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!

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