Loving the Stranger: Wrestling Jerusalem a New Play by Aaron Davidman

[Originally Published on Tikkun, March 13. 2014]

Wrestling JerusalemThe first sentence that Aaron Davidman speaks in Wrestling Jerusalem, his new solo play at Intersection for the Arts, will have an all-too-familiar ring to anyone  who has ever tried to understand the sources of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “It’s complicated.”

For the next eighty minutes Davidman seamlessly and thoroughly embodies fourteen characters – Arab, Israeli, American, Jewish, Muslim, male, female, old, young, religious, secular, left, right – who both prove and transcend that assertion.

At the end of this moving, provocative, exhilarating journey, I had to ask myself whether there had really been only one actor on stage.  There were so many characters, so many arguments, debates, dialogues, so many people with so much to say. Did all that really come from one person?

Aaron, an actor-writer-director –- in other words, a theatre-maker– has spent decades mastering the art of splitting himself into multiple characters.  Full disclosure: I am anything but an “objective” critic. In fact, I’m not a critic at all. I, too, am a theatre-maker. In 1978, I co-founded Traveling Jewish Theatre. Sometime in the mid-nineties, Aaron joined us, becoming the first new company member since TJT began. By 2002, he had become TJT’s artistic director and led the company until we closed it in 2012.  Aaron and I worked together as actors and co-writers and directed each other many times for about seventeen years. Though I’m more than twenty years older than Aaron, I’ve long  regarded him as a peer and have learned as much from him in our work together as he might have ever learned from me.

Given our history together, it’s no surprise that I’d recognizeWrestling Jerusalem as rooted in the intentions, concerns, sources and theatrical elements that animated TJT for 34 years.

Along with the weaving of multiple stories and timelines, the transforming from one character to another in full view of the audience, the juxtaposition of the personal, the political and the mythic, there’s the overarching theme of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which TJT explored in its 1985 Berlin, Jerusalem and the Moon, (one of Aaron’s first roles with TJT was in the 1998 revival of that piece) and later, in the 2005 Blood Relative which Aaron conceived and directed.

In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Rob Hurwitt, Aaron mentioned Blood Relative:

“There are seeds and stories in this play that came from those first trips back to Israel when we were researching Blood Relative… when I started working with TJT, the wealth of material under the umbrella of the Jewish experience really opened up for me, personally, historically, culturally. Digging into Blood Relativemade me realize I couldn’t get all this topic into one play. And out of that came a commission from Theatre J in Washington D.C., which was the catalyst for this whole project.”

Another area of Jewish imagination that inspired TJT was the exploration of the Jewish mystical tradition known collectively asKabala.  Aaron frames the play with a seminal text from theZohar, one of the most important Kabbalistic books:

Once there were vessels of light that contained all that is good in the universe.  But this goodness was so powerful that the vessels, with their thin shells, could   not contain it. And the vessels burst. And the light of goodness was scattered.    Sparks and shards of light flew into all corners of the world. They’re hidden amidst all of us. And it’s the work of human beings, say the Kabbalists, to find those sparks, those fragments of goodness, and put them back together. It’s how we heal the world, they say. We gather the broken pieces of goodness and put them back together.”

Healing the world is called tikkun olam in Hebrew, and has counterparts in the deepest parts of every religion or spiritual path that I know of. Aaron’s evocation of tikkun olam lets us know, right away, that the reason he’s asking us to follow him to Jerusalem or Hebron is to try to gather those holy sparks, those fragments of goodness in order to heal – to heal the land, all the souls suffering at each other’s hands, the tortured history.

To do that, Aaron knows that you can’t ignore the “complicated” reality on the ground – at the checkpoints, bus stations, farms, on the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem or at the souk in Ramallah.  Aaron has the courage of a shamanic firefighter to walk into the hottest flames of the conflict and bring back all the painful truths he finds there, with no self-regard. This is theatre with remarkably little ego-investment. Which makes Aaron’s brilliance as a performer all the more compelling.

But, in a departure from TJT’s works, Wrestling Jerusalem  is based on interviews that Aaron conducted on trips to Israel and the “occupied territories” of the West Bank. Though he changed names to respect the interviewees’ privacy, most of the words he speaks are theirs.

The play contains several bouts of accelerating verbal combat in which Aaron leaps from character to character, performing a kind of linguistic parcours as he hurtles between arguments and points of view. The first of these is a discussion of “Where it all started.”

“You might say it all started in 1948 

Which you might call Al Nakbeh The Catastrophe 

You might say it all started in 1948 

Which you might call Milhamat HaAtzma’ut The War of Independence 

You might go back to World War I And blame the British 

Say they fucked up a thousand years of decent relations Between
Jews and Arabs 

You might say it was the 1929 massacre of Jews in Hebron 

You might say it was the 1994 massacre of Arabs in Hebron 

Or the 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatila 

Or the 2003 massacre at the Tel Aviv bus station 

No, no, you might say, It was 1967 The Six Day War 

That was when the real problems started 

No, you might say it was the Yom Kippur War 1973, that was it 

Or really, you might say, It was 1947  

The Green Line United Nations Resolution 181 

The Arabs should have accepted 181 

And they would have had a better deal 

Than they’re ever going to get now 

But, you might say, 

The UN never should have adopted Resolution 181 

Because it was a European land grab 

Look, You might say It was the invasion of Lebanon 

It was the First Intifada 

It was the Second Intifada 

It was the Withdrawal from Gaza 

It was the war in Gaza 

No, no It’s the Settlements 

Definitely the Settlements 

No, no it’s the terror attacks 

The bus bombs, the cafes 

No, it’s the wall and the check points 

No, it’s the tunnels from Egypt and the missiles in S’derot 

No, no, it’s Iran It’s all about Iran 

No, it’s  No, it’s the politicians 

It’s all about the politicians 

Golda blew it 

Peres blew it 

Arafat blew it 

Barak blew it 

Sharon blew it 

Olmert blew it 

Clinton blew it 

Bush blew it 

Obama’s blowing it 

If they just hadn’t killed Rabin 

If we just hadn’t killed Rabin 

If the Ultra Orthodox just didn’t have so much political power 

If the Arab League would just do more 

If the media just wasn’t so biased 

If the Right Wing Christians would stop funding Settlements 

If AIPAC would just be more critical of Israeli policy 

If J Street would just be less critical of Israeli policy 

If we just had a real partner on the other side 

If Netanyahu would just… 

If Abbas would just… 

If the Palestinians would just lay down their arms 

If the Israelis would just get out of the West Bank 

If the world would just step up and get more involved 

If the world would just back off and stay of out it 

If, if, if, if, if, if If!”

Aaron’s ease and power in these challenging sections – there’s little in the play that isn’t a considerable challenge for an actor – must be at least partly credited to the sensitive, intelligent, unobtrusive direction by Michael John Garcés, the artistic director of the legendary Cornerstone Theatre Company.  Later in the play, there’s an equally jaw-dropping dialogue between Aaron (that is the character, Aaron, a progressive American Jewish “everyman”) and a radically pro-Palestinian American Jewish doctor. The dialogue becomes a furious debate between two American Jews that takes place in the home of a Palestinian who works for an Israeli civil right organization on a hill above a refugee camp near Hebron.

DANIEL: Hamas is the lesser of two evils!

AARON: Hamas is a gang of fascist zealots!

DANIEL: Aaron, Fatah is on the payroll of the United States!

AARON: Fatah is upholding the rule of law in the West Bank!

DANEIL: They can’t be trusted!

AARON: You can trust Hamas?

DANIEL: They were elected!

AARON: So was your senator, but you don’t trust him.

DANIEL: He’s complicit with an Apartheid government!

AARON: Can you stay on one topic for more than five seconds! You gotta go to Apartheid?

DANIEL: Sue me!”

Like Aaron says, it’s complicated.  For one thing there are no villains or “bad guys”  in Wrestling Jerusalem.  Aaron finds his way into the fragile human heart beating inside each character, underneath any armor of opinion and self-righteousness. With him, we bounce between equally valid, mutually contradictory points of view. He describes these points of view as:

“…the sparks I’ve pulled from behind the eyes of every single person I’ve met. They smash up against each other. And I’m bursting. I’m exploding into a million shards.”

In one example, we hear an Israeli Jew point out that:

“What  transformed [Zionism] from an idea into a reality was the
Holocaust… a kind of wholesale change of the condition of Jewish life in Europe And its not a justification. I’m not waving the shroud of Auschwitz in order to
defend breaking the arms of Palestinians, I’m just saying, that something
changed in Europe which transformed Zionism from a rather silly idea, into a
state.”

And we understand what he means. But then we hear from a Palestinian farmer:

It’s not balanced. There is the occupier and there is the occupied. And what can we do? My family’s orchard was our life for five generations. Five. Yes, we were there for three hundred years, for sure, three hundred, probably more. Many more. And now my orchard is destroyed. They said for security. For this Wall.

“Let me tell you something, Aaron. Please do not be upset. The Holocaust was not my fault. You understand what I say? I am sorry for the Jewish. The Holocaust was…a terrible tragedy. But my grandfather was not Hitler. He was a farmer here, in Palestine. Three thousand kilometers away. And when the Jewish came he would not sell land to them.”

And again we listen and understand.

We have to pay attention to the uncomfortable realpolitik of an American Jewish expat in Israel:

“I got news for you: statehood ain’t pretty. It’s called realpolitik, kid. Look over your notes from Poli Sci 101. I’m not just being a rightwing hardass, Aaron. I’m not. I’m a Democrat, for god’s sake. I’m being realistic. Take Iran: Keep them from getting the bomb. Whatever it takes. And I mean whatever it takes. What are we waiting for? Some people think Jews have some higher moral obligation. Why? Why?! It’s us or them. That’s how it is. Us or them.”

Or to this Palestinian woman who works for the UN:

“Aaron. There is a man I always see at the Beit Jala checkpoint. He’s an old man. Every day he rides the bus, and everyday the soldiers make him get off the bus and he refuses! And he yells at them, tells them they should treat him better. Yells at them they should respect him. He does the same thing every day. And some days they beat him and some days they let him go and some days they just make him wait for hours. And every day he tries to teach them. Someone should make a movie about this man. You see how we live. No freedom to move about. It can take me hours to get to work in East Jerusalem. East Jerusalem! It’s ten minutes from Ramallah. And I have the permissions. I have the papers. If you don’t, forget it. You’re not going anywhere.”

In the achingly beautiful last part of the play, on a hill above the Dead Sea, Aaron meets an Israeli survivor of a piguah, a suicide bomb attack. Amir, as Aaron calls him, is suffering from PTSD, self-medicating with marijuana, listening to Bob Dylan and refusing to blame anyone for the tragedy.  He reminds Aaron that in the Torah, the Jewish bible, there are exactly three commandments to love. We are commanded to love God, to love our neighbor and, to love the stranger.

At the end of the journey Aaron takes all the pain and confusion he’s absorbed to the only place that might be able to contain it: the Kotel, the Western Wall, the sole remaining, millennia-old fragment of the Temple. I won’t try to describe what happens there. Certain moments in theatre are untranslatable to other media. This is one of them.  There are others like it in Wrestling Jerusalem. Though the play is brimming with talk, we are always brought home to the body and voice that supports it all. Aaron sings, whispers, dances, falls and even appears to fly without ever leaving the ground.

Wrestling Jerusalem  offers no solutions to the intractable conflicts it explores. But it fiercely insists on continuing to imagine that peace is possible, that it’s “not a fantasy.”   By embodying all these human beings so deeply, by fulfilling the commandment to love these “strangers,” Aaron allows us to fully experience that possibility. If the play is still running by the time you read this, I urge you to go. I don’t often find works of art that can generate an honest and well-earned sense of hope.  The last one was the 2009 novel by Colum McCann, Let the Great World SpinWrestling Jerusalem is definitely another.

Wrestling Jerusalem.  Opens 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 15, 2 p.m. Sunday, March 16. Through April 6. $20-$30. Intersection for the Arts, 925 Mission St., S.F www.theintersection.org

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For information about Wrestling Jerusalem on tour, visit wrestlingjerusalem.com

Review: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Petit

“… even though the book takes place primarily in 1974 – so much of it began for me very shortly after 9/11. I had read Paul Auster’s collection of essays The Red Notebook, where he wrote about Philippe Petit scribbling his name across the sky between the World Trade Centre towers. Then – when the towers came down in 2001 – the tightrope walk popped out of my memory, one of those eureka moments, and I thought, What a spectacular act of creation, to have a man walking in the sky, as opposed to the act of evil and destruction of the towers disintegrating. I certainly wasn’t alone in this. It was almost part of a collective historical memory. The same image ran true for a number of people, not least of course Philippe Petit himself. And I wanted to write a song of my adopted city as well, and maybe to confront some things that were on my mind about issues of faith and recovery and belonging.”

– Colum McCann,
from an interview conducted by Bret Anthony Johnston.

I’d been hearing about Colum McCann for a while but hadn’t read any of his novels. Then, at a friend’s house, I saw a copy of Let the Great World Spin, winner of the 2009 National Book Award for fiction.  I asked my friend if I could borrow it. He’s one of my few male friends who has as much love for fiction as I do and probably reads even more than I. He has given me many books over the years, though sometimes his tastes run ahead of my own into the works of writers I find rather difficult and opaque, like Boltano.

I started reading Let the Great World Spin as soon as I got home. I didn’t devour it the way I once read novels as compelling as this one. I don’t know whether to blame my changing reading habits on the internet or on old age, but I don’t seem to be able to read for hours at a time as I used to. There were even some days when I didn’t pick the book up, though I never went very long without thinking about it.

The book’s central image is the 1974 walk by funambulist Philippe Petit on a cable suspended between the top floors of the World Trade Center towers.  He used no harnesses, nets or safety gear of any sort. He and his support team went to great lengths to get themselves through the building’s security, rig the cable (an archer was involved) and remain in the building until the following dawn when Petit began walking. His walk was, by all accounts, flawless, elegant, breathtaking. It excited the imagination of thousands – perhaps millions – of New Yorkers who stopped, wherever they were, and watched a man walking in the air a quarter-mile above.

McCann begins the book with a three page prologue describing the walk and returns to it several times later, either directly or through the peripheral vision of the several characters who all witness it. McCann never names Petit,  a choice that reinforces the walker’s distance from the other characters whose lives we come to know intimately. Yet, McCann’s funambulist is intensely corporeal, never an abstraction, a symbol, or a literary device. Here’s how McCann gives us the beginning of the walk:

One foot on the wire – his better foot, the balancing foot. First he slid his toes, then his sole, then his heel. The cable nestled between his big and second toes for grip. His slippers were thin, the soles made of buffalo hide… He played out the aluminum pole along his hands. The coolness rolled across his palm. The pole was fifty-five pounds, half the weight of a woman. She moved on his skin like water…

His body loosened and took on the shape of the wind. The play of the shoulder could instruct the ankle. His throat could soothe his heel and moisten the ligaments at his ankle. A touch of the tongue against the teeth could relax the thigh. His elbow could brother his knee. If he tightened his neck he could feel it correcting in his hip. At his center he never moved. He thought of his stomach as a bowl of water. If he got it wrong, the bowl would right itself. 

He felt for the curve of the cable with the arch and then sole of his foot. A second step and a third. He went out beyond the first guy lines, all of him in synch.

petit 2Within seconds he was pureness moving, and he could do anything he liked. He was inside and outside his body at the same time, indulging in what it meant to belong to the air, no future, no past, and this gave him the offhand vaunt to his walk. He was carrying his life from one side to the other. On the lookout for the moment when he wasn’t even aware of his breath.

The core reason for it all was beauty. Walking was a divine delight. Everything was rewritten when he was up in the air. New things were possible with the human form. It went beyond equilibrium.

He felt for a moment uncreated. Another kind of awake.

All the characters are struggling to awaken or to resist awakening. We meet the first  two characters as young boys being raised by a single, devoted mother in Dublin: John Corrigan, called simply Corrigan or Corrie, already in a constant dialogue with God, and his brother, Ciaran, who tells their story.  Corrigan becomes a radical Catholic monk and ends up in the Bronx, ministering to a group of African-American prostitutes who are on “the stroll” beneath the Major Deegan Expressway, across from his housing project. Missing his brother, Ciaran follows him to New York where Corrigan has become a sort of patron saint to the hookers, giving them round the clock use of his apartment for showers and self-care.  Corrigan, in spite of his vows, has fallen in love with a Columbian woman with whom he works at a nursing home. Later, in a section written in her voice, we experience that all-encompassing love from within the relationship, revealing everything that Ciaran struggles to understand about his brother.

Throughout the book, the narrative is handed off from character to character as McCann’s layered edifice gains depth and power.  Corrigan and Jazzlyn, an eighteen year old hooker he watches over, will not live past the first section of the novel. Yet, like the twin towers themselves, the space they occupied continues to shadow the rest of the book.

The other characters, whether they understand it or not, are affected by them. But to simply enumerate these connections does McCann’s talent a disservice. The book is in no way schematic. The relationships between characters are unforced and asymmetrical; as messy as life.

“Then came the moment when I thought that I could go backwards in time to talk about the present: that’s when the tightrope walk came in. And the deeper I got into the novel the more I began to see that it was, hopefully, about an act of recovery. Because the book comes down to a very anonymous moment in the Bronx when two little kids are coming out of a very rough housing project, about to be taken away by the state, and they get rescued by an act of grace. That’s it, not much maybe, but everything to me. And there’s hardly a line in the novel about 9/11, but it’s everywhere if the reader wants it to be. I trust my readers. They will get from a book what they want. It can be read in many different ways. In this sense I hope it works on an open poetic level: make of this child what you will.”

– Colum McCann,
from an interview conducted by Bret Anthony Johnston.

It’s worth noting that three of the most important characters are black women. Two of them narrate their respective sections of the book.  First, there’s Tillie, , the daughter and mother of prostitutes, a heroin addict, and, thanks to an eccentric Middle-Eastern client in her early days as a high-priced uptown call girl,  a reader of Rumi. Her daughter is the eighteen year old Jazzlyn, already a mother herself. Tillie narrates a long chapter from jail on Riker’s Island after Jazzlyn and Corrigan’s death. I’ve not been able to shake a certain discomfort with this section of the book. Interestingly, I had no discomfort at all with the chapter voiced by Gloria, an educated black woman from Missouri who is a neighbor of Corrigan’s and plays an important role in the second half of the novel. I was able to accept Gloria as a unique human who happened to be African-American, who was shaped, as we all are, by her experiences, and yet, like all of us, could not be reduced to her socio-ethno-economic profile.  So my discomfort isn’t merely a response to a white author writing in the voice of a non-white character.  After a lot of reflection, I’ve come to see my discomfort with Tillie as a sign of McCann’s uncompromising integrity. To follow McCann into Tillie’s world of sexual slavery, addiction and violence should not be comfortable.  Tillie can’t forgive herself for not preventing her daughter from becoming exactly what she once was, a heroin addicted, teen-age mother who sells her body. Though McCann never lets us lose sight of Tillie’s boundless love for her daughter and granddaughters, her internalized self-hatred remains devastating. For it to be anything less, would be false and sentimental.

As uncompromisingly bleak as Tillie’s chapter is, the book as a whole is anything but depressing. It fully earns its vision of reconciliation and recovery. Perhaps stories of descent, purgation and redemption are part of McCann’s Catholic spiritual and literary DNA. Dante’s spirit hovers nearby. We recognize that most of the characters are terribly lost in a “selva oscura,” Dante’s “dark wood,” and we can’t help but think of angels when McCann tells us about the man walking in the air. But in McCann’s cosmology, guilt and punishment are not imposed by a judging God. They’re part of the human story. I don’t think one has to be a believer to see the world humans have made as a fallen world, whether one bases that sense on the hundred years’ war, the ubiquity of slavery through most of our history, the holocaust or 9/11.

McCann has Ciaran describe Corrigan’s “theology” on the twentieth page of the book:

What Corrigan wanted was a fully believable God, one you could find in the grime of the everyday. The comfort he got from the hard, cold truth – the filth, the war, the poverty – was that life could be capable of small beauties. He wasn’t interested in the glorious tales of the afterlife or the notions of a honey-soaked heaven. To him that was a dressing room for hell. Rather, he consoled himself with that fact that, in the real world, when he looked closely into the darkness he might find the presence of a light, damaged and bruised, but a little light, all the same. He wanted, quite simply, for the world to be a better place, and he was in the habit of hoping for it. Out of that came some sort of triumph that went beyond theological proof, a cause for optimism against all the evidence.

Without minimizing the unbearable suffering we create for each other and for ourselves, McCann has the courage to celebrate the love we are equally capable of giving. Though it may, indeed, transcend our understanding, in this author’s uncommonly generous view, it’s as much a part of us as our breath.

Colum McCann

Colum McCann

Storyboard Dances

StoryboardP-390x245

Earlier today I read an article in The New Yorker  about the street dancer, Storyboard P. and watched several online videos of his dancing. I was moved and deeply impressed by his astonishing virtuosity. He “pops and locks” in break dancing style but also has created his own vocabulary of extreme and precise isolations that he actually describes as a series of “charley horses” and that have the look of stop-frame animation. He and other “flex” dancers sometimes refer to their moves as “animations.”  He also uses moves from other forms of street dancing like “juking,” which mimics ballet en pointe foot work.

But more than his technical proficiency – which is more than enough to put him in his own category, it was the rawness of the impulse-life behind his movements that captured me. Strange to tell, I, a 68 year old Jew recognized the place from which this 23 year old African American found his intense physical expressivity.

It’s a place I’ve visited as an actor at certain special times, usually improvising without words, mostly on my own but at times with a partner, connecting to story or character that carries intense emotion, in a pre-verbal way. By “place” I mean an inner condition, a state of awareness that’s free of the controlling, dominating power of discursive, discriminating, utilitarian, hierarchical thought-language or judgmental self-talk;  free of any desire to please anyone or accomplish anything other than “tracking” the pure energy of the physical impulses – those minute desires to move this or that limb, make this or that sound, run, fall, shake or be still.

Perhaps this condition, not unlike states of mindful but non-discriminating awareness that can arise in Buddhist meditation, has something to do with giving oneself over to a distributed intelligence that’s different from the more familiar kind neo-cortex-associated intelligence.

For a while now, neuroscientists, plant biologists, computer scientists, information theorists have been talking about “hive mind” “swarming”  “distributed networks”  as a way to explain seemingly “intelligent” behavior among plants, animals, insects and computers.  Migrating birds, schools of fish, bees and ants, trees and sagebrush all partake of this phenomenon.

Perhaps humans do as well. When I watch Storyboard dance, it’s as if I’m seeing him deconstruct his body into an aggregation of nerves, muscles, tendons, cells and impulses that dance, argue and fight with each other, that support, block, push and pull each other, that coalesce for a moment and come apart again.

Watching him dance, I am reminded of both scientific and mythopoeic accounts of the origin of the cosmos. God contracting God’s essence to make a space for the created universe to exist. Energies so compelling they bend light and pull it into their dark core. Primordial beings giving birth to time and space.

This notion of a performer fragmenting herself into multiple presences isn’t new. It exists in some forms of South Asian narrative dance like Kathakali in which the dancer’s hand gestures, eye and torso movements, footwork and voice each have their own specific role in telling the story, whether it be to convey a mood or emotion, embody a character, evoke a landscape or change the point of view.  In the West, solo performers – mimes, storytellers, puppeteers, ventriloquists, performance artists, monologists – have split themselves  into many parts for centuries, playing multiple characters simultaneously.

But Storyboard’s performances, almost always improvised in the moment, would be difficult to parse in conventional dramatic terms. He might use narrative, but because he’s working so close to the bone – literally – we become witnesses to a shamanic journey rather than listeners to a story. Storyboard, though a dancer, achieves the Artaudian ideal of the actor who “signals through the flames”  that consume his identity, who reveals what remains after ego, social conditioning and self-will are burned away before our astonished eyes.

Lost in the [Sound] Cloud

b3fc32203f30dd86b68ba31fd7becf64_biggerSoundCloud, at first glance, would seem to be a sort of audio-only version of YouTube – a place where people upload music and other audio files to the internet.  But in the two years or so I’ve been using it, I’ve discovered that it’s as different from YouTube as a library is from a video arcade.  It’s the only “place” online in which I feel a sense of community. I use Facebook, Google Plus, and a couple of other popular “platforms,” but their populations and activities are too varied and diffuse to generate feelings of kinship in me. In the case of the ubiquitous YouTube, the pervasive nastiness that infects many of their comment threads triggers something akin to a gag reflex whenever I stray onto them.

SoundCloud is different. Almost all the people I interact with on it  are engaged in creative endeavors. They’re musicians, composers, sound designers, singers and songwriters. Some are relative beginners, others are experienced and accomplished. Anyone can post a “sound” on SoundCloud – a song, a piece of avant-garde electronica, a sound effect, a radio broadcast, your baby’s first words – anything that can be contained in a digital audio file.

According to a piece in the June, 2013 issue of Wired Magazine, “…the Berlin-based company now has 40 million registered users… and reaches more than 200 million people each month…”

SC cofounders Walforss & Ljung

SC cofounders Walforss & Ljung

Cofounder Alexander Ljung was quoted in in the same article: “We have some people who are into dubstep, some people who are into the sound of songbirds. People can find their own niches and participate.”

My SoundCloud icon

My SoundCloud icon

In the year I’ve been exploring SoundCloud, I’ve found a number of these niches populated, respectively, by songwriters in many different genres, jam bands, electronic composers, radio stations and record labels, print publications like The New Yorker, well-known jazz, classical and pop recording artists, sound designers, archivists and audiophiles of all persuasions.  I’ve found “clouds” (as individuals’ pages are called on SoundCloud) devoted to the sounds of Southern California history, sounds of explosions, genres of music I had never heard of,  NPR content,  and much more. A search of SoundCloud for the word “cosmology” brought up over 500 audio tracks, 57 “clouds” and 40 “playlists” (compilations of tracks).   SoundCloud hosts collections including parts of the Smithsonian’s massive audio archives, the Muzak archives; the archives of Killorglin, Ireland, the national archives of Georgia (the country) and hundreds more.

Like a Borgesian library of nearly infinite possibility, SoundCloud might, in fact, contain something for everyone. What effect its existence will have on the recording industry remains to be quantified, but it certainly seems to be another instance of how digital technology is changing everything about everything.

Since I started using SoundCloud, my music  purchases from Apple and Amazon have dropped significantly. SoundCloud is not only the place where I share my own music, it’s increasingly where I go to listen to music.  The fact that most of what I hear isn’t anything I could find on iTunes or  an internet radio app is telling.  Cofounder Ljung says that a relatively small group of “big artists” can no longer determine what music people listen to. While I still consider new releases by Dylan, Cohen, Simon, or the much younger Regina Spektor, noteworthy events, I no longer follow  a limited and well defined group of recording artists whose work I listen to and discuss with friends, the way we did in the last century. The distinction between “creator” and “listener” has become fluid. Everyone I know on SoundCloud is both.

I’ve been playing guitar since high school and writing songs since I was in my twenties. Until recently, my music took a back seat to my work as an actor, director and playwright. With the advent of a host of music-making apps for the iPad, however, I’ve been spending a lot more time composing music,   songs and spoken word pieces as well as venturing into new forms: remixes, mashups and beats. SoundCloud led me to an online class in songwriting and another in digital production from the Berklee School of Music. SoundCloud is now my most frequently visited site online.

At first it was simply a convenient way to share the music with friends. A number of music apps feature links for uploading directly to it. After a while, though, I began to make use of the website’s capacities for “following” the work of other members, commenting on their tracks and joining groups (“singer-songwriters,” “twelve-bar blues,” etc.).  I heard music that was as interesting to me as anything I could find on commercial venues: a guitar player from San Antonio, Tom Adams who plays traditional Chicago blues as well as anyone since BB King;

Laura Montenegro and Friends

Laura Montenegro and Friends

a woman from Buenos Aries, Laura Montenegro who sounds uncannily like Bessie Smith ; a French pianist, Laurent Guine, who improvises delicately beautiful solos; Jörn Schippera German Jazz trumpeter who now concentrates on provocative spoken-word/electronic music collages; Tony Bluestone, a singer from Detroit whose impassioned songs bring me to tears; Walter Paget, a modern Welsh bard who writes songs about his coal-miner father; Kathleen Martin, a singer/musician in Knob Knee, Indiana who records pristine versions of songs by Baez, Dylan, and other icons of the sixties; Mike McCoy, an Australian expat in Spain who plays world-class jazz guitar and sings standards in a voice that reminds me of Fats Waller.  And there are more. Sofia, A Parisian composer/singer who spins out hypnotic story-songs that at least one animator found compelling enough to base a short film around, and Iannis, a musician from Athens who plays blues and jazz on his oud.

The ever-growing wave of wonderful music from this online cornucopia has become almost overwhelming. I can spend hours browsing SoundCloud. Following a perceptive comment on one song might lead me to a new composer whose list of  “favorite” works by others will take me to the pages of still more musicians.  While all of them might not appeal, many will move, instruct or delight me.

After compiling a “playlist” (another useful SoundCloud feature) of tracks that I’d found most interesting,  I decided to contact each singer/songwriter/composer on the list. I wanted to know if their experience on SoundCloud was anything like mine. How did they use the service? Had it changed their approach to music at all? Did they share my sense of community?

I heard back from nearly all of the twenty members I queried, receiving emails from France, Germany, Australia, Great Britain (Leicester and London) and elsewhere. Americans who responded come from Oakland, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, Indiana and Ohio.

Chris Okunbor

Chris Okunbor

Everyone who responded agreed that there was, indeed, a SoundCloud community.  Chris Okunbor, who lives on a mountain in Australia,   sings classic Delta blues and plays the kind slide guitar I used to hear on Folkways archival recordings from the 1930s, wrote:

“SoundCloud  is a very special community…..I’ve seen, on many occasions, when someone is struggling with a negative real-life event, all their friends and supporters hop onto a track and give them positive and kind support. I’ve had  over five thousand comments on tracks I’ve posted and only one of them was a bit strange – but I think that person was struggling with their mental health.”  Chris said that she has made “genuine friends” on SoundCloud and will be soon be visiting some of them in Europe where they’ve arranged a series of gigs for her. She hopes to do the same thing in the U.S. in 2015.

Ed McCarthy's Icon

Ed McCarthy’s Icon

Ed McCarthy, whose nom de musicien is “edro,” may not make a living from music, but, like many SoundCloud members, he’s been playing guitar for most of his life.  He noticed that his passion for music was beginning to ebb some years ago, after a close friend of his, musician Steve Rebbin, died.

Ed wrote to me:  “I really didn’t realize that I was grieving until I got back into music and that hole in my life was there. Once I started playing with other people again, I realized again that music was my center. Almost all of my close friends have some connection to music. I don’t consciously think of that when making friendships it just sort of happens.”

He has a number of friends on SoundCloud. “I consider it important to be there to help when I can. We stay in touch with each others’ new music. I like their music more than most commercial music out there these days.”

Idris Davies

Idris Davies

This last point was echoed in several responses I received. Idris Davies, a Welsh singer-songwriter living in London wrote, “Why don’t I play current music? Well – here I can, current doesn’t have to be X-Factor. It can be anything from any of the guys I’m following, whether it’s Roy’s kitchen parties or Anju’s jazzy vocals, Chris and Derek sliding me back on their dobros, Mark swinging away on his piano or Mick mixing up sweet electro-blues! Discovering and sharing their music brings me great joy!”

Walt & Vervain's Icon

Walt & Vervain’s Icon

Sofia, who lives in Paris and  records as “Walt & Vervain,”  creates wholly original “electronic pop” songs with vocals. She originally joined SoundCloud hoping it would be a way to get her music heard by record labels. It didn’t happen. But she began to receive hundreds of emails from listeners who loved what she was doing. Now, she writes, “I can’t deny the connection I feel with the people who follow me and whom I follow.”

For Chris Okunbor, this same sense of connection prompts her to give back to the community. “I enjoy supporting and promoting other musicians I feel are really good and are good people, especially some of the young ones…some are not living in the affluent West…and really struggle to be heard and recognized.”  Chris reposts dozens of tracks by other musicians on her “cloud.”  Thanks to her, I discovered Dwayne-Xtreme, a remarkable singer from Jamaica.

Barbara Browning

Barbara Browning

After I’d finished a draft of this piece I found a  voice on SoundCloud that was new to me: Barbara Browning, a novelist who teaches at NYU and has recorded and posted covers of hundreds of songs, some well known, some obscure, in her lovely, evocative voice with simple ukelele accompaniment.  I discovered that she was not only a terrific singer with impeccable taste (that closely matched my own, naturally) but also a writer of graceful and insightful prose.  (I recommend her short piece about spam and Charles Trenet, I Wish You Love.) I immediately wrote to her and asked her to have a look at the draft and comment, if she cared to. Within hours, she responded:

“SoundCloud is so utopian – people are so kind and supportive. The one thing about your article that might irk some of my friends who are professional musicians (emphatically not me!) is that you’re buying less music. Of course the music industry is changing and musicians and composers need to figure out new ways of living with the changing economy. Myself, I’m paying for more music than ever. Because I have a fabulous day job teaching, I can afford to support musicians economically as well as creatively, so I do. If somebody has a “buy it” button on SoundCloud, I often do, and I buy the originals of the music I cover. Because I post all my music with Creative Commons licenses, some of my friends still think I’m helping contribute to the increasingly bleak situation where people assume music will be free. Deep down, I’m a big fat communist, so I have doubts about ALL private property, intellectual as well as material, but we live in this complicated world… As you know, I fall on the side of wanting to stimulate the gift economy – and the feminist in me wants us to pay special attention to affective labor and sentimental value. All of these things are intertwined in my mind.”

Her phrase, “affective labor and sentimental value,” continues to echo in my mind, evoking the possibility of a shamelessly utopian economic model. When I asked Barbara about the provenance of that notion, she wrote:

“if you want more on affective labor, a good Marxist feminist theorist to start with is Sylvia Federici, but of course you can always just talk to a waitress or a nurse or a mom about labors of love.”

For many members, including this writer, the greatest value SoundCloud offers isn’t  the space it  provides  to store and share  music.  It’s the  inspiration to our creativity and the nurture of our processes that count.   Axel Weiss, a jazz guitarist, composer and painter from Bavaria, wrote that some of his musical ideas would simply never come into the world without the supportive outlet that SoundCloud provides.  Justin Valente, a blues guitarist from New Jersey maintains that his past eight months on SoundCloud have been the most productive of his twenty-five year long career.

Alexa Weber Morales

Alexa Weber Morales

Alexa Weber Morales, an Oakland, California singer-songwriter who sang on the Grammy-nominated latin jazz album Bien! Bien!  and sings, tours and writes lyrics with Pacific Mambo Orchestra,  made an insightful connection between craft and community:

“If you believe in craft, and I strongly do, than a community like SoundCloud is inspiring. However, a lot of musicians do like I did at first: automatically post their tracks from CD Baby (you can just click a button), see zero comments/interaction, and let it lie fallow. I say forget Pinterest (tried it), LinkedIn, ReverbNation, MySpace (as if!) and FaceBook and enjoy a community purpose-built for musicians. So what if you don’t find many music fans there, half or more of the music business has to do with inspiration and collaboration with other musicians and who you know. This is a way to do all those things, without getting sucked into other time-wasters.”

Alexa, Axel and Justin, along with most of the people who emailed me,  frequently collaborate with other SoundCloud members, over considerable physical distances, sometimes without ever having met in person.  Idris Davies, in London  and Chris Okunbor in Australia created a haunting mashup of “death songs” from the black tradition, including chants, hollers and songs by Blind Willie Johnson, Charlie Patton and others. “musicaserj II,” a Paris-based composer-musician, remixed their work and added an electric guitar part.

telefan

telefan

Jim, a Philadelphia guitarist who goes by the name of “telefan” recorded and uploaded a traditional twelve-bar blues guitar track, “Two-Minute Blues”  and invited anyone who was interested to add a vocal track, a second guitar part or another instrument. After about three weeks, more than thirty musicians have taken him up on the offer  “It has been such an amazing success,” he writes,  “also very much a learning experience for me as a guitarist to hear other great players’ interpretations of the same piece.”

This sort of “song-swapping” reminds me of some of my earliest musical experiences when, from age eleven on, my family would spend summers in a small mountain town in Southern California where a folk-music “workshop” run by then-blacklisted Pete Seeger would take place. That was where I learned my first guitar chords and, later on, a few blues licks.  Besides Pete, folk-music virtuosos like The New Lost City Ramblers, Brownie McGee,  Sonny Terry and Bess Lomax Hawes would teach there, and hundreds of fans and amateur folkies would gather to learn and pass around songs, riffs and techniques.

In high school, college, and later, I stayed connected to the folk music community at  ashgrovevenues like the legendary Ash Grove in L.A., McCabe’s in Santa Monica and the Ice House in Pasadena. But, eventually, I drifted away from that world as other parts of life made greater demands.

For me, the most positive feature of the so-called “digital revolution” is the unparalleled access to music – as a listener and a musician – I now enjoy.  Until my own experience on SoundCloud, I had remained skeptical about the heralded “democratization of art,” that the internet has reportedly brought about. But the truth is that, these days, almost all the music I listen to is written, performed and recorded outside any commercial structure, mostly offered for free, by people who are, in terms of celebrity, unknown.  Could it be that – at least in this one area of life – we have stumbled our way into the gift economy that Lewis Hyde wrote about so compellingly in his classic book, The Gift?

The people I’ve gotten to know on SoundCloud – though many would not fit in any sort of “folk” category – have brought me back to a sense of participation in music as an activity that is intensely personal and, at the same time,  collective. Whether listening to music that moves me with its beauty, power, sense of history or its humor, or in giving and receiving help in songwriting or music production, or in philosophical conversations about music, and everything else, I sometimes feel that I’m taking part in a never-ending global hootenanny – the kind of spontaneous group sing- and play- along that was once a vibrant part of American culture. Maybe it still is.

What We Talk About When We Talk About SoundCloud:

I’ve found SC has been a way of getting a little of the same joy I get from gigging back into my life without the live nerves etc. I’m not saying it replaces it but I find the feedback I get has driven me and it’s just been such a joy and sense of completion to post a song and have it heard…

“The SoundCloud  community is a little eco-system of groups of individuals sharing music, ideas, advice and just life. I suppose other social platforms are ways of sharing what you ate for breakfast or what you’re watching on telly, SC is a platform for sharing music – and I don’t need to tell you how provocative, leading and rich a subject that is, do I!”

– Idris Davies, Singer-Songwriter, London, UK

Riny Raijmakers

Riny Raijmakers

I think there are more communities within Soundcloud. It’s like living in a small town and you just pick the ones you feel comfortable with, the ones who are on the same wavelength. It’s a microscopic world in a way.

– Riny Raijmakers, Singer-Songwriter, Eindhoven, Netherlands.

SoundCloud has replaced my old 4track.”

– Robin Thomas Martin, Singer-Songwriter

I find you can quickly see through to people’s hearts and intentions…through their music/lyrics/comments, and watching the way they treat others of all genders. SC is a very special community

– Chris Okunbor, Singer, Guitarist, Blue Mountains, Australia

Katja Tennigkeit

Katja Tennigkeit

“There’s that part of SC where people really listen to one another’s music, comment and like (or not). These people often do real collaborations, where each invests some time, someone does the mix and master etc…so yes, there’s a community with a real interest into the others. Mostly, they also make this typical handmade music, play real instruments, write songs with lyrics etc. Then there’s another world, where people just repost and comment (mostly standard blabla) and like other peoples music just in return for the same being done to them. Thus, their tracks quickly collect lots of plays and likes, but it doesn’t really mean anything, it’s just a deal. maybe they think that makes their music better, that this is a career starter, but I don’t think so.”

– Katja Tennigheit, Seeheim-Jugenheim, Germany 

I am pleasantly surprised by the lack of nastiness among commenters at SC. I’ve often wondered if someone goes around and deletes anything too untoward! It presents the other problem, though, of never getting helpful feedback or 100% honesty from fellow users. Early on I actually tried being more truthful — still not unkind, but recommending minor adjustments that could be made — and I’ve had mostly very good reactions to that. OTOH, I’ve lost some followers as a result, too. My approach to every interaction in life was / is / and always will be applying the Golden Rule: Would I want to see / hear such a note in return?”

– Kathleen Martin, Singer/Musician, Knob Knee, Indiana

Tony Bluestone

Tony Bluestone

Music is a personal thing. To share that is beautiful, man!  Creating music puts me in a special place… Music pulls people together where as politics, religion seems to pull people apart.”

– Tony Pappas (Tony Bluestone), Singer, Songwriter,  Detroit, Michigan

“For me SoundCloud was a life saver when I came upon it

Phutz' Icon

Phutz’ Icon

several years ago. It opened up a whole new thing for me, and I have been quite (happily) surprised by the responses I have got from others (all unsolicited).”

– Phutz, Singer, Songwriter, Sound Artist, Western Massachusetts

Corey Fischer

Corey Fischer

Links my own music:

songs and spoken word pieces 

my Smithsonian Remix Competition entries

all instrumental compositions

From Joseph Chaikin: Notes to the cast of The Dybbuk, 1977-78

In 1977-78 I acted in Joe Chaikin’s production of The Dybbuk (in a new translation by Mira Rafalowicz) at The Public Theater in New York.  It was a life-changing, career-changing experience for me and was an important step toward co-founding Traveling Jewish Theatre not long after The Dybbuk closed in January, 1978.  Shortly before the play opened, Joe’s chronic cardiac problems caused him to be hospitalized. A case of rheumatic fever in childhood had damaged his mitral valve, which had been replaced with a prosthetic one. But that surgery was followed by recurring cardiac illness.

During the remaining days of rehearsal and for the length of the run, Joe sent a number of letters to the cast. I kept five of them. I don’t know if there were others that went astray over the years, but these five capture Joe’s “voice” as one of the last century’s most  deeply reflective theatre-makers. Many of the questions he takes up were ones he first posed in his book, The Presence of The Actor. I’ve scanned the five letters and embedded them below. They are clearly meant to be shared.

In the mid-1980s, while undergoing a surgery to replace the mitral valve a second time, Joe suffered a devastating stroke which left him with aphasia and other deficits. He overcame the aphasia to a remarkable degree and returned to the theatre, acting, directing and creating new works, including a collaboration with TJT and Mira Rafalowicz in 1987. (See an article from American Theatre by Misha Berson)

Joseph Chaikin

Joseph Chaikin died in 2003, at age 67, of heart failure. His last words  “I don’t know,” were spoken, according to his sister, Shami (who is an incredible actor in her own right and was also in The Dybbuk),  “…questioningly, almost analytically, as if trying to understand his role.” (as quoted in Joe’s NY Times obituary)

Dybbuk.notes.1977-78.01

Dybbuk.notes.1977-78.02

Dybbuk.notes.1977-78.03

Dybbuk.notes.1977-78.04

Dybbuk.notes.1977-78.05

Why I am not in China

It’s been a strange year, so far. The excitement of Obama’s reelection last November gave way to frustration and severe disappointment as Republican intransigence imposed an increasingly unlivable status quo on the country. In spite of nearly ninety percent of the population favoring at least some sort of regulation on the sale of anti-personnel automatic weapons and some sort of meaningful background checks on gun purchasers, absolutely nothing has happened legislatively. Obama’s defense department, and/or the CIA assassinates targeted suspects with remote-controlled aircraft. Polarization of attitudes on race, the economy, religion, the status of women, gay marriage, keeps being exploited by right-wing demagogues. Guantanamo remains open for business. And now we have this counter-productive instance of magical thinking with the non-sequitur name: The Sequester. Sounds like a comic book anti-hero. A new nemesis for Batman, maybe. Anything really valuable is sucked into his force field and rendered worthless

As if mirroring these “outer” events, my own life has become rather surprisingly constricted lately as exciting plans, made months ago, had to be cancelled last March. As many of you who read my blog know, I had been invited to Beijing, Shanghai and Wuzhen, China, to observe rehearsals of an eight-hour long play, A Dream Like a Dream, written and directed by Taiwanese director/playwright Stan Lai whom I’d met in August, 2012. I posted that story with a video of Stan telling how, unbeknownst to me, he had seen TJT’s The Last Yiddish Poet in 1982, while getting a PhD at U.C. Berkeley, and the remarkable effect it had on his work when he returned to Taiwan the following year that.  Meeting Stan, his invitation to spend time with him in China, and a grant from TCG to support the trip all happened soon after Traveling Jewish Theatre, the company I co-founded, closed down after thirty-four years of continuous creation and production.  At the end of 2012 I took what turned out to be an all-consuming and very satisfying job directing Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechuan at Cal State East Bay.  So I was much too busy to let myself feel the full force of the grief that came with TJT’s closing.

About three weeks before I was scheduled to fly to Beijing I noticed that I was literally seeing double. In 1995, I’d had the same symptoms which an MRI scan revealed were caused by a tiny cluster of non-functional capillaries in my brain stem known as a cavernous hemangioma, which I’d apparently had since birth, but which had just bled a bit, for the first time. The very small volume of blood, not actually needed by my brain, wound up putting just enough pressure on a nerve to impair the movement of my right eye, causing the diplopia, or double vision. At that time, I was told by neurosurgeons at UCSF that the brainstem was far too delicate and vital an area to risk any sort of surgical intervention.  After about six weeks the blood was reabsorbed and the diplopia disappeared.

But, this spring, eighteen years later, it was back. Now an MRI scan showed that the hemangioma had grown as well as bled again. And this time, the neurosurgeon I saw as soon as the MRI results were available felt that surgery might now be possible. In any case, he said that I should not think of going on a trip as arduous as seven weeks in China.  As it turned out, a more experienced neurosurgeon, one of the country’s leading specialists in cerebrovascular surgery, pointed out that the hemangioma was still too far from the surface of the brain-stem to make any surgical intervention possible. His view was that the risks of doing nothing were much less grave than the risks of damaging crucial parts of the brainstem if surgery was attempted.  But the hemangioma has moved closer to the surface of the brain stem since 1995, which is why Dr. Arora – the first, younger neurosurgeon – thought that surgery might now be a possibility. Now the plan is to have MRI scans every three months to monitor the hemangioma.  Meanwhile the diplopia continues.  I wear an eye patch when I drive so that I don’t see two roads and twice as many cars.  But it’s still a strain, as are a range of activities I’ve taken for granted for most of my life.

I’m still learning the boundaries and limits of this condition.  A couple of weeks ago, I took part in a public reading of a new play by the Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, for San Francisco’s Golden Thread Theatre.  I read a major role in The Admission, a fairly long play that’s extremely dense with history, ideas and competing Palestinian-Jewish narratives.  We rehearsed for two four-hour sessions before the reading. Though I found the first day energizing and engaging, by the time we finished the reading at the end of the second day, I felt as tired as I remember ever feeling after several weeks of full-on rehearsing.

On the other hand, I recently attended a day-long retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center given by Norman Fischer, poet, Zen Priest, former Abbot of SF Zen Center, and old friend.  I’ve known Norman for over thirty years, since I moved to the Bay Area, but it was the first time I’d been to a teaching of his.  What an amazing gift to discover an entirely new and inspiring aspect of someone you think you know well.  I knew Norman was a gifted poet with a unique voice. I had once conceived and directed a theatre piece for TJT based on Opening to You, his translations of the Hebrew Psalms.  I also knew he was a great father to his twin sons and a loving husband to his wife Kathy, with whom I used to scuba dive in the kelp forests south of Monterey.  Nevertheless, I  had no idea how powerful, clear, funny and moving a teacher of Buddhism and Buddhist meditation practice (Zazen) he is.  The retreat was based on the processes he discusses in his newest book, Training in Compassion.  Since the retreat, my meditation practice has found new life and consistency with no sense of effort on my part.  Reading a few pages of Norman’s book and then sitting simply makes me very happy.  Had I gone to China as planned, I would not have been at Norman’s retreat.  In the phrase Kurt Vonnegut made indelible, “So it goes…”

Though I wasn’t able to visit Stan Lai to begin discussing a possible collaboration, as planned, TCG has extended the  grant period and I hope to catch up with him somewhere in the world by the end of the year.  His eight-hour long A Dream Like a Dream has completed its run in Beijing by now and the review from the China Daily was glowing.

a moment from "Dream"

a moment from “Dream”

Time’s Turning Wheel

To the New Year
By W.S. Merwin

With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

Contents

  1. On Friendship, time and work
  2. Unexpected Joy at Cal State East Bay
  3. Mentor and Father
  4. Swimming to Shanghai [and Beijing…]

◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊

1.
I had thought to use a line from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – my favorite play of the twentieth century – as the epigraph for this post until I read this poem by Merwin for which I’m so very grateful to Sarah Fry for posting on Facebook.

Sarah, (formerly Sarah Jane Norris and then Sarah Ludlow) is a beloved friend and acting partner I first met in 1977, in New York, the year before co-founding TJT. Sarah and TJT both moved to the Bay Area about five years later.

Sarah Fry and Corey in "Dybbuk," 1988

Sarah Fry and Corey in “Dybbuk,” 1988

A consummate actor/singer, Sarah helped work our box office during our first residency in San Francisco, at Intersection, and, a few years later, had the great idea of acting together in Bruce Myers’ Dybbuk for two actors.

Not too long ago, after some years in medical school, she began a new career as a doula and nurse practitioner in obstetrics.  I  don’t see Sarah very often these days. I particularly miss her stunningly clear and buoyant voice singing everything from lullabies, Scandinavian hymns and Childe ballads to jazz standards and show tunes.

I had not planned to write anything about Sarah, but this day invites reflection on what it is we most value. Ironically, friendships – the endlessly fascinating, ever-nurturing procession of bodhisattvas and lamed-vavnikim moving through my days – are the gift beyond compare that makes life a cause for celebration.  Ironic because I spend so much more time on other parts of life, those connected to work, creativity, and, yes, ART. People compliment me for my commitment to the muses, and I am appropriately grateful for the work I’ve helped bring into the world. But there is a cost. In the weird foreshortening that now effects my view of time, the sense of an ending is no longer an abstraction and, in its shadow, I feel very keenly the presence and the absence of the many friends of my soul with whom I’ve managed to lose touch.

Which brings me back to the Beckett lines:

“The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh. Let us not then speak ill of our generation, it is not any unhappier than its predecessors.”

2012 seems to have been one of the more unhappy and difficult of the nearly sixty-eight years I’ve lived. The December shooting in Connecticut continues to weigh on the nation and makes it hard to breathe.  At the same time, several people who meant a great deal to me recently died.

This year I also said goodbye to Traveling Jewish Theatre which had been my artistic home for thirty-four years. At  the TJT Farewell event on May 14, the tension between the needs of friendship, community-nurturance and human connection and the demands of theatre-making was erased as three hundred or so friends gathered to celebrate TJT’s thirty-four years of work and witness its ending.

One of the seductions of work, activity, doing is the illusion of a “rain check” on feeling  that it gives us. When I was a kid, there was a show-biz biopic with Susan Hayward called I’ll Cry Tomorrow. Right. For about a year, I had deferred my own grief over the end of TJT by focusing on the labor of directing my play In the Maze of Our Own Lives and on the TJT Farewell. But as soon as May 14, 2012 passed, I felt unaccountably restless, irritable and lost.  I finally let myself sink into the experience: the central endeavor of the last four decades of my life no longer existed.

Once I let this knowledge circulate among my molecules, new possibilities arose, as if on cue.

[back to top]

2.

I know that
hope is the hardest
love we carry

– Jane Hirschfield

I was asked to direct The Good Person of Szechuan (Bertolt Brecht, tr. Tony Kushner) at California State University, East Bay.  I’d never directed  in a university and felt a bit like an imposter, with my dusty old B.A. As it happened,  I had an incredible time working with a group of gifted and open-hearted students who were excited by the chance to work with someone who had been making theatre outside academia for forty-five years.

The Ensemble uses bamboo poles to create houses, landscapes and percussive sounds

The Ensemble uses bamboo poles to create houses, landscapes and percussive sounds

The hope and trust I’ve held for almost half a century, that theatre – which too often seems marginal, irrelevant or moribund – can still be a vital source of connection and meaning for people was renewed during my time at Cal State East Bay.

But it is in Hayward, forty miles (one way) from my home, and I couldn’t have handled the driving had it not been for my good friend Rhoda Kaufman, one of two full professors in the Theatre and Dance department, who generously offered me a guest room in her house in Berkeley, a mere half hour from campus. Her counsel and support got me through the more opaque and confusing parts of academic culture and some difficult production challenges. Best of all,  our friendship deepened and I discovered a colleague and mentor who is a formidable scholar as well as a dedicated activist and an inspiring teacher.

Directing – which I’ve done less frequently than I’ve acted and co-created – especially directing young people, is intensely relational. Having spent so many years as an actor, and, earlier, as a student, I discovered I had an intense ambition to create or invoke the conditions that would allow the cast to have an experience of empowerment in which they could discover their own creativity as theatre-makers.

l. TIffinee Walker, r.  Jasmine Williams

l. TIffinee Walker, r. Jasmine Williams

I had suffered through too many meaningless, lifeless productions when I was a theatre major in the 1960s. My time in a university theatre department nearly annihilated the creative spark that led me to theatre in the first place. Fortunately, in those four years, there were two different productions (one was Baal, Bertolt Brecht’s first play, the other was Waiting for Godot – coincidence?) each directed by a visionary teacher – James Kerans and Louis Palter, respectively – who inspired everyone involved.  I wanted to do the same thing for the CSUEB students.

When I wrote about directing Good Person in a previous post, I said, “The cast, all students at CSUEB, have achieved the rare feat of becoming a true, functioning ensemble in an impossibly short time.”  I was moved many times during rehearsals by the ways in which cast members cared for each other.

The "Gods" wore giant masks designed by Rhiannon Williams

The “Gods” wore giant masks designed by Rhiannon Williams

Two actors could not join us until the third week of our five week rehearsal period. The nine who had been there from the start went out of their way to welcome, reassure and support the late arrivals, showing up early or staying late to help them catch up with memorization and blocking.

My sense of the practical value of the ensemble, collaborative approach was confirmed over and over.. Treating the students as collaborators gave them a space to enter and fill, it gave them agency.  I happily subverted any notion of the actor as puppet or tool to be manipulated by the director. Early on I made a habit of asking different students to lead the physical and vocal warm-ups at the start of our rehearsals.

Carlos Aguirre, actor, beatboxer and vocal coach for "Good Person"

Carlos Aguirre, actor, beatboxer and vocal coach for “Good Person”

As we worked on the songs – which the wildly talented beatboxer/actor/musician Carlos Aguirre arranged and coached – as spoken-word/hip hop- inflected shprechtshtimme – I called on one or more actors to take responsibility for setting and keeping the tempo for the number.

The spirit of generosity that infused the project was reinforced by Brecht’s own vision, I’m certain. One of the elements I most appreciate in the play is the epilogue that ends it. Apologizing for the lack of a neatly packaged denouement and clear moral to the story they’ve told, the ensemble sings to the audience:

Honorable audience, don’t feel cheated
If as we end you feel defeated.
We’ve failed, we know, to be conclusive:
But definitive answers proved elusive.
We know that you might not approve
of this, our last dramaturgic move.
But there is one chance to redeem defeat,
if you, dear friends, in your theatre seats,
choose to take on the need to defend
what’s good in this world, we can make a good end.
You’re the actors now, be brave and be just,
We’ve got to do better, we must, must, must! 

The ensemble took Brecht’s challenge to heart. These twelve young theatre makers –

from l. Teresita Brown, Tiffinee Walker, Belgica Paola Rodriguez

from l. Teresita Brown, Tiffinee Walker, Belgica Paola Rodriguez

Filipino, African American, Anglo, Latina, Asian – became an instance of “what’s good in the world.” In their easy acceptance of each other, of difference, in their willingness to support each other’s strengths and build on each other’s commitment and hard work, they became “brave and just.”  They gave me reason to hope that they would “do better” than my generation. They knew that “We must, must, must.”

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3.

In addition to my work with the young artists at Cal State, I’ve had a couple of other recent opportunities to mentor younger artists.

arielAriel Luckey is a remarkable actor-writer-musician-activist who has been performing his original, solo, hip-hop theatre piece, Freeland, about the U.S. government’s theft of native land in Wyoming including the land that was eventually homesteaded by Ariel’s maternal grandfather.  I’ve been helping Ariel develop a new piece. Amnesia draws on stories and music from Jewish and Mexican cultures to tell his paternal great grandfather’s story of escaping the violence and oppression of Eastern Europe to settle in Arizona, where today’s Latino people struggle to make a life in the midst of anti-immigrant demagoguery. I’ve taken special delight in watching Ariel’s growing excitement as he discovers more and more of the richness of nineteenth and early twentieth century Yiddish culture – the music, theatre, poetry, humor and literature that I found so inspiring in my early work with TJT.

My own son, Ben Galland is a videographer who is collaborating with China Galland – his mother and my wife – on a very ambitious and most necessary full-length documentary, Resurrecting Love, the Cemetery that Can Heal a Nation inspired by China’s last book, Love Cemetery, that reveals the ongoing damage to the American soul inflicted by the legacy of slavery.

My grandson Eli, on a mountain

My grandson Eli, on a mountain

During a recent break from that project, Ben completed a short, lyrical celebration of fathers and sons, My First Fish, that received over twenty thousand views in less then a week on Vimeo.

Ben grew up kayaking wild rivers, climbing in the Sierras and the Rockies, surfing the north coast and skateboarding Mount Tamalpais on full moon nights.  He was eleven when China and I found each other, thirty years ago.  Over the years, Ben and I have been able to transform a typically contentious clash of opposing sensibilities into a profound and loving father-son bond. I’ve been able to share with him what I’ve learned about storytelling and the practice of creativity and he, and his mother, have taught me to appreciate wilderness. Ben and I have kayaked together in the San Francisco Bay, scuba dived in Hawaii and hiked in Marin. No skateboarding so far, though.   In making , My First Fish, his beautifully simple account of a day with his five year old son, Eli, on the Trinity River, Ben has located an underground aquifer of creative energy that can never be exhausted.

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4.

Before my work at Cal State was over, I got a call letting me know that I was one of six theatre-makers to be awarded a “Global Connections” grant by TCG (Theatre Communications Group, the only national advocacy and service organization for non-profit theatre in the U.S). The grant is aimed at seeding international collaborations in theatre. It will allow me to accept an invitation from Taiwanese director Stan Lai  to spend time with him in Beijing next March while he rehearses the Beijing premiere of one of his most ambitious projects, A Dream Like a Dream. The play surrounds the audience, who sit on swiveling chair and lasts eight hours.  The inspiration for it came from an experience Stan had in Bodh Gaya, India, the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment and Stan’s reading of certain Buddhist texts.  I’m currently reading a rough translation of it and feel a palpable undertow,  something like a gravitational force that its many interweaving characters, their stories and journeys generate. In Beijing, Stan and I will begin talking about ways we might collaborate on a project in the future.

Stan Lai, director and playwright

Stan Lai, director and playwright

Some of you will have seen the video of Stan I recorded last August when I met him during his visit to the Bay Area, and know something about the unusual connection between us that began, unbeknownst to me, thirty years ago.

The plan is to spend about three weeks in Beijing observing Stan’s rehearsals and starting the conversation about collaborating. Then, after A Dream Like a Dream opens, I’ll travel to Shanghai where Stan is  arranging a guest workshop for me to teach. I’ll end the trip in Wuzhen, a “water town” built on canals. Stan and two other Chinese theatre artists  are organizing an international experimental theatre festival there with some formidable participants from around the planet. (Such as the legendary Odin Teatret from Denmark).

Corey Fischer is a participant in the Global Connections-ON the ROAD program, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and administered by Theatre Communications Group, the national organization for the professional not-for-profit American theatre.

In days to come, I’ll be booking flights, applying for a visa, working on logistics with Stan’s assistant named, charmingly, December. Proceeding as if it’s all really happening though I’m still not quite convinced. As with most improvisations,  the effectiveness of preparation is questionable, but the need to feel in control is unavoidable. My little video camera is working, I’ve got extra memory cards and batteries and electrical adaptors. I’m starting  to imagine fragmentary conversations with Stan about the essence of theatre,  cross-cultural collaborations, stories that need telling and more.  I make lists. I lose the lists. I have plenty of time before departing. I have no time.

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Cliff Osmond, Actor and Teacher, 1937 – 2012

Yesterday I experienced a shock when a friend who’s also a “friend” on Facebook posted a link to an interview with Cliff Osmond, a prolific character actor who appeared in nearly a hundred feature films and network TV shows since his first job in 1962. The shock – the kind I am beginning to experience too often for it to remain shocking – was in the preface to the interview on The Classic TV History Blog which revealed that Cliff had died of pancreatic cancer on December 22, 2012, shortly after his last talk with the blogger, Stephen Bowie.

Seeing the photos of Cliff on Stephen’s blog hit me like Proust’s petit madeleine. 47 years ago, at UCLA, Cliff and I acted in an amazing production of Bertolt Brecht’s first play, Baal. Cliff played the title role. He was almost 30 and I was 21 and just about ready to give up theatre. I think every theatre-maker has a story about the time (s) they were that  close to quitting the whole crazy struggle to make a kind of art that disappears in nearly the same moment that it comes into being.  As Samuel Beckett has Pozzo in Waiting for Godot say, “They give birth astride of a grave. the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”

In 1966, after an invigorating year in France, courtesy of the University of California’s Education Abroad Program, and a summer traveling the still largely undiscovered “Hippie Trail” through Spain to Tangiers, across Algeria to Tunis and then back across the Mediterranean to Sicily, up to Rome and over the Alps to Paris and finally north east to Luxembourg to catch my flight home on the most affordable carrier of that era, Icelandic Air, with its brief stopover in Reykjavik. After a year and a half on the loose, I could no longer ignore the bitter smell of defeat that hung in the hallways and classrooms of the Theatre Department’s brand new McGowan Hall with its two state-of the-art theatres. The film school, still housed in portable classrooms on the other side of a parking lot, was a different, livelier story with Jean Renoir, young grad student Francis Coppola, and three others who spent more time playing rock music at parties than making student films.  They called  themselves “The  Doors.”

But that production of Baal changed everything for me. It was directed by a new faculty member, James Kerans, who was the only teacher I encountered in my four years there who inspired, energized and creatively disturbed the students he worked with. He came and went rather quickly, not cut out for  academia. I heard he had a heart attack while jogging and died shortly after he left  UCLA.

He lit a fire under Cliff who embodied the raw, elemental, cruel and narcissistic  Baal with great passion and power. I played a drunken beggar oscillating between ecstasy and horror on the Catholic holy day of Corpus Christi, as he sees the trees that pious Germans nail to the front doors of their houses become transformed into the actual “white body of Jesus”  Baal, sharing the beggar’s bottle sees the trees as the women he’s destroyed with his insatiable appetites. If Jim Kerans was the first director I’d worked with who really understood what theatre was, Cliff was the first actor I’d known who also knew, as Rilke would say, “secret things.”  Between the gorgeous excess of Brecht’s youthful, still forming genius, Kerans’ expansive understanding of life and theatre and his generosity of soul and Cliff’s combination of maturity, skill and a willingness to risk everything, we all became infected, feverish, obsessed,  joyful and terrified of the raw and beautiful thing we were making together. It was the first time I ever made a part my own, broke that membrane, that thin crust that build up between “the character” or “the role” or all the analytical  constructs — intention, motivation, given circumstances, back story, subtext, sense memory — and the moment-to-moment life we are sharing with the actors, the audience, the elements we’re breathing. It was the first time that all the work, the preparation, the thought, the inner and outer research, having done its job, melted away. That experience, to which Cliff was so central, is still my beacon, my true north, though, gratefully, there have been a few more in the 47 years since then.  

I’ve lost touch with everyone who was part of that undertaking. At least three have died:  Kerans, Cliff, and a woman who was my best friend back then, Marlene Rasnick, who played one of two sisters who frolic a night away with Baal in one of the few delightfully funny moments in the play. There’s more to be told, written, sung about all this.  But right now, attention must be paid to Cliff Osmond, and the uncanny absence of one whose unwavering presence made him one of the finest actors I’ve had the good fortune to work with. I imagine that most anyone who ever shared a moment on stage or in front of a camera with him feels the same.

My Production of The Good Person of Szechuan is about to open at Cal State East Bay

Details:

CSUEB Thestre & Dance presents THE GOOD PERSON OF SETZUAN by Tony Kushner, adapted from the play by Bertolt Brecht (translation by Wendy Arons)
Directed by Corey Fischer

November 9, 10, 16, 17 at 8 PM & 18 at 2 PM
University Theatre – $15 General; $10 Discount; $5 CSUEB Student

Purchase your ticket online: csueastbaytickets.com or call for reservation: 510-885-3118

* * *
Among Bertolt Brecht’s funniest, most accessible and moving plays, the play is set in the imaginary town of “Setzuan” China. But the play’s characters are clearly recognizable as members of the “99%” who can be found in any country. In this timeless theatrical parable, three rag-tag gods come to earth with the mission of discovering whether a thoroughly good person can survive – or even exist – on the troubled planet earth.

* * *

And here are the notes I wrote for the program:

Whenever I consider a possible theatre project, I ask myself, “What story most needs telling in this moment?”  Life is too short and theatre-making too difficult to take on any work unless I feel it must be experienced – right now!

I can think of no play more relevant to our current situation thanBertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Setzuan.

The Three Gods in “The Good Person of Szechuan”
[in rehearsal]

A bit of ancient history: In 534 BCE, An Athenian general, Pisistratus, who had become dictator, tired of the belligerence and divisions among his fellow citizens, invented an annual theatre festival.  With this stroke of genius, all theatre activity came together at a single place and time.  All four tribes came into a common space and shared a common experience.

The result was nothing short of revolutionary.  Athenian consciousness changed.  Within a generation, in 508 BCE, democracy began.

Brecht deeply understood the fundamental connection between theatre and democracy and understood that true democracy and an economy driven by uncontrolled greed were incompatible. That understanding is embedded in all his plays and his theoretical writing about theatre. As a German writer known for his left-wing political views, Brecht had to flee his homeland when the Nazis came to power or be executed. He knew exactly what happened under an undemocratic, authoritarian government. He had also seen how the Nazis rise to power had depended on having  a large, poor, hopeless and embittered population.

In Good Person, Brecht does not lecture or argue or try to convince us of anything. He simply tells a story, a parable that takes place in an imaginary place that he calls Szechwan (or Setchuan. His spelling wasn’t consistent.)  The place might be in China or Brazil or Greece or the U.S. – anywhere in a world where money means power and equality is a joke. Brecht asks whether, in any society of this sort, it is possible to be “good” – to be generous and compassionate – or is one forced to be ruthless and selfish in order to merely survive?  As you’ll see, the answer is as complex as the question.

The version of the play I directed  was co-translated from the German and adapted by one of the most accomplished and inventive living American playwrights, Tony Kushner (Angels in America). The New York-based actor/director Mark Nelson, with whom I worked in 1977 in Joe Chaikin’s The Dybbuk at the Public Theatre, directed Good Person at Princeton in 2010. He generously shared with me what he had discovered in his travels through the play, including his very smart edits.

One of the delights of the project has been the music.  The play includes nine songs. Many different composers have written music for the play over the years, but no single score has become permanently attached.  Since I wouldn’t know the musical range of  the actors I’d be working with until the play was cast, I decided to develop the songs with the ensemble in rehearsal collaborating with beat-boxer, musician and actor Carlos Aguirre. Several of the actors had experience with rap, hip-hop and spoken word.  With a bit of tweaking, Brecht’s lyrics found new expression in these indigenously American forms which, like the German cabaret and street music of the 1930s, are irreverent, accessible and deceptively simple.

Along with our sound designer, Matthew Payne, I composed and/or found  the recorded music  we’re using in various way throughout the production.  I write this just after a long rehearsal in which we timed and placed all the audio cues for the play. tomorrow we have our first of three dress rehearsals before opening on Friday, November 9.

Tiffinee Walker as Shen Te and the ensemble as trees in a park

The cast, all students at CSUEB, have achieved the rare feat of becoming a true,functioning ensemble in an impossibly short time. As someone who is coming to university theatre for the first time after 34 years in TJT, a professional, collaborative, ensemble theatre company, that closed last May,  I am enormously grateful for the welcome I’ve found at CSUEB’s Theatre and Dance Department.