Sunday, July 28, 2013

Hopper Does San Francisco

I'm sitting in a rented apartment, about half an hour before I need to catch my flight out of town. I've spent a week with four other members of the DICE crew in the foggy neighborhood of Sunset in San Francisco. We just finished our show last night.

Like all DICE shows, it was (almost) entirely improvised. Each night, two of us would step onstage, one as Edward Hopper, famous 20th century painter of Nighthawks fame, the other as his wife Josephine, or one of the other people influential to his life and art. After a ten minute improvised scene, we would show a painting, and two more people would come on stage, starting in the places of the characters in the painting, and improvise a scene of what happened to those characters. Sometimes the parallels were obvious, sometimes they were subtle. But you could see them every time.

The show was part of a theater festival hosted by foolsFury, called Factory Parts. The point of the festival was to give ensemble pieces without a traditional scriptwriting process a chance to do something analogous to a staged reading. Were were still working out the kinks in the concept. Others were still working on the shows themselves.

There was a workshop over the weekend before we performed, hosted by director Mark Jackson. It started off seemingly as an unassuming list of lists of things about theater. But some of the items and discussions it provoked were certainly memorable. Aside from a few odd proclamations from participants about crop circles or brown rice, one thing that Mark himself said stuck with me: As artists, the product we create isn't the performance, or the object, or the thing we actually have our hands on, it's the experience of our audience. That's the thing we make, and as I interpreted it, that's what we're responsible for in our art.

It's something I'd always sort of felt, but never before quite had the words to explain. When I'm concerned about a piece of writing or a performance I'm part of, I'm usually thinking about the audience's experience. Obviously we can't be responsible for every single reaction of any audience member, but it's important to acknowledge that we at least share the responsibility.

Which is partially why I had a good time working with DICE on this project. People really enjoyed the piece. We got great feedback from our audiences in talkbacks and immediately after the shows. Sometimes when I'm doing dramatic improv, it doesn't totally feel quite like it's fitting. But when you hear afterwards that your audience thought it hit home, you know that no mater how you felt, you did something right.

I don't know what's next for the company, but I think we're going good places.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Party Tomorrow, Reading Next Week, Touring Show Next Month

Lots happening. Links galore to follow. Cliffs notes version, come see me perform and party tomorrow night, then come see me again next week. Then I'm leaving the country, then coming back, then you can see me perform again in San Francisco in July!

First. This is a photo for next week's gig. It was taken by Allison Stock, and it's promoting a reading I'm going to be in next week of Yasmina Reza's awesome play, Art. It all started when my friend, Adam Souza (center) and I started talking about the idea on GChat, and then invited Sean Devare (left) on board. Rehearsals with our director, Emily Snyder, have gone great, and I'm really looking forward to the end product. June 20, Space on White, 81 White St. Please RSVP on the Facebook event so we can ask for the right number of chairs. Admission is free, donations to pay for the space rental greatly appreciated.

But that's not all, tomorrow night I'm going to be performing for a big party for DICE. We're raising money for our trip out to perform in San Francisco in the FoolsFury Theater Festival. We're doing dramatic improv based off of secrets gathered anonymously from the audience, a comedic troupe will be doing their thing, and we've got two singer-songwriters doing their thing as well. Come join the party: 7pm, Pine Box Rock Shop, 12 Grattan St, Brooklyn. $5 cover, cheap drinks, and if you want to donate to help us go on the road, we'll wuv yu fuhevah.

See you at one and/or both! It's you last chance to see me before I go to Ethiopia.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Nonstop Bard

Last night at 2am, I finished performing in a reading of Richard II where I played Norfolk, Northumberland, Green, "Another Lord," A Servant, and a Groom.

Six hours previously, I did not know this reading was happening or that it needed actors.

And that's not the crazy part. That's actually sort of normal for a reading. The crazy part is that, while I've long since left, the show is still going. Right now. It's not Richard II anymore, I think they're on King John, but the same stage as I was on is still being performed on with probably some of the same actors from Facing Page Productions.

You see, Facing Page Productions is putting on, as I type this, The Company's Marathon. It's all 37 of Shakespeare's plays read onstage in a row without intermission. It started yesterday and will finish this Saturday, with no breaks. If you want to see Julius Caesar at 4:30am tonight, you can go see Julius Caesar at 4:30am. Expect to be out around 6:30am, in time for Much Ado About Nothing. And so on.

It's a place full of comfy chairs and sofas onstage, literally piles of scripts, and a constant stream of the most famous drama in the English language. If you come to watch, don't be surprised if you get sucked into the story. I don't mean engrossed. I mean handed one of the parts and asked to perform.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

He That Shall Live This Day

Tonight was a show-stopper.

Background: I am applying to eight graduate schools for International Relations. Prior to today I had already been accepted to George Washington University and American University's masters programs. The other six all said they would email their decisions sometime in March.

I am also a Resident Artist at The Shakespeare Forum. This means I go to a Tuesday night donation-based workshop of about 60-80 people to help facilitate monologues and feedback for actors.

Forum has a little thing we call a "Bard-Off," where someone can challenge someone else to do a speech they are too scared to do, don't like, or for whatever reason, wouldn't normally do. If the person accepts, they get to assign the challenger a corresponding speech. I challenged my friend, Meryl, to one a long time ago, making her do a Cleopatra piece she always wanted to do, but dreaded. In turn, I took on Henry V's Crispin Day speech.

So. Today. Today was the day we finally agreed on performing. I'd been running the lines on my own and with my girlfriend for days beforehand. I was feeling good about it as I got on the subway tonight.

To distract myself, I opened my email, just as we no longer had cell service. At the top of my inbox was a message from Johns Hopkins SAIS, one of the top international relations schools in the world. I opened it. It said my admissions decision was ready and viewable online.

I couldn't of course get online from the New York subway. That was a long train ride.

By the end of it, I had decided I wasn't going to check until after forum. So I turned off my phone. I was physically shaking for a good hour, watching everyone perform. I don't know if it was knowing about the hovering admissions decision or about my getting up in front of a packed house to give arguably the biggest pre-battle speech in the English language.

There was the break. Some announcements. Then the third to last monologue, the second to last, and then the last one. Then came time for the Bard-Off. The crowd started chanting "Bard-OFF! Bard-OFF! Bard-OFF!"

Meryl pulled out a gold circlet, took off her jacket, strode onstage, and knocked that piece out. She was great. Applause and cheers, assorted looks from the audience in my direction clearly saying "good luck topping that" and Meryl walked off. I shook her hand, and stepped forward as the chants began again.

I stood for a moment in front, and then silenced the chant with a wave-to-fist of a choir director. Laughter. Then came the lines.

This speech is given by King Henry to his battered, exhausted men as they are surrounded by thousands upon thousands of French troops, fresh and in full armor, knowing soon they are going to be attacked.
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
I paused. People started cheering. I quieted them again and started fresh:
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
Henry goes on to lead those battered, outnumbered troops to victory. It's a great speech, and it got a big reaction. That felt good.

Twenty minutes later, I was at the bar with everyone. I made sure I had a whiskey in my hand. While I was playing Henry, the University of Washington had also sent me an email decision. I got out my phone, logged in to the sites and read the messages.

I'd been admitted to both programs.

It's been a great night.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

I Love/Hate/Heart NY

If there's one thing New Yorkers love doing more than bragging about New York, It's complaining about New York. It's late, I feel like indulging. I may update this later as things occur to me. Gives me a place to put all these things.

The case against New York: 

I pay about as much rent as my brother pays for his monthly mortgage payment. He lives in a two-story house outside of Chicago. I live in an essentially unheated walk-up one-bedroom apartment, maybe 400 sq ft, no appliances, no onsite anything, in a not-very-nice area of town.

Buying groceries costs more here than dining out does in other cities. My girlfriend paid $5 for a dozen eggs last week. A store two blocks from my apartment advertises milk prices the same way most places advertise gasoline, with exchangeable numbers. To add gastronomic insult to financial injury, produce in normal grocery stores is rarely any good.

Despite making well under the national average  for annual income, I have to pay so much in taxes every year that I have to send checks five times a year to not only the federal and state governments, but also the city government.

I miss nature. When I say "I miss nature," to people here, they tell me to go to Central Park. At which point I explain the phrase "man-made" to them, and their eyes glaze over.

Central and Prospect Parks aside, parks are so sad that what amount to traffic islands are considered city parks. I'm not kidding. They occasionally have a shrub and a bench near the parks dept sign.

Marked city bike paths often include cobblestones, and sometimes include stairs.

The weather is really unpleasant six months out of the year.

Because everyone thinks the city has everything, nobody ever leaves. Anyone from New York who meets someone who lives elsewhere thinks that they must be, on some level, joking.

Other cities have parking strips, planter boxes, and other nice things on the side of the sidewalk. In New York, because there are no alleyways (and therefore no dumpsters), all garbage is piled out onto the sidewalk. And it stinks-- while the rest of the country moved on to separate not just recyclables but also food waste, New York still hasn't quite figured out the recycling part. They're trying. Sorta.

The case for New York:

I'll almost never want or need to drive a car as long as I'm in the city. The subway is so good that we come to any given station without looking at a train schedule ever, and whine if a train doesn't show up within five minutes.

I spent last weekend in an on-site reading of Checkov's Three Sisters, after which I saw Eddie Izzard from the third row in a small club in the lower east side, and the next day I did a film shoot with a dramatic improv crew. Wednesday I got an email offering me tickets to see two prominent TV actors perform in a production of Much Ado About Nothing. I went to work, finished, and saw the show that night.

Every Tuesday I spend my evenings with 60-80 amazingly talented actors performing Shakespeare in basement, and then go en-masse to a bar afterwards where the manager likes to give me free drinks while I'm at the free-play pool table. Thursdays I have a couchsurfing meetup I can go to where I can and do meet about sixty people from literally all over the world.

You never have to meet or talk to a boring person ever again. Almost everyone you meet is from somewhere cool and is doing something cool, and has awesome stories.

I get paid enough per hour to help rich kids with their homework for about ten to fifteen hours a week (not counting prep and transport, which makes it closer to 30 but still) that I can pay rent referenced above and have some left over.

If it exists in any city and can be done in a city, I just need to use my phone to find out how I can get to the place it can be done in less than an hour. Doesn't matter what it is. Similarly, anything that tours anywhere comes here. If it doesn't, it's probably not interesting enough for us to want to see it anyway.

All of your friends and family from out of town love the idea of visiting you. Some even love visiting you.


So in other words, NY is kind of a horrible, expensive place to live, full of awesome people doing awesome things.

I guess I'll take it for now.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Say Protopopov Five-Times, Fast

Reading a script by Checkov is weird.

I'd forgotten this in the years since I last did it. Any self-respecting professional actor is well up on their Checkov. Unlike them, I write a blog, and honesty makes for more interesting entries than self-respect. I'm pretty sure the last and only time I read anything by the man was in high school, when we were assigned The Cherry Orchard. I didn't understand much of it, and our teacher told us, that's okay, the playwright wrote it thinking it was a comedy, and the first director thought it was a tragedy. So if you don't get it, you're not alone.

Fast forward to last week. I'd just come from a rehearsal for the one-act festival I was in that weekend to a birthday party in a turn-of-the-century house in Brooklyn, where my friend, Jessica, invited me on board to play Vershinin in a site-specific staged read of Three Sisters, opposite her Masha.

My now ex-girlfriend playing Irina in college taught me most of what I knew about the play. That was very little, mostly because I was studying abroad in India during her entire rehearsal process and run of the show. I knew that it had been a mind-blowing experience for her, and that she played the youngest of three sisters who seemed to spend most of their time Not Going To Moscow.

So tapped my way to Project Gutenberg using my newly hacked e-reader, and downloaded a free copy to read on the subway. After four acts of trying to decipher oddly self-centered monologues and seemingly random bouts of laughter and tears interspersed in the dialogue for seasoning, I scratched my head and hoped that we had a really good director.

Luckily, we do. When said director, Nicole, told me she'd spent four years studying in the Moscow Arts Theater, I knew we were probably in good hands. I just spent this afternoon with the actors playing the sisters and the man playing the youngest sister's main suitor, Tuzenbach. It's amazing how this play starts to make so much more sense when you read it out loud with a good director and cast. For one thing, those seemingly self-centered monologues suddenly work their way into the relationships between characters instead of watching them take turns grandstanding. The refresher course on Russian triple names and diminutives didn't hurt, either.

The reading is going be in an old rickety house in Brooklyn, with the audience invited to the party, which morphs from a regular Brooklyn house party in an awesome setting to Irina's name day party in the first scene of the play. They can then follow us from room to room as we read the main action, though some might want to explore and see some of the "Etudes" we're developing of off-stage action between characters. A little like a tiny Sleep No More in terms of audience experience.

It's going to be a good reading, and it's going to be this Friday, 7pm. Space is very limited, so contact me if you're in town and want to see it.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Teaching Shakespeare in Public Schools

This morning, at 8:05 am, I was in New Dorp High School in Staten Island. I was there to teach Shakespeare.

To be honest, I was mostly watching.  This was the first workshop I’d ever done in a school for The Shakespeare Forum. I am resident artist, and with me were the Forum’s Associate Director of Education Programs and the Executive Director. They outrank me. So I sat, watched, and handed out scripts, while they did most of the real teaching.

You ever want to see a tough crowd? Try a captive audience of seventeen-year-olds at 8am. Never before have I seen a group of people so scared of theater warm-ups.

But Sybille and Claire are pros, so I got to just watch them work, and they did some brilliant stuff. First of all, they chatted with the students before class began, in order to learn more about them, make them feel comfortable, and to make a mental note of who had good, audible speaking voices to read parts later.

Then they broke up “To be or not to be, that is the question” into syllables, lined ten kids up, and had them each read one to break down Iambic pentameter. It was just the perfect task to hand them, enough to get them on their feet and participating, but short and diffuse enough that the chance (and fear) of embarrassing themselves in front of the class was minimal (though one kid pulled it off by not listening and assuming we were counting instead of reading, which turned the first reading into: “To” “be” “or” “not” “to” “six”).

I think my favorite moment though came from when we were doing a speech of Lysander’s, where he talking over Hermia while she sleeps:

She sees not Hermia. Hermia, sleep thou there,
And never mayst thou come Lysander near!
For as surfeit of the sweetet things
The deepest loathing to the stomach brings…

We asked the kids what they noticed about how it sounded. The third student we asked pointed out that it had a lot of “sss” sounds in it.

“So,” Sybille said, “Hermia’s there, asleep in the forest. There’s al this “sss”ing going on. What does that make you think of?”

“Snakes.” Offered a kid on the side.

“Very good! Guess what, the next line after Lysander leaves, the very next thing that happens is that Hermia wakes up and says she had a horrible dream about snakes.”

Immediately came a quiet voice in the back,


Priceless. It’s great when you can pick out that one thing that really hits people and makes them realize just how good this writer really was.

But there’s another part to this story that goes outside of the classroom, or even anything Sybille, Claire, or I were doing as part of the Shakespeare Forum. I was talking to the teacher (a Forum regular herself) after the class, and she told me something about the student we playing Hermia: she’d lost her home to flooding from Hurricane Sandy.

Much of Staten Island is still very much a recovery zone. FEMA is operating tents and trailers just outside the school parking lot. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan was visiting the school the same day we were, assessing what recovering community schools need most right now. Occupy Sandy is still operating, A couple subway stations and lines are still closed, and some people are still without power, heat, or in some extreme cases, homes.

It’s harder to remember when it’s not in front of you, but these people still need our help. The hurricane feels like it was long time ago, but recovery is still happening today, and without media coverage (unlikely-- there's little "news" to what's happening) a lot of people are going to forget about it. Even though I live in the same city, I hear more about the debates in Washington DC over funding recovery than I do about the my neighbors who need the help. That doesn't make sense to me, but I'm not sure how to change it.

One of the other students asked us about why Shakespeare seems to intertwine comedy and tragedy in his plays, one right after the other. I don't know if I was satisfied with our answer exactly, but I learn by example, and I guess if this blog post is any indication I'm still using it today. Life's like that. Not everything has a neat ending.