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.