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

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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…]

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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.

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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.

Videos from TJT’s “Farewell” Event

Happy to say I’ve finally edited and uploaded eight video clips from Traveling Jewish Theatre’s once-in-a-lifetime farewell event, Thirty-Four Years in One Night.  I was powerfully moved all over again by the eloquence and generosity of these very special friends.

click here to go to the page that has the a link to each video.

Please spread the word that these videos are now accessible.
Eventually all this and more may find a home on a dedicated site for TJT’s legacy, but at the moment, I’m glad to provide a place to start making this incredibly moving material available. Please let me know your responses. Enjoy.