The only complaint I have about last night's workshop was that we were relegated to the old gymnasium, owing to some dance team or other vying for our space. The old gymnasium (for those of you planning a trip out to olde Marywood U. in the near future) is a place most resolutely to be avoided. In the spirit of old gyms everywhere, it is hot, stuffy, and cavernous. The floor feels like hardwood laid on concrete, and no amount of fans or open doors solves a damn thing. We had to be sure to offer plenty of breaks for water and rest to our dozen students last night.
That's right: a dozen. We have our players for La Festa Italiana, and I am very happy both with the numbers and the spirit in the rehearsal room. The players are eager, and receptive, and last night we started them on building their characters. In spite of the heat--and perhaps, in some ways, because of that shared adversity--we really came together in the fashion of a familiar ensemble and began to work in earnest. After getting them started on building characters through all three walk-about exercises (leading centers, animals and appetites), we briefly outlined our vision of their scenario as we discussed it that morning. That is, a pair of feuding families--the Rossalinis and the Verdelonis--who own restaurants in town and are vying for the support of the public.
It's an exciting phase. They are well on their way to creating something detailed, tangible and fun that will stay with them well beyond the use in La Festa, and possibly Prohibitive Standards. There were a few surprises last night. I had forgotten just how emotionally available I had been at their ages, and some of the players took the character building to a very dark place and serious emotions. I was concerned for a time that we may have led one or two down a primrose path to self-doubt and difficult pain. We discussed it extensively, however, and found that those who went to dark places were better equipped to accept that as part of the work and move on. I tried to emphasize that all their discoveries, even those that feel like no fun, are valid in contributing to the creation of a character. I also made sure they knew, however, that they must love their character, no matter how flawed he or she may be, in order to play it for some time.
Tonight we get down to some real nitty-gritty stuff, developing specific relationships and encouraging the students to discover solo performances they can use in a public context. It's so exciting. It's so rewarding to see the tools I've been using for years--not really from any one place or specific training, but from experience and improvisation--working for other people. Not to mention learning all-new approaches from Geoff and Dave. It's great work, and I'm grateful to have it.
I've written in the past a little bit about the value of making mistakes. It's one of those lessons that I just keep having to learn over and over again, more recently in the form of trying to learn Italian. Last night was yet another lesson for our workshop at Marywood University, and a lesson to all of us, I think, in a willingness to make mistakes. The fact is, we learn faster with the more mistakes we make. The obstacle is, we all seem to want to "be good," to impress our peers and maintain a high status by way of proving something. Some of us (Me) have more difficulty confronting this obstacle than others of us (Friend Todd). It takes a very real courage to leap in and start trying, blind. Ironically for me, this is one of the things we are trying to teach to the students at Marywood.
Just maybe, however, it's getting to be easier for me.
Last night was not an enthusiastic success as far as my comrades were concerned, yet I found it to be very gratifying. Several of our exercises with them went a bit too long, or didn't grab their imaginations. Of course, it was a much more exercise-intensive workshop, as opposed to the game-intensive ones prior to now. This was part of our effort to emphasize a shift to skill-building for the festival performance this Monday, but also to demonstrate to the students what that work would really entail before they had to make their decisions regarding whether or not they would continue in our course. So after a few quick, energetic games to get spirit up, we delved back into exploring animal physicality, this time with an animal of their own choosing, which we segued into the improvisational game "Party Quirks," only with animals instead of psychoses or professions or some such. It was very interesting to watch them integrate (and fail to integrate) the lessons of listening and specificity from the day prior. It was also curious to see them tend to push their animal characters into an intellectual, or "clever," place instead of using simple physicality and appetites. Getting them out of their heads is proving an interesting challenge; small surprise there, what with the rest of their days probably being devoted to typical classroom education.
After the break, Paulette Merchel introduced the second half by explaining to them their upcoming choice in some detail: the time commitment, the nature of the work, etc. According to our plan, I undercut her somewhat dire announcement by entering midway in the character of Dewey Cheatem, a very broadly characterized horny old man character (imagine the personality of Pantalone with the physicality of Dottore) from our show Legal Snarls. The students were somewhat shocked by his ribaldry, but it also broke the tension, especially when he hit on Dr. Merchel. It was nice to play him again. It's a character that really knows where to go, and what he wants, so is also hopefully a good demonstration of the kind of character that makes public performance somewhat easier.
In the second half we worked with them on character impersonation, utilizing one another and their homework to observe a stranger and emulate his or her physicality. Unfortunately, many of them either misunderstood or didn't prepare the assignment, and ended up bringing in a person they already knew, which taints the observation with prejudice, making it more of a caricature than an exploration. Still, there was value in their demonstrations of these people en masse, as we stepped back and watched them work. Afterward we discussed, and tried to suggest to them a need for impartial observation and discovery.
The last thing we did was to simply sit down with them and discuss the details of what they could expect from both La Festa Italiana and Prohibitive Standards, should they be cast in the latter. This was most helpful, and gratifying, as it was clear to me that we had gained their trust and that they were interested in at least the show, even if they were cautious. I do worry that they are not too interested in La Festa (there were rather fewer questions about that, which I would expect there to be more worry over if they were planning on being a part of it), and so we've discussed--in light of that and various scheduling conflicts students have with it and Pro Stand--allowing anyone who wants to attend the workshops to continue, and just be clear about whether or not they're a part of La Festa.
Today will be very interesting. We may fall on our faces, as only a few (or perhaps none) choose to be involved with the next step. At least it's good to consider that such a mistake may lead us to making an even better choice.
One of the axioms of good (or as my sophomore-year acting teacher would have preferred: "helpful") improvisation is to always accept and build on ideas your scene partner(s) put(s) forth. This is encapsulated in the phrase, "Yes, and... ," the idea being that one's response to something he or she is given should take this form. "Yes" I accept what you have established, "and" in addition I can contribute _________ to it. If both players can maintain this pattern, this energy, the scene will do a lot of work of carrying itself, and there will be less chance of the dreaded waffle. (I love self publishing; maybe there are other contexts within which I could use the phrase "dreaded waffle," but I can't think of any outside of cookbooks at present.) "Waffling" is when a scene sort of putters out, or sits still, spinning its wheels, and this is more often than not the result of "blocking."
Stick with me here. Just think of the after-show parties you'll be able to dominate with the finer points of theatrical jargon.
"Blocking" in conventional theatre refers to established gross movements around the stage. On this line, cross to the other side, etc. "Blocking" in improvisational theatre (in which there is generally very little of the previous definition) is when someone negates or "blocks" another's suggestion on stage.
"Geez, this sure is a real swell clambake."
"Yeah, or it would be, if it weren't actually a weenie roast, owing to the fact that clams are completely non indigenous for at least 100 miles in every direction."
Ouch. Not the most conducive to building a scene, not to mention trust between scene partners. This is one of the many axioms of improvisation we are attempting to impart and demonstrate to our students at Marywood. It's harder than it sounds, believe me. Nothing demonstrates this difficulty better than trying to collaborate to plan a class. Thus far, our planning sessions have taken at least as long as each class in combined discussion time, and a lot of it is owing to three guys (now four, with David Zarko cogent again [oh Heather, how I miss thy estrogenital influence]) all trying to get their ideas and priorities in. It's a good friction, the kind that makes better product, but dang: sometimes I wish we could just take thirty minutes to agree on a sequence of exercises and then go to lunch.
Last night's workshop was alternatively uplifting and frustrating for me. Uplifting because the students (Geoff and I are on a mission to keep one another from referring to these adults as "kids") are taking to the lessons so wonderfully, and listening fiercely. Even those who seemed less than engaged yesterday were fully involved last night. Frustrating, too, because I want more time with them, and that makes me impatient, which makes me feel less like collaborating with my fellow instructors and more like taking charge.
Fortunately, this less-than-helpful, semi-panic state was kept well in check last night by Dave running a great deal of the workshop. It was very game-intensive. In fact, the first half was effectively dominated by warm-up and games. Dave abandoned his Maestro persona for this class, and no one seemed to particularly notice, save for one question at the start: What's your real name?
After the games and a break, we came back in with a warm-up game, and reviewed the improvisation axioms we had agreed upon, simply stating them before trying them out. We had some discussion about this not being ideal, this terribly brief lecture, but given our time constraints it seemed the most effective way. So here's what we recommended to the students:
- Accept and build ("Yes, and...")
- Listen actively, responsively
- Be as specific as possible
- It's better to make an obvious and specific choice than a clever one
- Make the other person look good
- Establish a relationship with your scene partner(s)
- When in doubt, make a physical choice
- Rhythm is important, but allow yourself too the time to really take in what has been given you
From there we moved on to working on animal states, guided by Dave. They took to this well, but with some breaking of character. I attribute this to shyness about the strangeness of the exercise and the lateness of the hour, and we didn't become strict about it. Once again, an exercise that could have received scorn from people who felt silly or manipulated actually seemed to give them a better sense of effective tools incorporated in it. It really is an incredible group, and I don't relish the thought of having to choose amongst them for casting. But we're a ways off from that yet (a whole five days).
We left off with a homework assignment: to observe a stranger based on the character-building guidelines we had established thus far and bring him or her in to the workshop in some form for next class. I'm excited to see what they come up with. It's going to get very risky and challenging for them from here on out. Tonight we announce that they must choose before next class whether or not they wish to continue, to perform at the Festa and be eligible for Prohibitive Standards' cast. Thursday they will return for warm-up if they're uncertain, but largely we'll know who we've got overnight. Tonight's class marks the end of a certain period of relaxation, and the beginning of a certain period of creation.
We have begun.
It's been about a year-and-a-half since Zuppa del Giorno's last official show, in which time we have been quite busy as a company, with two trips to Italy, numerous workshops taught in improvisation and acrobalance, and even the odd public event or publicity stunt here and there. Still, nothing quite compares to doing what the company started out to do: Create original comedies from scratch using commedia dell'arte as a living tradition. I missed it last spring (suspended for a season in order to effectuate more work in Italy) and now we are back with a very ambitious bang. Not only are we doing another wholly original production, but we are:
- Hiring three new actors on board for it.
- Collaborating with Marywood University's theatre production department.
- Casting students from Marywood University's theatre department.
- Performing the eventual product in two venues: Marywood and The Northeast Theatre.
- Beginning by teaching a week-long workshop in improvisation, character development and busking to the theatre students, culminating in their performing in La Feste Italiana in downtown Scranton on Labor Day weekend.
It went quite well, all things considered. We were all rather nervous about what kind of reception to expect from students who are essentially required to attend this workshop (that's for a few days--thereafter we get to say, "Okay, if you want to continue and perform, stick around. The rest: ciao!"), but we just a few exceptions everyone seemed very eager to risk and learn. And we didn't necessarily make it easy on them. Our concession to their first day back and the mandatory nature of this event was to focus on game-playing, team-building and staying away from lessons or lectures. There were, however, punishments handed out (when games were misplayed, they were made to apologize to the class until it was accepted) and their own feedback--occasionally critical of one another--was encouraged. In addition, Dave did the whole class in character.
Dave has a clown called "The Maestro" who performs around New York with some frequency. Last night he rather merged The Maestro with one of his former teachers of clown, Gaulier, complete with costume, mustache and French dialect. The result was a very energetic, high-status, enigmatic man who occasionally took over teaching and kept the students on their toes. I was impressed by how easy this was to accept, for both them and me. Dave and I had discussed putting our own work out for critique during this workshop, but I hadn't imagined a character living an entire class out, and wasn't certain about what was to be gained. It turns out the answer is 'quite a lot,' as the students come to see the differences between us and our characters, and just how livable and continuous that characterization can be, even without lines or blocking.
In terms of our lesson plans, we're incorporating a lot of skills, but trying to base things in improvisation (and some clown) concepts. That is, building habits of listening, responding on impulse, accepting and building on others' ideas, making the other looks good, making physical choices, etc. Yesterday we played several games to build awareness and group mentality, touched on the concept of an "active neutral" state (devoid of character [even your own] but aligned and ready to make choices in an instant) and building a physical character, and we even began with some improvisation exercises. We were impressed with how much we managed to get through, which hopefully bodes well for the rest of the week. The emphasis will gradually shift from core skills to more specific ones having to do with public, improvised performance, such as using one's environment, prop acting and audience involvement.
Each day we will plan anew, based on the previous evening's progress. It's exciting to go back to school in this way, and truly, as a teacher I feel I'm learning as much as--if not more than--our students.
Sarah - I miss you. Thank you so for the belated card and thinking you saw me in Spider-Man 3 (you didn't). Let's talk soon.
Mark - I think we're just going to have to accept that we have different goals when it comes to building a philosophy. What we never have to accept is our geographic distance making for more personal distance. I'm glad to banter over any medium, even if we never agree again.
Davey - You support me so much in my work, and you're not even here, so I never get to show you how much that means to me. You shall be rewarded with fart jokes!
Younce, Dave - It never ceases to amaze me how much contact with you reminds me of the joy that comes of creating something, somehow even though I spend the majority of my time trying to do just that. I don't get enough of those reminders, but it's not for want of your trying. I just can't get enough.
Youmans, Dave - Your visit was the highlight of my summer, and I wish I could be there for you now. I'm on entirely the wrong kind of schedule to call you this week. Maybe I can make a theatre game out of it, and have all my students this week involved. You'll hear from me soon.
Grant & Val - I am going to visit just as soon as I can -- maybe on one of these upcoming Saturdays off!
There you have it; a great, big, steamy pile of gratitude. This is not a complete list. It's not nearly all the people I have to thank, and on a daily basis. There are still countless ex-cast-members, coworkers, teachers, students, role-players, relatives, etc. Let this stand in than, if your name happens not to appear above: Thank you.
- Work enough hours at day job to cover lack of pay at upcoming gig
- Do laundry
- Clean apartment
- Pack for two months away
- Forward mail to working address
- Interview folks
- Brush-up rehearsals for As Far As We Know
- Two performances to "close" As Far As We Know
- Write "closing-night" cards for As Far As We Know
- Arrange dates to breach upcoming contract in order to perform in potential re-up of As Far As We Know
- Figure out and arrange transportation for Pennsylvania-New York commute for re-ups
- Plan curriculum for workshops launching Prohibitive Standards rehearsal period
- Continue research for Prohibitive Standards
- Contribute to Prohibitive Standards collaboration forum
- Maintain exercise regimen, sleep schedule and sanity
I'm not trying to impress you. Okay, well, yes: I crave sympathy. But I have friends with a lot more on their plates--in school, for (a big) one--and I'm aware that all this comes from good tidings, not to mention said reminders of late about how trivial such concerns are in the face of issues such as life, death and family. So, more to the point, I list my pre-Sunday to-dos in order to set them down, make them seem more manageable and share a slice of my life when it's in this mode.
The keen-eyed amongst you may have noticed that I rather slipped in there the possibility of a re-up of As Far As We Know. (It being a mere possibility at this stage is yet another in a long line of inadvertent puns on our title.) I don't want to jinx anything, but the sentiment from our side of things is that when a show gets such press as ours has, it's a good idea to use that momentum whilst it is most momentous. This has long been the goal of our esteemed production team (read: Laurie and Kelly): to get the show supported or otherwise picked-up by a more major theatre. There's a very interesting double-motivation here--one for success in our creation, and one for success in spreading the story and awareness of the Maupin's struggle. That, I suppose, is the balance to all the hassles of creating one's own work: that you will really, personally care about getting it out there.
Which leads us to my present conflict--eager for resolution, but utterly lacking in information to resolve. Both shows are very personally important to me, and both rather rely on my presence. The Zuppa del Giorno shows have been my greatest priority, and my most evolved work, for close to five years. I love them: They are me as an actor, in so many ways. This project is far and away our most ambitious and exciting to date, with a cast of five plus student actors, and performing in two venues. As Far As We Know has been in collaboration for over two years, I've been with it since nearly the beginning, and it's also a creator/actor piece. Now it has the hope of reaching a larger audience than any of my work has to date, and I'm loathe to let go of it, even for a few performances. The two don't absolutely conflict, but decisions are on the horizon. Here's hoping the fates are pleased.
Why, you may ask, in the midst of this would he take time from his day to write here? It would actually be worse if I didn't. Somehow staying connected on the Aviary helps to keep me connected to myself, if just a bit more. Doing less has never given me more sense of peace. Doing more of what I love inevitably does.
So there's much to do before I leave. I appreciate my friends' understanding of that. Hopefully I can make it up to them before "Hi. Hi. Hi." becomes "Bye. Bye. Bye."
And not in that nice *NSYNC way, either.
Oh, get over yourself. You were right there with me.
It went well, y'all. Really very well.
I've not felt stage fright like I did Saturday since the opening of Noble Aspirations. With all that has changed, gone wrong and been invested in As Far As We Know, I was just a wreck starting around 1:30 and extending well past the hour of our start, 9:00 pm. It was a fair consensus that all were feeling mildly-to-greatly throwy-uppy just prior to curtain. We began our day with a blessed extra hour in the space from 10:00 to 11:00 am, in which time the actors ran all the transitions whilst the tech just tried to get more proverbial ducks in the proverbial row before that evening's great experiment. Thereafter we adjourned to a nearby playground to do a speed-through of the lines, and the tech side alighted into a colorful plastic-and-metal tower for notes. It was a gorgeous day, and we felt relaxed.
And then we ran.
All things considered, it went well. We got through the whole thing, anyway, and it clocked in within the required time limit. There’s plenty still to be worked out in every category, hat-to-tails, but we saw the bear dance, and it didn’t run wild and devour any of our volunteer tech staff. (That’s a metaphor, in which “the bear” represents “our production”…just for those of you who know nothing about the show. It contains, sadly, no dancing bears.) Mind you, I’m still terrified. We never again set foot back in the theatre space prior to opening; at least not until 15 minutes before our debut.
What jacks up everybody, methinks, beyond the already anxious position of finally showing all our cards on this former work-in-progress, is the exciting good news of last night. New York Magazine (my favorite for crosswords [Maura Jacobson, you rule!]) has us at the top of the short list of not-to-miss NYC Fringe shows. So, you know. Wow.
Apart from all the technical aspects as-yet unknown, there’s a lot of my personal process that I have yet to nail. In the space of three scenes—all of them either memory, dream or hallucination—I need to create a whole, individualized human being. In the midst of doing this, I have these funky-ass movement things to do. Abstractions: ones that will work, if only I can do them with the same intention that I might a “normal” scene with utter verisimilitude. Most of them involve walking slowly backwards. One involves walking backwards completely blind, my entire head covered by cloth. This was, of course, my invention.
And the stage and our entrances are bizarre, on the whole. The stage is a long, narrow thrust extending from thirty feet away into the midst of three seating sections. We have essentially four entrances: two from either downstage corner (from which there is only audience to hide behind) and two from either upstage side. These upstage entrances are set wide apart, owing to a backdrop that is about as wide as the stage floor is deep. In other words, for both of my backward marches I have to navigate no fewer then four right-angle turns without being able to target exactly where they need to happen.
As is my wont, I find a very apt metaphor in this (one excluding dancing bears, much to my chagrin). The show is marching blind into the fold, and the only way to make it work is to be as vigilant as possible, and as prepared as possible to make good out of the accidental. We know the stakes, and can only imagine the potential results. It is ultimately out of our hands—there are just too many factors at play. Until we get there, we just have to believe as much as possible…and work our asses off making sure that belief is grounded in enough action to match our faith.
So you better believe the next three-days-and-change will find me doing a lot of backward walking and line exploration. Abraham Lincoln spoke a great quote (one which I’ve tattooed in Sharpie on my stilt legs): “I may be a slow walker, but I never walk back.” I have to hope Abe would appreciate my position and afford me a little excuse to moonwalk my way on and off stage. I hope he would appreciate our little show, too. I think we’ve struck a nice balance concerning the issues of war and politics, even if it does present the American military as being a bit more flawed than I perceive it to function (a necessary adjustment for dramatic purposes). One who may be more politically liberal may actually feel upset with the protest letters our fictional family receives in the midst of their struggle. Then again, I have virtually no independent perspective left. I’m too close. I’m all over the place.
And I mean it literally. We had, of course, discussed this at great length, but it wasn’t until I saw our technical rehearsal today that I realized just how pervasive my face would be in the production. Those of you who know me may have some difficulty with this, especially given how few scenes I have to establish myself as a character. In the second act, images of my face literally border the entire stage, and Faith Catlin and Alex Cherington—as Jake’s parents—wear t-shirts with my face peering out from them. It unnerves me in rehearsal. It will most likely destroy the tissue of the play’s reality for them what know my actual person. Sorry gang. On the plus side, it must be great exposure for my career.
Assuming the show turns out well, that is.
You were beginning to worry. Maybe this week would be only about The New York City Fringe Festival, and my appearance in As Far As We Know? Maybe the 'blog had ceased its delightfully random nature of random subjects at random times? Maybe the honeymoon is over, and you should just be buying cotton panties from here on out (they're comfortable, economical and support our nations economy)? Well, just when you were worried, I bring you freshness in the form of . . .
(How many of you got a flash of The Wonder Twins owing to that phrasing? "Form of vicious tiger!" "Form of slightly rusty bucket of water!")
Friend Mark posed me a couple of interesting questions a little (far too) long ago, and as I answered them via email (it's what I did before I 'blogged) I thought I'd really like some others' opinions on the matter(s). So, here you have the email, minus the friendly jousting of introduction:
What compels an atheist to commit acts of charitableness? I have to go a little Ayn Rand on this one: It works. It simply works. The world works through exchange and reaction, and we can not help but learn to make our exchanges profitable to our environment. The only thing limiting that degree of profitability is our personal degree of foresight. To put it another way, the most basic survival instinct says, "Yeesh, I'm hungry. Oog is fat and slow. I'll catch and kill him, and not be hungry any more." However, the longer the view our hypothetical cro-mag has, the happier (more profited) he'll be. "Hey, if I can get Oog to let me use him as bait, he'll be a renewable resource and I'll be hungry less often. Of course, I'll have to share some of the lion with him, but in the long run that'll make him more likely to let me mate with his sister. Oo! That rock looks pointy! I wonder if I can make it more pointy and use it to . . . "
Etc. Just to be clear, I'm not saying capitalism is my new philosophy. I'm pretty much sticking with Taoism, actually. It's just that in seven years and seven months, what I've come to learn about the Way is that it usually involves others, and in a reciprocal capacity. Even an atheist can understand the basic value in creating better circumstances for his/her fellow man/woman.
Now, as to what unifies Unitarian Universalists, I'm tempted to quip, "vocabulary." I'm also tempted to say, "Hey man, I didn't found the 'religion,' I was just reared by one of its ministers!" But I still feel allegiance to that faith, and do count it as a goodly one, and so will attempt to answer.
It's ironic, but in a way what unifies us U.U.s is one thing I strive to avoid in my personal philosophy: identification through discrimination. To put it another way, "WE are WE because WE'RE not YOU." U.U.s are united by--to some degree--their common belief that the other folks are wrong . . . to tell anyone that they're wrong. We phrase this delicately, that we are a non-denominational community committed to accepting the personal beliefs of all, but that's a bit of a paradox. Particularly when it comes to folks like malevolent Satanists or abortion-clinic bombers. So we hedge in the fence a bit with shared beliefs about the value of human life and avoiding a missionary mentality, things of that sort. But essentially, we all hang together because we can (nay, deem it valuable to) lower our standards of specificity for the sake of creating community.
Kind of like my answer to your first question.