Monday, April 27, 2009

A Night With the Fights

By Mary Shen Barnidge, reprinted from Moulinet: An Action Quarterly - Number One - 2009


A punch whose knap follows several seconds after the swing, but several seconds before the receiver registers the impact, establishes at the outset the tone of author Andy Grigg's three Shakespeare spoofs, modeled on popular action-film genres -- the ghetto-and-car-chase Grand Theft Othello, the makeup-and-body-parts Apocalypse: Romeo and Juliet, and the chop-socko Ninja Hamlet: Burning Fist of Denmark. But fight choreographer Chris Walsh's biggest problem isn't living up to the show publicity's assertion that "The Bard is Baaadaass", but doing it on the Gorilla Tango storefront cabaret's stage -- an arena barely larger than a hostess-waitstation with front-row tables and customers' knees marking the boundaries of its apron.

Zombies of the Hollywood variety being uniformly big and hulking, the menacing creatures of Apocalypse are kept offstage (specifically, in the general region of the playhouse lobby -- a tactic not uncommon to low-budget Blair Witch Project knockoffs), while Grand Theft relies on hand-to-hand spectacle choreographed in the patently artificial manner of the evening's aforementioned opening sequence. Ironically, Ninja Hamlet presents the most ready solution to the safe-distance problem, thanks to the conventions introduced in the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon dictating that magic, not muscle, decides the battle. Thus, blows and kicks launched on opposite sides of the stage (with appropriate vocal accompaniment) are understood to be fully as efficacious as those connecting at close range. This full-cast (and most extensively-conceived) of the three sketches finishes with a burst of adrenaline to send us home -- or off to another Bucktown bar, anyway -- happy and exhilarated.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

That Is All, Campers

Another show is in the books. Camp Freedom! closed Sunday after a lengthy workshop and rehearsal process and a seven-week run. It was a rough one. The reviews were decent but not great, and we had a hard time pulling in audiences. We had to cancel a few performances due to a lack of paying customers. However, I was proud of my work, I think we had a pretty good show, and I got to work with a great group of people. In spite of the problems we encountered, this ensemble had enough fun working together that morale never wavered for a moment.

I pulled double-duty on this one, working both as an actor and as stage combat choreographer. I also contributed about eighty seconds of original music to score the big knife fight at the end. Perhaps the most important lesson I learned on this show was this: Never choreograph your own fights. This may not hold true for every choreographer, but it does for this one. I had a couple of problems with the experience: First, I went too easy on myself. My part was made up of fairly simple moves that just required me to be big, which I do without thinking about it. By way of comparison my main scene partner, Krista, had to do a cartwheel and flip over a table. She was a gymnast, so she was up to the task, and it all made sense in context. But I never really challenged myself, and I worry that I got lazy in performance as a result.

My other problem arose during performances. I was so distracted every time I was onstage and there was stage combat going on. I couldn't concentrate on what I was supposed to be doing because a part of my brain wanted to observe and critique the other performers. They were doing my choreography, after all, and I wanted to make sure they were doing it right. Never mind the fact that I was onstage with dialogue and choreography of my own for which I was responsible. And the music was just an added layer of distraction. Every time the opening chord of my piece kicked in I couldn't help but wonder if it should be louder, or if the drums were too bright, or if the guitars were too low in the mix. The next thing I know, there's Krista coming at me with a knife.

There is no such thing as a typical theatre experience. No two shows are the same. No two performances are the same. Every script, every director, every company and every ensemble bring their own gifts and their own sets of challenges to be overcome. We grow as artists by finding ways to combine our gifts in order to face those challenges. Rarely if ever is every problem completely solved, but that's half the fun. You work around it. You roll with it. You take what you've learned and bring it to the table when the next project rolls around. I learned a lot about myself as a theatre artist while working on Camp Freedom! As an added bonus, I had a lot of fun, too. Perhaps in the near future I will post my contribution to our little cast song competition. It was... something.

There is, as they say, no rest for the wicked. This weekend I dive into tech for Busman's Honeymoon at Lifeline. By comparison this should be a nice, easy run after Camp Freedom! We start previews on May 1st, and open on the 11th. I have a lot of free time backstage on this one, so maybe I'll get a little writing done for once. We shall see.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009