30 May 2008

Rabbits from Hats

Hwaet: Zuppa del Giorno is returning to Italy. Some are flying out as early as the 6th, but I don't depart until the evening of the 8th. We all come flocking home the 21st. In between, we are scheduled to perform at several theatre festivals, thereby offering up our very first solicited original work abroad. It's an incredibly exciting opportunity, and one on which a lot relies. We will get more exposure than ever before, and exposure specifically to theatre artists we want to involve in In Bocca al Lupo, and collaborate with on other projects. People will judge us by what we do, and their opinions will dramatically affect our ability to move forward with an international program, be it educational or performing, or both.

And we have no show to perform.

You might suppose that a troupe specializing in improvisatory theatre would relish this situation but, if so, you'd be wrong. Call us nancies, but when this kind of thing is on the line, we generally like to have something pretty tight put together. Then, should circumstances flatter it, we might depart from our show to enjoy a good tangent or two. How do we find ourselves in this particularly awkward position? Well, these trips always seem to pull together at the last of all possible moments, and commitments can be tough to come by. Our intention had always been to somehow resurrect (read: restructure) Silent Lives for performance in Italy. Not only do we not have the time nor resources to accomplish that, but one of our numbers has a conflict and can not join the trip. That leaves me and Friend Heather to conceive, build and perform an hour-long, wholly original show.

Friend Heather moved to Scranton about a year ago. Which kind of makes me want to smack her right now. (But Heather's always kind of fun to smack, anyways.)

So we've met a total of three times -- repetitions of three being inherently funny -- for about four-hours-a-go to develop a show we can perform between the two of us; a show that is not verbally language-based, that is easily transportable and, one hopes, entertaining as all hell. No pressure. Prior to these rehearsals, we collaborated over email a bit, as we are wont to do, unless we actually set up a blog or two to coordinate multiple input sources (read: folks). I wrote out a strenuously over-involved, quasi-scenario (for three; this was when we thought we still had three with which to work), and Heather wrote back with her version of the same (including such useful responses as, "I'm not sure about the sock puppets..."). After all this, we met in New York to "rehearse," and, as though I hadn't enough to thank her for by now, Heather took the onus of the travel upon her martyred self.

I'll skip to the end a bit here, to say that what we now have is a largely silent clown piece that -- we hope -- should take about 45 minutes to play out, about a couple growing up and old together. How we got there was a good deal different from creative processes Zuppa del Giorno has heretofore engaged in, driven as we were in a unique way by necessity. Heather and I actually have a couple of ideas for independent collaborations together that we discuss whenever we're frustrated with whatever we're supposed to be working on, but none of these ideas could be squoze (is SO a word) into the framework of our festivals. Given our limited time to develop the show, we elected to mine previous material as much as possible. Which, oddly enough, is a very traditional commedia dell'arte thing to do. After four years of working together, we have several lazzi that can be dropped in to whatever we do.

Our first thought was simply to compile all the couples we had played in Zuppa shows (Heather and I are the Burns & Allen of northeastern Pennsylvania) into a kind of review. The trouble with this idea was that most of our couples spoke as part of their characterization, and it didn't provide us with a simple through-line, which is something we knew we'd need. You can pfutz about with conventional narrative, sure, but we have enough problems confronting a language barrier. Eventually, we recognized that the characters we had played could be pretty handily slotted into different stages of life, which reminded us of our conceit of three people growing up together in Silent Lives. So when we met, Heather and I immediately started playing with old-couple characters. It was the least-explored aspect of a life-cycle for us thus far. She had recently played an older woman in Time, Timing, Timeless, and I had a farcical old man in Legal Snarls, but never together and neither with any romantic or quibbling overtones. So a matter of days ago, we met in an aerial acrobatic rehearsal space in Williamsburg and explored.

More to come on this piece as it progresses, but David (Zarko) has already had to title it for submission: L'amore e' mazzo, ma buona (Love is Crazy, But Good).

29 May 2008

Do Oh

Last night Friend Heather and I performed our much-performed clown duet (originally conceived and directed with Friend Grey), Death + A Maiden, as part of the same festival I performed in the night before. My hat is off to her. She came a long way, through difficult travels, to partner with me in all things theatrical this week, and me with virtually no free social time.

Fortunately, we had great company. There was no way I could have felt isolated this night, let me tell you. Friends Jenny and Dave were MCing as their characters in The Maestrosities, a clown band they developed together, and Friend Anna (Zastrow) was on the bill as well, playing her new clown, Hillemo (sp?). We even had friends in the well-packed audience! Ed Chemaly, our director for Operation Opera was in attendance, as well as Friend Avi. Friends Kate and Leah managed to make it, too, which is always great for audience reaction. Leah's laugh is in constant threat of upstaging any show -- loud and clear and uniquely hilarious.

Heather and I have done this piece many times, in a variety of environments, but there's always something to be learned from it. Without a doubt, this time through contained one of the most gratifying audience reactions to a specific moment that I've ever known. The scenario is that Death pays a visit to a Maiden preparing for a party, intending to dispatch her, but discovering that he loves her. They court, they dance, and about three-quarters of the way through the 15-minute piece, they kiss . . . which naturally immediately kills the Maiden. When we reached this point in our tale, the audience burst into my favorite kind of laughter. It seemed as though they were surprised not only by the turn of events, but at themselves for laughing. I have put forth for some time that laughter is ultimately born from self-awareness, from a fear of death, and this was a particularly poignant exemplification, if you are asking this guy. It was especially effective because it takes a while for Death to realize ("Think slow; act fast." - Buster Keaton) he's killed his new love, and when he does, he has a right heartfelt tantrum over it. The audience was right there with me when I did that scary, emotional bit, it seemed. I felt them pouring their grief in the same dish as mine. That, my friends, is a sharp contrast between the clowning we do, and the clowns most of America is aware of.

What's very interesting about the piece is that, in spite of it being a hit the first couple of times we did it, the ending hasn't satisfied audiences for quite some time. Which is rough for me, because I'm the only performer left on stage (and ostensibly conscious) by that point. When we originally set the piece, it was according to the guidelines of a particular comedy festival in Philadelphia, which specified that all performances must address love and death, and incorporate a Wet-Nap(TM) as a prop. This shaped our show, and naturally lent a certain distance to the story. Because the audiences were aware that 1) what they were seeing is a "comedy," and 2) it will involve death, they could take such elements as ingredients more than as profound, empathetic experiences. In processing this piece for other venues, we've used Heather's ridiculous bow in place of the Wet-Nap(TM), but neglected to revise the ending to accomodate our changed audience.

The ending consists of a five-minute sequence of Death failing to finish his job -- carrying off the body -- until he doesn't anymore and walks out with the Maiden over his shoulder, his scythe shoved down the back of his shirt and kicking his cloak along ahead of him. On its own: cute. After an audience has come to love Heather's Maiden, and empathize with my Death: not so much cute, or even awkwardly funny. So there's work to be done on the old stand-by! That's kind of cool.

If only we didn't have so much other work to do just now. But more on that later...

28 May 2008

So Low

Last night was my solo clown debut.

Well, not precisely. I have done a number of solo clown performances in my time. Last night merely marked the first time I did so on an actual stage. Up until this event, my solo clowning was largely busked and/or filmic. In fact, I volunteered for the festival hosting clown and puppet events because I wanted to have a good deadline for adapting this particular solo routine to a stage. Plus I was desperate for work, at the time. Naturally, I completely ignored this opportunity to work on the piece, and found myself panicky all day yesterday, contemplating exactly what I was going to do up there that night.

It went okay, rife with the peaks and valleys I might have expected from a debut work in a nurturing yet unexpectedly intimate environment of strangers. I didn't, of course, expect these variances in my experience. No, I find that when contemplating performance I'm usually surprised by the comparisons between my expectations and the experience. I expect complete victory or total failure; the median is difficult to imagine, the variable completely confounding. This is possibly because the more intense the stage fright or adrenaline, the more apt I am to think in absolutes. Or, it could be that the (utterly erroneous) stereotypical mentality of a struggling actor has infected my imagination deeper than I, er, imagined. In other words, the idea that just one big hit could change everything for me may contribute to the absolutes I contemplate. Either way, the product was, in some respect, just like every other. Some things went over great. Others, not so much.

I have yet to attempt any kind of monodrama, or extended solo performance as such. Outside of a few scattered soliloquies, I'm always acting with other performers. Last night I found a popular axiom to be doubly true and especially so for live silent comedy: When you lose the audience, there's no one to turn to but yourself.

Not so backstage. The worlds of circus, clown and other "gig acts" is a small one anywhere, I'd imagine. That goes double for New York, where you're just as likely to run into your babysitter from age 5 as you are to never see current friends who live just two neighborhoods over. I happened to get ensnared in this show's clutches through an email sent out by one Ms. Jenny Lee Mitchell requesting acts. I know Jenny through Friend Dave (Berent [nee Gochfeld]), whom I know through Friend Heather (whom I know from having worked with her in Zuppa del Giorno), but I also knew Dave as the more male half of The Kourageous Kiplingers, and vaudeville act he did with Friend Rachel (Kramer). Dave and Jenny have also done shows with The Northeast Theatre (which is the home of Zuppa del Giorno). I did one of those with Dave, but not Jenny. BUT, I did do A Lie of the Mind with Jenny's mom, Emily Mitchell, long before I ever met Jenny herself. And finally, who was MCing last night, but the very same clown act, Bambouk, that was recently recommended to me by the good and fine people at Bond Street Theatre, whom I met through working with Cirque Boom (which is also where I met Rachel).

It would seem, after this assault of name-dropping and six-degrees-of-network-makin', that I had all the world backing me up as I prepared for my show. Didn't feel that way, though. Felt very, very alone. Each performers was doing his or her own thing, for the most part, and I was in an advanced state of freak-out. It reminded me of the intense stage fright I felt just before the first show of Noble Aspirations, Zuppa's first production. I stood backstage, the first to enter for that show, and suddenly realized, "I have no script. I HAVE NO SCRIPT! It's just ME out there!" I did all I could to dispel it, and I actually owe a debt of gratitude to one half of Bambouk, Brian Foley, who stood in front of me and asked, "So, could you use some distracting conversation, or are you better staying in the zone?" Thankfully I had the presence of mind to opt for conversation, and it made for smoother passage into the time spent along backstage.

The trouble in adapting the piece to the stage was in taking some of the fun of its original venue(s) -- places where people are relaxing and not necessarily expecting spontaneous fun -- and translating that into a stage setting, with an audience that had no choice but to pay attention. This is a powerfully appealing aspect: choice. It may go a long way toward explaining the historically recent success of cinema over live theatre, in fact. Theatre, in the conventional sense, is a gamble. A movie costs little (comparatively speaking) and can be voluntarily escaped in any of its forms. Walking into a theatre, you know very little about what to expect, and can get subjected to something confusing, unappealing, or just plain ill-executed. And there seems to be no escape. The space I was performing in last night had the advantage of being intimate, with very little audience/performer separation, but that was just about its only similarity to the piazzas I was used to doing the piece in.

What I did to adapt it was very much shaped by having to create an entrance. In the square, you just start acting doofy and see what grabs people, then mold your performance based on feedback and a skeleton. In the theatre, you need to put them at ease, to apply balm to their sense of disorientation at the beginning of any new piece. In public, you grab them, and they tell you where to go next. In the theatre, you have their attention, and then you have to justify it. (Speaking in generalities here, of course; much overlap between the venues.) Needing to create an entrance helped shape my given circumstances. Whereas previously the act was based on the idea of the character as a quasi-homeless, drunk reveler who interrupts a party, last night's incarnation was an awkward fellow escaping a party into the kitchen. This allowed for a less invasive characterization at first, and my hope was to put the audience a bit more at ease. Also, whereas previous incarnations took place amongst relaxed (often inebriated) party-goers, this crowd, at a relatively early show in a theatre, seemed to me more likely to be at the energy of such kitchen-clingers. It also allowed for my using a song I have longed longed to use in a show; it closed with the irascibly awkward "You'll Always Find Me In the Kitchen at Parties," by Jona Lewie.

And it worked fairly well. I would say, all factors considered, I had the audience pretty well on my side throughout. They did best with bits in which I suffered and they weren't threatened. (This would seem natural enough, save for experiences I've had in which the only way you could begin to entertain certain audiences was to mix things up with them.) Keeping things simple, singular, and taking one's time is essential in clown work. The piece suffered the most at times when I got carried away with my energy, racing the audience and only pouring on more fuel if I felt myself losing them.

The scenario is that Lloyd Schlemiel (my noseless [or silent-filmic] clown character) is trying to quietly escape a party. He backs into the kitchen, all the while munching on Cheetos(R) from an orange bowl. Once he's cleared the doorway, he closes it, and the sounds of the party fade out. He breathes a sigh of relief, and raises another Cheeto to his mouth when he suddenly notices the audience. The Cheeto snaps in his hand. He races for the door again, but is too scared to return to the party, so turns to the audience and makes due. From there it proceeds along fairly typical Lecoq lines, with dabblings of silent-film comics thrown in here and there. He adjusts his clothing, thinking the audience will better approve of him. He decides he doesn't like his hat, and trades it for the "bowl" he was snacking from, which proves to be a mistake. The rest of the sequence involves his trying to escape this hat, which just won't leave him be. He tosses it away, and it returns to him. It clings to his head, despite acrobatic endeavors to remove it, and obscures his vision. He finally frees himself from it, but it's changed him into an extrovert. He performs a striptease (only down to undies, mind), puts the hat back on and rejoins the party.

It needs work, even in verbal explanation, but the performance was a tremendous jump forward for me in making discoveries about it. My hope is to break it out in Italy a bit, and play with it there. We can only pray that they sell Cheetos there. Hell: They end in an "o." They probably are Italian.

27 May 2008


It hath been a most manic week.

This week promises to be still more so.

Last Monday and Tuesday, Friend Heather came into town from luxurious Scranton and for two evenings we attempted to cobble together a show to take to festivals in Italy. Just the two of us. (Yet without using that song, in spite of it being stuck in my head for weeks now.)

Wednesday and Thursday evenings were my only times to pack for my move this week.

Friday I worked for NYU's school of film, acting in short scenes for their student directors as a part of a "blocking exercise." That was the first part of the day, and then I travelled to Queens to secure storage space, and then I and Fiancee Megan were off to Virginia for what turned out to be a seven-hour bus ride.

Virginia was a welcome break from running about arranging moving logistics and rehearsal times, but not so much a "break" entirely. (Though I did see Friend Davey and his lovely SigOth, which was rad.) There was much to prepare for The Big Show. I'm taking to calling the wedding "The Big Show." I rationalized to Fiancee Megan that calling it such would justify my writing off travel and such as business expenses, and she gave me one of those wry looks that says, "You're so funny I can just restrain myself from kicking you shin-wardly."

Monday's bus ride was thankfully much briefer; largely I was thankful because Friend Heather was making yet another trip into the city that evening to develop our Italian show (working title: The Really-Awfully-Good-Show Show [The "RAGS" Show]). We met up in Central Park, unable to find rehearsal space in time, and headed directly to Sheep Meadow to make public foolery in the name of Art. Whilst crossing the meadow, someone called my name and we connected with Friends Austin and Sara from Corporate Carnival, enjoying their holiday as well any red-blooded American should. We could not dally, however, and rehearsed acro and clown bits 'til the sun went down. While we were doing so, a gentleman by the name of Oz Sultan filmed us, interjecting direction, quite without our invitation. Ah, New York! (To his great credit, he did give me his card so I could get a copy.)

Heather's also in town because this week we're performing our clown duet, Death + A Maiden, as a part of Emerging Artists Theatre's comedy festival, Laugh Out Loud. That's Wednesday. Tuesday I'm performing in the same festival, solo, with a stage adaptation of my party piece featuring my silent-film-esque character, Lloyd Schlemiel (last featured at Friend Melissa's benefit for her company, Kinesis Project Dance Theatre). I've had not a moment to work on this piece, and am terrified for tonight.

Then Thursday is my only evening to move, after work. Friday brings more rehearsal.

It's crazy to love this.

21 May 2008

Baby Elephant Walk

Last Sunday I participated in a reading of The Elephant Song, by Nicolas Billon, at The Workshop Theatre Company. It was a one-day affair, in which we had four hours to rehearse, and performed it for a public audience only once, shortly thereafter. Daryl Boling, with whom I have worked severally as both director and actor (A Lie of the Mind, Good, Center of Gravity) directed the reading, and I was joined on stage by two actors with whom I had never before worked: David Ian Lee and Letty Ferrer. The reading went well, I think. The work was very different from anything I have done recently.

The Elephant Song is a taut, quite literally psychological drama, sort of a mix of Equus and Doubt. The main action involves the director of several sanitariums (Lee) interviewing a patient in one of them in order to ascertain the whereabouts of one of his doctors. A nurse who is more familiar with the patient (Ferrer) intervenes regularly to make certain everything's progressing smoothly. And the patient, naturally, is an incredibly intelligent, incredibly disturbed little boy of 23 (bless Daryl's heart -- he's always seen me as a "young seeming" sort). Throughout this short piece -- we ran it in 90 uninterrupted minutes -- the patient makes the doctor jump through hoops as he ultimately gets what he wants, which naturally turns out to be something no one else had been able to guess.

So after months of not working, then more months of doing comedy and physical theatre, I dropped suddenly into performing an intense all-text drama, the likes of which I had not attempted since A Lie of the Mind (see just about the entire month of April 2007 for my feelings on how I did in that play). Like many men, I worried about my ability to perform -- my ability to worry being my strongest, most at-hand ability. The script was daunting. The character could so easily vacillate between overwrought pain and irritating manipulation; in another word, extremes. I also tend to balk at characters who experience extremes of emotion. I know that must seem odd for an actor, but I mean to say that there are those who can summon great, sincere emotion from the ether, but I am not among them. I generally need a fully developed character, and to explore that character at some length, otherwise I feel fake. Usually.

I believe I was pretty successful at this reading, however. I owe a great deal of any success to Daryl's sensitivity and communication skills, and the receptiveness of my fellow actors, and all mistakes were my own, naturally. As I often experience, the second run (sans audience) was much better than the final product for me. I felt most connected to the moment then, and didn't have to push in any scenes. There is a prolonged section of monologue for the character in which he talks about where his obsession comes from, then a short time after tells the story of his mother's death. It's intense; a real chance to go too far or accidentally not put enough of yourself in. I wish our audience could have seen the pitch I hit in rehearsal. I was fine in performance, I think. But it could have been amazing.

I love acting in drama, and I don't have as many ready opportunities for it. I don't suppose anyone does exactly, now-a-days, what with what shows are more easily marketed and sell more tickets. But in particular, I don't because I can get typed pretty obviously as "crazy physical-theatre dude" or "clown-loving goof." With good reason, and I love those aspects of my performance opportunities. Still, I yearn for drama -- even tragedy -- for its complex simplicity, its sincerity and particular catharsis. Working on The Elephant Song, even for such a short while, scratched that itch a bit.

Which is good. Because I've got nothing but clown headed my way for the next two months.

20 May 2008

Carnie Corporation

The Women's Project is a great organization that I was proud to be a part of for a short time this spring, helping to develop and performing in Corporate Carnival. (I also managed to accidentally lampoon their ideals while performing for them, which just goes to show that I am a consummate method actor. While playing a rather right-wing-inspired character, I complained of "sounding like a girl." THE CHARACTER complained of it, I should say. Yes. The character...) It was something of a unique experience, however. I entered a process with which I was ostensibly very familiar -- collaborating to create original material based on a few clear themes, using improvisation and incorporating circus and other "physical theatre" skills -- only to be surprised by how different my experience was from working with Zuppa del Giorno, Kirkos or Cirque Boom.

The first strangeness was getting the gig at all. I auditioned for Corporate Carnival way back in February, I think, when I was still unemployed. (Part of the reason I'm so crazy busy these weeks is my panic to book any and every bit of work I could find during that period.) I assumed that train had sailed, yet I heard back from them months later about my being a part of their "temp" squad. Judging by the email that offered me this slightly dubious-sounding position, that initial audition was intended to see if I suited their needs for the main cast, and they just kept me in mind for the sort of filler/choral needs fulfilled by the temps. Judging by my having performed in nine shows last week, I think we can safely say that I accepted their offer.

The greater strangeness came from becoming involved with the show at a later stage of its development, and being asked to contribute (in a limited way) to its further development. It felt strange to be included at this point because I had to play catch-up on the ideas that were feeding into the show's concept. Yet no one was actually talking about "the concept," because half of the people there were so familiar with the dialogue already that they didn't perceive a need for it. At least, that was my interpretation. I also found myself immediately confronted with this approach to play-building: "Okay. We need a commercial for a pharmaceutical drug that cures the 'Mundays'. Go outside the space, build one, and then come back and present it." This is much the way As Far As We Know gathered material, so I had to pause to remind myself that this was not, in fact, the same show. It's a good technique in a group with an established rapport, the members of which can enjoy and contribute freely to the work. It's a little, well, weird when you're a group of strangers who have little-to-no concept of what you're aiming for in terms of mood, idiom, etc. Still, we did all right, I think. It felt a little bit like the kids' table at Thanksgiving, our temp crew. But that was fun in its own way, too.

The ultimate strangeness, however, was how different it was to build what was ostensibly a circus-themed show with people who were predominantly concerned with the theatre. ( I believe -- and I could be grossly mistaken here -- that I and Richard Saudek were the only ones in the cast with previous circus performance experience.) I've gotten quite accustomed to running up to my fellow performers and shouting, "Hey! Let's see if I can throw you over this wall!" The accustomed response is, "Okay!" Now I tried on for size, "You mean, like, representing throwing me over the wall, in a clever pantomime?" Richard actually suggested a bad-ass assisted flip that he could do, that we demonstrated on the first try, yet it never made it into the show. I did get my little acro-influences in here and there. Some weight-sharing, a shoulder-sit. The rest of the actors also really incorporated new skills onto the bottom of their resumes, too. Just about all of them are way better at juggling now than I am (not hard, but still). It wasn't a lack of skill or eagerness to learn; just a whole different perspective on things.

The experience was good, however. Great, intelligent and talented people. Probably a little bit more intelligent and talented than the particular idiom in which they were performing, but what can you do? Work is work. It does compel me further to get organized and make my own circus/theatre show and/or troupe. God's winding up with a 2x4 on that one. I've gotta get in that . . .
Update, May 28: Friend Sara has posted an encyclopedic range of photos from the Carnival! Peruse!

19 May 2008

Mutually Beneficial

Last Monday, routed through my association with Cirque Boom, I performed at a benefit for the NYFA. They're wonderful people. They even sent me a thank-you card for the event. They paid me, and they formally thanked me. It's enough to make an actor feel sort of worthwhile. (Which we'll have to put a stop to immediately, of course. If we start feeling worthwhile, nobody will be able to enlist our services for little-to-no money, and before you know it it'll be work, work, work for actors everywhere!) And, in the week that followed, I developed a busking/greenshow routine to perform in the half hour before The Women's Project's show, Corporate Carnival, which I performed in all week down at The World Financial Center (see video here). So it's been a very busky, walkabout-performance sort of past week for yours truly. This is a form of performance that represents a lot of the income a specially skilled actor can pick up here and there. People are constantly interested in creating memorable events, or events with themes, or just an "event" in general, and performers seem a really creative way to do that. I applaud people who are interested in employing creative artists for their affairs.

It does not, however, mean that it's necessarily a good idea.

An actor has to be smarter about his or her craft than anyone who employs him or her when it comes to this kind of job. If you're cast in a regular play, with rehearsal time and a script and a director who's competent, there isn't necessarily a need to be the authority in the room. You may do your job best, in fact, by being a bit more of an empty vessel, ready to receive the influences of the process you're about to put your all into. But when you're asked to pitch your innovation into the ring for a semi-improvised solo performance, you'd better see in all directions at once and be ready for any and everything. Because -- and here is the rub -- the people asking you to do something generally have very little understanding of what exactly they're asking you to do. I believe the thought that goes into this sort of notion is something along the lines of, "Oo! Live performers! It'll be like Moulin Rouge!"

To be fair, the two gigs were very different (in spite of both having the word "carnival" in the title, a detail that made my inbox a very confusing place for a while there). The benefit was a costly evening affair in a restaurant in midtown, with wealthy arts patrons and alcohol, and the greenshow (so named because of the tradition of apprentices-to-the-theatre trying out their acts before the show on the "green" outside) was for all sorts of working types in a public space during the daytime. The purpose of the first was largely to entertain. The purpose of the second was also to entertain, but more important was to spread the word of the upcoming free show and thereby garner more audience for it. Still, there were common lessons to be learned by the performer in both.

  • Be a performer, not a salesman. For some reason, the more your act promises to assault the audience, the more excited your producers are likely to be about it. Perhaps it's their imaginations vicariously enjoying the power play; I can't say. Whatever it is, you mustn't succumb to it. The secret to a great busking act is to make something that invites people to participate, rather than forcing them into it. There are many ways to do this. If you're a walk-about character, you can simply look eccentric enough to elicit comments, and that's your in. If it's a little more presentational, you could dress normally, and invite attention more with your actions. Either way, you're not going to get people to play by telling them they have to play.

  • Suit the performance to the environment. This seems obvious, but often times predicting your environment can be tricky. Maybe you don't know exactly how it's going to be set up (see the NYFA event) or exactly how much expectation your audience has of finding a performance going on in a given space (see the Women's Project busking). Be prepared to adapt. The performance I prepared for the benefit turned out to be totally inappropriate for how the space was laid out and what people were there to do, which was pay attention to one another. I tried to adapt, but couldn't be flexible enough to put people at ease and still entertain. I had more luck later in the week, when I went from a very invasive hypnotist character to a very simple, friendly guy who occasionally does physically eccentric things.

  • Speak. I love silent characters, and play them whenever I get a chance. When I busk on my stilts this is fine, because it serves to somewhat undercut the magnificence of a nine-foot man. Plus, you've already got their attention. I planned a mime-like character for the benefit, which seemed like a great idea at the time (he was a consumptive poet, who wrote on mirrors with paint marker) but ultimately did not play out to my . . . uh, benefit. It takes special circumstances to effectively play a silent character in a busy environment. When in doubt, use your gob and be heard.

  • Love what you do. Busking is freaking tough. It takes a ton of energy, concentration and thinking-on-one's-toes and -- as if that weren't enough -- is rarely unequivocally appreciated. So it helps if whatever activity you're utilizing in your act, be it singing, dancing or self-aggrandizement, is something you genuinely enjoy. Because you'll be a doing a lot of it. And you'll often be the only one who cares.

I would be remiss, however, to offer tips to the performers of public acts of entertainment without nodding my sagacity toward the audiences as well. So, a few tips for the rest of you:

  • It's okay. Everything's going to be okay. Remember when you were five or so, and you'd go out on the playground and someone you didn't know at all would just start playing with you? That's all this is. And it doesn't hurt, I promise. We are neither homeless nor crazy; just playful. And it's only humiliating when you fight it.

  • Change is good. Have you ever been to a cocktail party, and run out of things to say? Awkward, no? You know what changes that? Good stories. Which come from good experiences. Which comes from saying "yes" to opportunities that come at you from outside your routine. Keep saying "yes." See where it takes you. It's hard to frown whilst saying "yes."

  • Your status is safe. We aren't here to discredit you, or lay disparaging remarks at your doorstep. If anything, we're here to revel in our own shortcomings, such as they are. There really is no need for pithy responses and one-ups-man-ship. Don't you get enough of that in the daily struggles of normal life? Let it go and be amused, if by nothing else than at least by the fact that there are still people in the world more concerned with your enjoyment than their own dignity.

  • We don't want your money. Okay, well, yeah, we do. Give it to us, if you feel that's an appropriate compensation for whatever we do. (It'll feel surprisingly good to do so; I promise.) But we'll take a receptive audience over a monetarily generous one any ol' day. You don't have to hang back, or hide your appreciation. As that guy on the subway often says, "If you can't give a penny, a smile gets me by, too."

I should conclude by confessing that I'm feeling a little old for busking. I don't mean to say it's beneath me, in any way. Busking can be one of the most rewarding examples of that mysterious alchemy between an audience and a performer, and I treasure several experiences of that I've had. It's just that I couldn't help but remember how joyful I used to be about getting out on a floor to do that, how simultaneously terrified, in my twenties. Now I found myself thinking, "Meh. Here I come, trying to give you something you didn't ask for." Which attitude, of course, might account for some of my angst in the doing of it. Either way -- chicken or egg -- I think I'll be taking a little break from busking. I think that will be best for both of us.

12 May 2008

Stories about Story Games and their Story-Gamers

Weekend the last, I did it again. I ventured south and stopped in at Camp Nerdly 2.0, a role-playing and story-gaming conference that is held annually in NoVa, and which was co-founded by Expatriate Younce. You may recall that I attended teh Nerdly for the first time last year (and if'n you don't, see 5/8/07), which was a somewhat grandiose personal return to gaming in general. I was a D&D geek back in my early teen years, but lost touch with that community as I got older and committed more time to theatre, and other distractions. My best and oldest friends, however, still game regularly. They're good at it. Camp Nerdly is my opportunity to take a little time off from acting to visit them in their world and, uh . . . act.

The breakdown of my time is very nearly a progression from discomfort to comfort. The games I feel most at-home with are, naturally, those more focused on characterization, improvisation and storytelling. The ones I feel like a nerd who's out of polygonal dice in are those in which the emphasis is on . . . well, polygonal dice. And other devices and systems of applied conflict resolution. (Most of the other Nerdlians thrive on these, because they're wicked smart; if a game involves math, I tend to feel as though I'm trying to figure out my taxes.) The first game I played was called AGON, and involved a bit of such conflict resolution. Fortunately, Friend Davey was there to see me through the 1d12s (if I was lucky) and the interconnectedness of the players' rolls. Thereafter I played Valkyrie, a game in "playtest" (in development) that was mainly a team strategy game involving cards and quantity relationships. After that was a brief sojourn into a board warfare-strategy game called Memoir '44 (the success of which I very much owe to Davey again), and then another playtest, this one for an RPG based on Hamlet called, aptly enough, Something Is Rotten. The Upgrade was my first "jeepform" experience, which is essentially a role-playing game that takes after improvisational theatre, and the last game of the weekend was Zendo, a competitive deductive-reasoning game. So by-and-large, I progressed from incapability to comfort, insecurity to confidence. Rather like a rehearsal process.

I'm not sure I had the same profundity of insight this year as I had last, but I attribute that to there being less novelty this time around, less of a surprise in having had a good experience. I did spend some time meditating on the similarities between theatre and gaming, naturally, and found a few ideas that are helpful to both. One unexpected benefit, however, was to spend so much time playing with two old friends in such a way that we were often mentally working hard together. Think about it: When you see your friends, do you more often aim to relax and let go of strategy, or engage in complicated efforts at problem-solving. Both types of activity hold merit. I don't do nearly as much of the latter as I'd like, particularly with my buddies in NoVa.

AGON is a game set in mythic Greece, in which the players work as a team to complete some kind of mythical mission (think Odysseus), but also to come out on top, as the hero who accumulated the most glory (think Jason ["and the Argonauts," not "Morningstar" {although, you know what--think him, too}]). This game was run by Remi Treuer, who did a great job creating an engaging story and rolling with unpredictable players, though the mythos got a little bent in the process. (In this world, Kore [Persephone] and her mother apparently had some kind of resentful relationship causing spring weather when she descended to the underworld, and Orpheus was double-timing Eurydice with her.) I was way out of my depth with the system (which is relatively simple, but...you know...) but suffered more from having a pretty weak sense of the character I had designed for myself. I had meant for him to be a spy sort, a cunning lurker, and he ended up serving the game best by singing (of all things) most of the time.

In Jason Morningstar's Valkyrie, one plays a German dissident during the latter eccentricities of World War II. One does so for as long as one can, I should say, since there is the distinct likelihood that one will be investigated by the SS and summarily executed during the game. In fact, only Friend Davey survived the experience in the same avatar throughout. Again, I was a slow monkey on this system, but I certainly picked it up better than I did AGON, and the teamwork appealed to me far more than the blend of teamwork/glory-hounding. Plus the game makes for Nazis killing Nazis. That's, like, the universal equation. In spite of the thrill of succeeding to assassinate Hitler and create an uprising against the Nazi party, the game did ultimately lack much of an involved character-play or storytelling element, at least the way we played it. Not that I necessarily consider that a fault, mind. It was hella fun, and you could do it with a campier crowd than we determined conspiracists.

Thereafter, Clinton R. Nixon (whose name I must admit I envy) invited me to play Memoir '44, and I had immediate post-traumatic stress over every lost game of Risk I ever played. But when Clinton R. Nixon invites you to play something, only fools dare refuse. Let me tell you something: Risk is for little jerks who can't figure out the concepts behind checkers. (That'd be me; fortunately, Friend Davey was there with his able strategisms once again.) The best part about Memoir '44 is the way it weaves chance into strategy through its use of randomly drawn cards for available actions. I'm buying it. End o' story. (Though I may go for one of the less based-on-actual-human-tragedy varieties. So now: True end o' story.)

Kevin Allen Jr. is featured in ma' 'blogroll. If you've never yet been to The Mountaintop Lair of Alex Trebek, go immediately, and once there, shave your head in devotion. It. Is. A. DELIGHT. (If you're an utterly cynical geek [which I is].) I met him at Nerdly the First, and when I saw he was running a game that was a "hack" of Hamlet, I knew I had at least one time-slot permanently filled. Something Is Rotten was very much in playtest, so half of our time was spent in (fascinating) discussion of how to make it operate better as a game. There was actually some confusion on my part as to whether Kevin was aiming to actually make a game, or rather use gaming to gather ideas for a story he wanted to write. It hardly mattered. The playing was great fun for me, weaving in references to the play some times, and at others completely disregarding conventional concepts of the characters. For example, when I played the Hamlet-type, he was outwardly angry with the Claudius-type, something he could never do in the play. And at one point I jumped in as a yokel waiter in a diner, spreading the rumor that the circus (or, the players) were coming to town. I walked away renewed in my enthusiasm for the idea of blending improvisational theatre -- audience and all -- with gaming, which has been a topic of much musing 'twixt Youncey and me.

The Upgrade continued the trend of the improvisational, though this with less of a story-telling aspect, and more of an emotional and status-combat interplay. Clinton and Jason (Jason had also been in on playing Something Is Rotten, which naturally ruled) ran this game, which is modeled after reality TV, specifically shows that involve couple-swapping. The game is considered a "jeepform" one, which is a Finnish style of game that has the most in common out of any game I've ever played with the sort of long-form improvisation that Second City is famous for. J and C were assisted in the running by a couple of more experienced "jeepformers" by the names of Emily Boss and Epidiah Ravachol, who played ancillary characters and offered great perspective on how the game went when all was said and done. I could go on and on about this game, but the most significant experience of it for me was how uninvolved I made myself. This was owing to being AMAZED at what I was witnessing. Over the course of a couple of hours, I watched a large group of non-actors progress at amazing speed through stages of development as improvisational actors. By the end, something amazing had happened. People were no longer chasing punchlines, but feeling involved in their characters' struggles. We had a group scene with six people in it and boisterous action throughout, and as if by magic, everyone managed to pass the focus without interrupting, overlapping or lagging the action of the scene. DO YOU HAVE ANY CONCEPT OF HOW DIFFICULT THIS IS? I'm still reviewing the events in my head. I'm sifting through cause-and-effect, and believe I'm heading toward the conclusion that a relatively non-competitive game environment, if nurtured and given its own time, promotes communication. Profoundly. More on this . . . well, for the rest of my life.

My Nerdly excursion ended with Zendo, and that was fine. A little anticlimactic, but challenging and fun. It was interesting: Davey and Mark and I were planning to sort of huddle to ourselves over this (or another) game. But people became interested. By the end, there were some eight-to-ten people playing or watching (mostly playing), who had been drawn in by the camaraderie. My initial impulse was to resist this, to stick with the monkeys the scent of whose poop I recognized. But we're not monkeys, and Nerdly is all about making those new connections through games and teamwork. It seemed to me this year, for whatever reason, that Nerdly was less well-attended than last. That's problematic for me, because it's an event that is fun, cheap, accepting, beneficial and, ultimately, important. You can develop and expose your game there, you can meet new friends, etc. But what's really unique and important about Camp Nerdly is the way it improves seemingly everyone who attends. Everyone grows, opens up a bit, and learns. Never mind that it happens through gaming. Or, rather, take note. Games are good for you. I want to make Camp Nerdly live, and next year, if I don't have a career obligation that irrevocably conflicts, I'm going to run a game there.

More about it down the line. My thoughts about gaming as it applies to theatre require their own entry.

11 May 2008

No, I'm here. I am. I'm just . . .

So, this week is nutso in the extreme for yours truly. I just wanted to say that I have lots o' lots to write about, and little time (and virtually none in front of a computer) in which to post it. So be patient, Gentle Reader. All in good time.

In other news, did anyone else ever notice how similar Robert Downey Jr. and I are in body type? You know -- if I had five hours with a personal trainer each day. Uncanny Iron Man:

Update! Just in case you can't get Dave's link in the "Reactions" section to work :

08 May 2008

The Perfect Notebook

It is one of those personal, secret blessings of my work as an actor/"creactor" that the work necessitates the use of notebooks. By secret blessing, I mean a requirement that makes me very happy for somewhat irrelevant reasons. I love notebooks. Something about their organization, informality, yet relative physical permanence satisfies me in a very personal way. (See the manila-folder sequence in Stranger than Fiction for a nice illustration of a secret blessing of one's work.) I find this a bit odd, this affection for notebooks, since I generally detest hand-writing when I could be typing. It is, however, undeniable.

I would like to design my own notebook. Not just design it, mind you, but get it made, so I can use it. Maybe I could turn this into a profitable enterprise (imagine funding my acting career with notebooks--I'm giddy at the thought) but primarily I'm simply interested in making something that helps me work. I have favorite notebooks as it is, mind you. Moleskine(R) is and always will be a classic, and they produce an impressive variety of sizes and custom uses. I also use the "Katebook" quite a lot for shows. They come in a variety of sizes as well, and are easy to paste script pages into; their best feature by far, though, is the colored page edges that neatly pre-divide them into 3 or 5 sections.

Neither of these brands satisfy completely, however. There are very particular aspects to working on the kinds of shows that I do, which require special considerations. It is a simple matter to answer these demands -- it's just that no one's done it yet, as far as I know. Someone, please, let me know if my answer is out there somewhere. In the meantime, what follows is a kind of verbal illustration of my dream-notebook.

  • Size. A critical aspect. THE critical aspect, in many ways. I at once need something that fits easily into all of the bags I practically live in, and with the capacity to hold a lot of information in an organized fashion, and something that can be comfortably held in one hand. Because I'm often acting with it, see, and taking notes. A good size for me has been the 6"x8" Katebook; it's perfect for pasting standard script pages in, and not too cumbersome to hold (though a little thick/heavy when approaching the end of a rehearsal period). I might go with something more 7"x8", however, for various reasons to be further explained. And a little thinner; say, 1/2" to 3/4"?

  • Durability. It must withstand the worst atrocities you may imagine, for not only will it be dropped, it will be thrown. And it will get wet. It may even be exposed to a Meisner exercise gone wrong.

  • Binding. A tricksy question, my precious. I dig the hardcore durability of the Moleskine(R), but the notebook must be able to be folded in half, for hand-holding. Plus, with items added to it, it need to be able to expand a bit without turning into an effective doorstop. Which leads me to believe good ol' spiral binding is still the way to go. However, it should be with a thick strand that's very resistant to flattening or uncoiling, and that spiral needs to have a covering. Fabric, maybe. Something that saves it from the various abuses that taking a notebook in and out of containers invariably inflicts upon ye olde spiral binding.

  • Cover. One of the best things about a Moleskine(R) is one of its most subtle features -- the cover. It's lightweight and pliable, yet coated with a material (formerly leather, not sure what now) that makes it extremely durable. The only fault I find with it is the color. It makes the outside fairly useless for titling or what-you-will. So in my world, the cover is the same stuff, only a lighter color. Not white, but perhaps a nice tan or beige. Rounded corners.

  • Paper. Durable, yet fairly thin. Not so much so that ink bleeds through, but often the extra weight of a notebook has to do with using a kissing cousin of cardstock for the paper. The paper needs to have those color gradations on the edges that the Katebook has. And most importantly, it should be graph paper. GRAPH. PAPER. Why? It's the best. You can write neatly portrait or landscape, make neat columns and such, and drawings look fancy-fied by it. Rounded corners.

  • Features. The elastic strap on Moleskine(R)s (it closes the book by wrapping around the right lateral edge) is perfect as container and place-holder. Most of these also have some sort of expanding wallet attached to the inner back cover for scraps of paper. In my notebook, there will be one such on the front cover, just big enough for one or two sheets (contact sheet, schedule) and a larger, compartmentalized one on the back. Both will fit an 8 1/2 x 11 sized paper, folded in half along the horizontal. Finally, within the spiral binding, there will be a place to hold a pencil. This will be a special design, as it will need to be suspended in such a way that it doesn't interfere overmuch with the opening and closing of the notebook.

  • What it won't have. A spring clip -- too cumbersome, and ultimately non-useful. Other pockets -- huge increase on bulk. Removable paper -- unavoidably comes loose (this is a problem with the Katebook) and it's spiral anyway; torn edges be damned. Zipper closure -- notebooks were intended to be opened faster than that, douche. Pre-printed pages -- if I want a calendar or metric-conversion table in there, I'll use paste. Anything that juts -- why would you do that to us? It's like some kind of sick, Nazi, social experiment, watching people fumble getting things in and out of pockets and bags.

The only thing left is what to call it. And, you know, actually diagramming it, producing and distributing it. Marketing it. Legal action when I get sued by both Moleskine(R) and Kate's Paperie. Aw, forget it! Who needs the aggravation?

Anything is worth the realization of the perfect notebook...

Update 3 June 2008: Ask, and the good people at MAKE shall provide!

07 May 2008


Next week I'll be performing a show twice daily down at the World Financial Center, under the auspices of The Women's Project. The show is called Corporate Carnival, and is much as it sounds -- a sort of carnival (though more circus) celebration (though more satire) of corporate America (though more capitalist America at large). It will be performing in the "Winter Garden" section, May 14 - 16, showtimes at 1:00 and 7:00, and the 15th thrice, the previous times plus a 4:00. We earn our money over there at The Women's Project, fo' sho'.

The show itself is interesting to me for a return to collaborative creation and my status within it. I'm one of a sort of inconsequential chorus called "The Temps." We burst through between main acts with commercial-like interruptions, and supplement the other actors' "scenes." We're also on stage even when we're "backstage," owing to the nature of our staging the show in an open area, and we're all responsible for developing a "greenshow" act. Greenshow acts are sort of a roving warm-up before the main stage begins, especially useful in this format because they get people's attention by adhering to a busking style. So we're doing all that (see above "fo' sho'"), but our additions to the show itself are not necessarily especially skilled. I'm stilting for one commercial, but for the most part the Temps' contributions aren't particularly physically demanding. In spite of the many circumstantial similarities between this project and the work of Cirque Boom and Kirkos (particularly Cirque Boom's Circus of Vices and Virtues, in which I played a stilt-walking businessman), they're very different in that regard.

I've had to create a lot of self-generated output recently. So much, in fact, that today I began to worry for the first time if I wasn't just recycling and regurgitating. This is due in part to hammering out an outline for a potential performance piece (pah pah pah) for Italy, under the auspices of Zuppa del Giorno. I took the three archetypal clowns we portrayed in Silent Lives, and bits and sequences from all our shows (Zuppa-related or no), added a dash of some of my favorite stage conventions and voilĂ ! A . . . show! Of sorts! I kind of hate it! But the idea is that we'll all get into a room together soon (somehow) and develop it, or something that doesn't resemble it in the slightest. Not sure which one I'm hoping for at this point.

Sludging through this effort reminded me of working on my clown film (see 3/27/08), in that I was writing out actions more than words, trying to tell a story through humorous, true deeds and bits. It was also reminiscent of the film in that I was frequently stuck, trying to figure out how to go on from a given point, and I've been feeling pretty stuck on the film script as well. It seems that once Our Hero (this is what I've been calling the clown character in the script) gets out of Central Park, I have very little direction for him. And now, after a couple of weeks of contributing to generate original scenes for Corporate Carnival, I have to develop a greenshow act for it, and I'm drawing blank. It's a little like I've run out of gas. Cough! Cough! Sputtterrrrr . . .

Yet on Sunday (see 5/5/08), with eager and communicative collaborators, the ideas were flowing like gasoline in the 1990s. Perhaps what I need to do is engage in dialogue with someone who is inclined to be energetic about this kind of thing. Perhaps, too, I need to just get out of my mind and into my body. That was definitely a key element in Sunday's successful creation. This block may be entirely symptomatic, in fact, of a period of relative creative isolation of late. I started writing the clown film when I was between day jobs, and there were no theatre commitments, and very little energy on my part going into find them. At the time I viewed my individual effort as reclaiming a little of my work for myself (as part of my process of dealing with letting go of As Far As We Know [see 1/15/08]), and so it was. Yet it was also a retreat.

That's the nice thing about work. As long as you're doing it, you're working.

05 May 2008

Such Great Heights

Yesterday was a Sunday, and I've relished those Sundays in the past few years that allowed me to sleep in, do a crossword and generally rock the low-key rockin'. I generally hate to rehearse on a Sunday night. Someone always wants you to. It's driven by desperation, largely. The scale of production I generally work on in the city doesn't pay one enough to quit his or her day job, so the folks managing schedules are confronted with a barrage of money-making conflicts. No one wants to rehearse early on Sunday, because of God. Also, because it follows too close on the heels of festive Saturday night. So someone invariably suggests Sunday night for rehearsals, and I invariably have to say, "Oh yeah, no, that's my knitting-circle night," or some such. Yesterday I had a rehearsal at mid-day, which was okay. If the trains hadn't been wearing their special helmets, I might have even made it on time.

Cirque Boom has been requested to perform at a benefit for NYFA, and I and three other performers were requested by Ruth Juliet Wikler-Luker to participate. One Ms. Cody Schreger is joining me for acrobatic duets, largely of the standing variety, owing to the constraints of the space. True to Cirque Boom form, we're playing energetically eccentric characters. I'm playing a tormented, mute poet, immigrated to America some years ago in a quest for a new love; Cody his first lover from "The Olde Country," venturing to America for the first time in the hopes of bringing him safely back into her embrace. This is all an elaborate excuse for flamboyant gesture and expressive acrobalance. We met yesterday in an apartment/studio in Brooklyn to refresh our (read: my) memories and choreograph.

I hurt today. And it is a good pain.

Approximately three years ago, Kirkos, a circus-theatre-et-al. troupe I was a founding member of, effectively folded. A little while later, Ruth of Cirque-Boom fame left the country for a year. These were my two core sources not only for "acro" exposure and practice, but for my expressive physical activity in general. In the intervening years between then and now, I've kept busy and tried to apply all I learned between 2002 and 2005 to other shows I've worked on and in workshops I taught. I worked so hard at that, in fact, that I had come to believe that I was maintaining my practice sufficiently, if not with as great rigor or regularity. It's amazing how complacent a person can become if he or she only wills it to be so.

I've written here before about the good ol' days of my acro career, when I was young(er) and doing handstands in the corridors of my day job with Friend Melissa (see 12/5/07). The emphasis of that writing was craving a return to that level of activity and physical maintenance, which has been a strong desire for me as well. What I learned from Sunday, however, is that part of the reason that's been so difficult for me is that it's been all me. I mean, not all me. On the occasions when we're working on a show together, Friend Heather and I train in acro a bit, and Friend Geoff and I both have a love/hate relationship with jogging, etc. What I mean to say is, I've discovered I've been missing more than the exercise. Last summer I worked myself into a muscle-bound frenzy (not so's you'd necessarily notice, mind you) for my part in As Far As We Know, but I wasn't building anything but myself, and it faded.

Sunday's rehearsal was even in a space that reminded me of Friend Kate's loft, where Kirkos met and tumbled about. It was in a, shall we say, less-developed section of Brooklyn, in a converted space with plenty of raw-lumber beams and old factory floorboards about. We climbed the stairs, removed our shoes, laid mats and started warming up. The warm-up wasn't just to loosen our joints, or "awake" our physical sensitivity, it was serious -- stretching out and warming up muscles and tendons that would soon be asked a lot of. We took our time, chatted, doped one anothers' stretches if they looked good, as a group will when they've worked together before and don't need to acknowledge social conventions. After a good, long warm-up, we began.

I'll skip the details of development. Suffice it to say that we choreographed quickly, everyone throwing in ideas and interpretations. Within minutes, I found myself performing tricks I had forgotten I'd known, and doing some I hadn't been able to do years before. The sensation was incredible. I'm not at this time in the greatest shape of my life, but working with an experienced acrobat like Cody made everything easier, and it does seem as though I've gotten stronger in some regard over the past few years. Though, by the end of the two hours, I was definitely quite winded. And, as I put it above, I hurt today.

All this leads me to conclude that it's past time for me to be regularly involved in this training again, whether I can find a group to join, or have to start one myself. The common approach for most of my acro friends of late has been to team up with someone who they can count on, train and prepare for performance opportunities with. And that's well and good, and works great, but I need a group. I need a community that can sustain itself even when I'm off in Italy, applying the skills from that group to my commedia dell'arte work. And it may be up to me to form it.

We may even have to meet on Sundays.

03 May 2008

To-Day Is Wednesday, the 11th

The above is a phrase I'd like to coin, but one which will never come into common parlance. It's altogether too obscure. You, however, dear reader, will comprehend me when I speak it. You, and you alone, will have any clue what I'm trying to say. Bask in the glow of privilege.

In One Week (which, if my search criteria hasn't changed by now, you can see in its entirety in the video bar to the left), Buster Keaton uses inter cuts of a daily calendar to establish time in his movie, the central action of which is the construction -- and eventual destruction -- of a house. It's a DIY, build-by-numbers house, and a malevolent suitor switches some numbers on ol' Buster. The result is a great reveal, midway through the week, of a completed house that contains all the elements of "house," but is just awfully wrong. The roof is on the wrong way. one whole side seems pulled a la Dali out of its natural frame. And it spins.

The calendar page revealed just before this image appears informs us "To-Day Is / Wednesday / 11".

Sometimes you work on a show (or "project," for those of you less exhibitionist in nature), and you give it your all, and you're very excited to see it put together, because you know it's going to be some of your most impressive work, and the curtain goes up, and . . . it doesn't quite look like you thought it would. And it feels sort of false, especially for something you've put so much of yourself into. And you're not sure -- it could just be you -- but it seems as though the audience isn't being much more than overtly polite.

This, to me, is a "Wednesday the 11th." You can't figure where exactly you went wrong. You did everything you were supposed to, and, hell: you're a generally capable guy and/or girl. It's "Wednesday the 11ths" that bring us to those silent moments of questioning things like fate and the existence of God. You're not overwhelmed with grief, or shaking your rhetorical fist in the general direction of the allegorical heavens, but you are quietly talking to yourself in your mind. "Man, where did I go wrong? Am I being punished? How serious is this? Is this a sign? If it's mysterious in cause, it's got to be mysterious in significance, right? Man..."

It's really taxing to perform a show that didn't turn out even close to what you had hoped for, but the real long-term effect is in the questioning that can so easily result from it. Nine times out of ten, I'd say, you just missed something. It could happen to anyone. It doesn't mean we're less concerned with the virtues of our work if we accept this concept, and move on. Some days are simply Wednesdays, the 11th.

02 May 2008

The Vasty Deep

I grew up around Washington, D.C., so the first time I went to a museum in New York and was asked for $15 "suggested" admission, I did a double take. I wondered if I had wandered into some incredibly large Imax movie theatre instead of the MoMA. The students around the D.C. area are quite accustomed to all their field trips taking them to some place in or around the Smithsonian Institute. We hear of touring factories or a post office on such trips, and think, "Why would you go somewhere like that, when you could have dinosaurs instead?" I took it for granted. I also took it for granted that, at some point, at least one field trip per year would terrify me beyond my endurance.

I had many powerful, irrational fears when I was young. I feared standing near tall buildings, or under high ceilings, homeless people, alternately cats and dogs, etc. I've gotten past all of those, even going as far with most of them as to learn to love them, in their various ways. I retain, however, my fear of large sea creatures. Even fictional ones. It makes me pretty jumpy even to think of them enough to write the words. Suffice it to say, when you see me having to act fearful on stage, I may just be resorting to a little sense-memory indulgence.

As one enters the National Museum of Natural History, you are immediately confronted by an impressive rotunda and a stuffed elephant smack dab in the middle. That was all well and good, once I got over my fear of being under high ceilings, but to one's left upon entering was a room in which I'm still not entirely comfortable. It contains a giant model of a Blue Whale suspended from the ceiling in such a way as to greet you upon your entrance with its face. The lighting, too, is especially dim and moves in lazy waves, simulating the effect of being deep underwater. If I'm remembering correctly, they even have whale-song playing in there. Relaxing, no?

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! [Man runs screaming from own memories...]

I don't know quite why this manner of thing is frightening to me. The model Blue Whale in the New York museum doesn't scare me quite so badly. It's suspended in a much larger room, with generally brighter lighting. But if I go to the far left corner, to see the diorama of a fight between a Giant Squid and a whale, I get panicky again. That's a much darker scene, and I'm reminded of Natalie Wood's fear of "dark water." I think the dark-water part is key in my anxiety, but certainly there are plenty of creatures to augment anxiety into outright dread.

Case in point: Not only are there Giant Squid out there, menacing the depths, but apparently now there are also Colossal Squid. It's like the giants of the sea are victims of an escalating Japanese advertising campaign. I next expect to hear about the Super-Amazing-Healthiest-Truly-Enormous Squid. Not only is the Colossal Squid scary in its bigness, its suckers have rotating claws within, it has the largest eyes of anything we know of ever, and a freaking "conveyor-belt-like tongue," with teeth jutting from it. If there is a more literal killing machine, would it please step forward now and politely go extinct immediately?

Finally, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I fear fictional animals of the deep. It's true. The supposed Loch Ness creature scares the bejeezus out of me. All I have to do is imagine seeing such a thing in the water, and I am immediately fearful for my life. Do I feel this way when I see a tiger, or someone I think is a gang member? No. Imagine a plesiosaur surprising me from out of a lake, though, and I lose all feeling in my knees.

Why? What does it all mean? Who can ultimately say? I don't really buy into past-life explanations. Reincarnation be what it may, I find it romantic to a fault to presume that "memories" from past lives could exert a strong influence on the present. Repressed memories are another somewhat romantic explanation, in my opinion (though certainly more arguable than centuries-old personal habits). I'm more inclined to explain these things in two ways: in evolutionary terms and psychological theory. From my point of view, most emotions can be pretty directly linked to instinct, particularly survival instinct. Self-awareness brought us to a more detailed evaluation of our inner experiences, and so words like anger and irritation came to replace "that feeling of badly needing to kill something," and the word "hunger" took on multiple duties, applied to all sorts of things unrelated to food. From this perspective, it's natural for me to fear large, unpredictable forces in a dark environment; an environment in which, incidentally, I am not overly capable. Rather a weak swimmer here, actually. But that's a chicken/egg/chicken thing if ever there were one. Am I a'feared of deep water because I don't swim well, or do I not swim well because I'm so a'feared of deep water?

Ultimately, from the more psychological perspective, the connections are pretty explicit. I'm a meticulous sort at heart, someone who needs to understand everything he can and savors spontaneity only so long as it doesn't surprise him too much. Is there anything more surprising than discovering an alien creature right next to you, where one never was before? That's the effect of dark water -- nothing can be seen coming until it's already close, and it can come from literally any direction. The Y axis enters the picture in a big way underwater. Of course, what's most interesting to me about this fear is that the terror is not contained in the creature, be it whale, squid or Dread Cthulhu. The creature involved only actualizes the terror, forcing me to acknowledge it. No, the persistent, inescapable fear, the real psychological consideration, is me, in that deep, dark water, waiting. And given that environment, that solitude, who's to say what I even am to myself? Who am I, that alone? Identity is lost so completely, even crying out may do no good to remind me that I am still there.

These waters deep enough for you? Watch out for the Colossal Squid.

01 May 2008


Yesterday was my second and final day of filming on The Compleat Victrola Sessions (see 4/28/08 for my first and introductory). This time we were in The Miller Theatre, just off the glorious Columbia University main campus at 116th Street, which was something of an improvement in location over the last shoot I attended, at least in hygiene if not general character.

Some of the excitement of doing background work had worn off for me by yesterday, but it was still a little thrill to consider showing up in a silent film. Our focus was on filming audience reactions most of the day, so fifteen-odd of we few (we lucky few, we band of extras) sat in a convincing spread of seats in different arrangements, representing two different nights of a live musical performance, as well as one audience watching a movie. Thereafter, we had a good hour break, and on our return we filmed a sequence that took place just outside the dressing rooms of two of the featured characters.

The audience work was rather dull, for the most part. You can imagine. We sat and, on cue, looked intently at a particular position on stage. It would have been an interesting exercise, were it not for its complete lack of interest. Still, I tried to make the best of it, thinking to myself all the while that this must be what it's like to act with a green screen. What was most interesting about this, in fact, was the fact that our crowd included some Italians. I don't know why they in particular were there exactly; I think they were someone's friends, visiting the country. They all spoke very good English, but naturally opted for their native tongue most of the time. It was difficult for me not to try to join in, but I kept getting images of them either becoming impatient with my relative ignorance, or slowing things down to a crawl in order to accommodate me; I couldn't decide which would be worst.
I brought two outfits for the day, plus my Lloyd-esque glasses in the hopes that there'd be a chance to use them. The first outfit was my evening wear which, in spite of costing me a pretty penny, was almost as motley an assortment as The Tramp's genesis-wardrobe. That morning I realized I had forgotten to get studs for the tuxedo shirt I bought, and began frantically sewing the smallest black buttons I could find together. They were still too big, so I had to nip the ends of the surging on my outer button holes. The "waiter's jacket" I had (imagine a tailored look on top, as with tails, sans tails) just barely covered the buttons holding my suspenders to my pants. This was important, because those buttons are still miniature grinning skulls, a remnant of a costume for a show from years ago. The suspenders themselves were some clever costumer's trick, made as they were of restitched, patterned neckties. My tie was a bow tie, the real kind, and I felt confident with my Internet instructions for tying it. This effort predominated my preparations once at the location, and I never really got it right. Still and all, I was proud. Once hat, gloves and cane were added, the effect was distinct and good. Held together with scotch tape, but solid-looking.

For the movie scene, I traded the jacket for a standard black sport one, removed the tie and donned my Lloyd glasses. This prompted the director to exclaim that I was a "man of 1,000 looks" as she referenced how different I was from my bartender on day one. I'll admit I was proud of this, too, bringing to mind as it did memories of Lon Chaney (Sr.). After a little while, however, I remembered me that this was film, a medium within which most actors consider it career suicide to change their look too drastically. Gary Oldman, as always, my hat flies effortlessly from my brow to you, good sir.

Funny story: In the movie-theatre scene, my glasses will not be noticeable. Largely this is because I look to be sucking face with someone sitting next to me. I play one-half of the couple that makes the feature couple feel alternately randy and awkward. I am not, however, actually sucking face. The director favored making the process "PG-13," and so asked me to feign smooching by placing my distant hand between our mouths. Yes. She did. Ah, movie magic! I could have taken the time to explain that this was, in fact, much more awkward than making out with a stranger, but it would have taken time (the most precious commodity in film, it seems) and possibly made me out to be a perv. So the fingertips of my right hand got some serious play that day.

The day also served to demonstrate for me that a film set is far more fertile ground for personal drama and diva tactics than even a theatre (I wish I could account for opera in this scale, but I lack experience [come to think, we were in a theatre this day...maybe that added? {whatever.}]). In film, if you're on the main crew or a featured player, you are nigh-literally living with the same people day in and day out, slavishly devoting your schedule to the sake of the film itself. If you're on location, you don't even "go home" at the end of the sometimes-18-hour day. It's far more intense in this regard than theatre, even a gig that may be out of town. Never mind that much of the time is spent "doing nothing"; it's an environment of hurry-up-and-wait. It is one intense, prolonged tech day, is what it is. Amazing anything gets done, and amazing no one gets killed in the process.

My last duty within this environment was to play an adoring fan of Ms. Rebecca Cherry's character, awaiting her exit from her dressing room. It was back into the evening wear for this. I was to hand her a bunch of flowers, then remain to be crowd as other things happened. The final thing to happen was for one character to assault another and take her away. This was my moment to shine, where my expertise with all things physical would hold sway and help to pave my way into film infamy. I eagerly leapt into the discussion of choreography.

It ended up being a shove. My job was to catch the shoved one and transplant him safely to the floor, making it look like he had simply fallen into me, taking us both down. I did it about half a dozen times. But hey: I did it without yawning. And hey again: People were very impressed with the job I did. Catching a guy who was a foot away from me six times in a row without dropping him? Wow. I must work out.

I must make my own silent film.