Sunday, April 04, 2004

Lifting Up The Curtain: Elmo Sings the Blues

So it’s been awhile since I’ve posted about the ongoing (mis)adventures of First You’re Born. This is mainly because I’m incredibly busy with the play, and it’s easier for me to toss off some thoughts about a political nugget of the day than it is to sit down and try to compose a (semi) interesting story about My Life In Art. Maybe this says more about me than it does about theater… like, maybe it says I should be going into politics or something. Actually, what I think it says is that I live/think/do theater a lot right now, and I’m using this blog to occasionally get away from all that.

But no more! Or at least, not tonight! Tonight, I will give you an update and tell a brief story about overlapping space usage.

As I wrote earlier, I’m forcing myself to change some of my habits and do things differently, specifically related to staging the show. Instead of blocking things fairly minutely from the get go and then gradually refining and rethinking the details, I decided to restrain myself and block things very generally, allowing the actors to play around as much as possible, and then after the first run thru start getting specific. Let me just say that development is painful. Really painful. It’s hard to just let it go and actually collaborate with people, knowing they won’t give you what you want (because you haven’t told them what it is), and banking that, in not getting what you want, together you can create something better. That’s tough, and it tends to leave me feeling like I haven’t gotten anything done.

That is again our good friend the ego talking (and my ego, boy is it ever super) screaming “if the show isn’t an extension of ME than it is not worth it!”. I have to continuously remind myself out loud that this isn’t about me. Me is not the reason I got into theater; love of the art is. That, and theater’s one of the few things I’m any good at.

This has been my ongoing mission with First You’re Born: to force myself to let go of the ego investment. Directing, as many have pointed out, is it’s own ego fulfillment. The show needs to have a piece of myself in it, and my personal interest and passion is important, but all of those things have their place. That place is most certainly not “sole basis for creative decisions”. This is why I’ve created some constraints for myself, to encourage collaboration all around and allow everyone’s impulses to develop to the point where we’re making some really interesting choices. So far, it's been rewarding but tough, and I'm happy I'm doing it and I'm getting a lot more out of the actors than I have in the past. So all is for the best.

Anyway, that’s where I am, now for the anecdote of the day.

The funny business with the children. First You’re Born opens in a park, where Axel and Bimsy are sitting on a park bench, celebrating their one year anniversary. Little does Bimsy know, but Axel has come to break up with her, here in public. The scene begins with an exaggerated sound of birds. Then the dialogue:

BIMSY: STRANGE! STRANGE HOW THE BIRDS ARE SINGING!

AXEL: SINGING? SOUNDS TO ME MORE LIKE THEIR SCREECHING!

BIMSY: I DIDN’T KNOW BIRDS SANG WHEN IT’S OVERCAST

AXEL: WHAT?

BIMSY: I SAID I DIDN’T KNOW BIRDS SANG WHEN IT’S OVERCAST!
(pause)
BIMSY: (con’t) IT’S NOT LIKE LAST YEAR.

AXEL: WHAT?

BIMSY: I SAID IT’S NOT LIKE LAST YEAR.
(pause)
WHEN WE MET THE SUN WAS SHINING AND EVERYTHING WAS PEACEFUL AND SERENE. MAYBE IT WON’T EVER STOP
(birdsong stops)
NOW IT’S STOPPED!

AXEL: Bimsy!
(etc.)

Now, surreally enough, there was a fortieth birthday party that had booked space adjacent to ours at Playwright’s Horizons. Theater people tend to reach financial security at a later year than most other people, and thus tend to have kids later in life. So this fortieth birthday party was filled with screaming under-five-year-old kids. Running up and down the halls, playing twister, shoving their faces with cake, throwing a beach ball into our rehearsal room door etc. I have no real beef against kids. I don’t want them, but I don’t resent people who do. The main problem was the huge distraction of having a playground outside the door.

So we’re running through the scene. Axel and Bimsy are on the parkbench. They hold glasses of bubbly, trying desperately to think of something to say to each other. And there are the exaggerated birds. And as Alexa and Geoffrey sit there trying to “be in the moment” the same thought occurs to them at the same time: those screaming kids… they make a great substitution for the birds, don’t they? The thought flickers across their face, and everyone in the room is picking up on it. A little devilish, commentative smirk flickers across Alexa’s face and she says “STRANGE, STRANGE HOW THE BIRDS ARE SINGING” kids are now screaming outside the door, and Geoff has the same little grin and he says “SINGING? SEEMS TO ME MORE LIKE THEIR SCREECHING!”. And now we have on our hands one of those heartbreaking moments in rehearsal where a moment of magic is created based on conditions that are simply not repeatable. The actors took their frustration and the aggravation of focusing during a surprise birthday party and suddenly realized the solution was to embrace the external reality of the rehearsal room. The scene has never been funnier, and then we might have taken it a bit far.

Geoffrey does a lot of voice over work. He’ll be in the next Grand Theft Auto game, and he was many of the voices (including Walken) on Celebrity Death Match. Geoffrey notices that the kids are eating pizza. Geoffrey is starving, and he stares at the door of the rehearsal room and says “What if I go out there and get some pizza”

Alexa: “Hey, Geoff, how’re you gonna do that?”

“I’ll charm someone,” Geoffrey says. “You know, tell one of them she can be my girlfriend if she gives me some pizza”. Geoffrey meant this totally innocently, but innocent was not the direction it eventually went in.

Now, I want to preface this by saying that a as a group, our humor tends towards the tasteless. Like really tasteless. And the more we get comfortable around each other, the more the dark side of our humor comes out. I also want to add that the Sesame Street puppeteers are pretty famous for their rowdy holiday parties, where they tell blue stories and do weird skits involving their characters. And what he said was neither in the presence of nor overheard by children. I would also like to say that this is a lot funnier if you say it to yourself in an Elmo voice, as that was the voice Geoffrey was doing as he said the following:

“Hi kids! This is Elmo! I’m over here in the closet! Why don’t you join me? Oh, the closet is too small to fit your pants! Here, see that bucket of butter, why don’t you bring it over here!”

The entire room bursts out laughing. I step out of the rehearsal room and run smack dab into the woman organizing the party. She tells me we’ve been so sweet and cooperative and understanding about the noise, can she do anything for us? “Well, um, Geoff really wants some pizza. Can I take some? It would really make his day”. She tells me of course, and I run and grab him some, and after a good fifteen minutes of time wasted making fun of small defenseless little kids, we stumble along back into the scene, birds and all, trying to make the end of a one-year relationship truthful and hilarious at the same time.

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