Monday, April 11, 2011

Alternative Forms

Contributed by guest blogger of the week, Jonothon Lyons.

Slava's Snowshow

Like most theater artists, I grew up performing regularly at the local community theaters in my hometown. My first role was at nine years old as the part of "Man #2" in Rumplestiltskin. I specifically remember that incidental character title because when a friend of my parents asked for my autograph after the show, I signed it without a hint of irony, "Man #2."

As a child, I was never drawn to the aggressive and competitive nature of sports and was baffled by the elusive nature of talent in visual art, but something clicked for me when I was performing on stage for a live audience. I made it a priority to be involved in some production or other as often as possible and knew early on that I was going to continue to keep that priority as I grew older.

I was lucky to live in Phoenix, a city that strongly supports charter schools, and attended a performing arts magnet high school downtown, thus avoiding the anxiety I had assumed would be facing me at public school. At Arizona School for the Arts I was introduced to a strict and uncompromising approach to pre-collegiate theater training.  We were taught to consider acting a very serious and difficult pursuit. Through our lessons in class I began breaking down into tiny beats every thought and motivation my characters had and finding justification for those choices somewhere within myself. It was there I first experienced the teachings of Stanislavsky, Uta Hagen, and Sanford Meisner.

I continued training as an actor in these styles at Arizona State University and never considered that I would be anything other than an actor performing traditional narrative psychological drama. It was what I had always done and what I loved to do, but in my final semester, I had a traumatic experience that reshaped my perspective on acting and theater performance and ended up being a major turning point for me.

Just before my final semester at ASU I attended a two week acting workshop in Vancouver, B.C. and met a girl. We quickly entered into ill-conceived long distance relationship and after a few months I started to realize we weren't standing on very firm ground. I eventually broke it off with her and her reaction was to accuse me of falsehood throughout our entire experience together. She was convinced that I had lied about my feelings for her and was able to do so easily because of my acting. The last thing she said me was, "you're a very good actor, but also I'm extremely gullible."

I was devastated that the strong emotions I had felt were perceived as fake, and I started to question myself. I became worried that all of my psychological acting training had damaged my ability to live in reality. I began to constantly analyze my daily choices and motivations and soon there were moments when I interacted with others when I felt like I couldn't tell if I was acting or not.

I feel strongly that the art one creates and the process of that creation should be therapeutic rather than destructive. When I felt so damaged because of my artistic pursuits, I knew that something had to change. I still wanted to pursue a career in live performance and theater but I no longer felt like this traditional style of psychological acting was going to work for me.

I began to consider a step in a new direction and started to think about the kinds of productions I had seen over the years that had really moved me.  I realized that it was rarely traditional classic narrative drama that I was affected by but the more spectacular movement and visual based shows like De La Guarda or Slava's Snowshow. I loved De La Guarda so much I saw it each time on three consecutive visits to New York during college.

My final semester landed me in classes about Brecht, avant guard theatre, and reshaping our concepts of what theater is supposed to be. I had a formative experience with a movement for actors class that lead me to begin telling people I wanted to be a "movement theatre artist."

This was mostly met with confusion and when pressed to clarify, I actually could not really explain what it meant. But I knew that in order to continue working in theater, I had to get out of my head and into my body, and movement based theater sounded like what I was looking for. I had a relatively uneventful first year in New York. I went on a couple of embarrassing auditions and enrolled in a few acting classes that reaffirmed my lack of connection to traditional acting training.

Finally I came across an audition for a mask theater show called Frogz looking for "physical performers with the grace of a dancer, the depth of an actor, and the timing of a comedian." Within twenty minutes of twisting, turning, and leaping through the space and performing several exercises improvising with gibberish, I knew I had found what I was looking for. After my third callback, I was hired as a full time company member of Portland's Imago Theatre and ended up spending four years with them. My experience at Imago gave me the foundation in mask, puppetry, and movement based non-dialogue performance that has brought me many fruitful opportunities in professional theater over the last few years.

Please check back here tomorrow for my next post. I'll explain more of what Imago does and explore some of the major elements of mask performance.

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