Dreamscapes & the Common Journey

A little while back, I found myself -- rather through the invention of necessity -- exploring the surreal in

a clown performance I created and performed

. Lately I've been wondering if that experience might have opened up a new avenue or two in my creativity, as I fantasize about more and more bizarre images on the stage of my mind. This is new-found. You could always describe me as a bit weird, but outright "surreality" has never been a thing I've been interested in creating, much less for the sake of itself. I love the absurd, the sublime, and am just as psyched for the opening of

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

as the next guy, but using it in theatre is a terribly delicate balance. And I have been burned, many, many times before, my friends.

And yet. Yet I find myself dreaming of some particular world that's more a dreamscape than anything specific to history or the here-and-now. It's influenced by a lot of things, and may prove easily categorical, but for now it seems to me to be unique. This is not my idiom, and so I feel a little at-sea. Delighted, too, of course; otherwise why would I be returning to it again and again? I'm challenged by it. I keep looking for a story in its midst, something on which to hang my hat. Surreal or no, I can't bring myself to stick with something creatively unless I'm somehow meeting an audience halfway. So, you know: no worries there, O my vasty Audience.

The surreal or fantastic really is just an idiom, not a goal or even a path. It's become a bit elusive in recent years, as fiction in every genre has accepted everything from "science fiction" to "magical realism" into its official ranks. Things that used to be sublime are given categories and named. And I love those domesticated notions, don't get me wrong. It just makes it a bit trickier to make something to a surreal effect.

The trick, I think to making a successful yet surreal bit of art is to aim not for the "surreality." Rather, aim for a pure connection with the audience. Maybe there are glowing eyeballs replacing your old ones (to take an example from my little piece) and maybe that


really interesting to think about in an allegorical way, but what the audience is there for is a connection that allows them to identify with you and be reminded of themselves. So it's not about how cool glowing eyes are, but how they make you feel and function, and what then you do with them. Actually, more immediately and most importantly, it's about your instinctive response to them. This I think might be my favorite part of Terry Gilliam's movies -- amidst all this strange, inexplicable stuff is a continuum of watching people


in specific ways, emotionally, instinctively. That's the scalpel of the sublime, after all. There's little-to-nothing of a cultural commonality, so you damn well better have a human one there.

How shocking that a born-and-raised U.U. like myself would find that situation appealing.

This is part of why the silent comedians were so successful within the idiom of the surreal. (And if you disagree with me about that, shut up, you're stupid.) The formula -- if you can call it that with all the pioneering they were so busy doing -- is of a low-status, accessible character getting into big trouble and struggling to win out over it all whilst incident after incident happens to her, and she has to react. We have to react, instinctively, no matter how little sense may apply to what we perceive. Heck: How much sense could it make to be watching projected shadow and light and be having a hysterical response to it? (Just as much sense as it did to have the same reaction to performers on a stage, or Plato's cave shadows, to answer my own rhetoric.) The supposedly surreal surrounds, and it's a fool's game to try and create it from nothingness. All it takes is a little nudge of people's perspective.

I may be nudging soon. We'll see. It's what my brain wants, anyway. Come along?

The Rest is Finally Silence



(dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, duh...)

That's the Also Sprach Zarathustra, made popular of course by the Kubrick film, 2001. I could have gone on with my rendition, but I figured it was so obvious that your mind would naturally fill in the crescendo progression. I know mine is; over, and over, and over.

Blueprints is done! Whoopsie Daisy is done! Let there be much rejoicing! Also: I'm sad to have it be over so quickly! Aww. Some days you just can't win for losing. Are we relieved that we pulled it off? Certainly. It also felt surprisingly good, this show. We found a synchronicity, a unity, to our varied performances that we didn't necessarily deserve, given how little time we actually worked in the same room together. It felt good. It felt right. Patrick, Melissa and I discussed how natural it was to work together (especially in the West End Theatre, site of so many of our other collaborations) and personally, I feel the unity we found had as much to do with our common creative origins back in 2001 as with anything else. Even Friend Kate was on hand for Friday night's performance, so we had a full Yurtian accord for the first time in years.

We had a problem with audience, due largely to the last-minute notice we were able to give, but miraculously I had very important people to me in the audience both nights. Friends Laura & Daryl attended Friday night, which was a little like introducing a new girlfriend to her possible in-laws. I've done lots of work with these two, particularly Daryl, but it's all been relatively straight (read: not circus-y nor expressionistic), scripted theatre. Introducing them to my silent-film clown, Lloyd, and some of the work (in-progress) I create for myself was slightly harrowing. Then again, they received it well enough, and perhaps my eccentricities are not quite as latent in daily life as I'd like to perceive them to be. Sunday, Michael and Joanna from Bond Street Theatre were in attendance, which was a complete surprise. It's nice to think that they followed up on last week's collaboration in that way, especially given how busy they both are. Afterwards we talked in some detail about my work, which was also nice, having two experienced clowners and physical-theatre types from whom to receive critique.

And what was there to critique? Plenty; but as an acknowledged work-in-progress, I thought my piece went off rather well. Most of all I was struck by how delicate a thing I'm trying to build via all this throwing myself about (oh man--pun above totally unintentional, I swear to you). Eliciting laughter through a character's confusion about, suffering from, and ultimate adaptation to a new environment (or a new perception of his environment) requires a careful journey, no matter how many pratfalls happen along the way. It requires an extremely intimate responsiveness to the audience, and I rather shut myself off from that possibility by giving myself restrictive music cues. The timing, in other words, was more dictated by the music than by the moment. If I could have, I would have changed the piece to take more time between our opening and closing performances, but I backed myself into a corner there with what I had orchestrated. That's a definite lesson for next time (right up there with making sure I have more than a week in which to prepare). Some of my other lessons included techniques and bits that definitely worked, however, and I can hardly wait to try them again.

What I ended up building was essentially an exploration of a couple of things:

  • The themes and tropes of silent film clowning I want to utilize in Red Signal, including transformation; and

  • The use of the surreal in relationship to comedy and our recent (current) history.

Lloyd starts out as an uptight, shut-off New Yorker, going about his daily business. The beautiful and surreal come at him in a couple of ways, through some "inanimate" objects (a flower and a hat) and a woman, all of which quickly break down his ability to adhere to his routines and function in the world. As a result, he has to start over with everything, soup-to-nuts. Also as a result of this, he's suddenly aware of the audience's presence, which terrifies him. Resisting this, he tries to flee, but finds himself trapped in the theatre. Recognizing this, he tries to at least shed the trappings of this new perception, and goes into violent attempts to be rid of the "sticky" hat that suddenly appeared on him. All fails, in spite of a (hopefully) overwhelming array of physical stratagems, until he sticks his head off-stage and tries to pry the hat off that way.

And this where it starts to get surreal (yes, the prior seems completely normal to me). When his head pops back out, it has a different hat on. Instead of a black fedora, it is a grey top hat, in turn wearing welding goggles on itself. Lloyd reaches up to investigate, then heads toward the off-stage to see about where the new hat came from. He doesn't get far, quickly retreating from a small, bright light that skitters across the floor toward him from out the wing. He retreats from it, to escape through the other wing, when a second comes shooting out. He crouches upstage, away from both, then remembers the goggles on his hat and lowers them over his eyes. Thus protected, he approaches one of the lights crouched, like a cat. He bats it around a few times, then pounces on it and puts it in his mouth. Then he pounces on the other and does the same, standing to reveal two glowing cheeks. He quickly starts to retch, however, and when the lights pop out, he palms them so they face the audience side-by-side and become eyes, his fingers the eyelids/lashes. They look around the audience, blink drowsily, wink at someone, etc.

Suddenly, one of the "eyes" goes berserk, flying about erratically. The other soon follows suit. They fly into proximity to one another and flip about there for a bit, then part to explore away from one another; now they are like mating fireflies. One suddenly hovers, focused on something in the darkness upstage. His/her mate eventually notices his/her absence, and flies to join him/her. They zoom upstage and illuminate the woman, and look her up and down. Then Lloyd places the lights as lenses in his goggles. The woman smiles at him, takes his hand, and together they leave the stage, his "eyes" lighting their way.

That's the short play what I made. I don't know how much of the reasoning (the abundant reasoning) behind it was clear to the audience, but given the exploration of the surreal I was aiming for I'm content to have people make of it what they will. I learned a lot about the exploration of transformation involved in my script for Red Signal, mainly that people get and appreciate it best when they have a little distance from it. This was made awfully evident for me in the moment of recognition of the audience. It served as a very clear indicator that his world had changed, but only worked for me when it was very deliberately comic. When I did it with very precise double-take timing, it elicited a laugh, and the audience felt enough sense of perspective to appreciate Lloyd's plight without feeling responsible for it. So, I believe, they felt safer to empathize and identify with him. If I did it at all naturalistically, it created, rather than released, tension for my audience. They identified with his fear too immediately, perhaps, and felt a need to rationalize his (their) existence rather than go along with the humor. The film, if I can ever get it made, needs to steer a careful course between observation and empathy.

As for the surreal . . . well, what can you say about it, really? It was fun to do, I can say that. Certainly people enjoy having their expectations boggled a bit. My question about it was whether or not something made today in the spirit of the old silent-film comedies ought to step up the surreal aspects a bit. I mean, the silent comedians were often surreal in their creations; Buster Keaton particularly, and he was practically revered by the Surrealists who plied their philosophies after him. Yet all that surrealism came from fairly rational sources, used in supposedly irrational ways. Do we as audience experience the same lifting-out of the mundane as the audiences of Chaplin's and Lloyd's (Harold) films? With all the strange twists and turns art and culture have taken in the past century, might a contemporary silent film benefit from reinterpreting its moments of "surreality" into more abrupt or inexplicable forms? In his time, Keaton's use of a bass as a boat and a violin as a paddle were absolutely surreal, but now I wonder that it might only be perceived as "clever." When we can hardly tell what's CGI anymore, our surrealists must take a somewhat harder tack. My hypothesis for this little experiment was that a contemporary audience must be confronted with something a little more abrupt, a little less sourced, if they're to experience any real sense of surrealism.

I think it worked. I think, actually, it really worked. In a sense, all I really did was to subvert the order of transformation for the objects a bit, so that their immediate given purpose may not have been as obvious. (Frankly, I don't really understand the intended purpose of those weird little light things.) The hat and goggles contradict one another's associations -- assuming you're not a big steampunk proponent. The lights immediately behave differently than one might expect -- an idea that came to be, by the way, from reading Sophie's World. All the action was a sort of fluctuation (or flirtation) around the intended use of the objects until finally the lights become Lloyd's actual eyes. (Incidentally: They definitely weren't made for that; I owe myself a little more work to make those little sums-of-riches stick in there.) The effect, I think, was to initially baffle, but coupling it with a laugh (the surprising change of hat off-stage) made it non-threatening. Lloyd was threatened, then playful, then interactive, which allowed the audience along for the ride a bit. It's hard to say just how good the result was, but I think I'm at least on my way to something really positive, unique and satisfying.

That's what it's all about, really. I'm excited to keep the momentum going, both on my own work and on collaborating with Patrick and Melissa (and maybe even Melissa's dancers, Zoe and Madeline -- they're Tony-the-Tiger grrreat). The holidays can be a real sluggish time for me in terms of my creative work. There's just so much else to do. But somewhere, in the back of my head, I'll be revisiting this harrowing and lovely experience. If you see me with a distant look on my face, I'm probably imagining how I might do a handstand whilst blinded by my own brightly shining eyes . . .

The Rest is (Yes, Still) Silence

{This entry is a continuation of 11/18/08 & 11/19/08...}

Well: Maybe not every single moment. Though I am having more waking ones than sleeping, at the moment. Yesterday was a lo-o-ong day (that's a three-syllable "long," right there) and I didn't get a whole lot of sleep last night. In addition, some of that time had to be devoted to the closing reading of Burning Leaves (Hi Tom), a play that, in my opinion, certainly deserves what devotion it gets (Hi Tom). I'm afraid my reading may have suffered a bit from my multi-tasking and the lateness of the hour. But more on that in a later entry (Bye Tom). For this sleep-deprived moment, it is all Whoopsie Daisy, all the time.

Yesterday was not full of time in which to play out my ideas. I could come-to-think-of-it have retreated to the back hall of my daily workplace for some tumbling and hat tricks but, then again, perhaps it's best I didn't. The copier's back there, and my discovery mid-handstand would have been inevitable. ("O hai.") So my rehearsal was limited to my imagination. This turned out to be a good thing. I'm always craving organization, and it isn't a compulsion that always benefits my creative pursuits, but it just so happened that at this stage of the game that was exactly what was needed. So after venting on yesterday's entry, I brought up the dreaded blank MSWord(TM) page and set about getting down the ideas from the prior days' rehearsal and them what have introduced themselves since.

It was, in its way, tremendously comforting. Too comforting? Perhaps. It is always easier to theorize a performance than to confidently prepare it for presentation. Still, I had the prior night's practice fresh in my body, and managed to keep my perspective about what I can and can not do. I even have tentative music to use. As soon as I got home Tuesday night I sat at my computer and sought out instrumental music that would support what I had thus far in my imagination. With these things in mind, I started to outline, chronologically, step-by-step, a scenario for my performance. It was a bit like working on my clown screenplay, in the best ways, and I was reminded of Buster Keaton's assertion that a good movie ought to be able to be expressed in a few sentences, to fit on a postcard. Simplicity's hard for me when I'm gathering ideas, but easier when it comes to writing it all down. One thing leads to the next, to the next, and to the next. Particularly in physical comedy.

By the end of my "work day" (HA!), I had a complete outline, subject of course to revision, and raced up to the venue to try and catch the final half-hour or so of Melissa's rehearsal. Even getting quite lucky with transfers, I just made it for thirty minutes' worth of time. I walked into the warmth in time to see about the final five minutes of Patrick running his contribution, and it set me at ease anew -- the space is so familiar, and here was my rehearsal partner from the night before filling it very naturally. We can do this. I came to realize, in fact, that a sense of community had already permeated the space; it just took me awhile to catch on to it. Suddenly I realized I was not, in fact, flying solo. We were all in this together. I can already tell that is going to make a world of difference from my experience with EAT's Laugh Out Loud last Spring.

My brief time in the space was spent enlisting the aid of one of Melissa's dancers (I have discovered I need another character), getting a new lay of the land and sketching through my show for Melissa's benefit. Patrick and Zoe Bowick were also around for that and, though I was really just outlining most of the sequence, some positive responses from them helped my self-esteem tremendously. Melissa, of course, is just the most supportive colleague ever. It's her way, and I think it explains why she works so durn much. What I didn't get done in the space was: a run, technical details or even really a reading on just how possible the piece I imagine will be. Here's a short list of things I must do tonight to be ready for tomorrow:

  • Buy, then rig to behave the way I need it to, an artificial daisy.
  • Collect string lights.
  • Finalize costume.
  • Rig props.
  • Finalize, download and burn a disc of all sound and music cues.
  • Practice all tricks and acro as much as possible (already using elevator rides for hat-trick practice).
  • Run entire sequence several times.
  • Stretch.
  • Stretch.
  • Stretch (some more).

All of this from (or in-and-around) the comfort of my apartment, 'cause I'm not shelling out for another rehearsal space the day before tech and, frankly, I need the comforts of home at this point. I sacrifice space needs for psychic ones. Fortunately for me, I have no other commitments tonight, and the place to myself for a few hours. Lots is still only going to be done in the space, during tech (the day of the performance), for me. Which is all to say: No longer eyeing oncoming traffic as a method of escape from this assignment; still experiencing pangs of sheer terror.

Keeps me sharp!

The Rest is (Remaining) Silence

{This entry is a continuation of 11/18/08...}

So Friend Patrick and I met and rehearsed for about three hours last night, after I got off of work. I'm not at all sure I can properly call what we did "rehearsal," at least insofar as my part of it went. Patrick is farther along on his process for the upcoming performances (starting Friday, starting FRIDAY) so we spent much of his time in the space doing character exploration and discussing possible adaptations to his "I propose a toast..." piece. It's really interesting stuff, actually. This is a piece I've seen him do a few times, and he's interested in getting it better adapted to the stage (it's normally performed at events, particularly ones involving drinks). This is almost exactly what I was aiming to do the last time I performed solo clown work (see 5/28/08). I don't want to write too much about Patrick's work here without his consent, of course. You'll just have to attend to see the results!

As to my process, last night it mostly consisted of me talking a blue streak whilst occasionally putting ideas on their feet (my feet?). In fact, it must have been a little like watching a five-year-old for dear Patrick. You know when a little kid pulls you into a room and says he's going to put on a show for you, and he has gathered some puppets, but you quickly begin to get the suspicion that not a whole lot of table sessions and research went into his so-called "play"? Yeah. Like that. For an hour. It was reminiscent of the process behind some of our more rushed Zuppa del Giorno shows, too. When we had to get a show ready in a hurry for our last trip to Italy (see 5/30/08), everything was done out-of-joint. We had a title first, we developed some acrobalance moves, we figured out our story, we returned to the acro and found we couldn't do it anymore, for some reason I still don't comprehend, we ended up choreographing one of the most satisfying sections the day before we premiered it . . . you get the idea. And in spite of all this, the process can not be rushed. Let me emphasize this slightly: THE PROCESS CAN NOT BE RUSHED. You are where you are in the process, no matter what sequence it takes, nor how urgent your need is to "complete" it.

Which can be a bitch sometimes.

What I knew going into last night's "rehearsal" (man -- the sarcastic quotation marks are really flying in this entry -- sure sign of insecurity) was the title I had already provided Melissa, Whoopsie Daisy, and the program blurb I also sent her way. Note that I have definitely cultivated a skill in well-structured description that nonetheless promises nothing:

"Lloyd Schlemiel is new in town. Actually, he doesn't remember how he got here at all. There was a flicker of the light, a rattling noise (like some old machine whirring to life), and here he is. Also: He doesn't wear hats. Who wears hats anymore? Please bear with him. He's got a lot to learn."
Bully. What I had to dump into this whole Whoopsie Daisy assignment I rather gave myself was a few solo performances, only one of which took place on a stage, a partial clown screenplay, and whatever I can come up with between now and then. So where does one begin?

Well, I began with completely freaking out. That's often a good starting point. It provides a whole lot of false starts and bad ideas, and that's good. No really; it is. There's no faster progress to be made than that which results from big, multitudinous mistakes. So trying to find a special type of ladder, only to find it wasn't going to work for the show, then spending over an hour trying to resolve video issues on my computer Monday night . . . that was all necessary to catapult me into what would prove more useful. So I believe, and so I keep reminding myself when the panic sets in again. What I gathered instead for my work with Patrick were as many hats as I had, and some prop items with which I was simply curious about playing. Throughout my work-filled day, I contemplated several different approaches to take to creating action, including entertaining for some time the (fortunately, ultimately abandoned) notion of using a day-job-ish environment somehow.

By the time I was journeying from work to dinner, I realized I could lean more heavily on the ideas I'm using for the screenplay than I had previously thought. I knew I wanted to tell a story of transformation, and I had some ideas about how this could be accomplished in a theatrical setting. (It helps, very much, that I'm quite familiar with the West End Theatre.) In short, I suddenly felt like I had it all figured out. Yep, I've written this story already, in fact. No worries. None at all.

Of course, this is why rehearsal is so important: It shows us how little we truly know. Maybe mid-way into my descriptive rant at Patrick, it became clear to me that I had a long way to go. Yes, I want to tell a story about transformation, and yes I've given some thought to that already, and yes I have stock bits to use. BUT: I need a through-line, I need a central action, I need, I NEED! We made some progress on pursuing these things, but over the next two (TWO!) days, I need to hustle, and keep the ideas coming.

I can't rush the process. What I can do, is make sure I give it every single moment of my time, waking and sleeping.

The Rest is Silence

Aw crap; aw balls; aw crappy balls.

Sorry. That's a bit more graphic than I had intended.

I am up to my eyeballs in stress, and it's all of my doing. This weekend I'm performing as a part of Six Figures' Artists of Tomorrow festival, and I'm performing solo work, and I have no idea what I'm going to do. None, as of this moment. I said "yes" to this last-minute opportunity because I want to be working, and because Friend Melissa coerced me. Yes: I was coerced. She specifically mentioned my silent-film work, and she knew that it would entice me, and so it's her fault that I'm a concentrated ball of uncertain stress right now.

Not really, though.

I've scheduled some time to work in a rehearsal space tonight, for about three hours. We'll see what comes of it.

That's it. No, really: That's it. More to follow.