I wanted to learn how to build a Bonraku style puppet out of foam, so I asked Kevin Augustine to teach me. For the past couple of weeks I have traveled back and forth to Brooklyn to learn the craft and there is still much work to do but she has come a long way from the block of foam I bought at Canal Rubber.
Three times in my life I have come up against coyote.
The first time was in Los Angeles when they came over the fence and took Marlow our little deaf chihuahua. The second time was in a Poughkeepsie park when a rabid female attacked my beloved mutt William and myself in broad daylight. The third time was last week when a tall coyote came into the yard in Massachusetts and mauled my little dog Max so badly that he had to have major surgery and continues to fight for his life.
Wikipedia tells me this: The coyote is a prominent character in Native American folklore (Southwestern United States and Mexico), usually depicted as a trickster that alternately assumes the form of an actual coyote or a man. As with other trickster figures, the coyote acts as a picaresque hero which rebels against social convention through deception and humor. The animal was especially respected in Mesoamerican cosmology as a symbol of military might, with some scholars having traced the origin of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl to a pre-Aztec coyote deity. After the European colonization of the Americas, it was reviled in Anglo-American culture as a cowardly and untrustworthy animal. Unlike the gray wolf, which has undergone a radical improvement of its public image, cultural attitudes towards the coyote remain largely negative.
Icertainly have a largely negative attitude towards the coyote. But I do not want to live in blind anger, hatred and blame - so I have looked deeply into the eyes of the trickster. I have looked deeply into my own psyche, to try to figure out why Coyote keeps biting my dogs and hurting me so terribly again and again- after all, the third time has to be a wake up call.
I go into active imagination and ask the Coyote questions. I close my eyes and hear the answer. In this way I have the following conversation:
"Coyote why have you come to hurt me again?"
"You need to wake up!"
"Why? I'm awake. I live a reflective life. I work at awareness every day. What am I missing?"
"What do you mean"
"You need to be more vigilant. Protect the boundaries. Secure them."
" I am non violent. I don't believe in border patrol."
" I said boundaries not borders. You are less awake than you think you are. LISTEN."
"I am listening. Max is fighting for his life. The vet bill is over $4,000. What am I not hearing?"
"You are not hearing your own heartbeat. I will keep biting until you do"
" What do you mean?"
"You are listening to the human mantra: how am I doing? how am I doing? how am I doing?"
"What should my mantra be?"
"How am I being? How am I being? How am I being?"
"You don't seem like the wise creature I should be getting advice from"
"I eat. I drink. I sleep. I mate. I hide from predators when they come. I bite puppes. I live my life simply. According to the boundaries. If you let me in. I will take what I can."
"I didn't let you in"
"Oh Yes, my Dear you did. You were on the telephone - your attention directed at yet another project of self improvement, and your little innocent puppy was alone in the yard at twilight"
"But in seven years there has never been a coyote."
"Keep your innocence close. There is always a coyote."
"So your are advising me to live in constant fear?"
" No. In constant readiness. If you are confident in your boundaries, you can relax your grip. Your awareness is your power. Stop putting all of your focus on improvement and success. Set your boundaries. Then live your life simply according to the boundaries. Eat. Drink. Sleep. Mate. Hide from predators when they come..."
"And bite puppies?"
"If that is your taste. Otherwise stick to take out sushi and chicken wings."
"And then surrender to the great mother, knowing you are truly awake."
"And if I do this, you won't come around again."
"I will always come around, but if you do this, I won't get into your yard."
"And I will be free"
"And you will be alive."
And with that the coyote ran off into the trees. And I finished my lunch and gave Max his antibiotics.
True acting is a sacred art. It is an art based on a strange form of worship. The actor’s reverence is not for an elusive higher power but for the gritty daily practice of building vision out of poems and actions out of metaphor. To act is to be ever ready to catch the butterfly of pure existence, the flapping, flighty essence of fleeting life and hold it for a moment to the sun. An actor captures the fragile winged creature of a thought-feeling- action only to let it go again and then with a new breath try to catch another. He is engaged with life, dream life or real life a moment at a time. Acting is a paradox. It is a feat of divine mischief, a balance of irreverence and devotion, bright lights and thick shadows, ecstasy and misery. It is an impossibility made possible over and over again. To revel truthfully in imaginary worlds, an actor has to propel herself body and soul up off the floor of reality without forsaking her footprint or her shoe. A true actor transcends normalcy, invoking magic while keeping one hand firmly grasped on the minute details of taste and smell. A true actor blends charisma with banality, turning kings into witches, witches into prophets, prophets into salesmen, and salesmen into timeless ghosts. True actors are generous, courageous and the ones that last have an ability to surf the edge of the unknown, keeping home on their backs, eating dinner at midnight, tearing up the turf of their hearts to craft vibrant and true moments out of their own blood.
I call it true acting because when witnessed the observer receives a keen AHA moment of truth. Perhaps the response is not a conscious awakening, it could be a tightening in the belly or a twinkle of a smile, or a contraction of the heart or a goosebump or a private reckoning, but it happens in reaction to what an actor is doing truthfully on stage. I am not talking about the actor portraying reality or playing naturalism, the actor could be riding an imaginary elephant and chanting gibberish. But the truth will be tangible and visceral, dangerous and comforting. The actor will be a mirror and a window simultaneously. And the witness will be somehow changed by this energetic exchange across the footlights.
True acting is the noblest art, and all I wished to ever do since the age of eight when I played an evil sorceress in a Parks and Recreation presentation in San Francisco’s Chinatown. But in this lifetime I have been too scared of the long walk to the stage, I have been too mortal and too self-conscious to make the great work my whole life. Some mornings I wake up and wonder: Is it too late to devote myself 100% to the craft? My purpose here on earth is threefold I think: to make true art (as writer, director, performer) to build communities through art (as activist, healer, scholar, leader) and to teach true art.
Despite my inability to be a fulltime actor (I have never gone more than a few months without performing something) I have been a teacher of acting for many years. Recently at the request of some students, I decided to write down my approach. There isn’t all that much to say after Hamlet. He nailed the action to the word and the word to the action. But great teachers and writers like Stanislavsky, Meisner, Linklater, Chekhov, Mamet Bogart have added much to his advice. I offer to the mix a simple but layered theory that has worked for my students and me over time.
True acting is the goal of my work, which is to say I am not interested in teaching an actor how to achieve celebrity. I am not interested so much in the marketplace of craft (although I deeply respect my teaching compatriots that are able to merge art and industry in their training methods). This particular journey is for those who are interested in pursuing the true art of the thing, a pursuit, which may have a more circuitous route up the mountain of success than your average acting training. This is a trail with peaks of intellectual and philosophical challenge, valleys of emotional depth and vistas of hope for impacting the world with art. True acting is both a calling and a practice.
But this exploration is not just for people who identify as professional actors. After all, not all of us are actors by profession but all of us are actors in life. Sometimes we get "stage fright", sometimes we lose confidence in the middle of "a scene", sometimes when the "stage manager" calls "Places!
‘ or the "director" yells "Action!", we choke up, freeze, we just can't go on. Looking at acting as a craft can be useful for anyone whether he or she chooses to take that information to the stage and screen or to the street. Understanding the art of acting helps us take creative action in the world and in our lives.
THREE VOICES: SARAH BERNHARDT, ELENORA DUSE, ELLEN TERRY.
In graduate school I chose to write my thesis about three actresses who in 1901 were performing within a one mile radius of each other in London's West End. I was struck both by their genius and by the dissimilarities in their techniques. Each actress took a different road up the mountain and yet they all reached the top. A short play came out of the thesis Exit Pursued By A Bear,. The play was about three vastly divergent views finding common ground through active creativity. It is my goal to merge the essences of these three women in the pursuit of an acting technique (and a way of living) with wide range, inclusive of everyone.
My acting training was experienced in three stages: at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, The Experimental Theatre Wing at New York University, and with William Esper at The Esper Studio (which bases its training on the work of Sanford Meisner) Each phase of my tutelage reflects one of these three great actresses' style and philosophy.
1) Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), A french actress, was born in Paris on the 22nd of October 1845, she was of mixed French and Dutch parentage, and of Jewish descent. She was, however, baptized at the age of twelve and brought up in a convent. Her position as the greatest actress of her day was a national fact. Her amazing power of emotional acting, the magnetism of her personality, and the beauty of her "voix d'or," (voice of gold) made the public tolerant of her occasional perversity. She toured Denmark, America and Russia, England, Australia, and the chief European capitals often as legend has it, spending her nights asleep in a comfy coffin. By the time she was 35 she had played one hundred and twelve parts, thirty-eight of which she had created, including quite a few male roles. Early in 1899 she made the bold experiment of a French production of Hamlet, in which she played the title part. Fond of snakes, she would keep large ones around the house and they would often fall asleep, curling up for long periods of hibernation in the living room. More than one guest was shocked to his feet by what they had thought was a giant footstool coming to life and hissing with amphibian fury. She supposedly staged an infamous acting contest once. She other great actresses, among them Helena Modjeska the Russian star, were taking a break from a large gala event in one of the ladies powder rooms. Sarah, on realizing that many there had played Camille (from the play La Dame Aux Camillias) decided that they ought to have a contest then and there, each reciting Camille one after the other. However, since she believed that jusdgement would be swayed by the glitter of costumes, she insisted that Camille be played in the nude. The story is that at least three actresses stripped and complied. The story is, Sarah won.
She was a genius of artifice. Starting from the outside and moving inward, she would take a scene or a character and create a magnificent and brave piece of art. She had the power of her convictions and an incomparable passion for the theatre. At the ExperimentalTheatre Wing I had the great pleasure of working with the phenomenal Charles Ludlum who claimed to have had a picture of Sarah playing Phedre in his dressing room. He loved her luminous, inclusive, broad theatricality and her guts. Sarah would have loved Drag Queens.
(from EXIT, PURSUED BY A BEAR)
Ze sing ees I love ze sound of my voice. It resonates through ze room, bounces off walls and pierce ze heart of all who listen. In France we don't go see a play, we go hear a play. So ze voice is the seducer that wraps ze audience up and makes it fall in love. Everysing is sex. Everysing. When it comes down to eet, ze passion for life, ze willingness to listen, ze understanding of ze ages, it all comes from ze groin. It is not so much ze fuck, it is ze build to ze fuck. Zat is ze question. Not to be or not to be, but to love or not to love. Ze sing we all ask, ze sing we all dream about. Ze voice reflects both ze need and ze cure. Ze liquid gold ze prayers ze promise ze sex. I cry love, I proclaim it. My voice is my sex and it is the truth and it is beauty and paradise and it is irresistible.
2) Ellen Terry, an English actress of strength and power inspired extravagant feeling in her audiences. George Bernard Shaw gallantly declared: "every famous man of the 19th century- provided he were a playgoer- has been in love with Ellen Terry.' Adored by both the public and her colleagues alike Terry was a woman of great charm and generosity who also possessed a fiercely independent spirit allied to a resolute capacity for hard work. Ellen was born in 1847 in Coventry,'Shakespeare's own county' as she happily recalled in her 1908 memoirs. Her parents were successful strolling players who expected their children to follow in their footsteps and indeed Terry's earliest memories revolved around the theatre. In her mid teens Ellen had her first encounter with Edward Godwin introduced Ellen to a new, aesthetic world.
In 1868 Ellen ran away with Goodwin, living in sin. Her first child Edith was born in 1869; a son Teddy (Teddy grew up to be E. Gordon Craig a famous designer and the romantic partner of Isadora Duncan) followed in 1872. It was in 1878 that Ellen received a calling card that would change her life. Henry Irving (a leading actor of his day and the model for Bram Stroker's Dracula), after many years of struggle, had taken over the Lyceum theatre and invited her to join as his leading lady. Over the next 24 years theirs was to become one of theatre's most celebrated partnerships. With Irving Ellen scored many triumphs. A young Oscar Wilde saw her Portia and composed a sonnet in her honour. Ellen enjoyed a stellar career for over 50 years, forged an unconventional and independent identity and brought her children up as a single mother. To Ellen, home and theatre, legacy and destiny were one. Feminists have taken her up as an ideal, and when I attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art her picture was on the wall of legendary artistic ancestors.
(from EXIT, PERSUED BY A BEAR)
The words are everything. Each vowel opens the channel to my soul, each consonant clips the sound into being and like an arrow shooting straight from its quiver lands where it belongs. Last evening I received a letter with gilt edges in a perfumed violet envelope. A prominent lady, just recently in the front row of the theatre accused my oratory of blasphemous undertones. I am not sure what she meant. I had been speaking Shakespeare. I think she was referring to the gossip surrounding my life, not the brilliant innocence of the vowels and consonants themselves. In the passed her note would have reduced me to quivers. But I am not afraid of life anymore. Not hunger, not bad reviews, not loneliness. I have been so wholeheartedly disregarded by the proper ladies I once sought as friends, that it makes no sense any longer to dread any popular opinion. I've been shunned at teas, ignored at operas, disinvited to the hunts. The need to please them has long since faded. A few women - Duse, Bernhardt, Duncan can understand the eccentricity that brands our skin, distancing us from other mothers, other brides. The men in my life- Irving, Wilde, they can sometimes hear the rhythms of my heart but rarely wonder at the workings of my mind. A woman's ideas are not valued the same way a man's words are weighed and bronzed and followed. I follow the philosophy of truth and the song of freedom. It is not a song for everyone. I am often looking out at the night lights of London alone. But alone is fine. I have my breath, my heartbeat and the blessed, blessed words.
3) Eleonora Duse (1858-1924), An Italian legend, was born at Vigevano to a family of actors, and made her first stage appearance at a very early age. There were great hardships to touring with travelling companies, but by 1885 she was recognized at home as Italy's greatest actress, and this verdict was confirmed by that of all the leading cities of Europe and America. In 1893 she made her first appearances in New York and in London. For some years she was closely associated with the romanticist Gabriele d'Annunzio, and several of his plays, But some of her greatest successes during the 1880s and early 1890s--the days of her chief triumphs--were in Italian versions of such plays as La Dame aux camélias, in which Sarah Bernhardt was already famous; and Madame Duse's reputation as an actress was founded less on her "creations" than on her magnificent individuality and her deep sense of simplicity and truth. In contrast to the great French actress she avoided all "make-up"; her art depended on intense naturalness rather than on stage effect, sympathetic force or poignant intellectuality rather than the theatrical emotionalism of the French tradition. She was the patron saint of all Stanislavksi based systems. George Bernard Shaw once wrote a famous article comparing the work of Duse and Bernhardt. In the article he spoke glowingly of Duse's sense of truth which was so deep that Shaw actually saw a blush of feeling creep over her face when her character was faced with betrayal. My teacher Bill Esper who taught the Meisner technique (which is inspired by Stanislavski) with rigor and passion, had Duse's photograph above his desk.
(from EXIT, PERSUED BY A BEAR,)
My center is a bruise. the constant mining of the gut is hard upon the body. The heart is cracked in so many places like an ancient water vase from the first world. To be old while I am young. Life, this is no game. This is Truth. What is truth. It is breath. Did you ever take a breath? A real breath? So that the air is invited in and moves into the chest meeting the wretched heart. Sorrow. Real breath meeting real heart. It hurts. Coax breath a little deeper into the belly where desire wrestles with fear, don't turns away, hold it there full breath. Look into the fire and see. Then down, down further still the breath moves into the seat where anger crouches. Ferocious. Unbearable. But you bear it. For the inhale, for the exhale. For the pause, like death between wind. And you fill up again, airing the bruise, proud, anguished, relieved, happy to be here on earth, breathing, suffering, loving life.
Duse with all the dark eyed passion of the Italians, Bernhardt with all the sensual mischief of the French and Terry with the precision and poetry of the English, each brought herself thoroughly to her work and each left a legacy of fans and students.
Most people think where there has to be one dominant or "right" theory, that a choice must be made between methods, and sides must be taken. There is a famous anecdote about the two actors Lawrence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman. They were coming at a scene in two very different ways. Hoffman stamped and stirred and shook and gurgled looking for honest motivation, and Olivier rolled his eyes and finally stopped his fellow actor in mid stream and offered up something like: "Why don't you just try acting it, old boy?" Olivier wanted Hoffman to grab the line and spit it out using his craft to bloody get on with the theatre. This story is told in most acting classes. Sometimes the storytelling leans towards the method acting American who was searching for inner truth while gently mocking the more external British actor's technique (Olivier supposedly started his character development by choosing the shoes) And sometimes the story is tilted in the other direction, making fun of the method rantings of the Yanks and extolling the virtues of precise character work of the Brits. I repeat it here just to emphasize the benefit in learning and embracing varied approaches. Instead of choosing one form of work over another I am suggesting we merge the philosophies and do a little of each.
Using the work Duse, Terry and Bernhardt, I am offering a goulash stew rather than three separate ala carte dishes. Combining the acting techniques of these three artists, we can strive for a Voice that is resonant, beautiful, while being connected, courageous and true. Say what you have to say, play all the characters there are. Let them speak out fully whether they praise the day or curse the night...
Devise Theatre, Repair The World
Why Devised Theatre they ask? “They” are the funders. “They” are the scholars. “They” are a new generation of theatre makers just beginning to identify themselves as devisers. Why fund Devised Theatre? Why call it Devised Theatre? Why make Devised Theatre? My answer is this: Devised theatre must be funded, named and made because it can repair the world. Is this a simplistic, reductive, idealistic statement? Perhaps so, but I believe that theatre, if conceived with moral imagination and strong leadership can lead to positive change. Person-by-person, community-by-community, theatre as a collective art form can transform conflict and increase good communication, mental and physical well being, personal freedom and self-esteem. To devise something together a group needs to work collaboratively, which necessitates listening, seeing, and understanding each other. Collaboration means tolerating, and even embracing the paradox that people encounter during the intimate exchange of ideas. By making art collectively we are practicing how to live collectively. In our diverse unity we are exploring the very basis of peace building. And if the process affects the product, we are producing meaningful art that serves a community of artists and will be useful to a community of audiences as well.
The only way I personally have been able to effect change in the world is though theatre. As an artist-activist-scholar my work is devoted to the exploration of theatrical practices for social change. This is the formula I use to devise.
Fig 1. Art, Activism, Scholarship
What is Devised Theatre they ask? I am part of an older generation of theatre artists who are suddenly wondering how to explain what means to devise when we have been devising organically throughout our careers, some of us knowing no other way of cooking a theatrical meal.
If we define Devised Theatre in academic terms and become experts in its intelligent classification, renaming it something like “Performative Devisement”, and explain its attributes and pitfalls in multi syllabic conceptual phrases that require dictionary reference, will we be able to capture the experience of artists and audiences? If we achieve definition and can apply for grants based on descriptive perfection, must we then keep making sure to refine and re-define Devised Theatre over and newly again say, annually, so that it always sounds fresh and complicated like an evidence based science that only a very clever few could really comprehend? Or shall we just have to admit to making collaborative theatre created in a variety of ways in rehearsal rooms where every technique is tried and where everyone gets a say in the process.
The H.E.A.T. collective www.heatcollective.org is the theatre company I founded that focuses on devised theatre for personal and social change. H.E.A.T. is an acronym for Healing, Education, Activism and Theatre. At the intersection of performance, drama therapy, research, and human rights, we offer workshops in performance and peacebuilding, playwriting, voice, ensemble building and puppet making, we explore how devised performance can support communities and individuals.
Fig. 2. The H.E.A.T. Collective
What is devised theatre? There must be an historical context. In the beginning God devised the heaven and the earth in collaboration with various players, including Adam, Eve, a snake, a tree, and a Big Bang…? Perhaps devising isn’t Biblical in origin, but it certainly is an historical practice. Long ago, even in the theatre (where ego threatens to reign supreme) theatre was collaborative and devised. The playwright wasn’t a Royal. The script was not a holy scroll. Even Shakespeare tore his plays into pieces and handed them around the room. Directors didn’t even really exist until Freud came along and gave us Oedipus complexes and we decided someone should be running the show. Before Freud actor-managers would make sure that no one bumped into each other, or insist (as Sarah Bernhardt did one night) that everybody do the show (Camille, in her case) in the nude so as not to upstage each other with costuming. But still people worked more or less in ensemble and although there was a script and a producer and a bit player and sometimes a dog, the assumption was that everyone was there for the same purpose. The play was the thing, and the play was devised (invented, planned, developed, formulated, concocted, conceived, contrived, worked out, thought up, created) by every single soul in the room.
I am always first and foremost a theatre deviser, although my roles on any given project may differ. I am sometimes a director, more often an actor, when necessary a producer, but I identify mainly as a playwright. I am educated as a playwright and have written 27 plays, most of which have been produced. So I am writing about devised theatre mainly from the perspective of a writer, someone with the point of view that on every theatre project there needs to be a playwright, or a dramaturge or any human of any title or no title at all who is charged with caring specifically for the words.
I am about to start work on a new devised project about poverty in America with a group of felloe theatre artists. We are a director, a composer, a choreographer and several performers and I, the playwright. All the roles are clearly defined. And yet this is billed and funded as a piece devised theatre. What makes it thus? Is it the many collaborative conversations that go into the work, brainstorming sessions that effectively shape and construct the work? Is it the shared source material that is passed from hand to hand? Is it the reliance on rehearsal as a means of script development? Is it the presence of improvisation? The inclusion of actor generated research? The exchange of theoretical ideas shared so that we can build a joint vocabulary? In a devised process the playwright is not sitting alone in a room devising by herself. She is writing, and then disclosing, then improvising, then discussing, then writing, then more imparting and brainstorming, then throwing out what she has written, more writing, and the spiral of action continues until an audience is invited and even then the devising continues, and creation ebbs, flows, blossoms, fades and finally explodes.
In this process I will conduct interviews with rich and poor in the Northeast, I will craft monologues based on those interviews, we will put some of those to music, and play with actors and singers in space. The more I release a sense of ownership the better the piece will be. The more the composer and I meld our gifts, the more interesting and striking the result. This is not the business savvy way about going about things. My agent would prefer that I keep the monologues and scenes separate so that authorship will be a cleaner and less litigious circumstance. But this group is made up of old time devisers; we are hungrier for community and artistry than we are for ownership.
I came of age as an artist at the Experimental Theatre Wing of NYU when that department was just a nascent body of players, a collection of seekers and makers, students and teacher-students, smokers and non-smokers, meat eaters and otherwise. Not “actors” or “writers” or “dancers”. Just artists. Sometimes Lee Breuer convinced us to gut and paint a storefront, sometimes Spaulding Grey made us talk about our childhoods, sometimes Anne Bogart convinced us to stay up all night in character on the D train. But mostly we were just making stuff together over and over and over – in basements, on rooftops, at The Public, or at La MaMa, or in Washington Square Park.
We grouped ourselves into ensembles called “ Redwing Theatre”, or “Undercurrent Theatregang” or “Mabou Mines”. Many of us had no designated playwright or director and we rehearsed collectively for months at a time and built everything from the ground up. We marched into the street when Harvey Milk was shot, we shut down the studio when John Lennon was shot, we made plays in reaction to everything we read, listened to and experienced from Joan of Arc to Janis Joplin from Tourism to Stonewall, we re-wrote Chekov and reimagined Gorky. We didn’t have resumes and we didn’t read the trades, or go above 14th street. We made theatre pieces that we thought would change the world. No matter what our role in any particular piece might be; our dedication was life and death important. We were devising our work our lives with passionate intensity. Even our solo shows were group efforts. We felt ownership for our craft and our community and did not seek ownership for our words or works. We were on fire and undefined.
Moving into present tense, I realize that not all theatre is devised and not all theatre artists think as communally as we did when we were coming of age in the 70’s and 80’s of downtown New York.
I realize Devised Theatre is form of creativity that may need definition in order to be preserved, continued, reawakened, and yes, funded. So here goes:
Devised theatre is a theatre in which genius is a collective paradigm. It is a theatre where magic happens not because one person is brilliant but because all people are open to brilliance. I saw a sign on a subway platform that said: “Imagine what you could accomplish if you didn't care who got credit.” A deviser conceived that sign, or a group of devisers in collaboration.
Good collaboration depends upon the presence of justice and creativity. “Just Creativity”, like “Just Peace”, is a notion that contains paradox. Creativity (like peace) is not a product that can be separated from its process. Although in the theatre we often focus on a creative product, the process is always obvious- at least subliminally so. For, even if the two stars hated each other and are still very good together in the climactic love scene, and even if the director was a bully and the staging is still fantastic, and even if the playwright is a narcissist but a still great poet, the audience will feel on some level the lack of collaboration, the lack of devising, the lack of justice. Ego will reign supreme even though the audience might enjoy the play or be frightened by it, even possibly never forget it, it won’t open their hearts and fiddle with their souls in the same way a devised collaborative peace will. The collective experience of the artists trickles down to the audience. Although an audience might never know collaboration was missing from the process when viewing a brilliantly performed and beautifully stage well written play, but they sure will recognize it when it was present. The collective collaborative devised spirit will inform a play with the music of unity and the magic of ensemble. You can smell it in a curtain call.
The first necessary attribute of Just Creativity is Generosity. Amish barn raisers have taught me quite a bit about the art of collective collaboration. The basic reality of barn raising is this: If the Johnson family asks the Armstrong family to help them build their barn, the Armstrongs will show up at the Johnsons with bells on. They will bring hammers and nails and baskets of food, and spend as many days as it takes cheerfully spend their sweat equity pounding nails and hauling wood and feeding and organizing until the Johnsons have their completely finished beautiful new barn. The Armstrongs can give their time and energy fully and enthusiastically because they know without a doubt that the Johnsons will just as happily do the same for them. The Amish live in collective communities that function because of collaboration. I have brought this concept to theatre communities, working to encourage people to put passionate focus into each other’s ideas. The practice works especially well in the community of a company working on a theatrical project. People raise problems and for 15 minutes their issue is the center of focus and everyone pours their best brainstorming and their resources into that problem. Then the attention switches to someone else. It is amazing how creative and generous people will be when they can trust that they will be the recipients of the same generosity. The eager exchange of energy becomes a fertile ground for devising, as the collaborative process requires profound trust.
The second attribute of the Just Creativity necessary for Devised Theatre is Paradoxterity:
There must be tolerance for difference present in a collaborative rehearsal. Not just cultural diversity, gender diversity, age diversity, but also the diversity of approach. People create differently. I teach an acting workshop in which I focus on three ways of approaching the art of acting. I call it the Three Actor Paradigm based on the styles of three nineteenth century actresses. The work focuses on CRAFT (Developing the actor of precision through clarity of voice and speech, movement and expression) as demonstrated by the work of the actress Ellen Terry CREATIVE RISK (Developing the actor of ideas and vision through character work and composition) as modeled by the actor Sarah Bernhardt, and TRUTHFUL EMOTION (Developing the actor of authenticity through kinesthetic, psychological and emotional spontaneity and moment by moment action / reaction) as exemplified by the work of Eleonora Duse. I ask my students to identify which approach they are most comfortable with, which on is the biggest stretch, it is important for an artist to understand how s/he works and to know how others see a creative challenge. We can talk about Merging theories and practices of classical acting, experimental performance and method work, students and attain a toolbox of skills for future exploration and mastery, but first we must learn about our own perception and how to be tolerant when someone else’s creative view differs from our own.
Fig. 3. The Three-Acting Paradigm
I began to think of the work around the paradox of creativity as training for dexterity I call Performative Paradexterity. When working with socially engaged theatre to initiate and nurture change, cultural and personal paradoxes arise. In this process all paradox is witnessed, met with curiosity, then creative paradoxical dexterity is practiced through inclusive theatre, drama therapy, and ensemble building techniques. The goal is the creation of meaningful art and brave ideas that inspire transformation of conflict and the emergence of vibrant community conversation.
“Creative conflict” is a term often heard in conjunction with “creative differences” to explain the impossibility of collaboration between artists. It is a term that generally means, “We can’t work together”. I want to use it in a different way, not as a noun but as a verb. To engage is conflict creatively means to move through the tough issues with art. By facing the glitches, and the troubles, and the misunderstandings, brave participants in the process can resolve issues without avoiding them. I am not talking about a therapeutic process (although the tools of drama therapy are helpful in this case) I am talking about a fully engaged artistic practice that enables artists and audience alike to embrace paradox and move towards real personal and social change.
The third important attribute for Devised Theatre is Useful Content.
Devising collectively gets the stories that need to be told, told. The theatre must reflect and communicate issues of community. What issues are there but issues of social justice, the voice of the people, the pulse of the world, the heartbeat of civilization? If we are not making the theatre that needs to be seen and singing the songs that need to be hears, why are we making and signing? Theatre is service. It must be important to those who will witness it, and it must be, according to one of our iconic devisers Bertolt Brecht, useful. The only way to make a piece of theatre that is useful to nearly everyone in the audience is to make a piece of theatre that is useful to nearly everyone in the rehearsal room. The only way to know if the play is useful to its own creators, and thus useful to the people who will witness and experience it, is to devise it … together.
Three Examples of Devised Theatre:
The New Generation Theatre Ensemble:
Pure Ensemble, Devised Theatre with a Playwright in the Wings.
I started N.G.T.E. when my daughters were young. We had moved from Los Angeles (where I had been a screenwriter, a playwright- performer and a tenure track theatre professor) to upstate New York where I had taken a job running a K-12 drama program in an alternative private school. In Los Angeles my elder daughter had undergone major brain surgery and I no longer had the time or the will to spend the majority of my time in hot pursuit of a hot career.
At the private school I taught creative drama, acting and playwriting to students of all grades and I directed original curriculum- based plays. Some of the parents at the school asked me to start an after school program for the talented theatre kids who wanted to go further with professional level training. So the original notion for NGTE was a pretty straightforward teen theatre-training program. But as soon as I started setting up auditions and venues, I began to see a different sort of opportunity.
The auditions for NGTE began to attract a diverse group of talented youth from a large variety of neighborhoods and backgrounds and ages. I enrolled them all. NGTE became a company that championed diversity above all else: economic diversity, ethnic diversity, gender diversity, diversity of sexual orientation and age diversity. That first year we had a 10 year old and a 19 year old, the next year we had a 12 year old and a 25 year old.
The outreach flyer read. “The New Generation Theatre Ensemble a Teen Workshop and Performance Experience for serious theatre students. It is an exciting and fun theatrical course and rehearsal process, which is run as a theatre company in the ensemble style. At NGTE young people attain skills and experience through professional caliber training in acting, voice, movement, playwriting and improvisation. This is an exciting theatrical forum where young people attain skills and experience through professional caliber training in acting, voice, movement, play writing and improvisation. Each year culminates with an original devised theatrical production created by the company.”
The central mission of company was to A) build community and create a company while B) teaching theatre skills and C) creating an excellent and completely devised original show. The mission was divided evenly between three practices: Training, Ensemble, and Production.
Fig. 4. Training, Ensemble, Production
The ensemble was formed consciously. A buddy system that included having big and little brothers and sisters, and engaging in weekly exercises just with and for your buddy of the week (i.e.: bringing your buddy a surprise gift, asking your buddy for help with something, making an art project with your buddy, etc.) helped the process. I interviewed kids and let them know how important the sense of ensemble was to the process. If they joined the company they signed a No Gossip Clause which meant that they agreed not to gossip about anybody in the company for 8 months. They could gossip about anyone outside of NGTE but none of there company members. This was to avoid what I call Gossip Bonding, which is rampant not only among youth but also among adults. Gossip bonding is the shortest and easiest pathway between two people in the process of bonding – the easiest and quickest way for me to bond with Sarah is to talk about the infractions of our boss Daisy. The fastest and surest way for me to bond with Bob is to say something damning about my difficulties with Joel. The soundest way to get a person on your side is to quickly find a common enemy. Finding a common pastime, or a shared favorite food or to combine praises about a third party takes a little longer and is harder to do. But I insisted on it in NGTE and soon people in the company began to relax, trusting that no one in this particular room was going to talk mean behind their backs.
NGTE at its height was a splendid example of devised theatre. At the beginning of each year in early October, we would train for about a month. The youth developed text and characters; embraced the rigorous training and developed skills in voice, movement, improvisation and scene study.
After our training period, each rehearsal would include some form of investigation about whatever the issues were on everyone’s mind. Brainstorming sessions helped the company decide what the subject of that year’s play would be. This was a collaborative process, guided and directed by myself, the master teacher and assisted by one or two other adult interns. Sometimes I came into the process with an idea (fairytales or the history of war, etc.) and other times the idea was discovered through a series of exercises, part theatre, part drama therapy, part ensemble building, designed to discover the open tension systems in the group. The exploratory exercises created a community spirit and information organically emerged about what social questions most needed to be asked, and what kind of play the company most needed to make.
Once the subject or theme was decided, I would focus on character building, improvisation and scene work, based on the company’s research into the theme. We created many original plays from classical texts that either reflected the current curriculum some of them were studying or the current issues in their lives. During a school year devoted to medieval studies, which some NGTE kids were involved in we worked with The Canterbury Tales as source material. In our version, Postcards From Canterbury each student researched a pilgrim and created the character as well as researching and creating period dances and songs. The following year when a group of the company members were studying Greek history and culture we did a version of the Odyssey. During our play Sea of Troubles, The Long Journey Home the audience followed Odysseus on his journey in a site-specific moving play encountering Cyclopes and lotus-eaters. We did a piece that explored Midsummer Night’s Dream (set in the bushes of Central Park) In another season we investigated the concept of gang wars and bullying using Romeo and Juliet as inspiration. Our play Verona High we looked at the issues through the eyes of two suburban gangs, one rich one poor (which division basically reflected the make up of the company).
In the process of developing our play GRIM students would research, interpret and improvise each of Grimm’s fairytales, developing ideas as homework and they would bring in scenes and folk songs from their varied cultures. We approached Grimm's fairy tales by delving into seven of the original fairy tales and setting them in a contemporary urban home.
For The Moons of Jupiter each company member taught a science class, for War an American Dream company members interviewed people (like a War reporter, a soldier, a peace activist) and researched different periods of history in study groups. . In War, An American Dream the company looked at the history of war in America with choral poetry and through the eyes of three families, one White, one Latino, one African American. One of the students passed her history regents exams with flying colors due her research for the play and her embodiment of characters throughout American history.
The story would form directly out of this period of discovery, which would take us up to the winter break. During the break I would take all the improvisation, research and discovery material and craft it into a script. When we would come back in January, we would begin rehearsing and rewriting the script. The staging began and we culminated the year with a series of performances in May. The 8-month progression of devising the project was an ensemble effort. Although I was the lead teacher, writer and director, everyone had input and a say in the process and a hand in the product. This collaboration was made possible by our intensive focus on community building.
In NGTE all the plays were ensemble plays, the plays were written with the dual goal of making great theatre and democratizing the company. There were no big and small parts, sometimes a character would advance the action of the play or be at the center of a conflict or the main fulcrum of a story but there were no “leads” and “supporting roles” everyone may not have had the exact same number of lines but they had the exact same number of moments and same amount of spotlight. At times I chose roles for actors and talked to them in depth about why they were getting that particular role, but more often than not, the plays were self-cast by the company that seemed to organically understand who should play what. If someone felt unhappy with his or her part we would look at the reasons why and decide together if it was a personality issue or a theatrical one. We worked through the issue together. Whenever we could, we wrote the part that the company member needed (and eventually wanted) to play. An interesting side note about casting: the actors that later played the same parts weren’t always as deeply connected to the role, and a different sort of process was necessary. Devised theatre is created collaboratively but the scripts that emerge from a devised process but then go on to be performed by theatre with a traditional casting and rehearsal process (The Laramie Project is a perfect example). Several of the NGTE plays (including Sea of Troubles, Postcards From Canterbury, Grim and The Moons of Jupiter) have gone on to have high school, college, and Equity professional productions. Auditions were held, and the director decided on the casting. I co-directed a production of The Moons of Jupiter at a university where the casting had been decided by other faculty members before I arrived. They knew this pool of graduate students much better than I did. When we developed the play at NGTE four young women had been chosen (by the company) to play four scientists from history: Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein. They immersed themselves in research, taught us science lessons, and developed the characters with gusto, and the task of shifting gender for the roles was a big part of the adventure. But when casting was done at the university, the woman who played Darwin felt frustrated to have been cast as a male. I found this out midway through the process when recasting was too difficult to orchestrate. She had been playing men since matriculation in this program and she wanted to embody the role of a woman. But the casting process (as with most traditional casting processes) did not allow for actor feedback in relation to choice of role. These graduate students had been used to devising their own work, and felt somewhat trapped by choices being made for them by theatrical authority figures. As an Equity actor I have certainly experienced my share of auditions, and lived in the realm of traditional process: directors and playwrights and casting directors and producers matching actors with roles. I have also written parts for myself (and cast myself) in four solos, a duet, a trio, and a large ensemble piece.
When I started working with teenagers, I wasn't sure what to expect. I knew I wanted to do it because of my own history as a disadvantaged teenager whose life was saved by theatre, but I wasn't exactly sure what we were going to create or if I was even going to survive the experience. But what followed astounded me. The student actors worked in a supportive and collaborative environment to study and develop original work. The unique voice of each student is cultivated and encouraged to shine. Those who are more interested in movement, music, writing or technical theatre are supported and given experience in that chosen discipline. Our Motto at NGTE was: Divine Mischief. Divine Mischief meant that we had deep respect and reverence for theatrical art, history and education while embracing every possible moment of creative fun theatre can bring. Together each year the company wrote the mission statement. One year’s statements reads: “Great Theatre is Generous. Theatre exists to inspire others and improve the world. Great Acting means to be true, brave, and free. A Great Company supports the uniqueness of each individual while keeping focus on the group as a whole.”
The company met each Tuesday and Sunday afternoon from September through May and culminated in a May production in New York City. Some remarks from youth over the years: “I loved the process of developing character through improvisation and being part of an ensemble of great kids.” "Through NGTE I have learned to be more open with myself and others around me. Through this experience I have met amazing people and hope that I will share many more memories with them all", "This experience at NGTE has been so wonderful. Everyone in this company came the first day eyeing each other cautiously and looking around quietly. But after working together for so long, all the members in this company have grown so fond of each other and we are now able to laugh and act as a company", "From this experience I've learned how to push myself to the furthest of limits and come out strong, confident and successful. Working with these amazing people for 8 months has been the best experience in my life. I have come to know and love 12 people who have changed my life, helped me and accepted me. I have also learned to get over my stage fright which is one of the reasons I joined."
During the eight years of NGTE, the devised theatre was very pure because we did it over and over each year and began to share a common vocabulary of devising and collaboration.
Fig. 5., Fig. 6., Fig. 7., NGTE Photos
Dream Acts: Five Playwrights Devising One Script
Dream Acts was the brainchild of a playwright who brought me into the process along with a director. We were concerned about the inability of congress to pass the Dream Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, S.1291) the controversial proposed federal legislation known which had been first introduced in the Senate in 2001. The Dream Act was conceived as a way for undocumented immigrants to receive specialized assistance related to attending colleges and universities in the United States. The students around the country championing the Dream Act are known as “dreamers”. We wanted to devise a theatre piece that brought awareness to the voting public about the pending legislation, and support the work and lives of the dreamers.
The three of us brainstormed about the project, we then met with high school teachers in Queens who had classroom filled with immigrant students. One teacher told us that 60 percent of her New York classroom was undocumented. This teacher related many stories about her student’s daily struggles with their undocumented status and the prejudice they experienced. I recall one honor roll student being told at a job interview when he could not produce his proof of citizenship, “What a surprise you don’t LOOK undocumented”. As we heard these stories we clarified our purpose to devise a collaborative piece that would shine light on the plight of these young people. We gathered together three more playwrights so that we had a collective of five writers of different ethnicities. We then organized workshops with undocumented teenagers and identified five specific issues that they faced, defining five different aspects of the Dream Act. We settled on five nationalities: Mexican, Jordanian, African, Ukrainian, and Korean. Then each playwright pulled a Dream Act issue and a Nationality out of a hat. So the White writer got Mexico and Deportation/Detention, the Japanese writer got Africa and culture/assimilation, the Romanian playwright got Jordanian and legal issues, etc. Each writer wrote a short one-act play and then we created some interwoven scenes and dialogue and some choral pieces that tied the five stories together. After rehearsals and readings, the play opened in New York. In the play Dream Acts, five undocumented students from Nigeria, Mexico, Ukraine, Korea, and Jordan relate stories of their extraordinary challenges in living ordinary lives under the Homeland Security radar. Each story is moving and urgent; some are funny, others are tragic, and through their experiences, we learn about the DREAM Act and the secret lives led by undocumented students.
The first run of performances included several post show panel discussions. The play has since been performed at colleges around the country, and is always followed by discussions and panel discussions about the Dream Act, undocumented immigrants, and the role of theatre in fostering social change. The play was co – conceived and co-written, devised by five writers, five actors and one director. In the final play the five short pieces were seamlessly interwoven so no audience member could distinguish which playwright wrote which part. So although the script came before the rehearsals (the opposite order from the NGTE process) the creation was built cooperatively and was a true collaboration.
My Heart is in The East: One Playwright Devises a Script
This is the most traditional example of theatre making I will offer here. I include it because I think that devising occurs in the most unlikely places including in the traditional solitary act of writing a play. When I got stuck in the process of writing the play and really didn’t know whether to go one way or another, use one version or another based on the responses of a director and a producer who were interested in bringing the play to production, people were surprised at my emotional reaction, and my heartfelt confusion about rewriting. They asked me, “Why do you care what anyone thinks? It’s your play!” But I didn’t believe it was just my play. I am a deviser not a novelist. A play isn’t a play like a short story is a short story. A play is only a play when it meets with collaborators who will bring it to life on the stage. Without collective devising a play exists (like a short story) on paper but not in its truest form. A play has is not written to be read, it is written to be heard and seen. `So a play on paper without its collaborators (actors, director, designers, producer, venue) is not fully born. Yes, I cared what potential collaborators said, in my mind, it was their play too.
Fig. 8, Fig. 9., Fig. 10 Photographs from My Heart is in the East, La MaMa 2015
The chronology of a script
I worked on this play for about three years. Some of the pieces in it were inspired by my travels and experiences in 2012-2013 and I wrote them as monologues during that year.
Prior to writing the first draft I experimented with puppets. Some of the puppets ended up in the workshop production, some were created as character and story research, some were based on real people I had met in the field.
First, I built the “brain” of the puppet. I filled the heads with writing, or meaningful objects. I then found the face in the paper, molded the face with tape, covered it with glue, and painted it. Another goal in building the puppets was to experiment with the puppets in performative ethnography. I did this by entering the studio for solo sessions with puppets, text, blank paper, books, and music. When I took the puppets into the studio for a research/rehearsal, the process was daunting for me. It had been years since I’d entered a studio space alone, and I had never entered a rehearsal space as an ethnographer, with collaborators made of paper and tape. I stepped into the studio with the puppets I had made; terrified that too much would happen, or nothing at all. Unlike going to the studio to rehearse a play, I thwarted any agenda with an attitude of exploration, and let go of expectations. It was like letting go of a high diving board and letting the water catch me. Then I translated the studio work onto the page.
Fig. 11. Fig. 12., - Puppets
I started the writing work in intensively in January 2014 and finished this version in June 2015. It culminated in a 3-day workshop production at La MaMa Club in New York that May and a public reading in London in June. This version also exists as chapter four of my dissertation and was written in part as scholarship using historical and auto-ethnographic methodologies- it is part performative ethnography and part pure theatrical script, the theories embedded in the play itself.
It is a 90-minute piece without intermission and with 10-12 puppets.
It merges contemporary spoken word rhymes with imagined ancient rhythms.
It centers on the protagonist (Miri) and her battle with the Academy, which is personified by the character of The Scholar – a puppet. He is a father figure type of villain who tells her she is not worthy of the knowledge due to her romantic notions and lack of intellectual rigor or good sense.
In this version of the play both Abu and the Grave Digger (the roles played by the second actor) exist in Miri’s imagination. With his help (sometimes expressed though antagonism) both in the Middle East (Iraq, Beirut, and Israel/Palestine) and in New York she earns the right to become Aviva in the second part of the play. In this version about two thirds of the play is modern day and one third in history.
An exhibit in the Islamic Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the portal with which Miri finally is allowed to enter the ancient world and become Aviva.
The play ends with Abu and Miri speaking to the audience and is followed by a Poetry Contest and a discussion, encouraging audience engagement in the subject of theatre and poetry as a vehicle for peace (using the example of Muslims and Jews in 11th Century Cordoba). This aspect of the play (encouraging meaningful conversation) is important to me. I (and most of the audience) loved this version, but it felt somehow unfinished and a little messy- also I hadn’t quite found the connection between the contemporary story and the historical one. I needed the right director to partner with. After meeting with Liz Diamond in June 2015 I decided to take a suggestion that came out of our conversation and try a rewrite focusing on the historical part of the play.
I worked on this version during a concentrated writing retreat through July and August of 2015. It culminated in a reading at La MaMa Umbria in August. I fleshed out the Cordoba story, left out the contemporary story of my travels to the Middle East. It is a 90-minute piece without intermission and with no puppets. It focuses on the historical story and takes place mainly in Cordoba. This is a play about Abu and Aviva, a real man and woman who lived one thousand years ago.
The play begins and ends with a portal with slides and a lecture podium. A contemporary history professor (Miri) teaches about Ancient Cordoba and a fragment of paper that was found in the Cairo Genizah.
The exhibit at the Met is the last of the slides she shows and features an image Abu in the ancient room. The telling of this story transforms the space and this professor enters history.
At the end of the play (after the Cordoba story) a young man is looking at the same exhibit but instead of Abu Aviva is featured. The telling of the historical story has changed history and put a woman into the center of that particular story.
In Umbria Mia Yoo, the Artistic Director of la MaMa, felt strongly that something was missing, although most of the people present really responded to the play, she missed the urgency of the contemporary story and felt that I (Jessica, the writer/performer) was absent from the telling. After extensive conversations I embarked on the third version of the play – attempting to marry what I loved about the first and second.
This version was devised read and written September – November 2015 and culminated in a workshop/ reading at La MaMa in October with Liz Diamond directing.
In this version of the play in Act One the Grave Digger (Ishmael) is a real person that Miri meets in Iraq (he is a poet, a grave digger and a translator). Ishmael is an angry young man who refuses to break his rhyme and raps in part to annoy Miri and in part to express the strange injustice of his life in Iraq. He never stops rhyming. Miri is a puppeteer and a playwright with writer’s block. There is no Scholar in this version, no Academy – her conflict is with Ishmael and with her own Jewish guilt and desires for love.
In Act Two Miri and Ishmael are gone and we follow the story of Aviva and Abu (played by the same actors) where the roles are somewhat reversed – He has writer’s block, she is angry about certain injustices.
The play begins and ends with direct address poems to the audience. In the first poem Miri and Ishmael have no hope for peace, in the last poem at the end of the play, peace might be possible.
I have left the puppets in for now although they are reduced to two - Two puppets she has built or is building of Aviva and Abu as research and discovery for the play she is trying to write and to fight her writers block. A rehearsal process may get rid of them altogether but I wasn't ready for that. I believe this play needs to get done- as the world and its headlines explode a little more every day, and we feel the need for messages of peace. My Heart is in the East is a play that uses poetry to tell stories about love in the present and the past. Audiences have said: “This play is a celebration of language, the language creates the space, I understood that people could live on poetry.” My Heart is in the East is a play that deals with war between East and West, Jews and Muslims, Men and Women. And offers a vision of peace. From recent viewers: “The play ignites our curiosity and desire to learn about the history and lets us dream of a possibility for peace …”.
We need devised theatre, Let’s keep doing it.
There are pitfalls it’s hard to do we risk fighting over approach, method, ownership. It’s a practice that requires advanced listening and watching. A deviser must see others, and try things, braving failure and stupidity. A deviser must be willing to be surprised, ho put his/her ego on hold, and most all to be brave. The advantages are endless, but the most important advantage is that by devising, a creator is making something meaningful in a way that teaches us and eventually the world how to collaborate. By constructing collaboratively artists are modeling the means for building peace. A world without Devised Theatre is more ambitious, more competitive, more violent, and lonelier.
am at Gate C 63.
In the International Terminal at Newark Airport.
New York to Dubai
and from Dubai to Iraq.
The invitation to Iraq comes to Theatre Without Borders on a Wednesday afternoon. They need a Western theatre artist to come immediately to be one of the judges at a festival of theatre from all parts of the Arab World. Passports, visas, plane tickets have to be quickly arranged. Should I go?
Close friends, family and the US State department say NO.
“The Department of State warns U.S. citizens against all travel to Iraq given the security situation. Travel within Iraq remains dangerous.”
But I remember a desperate protest the night before George W. Bush gave the order to bomb Baghdad. I was on the Los Angeles streets with my children and hundreds of other sorrowful Americans wanting to bring some last minute sense to the power machine in Washington, cars honking, Republicans spitting at us. Later that night at approximately 05:30 Iraqi time or about 90 minutes after the lapse of the 48-hour deadline, explosions were heard in Baghdad.
Since then I have had a strong desire to enact some kind of a symbolic apology to ease a personal national shame for what my government did to Iraq over the course of two invasions, two occupations, and two wars. I didn’t ever I that imagine that art would give me the opportunity to take a small step to mend the footprint. But here it is.
The festival is the brainchild of Dr. Abdul Kareem Abood Ouda the Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Basra University. His mission is to bring theatrical and academic representatives from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Sudan to Basra for a week of 13 plays judged by an international panel of theatre professionals. He says this event could never have happened during the occupation. “The occupation killed everything in Iraq. Before the occupation, the University supported the Arts. Now we have to work to bring that support back.”
I go to Iraq one cold November day from to New York to Dubai to Basra. At the Basra airport my hosts, my translator and several bodyguards in shiny suits who look more Italian Mafioso than Arab Soldiers meet me. A Sudanese theatre group from a University in Khartoum arrives on the same flight as mine. Security is high. Advised by Amir in urgent whispers I am to conceal my American citizenship by not speaking English in public, I am also warned to hide my female curves with large loose fitting clothing and head scarves, and most of all to hide the fact that I am Jewish.
The risk of kidnapping is high, and I am told in no uncertain terms that my kidnapping would be very inconvenient for my hosts. We travel in armed vehicles to our hotel. “This is a bad checkpoint” My host says, “cover your head, look down, don’t speak”. I don’t know what is “bad” about this particular checkpoint. None of them seem “good” to me. Every few blocks the car stops, the driver turns on the inside light.
A man in Military garb carrying a machine gun (there are so many guns in Iraq that they begin to look like toys) shines a light into our faces, asks for identification, the driver mumbles a greeting in return, waves a nervous salutation.
Streets are filled with tanks. Billboards line the street with photographs of martyrs, and wanted men. The wanted men are crossed of with a black spray painted X when they are killed but some of the martyrs are also crossed off with a black X. This is because they were martyred in the Iran-Iraq war, and the Basra government residing just 6 miles from the border with Iran, has demoted these martyrs to make amends.
This is life here. Everything is uncertain and everything is unsafe. No one seems to know who is in charge, who the gunmen are manning the checkpoints, or who the guys with guns are reporting to.
I sit in the middle on the back seat, not making eye contact, my bodyguard next to me. This particular checkpoint keeps us a long time. The soldier or who ever he is gestures towards me and speaks loudly in a voice that seems to get increasingly angry as the driver tries to negotiate safe passage. He wants my passport. I am suddenly afraid. Any thing can happen here. He takes my passport and walks way. My bodyguard takes his gun out of the back of his pants and follows the man with my passport. I wonder if I will ever make it back to New York. Then the bodyguard is running back towards to car shouting something in Arabic, which I assume, is, “Go! Go!”, because the driver hits the accelerator, the bodyguard jumps in to the moving car, my passport in hand and we speed off to the next checkpoint. Hopefully it’s not a “bad” one.
Sometimes it is hard to breathe on the streets of Basra. Dust is everywhere, dust that blows in from the desert, dust from the perpetual construction of bridges and buildings that are never finished, dust from the intense traffic, dust from the burning oil, dust from the rubble, dust as a constant reminder of war. The women’s faces are protected from dust with burkas and hijab the men wear scarves over their mouths and noses. When a deep breath can be taken, like out on the Tigress and Euphrates rivers, the ancient beauty of the city and the spirit of its people fill the heart and clear the lungs from Dust.
Basra built in 636 CE, is in the historic location of Ancient Sumer and the home of Sinbad The Sailor and the possible location of The Garden Of Eden. Basra suffered through the violence of Iran-Iraq war, The Persian Gulf War (“Operation Desert Storm”) the mass executions conducted by Saddam Hussein, and the most recent occupation by American and British troops that controlled the province until 2007.
In the hotel hallway after my bodyguard leaves me for the night, I go to the ice machine. A man appears out of nowhere. He approaches me quickly before I can open the door to my room. He grabs me with one hand and shoves me into the wall. With his other hand he clutches my neck in a stranglehold. He stops my breath. He leans his mouth to my ear and whispers one word: “America”.
The next afternoon all of the performers and the judges from the festival are on a riverboat on the Tigris River. We are on the deck after a large lunch of meat, fish, hummus and soft flat bread. My bodyguard follows me up to the very top of the boat where the young theatre companies have gathered to take in the view: Saddam’s abandoned yacht and palace, the submerged ruined boats along the river, the landscape of palm trees and far off oil fields burning, and the surrounding desert. The Egyptian company of actors begins dancing and chanting and singing regional folk songs. They are rowdy and proud, waving the Egyptian flag up and down to the musical rhythms specific to their country. They bring the women into the center— the Sudanese actress, the visiting scholars, and me. Their inclusion of the women in the dance is a kind of rebellion in a culture of gender separation and exclusion. We begin to dance with freedom and joy that rocks the upper deck of the boat. The bodyguard tries to stand close, but I leave his side to celebrate the fresh air streaming in from the music of voices and stomping feet. Suddenly, on the other end of the boat a group of Iraqi actors began their own chants and dances. A call and response between the two countries emerges. Competitive, fierce, a collective musical war of peace begins to shake the riverboat. “IRAQ!” “EGYPT!” “EGYPT!” “IRAQ!” A police boat follows close behind us. I think the music must have alerted the militia to some action of wild release. But a Syrian actor tells me the only reason the police boat is there is that there is an American on board. One American. The sound and movement is intoxicating, so alive that all we can do is clap our hands together and grin and sway. An elderly professor from Sudan grasps my arm and shouts over the music: "This is the only way we will unite the Arab world- with art."
While I am in Basra, Barak Obama is re-elected to the presidency. I stay up all night waiting for election results. Roberta Levitow is in constant contact with the State Department contact in Bagdad who is worried for my life, keeps texting me state-by-state election results. By early morning I know we have defeated Mitt Romney. When I come to the University the next morning everyone greets me with one word: “Obama!” No one speaks English, not even Dr. Kareem, but this word they know. They have informed me that they don’t like or trust my president, even though I try to explain to them, with the help of my translator, why he is so much better than they other guy. But this morning they have decided to humor me. They know I am happy and insist on patting me on the back and shaking my hand as if this is some personal victory. And it feels like one. My daughter sends me a text message containing President Obama’s acceptance speech. I show it to my translator and who passes my cell phone to a Palestinian colleague who speaks English. He reads the speech and bursts out with an emphatic shriek: I burst into tears. I am not sure why. I have never been patriotic and although I campaigned for Obama I am certainly aware of his faults and of political hypocrisy in general. But something cracks. The floodgates are open. I just can’t stand to by guilty and ashamed of being a white American one more minute. The panel of judges turned to stare at me. “ I am sorry” I sob, “I am sorry for what my country did to yours.” They cluck and shake their heads. An aging actress from Baghdad says in broken English: “But we love you, Jessica” they say, “You are not a bomb.”
The morning I am leaving Iraq, I ask Dr. Kareem, “What’s the next step?”. According to him, the next step is two-fold. First of all, he says, “Theatre needs to be brought to the streets so that it can be shared by all members of the community. “Intellectuals”, he claims, “tend to criticize and theorize. We need to take theatre to the average person.” “Secondly,” he says, “We need practical projects between the east and the west. It has to be collaborative. Practitioners are more important than intellectuals within nations in conflict. The media and politicians separate us. But if we communicate through theatre we can come closer to understanding each other. Theatre can serve as a medium to tear down stereotypes. We decided that I will collaborate with an Iraqi playwright on a play about Iraq and America. The fact that this writer is much younger than me, and a Muslim will make the collaboration interesting. Because it is not safe in Iraq, we will meet in Beirut to rehearse and develop the script.
There are 9 checkpoints on the way to the airport. In 4 of them I receive a full body search. The Basra airport must be the safest place in the world. The Sudanese theatre company that was there at my arrival is taking the same flight back to Dubai. The elderly Sudanese professor sits next to me on the plane. “We knew you were Jewish” he says out of nowhere. “It’s your nose that gives you away.” When the plane lifts off Iraqi soil he clutches my arm and cries: “We are free!” In Dubai at the most luxurious airport shopping mall in the world, I take off my headscarf and buy a glass of champagne and drink it out in the open.
Headed home to the west, my heart still in the east, the complicated division is just beginning. I will never again know which side I am on.
I am in the taxi on the way to the airport. (again) Worried. (again) About what I bring to this journey. I see my reflection in the taxi T.V. screen. Yup. Still a white girl.
I don’t want to be a white girl.
White skin. White heart. White Christmas.
I want the rainbow.
I want to change the world.
Lead the people to re-demption re-invention re-turn re-pair re-evolution. REVOLUTION!
WHOA! HOLD UP, WHITE GIRL! Who you think you are? Where do you think you come from? What makes you think you got the juice to change the world?
Did your people ride here piled together foot to head on a slave boat?
Did you get ransacked and murdered by pilgrims, massacred and strung up - your land stormed and stolen?
Did you do the Ghost Dance?
The Cakewalk? The Monkey? The Pittsburg Stomp?
I never wanted to be a white girl!
I wanted to be Patty Hearst, Dude.
I wanted to be kidnapped by a black Revolutionary.
Simbeonese Liberation Army.
Rename myself TANYA.
Be a Panther, and shit.
I grew up in the dream time. San Francisco. Summer of Love. Ashbury Street between Haight and Waller (sings:)
Take another little piece of my heart now baby.
I was a child of the revolution. (sings:)
We all want to change the world.
My mother sent me to a hippie school. Our teachers marched us into protest waving the Viet Cong Flag. (sings:)
And it’s one two three what are we fighting for?
I wanted to be an astronaut. Fly to the moon. In a spaceship.
I wanted to be a secret agent. Fly to Monte Carlo. With a jet pack. (sings:)
There's a man who lives a life of danger,
Or a Bond girl.
White Fur. White Leather.
I wanted to be an actor
New York City.
MY KINGDOM FOR A STAGE
White lights, white mask, Great white way
I am Emma Goldman in Union Square. “I believe in Anarchy, freedom, free love, speech. I believe in America, courage people pride I believe there is great work to do now however we can. .”
White Rap. Red sea.
I am Miriam at the red sea. “Come women. Shake your timbrels. Feel the drum beat. Place your feet in the mud of the sea bottom.”
We place our feet on the foggy beach.
White sand. White night.
Shout your truth so loud it stuns the treetops, child. You are enough. Be brave.
Woman I am, spirit I am, I am the infinite within my soul, I have no beginning and I have no end. All this I am.
Be naked with yourself, Girl. The eyes of the ancestors are upon you. White people.
Be proud. So I push two
Out of my tender womb and into the future.
And they will change the world.
I am at the Airport. Gate C36. JFK to London. London to Tel Aviv.
All my life I have wanted and not wanted to go to the place my Grandparents called The Promised Land. It has taken many decades to get me on this plane. But ironically when I first travel to Israel I on my way to Palestine. I am hired to teach and perform for the Freedom Theatre in Jenin. I have a brand new second passport, issued at steep cost by the U.S. government for “special circumstances”. My regular passport, stamped with Iraq, Lebanon, India, Egypt, and Jordan will cause me some uncomfortable interrogation, but more importantly once Israel stamps my passport many of those other countries where I work will not have me back. A clean passport just for The Holy Land.
In the Jenin refugee camp I was to lead drama therapy and psychodrama classes, theatre courses and puppet workshops for adults and children. I had told funders of my trip that Theatre skills are useful as learning strategies for change, and reminded them that art itself is a valuable tool. Because I told them artists are witnesses and chroniclers of their times. I told them that Theatre allows us to experiment, to succeed at not knowing, to fall, get up, fail and then as Sam Beckett put it, to “fail better.” The creative power of experimentation, would allow the participants of the workshops in the refugee camp to get up and fall down in new ways. I talked to them about moral imagination and paradoxical curiosity. I wasn’t sure if I was full of shit. But I knew I had integrity, heart, and now thanks to them, plane fare.
Whenever I prepare for a trip outside the relative safety and familiarity of the western world, I have to balance my natural anxiety with the real dangers present. In certain parts of the developing world, it is important to take precautions, but I am always fielding calls from concerned parties. As I always do I checked the State Department website and found certain travel warnings aimed at the two destinations to which I was headed. I found the following warning:
The Department of State urges U.S. citizens to exercise caution when traveling to the West Bank. Demonstrations and violent incidents can occur without warning, and vehicles are regularly targeted by rocks, Molotov cocktails, and gunfire on West Bank roads.
A Palestinian woman who was a potential participant in the workshops sent me an email:
Hello Jessica, I try see you in Jenin. I hope that the road will be more safe. Last week it was not safe at all. Hope meeting you, hope you be ok on the road. Rima.
When I asked my colleague at The Freedom Theatre about it, he replied in an email:
Jess, There are frequent road closures in the West Bank. Either because of protests and clashes with the army, or because of settler violence. The only danger is if you are in the frontline. Usually one gets wind of such an event and has to take a detour. This happened to us a few days ago after a performance... Life in the West Bank.
When I land in Tel Aviv, the lady at the border patrol asks me why I’ve come to Israel - Do I tell her I have come to combat the occupation- with something so dangerous I’ve had to sneak it on the plane: a weapon of peace and freedom: the theatre?
I made the long bus trip north. The first night in Jenin I wrote this email to my two grown daughters in the U.S. :
I am at the Jenin refugee camp – it’s 4 am- I am in a tiny room above The Freedom Theatre- very very hot here. But mostly there is noise. There is a mosque and Call to Prayer sounds close. Screaming boys throw rocks at my window and there are gunshots very close- apparently individual shots are infighting between refugee gangs - machine gun fire is the army. And there constant drilling – they are rebuilding the theatre in the middle of the night because it is safer to work then. The town of Jenin is a ten-minute walk from the refugee camp but it is not safe for me to walk there alone. Apparently it’s hard to get our workshop participants to come to Jenin refugee camp for because of the violence...feels a little like the South Bronx of Palestine. Tomorrow I teach a group of women in Nabulus, the next workshop is a group of social workers in Jenin, then a puppet, then a three-day workshop in Bethlehem, then an outdoor workshop in the Golan Heights and then a workshop in Ramallah. I have to lie beneath the window line because the gunshots are so close right now they threaten to break the glass.
In Shallah, (God willing) all will be well. Much Love, Mom
My very first full day workshop was with women in Nablus.
All the women were wearing full-length coats and hijab in 100-degree heat, one older woman began the morning by making a loud announcement with glee. In one all female workshop the women were wearing full length coats and hijab in 100 degree heat, one older woman in her fifties entered the room calling out with glee.
I am pregnant! I know, I know Habibti, it's hard to believe,
You look at me and you think she’s too old- FAR past childbearing years…
But Ladies Allah wants me to give my husband a baby boy.
You all know how I lost the last nine babies
This one will be my healthy boy!
My husband is going to marry the second wife
So young, so tall- from Beit Jala,
I am lucky- you know Islam says he can have four and
All these years, so patient, he has only had me
if I give him a son, maybehe won’t do it.
I can’t stand it if he does.
It breaks my heart.
But I understand. I gave him nothing.
Only one daughter nineteen years ago,
but that doesn’t count, .
Lady Teacher, I have to leave class before lunch
to see the doctor
make sure everything is good.
I have lost 9 babies but this one -
I can feel him inside me.
My healthy boy.
She returns to the workshop just after lunch. She crumples onto the floor, sobbing.
FIDYA: The baby is dead!
The doctor found no heartbeat, now she has to go through a surgery. The eighteen other women all began shouting at once. I bring them into a circle. I ask Fidya to come into the center of the circle. I ask each woman to say one supportive thing to this devastated woman. Every single woman says a variation of the same thing:
I hope God saves your baby
Inshallah you give your husband a son.
God willing you can make for your husband a baby boy.
Inshallah you save that baby for your husband
No one says:
Take care of yourself.
You already have a daughter. Cherish her.
I hope you feel better. Eat some lunch.
Inshallah your husband is kind to you.
The woman weeps harder in the center of the circle, clutching her belly, rocking back and forth, tears streaming down her face. They keep at her- Inshallah the baby boy. I want to scream at the women but this isn’t my business. This is not my culture to correct or change. I am a visitor. A white girl. It is not my place to rail with western feminist patter against “gender bias”. I can only support this woman to become stronger and more self-loving. But how? For a few minutes I feel lost. Then Augusto Boal comes into my head. “Truth is therapeutic” Boal whispered in my ear “Jessica, this human being needs to be seen holistically, so that humanity’s “tragic passion and clownish love” can exist.” So, I decide to see if it is possible to find the other side of the coin for this woman. I engage her in a psychodrama in which she recounts a time when her daughter was small and had been lost in a huge mosque during an attack by Israeli soldiers. The dramatized reunion with her daughter made this woman realize that her grown child was someone she could hold onto and be grateful for. She hugged the woman playing her daughter and held her tightly. She wept but these were tears of gratitude. I asked her what she was going to do when she left the workshop.
FIDYA: First thing? I am going to call my daughter.
When flag waving
is outlawed by the Israeli government,
the Palestinian youth in Jenin carry
And smash them on the ground.
A broken watermelon is red and black and green-
This is theatre at its best- the physical metaphor of true resistance.
The children in the refugee camp play and shout late into the night outside my window. The gunfire doesn’t seem to bother them. One morning I gather them together I tell them we are going to make puppets to make puppets.
One of the men at the theatre buys ten brooms and cuts up the Broom handles to make the puppet bodies. He helps me find Newspapers, glue, paint, brushes. I walk into Jenin – now I feel comfortable walking alone. I buy buttons, ribbons, and pieces of bright fabric.
The children first write or draw their secrets, the things they keep in their heads – the dreams and wishes, the memories, the stories they tell no one. Some of them agree to share these, others keep their papers to themselves. The bad things we decide to throw away and later we put them on the fire. The good things we build into brains. And the
Brains become the core of the puppets heads that the children then build and paint and decorate and use to perform.
At the workshops the Women and The Men tell many tales of small rooms and soldiers, of sorrows and goodbyes…
The night the Israeli army took my father… When the Israeli army took my son…When the Israeli army took my husband…
If I had known you ten years ago I would have killed you… Why? Because when the Israeli army came to arrest me, my 8-year old sister answered the door. The soldier shot her in the face. But now I have grown up. I have changed. Now I know that not all Jews are bad. Not all Jews would kill your sister.
We made scenes of rage and redemption, sculptures of anger and release.
This student is a man in his thirties who wants to be a social worker. He is hoping drama therapy and psychodrama will be useful. A few months ago he was released from an Israeli prison where he had been for 2 years.
I ask him to tell me about his cell. He can’t remember it. As hard as he tries he is not able to see the walls or the ceiling or the floor or the tiny barred window or the hole in the ground or the thin torn mattress. He knows these things were there because his brother and his father have also been in jail and they made a portrait for him. It deeply disturbs him that he can’t recall.
Do you remember anything at all I ask him.
One thing, he says. An insect.
What kind of insect?
A black beetle. I trapped him under a plastic jar and kept him there to be my friend. I talked to him for nearly a week before he died. I even shared crumbs from my bread with him. But he didn’t make it. I’ve never told anyone this. I ... Named him. Ali.
Let’s try something I said. You want to try something?
Yes he said.
The translator sat beside me on the floor.
Let’s imagine. Imagine you are the bug.
He closes his eyes and moves slowly down the corridor of his imagination. Until he is inside the beetle.
Suddenly from the beetles perspective he can finally see the room. The stain on the floor, the crack in the wall, the bars on the window, the mattress and the hole. He opens his eyes, weeping.
Are you OK?
Yes. He says. It’s better to see.
My colleague and I leave Jenin on our way to Jordon and from Jordon to Cairo where will teach theatre, Playback and drama therapy workshops. We pass though the checkpoint. The checkpoints between Israel and Palestine are territory that is not easily imaginable by Westerners. One either drives or walks through a series of barbed wire enclosures. You are either body checked if you walk through, and driving through you are subject to random full car searches where all of your belongings are removed from the car and transferred to a search station by shopping cart, and an explained gas is pumped into the car by a long tube, supposedly a method for finding explosives. At one point during a frightening, long and frustrating search of a car I was driving with a Palestinian actor form the Freedom theatre, I shoved my American Passport in the Israeli soldier’s face and said irately “I am an American! Stop this at once.” They laughed at me, and then confined me to a small cell for the good part of an hour. Which is nothing compared to the days spent in prison or in small rooms waiting for visas that Palestinians endure. Still I wonder if will we miss our flight from Amman.
I eventually fly home.
Cairo to Paris. Paris to New York
Jetlagged, I am lonely for the Middle East.
In the cab on the way to my apartment I think I might be crying.
The taxi driver offers me a tissue.
He smiles at me.
An Arab immigrant, he thinks I am being friendly.
Actually, I just forgot where I was.
The Issue- Freedom of Artistic Expression
The Lie- The Free World = The Free Voice
The Solution: Truth, Dialogue, And Paradoxical Dexterity
The challenges to artistic freedom throughout the world are deeply felt, widespread and far more extreme anything one experiences in the West. My work with arts and human rights organizations has exposed me to many artists who are experiencing prison sentences, death threats, and rejection from family and community because of their artistic practice. I have worked directly with an actor in Afghanistan, a playwright in Iran, and a cartoonist from Cameroon, among others, each one either attacked, threatened, imprisoned or tortured for their creative expression.
As Westerners we need to be aware of our artistic liberties. A colleague of mine in Singapore recently asked me quite sincerely, “How long does it take the government to give you official permission to produce a play after you’ve applied for approval?” She could hardly believe that basically anyone can produce basically anything in the United States.
What stops us? Money, politics born from guilt, cultural identity – is what unifies us in the U.S. theatre community not what we proclaim but what we don’t say?
In the west learn early on to limit our responses and say what is wanted, we learn self-censorship. The great improvisation guru Keith Johnstone (1987) wrote that when he was 18 he was reading a book and he started to weep. He was shocked at his own reaction: “I realized that my school had been teaching me not to respond” (p. 17).
The truth is of authentic response essential. Boal (1995), in describing how he understood the pedagogy of fear in oppressed peoples, said, “Truth is therapeutic” (p. 300). Boal believed that if practitioners work theatrically from the premise that all human beings needs to be seen holistically, then both the “tragic passion and clownish love” (p. 300) of humanity are represented and made useful by theater practice. Theater is immediate and evocative and everywhere. The magic of the theater is not an escape, but an invitation to return to the truth with new insight.
My Singaporean friend was not only surprised that there was no Government submission, it was equally shocking to her that National subsidies for the productions we did not have to report were essentially nonexistent.
However wide our external freedoms might range, the subtleties of exclusion, prejudice and censorship are still prevalent, both inside the theatre and outside of the profession. One aspect of our self-inflicted limitations on artistic liberty is the American unwillingness to look deeply at the shadows of our own culture. This blind spot to our own national murkiness affects liberal theatre artists as much as conservative politicians.
Art is subsidized by the rich in the west and so our censorship is insidious and often self imposed. In theatre we censor ourselves in order to please producers who in turn are aiming to please potential audience members, especially the regular subscribers who foot the bills.
This paper outlines some of the censorship encountered in the U.S. Theatre most specifically self censorship and fear that stop westerners from exercising their freedoms that could open up avenues of creative support for colleagues and friends across the globe.
My experience with a play I am working on has been both gorgeous and impossible. My Heart is in the East is a poetic exploration that explores history as a model for peace building. The play is a duet performed by two actors who play several roles, with ten puppets in two settings: Present day conflict zones in the Middle East and 11th Century Cordoba where Muslims and Jews lived for a period of time in relatively peaceful coexistence brought on by poetic cultural exchange in the form of bilingual poetry contests.
Following each performance the audience is invited to engage in a poetry contest and an open conversation about the possibilities for performance and peacebuilding, and history as a model for peace. The resistance I encountered on the road to creation astounded me. I interviewed more than 12 directors many of whom turned away from the material because of the subject matter. I heard a prominent Artistic Director say that he could produce a play about anything but the Jewish/Muslim Israeli/Palestine conflict. No one wants to talk about this. Should I? Audiences responded positively but directors and producers wanted nothing to do with this material. A facilitator at an Off Broadway theatre’ Writer’s Retreat where I was did a workshop of the play said she wouldn’t moderates a discussion about this piece even you I paid her to do so. She said she was too worried about the adversarial discussion that might arise. . I often felt that if I just did the second half about the relatively peaceful poetic exchange in Cordoba and left out the more current challenges of Jews and Muslims in the Middle East and the West, the play would be much easier to produce. No one seemed to want to engage with the paradox of present tense as far as the Middle East is concerned. Not only have I experienced challenges due to the controversy of the subject matter (man-Woman, East-West, Muslim-Jew) but also I am experiencing a dialectic within my art form that is shaking the foundation of my knowledge and faith in art.
The poetics of struggle and turmoil is the stuff of great drama. The ongoing trouble people have with communication and expression is part of the fabric of life. As a theater maker engaged in human rights I need to find the challenges as fascinating as they are confounding. I must make a bridge between the rhetoric of my message of a peace and the actuality that the historic tension is still there and there is no way around it. The paradox continues and will continue to exist. I cannot eliminate and disappear the voices of paradox, in fact through the theatrical process I can dive right in.
But there is a vast difference between the ideal of theater (what it can and should be) and the facts of what most theater ends up being. The ideal (or my ideal) is that theatre is supposed to be able to resolve conflict it to reach above it and through it and beyond- it to unify people, to change the world. As an artist, I expect my creative work to reach into the difficult questions and make them beautiful enough to transcend the everyday and inspire extraordinary things in ordinary ways. Theater interrupts daily life with a vibrancy that is meant to illuminate our shortcomings, guide us to our best selves and bring us closer to each other and to the truth.
However, it doesn’t always work that way. I have been betrayed by my own medium more than once. The theater has knocked me quite literally to my knees. We fetishize our art forms and the truth is that theatre like any art is about the process of people making it and it is consistently contested by humanity including individual ideologies, fears and prejudices. Theatre is not disentangled from the world we live and therefore it fails us as an ideal. While the art itself gets us to fall in love, the making of it quite often breaks our hearts. In these current times, extremists from both sides are engaged in acts of violence and injustice. Irreverent cartoonists are massacred in Paris, Black men are murdered in New York, an Artistic Director is fired from a Jewish theatre in Washington D.C. for producing plays that are pro-Palestinian, people are beheaded, thrown off buildings, discrimination prevails in schools, prisons, hospitals and in courtrooms. Are people fearful of retribution? Are people fearful of conversation?
Any post show discussion threatens to invoke tension, anger, fear and other feelings around an issue both ancient and present. But doesn’t American theatre exist for that very reason, to raise issues, and to combat fear and revel in the green zone of free expression at the heart of a free world? Aren’t all of these liberals who are turning away from heated discussion being somewhat hypocritical? My Heart is in The East brings up issues that are challenging but presents two sides and advocates peace. Why are people so afraid of braving discourse? I work hard to make the space safe for any performance or workshop. One of the benefits of doing rituals and training as a drama therapist is that I pay attention to safety and make sure any space where I will be performing or teaching is grounded and secure. I believe that it is very important to do this immediately in conflict zones so that people feel as free as possible to work and express themselves in the given environment. With strength and humorous warmth, I try to combine servant, charismatic and adaptive leadership tools to set participants/ observers at ease while instigating free and open conversation.
All Art is Revolution
Life is always filled with intersections that change the course of one’s road. In my case it was some key conversations with one of my father’s friends that changed mine. Earl Shorris was one of the most influential people in my life. He was a social critic and author whose interviews with prison inmates for a book inspired him to start a now nationally recognized educational program that introduces the poor and the unschooled to Plato, Kant and Tolstoy. He was sharply critical of Western culture as sliding toward plutocracy and materialism, and became best known in his final years for founding the Clemente Course in the Humanities, which earned him the National Humanities Medal, presented to him in 2000 by President Bill Clinton. Earl wanted to save America with books. In an interview in Harpers Magazine he said:
"I have wished for many years to be a physician to my beloved country. The means to care for it is clear. I was revived by love and ethics. I am not unique: no man, no woman is a metaphor; that is the place of gods. I do not know who will take America in their arms to revive her. No nation is forever.”
Earl grew up poor in Texas and Mexico, went to The University of Chicago at age 13, and at one point went to work for a Madison Avenue advertising agency to support his wife and two sons while he wrote dozens of books late at night. Once right after my husband who was a PR executive left me heartbroken with two small children for another woman Earl told me that he never liked my husband because he never trusts anyone in PR. He told me a story that changed my life. This is a recollection of our private talk, in his imagined voice.
Earl: I was an AD man. I was a big guy in a big firm Madison Avenue top of the top, cream of the cream. Silk shirts, handmade ties, bone buttons. Supporting a wife and two sons. Worked hard 6 days a week from 7 am until nearly 10 each night. Wrote novels on Sundays- but on Saturday I worked. I drank the martinis, carried the brief case tooled in Italian leather. My shoes were polished to a mirrored shine. Black guy in the lobby did them every Thursday afternoon. Didn’t matter what I thought, I was a company man. I came up with the bright ideas that silenced boardrooms. Those one of a kind light bulbs that made everyone wince inwardly: why didn’t I think of that? I was such a hot young executive that they handed me one of their biggest account. Nestlé’s. Chocolate powder. Cereal. Baby formula. Multi-millions resting on my brainpower. And then one day we got a report of record numbers of babies dying in Africa. A Nestlé boycott launched on July 7, 1977, was prompted by Nestlé’s "aggressive marketing" of breast milk substitutes that had led to the deaths of thousands of babies who did not have access to clean water with which to mix the powder and who needed the antibodies in their mother's milk as an essential part of their immune system. The head of the board crowded into my office. They begged me to do something, save them. Save Nestle. I agreed to take 74 file folders home and read through the stack of papers over the weekend. I did. Skipped lunch, dinner, just read and drank and read more. I came in Monday morning, the Board was hovering. I invited them into my office and informed them of the good news: I could resolve their PR problem instantly- in just three words - they only had to follow my directions. I could feel them getting erections, leaning forward in their seats, eyes wide, waiting for my three magic words. “ STOP. KILLING. BABIES.” I said. Then I picked up my briefcase and left Madison Avenue. And I’ve never looked back.
Earl’s convictions and strength of character bolstered me through many tough years of balancing theatre and single parenthood. Much later, when I was having a career crisis, we had another impactful conversation. Because of the inherent narcissism of the theatre, I was struggling with the conflict I felt between my need to make plays and my strong desire to be of service to the world. We were at a Chinese restaurant with his wife and my father. I talked non-stop about wanting to leave the theatre to do something more useful. He listened carefully, reminding me of the plays of mine he’s seen and enjoyed, but also giving me guidance about opportunities for activism. We were all outside on the street after dinner, our two families walking in separate directions, when I heard him call my name. I stopped and turned back to him. “Remember Jessica” he shouted down the sidewalk, “All art is revolution.”
All art, especially critical art is not only revolution, it is at risk. Even in the West, where artists are free to creative expressive truth, there are limits to artistic freedom, and prejudices against the validity of artist’s work. The theatre is an especially threatened medium because it has become despite its roots, which were central to the workings of society, theatre has become less accessible, more expensive, less funded, and more rarified. Therefore we fear. We fear funders, we fear audiences, and we are less and less willing to spend our time looking at ourselves and at our culture with wide-open and self-critical eyes.
I was once commissioned by a famous actress known for her liberal politics to write a play about the history of reproductive rights. She wanted the play to feature a court scene and the story of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. I deeply researched the material for the play, sitting in on the hearings for Plan B (the morning after pill) interviewing staff at NAROL, The Center for Reproductive Rights, The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, the ACLU. I also went undercover to the other side of the debate posing as the mother of a pregnant 14 year old to Project Rescue, Citizens United for Life, and a Crisis Pregnancy Center. Through this research I realized two things that surprised me and changed some of the content of the play. From the liberal side, I learned that there was a history of racial tension and racism in the reproductive rights movement. What was most shocking to me was that these tensions came from liberal women, most specifically between Caucasians and African Americans. Margaret Sanger herself had been accused of racism when she supported the theory of eugenics (the science of controlling genetics to improve the population) and believed in some compulsory sterilization plans to produce more children “from the fit and less from the unfit” (Sanger...) Sanger was a defender of these ideas for the purpose of protecting the poor and disabled women without access to birth control who were victims of multiple unwanted pregnancies. However good her social intentions were, the effect of her views was to create a rift between Black and White women that has lasted decades. I read the work of Angela Davis who was furious at Margaret Sanger and the liberal white women driving the reproductive rights movement for ignoring the needs and voices of African American women. The actress with whom I was working spoke to her friend Gloria Steinem who had the opposite view and argued for Sanger and against Davis’s claims. Because this seemed like such a rich, ripe issue I put versions of Gloria and Angela into the play, and included the issues of racial tensions between women in the dramatic historical conversation about reproductive rights. I also discovered the unexpected kindness of the Pro-life community. As I presented my case as a soon to be grandmother, the people in these various organizations (whose opinions I personally deplored) I was offered money, housing, diapers, counseling, one man gave me his credit card number so I could take my young daughter out to dinner and “love her up” and assure her that we were ready for the baby. I doubt if any of my dear friends at The Nation would have responded so generously, and even though I disagreed with their methods and their ideas about a woman’s freedom to choose, their warmth somehow touched me. I also put this in the play, de-vilifying the opposition. The actress who commissioned me was so infuriated by my theatrical inclusion of these complexities: the shadows on “our side” and the attributes of theirs, that she walked off the production, taking her funding with her, and has not spoken to me since.
It is also important to be aware of how Western theatre is seen by the population outside the profession. Barrish (1981) describes a prejudice against theatre that permeates Western culture in insidious ways extending even to the level of language.
“ Most epithets derived from the arts are laudatory when applied to life; a landscape can be poetic, a man’s struggle with adversity epic, a woman’s beauty as lyric. In an old movie comedy an affected matron expressed her appreciation of dinner by declaring ‘the fish was a poem’, but with infrequent exceptions, terms borrowed from the theatre: theatrical, melodramatic, stagey, etc., tend to be hostile or belittling.” (p. 1)
Can theatre be fully embraced by the rest of society? Can theatre change the world? I believe that with useful plays, moral imagination, and strong leadership, it can. Person by person, community by community, theatre as an art form can increase communication, mental and physical well being, and self-esteem. Theatre as a means of expression can enhance the peace building and social justice. Because of the expressive and collaborative quality of the art form, theatre allows each person to be seen and embraced by colleagues and audience alike. The act of being seen is in itself a small event of large political importance. As Allan Johnson writes in his book on power and privilege: “Of all human needs, few are as powerful as the need to be seen, included, and accepted by other people” (Johnson, 2006).
Many artists and peace builders over the ages have believed and claimed that theatre has the power to change the world. The playwright Bertolt Brecht wanted plays to teach. In his Epic theatre he wanted the theatre to be an adult exchange between actors and audience. Not spellbinding or false, not designed to make one feel, but to make one think. He was devoted to the idea of theatre as social transformation. Febres, who was one of leaders and facilitators of the Truth and Reconciliation, commission in Peru, said, “Theatre is an ally to traditional justice.” The same of course could be said of poetry, certainly of spoken word performances. Febres said, “ Art restores meaning in bringing us as responsible human beings face to face with undeniable facts and circumstances” (Febres, 2001). John Paul Lederach, describing the need for a moral imagination to exist inside each of us stated, “If we are to survive as a global community we must understand the imperative nature of giving space and to the moral imagination in all human affairs…. we must imagine beyond what is seen.” As Lederach states (2005), “The moral imagination requires the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that includes our enemies (p. 354). This concept of peace can be ethically challenging for those who believe that the pursuit of justice trumps the reach for peace, and that artists entering conflict zones to build peace are encouraging passive acceptance of oppression. According to Nussbaum (2010) the humanities are essential in the movement towards a healthy democracy. Nussbaum claims that it is vital for human beings to approach each other as something other than instruments or obstacles, “...we seem to be forgetting about the soul, about what it is for thought to open out of the soul and connect person to world in a rich, subtle and complicated manner” (p. 11). Though science and technology are important she states that her concern is that creative and literary abilities crucial “...to the creation of a decent world culture capable of constructively addressing the world’s pressing problems are at the risk of getting lost.” (p. 13).
In my opinion, there are three forms of theatre work: Theatre of Process, where the artists rank the experience and expression of art as the highest ambition, Theatre of Product, in which the money drives the art and production is effected by commercialism success defined by fame and wealth, and Theatre of Impact, a theatre practice striving for social change, the central goal being the effect of the work on the community. I believe in the alternative theatre community where social justice plays an important role these three viewpoints and methods cross over constantly. According to Kershaw (1992) mainstream theatre critics and historians have failed to recognize “the nature and extent of the socio-cultural impact of alternative and community theatre” (p. 42).
Resistance to truth and paradox
The process of creating My Heart Is in the East was both enjoyable and arduous. The amount of resistance I encountered on the path of generating the work astonished me. When getting ready to stage the culminating event, I interviewed directors who turned away because of the subject matter. I heard a prominent artistic director say that he could produce a play about anything in the world except the Jewish/Muslim Israeli/Palestine issue. Audiences responded positively to the topic, but directors and producers declined official involvement with the material. A facilitator at a NY playwright’s retreat where I was working on the play said she wouldn’t moderate a discussion about this piece even if I paid her to do so- she was too worried about the adversarial discussion that might arise. While I was writing this dissertation Irreverent cartoonists were massacred in Paris; Black men were murdered in New York; an artistic director was fired from a Jewish theater in Washington D.C. for producing pro-Palestinian plays; discrimination prevailed in schools, prisons, hospitals and courtrooms. Don’t we need to talk and peace and justice? Are people fearful of conversation? Any post-show discussion threatens to evoke tension, anger, fear and other feelings around an issue both ancient and present. But doesn’t American theatre exist for that very reason, to raise issues, and to combat fear and revel in the green zone of free expression at the heart of a free world? At one point in the play the Researcher threatens remove the character that embodies her own inner antagonist, the voice of Controversy.
MIRI: Your lines are cut from now on you are silent.
GRAVE DIGGER: You are marginalizing me.
MIRI: Marginalizing you? I wrote you.
GRAVE DIGGER: What gave you the right to write me?
This question is at the center of much of my work. I try to be rigorous with my self-questioning stance regarding my work as it pertains to other cultures and my own perception.
One of my goals with this recent play My Heart is in the East was to negotiate my own complicated relationship to Israeli- Palestinian (Jewish-Arab) strife with grace. I wanted to overcome these emotional challenges without losing my patience, temper or nerve, in order to offer a vibrant, meaningful and productive series of workshops. This proved to be even more challenging than I could have known.
From My Heart is in the East:
Both sides /You wanna cry for /Both sides /You gonna buy Guns for Both sides/ They expire/ Both sides / They are liars/ Both sides / They have kids / Both Sides /They are kids/ Both Sides/ You watch them bleeding /Both sides /Speeding Towards death / Both sides/ Ain’t no dreaming, just scheming, leaning Towards dark, No spark Of hope to cope with dopes Who sit in offices, point guns at maps: THERE, kill THAT, Spill that, Grill that hill, Bill With your Mohammed, your Moses, your Christ Your Improvised Explosive Device / Far Wide / Both sides/
Discovering the need to go beyond the practice of teaching Lederach’ theory of Paradoxical Curiosity - taking it one step further- teaching myself and others to become comfortable and dexterous with paradox and even eager for it.
If the arts were part of leadership training, how might leaders practice imagining change before taking action? Could dramatized history be a model for peace and justice?
If political leaders were trained in the arts, could that training manifest a more feminine principle of inclusion and hybridity, and a more dexterous relationship to paradox? What if world leaders practiced role playing, placing themselves in another person’s shoes as a creative exercise? What if voice and movement work could free leaders to express themselves more authentically? What if clergy were trained in the arts? What would change through the practice of drama therapy or puppet building in the system and structure of churches and synagogues? If doctors were trained in the arts, and attuned to their own sensory experiences, would patient care be enriched?
And what if artists were trained in leadership? Would the arts be richer in service as a result? These are the questions I will continue to ask myself as I move forward in my life and work as a leader and an artist. I believe that my leadership dreams are reachable. I want to choose small daily acts of healing, education, activism and theater that serve individuals and communities while keeping the big picture in mind – the imagined communities of justice and peace. The grand goal of inspiring others to personal and social change through theatre is reached by a series of small peace(s). As an artist, I don’t aim for global change, but to shift perception, incite new ideas, and move people towards insight and/or action one small act (or play, or workshop, or puppet) at a time.
According to Kegan and Lahey (2009) people are naturally resistant to change, “Resistance to change does not reflect opposition, nor is it merely a result of inertia. Instead, even as they hold a sincere commitment to change many people are unwittingly applying productive energy toward a hidden competing commitment” (p. 85). In my experience, I see people resisting change because it brings paradox, and they have a hidden, or not –so -hidden competing commitment to maintaining a state of clarity and simplicity. With my practice I move into discomfort to facilitate transformation. I hope to be an encouragement to others who may be contemplating change but fearful of the confusion along the way.
Paradox as a change tool is not an appealing notion for most of us. It is confusing and uncomfortable. Why are people so afraid of being confused and uncomfortable? Is life supposed to be clear-cut and uncomplicated? The more we know about each other’s “nations,” the more paradox arises. Conversely new knowledge information and encourages empathy but the details of cultural opposition can be contradictory. Sinclair (2007) stated“ Education is the practice of freedom” (p. 35). Education may free us from ignorance, but does it free us from confusion? The more scholars engage with ethnography, and dig deeply to hear the truth in the stories of diverse life, the more possibility there is for incongruity to arise. This is why dialogue becomes a powerful tool towards understanding. Peace and justice become possible when “reinforced through discourse and discursive relationships“ (p. 166). Educating ourselves does not always mean we will be offered an uncomplicated direction. Sometimes the unveiling of actuality, both current and historical, reveals not a clear set of facts but a tangle of paradoxical truths, which makes honest human interaction all the more necessary.
Whether or not theatre can effect change is not only a question that rests on the opinions of mainstream critics, the question of change reaches more deeply into the study of human nature itself. Resistance and immunity to change can be a product of the human mind as much as result of social oppression. The socialized mind which influences how one receives information, brings a person into hyper consciousness of his/her surroundings, in my mind weakening the thinker into a follower mentality, the self authorizing mind according to Kegan and Lahey (2009) has the beginnings of leadership and self actualization. The self-transforming mind not only envisions change but also gets the job done.
Inspired by Earl Shorris and many other activists engaging the world through art and literature, it is my objective to continue to research ways to fight for artistic freedom both locally and globally. A world without art is a world intelligence, depth, color or compassion. It is also my desire to see theatre as a craft, as healing agent, an educator and vehicle for social change thrive and continue to enrich the world by telling truths through art and embracing paradox as we go.
One way I have tried to tell and inspire honest stories is with puppet building, which has become both a performative tool and a therapeutic device for dealing with trauma in the field. The first thing you do is make the puppet's brain. A secret or an image or a memory or a poem, becomes the brain. Newspaper and masking tape form the head around it - a face emerges, and the stories come.
The other way I combat self-censorship is to keep taking the risk to say the things I need to say, that I feel may be useful for my audiences to hear and talk about. I try, despite my fears, to continue to ask hard questions both of my audiences and myself. From: My Heart is in the East:
MIRI: And so here ends our strange love story,
ABU: Without solution, without glory.
MIRI: Deep at sea in a school of sharks Instead of answers, more question marks.
ABU: Man versus woman, Arab versus Jew, East versus West, Red versus Blue.
MIRI: There are some who fight to see rays of light/ In this dark cold world where it’s mostly night.
ABU: A distant glint in their upturned eyes, Look! A slight bright gash in the shadowed skies.
MIRI: And through the breach from either side/ Fly two flocks of birds with wings spread wide.
ABU: One covey predator, one flight prey / There will be blood by end of day.
ABU AND MIRI: Or
MIRI: The field on which these birds alight
ABU: Won’t be the scene of a gory fight.
MIRI: Perhaps the Gods that favor geese
ABU: Will prevail on these birds for peace.
MIRI: Perhaps the hound won’t bite the fox
ABU: And we’ll make friends with paradox.
MIRI: Perhaps the lamb curls up with lion
ABU: And Mecca fastens hands with Zion?
ABU AND MIRI: But
MIRI: It’s your decision, your choice, dear friends: How will this story reach its end? You must act fast to choose which track and solve the riddle before the lights go black:
In our vast lost choir what deeds win through? And faced with war...
ABU AND MIRI: What will YOU do?
Barish, J. (1981). The anti-theatrical prejudice, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Boal, A. (1995). The rainbow of desire. New York, NY: Routledge.
Johnson, A. G. (2006). Privilege, power and difference, New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Johnstone, K (1979) Imrpo, New York: Routledge
Kegan, R., & Lahey L. L. (2009), Immunity to change. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Lederach, J. P. (2005). The moral imagination: The art and soul of building peace. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Shorris, E. (2011). American Vespers: The ebbing of the body politic. New York, NY: Harper's Magazine
Sinclair, A. (2007). Leadership for the disillusioned, Australia: Allen & Unwin.
My Heart is in the East: Exploring Theater as a Vehicle for Change, Inspired by the Poetic Performances of Ancient Andalucía
This study addresses the research question “How Do I Inspire Personal and Social Change Through My Theater Practice?” I implement the theory and practice of H.E.A.T., a fusion theater system, combining use of theater arts as healing practice, educational asset, activist tool, and an art form. I research different ways that theater can affect change, focusing specifically on the use of history in performance. I dramatically interpret a period of history where performance and poetry contributed to change. I utilize qualitative methods including performance ethnography, auto ethnography, arts-based research, and historical research. I describe the fieldwork in conflict zones in the Middle East, which led to the scripting of a full-length play, and the presentation of the play, which included discussion groups and audience participation through post-show events. The dissertation is a bricolage, combining scholarly chapters, performative writing, and scripted theater. The work explores ways of employing theater as a change agent by using history as an inspiration. In the city of Cordoba, Spain, in the 10th and 11th century Muslims and Jews lived in a state of relative peace. Looking at medieval Cordoba I explore the Judeo-Arabic poetry of the time, asking: Can what happened in Cordoba be a model for performance and peacebuilding? Based on historical research, the Judeo-Arabic poetry of ancient Al-Andalusia, and the theory of performative peacebuilding, the dramatically scripted section of the dissertation will take place in two realms: Present-day conflict zones in the Middle East; and medieval Cordoba where two ancient characters convey a story of coexistence through poetic expression. In three decades of working as a theater artist, I have come to believe that my work must be dedicated to facilitating change. The sacred and ancient art of theater needs to be meaningful to 21st-century life so that we can use it to awaken, heal, educate and repair the world. T
This dissertation is accompanied by five supplemental MP4 video files. This Dissertation is available in open access at AURA: Antioch University Repository and Archive http://aura.antioch.edu/ and Ohiolink ETD Center
Archive of the dissertation live stream at Howl Round: http://howlround.com/livestreaming-dissertation-defense-jessica-litwak-s-my-heart-is-in-the-east-exploring-theater-as-a#disqus_thread
Sometimes it is hard to breathe on the streets of Basra. Dust is everywhere, dust that blows in from the desert, dust from the perpetual construction of bridges and buildings that are never finished, dust from the intense traffic, dust from the fires burning oil, dust from the rubble, a constant reminder of war.
The women’s faces are protected from dust with the coverings of burkas and hijab, but when dust really gets stirred up, the men have to wear scarves over their mouths and noses to make breathing possible. Basra is a city that needs fresh air and oxygen. But when a deep breath can be taken, when one is out on the river for instance, the ancient beauty of the city and the spirit of its people fill the heart and clear the lungs.
We are on a river cruise in the Tigris River where the air is clear and the dust is absent. We are on the deck after a large lunch of meat, fish, hummus and soft flat bread. My bodyguard follows me up to the very top of the boat where the young theatre companies have gathered to take in the view: Saddam’s abandoned yacht and palace, the submerged ruined boats along the river, the landscape of palm trees and far off oil fields burning, and the surrounding desert. The Egyptian company of actors begins dancing and chanting and singing regional folk songs. They are rowdy and proud, waving the Egyptian flag up and down to the musical rhythms specific to their country. They bring the women into the center—the Sudanese actress, the visiting scholars, and me. Their inclusion of the women in the dance is a kind of rebellion in a culture of gender separation and exclusion. We begin to dance with freedom and joy that rocks the upper deck of the boat. The bodyguard tries to stand close, but I leave his side to celebrate the fresh air streaming in from the music of voices and stomping feet. Suddenly, on the other end of the boat a group of Iraqi actors began their own chants and dances. A call and response between the two countries emerges. Slightly competitive, vaguely fierce, a kind of collective musical war of peace 2 begins to shake the river itself. A police boat follows us. The music alerts the militia to some action of wild release. But the sound and movement is so intoxicating, so alive and so full of love that all they can do is to listen. There is no action but to clap their hands together. There is nothing to do but dance. What happens next is a theatrical and musical battle of artists that goes back and forth exchanging passionate national ancient expression. An elderly professor from Sudan holds my arm and whispers to me "This is the only way we will unite the Arab world - with art."
The invitation comes into Theatre Without Borders (TWB) one Wednesday afternoon. Amir Al-Azraki has written to us asking if there is anyone who could immediately come to Iraq in the next two weeks to be one of the judges at a festival and forum of academic theatre. Roberta Levitow, a co-founder of TWB, forwards me the email with one single sentence: “Want to go to Basra?” I am to be the one U.S. judge on a panel of six. Each judge will be an academic and/or professional theatre artist. Passports, visas, plane tickets have to be quickly arranged. It seems like an impossible feat, but I decide to make the attempt. It involves canceling two workshops and a presentation at The National Drama Therapy Conference and losing certain fees and travel expenses that I have already paid. It involves getting a substitute for a local class I was teaching and rescheduling a staged reading. Why is it so important to attend this festival in Iraq? I am not sure but I am compelled to continue working to make it happen.
It has something to do with curiosity, something to do with professional fulfillment and something to do with guilt and a strong need for symbolic retribution. I had always been aware of the national shame I have felt for what the US government did to Iraq over the course of two wars. I remember protesting desperately after 9/11 to stop George W. Bush from invading Iraq. I remember the night marches and the futile attempts to bring sense to the power machine in Washington, to stop what seemed such a senseless action. But I didn’t ever imagine that art would give me the opportunity to take a small step towards mending. Suddenly so many years after my country invaded Iraq, here was my chance.
The festival was the brainchild of Dr. Abdul Kareem Abood Ouda who is the Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Basra University. He wanted to bring different countries from University Theatres in the Arab world to Basra. His dream was to establish a festival in this once cultural mecca in Southern Iraq. Morocco had been the center of Arab University Theatre, and Kareem felt it was time to shine light on his own city, which has been over shadowed by the art scene in 3 Bagdad and destroyed by occupation and war. Kareem felt that a strong energy would emerge from a theatrical collaboration between educational institutions, and he believed it would help the world to see a safer and more culturally dynamic Basra. His dream was that Basra University could help enhance the cultural exchange within the Arab world. He told me, “In this current and very difficult situation, people think that Basra is not supporting culture, and we want to change this perception. We want to bring educators and students together to do theatre.” His mission was to bring theatrical and academic representatives from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Sudan to Basra for a week of 13 plays judged by an international panel of judges. He said this event could never have happened during the occupation. “The occupation killed everything in Iraq.” Kareem stated, “Before the occupation, the University supported the Arts. Now we have to work to bring that support back.”
Dr. Amir Al Azraki supported Kareem’s efforts. Al- Azraki felt that the festival would have an effect on the artists, what he called “the elite professionals “ that attended the festival from many universities and Arab countries. He said, “The shows are not for everyone. They are for those interested in theatre. The festival will have a relative impact on our society. It will help us maintain and build our cultural identity.”
I travel to Iraq in early November against the advice of close friends, family and the US State department website which currently claims: “The Department of State warns U.S. citizens against all but essential travel to Iraq given the security situation. Travel within Iraq remains dangerous.”
Basra was the scene of much destruction and civilian casualties through much violence— the Iran-Iraq war, The Persian Gulf War (“Operation Desert Storm,”) the mass executions conducted by Saddam Hussein, and the most recent occupation by American and British troops that controlled the province of Basra until 2007. Advised to hide my American citizenship by not speaking English in public, I am also warned to hide my female curves with large loose fitting clothing and head scarves, and most of all to hide the fact that I am Jewish. This fact I should somehow hide from everyone. Only 6 miles from the Iranian border, Basra is not a great place to be an American, and a worse place to be a Jew. The risk of kidnapping is high, and I, told in no uncertain terms that my kidnapping would be very inconveinent not only for my hosts, but also for the US government. I am prepared to keep a low profile. Not something a middle class 4 American theatre artist is used to doing. But I buy some loose fitting shirts and some headscarves and promise to be quiet.
One can get a Visa for entrance into Basra fairly easily with an invitation from the Iraqi government (it is much more difficult to get a Visa to visit Baghdad) but I almost am not allowed onto the plane in Dubai. Paperwork is waiting for me in Basra, and many urgent phone calls have to take place at the last minute in order for me to board the plane. At the Basra airport, I am greeted by Kareem, Amir, my translator Ali and several bodyguards in shiny suits who look more like more mafioso than Arab soldiers. A Sudanese theatre group from a University in Khartoum arrives on the same flight as mine. Security is high. We travel in armored vehicles to our hotel.
Basra built in 636 CE, is in the historic location of Ancient Sumer and the home of Sinbad The Sailor and the possible location of The Garden Of Eden, which, like Basra, turned out to be a pretty difficult place for women. The University of Basra, founded in 1964, is now a bustling institution where young women come together to study a myriad of subjects along with men. Although the facilities are minimal, the spirit of excitement and enthusiasm are evident on campus.
The festival venues range from a small university theatre across from the dean’s office, to a large theatre in downtown Basra, to an arts facility in the ancient section of town. Each event is packed full of eager students. As the only American, I am painfully aware of my dubious celebrity. From the opening ceremony to the final award event, I am surrounded by television cameras and interviewers asking me about my feelings about Iraq, the festival, and “Sandy”, the recent storm that has hit my hometown. In a city where the lights go out suddenly and regularly, I am amazed that everyone is so concerned about a bunch of New Yorkers who have lost power. I answer blandly and politely, with sincere optimism and careful self-censorship to be sure my Jewish American theatrical mouth stays restrained.
The plays themselves are wide ranging in both subject and quality. We are not only watching the plays (all of which are in Arabic) but also judging them (on various criteria from ”Best Actor” to “Best Script” to “Best Scenography”) we take copious notes and discuss each of the plays and the performers in serious detail daily. I excuse myself from voting on the scripts themselves due to the language barrier but I pay very close attention to all the elements other than language that I can understand (acting and directing quality, use of lights and sound” etc.) 5 The plays span a huge spectrum—from a Japanese story about a soldier marooned on an island and contemplating suicide, to an artist’s internal demon-censor, to a homoerotic play that uses water to drench actors and audience alike. Some of the best offerings are a one woman play with multimedia elements that focuses on the struggles of a homeless Iraqi woman, and an adaptation of an Ionesco play by the Egyptian company, and a version of The House Of Bernarda Alba, Lorca’s play about a domineering matriarch who imposes ultimate control over her five daughters. It was quite extraordinary to see this brutal play, which explores themes of repression, passion, and conformity done by theatre students from Iraq who experience some of these same themes in their daily life. One of my favorite productions was an ensemble piece by five young men from Baghdad, in which actors operated sound and lighting to enact a spontaneous collaboration between people fighting oppression. The actors find freedom against all odds and the audience is stirred to a cheering ovation. Although the plays are diverse in subject and scope, they all contain an element of over-the-top spectacle (psychological realism is not the driving theatrical force in Basra) and all of them touch on the subject of freedom from oppression in one way or another. Making theatre in the face of such difficult and fearful circumstances with such minimal support seems heroic to me. The plays are good, or bad or mediocre not unlike the usual fare in New York. But the road to make these plays has been much rockier, filled with dust, rubble and checkpoints.
“This is a bad checkpoint,” Amir says on the way from one venue to another one night, “cover your head, look down, don’t speak”. I don’t know what is “bad” about this particular checkpoint. None of them seem “good” to me. Every few blocks the car stops, the driver turns on the inside light. A man in Military garb carrying a machine gun (there are so many guns in Iraq that they begin to look like toys) shines a light into our faces, asks for identification, the driver mumbles a greeting in return, waves a nervous salutation. Streets are filled with tanks. This is how life is here. Everything is uncertain and unsafe. No one seems to know who is in charge, who is manning the checkpoints, who the gunmen are reporting to, what the danger is exactly— they know it’s there, and that it is better to be quiet and careful, but the rules of censorship are general and no one can explain them to me. I sit in the middle on the back seat, my head covered, not making eye contact, my armed bodyguard next to me. This particular checkpoint keeps us awhile longer than usual. He asks a question about me—gesturing towards me in an increasingly angry voice. He asks for my passport. I am suddenly afraid. Anything can happen here in the 6 dark. I wonder if I will ever make it back to America. But finally he nods us off and we speed off towards the next checkpoint. I hope silently that it’s not a “bad” one.
I teach a five-hour workshop at Basra University on my last day there. The class is in voice, acting and playwriting. I teach aspects of psychodrama, forum theatre, character development, viewpoints and composition. The students are receptive and eager. We create original pieces and perform them. We then discuss them and work on both the form and content of each one. The students are passionate about the work. They refuse to take a break and keep on working and playing. My translator Ali is working hard. He dives into the action, acting and vocalizing along with the students. Observers come in and out. We don’t pay much attention to them. We are invested in the theatrical exploration. There are seventeen men and three women in the class. It would be the opposite in the west. By the end of the day, due to scheduling issues, there is only one woman left. She is brave. She throws herself into the scene work. The last assignment of the workshop is to take a series of stage directions and compose a short piece with two characters and a clear relationship with some point of conflict that gets resolved in the course of the play. The young woman and her partner come up with a scene about a husband beating his wife. The scene is realistic and brutal. They follow the stage directions exactly. She is beaten, lying on the floor with him standing over her, kicking her face. She weeps. He walks out in disgust. I ask the students to talk about this scene. The actress reveals that this is a scene she has seen and heard about many times, in her own life and in the lives of other women she knows.
I ask the class to explore the woman’s options. Does she have any? “Yes” says one young man” She can hit him in the face” “No” says another student, “if she does that he will kill her”. “She can kill him first,” offers another fellow. “She can run away,” says another. Then a man in the back raises his hand. “She could stand up quietly and kiss him on the forehead. He will feel so ashamed that he will crumple up and ask her forgiveness.” “Which version do you want to try?” I ask the actors. They chose the last one. They carefully re-do the scene, keeping the stage directions, the character quirks, the vocal precision. But this time instead of giving up, the character calmly stands and enacts the gentle rebellion. The male actor breaks down crying. “Please forgive me,” he begs. “Forgive us all.”
The next day as I get ready for the drivers and bodyguards to transport me to the airport, the family of one of the PhD students from Basra University comes to say goodbye to me at the 7 hotel. His wife has never met a woman from another culture. She and I sit and hold hands as her husband translates our conversation.
On the way to the airport, Dr. Kareem and Amir ask if I will come back to Basra the following spring. They ask if I will collaborate on a play with Amir and develop it as a cultural exchange between our cultures. I say yes. We begin to brainstorm. For The Land They Love, is a bridge between two cultures seen through the perspective two families (Iraqi and American). It merges the fantastic and the realistic in a series of scenes that move through time, across geography and traverse the worlds of the living and the dead. The characters (two soldiers, two mothers, and a grave digger) work through urgent circumstances using comedy, heightened poetry and dramatic naturalism. We are off and running.
There are 7 checkpoints on the way to the airport. In 4 of them a female guard searches me. I finally make it to the airport. The Sudanese theatre company that was there at my arrival is taking the same flight back to Dubai. The elderly professor sits next to me on the plane. “We knew you were Jewish” he tells me. “It’s your nose that gives you away.”
I fly from Iraq to San Francisco to participate in The ReOrient Forum, a special weekend of artistic dialogue, presentations, and performances in conjunction with the ReOrient Festival of Middle Eastern Theatre. I speak on a panel about providing assistance and support to artists at risk. Theatre Without Borders and freeDimensional, two grassroots networks with which I work, have initiated a new partnership to help global artists under threat. In the course of this weekend, I am able to speak about my trip to Iraq and connect with other artists and activists who want continue building bridges from east to west.
“What’s the next step?” I ask Amir and Kareem. According to Amir, the next step is twofold. First of all, he says, “Theatre needs to be brought to the streets” so that it can be shared by all members of the community. “Intellectuals”, he claims, “tend to criticize and theorize. We need to take theatre to the average person.” “Secondly,” he says, “We need practical projects between the east and the west that share a vision. Theatre is a great venue for people to share ideas. It’s not like poetry or writing a novel or painting a picture. It can’t happen in an individualistic manner. It has to be collaborative.” He believes that people living even temporarily together in a collective environment will be able to know each other, to have meaningful, useful conversations and to share valuable ideas. Amir says, “practitioners are more important than intellectuals within nations in conflict. The media and politicians separate us. But if we communicate through theatre 8 we can come closer to understanding each other. Theatre can serve as a medium to tear down stereotypes.” Amir says that Iraq is more open-minded than the world sees. “We are not barbarians,” he says. He feels the most important progress is the kind of work he and I are doing together. “This kind of interchange” he says, “gives us a space to know each other better though art.”
The creative cultural exchange, has the capacity to breathe forgiveness, reconciliation and healing into both America and Iraq. This artistic oxygen gives life, and we are able to find moments of freedom, one breath at a time.
Jessica Litwak, RDT is a theatre artist (playwright and performer), registered drama therapist, teacher, and an activist/organizer. A steering committee member and co-leader of the Arts and Human Rights initiative for Theatre Without Borders, Litwak is also a case consultant for the Artists In distress Services Committee for freeDimensional. She was on the full time theatre faculty of San Francisco State University and Los Angeles City College Theatre Academy and teaches in the Graduate Drama Therapy Dept. at Lesley University. Performing, writing and teaching courses in Theatre for Personal and Social Change, she has current projects in Iraq, India, Palestine, Cameroon and Lebanon. She is a co-founder of The Dream Act Union, Artistic Director of the New Generation Theatre Ensemble, and The H.E.A.T. Collective. Litwak’s work has been published by Applause Books, Smith and Krause, and The New York Times. Her many plays which have been produced throughout the U.S. and Europe include: The Emma Goldman Trilogy: Love Anarchy and Other Affairs, The Snake and The Falcon, Nobody Is Sleeping, Wider Than The Sky Secret Agents and A Pirate’s Lullaby. Litwak has a BFA from New York University’s Experimental Theatre Wing and an MFA from Columbia University. She is a PhD candidate at Antioch University in Leadership and Change Through the Arts. For The Land They Love, the AlAzraki-Litwak collaboration is currently being developed collaboratively across 7,000 miles, and will be developed in early March in Lebanon with a team of Iraqi and American theatre artists. The playwrights will then return to their home countries and continue work on the play for its debut workshop in the U.S. next June hosted by The Joiner Center at UMASS.