Oh, yeah. It’s that time of year again! And no, I’m not talking about the leaves beginning to change, the crisp air, or Halloween, or even everything being pumpkin-flavored now, which I love. I’m talking about… Christmas City Follies rehearsal time at Touchstone!
As the Follies Costume and Prop Coordinator, I always attend the first rehearsal and explain (for the newbies) what my role is, what I’ve done in the past (stage manager, light designer, costume/props, etc.) and how long I’ve been involved with Follies (since 2001!). I also stay for the first half of the day, as an Ensemble Member, to listen and share potential character, music or scene ideas.
After the first day, I step away for a while, until things start solidifying. Once at least some of the characters are confirmed, I begin the shopping, building, and borrowing. But in the weeks before that, the actors are pulling from the costume/prop house next door in order to “show” as much as they can for a particular character or scene idea. And that’s when the fun comes in! In part, as the costumer because I get to see what the actors are imagining as they create; but also, as Lisa the Managing Director who gets to see, while writing very serious and important business-related emails… Bill the Christmas Cowboy walk through the office:
A wonderful break from the typically less-exciting office work and a reminder that pretty soon, assuming the characters make it in, I’ll be creating some interesting costumes and props. Stay tuned, because you never know what will appear in Follies… like a Pelican, Tiger, Robots, Zombies, or even Dinosaurs – among the more traditional Elves, Santa, Reindeers, and Angels; or the Touchstone traditional Old Guy, Pajama Sisters, Little Red and Little Blue, and, of course, the newly-minted Christmas Pirates!
First off, thank you to everyone who made it out to see our season opener! Maladype Theatre’s production of King Ubu truly blew the doors off the theatre. I had met Maladype in 2011 and was able to see them before, so I knew what I was getting myself into, but I was still completely blown away by the precision, execution, unrelenting full throttle energy, and boundless creativity that happened on the stage!
Here’s a glimpse of what you missed:
This was not the show I saw in 2011. At that time, Maladype was touring their adaptation of Leonce and Lena. This show, despite the larger cast and more open playing space, was filled with the same high energy, high impact creativity that King Ubu spilt forth with.
Here’s what I saw in 2011, that lead me to believe this was something I need to share with the Touchstone community:
It took me three years to get these guys here, and I couldn’t be happier that Touchstone saw this through. This kind of work not only introduces Bethlehem to this type of international art, but it also invigorates us as a company. Seeing our brothers and sisters from around the world on the same path as us, asking the same questions, putting their all into the creation of original work… it inspires us! Conversations about physicality, process, audience interaction… these things will be conversation fodder for us for months to come.
A few years ago we began leasing a new copier – the Toshiba E-Studio 2540c. It’s not fancy, but certainly satisfies our copier wishes well enough. Of course, as with all technology, it needs a timeout once in a while when it freezes up for no apparent reason. And so, we happily perform the universal cure of turning it off and back on again, which usually does the trick. The other timeout thing it does is it goes to sleep if we aren’t using it for a while and then takes about 30 seconds or so to turn back on, which, when in a hurry, can feel like forever. The other day, while I was impatiently waiting at the copier I decided instead of rushing back to my office to accomplish another quick task, I’d wait and take a timeout myself.
September at Touchstone feels like the start of the New Year, and I always make some resolutions about things I need to move forward in the new season. In addition to these larger, long-term goals, I also make smaller, “work smarter” resolutions. These smaller ideas, which I come up with to help my workload and stress level, tend to snowball, because I end up making too many resolutions. Singly they would be achievable, but when taken on all together, I set myself up for failure.
So this year, my “work smarter” resolution is simple! Whenever I go to the copier to copy something and it is asleep, instead of pressing the Start button and then immediately rushing off to do something else while the copier wakes up, I will wait and enjoy the down time. I will take a few deep breaths and remind myself how nice (and productive) it is to be still for a moment. Once I accomplish this without thinking about it, then I’ll move onto another simple work smarter resolution. Wish me luck!
So, a question. You see the photo above – Thermos, food, computer, boxes of various levels to stand on or put stuff on, paper and chairs, etc. If you were writing a play, what do you think is the most useful thing in the room, the most important?
Touchstone Associate and Moravian College professor Christopher Shorr and I are charged with writing the new play for the Journey from the East project, part II. It’s fun, don’t get me wrong, but it’s work! It’s a battle against the empty page, and in the photo you can see how we’ve gathered our “weapons”. Let’s take a look, and you tell me what you think:
1) A wall you can hang stuff on to make notes. See all the scribbles? Those are basic values we want to show up in the play, dualities between East and West, characters and transformations they might go through, and then simple action, plot, scenario. The play is being informed by an interesting “coincidence” – the original Journey to the West was published about 1599, the same year that scholars think Shakespeare’s Hamlet was produced. Some scholars believe that a few years after these performances, elements of Hamlet found their way into the episodic tale of the Monkey King, in a few chapters that were inserted into the Journey to the West novel. From these chapters, we are fashioning a new theatrical extravaganza that brings East and West together in the same way, some believe, 400 years ago, Hamlet and The Monkey King crossed paths.
2) A computer. It’s remarkable how we ever got by without internet search only a decade or so ago. And these days, all the writing is in the cloud, so designers, director, and interested parties can see it come to life and comment in real time. Collaboration is becoming ever more possible and desirable.
3) Food. I’m a eat-while-I-work kinda guy. I don’t really stop for meals. And never underestimate the power of a large bag of fresh cherries to keep the ideas rolling on.
4) Chairs to rest our butts. Writing sessions usually go four hours, and we have to pace ourselves.
5) A large room, so we can get up and wander around, act things out. It’s so wonderful watching Christopher pretend to be the Monkey King, or Pigsy, or The President (Roy). A lot of writing is not just putting down lines, dialogue – it’s imagining the physicality of a piece and how that informs the writing. Sequences might be in a dream, and then we’d be writing non-verbal action. Do we imagine it with mask or puppets? What’s the rhythm of this or that moment? All this is acted out in space. And all this is proposed to our director and team of designers, composers, for them to then adjust as they see fit. Still, we have to see/feel how it’d work.
6) A large stick. Always useful to lean on, wave around when your idea isn’t really very strong (but it feels stronger if you’re pointing a big stick) or when your partner is insisting on having his own way. And…
7) A great partner, the terrific collaborator, Christopher Shorr. Generally speaking I don’t find co-writing to be much fun, not if the stakes are high – too many communication issues, struggles over the feel of a scene or a vision for where the play is going. I need to be left alone to allow ideas to make it to their feet before sharing with someone else; but the work with Christopher (so far, I must quickly add) has been such a delight. Christopher is a terrific and patient listener. He’s also damn smart, and that makes for a great partner. A lot of the work in this play is just the exhausting effort of holding all the relevant pieces together in your head while you figure out what to do next – which ain’t easy. Chinese characters that have alternate dream versions of themselves and alternate Western versions of themselves. Two plot lines that are running simultaneously. Stylistic sophistications that require understanding Western naturalism vs. Asian folk styles and how those might tastefully come together or play off of each other.
When working on my own, I often hit “quiet spots” where I don’t know what to do next, but virtually never when working with Christopher. I might run through a riff of actions, ideas, and as soon as I pause for a breath, he takes the ball and runs with it down the field. Often we’re looking at three or more different possible solutions to a particular problem. And then, we have to decide which route we’ll take. In that, Christopher’s great about pointing out what he feels are weak spots in ideas I’ve proposed without making me feel like an idiot, and he’s great at taking my clumsy, insensitive criticism without being offended. That’s a great partner. But what touches me the most is when he’s gone down a route towards a lovely idea he’s enamored of, and I have little more than an intimation of wanting to do something else; he pulls back and listens, even gets enthusiastic, until my (and I hesitate to use the word “my”) idea is fully expressed and we can properly compare ideas. That’s a great partner.
So, what do you think?
Right. Absolutely. The most important thing in the room: a great partner. Mr. Christopher Shorr.
Technology today is a crazy, crazy thing (and I’m saying this as a theatre techie who has only just joined the world of smartphones).
Video chat in particular is noteworthy for its futuristic-feeling appeal – between Skype and Google Hangouts and Facetime, it’s a vaguely Star Trekkish existence we have. The technology is still evolving and still has a ways to go before the kinks are worked out, but the potential that exists is remarkable. I can group chat with college friends scattered over the US, and it’s like no time has passed. I can catch up with my sister in Israel and see that, despite the scary news reports, she’s okay. The Touchstone Ensemble even took advantage of Google Hangouts during the white-out snow storms of this past winter and held snow day meetings from home (there may have been virtual funny hats involved).
And, in another dizzying technological turn of events, next season will see Jp and myself working towards a Masters Degree in Performance (Theatre Collectives) from the University of Chichester, via distance learning.
We had our first Skype meet-up with an instructor a couple weeks ago. It was peppered with your garden variety sprinkling of video freezes and audio-video-not-synching-up and whatnot. And yet, even the ability to have that conversation was remarkable. The fact that Jp and I get to work on this course of study as part of our job, the fact that we can do this during the busy season without having to take a year off from Touchstone, live in England for a year— it’s mind-boggling to me. It feels like we’re just inches away from Skynet take-over or Cylons rebelling or Holodeck simulations running amok (yes, I’m letting my geek flag fly).
I was a compulsive scribbler and note-taker in college, and I still am one. I’m happy to use technology, am the frequent typist/note taker at meetings, but my impulse is (usually) still to reach for pencil and paper. That part of my mind is leery of approaching these studies via video chat. How will this compare to the immediacy of in-person conversation? How replaceable is the participant classroom or lecture hall or laboratory experience?
I’m not sure what this coming season’s studies are going to hold for us – besides a lot of reading and a lot of video chats – but I know that just being able to learn in this way, just having this opportunity, is an incredible privilege, one that we’re both thrilled to have.
Wish us luck! We’re off to hit the books and pray to the Skype gods for a stable connection.
I recently had the honor of being an invited guest of Teatro Potlach at their Intercultural Festival Laboratory of Theatre Practices in Fara Sabina, Italy. Each day a guest was given an hour time slot in which they were to tell the gathered international community about the work they do, myself included. It was amazing to see how our brothers and sisters around the globe use theatre as a vehicle for social betterment. Added to this sense of intercultural exchange was a rigorous physical training regimen from 9am till 5pm and a nightly theatrical offering that all attended. This is the kind of perspective-changing professional development that any artist would hope for. But eventually, all good things come to an end and we are left with the question: How does one hold on to such a transformative experience as the one Potlach offered to us?
It’s so easy to fall back into a routine, when the place you came from is exactly the same upon returning home. It’s so easy to let the magic just experienced slip away when the day-to-day administration duties of a company become the main focus. Days filled with hands-on learning and in-depth cultural exchange, replaced by budgetary discussions and staffing issues.
It’s been two weeks since returning home, and the energy and refocusing that spending time with the Potlach family offered me hasn’t faded. Shortly after arriving in Fara Sabina, I realized I needed to consider the time I was spending as my own personal Artistic Director’s retreat, one where I was largely removed from my home influences and able to break free of the thinking that may or may not have been holding a prescribed course of action that has been guiding Touchstone. Two years ago, I began leading the Touchstone Ensemble on an investigation of rediscovering its roots in the world of the actor-creator. Since then, we have come a long way, developing an in-house vocabulary amongst the ensemble that I believe has set us up for our next major hurdle, which is more rigorous actor training.
Getting to spend time in the morning sessions of Potlach training could not have come at a more apropos time. We’ve been watching the videos I took during the training and are putting together a regimen loosely based on those videos, our recent Grotowski investigation, and the already-spoken language of our actors. While it’s hard to find the time to move into this work, it’s clear that it’s a necessity. I’ve managed to carve a couple mornings out of the week for an hour here or an hour there to begin pushing the actors past what has now become comfortable. The time spent witnessing the Potlach actors’ stamina, precision, and creativity has become my own personal motivation for making this happen. Whether in their productions of 20,000 Leagues or Fellini, every choice was so beautifully crafted and every movement precisely executed. Teatro Potlach are truly masters of their craft.
So off we go… Starting in September, I’ll gather with Bill and Emma, our yearly apprentices, Ensemble Associate Mary Wright, and Ensemble Affiliate Josh Neth and for a few short hours each week, we will push ourselves past the point of exhaustion to find in ourselves what Grotowski calls the “holy actor”. How do you hold on to the transformation? You institutionalize it, you own it, you fight for it like a Spartan; you sit at the banquet, and you feast on it, even if that means the feeding frenzy has to be done in the early morning hours or between a marketing meeting and an educational program.
Eat hearty Touchstone – eat hearty!
The apprenticeship has come to an end.
For me this year has mostly been liberating to being a “real” true theatre artist and performer. I’ve spent the last several years trying to figure out how I want to live and work in the theatre. While I was in Houston, I discovered what it was like to be a teaching artist at Main Street Theatre; I learned what it was like to work wardrobe at a big theatre; 8 shows a week at the Alley Theatre; I created a tiny theatre company and production with 2 fellow performers; and I moved to Connecticut and continued those jobs in a new setting. I really wanted to perform more than anything else. I tried to get into grad school, and I got into Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre’s Professional Training Program. Since studying physical theatre in Europe, I knew it was something I liked, but being in California at Dell’arte is where I really started to feel like I found my niche. When I found Touchstone, I was excited to test out my theory. “Let’s try doing original theatre in ‘real’ world setting.” “Is devising theatre is where I belong?”
And I would have to answer yes. In the past year, I’ve come to realize that I actually am a good collaborator and performer; it’s not just something I love, but it’s something I can do. I’m still figuring out how to communicate my art and what I want to say, but that’s also part of the journey of the artist. I’ve learned how to listen and believe in myself and not worry too much about what others think.
My two fellow apprenti, Mallory and Jordan, may not know it, but they’ve really helped me grow, especially in being a more confident human being. Mallory and Jordan are similar to me when I was their ages. We may all be different types of creators, but we have very similar, laid-back personalities, and by being with them, I somehow can see how much I have grown from 19 to 23 and now 27; what a rare and unique gift. I often just want to just tell them, it’s all going to be alright, you’re great, believe in yourself, keep working hard, don’t give up, don’t get sucked into negativity. But they’ve had their own journeys and discoveries to go through. We’re all at different stages of “what the hell do I want to do with my life,” figuring out how life works, seeing what we want with life, and realizing that life is never going to be easy.
Bill made a comment in one of our classes that I struck a cord with me, something I’ve known deep down but didn’t know how to communicate; he said it so simply and truthfully. “Things are always going to get in the way of your art.” So you have to learn how to fight that; you have to learn how to not let yourself get defeated by mundane and not-so-mundane obstacles in life. “I’m tired, I’m lonely, I’m overwhelmed, I’m confused, I’m poor;” if you want to be an artist you have to learn how to break through those obstacles and not let them get in your way.
Touchstone is a small but mighty theatre with many obstacles, including a small ensemble that doubles as artists and administrators with each 1 person doing at least 2 people’s jobs. They work tirelessly to keep the organization running as smoothly as it does, and I can tell that this gets in the way of their art sometimes, but boy, do they know how to break through those obstacles to produce their art. And they do it with so much truth and passion.
Touchstone has shown me what it means to break through the obstacles of life to be a creative theatre artist. This will be a partnership I’ll never forget.