Monday, July 30, 2012

The drive to Dynamo

On Friday morning, five of us from F.E.S.T.A.  (Florence English-Speaking Theatre Artists) -- the producers of our Romeo and Juliet -- were picked up in a van and escorted together for the hour’s drive up into Limestre, an hour north of Firenze in San Marcello Pistoiese.

Well, no. I mean, allora, there was supposed to be a van. But it turned out to be – well, there wasn’t one. There was, however, an executive at KME – the company providing Dynamo Camp with its entire facility – who would drive us there. So we got taxi cabs: five of us with all our baggage, including a large case with all the swords, and made our way to the KME headquarters and that’s when we saw the—


We looked at the minivan, and then we looked at the five of us with all our baggage, including a large case with all the swords, and then we looked at the minivan. And the KME executive looked at her minivan, and then she looked at the five of us with all our baggage, including a large case with all the swords, and then she looked at the minivan.

A little while later, a second executive came out of the KME headquarters jingling his car keys.  Allora. Careful packing of the car, a stop for gas, and Jason and I were off on a drive high up into the hills and up a steep, windy road into the village of Limestre, which was once a company village for employees of KME when their factory was in operation. The old factory is now the facility for Dynamo Camp. They’ve added art studios and dormitories and a medical clinic and much more to create a virtual village within the village, walled off from the rest of the world with a locked gate.

More tales of our work here will follow.

NOTE: The man who drove us up here paid 1.67 euro per litre to fuel his car.  1 gallon is 3.785411784 liters. This works out to 6.32 euro per U.S. gallon. At the time I write this, 6.32 euro converts to $7.77.

Think you pay a lot for gas?

[Image:  This building houses the theatre, where our team is teaching classes in theatre and stage combat, and producing a short play with our kids.  In the hills, you can see San Marcello Pistoiese.]

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Dreams and the Madness of Mercutio

“Do you know all about dreams?”

Elia and I were walking down a street in Firenze near the train station when he asked me this.

Truth is, I don’t often remember my dreams. I feel a trifle jealous of my friends who can recall their dreams. Especially sex dreams. Lots of people report having them. Me, never. It sounds like fun – who wouldn’t enjoy a little frolic with a succubus in the reverie of sleep?

The few dreams I do remember are usually entertaining or artistically intriguing, but only after the fact. My dreams are so vivid I always accept them as reality until I wake up; and yet, however vivid, I often forget them unless I write them down. Yet even then it isn’t the dream I remember so much as the description of it. For example, I remember writing down a dream in which my father was walking across a parking lot and said to me, “We are a quarter of the way to the goal and halfway through the hour!” But the image and the text I wrote down is what I remember. I can’t recall the dream.

Perhaps this also describes what we call “real” life: a very livid dream we believe is reality, and once the dream is over no one really remembers it.

“Do you know all about dreams?” asks Elia behind his round, Lennon-ish sunglasses, long, tan, and lanky in the harsh sun.

Through the years I have met many friends who are knowledgeable about dream interpretation. I never put much effort into organizing the information, so I don’t remember any of it. Water means something, bridges mean something else, people transforming into other people or simultaneously existing as two different people you know is also supposed to mean stuff. But what of talking animals? Or people who turn into scarecrows? Or colors that swirl like incense smoke and peel layers of the world like wispy veils? What of the inexplicable dread experienced in the presence of something as ordinary as a glass of milk or a sleeping dog? And to what do any of these “explanations” really correspond? Are they verified by any scientific method or stable folk tradition? What does anybody really “know” about dreams?

“Did you dream a dream tonight?” I asked, a reference to Romeo and Juliet, in which Elia was rehearsing the role of Paris and I Tybalt. In the play, Romeo speaks to Mercutio of dreams, but Mercutio – who, as we see in his “Queen Mab” monologue, certainly has a lively imagination while he is awake – is not awed by dreams. And yet in that famous monologue, he becomes possessed, starting off being silly only for a dark kind of madness to run away with him. Romeo wonders if dreams are the truths we dare not utter while awake; perhaps even prophetic, as a dream warns him that crashing the Capulets’ party might not be a good idea. Mercutio says “pish.”

True, I talk of dreams, 
Which are the children of an idle brain, 
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy, 
Which is as thin of substance as the air 
And more inconstant than the wind, who woos 
Even now the frozen bosom of the north, 
And, being anger’d, puffs away from thence, 
Turning his face to the drew-dropping south. 

So it is for Romeo’s dream of love, for the collective dreams that sustain their society (an elaborate social game with deadly stakes). And what of shared dreams, the hierarchy of images personal, cultural, religious and mythological? The Jungian open-source matrix from which we draw inspiration and direction? What of the mundus imaginalis?

Methinks Mercutio has no use for any of it. He sees the emptiness from which these forms emerge. Sadly, he throws himself into a lethal battle with Tybalt before we learn more about what Mercutio sees.  The madness of Mercutio is one of those moments in Shakespeare where we glimpse something far deeper than what’s going on in the story of the play; but the playwright has to get back to business.

Maybe Shakespeare felt that the only fate for people who see the emptiness behind the social order was nihilism, or at least the most common reaction. But even “nothing” is a dream – a point Mercutio doesn’t quite reach in time.

Elia described a bit of his dream and it became part of my dream of that moment in Florence, walking past the train station on a hot, humid day where mosquitos feasted on wealthy travelers in beautiful clothes, drawing out a bit of their essence and leaving an itchy sensation behind.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Shakespeare vs. Alanis

Here is a video broadcast recorded yesterday.  It was before our penultimate performance of Romeo and Juliet, and we were up against an Alanis Morissette concert four blocks away. 

It turned out to be only a minor inconvenience.  I don't know how much the fans paid for Alanis, but they got a rather short concert.  She began playing somewhere in the middle of our first act, and by our fifth act she was all done.  Our audience was forgiving and wholly engaged in our tragic tale. By the time events came to their twisted end, Alanis had gone quiet.

Tonight, we give our final performance and close the show.  Those of us going on to Dynamo Camp will have a few days off before heading up to Limestre to get oriented and begin offering theatre enrichment for children suffering (or recovering) from chronic illness.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Mariana and her chalkboard

A single image shows much of what life has been like with my temporary Italian mom.

This chalkboard is in a corner of the kitchen, which is also the dining room, of Mariana’s apartment. Our conversations – most of them over morning coffee and cornetti – switch from English to Italian, both of us practicing a second language. A very old and worn Italian-English dictionary I brought from home now lives here and is in frequent use. Occasionally, Mariana learns a word or phrase she finds particularly useful or interesting, and writes it down on this chalkboard.

In terms of age, Mariana would actually be my sister, but she plays the role of Italian mom to the hilt regardless of age. Today, she hurried off to a job interview – the latest English phrase to be added to the chalkboard. Mariana has been unemployed for about a year, since the beauty school where she worked went out of business. In fact, the shop is still sitting there, locked up and empty, on Borgo San Frediamo.

When I arrived here last month, the theatre company warned me that Mariana did not speak any English. She actually speaks far more English than they realize – probably more than I speak Italian – but doesn’t feel comfortable enough to use it around them. English is not quite universal in Florence, but enough people speak it that it is very easy for a visitor to get by without speaking Italian. As it is, when I go into shops and other places, I default to Italian. More often than not, the Italians smile but if it’s a busy time they’ll respond in English. Gotta keep the customers moving. Sometimes I stop and say hello to a neighborhood wine merchant who loves to talk, directing his words to me in slow and clear Italian. Having been here a month now, I am not just a tourist to him anymore – but very much a straniero, and an actor no less! Still, I appreciate wine, and he has good wine on tap at a few euro for a bottle, filled and corked right in front of you.

When she returned this afternoon from her job interview, I asked Mariana how it went and she said, "Boh."  It was behind her now.  Now, she was preparing lunch for eight guests, who were already arriving.  Eight guests (including two ten year old children) at one little table, using every chair in the apartment, passing a hot and humid afternoon with pasta, pesto, panini, gelato, and wine. 

The boy who was visiting, Diego, has international parents: his dad is from Brazil and his mom from Mexico.  They have been living in Italy for a while but will soon be moving to Mexico.  Little Diego is learning four languages: Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, and English. I remarked on this and the parents simply smiled as if to say, "Of course!"

Of course.  This kid is off to a great start.

But he's going to need a big chalkboard.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

In flagrante stultitia

The fear of looking foolish must be vanquished by the actor.  It is one of the critical inhibitions of the ego personality, and in order to transcend it and play freely and fearlessly, you simply have to break out of the box.  That doesn't necessarily mean that shyness never shows its face again.  (I'm prone to bashfulness myself.)  But if the inhibition is in charge, it shackles you as an actor.  You have to be able to overthrow it and risk appearing completely foolish.

Last night, I saw such an exuberant demonstration of this freedom that I fell about laughing for quite a while. It is a story I will be sharing for years to come.

For a couple of hours before our performance of Romeo and Juliet, the Corsini garden is open to the public, with cocktails and aperitivo served. As a bit of pre-show spectacle, we practice parts of the fights in view of the audience.  It whets their appetite to catch a glimpse of the costumes and the weapons, and see some of the choreography. This includes several children who are part of the cast; they open the show, in fact, with a brawl using wooden swords.

Jason, the fight director, and I are both staying with an Italian mom and her 10-year old son, Andreia.  Andreia takes part in the theatre camps and is part of the show's child ensemble.  He enjoys theatre very much, and is among the least inhibited of the bunch.

On an impulse, Jason asked Andreia to go out on stage alone, and go through his fight choreography with an imaginary partner.  With some translation, Andreia understood the request, shrugged, grabbed his wooden sword and took the stage.  He then burst into a sequence of combat moves, wooshing his sword around his body and thwarting blows, like a ninja whirlwind.  He moved like a berserker, and finished his sequence with his arms thrust high over his head, facing the audience, announcing at the top of his voice and speaking in English:  "I AM STUPID!"

Jason and I rolled on the ground with delight.   

When Andreia returned to our staging area, Jason said to the child, "You are my hero."

[Image:  Andreia, foreground, holding his sword over his head.]

Saturday, July 14, 2012

'Tis but a Scratch!

"Romeo mi ha ferito colla sua spada!" 

I explained to my Italian mom that on our opening night, during our swordfight, the actor playing Romeo actually wounded me with his sword.  We fight with rapiers and a dagger, and he got me in the thigh. 

For a split second, I assessed the sensation in my leg.  Did his blade go in deeply?  Bleeding?  Stitches?  Should I call "hold?"  It felt like a nasty cut, but I didn't feel blood running down my leg.  Not a very long fight.  So I got on with it, finished the scene, and once my Tybalt's corpse was carried offstage I pulled off my boots and tights to assess the damage. 

Nasty cut.  An authentic dueling scar for me.

I went out to the aperitivo concession and asked for disinfectant.  Giovanni, who works for the Corsini family and always exudes an air of quiet competence, produced a bottle and some cotton within a minute. 

The following morning, my Italian mom's eyes popped out when I told her of my injury, and she asked to see the wound.  I pulled up my trouser leg and showed her the cut -- still painful looking but healing nicely.  She nodded and immediately poured me a glass of red wine.  This was at breakfast. 

[Image:  Your humble correspondent rehearsing a fight with rapier and dagger.  In the background is Charlie Jones, a young actor from the UK playing Romeo.]

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Video: Romeo and Juliet Tech Week

To Market, To Market...


During a quiet week before Romeo and Juliet became crazy, Jason and I acted on the impulse of filling our host mom’s refrigerator.

We are staying with a single mom who lost her job last year, and is stringing together a living for herself and her 10 year old son, Andreia. Not much older than me, Mariana, but she is very much our Italian mom, feeding us and even doing our laundry. We’ve looked for ways to help out around the house. She likes it when we do the dishes. She also showed us how to brew coffee in the caffeterie, so we set up colazione on the mornings we are up early.

Jason works as a chef back home, so filling Mariana’s refrigerator was also a way to check out the Mercato Centrale. In the northern center around San Lorenzo, among the open-air marketplace, cafes and stalls, this iron and glass building of the mercato loomed and we ascended the stairs.

To date, the closest I had been to a great Italian-style market was a small one on Providence’s Federal Hill. Compared to this, the one on Federal Hill was ship in a bottle. We were there a long time, and never even made it to the second floor. We dawdled among all the stalls selling cheeses, fruit, vegetables, meats, funghi, fish, Tuscan take-away foods like porchetta, and sweets.

When we were over being spellbound, we started to make selections. In my shaky Italian, we asked questions and ordered things. Clementines and peaches. Sliced meats. Bread. A sweet for Andreia. Some vegetables.

And when we brought it back, we discovered Mariana had gone shopping, too, and the refrigerator was now overstuffed.

Several days later, an actor by the name of Garth Laughton, who lives in Florence, showed us another marketplace at San Ambrogio. It is smaller and less of a tourist attraction. The indoor market features numerous stalls and a trattoria for eating right there. Outside the building is an open-air farmers’ market with fresh produce, wines, cheese, olive oils, as well as art and clothing and even a small flea market.

That actor led us to his flat, and cooked us a delicious lunch in a kitchen with a view of the Duomo, and we ate it with a very charming red wine that cost 4 euro for a liter. If I try bringing wine back to the states, it might be this stuff – we have very good fancy wine in New Mexico already, but for good table wine, this is hard to beat.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Theatre Camps in Italy

In the private gardens of the Palazzo Corsini, FESTA offered two weeks of "Camp Shakespeare" for kids.  They could join us for one or both weeks.  About 17 joined for both weeks.  During the first week, we had about 35; the number dwindled to 21 for the second week. 

Even for a Florentine summer, it was unseasonably hot and humid.  The sumptuous gardens offered few shady places to work, and the limonaia (the lemon house pictured above) was not a space where multiple groups could work separately.  We had dance and stage combat workshops as well as rehearsals for a small theatrical production which the kids performed on each Friday (incredibly, a different script each week as well, tailored for our kids, incorporating as much Shakespeare as it was felt they could handle).

Some of the kids were Italian, learning English at various levels. Some of them were English-speaking kids living here.  As young as six, as old as seventeen. 

On the second week, we realized we were very overstaffed:  7 teachers for 21 kids.  We would be on top of each other, and the company could scarcely afford to pay for it.  Since I had a means of earning some money outside the camp, I stepped away from the camp after the second Monday.  (Hoping I get paid for Monday anyway.) 

Kids are kids, and while many probably stayed away because of the weather, those who came had a wonderful time and I think in particular it was an achievement for kids learning English to use this language dramatically.  Certainly, for their parents it was a benchmark. 

The camps in Florence completed, we are now in tech week for Romeo and Juliet (also taking place in the garden), and after the show closes later in July, most of us move up to the mountains for Dynamo Camp.  This is a camp for children with serious or chronic illnesses, and we will be bringing theatre enrichment into their days here. 

Related to all of this, yesterday I accepted a year-long position as a visiting professor in the Department of Theatre Arts at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.  As part of my course load, I'll be working with education majors in the use of theatre as a teaching methodology, and as part of that course my student teachers and I will be teaching afterschool theatre programs for kids. 

And so the work continues. 

This image, by the way, is my favorite of all the photos I took at the camp.  It shows one of our Italian teenagers, going over her lines in solitude in preparation for their big show. 

Thursday, July 05, 2012

4th of July away from home

Stephanie, an actor from New York City, wanted to go somewhere "American" for the 4th of July.  Here in Florence, there would be no fireworks -- we had some last week, but they were in honor of San Giovanni.  The 4th of July was just a typical Wednesday here.

The cast was game, and after our rehearsal concluded, many of the cast -- American, British, and Italian actors together -- walked across the city to check out the Hard Rock Cafe.  Doesn't get much more American than that.  Despite some wariness at paying 15 euro for a hamburger, we entered the place only to learn there was a long wait for a table.  We then walked to Via dell'Acqua, near the Bargello, to seek out a place called "The Diner" that served American-style diner food.  By the time we got there, however, it was closing up shop, and we all ended up at an osteria nearby, where we toasted Independence Day in the U.S. with chianti and beer.

Back home in the States, the common practices of the 4th of July include outdoor cooking, beer, parades, and fireworks.  There are requisite displays of patriotic fervor and pride.  And yet it has been my feeling for many years that I now live in a nation defined more by the 11th of September than the 4th of July.

The day is called Independence Day, and yet many of my countrymen become confused on the particulars of this anniversary.  Many associate it with the United States Constitution or think of it as the birthday of the country.

In fact, what happened on 4 July 1776 was the formal adoption of the Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson and revised by the Continental Congress.  It was the formal declaration that the 13 colonies had seceded from the British Empire.

And while he was not an author of the Declaration, the very fact of this document and for popular support for independence in the colonies owes much to Thomas Paine, an advocate of republican politics whose wildly popular Common Sense ignited public debate about independence and moved popular opinion in that direction. 

The Declaration was not simply a list of colonial grievances against the empire.  It remains relevant as a powerful statement of human liberty, declaring a number of "self-evident" truths, including the idea that all humans are equal and possess "unalienable rights" as their birthright, including a right to revolt against tyranny.  The right of revolution remains a provocative idea to this very day: the idea that it is not only a right but a duty for a people to overthrow a government that acts against their interests.  This was the basis of the American Revolution, and yet the document's sentiment seems buried with that war.

According to historical sources, Jefferson's original draft pressed the matter of human rights even more strongly, criticizing the British Empire's slave trade despite the fact that Jefferson owned slaves himself.  This points to what may be the primary moral contradiction of the U.S.:  we are unparalleled in our eloquence on behalf of human liberty and self-determination, despite a history that includes military aggression, conquest and imperialism, slavery, and political inequality.

Even with the contradictions, the Declaration is a great document, and I still dream of a republic based on its principles.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Washing dishes in Florence

Besides the obvious reminders that one is staying a long way from home -- the different language and new surroundings, of course -- there are thousands of small details, things that are familiar in their function but are, in their design, different than what you are used to. 

Commuter trains look different -- indeed, the presence of commuter trains is different.  Radiators have a different look, as do pay phones. (They do still exist in Florence -- concentrated around heavy tourist areas.)  Generally the cars are smaller, and some of the municipal vehicles are so small they almost look like toys.  I've seen three-wheel trucks motoring about.  Window shutters that are hinged in the middle so that the lower halves can be bent upward and propped up, so that they remained closed to the sun but allow in more air.  Anywhere I look, I am apt to notice a solution to an everyday problem that is slightly different than the solutions I'm used to seeing where I come from.

One day, Jason and I decided to do wash the dishes for our host mom.  We found the soap and the sponges with no difficulty.  After setting clean dishes on the side of the sink, we then searched for where the dishes lived.  That's when we opened the cabinet over the sink and made the discovery illustrated above.

The cabinet has no bottom, and instead has two rows of dish rack.  This way, you wash the dishes, put them away, and they drip into the sink as they dry.

Simple and ingenious.  Now I want one for my wife's home. It wouldn't be hard to build...

Sunday, July 01, 2012


This is not an image of stage combat -- it is a scene being rehearsed between Mercutio (played by Garth Laughton in our production) and Romeo (Charlie Jones). 

Most of my work on this show consists of stage combat: choreographed battles in which I wield rapier and dagger.  This is, for me as an actor, a highly unusual assignment.  I'm a language guy, good with verbiage and verse and physical comedy.  As I advance into my fourth decade in this body, I find myself getting cast more as tough guy types -- and, in this case, I have very little verse or even prose to work with.  The role of Tybalt is more physical than verbal.  Generally, when I'm on stage, I say little -- and in all but one case, I am there to fight: picking a fight with Benvolio early in the play, pursuing Romeo, goaded into battle with Mercutio, and then killed by Romeo.

So most of my work in rehearsal is to fight.  I participate in three fights, and spend most of my time in rehearsal practicing them with Charlie, Garth, and two actors who are both named Elia. 

The fights are pivotal moments in the story, and change the lives of the characters participating in them.  We treat them, therefore, very much like scenes in and of themselves, and rehearse them in character.  It is an interesting process and, although we take all precautions available to us, there is an element of danger when we practice at full speed.  The responsibility is on us to maintain eye contact and stay in touch with our fellow actors, to take the welfare of our fellow players in hand, to stay awake and pay attention to what we are doing together.

This is our job even when stage weapons are not involved.