Sunday, May 27, 2007

A very pretentious cabaret

A heads up for next week: Scene 1 of Commedia dell'Artemisia will be making an appearance at the Pretentious Festival's Opening Night Cabaret. The festivities will be this Friday night, beginning at 7pm at the Brick Theater.

Check out their website or more info...

Friday, May 25, 2007

Our "Music" Rehearsal

For those of you who needed a good reason to GO AND BUY YOUR TICKETS for the Pretentious Festival appearance of Commedia dell'Artemisia, look no further than the exquisitely awful cell-phone video shot by evil genius set-designer/performer David Bengali at our "music" rehearsal:

Hey, David, do you have a version of that with sound?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Commedia dell'Artemisia Interview #1: Mask-Maker Jonathan Becker

Long time blog readers will remember the film noir and absurdism interview series we conducted in the weeks leading up to the opening of Kill Me Like You Mean It. Well, as we countdown to the opening of Commedia dell'Artemisia at the Pretentious Festival, we wanted to bring in some of the country's leading experts on mask design, commedia dell'arte, Moliere, and verse playwriting to share their thoughts.

Today I'd like to introduce you to Jonathan Becker: actor, teaching artist, dancer, puppeteer, puppet designer, dancer, fight choreographer and...mask-maker! I've been teaching Commedia and directing with Jonathan's neoprene masks (purchased at since 2004. The masks have been dropped, kicked, left out in the sun and in blizzards, and forced to absorb gallons about gallons of actor-sweat and they still look like they've been freshly cast (unfortunately, they've since lost that new mask smell...). In addition to the complete set of Commedia masks he offers, Jonathan has a variety of other character and decorative masks available. (I might add, that his Commedia masks do double duty as my living room's wall decorations.) And if you don't like anything he shows on the site, you can do what Disney and Lincoln Center did: order a custom mask.

And here's what he has to say...

1. How do you define Commedia dell'Arte?

Hmmmmm… The Commedia is so many things. I would define the Commedia as the ultimate human comedy. It is an outrageous celebration of the foibles of humanity. The Commedia is forever contemporary given that it is based on archetypes and universal themes. It is trickery at its finest.

Everything in the commedia is a ruse even the act of story telling. One thinks one is off to see a play but in the end it is what the characters of the commedia choose to give that evening that is the experience of the audience.

As a style, in the commedia, it is the style itself that’s in play. It is different in other forms of theatre. For example, it is the text in Shakespeare, the story in a melodrama, and the characters in Contemporary American Realism. The style itself is what is important in the commedia.

In commedia you have an actor playing an actor playing a character having a direct conversation with the audience.

2. What do you think is the most common misconception of Commedia?

That it is an historical form of theatre that needs to played as such and that it is based completely in improvisation.

3. Where does the inspiration for your Commedia masks come from?

The masks are based on both the historical forms of the traditional commedia masks but also on the animals that are closest to the charters in personality and temperament.

4. Tell us about Neoprene. What are the advantages of working with this material as a sculptor and as an actor?

Neoprene is an industrial latex compound that cures to a mostly rigid form. It’s original application was as an additive for adhesives. Someone figured out that it could be used to make masks. I wish it had been me then I’d feel like a smart person.

In a neoprene mask the wall of the mask turns out to be about 1/8” thick and is slightly flexible. This material has been being used by mask makers here in the US for about 18 years. It provides for a very professional grade working mask. Its greatest asset is that the masks can be made in an affordable way.

The weight and feel of the mask is similar to that of a leather mask. The masks are padded and strapped. The wear on the mask will depend on the care that it gets and how many times it is exposed to extreme cold and extreme heat. For the most part, neoprene masks are pretty much indestructible. I toured with a company that had to make changes so quickly that the masks were often thrown on the floor over and over again and those masks would last a year or more of constant touring and playing 250 or so performances a year.

5. Why do you think Commedia dell'Arte is an important training for contemporary actors?

Commedia is an important training tool because it involves the use of masks which are designed as living sculpture. This means that in order to support the mask and maintain the life of the sculpture the actor must always be in a constant state of honest discovery. It is impossible to lie under a mask. Learning to play commedia is like learning to play the violin. One has to be a virtuoso to pull it off. It is hugely technical and an absolute mastery of the technique must be had in order to play.

The actor must have a true mastery of the principles of the craft of performance to succeed at the commedia.

6. You teach workshops which fuse both Grotowski-based and Lecoq-based actor training. How do you reconcile the two distinct styles in your own work and pedagogy?

Do you have an hour… here is the short answer:

I fuse them. Lecoq is all about space and rhythm which involves a relationship to the audience since they are part of the space. The physical conditioning of the plateau work and the attention to the kinesthetic and intuitive sense of physical impulse is second to none in the Grotowski work. I use the two at different points in the training process and to accomplish different goals depending on the outcome I am reaching for.

7. Do you have a favorite Commedia character to play? Why?

I most often play Pantelone because he is closer to me in real life but I love playing Tartaglia. The simple stupidity of this character appeals to me.

8. While Commedia-inspired groups like the Mime Troupe have been around for decades and while some elements of Commedia-esque satire have been absorbed by the sketch comedy world of SNL and such, do you think that we'll ever see a traditional masked traveling Commedia troupe dealing with contemporary material?

I would hope so. But I’m not sure that it can happen in our culture. We in America do not have a tradition of masked performance and so have a difficult time relating to masked styles of performance. The masks of our culture are Darth Vader, Freddy from Friday the Thirteenth and evil clown masks for Halloween. It’s difficult. Maybe if we tire of the virtual world we will long for something else and truly theatrical forms of performance will begin to flourish.

9. What can Commedia and its legacy teach us about creating contemporary satire?

Situation is the basis for comedy and the universal is what is funny. That it is ultimately the physical nature of the comedy the rings true and is most exciting. I always think of Lucile Ball, Bill Cosby, Rhett Skelton, Archie Bunker (all of the characters in this sit com) oh and
stupid and ridiculous are a good place to start when solving most problems.

10. Anything you'd like to plug?

Sure… Buy lots of masks from or just send me all your money. That works too.

...In addition to today's interview, you can look forward to hearing from Christopher Bayes, one of the country's leading teachers of clown and Commedia and Kirk Wood Bromley, New York's most prolific verse playwright. Have another interview suggestion? Comment away...

Kinderspiel's Dramatis Personae

Down below are the characters we explored on Saturday's rehearsal as we tested out the konceit detailed in Kinderspiel Korrections: Part 2. We used the "dropping-in" exercise I picked up from Larry Sacharow in 2001 to find the characters' physicalities and then the ensemble created a very long but very brilliant composition which staged how these characters might deal with the 4 tropes of child's play that I wrote about on Friday. Finally, the ensemble spent some time trying to stage Kiran's very first zygotic stab at the play's language, a fabulously demented mix of English words following German grammatical rules, German/English hybrid words, and nonsense words made out of strange English or German compounds. You can read a little bit of this in the excerpt section of Kinderspiel's finally posted show page on And while you're navigating away from the site, feel free to take a gander at the production's webpage placeholder at (I know, I know, we couldn't get dot-com...)

If you've navigated back to blog (or never left at all), I hereby present to you, in no particular order, the possible dramatis personae for Kinderspiel:

"Anita" played by Alexia Vernon

"Max" played by Cameron J. Oro

"Heinrich" played by Sam Dingman

"Anna" played by Elisa Matula

"Sylvia" played by Liza Wade White

(You might have recognized some of the above pix. They are all photos or paintings of famous writers, painters, and performers from 1920s Berlin.)

Friday, May 18, 2007

Kinderspiel Korrections: Part 2

(If you haven't read Part 1, please see below.)

Last we saw our fearless Co-Artistic Directors, they were in the middle of a dual to the death with the Dionysian forces attempting to overthrow their pet project Kinderspiel. Will their partner in criminally brilliant theatricality, the Dramaturg, step in and save the day? Stay tuned...




(trying to live up to the vicious insult that Alexia launched at me: blog tease. Can you believe that?! The nerve!)



............okay, I can't take it anymore. Our new and improved and more than slightly demented vision for Kinderspiel takes its lead from Hedwig and the Angry Inch (the play, not the movie). Through the structure of various musical acts, each fully genre'd, Hedwig tells his/her origin tale: how he became she and then he again (more or less. kind of. it's complicated. see the movie). Similarly, we'll present an evening cabaret performance composed of acts, moderated by an MC, which, combined with banter and monologue, will explain the origin story of the Kinderspielers and how they came to do what they do. Except our acts will be sequences of child's play, consisting not of play-acting, but the following tropes:
  • Questions & Answers:
    • ex. Q: "Why is the sky blue?" A: "Because if it was black we wouldn't be able to see anything during the daytime."
    • These questions can be stimulated by real world phenomena or by imaginary constructs from the below tropes. They are often deadly serious and carry the force of logic.
  • Role-Playing:
    • ex #1: "Let's play house! You'll be the daddy and I'll be the mommy and we'll be poor because you can't get a job and I'll let in strange smelly men and give them a tour of the bedroom while you wait on bread lines."
    • ex #2: [5 year old talking on pretend cellphone] "Hello, honey. I'm at the station! Can you hear me? I need you pick me up. I'm at the station. Can you pick me up at the station? I'm by the train."
    • These simulations of "adult" life often boil down stereotypes of domestic life and ones community in ways that only the sharpest of satires can mimic.
  • Games:
    • ex: "Okay, so each time you walk past the bench you need to jump twice and say the name of the person behind you but unless you say it backwards you have to walk backwards."
    • These games often have so many invented and/or improvised rules than no adult can comprehend how they could possibly be fun. But they are probably the truest example of direct democracy...assuming, of course, that there isn't a bossy 8-year old barking out all the rules herself!
  • Experiments:
    • ex: magnifying glasses on ants, salt on slugs, stacking things so high they fall and break, and designing and building a robot of scrap metal in the dumpster in the hopes of creating a friend who will clean your room, do your homework, and get you a girlfriend (not that I ever did that. Because I didn't! And I definitely didn't try to plug it in and get electrocuted! Who would be that stupid?! Stop looking at me like that!).
    • These experiments can often be destructive and cruel but they can also be the way kids learn about life, death, gravity, electrocution, and many of the other truisms that will govern their adult lives.
Now, we ain't no psychologists (though I've been home-schooling a 10th grader in AP psych so I'm not totally clueless. At least I hope not...wait, am I?), but, as far as we can tell from our playground and playdate studies, these discrete activities and their overlap cover the gamut of child's-play that is infused with the same sort of glorious kid-logic as great children's literature.

(Cry for help: if anyone out in the blogosphere knows of actual studies that categorize and or analyze kid's play, please comment or email me directly so we can be better informed. Emily, can you cast about for this, too?)

So, if the piece is essentially the interwoven biographies of 5 kinderspielers, who are these Weimar-era men and women anyhow? Check back on Monday for details as we present Part 3 of Kinderspiel Korrections.

In the meantime, comments are eagerly solicited, especially on one troublesome subject in particular: how do we develop this piece in such a way that it is read as a riff on how childhood is processed by adults rather than just a celebration of the oft-cliched "wisdom of the child"?

Kinderspiel Korrections: Part 1

So, we spent about 3 weeks toying with a concept for Kinderspiel that just doesn't look like it will either a) actually address the questions we want to address or b) actually be possible to do.

Fortunately, we learned a lot in those 3 weeks of experiments. It can be awfully frustrating for all parties involved to flail about in unknown territory only to come to the conclusion that nothing has been concluded. But such is the valiant and commendable mission of a laboratory theatre company! The alternative is what? We would only do plays that were already written or develop ideas that we were 100% certain we could pull off. Where would the fun be in that?

As it stands now, Kinderspiel PR reads: "Set in the demimonde of Weimar Berlin, one cabaret offers access to the ultimate taboo: watching adults play as children. Stolen Chair presents the world's greatest children's story, told exclusively for an adult audience. After all, why should childhood be wasted on the young?"

In our rehearsal experiments, we had been interpreting "play as children" to mean "play-acting as children." Putting aside for the moment whether or not the nature of our ensemble's play-acting was or was not faithful to actual child's-play, this interpretation forcibly skews the play too far towards the Dionysian on Nietzsche's artistic spectrum (Um...can you tell I've been spending too long doing PR for Stolen Chair's gig at the Pretentious Festival?). While about 8 years ago, in the thick of my Grotowski-worship, I would have bribed, maimed, and killed for the opportunity to direct a paratheatrical experiment, Stolen Chair's whole formula is based on reinvigorating classical (or classic) structures. We make perversely-conceived and aesthetically-preposterous well-made plays. And...we tell stories! Good stories. We just couldn't find the Apollonian structures necessary to keep the play-acting component and find opportunities to forge those into a well-made play and a good story.

The chief problem play-acting poses is that it fully negates character; part of play-acting means so fully committing to the spirit of the moment that the social clues that reveal character just disappear. And it's reductive: while there's room therein for wild creativity, the plot tropes it seems to force (Grotowski similarly noticed that in his early paratheatre experiments, most of the improvisations revolved around certain banalities like pseudo-tribal conflict and group celebration) won't give us the opportunity to explore the questions which originally gave rise to this piece.

But, where does that leave us? Ah, well that's part two, coming to an RSS-feed near you in about 3 hours...


Kiran, Cam, Liza, Emily, and I crouched down and crawled through the Brick's adorably lilliputian entrance for the first time today. The space is like an airier, brick-ier Red Room, with a layout that all the Chairs are really familiar with, narrow and deep. It was nice directing in the space and all of the Brick associates we met were really welcoming.

Tonight was a very special rehearsal: our first time actually digging into the moments that we've spent the past month creating. For those of you who haven't been in a rehearsal with us, we have an interesting 2-phase "blocking" process. Phase 1 happens in a frenzy, with what seems like 5 dozen people shouting out ideas simultaneously until the entire play is staged before any of us has anything even resembling a handle on the play's characters or important themes. This phase of the process can be very jarring for actors who like to cook up their characters slowly, especially when they don't know that Phase 2 will follow shortly thereafter.

Phase 2: we spend the rest of the rehearsal process refining/undoing our hastily staged moments so that can actually live in the same performative world and support character throughlines. This phase of the process can also be very frustrating for actors, especially those who wrote down the blocking for Phase 1 in pen :).

What I love about working with this company is by the time we're half-way through phase 2, I start to get existentially depressed as I watch rehearsal and see only brilliance on stage, no longer remembering an ounce of how I may once have contributed to said magic. I mean it: I actually enjoy wallowing in that deep despair because it's a testament to just how much of a big messy collaboration our work always is.

And now we just have to write the damn ending...

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Go Em!

Our jaw-droppingly brilliant dramaturg/composer, Emily Otto, has joined me as a member of's summer reviewing squad.

Read all about it here.

Friday, May 11, 2007

"Put that in your blog and smoke it"

This posting's title is courtesy of Layna Fisher, Tuzia in our remount of Commedia dell'Artemisia. We are about 2/3 of the way done restaging the rewrites (with a recast ensemble) and I am having the time of my life working on this (and I hope the rest of the creative team is too). I spend most of each rehearsal laughing mine arse off, yet somehow we're right on schedule. I'm more than a little bit sad that we're only going to have three chances to share this.

Back when we first tossed up the possibility of remounting this show, I asked Emily (resident dramaturg) if it was an "immature" work. Not "immature" as in poop jokes and rubber chickens (alas, we haven't found a way to work either of these into Stolen Chair's ouevre), but "immature" insofar as it was something we developed before all of the growth that the company had in 2005 and 2006 (which was, in a sense, first catalyzed by the Stampede Festival performance of Commedia dell'Artemisia).

As we've rehearsed it over the past month, I've rediscovered a certain sharpness in it that really hasn't been in any of our pieces since. While I've blown out my vocal chords debating the "meaning" of most of our pieces, these meta-conversations about Commedia seem so much more loaded. Perhaps because this is one of the few projects on which we've worked that actually has the potential to raise controversy and ruffle the feathers of even the most liberal of audiences. It's a comedy about rape, a raucous and ribald farce about sexual violation, with a little torture thrown in for good measure (Hey, Kiran, you should make sure to work in some of the 24-backlash popularization of torture stuff into the last scene, huh?). And the rape we're satirizing is the actual historical forceful defloration of the Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi. Delicate stuff, and we're not exactly "tip-toeing on egg shells" around it. We are trying, however, to be even more faithful to the story's original details, perhaps only because the truth, in this case, is far sicker (and, truth be told, far more comical) than any fiction we could invent.

Ultimately, the piece is a diatribe against those who attempt to universalize the subjectivity of human experience: those who look at Artemisia's "rape" and process it with the same context that it would have in our contemporary society, those who actually believe there is any throughline in the history of marriage (one besides the historical subjugation of women, of course), those who believe that great art has always been driven by personal demons, those who eschew responsibility for their ideologies by hiding behind a wall of tradition that is as variable as the Billboard music chart.

Diatribes aside, it also has more slapstick than any piece I've ever had the pleasure of directing. Prat falls, slaps, and kicks in the groin galore. Who could ask for anything more? (Hey, that was almost a couplet! Watch out, Kiran!)

There are only two NYC performances (and each house size is only about 50!) so buy your tickets now, and don't forget to support the rest of our friends at the Pretentious festival!!!

Monday, May 07, 2007

Pretentious Update

Tickets for our production of Commedia dell'Artemisia at the Pretentious Festival are now on sale. Buy 'em here.

We'll be doing a very special post for the Pretentious blog in a few days and we'll simul-post that here.

I'll also be sending out process updates on Kinderspiel and Commedia dell'Artemisia throughout the week.