Monday, May 19, 2008

intuition casting

I've been relatively absent this month, i know. With the start of production of my play, plus the apartment search, i've been swamped.
The auditions were crazy and wonderful. And hard. The play is called ROHTI SEX, a two-actor gender comedy about an alien world where women are dominant, and through a quirk of evolution men carry the babies. I'm directing and playing the male. It's madcap, with each actor playing many roles. Wigs and beards and animal costumes fly. It's the first play i wrote when i came to NY five years ago.
I first held auditions three years ago. That production didn't happen, in part because some funding fell through, but more essentially because i couldn't make a casting choice. Perhaps because my perfect stage partner never appeared. Or perhaps because i had reliability concerns with the actress who gave the greatest audition, but couldn't bring myself to not cast her. Ditto for an old, dear friend who gave a great audition. These roles are possibly the roles of a lifetime for both actors. It was just easier for me, i think, to back away and keep on writing plays.
I tried to keep these auditions modest. I saw seven actresses. With no director or other cast members to act as buffers, i knew chemistry was going to be more important than talent. I wanted a partner, more than someone to direct. I wanted someone i felt hugely comfy with. A pea to share my pod. I was selfishly tempted to call back five actresses, just because they were so wonderful, and i wanted to hear them all read my words aloud. But my intuition picked out the two most likely candidates, and those were the two i called back. Of course this meant ultimately disappointing one i liked very much. Again in a nod to chemistry, i didn't even call back the actress who gave the best pure reading. The two i called back couldn't have been much more different. Talent was the only common denominator. One was green, who knew that there would be some big walls she would have to break down to portray the sexuality and nudity in the play. But she relished the challenge, and she and i talked about the most intimate parts of our lives the very first time we met. The other actress was richly experienced and wide open already, a person who was leading a brilliant and bold and crazy life. She and i also hit it off wonderfully. In the end, i just couldn't intellectually make the choice, and went with the actress who popped into mind first, when i had line changes i wanted to share. Intuition. Fallible? Probably. But Evan told me, that casting week, to listen when the gods whisper to us. So i did. It's been brilliant so far. Sarah is going to be amazing in this play. Her walls will continue to fall. To that end, we're going to stand naked at the walking apex of the Queensboro Bridge one night at 4:30AM.
The process of creation. Sacred. And well, yeah, a blast.
I love you all.

bad breath

Hm. Humans have bad breath.
No revelation there.
Oh, not all people all the time. But certainly most people, at least once in a while. It's usually mild. Canines get bad breath too, but as they don't hump face to face, it's probably less of an issue. Should we also assume that platypuses get occasional garbage scow breath?
As i happen to be human, i have bad breath tales to tell. Evolution-wise, bad breath serves no function that i can discern. At some point in childhood we came across the first human, usually a grownup, who alerted us to the reality that some people have toxic breath. I mean across-the-room bad. And deep down we're happy to think that it will never be us. For myself, someone once asked me to live with them solely on the basis of my sweet breath. No joke. And i remember this, because just a couple months later, quite the opposite reality became my life. I was doing a dinner theater audience interaction show, and i got sick. Of course we've all had sicky breath. Not pleasant, but it goes away. I had to keep on performing the show, very aware that my breath had turned toxic. I tried to minimize my interaction with audience members, but i could tell from the faces that my efforts were not entirely successful. And then a wonky thing happened. I got better, but my breath didn't. I was healthy, but alerted by people's reactions that my breath was still very very bad. I was the sole adult acting in a children's theater troupe around this time, and it's wonderful how honest children are when it comes to such things. My breath stayed rather bad for at least a year, i think. I fought it. I brushed my teeth and mouthwashed more often...i started buying breath pills, that supposedly attack bad breath at the source, in the stomach. I bought a lot of them damn pills, with uncertain results.
Bad breath changes your behavior. Prior to that year, i had been one of the most unself-conscious people you will ever know. After that, i struggled to return to that unself-conscious place. One of the two women i've ever fallen in love with, i met around that time. A little part of me has always wondered whether breath was a factor in why she and i are not together today.
But here's what i've learned. Breathing into your hand is an unreliable test. Try licking your wrist, then waiting five seconds and sniffing. The efficacy of this test is evidence to me that bad breath comes from the tongue, not the stomach (although there are exceptions to this rule, all you beautiful garlic eaters). So get yourself that wonderful invention, the tongue scraper. I thought they sounded silly when they came out, just another expenditure for consumer fools. But i'm a believer now. Also, you don't have to pay the exorbitant prices one pays for mouthwash, particularly the non-alcoholic variety, which i think is best. You can get the best mouthwash for a fraction of the cost. It's called hydrogen peroxide. Seriously, the stuff in the brown bottle. It sounds crazy, but it says so right on the label that it may be used as a mouth rinse. You can really feel it fizzing on your tongue. I do the scraping while the peroxide is in my mouth, and i'm pretty much set for the day.
This public service announcement is not brought to you by the fine folks at Colgate-Palmolive.

Friday, May 9, 2008

bad monkey

(Author's note: the following is a chronicle of my occasional life as a baby monkey mascot for a gourmet food company. Most mascots are annoying. You're about to meet one who isn't.)

BAD MONKEY (a Bananas guide)
You don’t believe it? He’s too cute, you say? Too sweet? He is those things, most certainly. He’s a little lover and a big charmer. But as granmammy always said, “a charmer will always get in, and he knows it”. Bananas is the essence of goodness. Just don’t turn your back. He’s mischievous. He’ll give you a scare, just for fun. He’ll untie your apron. He’ll move things on you. He’ll play people against each other, and sit back. For a big lug, he’s deceptively sly. He’s larcenous. Mostly it’s playful, and he’ll give back the trinkets. But larceny is larceny. He’s a flirt. Oh, he likes all people. Absolutely. Any love that comes to him he will bounce right back, regardless of age or gender. But oh yes, he does like the ladies... He’s just a little monkey, really. Let’s not judge harshly. And let’s climb inside.
Monkey Moves
I don't mean the stock moves, the obvious ones. The walk, the hug, the mimicry, the hip wiggle dance, the jump and turn dance, the pigtail popping, the “hide the eyes” game…no, i’m talking about the moves that not everyone sees.
THE OPPOSITE-SHOULDER TAP: An obvious one learned by all children, but the effect can be profound on someone who doesn’t realize a two-meter baby monkey has sidled up to them.
THE STEALTH HUG: He puts his arm around someone who didn’t see him coming.
THE NONCHALANT AT-YOUR-SIDE: He will stand next to someone who hasn’t seen him, looking away but nearly touching, and wait until noticed.
THE HAND SLIP: He will follow someone who doesn’t know they’re being followed, and stealthily slip his hand into theirs, and then continue walking while happily holding their hand, as though he’s decided to go home with them. He'll occasionally stick with someone for a good long time, too. If you’ve never seen this one, it’s probably my favorite and the results can be unforgettable.
THE FOLLOW: He will follow someone who doesn’t know they’re being followed, to see how long he can go unnoticed. Often a third party alerts the mark, and again the results can be unforgettable.
The trick in all these, of course, is finding the right mark. The key to monkey interaction is reading people. If you’re perceptive, people will tell you exactly what they want. Non-verbally, from across the room. Of course, you’re "reading" from inside a blackened bowl looking out through two small mesh-covered holes, and have to make assessments in a fraction of a second. That’s the single most important monkey skill. I’m a tiny bit amazed that i only misread somebody once or twice per convention, on average. And those happen because very occasionally i gamble. Relying on intuition and charm, i’ll sometimes interact with someone when i’m not 100% sure they want it. On those gambling occasions, there’s probably one miss for every nine hits.
The Costume
Yes, it’s hot. People get that. What i said about reading people goes the other way, too…pretty much the only time people will sympathetically address me as a suffering actor is when my butt is dragging a bit. It doesn’t happen often, and you'd think you could occasionally let your guard down when every part of you is covered, but damned if certain people don't pick up on it. It’s probably fair to say that most people couldn’t do Bananas, physically. At his best, he’s running, jumping, and dancing. In the costume-gig world, it’s rare that you’ll be asked to go for longer than three hours, with generous breaks. Most people will need more and longer breaks than i. The surprising thing is that i rarely get that “sweat streaming” condition in the suit; it happens sometimes, but i’ve gone whole shifts without that streaming feeling. Of course, even when not streaming, you’re living in a world of moisture. Every time i take the helmet off, the inside is layered in droplets. The manual says it’s 105 degrees in there. It’s heavy, too. The cumulative effect of adding six to eight pounds onto your neck for hours…massage therapy should be provided by the company after every shift. And a certain amount of high, non-stop physical activity is simply an inherent necessity, as sweeping head motions are needed to “see” the world effectively at all. At a show where my water supply was cut off, i learned that i wasn’t indestructible: I had to fight dehydration sickness the next day, while in the suit.
Kids are the best part of the job. Kids make it all worthwhile. In your bones, no hug by a child can ever be forgotten. Their eyes light up in wonder when you lift them up above your monkey head. The most amazing are the ones in that little window of time somewhere between two and three years old, the ones who are terrified at first (which is really the only sane reaction to a moving six-foot cloth and plastic monkey with painted eyes). But that terror, treated with dedicated patience, can be turned into fascination. And maybe once or twice per convention, a child will go from terror to fascination to love. And love from that particular child could never be described in words. You know that you’re touching them in a way that they will remember subconsciously forever. Sadly, there’s an irony involved with kids. They’re more rewarding, but harder physically. No, not so much because you have to be more active. Because they’re DOWN THERE. Seeing “down” for more than a second is a bitch. You have to lean your neck forward to see down (i strongly recommend any replacement monkey be substantially shorter than my 5’10”). Leaning over, you quickly realize what a gift it was to “only” have to stand up straight with the weight of that extra head. But you do all this, because that’s where the love is.
As for Bananas being a flirt, there’s pragmatism in it. Now, i’m not saying i don’t enjoy it. I do. But a simple truth is that men generally are a bit less inclined than women to want interaction with someone in a monkey costume. Beyond that...ask the kids to leave the room for a moment, usually happens about once per show that i meet a woman who has what can only be described as a monkey sexual fetish. When i give attention to such a woman, the reactions can be amazing…one woman got flushed, her eyes glazed and she could hardly talk…another showed me a monkey tattoo on her shoulder, and whispered that she wanted me on her back also. It happened, i swear. She got to me, too. We held hands, and there was a palpable current coursing between our hands, even through my big, soft, four-fingered glove. I’m pretty sure it was the only time i’ve ever been tempted to do or say anything unprofessional in any job i’ve EVER had. I’m not sure which of us had a harder time finally letting go. When i went home that night, i even posted a playful ad in the “missed connection” section of the online personals. Sigh...
Running Away
I understand that an element in the monkey’s marketing effectiveness is that i operate near the store or booth. Bananas doesn’t talk, so some people might think i’m just a big, happy monkey if i’m on my own, and not connect me to the product. And it can be fun when a company employee escorts me around. Those things said, i can’t stress enough that the most impactful, amazing moments as Bananas have come when i’ve “run away”. I would never expect any replacement monkey to be as physically independent as i, in terms of movement and speed and carrying. But i’ve stumbled into some unbelievable moments when i was out freelancing. An African drum circle in which i danced, as a crowd of at least a hundred gathered, clapping and cheering. The time i held a nearly newborn baby. Plunking down on the floor next to two teen workers who sat exhausted in a far corner of the pavilion, sharing a few surreal moments as a long show wound down. Bringing a present to someone who’s become my special friend over the course of a three-day show...
Just being Bananas.