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
- On Friendship, time and work
- Unexpected Joy at Cal State East Bay
- Mentor and Father
- Swimming to Shanghai [and Beijing…]
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊
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
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.
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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 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
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
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”
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
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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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.
Ariel 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
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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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
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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