reflecting on the frame
It’s a couple of months since The Chosen
closed at TheatreWorks
in the South Bay. I played Reb Saunders, a tzaddik
, the spiritual leader of a Brooklyn Hasidic community that he had led out of Russia after a devastating pogrom. The play is a recent adaptation of the 1967 novel by Chaim Potok which became an instant classic and may well be the most widely read modern American novel about Jewish life.
This was the first major production outside Traveling Jewish Theatre that I’ve done in 31 years. The last one was at the Public Theatre in New York: Joseph Chaikin’s production of The Dybbuk, arguably the best known play from the Yiddish theatre and one of the only ones to have “crossed over,” via translation, to mainstream American and European success.
I’ve been intrigued by the symmetrical framing around my 31 years as co-founder and core member of TJT
by these two productions of extremely well-known Jewish works, and I thought I’d reflect on this notion on this blog. Well, friends, I’m now at 37 pages, over 10,000 words, and there’s a lot more where that came from.
Each time I’ve opened that file, ostensibly to cut it down to something postable, I end up writing more and cutting exactly nothing. In writing about my experiences in New York, working on The Dybbuk, for example, I find myself telling you how I first read the play in Los Angeles and then, of course, I need to write about what I wa
s doing in Hollywood in the first place which has to include my experiences in the UCLA Theatre Department in the early sixties and so it goes, back and forth between childhood, middle age, youth, Jewish identity, avant-garde theatre in America, the founding of TJT… The common thread is the search for the events, the moments of insight and struggle, the teachers and teachings that shaped the actor that I became.
It’s obvious to me that some faction of my inner editorial board has seized control and is off and running on a book-length memoir.
But I really need to co
mplete this post so I can get back to work on the two plays I’m writing, on the music and language experiments I’ve been recording, on my 2009 tax returns…
So here’s the compromise: I’m going to post a handful of excerpts, that can stand on their own, from the growing body of memoir material. Please let me know how they hit you in the “comments” below.
Photos above from The Chosen at TheatreWorks by Mark Kitaoka (top)and Tracy Martin (two lower photos). Pictured with Corey is Thomas Goorebeeck as Daniel
At some point in the early seventies, the Mark Taper Forum, L.A.’s resident theatre that sits between freeways in what is ironically called “Downtown” in a city that has no center, produced a version of The Dybbuk translated and directed by one of Canada’s most respected directors, John Hirsch. I auditioned for the lead role of Chanon, the young scholar who dies of a broken heart and comes back as the eponymous Dybbuk to possess the body and unite with the soul of his beloved Leah.
The Dybbuk’s historical context starts in the new cracks that were appearing in the once-solid barriers to education and civil society that had kept Jews of Eastern Europe isolated for centuries.
Towards the middle of the nineteenth century, the sanctions against Jews began to ease as the Napoleonic code inspired new freedoms throughout Europe. A growing number of young Jews dared to leave the prescribed path of an exclusively religious education (from which women were barred). They sought lives with greater possibilities than the few offered by a closed religious community. Instead of studying nothing but Torah and Talmud, they learned physics, mathematics, literature, psychology, anthropology, the whole big apple of – if not forbidden, then certainly suspect – secular knowledge. Thus came about the movement within Jewish society known as haskalah, the Enlightenment. As if making up for lost time, a secular Jewish culture – something that had never before existed in this part of the world – asserted itself with enormous energy and appetite.
In 1911, one of these newly secular Jews, S. Ansky, led “The Jewish Ethnographic Expedition” into Volhynia and Podolia, a forested region in which Jews lived as they had for centuries. (It’s now part of the Western Ukraine.) This was the birth-place of the semi-legendary figure, Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov
, the charismatic religious rebel who is credited with founding the religious revival known as Hasidism. The Expedition collected songs, stories, magic spells, healing amulets, rituals and incantations. Out of this material, Ansky wrote a play that served as a capaci
ous hold-all for the songs, stories, beliefs and customs that he wanted to preserve. He took seven years, until 1919, three years before his premature death, to finish the play. The Dybbuk
is an early version of a mash-up,
layering, in one work, a variety of found elements. Many scholars believe that it’s this aspect of the play that accounts for the fact that, alone among the thousands of plays produced by Yiddish theatre companies in the old and new worlds, The Dybbuk
was the most often performed, translated, cited, and adapted. It has been adapted as opera, ballet, puppet shows, modern dance, film, and still inspires works of all kinds.
Meanwhile, back in L.A., at that audition, I did Chanon’s tortured monologue during which his Kabbalistic meditations are interrupted by the news that Leah, his beloved – to whom he has spoken only once – has been betrothed to a young man from an extremely wealthy family. Hearing this, Chanon sinks into despair, but then, surprisingly, is catapulted into an ecstatic vision of union with his beloved–his ultimate vindication–and dies.
I’d been trying to understand the work of the Polish visionary of the theater, Jerzy Grotowski, for a few years by then, without the benefit of any actual teacher of that extreme, intensely physical approach to the actor’s training. But that didn’t stop me from having my own ideas of what Mr. G. meant by his opaque formulations.
As best as I can recall, I did parts of the monologue while moving into various yoga-like body shapes culminating with a standing bridge in which I bent myself backwards like a bow, supported by my hands and feet, pelvis aimed at the sky. Very hard to speak with any coherence in that stressful a position, but I must have thought it was expressive of either anguish or ecstasy or both. Fortunately Hirsch wasn’t there. Gordon Davidson, the Artistic Director of the Taper, who was, at that time, about 15 years into his 40+ year tenure, was running the auditions. Hirsch would arrive for call backs. When Gordon mercifully asked me to stop, he said nothing other than complimenting me on the ethnic shirt I was wearing.
[I’ll save for another posting the flash-forwards to several meetings with Jerzy Grotowski himself, the last of which was in an all night diner on the Pacific Coast Highway near Irvine, where he was teaching at the University of California, which he gleefully referred to in his heavy Polish accent as “Planyet of di Apes!”]
Gordon Davidson must have really
liked my shirt. I was called back for The Dybbuk,
this time to read for John Hirsch. In the meantime, I finished reading the play and was struck by a story that a character called the Messenger tells the audience in the middle of the play. I later discovered that it was a fragment from The Seven Beggars,
one of thirteen tales considered sacred by the followers of Nakhman of Bratzlav,
who first spoke them in a trance, in Yiddish, while his
scribe Nathan wrote them down and later translated them into Hebrew. The fragment, called The Heart of the World and the Clear Spring
is a lyrical parable about the way time
is created from unrequited longing. The story conflates erotic and spiritual love in the same way that the entire play does, tapping a current that as always run deep in the Jewish collective psyche. The Messenger character was rumored to have been added by Ansky at the suggestion of Stanislavski who read a Russian version that Ansky had written.
At the call back, I remember asking John Hirsch if I could read the Messenger’s story. I think he said no. I don’t remember what I did read. But I recall his large and sad eyes, and I recall wanting to tell him something about the feelings that had been stirred up in me after reading the Heart of the World
story. At the time I did not know John Hirsch had been born in Hungary in 1930 and h
ad somehow survived the slaughter – in one year – of half the Jewish population, late in the war. He’d been adopted by Canadian Jews after the war. He said that he was going to cast a number of Canadian actors who had been in his previous production of the play. A few days later, I was offered a very small part as one of the layabouts in the synagogue. On my agents’ advice, I turned it down. Nor did I manage to see the production at the Taper. But I began reading all I could about Nakhman of Bratzlav.
photos from top of section: S. Ansky [2nd from L. with Yiddish authors]; the legendary Habima production of The Dybbuk; TJT’s 1989 production of Bruce Myers’ Dybbuk for 2 actors w. Corey and Sarah Fry; TJT’s 2004 production of same, w. Karine Koret and Keith Davis. Last photo by Ken Freidman; others unknown.
reb zalman of naropa
Shortly after my Dybbuk audition in LA, I found myself at a Northern California retreat center taking a workshop with one Rabbi Zalman Schacher-Shaomi, a unique figure in the annals of American Jewish life. Reb Zalman is now known as the “Zeyde of the Jewish Renewal Movement.”
[He] was born in Zholkiew, Poland, in 1924. Raised largely in Vienna, his family was forced to flee the Nazi oppression in 1938. Settling in Brooklyn, young Zalman enrolled in the yeshiva of the Lubavitcher Hasidim. He was ordained by Lubavitch in 1947. He later received his Master of Arts degree in the Psychology of Religion in 1956 from Boston University and a Doctor of Hebrew Letters degree from Hebrew Union College in 1968.
He left the Lubavitch world, studied with Trappists, yogis, Buddhists and Sufis and became a bridge between traditional Hasidism and contemporary Jews who were seeking a more vital spiritual connection and community than what they found in mainstream American synagogues. At the end of the workshop, I told Reb Zalman that I had a vague idea that I might someday do something that would bring together my Jewish identity with my longing to create theatre that would have the spiritual power of religious experience. He said that conventional ways of bringing Yiddishkeit to life were exhausted and the arts were the only path left for Judaism to take if it were to survive in America. He thought a new Jewish theatre would be a fine idea.
But before I would take Reb Zalman’s implicit and simple suggestion, some years elapsed, that in hindsight seem to have been a preparation for the task of creating a theatre that didn’t yet exist. But, at the time, without benefit of hindsight, they were pretty depressing.
From about 1966 to 1976, in spite of my growing passion for theatre, I chased Hollywood’s version of success. Whether I succeeded or not, though, there was a price. To get work in the “industry” requires a lot of auditioning, and, as Joe Chaikin would later put it, even when an actor gets a job, it invariably turns into an audition for the next one.
I found myself becoming addicted to the rush of getting the part, winning, being wanted, being chosen, having something special to tell my parents who, between them, had many years of unlived life in the theatre that I had been born to redeem. All right, I’m exaggerating, But as an only child I had no help in supplying them with the small successes that gave them so much pleasure it shamed me.
One year when work seemed to be drying up, I decided to leave it all behind and start a new life in Vancouver, B.C.
I’d spent almost four months there shooting McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the last of the three Robert Altman films that I was in. While there, I got to know some young theatre people from the area and in the following year, as work in L.A dried up, I accepted an invitation to help lead a summer workshop in Gestalt Therapy and the Arts on a farm on Vancouver Island.
Before I left L.A., I discovered a book-length poem cycle called Crow by Ted Hughes. Crow was part bird, part archetype – a deformed godling who has animal drives, human foibles and spiritual longings. I was drawn to Hughes, in spite of the reputation he had been tarred with by dintof his having been married to Sylvia Plath when she took her life, because he had recently worked with Peter Brook in Iran, creating a new language of primal sounds. Brook and his actors used this language, called Orghast, in the wildly ambitious project based on the myth of Prometheus that they performed at the ruins of Persepolis in 1971. I read that they also studied an ancient Persian language, older than Farsi, called Avesta, and that one Jewish actor had incorporated some texts in Hebrew into the work. I read everything I could find about the project. Perhaps I knew, in a deeper way than I was aware of, that the powerful currents that ran through Orghast would, in time, touch my own life. Then I discovered this other work by Ted Hughes as I was packing to leave L.A. for good, (as I thought at the time). I stuck it in a duffel and forgot about it.
On Vancouver Island, as that summer of group therapy, bio-energetics, music-making and theatre games began to wind down, I found the slim volume of Hughes’ poetry and began to read it and then read it again. And again. It was a spare work that invited close reading. I saw that it would be possible to arrange a sequence of the poems as a narrative of Crow’s birth, childhood, initiations, lessons, failures, transformations, eventual death and possible rebirth. During my last days on the farm, I spent as much time as I could in the barn, finding my way though these texts in movement, working the language in my voice, until I found a repeatable, performable sequence that made narrative sense.
I crossed the straits of Georgia and moved into a large old house in Vancouver,with a group of new friends. I found a director, two actors and a cellist to perform with, and a place to rehearse on Granville Street, which, at the time, was Vancouver’s skid row. We worked on Crow through the fall and winter. On weekends, I sometimes walked from our house across the Burrard Bridge to Stanley Park on the western tip of the city and spent the day observing crows strutting and hopping, black against the snow-covered landscape.
After three or four months of concentrated work, expanding, elaborating and in some cases, jettisoning parts of my solo score, we had a coherent, funny-scary-sad piece of highly physical, ensemble theatre, for three actors and cello. I “played” Crow, the other two actors, Alex Daikun and Liz Murphy, who had both been in McCabe, played everyone and everything else and Suellen Primost improvised a cello score that acted as a non-verbal commentary on the story. We premiered Crow at the Vancouver Art Gallery, the city’s central art museum, as part of a sound sculpture show that was being curated by John Grayson, a sound-sculptor who co-directed the Gestalt farm on the Island.
The day after our premiere – which we thought went extremely well since we had gotten through it without serious mishap or missed cues and the audience had responded with genuine enthusiasm – we received a review in one of Vancouver’s two major dailies that dismissed us as yahoos who did nothing but obscure Hughes’ wonderful poems and suggested that a simple reading of the poems would be a much better idea than whatever we thought we were doing. A couple of weeks later, the reviewer from the other paper caught up with us as we toured around Vancouver and its suburbs (with one cross-province run-out to the interior of British Columbia). He gave us a rave, praising our ensemble work, our risk-taking and our talent.
It was the first validation of my instincts, my vision, if you will, that I’d received. At the same time, I understood, on some level at least, that it wasn’t my “little” self that was responsible, happy as it would be to claim all the credit In fact, it had everything to do with a confluence of elements – the powerful text by Ted Hughes that offered so much to the imagination, body and voice; the willingness, energy and talent of Alex, Liz, Suellen and Gary Pogrow who directed; a process that allowed each of us a voice in the making of the piece; venues where we could perform and audiences who accepted our offering.
Though I had experienced ensemble work before this, mainly in an improvisational group in L.A., this was the first sustained effort with a group of like-minded artists that I had undertaken.
It was also my first experience in completing a work of homemade theatre. In my room in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighborhood, I drew the posters and program covers, I wrote letters to solicit bookings, I corresponded with Ted Hughes’ agent and sister, Olwyn, who was not very pleased to hear what I was doing without her permission. Fortunately, in those pre-internet, pre-fax days, communication across the Atlantic was slow and by the time her displeasure reached us, we had closed the show and had no further plans to perform.
In the weeks after Crow ended, I grew restless again. No one among the actors I knew was ready to initiate new work. Vancouver began to seem less generous. I developed a case of viral pneumonia. While recovering, I had a telephone call from an agent I’d known in L.A. Could I fly down to audition for a TV movie-of-the-week? Not likely, since I didn’t have the airfare. He called back. Seemed that some of the movie was going to be shot in Vancouver and the producer and director were in town at that very moment scouting locations. I was given the name of a hotel in the West End and showed up, guitar in hand, the next day. The role was a drop-out rabbinical student-guitar player in a folk rock trio fronted by the male lead. I met George Eckstein, the producer, known for having given the young Steven Spielberg his first job, directing Dennis Weaver in The Duel, a legendary TV movie, and Joe Sargent, the veteran TV director who had started in the halcyon years of live TV drama. I read a scene, played and sang a song of my own, and got the part.
the open theater
Around 1975, I finally saw the Open Theatre, an avant-garde theatre ensemble from New York founded by Joseph Chaikin, that I”d been reading about, with longing, for ten years, in The Tulane Drama Review and occasionally in The New York Times
. Of all the legendary companies in the world – Peter Brook’s CIRT, Odin Teatret, The Polish Lab Theatre, Mnouchkine’s Theatre de Soleil – it was the Open Theatre that I recognized, intuitively, as the one closest to my heart.
They were touring the country for the last time. Joe had decided it was time for the company to disband. At one point in the sixties, at the time of their early success with The Serpent, an exploration of the story of Adam and Eve created in a collaborative process with playwright Jean Claude Van Itallie, the group had swelled to forty or so members. By this time, though, there were only eight performers in the company. I saw Terminal, the oldest work still being performed, built around human responses to the idea of death and dying; The Mutation Show, a dream cabaret of life as transformation, full of sly, non-verbal humor and Nightwalk, the last work they had created, on sleep.
I saw them at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the last stop on their last tour. At the time, I was working on a new play by Harvey Perr, a wonderful and very original playwright whose work garnered some off- and off-off-Broadway attention for a while but, sadly, slipped off the so-called radar. Harvey, most recently, has been working as an actor. Harvey knew Joe well so I hoped to meet him and the company members in Santa Barbara.
The images from the Open Theatre that have stayed with me for thirty-five years are the kind Peter Brook talks about in The Empty Space: “The event scorches on to the memory an outline, a taste, a trace, a smell – a picture.” They are: The leaning planks in Terminal against which actors would lie, strangely tilted; the square black patches that adhered to one actor’s mouth, another’s eye, as an emblem of the dead; Shami Chaikin, Joe’s sister, who had always acted in Joe’s projects, singing Ani Mamin, a prayer said to have been sung in cattle cars and gas chambers, in absolute stillness; Paul Zimet and Tina Shepherd in The Mutation Show, moving constantly in a signature shuffle, as they pushed an empty frame on wheels. Ray Barry waltzing with only his pectoral muscles, one two three, left pec, right pec, right pec.
photo above: The Serpent by Jean-Claude Van Itallie and The Open Theater, their earliest major work.
how I changed my life
After another year of unsatisfying TV and film work, I was thoroughly depressed. No theatre project that I had gotten involved with ever came close to fruition because, inevitably, one or more of us would leave to do some “paying’ work. To be an actor in L.A. meant putting the “industry” first. Theatre was what you did between jobs. Then I got a call from The Provisional Theater, a politically engaged ensemble whose edgy and outspoken work I had admired since they had split off from another experimental group to focus on anti-war theater. Some members had left and they needed some new actors to help create a new piece, work into an older one and tour the country. They asked for an initial commitment of six months after which, we’d discuss whether I would stay on.
I’ll tell you about that life-changing tour another time. I came back to L.A. after two months on the road, performing in fifteen cities, universities and festivals, and after burning my bridge to a continuing career in Hollywood by saying no to Stephen Spielberg who had offered me a very small role in his very big movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. To have accepted the job would have meant leaving the Provisional stuck in Knoxville, Tennessee unable to perform. I had central parts in both plays and no understudy. The loss of fees would have had a dire effect on the company. My agents were very disappointed in me. Actors did not say no to Spielberg in their world. But I was no longer living in their world. And yet, though I loved the people in the Provisional and respected their work enormously, I knew that I hadn’t found my artistic home.
While I was trying to figure out what to do next, I got wind of a workshop with Joe Chaikin that the Mark Taper Forum was sponsoring for a select group of actors. The format was that of a master class in which only a handful of actors would have a chance to actually work on their feet wi
th Joe while all the rest watched. I found a friend with an extra ticket to the invitation-only event. He said that he’d heard Joe wanted people to bring in scenes or monologues from the “classics” which for him included the Greeks, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Beckett and Brecht.
Browsing in a friend’s bookshelf, I came across a paperback copy of Oedipus Rex, not by Sophocles, the Greek, but by Seneca, the Roman. I knew nothing about this version. But I knew it was a good bet for me when I saw that the translation from the Latin was by Ted Hughes. It had been commissioned by Peter Brook who had directed it at the National Theatre in London with Sir John Gielgud in the title role. It was on my friend’s shelf because her ex-husband’s painting was used as the cover of the paperback.
I memorized the central monologue of the piece: a servant acting as messenger gives an account, directly to the audience, of what Oedipus did when he heard the terrible truth about his own identity.
The workshop was held outdoors at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, a poured concrete venue that replaced a wooden one that was built in the 1920s as the home for a Christian “Pilgrimage Play.” It’s now owned by L.A. County. It seats over a thousand. But on the first morning of the workshop only the first couple of rows of concrete benches were filled. I knew more than a few of the two hundred or so actors, writers, directors, casting directors and even an agent or two who’d come to work or watch. Some of the actors were close to full celebrity status. Others were there hoping to be noticed by the casting people or the agents. Auditioning. It was late August, sunny and hot but the location of Playhouse in the Cahuenga Pass meant that steady breezes kept the heat and smog from settling in.
“Who would like to, uh, come up and work?” Joe said in a voice that managed to be hesitant and resonant at the same time. There was a pause. No one moved. I was aware of a strange silence in my mind. Without telling myself to volunteer or to not volunteer, I watched myself raise my hand. Joe nodded at me and I got up and walked onto the stage, wondering if Joe remembered me from the handful of words we’d exchanged in Santa Barbara. I felt detached from the voices in my mind who were accusing me of unbridled chutzpah that I would surely be punished for. How dare I, who wasn’t even a bona fide Taper-invited up-and-comer, usurp this opportunity to work with a legend from New York?
I told Joe and the audience what I was working on and began, assuming Joe would stop me after a few lines and reveal something crucial that I had missed.
But he did not stop me. Hughes’ stark phrases pulled themselves out of me like living things, out of my insides, up my esophagus, out my mouth. I felt as if I was standing a step behind or to the side of myself, watching this story that I was telling happen. I was aware of two presences, one that belonged to Oedipus, the other to the persona telling his story who was not entirely me.
When I finished. There was silence for what seemed like a long time. Then, Joe asked me to do it again.Later, I think, Joe, who was sweating in spite of the breezes and wore sunglasses that hid his wide-open blue eyes, spoke about the possibilities that open up when the actor becomes a storyteller. Rather than treating me as a student who needed “correction” or repair, he addressed me as a fellow seeker who shared a curiosity about this phenomena that had just occurred, as it happened, in my body and voice. I must have been in some kind of trance. I remember almost none of the content of anything he said, only that I was experiencing a raft of unnamable feeling-thought-perceptions.During the next four days of the workshop he asked me to do the monologue several more times. Again, he had little to “teach” in any conventional way, but continued to offer reflections on the nature of story, on the storyteller/actor’s movements between different kinds of time, between different places, sometimes being in more than one place at the same time. He was modeling something, I knew. A stance of radical inquiry, a way of deconstructing what acting is in order to rebuild it with a new understanding.Each time I let that story/language/imagery come out of me during those days at the Pilgrimage I felt that I was in the presence of the sacred. To some extent it came from the emergence of that primal story from my body. But the particular quality of Joe’s attention, and the experience of being its recipient, that was what evoked the numinous.When the workshop ended. I waited outside a cluster of people all eager to connect with Joe and when I found an opening I asked him whether he had any plans to teach anywhere near by in the future where I might be able to do some more work with him.
He said that I could come work with him in New York the following winter in a laboratory/workshop he was putting together. “There isn’t a lot of money…” he stammered slightly, surprisingly shy when he wasn’t addressing the large group, “I mean, there isn’t any money to… you’d have to get to New York, you see, but there will be some, you know, funding – to pay people. Not a lot, but…”
When he stopped, I asked him to repeat what he had just said since I was sure I hadn’t heard him correctly. He did, and I understood that, yes, I had heard: I was being invited to come to New York and being offered money to work with Joseph Chaikin.
The joy of that moment was utterly new to me. People, friends, were coming up to me to ask what Joe had said to me. I mumbled something about “The Winter Project,” as it would be called. It would take me a few years to understand the true source of the joy. I had been seen. I had been recognized as someone whom I did not yet know. All I did know was that at age 31, I was finally going to New York.
To Be Continued