31 May 2010

Purpose & Identity

Maybe some of you read here for honest, emotional exploration, for that strangely isolated intimacy and voyeurism you can experience from reading 'blogs. Maybe some others of you read here more for those posts in which I do something unconventional and, for some people, humorous, like, say, have a conversation with mine own testicles. I'm sure there are as many motivations to read as there are readers (AN DOZEN), but today the two groups I've named are in especial luck for, today, I'll be dividing the entry into two formats. Those seeking warm, cozy emotional voyeurism (and no balls), read (A). Those seeking a more humorous eschewment (is SO a word) of convention, read (B) (no promises about my balls [ever]). And, far be it from me to tell you what to do, it's your life, be your own person, but maybe, JUST MAYBE, you could mix it up. You know, if you're into that kind of thing. Now I'll begin as I often do, with a mini-narrative that may not immediately seem to apply to the title of the entry, yet will most likely contain the thematic twisty-tie that lets me sum up our little walk together. And so:

A1 - As we were growing up, my sister and I occasionally got into "why" conversations with my parents (Why is the sky blue? Why don't we go to church? Why is that man wearing a dress?) and, to their great credit, my parents always tried to carry through the conversation with something more than a "Because." Probably because of this, my sister and I knew from a very early age onward that a lot of my parents' decisions before and after we came along were based on a priority for having children and being good parents. This was their direction, their purpose in life -- all roads were charted to that course, from their choice of careers to the little every-day decisions. "Having children," was the answer to a lot of our Whys.

B1 - You know that feeling you had when you were barely sitting there in the movie theatre, full of enthusiasm, as the first half hour or so of The Matrix Reloaded rolled on by? OF COURSE YOU DO. It was just so exciting, so rife with possibilities. One thing was certain about this movie -- it was going to in some way be gratifyingly unconventional. I mean, the first one gave us a messianic hero-story action movie with philosophy in-jokes and a permeable sense of reality. What couldn't the second be amazing about? I clung to this as I sat there, picking it apart with a growing sense of dread, and just as the movie approached its most orgiastic CGI-enhanced puffery in the so-called "burly brawl," I thought I spotted a hopeful light of philosophical promise. Smith begins to discuss purpose. Ah ha! Here is an interesting point of contention! I wonder how the movie will play this out?

A2 - I envy my parents their dedication, their seemingly unquestioned priority. I'm sure they questioned it along the way, and perhaps especially after the fact, but they seem pretty happy with it and I have to say that -- some bias understood here -- they made a good choice and did an amazing job of it. Perhaps because of this lesson, I can't help but define myself by my sense of purpose. This probably isn't the only way to having a sense of identity. You could, I suppose, base it upon heritage, or beliefs, or simply a decision. Yet I can best perceive and understand myself as someone who has a specific goal. That's what makes me productive and decisive and true. (And neurotic and insecure and overwrought, but that's for another time.)

B2 - Of course, we now know how The Matrix Reloaded worked out for us (for an illustration of this workout, please view Speed Racer) and even what sweat The Matrix Revolutions drew from us. That wonderfully promising set-up for exploring a sense of identity and purpose fizzled into a lot of Thomas Anderson waffling about (no doubt drawing quite a bit on his Winnipeg experiences there) until getting whipped into shape by his oracle. I guess I have a habit of rather retcon-ing disappointing movies, and whenever TNT offers up that first scene between Smith and Neo I wonder a little over the direction the next 3+ hours of Hollywood magic might've taken. Imagine, for example, that the movies drove these questions through every character so that by the end the struggle is not about war, but the existential side of things. Such a movie would never bust blocks, but it would be unique and unpredictable if, for example, Neo and Smith fight themselves to exhaustion with no clear winner and then echo their lines from the first film, "You're empty." "So are you." Their sense of purpose lost. Now that would scare an audience.

A3 - Purpose is a terribly abstract notion, but one with tremendous influence on action, and I suppose I like to define myself by my actions (and, it must be confessed, my imagination). Purpose and identity are for me inextricable from one another. As I've been writing a bit about of late (see 5/5/10) I'm at something of a point of contention regarding my purposes, which means I don't have the most solid sense of identity. Some might think this is pretty normal for an actor, and it is, but I've always valued the ability to distinguish between myself and a character and that requires a strong personal baseline. So I'm bothered. What it comes down to, really, is letting go of the definition of myself as an actor. Not refuting that I'm an actor, but learning to define myself by other means, since I want more things now. Including: having (a) kid(s) and being a good parent.

B3 - If wishes were horses, they couldn't let me into movie theatres (because of all the horses). I may as well have hoped for Keanu to suddenly transform into a vulnerable, emotive actor when he was pulled from the matrix. (Wow - how many minds would have been blown by that? [A: At least one.]) Hope, though, is an important part of a sense of purpose. And an important part of Hollywood movies. They come from a tradition of fomenting hope in their audiences, and pure, blockbuster escapism is founded on the promise that all that is good will vanquish all that is evil. I just wish the Matrix films had pursued a different identity, and had challenged the programmed, automatic hope that is engendered by the tropes of movies. C'est la vie -- that wasn't their purpose, after all.

A4 - Maybe the solution to the current dilemma lies in not defining my identity by my purpose. That is as much as to say, by becoming a little more assured in myself as myself, whatever that may mean from moment to moment, I'll have a more rooted sense of identity. Clown, husband, writer, compulsive organizer, athlete (ha-ha) and maybe someday a father. I'm a big one for questioning everything, so the quest for securing a thing or two, being content with an answer, even for a little while, is a strange one for me. Not unwelcome, however. The world doesn't get any simpler or worth any less by way of decision. Maybe the only answer to all our questions is "because," but that doesn't mean I have to limit myself to being my cause.

B4 - Before I get myself into another unintentional writing assignment, I'll just say that I'm not holding my breath for Hollywood to change its sense of purpose. It's just that neither will I soon let go of that sense of hope when it comes to big, spangly action movies, any more than I will for my own perilously un-Hollywood journeys. Hope is a pretty great lifeline when all other directions and definitions lose their meaning and, moreover, every so often, the hope pays out. And sometimes, it even does so with freaking bad-ass kung fu sequences.

27 May 2010

A Little More Inside

Because I know you diligently read every single item I post with great fervor and admiration, Dear Reader, you'll no doubt immediately reference from this title my post of May 13, 2010. Just in case you need refreshing: An link. Just in case you fear linkage: I'm in rehearsals for an original comedy called Love Me (an link [you see what I did there]) in which I play the central character's inner monologue embodied bodily on-stage. Wacky? Oui. Fun? Often. Challenging? No question about it.

Over the course of two weeks, things have progressed rather nicely. Because of various conflicts I have and the general nature of my role, I haven't been to about half of the rehearsals so far. Now things are gearing up and scenes are stringing together, so I'm called all the time and finding myself grateful for that. It helps me create connections with these fellow actors with whom I share stage time, but not necessarily any real scene work. The big exception to that is of course Aaron -- the real "me." Even he isn't allowed to look at me whilst on stage together, but I'm finding the tennis game of playing the same role from different perspectives growing more and more simpatico with him. There's a nice give-and-take, and we continue to find new techniques to make it work.

It's kind of funny, actually, how little I can solve these challenges by any kind of logical approach; it is far more productive to proceed instinctively. It seemed like such an artificial trope, this inner monologue (I.M.) incarnation, that I was inclined to set some ground rules as a first step. Address audience in this case, address Charlie in that, don't manipulate objects, etc. As with regular ol' acting, however, my instincts prove much smarter than my rational brain. The most important thing is to keep a flow of ideas (no matter how ragingly inappropriate) coming so more can catch in the sieve. This is an old acting lesson--and one I just have to keep on relearning, it seems--but particularly important when one is playing someone else's id or super-ego.

Of course, some conventional acting wisdom is less helpful, if not downright disruptive. For example, staying in eye contact with your scene partner as much as possible. Also, in many cases, we want to see an actor fighting his emotions in order to achieve some goal; this is the idea behind crying on stage, the point not being the tears, but to keep working through that crying. However, when you have an alter ego playing out your practical or scenic obligations, the best thing you can do to tell the story is flat-out show his hidden or outwardly controlled emotions. I jump around and shout a lot in this play, and I just have to keep reminding myself that such no-nos are exactly and precisely what I'm there to do.

There are a few scenes in the play when we get to blur these rules in entertaining ways. For example, Aaron and I come a lot closer together in a scene in which he's hammered drunk, to the extent that we are literally back-to-back, holding one another up for our elaborate drunken swaying. At this stage of rehearsal, the ensemble is getting comfortable enough for more physical choices and choreography in general, and this is of course a favorite stage of things for yours truly. From the start we are now establishing that not only do I have physical control over Aaron, but sometimes he over me as well (when he's particularly using his imagination, for example). There are also three or four moments in which I get to initiate some of his subconscious gestures by directly operating him like a puppet. There's great fun to be had in these moments when they're more adversarial. At such times, Aaron has to justify in the "real" world why he tripped or bit his nails at a particular moment, and heck: that's just fun stuff.

In terms of my off-stage work, I really should be jogging and stretching more. I'm not in the worst shape, but my exercise for a while now has been predominantly silks work with the amazing Cody Schreger, and there's not a whole lot of shimmying involved in Love Me (pity, really). What there is a lot of is running around and contorting and falling. The trouble is that this all happens in rehearsal until 10:30 or so, and so, when I wake up at 6:00...no running for me. Must get on it now, because June 10th is just over that hill...

17 May 2010

A Walk to Memorize

The other day I took a walk through my general area of Queens, seeking out nice light and places I hadn't seen. The peppered photos are from this little journey (as inspired by some of Friend Patrick's recent posts). I didn't start on my walk with the specific purpose of taking photos -- just thought of it as I was headed out the door. Rather, I wanted to grab a little leg stretching while there was still light out on a beautiful day that I had otherwise spent largely indoors and seated.

I don't know why I don't take walks more often, but I'm going to try from now on. I was recently reminded while listening to the Totally Laime podcast that it used to be a habit of mine. I would take walks with my mom or friends or love interests along the twisting asphalt paths that twined through the forests of my hometown neighborhoods, and these walks invariably made for interesting conversation and at least a little bit of relaxation. They were nice, so of course I took them for granted. Maybe when I moved to the city I convinced myself that there was nothing to see like the flora and fauna of Burke, or maybe I was too concerned with my safety initially, or found my days too full or time returning home too late to contemplate walking as recreation. Heck-n-shoot: We walk everywhere in New York. Maybe I've missed the distinction between that kind of walking and the leisure activity.

Whatever the reason for the pause, I'm returning to it. This walk through Queens was tremendous and refreshing (refreshendous?) and really set me in a state of mind I could definitely do with more of. Somehow the decision to "go for a walk" freed me up to sort of declare that I was going to have an experience and not aim to get anything done for a little while. I was active, and continuously so, but also receptive and generally contemplative. Instead of going somewhere or being somewhere, I was neither.

The next day I saw a talk that resonated with me. Linda Stone was stating observations that I have been making for years now, and putting them into a context I could understand and appreciate. She was turning information into knowledge, perhaps. Whatever it was, it reminded me of the state of being I returned to on my little walk. Some steps from her walk:

  • Noise becomes data when it has a cognitive pattern.
  • Data becomes information when assembled into a coherent whole which can be related to other information.
  • Information becomes knowledge when integrated with other information in a form useful for making decisions and determining actions.
  • Knowledge becomes understanding when related to other knowledge in a manner useful in anticipating, judging and acting.
  • Understanding becomes wisdom when informed by purpose, ethics, principles, memory and projection.

13 May 2010

A Little Inside

Last night was the first on-our-feet rehearsal for the debut comedy I'm performing in: Love Me. It's written by Jason Grossman, directed by Daryl Boling, and features two actors with whom I've worked before as well: Laura Boling (nee Schwenninger) and Ridley Parson. So in many ways, the show is a fairly epic reunion. And in others, I'm not acting with these people at all.

It's a unique role.

The play concerns itself with a struggling young actor-turned-playwright living in the city, looking for love, and the various misadventures this engenders amongst his friends and love interests. This fellow, Charlie, has an inner monologue that's realized aloud on stage. I play Charlie's inner monologue. Now, the play as it was originally written simply used a voice-over for the inner monologue (henceforth, "I.M."), but Daryl thought it would be interesting to have a physical personification, and presto: me. Jason's done some rewrites to accommodate this notion, but by-and-large we're in a process of discovery about how the concept might play out.

Last night was a very interesting, probably evenly-matched mix of exciting revelation and humbling reality check. On the one hand, this role allows for some tremendous and unconstrained acting choices; on the other, it practically demands such choices. My expressions can be delightfully hyperbolic when it works, since they're the instinctive responses of someone's private thoughts, but it's also a bit like acting in a vacuum. More than a bit. I was surprised to find, last night, just how tough that would be. We had a moment here or there at which someone would accidentally acknowledge me on stage, and it was always funny, but by the end of the evening I found myself wishing it happened more. It is tough to act alone.

It's also good practice, and particularly good practice for some of my clown training. Since much of what I.M. does is judge his analogue self, I'm also reminded of The Action Collective's recent workshop (see 4/29/10) with Raïna von Waldenburg. In other words, this role is an interesting convergence of my past experiences and my current perspectives on acting. It's also an uncompromising position for one who has been avoiding the bare-faced vulnerability of clown work for some time to be in, but sometimes that's exactly the sort of situation one needs to see past something. I hope that's the case here but, either way, there's nothing to do now but commit like crazy.

Perhaps the most interesting part of it all is learning what works and what doesn't in terms of working with my alter ego, played by Aaron Rossini. Last night we worked on the first two scenes, and the final one, so I was introduced and had a good scene of just me and ... uh ... me, then found out how it would be to play with others in the room, then how it all wraps up. Pretty good overview for a first rehearsal. I'm positively more at ease in the scene Aaron and I share alone, at this point, and even in that there were of course spectacular failures last night. I had imagined before we started that I would mostly be playing off of what Aaron chose for the character, but quickly discovered that it was going to be more of a tennis game than that.

Generally speaking, it was working great when I was like an amplified echo of his current moment, or a representation of his creeping, intrusive self-judgment as he moved in one direction or the other. Facing him is tremendous, and we have a really nice moment over a phone on a podium that I understand and helps me contextualize what we're aiming for in the rest of our scenes together.

There is a lot that challenges, too. For example, I am assumed to have an inherent connection to myself (of course) yet when Aaron and I are looking in the same direction . . . I can't look at him for cues as to how he's feeling. Also, in addition to being a bit energetically isolated from the cast, there's a strange Icarusian (is SO a word) polar danger of either hyperbolically stealing the scenes, or being painfully extraneous to them. All this, and I should be funny, too. YAY, CHALLENGES!!!1!

But seriously: Yay, challenges! These are good challenges, and I'm happy to have them, as well as the opportunity to try and be funny for strangers again. I'm working on a show that reunites me with old friends, tackles themes and conventions that are very personal to me and on top of all that, there's the free reign to be just as physical as I please. This is a good time for that. Let's live aloud, and let out our angels and demons.

Even if just a little, inside.

05 May 2010


It's an incredibly interesting word. All its meanings come from the concept of a pole shape, and so are rather straight-forward in etymology. However, they signify vastly different concepts in and of themselves, depending upon usage. It can mean central, or pivotal, but also diametrically opposed as in the ends of a pole or opposing magnetic forces. In addition, it can be used to describe something that functions as a principle guide. Quite accidentally, it seems, the word "polar" nearly, neatly encompasses (pun unintended [honest]) just about every little thing inside and out, for or against.

The other night I was in casual conversation with a friend when she made one of those sorts of personal observations that was so exact as to give me a start. I've been thinking that I'm in a place of generalized uncertainty; that I have been in such a place for a while, actually, but am only now coming to realize it. My friend said something to the effect of, "You seem to be in a tricky place of trying to figure out what's next." Bingo. Yes. A place of trying. And that makes me feel uncertain about just about everything. And that in turn swings me around, moodily, as though I were a Mylar toy in the mouth of a playful cat.

(Maybe that's only my cat?)

I've noticed a trend in naming when it comes to psychological analysis, and I've always considered myself unqualified for such an observation, so I've kept it to myself. (At least I think I have, Dear Reader; I'm sure you'll correct me if I lie.) Recently, however, I learned about the American Psychiatric Association's evaluation of their terminology and definitions (thank you, This American Life) and the tremendous controversies and impact these ever-changing guidelines can engender. Take the example TAL covers in the linked story: the classification and eventual declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder. The next official guidelines, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) are due to be released around May of 2013 and, guess what, you can view the draft online. Heck: Register, and you could've submit commentary. (Only until April 20th! Fail!)

This little affirmation that psychiatry is just as mutable a science as any of the others (if not a bit more so) has me thinking about my little theory a bit more. I think perhaps that the naming of supposed disorders reflects more about our collective relationship to our environment than it does any particular diagnostic insight into psychiatry. To take it further, our concept of "normal" behavior is subliminally reflected in our choice of wording when it comes to naming what we believe to be abnormal. In other words (pun very much intended), by the very act of trying to be impartial and insightful about them, we are showing our specific bias and inability to understand behaviors.

I'm not slamming psychiatry. I think it's a very adaptive science that pursues very important goals. If I'm slamming anything, it's folks who put too much faith in psychiatry as a textbook for understanding people. People who do this exist, and they're stupid. I am pretty stupid, too, as far as formal psychiatric education goes; there's no way I could last in a debate against the most green of students. Fortunately, I'm not aiming for argument here, but for exploration of the possibility that our need for names might offer us clues into understanding the namers as much as understanding the named. All this hinges on another, background premise with which you may not agree -- to wit: there is no "normal." Disorders, yes, to the extent that the disorder refers to behavior that impairs functionality. But normalcy? In self-aware humans? Sorry, I'm not buying it. If you do, you might want to save yourself some grief and stop right about here.

(If you feel like a cat-victimized Mylar toy from here on out, it's not my fault.)

It's interesting to note that the defining aspect of bipolar disorder is currently under review by the APA. That is, the "rapid cycling specifier."[DSM-5: 296.5x] When I was growing up, I never heard about bipolar disorder, and believe it's a quite recent adoption. For most of my life, a sort of blanket adjective was used: manic-depressive. Wikipedia suggests this term was officially adopted as of DSM-2. That same article begins with some etymology far more complex and interesting than the stuff of my opening paragraph. This etymological overview suggests that the behavior associated with these terms dates back to the very beginnings of recorded human history. I can't help but wonder what qualified as bipolar behavior in times of such struggle and innovation.

The term "bipolar" is not only ambiguous for its use of "polar," but for "bi-," which is one of the most misunderstood prefixes in western English. When used to indicate a period of time, it can mean twice per a given unit, or once per every two of a given unit. We attempt to overcome this by using for example "semimonthly" to indicate something that happens twice a month, but this is not a replacement, merely a potential substitution. It doesn't make "bi-" any less ambiguous, in other words. Now, I understand how they mean the term bipolar in reference to the disorder (at least I think I do [two magnets every pivotal two months, right?]). I just find it interesting that in ostensibly trying to refine and specify a description of erratic emotional behavior, we have jumbled it up so very thoroughly.

Maybe it's apt. That is how it feels when one is in the midst of a manic-depressive cycle, or a rapidly-cycling mood, or a feeling velocipede (What?) -- it's extremely difficult to know which way is up, find one's center or know whether one is coming or one is gone. And maybe, just maybe, this is my acting philosophy showing through, but I can't help but wonder if we aren't all pretty bipolar. I'm not discounting by any means people who are crippled by bipolar disorder. There are some who need serious help to function. Yet I feel that by searching for the identities of disorders, we sometimes find disorder in the natural order. In acting, at least in my school of it, we say, "use what works." No one technique is superior to another. It's all about the approach best suited to the task at hand. Sometimes feeling lost, or swung about, is the very technique we need to discover another route onward.