Sunday, October 23, 2011


For as long as I can remember, Arville Roberts has been a part of my life.  One of my earliest memories is of my parents leaving me with Ma and Arville for the very first time in Tuscaloosa, AL.  To the best of my recollection, this was the first time I had been separated from both of my parents at once for any extended period of time.  I cried and watched their car go down the street and out of sight as they headed off without me to I don’t know where.  The anxiety soon passed as I was led back up to the house and comforted as only Grandparents know how.  Although, technically, Arville and I share no blood, he always treated me as if I was his true grandson.  He would let me ride in front of him on his riding mower as he cut the grass.  He took me for rides in his little red pickup and let me sit in the ‘special’ back seat, which was really just a bench for tools or groceries.  I remember him driving past the mine where he worked as and being astonished by the humongous machines bobbing up and down on the horizon.
When Ma and Arville moved to Tullahoma, I spent much more time with the two of them.  They would keep me for weekends when my parents went out of town or during the days when my mother had errands to run.  I had many life experiences at that house.  Arville would let me take his air rifle out to the back yard and I learned how to unload BB after BB into empty soda cans.  He recommissioned an old riding mower into a makeshift go-cart for me to drive laps around the house.  Together we built a small tree house in the back yard in which I would play for years to come.
As the years passed, I grew up and left for college and I saw less and less of Arville, save major holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Every time I saw him though, he would ask me the same questions: “You got yerself a little girlfriend?” and “When ya comin over to visit?”
This past summer, I spent in Manchester, living with my parents and I got to see more of Arville than I had in some time.  I would drive Ma from Autumn Oaks to the health care center where Arville stayed so she could visit with him a couple times a week.  I found myself having to reintroduce myself to him almost every time and each visit my heart sank just a little more, knowing that the times that we had shared were now lost to him.  Luckily, though, right before I left the country, I walked Ma to his room for a visit and he was experiencing a rare moment of lucidity.  “You’re Tony and Debi’s son, aren’t ya?”  I assured him that I was.  “Is that my hat yer wearin?”  I laughed.  Several years ago, I adopted a style of cap that Arville was fond of and I had watched him wear since I was little.
“No, Arv, this one’s mine, but looks a lot like yours.”
That might have been one of the last times I saw or spoke to Arville Roberts.  I regret that I could not be there in his final days or be there now to share these thoughts and memories in person.  Arville was always a strong Grandfather figure to me.  He could always make me laugh, cooked a mean steak, and inadvertently taught me some choice swear words in my youth.  I know that his passing is not easy to bear for those who knew and loved him, but we should all be comforted that he is now at peace and that our lives are all richer for having had him with us. 

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The First Six Weeks Gone

Greetings and Salutations,

First off, a quick apology to any of you out there who would be regular followers of this fool's journal for not posting since I first started the blog over six weeks ago.  I fully intended to make regular updates once a week but my schedule made such regularity quite difficult.  Now that I am on my week long fall break, I fully intend on catching you all up on the life and times of a grad student studying an odd thing like Physical Theatre in a small town in Italy.  I'm not quite sure where to start since so much has happened, but I suppose the onset of classes is the best place.

The first week of classes was a harsh but welcome reminder of what I had been missing in my life, namely a rigorous class schedule and intense physical and mental exhaustion.  We jumped right in to our movement and voice classes, wasting no time getting into the work.  My movement professor is a German lady named Claudia who is very pretty and very demanding.  In the first week we discovered different qualities of movement and started working on rolls, headstands, handstands and did quite a bit of Yoga, which I don't have the technical knowledge to go into, but let's just say, it's intense!  One of my favorite things that I have been introduced to in this class is Contact Improv.  This may sound dirty, but rest assured, it is all for the work!  Say you have a partner, now say you have to join yourselves at a body part such as the hips.  Now while maintaining contact with your partner at all times you must move through a space as one.  You are allowed to change levels (high, med and low--standing, crouching and on the floor) together or just one at a time and you can even take each other’s weight and support or carry one another during the movement.  We didn't jump right into all of this but have developed all the components separately and combined them gradually.  I'm getting ahead of myself in terms of when we learned what, but if I actually went week by week this would be novel length and you would all stop reading.  We have had movement class consistently for the past six weeks and we have basically just added on to what we started in the first week, developing the movement vocabulary to start applying to composition.  One of the things Claudia likes to do is give us a few minutes alone or with a partner to develop a small choreography (usually a series of poses and transitions) and then make us perform with two other people or even couples in the space.  It's really kind of tricky developing something that you believe will be shown as a solo and then making it a part of a larger piece on the spot.  I like it.  Kind of helps take the ego out of the work.

Our voice class is taught by the director of the graduate program, the one and only, the amazing, the magnificent, the British, Mr. Kevin Crawford!  Kevin is a delightful little Englishman who first started teaching while working in France, so oftentimes he will throw French words into his explanations of the exercises we are doing and confuse most of us, since we are struggling to learn the Italian language while we are here and some of us don't even speak English that well (cough* Francesca cough cough*).  The work we do in Kevin's class is hard to describe.  Say you have a lot of vocal training.  Now forget all of it because it has ingrained in you many bad habits and you are not fulfilling your potential!  We do a lot of seemingly crazy exercises that have to do with opening up parts of the body that can resonate sound that we typically don't use.  So, we roll on the floor and against the wall and massage each other or ourselves all while humming or singing notes on a scale or some other crazy shit.  We have done some cool work exploring different qualities of sound.  We will sing a single note in different ways such as the deep resonant sound of a cello, the open roundness of a viola or the thin timbre of a violin.  We also will stay on that note and imitate a wicked witch and yes, sometimes we actually use the phrase "I am the Wicked Witch of the West!"  Then move on to what is called an emphysemic sound where we attempt to sound like we have been smoking for too many years and can only form words by coughing but end up just sounding like we have a mental disability.  Despite all of the somewhat far out exercises we have done, Kevin always seems to pull the work back to something concrete where we take the vocal techniques we have learned and start applying them to actual text work.  The last thing we did before we started our break was taking achorus from the Bacchae and, with a partner, recite it while using these different qualities of sound and while doing the sort of contact improv stuff we have learned in movement.  It’s actually really fun and can open up new ways of exploring text.  Again, its kind of about stripping down everything you think you know about what is interesting to watch or listen to so new things can be discovered.

Now on to my favorite class and professor, Acting with Michele Bottini.  Michele is a teacher at the Piccolo Teatro and has done Italian film and is currently staring in a couple of Italian commercials, which he tries not to own up to.  He is obsessed with slapstick and spends a lot of our time together, praising Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.  We have been breaking down the basics of what an actor does on stage, making sure that we have a very neutral neutral position and that all of our actions come from our Animal, or pelvis.  We spent a week learning a few of the core mask characters like Zanni, Arlecchino, Brighella, Pantalone, Capitano and Il  Dottore.  We did some intensive physicality training for each of them and he gave us a little explanation about the characters origins.  He also gave a lecture on our first day of his class where he summed up how Commedia has influenced the evolution of theatre that was more informative than all of the theatre history classes I have taken to date.  This past week we spent developing and showing solo and duet slapstick scenes.  These were loads of fun and we really got to see the class’s creative side come through for the first time, since most of the work in other classes has been developed in class and has spawned from improvisation.  My scene was with a girl in the class that we developed the day after a late night of drinking in the town.  We were both a little hung over and almost instantaneously, we shared a moment of inspiration.  What if our scene were about two people who wake up together after a night of drinking and are trying to get out of the room without the other noticing.  Michele loved the concept and we worked on the scene in class for a while and really clarified all of the moments and by the end we had a really funny and somewhat endearing scene.  Needless to say, some clothes were exchanged and one of the funny reveals was that I had slept in her panties.  Pure Hilarity I say!  Michele called it the 'Sexy Slapstick.'  We're going to try to film it for part of our next project, so perhaps you will get to see some of the work I am doing here.

I did do a fun thing for one of the cabarets that the Accademia hosted a few weeks ago.  Basically, a group of musically inclined students from the undergrad programs and the MFA group got together and created a soundscape for the entire cabaret.  We did accompaniment for a magic act that was really fun and we also did transition music between the acts.  To introduce the cabaret, we led a parade of performers and audience members into the space and I got to perform a short skit in my mask to welcome all of the patrons who were in attendance.  It was great to be able to get back into my mask character, Pulcinella, and interact with the audience while actually having a purpose for the skit.

My roommate and I moved houses about twenty days after we arrived because the lady whose place we were staying at decided to come home early.  So, now we are living in the quarters of the Count’s son, about a five minute walk from the school.  The space is very lovely, but a tad inconvenient.  We each have huge private bedrooms and a very large living room and a wonderful kitchen.  We don’t, however, have hot water in the kitchen or a washing machine, which can be very disheartening when you are a physical theatre student and sweat most of the day.  We have adjusted and are getting comfortable in the place, but still want to move back to the city soon.  Our classes will be held in town next semester, so we would like to be closer to the space (and civilization in general) starting in January.  We are also very close to the winery, so it is very convenient to pop down and full up my 5 liter jug for just 7 Euro.  We can see the vineyards from our front door and it is a very lovely site every morning. 

The Milano Duomo
Other than class, I really haven't actually done very much.  I admit, my weekends usually consist of a couple nights a drinking with my friends in the class, but other than that, I have been pretty tame while here.  I did take a weekend trip to Milan to see the final performance of the last MFA group.  Milan was really amazing and the performance was spectacular.  It was very inspiring to see the group ahead of us put all of the things they have learned during their two years of study into a single show.  The performance was a devised piece based on the story of Don Quixote where they explored the condition of his mental delusion, the effect he had on the other characters and what might have actually been going on while he thought he was fighting the good fight.  If you don’t know much about Don Quixote, it would have been pretty tough to follow, especially since they performed it in three languages, one of which was made up.  I really enjoyed getting to see the production and meeting the students in the last class.  In two years, that will be me in Milan, performing god knows what.
That pretty much covers it.  This week has been nice to have off.  We all needed the break.  I have taken a couple day trips, but stayed in Arezzo for the most part, trying to catch up on work and enjoying a little leisure time.  I went to Cortona, which is an ancient city on a hill, on Tuesday with a friend and we spent pretty much all day drinking and eating.  On our way to dinner, we were stopped by an old Italian lady who invited us into her Vineria (wine shop) and offered us a tasting of all of the wines from her vineyards in Montepulciano.  The wine was amazing and after about four glasses of samples, we decided to splurge and split a bottle of her Vino Nobile.  We are saving that for a day when we just really need a good bottle of wine.  Perugia held an international chocolate festival this week and a few of us visited on Wenesday.  I didn’t actually have a lot of chocolate, but I will say, the Hot Chocolate there is like a melted brick of dark goodness.  We also ate at an Irish pub and I had my first bacon cheeseburger since I left the states.  It was amazing I tell you.  AMAZING!

Our Cohort
The week of break is almost over and our class is mostly reassembled from our various trips.  We have had a couple of meetings in the past few days about upcoming projects that we are planning.  Yesterday we had a preliminary planning meeting about a traveling production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that we are intending to put up at the beginning of next semester.  By traveling, I mean that we will do scenes in different parts of the villa and the audience will follow us from place to place.  I have been asked to play Demetrius, which is the character I played in the production my high school did so many years ago.  I’m very excited to revisit this text and this character after more than a decade and now that I actually have some idea of what I’m doing.  Today, a few of our group got together to do some exploratory work on a piece that a couple of our classmates want to develop based on The Origin of Love.  It will primarily be a movement based piece and focus strongly on the relationships between two people, since the text is about how in the beginning, man was a combination of two beings that the gods separated out of jealousy.  We did some really fun exercises for it, where we were only allowed to take breath from a particular point of another person’s body, but we had to separate and find our breath point again, only when we absolutely needed. 

Thanks all of you who have read this far.  I make no promises, but I hope to do better on the update front. I hope all of you are staying warm as winter comes creeping up faster and faster each day.  Wish me luck for the rest of my first semester as a grad student in Italy and I hope to hear from you all soon.  Take care of yourselves.  Ciao!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Back in Italia!

Ciao, and welcome to my first ever actual blog.  For those of you who don’t know, my name is Jared and I am a recent transplant from Tennessee, about to start the MFA program in physical theatre at the Accademia dell’ Arte, in Arezzo, Italy.  The program is two and a quarter years long and we start classes today!  I arrived about a week ago and have had such an amazing time already. 

Of course, no journey of mine would be quite complete without a few bumps in the road, but I believe I got those out of the way early.  My flight out of Nashville was early last Monday afternoon.  I, being the procrastinator that I am, did not actually pack my things until late Sunday evening.  Naturally, a few things were going to slip my mind.  Namely, the passport photos that all the students were tasked with bringing so we can apply for our official ‘permission to stay more than 90 days’ letter.  Luckily, ten minutes down the road to the airport, Walgreens’ automated photo service called my cell phone to let me know that they were waiting to be picked up…dum, dum, duuuummmmmm.  Dad turned the car around and we retrieved them.  Five minutes later, I remembered that I needed the USB cable to my camera so I could import all the lovely photos I have been taking to my computer.  One more pit stop and a half an hour later and we were finally on our way to the airport.  My flights were both on time and aside from having to transfer a few pairs of jeans from one overstuffed bag to another to equal out the weight they went off without a hitch.  I didn’t even get charged for having two checked bags, what luck!  After I got to Rome, however, is where things got hairy.

So, just a little background on me: I have been to Italy before.  I came for a semester in the Fall of ’07 to study on scholarship from the University of Memphis.  One would think that having had that previous experience and coming back to the exact same place, I would have an advantage when trying to arrive at my destination.  Not true, my friends.  I deplaned at about 8:30 AM Tuesday morning in Rome and collected my luggage.  I quickly realized that I was hauling nearly 200 lbs of clothes and supplies and I had no one to help me get from Rome to Arezzo.  One might also think that having taken classes in Italian, I would know enough of the language by this point to ask for help or understand what ticketing agents were telling me.  Wrong again!  The first thing I did was exchange the American dollars in my pocket for Euro.  I might not speak Italian, but thank god I can count.  The guy in the Cambio (that’s currency exchange, sort of) shorted me ten Euro.  I counted and counted again, and finally I convinced him that he still owed me money.  After I got that sorted away I was off to the train station, up stairs and escalators, my rolling suitcase, duffle bag, back pack and messenger bag in tow.

Eventually, I acquired my train tickets to get me to my destination and found the train from the airport that would get me to the main Rome train station.  At that station, Roma Termini, I thought I was going to loose it.  Did I mention that the weather was 80 degrees and sunny and that I was wearing all of the clothes that I wanted to bring but couldn’t fit in my bag?  No?  So here I am sweating my ass off, tired, hungry and pulling all my luggage through my the station, and I can’t find my train.  I try to use the pay phones to get in touch with the contact I have here in Italy, but of course, I don’t know how to use their phones.  Luckily, this nice old Italian man, who did not speak English let me use his swipe card at a phone bank to make a call, but then I just found out I had bought a ticket for the wrong train.  Unluckily, the man walked off with the card I had the important numbers written down on before I realized that he still had it.  After a few minutes of panic and some scurrying around, I found him again near a different phone bank and retrieved my contacts.  I then got my shit together.  I found some phones that I could manage with coins instead of pre-payed cards, found out what train I was supposed to be on and upgraded my ticket.  I found some food and eventually boarded the right train.  Two hours and some brief naps later, I arrived in Arezzo.  My housing coordinator and the real estate agent we had used met me at the station and gave me a ride to my new apartment.

I’m staying in an Italian apartment on Via San Lorentino in the city that is owned by a French lady who is currently vacationing in Switzerland.  The place is really very nice and I have a lofted bedroom with an air conditioner unit right next to the bed.  Upon arrival, I threw all of my stuff down, took the best shower of my life and promptly passed out.  I slept a few hours, got up, explored the town and visited the school, which unfortunately was closed and locked, found some food and then went back to bed until late Wednesday morning.  On Wednesday I revisited the school, which was now teeming with teachers and administrators and even a couple other students.  I first met Scotty, who is married with a three-year-old little girl and they have all been living here for the last six weeks.  Later I met Dan, Francesca and Rob, who are all lovely people and later that evening we all met for dinner at an authentic Tuscan restaurant in town.  After a wonderful meal and some very rich gelato, I hiked back up to their abode, a farmhouse owned by the Accademia, to borrow a power converter because, of course, I forgot to pack one that would take a three pronged plug.  Dan graciously let me borrow an extra of his and I off I went back down the hill and off to bed.  By the way, the school is not actually in Arezzo, it is about a mile outside the city and up a very large hill and the only way to it is by foot.  Let’s just say that by the end of these two-and-a-bit years, I am going to have some killer legs.

Thursday saw my first trip to the winery that is just down the road from the school, San Fabiano, owned by the Count Borghini, and also the meeting of two more classmates.  The first was Nicole, who lost all of her luggage in transit, poor dear, and my new roommate, Taylan, from Ankara, Turkey.  Nicole and I met Taylan at the train station, returned to our apartment and shared the bottle of Chianti I had bought earlier in the day.

Friday is when things really started to get fun.  Taylan and I went grocery shopping early in the day and later, we met Nicole and I took them to the Accademia to use their free wi-fi and introduce them to the faculty and staff.  On the way we ran into Fran, Dan and Rob who invited us all to a dinner that they were preparing that night for another student who was arriving late and would have no other means of sustenance available.  We spent our time at the school and later, our real estate agent arrived with a spare set of keys for us and a ride back down the hill.  She also gave us a short tour of the next apartment where Taylan and I will live.  You see, our current digs are only temporary while some work is being completed on our actual accommodations.  Our future home, in which we will live starting next month, is the personal residence of the son of Count Borghini.  Luckily, he will be away on business for some time so we get to crash in his luscious pad.  It is very well furnished, very, very roomy, and overlooks the winery, their vineyards and a beautiful pond.  Jealous yet?  So, back to Friday night.  By the time we all met up to hike to the Farmhouse, Nicole’s roommates, Chloe and Sophie, had arrived, so together we all went to dinner.  Rob, who is from Ireland, greeted us with glasses of wine, filled from a five litre jug that they had had filled at the winery for next to nothing.  After salads, Taylan, who has one of the only functioning cell phones here, received a call to let us know that Mickey, our new classmate from Alabama, would arrive at the Accademia soon.  A group of us, including myself, trekked over to retrieve him and on our way back we saw a wild f’ing boar run across the street.  Too bad it was dark and I was without a camera with a flash.  Dinner was excellent and we all put a very large dent into the jug of wine.  After the meal we wondered outside in their huge back yard and ate wild figs from the fig tree that grows there.  I like figs.  Who knew?  I took Fran and Sophie over to the Count’s son’s house, which is just across the street and we picked grapes from the vines, which were delicious and filled with juicy goodness.  By the time we returned, the rest of the gang had relocated to a small barn loft that is also on the property and there we stayed for the rest of the evening, chatting and drinking and playing stupid games like Never Have I Ever.  I didn’t go out first, surprisingly, but I was close.  Somehow, we finished off the entire jug o’ wine plus the better part of three more that were lying about the place.  By 3:30 AM or so, those of us that had to return to the city said our goodbyes and make the long hike home.  All in all, I could not have asked for a better evening.

The next morning was a little rough, and I woke remembering that I had invited the entire group over to our apartment for dinner that evening.  The day consisted mainly of buying a ticket for the joust that was to happen the next day (that’s right, I said the joust) and picking up a few supplies for dinner that night.  I prepared a simple pasta dish, that the group did seem to appreciate and we killed a couple bottles of wine with the meal.  After some more good conversation, the group consensus was to venture out for dessert.  We all got a little distracted by the immense outdoor party that was being held down the street, however, and we stopped in to witness the festivities.  You see, there was a jousting competition held between the different sections of the city over the weekend and the whole city goes batshit crazy with parties to prepare.  There were floating lanterns being released into the night sky and the delicious smells of food drawing us closer and postponing our dessert.  We lost Dan and Nicole in the crowd, but later found them as we ventured toward the gelato shop. By this time the hour had grown late and the Farmhouse kids plus Mickey all decided to venture home.  Nicole, Sophie, Chloe, Taylan and I decided to stay out a little later and wound up at a late night bar for a drink.  After that, instead of going home, we decided to rejoin the crazy party at the end of my street that had now been overrun with music and dancing.  We exhausted ourselves grooving to a mix of Italian pop songs and American oldies and then decided to call it a night.

Sunday, there was a parade that we all met up to watch and I must have taken 200 photos of all the medieval costumes.  When I say they hold a joust, I mean they really go all out.  The Parade was followed by lunch at a wonderful little Kabab place down the street from my apartment and then we all trekked to the Piazza Grande for the competition.  I have never seen a city go so nuts for a contest.  Thousands of people turned out to watch the procession of trumpeters, drummers, flag bearers and finally the Horsemen.  I was really awed to watch the denizens of each district yell and scream and sing in support of their team.  Unfortunately, not I, nor anyone else in our group could see very well from the crowded steps we had found to watch from, so, tired and content we decided to retire early and beat the mass exodus of the Arezzini from the piazza.  We said our goodbyes and went our several ways, all rife with anticipation for the coming morning when we have our orientation and first class in our new program.

So here I am.  I’ve already taken the first steps in my new life as an American immigrant in Italy, and I could not have asked for a better first week abroad.  If you have read this far, congratulations!  I know I tend to get very descriptive and have probably bored you all to tears by now.  If not, check back here next week, when I will have a whole new chapter of school and Italian life to report on.

To all my friends and family, back home, I love you and miss you and I’m extremely grateful to have seen those of you I did before I left.  For now, keep me in your thoughts as I venture forth on this academic odyssey.  I hope you are all well and will enjoy following my tale as it unfolds.  Ciao, ragazzi.