On March 14, 2015, two weeks after my 70th birthday, I gave a work-in-progress living-room performance of Who Was I? the music-theater piece I’ve been working on for almost two years.
Performing that night, I reentered the stream of life that I had gradually stepped out of in the time after TJT closed in 2012.
After TJT closed, I threw myself into a job directing The Good Person of Szechuan at Cal State East Bay. It was a great experience that I’ve written about before on this blog. I’ve also written about the cancellation of a trip to China where I had been invited to spend time with director Stan Lai. That was in January 2013. Suddenly I had a lot of time and space in which to feel the loss of TJT, my artistic home of 34 years, and grieve.
The two things that brought me the most comfort during this time were music and meditation. I’ve been meditating off and on since the 1960s, trying various practices including the Maharishi’s transcendental meditation, Rajneesh’s chaotic meditation, Jewish meditation, and for the past 30 years or so, Buddhist meditation. The spiritual teachers who influenced me most profoundly have been Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Jack Kornfield, Sylvia Boorstein, Pema Chodron and Norman Fischer. Norman, a poet and a Zen priest, is the only person in my life who is a friend, a fellow artist, and a spiritual teacher all in one body, I often find myself repeating lines of Norman’s in different contexts, surprised by how apt they always are. In 2002, I wrote and directed an ensemble music-theater piece from his book, Opening to You, his translations of the Hebrew psalms.
Music has always been an important part of the theater I’ve made. Even before I ever made a theater piece, I wrote songs. I started playing guitar as a teenager swept up by the powerful and haunting currents of old-time music that were enlivening America in the late 50s early 60s – the days of Folkways records, Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Jack Elliott, the world out of which sprang Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and so many more. As I tell in Who Was I? I spent several formative summers at the Idyllwild Arts Foundation (ISOMATA) in the San Jacinto Mountains where Pete Seeger led an annual folk music workshop in the days when he couldn’t get much work due to the “blacklist.”
The very first songs I wrote were in French. I spent my junior year of college in Bordeaux, France. I got a job playing and singing in a restaurant by the train station called Chez Jimmy. Jimmy was a very large man of indeterminate age from Martinique. I stuck a pickup in my old Martin and ran it through a Grundig radio so I could be heard over Jacques, the French pianist I played with. I didn’t know a whole lot of songs, just a few chestnuts like Freight Train and Railroad Bill. The rest of the time we played 12-bar blues to which I’d sing every maverick verse I knew. In order to feel like I really earned the meal and the drinks that Jimmy would give me in exchange for playing, I enlarged my repertory by writing some songs. Since the majority of Jimmy’s customers did not speak English and I had been speaking French all year, it didn’t seem all that bizarre to start writing chansons.
Back in the states music soon took a backseat to acting and later to writing and directing. But I never stopped playing guitar and after TJT closed I found myself devoting more time to music than I had in years. I discovered a new musical world through the Internet. I found classes and blogs and song-sharing platforms that supported and inspired my return to songwriting.
But I was still lost in grief and fear. I felt diminished if not finished.
In August, 2013, I went to a Jewish meditation retreat taught by Norman Fischer, Sylvia Boorstein, Rabbis Jeff Roth and Joanna Katz.
During a period of walking meditation at the retreat, the thought arose that I should create something to perform for friends and family on my 70th birthday which, at the time, was a year and a half in the future. I had no idea what it was I would make.
Soon after the retreat I realized that I felt most energized when I was singing or writing songs. This was brought home to me at the end of 2013 when I wrote a song for my wife China’s birthday and sang it for her and a few friends. I realized how much I missed performing, how much I missed the sense of community that can arise when we give each other the gifts of our imagination.
A few months later I sang a bunch of my songs for Naomi Newman, cofounder of TJT, dear friend and collaborator for almost 50 years. She suggested that I make an actual theater piece around some of those songs and offered to direct it.
A week or two after that I had a life-changing experience in the form of a thirty-minute-long episode of transient global amnesia.
It was as if I’ve been given an assignment: make a music-theater piece about memory and aging. It suddenly became obvious to me that most of the songs I was writing were, in fact, memories. I spent the next nine months reading about memory, working with Deborah Winters, my superbly talented vocal coach, and, with Naomi’s help, shaping the material.
Somewhere along the way I made a decision to work with musicians – live musicians – rather than continue using my home-recorded backing tracks as accompaniment.
I had already done some work with the incredible drummer Barbara Borden, who had helped me with the rhythm and phrasing of the spoken-word pieces in the show. She recommended two gloriously talented players – Ross Gualco to do the arrangements and play keyboards and John Hoy on bass and guitar. We were only able to rehearse together twice as a full band, but musicians of this caliber have a magical way of absorbing the structure and feeling of a song after barely hearing it once.
The experience of making music with people like this was completely new to me and I’m not exaggerating when I say it was an ecstatic one. Actors may talk a lot about the importance of listening to each other onstage but it seems to me that musicians are the true masters of deep listening.
The morning of the day of the performance, as it is often the case during those in-between times, I had no idea what to do with myself. Fortunately I had a lecture by Norman Fischer waiting for me on my iPhone. It was a talk he had given at Green Gulch Farm about his process of writing poetry. In it, he spoke about the ways his Buddhist practice informed his writing. One thing he said gave me a new way to view my own experience of making this stuff we call art:
“I know a lot of artists and they practice their art with a tremendous devotion. And they sacrifice a lot for it. And so they appreciate one another for sharing this devotion to an endeavor which nobody else appreciates quite the way they do.“
By the end of the performance on Saturday, I felt that all the people in the room had come together in that shared devotional space.
The event was a collective endeavor. It could not have happened without the generous engagement of dozens of friends, co-creators all. I’ve already mentioned Naomi Newman, Deborah Winters and musicians John, Ross and Barbara, but I also need to acknowledge the loving support of my wife, China Galland, who not only put up with my daily vocal practice but constantly reminded me of all that really mattered. Friends Evan Specter, Jonathan and Jori Walker, George Carver, Jonathan Greenberg, David Chase, Beth Sperry and Jennifer Asselstine helped with myriad, essential tasks. My son Ben Galland directed the two-camera video shoot with Jeanette Eganlauf on second camera. Our family friend, producer Ben Krames, took on the complex job of making us sound good, in the room and on the audio recording.
At the end of the evening, I told everyone that I hoped they would find a moment to meet anyone they did not yet know. For me, one of the most important reasons for doing theater is the opportunity it can give us to connect with each other, to become – even if only for a short while – a community.
Driving home from the event, China said that she wished we had given people time to share their responses to the performance and speak about their particular connections to me and the others in the room. When I told her that I planned to write about the experience on my blog she suggested that I invite you to post a “reply” or “comment” about your experience of that evening and your own connection to community, art, each other, aging, memory and anything else. We hear a lot these days about neuro-plasticity, how we can create new networks and pathways inside ourselves. I imagine that we can do something similar between ourselves as well. Let’s begin.
Note: We’re currently raising funds so we can complete editing, mixing and mastering the terrific video that was shot on the fourteenth. The finished video will be available online and will be an important tool as we seek more opportunities to perform Who Was I? To support the project, please click here to visit our fiscal sponsor, Fractured Atlas, where you can make a tax-deductible donation.