Seeking Solitude

Seeking SolitudeWorking on a new project.

Creating an original piece.

If only there were enough time. Or less of other commitments filling my the hours in my day.

A place of seclusion, for a few days, to indulge in research and writing, is what’s needed.

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What I’ve Learned at this Year’s Fringe

Today is the last day of the 2012 Minnesota Fringe Festival, and due to various reasons this is my least attended Fringe in several years. (I will not likely hit the dozen shows mark.) However, just like all other years I’ve learned something, but this time it might be more about myself than about art, performance or experimentation.

courtesy of Minnesota Fringe Festival

The ten shows I’ve seen thus far have been a bit of a mixed bag of things. Some were on my schedule because I felt obligated or had a personal connection to someone involved or to the show itself and I needed/wanted to find out how it evolved. Other shows were on my list because the topic intrigued me and I thought it would be interesting. And then there were the sure-fires, though few.

Part way through the week I realized my first truth about how I like my art:

I will put up with weak writing and good performance more than the opposite recipe. One of the shows was Ash Land, which had some good word of mouth, an interesting preview and it was getting a lot of buzz. The creators had done a few previous Fringes with some success, but I hadn’t seen them. I thought the show was beautiful, creative and intriguingly staged. The audience seemed exuberant in its reception. I was enthralled, and even jealous at times that someone had done some creative stuff on a topic I’ve been toyed with approaching.

Upon leaving I commented to my partner, “That was really good.” He didn’t share the opinion. He thought it was “good” but that it could’ve been so much better. After reviewing the audience reviews more closely, and talking with others whose opinions I trust (aka understand) I saw that there were really mixed reactions. I could see the weaknesses others pointed out, but somehow I over looked it because, I think, I enjoyed the approach they took to the work, the quality of the staging, and the performances of a couple of the people. (A few performances were significantly weaker.)  But all in all, I finally said, I guess I’ll value performance over writing.

These words would soon get modified.

A few days later I was watching a one-person story-telling piece by a writer/performer whom I’ve known for several years, but have seen little of his work. These stories were interesting, clever and even a bit funny at times. I’d love to read them, in fact. In a published form. But the performance was weak, clumsy and painful to watch. I wasn’t sure if the whole thing was memorized or not and there were several moments where I thought the whole thing had come crashing down.

So: ok writing but weak, amateurish performance and I wanted to slip out the back door. (Sadly, I couldn’t.) I considered the whole thing a waste of my time.

The lesson: I value performance over all else. The material can be crap or brilliant, but if the performance is weak I won’t care either way.

My favorite experience, if there can be a favorite, was probably Carol and Cotton. I was intrigued because it was a local, historical crime story. I’m a bit partial to stories of real people and have always been fascinated by things like crime, wondering what it is that can take a person to the extreme of humanity with something like murder. I was almost turned off by the promo video, which I felt was lacking in its enticement. But it had a strong cast and it’s a company with a good rep. And as the writer and director of a previous successful Fringe play about local history, I felt I should go. It was a strong, powerful production, with finessed details in the performances. Good writing and solid acting with effective staging. Like real theatre. This was exciting to me.

And, of my sure-fires, I wasn’t disappointed. The comedic talents of Nightmare Without Pants alone could have their own festival.

As I was thinking about my limited availability to see shows during this final weekend, and as I contemplated what I had seen I came to the conclusion that my time (and money) are worth something. I’m willing to take a risk, and I’m eager to see new works, new writers, new performers. But I’m not willing to waste my resources on mediocrity. I’m a more demanding audience member.

My top five take aways this year, thus far:

  • Fringe Festival is a performance festival. I want to see a good performance. I would think the performers (and directors) would want that too.
  • Any topic, no matter how mundane or pedestrian it might seem, can be turned in to an engaging and moving story with the right words, staging and treatment.
  • Dated material is ineffective, even if its subject matter is still relevant.
  • There is nothing more boring to me as an audience member than self-indulgence, and if it’s in the performance, writing and subject matter, all at once, then it can be deadly. It should be avoided at all costs.
  • Simplicity can be powerful, and anything in a script or production that doesn’t support the spine of the play in some way should be eliminated.

Actually, let me throw in one more lesson:

  • Never start a play with a group of guys sitting around on stage and have the first line be “What do you guys wanna do?” I think I sprained my eyes as they rolled.

In the end, these aren’t new truths I’ve realized for myself, and these aren’t things I’ve never said before here. It’s just that my experience over the past week have brought these once more to the fore-front of my critical mind.

I think I can catch one more show, in just a few hours, and I’m hoping this leaves the positive after-taste I need to sustain me until next summer.

Happy Fringing!

A Room of One’s Own

I learned yesterday that a local coffee shop will be closing at the end of the week, The Coffee Gallery at Open Book. I’m a bit bummed as it one of the few lunch places that I can most easily frequent. It’s in the lobby of an old building which several years ago was remodeled into office space for several book-related organizations, and the casual dining in the open space, with its tall ceilings, large windows and free wi-fi makes it a comfortable getaway.

But I’m mostly bummed because it’s a space where I’ve done quite of bit of writing, and re-writing, over the past few years. I was able to step away from the day-job with my laptop for a while and get some work done, or at least feel as if I’ve had a brief encounter with creative expression. A couple years ago I spent a lot of time, even on weekends, writing a play, and more than a few of the ah-ha and big “what if” moments happened in that space. A lot of work was done there.

It’s hard to get away and just write, or just think, or just ponder an idea. So much of our daily lives are rush rush and go go and there’s little time or environment for reflection. Ironically I meant to be over there now, writing this, but the place was packed and there was no where to sit, so I couldn’t get away today…I had to come back to the day-job and try to hide for a few minutes while I eat my lunch….and write some notes here….

…..and just now, as if to emphasize the fact that there is no room of one’s own, I was interrupted and then discovered I’ve lost my connection to the internet. (I was quick enough to copy/paste elsewhere in order continue writing offline.) Cruel fates…..

Just having a quiet place to lose oneself with one’s own thoughts….I find it calming, refreshing and helpful to the creative process. I’ll need to find that new space.

Virginia was right.

A Short One-Man Show

My most recent post here was about a big audition where I didn’t know what I was doing. Well, twenty-some years later [aka just last week] I had another one where it may have seemed I didn’t know what I was doing. Only because it was a bit risky, and completely untested, and it was one of the most fascinating, challenging and interesting auditions I may have ever had.

I’m a huge fan of Sandbox Theatre and have mentioned them here before—they do original works that are company created, and typically in a very avant garde or expressionistic manner. When I first spotted their audition notice I was immediately excited at the opportunity (though I didn’t know any of these details.) I’ve loved their work in the past and think it would be terrific to get involved with them in some way, so I quickly signed up.

When I was able to snag a time slot and got the details I shouldn’t have been surprised. For the general audition for their Fall show they provided a few lines of text and asked people to create a one- to three-minute piece inspired by and using that bit of script. That’s it. There were no rules although there was encouragement to make it physical and to include anything that shows off your skills (duh. it’s an audition) so that could mean, singing, dancing, juggling balls of fire, whatever.

I thought this was the craziest thing to ask of someone at an audition (!) but then quickly realized that, of course, it made perfect sense for this company and the way they work, and I was pumped and inspired to put something together. I’ve written stuff before, I’ve adapted materials before, I’ve done original pieces as an actor and director, and I knew I could handle this challenge!

And then my mind went blank.

For two weeks I couldn’t get started, I couldn’t find inspiration from the bit of text they sent. I don’t sing well enough to call myself a singer, and I’m no acrobat and I can juggle three tennis balls well enough to say I can juggle but don’t make me move or throw in a fourth or light them on fire or the act is done. What can I do? What can I do to stand out and be interesting?!

I thought for a bit that I wasn’t going to be able to do this.

Then I realized that even though I don’t do those other things, what I can do and have done, is tell a story. And I have the skills to shape a story and craft one from new and other-used materials. Great! And I quit thinking about trying to be interesting.

So….what’s the story?

I couldn’t find the story…until one day, one line of the piece caught my eye:

“I…opened the window and started throwing out those things most important in life”

I realized I once knew a man who had done just that. He had thrown away everything, walked away from his life and his family and his loved ones with hardly a blink, and only years later realized what he had done. I sat down and started writing. I just needed to get words down on paper and trust that the flow of thoughts would come, things would take shape and I knew that no matter what I wrote I’d probably change it in a later draft anyway. I knew the story I wanted to tell, it was just a case of finding how to tell it.

Over the course of about a week I wrote about ten or twelve drafts of this scene, each one clarifying the story a bit more. The more I worked it, the clearer it became to me and the more I could see this piece not only being a viable audition piece for this company, but also a part of something larger. Perhaps it could be the starting point for a project I’ve been trying to find a way to write for a few years now. Perhaps.

Then came the sudden realization that I actually had to perform this and I had no idea whether it was crap or brilliant. I suspected it lay somewhere in between, but who knows? I was the only who had read it, wrote it or thought about it at all. Finally, with little time left I ran it passed a friend to give it the smell test.

It smelled fresh.

Still, the moment of the audition itself was nerve wracking. To do an original piece, that I wrote myself, that had never really, fully been done out loud and full out before, and had been given no outside direction (other than a few performance tips during the smell testing) made me feel, to say the least, a bit unsure of myself.

There I was again. Standing in an empty rehearsal hall, feeling naked and vulnerable, in front of a row of strangers (although considerably younger this time) behind tables covered in notes and papers and I tried to think back to that big audition I wrote about last week, and I tried to think of my previous accomplishments that made me feel confident I could create an original piece, and I tried to imagine the bigger stakes audition my nephew was having a thousand miles away at the same time and how I wouldn’t want for him to question his confidence, and I took a deep breath and I forgot all of it and just owned my original, never-before-seen, work-in-progress, short one-man show.

I simply began the story.

And it kind of rocked.

What an exhilarating, and memorable, audition.

Fun and French, in a Cold Read

I spent the past two nights getting together with large groups of actors and reading aloud a couple plays. It was an informal gathering put together to explore these scripts as possible candidates for production. We were all assigned multiple parts, had some drinks and snacks, sat in a circle and dug in.

The first night’s play included numerous dialects, some singing and some foreign language. (This was a cold read for most of us, so there was some foreign language faking going on.) Last night’s was much tamer in that regard.

The fun of it, of course, was the discovery and the challenge. Other than the title and the authors’ names, I wasn’t familiar with either script, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Cold readings can be difficult – having to make quick choices, on the spot, about intention, attitude, relationships, character, all only based on what’s in front of you at the moment, not knowing where anything’s going.

Some times that’s a good thing. Some times you choose incorrectly.

After the readings we discussed it all – what we liked, what we didn’t, how produce-able it might be, what kind of audience it might garner, whether it’s right for this company and their audience, etc….. Lots and lots of opinions were thrown out, but there was also much agreement, and good discussion within the group. The conversation was cordial, professional and productive. There were no egos, no arguments and nothing personal.

(I’m not surprised by any of that behavior, I’m only reminded that I see it so little elsewhere.)

I learned a couple things through this exercise.

I learned I can’t always think on my feet well enough to sound clear and smart at the same time in group discussions. (I feel I usually can, but these couple night’s challenged that notion.) Life might move too fast for me, and I like to consider and explore materials when reading them. Or perhaps my mind moves too quickly, jumping to ideas, and I inadvertently skim things I shouldn’t. Or maybe I’m not as bright as I think. No…that’s not it.

Also, I learned, or re-learned, that I have a pretty solid skill of doing some accents, and many I can just toss out, on the fly, without thinking about them. While this includes a few British, Irish, Italian, Russian, Chicago, New York, ranges of Southern US and perhaps a few others, it does not include French. I don’t know why, but I can’t just jump into a French accent unless I’m improvising dialogue. On night one I had to read a character with a “slight French accent” and I started trying one, but as soon as I heard it fluctuate to some Eastern European (probably to a country that no longer exists) I gave up. I couldn’t read and accent at the same time.

But mostly I learned that this kind of thing should happen more often. At any given time I probably know several dozen actors who could be available on a Tuesday night to get together to read a script. Even if people aren’t right for the part, it doesn’t matter. Hearing a script out loud is how scripts are supposed to be heard. Hearing actors put some life (even incomplete, or slightly off-the-mark-in-a-cold-reading life) into the playwright’s words is illuminating. And getting together to practice, discuss and enjoy the process isn’t so bad either.

Every time an opportunity like this comes up I wonder why it doesn’t happen more often. Perhaps it’s time it does.

Finding a Good Book

Last weekend I returned from a week-long, beach vacation in Mexico. I did nothing other than sit on the beach, read, people watch, jump in the Pacific and eat and drink my way through the town.

This was basically my view for about 8 days.

book, beer, beach.

Before going I had asked friends for suggestions of good beach reads – nothing too dense, fiction, perhaps suspense or mystery. I received plenty of ideas, and in addition to having my Nook with me I picked up two paper backs. (I’d rather a paper back be destroyed, stolen or lost, so they were my intended beach-time indulgence.) I downloaded a free sample to my Nook of both books and read them on the plane to figure out which I would read first.

We arrived on Saturday, and by Thursday I had completed the first book. It was fine, it was interesting, it was the right mind-candy. THEN I started the second book.

Just as I had done with a bowl of Lucky Charms when I was a kid, I saved the sweet marshmallows for last. I was immediately intrigued by this one with the sample, and by the time we left on Sunday I was about two-thirds through it.

Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close by Jonathan Safran Foer quickly moved into the ranks of some of my favorite books.

It hadn’t been a suggestion, but the recent movie ads had intrigued me. It seems like it might be a bit sappy, but the story struck me as possibly being imaginative and epic. I came across the book on one of my final dash-to-Tarjay-and-get-stuff-for-vacation trips and I was still searching for a second book. They didn’t have what I was seeking, but I saw this, I picked it up and thought…well, why not?

As with most people, when I read a book there’s a specific voice that I hear. It gets established quickly in my head and remains there unchanged. (I don’t know how it happens or how it all works. I’ve talked to people about it and my experience makes sense to some, but I’ve had a few people who think I’m a bit looney.) This kid’s voice in my head narrating the book was immediately charming and fun. His words and the writing flowed easily from one thing to the next, like some kind of ADD issue was involved, but I flowed with it, enjoying the ride and feeling very much in tune with him. It was going to be a perfect read.

The only problem was every once in a while I’d have to put it down. There I was in a tropical, relaxing setting, and suddenly because out of nowhere would come this beautiful or touching image or passage or something that reminded me of someone or something….I’d find myself gasp at a line, and tears would roll down my cheeks. I’d have to put it down.

Yes, it’s about 9/11, or at its basis that’s the event that propels the story, but it’s really about so much else. Family. Relationships. Wonder. Hope. Fear. And there’s no evil in this book. The, for lack of a better phrase, heart wrenching elements are out of compassion and kindness. And there are surprises and twists along the way. Also, it’s a visual book. There are graphics and photographs and fonts and text designs all along the way. There’s a whole monologue for two pages written in numbers because it’s spelled out on a telephone keypad. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know the specific words (although I want to translate it now) because I know what the character was saying – and it was beautiful and touching. There are places where words are missing or written over each other and illegible. It’s not just text. The art here is also in these visual elements. It makes for a brilliant package.

What I really wonder is how the movie could possibly be made. There are, essentially, multiple story-lines happening, and in fact the POV of the writing changes between three different characters. (I suspect the movie doesn’t do this.) Any one of these points of view make for a good story, and as I was reading it, with the words flowing so naturally and interestingly as they do, I kept thinking how I wished this were an unknown writer and not a book with a major film version, because I would love to create a stage piece from these characters and words. In my head I could see something imaginative and playful and just a bit stylized, as if Dominique Serrand or his now defunct Theatre de la Jeune Lune had created it. It’s that kind of lovely. That kind of creativity.

I don’t know. Maybe I was in the right place at the right time to read this. Even if that’s just the case, I relished my time with it and I’ll miss these characters.

Of course, I’ve already downloaded Foer’s other book.