Monday, September 8, 2014

Gender Bending in the Bronx

Yesterday I starred in a Commedia Del’Arte show up in the Bronx. For the past several years, I have done this show and have been a part of this troupe. We have some normal staples, a guy by the name of Franz, a fellow puppeteer who lives in my neighborhood, and Audrey, a Goucher College grad who has studied commedia in Italy. Lest we not forget Carlotta, an Italian import from Venice who is also a professional opera singer. Additionally, our director Jenny, a native from South Africa, has a way of placing people in various slots. These days she teaches mask, commedia, theatre, and movement at the college level.

This year we had some newbies. We had Jake, a senior in his final year at Hampshire. Then there was Lacy, a young woman who recently completed an MFA in Physical Theatre and Clowning. Add in two students on holiday from England that attend a circus school wanting to hone their chops, Max and Clarice. Either way, as we all dawned clown white, put on our masks, and got into costume, we were itching and ready for show time.

 Like the commedia performers of old, we are always out in the square, mingling with the people. In this case, we are performing for an Italian Heritage Festival called Ferragusto in the Bronx. It has taken place the first weekend in September for the last 15 years. The place is inundated with the smell of food from various vendors, crafts, opera music and Sinatra tunes playing interchangeably, along with the status of Mary having dollar bills clipped to her. There is a part of me that laughs, because it is as if Jesus’s mama is a gogo dancer with all that money being put on her. Nonetheless, as the people go from activity to activity, they bring their loved ones and children, who have toy guns and poppers. It’s the way Arthur Avenue celebrates the ending of summer, warm weather, and welcomes the impending season change. Lovers walk arm and arm, and children run along with knees scuffed from summer play, but yes, this scene shall soon change.

As we the commedia company make our way into the festival, we are usually greeted by a mostly Italian American public. Commedia is the oldest form of theatre, and the stock characters have inspired not only the Shakespeare archetypes but the characters we see in the movies today. There is the Prince and Princess aka the Lovers. Of course there is the Evil Doctor who wants to marry the Princess and is betrothed by the Drunken Father. Add in the servants, with the Prince’s foolish servant, the Princesses foolish maid, and the head maid who was our director and is actually the wisest out of the fools aka the one who is the smartest of them all. I myself was El Capitano, the official who is a bumbling idiot but is also insightful at times. He is the man’s man, bragging about his adventures at sea, and how tough he is. El Capitano also is a ladies man. 

However, when it comes to an actual fight he backs away if not outright loses. Basically, he is all talk.
I am El Captiano in case you are wondering. Yes, April Brucker is the manliest of all men. Translated, I was dressing in drag, doing a little genderqueering. My captain’s name is El Capitano Maximo Mucho. His bragging right is being so touch when a nail saw him it said ouch. Or when a great white saw him, it swam away. He also apparently defeated an army of zombies with his bare hands, and while he was at it defeated his foe, has his face in a bag, and carries it around.

As a troupe, instantly the people take to us in an adoring way. Immediately the cameras come out, and the photos are being snapped. The festival goers, some which have been drinking from the second they were allowed in, get into it. They talk to us and they dance with us. Heck, I got to dance with some beautiful women. I can sense my straight male friends getting a tad jealous. (Come on, you know you are).

The day with me in drag started out kind of interesting. Right off the bat, my opening line was to Miss Italia. I told her she was a beautiful princess, and her eyes were like oceans. Right away, Miss Italia knew I was a woman. A girl’s girl, she had a French manicure and looked like she never got dirty, even if it was to kill a spider. The idea of anything remotely Sapphic, intentional or not, threw her for a loop. However, she was a good sport about it. Despite the effort to deepen my voice and act all macho, I could not hide my XX Chromosome. Miss Italia said diplomatically, “You are a great actress.”

Sure, it was out of her comfort zone. Miss Italia wasn’t mean about it, she just didn’t swing that way. Neither did the other women for the most part, but they were more developed into their skin. Many went along with it, and as I mentioned I danced with a few of them. Others loved my pick up lines that I used, promising to take them away and take them no where. I also promised to let them ride on my steed to my ship on Arthur Avenue, and we could sail off forever. Most of the women got a kick out of this. As women, we have all heard these tired assed lines. This is where being a female came in for me. Others remarked my nose was growing from all the lies I told. I tried to hide my laughter under the mask. It was true. I told them I didn’t use those lines on everyone, only every third woman. They thought that was funny.

It made me realize on one hand, if I came back in the next life and could enjoy the benefits of being part of the upper hand of the patriarchy, perhaps it wouldn’t be that hard to be a man. On the other hand, maybe I was simplifying gender roles too much. Approaching women is scary. Plus there is pressure to have swagger and be a bad ass. This is why so many dudes run their mouths about bullshit because they buy into that gender role bullshit. Maybe masculinity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The guys didn’t protest my gender and went along with it. They actually had a great sense of humor as I tried my darnest to be the best man I could be. They freely let El Capitano hit on their women with no objection, probably because I was not a viable threat physically. Not to mention I am somewhat effeminate because I am a cisgender female. Plus in their gut I also probably evoked the memory of some dude from the block, always running his mouth about the latest dude his beat up or the latest woman he banged. Truth, the rest of the guys were intimidated until they saw him get pummeled or they saw a line of girls just reject him like a person with horrendous credit applying for a Master Card. Others honked me on my snozz. Or then there were those who pretended to be scared by my Nerf sword I carried as a part of my faux swashbuckler motif.
A swashbuckler, her sword, and a fierce hobby horse

The first half of the day, in the midst of playing with patrons, we got ready for our ultimate plot line, the wedding. Yes, the Prince and the Princess wanted to get married but the Princess was to marry the evil doctor. What was going to happen? The first half of the performance I felt alright, but I also felt like I was pushing for the laugh. It is a force of habit. As a standup comedian and singing telegram delivery person, I am used to being the one and only. For years, I have not been a true ensemble performer. I gravitated towards standup because if I fail, it’s on me. Then the singing telegrams, well again, if I fail it’s on me. The writing, if you hate this blog, that’s on me too.

I remember required devised ensemble work in college, and how sometimes it worked out and sometimes I just felt like there was dead air and I always had to fill it. I had an acting teacher, a Broadway veteran, once scold me that I was so busy going for the laugh that I totally missed the point of acting: listening and the truth. Still, I was always a problem child, especially in improv. I was high energy, and everyone else was a fearful dead weight. Another part of it is I am a bratty, annoying middle child scared I will not get my moment. Either way, there are some former cast mates that don’t like me so much. Then again, when we are live and you missed three crucial lines and are bumbling like a fool, one does need to keep the audience occupied, asshole. Look at me excusing my shiteous, ego driven behavior.

I have always historically swung big. For the first half, I repeated history, challenging patrons to duels. One kid even tried to defeat me with a mock ray gun. We joked that he had a weapon from the future and knighted the young three year old squire. However, all the mock dueling was making me get mad wardrobe malfunctions worse than Janet Jackson at any Super Bowl. As I continued my huge bush strokes and my hat and wig falling off, something magical happened, my fellow actors came to my rescue.

Jake from Hampshire, a servant, used it as a part of his character to help me with my various clothing drama. Max the Prince also used it in his script, making me straighten out my hat and other things. Jenny, our maid/director, stepped in to help as well. There was no judgment or criticism. It was only working together as a unit. At that moment, the magic began. In the truest sense, an ensemble is like a platoon, you need to have each other’s backs because a live show can be like a battle. I felt like I could trust my fellow actors. In the world of the New York Theatre, where everyone in the room can act, write, sing, dance, and is as good if not better than you are, they all want to role and will push you into traffic to get it. It’s get the break or be broken. Ego and fear of failure rule the roost. Selfless actors are as rare as a black pearl. Yet right here I had them. The diva bone in my body began to relax, and I began to feel out my ensemble. That is when the true fun began.

I was no longer in my head, and didn’t try to hide my femininity. For better or for worse, I am a woman. It is something I have had to pay for as an artist and as an intellectual. Yet it is also a part of my fabric. So instead of denying it, I began to work it in. Whenever someone used the she pronoun or questioned my masculinity, I fired back by saying, “I am so manly that no one has ever called me a woman!!!” This line always got a massive laugh. That way I wasn’t denying their claims, only making a joke. Plus it was the obvious and no one’s intelligence was insulted. It was all fun.

As I relaxed, so did my fellow commedia players. They began to back my outrageous claims. In turn, I began to back them as well. As we connected, I hoped this spark would continue as we took our lunch breaks.

The second half of the day was absolutely magical. While the first half of the day was spent feeling each other out, I felt we listened and were present in a way that is utterly in the moment and amazing. Jenny gave Lacy, the woman who was playing the evil doctor, a note. Lacy was playing the doctor not as an evil brute, but rather as a pompous, arrogant know it all with a silly side. This interpretation let us all run wild with our imaginations and brought a vibe that had never been there before. Anyway, Lacy was now to tell people that instead of being sick they were dying. Up the stakes. Oh, mind you my wardrobe had been corrected. That was already an improvement.

In the square, as a group we preformed emergency “surgeries” aka pretending to cut someone open and pulling scarves out, etc. Led by Lacy, she informed them that she was a skilled doctor, and had studied in Africa. Sometimes, as a part of the operation, she did a nonsense chant. Jenny would explain that Lacy, who’s head was big as well as her belly, both costume pieces, was so smart she had a brain in her head and in her stomach. During these mock surgeries, Jenny would dust them off with her feather duster to clean them. Then Jake would act as a mock table. Audrey would of course recruit patients. I would “slice” them open with my Nerf blade. Lucy would pull out a scarf or a necklace. This usually ended with applause. This was a hit, and soon everyone was pretend wan and weak, dropping like proverbial flies.

In this ensemble spirit, as Lacy took her moment, others helped facilitate. However, Lacy wasn’t a stage hog and shared. After Lacy was done with her moment, Franz the drunken father said a few things and danced. Then the Prince Max and Princess Carlotta had a moment, as Max improvised the worst and cheesiest love poetry on the face of the planet. After which Audrey the servant and Jake had a moment of their own with a slapstick routine. All the while, each of us let the others have a moment in the spotlight, nicely and kindly taking our turns.

Finally, it was my moment. I challenged a youngin to a duel. The kid was no more than 10, and he wanted to defeat me. Jenny suggested my director make this longer. In the spirit of the group and of the piece, Jake came with the caution tape. He and Audrey served as the corner person to the boy, and Jenny and Clarice served in my corner. The duel began, each of us having a boxing glove. I roared and gesticulated in order to intimidate my opponent. The crowd laughed. Then we each hit each other on the glove. I continued this for two more rounds. Then finally, the kid “defeated me.”

I pretended to die on the ground, doing a mock soliloquy. As I did this, Lucy the doctor declared me dead. That is when the mock reincarnation ritual began.

There were audience members wearing chicken heads and chanting, and the doctor preformed magical surgery and I was alive. Now it was time for the wedding, but of course I had to first hug the audience members wearing a chicken and duck mask as part of the magical ceremony.

As El Capitano, I was the closest thing to minister/priest. So I married the Prince and Princess, but the Prince didn’t have his act together so there was no ring. Then the Doctor replaced the Prince and then there was some wedding stakes and then the Princess ran off with an audience member and the Prince decided he didn’t love her. So then the Prince and the gender bender Doctor married, but then the Prince changed his mind. I told him he could not marry again. Of course our audience was into this. But the Prince insisted it wasn’t him, it was a man with a British accent.

When that ended, the youngster who defeated me in a duel demanded to get married. We asked him who he wanted to marry. He pointed to me and said, “Her.” At this point I was done denying my gender. I was getting married to an eight year old. Mary Kate Letourneau would have been so proud. His nine year old friend acted as the priest. They put the veil on my head. To the crowd of onlookers I shouted, “My mother would be so proud.” They laughed.

My young husband, so young he could have gotten me listed on a website if this was for real, told me he had spent a mere $800 dollars on our broken ring. I told him the budget was more like ten grand. He told me to shut up. I informed him we had to be married at least ten years for him to tell me that. The adults laughed at that line, and my child groom looked confused.

His nine year old friend flat out asked, “Do you take her to be your wife, do you want to be her husband? And do both of you want to do this whole thing?

We said we did. Then he took my veil off and the nine year old priest commanded, “Now you may kiss the bride.”

To which my groom looked at me and said, “No.” And then he kissed me on the cheek and ran away. Sigh. Love is a tricky thing.

Afterwards, I lamented my adventure to Clarice and she said, “Well, when that happens it is not usually a good sign of things to come.”
Like Jennifer Lawrence, a swashbuckler can take a selfie

From there we danced with patrons and took some more photos. Then our director Jenny noticed that 6 PM had come. It was time for the commedia characters to become unmasked humans again. We were bummed. As a group we had become a well oiled improv machine, and we were having a blast. It was like a mother telling a group of children involved in a game of make believe that it was time for wash up for dinner. Except we couldn’t continue. The fair technically ended at 6 PM, and they would soon begin to strike the place. Thus it ended our theatre utopia, ensemble theatre in it’s purest form. The improvisation, sharing and no ego, had ended. In our hearts, we were all sadder than normal at the end of a performance. As a whole, we all knew and even lamented afterwards this type of overall connection was rare in the self-centered discipline of the professional theatre.

As we morphed back into people, the folks from England discovered they had a classmate in common with some of the other actors who all studied at the same commedia school. This girl, a little bit of a flighty nutcase like I was when I was younger, traveled to study at the physical theatre school in the UK. Anyway, this young woman had grown leaps and bounds as an actor, and had become more grounded. I remember having those same struggles as a young theatre student myself, and the notes my teachers gave me. I remembered the frustration and the tears as I took their notes as a personal criticism, not as something constructive.

As I remembered the humility ridden and ego puncturing homework of looking others in the eye, breathing, and walking slowly down the New York streets, I also remembered my NYU section mates. When I wanted to give up, they cheered me on, letting me know that even though the instruction felt strange it was making me better. They kept me on target, clapping everytime I didn’t make eye contact. With me, they celebrated my victories and breakthroughs. In my sections I felt safe. In my artistic home, I could make discoveries because I failed often without consequence. This was a gentle reminder that while with progress comes haters, there are also people who clap along with you. Translated: Stick with the winners.

At the heart, the most central core, theatre is about love. Being a cast isn’t about who has the biggest or smallest part, it is about trust. Every link must be small from the bit player to the leading role in order to make the show work. It is not about who has the most lines or spends the most time in the spotlight. It is about doing your part to serve the script, each other, but most importantly the audience.

At the heart, the most central core, comedy is about service. It is about making others laugh and spreading joy. While one should cater to the highest denominator, make sure you don’t treat the so called normies like they are stupid. That is not only short sighted, but comedy is also about making everyone feel included. People laugh because they feel a part of, and because they can identify. This goes for a comedy club patron, an improv show audience member, a group of people watching a commedia performance, or a television viewer.

Add in performance, comedy or drama, is about not judging. Also, it is about learning a higher truth. After a day as a cross dressing pirate, I began to sympathize with those who identified as transgender. While in my case it was a joke, in their case they have one outside and another inside. Sure, I made a gag out of my femininity, but for someone who wants to be taken seriously as their true self, those words could sting. Now I admire those folks on a whole new level. 

If I could go back and time and say one thing to my young self who was sometimes questioning of the ensemble based training I received, I would tell her to shut up and listen. Additionally, I would gently remind her that to be a good cast member is not just about taking your moment, it’s about listening. That way, you can take your moment and add to the moments of others to make them better. Also, it’s about playing nice, let others have their turn to shine. Don’t be scared, you’ll get your turn too. If you are good at sharing, your fellow cast members will share right back. Lastly, it’s not just going to make you a better performer, but most importantly, a better person.

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