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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Aftermath, Beforemath

The fourth show went well and I didn't feel like I was going to die afterward. In fact, there was an almost unreal aspect to doing it. The day ended on an up note, even with me having been tremendously dissatisfied with something during each show. Per normal operating procedure, I beat myself up about it then brooded and stewed. Actually, the self flagellation didn't last as long as it normally would have. I might be improving.

Today is the last day of shows and the beginning of load-out. We're going to be around another entire day before heading to the hotel in Nagoya for a night. Unfortunately, the internet is going some time in the middle of the day today. It's a bit premature and that means I'll have to find something else to do with my time tonight and tomorrow.


I don't know – read, arrange, go to Nara (again) and see if I can be successful fitting through Buddha's Nose, make a last sweep for shoes for a couple of friends, go find the marker for the Rashomon gate, go see a movie, play Playstation. Ah! There we go: Playstation. The day is already set.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Surprise, Y'All!

In the middle of the first show today, the word went around: because of ticket sales, we would be adding a fourth show at 6:20. For me it's just weird, but we'll see how I feel at the end of the day. I do less work than I did as a Hunny Helper on Pooh, so I'm not expecting anything more than two or two-and-a-half hours fewer in which to do laundry tonight. I'll probably even finish reading another magazine!

We're putting the second of our new gags in today so we can get it in front of an audience a couple of times before Nagoya. We'll see how it goes. I don't even think that "cautious optimism" describes my approach. I think my audience expectations are at an all-time low right now. There's a certain fatalism that I'm combating and what it takes is more of a simple dumping of it on the ground and cleaning it up when I return after having done something completely unrelated. I don't usually approach things like that, so I suppose that means I'm making progress.

Today in the first show, I was witness to an unfortunate affair: the balloon was being knocked around in the audience and as it was drifting downward, an audience member smacked it. The balloon went careening right into the face and french fries of an unwitting audience member on the stairs. The audience emitted a collective groan of sympathy as the box of fries tumbled right onto the ground at the guy's feet.

That sucked.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Camera Doesn't Lie

Dennis has left. It was earlier than planned because unfortunately, there was some family business that came up and he had to go. Fortunately, we were able to do some videotaping and watching.

I have not exactly had the best personal history with videotaping. Like some people, I didn't like watching myself on videotape. I didn't like the way my body looked and I was always disturbed that how I felt like I looked and like I was moving was nothing like what I saw on the screen. I felt controlled, precise, and graceful; I looked uncoordinated, gangly, and unrefined. That was always my opinion, anyway.

I know videotaping is a valuable tool and although I'm for it, I was dreading it to some degree. I didn't feel like making the emotional effort against the usual cascade of lowered self esteem.

It didn't happen, though. I was able to focus on the thing that mattered about what I was seeing instead of thinking of how unattractive my bowlegs are or how my posture looked uncharacteristically poor.

Lord, it felt good to not have the normal b.s. reaction. Because of that, I was able to note the things that needed a tweak.

Now for working on the rest of the elements of confidence!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

No, Seriously: Why A Blog?

I often think about this blog and why I'm keeping it. Sure, I like to write, and it's a great tool for me to practice something that I consider to be a craft and one that I've enjoyed for practically all of my life. I even think I'm pretty good at it.

Then I look at other blogs – blogs friends or associates have – and I wonder: why do I bother? I'm not chock full of historic tidbits, interesting media snippets, or entertaining parody. I am not the weaver of tales, full of anecdotes and jackpots or daily misadventures.

I have people suggest to me often to write a book about my experiences and I always have the same question: why? I don't have that much exciting going on in my life to fill a book, let alone one that people who don't know me would want to read. Nobody's going to pay to read about my life so far.

Some people are genuinely interested; I get that. The life I lead is not conventional and it's a symbol to some people of truly following your dreams and making them happen. It's also a way for some to live vicariously. I am indeed extremely, insanely fortunate and blessed to have the life I have had from birth to now. A good life? Yes. Unique? Mostly. Worthy of legend for others to pore over with bated eye-breath? Not so much, in my ongoing estimation. Not when there are other, better pieces of work being put out by other people; tales with more adventure and hijinks; tales from other clowns in other circuses – some veterans, some with star-sprinkled whimsy still encrusted in their young eyes.

The truth is, my life has its own routine. Much of the time it's free of entertaining anecdotes or wacky misadventures. When I weigh it against the blogs I read, some of which are written by friends, I think "This is what people want to read. They don't want to hear that my life can be just as day-to-day as theirs. They don't want to hear about frustrations or ruminations or processes."

I've never been the anecdote guy. Even with the encouragement of friends and peers, I consider myself to be last among [not quite] equals. I've never been the prank guy. I've never been the "he's so crazy!" guy. I am not the story of the indomitable spirit that remains cheerful and unwavering in the face of life's various adversities. There are plenty of other blogs to find to read that discuss the quirky, annoying, and frustrating aspects of Japan, Japanese, and life here.

I walk to the store three or four times a week down a big hill and back up. I like it because it's a way to always have exercise even when I don't do my modest regimen on a day. I've been eating a lot more junk food because I've been losing weight. Boo-hoo: skinny boy's stuffing his face like a dumpster because he can't gain weight, let alone keep what little he has. Some of my co-workers are dicks – whose aren't? I can look outside the door and see "the neighbor's dog", which is an attention hound of a giraffe.

Okay, so that last one is really, really interesting and a never-ending source of enjoyment.

So seriously: why a blog?

I still have to figure out the picture thing with the annoying new iPhoto. Drag-and-drop functionality is overrated. I want to be able to open file folders and find the photos I want to find.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Sunshine and Jellybeans

Kelly and I made a mistake today. We didn't check the show order and we went out to do one of our gags in the spot we'd normally do it on the first show of the day . . .

except the order changed. We didn't know until we saw what they were setting up and then that sinking feeling set in. It was a simple mistake that could have been remedied. It wasn't the sort of thing that destroyed the show or got anyone hurt. The audience knew no differently. At worst it inconvenienced a couple of the cranky lifers, which of course, is enough to make it a horrible disaster and a failure in our characters and immutable proof that all foreigners are idiots.

I'd like to change those guys' minds with an object to the head, but I can't. Well, I could, but I won't. It's not worth it. I'm pretty sure that there's nothing I can do shake those people out of their complacency and cynicism and blanket dislike for anyone on the show who's not Japanese. That is a very frustrating and powerless feeling. If I were an incompetent idiot with no talent or skill, I could understand their feelings, but I'm not. Whatever people did before me, whatever it is that's stuck up these guys' butts, I have nothing to do with outside my virtue of being who I am and what they assume me to be. There are times when I want to grab people by the lapel and scream "I didn't drop a bomb on your fricking parents! I'm here to do good work! Pull your head out and drop the 'tude!"

That would be honest, yet impolite. People are people and sometimes people suck.

Yesterday, something happened in the show where a cue was different. Being clowns, our reflex was to get ready to go out and cover something. There was no one to let us know what was up or if we were needed or not. Anyone that could is not "on talking terms" with Kelly and definitely not with me since I'm the new foreign meat, a clown, and even less worth their effort knowing. Oh well. We just went back in the alley, once again assured that having a backstage manager type is a good thing. For our part, we made an effort.

On the upside, there are people on the show who are not negative or cliquish. We have one performer who recently returned from maternity leave who seems to be happy enough just to be back in the show.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: cranky lifers suck. That woman is a bright spot.

I wish I could end my curiosity about the psychology involved behind people's actions. It would make things so much easier if I were content with not understanding and just believing that these things don't matter.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A New Light

A friend and former professor of Kelly's is here visiting for two weeks and it's a boon. He teaches theater and specializes in movement and offers a watchful and knowledgeable eye from the outside. As a bonus, he understands the performing style and medium, so instead of educated ignorance, he's providing helpful insight, no matter how small any observation may be. I shut up, I listen, I take direction, I reflect, and I participate in tossing things back and forth. That's all very essential to me.

It's great and I appreciate it a lot. It's another occurrence that supports my idea that I will learn and grown a lot over here during this gig, however long I may be here. I've already had a lot of new and deeper experiences and it can only continue. There are some good new ideas flying about and although I can't say they're mine, I definitely look forward to participating in them and bringing what I have to the table to make things not only work, but work really well.

In food news, I'm currently using the oven feature on my combo microwave/grill/oven. I think from now on I'll just refer to it as my combo oven. I don't know exactly how it works, but I have an inkling. I'm probably bombarding my genes with waves, but that's okay. I don't see myself being a dad any time soon, let alone a husband. Can't lose what you don't have, right?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Day Off Dallying

I had a nice solid couple of shows leading into the two days off. It made for a good lead-in to some well-deserved rest. Of course, the term "well-deserved" is relative: do I "deserve" anything special for doing my contracted job and for attacking it with the ferocity that I feel doing my job well entails? I'm not entirely sure. Coming from the US where it seems that incompetent people can keep their jobs simply because they can sue a company for having been fired, it seems that a solid work ethic – while once expected and ingrained in people – is now the exception.

Let's just say that I feel I really worked for it.

The first day off was mildly productive. I cleaned my oven because it wasn't cleaned by the second hand store or the person who sold it to the second hand store. Lazy. I did a bit of sweeping around my room and did the trash and recycling (for what it is here).

The rest of the day – the lion's share of the 16 hours I was awake – I played World of Warcraft.

It's been a while since I've spent a whole day gaming like that. Not since the days of Ringling Brothers train runs have I spent that much time in front of a screen playing a video game. I felt like a slug. I felt the difference between the game accomplishments and actual life accomplishment. But damn, did I enjoy it.

The second day I went out and about, grabbing stroop waffles from a store in Kyoto Station, making my way to Toji, taking pictures. I took quite a few pictures and even busted out my telephoto lens. One bust of the day was finding the marker for where the Rashomon gate stood. I didn't do enough research to find it, and only knew that I was within a few blocks while I was at Toji. Toji was one of two pagodas flanking the gate, albeit not necessarily right next to the gate.

A trip to Book Off yielded some nice CD scores. Although I didn't find everything I was seeking, I found some things I didn't know I was seeking and gained some insight toward the expansion of my Pizzicato Five catalog. It seems their back catalog is reasonably easy to find in most Book off stores.

I am a media madman.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Mister Plow

Thus far the frustration has been mounting. Success has been met with equal failure. It has started to make both me and Kelly tense.

Things changed on Monday.

The first show on Monday brought us to our third gag of the show, the Karate Gag. Kelly and I were talking about God-knows-what behind the curtain before going on. The cue approached and all went silent between us as we prepared for our entrance. The time came and I charged out. I actually charged out.

We did the gag and it went well. I felt better about it than I had so far. That energy and success carried me through the whole day. My brain said "My God, it's about time I felt some success with this process!"

Tuesday came. Would it happen again? It did and I brought my observation up to Kelly. She thought that the strange, simultaneous charge of the day before was a shot of momentum when it was much needed. It had indeed been simultaneous. Like watching a flock of birds change direction instantly, Kelly and I had the same idea the day before without even discussing it. We weren't even talking about our frustration; the subject was something completely different and very likely geeky. But the cue came and we both charged, full of energy to fire into the crowd like a "Yeah, baby!" nova. We infected each other and the gag.

It's not that she or I slack or sandbag, but sometimes you need that extra boost to blow something out over the top of a hill. For my part, it was the moment when I channeled my frustration into my work instead of trying to wrap my head around it. Frustration was a guest in my house, but it was time to play Tom Sawyer and "show" that guest how fun it was to do the chores.

It reminded me of the first time I saw Rage Against the Machine (!). It was Lollapalooza 1993 and against all probability, it had come to Des Moines. Tool was "the loud band" that everyone saw playing on the second stage. Before them was Mutabaruka. RATM played overlapping Mutabaruka and before Babes in Toyland on the main stage. In between songs, Zack DeLa Rocha always kept screaming and proclaiming "Your anger is a GIFT!"

It carried me through to the two days off, which are now almost at an end. We still have plenty of work to do with a couple of other gags, but if I die, I'm going to die on my feet, facing failure. To me that's a harder concept than facing death. Inevtiable mortality is an easy concept to accept. Inevitable fallibility is not.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Slogging Along

Yeah, it still sucks, but not as badly.

Tuning new material sucks when the audiences aren't expressive. That is a fact that won't change. Not all of the audiences are quiet and merely polite, but it'd help to be able to count on a small degree of consistency. It's hard to tell if it's you and the material or if it's the audience. I tend not to immediately blame things on the audience, but then I also wind up beating myself up because I'm not better and then because I'm not patient enough.

Then there's also some personal stuff that keeps popping its head up. That doesn't make focus any easier. I feel like Kelly spends a lot of time and energy being encouraging. That said, she's quite happy with the fact that I'm over here and that we're working together. She digs having conversations in the alley, seeing as how there's also the benefit of my being the sort of person who thinks a lot and tends to be wordy.

Working material is essential and unavoidable. The fact that it takes time is unavoidable. Audience and show conditions like these are pretty unique and definitely not optimal. What we risk is the boss and agent seeing the new material and gauging its merits based on audience response. I have to hope that they're more insightful than that, but we won't know until it happens. It'd be nice to know that there's support from the other performers and that they're patient for you if you're not. Over here, I've been getting a sense that we're something that's just tolerated. I haven't been anything other than diligent, pleasant and polite and apparently just because I'm me I'm a thorn in other people sides, passively worsening an already crap disposition by the virtue of my existence in their sphere.

Sometimes circus lifers can be a pain. Sure, they're living and working on a circus, but they can also be no different than people who hate working in a cube farm.

There are great moments that happen. Seeing a row of older women giggling their brains out, hearing an uncontrolled laugh after other noise has died down – these are little things that rock hard.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

When I Get Around To It

I'm rather horrible about blogging. Actually, I didn't really intend this to be a daily blog, as things don't necessarily change from day-to-day. Granted, I am touring with a circus, but we don't move daily or even weekly. We don't even move monthly. We're in each city for a couple of months at a time. In Kyoto's case: three months total.

Man, I'm living in Japan! I know which trains to take to get to places I want or need to go. My Japanese is creeping along more slowly than I'd like, but at least it's coming along. At least I'm not one of those people who is staying in a country, but refuses to learn the language. We had one of those guys in one of my clown alleys. He was a living frustration.

The day of crap mentioned in the previous entry was followed by a day of only mostly crap. By the end of that next day, I/we finally ground it out to a point where we ended the day on a few great notes. That made going into the day off much more rewarding and we paused the work week on a good note. The frustration has been going on for a couple of weeks in a different form and it's just getting to a choke point. Still, progress is evident as are hints of success.

In venting, I had mentioned to a couple of friends that I don't feel so good about my tenacity because it comes from frustration and anger and the determination not to fail (due to my great hate of feelings of failure). She/they (both "shes") reminded me that the tenacity of others only sounds noble in retrospect. Very few people have that annoyingly cheery or saintly proclamation and progression of perseverance. I hope they're right. It sounds so much better in retrospect perhaps because people tend to edit out the truly dark aspects of their struggle.

I'll work on posting more often, but I'm sure people don't care much about what my progress is in World of Warcraft or my marvelous walks down and up the hill/mountain to make various purchases. When it comes down to it, I don't do this to perform a public service or to make money. I do it to chronicle my "adventures" for friends – and possibly others – to keep current and satisfy curiosity.

I do enjoy those walks, though.

Monday, February 8, 2010


The last couple of days have been disappointing and frustrating.

We are working on new material and working on switching roles in gags slowly but surely. What sucks is my confidence coupled with the fact that we're workshopping this stuff for an audience that is reserved, even for Japan. If I do something poorly or wrong, in my head it feels like the most obvious thing in the world and that I ruined everything.

When an acrobat flubs a trick or something of the sort, s/he seems to be given the benefit of the doubt: it's a bad day, or it's a difficult trick – no problem. If a gag falls flat or a clown messes something up and/or no one laughs, you're sunk. You suck, no question about it. You're not given the same allowance for a misstep or working something out.

I can rehearse something as much as I want before putting it in a show. At some point, it's got to go in front of the audience at which point more stuff still has to be worked out. It's necessary and it's unavoidable, and as much as I want to, I won't be spectacular from the start.

Another frustration is that communication is lacking. There is no in-house management that's at every show, no backstage manager. If a gag runs long, there's no one to tell us. If it does run long – as when I'm doing something new in the show – no one tells me. The crew/performers notice, but they don't say anything. You just get glared at or given the cold shoulder and you're supposed to know or accurately guess what you did and fix it.

How the hell does that work? How is that effective and how is that best for the show? How does that help me correct a mistake? It doesn't. If I'm not told, I can't fix it. I don't enjoy being wrong and I don't enjoy looking like an idiot. I was fortunate enough that Kelly was told by one of the friendly camp of performers that we ran long and it could pose a problem. That's the only reason and culturally speaking, the friend was going out on a limb in breaking that code of silence.

I have been full of frustration and loathing these last couple of days. I have not been taking it like a champ.

Friday, February 5, 2010


Yesterday's pre-show brought a couple of really great audience moments.

Our pre-show is really simple: we toss a huge balloon around the audience. To some (many?) this smacks of the brain-dead school of clowning, perhaps only exceeded in crapitude by doing anything while using a whistle or simply walking up behind someone and kicking them in the butt. However, it's not laziness or lack of creativity, but it's a simple way of connecting with a lot of people in a shirt amount of time (5 minutes), which then makes the last little bit run more smoothly. The balloon grabs attention from all the way across the house and generally encourages anticipation. I never would have imagined that the simple act of tossing a big balloon in the air and catching it on the tip of my outstretched finger would consistently get a good reaction of "oooooooh" from an audience. Any time we can inspire an outward reaction from an audience in Japan – especially in Kyoto – is a success and we are doing our jobs.

Anyway, there was a group of four older-than-middle-aged women in the front row and when the balloon bounced around to them, they all laughed and scrambled for it and really enjoyed bouncing it back to me, trying to get me off balance. We had them for the rest of the show. Not too long after, the balloon entered territory completely occupied by schoolkids. Waves of screams rose every time the balloon came within their collective reach and each time that happened, I could see other members in the audience – especially the four ladies – get a huge rush of joy from the whole situation.

I think one of the most valuable things I'm having reinforced while I'm here is the value of simplicity. The gags we're doing aren't innovative. They're not big-and-loud funny. They're nothing like the stuff my friends Steve and Ryan cough out in a tissue on a bad day. They're quick, they're simple, they have definite stories and are no longer than they need to be, and they rely on pacing, character, and clarity.

And they work.

I repeatedly admit to being an impatient person. I don't usually have great confidence in my abilities as a clown. I don't always find it easy to think simply.

I can say that I feel that I am doing good work here.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

You Speak Really Well

I'm making progress.

We have three new gag ideas that we have to get rolling by the end of the month. Two of them are easy easy easy. The third involves a costume build that is far beyond Kelly or my abilities to sew. We have great ideas for a two-person elephant. We'll see if we can get things done.

One thing I haven't figured out is exactly what people mean when they tell me that my Japanese is good. I wonder if they mean my pronunciation or if it's an expression that they're surprised/pleased that a foreigner is learning Japanese. Is it an expression of low expectations that have been exceeded?

Sometimes a shoe is just a shoe, but I wonder these things.