Open Wounds

Philli MAGPI Redux

So here’s what happened at University of Penn, at ten in the morning on Wednesday last week. Well… I have to back up. After putting together my Powerpoint for the workshop, going over it with my actor/choreographer friend Dave, reading lines of my book, and getting everything ready to be able to leave at 4:15 am – I got into the car and… the battery was dead. So… after wracking my tired brain for ten minutes and trying everything I could think of (turn the key on and off, open the hood and shut the hood, try turning the lights on again and again and again) I gave up and went back upstairs to tell my wife I would have to take the other car. Of course that meant, 1) I woke up the dogs (Spike and Gracie) and 2) I woke up my wife (I didn’t know where the other car was parked and this is Queens so it could be anywhere so… I had to wake her up) – neither of which were happy. Okay the dogs were happy because they thought they were going out but that’s another story.

Fifteen minutes later and I was off to the Verrazano Bridge and Staten Island where Dave was now checking his watch and waiting for me. Behind me were an unhappy, awake wife and two smiling dogs.

We spent an hour on the Jersey Turnpike heading south and west.

We made it to the MAGPI studio, after breakfast at COSI (not bad – didn’t know they had breakfast) by 9am, as required, to check in and go over the distance learning machinery. Michael Knight, the technician arrived and showed us around, then set us up. It was a small TV studio with four cameras and two big plasma screens on the wall that we could see the remote sites on. The cover of my book which I’d embedded on four slides, had disappeared. They needed the originals to show up. I didn’t understand what happened to the images but they were gone. Michael found the pics on my website and after twenty minutes of transfer attempts and switching laptops, and statements like, “you used a mac didn’t you?” and “Sometimes this happens,” he made the presentation whole. with fifteen minutes to spare we were ready to go.

Three schools checked in from Ohio, all high school English classes. One large picture and two small pictures appeared of the classes on the plasma screen. A picture of me and Dave appeared on the other screen. My Powerpoint appeared behind us and our picture got smaller. I taught a writing workshop on “How to Write Action Scenes,” presumably because Open Wounds has a lot of action scenes in it and I therefore had some expertise in this area. Dave (a real actor as opposed to me who is an amateur) was terrific as all the characters, especially Lefty (my crippled, English, WWI vet) and I played Cid and narrated. Dave’s a good director so he dragged some semblance of character and pace out of me while providing four different voices for the various other characters. We demonstrated some physicalization of fencing moves – ie: here’s how I worked out the fight we just read before I wrote it. The kids did a writing exercise and one student from each school read their piece out loud. They asked questions like, “Why do you like to write fight scenes? How do you write realistic dialog?” and “Why do you write?” Sixty minutes came and went.

What I learned about distance learning systems:

  1. It’s very hard to call on kids when they raise their hands. “The boy in the black shirt (they’re all wearing black shirts) in the top screen (they don’t know which screen they’re on), yes that one over there (I point ridiculously at one screen or the other). I finally figured out to say things like, “The boy next to the teacher wearing a yellow shirt (so glad the teachers were wearing something other than black).” What I’ll need to do next time (will there be a next time?) is write down which school is in which frame and call out the school and a description of location (boy in the middle at Ohio High). It will be better than my automatic response of pointing which, of course they could not figure out at all because of the perspective they had of me … well… pointing.
  2. Michael Knight, the technician, used to be a stage, sound, lighting, expert on the road for all kinds of entertainers and bands and easily gets points for telling the best stories about the stars he’s worked with. He’s tops in Dave and my book.
  3. I’ve got a shiny forehead. Yes, I do.
  4. Powerpoint is good and always helps. It creates structure for any presentation and is a nice counterpoint to my shiny forehead.
  5. There’s no instant feedback on jokes because of the distance and lack of mikes being on at each site. They are all mute and have to un-mute to speak. So it was like talking to a silent audience – always a tough performance and difficult to get  a read on how you’re doing.
I think the students enjoyed the workshop, overall. I hope they did. I could be better. I can always be better. And it’s good to have a friend such as Dave who took a day off work to come to Phili with me after getting up at 4am for one hour of playing second banana to me. He’s a true friend.
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