine a musical doing, Once Upon a Wind explores the world of believers versus pragmatists, but it does it with a surprising balance. It never goes Disney on you (one could just about wait for the Tinkerbell meta-joke), yet keeps a sense of humor in the face of serious subjects like the loss of a loved one and our dueling needs to grow up, and to remain innocent. I hope Tom continues with it, and that it develops into a full production.

Personally, I don't feel that the will to believe is necessarily childish, or delusional. I think it's creative, and creativity is a strength, not a weakness. During the turn of the century, and the world wars, a lot of people turned to spiritualism and its cousins in search of something. We tend to view such searching as naive and, in a sense, this is as true as can be. It begins with accepting the possibility that we don't know something. And that's the beginning of any good discovery.

05 December 2008

You want a reading? I got'cher reading right here!

To top off a year in which I performed in more readings than I perhaps have in my entire career to date (at least 13, by my count) what could be more apt than asking a bunch of my actor friends to participate in a private reading for me? Or perhaps it's entirely inappropriate, given some of my angst over the profusion of readings in my life of late. Either way, I've done it, and not a moment too soon. Though perhaps a moment (or two) too late: December is a nutso month for everyone everywhere, and I just sent out an email yesterday inquiring about availability/interest. I should have started this in November, but I was uncertain about my-completion-slash-the-worth of the playwriting I've been up to. Now I'm up against the far more foreboding deadline of leaving town for seven weeks come January. If I don't get this read before Christmas, much time and motivation may be lost.

The motivation may be lost anyway, if the reading were to go more poorly than I imagine. The danger for me in my writing is nearly always about losing steam or enthusiasm, particularly as it applies to the revision process. Yet this is the first time in years that I've actually completed a first draft, and I feel a strong need to honor that lil' milestone with continued effort. I won't go so far as to say that I think this script has a future, but I think this script has a future.

Wait.... Oh shoot.

Well, there it is. Hopefully said reading will not take every last gust of wind from my sails. I'm buoyed by the fact that the "play" is at this point merely a collection of largely stand-alone scenes that may be salvaged from the wreckage should our course go astray. (Had enough maritime imagery yet?) The sense of wonder and possibility with which I work on first drafts is very intoxicating for me, which is part of why it's difficult for me to complete anything, much less revise it. Perhaps part of what's kept me writing on this project was the structure of independent scenes. Each one to some degree was initially imagined as its own short play. Some are rather more bridging material between others than they ought to be perhaps, which is part of my interest in having the reading. I have, save one, all the scenes I intend to write completed, so I've written about 9.25 scenes. I'm at work on the final (or second-to-last -- see 12/2/08) scene in the sequence now, and if I can get the reading together it will be powerful motivation for me not to linger too much in the doldrums on it.

Yes; I had to do that.

So this will be a private reading, with just myself and the actors. It's for revision purposes, which is the safer way of saying that its for the purpose of reality checking my own rampant enthusiasm. It's a difficult balance, between love and objective criticism. The easy thing to do is allow oneself to be utterly bohemian, and let love rule the day. There's nothing wrong with that if you're inherently brilliant or content to live like a bohemian. I am neither. I am, however, quite addicted to attention, and so considered inviting a small boatload (Still? Yes, 'fraid so.) of friends to observe and respond to this initial reading. One might assume that the more feedback I could get, the better, but actually at this point I doubt I'll have even a discussion with the actors if-slash-when I get this reading off the ground. It's important that I have some quiet reflection on my own work while it's still this close to me. Producing shows from a writer's vantage could be seen as a gradual handing-over of creative control, a transition throughout collaboration from being the one who knows to being the one who experiences. You've got to be ready to set that kid sailing before you unmoor and haul anchor.

I'm stopping now, for reals.

Plus -- and here's the most bloggy bit of blogging for this particular entry -- the last time I put a complete play out there it was ripped to pieces in an astounding variety of ways. Don't get me wrong: It deserved it. Tangled Up In You was not especially good, I can say with some confidence now. It was more of an experiment I really wanted to conduct than a fully formed play, all 80-some pages of it, and what I should have done was just workshop it with actors I trusted and used some improvisation to develop it. Instead, I sent it to everyone I knew (which at age 23-or-so was not all that great a number) and had a reading . . . in New Jersey. I actually had people go out to New Jersey. I have no idea what I was thinking. Anyway, the feedback I got was a bit overwhelming and, subconsciously at least, deterred me from ever trying that again ever. I've written plenty since then, and even had a short piece produced, but really haven't put my cards on the table otherwise, insofar as said cards apply to writing. But here we are again, returning to . . . someplace other than the sea.

And I'm eager to be here. I hope I can pull this together -- the reading, the script itself, the whole thing -- because I don't get many opportunities to create something that goes on to have a life of its own, apart from me. Acting is total joy, and I'd never give it up as a form of expression, but its immediacy is a trade-off. If I'm not there, it's not there (or at least my part of it). Rilke wrote that the mother is the only completely fulfilled artist, because the appetite of an artist is to create something of herself and have it live in the world, independent of her. This is a very appealing idea for me, and I'd hate to live my life without at least some works of this nature. So I set my course by the stars and hope for helpful winds.

And hope to cease the flood of maritime metaphors.

04 December 2008

Luminous Accumulation

Last night I travelled an unaccustomed route after leaving work. I took the F train from 34th Street all the way to Brooklyn, to the Carroll Street stop. I was surprised to discover that I had actually been in that neighborhood before, about a year-and-a-half ago. This happens to me fairly frequently in and around New York -- the sudden recognition of an environment when the maps and names of the area didn't necessarily ring any bells. I walked up Smith Street, enjoying the lights from dozens of nifty shops and restaurants and bars, then hung a left at Sackett and walked a long ways down that, over 278 by a short strip of bridging. When I got to Columbia Street, it took me a moment or two to identify what I had come that way for. Then I crossed the street and explored it, insofar as the chain-link fence surrounding it would allow.

It's pretty accurate to say that I am a huge fan of installation art, and an even huger fanatic about public installation art (i.e., installed in a largely uncontrolled, outdoor environment). I am lucky enough now to actually know an installation artist, and I hope she'll forgive me if that description limits her craft. Friend Natalia installed Luminous Accumulation on the corner of Columbia and Sackett a few weeks ago. I had intended to go to the opening, but it was rescheduled on account of weather to just out of my schedule's reach. Hence my solo journey to a dark corner of Kings on a Wednesday night.

I was disappointed, yet not surprised, to find the display fenced off but my mood was already pretty contemplative and buoyant due to the walk over. As is my wont, I read Natalia's description right away. As you can see, I brought my camera with me, and these two choices are related. Some appreciate art and, in particular, contemporary art, best through raw experience and an immediate moment. I envy this approach. It rarely works for me, outside of perhaps architecture and murals. No, I get the most out of these experiences when I'm working to synthesize my experience with the artist's intention. I find it similar to my impatience with classical music -- I loathe misinterpretation, even when an artist tells me such a thing is impossible. (And how much more impossible can it be to "misinterpret" than with the personal experience of music?) So I ask for answers straight off, and interpret the work through my own lens however I can thereafter.

Luminous Accumulation is interactive with the weather. There are a serious of pipes that ever-so-gradually draw precipitation and condensation into a roofed basin. The pipes, though you can;t tell it from my photos, extend their open ends out just past the borders of the chain-link fence, integrating it into their structure. They also reach back about fifteen yards to form rectangular arches of varying height that occupy the rest of the otherwise empty lot. The basin is lit around its rim and from two sources above it, and it is sheltered to ensure that the accumulation of moisture comes largely from the pipes. (Although the basin is also made of clear plastic, so I was immediately reminded of a wilderness survival contraption for gathering dew as drinkable water.) The more moisture that gathers, the more light that is reflected from it. (Rather ironic, then, that the original opening was postponed on account of rain.*) Natalia cites an Eskimo practice of holding reading material, or any object that requires scrutiny, close to the snow fall, the better to light one's discoveries.

It was frustrating not to be able to walk beneath the pipe arches, but only a little more frustrating than not being able to climb them -- they inspired that strong urge for me immediately, but never could have taken my weight, even if I could get to them. I have to imagine the ideal time at which to experience the exhibit would be a lightly rainy evening, just before dusk. You could (theoretically) walk beneath the pipes as they worked their gradual, inevitable work, toward the incrementally expanding pool, dipping your book/stone/lithograph into its light once there. It's a bit of a trip for me, but I may just do this some rainy night. I envy the people who get to experience this work on a semi-daily basis. Somebody has quietly transformed their environment for a few months, and it's an ongoing transformation. I think that's very valuable work, no matter how little monetary or pragmatic gain it results in. I want very much to be awakened to new perspectives on the every-day, and I can easily forget how much I want this. Thank goodness there are people interested in doing this for us. No one can sufficiently describe their interior experience of art. It's too personal. I hope it's enough to say that I spent some quiet moments with Luminous Accumulations, and felt pleasantly changed by the experience.

Well . . . maybe I'll just say one thing more. One of the best effects, in my humble opinion, a work of art can have is to invite us to carry its perspective with us into the world. We learn from it, in a sense, and carry it forward if not into our actions, then at least into our perceptions of everything else. This is part of the explanation for the genre of "performance art"; as with art, and unlike theatre, there is no definite end, no fallen curtain, to the experience, and it forces you to contemplate the possibility that the experience is simply continuing into the rest of your life. In this way, these things have a very far-reaching influence indeed. As I walked the good walk back to a subway station, I enjoyed immensely the details of illumination all along the way. Effects produced by headlights, streetlamps, windows, grates and foliage were all accentuated for me, and seemed somehow new. It was akin to the feeling I new best on my first trip to Italy, or my first to New York, and a feeling that I find has diminished slightly every time I add another visit and the longer I live here, like I lose it one slow drip at a time. It's a wonderful feeling.

*Perhaps it was apt, though; it must have filled the basin somewhat for the next day's appreciation.

02 December 2008

Memory Play

They're very interesting to me, memory plays. Memory-anything, really, but particularly memory plays, because plays are live and immediate and ever-changing stories. Some of my favorite and most formative theatrical experiences have been in some fashion memory plays, from The Glass Menagerie to Franny's Way to As Far As We Know. What I love about them most, I think, is the added layer of perception and perspective. They can be almost like meta-theatre in their effect, yet without a lot of self-conscious devices. As an audience we get to through layers of distance to empathy and recognition, and as players we get to ask really interesting questions: how true is this rendition, who's influencing the story, how much is this to be played as a unified series of events, and how much as after-the-fact fantasy? Finally, memories are stories we all have within us at every moment of our lives. It is fascinating to be invited into someone else's, real or imagined.

I'm almost done with my series of short plays inspired by reading Mary Roach's book, Stiff (thanks, Nat). That is to say, I've almost finished writing a first draft of the whole sequence, as I see it now. It's been a big project, luckily entered into blindly and without expectation, so nearing a complete first draft is at once an accomplishment and a very small step in what ought to be a much longer process, if I really expect this writing to be produced sometime, somewhere. As I see it now, I've one-and-a-half scenes to write and I'll be ready to have that most cringe-worthy experience of early drafts: a first reading. These happen to be the last two scenes, and I'm not certain which will be actually last yet, but I am (maybe) halfway through the one that's actually only a monologue. And, wouldn't you know it? It's a memory play.

Memory monologue? That just sounds stupid, and enforces the idea that a stand-alone monologue has no place in a larger play. So: Memory play.

It's difficult. If I'm doing it right, it is more of a play than a monologue. It should have a little drive behind it, a little "umph" of conflict and action and, above all, it should change something. It's strange how it's all coming out. I've essentially set myself up a challenge: How would someone who lived to a ripe old age tell her life story if she didn't have all the time in the world in which to do it? I've made no preconceived decision about this (at least, not a conscious one). Instead I'm writing as ideas come to me, and trying to keep some feeling of urgency behind it, in conflict with the way in which pausing allows memories to flow better, and holding still allows us to appreciate those memories more. I'm not altogether sure it's working, and I suspect I won't know at all how it's worked until someone -- poor soul -- tries to perform it for me. As a writer, I'm also hampered a bit by knowing where I want to end up with this one. The idea for the end is what started me writing it. Knowing something like that is good for direction but, personally speaking, bad for writing motivation. I'm propelled by exploration, as my rambling 'blog entries must attest, which is what makes revision processes so difficult for me.

I have an ever-changing relationship with memory. Generally speaking, as a kid I took it for granted, as a teenager into young adult I wallowed about in it, as a young man I rather spurned it, and as an adult (or so I'm told I am) I value it in any way I can get it. All of that just adds up to a high value that I place on my stories, good, bad or (rarely) indifferent. Memory is tricky. I'm thinking a lot about the expression, "If memory serves...". Did this saying come about because we see memory as serving us, or because we recognized that memory is an unreliable thing, bound not to serve us? Or was it rather because we're more at the mercy of our memories than they of us? That's the way it seems to me, most of the time. Will I remember Wife Megan's recent warning about the weather forecast? Not a chance. Will I suddenly recall an episode from ten years past so vividly that I feel ashamed most of the day? Highly probable, at any given moment. Ah sentience! What a trade-off!

Finally -- in every sense of the word -- memory is all we are. What we've experienced is who we end up, one way or another, and when we're gone, what really survives past our ashes here but memories of us? So perhaps being lightly in love with memory as a general concept isn't all that strange. Maybe memories are brushes with something far-reaching and universal. They can certainly affect us, albeit some more than others.

And if I write "memories" one more time, will that damn song get stuck in your head too? Oh good . . .

26 November 2008


This year has had, for me, a lot to do with gratitude. That's not try to say that my life is oh-so great. There's plenty more that I would achieve, but I am awful happy with what I have, and I feel like it's all owed to something greater than me, whether that be God or simply a community of friends and family that love and support me. (Or both...?) Whatever the reason, I have a tremendous sense of gratitude that it's a little difficult to express properly. There are too many people to thank. There doesn't seem to be a personal enough way to accomplish that ample thanks.

"I'd like to start by thanking, well, the academy..."

{ thirty-seven minutes later... }

"...and you like me! You really, really, REALLY like me!!!"

It is very easy to mock someone for having a sense of gratitude, and I suppose it is a fine line between sincere gratitude and ingratiating praise, or an inflated sense of inner goodness. Truth be told, though, I think we're rather inclined to mock gratitude because it's an immensely vulnerable emotion, both for the one expressing it and the one it is being expressed to. The mockery (or sarcasm, a family favorite of mine) is a defensive action. I don't know if we're more afraid of having our egos inflated, or of being shot down by another's refusal of a heartfelt emotion, but either way thanks are often hard to give and to receive.

With all the feelings of gratitude I've had of late, I've felt a bit like a hippy. I was kind of raised by hippies. Not my parents (the professor and reverend Wills missed most of what we now think of as the 60s), but my church was a pretty peace-and-lovey place. We went on "retreats" out to the woods, and people brought acoustic guitars, and we'll leave it at that for now. (Perhaps my parents saw this as making up for lost time?) I don't believe all Unitarian Universalist congregations had quite the same flavor of far-out-itude as mine. Our first minister carried a walking staff during the children's services (he was pretty old, though [he is still my mental image of Gandalf {the Grey}]). UUs really are some of the most loving people in the world, but some of us take it to a degree of tenderness that makes me want to smack them around, just a little bit. Just to alert them to the possibility that not everything in the world today is beautiful and purposeful. Yet lately, I have been one such hippy. I worry that perhaps I'm coming across as someone newly in love, who can't help but be a bit obnoxious about it.

On the up-side, this has all reminded me of my religious feeling. Don't go -- I'm not about to proselytize! By "religious feeling," I mean something that goes by many names, none of which I generally use: the Holy Spirit, zen, transcendent awareness, etc. It's a feeling of connectedness to the world, a feeling of receptiveness, and holy crap but it is a difficult feeling to maintain in New York City. This feeling would come to me in nature a lot when I was young, occasionally in church, and almost always during holidays with my family. I feel as though I have lost contact with this feeling for a good portion of the past six years, actually, and maybe more, and that's a frightening thought. I'm glad I rediscovered it.

So that's one more thing to make me all hippy-dippy grateful in general. Dang it!

This begs the question, "Where did it go?" Or, perhaps more to the point, "Why?" I mean literally begs the question, because I'm a little desperate to understand it so that it doesn't happen again, or at least for so long. This feeling is vital to my ethics, whatever role you may believe God does or doesn't play in it all. When I operate from a feeling of gratitude, I make better choices, I do more good, I feel better and more possibilities open up to me. I am a better actor, simply as a result of being a more receptive and comprehensive listener. So. With all this goodness, all this pay-off, why would such an outlook ever be dismantled, or lost?

I've been seeing an acupuncturist lately for my various difficulties related to my injury of about two years past. This has been an interesting experience for me. One of the challenges of this particular therapy is that it is, after all, meant to relax a fellow, to improve flow and movement in body and energy. Second to shouting "RELAX!" at me, embedding my muscles with dozens of needles is a uniquely counter-intuitive process for getting me to relax. I have no great fear of needles, mind; what I have is a natural tendency to resist pain through tension and sheer, torqued will. I also have a bit of a thing about being immobile, and immobility is a key component to the beneficial acupuncture experience, as I have recently (painfully) learned. So: challenges. When my acupuncturist embeds a needle in a particularly lively point, I must not tense, I must not tremble, I must not resist. I must accept the pain, I must release the resistance, I must, in other words, allow the pain to pass through me. It's the only way to move forward into healing.

I was going to write that pain is what makes maintaining a sense of gratitude so difficult, but it isn't; not really. It's our responses to pain that can make gratitude difficult. I have to acknowledge now that my years of disconnect from being "in the spirit" were largely a result of my reaction to being hurt. I closed some important parts off. It's not a reasonable response to pain, no matter how vital an act of self-preservation it may seem. It arrests life, and it causes such a narrow perspective that great opportunities can be lost, terribly harmful choices made. That's neither an excuse nor an apology -- I'm not sure I could have done things any differently had I known to. It is, however, an acknowledgement that I can improve. I have to improve. I will. Feeling grateful is stronger than a feeling of hurt, if we give it a chance.

I never would have realized any of this, never even have rediscovered my sense of gratitude, without everyone who's crossed my path since I lost it. From my parents right across the board to whatever as-yet anonymous readers here there may be. So: Thank you.

Yes, you. I mean it. Thank you.

Meet you out in the woods this weekend. Bring a guitar.

25 November 2008

Origin Myths

Last night I was privileged enough to attend a private reading of Christina Gorman's work-in-progress. Christina -- as you may recall, Loyal Reader -- was the playwright attached to our process in creating As Far As We Know for the 2007 NYC Fringe Festival. She has since become a part of a play-development program hosted by The Public Theatre. So last night I strolled into the Public, to the downstairs rehearsal room, and tried as hard as I could to look like I belonged there. I think I did okay. My practiced nonchalance bordered on disdain, especially while wandering the back hall while all around me well-employed theatre folk busied themselves about rehearsal, and workshopping, and probably warming up for a performance at Joe's Pub. Yeah, I was cool. I didn't even stain my shirt at dinner beforehand.

(I made sure my coat was closed.)

I won't say too much about Christina's play, except to say that I enjoyed it. I'm not saying much more because it is, after all, a work in progress, and who the hell am I to out it prior to Christina's releasing it upon the world at large? She expects to be presenting it in some kind of final form in the Spring, and I'm very much looking forward to seeing it again after she's incorporated whatever notes she took for herself from this reading.

Whenever I see it again, I may also see a few familiar faces again. Going into this reading, I was preparing myself to be reunited with some AFAWKers (that really doesn't read well, does it?), most of whom I haven't seen in a year or so. To my surprise, I was the only one from that crew there. I did, however, see Gaye-Taylor Upchurch again, my director from the reading of Burning Leaves we just completed. She and Christina have apparently worked together in the past, hence Christina's attendance at the BL reading. Christina also knows Tom Rowan. It is, I tell you, a small world after all. As if that weren't enough, one of the actors performing in the reading attended The Big Show. I didn't recognize Bhavesh Patel as he sat directly in front of me and I read his name in the program. He had to come over and clear things up for me. So. Pathetic. I'd rather have spilled pizza sauce on my shirt.

Bhavesh did a great job, as did the rest of the cast: Reed Birney, Carla Harting, Brian Wallace, Alex Webb and Halima Henderson. The whole affair was directed by Michael Goldfried, and to good effect. It was simply done, with the actors remaining seated and with music stands in front of them. I often find it a bit stifling to be seated for a reading, but no one seemed to feel repressed by it on this occasion, and I appreciated being allowed to focus on simply the actors' choices. Christina is writing a play that has very much to do with characters being nudged out of their comfort zones through discoveries about the frailties and failings in one another. The relationships are very distinct, and the action largely achieved through conversation and various storytelling forms, so creating a space in which we as the audience were left to focus in on faces and the minutiae of expression was very smart. Afterward, I was very briefly introduced to Goldfried, and discovered that he had seen As Far As We Know and thought it to be good work, which was certainly a nice note to leave on.

Christina's play concerns itself with origins in a variety of ways, including the origins of personal passions and America itself. It was strange for me -- and I do hope she will understand where I'm coming from with this -- to find familiarity in this new play. At times her new play reminded me of the style or even thematic content in AFAWK, and it's a difficult chicken-or-egg deduction to make. How much of that was Christina's influence on our script, our story, and how much of it was an effect of her experiences working on our play? Ultimately, I don't think it's an important question to answer. She and I both invested a lot of time and energy into AFAWK, and it's only natural that prints will be left and continue to be made long after our involvements ended. Still, I am curious about origins, in general and as they pertain to creative expression.

Many, possibly most, of my favorite stories are origin stories, and I've written here before about how fond I am of that earliest stage of a collaboration, when the ideas are ALL good and the response is ALWAYS "Yes, and...!" The first of a superhero movie franchise is generally the best, because it's like watching a tragedy in reverse: Inevitably, the hero will become something greater than he or she could have imagined, and we get to watch it all happen, to appreciate intimately the progress, the journey. Maybe we're transformed too. (Talk about your adolescent power fantasies... [Seriously - talk about them.].) But what of the origin of a story? There's a popular idea that there are really only about nine (or so; the number varies) stories in the history of the world, and every supposed "new" one is just a retelling of one, or a hybrid of a few. That's as well as may be. I've got no argument with the idea. However, I believe each story told has the potential to spark "new" stories, and that the culmination of these quite literally changes our reality. In this sense, stories are made new all the time by our ever-changing belief in them. Take, for example, our Founding Fathers. Were they as we describe them now? Certainly not. Will they become further mythologized (is SO a word) a hundred or so years from now? My bet is for yea, and those new beliefs will affect the world as we know it.

So I am, irresistibly, inevitably brought back to that tired question that caused me so much grief nearly a year ago: Who owns a story? Or, to be more neat to this particular entry: Does the originator of a story own it and, if so, how do we say who originated that story? All glory be to Allah, I suppose (Welcome to the DoD web surveillance, Odin's Aviary! Here's your complimentary pin, with GPS included!), but how do we claim ownership of a story when we're little more than synthesizers of other stories, and stories themselves exist to be shared? I'm not talking here about commercial ownership -- that question bores me, immediately necessary though it may be. Rather, I wonder about the ways in which we attribute credit in what may be essentially a great dialogue between storytellers that reaches back thousands of years. Maybe we only borrow the stories we "create." Maybe we're just helping them along to the next stops on their journeys.

But hey: Christina's play is Christina's play. Don't step up to that, 'cause girl will mess you UP.

24 November 2008

The Rest is Finally Silence



(dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, duh...)

That's the Also Sprach Zarathustra, made popular of course by the Kubrick film, 2001. I could have gone on with my rendition, but I figured it was so obvious that your mind would naturally fill in the crescendo progression. I know mine is; over, and over, and over.

Blueprints is done! Whoopsie Daisy is done! Let there be much rejoicing! Also: I'm sad to have it be over so quickly! Aww. Some days you just can't win for losing. Are we relieved that we pulled it off? Certainly. It also felt surprisingly good, this show. We found a synchronicity, a unity, to our varied performances that we didn't necessarily deserve, given how little time we actually worked in the same room together. It felt good. It felt right. Patrick, Melissa and I discussed how natural it was to work together (especially in the West End Theatre, site of so many of our other collaborations) and personally, I feel the unity we found had as much to do with our common creative origins back in 2001 as with anything else. Even Friend Kate was on hand for Friday night's performance, so we had a full Yurtian accord for the first time in years.

We had a problem with audience, due largely to the last-minute notice we were able to give, but miraculously I had very important people to me in the audience both nights. Friends Laura & Daryl attended Friday night, which was a little like introducing a new girlfriend to her possible in-laws. I've done lots of work with these two, particularly Daryl, but it's all been relatively straight (read: not circus-y nor expressionistic), scripted theatre. Introducing them to my silent-film clown, Lloyd, and some of the work (in-progress) I create for myself was slightly harrowing. Then again, they received it well enough, and perhaps my eccentricities are not quite as latent in daily life as I'd like to perceive them to be. Sunday, Michael and Joanna from Bond Street Theatre were in attendance, which was a complete surprise. It's nice to think that they followed up on last week's collaboration in that way, especially given how busy they both are. Afterwards we talked in some detail about my work, which was also nice, having two experienced clowners and physical-theatre types from whom to receive critique.

And what was there to critique? Plenty; but as an acknowledged work-in-progress, I thought my piece went off rather well. Most of all I was struck by how delicate a thing I'm trying to build via all this throwing myself about (oh man--pun above totally unintentional, I swear to you). Eliciting laughter through a character's confusion about, suffering from, and ultimate adaptation to a new environment (or a new perception of his environment) requires a careful journey, no matter how many pratfalls happen along the way. It requires an extremely intimate responsiveness to the audience, and I rather shut myself off from that possibility by giving myself restrictive music cues. The timing, in other words, was more dictated by the music than by the moment. If I could have, I would have changed the piece to take more time between our opening and closing performances, but I backed myself into a corner there with what I had orchestrated. That's a definite lesson for next time (right up there with making sure I have more than a week in which to prepare). Some of my other lessons included techniques and bits that definitely worked, however, and I can hardly wait to try them again.

What I ended up building was essentially an exploration of a couple of things:

  • The themes and tropes of silent film clowning I want to utilize in Red Signal, including transformation; and

  • The use of the surreal in relationship to comedy and our recent (current) history.

Lloyd starts out as an uptight, shut-off New Yorker, going about his daily business. The beautiful and surreal come at him in a couple of ways, through some "inanimate" objects (a flower and a hat) and a woman, all of which quickly break down his ability to adhere to his routines and function in the world. As a result, he has to start over with everything, soup-to-nuts. Also as a result of this, he's suddenly aware of the audience's presence, which terrifies him. Resisting this, he tries to flee, but finds himself trapped in the theatre. Recognizing this, he tries to at least shed the trappings of this new perception, and goes into violent attempts to be rid of the "sticky" hat that suddenly appeared on him. All fails, in spite of a (hopefully) overwhelming array of physical stratagems, until he sticks his head off-stage and tries to pry the hat off that way.

And this where it starts to get surreal (yes, the prior seems completely normal to me). When his head pops back out, it has a different hat on. Instead of a black fedora, it is a grey top hat, in turn wearing welding goggles on itself. Lloyd reaches up to investigate, then heads toward the off-stage to see about where the new hat came from. He doesn't get far, quickly retreating from a small, bright light that skitters across the floor toward him from out the wing. He retreats from it, to escape through the other wing, when a second comes shooting out. He crouches upstage, away from both, then remembers the goggles on his hat and lowers them over his eyes. Thus protected, he approaches one of the lights crouched, like a cat. He bats it around a few times, then pounces on it and puts it in his mouth. Then he pounces on the other and does the same, standing to reveal two glowing cheeks. He quickly starts to retch, however, and when the lights pop out, he palms them so they face the audience side-by-side and become eyes, his fingers the eyelids/lashes. They look around the audience, blink drowsily, wink at someone, etc.

Suddenly, one of the "eyes" goes berserk, flying about erratically. The other soon follows suit. They fly into proximity to one another and flip about there for a bit, then part to explore away from one another; now they are like mating fireflies. One suddenly hovers, focused on something in the darkness upstage. His/her mate eventually notices his/her absence, and flies to join him/her. They zoom upstage and illuminate the woman, and look her up and down. Then Lloyd places the lights as lenses in his goggles. The woman smiles at him, takes his hand, and together they leave the stage, his "eyes" lighting their way.

That's the short play what I made. I don't know how much of the reasoning (the abundant reasoning) behind it was clear to the audience, but given the exploration of the surreal I was aiming for I'm content to have people make of it what they will. I learned a lot about the exploration of transformation involved in my script for Red Signal, mainly that people get and appreciate it best when they have a little distance from it. This was made awfully evident for me in the moment of recognition of the audience. It served as a very clear indicator that his world had changed, but only worked for me when it was very deliberately comic. When I did it with very precise double-take timing, it elicited a laugh, and the audience felt enough sense of perspective to appreciate Lloyd's plight without feeling responsible for it. So, I believe, they felt safer to empathize and identify with him. If I did it at all naturalistically, it created, rather than released, tension for my audience. They identified with his fear too immediately, perhaps, and felt a need to rationalize his (their) existence rather than go along with the humor. The film, if I can ever get it made, needs to steer a careful course between observation and empathy.

As for the surreal . . . well, what can you say about it, really? It was fun to do, I can say that. Certainly people enjoy having their expectations boggled a bit. My question about it was whether or not something made today in the spirit of the old silent-film comedies ought to step up the surreal aspects a bit. I mean, the silent comedians were often surreal in their creations; Buster Keaton particularly, and he was practically revered by the Surrealists who plied their philosophies after him. Yet all that surrealism came from fairly rational sources, used in supposedly irrational ways. Do we as audience experience the same lifting-out of the mundane as the audiences of Chaplin's and Lloyd's (Harold) films? With all the strange twists and turns art and culture have taken in the past century, might a contemporary silent film benefit from reinterpreting its moments of "surreality" into more abrupt or inexplicable forms? In his time, Keaton's use of a bass as a boat and a violin as a paddle were absolutely surreal, but now I wonder that it might only be perceived as "clever." When we can hardly tell what's CGI anymore, our surrealists must take a somewhat harder tack. My hypothesis for this little experiment was that a contemporary audience must be confronted with something a little more abrupt, a little less sourced, if they're to experience any real sense of surrealism.

I think it worked. I think, actually, it really worked. In a sense, all I really did was to subvert the order of transformation for the objects a bit, so that their immediate given purpose may not have been as obvious. (Frankly, I don't really understand the intended purpose of those weird little light things.) The hat and goggles contradict one another's associations -- assuming you're not a big steampunk proponent. The lights immediately behave differently than one might expect -- an idea that came to be, by the way, from reading Sophie's World. All the action was a sort of fluctuation (or flirtation) around the intended use of the objects until finally the lights become Lloyd's actual eyes. (Incidentally: They definitely weren't made for that; I owe myself a little more work to make those little sums-of-riches stick in there.) The effect, I think, was to initially baffle, but coupling it with a laugh (the surprising change of hat off-stage) made it non-threatening. Lloyd was threatened, then playful, then interactive, which allowed the audience along for the ride a bit. It's hard to say just how good the result was, but I think I'm at least on my way to something really positive, unique and satisfying.

That's what it's all about, really. I'm excited to keep the momentum going, both on my own work and on collaborating with Patrick and Melissa (and maybe even Melissa's dancers, Zoe and Madeline -- they're Tony-the-Tiger grrreat). The holidays can be a real sluggish time for me in terms of my creative work. There's just so much else to do. But somewhere, in the back of my head, I'll be revisiting this harrowing and lovely experience. If you see me with a distant look on my face, I'm probably imagining how I might do a handstand whilst blinded by my own brightly shining eyes . . .

22 November 2008

Burnt Foliage

I know that you've been fervently checking in on Odin's Aviary to find out how this week's adventure in last-minute original work turned out for our intrepid hero. Hourly, nay -- minute-ly, you direct your browser this way, hoping for some whiff of report on last night's show, the final follow-up to this week's chain of entries charting the development of my earth-shattering new work: Whoopsie Daisy. Well, I've news indeed, and thanks for tuning in: I'm not going to write about Blueprint yet. It consists of two performances, we've had one, and I'll tell all after the last opportunity everyone has to see it for themselves, this Sunday evening. It's my Aviary. I can do whatever the hell I want.

Plus, I'd be surprised if anyone reads any 'blogs on purpose over the weekend. Apart from yours truly, that is.

I do hope my readership will return to this entry on Monday, however, because I'm here to finally write a bit about another big event in my work this week; specifically, the closing performance of my second staged reading of Burning Leaves. I wrote briefly about having the first of two readings of this play on Monday, before the incipient madness of my creative process for Whoopsie Daisy had taken root. Thereafter, I've been understandably preoccupied, but that isn't indicative of any shortage of effect that Burning Leaves had on me. Rather, I wanted to get the other piece of work on its feet so I could turn my full energy to evaluating my latest experience with Tom Rowan's play; may it not be the last.
The second and final presentation took place under strenuous conditions for me, and I don't just mean its coincidence with my other process this week. It wasn't until 9:00 pm Wednesday, which was an altogether long day anyway, with a full day of work, then a rapid introductory rehearsal for Blueprint on the upper west, a dinner with friends, and finally the night was freezing and the theatre wasn't all that much better. So there felt like a lot to overcome; which isn't necessarily a bad thing for us actors, but there's always some question about whether that obstacle will add to the performance, or override it. All-in-all, I was actually more satisfied with the climax in the second performance, but prior to that I felt a bit flat. It piqued my desire to work on the play under a longer rehearsal process. My character, Matt, has a such a complex inner landscape at the point in his life with which the play concerns itself, there was very little chance of my getting a credible handle on it for a reading. Unless, I suppose, we do six or seven more of them.

There was a very interesting range of ages and experience in our cast, and I was a bit preoccupied by it throughout the process. I suppose that has as much to do with my recent rites of passage as with my comrades-in-arms. In addition to Tom and Gaye-Taylor Upchurch, my fellow collaborators for this process included Kevin Confoy, Abigail Gampel, Allison Goldberg,
Hana Kalinski, and Alexander Paul Nifong. I was a little thrown at first, to be honest, by the sheer impression of youth Alex gave as the high school boy with whom Matt becomes involved. It's completely appropriate to the age of the character, but it also made me rather automatically a little more defensive in performance. In my previous experience, the actor playing his character, Jesse, brought a sense of control and intention to it that allowed me to accept with more ease the depth of affection Matt might develop for him. With Alex's Jesse, at first, I worried about what was to be made of my character falling for someone so obviously naive. We found a balance through rehearsal, but that balance really paid, off, I thought, in Wednesday night's performance. I can't say what caused it (which is a little frustrating) but I thought Alex gave a very grounded, nuanced and intentional performance of Jesse that night, one which pulled the whole thing together for me in a lovely way. His work was good throughout, but Wednesday it was great.

There was much discussion of acting "technique" during this process, and more than a little breathless excitement over this and that from the younger actors of our cozy tribe, all of which I found to be very interesting and, speaking frankly, a little funny. Not to say anything against these actors! Indeed, they were an inspiring reminder of how great it is to do what we do. What was funny to me was how distant from such discussions I have become; I don't think of it that way anymore. (I'll leave it to you, Gentle Reader, to determine if that's progress, or simply laziness.) Funny, too, was this kind of subtext or suggestion beneath the questions that there was some kind of answer to the question: Just what process makes for the best performance? When asked by the woman reading stage directions (she asked me twice, for unknown reasons) what technique I used, I answered that I use whatever works best moment-to-moment in the story, then mentioned that I found a lot of usefulness in Meisner work. I couldn't be sure how satisfied she was with this answer. There is, in my opinion, no concrete answer to the question. There is only good craft, well-applied -- a thousand paths to the same summit.

Plus, we're not all that freaking important. Actors are often, at their greatest moments, cyphers. It may seem like a somewhat hollow occupation, but I don't think so. I feel it's one of the most transcendent roles a human being can fulfill.

Tom has written a great line for Jesse, who is just starting a study of acting: "The words hurt, if you really say them." It's a moment of discovery for the character that we not only get to witness, but participate in, as we've just watched him connect emotionally with a text he's performing. This is what Burning Leaves is for me, one of those stories that I connect with, wherein the words hurt (and make me laugh, and make me think). I'm not remembering a long-lost love when I fight through the tears, nor am I imagining some other scenario, nor am I using psychological gesture. When I'm doing it well (not "right": well), I'm saying the words, and letting them work on me. I'm also feeling my audience's presence and allowing that to work on me, and I'm listening to my body, and my fellow actors, and my imagination, and its all just funneling through me. Is that easy? Hell no. Do you need to train for it, and use technique? Hell yes. But leave Stanislavski and Meisner and Hagen in the rehearsal room. On stage, you're not there for them, nor even for your craft, but for everyone who happens to be in that room, in that willing community of surrender and imagination.

Bleyargh. What am I doing up here? Where'd this soapbox come from?

So obviously
I'm a little biased, but I think Tom Rowan's play deserves to have a hell of a long life. I hope he gets it produced soon, and have some ideas about spreading the word of it in my little way. Is this simply because I identify with it personally? Sure, but what other criteria shall we use for theatre? I'll leave the promotion of existential drama and Shepard plays to others (there are certainly enough of them to support it all). For my money, a heartfelt story that's clearly expressed is worth a dozen Bogart deconstructions. (At least.) This was a tremendous experience, and I hope to work on it again with the same people, theoretical discussions and all.

Give us a grant. A big one. That is all.

21 November 2008

The Rest is (Busy, Noisy) Silence

{This entry is a continuation of 11/20/08, 11/19/08 & 11/18/08...}

I'm sharp enough, gang. I'm sharp enough. I'm about to be sharpened down to a nub.

Yesterday the management agency I work with called to submit me to an audition taking place this morning, for what sounds like a potentially big commercial. They got it from an agent; like, a really real agent, who I guess shops work out to them occasionally when he can't fill it. So. Why did they call me -- who's only done one industrial for them to date -- for this peculiar assignment? Well, the casting director needs someone who can do an Italian dialect, and that's what it says, right there on my resume.

Ahhhhhh. Ah.

I could have said no. I could have said, "Oh well, you know, I mostly do a comic Italian, which doesn't actually sound anything like an actual Italian person. You know, it's all, 'I'ma gonna to tella you somethin'.' Like that." I could have said that, and I didn't, and it's either because I'm greedy, or insane, or a little of both. The audition's at 10:40. I'll write more after.

Perhaps needless to say, some of my valuable time last night was spent downloading and listening to an Italian dialect sample, over and over again.

* * *

Well. That was . . . not at all worth the stress under which I put myself. Me and a camera, slate, two lines, spoken twice, and that, as they say, was that. The director wasn't even a nutter. Not remotely, and they warned me about that. I didn't even have to wait, and there was no one there. I mean . . . COME ON! <--This addressed to myself, for being such a stressed-out goob.

I have absolutely no way of knowing how well I did. Even if I thought I did particularly well, I wouldn't know, there was so little interaction. But enough of that.

One lucky upswing from this is that it sort of temporarily released my stress over tonight's work. (Oh right! I'm performing tonight!) Similar to electroshock therapy, the possibility of facing a director furious over my crap-tastic Italian dialect has zapped an interruption into my ongoing rhythm of stage fright. It is welcome. I figure I've got a good hour or so of feeling this intense relief until my anxiety back-up generator kicks in and starts running the show, and that's good enough. I can get to 3:30, when I'll be back working on the show, on this reprieve. Thanks, Powers-That-Be!

Apart from training to open my As and turn my Is into Es, last night was spent very similarly to how I imagined it yesterday. Which is a hell of an accomplishment, because I feel I'm at that level of stress that gets disruptive to my entire being. I'm sure most of you can relate; particularly the air-traffic controllers in my vasty readership. I'm talking in my sleep, getting awoken by cramps, having trouble focusing on one thing for an extended period and generally losing my place all over. It's silly, I know. I'm working on it, but in the meantime, I managed to rig my props and cobble a costume together and dub my sound effects and music last night instead of running around my general neighborhood, clucking like a chicken and clawing at litter with my sneakers. I didn't run the piece at all, and it wasn't until this morning that I played with my new props a bit, but there truly wasn't time.

A lot of this stress has been self-generated. Yes, it's a last-minute, original performance, but it's also all of ten minutes long and I've no idea who will actually see it -- likely no one who will have an immediate and profound effect on my creative and professional life. Plus I do exactly this kind of work ALL the TIME. Some could handle this with greater panache, and some wouldn't even feel stressed at all. Not THIS guy, though. (sigh...) Without getting self-aggrandizing, some of it has to do with how important the work is to me. Without getting self-deprecating, some of it has to do with a finely honed sense of insecurity. Add a dash of general excitement at being allowed to make stuff up and show it to people, and you've got a giddy stress souffle just ripe for voracious consumption!

A lot is waiting on today's pre-show tech time and run. It had to. There was just little way for me to work things out without the space itself and all its quirky accoutrement. So this afternoon will tell the tale, and adjustments will likely be numerous and made as I go. I think I might even be able to relax into it a bit, if I try hard enough. Er, uh: if I don't try hard . . . enough. Wait. Oh, to hell with it. A relaxed person, I am not. But I do enjoy good, hard work, and I've plenty of that to do, which is always better than just waiting for curtain.

Of course, the end of the tale isn't until the fall of that curtain...

20 November 2008

The Rest is (Yes, Still) Silence

{This entry is a continuation of 11/18/08 & 11/19/08...}

Well: Maybe not every single moment. Though I am having more waking ones than sleeping, at the moment. Yesterday was a lo-o-ong day (that's a three-syllable "long," right there) and I didn't get a whole lot of sleep last night. In addition, some of that time had to be devoted to the closing reading of Burning Leaves (Hi Tom), a play that, in my opinion, certainly deserves what devotion it gets (Hi Tom). I'm afraid my reading may have suffered a bit from my multi-tasking and the lateness of the hour. But more on that in a later entry (Bye Tom). For this sleep-deprived moment, it is all Whoopsie Daisy, all the time.

Yesterday was not full of time in which to play out my ideas. I could come-to-think-of-it have retreated to the back hall of my daily workplace for some tumbling and hat tricks but, then again, perhaps it's best I didn't. The copier's back there, and my discovery mid-handstand would have been inevitable. ("O hai.") So my rehearsal was limited to my imagination. This turned out to be a good thing. I'm always craving organization, and it isn't a compulsion that always benefits my creative pursuits, but it just so happened that at this stage of the game that was exactly what was needed. So after venting on yesterday's entry, I brought up the dreaded blank MSWord(TM) page and set about getting down the ideas from the prior days' rehearsal and them what have introduced themselves since.

It was, in its way, tremendously comforting. Too comforting? Perhaps. It is always easier to theorize a performance than to confidently prepare it for presentation. Still, I had the prior night's practice fresh in my body, and managed to keep my perspective about what I can and can not do. I even have tentative music to use. As soon as I got home Tuesday night I sat at my computer and sought out instrumental music that would support what I had thus far in my imagination. With these things in mind, I started to outline, chronologically, step-by-step, a scenario for my performance. It was a bit like working on my clown screenplay, in the best ways, and I was reminded of Buster Keaton's assertion that a good movie ought to be able to be expressed in a few sentences, to fit on a postcard. Simplicity's hard for me when I'm gathering ideas, but easier when it comes to writing it all down. One thing leads to the next, to the next, and to the next. Particularly in physical comedy.

By the end of my "work day" (HA!), I had a complete outline, subject of course to revision, and raced up to the venue to try and catch the final half-hour or so of Melissa's rehearsal. Even getting quite lucky with transfers, I just made it for thirty minutes' worth of time. I walked into the warmth in time to see about the final five minutes of Patrick running his contribution, and it set me at ease anew -- the space is so familiar, and here was my rehearsal partner from the night before filling it very naturally. We can do this. I came to realize, in fact, that a sense of community had already permeated the space; it just took me awhile to catch on to it. Suddenly I realized I was not, in fact, flying solo. We were all in this together. I can already tell that is going to make a world of difference from my experience with EAT's Laugh Out Loud last Spring.

My brief time in the space was spent enlisting the aid of one of Melissa's dancers (I have discovered I need another character), getting a new lay of the land and sketching through my show for Melissa's benefit. Patrick and Zoe Bowick were also around for that and, though I was really just outlining most of the sequence, some positive responses from them helped my self-esteem tremendously. Melissa, of course, is just the most supportive colleague ever. It's her way, and I think it explains why she works so durn much. What I didn't get done in the space was: a run, technical details or even really a reading on just how possible the piece I imagine will be. Here's a short list of things I must do tonight to be ready for tomorrow:

  • Buy, then rig to behave the way I need it to, an artificial daisy.
  • Collect string lights.
  • Finalize costume.
  • Rig props.
  • Finalize, download and burn a disc of all sound and music cues.
  • Practice all tricks and acro as much as possible (already using elevator rides for hat-trick practice).
  • Run entire sequence several times.
  • Stretch.
  • Stretch.
  • Stretch (some more).

All of this from (or in-and-around) the comfort of my apartment, 'cause I'm not shelling out for another rehearsal space the day before tech and, frankly, I need the comforts of home at this point. I sacrifice space needs for psychic ones. Fortunately for me, I have no other commitments tonight, and the place to myself for a few hours. Lots is still only going to be done in the space, during tech (the day of the performance), for me. Which is all to say: No longer eyeing oncoming traffic as a method of escape from this assignment; still experiencing pangs of sheer terror.

Keeps me sharp!