26 November 2008


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

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

{ thirty-seven minutes later... }

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, you. I mean it. Thank you.

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

25 November 2008

Origin Myths

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

(I made sure my coat was closed.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24 November 2008

The Rest is Finally Silence



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

22 November 2008

Burnt Foliage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 November 2008

The Rest is (Busy, Noisy) Silence

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

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

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

Ahhhhhh. Ah.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 November 2008

The Rest is (Yes, Still) Silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeps me sharp!

19 November 2008

The Rest is (Remaining) Silence

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

So Friend Patrick and I met and rehearsed for about three hours last night, after I got off of work. I'm not at all sure I can properly call what we did "rehearsal," at least insofar as my part of it went. Patrick is farther along on his process for the upcoming performances (starting Friday, starting FRIDAY) so we spent much of his time in the space doing character exploration and discussing possible adaptations to his "I propose a toast..." piece. It's really interesting stuff, actually. This is a piece I've seen him do a few times, and he's interested in getting it better adapted to the stage (it's normally performed at events, particularly ones involving drinks). This is almost exactly what I was aiming to do the last time I performed solo clown work (see 5/28/08). I don't want to write too much about Patrick's work here without his consent, of course. You'll just have to attend to see the results!

As to my process, last night it mostly consisted of me talking a blue streak whilst occasionally putting ideas on their feet (my feet?). In fact, it must have been a little like watching a five-year-old for dear Patrick. You know when a little kid pulls you into a room and says he's going to put on a show for you, and he has gathered some puppets, but you quickly begin to get the suspicion that not a whole lot of table sessions and research went into his so-called "play"? Yeah. Like that. For an hour. It was reminiscent of the process behind some of our more rushed Zuppa del Giorno shows, too. When we had to get a show ready in a hurry for our last trip to Italy (see 5/30/08), everything was done out-of-joint. We had a title first, we developed some acrobalance moves, we figured out our story, we returned to the acro and found we couldn't do it anymore, for some reason I still don't comprehend, we ended up choreographing one of the most satisfying sections the day before we premiered it . . . you get the idea. And in spite of all this, the process can not be rushed. Let me emphasize this slightly: THE PROCESS CAN NOT BE RUSHED. You are where you are in the process, no matter what sequence it takes, nor how urgent your need is to "complete" it.

Which can be a bitch sometimes.

What I knew going into last night's "rehearsal" (man -- the sarcastic quotation marks are really flying in this entry -- sure sign of insecurity) was the title I had already provided Melissa, Whoopsie Daisy, and the program blurb I also sent her way. Note that I have definitely cultivated a skill in well-structured description that nonetheless promises nothing:

"Lloyd Schlemiel is new in town. Actually, he doesn't remember how he got here at all. There was a flicker of the light, a rattling noise (like some old machine whirring to life), and here he is. Also: He doesn't wear hats. Who wears hats anymore? Please bear with him. He's got a lot to learn."
Bully. What I had to dump into this whole Whoopsie Daisy assignment I rather gave myself was a few solo performances, only one of which took place on a stage, a partial clown screenplay, and whatever I can come up with between now and then. So where does one begin?

Well, I began with completely freaking out. That's often a good starting point. It provides a whole lot of false starts and bad ideas, and that's good. No really; it is. There's no faster progress to be made than that which results from big, multitudinous mistakes. So trying to find a special type of ladder, only to find it wasn't going to work for the show, then spending over an hour trying to resolve video issues on my computer Monday night . . . that was all necessary to catapult me into what would prove more useful. So I believe, and so I keep reminding myself when the panic sets in again. What I gathered instead for my work with Patrick were as many hats as I had, and some prop items with which I was simply curious about playing. Throughout my work-filled day, I contemplated several different approaches to take to creating action, including entertaining for some time the (fortunately, ultimately abandoned) notion of using a day-job-ish environment somehow.

By the time I was journeying from work to dinner, I realized I could lean more heavily on the ideas I'm using for the screenplay than I had previously thought. I knew I wanted to tell a story of transformation, and I had some ideas about how this could be accomplished in a theatrical setting. (It helps, very much, that I'm quite familiar with the West End Theatre.) In short, I suddenly felt like I had it all figured out. Yep, I've written this story already, in fact. No worries. None at all.

Of course, this is why rehearsal is so important: It shows us how little we truly know. Maybe mid-way into my descriptive rant at Patrick, it became clear to me that I had a long way to go. Yes, I want to tell a story about transformation, and yes I've given some thought to that already, and yes I have stock bits to use. BUT: I need a through-line, I need a central action, I need, I NEED! We made some progress on pursuing these things, but over the next two (TWO!) days, I need to hustle, and keep the ideas coming.

I can't rush the process. What I can do, is make sure I give it every single moment of my time, waking and sleeping.

18 November 2008

The Rest is Silence

Aw crap; aw balls; aw crappy balls.

Sorry. That's a bit more graphic than I had intended.

I am up to my eyeballs in stress, and it's all of my doing. This weekend I'm performing as a part of Six Figures' Artists of Tomorrow festival, and I'm performing solo work, and I have no idea what I'm going to do. None, as of this moment. I said "yes" to this last-minute opportunity because I want to be working, and because Friend Melissa coerced me. Yes: I was coerced. She specifically mentioned my silent-film work, and she knew that it would entice me, and so it's her fault that I'm a concentrated ball of uncertain stress right now.

Not really, though.

I've scheduled some time to work in a rehearsal space tonight, for about three hours. We'll see what comes of it.

That's it. No, really: That's it. More to follow.

17 November 2008

Circular Experiences

I had the pleasure of two different performances this weekend past, one for each day of it, and they were both returns for me -- not just in the sense of returning to the stage after a bit of an absence, but in returning to specific work that I have missed. And this weekend coming up, I have another sudden performance in a similar vein of return. They call me: Mr. Boomerang.

They don't, actually. Thank heavens.

Sunday was the opening night of a second staged reading for Tom Rowan's play, Burning Leaves (the closing night is this Wednesday; a very economical schedule). Burning Leaves, though studded with excellent humor, is largely a drama, and I was reading a lead role. I first read this role back in the summer, and really took to it. He's a guy who's on the outside of a new community, gradually well-loved at first, and then ostracized; an actor who leaves New York in the hopes of turning his life around. I find it very accessible, and am grateful to have the opportunity to be involved with it, not to mention to be brought back for its second incarnation. At the end of it all, the reading turned out rather well. We had some people there -- a rather substantial house for that festival, from what I understand -- and I turned in a decent performance. There were moments I didn't feel I really delivered on, but I don't think it was so as any audience would notice, and at least I get a second chance.

The readings are taking place at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, which is a very interesting theatre to me. One is greeted, upon entering the second-floor lobby, with what look to be rather typical production photographs from the 70s and 80s. Then you take a closer look, and see people like Sarah Jessica Parker, Elias Koteas and Bill Murray in those photos, all looking very fresh in posed black-and-white. The theatre occupies several floors of a rather run-down building on way-west 52nd Street. You wouldn't find yourself there unless you knew about it, and needed to be there for some reason. It looks like the definition of "not much." Another not-for-profit in a building most commercial enterprises would studiously avoid, or demolish. Yet the theatre has fostered an incredible amount of now-famous and award-winning talent over the years. I like this juxtaposition. It gives me hope, and makes me feel at home, all at the same time. The final interesting thing for me, however, is that the theatre was founded by one Mister Curt Dempster. Not a lot of people outside the American theatre world know who Dempster was, and far too few in it know of him, either. I never got to meet him. I know him by coincidence.

The first time I saw Curt Dempster, I didn't know it. He had a role in The Manhattan Project, a favorite movie of mine as a child and one of the few we owned on video cassette way back before they got more affordable. I didn't really recognize Dempster until a random encounter in college, and it wasn't with him -- it was with a play he had written: Mimosa Pudica (I mentioned this play here way back in 11/1/07). In 1998 I was in a public library in Richmond, Virginia, looking for a satisfying short play or excerpt to spend an entire semester working on in my directing class. In a compilation of one-acts from the seventies, I found Dempster's play, and it really sucked me in. I was just beginning to own the idea of my moving to New York, and New York is where the play is set. Eventually, I would use one of my many trips there that year to take location-specific photographs for research and use in the play itself. More significantly perhaps, the play spoke to me about my social anxiety and need for love. It was a profound experience of development for me to explore it, and I've never forgotten it. And I'm working in the theatre in which it made its debut.

The night before, I performed with Bond Street Theatre as part of a benefit for the NACL. It took place in LAVA's studio space, in Brooklyn, and featured an incredible line-up of the bohemian and avant-garde circus & variety set. There was everything vaudevillian and circus-themed you can imagine, just shy of fire-skills performance, all in an intimate space off a neighborhood of Brooklyn I've come to know fairly well (well enough to know of a great coffee shop nearby). I was pretty anxious most of the time I was there, I have to admit. Some of it was performance anxiety, but a lot of it had to do with knowing very few people there and it being more than a little crowded with folks who either knew one another already, or had an eye out for people they should know. I was, to put it succinctly, feeling a little outside. Not because of any exclusion (far from it -- everyone was extremely friendly) but because I had such an intense desire to belong. I miss my days of regular circus activity, and hanging out with that crowd was a bit awkward for me. To be utterly shameless, I must admit that I kept wanting to jump up and shout, "I can do that! Can I do that? I can do that!"

Our contribution to the evening's festivities was well-received, I thought; it took the audience awhile to warm up to what we were doing, but they got there and brought their laughter with them. Our performance was not a physical one; it was, in fact, intensely verbal. Still, it was highly comic, and I managed to get a little standing back-bend in there, which is a favorite "straight-theatre" move of mine that can be snuck into otherwise wordy exchanges. It seemed harmless in rehearsal, but it's just possible that doing the move whilst all adrenalized (is SO a word) aggravated my pre-existing condition, because since then I have had unpleasantness to contend with. This would inform a sane person to relax about all this circus nonsense. A believer such as myself might even take it as some kind of sign or omen added atop a pile of others that perhaps, just perhaps, it's time to let that physical stuff go.

This weekend I am all-of-the-sudden performing as my silent film clown (details soon @ Loki's Apiary). I don't know exactly what I'm doing yet, but I know I want it to be physical, full of dangerous pratfall, to the point of flagrant masochism.

15 November 2008


SRSLY: You guys: Go out and buy the comic book Kick-Ass. Oh, you don't "get" comic books? You aren't "hep" to "justice culture"? Well, prep for the conundrums of Watchmen, and in the meantime, go read Kick-Ass. It's not even compiled into a "graphic novel" yet (this entry brought to you by the punctuation mark '"'!), yet it's optioned into a movie and being made. Go buy it. Go re-evaluate your life. Much love . . .

14 November 2008


I'm frankly surprised: I did a search for this word in the Aviary, to see when I'd ruminated on it previously, and came up with only one occurrence -- yesterday. That was only in reference to Friend Melissa's upcoming dance exhibition. The reason this surprises me is that I think about it quite a bit in terms of human (read: my) behavior. I think it's pretty undeniable that one does not become an actor without a certain persistent "Look at me!" impulse, and naturally I feel a bit conflicted about that. I don't think that's one of the better bits of acting technique, I really hate obvious artifice and insincerity, I do hate to be scrutinized, yet I must admit that I have a very basic urge to perform for an audience.

I've had two rehearsals over the past two evenings, one for each performance I'm doing this weekend. Tuesday night was for the benefit performance with Bond Street Theatre, and I spent a couple of hours cavorting about Monty-Python-style in their loft rehearsal-space-slash-apartment. I had come from il day jobo, and so was dressed in appropriate gear for the scene: button-down shirt, slacks, etc. As we progressed, however, I cuffed up my pants so the hems wouldn't drag (I was shoeless) and, as I got warmed up, stripped off my shirt, so I was wearing only my undershirt. Suddenly I found I had more energy for making physical choices. I was very interested in the choices to be made in the character's posture, his pace and quality of movement, and all the rest. Getting warm and losing the little suggestions of restriction that office clothes suggest contributed to this, of course, but there is also a large mirror in the studio that did not escape my attention.

Presume for a moment that there is a difference between an impulse toward exhibition, and vanity. They may be so closely related that they're like married cousins (ew), but let's still say they've got a distinct DNA strand or two. Vanity presupposes an attractive visage, or at the very least the potential to attract in that way. Exhibitionism, however, has more to do with being seen than being admired and/or being wanted for procreation purposes. Those of us excited by looking wretched in front of large groups may not necessarily be all that vain. What vanity I do suffer I try to be aware of, and keep in check with equal parts objectivity and self-deprecating humor. It's a lucky thing that I have nice eyes; they just read past my long, crooked nose that way. That sort of balance of power, if you will.

Last night the rehearsal was for the reading of Tom Rowan's play, Burning Leaves, and it actually took place at Tom's apartment, on 40th Street. The whole thing was a bit unconventional: in an apartment that had recently been moved into, an unfamiliar neighborhood, it was late to accommodate various schedules. Unconventional does not in this case mean unusual, mind -- New York conditions of living and renting often necessitate unconventional solutions. Nevertheless, I had a lot of time to kill before rehearsal, and in that time I think I got a little uncomfortable, a little introspective, so that when I arrived for rehearsal I didn't feel all that engaged, much less demonstrative. It's rather a new group to work with, too, yadda yadda yadda. I had my reasons. I was self-conscious, and slow to warm up. Gradually I became more comfortable, and my acting choices improved in both their execution and the quality of choice. This time, however, I did not find the comfort to improve from exhibiting myself. Rather, I found it in gradually letting go of the worries related to exhibiting oneself.

Oh, balance! You are such an elusive spirit! When I began looking seriously into Eastern philosophy, I ultimately chose to align myself with Taoism instead of Zen Buddhism (this was way back in the day, when I was so young I didn't know what a hangover was [not really] and I didn't have necessary stretches to do every morning). There were many reasons for this choice -- although the concept of Zen had a strong appeal for me -- but the most convincing reason has to do with the difference in the way Taoists and Buddhists generally approach the problem of human desire. Buddhists believe the only way to spiritually improve oneself is to rid oneself of all earthly desires, and possibly, ultimately, all spiritual desires as well (they don't have koans for nothing). Taoists, on the other hand, acknowledge desire as a natural aspect of humanity, and one that's part of the whole process. Transcendent thought and action is available in any part of the whole. Instead of urging you to let go of all desire from the word "go," a Taoist might say, "Good luck with that," and mean it. I think desires are good to transcend. I also think they're good to learn from.

So I keep performing. The farther along I get, the more that desire for exhibition changes; perhaps it grows more mature. I'd like to think it does. I'd like to think that I'll become more intelligent and balanced in my performance as I continue to live and learn and, so far at least, I believe my progress has been evident. In the long view. When I was in my hometown for The Big Show, I ran into my high school drama teacher in a restaurant, the very day of the event. I hadn't seen or spoken to him in over a dozen years, and I was shy to approach him. Once I had, however, I wanted to audition for him. Not to be cast, obviously. But maybe just to be seen.

12 November 2008

Return of the Lloyd

Friend Melissa contacted me recently about contributing to something she's putting together for Six Figures' Artists of Tomorrow (AOT) festival. Specifically, she asked if my silent-film clown, Lloyd Schlemiel, could be a part of it. I mulled it over for a bit before responding. It's pretty late notice (performing November 21 and 23), and I'm just dipping my toes back into the waters of performance after some time away. Add to that my last experience performing solo Lloyd, back in May, which can best be described as a learning sort of experience, and I felt justified in having some hesitation. I gave it a day, and when I came back to it today the thing I realized was that in spite of all the rational reasons not to take it on I wanted to take it on. So I am.

I don't know what I'll do yet, exactly, though I do know I want to book some time to work on Lloyd shtick in a rehearsal room, preferably with an outside eye lending me insight. Melissa told me right off that video projection was a possibility, so I have thoughts about utilizing some of my amateur video, if I can get it together in time. The first thing I did, though, was to write Melissa back, accept her offer and ask her a little about what she was looking for. It turns out she wants to theme her work around her most recent dance exhibition for Estrogenius, which is collectively entitled Blueprint. Though I've been reading her 'blog in reference to this work, I didn't see it, so I asked for a description. She writes:

"Blueprint was a wide open assignment -
just taking the word and riffing with a piece of some sort -"

Okey-dokey. In addition to this, I knew Melissa had utilized (a) large blue hat(s) and lipstick in her choreography. So there's that. Lloyd most frequently has used a large, round orange hat in his act, so that's a funny coincidence/contradiction/complement. Finally, though, Melissa writes what I find to be interesting observations about my noseless clown:

"I think anything Lloyd is a blueprint piece - he is so curious and exploratory that he is always wondering what something is made of and his relationship to it - which in my mind is also wondering what he is made of -"

This would make the second time that my clown has been described as a guy who needs to figure things out, though it's difficult to remember whether or not Mel and I have talked about the similar observation that Mark McKenna made. I find her observation, either way, quite accurate and insightful. I never looked at it before as Lloyd trying to figure himself out through his relationship with objects. (Lloyd is of course, me, and I hope you'll understand the ease of referring to him in the third person) It's a fascinating angle from which to approach new work with him. Not literally, of course. The first decision I would have to make in a rehearsal room would be whether he is even aware of that kind of introspection. At present, I'm inclined to say it is all subconscious. That seems funnier in concept, but until I play around with the idea, who knows?

It would be nice if this performance could advance my other work with Lloyd in its process, specifically my interests in making a silent film or two. I have a collection of amateur clown-ish shorts -- raw footage, really -- that is all haphazard and unedited and generally useless at the moment. This could be an interesting opportunity to get it organized, at least, and maybe use something of it for the performance. I've seen and done a lot of work under the auspices of the AOT festival, the last being As Far As We Know, way back when it was still called The Torture Project. During that time, Six Figures was using the high domed ceiling of the converted nave space for its projections, and if the same is true this time around it could create some very interesting moments of focal shift. In addition, exploring my clown from the point of view of his own introspection (or lack thereof) is a cool way to begin my experimentation of playing Romeo in a clown style.

Whatever happens, I'm certainly destined to be pretty busy for the next couple of weeks.

10 November 2008

Comedy & Tragedy & Everything In Between

Because why be specific? Specificity isn't all that important, is it?

I'm involved in two very brief, very different rehearsal processes this week, both of which had their first rehearsals yesterday. Some people spend their Sundays unwinding, doing a crossword or sipping coffee and loading up on carbohydrates. Me, I have two rehearsals. I'd be lying if I said it didn't feel great. In spite of how busy I've been with acting gigs this fall -- in counter-spite of my supposed priority to remain decidedly non-busy leading up to The Big Show -- I have missed being in rehearsal. It's good to get back to it, albeit on a Sunday and doing double duty. In fact, this entry title was very nearly appended with "& Commercial Work," but at the last minute ADM Productions decided they didn't need me after all. I'm choosing to perceive that as "maintaining my theatrical integrity" this week, rather than "losing paying work."

My first rehearsal Sunday was for a follow-up staged reading of Tom Rowan's play, Burning Leaves. You may remember my writing about Burning Leaves back in July, when the initial staged reading was performed. This reading around, the script has been trimmed and we're under the guidance of director Gaye Taylor Upchurch. It's being performed on two separate days under the auspices of The Ensemble Studio Theatre's Octoberfest, despite protestations from naysayers that October is, in fact, past. I find this personally fitting; I missed out on doing any performances in the actual October.

This rehearsal started out strangely for yours truly. I was a little late, in part because I was hefting a surprisingly heavy Mac CPU for later deposit at the technology recycling fair down at Union Square that day. Why then? Why lug this to rehearsal? Well, it's been sitting, 2001-like, in a corner literally for months as recycling events, er, cycled past. Plus, it didn't seem that heavy at first. So it was with aching arms and a strong desire not to have to explain myself that I arrived to discover that I was the only member of the previous cast who would be in attendance. This has happened to me before. It's an interesting position in which to be. It means that either A) you were the only one who nailed it last time, or B) you were the only one who was desperate enough for work to perform in another unpaid reading. Or some combination thereof. Either way, I was surprised. I really enjoyed the last group that I read with, and it probably held me back in rehearsal having certain expectations for character interpretations. The director, "GT," seems to have a great approach though, and I'll shake off my stale expectations much better at the next rehearsal. She reminded us at the end of rehearsal that the text was very detailed and expressive of emotion, and so that it made sense to act on the lines and not take too much time with unspoken beats. A very smart initial critique.

I got the Mac to Union, where they collected my zip code and asked if I'd like to be interviewed for Comedy Central. But I was going to be late for the next rehearsal, and shuddered to think what Comedy Central might have been filming for. Alas: I'm sure I missed a golden opportunity for my career...

Bond Street Theatre rehearses out of the loft apartment of its managing and artistic directors, Michael McGuigan and Joanna Sherman. It's on Bond Street, aptly enough, which is not too far south of Union Square, and I paused on my way there just long enough to purchase a sandwich and coffee. I'll be performing with them both on Saturday for a benefit in Brooklyn, and this pleases me greatly. I had to turn down an offer to work with Bond Street at the start of summer (conflicts with Italy, a desperate need to hang on to my day job, etc.), and such a situation can often lead to a write-off of the actor. Fortunately for me, Joanna and Michael share a lot of the same interests I do, and my skills are valuable to the kind of theatre they generally produce. Plus they're just neat-o in general. So after a really great thirty-minutes-or-so of conversation about ensemble theatres and collaboration, we got down to work on our short presentation for the benefit: an adaptation of Monty Python's famous Argument sketch. Bond Street works in Afghanistan and with artists from there, and as you might imagine has been experiencing a lot of frustration in obtaining cultural visas for their collaborators to visit and perform in the US. They've channeled this frustration into the adaptation, tweaking this hilarious send-up of bureaucracy ever-so-slightly.

It's difficult to perform the sketch without lapsing into UK dialects, but it's also a good struggle that reminds me to own the language in my way, rather than merely copying Michael Palin's famous performance. Michael (McGuigan) has also added a bit of Abbott and Costello into the mix, as though the verbal specificity weren't heightened enough. It was slow-going at first, but that's just as well when it comes to that kind of vaudeville-esque wordplay. Little, mundane decisions take up time at the start, but if you don't resolve them first you end up with much bigger questions about solving issues with pacing and the like later on. So we warmed up slowly to the text, and after a couple of hours had begun to find some rhythm and make discoveries about how to adapt the humor to the stage. It's a pity in a way, because this kind of sketch really deserves hours of continuous rehearsal to get it crackling, but we all at least have enough shared vocabulary in our work to make a few more leaps in the process than others might. I'm looking forward to the performance of it even now, and wonder what our second and final rehearsal will produce to add to it.

I staggered home happy, but incapable of making basic decisions, such as what to make for dinner. It was a fairly long run of rehearsal and improperly handled H2O/sugar intake, and gave me pause about being an actor full-time. It was a very brief pause, however. I should be so lucky to be so exhausted at the end of every day.

06 November 2008

The Big Show

. . . My goodness. Has it been over a week? Yes; yes, it has. It feels almost strange to be writing here again, which just goes to show me that it's not so much how long one spends away from a project that disrupts its cycle, as how drastically one breaks its frequency and rhythm. Writing feels strange, but the thinking has been going on, full-fired pistons, the entire time. The past few days, in fact, have been spent trying to figure out with what exactly this here entry would concern itself. I mean, I had a title (titles are easy, I always have a title), and I knew the general content, but I couldn't find the words to express myself. I was searching for a format, a focus, a shtick . . . and therein lay my block, I think. Some things defy structure; some experiences are unique, if only for one or two of the people involved.

The Big Show did what it was supposed to do, what they've been doing for centuries of human history. You have months and months (and, in some cases, still more months) of build up to this single event, during which time everyone is saying to you in one way or another, "This is a big deal, and your life will not be the same." Okay, you think, but I've been around a few places and seen a few things and really this is just a public acknowledgement of something I've been working on for years. So what surprises can it really hold? I ought to have remembered that even Regular-Sized Shows have the potential to be life-altering experiences, sans pomp, circumstance and hors d'oeuvres. They generally accomplish this by catching you off or coaxing you out of your guard, then hitting you right in your gooey human center.

My personal gooey human center is a ganache of gratitude (yes, I know Heather -- not a filling), and from way back in the process of planning The Big Show, I have been set up for a gratitudinous (is SO a word) fall. My friends flocked to help me and, guys, if you're listening: You're a bunch of total jerks. Don't even try to pretend that the motivation behind your combined support and myriad selfless contributions was well intentioned. It is transparently clear that you rocked my socks off for the express and specific purpose of making me cry and, furthermore, feel like weeping cathartically every time I think of any one of you. What else can I say to you than: Mission accomplished. In spades. You bunch of total jerk-faces.

I can't even bring myself to single persons out for the amazing contributions each of them made. It would belittle it, in a way, because my experience was bigger than can be expressed with my usual pithy, long-winded syntax, even if I used extra-distended vocabulary choices. I've been searching for these last days for some poem to post that will encapsulate it for me. I was swept away. I was not steering the wheel (in spite of multiple U-turns executed in the interests of not accidentally driving my groomsmen to West Virginia). I was completely subject to the experience. It was comparable to a drunkenness, but with intention and clarity. In fact, at times I felt I was drunk on the clarity of each moment -- each lively, open and honest moment. I look back and worry a little that I neglected people in the rush of my experience. Relatives I see once in a blue moon were there, and I said all of ten words to them, and I definitely felt gypped on time spent with friends who travelled from afar to be a part of my wedding. Yet I think of the surprise party thrown by everyone at the day job I've held for nine months, I think of seeing my New York friends against the autumnal Virginia scene, I think of turning around and seeing my best friends from age five on all there at my back . . .


Brecht thought the best work a piece of theatre could accomplish was to present arguments and hold the audience enough at bay that afterward they'd be able to discuss the arguments somewhat objectively. Fighting the complacency that profound catharsis encourages, he wanted theatre to educate. Epic theatre may not necessarily alienate the audience throughout the play; in fact, I find it most effective when it draws us in emotionally at moments, then reminds us that it is a play, and that we have a life separate from it. This preference is part of why I don't actively pursue epic theatre work, but what affinity I have for Brecht is evident in my affection for direct-address of the audience. I like to learn from experiences, to experience the kind of intellectual catharsis that comes of new ideas instead of unexpected or inevitable emotions. Can I be objective at all about my experience of being wed?

One of my favorite pieces of advice leading up to La Grande Mostra was this: Be sure to be there. Practically speaking, very helpful. Also helpful as a reminder that it can be easy in profound moments to feel both outside oneself and caught up in the current, said feelings being possible concurrently, consecutively or all of the above, all at once. So I took that advice to heart, and tried to allow myself moments of observation and moments of sheer, unthinking response. This at times meant wandering around my own reception, perhaps being less receptive to people than they expected, the which I hope they can forgive me. Weddings are supposed to make you feel something, and just maybe they're supposed to make the participants feel something overwhelming, something profound to think (feel) back on when in times of doubt or struggle. Are they also good for learning something? Are there lessons to be had about life in general, and oneself in particular? I believe so. I believe this is the hidden agenda of weddings. Most major rituals and rites of passage involve wrapping something quietly necessary inside of something showy and big.

In the life-in-general category, I'd say the big lesson for me had something to do with learning that some of life's most exciting, dangerous and rewarding adventures can be found in its most widely accepted and "mundane" aspects. The trick is in taking absolutely nothing for granted. Nothing. Easier said than done, I recognize, but then again, why should a wedding lend us a sense of appreciation and not, say, a regular phone call to someone we barely know? Or eating a hot dog (delicious hot dog...) as opposed to wedding cake? So many people have shared with us personal insights that they had as a direct result of experiencing our wedding. I believe such insights are there for us all the time, and that events such as weddings and shows and concerts, etc., serve not as the only conduits to those insights, but rather as reminders that these insights are there to be had at every moment of every given day. I used to view marriage as settling down. What could be more exciting, dangerous and rewarding, than stepping into one's future with that kind of intention and appreciation?

Speaking of personal lessons, mine was simply huge. The hugest I've had since those that led me to propose marriage to Wife Megan. Part of that decision to propose was motivated by an insight I had about how each day needs to be lived as if it could be your last, though not as though it definitely is your last. It's a fine distinction, but once I felt the difference, I could see how important it was that Megan and I commence to weddin'. I could go on and on about the personal intricacies of this realization for me and its relationship to my psyche, but I'd rather not alienate the dozen remaining readers and, besides, I bring it up to emphasize how profound a lesson was mine on the actual day of marriage.

Last Saturday, and in the days since, I have felt such an emotion of gratitude for everyone in my life that it's like my heart is singing. I'm embarrassingly double-wrapping my jacket on the subway to try and mute it a little in consideration of my fellow passengers. I'm disrupting telephone lines with pure sonic vibration. It's ridiculous and self-perpetuating -- the feeling itself inspires more gratitude. I have not the hands I need to write all the deeply felt thank-you letters to everyone, including those we couldn't invite or who couldn't make it. I owe something to everyone, and all I have to give is myself. The lesson, I think, is to give as if each day could be my last. Marriage isn't forming a private partnership, but creating a synergy, a collaboration, in order to offer more to the family at large. I said in my fatally brief speech (I hate public speaking) at the end of the reception that everyone there was family to me now, and I meant it. The best I have and am is only a result of the people I have known and loved.

. . .

. . . Dang it! Again?! Really? Again with the weepiness?

You bunch of total jerks . . .