Judgment Day

Over the weekend, I had the good fortune to act as a judge for the Massachusetts Educational Theatre Guild’s Massachusetts High School Drama Festival.

Let me start with a disclaimer: I will not be discussing any details of the judging process, or provide any justification for the decisions that were made.  I will not, actually, even discuss the decisions that were made.  What I will talk about is the overall experience.

Every year, high schools all over the state prepare 40-minute one-act pieces to showcase at Festival.  These pieces can be anything from adaptations of old stand-bys, to original pieces, to cut versions of classics.  The students are then invited to perform their pieces at preliminary festival rounds.  Each preliminary round includes eight performances over the course of one grueling day.  Three of these performances will move up to semi-finals.

So essentially, if you choose to stay for the entire day, you get the opportunity to see eight shows performed by exuberant, energetic, youthful performers who are just so excited for the opportunity to perform in front of their peers.

I can’t even begin to say how refreshing and rejuvenating the experience of watching this was.  Professional theatre can make you jaded and it can make you jaded quickly.  While there are certainly wonderful, magical things about the theatre (which, of course, is why we all choose to stay in it), the underbelly is its own ugly, irredeemable beast.  At its worst, theatre can be a conglomeration of horrible things: the politics, the narcissism, the nepotism; it can get to be a lot sometimes.  Additionally, the constant struggle for work is just that… a constant struggle.  As with many things, if you find yourself in a jungle of the bads without experiencing the fresh breath of the goods, you can begin to see a very grotesque and ugly mask.

You can often forget why it was that you got into this in the first place.

If you’re ever feeling that way, I highly recommend that you figure out how to get yourself to see one of these kinds of festivals.    The energy that tingles through the air is absolutely titillating.  The obvious effort that goes into each and every project is simply touching.

But if you really want to see something, stick around for the awards ceremony.  In addition to awarding three shows placement in the semi-finals, awards are also given out for “all-star” performances.  These awards can be for anything that a student put forth to add to the production: costuming, lighting, set design, acting, directing, etc.  The students who are recognized in this way are so excited and grateful to be presented with an honor before their peers.  The ceremony entails tears, cheers, and (most notably) no jeers.  While exuberance for a winner definitely comes most noticeably from the winner’s own school, the rest of the auditorium joins in congratulatory applause rather than any kind of derision.  Sportsmanship was an incredible portion of the day.  While I’m still on the fence about the benefit of “friendly competition” to the arts, I can most certainly say that this event encourages good social habits for an artist to have: a sense of accomplishment with one’s own work, and a sense of awe and inspiration from the work of one’s peers.

I can also say that I believe, with some surety, that lives were changed this weekend.  It may seem silly to say that, but assurances from co-judges, teachers, directors, and the ambient adults in the room that this event meant “so very much” to the kids were absolutely confirmed by the number of teary-eyes award recipients whose hands I shook.

While it was a long day (fifteen hours on-site, not including the time it took me to drive to/from the host school), it was absolutely a worthwhile one.  I am so very happy to have been a part of it, and I well and truly can’t wait to see what happens next year.

 

Letters to Myself

At the moment, I’m serving as fight director for Tufts University’s production of RENT.  This has caused no small amount of internal time travel.

Music is extremely evocative, and the music from RENT was something that I lived with on a constant basis in my high school years.  I listened to that soundtrack so much that I can still sing it top to bottom, backwards and forwards.  I may just know RENT better than I know Hamlet (and, as you know, that’s saying something).  Last night, I was sitting in on the first minute or two of their run-through (because that’s when my violence occurs… remember?  Collins gets the snot beat out of him and his coat stolen in the first number?) which meant that, inevitably, I came home to spend some time with my high school self.  And I have a few things to tell her.  So, in the event that time travel is a real thing some day, I’m publishing this open letter to my high school self in a place where she’s sure to find it using google.

Dear high school self,

You have to understand first and foremost that nothing I’m about to say is a joke.  I know you’re going to find it incredulous that some of these things have happened to you and that this is your life now, but if you can believe in time travel you can believe in this.

You still work in the theatre.  You moved to Boston to get a PhD and you’re on your way to becoming a Shakespeare Scholar.  You travel around the country to present your work at conferences (just this year, you sat in the Blackfriar’s playhouse in Staunton VA where you heard Russ MacDonald give a keynote… yep… that guy whose book you’re going to read in about three years while sitting on a plane to London where you’re going to study with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust/Royal Shakespeare company… oh yea, that happens too).  You’re also a freelance writer, and (get this) you work as a Fight Director.  Yep.  In Boston.  People pay you to do that (and, by the way, really enjoy your work).

I know you think that New York is the greatest city in the world and you’ll never leave.  Well, you still think that and you miss it terribly.  But there are things about Boston that you don’t find half bad (being able to have a car, for instance, is pretty rockin’).

Most of your friends are now married with kids.  You’re not.  It’s the cost of progress.

This is the earliest readily available picture of myself that I can find.  I'm in my New York Apartment living room painting a set for "Complete Works of William Shakespeare [abrgd]".

This is the earliest readily available picture of myself that I can find. I’m in my New York Apartment living room painting a set for “Complete Works of William Shakespeare [abrgd]”.

Don’t go stressing out about it though; you like their kids but you also like your sleep.  Sleep is important when you regularly work twelve and thirteen hour days.  Don’t worry, it doesn’t feel like work most of the time (because you love doing it), but does take a lot of energy to sustain.

Let me prepare you for this one too: some pretty tough stuff is going to happen to you.  Friends will come and go, people will die, you’ll fall in and out of love, you’re not going to succeed at everything (and some of the things you fail at you’re going to have worked really hard for)…  You’re going to understand a broad spectrum of human emotions before you write this letter to you.  None of the bad stuff feels good when you’re going through it, but at the end of the day I promise something good comes from each and every awful thing.  They help you to understand yourself in ways you didn’t before which, for you, is really important.  They make you a better human being.  And, if you really don’t care about that (which I’m not convinced you do), they also make you a better actor.

Oh, by the way, you’re pretty good at that acting thing.  Don’t let the countless fruitless auditions and meetings with agents/managers get you down.  You’re going to get to play some pretty cool roles and work with some pretty great people.  But don’t let this go to your head either; the best thing you can do is learn humility as quickly as possible.  Even if whomever you’re dealing with doesn’t know more than you do, you’ll get further with the assumption that he does rather than the opposite.  And you’ll be surprised the things you can (and will) learn from these situations.

Strive to be curious.  Curiosity will take you to great and wonderful places.

Always be tenacious.  Bouncing back with fervent persistence is one of your greatest strengths.  Whatever it is that you’re pursuing, chase it down and shake it until it’s dead.  Unless you don’t actually want to kill it (even in metaphor), in which case chase it down and hug it forever and ever.

I could go on, but I don’t want to spoil anything.  The bottom line: it’s all going to work out.  You’ll have ups, you’ll have downs, the downs are tough and the ups are great.  I can promise you this: you’ll always have some awesome friends around to help you, there will always be a new adventure waiting, and you’ll only ever be as stagnant as you let yourself become.

Much love,

Future you

For the Children

As you may or may not recall, I’ve just come off a project at the Charlestown Working Theatre.  It has been my pleasure to fight direct their Advanced Youth Ensemble’s production of Macbeth.  The show opens on Saturday the first and runs weekends through the ninth (for more information, check out the CWT website).  This production has given me the opportunity to think about a great many things (not the least of which being “What’s the best way to kill a child, but not the infant he’s carrying, onstage?”; “How badass are the Banquos?”; and “If I were the King of Scotland, what would my signature broadsword move be?”).  One of the more poignant issues came up the other day in rehearsal, and I’d like to take a moment to discuss it.

This show is a production with teens.  The cast is (mostly) aged 13-18.  CWT plays host to several youth programs for children of varying ages and it’s truly a family place.  As a result, the director mentioned to me that she has been asked by parents if this show is appropriate for their younger children.

Alright, look.  Macbeth is a violent show that deals with adult themes.  Depending on the production company and the director’s imagination, sometimes the show is more violent than other times.  This version of Macbeth happens to be “bloodless” (by this I mean that, while murders are staged, we are not using blood or gore effects) and the violence is relatively straightforward (the murders are “clean” without being psychotic or sociopathic; the murderers take no apparent relish in their task but rather perform it as a duty).  Honestly, I think that this Macbeth is extremely appropriate for children of a certain age.

 

Me working with the cast.  Photo Credit: Jennifer Johnson

Me working with the Macbeth cast (specifically Macbeth and Young Siward). Photo Credit: Jennifer Johnson

Because bad things do happen in the world; and sometimes they happen to good people.  There isn’t a single news channel that wouldn’t show coverage similar to what we’re producing onstage.  This world is not always a safe place to be, and coming to terms with that is a part of growing up.

We go to the theatre to be transformed.  The old adage that philosophers unto ancient times have touted is that good theatre is meant to educate and entertain.  What better way to teach your children about violence than to expose them to violent acts in a safe space, where no one will really get hurt, and where the consequences are reversible?  Will young children feel disturbed by what they see in Macbeth?  I hope so.  If you can witness these kind of deeds without feeling some kind of stirring in your gut, then I don’t think you’re fit for humanity.  But what a teaching moment for them; what a place to learn is a theatre.

Besides which, there’s nothing we are showing that they can’t see in to even greater extreme on television, in movies, or in video games.  Did you know that gun violence in PG-13 rated films has tripled since 1985?  I’ve seen enough faceless murder victims on the big screen to know that killing isn’t a thing Hollywood takes seriously.  Blood, gore, assault… these are issues which we should be discussing with our children.  And, luckily, they are issues which Shakespeare takes seriously.  I think that Macbeth is a learning opportunity.  It’s an outlet for conversation about some BIG TOUGH issues which are and are not pieces of our daily lives.  Because, let’s face it, even though we are confronted with depictions of violence on an almost-daily basis, how often do we talk about it?

So I encourage you to take the opportunity that theatre has presented.  Teach your children about violence in a meaningful way in hopes that they can come to respect it and, in turn, realize how impactful it can be.  And, hey, maybe come see Macbeth.  Just to find out what that signature move I invented might be.

Robin’ Hearts

Yesterday was my birthday.

To celebrate I did many things.  One of them was to see theatre.  We went to go see the A.R.T.’s production of The Heart of Robin Hood.

I wanted to see it because it sounded like fun.  I mean, it’s a play.  About Robin Hood.  How could this not be interesting?

It turned out to be much more than I expected.  Yes, yes, there was talent onstage (both in the acting and execution of the show), the writing was good, and the sundry list of things you expect from professional theatre was all fulfilled with gusto.  Let’s talk about how this show went above and beyond expectations:

First of all, the set design.  I’ve never before seen a set that was more enveloping, more

Rehearsal shot of Jordan Dean (Robin), Christiana Bennett Lind (Marion), and Christopher Sieber (Peter) by Evgenia Eliseeva

Rehearsal shot of Jordan Dean (Robin), Christiana Bennett Lind (Marion), and Christopher Sieber (Peter) by Evgenia Eliseeva

appropriate, or more useful to the production.  From the moment I walked in to the theatre, I had absolutely no doubt that I was in Sherwood Forest.  Above this, every single little piece of the set was used for something (generally many somethings) in an unexpected and creative way throughout the course of the production.  The set was so wedded to the show that I had a hard time conceiving of how this could have possibly been rehearsed without it.  If you go for not other reason, go to see how set design can influence and effect a production.  Sets: not just pretty ways to decorate a room.

But it wasn’t just the set that made the set.  The lighting design for this production was so spot-on and wonderful that it was noteworthy.  Lighting design is an often-unacknowledged portion of the show as, generally, great lighting design is invisible and awful lighting design is nauseating.  In Robin Hood, the lighting was simply magical and almost cinematic in its magnitude.  It integrated seamlessly into the beautiful production, while simultaneously adding unending value to the story.  I often found myself wishing that my life could be lit the way Björn Helgason lit Sherwood.  Please?

Now let’s talk about the dramaturgy.  It’s not like Robin Hood is a new concept by any stretch of the term.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that, in most cases, Robin Hood is a trite cliché that should probably not be relied upon to add value to anything.  The A.R.T. production proved that you can teach an old outlaw new tricks.  At every turn, the production subverted your Robin Hood expectations while simultaneously remaining true to the story we all know and love.  Additionally, the program notes were well-written and lain out so as to give a glimpse into the playwright and designers’ dramaturgical processes.  Here was pertinent, interesting information about the show that you were about to see made accessible for a theatre (or Robin Hood) novice.  Dramaturgy at its finest.  Bravo.

And, for our superficial moment of the review, let’s talk about the bodies onstage.  This was an extremely physical show that constantly put the human form on display.  Following in the footsteps of the A.R.T.’s now-Broadway smash sensation Pippin, Robin Hood integrated physical performance and acrobatic athletics to create stunning visual tableau with bodies to match the already-lovely presence of the space.  What this means without jargon: well-muscled men in tight leather pants and open-front vests performing feats of strength for your amusement.  By way of a birthday surprise, this didn’t go amiss (it definitely wasn’t what I was expecting to see, but who wouldn’t take six-pack abs and leather to gaze adoringly at from the comfort of Sherwood?).  Lest you fear that this show is all-fluff and no-stuff, let me assure you that the acting prowess of these gentlemen matches their physical abilities and you will not be left to work hard in suspending your disbelief.  These guys are triple threats: acting, dancing, and (get ready for it) singing.  Yup.  They can come serenade me by my window any day of the week.

Oh yea, there’s a whole female empowerment story arc (Marion dresses as a boy and goes to pal around in the woods for a while), and a few of the scenes are essentially modern-text renditions of As you Like it.  For once, this homage didn’t make me angry; the playwright acknowledged it in his production notes, the actors did it justice, and I was happy to have snuck in some surprise Bard on my birthday.  Fun fact: Prince John’s last line is almost verbatim Malvolio’s last line from Twelfth Night.  Because who doesn’t like declaring revenge to the court before making a dramatic exit?

So really; if you have even a half interest in any of the things mentioned in this review (or circuses, ducks, bluegrass music, or stage combat), grab a ticket and go see.  Even better: take your kids.  They’ll love it and it’ll make you feel better about squealing like an over-excited toddler when the good guys start to throw down.

 

Not Dead Yet

As you may or may not have guessed by now…

I’m not dead.

I’m taking a break to spend some much-needed time relaxing and catching up on my life outside of academia.

Two more classes before the semester is over (not that I’m really “breaking” over the break, but at least things will slow down a bit).

I’m Fight Directing a show at Apollinaire; you should come check it out (Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven opens December 27th).

I’ll be back to your regularly scheduled programing after next week (one more week of sweet sweet solace).

For now, here’s the Swedish Chef attempting to cook a turkey:

A Pensive Moment

You ever have one of those moments where you find yourself doing something and, unheeded, your brain slams you to some point in your distant past when you were doing something absolutely, completely different and all you can think is “well dang, I never thought I’d be doing this”?

It’s been happening a lot to me recently.  I think this is mostly due to teaching my acting class.

This semester is the first time that I’ve had a classroom all to myself; not team-taught, not taught with supervision, not teaching off of someone else’s syllabus.  I make the rules, I enforce them, I create the lessons, and I have complete control over what goes on in my classroom during class.

Since it’s a rudimentary acting class, it requires me to go back to the fundamentals of my

Never thought I'd be on a plan to an academic conference about Shakespeare while reading his plays through the lens of a girl desperately hoping to pass her orals and become a Doctoral Candidate

Never thought I’d be on a plan to an academic conference about Shakespeare while reading his plays through the lens of a girl desperately hoping to pass her orals and become a Doctoral Candidate

own training which, essentially, requires time travel.  I think back to the person I was when I was doing these exercises, when I was turning in these kinds of assignments, when I was the wide-eyed optimistic student.  And thinking back upon that, I simply can’t escape the fact that I never could have planned things this way.

I never thought I’d be an acting teacher and certainly not within a university setting.  I never seriously thought I’d be getting a PhD (though the notion had crossed my mind, it wasn’t as something tangible or relevant until very recently).  And I certainly never thought that the academic world which is now my embroiled lifestyle could be a valid and sustaining life choice (though I guess, with the job market being what it is, we could debate the usage of the term “sustaining”).

It’s funny because it all seems so obvious.  My specific background lends itself really well to this kind of vocation.  That being said, there were a series of choices which seem to have logically set my feet on the path I now travel (and, if you really want to think of it this way, couldn’t have landed me anywhere else).  The question I keep coming back to is “well, if you didn’t think you’d be doing this, what did you think you’d be doing?”

The real answer is that I had no idea.  I knew I wanted theatre to be a deep part of my lifestyle.  I knew that certain works touched and moved me in a way that others did not.  I knew that I had enough and diverse background knowledge that I wouldn’t be happy being limited to a single middle-powered role in a top-down industry (theatre is totally a top-down industry).  I knew that I wanted to be an educator of some kind, but what kind was completely beyond my ability to understand.

I keep wondering what my students must think of the exercises that we’re doing.  I remember doing most of them myself, but (of course) I pointedly ignored the urgings of my teachers to keep the kinds of journals that I’m forcing my students to (by way of a graded assignment; see how tricksy I am?).  These days, I really wish that I had the kinds of resources that I am asking my students to develop for themselves.  There are other

Summer 2007 at Shakespeare and Company; never thought that'd land me here.

Summer 2007 at Shakespeare and Company; never thought that’d land me here.

reasons to keep track of things this way, but I will admit to the romantic hope that someday one of them finds herself in the situation I’m in: completely unwittingly winding up in my shoes and fervently hoping that something from her past can reach across the years to give her some guidance.

I think back to my teachers and find that I don’t think I appreciated them the way I should have.  Then again, I’m not sure I could have appreciated them this way.  I don’t think I could have understood the sheer amount of effort that went into doing what they do until this moment, when I was called upon to do it in turn.  And at the risk of sounding overly romantic, it’s kind of comforting to take my place in this cycle.  Even if, for just a short time, I can contribute to the turning of the wheel, it’s nice to know that my teachers’ teachings didn’t die with me.  Passing on the information is a real joy and, even on my bad days, I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to do so.

…Yes, even when I’m facing down a mountain of grading.  Which, by the way, is another thing I never considered until I became a university educator.  Assignments are as much (if not more) work for the instructor as they are for the student.  In case you were wondering why the instructor can’t party until the fat transcript prints.

A Comedy of Errors

In celebration of my triumph, my beaux took me to see a show this weekend.  And not just any show.  A SHAKESPEARE show.  A show that we’ve both been dying to see for some time now and which displayed great promise in its advertised concept.

The new-to-Boston Anthem Theatre Company performed a four-man Comedy of Errors  at the BCA Plaza blackbox.  At ninety minutes with no intermission and some creative application of props/costumes, it was a high-octane performance with great entertainment value.

Unfortunately, the performance was (for me) overshadowed by an egregious lack of judgment on the part of the production company.

I’ve always thought that a program bio for a dead playwright was a bit odd.  Granted, sometimes it contains useful information for an audience (especially if the show is meant to be an “introduction to [playwright]” for a crowd who wouldn’t normally see this type of theatre).  It makes slightly more sense when there’s a dramaturge working on a production with expertise in the subject matter who can craft a bio with good/entertaining tidbits.

Anthem, however, made a cardinal mistake: they copy and pasted from the internet.

The bio in their playbill is attributed to http://www.biographyonline.net/poets/william_shakespeare.html and has all the usual axioms about Shakespeare.  The piece which bothered me most was this paragraph:

“Shakespeare died in 1664; it is not clear how he died although his vicar suggested it was from heavy drinking.”

 At first I couldn’t tell if this was a joke.  The timbre of the show was irreverent; maybe this was some sort of wink to that.  A little investigation brought me to realize what was going on here: the error is reprinted verbatim from its source.  The issue wasn’t purposeful, it was simply a careless copy job.

First of all; Shakespeare died in 1616.  He was born in 1564.  The playbill misprint is likely

doesn't it look like we're private eyes in a noir movie?

doesn’t it look like we’re private eyes in a noir movie?

a transcription error on the part of biographyonline.net which was propagated by simply cutting and pasting the bio without fact-checking it.

It’s almost the first thing I tell my students when they walk into my class: never copy and paste off the internet.  And certainly don’t do so without a bit of investigation of your own.  One google search would have divested the truth about Shakespeare’s death date to whomever curated this playbill.

 

The bit about heavy drinking was a fairy tale I hadn’t heard before.  After some poking around, I see that (like so much else about Shakespeare’s life) it’s a reasonably common myth with an unclear origin; certainly not canonical fact, and not something that I would include in a reliable bio.

Why was I so enraged at this incident, you may ask?  Because first of all it undermines the authority of the work.  How am I supposed to trust that these people know anything about Shakespeare?  How am I supposed to respect the hard work of the actors/company if I can see that their playbill is thrown together by someone who simply doesn’t know any better and hasn’t bothered to find out?  What do they have to contribute to this conversation, or teach to an audience of Shakespeare-beginners, if they can’t get their basic facts straight?

The second reason that this made me angry was that it didn’t have to be a problem.  If the company wanted a dramaturge (or even just someone to write a smart playbill note), all they had to do was send one e-mail to any theatre department in the Boston area.  Said department, I can nearly guarantee, would have had a student willing to work on this project for free.  Suddenly, the company is engaged in a mutually beneficial relationship with a scholar; the dramaturge gets a resume byline, and the company gets an accurate piece of micro-scholarship.  Problem: more than solved.  And no fuss/no muss.

Really, this hits at the heart of an issue near and dear to my heart.  If scholarship can’t feed and serve practice, then what’s the point of scholarship?  And if practice refuses to acknowledge scholarship, then how can it serve its purpose?  Without a healthy dialogue between the two, we’re stuck in a combined death-spiral to mutual-but-separate oblivions.

It baffles me even more that companies who do classical work seem less likely to hire dramaturges than companies who do contemporary work.  Wouldn’t you think that a company who specialized in Shakespeare would want someone around who knows the ins/outs/back ends/front ends/historical tidbits/correct pronunciation intimately?  Or how about a company that generally does contemporary plays but is taking a dip into the Shakes-world; wouldn’t you think they would want someone to converse with about any questions they may have even more?

So long as we continue to put our hands over our ears and sing loudly to ourselves that our work is the only legitimate work, we will not grow as a community.  Without understanding and helping each other, we risk stagnation as artists and scholars.  So please, for the love of all things bardy, hire (or at least consult) a dramaturge.  If you find a good one, I promise that your work (and theirs!) will benefit from it.

Why Didn’t Anyone Tell Me?

Among my myriad of other tasks, I am currently doing some assembly work on my syllabus for my intro to acting class.

This is a bizarre experience in a lot of ways because it makes me harken back to many disparate but not unrelated periods of my life: when I was a wide-eyed but arrogant college freshman taking my first semester of classes, when I was a wide-eyed but talented youth taking my first acting classes, when I was a wide-eyed but optimistic young actor pounding pavement and auditioning to land parts that would surely, one day, make me famous.

…Oh how far have I come.

I do have high hopes for the potential of this course (as well as a few realistic ones which are probably nearer the mark for the actual effect that I can have on students of varying degrees of seriousness over the course of one semester).  Mostly what this has made me do is spend time going back to basics, remembering what it’s like to be new at something (which, as a dear mentor once told me, is the key to success at any level; she called it “beginner’s mind”), and thinking very seriously about if I could only instill one thing upon an absolute beginner student of acting, what would that be?

I am reasonably sure that this is the oldest shot I have of me performing without digging through embarrassing summer-camp things... this is The Laramie Project, 2003

I am reasonably sure that this is the oldest shot I have of me performing without digging through embarrassing summer-camp albums… this is The Laramie Project, 2003

I’ve come up with some answers (which I will leave unsaid in this forum, at least until I test their efficacy in the classroom).  I’ve also come up with some things that I wish someone had told me when I was first starting out (which I am much more inclined to share since they may or may not make it into my classroom given the fact that most of my early experience was in conservatory-setting rather than the non-major-friendly theatre department which, as you may imagine, is a completely different beast).  As it turns out, those things are pretty applicable to things outside of acting and so are also pretty relevant to the general blogosphere…

Always have confidence.  Your confidence, more than most other things about you, will attract the auditioner’s eye.  Be very careful not to confuse confidence with arrogance, however; it’s a very fine line.  One is attractive; the other is repulsive.

Make eye contact, shake hands firmly, know where your business cards are, smile, and be polite no matter who you think you may be talking to or how rude that person may be to you.  These things will make them want to work with you and, if they want to work with you, a myriad of other sins can be overlooked.

Life is too short to work with people who make you miserable and the power of networking is strong.  If you yourself are someone who is well liked (and, if you follow the above rules, why wouldn’t you be?), you will always find somewhere to land.  It may not be where you thought you’d land, but I promise it will be better for your sanity.

Protect your physical well-being.  If a director asks you to perform something that you feel is unsafe, say something and stick to your guns.  Your health is not worth a job no matter how many lines you have (especially if they’re not paying you).

Burning bridges is always a bad idea.  You never know where you’ll end up and who will be there with you.  Save yourself the awkward situation down the road and learn to execute grace and class as expediently as possible.

Theatre is an extremely high-stress profession that involves late nights, emotional intensity, tough and frugal living, and the necessity to disconnect yourself from your own ego.  The sooner you understand how these things may effect you and how you deal with them the better off you will be in the long-run.  If you can’t do any one of these things, you may want to reconsider your life choices.

Just because you aren’t a full-time theatre professional doesn’t mean theatre can’t be a part of your life.

It’s okay to wind up somewhere you hadn’t planned on being.  It’s okay to decide that this isn’t the path for you.  It’s okay to start over for any number of reasons.  You aren’t letting anyone down (including yourself) and you haven’t lost anything by it.

The sooner you can be comfortable in your own skin with your own emotions, the better you will be onstage.  Acting isn’t a profession for the insecure.  You will be asked to be ugly, you will be told you are fat, you will be given unflattering things to wear.  If you aren’t completely comfortable doing this in front of large audiences of strangers multiple times a week, you won’t be able to do your job.

Good acting requires unending tenacity, insurmountable bravery, and unquellable curiosity.  Never give up, bounce back like rubber, always be willing to try things.

Not everything will work for you but that doesn’t mean that nothing will.

another early shot (you can tell because of how bloody high my parry is)... I want to say this is 2003/2004.

another early shot (you can tell because of how bloody high my parry is)… I want to say this is 2003/2004.

Strive for perfection, but realize that it is unattainable.  That doesn’t mean you should stop trying, just that you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself when you realize that you didn’t quite manage it.  A true artist is never satisfied.

There will always be someone better than you.  There will always be someone prettier than you.  The trick is to figure out what you bring to the table that no one else can (…and if that fails to remember that talent and beauty are subjective but ice cream is not).

And on that note, I think I’ll go back to figuring out how much reading to assign.

Yūgen

In Nōh drama (an ancient Japanese style heavily laden with chanting and slow rhythmic dance), the desired effect of a piece is termed yūgen.  Sometimes, yūgen is translated as “grace” or “a mysterious sense of beauty”, but honestly it’s just easier to try and wrap your head around the concept of yūgen than to find a good way to define or translate it.

Yūgen, when achieved, is supposedly a symptom of “refined elegance” that properly executed Nōh brings with it.  Attempting to understand it is today’s metaphor for attempting to prepare for the comprehensive exams.

the book fort is growing

the book fort is growing

You don’t really know what comps are, despite knowing what comps are (just like yūgen).  Even when you think you may understand it, explaining it to someone else is extremely difficult and you find yourself resorting to all kinds of crazy metaphors (…i.e. this post).  While it may perhaps relate to something completely outside of its realm (comps prep relates to athletics like yūgen relates to comps prep), you can never truly pin down entirely what it is.  When you think you have achieved it, you can only understand that by a true inner calm and a self-assurance that you have done well.  While others may, by gazing from the outside in, observe the process within you, only you can be completely assured that you have truly done it.

Actors study for decades to achieve yūgen.  I have studied for decades to reach the comprehensive exams.  Japanese acting teachers are notoriously abusive in their training techniques; as is the world of academia (especially since the old guard had to walk fifteen miles uphill both ways in the snow to retrieve their library books and, of course, speak fifteen languages so thereby don’t need translations of foreign-language passages in their texts).  Japanese theatre is a man’s tradition (women were banned from the stage until the later part of the twentieth century, and even now there are extremely few female performers of the traditional theatre types; Nōh and Bunraku especially; Kabuki has a bit more).  Academia is still very much an old boys’ club.  Dressing in drag is discouraged in either setting (once they let ladies onto the stage, it took care of a lot of anxieties about what onstage cross-dressing meant for Japanese gender identity… and as much as I LOVE Ru Paul, somehow I don’t think she’d make the appropriate kind of splash if she showed up in full regalia to lecture “Theatre History 101”).

Appreciative audiences often sleep through Nōh productions (the desired

a better/alternate shot of the book fort

a better/alternate shot of the book fort

viewing state is the place between wakefulness and dream, so this activity, unlike in the Western theatre, is not at all discouraged).  Sometimes I take naps on books (especially if they’re not particularly engaging, or alternatively too mentally taxing).

Achieving yūgen is essentially achieving a divine state.  I can imagine that completing comps will feel the same way.  I only wish that there would be an ensuing audience to give me a GIANT round of applause while I take a triumphant bow when I turn in the final portion of the exam.

I am officially one month away from my test.  I think I’ve finally defeated the six-day stress headache that made me slow way down last week to accommodate the ailment (…though I won’t say that too loudly in case the headache-from-hell hears).

…let’s try to achieve some nirvana, shall we?

Not-so Mortal Kombat

Alright, folks.

I don’t usually get fight directorly in this forum, but a recent resurgence of interest in this portion of my life/training has caused certain issues to be high on my mind.  This, in conjunction with seeing a few cringe-worthy safety issues onstage recently, has made me feel like a few things need to be said.

First and foremost: hire a fight director.  If you don’t think you need a fight director, I can almost guarantee that you do.  Does anyone do any of the following things in your production: slap someone, fall to the ground, faint or otherwise slide out of a chair, drop to his knees, carry someone, come into direct physical contact in any way with another actor, point a gun at someone, use a gun period, pick up a weapon with the intent to use it on another actor, actually use the weapon on another actor, tie someone to a chair, do something to an actor tied to a chair?  If any of these things happen, YOU NEED A FIGHT DIRECTOR.

Just this week, I saw a show in which there were several faints, slaps, and physical bits.  The program didn’t list an FD working on the project which led me to believe that perhaps the director had some fight training (which is often the case).  The slaps and faints looked okay in my book, so besides being slightly grumpy that an FD was out of work I didn’t much mind.

It only made my hackles rise when, in the second act, there was a long drawn out torture scene involving contact gut punches, poorly executed slaps, and (most disturbingly) the use of a heavy-duty wire cutter applied to an actor’s fingers.  The victim was tied to a chair and the aggressor held his hand down while hovering with the weapon.  The victim’s fingers were BETWEEN THE BLADES of the REAL wire cutters.  Despite this being in a frozen tableau, it seriously made me squirm in a “I, as a professional FD, am worried for the safety of these actors” way rather than a “good audience member suspends disbelief” way.

I really can’t stress this enough: weapons are weapons.  It doesn’t matter if the weapon is a found weapon, a nonconventional weapon, or a weapon you may think is “safe” (dulled-down razor, etc.).  If you pick up an object and intend it to do harm to another living thing, that object becomes a weapon.  This is why self-defense classes recommend keeping a heavy duty Maglite by your bed in case of home invasion.  Just because you’re not using a sword, gun, or knife does NOT MEAN you are not involved in a weapon combat sequence.

Directors, stage managers, actors: there are ways to keep yourself (and your company)

my own recent object lesson in safety with weapons: bull whip practice is better with eye protection, folks.

my own recent object lesson in safety with weapons: bull whip practice is better with eye protection, folks.

from getting sued by the union.  There are ways to keep yourself (and your actors) safe from any mishap, no matter how unlikely seeming.  There are theatre professionals who can help make your violence good, believable, and a lot more brutal than it would look if you were “just doing it”.  When people “just do it”, they necessarily pull punches.  Most individuals simply aren’t comfortable hitting another person full-force in the face.  Thus, your attacks will look stilted, awkward, and frankly sloppy and counter to your artistic intentions.

At the risk of giving up industry secrets, budget concerns are not a factor here.  Thing one: it is a LOT cheaper to hire an FD for a few hours than to deal with the legal and insurance fees innate in actually harming an actor working on your project.  Thing two: there are many FDs who have students who, while perhaps lacking in experience, do not lack in training.  These students will likely be happy to work on your project for no more payment than a resume byline and some good networking.  While you won’t get the name-brand association that comes with a fully-fledged FD and you won’t get the complex violence experience/background someone like that can bring to the table, you will definitely get a safe show for your actors, and something much better coordinated than anything that came out of an untrained head.

If you are an actor working on a project and think that your safety may be compromised, SAY SOMETHING.  Too many actors are willing to do anything to make the show go on.  This is your HEALTH, your physical WELL-BEING that you are gambling with.  If that doesn’t matter to you, consider the age-old axiom of “your body is your instrument”.  You will not be able to do the same kind of work in the short-term (or even the long-term maybe) if your eardrum is blown out by a full-force contact slap, or you receive a giant powder burn on your face from an improperly used stage revolver (true stories, unfortunately, and ones that happens more often than you would think).  You would never stay at a desk job where your coworkers physically abuse you and you come home with injuries every day, why would you stay in an acting job that does the same because your employer (for whatever reason) doesn’t want to hire a safety expert?

Suffering for the sake of art is one thing, putting your life and limb at risk for a show which you probably aren’t even being paid to do is another.  Theatre is a collaborative process and the more talented individuals who execute it, the better that the theatre in general becomes.  Why wouldn’t we want to keep each other safe and healthy when doing projects together?