Anyone who’s known me for more than a minute or two knows I’m a big advocate of the Celebration Barn Theater. “The Barn” is a renowned theater school offering intensive summer workshops for variety and circus performers. I recently had a moment that reminded me why I’m so passionate about my favorite summer destination. Sun-season means different things to different people: invoking images of vacation for some, a busy season for others, and for still others, summer school or travel. For me, summer brings to mind all these and more, because summertime means it’s time to take workshops at The Barn.
I am sure there are many different examples of me having Barn-moments, but one particularly illustrative one occurred last week. I currently tour with Cirque Mechanics’ theatrical production, “Boom Town,” performing a rola bola act in which I balance on whiskey jugs. Our show that day was performing at a venue in a very conservative part of the country. Midway through the show the director became concerned that this particular audience didn’t think our “G” rated show was “G”-enough. The usual pretending-to-drink-whiskey-out of-the-obviously-fake-whiskey-jug part of the act wasn’t going to be a hit. Seconds before my entrance, I was told that my usual gesture of kissing the last whiskey jug probably should be cut. In fact, even the fundamental premise of the act seemed to be in question. The situation was serious enough that the show’s director, in a high degree of alarm, met me in the wings and requested me to change the act on the fly just as I stepped onto the stage.
“Boom Town” is a tightly choreographed show requiring the performers to carefully focus on our respective scenes and acts. Oh, sure, there are small moments of improvisation, but the show is engineered and carefully written: there are almost 300 light and sound cues in the ninety minute production. My typical show experience consists of hundreds, and possibly thousands, of little rituals and moments playing out in very defined succession. Being told to “change” seconds before going on stage threatened to rattle me.
With my music already started, I had to make a quick decision. Rather than dwell on all of the specific details of drinking or not drinking, kissing or not kissing, I decided on a completely new character premise. In that split second, I arbitrarily chose to allow my character to actually “hear” the music, and once that happened, a little dance worked its way into my body. With the new choice made, I had to maintain that silly little dance-premise throughout the number. This paradoxically small/big change gave me different energy, different internal dialog and (obviously) a significantly different performance. Faster, lighter, peppier, and mostly in my head extremely distracting.
The crowd responded well, but more importantly to me as I exited the stage, the director met me in the wing with a huge grin and a high five. It was a good feeling to know that, in a moment of crisis, I was able to go onstage and make on-the-fly choices that, to the audience, appeared to be planned and well rehearsed.
I can attribute that day’s victory to time spent at The Celebration Barn Theater.
The Celebration Barn Theater (www.CelebrationBarn.com) is nestled in the woods of Western Maine, USA. The school offers workshops throughout the summer, typically running between one and four weeks each. Internationally acclaimed instructors guide students through various aspects of performing arts. I’ve attended workshops on voice, mime, stage combat, circus arts, dance, and story telling, each of them adding value to and impacting my career as a circus/variety performing artist. There are several work spaces including the small theater and three additional studio spaces in the facility’s main building in addition to the vast outdoors. Up to twenty or so students typically stay in the facilities’ boarding rooms (double occupancy) and share a well-stocked kitchen. Or, if one chooses, food may be provided and the meal prep staff happily caters to custom diets.
The schedule changes from one workshop to another, but the two week “Barn Intensive” I attended last summer had what seems to be a typical daily routine. The class convened on the stage space at 9:00, just after breakfast. Dance warm-up and some group improvisation carried the class to lunch time, usually noon. After an hour break, we’d return to work for a couple hours on theatrical exercises led by one of the primary instructors. The late afternoon session, directed by a guest instructor each day, covered a variety of subjects including tumbling, stunts and writing as well as entrances and exits. After a group dinner, evening sessions were dedicated to people showing independent performance pieces for class and instructor feedback and critique.
Working as I do in the contemporary circus biz these several years now, I’ve had opportunities to share the stage with many students from the world’s top circus schools. These schools graduate students who are well trained, have a dedicated act and carry themselves with a professional attitude. I think the circus schools do precisely what they promise in preparing their graduates to work professionally in circus or variety, but in my personal experience of actually doing shows on a day to day basis, these school prepare their graduates to perform their acts under ideal conditions. And this critical detail – ideal conditions – is something this working circus artist has rarely had the luxury of enjoying.
The Barn taught me, and continues to teach me, to be a performer comfortable under duress where I’m expected to connect with the audience and convince them that the performance is under control even when it isn’t.
In the case of my recent rola bola performance, I can vividly recall the class exercises where we were given a premise and were expected to maintain that premise throughout a staged scene. Losing the premise at any point was referred to as “dropping the spoon,” a reference to holding the character premise as one holds a spoon. The exercise was quite harsh, sometimes lasting only a few seconds before the instructor declared the metaphorical spoon had been dropped and we had to start over, but after repeated efforts it became easier to keep the underlying premise going and still move forward with the scene.
Even though I haven’t mastered premise techniques, the exercises familiarized me with the situation and the notion of setting a premise, acting upon that premise and maintaining the premise for the duration of the act. In the example of my recent experience, that familiar place gave me some welcomed stability in an otherwise chaotic head game.
The premise lesson is one of many lessons I learned at the Barn. It’s impossible at this point to identify all the specific performing skills I’ve acquired because of my summer workshops in Maine. All those summers, those workshops and their respective lessons have become an integral part of my stage repertoire.
Devoting time and money to attend workshops requires dedication, but I urge anyone, aspiring artist to seasoned professional, to seriously consider investing in their career by taking part in the workshops available at the Celebration Barn Theater. It’s been an enlightening experience, one that I’m sure has impacted my career and even my life in far reaching ways.