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El año en que nací: The Year in Which I was Born. Real People Play Their Real Stories

  BOMB Magazine recently published an interview with Lola Arias, the artistic mind behind El año en que nací.  The play centers around people who were born during the Chile’s military dictatorship.  The characters all have parents who were either enactors or victims of the violence during the regime.  Now, what makes this story even more interesting is all of it is true.  The actors are selected based off of their actual parent’s stories.  The play consists of non-actors and actors.  After the actors were chosen, together they used their parent’s lives to create the play.

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This sounds CRAZY to me.  Arias asked non-actors to be fully in discussion with their parent’s past.  Many of which had parents who were murdered for their involvement.  This is a step in a new direction for theater.  This type of theater is no longer about creating the most interesting, unique, fiction on the stage.  It is real.  The play takes time to discuss the very real suffering that comes with state-sponsored terrorism by putting those born out of it right next to each other on stage.   The article discusses the conflict that occurs when trying to tell the story.  In the room, we have the daughter of someone murdered by police and then the son of a policeman right next to each other.  The stakes are risen by having the deep family connections where it is impossible to drop bias.

What strikes me about this work of theater is its boldness to step outside the realm of fiction and into a recreated reality.  The relationship between the audience and performers must be deepened.  The audience is not listening to a stranger recite a monologue from a play written a hundred years before.  The audiences is having a person stand on stage before them and tell them their real story.  The audience cannot doze off as someone discusses their father’s murder or wrongful imprisonment.  The audiences must give the piece the thought it deserves because the actors are truly sacrificing something.  This creates even more awareness to the problem, because everyone involved is involved on a deeply personal level.

When watching the play, audiences cannot view the play as a sad story anymore.  We have to accept that this is our history.

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The Death of Klinghoffer: The Operatic Face of Terrorism

It seems like the Met hasn’t been able to catch a break this season. After the controversy about union contracts there was the controversy of them laying off 22 of their 254 administrative staff positions. Now they are facing protests on their season’s opening night performance of “The Marriage of Figaro.” You might be asking what there is to protest in Mozart’s popular opera, and there isn’t anything. The protests are for the Met’s second show of the season, “The Death of Klinghoffer.”

I’m not typically the type of person who thinks that any form of art should be protested, so I was extremely skeptical when “The Coalition Against the Met Terror Opera” (CATO) decided they were going to protest due to pro-terrorism, anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism. Honestly, I usually think of myself as Switzerland… I don’t really have a dog in the fight, but there’s a first time for everything. The Met might be little stupid, just a wee bit.

A little brief synopsis: A cruise ship in 1985 is hijacked by four Palestine terrorists. The four terrorists shoot a Jewish man in the chest and head for apparently no reason other than the fact that he’s Jewish. His terminally ill wife doesn’t know her husband was killed and thrown overboard until the ship is safely returned.

Check out the Metropolitan Opera’s teaser/preview/info video:

Did you hear what the composer, John Adams, says around 0:53? He says, “opera is the art form that goes to the max [...] and terrorism is the act that goes to the max.” THAT DOES NOT MEAN IT BELONGS ON THE STAGE.

Hell, I don’t really know what the opera really says. Adams says, “our opera tries to look at the terrorists and the passengers and see the humanity in both of them.” Maybe that’s a good thing, but how can you take people who kill a man solely based on his race and think that there is any ounce humanity in their soul?

Is it really that hard for people to look at people of other nationalities and races and see something other than another human?

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Mission: Accomplished (Maybe?)

Since arriving back at school, I have been focused (nay, determined) on  trying to find time to mosey on down to the American Repertory Theatre to see their production of “Finding Neverland”, the new musical full of Broadway stars that has already announced it is heading to the Great White Way this season. Despite the fact the Cambridge run is sold out, and that Standing Room Only seats cost about $125 (with no promise of room to stand), I became a bit disenchanted. It was the same thing that happened to me with Pippin almost two years ago.

Then it occurred to me.

Why would I want to drop $125 to see a show that isn’t done yet?

Finding Neverland began its run back on July 23rd, running through September 28th, with a whopping 3 weeks worth of Previews, allowing changes to be made until August 10th. The show is then going to close, disappear from the collective theatrical conscious for a few months, and then reappear just in time for everyone to fall in love right before the Tony’s. It was designed to be workshopped, people paid good money to see something that isn’t the final product. There is a strong chance that the show that audiences saw on July 23rd will be very different than the show that opens this March. The show will be done when it matters to the Producers, in March when the Broadway seats are filled. Then what does that make the Cambridge audience? Theatrical guinea pigs. Lab rats seeing how well we respond to the show. Not to say the cast didn’t work hard on this run, however there have been ideas that this show had big plans since Jennifer Hudson sang a song from the show on national television.

In the past 3 seasons, 4 shows have started off at ART, and then transferred to Broadway. Each of the four shows has brought home the gold (or, silver if you will). The ART is being credited as being a theatrical gold mine, an example of quality shows that are being opened at a Regional Theatre, that are of such quality that they are then picked up and transfer to Broadway.

Another way to phrase it, it is like the Golden Age of Broadway shows, where new works were tried and tested in a market outside of New York that are a good barometer for New York audiences, rewritten, recast, rehearsed and then Magic, it opens to outstanding notices in New York.

The mission of the ART as defined by their website is “to expand the boundaries of theater by programming events that immerse audiences in transformative theatrical experiences”. If you look at past seasons, I can see that idea in programming, if you at the past three seasons, sort of, I guess.

The ART is getting people in seats, people want to see their shows and kudos to them. The audience are excited about having Broadway caliber shows in their backyard. When we go, we know what we are seeing. It is important to note when the transformative ground breaking theatre is being made and when we are focus group for future profit making endeavors, and when we are lucky enough, it is both at the same time.

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No Such Thing As Bad Press: “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”

It has been said that there is no such thing as bad press. This may end up the case for the Huntington theater Company’s production of Guess Who is Coming To Dinner, a show adapted from the 1960’s film of the same name. The pieces advertisement on the Huntington Theatre Company’s website is summarized as,

“Joanna surprises her liberal, white parents when she brings home John, her African-American fiancé, to meet them. Both sets of parents must confront their own unexpected reactions and concerns for their children as their beliefs are put to the test.”

Now nothing seems too harmful about that plot, right?  …. RIGHT? …. Wrong.

As Bill Marx, writer for Arts Fuse, puts it, “Is this meal really necessary?”

Marx goes on to brilliantly states, “Given Ferguson, MO and headlines of unarmed young black men being shot in the streets by the police, this is a disappointing, perhaps even insulting, piece of comfortable Americana for serious theaters to serve on stage.”

Not only this, but even the foundation of love being a magical thing that can even defy the 1960’s racist ideals of who can marry who are put on the line now when news articles about  Django Unchained star Daniele Watts being arrested for kissing her husband inside of their own car under suspicion of engaging in prostitution.

Sure, the Huntington Theatre Company could not have planned for something like this to happen just days before their show opened… except for the fact that this sort of thing is happening all the time. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that some press will note the wildly inappropriate timing of putting on a piece like this which Marx described as, “this flaccid dinosaur”.

But the real problem is, now I really want to see the show

Because I am already so riled up about the production I want to go see it and see if I agree with Marx that this show doesn’t need to be put on right now. The academic side of me wants to take my 3 questions, “Why this show?” “Why Here?” Why Now?” straight to the theatre and decide for myself how those questions are answered. But then I am just filling a seat for a show that I distinctly would not want to support.

So will I go see this show? Probably. Will I being posting here on my opinions of the piece if I do? Most certainly.

I sincerely hope that my answers don’t fall in line with the conclusions drawn in Marx’s article because I expect better than using big names and familiar titles from theatre in Boston. Let’s stop letting nostalgia rule us and lets start taking a look at the present.

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One Does Not Simply F*** with the Dramatists Guild: Champions for the Little Guys

If you haven’t yet heard about the heated conflict brewing between the Dramatists Guild of America and the South Williamsport Junior Senior High School of Pennsylvania, please, drop whatever you’re doing (including reading this blog post), and read THIS.

THE ESSENCE OF THE PROBLEM: A high school cancels a production of Spamalot due to fear of controversy over homosexual themes AND in order to avoid putting students in a “tough spot.”

I know, Jimmy.  WHERE do I even begin?!

First of all, I want to give the largest kudos possible to Steven Schwartz and the Dramatists Guild of America for writing this incredible letter to the principal of said high school. Acerbic? YES. Witty? As all hell! Necessary? Without a doubt! But expected? In my mind, not so much. When you think of all of the theatrical school productions put on across American every year, one might not imagine that the big guys up top would give much thought or attention to any particular production at any particular high school. But apparently, they DO. And I have to say, it makes me very proud to be part of an artistic community that cares enough to champion for the little guys.

My favorite thing about this letter, however, is not just that it is one of the most intelligent “bitch slaps” that I’ve had the pleasure to read, but that it focuses its argument on a fundamental (but often overlooked) PURPOSE of educational theatre: the theatre as a playground, laboratory, forum etc.

Schwartz says it best in his letter: “While the arts may sometimes inspire us and support our social institutions, they may also unsettle and challenge us and make us question our values and assumptions. It must never be considered dangerous to encourage people to think.” […] “The best theater, […] has always been provocative, challenging, and unsettling. That is part of what theater, art, and education are for.”

And so I have to ask … WHY are we still coddling the bright young minds of this country with such absurd censorship? Why do we think we can ask these youths to decide their career paths at 18, but NOT ask them to explore and develop their own opinions on challenging, important, and relevant issues? What is this impulse to smooth away all wrinkles and tensions? To make their daily existence as easy and contradiction free as possible? What the hell are we hoping to teach them, and what the hell are we hoping they’ll learn? Who decided that it’s a good idea to teach the next generation of thinkers to STOP thinking for themselves?!

I, of course, have my own opinions and answers to these questions. But the fact of the matter is, the answers are far less important than the questions themselves. Take a hint from the Dramatists Guild, and point your finger, loud and proud, at the tensions around you. Dig deep, discuss, and discover. I challenge you: please keep asking the tough questions, and challenge those around you to do the same.

And if you find yourself stuck with a particularly challenging contradiction … I’d suggest giving some thought to the very wise words of Morgan Jenness: “How do you deal with contradiction? You become an ocean large enough to hold BOTH of them.”

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Weapons of Mass Destruction or Shakespeare?

Pick one to fund.

According to the New York Times, The British government recently chose to contribute 1.5 million pounds towards the translation of Shakespeare’s work into Mandarin. That is the equivalent of 2.44 million American dollars, and that is for one specific artistic project.

This sparked my curiosity because I was so impressed by the contribution of money towards the arts. I don’t remember the last time I saw any kind of headline like this in the U.S. And then I questioned myself further…why was this so shocking to read? Shouldn’t this be the norm? Not in the good ole’ U.S.of.A.

“Sgt. Shakespeare” by Robert Carter

The Department of Defense in the White House proposed $495.6 billion dollars for the 2015 fiscal year. After combing through the white house budget for the amount set aside for the arts, I began to feel like an idiot. “Why isn’t there a tab for it? Am I missing something? Is it in human services? That would make sense…oh shit there’s only $77.1 billion set aside for that any way, that seems small, and that doesn’t include the arts…what the hell am I missing?” After further research, I came across the National Endowment for the Arts, and DUH, I knew about that– how silly was I to think that the arts would have its own tab on http://www.whitehouse.gov? Funding for the arts is so alien that it needs to be tucked away in an independent agency’s budget records.

146 million dollars had been set aside for the NEA in 2014. That is 0.03% of the defense budget. Read that sentence one more time. We spend less than a tenth of a percent on the arts than we do on weapons. When, in reality, art is the most powerful weapon we have in this world.

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“Essay”

A fascinating interview appeared on HowlRound this week, in which Sarah Ruhl discussed her new book “100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater.”

What got me thinking was the pure, mundane humanity with which Ms. Ruhl spoke.

She expressed many of my own personal quandries: using time “unproductively,” having a career after children, how one can work through distraction, and what is life exactly? It was heartening for me to hear an artist for whom I have so much respect speak of such uncertainty and doubt in the face of the ordinary progression of life. It made me feel… kinship with her. It made me feel less alone.

I think that this is a trap that many artists fall into. Bearing their crosses silently, secretly thinking that, in a room filled with fools, they are the only true impostors. I think that it is healthy for us to speak about our insecurities and fears and doubts, and to allow each other to into that vulnerability. For it is from vulnerability, honesty in the face of internal resistance, that art is born, and sharing this internal struggle, allowing uncertainty to be neither MY burden nor YOUR burden, but OUR COLLECTIVE burden, is what forges a community.

Ms. Ruhl wrote a book of essays, entirely by accident, while feeling alienated from her creativity. Isn’t that comforting? That we can still think and move forward even as we stagnate. We can use the pain of stasis to fortify and crucible our thoughts. We can waste a year in India and return changed, having worked without having meant to.

Which brings me to the title of this post (and the title of the book). Essays.

Ruhl

Ruhl says that her mother told her that “essay” comes from the verb meaning “to try.”

In other words, this blog, her book, your life, all of human accomplishment does not amount to  an achievement of any kind, but are simply many attempts by many people over time. Many tries. And we have no control over the end results of our lives, simply the output of our energy, the risk, which is to say, the essay.

I take this as a great source of inspiration. That I am not alone (and neither are you) in my lonely linear life. Rather, we are a jumble, a great insignificance out of which beauty can (will!) accidentally emerge. IF we try. All you have to do is try. And that’s enough.

So I issue a call to arms! Give life a whirl. Try something stupid! Let’s all give it a try!

Essay!

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