Sunday, September 28, 2008

Chance Encounters: An Old Friend

Years ago, while I was still living in Seattle, I had a startling dream. I saw a figure wearing a bright orange coat, spinning like a dervish, and laughing joyfully. In that way of dreams I knew it was Dionysus, and me, to equal degrees. I've written elsewhere about my love for Dionysus, even while acknowledging he's not someone you ever want to mistake for tame. I wrote the dream down in the morning since it was short, simple, unusually vivid, and involved an actual Greek God (how archetypal), so it seemed worth noting. I rarely remember my dreams you understand, because the vast majority of the time I find them excrutiatingly dull. Long, meticulous, intricate and dull dull dull, that's my dream life usually. Who can be bothered to keep track of it? This one was refreshing in its simplicity, vigor, and mystery. And who the hell dreams about bright orange coats?

Later that day I walked past a second-hand clothing store I had never been in, and decided on a whim to take a look. Almost immediately I saw the coat from my dream on a rack. It was hard to miss, after all.
Okay so maybe it wasn't exactly the same as in the dream. I suspected this coat wouldn't flow quite the same, Dionysus probably wouldn't wear nylon, but in color, shape and energy this was the same coat, the one from my dream, no question.


It was being sold for all of three dollars. Who the hell would want a nylon trenchcoat that made you look like a traffic pylon, right? Apparently I did. Or I was supposed to; at least that was how I interpreted the dream. And seriously, three dollars? Even back then I was never so destitute that I couldn't swing that. At the very least it would make a great story. So of course I bought it.

I began very tentatively exploring a character while wearing the coat, using mask improvisation techniques. One of the rules of mask work is one must meet the energy of the mask. If it's a high energy mask, you need to rise to the occasion, or you're not doing it justice. Generally most of us in mask class had to work up to a mask's energy, it was rare that a mask required one to tone things down. Of course we were all self-conscious college students, terrified of looking foolish, hamming things up, going too far, especially us closeted gay guys in the class. Okay maybe that was just me, plus I still had some of that midwestern 'keep all emotion and affect out of your voice' thing going on. But you get the idea.

So, jumping ahead a few years, I'm working with this coat and accepting that, duh, if one is dressed like a traffic pylon, one can't exactly be a wall flower. Just to mix a metaphor. I mean, blending into the background can't be the goal of a person who puts on a bright orange trenchcoat. Nuances aren't going to be the first order of business either. They may come, but at the start one just needs to get up and out there, make some noise, especially if you're me, and still have to fight the temptation to be invisible most of the time. This was good for me, in other words. I began to get a feel for this guy, which involved among other things tapping into a type of androgyny I'd never explored before; I had played at least one woman by that point, and few others in mask class, but this was something else, something more raw, panther-like and undomesticated (somehow 'wild' just doesn't seem like quite the word I'm going for). I decided his name was Bromios, one of the many names for Dionysus. At the time, I thought it meant "the Dancing One"; I was envisioning the character to be mostly a silent, physical character at that point. I later came to learn the name actually means "Howling One" which, given the color of the coat, seems even more appropriate, and was another occasion when my unconscious seemed to understand the situation better than my conscious mind did. Another good challenge for me. And did I mention that the coat made a certain kind of swishing sound when it moved? I doubt that surprises anyone.

Even so, I didn't do much more than think about Bromios from time to time, putting him on his feet only occasionally, and doing him for a friend only once, when we met to talk about work. Then in New York, a workshop had me developing a one man show and one day Bromios simply strolled into a rehearsal, with a lot to say. Someone who saw an open rehearsal asked me to perform at his fundraiser. Though I had a host of characters by that point, Bromios was the one that seemed to be the most appropriate for a theatrical fundraiser where a $10 admission got you all the beer you could drink. (My other characters were all Irish 19th century survivors of the Great Famine, so maybe not exactly swell company for a party.)

That first performance I just did Bromios' snippets from the larger show, along with some new material developed specifically for the occasion, or as links between the snippets. A few months later I was invited back to perform again, and this time I created a piece specifically for the event, based very loosely on both The Bacchae and an experience I had in a straight cowboy bar in Ellensburg, WA. Don't worry, no one lost his head in real life or my story. This was the most linear, straightforward storytelling the character had yet done, and along with the coat, I now wore gold body make-up, and a much swishier mien. (I didn't really notice the heightened swishiness until I saw video footage a few years later of another performance.)

I continued getting invitations to perform him at various small venues and special events, and found that he was the most fun when the audience was half-lit. Surprise. The piece that had finally put him on his feet, about Irish survivor guilt, pretty much fell by the wayside, collapsing under the weight of ideas, and toxic levels of exposition. Bromios was just more fun too, and lent himself well to these loosey-goosey, party-like events. I got in the habit of saying yes to any invitation, whether I had new material or not, figuring I'd come up with something new in time, and besides, I was performing solo, so who would know if I went off script? I'd never worked like this before, and again, it was very good for me.
Eventually though it came time to move things to the next level, and I had no clue how to do it. I was rarely asked to develop anything longer than twenty minutes, and the fact was while Bromios liked to talk (and flirt and kiss and occasionally take off all his clothes), he didn't have a lot of stuff to say. I mean, his live life to the fullest philosophy was usually a crowd pleaser, especially if the crowd had had a few, but it didn't really lend itself to developing a longer piece, not that I could see anyway, back then. The cowboy bar retelling of The Bacchae is still the longest piece I have for him, and it works because there is a story to tell, involving an actual conflict. Okay, this probably isn't making a lot of sense, even to the people who have actually seen Bromios perform, so I'll stop the abstract meanderings now. Suffice it to say I realized that the performances that I'd created for bar settings or parties often didn't translate to theatres all that well, and not just because I liked my audiences liquored up. I also didn't see how any of the pieces I had for him could really be expanded; in many ways the role he played in that long ago Irish piece was still the best way to use him, as commentator and occasional antagonist. The snippets I had didn't add up to a larger piece, they all more or less circled around the same themes.

Around the time I was coming to realize all this, my life went through some pretty big changes; a five year relationship ended, and two friends from the Seattle theatre scene decided they had each had it with New York, and were blowing this popsicle stand. Only once they were gone did I realize how few people I knew who were actors and my age.
I did a very rewarding project with some good friends that January though, and that led to the theatre inviting me to submit something for their festival of new works. I had fallen in love with the theatre itself; more than once a space has provided the initial spark for me, and that was definitely the case here. It may come as no surprise that this new work also had ties to Greek mythology, though Bromios was not part of it.
That experience was very rewarding in many ways too, not least since it was the first time I'd written for more performers than just myself; once the director got the chorus she was hoping for, the cast was twelve people strong. This was another work in progress however, and once it was over, I had little idea what to do with it. I also was simply unclear if it had worked at all. Those of us involved had a good time, I think, and no one had fled screaming from any of the performances, but no one really seemed to have anything to say. People liked the masks, which was gratifying, but the least of my worries, to be honest. I knew the play was far from done, and had some serious flaws, but I didn't see the way forward, and no one around me seemed willing to talk about it.
In other words, I am very good at starting things, maybe not so good at developing or finishing them. The sense of isolation I had felt creeping over me the previous year now came on full force. I hesitate to write that, since it implies I don't have wonderful friends who were there for me at the time, and nothing could be further from the truth. I simply didn't know what I wanted to make happen, and didn't know how to ask for help. I wasn't writing, wasn't auditioning, wasn't developing any work. Occasionally people would track me down and ask me to do something, but eventually that trickled off, as of course it would have to. Soon I was not doing anything other than the art modeling, and you know, I didn't move to New York to be an art model.
It was at this point that I started the blog, hoping that it might prove to be a seedbed for creative ideas, a way of getting back on the horse, if you will, or at the very least, a (slightly) more disciplined way of using my time. I mean the art modeling is great and all, but seriously, I think you could get a chimp to do it. I assumed if anyone read this blog, it would be people who already knew me, and had some idea of what I was about, even if that was starting to get a little vague. Finding myself part of a whole new network of wonderful people here in the blogosphere was something I had never imagined. That has been a wonderful gift in my life, even with the occasional shocking reveal. The blog has taken off in directions I would have never imagined, and connected me to so many people who are grappling with changes and questions of their own. I've felt like the right people have found me at the right time, bringing new thoughts and energy to my questions. I have deliberately not applied a lot of rules to the writing here, letting my moods dictate the subject most of the time, and over all that has worked well.
I have no plans to change that, no thoughts of introducing a more rigorous structure to this blog. But recently someone asked if I'd be willing to dust Bromios off and perform him again. It might happen, might not, if it does it will be the same setting he's usually been in, a theatrical party, but I was please at the invitation, and feel like it would be a good place to start. The coat had ceased being necessary for his performance, but having been away from him for a while, it helps to come back to the original spark of inspiration. And maybe the blog will help me with that too, at the very least keep me honest.
But I still haven't told you the final mystery of the coat. After I had moved to New York, but before Bromios had finally stepped out, I was telling the story of the dream to my friend and then-roommate Christina. As I was showing her the coat, I took note of the name on the label for the first time (at least consciously).
I love this.

This blogosphere phenomenon has much of the same feeling for me, chance encounters with many inspiring people, connections that may not be so chance after all. Not every connection has gone the way I had hoped (and I fear I have alienated or disappointed a few folks along the way too) but over all my feeling is one of great gratitude. That's usually when I do my best work, so, fingers crossed.

10 comments:

Java said...

HA! I love the name on the label!

This is a great story, Patrick. I hope to hear more about where Bromios is going now.

How blessed I am that the blogs have brought us together in a chance encounter.

Greg said...

That is the Universe at its best, that label right there. ; ) This whole bloggy business really has cross-polinated things in my life in ways I just could never have imagined, as well...the inspiration comes from all directions.

Do you have some of this Bromios stuff actually scripted (like where a guy could read it and stuff?) or is it all sort of organic and spontaneous when you get the coat on and the crowd lit? I'd love to read it, or better still, see you perform him.

(*SIGH. I can't wait to go to work tomorrow and see just what that coat looks like in technicolor...)

"Zumrosy" is the word ver. Sounds like something an old German gardener might say.

tornwordo said...

I love the way the universe works sometimes. Good thing you were paying attention! Love the label.

Jeff Wills said...

Bromios rising. Patrick dancing. All good things. Call me if you need an audience or companion for any of this, Patrick.

Birdie said...

I look for purpose in every chance encounter. And I'm so glad to have encountered you. I look forward to the time I can see you perform.

Greg said...

(He'd have to be a damn good looking chimp, though, eh?)

Homer said...

The harvest season seems a fitting time for Bromius to put in an appearance.

Eric said...

I'd be curious to see how Bromios has aged, if at all...

Dantallion said...

I absolutely LOVE this post and this story. I hope you continue to revive Bromios - and that you continue your presence here in Blogdom. Our neighbourhood simply wouldn't be the same without you.

As for the label - I always marvel at the universe's ability to provide us with small but remarkably un-subtle signs that there's a lot more going on around us than simple "chance" encounters...

Fingers crossed - and toes too!

Butch said...

"...I fear I have alienated or disappointed a few folks along the way too ..." Never, Patrick; never.

You wear the Irish bard in you not unlike that orange coat inspires Bromios upon you.

I enjoy dreams and try and make sense out of them when I can remember my own.

I'm with Dantallion, "fingers and toes crossed" ;-)

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