28 September 2009

A Phone, Yes. But Smart...?

Those of you who follow me like hawks on Twitter (the many, many people who are all up in my @AcroRaven junk) know that I found a convenient excuse to make the plunge into so-called smart-phone territory. I coyly tweeted from the purchase, "no, not THAT smartphone," thereby piquing the curiosity of the entire nation. Well, Nation (I will someday be Colbert's body double), peek at this. That's what I done and got myself. And so far, I'm pretty happy about it.

Ironically enough, it's actually a much better phone-phone than the last I had. The sound quality's better, the overall ergonomics: entirely better. So I feel non-silly about that. And I have to admit that the purchase has me on some much better habits of communication so far. Something about being alerted to incoming emails keeps me vigilant about sending them back out, and that leads to better communication and more things getting done. It also lends itself to more things being on my plate at a time, of course, but that's rather what I was asking for when I joined this technological demographic, idn't it? That and, naturally, endless Sudoku puzzles.

Friend Sarah and I have occasionally exchanged emails about a collaborative theatre project that addresses information and communication technologies and what effects they've had on our behavior. The irony of this is that Sarah lives in San Diego, and frankly the only reason we can begin to contemplate such a collaboration is because of the devices that have developed in the past five years for exactly this type of communication. I have a rather love/hate relationship with the new forms, particularly with regard to how they've influenced theatre, but there's no escaping their relevance. We can outright deny them, sure, and there's value in that approach, but frankly I'm enamored of them all. The prospects of Google Wave are exciting to me, I must confess. Would I rather sit in the same room as people, read their faces and experience their energy (or be aware of a lack of it) first hand? Yes, a thousand times. Yet I also get a charge out of being connected to friends and collaborators in Pennsylvania, California and the United Kingdom.

Now I am a giant leap closer to being entirely plugged in to the "ambient awareness" of which so many write. I can let anyone who may be listening know where I am and what I'm doing in great detail at the very moment of my existence. I've done a bit of this, but frankly, I can;t keep up the way others do. If I tweeted and Facebooked-it as much as others, I'm not sure I'd actually be accomplishing anything else. Yet many do, and I suppose I envy them a bit. perhaps I'll get better at this whole thing with time, but I'm not certain that I want to get better at it. I rather like having this many choices about how I communicate with folks, but the choice itself is defeated if it gets to the point at which I'm serving the mode, rather than the mode serving me. So in spite of my recent acquisition, people will still be hearing from me in person quite a bit. In fact, I rather miss the days when it was a little more socially acceptable to show up at a friend's door. Now such a surprise would be considered rather creepy by all sorts of otherwise friendly and open people.

I know someone who had this advice for his child upon her moving to New York: YCNYDLNYCY. That translates into, "You change New York; don't let New York change you." (I wonder if he ever sent this advice via text?) It's a fairly inspiring bit of caring wisdom, and can easily be applied to all sorts of information-technology applications. (I'm tempted to type YCHTMLDLHTMLCY [and so I have] but I don't really know what I'd be saying with it.) It's impossible to deny, however, that the relationships in any case are utterly reciprocal, if not nigh symbiotic. We can't change anything without it changing us right back, and we're not adrift in a world that is rapidly dehumanizing us, nor one that is creating splendid multi-cultural interconnectedness, either. As thinking, feeling, viscerally connected creatures, we are engaged in this dialogue and responsible for every aspect of it. I embrace that, to my modest capability, and with a little luck it will help me to create with a little more truth, a little more connection.

K thx bai.

25 September 2009

21 September 2009

In Defense of the Small Theatre

A popular phrase in the theatre addresses the generally accepted philosophy of a regularly working actor: There are no small parts; merely small actors. I confess to you now -- I have not even a small idea what this is supposed to mean. It has been quoted at me my entire life, and I have gone from bafflement to frustration and back again pondering the ambiguity of the saying. (Most theatre traditions seem intentionally ambiguous; the Freemasons have nothing on us.) Does it mean the actor that worries over the size of his or her part is a small-minded individual? Does it mean a part comes across as small only when the actor lacks sufficient panache with which to fulfill it? Does it in fact mean, "Listen kid: Ya' gotta start somewheres..."? (My theatre-authority inner-voice always sounds like a cigar-chomping box-office manager from the '40s Bronx.) I smile, and accept, and usually think, Well, at least so-and-so's using theatre terms, so the form can't quite be on its dying gasp...

This weekend past I had the opportunity to see two shows, which inevitably invites comparison. One was rather modest in scale, the other a hugely financed Broadway play, transplanted from London. Now, these are not forces I consider to be in any sort of opposition to one another. Are Broadway shows a threat to regional theatre? God, no. Does regional theatre stand for some kind of principle against big-budget shows? Nope. So why am I writing about them together? What on earth could the Electric Theatre Company's production of The Dining Room have to do with Donmar Warehouse's of Hamlet?

Apart from both plays dealing with the passing of a way of life in some larger sense, very little. My comparison comes from a feeling of renewed appreciation for more intimate theatrical settings. It's very convenient, of course, for me to favor smaller theatres. ETC is where I do most of my work, after all, with its 99ish seats and relatively low-ceilinged performance space. Amor fati, as they say. Yet my appreciation of the venue in general goes beyond that, to much more objective criteria. I have to admit that the budgets are paper thin, the productions can be rocky and unrewarding as often as they are surprisingly professional and transportive -- this is the smaller theatre. Nothing is tried and true, not even the occasional Neil Simon imperative. I even love circus, and would like nothing more than to rig up ETC with trapezes and silks and slides, and it ain't gonna happen any time soon. Broadway can do that. I've seen it. Broadway can spend thousands of dollars on textured paint alone.

My biggest complaint about the production of Hamlet is one I would normally quickly let go of: to wit, the set. Who cares, right? Hardly the focus of any serious lover of Shakespeare. Yet it especially bothered me for its grandiose melancholy. The set was essentially very minimal: Virtually no furniture, except for moments when modest thrones were brought out on a small platform, and all was on stage level, except when a few panels were removed to accommodate the grave-digging scene. Huge, granite-looking castle walls ascend on all three sides of the playing area, with a similarly grandiose door at the back. The trouble with all this, as I saw it, was that it felt to me like the play was being dwarfed by gloomy nothingness. They achieved some very nice visual moments with snowfall outside the door, and shafts of light or the odd curtain, but for the most part the minimalism and darkness served not to aid the story but to point up how out of place such a human drama felt as it took place in a giant theatre. I would have loved to see the exact same show...only closer.

In The Dining Room, A.R. Gurney winds his exceedingly clever, heartfelt and economical way through various stages of dining room culture in America. The play is a standard, really, of theatre departments and regional theatres -- very accessible and good for a small cast. I performed in a shortened version myself in high school, one of the first shows I did there. The ETC production was very good, honoring all the humor notes and serious moments with equitable specificity without losing touch with the audience, nor playing it too out. What struck me the most about the show, however, was how inviting it felt. Hamlet worked rather hard at making us feel that we were involved in the action -- starting off with an image of a mourning Hamlet alone (or with us) in the middle of that huge stage, keeping him close to the proscenium throughout and even going so far as to put us on Polonius' side of the curtain for his eventual murder. Hamlet wanted us involved, but had to fight for it. Dining Room had us involved simply because we felt we were in the same room.

I am not saying that a theatre being small in scale or structure is a virtue unto itself. The theatre created there still needs to be and do good for its community, and certainly Broadway has to power to influence a far greater (in size, that is) community than any regional outfit. However, comparing these close experiences have allowed me to formulate a theory of which I'm fond. It's widely proposed that live theatre is dead or dying, and I can see many an example to support this belief. I don't believe it, personally, because I believe live theatre will always exist for humanity in some form or other as a part of what defines it. (That, and because I remain unmoved by the argument that "fiscally nonviable" equates to death.) However, there's little use in denying that theatre is rather unappreciated by the majority, at least as compared to its former glories. It is sad, for those of us who love and respect it, to see that our love is rare, but rare it is. We'll always be engaged in some degree of uphill battle to let theatre live. I acknowledge that struggle, the Sisyphean CPR, if you will.

Here is my theory: In this state of affairs -- and I doubt very much this is the first time theatre has had to widely fight for its right to party -- what matters most, what makes the most difference and does the best things for people, is so-called small theatre. There is where you'll feel your life changed. There is where a show fulfills its full potential, and where the dialogue really matters to all involved. Yes, there's every possibility that you'll be bored out of your mind or not believe in a moment of it, and that horrible risk is not levied at all by spectacular effects or the relative proximity of movie stars. But if you remember what it feels like to be opened up by a story, if you weigh the risk against the possibility, small theatre is the best bet. The possibilities in a space of a hundred or so are thousands of times greater than in a space of thousands. There is no small act of theatre, only small responses to it. In short (har har), small theatre is really, really damn important.

I'm thrilled to realize that.

14 September 2009

A Job + A Love

Last week I had two very different experiences with acting, neither better than the other per se, but both interesting to me. The first was an industrial with Lancer Insurance, a company with which I've worked once before, the other a surprise staged reading of Our Country's Good, by Timberlake Wertenbaker. As you might imagine, the first one paid (rather well) and demanded virtually no emotional depth, and the second I did for free and take my word for it: very rich with emotion. It's funny, but emotions can get rather short shrift in an analysis of acting. Critiques rarely mention them directly, and actors are discouraged from "playing emotion," as well they should. Still and all, it's an essential ingredient, and in one way what we're all there for. I think we're a little embarrassed by that, frankly, and that it contributes to our approaches to emotion. Yes, of course -- the actor must live the moment and play intention, not merely synthesize specific emotions. Yet we all seek that connection, that direct emotional interplay that only occurs between two people sharing the same space.

The industrial involved trekking out to Trenton and lingering in a parking lot behind a strip mall for most of the day. There Lancer had constructed a bus accident, hired on a couple of other actors, plus a group of their own employees to play passengers. I was fortunate enough to recommend one of the actors, Jason Carden, and so I had something really cool to do with the inevitably ample down time: chew the fat with a friend from college. To my great surprise, the other actor there was one Jason Griffin -- with whom I had worked on a completely other industrial, gained through completely other means, with no discernible connection. (To my even greater surprise, I actually recognized him.) The shoot involved a long period of waiting, followed by a short period of very brisk, camera-in-hand shooting. As I mulled over my position as an insurance adjuster, I thought how similar a position he's in at such a scene. He arrives at something that's a really big deal for others, where the stakes are high, yet is expected to make rational decisions and, ultimately, it's just another day's work for him.

Sunday's reading was another reunion of sorts, as all the friends of one Cynthia Hewett who could be found surprised her by being the fellow actors and audience in a reading on her day-of-birth behalf. There is this network of folks who were involved in the founding of The Metropolitan Playhouse (now under different management) of which both Cynthia and David Zarko are members, and it seemed they were all there that night. This meant that I was the youngest of the actors involved (an experience I haven't had in a while) and relatively outside the dominant social network. I knew one or two others, though, and it was a great reading. The play is full of humor and pathos and interesting characters, and working on it (however briefly) with such pros made the thing crackle nicely. Plus, every person was there for Cynthia. It must have been one of the most open and involved audiences I've ever had the pleasure of performing for. It was one of those acting experiences that reminds me of why I love it like I do.

It shouldn't be all that difficult, bringing together the work we do out of love and that we do out of necessity. I'm inclined to believe, in fact, that the separation is not only artificial, but of our own making. Subconsciously, perhaps, I like having the two separate, because it makes me inner world simpler to imagine acting as more pure, money-making as more virtuous by merit of it involving discipline. If you asked me, of course I'd say immediately that I'd like the two together, please. But just maybe some part of me has an interest in preserving that dichotomy. My hope is that acknowledging that possibility is a help in learning to overcome it a bit more.

Because buses or the colonization of Australia, gratis or paid, I really do love this work.

11 September 2009

Two Influences

I was 24 years old when it happened. It was a gorgeous day -- I mean really, really beautiful. The kind of advanced autumn day that is both bright and slightly cool and, once I thought I was relatively safe and had let someone know that, I sat in Central Park and watched the people go by. It was a fairly surreal thing to do but, then again, even the most common of things felt strange that day. I sat on a park bench just east of Sheep Meadow and watched as dozens of people in suits and carrying briefcases walked north through the park, no one particularly rushing, most people seeming slightly dazed, or even simply surprised, like me, that it should be such a beautiful day. This was before the twin towers actually fell down, you understand. That hadn't even occurred to me as a remote possibility.

Of course I can't say for certain, but I'd wager that any artist living in and around New York City on September 11, 2001, has lingering effects in his or her work thereafter. You wouldn't have to actively explore the issues or circumstances, or even the relevant emotions, to exhibit this influence. No, I see it coming out in myriad little ways too, without our even trying. Of course, many do try. Friend Kate often did in her work with Kirkos, but particularly in the last full-length piece she created with them/us, Requiem. Directly or indirectly, we all had a profound personal experience, and we all keep returning to it in the hopes of making a little more sense of it . . . or at least of ourselves, afterward.

I have never quite tackled it head-on in my work. I did some agit-prop theatre that referenced the following war in Iraq, and I wrote a bit on it, even going so far as to start a play all about three people's personal lives leading up to the big day. (I still plan to return to that someday; feel it was a bit too big for me at the time.) I even fantasized a little choreography for a dance about it, and I am in no way a choreographer of dance. In fact, it's interesting to me that I took my creativity over the tragedy into dance, if but in my mind. I think there's a reason for that. I'm not sure, but it may say something about how abstract it felt at the time, unknowable -- just a series of visceral experiences that couldn't be ordered into anything particularly narrative or thematic. It felt, and I suppose it still feels rather, like an experience not meant to be understood.

It's curious to me, also, how profoundly I felt this year's anniversary. In previous years certainly I paused to reflect and (especially in the few anniversaries immediately after) even took some private time to remember and process and grieve. Yet this year, I was rather emotionally floored for a few days. I didn't know anyone personally who died in the attacks that day. Not that it's necessary to justify my response, but in seeking explanation there's no light to be shed in that direction, and what particular significance could the eighth year after hold? It was terrible, of course, and they say all New Yorkers have some kind of collective response around this time, our stress levels instinctively rocketing up. Still, this year seemed different, somehow.

I have an opportunity that's up-and-coming to make a show of my own. Actually, it's a commitment to provide a show for ETC's side stage program, Out On a Limb. When I submitted my proposal, I wrote about presenting something that explored a more intentional incorporation of circus and physical skill acts into scene work. That's something I've always wanted to see, and it seems the perfect time to explore it. It remains a very unformed idea, without even a story to back it up yet, and I find myself wondering if this could be an opportunity, too, to explore my responses to the events of 9/11. If it proves to be, it still won't be my focus or specific goal. Primarily, I want to fuse reasonably naturalistic acting with ecstatic and impressive movement.

An interesting personal coincidence related to 2001 is that it was the year that I met David Zarko -- now artistic director of ETC (not to mention the guy responsible for most of my professional acting opportunities) -- and in the same year was my introduction to circus skills. In many ways, it was the year-of-birth for who I am now as a creative artist, so it's bound to hold quite a bit of sway over anything I make. When it comes to that infamous day, I'm glad that in addition to all the horror and confusion, I especially remember what a beautiful day it was. There's something in this that comforts me.

03 September 2009

Talent: We Haz It

The following was started August 17th, but completed today . . .

So . . . I did this thing. Just helping some friends, really. Back in June. I didn't write about it. But it invaded my every thought for a while there, so it was weird to not write about it. I sort of wrote around it a bit (see 6/25/09) and contented myself with the knowledge that someday I would be allowed to write about it. The trouble was, I wouldn't know when exactly, until it happened. In fact, as I begin this post, I don't know when it "happened," or in fact what happened to allow me to publish about it, but I hope and hope and hope that what happened was something along the lines of my friends blowing away the competition and their lives changing for the better, forever and ever.

Anyway: such are the promises of TV.

America's Got Talent is not my favorite show. In fact, that's putting it rather mildly. I put it mildly, however, because the show has provided Friends Zoe and Dave -- of Paradizo Dance fame -- with a tremendous platform for their unique work. Dave and Zoe have combined Dave's background in competitive salsa with Zoe's in modern dance and circus skills to create stunning, fairly stunt-oriented choreography, the likes of which no one has ever really seen before. I met Zoe through Kate Magram while working together in Kirkos, was there for one of her first collaborations with Dave, in Cirque Boom's Madness & Joy!, and thereafter shared an apartment with Zoe in 2006. They're great people; you may remember my write-up of their incredible wedding last October (see 9/15/08). For all that, I never saw us working together. Their emphasis is so on dance, and mine on theatre, that the commonalities seemed few and unlikely to bring us together.

So thank you, America's Got Talent, for scaring Dave and Zoe enough to ask for feedback from this crazy clown. To be specific, I worked with Paradizo Dance for a total of six hours, over three days. We would have worked more, but I had to be off to Italy, and those two . . . well. Those of you who think I keep busy have no idea. Really. They're pretty amazing offstage as well as on. So what on earth would compel them to ask me for help? I mean, Zoe can lift Dave off the ground, and Dave can practically balance Zoe on his fingers! ("Come on!", I often find myself involuntarily shouting in disbelief when I watch one of their acts.) Well, turning in several unique acts over the course of a summer television season requires one to stretch one's versatility a bit, and one such stretch that they wanted to perform was into the area of stage comedy.

I'm going to assume at this point that I'm not posting this until the season has ended, for them, or in its entirety (for me, the latter will coincide with the former, regardless). As I'm writing, I have no way of knowing how their comic act went, or if they even had a chance to perform it -- though all signs I have now indicate that they will. In fact, I don't know a thing about the act itself. It will be as much a surprise to me as to the rest of the viewing audience. When I left their process, we had established a lot, but choreographed very little, and one of my imperatives to them was to throw out anything we "established" when it ceased to work for them. I know they were working with other people on this particular piece, and I hope they consulted someone else as they were actually building it. Most of my time, you see, was spent workshopping with them on how we collaborate to create a narrative, physical comedy.

It's one of my favorite subjects, it's what Zuppa del Giorno is all about, and somehow I'd never had the opportunity to explore it the way I did with Zoe and Dave. Here were two people with tons of performance experience, tons of physical ability, and even a little theatre background, but very little experience with physical comedy. I had a really excellent time working to explain ideas that make comedy work for me, as well as working to refine a functional dynamic in which they could collaborate to create something unlike anything else they've ever made. We were thinking on our feet, and discussing big ideas, and man -- I'd love to do it again.

* * *

Well: Hell. America, what is wrong with you?

I'm kidding, of course. It was an awful disappointment to witness my friends voted off the show last night, but I'm not bitter about it. (Okay, I'm only mildly bitter about it. [Okay, I burned all my Hasselhoff CDs.]) There's a lot I could write about the contributing factors to the elimination, but it's all a little pointless, and I have to remind myself that Paradizo Dance got a pretty wonderful second prize in all this -- the kind of exposure that changes their professional position for the better. America's Got Talent was never going to change the fact that they're incredibly entertaining and talented performers, win or "lose," and I just hope they are walking away from it with chins held high. They did a magnificent job, and the whole thing was more a fortunate accident than it was their ultimate goal, anyway.

Not that a cool million and headlining in Vegas would have been unwelcome, of course. But anyway.

There's a small but persistent part of me that feels really, really terrible and anxious that I may have steered them wrong. Logically, I know that the work was out of my influence for two months before they performed it and we only worked on ideas and a few beats of choreography. I certainly can't claim any credit for their work! I also know that what they ended up performing was beautifully done, and that the judgment of the audience was as much a matter of taste as of anything objective. Still, I have this little bit within; it is kissing cousins with my general sense of responsibility, and makes me want to take it all on myself. I would like to say to America: "America, blame me for all the parts you didn't like. Let's give these crazy kids another chance!" And so, America, if I have your ear, there you have it.

It's not my place of course to go into any detail here about what I did and didn't see from our time working together in the piece. That's a private discussion that Zoe and Dave and I will have sometime soon (I hope!). Regardless of the outcome, I loved working with them, especially on this kind of thing. I hope we get to do it again someday, whatever the context. Even if we don't, I have no doubt that Dave and Zoe will continue to succeed more and more in what they do best: Creating breath-taking choreography and performing it with love, together.

Oh yeah, and Piers Morgan: What. Ever. Dude. Zoe lifting Dave is flash -- the two of them holding up one another is the heart of their act.