Thoughts on Venice: Part 1
A little history. Ca’ Rezzonico, a sumptuous palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice, now a museum, was contracted to be built in 1649 by Filippo Bon, a Procurator of the city and patron of the arts. He employed Baldassarre Longhena, the greatest Venetian architect of his time to build it. It was never finished; the cost of its construction financially ruined the Bon family.
A century later, Giambattista Rezzonico. a banker and one of the richest men in Venice, bought the house and it was finally completed in 1756, just in time to celebrate the election of Rezzonico’s brother Carlo as Pope Clement XIII, as well as the marriage between Ludovico Rezzonico and Faustina Savorgnan, a marriage that united the two richest families in Venice. The palazzo was decorated in the most lavish style imaginable. Go check it out, that stuff’s still there. Rezzonicos rule.
The new marriage, like all marriages in the family at that time, failed to produce a male child. Fifty years later, the last Venetian Rezzonico died. The family ceased to exist.
This is the history of Venice written small. Glory and power, seemingly invincible power, suddenly falls into ruin. The ruin then turns into a museum.
Oh, but what a lovely museum! Rhonda and I have just spent five days in a semi-constant state of wonder, six nights in a celebration of food and drink and music and contentment of which there is, perhaps, no equal. Is there a more magical city than Venice? No. There is not. No cars (no streets!), no industry, and if you don’t go to Campo San Marco you’d swear there were no police (the crime rate is extremely low). Just hundreds of little canals and bridges, each more quaint and lovely than the one before; scores of campos, each with its share incredible restaurants, staffed by polite, friendly waiters, serving $3 appertifs followed by the best food you’ve ever eaten; and monument after monument to a past glory, an elegance that has to be seen to be believed.
All of which is sinking into the sea.
I won’t wax apocalyptic here. Barring a catastrophic climate event, Venice will probably continue to tread water, so to speak, for the indefinite future. I will return to this point. But like all magical places, Venice isn’t exactly real. It’s an artifact from another time, preserved as if that time still existed, and offers the world’s middle classes the chance to experience a time when Venetian galleys ruled the Mediterranean and brought back incredible riches from across the world.
Empires rise, and empires ... sink. But let's talk church for awhile.
The Basilica di San Marco is one of the wonders of the world. Its mosaics, literally from the floor to the top of its vaulted, 90’ high ceiling, remain stunningly beautiful. The entire cathedral seems to have been dipped in gold; in fact, it’s nicknamed the Chiesa d'Oro (Church of gold). Statues and jeweled objets d’art fill it to the brim. Four bronze horses, dating back to ancient Rome crown the façade above its porch.
The Venetians built this wonder as a monument to themselves and their accomplishments. More than a place of religious worship, it celebrated the people who built it. God, in whom they passionately believed, was always in their thoughts however. The beauty and grandeur of this church was, in their minds, surely proof that God had blessed their efforts, and that, indeed, God had chosen them above all peoples to rule His world. Bigger is better is holier. More gold even more so. How do I know? Taking a short stroll over to the Doges’ Palace, the center of Venetian government, makes the point explicit. There, in fresco after fresco covering what seems like square miles of ceiling, various Doges (the Doge being Venice’s president) are pictured with God, Jesus and/or the Virgin Mary. They receive holy blessings with barely a nod of the head, simply accepting them as their due. In one, the baby Jesus places a ring on the finger of a woman who represents Venice in the series of scenes of which this is the last. Venice becomes the bride of Christ. God blesses her with power and riches and glory. Amen.
In 1204, Venice participated in and largely financed the Fourth Crusade, which sought to recapture Jerusalem for the Christian Church. Most crusaders got no farther than Constantinople. There, the Crusaders, after a series of events that boiled down to them not being able to extort money from the city, ended up sacking it instead. Constantinople, the largest Christian city in the world, underwent 3 days of the worst a medieval army can do. The loot—and there was plenty, Constantinople was the richest city in the world—mostly ended up in Venice. Those four horses crowning the Basilica di San Marco? Yeah, they came from there. But they were just the most visible spoils from one of the greatest robberies of all time. The stolen treasures from Christian Constantinople still grace the Basilica di San Marco.
The Republic of Venice existed for exactly 1100 years. For comparison sake, in a little over 300 years we in the USA will be halfway there. As empires go, the record, the moral record of how we got here is no worse than other empires, maybe a little better than some. Though if you’re African American or Native American that relative judgement doesn’t ameliorate the atrocities done to your family in the past and which continue to have effects, often crippling, down to this day.
But there are no moral empires. To be deliberately flippant, you don’t rule the world without stepping on a few toes. So, if empires are inherently immoral, should there not be any empires? See, that’s a tougher question than it seems. No empires, no magical city of Venice as it exists today or ancient Rome, or pyramids, or Great Wall. Art thrives in empire; scientific progress thrives in empire. The empires of Rome, 18th and 19th century Britain, and 20th century America are responsible for far more than their share of human progress. The internet? Could't have been developed by a country who didn't already dominate the world culturally and economically. We live in an empire that brings back riches from across the world, stolen and otherwise, with which we enrich ourselves, and with which we create wonders.
Is it worth the trade off? I don’t know, and, I’ll venture, neither do you. But back to church, and then I'm done.
Empires aren’t empires because they’re chosen by God or gods. That’s what every empire has told itself, from Egypt to Venice to right here in the good ole’ USA. It’s a fantasy that makes us feel good about the crappy things we sometimes do, and helps us to ignore the fact that we take more than our share. And it’s as ugly and as dangerous as scorpions. We may be stronger, or smarter, or maybe we’re just lucky. We’re not chosen. History mocks our pretensions and our conceits. And eventually the water will have its way.
Venice is sinking. The barnacles accumulate, the palazzos flood, It’s a city of beautiful echoes, and echoes fade. As empires go, we’re very young, But already we may be sinking. It's hard to say for sure; I think we are, but then I’m crochety. Regardless, we’ll sink one day, that’s a given That’s not the fault of one person, or one political party, or one anything. It’s what empires do. Sooner or later, the American Empire will disappear, join Venice and Rome and all the rest, and then what will be left? That’s a question worth asking. To quote Sondheim, “Children and art”? I can think of worse answers.
The best, because most serendipitous theatre experiences are the perfect combination of show, space, and cast. I was fortunate enough to have one of those last night when Paper Flowers, the Cabin Boys Brewery, and an excessively talented group of people (naming names later) combined to create one of those unexpected nights that are the reason I still love this ridiculous artform.
Paper Flowers, written by Michael Perrie Jr. and having its world premiere here in Tulsa (!) bills itself as an “interactive” experience, and while there were moments when the actors directly address an audience member, I’d term it more ‘environmental.’ The audience comprises the guests at a wedding, and so are part of the scenery of the play. Surprisingly, the open space at Cabin Boys Brewery worked surprisingly well in that regard. (In fact, the setup of round tables looked pretty much like what one of the rentals/weddings we hold every other weekend or so at my current, soon to be former, place of employment). We enjoy drinks (a beer was included in the cost of a ticket), while the action takes place all around us. Besides the bride and groom, the cast included a DJ, a crazy ex-girlfriend, the future child of the happy couple, and a variety of miscellaneous figures from their past and future. We watch as our rather striking looking young couple plan the wedding, relive how they met, get cold feet, flee in panic, and finally come back together finally to, surprise!, actually go through with it.
None of this is particularly original of course. The crazy ex, the cold feet, the happy ending and etc. are standard fare in this kind of thing. What made the show such a blast was that first, the script took these tropes and turned up the stakes and the energy to 11, and then the cast took that as simply a point of departure. Kia Dorsey and Fletcher Gross as bride and groom kept just enough sweetness and believability amidst the chaos to keep us involved in the love story, but had to contend with a pseudo-Dickensian trio of ghosts, Past, Present, and Future. Those would be Tabitha Littlefield, Savannah Avery Villafuerte, and Robert Young respectively, and it was their gleeful and improvisational embracing of a tsunami of comic mania that took the evening to the next level. SC King as the DJ and who also served as the shows’ MC provided a much-appreciated sense of stability to the proceedings, just enough ballast to keep us from fearing that the whole thing might go off the rails. All in all, the show achieved a balance through these stark contrasts, which has to be a testament to director Karmen Blessing. Pace, tone and blocking—with the action whirling around and amongst the tables—were all accomplished with a creativity and assurance which belied Ms. Blessings youth.
There were no weak links in the cast, so I hesitate highlighting just one, but Littlefield’s performance deserves an extra word. Throughout the evening, there seemed to be no limit to the inventiveness and fearlessness of her comic physicality. Indeed, the only worry I would have had is that she might not have enough control to harness that boundless energy in the future, if I hadn’t just seen her in Newsies, where she played a musical theatre ingenue role with nuance and, when called for, restraint. The most talented young comic actress in Tulsa that I’ve come across.
All in all this was a fun evening of theatre in a new venue that shows potential as an alternative space for the right kind of show, and the right director who can take advantage of its quirks. Hopefully I’ll see more shows there, and more shows involving this group of people.
Welcome to Stage Life 918’s Bi-Annual theatre column. (Or should that be Semi-Annual. I’m always confused on that point, though current social research suggests that all annuals are at least a little bit bi.) Be warned however: this will not be a rundown of who-won-what TATE award. If you want facts (sooo 2015), you can find them elsewhere I’m sure. Here at SL918 we serve nothing but pure, unadulterated bullshit.
Still, the TATE’s were just last night, and I have a few thoughts. To begin with, kudos to Julia White and the Kaiser gang for several tweaks which made this year noticeably more enjoyable than last. First, there was a sufficient quantity and variety of food, kind of a big deal when you’re talking about an event that starts at 6 and goes for over two hours. Not only was wine free, but there was champagne. The beer selection was apparently chosen by my next door neighbor Bubba, who drives a pickup with a You Can Have My Guns When You Pry Them From My Cold Dead Fingers bumper sticker, but since the alcohol content of wine is higher, and there was limited time at the bar, that didn’t affect me directly. The cocktail hour in the Westby, though not as artsy as the Philbrook was last year, turned out to be very conducive to conversation and that focus should continue. Importantly, because this is an event celebrating live performance, the presentations were made by people into live performance. The fact that they were a little less polished, and even cheesy in reading the prewritten introductions, still made a better impression than last year’s lovely, sweet young lady (because eye candy is, by definition, lovely and sweet) who unfortunately didn’t really have any connection to the local live scene.
Moving on to the awards themselves, the new system of announcing nominees and then the winner was a major improvement. It recognizes that lots of people do good work (the nominees), and still gives the emotional satisfaction of having a “winner.” This brings me to my major beef with the awards this year. (You didn’t think I was going to pass up the opportunity to say that I know better, did you? Why the hell do you think people have blogs?) So here we go: Did we have to once again suffer through the interminable announcement of actors from every nominated show “winning” Best Performance Awards? Honey, it’s an AWARDS show. This was more like an Oklahoma police lineup. (“Yes officer, the one on the right. I recognize him because he’s black.”) Recognizing quality involves making choices. Choices are hard. But the TATE’s are supposed to be about recognizing quality. Besides, it’s a lot more fun to announce a winner. It’s more . . . theatrical. Either that, or we need to start giving green Participation ribbons next year.
May I make a suggestion? Tough, doing it anyway. Best Actor in a Comic Role. Best Actress in a Comic Role. Best Actor in a Dramatic Role. Best Actress in a Dramatic Role. Best Supporting Actor. Best Supporting Actress. Basically the same six categories as the Golden Globes. Nominees (picked by the judges) and one winner per category. Average 3-5 nominees per category and you’re still honoring 20 or more actors, but you let us really get excited about six. Is this a perfect system? I don’t know, has the universe suddenly transformed into Candyland? Do we shit rainbows now? Last time I checked we still lived in a world where the most popular beer in America is Bud Light and the President . . . Well, don’t get me started. So no, not a perfect system, cause it’s not a perfect world. But it's an improvement and that's important. “Every little bit helps,” Jesus said. I think. And if he didn’t, he should have.
Finally, I didn’t see too many shows this year, forcing me to drop out of the judges group, but I’ll toss out a couple of highly personal reactions to the winners. I thought it was cool that Robert Young shared the Best Directing award. I can’t compare his work with most of the adult shows cause I didn’t see them, but I can guarantee you that his work with Clark’s production of The Crucible was first rate—imaginative, balanced, effective. Good to see youth theatre recognized in that way. Also and obviously glad to see Theatre North get top prize for their solid production of Seven Guitars. Not just a great show, but a great group of people. The only obvious oversight of the night was that the lighting designer for the winners of Outstanding Production, Best Set Design, Best Ensemble and Best Props didn’t receive the recognition he so richly deserved. Hey, why do you think those sets/props/actors looked so good???? Ah well, the wine is free at my house. At least until I run out. I’ll justsit in my recliner and be bitter, that always makes me feel better. And there’s always next year. In the meantime, break a fibula. Oh, and don't forget to hi t the Like button.
Almost exactly 6 months since my last post on good ‘ol Stage Life 918. Actually seems longer, I’ve kind of lost my place. Now where was I . . .
Oh yes, Acting. Or Acting and Ethics, to be more precise. I’m several posts into this series, and I promised myself I was going to complete it as a special favor for my three or four remaining readers. So here goes.
(Btw, if you’re still reading by the time you get to the end of the post, please click that little Facebook icon you find there. Your action will tell me that I’m not alone in the wilderness, I’m not screaming into the void, my barbaric yawp has pierced the cultural ennui that cloaks us in this shroud of silence . . . I could go on, but you get the idea. Click it even if you hated the post! Just tell me how much you hated in the comments.)
I did this once with two college students. The gal—super smart, super-talented, went on to make her career in the arts—couldn't do the exercise to save her life. I might as well have asked her to fly. The guy—who caught on right away—told me later it changed everything he’d ever thought about acting.
It used to baffle me that some people struggled with this. Simple game, just do what you always do, right!? Wrong. Because in real life, we’re always acting. Or, to be more precise, if someone’s watching and we’re in control of our actions, we’re acting. We’re aware of other people, the ‘audience.’ We use our learned and rehearsed social behaviors and our performance skills to create an impression, usually to get something we want. Mostly we try to create positive impressions—good friend, conscientious employee, thoughtful spouse, well behaved consumer. If we’re skilled social actors, well-rehearsed and confident, we do it so smoothly we don’t even notice it. If we’re not self-assured however, with less 'rehearsed' social skills, we know we’re performing, because we have stage fright. We worry if it’s good enough, we check our audience’s reactions, and wonder if we’re going to get the response we want. If so, we give ourselves a good review. But we kick ourselves for our bad performance if we don’t.
Well, not really. Or to be more accurate, not necessarily.
Suppose for a second that you can create your external personality in the same way you’d create a stage character. Suppose you had freedom to create any kind of personality you wanted. Your essence—your memories, emotions, wants and desires, your uniqueness—remains the same, but you can change your image, the way the world sees you. Suppose for a second this personality isn’t just determined by your genetics, or past experiences, or even your physical, mental or emotional issues. Instead, you’re able to create and project an image of yourself by making a mask through which your ‘real self’ interacts with the rest of the world. What kind of mask/personality do you create?
If this concept seems strange to you, think about people who create false masks. The sociopath often hides his true self behind a genial, outgoing personality. He uses his personality to hide his real thoughts/feelings/desires. The religious naïf (or hypocrite) creates a mask of righteousness, hiding the less-than-perfect self from those around him, and often from himself as well. People who take a little longer than usual to ‘grow up’ (I’m holding up my hand here) often seem not to have finished creating their personality. The sophomore college student who’s still “finding herself” usually just hasn’t quite discovered a personality that’s . . .
. . . a decently honest expression of her true self. A mask that’s honest.
So forget imagining it; this is our reality. Your personality is the sum of inborn traits, past experiences, and your own creativity. It makes sense that you'd want the larger part of that to come from your creativity, rather than the stuff you don't have control over.
So the question then becomes: When you create your personality, does the mask that you create look a little like your soul?
Swinging the focus back to theatre, what I mean by Acting Honestly is this: Does the character you create onstage bear at least a passing resemblance to your soul?
Acting is more than just pleasing the audience, though that's important too (see Community). It's more than just an outlet for our own creativity, though that's important too (see Creativity). Those two things, by themselves, create a two dimensional art form, a push-pull dynamic between self-oriented creativity and other-directed people pleasing. Between solipsism and pandering. And we've all seen examples of both onstage. The I-don't-care-what-you-think-this-is-art show vs. the I'll-do-anything-for-a-laugh performance. Depressing.
Add Honesty to the mix and suddenly the tension and the rewards increase exponentially. The energy of honesty flows both ways. It forces the actor to dig deeper, and it cuts deeper into an audience.
It's only when all three ethics of acting are present that theatre reaches its full potential, and becomes something more than just an activity or an entertainment. Now it's life.
Just to be clear. No one likes theatrical tricks of the trade more than me. The idea that honest acting means representational acting, ignoring the lights and the artificiality of the stage, and treating the audience as if they weren’t really there is a recipe for boring theatre, and a boring theatre is a dying theatre. I love fire, flying, moving lights and billowing fabrics. In the same way, I revel and rejoice in a huge, larger than life character, the sideways wink to the audience, and the timing and physicality of clowns.
But I’ve seen shows, and lately, that are all shtick. And too often, I’ll see a show that’s meant to touch an audience’s heart, but that doesn’t appear to have touched the actor’s heart.
The mask—the character onstage or the personality off—is a beautiful tool, a gift to our audience or our friends. It allows us to use our creativity in order to shape our interactions with others. It’s through the mask that we share our humor, kindness, even our love. But we can’t share those things, those cool and wonderful qualities, if we’re not willing to share the negative parts of ourselves as well.
Young actors are often willing to open up when it makes them feel strong, or attractive, or cool. And that’s great! However, in my experience, they’re less willing to be honest when the character calls for weakness, bitterness, lust, or shame. What they don’t realize is that ironically, the stage can, and should be, the safest place to show the negative parts of themselves. The mask protects them. The ways in which they alter their voice, or posture, or rhythms give them the distance that makes a deeper honesty possible.
(I’m not going to get into how we go about sharing the negative parts of ourselves in real life. I’m not qualified to comment, other than to note that there are a lot of people in therapy because they haven’t learned how to express those aspects of themselves in safe, honest, and healthy ways.)
Embrace the paradox. Pretend to be someone else and find the freedom to express who you actually are. How can an actor learn how to do this? Well, I have some ideas but that’s just my path, not anyone else’s. However, I’ll toss out a couple of quotes that have served me well as a director. The first one gets said to almost every actor I’ve worked with who’s had to do a big, emotional moment in Shakespeare.
“Don’t do so much to the words. Let the words do something to you.”
This last is something my teacher said in an offhand moment, that’s stuck with me for the last 25 years.
“The most powerful thing an actor can do onstage is to reveal his or her own vulnerability.”
Act Creatively. Act in Community. Act Honestly. Simple really. Just the work of a lifetime. Best of luck. Feel free to disagree in the comments, I welcome conversations.
Tulsa Artist Fellowship recently released the following:
The first cohort of writers for the Tulsa Artist Fellowship (TAF) seeks online submissions from Tulsa-area actors to support writers during the creation process of new works for stage and screen.
Please note: This is not an in-person audition, they are accepting headshots and resumes online to create an internal resource for TAF screenwriters/playwrights as specific projects come up.
They are looking for actors with: a wide range of “types,” abilities and experience, strong “cold reading” skills (rehearsal time is usually very limited), evening/weekend availability and reliable transportation.
They are especially excited to connect with actors with: a background in comedy: sketch, standup, improv; musical skills: musical theater, play an instrument and/or sing; experience with heightened text/experimental works; dance/movement background; experience with devised and/or site-specific work; experience acting for film.
Interested? The submission form is right here.
Yesterday, this year’s crop of TATE judges sat down around a table in the Fly Loft and had a friendly little discussion about Tulsa community theatre. After the smoke had cleared and the blood dried, many thousands of erudite and learned words had actually accomplished something; we chose the winners of this year’s TATE awards, to be handed out this coming Sunday at the Philbrook.
Winners were chosen for best production, the best two runner-up productions, best youth production, and, if my count is right, 21 individual awards. Just over half of those individual awards will be going to actors: one award for Best Performance overall, and 10 additional awards for Excellence in Acting. The judges were allowed flexibility in terms of how many of acting awards we could give and whether they could go to supporting actors or leads. As it turned out, and without any predetermining of these numbers, 4 of the grand total of 11 are going to leads and 7 to supporting actors. In my mind, we nailed that aspect of the process—there are far more supporting actors than leads, even giving our somewhat loose interpretations of these nebulous labels. There should be more supporting actors recognized than the more limited number of leads.
Most of the rest of the awards, still a hefty number, go to the various designers—set, lighting, sound, costumes, props, and best overall design. Best director, best original work, and best promotion (PR, lobby displays, programs, etc.) round out the awards. Stage managers, the unsung heroes of every show, may continue to be unsung. After much discussion, we had not at last report been able to pick one SM to honor above the others. So much of the stage manager’s work is done out of sight of the audience, and mostly before performances begin, that picking one could only be based on guesswork or inside information from limited sources. Hey, you’re all winners in my book.
And speaking of winners, they are . . . . . . . don’t be silly, I’m not going to tell you here. But what I will say is that while there was a wonderful diversity of opinion in who was the absolute best, or which show should be number one, the judges weren’t all that far apart when it came to the larger group of shows and people who deserved recognition. With perhaps one or two exceptions, every person I thought deserved an award received something. Even though when it came to the very top awards, neither my first nor second choices were picked, I was overall very satisfied with the final complete list. Everything got in there somewhere. All the judges were disappointed in some area; I didn’t notice that any of them were upset overall.
The theatre groups who do not receive the awards they believe they deserve will not be so sanguine about the results. This, sadly, is inevitable. In particular, the fourth place show will always be the ‘red headed stepchild’, as my wife likes to say—deserving, but overlooked. Perhaps, if there’s room for further development in this process, the GKFF will allow judges to give vote a ‘Judges Choice’ category, to recognize an otherwise under-recognized show, company, or individual.
Until then however, I hope the theatre community finds the current process a huge improvement, and a boon to the Tulsa arts scene. See you at the Philbrook Sunday.
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