In my warm-up routine for teaching commedia dell'arte characters and physical characterization, we spend most of our focus on two things: warming up the spine and isolating parts of the body for specificity. This guy's video may have to become a part of the multimedia model for the class:


Tying Up the Air

(Wonky title, eh what?  Refer to 9/24/10 for context.)

I'm revisiting my first aerial silks piece because this weekend Wife Megan and I will be participating in Streb's Valentine's Day benefit, 2Good 2B Bad.  The above is the video I had to submit to get into the Halloween show, the below is the final product.  For the next show, I'm raising the stakes a little bit by trying for a more serious piece.  Humor's great, but it makes excuses for lack of form, too.

Not that it was the only reason I had for this piece, and choosing to make it clown-like.  I thought of the choice more as playing to my strengths, and it rather does.  Although I must admit that maintaining a sense of your audience's response from thirty feet up (and upside down) is something of a skill that requires experience.  Nevertheless, I ended up feeling pretty good about this product.  It wasn't as frenetic - or flashy really - as the initial draft, but it couldn't be - one of the trickiest bits of circus is pulling it off with control, making it look easy such that it puts the audience's mind at ease.  That is, until you want to startle or amaze them.

It's interesting to me that I'm not aiming to startle or amaze my audiences with the act I've devised for this weekend.  Maybe it's just all the effort I've put into making it more formal, less frenetic, but I'm content to let it be what it is.  What it is, is, I hope, a more lyrical piece that hints at a character's story rather than basing it in his immediate struggle for a concrete goal.  This too is a departure for me.  Even in the circus-theatre shows I've developed and performed in, I've always been the one pushing for an accessible story, something that meets the audience halfway in their task of interpreting the presentation.

I suppose it's my study of silks these past couple of years that has changed my perspective on this somewhat, and made me see the personal possibilities in creating a performance for which the audience fills in their own meaning(s).  Audiences do this to some degree anyway, but often with plays and the like it's not as invited as in more "abstract" mediums such as music or dance.  These usually don't make a lot of effort to spell out plot details, much less provide them in a chronological or otherwise linear-structured format, even when they are based on a story of some kind.

I'm not exactly comfortable with that.  Just like I'm not exactly comfortable with trying to perform a piece that's purely skill-based physical without aiming for laughs.  Undertaking this personal challenge is probably a most telling moment about me, and the fact that I am in at least some small part just a frustrated dancer.  So I have no training in that field, I get apocalyptically frustrated with dance choreography, and I can't point my toes worth a damn, but . . . here we go, any dang way.

Marywood on the Green

My first introduction to the concept of a "greenshow" was through my second professional theatre job, at the Porthouse summer theatre.  I haven't been back in a while, so I don't know if they still do this, but in my time there a great mass of the more minor players would be expected to learn songs and devise routines to entertain the audience who came early to enjoy a picnic dinner on the green between the parking lot and the stage.  This in many ways was my first introduction to variety performance, and at the time I had absolutely no idea that variety would play such a significant role in my creative development as an adult.  Just about all of my busking, clowning, circus and self-generated work stems in some way from that first experience - a connection I only recognized just now, while writing.  So naturally I was thrilled when Heather suggested that for this year's Portal Project initiative with the theatre students of Marywood University we divide the group of nearly 30 into some working on the commedia dell'arte scenario, and others devising a greenshow.

I've written in the past (see 9/2/08 & 8/28/07) about my experiences teaching this week-long commedia dell'arte intensive.  Last year, regrettably, it followed too hard and fast on our time in Italy and I had to give it a pass in favor of maintaining my day job (yes - irony is ironic).  I was eager to return this year, and the whole thing felt fresh to me once again, particularly in regard to all the new faces I would be meeting.  I confess I was a little apprehensive about the loss of many graduates who started out with us back in 2007, but that anxiety proved entirely unfounded - somewhere between my and Heather's greater experience and deeper understanding, and the students' willingness to focus and commit to the work we found the experience to be one of our most efficient and successful.  Safe to say, too, that everyone had a lot of fun.

The key to this success, I think, was in getting to working directly on the scenario sooner.  In the past we spent more days on general training on improvisation, stylistic elements and concept, not arriving at a scenario until the Friday or sometimes even the Saturday before a Monday performance.  This time I found the team problem-solving involved in working from a scenario does a lot of the training for us, creating situations and challenges that end up being far more interesting (not to mention well-motivated) than anything we can prepare them for in hypothetical exercises.  It was a near-perfect balance, spending a couple of days on character and improvisation, one on physical lazzi (could have used a bit more time there, I confess) and then three-or-so hours to memorize the scenario and ten more to develop and refine it.  We came out strong, with the perfect amount of fear, I think.

In a sense, the real challenge we set for ourselves this year was the greenshow, rather than the scenario.  Heather was responsible for both the challenge and the success of that portion of the endeavor.  She has an impressive talent for not just randomly applying a routine to performers, but recognizing in them a possibility for a routine already lying in wait within their personalities or styles.  This is part of what makes her such a brilliant clown, her ability to read people (including herself) and comprehend unspoken personae.  Our greenshow ended up consisting of a couple of clownish acts, a group of acrobats, a group of musicians, a tie-in relationship with the conclusion of the scenario (Heather's brilliance again) and all of it encircled by an MC character who also provided a prologue to the scenario.  The greenshow established the space, warmed up the crowd and was integrated into the scenario by way of concept and a couple of character references.

All the performers were amazing, and I believe everyone grew a little through the process.  They had two shows, at noon and 2:00 respectively.  The first was pretty sparsely attended and had some of the earmarks of the struggle to discover that last scene member: the audience.  They did well enough, though, and by the end of the first show they had definitely learned a lot about what was going to work.  They won the audience they had over, in spite of the dialogue being nigh inaudible over some terribly insistent generic "Italian music" blaring from the nearby clocktower, and after some lunch we regrouped at the theatre for our second run.  We gave them some advice for the second show, but I don't think they needed it.  In the second show, the audience was far more substantial, the greenshow-ers took bigger risks and the scenario-ists (is SO a word) made fuller, clearer physical choices.  We all still had to contend with blaring, generic music, but they compensated beautifully and really knocked it out of the park.

I had a tremendous time working with this group again, and it fortifies my desire to teach more often.  These were, to be frank, practically ideal circumstances (apart from the lateness of the hours).  It's exceptional when one gets the chance to work with a fellow ensemble member as a co-teacher, and have as students a group so focused on strengthening their sense of ensemble and overall improvement.  Two incidents in particular however stood out for me toward the end of this week, neither of which had anything directly to do with these circumstances.  They had to do with something larger.

The first of these was introducing the students to an idea we at Zuppa have used from our very first show: the musical run. In this style of run, we play an ever-changing mix of music during a run of the scenario involving no speaking.  The players thereby run through a very complex sequence of action using only their bodies to communicate that progress, plus they must continually listen to whatever music happens to be playing as they enter and synchronize their tempo, mood and choices to it.  It's inordinately helpful, but exhausting and can be a difficult concept to grasp.  Frustration is easy to find here.  Yet, just before their first showing, the players took to quite naturally, and seemed to really enjoy it.  This seeming was later proven for me when we were between the two shows, all rather full of food and feeling the week behind us, and I gave them the option of resting or doing another musical run.  They enthusiastically leaped into that second musical run, and came out of it grinning like mad.

The second was a more abstract result, and the result of another brilliant idea from Heather.  That is, a way to warm both the scenario people and the greenshow folks up together.  Eccolo:

The Spectacular Scrantonian Spectacular! : A Spectacular Summary

Well, we did it. It may not be topping the charts anymore, but I and some generous friends of mine, we put on a show; a variety show; a "spectacular." On a personal level, it was a really nice adventure for me. I got to produce something I want to see more of in the world, and though it was really my first time producing something completely solo, I got to experience that anxiety (comparable, frankly, only to the anxiety I felt in the week leading up to my wedding) in a familiar environment at ETC. In fact, this was sort of my Zuppa show for the year, as Zuppa del Giorno is on an indefinite hiatus from our show-making. Maybe that explains the anxiety -- I was squeezing two months' worth into about two days.

The greatest disappointment of the show was really a fairly insubstantial, and familiar, one. That is, the audience turn-out and (presumably) corresponding community awareness. I worked quite hard at getting that part of it supported and improved from the theatre's usual struggles yet, given the fact that the event was only $5 with an open bar, have to concede defeat. This short-fall is one thing when you know you're doing something experimental or otherwise unpopular, and much the same thing when the product turns out below expectations for one reason or another. Neither was the case here, though.

My performers...were...AWESOME. Seriously. You should have been there. AWESOME. I can admit to some bias, but really, I am quite cynical when it comes to productions of which I'm a part; especially when I have some creative control beyond the actor's usual lot. I'm here to tell you that unless you were one of the 30 or so members of the audience, you missed out. Fortunately, I'm here to sum it up for you a bit. I may post video in the coming weeks, too, with the performers' permission. In the meantime, some pithy-tude and photography, the latter taken largely by Ms. Alicia Grega-Pikul.

The real process began with the arrival of the performers around 2:00 the day of the show. That gave us approximately four-and-a-half hours in which to look at what we had, what we needed, and string it all together into a pleasing shape. Billy Rogan and I -- with a little very helpful directorial assistance from Heather Stuart -- spent some small time Sunday figuring out the framework that we as MCs would use, but apart from that it was done on the day. Kate Chadwick, Richard and Sheridan Grunn, Patrick Lacey, Billy and I in the room, figuring it all out. The experience was especially solitary because neither the administrator of the second-stage program nor the technical director of the theatre were in town. This made for a kind of hectic weekend of prep for yours truly, but was also truly nice when we nervous jumpers-in (of the head-first variety) got down to brass tacks. Six of us in a space, working. It would have been a mess if I had performers who were especially insecure or needy. Such was not the case. So as people showed me their pieces, other people searched for props, and still others went about experimenting with linking their performances with other folks. And by 6:30, we knew what we were about.

That's a total lie, but not knowing exactly what we were about was part of the idea in the first place. So...

There were pre- and post-show slideshows during the mingling and sipping. The pre-show one was made entirely of sketches of people's visions of the future as they imagined it between 1890 and 1920, which I loved having projected across a shredded ballroom from the 1800s. When we got underway, I said a few introductory words about Scranton and vaudeville, and then introduced Billy, who was late due to mingling with the crowd. Billy and I opened the show by establishing our relationship as guys who had different ideas of wanting the show to be good -- me uptight, he relaxed, which segued nicely into his playing one of his songs to open. We set Billy up so he could move about, but had a nice old easy chair stage left for home base. This worked really nicely, so that he belonged on stage, but didn't have to distract from the more independent performances. Billy's a very versatile and charismatic performer, as both musician and comedian, and I owe a tremendous amount of the show's function to his presence. In fact, you really should be listening to his music while you read this, just for mood's sake.

Hard on the heels of Billy's lyrical opening came Richard's Urbano's Kitchen, in which a rather mad-looking Italian chef unleashes dish after dish upon an unsuspecting restaurant. Richard has the kind of dash that can pull this kind of act off, and that's a rare quality. Essentially, the act consists of him excitedly throwing trash on the audience in the form of yarn spaghetti, paper farfalle and plastic-bag salad. Richard has a way of doing this that compromises none of the anarchic spirit, yet feels somehow inviting, and he had the perfect counterpart in his Vincenzo, a slow-moving old man played by his four-foot son Sheridan. He and Billy were really a one-two punch at the top, relaxing and then getting the audience laughing in turns.

After that it was more music, this time in the form of an a capella performance from Kate. She took the stage gently after a brief introduction from me, and explained her Irish roots before proceeding to sing a favorite Irish folk song of her grandmother's. Kate has a beautiful, strong and well-trained voice, so we can be forgiven for not immediately recognizing Beyonce's Grammy-winning Single Ladies. As this pop song rolled out in a grandly nostalgic, traditional style, the audience went to stitches. What was really funny was that it took awhile to get through this pop song in that style, which -- rather than seeming to run long -- made the song and our appreciation of it only feel funnier and funnier. And did Kate crack a single ironic smile? She did not.

After that it was Patrick's turn to take the stage, and Patrick had some very cool things up his sleeve. I set up one of his props -- a kind of glowing crystal ball -- and bantered a bit with Billy as he prepared to play the music he and Patrick had put together just hour before. As he played eerie electric wobbles and loops and...uh...sworls (technical musical term) Patrick emerged from far stage right curtains as an impossibly tall fortune-teller. This was a new mask, and a new piece, and it was thrilling to watch Patrick debut it. The audience was geared up for more comedy, which I think actually made some of them nervous as this seven-foot woman floated to the crystal ball. She looked into it briefly, then began to convulse and collapse, until she was just a heap of fabric on the floor. Then the fabric began to twitch and convulse. Billy's music ceased, and out from under the fabric emerged a transformed creature (a cat, though debate rages on). The audience loved this piece as Patrick did something he does brilliantly, and the crystal ball becomes a cat toy as the piece transforms into something utterly playful. And, for this one, there's already video.

The piece segued directly into one of Billy's songs, a playful number called Perambulate, and after that, it was up to me and Billy to clear the stage. I came out on my stilts to ham it up for a bit and remove the prop while Billy removed the abandoned costume, and then Ms. Kate Chadwick returned, sans introduction (I think; Kate, check my miserable memory) carrying her singin' stool. The stool was a ruse, though. Billy took a seat in his easy chair as she set foot on the dance floor, setting off a click from her heels. My goodness! Tap shoes! How did they get on there? Kate does a little tapping, much to the audience's delight, and then Billy mocks her a bit by thumping out rhythms on his guitar. They get into a comic duel, which gives way into Billy's Ravi Shankar, a very energetic, rhythmic song of his with thumps and ticks that accelerate throughout. They perform a duet. THEY MET THAT AFTERNOON, AND THAT NIGHT, THEY DID A TAP'N'GUITAR DUET. I, for the record, have never, ever done anything to be so lucky as to have these people performing on my program.

Patrick then performed his masked movement piece, Emro Farm, a moving sort of dance that tells the story of a woman living on a farm -- a single place -- for her entire life. It's hard to explain this piece with words, but it's easy to describe the effect it had in the context of the evening. Patrick really grounded the whole affair with his contributions, lending it a chance to be more than just a "spectacular," allowing it to have moments of meaning and reflection that I for one am enormously grateful. Emro Farm is repetitive movement set to beautiful, occasionally melancholy, music, and the final repetition ends in silence. Due entirely to my mismanagement of rehearsal time (all four hours of it), Patrick was interrupted a bit early in this final silent repetition. I think it still worked, however. I was very fond of the transition we found. Sheridan's character, Vincenzo, enters upstage at his glacial pace, stands center and opens up one of the props for the final act: a music box. This gentle interruption of the silence and gravity of Emro Farm was really quite wonderful, and allowed Patrick's character to leave the stage in character, which was essential to the mood he had created.

The last act of the evening ended us on a playful high note, as once again Rich took the stage as Urbano. This time, it was Urbano's Circus, a rollicking puppet show of sorts that mirrored the spirit and content of the whole evening's variety nicely. With his (t)rusty assistant, Urbano wheels out a grocery cart full of eccentric puppet performers who leap (are thrown) through the air, run about (remotely controlled) on the ground and generally act up in their particular routine. It involved audience participation, gleeful imagination and of course Rich's persnickety, anarchic orchestration. He had a wonderful gimmick for it, too, in which Vincenzo would at his command open different electronic greeting cards in front of a microphone for theme music. Flight of the Valkyries never sounded so apt. It wrapped up with an unwrapped "fin" sign -- perfect punctuation on which to end the show and lead us into our curtain call.

We said goodbye, I on my stilts, and I took off my hat as I bowed, unleashing a torrent of ping-pong and bouncy balls on the unsuspecting audience and performers. Billy played a new composition on which he's working, and the evening segued into chat and another slide show, this one of black-and-white photos of strange human endeavors. The balls may have been a slight misstep on my part, as a certain segment of the audience decided to begin a bit of a war with them (resulting of course in my getting absolutely BEANED in the temple by a bouncy ball) but the mood seemed entirely jovial and it was nice to have everyone lingering afterward -- a sure sign of a job well done, as far as I'm concerned.

Attendance expectations aside and owing nearly entirely to my performers, I feel it was a resounding success. I hope the participants feel the same. Probably the most resounding lesson I take away from the experience is that when producing this kind of show, the performers are all -- get good ones, and then make them as absolutely supported as possible, on stage and off. They will be amazing. Spectacular, one could say....