27 January 2010

The Wheel of (a week's) Time...

You know what's hard? Pantomiming the driving of a vehicle in an effective manner. I would go so far as to say that simply pantomiming steering a vehicle in an effective manner is tough. Accomplishing this feat whilst acting, focusing on the emotions and intentions yet making it all seem instinctive, effortless? For that, my friends, we have a special acting term: SUCKY. ("Very sucky...!") I should know. It's one of those things -- right up there with the Marx Bros. mirror bit -- that I am routinely asked to perform with little-to-no regard for how insanely difficult it is. It is an idea that is simple, so (ergo, ipso facto, obiter dictum) them what aren't actually obligated to then execute said idea tend to assume that said execution is relatively simple as well. Well I say: Horse Hockey.

So. Josh Sohn's Flowers (see 1/25/10) is set predominantly within a taxi cab, and one that spends most of the play in motion. As ours was a production limited in both time and money, I opted to forgo the rear-projection, Dewey-decimal-encrypted sound cues, and even the flown car chassis. No, instead I made my priority four chairs, a couple of sound cues and one specific bit of vehicular-motion-implying choreography. Oh, and a free-standing steering wheel. That's a little specialized, thought I, but heck: I've seen one somewhere before, and it must be a pretty common necessity for plays now-a-days; I'm sure some theatre person or other will know a company with one I can borrow or rent...

Alas, no.

In my ten days of searching, I had only one lead, and that ended up being a dead end due to the theatre having recently cleaned out their storage. In addition to that, finding just a steering wheel, with no mounting or any other assemblage, was also proving harder than I had thought. Garages in and around NYC have precious little space for keeping such a rarely necessary spare part, and the wheels that are around (but are unattached, so to speak) are often gutted semi-circles of plastic where buttons and airbags used to be. There's little auto-salvage of worth that isn't miles out into the boroughs, and I had no time. So. On a Thursday night before our final rehearsal, I ventured out to Brooklyn to GET IN THE ZONE of all three of their AutoZones (endorsement gleefully submitted).

There was much prelude of calling the stores and getting - um - somewhat uninformed "assistance" (No no no: I said "steering wheel," not "steering wheel cover." No, the actual wheel, itself. No, not a tire, for mrgrph's rarghnlsik...) but suffice it to say there were not one but TWO steering wheels for sale at my first visit to an Atlantic Avenue AutoZone. I opted for the $30, somewhat dragster-looking one, rather than the more classic $100 kit with "mahogany" (read: red plastic) grip. Call me crazy:
From there it was a question of making a stand for the thing. Now, I am a very organized person who likes to plan everything in advance and is rarely forced to improvise. (The preceding sentence is a total fabrication.) However, I had little-to-no time in which to construct a somewhat reliable stand that would not only hold the wheel up, but allow it to turn. I considered all sorts of possibilities on the subway from Brooklyn to Upper East Side -- I'm still wondering if I could find a door handle mount that might allow for turn resistance and a proper stop point -- but by the time I made it to Home Depot, I was pretty well settled on "simple" plumbing hardware.

The longish bits (technical term).
The joinish stuffs. (Very technical jargon, don't be embarrassed about totally not knowing it.)

The bits you see above are the final result in terms of ingredients, but initially I didn't know with what sorts of things I had to work; it was a little bit like seeing Legos for the first time, and trying to attach them diagonally to one another or make a one-bump lock that allowed a piece to turn around a bit. (No one with me on this? Just me? All righty then....) I was pleasantly surprised, however, to discover that before flexible plumbing solutions developed, plenty of folks struggled with questions of angles and changes in pipe width. Of particular excitement were the varied lengths of "nipple" above (and, on the barcode, no joke: "five-inch black nipple") and the hex-nut-looking thingamajig, which converts 3/8 inch threaded pipe to 1/2 inch. But the pièce de résistance was the 45 degree joint. I doubt the good people of Home Depot have ever seen that kind of unbounded expression of enthusiasm in the plumbing aisle (they're probably still trying to clean up that aisle).

Now there followed about 24 hours' worth of trail-and-error. In a perfect world I would have had access to some kind of very heavy, fold-able music-stand base. (Actually, in a perfect world I would have been able to find a flippin' free-standing steering wheel in someone's prop closet.) Things being as they were, I came up with the below to solve the problems of a secure base that pitched things at the proper angle. Initially all three legs had the rubber stopper you see below on the stabilizing leg, but it didn't clear out the wobble caused by the lower T-joint making contact with the floor, so I had to get a couple of 90 degree joints for the other two feet.

Don't worry, honey; I bleached the table after all this photographic genius.

It's a great base in terms of setting the angle of the rest; it's only okay for stability. A sandbag or the like would make it rock-solid, and frankly, this is pretty good for NYC purposes in that it's awfully portable. It was less so initially, when I had a single three-foot length of pipe for the main shaft. But, as a bonus, I felt COMPLETELY BAD-ASS walking down the street with that. Anyway.

Twice. I bleached it twice. Cross my heart.
The actual mechanism of a turn-able wheel, while not terribly complex, was interesting to figure out. The hex-shaped conversion piece was a great find because it allowed me with the help of a few washers to create a rather more stable bed for the wheel. Without those pieces, the wheel would have wobbled on the millimeters of space between its central hole and the axle (tiny nipple!).

Once it was all sandwiched together, I started getting excited. The 45-degree joint seemed like my best bet in the store, but I couldn't very well construct the whole thing there, so there was no way for me to know how it would present. Damn my boring geometry teacher! I pretty much had to give it up at that point and just see how we did. I couldn't do any better, at least not for this go-around.


What? WHAT?! Oh yeah - that was me, I did that. Me. Recognize.

It so worked. I mean, it's not going to trounce Avatar for scenic design anytime soon, but look at the angle of that wheel. Just look at it. It's a thing of beauty, borne of truth. That is undeniably a prop that will turn any set of two-to-six chairs into a motor vehicle, is what that is. I plan to be renting it out, never you fear, and at the exceedingly reasonable rate of $100/hr., with only a $5,000 security deposit. Sure, the wheel looks like it belongs on a stock car. Sure, the frame sooner inspires thoughts of Supper Mario Bros. than it does aerodynamic internal combustion machines. And yes, the wheel continues to turn ad infinitum, turning anyone who drove such a vehicle into some strange singularity of time and space.

But for ten minutes worth of a show, an actor who otherwise might didn't have to mime a steering wheel.

25 January 2010

The Role of Director

See what I did there?

Well, it is done. Josh Sohn's Flowers -- a ten-minute comedy about a cab ride, estrangement and obligation -- premiered and closed this weekend past. I should mention that it was all of those things, plus a production I directed, and in a breathtakingly limited amount of time at that. Six rehearsals, for a total of 9.5 hours' rehearsal time. That's just shy of an hour of time per page, and that's supposed to be all the time one absolutely needs, assuming everyone gets off book in their own time, and I'm here to tell you that this standard is horse hockey. High-sticking horse hockey. But a good time was had by all, I think, and it was nice to return to directing with such a definitive deadline and good friends with whom to work.

Josh of course is someone with whom I am in collaboration more and more, but the actors were folks I have known for years and worked with on separate but similarly intensive projects: Nat Cassidy and Richard Grunn. In both cases, I worked with these actors as a fellow actor, so we were all pretty adjusted to my quirks and peccadilloes, I'd say. I hope. You know, it's actually hard to say, because being the director is a somewhat lonely experience. Of course, everyone involved was perfectly friendly and engaging, and I think I was more than encouraging toward nurturing an atmosphere in which we could play and say anything. It's just a different environment for the director. If the director isn't a bit outside, he or she can't really do the job. The whole, brief thing got me thinking about that work in some more specific ways than I have in the past. I mean, part of why I wanted to do it was to dip my toes in the waters of directing again, see how hospitable they felt and whether or not I'd want to go for a swim there again. (My metaphor needs arm floaties, it's getting so distended.)

It seems to me that I used to ask an awful lot of my directors, and I wonder if this is still the case. I never had any of them complain (to my face) along these lines, but in thinking back I've realized I was really looking for a kind of artistic affinity at best, and a sort of grandiose mentorat worst. I suppose it's natural for any actor to seek approval from his or her director, but there are limits and I'm not sure that when I was younger I placed enough priority on exploring my own standards when it came to fulfilling a role. It also seems to me that directing is really not all that different from teaching; or perhaps tutoring may be a closer comparison. That is, if your teaching philosophy is similar to mine, in which it's all about communication and being as prepared to learn from the student as to instruct him or her. If there is a major difference, I believe it's that the director has to apply personal prejudice to the process, simply in the interest of functioning as some kind of leader. Some may disagree, but I think directors should be leaders, in the sense that they should take all of the blame and little of the credit, and give everyone something unified to aim for.

This was not a high-pressure project-- apart from the amount of notice I had upon taking it on -- and I had what turned out to be very realistic expectations for both the process and the venue. Which is to say, the venue met with my expectations, but the actors I was working with exceeded them. (And my contribution? Not sure yet. Need time to process. [But I totally exceeded when it came to a prop we needed, which will have a 'blog post ALL ITS OWN.]) Ten minutes is not a lot of time in which to establish a memorable character and make it both believable and entertaining, but Nat and Rich accomplished all this while scoring laughs and poignant moments. These guys have some very interesting similarities and differences as artists, which played well into their relationship on stage, I thought. [Spoiler alert: that of an estranged father and son.] They're both excellent with comic timing and self-generated work, which I find lends itself to good strong characterization, but Rich has very different rhythms and a more subconscious style, whereas Nat's approach seems more cognizant and edgy. They did great, and allowed me to relax into the process.

Despite all these reasons for calm, I fretted, like a dual-necked guitar. It's just part of the (read: my) process. I had two primary concerns: getting us together on the same page about the story of the action, and not squelching or (perhaps worse) misinterpreting their contributions. Compromise may seem like a simple watchword given both of these concerns, and it is certainly a necessary skill for a director, but there's also a degree of resolve involved. In other words, that somewhat un-exercised muscle of mine in acting, the one for fighting for your interpretation or point of view, had to be a little warmed up by the experience. The actors never, ever fought me on anything; nevertheless, I was in unfamiliar territory in having an obligation to lead. I think I did okay, for my first real appreciation of this task. Directors get perhaps less immediate feedback -- as compared to actors who have a feeling about the job they're doing throughout the performance -- but I feel pretty good about it.

Horse hockey and all.

15 January 2010

You awaken in a semi-dark room...


Oh god...wha...wha....

You think in un-words, it seems.

Wha...whoo...where am I? What happened?

Gradually you realize that the only light, barely illuminating your prostrate form, is the flickering glow of a very tired computer monitor. The computer's exhausted cooling fan whirs dejectedly, intermittently, at you. You realize you're surrounded by ripped paper all over the floor, a cup of eggnog in one hand, a trashy novel in the other, and a pair of tinted glasses on your face that proudly proclaim (backwards, from your perspective) "0102"...

I should have known better than to expect myself to diligently 'blog through the holy daze of late December, early (er...read: "most of") January. Happy 2010, everyone! Or, as Wife Megan insists on proclaiming it: "Oh-10!" Exclamation point being obligatory, natch'.

Item!: My return to directing begins this weekend, with Josh Sohn's ten-minute play Flowers premiering as a part of Where Eagles Dare's short play lab. In the show you'll see Friends Nat Cassidy and Richard Grunn doing what they do best (but also acting). Find out where it's at, in every sense, at this magical button text place sentence.

Item!: Very exciting things brew with The Action Collective this year with the theme, "It's All About You." We are forgoing our monthly event for January to focus instead on structural work for the organization and publishing our first-ever newsletter for our members. People will be published! And sort of syndicated!

Item!: The foolish folks at NYU's film school have invited me back to be a part of their filmic enterprises for what will be a marathon day on February the 2nd.

Item!: I'm producing a variety show to take place as a part of the Electric Theatre Company's "second stage" program, Out On a Limb. It will be entitled The Spectacular Scrantonian Spectacular! (exclamation point being obligatory, natch') and feature song and dance and, above all else, variety. Not only will I be producing this cavalcade of talent, but I'll also be MC. Well, me and my clown character (...cue the My Buddy theme...and go...).

Sorry. That was way creepier than I had remembered. Effin' creepy.

Anyway. 'Tis a busy time, not only creatively (YAY!) but also practically (BOO!), and I miss blogging. Hence this not-a-post. Wait, maybe I can squeeze some meaningful insight into my final few remaining words -

Effin' creepy.

Aw, crap.