Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Hit The Road, Jack

Recently, while doing some late night surfing on YouTube en route to an episode of full-blown insomnia, I came across two video clips of actress Holland Taylor speaking to students at Stella Adler LA. Those familiar with Taylor's work (she currently appears as Evelyn Harper on Two and a Half Men) are never disappointed with her comedic chops. What she explains in these two clips is crucial to understanding how writers, directors, and particularly actors must use their critical thinking skills in developing a character.

Understanding Taylor's advice to actors gives theatregoers an even deeper appreciation for the work of two supremely gifted performance artists who are currently gracing the stages at The Marsh. In the smaller upstairs theatre, Ann Randolph's riotously funny Loveland has been extended through April 11th (you can order tickets here). In the main theatre, Dan Hoyle recently premiered his newest one-man show, The Real Americans (for which you can order tickets here).

Taken on their own merits, each show is a theatrical tour de force. However, the chance to see both of these amazing artists performing back-to-back offers Bay area audiences a golden opportunity to grasp the sheer amount of research, imagination, and body work that goes into creating a single character (and what it takes to then polish those skills and extrapolate them to the point where an actor can flawlessly ricochet between 10-20 characters during an intense 90-minute show).

The intimacy of The Marsh's two performance spaces puts a performer so close to his audience that there is absolutely no safety net. For a stand-up performer, this is the kind of white-knuckle ride that separates the professionals from the wannabes. Think of it as an actor's version of being dropped into a game of pinball on an open stage.

While audiences are predisposed to one-man or one-woman shows, there's another factor that makes performances at The Marsh special (and it's something you won't find in most other Bay area theatres): At most performances, a healthy balance of young and old theatergoers brings a greater sense of vitality to the overall experience.

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The world is full of fascinating characters. But sometimes you have to get off your couch and out of your house to meet them. Last year, I attended one of the workshop performances of Dan Hoyle's new show about his travels through Middle America during the 2008 election season. To see the final product unveiled at The Marsh last weekend was a thrilling experience.

Dan Hoyle traveling across America.

Hoyle's artistic process and product are equally fascinating. While his observational skills and dexterity with accents are well documented, some people may not be aware that he is also a superb writer. These two paragraphs instantly grabbed my attention:
  • "After escaping the neon vortex of patriotism that is Branson, Mo., I sought out the hippie commune my parents once lived on, back in the 1970s, and found that it has returned to its rural America regular: It is now a shooting range."
  • "Everything's bigger in Texas, the Disneyland of American culture. At the Dairy Queen, they have an extra-large drink size, called 'Texas Size,' that seems made to hydrate a horse. A Texas entrepreneur doesn't have an idea or two. He has 10, and will sell you on five of them at once, even if they're all terrible."
As a political journalist, Hoyle has published numerous articles and essays in the San Francisco Chronicle and on Salon.com. You can read the ones he wrote about his journey in search of The Real Americans by clicking on the following links:
In his program notes for The Real Americans, Hoyle writes:
"When I first talked to friends about my three-month trip around Small-Town America, and workshopped the material of this show, the most common response was 'But Dan, Obama won! The country has changed!' When I got home, there was dancing in the streets of urban America as the nation elected its first black President, the most progressive in a generation.

I did not expect to make the show I have made. I wanted to create a portrait of Small-Town American heroes with bubble-bursting wit and insight. Instead, I ran into the angry populism of the folks whom Sarah Palin famously called 'the Real Americans.' But a year into Obama's presidency, the populist anger of the Town Hall rallies, the Tea Party Movement, Glenn Beck, and Fox Nation is making headlines and shaping policy. (Did death panels and Socialist healthcare kill the public option?)

I felt I had experienced something politically significant, but when I got home, people didn't believe me. I believe this anger is here to stay, and will continue to have a huge impact on our culture and politics."
In the following KQED video, Hoyle discusses what inspired his trip through Middle America while discussing the actual process of his research and how he works the body language of each character into his muscle memory.

With help from his long-time colleague, Charlie Varon, Hoyle has strengthened the front end of the show with a hilarious hip hop routine that details his goals and prepares the audience for the types of characters they will meet. He has also added a dream-like conversation with Barack Obama, who urges him to continue his work and never lose hope. Late in the show, when Dan picks up his guitar and slyly pours his frustration into a song he has written about the current state of these United States, his audience dissolves into easy laughter for more reasons than you can imagine.

Hoyle has mastered the art of using his body to denote changes in character with the grace, subtlety, and precision of a classically trained dancer. Inflections of voice, combined with changes in gaze, stance, and inhalation add depth and delineation to each word spoken by whichever character is fleetingly inhabiting Hoyle's body. His innate ability to capture the music of regional speech patterns (including clipped or dropped consonants, flattened vowels, and self-conscious mumblings whose musical pitch rises as they approach the end of a sentence) are the mark of a gifted, hard-working performance artist.

To watch Hoyle as he reenacts a conversation between four San Francisco hipsters at brunch is like attending a master class in managing multiple personality disorders. Unlike such high voltage performers as Robin Williams or John Leguizamo (who strive to dazzle you with the power and rapidity of their delivery), Hoyle often pulls back and lets the audience feel as if they are watching him work through a gentler lens as he introduces people to a variety of personalities under much more intimate circumstances.

The voices Hoyle creates are rarely declamatory. Instead, they are cozy, nurturing, and often wistful (in the way that long-time partners speak to each other in a personal kind of shorthand). In moments when Dan is conversing in an unintelligible dialect (subtitles are provided) -- or imitating an excited young Dominican who is alternately speaking in rapid-fire Spanish and English -- the musicality of his phrasing is revelatory in the way it allows us to see into each character's soul.

Whereas a performer like Jim Carrey might go for broader, more hard-hitting strokes on an emotional canvas, Hoyle paints his characters with the meticulous determination of a pointillist like Georges Seurat. There is no smoke. Nor are there mirrors. Instead, Hoyle uses his finely-tuned instrument to communicate deeply-hidden shame, a sense of scabbed-over loss, profound self-righteousness, and hard-boiled folksy ignorance while contrasting such qualities with nearly manic levels of idiotic expertise and comic enthusiasm as well as a loving tenderness that is most familial in nature.

Dan Hoyle in The Real Americans

It's easy to throw out terms like "poetry in motion" or "a one-man circus" when describing the work of an artist like Dan Hoyle. But after attending a performance of The Real Americans, you'll discover yourself struggling to find ways to accurately describe the emotional depth and intellectual breadth of what you have witnessed. You'll also want to see Hoyle's show again in the very near future so that you can revisit The Real Americans and and get to know them better.

Watching what, at first, seems like a slight and sweet young man with a naturally athletic body morph into 20+ characters of varying ages, wisdom, genders, and enthusiasm -- with a physical ease and theatrical grace that are downright uncanny -- is a dramatic experience you won't want to miss. And, for those who care about attention to physical detail, let it be known that Mr. Hoyle has a really cute belly button.

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Driving around the United States on well-paved roads in the comfort of his Ford E-150 conversion van is quite different from the experience of Clärenore Stinnes, the German race car driver who, on May 25, 1927, set out to drive around the world in an Adler Standard which, at that time, was a fairly typical car for Europeans. Following the death of her father (a German steel baron), Stinnes wanted to join her brothers in running the family business. But they would have no part of it. So she set out to become the first woman to drive around the world.

The Adler Standard mired in mud

Stinnes left Frankfurt with two mechanics and Swedish cameraman named Carl-Axel Söderström (who had recently worked with Greta Garbo). Traveling 48,000 kilometers during the course of two years, they ventured through the Siberian winter, got stuck in mud, sat in a freezing car at night listening to wolves, crossed the Gobi Desert, and even tried to drive across the Andes.

At the time, some of the places in her path had no roads. Many remote areas had never even seen an automobile, much less a crazy German woman driving across frozen Lake Baikal. Some countries were in the midst of civil war. Other parts of her itinerary went through lawless areas dominated by roving thieves and tribal warlords.
Clärenore Stinnes posing with some American Indian chiefs.

While other young women were merrily dancing the Charleston, Stinnes was negotiating with Chinese diplomats, posing with American Indians, sharing medicine with nomads, and facing down murderous Mongolians. When asked how she got from China to South America, Stinnes calmly told reporters "We went to Japan and then turned left."

Stinnes was a woman of remarkable ambition, the kind of trip planner who counted out the number of hard boiled eggs each person needed but had access to unlimited funds in a crisis. Her stubborn determination and uncompromising loyalty underline a story that is almost more fantastic than Jules Verne's 1873 novel, Around The World in 80 Days.

Upon returning home to Germany in 1929, Stinnes produced a 1931 documentary about her travels entitled Im Auto durch zwei Welten (which included the new technology of sound for moving pictures). A new film by Erica von Moeller stars Sandra Hüller as Stinnes and Bjarne Henriksen as the faithful cameraman who eventually became her husband.

What makes Miss Stinnes so special is its quasi-documentary feel (accomplished by mixing old footage from the 1931 film with recreations of various parts of the journey by modern actors). After spending an hour with the actress impersonating Stinnes, when the audience sees and hears the real Stinnes speak before the camera, it comes as quite a shock.

Sandra Hüller as Clärenore Stinnes

The following video clip from 1931's Fraulein Stinnes fahrt um die Welt gives audiences some idea of the hurdles that Stinnes and her cameraman were forced to overcome:

The current film is one of the strangest road trip movies you will ever see. Its mixture of the black and white archival footage with color scenes that have been recreated for Miss Stinnes make this grandly quixotic travelogue one of the most strangely stubborn and yet intensely satisfying adventures ever to hit the silver screen. Miss Stinnes will be shown at the Castro Theatre on Sunday, February 28 at 2:00 p.m. as part of the one-day German Gems film festival (you can order tickets here). In the meantime, enjoy the trailer:

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