Wednesday, March 21, 2018



It exists in the clowning world. And the cabaret world. And the circus.
And when you're doing all three as I have been at Teatro ZinZanni for the last few months, it exists there too. In spades.

I've talked about it before here.
It's kind of a super charged version of mingling. It's "working the room" with intent.
It's testing the waters, gauging the temperature, getting your feet wet.
It's stepping on to the killing floor and playing.
It's fun.
You're not grabbing the whole room and commanding attention. You're subtly infiltrating across the footlights. You're not drawing attention to yourself. You're insinuating your character into the atmosphere. You're delicately infusing some antic spirit onto the proceedings.
You're basically just moving about psychoanalyzing the audience while you entertain them.

But Animation, especially when you're doing "Victim Work" like I am at ZinZanni, selecting involunteers to join you onstage later on, has an important purpose. You are vetting future scene partners.

So the first animation of the evening, before the show officially starts, is perhaps the most business like. You're touching shoulders, sensing senses of humor, checking for canes or crutches or accents that might make it difficult if you cast them later on. A readiness to smile, to laugh, combined with a slight reticence is usually what I'm looking for.
When a few of us are doing it concurrently, as we are in the current show Love, Chaos, Dinner at Teatro ZinZanni, there is a palpable lift in the air, a slight intensification of the chatter that seems to say: Yes, the fourth wall is down, this is not television and the lunatics are running this particular asylum.

Veronin being Veronin.
While I'm making light hearted barbs and trading gratuitous compliments with patrons I'm also keeping an eye on seating, social groupings, family dynamics. While 7 foot yodeling dominatrix Manuela Horn glides around the room in her 1st Act beer maiden outfit she is also making decisions about who to use in her whip and leash number later in the evening when she's suited up in full patent leather and red lace regalia. The Maestro himself, illusionist Veronin is silently animating, giving people the giggles and the creeps in equal measure.
Meanwhile acrobrat Ben Wendell of The Duo Madrona is high five-ing kids as his security guard character "Bruno". It's not too loud. It's conversational. It only gets the attention of a darkened booth over here or a table of bachelorettes there. But sometimes I think that it is the clearest barometer of what that particular audience's character is going to be.

Manuela and I at the afterparty.


They're all different. They're made up of completely separate and distinct individuals. But somehow, every night, the combined character of the group congeals into a single entity, that night- and that night's only- audience. It is the most talked about subject amongst us back stage.

"How are they?"
"I like them."
"They're a little..."
"I know, right?"
"They'll warm up."
"They're weird."
"It's an oddience."

For one of the numbers I'm doing now in ZinZanni, called "East Side Story", a musical send up of West Side Story which features a dance, a knife fight and a heart wrenching- and hopefully funnybone tickling- death scene I need an involunteer to play a Riff/Tybalt inspired gang leader. The bit gets pretty ridiculous and he quickly becomes an audience favorite and for the rest of the evening he will most assuredly be getting hearty slaps on the back from his co workers or extra squeezes from his girlfriend.

But he doesn't know that yet. He's just a member of the crowd, enjoying the evening. And I'm probably animating near him- but not with him. I want to see his reaction when I play with people around him not to him. What you laugh at is a clear indicator of your personality and I still want a bit of that deer in headlights look when I pluck him from obscurity later on. It is a very secretive casting process you are engaged in with one person while you are being funny with 5 others. 

I'm not phony. I'm mega-phony.

Meanwhile animation gives you a chance to see each group's pecking order, each families hierarchy, even each section's level of drunkenness. You gather this information as you include them in a little conspiracy- a shared intent to not take ourselves too seriously tonight, suspend our cynicism along with our disbelief and have some fun.

If you've been doing it as long as I have you develop some material. Go-to gags that fit just about any situation. Entendres you can double, compliments you can turn on a dime, seemingly in the moment observations that I've used before but give a certain underlying hesitancy to so they seem newly minted. 

He Who Is The Most Relaxed, Wins.

So I noticed something the other night. I was leaning too heavily on some of these tried and true tropes. So I let go. Of course there is a level of expectation as you approach a table. You're in an outlandish costume. Your mustache is painted on with what looks like a sharpie. But rather than animating at people I animated with them. I just walked on to the floor and took what came to me. I just responded in character. In this case mad movie director Cecil B. DeGrille. And new material came. It always does when you're relaxed. When you replace the inner monologue that commands you to keep dazzling them with your cleverness shouting "What do I say next? How can I make this funny?" with a calm voice that simply says: "Breathe. Listen. Respond."

I was watching the NBA champion Golden State Warriors on a replay of a game after the show the other night. I was watching Stephan Curry doing his thing. "Steph being Steph" they call it. Another spectacular highlight laden performance. And I was struck by the fact that in the middle of that 94 by 50 hunk of wood, his stage, his killing floor, with all that attention and the highest level of athleticism and defensive skills in sport pitted against him, he was clearly the most relaxed player out there. Not pushing to make a clever pass, not relying on what he knew had worked the last time, not doing anything by rote. Just breathing, listening, responding.

Sure, there are gems you hold on to. Stuff you pull from your bag of tricks. But my favorite moments in animation come when I'm as surprised at what I say as the patrons are. That we share, in that moment in time, the creation of a new bit. Then it's up to me to remember it, to hone it and perhaps even add it to my arsenal. But every situation, every audience is different.
They all deserve my best. But sometimes- I never thought I'd say this- less really is more.


Monday, December 11, 2017

Containing Multitudes.

Containing Multitudes.

I'm currently playing 20 characters in a 5 actor adaptation of Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days. One actor plays the unflappable Phileas Fogg and the rest of the cast plays key parts like his erstwhile servant Passepartout, the dogged Detective Fix and Aooda, the girl he rescues plus a few assorted British noblemen and Indian elephant sellers.
I play everybody else.
20 characters.
20 different accents.
20 different costumes.
20 separate and distinct body types.
20 velcro enabled, dresser assisted whirlwinds in the wings to change everything from boots to facial hair and everything in between.
All packed into 1 sweaty, frantic and strangely invigorating evening of performing.
9 shows a week.
For 4 weeks.
That's 720 characters in 1 month.
But who's counting.

And each character is clamoring for his (or her) own respect, truthfulness and integrity. Each character possesses his (or her) own gait, gestures and grievances. Each character is trying to get his (or her) laughs.

I've done this kind of thing before. Most recently I played 20 characters in a one man adaptation of The Dybbuk at San Diego Repertory Theatre. Previously I've played 28 characters in a one man adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities, 22 characters in The Boneman of Benares and 38 characters in The Thousandth Night. In those one man shows the costume changes were usually done in full view of the audience. A scarf or a hat suggested the new character. A pillow became a hunchback or boobs or a pregnant belly. The rest was up to me.
Playing 20 Characters in The Dybbuk.

But in Around the World in 80 Days I get the whole enchilada. Costumer extraordinaire B. Modern and her team assembled a whole closet full of period garb, rigged it all with snaps and magnets and Velcro patches, attached beards and mutton chops and mustaches to hats and caps and helmets and for 2 hours each night I dive in and out of it all while trying to pop onstage with the right lines in the right accent spoken by the correct character.


This is just the kind of demanding fun I like. Most actors give themselves a little moment to settle in to who they are portraying before making an entrance. I don't get that moment. A fully fledged character has to be put on in seconds, then erased and replaced by the next one while desperately trying to put my hand in the right sleeve or apply the next mustache. And then bang, I'm back on. Sometimes you come on so flushed with the fact that you made the quick change in time to make your entrance that it takes a moment to remember who you are. You are out of breath. But the character isn't. He (or she) is just coming on to play the scene. So one of the delicious challenges of multi character work is respiratory. How to keep breathing onstage while a breathless scramble awaits you offstage at every exit. How to give each character at least a fighting chance to play, have fun and be his (or her)self.
Ralph Gautier of the Reform Club starts in on a monoclelog.


Finding these characters and distinguishing them from each other calls upon some particularly keen observation. I generally start with the chin, one of my favorite body parts. Where a person wears their chin can color not only their posture and attitude but their entire outlook on life. And when you're playing multi characters distinguishing chin placement goes a long way. The arrogance of the upturned chin works nicely in contrast with the tucked chin of a shy person. Angle that same chin and suddenly we don't trust this guy.
But that's just the beginning. Actors talk of a character's center. (My Colonel Procter in Around the World in 80 Days is decidedly belly centered for example) but few actors speak of a character's tether, that part of them that leads, that moves them through space, ambulates them from one place to another.
Colonel Proctor. (Photo by Kevin Berne)


Each character (person) has a different relationship with gravity. This may manifest itself in how the spine is worn. Which may in turn color the baseline emotional state of the character. Truly, the body has a sense memory.
Try saying "It's a beautiful day" while wearing the body of someone beset with heavy gravity, bent spine and tucked chin and you will feel what I mean. 


Other questions I try to answer for each character include:
Is he large or small, fast or slow?
Where does he keep his hands?
What is his "home"? (The posture he is most comfortable in.)
What personal quirk, tick, twitch or habitual mannerism does he rely on?
What is his relationship in space to the other characters? (Is he a space invader or a space evader?)
Does he flow or is there something more jagged there?
What is at war within him and what side is winning?

Acting is the study of everything. And coming up with 20 separate and distinct characters for Around the World in 80 Days has tested my resources. Sometimes you borrow from our shared culture.
Captain Bunsby. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

Captain Bunsby.

My Captain Bunsby of the Tankadere, who takes Phileas Fogg from Hong Kong through the storms to Yokohama sounds a bit like Quint from Jaws and a bit like Sterling Hayden. (Who was originally slated to play Quint in Jaws by the way.) 

He has a mouth full of gravel, an erect chin, a bent spine and lives in his own cloud of increased gravity. His center is his grizzled beard and for a tether he sports a wooden leg. A fear of the sea and a thirst for adventure are at war within him. His hands are fists and they're most at home in his pea coat pockets. He has a habit of stroking his beard that he's not aware of.
He's on stage for about 5 minutes and then limps off, his wooden leg leading the way, never to be seen again. But 2 seconds later I'm back on again, wearing a maid's dress and bonnet and a whole new set of decisions sculpting me. 


Emperor Norton.
Suez Consul.

Beautiful Contradictions.

Sure there are stereotypes here. Easy ways to latch on to a character and pigeon hole him into an easily recreate-able cypher. And that's where an actor's malleability and keen sense of observation comes in. To look for not only the broad strokes of what makes a character recognizable but the deeper exploration of the qualities (and contradictions) that make him human.

A line from Song of Myself from Whitman's Leaves of Grass reminds us that we are never just one thing, and all the quirks, imperfections, and contradictions are par for the course. And what differentiate us. All 20 of us in Around the World in 80 Days.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself;
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

      -Walt Whitman

Life size game of Risk ends badly.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Finding Eddie at The Speakeasy

Over the Moon at The Speakeasy (w/ Jon Deline)

You find yourself in a random street corner somewhere near the border of North Beach and Chinatown in San Francisco. The smells of simmering garlic risotto and sizzling Szechwan mingle in the evening air. You've been told to keep your eye out for a fellow in a faded overcoat and a canary colored fedora. You see him slouched insouciantly against a lamp post. He whispers a password to you past his down turned brim and upturned collar, gestures with a granite jaw towards either a Chinese laundry or a dusty clock shop. A goon at the door puts a hand the size of a porterhouse steak against your chest.
"Password." he grumbles.
"Skidoo." you reply.

With a grunt he lets you pass and you make your way down the rabbit hole.
You're in one of two places: either Sam Lee's Laundry Emporium or Joe's Clock Shop. Let's say you're in Joe's. The place is littered with clocks in various states of disrepair on every available surface. A desk bristles with springs and cogs and clock faces from every drawer. There's no Joe. Instead a dame in a sequined dress that fits her curves in all the right places reclines on a bentwood chair. Her gimlet eyes smolder at you. 
"Are you here to get a clock fixed?" she murmurs, lips painted the color of a day old bloodstain.
"Not really." you manage to stammer.
"Then you've come to the right place." She purrs and gestures you with lacquered nails towards a grandfather clock that probably last worked sometime around 1902. 
You open the door that should contain the innards of the clock. That's when you hear it. Music. Ragtime. A honky tonk waltz. You step into the clock and out the other side...

And you are in an illicit gambling den filled with flappers and dandies, swells and slatterns, bootleggers and roustabouts all decked out in the full regalia of 1923. You make your way past a Bellows boxing painting that hangs above a roulette table, past craps and blackjack players hunched over the green felt of the gambling tables, their chips clicking together in their sweaty palms and past an outstretched gloved hand holding a long cigarette holder belonging to a women resplendent in spit curls. Everyone is drinking. 

A bookshelf glides to one side on hidden wheels and you find yourself in a bar where a mustachioed piano player named Oscar Frost plinks out some forgotten moonshine sonata on a creaky upright. A bouncer with a face like a clenched fist and tougher than the calluses on a barflies' elbow gives you a wink and sends you through a secret passage marked only by a Dégas forgery. You make your way down a long hallway. Still more music beckons you past a velvet curtain the color of a bottomless lake. 

You emerge into The Palace Theatre Cabaret, swollen with swells swilling in the sepia glow of their table lamps or spilling over the mezzanine above the bouquets of drunken boozers in the booths. 
And onstage, caught in the glare of the footlights is a bevy of beauties in matching sequined hot pants kicking their long legs in perfect unison to the din of Mr. Arnie Topman and his Infamous Five. 

In the center of the chorus girls a man in a top hat and tails sings. He's the master of ceremonies, an ever ready joker with a bucket full of clever asides in his brain pan, sporting a jet black wig and a powdered face. His name is Eddie. The song ends and he raises a flask in your direction, his lips inches from a 1923 vintage microphone and says in a voice redolent of that era "So glad you could make it. Welcome to The Speakeasy!"

Three swells swilling.

Under Construction.

It started back in 2016 and even before that at another venue in 2014 and is the brainchild of Mr. Nick Olivero of Boxcar Theatre and his peripatetic business partner David Gluck. I was brought on to create the role of Eddie the Unlucky, the irrepressible gadfly emcee of the cabaret (loosely based on Eddie Cantor and a host of other comic luminaries of the Prohibition era) in their immersive theatre  recreation of a 1923 speakeasy.  I had just emcee'd the Theatre Bay Area Theatre Awards at the Geary Theatre for Nick and he asked if I was interested in creating Eddie for this 3 million dollar project he was embarking on in San Francisco. The venue was still fully under construction. It was a dusty, echo-y inhospitable environment to do theatre in. Now, almost a year later it is one of the hottest tickets in the city. And "Eddie" is at the center of it.

Becoming Eddie.

First was finding the material. Nick had done the heavy lifting of creating a cabaret order of where the specialty acts, the chorus girls, the comedy vignettes, the dream ballets would go. Eddie would be the one to tie them all together and keep the ball rolling. The only rule: nothing written after 1923. Authentic vaudeville humor. That plus what turned out to be seven songs, mostly from the Eddie Cantor songbook; If You Knew Susie, The Dumber They Come, She Don't Like It Not Much, etc. along with classics Lonesome Pine and even Those Were The Days are sprinkled throughout the evening with patter and plain ol' stand up of the time which needed to be part history lesson and part crowd control and all funny all the time. That's not true. When things go awry Eddie waxes philosophical and even holds forth with a Shakespeare soliloquy.

The Flannerelles.
Body of Work, Work of Body.

Luckily, Eddie Cantor was an extraordinary source of wit and ribald humor for generations and we were able to cobble together a kind of greatest hits and misses into Eddie's monologues from his vast body of work. And after a couple of months I started thinking like Eddie. Seeing the world through his cockeyed eyes. 
But then came the physicality. There's plenty of footage available of Eddie in the 30's and 40's. (He was one of those rare ones that went from vaudeville to radio to television without losing any of his well deserved popularity.) But there is precious little of the work he was doing pre 1923. Just a few grainy kinescopes and some scratchy audio. 
My first clue into him was his eyes. Throughout his career he affected a goggle eyed look, eyebrows in a perpetual state of astonishment. Next came his hands, splayed and fan like, as if the palms were capturing the limelight and the fingers were directing it directly to his garrulous face. His hips were square, retaining some of that early 20th century Puritan stiffness above feet that were like mirrors of his inner state: lively, jivey and almost irrepressibly delighted at everything he saw, heard or suspected might be on the horizon.

The interesting challenge was that he was small in stature. And that was part of his charm. And I wanted that. I wanted to cram his Napoleon complex into my 6' frame. I went to my favorite body part: the chin. By tucking it, while still letting my eyebrows have that Cantoresque buoyancy, I found I could feel like the world was a little bit bigger than me. Eddie is almost coy. But because he's got a trick or two up his sleeve, it's actually decoy. That along with a slightly oversized costume seems to do the trick.

Giggle Juice and Tonsil Varnish

Since developing the role, they've had 2 others playing Eddie in The Speakeasy (including the aforementioned impresario Nick Olivero) but I like to think that Eddie Cantor himself, up in front of those footlights in the sky, is looking down with those big eyes of his and smiling, knowing we're all doing our best to give the swell swells of 2017 a little glimpse into a time when girls had gams, goons packed heat and giggle juice could get you daffy at The Speakeasy.

Eddie the Unlucky at the afterparty.

Friday, February 05, 2016

The Involunteers.

The Involunteers.

This one goes out to my victims. The Involunteers.

I just returned from a five month gig in Seattle at Teatro Zinzanni. I was playing the mad movie director Cecil B. DeGrille. The show was called Hollywood Nights and in it Teatro ZinZanni doubled as "Chez Francine" a fabulous French restaurant presided over by none other than the divine Miss FrancineReed, blues legend and longtime partner in song with Lyle Lovett. Our concept was that on this night of all nights the biggest Hollywood director, Cecil B. DeGrille is coming for dinner. The restaurant staff (all played by an international cast of sensationally talented performers, each with their own amazing act) are thrown into a tizzy. I come in and immediately decide that Chez Francine is the perfect location for my next cinematic masterpiece. That's the set up. Besides a lot of comedy and lots of intros and outros throughout the evening I'm responsible for the audience involvement part of the show.
And that means victims. Lots of them. 
97 shows.
6 victims per show.
That's 576 complete strangers I invite to join me in the spotlight.
576 random elements that I must select as fodder for funny.
576 unpredictable, usually raucous, sometimes delightful, often inebriated involunteers I must cast in the "movie" sections that presage each course of ZinZanni's 5 star meal.
But what to do with these sometimes unwilling, sometimes overly garrulous, sometimes shy, sometimes belligerent  patrons who have paid more than a hundred dollars to escape the world or their wives or themselves and enter the 105 year old Spiegeltent that is Teatro ZinZanni?

I arrive for rehearsal a week before the rest of the cast and they put me and fellow former Cirque du Soleil clown Joe DePaul in a room with a stage manager to take notes and away we go. For six days we jam. We crack each other up. We brainstorm. (Okay, sometimes it's just a drizzle but you get the idea.) We have to come up with three bits that involve audience members that will be interspersed throughout the three hours of what ZinZanni calls Love, Chaos and Dinner. Of course there will also be juggling, trapeze, contortion, something called the Chinese pole, even an opera aria. But at the center of it all are the three audience involvement sections. That's me. Me and whoever I pick. 
We're lucky. The evening's concept is built around Cecil's megalomaniac film director so we have the pantheon of movie clichés to work with. And there is a formula. These are, when all is said and done, games. Party games supported by props and lights and fabulous costumes, yes, but games. And one rule: the victim must win. I can make fun of them, I can embarrass them but in the end they win. They get an ovation. Their loved ones love them more. They survive, the unscathed stars of the evening. In the lobby after the show I see them, all smiles, getting high fives and adulation from other patrons who weren't lucky enough to be selected. It feels good.

Choosing victims is an art. For my first bit of the evening we create a piece in which I cast an extra to play a part in a kind of Downtown Abbey/Masterpiece Theatre scenario in which he must first become a butler and then say a line and deliver the Queen her royal tea. The queen dies (It's Helen Mirren's stand-in's dummy) and my victim must revive her. Hilarity ensues. The victim's victory comes at the end as we actually film him, at this point holding the ankles of a spreadeagled Queen aloft making "a sound that is filled with joy, anger, confusion, regret, triumph and sorrow".

At the end of he evening we will actually show a trailer of the Cecil B. DeGrille movie with our real victims from that evening spliced in. 

Basically the formula with victim work is a lot like what I've discussed in these pages before: getting a clown in trouble. Every involunteer gets a couple fairly easy tasks and then an impossible one. And "real people" are a strange lot I found. You never know what they're going to do. And that's what makes it so damn fun.
But how to pick them?
Usually you forage. During what's called "Animation" you move among the tables. You touch shoulders. You make funny. You check for wedding rings or canes. It's psychology at 100 miles an hour. You go with your gut. For my second bit of the evening I need a couple who don't know it yet but by the end will be kissing in slow motion in a love scene at a Moscow train station. 
I want fun- but not crazy. I want slightly reticent- but not painfully shy. (Nothing kills laughs like seeing someone in agony under a follow spot.) 
You use your radar. This bit worked best when it was an older couple who were perhaps celebrating an anniversary (my record was 47th) and still have that little spark in their smile. The victory moment in this bit was of course the kiss and when it worked right 300 people let out a chorus of awwww's. This lead directly into the audience dance section of the show and when the feeling was there it was true magic. 
 Going for the juggler.
 Of course that bit was later in the evening, after I'd had a chance to smooze and covertly vet them. But the first victim was selected from afar as I awaited my first entrance in The Producer's Booth, tucked behind a window that gave me a good view of the crowd. Body language, attitude, pecking order, engagement were my only barometers on whether someone was going to be a joy or a jerk. Actually by the end of the run it didn't matter. Even the jerks were a joy. 

-->Of course there are stand outs among them. I'll never forget a man's wife who, when I asked her husband if there was anyone in the world he had a special chemistry with, yelled out from the audience "His mother!"  It brought the house down.

I remember too the guy who I cast as one of my samurai- I had a bit with three victims playing villagers in a Kurosawa style epic that culminated in cutting a cabbage in half in mid air with my katana-  who came to the show twice and both times I cast him again (not recognizing him) in the same role. 

Cabbage cole slaughtered.
So thank you victims, each and every one. As soon as I pulled you out of the safety of your seat and onto my tightrope in the center of the room the energy in the room quadrupled. Every time I leave a space for you to do something or ask you a question the audience knows we are all moving into unknown territory. We all await my response to your response together. And after twenty or so shows I'm pretty much ready for whatever you're going to say. If I've picked the right victim you'll become my unwitting straightman, setting them up so I can knock 'em down.

So that's a wrap on Hollywood Nights at Teatro ZinZanni. Thank you, involunteers. Take a bow. 

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Akuma Barai. 悪魔払い

Akuma Barai. 悪魔払い

New Year's Eve.
Don't get it. Never got it.
It feels like a completely arbitrary chronological indicator of unrealized potential. Yes, there is physical evidence that 365 days is a worthy placeholder in our collective book of days with the seasons and their ancient and mostly forgotten- unless you're a farmer or a haiku poet-  inexorable march through time. But in a world where climate conditions have gone wonky and unpredictable and the only rituals that still make a blip on my personal radar are year's end top ten lists and the arrival of Screen Actors Guild screener DVDs in the mailbox.

So I don't get it.
The screaming, the goofy 2o17 goggles, the seeming requirement to gulp gallons of bad champagne like a man gasping for air at an oasis of bubbles. The standing in public squares with thousands of others waiting for balls to drop in the freezing cold while their own retreat up into their bodies.    

I'm not one for crowds anyway but multiply that by thousands of crazed imbeciles celebrating another tick on the mangy back of a dog of a lifetime by shooting live ammo into the air (I live in Oakland) like manic children playing cowboy while quaffing adult beverages by the bucketful.

Yes, New Years celebrations are a ritual and I'm all about ritual but all that rampant enthusiasm just doesn't jibe with the solemn fact that the previous year, however celebration worthy it may have been, is still packed with 365 days worth of dire events, dreadful occurrences and let's face it; Death.
And the next year will be too. Yeah, one night of unbridled optimism doesn't hurt anyone and it's good to blow off steam at least once a year but
you just won't find me pressed up against a metal cordon with two thousand strangers in the middle of the night to yell at a clock.

That said, there's something to it. This out with the old, in with the new positivism has ancient roots and I wanted in. My Druid forebears probably partied pretty hard on those prehistoric evenings when the heavenly stars and their towering stones aligned. The turning of the great wheel is measurable perhaps and I didn't want to deprive myself of the mystery of renewal and rebirth.

Sensei Diamantstein
My Sensei at Nishi Kaigan Iaido Dojo, Andrej Diamantstein, Kyoshi, has a New Year's tradition. At 11:30 on December 31st we have a practice. We swing into the new year with the swinging of steel blades. After practice we have a potluck and lots of toasts and hilarity. But at the moment the clock strikes twelve the only sound you hear is the squeak of bare feet and tabi on polished wood and the unmistakable swish of three foot razor blades cutting the air.

Hannya Mask. Actually a wronged woman
Everyone has demons.
We face them all year. The demons of procrastination, addiction and apprehension prey on us all at one time or another.
And anyone who says they don't is probably under the influence of yet another manifestation: the Demon of Denial.
That's why, on the final hour of one year and the first hour of the next we only do three Waza.

 (Waza are forms of imagined scenarios that include unsheathing, cutting imaginary opponents in meticulously prescribed ways, clearing the, again, imagined viscera from our blades and re sheathing (noto) and returning to our starting position.)

One of the Waza we only do at this time of year. It's special. The last time I saw it was seven years ago. It is called Akuma Barai which basically means "Cutting down the  demons". I can only describe it as a piece of physical poetry. The scenario, or bunkai of a this Waza involves no less than five opponents and when performed well looks like a flower opening in one of those time lapse shots you see on the nature channel. Only this flower is deadly. And when it's done, the imaginary opponents, in this case demons, should crumple softly like fallen leaves around the iaidoka as he returns the blade quietly to its resting place scabbard or saya in Japanese.

The general feeling is one of profound resolve as the opponents attack from all sides. You can't help but feel after performing it a frisson of triumph and a delicate unveiling of the possibility of a world where the demons lay vanquished and the future stretches out before you, untarnished by the past. It is the perfect Waza for a new beginning. And a perfect way to greet a new day. Or a new year. Even if it is just an arbitrary tick of a clock.

Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu.


Happy New year.