What is True What is False

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Yes, I have tricks in my pocket; I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.

(Tennessee Williams) 

In the current climate of fear and lie mongering, Harold Pinter’s 2005 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech is worth listening to again or re-reading. Pinter sits in a wheelchair in London, too ill to make the trip to Stockholm, and speaks eloquently about the difference between truth and lies, reality and unreality in art versus in political life. He begins by taking issue with something that he himself wrote in 1958: “There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false.  A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.”

Making Decisions Together

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My close friends who are jazz aficionados usually are surprised and puzzled by my aversion to a great deal of contemporary jazz. They assume that I would love all jazz because of my affinity for music and because I am so intensely interested in group creation and improvisation. They point to my fascination with the origins of American cultural history, noting that jazz is acknowledged as the first true North American art form. But the fact is that I cringe while listening to what I consider noodle-y jazz. I find myself annoyed at what feels to be chaotic and unstructured noise.

I do enjoy jazz from earlier periods, including New Orleans jazz from the first part of the last century, dance music from the 1930s including swing, Kansas City and Gypsy Jazz. I like bebop from the 1940s. But I duck out around the “cool jazz” of the late 1940s and especially into the 50s. I am lost when it comes to modal jazz, fusion jazz and smooth jazz.  

Hold Your Seat

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On a recent evening in Santa Monica I saw Bo Burnham’s new film “Eighth Grade.” I walked out of the cinema in a daze and remained haunted by it for quite some time afterwards. In the film, a young girl struggles to get along with her peers. She and her friends are glued to their phones and seemingly addicted to social media. She is desperate to be accepted and, although isolated in her personal life and at school, she sends out messages of optimism and motivation to the world via her vlogs and Instagram. 

Every once in a while, I encounter a work of art that feels so true to our current cultural moment that I become somewhat catatonic after the experience. “Eighth Grade” had such an impact upon me because it captured the culture of flighty digital dependency that I recognize as the base line, the underbelly, of our current daily lives.

Influence

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I currently serve on the Executive Board of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC), the union for directors and choreographers. Recently at Board meetings and, in fact, amidst many directors in the field, conversations abound around the phenomenon of theater directors who copy the staging created by other theater directors. The subject is discussed with great heat and passion in the search for due process and even litigation. What actions can be taken in retribution for a director stealing the work of another director? 

Although I am certainly not advocating that directors make direct copies of other directors’ work, I am interested in the phenomenon of influence. We do not create in a void.

Getting Stuck and (hopefully) Getting Unstuck

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Experiencing an impasse in one’s work or personal life can feel both painful and complicated. But I also know that an impasse is a sign, a signal that attention must be paid, and something must change. Lately I have been getting stuck repeatedly, in the artistic process, in daily life, with family, with friends and with colleagues. In writing here I hope to share the strategies that I am struggling with in my attempts become unstuck. I cannot state triumphantly that I am succeeding, but I am trying. The process is awkward and time-consuming, but I know that it is necessary. In writing here I am striving personally, even in the midst of being stuck, to unpack the dilemma of being stuck. I hope that writing these reflections will help. I shall start with a fairly recent professional impasse.

A Meditation upon Dionysus's Smile

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The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer.  (Theodore Roosevelt)

I already miss Anthony Bourdain, a man who traveled the world through his senses and shared his experiences and enthusiasms with countless viewers.  His access to the world came first through food, which led him to stories, which in turn, through his senses, his palate and his openness, led to an empathy for specific cultures and the individuals within those cultures.  His palpable humanity seemed to arise from learning people’s stories through their food. Bourdain often insisted that he was the dumbest person in the room, that in his journeys he constantly discovered that he had been wrong about the assumptions with which he had arrived. He stayed open to influence and cultural difference.  And then, apparently, he committed suicide.

Going Through the Back Door to Get to the Front

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Misconceptions are unavoidable now that we’ve eaten of the Tree of Knowledge. But Paradise is locked and bolted, and the cherubim stands behind us. We have to go on and make the journey round the world to see if it is perhaps open somewhere at the back. - (Heinrich von Kleist)

In conjunction with SITI Company’s production of Room, based upon the writings of Virginia Woolf, I participated in a panel discussion with Washington DC’s Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith and Tina Packer, who was the Founding Artistic Director of Shakespeare and Company in the Berkshires.  The discussion took place at the University of Maryland.  Our task, in the spirit of Woolf, was to address the notion of women carving out careers in the arts. As the public conversation proceeded I suddenly realized that all three of us – Molly, Tina and I – had each found our places as directors in the theater by going through the back, rather than the front door.  When Molly Smith graduated from American University with an MFA in directing, she and her then husband transported 50 old theater chairs back to her hometown of Juneau, Alaska where she had gone to high school, with the intention of starting a theater company.  In Juneau, a city with absolutely no tradition of theater, she founded the Perseverance Theater.  Tina Packer left the U.K. and the male dominated Royal Shakespeare Company to create her own domain in the hills of western Massachusetts. My own path was the downtown theater scene of New York City.  As a young director it seemed to me that the corporate ladder to success in theater was constructed for men and quite out of my reach.  Instead of trying to jockey for a place with the men on their ladder, I turned in another direction and self-produced work on the streets, in lofts and in non-traditional spaces around Manhattan and Brooklyn.  

The Art of Restraint

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When restraint and courtesy are added to strength, the latter becomes irresistible. -(Mahatma Gandhi)

My British wife Rena recently returned to New York after a period of time in London. On her first day back in the city, she ran errands at our local CVS and a grocery store that she had frequented countless times over the past decade. She was surprised at how previously shown common courtesy had been reduced into barely disguised disdain towards her as the customer. Based upon her brief encounters of that day, she wondered if the level of civil interaction in this country might be rapidly diminishing. 

Much like a frog placed into a slowly heating pot, not noticing that the heat is escalating dangerously, I wonder if we, who live in the current cultural and political moment, are unaware that our civic space is, bit by bit, eroding.  Are we gradually giving in to uncivil behavior? Are our daily lives gradually losing the benefit of big-hearted social exchange and perceptive discourse? The current administration accords unspoken permission to be rude, to use abusive and dismissive language, to indulge in uncivil attention, all which tend to diminish the quality of social interaction. As our public discourse is becoming a toxic soup is the social arena deteriorating as well? 

Intentional Civics

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Up on his political soapbox, filmmaker and activist Michael Moore insists that now is the moment for non-politicians to take action by running for political office.  What does “running for office,” mean to theater artists? 

In the performing arts we have arrived at an unusual tipping point. Partially due to the repercussions of the #MeToo movement, but mostly because the current generation of long-time artistic directors are stepping down from their posts at regional theaters, presenting houses and large and small theaters everywhere, more artistic director and producing artistic director vacancies exist than any time in my memory.

Entertainment

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There’s a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
(Leonard Cohen)

I graduated from high school in Middletown, Rhode Island in June of 1969. Yes, that 1969 – the year of Woodstock. And yes, I attended the Woodstock Festival the following August. Not only was I at Woodstock for the entire three days of peace, love and music, but also I arrived there from Rhode Island in the predictable green and white VW van full of mostly longhaired fellow travelers. During that same summer Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, Charles Manson and his followers murdered five people and Ted Kennedy drove off of a bridge on his way home from a party on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts and Mary Jo Kopechne died in his submerged car. In 1969 Richard Nixon was president and the Vietnam War was raging although no one really understood why we were there.

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