Why Study Theatre (follow up narrative on "The Younce Meme" [from the Facebook])

It's entirely possible to pursue acting "on the side," and you don't have to be James freakin' Franco to make it work, either. In fact, when it comes to acting, plenty of people will tell you that classes - much less higher education - are bunk. Personally, I have mixed emotions about my college education. I'll never regret it, but in hindsight I believe I could have made more honest (and thereby daring) choices.

But what made me do it? That inspired idiocy of our teenage years that makes our choices just a little more instinctual than is conventionally wise, I think.

I was not, to put it mildly, a good student in high school. I was largely distracted by the usual things, and maybe one or two more-unique ones. So my freshman and sophomore years were a relative wash, academically speaking. I played in band and did one play -


- finally, in my sophomore year, and I loved it and was utterly terrified and pretty much spent the entire time I wasn't on stage reading gay-themed sword-and-sorcery novels crouched in a corner next to the door of the dressing room. And then I quit band, and then Kara Schiffner cast me in her play, and then I fell ridonkulously head-over-heels for her, and I suddenly lost 40 pounds, and . . . well, life moves pretty fast. You don't stop and look around once in a while, you might suddenly find yourself being asked to choose a college.

At least my work went way up in quality for those last two years of high school, and I discovered for the first time just how much I enjoyed being hopelessly busy, so long as it was with projects to which I could make a unique contribution. When I started visiting schools, I figured the most memorable and significant aspects I could market (already I was concerned with advertising myself) were things I had done at the theatre conferences we attended. So I called myself an actor, and visited the theatre departments. At the same time, I was geeking out like nobody's business over writing of all sorts, and kept an eye on a double major. It is totally possible that I never gave a practical thought to my future. Money? Psh. Security? What is that, exactly?

My driving principle was that I didn't want to live with any major regrets. I didn't want to take the easy way, follow a set path. I had to at least try to make a life out of the things I loved to do. If I failed, I should at least be able to look back and say I failed honestly and had my answers.

So VCU it was for a BFA with nominal minor in creative writing (nominal because the theatre department at the time wouldn't recognize a minor in anything). It was urban, relatively speaking, which would prepare me for my culturally adventurous future. It had an English department (Shenandoah did not) and it didn't intimidate me the way Virginia Tech did with its vast Jeffersonian persona. (I didn't get into William & Mary, presumably because of my wastrel years.) And, yes, okay - there was a certain person I was seeing at the time on her way to the same school. Instinct over convention.

I was a person who needed that experience, so I'll always treasure it. Some actors can excel without technique or training, but I'm way too analytical for that and I quickly discovered in college that I had never known how to act, to be an actor. Personally, I don't think I would have figured that out if I had simply tried out for plays while pursuing a major in business, or skipped college altogether to live in Chicago. Maybe - who knows - but I doubt it. So it became a mission, to learn as much as I could about my "chosen" major, and my obsessiveness had a good excuse to flourish.

I've always been a little tunnel-visioned. It's interesting to realize that my dearest friends have all at one time or another had to decide to just trust and/or forgive me for that, and the way it makes me socially awkward or altogether absent. Even

the woman who ended up marrying my silly ass

was someone I knew in high school who was still interested in knowing me after I essentially vanished into my first professional theatre jobs for a year. The mixed emotions about my college education stem from looking back - free from tunnel-vision - and realizing I should have left after two years. I had learned everything I was going to by then. Maybe it was just an allegiance to the path I had set, but I stayed, and got a degree in the fine arts (as they say).

Going to school for those wacky liberal arts was the right choice for me; staying may not have been the best. But one more thing: There is value in committing oneself whole-heartedly to just about anything for a time. It can be a period of great discovery, as mine was, and we don't always have that luxury as we grow older and more encumbered with (in many cases welcome) duties. Does one have to pay tuition to do that? I think that all depends on one's personality in terms of a need for structure. I need structure, but in part as something to be a contrarian against. Let's not even try to analyze what

freakin' Franko needs



Last night I participated in a unique sort of developmental reading of a couple of handfuls-worth of short plays by

Friend Nat

. I say unique because Nat interspersed original songs amidst the short scenes, all of which scenes had to do with love, or some variation thereon. I mentioned it reminded me of a mix tape, which I think is a pretty accurate description of the evening. Do you have a friend who's as romantic as the most romantic Beatles covers, but also heavy into The Beautiful South and Nick Cave in terms of his comic sensibilities? That mix tape. (With maybe a few sound bites from a couple of horror movies tossed in for flavor.)

The evening surprised me. Lately, I've not been feeling all too fired up about acting opportunities. (That's a little frightening to confess, but these appetites come and go, sometimes regardless of the bigger picture.) We held the reading at the distinguished

Players Club

 - only my second time there - and in the library, which is just a fascinating room. Actually, the whole place is fascinating. It was founded in 1888 by the esteemed Edwin Booth and others of historical import as a "gentleman's club" for the dramatic arts. It's just chock full of portraits and books and busts and photographs of people who don't necessarily get a lot of recognition outside of theatre history courses. For me, it's sort of a giddy conglomeration of things I geek out about: old New York, well-loved opulence, history and little-recalled theatre artists and variety performers.

The surprise in the evening for me, however, had to do with the reading itself. There was a small group of fellow writers for an audience, and we sat through the whole reading. Really a rather casual affair, and all of the pieces were comic in some respect or other. Nat's an adept craftsman (and irritatingly broadly skilled, not to mention) so the scenes were all interesting and highly functional. I had my favorite, and luckily I was reading in it, so I looked forward to that and relaxed and enjoyed the musical interludes. I had no reason to expect anything profound to happen to me. It did, though.

Profound, but not uncommon. It's just that it's been a while for me. I got absorbed in the character and the situation, seemingly effortlessly, and had the good fortune to be paired with an actor with whom (though I had never met her before) I clicked. I could


 the scene in such a way that, really, any and every moment on stage should feel like. Regardless of that standard, it has been a while since I felt it, and it leaves me also feeling enormously grateful; and full of craving.

The past year or so has seen a lot of backstage work for me. I put more energy into producing and directing,

The Action Collective

and writing, not to mention all the areas of my life outside of the theatre. There was intention to these choices, and a fair amount of gut instinct as well. As I get older, I find my relationship to acting changing by subtle but surprising degrees. There's a sense as an actor - or at least a New York actor of my background - that every job at least represents an opportunity for more, and that the exceptions are the jobs you


take. That was a great policy in my twenties, but even in my latter twenties I was getting a little worn on the idea of swallowing everything I was served, and now it doesn't work for me at all. A certain amount of choice and creative control are essential; hence the backstage exploration.

However: Nothing really matches the magic that happens when you can give yourself over completely to an acting opportunity. If I could muster that for every opportunity, I would still be saying yes to every one that came my way, because it's utterly addicting. That feeling of living in the moment, of something unplanned yet true and apt, it defies comparison to drugs or love or other extremes. It's some strangely selfless sense of self, and outward-reaching passion that is as structured and improvisational as music. I love it.

So perhaps having a more limited (or selective?) access to that sensation is a helpful thing in my life at this time. Addictions, no matter how healthful to begin with, are not exactly aids to a fulfilled life, and I would rather have a handful of rare experiences than a gluttony of empty ones. Maybe there'll be a little more board-treading in the coming months as a result of last night's taste. I just hope I can find the opportunities that feed me as much as I feed them.

...O Hai

Lest you imagine my absence has been a matter of rest:

ITEM!  On October 16th Wife Megan and I performed aerial silks at a Halloween-themed circus show at Streb S.L.A.M.  It was my debut on the aerial silks and - now that I think of it - my return to circus performance after an absence of some years.  More on this in its own post (promise [promise]), but suffice it to say that I survived and learned a lot in the process.  And: enjoyed it!

ITEM!  On October 17th I performed in a staged reading of Margo Hammond's The New Me, playing a private detective, which is one of my favorite things in the whole world.  (Good role to love, too, since a fella' can play that general type through many different stages of his life.)  It went well I thought, and I really enjoyed exploring the guy's subtle self-interests in the midst of performing his job.

ITEM!  On October 29th I and my better 50% traveled to Chicago.  It was my first time there since 2001 when I toured through it with the partial-German-language farce I starred in (not bragging; educational theatre).  It was a great trip that really inspired me in unexpected ways, not the least of which was attending the late show at The Second City and being reminded of the value of sketch comedy in constructing commedia dell'arte.

ITEM!  November 1st brought me to only my second participation in a meeting of The Pack.  At said meeting I had a scene from Hereafter read, and received feedback on it.  It was very interesting, and ultimately encouraging for continuing work on the script.  Seems like the answer to making it cohesive may be in streamlining the number of ideas represented in it.

ITEM!  On November 8th there was a developmental reading for a small, private audience, of James B. Nicola's Closure.  In it I read several male characters, and it tested my mastery of dialects, and found it as lacking as it always has been.  Some are naturals at accents, but I need to work at it to achieve consistency, and switching rapidly (occasionally having whole scenes with myself) between them was dizzying.  It was fun to try, though, and good to notice that as the script went along, I got better.

ITEM!  On November 13th I participated in a table reading of The Widow Ranter, adapted by Adrienne Thompson and directed by the acclaimed Karen Carpenter (no, not that one).  In it I played the boisterous, large old Colonel Ranter, eschewing type left right and center amidst a table of over a dozen actors.  Interesting to see all the energy and dynamic shifts with that many friends and strangers with a performance bent in one place.

ITEM!  For the first time with the revised cast, on November 21st The Puppeteers held a developmental meeting in Scranton.  It went well, and rapidly, and of course a great deal of time and work on my part has gone into the show's development 'blog.  It's an amazing - and very much ongoing - process, creating an original comedy from scratch.  We've had two more developmental meetings since, and begin the rehearsal process in earnest on December 27th.

ITEM!  I finally participated in NaNoWriMo!  And I failed!  Well, inasmuch as I didn't fulfill the word goal of 50,000 by deadline.  I did, however, get a great deal of writing done on an actual novel, no matter how questionable its worth.  It was very much fun and very much difficult, as my update-only post for November attests.

ITEM!  For the first time since I was 23 (by which I mean last year, amirite?) I performed in a musical on December 2nd.  Sharon Fogarty's one-act comic musical, Speaking to the Dead, had me playing a game-show host who falls for his ghost-whispering costar in many more ways than one.  Actually, initially I wasn't to sing, but at one rehearsal I gave a line a sing-songy quality and BAM: a few lines of song for yours truly.  It truly was a hoot.  And such a pleasure to finally work with Ms. Fogarty after many near-misses at Manhattan Theatre Source.

So, you know: That.  It's been a busy two months, and likely to be nothing but busy through the holidays and on into January.  The Puppeteers opens January 19th, and that weekend is the only one in which I'll be guaranteed to be in town watching it.  If you have the means and desire to make your way to wintery Scranton, I commend you and recommend it --  it's going to be A LOT of fun.

Merriest and happiest, one and all.


Today I had myself a callback for a truly despicable character.  That is to say, despicable in terms of his behavior in the story (and, sadly,

in history

).  Yes, folks, I can now count on TWO hands the number of times I have been considered for the role of a murderous fiend.  It's just not an archetype many seem quick to apply to me, which is a shame, because I think I'm pretty durn good at it.  And I know I enjoy it, when I can do it right.  But I understand, Rest Of The Casting World -- I am not huge, nor oddly shaped or scarred, I have a relatively bright natural speaking voice and when you meet me, I definitely give off a more Horatio vibe than, say, a Richard III.  This may change as I age.  My nose may grow ever crookederer, my face more deeply lined, and coming soon to a theatre near you:


I won't write too much about the project itself, as: ew, tacky, and also: don't have the job (yet?).  It's a short film about a famous atheist activist, and I came to it through working on

Laid Plans

 last month (in an utterly round-about fashion).  The audition was an on-camera read with the lead actress, and today they asked me to be off-book for the one big scene that will ultimately by interspersed into the rest of the narrative.  I got to work with the actress again, and take some adjustment from the director as well, and all-in-all I walked out feeling good.  I can't be sure I summoned the menace that they were looking for, but it was fun and the people very easy to work with.  Sometimes that's the best you can ask for.

As a result of my preparation, I have for the past twenty-four hours been contemplating villainy.  Not villainous acts (though I did eat a lot of chocolate yesterday...) but the motivations and mindset of a villain.  The conventional wisdom states that an actor must never play a character as someone who knows he or she is "bad," because everyone is the hero of their own story, and judgments are dangerous trade for an actor.  I understand this advice, but wonder if it always applies.  David Waters, for example, seemed to understand whilst kidnapping, murdering and dismembering O'Hair that what he was doing wasn't strictly moral.  It was a means to an end, but also one with seeming emotional complications.  I don't know.  Maybe he didn't even think about it too much.  The point is, this acting advice doesn't help anyone find the villainous (or, in the judgment-free zone: alternate morality) mind-space.

I also heard

an interesting interview

with a criminal profiler recently on Fresh Air that had me thinking about the emotional dynamic of some murders.  One of the behaviors he mentions is that murderers who kill for emotional reasons actually tend to feel elated after the deed, as though they had accomplished something intensely satisfying.  Now, I have to imagine that such emotions then become increasingly complex, generally speaking, but  it's fascinating to me that someone would feel that kind of emotion even as their hands are still red.  Maybe one does feel utterly justified in the moment of killing.  He goes on to say that one way to ensnare criminals in interrogation is by making them relive the sense of anger that drove them to kill.  Suppose that's the only way to inspire remorse, too -- to make the killer experience that emotion anew.

So there I am at the kitchen table at 6:00 this morning, contemplating my lines and what sort of truth they're trying to pull out of me.  Anton (the Cat) lolls drunkenly on the floor beside me, stuffed for the time being with a fresh wad or two of pulverized meat, and I'm frustratedly whispering my way through threats and incriminations for fear of waking the wife.  It's hard not to just edit myself to death with doubts -- no way you can pull off this kind of dialogue, look at you you're a puppy dog, just give up on memorizing and try to find a threatening sub-vocal noise to use -- but I really want to make myself into a murderer.  What's the hook?  Maybe I can bring a hook...?

As the callback time approaches, I find myself remembering great film villains.  Walken's crazy rhythm, utilized in its insane best in the Bond film

A View to a Kill

.  Heck: several Bond villain actors.  Ledger's Joker.  Javier Bardem  in

No Country for Old Men

.  Nicholson in

The Shining

.  The closest I could think of to my guy today was DeNiro in

Cape Fear

.  (Sadly, I had not a few months to pack on the muscle and get really comfortable with having my fingers sucked.)  Can I channel one or more of these?  Is there a key to this little puzzle?  Will the people I'm auditioning for at least let me prowl around a little, get in my body?

The answer to all these questions was of course: No.  No, once in the room, once faced with delivering the lines to another human being, it became all-too clear that the only way to do it was to do it.  To be Jeff as he might be if he would do something so terrible as the man he's playing did.  And, when you look at it that way, it takes a lot of the pressure off and allows us to just, you know: act.  Let them figure out if I'm believable.  I'll be too busy believing to care.

(But dang: DeNiro in

Cape Fear

 was incredimazing.)

This Is Just to Say

I have enjoyed

the actors

that came in

to callbacks

and who

were probably tense


its oddness.

Forgive me

I cannot cast you all

so brave

and so totally awesome.

Short post here just to touch on the callbacks for

our next Zuppa del Giorno show

, the which I'll be directing. They have taken place this week, and after a little more coordinating and ruminating we should have our third performer. This was effectively my first time on the other side of the table in an audition process, and I learned a lot from it (possibly at the expense of the actors involved?), both as someone conducting an audition process and as an actor in said audition. More anon on that. (I'm really racking up the promised 'blog topics here.)

This post is really just to say that everyone who came in was awesome. It was an extremely unconventional callback process, due to the developmental and improvisational nature of the show, and each actor handled it with style. See if this doesn't terrify you: We set out a table of assorted random objects, and had people in two-at-a-time. The game they played was to tell a story between them, with one person verbally telling the story and the other telling it physically. They could use any of the "props," and at any time they could switch positions, yielding their vocal or physical storytelling to the other, or swooping into the other role. And they just kept going until I said, "Scene."

Tough, no? Awful, really, for people psyched to have an opportunity. If I could have come up with any other way to find out what we needed to know, I would have done that. But I wish you could have been there, Dear Reader, because what everyone did was unique and effective and inspiring. So, thanks, Auditioners. I would like to take you all out for milk and cookies.