ON MICE AND DRAGONS

April 5

 

Taking the train down from NYC, I note:

Gray day.

Gray New Jersey.

Crossing into Philly, there are rowers on the river.

I think of Thomas Eakins –

… and I’m reminded how inspiring it feels, every time, to leave a routine.

Routine is the enemy in Chris Bayes’ work. Chris was my clown and commedia dell’arte teacher at Yale.* We have two days in a basement rehearsal room with him. The lights are a little dim. Dim lights aren’t as funny as bright lights. Oh well. We can’t rehearse in the laundry room, so everyone will just have to be a little less funny today.

We stand in a circle and Blanka introduces Chris as a major influence on my work. It’s true. I proposed we kick of our process with a visit from Chris because I want to make a big, tragic & funny play for The Wilma. Something terrible and epic. I will need unabashed actors for that. Actors who inhabit their bodies fearlessly and their emotions playfully. This workshop should help me 1) begin to get to know the Wilma actors. 2) Start to build a shared artistic vocabulary with them. In addition, 3) I find new inspirations every time I physically participate in this work. I am happy to see Blanka and Walter are participating as well.

Shake out your body, find your happy body, shed your socialized self. Do not walk at that steady rhythmic pace! That pace is the walk of the bored commuter. That is the slow and steady march toward death.

This is who your clown is: You, just you, if you had never been told to behave, tone it down, or reign it in. Skipping stones along the great ocean of your feelings. Trying to match the grandeur of the cosmos with the expressive potential of your voice and leg.

Chris talks to the actors about how he is most interested in the unexplored corners of their craft. Not the parts of their talent that they lead from. Your strengths are admirable, but they are your comfort zones.

Because we have been socialized into gendered creatures, Chris pushes us outside the dull confines of ladylike and manly. If you are a woman and you come out all polite and quiet, he yells at you. “Don’t come out here like a little mouse! Be a dragon!” Or, a compliment: “That’s great, when you’re yelling at the curtain and being vaguely vulgar like that.” He also strips away at male toughness, that great defense. Underneath you’ll usually find tears, songs, and something very truthful.

Last time I did this work with Chris, I didn’t understand some of the gendered exploration. I asked myself – is that all clown is? Subverting the audience’s superficial expectations of me, based on the body I was born into?

Now I understand this exploration is just the first part of strengthening your comic muscles. Ultimately, your softness and your rudeness are both yours to claim. A great comedic actor needs access the most vulgar and most delicate sides of their self. Freedom is being able to express and own the beauty of your shyness, and that of your anger, too. We are all mice and dragons. We’ve just forgotten how to be both.

We laugh at energy, truth, and the unexpected. Be too much, we are reminded by this contact with our clown selves. It’s less easy on the rest of us, if you take up space.

*The first workshop I took with Chris was actually in 2007, at the Kennedy Center, the summer I took my vows as a playwright.

Look how big life is, let’s yell at it! (Grey Marine, by Alex Katz.)
Look how big life is, let’s yell at it! (Grey Marine, by Alex Katz.)

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