Two Influences

I was 24 years old when it happened. It was a gorgeous day -- I mean really, really beautiful. The kind of advanced autumn day that is both bright and slightly cool and, once I thought I was relatively safe and had let someone know that, I sat in Central Park and watched the people go by. It was a fairly surreal thing to do but, then again, even the most common of things felt strange that day. I sat on a park bench just east of Sheep Meadow and watched as dozens of people in suits and carrying briefcases walked north through the park, no one particularly rushing, most people seeming slightly dazed, or even simply surprised, like me, that it should be such a beautiful day. This was before the twin towers actually fell down, you understand. That hadn't even occurred to me as a remote possibility.

Of course I can't say for certain, but I'd wager that any artist living in and around New York City on September 11, 2001, has lingering effects in his or her work thereafter. You wouldn't have to actively explore the issues or circumstances, or even the relevant emotions, to exhibit this influence. No, I see it coming out in myriad little ways too, without our even trying. Of course, many do try.

Friend Kate

often did in her work with


, but particularly in the last full-length piece she created with them/us,


. Directly or indirectly, we all had a profound personal experience, and we all keep returning to it in the hopes of making a little more sense of it . . . or at least of ourselves, afterward.

I have never quite tackled it head-on in my work. I did

some agit-prop theatre

that referenced the following war in Iraq, and I wrote a bit on it, even going so far as to start a play all about three people's personal lives leading up to the big day. (I still plan to return to that someday; feel it was a bit too big for me at the time.) I even fantasized a little choreography for a dance about it, and I am in


way a choreographer of dance. In fact, it's interesting to me that I took my creativity over the tragedy into dance, if but in my mind. I think there's a reason for that. I'm not sure, but it may say something about how abstract it felt at the time, unknowable -- just a series of visceral experiences that couldn't be ordered into anything particularly narrative or thematic. It felt, and I suppose it still feels rather, like an experience not meant to be understood.

It's curious to me, also, how profoundly I felt this year's anniversary. In previous years certainly I paused to reflect and (especially in the few anniversaries immediately after) even took some private time to remember and process and grieve. Yet this year, I was rather emotionally floored for a few days. I didn't know anyone personally who died in the attacks that day. Not that it's necessary to justify my response, but in seeking explanation there's no light to be shed in that direction, and what particular significance could the eighth year after hold? It was terrible, of course, and they say all New Yorkers have some kind of collective response around this time, our stress levels instinctively rocketing up. Still, this year seemed different, somehow.

I have an opportunity that's up-and-coming to make a show of my own. Actually, it's a commitment to provide a show for ETC's side stage program, Out On a Limb. When I submitted my proposal, I wrote about presenting something that explored a more intentional incorporation of circus and physical skill acts into scene work. That's something I've always wanted to see, and it seems the perfect time to explore it. It remains a very unformed idea, without even a story to back it up yet, and I find myself wondering if this could be an opportunity, too, to explore my responses to the events of 9/11. If it proves to be, it still won't be my focus or specific goal. Primarily, I want to fuse reasonably naturalistic acting with ecstatic and impressive movement.

An interesting personal coincidence related to 2001 is that it was the year that I met David Zarko -- now artistic director of


(not to mention the guy responsible for most of my professional acting opportunities) -- and in the same year was my introduction to circus skills. In many ways, it was the year-of-birth for who I am now as a creative artist, so it's bound to hold quite a bit of sway over anything I make. When it comes to that infamous day, I'm glad that in addition to all the horror and confusion, I especially remember what a beautiful day it was. There's something in this that comforts me.

Talent: We Haz It

The following was started August 17th, but completed today . . .

So . . . I did this thing. Just helping some friends, really. Back in June. I didn't write about it. But it invaded my every thought for a while there, so it was weird to not write about it. I sort of wrote around it a bit (see


) and contented myself with the knowledge that someday I would be allowed to write about it. The trouble was, I wouldn't know when exactly, until it happened. In fact, as I begin this post, I don't know when it "happened," or in fact


happened to allow me to publish about it, but I hope and hope and hope that what happened was something along the lines of my friends blowing away the competition and their lives changing for the better, forever and ever.

Anyway: such are the promises of TV.

America's Got Talent

is not my favorite show. In fact, that's putting it rather mildly. I put it mildly, however, because the show has provided Friends Zoe and Dave -- of

Paradizo Dance

fame -- with a tremendous platform for their unique work. Dave and Zoe have combined Dave's background in competitive salsa with Zoe's in modern dance and circus skills to create stunning, fairly stunt-oriented choreography, the likes of which no one has ever really seen before. I met Zoe through Kate


while working together in


, was there for one of her first collaborations with Dave, in

Cirque Boom


Madness & Joy!

, and thereafter shared an apartment with Zoe in 2006. They're great people; you may remember my write-up of their incredible wedding last October (see


). For all that, I never saw us working together. Their emphasis is so on dance, and mine on theatre, that the commonalities seemed few and unlikely to bring us together.

So thank you,

America's Got Talent

, for scaring Dave and Zoe enough to ask for feedback from this crazy clown. To be specific, I worked with Paradizo Dance for a total of six hours, over three days. We would have worked more, but I had to be off to Italy, and those two . . . well. Those of you who think


keep busy have no idea. Really. They're pretty amazing offstage as well as on. So what on earth would compel them to ask me for help? I mean, Zoe can lift Dave off the ground, and Dave can practically balance Zoe on his fingers! ("Come on!", I often find myself involuntarily shouting in disbelief when I watch one of their acts.) Well, turning in several unique acts over the course of a summer television season requires one to stretch one's versatility a bit, and one such stretch that they wanted to perform was into the area of stage comedy.

I'm going to assume at this point that I'm not posting this until the season has ended, for them, or in its entirety (for me, the latter will coincide with the former, regardless). As I'm writing, I have no way of knowing how their comic act went, or if they even had a chance to perform it -- though all signs I have now indicate that they will. In fact, I don't know a thing about the act itself. It will be as much a surprise to me as to the rest of the viewing audience. When I left their process, we had established a lot, but choreographed very little, and one of my imperatives to them was to throw out anything we "established" when it ceased to work for them. I know they were working with other people on this particular piece, and I hope they consulted someone else as they were actually building it. Most of my time, you see, was spent workshopping with them on how we collaborate to create a narrative, physical comedy.

It's one of my favorite subjects, it's what

Zuppa del Giorno

is all about, and somehow I'd never had the opportunity to explore it the way I did with Zoe and Dave. Here were two people with tons of performance experience, tons of physical ability, and even a little theatre background, but very little experience with physical comedy. I had a really excellent time working to explain ideas that make comedy work for me, as well as working to refine a functional dynamic in which they could collaborate to create something unlike anything else they've ever made. We were thinking on our feet, and discussing big ideas, and man -- I'd love to do it again.

* * *

Well: Hell. America,

what is wrong with you?

I'm kidding, of course. It was an awful disappointment to witness my friends voted off the show last night, but I'm not bitter about it. (Okay, I'm only mildly bitter about it. [Okay, I burned all my Hasselhoff CDs.]) There's a lot I could write about the contributing factors to the elimination, but it's all a little pointless, and I have to remind myself that

Paradizo Dance

got a pretty wonderful second prize in all this -- the kind of exposure that changes their professional position for the better.

America's Got Talent

was never going to change the fact that they're incredibly entertaining and talented performers, win or "lose," and I just hope they are walking away from it with chins held high. They did a magnificent job, and the whole thing was more a fortunate accident than it was their ultimate goal, anyway.

Not that a cool million and headlining in Vegas would have been unwelcome, of course. But anyway.

There's a small but persistent part of me that feels really, really terrible and anxious that I may have steered them wrong. Logically, I know that the work was out of my influence for two months before they performed it and we only worked on ideas and a few beats of choreography. I certainly can't claim any credit for their work! I also know that what they ended up performing was beautifully done, and that the judgment of the audience was as much a matter of taste as of anything objective. Still, I have this little bit within; it is kissing cousins with my general sense of responsibility, and makes me want to take it all on myself. I would like to say to America: "America, blame me for all the parts you didn't like. Let's give these crazy kids another chance!" And so, America, if I have your ear, there you have it.

It's not my place of course to go into any detail here about what I did and didn't see from our time working together in the piece. That's a private discussion that Zoe and Dave and I will have sometime soon (I hope!). Regardless of the outcome, I loved working with them, especially on this kind of thing. I hope we get to do it again someday, whatever the context. Even if we don't, I have no doubt that Dave and Zoe will continue to succeed more and more in what they do best: Creating breath-taking choreography and performing it with love, together.

Oh yeah, and Piers Morgan: What. Ever. Dude. Zoe lifting Dave is flash -- the two of them holding up one another is the heart of their act.

"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?

Nice Place You've Got Here . . .

" . . . lots of space . . ."

I have rarely been so tempted by the university setting as when I arrived at Swarthmore College yesterday. In fact, I'm a little frustrated by their website. If I ran things there (and just give me time) there'd be a gallery devoted to the scenery. It was misty, gray and generally chilly out, and I was still blown away by lovely architecture, a long, green lawn, and it was all backed up by forest that descended to a river valley. Gorgeous. I arrived a bit early, and walked about, checking things out. In my brief progress, I found an enormous amphitheatre built into the forest, stone walling etching out green lawned levels, studded with 150-year-old oak trees here and there. Took my breath away with theatrical possibilities. I was a little disappointed not to be working there, even given the nasty weather.

Then I found the space in which we would be working.

Tarble Hall is a movement-studio-slash-performance-space within Clothier Hall, which appears to be a converted church space, complete with monk's walk surrounding a small courtyard, a bell tower, and of course a worship space. Well, where they put us was in the worship space -- twelve feet up. The space has been converted in such a way that a movement floor was put in right about where the large ceiling begins to angle steeply together, replete with ornately carved beams and arches. Below it is an access hallway to the other rooms off the ground floor of the main building. The effect is rather like one is in a long, ample movement studio suspended in space. The floor was well-sprung, and it was rigged for performances at either end or, really, wherever you felt like it. Some spaces invite you to perform, to fill them out with motion. This was such a place, in spades. I was awed.

And, I'm afraid that probably showed through in my teaching. It wasn't exactly a bad class, but it definitely wasn't my best. I had some trouble holding everything together with 22 students, giving them both an overview and a practical approach to commedia dell'arte. It was partly awe, partly the weather and partly travel fatigue. And, as I say, it wasn't a bad class. It was just that at times I thought to myself, "You know, this has felt much more intense and cool before...." That having been said, I think everyone had fun and learned a little something. About midway through, I broke out the "tag trick" to wake everyone up a bit. The tag trick is to convince everyone that you are about to do an exercise that is very serious and requires a lot of concentration, then tag someone and tell them they're "it." It usually serves to get people laughing at themselves a bit. I usually fail to keep a sufficient deadpan for the set-up, and this class was no exception.

All in all, it was an interesting dynamic with this class. I spent a lot of time considering how to loosen them up, and I'm not sure that I was altogether successful. I think I would have benefited from giving them a few more opportunities to perform. They certainly responded well to what opportunities I did manage to give them. If I ever return, I'll put more emphasis on outlining ideas, then asking them to take the ball and run. That's my preferred way of working anyway; if I was more didactic this time, it had everything to do with being excited to have authentic commedia dell'arte training to draw from since working with Angelo Crotti.

Perhaps my favorite moment of the class, actually, occurred during break. One of the students was working on a handstand, and I coached him a bit, encouraging him to try for alignment rather than arching his back for balance. Another student joined in as I was explaining the importance of pushing up through the upper palm, and they both noticed considerable improvement in their ability to stick it. I think this was the best moment of me and students meeting halfway in our enthusiasm and focus, and I relished it. I wrote not too long ago (see 4/13/09) about the value in inviting people to learn, instead of requiring it, and learning to invite in as compelling a way as possible. I'm enjoying working on that skill, be it in a rather run-down office, or the most beautiful movement space I've ever before seen.

Anxiety ANXIETY Anxiety

Yeah. The dreaded A-word. That one what doth top off my list of topics more often than I'd like. There are some occasions for which I'm sure it would not surprise you, Dear Reader, that I experience my share of stress. Under-rehearsed show openings, callbacks with prominent theatre artists and just auditions in general. Then again, there's one I probably haven't written much of -- namely, the return to NYC after a long-term gig has taken me away.

Last night I had not one, but two anxiety dreams, both closely related to the fears associated with returning to the city and my more-regular life after I've spent some time acclimated to the good life. Keep in mind, "the good life" dangles me over a cliff of poverty, taunts me with creative failure at every turn and has its own share of stress. Yet somehow, the thought of returning to el day jobo and the verities of (big) city life manages to top any of that. It tops it, turns it around three times and kicks it out the door by its reproductive organs. It's awful, frankly. Mostly, I think, because it's laced with reminders of the compromises I have still to make in order to make this triple-life work for me. I crave integration now just as much as I did as a freshly graduated BFA holder. More, perhaps, because now I understand how sweet it could be, and how rough, too.

I haven't a whole lot to complain about, from one perspective. And I dearly love returning to better food, somewhat more fiscal compensation and, of course, my much-missed wife and friends. And heck (AND tarnation), there are no surprises here. I'm good at NYC at this point. I got my technique down and everything. My fellow artists will understand the frustration of tasting, just tasting, the possibility of sustaining one's life doing what one loves. Wherefore anxiety? Why not anger, or sorrow, or something more productive? I have no ready answer. My theory is that it springs from the aspect of less-than-welcome change. I'd probably do better with it if I could embrace it as opportunity. It doesn't have to be a reminder of what I


have. I need to work on this.

In the meantime, the final showings of

The Very Nearly Perfect Comedy of Romeo & Juliet

gallop apace. This show has definitely infected me with a Shakespeare bug. I'm planning to read more of W.S. for a bit when I get back to the city, feeling very connected to the amazing, functional poetry of it. Last night we had a pleasant surprise in our audience in the forms of a former Zuppa actor and friend of the troupe.

Erin McMonagle


Seth Reichgott

visited from


, where they are rehearsing

Leading Ladies

. They had effusively nice things to say about our work, which is always welcome from fellow theatre artists, particularly those you particularly respect. We visited ever-so-briefly after the show before they needed to get back to Bloomsberg, but it was loverly. I hope I get to work with Erin again, and Seth for the first time, soon.

Some of my anxiety over the end of the show, and the re-entry to the day job, has been mitigated into productivity. I've arranged to meet with

Friend Cody

to discuss a regular acrobatics/balance group, and intend to spend a good deal of my time once back in sending out headshots and auditioning, perhaps for more Shakespeare. I usually have the best intentions for setting my best foot forward when I return to my home base, then wallow in adjusting to my return and feeling (quite frankly) sorry for myself. So it is my fervent hope that making appointments and such will keep me out of such nonsense this time around. Dang it, I like this work. Why lag, much less stop? I don't need a vacation. I need a never-ending trip, and I am my own events coordinator.

Hm. Maybe I should have been an author of self-help books, instead.