Joy – a review by Jon Jon Johnson

art, Theatrical Process

Check out Jon Jon Johnson’s take on Joy and the theatre.  He’s working on Six Characters in Search of an Author right now over at WSC Avant Bard, and his post is a pretty cool reminder of something that working actors can forget pretty easily.

 

 

…And I’m Founding a Theatre Company.

Theatre Business, Theatrical Process

Are you ready to rumble?

as subtle as

an avalanche. serene. majestic. cataclysmic.

I am helping Liz Hansen and Jon Jon Johnson found Avalanche Theatre Company.

Who is Avalanche?

If you’re a DC fringe goer, you might recall a couple of shows; Sarah Kane’s Crave in the 2011 festival, and Despertar in the 2012 festival.  Having done two years of fringing, Avalanche’s creative team was ready to make the jump to a full fledged company, and brought me on.

Why Avalanche?

The company catchphrases is ‘as subtle as,’ which I find fits my personality.  I’ve always wanted to ‘one day’ have a theatre company, and so, when Jon Jon and Liz asked if I would be interested in co-directing their company, it struck me as an excellent opportunity.

An avalanche striking

How an avalanche strikes.

Why Run Your Own Company?

There are many reasons to run one’s own company, many good, many bad.  Many folks do it so they can select their seasons, which I think is one of the primary (and most legitimate) reasons for founding a theatre company.  It’s a chance for people like me to use all their skill sets at once, rather than work as a token skill set for another company.  For me, it’s a chance to create art in a dynamic, fresh environment with a supportive team.  It’s also a chance to continue developing my theatre admin skills while at the same time getting to flex my creative muscles.

We had our first official meeting as a board yesterday, and we’ve got a slew of exciting plans coming up.  I won’t say what they are just yet, but… you should be excited.  I know I am.

How Do I Find Out More?

A good question, faithful reader, and one that I am prepared to provide links for:

The company website is:

http://avalanchetheatre.com/

We’re also on facebook and twitter.  Check it out!

Loving Me Some Robyn

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My marvelous GF introduced me to this awesome song.  Six months after, still jammin’ to it.  Though I love this song, I won’t be doing this anytime soon:

Robyn’s Call Your Girlfriend

Heartache. Betrayal.  Loss.  Awkwardness.  Sick jams with slammin’ moves.

You go, girl.  You go.

Keep jammin’, all.

-K

How to Draw Conclusions

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Hello loyal readers!

Today, I haven’t got anything to complain about (besides scheduling, which is my constant nemesis).  So instead, I am going to show you how to draw conclusions!

Part 1. Know Your Enemy


When we want to draw something, we generally want to draw it well, so that people will know what it is.

ImageCase in point: Jackson Pollock paints the number 28.  Look at that. Perfect 28. Perfect.

So now, we want to look at a conclusion.  What do your conclusions look like?  Take a good look around to find some conclusions near you.  Don’t worry, people know what conclusions look like; you’re a person, you’ll find a conclusion soon enough.

Step 2. Finding Conclusions

Surprisingly enough, conclusions are tough creatures to come by.  I find that they like to be hidden, and often nest in places where one has to extend their arm and stretch out their hand just to access the conclusion.  Should call them reclusions, for that kind of behavior.

All that said, I believe it was Jeff Corwin who once said that all conclusions must be reached.  And he’s a professional animal interviewer, so he would know.

Image

Its a rugged lifestyle. 

 

Once you’ve reached your conclusions, you’re ready to draw them.  Make sure they stay still, some folks have a hard time with shifty conclusions.

Part 3. Wrapping it Up

Sometimes it helps to wrap up with a conclusion.  I prefer to wrap mine with aluminum foil and then slowly roast them to give them a glazed, semi-cooked texture.  Just ask my friends, they’ll tell you stories of my half-baked conclusions.  

Now you might say, “But Keegan, how are we going a draw a conclusion when its wrapped up in tin?’

to which I answer, ‘foiled, again!’

But seriously, drawing conclusions is much easier once you’ve wrapped them up.  Goodness knows, conclusions put up a good fight, and it’s best to wrap up an argument before drawing your conclusions.

Besides, it’s very hard to draw a conclusion without first having an argument: you’ve got to get your conclusions tired out before they’re ready to be foiled.   I know a lot of people who have already drawn a lot of their own conclusions, and most of those conclusions are very tired.

Image

unrelated image

 

Part 4.  Where I Draw a Conclusion

Okay, once your conclusions are settled and still, you are definitely ready to draw them.  Make sure you have your #2 pencil, a good heavy piece of drawing paper (or I mean, whatever’s nearby), and your game face.

Now, I recommend that you start with the face…. no, maybe the arms?  Hrmmm….  Alright, I’m trying to get one of these going right now, and even with everything in place, it’s proving kind of difficult.  Just uh… ahem. Hrm. Well.  I guess, ah, overall, I mean, just kinda… I don’t know, put pencil to paper and see what happens.  

There ya go, a definite conclusion.  Kinda sketchy, but hey.  That’s art for ya, right?

Commedia Dell’Awesome

Plans, Theatrical Process

So, we just did some commedia dell’ arte research in class today, and I’m on another inspiration trip.  As in, I think I can use some of this for Gondoliers. For those not in the know, I’m going to be directing Sinfonicron Light Opera‘s show this winter, and I’m really looking forward to finding exciting ways of connecting with my cast.  Commedia seems like an excellent model for a lot of character work.

Let’s look at the archetypes and the cast:

Archetypes:

  • Pantalone – an old man with money whose use of Arlecchino gets him into trouble. often fondles his bag of coins, and often beats his servants with a slapstick.
  • Dottore – the old man’s best friend/ rival who is known for long speeches with comical effect.
  • Capitano – a braggart with a huge upward tilting nose and a retracted pelvis, brags about wooing and winning fights, then runs from direct conflict.
  • Zanni – the chorus, a bird like group of servants, driven by baser needs
  • Arlecchino –  a monkey like servant known for his gluttony, given tasks by pantalone which he messes up, leading to the misadventures of commedia.
  • Colombina – arlecchino’s fellow servant who gets him out of tangles – the more sensible servant.
  • Brighella – something like the merchant dealer at the docks, a more dangerous character.
  • Tartaglia – a turtle like stuttering character.
  • Pulcinello – also a more dangerous character, this is the hunchback, who is either smart-playing-stupid or stupid-playing smart.
  • The Enamorati– lovers who are ridiculous for being so into true love (whereas all other characters are humorously driven by their baser needs).

The Gondoliers cast:

  • The Duke of Plaza-Toro
  • Luiz, his attendant
  • Don Alhambra Del Bolero, The Grand Inquisitor
  • The Duchess of Plaza-Toro
  • Casilda, daughter of the Duke & Duchess
  • Marco and Guiseppe
  • Tessa and Gianetta
  • Antonio, Francesco, Giorgio, Annibale
  • Fiametta, Vittoria, Giulia
  • Inez

How do these fit together?

  1. The Duke of Plaza-Toro => Capitano/pulcinello: he is a braggart in the first act, but when he returns, he is a clever conniving friend.
  2. Luiz, his attendant => enamorati/ servant, a lover but also a servant (royal by birth)  mostly he plays into the idea of the lover.
  3. Don Alhambra Del Bolero, The Grand Inquisitor =>Dottore: he has many grand speeches and uses much high faluting language which is often as innaccurate as it is ridiculous.
  4. The Duchess of Plaza-Toro => Brighella: Throughout, she is a conniving character capable of swindle and corruption, and that makes her funny.
  5. Casilda, daughter of the Duke & Duchess => enamorati: she is pretty much also a lover character.
  6. Marco and Guiseppe => zanni (arlecchino?)/enamorati: being lower class and more comic, this duo tries to run a kingdom by doing everyone’s servant duties for them… however, they do so with the best of intentions.
  7. Tessa and Gianetta=> zanni (colombina?)/enamorati: the wives and friends to Marco and Guiseppe, these rather take-charge ladies prove to be the sort of problem sovlers that colombina might embody.
  8. Antonio, Francesco, Giorgio, Annibale => zanni (can be given various characters by type): the gondolieri chorus is pretty much a batch of zanni.
  9. Fiametta, Vittoria, Giulia => zanni (also, characters by type): the contadine chorus likewise is a batch of zanni.
  10. Inez => colombina/ pantalone?  she really does unravel the riddle of the play, but it is also possible that alhambra is her arlecchino, and she in and of herself is pantalone – the foster mother of the king would probably be fairly well off.  probably much more colombina.

Beyond Analysis

My plan with all this is to use these archetypes to help my actors work from the outside in, getting their physical conveyance out and accentuating the comedy of Gondoliers using a traditionally Italian method.  I want my actors to be able to embody their characters and play that comedy, even if it is on a much more subtle level than masked, traditional commedia.

Mask Work

Theatrical Process

I did a short mask class teaser session yesterday (a mask class workshop, if you will).  We worked with larval mask and hats, and then with found masks (gas masks).

For the larval exercise, we just stood in the mask, looking at the room.  Afterwords, we left the mask and got feedback. There were four of us and three larval masks.  The first of us to go chose a mask with a huge jaw and tiny eyes – a very simple mask at first.

His presence onstage totally changed.  I noticed every small motion of his shoulders, the way his torso moved.  The mask seemed at once curious, small, and lowly.  It reminded me of popeye or of a small child.  I could not get the idea of the sailor out of my head when looking at the mask.  Furthermore, the eyes- two small cut out circles – enthralled me.  They were such small dots but they stared so deep.

The mask I chose looked something like the clown Violator from Spawn (for those comic fans out there).  When I had finished with my mask work, my peers reviewed me.  They felt that the mask seemed to create a very sad character.  I remember that one of the eyeholes dug into my actual eyesocket a bit, forcing me to view the world lopsidedly.  My breathing really changed inside the mask (after all, one does need to breath heavier inside a mask).

Our last two members chose the same larval mask – one with a jutting forehead and a small slit for a mouth.

The first wearer was a girl, a good friend of mine who I knew to be a very responsible person.  What was interesting was that her mask was very angry at first, very threatening.  When she looked around the space and tilted the mask up, I saw a great deal of curiosity in it, and then when she came back to look at the audience, the mask was no longer angry in a threatening manner, but tight-lipped: it knew something we wanted to know but it wouldn’t tell us.

After she remove the mask, she told us that the mask pressed against her mouth, making her breath through her nose: an interesting correlation to the tight-lipped emotion the mask portrayed on her.

The second wearer was a boy, taller than the girl, who I knew to be something of a quiet but fun-loving sort.  On him, the same larval mask was simply distant, like a teenager at a funeral:  It was taking in everything around it in a detached manner.  As the mask looked around, it became more bemused and interested in the world around it, and returned to look at us in a sort of stupor, like one taking in information but not fully processing it.

What really hit me was how different this same mask was on two people.

Next, we worked with found masks, in the form of gas-masks.  We partnered up for this exercise, myself and the jaw-larva wearer going together.  I chose a circular one to see what it might help me convey.  Our instructor told us to be aliens – everything around us was new and strange.  We were to begin sleeping and awaken to find ourselves in a new world.

So we did.  And everything was very new: the lights, the piping of the batons, the room, and a staircase.  What I found fascinating was my partner’s body – I figured if we were alien’s we weren’t human, so the human form would seem strange to us.  After watching him move about for a bit, I decided to try motions similar to his.  I looked at my own hand, then at my ‘legs’ and my ‘feet’ and then I ‘stood.’  This felt crazy, like I was rising up on top of gears and pistons, coming up from a great depth and emerging.  My partner touched the back of his head after our instructor said something and I thought we had to end the excercise, so I remove my mask, only to realize my partner was still in mask, still in the scene.  I had become an audience member trapped onstage.  So I sat and watched him until he finished.

After our exercise, my peers pointed out that I had stood with a posture which I had never had before, I seemed to be a lot bigger, to have a much larger presence.  That being said, we (as aliens) had seemed to be children to the audience, and our instructor asked us that the next time we did mask work to remember to look at the audience in order to pull them in.

It was crazy looking at alternative ways of viewing both as an actor and as an audience member.  It really opened my mind up to the idea of masks!

On Acting

Theatrical Process

The hardest part about acting is not being oneself.  Certainly, it is impossible not to be oneself when one does something, but then, one is, often enough, not being oneself.  Often, people do ‘perform’ for other people, employees treat their bosses differently than they do their coworkers, friends treat strangers differently than lifelong buddies, a spouse treats their partner differently than their parents or their children.  Confucius had categorizations for various relationships among people, and Jesus of Nazareth stated “Give Caesar what is due to Caesar, give God what is due to God,” which implies two different relationships between different types of perceived authority. In light of all this social evidence of people ‘not being themselves,’ or at least putting on different airs for different people, the hardest part of acting shouldn’t be that hard.

The more appropriate way to phrase the earlier critique would be that the hardest thing about acting is know what comes from oneself and what comes from the character.  What parts of one’s acting are habit, for instance?  Is there a certain bias to the ‘neutral base’ that actors take?  Is there a given impulse which an actor often plays?  The better actors know themselves, the better they can make choices that create characters.

One excellent model for this process is Brechtian theatre.  It encourages actors to at once be themselves and play a character.  The character can be created through a series of indicative actions or ticks or gestures which give the audience cues as to the character.  The actor themselves can comment on the action occurring before them while still ‘playing’ the character.  While this may not always be the best ‘product’ for an actor to achieve, it does make for a good method of understanding what parts of performance come from oneself and what parts come from a character.

The danger of breaking down oneself into a series of understood actions is that one can lose self confidence.  If an actor is never themselves, then they must always reject their personal neutral in order to take on a character.  This is an unhappy extreme, even less happy than the extreme of always playing oneself, an extreme in which there is incredible self – trust and confidence.  A happy medium can lead to added growth both in an actor’s repertoire and in themselves.

Often, in Western Theatre, there is a drive to comprehend the text, and in various methods of script analysis, character can emerge.  In the plot of a play, actors can undertake a series of actions which reveal their characters.  However, this series of actions is not enough to fully convey a ‘real’ person.  The text alone, the lines and actions and subtext behind a verbal enaction, are not enough.  The voice does not only speak through the body, especially in a gaze centered medium such as theatre.

The whole person is viewed onstage.  The face, the hands, the feet, the legs, the hips, the back, the armpits, the groin: all visible, all judged, all symbolic onstage.  The way an actor can give more than just the plot, the method by which an actor can convey a deep and lasting story, is through the body.  How does a character carry themselves?  Does it have old injuries, fears, role models?  What do these conditioners do to the body and the way it is carried, where it holds stress, how it gestures, what way the fingers touch?  In this analysis of character, that tells back story through the body, actors must deconstruct themselves in order to realize what patterns that they, as people, carry by habit, rather than by choice.

To clarify: acting is not pretending to be someone else or to ‘make believe.’  While these elements become part of being an actor, the key to noun is the verb: act.  To take action, to execute a choice.  And so, before one can act, one must make a choice, and then carry it through with confidence.  For this reason, actors break down text into beats, actions, verbs, text and subtext, in order to choreograph their designated image.  So I say, the better an actor knows what they always do, the better they can make a choice that is not themselves.

To clarify further: no one is never entirely not themselves.  Even socially, people perform certain aspects of themselves.  Philosophically speaking, no one is ever anything more than an aspect of themselves, and so at all times, one is being a certain side of oneself, never the entire thing.  So it is with acting.  The better one can make choices, the better one can act.  So, what is a well-made choice?

A well made choice has a trigger, its verb, and an end.  This end becomes the trigger for the next choice.  Triggers can be anything sort of input: a visual trigger: an object, an action, an event, and so forth; an audio trigger: a phrase, word, or a sound; a tactile trigger: temperature, exhaustion, touch, pain; an olfactory trigger: any scent; or a taste trigger: any taste (this ties to scent). The trigger begins the choice.

Once the choice’s trigger has been activated, the verb must be enacted.  If a sight is repulsive to a character, they must react accordingly until they receive a new stimulus (external or internal).

The duration of choices can be long or short, depending on the set circumstances.  Often, a series of complicating circumstances may cause an initial reaction to be stifled and then covered, leading to a series of choices: reaction, revelation, stifling, cover, or: cover (until a complicating circumstance is gone) then react.

This rapid pace of clear choice changes demands that an actor both understand their own physicality and their own mentality: where does the person go as a reaction?  What are the person’s feelings about a stimulus?  What are the common choices the person makes as a reaction to given triggers?  How are the character’s physicality, mentality, and choices different?

It is important for these reasons to work on character from the outset.  While I recommend trying a series of characters and choices in order to find freshness and vivacity, I also recommend solidifying character early enough in the process for the physicality and mentality of the character to be easy to access.  Notice I do not say natural – the person is natural, the character is artificial.  The character should never become ‘natural,’ it will lend itself to the person enough.  The character should be easily accessed, however.

For helpful methods on character work and choices, as well as character awareness, I recommend the works of Konstantin Stanislavski and the acting method called Archetypes, based on the psychological work of Karl Jung.

Direction Ideas

Theatre Business

I have two big direction shows coming up in the next few months.

As I look ahead to them, I have a thousand thoughts spinning in my head.  Mostly, I want my actors to get the most out of the experience.  I know my first show will deal a lot more with product (I have 2.5 weeks of rehearsal for it) than with process.  My goals for that show are to have a lot of character work meetings with my actors before the ‘rehearsal’ period starts.

The second show will leave me a month and a week of overall rehearsal time, which is nice, because I want intense but fun rehearsals that, above all, help my actors grow.

I remember the first Second Season I did at the College made me very vulnerable in the process, I had to work like hell to find my character.  But I kept going, and I kept working through technique and character and old habits and reworking over and over.  And time and again, I had these revelations about the character.  And the experience was wonderful.

I want to give that to my actors.  What I think will do it more than anything else is structure.  Art is freeform, it is chaotic and divine and organic.  But it acts as a reaction to structure.  Deadlines, time constraints, and limitations create artisitc impulses and creativity.  Necessity is, after all, the mother of invention.

So, here’s my rehearsal structure for my later show:

Warm Ups: These will always vary day to day depending on problems from the day before, and will bring in a number of excercises to help develop character, technique, and relationships onstage.

Blocking: Give the actors end points, let them go, and fix as time goes on.  Tweak issues and go largely off of character based impulses.  This part will greatly focus on actor technique.

Character: Round tables that will focus on the text: what it says,  what it implies, what could make it say more.  Also, character backstories and histories, using dramaturgical notes for each character to help actors discover more to build on.  Also, excercises that devalue the text in favor of character improv and the character mindset.  This part will focus more on mental and emotional aspects of build.

Vocal Fixes: These will include text based scene and character work, where actors will be asked to bring in focus words, ladders, work on patterns of physical technique layered onto vocal technique with text.

The Three Rehearsal Rule: Scene by Scene: First rehearsal block.  Second Rehearsal Fix (semi off book).  Third Rehearsal Run (Off Book).  This should help actors get off book faster.

Body Fixes: These will be part of warm ups and character work.  What ticks are the actor?  What gestures are the character?  What are the character’s ticks?  Lead points? Relations?  Emotions? Triggers?  Where does the character’s power come from?  Where does the actor’s power come from?  Helping actors differentiate themselves from the character so they can make choices rather than fall into comfortable habits.

For the first show, many of these character elements will be worked on before the rehearsal process so that actors can review themselves before they get into the rather intense rehearsal process.

The first show will also be much more pre-blocked than the second show, of necessity, so character work will have to come before it so that the blocking can flow from work with the actors rather than be imposed on them.

These are just initial acting ideas.  As I work on my thesis for my second show, I’ll have more direction excercises to help the actors build scenes and characters.  I’m really looking forward to directing again. I really like seeing a scene build up from the ground and evolve in ways that are unexpected but still fit in with my overall concept.

What will be excellent in both cases is that the shows will both be comedies.  That means that each show will, of necessity, give off a good vibe.  Of course, comedy, like tragedy, needs a limit.  I’ll need to pick and choose comic and straight bits in each show in order to avoid sloppiness, but I think that will be part of the process with the actors (although doing my homework ahead of time couldn’t hurt)