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Monday, July 30, 2007

"I have been a brain surgeon for the past 5,000 years."*

Part III of my tour de force of class-taking this year just kicked off the other night. It is perhaps the most-anticipated portion of this renaissance I’m currently undergoing, because it was the first night of my Improv class. The official title is “Improvised Comedy – For Beginners,” and the class is being taught by a chap named Simon. I’ve seen him before, as he is one of the big mucky-mucks involved with the Wellington Improvisation Troupe (WIT) and I saw him as he emceed their 25-hour Improv-a-thon earlier this year.

I also saw him perform with the Troupe in one of their many shows around Wellington, as a couple months ago I got Simon (not the same Simon, natch) and Sarah to join me for this. It was one of those nights where they had the audience help sort out three storylines. By the end of the night you, the audience, determine by applause which storyline ‘wins’ and so the actors on stage must carry on with it and create a storyline that has a beginning, middle, and an end. Along the way on this night they did a Western, a Musical, and an Action-Adventure story – which was the ultimate winner. It had everything: star-crossed lovers, pyramids, an evil genius, Mexicans, a magical spade, and a chain-smoking genie with a Russian accent.

Got to love improv!

Anyways. So Simon is our very capable teacher and I can tell this class is going to be lots of fun. It’s so enjoyable that at the end of the first class I felt a real let-down as I realized it would be another WHOLE WEEK before we could meet again. That’s how much fun we were all having. There are eighteen of us in this class, so it’s just about double the enrollment I had with my Mixed Abilities Drama Classes. As an added plus, my Dutch friend (and co-scriptwriter!) Dana is back as she’s taking this class too. She really seems to have been bitten by the acting bug as badly as I have so it’ll be fun to enjoy this class with her.

There are a whole range of people in this class, in terms of ages and occupations. We’ve got a tennis instructor, a woman who works on the City Council, an Outward Bound instructor (here for ‘shits and giggles’ as she put it), a wise-cracking British guy who bills himself as an Internet Evangelist, a Yank who once upon a time acted in plays (me), a lawyer with an interest in the film industry, and many more (obviously, since I haven’t listed eighteen different people there).

It seems lots of people come to something like improv in order to learn how to let go in front of a crowd a bit better, as many of my classmates hail from the business or government sectors and consequently could get a leg up if only they lost a little inhibition and gained a little confidence in the arena of public speaking.

I think it’s going to be a hell of a fun ride and I can’t wait to get back in there next Monday night. As I do, I have become a bit nervous about making it to class on time every night, for the following reasons (paranoias):

A) Class starts only an hour after I’m due to get out of work. I have a 45- minute drive through rush hour traffic to get into Wellington to get to the high school where it’s held. Parking is at a real premium around the high school as there’s lots of people taking these kinds of classes (of which there are dozens) and WHS has a pretty tiny parking lot, all things considered.

Secondly) Being a vet, there are sometimes things that come in that just have to be seen, even though I’m supposed to ‘punch the clock’ at 5 on Mondays. So duty might require me to skip out on class or at least arrive late, which would certainly be better than having to wait – gasp! – TWO weeks in between classes.

I need an Improv fix, and I need it now!


*A line from one of our improv games. You, uh, definitely had to be there...

Thursday, July 12, 2007

“He’s not dead. He’s resting!”*

No really, I’m fine, just lazy. I have let this blog thing of mine slip too far for too long. I miss it, truly I do.

I think part of the reason I’ve let it go for the length of time that I have is that it’s been a sort of natural pause for me. A time to catch my second wind, as it were, since I’ve now been here in New Zealand for just over a calendar year.

Granted, it’s been no Labor of Hercules to keep a casual blog on which I post about 1-3 times per week. But (believe it or not) I do strive to have something meaningful and positive and creative to post each time I do write, so I do expend a little bit of the old brainpower every time I craft one of these babies.

And, well, there’s a sort of inertia setting in after my first full year of diving head-first into New Zealand and all that it has to offer. I’ve accomplished some major milestones I’d set up for myself and I think there’s a natural lull that will occur anytime you reach goals you have set for yourself. Not that I’m resting on my laurels, mind you, but these things won’t mean as much if I, (a) don’t take the time to sit back and savor them and (b) keep achieving goals at a breakneck pace just for the sake of achieving goals.

Or maybe I’m just trying to deftly explain away my lassitude with all of this rationalization.

So, the arbitrary passing of an Earth year in marking my arrival to New Zealand aside, there was also another culmination of sorts recently: Ginger Crunch's performance of "Adventures in the Dark Forest", Ginger Crunch being the Mixed Abilities Drama Group with which I’ve been involved for most of 2007.

We had our one and only show on a Monday night just over a fortnight ago (two weeks ago to you Yanks, heh), and I think it was a smashing success. I really do, and I’m not just being hyperbolic. I really am quite chuffed that we pulled it off at all! Not that I doubted us, no, but I am more excited from the following standpoint: If you had told me back in January that my small class of ten people would be able to meet once a week for 15 sessions at only 90 minutes a pop and be able to stage a full-on drama with singing, dancing, costumes, props and LINES and stage directions, by crikey, I’d have said you were mad.

But we did it! Nobody will be winning any Drama Desk or Tony Awards for this one-off performance, but it really was quite a thrill to make it all happen. It was even better that my friends Sarah and Claire came to watch, as it's always far more rewarding to put on a show with friends and family in the audience. One of the many other things I missed most about the theater was that collaborative spirit that goes into making a production, to steal a line John Lithgow used in 3rd Rock From the Sun. There were some real bonds formed there and I really do hope to at least be seeing these people from my class again in the future, if not in another production then at least socially.

Even if I don’t, there is going to be a DVD of the whole affair that night because Kate our director thought so much as to organize a film crew!

The performance was based upon William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the basic plot is that the Fairy King and Queen and their whole cadre of fairy underlings are having a spat over a particular servant they both claim as their own. Their conflict bleeds over into the mortal world, dramatically changing the lives of some ordinary laborers as well as a foursome of lovers caught up in a hopeless love triangle. There are some pretty choice roles in the actual Shakespearean play, the two most coveted being those of Bottom, the chief laborer, and Puck, the Fairy King’s right-hand… fairy.

I played one of the lovers, a man named Demetrius. Before the faerie magic transformed him, Demetrius was a vain man consumed with desire for Hermia. She did not return his love, however, as her heart belonged to Lysander, who then by default became Demetrius’ nemesis.

Say those last two words three times fast.

Lysander was played by Duncan, whom I affectionately call “Dunk” (clever, no?) and he was one of the Mixed Abilities kids in our class. The fourth lover, Helena, was played expertly by a Canadian girl named Briony, and in the story she loves Demetrius who obviously loves another and thus scorns her to no end. Dana, a Dutch girl in our class, played Hermia in her first experience acting and it was great to see her learn so much so fast.

Dana not only rounded out our (multi-national) cast of lovers, she and I also shared script duty. One of our jobs was to ‘dumb down’ the Shakespearean rhetoric of only the lovers and make their dialect more modern. This would hopefully serve to enhance the illusion we were creating since then only the fairy types spoke in the flowery language of the Bard, while us lovers and the laborers (called the “Mechanicals” in the play) sounded more familiar and hence more like the audience. So Dana and I spent a fun night in the Jimmy Café writing up a script and then editing and re-editing and re-re-editing it to the tune of a couple of coffees. We had fun playing out all the parts at our table as a crowd of people waiting to see that evening's performance in the Westpac Theater milled around us. It was cool to have an impromptu performance with an informal audience. I think the coffees made us a bit... spastic!

Dunk played his role as Lysander with zeal and focus and I had a great time working with him, as well as the others. Together we learned a very rudimentary form of stage fighting (i.e., we made most of it up as we went along) and he would regularly give me a good thrashing at every rehearsal.

Duncan’s mom, Max, and his sister, Zoe, were a huge part of the production as well, coming in towards the end to organize the costumes, set design, and props. We really were spoiled by them and without their touch the whole thing still would have been fun but it would have lacked so much without their artistic talents. The DVD version of the performance should bear this out.

Kate, our director, was equal parts inspiring and demanding and creative. She kept us so entertained and enlivened and involved that we didn’t really realize until towards the end just how hard she was pushing us. It was not until we started to see and experience concrete evidence that we really had a show here that we began to fully appreciate Kate’s talents as a director – and producer, really. She was always open to suggestions and seemed to know exactly how to get the best out of each and every one of us. I really hope to work with her again one day.

I cannot fail to also mention James, our co-director and the musician of the group. Kate press-ganged James into service for last year’s version of Ginger Crunch, as James was serendipitously noodling on the piano in the theater when the Mixed Abilities Drama class showed up. They liked the way he sounded, he liked the idea of their group, and so he was then recruited and given a battlefield promotion as the troupe’s Lead Musician. So not only did we have visual augmentation with a set and props and costumes, but we also had a soundtrack! The creativity level of theater is really at its maximum when you incorporate music, in whatever way shape or form, and I’m so thankful we had James along there with us. I learned a lot from him and he’s a really cool guy.

As of now Kate’s off in London at the Globe Theatre itself doing a Shakespeare workshop. Soon after her return we are to have a DVD viewing party! If I can figure out how to do it I will make some screen captures from the performance disc but until now there are the two pictures below that I have of me and my co-star Dunk. In one of them you can also see Luke as Sprite, one of the fairies. He, too, did a great job and I believe it was also his first acting experience. In that shot he is casting a spell on Duncan and I to stop us fighting over the women.

It’s a good thing he stopped us, too, because that Dunk sure can scrap!


“Yeah, he’s tired and shagged out after a prolonged squawk.”

"Well why have you nailed his feet to the perch then?"

"Look, if I hadn't nailed him there, he'd have bent those bars apart wif his beak and.... Voom!"

“Voom?! Mate, this parrot wouldn’t ‘Voom’ if you put 4 million volts through it!”

- Thanks to Monty Python for giving us the comedy classic that is The Dead Parrot Sketch.