I Sometimes Feel

I sometimes feel
That the shoes I’m wearing are not mine.
But your shoes are mine.
The shoes in the corner of your room,
The ones with the scuff near the pinky toe,
Made when you boarded the bus
And your toe was snagged
By the metal stripping on the last step.
The snag was made
By that crazy encyclopedia salesman with the curly hair
Who insisted on riding the bus
With his goods in tow,
Laboriously lugging his huge metal book case,
Day after day.
You knew it would lead to trouble for you.
And it did.
You remember that day well.
Watching the bus driver look
More often into the rear view mirror
Than on the road ahead.
It was the day you first noticed
He had a tattoo
And you figured the guy was in the Navy,
Because it was 1963, and your father always told you
Only hoodlums and Navy men had tattoos.
And you hated the thought of his being a hoodlum.
Remember?
You were in such an irritable mood
Because you had scuffed your shoe,
When you asked him
About the “ink stains” on his arm
He told you he didn’t want to see you
On his bus again.
And he didn’t.
You must remember.
I remember.
I sometimes feel
As though I am everyone,
Every single person that ever lived.
I sometimes feel
As though I am everyone else
But me.

Creating a Backstory

Michael Armenia in the role of Federzoni, the lens grinder, in “Life of Galileo”, 2013.

Federzoni is a lens grinder. That’s about all Bertolt Brecht gives us in his play, “Life of Galileo” which was written in 1938. Although from the text of the play, we can surmise few things more, notably that he is a student and assistant to Galileo Galilei, the protagonist. And unlike Galileo and other assistants, Federzoni cannot read Latin. Yet, with no formal education, he is passionate about learning. So, who is Federzoni and why is it important that we know such a trivial character?

Federzoni isn’t the easiest name to pronounce merely because it isn’t familiar. As it is all that Brecht gave us, let’s give him a first name and call him Enrico. You know what? Let’s take it a step further and give him a nickname.: Enni or Enny or perhaps Rico. I did not do this much when I played Federzoni in 2013. But, I did create a backstory, just enough to give an identity or individualization for a character whose stage presence was brief.

A lens grinder naturally grinds glass. And Galileo knew Enrico was one of the best lens grinders in all of Venice, making eyeglasses fashionable since their invention in Italy at the beginning of the 14th century. Enrico was skilled at his craft, but everyone makes mistakes. One day at the grinding wheel he was distracted and the wheel propelled fragments of glass into his right eye, blinding him. And so, I wore an eye patch as a physical manifestation of the story and in gave the character a distinguishing feature. So, what made this skilled lens grinder lose his focus (the pun is only partially intended)?

It was his passion for knowledge and learning. He was a true philosopher – he loved (philo) wisdom (sophia). But without a formal education, the best he could do at the time was to work with Galileo and vicariously satiate his hunger for a universe revealed by Copernicus to be heliocentric. He did not read the works of Copernicus in Latin, but he had read De l’Infinito, Universo e Mondi (On the Infinite, Universe and Worlds) written by Giordano Bruno in 1584, which among Bruno’s other works was the most damaging to the world view of the Catholic church.

[Bruno connected Copernicus’ heliocentric theory with the idea of other populated worlds orbiting other stars. So, not only was the earth no longer the center of the universe, ‘man’ was no longer at the center of the universe. Vatican alarms went off! You can just imagine theologians pacing: “And what of man’s God and the savior? Was Jesus Christ the savior for other people on an infinite number of worlds? Are their other saviors for these worlds? The Bible doesn’t speak of these worlds, only man and our world. And the Bible is God’s word. So, no! This heresy cannot be allowed. ” Copernicus’s works were not prohibited by the Vatican, but their teaching was. Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600. Galileo recanted and was put under house arrest.]

Let’s now conclude as much of the backstory that I gave to Enrico. Although Bruno had written many works in Latin, he had also written a number of dialogues in Italian, his mother tongue. For he truly believed that in order to effect the religious reform which he desired, his work needed to be accessible by peasants and farmers as much as the clergy and scholars. The concepts in De l’Infinito, Universo e Mondi absolutely fascinated Enrico. The day after he first read the dialogue he could not help visualizing these other worlds that Bruno suggested. Even at the grinding wheel these thoughts dominated. While his mind’s eye saw visions of world’s revolving around what had been previously thought to be the ‘fixed’ stars, his real eye saw shards of glass as his hands relaxed and slipped off the wheel. One could say (to corrupt a phrase from another brilliant man not yet born at that time) he ‘saw a universe in grains of sand.’

Creating a backstory can be a formidable instrument in an actor’s process of forging a character. No matter how large or small the role, there is infinite room for a backstory; limitations exist only in the actor’s mind. In fact, the smaller the role, the larger the backstory should be. Non-speaking characters should have the largest backstories – at least, that is what I would encourage my cast members to explore throughout the rehearsal process. Write it. Draw it. Paint it. Sculpt it. Talk about it. What results could be described as magic; with an audience having no knowledge or sensory contact to any backstory, they are still affected by it through the actor’s performance. In the alchemical process of creating a character, the backstory is the philosopher’s stone added into the alembic while the heat of an actor’s work is applied. The backstory once instilled in the actor’s imagination is transformed on stage into authenticity, belief, truth – all which can be exuded merely through a posture, a glare in the eye, a facial tic, or her gait as she exits stage left.

There’s no end to a backstory. It can be transformed into a work of art. I’ve taken one to that extreme. A backstory of a very minor character in a tense drama was flushed out into an epilogue, and finally into a short play called A Streetcar Named Napoleon.

So, who’s your character? Write your story. It doesn’t need to live on the written page or in a blog (although that could enhance the effect). A home in your imagination is all that’s required to bring magic to the stage.

Meaningful Synchronicity: Enameling

Looking through my art books today in the throes of reducing my personal library by at least fifty percent (what I call “The Great Culling of 2020” which I’d like to write about later), I pulled from one box ‘The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini’ illustrated by Salvador Dali. I had saved that book for decades, as well as ‘Essays’ by Michel de Montaigne (also illustrated by Salvador Dali) because the illustrations are outstanding, some of Dali’s most magnificent work! As it was highly prized by two of my favorite mentors, Giordano Bruno and William Shakespeare, Montaigne’s ‘Essays’ is on my short list to read this year and awaits my attention on a shelf in my bedroom . But as I held Cellini’s book in my hands, I wondered if I shouldn’t also consider reading it, too. Perhaps the fact that Dali illustrated both books speaks to the virtue of Cellini’s writing, as comparable to that of Montaigne. But the illustrations were the only reason that this autobiography was in my box of art books in the first place.

I decided to open the book to an arbitrary page and read a little. Here is the first sentence that caught my eye, the first sentence of the second paragraph just above the middle of the page:

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I must not omit the exquisite art of enamelling, in which I have never known and one excel, save a Florentine, our countryman, called Amerigo. I did not know him, but was well acquainted with his incomparable masterpieces. Nothing in any part of the world or by any craftsman that I have seen, approached the divine beauty of their workmanship.

I then flipped pages, read an occasional sentence, and it did seem more an more intriguing as I went along. But why should I submit to reading the biography of this 16th century Italian artist? Why not another? So I set the book aside with the others I planned to keep and repack into the box.

The next book I pulled out, one I often used as a reference from time to time, was ‘Outlines of Chinese Symbolism & Art Motives’ by C.A.S. Williams. Differences in book subjects as well as their cultural disparity made this consecutive book selection from the box seem quite random to me. . . or so it would seem. I opened to an arbitrary page from which I would also begin a journey of flipping from spot to spot. I opened to page 174. Imagine my surprise when I read the section title in the middle of the page , “ENAMELWARE”, and no doubt its equivalent in Chinese characters just below. If that doesn’t put a tingle in your spine, know this: the first sentence of the second paragraph begins with the phrase, “the art of enameling.” That sentence reads as follows:

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The art of enameling is said to have been introduced into China from Constantinoble by the Arabs, and the Chinese term Fa lan t’ieh, “iron of Fa-lan,” is said to be derived from Folin, a medieval name for Stamboul, though others believe that Fa lan is equivalent to Frank or France.

After the stun wore off, I set both books aside with the intention of writing about this uncanny synchronicity. So here we are. One can take a sign in many ways, especially when the path is indirect, obtuse, and protracted. So I choose to give meaning to this synchronicity and that meaning is a simple message: yes, there is something for me in this book – find it.

Did Shakespeare read Cellini’s autobiography? Did any of Cellini’s philosophy make it into Shakespeare’s works? Did Shakespeare transform any experience of Cellini’s work into his own uniVERSE? (That is intended as more of a provocative question than a pun…but it’s also punny!)

Now I will put the book of Chinese symbolism back in the box and make a new home for ‘The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini’ in my bedroom, in a spot right next to Montaigne’s ‘Essays’.