30 April 2009

Unwanted Knowledge

I've returned to my research of corpses, which seems to be endlessly fascinating to me. (This return is in the hopes of generating new [more gooder] material for my play-in-progress, Hereafter.) I think the fascination stems from the fact that so much of the research is a discovery of items I never even had a hint of before. No one knows, because no one wants to know. I've always had an appreciation for the taboo--in some of the dullest senses--but this is the first time it's struck me as a pointed preoccupation. I love learning about things I ought not to.

Actually, it's not quite true that I've never before tapped this appetite for the occult. As an elementary school student, I almost single-handedly kept the library out of its stock of books on monsters and mythological creatures. It was embarrassing, I remember, but a thrill. The strange is thrilling. Erotic, too, in a way. Remember playing doctor, or sneaking looks at pictorial nudity? No? Just me? Alrighty then...

I feel I'm at a curious stage of writing, too. It reminds me of a couple of my first serious attempts at creative writing. A short story and a short play, written years apart, they both started out as one thing in my mind and were drastically different by the end, largely through the application of heart, of earnest meaning. These were improvements to the work, hands-down, but in both cases I was initially resistant. "No, I'm not trying to make that, I'm trying to make this." Someday I'll learn that it's more about whatever it is I'm making, and what it wants to ultimately be. In the case of Hereafter, this self-made conflict has to do with whether it's a play about what happens to our bodies after we die and how funny that can be, or if it's about how we process the idea of death itself. The latter is, naturally, winning out in terms of dominant content.

It's curious how creative work gets started, and where it can go from there. The ideas that energize our start-up can eventually hinder the process, and the emotions we discover in the process itself may end up being more significant. Well: If not more significant, than more directing, at least. Yet my research today has done more to motivate me to rework the play than anything else in recent memory. In particular, I was learning about the embalming process, and it was really firing up some ideas that I want to get on paper . . . er, screen. Which is ew; very ew. Still, it's fascinating. I didn't know, for example, that you should never investigate the lower end of the coffin in an open-casket funeral. Why? Because sometimes morticians remove the major inner organs and seal them in a plastic bag that gets deposited at the corpse's feet.


I also had a wonderful conversation about Hereafter and the subjects it addresses with a friend yesterday, which invariably motivates more writing. So that's the order of business this weekend, while Wife Megan is away selling swag -- writing more interesting tidbits about the verities of death. Maybe the things I have to share with you are unwanted. Or maybe, it's all just fascinating, and I'm saving people the trouble of admitting it.

29 April 2009

And I quote...

"Salman Rushdie gave me a ride back to the hotel, and so to bed." - Neil Gaiman, on his 'blog

Sometimes I really, really wish I was Neil Gaiman's shadow.

25 April 2009


On Friday, I did something pretty neat. Once again I visited the Steinberg Lab at NYU to help the undergraduate playwrights there hear their work aloud. Instead of reading one or two excerpts, however, I participated in at least five. They're gearing up for a presentation of a ten-minute segment of every student's work, and needed a day of hearing a bit of it all. The workshops at NYU are often an exercise in improvisation and flexible characterization (oh-ho, it seems I'm a mine worker - all right, I'll be gruff and... - who wears pumps and is accused of singing soprano... - okay, I'll spin it Harvey Fierstein...) but this took that adaptability to a different level for me. It's wicked fun, even when you face plant on something. Reminds me of role-playing games.

Speaking of which, Camp Nerdly is coming around again, and Expatriate Younce is actually venturing back from across the Atlantic for it. It doesn't commence until the end of May, so I've plenty of time to fulfill my promise to myself to run some event this year.

And on Saturday I attended a suggested-donation dance concert at DNA. Friends Matthew and Alessandra were performing a duet of Matthew's, and I was pleased to find that it was accessible for me. Modern dance often isn't. (Or, perhaps more accurately, I'm often not accessible by means of modern dance.) There were a number of dances in the mixed program that I thought were quite good, and at least a couple that didn't shy away from having a sense of humor about themselves, which I always appreciate. One dancer in particular seemed perfect for my much-imagined "cartoon show." If anyone could convince you of running off a cliff and hanging suspended for a few seconds, I imagine it would be this fellow. Matthew's dance, on the other hand, was quite serious in its delivery and content. The hour-long program, called Visa Voices (it was choreographed by invitees of DNA's pool of students from other nations), was a very mixed bag indeed.

Occasionally I get frustrated with my limitations regarding my capacity for change. This may seem odd, coming not only from an actor, but from one who rather specializes in physical characterization and playing multiple roles in a single performance. It's my urge to transform that motivated these directions in my career, though, and I suppose that urge goes deeper than the boards. I wrote a few days ago about the merits of being able to switch rapidly between activities (see 4/23/09), and now it seems to me that this virtue -- as I see it -- is closely related to my priority for change. As frightening as change can be when unbidden, sometimes I crave it so much that it's a little consuming. Spring is a good time for this, actually. It's what gets me out the door and jogging again, as it finally did this warm morning.

There are limits to what we can change about ourselves, of course, and I suppose recognizing those limitations is a valuable ability in some regards. Still, I enjoy imagining the possibilities more. When my life seems to be especially set, or even staid, I try to remind myself that life has been the most unpredictable story I've ever known. Even at its still moments. In fact, sometimes especially so. That doesn't mean I'll stop aiming to upset the routine. It does mean that the "routine" is changing even when it seems not to be, adding new steps, twisting the story and sometimes even altering my character.

23 April 2009

Attention Spanning

There's a commonly held opinion that our attention spans are shrinking, and many people attribute that to our rapidly evolving communication and entertainment media. I don't disagree as to the causes for the phenomenon, but I do question that lack of specificity in this summary view of our ability to, and interest, in maintaining attention. I mean, if you take a little time to really examine—

Ooo - lookit - puppies!

What was I saying? Ah, yes: abbreviated attention spans. Was there ever a time in our history when culture didn't seem to be accelerating? You could point to the so-called "dark ages," but what you'd be pointing at would actually be a gap of written record, not some great backward lurch of civilization. No, I believe this sense of cultural acceleration lies more in our psyches and personal perspectives than it does in some larger, more-objective sense of time itself. We are an impatient bunch of creatures. It's part of what motivated us to develop tools and agriculture, and it applies to the human psyche whether you're talking about Twitter or gunpowder. We always want something "better." Ambition and impatience are kissing cousins, at least in my mental genealogy.

I think what we're really talking about when we worry over attention spans is worry over being a part of it all, of being included and/or contributing. I'm talking about more than trending here; perhaps Zeitgeist is a better word, but that still implies a cutting edge, which is more limited than my idea. My idea has less to do with something concrete and static, or even directional, and more to do with movement. Instead of staying ahead in a race, adapting to rhythms and adding something to a dance, maybe. Sometimes we're on the fringe, and sometimes we're setting the beat, but always we want to be in there and a part of it.

Naturally, my idea is going to be an inclusive one. (You can take yourself out of the Unitarian Universalist Sunday sessions, but you can't take the UUSs out of you . . . rself?) But in this case, I tend to be in total agreement with myself, and not just because it's to the advantage of my argument. (I promise. [Myself.]) It may sound like a philosophical argument, and it is, but it's also a practical one. Everything changes, and everything has the potential to change very rapidly, so it's good both to have the willingness to adapt and the centeredness to choose. For me, its akin to the error of multitasking -- namely, that it can't be done effectively. What can be done effectively is to do one thing at a time, and be able to switch tasks rapidly while keeping priorities straight. That can be effective, but true multitasking is a fault to any objective. Unless of course your objective is to make a mess of something.

If our attention spans have, on the whole, gotten shorter, its a result of successful adaptation to our environment, and anyway I don't see it as an irreversible condition. Music can be an amazing salve to a wind-burned attention span. Theatre, too, if one is willing to give it a chance. There's a general idea that entertainment, as such, is also a primary culprit in the criminalizing brevity of our attentions, but there I disagree as well. In fact, entertainment is pretty self-nullifying if it doesn't take us in well enough to influence our sense of time in some way, be it for the better or worse. The word itself, to "entertain," comes from an idea of holding something together. Maybe that refers to people's attentions, and maybe it means keeping the dance alive.

22 April 2009

"Inebriate of air am I..."

That's a rather embarrassingly romantic line I copied in my journal right around college, freshman year (1995 or 6), I think. I say I'm embarrassed by it, but it has stuck with me and popped up every now and again, seemingly unbidden, in my memory. I had to look it up again to discover it was Dickinson and -- as though prescient in my "tweet" of yesterday -- remind myself that I didn't come up with it. Yes. I subconsciously tried to purloin Emily Dickinson. In my defense, I'm certain I'm far from the first, and I'm definitively certain I'll not be the last. Miss Dickinson's poem, in its entirety:

I taste a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!

Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue.

When landlords turn the drunken bee
Out of the foxglove's door,
When butterflies renounce their drams,
I shall but drink the more!

Till seraphs swing their snowy hats,
And saints to windows run,
To see the little tippler
Leaning against the sun!

Odd to imagine a famous shut-in using inn and pub imagery, drunken bees or no.

The line recurred to me this time because I was thinking about my recent acceptance into the cult of Twitter, and my choice of moniker there: AcroRaven. I hesitated to use it. At first I was trying all different permutations of "Jeff Wills," as it is my brand name as an actor. Alas, I arrived on Twitter too late for such luxuries (I still owe Expatriate Younce a big 10-Q for getting me on to Gmail early enough to claim my address there) and I've just never adjusted to the idea of numeral incorporation into naming. Hence, AcroRaven. Right? Of course right.

Of course wrong. Both my embarrassment and my desire to use that name have quite a bit more to them than pragmatic consideration, or mere awkwardness over labeling myself using a species of bird for a site that claims all non-mute birds as its mascot. (Someone needs to get on some flightless bird sites. Cluck-er? Crow-er?) The fact is, I love ravens. And I've never seen one in person. The fact is, I call myself an acrobat. And I still can't stick a one-minute handstand. And the fact is, "AcroRaven" sounds like a really bad superhero, if you can even figure out how to pronounce it, and that's part of what I love about it.

There. I said it. I made up that name because I love big black birds and acrobatics and seeing myself as a superhero.

The line from Dickinson spoke to me and I isolated it from its original context because it reminded me of how I imagine being a bird would feel. Maybe birds hate flying -- how would I ever know? I find their flight beautiful, however, and it reminds me of breathing deep and loving it. Exhilaration. There's a lot that feeds into my appreciation of birds, and ravens in particular, but suffice it to say that it's an animal that has come to symbolize for me my aspirations, turning my vision of who I could be into who I am. I may never be a bird, or renowned acrobat, or a superhero (in fact, the more I examine the reality of vigilantism, the less appealing it becomes, super-powered or no) yet a few years ago I never imagined I would know how to lift people to my shoulder, or have friends in Italy. These things came about because I can identify with the possibilities my dreams present.

Part of what finally launched me into the Twitter-sphere was a possible collaboration with a good, old friend of mine (one who dates back to my days of first admiring those crows that are the closest things to ravens Burke, Virginia has to offer). We're talking about creating a performance rooted in the ideas -- and maybe even the devices -- that allow us to have a creative collaboration in close-to-real time between East Coast and West, so naturally Twitter came up. As with any collaborative effort, not to mention plenty of the solo ones, it's difficult to say if anything will result from it. All the same, I'm looking forward to throwing those ideas out there, across the atmosphere, to see what sinks and what flies. Inebriates of air, aren't we all?

20 April 2009


It's surprisingly pliant and strong fabric, stretchy, but just to a certain point where it locks and holds at whatever length marks its limit. It's called a "silk," as if it represented a single object rather than a length or segment of some endlessly stitched material. "Silk," also as if it were the softest textile to use, but be careful: it will give you subtle burns, taking away skin at such microscopic increments that you won't feel the blister until much later. As with most circus skills, you've been deceived by how easy the experienced performers make it look and, in at least a small part, by the seeming innocence or mundane appearance of the "silk" itself. Nothing of the performance of that skill suggests throbbing forearms or aching, limited lats in the slightest.

So the first thing you learn is how to climb, which is also the first deception. It would seem as though you're powering your way up, Greco-Roman, arm over arm. In point of fact your abdomen is the one of whom a lot is asked, lifting your feet as high up the tail of the fabric as you can so you can lock it between your feet and push with your legs until a new, higher point is within the reach of your ready arms. Once you've climbed, it's time to learn to descend. That's the slide down, but a controlled one, because even at a reasonable pace the silk can tear at your dermis. If you want to be demonstrative, you can add a certain flair to releasing your grips, extending your arms out wide to accentuate how little you feel the burning resistance between your clenched feet.

Next up is to learn a couple of locks, or positions in which the fabric holds your weight without much help. From the ground you step up into a foot lock, and learn new sorts of pain from the silk, which has instantly attained the leveraging attributes of a jiu-jitsu practitioner. You see yourself down the road a ways, your new blister healed and with an instinctive understanding of how to settle your foot into this lock without your toes cramping but, for now, both aspects are toying with your pain relays. The hip lock seems okay, once you learn to trust the twist involved and to be cautious of your external reproductive organs (an interesting trade-off in advantages for your upper body strength, if you possess said external organs), until you try the straight-leg variety, which performs a relentless shiatsu massage on the delicate nerves in your hip flexor. Perhaps all this nerve conditioning is more than you ever wanted, and gives you pause, but you're on to the next thing and are sure everything will be all right now that you aren't in a straight-leg relentless-shiatsu hip lock any longer.

Why is it that all the deaths related to circus practitioners you've heard of lately happened off of silks?

The next steps integrate what you've picked up (or limped through) with inversions and, eventually, drops. That's a large part of the appeal of silks; they very easily encapsulate the dual appeal of beauty and danger people associate with circus acts. Because of the forgiving behavior of the material (ha ha), the performer can not only climb it and flare it out and bind themselves up, but he or she can also drop, fall, spinning toward the ground, saved at the last possible moment by the bobbing silk. Obviously, the more dangerous the drop seems, the better response there is to be had from the audience. Dropping head-first is something you want to do. And it takes practice.

It's a funny thing, being upside down. You never really, really get used to it. Practice doesn't ever quite make it to perfect. There's always some part of you that insists that things are going to continue as they have, with the ground beneath your feet and your balance based from there on up ("up" being a direction associated with your standing "up" hair). So when someone tries to teach you how to tie yourself upside-down, you have the curious sensation of feeling proud of being able to pull it off. Then they ask you to fall face-first toward the floor, and you have the curious follow-up sensation of trepidation over whether or not you tied yourself upside-down in the right, un-cracked-spine manner.

Drop! Catch! Not even a bloody nose, and you suddenly have an easier time imagining yourself enduring pinched muscles, swollen forearms and blistered ankles.

Last Thursday Wife Megan and I took our first circus class together, and were taught beginner's silk lessons by Friend Cody. I have been eager to rejoin the world of circus training, so there was little doubt in my mind about the fun and challenges to be had. Still, one wonders if he has lost anything, if the risks now outweigh the rewards, if new patterns will allow for older enthusiasms. I haven't, they don't, and they do. Can't hardly wait for this Thursday's follow-up lesson and time for more drops and inversions.

15 April 2009

Nice Place You've Got Here . . .

" . . . lots of space . . ."

I have rarely been so tempted by the university setting as when I arrived at Swarthmore College yesterday. In fact, I'm a little frustrated by their website. If I ran things there (and just give me time) there'd be a gallery devoted to the scenery. It was misty, gray and generally chilly out, and I was still blown away by lovely architecture, a long, green lawn, and it was all backed up by forest that descended to a river valley. Gorgeous. I arrived a bit early, and walked about, checking things out. In my brief progress, I found an enormous amphitheatre built into the forest, stone walling etching out green lawned levels, studded with 150-year-old oak trees here and there. Took my breath away with theatrical possibilities. I was a little disappointed not to be working there, even given the nasty weather.

Then I found the space in which we would be working.

Tarble Hall is a movement-studio-slash-performance-space within Clothier Hall, which appears to be a converted church space, complete with monk's walk surrounding a small courtyard, a bell tower, and of course a worship space. Well, where they put us was in the worship space -- twelve feet up. The space has been converted in such a way that a movement floor was put in right about where the large ceiling begins to angle steeply together, replete with ornately carved beams and arches. Below it is an access hallway to the other rooms off the ground floor of the main building. The effect is rather like one is in a long, ample movement studio suspended in space. The floor was well-sprung, and it was rigged for performances at either end or, really, wherever you felt like it. Some spaces invite you to perform, to fill them out with motion. This was such a place, in spades. I was awed.

And, I'm afraid that probably showed through in my teaching. It wasn't exactly a bad class, but it definitely wasn't my best. I had some trouble holding everything together with 22 students, giving them both an overview and a practical approach to commedia dell'arte. It was partly awe, partly the weather and partly travel fatigue. And, as I say, it wasn't a bad class. It was just that at times I thought to myself, "You know, this has felt much more intense and cool before...." That having been said, I think everyone had fun and learned a little something. About midway through, I broke out the "tag trick" to wake everyone up a bit. The tag trick is to convince everyone that you are about to do an exercise that is very serious and requires a lot of concentration, then tag someone and tell them they're "it." It usually serves to get people laughing at themselves a bit. I usually fail to keep a sufficient deadpan for the set-up, and this class was no exception.

All in all, it was an interesting dynamic with this class. I spent a lot of time considering how to loosen them up, and I'm not sure that I was altogether successful. I think I would have benefited from giving them a few more opportunities to perform. They certainly responded well to what opportunities I did manage to give them. If I ever return, I'll put more emphasis on outlining ideas, then asking them to take the ball and run. That's my preferred way of working anyway; if I was more didactic this time, it had everything to do with being excited to have authentic commedia dell'arte training to draw from since working with Angelo Crotti.

Perhaps my favorite moment of the class, actually, occurred during break. One of the students was working on a handstand, and I coached him a bit, encouraging him to try for alignment rather than arching his back for balance. Another student joined in as I was explaining the importance of pushing up through the upper palm, and they both noticed considerable improvement in their ability to stick it. I think this was the best moment of me and students meeting halfway in our enthusiasm and focus, and I relished it. I wrote not too long ago (see 4/13/09) about the value in inviting people to learn, instead of requiring it, and learning to invite in as compelling a way as possible. I'm enjoying working on that skill, be it in a rather run-down office, or the most beautiful movement space I've ever before seen.

14 April 2009

A Myth Gone Public

Last night I attended the public The Public reading of Christina Gorman's play, American Myth. You may recall I attended a reading of her "work-in-progress" back in November, and this was that. I feel more at ease to address the play by name, in spite of it still bearing the WiP nomenclature, because this was a seriously serious reading, my friends. The Emerging Writers Group advertised, and filled the center section of the Anspacher Theatre (dear God, what a wonderful space!), and I don't want to name-drop here. I really don't. But suffice it to say that there were some very respectable names attached to the acting and directing of the thing. So, Christina, I'm outing you, whatever other work remains to be done on your script.

American Myth deals with a fictional set of characters, but ones plucked out of the headlines like a Law & Order episode (only more insightful, of course). It deals in questions, which is probably my favorite thing about Christina's writing. All plays tend toward argument; conflict, after all, is drama, and vice versa. But there's nothing like a play that encourages one to ask questions rather than deliver a personal judgment, and American Myth does this for me. It asks what history is, both personal and national, and what we want or need it to be. It questions the motivations of the supposedly moral, and the supposedly immoral. Maybe it's simply the Unitarian Universalist in me, but I love pondering these questions because I can never be absolute in my judgments of others in my daily life. A play that impartially (hyper-partially, perhaps?) explores all the angles of a moral conflict resonates very personally with me. Plus, the script has all of Christina's usual wit and incisive display of human behavior that I've come to expect from her work.

Actually attending the reading was a sort of strange experience for me. I went by myself, with which I'm normally fine but this time, somehow, felt conspicuous about. Christina was wonderfully and specifically grateful for my attendance, and that went a long way to comforting me; in fact, for the brief moments I was in her presence I felt totally at ease. Yet apart from that, even as I was simply sitting and reading, waiting for the performance to start, I was uneasy and downright riled up. It's taken me a while to put together what could be the source of this, but this morning I realized that it was being so close to so much of what I want . . . and not having it. Of course I couldn't figure that out last night -- I was fully invested in the play and its development. This morning however, as I packed my chattel for today's workshop in Philadelphia, I put it together.

As much as I parlayed my feelings of rejection regarding the AFAWK changes into moral outrage and philosophical questioning, the fact is that I had allowed myself to become too dependent on the whole effort for the wrong reasons. I very genuinely cared about the story we were trying to tell, of course, and felt committed to our work and intentions. All that was not compromised. However, I had in a way come to rely on the show as a ticket to somewhere, and I have to admit to myself that part of my response (or lack thereof) to the casting changes was petulant and careerist. We had a reading at The Public scheduled, and then I felt it yanked out from under me. Yes, I care about that show; yes, I put good, hard work into its creation; yes, it is deserving of a life beyond our Fringe Festival performances and sacrifices ought to be made to ensure that. But I also want very badly to be valued more than I yet have as an actor, and that very visceral urge pushed on me hard when all of that went down. I had another opportunity to rejoin the process shortly thereafter, which I ignored. Maybe it was because of all the reasons I said, to distance myself from the story we created before, etc. But also, I was hurt by my own sense of slighted ambition.

Believe it or not, I do not want to dwell on that episode, apart from coming clean a bit on the whole thing. As Far As We Know continues in its development, and I'm very happy to hear that it lives on. It is wholly deserving of whatever success and attention it can create, as are its current creators. In fact, Friend Nat is one of those "creactors," which I find oddly comforting -- he's like a God-father for me. I mention it not just to come clean, but also because what allowed me to realize the source of my anxiety last night was that it felt just like an emotion I used to have in high school and college all the time.

I would sit down in the auditorium, or little theatre, and wait for the lights to dim. I was usually by myself, for whatever reason. (Often, that reason was because it was my third time seeing the show and I had run out of folks who wanted to see it.) I would sit and sit, a mounting sense of anticipation and dread occupying my heart and head. Then the show would begin, and I would get wrapped up in its machinations, but one part of me would always be on the outside of that. That part would feel wrapped up tight, strong, full of urge and impulse. And it would only feel more so after the bows were had, and the applause faded from memory. That urge sits there in every performance and whispers to me,

"I want to do that.

"I want to do that . . ."

13 April 2009

1 2 3 SPRING

This weekend I went down to northern Virginia to celebrate a friend's birthday and Easter, and to meet my new niece-in-law, Hannah. It was a very fast trip, and a car was rented, which makes for a great deal more ease of travel, in spite of involving a great deal more effort on my part. It also allowed me to skip out on my own early Saturday morning for that birthday's adventures. The lucky birthday boy's wife arranged for a group of his friends to experience Inner Quest as adults. This was a popular field trip for all of us as children but, I must admit, it is so much way better as an adult. For one, nobody makes snide comments about one's athletic prowess, or lack thereof.

Well, it's done with a better sense of humor, anyway.

It was a fairly fascinating experience for me on many levels. As a youth, I only ever went to Inner Quest in my overweight phase (ages 5-16, this "phase" was) and I certainly didn't have a lot of background on the sorts of things they ask you to do there. I was a Boy Scout, and we do some challenging things in the Scouts, but rarely anything so singular as a zip wire, or climbing a 35-foot ladder (somehow that's more frightening than rock climbing). So perhaps needless to say, I was far better equipped to handle its challenges--physical and emotional--as a 31-year-old circus enthusiast. I didn't so much get a feeling of redemption from this experience, as I felt a strong need to make up for lost time. I wanted to run through, do everything, and do it all twice if I possibly could.

We did a zip wire (coast across a valley on a pulley attached to an airline cable), the "trapeze" (climb 30-or-so feet up a tree and jump from a platform to catch a trapeze), the "squirrel" (you're tied to a rope that runs up to a pulley very high in the air, and your friends are on the other end; at "go," you run in one direction and they, the other) and a "woozle" (two tightropes that wedge apart; you and a partner put your hands together and try to stay on them as far out in the widening wedge as possible). Of all of these, the trapeze was definitely my favorite. It was an awfully Batman-ish sort of challenge, and the terror I felt on that platform was unexpectedly strong. Pushing through that was an exhilarating reminder that there's a lot of new stuff I can still tackle physically, whether it's making up for lost time or finding all-new challenges. Wife Megan and I are, in fact, planning to take our first aerial class this week.

The other way in which this adventure was fascinating, though, was a quieter, less-terror-inducing one. Inner Quest is principally a team-building course, and they host school, church and corporate groups for day-long bouts of group challenges. This day was a bit like watching my own workshop curriculum writ large, stretched across valleys and up oak trees. Whether I'm teaching acrobalance or commedia dell'arte, there's always an emphasis on group work, on creating a sense of ensemble. That priority even ties back into the times I was first experiencing Inner Quest; growing up, I felt a very strong connection to the groups I was in that worked well together, theatre-oriented or otherwise. For me, there's a synergy to collaboration that simply has no match in individual efforts (if in fact any effort can be said to be purely individual). So I find the work of leading such inner-quests fascinating.

Our guides in this day, known to me only as Kate and Corey, were very accustomed to one another and seemed to be genuinely enthusiastic about the work. It was a miserable day weather-wise, rain-soaked and chilly, which made for mud, but they made sure we knew that by showing up on such a day we had impressed them. The emphasis was on fun, this being an adult birthday party, yet they kept up with their leadership techniques from what I could tell. I was struck in particular by how Kate dealt with an especially terrified friend on the trapeze platform. She just talked to her, but underlying the conversation was an awareness that she needed to balance distracting the jumper from the terror while focusing her on the task at hand. It's a delicate technique, and one that's impressed me ever since someone used it on me when I was a boy, to get me unfrozen from climbing up a couple of airline cables to the zip-wire platform.

I have had a few incidences of having to coax people into attempting the activities and/or challenges my workshops present. Some have gone better than others, of course, but it's an interesting and essential aspect of teaching. Everyone is accustomed to the idea of "requirements" for a given class or workshop, but requiring something is in my opinion antithetical to the learning process. The first step of learning is choice; take that away, and even when students accomplish something it is fleeting, personally unimportant or even ultimately resented. Inviting someone to challenge themselves, doing so in a compelling way, is a precious ability to cultivate in both teaching and other forms of leadership. It allows for progress and individuality. I'll be thinking about this a lot, no doubt, during my workshop at Swarthmore tomorrow.

There's only one thing better than springtime in NoVa, and that's autumn. But spring is pretty wonderful too, with its cherry blossoms and budding deciduous trees. I'm glad I got down there for our short weekend, and played outdoors a bit while there. On Sunday, in fact, Megan and her dad built Nephew James a new playground in the backyard. I slept in and missed most of the build, but selfishly scooped up a great deal of the payoff by playing with young James upon his first discovery of the fantastic addition to the yard. It was chilly. I definitely wished for it to be warmer as we romped around the castle, but kind of relished the youth of the season along with the youth of my companion. Before we know it, he'll be springing off platforms and hurtling through space. Eager as I am for warmer weather and more activity, the present moment is pretty wonderful, too.

09 April 2009

A Room of One's Own

I'm getting to be a bit discouraged in my hopes of revising Hereafter.

Writing the above is something like saying aloud, "I wish I sang more," instead of singing it.

And the impulse here is to explain myself, to offer reasons and excuses for why more writing hasn't gotten done, but those would just be excuses and not get me anywhere. I could also spend some time discussing the ins and outs of my psyche as it relates to this work (lucky you!) in the hopes of working out some pat answer to the question of why revision is so difficult for me. But where would that get me, but to pat-land, an area noted for its stultifying effect on progress? No, something else needs to happen here. I started this post because I wanted to warm-up my writing brain a bit, without getting distracted into another project, one what is fresh, and new, and thereby relatively problem-free.

The title of this post of course refers to Virginia Woolfe. In trying to address a lecture regarding "women and fiction," she can offer only this minor-point opinion:

"[A] woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved."

It's a pretty brilliant essay, and I'm grateful to whatever college-level English professor assigned it to me. I am not the world's biggest fan of Virginia Woolfe -- I could have spat in the eye of whoever assigned me Mrs. Dalloway to read -- but I can't deny that she was very intelligent, and very, very good at writing. Although in this essay Woolfe is writing specifically about the problems presented to female writers of her day and age, it resonates for me. I don't have a whole lot in common with the women of 1928 and I don't mean to suggest that I do, but I identify with the day-to-day struggles involved in creating a space within which one can expound and expand one's creative life.

By "space," I mean both environmental and plain ol' mental. One of the 'blogs I've been enjoying a lot lately is Lifehacker. They've had a segment for a little while now that showcases particularly beautiful and, for the most part, home, "workspaces." Every so often, a photograph of a really appealing place to sit and write drops into my Google Reader subscription bay, and I stare at it, longingly. After I've wiped away the tears and drool, I return to the reality of my cubicle, or my corner of our one-bedroom apartment's main space, and recommence paying bills or emailing potential In Bocca al Lupo students or whatever else it is I'm doing that isn't revising my script. Most of the work I've done on Hereafter has come in spurts of free time coinciding with some inspiration. Now, you can write a first draft that way, eventually. Turns out that doesn't work so well for revision. No, with revision, you have to sit there and acknowledge what you've done and accept -- nay, seek out! -- every little thing that's wrong with it.

I have probably psyched myself out in more ways than one with this. I've spent a lot of time ruminating, and not a lot of time just doing, and that can easily lead to a declension of momentum. One gets to the point at which one can see nothing but problems, and one never intended to write the durn thing in the first durn place. That's all rubbish. I get really rather T-O'd with myself for that kind of stinking thinking but, like most thoughts of that nature, it's tough to defeat when it really gets going. Such thoughts are like classic Romero zombies. You would THINK that they'd be easy enough to defeat, what with the shambling and the non-tool-using intelligence, but before you know it, and probably because you underestimated the S.o.B.s, you're trapped in a rickety old house without your shotgun and your constipated brother's there starting to twitch and crave "b-b-bran...". Psychologically speaking, of course.

Huh. A zombie Orlando (in the tradition of Pride and Prejudice). It's time, I think.

Anyway, my point is merely that grappling with revision is a bit reminiscent to me of what it's like to be in rehearsal, and just...not...GETTING IT. There's the problem(s), right there, right in front of you, and you just keep trying different things until at long last something fells like less of a total failure. Then you try some more. It's a weird place to be, because you need the desire (and resulting frustration) to some degree to keep you motivated, but you also need to let that go entirely to get anywhere. That's part of the silent magic of a rehearsal room. It's the place to make mistake, after mistake, after mistake, a place of unspoken agreement that everyone there is going to repeatedly fail, spectacularly, for the chance to make one or two moments of bright, shiny truth -- diamonds formed from compressed failure. That's what it's like at its best, anyway. Occasionally you get a director who's only interested in seeing immediate final product. Just like sometimes you get drafted into a senseless war, or are hit by a semi truck. Just like that.

Creating a space of time, thought, feeling and, of course, SPACE for writing is essential. Money helps with that. Not just in buying a nice desk and affording supplies, but in creating a lifestyle that allows some niche into which we can squeeze ourselves, and expand, until it swells into enough space to move around in. Money might have fixed up that rickety, zombie-at-baying house of ours. Money is good and essential, yet money can never replace the will and ability to make a little mental room of one's own.

08 April 2009

Coulrophobia: A Voice of Dissent

Now, I don't agree entirely with the below, but it made me laugh:

"People Who Claim to Be Afraid of Clowns
"These people (and they are numerous) are attempting to cultivate a cute quirk, but they are really just aping a cute quirk cultivated by thousands of cute-quirk-cultivators before them in a giant, gross, boring feedback loop. Yes, clowns can be mildly creepy. But come on. Among the many things that are scarier than clowns: fire, earthquakes, a guy with a knife, riding the bus, colon cancer, falling down the stairs (it could happen at any time!), rapists, people who just kind of look a little rapey and are standing too close to you in line at 7-Eleven, Marlo from The Wire, influenza, and scissors." -- Lindy West @ the Stranger

[http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/the-different-kinds-ofpeople-that-there-are/Content?oid=1206006] The whole article is generally hilarious and true, though with coarse language by the consumption of which some of our less-jaded readers may be forever altered.

See my (potentially wasted) ruminations on coulrophobia heres: 1/28/08 & 7/18/08.

Post script: The above image may take some figuring to associate with this topic, but fans of horror fiction and 80s miniseries should be all set.

07 April 2009

Point & Counterpoint

Yesterday I worked at el day jobo, taught the second half of my workshop at CCNY, attended an acupuncture appointment, made leftovers into dinner when I got home and watched the movie Bolt before climbing into bed. The only part of that which was unplanned was the movie, but we'd gotten it through Netflix some time ago and some priorities get shuffled aside when one wants new things through one's Netflix queue. By that time, at any rate, I rather felt that I had earned 90 minutes of recreation. Paid for it on the tail end, of course (or would that be the head end?) when I snoozed through my overly optimistic 6:00 AM workout alarm this morn'.

I've written about how busy I've been lately, so yesterday didn't particularly stick out for me until I considered it today. At the day job, my energy is very focused on getting things done and put away, streamlining and being efficient. The class I taught was fairly chaotic; there was a lot to cover, and it was mostly about cultivating an energy of play and exploration as we raced along. Then, at acupuncture, I continued my work on letting go. LET GO ALREADY. It's funny to think of it that way, but somewhere between my tendency to be utterly tense and power through challenges and my inclination to completely veg out in front of the tube a la bewbs is an alert relaxation that I'm trying to cultivate for acupuncture.

Every time I try to teach building a physical character to actors, I include a little gem from my first acting teacher in college, Gary Hopper. It's called "active neutral," and it serves as a kind of clean slate from which to kick into a character. The idea is that simply moving from your daily self directly into a character might permit personal idiosyncrasies to carry over, especially when you're in the delicate process of beginning to develop said character. In addition, when playing many characters, active neutral helps keep the choices distinct backstage (assuming you have time enough between changes to enact it for a moment). An active neutral state is one in which the body is set to basic, balanced and erect, face blank, but the readiness to perform, to act, is cultivated and kept at the ready inside. I can be a bit of a phallus (What? It's Latin!) when it comes to enforcing this state in class -- if I see students picking at their clothes, or zoning slightly, I'll test them all and make sure they're snapping to it. Clap! Active neutral! Clap! Relax. Clap! Active neutral!

Today it occurs to me that I'm trying to make them switch roles as quickly and completely as I often have to in my daily life. Projecting? Perhaps. But I also consider it good training for future professional actors.

02 April 2009

Done Taught Some Learnin'

Is it specifically making fun of southern folk when you use that dialect, or just making fun of ignorant folk in general? It's clearly meant to sound southern, but I can't say fer certain if that or the horrible syntax connotes stupidity.

Yesterday I taught as a guest artist in Suzi Takahashi's classroom at CCNY. In spite of being mid-cold (oh doh!) I thought it went rather well. The space was awesome: a movement studio built into the ground, so you entered to a sort of balcony overlooking the whole room, and once you descended a flight of stairs you were on a 25x35 wood floor with an approximately twenty-foot ceiling above you. The class was a slightly shifty one, but by that I don't mean they were suspicious in any way. It was a class of about 19, but a few were late, and a few had to leave variously early, and most of them weren't especially interested in theatre. In fact, many of them did turn out to be dance enthusiasts who ended up in the class due to a syllabus error. Nonetheless, they were a great group -- very attentive, and with good energy to put into the work. I worried a bit at the beginning, when some of them were exhausted by the warm-up, but they were mostly crying wolf on that count. The conditioning at the end of class . . . now that rolled them out pretty flat.

I gave them a good long warm-up, explaining as we went why we were doing particular exercises and how they related to the work. Then I got into the typical commedia dell'arte characters, introducing them one-by-one by groups: innamorati, then vecchi, then zanni. I ended up bring along some cut-outs from a calendar I bought in Italy a couple of years ago. I questioned what I would do with them when I saved them, and now I'm glad I did and surprised that I didn't immediately realize they'd be good teaching aids. Each time I introduced a type of character, we spent a little time on specific versions and always, always, keeping the students moving and trying the forms physically. They took to it beautifully, hopefully aided in that effort by my advice, "You can only fail in this form by NOT making a fool of yourself." We just had enough time to get through the three basic categories, then touch on two "hybrid characters" (Capitano and Pulcinella) before I only had ten minutes for conditioning and homework. We worked our upper bodies today (my sadism in full effect with circle push-ups) and I asked them to observe people for character studies to bring into class when next we meet.

As I say, I had a good time. The experience of teaching solo meant that I had to work a little smarter to get everyone to accept me and glom onto my humor. I hadn't realized how similar to having an audience plant it was to have a co-teacher. I also found myself looking at all this stuff, that I teach and have taught for years, in a fresh light. That really ought to happen with every different group of students, of course, but occasionally I feel less enthused about the whole thing. This time, however, something about the almost total ignorance of the form that the class had motivated me to seek out fresh connections between what they did know and instinctively performed, and what I had to add to it. Sometimes I wonder if my enthusiasm for teaching might be based a bit too much in how occasionally I do it. If I had to teach multiple classes every weekday, would it retain my interest?

Suzi and I had a bit of a conversation about this and other things related to education and making a career in the theatre after class was dismissed. She has had a very interesting (and informative, for me) path through acting, directing, bachelor's, master's and even PhD programs, and at present is adjunct teaching quite a bit in New York and elsewhere. We talked about what it was like to return to school, to teach and to get jobs in the academic theatre scene and the world at large. I don't know what to make of all we discussed just yet, but it was great to talk so openly about what I plan to do with my life over the next few years. I ended up being more plain than I generally am with other theatre folk (networking always being in the back of my mind somewhere) and learned a lot about what I see for myself and what I'd like to see.

Now this is a funny point for me. Generally speaking, I like to talk here about the tribulations and rewards of what I call The Third Life, meaning what one does in addition to a personal life and a money-making life. More and more, that distinction has come to seem artificial to the point of being obsolete. The artistry for me is not a separate part, even when the goals may seem to be in conflict with the other two parts. Catholics may prefer the divine paradox, but as for me, I was raised Unitarian, so I guess we all should have known I'd take it in that direction eventually.

Assuming that unity as real, or at least as a prospective goal, suddenly my vow to generally leave the minutiae of my personal life out of the 'blog is unwarranted. Basically unhelpful and wrong, in fact. All is one.

That having been said, don't worry: I'll still try not to flood the Internet with things like a detailed schedule of my flatulence. (Note to self: New social networking site idea: "Tooter.")

My point (and this time I do have one) is that it feels very personal, too personal, to talk completely openly here about what I want for my future. But it also feels like I need to get past that, in a way, because part of what makes me feel vulnerable is an awareness that I'll be held more accountable for anything that makes it down in type here. So I may not be as open as I could be, but henceforth I'll be more open than I have. Balance in all things, as they say. This may be a little old-dog/new-tricky for me, of course.

But, as they say, it's never too late to learn.

01 April 2009

Move Me

So begins that much-esteemed classic of hip-hop, the Beastie Boys' "Flute Loop," off of, of course, their momentous album Ill Communication. It's permanently lodged in my memory, as are many other things that happened to me between high school and college, simply by merit of having been introduced to me at such a sponge-like moment of my life. There's another spoken bit off that album that has rent control in my brain, which begins "...if I'd known it was going to be this kind of party...", but that one doesn't segue nicely into what I'm writing about today. (Lucky you.)

I have a few workshops coming up teaching commedia dell'arte to movement students. Not dancers (thank goodness) but actors and other generally untrained movers. It's an interesting opportunity, both for the ways in which I'll need to adapt curriculum to suit it, and in the ways that the dynamic will be different when I'm teaching solo. I haven't done this in awhile. My usual teaching partner, Friend Heather, is tied up in performing Brilliant Traces in Scranton, and frankly I didn't feel a need to call on anyone else to fill the gap, like Friends Patrick or Todd. I'm excited for the opportunity to teach by myself, and by what I'll learn from it. Fortunately for me, I'll be teaching college-level students, so they should be relatively attentive. More energy will go into the teaching than the wrangling.

I really resented my movement classes in college. They were mandatory and, in spite of my agreement with the idea that actors need formal movement training, I mentally fought this (I was way too obedient then to actually do anything about it). Part of what made them so infuriating was that they were taught solely by dance instructors. I would take advantage of that now, but at the time it seemed negligent of the skills we truly needed. Out of about four, I only remember one teacher who seemed to actually understand what might be useful to the young actor. When I occasionally reunite with my fellow performance majors, we still make inside jokes about carving our way through an enormous, imaginary watermelon. Watch out for the seeds!

What's suddenly quite strange for me to consider is just how pivotal (har har) movement became in my work, and how significant a factor it is in my work history. I mean, highly physical theatre is what I do. It's like my calling card. Strange then that I began with such a resistance to the work. Perhaps it was the teachers, or just my obstinate teenage mentality, but it all started to turn for me toward the end of my sophomore year at VCU. That was when I was reaching the end of my mandatory movement classes, my emotions reminiscent then of reaching the end of mandatory Phys. Ed. in high school. It was also when I was trying to figure out just why theatre was important to me, and when I auditioned for my school's production of The Three Musketeers. In that audition they tested our ability to learn fencing and used various scenes from the play to evaluate players for the callbacks. In one such scene, I played d'Artagnon stepping up to his first challenge of a duel by immediately tripping and pratfalling directly onto his face. It was a move I wouldn't even contemplate now, but old hat at the time, hearkening back to my elementary-school antics, and I'm fairly sure it's what got me the part.

Three Musketeers had a lot of influence over my self-perception in that it got me a lot more comfortable with the idea of myself as a mover, and since then, well -- it's all been downhill pratfalls. I made broad physical characteristics for differentiating a couple of summerstock characters, latched onto the Suzuki training at my next summer gig, got involved with the circus crowd in New York and finally became a founding member of a contemporary commedia dell'arte troupe. Now there's no question in my mind either about my ability to use physical choices to fill out a character, nor about the importance of that work to theatre. Theatre is the only place where an actor has that much influence and exposure to use his or her entire person to tell a story. It's exciting, really. Movement is ever-changing ideas made concrete, tangible and visceral. What's not to love?

Now that I'm the one teaching various ways of using one's body to perform, I just hope to bring that sense of permission and ability to any student with whom I cross paths. For years and years in my youth I loved slapstick and admired action movies, but assumed that because I wasn't good in P.E. that such enthusiasms were at best fantasy, at worst envy. Now I know that everyone has a physical performer in them. It's as natural as being alive, and as emotionally affecting as any word or song. Move me!