Monday, December 31, 2007
So, the out-of-town preview's always an iffy thing. I'm a big believer in the Not Opening in Minneapolis Until Our Material Sucks Less school of thought, and I have family down there, so it remains a good excuse to drive down, see my folks, and do a few performances.
I can't help noticing that even as our audience in Minneapolis has grown, our audience in Rochester has dwindled, which I suspect is at least partly symptomatic of an evolving style on our part. I've joked that I'm the most conservative artist in Minneapolis, and the most liberal artist in Rochester. It's amazing the degree of culture shock that can take place over a 90-minute drive. And I'm saying that as someone who's been to China.
That said, this ranks among our more successful previews, and I'm pretty sure it's because of the variety-show format: it's the only show we've really done without some complicated, cerebral layer to penetrate, or that requires you to know who, say, Snorri Sturluson is in order to get a punchline. It's pretty much wall-to-wall jokes: with a variety of approaches and in a number of styles, but primarily designed to entertain.
And I guess it's comforting to get some affirmation that we still know how to do that, because otherwise you -- well, you're Jerry Lewis trying to be Chaplin. And nobody wants that.
Sunday, December 23, 2007
We survived -- er, completed -- a full-cast run-through a while back. To paraphrase the King of Hearts, we were successfully able to begin at the beginning, go on till we came to the end, then stop, which is a pretty fucking amazing achievement considering the eclectic mix of what we're doing, and the constraints that we're trying to do it in. Our stage manager, Erika Loen, also happens to be one of those transient photographers-about-town, and snapped a number of photographs.
A big part of what's so thrilling about this project for me is cramming together such a disparate group of personalities and disciplines in my apartment, and seeing what they come up with, as evidenced by the following:
Tara King, one of the dancers from Mad King Thomas, alongside Dean Hatton. Dean's the one in the shorts.
And look! Here's one of the Brothers Quetico, garbed as Bragi, the Norse god of poetry. Folk art is the new regular art, indeed.
Erika was kind enough to contribute the following notes:
When stage managing a show for Maximum Verbosity it is important to remember three things:
1) Feed the actors.
2) Never worry about being overdressed. You will be. Period.
3) Bring your camera.
Eleven days 'til opening. Gulp.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
So here's a cell-phone snapshot of Monica, one of the dancers of Mad King Thomas. She's literally chopped up one of my scripts into pieces with a pair of scissors and surrounded herself with language fragments, trying to re-arrange them in some sort of dramatically dynamic way. I find this to be a pretty accurate metaphor for the whole project.
While trying to schedule and organize a cast this large (and by large I mean larger than, like, five people) has been a bit of a headache, the rewards of collaboration have been a pleasant surprise. It's confirmed what I've been suspecting for a while -- that the core group has simply become too insulated -- and working with artists who are challenging us to plow outside of our comfort zones has been a lot of fun. If I derive no other benefit from this project, it's that it's already causing me to reconsider many aspects of my existing scripts -- I'm confident that many of the gags and structural tricks introduced by our collaborators are going to work their way into further rewrites.
One interesting aspect of this project has been the conflict arising between artists of different disciplines: on one side we have a group of actors, who are very protective of the text, and on the other side a group of dancers/mimes/musicians, who regard it primarily as a means to an end. Striking that balance between textual depth and audience enjoyment is something that we've been struggling with since day one, and one thing I've been devoting a lot of thought cycles to lately.
In It's a Meaningless Life (closing this weekend, by the way!), Joe Scrimshaw opens with a story called "Christmas Carol: Year Two." It's very clever, well-constructed, with some truly inventive turns of phrase. Over the course of the past couple of weeks, he's been playing with the material, gradually introducing more scatalogical jokes here and there. Which I enjoy, but I find myself wondering: how much of the work we put into what we do is just for, well, us? All of the careful effort we put into interesting narrative and layered comedy -- are audiences just sitting through that politely until we get to the laugh lines? It's a discouraging thought.
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
It's a hell of a line-up: slam master of Minneapolis Allison Broeren, who burst onto the Fringe scene this year with All the Things I Never Told My Mother; New Yorker Courtney McLean, who's recently moved to Minneapolis after touring such hits as Normal-C and Super Glossy; fellow Liberal Media Elite blogger Rik Reppe, creator of the one-man shows Staggering Towards America, Glorious Noise, and Santa Man; local storytelling heavyweight Amy Salloway, fresh off the successes Does This Monologue Make Me Look Fat?, So Kiss Me Already, Herschel Gertz!, and Circumference; and, y'know, me. All ably hosted by the extraordinary Allegra Lingo, in the greatest team-up since the Justice League of America fended off an attempt by Appellaxian invaders to turn the Earth into their own personal royal arena, equipped with deadly elemental battle-suits.
It's hard for me to talk about any kind of coherent "process," since we're still trying to figure out exactly who the hell we are and what we're trying to accomplish. It's a supergroup, though, and we're going to start finding out this Sunday at 7pm, at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. Be there or be mercilessly ostracized.
Monday, November 26, 2007
I'm a bit more starry-eyed about being involved than I should probably admit in a public space -- I'm a pretty big fan of just about everyone who's on board. Not dissimilar to how I'm feeling with Logorrhea, where I find myself in the surreal position of *directing* people I've been admiring from afar for years. Seriously, I can't stop freaking out about this. What the hell is going on in my life? I find myself holding my breath, awaiting some horrific karmic retribution. If I had a puppy, he would probably be dead now, having been brutally, senselessly slain by white supremacists in an act of random sinophobic canicide.
The murder of my hypothetical mongrel companion aside, this is one of those shows I'd be eager to see, regardless of whether or not I was involved in it. It's a solid line-up of some of the funniest folks in the Twin Cities, and it's opening this Friday. Plays at 10pm every Friday-Saturday night until December 22nd at the Minneapolis Theater Garage. Opens on the Independence Day of the Isle of Barbados, so make of that what you will.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
One of which is very near indeed! I'll be one of the headlining performers at Tellebration, a phenomenon that's (quite literally) sweeping the nation, and the premier storytelling festival in Minnesota. Swing by at 8pm this Saturday, and you can see me performing alongside such local talents as Loren Niemi, Howard Lieberman, and Colleen Kruse.
The piece I'll be doing is called "Exposed!", and it's one that's lived a number of lives. It first appeared as a political rant at the beginning of Libertarian Rage, and it's being reworked into a solo storytelling piece for this concert performance. It's also a preview for its new existence as a slapstick routine developed with mime Dean Hatton in Logorrhea.
I've spent the last couple of years in the tooth-gnashing frustration of many artists, over the fact that I was investing an extraordinary amount of time and energy into work that very few people were paying attention to. Now that I'm starting to get an audience, however, I'm intensely grateful for that period of time, because I have five years' worth of material under my belt. I would have been at a loss to keep up with performance opportunities -- now, I have just enough to keep up with them. If someone calls me for a showcase next week, there's a reasonable chance that I'll already have something on-topic that can be whipped into shape, be it mime or poetry, political or profane.
Incidentally, the keynote speaker at the event (beginning at 10am, oog) is none other than folklorist Jack Zipes, whose translation of the Brothers Grimm formed the basis of a number of my early plays. There's a strange synchronicity to the patterns that have been emerging in my life lately, and I'm not really sure what to make of them.
Friday, November 2, 2007
In any case, one of our collaborators, the extraordinary modern dance trio Mad King Thomas, will be performing this weekend as part of Naked Stages 2007 at Intermedia Arts. Siarde and I will also be working on some new/old ("nold?") comedy sketches at a new late-night cabaret at Bedlam Theatre this coming Friday night, November 9th, at 10:30pm.
Probably lots more to say about it, but things are getting pretty crazy on this end. More later.
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
I've been busy, sure -- busy talking to venues, drawing up contracts, putting together rehearsal schedules, figuring out budgets, talking on the phone and answering e-mails. I'm working on enough shows now that keeping them organized and running smoothly is a full-time job. But I'm still so frustrated by that old irony -- I self-produce to keep my scripts onstage and in development, but production means that I don't have time to *write* anymore. Actually working on a show is the smallest part of getting it in front of people, and that balance between business and actually having energy to be passionate about what I'm working on is a hard, hard, hard one to strike.
In any case, we're performing as part of Cheap Theatre's monthly spoken-word showcase this Saturday. Theme of the evening is "Ghost," and we'll be doing a reading from Broceliande, which comprised half of our 2005 Fringe outing, Camelot is Crumbling. It's my favorite script that I've written, and by far the most polarizing production. I really got the full gamut of responses on this one -- everything from active anger and confusion (the vast bulk), to condescending "What a cute experimental phase you're going through now" (frustratingly many), to those who hailed the production as "intensely compelling" and "inventively done" (few and far between).
The overall failure of the production was a hard blow, however, mainly because I remain such a strong believer in the text. This is the one that I pull out when people ask to see my work, if only because I feel like I need some fucking *closure* on it. Even now, I'm not sure what to do with it -- if it works better as almost entirely spoken word or if it needs to be movement-heavy -- if the staging is too surreal or not surreal enough.
The problem, ultimately, is that the script is *difficult*. It's expressionistic, it's non-linear, it's a great big ball of words and images that's hung on a structure that's almost entirely opaque. And it's as much a problem to find the right audience for it as it is to find the right way to stage it.
Whatever the case, its latest incarnation -- however brief -- will be taking place at the Banquet Hall of the Black Forest Inn, this Saturday, October 20th, at 7:30pm. Ticket price is $12.00, and that includes a beverage. Other artists on the bill include Alex Bernstein, Joe Delorme, Paula Reed Nancarrow, Sandy Thomas, and Erica Christ. Come check us out, and lemme know what you think.
Thursday, September 20, 2007
TORI: Wow, that guy's a jerk!
ME: Hey, you don't know what that guy's story is. For all we know, like, his baby could be dying or something. He'd be a real fucking tragic figure then, huh? And wouldn't you feel bad?
PIP: Well, he'd still be jerk. He'd just be a jerk with a dead baby.
So my uncle tells my brother-in-law and I to hop into the van. The new guy looks at me expectantly, and I have to rapidly weigh a number of factors to determine who gets the front seat: on the one hand, I'm an eldest son; on the other hand, he's older than I am; on the other hand, I'm a blood relation; on the other hand (this is now apparently some kind of Hindu god doing the counting) he's married to my elder sister.
Not that the decision really matters -- and the bulk of the problem here is my own paranoia. But the fact that I'm thinking in these terms at all indicated that I'm currently in Canada, and it's the first time I've visited my relatives since performing the show. It somehow failed to occur to me that having produced a script about them (to fairly glowing reviews) would constitute Big News amidst my family. Matt Everett's musings about my relationship with my father have apparently made the rounds, and
eeeagh. May I take a moment to freak the fuck out about this, please? The vast array of taboos I've broken? All the angst and the anger and the profanity? Dear God, have they found my blogs? Exactly how much of my personal life is public knowledge?
Okay, I'm done now.
But being with my family again is a vaguely bizarre experience. After all, they're characters now, having provided any number of key emotional moments or lines of dialogue. I find it strange, how close I feel to them; but then I think, oh. Duh. I spent my summer on the road with them, having taken them to every performance with me.
This has changed my relationship with them in some subtle way I can't quite articulate. But I had to place them within the confines of a very artificial construct in order for that to take place, and I can't help wondering whether or not that's healthy.
Sunday, September 9, 2007
"I bow to Phillip, who has truly come into his own over the last few years. Not only is he probably the best writer I saw all Fringe, he's also found his own voice in performance (I saw his third in a single day), an energy and a humor that make him an undeniable talent. You can see what those summers of Fringing hard, attending shows and taking notes, have brought to his work: Phillip is a student of writers and performers who has synthesized those lessons into his own form of mastery. There's a Yiddish saying (Tsu vos men iz gevoynt in der yugnt, azoy tut men oyf der elter): That which is practiced in youth will be pursued in old age. I can hardly wait to see what Phillip will be up to in coming years."
Plus another long, thoughful essay from Matt Everett, which I won't reprint here, but I do want to talk about one passage:
"The interesting thing about this family portrait is that it is neither angry nor self-pitying - both of which I was very grateful for as an audience member. There is no tortured ranting or weeping. There is no sentimental reconciliation. There is only the awkward relationship between a father and a son who have everything and nothing in common. Phillip never recounts a scene in which they both say they love each other, but he doesn’t need to. You can sense it in the way the artist paints a verbal portrait of his father...it’s a mystery story that satisfies because it is about more than the nuts and bolts of solving a puzzle. It’s a family story that doesn’t shy away from the difficult moments, but also doesn’t dissolve into sentimentality."
The reason I want to look more closely at this is because this is a sentiment that was articulated to me on a number of different occasions -- that the show was such a refreshing change from the countless "woe-is-me" self-pity-fests that take over the Festival. But that's exactly what my show is. In fact, self-deprecating humor has been my schtick for nearly five years now -- my stage persona is that of many comedians, that kind of nebbishy, miserable, hand-wringing buffoon. So why do people react the way they do?
I see a lot of soul-searching autobiographical solo shows. Some are compelling. Most are dreadful. What's the difference? I think what it boils down to, for me, is the self-awareness of the performer. The underlying dynamic of my characters is not "I have such a miserable life, but I can joke about it, so it's a kind of triumph" -- the joke is that my characters' unhappiness is totally irrational. The fact that Penner is desperately miserable, in spite of the countless blessings in his life, is the very thing that makes him the object of ridicule.
This is another respect in which I wonder if my work isn't an extension of my spiritual thinking. So much of Eastern thought revolves around the necessity of transcending the self -- recognizing that one's identity is a conscious construction, and one in which we construct our own suffering more often than not. To choose to be unhappy in the face of a life full of blessings is the ultimate absurdity, and that's one of the things I find myself joking about more often than not.
Not that my awareness of this stops me from being desperately unhappy about many aspects of my own life. But at least I recognize how ludicrous it is.
Friday, August 24, 2007
"Just a quick side note about music stands. Laura and Curt perform their stories with the words on sheets of paper in front of them, on music stands, to which they occasionally refer - as many spoken word performers do. This seems to bewilder some people. 'Didn’t they bother to memorize their lines? Isn’t this theater?' Well, to be simplistic about it, no and no. This isn’t the kind of theater where the actors are pretending to be somebody else whose thoughts spring from their mind and out of their mouth as if the playwright didn’t exist. There is no fourth wall. There is no alternate reality. The words are the point. The words need to be in front of them, not as a crutch, but as a reminder to the audience that this is about the crafting of language on a page. This is telling you a story. This isn’t just rambling on randomly the first thing that comes into their head. This isn’t fiction. This is their way of processing moments in their lives, culling them for universality, and then opening them up for other people to experience. I’m not a spoken word performer. But having seen a number of spoken word offerings at the Fringe, this strikes me as being part of what it’s about. So, please, get over the music stands. The music stands are the point. They’re supposed to be there."
I was aware that there was a divide in thinking about this issue; but it wasn't until I performed my first storytelling show that I realized what a source of controversy it is in certain circles.
For my part, I'm very much in agreement with Matt here -- the point of my performance is the language itself. I actually did several rehearsals off-book, only to discover that I actively disliked the results: not because it was more work for me, but because I felt that it shifted the focus of the audience away from what I was saying and onto what I was doing. The presence of the music stand on stage, even if I barely use it, both physically anchors me and insures the primacy of the written word.
(That said, there were certainly points, particularly early on in the run when I was still feeling my way around the material, when I was relying entirely too much on the stand -- hiding behind it, rather than communicating more directly with my audience. I do think I'm working my way past that issue, however.)
But -- to invoke the phrase that seems to be becoming my anthem in my various blogs -- I think it goes *deeper* than that.
I'm not a great actor. People often chuckle and shake their heads when I say that, thinking that I'm being self-deprecating, but I'm really not: I've seen great actors, I've worked alongside great actors, and I've spent enough time in their company to recognize that I'm not among their number. I don't have the chameleon-like versatility of a Steven Epp or a Charlie Bethel. I don't think that I'm necessarily a bad actor, but I am a limited one: I'm a specialty act, and if people enjoy my performances it's at least partly because I'm very conscious of what my limitations are.
I listen to books-on-tape, and my observation is that the worst readers I've ever heard are actors. They don't know how to *trust* a text: they feel a need to embody the characters, create "voices" for them, and ham up their punchlines in a way that ends up being distracting, obnoxious, frequently untintentionally hilarious.
Allegra Lingo is a skilled performer precisely because she *doesn't* feel the need to do that: when she describes conversations, she simply reads them to us, without needing to come up with a walk, a voice, a contrived cast of characters. Her words tell the story for us: that's what gives her her approachability. (Theatricality, of course, has other virtues -- that's the trade-off that you have to weigh in rehearsal.)
Keeping the music stand there is largely psychological, both for the audience and myself. It reminds us that that I'm sharing a story, reliving it through word rather than action. Sometimes that's the right choice; sometimes it's the wrong one -- depends on the nature of the show that you're doing. But I do think that we tend to get excessively dogmatic about this is "supposed" to be done. As far as I'm concerned, the only real rule to this little game of ours is whether we're successfully entertaining you -- and if we are, do the trappings really matter?
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Fringe blogger Kate Hoff: "We caught the opening of fellow blogger Phillip Low's Descendant of Dragons at Patrick's Cabaret. We've got lots of solo storytellers on the lineup this year. And they all rock. Phillip's story about traveling to the ends of the earth to map his family tree is engaging and funny, with a little Da Vinci Code thrown in. Very highly recommended. Phillip still has four performances left! There's no excuse to miss this show. 90th percentile." She also put the show on her "Favorite Favorites" list -- her top six shows of the entire Festival.
Fringe blogger Ben Sandell: "Ah, fellow blogger Phillip Low putting on a one-man show. Another conflict of interest, but who cares? I’ve already plugged blogger John Munger’s show. I’ll certainly be there when this Maximum Verbosity veteran and playwright delivers his first non-fiction performance. I mean, how can I resist a show that features “a globetrotting adventure (in the spirit of Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad) [that] pits a cranky libertarian detective against the world's greatest Communist bureaucracy”? Plus, the show contains “copious bilingual profanity.” I am so there." Also put the show on his pre-Fringe Top 18 Most Anticipated Shows.
Arizona comedian Bill Bernat (of Crackhead Whoremonger Nerd Comedian): "Nicely woven story. Very personal. You could really see Phillip getting angry, hurt, moved, etc., at points and this was very powerful for me as an audience member. A lot of great laughs, too. As someone who has had to fight for my artistic priorities to the chagrin of an overachieving parent, I especially appreciated the Dad relationship stuff."
Playwright Bill Stiteler (of the Council of Doom Theatre Co.): "Energetic, emotional, and at times angry, Low takes the audience on a journey to try and capture what remains of his family's history before it slips away. It's made all the more frustrating by his family's refusal to talk about past events and the way that modern adults nonetheless slip into traditional roles and attitudes when it comes to (capital F) Family. Low's performance took off from the first word."
Actor Andrew Haynes (of our own Maximum Verbosity): "phil low has flawlessly captured his own voice and excitement in a one-man show that soars leagues above the common, self-serving drivel that seems to pepper the majority of up-and-coming performers. He makes his story not only accessible to the audience, but meaningful and enlightening. Not to mention the laffs. Descendant of Dragons is, I don't want to say 'brilliant,' but... how about genius? Okay, and also brilliant. An hour has never felt so short."
Other audience reviews:
"Paints a convincing picture. Strong writing, OK story-telling. The writer bravely powered through the his touching personal tales and withering heat."
"To be honest, the first five to ten minutes I was struggling with the blazing heat, so it was a little difficult to stay focused on what was being said. But as the show went on, I got more into the show, and forgot about the fact that sweat was pouring off my face and that the fans in the theatre were not sufficient cooling mechanisms. Phillip's story to define his ancestry was very passionate and touching. And humorous. (I only wish he'd been off-book) And I was inspired to write my own Fringe show. Not bad for a day's work."
"Low gave the audience a jam-packed script and an engaging performance, and I was very happy to conclude my 2007 Fringe with his Encore show. My only suggestion: to consider reducing the scope of the piece and addressing fewer components, but with more emotional depth. This is rich stuff. If it were presented only as a travelogue, it would be one thing, but Low touched upon some issues of great poignancy while -- it seemed to me -- still "holding back." For example, just the Fiji leg of the experience would provide enough material for one monologue right there. While I'm sure it's tempting to want to chronicle the entire geneology experience in one monologue, sometimes less can be more."
"Phillip Low takes us on a journey that is personal, cultural, historical, and political. His task of writing a family history starts with high ideals (sources must be confirmed!), but runs into obstinate family, and a government bound to erase focus on the individual. Despite all odds, and somewhat by chance, a document has been preserved and is recorded, but there is no confirmation available, and one is left with what one believes; where one puts his/her faith. (Okay, he kept it more "me" personal, but this is theater not therapy, so I'm going with the above.) The writing is outstanding, and the performance engaging, despite the massive scare I had upon entering (there was a script stand and they give me the willies, but Mr. Low performed his show using the script as a reference instead of reading it, and making eye contact only with the page). 'Descendants' was good enough that I abandoned my plan to ride over to the Kenny G encore; I was tired (25 shows despite working the first 9 days of the festival) and I was going out with a winner. As I pedaled back to the correct side of the river and saw the fantastic sunset behind Minneapolis, it seemed both the perfect curtain to Fringe 2007, and reminder that there is a world beyond the stage. At least until next August!"
Average audience review is four and half stars out of five. The show was also selected for a special Encore performance as the best-selling show in my venue, out of eleven productions total. I can safely say that this makes this particular show the most successful thing I've ever done. I wouldn't quite characterize it as a Fringe hit -- I didn't sell out any of my performances, although I came pretty damn close -- but it was definitely one that people were talking about: "You've got to catch this show before the Festival closes!"
So how do I feel about the experience? On one level, euphoric -- we've certainly come a long way from three-person crowds and sneering audience reviews, and I hope I can find a way to spin out this audience enthusiasm into our other shows. On one level, baffled -- that I've devoted so much energy to more complex, difficult ensemble pieces, and the one that's successful entails me standing on stage and talking for an hour. On some level, resentful -- that the expressionistic fantasy that's closest to my heart is less engaging to people than something so literal. On some level, guilty -- for having such a mixed response to being handed such a gift. But mostly? Relieved -- relieved that I can still walk onto a stage and hold an audience's attention, without an ensemble, without props, armed with nothing but words. Reassuring myself that I've earned a place in this community, not as a critic, but as an artist.
It's amusing to me how easy it is to become pigeonholed in this community -- I produce one political sketch comedy, and suddenly I'm a satirist, in with the Liberal Media Elite crowd. I write one mime show, and suddenly I'm working alongside Dean Hatton. Now, after a grand total of one storytelling show, people are talking to me like I'm a storyteller -- and that includes members of the local storytelling community, too. Bizarre, but awesome -- and I'm looking forward to doing more work within this genre.
What have I learned? Watching other proficient storytellers like Allegra Lingo and Nancy Donoval, what strikes me is how well-structured their stories are -- both within their individuals stories and within the arc of the show as a whole. My show doesn't hang together nearly as well as either of theirs -- like most of my shows, this one is a sprawling epic, loaded down with dozens of ideas and themes. Which is an effect that I like, and that I strive for -- but I believe that that same effect can be achieved in a more focused way.
People commented a lot on the physicality of my performance, and that's very much something that evolved over the course of the Iowa and Minnesota runs -- initially, I was standing at a podium and reading -- but by the final show, I wasn't simply gesturing, it was *choreographed*, points at which I walk away, clap my hands, leap, pose, react. I suppose years of mime training isn't something that you can simply walk away from.
People also commented on the podium (yeah, yeah, people never comment on it when Allegra Lingo and Mike Fotis use it, grumble, grumble) -- and while I certainly don't regret using it (much of the function of this run was to, y'know, write the show), I'll certainly consider both memorizing and hiring a director to shape the visual aspects of the performance if I undertake any kind of large-scale remount.
But we're off to start plunging into the next project -- something that I'd rather not talk about until I manage to get some specific details pinned down. But in the meantime, watch this space -- and keep your eyes on the month of January, enh?
Wednesday, August 8, 2007
Pleased to note that the show has now ended up on the Top Picks list of no less than three Fringe bloggers:
Matthew Everett: http://www.fringefestival.org/blg_showPost.cfm?blogID=4&id=2406
"This ain't your granddaddy's travelogue/family history solo outing. Half the fun of watching Phillip at work is the way he rides the torrent of words that come out of his mouth. The other half is the dazzling flurry of ideas that ride on the back of those words - funny, obscene, irreverent, sacreligious, furious, hilarious."
Kate Hoff: http://www.fringefestival.org/blg_showPost.cfm?blogID=3&id=2512
"I was so happy to love Phillip's preview at the Ritz...I am confidently recommending this show to everybody. You will not be disappointed."
Ben Sandell: http://www.fringefestival.org/blg_showPost.cfm?blogID=29&id=2541
"I’ll certainly be there when this Maximum Verbosity veteran and playwright delivers his first non-fiction performance. I mean, how can I resist a show that features 'a globetrotting adventure (in the spirit of Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad) [that] pits a cranky libertarian detective against the world's greatest Communist bureaucracy'? Plus, the show contains 'copious bilingual profanity.' I am so there."
Can I deliver? Three people can't possibly be wrong. I'll see you opening night.
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Second things second, the Asian-American Press has done a write-up about the show, complete with a (rather snarky) interview with me about the Asian-American community in the Twin Cities. Also available online, this time at http://aapress.com/index.php?subaction=showfull&id=1185766871&archive=&start_from=&ucat=6&.
I've also just returned from touring in the Iowa Fringe. There's a clip of me previewing the show with some comedy for their "Fringe Frenzy" in a local coffee shop at http://www.iowafringe.com/videos. The audience reviews were unanimously glowing:
"phillip low is a straight-up (fantastic) storyteller. Okay, he’s also a slam poet, an actor, and affectionate entertainer. I thoroughly enjoyed his Descendant of Dragons. It’s a journey you should take with him."
"Excellent show, engaging story. He’s physically and verbally charismatic and unafraid to be vulnerable and genuine with the audience. Best of the Fringe for me so far."
"A great story, well written and well told. I enjoyed this best of all I’ve seen, so far."
For my own thoughts on the experience, I've been writing at the Maximum Verbosity Production Blog (http://maximumverbosityonline.blogspot.com). Check out my promotional sonnet!
Speaking of blogging, for those interested in some, er, DVD bonus features, so to speak -- the show being a travelogue, much of it has been collected from my travel writing. You can read early drafts of some pieces that ended up in the show -- and several that were cut -- at the following links:
Want to help me out? I'd like to get the show videotaped, as well. Since this is a storytelling show, and pretty much the least physical thing I've ever done, left to my own devices I'll probably just set up a home video camera on a tripod and hit "Record," much like the infamous Star Wars kid (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQibs3albtM). If anybody out there would be willing to undertake anything more ambitious than that, I'd be happy to offer a small stipend for the service.
Fringe Festival starts in two days -- and I open in barely a week! Eeeagh!
Thursday, July 26, 2007
Faded descendant of a noble line,
his life defined by his duality
of Western coarseness, Eastern blood so fine,
he plunges into ancient history
accompanied by others, yet alone,
unique in his genetic alchemy.
In Canada, a Buddhist talks of bones;
In Fiji, tombs conceal a mystery
beneath blue tile, granite, dirt, and stone;
New Zealand harbors filial secrecy,
and China -- here our cranky hero blunders
to battle a grotesque bureaucracy.
Amidst his doubt and toil, still he wonders
if somewhere in his blood -- a dragon thunders.
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
First set I've done for this show that I really felt dissatisfied with -- I made the mistake that I so frequently do, which is that I ambitiously chose too much material for the limited time slot and ended up barrelling through most of it. It would have been better for me to select less and really try to cultivate a relationship with the audience.
Actually, I ad-libbed most of it -- I opened by riffing on Iowa (I can't believe that simply naming the town you happen to be in at the time actually works as an applause line, by the way) and Harry Potter (the fact that obtaining a copy earlier that day had prevented me from doing any work on my show). If this show's done anything for me, it's really helped me develop a lot more comfort with my audience -- as the most personal and least theatrical thing I've done. There's a time in my life I couldn't have imagined going on stage without exhaustive rehearsal, but I've written both of my Minnesota Fringe previews the day of performing them, and they've both been significantly better because of it.
I was concerned about memorizing my lines (I was working on-book while I was in Iowa), but I'm surprised to note that I've already done it -- there's a way that pieces you've performed on stage get burned into your brain. My problem right now is that they aren't *quick* -- I find myself stammering a lot, losing my place and taking a few seconds to find it -- but I've got a week left to nail 'em down.
Monday, July 23, 2007
I've written previously about my struggle with complex sentence structures, and even though that rapid-fire delivery has become something of a calling card for my shows, the main work I've done on this tour is simplifying my delivery. One of the main issues that my editors jumped on was my fondness for "soft punches" -- to deliver a punchline, then immediately undercut it with another punchline. That kind of reflexive, self-deprecating humor is a big part of what the show's all about, but it plays weak on stage, and I've been chopping away at it.
I've always been finding that there's many parts of the script in which punchlines can be entirely replaced by expression or gesture -- and I find it ironic that, even though this is the least physical show I've ever done, reviews have still been commenting on the physicality of my performance.
So the Festival's done, and sure, it was both disorganized and critically understaffed -- I received my venue assignment late, never got a tech, did at least one performance with *no* volunteers or staff on hand -- but I can't think of the last time I had this much fun.
The out-of-towners have always been cloaked in mystery, appearing and disappearing softly and suddenly with flickers of genius, the rock stars of the Fringe circuit. Having the opportunity to be around them for a week has been one the coolest, most exciting times of my life since -- well, since last year's Fringe.
Make sure to check some of 'em out in Minneapolis this August. They deserve it -- and we deserve them, too.
I'm off to perform in another preview, as part of Joe Scrimshaw's show at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. Feel free to swing by and say hi. If I can tear myself away from this for long enough to actually work on the preview, that is.
Sunday, July 22, 2007
Did the whole weird high-school thing that seems to be a hallmark of out-of-town Fringing -- "Have you heard there's a party at this guy's house? Yeah, spread the word!" and spent the evening with the cast of Knuckleball, as well as trading angst with the writer and actor of Pigeon Man Apocalypse.
Just so exhausted. Really snapping into Fringe mode now, seeing tons of shows and all of my energy going to reviewing them. One more day of this nonsense before I'm back in Minneapolis.
Saturday, July 21, 2007
Had a preview at a coffee shop early in the evening (I nearly said "early in the day," since I'm on Fringe schedule now, which means working all night and sleeping all day), which basically ended up being a bunch of artists entertaining each other -- which I'm totally fine with! Most likely the largest audience I'll end up playing this month. It was sort of barely organized, half-MC'd by the Festival director, with a bunch of us impulsively leaping onto the stage and performing pretty much whenever the hell we felt like it.
Y'know, the Minnesota Fringe is large enough -- and has been around long enough -- that, a few glitches excepted, for the most part it chugs along pretty much like clockwork. (At least, from the artist's perspective -- I'm sure it seems much more chaotic than that backstage.) But I'm really falling in love with this scrappy little festival, the last-minute wild ideas that just sort of *happen*. It's fun to be getting my foot in the door here, and I'm looking forward to returning.
My only real regret is that the run is so *short* -- I've made a point of not bringing up the Festival to the locals, just asking "Is there anything going on in terms of theatre here?" And they always think for a minute and say "Well, there's Spamalot..."
Nobody knows what the Fringe *is* yet, but they're always interested once they find out. Give me a week and I can drum up some interest. I don't know how to do that in four days.
Had another audience of three people tonight (was nearly two, but a friend from Minneapolis surprised me by driving down to catch the show) -- which is apparently kicking ass and taking names, from talking to the other out-of-towners. A number of other performers have had to cancel shows entirely due to nobody showing up.
After my first run-through with an audience yesterday, I'm starting to relax with the material, simplify some of my punchlines, replacing words with gestures and expressions in a few places -- growing more comfortable with the story, at any rate. Hopefully I'll have this down to a science by the time I hit the Mini Apple again.
Closed out the evening with a recption at the hotel, which naturally led to my becoming obnoxiously drunk. Took the opportunity to get out as many postcards as I could, since it's becoming rapidly obvious that I've printed more cards than the total population of Des Moines.
Thursday, July 19, 2007
Never did get a tech person -- I'm still uncertain whether this is because my assigned tech person wimped out on me, or because I was never assigned a tech in the first place. The TD basically sat me down in front of the light/sound board and told me I was free to poke around. I'm not a skilled tech, but I've been in show business long enough to be able to operate a simple board. No matter; after a brief round of vomiting in the library's restroom, I was able to draft one of my ticket-takers to run my sound cues for me.
My very first Fringe show, I had a grand total of three people in the audience. In the intervening years, I've been able to gradually build an audience, and that's not an ordeal I've had to go through since.
So how many people did I have in the audience? A grand total of -- you guessed it -- three. This is definitely the downside of touring -- that there's a sense in which I'm starting over from scratch, and that experience is somewhat depressing.
The audience was receptive, however, and I had fun with them. One of the major *upsides* of touring is the fact that, locally, people have come to know what to expect from me. Out here, I'm re-introducing myself to an audience all over again, that's just oodles of fun.
One woman in particular I shared a very nice conversation with -- she's the adopted mother of several Chinese children, and found a lot of resonance in what I was saying to her own experience. One of the things I love about storytelling isn't sharing my *own* experiences, but the fact that doing so seems to give me access to the experiences of others.
The other upside of touring -- and, for me, possibly the biggest one -- is the opportunity to shoot the shit with other artists. Those who make it onto the road always seem to have the most interesting experiences, and I'm eager to soak up everything I can like a sponge.
Did a spot of bar-hopping, too, in a desperate attempt to track down food -- every time we asked one of the locals if there was a restaraunt still open at 11pm, we were met with a torrent of Errol-Flynn-like belly-laughs. Managed to find a bar that was willing to whip up some appetizers, only to have them kick us out at midnight. Midnight! On a Thursday night. It's like being back in Rochester all over again.
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
My performing space is respectable, as well -- far from the stack of books I was dreading, it's actually quite spacious. Put up a few posters in areas recommended by the Festival director and got back to my car just in time to keep it from being towed. Seriously, the guy had it hooked up and was in the process of loading it into his truck. Major suckage.
I have a number of other things to take care of before opening the show tomorrow night, but I'm not going to. My reason is this: when we opened our first show, I set a strict deadline for myself -- everything would be done two days before the performance, no matter what. My logic was that I would then be able to kick back and relax, spend the day refining whatever still needed to be worked on.
What actually happened is I got everything done early, kicked back -- and realized I had nothing to do but sit around and anticipate the opening. Forty-eight hours of raw panic ensued. I have since learned to leave a few select items to the last minute, to give myself something to worry about other than the performance.
My panicking for *that* doesn't get to start until I hit the stage.
Such an odd, vitriolic mix of different phobias -- my typical stage fright, combined with my fear of being miles away from all of my dozens of little comforting rituals. It's ironic that I'm such a big traveller -- that my latest show is in fact a travelogue -- and so much of travel just makes me so nauseous.
(There's an irony, too, that I find vacationing to be so terribly stressful -- I'm much more comfortable at home, chugging away at a variety of projects, than I am just about anywhere else. Part of it's my usual Catholic guilt, I'm sure -- the sense that I'm able to have a job that I love so deeply that it feels unjust for me to be taking time away from it. My whole goddamn *life* is a vacation.)
I've been playing the multicultural card a lot with this show, which makes me uncomfortable -- I'm a staunch opponent of affirmative action, viewing it as little more than a form of institutionalized racism -- I've passed up a lot of opportunities, grants, etc. because I'm so uncomfortable with being granted any kind of advantage because of the color of my skin. But this show -- hell, I got into the Minnesota Fringe this year via their multicultural lottery. (I can at least partly justify this by the fact that a significant topic of my show is multiculturalism.)
What's bizarre is the degree of coverage I've been getting because of it. Asian American Press contacted me, asking me to write about the local API community. It took me several minutes (and a frantic Google search) to figure out what the hell they were talking about -- the Asian-Pacific Islander community (and not application programming interface, as I originally suspected) -- because apparently I'm now some kind of expert on the subject.
The director of the Iowa Fringe has also been kind enough to introduce me to the, uh, "head of Asians" in Iowa, for lack of a better term (which makes it sound like some kind of exotic, solemn ceremony) -- in fact, here's a link to some info about her. It's hard for me to imagine that she has much in common with a foul-mouthed libertarian.
There's a part of me that feels a little guilt about this, like I'm somehow masquerading some kind of "yellow cred" that I don't really have. But then, I think that maybe that's not all that uncommon an aspect of the Asian-American experience, especially among ABC's like myself -- I have at least one friend who was rejected from an Asian-American club for "not being Asian enough."
What a strange animal this show is.
Monday, July 16, 2007
First of all, a reminder that I'm opening the new show in Des Moines this Thursday -- I'm taking off for the Tall Corn State tomorrow, armed with a garbage bag full of props and the cheapest bottle of vodka I could find. And your first reminder about the Minnesota Fringe, opening in Minneapolis in three weeks! If you haven't added my show to your Fringe schedule yet, now's the time -- just register over on the Fringe site at www.fringefestival.org. More information about both venues can be found as usual on our site at www.maximumverbosityonline.org/current.html.
As for previews, Fringe blogger Kate Hoff made some very kind comments over at www.fringefestival.org/blg_showPost.cfm?blogID=3&id=2360. I (unexpectedly!) ended up plugging my show with some slam poetry as part of Cafe Barbette's Bastille Day celebrations to fill in for another group. I'll also be doing another preview during Joe Scrimshaw's hit comedy "Adventures in Mating" when I get back into town this Monday (the 23rd) -- more information available at www.adventuresinmating.com.
Not strictly Maximum-Verbosity-related, but if you're interested in seeing a lot of Fringe shows this year, volunteers are still being hired -- and for each show you work, you get to see another show of your choice free of charge. Believe me, this is a community that's worth being a part of. If you're interested in chipping in, head on over to http://fringefestival.org/volunteer.cfm.
Saturday, July 7, 2007
"Supports peace in the world, equality and justice for all, and the fundamental human rights of speech and all forms of artistic expression."
Now, why does this get under my skin so much? Well, perhaps because I don't *agree* with it. I'm no pacifist, and I don't support peace on general principle -- I believe in the concept of self-defense, and recognize that we live in a world where self-defense is frequently necessary. I also don't necessarily support the idea of equality -- there are, after all, those who devote their lives to helping others, and those who devote their lives to spreading harm, and I don't see those as being morally equivalent.
Some will say that I'm missing the point, and they're absolutely correct -- because this sentence is so ridiculously vague that it could mean just about anything. And that's what I find so offensive about it -- that it is smug, and self-congratulatory, and purports to be daring while saying nothing whatsoever at all.
Perhaps you've become so insulated that you believe that a statement like this is still challenging and provoking. But it's nothing more than cheap applause line, the kind that many college theatre groups are fond of making, and I don't accept it from you, because you are fucking better than this.
Thursday, July 5, 2007
I've also updated the website with clips from the upcoming show: feel free to view/hear them at http://maximumverbosityonline.org/clips.html.
Also, the Minnesota Fringe Festival's new website has officially gone live! Feel free to check out my show page at http://fringefestival.org/showDetail.cfm?showid=595. If you want to help a brother out, register for the site and add some of my performances to your schedule -- there's a top ten list of the most scheduled shows that everyone pays attention to, and it would really rock my world to crack that.
Thursday, June 28, 2007
Thursday, July 19, 6:30pm
Friday, July 20, 8pm
Saturday, July 21, 5pm
Sunday, July 22, 3:30pm
Location: Des Moines Central Library
Main Floor, South Wing - Room #3
1000 Grand Ave
Des Moines, IA 50309
Ticket prices are $10.00.
More information can, as usual, be found on our website at http://www.maximumverbosityonline.org.
Des Moines is a way out of my usual stomping grounds, so I don't have the network of support there in place that I do in, say, somewhere I've been living and working for four years. I've also received our venue assignment late -- just sent out press releases not ten minutes ago, and the show opens in three weeks. Out-of-town touring is always kind of a crap shoot, so if you have any friends or relatives in the area who you think would be interested in a foul-mouthed travelogue, I'd be much obliged if you passed it on to them.
Also, the MPR interview I mentioned in my last notice is now online at http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2007/06/26/fringe/. And a reminder that one of my ten-minute scripts is going to be remounted this Saturday as part of Theatre Limina's 10-minute play festival -- more information at http://blb.ciceron.com/calendar.asp?date=6/30/2007.
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
It was selected as the audience favorite of the evening, with a whopping 4.75 out of 5 average(!). Audience comments include:
"Finally! Humor, a story, a reason to care for the folks." "Touching and funny." "Best play of the night."
It'll be remounted as part of an encore performance this Saturday, June 30th, 7pm at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. For more info visit
I've also written (somewhat tangentially) about the experience at Maximum Verbosity's Production Blog:
As long as we're on the subject -- I'm currently writing for five different websites, so keeping track of my online adventures can be something of a nightmare. For those who are interested, I've created a Livejournal which is nothing more than a list of updates to all of my other sites. Feel free to add or syndicate
Performed a preview last night at the Fringe-For-All of my upcoming one-man show. It was enthusiastically received, with Matthew Everett dubbing it his "Favorite Comedy Moment" of the evening. Glowingly reviewed here:
"...his ever-expanding skill and bending language to his will and slinging it at you from five different directions at once - that's the primary reason you should see his show. He is damn good at what he does. He is smart. He is funny. He is brilliant. No question."
I was also pulled aside at the event and interviewed about the Festival and my show for MPR, so there should be a few sound bites from me on "All Things Considered" this afternoon between three and six sometime.
Annnd speaking of interviews, I never mentioned that I was quoted in an article about the Fringe for Intermission Magazine:
Fringe Season Is Upon Us, and things are only going to be getting progressively crazier. I'm off to the Iowa Fringe in Des Moines in three weeks, not to mention the countless previews and showcases taking place. I'm sure you'll be hearing more from me soon.
For one thing, the bulk of my training is as a mime, a field in which you’re expected to create, develop, and present your own work – so when I began working on larger-scale productions, it seemed like a logical extension of that process. Most of my heroes – writers like Moliere, Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen – functioned the same way, and I believe their scripts were significantly improved by their multi-layered investment.
For another thing, I think that our roles in theatre have become much too specialized. At the theatre where I received much of my training, we were all expected to write, direct, act, stage manage, run tech, and scrub the toilets after the audience had gone home – to give us an appreciation of all of the elements that make up a production. Furthermore, I view production as an organic extension of the creation of a script, not a separate process. I rewrite freely over the course of rehearsals, and don’t consider myself to have completed a rough draft until the first run closes.
The downsides are obvious. It’s an extraordinary investment of time and energy. I find myself having to resort to a number of people as both stand-ins and outside eyes. Half of the time I’m not second-guessing myself enough, the other half of the time far too much. But the biggest problem is this: I consider myself to be a decent writer, and an adequate (if limited) actor. I’m a lousy director. I don’t think visually. I get far more interested in process than in product, in the (only partially true) belief that one leads to the other.
There’s more to it than that, though. Like every playwright, I had a bad experience with a director.
The year was 2001. The director was a teacher of mine who I idolized. She promptly eliminated the opening dream sequence of the show, on the grounds that it was “surreal” (well, no shit), replacing it with a series of newspaper headlines shouted from off-stage condemning the US response to the 9-11 attacks. (Never mind that this had nothing whatsoever to do with the story.) Things kind of went downhill from there.
In one scene, a domestic argument between a wife and her drunken husband, she rewrote it (while I was too sick to come to rehearsal, no less) to say that he was not drunk, merely “tired”, thereby rendering their dialogue completely incoherent. She pulled me aside and solemnly explained to me that the world my play had created was a circus, and therefore decked out the main character as a ringmaster. (Aside from the fact that this was completely absurd, this seemed to me to ignore that my protagonists are almost uniformly the *victims* of their fantasies, not the heroes.) She also stuck him in a beard which the actor generously described as “Osama bin Laden caught in a paper shredder.” The cast asked me on a number of occasions to rescue the script from her. I didn’t.
She removed all of the jokes (“Too smart-alecky!”) and all of the fantasy sequences (“Too bizarre!”) – in short, removed every element that made the script unique or challenging. What’s more, she didn’t do it to clarify the story or explore the spirit of the script from another angle – she did it for no other purpose than to advance her own political agenda. I thought I’d put this behind me, but I guess it had soured me on the experience a lot more than I had thought. In fact, this was the beginning of my belief that maybe I actually could direct – because, if I could recognize that someone was making a decision that was so absolutely *wrong*, then surely I must have some sense of what would be *right*.
And, to a degree, I was right. I turned out to be a significantly better director than, say, her. But that doesn’t necessarily make me good.
I just had a script produced as part of Theatre Limina’s ten-minute play festival ("Bent"). It was pretty awesomely successful – wall-to-wall laughter, creepy in all the places it was supposed to be creepy. It was the hit of the evening, and the audience almost unanimously selected it for an encore performance. And it was so successful, precisely *because* I was nowhere near the direction of it.
The director took it and made it his own. I was barely consulted – he cut several jokes here and there, moved this sequence around, chose a different music cue – and nearly every decision was exactly right. And they’re decisions that I *couldn’t* have made, because I’m too close to it. I don’t object to the changes he made, because he understood the script, and ultimately that’s what matters. A director who can do that – take over a script and shut the playwright out in exactly the *right* way – is worth their weight in gold. So I’m reconsidering my position on the triple-threat thing.
But don’t take my word for it – judge for yourself. It’s getting remounted this Saturday, June 30th, 7pm at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. Be there or, y’know, don’t.
Womb with a View, on the website of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, contains my reviews of Twin Cities theatre. My production company's website is at Maximum Verbosity, and the Maximum Verbosity Production Blog contains plugs for my own work and musings on art in general. My political writing is for the most part cross-posted to both Libertarian Rage and Liberal Media Elite, two sites that, oddly enough, seem to have a very different audience.
For those whose interests overlap with mine in more than one place, or want to keep track what I've what I'm doing without hopping between five different sites, I've started a Livejournal which is nothing more than a collection of links to updates of the other blogs. Feel free to add or syndicate
if it makes your life easier. I know it'll make mine.
Saturday, May 26, 2007
The greatest obstacle, I'm finding, is probably my fondness for complex sentences in blogging. To a degree this has characterized my scripts as well -- but generally the dialogue is more streamlined, at least slightly more naturalistic. (Which is ironic, since blogging is probably the venue that matches most closely my speaking voice. My natural delivery isn't naturalistic at all, apparently.)
Thing is, when I blog, I'm happy to just chatter away, piling one prepositional phrase on top of another (not to mention throwing in multiple parenthetical thoughts) -- liberal use of hyphens -- thought fragments -- that kind of thing, and sentences never really seem to end, they just go on and on and on and then after that they go on some more -- and this style is a lot of fun to write, and a lot of fun to read (at least for me) -- but it's extremely difficult to *deliver* onstage.
Ah, well. No one ever said the job was supposed to be easy.
Friday, May 25, 2007
-I brought a lot of work and writing to get done, and progress has been slow. It's a funny thing, about writer's block -- I can churn out dozens of blog entries before breakfast, but I'm terrified at the prospect of sitting down and working on a script. I think it has to do with the impermanence of blogging -- it's low-pressure, because I know there'll always be another one; whatever I write is going to be completely forgotten by next week. A script requires alertness and artistry and stuff like that.
Thursday, May 24, 2007
Looked at a lot of aboriginal artwork, though, which is utterly opaque to my untrained eye -- the plaques tell stories of incredible, epic battles, and all I see are collections of dots arranged in elaborate patterns. The style's interesting enough, though -- reminiscent of mandalas, assembling fairly detailed images from much smaller pieces -- and something else it took me a minute to identify: comic books; Andy Warhol's blown-up images of comic book panels are arranged in much the same way. I wonder if he was aware of the similarity. Probably. He was a pretty smart guy.
Was talking with another director a while ago, about my frustration with how audiences seem to be so much more preoccupied with stuff they're *supposed* to like, rather than stuff that they *do*. He made a good comparison with gypsy music and Johannes Brahms; that Brahms took what the dirt-poor guy on the street was playing, removed the improvisational elements, arranged it for a European orchestra -- in other words, removed everything that made it gypsy -- and suddenly it was a European phenomenon. People couldn't groove on it until everything unique was gone.
Similar thing here, with aboriginal artwork: their greatest painter was European-trained, and did his work in watercolor, removing the broad, symbolic strokes of tribal storytelling with western realism and detail. The form couldn't be taken seriously until it wasn't the form anymore. Bizarre.
Not that his work was bad, by any stretch of the imagination. It's hard to imagine *any* artist here producing work that wasn't compelling, with this landscape for inspiration. Speaking of comic books, all of the paintings here look like every sci-fi world I've ever seen -- that strange, barren, alien environment that characterizes Krypton or H.G. Wells' Mars. No wonder deserts are where religions are born.
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
I've always had a weird love-hate relationship with this particular show, more so than the others -- for predictably pompous reasons: that I feel that I can defend all the others intellectually, that they're all trying to do the lofty, ambitious things that I went into theatre to do. That if they fail, I can point at them with pride and say that I was undertaking something worth doing. That if I failed, I failed from over-reaching myself, and ultimately, I can live with that knowledge.
This one? Not so much. It's a silly farce, skating aimlessly from one gag to another under the barest semblance of a plot. It's utterly inoffensive, utterly unchallenging, and...
...and it's a good show.
Anyone who knows me knows what a big deal it is for me to say that about anything I've done. But, yeah. It's not perfect. There's scenes that don't really hang well together, transitions between thoughts that are abrupt and awkward. But overall? It's funny. It's *funny*. And part of its virtue *is* its inoffensiveness -- it's the one show we've done that I feel like I can invite anyone to. (It's the one show we've done that doesn't drop the F-bomb -- and the one show we've done that doesn't contain references to rape. What the hell do I have floating around my subconscious, anyway?)
Moreover, it contains material that Siarde and I have been touring for over a year now. It's solid, if not polished. Part of the advantage of doing a remount -- and I'm sold on them now, incidentally -- is that they're a lot more *fun*. For the most part, we've spent our time in the trenches, finding which gags didn't work. The ones we have now we can deliver with ease and confidence. We're free to be a lot more playful than we are with a premiere.
No, it's further than that, isn't it? All the shows play to different parts of my personality, and most of the others play to the sophisticated urbanite that I like to pretend that I am. Whereas this one -- this is not that. This is a show by the geeky little Chinese kid who used to run in circles for hours being chased by invisible monsters at recess. And I've tried to distance myself from him -- but I am him, too.
And that doesn't have to be a bad thing.
Saturday, May 19, 2007
It runs deeper than that, though. Process fascinates me; but I don't really like talking about my own, at least not regarding a project that I'm in the middle of. Some of that's paranoia: I'm reminded of the fable about the centipede who, upon being asked how he was able to walk with so many legs, promptly fell over, unable to move anymore once he actually stopped to think about what he was doing. Some of that's superstition: every artist is Daffy Duck walking off the edge of the cliff, knowing that he's fine until he looks to see how far he has to fall. Some of that's insecurity: I've always been wary of people who seem to spend more time talking about art than creating it. (And it stings -- a lot -- that I've become far more well-known for my writing about other people's work than I have for creating my own.) A lot of it's just a desire for the work to speak for itself.
But it's something that I see among a lot of other artists, particularly comedians, this reflexive dismissal of self-analysis: every comic has a stock response to blow off those stupid questions "What is funny? Why do people laugh?" But they're not stupid questions: in fact, they're damn good questions. And nobody goes into show business without pausing at least once to ask themselves why they're doing what they're doing.
And I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that good comedians are a lot like magicians, and a good joke is a lot like a magic trick: it relies on surprise and misdirection, and explaining it to the audience is a pretty surefire way to guarantee that it won't produce the desired effect. As E.B. White once put it, "Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind."
(He then proceeded to discourse at length about what makes humor work. Some of us just can't resist.)
So I'm uncomfortable with it, and I find myself wondering what the purpose of a production blog is. Is it worthwhile, for example, for the audience to know that, halfway through the rehearsal process, I realized that our developing storyline was nearly identical to that of Parzival, an obscure middle German epic that's been the central obsession of my life? Probably not -- and, even worse, such knowledge might transform the performance itself, turning it into something ponderous and affected.
And yet, I know that I devour all the background information I can get on entertainment I enjoy. If I hear a song I like, it's not enough for me to listen to the song: I want to hear the whole album, to get a sense of the environment the work emerged *from*. Exhaustive, even invasive probing for background has actively enhanced my enjoyment of the work it produces: it seems somehow absurdly hypocritical for me to then want to be able to remain an invisible part of my own process.
Wednesday, May 2, 2007
I'm actually starting to get concerned about this -- since February, I've been sick more often than I've been healthy. Aside from the fact that I can't afford to be sick this often, it plays into a lot of paranoia related to my dysautonomia -- after all, my entire life changed overnight because of a single viral infection. It took me three years of unemployed self-loathing, feeling that my body had betrayed me, before I was able to pick myself up and start living in the world again. So I get a little nervous when I don't feel like I can rely on my basic biochemistry.
Chaos theory is the study of complex systems -- systems so complex that the scientific method -- taking it apart to examine its component parts -- no longer works. So our study of these systems largely revolves around mapping trends -- while we may not understand the underlying mechanics, we can become statistically aware of certain emerging patterns. The theory's been particularly useful in fields such as studying weather. Some fringier experimentation has been done with gamblers, seeming to indicate that lucky and unlucky streaks aren't just psychological, but quantifiably exist.
So, these are some of the things that I'm thinking about as I muse on the fact that my car, my computer, and my body seem to be breaking down on the verge of opening a show which relies on my access to all three items.
But then, this always happens, doesn't it? Sometimes I think it's a miracle that anything gets produced at all. Just got to turn on the blinders, keep moving forward, and remember the advice of the Red Queen: "Begin at the beginning, go on until you come to the end, and then stop."
As long as you can do that, you have a show. The rest isn't up to me to judge.
Monday, April 30, 2007
One frustrating thing, I think, is that we never get the luxury of standing back and looking at our work with fresh eyes. That's the real reason why so many of us have difficulty marketing ourselves -- it's not being self-deprecating, so much as it's the fact that you're necessarily fixated on the things that need to be worked on. When I look at one of my shows, all that I see is a collection of flaws.
The other problem with writing about your own work is that it's almost impossible to document the work you're doing and to actually *do* it at the same time. The blind panic of production week is beginning to set in, and with it that odd, serene despair.
The greatest struggle that I've been having with this piece is the transition of a collection of sketches into something resembling, y'know, a play. (Funny, how it didn't occur to me that this would be difficult until, like, yesterday.)
But then, the transition from short-form into long-form is something that I've done a lot, in the past -- Lokasenna was originally a collection of sketches developed by students that I turned into a play. (And has, bizarrely enough, been recently re-adapted into sketch form again.) Both Son of the Dragon and Broceliande began as sequences of loosely-related poetry around which a frame was constructed. And Libertarian Rage was a bunch of sketches that, well, never really developed a satisfactory through-line.
The reason for this process is probably that every large project needs to be broken down into smaller parts before it can be undertaken. But I've always considered myself a long-form writer. My favorite composer is Wagner, and my favorite poet is Tennyson, for largely the same reasons -- their ability to take recurring phrases and themes, and intertwine them in complex and interesting ways that illuminate the central ideas of their stories in a way that wouldn't be possible on a smaller scale.
Achieving these things, I think, requires significantly more time and focus then I've had for this project. Hell, at this point I'll be happy if people understand what the fuck is going on.
Friday, April 27, 2007
Due to a number of factors, we got off to a late start putting this one together, and we're running behind (even for us). We're still missing a number of pieces, and we could use your help in the following areas:
1) We are in urgent need of a stage manager/running crew. No experience necessary. Seriously. A monkey with Parkinson's could do this job. We just need the bodies. Comes with a small stipend.
2) We need to provide at least one usher for every performance. If you're strapped for cash, this is a great way to see the show for free.
3) We're still looking for the following properties, if anyone out there would care to lend/donate them to us:
-canvas and easel
-wheelchair, or possibly a rolling office chair with arms
Monday, April 23, 2007
When 2006 rolled around, I had no desire to undertake something so ambitious again so soon -- our first two shows suffered largely from their scope exceeding their venues, both essentially being sprawling epics crammed into an hour-long Fringe slot -- so I began flipping through my piles of unfinished scripts, now looking for any short-form work I'd done -- outlines for ten-minute plays, half-finished sketches, rants from my blog at the time. What I found was that my short-form stuff was divided into two categories: political satire and pop-culture parodies. The former became Libertarian Rage. The latter became Warrior Needs Food, Badly.
Libertarian Rage ended up being another exhausting project, too, though for different reasons -- that it was (unsurprisingly) a show riddled with so much negativity: a lot of my anger about our last project, and how we regard our entertainment, found its way into the production, but mostly the script was just my way of laughing bitterly at a system that I felt completely shut out of.
In a weird way, I regard the two shows as having a symbiotic relationship: they're both sketch comedy showcases, for one thing, but it's deeper than that -- that the jaded cynicism of Rage felt to me to be in diametric opposition to the wide-eyed optimism of Warrior. If Rage was a play about everything I hated about America, then in some sense Warrior was a love letter to the country of my birth. And all the things I love about it! Its hyperactive desire to entertain; the way so many cultures are blended together, while still maintaining their own distinct identities and qualities.
Lokasenna was based on Scandinavian mythology, Camelot on British. But in 2006, we devoted two shows to exploring that mythology which is uniquely American.
I doubt that anyone thinks that deeply about it, when they're watching the two of us running around and bumping into each other. But on some level, that's what it means to me.
Tuesday, March 6, 2007
There's a period at the beginning of every year that I spend trying to set up performances for the rest of the year. This always starts out being just crazy ambitious -- I've got a ludicrous number of shows lined up -- and, one by one, they all get knocked down. In fact, the only one I *do* have nailed in place right now is the Minnesota Fringe in August -- everything else involves me getting in touch with someone or somebody else getting back to me or them waiting to hear back from somebody else or this guy being out of the office this month or his higher-ups needing to talk to their higher-ups or EEEAGH.
This is what drives me crazy about this profession -- and usually I'm not one to complain, I'm doing what I love and how many people get to say that about their lives -- but it's the total lack of stability -- it's that basic inability to know what you're doing from month to month. And, sure, that's fine now because I'm in my twenties, but what about in ten years? Twenty years? When I'm supporting my parents? My children?
One of the hardest things for me to watch on the cabaret circuit is older artists struggling. It's one thing to watch young folk bomb a performance because, y'know, it's possible to reinvent yourself when you're thirty. But when you're sixty? Should you really be having to try so hard to connect with yet *another* generation?
It's one of the things that I admire so much about Groucho Marx -- that he was able to re-invent himself for the vaudeville stage, then the broadway stage, then film, then television -- to go from sketch comedian to comic actor to talk-show host. It's almost impossible to achieve that kind of success in *one* iteration -- to do so repeatedly? That's a rare talent. And even he died in relative ignonimy, a lonely old man being essentially beaten and drugged by a woman who was after his money.
Is that what we have to look forward to?
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Took me a while to put my finger on why this bothered me so much. A think it's mainly because, well -- whoever said that "commercial" was necessarily a bad thing? It's wrong to entertain people?
The protest, I imagine, comes from those who say that it's wrong to sell out one's artistic integrity for the sake of making a buck. Which is undoubtedly true, not least because it doesn't actually *work*. But, y'know -- in my opinion, the error lies in viewing art and commerce as being two forces that are at war with each other. One without the other doesn't really have value, right?
It's an attitude I hear from a lot of other artists -- a sense of resentment at having to reckon with market forces. They'd rather just be able to focus on being creative, rather than focus on having to connect their creativity to an audience. My response to this is, well, duh. Of *course* you'd prefer to just have the fun part without any of the work. And that's just too fucking bad, innit?
For my part, working with marketing and producing has, I feel, made me into a significantly *better* artist -- because I can't respond solely to the needs of my own creativity, but to the needs of an audience -- y'know, the people who are paying me to provide them with a service? I should probably be paying attention to them. Just a thought.
(That said, those aren't terms I'm thinking in when I sit down in front of a word processor. At that point, it's just me and the story. Eventually -- via rewrites, readings, et cetera -- I turn on my left brain, and that is emphatically A Good Thing.)
A comparison I heard a slam poet make was that performing is a lot like making love to the audience -- yeah, it's possible to do it in such a way that you're only servicing your own needs. And it's possible to do it in such a way that you're only servicing theirs. But everyone has a lot more fun if you can find a way to pleasure both.
Aside from producing some awkward images -- I've certainly been part of performances where it felt like I was being gang-raped by the audience -- that's as effectively as I've ever heard it put.
Sunday, February 18, 2007
There's also my frustration with the fact that I can spend so much time on something and have it still look like ass. There's really only two things that I'm pleased with regarding the site:
1) Its simplicity. One of my pet peeves are theatre websites that use Flash and Java and take twenty minutes for my internet connection to catch up to. When I go to a website, I want information that's easily accessible, and the site provides that.
2) Its tone, which is the only real advantage of doing everything myself. I just don't understand why so many small theatre companies strive after some cold, formal, "professional"-sounding tone. A directness of communication between artists and audience is one of the advantages of a small company.
That said, I certainly wouldn't object to a much slicker *appearance* to the site -- or, at least, something that didn't scream "My First Website -- From PlaySkool!"
Then again, perhaps something with lots of interesting content, wrapped up in crap visuals, is a pretty fair representation of what the company does, sigh.