28 August 2008


Contrary to popular (American) opinion. the "dell'arte" in "Commedia dell'Arte" does not in fact refer to art. At least, not in the sense the word has come to be used in most of the rest of the western world. The term actually describes the professional aspect of this form. It was one of the first recorded theatrical forms to transcend from rite, ritual or plain event into commerce, into a salable product. The "dell'Arte" also makes a tie between the theatre and the community by in effect introducing a guild mentality to theatre troupes. As the efforts became more regular and more commercial, actors formed troupes--or guilds, if you will--thereby joining the ranks of other professions in 16th century Italy. This is an apt parallel to my activities this week. Under the auspices of the newly-rebranded and resident-company-enriched Electric Theatre Company, I'm leading, along with Friends Heather Stuart and Dave Gochfeld, an intensive workshop in commedia dell'arte for the theatre students of Marywood University.

We did something similar last year--and have many of the same students back--as a part of ETC's "Portal Project" in collaboration with Marywood. However, last year's workshops simply emphasized the creation of original characters and improvisations for public performance; this year we're armed with our experiences with Angelo Crotti and a big pile of reference books, and the emphasis is on providing a very pragmatic, concise overview of the commedia dell'arte as a living tradition. This week will culminate in a few public, staged yet semi-improvised, performances of a Scala scenario for the visiting public of Scranton's annual Festa Italiana on Sunday and Monday (an event I must sadly miss, as obligations necessitate my leaving town Friday night). So in a week, we give them all they need in terms of history and techniques, learn and rehearse a show, and open and close the whole endeavor. And if you think that's hard for us, keep in mind that for the students it's their first week back at school after the summer break.

It's been a great week. Any incipient panic of the seeming impossibility of our task has been balanced out by the excitement of learning more and more about what we're teaching as we go along, and by the students' complete and selfless dedication to the work. They really are an incredible group to be working with. We have about 25 of them, and of those, a full 21 are electing to perform in the final product. That's a lot of roles to cast in a classic commedia dell'arte scenario (only one in our book lays claim to that many specific characters), so we're looking at possibilities for incorporating porters, musicians and police into various lazzi. In fact, at this point we've got a lot to decide about setting, logistics of the space and timing in general, things that don't even have a thing to do with the work we're doing in class . . . apart from how critical they are to informing the students' expectations as performers, of course. But what's that, really, in the grand scheme?

Yesterday afternoon, while I was trying to determine the best format for a 'blog devoted to details of catching my performances and workshops (coming soon to a link list near this entry), I got a call from the talent management agency I freelance with, Dream Weavers Management. They wanted to know if I could make an audition at 5:20 that evening in New York. My agent on this particular possibility was talking a blue streak about details, and before I could find a breath-space within which to insert the information that I was in another state on paying work, I heard that in was for a commercial filming in Canada, and looking to pay a non-union actor $10,000. Gulp. This is small potatoes compared to the residuals an actor ought to get for years from (what I assume must have been) a nationally syndicated commercial. But let's not kid ourselves--that would be the biggest paycheck yours truly ever garnered for plying his humble craft. I was, in a sense, saved by the beep. My agent had a call come in on the other line and promised to call me back. In the pause, a handful of minutes, I quickly reviewed my options. I could conceivably make it back to New York in time for the audition. My agent called me back, and before she could get going again, I informed her I was out of state and that I was afraid I couldn't make it. She said she understood, hoped for next time, and quickly hung up to get on with calling the rest of her mid-thirties white males.

I'm a professional actor. And that was the right choice.

22 August 2008

20 K

Hm. Seems the Aviary has surpassed the 20,000 mark in page loads. You may recall that I was pushing for (and achieved) getting to the 10,000 mark before the end of the year, back during Odin's first anniversary, and now in eight months we've doubled that amount. Do you realize what that means?
I must have upwards of a dozen readers now!
You all make me so proud...

And the Award Goes To... (3)

As If You Care. is a sardonic sort of title for a 'blog. I recall that when Friend Younce started it, I was so out-to-lunch on the whole 'blogometric phenomenon that I thought, that's odd; if he disdains the medium, why is he engaging in it? The answer to my question was, of course, that he didn't disdain it at all, and understood it immediately, and saw possibilities for using it to his own ends and by his own means. He just wanted to be funny about it. That's how Dave is. And though it might not be immediately apparent from reading about his awesome family and game theory and distinction-making and his intense appreciation of a vast, ecclectic variety of (sub)pop music, Dave is also a mastermind type with strong creative leanings. This mostly gets expressed through gaming and online collaborations to produce real-world community and more game play, but to my mind, Mr. Younce will always be an aspiring author of fiction. Even if he never publishes a word of it.

I've known Dave since time immemorial. Well, since high school, at any rate. But we weren't exactly friends in high school. We had a few classes together, and were both involved in the theatre department, but the actual friendship didn't really crystalize until after graduation, when I suppose we both thought, Hey, wait a minute. I knew some much cooler people in high school than I've met so far in college. Thus was a really cool collaboration formed. Yet the roots extended back to that final year in the school of high, when even then there was a hint of the underlying creative current that would stick with us through college and missionary assignments and {shudder} adulthood. The photo atop this entry is from a project Dave did in that same time reinterpreting characters from the Sandman comics. At some point we geeks (we happy geeks) were backstage during some show or other discussing some thing or other, and Dave had this wild idea of people preserving their bodies past their normal lifespan by encasing themselves in a sort of radioactive gold. This in turn led to me having the idea of people who exponentially increase their intelligence by training themselves to experience a year's worth of living in a single night's dreaming. We discussed the possible overlap of our ideas, and Dave said, "You should write that."

I still haven't.

However, this kind of idea-swapping and assignment tradition continued as Dave and I reunited in the summer after our freshman years away at college. I didn't know it at the time, but the whole three months were extremely formative for me, as a person and as an artist, and Dave was around for a lot of that, giving me books to read and music to listen to and assignments to complete. It was reciprocal, this creative tête à tête, but of course I remember what I was assigned and absorbed more than what I offered up. Frankly, I remember being challenged by the effort to return in kind when it came to assignments and influences. Dave was, and is, a very focused thinker, yet seemingly without being overly linear, and the result is that he can pound out ideas and improvements upon those ideas while one is still sitting at the keyboard contemplating how you're supposed to punctuate "tête à tête." More recently, Dave has worked to connect me with the gaming community (see 5/12/08 & 5/7/07), which I was resistant to and which probably stands alone as the experience most encouraging to my creative processes since reading the Sandman comics for the first time (also Dave's doing).

Expatriate Younce has moved to jolly ol' England, which is bad for me, but great for As If You Care. Now, in addition to never knowing quite what you'll get when you sign into his 'blog, you also never know when it might be something wicked cool that you wouldn't have thought of today without it, like new random generators, observations on information diagramming or photos of Dave's adorable progeny clambering about on the heath. I'm particularly fond of Dave's five-word movie reviews. If Dave ever does become an author, he will probably remind us of Hemingway in the efficiency of his prose, crossed with a Gaimanesque sense of humor and a Stephensonish complexity of ideas. Dave himself is a big fan of Eco and Pynchon. Mercifully, he does not sound a bit like either. (You could write a respectable epic poem about Dave's efforts to get me to read Gravity's Rainbow. "Don't you understand the amazing things this guy's doing?" "No Dave, I don't.") For all those influences, Dave writes things like, "When I was a young, cynical LDS missionary on the hardscrabble streets of LA, I would often see black plastic bags floating along the ground or in the air, or fluttering helplessly in a tree, and I would daydream of having a Nature-channel special that would follow them around, while a British narrator in hushed tones talked about what they were doing."

And so, this award goes to Dave Younce.

19 August 2008

Writing Wild

I have been seized by a powerful urge in the past week or so to write short plays. I explained last week (see 8/8/08) that Friend Nat had inspired me to write from start to finish a short play, and that I was rather proud of this. At the time, this led me to re-examine my progress on other creative projects I had professed on this here 'blog. One of my usual excuses for failing to follow-through on projects is getting distracted by bright, shiny new projects. I'm not exactly a fickle little magpie, constantly collecting projects that glint at me from below, but my joy for life does seem to flow from these occupations, and so I rarely refuse them. I consider being distracted by a new project, so long as it proves fruitful, a more-worthy reason for abstentia from older ones than, say, needing to find out what happens next on So You Think You Can Dance? Just as a random example.

Thus far, this one is proving more fruitful than I had dared hope. When I wrote the initial short play, it was very much a stand-alone scene, meant to explore my thoughts on death a bit (it's a comedy; don't judge me). Then, aided by a little research, I found myself fairly excited by an idea for another short play with a similar theme, and it connected itself pretty naturally with the first. Now I have four first-draft short plays, loosely connected either by character or, er, object. I've also got vague ideas for two more scenes, which would give me six in all, which -- length-wise, at any rate -- would give me a pretty full little evening of theatre. Hoo-rah, say I. It remains to be seen if the scenes provide some sort of satisfying arc once strung together, of course, and there's always the stage of revision, which is sort of my kryptonite when it comes to these things. Still and all: hoo & rah.

My writing this time around is reminding me of a lot of specific influences, and I feel variously pleased and confused with them. Friend Daryl is just bringing to a close a production of Keith Reddin's All the Rage at the Manhattan Theatre Source, a show for which I auditioned but did not achieve casting. I read the play in June to prepare for the audition, and it too is a somewhat loosely-strung (though not nearly so loose as mine) set of scenes revolving around darkly humorous themes. In the spring, I checked out a lot of Martin McDonagh plays from the Lincoln Center branch of the NYPL, having enjoyed The Pillowman on Broadway and curious about all these other plays for which he was more renowned. His boldness with a morbid and macabre sense of humor have definitely helped me justify some of the areas in exploration in my little efforts of late. There's even a good dose or two of Ben Jonson, Neil Gaiman and Adam McKay, though you'd probably never notice those, mired as they are in my own concepts and interpretations.

A writing experience is best for me when it gives me moments of feeling guided by the material itself, rather then my steering of it. Similar to the enjoyment of watching a play that I haven't read (movies are exempted utterly for the most part, as we're inundated with previews that seem hell-bent on spoiling at least one surprise for us), when I write something that has a will or energy of its own, part of what keeps me going forward is wondering what this or that character will do next. It's entirely up to me, of course, but occasionally they (I) surprise me (myself). This may seem at best naive, at worst indulgent, but I would argue that at least some portion of this feeling is necessary in writing something original. One of the best bits of advice I ever got on writing fiction was given by a speaker at a writing conference I attended back in 2001. He was narrating (aptly enough) his process in writing a story set in a hospital. He had a choice of three things happening next to his protagonist, three ideas. The first two were something like the character would flashback to memories of whomever he was there for, or he could have a talk with someone else in the waiting room, but the third was that he receive a telephone call on the hospital payphone . . . from his deceased mother.

Perhaps it's needless to say that this particular writer chose option three. At the time, thinking of it only as a writer of short stories and the like, I remember thinking about how pervasive fantasy is; it barely qualifies as a genre name, there are so many distinctions (besides swords and dragons) for its use. Now -- flashing back, if you will -- I'm struck by two things this illustrates. The first is an acting lesson to be found in this "other" medium. As an actor, one is often faced with two or more choices that work, that adhere to the givens and move the action along. We explore them all, and generally take the one that's most interesting; that is, the one that heightens conflict or develops character and/or, if we're lucky, surprises. The second strike is a reflection on both fiction and acting (and painting and cycling and governmental science, I'm sure), and has to do with risk. My sustained engagement in these writings and my apparent influences from recent reading are both results of remaining open, exploratory and loose, during my writing process. It's risky to release control, to give oneself up to the possibility of failure (or, perhaps worse, gratuitous exposure), yet without it what are our chances of creating anything fresh or effective? This is a not-uncommon thought here at the Aviary. Still, I enjoy finding it anew in corners I wasn't expecting to.

So please do forgive, Dear Reader, if the Aviary is a little lacking in posts this week and next. It is because I am enjoying the exploration. Worry not. I shall return. (Undoubtedly when I should otherwise be revising whatever I've cranked out.)

15 August 2008

And the Award Goes To... (2)

Over there on my sidebar you'll see a link to A Choreographer's Blog, curated by one Miss Melissa Riker. You might not know it immediately from her 'blog, but Melissa is one of the most positive, infectiously enthusiastic, flirtatious artists I know. I mean, she's got one of the darker quotes about hopefulness from Leonard Cohen at the footer, and most of the entries lately have featured photographs of a prone woman in a ripped wedding gown. Add to that Melissa's penchant for incomplete sentences and/or affection for the creative use of line breaks and you've got yourself one intense-seeming 'blogger. And she is, intense: her 'blog is about her work, the which she takes very, very seriously. It's just that, when you meet Melissa in person, odds are your heart will melt just a little bit at her openness and she will be hugging you before you know exactly what happened. These aspects of her do not stand in contrast to one another. No, they are fully integrated, somehow. Harmonious.

Melissa is, to me, something of a magic trick.

When I wrote of Friend Patrick's 'blog (see 8/5/08) I explained that he and I met on a show called Significant Circus, a show that certainly lived up to its name for me. After all, I also met Melissa there. Actually, we practically met with our fingers mutually entwined in Patrick's hair. From there we have variously performed circus-theatre together (my feet know Melissa very well indeed), leapt about in lofts and parks and even tried to choreograph me in modern dance. And Melissa has been a part of The Exploding Yurts right along with us and Friend Kate, so she's one of these friends who has had a lot of intimate insight into my creative processes. That's a strange intimacy to share. ("Strange Intimacy" would be a really good name for a rock band with Mel as its lead singer.) By and large, the effect Melissa has had on my creative process has been to remind me of the use of spontaneity -- which I tend to shun in favor of more rigid structure -- and the supreme value simply in loving what you are doing. Love takes one a long way in any endeavor, but especially in the more hopeless-seeming ones, like art.

The beauty of A Choreographer's Blog is that one is immediately inside an artist's creative process. There's no safety net, no explicit or intentional censorship, it's just -- thwack! Hi! Welcome to my mind/heart/soul! Which, really, is quite like Melissa herself in performance. It's a very honest, vulnerable place, but you almost don't notice, because its presented without shame or apology in the slightest. That's something most every artist should aspire to, and that Melissa seems to do quite effortlessly. Not that she doesn't work very, very hard; it's just that the part that seems to be hardest for most is her most natural talent. So go to A Choreographer's Blog when you feel isolated, or less than profound. It's a little like discussing a project with Melissa herself. She'll immediately get very excited about what you're talking about, and then share the ideas it gives her, some of which will sound at first to you a little tangential, or unrelated. Then, about three days later, you'll look back on the conversation, chuckle at her joy, and realize she wasn't off in the slightest. She had just gotten to the crux of the emotions much faster than you did.

And so, this award goes to Melissa Riker.

14 August 2008

Under Studious Conditions

This week I expected to be writing about my experience participating in a (paying!) reading of a play adaptation by Adrienne Thompson of Aphra Behn's The Widow Ranter, but something came up that took precedence. Namely, a fellow actor whom I consider to be a friend got news of an illness in his family, and had to leave town unexpectedly. This shouldn't normally affect my life terribly directly; we're not close or constant friends. However, this same actor was appearing in a show in this year's Fringe Festival, a show based in commedia dell'arte traditions. So I was contacted to understudy the role. He left town last Friday, and the show, La Vigilia, opened yesterday.

I didn't go on. Actually, I should say I haven't gone on. My friend came back Sunday, and is going to be around for shows through Friday. Thereafter, it remains a question. He could be fine to perform in every showing throughout the Fringe's erratic scheduling, and I could get the call that I'm needed at any time between Friday and the 23rd. This is the first time I've ever understudied anything, and it's with very short notice. My only advantages have been my experience with commedia tropes, and having read the play about a year ago when the writer emailed it to me in the hopes of collaborating on it. I'm not complaining, mind: these are good advantages. Still and all, it is a new experience, and frankly pretty stressful -- like inviting an actor's nightmare upon myself. I ran through it once with the cast, without proper blocking notes, and that's about it for my practice. The rest is up to me. Perhaps it's needless to say that I'm attending every performance.

It's a unique experience in more ways than one. First there are the little ways. My (friend's) character sings a serenade betwixt acts two and three, which brings to the forefront with a slightly creepy synchronicity my recent musings on my relationship to song. There's also a strange spirit of reminiscence to all this for me, being that I'm unexpectedly reminded of my experiences participating in the Fringe last year, but in a much more detached way. Finally, on the side of smaller, there's a weird feeling of being someone the cast and crew need, but not someone they want. Not that they hold anything against me in any way! I represent the possibility of some unwelcome tidings, though, and on top of that I'm not allowed to help. I can, of course, jump in here and there to lend a hand, but there's some question as to how much I'm actually helping. Take for example the extremely quick set-up and tear-down that has to happen for the Fringe; it all has to happen in fifteen minutes to keep the space on schedule for the following shows. Therefore it would seem natural I should dig in and help, except that if I ever have to act in the show, that'll be one less hand that night and nobody wants to get used to the extra help leading up to that. So some bat me away when I lend a hand, and others wonder at why I'm just sitting there, and I can't blame either faction. It's confusing.

The larger ways in which it's unique have to do with approaching a familiar form with unfamiliar people and, well, approaches. La Vigilia is a very fine, neo-classical script, in my opinion. I like it a lot. Though clearly based in commedia dell'arte tropes, I don't perceive it to be traditional commedia dell'arte because, in my experience, the traditional sort is semi-improvised and contains rather baser character types. The characters in La Vigilia are nobler by far than the archetypes we know best from commedia dell'arte, but this serves the story well and I imagine helps to keep the sympathies of a contemporary American audience more immediate in the theatre (although the recent spate of Apatow comedies prove a lot of success with ignoble characters, at that). Perhaps because of this, the approach of the producing team seems to have been to put the emphasis on the language more than any broad physical characterization or lazzi. The zanni have their moments, of course, but even they are emblematic of this "departure." The male servant is pretty classically Arlecchino, but the zanna seems to be an interesting blend of Francescina and Colombina types, with just a dash of Isabella to smooth the flavor.

In that the script is never departed from, I find myself fascinated with the narrative complexities of the piece, though few outside of my own experience would likely describe the plot as especially complex. Had I directed the play, I would have approached it from a completely different angle, and I'm not convinced this would have been for the good of the final product. Still, I can't help but wonder how my production would have been different. Certainly it would have focused more on the physical images created, and broadened their scope. I think also I would have aimed for a certain Fellini "surreality," similar to what informed Zuppa del Giorno's first show, Noble Aspirations. (Incidentally, in my experience of Fellini and Italy thus far I find absolutely nothing surreal about what the man was portraying. That's just Italy.) This is part of why I believe it may be just as well that I didn't direct this piece. It's quite lyrical, and set in the 1950s -- though I would like to have seen those two things subjected to a bit more absurdity and raw appetite, they may be best left unmolested.

So this week has been largely spent reading (and rereading, and rereading, and rereading) the script and sitting in the audience as this cast tries to pull together the final elements of their production. I sit, in a strange state of anxious relaxation, wondering if I have anything to be worried about after all. Yesterday, the day the show premiered, I caught myself unwillingly entering a familiar state of mind and emotion. It was the same feeling I have all day before an opening that I am acting in, an unpredictable blend of trepidation and enthusiasm in which it is extremely difficult to stay focused on what's in front of me. Inside, I keep wandering toward the theatre, wondering if any time has passed since I last wondered if any time had passed.

Of course, now all I'm wondering is if I'll get off-book and, if I do, whether or not anyone will ever know it.

11 August 2008

I Wasn't Kidding

I've written here already about my recent exploits in (read: surrender to) teh Facebookz, and how I think it relates to my general life and specific creative journey, blah blah blah. Embracing my past yadda yadda savoring the moment etc. etc. and so on. And so on. As usual when I'm writing about anything in the moment of experiencing it, I have found that I was completely wrong or, at least, utterly naive. That's a bit harsh: I was assumptive in my appraisal of the over-all effect of going all-in on a "social networking" site. Teh Facebook(c) has reached deeper into my history than I had imagined it would and, owing largely to the way in which it is structured, has allowed me to contact and be contacted by people I really am curious about from my sordid suburban past. Last night, I reconnected with my first-ever drama (you called it "drama" in my neck of the woods) teacher. This is the guy who got me seeing what I do today as something more than showing/goofing off, something that was done. And now I can check in with him anew. Madness.

One interesting personal side-effect I've noticed from this world-wide-interwebz experience of mine is that people I know, know one another, too. This is not surprising in the big picture; actors tend to spend much of their social time together throwing out names to establish connections by association with one another (an occupation I loathe...but could probably benefit from learning to enjoy, somehow). People know people. That's how people are. This isn't Russia. (Is this Russia?) This isn't Russia. [ <-Ahoy, movie quote! ] It's not absurd to find connections between dots when you bother to search. I just don't search very often, and now the Internet does it for me. Thanks, Internet!

The other interesting thing that I've noted brings us back around to the actual mission statement* of Odin's Aviary (*Now 12%** more missionier! [**Actual missioniness subject to personal experience and position of Saturn at time of missionesque experience.]). Specifically, I'm invited to re-explore the origins of my bizarre and unnatural quest to infuse my life with acting gigs. Some people you get back in touch with are naturally from your later life, or even as far back as the transition from youth to adulthood. Still others show up from times of sleep-overs and recess. Most recently, owing in large part to being found by my old theatre teacher, I've begun to get back in touch with people I knew in that most developmental of educational stages: intermediate school. Or: middle school. Some even call it "junior high." But in my aforementioned neck of the woods, it was "drama class" and "intermediate school." This was the time in my life when a real stage entered it -- as in the wooden kind, with curtains and lights and EVERYTHING. The smell of sawdust in an largely abandoned school building on tech day. The temper tantrums of students and teachers alike. The declamatory style of eleven- and twelve-year-olds playing middle-aged characters (my particular forte at the time). Intermediate theatre.

In so doing, the people I used to know now know that I'm still doing what we did. Before. Which is to say, not everyone who participates in theatre in high school and junior high continues to do it. I know: It's SHOCKING. I kid (ALL CAPS = sarcasm), but I keep getting notes from people saying that it's nice to see I'm still at it, and all I can keep thinking is, You mean you're not?! Yet another thing I haven't thought through. I believe everyone is inclined to imagine the people they used to know in the same or similar context as that in which they used to know them, but for me to assume everyone found as formative an experience in their 7th grade as I is a bit beyond the pale. Still, I can't help but mirror their surprise at my continued involvement, and marvel at their lack of involvement. I want to ask them when the last time they set foot in a theatre building was. I want to know where that all went for them, if anywhere.

And then: Is it surprising that I'm still doing this? I mean, discounting for a moment the possibility that the people I grew up with might view a career in theatre as a childish or irresponsible thing (and I really hope to give them more credit than that), was there anything about me in my youth that suggested I wouldn't keep at it this long?

Come to think of it, there may have been a thing. Or two. Let's face it: Every effort up until one is old enough to reap a few consequences can be filed away as experimentation, or a learning experience. There are even some times of life when this is so expected as to be nearly ubiquitous, such as the teenage sexual experimentation, or the toddler this-whole-walking-thing learning experience. I know people who've written off everything that happened to them prior to year 20. Plus, when I started theatre, I had far fewer advantages than now. Theatre taught me a lot about how to effectively interact with people, gave me tools for overcoming my social awkwardness, and a good dose of metabolic puberty didn't hurt, either. Come to think of it, if I had known me back then, I would have penned me for an English teacher myself. So there were a few reasons why my far-flung friends of yesteryear might be surprised to find me treading the boards to date. Oh, and one more reason, at that.

I didn't learn to act for about a decade.

In some sense, one is never done "learning to act," of course, but that's not what I'm referring to. No, I mean to say that for the seven-odd years prior to my college theatrical experiences, I thought I was acting, and I simply wasn't. I was working hard, and I loved what I was doing, and I was doing a great many things as well or better than some, but acting was not one of them. It wasn't until I got to my third official acting teacher, in college, who had a penchant for axioms and anagrams, that it sank in. He says, "Acting is reacting." I don't know how many times he said it before this happened, but one day: PING! Acting is reacting. There's a lot of ways to express this idea (or, really, host of ideas) -- listening is key, don't "act", stay in the moment, make the other person look good, etc. I try to comfort myself for what would seem like wasted time with an idea from Sanford Meisner -- that it takes at least twenty years to learn how to act -- but of course all the years spent not acting were in fact necessary for me to learn this lesson. Some people understand it intuitively, even at eleven years of age. I was not such a one.

What I did understand from a young age, even before I understood that I understood it (take a moment; that was almost as self-referential as an actor's 'blog), was that I wanted to do this, whatever it really was. I remember watching older actors doing their thing, kids in higher grades than I and movie stars alike, and thinking, God, what do they do that makes this so good? That's a question that has driven me a long way, down a windy road, and it still takes over the wheel now and then at that. Good thing, too, because I still have a lot to learn. When I would see videos of myself on stage in intermediate school, I would wonder why it looked and sounded so different from my inner-perception of it. At age eleven, when most of my friends were doing their damnedest to get off school property just as soon as they could each day, I was disappointed if I didn't have rehearsal to stay for. I didn't realize I had made a choice about the rest of my life, but every time I got to take the stage, my world aligned somehow and I meant everything I did, even without really knowing what I was doing.

It's good to remember that. Thanks, friends, both old and new.

08 August 2008

Follow Through

Yesterday (thanks to an informal assignment set by Friend Nat [you're my boy, Blue]) I completed the first draft of a short play, the first bit of fiction writing I have seen through to the state of having a distinct and spelled-out beginning, middle and end since . . . well, I can't recall. It is a first draft, and was largely worked through during lunch breaks and lulls at il day jobo, so it's not a magnificent accomplishment. Still and all, there was a very pleasant sense of synergy I experienced in the writing of it and, as you can see, the mere fact of finishing something has me feeling cuddly with myself. So it got me to thinking about the "Notions" series (& a 1, & a 2, & a 3) of 'blog entries I shared with my tremendous, and tremendously grateful, reading populace all the way back in October/November of 2007. (Verily, Odin's Aviary has become an institution.) (Please refrain from unsavory "institution" insinuations. That's rude.) The idea behind those was to experiment with how the accountability that announcing creative intentions invites would affect their outcomes. Simply put, would sharing my ideas for projects sap my enthusiasm for them (as it seemed to when I was younger) or would it hold me to my ideas and keep them coming back to my priorities list? Let's take a look, shall we?

  • Freaky Chicks & Aspirant. These are my two most interesting ideas (to me, at any rate) for comic-book adventures, the first being one I wrote a draft of way back 'round 2000, the second being one I had the idea for RIGHT BEFORE HEROES CAME OUT, I SWEAR TO GOD. Both toy with the notions (heh-heh) of superhero(TM)-like people cropping up in mundane settings, and rather unwilling partnerships. These ideas, I confess, I've done absolutely nothing with in the intervening months. Can I explain myself in this? Not really interested in doing that, I'm afraid. Also: No. I can't. I really like these ideas, still. I just haven't done the work necessary to resurrect them.

  • The Project Project. This is a play I badly wanted to write when first I thought of it, and is most likely of all of my announced notions to go the way of the Dodo. Frankly, the title is the thing I dig the most about anything I've come up with for it. I started writing it, and got about five pages in before feeling like I had really gotten off on the wrong foot. I found the characters unsympathetic and the structure nonexistent -- two very bad things, made worse by the fact that I was in complete control of both of them. Clever titles are like booby-traps for frustrated writers, man. And this one's a bear trap, because I can't get over how great it could be, if only I could figure how to make it have a heart.

  • Mimosa Pudica. A play I directed in college; the idea being that I mount a showcase production of it here with me directing. I haven't re-read the play, I haven't researched a thing along these lines, nor been mentally casting. I've barely thought about it. BUT. Over the past few months a burgeoning desire to direct has been building, and expressing itself through this here 'blog. I think the important thing about this particular notion was that it got me thinking that way with a fairly safe specificity, and now my thinking has expanded to more daring possibilities (such as directing my own Zuppa-style show) which, frankly, may be more apt. Mimosa Pudica may still get done though. It would probably be a good idea to have an intermediate step between my intention and my ambition.

  • Building various stilt-related paraphernalia. Mmm, yeah. Well, this is a tough one when you don't have ready access to a workshop. Also tough when your stilts have been in storage for the past three months. And finally, Corporate Carnival queered me on stilts for a little bit. May be coming out of that soon; still would be lacking a power saw or titanium lathe. (Though I do have some nifty welding goggles.)

  • Picking back up the trombone. Uh-huh. Next!

  • Punch & Judy. Heather and I have made very little headway on this project; just a bit of research (including a wicked-rad find by Samantha Philips) and discussion. However, it definitely informed our creation of Love is Crazy, but Good for our performances in Italy in June, and the experience of working on that ended up being a crucial step toward things like learning how to work together without outside assistance and learning what works, what doesn't. It's difficult to develop something whilst in separate cities, and with so much other Zuppa-related work to do, but I'm confident Heather and I will get something of this up off the ground.

  • Superhero(r) monodrama. I don't know how I feel about this notion, these days. The ubiquitous monodrama of the self-generating "creactor" is still something I'd like to have under my belt, but I feel more and more that I need collaborators to get my best work done. It's how I've worked all my life, really, and I'm not sure I'd even want to see a monodrama that had existed in solo for any significant stage of its development. Plus, when I had the idea, the Hollywood superhero(c) phenomenon hadn't quite hit the fever pitch it's at now. I would probably be working against a curve with that concept. Back to the notional drawing board, as far as I'm concerned.

  • Using Friend Patrick's Sukeu mask in performance. See above? I don't know. In the spirit of Patrick himself, I'm loathe to apply the mask to something artificially. I want it to inform me of what it belongs with. This may entail getting in a room (with a mirror) with it and playing, without context. Which I should do anyway. It goes on the to-do list under "get new acting job." Patrick?

  • My werewolf novel. You know, I increasingly feel that this story I've been writing and ruminating over has been co-opted by its own inciting notion. That is to say, maybe I don't want to write a story about werewolves (but literature needs another werewolf novel!) after all, and I shouldn't try so hard to make it be about that. What interested me and got me started on it was this different idea of what a werewolf might be. What has been most engaging about writing it (and I haven't done any writing on it in a long while) has been one of the non-central characters and writing about people who feel lost. So: Maybe I'm writing two different things without knowing it?

  • The Very Nearly Perfect Comedy of Romeo & Juliet. It has a title! And a webpage! AND a 'blog! This is certainly the prospective project that has been most worked upon out of my lists, which is in keeping with my suggestion that I need collaborators to get anything done. In fact, the entire nature of the project is one of collaboration, being as it is a vehicle for collaborating with Italian artists, and I can hardly take credit for it as "my" notion anymore; if, in fact, I ever could. The very concept has leapt ahead, and in the best ways, in my opinion. I read my initial idea for the play and cringe a bit at the thought of working on something like that right now. Perhaps it's valuable, in the interests of getting projects accomplished, to think of them as inevitable, and also as something that will ultimately bear very little resemblance to the original notion.

  • Red Signal. The clown, quasi-silent film screenplay. This, above all, is my most frustrating venture. Not because I haven't made progress on it; I have. That's the source of said frustration, because (much like a subway train faced with a...wait for it...) the writing hit a brick wall somewhere around March/April. There are a number of possible causes for this -- getting a new day job, busting my laptop, health concerns, getting on and into other projects -- but what it boils down to is that I feel rather out of ideas, and with three acts of a five-act outline all figured out (it's act the third that I have been stalled on; five's ready to roll). Three is certainly the magic number, and I'm confident that the cutting stage of this process will be immense, but I'm just not there yet. Something vital is missing. Apart from occasionally pondering (futility) the casting of the female role, I haven't returned to it in earnest since running out of track. Which. Is. Frustrating.

So all in all: I don't feel too bad about how I've done. I realize this list may read like it's largely a schedule of a lack of completion, but in writing it I've been reminded that every process is just that, and one can't rush it or skip steps. I could certainly have done better (especially when it comes to stilts, trombones and comicbooks) but I see in most of these notions a progression, at least in thinking. I'd like to be more productive ultimately, but that's why I checked in on these in the first place: to see how I can do that. In the spirit of this, this entry represents no great goal post, but another step in the process at large. So. Do I think sharing my ideas helped them move along?

Didn't hurt . . .

05 August 2008

And the Award Goes To... (1)

Recently, I was honored to receive the coveted "Brilliante" 'blogger award from Friend Patrick. This is an award that functions rather like a chain letter or, perhaps I should say, it's rather an ever-expanding, world-wide web of love and appreciation. I was honored more by Patrick's comments about the Aviary than by the award itself, I must admit. It may be my recent grapples with a theatrical competition, or my reading about the founding of American business practices within the first three decades of the 20th century, or it may simply be my elementary-school self rearing his pudgy head, but I'm a bit turned off by the appearance of competition of late. (Not just the practice, but the appearance, mind. I hereby willfully acknowledge that such is silliness. Nevertheless.) So I wanted to move this honor of Patrick's forward, but eschew the conventions of the award itself. Plus, I kind of wanted it all to relate to this here 'blog's mission statement. So instead of listing here my choice of seven honorees, I'm going to do a few entries, now and then, in honor of fellow 'bloggers within my circle who help me with my struggle to live fully, freely and honestly. This being the first.

It's only proper to begin with Friend Patrick. His was one of the first 'blogs that I added to my little sidebar of links, and he's done a lot with Loose Ends. It's probably the strongest of his web presences in terms of representing him, as I'm not aware of any website he has set up. If you poke around a little, you may find his Friendster:) page, and various mentions of him as an actor or director in various biographies and reviews. You could be inclined to mistakenly take him for the un-photographed "Patrick Lacey" who appeared in Babe, but you'd be wrong. I think. At least, I hope Patrick would have told me already if he (in particular) appeared in a movie with talking animals.

I met Patrick doing one of my first New York City shows--Significant Circus--that self-same show that introduced me to the colorful world of circus-theatre. He was playing a dog. Brilliantly, I might add. Some time later, certain of the creative relationships formed during that show maintained, and he, Kate Magram, Melissa Riker and I formed our informal creative-artist support group, The Exploding Yurts. We would meet with semi-regularity, and mainly discuss whatever self-initiated projects we were working on or toward. We were mixed disciplines, and Patrick and I were the actors of the group, so there was an immediate affinity there. Patrick also creates beautiful masks, so I consider him to be a talented visual artist as well. I'm not sure what came first with Patrick, that feeling of comradeship or the feeling of loving friendship, but we gots both now, and that's the way I likes it. You know how you never have friends quite like you did when you were young? Well, I think the same can be said of the first real friends you make upon moving to a new place. Patrick is one of those.

So I'm a little biased. I admit it. And you are free to judge for yourself how brilliant Patrick is; after all, you can read all about his mental processes at Loose Ends. You can decide if I'm off my nut when I say he's one of the most sensitive and daring actors I've had the pleasure of working with, who uses his body in such imaginatively expressive ways that I'm often stunned. You just go ahead and tell me if I'm off when I say of Patrick that he commits more concentration and thought to all his work--acting, writing and other craft--than anyone else I know. And hey: If you think his 'blog doesn't evidence a passionately intelligent mind, one that takes nothing for granted, as well as a beautiful spirit, one that reaches always for truth and beauty, you go ahead and comment to that effect. Plus he's viciously funny. Or so I think. You're welcome to disagree.

You'd just be wrong. No crime in that.

But to bring things back around to self-aggrandizement for just a moment: I've learned a lot from Patrick. Our differences and similarities are very well-matched, if you ask me, and I regret not having made more opportunities to date to work with him as an actor. We've only done so twice, in fact. In the aforementioned show, and a one-act play in mask: Icarus. Icarus was itself a learning experience for me that could probably take up a whole entry, but one of the plain ol' techniques I learned from Patrick in that process was how to rev up an internal engine of sorts of performance energy, so there was a lot of drive there, but allow it to translate into simple, specific, one-at-time movements, so elemental to gestural work. There are myriad little technical things like that I've picked up from Mr. Lacey. Most significant to me, though, have been our shared moments of empathy and discussions about life as an artist. Not specifically as actors, mind you, but as artists. Patrick has an abiding and unashamed affection for the notion of our work being artful, and that as much as anything else has fueled me through some very tough times indeed. We both acknowledge all the difficulties of being an actor, living in New York, being young, growing older, trying to love more and hate less, etc., etc. And what we come up with is that someday, yes, we will have it all. And in the meantime, despite all its worries and tribulations (or perhaps [for me, at least] because of them) the struggle can be pretty great, too.

Now, Loose Ends is great for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it isn't the first thing you'll notice upon visiting, but Patrick is tied into an incredible network of 'bloggers. He gets anywhere from ten to 30 comments per entry, from folks of a similar mindset philosophically. Whereas Odin's Aviary tries and tries to stay within the borders of a kind of set of rules, Loose Ends weaves its way through every aspect of Patrick's life, rather like the trequetra that holds so much meaning for him. It's style is personable, and you never can be absolutely sure what you'll get. One day it will be a dialogue, the next a theory paper, the next a nature observation. The commonality is Patrick and all that goes with his personality, which is a lot. With other people, this kind of online journal might quickly be mired in ridiculous self-interest and immolating detail or preachy self-importance, but owing to Patricks's personal insight and outward-reaching philosophy you get quite a different experience. Identification and, occasionally, a much-needed pause to consider life outside of the rush of it all.

And so, this award goes to Patrick Lacey.

01 August 2008

Lose Your Self

It's been a time of some frustration for me, lately. Frustration is not a particularly novel emotion on my part, I must confess. I'm something of a tense individual. (Please withhold any cries of "Understatement!" That's impolite.) My tendency is to hold energy in and rigorously control or funnel it when I let it out, which is part of why I find certain acting environments so appealing. Some because they are well served by this familiar approach, and others because they encourage me to abandon it completely, which is liberating. My natural impulse, however, is to control. Always has been, really. Any departures from that are still, no matter how incorporated they've become into my lifestyle, somewhat experimental. Some part of my mind is always thinking, Okay boss; this is great and all, and I'm learning a lot, but when do we return to terra firma here? Now, it's not that my approach hasn't rewarded me. It has. Greatly, at times. However, in the long run, it's an obsessive approach, and therefore at best limiting -- at worst, damaging.

Saturday I had my second exploit into the misty realm of acupuncture. My first was several years ago, when I volunteered as a patient of cranial acupuncture for a demonstration to be given to a class of acupuncturistas. That was pretty intense. It was supposed to treat my ETs -- mysterious medical condition, not league of other-worldly gardeners -- and it probably did, but it's always difficult to say. Qi/Chi? Meridians? Or simply reflexive muscle stimulation and a little calm attention? Whatever the function, Fiancee Megan has been reaping great rewards from acupuncture lately, and with a personal recommendation to her acupuncturalama, I went under the pin in the hopes of treating my recent struggles with ma' balls. Fine: my "pelvic floor dysfunction." But I still prefer to view it as an epic battle betwixt me, and ma' balls. Which, you know . . . might be indicative of said control issues. I am a land divided!

Recently I have had cause to observe a very interesting sequence of development in a short play I've been working on as an actor. I feel as though I've learned a lot about myself through it, which is not something I was expecting when it began. My frustration in this process can best be summed up as a difference of opinion. At first, I thought my difference of opinion was simply between me and the director, which happens all the time and is one thing. But due to various circumstances, I discovered my opinion differed from most of the other actors, and the playwright as well. I perceived the script, as it originally started, as a more naturalistic, character-driven story. Through various stages of working and some unusual factors, the concept was taken more toward farce, then amped up to screw-ball, and finally the script was pretty majorly revised to accommodate those changes in style and plant the story firmly in that genre. To put it plain, I began with one script that I liked, and it's ending with one almost entirely other. This is not the first time this has happened to me, but for one reason or another, it bothered me more this time. Whether or not it began with my own misconception of the piece, it has taken a lot of effort on my part to fulfill others' expectations.

I had been anticipating acupuncture to be a bit like a massage, in the weeks leading up to my appointment. You know, something that might at times be painful, yet ultimately relaxing. I may be a bit of a controlling obsessive (a tiny bit), but I've come to appreciate instances in which I'm expected to relax and allow things to happen to me. If I can avoid any hostile emotions, I do pretty well with that. It's a relief. Well, it turns out that acupuncture can be a bit of work. (I might've known.) Since I am treating what is essentially a self-inflicted injury, it makes poetic sense, at least, that I might have to put a little effort into treating it. The first acupuncture appointment is two hours long, so they can get the run-down on your condition, Chinese-medicine style. They could see the problem I was dealing with in my body, as I stood before them in my underwear. According to my acupuncturians, I'm all bent out of shape (no, really) in numerous subtle places. Also: I'm a liver person. This apparently means I tend to be frustrated, to rise up against challenges with a somewhat fervent and stubborn passion. They may eat ox tail, but those Chinese know something about something.

I didn't know what to expect of our premiere of an essentially new play, midway through our run. My character's opening monologue was changed pretty drastically, with some very out-of-left-field stuff, and I couldn't get effectively off-book for it in time. I could get off-book, but not effectively. So, with the playwright's permission, I took it in hand as a sort of Zuppa-del-Giorno adjunct to my performance, and largely winged it (wung it?). After all, the play had been changed significantly, and in the direction of absurdity, so maybe it would be best to go with that current and risk more, rather than less. I can improvise a monologue all day, but no one in my cast knew that, seeing as they had from me the careful development process over the previous month that I apply to a more naturalistic role. They seemed to largely take my angst over the changes to be anxiety over performing them, and I didn't try to dissuade this opinion, because my opinions of the play itself had very little to do with the job I had to do. I didn't want to get into a debate over the relative value of the play or the changes; I just wanted to get on with it. And what was the worst that would happen if I broke out my improvisatory style in performance? It tanks, and the playwright has something to consider the next time he has the impulse to revise midway through a run. So I set foot on stage that night, and wanged. Wung. What you will.

I could at first barely feel the needles the day after the performance, they were applied with such a gentle touch, and in gradual stages of difficulty. I had two practitioners working with me, and they talked to me throughout, because I admitted my curiosity and, eventually, they needed to give me instructions. The needles were being applied to my front, and the final stages were in my calves and lower abdomen. That's when they started to sear a bit through, er, my meridians, as they slid in to their work. And one of the practitioners started to see a habit of mine, of my breathing, that she thought was contributing to my pelvic difficulties. Namely, that I breathe into my stomach, expanding it, and drive the air out when I'm exerting effort, constricting my abdomen to push. It's called diaphragmatic breathing; it's something every stage actor is trained in. And, as she was raising her voice to get me to reverse this physical tendency and relax (most self-nullifying command in the English language), I realized that she was right. I constantly contract my abdomen, even unrelated to my breathing. I've been doing it since high school. Through an extreme effort, I managed to reverse, to stretch my abdomen flat and long on the inhale and "relax" it out on the exhale, and they finished my poking, covered me with a thermal blanket and left me in the room to rest and let the needles do their work.

There's a certain relaxation to giving in to a force, or forces. I quickly reached my monologue Friday night, and let 'er rip. There was no shortage of energy, certainly, because it is a thrill, however familiar, to face an audience with something less than a plan. Yet I was relaxed, because it didn't matter what happened. Win, lose or draw, I couldn't even be sure what one or the other would look like. So I did my thing . . . and it was a hit. Even I was surprised; not because I didn't expect to succeed or because I thought the new play wasn't viable, but because in all my resistance to the changes I had felt that I wouldn't be able to leave that frustration behind, that I would inevitably carry it on stage with me. Somehow I had let it go, and the audience was delighted with my performance. The whole performance went great. Was I wrong about the changes? Should I have let go from the word go, and not complicated things with my opinions, my liver-induced feelings?

Lying there in a dark room the next day, riddled with pins, I managed to let go of a little bit of what all was pent up inside. Just a couple of spurts of acknowledged helplessness. That's what prayer essentially is, you know: letting go.

Acting is a confusing business, not to mention art form. I often forget what I'm doing here. Like an Alzheimer's patient, I'll suddenly awake to the room around me and be baffled at what my purpose was in entering it. The key to it is, I want to be an actor. Not a stand-up comedian, not a circus performer, not a mime or clown, and certainly not a clerk or secretary. All those roles are very nice, and I've been lucky enough to experience them all, and have opportunities to return to them. Yet an actor is a specific person, with specific goals that surpass entertainment. Perhaps we lose sight of that as a result of the actor seeming to be anything, seeming like a compilation of roles, all adding up to a bizarre nullification of identity. The experience of this show, however fraught, has served to remind me of what it is that separates an actor from a performer. An actor dares to let all of his or her practice, and technique, and safety go, and offer the self in every aspect up to the moment, to the risk of failing to entertain, in the pursuit of truth. An actor is not a cypher for any one person or idea, but for everyone. And I want, more than any of those other things, to be an actor.

The final diagnosis of my acupuncturologisti was that I needed to give up all front-ways strength training until my issue gets resolved, that I need -- if I am to continue exercising at all -- to find a way to do it that lengthens and relaxes my abdomen. And, ultimately, I need to find a different approach to working, altogether. Because my health and work isn't about just one direction of strength, or the appearance of success. It's about the risk of being open, of allowing what will be, and of constantly discovering new ways of being and, thereby, new risks.

But I'm still doing my push-ups. Damn it.