I was only there for about 41 hours.
In New York City, 41 hours can be packed with adventure, learning, fun, emotions, and everything in between. In the next few posts I will share some of the craziness and fabulousity (I like creating words) of this adventure. Of course, I must begin with one of my main reasons for this trip at this particular time. If you have read my blog for any length of time, you know that one of the issues I am most passionate about is
The Power and Importance of the Arts!!!!
This short venture into the Big Apple, while also an excuse for fun with friends, was really based on this premise. Three separate experiences validated and reinforced this for me in interesting ways.
Je Laisse L’Amour Entrer:
Even Zombies Need Art
On Friday night I saw this devised theatre piece performed by undergraduate students from the Playwrights Horizons Theater School at NYU, Tisch School of the Arts.
Devised theatre, as defined by the (ahem) always trustworthy source of Wikipedia, is:
“Devised theatre (also called collaborative creation, particularly in the United States ) is a form of theatre where the script originates not from a writer or writers, but from collaborative, usually improvisatory, work by a group of people (usually, but not necessarily, the performers).”
I have a love/hate relationship with devised theatre. I love working on it, and when it is good it is really really good. Sometimes I find it so esoteric and confusing that I don’t enjoy it. This wasn’t one of those times.
The program explains that Je Laisse L’Amour Entrer (I Let Love in) was “Based on the Ballet La Sylphide & The Music of Nick Cave and Rob Zombie.” The text also includes William Shakespeare, Anton Chekhov, Helen Fisther, Robert Sternberg, and Wikipedia. In other words it was a mash-up of classic complicated ballet love story with hard and classical rock, with classic texts, all mixed in with a little zombie horror. Complicated, right?
In reality, it was a blast.
At first I wasn’t sure. My biggest complaint about this production was that they painted the entire theatre yellow (which is always a complex color on the stage) then dressed the ensemble cast in costumes that matched the yellow, and lit it with yellow light. This meant that sometimes the performers bodies disappeared in a performance that relied heavily on movement and the incredible physicality of the performers. However, eventually I was able to let that go for the pure fun of the evening, especially after the zombie lover crashed out of a cardboard box that had been sitting on the stage since before the audience entered the theatre. The production celebrated love, questioned purpose, pointed out hypocrisy, and glorified the pure joy of living life with love and passion (even when you fall in love with a zombie).
What really blew me away about this production was the quality of performances by these students and the commitment of each performer to create a highly energized and engaging show. There wasn’t a weak link in the entire ensemble. It was fun, terrifying, full of surprises and a delight to watch.
Art and Culture in Public Service:
The Important Truths
The main reason for this trip was to be a guest lecturer in my friend Christen’s class at Rutgers called Art and Culture in Public Service. Christen wanted me to share how theatre in education can be used to do more than simply create the next generation of struggling theatre artists, but teach about other aspects of life and of what it means to live in our society. The class is 3 hours long on a Saturday, and Christen asked me to prepare about an hours worth of presentation. Before that, I sat in and listened to the class discussion about arts and politics, as well as two presentations–one about the KONY video (which was a wrap up of a presentation from last week) and one about Arts in Education. As I observed, I realized a few things:
- Christen is an AMAZING teacher
- This group of students was eloquent, passionate, and committed to making the world a better place
- I miss teaching classes which make real world connections between theory, history, and life to more mature students
- Art truly is the most valuable tool to make a difference
- There was no way I would have time to do the full lesson I had planned because this group of students loved to discuss, debate, and question
When it came to my turn, with less than an hour to go, I had to scrap everything but I was okay with that. I decided to share with them some activities that would allow them to explore their discussion in a theatrical way, because that is really what theatre in education is all about. It is about using arts as a tool to further discussion. I pointed out to them how theatre really combines all art forms, so it is perhaps the most powerful tool that can be used in this way. I borrowed from Augusto Boal and had them sculpt each other into images that represented certain words and issues. Some hesitated at first but then they got into the freedom and creativity with powerful results. Here are some images we explored:
Pretty self explanatory image of racism.
Women's Rights or the War on Women
Need I say more about why this experience was so valuable?
The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler:
Theatre as Art, Community and Message
To put it simply, this was the best theatrical experience I have had in a long time. Every element, the location, the performances, the script, the audience, the meal served at intermission . . . everything created a magical moment that truly resonated the value of the arts to our society.
The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler was written by Jeff Whitty who also wrote the musical scripts for Avenue Q which won a Tony Award. For this production at Exit, Pursued by A Bear (EPBB), Whitty also peformed the role of Hedda Gabler with exquisite grace and beauty. It was truly amazing to watch. This talented professional cast also included Billy Porter, whose bio is almost a full page in the program, in the role of Mammy. Both of these men played these female roles with poignancy and humor and true empathy. Each member of the ensemble just added to power of this performance.
I find it difficult to explain this in my own words, so I will quote from the Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, the Artistic Director of EPBB and the director of this production:
“There is no adventure more unusual, nor story more extraordinarily human, than the birth of Hedda Gabler as she journeys from literary fiction to independent self-awareness. Tonight, you’ll have the further pleasure of watching the playwright portray his own protagonist, and you’ll experience the author and his character mounting a passionate, thrilling and moving defence of the theatre.
Jeff treats his characters–and his colleagues–with profound empathy and sincere affection. It is a fundamentally nurturing instinct that remind me of why I fell in love with the theatre–as a craft, and as a lifestyle. We are drawn to the theatre because we know we’ll meet like-minded misfits there, those others who are terrorized by isolation, face the same nameless terrors and sleepless nights and take comfort in sharing the experiences that make us who we are. The familiar (and unfamiliar) characters in Jeff’s play are slivers of the human imagination dating back to the Greeks: they are evidence of where we’ve been and the foundations for where we’ll go.”
What you need to really understand why this was such a profound and powerful evening of theatre for me, is that it is not your typical production. EPBB presents their plays in the home, yes the loft apartment, of Artistic Director Iskandar. The plays are free (although they ask for donations), and they provide a delicious vegetarian meal for every audience member during intermission. When you enter, the cast is mingling with the audience and welcoming you with a glass of wine or other beverage. (Audience members are asked to bring drinks or desserts). During intermission, these same incredible talents, who have just wowed you on the stage help serve the meal and mingle more with the audience. After the play, they help serve dessert and the audience is welcome to stay and enjoy this party for as long as they like. Conversations and laughter abound, and the line between audience and performer blurs in a delightful way.
In some ways it is a return to the roots of theatre, to the storytelling and sharing around the fire, to celebrations of community and the lessons every member of that community has to teach. This show comes down to the basic purpose of theatre, to share story and encourage empathy and understanding.
Unfortunately for those of you in New York, the show closed last night. But, if anyone is ever in New York City and finds out a production is being put on at Exit, Pursued By a Bear put it at the top of your list.
You won’t regret it!!!