Existential Dread

On Sunday I had a previously-taken-for-granted treat: a day hanging out with Sister Virginia. It was Pride Day, but we didn't have terribly exciting plans. Just a little browsing around SoHo, visiting old haunts and generally enjoying one another's company. It was sweltering day, humid as it gets up here in NYC, and we were deep into conversation as we got on the subway platform at my stop, Astoria Boulevard. Can't recall what we were discussing. What I can recall, is being insistently spoken to by a stranger. You know that feeling, when you've recognized somebody wants somebody else's attention, but of course it couldn't be you, because you don't just

run into people

, but then - oh, wait - yes. Yes, that person is talking to you. And what they're saying, is this:

"Excuse me. Excuse me. Woman in the orange? Yes, I just want you both to know that I don't appreciate you following me."
"I don't appreciate you following me onto the subway platform."

And she marches past us, down to the far end of the platform.

So: Fine. Another New York crazy person. True, she didn't exactly bear the marks of the typical NYC loon -- she was very clean, small, well-dressed (as though for yoga or the park) -- but she did have that sheen to her glare that suggested a certain intensely unkempt morale. So: All right then. Jenny and I continue our conversation, veering only momentarily into "that was odd" territory.

And then, a few minutes later, our sudden enemy crosses back the other way.

"I guess you must be Team Shawna, but I'm Team Natalie, and you better stop bothering me." (Ed. - I can't remember what she said verbatim, but I'm pretty sure the name Shawna was mentioned.)
"I'm sorry. We don't know what you're talking about."

And she was gone again, this time the other way up the platform. So now I'm keeping a bit of an eye on her, because I'm fascinated, and she's got my fight-or-flight instinct up. I'm suddenly aware - for no particular reason - that we're on a platform suspended twenty-five feet over traffic and surrounded on either side by electrified metal rails. But, this woman walks on up in the other direction, beyond the bench and entrance stairwell at the middle of the platform, to where I can no longer see her. Me: "That is so strange." Jenny: "I just figure - crazy people, New York." And we try to move on in the conversation, but I have to admit that I'm now utterly puzzled and intrigued and somewhat scared. Chalk it up to reading too much Kafka and Pirandello. But the train comes, and there's no more sign of our little tormentor, so we gratefully garnish ourselves with air conditioning and grab a seat.

From there our conversation continues into more personal, important stuff than it had been, and I get engrossed enough to let go of trying to wrap my head around what is apparently the most dire "Team _______" conflict since


. The benches on the N train run along either wall, and I'm turned facing the direction in which the train is running so I can talk to Jenny on that side. It's a fairly crowded train, but not jam-packed as yet. We proceed a few stops, nearing the tunnel that swoops us underground and into Manhattan, and I happen to turn to my left for a moment.

And there she is again. Staring daggers. In our car, not five feet from us. She was not, to be perfectly clear, NOT in our car to begin with. She was not, as far as I can tell, in fact able to monitor us from where she had been positioned on the platform when the train arrived. No, the woman who was accusing us of


her had seemingly traversed moving train cars to find the one in which we sat.

All this I realized as I instantaneously swirled back into Jenny's eye contact, not wanting to give Ms. Antagonist any (further?) reason to suspect we were passive-aggressively pursuing her whereabouts. She momentarily thereafter strode past us on down the car. I'm not even sure Jenny noticed she was ever there. And I never saw her again, for the rest of the day.

But I sure as hell kept


for her.

How could I not? I was half-convinced that I would run into her again, totally randomly, thereby inadvertently providing her with the final evidence she needed in order to prove her theory of our antagonism. I even - of course, though I tried to resist it - wondered if she might not be following us. That is to say, I resisted this thought because it would essentially mean that she had successfully transmitted her disease to me, the germs of her paranoia turned airborne and plague-like. The terrible likelihood is that I will indeed see our mysterious interloper again soon. She probably lives off the same subway stop as me, and will mistake Megan for Jenny some coincidental day and presume the whole espionage has begun all over again. To be totally frank . . . she didn't look unfamiliar. Maybe it was just the openness of her naked hostility, but I thought, maybe, I knew her somehow.

Now look: I'm not peering continuously over my shoulder or anything (not


, anyway) and I don't think there was anything profound to this woman's mistake. Odds are that she is simply going through some tough stuff in her life about now, and that has made her paranoid and/or quasi-psychotic. In fact, I feel bad about not being able to convince her that we at least were not out to get her. HOWEVER: Holy crap. Was I about to be in a




movie? Was I targeted for some

Improv Everywhere

prank, that just had yet to get joyous and un-terrifying? Was it performance art and, if so, who would think Pride Day a good day to have such a thing noticed?

All this has given me an idea that I don't think I'll get around to any time soon, so I'm putting out there for you, The World, to do with as you please. Friend Nat is frighteningly good - pun intended - at creating a sense of dread on stage, and his efforts at such effects along with some of my more hypothetical conversations with other friends about theatrical horror have me thinking that this might be a good, simple scenario for really creeping out an audience. The trouble as I see it with most staged "horror" is that it too-easily falls into a similar trap as many stage comedies do. That is, the burden of catharsis is often placed upon effects, or gags, rather than on human behavior. This results in camp, which has its place, but often doesn't


its place. It can creep in anywhere, like the annoying neighbor finding your dinner party. Before you know it, it's arguing politics and complaining about the wine and all your guests feel cheapened, like some terrible, overwrought and distended simile.

So: my behavior-based scary stage-play scenario thing: I imagine it starting with a romantic couple (A & B) meeting somewhere public, possibly a restaurant. One of them (B) is late, and by the time he or she gets there, they find their significant other (A) rattled by something. A explains that they just had the weirdest series of "coincidences" (see above) with this stranger. B listens, tries to calm down A, and gradually A relaxes to the point of laughing at him or herself a bit. B excuses him or herself to use the restroom, and as A sits there, he or she is approached by someone (C). Though seemingly relaxed, A shouts at the introduction of C: a waiter. A apologizes, making meaningless excuses, orders something, etc., and C leaves. B returns and A doesn't share what just happened. A gets a call he or she has to take, and steps away to take it. As B sits there, he or she is approached by someone he or she knows somewhat (i.e., though work - D) and D takes a seat. Of course, on A's return he or she recognizes D as his or her antagonist, and it all goes quietly haywire.

It's a sketch of a beginning (with lots of sex-generic alphabetical confusion, for which: you're welcome) but from there I see it getting more and more tense and scary, no idea of an ending yet. It starts out as a Pirandello-esque conflict between A and D, with B as something of a helpless arbiter with some interest in reaching a resolution, and C occasionally interjecting to keep the conflict from exploding into the public space. Which is to say, A and D have completely irreconcilable stories about their relationship that they each feel a growing need to convince B of. Cell phone usage should figure prominently, so long as it doesn't start to irritate; I imagine texting under the table, faking calls, etc. Personal revelations should be used


, so it doesn't become all about what the audience doesn't know about their respective and interrelated pasts. That having been said, there should certainly be one or two revelatory twists, one preferably just prior to the act break. And in Act II...well...

In Act II, all are in a private space, and some time has passed. I'm imagining that our sympathies lie largely with A in Act I, and in Act II we begin to question that emotion, possibly because A forced one or more of them into this new, private space (his/her storage space?). Even if that didn't happen, A certainly turns cruel in his or her attempts to extricate him or herself from the conflict. Possibly physically cruel. Relationships change drastically, the stakes continue to mount, until it ends in a seemingly hopeful way. Seemingly, because there's also some tag moment at the very end, some bit of information that sets the whole conclusion into a teetering sense of doubt. That's what the audience leaves with: a sense of profound uncertainty.

There you go. Write me a play, The World, as close or as far from this scenario as you are so inspired. But please, The World, one request? Whichever of you was that antagonistic yogi -- stay away from me. Thanks bunches! Hugs!!!

Comedy in Truth

I was walking home from a dinner with Friend Alison the other night when she started recounting stories of various klutzy moments in her life. In particular, she mentioned a time that she was walking down the street and walked directly into a wall so hard and unexpectedly that she 1) fell right on her butt with 2) legs splayed and 3) skirt up over her head. I, of course, thought this was classically hilarious, and suggested we should get her a camera crew and a YouTube channel, just in case it happens again. She balked at this notion, and we moved on to stories of when we have tripped and fallen UP stairs . . . but I think I can bring her around.

Alison (and I) fall, unexpectedy and dramatically. I own a cat who humps himself to sleep at night. Wife Megan's occasional, inadvertent experiments with grammar. The Internet. These are all funny things--comedy--and all happen without any prompting or effort. In life, comedy is easy and plentiful. In acting, we can make it very difficult for ourselves.

It's a kind of magic trick, a well-executed comic bit, requiring a certain sense of dramatic flare and sleight-of-hand (or foot, or butt, etc.). Except in this trick, the performer is fooled almost as much as the audience. When I teach pratfalls, I regurgitate a good bit of advice that is so timeless, I can't begin to remember who first told me of it. The best way to execute a convincing trip, is to actually trip. You simply trail your back foot over your front heel as it's taking a step forward, so you then have to catch yourself on the other side of that step. That's not the trick, however: anybody can do that. No, the trick is in believing that there is no possible way you will trip, even as you set yourself up for it. That's what makes it spontaneous, and that's what allows everyone to believe the real payoff: your reaction to just having tripped.

Way back in the day, now (we're talking 2001, people), I played a broadly comic character in a little original production called

The Center of Gravity.

Moe Franko was the owner of a gas station, a sort of arrogantly naive fellow who was pretty crass 'cuz he just didn't learn any better. (I grew a mustache for the role; me + mustache = comedy.) At any rate, my hands-down best laugh of the show was one in which a strikingly attractive young woman visits the gas station and is introduced to my character. It's already been established that I'm freshly returned from using the facilities, and when we shake hands, she makes a face, to which I reply, "Oh don't worry, it's just water. It's not urine or anything." Their handshake disengaged, Moe turns away, and his face registers every little realization of how awful the thing he's just said is and, by extension, how awful he probably is. It got a laugh, every single time.

Which can totally and utterly ruin a joke. Anticipation is one of the worst sabotage factors of a good gag, and it applies both to the performer and the audience member. I have botched a perfectly good gag innumerable times through this very error. So why didn't it ever take down the water/urine gag? Well, I was quite young and the woman playing the interloper


exotically attractive, and I had a mustache (no, you don't get a photo). So that covered a lot of the sincerity bases in terms of the given circumstances -- I really did feel a little excited, and awful, and embarrassed. Perhaps more importantly, the line felt like something I might say, minus the Texan twang, of course.

I'm thinking about this because I just signed on to act in

an original comedy performing in June

. The role is probably going to require me to stretch my comic imagination, by the prospect of which I'm both excited, and slightly intimidated. It's good to remember that, ultimately, being real is what makes things really funny. I like this about comedy, that it is served best by truth and belief. Sure: It's all very rehearsed, and calculated, like any bit of good theatre. But all of that is for naught if we can't believe in it in the moment. The impact isn't what's funny; it's the way we deal with it afterward. Not the action, but the reaction, and the best reactions come from that very moment, and no other place.

Theatre Is Dead

We like to have fun here at The Aviary, as verbose and pretentious as we can sometimes be. (For example: Referring to ourselves in the collective third person.) Theatre, after all, is all about the play, and so it would be contradictory to approach writing about it without a certain sense of playfulness. Occasionally, however, we have to address serious issues the severity of which no amount of levity can affect. In that this 'blog is about a personal journey as much as it is about larger issues of a fulfilling life and artful journeys, naturally some of these more-serious topics are going to cut pretty close to the bone, and come up here as a result of being personally important to me rather than due to timely relevance or any particular external instigation. In this case, however, the issue is both personal and timely.

The theatre is in serious danger of being killed off. I'm not leaning on hyperbole by phrasing it in this way -- I very specifically mean to suggest a murder. It's a killing by little pieces, a sloughing-off of life as if by erosion, and so it is insidious in the extreme. An alternative form of entertainment is taking over the theatre's former place in our lives, and we may not even appreciate the threat, simply because we are so entertained by it. This form of entertainment is characterized by flashy effects, easy laughs, baser instincts and extremely brief demands on our collective attention span. Moreover, as impossible as it may seem, it is spreading rapidly in popularity by merit of its availability and relative lack of expense, both to produce and to enjoy. There is no greater threat to legitimate theatre, nor has there ever been or likely will be again if we don't take a stand against it in a timely manner.

The new entertainment I refer to is, of course: "The Vaudeville."

Naturally, I know you will react dismissively to this assessment, but I beg of you to hear me out. I, too, rejected the premise when initially it came to me. Though it may seem absurd in the extreme to regard this cheap, new-fangled idiom as any kind of threat to the grandeur and history of the theatre, I have noted several indications of late which suggest that The Vaudeville is not only encroaching upon the theatre's domain, but that it threatens to wholly and utterly usurp said domicile. You will argue against it, naturally. I can not hold this against you. But forgive me whilst I demount any and all of your protests:

  • The theatre has stood as a standard of verisimilitude for too long to be torn asunder by the actions of gag men. While patently true in its own sense, this argument is actually irrelevant to the particular threat at hand. Of course The Vaudeville can never hope to approach the sheer reality of a truly produced theatrical endeavor; no amount of colloquialism can hope to make up for the utter lack of design and artistry. However, dear friends, note that the equation has reversed in the case of The Vaudeville. It does not seek to imitate life, because life is imitating it.Why, just the other day I approached a fellow in the hopes of acquiring a newspaper, to which request he replied, "Hang it for a tick, guy. My Bob's ah'summin'." Needless to say, I did not remain to inquire who or what constituted this man's "Bob," or in what state of which it could be said to be "ah'summin'." No, recognizing the idiomatic language of the small stage, I departed in terror of this Vaudeville language, or "VAUL-speak."
  • The Vaudeville, unlike the theatre, does not elevate our beings; in fact, it degrades us with its total lack of style or substance. Again, Dear Reader, I must agree. And yet again, I must with great regret dissuade you of conventional priorities. That is to say -- and I say so with tremendous apology and concern -- the larger audience may not be interested in having their beings elevated. I KNOW, I know: It is an horrifying concept. Yet all my observances of late suggest that people seem to want their entertainment to, above all else, entertain them. This The Vaudeville does exceedingly well, albeit with prattling mechanics and base, visceral humor. Of course we all respect and admire the astonishing word-play of Mr. Shakespeare, particularly when a seasoned actor may truly take his time over each, and every, word . . . but how can we not but laugh when any fool falls to his bumpkin? It is base, as I say, reflexive, even instinctive, but there can be no denying its immediate effect. Laughter-as-opiate can only draw, however gradually, more and more addicts from our ranks of thespian-enthusiasts down to the cellar of The Vaudeville.
  • But the theatre is an event, a special and discriminating experience that must be planned for, researched, sacrificed for, and ultimately - we may occasionally hope - baffles our expectation! Reader: I know, and I empathize utterly with your devotion. But kindly brace yourself for this next: A growing number of people are valuing convenience. Convenience! It's true: there is nothing so wonderful as the sheer effort involved in attaining the hard-earned income for a ticket to the theatre, attempting to attain that ticket, and thereupon spending more money and time on the ceremony surrounding a trip out to the theatre. Can anything afford greater satisfaction than this? Of course not! The idea is pure tomfoolery! Yet imagine for a moment, if you will, a whole neighborhood of people who are never afforded the opportunity to experience this reward. And why? Because just down the block is a tiny space that costs not two bits to enter, and wherein food and drink are all served amidst a rabble of conversation and entertainment. Terrifying, isn't it? Just. Down. The block. Not two bits, and anyone can not only attend, but contributeto the evening's experience.

Chin up, my friends. We must show no fear in the face of this threat, and stand confident in the continued importance--nay, necessity!--of the theatre. But a threat this The Vaudeville is, and will continue to be, unless we prove our superiority. It is not enough, comrades, to be resolute yet docile in our stuffed-velvet seats. We must rise up, and resist the new order and its slavish devotion to progress with our greatest weapons: Consistency and Ostentation. It is only by relentlessly doing things specifically and exactly the way they have always been done that we can hope to overcome this entertaining, inexpensive and inclusive so-called "theatre." We can do it, my friends. Onward, my histrionic soldiers, onward...


Happy 1st o' April, one and all!


Alternating Realities

Warning: I will be spoiling the new Star Trek movie for you. If you haven't seen it and give a tootin' holler, go read



So, apparently, everything we've ever been taught by the cinema about extra-normal time travel is wrong. Go figure. I can't say how we can be wrong about something that at this time exists purely in our imaginations, but if such a blunder is possible, I'm sure Hollywood can find seventeen ways to achieve it in but one script session. It would seem that paradoxes, changing the past and alternate time lines, as such, aren't. I'm certainly crushed. There goes one of Hollywood's greatest plot crutches. I'm sure we'll never, ever have another story that ever uses time travel to the screenwriters' advantage ever again ever.

Unless, of course, someone goes back in time and changes that.

In the new

Star Trek

, the world of the 60s television show is effectively re-imagined, with lots of lens glare and "hand-held" close-ups. I am told the kids are calling this a "reboot" and, indeed, I noticed they put new boots on the Federation uniforms. This reboot is explained, justified, and otherwise meant to be made more palatable by way of time-travel incidences and alternate realities. (Alternate time lines = bogus. Parallel universes = apparently not ruled out just yet.) My biggest complaint about the movie -- which I enjoyed, by the way -- was how adamantly they established and reinforced this argument for making fresh new choices about Star Trek backstory. Just under the scene-after-scene of repetitive expository dialogue I could detect the seismic effects of so many screenwriters giving themselves pats on their backs. Thank you. Yes. I get it. The future is now, conveniently, mostly, unwritten.

It did, however, get me thinking about alternate realities. It's not inconceivable to

much smarter

people than me that there are multiple universes in which an incredible variation of common elements occur. We tend to be pretty narrow in our conception of such alternate dimensions, imagining them largely as revolving around us and our personal choices in life. But who knows? If the alternate realities are as infinite as we believe space and time to be, anything we can conceive of might occupy one or several. A moss universe. A universe in which the motions of the planets are determined by the game mechanics of backgammon. If nothing else, the notion of alternate realities is a very decent metaphor for, or illustration of, the human imagination.

Viewed through the filter of my comicbook-ridden mind, the new film makes Kirk our Batman, Spock our Superman. Kirk is the vigilante anti-hero, Spock the alien who wants more than anything to do right (and be accepted), and now both are motivated by parental demise. There even seemed to be an aggressive (in more ways than one) sub-theme of Kirk getting his ass handed to him in fights. These interpretations are not too far from the originals, so I took them in stride and tried not to snigger derisively. (Aw man, they blew up Krypt- . . . I mean, Vulcan . . ..) Uhura is way more bad-ass-er, which they tried really hard to make less-than-obligatory, and then they made her Spock's love interest, thereby reinforcing what Hollywood considers its biggest obligation to its audience: a love story. McCoy's a divorcee drunk, thank you Spielberg, Chekov is adorable, Sulu is exactly who you'd want in a bar fight, and Scottie -- well, Simon Pegg I love you and you can do nothing wrong not even

Run, Fatboy, Run


It's the characters that struck me and stuck with me, you understand. I suppose they were the reason I was there, to see a different troupe tackle archetypes, strap on the classic masks and have a whirl. This can be a recipe for disaster, and this wasn't a disaster, not by a long shot. It's just that the actors came across as more imaginative than the writers, which, keeping with a commedia dell'arte metaphor, is fairly apt. But it would have been nice to have both; maybe next time, or in an alternate parallel universe, somewhere/when/which. Which brings me back around to how we think of these alternate lives we could have had, or are having, in some-dimension else.

It's popular to opine that if we had it all to do over again, we wouldn't change a thing. Even when we think about changing something, many of us realize that we sort of like who we are -- the only "who" we know -- and we wouldn't be said "who" without the "what" we were given, when it was given. Or perhaps taken, depending upon your philosophy and/or theology. At any rate, the experience of our age just allows the slightest logical space to daydream about the past, and what-if scenarios. "What-if," I'm not the first to say, is an essential element in all aspects of acting. It's that logical crack that lets a little imaginative fresh air and warm light into the room. As

Friend Melissa

quotes Leonard Cohen, "There is a crack, a crack, in everything - that's how the light gets in...." There are people we have been, as we've grown, who in retrospect seem as foreign to us as strangers. Personally, I'm usually embarrassed by my former incarnations; but there are a few of me that I still love, that I'll always love, and will never quite be again.

Fortunately, there are no paradoxes, so I can visit with those guys any time I want, and the universe(s) is safe from implosion.

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.