La Prova Generale

So you drive to Siena, and head at a serious clip toward the main piazza, because as far as you know you have maybe a 3% chance of getting a ticket to their "dress rehearsal" for the most famous bareback horse race in the world. You don't really know what that means, but . . . hell: "When in Rome."

You're not in Rome, though. After much run-walking over cobblestones, you're here:
After a good pause for a refreshing beverage (which helps you recover from the embarrassment over having covert-sprinted amongst all the laid-back Italians) you set about trying to figure out how to get a ticket. Your friend, who speak much better Italian than you do, works it out. E la:

So, you've got good seats. The seating is right beside the course, which runs the entire circumference of the (very large) piazza, and has been covered with tightly packed earth specifically for the event. I mean to say: You are RIGHT THERE. It's hard to believe someone's actually going to bring a semi-wild animal that close to you on purpose. It's also difficult to believe that you needed to rush so, because the piazza still looks like this:

But, you know, you go with it because your friend speaks better Italian than you, and has been to this event before, and because just maybe this will be a memory of the sort that never goes anywhere it can't be remembered again. It's good you kept these things in mind, because within ten minutes, the piazza goes from looking like the above to this:

There is much accepted pomp and circumstance prior to the main event. The city, you see, is divided into various neighborhoods that are represented by animals. The tortoise, the porpoise, the little owl, etc. These contradi are the participants in the race, and whoever wins the real race (the next day) gets bragging privileges for the rest of the year. So groups gather, songs are sung, children are corraled into choral groups and everyone has a boisterously good time. It's hard to imagine it getting more intense for the real thing, but it surely must. Juxtoposed beside that sort of contemporary hootenanny is medieval ceremony, such as a procession of the city emblem:

The real deal. See those guys in the back? Plate mail and wicked pikes. Wicked pikes, man. Further traditions include really skilled flag-twirling/dancing and processions of drummers, etc. The last little pre-show bit is the procession of what I assume represent the city's cavalry. These fellows march in, their horses high-stepping beautifully, swords raised:

Then you know what they do, after completing a lap? They point their swords forward and haul ass for a lap! In formation! It's seriously amazing. If I saw these guys bearing down on me, forget it. Even if I had a cannon or two. I'm going home and watching it on the news. Good luck, everyone else. Of course, after that, some clean up is necessary.
Dudes with brooms. If that isn't old school, I just don't know what is. After all these things rad, they get set for the race itself, including the latest technology. Ropes, for example. Very large ropes.
Which are spring-loaded. You know, to contain the semi-wild horses and their death-hungry riders. It's like some terrible idea of a horse race dreamed up by a Dungeons & Dragons (TM) -obsessed fourteen-year-old...
Yes, I am that fourteen-year-old.

Anyway, the horses arrive one by one, bearing the crests of their particular contrado. We got to sit right in the section where the horses begin, between the two ropes. It is due to this buona fortuna that I present to you contrado Lupa:

Now the really, really good stuff starts. It takes forever for the horses to get in line. I thought this was simply because, well, they're semi-wild horses. Ah, no. It turns out that it has something to do with signals the riders are getting from the officials/palio-captains of their contrado. Those people are standing -- as they have done for hundreds of years -- on a double footbridge that spans an alley between two buildings of the piazza. They are signaling their rider to be slow, or agitate his horse, or freaking kick the guy beside him. It's like baseball, with all the hand signals. It's part of the game, but the part that goes largely unacknowledged. This is, in fact, a primary reason for having a rehearsal for the event! The tortoise is the last contrado to enter the corral, and he sits it out for a long time, his rider's face as placid as the Buddha's, while the other horses and their riders kick and shout and otherwise try to hold it together.

You'll have to forgive me, because it started even faster than I could have imagined, so I don't have the beginning. I also don't have the end, because as soon as it was over people started climbing off the stands behind me to congratulate the winner and see if the guy who fell off his horse had died. (He didn't.) But, well, the final event of the thing is, simply put, this:

Forse . . .


It's been about a week and a half in Italia, which means we're in our third day of classes with the students. This also means that I have finished my third day of Italian classes, which means that my grammar and syntax may come across a certain points of this. Mi dispiace! The good news is that this trip and its classes at Lingua Si are improving my comprehension enormously. The bad news is that it sometimes makes me say things like, “The gelato likes to me.”

I'm writing you from one of the more impressive views of mountaintop Orvieto, sitting at a park bench not fifteen feet from a sheer cliff's edge facing roughly northeast (I think). Behind me a little ways are the ruins of an Etruscan amphitheater, and my stomach is full of pizza. It's roughly three o'clock, and it's been a good day in spite of some challenges. Such as barely being able to walk down stairs for the past two days, my knees occasionally buckling unexpectedly toward the cobblestones. You might think that given my situation, nothing could be better. And that's true, in many ways. We teachers, David Zarko, Heather Stuart and myself, have had a week here to prepare before the students arrived last Sunday, and we made good use of it. We had many adventures and misadventures the which I will write about at some point when there's more time and convenient internet access – including attending la Prova in Siena, the dry-run of their famous horse race, il Palio. (You may have seen shots of that in the latest Bond movie, Quantum of Solace.) For now what's more pressing is to talk a little about the work.

It's fascinating, thus far, what's different and what remains the same when comparing this trip to 2006's. The reason I'm staggering about this year hasn't so much to do with drinking wine with my lunch; rather it's because this week we have four days' worth of commedia dell'arte master classes with Angelo Crotti. As anyone who's met Angelo knows, he is a man of great strength and energy, and he has no problem asking as much from his students. Monday he took us through an hour's worth of strengthening exercises that kicked off the pain-fest, and yesterday he continued with various exercises and added some very committed, very acrobatic animal movement. All this, of course, in addition to working on the many postures and movements of the commedia dell'arte archetypes, most all of which involve raised arms and deep stances. I love it, but next time I'll be training up to it rather more. Jogging, she is not enough.

It is an amazing experience, studying Italian all day, then working intensively on traditional commedia in the evening. Angelo's techniques, talent, and not to mention his gorgeous masks, make for a very challenging, expanding experience. Perhaps even more amazing is to watch the students – all with varying degrees of experience and context – take on these incredible tasks. Some of them have never even seen commedia dell'arte before, yet they're finding moments of great expression in approaching it. Most of them have little to know experience conversing in Italian, yet every day they manage to communicate more and more with it. (For me, for the first time, the language feels useful rather than intimidating – just as a personal sidenote.) Everyone's a little (okay – a lot) frightened of the ultimate goal: To perform an original commedia dell'arte scenario in Italian, for Italians. Yet that is just how we were in 2006 as well, and it turned out to be wonderful. I'm sure none of us expected to be able to hold a conversation in Italian on the first day of classes, either, but we all did.

The major difference between our last full program and this one is the amount and variety of training and practice we'll be making use of. In fact, we're only spending this week in Orvieto. Next week we'll be back for brush-ups in Italian, but largely we'll be in Aquapendente at Teatro Boni, our artistic host. There the students will take classes with Andrea Brugnera and we'll begin the work on the actual Scala scenario we're using, The Two Faithful Notaries. That, too, is when the major events begin. So far we've only had meal-oriented ones – and those are of course great – but starting at the end of this hard-working week we start seeing sights and shows. Hopefully I'll be able to write about those individually as they occur...or anyway, soon after when they actually occur.

I've done a lot of reflecting during all this, of course. Italy is enticing, exciting and extremely challenging to me, all at once. I've had some major (insofar as my experience extends) victories on the trip already, as well as some harrowing moments and, let me face it, outright failures. Yet the failures have been more productive, somehow, than I've allowed them to be in the past. We're trying to teach, after all, that risk and mistakes are great tools to improving communication. It seems I take that lesson more and more to heart the more I challenge myself in this way. God, is it challenging! Which is both an outburst of frustration and an exclamation of thrill.

I'll write more soon, e vero. Until then, may the gelato like to you as well, my friends.

An Open Letter, A Frank Admission

Loyal Reader:

You may have noticed that I disappeared for some time and, upon my return, posted a mere single entry. It was even about a "special interest" that you may or may not share (as opposed to my usual, mainstream, populist fare). I apologize for the break in ma'blogging. The reasons are myriad, but primarily it has to do with 1} leaving June 29th for Italy, for a month, and 2} el jobbo del day

freaking 'asploding

in the process. Not as in disappearing in great, orangey fireballs -- oh no. More as in becoming a flurry and confusion of paperwork, urgent need and confused requests. I am John McClane here, armed only with a three-hole-punch, barefoot, and confronted with a floor full of shattered protocol.

And I have missed you, Dear Reader. Issuing these missives on a regular basis is a sort of regulatory function for my psyche and, even when rather few comments come irregularly rolling in, I trust that every so often someone out there is getting something out of my rambling as well. (A what-not-to-do warning or two, at the least.) Hence this letter -- to reconnect a bit, explain this and potential future delinquencies, and of course to catch you up on what's gone down in the interim. Hopefully this will not take as long to compose as

my last entry

did, continually interrupted as it was. Truly, once in Italy I will be armed with


, and hopefully a wi-fi connection, and then you will be in for 'blog entries


. I will leave it to you to maintain your composure during that thrilling month.

Apart from work, things have been otherwise eventful since Camp Nerdly. I've continued revising


when I may, maintained my attendance at

Friend Cody

's aerial silks classes, conferred somewhat with

Friend Andrew

over an exciting little project and even participated in

a staged reading


a new company

(new to me, that is). It was really a terrible weekend, though, as Friend Patrick suffered

a painful and sudden loss

. I was lucky enough to find out about it quickly, and talk to him a very little, and even see him on Sunday. He's off to his hometown now, and my heart goes with him and his family; he's sharing a lot about his brother James at

Loose Ends

, and I wish I'd had a chance to meet him. And finally, amidst a blissful absence of fanfare (unless repeated text-message vibrations count), I turned 32 years of age on Tuesday.

Wife Megan

and I celebrated with a quiet dinner at a favorite Astoria spot, and the rain magically held off for a day, so we enjoyed it outside.

Life, she does not stop. Not for nothing.

It's funny how quickly we can lose track of ourselves, most especially when we're busy. As Patrick will attest, "busy" is my favorite state of play, yet lately I have been wondering if I'm not losing sight a bit of some of the more important details of my life. Little things like moods, and daily thoughts, and daily actions. These are the minutiae that make up a life as much as the bigger issues (work, relationships, society-at-large) and they're most definitely getting away from me just now. In an effort to corral some of 'em, I've been trying once again to shed my chronic onychophagia for the past week. This is a little bit like quitting smoking, in that it occasionally makes me want to PUNCH EVERYBODY. So perhaps it's not all that helpful to my mood as such, but you have to start somewhere. Next up -- somehow diverting the instinctive, murderous rage I feel when blocked by people on the sidewalk/stairs/subway platform.

And so, Most Sweet Reader, no profound insights into the nature of art and life today. No, just a little address of things in general and a wish for your happiness. If I see you in person in the coming weeks, please forgive any distracted behavior, or general slip-ups on my part. I am happily busy, but June is a wild month so far. Just smile and nod, and maybe give me an affectionate chuck on the shoulder. Say, "Atta boy, Jeff. Just keep swinging."

But if you see my fingers rise to my mouth, you punch me. You punch me right square in the oral fixation.

Nerd Herding

I'm bad at it. Twice last weekend I was asked to help round up groups, and I failed in interesting ways both times, including by mis-hearing responses that were in the affirmative.

One of the aspects of

Camp Nerdly

that I appreciated for the first time this go, my third go (see also








) were the many cultural overlaps between stereotypical nerd culture and stereotypical camping culture. Both require an enthusiasm for making life a greater challenge, amongst other specific conditions that supposedly "normal" people would fear or disdain. Both involve improvisation, moderated with a healthy dose of research and acquired knowledge. Both generally associate with high-calorie foods. Both environments typically eschew the strictures of social norms such as fashion and strict codes of hygiene. So yes, camp is an excellent place for fellow nerds to gather, and be unabashedly nerdish.

I am one such nerd. In point of fact, I don't think of myself as a nerd per se; not because I find the term derogatory, either. Rather, I think specifically of a "nerd" as someone very intelligent and good with details. I am not


intelligent, at least not in that way, so consider myself something more along the lines of a geek, or dork. Spaz, too -- which I have fortunately parlayed into a rewarding career as a physical comedian. At least, it's philosophically rewarding, when in no way else.

Despite my self-imposed sub-nerd status, I am allowed (nay: encouraged) to ally myself with other nerds on an annual basis at Camp Nerdly. I just did so last weekend, getting my yearly dose of straight-edge, pure gaming. "Gaming" in this context, by the way, refers to just about any actively challenging effort that is endeavored largely for the sake of fun and entertainment. It was a special occasion in several respects, owing to the fact that

Expatriate Younce

was in attendance, all the way from Leeds. (That's in England.) I have a funny sort of response to gaming. Expatriate Younce actively encourages it, as do other friends of my hometown, while

Wife Megan

and many of her circle, at best, do not understand its appeal. So I have some strong influences on either side of the debate as to the relative value and appeal of gaming. Then I get to the actual gaming, and have a response similar to when I've been away from a rehearsal process for over a month: "Oh crap. I have no clue what I'm doing here." Of course, I gamely (see what I did there?) fake it until I catch up again. And how do I feel about gaming? Well.

The first game I played on arrival this year was a collaborative board game called


, and I have only good things to say about it.

Clinton R. Nixon

was the gamer who introduced it to me and my fellow novices, and we had a great time discussing strategy in trying to clear the world of four rampaging diseases. We also got our butts handed to us by the game, which only serves to make you want to play it more. Sadly, I never found another opportunity. It's way more interesting to play a board game that is both collaborative and difficult to beat than it is to play something like Monopoly, wherein a winner is guaranteed and somebody's going to regret buying real estate.

Next that night was a session of

A Taste for Murder

, run by another favorite gamer of mine,

Jason Morningstar

(perhaps cool names are indicators of future nerdom...?). We gathered at "The Castle," de facto cabin for any games likely to involve more adult themes, and we possibly made those themes more adult than they were intended to be.

A Taste for Murder

seems meant to be a story-telling game with a fairly strong and regular dice element, where the "winner" of scenes is determined by competitive rolls. The setting is like an Agatha Christie novel, and you choose your characters based on family and estate relationships, trying for a broad range of class/status. In the first act of play, the relationships are built up and controversy well-established. It culminates in


. In act the second, the player of the murdered character plays the detective on the scene, and the back-stabbing begins. We played it a bit grotesque, I'm afraid, for the genre. Not enough class warring. I played the rebellious son of the estate, and all audio was recorded for the game's creator. Well, some. We kept running down batteries. It was a good game. If I ever play it again, I'll focus less on winning the game, more on building my character.

Saturday morning started out with a game called

Sons of Liberty

, a role-playing game that used playing cards to drive the game function. Essentially, playing chosen patriotic figures both real and imagined (much of the imagination having something to do with steampunkiness), I and two others played a card game against the house ("the house" in this game represented by one Mr. Jeff Hosmer), using our hand at a given moment and the resulting win or loss to narrate how that particular struggle against the Tories went down. In most cases, it went down to the ground, and Hosmer trounced our sorry, albe-they rebellious, butts. I played a saucy cross-dressing Frenchman, hungry for rebellion (non-historical, btw). It was a fun game, and collaborative in its own way. The balance between card play and role-play landed heavily on the card side, but this created a very urgent dynamic that was also fun. Imagine playing Spit, and having to make up a whole team-written fiction, simultaneously.

The early afternoon was my most undecided slot, yet ended up being the most overall satisfying experience of the weekend in terms of gaming.


is a unique role-playing game in many ways. The game has most of the players playing the women of a feudal Japanese village, trying to woo and/or seduce a ronin who has wandered into their town, in the hopes of finding love and saving the village from some great threat. The history of the game itself is unique; dreamed up by a male-to-female transsexual who was contemplating female identities, and since carried through a fairly extensive development by her friend -- and Nerdly attendee --

Danielle Lewon

. In our game, a woman played the samurai, and I and three other women (including Danielle) played the women of the village. My character was a very young, innocent girl who loved the nearby mountains and cultivating bonsai. We conceived it all as taking place in a fishing village, one haunted by the spirits of the men lost at sea, and the story ended up being


. To make a long story short(er), this young ronin, out to prove himself, was variously wooed by very different women, none of whom wanted to tell him the problem of the village for fear of scaring him off. He eventually does confront the ghosts . . . and fails. Throughout this game, this growing story, we were moved. Some of us to tears. It was amazing. It was magic, nothing short of it.

My follow-up was similarly strong in narrative, although less of it was created out of thin air.

Montsegur 1244

takes a very cool, tiny section of history and makes a game of it. You are given a very specific setting, choice of two characters (a primary and secondary) and play through the story of about a year within a community that now-a-days we might be inclined to call a religious cult. Your church, town, stronghold has broken off from the church and set up a rather different set of beliefs, principal among them that earth, life, is in fact a kind of testing hell. It can be transcended, and those who do are religious leaders known as "perfects," who try to guide their people out of the cycle of imperfect, passionate living, into true existence. With pre-established characters, setting and scenarios, the game really takes a lot of the burden of narrative structure away from the players (something we appreciate in Zuppa del Giorno when trying to build a play from improvisation) but there's plenty of room to play in the cracks. I played a quasi-heretical patriarch and a young orphan boy, and the highlight for me was a scene played out with Mr. Jason Morningstar, who was once again running the game. We had a negotiation scene that crackled like good theatre for me; he may have missed his calling, that one.

Finally that day, after dinner, was a


free-for-all, run by Jason (people will say we're in love),

Remi Trauer


Emily Boss

. I wrote a bit about Jeepform last year after my first experience with it, and it still intrigues me. Essentially, it is a very interesting hybrid of improvisatory theatre and role-playing gaming. It has its own philosophy, and makes efforts to stand apart from both forms (as any self-respecting hybrid ought). This year was a somewhat more technical exploration of the methods and tactics -- as opposed to last year's straight gaming -- and one which eventually descended into Absurdist madness. Each of the leaders led us through a different Jeepform trope, all three in the context of superhero fiction. This was, perhaps, a contributing factor to the eventual eruption of silliness, as people (read: nerds) had a ton of clever ideas about how to riff on comicbooks. They tried to tell us: The best choice is an obvious one. And we tried to listen, but by the time we got around to the fourth section -- a trial held in a strange,


-inspired universe -- the gaggy gloves were decidedly off. I was as guilt as any, and it was a little too much fun to stop. Yet the surprising virtues I observed about Jeepform held true. People were taking turns, not interrupting, and a story was gradually developing on its own.

There was much discussion after that, rather late into the night (late by fresh-air standards, anyway), about gaming and improvisation and story-telling. There's something about people being excited to talk about that which is oddly fulfilling for me. I went to sleep feeling quite sated.

Sunday mornings at Camp Nerdly are often hungover affairs, but not the usual variety. People are bushed from all the thinking and playing of the day before, and many elect not to play anything at all, but there is a slot for gaming between eating and cleaning up the site.

Mark Causey

filled my slot (hey now) with a little game called


. It was reminiscent of my first year and Nerdly, when I discovered just how much fun it could be to create a whole fictitious world from the ground up. Of course, as an improviser and writer, I do this all the time, but I take it for granted somewhat. It's a means to an end. Putting it as the primary purpose makes for some lovely synchronicity, especially when its collaborative, and thereby synergistic.


offers nothing but variables, an idea for context ("aetherpunk," says the ad) and a device for conflict resolution and lets the players make the rest up. It would be a tricky terrain for someone unused to working without rules, but for someone like me who knows roughly what to expect, and just wants to run free imaginatively -- a lovely way to spend a Sunday morning.

And like that, it was over. Some mopping, some laughing codas, a bus ride for me and the next day Expatriate Younce was bound homeward as well. My annual alliance with 50+ smart, creative thinkers done for the year.

When I was too young to fully appreciate the sentiment, someone mentioned to me the following axiom: When you are young, you love someone because you need them; once you have lived, you find true love when you need someone because you love them. I knew I was too young at the time I heard it to fully appreciate it, but there's nothing to be done about that. We all grow in our own time, and can only listen to the advice we are ready to hear. Yet I remembered it, and whereas it concerned me, made me worry about the nature of this or that relationship, when I was younger, now it is a comfort to me in all of my loves. When I was a kid, and started gaming, I loved it, and I really needed it -- for interaction, to work out my own fears and ambitions and to feel accomplished. And now, I love it. It wakes me up, engages me, gives me ideas and allows me to make the big picture the priority. I'm made happier by having it a part of who I am and what I do. And that's a great feeling.

Revisionist History

On Friday I took the dive and bought


, so that for my to-and-fro NoVa bus rides on Saturday morning and Monday evening I could work at revising


. And I did! I did done revised some! WHO-RAY! It was a great disappointment to discover that typing on a bus is incredibly awkward. The space between rows made it


a bit too tight to comfortably cock my elbows, even given the rather horizontally inclined nature of my new purchase. I muscled through, though, to the detriment of my seat partner and I'm sure my sperm count. Some sacrifices must be made for great art, after all.

Plus, revision was not a terrible experience. This is in spite of a number of other factors going against me at the time (primary amongst these being the curiously intense and persistent allergies I'm experiencing) and also in the face of my trenchant antipathy for the revision process. Having a new toy always helps in some way, and this was no exception. It seems the much-reviled Vista has a viewing option for scrolling through open windows as if they were a deck of cards -- an enormously useful feature when one's scenes are all saved in separate documents. I made quick work of a revised outline of scenes, and so had a bit of a structure for finding a starting point and specifying which scenes needed the most attention.

The biggest changes were the complete disposal of one scene, and the removal of a character from another. Also, my gastroenterologist is going through some major changes, becoming far more prickly and reserved (and hopefully super-dryly funny). The overhaul has begun, and it seems as though as long as I don't get stuck on the idea of how much of an overhaul it's bound to be, and just keep fixing and tweaking one thing at a time, we're going to get there. Eventually.

That having been said, I am thus far utterly un-thrilled with any of my actual writing. It seems as though all I'm doing is solving logistical problems, without invoking too much truth, beauty and/or humor. I probably need to talk to more playwrights to learn some coping methods with this perceived issue. I tend to assume it's a personal problem, my revision writing coming out stale, but that's pretty ridiculous when I say (type) it aloud. Surely some other authors have had to grapple with this. Friends




may have some helpful advice on the matter. Perhaps you, Dear Reader, do as well . . . ?

What is amazing to me is that I've found that sweet spot of distance from the original writing that allows me to make big changes without losing my belief in the story. It still feels like a worthy effort, yet I can see where it needs (not inconsiderable) help. And both without quite knowing where it's going to end up. With age come some benefits.

Now if I just had a little more cash flow to regularly upgrade to train rides . . .