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.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Cape Escape: The Gardener's Nest

In an email last Thursday night to Friend Greg of The Midnight Garden, I mentioned that I was looking at a three day weekend, to be followed by a rather grueling work week, so I was considering ways of getting out of the city. Only half-joking, he responded that I was welcome to come join in the fun of painting his apartment. The prospect of meeting an online friend in person, getting to the Cape, and splashing around a bit with paint was too much for me to pass up, so off I went Friday afternoon.

New York seemed to have other plans for my trip at first. My subway was shut down for close to thirty minutes because of a track fire -get this- behind my stop. Wouldn't it then be in our best interests to get as far away from the fire as possible? None of us ever quite figured that out, but it did lead to some good-natured bonding with my fellow passengers. I caught the 3pm Cape Cod bus out of Port Authority, but for some reason the bus took a route on city streets all the way through Manhattan and the Bronx, thus getting us caught in rush hour traffic and about 493 million red lights. As with the subway, I was similarly baffled by this turn of events; maybe the Manhattan highways are off-limits to buses. So just getting the hell out of Manhattan took over an hour, AND we drove practically right by my house, which made me think they could have just told me when to meet them on my corner, and I could have skipped the subway and first 50 minutes of the bus ride, but of course no one had thought to give me that option. Stupid Bonanza/Greyhound/Peter Pan Buslines (yeah we don't have interstate public transportation, we just have a bus monopoly: much more capitalist, and therefore, better).

Nonetheless I was in motion again, and very happy, my happiness increasing once we actually got to go the speed limit, somewhere around Stratford, Conn. Feel those G's! As I told Greg upon arrival, this trip reminded me that buses are worse than trains, but lately they're much MUCH better than planes.

Once I realized I was going to be late, I called him at home, but had already missed him, so the poor guy spent an hour in the Hyannis bus-stop wondering if I had already arrived and wandered off on my own, possibly to get knifed at the bar down the street where such things are a weekly occurrence, apparently. Eventually I showed up though, in one piece, and we got to exchange our first hug.

After stopping at a Wendy's where I acted like I had never seen food before and we watched some teenagers in the next parking lot over play Dukes of Hazzard, we repaired back to the Nest, where I had the pleasure of meeting Badum. He and his person are even more handsome, charming, and welcoming than the blog had led me to expect. Both gentlemen set about making me feel quite at home through a generous application of hot tea, head-butts, purring and good conversation. We listened to Butch's new CD, and continued the various threads of conversation we've been having online. I was able to inform him that yes, those of you I've met in person really are as wonderful as you sound. I've been turning into a pumpkin at about 11pm most nights lately, but I happily stayed up until late that night as we continued chatting and galloping around the apartment like cheetahs.

There was a satisfyingly slow start to things Saturday morning, with coffee on the balcony (until I threatened to catch on fire in the morning sun), more talking, then Greg had to go to a short meeting at work. This allowed me to luxuriate in the crickets, brilliant sunlight, and sea-scented breeze, and to rifle through Greg's possessions in peace, most of them still conveniently stored in open boxes. Sadly I found nothing that was blackmail-worthy, which means that Greg is a virtuous fellow, better at hiding his skeletons, or my standards for scandalous information are inordinately high. I never asked about the hot-pink Sousaphone though. Sometimes the mystery is better. Loved the racing stripes.

The nest really is as cozy and fun as Greg made it sound. I told him it feels a bit like a tree house in all the best ways, and when he complained about the slanting floors, I told him to pretend he was on a ship. He reserves judgement on that approach for now. Nonetheless, the place has a wonderful feel, and I suspect will become even more cozy and nest-like when the weather turns cold.

After he returned from his meeting Greg made more coffee, we chatted some more, then finally got around to the supposed reason for my visit, painting the dining room. The ceilings in the Nest are pretty low (seven feet, would you say, Greg?), but instead of making the place feel cramped this has the effect of enhancing the coziness and tree-houseness (I think the amount of light, and the airiness of the place helps). It also means one can paint the walls without needing a ladder, even a shorty like me. I love the color Greg chose, too. As he said on his blog, it keeps changing with the light, which in that room especially (since almost every other room in the place attaches to it) will cause some lovely effects. It was a nice Autumnal color to work with on the last weekend of Summer.

After we applied two coats and had sandwiches, Greg indulged my wish to see some beach before the sun set. Even just walking there, past charming old New England houses and big stretches of sea marsh, was lovely. We got to the beach at low tide; there didn't seem to be any wind, which made the gulls gliding by in slow-motion all the more wonderful and surreal. We also saw some herons (amazing how many bad puns one can come up with involving the word 'heron'), and a whole lot of unidentified splashing objects (USO's) in the almost still water. Greg has some (surprise!) better photos of the evening over at his blog, as well as better shots of the paint job in various lights.

I realized this weekend that if you help someone paint - or move, for that matter- at the end of the day you simply have to have pizza. I don't know why that is, but it's true. Lucky for me Greg was in the same mood and suggested it before I did. I was afraid he'd feel honor-bound to suggest something fancy and Cape Coddy, but no, we were of one mind. The combination of food (really good pizza, by the way), sea air and previous late night meant that I did turn into a pumpkin this evening though, dropping like a brick around 10pm. Yeah, I'm a crazy, madcap, big city kind of guy. I didn't think about it until today, but I wonder if I had a touch of my country coma too. A case could be made. I hope Greg wasn't too bored by me that night. I was pretty much a lump.

There had been some talk of painting the kitchen Sunday morning, but when we started stirring around 9am, I, thinking I was going to catch a 12:30 bus, knew there would be no more pretense of working. More coffee was had, more talking done, and around noon we realized I'd be taking the 3:15 bus. I had a shower, Greg had a shower, allowing me to check one more time for incriminating evidence (sorry, still nothing), then we raced off to the bus station, arriving as my bus was loading. I'm so glad Greg thought to take some photos before we jumped in the car. I'm still kicking myself that I didn't get any photos of Birdie, and the two I got of Java are both blurry. At least I have one good photo of Jess and Marc. I love this shot below.

Thank you, my friend, for a lovely weekend. I look forward to doing it again.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Life in the Big City

This little guy was outside my bedroom window, on the fire escape. Keep in mind that I live in a fifth floor walk-up. In Harlem. Yes there are parks two blocks away, and a few trees between here and there, but most of the surroundings is brick, concrete and tarmac. I think this is a grasshopper, but maybe it's some kind of locust. The latter would make a bit more sense, I suppose, though if it is, it got separated from the ravening hordes.

But this isn't even the best recent sighting. I headed down to Battery Park yesterday to catch an outdoor performance of Kinesis Project. I had only just left the South Ferry terminal when I met this fellow strutting along.
I approached him gingerly, assuming he (she?) would be easily spooked, but while he clearly lost interest in chatting once it became clear I had no food, he also didn't seem particularly perturbed by me, or any of the other gazillion people in the area. This is the park where one can catch a ferry to Staten Island, the Statue of Liberty, or Ellis Island, so the place is crawling with tourists, especially on a sunny Sunday in late Summer.
I took these photos close to a huge memorial to Navy veterans, so I began to wonder if this bird was the spirit of Ben Franklin, still campaigning for the wild turkey to be our national bird. He thought the bald eagle was a poor choice, since it's basically a scavenger. Wild turkeys, according to ole Ben, are clever, resilient birds, and would have made a much more appropriate national symbol.
Needless to say, his idea never really caught on with the larger public. I'm sure I'm not doing justice to his argument.
Obviously this isn't a wild turkey, and my understanding is the domestic ones are dumber than a box of hammers (I guess that blows my spirit of Ben Franklin theory), but I found this fellow rather jaunty. I haven't the slightest idea what he was doing there. Melissa has seen him in the area before though. This would suggest that he isn't some eccentric Wall St millionaire's pet, or a lost farm exhibit. He's just a turkey, living in Battery Park.
Sometimes I really love New York.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Theory of Mysterious Paths

My concentration in the last few days has been upgraded from fruit fly to fruit bat. I'm grateful for the improvement, but disconcerted by the problem. I'm used to certain difficulties -a lack of self-confidence, a tendency to avoid necessary confrontation, occasional bouts of a bleak world view- and have developed habits over the years to address them. Paying attention? Focusing for longer than a nanosecond? Being able to read a freakin' book? Those are not problems I'm used to having. I suspect things will improve as the weather cools. I love Autumn.

The weather last week was close to perfect for me. Yesterday and today we're wearing the wet velvet body suit again, as some tropical storm threatens to come through. It's too soon to be Ike, so I'm thinking this must be Hannah coming back for encores, or there's some other tropical storm I've lost track of. I'm not quite Mr. Crankypants, largely because he requires more energy than I have, and I have had the good fortune not to have to do much this weekend.

While I wait for my brain to return to normal function, I've been musing on the idea raised by Birdie and the Midnight Gardener, that I addressed in the previous entry. Looking back through my collection of photos, I realized that enticing paths are a favorite subject. This set me to wondering what makes a path enticing, exactly? I have been down most of these trails several times, some of them over more than thirty years, yet looking at these images still conjurs a sense of excitement and mystery for me. I know perfectly well what lies ahead in most cases, but that doesn't stop me from heading down them again, each time wondering what might surprise me this time.
So, here are my beginning thoughts as to what makes a path enticing.
1. You have to be able to see ahead, but not too far ahead. It can't be too short a distance either though; I wonder if the range of distance varies from person to person.
2. Hidden curves and changes in elevation help a lot.
3. What you can see needs to be beautiful, but there has to be a suggestion that it gets even better further down the path.

4. For me, a dirt path is usually going to be better, but occasionally paved trails can still sometimes conjur the magic, if enough is going on.
5. To bring the greatest sense of mystery, the path should be flanked by something that is too dense to see through, so the path constantly draws the eye.
6. Forks in the road are almost always intriguing, but one trail will usually call a bit louder.
7. Extremes of light and shadow always make things more mysterious.
8. So does dramatic weather, especially wind, or the threat of a storm. Different types of forests make different sounds when the wind blows through. Pine forests sound like the ocean; forests with lots of oaks or maple trees will sound like rainfall.
9. Water in various forms will conjur the spell, especially if it's heard before it's seen. Just running alongside a river or creek will usually do the trick. Crossing over water always does.
10. Many paths don't need the help of light, shadow, wind or water.
11. Strange sounds, and appealing scent can be very powerful draws. Finding the source of the sounds is usually disappointing; finding the source of the scents is usually a pleasure.

Those are my first thoughts; I'll write more if inspiration hits. What would you add?

Further thoughts: Java and Birdie reminded me that temperature can be very evocative as well. Like Java, I tend to prefer shade, but there can also be something magical about walking along in muggy heat and suddenly stumbling into a pocket of cold air. I guess most sudden, unexpected changes can be very appealing.

Monday, September 08, 2008

No Real Point

I haven't had much to say, or at least not much that anyone else should be forced to read; hence my silence. Still don't have much to say, but if I really apply myself, I bet I can come up with a bit.

After my peripatetic Summer, I plan on staying put long enough to grow some herbs, so I started a few on September 2nd. My bedroom faces south, so the amount of light is only going to get better as the season progresses. As you can see the marjoram (top) and basil have already sprouted. The window box has chives and sage in it; so far there's no sign of activity there, but they supposedly take longer to sprout.

I've either had extraordinarily good luck with herbs, or gotten nothing at all. I haven't been able to figure out what makes the difference yet; it's sort of like my digital camera travails. Sometimes, more often than not at this point actually, the image will be in focus. Sometimes it isn't (about a third of the time), but I haven't the foggiest idea what makes the difference. With herbs, for some reason, it's been an all or nothing thing too.

I've never tried marjoram or sage before, so that is all new territory. Basil and chives I've done a few times though I got nothing from either of them last time, not even sprouts. Maybe the soil I was using was depleted, though I regularly gave them fertilizer (hmm... it's liquid stuff, that probably means my herbs aren't organic, right? Eh). I wondered if perhaps the pots were actually too big; I tried planting them right away in the larger pots that would eventually be their homes, rather than starting them in little sprouting pots. My thinking was, outdoors they would just grow in the ground, with no soil limitations beyond continental ones, right? What plant is going to object to TOO much soil, after all?

Well, maybe they do. Basil can be a bit touchy, which is why I'm happy to see it's already on the way (knock wood), but I feel like I could sprinkle chives on the rug and it would sprout eventually, so why didn't it work last time? We'll see if it does this time. The previous tenant of this window box was some English ivy, so maybe that has some influence too. Oh so many variables.

This image was on a wall in my hallway this morning. It's created by a prism in one of my living room windows (facing east) shining past that golden pothos plant, the one that climbs three quarters of the way around the room. I thought it was very arty. It also reminds me how nice this apartment gets in the Fall, when the light is strong, but the temperature is cool. I woke up today in a great mood, in part because of a wonderful date with friends Genna and Jeff yesterday, but also because Hurricane Hannah had finally, truly moved on. I no longer felt like I was wearing a warm, wet, velvet bodystocking with full hood (people in my life probably wished it had come with a ball-gag, but no such luck). I suppose that costume might be a good time for some folks, but it's not really my thing. Today is much, much better. Cool, crisp, bright, some of my favorite weather. Hmm, no wonder I'm back on the blog, even if I have nothing really to say (I always manage to go on though, don't I).

I have a gazillion photos from various walks in the past four months, but the thought of trying to share individual walks with you all is too daunting at this point. So I might just drop an image in now and then, when the mood hits me.

This photo is the top of the trail heading into Earlham Woods, in my hometown. It was the entrance to my secret kingdom, my private Narnia, when I was a kid. Looking at the image now, I can see why I still find it so appealing, exciting even. I know this trail, and all these woods, like the back of my hand (wait, is that a freckle? A mole? Where did that come from? Oh, never mind, it's just chocolate syrup), but when I look at this image, it still calls to me, speaking of mystery, magic, and adventure. Recently at the Midnight Garden, Birdie and Greg were discussing how much they feel the call of paths, trails, and old train tracks. I had never thought of it that way, but I do too. I'm getting better at seeing secret roads in urban settings, but my first love will always be the adventure of an unexplored path through trees, over hills, into mountains, any beautiful place that only reveals a few feet at a time. This visit to Indiana, and this photo, remind me that even places I think I know well often have surprises for me. The answer, I think, is to keep moving, and keep my eyes open.