26 October 2009

In the Name of Action

Last Thursday The ACTion Collective made its big debut, rounding up roughly a dozen incredibly talented and daring actors for an event that invited them to bring scripts to be performed that very same night with minimal preparation, in most cases working with someone new-to-you. It was an experiment, a game, and I think a rousing success. Certainly preparing for it and the results we achieved roused enthusiasm in me for another such event, and so far the feedback has been positive enough to warrant that response. People had fun, and people have ideas for more fun along similar lines. As I've stated before, I'm a big fan of beginnings and the energy they engender. I think I'm becoming more and more appreciative of continuity, though -- particularly when it's my work I'm talking about, of course.

Our work, I should say, because a lion's share of the preparation for Thursday and for laying the groundwork for ACTion Collective at-large was achieved by Friend Andrew. It's been frankly inspiring (and only a little frightening at times) to work with such a reliable and responsive collaborative partner. We all have our projects, and we actors are notoriously wicked when it comes to neglecting one to serve seventeen others, and I am certainly guilty of letting slide a thing or two, here or there, from time to time . . . uh . . . over and over. I never realized before, however, that this occurs most often because I don't receive a response on my outgoing work soon enough. Such is not the case with Andrew, even remotely. It probably helps that we're both geeks (and getting geekier by the hour). We may as well call the Gods of Google our silent third(s?), and Andrew's a Mac, I'm a PC.

The event itself ("ACT I," we've taken to calling it) was a giant collaboration, in fact, which is part of why I wanted to do it in the first place. Fostering a sense of collaboration empowers actors, I believe, and also lends us some perspective on the many reasons that people with other jobs in creating theatre (or film, or what-you-will) may not always understand us. I was concerned about ACT I feeling too much like a potluck, without structure, yet wanted to allow room for participant contribution in a social setting. We found a nice balance -- people even contributed food and drink without prompting, and took every challenge we threw out at them with grace and eagerness. I think next time we'll feel more at ease to structure, leaving the freedom up to folks' own sense of proportion. The experiment is ongoing, but it definitely feels as though it's going forward.

Some of the contributing ideas to ACTion Collective, in no particular order:
  • It's called a "play" for a reason. (This is paraphrased from somewhere - Dario Fo, perhaps?)

  • Actors need to be empowered, because much of the audition and rehearsal processes can and do (intentionally or non-) relegate the actor's craft to a low priority.

  • Unlike other creative artists, actors need other people in order to act, because without them the equation isn't balanced, and the work is incomplete.

  • As actors, we can instinctively be in competition with one another, but this sabotages what we want to achieve in myriad ways -- see above.

  • The typical model of work-flow for a working actor largely puts him or her in the position of relying on others' decision-making for when they work and what they work on.

  • An actors' work is always, always better when s/he can combine the relaxation of game-play and experimentation with the desire to work toward the most effective expression of a script, which one doesn't always have the time or permission to achieve in a necessarily short rehearsal period.

  • Acting takes practice; good acting takes regular practice.

  • It's fun.

  • Most actors are willing to work for the sake of the work, but we must resist it in the interests of a sustainable career; being free to focus on the craft on a regular basis, without such worries, empowers us to make sure we value the rest of our efforts as we should.

  • Networking is not enough; we need a community.

  • Action begets action.

It's exciting work in an exciting time. At first, I was going to describe a bit of what happened, the little challenges and victories that came about, the laughs, and of course the pumpkin fudge, which doesn't sound natural but is an amazing and delightful adventure of the taste buds. But the fact is, it loses something in translation. Words will not suffice. It's not enough to hear about it, or even witness it.

To know it, you have to do it.

21 October 2009

Collecting Work

It's a little bit funny (this feeling inside...?). I wrote on the 7th about the madness brought about by not having acting work. That was a post I had actually begun some time before, but was a little too busy to complete for a week or so. The irony of such circumstances did not strike me at the time, focused as I was on just getting the dang thing out there. The distracting business was not largely of a theatrical nature -- though there's always the odd assignment here or there -- and so I was full up on the madness of which I wrote. There may be no money in it, but an empty acting roster can apply a similar pressure as that of an empty wallet. Incidentally, John Malkovich is famous for (among other things) having said, "I've always felt that if you can't make money as an actor, you're either incredibly stupid or tragically unlucky." John, I hope I never have the chance to discuss this little pearl with you.

Right here and now I can officially state that I am beginning to feel overwhelmed with theatre work. Not acting work, mind you. It is looking increasingly as though October's posts to the Aviary will not escape the single digits (again; we haven't done that since May) and though the primary culprit for that remains el jobbo del day, lots and lots of theatre work has officially chimed in on the effort to rid me of free time, with a cheery "hihowareya?!" The change is a result of a combination of factors, everything from the new phone to the approaching holidays. Not that I'm complaining, mind you, but it feels a like a drastic switch of mental state, which is generally how I've come to expect these things to occur.

The primary occupier for the past month has been a very new and exciting venture with Friend Andrew: The ACTion Collective. Tomorrow night we are hosting a slew of our favorite people to work with, who will be coming together to perform short readings of material that they themselves provide, and that we cast in the room. The idea is to gather actors together in a social setting in which they can also enjoy and explore their work without the pressures of a rehearsal process. Friend Patrick, who accepted one of our invitations, compared it to how jazz musicians get together to play music when they're not "working." That's the short-term goal. In the longer term, we hope to keep doing events such as this, with similar priorities placed on the acting, but also to build a very functional community (not just network) of theatre artists who enjoy learning from one another. We've done a lot of groundwork in the past couple of weeks on the supposition that ACTion Collective has a future beyond Thursday's event, so it's an exciting time.

In addition to that, a couple of directing possibilities for yours truly. I can't be very explicit about these, since they are rather nascent and involve other people's work, but both involve shorter works the which I will be taking no small amount of creative control of. Hopefully, they will prove less complex than that last sentence. It may seem odd that I would suddenly not only be directing, but be directing two projects. And it is. However, it's also partly because the projects are linked in interesting ways, and one affords me the opportunity to gear up for the other. The current work aspect of both at this point involves meeting with people and bouncing around ideas and philosophical opinions related to theatre. It's pretty great. It's also coming up on pretty important that I make serious headway with them both, so I'm glad Thursday's event is Thursday, and not, say, two weeks from Thursday.

I don't know what all this will lead to. I have a plan, of course, a course in fact that I'm hoping the work at least weaves in and out of, but if experience has taught me anything it is that man plans, God laughs. I usually feel most at home and fulfilled when I'm absorbed in theatre work, and now there's the added benefit of it being exactly the sort of work I want more of in the world. There's also the risk of putting my money where my mouth is, of which I am not unaware (read: completely freaked out). And the strangeness of acknowledging that it isn't acting work. Yet it's wonderful stuff. Gathering work means you're gathering people, bringing together a lot of talent, and a lot of just great people. And right now, I'm not sure that it gets any better than that.

12 October 2009

Mad Silks

Since May, I have grown very accustomed to "rug burn." Although, really, in the case of silk work it is more accurately referred to as "really insidious synthetic-fiber abrasions that you don't feel at first but then, later, after the endorphins have had their say, burn-baby-burns." Imagine someone giving you an "Indian burn" with an elastic fabric, over and over again, in really creative locations on your body, and you'll have some idea. I've had to resort to the standard outfit for this work, in fact, which (it is my humble opinion) looks much better on the lady folk. And even with my elastic-coated frame, the occasional burn gets by, and this spandex-type stuff does nothing for the drops in which one's thigh is forcefully jerked away from one's pelvis by an eight-foot fall. (Batman must have bionic shoulders.) As Instructor Cody quotes and quips, "If you don't want to get hurt, take up knitting."

I love it, though, and not just for all the climbing involved (see 8/17/09). One thing that's very cool about silks is that it requires a certain understanding of manipulation that can be almost magic-like in its effect. Though it involves more conditioning and less trickery than basic acrobalance, they have in common a priority placed on technique. With acrobalance, it's about learning to draw lines of gravity straight into the ground, and pitch weights against one another into balance. In silks, it's about learning the various methods by which one can wrap oneself up and unravel, quickly, thrillingly, beautifully and safely. (Beautifully is the one I rather need work on; seems I'm genetically predisposed to NOT pointing my toes.) It's very challenging to memorize the different manipulations -- largely because they are as much manipulations of your person as of the fabric -- and my progress is slow. If I could take class with more regularity it would be going faster, but for now it's two steps forward, one step back.

Last Saturday I attended my first class without Wife Megan for company. She is deep into her yoga-certification training now, and that means every other weekend I am once again a swinging bachelor, between the hours of 9 and 5. I am, it must be admitted, the only male I have ever seen at this silks class. This is not all that surprising. Silks are graceful equipment (at least in visual effect) that require a great deal of flexibility. That and, well . . . a significant portion of the wraps and binds concern themselves with one's center of gravity. IF you know where I mean. I could be accused of pulling a high-school Home Ec. move here . . . and, okay, I'm not going to try to complain about being surrounded by athletic women. Okay? I credit us both with more intelligence than that. (Of course, I'm the one who puts his wedding tackle at risk every silks class, so...) But that's not what brought me to silks.

There is something really incomparable about facing a physical and mental challenge, simultaneously. One's emotions can't help but get involved in it, yet one's emotions are often not incredibly helpful in such circumstances. One often thinks to oneself, You are some kind of *^%$(*@ idiot, you crazy stupid...where's your hand? Do you even know where your hand is right now? Not that one, the other one! whilst suspended ten feet in the air, with blood pooling within one's skull. It's great. It's great because it's just you, and you are all you've got to go on when it comes right down to it, where the rubber meets the road. Or, I suppose, where the silk meets the skin. You get scared, you get angry, you get confused -- all those things you generally try to avoid feeling. And then, quite unexpectedly, you save yourself. Maybe it was an accident. Maybe you couldn't recreate it on purpose, and you go three more classes before anything like it happens again. But eventually, you're falling, and exactly the way you're supposed to.

But you'll still get crazy rug burns.

07 October 2009

We All Go a Little Mad Sometimes

In terms of irrational behavior, I believe the actor without work will rank right up there with most persons under the influence of psycho-reactive narcotics. The actors with no future prospects of work, well . . . it's a good idea to stay away from the likes of them. Even their Facebook updates are likely to be tinged with a sense of desperation. "Jeff Wills is Why do they all hate me so much...?!" Just, you know, as a completely hypothetical example.

Perhaps it's all a bit misguided -- an unfortunate cycle that comes as a result of having to prove we are, in fact, actors. It can be difficult to justify oneself as an "actor," and have the average person regard that classification as something more than a description of one's favorite hobby. Even if you went to school for it, perform internationally, get paid for it on a (semi-)regular basis, there are two qualifications people look for when you make the claim of being actor. 1) Have they seen you in anything? 2) Are you working on anything right now? So yes, there's a certain compulsion there, which is awful for everyone: for you, for the work itself, and yes, even for the people you end up talking to at parties. Ever wonder why you meet so many actors who can't help but tell stories in any given conversational context, stories that invariably lead back to their life and work? This is why. It's called (by me, anyway) résumé-ing. It is obnoxious and ingrained, and a lot of the work of that ingraining is done by the very people who end up resenting it.

Ironically enough, I'm pretty sure that this technique is a terrible way of actually getting work. When it comes to getting people to think of you for projects, a much better conversational tactic for all involved is asking questions and making your side of things predominantly about responses, rather than volunteering stories. It generally makes the person one's talking to feel interesting, and encourages excitement about their interests, and as far as the conversation goes allows one to learn a thing or two to boot. This has interesting parallels to the techniques of good, interesting acting as well, in which the emphasis is on listening, reacting intuitively and making the other look good. It just adds up. It makes sense, it builds things and leads to usually pleasant surprises.


However, we all go a little mad sometimes. (For some reason madness is particularly poignant when set against the backdrop of a tea party, or other social setting.) Personally, the only way I could imagine having more regular trouble with this most basic of social concepts would be if I were genuinely socio- or psychopathic. (Commentators, please leave thy opinions on this last at the door....) Is it a troubled mental pattern on my part? Nature, or nurture? Could it simply be that I'm in the wrong damn business? Do other actors start thinking to themselves, "I'm getting to old for this crap," at age 25? And just what is it that keeps me comin' back, a'comin' comin' back?

Well, as far as character flaws go, I have a few. I'll man up to that. I'd like to think that if I was perfect, I'd be pretty boring. One such flaw is a tendency to take everything seriously (even comedy) and feel feelings very deeply. (I may have to rename the 'blog; Feeling Feelings Very Deeply has a nice sort of quasi-ironic ring to it.) I'm not saying that I am a feat of human emotion or anything like that -- I state this as a flaw. It is the bit of me that responds to arguments being had by total and complete strangers by shrinking into a speck on the spot, or the bit that could unabashedly cry over seeing an overweight person unable to sit on the subway. And, as evidenced on March 12, 2009, this little personality quirk comes out in full force when it comes to anything related to casting. In that instance, it didn't even occur to me to hold my ground in responding to RunningGirl. From start to end, I was ruled by emotion.

There's a commonality here. The typical actor neurosis and my personal neurosis both stem from continual feelings of inadequacy. Now, sure, many people would never admit this as a cause of their résumé-ing behavior, if in fact they could even recognize the résumé-ing (it's a turn of phrase that will sweep the nation). How can we have such awesome stories if we're inadequate? Plus, where do we lay the blame of causation? Our feelings, or the social aspects and stigmas that encourage those feelings? The very questions involved are enough to make anyone feel a bit inadequate, if over nothing else than over our ability to understand ourselves.

I've gone a bit mad just contemplating it.

What's desperately ironic about the whole thing is that this is a business and a craft in which being unique is one of the best traits to possess. Trying to be what others want is not what acting is about (good acting, anyway) and the best work is accomplished by those who can make unusually effective choices -- emphasis on "unusually." I'm a firm believer in the idea that the more understanding we can have about who we are, the better our work will be. Inadequacy springs almost entirely from holding oneself to someone else's standards or, often, to our perception of their standards. Everybody's got a little madness in them. There is no normal. And freeing ourselves from the idea of normalcy is part of what people really love about good acting. Show me how to be true, and I will show you how much you can be loved for it, warts and all.

But if I don't get some real work soon, I'ma kill somebody.