28 September 2010

I Can Not Stress Enough...

Found here.
There's a little voice in my head that moonlights as an escape artist.  It must be, because no gag or act of psychic bondage will shut the little son-of-ma'-brain up.  It is in essence a control valve for my ambition, and it goes a little something like this:
"Jeff.  Jeff.  Jeff.  Jeff.  Jeff.  Hey Jeff.  Jeff.  Jeff.  Hey Jeff.  Hey.  Remember that thing you have to do.  You know: the thing.  Not the one thing, but that other thing.  But do the other other thing first.  And then remember to come back to the first thing I mentioned, and then do that one thing.  If you can't remember any one of these things, well, you're probably going to screw it all up.  Actually, you will.  Screw it all up.  It's already screwed up, by merit of you being the one who has to do it.  It's all going to turn out very, very badly - even worse than using an adverb in an ambiguous context.  Which you just did.  Worse yet, the aforementioned screwing up will occur as a result of a spiral of failure starting with some small thing and eventually taking the entire endeavor known as YOUR LIFE down like the Titanic.  Because that's what happens to big, ignorant things.  Hey Jeff.  Hey Jeff.  If you don't stop sucking soon, it may already be too late..."
He's an extremely helpful little guy.  Especially when one is dealing with multiple deadlines.

Recently I added to my roster of responsibilities some work for a company that sends actors in to corporate environments to facilitate lessons in communication between managers and their team members.  I was wary of this sort of work at first, because Wife Megan worked for one such institution when she first moved to NYC, and they sounded horrible.  Very touchy-feely, metaphoric and therapeutic in their approach, which I personally find inappropriate for a work environment.  (Yes, even in theatre work - a debate best left for another post.)  Fortunately, the place I'm working for now has a more pragmatic view of communication in the work place, and it's one I thus far agree with.

So I'm trying to apply their philosophy to a conversation with my extremely helpful little guy (henceforth "EHLG").  It might go a little something like this:
Me: Hey EHLG. How are you?
EHLG: Hey Jeff. Hey Jeff.
Me: Um - hey.
EHLG: You know what?
Me: What's that?
EHLG: You suck. At living.
Me: Okay, see-
EHLG: Living is something you're very bad at.
Me: Do you see what you just did there?
EHLG: You mean the way I spoke truth to power?
Me: Well from my perspective, you tried to tear down power.
EHLG: Word up.
Me: But see, EHLG, I don't have much of any power over you.
EHLG: Word up.
Me: And if you tear me down, it only hurts both of us.
EHLG: Word...huh.
Me: What is it you're hoping to get out of this?
EHLG: You know, you're not very good at this feedback stuff.
Me: Okay.
EHLG: You fake it pretty good, but that can only take you so far and pretty soon you're going to fail and suffer.
Me: I'm suffering now.
EHLG: Not as much as you will if you keep going.
Me: Is that a threat?
EHLG: You know, you're not very good at perceiving threats.
And let's take a little break here.  This is a weird post, I'll admit it, but also pretty interesting to me, I must admit as well.  The first practice session I had with the feedback-training company got confusing quickly, because we were all trainees and we ran sessions with one another.  That meant that in addition to trying to learn the techniques the company used in role-playing, we were at times role-playing being a facilitator who was role-playing being an employee of a manager/student who was, him or herself, a role-player; all the while improvising a scenario with specific given circumstances.  (WE HAVE TO GO DEEEPER [BRAAAAHHHHHMMMMM...].)

The big mistake I made in that practice session was not when I was playing the manager, but the actor/facilitator.  I got confused, and came on too strong with the obstacle that "manager" was being asked to deal with.  Ideally, one wants to adjust to his or her level of intercommunication and nudge it towards something more, and I just barreled on through with my characterization instead.  Call it my learned imperative response as an actor.  I've gotten better at it.  One key element is to insert a pause in the role-play for analysis and discussion.  It allows the manager to reflect and feel permitted to try a fresh angle.
EHLG: You suck.
Me: Thanks EHLG; I appreciate your feedback and will try to consider it in future endeavors.
EHLG: You're welcome.
Me: I wanted to talk to you today about your feedback, actually. Have you found it to be getting you the results you want?
EHLG: Mostly. I have to keep repeating myself, which is pretty irritating, but that's the way it goes when you're talking to someone sucky.
Me: Have you thought about trying a different approach?
EHLG: Oh, I'm always changing gears: you suck, you blow, you aren't good at anything ever, you are justly hated and/or despised, your failure is compounded by your ugly face and funny clothes, etc.
Me: You do spend a lot of time coming up with that feedback
EHLG: Thank you.
Me: Let me tell you, though, that what I see is that your negativity is working against you, making your job harder on yourself.
EHLG: You're not very good at perceiving reality.
Me: Thanks, EHLG, for phrasing that in that way.
EHLG: What way?
Me: "Not very good."  You did that earlier, and I really appreciate when you show that consideration for me. It makes me feel better about listening to you.
EHLG: Your feelings are unimportant and stupid.
Me: You're welcome to have that opinion, but can I just point out that by assuaging my feelings, you make your job more efficient? In addition, by ignoring them, you imperil your position in this personality.
EHLG: I do?
Me: Of course, I wouldn't want to lose you if I can help it, EHLG.  You are always working, always keeping an eye on your well-being, and I appreciate the vigilance.  It's just that your negativity threatens to bring down everything you touch, and I of course can't have that happening. By being so aggressive in your input, you're alienating essential coworkers, like passion and inspiration.  Do you understand what I mean?
EHLG: Yeah.
Me: What do you think about that?
EHLG: It's stupid.
Me: Well, let's agree to check in again next week, at which time we can review your progress and make some decisions about what will help us work together better.
EHLG: That's stupid and sucky and you're stupid and sucky and I hate you.
Sometimes, you just have to be proud of how well you can handle a situation, and hope to get better results next time.  Having a little understanding for yourself can help with stress, too.

24 September 2010

Tied Up in the Air

My teacher, Ms. Cody Schreger, who is fairly wicked awesome.
For almost a year-and-a-half now, I've tried different ways of tying myself up, suspended from the ceiling, at least once a week.  Some weeks I let go by without fulfilling this habit, others I manage to engage in it several times.  But it's likely that I've tied myself to the ceiling a few hundred times now.  For some, that might qualify them as something of an advanced practitioner when it comes to tethering oneself to the inner-roof; Wife Megan, for example, is quite adept after the same extent of experience.  Personally, I still consider myself to be an intermediate at best as it pertains to lashing my body in suspension from architectural hoods.  It's tough to pin-point the reason for this discrepancy, but I generally chalk it up to Megan having had extensive dance experience, and me being a rather shimmying, scampering, klutzy ol' dork.

(Friend Geoff still think it's hilarious/terrifying that I stilt-walk, since from his perspective it's a dodgy proposition for me to make it regular-walking through a doorway without comical mishap.)

Whatever the reason, this discrepancy is why Megan made her aerial silks performance debut in August, and will be showing her sophomore routine in the same show in which I will hopefully prove to the world that when I fall off of fabric, it's purely intentional.  The performances will be in mid-October, as part of an all-ages Halloween show at the STREB studio in Williamsburg.  I've been preparing for it since I got back from the Marywood work in Scranton (see 9/12/10) and am just at that stage where one realizes just how much work will actually need to be done to achieve one's vision.  Whenever we have an idea for a performance, we never truly have a concept of how much it will take to achieve it.  It's similar to what I've read about childbirth in this way, I think: as time goes on you remember the joy better than the agony.

I posted a video the week I got back of my very first draft of the piece.  I wouldn't have done this normally, but the curator of the show needed to see a sample and I figured the worst it would do is demonstrate how far I had come by the time I posted a performance video.  Even in ten days (six hours' rehearsal) or so, the piece has evolved quite a bit, and I have a clearer sense of where I'm headed.  What started out as a concept piece featuring my stock silent-film clown has evolved into something with a larger story, lightly connected to what Megan will perform and featuring a new clownish sort of character - a slightly deluded old-timey strongman.  It's fun, recognizable and it works, I think.  I've even found a song and buffed down the choreography to a reasonable skill-level and duration.

However: This is hard work of a variety with which I am not terribly comfortable.  I have been known, when a show I'm in randomly requires dance choreography, to internally combust, and not in that nice fuel-injected way.  It makes me SUPER SELF CRITICAL and HULK SMASH.  For some reason I don't get this way with fight choreography, nor acrobalance - love it!  Give it to me more please!  Aerial silks has a dancier (is SO a word) feel to it for me, though, and so there are some personal blocks there.  On top of that, it's awfully specific in a way that people without training can take for granted.  As an actor, it's painfully obvious to me when someone is trying their hand at acting, and doesn't have certain (eventually) instinctive specifics going on.  So I'm working on that with silks.

I'm also trying to build a piece that plays to both my strengths and weaknesses.  For example, I can't seem to point my toes to save my life.  You might be surprised what a difference this makes.  Heck: Even if I could achieve this WONDER of the classical dance world, my extension (how straight, long and pretty on is) in my legs is worse than a Virginia fence.  But I have a certain amount of upper body strength.  Nothing that's leading Cirque du Soleil to pound down my door but, you know.  So I've devised the circus strongman character as someone who might take pride in his stiff form and right angles.  Ah, but there's a trick in that, too.  My feet can't just be casually flexed, they must be UBER-FLEXED at ALL TIMES.

Ah, art.

It's great fun stuff, though, in spite of all the struggles.  It's still climbing, after all.  I'm often at odds about the work required to go from enjoying something to being able to do it reliably well.  I gave up on vocal training because I wanted singing to remain something I enjoyed for myself, rather than resented for needing to struggle through.  This isn't necessarily an intelligent decision, I realize, but it's one that was and continues to be personally important to me.  I don't want to do this with silks, however, which is why performing is so important.  It forces me to take things from fun to reliable, and thereby take whatever little talent I have to whatever little skill I can muster.  So I remind myself of that every time the move is too complicated for me to remember, or I am too weak to execute a climb for the fifth or sixth time, or the dance belt (O God, that dance belt) chafes.

And then sometimes I just scamper and shimmy to my heart's content.

22 September 2010

The First Step is in Recognizing you Have a Problem

A collaboration with Pavarti over on The Node, submitted sans comment:

Loch Ness Monster - Chronic Insecurity
Far from his reputation for being "elusive," the Loch Ness monster is all up in e'rybody's grills, all the time. "I'm told I'm the best at hiding," he'll let you know at any available opportunity, all while preening for some unwitting tourist's camera. Then the photographer will try to leave, and Nessy will be all, "Oh, you have to go, huh? Right now? What've you got planned? Who are you meeting? It's not Duncan, is it? Well can I come?" If you say yes, you'll have to discretely text Duncan and anyone else to give them fair warning while Nessy stumps along behind, talking incessantly about being the best at walking on fins. And if you say no, well...have you ever had such huge, wet, black eyes stare at you while a prehistoric amphibian mumbles something about guessing he understands, what with how close you and Duncan are and all? Actually, it's not so much that no one can capture Nessy - it's that they quickly discover there's too high a price to pay for that particular accomplishment.

Vampire with Seasonal Effective Disorder

Nosferatu's attitude is just turning south. We JUST turned the clocks back, isn't his depression supposed to hold off at least until December? I don't know if I can take another winter in this cave with him. The rest of us are partying, thrilled to be able to have so much time out in the world, but whiny pants just can't stop muttering about needing a UV lamp. Seriously? He can't have that thing in here, if he wants to burst into flames that's fine but other people live here too and personally I'm perfectly happy without the tan.

Yeti - Body Dismorphia 

"WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE! WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE! You are not supposed to BE here! Oh, GOD! I don't have nettles in my fur, my claws aren't christened with fresh ram's blood, and...OH! Well, the timing couldn't be worse. I mean, I've only consumed five whole rams per day for the past three months. Of course I look WAY too skinny. If I had known you were coming, I could've plumped up a bit and been properly Neanderthal, or closer, anyway. If I had known...but it's too late now, isn't it? You've seen. You're already judging my fur. IT'S TOO SILKEN, YOU THINK I DON'T KNOW THAT?! Some of us just have finer hair, and that's all there is to it. You know, we just, like, get the wrong impressions from the media. Ever since that damn WAMPA movie came out - you know the one - we're all supposed to be 500 pounds and have HUGE tusks. Forget it. I'm going to go eat a truckload of vegetables and then get a bikini wax. That'll show you. THAT'LL SHOW YOU ALL!"

Chupacabra - Trichotillomania

Hi. Uh, hi! Down here! Yes, hi. I, uh...I don't go to parties very often. I don't know why, I guess I just don't think of it. How are the pigs-in-a-blanket? No, no, I haven't tried them. Too cooked, you know how it is. Plus I'm kind of full. Um, so.... What? Oh yeah, I'm fine. Why? Oh, the mange, you mean? No, it is, it's mange. Um, well.... I don't really think it's a problem, but I kind of maybe over-groom. A bit. A little bit. I'm going to stop. Totally. I mean, I know it's a little off-putting, what with the scabs and all, but hey, look: you try combing with these fangs some time and see where you get. So anyway, how about that Middle Eastern sit -ACK! Oh, excuse me. ACK-ACH! ACGGGGGGHHHHCHOHKK! Oh wow. Sorry. Hairball. I...hey, where are you going? Okay. Can you maybe grab me a bit of the goat tartare, if there's some left?

Wolfman with Classic Narcissism

I find it difficult to go out. You know, there's always that feeling of living up to what people expect of you. I mean, really, I just want to be a guy. I know that I intimidate a lot of folks but, it's just hair. It's luscious and soft and stays perfectly in place but in the end it's really just hair. Always having to be the beautiful one really takes its toll on me. One day I'd love to just be the fat friend or the ugly friend, you know, stay out of the limelight, but it seems like no matter what I do, everyone's eyes are trained on me. I guess that's the price you pay for beauty...

Jersey Devil - Performance Anxiety 

Guys, I'm starting to worry about Jersey, for reals now. Ever since we did that tour through Connecticut, he's been missing practices and spending lots of money on new gear. He says he's working on new stuff, but he won't let me hear any of it. Just mumbles something about "progressive alt-anti-folk with a dub-step beat" and how "it's not ready yet." I mean, he's got the perfect metal look and all, but even on tour, didja notice his bass just kept getting quieter...and quieter? And, I mean, I'm not even that close to him or anything, but even Delaware Succubus thinks something's up. She said something about "gone soft," or "completely impotent," or whatever...

The Boogey Man with Generalize Anxiety Disorder

Sometimes I just feel so overwhelmed. Like I just want to crawl under a rock and die. There's so much to do, so many kids to traumatize and so much pressure to really get it right. You know there are movies about me? And books and songs!? But whenever I'm out with the guys I just feel so disconnected, they have jobs and families they can talk about and I just feel the panic rising in my chest whenever the conversation turns my directions. Lately I don't go out at all. I feel safest in my room. This Saturday there's a bachelor party for The Blob and I don't want to go. Just the idea of all those people, god, I feel like I'm going to throw up just talking about it. F%*#...I can't catch my breath...I need to just go lie down for a while...

Medusa - Battered Person Syndrome
This fall, check out the new romantic comedy from the people who brought you Over Her Dead Body and Mannequin: On the Move!  In spite of her seductive good looks, nothing has worked for Medusa - bars, speed and online dating, even her shadchen can't help this brash beauty out.  Men seem to just freeze up around her.  Her so-called friend Athena even switches her conditioner with ammonium thioglycolate.  Some girls just can't catch a break!  And just when she was starting to get comfy with the idea of eating in every night for the rest of her life, along comes an intrusive neighbor: Perseus.  He's ripped, he's rude, and he's got a bad attitude - and Medusa just can't get enough of him!  Watch her try to circumnavigate his gruff exterior, and find the loving man she knows he can be, if he'll just stop hysterically screaming and weilding blades!

21 September 2010

BatFan Fiction

Kids, hit the above button for translation.

I have of late, and wherefore I know not, recently acquired several followers on my Google Reader shared items who live in the Middle East.  I'm sure these things tend to spread from friend to friend, etc., and it's largely coincidence, but Friend Andrew and I got to discussing it, and theorizing why things might trend that way for me.  We decided it had nothing to do with theatre, or comedy, or philosophy, or collaboration, or my geopolitical proficiency.  No, to us it was clear: Middle Easterners love The Batman.

Image found here.
I mean, who doesn't, right?  Of course right.  But just think: What if there is an untapped creative trove of fan fiction depicting a Bruce Wayne/Batman of middle eastern descent?  If we could somehow harness said trove, what sorts of stories would it produce?  That is the challenge presented herein.  Write a Batman story in which he originates in the Middle East.  Refresher: The "Middle East" as we know it consists of about eighteen countries, but for the purposes of the assignment you can also use countries classified as part of the so-called Greater Middle East.

Some guidelines:

  1. For short summaries, feel free to use the comment section on the Aviary itself, not Facebook.  For longer versions, please email.
  2. I reserve the right not to publish anything I dang well please.  Some rules to help you get published:
    1. Nothing hateful, unless it's hateful of superstitious, cowardly criminals (and there's room for interpretation there).
    2. Nothing overtly political - that is, politics can of course be used as a story element, but this 'blog will not be made a platform for political arguments.
    3. Dark and brooding is good.  So is a sense of humor.
    4. If the Internet can't translate it, I can't read it.  It probably won't be allowed to stay on the island.
    5. Try to avoid Survivor references wherever possible.
And that's about it!  Okay, folks: submit to me your concepts.  I would be THRILLED to hear from some of my international buddies on this one, of course, but you in these states united, don't be shy either.  Just promise they'll be good.

From that movie.  You know the one.
Update, 12/31/10:  Friend Kate sent along this little nugget about emerging Muslim superheroes: Irtiqa 12/21/10.

20 September 2010

The Puppeteers; or, In Spite of It All

The development 'blog for the next Zuppa del Giorno show went live today, and here is where you can see it all go down: http://thepuppeteersproduction.blogspot.com/.  Watch, enjoy, and comment as you see fit (comments will be moderated, however).  I'm excited to make this show a little more "open source" to its audience and our friends who for one reason or another may not be able to make it out to Scranton in the dead of winter.

Found ovah heeya.
We have also finally scheduled our first official development rehearsal: October 2-3, to be held in New York City.  It was my ambition to have our first this weekend, but with actors in three (count 'em) different states of this great country of ours (well: two states and a commonwealth) it just was not mean to be.  So we'll get as good a start as we may at the beginning of October, and see where we all end up at the end of that.

I've avoided writing too much about this process in the Aviary thus far in the interests of keeping it private until we had a little more sense of direction - but just a little more.  The evolution of this show will be intricate and slow, and I'm excited by the prospects of both our invited collaborators, and anyone else who decides to poke their noses in.  As a result of my excitement, you may be seeing a bit less of me here at the Aviary, for which I do apologize.  But if you need me, you'll know where to look.

12 September 2010

Marywood on the Green

My first introduction to the concept of a "greenshow" was through my second professional theatre job, at the Porthouse summer theatre.  I haven't been back in a while, so I don't know if they still do this, but in my time there a great mass of the more minor players would be expected to learn songs and devise routines to entertain the audience who came early to enjoy a picnic dinner on the green between the parking lot and the stage.  This in many ways was my first introduction to variety performance, and at the time I had absolutely no idea that variety would play such a significant role in my creative development as an adult.  Just about all of my busking, clowning, circus and self-generated work stems in some way from that first experience - a connection I only recognized just now, while writing.  So naturally I was thrilled when Heather suggested that for this year's Portal Project initiative with the theatre students of Marywood University we divide the group of nearly 30 into some working on the commedia dell'arte scenario, and others devising a greenshow.

I've written in the past (see 9/2/08 & 8/28/07) about my experiences teaching this week-long commedia dell'arte intensive.  Last year, regrettably, it followed too hard and fast on our time in Italy and I had to give it a pass in favor of maintaining my day job (yes - irony is ironic).  I was eager to return this year, and the whole thing felt fresh to me once again, particularly in regard to all the new faces I would be meeting.  I confess I was a little apprehensive about the loss of many graduates who started out with us back in 2007, but that anxiety proved entirely unfounded - somewhere between my and Heather's greater experience and deeper understanding, and the students' willingness to focus and commit to the work we found the experience to be one of our most efficient and successful.  Safe to say, too, that everyone had a lot of fun.

The key to this success, I think, was in getting to working directly on the scenario sooner.  In the past we spent more days on general training on improvisation, stylistic elements and concept, not arriving at a scenario until the Friday or sometimes even the Saturday before a Monday performance.  This time I found the team problem-solving involved in working from a scenario does a lot of the training for us, creating situations and challenges that end up being far more interesting (not to mention well-motivated) than anything we can prepare them for in hypothetical exercises.  It was a near-perfect balance, spending a couple of days on character and improvisation, one on physical lazzi (could have used a bit more time there, I confess) and then three-or-so hours to memorize the scenario and ten more to develop and refine it.  We came out strong, with the perfect amount of fear, I think.

In a sense, the real challenge we set for ourselves this year was the greenshow, rather than the scenario.  Heather was responsible for both the challenge and the success of that portion of the endeavor.  She has an impressive talent for not just randomly applying a routine to performers, but recognizing in them a possibility for a routine already lying in wait within their personalities or styles.  This is part of what makes her such a brilliant clown, her ability to read people (including herself) and comprehend unspoken personae.  Our greenshow ended up consisting of a couple of clownish acts, a group of acrobats, a group of musicians, a tie-in relationship with the conclusion of the scenario (Heather's brilliance again) and all of it encircled by an MC character who also provided a prologue to the scenario.  The greenshow established the space, warmed up the crowd and was integrated into the scenario by way of concept and a couple of character references.

All the performers were amazing, and I believe everyone grew a little through the process.  They had two shows, at noon and 2:00 respectively.  The first was pretty sparsely attended and had some of the earmarks of the struggle to discover that last scene member: the audience.  They did well enough, though, and by the end of the first show they had definitely learned a lot about what was going to work.  They won the audience they had over, in spite of the dialogue being nigh inaudible over some terribly insistent generic "Italian music" blaring from the nearby clocktower, and after some lunch we regrouped at the theatre for our second run.  We gave them some advice for the second show, but I don't think they needed it.  In the second show, the audience was far more substantial, the greenshow-ers took bigger risks and the scenario-ists (is SO a word) made fuller, clearer physical choices.  We all still had to contend with blaring, generic music, but they compensated beautifully and really knocked it out of the park.

I had a tremendous time working with this group again, and it fortifies my desire to teach more often.  These were, to be frank, practically ideal circumstances (apart from the lateness of the hours).  It's exceptional when one gets the chance to work with a fellow ensemble member as a co-teacher, and have as students a group so focused on strengthening their sense of ensemble and overall improvement.  Two incidents in particular however stood out for me toward the end of this week, neither of which had anything directly to do with these circumstances.  They had to do with something larger.

The first of these was introducing the students to an idea we at Zuppa have used from our very first show: the musical run. In this style of run, we play an ever-changing mix of music during a run of the scenario involving no speaking.  The players thereby run through a very complex sequence of action using only their bodies to communicate that progress, plus they must continually listen to whatever music happens to be playing as they enter and synchronize their tempo, mood and choices to it.  It's inordinately helpful, but exhausting and can be a difficult concept to grasp.  Frustration is easy to find here.  Yet, just before their first showing, the players took to quite naturally, and seemed to really enjoy it.  This seeming was later proven for me when we were between the two shows, all rather full of food and feeling the week behind us, and I gave them the option of resting or doing another musical run.  They enthusiastically leaped into that second musical run, and came out of it grinning like mad.

The second was a more abstract result, and the result of another brilliant idea from Heather.  That is, a way to warm both the scenario people and the greenshow folks up together.  Eccolo: