Spectacular Excerpt

So, I'm super lame, and still haven't edited the footage of The Spectacular Scrantonian Spectacular (see 2/16/10 for details) together and posted it on the interwebs and made us all famous. I guess, on some level, I fear fame and the changes it may portend. Fortunately for the world, Alicia Grega-Pikul and Kate Chadwick have no such trepidations. And so, one of my favorites from the Spectacular:

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!


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....

You awaken in a semi-dark room...


Oh god...wha...wha....

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"...

I should have known better than to expect myself to diligently 'blog through the holy daze of late December, early (er...read: "most of") January. Happy 2010, everyone! Or, as Wife Megan insists on proclaiming it: "Oh-10!" Exclamation point being obligatory, natch'.

Item!: My return to directing begins this weekend, with Josh Sohn's ten-minute play Flowers premiering as a part of Where Eagles Dare's short play lab. In the show you'll see Friends Nat Cassidy and Richard Grunn doing what they do best (but also acting). Find out where it's at, in every sense, at this magical button text place sentence.

Item!: Very exciting things brew with The Action Collective this year with the theme, "It's All About You." We are forgoing our monthly event for January to focus instead on structural work for the organization and publishing our first-ever newsletter for our members. People will be published! And sort of syndicated!

Item!: The foolish folks at NYU's film school have invited me back to be a part of their filmic enterprises for what will be a marathon day on February the 2nd.

Item!: I'm producing a variety show to take place as a part of the Electric Theatre Company's "second stage" program, Out On a Limb. It will be entitled The Spectacular Scrantonian Spectacular! (exclamation point being obligatory, natch') and feature song and dance and, above all else, variety. Not only will I be producing this cavalcade of talent, but I'll also be MC. Well, me and my clown character (...cue the My Buddy theme...and go...).

Sorry. That was way creepier than I had remembered. Effin' creepy.

Anyway. 'Tis a busy time, not only creatively (YAY!) but also practically (BOO!), and I miss blogging. Hence this not-a-post. Wait, maybe I can squeeze some meaningful insight into my final few remaining words -

Effin' creepy.

Aw, crap.

Zuppa: The Next Course

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.

In effect, Zuppa has officially now skipped a year. Owing to the ambitious nature of our last original work, and a focus on advancing our study abroad program, In Bocca al Lupo, we took a little break. Recently, however, David Zarko asked us to pool some ideas for the next endeavor into wholly original (or at least creatively stolen) show material. Here is what I emailed him, off the top of my head and verbatim:
  • 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.
I'll probably have more ideas over time and, as is perhaps evident, I'm not especially sold on any of these in particular. Zuppa's mission statement when it comes to our original shows (in as much as we have one) is to illustrate the living traditions of the commedia dell'arte that permeate our culture, and inspire our audiences to learn more about that interconnected culture. Hence ideas that hearken to older forms, or hang on the twin cousins of homage and parody.

So what do you think, Gentle Reader? Seriously -- Which of these ideas would you like to see our merry, rotating band of "creactors" make a whole new show of? Or, better yet: What are your ideas...?