The Illusion of Control

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But man, proud man,

Drest in a little brief authority,

Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,

His glassy essence, like an angry ape,

Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven

As make the angels weep.

(William Shakespeare)

Normally the more uncertain I am, the more I crave control. I want to feel in control, and I want to exert control because I feel safer when I believe that I can control things. But in the current confined-to-home state, I may not be alone experiencing the overwhelming sensation that I control next to nothing. In the face of this great unpredictability, I have the opportunity to consider issues of control in new ways.

Intentional Civics Revisited

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For his thesis production, a third-year Columbia director chose to stage T. S. Eliot’s 1935 verse drama Murder in the Cathedral in St. John’s Cathedral on the upper west side of Manhattan. For the production, he was granted access to several of the small chapels that surround the nave and apse. I have never cared for Eliot’s heady and rather convoluted play and this production struggled to capture the attention and imagination of the audience. The vastness, verticality and baroque nature of the space did not help the actors who tried valiantly and without much success to embody the characters and tell the story. But one scene came unexpectedly into focus when one of the actors had to speak to another through the metal bars that fenced off a chapel. Suddenly the acting came alive, his voice came into focus, the presence of the actor expanded, and the scene lit up. I believe that the success of the scene had to do with the effort required for one actor to connect with the other. The obstacle of the metal bars in between them heightened their rapport and successfully dilated the moment.   

Language, Love and Code Switching

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I find that one of the best, but most difficult, ways for me to learn is to drop my own defensiveness, at least temporarily, and to try to understand the way in which his experience seems and feels to the other person. (Carl Rogers)

I am disturbed by the increased reports of people on the streets being attacked for speaking a different language. “You shouldn’t speak other languages” is a phrase shouted out regularly.  Last month a mother and daughter, walking home from dinner, were attacked on the streets of Boston because they were speaking Spanish. The attackers punched, kicked and bit the two women, shouting “This is America. Speak English!”  I am likewise disturbed by the US president calling the Coronavirus “The Chinese Virus.”  These are words and language that can engender virulent reactivity and destructive action.

 

The Art of Forgetting

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At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel. 

(Maya Angelou)

 

Until a recent conversation with my colleague and friend Leon Ingulsrud, I believed that the most significant effects of a theater experience are the memories created in the minds and bodies of the audience in the heat of a performance. If the theater were a verb, I believed, it would be “to re-member,” to put the pieces back together again.  Memory is a protein that is formed in the brain in the moments of intense emotional experience and our synaptic pathways can create repeated access to said memories.  But Leon, who is thinking a lot about memory loss due to a family member’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, asked me how theater might be beneficial to those without the capacity to remember. What about people who have trouble forming memories? 

 

Why Training is Necessary

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Singer-songwriter Ben Folds recently wrote a memoir entitled A Dream About Lightning Bugs.  As a child during the summer months, he captured lightning bugs, also known as fireflies, to put into glass jars in order to show and astonish his friends. The metaphor of capturing lightning bugs in jars is not lost on him as a metaphor for what artists do. 

 

Creating art is about processing, distilling and making visible to others what is luminous to you. We encounter a moment in nature, in life, in our studies, on our journeys, in our relationships, we absorb the experience and then, perhaps, we would like to share it. We want to put it into a jar and point to it and allow its inner light to be visible to others. And yet, as we move away from childhood, to do so is not so easy.

The Power of Sustained Attention or The Difference Between Looking and Seeing

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There are always flowers for those who want to see them.

(Henri Matisse)

 

As a theater director, my job is to watch over, to pay attention, to bring empathy and quick thinking to each rehearsal; to be ready to laugh or to be amazed or even disappointed. In rehearsal, I try not to react, rather I aim to be ready to respond.  I must be patient and wait like a fly fisherman, sensitive to the slightest tug, but also, at every millisecond, able to change course. I must cultivate the capacity to slow down and speed up at the same time. I face the stage with hyper presence and look without desire.  I wait. I wait for looking to become seeing.  

 

What Art Is

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While studying at Bard College in the early 1970’s I joined Via Theater, a group of likeminded theater majors founded by fellow student Ossian Cameron. The company began as an active investigation into the work of the Polish theater director Jerzy Grotowski, specifically around his seminal book Towards a Poor Theater.  After many months of grueling physical work five mornings a week in the basement of an old college dining hall, Ossian made a left turn and proposed that we use the summer months to “take theater to the people.”  And so, very much in the ethos of the day, this is exactly what we did.

The Art Brain

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The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar”, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.” - Viktor Shklovsky 

 

When I enter a museum, I tend to shift unconsciously to my art brain. I prepare myself to experience the exhibition on hand with a special lens, with my aesthetic sensibilities dilated. There are so many wonderful examples of visitors to museums who mistake a mop and bucket left out by a maintenance worker for an art installation. How perfect! How instructive. How useful. In a reverse instance, would a viewer respond the same way to a masterpiece normally enshrined in the Metropolitan Museum if they beheld the same work displaced, say, at a garage sale?

Am I a Tuning Fork?

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“This play resonated with me.” What does that mean?  Why does a particular play, painting or piece of music resonate with me, and others do not? The Oxford dictionary defines resonance as, “responding to vibrations of a particular frequency, especially by itself strongly vibrating.” Resonance is what ripples and radiates when something is created. One energetic being influences the vibrations of another.  If something has resonance for me, it typically means that it has a special meaning or that it is particularly important to me. 

Fragility, Discomfort, Vulnerability and Curiosity

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The fragments fly apart and shift, trembling on the threshold of a kind of fullness: the minor wonder of remembering; the greater wonders of forgetfulness. (John Koethe)

Perhaps I became a theater director thanks to the special brilliance of Adrian Hall who was the founding Artistic Director of Trinity Repertory Theater in Providence, Rhode Island from 1964 until 1988. My first experience of professional theater happened in 1967 at Trinity Rep when I was 15 years old as part of a new program entitled Project Discovery, instituted with support from the newly founded National Endowment of the Arts. Thanks to this initiative, every school child in Rhode Island had the opportunity to travel to Providence to see theater. I arrived in a caravan of big yellow school buses from Middletown High School and my first experience of professional theater was Hall’s production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  Afterwards, I felt somehow altered and provoked.  The production roused me and gave me direction. I did not really understand what I had seen or heard but the experience galvanized me; physically, mentally and emotionally.  My life would never be the same. 

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