Category Archives: Réflexions sur le théâtre

Memories of Lenore

Lenore Lattimer as a young dancer

My favorite professor at Bard has died.  This post is pretty late; she died in September.  But I didn’t hear about it until today.  My friend Dages will be performing one of her dances at her memorial soon; I’ll update this when I know the date etc.

I am not the world’s greatest dancer.  I was a shy nerd as a kid, and, as my friend Tyler would marvel back when we were in elementary school, “John doesn’t like music!”  Not strictly true; I loved the oldies station my mom always listened to in the car, and my parents often played tapes at home, Bob Marley or Bow Wow Wow, or (most often) gamelan, some of which my father had recorded himself while on research trips to Bali.  My sister liked show tunes and a few cassettes of Belinda Carlisle and Tiffany, and I listened to that just like I read her Babysitters Club and Nancy Drew Files books.  But it’s true I wasn’t very well-versed in pop music until I was a teenager, when I caught up on the 80s through VH-1 and got into “alternative” radio while learning to drive.  It’s not like I was completely ignorant of it, but it felt somehow out of my league, like I wasn’t cool enough to even try to understand it all.  At some point when I was very young someone laughed at me for not realizing “Beat It” by Michael Jackson was not the same song as “Eat It” by Weird Al; the possibility of making a mistake like that, humiliating when you’re a little kid (if not always), made it a bit too fraught for a shy and very cautious kid like I was.  Certainly, by the time I got to enjoy school dances, I was way behind on learning how to dance.  My best tactic was to simply fake it through abandon and enthusiasm, which I could rarely muster up the courage for, unless my friend Tim was there to set the example.

Strangely, despite growing up in a theatrical house, I don’t remember any contact with Western art dance–ballet, modern dance, any kind of choreographed performance with an audience–until I got to college.  I’d seen Balinese and Javanese dance, but that was about it.  I went to my first Bard dance performance partly out of curiosity, partly because it was the thing to do, but I think mostly because my friend Evan was going.  I was thunderstruck.  The show was very crowded, very hot, and very long–over a dozen dances, I think, of all sorts of moods, styles, qualities.  Most were choreographed by students, some by professors.  I used to say to my dad, I wanted “theater without actors”, and here it was, and even better than I’d ever imagined.  I saw a lot of great dance at Bard, some showy and Broadway,  some spooky or disturbing, some gorgeous or sexy, some bizarre and avant-garde (one was in almost complete darkness, with no sound but that of the feet of the dancers sliding across the floor; in another, a dancer in a figure skating costume stood motionlessly balanced on one leg to the soundtrack of the recorded voice of a figure skating commentator.)

By this time I had already committed to a fine art major, and dance seemed, like music before it, somewhere out of my reach; but my friends encouraged me to take some dance classes.  There were many professors teaching intro classes.  “Who should I take?” I asked.  “Lenore,” everyone said.

Lenore turned out to be a cranky and commanding old lady, in her 60s when I met her, rain thin and as flexible as a rubber toy.  When she led the stretches at the beginning of the class it seemed impossible that she had any bones at all.  She taught a very flowy, swooping kind of dance–I’m afraid I don’t know anything about the terminology or the various schools to talk intelligently about this–but was strict and demanding.  She knew when you were struggling and when you were just not trying your best.  “John!” she would shout with her raspy voice.  “Get those arms up!”  It was impossible not to fall in love with her from the first class.

I was usually very grumpy about the studio art department, as disgruntled as some of my theater friends were with the theater department.  We would sometimes sit around daydreaming out loud about being dance majors, how if only we’d known then what we knew now, we would have done dance all the way.  I don’t know what they think about that now.  But I still think about it sometimes, and I still wish I had had any idea that I might want to try dance when I was a freshman picking classes for the first time.  I still dream of it, being a full-fledged member of the world of dance.  I still hope to be someday.  It’s too late to become a dancer, or probably even choreographer; but I still aspire to become Leon Bakst at least.  Soon, I hope, I’ll be living in Chicago; hopefully I’ll be able to meet dance people there.

At Bard there were very rarely more than two other male students in a dance class.  My friend Caitlin told me that, before we met, she knew me as “the boy in dance class who’s really into it”, and as mortifying as I find that (for some reason), it’s true, I was really into it.  We would line up and do a series of steps across the room.  I was always first in line.  (This is not entirely due to my enthusiasm: I figured out that before you went out there, you were too busy trying to get the sequence straight in your head to watch the other dancers, so paradoxically, going first meant you were most invisible.)  I was ecstatic to be asked, by another of my professors, to perform in the dance she was choreographing.  But I was even more proud when Lenore told me she thought I was ready to try her intermediate dance class.  It was quite a jump up–I struggled very much in that class, basically always felt lost or inadequate to what I was being asked to do, and it was at some ungodly early hour of the morning, my final semester at Bard.  But I loved it.  And I loved Lenore.

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Filed under just writing, Réflexions sur le théâtre

The Case of the Golden Kimonos

The Golden Kimonos

Once upon a time, I got the call from a costume shop I sometimes work at.  “We need two kimonos, right away,” they said.  The designs for the show were 1930’s, Western clothes, but they wanted a fairly accurate pair of kimonos, in dark golden/bronze, with floral silk lining.  They gave me fabric and two days.

Kimonos are not difficult to draft, as they’re all straight lines (almost entirely rectangles) but they are a bit complicated to sew, and they’re fully lined.  The first night I stayed up late; the second I pulled an all-nighter.  It was exhausting, but satisfying, to see them mostly finished at the end, just waiting to be hemmed to fit the actresses.  When delivered, everyone loved them; the costume designer was very happy.

One kimono hanging up

The tech rehearsals began a day or two later, and soon I heard from the costume shop manager again.  He sounded tired and very, very grumpy.  “You’ll never believe this,” he said, “but your kimonos got cut from the show.”  Apparently, the colors weren’t working; I think it was that the masks that the cast was wearing seemed washed out when contrasted with the golden fabric.  In place of my kimonos, they pulled two dressing gowns out of their costume collection.

The other kimono hanging up

In actual fact, I didn’t mind.  It comes with the territory.  I learned this lesson, really, from working with some college kids who majored in things like history and music and for whom the costume shop was just a job.  They usually didn’t really like the plays, and they were well used to their hard work being cut from the show at the last minute.  “I once told all my friends to come see the 20 knit dog heads we made,” one of them told me, “but it turned out there were zero knit dog heads.”  Seeing things you’ve made on stage is wonderful, but as long as I’ve done a good job sewing, and as long as I still get paid, I’m fine with my work being put into storage.  These kimonos have been–they’ve never gotten hemmed.  As you can see in these pictures, they need ironing.  But I’m happy enough with them that I don’t mind that they never made it in front of an audience.

Now when my designs are cut by the director!  That’s depressing!

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Costume Fan Family Post

My sister, a big comics fan and fellow costume enthusiast, analyzes the costumes of The Avengers in a massively spoiler-filled post at her blogging gig, The Fantastic Fangirls.  It is pretty much only because of her that I have seen all these superhero movies, but after watching them, I share her affection for Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts.  All you Gwyneth haters can suck it.

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On Wanting Attention

If there’s one thing which I feel comfortable classifying myself as, it is an introvert.  No matter how much I love hanging out with someone, being with people is draining; I need to be alone for at least an hour or two every day or I become irritable, anxious, and depressed.  Furthermore, and this is not quite the same thing, I’m very private.  Part of the reason I never update this blog is because it feels too public and exposed.  Nothing freaks me out more than the idea of other people–any other people–going through my stuff: my drawings and writings and notebooks and computer files.  I don’t think any of it is very scandalous or even interesting, but I hate the thought of anyone looking at it, anyway.

All this said, the longer I live the less I understand the scorn and shame associated with the desire for attention.  You know the drill.  “Oh, she just wants attention,” they say.  Hipsters (or Lady Gaga, or whoever) just wear those weird clothes for attention.  People who do anything different than the blandest norms, in fact, are just looking for attention.  People who attempt suicide, people who self-harm, don’t take them seriously, it’s just a play for attention.  Even people posting a tribute on a dead person’s Facebook wall supposedly suffer from “a pathological need for attention”.

For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that all this is true, and not just a giant pile of abjectly obvious projection on the part of the accuser.  What’s wrong with it? Why are we supposed to go through life with the noble ambition to be ignored?  It’s a strange thought that, unlike those horrible hipsters, fashionistas, and other “attention whores”, good honest folk like you and me choose outfits calculated to fade into the background lest we be noticed by anyone.

I think it’s a pretty universal human desire, actually, to want attention from our fellow human beings.  (Especially, as the amazing Tess Lynch says, when we’re grieving.)  Yes, it’s annoying when children interrupt your every quiet moment with attempts to pull your focus from whatever it is you’re doing, but it’s also an absolute necessity for them.  As it is, though the methods become more subtle and polite, for everyone else.  An ignored person is almost certainly a hurting person.  Ask someone who’s been ignored and made to feel invisible.  It’s a terrible, terrifying feeling.

Once I was in a band with two of my friends, and I really enjoyed playing live with them, but they both just naturally have more stage presence and charisma than I do.  At some point there was a program or something, or maybe it was a tracklist for a compilation CD we had a song on, and it listed the two of them as the only band members.  I don’t know, maybe it’s wrong of me, but it felt horrible.  I felt erased, not just from the band, but from existence.  This lead me, when we played subsequent shows, to dress up more and try to put on more of a show.  Doing it because I wanted attention?  Damn right.  And I’d do it again.  I am not ashamed to say that I do hope that people pay attention to me.  When I sew something and post it on Craftster, you had better believe that I bask in the feedback that comes.  Even accountants, I guarantee, feel that kind of thrill when someone says “you did a great job on my taxes!”, which probably doesn’t happen enough.

Working in the theater, I love the fact that I work behind the scenes.  I’ve acted, and I find it rewarding, but I prefer to be backstage in the secret, semi-‘practical’ world back there.  But I always want to see my name on the program.  Does that make me a horrible person?  Or does that just make me a human being?

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Filed under just writing, Manifestoes, Réflexions sur le théâtre

Things happen somehow

Yesterday, I had finally typed out my script for this toy theater project I’ve been working on, that I’ve posted about, and suddenly I felt very down and worried about it.  The pieces seemed to be more or less in place, but I didn’t know how I was going to put it all together and actually perform/record it.  I don’t really know anything about puppeteering, or making videos, or if I needed to get rights to music for just this little experiment; I didn’t know how I was going to do it all by myself or who I should ask for help.  I even had a classic anxiety dream, where my sister was forcing me to perform Kabuki in front of an audience, and as she was putting on my wig and makeup I was thinking oh god I don’t know how to do any of this Kabuki stuff!  This is going to be a disaster!

 

Today, my best friend, who has experience working with puppets, is always down to help me with everything, and who knows a lot of people, suddenly showed up after living out in the woods in Colorado for a few weeks.  We took a walk and he introduced me to a friend of his who lives near me, who is a musician and who has an interest in Noh, who perhaps can help with the music issue.  And another friend of mine, who I was reluctant to talk about this project with because she makes real, very elaborate puppets while I am just making pictures on sticks, told me she’s teaching a class in toy theater next semester and wanted to see my project and talk about it.  Amazing!  I really do think sometimes that there is a god or something out there who likes theater and wants the show to go on, and arranges things to somehow make problems work out, one way or another.

Unrelatedly, but seeing as how I am making one of my too-rare appearances on my blog, everyone should go read Kat’s post on female celebrities eating in magazine articles.  It’s amazing.

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Nue: Boatman

The uncanny boatman, who is really the ghost of the monster, Nue.

Here is the uncanny boatman who agrees to take the monk to the temple.  The monk’s questions will lead him to reveal his surprising true identity.  I made him and his costume very pale to emphasize his strange ghostliness, and to make him merge and fade into the background to some degree.  I’m going to build him a little cardboard boat to ride, in reference both to the strange, rough character of his boat in the story, and to the abstract, minimalist “sets” of Noh.

I’m wondering now about music and sound for this little puppet show.  I think theater should have music whenever possible (from Noh to ballet to wayang kulit, my favorite theater idioms are as much musical performances as theater) and music and sound design are one of the things I love best about Kihachiro Kawamoto’s films (referenced below).  But on the other hand, I don’t like recorded music or amplification in the theater.  I really hate the sound of miked actors, just at an aesthetic level; and besides I kind of think it’s a failure of training, blocking, and/or theater architecture if they need mikes.  I’d also much rather have live musicians as part of the show than just recorded music playing.  Again, I don’t think it sounds very good when music is coming out of speakers in a theater–they’re not really designed for it.

But generalized theory should never come in conflict with specific needs, right?  And this will be, like I said, a kind of theater/cinema hybrid.  So perhaps I’ll use some recorded music or sound effects, if I can figure that out.

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Filed under Réflexions sur le théâtre, Works

Nue: Monk

The travelling monk who encounters the ghost of the monster, Nue.

This will be one of the puppets for the travelling monk, the waki in my Nue puppet show.  I scanned him before cutting him out and puppetizing him.  He is more or less the point-of-view character, and I plan to make a couple versions of him for the various scenes.  The cool thing about this kind of toy theater is that it creates the possibility of a sort of theater-cinema hybrid–I can make a bust-length puppet for “closeups” and a little teeny puppet for “long shots”.  The limitations are obvious–the characters’ movement is very very limited.  But I’m enjoying thinking about how to work in this medium.

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Filed under Réflexions sur le théâtre, Works