Search This Blog

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.