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Social Chameleon

As a person leaps around the world, one can’t help but encounter other world travelers.  Quickly, one notices that there are many genii and species in the international vagabond family.  For example, every traveler has their own particular skill at integrating themselves into a new culture; some people can blend in the moment they walk off the plane, whereas others (by choice or chance) stumble through their host country in an alien haze for the duration of their stay.

Since I was six, my father conditioned me to adapt to foreign cultures, and despite my personal shortcomings in this regard, I am eternally grateful for the training.  From Tokyo to Hong Kong to Korea, to New Zealand and even to Hawaii, my father would point out tourists behaving like “Ugly Americans” and whisper to me that I must never exhibit such tendencies.

To be fair, one does not have to be American to exhibit traits like speaking loudly in your mother tongue in hopes that it will help the desk clerk understand that you don’t consider fish and rice a “continental breakfast.”

I have seen rowdy Japanese tourists in Taiwan announcing to their tour group that certain Taiwanese cultural treasures could be improved “if only that lady’s tits were hanging out!”  The tour group roared with laughter.  The Taiwanese tour guide smiled wanly.  I left the room.

I have unwittingly been an “Ugly American” on many, many occasions.  I remember that on my first visited to the Netherlands, I was so concerned about making a good impression on The Clown’s family that I grilled him mercilessly about Dutch etiquette and manners.

“Should I take off my shoes at your house?”

“That would be a little strange.  To come to someones house and walk around in bare feet is not too normal in the Netherlands.”

And so on and so on.  But it is impossible to think of every situation, and even the most obvious ones sometimes escape me.  For example, I had never eaten a fancy meal in Continental Europe, and was unaware that American table manners (chew with your mouth closed, don’t burp, keep you elbows off the table, try a bit of everything, and offer to clear the table after the meal, don’t reach for food, pass the serving dishes, etc) weren’t going to be sufficient.

I went out with his sister and parents to a particularly important family reunion, and proceeded to embarrass them by eating like a pig: I did not keep both wrists on the table while chewing, I did not know the proper signals to tell the waiter that I was done with my course and ready for the next one, I did not keep my fork at the right angle, I brought my head down too far to the soup bowl, and all while remaining blissfully ignorant of my behavior.

Luckily, The Clown’s family is a particularly forgiving and worldly sort who were able to see the humor in the situation, but I became a fanatic about international table manners after that.

And it was a nice little exchange, too, because I was able to teach them the intricacies of table manners in Japan, some of which were as subtle and counter-intuitive to them as the Dutch customs were to me.

In Japan, chopsticks must be set on the table behind the main dish and parallel to the edge of the table, not pointing at anyone.  If you are not sitting in classic ‘legs folded position,’ you must verify that you are not pointing your feet at anyone.  Slurping of the soup is permissible, and in fact, expected, as is lifting bowls to your mouth to eat.  It is more acceptable to bow your head slightly while eating to hide the act of opening your mouth and revealing your teeth.  You must never pour your own drinks, and insure that no one else ins placed in the awkward position of having to ask someone else to pour their drink for them (especially if you are a woman; yes even in modern Japan).  Chopsticks must never be left sticking into food, especially bowls of rice.  When passing food, you must never pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks.  Contrary to the popular (and personally unverified) Western notion that burping in China is considered a compliment to the chef (is this true?) it is not so interpreted in Japan.  If you want service in a restaurant, you must call loudly over the din to your server who will otherwise ignore your table so as not to disturb your dining (it is funny to watch first-time diners at fancy Japanese restaurants sitting anxiously, tables empty and menus closed, wondering why they are not being served.  Angrier visitors might attribute this to xenophobic refusal of service to foreigners, but in this case, at least, they are just being paranoid.)

These experiences made me wonder if an antithesis to these “Ugly Americans” or “Baj Ganjos” (any Bulgarians in the house tonight?) might exist: An individual so skilled as to be able to blend in perfectly from culture to culture as he traveled.  What would such a person be like?

Personally, I think that even if I had such a mutant super power, I wouldn’t be willing to use it at all times.

When I first started travelling, I believed that a visitor to another country has the responsability to learn as much as possible about local customs and to act like a good visitor.  I still believe that this is true, but I no longer go so far as to believe that the perfect traveller assumes the identity of the country he visits.  An attempt to do so is a vast, presumptuous, oversimplification at best, and is actually another form of closed-mindedness at worst.  A visitor is an outsider, and must assume this role while remaining pathologically open-minded to his environment.

Open-mindedness speaks to our ability to accept, but does not imply that we must adapt.  Sure, for the most part it is a good idea to adapt to your host country, but I think it is unreasonable to force yourself to wear a costume 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

I know that in Japan, absolute silence in residential areas is mandatory after 10 o’clock, and almost every day of the year, I try to comply with this (strangulating, oppressive, depressing, bleak, antisocial, boring) neighborly and considerate custom, but sometimes, when there is that certain smell in the summer air, and just the right music is playing, and the company is perfect, we can let ourselves live life like we are on an Arnhem terrace with our best friends for just one night, can’t we?

Is it really so ugly?

Is it really?

Is it?

It is.

But that’s the problem.  I can chameleon myself as much as I want in residential Japan, but I can’t permanently hide my identity inside myself.

Most grumbling locals have the benefit of having known only one cultural reality.

I think that in order to be a perfect cultural chameleon one must first master cultural amnesia.  As I would consider such a gift a curse, I remain a twisted, ugly little chameleon happily scarred by a  fortunate life amongst eternally foreign cultures.

Best Friends

Since preschool, I have rarely stayed in one place longer than three years before moving.  As a result, I have learned to make friends quickly, not to waste time on superficial relationships, and not to expect too much once I have moved away.  Some might find that third lesson a little callous, but for me, it is the most important ones.  Friendships that maintain a degree of relevance do so organically and on their own.

Only one of my closest friends has really seen me through the lowest times in my life for no other reason than because I was there for him through the lowest times in his life.  We are so dissimilar as to be simultaneously in awe of and awed by the other, generous enough to be either a teacher or a student and sensitive enough to know what moment calls for which role.

Despite big plans to go into show business together, circumstance and financial concerns necessitated a slight detour for an indeterminate amount of time.  So, just after New Year’s Day, 2005 in Arnhem, Holland, five hours before my morning flight to Boston, we snapped this picture together.  We haven’t seen each other since, but correspondence every couple of months and a few drunken phone calls fills in the holes.

Despite our egos, our perfectionism, our bluntness, and our ambition, we managed to make it through four years of circus school and the Montreal circus scene – the most cutthroat and competitive environment I have ever encountered in my life – with our friendship intact.  We did it by being able to view each other’s successes as though they were our own.  And the most recent success of my best friend in the world is one that makes me step back in wonder at how far we have really come from those first insecure steps together back in Montreal.  He is on the verge of circus mega-stardom, insomuch as ‘stardom’ is something that exists in the circus world, as the main character in Cirque du Soleil’s new permanent show “Love” (aka ‘The Beatles Show’ in circus circles) at the Mirage in Las Vegas.  All of you in North America better go see it soon, though, because I have a feeling that a talent like his will not stay in one place for very long…

Congratulations, and merde to The Clown!  I’ll meet you in Holland soon, my friend!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Goos is finally in “Love!”

Urgent job searches and Boston travel

My best friend from MIT wrote me today – I’ve never heard him sound so down.  It makes me feel like passing through Boston soon would be a good idea.  It has been almost a year since seeing him in person, and that has been too long.

Obviously, he’s as shaken as we all were by the passing of our mutual friend and cornerstone of our MIT community, but he’s talking about abandoning musical projects that he’s been developing for years now.

I’d like to start thinking about a tentative structure to travel around the holidays but I also need to be on standby for the Taiwan project right now.

I guess if everything goes perfectly, I would be in Boston around Christmas to see MIT friends, do a quick drive to the Midwest to see my family and back, to Montreal to see circus friends and back, then hit Holland to see The Clown, Germany (or Croatia?) to see The Contortionist, and then to Lithuania, before coming back to Boston for a final stay after the New Year and then back to Japan via Hawaii to see my dad if I have time.

That’s if everything works out.  If nothing works out, well, I’ll have two hands full of shit, and that is about it, and will sit in Boston and play with that from the 21st of December to whenever I get over the disappointment of losing everything I am hoping for right now.

 

Catalysts

In college we had a rule: once Hitler and/or Nazi’s are mentioned, a debate is officially ended.

In Europe, Nazis and Hitler are simply not be discussed openly in mixed company.  Jokes about concentration camps or any such light treatment of the holocaust is met with shock and disgust.  Nonetheless, even among my well-educated American friends, ironic references to both were frequently bandied about just like on the television sitcoms we were raised on.

Americans have the luxury of being jaded.  To be cynical.  To criticize their own government is a fair and easy substitute for understanding other places of the world.  We outsource that search for meaning to charitable organizations with clear goals published in glossy pamphlets.

Catalysts

In seventh grade, we learned about catalysts – molecules that facilitate chemical reactions without being consumed by them.  Enzymes are the organic catalysts that make human beings walk and talk and live.  Actually, catalysts, organic or otherwise, don’t strictly make anything happen.  They have no purpose per se.  They just are – they exist – and in so doing, help human beings do the same.

Wax is not a catalyst.  I suspected that it might be, as objects coated with wax, such as candle wicks, burn so much more readily than naked lengths of string.  Furthermore, combustion of candle wicks (and human beings for that matter) is a chemical reaction.  It made sense to me, but my science teacher told me that wax is not a catalyst for anything.  Its apparent helpfulness in the realm of incineration is nothing more than a physical and chemical coincidence, and is not worthy of the moniker “catalyst.”  This answer was enough for me, and I took it to be the truth at the time.

I only think about the catalysts that wax is not just now because I am writing you now by the light of two Japanese tea candles in my three-room Japanese apartment where I live with my two Lithuanian roommates.  I am not allowed to live here; the apartment is rented as a double.  Whenever the doorbell rings and I am home, I have to jump into the closet and slide the door shut behind me in case it’s the landlord checking in.  My name is not on the lease because if someone is going to get kicked out of the house, it should be me.  Like it or not, the situation is such that I have more economic flexibility at the moment than do my friends.

The small inequalities

We have all just finished a six-month contract at the world Exposition in Aichi, Japan, where people could come to see all that the world has to offer.  And what the world has to offer, it seems, is a good deal of inequality, at levels that I had never before imagined.

It is not necessarily the huge injustices that are the most striking.  It is the small ones that make it difficult for me to sleep.  And the small ones are everywhere.  What is even harder for me to accept is how easily those small problems are ignored by anyone unless you actively try to find them or have them clearly and unambiguously pointed out to you.

The small injustices are not the ones that appear in UNICEF brochures, not discussed at international summits, these are micro problems that reflect the mindset that creates these iniquities.  I don’t know the causality, I can’t say which is a catalyst for the other, but I do know that for no reason except for accident of birthplace, some people will walk away from things like World Expos with a hell of a lot more money than they deserve, and that some walk away with a whole lot less.

See, while all of us were paid well by the standards of our home countries, but whereas per diem allowances were a nice bonus for the staff of some pavilions, it made up the majority of the compensation for the staff of others.  For example, the monthly salary for some pavilions was roughly equivalent to three days of per diem.

Nonetheless, we decided to chance it and to live out the remaining two and a half months of our still-unexpired Japanese work visas in Tokyo.  Why not Nagoya, or Kobe, one of the smaller, cheaper Japanese cities?  I think my roommate put it best when she said “if we are going to live in Japan, risking everything we have and more, I think we deserve to risk it all in Tokyo.”

The Tokyo refugee dating scene

We call ourselves “the refugees.”  And like many refugees, their college education, natural charm, and fluency in Lithuanian, Russian, English, and Japanese, make them far more qualified for employment than most American and European expats wandering aimlessly around Tokyo.  It’s not that their gamble isn’t paying off; one has an offer to work at the Lithuanian embassy and her schedule as an English teacher is filling up rapidly.  She has even found a few Japanese students who want to learn Lithuanian.  The other has found work as a server at a high-end restaurant off Aoyama-Dori, the “Champs Elysees” of Tokyo, and just tonight returned from her first (of many, I hope) gig as a runway model.

But there is a darker side to the experience as well.  In skimming the classified ads, both are aware of the opportunities presented by the pervasive and less-than-thinly veiled Japanese fetishism and obsession with the Westerner – want ads for Western hostesses to entertain Japanese men non-sexually in posh-looking nightclubs.

The myth of course, being that most Japanese men feel powerless to attract the attentions of a Western woman without paying for the service.  But a myth propagated by both sides for so long has a way of becoming the truth.

My roommates tell me that many Japanese men still become so dumbstruck by the sight of a Western woman that they will stop on the street and stare, or peep furtively over newspapers on the train.  I’ve seen it too: Western women reducing perfectly intelligent and articulate, grown, Japanese men reduced to gawking speechlessness and the charm of a fourteen-year-old boy.  It’s no wonder that many Western women leave the country with the impression of Japanese men are sex-blinded little boys.

That said, my experience with the Japanese women my age in the dating pool has not been great either, and I see the behavior that contributes to so many Western men’s perception of the average Japanese woman as a silly, giggly, little girl ready to leap into bed at the first racy compliments tripping off of a Western tongue.

I asked my Japanese women friends if and why they really do prefer Western men.  Evidently, Western men are much kinder, will open a door for you, or will say that you look beautiful – things that Japanese men evidently never do.

Now I don’t know if that’s true, as I have neither courted nor been courted by any man, Japanese or Western, but I can say that I have observed ungentlemanly behavior on both sides.

I will simply mention my own pet theory that the majority of Western men in Japan know that this preconception exists, and do their best to fulfill it to their benefit.

The plight of the half-breed

I may be wrong; I may be too cynical.  At any rate, I don’t seem to fully benefit from this preconception of Western men because of my impure racial status.  As half Japanese, I am not quite western enough to be exotic, nor am I quite Japanese enough to be fully accepted as one.  I do, however, seem to appear Japanese enough for white women to assume that upon meeting them for the first time, I will stop and drool over their Western-ness, a fact which became very clear to me while working in the international environment of Expo 2005.

In fact, most Japanese see me as fully white, whereas in North America and Europe, most white people consider me (even after being corrected) to be Chinese, which is evidently ‘close enough’ for them.  To complete the triangle of racial confusion, I recently discovered that in China, or at least a Republic of China, most people assume that I am Japanese.

The politics of travel for the modern circus acrobat

Last week, I returned from an eight-day contract in Taiwan.  What exactly I was expected to do there is still not clear to me, though what I did do there is now done — I worked with the Taiwanese National Junior College of Performing Arts and the Taiwan Arts International Association as an instructor, collaborative creator, and performer.  What I will remember of the experience is so much more complicated than that.

I am a circus performer.  I would like to believe that there is more to what I am, or rather, I wish that being a circus performer was something that I could believe to be important.  Something that I would not have to justify and qualify to myself with additional clauses like: “but I am really a writer,” or “with college degrees in completely unrelated fields,” or “but I hope to study political science next.”

One of the unique aspects of the classical circus tradition that carried through from medieval times is that a travelling performer is seen as a true “other.”  We are definitely no native to the towns and cities where we play, but we are not seen as simply tourists, either because we spend more time in the various locations and interact more directly with the locals.  It is my goal to be able to fit into the local environment completely – to pick up on enough of the local language, history, customs, and politics – to really feel at home no matter where I am in the world.

So far, it has taken me from the internationally isolated expanses of the United States to schizophrenic and judgmental, if equally uniformed, Canada, to the injured multiculturalism and thumping nightclubs of Holland, to the seedy side of the Ramblas in Barcelona and its denizens as contrasted with the pace of life in the smaller coastal towns of Catalunya.  The marble-paved central square of Torino resonating with the droning and birdcalls of a misplaced digeridoo, the lakeshore, affluent college town of Zurich, the provincial countryside in France as contrasted with the very different remoteness of an tiny town clinging to an impossibly steep mountainside high in the French alps.  Munich, Nyon, Tokyo, Nagoya, New Zealand, and now, most recently, Taipei, Taiwan, ROC.

Everybody has an enemy.  Everybody has his own prejudices.  Everyone finds a way to love himself, even if they hate doing it.

I am on the bus, riding in leather-upholstered comfort from the airport to downtown Taipei.  This is the first time since leaving the United States four years ago that I have not been capable in the native language of a country that I am working in.  For me, capable means being able to get a hotel room, order dinner and a drink, meet a new person, and make a woman laugh without ever having to speak a word of English.

I hate to do it, but it is inevitable.  In a new country, I can not help but make comparisons to other places.  It helps me keep everything in order in my mind.  I worry that by drawing comparisons to places I know will keep me from seeing the new place as distinct and unique, but in fact, I think it has the opposite effect.  By comparing one city to another, I bring into focus all of the things which make them different, like overlaying two photos that differ only in the smallest details and holding them up to the light.

Forgive my romanticism, but there is a soul to a city.  It is in its smell, perhaps – no city smells like any other.  I have to be careful always to separate the feel of the wind in a city, Boston, for example, from the memories that I might associate with that city.  The 11pm sunset and 4am dawn of summer in Holland is not the feeling of a woman’s hair gliding through my fingers and a light kiss on her cheek to the wafting perfume of blue roses, though the two are forever intertwined.  One is for everybody, the other is for me.  And her, I hope, always for her.

I used a new trick in Taiwan.  A city fits a person like a new outfit; well, or poorly.  Standing on a corner next to a vacant lot under a highway overpass with the buzz of Vespa-like scooters Dopplering around me as the lights in a distant apartment complex blinked out one at a time, I imagined myself to be in Minneapolis.  Or Boston.  Or Tokyo.  All cities that surely became my home in one of the alternate realities of my life, and one that actually became my home in the current alternate reality – at least for another month.  Separate from the memories that I associate with each city, I was surprised to find that Taipei could feel like home as easily as any other city I could think of.  And so I decided that I would explore it as though I lived there.  Meeting people, making friends, wasting time.

There is a state of openness that I find I can only achieve when I travel.  It makes me handsomer and more interesting, I think.  It makes me risk more.  My best friend tells me cynically that “people always love you when you are leaving.”  I guess it is only fair, because I always love them when I get there.

I found that all of the people I met in Taiwan were amazingly open compared to what I had come to know in Japan.  The political complications and views were just below the surface, and could be exposed with the slightest provocation, expressed with an onslaught of passion that in addition to being a little unnerving, was fully refreshing.

The key issue of course, was that of Taiwan’s independence from mainland China.  Among the people I spoke to about the issue, there was no identifiable consensus, nor was I able to find a clear demographic divide in their views.  No one seemed to subscribe to a majority “party line,” though everyone could list off a buffet of party lines that they were not willing to subscribe to.  According to them, such simplifications do not adequately address the complexities.  This was unlike what I was used to in Canada, for example, where the consensus among my artist peers was that the United States is bad, though people rarely researched any deeper than that.  In the United States, I find that there are those who accept the party lines, and those who calmly step outside of the arena entirely.

For example, there are the American travelers whom I encounter who respond to any criticism of their homeland simply by saying that they “didn’t vote for George Bush,” as if that absolves them from responsibility.  Or even worse, those Americans who sew Canadian flags on their backpacks to hide from scrutiny instead of informing themselves enough to engage with criticism of American foreign policy and intelligently discuss current politics of the foreign country than the average local.

In preparing to visit Taiwan, I read as much as I could about the history and current politics of the island.  I felt like I had a pretty good overview of the issue, but after only eight days there, I understood how each person’s unique family history and world view will forge, over lifetimes and generations, a spectrum of possible opinions on the matter.  The articles and books I read could not do justice to the intricacies of any single individual’s story.  Even the people who didn’t give a shit had detailed, well thought-out arguments to support that viewpoint!

The Taiwanese certainly seemed unified by their disagreements.

Teaching new circus in Taiwan

I was in Taiwan to teach Western-style physical theater and modern clown to the state-supported National Chinese Opera and National Circus Troupe as well as performers from an established Chinese Opera company.  I was also supposed to help create and perform in a “modernized” acrobatic/circus/clown show.  I wouldn’t have felt qualified to volunteered for such a job, even before discovering that it was infinitely more difficult than I first supposed.

In Taiwan, budgets are rarely high enough to invite a Cirque du Soleil-style show and this is the company that defines modern circus for most of the world.  Very few western dance companies, theater companies, and musicians, let alone large circuses, regularly make Taiwan a must-visit top on tours, even tours that take them through Asia.  Those artists that do perform in Taiwan rarely stay to participate in any sort of exchange with local artists.

For arts in general, but particularly for the specialized fields of clowning and physical acting, this means that a Taiwanese artist in Taiwan interested in an area of art that develops off-island, they have little choice but to research on the internet.

I met a Taiwanese Flamenco dancer at a dinner party who explained that five years before, it was impossible to learn Flamenco in Taiwan.  Only five years ago some foreign Flamenco teachers first came to visit, and had been received with much enthusiasm.  As a result, their students voraciously consumed what the teachers had to offer, but at the same time, as the Taiwanese were unhindered by the years of history and tradition that the instructors were, some interesting and novel hybridization took place.

Modern dance has a longer and more home-grown history in Taiwan.  Some internationally known dance companies developed, but as the time came to replace founding members with new local talent, it was evident that the pool of trained dancers was not as deep as in North America or Europe.  Taiwan lacks a long tradition of Western classical dance, and therefore, fewer young dancers.  What Taiwan does have, however, is a long tradition of the traditional Chinese Opera, with its athletic blend of martial arts, acrobatics, and object manipulation.  New dancers were often recruited from those Chinese Opera, performers who, for one reason or another, had retired from the Opera, which brought a vocabulary to the Taiwanese modern dance repertoire that is not seen anywhere else in the world.

But without real person-to-person exchange, research alone cannot put flesh on the skeleton of pure research.  It is even worse when you consider that the internet is more a reflection of popular opinion than actual fact.  For proof, simply enter “clowns” into a google search to see what my Taiwanese students were expecting me to teach them.

This is a valid style of clowning with a long history in the United States.  But such clowning is far from the European tradition and the experience of traditional audiences in Asia or anywhere else in the world.  But without a pre-existing circus clown tradition in Taiwan, there was little resistance to the importation this out-of-context image of a “Western clown.”  But it is superficial importation taken out of context has resulted in a funny sort of game of cultural “telephone.”

So my lesson plan that focused largely on using honesty and vulnerability to express your true self on stage with subtle simplicity and to fight impulses to “perform” was pretty alien to my Taiwanese students’ preconception of clowning.  My first clue should have been when I was given as possible themes of my workshops “the facial expressions of clowns,” and “acrobatic falls of clowns.”  Their notion of clowning has been formed from an outside-in perspective and follows the wushu, Chinese Opera, and circus training pedagogy of repetition and imitation.  Chinese opera roles are learned by physical rote repetition, and circus numbers are taken move-for-move from numbers that were performed 10, 20, or even hundreds of years ago.

But in some ways, these artists, my students, were also fed up with aspects of this tradition.  They saw that what is happening in international modern circus is lacking in what they practice in Taiwan, but they couldn’t identify just exactly what it was.  But one thing seemed to click.  They were obsessed with one principle I mentioned in the first class: “feeling.”  I talked about only doing what we really feel on stage, not doing anything artificially, and this seemed to be a novel idea that resonated with them.  They asked me countless questions about feeling: What do I feel when I am doing my circus number?  How can performers learn how to feel more when they’re on stage?  When I am onstage, are my feelings my feelings or are they acted feelings, etc.?  Unfortunately, these are the same questions that I ask myself, and therefore I had no clear answers for them.

Teaching the class in a country and to students with vastly different performing arts traditions opened my eyes.  Exercises that I considered my “throw away” exercises, ones that are done to death in every acting class I had ever taken or taught, suddenly took on entirely different meaning.  Old explanations of certain exercises were no longer adequate, and I saw students discovering whole new truths and applications that I had never even considered before.

The culmination of the whole experience was an on-stage appearance with four other Western clowns and half of my students in a performance that showed just a little bit of what can come of young artists searching for new meaning in a country’s traditional arts.

By the way, it turns out that what is actually burning in a candle is the wax itself, and that the wick acts more like a catalyst than the rest of the candle.  The way the wick is manufactured and woven influences many aspects of a candle’s performance such as longevity and amount of smoke produced.  All this and much more information for people who care about such things can be found on the internet here.

I pray that we are all people who care about such things.

Til Tomorrow Ticket

Changing Plans And Herding Cats

1) THE QUICK UPDATE:

 Since September, The Clown and I have been involved in numerous creation projects, most notably, perhaps, the first full-length self-produced Barcode Productions show, called “‘Til Tomorrow,” in Arnhem, Holland.  We wrote and rehearsed the show with his girlfriend from school over a two-month period, rehearsing between 3 to 15 hours a week for the most part.  All told, it was an incredibly stressful time, with the image of the show changing almost daily.

The Clown was in rehearsal with another project until the 19th of December (the premiere was the 21st!), so his girlfriend and I flew to Holland in mid-December.  There, we met with the theater to write up all of the sound and lighting designs and adapt the show’s rigging needs to the theater’s technical specifications.  Certain costumes and props needed to be bought/constructed on-site as well.

We also took advantage of the time to perform at a small gala, which doubled as a publicity event for the show itself.

Once The Clown arrived in Arnhem, we had one day to use as a dress rehearsal in the living-room of his parents house.  The next day, we had a build-up time of 8 hours between when the theater space became available to us to showtime.  Thanks to the remarkable skill and professionalism of the technical crew at the venue and our good friend and technical guru Joris, this impossible task was accomplished.  We finished build-up, light setting, sound check, lightboard programmation, warm-up, getting into costume and make-up, and then learning all the technical cues of the show with five-minutes to spare.

Since we had had no time for a technical run and also served as their own technicians, the first show was a bit of a roll of the dice, but it went off with only one or two minor problems.  The second day was twelve hours of intense rehearsal of both tech and acting and slight rewrites followed by a slightly revamped version of the show.

Although the response from both audiences was immensely positive, it was the second show that we felt best represented the themes that we set out to address.  Namely, the fact that a lot of art today is either irrelevant to the outside world or no fun to experience as a public.  In this show, we tried our hardest to be both relevant and fun, while at the same time, playing with an audience’s preconceptions of a theater show, a circus show, and a circus-theater show.

The bottom line for the artists involved was that this project provided room, board, transportation and a salary that is competitive to any other circus or theater group out there.  Given, we had a lot of subsidization and help from family and friends, but we are encouraged that the dream of becoming our own autonomous company is not such a far-fetched one!

 The future of this particular show is uncertain, but it accomplished exactly what it is that we wanted it to.  We proved that recent graduates of art schools are able to produce interesting and popular works, and in doing so, earn a respectable living from it!  The notion of ‘starving artists’ is hopefully not the only way to do theater and circus.

 2) BARCODE PRODUCTIONS TODAY

 The Clown and I, the “artistic directors” of Barcode Productions have been fortunately or unfortunately called away to do contract work with other companies.  This gives us both the chance to save up to support future Barcode Productions as well as broadening out experiences as artists and giving us a little bit of breathing space to take care of the planning and business end of things. 

As the lack of writing over the last four months suggests, producing, creating, rehearsing, and performing leaves little time for other work like writing this post, budgeting, grant-writing, etc.

3) BARCODE PRODUCTIONS IS LOOKING FOR A HOME

One of the major developments in the desert project, “62 Days,” over the last four months is the realization that we need to choose where to plant the seeds of this project.  We have the choice of several countries.  France (possibly,) which would provide salary, rehearsal space, artistic counseling, and an initial tour, for the artists.  Holland, which is the country where The Clown and I have the most experience and support in circus, theater, and festivals, but where government grants are an unknown quantity.  Quebec, quite possibly provide the best opportunity for grants and the ability to set up as a legitimate company, a friendly audience, and strong producer pool. 

However, any long-term touring would most likely have to happen in Europe, and Quebec is not in Europe.  Similarly, Minnesota not in Europe either, though it seems to offer a fair amount of grant money and the grants can be written in English.

4) A PROJECT CUT IN TWO!

So to move forward with the logistical and financial nightmare that is, “62 Days in the Desert,” I’m trying to cut the project into two self-sufficient parts, economically isolated from each other.  The first part is a three-person project culminating in a “tour” of performances which, if successful, will use its momentum to build support for the second part, which is essentially a revision of the themes of the first part, but this time with a creative team of 4-7 performing artists. 

The result of the first part will be a film with an integrated live performance that can hopefully be performed on stage for a theater public as well as screened at film festivals for a film public.  The idea of using The Clown as an “outsider” would still be integrated and should maybe be shot before we go into the desert so that it is available to us during the creation process.

The result of the second part will be much more of a live affair with some film components.  That is, that we look at what we have accomplished with the first phase, and look at how we can humanize the piece and address the themes in a theatrical/circus way with the first show as a common resource/inspiration.

The reason that this project has been cut in two is a simple one.  If we work on a piece for two months in the desert, it had better be performable shortly after we get out of the desert.  Additional rehearsal space and time is both redundant and expensive.  After all, what else do we have to work on in the desert other than this project?  How can we really need more time than sixty-two 24-hour days? 

This also simplifies the project economically in the sense that the first phase will be a fully-functional, self-contained, mixed-media show with three people.  We will be able to play it cheaply and flexibly in any number of venues, both small and large, to see how we like it before risking the big budget of bringing in additional performers. 

Artistically, it makes sense as well.  We can build on the common experience of this desert trek in the creation of this show without having to introduce a lot of other artists halfway through the process.

From a publicity standpoint, the story is simpler and therefore stronger.  “These three artists went into the desert for two months and then went to a studio and rehearsal space where they met their friends, edited a film, and wrote a show,” versus “These three artists went into the desert and came out with this show.”

Basically, it significantly lowers the risk and raises the potential yield per artist, and if it is a success, it will pave the way for the second part of the project.  If we hate it, at least we have earned our money back, and had a great time in the desert.

5) GETTING SERIOUS ABOUT “62 DAYS IN THE DESERT”

For the first part of the project, the three independent artists will probably try to leverage individual grants.  Three separate artists each trying to find local funding will probably have more success than a relatively untested and unknown company applying for first time funding as a non-profit organization.

The budget of this project has to cover everyone’s food, lodging, and transportation as well as the costs that directly relate to the project, ie, camping gear, park fees, and recording/editing equipment.  We also need to determine what we have as assets, for example, would one of us lend the car to the project and under what conditions?  Would one of us be able to secure use of a good camera for the two months, and under what conditions?

Furthermore, I have already done a bit of legwork in terms of the grants available to me as a circus artist in Montreal and as a supposed legal resident of Minnesota.  I know that the other two artists have been doing the same on their side.  If we pool this information over the next two weeks we might be able to estimate our theoretical monetary yield.  We should brainstorm if there are other fundraising tactics outside of grants.

This is the next phase of the project: definition of the goals, and determination of a realistic total budget.

Once we have a reasonable idea of what it is we want to accomplish, we need to see when we might be able to fit such a project into our lives. 

Souvenirs of a 2003 European tour

Barcode – The Clown and I created this show which was the first-ever creation I’ve had the opportunity to tour.

Racism in Europe – more open and socially accepted than racism in the US.  Good and bad sides to both.

Barcelona – the first city I ever had the good fortune to street perform in.

The Contortionist – seeing her on and off throughout the trip brings us to the edge of starting a relationship together.

Switzerland – “Don’t trust the Swiss!  Thieves, all of them!”

Munich – totally ill sleeping on the sofa of a German physician of noble decent.  We watched Friends in German.

The Clown and his family – my European adopted home – I’ve never had such a fantastic time with the parents of one of my friends.

Theater versus circus – the jury is still out on which I prefer and how easy it is to mix these disciplines.

Italy – street performing in Loano, feeling the appreciation of my friend’s grandmother for the 442 soldiers who liberated her city, an event in an old Italian castle, seeing the shroud of Turin, an Egyptian museum, a real cappuccino, almost getting punched in the face for offering to help our friend’s father cook, getting sideways glances from sleeping on the same sofa as The Clown, coke and rums, teaching strippers to dance, peeing into the ocean from a bridge.

The Rythmic Gymnast – met the Artist’s new girlfriend.

Beautiful moments – lot’s of them.

Al Carrer – my first circus festival.

Cruising – getting a master class in meeting women in clubs from The Clown.

Role of circus versus personal responsibility – I choose circus.

Amsterdam – sleeping 5 people in one bedroom, getting in a bike accident, no one catching The Artist when he shouted “movement” in a loud dance club, getting pushed by my mates into a private dance booth and being certain that the giant Black stripper was a man.  She wasn’t.  I was scolded for screaming.

Trains – so different in France versus Germany versus Italy.  I love travelling by trains when I can.

Language – so many to learn.

And finally, the Barcelona cast of characters we met:

  • Slovenian girls
  • Barbara
  • Army apes
  • Two face guy
  • Drunk guard
  • Drunk guard’s friend
  • Swiss girls (Mya and Sabrina)
  • My “boyfriend”
  • pot smokers
  • Shy Asian girl
  • Clap dancing hippies
  • Vomiting white dress girl
  • English blokes
  • Blue rose bitches
  • Pickpocket talkers
  • Curling fan
  • Clautilde
  • Oreille
  • 3 video girls
  • 3 Spanish girls
  • Danish wheelchair family
  • Singing guy with radio
  • Bleeding junkie jumproper
  • Dutch acrobat
  • Coke waiter
  • 2 waitresses
  • Aaron juggler
  • Bulgarian drunk soft head porter
  • Drunk red-shirted Norweigan
  • American break-dance guys
  • Barcelona break-dance guys
  • Burger King guard
  • Camping guards
  • The Tumbler’s bouncer friend
  • Dutch dog
  • Charlie Chaplin
  • Singing mustache waiter
  • Burger King waitress
  • Military solo camper with dog