April 1, 2011

Regrettably, I was disappointed in the Pffefer show tonight. After all, I was promised Yiddish vaudeville! Instead I watched three musicians onstage staring at the ground. In other words, it was a concert instead of a show.

The musicians were technically very proficient. One on accordion and piano. One on bass (he also did percussion on his bass, which was very cool). One on violin. They had a guest artist play cello on two or three songs.

The pieces were good, with two Django Reinhardt tunes really sticking out for personality and verve. There were two tango dancers who danced three or four times. They also stared at the floor. One wonders what was so fascinating about the Buskirk-Chumley floorboards tonight.

The audience was a bit sparse but appreciative. For once in my life, I was seated near a group of woo-ers. I am a big woo-er. I also am a ululation-er. Even a Xena-war-cry-er. And I always get stuck by these silent sticks-in-the-mud. But tonight I was even out-wooed at points! It was amazing!

The audience gave them a standing ovation but I wasn’t moved. I felt bad for setting there, but I just didn’t feel swept away. I’d tried even closing my eyes so I wouldn’t be critiquing the stage show, but the music just didn’t reach me the way I expected it to.

One thing I noticed was how they went almost straight into an encore. I wondered how that would work in a Kaia show. But I really don’t like the concept—that feeling of an encore being automatic. It’s got to be earned, with the audience refusing to leave until they get more. Like the energy that was raging at the end of the Red Baraat show last Lotus. Always leave ’em wanting more.

Miles Davis used to perform with his back to the audience. That just pisses me off. It’s so rude. I was raised to be a performer, not an artist. I’m not into self-expression for its own sake; I think a performer’s job is to connect with and help transform the audience. That transformation can be as simple as inspiring them to clap along or tap their feet. It doesn’t need to be some huge spiritual awakening. And I take issue with musicians (and others) who ignore the audience or leave them out of the creative experience.

I’ve heard from a couple different performers that it’s bad form to close your eyes when singing because it cuts you off from the audience. I think there’s some merit to that. But I also think there are times when the process is very internal, and the audience can be moved by witnessing that.

I think Kaia is so popular with audiences because we put on a very good show. We are constantly connecting with our audiences and giving back. We look at each other on a regular basis and smile (these guys tonight made eye contact only 5 or 6 times in the course of a 55-minute concert). We present the audience with an active, engaging show. Our technical execution isn’t always up to snuff, as you can tell on our live recordings, but the energy created makes us all deaf  to that. (Usually. Sometimes I cringe. :-))

The main reason why I was disappointed tonight is because I went in with inaccurate expectations. I wonder how we can communicate about Kaia shows so that people can be excited about what they’re going to get and then be blown away by something which exceeds their expectations.

My advice to musicians: Look up. That’s where the rest of us are. Let us in.

So much art

May 24, 2009

Nell’s class

What a week. Started another round of Nell’s classes on Wednesday. Good group of people. I hurt my back while doing an exercise called “architecture” and was very bummed to have to sit out until we switched the form.

“Architecture” shows how little you have to do onstage to be interesting. You just pose your body using straight lines. Like standing upright and holding your arms bent at the elbow at 90 degrees or lying with your back on the floor and extending arms and legs upward. Three of us went at a time, which created fascinating relationships and negative space. She’d stop us periodically and have the viewers name the current tableau.

Auditions for Vintage Scenes
Right before Nell’s class, I scooted over to the BPP for Vintage Scenes auditions. This is a collection of short (3-page) scripts that are some of the favorite mini-plays from years past. I’d rehearsed 3 of the 6, so of course the ones we got asked to do were parts I hadn’t worked on.

I’d spent the day traveling and in high-stakes business meetings, so was completely fried. No idea what I wrote on the audition form. Wasn’t fully present. That contributed in part to my lack of nerves, which was disappointing. I need more auditions where I’m nervous so I can get used to that. It also helped that I was better than my partner—that doesn’t mean I was good, it just means I was a bit better! That helps build confidence. I left feeling disappointed that I hadn’t given my best.

I got the email next day that I’ll be playing a Southern lush in one of the plays (what non-typecasting! :-)) and “C” in a funny scene where A is trying to kill himself and B is just trying to smoke a cigarette—on the 30th floor. I’m looking forward to getting started.

Deadbird—almost done
That was Wednesday night. Friday I met Kevin and we recorded the latest iterations of Deadbird—oops, I mean Redbird. It’s not perfect but it’s close enough for the songwriting contest we’re entering. I really like working with Kevin—he knows So Much. The song has come along nicely. Hard to believe how depressed I was when I wrote it.

Saturday morning was Goddessdaughter #2’s blessingway, done at the UU church by Bill Breeden. It was a short and simple ceremony, but sweet enough to make me all weepy. (This bit obviously doesn’t count as performing arts, but I want to throw it in.)  I gave her her gifts, but of course her favorite thing was a bundle of bread, salt, and coin that she could carry around. I love the ring I got for her. I hope she will, too, someday.

Staged readings
After a “I’m so stuffed” blessingway lunch at Opie’s, I burbled off to the BPP again for the staged readings of some of the plays for the ’09/’10 Bloomingplays. I read the part of Daisy in The Good Daughter.

It was interesting because I’d rehearsed with the voices of the 4 other characters in my head, but of course those parts weren’t read the way I’d heard them internally. So some of my stuff didn’t come out right, because I wasn’t reacting quickly enough to what was given me. It was a lot of fun though—theatre’s a helluva lot easier with a script in your hand!

Bob Berry of The Actor’s Workshop in Indy came up afterwards to ask me to read a part in his play, which will be read in August. I was terribly flattered and got a nice big bloated ego over it until I found out he’d asked 3 or 4 others, too! 🙂 A good come-uppance for me.

The final play was Kindred, the one I co-wrote with Lori. Margot read the part of Pam really well; much better than I could have done. It was so interesting to hear these parts that I’ve spent 4 years writing come out of the mouths of different actors. They find different things than I intended, which is a great experience for any artist to have. You let your creations out into the world and they take on lives of their own!

A group of us (rather raucously) went for drinks afterwards (which translates to “water” for me). Had a really good time with Gabe, Holly, Heather (in from NYC; I’d heard her do cabaret at Nell’s Midsummer Night’s Romp), and Rich. I feel like I want to get as much time with Rich as possible before he leaves in August.

This morning a larger group of us met for brunch at the Uptown. More hilarity, but with that bleary-eyed quality that comes from too many late nights. Gabe’s mom told a “I will embarrass you now” story about how he was born with bruised testicles. Perfect conversation for breakfast.

Robin Hood
I wrapped up the day with a viewing of Douglas Fairbanks’ Robin Hood at the Buskirk-Chumley, accompanied by Hesperus. The advertising said the event was free but tickets were actually $25! I thought it was outrageous but paid anyway, since I’d so looked forward to it.

It was great fun to see him on big screen and especially to hear people hissing when the bad guys came onscreen and then cheering when The Hero Gets The Girl. The picture wasn’t filled with as many stunts as I expected, but it was good fun. I was also impressed with how much Errol Flynn’s version was clearly influenced by this version. What pressure there must have been, trying to walk in Douglas Fairbanks’ footprints!

I had to nap when I came home and then have quiet time with a book to calm my jittery brain. Now I’m off for some movie-watching, though I’m really in the mood for playing a game with friends like Scrabble or something. I get tired of trying to fill the hours but oh well. (Today’s another day where I think I might be depressed but the damn meds have altered my symptoms.) Onward!

Kaia at MLK ’09

January 20, 2009

Tonight we (Kaia) performed at the City’s MLK Day celebration. It was a tricky 9-minute set of 6 pieces of music linked by spoken word. When we met for sound check I completely blanked on all the narration! Quite the panic. Jacob, The Bus-Chum Sound Guy, did a great job as usual. I sent over a diagram for mic setup and we only had a few tiny adjustments to make. He made some suggestions that saved us all time and trouble.

Then I came home and practiced my lines! This time I practiced while waving my hand in front of my face — not only did it simulate a strobe light effect (j/k), it simulated an environment of distraction. After many run-throughs I curled up quietly on the bed and spent some time meditating on the civil rights movement.

I’ve seen so many documentaries and read about that period of U.S. history (primarily the late ’50s and ’60s) that sometimes I feel like I understand it. But I can’t understand it, not fully, no many how many protests I’ve been to or how many ways I get discriminated against. I’m far more privileged than not, and it’s a dishonor to those who joined in the struggle and risked the Klan and military might to think otherwise.

I had a gut feeling that we were going to go on sooner than we anticipated, so I made sure to get there early. I always get very “internal” before a show, pulling into myself and getting very focused. I don’t like to talk and I don’t like a lot of distraction. Having spent enough time in crowded dressing rooms has inured me to that, though! 

The Kaiasistahs were in fine form tonight. We invoked Jane several times (how we miss her!), did some simple warm-ups, and ran the set quickly. Then we did the traditional Kaia cheer (done before every performance) and headed up to the backstage area. We could hear a little of John Whikehart’s (Ivy Tech-Bloomington chancellor) speech. After some quotes from MLK delivered by a cute kid from a local school, we were on. 

How I love the Bus-Chum. It’s a great performance space. It seems so big but it’s actually a very reachable performance space. My beloved high school auditorium was over twice as large but the Bus-Chum has a little of that “gathering in” feel to make performers feel at home.

The set itself went by in about four and a half seconds. I hit every cue and remembered every necessary line — woo-hoo! It started very heavy, with Strange Fruit to start off, followed by four lines from In The Mississippi River. We could really feel the audience start to key into us on that second piece. 

We then moved into two verses from Oh Freedom and got some audience members to clap (MLK audiences are traditionally pretty sedentary but attentive). Eyes On The Prize went over well, keeping the audience with us. I don’t know if anyone there remembered I Love Everybody from last year, but it felt really good to sing at the slower pace and with big smiles.

For my intro to On Our Way To Freedom Land, I got to say how, for all intents and purposes, the Bush administration ends tonight! There was a big emotional response along with some clapping and hollering. It felt so good to say, “Erev Obama — we are on our way to freedom land!” We then blistered through the piece with Jenny and Lorraine wailing like soulful banshees. 

The audience response was very warm and we had a nice three-bow ending before zooming off-stage. We burbled downstairs to the dressing room where we shut the door and did some celebratory woo-hoo-ing. We were all on a major performance high. We’d made only very minor fluffs. I’m amazed that we pulled the whole thing off, completely memorized, after being handed the concept cold only 3 weeks ago. Go, Kaia! When I get frustrated, I need to remind myself of these things so I appreciate what goodness I have!

Amy, Lorraine, and I were able to stay after for the rest of the program. The keynote address by Bishop Woodie White was extremely moving. The most riveting story he shared was when he and two white colleagues tried to enter a Mississippi church during Freedom Summer and they were arrested. The church was his denomination, but he wasn’t allowed to enter because he was black. He and his colleagues were arrested for trespassing and “disturbing worship.” They were held four days before bail money was raised ($2k apiece)! I can’t imagine being a person of color in the South at that time, held in a white jail. I got that shiver that comes from being in the presence of living history.

He also mentioned his college roommate, who was white, Southern, from Mississippi, and had a pronounced accent. Danger, Will Robinson! Only it turned out that this man had been in jail more times than White on behalf of securing freedom for African-Americans. Topping it off was the mention of the scars on his roommate’s face — the result of an attack where the Klan tried to kill him. White talked about how he’d written this man off before he even knew his name, based on the color of his skin and the place he was from. And how wrong he was to do it. The whole story was arresting and a great set piece for describing how we internalize stereotypes and social prejudices.

So tonight my belly is full of a massive ice cream sundae, I’ve watched His Girl Friday to help me ride out the sugar/post-performance high, and I’m very much looking forward to tomorrow’s inauguration. I think the biggest thing to comprehend will be that Bush’s reign of terror is over. I can’t quite believe it. Who knows what he’ll do on his way out the door, but all my hopes are riding on America rising to the challenge of going with the better angels of our nature rather than reacting from fear and anxiety. I feel once again that chill down the back of living history, knowing we stand on the cusp between “chaos or community.” I pray we will choose, as a nation, to embrace hope.

Tips for writing and memorizing

January 17, 2009

I’m in the midst of trying to memorize Kaia’s set for our upcoming appearance at the MLK Day celebration at the Buskirk-Chumley. As usual, the idea for the set came to me while I was in the shower (all the best ideas come when you’re least likely to have a pen and paper around)!

Like last year, the set this year is a mix of spoken word and sung music, but this year everything’s intertwined in snippets. We’re singing two complete songs and snips of 4 others. Connecting them all are lines I wrote, giving context for each piece.

I follow a particular process to get me to the final draft as quickly as possible and then memorize it:

Say it
Record yourself speaking out on each subject. Don’t rein yourself in — let yourself babble. This is the brainstorming phase and you want to generate as many ideas as possible.  

Write it
Listen to the recording and jot down only the most salient points. You’ll probably start with a disjointed list of bullet points, but keep working until you can put the points into sentences. Depending on the length of your “patter,” you may want only two or three sentences.

Try it
Use your cheat sheet of sentences and run through your lines out loud. Do they sound like something you’d read or something you’d say? Pencil in refinements to make it more natural sounding. Get a sense of the rhythm to work out the kinks until it flows easily.

Edit it
Get out the scalpel and ruthlessly chop every extraneous word. Look for ideas that you’re trying desperately to fit in but that are really beyond your point. Cut ’em! Resist the temptation to keep flowery phrasings when a more direct approach will do. It depends on your audience and the music, but if you want to bring people along with you quickly, use language that’s easily comprehensible. 

Add memorization cues
There are a number of ways you can write your piece to help make it easier to memorize. One was is hidden alliteration: “The people in the civil rights struggle were not solely victims. They sang out in defiance.” Note the number of “s” sounds in those two sentences. When spoken, you can emphasize struggle, solely, sang, and defiance. One “s” word becomes a cue for the next, yet the spoken word sounds natural.

The ancient Druids were known for their phenomenal memories. One of their many roles in Celtic societies was to act as a repository of the tribe’s history. This included incredibly long recitations of stories, genealogies, and poems. I’ve successfully used some of their techniques when writing more poetic pieces, such as ending a phrase with a word that begins the next phrase. 

Bran rode out upon the waves,
Waves that shone like Lugh’s bough.

Direct repetition isn’t always possible, so you can use a related word to string one line to the next. Using this technique, Druids could recite thousands of lines for hours with no breaks (save for a drink or three!). 

Run it
Now that you have your script, start running it.  Start by reciting the lines while moving. Physical movement helps memorization. Don’t try to get off-script too soon. Start with the most difficult section first, then add the next section, and so on. You may not always start at the beginning; in fact, repeatedly starting only at the beginning can hamper your efforts to internalize sections that get less practice.

Get off-script
Run the lines until you can begin to go off-script for longer periods of time. If your piece is long or complex, reduce it back to bullet points and work from that as an interim step to going completely off the page. At this point your body will naturally add gestures — let it. 

Polish it
As you gradually move off-script, imagine your audience very clearly. Imagine the stage or other setting you’ll be in. Visualize these as clearly as possible. Follow your body’s gestures. Record yourself again and see if you sound like you’re speaking or reading. If the latter, really pay attention to your delivery and just say it like you mean it. Too often, when speaking in public, we put on a false voice that preaches or drones. Just allow yourself to speak as naturally and as conversationally as possible.

Keep visualizing that audience. Smile to them where appropriate. Let your physical expressions come naturally from the words you’re saying. This is one area of rehearsal that many performers overlook — they rehearse the lines/scene/music very internally, as if the final performance will be in their living room. Your ultimate goal is to connect with your audience, so you need to rehearse that part of your performance as well. The more strongly you imagine the setting you’ll be in, and the more authentically you rehearse, the more polished and powerful your final performance will be.

Go forth!
If you find that you absolutely cannot get every line down and you’re under a crunchy deadline (not that I’m worried about Monday night’s performance), make a cheat sheet of the shortest bullet points you can possibly devise and put it on the stage floor as a memory prompt. Don’t forget to practice with it before you perform.

Now, after your four or five weeks of hard work, get out there and deliver your 6-minute performance. It’ll be killer! 😉