Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Shakespeare's Staging Conditions in The SantaLand Diaries

We here at Bad Quarto like to think of our mission as two-fold:
  1. Performing the rarely done play scripts of the English Renaissance, including the earliest printed quartos of the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
  2. Performing modern works using the staging conditions and rehearsal practices of Shakespeare's time. 
The SantaLand Diaries falls into the latter category, but as we've gathered new friends since debuting Sedaris' Christmas comedy in Burlington, VT this past weekend, I thought I would take a moment to explain exactly which of those staging conditions we've deployed, and how we've deployed them. 

  1. Universal lighting: The playhouses of Shakespeare's London were generally lit at a constant level, and with the actors and audience sharing the same pool of light. For the outdoor, public playhouses, and public performances on tour, this generally meant the sun. For the indoor, private playhouses, and private performances at the homes of the wealthy, this meant some combination of sunlight from windows and candle light. While there was probably some variation in this, a shared pool of light for actors and audience was most likely the norm for stage performances. 
  2. Audience contact: The close cousin of universal lighting is audience contact. Since the actors and the audience shared the same pool of light, and since some of the audience would sit on the stage level, the audience was as much a part of the show as the actors. Evidence from several plays acknowledges, and sometimes utilizes this convention as part of the writing. Since the actors can see the audience, and the audience can see the audience, the actors can engage with the audience as they would another partner in the scene. 
For a one-man show like The SantaLand Diaries, audience contact is essential for making a great performance. Sedaris' original performance of The SantaLand Diaries was broadcast on NPR in 1992, and it has been re-broadcast frequently since then, but despite what you will hear from your local NPR affiliate during pledge season, the intimacy and personal connection of the radio pales in comparison to what we can achieve in live performance. You can hear a story on the radio, but when you come to the theatre, you can be part of that story. 

That ability to be part of the story as Joe performs it is where the real value of live performance and Shakespeare's staging conditions comes in to play for us. We can do more than tell Sedaris' story, we can make it happen in front of you, and by deploying some of Shakespeare's staging conditions, we make you a part of that story as it comes to life. We do better than re-create David Sedaris' experiences in SantaLand, we help you live them. 

There are some other staging conditions we also like to use that we didn't get a chance to this time around, but Burlington has been very good to us so far, so you can expect to see us again some time, and maybe then we can explore Shakespeare's use of cross-gender casting and live acoustic music. 

If you haven't seen The SantaLand Diaries yet, you've got three more chances this coming weekend:

We hope to see you there!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Home stretch

So this week the terror really set in for me.  I'm not sure if anyone reading this can understand how naked you can feel during a solo show.  And the preparation is exhausting, more than with any other show I've ever been involved with.  It's not like filming a local independent film where I can memorize three pages at a time, shoot it, and then return another day to film another few scenes thought to be fair to film that take a whole other type of endurance.  Plus with film even local independent films can get you your own page on IMDB and a "Bacon number" of 3 (see the woefully unadorned and for some shameless self-promotional proof of that).

This past weekend I spent about 80% of my waking time doing nothing but running lines and going over blocking.  Tony and I weren't able to "get together" over Skype for a rehearsal until Sunday night and at that point I had already burned myself out both physically and mentally and, goddamn, did I suck.  I was mortified about how poorly I felt about my performance.

In spite of the signs telling me I should just get over it and chalk it up to exhaustion I beat myself up all night which did not lead to a great night's sleep.  Perhaps I'm supposed to be keeping things cheerful and perhaps this is getting confusing for all the people I've explained time and time again that I perform strictly out of the love of performing when I explain that there are, indeed, low points with every production.  Some are just more extreme than others.

I actually found myself lying in bed last night thinking "Do I want to go through with this?  Is it too late to totally flake out?" though both thoughts were fleeting.  Instead I was able to find the motivation and determination to keep plugging away.  Deep down I knew that what I had done that night was not the best I could do and that I could do a lot better.  And tonight was the result of that.

I actually took the day off from work because I was honestly not feeling well this morning though this partially due to a combination of exhaustion and anxiety.  My voice still has a barely noticeable scratch to it.  There were other symptoms which, for the sake of anyone reading, I won't go through.  At first I thought this was a bad sign that I might be coming down with yet another illness but I realized I could also use this time productively.

I spent the day just studying and studying both the lines and the notes Tony has given me over the past few weeks and tonight I felt the work I did set both of our minds at ease a little more.  Sure, I'm still feeling the raised heart rate...and maybe even enjoying the rush...because there's still a lot of tightening up to do but I feel like we have a show.  I'm more thinking about how much more there is to do an continuing to embrace the fear, you know, just so I'm not complacent and, well, stupid about where we stand.

Oh, and something I noticed myself doing tonight was bringing lines or ideas from the show into jokes I was making with Tony which only comes out where I reach a certain comfort level with the script.

So the next few days are really going to be long and exhausting but if you question if it's all worth it and what kind of pleasure I could be getting from all this I'm just keeping that finish line in sight because mentally it's not all that much different than what I experience skiing in marathons.  It's all about the end results. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Inching closer to performances

Today Tony and I had a very intense and in depth rehearsal of just a few scenes though they are probably the most difficult scenes in the entire show.  I think we both walked away feeling pretty positive about the experience but it also showed me how I am now at the point where I am going to be focusing all my free time on working on this show.  With this being my first one person show and with this also being my first show of this type I am fighting the urge to expel red cuboid objects normally used in the building of houses from the lowermost orifice on my body.  It's not easy to say you're shitting bricks and keep it clean.

Being in theatre totally changed my perspective on fear.  When a friend of mine had gotten her first role in a live performance a few she asked me how to overcome fear I went off the most bizarre pep speech ever.  I think I successfully convinced her that instead of fighting or trying to overcome her fear she should embrace it and use is at a motivator.  She's still acting so it doesn't appear I traumatized her too much.

I'll be honest, back in October 27 pages of dialogue didn't feel too overwhelming but I also didn't take into account some of the obligations I had to fulfill including my full time job plus how I'm on call at least one day a week.  Then there was the family obligation of Thanksgiving and by the end of November my thoughts all turned to "where the fuck did all the time go???"

Well, fortunately I've been able to set aside all other obligations for the next few week except for my job so I can focus exclusively on this show and actually I think that puts me in position to be peaking at exactly the right time.  Or maybe this is something I'm just telling myself.

Disirregardless, I'm now listening to my own advice and embracing the fear.  Also, I'm trying to make 'disirregardless' common parlance as it actually makes more sense in this context than irregardless, a word that somehow found its way into the Webster Dictionary

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Other Great Macy's Christmas Story

During our last rehearsal, Joe and I briefly touched on The SantaLand Diaries as a counterpoint to the other great Macy's Christmas story, Miracle on 34th Street.

There may be one or two of you out there who are unfamiliar with Miracle on 34th Street; if you haven't seen the original, you should have plenty of opportunities in the coming weeks, but if you just can't wait, you can listen to the 1948 Lux Radio adaptation online.

The 34th St Macy's is, of course, where Sedaris got his job as an elf in SantaLand, but whereas the 1947 film (and its descedants) have all presented Santa Claus as real, and working in the perennial Flagship Department Store. Miracle's SantaLand is a place where magic happens, but Sedaris' is one filled with angry and deranged adults, elves and Santas who all wish they were somewhere else, and a corner where children throw up.

In both cases, though, the protagonists come to believe in a spirit of Christmas that transcends department store artifice in the presence of the triumph of the human spirit. Miracle's Kringle achieves his victory by making everyone around him want to believe that he is Santa Claus, and a legal technicality gives everyone the excuse they need. Our film protagonists, in other words, are looking for a miracle. Sedaris, by contrast, has a miracle thrust upon him: having spent a month working to create a facade of Christmas, and having lost his sense of genuity, Sedaris' miracle is that he finds himself, momentarily at least, believing in Christmas despite himself.

One of the reasons we keep coming back to Miracle on 34th Street is that we all sort of recognize that we don't believe in Christmas miracles. We want to believe in them, and we sometimes look for them, and occasionally when we look for them hard enough, we even find them. But most of us are so harried by the holiday season, including the unspoken social injunction that we must be pleasant and enjoy the company of everyone around us all the time, even those boorish relatives whom we go out of our way not to speak to at weddings, that most of us forget about Christmas miracles in the pursuit of Christmas logistics.

Like Sedaris in SantaLand, we're too busy to look for miracles, and when they present themselves, we're taken by surprise.

Miracle on 34th Street and The SantaLand Diaries present us two sides of the same coin of our sometimes mutually exclusive pursuits of holiday happiness, and the appearance of that happiness. As the holiday season is about to get its official kick-off here in the states, heralded by the presence of Santa Claus at the end of the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, it's good for all of us to take a moment to breathe, and remember that our experience of this season is largely a matter of perception. You don't need a miracle to make your holiday magical, and you're more likely to find perfection if you're not looking for it.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Rehearsal #2. This time with less cat urine.

So tonight Tony and I finished our second rehearsal over Skype.  Both times have been interesting experiences for me so far.  Tonight, as with the first time, there was a cat incident but it was not as dramatic as the previous one when my cat jumped into my lap and promptly took a piss.  Tonight my other cat, I assume, thought I was losing my mind talking to nobody else in the room and came up to me meowing and jumped up into the chair, the one set piece I've been using and continued meowing while staring at me as if to ask "Are you alright?  I'm getting a little worried about you, buddy."

Tonight after a short discussion with Tony about my costume we just jumped right into the rehearsal.  It did take me a few minutes to get settled in with the character.  Rehearsing using Skype, especially in full screen mode, does kind of feel like performing with an audience member in your lap and one who is jotting notes while you're doing it.  It initially made me get self-conscious about what I was doing which is about the worst feeling I can ever experience as an actor. Tonight I even rearranged my living room so I could move further away from the monitor but there still something that felt overly personal about it.

After taking a pause I was able to recover and get back into character and ignore the face in the monitor looking back at me.  Just an aside, if Tony ever decides to dress like Max Headroom for one of these sessions I would totally lose it and laugh for about three days straight.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I invoked the name Max Headroom.

I did feel a lot more positive about this rehearsal than the previous one largely because I gave myself to move around and not just sit in a chair and read my lines.  More of the character was starting to come to life. Being so far back from the mic did force me to speak louder than I normally would for a space the size of my living room.

Tony gave me some great notes both in general and specific that are really going to help me make some big strides with this show.  There were a couple of glitches with Skype tonight.  The first was when we decided to take a 10 minute break but couldn't reconnect until I closed and restarted Skype.  Then during notes the audio would occasionally drop but that might have been because of the speed of out internet connections.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The SantaLand Diaries and the Formula of Christmas Comedy

Ladies and gentlemen, Bad Quarto Productions is back! This Christmas season, we're presenting David Sedaris' SantaLand Diaries, and I couldn't be more excited. We'll file this one under the performing modern plays using early modern rehearsal practices part of Bad Quarto's mission, but we're also going to be engaging in some early modern touring conditions with this one, which I'll be excited to tell you all about as it develops.

For now, I want to share my excitement when I discovered that SantaLand Diaries and our more traditional Christmas piece, the medieval Second Shepherds' Play actually have a lot in common. Both plays consist primarily of cynical appraisals of the world and the people in it, followed by, in the final moment, a realization of true meaning that elevates the characters and the audience from the dimension of cras slapstick.

We're all pretty familiar with the Second Shepherds' Play antics by now, and The SantaLand Diaries is likewise pretty well known through it's holiday air-play on NPR, but both present the actor with the challenge of embodying both the ridiculousness of living in a world filled with miserable people where nothing but bad things happen, and then turning to a realization that the Good we are given in the world is far greater than the slings and arrows that we suffer. Looking at some other popular pieces of Christmas entertainment, the pattern isn't hard to see: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (which I stage managed for the Catalyst Theatre Co. in Burlington back in 2007), The Charlie Brown Christmas special (the only one of the network holiday specials I still go out of my way to watch), and probably every other piece of Christmas entertainment, too.

The difference between the pieces that we've been watching for centuries, decades, or even just annually in recent memory, and the ones that we never look at again are the former category find ways to be more than just quick slapstick entertainment with a happy ending tacked on. Though are rehearsals are still in an early stage, Joseph Grabon, who will be performing in our SantaLand Diaries, told me that he found himself tearing up at the conclusion of Sedaris' play. It's not a guarantee of anything, of course, but I'll take it as a good omen that SantaLand Diaries will prove a worthy successor to The Second Shepherds' Play.