29 July 2008

Four (or Five) Weddings and a Funeral

I've been thinking about death a lot, lately. Not in a goth way, I assure you. (Remember goth, the old emo?) Although, I am pretty goth, without even trying, so it may be more goth than I am aware, my thinking, surrounded and filled by gothness as I am. I mean, I wore nothing but black clothing throughout high school. "That, my friend, is a dark side." The subject of death has been brought up repeatedly by Yours Gothicly here at the Aviary; twenty-two times to date (not including this-here entry), to be exact. I've waxed a little philosophical about the subject, but for the most part my addresses to the final spectre have to do with how I believe it relates to comedy, and the laughter impulse. In brief, I believe most of our spontaneous laughter arises from reminders that we are mortal; that some day, each of us will die.

Told you I was goth.

Be that as it may--or may not--my belief in it has gone a long way toward helping me cope with the idea of confronting my own death. Now, I've never even been close, by either disease or incident, so far as I was aware. So the next is to be taken with a grain or two of salt. I've been thinking lately that our awareness of death is also a big part of what drives humans, what makes us so ambitious and, often, so anxious. I think you'd find a corollary between people who are generally anxious and driven, and those that are philosophically engaged in resisting death. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that whatever Zen-ish approach I've mastered for my own life is a direct result of diminishing my own fear of death. Or, to give myself less credit, perhaps it's a result of living in a more complete ignorance of my own death. As I get older, and my eventual death becomes more conceivable to me, I have to relearn to accept that idea, over and over again. And in many ways, I feel much more driven now that I've gained a little more perspective on how quickly I could exit life's stage. When I was younger I tended to dream bigger, but none of it seemed especially urgent. It would come eventually. Now I dream (a shade) more realistically, but it's got a greater sense of urgency. Because now, I only see one thing as truly inevitable.

In the coming six months or so, I'm involved in no less than four weddings. It's true. I've got ones to attend in September, October and January. Oh, and one in November that I ought not to miss, either. There are even more going on than these, others in my extended circles of friends, at the same time. I don't know why, but these things always seem to come in cycles of density and naught. (We certainly didn't plan it that way.) Marriage is one of those things that it seems to me each person comes to in his or her own time; kind of the most amazing collaboration possible. It depends upon a convergence of so many factors that it's a little amazing to me that it ever happens, much less happens so often, now-a-days. I mean, we do get a better deal on taxes and such, but marriage isn't necessary to the common person's survival the way it historically has been. Apart from some antiquated societal expectations, marriage has very little excuse for being anything other than an independent, individual choice. There's virtually no reason for a fairly stable person to get married into any situation that's short of perfect for us. We can hold out for love, looks, money, sexy English dialect -- whatever your criteria. It is in no way assumptive, or inevitable. In this way, marriage becomes even more meaningful; it is a matter of choice.

As in all exploits human, marriage is motivated somewhat by self-awareness, and death. No one wants to die alone. Even if that last walk is ultimately up to you, you want someone there holding your hand just before you take it, if possible. There are many human relationships that can buy one insurance toward that circumstance, but marriage is the most likely gold standard.

This Monday, a funeral will be held for someone who was very dear to me. Her body relented to a long battle with cancer last Monday morning. She was the mother of an exgirlfriend of mine, so my connection with her and her family is not the most frequent. It's a rare and valuable connection for me, though, in that in spite of the disappointment and pain of the romantic relationship and its conclusion, my relationship with the family continued in a spirit of mutually cherished love and respect. They're a family strong in Christian faith and, though I don't see everything the same way that they do, I know their faith in God is part of the reason I have had a continued loving relationship with them. Particularly with the mother. She was a shining light. I know that sounds like something everyone says about their loved ones lost, but I couldn't mean it more specifically to her. Judi's sole motivation during the time I knew her, it seemed, was for the joy and sense of love in absolutely everyone around her. She was loving, warm, funny, a believer, and though I've no doubt she's gone on to that place she believes in, to be unified in that same spirit of love she embodied, it's just not fair that she's left us.

A little over a year ago, I saw Judi again for the first time in years. The occasion was her daughter's wedding, and I ended up having to really bust-ass to get down to North Carolina for it. My flight got cancelled at the last minute, and a mutual friend and I ended up renting a car in Astoria ("Will you be staying within the tri-state area?" "We'll try.") and driving fourteen hours with traffic and weather issues. A lot of people questioned the wisdom of my actions. Not the rental car, mind you -- no one knew about that until afterward. No, it was the idea of attending an exgirlfriend's wedding. There were no qualifying factors to her "exgirlfriend" status in my life: we hadn't been friends first; we had been a serious, long-term relationship; the break-up had been painful. I was surprised to have been invited, and I gave serious consideration to graciously declining. To my memory of it, Judi's struggle with cancer began in the interim between her daughter's engagement and wedding day, so I knew of it when I got my invitation. She's the first person I had known with malignant cancer. I wanted to see her and the rest of the family again anyway, I admit, but I wanted to see her more upon hearing that news. It was a good justification for my actions, but I had no experience to apply to the concept that her life was truly in danger. To put it another way, I made a good decision almost by accident, because Judi's death did not at the time feel like a real possibility to me. When I did see her at the reception, her voice was just a whisper--a result of the extensive chemotherapy she had been undergoing--but she was softly ebullient with joy, for her daughter's marriage of course, and also, somehow, to see me again. We didn't talk much, but we had ourselves one hell of a significant hug.

We never know when we might be seeing someone for the last time in our lives. It can be easy to forget that, in this day and age, with all the myriad ways we have not only of staying "in touch" but "reconnecting" with people from our past. It can also be easy to remember it, and allow it to drive us into anxiety and a useless blind-fighting of inevitability. Perhaps, though, this awareness can allow us instead to appreciate our hellos and goodbyes a little more. Maybe we can come to never take a hug or handshake for granted, or to reject the notion that anything is done for us, or obligatory. Every action in our lives, every person we love, can be a choice. Hopefully, a true and meaningful choice. That's what I'm going to try to remember. Judi, I think, would appreciate that idea.

28 July 2008

Friendly Neighborhood

I am straight-up terrified of musical-theatre auditions. If you gave me a choice between publicly humiliating myself in some way, or standing in a room with one other person and singing for them, I'd go with the former, nine-out-of-ten. I don't know why. I can sing. I'm not trained, but I have a natural ear and a strong, albeit somewhat limited, baritone voice. I even enjoy singing. There's just something to be overcome in my psyche when it comes to singing for an audience; particularly an audience of one. I often claim to be something less than a fan of musical theatre, and it's true for the most part. I usually find the idiom a bit too coy for my tastes and, though I'm not great fan of opera, either, prefer musical theatre that's raw, and passionate, and in which the characters are more often struggling than they are bursting with rapturous joy. The fact of the matter is, I'd love to be in a "good musical" (read: one that adheres to my personal criteria). So my policy when it comes to auditioning for musicals is, and has been since I was eleven years old, not to. I have a couple on my resume from summer stock gigs that required a full season from me, and that's about it.

A little over a week ago, a friend of mine who is in no way connected to my theatre life these days shared an item on his Google Reader account about the holding of an open call for the upcoming Spider-Man musical. Specifically, the call was to troll for actors to play Mary Jane, a high school principal character and Mr. Peter Parker. I've known about this musical for a while, marvelling at its seemingly disparate elements: Spider-Man, Broadway, Bono and The Edge doing the music and Julie Taymor directing. I was surprised to hear of open calls, because I knew it had been in development for some time now. A guy who was working with them to develop rigging looked at subletting my old apartment back in the fall. I understood rehearsals had begun July 2. And an open call? Madness. If it were just for Peter, you could chalk it up to a stunt or a Superman-The-Movie priority for a fresh face. But for Mary Jane and an anonymous adult character? Madness.

It stuck in my head. I suppose, in some ways, I had been thinking about this show with some curiosity ever since I first heard of it. When I imagine a Spider-Man musical involving aerial rigging and directed by Mz. Taymor (who is famous for, amongst other things, the Broadway production of The Lion King with all its puppetry and stilt-giraffes) I picture some wild, fairly circus-y stuff. But come on, I thought, too. It's a huge, big-budget production. It must be pre-cast within an inch of its life. It was probably cast in large part from the moment of its initial conception. So when I heard of an open call, it must have opened up that little well-spring of hope in me for a huge, circus-y, comicbook musical. Because I proceeded to do something very, very stupid. I talked to everyone about it. I even claimed to be planning on going. Because...why not? Hey: It's just talk. I can not go. They'll be staying away in hordes, the rest of my peers. It sounds terrible. Open call? Who does that anymore? And hey, here's a list of reasons I'm all wrong for Peter Parker:

  1. Too old. They extended the casting age into the "20's" (sic; somebody get a proofreader into that casting office), but come on now. Would I really be fresh-faced enough for the sweetest dork in the Marvel universe?

  2. Not pretty enough. Well, this is Broadway. You should see some of these magnificent bastards.

  3. Can't sing. Yes so I can sing. It's just that I don't. Ever. Upon threat of injury, even.

  4. Doesn't know what he's doing. In some things, sure. In a musical? It's like any other specialized field. You jump right in, and the learning curve is going to be terribly steep. Nearly everybody thinks they could be an film actor. Hardly anyone says, "Hey, I know all I need to know about Broadway from watching it."

  5. Can't dance. Oh I'll act the hell from a good bit of circus or fight choreography. I'll even make picking up a coin feel specific and significant. But a shuffle-ball-change? Next, please.

  6. Is shaking. And...sweating; profusely. And what is that smell? So scared. So very very scared.

The alarm went off at 5:30 this morning, and I shot up like a rocket. My carefully-chosen t-shirt and my carefully-chosen slacks were donned, followed up by sneakers. It took me longer than usual to get ready, but I blamed the hour and was out the door by 7:30. When I got to Leonard Street, the line hadn't quite gotten to the end of the block. I walked to a nearby bodega, grabbed a large cup of coffee, and took my place at the end of the line. It was a matter of seconds before more people joined the line behind me, and very soon the line snaked back around its first corner. It's been years since I stood in line for an open call, I thought. All this just to sign up for a time-slot. I looked around me, and wasn't surprised to see largely teens and early-twenty-somethings. I was surprised to see some of them be over six feet tall, or rather robust, or whatever other features you wouldn't expect to see on your Peter Parker or your Mary Jane. I did see some older women in line, which was a comfort, until I remembered the high-school principal role was described as older.

Crossword puzzles make for great distraction from an open call wait line, I find. I had a good book and four New York magazine crosswords to keep me from obsessing. It was hard, though, to block out the energy around me. And probably wrong, as far as choices go. Better to absorb and reflect energy than block it, in just about any situation. Maybe it was my nervousness (I doubt but that it was the main), but I was immediately turned off by the conversation around me. Directly in front of me in line was a group of three uber-musical-theatre types and they, like, were clearly very excited to be, like, there and yet somehow, like, better than a lot of the like, people there. They yammered non-stop, alternating between musical-theatre topics and gossiping, and they knew every third person who walked by, and greeted them with a stock phrase: "Oh my God!" Directly in front of them was a sixteen-year-old girl whose father had driven her in from New Jersey for the day. She sat patiently, quietly, in line while he called in regularly to tell her what he had gotten into exploring Chinatown. Behind me, a woman (one of the elder) promptly started making business calls on her Blackberry at 9:00, checking on leases and contracts and spreading little white lies about where she actually was. I tried to block it out, lose time (and thereby anxiety) and remember the damn name of the damn dog in the damn The Thin Man movies. "Asta," by the way.

I soon had reason to be grateful for my surrounding musical-theatre enthusiasts. Their support network had someone ahead in the line, who informed them via cell phone that the auditions would actually be acapella. This was very useful information, as I learned 1) I could stop sweating that the sheet music I had brought would sound as I thought it ought, and 2) I now knew the line wasn't going to just sign up for time slots. They were moving us through FAST. We'd get the name sheet, put down our information, then get ushered in pronto. It was around 10:00 when I got the vicarious news. At approximately 11:15 I was in a tiny room, taking my first breath.

The auditions were being held at The Knitting Factory, a downtown music venue I had visited once before for a reading and concert by Friend Nat. It's a dark and intricate space, with many rooms on different levels and a very rock-n-roll vibe. We were brought inside in a group of about ten, and taken downstairs. On our way we heard singing in various rooms, and passed lines of people waiting to enter one room or another to give up their sixteen bars of enticing magic. They were auditioning in no less than four rooms, simultaneously, and possibly many more. The room I was brought into to wait in line actually had people auditioning at one end, in the open. I was terrified that I was seeing where I would have to audition, in front of everyone. It took me a couple of nerve-steeling minutes to realize that, no, in fact we were in line for a teeny-tiny room with a door. I could hear the people audition on the other side, but it looked private, and the voices were somewhat muffled. Mine would be most of all, because I can't belt like the others waiting for their shot at spandex. Finally, my turn came and I stepped inside with no introduction.

The room was literally about 5x7 feet, and seated in it at a desk was a very pleasant looking woman of nondescript age. "Jeff?" "Yes." "Please step down (there was a lower section in all that space, somehow) and begin." So I stepped down, took a nice, deep breath, and began my pop selection: The theme song from The Greatest American Hero.

Should my choice of song have been reason number 7 that I'm totally wrong for the part, not to mention the entire environment? Perhaps, and perhaps not. Probably. Let me tell you how it went: Awfully. I could look on the bright side, and say it could have gone much worse. It could have. There was a very definite danger of my losing the lyrics in my panic, of my throat drying out completely in the final moments before entering, of hitting all the wrong notes in my adrenaline-fueled state, of my crashing into the door on my way out. None of these things happened, and I feel very fortunate in this regard. In some ways, even accomplished. But I was dreadfully frightened, and moved too quickly, too tensely, and my voice vibrato-ed almost into sharp-toned errors, and in no way did I act the song, I was so nervous. It didn't get a laugh, as was half my hope, either because I was too nervous or my proctor was too busy or a little of both. In a word, it was bad. A bad audition.

I am so proud to have done it. I spend so much time subconsciously defending my professionalism and experience, trying to prove myself a wise investment, an asset, to other people. At 31, I am tired of unfulfilling work, and find myself re-evaluating my choices in almost every pursuit. My life, in unexpected ways, is becoming about taking risks once again, just when it maybe ought to be simmering down to a more-settled form. It was absurd of me to go to the Spider-Man audition for numerous sensible reasons, a waste of time and effort from the perspective of supposed "adult priorities." And I rationalized it in any number of ways, to myself and others. I just want to get my circus-y resume in the door. I thought it'd be funny. I have to find out more about this show. I know it'll make for a good story. But the fact of the matter is, the real reason I subjected myself to it is, I think, that when I was very young indeed, that theme song was my favorite song in the world, and I had all the lyrics memorized. And sometimes, when I feel really good, I feel like I could fly, and when I have the means at hand it drives me to climb things and jump from tall places. Hope is a thing with wings, someone with far less opportunities than I have once wrote. I think sometimes it's the best thing one can do for oneself, to just go ahead and believe, and dream big, because...what the hell? It feels good. And who knows where it might lead?

Believe it or not, I'm walking on air,

I never thought I could feel so free!

Flying away on a wing and a prayer,

Who could it be?

Believe it or not, it's just me.

25 July 2008

Jumping In

It's a wonderful feeling to be caught. Not in the red-handed manner, mind, but literally and physically caught -- as in, in interruption of your speedy progress toward something a bit on the hard side. Like the ground. It's also a great feeling to catch, especially if you're catching somebody who's in danger of said impact, but I covet a bit more the feeling of being caught, possibly just because it's a rarer experience for me. In teaching acrobalance to the youth of America, I'm more frequently the catcher. And, I admit, I have relished and relived some good catches I've made (one time I had to spin a falling girl around so that she, in effect, did a back flip before I set her on her feet . . . yeah, I revisit that, now and again . . .). But nothing quite beats the combined sense of vulnerability, gratitude and connectedness of having been caught. If you're open to the experience, that is.

I've been working on a short comedy for the past few weeks that performs as part of a one-act play festival/competition this weekend. It's called Jump (no; the other one) and it was penned by Josh Sohn, the gentleman I unexpectedly performed for in a reading back in the spring. It's an interesting situation, this production. As a part of a competitive series that contains 37 plays -- some of them longer than others -- we only perform twice if we fail to advance, three-to-four times if we go farther. So the whole thing has a curious similarity to a high school production experience, wherein you work for a rather long time, perform one weekend and that's it. Fortunately, it being a short play (under 20 minutes, I believe), the ratio of rehearsal-to-performance doesn't feel totally absurd. It is also strange to work on a pretty straight-forward, narrative comedy with strangers again.

I've gotten very comfortable with performing with my Zuppa del Giorno cohorts, and when we plunged in to Jump, I had a period of adjustment to contend with. We did not speak the same comic language right away. It was not collaborative in the same way as I have grown accustomed to with Zuppa, which not only made me reticent to put my ideas out there in rehearsal, but more than a little affronted when I received suggestions from fellow actors. (That's messed up; I'm still working out why I felt that defensive, initially.) And finally, and I believe for the first time, I'm the oldest person in the room. Everyone else in this show is early-to-mid-twenties. Which, well, is something I'd do best to grow accustomed to.

It's funny about comedy (ha ha): It requires a lot of trust. Stage comedy is like the do-or-die theatre -- there's little room for interpretation of audience response. Oh, we try to justify our experiences. "They were a quiet, attentive audience." "I saw everyone smiling, though." "It's this house; it's too hot/cold/separated/claustrophobic/post-modern..." When it comes right on down to it, though, live comedy is like a deathsport in which there's no overtime, and no one's allowed to a tie game. The only people who have it rougher than a stage actor in this regard (and I believe Friend Adam will back me up on this) are stand-up comedians. They practically stand up there and say, "Okay, world. Here's your chance to crucify me. No one else to blame but myself." Then again, too, good actors have to take a similar stance; even if they have a supporting cast of a dozen or more.

I've written here before about my rules of acrobalance, and how widely applicable I find them to be. Perhaps the most applicable is the idea of shared responsibility, summed up by the dictate, "Always be spotting." I wasn't familiar with the term "spotting" prior to learning circus skills, except as a part of a verbal sequence I was taught in my very first summer job, with Beltway Movers. (When lifting something heavy with someone else, you were told to say, "spot," meaning "brace yourself," then, "pick," meaning "we're lifting now." When lifting things such as pianos and trundle beds, I often added my own, more-flowery, four-letter words to this sequence.) Spotting, in a circus context, is to be ready to catch your fellow daredevil. When I teach, I teach everyone to always be ready to catch everyone else. It keeps people alert to think this way, which is generally helpful. It also reinforces that idea that all responsibility is shared. In this context, when something goes wrong or disappoints, no one is at liberty to blame anyone else, because each individual must always consider what he or she could have done to make it safer, better, or both.

As it is with acrobalance, so let it be with comedy. (And all other things.) Over the few weeks of rehearsal, I and my new friends have found a great deal more trust. I trust them to catch me if I fall and, more importantly, I've found the trust to forget myself enough to be ready to catch them at any moment. We'll have a very short time of fulfillment for our work to date, and it's entirely possible that we'll never see one another again thereafter. And, come to think of it, it's pretty amazing how we actors have to cultivate this sense of trust over and over again. Not just because it's a great thing in itself, but also because actors are continually being used. We will work for little-to-no pay, we accept a million tiny violations of our rights that others are alarmingly ignorant of, and frankly, get viewed as objects or sources of pleasure as often as we are as people. Put all that together, and it's pretty amazing that actors find any trust at all amongst themselves, much less intimately and repeatedly.

There's a popular axiom amongst circus performers: Leap and the net will catch you. I think perhaps for actors it should be, "Just jump. I'm sure it'll at least be interesting."

24 July 2008

This Entry is Essentially One Big Spoiler of "The Dark Knight"

Consider yourself warned.

Saw it last night, finally. I shared the count-up of days from when it opened that I hadn't seen it on my Facebook status, and was oddly delighted by some of the responses I got to that. Even Tom Rowan greeted me after the reading of his play Monday night was over by saying, "So I guess this means you'll be able to see The Dark Knight now." (Sadly, I told him, I wouldn't until Wednesday.) It was a happy problem, not being able to immediately see this movie about my favorite character, a result as it mostly was of having too much acting work filling my time. Still, it frustrated, and as I raced last night from rehearsal to my saved seat five blocks away (old-school Batman t-shirt flapping in the humid breeze) I felt a wonderful lightening conjoined with my excitement. I would see it. I would have satisfaction.

And hoo-boy, I did. I am a satisfied man, at least for the time being -- when I grow dissatisfied again, I shall see it in Imax. That's not to say it was perfect or anything, but I did think it was a much better movie than its predecessor in terms of adapting aspects of the comicbook (which didn't do such a bad job itself). My primary problems with Batman Begins had to do with making the story and character a little too real-world based. That may sound absurd when talking about a superhero movie, but I really do think BB takes some of the drama out of its lead character by making him and his world so modern, so pragmatic. I had rather the opposite feeling about the moments of ridonkulousness in The Dark Knight; they were by-and-large departures from feasibility or overkill that even a huge fanboy such as myself couldn't quite stomach:

  1. My gauntlets shoot razor spires, yo. Erm, yes. You know, they did such a nice job of justifying low-tech uses for the fins on the gloves in the first film, why did they have to do this? It seemed cheap and lame, especially when you consider he's supposed to be good with precision weapons like his little bat-shuriken. Plus: How did those things fire, exactly? The trigger was in his sphincter, or something?

  2. I have a metal-manipulation technology so confusing, even I don't quite know how it works. His entrance includes using some gadget attached to his arm to bend a rifle muzzle into a crazy straw. This would seem to have limited uses, so they make sure we know it can also cut into and grip a van's metal shell. Way to go, Q...er...I mean, Lucius. Was that developed to help the military with creating inspirational metal sculptures? Batman is much more the type, as he does later in the film, to disassemble the gun; and if you need extra cool he could do it whilst it's still in the perp's hands. As for adhering to the side of an escape van, see above note about previously established uses for the gauntlet fins.

  3. I am recent American geopolitical policy personified. That may well be, Batman, but must you beat us about the head and shoulders with it? Er. Come to think of it, that's pretty in keeping with this philosophy. My mistake. Pray, continue.

  4. My cars don't break--they transform into motorcycles. This...was actually really cool. So I'm willing to suspend judgment on feasibility. They did it in such a way that I thought just prior to it, "Dang; how does he get out of that tank if it tanks?" And I'm not a big fan of the whole batcycle idea, even in the comics. But they made it look and work really really cool. So, like I said, I'm willing to forgive. Until I found out they named it the batPod. You think it's hampered by any DRM issues? And finally, the big one:

  5. I can haz Bat Sonar thru lil phones n' ther ownerz! No. No, you can't. Stop being frickin' stupid, LOLbatz. I really don't understand what this was doing in my movie (oh all right: OUR movie). Appeal to the video-gamers? They liked that effect in Daredevil? Say something about the omniscience of . . .. Nope; just don't get it. They could have brought up the same issues and character development if he had simply tapped all the phones, or maybe strung together their GPS functions in some wild way. I reject the bat sonar completely.

But enough of all that. This movie, in an unbelievable number of ways, was the Batman movie I've been waiting for all my life. It stands on its own, doing its own things with the character arcs, but doing them well and in a way that doesn't betray the spirit of the original. I almost don't know where to begin in my praise for this film, until I remember that it features the Joker and gives birth to Two-Face, arguably two of the best in a really impressive menagerie of rogues. And they do it so well, so new. They seemed to be decidedly eschewing the tormented childhood angle on both, which was great not only for keeping Gotham from becoming a reformed nursery, but also for keeping the origins of the characters in the action of the film. Harvey Dent is a true tragic figure. We can see his flaw from almost the start, and we watch as he changes over the course of two-and-a-half hours. Development! What a concept in a superhero movie!

And then the Joker. Much well-deserved, post-humus praise has gone Heath Ledger's way for this performance, and I speak as a humble -- not to mention humbled -- actor when I say it is entirely deserved. Between the writing and his craft an indelible character has come to life, one that is incredible to watch in action. I read a lot about how the filmmakers chose to avoid his history, to make him more a character defined by his actions than his history, and I thought, "Eh, well, sounds pretty shallow." And it might have been, had it not been for Ledger. I was amazed by the effect, too, of the screenwriting for him. They have him explain his face one horrible way to one person, then a completely different horrible way to another, then he starts on a third to Batman at the climax of the movie, and Batman never lets him finish. Not only does this make Joker a force in his own chaotic right, it makes Batman win on a direct philosophical level. The Joker never gets to the punchline, the Joker never finishes the joke . . . his comic three is interrupted!

Which leads me to another thing I really, really loved about this movie. Remember when you watched The Matrix for the first time, and you couldn't be sure of what to expect, and accompanying all this big-budget bad-ass-ness were some really interesting ideas about the nature of reality and approaches to that? (I could be speaking only for myself here, but I doubt it.) The Dark Knight is the first movie since then to really engage that kind of philosophical wonderment in me while maintaining the same high stakes and power fantasy. As I wrote last week in my pining for this movie, my ideal Batman struggle is with a villain who somehow stands in opposition not only to his politics, but to his philosophy. That idea was taken well in hand and run with. The Joker was an unrepentant anarchist with an argument about the nature of life that he made seem easy to make, and Batman had to really struggle to contend with it. The good resolution of that came through a seemingly miraculous coincidence of human benevolence, reminiscent of a Spider-Man fight sequence (Humanity is essentially good, and we'll prove it!), but Joker gets in his dangling dig, too. "It only takes one small push to send you over the edge."

Which brings us back to Harvey "Two-Face" Dent.

All-in-all, we've got a pretty well-adjusted Batman in these movies. He found peace in the mountains (studying the art of despotism), purpose that overwhelms his trauma -- we are not subjected to a movie full of flashbacks to that fateful night. This is the closest to Frank Miller's Dark Knight we've gotten in films; the vigilantism is his fix against the trauma, and when he's doing it, he's strong. One thing I loved about what Miller did in that graphic novel was to emphasize Batman's belief in Harvey's reformation and, ultimately, his fear over the recognition that Two-Face is Batman gone bad. Whereas the Joker is Batman's polar opposite, essentially, take the judgment away from Batman, and you've got Two-Face: a dual-identity obsessive who metes out justice by his own authority. Even in completely restructuring Two-Face's origin story (moreover, perhaps as a direct result of that) the writers set that up beautifully. Hopefully in the next installment they will continue to adhere to that motivation for him, and not turn him into a petty thief of some sort, obsessed with the number 2. It's the duality that's important, not the digit itself.

Just what can we expect from the third movie in this franchise? Will Harvey be back? Will Joker? Was Lucius Fox written out, or did his little name-cued destruction of the "bat sonar" redeem Wayne in his eyes? Well, I'd guess, but had I guessed at The Dark Knight's content I would have been sorely mistaken. One can hope, though. I hope they continue to learn from audience feedback, as they seemed to for this film. I hope we get to see the revamped Wayne Manor, and with it the completed "batcave." I hope they leave the Joker alone at least one movie, though that they keep him in the background: a joker card appearing here and there. I love that we leave Batman an outlaw once again, and hope they don't turn that around too early. Most of all, I hope they make a totally new and inventive movie that takes its characters seriously. As they've just succeeded in doing.

(Also: Take the batPod; leave the gun gauntlets.)

Update, 7/25/08: The WSJ agrees with my assessment of the politics of Batman: What Bush and Batman Have in Common. Thanks, Nat.

22 July 2008

Up in Smoke

Last night I acted in a staged reading of one of Tom Rowan's plays, Burning Leaves. Foist of all: I have a lot of audience members from the night to be grateful for. It must have seemed like I was packing the house, which would be easy to do--it was easily the smallest "theatre" space I have ever worked in. It was akin to a return to the womb, and the play is not, as yet, a short one, so I owe big thanks to Friends Geoff, Natalia, Kate C., Sister Virginia and Fiancee Megan. Way to go, guys. Way. To. Go.

Not that the experience was in any way bad. The script is, in fact, excellent. My friends were very engaged by the story and the performances, and only had critique for the run time -- a quite forgivable fault in my opinion when it comes to an initial reading. This was evidently a reading aimed at giving Tom some perspective on his work in action; the crowd seemed intimate and friendly, and he has already got a literary agent representing him (she was in the front row, and what I wouldn't give to know her response). I felt fairly good about my work, though I had a bit of that familiar sensation wherein I think to myself, "Damn--that went so much better in rehearsal..." It's hard to get away from that, particularly in a performance that has such a brief and concentrated rehearsal period. I just try to remind myself that some things go worse, but others go better, and I just have to stay open to the possibility each time of having the most true and effective performance yet.

I had several reasons to meditate on the various distractions that can enter an actor's concentration during his or her work, even while the reading went along. Not that I wasn't kept busy: I think there were maybe ten pages out of over a hundred on which my character didn't have substantial dialogue. The distractions, though seemed to begin to gang up on me even prior to entering that (very small) room. I had dressed casually nice for the event, and was careful to keep myself that way through my work day, but at my hasty dinner I spilled grease on my pants. The chairs we sat in for the reading had arms (rehearsal did not), which felt limiting and inappropriate, somehow. And my friends, God bless them, all sat in one corner and were not shy about being themselves. Add to that the audience just being very visible and very close in general, and you have yourself many interesting choices for being taken out of character. Fortunately for me, the script is very effective, to the point at which I almost didn't need to manifest the emotions involved. They were just there, ready.

In some ways, being an actor can boil down to an exercise in determination and concentration. The funny thing is, we have to remain supple and open at the same time, to allow impulses in and unpredictable forces to affect us. My character in this reading, a former NYC actor who moves to a more suburban environment to teach, recalls a director he worked for telling him acting should be a "stripping away of layers" to his soul. Apart from this immediately reminding me of the onion scene from Peer Gynt, it also reminds me of how the actual craft of acting, at its best, seems to work. Never mind souls and Truth, and all. A really successful acting experience is all about shedding, rather than accumulating, layers of analysis and lines and decision and fear and, hell, everything. Even the concentration so necessary for doing an effective job has to eventually become unnecessary. We're aiming for an emptiness, a nothingness, of sorts, to become cyphers for . . . what? Maybe it is Truth (by which I mean something more than simple verisimilitude), or maybe it's some kind of human energy, continuous and interdependent. I can't say. All I can say is that my best memories of jobs well done are suspiciously blank. They're mostly just a knowing of having hit the sweet spot, and the collective details are as impossible to touch as a leaf turned to ashes on the wind.

This reading was no such sweet spot on my part, though it went well enough. It was, however, one of those experiences that reminds me that this work is worth the struggle, the concentration, all of it. Sometimes, it seems like a very good trade-off indeed.

21 July 2008

For the Benefit of "ETC"

Last Saturday I made one of my most brief sojourns to Scranton ever, and also one of my busiest, to perform as a part of the Electric Theatre Company's (nee The Northeast Theatre) midsummer benefit, Sparks & Feathers. Although everything I was scheduled to do there is fairly old hat to me, I was anxious about this volunteer work. The theatre has had some extremely well-intentioned benefits in the past that were just disastrous affairs, owing to an almost complete lack of interest (and/or possibly awareness, though they advertise the hell from these things) on the part of their community. It could have gone either way -- on the one hand, the event coincided with their change in identity and received a broad press coverage; and on the other, tickets were $50 a head, which seems like a lot for a buffet-style party even in places where the cost of living is higher. The mayor was scheduled to finally appear, famous as he is for not attending their theatre, but even that was uncertain. There is little more excruciating than performing energetically in the context of a big bash, when only a handful of people show.

Fortunately, the affair was quite well-attended and, perhaps more importantly, everyone there was excited to be there. I have to hand it to the newly formed ETC: They really dolled the place up right nice. The theatre is essentially set up in three areas of a former hotel (about two-thirds of a floor), and when they initially moved in in 2005, TNT/ETC worked pretty hard to refurbish it closer to its original state, peeling away layers of bad decorating decisions through the years. They even framed a rectangle of wall in the lobby that was left un-re-painted to demonstrate the layers of experience the place had had. In keeping with that ethos, a lot of what they've done since has been in honor of the hotel's former glory. This is all well and good and all, but in their traditionalism they had a convenient excuse not to claim something for themselves, to not make something new and wholly theirs (budget, of course, being another handy excuse). What they did for the benefit was hardly reconstructive, but it went a long way to making the space both special for a night, and more thoroughly theirs. Building details were painted in their new three-color scheme, an inexpensive but effective homemade electric chandelier of sorts was hung in the lobby, and the rest was decked out in balloons, show photographs and posters, and old scenery flats. It was a pretty impressive transformation, if you ask me.

As to the work I contributed, it was mostly pretty fun, and my expectations were either met or exceeded. I usually get a little nervous about improvising a speaking character for a busking gig, though I usually do all right with it, and I knew that the characters we'd be walk-about-ing were not the sort that adhered to my particular busking ethos. Richard Grunn, Elizabeth Feller and I were to play the Marx Brothers -- Groucho, Harpo and Chico, respectively (though not respectably). The Marx Brothers, for those of you not in the know (and shame on those of you; you'll catch your death of cold out there) are one of the most anarchic comic groups in recent memories. They exist to stir up trouble, and rare is the cocktail party I've been to at which people were eager to get their horsefeathers ruffled in that way. Fortunately, we had a "backstage" (never mind the quotes--it was literally backstage) to retire periodically to, and Rich had some plans for gags. Some people were still terrified or, worse, disdainful, but by-and-large people were there for a good time and wanted to be included. The Marx Brothers are a great excuse for punning, which is a rare joy for me. Which is, it goes without saying, probably for the best.

Thereafter, I had but a short break in which to change and warm up before performing acrobalance with Friend Heather to the live accompaniment of Cuban Tres, a wonderful young trio of musicians we had the pleasure of meeting last season. Improvising a sequence of acrobalance moves to live music is really just a joy. I think I appreciate it especially because most of the time I'm either aiming to perfect a move I haven't yet or trying to incorporate it into a story when I'm working on acrobalance, and when it's set to music before an audience I can just enjoy it and loosen it all up a bit. This, too, had its own worries, of course. Heather and I don't get together nearly enough, even when we did live in the same city, to practice to the extent a straight-up acro-adagio deserves. The week before we practiced a bit when I was down for our NEIU (no, the other one) certification, but that's like combining a first rehearsal and the dress rehearsal in one day a week before opening. At that session, I had the idea for us to be domino-esque characters, in keeping with the black-and-white theme of the affair, and so Heather dressed in black clothes with a white half-mask, I in white with black. And we didn't drop each other even once, and we were well-received, and Heather and I may even regain muscle control in a few weeks. So it was really really good!

After my obligations were fulfilled, I got to join the party as a formal participant with Fiancee Megan, and so the evening ended with rewards similar to those enjoyed by the rest of the attendees. As usual, I immediately wished I were in better practice with my acro, and wondered at when I would return to the theatre. The mayor had donated a very large, free-standing projection screen to them, and the main stage was set up as a kind of ballroom, with couches at the perimeter, a DJ and a DVD projector running silent films on the screen for a backdrop. People had finally reached that critical blood-alcohol level that allows them to dance with some abandon. I relaxed, however briefly, and dreamed of uses for the screen in shows, and for a moment I had done a job well and had nothing to do but sit back and enjoy my company and the world around me.

18 July 2008

Murderous Clowns

In honor of MY NOT BEING ABLE TO SEE THE DARK KNIGHT FOR DAYS AND DAYS, I thought I'd finally get around to writing the sequel (heh heh) to this little gem of an entry. I wasn't sure if I'd ever write about this. It's a difficult entry to justify in the ethos of the Aviary (because I've been so dedicated to my mission statement to date) except perhaps to say that: 1 - my doing clown work makes for a very real interest in the sociological implications of any clown identity; B - my early cultural influences have untold ramifications on what I choose to create today; and * - it's BATMAN weekend, people! And I've got to be a part of it!

Really though, it's Joker week. That's the big excitement over the movie and, I'd wager, would be even if it were not for Heath's untimely exit from the stage. The Joker is almost as iconic a character as Batman himself, and certainly as graphic and emblematic a villain as has ever risen from popular media. He may even indicate that a pervasive fear of clowns has been around a lot longer than some of the current media we have to propagate it. Before The Dark Knight, or Batman, or Killer Klowns from Outer Space, or It, or John Wayne Gacy, Jr., or the original appearance of the Joker in Batman #1. Maybe it's always been around, pre-Punch. Maybe the fear was first, and the laughter second. That's certainly in keeping with my general theory of humor. [Laughter = self awareness * inevitability, squared.] And for those of you who consider the Joker a relatively trivial source of terror, consider this, too: In his first dozen appearances in the comics, he averaged about three murders per issue.

In my deep, unending and intricate research into coulrophobia (sp?) I have discovered some amazing things. Unfortunately, I can not share these things with you, because they are far too intricate, deep and, uh, unending, to . . .. Okay. I haven't exactly been to the library yet. But I've spoken with people about it, and I'm amazed by how few people know who John Wayne Gacy, Jr., was. (He was executed in 1994; one less clown to deal with, coulrophobes.) I thought he was sort of a household name, right up there with Dahmer and Manson, but I only spoke to one or two people who even had an inkling of who he was. Well, he was a seemingly pedophilic mass-murderer with a penchant for imprisonment and grisly dismemberment, who apparently can't even properly be classified as a psychopath. He also enjoyed moonlighting as a birthday clown. Pogo the clown.

So it's difficult to discount coulrophobia as absurd or irrelevant. It could even be a pretty basic survival instinct, as some have suggested. Some of the most ancient human rites involve masks and grinning figures that don't necessarily mean us well. The Joker's white face may as well be the clay pasted to an aboriginal witch-doctor, or the bleached skull an African shaman paints on his face. And death is absurd, too. Well, it seems absurd to the living, anyway. Living is to some extent based on ignoring the fact that we're going to die. This is such a prevalent philosophy that those who embrace death, or even simply associate themselves with it, are seen as somehow mystic or insane. The skull of a deceased comedian grins back at Hamlet's philosophizing, and when anyone grins, they expose the teeth -- the only "bones" directly visible on a living human body.

The Joker makes a great villain for Batman, and the two sum up a very basic human struggle pretty succinctly, so I have to forgive this perpetuation of the coulrophobic phenomenon. Batman is serious, and the events of his life have meaning -- he's a believer. Hell: His whole "superpower" is a character trait, that of determination. And Joker, well, he stands in absolute contrast to that. My favorite characterizations of him never allow him a moment to regret even his own failure. For him, it is all absurd, all pointless. He's not appetite-driven or suppressed, like Gacy, nor a traumatized child who is endlessly acting out his worst fantasies and fears. The story has no significance to the conclusion because, at the end, all our stories end the exact, same, way. If only he could convince Batman of that, maybe then he'd be able to rest. If only the Yorick had survived into Hamlet's story, maybe he could have made everyone see the folly of their ways.

So how do you tell the difference between the jester, who just wants to make fools of us all, and the joker, who wants to make us all corpses? Well, sadly, you can't. That's part of the dread of comedy, and the thrill of death. You just have to take your chances.

"I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible. . ."

I won't be able to see it for several days. Which is killing me. But it's mostly because I have acting work. So that's good.

Oh God.

Hold me...

14 July 2008

"Those Who Can't Do, Teach"

The implication being, naturally, that if one could really succeed at something, one would have neither the time nor interest to teach it. And, by inference, we can allow that to mean that to teach is a default activity. Teachers end up teachers because they could do nothing else, and teaching is an unsupervised, disinteresting field.

Now, I admit up front that I am about as biased as can be about this pithy little saying, so full of pith as it may be. My mom was an elementary school teacher for years before becoming a minister (which is in many ways just a different sort of teacher). My dad teaches college-level courses now. I have been teaching workshops in a variety of subjects to a variety of students over the past few years, and even spent a year teaching in an NYC school. I believe in teaching. In fact, if I have dogma of any kind, it probably lies in the practice of teaching more than it does the practice of religion. So be it. Can't disabuse me of it. Teaching, and teachers, are important. And further more, it's something that can be quite difficult to do well. I know the above quote is half-joking, but I still eschew it. It is totally and entirely eschewed by my person.

Some time ago, Friend Heather began a process to get Zuppa del Giorno signed up through the NEIU (no; the other NEIU) as an official "rostered teaching artist," and we passed our initial interview back in February. Last weekend, I took the road more-traveled, and landed in Scranton, PA, to complete the application. We received some brief orientation and demonstrated our ability to not-immediately-destroy malleable minds. We're in like Flynn, in other words, which bodes well for Heather's continuing struggle to avoid the confines of a day job. (Less so for me, as I stubbornly remain in NYC, where the cost of living is inversely proportional to the average pay for actors.) In fact, the good people at the NEIU seem quite enthusiastic about our participation in their program, which helps to organize residencies for teaching artists in public schools. We could be spending up to a month at a go teaching our unique brand of creation, development and performance to students we really get to know. It's an exciting move forward in our educational work.

In addition, we'll periodically receive free training in educational and personal interaction theories and techniques. They briefly described what to expect in terms of that, and it sounds both useful and interesting, focusing on reaching out to all different kinds of dominances in an individual's learning process, and without losing sight of the fact that at all times one is dealing with a person, a unique individual who exists outside of a classroom as well. When I worked for Wingspan Arts during the 2006-2007 school year, many were the times I wished I had more training in my interaction with challenging students. It seems as though I'll get some of that, finally, and at no cost to me. Additionally, I'm fascinated with the processes of learning and intelligence, especially so since tackling Italian. When it comes to a foreign language class, despite my best intentions, I'm the challenging student.

I used to regard "resorting to" teaching as giving up on my acting career, way back when I was a college student. College affords us a lot of space to draw conclusions unrelated to real-life experience. The fact is, I've probably learned more in recent years from being a trainer or teacher than I would have had I been enrolled in school the whole time. Plus, a teaching-learning environment is one of those unique opportunities in life to practice the craft of an actor without artifice, and I don't mean simply because one is often in a "stage" relationship to an "audience." In fact, in my opinion a good teacher uses that particular paradigm sparingly. A good teacher, much like a good actor, is more concerned with connecting to and communicating with his or her students than with enforcing any separation or dominating aura of authority. Sure, discipline enters into it, but discipline won't invite absorption of knowledge. Eye contact. Listening. Humor. These are the keys to transforming people into little dry sponges, thirsty for learnin'. And doesn't that sound appealing?

As I tentatively turn my interests toward directing plays, I'm reminded of something David Zarko once said to me about division in rehearsal (and, if memory serves, he was paraphrasing Brecht): It's important to keep rehearsal and training in separate spaces--not just in time, but if possible literally in separate rooms. The thinking behind this is that actors need to associate the space in which they work with how they're expected to behave. In a classroom, in training, mistakes can (should, in my world) be made, but the emphasis is on a narrow goal that can generally be defined in terms of right and wrong. Whereas, in an ideal rehearsal room, actors must allow for willfully getting things "wrong" all the time, in order to explore, to make discoveries, and above all make their work true. It may seem a subtle difference but, believe me, it's not.

When I teach, I have a concrete goal to be achieved, and that satisfies me. When I act, the goal is in the process, never-ending, which offers a rather unique series of satisfying moments. These bleed into one another in various ways. The success to be found in both, I think, is in doing them equally well.

09 July 2008

I'm Trying to not Live in the Past, Now

I'm a silly, sentimental S.O.B. It probably doesn't seem like it much anymore, because I so frequently fail to email people back, or forget they gave me such-and-thus, or throw away show cards the moment I get them. (Sorry 'bout that.) All this behavior, however, has been built up over the years to combat the horrible side-effects of being a sentimental sort of person. Getting sucked into the past is second-nature to me, and the real trick is extracting myself completely once I am, and so I avoid going through old photos, reading old letters, attending reunions . . .

. . . signing up for services like Facebook(TM).

Way back 'round about when I started this here 'blog, I signed up for teh MySpace(r). I've pretty much loathed it ever since. Why I can't exactly say, but I attributed it to my general reluctance to be reunited with people from my past. This theory has since been disproved by how much I'm enjoying the constant and nigh senseless connectivity of teh Facebook(U). Maybe I've changed in the past couple of years. I'd like to think so. Maybe too, however, it wasn't so much that I feared reunion with my past, as that I feared falling into old patterns as much as I feared getting stuck in nostalgia-land. That's a lot of fear, I realize. What can I say? I'm good at it.
An actor is expected to live in the moment, at his or her own peril, and to his or her own possibility of great reward. As with some of the techniques and methods employed by actors, we can occasionally take such rhetoric a bit far, in my opinion, shamelessly extending a psychotically permissive or artificial attitude into our daily lives. It's very easy to do. Imagine spending several hours each day, with great regularity, practicing a certain approach to living. When you leave the rehearsal room or stage, some of that practice is bound to stick to you and your actions. This, in many cases, is a helpful thing. It can make the sensitive and responsible actor more honest, self-aware and receptive in his or her personal life. It can also mean that for two hours following an intensive Meisner workshop, an actor is inclined to repeat every sentence another person says before responding to them. Which, though initially novel, gets old. Fast.

As I've mentioned here before (see 12/31/07), I've found a new priority for embracing my past. This is a personal choice, but it is also somewhat motivated by observations of my progress and personality as an actor. As we've had ground into our ethos...es (ethi? ethae?) by innumerable history and civics classes, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. This, I think, includes the details of our personal histories as much as any war or natural disaster. I can never make up my mind about the nature of humanity and our propensity for change, so philosophically I take a very balanced (ambiguous) view. I believe people can make choices for change, and that there's a core to each person that is uniquely theirs, unaffected by circumstance. To put it another way, I think we should always strive for positive change in ourselves, with a constant forgiveness prepared for those aspects of the "me" that may simply be given. I do this better some times than others, and I believe that getting my feet snared in nostalgia happens when the balance between ambition and acceptance falls a little heavy on the ambition side. One never feels so much a failure, I think, than when one regrets the person--or people, if we do change--they have been.

"The moment" is good to live in, certainly. The best formula for happiness probably comes from a life so lived. However, if we fail to embrace our past, particularly the best and worst bits, with love and acceptance (not just tolerance), we may never change. We might not grow. I know I can't love myself without loving the fallible adult right along with the naive kid.

Nietzsche was fond of the phrase amor fati, which is Latin for "I meant that our need for God is dead, you morons." Wikipedia contradicts my translation, however, insisting amor fati refers to a love of one's fate, and since everything I ever needed to know I learned from Wikipedia, I'll run with that. It's been a favorite phrase of mine since my (somewhat) more pretentious days of youth, because it's helped me to understand a lot of touch choices and a few (too many) disappointments. Somehow I always applied it, in my thinking, to my future. Perhaps this is because we tend to think of what's ahead of us when we consider "fate." I would look ahead to the daunting choices to be made, and the ones I had already made yet not acted upon, and be comforted. The mantra applies just as much to our pasts as well, though. Maybe we have regrets, and definitely we have mistakes back there, but those can be loved in their way, too.

But I'm not posting my high school yearbook picture. Uh-uh. No way. There are limits even to loving, after all.

05 July 2008

The Continuing Story of Circus-Kid Kate

Some time ago, rather in response to a 'blog entry Leah Hager Cohen did about her, I devoted an entry (see 3/14/08) to Friend Kate Magram in tribute to the amazing things she's taught me. That, I had hoped, would spawn a tremendous groundswell of Kate-imonials, because she's really touched a number of people in her time as an active circus enthusiast. (And most of those touches weren't even inappropriate!) Well, my readership is too small, it seems, to inspire such swelling. I remain confident that it's not size that matters in this matter (of swelling, ground or otherwise), but I do wish I could have brought people's awareness of Kate a little more to the forefront of the national consciousness.

Fortunately, Mizz L.H.C. is a little more influential:

Sure. It's Good Housekeeping. But I still think it's hella cool. In the accompanying interview with Mz. Cohen they ask her if she's done any "acro-balance" moves lately, and she replies that she hasn't, but likely will the next time Kate comes around. That doesn't surprise me, because it only takes one acro session with Kate to appreciate that she's eager to do that work any time, any place, compensating for any injuries or social mores that may stand in her way.

Recently, I ran across a photo on a friend of a friend's Facebook(TM) page. (No, I'm not linking to Facebook; because it's ruined my life.) It was of my friend and his friend doing a thigh-stand in some public space, and looking pleased as punch about it at that. My friend is Kasidy Benjamin. (Okay, see? That's how Facebook's ruined me.) He found me in Legal Snarls, Zuppa del Giorno's second production, way back in 2004. Kasidy came with us to Italy for In Bocca al Lupo the first time we all went, and performed semi-improvised comemdia dell'arte in Italian for an Italian audience. He graduated high school last semester, and in the fall he's off to Dell'Arte International. And somewhere in all that, either I or Friend Heather (and I taught Heather) taught him thigh-stand.

Kate has a thing about the lineage of knowledge, particularly as it applies to the passing-down of skills. In her perfect world, everyone would know the family tree of everything he or she has learned. "I learned it from this person, who studied with this person, who was a disciple of..." Etc. I admit, it sounds very nice. Even noble. I also think we're a bit too far gone to get it done these days. I could certainly start now, though, and in the world of acrobalance my beginning begins with Kate. From Kate came all these good things. I owe Kate huge karmic residuals (which she would almost certainly rebuff for being inherently un-karmic [unless they manifested as money or free time, perhaps]).

Here's the thing I'm having trouble with: For various perfectly rational reasons, a few years back Kate drastically reduced her involvement in creating circus work and new circus performers. She is now hip-deep (occasionally eye-ball-deep) in the work entailed in becoming a physical therapist, and she'll be a good one. Her secondary passion to acrobalance when we worked together was making sure EVERYONE DOES THINGS SAFELY. Some of this, admittedly, may have had to do with liability issues, but I choose to believe the core of Kate's personality lies in a primal need to protect people; occasionally from themselves. That instinct, combined with her love of all things physical, makes her a prima candidate for becoming an involved and informed physical therapist. Can not complain about them apples. What I can moan about is Kate's self-removal, albeit necessary, from the regular teaching and choreographing of acrobalance. I don;t think this will come as any particular surprise to Kate. Unless she misinterprets my feelings as a criticism of her choices. Which they are not. Kate.

It's just that, dang it, she's good. Maybe she's not the greatest acrobat in the world, or even the most gifted teacher; she'd be the first to confess various stories of having missed this or that, wishing she could go back and do something different. But I think we all feel that way about our work to some extent, and the people who really fail in any meaningful sense do so because they fail to perceive their own mistakes. What Kate has that's so damn valuable is an effortless love for the work, and for the people who are willing to try to come to it with open hearts and minds. That love fills the room -- and sometimes, a good portion of Sheep Meadow -- when Kate teaches. I've tried to carry that on, that ethos, and I think I've done a pretty fair job. I enjoy teaching or skill-swapping in this vein for the moment it creates amongst all involved, and it seems that those moments can indeed carry out into the world and the future with the right people involved, like Kasidy. So it's good work. Time well spent.

Thanks again, Kate.

03 July 2008

It Is, In Fact, Electric

Doot do doot do doot do-do do do, doot do doot do doot do-do do do!

I admit that, if I weren't at work, I would now be maliciously cackling at having suggested that song unto your brain space. I contemplated referencing other songs, such as Deborah (nee Debbie) Gibson's Electric Youth, or Electricity, as rendered by Sonic Youth, in particular because I loathe Electric Boogie and wish Marcia Griffiths had been hit by a fast-moving bus before she could unleash it upon the world and inspire Ric Silver, thereby ensuring that every wedding betwixt people of a paler persuasion for the next three decades would involve an oddly awkward and unseemly ritual. It's one of the songs on my no-fly list for the wedding. Because I hate my own culture.

But I digress.

The times, they are a'changin' (now that's a good song). Most of you who read this here 'blog with any regularity whatsoever know that The Northeast Theatre (TNT) has been nothing short of my theatrical home-away-from-home for the past six years or so. I'm even on the banner page of the website, with Friend Todd. (Said website, by the way, is fascinating in its labyrinthine complexity. It's been built up over the years with no particular notion of where it might end up, and as a result has ended up with a lot of dangling pages and decentralized indexing.) Some time back, the more-constant employees of the theatre and the artistic director got to talking and realized that, when they really thought about it, their personal goals could best be realized by aiming TNT toward becoming an ensemble theatre company. Which is to say, with people who are employed 'round the year, not just on a show-by-show basis, including actors, designers, etc. "Etc." Hmmm. Anyway, invitations were extended, including to me. I declined, though tempted, as I'm not really in a place to leave New York just yet, much less settle in Pennsylvania. But I've eagerly anticipated the change, curious to see where it leads them.

The Northeast Theatre (TNT) is dead! Long live the Electric Theatre Company (ETC)!

At the time of this posting, the website is still rather underdeveloped, but a few pages are up and a simple cursory glance will illustrate how far the theatre has come in its sense of identity over the past few years. Their season is pretty kick-A., too. At present, the only part I'm scheduled to be a part of is Zuppa del Giorno's take on Romeo & Juliet, which is rather as it should be given the change and my present priorities. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a bit bothered by my distance from this venture. Part of the ideal behind the change was the idea that actors suffer from not having enough long-term collaboration through which to grow. I could claim to have a good deal of that by way of Zuppa's productions, but the fact is that coming together as infrequently as we do we usually spend half the time playing catch-up on our skills and the other half just trying to build the damn show. No; I'm missing out on something good out there in Scranton. But it was the right choice for me.

And I'm not getting away from working out that way, not by a long shot. Just next week I need to spend a couple of days being certified as a "resident" teaching artist, and the weekend after that I'm to be involved in TN . . . whoops. ETC's benefit, which includes the mayor of Scranton in its festivities. (I'm not sure it gets any more prestigious than that.) I'll have two responsibilities during that affair. The first is to do a little walkabout as Chico Marx, whom I played in my own inimitable way for Zuppa's second show, Legal Snarls. I'm not-so-much looking forward to that; I've had enough clowning and walkabout lately to last me for a while. The second is to perform arbitrary acrobalance moves to music with Heather. That's kind of fun, though there's a lot of bluffing involved, as Heather and I are never in the same space long enough to really work out a comfortable routine. Well, at least not without some (thousand) other things what need doing first.

Being part of a company is important. It's how great things get done. And if I'm not going out there to be a constant part of it, what will I do to bring that particular it here, to me? We'll see.

02 July 2008


Yesterday I went on my first job routed to me by Dream Weavers Management. I had some hesitation joining up with DW, due largely to my inexperience with management and agentry, but yesterday helped to strengthen my opinion of them. The people at the production studio at which I worked all had good things to say for Laura Kossoff, the president there, and I had a generally positive experience where I worked. The gig was to be part of an industrial--a sort of internal corporate commercial--for a Canon conference; specifically to highlight a technology for creating three-dimensional video and, I believe, modeling. The production studio was ADM Productions, out in Long Island (or, to some, "Long Guylind"). So at 10:30 yesterday morning, I left el day jobo and hopped on the LIRR.

The last time I did an industrial was way, way back in 1998, as a side gig while I worked my very first professional gig, at Theatre West Virginia. That industrial was for a railroad company, CSX, and was pretty loose. A group of us dressed in our jeans and hardhats and walked around the yard all day, figuring out clever poses to point up track safety. The only camera work I've been doing lately has been a part of NYU's film-school directing classes. Plus, I'm a naturally nervous character. So as I took the train, I tried to relax and be ready for whatever was to come. They had no script to send, and all I knew was that they wanted me to bring both my black suit and my brown so they could choose which looked best for their purposes. Other than what I'd be wearing, I had no idea what I'd be doing when I got there (and even what I would be wearing was a fifty-fifty [I guessed wrong on that, by the way]). Breathe, breathe.

Turns out the people at ADM are fun to work with, and very professional to boot. They fed me. They offered to iron my costume. We talked about this and that as they struggled to stay on schedule with the shoot. They didn't, of course, because they had some incredibly complex set-ups to accomplish and they seemed to care a great deal about turning out a good product. I was prepared for this, however. As one of my fellow actors there said, "We get paid to wait on this kind of job; the acting is really just a bonus." So wait we did, in the greenroom and kitchen, and I vainly tried to make interesting conversation and read or memorize line sin good balance. It's an amazingly strange phenomenon, the hurry-up-and-wait atmosphere of a job like that. You're usually hanging out with strangers for hours, ever-ready to spring into compelling action, but with nothing actually to do. I always want to practice acro' moves, but people would think I was crying for attention, and besides, one is usually worried about one's costume.

More surreal was to come, however. When I finally did get into the studio, my job was to pose as a presenter of a . . . er . . . presentation. But not just any presentation! Oh no. An invisible presentation. The projection contained merely the title ("Projected Growth" [kindly control your snickers {after all, I had to}]) and a red background, with the notion that the graphic would be superimposed in post-production, so that it could "pop out" in the same 3-D effect we were all being filmed in. I say "we," because I was giving my presentation to four people seated around a table. They were not actors (that I knew of), just employees of the company who looked professional enough in attire to sit there and have their backs filmed. The fun came when it was time to "act." I knew there would be no sound for this segment, yet the effect from my movement had to be that of someone presenting something. So I did, and my presentation went something like this:

“I suppose you're wondering why I called you all here. Well. As you can see from my display here, I'm talking about projected growth. Not my projected growth, but our projected growth, and by that I don't mean anything dirty. This is a workplace, after all, and we don't talk about dirty things here unless of course we're complaining about how someone else really needs to clean them up. As you can see from the display, our projected growth is very red. We have a lot of growth in the red sector. Actually, I just set this up because it's my color. Red makes me look good. In fact, Larry, I'm going to ask you to follow me around for the rest of the day just so I look good next to you. Next I have to show you all this cartoon of a dog, trying to catch a balloon. Pay particular attention to this, Emily, because there will be a quiz later. Just for you. We need to keep an eye on you, after all. As you can see, the dog just can't get that balloon. He tries and he tries...but...nope, he can't get it. Ah. I could watch this all day. I did watch it for the entire weekend, over and over again. There are no lines in this, of course, because that's a dog, and a balloon, but if there were, if there were lines I bet you I could recite them all back to you, in sequence. Actually, I hope you all carved out at least a couple of hours, because that's how long this is. It's great though. There, he almost...but no! He can't get it!”
So there I was, in my brown suit, exploring the surreality. Fortunately for me, they all thought it was funny, engendering comparisons to Stev(ph)ens Carell and Colbert. As I ranted in a professional tone, I thought, This couldn't be more bizarre. I left my office job to travel a half-hour by train to a studio so I could change from my black suit into a brown one and pretend to be someone like one of my bosses at the office job giving an imaginary presentation with a non-existent projection which, in a matter of days, will all be projected for viewing by a huge group of office workers in suits and 3-D glasses.

We're through the looking glass here, people.

So it was pretty great, as far as I was concerned. I even got a dramatic 3-D close-up in which I extend the remote control for the slide projector at the camera. My hand will loom large in the faces of Canon execs. If that isn't motivation to quit biting my nails, I don't know what is.

Meanwhile, back in the greenroom, I had several discussions with two other actors who were there to get 3-Ded and green-screened. They were interesting. I was very frank about my lack of experience with this sort of gig, and received some very different reactions. One of them, like me, valued stage acting and though he was very experienced with commercial work had virtually no priority for it. He had even been to Italy before, so we had a lot of interesting things to discuss. The other seemed to be devoted to commercial work, and had some trouble understanding my position in the game. She felt that I could be doing print and commercial work all the time, and wondered why I wouldn't. My answer had to do with long-term prospects and needing a steadier source of income than that, which is all perfectly valid and true, and which she accepted.

However, a much more essential answer is that I just never pursued it. Sure, when I first moved to New York I mailed my crappy headshots out every week to Backstage notices for film and commercial auditions, and thought with each student film I worked on that it would lead to more. I never pursued the work, though. I didn't (don't) understand it the way I did stage work, and just left it be. It may be time to learn more about it, though I did convince myself a bit with explaining myself to someone else yesterday. Who needs it? Sure, I made about $200 in a day and it was novel and all, but if it comes along infrequently I can't live on it. Then again, you never know until you try. Then again, it's artificial and irritating. Then again, an office job isn't?

Well, at least in ten years I may be recognized as "that guy who pointed the remote at my brain in that thing I saw." I wonder if he still bites his nails...

01 July 2008