Friday, April 29, 2011


Contributed by guest blogger of the week, James Comtois.

I realize I didn't completely answer the question I (or really RLewis) posed in the last entry. I guess I didn't because I didn't want to make the entry all about Yours Truly. But since this is my final blog post on this site, I guess I can make this entry a little more about myself as a means of attempting to answer: who do you make theatre for?

The short answer: about 60% for myself, 40% for the audience.

The medium answer: It started out for myself, but there was a brief time during my company's history where I was unable to answer that question at all. Currently, it's very important that the show pleases me, and that it's very much worth the audience's time, attention and money.

Now for the slightly longer answer, which will require a somewhat insider baseball story about my company and how we tackled a situation that forced us to confront this issue.

Last year, we had planned to stage our annual anthology show of original horror plays (The Blood Brothers present... series). We tentatively landed on a space and dates (I write "tentatively" because we had yet to put any money down). We were all gearing up to make this our October production.

However, the venue got overbooked, and our tentative run and tech time got considerably truncated (basically down to a long weekend with one night of tech). The remaining dates were still available to us, but we had to make a decision, and fast: do we stage the show with limited tech time and a substantially limited run, or do we go, "Screw it, it ain't worth it?"

Our immediate, knee-jerk reaction was to put it up anyway. That shoot first, ask questions later mindset, I think, is one of the reasons why my company's lasted for so long: put on a show, no matter what, don't worry about the limitations, just go, go, go.

But for the first time, we actually reconsidered moving forward with that mindset. It would be a minuscule run, we'd have no prep time, and some of us at Nosedive Central felt that it just wasn’t worth it.

Since at this time we were a 10-year-old company, we no longer had that feeling that we Had Something To Prove (keep in mind that this debate for an October show or not was taking place in August, just one month after we had closed our most expensive production to-date, and had barely any liquid assets left at our disposal). We had staged 20 productions in 10 years—we could begin to consider ourselves a Real Theatre Company.

Why were we fighting so hard? What were we trying to prove?

Who were we doing this for?

We really didn't have an answer.

Ultimately, we opted out. We decided it wasn't worth doing it solely for the sake of doing a show/filling a slot in our season. And really, if we had decided to forge on through, that's what that show would have been—a time-filler; a show solely put on for the sake of satisfying an obsessive-compulsion.

Plus, it would have been a very rushed, half-assed production.

Hey, I'll admit it: when you produce theatre for a certain period of time, you can have a tendency to run on autopilot (especially if you find yourself doing multiple projects at once and find yourself in a rhythm of nearly constant theatre-related activity). And I for one do not want to be running on autopilot anymore.

I definitely want to continue writing and producing often—and, as another bit of inside baseball, it looks as though I will be, as apparently Nosedive's going to be staging three shows in three months this summer—and work hard in ensuring that whatever I write and stage will be better than the show before it.

But I no longer have interest in putting on a show just for the sake of putting on a show (the theatrical equivalent of marking notches on the bedpost). I want there to be a good reason. I want to be excited to present whatever Nosedive's presenting to a potential audience.

I want the productions to matter.

Otherwise I don't see much point. Otherwise it's too damn time-consuming and too damn expensive, for both me and audience members.

So, what are we to take away from these blog entries, if we're to take anything away? I guess my motif seems to be a seemingly contradictory blend of suggesting to work often, work fast, and work better, but only if you really care about what you're doing.

Or maybe really caring about what you're doing will enable you to work often, faster and better.

Or maybe working often, faster and better will force you to figure out what you really care about.

Or, heck. Maybe Homer Simpson was right. Maybe there is no moral. "It's just a bunch of stuff that happened."

I dunno. You make up your own mind. And your own model for making theatre.

And on that note, that just about does it for me on this site. I'd like to thank Shay Gines and the rest of the crew at the IT Awards for letting me blather cybernetically on their blog. It's been quite fun for me. I hope you've enjoyed yourself, too.

Catch y'all later.

Exeunting like he's being pursued by a bear,

James "The Timothy Treadwell of Theatre" Comtois

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Who You Do That For?

Contributed by guest blogger of the week, James Comtois.

RLewis asks a question in the comments section in the previous entry that I'll use as a springboard for this one: when you do the theatre you do, who is it for? Let's see if we can answer that, or at the very least address it in the form of a vaguely amusing, quasi-didactic format.

The thing is, having written and produced theatre for over 11 years and counting, that question is becoming more pertinent (for me, anyways).

Who is this for, and why are we doing this?

I actually don't mean the latter part of that question to be in the whiny, angsty way (i.e., "Why do I bother? What's the point of it all?"). I just mean, after producing indie theatre for a certain length of time, you start to seriously assess what your goals are. Or at least, I'm starting to.

Producing your own work while in your twenties is easy. In fact, there's no question of whom it's for or why you're doing it. Are you kidding me? You're getting your plays staged in New York! This is the freakin Dream Come True! What else you gonna do? You're not making money, but who cares? You're not doing this for money, you're doing it to get your freakin plays staged in New York!

But of course, when you're doing this racket in your thirties or even forties, the goals and motivations are no longer mere givens. (Maxing out your credit cards to stage your play when you're 22 is completely worth it. Continuing to do so when you're in your mid-30s and possibly have kids and/or a mortgage, may mean you have a very self-destructive problem akin to a gambling addiction.)*

So, who is this for? There's no one-size-fits-all answer, obviously. But if you can't answer that question—and hey, there was a brief moment in the history of Nosedive Central where we found ourselves stumped—then the following question is inevitable:

If you don't know for whom this is for, then why are you doing this?

Is it just habit? Filling a slot in the season? Some sort of OCD-driven obligation? I for one don't want to be just going through the motions, especially if I'm not making money from it. Going through the motions is what my day job is for! (Note to my day job: I kid, I kid! I always give 110% for you guys, you know that!)

Now sure, habit, filling a slot in your season, and having a sense of obligation are fine motivating factors when creating theatre. But there has to be more to it than just those reasons. Much, much more. Otherwise, why bother?

There has to be a compelling need for staging any show. (This is becoming especially true in this town where producing theatre is getting increasingly difficult and more expensive.) This idea or story needs to be conveyed to people here and now. Otherwise, why bother?

(I know the above may make readers go, "Well, duh," but let's be honest: how many of us have gone to a production then thought, "Why the hell was this show staged?" I know I've gone to several where I've asked that question.**)

At any rate, I don't think you're being self-centered, RLewis. Or rather, if you are, I don't think that's a bad thing at all. Contrary to your statement, one can't spend 24/7 just producing. And even if one could, one shouldn't if it's not fulfilling. I know it sounds clichéd, but it's your time and your energy, focus it on what you're passionate about.

Otherwise, why bother?

Doing this for your mom,

James "Good Neighbor" Comtois

*I don't mean to imply that you need to stop putting your own money into your own show at a certain age. I just mean that sinking all your possible sources of income into your production is something that's awesome when you're young, but gets to be progressively less awesome the older you get.

**Also, let's be even more honest: how many of us have staged a show, then asked, "Why the hell did we stage this show?" I know I've written and produced a few where I've asked that question.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Upping Up the Ante

Contributed by guest blogger of the week, James Comtois.

Well lookit this. Little Jimmy Comtois going back to long-form blogging and referring to himself in the third person! But not at his usual blog. What gives?

For those of you who don't know who I am or why I'm nattering on this site, I'm a guy who writes and produces plays here in New York, mainly through my company, Nosedive Productions. I also write for and maintain the Jamespeak blog.

If you're at all familiar with Jamespeak, you may have noticed that my blog is now little more than a news or bulletin board announcing upcoming events I'm involved in (with a few exceptions here and there). So it may be bemusing to you that I'm blogging again, but from another location. So again: what gives?

Well, the answer is simple: Shay Gines graciously asked me if I'd be willing to hijack the Full of IT blog for a week, and since I was immensely flattered and always love the opportunity to blather at a new group of people, I said yes. So here we are.

Anyway, I hope to use this week wisely and not waste your time with too much inane drivel (just, you know, the standard amount of inane drivel) and offer up some thoughts, insights and anecdotes about the indie theatre scene. We've only got a few days before I have to hand the torch over to someone more insightful and professional than Yours Truly.

I'd like to start off by talking about an idea that's been gnawing at my brain for a while now, and that's the idea of upping up the ante and stepping up one's game.

As I recently wrote in my post about prolificacy on my blog, I've always looked up to those artists who produce creative work at a rapid rate. And lately, I've been particularly into the work of standup comic Louis CK—not just because he's a hilarious comedian (though he is), or just because he's one of the most prolific comics working today (though he is), but because he believes that every new work you produce should be better than the last.

And considering this is coming from a comic who creates a new hour's worth of material a year, then discards it when the new year comes (something almost unheard of in the standup comedy field), I find that massively impressive and inspiring.

That idea of creating frequently and working hard to ensure that each new work is better than the last is something that's stuck with me of late, especially since I'm working in a scene where that seems increasingly imperative in order to survive.

There's a great deal of dispiriting news about the New York theatre scene. Venues are dropping like flies. The venues that are still around are ratcheting up their rental prices at mind-boggling prices. Funding is becoming scarce.

As the co-artistic director of a company that's been around for 11 years, this all is very troubling news. So what are the options?

One option (if we're working from the bottom up) is to throw in the towel and call it a day. A few companies, unfortunately, have done that, so why not us? Well, that seems a little pre-emptive, especially since we're (fortunately) a company that's not encumbered by debt. Plus, we don't want to close up shop just yet, and aren't in a position where we're forced to. So why not hold off on that option until we absolutely have to.

Another option is to move. There are a number of cities and towns in this country that have vibrant theatre communities, more affordable venues and better chances of funding. This seems like a better option: less defeatist, more economically viable, and possibly more practical (a Chicago playwright friend of mine told me about rental prices in the Windy City and I nearly shot iced coffee through my nose). But unfortunately, I still really like living and producing in New York. For good or for bad, this still is very much my town.

The third option is a variation of the first: keep soldiering along until we're forced to throw in the towel. I won't lie: in a sense, Nosedive has been doing that. And it can work—for a while. But in a way, that's just marking time—postponing the date of execution.

However, there is another option: to step up the game, not just in terms of artistic content but also with fundraising efforts and being more diligent and creative with venues.

Produce steadily, but make sure each production is better than the last. Raise ticket prices if you have to (and many of us are realizing that this is an inevitable given—ticket prices will have to go up), but make sure that your production feels like it's worth twice or three times the cost of the ticket.

Get better, get faster. Go big or go home.

I know this is all much, much easier said than done, but I do have hope and inspiration from other companies who, in my eyes, are doing just that—The Amoralists, Vampire Cowboys, Stolen Chair, One Year Lease, Gideon and Flux Theatre Ensemble, to name a few. They're creating increasingly ambitious works (in terms of aesthetics and content), producing steadily, and finding new ways to improve upon their business models (i.e., not just becoming dependent on grants alone).

And what do you know? It's paying off for these companies that up the ante. They're getting large turnouts from audience members eager to see what they come up with next. They're selling out performances and even entire portions of their runs. As a result, many of them are forging new relationships with audiences and new relationships with potential donors. In addition, many of them are establishing good relationships with their venues.

It's a variation of the whole, "if you build it, they will come" philosophy. And from my vantage point, it seems to be working for a lot of folks out there.

Now, look. I don't have access to these companies' financial statements or revenue figures, so who knows? They may be having some serious financial troubles. But you wouldn't know it from the quality and quantity of their work. They're showing that they're not going anywhere. And they've been able to show that by upping the ante each time they produce.

I look at what these companies are doing and realize that it's high time Nosedive step up its game, and keep stepping up its game.

So what do you guys think? I realize I'm being a bit vague and ethereal here, but that is indeed how I often roll. As theatre-makers in this fair city of ours, is this something you've contemplated and/or grappled with? If so, how do you deal with the fact that it's becoming increasingly difficult to produce theatre in this town?

Going all in,

James "Silly Gambler" Comtois

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Guest Blogger of the Week: James Comtois

We would like to thank Will Le Vasseur for his great blogs last week.

We are happy to announce that next week's guest blogger is James Comtois.

James Comtois is the co-founder of Nosedive Productions, which was named one of's "People of the Year" in 2009. His play, The Adventures of Nervous-Boy, was nominated for a 2007 IT Award for Outstanding Actor in a Lead Role (Mac Rogers) and is published in Plays and Playwrights 2007. Another play of his, Infectious Opportunity, was nominated for a 2010 IT Award for Outstanding Original Full-Length Script and is published by Original Works Publishing. He writes for and maintains the blog, Jamespeak, lives in Brooklyn and has two cats.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Two Passions!?!? BLASPHEMER!

Contributed by guest blogger of the week, Will Le Vasseur.

A typical night out at a bar:

Person A: So, I’m a lawyer, what do you do?
Person B: I’m an actor/dancer/performing artist!
Person A: Ah, so which restaurant/bar do you work at?

How many times have we heard that one... People think it doesn’t get old. Oh silly silly misguided public. Not all actor/dancer/performing artist’s work in such a manner, but the gist is generally correct. For those who cannot pay rent or the bills on an OOB salary (aka $0), there must be a “real” job that we procure to do mundane things like eat.

And here we have the stereotype: Starving artist doing soulless work so that they can be free and express themselves through their art on stage/film/CD/medium of choice.

What if we can change that?

What if we as artists look deep within and find our second passion.

(Ducks as things are thrown) WAIT, hold on! Lemme explain before shouting blasphemer! You can have more than one passion in life!!! Lets go on a little thought experiment.

Surely there are things that you can do and enjoy apart from the primary passion of art creation... agreed? How much better would life be if the time spent “working”  so that you can play are spent with clear intentions and good will? How much more fulfilling would it be to go to rehearsal on the buzz of a great work day rather than bitching about how horrible the day went? You could cut the drama from your life and actually be (gasp) happy... maybe?

Personally, I’ve finally found that second passion. I’m a LMT (Licensed Massage Therapist). “Oh but that’s a lot of work,” some may say. Yes, yes it is. The upswing however is seeing the person who walked into your studio full of stress and pain leave looking like they just got out of a jacuzzi bubble bath of joy and relaxation. That makes any “hard work” pay off. That’s what makes me keep doing what I do. That’s also what helps to pay my bills to allow me to be Artistic Director of Redd Tale Theatre Company and produce my seasons. (Shameless plug: NYIT peeps can get 25% if they choose to book a massage with me ($75 instead of $100) at my space in Chelsea on 27th Street on Saturdays. for my contact info.)

What is it that you love to do? What tickles your brain and heart at the same time? Can you use that skill/desire to further your life? If so, With harm to none, so mote it be!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Why the hell is Sci-Fi making such a come back?

Contributed by guest blogger of the week, Will Le Vasseur.

For me it’s really simple: It never left us. Science (fiction or otherwise) has become such a huge part of our lives that it’s no longer escapable. The 1” flat screen television that is now a internet browser and juicer was something that was the dream of Star Trek of long ago... Cell phones? The flip ones were modeled after the communicators from Star Trek TOS (The Original Series for you non-Trekkies). Medical advances: inserting nano-machines to help clean up scar tissue in joints, medicines that specifically target one cell and not another... Even the thing you’re using right now to read this blathering missive come from some science fiction inspired idea. If you dream it, we’ll eventually get to a point where we can make it.

But that doesn’t really answer the question, does it... What about this? Things like Fringe, Dr. Who, the “Treks”, the “Wars”, The Event, V (reboot), etc. are on TV now because in the semi-near future, they’re all possible. And much like the baby-boomers who are now crying, “Where the frack are my flying cars!?!?!?” the Gen X, Y, beyond-ers are looking to see what we ourselves are probably going to miss out on, but, “Damn wouldn’t it be cool if---?” It’s that little bit within us that always wants to push further and advance farther than we’ve gone before. Explorers crossed the Atlantic; we’re pushing to visit other planets.

And that’s where it comes from I think: that drive to move forward. That instinct within us to open that door even though we know that there’s an Alien on the other side waiting to thrust it’s secondary mouth through our forehead. Forward momentum. Now that we have fracking awesome cell phones (think the late 80’s early 90’s), what do we want to move forward with next? Implantation? “Oh hell no!” many of you are screaming... but who knows, maybe in the next two or three generations when the stalwarts have died off we think “call significant other” and then we’re talking... Pre-telepathy? Now that would be interesting.

Though, there’s also a second component to the story lines that we see presented: More of us within the characters. More of our humanity through their non-human eyes. Watch Dr. Who season 5 with Matt Smith and check out “The Hungry Earth” and “Cold Blood” (episodes 8/9), and you’ll see what I’m talking about. There’s only so much that we as humans can get from watching ourselves... but when we watch others “act human”, we cry “Brilliant!” or “Awww!” or “EEEEK!”. Check any viral video site and you’ll see what I’m talking about (remove the ball-crunching/face planting pain videos first please).

Am I full of IT? Maybe. Does some of this ring true for some? Sure! That’s why they keep coming back to it. At least, in my humble opinion.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Guest Blogger of the Week: Will Le Vasseur

We would like to thank Jonothon Lyons for sharing with us his pursuit of innovative theatre last week.

We are very excited that our guest blogger for this week will be Will Le Vasseur.

Will Le Vasseur (Artistic Director) received his BFA in Theatre from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. While there he performed with The Seattle Opera, Theater Schmeater, and Woodinville Repertory Theatre as well as started and became Artistic Director of Redd Tale Theatre Company. After moving to New York, he worked with Creative Mechanics in Edward II, and slung a sword with Stolen Chair Theatre Company in The Accidental Patriot. As Artistic Director, Will directed Closer, played Carl in Lonely Planet, wrote and directed the critically acclaimed Maddy: A Modern Day Medea, last appeared in The Swan Song, directed Macbeth and directed/wrote a new adaptation of Triumph of Love by Marivaux. He'll be appearing in the upcoming RTTC season based off of Frankenstein as Henry in the newly penned Gabriel. 

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Innovative Theatre

Contributed by guest blogger of the week, Jonothon Lyons.

Today we finish up our two week run of Petrushka in Philadelphia and head back to New York tomorrow. On Monday I officially begin my life as a member of Blue Man Group. I'll be performing in the show here in in New York at the Astor Pace Theatre until the first week of July at which point I'll be sent off to join the company of one of the other cities: Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas, or Orlando.

I don't have a strong desire to leave New York as it has been so beneficial for my growth as an artist over these past six years. I have rarely been for want of a project to be involved in or an event to attend. The people I meet almost every day are some of the most vibrant, committed, hard working, expressive, and caring individuals I'm likely to run into anywhere. And even though I chose to go down a very niche path in the arts, New York has provided me with many vibrant and practical opportunities to pursue it.

In spite of these strong feelings for New York I'm also equally excited by the chance to be exposed to other major cultural hubs. I feel like this is an important time for my artistic development so it is of unquestionable value to me to spend a few years outside the city, finding out what people are up to in other places. Besides, I know I won't be able to stay away for too long.

Training into Blue Man Group has taken me to my limits once again. The rehearsal experience is different from any other show I've worked on and it's been exciting to be pushed in so many new directions. Once again all of my experiences with mask performance, puppetry, and movement have proved vitally important In helping me through the development process.

When I set about to discover and hopefully find work in some kind of alternative theatre, Blue Man became an immediate goal of mine. Finally making it into the show after so many years is basically a dream come true and I look forward to seeing where it takes me.

Thanks for following my entries this week, it's really been enjoyable revisiting some of my experiences. If you're interested in finding out  more about any of the companies I've worked with or want to ask me any questions please check out my website or send an email to

Thanks to the Innovative Theatre Awards for promoting and supporting the Off-Off Broadway community, where so many alternative theatre styles are given the opportunity to grow.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Building The Tenement

Contributed by guest blogger of the week, Jonothon Lyons.
The mask theatre productions from Imago are not specifically geared toward children but are family friendly none the less. After a couple years performing these shows for predominately young or family audiences I became interested in the possibilities of mask performance for an adult audience.

My initial idea was a giant rat. I pictured a large mask that I could wear over the top of my head while squatting down in a contorted position. I didn't think far beyond the mask itself for a long time as I had never constructed anything and didn't know what materials to use or how to go about it.

In the Spring of 2009 I had the opportunity to stay in Portland a few extra weeks before returning to New York. I stayed with a friend in his spacious artist live/work space in the industrial district. After one day of doing nothing but smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, and watching snowy rabbit ear television I knew I needed to take on a project or it was going to be a depressing couple of weeks. I asked everyone from the theatre for advice on mask building and went to an art store the next day.  Equipped with everything I needed to papier mâché and an enormous block of clay I set about sculpting the face of a naked mole rat.

I was instantly fascinated with the process of sculpting. If something started to look strange I could just add more clay or smooth it out and start over. I have never studied art but I did model for life drawing classes in college and picked up information along the way. I knew to keep checking in with the source image I was tying to recreate and also to constantly realign myself with what I was making to it wouldn't become lopsided or disproportionate.

When I finished the sculpture and started layering the papier mâché I was very pleased with how well it had come together. It was a wonderful feeling to have finally put together this object I had been imagining for so long. As this was my first experience with a visual rather than performative art I was struck by a profound difference between the two: performance is ephemeral, visual art is permanent.

My whole life I had put so much time and energy into the work I did but the results of that labor could only be seen during the few short times a performance was happening. Suddenly I was holding this object that represented so many hours of work and creative energy that I could show to anyone at any time.

What continues to excite me now about the types of theatre I'm involved in, mainly mask and puppetry, is that they are a crossroads for performance and visual art. A puppet or mask is often a beautiful sculpture in and of itself but it also comes to life under the temporal circumstances of a performance.

Now that I finally had the major physical element I needed, I started to put together a context for the rat. It started as a short piece that I thought would be maybe ten minutes long.

A man sits alone in his apartment eating from a bowl. He is approached by a giant rat. They face off and he catches the rat in a cage. On his way to the door the man mysteriously falls over dead. Time passes and the rat breaks free of the cage. The rat approaches the man's body and begins to eat it. When he is finished eating the clock strikes twelve and the rat stands up, becoming the man. The man/rat sits down and continues eating from the bowl.

Not long after I had finished the mask I received an email from Ximena Garnica asking if I wanted to present a short piece at an upcoming event for students of the Cave butoh programs. It was a perfect opportunity to get this project together so I told her I would love to. Without an external deadline I don't think I would ever get anything done.

One benefit of this piece is that it required very little in the way of props or set. The only major scenic element required by the initial concept was a giant cage for the rat to be caught in. I had also been playing with the idea of incorporating some kind of projection into the piece like a window to the outside world. While I was trying to work out how to construct and rig a giant cage from the ceiling at Cave my brother suggested we simply project the cage onto the wall. This proved to be a pivotal realization for the future of the show.

I was very lucky at the time to be living with my close and long time friend Daniel Brodie, who happens to be a rather experienced projection designer. When we realized the cage could be projected we decided to project as much of the set as possible. The original short piece featured the cage and a clock projected on a solid wall upstage, and a door projected onto a curtain through which the characters could enter and exit.

It was exciting how effective the projection of the cage became when it dropped down onto the rat. Because the image was actually being projected on top of the actor it really played up the illusion that he had been caught inside the cage. The other unexpected impact of the projections I really enjoyed was the effect on the door. Even though the audience was aware that the actors were pulling a curtain aside for their entrances and exits, it still felt very much like they were using the dingy water logged wooden door that was projected upon the curtain.

Soon after that we applied for a spot with HERE Arts Center's Autumn Artist Lodge and were accepted. We planned to expand the length of the show to about a hour, add two characters and several locations, and had about twenty days from finding out we were accepted to loading in. I was able to scrape together about six hundred dollars with which to produce the show.

I began writing a script for this longer version much like the example I gave earlier. I would describe the stage action in as much detail as possible and include my thoughts on what would be projected and what music or sounds should be present. I found myself writing in a screenplay format because so much of the script was visual and it felt natural to describe the transitions as fades or cuts.

For promotion we went into Times Square with the rat costume and I ran around in the street while everyone else filmed with their cellphones or flip cameras. We didn't know how people would react but soon we found if I stayed in one area for a bit a small crowd might gather. I didn't do much other than rush toward people to scare them or have the rat drink from a puddle so we were pleasantly surprised to find that people remained interested. The most amazing thing that happened that day was that I was confrontedby a dog.  He passed by with his owner then turned and squared off with me. When I started toward him he began barking. We felt like that was the ultimate validation of the success of the mask, confusing a fellow animal.

One of the most exciting elements to watch come together were Brodie's projection effects. We once again played the show against an entirely projected backdrop but this time built a specified frame with two symmetrical doorways cut into the drop. The characters would exit through a door in the interior of a location, then enter through the same door after the projection had become the exterior of that same location. We also had subway scenes in front of a projected cross section of a subway car with the tunnels passing by in the windows.

Because we were unbarred by any physical set pieces outside of a table and a few chairs we were able to create a wide array of diverse locations in a very small space.

Ultimately the run of the show was a bit melancholy as we had a difficult time getting people out to see it. With such a short development period we also knew there was a lot that we could improve upon with more time. In spite of those feelings, however, the show did grow quite a bit over the course of it's ten performances and by the end we knew we had created something pretty interesting.

Though remarkably stressful, it was also incredibly rewarding to finally produce my own work. It has also proven helpful in finding other work as a performer as I have been asked to submit material for auditions and before this I didn't have anything to send in. It was a huge learning experience and I feel much more prepared for the development process on the next project. It's also my hope to one day bring back The Tenement so that we can perhaps share it with a larger audience.

Thank you for reading my blog this week. Tomorrow I'm going to write just a short conclusion for the week and a little bit about my experience of joining Blue Man Group.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Physical Performance and Butoh

 Contributed by guest blogger of the week, Jonothon Lyons.

During my first few months working for Imago in 2006 I began to explore other forms of movement theatre. I did a search online for "physical performance" and came across a video of Imre Thormann performing a butoh dance improvisation at an outdoor shrine in Tokyo. I was stuck by the intensity of focus and delicate clarity of his movements. He exhibited a profound control over his body that I found remarkable. His body type was similar to mine but with a much more refined musculature and because of the similarities I felt that his level of development might be something I could aspire to. I knew then that this mysterious butoh dance, whatever it was, was going to play a major role in my physical development.

When I returned to New York the following Spring I was passed along an audition notice calling for physically trained actors and dancers for a piece called A Timeless Kaidan for the 2007 New York Butoh Festival. The audition was a rigorous, hours long workshop that took me to my limits of strength and endurance but I made it through and was delighted to have had my first introduction to butoh. The audition took place at Cave Art Space, a multi purpose studio and collective residence in Williamsburg and was led by the director of the show Ximena Garnica.

My first involvement with the project was spending three days at Robert Wilson's Watermill Center where the show was in residency for one phase of it's development. There I was introduced to the principle dancers, one of which had worked directly with a founder of butoh, Tatsumi Hijikata. I was fortunate to find myself suddenly involved with artists so knowledgeable about this performance style that I had only recently become interested in.

It can be difficult to define exactly what butoh is. It is often called a dance but it veers away from many aspects of most of what we call dance. A more accurate description is that it is a form of physical expression or physical performance. There is often music accompanying a butoh performance but the movement doesn't necessarily follow the structure of the song. Also the imagery and body positions found in butoh often do not arise from a need to create an external picture or form but from some internal imagery of the dancer.

The first performance I witnessed was rather unsettling. The dancers made strange slurping sounds and moved in what looked like very uncomfortable ways. It seemed strange to me to find value in a performance that made me uncomfortable but as I continued watching I eventually experienced a catharsis. Once the performance had ended it seemed to have had a therapeutic effect on me. I felt better afterward then when it began, as though the discomfort of the performers had purged something negative from inside me.

We trained for four months in preparation for Kaidan and I was immediately drawn to the training process. We spend hours on end simply walking back and forth through the space as slowly as possible holding a soft focus gaze on the opposite wall. It was a remarkable test of concentration to remain focused on the task under such restricted circumstances. Many other exercises pushed me to explore my limits of physical endurance over and over.

The following year the Cave began the New York Butoh-kan, a series of programs bringing in major butoh masters from around the world for ten day long intensives in their various styles of training. They have continued this program through the years and I have been fortunate to attend many of the sessions, including one led by Imre Thormann himself. It has been a wonderful resource for learning about butoh from first and second generation dancers and teachers.

What sets apart this type of work from ordinary physical exercise is that there is often an imaginary circumstance that buoys you through the stress. The exercises associated with butoh training are usually the result of imagining the body being pushed by an outside force or changed by something within. The entire basis for the movement method created by Michizo Noguchi is imagining the body as a sack full of water. Given that the body is literally 60% water, that isn't much of a stretch.

I initially pursued butoh because I was drawn to the physical results of the training and experience but over time I was surprised to discover how strongly it had helped to develop my imagination and mental stamina as well. This ability to stay concentrated and allow for an open imagination under severe physical stress and uncomfortable circumstances has proved applicable in all my experiences as a puppeteer and mask performer.

A major element that seems to exist across many of these alternative forms of theatre I've been seeking is that the performers often create their own work as well. This is especially true among puppeteers as they often not only operate puppets but design and construct them as well. After a few years of working with the beautiful masks at Imago and studying butoh improvisation and choreography at Cave I felt ready to take a stab at creating some original work of my own. The end result would be a mask theatre production called The Tenement, a collaboration with my close friend, projection designer Daniel Brodie.

Tomorrow I'll talk about our experience creating The Tenement and the benefits and challenges of producing Off-Off Broadway theatre.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Discovering Puppetry

Contributed by guest blogger of the week, Jonothon Lyons.

Last summer I had just finished my fourth season working for Imago and while it was an incredibly valuable time for my growth as an artist I was starting to feel that my professional experience was lacking diversity. I had continued to stay busy in New York between seasons developing some of my own work and performing in some other small projects but no other major professional work had come my way. I was trying to consider what other avenues I might explore to find work that fit my sensibilities when I received a call to audition for a show called Warhorse.

The casting notice was seeking tall strong physical performers with puppetry experience. When I researched the show and found out the details of the job I was dumbfounded. Up to that moment I hadn't considered my niche as a performer possible of bringing me anywhere near Broadway but all of a sudden I was going up for a leading role in a huge Broadway production that was exactly the kind of performance work I had been focusing on for so long.

I didn't make it into the show but I still felt lucky to have been called back and essentially invited to participate in two three-hour long workshops with the Warhorse puppets. I felt like I had given a good showing and had a sense that this experience was a turning point in my career and good things would come of it.

Sure enough two weeks after that audition I received a call from Tectonic Theater Project asking me to participate in a development workshop for their upcoming puppet opera El Gato con Botas. They had been given my name as a recommendation from someone at Warhorse. This was such a great example of something very few young theater artists understand: you're never auditioning for just one project. Everyone in the room is going to work on other projects later and also know several other people doing the same thing, so if you're not right for the show you're auditioning for at the moment that doesn't mean you won't be right for the next show.

 El Gato con Botas is a chamber opera for children and for this production the animal characters and the ogre were puppets. By the end of the workshop I was operating the cat puppet along with two other puppeteers. This style of puppetry is derived from Japanese bunraku puppetry which features three puppeteers operating one puppet. For this character I was operating the right arm and body, a second puppeteer, Stefano Brancato, was on the head and left arm, and a third, Aaron Schroeder, was on the feet.

Much like when I first began working with masks, this process introduced me to several new unique aspects of performance that were different from anything I had done before.

The most important of these new elements was the sense of collective awareness. Some form of this exists in all stage performance that has more than one performer, but when you are sharing the performance of one character between three people, you have to be extremely sensitive to what all three are doing absolutely every moment of the show.
In the beginning of the process there were plenty of times when the cat would try to walk one way but his head would go another, or he would try to jump in the air but couldn't because his legs didn't leave the ground. Our director, Mark Down, would ask us to take it very slow, focus deeply on the puppet but keep a strong periphery awareness of the other two performers and breath audibly together. It felt very strange at first but soon became second nature and eventually we began to settle into a sort of unspoken language of breath.

The three of us developed the ability to cue each other through a slight gesture of our part of the puppet, coupled with a preparatory breath, to move right or left, jump or fly through the air, walk, run, or tiptoe. It took a remarkable amount of concentration and many frustrating hours of uncoordinated movement but when we started to get it it was one of the most exciting feelings I've had performing.

The show was eventually blocked out and the movement set in place but along the way we had achieved an ability to improvise with the puppet in a cohesive and honest way. Far from just moving an object around the stage, by the end it felt like the three of us were working together in collaboration with a living character.

I remember as a young actor I would always take deep offense if a fellow actor gave me notes about my performance. It seemed totally inappropriate and only the role of the director to do so. But in this type of performance with three actors sharing a role we had no choice but to give and accept notes to and from each other. There were times when one of us would have an impulse that the others did not have and we would have to justify it or reach a compromise. A positive benefit of this process is it really keeps one's ego in check. If any one of us was unwilling to reach a collective understanding and give and take ideas and impulses, we wouldn't have gotten anywhere.

I was very lucky to follow up this experience by joining the cast of Basil Twist's Petrushka which we performed in Boston in November and is currently running through Saturday at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia. This show also features a modified bunraku style but with a different arrangement of the puppeteers: one on both arms, one on the head and body, and one on the feet. Much of the same wordless cueing occurs though and of course the performance requires a strong sense of collective awareness.

I also recently helped in the development of Tom Lee and Matt Acheson's Secret History of the Swedish Cottage at the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre in Central Park which is running through November. This was an exciting opportunity because it brought me in touch with stringed puppets for the first time, requiring a more delicate style of manipulation through a more obscured view of the puppet.

It was an exciting discovery for me that puppetry was a vibrant and popular form that features the same alternative performance elements that I've been seeking. The focus is not on the individual performer, it is often based heavily in movement, and always has a strong sense of visual storytelling.
Tomorrow I'll be talking about some experiences with Butoh dance work and Cave Art Space.