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

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.

Loving the Stranger: Wrestling Jerusalem a New Play by Aaron Davidman

[Originally Published on Tikkun, March 13. 2014]

Wrestling JerusalemThe first sentence that Aaron Davidman speaks in Wrestling Jerusalem, his new solo play at Intersection for the Arts, will have an all-too-familiar ring to anyone  who has ever tried to understand the sources of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “It’s complicated.”

For the next eighty minutes Davidman seamlessly and thoroughly embodies fourteen characters – Arab, Israeli, American, Jewish, Muslim, male, female, old, young, religious, secular, left, right – who both prove and transcend that assertion.

At the end of this moving, provocative, exhilarating journey, I had to ask myself whether there had really been only one actor on stage.  There were so many characters, so many arguments, debates, dialogues, so many people with so much to say. Did all that really come from one person?

Aaron, an actor-writer-director –- in other words, a theatre-maker– has spent decades mastering the art of splitting himself into multiple characters.  Full disclosure: I am anything but an “objective” critic. In fact, I’m not a critic at all. I, too, am a theatre-maker. In 1978, I co-founded Traveling Jewish Theatre. Sometime in the mid-nineties, Aaron joined us, becoming the first new company member since TJT began. By 2002, he had become TJT’s artistic director and led the company until we closed it in 2012.  Aaron and I worked together as actors and co-writers and directed each other many times for about seventeen years. Though I’m more than twenty years older than Aaron, I’ve long  regarded him as a peer and have learned as much from him in our work together as he might have ever learned from me.

Given our history together, it’s no surprise that I’d recognizeWrestling Jerusalem as rooted in the intentions, concerns, sources and theatrical elements that animated TJT for 34 years.

Along with the weaving of multiple stories and timelines, the transforming from one character to another in full view of the audience, the juxtaposition of the personal, the political and the mythic, there’s the overarching theme of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which TJT explored in its 1985 Berlin, Jerusalem and the Moon, (one of Aaron’s first roles with TJT was in the 1998 revival of that piece) and later, in the 2005 Blood Relative which Aaron conceived and directed.

In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Rob Hurwitt, Aaron mentioned Blood Relative:

“There are seeds and stories in this play that came from those first trips back to Israel when we were researching Blood Relative… when I started working with TJT, the wealth of material under the umbrella of the Jewish experience really opened up for me, personally, historically, culturally. Digging into Blood Relativemade me realize I couldn’t get all this topic into one play. And out of that came a commission from Theatre J in Washington D.C., which was the catalyst for this whole project.”

Another area of Jewish imagination that inspired TJT was the exploration of the Jewish mystical tradition known collectively asKabala.  Aaron frames the play with a seminal text from theZohar, one of the most important Kabbalistic books:

Once there were vessels of light that contained all that is good in the universe.  But this goodness was so powerful that the vessels, with their thin shells, could   not contain it. And the vessels burst. And the light of goodness was scattered.    Sparks and shards of light flew into all corners of the world. They’re hidden amidst all of us. And it’s the work of human beings, say the Kabbalists, to find those sparks, those fragments of goodness, and put them back together. It’s how we heal the world, they say. We gather the broken pieces of goodness and put them back together.”

Healing the world is called tikkun olam in Hebrew, and has counterparts in the deepest parts of every religion or spiritual path that I know of. Aaron’s evocation of tikkun olam lets us know, right away, that the reason he’s asking us to follow him to Jerusalem or Hebron is to try to gather those holy sparks, those fragments of goodness in order to heal – to heal the land, all the souls suffering at each other’s hands, the tortured history.

To do that, Aaron knows that you can’t ignore the “complicated” reality on the ground – at the checkpoints, bus stations, farms, on the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem or at the souk in Ramallah.  Aaron has the courage of a shamanic firefighter to walk into the hottest flames of the conflict and bring back all the painful truths he finds there, with no self-regard. This is theatre with remarkably little ego-investment. Which makes Aaron’s brilliance as a performer all the more compelling.

But, in a departure from TJT’s works, Wrestling Jerusalem  is based on interviews that Aaron conducted on trips to Israel and the “occupied territories” of the West Bank. Though he changed names to respect the interviewees’ privacy, most of the words he speaks are theirs.

The play contains several bouts of accelerating verbal combat in which Aaron leaps from character to character, performing a kind of linguistic parcours as he hurtles between arguments and points of view. The first of these is a discussion of “Where it all started.”

“You might say it all started in 1948 

Which you might call Al Nakbeh The Catastrophe 

You might say it all started in 1948 

Which you might call Milhamat HaAtzma’ut The War of Independence 

You might go back to World War I And blame the British 

Say they fucked up a thousand years of decent relations Between
Jews and Arabs 

You might say it was the 1929 massacre of Jews in Hebron 

You might say it was the 1994 massacre of Arabs in Hebron 

Or the 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatila 

Or the 2003 massacre at the Tel Aviv bus station 

No, no, you might say, It was 1967 The Six Day War 

That was when the real problems started 

No, you might say it was the Yom Kippur War 1973, that was it 

Or really, you might say, It was 1947  

The Green Line United Nations Resolution 181 

The Arabs should have accepted 181 

And they would have had a better deal 

Than they’re ever going to get now 

But, you might say, 

The UN never should have adopted Resolution 181 

Because it was a European land grab 

Look, You might say It was the invasion of Lebanon 

It was the First Intifada 

It was the Second Intifada 

It was the Withdrawal from Gaza 

It was the war in Gaza 

No, no It’s the Settlements 

Definitely the Settlements 

No, no it’s the terror attacks 

The bus bombs, the cafes 

No, it’s the wall and the check points 

No, it’s the tunnels from Egypt and the missiles in S’derot 

No, no, it’s Iran It’s all about Iran 

No, it’s  No, it’s the politicians 

It’s all about the politicians 

Golda blew it 

Peres blew it 

Arafat blew it 

Barak blew it 

Sharon blew it 

Olmert blew it 

Clinton blew it 

Bush blew it 

Obama’s blowing it 

If they just hadn’t killed Rabin 

If we just hadn’t killed Rabin 

If the Ultra Orthodox just didn’t have so much political power 

If the Arab League would just do more 

If the media just wasn’t so biased 

If the Right Wing Christians would stop funding Settlements 

If AIPAC would just be more critical of Israeli policy 

If J Street would just be less critical of Israeli policy 

If we just had a real partner on the other side 

If Netanyahu would just… 

If Abbas would just… 

If the Palestinians would just lay down their arms 

If the Israelis would just get out of the West Bank 

If the world would just step up and get more involved 

If the world would just back off and stay of out it 

If, if, if, if, if, if If!”

Aaron’s ease and power in these challenging sections – there’s little in the play that isn’t a considerable challenge for an actor – must be at least partly credited to the sensitive, intelligent, unobtrusive direction by Michael John Garcés, the artistic director of the legendary Cornerstone Theatre Company.  Later in the play, there’s an equally jaw-dropping dialogue between Aaron (that is the character, Aaron, a progressive American Jewish “everyman”) and a radically pro-Palestinian American Jewish doctor. The dialogue becomes a furious debate between two American Jews that takes place in the home of a Palestinian who works for an Israeli civil right organization on a hill above a refugee camp near Hebron.

DANIEL: Hamas is the lesser of two evils!

AARON: Hamas is a gang of fascist zealots!

DANIEL: Aaron, Fatah is on the payroll of the United States!

AARON: Fatah is upholding the rule of law in the West Bank!

DANEIL: They can’t be trusted!

AARON: You can trust Hamas?

DANIEL: They were elected!

AARON: So was your senator, but you don’t trust him.

DANIEL: He’s complicit with an Apartheid government!

AARON: Can you stay on one topic for more than five seconds! You gotta go to Apartheid?

DANIEL: Sue me!”

Like Aaron says, it’s complicated.  For one thing there are no villains or “bad guys”  in Wrestling Jerusalem.  Aaron finds his way into the fragile human heart beating inside each character, underneath any armor of opinion and self-righteousness. With him, we bounce between equally valid, mutually contradictory points of view. He describes these points of view as:

“…the sparks I’ve pulled from behind the eyes of every single person I’ve met. They smash up against each other. And I’m bursting. I’m exploding into a million shards.”

In one example, we hear an Israeli Jew point out that:

“What  transformed [Zionism] from an idea into a reality was the
Holocaust… a kind of wholesale change of the condition of Jewish life in Europe And its not a justification. I’m not waving the shroud of Auschwitz in order to
defend breaking the arms of Palestinians, I’m just saying, that something
changed in Europe which transformed Zionism from a rather silly idea, into a
state.”

And we understand what he means. But then we hear from a Palestinian farmer:

It’s not balanced. There is the occupier and there is the occupied. And what can we do? My family’s orchard was our life for five generations. Five. Yes, we were there for three hundred years, for sure, three hundred, probably more. Many more. And now my orchard is destroyed. They said for security. For this Wall.

“Let me tell you something, Aaron. Please do not be upset. The Holocaust was not my fault. You understand what I say? I am sorry for the Jewish. The Holocaust was…a terrible tragedy. But my grandfather was not Hitler. He was a farmer here, in Palestine. Three thousand kilometers away. And when the Jewish came he would not sell land to them.”

And again we listen and understand.

We have to pay attention to the uncomfortable realpolitik of an American Jewish expat in Israel:

“I got news for you: statehood ain’t pretty. It’s called realpolitik, kid. Look over your notes from Poli Sci 101. I’m not just being a rightwing hardass, Aaron. I’m not. I’m a Democrat, for god’s sake. I’m being realistic. Take Iran: Keep them from getting the bomb. Whatever it takes. And I mean whatever it takes. What are we waiting for? Some people think Jews have some higher moral obligation. Why? Why?! It’s us or them. That’s how it is. Us or them.”

Or to this Palestinian woman who works for the UN:

“Aaron. There is a man I always see at the Beit Jala checkpoint. He’s an old man. Every day he rides the bus, and everyday the soldiers make him get off the bus and he refuses! And he yells at them, tells them they should treat him better. Yells at them they should respect him. He does the same thing every day. And some days they beat him and some days they let him go and some days they just make him wait for hours. And every day he tries to teach them. Someone should make a movie about this man. You see how we live. No freedom to move about. It can take me hours to get to work in East Jerusalem. East Jerusalem! It’s ten minutes from Ramallah. And I have the permissions. I have the papers. If you don’t, forget it. You’re not going anywhere.”

In the achingly beautiful last part of the play, on a hill above the Dead Sea, Aaron meets an Israeli survivor of a piguah, a suicide bomb attack. Amir, as Aaron calls him, is suffering from PTSD, self-medicating with marijuana, listening to Bob Dylan and refusing to blame anyone for the tragedy.  He reminds Aaron that in the Torah, the Jewish bible, there are exactly three commandments to love. We are commanded to love God, to love our neighbor and, to love the stranger.

At the end of the journey Aaron takes all the pain and confusion he’s absorbed to the only place that might be able to contain it: the Kotel, the Western Wall, the sole remaining, millennia-old fragment of the Temple. I won’t try to describe what happens there. Certain moments in theatre are untranslatable to other media. This is one of them.  There are others like it in Wrestling Jerusalem. Though the play is brimming with talk, we are always brought home to the body and voice that supports it all. Aaron sings, whispers, dances, falls and even appears to fly without ever leaving the ground.

Wrestling Jerusalem  offers no solutions to the intractable conflicts it explores. But it fiercely insists on continuing to imagine that peace is possible, that it’s “not a fantasy.”   By embodying all these human beings so deeply, by fulfilling the commandment to love these “strangers,” Aaron allows us to fully experience that possibility. If the play is still running by the time you read this, I urge you to go. I don’t often find works of art that can generate an honest and well-earned sense of hope.  The last one was the 2009 novel by Colum McCann, Let the Great World SpinWrestling Jerusalem is definitely another.

Wrestling Jerusalem.  Opens 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 15, 2 p.m. Sunday, March 16. Through April 6. $20-$30. Intersection for the Arts, 925 Mission St., S.F www.theintersection.org

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For information about Wrestling Jerusalem on tour, visit wrestlingjerusalem.com

Storyboard Dances

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Earlier today I read an article in The New Yorker  about the street dancer, Storyboard P. and watched several online videos of his dancing. I was moved and deeply impressed by his astonishing virtuosity. He “pops and locks” in break dancing style but also has created his own vocabulary of extreme and precise isolations that he actually describes as a series of “charley horses” and that have the look of stop-frame animation. He and other “flex” dancers sometimes refer to their moves as “animations.”  He also uses moves from other forms of street dancing like “juking,” which mimics ballet en pointe foot work.

But more than his technical proficiency – which is more than enough to put him in his own category, it was the rawness of the impulse-life behind his movements that captured me. Strange to tell, I, a 68 year old Jew recognized the place from which this 23 year old African American found his intense physical expressivity.

It’s a place I’ve visited as an actor at certain special times, usually improvising without words, mostly on my own but at times with a partner, connecting to story or character that carries intense emotion, in a pre-verbal way. By “place” I mean an inner condition, a state of awareness that’s free of the controlling, dominating power of discursive, discriminating, utilitarian, hierarchical thought-language or judgmental self-talk;  free of any desire to please anyone or accomplish anything other than “tracking” the pure energy of the physical impulses – those minute desires to move this or that limb, make this or that sound, run, fall, shake or be still.

Perhaps this condition, not unlike states of mindful but non-discriminating awareness that can arise in Buddhist meditation, has something to do with giving oneself over to a distributed intelligence that’s different from the more familiar kind neo-cortex-associated intelligence.

For a while now, neuroscientists, plant biologists, computer scientists, information theorists have been talking about “hive mind” “swarming”  “distributed networks”  as a way to explain seemingly “intelligent” behavior among plants, animals, insects and computers.  Migrating birds, schools of fish, bees and ants, trees and sagebrush all partake of this phenomenon.

Perhaps humans do as well. When I watch Storyboard dance, it’s as if I’m seeing him deconstruct his body into an aggregation of nerves, muscles, tendons, cells and impulses that dance, argue and fight with each other, that support, block, push and pull each other, that coalesce for a moment and come apart again.

Watching him dance, I am reminded of both scientific and mythopoeic accounts of the origin of the cosmos. God contracting God’s essence to make a space for the created universe to exist. Energies so compelling they bend light and pull it into their dark core. Primordial beings giving birth to time and space.

This notion of a performer fragmenting herself into multiple presences isn’t new. It exists in some forms of South Asian narrative dance like Kathakali in which the dancer’s hand gestures, eye and torso movements, footwork and voice each have their own specific role in telling the story, whether it be to convey a mood or emotion, embody a character, evoke a landscape or change the point of view.  In the West, solo performers – mimes, storytellers, puppeteers, ventriloquists, performance artists, monologists – have split themselves  into many parts for centuries, playing multiple characters simultaneously.

But Storyboard’s performances, almost always improvised in the moment, would be difficult to parse in conventional dramatic terms. He might use narrative, but because he’s working so close to the bone – literally – we become witnesses to a shamanic journey rather than listeners to a story. Storyboard, though a dancer, achieves the Artaudian ideal of the actor who “signals through the flames”  that consume his identity, who reveals what remains after ego, social conditioning and self-will are burned away before our astonished eyes.

From Joseph Chaikin: Notes to the cast of The Dybbuk, 1977-78

In 1977-78 I acted in Joe Chaikin’s production of The Dybbuk (in a new translation by Mira Rafalowicz) at The Public Theater in New York.  It was a life-changing, career-changing experience for me and was an important step toward co-founding Traveling Jewish Theatre not long after The Dybbuk closed in January, 1978.  Shortly before the play opened, Joe’s chronic cardiac problems caused him to be hospitalized. A case of rheumatic fever in childhood had damaged his mitral valve, which had been replaced with a prosthetic one. But that surgery was followed by recurring cardiac illness.

During the remaining days of rehearsal and for the length of the run, Joe sent a number of letters to the cast. I kept five of them. I don’t know if there were others that went astray over the years, but these five capture Joe’s “voice” as one of the last century’s most  deeply reflective theatre-makers. Many of the questions he takes up were ones he first posed in his book, The Presence of The Actor. I’ve scanned the five letters and embedded them below. They are clearly meant to be shared.

In the mid-1980s, while undergoing a surgery to replace the mitral valve a second time, Joe suffered a devastating stroke which left him with aphasia and other deficits. He overcame the aphasia to a remarkable degree and returned to the theatre, acting, directing and creating new works, including a collaboration with TJT and Mira Rafalowicz in 1987. (See an article from American Theatre by Misha Berson)

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Joseph Chaikin died in 2003, at age 67, of heart failure. His last words  “I don’t know,” were spoken, according to his sister, Shami (who is an incredible actor in her own right and was also in The Dybbuk),  “…questioningly, almost analytically, as if trying to understand his role.” (as quoted in Joe’s NY Times obituary)

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Night Falls by Julie Hébert. Co-Directed by Deborah Slater and Julie Hébert. Choreographed by Deborah Slater

ODC Theatre, October 30, 2011

When Lee Strasberg, long associated with “psychological” acting in its most extreme expression, traveled to the U.S.S.R in 1933, he became fascinated by the work of the Russian icon of physical Theatre, Vsevolod Meyerhold. According to some accounts, Meyerhold admitted to Strasberg that his actors had no understanding of the psychological dimension of their work, that they moved as they were directed to, based on Meyerhold’s system of Biomechanics. Nonetheless, Strasberg was gripped by the powerful physical theatricality he saw in Meyerhold’s work, more so than he had been by what he saw at Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre, in fact.  The two director/teachers agreed that if their methods could be integrated by a single group of actors, something completely new could be achieved.

I thought of this story after seeing the marvelous Night Falls,  a collaboration between playwright Julie Hébert, choreographer Deborah Slater and an ensemble that included two master actor/movers, Joan Schirle and Bob Ernst as well as the luminous  and subtle actor, Patty Silver, two gifted, younger physically accomplished actors, Stephen Buescher and Jessica Ferris and the compelling singer-dancer Patricia Jiron.Bob Ernst, foreground; Jessica Ferris and Joan Schirle, background, in "Night Falls"

Hébert’s eloquent and understated script follows one woman, Peregrine – a  respected filmmaker who is neither rich nor famous, about to turn 60 – through a sleepless night as she agonizes over the unwritten speech she must give the next day at an awards ceremony honoring her work. Peregrine is embodied prismatically by Schirle as what might be called the ego, persona, or that part of Peregrine who lives in the material world; Silver as the “old” woman inside her;  and Ferris as the puella – that part of her psyche which is a perennially adolescent girl.  Ernst appears as Peregrine’s ex-brother-in-law, summoned by a cell-phone call to the wrong number.

The narrative is wonderfully specific, filled with surprising and quirky details that ground what could, in less skillful hands, become heady and abstract. Hébert, Slater and company clearly understand that it’s the concrete particulars that allow a story to become universal.  This rigor exists in both the narrative, with its knowing allusions to filmmaking, both avant-garde and commercial and to the dilemma of the aging artist, as well as  the movement vocabulary shared by the ensemble, pulsing dynamically through the piece.

The masterful integration of the narrative and psychological realms with the physical, gestural life of the piece makes Night Falls a rare and wonderful event.  That’s what brought Meyerhold and Strasberg to mind.  I experienced this sense of super-dense reality most powerfully in the interplay between Schirle and Ernst.  Late in the piece, for example, these two wounded and well-defended survivors of failed loves, meeting by “mistake,” begin to see each other – and themselves – differently. What could be rendered as either a conventional “scene” or as a “poetic” movement duet becomes a stunning, layered, complex exploration of the necessity for and the impossibility of authentic connection. I’d need to see the piece a few times in order to begin to adequately describe what these two brilliant actors do, how they manage to play together in so many different modes at the same time. Their voices and words do one thing, their faces another, their gestures a third. Rather than illustrating what’s being said, the physical interaction arises from a different, parallel dimension so that we experience not only what is but what isn’t, what might be, what is longed for and what is feared. I’ve only experienced such expressive abundance a handful of times in all my years of seeing theatre.

It’s essential to point out that what was being expressed – the pain, frustration, fear, disappointment, wonder and acceptance of mortality; the courageous insistence on knowing self and other – was, to this audience member, vitally important.  That the questions raised were equally urgent to all concerned – actors, writer, director, design team  – was never in doubt. All the collaborators were burning with a shared passion and the result was incandescent.

My only regret is that I saw the piece at the end of its brief run and won’t be able to return several more times and bring everyone I love and care about.  Night Falls proves, once again, that live performance is life-changing. I know this intuitively, subjectively, in my cells.  My entire adult life has been dedicated to making theatre with similar aspirations, so I don’t feel that my praise is in any way exaggerated. The fact the piece had a run of only a few performances, that no venue seems to exist locally that could give work like this a real home for six or eight weeks exposes the shameful state of support for the arts in this city, this state and this entire nation. The fact that such work is being made anyway, is a testament to the very spirit the work so movingly expresses.