29 July 2010

This Is Just to Say

I have enjoyed
the actors
that came in
to callbacks

and who
were probably tense
its oddness.

Forgive me
I cannot cast you all
so brave
and so totally awesome.

Short post here just to touch on the callbacks for our next Zuppa del Giorno show, the which I'll be directing. They have taken place this week, and after a little more coordinating and ruminating we should have our third performer. This was effectively my first time on the other side of the table in an audition process, and I learned a lot from it (possibly at the expense of the actors involved?), both as someone conducting an audition process and as an actor in said audition. More anon on that. (I'm really racking up the promised 'blog topics here.)

This post is really just to say that everyone who came in was awesome. It was an extremely unconventional callback process, due to the developmental and improvisational nature of the show, and each actor handled it with style. See if this doesn't terrify you: We set out a table of assorted random objects, and had people in two-at-a-time. The game they played was to tell a story between them, with one person verbally telling the story and the other telling it physically. They could use any of the "props," and at any time they could switch positions, yielding their vocal or physical storytelling to the other, or swooping into the other role. And they just kept going until I said, "Scene."

Tough, no? Awful, really, for people psyched to have an opportunity. If I could have come up with any other way to find out what we needed to know, I would have done that. But I wish you could have been there, Dear Reader, because what everyone did was unique and effective and inspiring. So, thanks, Auditioners. I would like to take you all out for milk and cookies.

27 July 2010

The Southampton Writers Conference

I had no idea this thing existed until I was invited by The Ensemble Studio Theatre (thanks entirely to Tom Rowan) to participate as an actor this year. But that's what a lot of my acting career is like, so it's tough for me to judge whether or not I should have heard of it.

Imagine you're at a party where you don't really know anybody. You're supposed to be there, and yet no one would miss you for a moment if you slipped out the door. People are buzzing about, trying to connect with very specific intentions, and tremendous drama and change is unfolding all around you. You, meanwhile, are just sort of holding your arms out, hoping someone will pick up on your invitation to a hug. That, my friends, is an apt metaphor for my experience as a career actor, my general attitude toward parties, and frankly the beginning of my experience here at The Southampton Writers Conference.

It was cool, I don't mind telling you. I am a huge writing nerd, and love excuses to hear writers talk about their work and processes. I've been to another writers' conference twice before, the CVWC in upstate, both times as something of a tourist. I was just a shade closer to being an actual participant this time, working there as an actor for their playwrights, which means I get to attend readings and rub elbows with Emily Mann and - yes - spend a little time cloistered away in my room working on my own playwriting. Pretty sweet, and those strange party feelings always fade eventually (but must they always appear in the first place, galdurnitall?). More on that in a future post, I think.

To sum it all up (because Blogger ate a good three paragraphs that it told me it had saved yesterday [Blogger, you jerk][just kidding love you mean it never change]): social difficulties were surmounted, the quality of work was astounding, and the level of talent of my fellow actors was simply inspiring. I'm not just blowing positive-attitude smoke here. Without dropping names, the actors I got to work with were - across the board - professional, talented and fun. Most all of them were working, many you'd probably recognize, and just about all of them (with the exception of me and I think two others) had some previous association with EST. So in some small way, I checked off a personal goal in getting to work with that theatre (see 11/17/08). I hope, of course, to work with them again someday.

The work itself involved reading two plays twice - Tom's Burning Leaves and Ben Rosenthal's Neptune Kelly - in a cycle in which the first reading gave the playwrights material with which to revise, and the second came after two days' revisions and a brief rehearsal period, and was presented to whomever from the conference wished to attend. It was a good structure, and left us with time to sit in and do readings for Emily Mann's playwriting workshops, and on Saturday night her attendees presented some of their work to the rest of the conference in the form of our performing readings of about five minutes of each playwright's in-class creations. Any time I had spare from this schedule was generally spent in my room mulling over and revising my own much-neglected play-in-progress Hereafter.

(PS and also: Dear Reader, I'm certain that if the occasion arises in which I announce I'm going to once again write a bunch of interconnected scenes and see if after-the-fact they can be melded into a cohesive whole, you will of course come to my apartment, knock on my door and, when I open it, shout "NOT AGAIN," and punch me square in the nose. Hard. Because you love me. Anyway: I'd appreciate it if you could.)

It was interesting to be working on Burning Leaves again, particularly because I felt it was already a rather finished product the last time I performed it in November of 2008. Tom, fortunately, is a much smarter playwright than I, and had already made some significant cuts to the play before I read it again for the conference. In particular, he cut a monologue for my character in which he explains what traumatic series of events led to his fleeing New York. He had gotten feedback suggesting that this was one of the more irresponsible and less admirable things the guy does, sharing the burden of such personal history with his student. I missed it of course - it was a heart-breaking story to tell - but a great edit. In the course of the week Tom did more to streamline the play and adjust the balance of ethics and plot logic between characters, and I felt good about the final reading. I always want to do better, but I felt good. Again: my fellow actors were amazing; just committed and specific and true as all git-out.

Neptune Kelly is a cracker of a script. I had zero experience with this one before they sent it to me, and I have to admit that on first read I flinched a bit from it. It has a combination of earmarks of the kind of material I'm usually not too keen on: highly stylized, allegorical, verbose. Normally this makes for the sort of trying-too-hard off-off-Broadway showcase that's out there to MAKE a STATEMENT. As soon as we got in the room, though, I knew I had let prejudice in on my initial judgment, because the play rocks. It's not as allegorical as it first may seem - for one, it doesn't wrap anything up neatly - and the beauty of its verbose style is that it stems from committed, crisis-filled characters. It's funny, bold and poetic in the least pretentious way, and we had a ball with it. I had only one scene in Neptune Kelly (once again playing a teacher, somehow) but it sort of made up for my lost monologue in Burning Leaves, being an explanatory story for why my character committed and extreme and self-destructive act. I got to make this vaulting little journey from resolution to profound regret over a couple of pages, and in so doing propel another character into direct action, and that's just the kind of smarts and specificity that Ben's working with which allows him to create such a weird-but-true world.

Finally, the presentation of Ms. Mann's students' work was great fun, and surprisingly fulfilling. I've always been a fan of short-form presentations of theatrical work and the way its informality can invite more audience involvement and great spontaneity in the actors' performances, but you often have to take a certain lackluster quality into account for such undertakings. Timing may be off, words may be stumbled over, etc. Such was the quality of the writing and the acting of this little presentation that it lacked no luster. I laughed, I cried, it was better than lots and lots of the fully produced shows I've seen in my life. I was lucky to be a part of it (particularly, extremely lucky, actually, because my scene partner is an amazingly good actor). We had fully-formed, five-minute segments of passion, manipulation, Alzheimer's, shuddering regret and even loving cannibalism. Egad I love theatre.

Perhaps the most uplifting thing to come out of the whole experience for me is that I was asked to return this Friday, to participate in a staged reading of one of the attendee's plays, Wild Animals You Should Know. Thomas Higgins penned the script, and I'm a big fan of it. (Very odd: Thom had a script in The SFOOBSPF, in which I just participated.) It has a lot to do with the Boy Scouts of America, so that's a like a little visit into my childhood, and it is working with some of the same themes as Burning Leaves does. And, somehow, the reading is being directed by Joe Mantello.

So, you know, um: WOW.

19 July 2010

Our Best Laid Plans

On Saturday evening, Josh Sohn's short play Laid Plans opened, and closed. The good judges of the The Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival (henceforth, "The SFOOBSPF") elected not to pass our little production on to the final competition performances on the following Sunday. Such crumbs fall from such baked desserts. It's difficult to know exactly what criteria were used in our elimination, particularly without seeing any of the other shows in the week-long celebration of the short play. Best not to contemplate it, then. It's like auditions: Do yer best, accept the mess, and . . . uh . . . wear a dress? But only if you're a woman. Or it's a stage adaptation of Tootsie. But I digress.

The SFOOBSPF was a good experience overall, though certainly brief, and the actual performance was not without incident. Due in part to a malfunctioning headset backstage, the booth started the show before I was all set. I had just about ordered my confusion of costume changes and props backstage when the 14 seconds (yes: 14 seconds exactly) of music that cues the start of the play began. I was supposed to be prepped behind a tormentor off stage right, and instead I was behind the backdrop, still without top hat and spectacles. But a moment of panic, a quick adjustment and all was right with the world again. It was only a slightly inauspicious start to an otherwise solid performance.

I haven't written much on the process of this one, frankly because we had very little time to contemplate. The rehearsal period was very efficient. In fact, it had a little more time built in, but we had to recast one of our cast of three after about a week, which in itself took almost a week, and so: just enough time to pull the strands together. In that time, a lot of my process was occupied by some rather straight-forward decision making. By playing five different characters, I was also the only one who exited the stage, which made me the de facto prop manager and scene changer. Lots of time was spent -- rightly so, I believe -- choosing and managing props and costumes. Yet I am very fond of the characters I got to bring to life in Laid Plans.

The first out, as you may have guessed, was not of our time. The play kicks off with a daughter explaining she was named after William "Wilkie" Collins, and shortly thereafter I entered as the gentleman to play a scene of her mother's discovery of his novel The Woman in White when she was in college. It would have been impossible for me to actually imitate ol' Wilkie in his prime, so the director Kay Long very rightly suggested we play him younger, with a certain self-assurance (let's call it) that would come easily to me. I was disappointed with the loss of a sight gag by shearing him of his beard (and to the last and for naught, I held out for a handlebar mustache) but as it turned out, flourishing my cane and doffing a waistcoat, tails and the aforementioned top hat was enough to knock the audience into some good-natured laughter. The character of WWC was a proud, strutting man of manners, whom I really enjoyed filling out.

The next character to play was the mother's lover from her post-college years in New York, who is of course her daughter's father; Thomas Devine. His costume was essentially an under-dressing of WWC's: off with the hat, spectacles, and coat, and there we has, in vest and bow tie. He had some other things in common with WWC in terms of a certain self-assurance, but I tried to give that a different, more innocent flavor. Plus his flair for the dramatic was unique -- he was an actor, day-jobbing as a waiter. The contrast, too, could be played into his more contemporary, casual demeanor. Mostly, what there was to play with him was his obsessions, particularly with the mother character. I owe Kay thanks here too, as she kept reminding me of the morose side of passionate young actors. It was really for me just revisiting, ever-so-briefly, my 23-year-old self in many ways. In NYC, in love, in way over his head. He jumped around and ran his hands through his hair a lot.

Next up was a rather quick change into Jarvis, possibly my favorite of my characters. He was the high school relationship of the daughter: an overweight, weird-n-shy creative type who started as her friend before they crossed a line. Again, it felt to me rather familiar territory. The change was a pretty quick one. Often I still had Thomas' bow tie and handkerchief in my pockets as I entered the stage having ditched my vest and button-down and tossed on a voluminous hooded sweatshirt. I wish I could have seen a tape of Jarvis. The only changes we made to indicate his weight apart from mention of it in the script were stuffing the front pocket of the hoodie a bit, and my walk. I feel like I remember that walk really well, but it would be good to verify that with a little recorded evidence. Jarvis also drew comics throughout his scene, buried in a little notebook, and I used the occasion to revisit my ill-advised forays into cartooning. He was a confused kid, and that confused kid lives on in us one way or another, I think. Nice to find a use for him.

After Jarvis came my role with the most lines and stage time: Toast. (That's what his friend call him.) Toast is a figure from the daughter's collegiate experience, a fellow she meets at a party. This costume was the most stripped down -- just an American Eagle cap, my undershirt (a band t-shirt for Artist vs. Poet) and my slacks tugged down to about mid-butt level -- but the character probably the most affected. It's maybe a tie between Toast and WWC, but Toast was certainly off-type for yours truly. He enters with a couple of those red party cups, master of the party, at least in his own mind. In a way, we was a combination of the postures of Jarvis and Thomas: chest out, but legs heavy and low to the ground, and all of it utterly relaxed. We always imagined that Toast would get a couple of good laughs, so I mostly concerned myself with playing him believably, not making the funny, or exaggerating. I don't know how well I ultimately did, but he got some gratifying laughs, especially on a couple of lines in which he spoke his inner monologue whilst hitting on the daughter (where's my entirely other actor to voice an inner monologue, huh?).

Finally, after Toast was my most frantic change into Alan Stone, the architect and would-be boyfriend of the mother, a fellow from her recent past. This was the shortest amount of time for a change, and though the change wasn't too drastic (tug up inseam, done v-neck sweater, blazer and glasses) I made it slightly difficult on myself by insisting on combing a little pomade in my hair. He needed that precision. Alan, like Thomas, had no lines. Unlike Thomas, he was very precise and actually completely silent, which reminded me a bit of the simplicity Zuppa del Giorno found working on Silent Lives all those years ago. He came to use chopsticks in his little vignette, which was a lovely way of illustrating his personality (and I managed not to drop the damn things). Upright, logical, "not effusive," Alan turned on his heel and left, and thus endeth my run of five.

After my exeunt, the play has at least a good ten minutes left on it, which I also savored. It is, after all, about the women, and I have savored that and the way the action eventually strips it down to just the two of them ever since I first read Josh's script some year or so ago. The SFOOBSPF didn't favor us, didn't pass us along to eternal salvational fame and renown, but I believe we laid out our case for Josh's script the best we could, which was pretty damn good. Sometimes when the best isn't good enough, it only means it's making way for something better.

07 July 2010

"Commence, au festival(s)!"

It seems I can't stay away from festivals. Play festivals, that is (which, sidenote here, should really involve more traditional "festival" elements: streamers, confetti, [more] libidinous excess, etc.). Love Me and the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity have wrapped up - with some very nice houses and a good review, I might add - and I am in rehearsal for another festival with a play called Laid Plans. This one is a part of The Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival (henceforth, "The SFOOBSPF") and is a mere thirty minutes long, which is good, because it's in concert with several other short pieces in its time slot.

The best part about being a part of a festival is how much gets taken care of for you. You have venue and some basic facility provisions, likely some advertising, more appeal for reviewers to make the trip and a certain amount of additional credibility. I don't know how strictly scripts are vetted from one festival to another, but odds are that plays that have to pass any kind of screening at all are likely to be safer bets for an audience than ones produced solely by the playwright. The worst part about being a part of a festival is the following conversation:

"Hey! I'm seeing your show tonight!"
"Hey! I'm pretty sure you aren't!"
"What? Why?"
"We don't have a show tonight."
"But it's Friday."
"Yeah, I know. We have one Sunday."
"Oh; okay. A matinee?"
"Sort of. It starts at 2:00."
"I can do that!"
"Two o'clock in the morning?"
"Yeah. Give or take 15 minutes, of course, given that the show before us has to dismantle their lasers before we can even enter the space to set up."
"Hey, don't worry: You can catch my next production."
"Oh good, cool. When does it run?"
"Saturday, July 17, at 9:00. PM. And maybe the next day, depending on how well we do."

Theatre festivals invariably involve some ridiculously tight and erratic scheduling in order to take full advantage of taking over one or more theatres for a few weeks. This has a certain charm when you have the reputation of one of the Fringe festivals, and even in that case it gets pretty confusing pretty fast, and productions still end up having to oblige seats with butts for some impossibly impractical showtimes. Still, they're fun, and there's something pleasing about being a part of something larger in this way. "Larger still," I should say, since being a part of any production is being a part of something more than oneself. Layers upon layers, people...

I've never participated in The SFOOBSPF before, and am looking forward to discovering how it all works. Planet Connections I found to be rather similar to my two FringeNYC experiences (As Far As We Know and La Vigilia) in terms of practical concerns, though generally more focused in purpose and rather better organized--simply because it is less sprawling than the Fringe. The utterly strange thing is the possibility of performing the play only once. It reminds me of high school productions or, more accurately, elementary school ones. It seems an awful lot of work for one, ultimately rather static performance. On the other hand, the stakes for getting a good show off should be nice and motivating.