Balancing Act{ing}


Rewind to 2001, before the towers fell; months before, in the spring. Shortly after my one-year anniversary of having moved to New York, I got two jobs that have fundamentally affected every bit of acting work I've had in the seven years since. The first was that I actually found enough bravery (or naivety) to attend an open call for a touring company that required singing. The result was a production of Der Talisman -- a flippin' MUSICAL, of all things -- which happened to be directed by some dude named David Zarko. This dude wasn't even at my audition or callback. He was a freelance hire. David, of course, went on to become the producing artistic director of The Northeast Theatre, where I have gone on to do the lion's share of my professional theatre work to date.

The other formative gig was a show I've mentioned here before, Significant Circus, directed by Kate Magram. In the years since, Kate and I have shared other collaborative efforts and developed a pretty rad friendship to boot. Amidst all this work and play, it can be easy to lose track of who did and said what and when, and how we got to where we find ourselves at any given moment. (That's how it is when you are involved in a true collaboration to create a play, too. Someone will ask you, "Whose idea was it, the dancing donkey in Act Four?" and you'll reply, with great conviction, "I have absolutely no idea.") What amazes me, when I stop for a moment to consider it, is this one thing Kate contributed to my life. I can point to it, which is part of what makes it so remarkable. Look! Right there, it is!

In a word: acrobalance.

(In a compound word, I suppose I should say.)

Yeah. That stuff that has gotten me work, and that all the actors I've worked with in the past five years know me for? Kate's fault. All about Kate. Didn't know a thing about its existence prior to knowing Kate. Furthermore, because I learned it from Kate, I have loved it more than I otherwise would have, and it has had more influence over the rest of my life than it likely would had I learned it from someone else. Some of the most amazing things I've done on stage, some of the best, most interesting ideas I've come up with, never ever would have had a chance of existing in real life without Mz. Magram. It baffles me a little. She has changed me as an actor and person. Let me explain.

I have never been an athlete. In fact, and spent a good portion of my earlier years as a portly chap. When I was around 16, grandpa's genes kicked in with a vengeance and I lost 40 pounds in a few months. Suddenly I could move easier, and looked more the part for more central roles in plays. In college, I realized I did truly dig incorporating my whole body into parts as much as possible (and, still occasionally, more than is necessarily called for). I also realized that I didn't have any particular technique(s) for doing so. In college, and after graduation, I tried different things, and they were all good -- stage combat, Suzuki, Viewpoints -- but none of them thrilled me. I wanted something I didn't know. Ever feel that way?

I was lucky enough to find it. As I recall, part of what won me the part in Significant Circus was that I did a diving forward roll on a concrete floor in my audition. (A similar move cemented my audition for d'Artagnon in college; apparently a willingness to risk debilitating injury is like catnip to directors.) Then I got to my first rehearsal, and Kate asked me to balance myself against the feet of a beautiful woman while we lowered me down to kiss said beautiful woman.

"What?"

Acro-balance, partner balancing, however you want to term it, has some basics. These are what Kate taught me, and what I teach all over the place now as part of workshops for Zuppa del Giorno, and to sort of pay forward all the free training she gave me.

  1. Shared responsibility. The name "partner balance" is in a way more apt, because the essence of all the postures and moves is to distribute weight between two or more people in a way that looks impressive and/or beautiful, and uses one another's weight and effort in tandem. It requires a great deal of communication between partners, verbal and physical, which can be tricky to learn. In fact, there's no way to take responsibility entirely on one's self for any aspect of it. More significantly, there's no occasion in which you can blame the other for anything. There is always something more you can be doing to help your partner(s). This is shared responsibility.

  2. Half the ability lies in trust. Never mind all those trust games you played in high school, or at the team-building workshop you were subjected to on some three-day "weekend." In acrobalance, generally speaking, the base needs to be responsible for making the pose balanced, and the flier needs to be responsible for maintaining a strong shape (and both are responsible for communicating [see above]). Control freaks beware: Nothing wrecks a balance faster than a flier trying to change the balance, except maybe a base who refuses to adjust. And you'll be doing it again and again with this person, which as we know is long-term trust which, as we know, is as challenging as it is rewarding.

  3. Drawing straight lines into the ground. There's no defying gravity. Maybe you can make it look like there is, but there ain't. There are moves that require enormous strength and control, but the most important basic skill one can learn is to create a benevolent relationship to gravity. Get that down, and any move is open to you with a little effort. So straight lines. Straight limbs can hold weight by grounding it into the ... uh ... ground, and angles that direct weight toward the ground are more stable and architecturally sound.

  4. Always be spotting. We get tired, and we are used to having to fight for our own time to relax, so it's not surprising that people tend to let down their guard when they're not in the spotlight. Acrobalance, though, is high stakes. You're working as a group to achieve something, and trust is a twenty-four-hour necessity. Wherever you are, whatever you're doing, be ready to catch someone else when they fall. Not if; when.

  5. Down. Things go wrong. People are fallible. Physics is complex. When something is flirting with F.U.B.A.R. -- and more so when you're intentionally, repeatedly approaching that something -- you need to have an agreed-upon vocabulary. When the fit hits the shan, we say "Down!", and that's what we do. Safely. Together.

Pretty simple stuff, but as with any simple, broadly applicable ideas, they make for a good regular practice. I have been practicing these with some regularity for years now, and teaching them to others. These "others" probably promptly go out and try the same moves whilst blithely forgetting these five concepts behind them, but, I don't know; I've found that the harder I work on moves, the more I need to remember these guide points. I need reminding of them, but I'll never forget them, because Kate taught them to me so well. Especially the first one.

I think it's pretty obvious how these concepts apply to life in general, and acting in particular (keep them in mind; explore the possibilities; from Kate to me to you, gratis [you're welcome]) so I won't spin on much longer here. This is just to say thanks to Kate (and to her friend, Leah) for reminding me once again of important keys to finding balance.

 
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