Friday, February 26, 2010

Snow Day in Harlem

Yesterday as the snow began to pile up, the only thing I really needed to do was go to the grocery store.  Even that was somewhat optional, if I didn't mind making the poor food delivery guy slog through a whole lot of nastiness before climbing four flights to my apartment.  (My roommate says it's somewhat comforting to realize he's not the only one out of breath by the time he gets to the front door.)
I tend to like snow though, so I decided to head off to buy some stamps, then if I was still having fun, I'd head down to Riverside Park. 
It was late enough in the afternoon that anyone who was out (shoveling supers aside) were probably there, like me, by choice.  A rather cheerful atmosphere permeated, at least amongst the pedestrians.  I think the drivers were having less fun.
Of course part of our enjoyment no doubt comes from having more space to ourselves than usual.  As you can imagine, this was even more true when I headed down the park.  Even in good weather, this place isn't really on the way to anything.  If you're here, it's because you chose to be. 
At the water's edge I found creatures who were going me one better in the chilling department.  Ducks and Canada Geese sat in the choppy waters.  I didn't see any of them fishing; I think they just liked being in the water. 
As my face began to hurt from the driving snow, these two bikers passed me.  I was impressed by the progress they were making through the slush.  One of them called out a cheery hello as she passed by.  This never happens in more clement weather.
Snow falling on water has always seemed magical to me.  Growing up in Indiana, I always associated large bodies of water with the Summer.  Even if we were going to nearby Brookville Lake (an hour's drive, in my recollection) we only went in hot weather.  Going to the east coast, usually Maine, also usually only happened during the Summer. 

My first year of college coincided with a sabbatical year for my Dad, so my parents and brother spent it on Southport Island, in Boothbay Harbor, Me.  That Christmas break was probably the first time I saw snow fall on the ocean.  My seven years living in Seattle didn't give me many more opportunities.  Snowfall isn't common in the city, at least it wasn't back then, and on the rare occasions when it happened, it usually shuts the place down.  Getting down to the water's edge, let alone onto a ferry, would have been more trouble than it was worth.  Being able to walk to the Hudson yesterday was nice, it even felt like a bit of a luxury. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Scranton Analysis

The next morning, further reactions as promised:

Boy howdy, that restricted vision. I knew I'd be able to see nothing much past my front paws, er, my hands on the floor, and thought I had prepared adequately for that. The cat's toy was jingly for two reasons, one artistic (?) one extremely practical. And as I said before, Jeff and I established when we did our tech-through that I wouldn't react to anything he was doing unless there was an accompanying noise. That worked nicely in the broad strokes, but it wasn't until I saw the videotape that I realized how much fun stuff I still missed, like the fact that he sat on audience laps. Knowing that might not have changed anything I did, but it might have. At the very least it meant I missed out on a key part of the audience's enjoyment. In that vein, it's interesting to notice the audience member who reaches out to pet my head. Again I didn't know this was going on at all, and had she actually made contact, I might have have freaked out, sure I had somehow managed to bump into something or someone. Worst case scenario, I might have even hurt her, if she had reached out to touch me just as I made a sudden move. It was just dumb luck--and perhaps some wise caution on the audience member's part--that kept any of that from happening. She was playing along, engaging, being a great audience member (and it does look like I'm staring right at her, doesn't it, not to mention the fact that I've practically crawled into her lap) while I was completely in my own world.

This whole event was geared towards audience interaction, and this piece appears to be in keeping with that spirit, but since I couldn't SEE anyone I wasn't holding up my end of the deal. Bumping into the table and the light stand made patently obvious to the audience that I wasn't as in control of the situation as I should have been, and again, it was just dumb luck that nothing got broken, and no one got hurt.  (I don't think Conor's beverage actually spilled, Greg, but the threat was bad enough. He's an actor at the theatre, and an easy-going guy, so I don't think he held it against me, but that's just luck on my part too.) Events like this want to create a sense of controlled chaos, and audiences, if they like that dynamic at all, like it a lot.  This crowd was very ready to play along, and that was fantastic.  One couldn't have asked for a better house. But they need to be safe, and they need to KNOW they're safe, that they may be put in slightly embarrassing situations, but not physically dangerous ones.  Another item on the list of dumb luck is the fact that my biggest blunders came right at the very end (and the second one didn't involve any audience members), so just as the audience was figuring out maybe I wasn't that safe to have around, I was already gone.  So let me just say to the fine folks in the house that night, thanks, you guys were swell!  Sure glad I didn't hurt any of ya!

In my own defense, I will say I had anticipated this issue somewhat as well, in particular when it came to the cat toy.  I very carefully made sure it was in the center of the stage before going gonzo on it.  But then adrenaline kicked in, I lost control of the ball's movement, and that is what sent me colliding into things.  I had been careful up until that point, but once I'm playing cat hockey, like, wow.  So, the dangerous part was really only there at the end, but it can't and won't happen again. 

Now many of these discoveries would have been made in rehearsal, had there been any, and it was perhaps a wee bit intemperate of me to tackle so many experiments at once when I was going into a performance where it was understood improvisation was the name of the game.  I'm used to creating pieces on the fly, that find their full shape with an audience, and that was certainly how I approached this piece.  Some of that happened still, but I'm going to do a lot more work on it, preferably with a director, before I perform this piece again.  

Some basic lessons I've already identified: 
1) Stillness is my friend with the cat mask.  Cats spend a lot of time being still, plotting their next move.  I have a tendency to keep low-grade movement going on with a new mask, fearing that if I don't have some kind of action going, the mask will cease to read.  Of course nothing screams insecurity like unmotivated, undifferentiated movement.  So, it's a general lesson, and one I've certainly 'learned' before, but it has added resonance with this mask.  He can spend less time prowling, and more time sitting and thinking.  

2) Given the sight limitations with this mask, further performances would benefit from, ahem, tight choreography, and possibly a proscenium stage.  Three quarter staging like you see here was invented in part to increase the connection between audience and performer. I'm a big fan of three quarter stages, but wonder if this piece might, at least for a while, need the greater sense of remove one gets from a proscenium. That separation doesn't have to deaden the effect; in fact can it increase the magical aura.  For now, this piece might need to be something audiences interact with aurally and emotionally, not so much physically. 

3) On a related note, some questions to address with a director include, what is the exact window of the mask?  By this I mean, when does it read and when do we lose the character, and become aware of it as a construction sitting on someone's head?  All masks have a window that is particular to them.  Looking straight out, one may read beautifully, but tilt your head too far back, suddenly all we can see is the separation between the mask and the face and the illusion is shot.  Turn too much in profile with certain masks, and suddenly an audience can't help but focus on the elastic band holding the thing on your face.  Everyone has known it was there all along of course, they've probably seen it even, it's not news to them, but they happily suspend their disbelief as long as you don't make it impossible for them.  This mask comes with different rules, and audience members will happily accept those as well, I just need to be very clear on what they are.  Right now my understanding is too general.  The video makes clear to me that seeing the cat from the back isn't terribly effective, so this another reason to shy away from three-quarter staging. 

This mask came with a very interesting wrinkle on the window question.  When I hold my head at certain angles, it reads as a cat (which is what I was going for, so, like, yippee).  Change the angle slightly though, and suddenly the audience sees a dog.  I had anticipated this problem sculpturally (more on that in a moment) but it wasn't until I saw the video that I realized how much my movement affected this.  The sight problem comes into play here as well; occasionally I would forget myself, and crane my neck back in a (decidely doomed) attempt to see a bit farther ahead.  When I keep my head down in the way it's supposed to be, I think the illusion of cat is achieved.  Tilt my head up just a bit too much though, and it is definitely doglike.  Practice, and a director's eye ('drop your head, you're looking up again') will help with this problem.  (A director will also be able to remind me to keep my butt down.  Honestly, I thought I was, but nope, I kept forgetting that too.  Cat or dog, it just looks wrong.)

The dog/cat dilemma is also a sculptural problem, as I, Friend Marta, and my boy Bill all noticed as I worked on it. Here, let me show you.

 Cat.  Right?  Big cat, not house cat, but cat, don't you think?  Now I'm not so sure, but let's say cat, especially since I took this shot with the flash in order to get the glowing-eye effect that I am SO pleased with, even if it didn't get used in performance at all (might have turned the tide from cat to dog, if I had, huh?  At least for the two audience members who would have actually been able to see them glowing?)


Dog.  I see this and I flash back to waking up from a nap on my parents' couch with Fang looking lovingly into my eyes, having just smooched me awake. Man, does that wake a guy up. Ain't no glowing-eyes effect gonna change this.  Dog, BIG time.
Maybe I'm kidding myself, but I think this is pretty cat-like.
Oh so very doggy. 
Hmm.  What is that?  I'd say more cat than dog, but I know I'm biased.
Is that a cat?  Dog?  What the hell is that?  Why is that guy sticking his butt in the air?  It looks stupid. He really needs a director to tell him how stupid that looks. 

Essentially, I think the mask is most cat-like in profile, with my head dropped, but not dropped too far, especially not when I'm sitting, because then it reads as a cowering dog.  Head on, the look is decidedly dog-like, and lifting my head too far up, if it doesn't just break the illusion all together, also creates a doggy impression. Essentially the eyes are too far apart for a cat, and the muzzle is too long and too flat. Audience members were almost equally divided between "I saw a cat" and "I saw a dog".  There was an interesting group who said things like "I really liked your... cat... dog... creature." I may be wrong, but I think where they were sitting had an effect on which animal they saw.  The people on the sides, who got more profile, saw a cat.  The folks in front saw a dog.  I may be able to make some adjustments sculpturally to improve the cat look, and I'm sure I can do a lot behaviorally (and I think everyone who saw the pounce, with anticipatory butt wiggle, recognized that as a cat), but ultimately I may need to take these lessons and build an entirely new one.  Creating this guy let me work out a lot of the logistical bugs, so I think I'll be able to address more complicated issues with future attempts.  Getting the mask to fit on my head, with the eyes not too far apart, without then creating a mask so huge that it looks completely out of proportion with my body, all that will be the next frontier, but I think I have some ideas how to fix it. 

Goodness.  This post is all about me, isn't it.  It is my blog, but this was NOT my show, and like I said, it was an honor to be on this bill, with these artists.  Billy Rogan's music was the unifying theme, and he was a pleasure to work with, gamely jumping in anywhere he could, and shaping his sounds to our needs, his contribution always exceeding what we asked of him.  Getting to perform with live music is such a rare treat for me, getting to do it with Billy was that and more.  Kate Chadwick sang a beautiful old Irish folk song her grandmother taught her.  It was a few lines in before the audience realized she was singing a gorgeous a capella version of Beyonce's Single Ladies. What might, in less talented hands, have been a one-note joke, in Kate's had a wonderful build.  Later she and Billy improvised a call and response tap number that was a lot of fun.  The father-and-son team of Richard and Sheridan Grunn provided two hilarious commedia/clown scenes, the first a lively Italian meal served by a very energetic chef, the second an equally passionate puppet circus, with a soundtrack provided by a music box and several singing Hallmark cards.  Jeff Wills stilt-walked, bantered with Billy and the audience, and as you see in my video, brought a wonderful comic character to our scene.  (Next time I will be in a position to take better advantage of that.)  That was what the audience saw of Jeff.  Only we behind the scenes had an inkling of how hard he'd worked to make this all come together, while making it look effortless and fun.  Anyone who has ever produced any kind of public event knows just how hard it is to make something look effortless.  It's one of those jobs that disappears when it's done well, which too often means people don't get the credit they're due.  I hope Jeff knows how much we all appreciated his hard work, enthusiasm, support, TALENT and unflagging spirits. 

So, I learned some useful things, and it's nice that said lessons at this point are saying "here's some ways to fix the piece," and not "it's time to face reality, moron, and go to accounting school."  It's all good. 

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Scranton Performance

Here's a video of the new piece I performed last night in Scranton, as part of the Spectacular Scrantonian Spectacular.  This probably exceeded the abilities of my little camera, with theatrical lighting, but it will be a useful tool for me as I continue to develop the piece.  First lesson, my vision is even more restricted than I expected it to be.  I'll give more of my reactions soon. 

The event was a hoot, bottom line, and it was an honor to be on the bill with some fine artists.  The music and sound effects were created and performed by Billy Rogan, Jeff Wills hosted the event and improvised with me happily (figuring out he needed to make noise any time he did something, so I could follow him). 

Friday, February 05, 2010

Pause for Gratitude

Sometimes the blessings come fast and furious.  The sheer abundance can be part of the joy, but I also worry that when there are so many all at once, I might not take the time to give them each their due. 

Friend Marta is visiting for a few days, and taking some time for a writer's retreat.  Having a playmate, right here in the apartment, to talk to on such topics as spirituality, grace, books, writing, sex, bodies, home, family, place and community (which for me, and I suspect Marta, are really all the same thing) is such a joy. 

Having her working here so contentedly also reminds me that this apartment is not without its pleasant qualities, particularly on sunny winter days. 
I have a modest project of my own coming up.  I'll be putting a new piece on its feet this Monday, in Scranton, PA, at the Spectacular Scrantonian Spectacular, at the Electric Theatre Company.  Friend Jeff is organizing, hosting, and producing said event, and I'll be on the bill with Kate Chadwick, Richard Grunn, and Billy Rogan.  Above and below you see some of the masks/puppets-in-progress that will be setting foot on the boards for the first time that night. (Don't worry Jeff, they're closer to completion than these images show, I just want to save the final images for the performance, and after.) 
I love this part of a process, where the ideas are or no longer just in my head, but not yet completed.  Basically it's the most expansive part of the journey for me, when the raw materials start to excite me for their own sakes, whether that be text, images, music, shiny things, or big sheets of cloth in gorgeous colors.  Even as I know not everything will be usable, even as I know the fantasy images in my head will never be fully realized, I revel in this stage, what I call the 'splashing about'.  This morning, right on schedule the fears, insecurities and despair showed up, telling me all the way things could, even would go wrong.  I know this is just part of the process, but I also recognize that these voices haven't always been wrong.  That's why they still get my ear.  Fortunately I'm able, at least today, to listen to the ones that sound a useful warning (ie. they tell me to make changes I can still make), and ignore the vague, confidence-eroding ones that just aim to make me feel bad.  Marta, food, and throwing pretty cloth around have helped with these.   
I'll be the first to admit I'm not always good at completing things, or developing them after the first enthusiastic push.  I'm not forgetting that issue (it's also why this here post isn't very long, since I really should get back to work).  But today I'm enjoying this moment, the making, problem-solving, and dreaming moment.  Good friends, good work, time to enjoy them both (let's forget for the moment how whiney and resentful I've been of the time I spent just earning money: stupid money), I'm very blessed.  Good to be able to see it, while it's happening.