About Corey Fischer

The current that moves me is a flow of creativity, as mysterious as life itself and as simple as breathing. It guided me into a career as an actor, first in film and TV in L.A. and then, sensing that path was not the healthiest, to ensemble, experimental theatre. In 1978, I co-founded Traveling Jewish Theatre. TJT, now known as The Jewish Theatre San Francisco, will have its last full season as a producing company in 2011-12. After 34 years, it's time for closure, celebration and transformation. At 66, I still act, write, improvise, play the same Martin D-35 (guitar) that I've had for over 40 years, live with my wife of 29 years, spend time with my grandkids, and do what I can through my work as well as organizations like MoveOn to reframe the current American political narrative to one that is based more on empathy and care for all beings than one based on authority, obedience and unfettered individualism. The play I've been working on for the last few years, inspired by the history of The Group Theatre (1931-1941) just closed its premiere run as the first production in TJT's last season. I've just begun revising it!

Of Poetry and Presidents

Given the recent presidential tantrums about “the wall,” it’s no surprise that Robert Frost’s Mending Wall should come to mind.  Like many of Frost’s poems, its lines are often quoted out of context to make a point that is very different from the poet’s intention.  How many times have you heard: “Good fences make good neighbors…” as if it were a biblical admonition to sharpen one’s boundaries, clarify one’s property lines, make distinctions and separations. In the actual poem, though, Frost is ironically quoting his neighbor. His own response?

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.

frost

Suddenly an image from my sixteenth year appears: 1961, the inauguration of John Kennedy. Frost was invited to read. It was the first time a poet had been asked to do this. But in the glare of sunlight reflected by the snow, the elderly poet  couldn’t read the poem he’d written for the day and went on to speak The Gift Outright  with its disturbing and ambiguous ending:


Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

No more poetry at presidential inaugurations until 1977 when Jimmy Carter invited James Dickey to read at the inauguration gala.  The Strength of Fields, ends with:

Lord, let me shake   
         With purpose.    Wild hope can always spring   
         From tended strength.    Everything is in that.
            That and nothing but kindness.    More kindness, dear Lord
Of the renewing green.    That is where it all has to start:
         With the simplest things. More kindness will do nothing less
             Than save every sleeping one
             And night-walking one
         Of us.
                         My life belongs to the world. I will do what I can.

At Clinton’s first inauguration, Maya Angelou read On the Pulse of the Morning:

The River sang and sings on. There is a true yearning to respond to The singing River and the wise Rock. So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew The African, the Native American, the Sioux, The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh, The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher, The Privileged, the Homeless, the Teacher. They hear. They all hear The speaking of the Tree. Today, the first and last of every Tree Speaks to humankind. Come to me, here beside the River. Plant yourself beside me, here beside the River. Each of you, descendant of some passed On traveller, has been paid for. You, who gave me my first name, you, Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, you Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then Forced on bloody feet, Left me to the employment of Other seekers — desperate for gain, Starving for gold. You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Eskimo, the Scot, You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought, Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare Praying for a dream. Here, root yourselves beside me. I am that Tree planted by the River, Which will not be moved.

ElizabethAlexander
Obama invited Elizabeth Alexander to read at his first inauguration and Richard Blanco at his second.

Alexander’s Praise Song for the Day contains these stanzas:

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, 

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harmor take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

In One Today, Richard Blanco writes:

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello / shalom,
buon giorno / howdy / namaste / or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips
.

With the exception of Frost’s flinty lines, the poems celebrate difference, inclusion, labor, kindness and love, values sadly absent in today’s public discourse.

Will the poets return to civic life?  I have no idea. It’s tempting, these days, to see the world as a dystopian epic heading toward apocalypse. But in her magisterial new history of the United States, These Truths, Jill Lepore writes:

“The American experiment had not ended. A nation born in revolution will forever struggle against chaos. A nation founded on universal rights will wrestle against the forces of particularism. A nation that toppled a hierarchy of birth only to erect a hierarchy of wealth will never know tranquility. A nation of immigrants cannot close its borders. And a nation born in contradiction, liberty in a land of slavery, sovereignty in a land of conquest, will fight, forever, over the meaning of its history.”

For me, the act of remembering and praising these poets is one way to give meaning to the ever-conflicted history of our collective experiment.

Deena Metzger’s “A Rain of Night Birds”

A Rain of Night Birds by Deena Metzger might well be one of the most important books written in this troubled century. I’ve known Deena and have been reading her novels, poetry, essays for over 40 years. But this one had an impact on me that I’m still struggling to articulate.  I’ll tell you this: since reading this novel, every time I’ve gone outside, I’ve been newly aware of the wind – its direction, force, temperature, texture. I’d not paid it much attention since the days, long-ago now, when I paddled a kayak in the Bay. Anyone who spends much time on the water quickly learns the life-and-death importance of wind and current.

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Deena Metzger (Photo by Jessica Shokrian)

A Rain of Night Birds reminded me that such attention to the Earth is now essential at all times and is certainly a matter of life and death.

Deena has always embraced paradox. She gives new meaning to the  adage that the personal is political. In “Rain…” she explores the lives of two characters, Sandra Birdswell and Terrence Green, whose separate journeys have led them to recognize the inadequacy of conventional Western science to respond to planetary crisis.

Deena is the first  writer I’ve read who has managed to write  a novel that puts climate change front and center without making the reader despair and without falling into didacticism. Every moment of  “Rain…” is grounded in the lived experience of her characters.  (I’m using “climate change”  to stand for the terrifying consequences of so much human activity since the early Industrial Age.)

Both Sandra and Terrence are climatologists. He’s mixed-race – Native American and white. She’s the daughter of a white doctor whose formative years were spent in the Indian Health Service in the southwest. His closest friend is Hosteen Tseda,  an indigenous healer who becomes Sandra’s adopted uncle, teacher and mentor.

Sandra chooses to become a healer as well. But even as a child she understands that her calling is to heal the earth.

Years after she first meets Professor G – as Terrence likes to be called by his students – they become lovers and allies.  Both of them grew up without knowing their birth mothers. This shared absence in their histories contributes to the profound need they each feel to reconnect themselves to the Earth. Though they’re both scientists, their ties to indigenous culture with its very different ways of knowing informs, tempers and transforms their relationship to the natural world.

Summary and synopsis can only reduce what Deena has accomplished here. There’s no way to give a capsule description of these reluctant heroes without making them sound like two-dimensional icons. It’s their layered complexity and  enormous vitality that drives this novel.  This book is a kind of “dream-catcher.” Its elements work together lyrically, psychologically and spiritually to create the conditions in the reader’s heart in which wisdom itself might appear.

A Rain of Night Birds, novel, Purchase from Birchbark Books and Native Arts – http://birchbarkbooks.com/all-online-titles/a-rain-of-night-birds

Find out more about Deena Metzger

 

Why I Read

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When I was four I read my first word aloud as I rode in our 1939 Buick whom my parents had named “Brenda.” The word was café but I pronounced it with a silent e, rhyming it with strafe or waif. It was 1949, the war was over and I had two loving parents who quickly and proudly corrected my pronunciation.

That same year, I began reading L. Frank Baum’s series of Oz books. I was too impatient to wait for my mother to find time to read them to me so I figured it out.

Along with breathing, eating, sleeping and going to the bathroom, reading is what I’ve spent most of my seventy-two years doing. I read all the Oz books, uncountable comic books, most every science fiction novel published between 1955 and 1962, all of Steinbeck, Dos Passos and Howard Fast (a mostly-forgotten left-wing writer of historical novels like Citizen Tom Paine) I read Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Michener, Lawrence Durrell, Mickey Spillane, Aldous Huxley, D.T. Suzuki and Jack Kerouac before graduating high school.

Reading was my escape from boredom and bullying, from loneliness and fear. It was my balm and inspiration. It was my mother’s most precious legacy.

U.Inscription
The inscription in my mother’s copy of Joyce’s Ulysses, given to her by a man I never met, five years before I was born.

In college, I read Sartre, Camus, St. Exupéry, Racine, Moliere and others, in French.

So far this year, 2017, I’ve read several books about Buddhism, two novels by George Eliot, Don Quixote, Six novels by Ursula K. LeGuin and four by Octavia Butler. I loved them all. Or: I loved reading them all, even those books I may not have loved in themselves

These days I have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. Maybe it’s part of aging; maybe it’s the medication I have to take since I had a couple of seizures in 2015. When I finally am able to rouse myself from the intermittent doze in which I nearly drown between the hours of nine and eleven AM, I rush to prepare my gluten-free steel-cut oatmeal and coffee with rice milk in order to begin reading. I read my current book or I read this week’s New Yorker or last Sunday’s New York Times. After an hour or so of crawling, running, leaping and swimming through a few thousand words, my morning depression loses its grip and I can begin to inhabit my body.

This morning I finished reading You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie. It’s a memoir written in very short chapters, some of which are poems. The chapters dance circles around the life and death of Sherman’s mother, Lillian, on the Spokane reservation in Eastern Washington, land of no-more-salmon, ubiquitous radioactive waste, alcoholism and internalized oppression.

How can reading about such pain bring pleasure? Is it because Sherman’s stories of his painful childhood on the rez – the poverty, the bullying, the violent chaos, the twisted love – are specific, lived experiences that most humans go through to varying degrees?

I’m getting nervous as I write this. Compared to Sherman’s childhood, mine was edenic. Like all good progressives, I sure don’t want to appropriate another group’s oppression. But Sherman happens to be a fucking brilliant writer who invites everyone into his story. For instance:

After neurosurgery, I have learned that my brain is a boardinghouse where my waking consciousness rents one room with a hot plate and a black-and-white TV while the rest of the rooms are occupied by a random assortment of banshees, ghosts, mimes wearing eagle feathers, and approximately twelve thousand strangers who look exactly like me.

I haven’t had neurosurgery, though it was offered to me once. But I sure know that boarding house. Mine is occupied by rabbis, untranslated yiddish poets, old vaudevillians and my own twelve thousand imposters.

And that’s why I can never stop reading. How else could I understand the ways in which the inner life of a middle class, old, L.A.-born Jew can rhyme with the struggles and revelations of a fifty-something urban Indian writer?

Is it a tired truism to say that reading promotes empathy? Maybe so, but if my life of reading has even partly balanced the human tendancy to draw lines around one’s own race, gender, nationality, species, and place everyone else outside that imaginary circle and call them “other” or “enemy,” then I sing its praises. Reading taught me how to praise and You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is as full of praise and honor songs as it is of lamentations. As in my life, I’m not sure which is which.

Outtakes from Who Was I? – Fundamental Uncertainty

In the process of rewriting my music-theatre piece, Who Was I?, I wrote a lot, exploring the geography of memory. As I get closer to performing the new version of the show, I’ve decided to post some of that writing. Read more about the piece by clicking here


The Buddha says that clinging to the idea of a fixed, unchanging, personal identity is the source of human suffering. We create and maintain the illusion of a permanent “self” in order to avoid the full experience of the “fundamental uncertainty, the groundlessness of being human.” (Pema Chödron, Living Beautifully, p 4)

So I can view my recent neurological episodes – auras, transient amnesia, seizures – as opportunities to experience that very uncertainty. The two times I emerged from oblivion with no memory of how I had come to be lying on the floor felt intensely groundless.

The second time I came back to awareness from a seizure, my wife and three paramedics were all telling me that I’d had a seizure. For several minutes, I could not figure out what that word, seizure, meant. I had no story to tell myself. That came later:

I was standing at the kitchen sink, washing some dishes. The dishwasher was open. That’s the last thing I remember before coming to on the floor with everyone telling me I’d had a seizure. I must have fallen on the open door of the dishwasher and then slid onto the floor. Now I’m in an ambulance on the way to the Marin General Hospital emergency room. But my consciousness still seems intermittent as if the movie I’m in had several random jump cuts and was being shown at an inconsistent speed.

A lot of spiritual teachers talk about the benefits of “dropping your story. ” About twenty years ago, not long after my mother died, I went to see Gangaji, an American woman who was a student of “Papaji” a self-arisen Indian mystic. At the time both Papaji and Gangaji were very popular among American spiritual seekers. Gangaji was very big on story-dropping. I raised my hand. “But I’m a storyteller,” I said, on the verge of tears, “I love stories!”

“Well, then,” she answered,”You’re just a sentimental old fool.” I’m even older now and still hopelessly tangled in story.

The difference is that I’m finally willing to consider that changing my attitude toward the stories might be a Good Thing.

I noticed, a couple years ago, that Gangaji had written a book calledHidden Treasure: Uncovering the Truth in your Life Story. I should read it, I guess. But my Buddhist teachers seem to be saying that the notion that there is anything “true” about one’s “life story” is, itself, suspect.

Perhaps this is the opposite of Alzheimer’s or amnesia, this flood of memories.

Continued in next post

Outtakes Continued: Memory Flood

I started making lists:

When I was two and a half years old, I learned to speak French fluently.

When I was five, on my first day in kindergarten, I cried and cried, breathlessly sobbing, “I want my mommy,”

When I was ten I dreamed that my father had died and become a bird perched on a telephone pole on Ventura Boulevard.

When I was eleven, on the first night in the desert town we’d moved to, I was so frightened by the large moths that kept flinging themselves against the window screens in that furnace of a night that I didn’t sleep at all.

When I was eleven I met a devoté of Edgar Cayce, a man in his thirties, who used “hypnosis” to put me into a “trance” in which I accessed my “past lives.” I couldn’t tell if I was making up all the things I said or not.

When I was eleven I read my first grown-up novel: The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson

When I was eleven I acted in my first play, The Clown who Ran Away.

When I was fourteen I kissed a girl on the mouth for the first time while acting in a scene from The Importance of Being Earnest.

When I was fourteen my Aunt Eleanor taught me the guitar chords to Careless Love.

When I was fourteen, standing near a bank of lockers, a kid whose father was a cop, showed me a photo he had stolen. It showed the corpse of a man who had killed himself with a shotgun in his mouth. It didn’t look real.

When I was fourteen I imagined, for a few months, that I would become a rabbi when I grew up. i urged my secular parents to keep kosher. They didn’t.

When I was fourteen standing near a bank of lockers, a kid whose father was a cop, showed me a photo he had stolen. It showed a couple having sex. The man was naked except for a pair of wing-tip shoes – the kind my father wore. The woman was also naked and quite hairy. It looked too real.

When I was fifteen I heard a Ravi Shankar record for the first time and felt completely disoriented, unable to tell where the music began and ended.

When I was sixteen, at the start of my senior year, I discovered that I had become the tallest person in my high school, faculty included.

When I was sixteen, in home room, I refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance. The kid behind me pulled me upright by the collar of my shirt.

When I was sixteen I started smoking.

When I was seventeen my friend Betsy and I hot-wired her father’s 1939 Buick convertible and drove the deserted desert two-lane highways all night long.

When I was seventeen I got a small part in a professional play.

When I was nineteen I had sex and marijuana for the first time.

When I was nineteen I went to France for my third year of college.

When I was twenty I met a blind Algerian student in Bordeaux who, when I asked what it was like in Algeria, said, “Ça chie,” which means, literally, “It shits.”

When I was twenty, hitchhiking alone through Algeria, a small truck I was riding in had its windshield shattered by a large watermelon hurled from an oncoming car

When I was twenty one I got my first acting job on television.

When I was twenty one, at my draft board physical, I sat in my jockey shorts in front of an army psychiatrist who kept an unlit cigar stub in his mouth while asking me how I expected to amount to anything if I continued to use illegal drugs.

When I was twenty two I moved into a group house in Echo Park. My roommates smuggled large quantities of hashish from Lebanon, built a sauna in the laundry room, introduced me to intravenous cocaine and methedrine and to vegetarian cooking.

When I was twenty two I appeared as a “bachelor” contestant on The Dating Game, simply because, as a union actor, I’d receive a hundred dollars for a day’s work. A “starlet” was to choose one of us as her “date” on a whirlwhind trip to Bangcok. The “bachelors” were hidden behind a screen and the starlet had to bas her choice on the answers we’d each give to her questions. She asked us to “imitate you favorite hero.”   I was high on grass and speed and heard myself paraphrasing, in French, Jean-Paul Sartre. Something about “L’éxistence précède l’essence…” She picked me.

When I was twenty-three I was cast in the film, M*A*S*H.

When I was twenty-four, I read The Gates of the Forest by Elie Wiesel and understood how little I knew about brutality and despair.

When I was twenty five, a roommate said that I was the most selfish man she had ever met.

When I was twenty six I spent a day watching crows in the snow in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

When I was thirty, I called a phone number I saw in an ad in an alternate newspaper from an institutionalized Jewish man who requested visitors. He asked me to bring him a pastrami sandwich. I said I would. I never did visit him.

When I was thirty-one I turned down a small role in Close Encounters of the Third Kind in order to tour the country with a political theatre ensemble.

When I was thirty one Joseph Chaikin invited me to join an experimental workshop he was launching in New York.

When I was thirty three I started Traveling Jewish Theatre with Naomi Newman and Albert Greenberg.

When I was thirty nine I stopped using alcohol and marijuana.

When I was forty one I stopped smoking cigarettes.

When I was forty two I got married.

When I was forty five I walked from Mill Valley to Bolinas and back.

When I was forty nine I sang to my mother as she took her last breaths. Later that year I made a solo performance that told the story of her dying.

When I was fifty I woke up one morning seeing double, the result of a small tangle of redundant capillaries in my brainstem.

When I was fifty one I moved my father into a dementia-care facility

When I was fifty three I sat with my father’s lifeless body and sketched his face

When I was fifty four I took up scuba diving, completing 300 dives in kelp forests and coral reefs during the next seven years.

When I was fifty five I adapted the Israeli novel, See Under: Love, for the theatre.

When I was fifty five I met my first grandson, River, born at the turn of the millennium.

When I was fifty nine I had open-heart surgery to repair a prolapsed mitral valve.

When I was sixty two I played Willie Loman in TJT’s Death of a Salesman

When I was sixty-nine I experienced thirty minutes of “transient global amnesia” and began developing a music-theatre piece about memory and aging.

When I was seventy I had a seizure.  I lost consciousness, fell and tore a ligament in my thumb. Six weeks later, I performed my music-theatre piece about memory and aging for friends. Two months later, I had a second seizure.

Read more about Who Was I?  by clicking here

Jack Elliot: Still Ramblin’

ramblin-jack-elliott-newport jack.and.dylan jack.ash.poster

I went to the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley last night to see Ramblin’ Jack Elliot who has been one of my favorite performers since I first saw him at the Ash Grove – the west coast center of the folk revival of the sixties – when I was still in high school. He’s 84 years old now and needed some help getting his guitar plugged in and positioning the vocal mic. When he started singing, some of the high notes were a little frayed, but his musicality, humor and timing were intact. He made it clear that his nickname didn’t come from all his traveling but from the countless yarns he spins around, between and through the songs he sings. Stories about growing up in Brooklyn, discovering the rodeos at Madison Square Garden and trying to become a bronco rider himself at age fourteen; about unknown and famous folksingers from Bess Hawes to Johnny Cash to Bob Dylan.

The audience, like me, tended toward the grey and wrinkled.  Lots of beards and long white hair. A few canes and cowboy hats.  Long, ethnic dresses and turquoise jewelry. I said to my friend George, who came with me, “Mill Valley, where the counter culture comes to die.”  My irony masked my mingled nostalgia, grief and joy. Those feelings hit me full force when Jack sang “Bobby McGee”  the song by Kris Kristofferson that became a posthumous hit for Janis Joplin.  I had once run into Ramblin’ Jack at a party in the Hollywood Hills back in the early seventies. I had asked him to sing it and he did. I’ve never forgotten how it felt to be sung to by a legend. Last night when he sang it, my tears were right there. Of course, I do believe that “Bobby McGee” is one of the most beautiful songs in the American singer-songwriter canon. But Jack is a genius at singing stories and has a way of making a song like that stand for an entire life, a whole era.  Same when he sang Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice.”  I had once heard him call it a song by “my former son, Bob Dylan.”  This was a reference to Dylan – before he got super-famous – having referred to himself as “Jack Elliot’s son.”

Last night he introduced it with a long tale of how he learned it while snowed in a cabin somewhere with a good supply of firewood, a bottle of Cutty Sark but only one record: “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” which he listened to continually for three days. His finger-picking was as lively as ever, and he bit into the rueful intelligence of the lyrics more deeply than any young man ever could.

After the show, as we headed to George’s car, I saw that Jack was talking to some people by the stage door. I walked over and said something about loving his music since the Ash Grove days. He took my hand and looked at me, really looked. “Have we met?” he asked.  I mentioned that long-ago party.  He asked again, “Do we know each other?”  then, after telling him I was an actor, he said “Did I meet you on that film? It was with Jack Nicholson in a railroad yard.”  I said “No, I never met Nicholson.” Then, still holding his hand, I said what I really wanted to tell him all along. “Jack, you’re in my heart forever.”

Who Was I?

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. You can hear excerpts from the live recording of the show on my SoundCloud page

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.

cf.guitar.1975Music 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 cf.guitar.3.14musical 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.

cf.3.14.zol.kaknIt 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.

chinaflowerDriving 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.