Thursday, September 30, 2010

Without You

Performance Date: 09.29.10
NYMF, The Barrow Group Theater

There's a scene from the television series "Six Feet Under" where a grieving woman asks the main character Nate, "Why do people have to die?"  Nate considers for a moment and then replies, "To make life important."

There is something about that elemental theme - death giving shape to life - that utterly arrests me.  I don't know what it is.  It could be just a basic human understanding that life is fleeting.  But it feels like more than that.  Any story that organizes itself around this theme has the power to reduce me within moments to a quivering, tear-stained ball of emotion.  It's like I'm mainlining some essential unbearableness.  I become instantaneously raw.  And it's not so much the dying part that does it.  It's the living part.  Living in the face of, the fear or, the wake of, the knowledge of, the acceptance of death - a loved one's or one's own.  It's terrible yet beautiful.   Death and life sharpening one another.  It just undoes me. 

That doesn't make me special I realize.  But it does explain why I woke up with swollen turtle eyes this morning, a full thirteen hours after seeing Anthony Rapp's one man show Without You.  Anthony Rapp originated the role of Mark in the musical Rent, and while that cultural phenomenon was happening to him and around him - a period already underscored by the unexpected death of Rent's creator, Jonathan Larson - Rapp's own mother was living with and eventually dying from cancer.  Without You chronicles the layering of these events in Rapp's life, a confluence that is somewhat staggering.  Given that I come undone by stories of death giving shape to life, and given my love affair with Rent, itself a narrative organized around this theme, I knew walking into Without You that I was hosed.  And I was right.  My face was simply lacquered in tears from the beginning right to the end.  

Thinking back on Rapp's show, though, I realize there's another element to these narratives that sources the rawness I feel.  It's not just how death and life sharpen one another, it's how death and life are each sharpened by love.  It's the love.  Cheesy as it sounds.  When it comes to dying, love is both the source of pain, and the way through it.  That seemed to be the message of Rapp's narrative, and it was also so in Rent.  I suppose if dying is what makes life important, then what makes life important is love.  Hey, just because it comes off cheesy written out like that in some sappy woman's blog, doesn't make it untrue.  I've got the turtle eyes to prove it.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Serendipity and Chaos: Or, How to Cure Hamster Cancer

I’m jumping off a bit of a cliff with this post – it’s the first one not centered around a specific performance – and I hope you’ll jump with me. One of my intentions for the blog this year is to allow for a little more blogginess. You know, shorter posts, less forethought, more spontaneity. My hope is that this looseness will provide some new inspiration and eventually lead me somewhere valuable that I can’t as yet predict. The “good student” in me – the girl scout who believes in responsibility and duty – is nervous that this change in affairs is simply slackerdom in sheep’s clothing. Perhaps. But you know what? Lately I’ve been telling that girl scout to stuff it. Her devotion to care and craft, while one of my greatest assets, has no doubt precluded me at times from the serendipity found in chaos. So I’m gonna have my blogginess. And if you’re a fan of my longer, more crafted writings, have no fear. Girl Scout is strong. She usually ends up winning in the end.

Speaking of “serendipity found in chaos”, let’s talk about improvisational theater – or improv – where "serendipity found in chaos" is the name of the game. I’ve been studying improv quite a bit since landing in New York and while I haven’t heard this exact phrase used to describe improv, I think it’s rather evident how it belongs. Chaos is inherent in improv. All the scenes are made up on the spot and no single performer knows what will happen next. It is, therefore, unplanned and unpredictable. Serendipity – or the phenomenon of making fortunate discoveries by accident – comes into play when the improvisers begin making connections amongst all the random material their chaos has generated. The serendipity part is what makes improv so delightful to watch. I hope you’ve all had the experience of bursting into unexpected laughter when the guy on stage suggests they cure the hamster’s cancer with that magic banana plunger from way back in the first scene. Or, you know, something similar. But the serendipity can’t happen without generating the chaos first. That’s what’s so fascinating about improv. It depends on chaos, on barreling into the unknown, and agreeing to embrace wholeheartedly whatever comes your way, no questions asked.

Does this make sense to people who haven’t studied improv? I hope so. If not, I suppose the very basic thing to know is the concept of “Yes, and,” which is how improvisers create agreement and generate new information in a scene. So if my scene partner says, “We’re plumbers,” then I must agree to that reality and also add new information: “YES we’re plumbers AND we have magical powers.” Then my scene partner does the same thing: “YES, we’re magical plumbers AND we’re stranded on a tropical island.” And before you know it, we’re going into business and magic banana plungers are born – which, as it turns out by the end of the show, are just the perfect thing to cure some poor hamster’s cancer.

Chaos is terrifying. Disorder and unpredictability, in life, is terrifying. That’s why I make lists and keep a calendar, and have perfected the art of worrying – all efforts to keep the disordered and unpredictable at bay. But if I get too good at it, all I will get out of life is exactly what is on my list plus a forehead full of wrinkles. So studying and performing improv is a bit of a balm for me. It’s a place where I can practice embracing chaos. And where I can practice creating order out of chaos not by imposing control, but by opening myself to the contributions of others and then adding my own two cents. The reward at the end of it – if I embrace and open hard enough – is serendipity and unexpected laughter, which is very tempting indeed, even for Girl Scouts. So I keep at it, even though it’s not so easy. Not so easy, but at least it’s simple. As simple as saying, "Yes, and."

P.S. - If you're in New York City or Chicago, you owe it to yourself to seek out the improv duo TJ and Dave - whose particular style of long-form improv will have less to do with magic banana plungers than with the hilarious authenticity of being human.  Other improv teams I've recently enjoyed, and where magic banana plungers have a greater likelihood of appearing, include: The Stepfathers at UCB, Starkey and Grace and Jenn + Steve at The PIT, and of course Student Driver.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Burning Man 2010: Metropolis

Burn Date: 09.04.10
Black Rock City, NV

Not everyone comes to see the Man burn. Some people leave early, the better to gain swift passage through the two lane highway out of the desert. Some remain, but at their camps or elsewhere nearby; they are spent perhaps, or simply desire something else from their evening. All of those who miss it are likely regular denizens of Black Rock City. They have seen the Man burn before. They will see him burn another year.

For the rest of us, and it feels to be all 50,000 converging upon the playa, witnessing the burn has suddenly become the very reason for being here. Seems strange to say ‘suddenly’ since this is the ritual after which the festival is named, but the week has already been replete with reasons to be here, even without tonight’s climactic event. I could have left this afternoon with that handful of others and brought back enough insight and inspiration to fuel me into winter. But now, I and thousands of celebrants are bedecked in apocalyptic finery and walking up the long radial streets of this circular city toward the Man – a glowing, summoning, blue beacon – and I cannot deny the atmosphere of pilgrimage. We were here for myriad reasons before tonight. Tonight we are here for him.

The Man stands one hundred feet high this year, a forty foot neon-lined body standing atop a sixty foot wooden base. From where we began walking, at our camp in the outer suburbs, he is a mile distant and difficult to distinguish. Now however, we are crossing the Esplanade, the innermost ring on the city grid, and the Man looms large though he is still two thousand feet away. He seems to hold us each with an invisible string, a piece of each person’s attention is so clearly fixed to him. Yet as we cross onto the playa, the wide expanse of open desert at the center of the city, the Man’s presence is nearly eclipsed by the swirling, blinking, cacophony of humans and mutant vehicles growing around him. Perhaps this is why I have not noticed until now that the Man’s arms, extended down by his sides all week, are raised above his head – the iconic gesture of Burning Man. I get chills. It is time, his arms say. It is about to happen.

Burn night 2010.  Photo by David Silverstein

This is my third burn, but my first in nearly a decade and I’ve forgotten what it’s like. The throbbing energy of tens of thousands of people, gathered for a single purpose, united in our anticipation, our excitement coursing through one another like an electric current leaping from heart to heart. We are a swarming mass of calling voices and wheeled pirate ships, thumping sound systems and fire-breathing dragons. We pulse together. We amplify each other. It’s overwhelming. It’s delirious. It’s mad. At my side are three beloved companions who have never been here before, and watching them experience this for the first time makes me glimpse what motherhood must be. I am seeing the world through fresh eyes. I’m a born again virgin.

The ceremony is beginning but I’m too far back to see. It doesn’t matter. I remember what it is – a circle demarcated around the Man, torch bearers, fire dancers – and there is something perfect about witnessing it all from this distance. More perspective and more mystery. Soon fireworks begin to sail up from the Man and the tension of the crowd elevates to a near audible hum. The display lasts a long time and is as satisfying as any Fourth of July.  But it only pulls the tautness tighter.  Now parts of the wooden base are on fire. The intensity of the moment is swelling in my chest. It is so full it is almost unbearable. I am thrumming.  I feel the happiest I have ever been. In an instant, my senses fill with the sound, the brightness, and the wall of heat from an enormous fireball exploding at the center of the Man. For the briefest second, fifty thousand people are snapped to attention and held suspended together in fiery shock. We are daredevils shot from the canon, weightless at the tops of our arcs. And then gravity comes. And we erupt. My arms fly into the air and I scream. We are jumping up and down. We are dancing. We are releasing. He is on fire. He is burning. And we are losing our minds.

Burning Man 2010.  Photo by David Silverstein

If you can’t see this as theater, I don’t know what I can say to connect the dots. I feel this must be how theater originated way back before we had words and concepts for such a thing. Fire, community, an event, catharsis. What separates this night from theater, however - at least the theater I have known - is story. There is no single narrative of Burning Man. No single meaning or significance for why this Man burns or why we celebrate it as we do. There are rumors of genesis – that the founder Larry Harvey burned an effigy on a beach twenty five years ago to mourn a passing love affair – but this is mythology, no basis in fact. The effigy was burned, this is true, but Harvey insists it was a spontaneous act of artistic self-expression. The record leaves it at that. And so the meaning of Harvey’s act, the significance of its yearly replication, and the story told by its ritualization are left open. They are left for the participant to decide. For us to invent. The narrative is ours to dream up and then make true by bringing expressions of that narrative to the next year’s burn, and the next. This is Burning Man. A community organized around artistic self-expression and built upon the evolving mythologies of all of its participants. Burning Man is literally what you bring to it. It doesn’t exist without you.

As for me, my Burning Man narrative brews as we speak. I am moved by the size and scope of its art. Look at Bliss Dance:

Bliss Dance by Marco Cochrane.  Photo by David Silverstein.

I am moved by the inspiration, invention, craftsmanship, engineering, planning, and reliance on community it takes to bring this forty-foot statue to the middle of the desert and make it stand safely for all to admire and fall in love with it. Funny, that sentence could refer just as well to the Man himself. Replace “forty foot statue” with “temporary city” and it refers to Black Rock City a as whole, to the phenomenon of Burning Man itself. This is a place of impossibility made real, which means nothing in the “real” world is impossible. Nothing I can dream up need remain undone. I want to produce a play? I will do it. I want to become great at improv? I will do it. I want to exercise more? I will do it. These things are nothing when Bliss Dance is in the world. Life is easier than I think it is. I will remember that as long as I can. And when I forget, there will be next year’s burn.