The Public Humanist

Why Am I Doing This?

 One night in August, I was soaking wet from having just been in a pond, under the moonlight in rural Ashfield. I was walking around the side of a barn and I was listening to the applause from the audience who had come to see our performance of the Arabian Nights. They had just reached the end of a travelling performance spectacle that travels around a former dairy farm, from scene to scene outdoors and inside, culminating at our pond. Hurrying down a path, something occurred to me: theatre is important. As someone who’s devoted my life for the past nine years to creating theatre at Double Edge, this might seem obvious, but it was an epiphany. I realized that people are hungry for a live experience in the company of others. It is unique what happens at theatre. I had forgotten this or perhaps I was learning it again for the first time.

I did not grow up on theatre. I grew up on movies, cartoons, Roald Dahl, music, the Marx Brothers, a lot of radio, the Sunday paper, and Jewish culture. I quit acting and writing plays after college because the need to survive and provide for my son took priority over making art. I did not see coexistence. When I came to Double Edge Theatre and trained with Stacy Klein nine years ago, I fell in love with a way of creating work that had a Talmudic approach to process and learning about art and life, a holistic integration of survival and art, a rigorous multi-disciplinary training, all of which brought to life some of my own deep unconscious connection to the value of the imagination and the personal.

“Theatre only has a meaning if it allows us to transcend our stereotyped vision, our conventional feelings, our standards of judgment – so that we may experience what is real and in a state of complete defenselessness unveil, give, discover ourselves. In this way – through shock, through the shudder which causes us to drop our daily masks and mannerisms – we are able, without hiding anything, to entrust ourselves to something we cannot name but in which live Eros and Charitas.” Jerzy Grotowski

I like the words Grotowski uses above: shock and shudder. I like the notion that the actor and the spectator, an entire audience can have this feeling together. I have a feeling this is a rare experience in our culture. I have seen a lot of great theatre but have only had this level of experience three or four times in my life. I can love theatre that is great and does not move me in this way, but I want, as a spectator, truly to come into contact with this feeling…to fall in love. Is it wrong for me to say this is my goal as an actor as well?

The artist that deflowered me in this regard was Karen Finley. In 1997, at PS 122, she was doing one of her one-woman shows called the American Chestnut. Honestly, I don’t remember a lot of what happened on the stage, but I cannot forget the emotional state I was in afterwards: shaken. I remember writing a letter to her that night about how she was able to touch – I’ll never forget this phrase I came up with – “the little red essence.” But I’ll never forget that because I had no idea, no context for what I was seeing, nor a larger sense of performance, hers or anyone else’s. I was trying to say in words what I had witnessed, what I had shared in.

Twelve years later I am equipped with some words. I can say I saw in her work honesty and raw emotions. I saw a poetic-prose text used in a way I had not experienced in dramatic literature, neither from a vocal nor dramaturgical perspective. There was a rigorous integration of imagery. But really it was her presence: passionate, vulnerable – yes, heightened – that gave me the visceral experience, that unveiled something deeply personal and universal about the human condition. After I exited the theatre I needed to go back inside to where I had come into contact with something essential.

In the nine years I have been at Double Edge Theatre, I have been researching “acting.” Of course, at this stage, I am what Bukowski calls, “a minnow.” I have always liked something Eugenio Barba said, “resilience is more important that talent.” Because it is in the moment of necessity, when we must decide not ‘if’ but ‘how’ we show up, create, overcome the limitations of our reality—how we allow our true self (as Andrea Assaf wrote last week), our true potential to emerge. I am interested in this fertile terrain where desire meets necessity, beyond the rational and not beginning from the place of concepts or abstract ideas.

For me, this research is not about acting. In thinking about where the personal and theoretical merge, I would say: craft is vital – but I do not pray to it. To me, the craft, the technique, the structure is the vessel. But the real thing is the flame inside the vessel. Thus, the research concerns, well, for starters: freedom, love, the irrational, the subconscious, the imaginative, dialogue, intimacy, honesty. I would not say that pursuing acting is to read Stanislavski, or Grotowski for that matter, nor would I be overly concerned with theory. I would work experientially. I would listen to Ornette Coleman, watch videos of soccer gods Pele and Maradona. I would read Lorca’s essays on the ‘Duende’ of Spanish bullfighters and Flamenco dancers. I would listen to Rilke’s advice to a young poet or his ruminations on relating to God. I would look at the ecstatic dance of the Hassids or traditional Korean Shaman court dancers. I would find that experience, from punk rock to Picasso that conveys to you that thing which cannot be held back. What I want to say, what I have learnt in my work at Double Edge is the desire that overcomes obstacles can be that essential thing, that artistic, thus political, personal, and socially relevant thing. These gifts, as Lewis Hyde refers, which are exchanged between artist and audience, can be as profound as love, and which whether we know it or not, whether we believe or understand…these gifts can change our whole reality.

PHOTO by Robert Tobey, from performance of “The Republic of Dreams”

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