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Monday, May 4, 2009

something more

I have been reading the writings of Jane Addams, a founder of the Settlement House movement. She wrote a hundred years ago at a time when she felt our modern cities were dominated by the factories, run by the engines of the economy, when people’s primary value was their utility – how as laborers and consumers they kept the machine going, and how blind she felt the city’s leaders were to any other aspect, need or hunger of its citizens.

And she wrote of how young people, naturally – generation after generation, persist in dreaming of a larger future for themselves, how they revolt against the idea that what is dished up to them as reality is all there is.

Because of this, she says, all of us – the entire society – rely upon its youth to reassure us as to life’s charm and joy. This is what the spirit of youth is, this is what it delivers. And if a society dismantles, oppresses and overcomes the insistence of its young people that life be more than the daily round, then society succeeds in killing off the source of its own hopefulness.

Jane finds the spirit of youth in young people, and happily for us, she finds it in artists, whom she calls perpetually youthful, and, finally, thank goodness, she relents and admits that the spirit of youth can, with luck and the right circumstances, survive in a few of us older ones.

This weekend I saw the utube video of Susan Boyle, the 48 year old Scotswoman who courageously put herself through the ordeal of appearing on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, a kind of American Idol competition complete with Simon as one of the judges. Without a smidge of fashion, heavy-browed, square and dowdy, she went on that stage where she was sneered at by both judges and audience. Though she stood tall and smiled, in a lion’s den like that she looked wildly vulnerable and completely out of context. They booed the simple fact of her age, were ready to crush her pretensions in asking for their listening ear --- and then she sang. Jaws dropped. People rose to their feet. In the past week, 20 million people have viewed that utube video – a seven minute story that has made me weep three times. And I’m not alone.

It is rare that the spirit of youth survives in the kind of life Susan Boyle has led, yet some stubborn hope of finding more than she had been offered still held on after a lifetime of shyness, of caring for her mother, of the quiet paths of her own daily round.

I thank every young person that has ever performed at Downtown Art over the past twelve years, including, of course, every actor and musician on this stage tonight. In them I have found beauty, hope, and joy at times when I couldn’t find it anywhere else. Who they are and what they set themselves to do – how they come out nightly to show something about what is in all of us - moves me in ways I can’t articulate….but I can feel.

why the Illyrians can't see clearly

Shakespeare enjoyed theatricality. I’m quite sure of that. One of the ways he shows his love for the colorful is in his choice of places – places quite foreign to the playgoers of his time – much more foreign than any part of the world is now to a culture that has film, photography, and airplanes. And he was interested in mythology and fable – in raising images, free associations in the minds of his listeners through the evocation of what was far away, long ago, dimly remembered.

Twelfth Night takes place in Illyria – which was indeed a real place in the ancient world. The coast of the Adriatic Sea – the Balkan peninsula – the Dalmation coast. An Eastern world, a seascape with a history of warfare and pirates, a part of the world that 200 years before Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night had been adopted by the Romani people, that travelling culture we call gypsies. (On a side note, gypsies and artists have a long association, share a common history of itinerant wandering, of being outside the bounds of established society – the French even dubbed the artist world Bohemia because of its gypsy affinities.)

And into this Illyrian world, a pair of twins are dropped, borne there upon a terrible storm against their will. Viola and Sebastian are from Messaline, which I cannot find anywhere in the world or even in mythology. They are well born, well educated, and orphaned since they were thirteen years old. They are not Illyrian – they are strangers in a strange land.

One of the ongoing puzzles of Twelfth Night is this: why can’t anyone tell Viola and Sebastian apart? Being brother and sister, they are fraternal twins, so not identical. Not identical. Yet no Illyrian can tell them apart. What prevents the Illyrians from seeing clearly?

Twelfth Night is filled with a kind of blindness. People project images of what they want to see on to others, longing makes them see what they want to see rather than what is true. Orsino is mistaken in Olivia, Olivia mistaken in Viola, Malvolio unable to see the truth, Andrew relies on the unreliable Toby to tell him what lies beyond the surface. And no one can tell those twins apart.

Blindness takes hold for different reasons, I think. Love and infatuation deliver it, longing and ambition give it a handhold for sure, but there is another cause as well. Difference. Culture, our own culture, can make it hard for us to see and understand people from another. We can be so struck by their difference, their external difference, that we cannot see clearly into the true nature of their minds and hearts. It’s my feeling that Shakespeare wanted to create a deep clash of cultures when he landed Viola and Sebastian into Illyria. Wanted them to be very different, apparently different… attractive to the Illyrians in their exotic difference, so attractive in their newness that they rouse passionate devotion from several Illyrians, but… also so different that the Illyrians cannot read them clearly, cannot see far beyond their clothing and manner, cannot distinguish them from each other.

Viola and Sebastian are not identical twins. They are however new. They are different. They dress in their own way, speak with their own language. And in order to see them, distinguish them, in order perceive the individual in each, we have to build our capacity to see beyond the assumptions of our own world, beyond the blindnesses of culture and habit, we have to look carefully, thoughtfully, with all the capacities of our mind and heart.

surprising ourselves

Great plays do more than tell a great story – they illuminate something about human nature. In the midst of entertaining and surprising us, they give us the chance to reflect on what it is to be human. What we are made of, what we are capable of…

In Twelfth Night, people do surprising things… make surprising choices. Why does Orsino, powerful and in his prime, not woo Olivia himself.. but send messenger after messenger instead? Why does Viola, after surviving a devastating shipwreck, not seek help to get back to home and safety.. but rather stay in a strange country and disguise herself as her lost brother? Why does Olivia turn instantaneously from an extreme form of mourning for her brother to almost giddy infatuation? And what prompts Malvolio, whose dignity is everything to him, to willingly put on those awful yellow stockings?

You can decide that .. well, that’s just the way the playwright is trying to be funny, to tell a story. It’s not real. In other words, you can dismiss the entire play as improbable fiction. But, if instead, you are convinced that Shakespeare had more to him and that it’s worth digging deeper in hopes of understanding something that he seemed to understand about the human heart .. then you have to keep looking for the answers to these questions.

This is the joy of directing, of course. Digging into these questions and many, many more besides and attempting to answer them through how you work with the actors to shape the play.

There is a longing that pervades Twelfth Night. Its people long for transformation – they don’t want to stay in their grief if new love can deliver them from it, they have powerful desires for their lives to be changed entirely. Ruling Illyria is suddenly no longer enough for Orsino – he wants to know love and the powerlessness of love, being alive is not enough for Viola – she wants to keep her brother alive, too, and she wants a new love to give a reason for life, a noble grief turns out to not near enough for Olivia who reveals that we might be most susceptible to infatuation during the darkest moments of our lives, and Malvolio’s ambition, which he has nurtured with constant fantasy, conquers every other bit of good sense in him. They have unquenchable longings which they insist upon pursuing against all good judgment and prudence.

And this is a truth of the human heart. Shakespeare while letting us laugh and shake our heads at his story, still has it right. Our longings take hold of us and some go so deep that we cannot shake them off, they grip us and bother us until in a desperate desire to be free of them, we finally ignore all the voices of caution and do surprising things. Very surprising things. Come what may.

Friday, March 20, 2009

where it counts

I have a great affection for many things in STAR WARS, but there is a line that I feel a particular personal connection to. Han Solo says it right after Luke sees the Millennium Falcon for the first time.. to Luke’s reaction of disbelief at what’s in front of his eyes, Han says “She may not look like much, kid, but she’s got it where it counts.”

Han is a proud papa – ready to take offense if anyone makes a crack about his precious baby ship. In an earlier time, he’s the guy with an old beat-up looking car that he hauls up to the starting line while the other race car drivers and their gorgeous groupies snicker and whisper, until, of course, his beloved car leaves them eating dust.

Sometimes I imagine that in bringing someone new to our theater, a loyal Downtown Art audience member might say to them – “Look, they’re small, the company is really young, they’re on the 6th floor of this funny old building and you have to wait in a kind of funky staircase and there’s no lobby and.. well, it may not look like much, but they’ve got it where it counts.”

I like respect as much as the next person. I kind of have a little chip on my shoulder about it. You don’t know how many professional meetings I’ve had to go to in which being the artistic director of a theater with a budget under $75,000 doesn’t do anything to enhance your standing. It’s generally assumed that you don’t know how to run your business since you’re clearly poor. You (I) obviously need some good advice – advice about how to charge tuition for young people to be in your program, how to raise your ticket prices, how to remodel your organization so it will be more attractive to the current fashions of funders.

When it goes pretty far and I’m being condescended to by people twenty years younger than me with little experience and no history of community involvement, I am always sorely tempted to find a way to drag my Ivy League credentials into the conversation. A master’s from Yale in theater management tends to quiet them down. But, even I’m aware, that by pulling it out and flashing it around, I’m losing on principle.

And my back goes up a bit when people, while complimenting me and the company, go on to say.. ‘You’re almost as good as Broadway; you could work on Broadway; these actors might go to Broadway.” I’d like to say – would they want to? I know Broadway looks like a lot, but does it have it where it counts?

Respect can be hard to come by if you don’t look like much. Heart, courage, integrity, and wisdom are qualities that don’t make you any easier on the eye. Only time reveals them… and time is something we can all feel short of.

I struggled long and hard in making the commitment to spend my artistic life working with teens – it had the air of a career nosedive, it’s a part of the theater world that is certainly considered a backwater, closely tied as it is to the idea that those who can’t do teach, and I had worked hard to have some standing in the professional arts community. I’m so glad I got through that struggle. I got through it because three forces were able to break through my confusion:

1) Honesty: I could see that I was making a difference in the lives of the young people I was working with and they, in turn, were making a huge difference in my life,

2) Love: I loved making art with them and I felt deeply that the art was good, and

3) Trust: I became willing to earn respect the slow way for myself and this theater, not through being impressive to the eye, but by doing our best to make sure that we have it where it counts.

seeing the play

One of the things I like best about theater is its humble origins. It’s an art and craft that grow out of something every human child does without thinking twice. Play.

For all the ancient images of people sitting around a small fire listening to a storyteller, there aren’t nearly enough ancient images of how the children of the tribe played out those stories. We luckily inherit many highly ritualized performance traditions from cultures all over the world that tell, with extraordinary skill and polished precise detail, core stories through dance, music, and theater… but I also like to think that over the ages, during the afternoon after the fireside storytelling, a lot of unofficial versions got invented by young ones so that they didn’t just have to listen to a story, but could see it, hear it, be in it.

Tonight you’ll see a play. Playing is at the heart of any and all theater – it is its lifeblood. When you lose the capacity to play, you lose track of what being an artist is all about.

You can still see lots of theater which is immediate and improvised like what I’d watch small children do in my daughter’s kindergarten class, or what I remember doing myself in kindergarten. But other traditions and skills have been added that make most theater slightly different from this play – writing that creates repeatable dialogue, consciously developed designs of place, costume, lights and sound, and many many hours of practice.

We do all of this here at Downtown Art, even if we do it in a minimalist fashion (although this might seem sort of high falutin’, we do actually consciously practice an aesthetic that came out of 20th century theater theory.. a movement dubbed ‘towards a poor theater’.. a destination I think we can claim some success with reaching..) but whether you call our work underfunded or deliberately streamlined, Brechtian in its rough simplicity or ingenious at stretching the budget in its use of materials…because we are not a theater overloaded with stuff, it is I think easier to see the ‘play’. Which I like. And perhaps we can also see the ‘play’ a little more clearly because our young company is young and has so far evaded the restraining influences that can settle on us as adults, so that making play, which was once so dear and deeply understood, is just a distant pleasant memory.

STAR ARGUMENTS is about play in many ways. I mean the story is a classic fairy tale, a young hero coming of age, rescuing a princess and saving a galaxy, but even George Lucas designed his original Star Wars as play – his actors always seemed to be kind of winking in good fun at their characters and George and Stephen seemed to have the time of their life playing a high tech game. I guess you could say here at Downtown Art, STAR ARGUMENTS is our chance to play just as full out, but our game is a very VERY low tech one.

Our city is an intense experience and most of our lives full to the bursting point. We all have developed strategies for wriggling out of the pressure vise that can grip us, for finding ways to clear our minds and sleep soundly through the night. But sometimes I feel we are such a serious bunch… we can be almost grim in our efforts to relieve our tensions. I am as serious and intense as anyone…but I have a major advantage to help me ease up. I am surrounded by young creative people. And they remind me all the time to prize fun, to treasure light heartedness, and that fresh ideas often arrive, new perspectives often come to visit, because we let ourselves play.


I’m a sucker for the movies. I’m also a little kid about the movies. Everyone that knows me knows that I get too scared at scary movies, too upset at violent movies, (I suffer from an overactive imagination) so I’ve got kind of a limited range.

I like movies that are really fun, exciting, not too scary, and kind of spectacular. I’ve studied every bit of the Lord of the Rings films, and no matter how lame the acting gets, I can’t miss a Harry Potter opening. I get all goofy and excited waiting in line to get in a movie, frequently kind of jumping up and down, and I’m totally addicted to popcorn. Since I was a very small person, I’ve had this intense connection to movies… I could be six years old and watching Fred and Ginger on our old tv, but I would be so glued to the screen that I couldn’t hear you talking to me even if you were yelling in my ear. This has never been my family’s favorite character trait of mine.. but it’s been part of me since I can remember.

Ten years ago I foolishly, whimsically decided it would be fun to stage Star Wars. Ha. It was the hardest thing I’d ever tried as a director (except for the first time I tried to direct.) My lovely and willing cast took it on the chin. Yes, I’d say, after a shopping run at Kmart, that’s your costume. Yes, that’s the Princess Leia hologram. Yes, uh huh, that’s the Death Star. And the amazing thing was that my cast went for it… and because the cast believed that this was, indeed the Death Star, well. then.. the audience came and they believed it was the Death Star, too. And I learned what has become one of the core values of Downtown Art.. the power of human imagination can transform anything.. and I mean anything.. into theater. Our minds love stories and reach towards them, willing to transform the most mundane of materials into whatever we want to see. This, is, of course.. magic.

We are all hoping that a little magic will happen tonight. We work and work, rehearsal after rehearsal, in hopes that when you come… when tonight arrives.. you will bring the final piece that makes transformation take place.

The news is daunting these days. Economic stormclouds gather darker and more threatening daily. The way ahead is unclear but the scouts report that it will test us all. Last summer I foolishly, rather whimsically decided that it would be fun to stage Star Arguments again. But lately, I feel a bit more confident in my heart that Star Arguments is not a bad choice for these darkening days. It’s good to laugh, to find a respite from the day’s worries… it’s good to follow the story of a young hero willing to take on an intimidating task on behalf of the world, the galaxy he cares for… it’s good to remember how our inventiveness and ingenuity isn’t limited by the size of our budget, and that when we come together we are always more, magically more, than the sum of our parts.

hearing the call

Every season has its themes. Whether because of what’s happening in the world, what’s happening in the lives of the people here, or whether that theme is something I found emerging from our rehearsals, each season has its meanings. Since this is a launch party for the 2008/09 season, I’ve been pondering its underlying themes.. what connects Star Wars, Twelfth Night, the spring Festival of new Plays and our first Citywide Street Festival of Young Artists and Leaders, me, you, these young artists here, our city, our country.. the mundane answer might be, well, Ryan you, uh, chose the plays and cast the company.. but, in all honesty, my choices are not truly my own, they are more hunches, gut instincts… sometimes later, if I’m lucky, I’ll be visited with a little insight that shows me WHY those choices seemed right. In fact, the more I make art, the more I’m convinced that the creative process is not about being in charge, but about doing your best to listen and follow. Even when your brain keeps trying to point out that it doesn’t appear to make sense.

And so, in sync with the idea of listening and following, I want to talk about ‘calling.’ A nice big romantic notion for a November night. What is ‘calling’? What does it mean to be called to something? Here’s a definition for you to consider: Calling is, perhaps, how we are invited to become more of who we truly are. Each of us is singular, so each of us has the opportunity to live a singular life, perhaps similar in shape, but, in the actual details, unlike anyone else’s. A life which uses all of us - our talents, skills, and idiosyncracies. And I believe that happiness rests on whether or not we are willing to follow that call. That happiness depends on us taking steps to become all that we are, in lives that make it possible for each particular flower to blossom in its own necessary and individual way.

This year, Downtown Art will graduate a great number of amazing young artists from the company. I say it now, but I don’t want to think about it too much because it’s too early in the season to let myself get sad. This year, I get an extra hit of the separation experience, because my own daughter is one of those soon-to-be graduates. At the theater and at home, there are daily reminders of the search going on as these people, who are very very dear to me, wrestle with decisions about where to go, what to aim for, what should be next? .. they are very practical, of course, but they are also on the hunt for something else.. because it turns out that more than college brochures and overnight tours, SATs and the odds of acceptance.. there’s a deep current running beneath all the wordly concerns that asks what excites me, what do I want, what calls to me? And they know that this is the real question they must try to answer.

Star Wars is the most traditional of all fairy tales wrapped up in a space age suit. A young hero who tragically loses his family has a mission dumped on him: he must rescue a princess, learn how to wield a magical weapon, defeat a dragon, find his inner strength, and save the universe. After years working on his uncle’s farm, obsessed with flying his landspeeder and dreaming of doing great deeds, he is called.

In Twelfth Night, Viola loses her beloved twin brother, the only family she has left, in a terrible shipwreck.. some instinct tells her to disguise herself, to, in fact, become her twin brother, and start a new life in this strange land. There, she finds her future… as do many of the other characters of 12th Night.. and calling, for all of them, announces itself as love. Powerful love that none of them can fight – and which may or may not lead them to the right mate, but certainly leads them to their own newmade future.

That’s one thing I really like about calling. It shows up as love. Love for a person, for a place, for a practice.. it beckons us to step towards something. It might be a light whimsical kind of ‘oh.. that would be fun’ feeling, or a heartwrenching devastating crush like the one Orsino develops on Olivia. Calling does not promise happy endings.. it only promises that if we have the courage to follow, we will become more of ourselves, we will enter more deeply into our own individual lives, and that, if answered, the chances are greater that our hearts will be more peaceful and our lives more satisfying. Which are, if you ask me, the necessary conditions for happiness. A peaceful heart and a satisfying life.

So I will take a big breath and declare: the theme of this season is calling. I admit to a big hope that everyone here tonight feels at least a little bit called to this theater, to the community it helps create. Downtown Art is a small piece of a very big city, but I think this is an extraordinary place. This is a place to pin your heart to. This is a highly imaginative, creative theater company made up, not of 30 or 20something actors, but of teens whose work is vivid, hopeful, disciplined, and laced with joy. This is local, handcrafted art. Local and handcrafted is not the most direct way towards wealth and stature, but I am convinced it is the surest road to quality. To community. To a true expression of the human spirit .

Everyone here has already taken steps to keep this place going and it is deeply appreciated. Tonight I’d like to beckon you to take one step closer to the center of this place. I’m asking you to consider sharing in the task of keeping this small, handcrafted, outrageously imaginative, exuberant and lovely human endeavor well.

During the difficult times ahead, I am hoping that even as New Yorkers will likely have to be hardminded and pragmatic about many aspects of our economic lives, that we won’t ignore our more tender selves, and that we will continue to in our willingness to be called towards whatever mysterious music enchants our ear.