Jumping In


It's a wonderful feeling to be caught. Not in the red-handed manner, mind, but literally and physically caught -- as in, in interruption of your speedy progress toward something a bit on the hard side. Like the ground. It's also a great feeling to catch, especially if you're catching somebody who's in danger of said impact, but I covet a bit more the feeling of being caught, possibly just because it's a rarer experience for me. In teaching acrobalance to the youth of America, I'm more frequently the catcher. And, I admit, I have relished and relived some good catches I've made (one time I had to spin a falling girl around so that she, in effect, did a back flip before I set her on her feet . . . yeah, I revisit that, now and again . . .). But nothing quite beats the combined sense of vulnerability, gratitude and connectedness of having been caught. If you're open to the experience, that is.

I've been working on a short comedy for the past few weeks that performs as part of a one-act play festival/competition this weekend. It's called Jump (no; the other one) and it was penned by Josh Sohn, the gentleman I unexpectedly performed for in a reading back in the spring. It's an interesting situation, this production. As a part of a competitive series that contains 37 plays -- some of them longer than others -- we only perform twice if we fail to advance, three-to-four times if we go farther. So the whole thing has a curious similarity to a high school production experience, wherein you work for a rather long time, perform one weekend and that's it. Fortunately, it being a short play (under 20 minutes, I believe), the ratio of rehearsal-to-performance doesn't feel totally absurd. It is also strange to work on a pretty straight-forward, narrative comedy with strangers again.

I've gotten very comfortable with performing with my Zuppa del Giorno cohorts, and when we plunged in to Jump, I had a period of adjustment to contend with. We did not speak the same comic language right away. It was not collaborative in the same way as I have grown accustomed to with Zuppa, which not only made me reticent to put my ideas out there in rehearsal, but more than a little affronted when I received suggestions from fellow actors. (That's messed up; I'm still working out why I felt that defensive, initially.) And finally, and I believe for the first time, I'm the oldest person in the room. Everyone else in this show is early-to-mid-twenties. Which, well, is something I'd do best to grow accustomed to.

It's funny about comedy (ha ha): It requires a lot of trust. Stage comedy is like the do-or-die theatre -- there's little room for interpretation of audience response. Oh, we try to justify our experiences. "They were a quiet, attentive audience." "I saw everyone smiling, though." "It's this house; it's too hot/cold/separated/claustrophobic/post-modern..." When it comes right on down to it, though, live comedy is like a deathsport in which there's no overtime, and no one's allowed to a tie game. The only people who have it rougher than a stage actor in this regard (and I believe Friend Adam will back me up on this) are stand-up comedians. They practically stand up there and say, "Okay, world. Here's your chance to crucify me. No one else to blame but myself." Then again, too, good actors have to take a similar stance; even if they have a supporting cast of a dozen or more.

I've written here before about my rules of acrobalance, and how widely applicable I find them to be. Perhaps the most applicable is the idea of shared responsibility, summed up by the dictate, "Always be spotting." I wasn't familiar with the term "spotting" prior to learning circus skills, except as a part of a verbal sequence I was taught in my very first summer job, with Beltway Movers. (When lifting something heavy with someone else, you were told to say, "spot," meaning "brace yourself," then, "pick," meaning "we're lifting now." When lifting things such as pianos and trundle beds, I often added my own, more-flowery, four-letter words to this sequence.) Spotting, in a circus context, is to be ready to catch your fellow daredevil. When I teach, I teach everyone to always be ready to catch everyone else. It keeps people alert to think this way, which is generally helpful. It also reinforces that idea that all responsibility is shared. In this context, when something goes wrong or disappoints, no one is at liberty to blame anyone else, because each individual must always consider what he or she could have done to make it safer, better, or both.

As it is with acrobalance, so let it be with comedy. (And all other things.) Over the few weeks of rehearsal, I and my new friends have found a great deal more trust. I trust them to catch me if I fall and, more importantly, I've found the trust to forget myself enough to be ready to catch them at any moment. We'll have a very short time of fulfillment for our work to date, and it's entirely possible that we'll never see one another again thereafter. And, come to think of it, it's pretty amazing how we actors have to cultivate this sense of trust over and over again. Not just because it's a great thing in itself, but also because actors are continually being used. We will work for little-to-no pay, we accept a million tiny violations of our rights that others are alarmingly ignorant of, and frankly, get viewed as objects or sources of pleasure as often as we are as people. Put all that together, and it's pretty amazing that actors find any trust at all amongst themselves, much less intimately and repeatedly.

There's a popular axiom amongst circus performers: Leap and the net will catch you. I think perhaps for actors it should be, "Just jump. I'm sure it'll at least be interesting."
 
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