A Meditation upon Dionysus's Smile

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

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

Going Through the Back Door to Get to the Front

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

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

The Art of Restraint

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

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

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

Intentional Civics

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

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

Entertainment

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

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

Conscious Action

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We attempt in vain to describe the character of a man; but a description of his actions and his deeds will create for us a picture of his character.
(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

Action is the essential grammar of the theater. In his book The Necessity of Theater, the philosopher Paul Woodruff defines the theater as, “… the art by which human beings make human action worth watching in a measured time and space.” An action worth watching is the result of the collaboration between the actor and the audience in a shared attentiveness to the action as it is happening.

Linger Longer Together

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A true revelation, I am convinced, can only emerge from stubborn concentration on a single problem. I have nothing in common with experimentalists, adventurers, with those who travel to strange regions. The surest, and the quickest, way for us to arouse a sense of wonder is to stare, unafraid, at a single object. Suddenly —miraculously — it will look like something we have never seen before. (Cesare Pavese)

a Carpenter or a Gardener; a Devil or a Cook

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The expression “the medium is the message,” coined by Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, meant that the technology that we use embeds itself in any message that we receive. Later, feeling that the original phrase had become a cliché, McLuhan changed his tact and published a book entitled “The Medium is the Massage”.  He adopted the term “massage” referring to the effect that each medium has upon the human sensory system. We are literally massaged by our interactions with media, any kind of media.

Venetian Ruminations

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From now through April 2nd, you can catch SITI Company’s brand new production entitled Chess Match No. 5, Tuesdays through Sundays at the Abingdon Theater in midtown Manhattan. We hope that you will join us. 

In Praise of Doubt

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The political cataclysm that recently landed upon our collective heads is a dangerous call to attention but also an opportunity. We are currently facing a crisis in the guise of a future that may be considerably more hazardous than we can currently imagine. But imagination is exactly what is required. The crisis provides a unique occasion for us to re-evaluate our assumptions, adjust and engage in new ways. John F.

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