31 August 2009

Hate the Player, Not the Game

The other day I had an especially trying one at el jobbo del day, the details of which we needn't repeat, even in my imagination. (Today is looking up; I already had to kill a mammal with nothing but my cunning and a serving spoon.*) Luckily, Friend Adam had already extended an invitation to join him for some recreational activity that evening. I dutifully tromped over to the outer limits of Queens, where many n00bz were pwn3d (read: many inexperienced players had their digital avatars removed from the game by force). Of course, by "many n00bz," I mean "me, over and over again," and by "were pwn3d," I mean "trounced, most likely by 'tween boys with a 100-word limit on their available vocabulary." It was my first time playing XBox Live, you see. In spite of my adamant liability to my fellow teammates -- something I really do feel quite bad about -- I did feel considerably happier after my little adventure.

Never mind that there are some indications video games can be helpful in alleviating depression; games that conference in other live players can have a decidedly social aspect to them, not to mention the sheer teamwork involved. In the games of Halo I played the other night, our team never could have won the rounds they did without talking through what was going on. It was better communication, in many cases, than I experience in a given day at el jobbo del day. But I write not here to draw insinuations of insults by comparing a fictional war game to a real-life office environment (not here, anyway) but rather to discuss the prejudice against games.

What prejudice? You may well wonder. People love games. They watch reality TV for the games people play, and football for the games titans play. We even have fantasy football, in order to play a game outside of the game. Gambling is a short-form game, and driving is a rather high-stakes action game. Games abound. Even video games are getting a great deal of respect these days, comparatively speaking. Gaming consoles are bleeding cool into what was once a domain of the ubergeek, and even housewives are getting excited by the Wii whilst stock brokers eagerly anticipate the next Call of Duty installment. Heck: "Gaming" and "gamer" have been appropriated into terms associated almost solely with video games, as far as the mass audience is concerned.

In spite of all this acceptance, imaginative gaming (and I'm coining a phrase here) continues to get a bad rap. Perhaps it's because of all the acceptance; I think it's an ingrained habit for we humans to define ourselves by what we reject, what we do not believe in, and if we're accepting all this other gaming, maybe we need something to point a finger at and say, "Bleargh!" I don't understand it, frankly. I never have, and that inability to understand has resulted in countless awkward social predicaments from about age five on up to now. However, it's also resulted in some of my most rewarding experiences in life. So I stick with being a little different in this sense.

What do I mean by "imaginative gaming"? I mean improvisation. I mean games that are relatively free from conventional constraints. I mean role-playing games (RPGs), but I don't mean the kind that can be played on a computer (as of now, that is) nor do I mean only RPGs. I perceive a unique category of games that spans a bunch of different categories, yet has very much earned a distinction in being rather more openly creative than the rest. I'm basically naming something here that I like, personally, but I'm inclined to believe that I'm not alone in this specific preference. Expatriate Younce outlined some categories of RPG play for me a couple of years back (gamist, narrativist and . . . and . . . LOOK, A SEAGULL!) but these are more styles of playing than descriptions of the game itself. Imaginative gaming is any game in which the players are the ultimate authority over the rules. It is a play in which the sense of play is more important than any other element -- meaning the game itself is based on how well it is played, not how well it is won. Moreover, if this scares you or sounds ridiculous, imaginative gaming is as applicable to buying groceries as it is to making up stories around a table. Movies can be written with it, and difficult negotiations can be compromised with it.

We've all been in the position of working with someone whom we don't particularly appreciate or enjoy, and in some ways playing with such people is much worse. (And I'm perfectly comfortable admitting that I have been just such an undesirable player on more than one occasion, for more than a few people.) Memories such as these make us cautious, and resistant to new experiences. We want to be able to control outcomes, or at least be supported in the belief that control is a factor at all. But the beauty of a game is that we get to be surprised by what occurs, and we get to test ourselves against adversity of all kinds, within a contained environment. Maybe learning to play well with others is one of these challenges. I personally believe that anyone can be a welcome addition to play, if only you can find a good way to play with them.

All this is just to say: Try not to hate the player but, even if you can't achieve it, find a love for the game. It's all some kind of game, after all, and the games that are most true to life are the ones in which we create our own rules.

*My cunning is less lethal than the spoon; luckily (for me) the little guy had run across the wrong side of a glue trap.

20 August 2009

Winds of Change

Last night I sat down with Sister Virginia and began to help her study for a test she has to pass in order to achieve a job as a nurse practitioner -- I think of it as the Bar Exam for Insanely Specialized Nurses (henceforth, BEISN [though if you quote me on that, no one else will know what in the heck'n'shoot you're talking about]). I enjoy doing this with my sister, bizarrely enough. It feels like a familiar game, probably owing to my continuous necessity for memorizing lines, and I'm always eager to figure out new ways of encouraging her to order her thoughts and make details really memorable. My approach uses a lot of techniques I've picked up in memorizing scripts but, more significantly, utilizes one big acting idea behind all script memorization. That is: specificity is important because every word and structural element holds a clue to your story and has a reason behind its use. In other words, memorize meaning as well as facts. It's the only way to lock in those lines.

But I digress (probably because it feels like it's been a long time since I was writing here about an actual script, and I've been reading so many plays lately). This current bout of studiousness is in preamble to my sister possibly moving out of the city for work. She has a good thing going with Johns Hopkins, and passing this test would be the solidifying factor in that trial run. I'm very happy for this possibility, for a number of reasons. It would be good work for her, she'd be closer to my parents and NoVa, and I have learned to love Baltimore a bit. I'm very unhappy for this possibility for one reason. That is, it means my sister will, after some seven years in New York, no longer live in the same city as me. I love my sister, and will miss her.

Perhaps not for long, though. Coming up on my ten-year anniversary of having moved to the beeg ceety, I consider more and more the possibilities of picking my show up and moving it somewhere else. I used to fight this idea, but lately it has seemed surprisingly exciting to me; "exciting" being the last thing it seemed when I was a mere youth. I've lived my entire adult life around New York City, and have a lot to learn about living elsewhere. Plus it seems to me that more and more the kind of work I enjoy doing is better suited to a different environment. I'm not sure what, just yet, but figuring that out is part of the potential fun of it.

Man, but I love New York. Things I love about it, in no particular order:
  • It's so messed up. Seriously: It is. There's plenty of facade of it being this gleaming pinnacle of mankind's ambitions, but every time I see a movie like You've Got Mail, I have to laugh. Give me The French Connection, give me The Warriors. That's still underneath it all in New York, no matter how much veneer Hollywood uses.

  • New York is honest. To a fault. I'm not saying there isn't an absurd amount of lying that goes on, and on a second-by-second basis. I mean, it's the financial capital -- of course there's a ton of lying. But if you're walking down the street, and someone doesn't like the look of you, you don't know it from a plaster grin. You know it from an honest expression, and me, I love that.

  • It is a petri dish of culture. At the same time a world-famous production of Hamlet is closing its run at Lincoln Center, a tiny show that only a handful of people saw is closing -- and we'll never know which will prove more significant. Music flows through here like a river wider than the East, and artists happily, slowly kill themselves to work out just what they're trying to say. Everyone has an opinion, and everyone is moved by something they come in contact with. You never, ever have to search for a cultural experience. Every day, all around, it's happening.

  • New York is a city of individuals. I doubt that there's a better place for people watching, anywhere. Sure, it has types, and conformity, and all that (you've got to identify yourself with some tribe) but from one block to the next is a shuffled deck of personalities and ways of expressing that. Sometimes, too, I think of it as a city of superheroes, with secret identities, because who knows what the suit does with his nights, or the hipster does with her family. Love it. Love. It.

  • Food. Twenty-four hours, from all over the world. Dig it.

  • It's difficult to not be doing something here. I mean, you've really got to work at it. Sometimes I feel like I was reincarnated from a shark, because one of the worst sensations I know is to stop moving. Ask anyone who's vacationed with me: I'm a pain. I like having somewhere to be, something to get done, and when you take that away from me I eventually begin to have problems with very basic activities (such as: breathing). New York is good for keeping one purposeful, and on his or her toes.

  • Circus. New York has it. Does your town?

  • New York is about as historical as the U.S. of A. gets. "What about Jamestown, Williamsburg (we have one, too) and Plymouth Rock?", I hear you cry. Dudes (oh my dudes), I grew up near a lot of such history, and it's poppycock. Sure, significant stuff happened there, and maybe an earthen mound or two remains, but more recently what happened there is that it has been rehashed, developed into more tourism than history. In New York, in spite of all the development, you get to turn a corner and find extant historical architecture. We live in and amongst it, and that's what history is really for.

  • People talk to each other here. This last one is a little difficult to explain to anyone who hasn't experienced it for themselves. New York sometimes gets referred to as "the biggest little town," and it's largely because of this phenomenon. Here, it is not considered rude to start up a conversation with a stranger. Here, you are likely to get advice from someone you don't know on the subway, because they have overheard your conversation. Different places have this, I realize, but there's something about this particular strange, unspoken, common identity shared by approximately 8,143,000 people that makes me very, very happy.
Of course, I could very easily make a "cons" list as well. After all, it's August in New York -- it would be very easy. But I think everyone knows the cons, to one degree or another. And anyway, the point is that someday . . . maybe sooner than we think . . . I won't live here anymore. People I meet thereafter may not understand why I moved at all, because I'll keep talking about missing the city. If and when I leave, it will be for good reasons, but it won't change any of the above.

Change is the only inevitability, it's been said, and I believe it. Still, some things in my life to date have proven especially resistant to change, and such things are usually related to love. And I love this town.

17 August 2009

Scaling Hypotheses

I am a great lover of hypothetical questions. To my mind, they are the most efficient method of getting a person to write you a very brief and personally grounded bit of fiction. Maybe this, too, is why many people avoid hypothetical questions -- they're all-too aware of how revealing their answers may be. I think these sorts of questions are a little too entertaining to be concerned for my own exposure, though. Over the years I've tried to disguise my hypothetical questions in forms people won't find too fanciful or threatening. Instead of asking, "If you were trapped on a desert island with a CD player and only five albums, which would they be?", I go for, "Top five albums?" Even then, many balk. "You're allowed to change your mind," I insist. Still, nuthin'. Some favorites of mine:
  • Would you rather be able to fly, or become invisible at will?

  • If you had to pick one musical artist or band to compose a running soundtrack behind your every moment, who would it be?

  • What would you do if you knew you had three weeks to live?

I thought of a new one the other day, and a series of events seemed to conspire to bring me back to my answer to it, over and over. I had the answer before I had the question, to be completely honest. The answer: Climb. The eventual question:

  • If you could only do three things for the rest of your life, which three voluntary actions -- besides sleeping, eating and sex -- would you choose?

So when I put it to myself that way, I came up with to climb, act and write. I took some time with it, because I figured that given more options I might come around to see that to climb was not my life's greatest ambition. And it's true. I don't aspire to climb, particularly. What it is about the act of climbing that puts it at number one is that it makes me the happiest out of these three things I love to do. This is very interesting to me. I notice that I am not a professional rock climber, nor a telephone-pole repairman, nor even a stuntman, per se. I could make some practical assertions as to why not, but all of these would crumble once applied to my chosen aspiration of maintaining a legitimate acting career.

I'm not sure I can explain what it is about climbing -- simply climbing -- that is so satisfying to me. It seems like such a simple action, yet it always cheers me up somehow, to the extent that if I had to give up acting or climbing, I really don't know which one I'd choose. (So please: Nobody ask me that one.) Writing's third because I love it, but it's solitary, and acting's second because it comes with some really nauseating lows right along with the dizzying highs. But climbing, it's very pure, and uplifting (see what I did there) and heck: I just don't know. I fantasize about getting a grant to do performance art for which I climb various public sculptures, turning major American cities into playgrounds. From what I've heard, I've always been this way. One of the earliest stories of me that my parents have involves climbing to the top of an nine-foot-tall metal giraffe. This same story also highlights a rather strange accompanying fear: of heights.

I don't know what this says about me, and I don't particularly care. I get a greater sense of reward out of definitively identifying a little joy for myself than I do out of plumbing its roots and motivations. So I instead put it to you, Dear Reader:

  • If you could only do three things for the rest of your life, which three voluntary actions would you choose?
Remember: Fun, not Freud.

06 August 2009

In Defense of la Commedia dell'Arte

A disclaimer: I do not claim to be any sort of authority on the art and history of the traditional Italian commedia dell'arte.

An opinion: No one is, really. Not anymore. There simply weren't enough written records kept (indeed, this contributed to the genre's definition) and the oral tradition is -- by its nature -- subject to evolution in any and all aspects.

A philosophical theory: Commedia dell'arte theatre exists as we make it, and is defined by a method and process more than by specific style elements or traditional strictures. It is in essence a living tradition, one that influences and is influenced by the life and art that surrounds it.

Allora. I feel that there exists in my community here in the United States (and possibly all over the western hemisphere, but I write to what I know) a prejudice against the commedia dell'arte. Perhaps it's futile to address this possibility, given how small a percentage of the population has any idea what the commedia dell'arte is, even in concept, but I'm a theatre artist. Futile pursuits are what I was born to pursue. Plus, it riles me somewhat that the people who are aware of the commedia dell'arte are somehow unaware of its nature. (Just look at this riling on my forearms. And that's only the part that shows!) The Cd'A (went there - for the Twitter crowd) has gotten a bad rap.

Rep? Rap. Rap? A rep, rap, the reppie the reppie to the rep rep rap and I don't stop.

I've had two profound experiences with the genre and its practitioners in the past year, and both have fueled my desire to set the record a bit straighter, but especially the latter. First, in January we began two months' work on a commedia dell'arte and clown production called The Very Nearly Perfect Comedy of Romeo & Juliet. In this production we worked with two Italian artists, Angelo Crotti and Andrea Brugnera, and learned much about how the commedia dell'arte informed all of their work. Most recently, our study-abroad, cutural-immersion extravaganza, In Bocca al Lupo, concluded its 2009 program, in which the students received training from both these artists as well as we members of Zuppa del Giorno, and performed an original Scala scenario, semi-improvised, in Italian, in two Italian towns. This program is one that always yields surprising, dramatic results; this year, for me, it proved to be tremendously inspirational.

The problem with some people's perception of the commedia dell'arte is, in my opinion, that they perceive it to be juvenile, gross and pandering to the public. There are other factors involved that typical western audiences can have trouble digesting -- the use of masks, the lack of script -- but primarily the problem seems to lie in the commedia dell'arte being stuck with a stigma of being the lowest common denominator in theatre . . . both in terms of content and execution. And, worse yet, this perception is perpetuated by numerous well-intentioned(?) artists. I recall a performance I saw a couple of years ago in which a prop of fake linked sausages was performing with more truth than almost all of the other actors. Shakespeare suffers from similar widespread abuse -- people basing their work on their experience of the form rather than on an understanding of the function. The difference is, with commedia dell'arte theatre there's no one reminding you and insisting that it's really quite good when done well. Well, there's me, today, and there's this guy, pretty much always. And many others, but nothing like the masses of famous Shakespeare scholars and advocates.

We had a diverse group of students for In Bocca al Lupo this year, just as we did the first time we ran the program, in 2006 -- from undergrad theatre students to middle-aged non-actors, and even one professional actor who was close to my age (but even she is from Australia, where absolutely everything is strange and backward and strange). As if sadists, we threw them into intensive classes the day after their plane arrived: hours of Italian immersion class and then they were introduced to Angelo Crotti, who promptly worked our bodies so hard that the next day you couldn't help but feel that you were somehow being punished, perhaps for being so complacent a human being as to not regularly imitate the walk of an alligator for at least ten minutes every day. Heather and I attended all these classes with the students (though we had trained with Angelo extensively before, how could we turn down the opportunity to do so again?) and experienced first hand their struggles and responses. As we began to see, from the very first day, this was not a group that shrunk from challenge.

After intensive physical training and an introduction to the characters and mask work, Angelo ended his (too) few days with us by creating an on-the-spot scenario. It was a little like taking a trip inside his brain, and I know I was often struggling to keep up, so I can only imagine what my fellow actors thought of it. It was fascinating, though, because we got to superimpose Angelo's years of experience on our own relative ignorance, and try to reconcile the two. Watch as gli studenti -- Maureen Arscott, Beth Burkhauser, Marti Cate, Gemma Cavoli, Brian Jones, Becky Lighthizer, Carolyn Ruggiero, Heather Stuart and Addam Wawrzonek -- learn from a master:

Forgive our efforts at acting and mask work (for most of us, it is the first time for both or either, and everyone's just trying to do as they were asked here) but, more importantly, watch the glimpses of Angelo's work the lesson affords. The only thing lacking here is him in mask, which is an incredibly effective thing. It works when he does it because he can be believed. With all the artifice and style and for all the funny fun he's having, he can be believed. Angelo is not, perhaps, the most gentle of teachers. Yet as we reached the end of our time with him, the lessons he repeated were less to do with Arlecchino's stance or needing to put more energy into it, and more and more to do with a repeated imperative: "You must believe in what you are doing."

Angelo's other big axiom, oft repeated while we were working on R&J, is "all is for the audience." This is one that I tend to shy away from a bit, because I've been trained on some instinctive level to perceive working for the audience as pandering. What's interesting is the way in which this axiom can easily be perverted in the same way the commedia dell'arte style can, by putting emphasis on form over function. Ergo, pandering. Of course, as with most things, we have to practice the form over and over again before understanding the function. My understanding of what Angelo means, as far as I've gotten with it, is that the actor must be absolutely generous with the audience in this work. The form is to keep the mask presented forward; the function, to not only maintain the connection with the audience, but make that connection as strong and inclusive as possible.

Fast forward now, through two weeks' continued training and rehearsal, through more Italian lessons and great exercises from Andrea in character development and creation, through innumerable personal experiences (good and bad [sorry: helpful and less-helpful]), through even an initial performance of our scenario (The Two Faithful Notaries) in which we hit all the important plot points with clarity, yet somehow failed to create actual theatre. Fast forward to our second and final performance, in Orvieto. For whatever reason, we had an audience of five adults, one toddler. We held the curtain for about thirty minutes in hopes of more (not unexpected, that: Italy, after all), which is a tough time for actors in general, but especially difficult prior to an intensely physical, comic performance. At last we parted the curtains for our tiny audience.

You know that question about trees in forests and the existential quandary of an unwitnessed fall?

It was a brilliant show. Brilliant. I venture to say everyone of us learned from it and surprised ourselves. It felt to me more like the work that we set out to do with Zuppa del Giorno than even many of our own shows have. There's video of it, but I don't have it and I suspect it's pretty terrible (yes, even worse than my handheld digital camera work) and besides, video always leaves out the best thing about live performance: the direct, real-time communication with an audience. So you'll just have to believe me about how everyone, across the board, ultimately found the show together, and brought characters to life instead of simply getting them "right," and improvised golden bits of true comedy, and lived all the wants and needs and instinctive responses out loud, and on a grand, beautifully physical scale. You have to believe me because it's true, and because that belief is what I've been carrying around with me since I returned to the US of A, and it will make you smile like I do just to think of it.

At its best, the commedia dell'arte offers all the most enjoyable parts of theatre, dance, stand-up, circus (and a little you-name-it, always) in a format that is utterly inviting and inclusive. There's two sides to every coin, of course, and as one of the first recorded commercially motivated theatre genres it can be terrible. We can make it formal beyond repair, or pandering to laughter and coinage, or simply a mess. That's very easy to do. When we make it great, however, there's nothing like it. There are many contributing factors to such greatness. Lots and lots of technical work and training ought to go into any performer taking it on. It's a very difficult form, in my opinion, and as with circus part of the trick is in making it look easy. Most important of all of that, however, is belief. Believing in what you're doing and feeling, the audience's belief in you and your belief in them, and believing in the commedia dell'arte itself.

My point? Just to draw a little attention to what I consider to still be a rather neglected and abused form. Maybe also to say: Make gooder art, everyone. The things we create aren't always magic, but on those occasions when they are . . . hoo-boy . . .

04 August 2009

An Event

I'm fascinated by accounts of the theatre and opera as places where people went to be seen, to make important deals and carry out vital communication. They seem to me rather like revisionist history, so biased am I to the notion that theatre is of itself the purpose of going to the theatre. I read about some important assignation that took place in the opera house and immediately think, "Oh come now, Author -- being a bit dramatic with the staging now, aren't we?" Yet I have to acknowledge that such meetings were a vital part of what kept the theatre alive in its glory days. Imagine a world without Twitter (it's easy if you try) or even phones -- to see and be seen was the only way to exist in whatever social strata you lived or aimed to live.

Whilst in Italy we sat down with Hanna Salo of
Teatro Boni fame, and had a discussion as to what we could bring with us next year in terms of a production. The discussion turned to a trading of agreement about the frustration of getting audience these days, be it in Italy or the US or, I don't know, Istanbul (not Constantinople). We had just had the inauguration of their refurbished outdoor anfiteatro, which had the feeling one wants every theatrical event to have -- one of a community coming together to meet each other anew and have a good time doing it. In the wake of this, I suggested that shows should be orchestrated to be more like events somehow. Events are what make people leave their places now-a-days. Events are exciting and promising and lend themselves to word-of-mouth advertising.

My notion was met with underwhelming enthusiasm, but the underwhelmation (is SO a word) was both well-intentioned and earned. Hanna and David Zarko have been struggling with the bizarre ups and downs of creating an audience for years now, on the front lines. Events come and go, and sometimes they even result in big groups, but repeating it is a different trick. Repeating it with any consistency is yet another. And here's the kicker: How does one keep it theatre, and genuine, while event-ing it up? No, my idea was not the solution for which we are searching.

And yet. I keep thinking about it. Some things I've remembered, and that have come up recently to feed this nascent fire:

  • Wife Megan gets really, really excited by rock concerts, and I sometimes wish I could bottle that and infect people with it to get them to come to theatre shows. Music concerts don't have to advertise all too hard. People know what they're getting, but don't know, at the same time. There's both familiarity and the potential for surprise.

  • The social event is the thing that nothing else can quite replace. Sure, if you really want to, you can live as an Internet hermit your whole life, but it's not very nice in the long run. People want to be around other people, preferably happy people, and when they are they want to socialize in some respect, whether that's discussing politics or screaming and making archaic hand gestures with great enthusiasm. Theatre repels, I think, in part because it is seen as discouraging participation and socialization. Sit here. Watch this. Don't talk.

  • An old acquaintance in DC -- Casey Kaleba -- is making headlines with his production of Living Dead in Denmark, which is a battle-rich fantasy set around classic Shakespeare characters (written, I might add, prior to all this hyper-popular zombie meta stuff of the past few years). I think people respond to this because it sounds like fun, and a unique experience. I know the theatre up here in NYC that premiered it (though I've never seen a single show of theirs) because it's this weird, sort of wonderfully fun idea: Vampire Cowboys.

  • The shows I've been a part of that succeeded in terms of audience had many features of an event-ful nature. They involved a number of people from a cohesive community, or had an accessible concept, or incorporated popular elements, or had a limited engagement, or were especially current, or some combination thereof. Many of those that failed in this regard had similar elements . . . but I also daresay we could feel when adequate anticipation had not been cultivated, prior to the event.
  • When I was young, the circus literally came to town. They'd set up a huge tent in the junior high soccer field, or occupy the Patriot Center, and for a little while conversation for children and adults would revolve around whether you'd been, or were going, or why you couldn't this year. This happened too with the ice-capades, but to a lesser degree, because you knew that someday you WOULD BE JUDGED. (I'm judging myself right now.) It was regular, annual, and as much an event as anything since.
  • At this point, I go to the movies for three reasons: 1) I want to be among the first to see something, to be able to discuss it; 2) I want to experience a particular movie with a group, or on a large screen, for whatevere reason particular to the movie; and/or 3) I want to be out, doing something, and often breaking routine. With all the alternative, affordable ways of seeing films now, these are my reasons. To be part of an event.
  • People go to parties for numerous reasons, any of which have the potential for a temporarily happier existence: food, drink, sex, excitement and/or all the emotions and changes associated with social activity. Similar to concerts, parties let you know what you can expect, but hold potential for great surprise. Cover, no cover, social circle, menu, open bar or no, these things are announced. Where you'll be and what you'll be doing at two AM, that's up to you and God.
Now me, I usually have a miserable time at parties. I'm too self-conscious, and the schmooze factor grates on me. I can probably count on one hand the excellent experiences I've had at parties, and they have several factors in common. I knew a good number of people there, we were united in some goal and/or people were more interested in having fun than getting somewhere. If I were good at parties, I probably would be in sales or somesuch, but I'm not, I'm in theatre, and we should be hosting parties, it seems.

The problem is (just one?) once you've identified event potential, and risen to the challenge of meeting it, and marketed your event successfully, and are on your way to repeating it . . . how do you keep what you're doing what you're doing? In other words, how can you invite discussion and participation from everyone without making it into a chaotic talk-show mess? Or feed bodies as well as souls without creating the dreadful dinner theatre? Or make something be perceived as special over and over again without resorting to gimmicks and trickery?

Maybe the answer is that you can't. I don't know. But I'm fascinated by the questions right now, for two reasons. One, I want to be a part of making theatre that is regarded as an event of this kind, even if it doesn't mean any more money or career advancement for me. Two, I am (as is this here 'blog) moving toward more integration in my outlook. (I hate how Microsoft that sentence ended up sounding, through no fault of my own.) That means asking both more of myself, and more from my world in general. I think the world can take it. Me, that remains to be seen. I don't mean to make a big, whoopin' deal out of this.

But I do mean to make it an event.

03 August 2009

Threes . . .

{A brief note from the Aviarist: Started this back in June, prior to being consumed by In Bocca al Lupo, so do forgive the lack of timeliness. There are still some ideas here I like. Anyway...}

All my theories about the nature of humor aside, they're not just for comedy {Threes, that is.}.

This post is inspired in part, of course, by the strange coincidence (in every sense of that word) of the recent celebrity deaths. Personally, I tend to perceive a desire for meaning where others might perceive an actual meaning, or pattern. Does this biscuit resemble a face to you? Yes, it does, but I believe that's because our most necessary and long-established pattern recognition ability is related to human faces, not because your biscuit is trying to tell you something. However, even I am given pause by the phenomenon of triple demises, or even just triple serious injuries. Maybe we're looking for a pattern to something that's very frightening for us, to make it somehow more rational, and pinpoint a supposed "end" of such a cycle. I don't know. But I know I have more trouble embracing that rationale for times such as those.

For the record, I'm not torn up about any of our recently departed entertainers. I usually am not when it comes to celebrities. Jim Henson was a big blow, and I continue to mourn in my own little way Jeff Buckley and Elliott Smith. But on the whole, I react to celebrity demise with a "how sad," not any profound catharsis. I did not, after all, know them, no matter how well I know their work.

In our work as Zuppa del Giorno, I and my comrades-in-comedy are always searching for and instructing others in "the comic three." We express this a number of different ways: set-up, narrative and punch-line; catch, wind-up and release; introduction, suspension and delivery. Typically, the real tricky beat for performers -- especially those unaccustomed to any stylized acting -- is the middle one. This is totally understandable in this context. It's the least concrete part, of indeterminate length, and it often functions in mysterious ways when it comes to a joke in particular. Is it exposition, important detail for later use, or is it in fact a misdirection that makes some sort of punchline or payoff possible? There's another set of basic terms we use to describe a progression of three: beginning, middle and end.

I can't say for certain what it is about threes that make them so generally comprehensive for we humans. Why is it that a three -- a beginning, middle and end -- should make sense to us on such a basic level? Why not a five, or a two? For the most part, I'm content to accept it as a fact. However, an idea occurred to me while I was mulling over for the umpteenth time this week what I find an interesting supposition. Maybe even a draft of an explanation. It has to do with how we, as individuals, perceive time. Maybe it's because we can't ever completely reconcile the past, present and future. Maybe it has to do with our relationship to reality as we understand it.

{Insert fart joke here.}

Now look: As much as my syntax and unabashed love for the layered parenthetical may argue against it, I am not a fan of pretentious theory. We can expound all day on reality, and perception, and philosophy, and phlah phlah phlah. I'll love it. Hell yeah, abstraction. Bring it. So long as it stays in the realm of discussion, and doesn't wander into realms of authority because, brothers'n'sisters, we just don't know. We don't. What we have are ideas, and ideas are exciting things. But let's keep our pants on, 'cause there's a time and a place. (And the naked philosophy party starts at my place at 9:00, Friday.) My idea, then, is something like this:

We all have distinct relationships with our pasts, or memories, and our futures, or dreams. We try to live in the present, most of us, because that's where it's at, man. Yet we're tugged, one way and another. The past seems to offer us answers, if only we can understand it well enough, the future to offer us hope for change. When you come right down to it, this paradigm makes up such an encompassing framework for our perception at large that it's extremely difficult to escape. When we speak about it in greater absolutes, it is a unifying experience for literally everyone alive today, regardless of culture or credo: we are born, we live, and we die. It's the great commonality, and so that rhythm translates across any border. It's the music of comedy. As for why students of comedy seem to have the most trouble with the middle bit, well, isn;t that the same in life, too?

Sure, yes, okay -- I acknowledge that this could be a rather backwards deduction, fitting reality to a three because threes are there. I could be seeing faces in biscuits here. But it's an intriguing idea to me, nonetheless. Plus, it makes me laugh.

IBaL: Selected Photos

02 August 2009



In Bocca al Lupo is a non-stop program. On their three-week course, the students have only two free days. They also have two days of gita scholastici which add the time up to two full weekends, in which we go see shows and visit towns and regions they otherwise might not, but that's as much as to say that it's a required activity. They need context for their huge undertaking, and we all need that kind of time outside the rehearsal or class rooms to really develop a personal bond. After all, a sense of ensemble is critically essential to the final project.

We had a week to plan and prepare and, quite frankly, relax before they arrived. They hit the ground running, however. The very next day, after their flight got in, they began language classes at Lingua Si and master classes in commedia dell'arte with Angelo Crotti in a converted convent. I can attest to the fact that the language classes are mentally taxing, and as far as Angelo's classes go, well . . . any Crotti class you can limp away from is a good one. They did brilliantly. There were some breakdowns, but no dramas, and by the end of the week, everyone had forgotten their aching gams, bid Angelo a bitter-sweet adieu, and managed to speak enough Italian to make sense of their little world in Orvieto.

So we moved them to Aquapendente and took away their language classes.

In Aquapendente our artistic home is Teatro Boni, a beautiful little classical theatre complete with velvet seats and crystal chandelier. Boni is where the students began their master classes with Andrea Brugnera, who emphasizes a more internal approach to character creation and story-telling. It's at this time that we also introduced them to the scenario they would be learning and performing—in Italian—and began that work. The trade-off for not having Angelo's physical demands during this time is that we begin regular “conditioning,” as I've come to call it. At the end of every day, after master classes and rehearsal, for a half an hour, I get to lead the students through strength and endurance exercises. I'd be lying if I said I didn't relish this. Some part of me misses working with a circus troupe, still.

This period is a complex one in many ways. One of the objectives is to encourage the students to learn improvisation as not just a useful skill in dealing with problems, but a preferable one. So, even as we're asking them to memorize a story and do things “right,” we're also trying to encourage thinking (or perhaps more appropriately, feeling) spontaneously and in a spirit of discovery. This ripples through everything we do, including trying to locate parking on a group trip. It's frightening. Everyone reacts differently. Most people struggle to get a grip on something concrete, to get it “right.” They ask for a written copy of the scenario, which we never provide, as it's important to learn the story through one's body and connections with others. They aim for consistency in on-stage exchanges, and we do what we can to shake them out of these. They come to rely on certain routines (such as the conditioning) and we viciously disrupt them.

It's also a complex time because we are becoming an ensemble. Relationships that are akin to a family are nascent, and manifest in both helpful and unhelpful ways (when your priority is improvisation and doing, terms like "good" and "bad" prove decidedly unhelpful). Not only are the students living and working together, and in the process attempting to avoid falling into reality television cliches, but we as teachers are becoming their directors and - in my and Heather's cases - fellow actors. We all have to depend on one another and, even as we're getting past the polite or glamorous demeanor of first encounters, the idea of treating everyone you work with as an inspired poet and artist turns from a nice idea into an essential survival tool.

In the third and final week, I invariably wonder to myself, Can it really have been only two weeks? Yet the performances loom and there seems still to be a million things to decide and discover. People despair and laugh uncontrollably and have personal revelations, and none of it helps us feel any more prepared for our first audience. The students have their second brush-up Italian lesson while we teachers hasten to pay rent on theatres and generally determine what use of rehearsal time will be most useful. And then whoosh, flash, bang: It's over. Over two or three days, all our fruition and reversed expectations. And we part ways. And it seems impossible that we are indeed going to go separate ways, much less that we've known each other for only a few weeks, and not most of our lives.

The students this year were absolutely amazing, and a privilege to work with. I'll have much more write specifically about their work and the particular experience in the coming days. Until then, I simply savor the glow of it all. While working on a show, it often seems impossible, even when it's with a script, and in English. The feeling after you pull it off, especially when you pull it off well . . . well. Suffice it to say the night never feels so refreshing in the piazza, and the gelato never so sweet.