29 February 2008

I Could Be Way Off Here

Acting Strengths (in no particular order):

- Easily applicable look: average 20s-30s white male, strong features
- Nearly 20 years' acting experience, nearly a decade of professional experience
- Emotional sensitivity
- Active listener
- Intense work ethic
- Varied special skills: circus skills, dialect skills, physical theatre skills ("Girls only like guys with SKILLS!" Gosh!)
- Lack of pretension -- willingness to appear strange and/or goofy (see above)
- Good comic timing
- Extensive improvisation experience
- Extensive collaboration experience
- Easy-going in intercommunication
- Avid reader and writer
- Intelligent (Somewhat [Shu'up!])
- Non-confrontational in life. Which, you know, allows me to store it up for the stage/screen/private moments of personal abandon.

Acting Weaknesses (keepin' it real [WU-TANG!]):
- Occasional inclination toward "getting it right" rather than "getting it true"
- Want to earn special merit; don't want to have to actually receive it from people (What? True though.)
- Natural compulsion to be in control of self and moment
- Confused by abstracted dialogue (or, somewhat daft about modern stuff)
- Not comfortable singing on stage
- Can't stand dance choreography
- Opinionated when it comes to over-arching elements of story and style (director's domain)
- Utter inability to "fake sincerity"
- Don't enjoy mingling, hob-nobbing or otherwise making conversation
- Also not a big fan of talking about self
- Can't remember names. Seriously. CAN'T REMEMBER NAMES.

Acting Ambiguities (some go both ways):
- Analytical and logical
- Non-judgmental introvert
- Need for regular visual and aural stimulation
- Love making bold physical choices
- Hair actor; totally
- Clown

Just a little exercise in self-obsessed analysis here. Next week, watch for me typing out my name in a ker-gillion different ways!

28 February 2008

27 February 2008

Reading Loud and Clear

Hey! I've got work for you, Jeff!

Awesome! I love work! When are auditions?

You don't even have to audition!

I don't? That's unusual, but far be it from me to complain. I mean, I have been at this professionally for over a decade, and there's a few places for people to see my existing work. Plus, maybe a decade in New York solidifies your reputation with enough people who matter that you can be taken on recommendation. Sweet. What does it pay?

It doesn't pay.

Oh. Erm. It doesn't?

No. Are you so rude as to demand payment?

No! I mean: No. I'm not "so rude." It's a pretty reasonable question, I think, where my time is involved.

But it'll be fun.

I'm sure it will, yes. But, you see, I can have fun for myself. I don't need other's help for that, necessarily. And if I do, I have friends that fit the bill nicely and generally want to do -- if not exactly -- approximately the same things I want to do. So, you see, I'm doing okay on "fun."

Are you working on anything right now, acting-wise?

Well ... that's a complex question. I mean, I have auditions coming up. And I need to get my headshots to a new agency I'm freelancing with. And I've got a sort of film outline I'm in the process of writing for myself. And I help develop plays over at NYU, working with student playwrights and professional directors and actors. And I read plays. All the time. Plays, plays plays, nothin' but . . . okay. I have no show.

Well, we provide meals.

Oh! It's a film. Great; you should have said. I badly need reel material. That'll be worth it.

It's not a film.


But there'll be very little time commitment.


And it's local.

It's work here? In New York? Something people who make a difference to my future work could conceivably see?


Well okay. That sounds ... doable.

Great. We'll see you at 7:00 on Tuesday.

Seven o'clock Tuesday? Don't I even read it first?

Read what?

The thing! The thing we're doing, whatever it is!

Oh. Well, you can, but there might not be much point.

Not much point? What is this?

I just mean it's subject to drastic change, the play.

The play I'd be working on might change drastically while I'm working on it?

Yes. Potentially overnight.

Wait a minute, wait a minute. Non-paying local work I don't have to audition for, with a short rehearsal time, that's not a film, that's subject to change in its entirety the night before we perform, and you're offering me food as payment? This ... this is a staged reading, isn't it?

How did you know?

*&^$! (_*& (%^$#, ^%$# *%^#! A staged reading! Always with the staged readings! I swear to God, if I never stand behind another school-band music stand or sit on another backless stool again, it would be too soon! I love it! Do tell: Will it be just us, and the playwright, all at a table or in the basement or both, somewhere, poring over each line while the playwright moans at our delivery? Or will it be for a large audience of everyone else's peers, where I will be the only stranger, and all the bits everyone finds funny I have no idea about because I don't hang out at the same water cooler? Or, OR, will it be for a Producer, a backing audition, and, well, I'm not really right for the part, owing to some minor detail like being twice the age of the character, but just maybe the Producer will be producing some other project and see me and think, "Eureka!" Oo! Can I actually hold my script while I act, allowing me to turn toward the person I'm speaking and move my body as I like, or will that break "the style," so I should leave that script ON that music stand, not even daring to lift it when I turn pages? Tell me, do: Will I be supplying my own costume? Will I be paying for the privilege of traveling to the rehearsal(s) and "performance"? Should I get a haircut for this one night? Or is it taking place in the middle of the day, and I should get my fingers and toes shined, too?

So, you don't want to do it?

Of course I don't.

We're serving wine.

I'll see you Tuesday.

25 February 2008


It has been my intention on this here 'blog to keep the details of my personal life out of it. I go back and forth on this policy, largely due to my feeling that my personal life unavoidably affects my artistic life. Should I be content to tell a partial story? Invariably, however, I return to my policy. Many people love 'blogs for the ultra-personal peek they afford into a given person's inner life. I've got nothing against that, in general. As an actor, however, I'm spending a lot of my time making very specific choices about what of me I'm showing. In my little world, there's something vaguely pornographic about indiscriminately baring everything about myself and my life for the world at large, not to mention recorded human history. Perhaps it's hypocritical of me. After all, actors who are really "in the moment" probably don't really have all that much conscious choice about what they're revealing of themselves. Nevertheless, I choose to make the distinction where I can.

This particular entry is a choice as well, and I choose it as an exception that proves the rule; hypocrisy be damned. In acting, we are taught to choose our moments as well as what we do with them. One tries to earn a dramatic pause through the pace and emotional incidents of moments leading up to it. One often tries to balance a bombastic or tyrannical character with the occasional moment of quiet expression, or vulnerability. I'm going to try to express something very personal, very significant to me, and just hope that a year's worth of holding to my own rule has earned me that luxury.

The only trouble is, someone beat me to the punch and expressed it, in my opinion, much better than I ever could.

When I first discovered Taoism, and was most ravenous for information about it, I was especially drawn to the concept of each person's life having a "way," a given direction one could sense. This resolved a lot of mixed feelings I had about concepts such as fate and destiny, which seemed too fixed and divinely bequeathed to me. Taoism seemed to be saying that yes, there was a path that was most right for one's life, but no omniscient force or forces were forcing the individual down that path. When you feel balanced, when less wasted force and effort is required, you are closer to your way. When it's otherwise, you're straying. Maybe you're careening into the jaws of misery or, more likely, you're doing a little exploring. (The Taoists are great about the value of mistakes and youthful error.) I step on and off my path for different periods of time, and I'll tell you this for nothing: It is a whole lot easier to feel when I've stepped back on to the path than when I've taken a step off of it.

Personally, I don't think one's way should ever serve as an excuse. ("I had to kill them hobos. It was part of my Way.") We just aren't aware enough of its nature moment-to-moment to load it with blame. Besides, how can we ever know whether we've left the path or been thrown off it, just to teach us a lesson? Just occasionally, however, I believe the path deserves some acclaim.

Last week I asked a woman I love if she'd let me spend the rest of my life with her, and she told me yes. (I have to take her at her word.) All the experiences leading up to my proposal, and the moment of proposing itself, showed me what all those infuriating married people meant when they would answer me, over and over again, "You just know." It's true, and there's not much else to say to describe it. I've had literally years of experience feeling, "Yes, now, this must be it. Right? Right?" That asking was always there, though, at the end. And now somehow, certainty -- of the for-better-or-worse variety -- lit on my heart and shot electrified emails to my body and mind. Surprisingly enough, that sense of certainty grew even stronger when I actually bent my knee(s).

What else can I say? I'm on my Way.

21 February 2008

A Little Inside

Friend David recently examined past entries of mine (specifically, regarding my trips to California and Italy last year), and rather inadvertantly reminded me that Odin's Aviary here has gotten a little "inside" over the year. That is to say, there are certain terms and jokes here that new readers (those clambering at my virtual door daily) may not appreciate. I anticipated that when I started writing here. I have a penchant for nicknames, quotes and running gags, all of which -- when put in a long-term context -- lend themselves to coming across as a little inside. My apologies. This habit, however, has led me to an interesting discovery. An accident, to be sure, but one of the kind I enjoy and can't help taking some interest in.

Throughout the history of this 'blog thus far, I have used approximations of those irritating little marks one finds at the end of words or terms claiming rights to those words or terms. Trademark, copyright, rights reserved, patent pending, kosher . . . etc. (I know, for instance, that you can't patent language [apart from code, I think] or qualify it as "kosher," but I enjoy pretending you can.) This running gag originated from a variety of sources. One was a conversation with Friend Kate over the frustration of people trade-marking names of various forms of acrobalance. Another was the discovery that the word "superhero"(TM) had been trade-marked. It's all a little absurd, and I dig absurdity, so I dig into it in my little ways.

Along these lions, when I introduced my term The Third Life(r), I made sure to follow it with a little glyph of ownership, and have continued to do so with some regularity ever since. For some reason, it never ocurred to me to check into this, to simply Google-ize the term and see what came up. Friend David stumbled upon my 'blog again, did a little reading and, confused by the inside-term of The Third Life(c), decided to do just that. And what do you know? It ain't mine. I stole. From the Dutch. From a priest!

There was this dude: Jan van Ruusbroec, and in 1335 (cripes!) he wrote a book called The Spiritual Espousals. This book was comprised of three parts, and the last is called The Third Life, or, The Contemplative Life. From what I can glean here, Ruusbroec (van) was a part of a period of spiritual humanism in Flanders, and he got into some hot water for this third part of his book, because some felt it suggested pantheism or -- still worse, I'll just betcha -- that humans could come to a level with God (that's with a capital Gee). I'm still absorbing how he thought that was possible, but I get the feeling behind it. Particularly the bit about everyone having a portion of the divine within. We Unitarian Universalists tend to be a pretty humanistic bunch, and I tend to be a humanist who craves spiritual experiences, so I'm right there with Jan in at least one respect.

It is curious, though, that my phrase (Jan's phrase) should be used to describe a philosophical way of life at all, much less one that purports to be an alternative, and to emphasize enlightenment. Almost as much as I enjoy absurdity, I also enjoy coincidence. The pragmatism in me wages constant war with the inspiration -- as does the humanism with the spiritualism? -- and though it's always brief, every so often the inspiration wins a battle or two. This would be one such case. The connection between our use of the term is thin, yes, and I know we arrived at it from completely different . . . well, everything. Nevertheless. I am given pause. And I was taught that when I receive a gift, I should say "thank you."

When I use the term The Third Life (Copyright van Russbroec, 1335), I mean to refer to two things: the time an artist spends on his or her artistry, and that whole life in general, the one in which the artist makes a choice to devote time to their art. It may seem obvious. The conventional definition of an artist might be "one who makes art," but come on. I mean, really. Webster's wouldn't accept that. It's horrible for me to imagine, but there have probably been millions of gifted, necessary artists throughout history who simply never made the choice to pursue their art. Though they're none of them mutually exclusive, it's tough to balance life, love and art. It's tough because they're not mutually exclusive. This 'blog is a journal of one guy's attempt to create that balance, and improve it, in his life. Even the bits about comicbooks and fart jokes.

I don't mean to suggest that art = divine enlightenment by this comparison. Indeed, I would never presume to suggest that I have any generally useful insight into what is or isn't divine. (I even view it as going out on a limb to declare that to err is human, fer Christ's sake.) I will go so far, however, as to say that my quest for an artistic life is a spiritual one for me. Issues of inspiration and creation aside, just the alternating instrospection and communal contact with others that theatre allows me is what I consider a religious experience. Theist or humanist, I am more real, more awake, more alive and in love when I am living my life for something more than personal satisfaction or contentment. Apparently, so was ol' Jan.

Rock on, Jan. Rock. On.

14 February 2008

Superheroes(TM) = Largely Impractical

I know it. You know it. We all know it. It's just like a lot of things people get really enthusiastic/defensive about. Take opera, for instance. As a genre, it's essentially about sociopathic people. Psychopathic, in some cases. If the goal of opera is to serve as a sort of emotional cautionary tale, we probably shouldn't identify with the characters as much as we tend to. If the goal of opera is to suggest we ought to live out our passions to their utter peaks and valleys, well, they probably shouldn't exhibit to us that the most likely result of this is maiming and/or killing yourself and/or loved ones. Try to express to an opera lover, however, that the form is all a bit inconsequential, and you better be prepared for a fight. With claws. And fangs. And arias.

Similarly, we fanboys (Uninitiated: this is slang for unabashed geeks of pop culture, usually comicbooks, video games and strange rock bands) will take umption with anyone claiming Superman(TM) is a silly thing. He is so NOT! And you know why? 'Cause he rules!

There you have it. Fanboys can only argue with one another, because no one else takes the subjects as seriously as they do. This is well documented, even in the Aviary. When I posted an entry on my belief that Batman(r) could beat Wolverine(c) in a fight, I got the most number of responses ever. All of them from, to one extent or another, adamant fanboys. Or perhaps I should call them, adamantium fanboys! Get it? Do you get it? If you don't now, you probably never will.

Well, I have to come out as saying that I recognize the ridonkulous impracticality of the superhero(TM). This in no way lessens my enthusiasm for that aspect of my fantasy life, in my opinion, yet I know some of my fellow fanboys (henceforth, FBs) will feel betrayed. To them, I sincerely apologize. Try to understand: it's not you, it's me. I've just moved on. Priorities have shifted, and we'd only be holding each other back if we pretended like everything would eventually go back to being the same. I'd like us to still be friends, someday, down the road. When you're ready. You know, get together for the occasional Marvel(c) movie, maybe every once in a while Gchat over the possibility of maybe writing that cross-over first-person video game we always imagined . . .. But no more frenzied re-enactments of the fight between Hellboy and Sammael in the museum of antiquities. It, it would just be too hard. And weird. Admit it: It would feel weird, after all this.

For the purposes of this little essay, we must agree at least for the sake of argument that Superman is fairly ridiculous. He is excepted. He was the first, and probably the only conceivably successful superhero, what with all his powers. The only power he wasn't given is omniscience, and if the Highlander had really existed, Superman'd probably have that by now, too. Highlander: "I can see, everything! I know, everything! I--" ~Krchktk!~ Superman: "Oh geez. Here I am, just innocently flicking beer nuts in Cleveland, and one happened to fly to New York to decapitate you, Christopher Lambert. Sorry about that. Guess I'll be doing all the seeing/knowing/etc. from here on out. And the first thing I'm gonna do is flick beer nuts at the guys who will be responsible for Highlander 2."
(Yeah. I'm getting that geeky. Bail now, while you have a chance.)

The principal impracticality, of course, is that superheroes have to have a right-place/right-time habit akin to John McClane's wrong-place/wrong-time one to be even remotely effective. Only a few are prescient, and those, it seems, serve more to complicate storylines than to avert badness. Comicbook writers have been combatting this impracticality for years. Spider-Man has his "Spidey sense," various characters work as reporters, or computer gurus, etc., and I suppose Batman is just so smart that -- when the bat-signal isn't involved -- he can still calculate the likelihood of crime in a given radius. But it's all a little convenient. What's my point? Let me take it right off the bat with Bats, my favorite. He can't. Act. In. Enough. Time. Especially when the bat-signal is involved. I imagine it as if I were Bruce Wayne. (It's my 'blog--I can do what I want.) I see the signal, miraculously distinct against atmospheric water vapor, and I leap into costume, out the window, grapple-swing into my car (you know, the Batmobile?), drive to police headquarters, grapple-swing/shimmy up to the roof and . . . Two-Face is there, holding Gordon hostage, having already killed half an orphanage in the crime Jim had just gotten a warning about when he turned on the bat-lamp. Hell: Even a cell-phone call can't overcome the time it takes to get through midtown, no matter how late at night.

Another big one is the costumes. Even the most practical of superheroes have an iconic flambuoyancy that -- in reality -- would serve to somehow impede them to the point of their immediate death. Capes are nicely covered by a sequence in The Incredibles, but you can also look at some of the fight scenes involving caped characters in movies. Talk about your liabilities. Even a Musketeer knows the first thing you do is whip that bad boy off and use it one your opponent. Capes are pure drama or, if you prefer, opera. "Okay," the FBs say, "Okay, but what about someone more pragmatic. Like Punisher." FBs, listen to me very carefully on this. He is a gun-toting vigilante who goes up against other gun-toters, mostly at night, and somehow thought it would be a good idea to imprint an enormous white skull over his vital organs. The only guy asking for it worse is Bullseye. There are myriad impracticalities involved in superhero costumes, from color to shape to size to generally advertizing complete vulnerability with either explicit contours of anatomy or, failing that, partial nudity. Suffice it to say: Impractical.

The final impracticality I will submit -- though there are many, many more -- is that, sadly, superheoes are real, real dumb. Or ignorant; take your pick. Now I don't want to generalize here . . . well yeah, I kind of do, but it's justifiable I think. Superheroes never seem to get anywhere. This comes of being born from a serial story-telling genre, obviously, once such a thing got mixed with good, old-fashioned American values. I mean, Dumas wrote serial adventure stories, and they still had an end. On top of the superhero struggle being self-perpetuated, it's also completely devoid of social insight -- meaning both insight into society and into social behavior. Every superhero is essentially anti-social. Even the squeaky-clean ones. Captain America is/was as "out" a superhero as one gets, his methods nurturing compared to some, yet he still operated by a creed devoid of any kind of social understanding. I don't know if this comes out of the stories having originally been written largely for teenage boys or what (see, I lack social insight, too), but I do know that power fantasies do not help the real world too durn much. Especially when it comes to social problems such as crime and tyranny.

This is why, as I come full-circle in my fandom, I prefer the 1989 Batman film to the 1995 Batman Begins. Burton's film makes no approach toward reality, yet takes the character very seriously. It is stylized, it is operatic, it is ultimately a more successful vision of the world a character like Batman occupies. I love Batman Begins for taking the character seriously again, re-upping it from the quasi-disdainful visions of Joel Schumacher, but in trying so hard to make Batman a believable, naturalistic character, Nolan has put him into a world in which he will never really belong. Chris, the cape can just be dramatic-looking camoflage; the ears can just be odd and frightening; Gotham can just be crime-ridden rather than economically depressed. There are plenty of movies that portray true societal problems, and a few that even suggest realistic, complex solutions. Superheroes were never meant to be sophisticated. They're meant to be audacious.

So. Why stand up for our men and women in tights? Well, they got to me young, they did. When I was a pre-teen (even maybe a "tween"), and in hungry need of some kind of guidance for how to weather the storms of growing up, something about Batman made sense to me. Hell: Superman got to me way before then. In some ways I've been indoctrinated, I suppose. Similar to the myths of older cultures, superheroes gave me a common language with my peers (the geeky ones, anyway) and even my parents to some extent, and they lit up the questions I always had about how to please people and deal with adversity in nice, bold, primary colors. And now? Well, now there's definitely a lot of escapism to my pursuit of more heroic adventures. Reading a comicbook is still the best way I can relax and go to sleep at night. But I would be lying, too, if I said I didn't occasionally wonder "What would Batman do?" when I'm faced with a difficult quandry. And sometimes, just sometimes, that wondering leads me through to previously unimagined possibilities.

Now if only I could get some of those wonderful toys . . .
Updating the Great Dialogue on March 10, 2008:
Friend Lea sent me an article, in which Michael Chabon (as he invariably does) bests me in getting to the heart of the costumed-hero issue. Read it here, at the New Yorker.

Valence Times Stay

A year ago today I was writing about snow. This year, we had our snow about twenty-four hours ago, and it was real purty, and it is real gone, now. Now it's just wicked cold, and bright. Valentine's Day isn't typically a holiday that brings a lot of clarity with it, either meteorologically speaking or emotionally, but today it seems to have done just that on at least one count.

Many of my friends are reaching out to wish each other a happy one, and I extend the same greeting. I still don't dig this holiday in any way. To put a finer point on it: It blows. Lotsa money. Lotsa energy. Lotsa people singled out (literally and figuratively) for misery by it. So, as with every other year on this day, I encourage you, gentle reader, to consider the value of platonic love today. My hat's off to all my friends in a sweeping bow of gratitude. If they made candy hearts with platonic aphorisms on them, mine would read:

In all this world, the most buoying thing, the greatest force, the excellent material of my skein of days is your presence in my life, which allows me the opportunity to occasionally offer you a fraction of the joy your existence brings to me, my friend.

My candy heart is big with love for you all.

12 February 2008

Give Me My Props

Oh. Oh-ho. Oh-ho-ho.
Yeah. I'm going to do it. Why? Same reason as I like to route (root? rewt?) for the team that has the least chance of winning. I love the downtrodden.
In my last entry, I admitted it would be tantamount to readership suicide to post an entry on prop comedy. Since then, I haven't stopped thinking about doing just that. I also, in that entry, said murderous clowns are an entry unto themselves, but I thought we could all use a break from my current clown obsession.
I have a friend whose email address used to begin with "killgallagher@". (Hi Dave [Youmans].) I always thought this was a bit excessive, though memorable enough. (I can hardly throw stones; for years and year my email was "sukeu@", and for years and years people pronounced it as various forms of "sucky" [it's soo-kay-yoo {I digress}].) Yet there I found myself, Gallagher-bashing with righteous vehemence in my last entry. It reminded me of Friend Kate's feelings about trade-marking. She finds it unjust that anyone can claim a name, and that it inevitably infringes and goes on to claim ownership of the idea behind the name, at least in people's minds. I resent, abhor and resent some more this so-called "Gallagher" because he's taken a perfectly legitimate -- nay, occasionally sublime -- form of theatre and made himself and his simple, gratuitous form of it synonamous.
Same goes for Carrot Top.
My feeling is that, putting it very generally, prop comedy these days suffers from a pursuit of the punchline. Take, for example, coitus. Or, in the common parlance, "bumpin' uglies." Oh sure, you can simply chase the payoff. It's a short trip with an obvious reward, and somehow sometimes seems more guaranteed, if such a thing can be in life. But is it really what it's all about? Haven't we all had better experiences when we take our time, appreciate the moments and -- dare we say it -- the relationship involved? Even in a single night's adventure, there is a relationship. Ignore it at your own peril.
I admit: The comparison is a little unnecessary. I'm just a sucker for a good simile. My point is, prop comedy suffers from short attention span (of the performer as much as the audience) and a lack of development. A prop may occasionally be good for a one-liner sort of joke, and in this instance we term it a "sight gag" mor eoften than not. But real, good prop comedy, to my taste, is best explored in terms of relationships.
  • The straight man. In many instances, this is the default for prop comedy. After all, as much as you may get upset, the hairbrush will remain vigilantly a hairbrush. The funny thing is that, like a good straight man, a prop says more to the audience the less it does. It's key that the performer adhere to one of the most basic rules of good scenework: to make the scene partner look good. It's just that in this case, the scene partner is a supposedly inanimate object.
  • The first love. There's a lot of mileage to be gotten out of approaching a prop as though it were something you've never, ever seen before. The stages of exploration tend to mirror a person's first notice of the opposite (or rather, the sexually attractive) sex. A whole range of emotions become involved here. While it may not be explicitly "falling in love," neither are a lot of love stories. Hate the thing, but hate it with curiosity, or inescapability. A common gag from this scenario is to use an object whose use is obvious to the audience, and determine another use for it altogether.
  • The His-Girl-Friday. One object becomes useful in a variety of ways, conventional and unconventional. The trick here is to maintain a relationship with the prop. It's not enough to use a turkey baster to funnel oil, beat a gong and baste a turkey; this has to inspire gratitude or amazement or something changing in the performer. Otherwise, it quickly degenerates into Gallagherism. This relationship has the benefit of incoporating higher and higher stakes, as it is founded on need or necessity.
  • The family member. Sometimes an object is so much a part of you that it pains you to be apart from it, much less see it suffer in any way. You may get frustrated with it, call it no good, etc., but the moment anyone else does you're there to say, "Hey! You can't talk to her like that!" This is a very familiar prop, usually worn on the person in some way. You know it like no one else does. Establish this relationship firmly enough, and you have one of the greatest toppers of your prop-comedy career: giving your prop away.
  • The nemesis. For those more inclined toward positive relationships, this can also manifest as a sort of the worthy adversary, or even the buddy-cop, so long as there's plenty of head-butting. The relationship here is one of enmity, of occasional hatred and much strategy. The prop is against you at every turn, it's doing it on purpose, yet it is somehow allowed to continue to exist. Often times, this interplay requires a lot of technical trickery on the performer's part, engineering ways to be "attacked" by the object. However, it can be very simple, too. Refusing to move can be a confounding adversarial technique.
  • The boss. It may at first be difficult to imagine an inanimate object as having higher status than a performer, but in all of these relationships status should be shifting as events unfold. A prop can be "the boss" if it's extremely valuable or a symbol of authority, like a crown, or simply if the performer recognizes that this prop has wants that must be fulfilled. In this relationship, the prop has the ability to punish or praise the performer, these actions being a matter of interpretation on the performer's part.
  • The servant. Not quite as rich a terrain here, as objects are generally considered to be servants to us all anyway. There are, however, interesting facets of relationship to be explored when one considers the "clever servant" archetype, or the ways in which one tries to master people, as opposed to props.

And, of course, relationships change over time. These are not categories to singly adhere to, but forms to specify something more organic and unpredictable.

It may seem silly to some to create these sorts of relationships with objects. It occasionally seems that way to me, too, until I observe that these relationships already exist off-stage. Have you never seen a coworker assault his or her unruly stapler, or an older gentleman who caresses his cane as he sits? Theatre, in the all-encompassing sense, comes down to people coming together to have a good natter, and other people coming to watch it happen. Good prop comedy is not an exagerration of our relationships with objects, but an exploration of our relationship to our environment. Good prop comedy is funny, true, and by different turns often frightening or melancholy. It should be fascinating.

And we shouldn't have to explode a watermellon to do it.

06 February 2008


Friend Grey has a great story about a teacher she had at Dell'Arte. The students there had to present an original, solo clown piece at least every week, and this teacher had a habit of viewing these pieces with a bucket of tennis balls by his side. If, in his opinion, the scene was not playing up to snuff, he would begin to peg these tennis balls at the performer, all the while shouting, "NOT...FUNNY...!" This became something of an inside joke as we worked on various Zuppa del Giorno shows. That, and our favorite, gentle way of telling someone their idea sucked: "Hm. That might be a great idea for next year's show...."

Friend Adam (if I haven't completely alienated him with my response [and if my atrocious XBox playing hasn't alienated him, how could a caustic response to his opinions?]) posted a comment on my last entry regarding clowning (see 1/28/08) that suggested that clowns are not funny, and that the reason for this is that they overwhelm, and turn a cathartic fear response into more of a Godzilla!-Run-for-your-meager-lives! response. I guess my entry didn't clear up any of Adam's feelings in this matter. Or, at least, I failed to extricate the word "clown" from the American stigma for it. To me, you see, "clown" is not a fair word to use to describe the circus or birthday clown. Hell: I don't even like "circus clown," because the word "circus" means a whole lot of different things, too, once you step outside the three rings of Barnum & Bailey.

So before I continue, let me break some things down. I see the stereotypical western clown as a kind of collage of comic traditions. (Note: THIS IS NOT A SCHOLARLY TEXT. For heaven's sakes, don't cite me as any kind of authority. It's been a decade since I took any kind of history class, and I didn't start taking an interest in clowning until about five years ago.) As I stated so elegantly, and ineffectively, on the 28th, the "birthday clown" has become a kind of grotesque take on some time-worn and valid comic traditions:
  • The clothing. We know the score (scare?). Baggy pants. Enormous shoes. Funny hat. Usually layered clothing (vests, jackets, skirts, etc.), and usually brightly colored. Obnoxious, some would say, but put the same shapes--perhaps slightly muted--into tweeds and patches, and you're looking at "charming." At least, that's how most people described the likes of Keaton, Chaplin and Arbuckle. You've also got a low-status character, someone who's poor, who carries all he or she owns around with him or her. Take it back to 16th century Italy, and you're looking at one of the most beloved characters in comedy: Arlecchino (see shamelessly uncredited photo above). He was famous for being one of the funniest clever-servant characters, easily identified by his costume made almost completely of patches. That costume, once the character caught on in England, became represented by a body suit decorated in numerous diamond-shaped, multi-colored patches.
  • The props. For our sworn enemy, the arsenal is awfully typical: horn, bludgeon, balloons, magic paraphenalia, etc. Prop comedy, too, has been much maligned of late, mostly owing to its not translating into a stand-up-comedy milieu very well. (Damn you, Gallagher! Damn you straight to hell!) I could write a whole entry on prop comedy alone -- and wouldn't my readership just spike over that? -- but for now suffice it to say that props, too, have suffered from senseless exaggeration. The term "slapstick" actually refers to a special bludgeon used in commedia (and probably dating back to the Romans) made of two flatish sticks banded together that, when properly struck, made an amped-up whacking noise. Such a device required a sense of musical timing for proper use, and had a transformative effect. Comedy's great for transformations, and not just of a balloon into a poodle.
  • The violence. In our birthday clown, this is harmless stuff, mostly. Cream pies and inflated clubs. In this case, I witness mistake in toning down the consequences. It may seem odd to say, but birthday clowns glorify violence more than more traditional clowns do, in that the violence more often than not has virtually no effect. Therefore, they are free to gleefully enact it, and with complete disregard to the effects. It's not a great leap to imagine such a clown, then, accidentally committing horrible violence on one of us and doing it smilingly. Whereas, in most other forms, violence is regarded -- if also occasionally valued -- as something consequential. Cut Shylock, and not only will he bleed, he'll probably try to harvest your organs in revenge.
  • The not-speaking. Boy, this one bugs people. It seems to make them feel -- now-a-days, anyway -- that the performer is an even more alien, pretentious thing. I can relate to this feeling, especially when the silence is being peddled to me by some well-intentioned, poorly (or not-at-all) trained moron. It's fun to mock a mime. They can't argue back. (I myself am guilty of making a mime joke part of a recent show, Prohibitive Standards, but it was a sure-fire punchline and under such circumstances I have no scruples.) But I have a theory about obnoxious silence. Silent performance irritates us when the performer is still shouting throughout, "Look at me! Look at me!" It's a fine distinction, but someone performing in silence with a more inviting subtext, regardless of how much they may want you to look at them, is really complimentary to an audience. It's fascinating, and feels special. You're included in the silence, and it's nice there.
  • The mask. What mask? Oh, there's a mask, dudes. Isn't that the most terrifying aspect of a birthday clown? The grotesquely exaggerated features, done in colorful contours on a death-white face? I admit: I get shivers at the thought. People these days don'ta like-a the mask. What are they hiding? Who are they, really? WHY CAN'T THEY JUST LOOK NORMAL? Well, as Friend Patrick will attest, the traditions of masks are too numerous, wide-spread and intricate to address . . . in any one place, really. As to the horrid birthday-clown make-up, it is derived a great deal from commedia dell'arte, as well as other places. Time was, when anyone was going to tell a story with power, they'd use some kind of disguise. Masks were common-place in parties and festivals and ceremonies. Theatre just used that, and it has changed throughout the years. The birthday clown adopted Pierrot's white face, Dottore or a zanni's bulbous nose (originally red from drink) and merged it with the color scheme of an American circus of the 1800s. The effect is admittedly garish and disturbing. The mask, be it a commedia one, face paint or just a strap-on red nose, used to serve to free the performer to go to greater lengths to entertain his or her audience. The red nose is often referred to as "the mask that reveals," serving as it does to let it all hang out and expose a person in the most entertaining fashion. Birthday clowns, once again, seem to use it simply to advertise.
  • The murders. In traditional clowning, the . . .. Wait. WHAT?! Murders? What kind of performance philosophy is this? I write "The murders" because, in researching this topic, I got sucked into a little reading about John Wayne Gacy, Jr., and that man was a scary S.O.B. He was, in addition to being a serial killer, a birthday clown: Pogo the Clown. This is not the fault of clowndom in general of course, any more than George W. Bush is the fault of Texans, or diseased howler monkeys. Still and all, the concept of a criminal clown predates Gacy. This summer, The Dark Knight will relaunch the iconic figure of the Joker, Batman's nemesis, and I suspect that this time his aberrant behavior will not be quite as disarming as Nicholson portrayed it. Terrifying, most likely it will be, even without the unthinkable recent demise of Mr. Ledger. I wish I could say that the figure of a murderous clown doesn't go back very far, but I'm afraid it does. The Punch & Judy puppetry of England has its roots in Italian commedia dell'arte, and the stories of P&J consist mainly of Punch offing a variety of other puppets. This is clearly a subject under its own heading. What more can I say than: Not all clowns are killers, just as not all killers are clowns.

The past week has for me been very clowny. I continue to read my Buster book. I've had two auditions (auditions themselves being very similar to the torment a clown experiences moment-to-moment [at least, my clown does]), and one of them required an original movement piece. To top it all off, I had a conference with the Exploding Yurts -- my little creative-encouragement group with a strange name -- regarding the draft of a screenplay for a clown film I'm writing. (Because struggling to become a renowned theatre actor just isn't frustrating enough.) I don't know why I'm turning to the clown in me so much these days. I suppose it could have something to do with working on that whole "what kind of work is MY kind of work" question I began asking some months back.

And it seems I'm getting an answer. Or three.

05 February 2008

This is the Way we go to Work

A "work ethic" is an interesting instinct. In point of fact, I'm not sure it is a pure instinct. I'm more inclined to believe that the so-called work ethic is as-much-or-more a product of environment than personality. I can't deny that some people just seem more energetic and driven from the moment they spring from their mother's womb--briefcase in hand and tearing the wrist watch from off their delivering doctor--but I also feel that everyone has within them the power, with a little discipline and determination, to say screw that and spend eight straight hours watching a Mythbusters marathon on Bravo.

Not that I speak from personal experience here.

My work ethic has been on my mind a lot lately, what with making curious headway in my professional life as an actor even whilst being dropped from a show and losing my primary source of income. Actors typically, I believe, work some very long and hard hours. They're just hours of constantly changing gears, so it often seems we're not concentrated, or disciplined. It's a little bit like we're each and every one of us a working mother, at least at this particular level. We work our "day job," and while we're at our day job our child (who, by now we hope, is a little more capable of taking care of itself) is in constant contact. We make phone calls on its behalf, we take lunch breaks to visit, or facilitate later time spent with the kid. There are no weekends, no evenings. There are games, and homework, and constant surprises. We feel guilty for not devoting ourselves enough at "work"; we feel guilty for not spending enough time with the boy/girl/meaning-of-our-life.

Take, for example, the pride I take in the post previous to this being my 200th. I feel pride over quantity, which is really nothing more than my work ethic at work. In addition, I feel some guilt. What? Guilt, you say? You mean over the hours you've spent 'blogging that could have been spent ending starvation, or resolving the myriad religious conflicts currently tearing our culture apart at the seams? No. No, I mean I feel guilty over not writing more here. Out of nearly 400 days I could have entries for, I have merely half. Neil Gaiman would shake his tangled locks at me in sheer disappointment.

No: I did not intend to pun there. (Go back. Look. It's there.) I'd rather it were a promised fart joke, but what can I say? There's no escaping genetics.

I'm reading a fantastically enjoyable book about Buster Keaton right now. I can only guess at its accuracy; it seems to have been compiled mostly from interviews of Keaton by the author, and I don't get the sense that said author was in the habit of cross-checking Buster's memory. Still and all, it makes for a great read. Buster Keaton started out just as early as he could get away with in vaudeville, with his family, and by the time he got to films he already had a tremendous amount of skill and experience behind him. From struggling as part of an ambituous family act, to being aprosperous and famous act, to breaking into film and becoming a star, Buster worked like a dog. The only thing that slowed him down was succumbing to alcohol in his middle life, and even through that he was all about the work.

It's hard to make money, do good work and get what you want from life. Maybe even particularly hard for someone living that ol' The Third Life(r). But it's no Depression-Era struggle, or walking away from a broken neck (yeah: he did), so getting down about it can seem pretty silly in perspective.