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!
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.
You think in un-words, it seems.
Wha...whoo...where am I? What happened?
Gradually you realize that the only light, barely illuminating your prostrate form, is the flickering glow of a very tired computer monitor. The computer's exhausted cooling fan whirs dejectedly, intermittently, at you. You realize you're surrounded by ripped paper all over the floor, a cup of eggnog in one hand, a trashy novel in the other, and a pair of tinted glasses on your face that proudly proclaim (backwards, from your perspective) "0102"...
Traditionally, we know what our Zuppa del Giorno show is going to be at least a year in advance, if not more. That seems funny to write, especially with how much I write about the process starting from nothing at the beginning of the rehearsal process. Yet both are true. We never start out with a show, and we always end up with a show, yet at least a year in advance we know what the show is going to be "about." The first would be about updated commedia traditions, the second about the Marx brothers, the third about silent film comedians, etc. One needs to know that much in advance so one can research, and plan, and gather materials for the horrifying moment when one finds oneself in an empty space without a single indication of where to go next, surrounded by folk who have as little clue (and at least as much anxiety) as you do.
- Mummer's (or guiser's) Play: adaptable to public spaces, most characters performed in disguise or with mask - Wikipedia link. They usually have to do with good versus evil, and involve some element of resurrection. Prepare an original show utilizing style elements; perform in a different space every time. If at ETC, in ballroom, second stage, shop, lobby, abandoned rooms, etc. Scranton, all over, including weirdness like bowling alleys. In Italy, piazzas, but also tourist spots and museums.
- Show set in a circus. I've resisted this for some time, but we really should attempt it some time. Doesn't have to be circus intensive, but can include stilt-walking and other street-theatre conducive elements.
- The Great Zuppa Murder Mystery. Classic isolated scenario, names after Scranton locales and exit signs (Lord Dunmore Throop). Either played straight, or played a la coarse theatre -- more a play about players trying to put on a murder-mystery play, but not having their act together. OR, totally meta-: a real murder is supposed to have happened during a performance of a murder-mystery play that is being put on by coarse actors who are incapable of getting anything right.
- A play about religion. I don't know -- religion is funny. Maybe a play about mythos and superstition, as well, or instead of. Zuppa's vampire play.
- Another silent show, but based in something besides silent movies. This isn't really an idea. Sorry.
- Collaborations with mixed media: visual artists, musicians, writers, dancers. The idea being that we highlight the ways in which everyone uses improvisation by performing alongside folks, united by some storytelling commonality.
- Oh and also: A really real vaudeville show (There were some plans to incorporate a significant vaudeville presence into Prohibitive Standards, but they never crystallized. - ed.). With guest artists.