This Is Just to Say

I have enjoyed

the actors

that came in

to callbacks

and who

were probably tense


its oddness.

Forgive me

I cannot cast you all

so brave

and so totally awesome.

Short post here just to touch on the callbacks for

our next Zuppa del Giorno show

, the which I'll be directing. They have taken place this week, and after a little more coordinating and ruminating we should have our third performer. This was effectively my first time on the other side of the table in an audition process, and I learned a lot from it (possibly at the expense of the actors involved?), both as someone conducting an audition process and as an actor in said audition. More anon on that. (I'm really racking up the promised 'blog topics here.)

This post is really just to say that everyone who came in was awesome. It was an extremely unconventional callback process, due to the developmental and improvisational nature of the show, and each actor handled it with style. See if this doesn't terrify you: We set out a table of assorted random objects, and had people in two-at-a-time. The game they played was to tell a story between them, with one person verbally telling the story and the other telling it physically. They could use any of the "props," and at any time they could switch positions, yielding their vocal or physical storytelling to the other, or swooping into the other role. And they just kept going until I said, "Scene."

Tough, no? Awful, really, for people psyched to have an opportunity. If I could have come up with any other way to find out what we needed to know, I would have done that. But I wish you could have been there, Dear Reader, because what everyone did was unique and effective and inspiring. So, thanks, Auditioners. I would like to take you all out for milk and cookies.

"Inebriate of air am I..."

That's a rather embarrassingly romantic line I copied in my journal right around college, freshman year (1995 or 6), I think. I say I'm embarrassed by it, but it has stuck with me and popped up every now and again, seemingly unbidden, in my memory. I had to look it up again to discover it was Dickinson and -- as though prescient in my "tweet" of yesterday -- remind myself that I didn't come up with it. Yes. I subconsciously tried to purloin Emily Dickinson. In my defense, I'm certain I'm far from the first, and I'm definitively certain I'll not be the last. Miss Dickinson's poem, in its entirety:

I taste a liquor never brewed,

From tankards scooped in pearl;

Not all the vats upon the Rhine

Yield such an alcohol!

Inebriate of air am I,

And debauchee of dew,

Reeling, through endless summer days,

From inns of molten blue.

When landlords turn the drunken bee

Out of the foxglove's door,

When butterflies renounce their drams,

I shall but drink the more!

Till seraphs swing their snowy hats,

And saints to windows run,

To see the little tippler

Leaning against the sun!

Odd to imagine a famous shut-in using inn and pub imagery, drunken bees or no.

The line recurred to me this time because I was thinking about my recent acceptance into the cult of


, and my choice of moniker there: AcroRaven. I hesitated to use it. At first I was trying all different permutations of "Jeff Wills," as it is my brand name as an actor. Alas, I arrived on Twitter too late for such luxuries (I still owe

Expatriate Younce

a big 10-Q for getting me on to Gmail early enough to claim my address there) and I've just never adjusted to the idea of numeral incorporation into naming. Hence, AcroRaven. Right? Of course right.

Of course wrong. Both my embarrassment and my desire to use that name have quite a bit more to them than pragmatic consideration, or mere awkwardness over labeling myself using a species of bird for a site that claims all non-mute birds as its mascot. (Someone needs to get on some flightless bird sites. Cluck-er? Crow-er?) The fact is, I love ravens. And I've never seen one in person. The fact is, I call myself an acrobat. And I still can't stick a one-minute handstand. And the fact is, "AcroRaven" sounds like a really bad superhero, if you can even figure out how to pronounce it, and

that's part of what I love about it.

There. I said it. I made up that name because I love big black birds and acrobatics and seeing myself as a superhero.

The line from Dickinson spoke to me and I isolated it from its original context because it reminded me of how I imagine being a bird would feel. Maybe birds hate flying -- how would I ever know? I find their flight beautiful, however, and it reminds me of breathing deep and loving it. Exhilaration. There's a lot that feeds into my appreciation of birds, and ravens in particular, but suffice it to say that it's an animal that has come to symbolize for me my aspirations, turning my vision of who I could be into who I am. I may never be a bird, or renowned acrobat, or a superhero (in fact, the more I examine the reality of vigilantism, the less appealing it becomes, super-powered or no) yet a few years ago I never imagined I would know how to lift people to my shoulder, or have friends in Italy. These things came about because I can identify with the possibilities my dreams present.

Part of what finally launched me into the Twitter-sphere was a possible collaboration with a good, old friend of mine (one who dates back to my days of first admiring those crows that are the closest things to ravens Burke, Virginia has to offer). We're talking about creating a performance rooted in the ideas -- and maybe even the devices -- that allow us to have a creative collaboration in close-to-real time between East Coast and West, so naturally Twitter came up. As with any collaborative effort, not to mention plenty of the solo ones, it's difficult to say if anything will result from it. All the same, I'm looking forward to throwing those ideas out there, across the atmosphere, to see what sinks and what flies. Inebriates of air, aren't we all?

Useless Beauty (All This)

Great song. I'm not a huge Elvis Costello fan, but every so often one of his songs hits it out of the park for me, and


would be one of those. Friend Heather, who is a much better devotee of Costello, introduced me to it. I'm not sure if I've ever discussed this here, but songs rarely resonate for me based on their lyrics. This is a thing that drives some people (such as Wife Megan) a little crazy, but I can't really help it. Or, I don't want to. I like being better attuned to the song than I am to the lyrics. I don't have a whole lot of clear, intuitive behavior that doesn't get second-guessed by my intellect (such as it is) -- I'm keeping this one. This is all just to say that words to this song are brilliant, but it's the feeling of the chorus that carries me away.

Last night I saw

the Alvin Ailey dance company

for the second time in my life, and they were just as affective as I remembered. Poke around the site a bit and you'll soon see that the company members are gorgeous, and I assure you that without seeing them move, you don't know the half of it. Their work is passionate and specific, and it is a real treat to spend time experiencing their artistry. The first time I saw them was some five or six years ago, and I didn't know what I was in for then, so was doubly appreciative. I wondered if the blush of first impression would have faded a bit for me this time around. It didn't.

Of course, their beauty -- physical and kinesthetic -- is far from useless. Even if one were to be stupid enough to see dance as a generally useless expression, Ailey's work and the work he's inspired since wouldn't be lacking in usefulness. It always expresses something about a specific culture or movement that we couldn't quite learn in any other medium. Watching last night though, immersed in all that keen beauty, I got to thinking about the supposed virtue of beauty. Or rather I should call it the


virtue, since beauty as either cause or effect in "good" art has been a hotly debated aspect of art since time-just-about-immemorial. I think about it quite a lot myself, in the context of an actor who can't help but notice that some very pretty, very untalented folks get rather far rather fast. But last night, engulfed by it, I started thinking in less jaded terms about the role of beauty in artistic expression.

A girl I knew in college and I were taking a walk in our fairly new home of Richmond, Virginia. I remember passing an old, decrepid brick building, with exposed and broken pipes and a fire escape, all various shades of red and rust. I wondered aloud what it was that was drawing me to ugliness lately. My friend replied, "What makes you think that's ugly?" And she was right -- it was beautiful. Thinking of that run-down building as ugly was a preconceived judgment on my part, based on ideas about good and evil as they apply to structure, society, prosperity, etc. It's an easy mistake, as beauty/ugliness is in itself about as subjective a concept as I can imagine. It has as much to do with an emotional response as with anything else, and emotions are not binary. I suppose part of what impresses me about Ailey's work is that I'm immediately confronted with stupidly beautiful people, and then that experience of beauty is surpassed in strides (literally) by the beauty of some particular movement or shape they create.

Of course, I'm sure there are some who will disagree.

Actually, the subjective nature of beauty and ugliness (and all gradients thereof) gives me some hope for capital-T Truth playing a significant role in our work. One of the most famous (read: most cliched) quotes about Beauty and Truth having a relationship come from poor, too-soon-departed Keats:

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

It's one of those that I can go on considering in different lights throughout my life, I think. (That has proven true thus far, anyway.) You've got to love that the essence of the argument is the only bit in quotes; the idea that it is all we (or it [the urn]) know, and all we (or it [you know: the urn]) need to know, is all Keats. In other words, it's up to us whether we know it or need to know it, but history itself tells us that that Beauty = Truth, and vice versa.

Why am I going on about a (beautiful) poem? Because it forms the basis of a relationship between Beauty and Truth that is key to my assertion. That is, the commonality between perceptions of beauty is founded on a more shared, communal sense of Truth. In other words, given just how incredibly individual is everyone's opinion about what is ugly and what is beautiful, it makes sense to me that there must be a contributing factor to all those disparate opinions that allows them to find common ground in some cases -- that common factor being Truth. In my humble opinion. Capital-T Truth, mind you, which has less to do with empirical facts and more to do with feeling, with instinct. I think an innate sense of this Truth is that in which we're all participating when we come to an mutual appreciation of Beauty.

Certainly one can have beauty without Truth (one can have it, thanks to advertising and such, any time one wants it); hence my capital-B Beauty. Otherwise known as Glory, Spirit, Love, etc. I wouldn't have called seeing Alvin Ailey a religious experience per se but, then again, it did rather feel like going to church ought. There were times I felt lost, others when I felt as though we were going through the motions a bit, then suddenly a time without a sense of time, when I felt lifted out of myself and part of a whole I had barely felt myself in just moments prior. Then it would end, as all things must I suppose, and seem just as brief as it had infinite when it was happening. It's difficult to define or even describe a unifying experience, even though all of us have at some time or another felt it, probably because most of our intellect comes of division, of making distinctions. So you have to live the moments of unity. And should we creators and makers and artists try to make Beautiful work?


And the Award Goes To... (2)

Over there on my sidebar you'll see a link to A Choreographer's Blog, curated by one Miss Melissa Riker. You might not know it immediately from her 'blog, but Melissa is one of the most positive, infectiously enthusiastic, flirtatious artists I know. I mean, she's got one of the darker quotes about hopefulness from Leonard Cohen at the footer, and most of the entries lately have featured photographs of a prone woman in a ripped wedding gown. Add to that Melissa's penchant for incomplete sentences and/or affection for the creative use of line breaks and you've got yourself one intense-seeming 'blogger. And she is, intense: her 'blog is about her work, the which she takes very, very seriously. It's just that, when you meet Melissa in person, odds are your heart will melt just a little bit at her openness and she will be hugging you before you know exactly what happened. These aspects of her do not stand in contrast to one another. No, they are fully integrated, somehow. Harmonious.

Melissa is, to me, something of a magic trick.

When I wrote of Friend Patrick's 'blog (see 8/5/08) I explained that he and I met on a show called Significant Circus, a show that certainly lived up to its name for me. After all, I also met Melissa there. Actually, we practically met with our fingers mutually entwined in Patrick's hair. From there we have variously performed circus-theatre together (my feet know Melissa very well indeed), leapt about in lofts and parks and even tried to choreograph me in modern dance. And Melissa has been a part of The Exploding Yurts right along with us and Friend Kate, so she's one of these friends who has had a lot of intimate insight into my creative processes. That's a strange intimacy to share. ("Strange Intimacy" would be a really good name for a rock band with Mel as its lead singer.) By and large, the effect Melissa has had on my creative process has been to remind me of the use of spontaneity -- which I tend to shun in favor of more rigid structure -- and the supreme value simply in loving what you are doing. Love takes one a long way in any endeavor, but especially in the more hopeless-seeming ones, like art.

The beauty of A Choreographer's Blog is that one is immediately inside an artist's creative process. There's no safety net, no explicit or intentional censorship, it's just -- thwack! Hi! Welcome to my mind/heart/soul! Which, really, is quite like Melissa herself in performance. It's a very honest, vulnerable place, but you almost don't notice, because its presented without shame or apology in the slightest. That's something most every artist should aspire to, and that Melissa seems to do quite effortlessly. Not that she doesn't work very, very hard; it's just that the part that seems to be hardest for most is her most natural talent. So go to A Choreographer's Blog when you feel isolated, or less than profound. It's a little like discussing a project with Melissa herself. She'll immediately get very excited about what you're talking about, and then share the ideas it gives her, some of which will sound at first to you a little tangential, or unrelated. Then, about three days later, you'll look back on the conversation, chuckle at her joy, and realize she wasn't off in the slightest. She had just gotten to the crux of the emotions much faster than you did.

And so, this award goes to Melissa Riker.


This morning I received an email from the playwright UnCommon Cause Theatre had been collaborating with to create

As Far As We Know

, informing those of us who did not yet know that the remains of Staff Sergeant Keith "Matt" Maupin had been recovered and identified. For those of you who don't know, the events resulting from the disappearance of Matt -- in 2004 -- were the inspiration for that show. For years, in spite of a video purportedly exhibiting his execution, his status remained active as far as the military was concerned, and his family kept faith that it could be true. That was the real subject of our play, what really kept our interest in it: keeping that faith and what we may have to lose by keeping it.

I had decided at some point in the process that most likely Sgt. Maupin had died. I had no details, and vacillated frequently on this position, but ultimately it was the idea I came to embrace. He was gone. That was my luxury, that perception. If I learned nothing else working on

As Far As We Know

, I learned that the perspective I was afforded by my distance from the situation was absolutely a luxury. No one who knew Matt, none of his family or the people living in his hometown, no one who had loved ones involved in this war could afford that luxury. I could. I had the distance to decide for myself, regardless of the hopes of others, that the best thing for all involved would be to grieve now, to try to say goodbye.

What I've discovered, with the arrival of this official news, is that my decision to say goodbye never reached my heart. It was just a decision. Now, this morning, I discover that all this comfortable time of mine I had been keeping a candle of faith going in my heart for Matt and his family. I've discovered that I wasn't comforted by my perspective at all. My


merely quieted my mind. What gave me comfort was that unconscious lick of flame, that nearly unjustifiable hope, which is now just as quietly extinguished. Matt is gone now. He has been missing, potentially and finally actually deceased for years, but now he is truly gone.

I can't compare my grief to his parents', his brother's, his friends'. I can't even compare my grief to my fellow players' and collaborators', some of whom have been to Matt's home and met the people there. It would be ridiculous to conceive of it. I'm just a guy who followed the news, studied the situation and tried to imagine the lives inside it. Yet I'm in tears to learn that he is gone. What was Matt to me? I'm not sure. Probably, figuring that out for myself will be what allows me to let him go. He represented a lot for me -- patriotism, ambition, discipline, the commingling of faith and love -- but representation doesn't tear at emotion this way. No, in some way, without ever meeting him, I came to love Matt for myself. And there is nothing right in this, in his death. No matter what peace it brings, no matter the resolution. His death is wrong.

In one of the introductory classes we were required to take as freshmen in the BFA program at Virginia Commonwealth University they tried to help us understand the nature of tragedy. Actually, of capital-t Tragedy. That is to say, as a form, not simply a vocabulary word. One more colorful teacher asked us, "What is it when a busload of nuns dies?" Someone naturally responded, "A tragedy." (That someone: probably a young guy with a bit of something to prove who valued very highly his own ability to know the "right" answer, and obviously in no way was that someone, nor could he ever have been, me.) "Wrong. When a busload of nuns arbitrarily kicks it, that's a travesty. Now, if it's a king, and we can see it coming from a mile off, but nothing we say or do can change it, and we just have to watch it unfurl into its ultimate conclusion ... that, my friends, is Tragedy."

The circumstances of Staff Sgt. Keith "Matt" Maupin's capture, torment and murder add up to a travesty. Even accepting that Arthur Miller made us see the possibility of a salesman experiencing a tragedy normally reserved for kings, there's too much that's arbitrary about Maupin's story to leave it room in the parameters of tragic action. He was not in combat, but escorting fuel trucks, and they weren't meant to be on the route they took when he was captured. He lied about his personal details on the hostage video that was released, presumably because he felt he had to, and even now news agencies are reporting those, misunderstood as facts. The government had to do everything they could to avoid looking like they were flailing helplessly, owing to how little they knew. It's a travesty.

But. But. Part of what makes Tragedy work is the way in which we come to resist the inevitable outcome. The tragic hero could be someone we would never get along with in life, yet through the journey of the story we come to intimately identify with a commonality: the will to live. "Rage against the dying of the light." We do. We always will, be that light our life or hope for others'. Ultimately, Matt's situation would not turn out well. The more time that passed, the more certain his fate became. We would have been smart to let our hope go, to will it to pass. And yet. And yet.

I -- little me -- will miss you, Matt Maupin. I wish I could hold you and your family up. I hope you all find peace and the space of breath to grieve. The tragedy of this outcome devastates me, but the years of your faith . . . our faith . . . inspire me. May you never lay down, may you always believe.

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

-Dylan Thomas