Laughter Builds


I've been doing a bit of work lately that has required me to articulate some work I'm accustomed to doing instinctively. Specifically, building comic structure.

[Big, protracted, pet-peevy sidenote: I do not understand the need for the word "comedic." It's very existence irritates me. There's probably some very specific, distinct reasoning behind its use, and I'd love for somebody to explain it to me, but even given a reasoned explanation I'll probably continue to literally cringe every time I hear it. Do we hear "tragedic"? No; we hear "tragic." Comic. Comic comic COMIC!]

So -- building comic structure. At some later date I'll address what's gotten me started so specifically on this subject, but it also looks to be useful work in preparation for our new curriculum for In Bocca al Lupo. Friend Heather and I have had to modify our lesson plans owing to two factors: 1) having students enrolled who have taken our workshops previously, and 2) having master classes with Italian actors who can certainly offer more insightful training in commedia dell'arte than we can. When we took a look at what we could offer that was new, relevant and supportive of the lessons others would be teaching, techniques for building comic (COMIC!) structures and sequencing came out at the top of the list.

It's funny (See what I did there?): This is the sort of thing that's generally considered to be a talent or instinct, similar to singing, or mathematics. We tend to equate the ability to construct comedy to one's sense of humor -- an intangible mix of givens and environmental influences that somehow result in one person "being funny," and another, not so much. AND we tend to equate "having a sense of humor" with being funny, which is right off. After all, you can be completely incapable of telling a joke or pulling off a fall, yet still enjoy a fine appreciation of others' comedy. In other words, we are adrift in a mire of assumptions and generality when it comes to the larger subject of humor. Sure, there are comic prodigies, just as there are mathematical ones. The fact is, however, that building comic structure is an ability, a skill, and it can be learned and honed.

But how do you teach that?

I've put together a lot of theories, and some are more tested than others. Certainly the bulk of the work we've done in Zuppa del Giorno has given me experience to draw from, both in the form of what's helpful to building a comic story, and what's more of a "what not to do" lesson. We have developed many exercises and guiding principles in our work that apply to this more-general challenge, and we are lacking in some areas due to the specificity of our work. We're never focused solely on "making something funny"; rather the emphasis is on "making a contemporary commedia dell'arte story," or "making a new story in the style of silent film." This is an interesting point to notice in and of itself -- that once the techniques are ingrained, you need a specific focus in order to use them effectively. Breaking down the techniques themselves, however, takes some new, encompassing thoughts and actions. The danger here is in over-generalizing.

To my mind, the ultimate goal is to offer to the students as many useful ways as possible to get them in a mode in which they are excited to build the story. When that enthusiasm sets in("enthusiasm" is a better word for it), creating a comedy becomes more about communication and the collaboration than it is about fear or getting it "right." This can be said of any collaborative effort, but I find it particularly essential to comic storytelling. For all my perceived poo-pooing of the role of instinct in developing comedy, there is a very distinctive feeling that overcomes us when we really hook into a fruitful collaboration, and the better taste of that we can offer the students the better they'll understand what to aim for and how to guide themselves in future efforts. Teaching that is the way to teach them to fish for themselves, rather than simply slapping a fish down on the table.

Of course, there's more to it than that, especially if you're aiming for (as we are) teaching how to build good comedy. There's the rhythm, and the notion of threes, and contrast, and reversal of expectation, and separation of beats, and the logical absurdity (thank you, Gary C. Hopper) . . . and a bunch more, I'm sure. There is, in other words, no shortage of theory and technique to be instructed and applied, which is very good for us. But the thing to focus on in on, it seems to me, is the build. Find the build, and the comedy follows.

Vikram Bhatt's 14-Year-Old Daughter Took Him and His Ex-Wife Out For Dinner

Vikram Bhatt is in the middle of shooting his next adventure thriller titled Shaapit. He is producing six films this year but that doesn't mean it's all about work. The currently-single director is enjoying bonding with his daughter Krishna, and how they had a Father's Day dinner together, two days ago. Here Vikram talks about his daughter's plans to follow in his footsteps and why he isn't ready to get into another relationship among other things...

You daughter took you out for Father's Day dinner...
It was sort of a surprise, and a pleasant one at that. Since it was Father's Day, Krishna decided to take my ex-wife Aditi and me out for dinner. She also bought me a couple of trinkets and a scroll which was a big surprise for me. I think she really made the day special for me.

You are closer to her than you were before?
Yes, Krishna is now fourteen and takes an active interest in my work. I am happy with the time I share with her today, and we try and spend as much together as possible.

Didn't you say you made Ankahee for her? Was she happy with the film?
Yes it was made for her and she's watched it quite a few times. As for her opinion on the film, she's very quiet about it.

What does you daughter think of your films?
Well, she has mixed opinions. There are films that she has liked and some she hasn't. But she does watch everything I make and has a firm opinion, which does matter to me and I take it very seriously.

Does she plan to follow in your footsteps?
Yes, she wants to be a director some day. In fact, she co-wrote the script for my TV series on Sony. She loves to be around when I am narrating a script that's her favourite part. In fact, now that am in the middle of film making, Krishna loves to come and spend time on my sets whenever possible.

Do you meet your ex-wife? Are things cordial now?
I can say that things are good and there are a couple of areas that I need to work on, and some things that need to be set right, and it will all happen in good time.

Why haven't you been in a relationship since Ameesha?
I don't want to hide my relation if I am in one. I don't feel the need to be with anyone at the moment.

Does your daughter ever talk about you getting married?
No, she doesn't want me to have a girlfriend. In fact, she's clearly told me that she has to approve the next woman that comes into my life. I guess I will have to obey her command!

You have repeated Adah Sharma in Phirr, is it true that she's signed an exclusive contract with you?
I have no exclusive contract whatsoever with Adah. In fact, that only happens in the first film with new actors. But Adah is free to work with outside directors. However she hasn't really been offered much work. But I am happy to have her on board for Phirr.

How are you balancing directing and producing?
It's not that difficult. I am producing six films under ASA productions. Presently, I am directing Shaapit with Aditya Narayan, then there is Three with Nausheen Ali Sardar and Aashish Choudhary, directed by Vishal Pandya. Then there is Phirr with Adah and Rajneesh. Besides this, Khalid Mohamed will also be directing a film.

Noir-Xploitation


On Friday last I spent the morning in a suit-n-tie, spitting out rapid-fire dialogue and looking out at the world with bright eyes through squinted lids. Externally, I was a rock -- a firm, callous, image of a man enduring through a quandary, and doing it on very little sleep. Internally, I was a mess, roiling with the myriad, varied possibilities of failure and conscience. Oddly enough -- perhaps even fortunately -- my personal situation reflected that of my character.

Last Friday I played the immortal character of Sam Spade in the final scene from The Maltese Falcon as a part of Michael Bow's final project for one of his film classes. Now there I was, not a week ago posting about the importance of managing a little leisure time into an otherwise busy schedule (see 6/16/09), and I'm afraid it rather made Michael's life more difficult that morning. You see, Dear Reader, I must admit that I was not entirely solid on my lines. Oh I tried hard to be, losing sleep on both ends the night before and recording them for myself to play back at every possible moment, but I'm afraid I must confess defeat. It may have been a different matter if the material had been other than it was, but good ol' Bogey set the standard for Spade, and there's just no other way to pull off that dialogue but rapid-fire. We'll see how it turned out. In fact, I'm probably more screwed by any errors than Michael, since the only value for me of this work is potential material for a talent reel. But I don't envy him the editing job he's got ahead of him.

I won't rescind my earlier statement about the importance of prioritizing leisure (or living) time. I stick by it. Effective time management is equally important, however, and sometimes one only gets one chance to get it right. Particularly, it seems, when it comes to film.

It's such a strange medium to me, film. On the one hand, you've got multiple takes, hence multiple times to rise to the occasion (less so when your entire shooting time is under two hours). On the other, the actor is almost solely responsible for any rehearsal work that goes into that concentrated period of "getting it right." It seems, in this way, a largely lonely and artificial medium. Yet theatre is also artificial, just in different ways. It's all artifice, and the "art" of it lies in a commonality between the two: Making it live. I'm decent at breathing life into theatre. On film, well, I could use more practice. And in the meantime, good editing.

All that aside, it was an enjoyable experience. Even my sense of panic over the lines was a welcome change of pace from a sense of panic over office supplies, or powers of attorney. I was paired up with Allison Goldberg as the femme fatale, and we have been arbitrarily paired up in the past in productions her aunt, Janice Goldberg, has directed. (There are invariably jokes about nepotism whenever Allison is in one of Janice's reading events -- I think I could be counted an adopted relative at this point.) I don't know Allison particularly well, which served the scene, but we were familiar enough with one another that trust was there and joking with each other wouldn't be a problem. Fortunately for me, she's also funny, and a good actor. More than once, as I terrifyingly blanked on a line, I found Allison there, as present as ever, and it allowed me to actually let it go and help keep the scene afloat.

Working in film and television is one of those goals of mine that I haven't pursued as avidly as I'd have liked. I've been so focused on a specific theatre career that I consider myself to be rather behind on those credits and experiences. Then again, it may have been a good choice for me. The kind of theatre I most love to do -- the physically interesting kind, let's say -- is best attempted and trained in while young, and film work can (theoretically, at least) be sought in spite of just about any gross limitations. In my efforts to explore this area of acting more, I'll have to be patient with my own lack of experience (NOT a strength of mine), as well as vigilant about avoiding an underestimation of the work to be involved. Stepping into the shoes and world of a character I idolize is good motivation. As well as a humbling experience.

Class Act


{You've probably been 'blogging for too long when you start to feel, with every post title, "I must have used THIS pun before...."}

I have a lot of semi-traumatic memories of school. I say semi-traumatic because, in spite of how very very real they were to me at the time, in light of some more adult tragedies it seems inapt to apply the same word. Still and all -- without that perspective and with the fiery, passionate, all-or-nothing stakes of youth -- some of these events were rather defining for me. I was thinking of one of the less traumatic (possibly even redemptive of...something...) ones this morning as I hurriedly recorded my lines for tomorrow's film gig in the hopes of absorbing them through audio osmosis. In a history class in what I recall as being my junior year of high school, I gave a presentation on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and afterward a guy who had given me a hard time in the past rather announced to the class, "Hey, you were acting. That was just like when you act." Somehow I had the presence of mind not to feel injured by this call-out (it was definitely an effort to draw negative attention to me) and I calmly responded, "Yeah, I was. I can do that." And sat down. And the class continued, my would-be persecutor left scratching his head a bit at why acting was allowed in class.

Yesterday I returned to Hunter College to teach an Intro. to Theatre class about the (living) history of commedia dell'arte. I've taught similar classes at Hunter before, though always a shorter class with more students, and to date always with my commedia partner-in-crime, Heather Stuart. This was, in other words, something of a new experience for me. Oh, and in addition to these circumstances, it was my first time really teaching solo for a class of desk-bound students -- generally non-actors who hadn't any expressed interest in getting out of the seats to try the work on for size. I was made a little nervous by it. (Ironically, I got three potential In Bocca al Lupo-ers out of them, but I couldn't have known that was a possibility ahead of time.) As far as I was concerned, I was there to lecture. In my own, inimitable style.

Said "inimitable style" involves quite a bit of amateurish waffling and tangential thinking.

The class went well, actually, I think. The teacher, Sascha Just, was complimentary afterward. Most of the people seemed to be engaged most of the time, and I certainly never ran out of things to talk about. There were gaffs, and the lesson plan needs more work for certain, but in balance I'd say it was a success. I was pleasantly surprised by some techniques I implemented that were half-planned, half-spun-out-on-the-spot; rather like working from a scenario. I asked the students periodically to imagine themselves in the shoes of a commedia dell'arte troupe of the 1500s; not in a "picture-this" way, but more actively, using modern equivalents and inviting them to draw images without requiring that they do so. This worked to wake them from note-taking stupors, and also helped us find a common ground when I got cyclical or tangential in whatever aspect I was covering at a given moment. "Where was I? Back to the piazza...." I also had the idea to tell them to interrupt me whenever they had a question or a reaction. They didn't take me up on this too much, but a little, and I was pleased with how it kept things lively and served to illustrate the level of interaction traditional commedia had with its unpretentious audiences.

I was acting. I was very much putting on a show. In another interesting parallel, though, it reminded me of the first time I used mask work in performance. This was not in a commedia context, per se, but it did involve a similar half-mask style. I was suddenly divorced from a powerful component of my acting -- my facial expressions. I had to relearn what read to an audience, which gestures and intonations would connect without facial cues, and I can assure you that it was a rocky start to demonstrating that particular skill. Hopefully I've improved since. Hopefully, too, I'll learn more and more about teaching a class in an actual classroom, as opposed to a theatre, or movement studio. I couldn't jump about too much there, and it affected everything from my method of description to changes in my overall energy pattern. I had quite a patter kept up; definitely could have afforded a bit more relaxation, but by the same token I believe my enthusiasm for the subject was welcome.

I left feeling very gratified. In a way, finding this new way of expressing the essentials of commedia dell'arte renewed my excitement for it, which will be very valuable indeed in the coming month. My enthusiasm while teaching in Italy will be genuine. I won't even have to act!

Er, wait . . .

"I can't. I have rehearsal."


This pithy saying (Oh! The pith!) appears on t-shirts now, to which practice I am vehemently opposed. It's a cliche, and one that comes about honestly; your actor/ technician/ weirdo friend(s) are always opting out of plans due to rehearsals. Heck: I can't make long-term plans with any confidence because if I get an acting gig, all bets are off. So it's a true and honest expression. It's just that wearing it on a t-shirt seems to me like flaunting a deficiency. There's a pretense there -- oh, what a pain in the ass it is, this thing I love to do, you know, THE THEATRE. I suppose I'm as guilty of such complaints as the next weirdo. But I do not iron the sentiment onto my chest.

In the next couple of weeks, however, perhaps I should consider it.

It's one of those repeated, and nevertheless surprising, life lessons that just when we need the most time we find ourselves the most busy. It must be related to human nature in some way, this rains/pours phenomenon, but it's a little beyond me to deduce the cause/effect of it. What's especially wild about this week for me is that I'm making time for social engagements while I'm at it. I've come to view this as a necessity (insofar as "necessity" can endure the stress of a to-do list). So I don't try real hard to plan for nights out when I'm under the gun for assignments but, if they come along, I do what I can to invite them in. Hence a baseball game Wednesday night, plus dinner and a play with an out-of-town friend on Thursday. All this even as I endeavor to get off-book for filming on Friday and meet to rehearse a secret project (oo-oooooooo-oo...) on every odd night. And teach workshops. And audition for shows. And prepare for Italy.

See? I'm writing out that damn t-shirt. EXCEPT: I'm really excited by all of this. The excitement/anxiety threshold is an interesting boundary but ultimately: This work makes me happy. Sure, the t-shirt would be even more obnoxious with exclamation points added. BUT ALSO: I CAN; even though I have rehearsal. Because what on earth would I put into rehearsal if all I did other than it were sleep and work a desk job? Well, a lot of drowsy logistical work, I suppose. And one can get pretty drowsy as a result of all this activity, too, granted . . . but it's a happy sort of drowsy.

Aditya Pancholi’s Son, Sooraj to Assist Sanjay Bhansali in Guzaarish

Star sons have constantly made a beeline for Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s unit to learn the ropes of cinema. During Devdas, Anupam and Kirron Kher’s son, Sikandar assisted Bhansali. During Black, it was Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam who assisted the filmmaker. And during Saawariya, Shatrughan Sinha’s son Kush was on board.

Same is the case with Bhansali’s forthcoming film, Guzaarish, for which the filmmaker will start shooting in Goa in August. There is already an interesting lineup of star kids, who will be assisting the visionary filmmaker. One of the ADs of the film is Aditya Pancholi and Zarina Wahab’s 18-year-old son, Sooraj, who is readying himself for stardom. But not before he learns the ropes of filmmaking from Bhansali.

Papa Aditya said, “What better school to learn from other than Sanjay Leela Bhansali Sooraj will also have a chance observe actors like Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, who star in the film. I wish I had this kind of an opportunity when I had started out in the film industry.”

Interestingly, Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Aditya Pancholi are neighbours. They stay in the same building and are constantly in and out of each other’s homes. Zarina Wahab and Sanjay’s mother are the best of friends.

“Sooraj has inherited my looks and his mother’s nature. He still has some way to go before we launch him as an actor.But before that we want him to learn about cinema,” said the proud father.

Source: Mumbai Mirror

Adventure


I've always maintained that just about any event, effort or circumstance can be perceived as an adventure. Some adventures are more entertaining than others, but in any circumstance, calling it an adventure is bound to make everything a bit more entertaining. I immediately second-guess myself in this statement, trying to imagine some of my worst days or least-favorite activities as "adventures," but that is pure cynicism. Besides, I'm unconvinced that it disproves the theory. The fact is, adventures come in all shapes and sizes, and the better adventures have a proper dose of loss and pathos.

I occasionally lament that "adventure movies" fell out of fashion. Then they make another one, and I think, Oh right...mostly they're crap...good call, Hollywood! Back in the days of Erol's, it was my beeline section, and many a pseudo-oil-painting-covered movie found its over-sized box going home with us to play on our VCR. The blending of action/adventure at the movie rental locations was, in my opinion, a fatal move. They are distinct genres. Although adventure invariably contains action, it functions under a rather different formula. Which is to say, the action is more narrative, and generally less dependent on direct conflict. In fact, part of what appeals to me about adventure as a genre is that it has less to do with problem-destroying, and more to do with problem-solving, as fantastical as that solving may sometimes be. I suffer a similar lamentation for the degradation of the genuine spy movie into Die Hard with Sunglasses.

Let me give you an example from life.

In my younger years, I would spend whole summers on acting jobs. Such jobs are commonly referred to as "summer stock," in that a company hires a bunch of actors for the whole summer, and uses them in various capacities for a multi-show, two-to-three month season. The company usually provides housing and pay, assuming one is not an intern. This is quite an adventure for some; some being, in this particular case, a rather naive and directionless recent college graduate. The excitement of having to open a checking account and figuring out little practicalities like telephone capabilities (you know, with a cord and everything) for the sake of a few months' time wears off after a few more years of experience, but at the time it was all adventure. So perhaps it was natural for me, especially given my economic position, so see it all as a grand test in which I was the likable protagonist. I had my angst; do not doubt my penchant for angst, good sir. Yet it was all part of a movie-poster adventure.

One morning (midday perhaps; depends if it was a day off) my friend and I discovered that we were in need of matches. Matches are one of those things for which any need is a fairly absolute one. Can we make do with a stick of chewing gum, or perhaps a single, abandoned shoe? No. These things will not help us. We needed fire, and neither of us smoked. My friend's first impulse was to go into the nearby grocery and buy a pack, which would have probably been one of those plastic-wrapped cubes of a year's supply of wooden matches. Nay, said I. Pay for matches? What absurdity! We, instead, shall have an adventure. And we did. Only nominally dressing in street clothes (apply footware and jacket, e voila!) we set out into the strange wilderness of strip malls, parkways and median greens. The grocery store didn't sell cigarettes. The Pizza Hut didn't carry matches. All passing strangers who did smoke only carried lighters. Where was a 7-11? Where had we stranded ourselves that there was no gas station within walking distance? Suddenly, like a beacon on a distant hilltop: A Fancy Restaurant. But alas! Would such a mecca of not only matches, but Really Very Nice High Quality Matches be open at such an hour, on such a day? Surely not . . .

Success can be spelled in a mere six letters: BRUNCH.

As I recall, they were only too happy to give us a number of their matchbooks, thereby prompting our departure; probably because we looked more than a little like recently released psych-ward patients, in our sneakers and pajama pants. Flush with the glory of accomplishment, we returned to the dorm-like apartment with our bounty of RVNHQMs and proceeded to light the stovetop, or fulfill whatever desire the nascent fire represented at the time. I can't remember exactly. It was too long ago, and too trivial in comparison to the journey it inspired.

It's much more difficult for me to adopt this mindset now-a-days, and especially difficult in times of . . . well, difficulty, though I'm aware that's exactly when I need it most. Indeed, it sometimes seems to me that adulthood is all about averting or, when that fails, mitigating disaster. Experience teaches us to be prepared for disaster in all things, to perceive danger in details, and somehow that leads me to associate caution with wisdom. Yet that's only a small part of real wisdom. Life is not that simple, and staying safe can be a very direct route to losing joy. Just as small joys can get us through a day, little risks can result in a lot of joy. It's that possibility of failure, and the refusal to surrender to it, that makes life more spontaneous and rewarding. I think my favorite aspect of real adventure movies, after all, is how much potential there is for unpredictability. Sure, the "good guys" will triumph (unless perhaps it is the second in a trilogy) but what risks will they undergo next to achieve it?

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indiana Jones just about gets to his MacGuffin (or so we imagine) he is confronted with his worst fear, and gets his soundbite: "Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?" Why, Henry Jones (Jr.)? Because you're on an adventure.

Here's Looking at Aashish Choudhury's Baby Boy Agasthya

Pehla dekko

Here's looking at Aashish and Samita Choudhury's baby Agasthya. Bhavna Jasra, who has done the casting for Agasthya's hands says, "Monaz, a very dear friend of the couple asked me to make a cast for Agasthya. Both Ashish and Samita were overjoyed about having their little one's tiny hands cast in gold. I made a frame with a black-and-white picture of the baby covering the entire backdrop with his tiny hands placed as if he were looking at them smilingly. Ashish and Samita loved it." But naturally.

An Open Letter, A Frank Admission


Loyal Reader:

You may have noticed that I disappeared for some time and, upon my return, posted a mere single entry. It was even about a "special interest" that you may or may not share (as opposed to my usual, mainstream, populist fare). I apologize for the break in ma'blogging. The reasons are myriad, but primarily it has to do with 1} leaving June 29th for Italy, for a month, and 2} el jobbo del day freaking 'asploding in the process. Not as in disappearing in great, orangey fireballs -- oh no. More as in becoming a flurry and confusion of paperwork, urgent need and confused requests. I am John McClane here, armed only with a three-hole-punch, barefoot, and confronted with a floor full of shattered protocol.

And I have missed you, Dear Reader. Issuing these missives on a regular basis is a sort of regulatory function for my psyche and, even when rather few comments come irregularly rolling in, I trust that every so often someone out there is getting something out of my rambling as well. (A what-not-to-do warning or two, at the least.) Hence this letter -- to reconnect a bit, explain this and potential future delinquencies, and of course to catch you up on what's gone down in the interim. Hopefully this will not take as long to compose as my last entry did, continually interrupted as it was. Truly, once in Italy I will be armed with Gracie, and hopefully a wi-fi connection, and then you will be in for 'blog entries GALORE. I will leave it to you to maintain your composure during that thrilling month.

Apart from work, things have been otherwise eventful since Camp Nerdly. I've continued revising Hereafter when I may, maintained my attendance at Friend Cody's aerial silks classes, conferred somewhat with Friend Andrew over an exciting little project and even participated in a staged reading with a new company (new to me, that is). It was really a terrible weekend, though, as Friend Patrick suffered a painful and sudden loss. I was lucky enough to find out about it quickly, and talk to him a very little, and even see him on Sunday. He's off to his hometown now, and my heart goes with him and his family; he's sharing a lot about his brother James at Loose Ends, and I wish I'd had a chance to meet him. And finally, amidst a blissful absence of fanfare (unless repeated text-message vibrations count), I turned 32 years of age on Tuesday. Wife Megan and I celebrated with a quiet dinner at a favorite Astoria spot, and the rain magically held off for a day, so we enjoyed it outside.

Life, she does not stop. Not for nothing.

It's funny how quickly we can lose track of ourselves, most especially when we're busy. As Patrick will attest, "busy" is my favorite state of play, yet lately I have been wondering if I'm not losing sight a bit of some of the more important details of my life. Little things like moods, and daily thoughts, and daily actions. These are the minutiae that make up a life as much as the bigger issues (work, relationships, society-at-large) and they're most definitely getting away from me just now. In an effort to corral some of 'em, I've been trying once again to shed my chronic onychophagia for the past week. This is a little bit like quitting smoking, in that it occasionally makes me want to PUNCH EVERYBODY. So perhaps it's not all that helpful to my mood as such, but you have to start somewhere. Next up -- somehow diverting the instinctive, murderous rage I feel when blocked by people on the sidewalk/stairs/subway platform.

And so, Most Sweet Reader, no profound insights into the nature of art and life today. No, just a little address of things in general and a wish for your happiness. If I see you in person in the coming weeks, please forgive any distracted behavior, or general slip-ups on my part. I am happily busy, but June is a wild month so far. Just smile and nod, and maybe give me an affectionate chuck on the shoulder. Say, "Atta boy, Jeff. Just keep swinging."

But if you see my fingers rise to my mouth, you punch me. You punch me right square in the oral fixation.

Nerd Herding


I'm bad at it. Twice last weekend I was asked to help round up groups, and I failed in interesting ways both times, including by mis-hearing responses that were in the affirmative.
One of the aspects of Camp Nerdly that I appreciated for the first time this go, my third go (see also 5/12/08, 4/11/08, 5/8/07 and 5/7/07) were the many cultural overlaps between stereotypical nerd culture and stereotypical camping culture. Both require an enthusiasm for making life a greater challenge, amongst other specific conditions that supposedly "normal" people would fear or disdain. Both involve improvisation, moderated with a healthy dose of research and acquired knowledge. Both generally associate with high-calorie foods. Both environments typically eschew the strictures of social norms such as fashion and strict codes of hygiene. So yes, camp is an excellent place for fellow nerds to gather, and be unabashedly nerdish.

I am one such nerd. In point of fact, I don't think of myself as a nerd per se; not because I find the term derogatory, either. Rather, I think specifically of a "nerd" as someone very intelligent and good with details. I am not very intelligent, at least not in that way, so consider myself something more along the lines of a geek, or dork. Spaz, too -- which I have fortunately parlayed into a rewarding career as a physical comedian. At least, it's philosophically rewarding, when in no way else.

Despite my self-imposed sub-nerd status, I am allowed (nay: encouraged) to ally myself with other nerds on an annual basis at Camp Nerdly. I just did so last weekend, getting my yearly dose of straight-edge, pure gaming. "Gaming" in this context, by the way, refers to just about any actively challenging effort that is endeavored largely for the sake of fun and entertainment. It was a special occasion in several respects, owing to the fact that Expatriate Younce was in attendance, all the way from Leeds. (That's in England.) I have a funny sort of response to gaming. Expatriate Younce actively encourages it, as do other friends of my hometown, while Wife Megan and many of her circle, at best, do not understand its appeal. So I have some strong influences on either side of the debate as to the relative value and appeal of gaming. Then I get to the actual gaming, and have a response similar to when I've been away from a rehearsal process for over a month: "Oh crap. I have no clue what I'm doing here." Of course, I gamely (see what I did there?) fake it until I catch up again. And how do I feel about gaming? Well.

The first game I played on arrival this year was a collaborative board game called Pandemic, and I have only good things to say about it. Clinton R. Nixon was the gamer who introduced it to me and my fellow novices, and we had a great time discussing strategy in trying to clear the world of four rampaging diseases. We also got our butts handed to us by the game, which only serves to make you want to play it more. Sadly, I never found another opportunity. It's way more interesting to play a board game that is both collaborative and difficult to beat than it is to play something like Monopoly, wherein a winner is guaranteed and somebody's going to regret buying real estate.

Next that night was a session of A Taste for Murder, run by another favorite gamer of mine, Jason Morningstar (perhaps cool names are indicators of future nerdom...?). We gathered at "The Castle," de facto cabin for any games likely to involve more adult themes, and we possibly made those themes more adult than they were intended to be. A Taste for Murder seems meant to be a story-telling game with a fairly strong and regular dice element, where the "winner" of scenes is determined by competitive rolls. The setting is like an Agatha Christie novel, and you choose your characters based on family and estate relationships, trying for a broad range of class/status. In the first act of play, the relationships are built up and controversy well-established. It culminates in MURDER. In act the second, the player of the murdered character plays the detective on the scene, and the back-stabbing begins. We played it a bit grotesque, I'm afraid, for the genre. Not enough class warring. I played the rebellious son of the estate, and all audio was recorded for the game's creator. Well, some. We kept running down batteries. It was a good game. If I ever play it again, I'll focus less on winning the game, more on building my character.

Saturday morning started out with a game called Sons of Liberty, a role-playing game that used playing cards to drive the game function. Essentially, playing chosen patriotic figures both real and imagined (much of the imagination having something to do with steampunkiness), I and two others played a card game against the house ("the house" in this game represented by one Mr. Jeff Hosmer), using our hand at a given moment and the resulting win or loss to narrate how that particular struggle against the Tories went down. In most cases, it went down to the ground, and Hosmer trounced our sorry, albe-they rebellious, butts. I played a saucy cross-dressing Frenchman, hungry for rebellion (non-historical, btw). It was a fun game, and collaborative in its own way. The balance between card play and role-play landed heavily on the card side, but this created a very urgent dynamic that was also fun. Imagine playing Spit, and having to make up a whole team-written fiction, simultaneously.

The early afternoon was my most undecided slot, yet ended up being the most overall satisfying experience of the weekend in terms of gaming. Kagematsu is a unique role-playing game in many ways. The game has most of the players playing the women of a feudal Japanese village, trying to woo and/or seduce a ronin who has wandered into their town, in the hopes of finding love and saving the village from some great threat. The history of the game itself is unique; dreamed up by a male-to-female transsexual who was contemplating female identities, and since carried through a fairly extensive development by her friend -- and Nerdly attendee -- Danielle Lewon. In our game, a woman played the samurai, and I and three other women (including Danielle) played the women of the village. My character was a very young, innocent girl who loved the nearby mountains and cultivating bonsai. We conceived it all as taking place in a fishing village, one haunted by the spirits of the men lost at sea, and the story ended up being amazing. To make a long story short(er), this young ronin, out to prove himself, was variously wooed by very different women, none of whom wanted to tell him the problem of the village for fear of scaring him off. He eventually does confront the ghosts . . . and fails. Throughout this game, this growing story, we were moved. Some of us to tears. It was amazing. It was magic, nothing short of it.

My follow-up was similarly strong in narrative, although less of it was created out of thin air. Montsegur 1244 takes a very cool, tiny section of history and makes a game of it. You are given a very specific setting, choice of two characters (a primary and secondary) and play through the story of about a year within a community that now-a-days we might be inclined to call a religious cult. Your church, town, stronghold has broken off from the church and set up a rather different set of beliefs, principal among them that earth, life, is in fact a kind of testing hell. It can be transcended, and those who do are religious leaders known as "perfects," who try to guide their people out of the cycle of imperfect, passionate living, into true existence. With pre-established characters, setting and scenarios, the game really takes a lot of the burden of narrative structure away from the players (something we appreciate in Zuppa del Giorno when trying to build a play from improvisation) but there's plenty of room to play in the cracks. I played a quasi-heretical patriarch and a young orphan boy, and the highlight for me was a scene played out with Mr. Jason Morningstar, who was once again running the game. We had a negotiation scene that crackled like good theatre for me; he may have missed his calling, that one.

Finally that day, after dinner, was a Jeepform free-for-all, run by Jason (people will say we're in love), Remi Trauer and Emily Boss. I wrote a bit about Jeepform last year after my first experience with it, and it still intrigues me. Essentially, it is a very interesting hybrid of improvisatory theatre and role-playing gaming. It has its own philosophy, and makes efforts to stand apart from both forms (as any self-respecting hybrid ought). This year was a somewhat more technical exploration of the methods and tactics -- as opposed to last year's straight gaming -- and one which eventually descended into Absurdist madness. Each of the leaders led us through a different Jeepform trope, all three in the context of superhero fiction. This was, perhaps, a contributing factor to the eventual eruption of silliness, as people (read: nerds) had a ton of clever ideas about how to riff on comicbooks. They tried to tell us: The best choice is an obvious one. And we tried to listen, but by the time we got around to the fourth section -- a trial held in a strange, WH40K-inspired universe -- the gaggy gloves were decidedly off. I was as guilt as any, and it was a little too much fun to stop. Yet the surprising virtues I observed about Jeepform held true. People were taking turns, not interrupting, and a story was gradually developing on its own.

There was much discussion after that, rather late into the night (late by fresh-air standards, anyway), about gaming and improvisation and story-telling. There's something about people being excited to talk about that which is oddly fulfilling for me. I went to sleep feeling quite sated.

Sunday mornings at Camp Nerdly are often hungover affairs, but not the usual variety. People are bushed from all the thinking and playing of the day before, and many elect not to play anything at all, but there is a slot for gaming between eating and cleaning up the site. Mark Causey filled my slot (hey now) with a little game called GHOST/ECHO. It was reminiscent of my first year and Nerdly, when I discovered just how much fun it could be to create a whole fictitious world from the ground up. Of course, as an improviser and writer, I do this all the time, but I take it for granted somewhat. It's a means to an end. Putting it as the primary purpose makes for some lovely synchronicity, especially when its collaborative, and thereby synergistic. GHOST/ECHO offers nothing but variables, an idea for context ("aetherpunk," says the ad) and a device for conflict resolution and lets the players make the rest up. It would be a tricky terrain for someone unused to working without rules, but for someone like me who knows roughly what to expect, and just wants to run free imaginatively -- a lovely way to spend a Sunday morning.

And like that, it was over. Some mopping, some laughing codas, a bus ride for me and the next day Expatriate Younce was bound homeward as well. My annual alliance with 50+ smart, creative thinkers done for the year.

When I was too young to fully appreciate the sentiment, someone mentioned to me the following axiom: When you are young, you love someone because you need them; once you have lived, you find true love when you need someone because you love them. I knew I was too young at the time I heard it to fully appreciate it, but there's nothing to be done about that. We all grow in our own time, and can only listen to the advice we are ready to hear. Yet I remembered it, and whereas it concerned me, made me worry about the nature of this or that relationship, when I was younger, now it is a comfort to me in all of my loves. When I was a kid, and started gaming, I loved it, and I really needed it -- for interaction, to work out my own fears and ambitions and to feel accomplished. And now, I love it. It wakes me up, engages me, gives me ideas and allows me to make the big picture the priority. I'm made happier by having it a part of who I am and what I do. And that's a great feeling.
 
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