Indian Workday

I have learned not to shake hands with Indian women.  I have also learned that making a show with new artists is more about making friends, learning, and teaching than about actually making a show.  I woke at 9, ate breakfast (spicy special masala) at the local vegetarian restaurant (still healthy, but I found a restaurant that keeps me that way and I’m sticking with it til after the performance on the fourth).  I had a bit of indigestion, but I was too afraid to try some dairy products (if i get sick, I get sick, but please not two days before a show!) and then tried to walk around the ville, but gave up due to heat and general spaciness and came back to the hotel to read the newspaper and nap.  Wow.  Quel aventure, monsieur Livingston!

guess what – things that bother the rest of the world don;t even make it to page two of India’s international newspaper.  No mention of any Hollywood celebrities or any note of US policy towards anybody.  That is an international first for me.  I have decided that India is not actually another world; India is the world.

After rehearsal today, I feel at home in India.  Strangely presumtive to say such a thing, isn’t it?  I don;t mean that India is my home, but I do mean that left to my own defenses, I would survive here for as long as is necessary.  I might mean that I have grown a little callous or it might mean that I have slightly adapted to local norms.  There is a certain moral and ethical ambiguity in India, but at least it is there, on the surface, dying on the street right in front of you.  You are presented with the opportunity to safe the sick, impoverished, disable, and dying on a daily basis, but you are forced to make the decision up front that you can not help them, all willing aside.  In the West we are sequestered enough to make that decision by default.  I’m no better off having directly enabled an old man’s death on the street – am I the worse for it?  Am I?

Rehearsal today:  three artists in a shed in a well-off (by local Indian standards) part of town.  We are working with three local acrobats and martial artists, Palani, Udra, and Vasal, to make a 40-minute show by Monday.  That is three days of rehearsal to create a five person, no technician, circus event – and I’m not worried.

The music is nice, of course, the benefits of working with a musician as director, and the acrobatic vocabulary that I am woprking with is both exotic to my tastes and quite rich.  The question is simply how to change the context enough to mess with everyone’s preconceptions.  We are fusing Kung Fu, Circus, Yoga, Capoeira, Dance, Physical Acting and Live Music with a budget of 0 Rp (0$) and no technical resources whatsoever.  After our paralyzingly huge success in Taiwan, it is a relief to get back to creating a show on the most human and honest scale there is.

30 minutes?  No problem.  It is the last 10 that make for a bit of a problem.  That is tomorrow’s challenge, in addition to the two hour workshop that I must write, starting now.

The Happiest Coup

Thanks to Cathay Pacific Airlines for letting me steal their wireless connection at the Bangkok International Airport.  This is a fun layover with lots of soldiers who are really upbeat and cheerful.  Maybe they are happy that the coup went so well.  Really, every single soldier I see in the terminal right now – 5 of them – have big toothy grins on their faces.

It’s a week after our festival and the show and good news is still pouring in from all the right places -enough to make a person feel a little paranoid.  I’m really looking forward to Lithuania.  Four-hour layover in Amsterdam first.

Onward and upward.

Straight Poop

I came to Taipei to assistant direct and perform my number in a new circus production called FLASH.  Just for fun, I would also be writing a three-person comic street show with a friend of mine from circus school and a famous, established Taiwanese Chinese opera performer.  We wrote the show for an audience of about 200, but usually we played for 3, 5, or 10 times as many people.  It threw us off a bit, but it was a hell of a rush.

I arrived here to find that there was a lot more work to be done, and I was more than happy to take on as much of it as possible.  After all, I had already invested my life savings and a year of work in this project.  There were organizational and communication problems and a lot of different factors to juggle, but in the end we came through and the project was a success beyond my most optimistic aspirations.  My god, was there stress and pressure, but when you force yourself through 19 hour days you find that adrenaline can boost your productivity and passions.

Shit is chaotic right now.  My head is spinning and I am in a deep depression and a lot of people are talking all at once.  It’s hard to keep everything straight.  My policy is not to talk even vaguely about future projects until I have a paycheck or a plane ticket in my hand.  I never talk about past projects until I see how they all turn out.  But this one is officially in the can.

A lot of questions are up in the air right now and I just need to wait to see how they all settle.

Torres Sangre de Toro.  An old standby.  A favorite. 

I miss so many people right now. 

This is a life.

Missing It All

The last episode of my life always seems so idyllic and innocent when I see it from the other side of some momentous event.  I used to watch TV in the US but now I realize that I could have saved time if I read online capsule reviews instead.  Here is my life in episodes:

  • Episode 01 – Original Air Date: December, 1977 – “Pilot”
  • Episode 02 – Original Air Date: August, 1984 – “Yokoso to Japan”
  • Episode 03 – Original Air Date: August, 1987 – “Back to Minnesota”
  • Episode 04 – Original Air Date: August, 1989 – “Mo-o Ikkai!”
    • Puberty starts.
  • Episode 05 – Original Air Date: August, 1992 – “Return to Rochester”
    • Travelling Acrobat grows his hair long.
  • Episode 06 – Original Air Date: August, 1996 – “MIT”
    • Travelling Acrobat engages in university fraternity hijinks.  Travelling Acrobat cuts his hair and joins the varsity gymnastics team in a classic fish-out-of-water coming-of-age tale.  Travelling Acrobat fails to come of age.
  • Episode 07 – Original Air Date: August, 2001 – “Running Away to the Circus”
    • Travelling Acrobat becomes a globe-trotting acrobat in three years.
  • Episode 08 – Original Air Date: January, 2004 – “Aichi, You-ichi”
    • Travelling Acrobat spends a year dressed as a flying chicken and serving as Toyota Motor Corporation’s ambassador to the world.
  • Episode 09 – Original Air Date: October, 2005 – “Trejos’s Company”
    • Travelling Acrobat moves to Tokyo with two wacky Lithuanian roommates and lives incognito as a stowaway freelance event producer scrounging out a meager living while surrounded by an ensemble cast of eccentric geniuses.
  • Episode 10 (Season Finale) – Original Air Date: August, 2006 – “Taipei Confidential”
    • Travelling Acrobat is summoned to Taipei where he is mistaken for a capable acrobatic choreographer, assistant director, and production manager.  A comedy of errors ensues but all’s well that ends well when the project he has developed over the last year with his business partner is the most successful performing arts festival in Taiwan’s history – their show plays to about 20,000 people in three nights and is a critical and popular success.  The episode ends in a cliffhanger as Travelling Acrobat finds himself again destitute with an uncertain future and nowhere to go but down.  He packs his bags and heads to Lithuania…

This series starts out a little slow and seems to flounder around a bit before it hits its groove, but other than that, it reminds me of a repetitive “Wonder Years” type show that starts to move a little by episode 04 and then slips into a heavy acid trip by episode 06.

I learned a lot here in Taipei about leadership and business and responsibility and my own capabilities as an artist and as a manager.  I have always secretly worried if I have just been making big, impressive proclamations about artistic responsibility and internationalism to satisfy Ivy League / Cambridge / Science Po types at dinner parties.  Perhaps I am – one success doesn’t prove anything and only the passage of time can demonstrate true dedication – but at least now I know now that in principle, the theory is valid.

This uncertainty at the end of the first season is really unsettling.  I am nostalgic for my life of three months ago, but nostalgia always reruns in retro-vision.

Working internationally without a home has become me in a stepwise fashion.  It’s a cruelly seductive fate laced with innumerable addictions, temptations, and tragedies but it’s a rush like no other.

Recently confirmed: Lithuania starting Thursday, India starting December 1st, and Thailand starting December 8th.  After that…

Stay tuned!

Artistic Insulation: Premature Nostalgia

To follow up on that last post – Jacky plays the chorus vocals’ of “Smooth Criminal” in haunting perfect-pitch on his shakuhachi: “Annie are you ok, are you ok, are you ok, Annie?”  It makes bugs crawl in my veins.

Christian and Catherine came to our rehearsal last Wednesday.  It was a stressful time.  We are under a strict deadline for the National Theater who is sending representatives to see our show in rehearsal this Wednesday – a show that did not exist as of last Tuesday.

They are two artists that I am coming to love dearly.  I try to spend at least a little time with them every night no matter how tired I am.  Christian saves some risotto or steamed pork rolls for me, and Catherine makes a little extra pasta.  Wine and beer magically appear next to my hand whenever we sit together under the eves of their apartment studios.

They brought their eyes with them: for Catherine it was a 35mm camera and for Christian it was a mini 3-CCD HD video camera.

I thought nothing of it, but they sat quite patiently through three hours of rehearsal.  They watched it almost exclusively though their viewfinders, but I thought nothing of it.  I admire visual artists and visual art because I don’t understand the process – I know if I like the final piece or not, but I have no idea why.  Seeing a show for me is a totally different experience.

I imagine that once a woman has given birth, she never looks at a newborn the same way.

When I met up with them at home, we talked about rehearsal and multimedia performances and acrobatics and martial arts and dance and choreography and art and family and the avant-garde and movements – dada, beat, cubist, punk, cirque nouveau…

I had two beers and went to bed and thought nothing of it.

Three days later, on Saturday, I had another beer and wine and ginseng liqueur with Catherine and Christian and a few other artists from the building.  In between topics, Christian nonchalantly mentions to me that he has edited the footage of my rehearsal into a short film and would I like to see it.

“Yes,” I say, “no, but yes.”

We go into his studio and he starts the film.

“This has been my project non-stop for the last three days,” he tells me.

What follows is overwhelming.  Legs.  Movement.  Subsonic lounge soundtrack.  Time is dilated, contracted.  I see peoples eyes, their mouths, the sweat running down their back, turning their hair into curled spiked of blackness.  There is a weary dedication to the cause of putting our work in order.  I am there too – stressed, mind whirling, ideas flying.  I try to communicate in Chinese – they strain to understand me.  We hit the floor; we run in unison; we catch each other.  We wait.  We are concentrated.  We support each other.

It is perhaps 10 minutes that captures the atmosphere of rehearsal.  What stays with me forever, though, is how it captured the spirit of comrades seven.  Premature nostalgia: the taste of future loss.

Thank you truly, Mr. Rizzo.

My New Friends: Sweet, Black Pig, and Jacky

Last night had all the makings of a great night out in Asia – a good mix of foreigners and locals, a cheery, dingy bar, and the vague promise of crashing a penthouse party later at the Hyatt.  I daresay that if we had been in Tokyo we would have managed enough audacity to pull it off but somehow, in Taipei, we didn’t quite manage enough momentum to make it past the small platoon of hospitality staff.  Everything fizzled.  We satisfied ourselves with lukewarm 7-11 beers in the lobby and then called it a night.

Quick question: if terrorists had flown planes into the World Trade Center on 11 July, what would we call america’s favorite 24-hour convenience-store franchise today?

There was some confusion today about music rehearsal.  I had heard that the Taiwanese musicians performing in our show were rehearsing tonight so I figured that I would stop by to introduce myself and hear some of their music.  They greeted me with a lot of enthusiasm and then sat down, wide-eyed and attentive.  They asked me what instrument I played in a mix of Chinese, English, and Japanese.

“Guitar,” I replied in Chinese.

“What do you want us to do?”

“Well, just hold your rehearsal like normal; I want to hear the music you normally play.”

They exchanged some confused glances and discuss matters in difficult Chinese that I did’t understand.  What followed is a cursory exhibition of Taiwanese taiko drumming and three-piece arrangements for shakuhachi, guzheng, and yangquin and more expectant wide-eyed, attentive sitting.  I filled the blossoming awkward silence with applause, but it’s difficult to muster a lengthy ovation when you are the only audience member in the room.

Finally they ask me, “So why did you ask us for this rehearsal?”

Evidently, they thought that I was going to be running their rehearsal.  I was shocked to find out that they had cancelled their normal troupe rehearsal for the night just so that they could work on the music of the new production.  A miscommunication had occurred, and after a flurry of useless phone calls and discomfort, I went to my room to fetch my ipod and started playing them the music from the show.


It is a phenomenon that I am starting to recognize as an attribute of Taiwanese artists.  It is a sort of silent genius that builds up some steam and eventually swallows you whole.

I was talking with Christian about it last night – I proposed that since the performing arts are held in such low regard here, Taiwanese performers never build up that patina of showiness and affectation that plagues Western artists (myself included).  I was reminded of the night that I helped audition a seventeen-year-old hip-hop dancer for a role in our show.  I asked her to dance hip-hop in slow motion like she was playing angry in order to hide how sad she was.  “Impossible,” she replied.  “Try,” I said.  She shrugged.  I pressed play.  She danced.  It was beautiful and honest and it made want to die.  She stopped abruptly: “Like that?” she asks.  I shrug dismissively and twist my mouth into a half-frown.  “You need to work at changing up dynamics and working at multiple levels,” I say.  Inside, though, she made me cry.  Now she is the leading personnage.

I have worked years to try and get back to a sort of honesty on stage that these Taiwanese geniuses have never lost.  The tragedy is that most of them have accepted that there is no future for them in their art – that they have to leave it behind with other trappings of their abandoned youth.

Today, classical Chinese instruments played with complete mastery and abandon that gave me goosebumps.  We rehearsed each song for about 15 minutes.  They would listen to it for about 30 seconds and then jump in altogether, alternating between reproducing the original note-for-note and off-the-cuff riffing.  Any commentary I gave them after a first run-though (we need to follow the dynamic range of the piece a little more so that we don’t blow everything we have before the climax; hit the accents more; let’s be a little sparser in the chorus; can you try to switch into a higher resister when the distorted guitars enter?) were flawlessly integrated into the second.  “OK,” they tell me: “Next song, please.”

We’re not asking for easy things.  Improvisation is not the rule in Chinese classical musical training.  To complicate matters, we are asking them to cover Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and Michael Jackson; to simulate a tribal beat with monochromatic taiko drums; to write a hard-rock guzheng solo; to reproduce an industrial sonic landscape with traditional acoustic instruments.

They are reluctant – worried that their Chinese instruments will ruin the rock feel.  Perhaps they are a shy, too.  Ultimately they abandon their concerns and improvise freely.  The result is covers that, in my opinion, are vastly superior to the originals.

We are done with rehearsal, but before they go they want to play me some more of their music.  I am treated to two short taiko duos that put a Taiwanese spin on the steps towards the Japanese theatrical taiko style.  I would call it sexy and aggressive and animal.  It is even more effective that it is played by a man and a woman in a sort of alternating synchronicity.  When the duo finished, she extinguished the internal fire that was blazing inside her, puts on her glasses, and transforms back into an unassuming and timid philosophy student.

I can never look at her the same way again.

The duo is a perfect transition to the final scene that we worked on last week – I propose it to the director tomorrow.

Rehearsal finished.  I now know that when Taiwanese artists are excited about a project they will mill around nonchalantly after the first rehearsal to chat.  Today, they invited me to go training with them at the gym where we are, coincidentally, all members.  I learn that Jacky, who is the leader of the taiko group, requires all his musicians to stay in shape with daily strength training.  After two and a half years of dealing with the complacent attitudes of Japanese twenty-somethings I find this sort of passion and initiative refreshing.

Black Pig (the philosophy student) confides in me that she is happy to work this way.  “This freedom.  It is a great way to work.  I’m very happy to play music this way.  I hope to be able to perform in all ways, not just as a musician.”

And people ask me why I believe that Taipei is the future of artistic innovation in Asia.

“This is your chance,” I tell her.  “Pig’s music is one thing, but in this show we want to see everything everything that makes Pig Pig.”

One more bite of beef fried rice and we head off to the gym together.