Theater Lessons

What has Theater taught me? Ego indulgence and humility. Confidence and neurosis. Teamwork and competition. Empathy and retreat. Deception and honesty. The story of humanity in a microcosm. My story.

When I was a little kid, I learned that I could entertain and amuse my parents and my older sisters and get positive attention. As the youngest of four daughters, I was eager to exercise this talent to my advantage whenever my ego felt bereft. This helped me compensate for having fewer general skills and powers than my seniors. I couldn’t win at games or read or figure or run better than the rest, but I could sing and mime and look cute. I also was the only blonde, which helped.

When I was in second grade, I was very good at reading aloud “with expression”. I remember (and still have a written report about) my behavior when the class did a Reader’s Theater story about a snake. I told the teacher that I had a toy snake the class could use…provided that I got to read the lead role. Mrs. Richie declined my offer.

When I was in third grade, Miss White selected me to play Captain Hook in the musical Peter Pan. I was stunned. “I’m not a boy!” I protested. She told me privately that she thought I’d do a better job than any of the boys in the class. She could tell that I was a ham and would take risks to win attention and applause. And I did. In the final week of rehearsal, she gave me a monologue, a poem in rhyme that she would put into a particular scene if I could memorize it. I worked on it very hard. In the final performance, though, I skipped it altogether because I forgot where it was supposed to be inserted. To this day, I can rattle it off by heart. “Methinks I hear a spark, a gleam, a glimmer of a plan….”

The pirate theme lives on in my legacy.

When I was in seventh grade, I was double-cast as the lead in our pre-Bicentennial musical. I was the Spirit of ’75 for two performances (why the Music teacher and the Home Ec teacher chose this theme a year early is anyone’s guess). So was Kevin Bry. Yes, I played a man. Again. I vividly remember being in performance and feeling sort of bored with the dialogue the teachers had written to link together the songs the school chorus had rehearsed. So I decided to overact. “The sun still rises in the East….doesn’t it????!!” The audience roared. I think they were pretty bored, too.

When I was in High School, I took real Drama classes. I learned to dance, and I gained some confidence singing solos in the Concert Choir and the Jazz Choir. I became a lot more aware of my own vulnerability, too. I will never forget the Talent Show in my Junior year. I was in a leotard and character shoes, posed and ready to dance when the curtain went up. I was listening for our taped music to begin. And I heard nothing…until the audience started to howl and whistle. Suddenly, I felt naked and taunted. Then the music started, and I couldn’t concentrate on it. I was humiliated. My father and mother and boyfriend (who became my husband) were in the audience, hearing those students jeering at me. We all went out for ice cream afterward, and they tried to convince me that the performance wasn’t bad and the audience wasn’t being critical, but I just wanted to block the whole thing out of my memory forever. Obviously, I haven’t.

When I was in college, I was a Music major with Voice Performance as my Senior thesis. I auditioned for a part in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta as a Junior. I hate auditions. I tend to choke when I know that someone is out there in those dark seats judging me. I am awesome in rehearsal – prepared, alert, willing and tireless. I was working hard, getting better at performance in my Master Classes and feeling more and more that my teachers and colleagues were actually rooting for me. But not at an audition. I was nervous, my mouth was dry, and my voice wavered. I could see my choir teacher in the house, talking with the casting director. I am sure that Prof. Lamkin was telling him that I was a very good soprano despite my weak scale runs in Mabel’s aria. I managed to land a part in the chorus.

That’s me, third lady on the left.

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa with my B.A. in Music, I auditioned for the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Worst audition EVER! Oh well. I found out that I was already pregnant. Got the role of Mother at age 22…and 24…and 26…and 28, and stayed off the stage for years. Meanwhile, my husband performed all over the country with a competitive Barbershop quartet and once at Carnegie Hall with the Robert Shaw Chorale Workshop. My children were on stage quite a bit, too. I was their coach. They were in all the school concerts and plays, took dance and music classes, and I watched and cheered and videotaped my heart out.

Then some neighbors invited me to help them start a Community Theater. I was tired of being in the background. I stepped up, and brought my oldest daughter with me. The next summer, I brought three of my children, my husband, and my mother-in-law as rehearsal accompanist. The next summer, it was just me, and my husband told me that he wouldn’t be able to solo parent while I was at rehearsal after this. Meanwhile, he was performing with the Chicago Master Singers and rehearsing every week. A few years later, my youngest daughter started taking theater classes with a group called CYT. The next summer, they did a community theater production, and I auditioned again and got cast. My oldest daughter played in the pit band. One of the performances was on my birthday, and the director brought me out on stage for the audience to sing for me during intermission. * shucks, folks! *

I ended up working for CYT and becoming their Operations Supervisor full time. In addition, I taught Voice classes and Musical Theater classes and Show Choir classes to kids aged 8-18 after work. All of my children and my husband participated at some point in the seven years I was employed there. I watched kids grow up in the theater, auditioning three times a year, growing in confidence and artistry, and questioning their identity every time.

“Who am I, anyway? Am I my résumé? That is a picture of a person I don’t know.” A Chorus Line 

Accessing emotions, improvising with another person’s energy – initiation, response, vulnerability, defense. Mime, mimicry, mannerisms, artifice and accents. Playing in the muck of human behavior. This is Theater. It can be devastating and edifying. You can lose yourself and find yourself or never know the difference.

I wonder if I should regret raising up a bunch of performers and encouraging them in this charade or if I should be proud to have modeled survival in the arena. I don’t know. It’s complex. We’re complex. And maybe that’s the entire lesson.

© 2017, words and photographs, Priscilla Galasso

The seeing place . . .

It’s dim, but not quite too dark to see where you’re going. Small bulbs cast just enough light to barely distinguish faces and furniture. The smells of cut lumber, wood oil and paint mingle with makeup and sometimes musty costumes, coming together in a heady miasma of nervous sweat and dreams of success. The dull rumble of the audience murmurs from the other side of the thick, velvet curtain. It immediately electrifies the air with expectations. The cast take their places, everything is set and the bulbs in back suddenly go out. The curtain opens, the lights and sounds come up, the watchers hush and…the show begins!

***

I come by my love of the stage honestly; my mom’s creativity and extensive acting experience in her college troupe of players translated to prize-winning Halloween costumes for me and my brother when we were kids. By the time I was twelve, we had been to see several local productions of shows like Annie, A Christmas Carol and The Music Man. In high school, I became stage manager for the drama club and even had a bit part in The Miracle Worker. I painted numerous sets, gel backgrounds for the lights and found a niche in the camaraderie of the actors and the long nights of set building and rehearsals, the productions and cast parties (and the inevitable “after”-cast-party parties!). The lessons I learned then have been carried with me throughout my life and helped shape me into a better person.

To an outsider, someone who has never experienced or been a part of the theater world, there might be a lack of understanding of why it’s important. It’s a sad, unfortunate truth that when education budgets get tight, the Arts (including theater) programs are the first to be cut. So here are just a few reasons why theater in particular should be saved and considered vital to educational curricula everywhere:

* Theater courses build self-confidence. I’d hazard a guess and say that most people don’t like public speaking. They get jitters, get nervous, have panic or anxiety attacks because they’re afraid they will mess up and people will laugh or judge. However, it becomes a lot easier when you can take on a persona, or be “someone else” up in front of people, who won’t recognize you because of costumes, makeup or a different voice. It helps to take the pressure off, because if you mess up as a “character”, well, it’s not really you, is it? So it doesn’t matter as much. When you’ve succeeded “in character” once, it gets easier to do it again the next time. Success builds on itself, and so does self-confidence. Kids who are exposed to drama classes early in life learn to believe in their abilities (even when they’re nervous or anxious) and this can mean they become adult leaders in the boardroom, or the main presenter in the marketing meeting.

* Theater improves memory, speech and listening skills. Students of the dramatic arts are taught several, key things that they need in order to do well on stage. Of course memory gets exercised by repeatedly learning lines and movements, or keeping track of various props in different scenes. Whether it’s breathing techniques to steady nerves, voice projection to speak from the diaphragm or listening closely for a certain sound, a “cue” (spoken or otherwise), these are all things that students routinely practice to become good at the craft. It also means that they can use these skills off-stage and in other real-life situations.

* Theater challenges imagination and creativity, promotes quick-thinking. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen actors flub or drop lines! The best of them immediately improvised and somehow made it to the next cue without missing a beat. The worst of them froze until another cast member covered for them somehow (via speech or actions) and got them back on track. There are definitely times in drama class and on stage when you have to be able to think on your feet, and I’m sure there are dozens of real-life areas where this ability comes in handy.

* Theater fosters teamwork. In the end, it encourages everyone to work together as a team. From the director and cast all the way down to the stage hands, the set and design team, the lighting and sound crews, everyone has a part to play. On opening night, the production becomes this beautiful, polished creation born of the efforts of everyone involved. It becomes a shining example of the power of teamwork, and we all know how important that is in life.

From the Greeks all the way through today, it’s obvious that theater is indeed “the seeing place”. What you “see” in it depends on the lens with which you view it, and whether or not you’ve ever been exposed to it in life or developed an opinion about it. Sure, we can continue to cut drama courses from education, but why would anyone choose to? A life well-lived is about so much more than business, money or S.T.E.M. subjects. Those give us solidarity in society and enrich our minds. The Arts, including Theater, nourish our hearts and souls. And that, is just as important.

© 2017, Corina Ravenscraft

Embodying Story

I’ve been making theatre for nearly as long as I can remember.

My  first memory of being on stage was in grade school. I was an ultra-skinny kid with a  pronounced Polio limp, earning me the nickname, Chester, a clear reference to the TV series, Gun smoke.  It was a remarkable TV series and a truly dreadful nickname.

In about fourth grade my teacher had me learn a brief monolog which began, “How!  Me big chief, What-A-Pot-AM-I.” When I presented the monolog to some five hundred gathered parents, it brought the house down. My parents were not amused, and I was humiliated, but we never really talked about it, and as far as I know, my parents did not lodge a protest with the principal.

The monolog was problematic for several reasons. First, it mocked me as a disabled child. Second, it outed my family as Native, an identity they tried for very good reasons to hide. Third, it was a filled with settler humor, with jokes that made light of the displacement of the Potawatomi  tribe from their traditional home in Illinois.

I mostly forgot about that night until as a young I began seriously studying theatre. What I learned from that monolog and the audience’s response is that theatre has the power to do real harm to people, and often does.  Too often the stage belongs to the dominant culture, and the words, gestures, and  narratives employed on that stage are used to validate settler and ablist stories of superiority at the expense of people who experience every day degradation.

It was not until I was in college that I saw my first play that privileged others’ voices. I no longer remember the name of that play, but I do remember that it acknowledged the courage and resilience of folks I knew, Appalachian folks, and that it was pure magic. It’s been more than forty years since that night at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Granted, there probably were no black or explicitly Native stories being told, but some of the stories on stage that night were ours.

Later in my twenties I began telling stories and performing at festivals. Mostly I told tales from the British Isles and from Native America, stories I borrowed from books.  For me, the stories were alive and saturated with the possibility of transformation. I noticed early on that for most performers the stories they told were just a vehicle for displaying their theatrical talents. I also noticed that when I tried to be theatrical, the stories I shared tended to fall flat, as though all the life had been taken from them.

It eventually dawned on me that telling traditional stories is problematic in several ways. For one thing, Native stories are traditionally the property of individuals, families, or clans, and one is supposed to ask permission to tell them; one must also acknowledge the holders of stories and their generosity. For another, traditional stories that are told simply come vibrantly alive in the present, whereas stories that are told theatrically become simple moments of entertainment.

After a while I found myself bored by most of the storytelling at festivals and simply stopped going. I also became bored with my storytelling, and dismayed by the focus on the teller rather than the tale. Now, I love a well told tale as much as the next person, and a fabulous telling will keep me energized for days, but way too often the spirit of the story gets lost in the telling.

It seems to me that what really matters in traditional stories is the spirit of the tale. I was, even as a kid, encouraged to look past the surface of stories and events, to try and ascertain the spirit that resides in the heart of them.  I was taught that if the spirit of the story is nurtured, great healing might come to the listeners and the teller. Although I was not raised to identify as Native, I now know that teaching to be at the heart of Indigenous life, here in the Americas and around the world. That was , and remains, a good and powerful teaching.

Sometime in my thirties I became part of a very active Playback Theatre troupe. Playback is an improvisational form in which individuals from the audience tell personal stories and the actors on stage seek to faithfully play the story back to the teller. Doing Playback well is a remarkably challenging practice, one filled with opportunities to honor profound moments in individual lives, and in our collative experience. At it’s best it is a theatre practice of honoring the sacred.

Playback stories come in many forms: playful, sad, angry, loving, passionate, and hysterically funny. Most of the stories people chose to share are tales of transition or transformation, although frequently the teller only discovers that after the story has been played back. I like to think that the actors, when we do our job well, make the sacred nature of stories visible to the teller and the audience, and by doing so, make a space for some healing.

Playback, like many theatre forms,  is both a style and a disciple, and one can go to Playback school, an activity I heartily condone. Although Playback aims to create decolonized spaces, here in the US it is haunted by the same ghosts and challenges that confront most of North American theatre: there are remarkably few Indigenous people and people of color in the Playback world, and few people with disability.

Often, when audience members tell stories of discrimination and hardship, actors completely miss the underlying truth of the narrative. Playback companies are often eager to make performances for marginalized communities, but are more hesitant to invite marginalized performers, including actors with disabilities, to join their companies, let alone teach in their training programs. Tellingly, there are a number of companies for people with intellectual disabilities spread around the world, but I know of few companies that integrate obviously physically disabled actors into their ranks. I am grateful to our local company for making me a crucial part of their performance lives for many years.

I stopped performing a few years ago, as the late effects of Polio made the grueling work of rehearsal and performance impossible. Every now and then I will tell a story or two to a few people in an intimate setting. Sometimes the stories work, sometimes not so much. The outcome has a lot to do with whether I can give myself over to the spirit of the story, whether I can allow the story to shape itself to the mood and needs of the audience, and whether I can allow the sacred heart of the tale to shine through.

One of my theatre teachers insisted that Western forms of theatre arose from people’s attempts to give physical embodiment to the sacred. Another teacher, a dear one and a traditional healer, believed that healing happens when the persons in the role of healer and patient both embody the wholeness that is the sacred. He was an inspiration, inevitably shifting form deeply serious to outrageously funny without warning, and just at the perfect moment! He insisted that all healing is theatre, and that laughter is a master healer. He also knew theatre could can be a powerful force for those who do evil, that it can harm, maybe even kill. He was profoundly aware that when we make theatre we are choosing sides in the struggle for healing, and he was always asking those who came to him for instruction or aid to think about, “Which side are you on?”

© 2017, Michael Watson

Setting the Stage

 

” … It’s a loud voice, and
though it’s not exactly flat,
She’ll need a little more than that
To earn a living wage.
On my knees,
Mrs. Worthington,
Please,
Mrs. Worthington,
Don’t put your daughter on the stage.”

It was my mother, who first uttered these words to my ears, many years ago. Whilst the last line may be an oft recited phrase from that 1935 Noel Coward song, “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage”, it represents an irony in my mother’s life.

Don’t get me wrong, she was not a representation of Mrs Worthington’s daughter for sure. In her prime, she was a very attractive and vivacious redhead, who will have set a flame to many a male heart. But her vivacity belied a troubled heart; some emotional baggage that, in hindsight with the benefit of much subsequent revealed knowledge of her early life, probably plagued her with insecurities.

Her lowly born, but ambitious mother, ‘Queenie’, as she became affectionately know, was herself born of a father, who had been raised until his teenaged years in ‘the Old Nichol’, one of the worst slums in late Victorian London. Queenie herself was born in Walthamstowe, where she met and married the younger, albeit somewhat wayward son of a local establishment family. She was a strong woman whose personal attributes clearly informed my mother’s character and so it may have continued to do so, had it not been for her tragic early death when my mother was only nineteen.

For the rest of her life, my mother always blamed her father for the loss of her mother. He seemingly disappeared from their life, five years before her mother died. My mother was consequently left alone. On the rebound, she married the son of a millionaire and quite possibly enjoyed the high life for a while, before the marriage failed. He was, apparently, a ‘man’s man’. In London, five years later, during the war, she became a victim of the bombing on the worst night of the blitz in May 1942. She was buried under the rubble of her home and lost everything material, including precious family photographs and family treasures.

After her convalescence, some time later, she rediscovered the ‘high life’ in London and remarried; a musician she’d met in a night club she would frequent with friends. It didn’t last for long as he turned out to be some kind of perverted abuser. Then a chance meeting, through mutual friends, with a handsome young RAF fighter pilot, who would become my father.

Jim & Beryl, Switzerland

My father and mother on honeymoon in Switzerland (1945)

This marriage eventually failed before I was a teenager, when my father went abroad, not to return until I was in my mid-thirties. My mother remarried for a final time, within two years of my father’s departure, but to a troubled man, who turned out to be an alcoholic. Despite this, perhaps surprisingly, their, albeit rocky, marriage lasted until death parted them twenty-seven years later.

Act II Scene VII of William Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’ begins with the famous monologue, known as the ‘seven ages of man’. Spoken by the melancholy Jaques, it begins:

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts …”

[As a footnote here, I’m sure our William would not be averse to agreeing that, by “one man” he also means woman too play their parts. To have included both genders, although very correct in modern times, would have upset the scansion of that line, which is, as ever, written in his ubiquitous iambic pentameter!]

So, for my mother, she played her parts. In some ways I feel this was in denial of her past, in other ways it was an expression of her ambitions; her own mother’s ambitions, which were quite understandably for a better hand than her maternal ancestry had been dealt.

My mother was undoubtedly egocentric. When she entered the room, there was never any doubt who would be the centre of attention. But deep down, this was not a commanding ploy, but rather a defensive play; an expression of her need for love; to be admired; to be praised. All those things that it would appear she lacked as the only child of an ambitious mother and a wayward and eventually absent father. So she made the world her stage. She adopted an accent that reflected the upper middle class background of my father’s family; an accent that he, much later after her death, would observe that sometimes she allowed inadvertently to drop, in times of stress or excitement, when it took on hints of her East End roots.

I too recall my sometimes stressful teenaged years and early adulthood, which were, no doubt,a result of those influences and how it made me resort particularly to music – a plastic ukulele at age seven, my grandmother’s baby grand piano, my own guitar, which my grandmother bought me in my teens, my introduction to singing as a wee choir boy in church and school (also the influence of my grandmother) – and to sport – I was very athletic at school and beyond – and latterly, writing. This is my stage; these are my plays.

Whatever the individual causes, each one of us has a unique set of influences that provide the stresses and anxieties that agitate us into being what we are and doing what we do to make something of our lives. We will never be in complete control of our lives, from the outset, but we can take control of how we set the stage and what part we will play.

Beryl Harlestone
My mother, late in her life

I am grateful to my mother, difficult and painful though she was to live with at times. She provided me with an opportunity to learn from her life as an example of how we can make something of what we have, whatever the circumstances into which we were born; whatever and wherever the stage, on which we find ourselves having to be a player. For a few of us, that stage becomes real; for most of us, it is the place we find ourselves every day, when we walk through the door into the world.

© 2017, memoir and photographs, John Anstie

The Happiness of Music

Visiting family always meant surprises
anticipated from my niece then a girl
who loved everything theater and song

whose tight curly hair & bright eyes
shone like a happy beacon of light

she remembers talk of a voice teacher
& the one time both niece and sister
practiced the violin

but the one memory that dances across
the pages of her mind is the visit
to a restaurant on a clear warm night

where the happiness of the girl seemed
simply to overflow &; take flight

so when they walked into the night air
she believed they had left her behind
but not very far had she gone

for the landscape had small hills there
where she stood upon the top of one

hence she raised her arms spread wide
breaking into song to make us smile
‘the hills are alive…

my sister just smiling at the big voice
that filled the night and I sighed

© 2017 Renee Espriu

FANNY BRICE, She won hearts on the Vaudeville Circuit, the Broadway stage, and on the big and small screens

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Fania Borach, a.k.a. Fanny Brice. October 29, 1892 (New York City, NY) – May 29, 1951 (Hollywood, CA) Star of radio, television, stage (mainly the famed Ziegeld Follies), screen. Comedienne. Chanteuse.

Though a Yiddish accent was her signature shtick*, Franny Brice didn’t speak the language.

“I breathed and ate and lived theatre — in my neighborhood were all the nationalities of all of Europe. That is where I learned my accents; the Polish woman with her intonation rising up like chant. I saw Loscha of the Coney Island popcorn counter and Marta of the cheeses at Brodsky’s Delicatessen and the Sadies and the Rachels and the Birdies at the Second Avenue dance halls. They all welded together and came out staggeringly true to type in one big authentic outline.” Fanny Brice as quoted in Broadway, the American Musical, by Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon.

Fanny Brice made such an impression that though she died when I was one, I feel like I remember her. My elders reminisced, sharing vivid memories of her stage performances.  There was great pleasure taken in her subsequent movies, which were often aired as television reruns in the ’50s.

Thirteen years after she died Franny Brice was honored with a stage portrayal by Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl. My Aunt Yvonne and I saw the play . . . with Mimi Hines though, not Streisand.  Uncle Phil saw it with Striesand and said he couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role.  Aunt Yvonne and I agreed we couldn’t imagine anyone but Hines playing Brice . . . until we saw the movie version with Streisand. Streisand has the look and she had the manner, voice and inflection down pat.

Lily Tomlin‘s Edith Ann owes more than a nod to one of Fanny Brice’s most well-know and best-loved characters, Baby Snooks:

FRANNY BRICE was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the child of Hungarian Jews. She grew up dreaming of the theatre and made her determined way from small-time vaudeville venues to Broadway and Hollywood. Big names were a part of her life: she got a pink-slip from George M. Cohen, was saved by Irving Berlin, and hired by Flo Ziegfield for his world-famous follies.

To survive after Cohen fired her, Fanny Brice played vaudeville theaters but didn’t give up her other stage aspirations. One day she went to see Irving Berlin. She needed an act for a charity show. He introduced her to his new vamp song, Sadie Salome (go home), which I think morphed in Sadie, Sadie Married Lady in the stage play Funny Girl. Subsequently, she was hired by Flo Zeigfield and her career took off. Her success was unprecedented. America embraced Brice despite her ethnic act, something that was generally unwelcome in those days.

Ultimately, there’s a lot we can say about Fanny Brice; but the truth is, she was simply t smart hardworking New York girl who happened to be a world-class comedienne.

1946  Ziegfield film “Norma, the Sweepstakes Winner” staring Fanny BriceHume Cronyn, and William Frawley. This is a reprise of a skit Ms. Brice did on stage in the Ziegfield Follies. Hume Cronyn looks great here and is actually about twenty years younger than Ms. Brice. I would venture that none of us remember William Frawley stage and movie star days but most of us certainly know him as Fred of Fred and Ethel in I Love Lucy.

* schtick-Yiddish-a device (trick, cheating) to get attention.

© 2015, article, Jamie Dedes, (originally published in Brooklyn Memories); the top two photos of Brice are public domain photographs from the George Grantham Bain Collection of the U.S. Library of Congress; David Stone Martin’s Baby Snooks illustration © NBC Publicity, web source: the artist/illustrator David Stone Martin’s Drawger

Arsenic and Old Lace

 “This is a Halloween tale of Brooklyn, where anything can happen and usually does.” among the opening titles to the Frank Capra movie, Arsenic and Old Lace, based on the Joseph Kesserling play of the same name.

Set in Brooklyn, New York in 1941, it was filmed in ’41 and released in ’44. It is based on a Joseph Kesserling play, which ran on Broadway from January 1941 through June 1944.  Kesserling, a pacifist, wrote the play in the ’30s.  It is a dark comedy that some speculate was written out of antiwar sentiment and meant to illustrate the tension between the freedom to indulge any whim and the bloody past that is U.S. history. The murdering sisters were from a Mayflower family, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

Jean Adair, Josephine Hull, and John Alexander who starred in the play were released to act their parts in the movie verson. And, no – I don’t remember that – my mother told me. Boris Karloff, whose real name is very bland, William Henry Platt, played the evil brother in the play.  The play’s biggest draw, Karloff could not be released for the movie. Hence, in the movie version the evil brother is played by a gruesome Raymond Massey.  Several quirky quips in the movie reference that switch.

The story is about a theatre critic (Mortimer Brewster) who is also a critic of marriage.  He finally succumbs to a charming young woman who lives next door to his two aunts and a cemetery. The aunts, as it happens, are noted for their kindness and offer rooms for rent to lonely old men. The catch is that they kill the men, steal their money and bury them  in the basement of their home.  The “weapon” of choice is elderberry wine (so they die with smiles) laced with arsenic. The aunts are helped with the burial chores and ceremonies by Mortimer’s insane brother Teddy, who thinks he is Theodore Roosevelt.  When Mortimer discovers a body in the window box and evil brother Jonathan (a homocidal maniac) escapes prison and arrives on the scene ready to kill Mortimer and put the aunts at risk, hysteria breaks loose and on we go. However “dark” a comedy, it is a comedy and chock-full of laughs.

  • (The movie version can be viewed HERE.)

© 2013, Jamie Dedes (Originally published in Brooklyn Memories)

THE BELLE OF AMHERST, a one woman play

BelleOfAmherst

“PHOSPHORESCENCE. Now there’s a word to lift your hat to… to find that phosphorescence, that light within, that’s the genius behind poetry.” Emily Dickinson

If you are a lover of poetry and theatre and looking for some budget-wise charm this weekend, order some Chinese food, set out the candles and wine, and stream William Luce‘s one-woman bio-play on Emily Dickinson, The Belle of Amherst, with Julie Harris. I don’t see it on iTunes, but it is on Amazon Instant Video.

Based on the life of poet Emily Dickinson from 1830 to 1886, the play is set in the family home in Amherst, Massachusetts. It incorporates her work, diaries, and letters in a reenactment of her life with family, close friends, and acquaintances. Enchanting and often funny.

After one preview, the original Broadway production, directed by Charles Nelson Reilly and starring Julie Harris, opened on April 28, 1976 at the Longacre Theatre. It ran for 116 performances. A Wall Street Journal reviewer wrote:

“With her technical ability and her emotional range, Miss Harris can convey profound inner turmoil at the same time that she displays irrepressible gaiety of spirit.”

Harris won a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play, earned a Drama Desk Award nomination for Unique Theatrical Experience, and won a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Recording. She appeared in a televised PBS production and toured the country with the play for a number of years [sources: Wikipedia and NY Times]

Luce and Harris collaborated on other wonderful plays including Bronté.  A broadway playwright, Luce also wrote Barrymore, which with family I was fortunate enough to see on stage starring Christopher Plummer many years ago. That was a bit of heaven.  Luce wrote Lucifer’s Child based on the writing of Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), Lillian about Lillian Hellman and Zelda, which became The Last Flapper, about Zelda Fitzgerald.

Cover art © publisher   

Body Artists, Bright Glass, Blood

 Right here, this act we all perform, is not the story of a true star.

 

It is not, either, the hyperspace of a new social ontology.

 

But is it, at least, greater than its usual themes and instruments?

 

         In her poem, Media: the New

         Sorceress, Diane Wakowski

         explains performance as: “something

         every Hollywood thane might tell you

         is pretty obvious.”  We become

         roles and we play with them,

         we become word-routines that speak

         through all of us. And the roles and

         their routines mutate, hover, and

         wait, like a virus waits

         for better leverage.

 

But this transaction between audience and performer, between supplicant and sacrifice:  Is it that strict?  

Is it that tightly wrapped?

 

         Or is it more hesitant? Even virginal?

         But with teeth, too, maybe?

         Is it merely instrumental?

         Does it defend or subvert the faith?

         Does this act inhabit a skinned-place,

         raw-wet and quivering?  Waiting

         like a wolf with golden fangs

         and wide, spooky eyes?

         Alone, in full view?  

 

         

         But again, is it ever even enough? Does mutual

         use account for mute complicity, enough?  

         Or does it really hang and exhume and hang

         again that old-old dead Ceausescu of a tongue

         sleeping with its lies in the garden?

 

         Non-matrixed body artists crawl like

         questions through it. Drag the secret meaning of

         night through it.  Like documents of glass or

         snails trails of glistening thread: of blood,

         “cleaving and burning.” Bringing it through

         public solitudes, tumbling out the other end

         into private multiplicities.  

         But through what?

         And is it ever through enough?

         And, for whom could it ever be enough,

         and why?

 

We could call it burrowing, or sounding, or following a wicked spoor, blind, by smell, alone, “when we don’t call it ghosting.”

 

But questions, questions, questions still kiss the ashram like bullets, back in the day.

 

Give memory even half a chance and it will try to forget that being is, being breathed.  Yeah, like lost it all again, in the ghosting.

 

     “And whose hand is this that has never died?”

© 2017, John Sullivan

A Short Organon for a New Atlantis

So she says to him: my own
self is my body’s own true love,
is my first heart, so it goes
or so it says it out to.

But I have no idea why
I open myself to other selves,
like this, over an over
I never know or sure when I’m
inside out

I learn about it later

And he says: you’re pure technique.

Twice-born, even more, you still
Move and speak in thrall to becoming
each act. Each word written for another
self gives your need a format,
and limitless permission.
Remember when you were little?
Sleeping tight in a ball. In
a clenched room.? Like something
hurt inside? Like you dreamed
you would die? Without
permission?

No, she says to him. Just because
a knife is found, somewhere, maybe
borrowed, maybe stolen, a cut
cannot be, maybe, magic.
And a deep bruise the next
morning is no good excuse.
I know just what I know,
I go inside. Conscious.
I whisper, then I’m gone.
I learn about it later.

He shrugs, but he also
thinks: she trips the light, mitotic,
again. Daughtered, unmoored
in her mirror, again. These selves
she carries inside, like spores
of blue immortal cities. Like
whorls of cold light: hiding
like criminals on the inside
of her own skin. Again.

Then he says to her: the worst
crime makes the most heat and that
crime is the map of our journey.
Did you get there yet?
Are you warm enough to blast
off the mask?

But, he thinks, also,
inevitably: she still
makes me over, too, slips
through bare girders
like wind through a
hand, bone empty, and
pure as new snow passing
through, in silence,

In yellow light
down, twists
new snow
against my face …

© 2017, John Sullivan

The King’s Amnesia Lesson

So here I lurch outside and leave
the movie but this switch inside
stays on. And still it goes: a King
asks his private ballerina
for a “simple loss
of memory.”
Over and over his voice
drones on like a nagging
self-improvement tape
for people who regret
their own music.
Who regret their own sons.
Who shun their own daughters.

But nag’s not right, here,
no: nag is, too, a lie.
Even a King’s voice has a true
need to ignite its moment.
To burn for so to breathe.
To clench and unclench.
To talk to me, to stay
alive, a little more.

Believe me. King.
Inside me, or out the other
side of time, somewhere, I
would talk to you. But. You
just scat back at me like a nutty
cube of ouch, alone
in one gray lobe: “Hey, make a
holler to the next lobe, down
the block a’ways and still,
always, already relative.
But to what?”

…..And still I catch you croonin’:
“baby-baby.” And still
you make that same unkingly whine: “don’t
wanna’ know the old face.” Behind the
same face, newly burnished with jive
gravitas like yet another glass stone
in your tiara. So over and over, so very
by now: it’s our own common voice looping
back at us on the dream telephone.

But here, again, inside me, I still listen.
Like a synapse in the mouth of dream
body’s memory, barely breathing, through
mudras of pulse, space, motion, mask,
cadence, dark, gesture, resonance,
pressure, light, gathering and release,
right here, I listen, as ghosts
will have their due, o my King,
my vacant son, o my unbending
daughter, to you,
to your final riddle:

if thoughts are born with blood and lungs, and even grace refuses balance, if we all move room to room, unmoored, in our own tectonic currents …

if right here is not the hyperspace of a new social ontology, if this story is not the story of a true star, and terror not the oldest thing clanging inside our heads,
but, maybe, the loudest …

Would Zeami still call this version the Flower of Stillness?

Or just a skin of words, a book of buried shadows, dry husk of memory, a “walk on the roof of hell”?

“And whose hand is this that has never died?”

© 2017, John Sullivan

The Last Scene of Prospero’s Teatro Begins

baby-fists and baby-toes, a‘flailing in the dark,

shivering and rocking in that amniotic “beauty
within which all things walk and move”: inside a
dream outside of time, remembered, or not, (assembled
/ unraveled) from residues of memory.

Lose the mask you wear like a grudge: try
to remember the first face you can remember.       Your first face from the last life before it finds (its?) shape. Before a stage exists, before any watchers appear, before your own map of self and space congeals, (out there / in here), before any doors, gates, locks come between your impulse and its most graceful or, at least, spontaneous expression.  With every image still latent, on the bare edge of the visible.

That face is your full self, it’s been said.
Who else are you then, but your full self, it’s all been said before.

So begin there: where the body disappears,
and burns (in secret), and impulse
“transluminates” as action. A true and natural
ritual, but sadly, and so often,
diluted and debased.

© 2017, John Sullivan

In Which Fritz Lang Keeps a Brief, but Compulsory (and Exceptionally Creepy) Appointment with the Reich Minister of Propaganda

Characters:

Fritz Lang: German Filmmaker

Frank O’Hara: Poet, NY School

Marlene Dietrich: International Film Icon

(aka1 Dr. Mabuse / aka2 Joseph Goebbels)

Karen Finley: US Performance Artist

(also, just briefly, as Führer der Nation)

Bill Maher: US Comic / Anti-Pundit

 

(Video stream pops on: clips from The Testament of Dr. Mabuse or Metropolis or Destiny make a back-drop.  Perhaps, also, something from Morocco, no?

We must never forget the marvelous

ambiguity of Morocco!)

 

(Fritz narrates the central story embedded in (in fact, actually responsible for) his therapeutic process, the fountainhead of all his demons, self-described as “sucking at his brain like a popsicle.”  Here, he has permission to stride, flail, gesture, rail, etc.  Such is the stuff of really bad dreams.  Or recurrent PTSD. )

 

(During the narration process Mabuse reverts to Marlene using the same makeup Fritz applied to his own face earlier.  If she loses her place, she can always look up and revive her inspiration with her own image in Sternberg’s film. 2 beats.)

 

(I never said Morocco.)

 

(Very muted, almost subliminal audio track: one possible suggestion, Kraftwerk’s Fun, Fun, Fun on the Autobahn.  Another possibility: Peter Lorre’s obsessive murder theme from M.)

 

Fritz:

So then I invented the next Mabuse:

Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse.

And I said: now I am finished.  I am killing him.

I put into the mouth of a mad killer all the Nazi slogans.

Schluss! Aus! Fertig!

 

(Fritz and Frank do a version of call and response during this narration.  Leave the fully embodied narrative to Fritz, Frank. Remember, poets are supposed to stick to words, phrases, fragments, figments, erasures, interiorized ironies, and assorted contrapuntal moves, etc.)

 

Frank:

A container of images, actions, punctured like skin

 

Fritz:

When the picture was finished, some henchmen

of Dr. Goebbels came to the office

and threatened to forbid the movie.

That’s rich, I thought.  I laughed out loud.

I was very short with them.

If you think you can forbid a picture of Fritz Lang’s…

Fritz Lang, Fritz Lang, Fritz (“Freakin’”) Lang,

and I know you know what that means in Germany …

if you think you can do that, well …

go right ahead with your stupid plan.

(Pause.)

And so they did.

Frank:

And so this next virus achieves its own release

 

Fritz:

I was ordered to go see Dr. Goebbels.

My “interview” was held in the new Ministry of Propaganda.

It was frightening and very disagreeable.

 

Frank:

Dial me up a lens against

 

Fritz:

You go down long, wide corridors of gray flag-stone, etc.

Your steps scuff against the stone and echo, etc.

As you come around the corner – any corner will do –

you meet these hard men in pairs and clusters.  

They sneer and play with their lugers, and shivs, etc.

 

Frank:

Missionary myopia, down for a little fucking vertigo

 

Fritz:

You begin to sweat.

You come to a first desk.  A second, then a third desk.

And finally, a little room

where they say:

 

Frank, Karen, Marlene / Mabuse (with Bill Maher in the wings) all shout:

You! Wait here!

 

Fritz:

Later, a door opens on a long, spacious office

of burnished hardwood.

At the very end of the long office is Dr. Goebbels.

He smiles.

 

Frank:

Pleasure or avoidance, inscape or erasure:

unity, again

but only for the Pure

 

Fritz:

And so he says to me:

 

(Bill Maher goosesteps upstage and stops next to Fritz.  Bill Maher speaks to the audience in an exceedingly lame, “Hogan’s Heroes” sit-com German accent.  Perhaps, the actor speaks through a Bill Maher tour poster featuring Bill Maher’s face.)

 

Bill:

(To audience:)

Meine damen und herren

(To Fritz:)

Mein herr, look, I am terribly sorry

but we had to confiscate this picture …

 

Karen:

Bill, do you have any clue how dumb and corny and patronizing that sounds?

 

(Pause. Karen Finley is pent up and primed to tangle with Bill Maher.  They have some unpleasant history which will soon manifest.  Something like this: du bist wirklich der Beweis, dass nicht alles was zwei Backen hat, ein Gesicht sein muss!”)

 

This act is supposed to be a representation BUT

What you’re doing isn’t art.

 

Bill:

Karen, this schtick, in case your coloring book

is shy a few dots, is not about art.

And while we’re on the subject:

Explain to the rest of us squares how this

low-rent, shuck & jive-ass séance

could ever be art.

 

(Bill pauses to enhance his extra-daily technique

and dilate his stage presence.)

 

Or what we are missing when they, like,

saw a cow in half on stage … and then that’s art too?

 

Karen:

Well. Let’s go to Michelangelo with, I think,

The big dead art is Jesus,

The cadaver on the cross for the “Pieta” which is …

 

Marlene / Mabuse:

(Short (but not dismissive), decisive (but out-of-love with power), imperious, irresistible, and totally inevitable, the Blonde Venus accepts a loathsome role to move the action forward.  

What a trouper!)

 

I’ll do “Dr.” Goebbels.  I knew the man once … and, well,

he had strong opinions on art, and decency.

(Marlene now channels Joseph Goebbels:)

Look, I am terribly sorry, Mr. (Pause) Fritz Lang

but we had to confiscate this picture.

It was the ending we didn’t like.

A picture such as this must have another ending.

The criminal’s insanity is not

punishment enough for his crimes.

He must be destroyed by das Volk.

 

Fritz:

He didn’t say anything about the real reasons:

hare-brained Nazi philosophy and Nazi gutter-buzz words,

unmindful stupidity and willful ignorance

pouring from the mouth of an insane criminal

totally addicted to mind control and violent passions.

I could only think: how do I get out of here?

I wanted to get my money out of the bank.

I wanted to run.

 

Frank:

X’ed, dist’ and dumped … and now: who’s next on the slab?

 

Fritz:

Finally, he said to me:

 

Marlene / Mabuse

(as Joseph Goebbels:)

Der Führer has seen your pictures and he has said:

 

Karen:

(Just briefly, as Führer der Nation🙂

“Heir den is den Herr das uns

die grosse Nazi bilder geben wired.”

 

Fritz:

Yes.  (Pause.) Here is the man, indeed.

The man who will give us the big Nazi pictures.

And Goebbels splays his arms out:

Blooming, just like this … like a belladonna flower.

But no remedy in this one, just an assassin.

And he wants to know what I have to say to all that.

 

Frank:

Give me Vertigo or give me Demerol?

 

Fritz:

So I said, I am tickled-pink, Herr Minister.

What could I say?

I said yes to everything.

But at one point, I also said to myself:

This is the last moment you can ever be sure

of getting out of Germany, alive.

 

Karen, Frank and Bill:

Or of dreaming all your children back into being

dreaming all your children back into being

dreaming all your children back into being …

© 2017, John Sullivan (This is an excerpt from his play Hey Fritz, Looks Like You Lost It All Again in the Ghosting)

Come From Away

Every day seems to bring news of another mass shooting or terrorist attack, close to home or across the sea.  And you can be sure there is more violence happening throughout the world that goes unreported.

Colleges, theaters, shopping malls, clinics, schools, temples and churches have been targeted by Christian Fundamentalists, White Supremicists, the mentally ill, and Islamic radicals. Even the 1999 New Year’s festivities at the Space Needle were in the crosshairs, but the would-be bomber was apprehended on the Canadian border with a carload of explosives.

 

It was in 2015, just after the attack in Paris.  The French flag was flying throughout Seattle in solidarity with our grieving friends across the sea, when I first saw “Come From Away,” a musical based on a true story that happened immediately following the attack on the World Trade Center.  

“September 11, 2001 was an ordinary day in Gander, Newfoundland—until it wasn’t.  Thirty-eight planes were diverted to its doorstep on that fateful day, making this small town host to an international community. The camaraderie that followed reminds us all of the power that comes from opening up your heart and your home.”   

In one day the population of Gander, Newfoundland nearly doubled when 7,000 stranded travelers showed up on their airstrip on September 11th, and were invited in to be fed and housed by the residents of Gander.

With the chain of horrific events set in motion in America on 9/11, you might think what happened in a tiny Canadian town wouldn’t matter.  But it did, and it still does.  It’s a reminder that for every senseless act of violence, there are people of all races, religions, and nationalities poised to rush in to give comfort and aid to anyone and everyone who needed it.

In “Come From Away,” there is laughter and tears, racial prejudice to overcome, relationships broken and others forged in the wake of this disaster, and music to pull together all these story threads.

It is the superpower of authors, playwrights, and screenwriters to create elemental stories that shed light upon the ills and inequities of our society–prejudice, poverty, oppression, and corruption.  Some of them find their way to the stage and screen, and from there, directly into the human heart.  They’ve changed the world, or at least our way of looking at it.  They allow us to walk in another person’s shoes, see through their eyes, and put a human face on the ills of the world.

West Side Story,  Showboat, Fiddler on the Roof, South Pacific, The King and I, Hairspray, The Book of Mormon, The Crucible, Allegiance, Angels in America, To Kill a Mockingbird, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, to name only a few.  Groundbreaking, courageous, and timeless.

It is a miracle–no, a blessing–that we can come from away, and after two acts and an intermission, go home with the realization that we are not alone in the world, and maybe even go home with the will to change it.

And that is our superpower.

All words and images c2017 Naomi Baltuck

Willing Suspension of Disbelief

“An actor struggles to die onstage, but a puppet has to struggle to live. And in a way that’s a metaphor for life.” – Handspring Puppet Company, creator of puppets for the stage show “War Horse”

The theatre production of “War Horse” first came to my attention at the 2011 Tony Awards, where it picked up five awards. The brief yet enchanting moment when the puppet horse first came on stage sent a jolt to my soul. I turned to my beloved and said, “Let’s fly to New York to see it!” He smiled and, as he does, inserted reason into my life by saying, “I bet it will come to San Francisco. Let’s see.”

Of course, he was right. Soon enough the show came to San Francisco’s venerable Curran Theatre and we got tickets for the closing weekend.

Raised in New Mexico, I was surrounded by horses, and it’s no secret that I am a horse person. I have always loved the gentle animals and in college I was trained to ride by a protégé of Monty Roberts (the inspiration for “The Horse Whisperer”) and she taught us in his style.

Which is to say one must listen to a horse. You must note the posture of their ears. Understand why a foot stamp matters. Realize that a deep inhale or a deep exhale actually means something. I’ve spent hours simply watching a horse so that I could hear what it was telling me.

I say this to explain that going into a show where the main characters are puppet horses, I had my doubts. Would the actors using bits of metal and canvas along with pulleys and levers really be able to pull it off? Could I actually suspend my critical mind long enough to believe that was a horse on stage?
I’ll cut to the chase…they nailed it. I don’t know how they did it, but they did. From simple ear flicks, to a shivering coat when brushed, to head posture. At one point, there was a long dialogue between two human characters while two horses stood off to the side. The horses sighed, tipped a front hoof on edge, stamped, and shifted weight from side to side. If you’ve ever made a horse stand still for a length of time you’ve seen all of this. It wasn’t affected, just natural and true.

And then woven around this astounding feat of puppetry was a really difficult story set in Europe during World War I.

I’ve often been told in crafting stories that there are no new plots and it is the job of the writer to find a way to bring a new perspective to a known story. In this play, the underlying story is one we know. War is awful. Ravaging. It irrevocably changes those who were sent to the front lines.
We know the story, but when you add the majestic layer of these well wrought puppet animals, seeing the story through their eyes, it becomes something almost cinematic. How they staged such an ambitious production on the Curran’s small stage is still a miracle to me.

From light cues to small movements to the amazing work of the puppeteers, this show transcends theatre. I willingly suspended my disbelief and didn’t want it back for a single moment.

Let’s be honest, I totally ugly cried right there in the theatre. I mean cried so hard I was afraid I couldn’t get my composure back. That’s how deeply it got inside of me. Thankfully I was in good company, most of the patrons shed some tears too.

Over breakfast the next day while idly discussing the show, I tried to speak about one of the more powerful scenes and it again brought tears to the corners of my eyes.

It’s rare and beautiful to find a piece of creative work, be it a book, movie or play, that gets inside the cellular walls of your soul and hangs on. War Horse is that, for me.

I then and there declared my goal to see it again. In New York, and then in London.

When we did get to see the show again at Lincoln Center in New York, it was a bigger and more profound production. Our seats were so close that we were in the middle of the action. It was a different show because I saw different things, and it was doubly profound.

Later I actually found myself in London on a work trip, but sadly the show had ended its run and wasn’t being staged. Instead I settled for going to a local movie theater in my hometown and seeing a National Theatre Live recording of the show from a London West End production.

When the lights came up from this third viewing, I knew that I had completed my journey. The show still shook me to my core, but I was finally done. Ready to let it go.

I am grateful to all of the actors, the puppeteers, the various casts and crews for giving me many good reasons to suspend my disbelief. To experience a show that rattles me and means something to me. To believe.

And to run back to the theatre time and time again looking for new ways willingly suspend all over again.

© 2017, Karen Fayeth

::participation::

the play continues,
some of the old cast, new actors oblige.

ideas on lack of addictive ways.
simple days without receptors.

singing under breath, counting, unpacking boxes,
this is the lead. hints are posted, and may you believe them graciously.

for many times will you be tested.

there were subs titles, out of focus,
we could not read the other language.

the work continues…. peptides.

© 2017, poem and illustration, Sonja Benskin Mesher

Poetics Performance

Brechtian Knots Performing a Poetics of Constructed Memory

My relationship with performance provides a complex series of braided knots as I reflect on it and try to untangle its influences in my life and creative work. While the make-believe of child’s play and the various attempts to “show” myself to adults as a child certainly root this tangle, my first recollection of a formal role goes back to Kindergarten.

In some drama acted by 5 year-olds, I had a short spoken part. The performance was scheduled during the class hours, at a time when most families where I lived had only one parent working (the father, of course). I recollect tears and devastation when my mother, a teacher herself, explained to me the morning of the performance that she would not be there. She had asked a neighbor lady, who watched me after the half-day class, to come instead. I was not happy.

The ending was Hollywood (or at least Hallmark), however—when I was on the stage, ready to read my lines, I saw my mother in a seat, not the neighbor. Apparently her principal had offered to take her class so she could come. How stereotypical is that ending?

Commissar Strolovitch

My next memory really begins the tale I want to tell, though, one of politics and drama. In 1966–1967, I was in sixth grade, and it was the Cold War era. Our class play, chosen no-doubt by our good teacher, was pure anti-Soviet propaganda. My role? Commissar Strolovitch, of the Supreme Soviet Union. I was, of course, the bad guy. The plot unfolded a simple line of propaganda—students in the Soviet Union could not choose their own destinies, the State dictated them. And, horror of horrors, this was done on the basis of an exam.

Near the end of the play, I stomped on stage in military rigor, wearing an old Civil Air Patrol coat and leather riding boots, saluted, and declared that the hero of the play had failed the test and would go to work on a farm, or something like that. Maybe it was a farm. Someone else, who wanted to work on a farm or whatever it was (my memory is not precise on this) would go to university. After all, this is what the exam results determined. No choice for the poor individuals caught up in this Communist trap.

The students wore old Boy Scout shirts and red kerchiefs, young Communists all. Now, I see the irony of the fact that the Civil Air Patrol and the Boy Scouts were U.S. proto-military youth groups whose apparel were being used to critique the proto-militaristic U.S.S.R.

During dress rehearsal, or maybe it was even the performance in front of our parents (scheduled in the evening, both of my parents attended), the back wall of the “classroom,” painted brown paper held between some boards, fell backwards. Our teacher declared (in my reconstruction, but something like this): “How realistic. They Communists build so poorly, their buildings literally fall apart around them.” We all laughed. Those Commies.

I grew up in an almost-all white suburb of Chicago. I had not yet heard of Cabrini-Green, the most notorious (but not the only) Chicago public housing project. The Projects of Chicago, LA, New York, and other cities, were notorious for poor construction, inadequate public services and maintenance, and breeding grounds for despair and violence. I doubt that my sixth grade teacher new much about them at the time, other than perhaps that white people didn’t live or go to them, if that much.

These realities of U.S. life were across racial lines, and at this time, only two years since the signing of the Civil Rights Act, still largely ignored. The Watts Rebellion (also called the Watts Riots) of 1965 were considered a “Negro problem.” The Detroit Rebellion (also referred to as Riots) lay in the summer ahead, as did those in Newark, New York, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Tampa—159 U.S. cities, total in the “long hot summer” of 1967 (according to Wikipedia). Other uprisings by the “uppity Negros” also lay ahead, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the spring of 1968.

At the time I also had not yet, of course, heard Noam Chomsky speak or read his writing on such things as mass media or how governments tend to point to other governments and say—hey, those guys do this and that which is really nasty to its citizens and the world, but not us, we’re different. Of course, he says it more elegantly and I’m oversimplifying from global impressions, but his point is that if a government says all of the “bad” governments use these strategies for staying in power, likely that government does it, too.

I will return to this political theme in the story, but first, a bit of Shakespeare and The Bible, followed by a ballet.

Lord of the Court

My next formal performance was actually in a theatre auditorium, albeit in my high school. I was an extra, one of the lords in Theseus’ court. I wore a tuxedo for the first time. I walked around and spoke quietly to others, but without lines—we just populated the court behind the actual characters of the story, as needed. I was white, privileged, and even in my essentially supernumerary position, I got to wear a tuxedo. After all, I lived in white (upper) middle class suburbia. Upper is parenthesized, because my family was middle class, hence we lived in the development houses, not the nicer houses in the older part of town where executives who commuted to Chicago lived. Still, I benefitted from a good education and got to wear that tux in a high school described (because of its architecture) as “the castle on the hill,” and its football team called “The Hilltoppers.”

Shortly after this time, I started playing guitar and listening to folk music, sixties music (hey, it was 1969), singer song-writers, and, influentially, protest music. Actually, I had been listening to the music for years, as all three of my older brothers played guitar (we all still play) and brought home records and copies of Sing Out! I was still beginning to play guitar.

So it should be no surprise that my early attempts to play in local “coffeehouses” geared to youth (and run in such places as church basements) proved less than successful. Someone threw peanuts at me one night. Another night, possibly unrelated to my playing, a black-leather jacketed wannabe motorcycle gang member tried to kick me in the chest, but I stepped back just in time so that he only grazed me. (I actually think it was because I was a “hippie” and he thought he should attack me for it).

I still play music, but people now occasionally ask me to do it, and no one throws peanuts. Or tries to kick me. Well, not usually, anyway.

Spotlighting Job

Job suffered, in the Archibald Macleish play, J.B., as a result of a bet between Zuss (Zeus) and Nickles (Old Nick) playing God and Satan in a circus tent. History, Science, and Religion come to offer conflicting comfort to J.B. after Zuss / God destroys his life. Unlike the Biblical story, J.B. rejects both God and Satan and finds comfort in human companionship. This time, I took a role back stage, setting up lights and running the light board—dramatizing the performing actors below (the board was up above the stage). I was still in high school, but had by now moved to a middle class suburb of Minneapolis. It was a good school, too. I mostly remember wanting to date another student who was also working on lights. And a great cast party after opening night.

Scheherhezade

As a boy, I had a Bowdlerized copy of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights. Much was missing, including, at least in my recollection of it, the framing story of Scheherhezade and the reason she was telling the stories. It just had the stories, watered down. In my first year out of high school, I learned of the much spicier frame for those stories of a Sultan, his unfaithful favorite wife (did he really have a harem?), and his distrust of all future lovers to the point of killing them after their first night of marriage, so they couldn’t cheat on him.

Scheherhezade tells him a story on their wedding night, and he asks for another. She starts, but stops just when it gets interesting (the original cliff hanger?), falling asleep. He spares her—she continues to tell her stories, interrupting them by falling asleep at a crucial point. He continues to spare her, for 1,001 nights, then realizes he doesn’t want to kill her.

I had another supernumerary role—a soldier in the Nijinsky ballet for Rimsky-Korsakov (Russians, both), Scheherhezade. There was a harem orgy, with the Golden Slave and the favorite wife of the Shah. It was all a trap of course, as the Shah had told his wives he was going on a hunting trip, when in fact he was trying to prove to his advisor (brother?) that his wives were faithful. They weren’t, hence the orgy.

In something of a return to my sixth grade role of Commissar Strolovitch, I came on stage marching like a soldier in the midst of this orgy, at the climactic moment, as it were—an orgasm of military presence. The director wanted us to appear almost like wooden soldiers, so I did. I even got to be the lead soldier, killing the Golden Slave. I also continued with backstage work, this time with sets and canvas that is stretched, tacked to the floor, and coated with rosin, for the dancers.

This was at a professional auditorium, for a semi-professional ballet company, and it was reviewed in the local newspapers. The review that I remember loved the ballet, except for the soldiers, who were too wooden. As I was wooden in response to the director’s wishes, I figured, “good boy, you did what you were supposed to do.” That’s part of the story of my privilege. I get to excuse criticism if I was following orders.

The whole framework of the story, of the sexism, masters, slaves, women owned and their live threatened by men—this only came to my consciousness later. This despite growing up in an abusive and violent home. It wasn’t until I started working with runaways, a few years later, then in crisis intervention and suicide prevention, for about a decade, before I started to recognize how much men’s violence—itself a performance of toxic masculinity—impacted women’s lives.

The “exotic erotic other” (Edward Said‘s term, which I did not at the time know—like the words of Chomsky or the troubling erasure of U.S. realities from a propagandistic education before it) of the Middle Eastern foreigner and its Colonial view, as projected by the ballet, seemed to me to be entertainment, merely the art of dance, at the time.

Some theory

I began to study theatre more seriously in the Spring term of that same year, although perhaps my chronology becomes suspicious at this point, as my memory can’t recall which year I was actually in Scheherhezade, only which year I started to study theatre in university. Actually, I studied the ballet Petruschka in my first-term Humanities course, and I think that may have coincided with performing in Scheherhezade. Or, perhaps, the ballet came the next year.

In the Spring of my first year, though, I enrolled in a study abroad program offered by my university, in London. The courses I was eligible to take, as a first-year student, were Shakespeare’s plays. The professor was a drama professor from the English Department of my university.

The courses I was not allowed to take, but benefited from anyway, were in contemporary British drama. All of the students could attend the plays at the Young Vic Theatre. We saw John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, Harold Pinter’s Old Times, and others by these and other (white, male) playwrights. A lot of Osborne showed at the Young Vic, as I recall. I don’t blame the professor for the lack of diversity of the playwrights—the course was contemporary British drama, and it was only a few years into the 1970s, and he arranged group tickets at the Young Vic, a “hotbed” of contemporary British drama at the time. What was not white and male likely wasn’t very visible.

However, the playwrights did open my eyes to other ways of seeing plays. And the professor interested me enough to continue studying with him for several courses in drama, after we returned to our home campus. In the course of those studies, I learned about Bertolt Brecht and Luigi Pirandello, and somehow without realizing it, started becoming post-modern. Brecht influenced my thinking about performance, drama, and literature a lot. I risk oversimplification, but I point in particular to notions of disrupting the smooth viewing experience of “getting lost” in the play, so that the audience “finds” that they are witnessing a production, a constructed reality, in a world of social and political realities. Brecht resisted escapism and entertainment. He early on introduced “multi-media” to do some of this disruption, as well.

Since these introductions, I have gone further—in performance (studying improvisational music and performance with well-known musicians, for example), in theory (in this account, Genet, French Feminism, post-modern novels, literary theory, language poetry, and more remain in the future). Still, this part that I have conveyed of the knotted memories, reflections, paths of my relationship to what I call performance remains a formative base of my poetics.

In my poetry, I try to disrupt the reader, to get the reader to take a skeptical stance toward the text, the constructions, my own flawed perception as the builder of the text, to find social and political inconvenient truths—all while still exploring language and sound as music (dissonant and consonant) to entice the reader to move forward, play, and dance with the words and possibilities of meaning, even if imprecise or even false.

Conclusions, such as they are

Through this Brechtian lens I have offered here: a fallen backdrop, Boy Scout and Civil Air Patrol uniforms, riding boots, Cabrini-Green, the 1960s racial rebellions by African-Americans; a tuxedo-clad supernumerary lord in a Greek myth’s court; suffering on the basis of a bet in a circus tent (bet is also the second letter of the Hebrew aleph-bet, or alphabet, in the Greek); and a Middle-Eastern orgy story where the threatening (golden) male slave is killed by yours truly—a white, American, Jewish poet, living in Israel—and itself frames and motivates a woman’s need to offer exciting tales to her husband in his, not their, bed, just to stay alive.

All of this might be taken as a cracked and broken metaphor for the destructiveness of what we now call toxic masculinity. Or, as the psychologist Alfred Adler is supposed to have said (or written on the blackboard) after his lectures—then again, the case might be completely different.

In the end, this text itself is a performance of my activist poetics. Beware of how it constructs others, but even more so, beware of how it constructs me. Zeus (Zuss) is no hero. I am (not) a performer. This text is (not) performance, thus performs an illusion / delusion / lesion (that is, rupture).

My (better) poems perform disruptive communication (I claim) that cannot always be understood or interpreted (I explain). In reality (“What is reality? Brouhaha…“), the poems may work against interpretation, also the title of an influential book from my past that, like much that shapes this essay, comes later than the performances discussed in it. My better performances pull the audience in and then shakes water all over them, like a wet dog, hoping to wake myself up or dry the audience off. I have yet to really achieve such a performance, I simply imagine it to happen. However, the audience gets wet (or wetter) nevertheless, covered in imaginary spray. And I have yet to dry off.

  ©Michael Dickel
August 2017

Nail Bar

Twenty canvasses of your own.
Each nail is a canvas.

Even two year olds daub
them with a tiny brush.

On every high street two or three
businesses compete cuticles.

No airheads chewing gum,
buffing nails and passing calls.

Operating theatre masks,
nail drying machines by their side.

French or gel.
Indulged luxury in austerity.

At home sisters bond and learn
techniques of togetherness.

If you do mine, I’ll do yours.
Choose colour or tattoo.

Delicacy of touch and focus.
Mindfulness colouring book.

Pampered by laughter
and forgetting.

© 2017, Paul Brookes

All Actors Are Liars

I tell him I’ve written
A Christian play.

He says

It’s not real, you know.
It’s dishonest.

God says don’t lie,
and that’s what actors do.

Try to be something they’re not.

All theatre is lies.
Satan’s work.

All actors are Satanists.
All playwrights their priests.

© 2017, Paul Brookes