Language, Love and Code Switching

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Language, Love and Code Switching

I find that one of the best, but most difficult, ways for me to learn is to drop my own defensiveness, at least temporarily, and to try to understand the way in which his experience seems and feels to the other person. (Carl Rogers)

I am disturbed by the increased reports of people on the streets being attacked for speaking a different language. “You shouldn’t speak other languages” is a phrase shouted out regularly.  Last month a mother and daughter, walking home from dinner, were attacked on the streets of Boston because they were speaking Spanish. The attackers punched, kicked and bit the two women, shouting “This is America. Speak English!”  I am likewise disturbed by the US president calling the Coronavirus “The Chinese Virus.”  These are words and language that can engender virulent reactivity and destructive action.


The Art of Forgetting

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At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel. 

(Maya Angelou)


Until a recent conversation with my colleague and friend Leon Ingulsrud, I believed that the most significant effects of a theater experience are the memories created in the minds and bodies of the audience in the heat of a performance. If the theater were a verb, I believed, it would be “to re-member,” to put the pieces back together again.  Memory is a protein that is formed in the brain in the moments of intense emotional experience and our synaptic pathways can create repeated access to said memories.  But Leon, who is thinking a lot about memory loss due to a family member’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, asked me how theater might be beneficial to those without the capacity to remember. What about people who have trouble forming memories? 


Why Training is Necessary

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Singer-songwriter Ben Folds recently wrote a memoir entitled A Dream About Lightning Bugs.  As a child during the summer months, he captured lightning bugs, also known as fireflies, to put into glass jars in order to show and astonish his friends. The metaphor of capturing lightning bugs in jars is not lost on him as a metaphor for what artists do. 


Creating art is about processing, distilling and making visible to others what is luminous to you. We encounter a moment in nature, in life, in our studies, on our journeys, in our relationships, we absorb the experience and then, perhaps, we would like to share it. We want to put it into a jar and point to it and allow its inner light to be visible to others. And yet, as we move away from childhood, to do so is not so easy.

The Power of Sustained Attention or The Difference Between Looking and Seeing

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There are always flowers for those who want to see them.

(Henri Matisse)


As a theater director, my job is to watch over, to pay attention, to bring empathy and quick thinking to each rehearsal; to be ready to laugh or to be amazed or even disappointed. In rehearsal, I try not to react, rather I aim to be ready to respond.  I must be patient and wait like a fly fisherman, sensitive to the slightest tug, but also, at every millisecond, able to change course. I must cultivate the capacity to slow down and speed up at the same time. I face the stage with hyper presence and look without desire.  I wait. I wait for looking to become seeing.  


What Art Is

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While studying at Bard College in the early 1970’s I joined Via Theater, a group of likeminded theater majors founded by fellow student Ossian Cameron. The company began as an active investigation into the work of the Polish theater director Jerzy Grotowski, specifically around his seminal book Towards a Poor Theater.  After many months of grueling physical work five mornings a week in the basement of an old college dining hall, Ossian made a left turn and proposed that we use the summer months to “take theater to the people.”  And so, very much in the ethos of the day, this is exactly what we did.

The Art Brain

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The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar”, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.” - Viktor Shklovsky 


When I enter a museum, I tend to shift unconsciously to my art brain. I prepare myself to experience the exhibition on hand with a special lens, with my aesthetic sensibilities dilated. There are so many wonderful examples of visitors to museums who mistake a mop and bucket left out by a maintenance worker for an art installation. How perfect! How instructive. How useful. In a reverse instance, would a viewer respond the same way to a masterpiece normally enshrined in the Metropolitan Museum if they beheld the same work displaced, say, at a garage sale?

Am I a Tuning Fork?

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“This play resonated with me.” What does that mean?  Why does a particular play, painting or piece of music resonate with me, and others do not? The Oxford dictionary defines resonance as, “responding to vibrations of a particular frequency, especially by itself strongly vibrating.” Resonance is what ripples and radiates when something is created. One energetic being influences the vibrations of another.  If something has resonance for me, it typically means that it has a special meaning or that it is particularly important to me. 

Fragility, Discomfort, Vulnerability and Curiosity

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The fragments fly apart and shift, trembling on the threshold of a kind of fullness: the minor wonder of remembering; the greater wonders of forgetfulness. (John Koethe)

Perhaps I became a theater director thanks to the special brilliance of Adrian Hall who was the founding Artistic Director of Trinity Repertory Theater in Providence, Rhode Island from 1964 until 1988. My first experience of professional theater happened in 1967 at Trinity Rep when I was 15 years old as part of a new program entitled Project Discovery, instituted with support from the newly founded National Endowment of the Arts. Thanks to this initiative, every school child in Rhode Island had the opportunity to travel to Providence to see theater. I arrived in a caravan of big yellow school buses from Middletown High School and my first experience of professional theater was Hall’s production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  Afterwards, I felt somehow altered and provoked.  The production roused me and gave me direction. I did not really understand what I had seen or heard but the experience galvanized me; physically, mentally and emotionally.  My life would never be the same. 


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We work in the dark - we do what we can - we give what we have. Our doubt is our own passion, and our passion is our task. (Henry James)

In a recent public interview, novelist Margaret Atwood was invited to read a passage from her book “The Handmaid’s Tale.”  Afterwards, a bit in awe, the interviewer asked, “How did it feel to write that?”  Margaret Atwood responded rather sternly, “I have no idea.” When pressed further she said, “When you are skiing down a steep slope, you do not think about what it feels like to ski down a steep slope. If you did that, an accident might occur. It is dangerous to think about what you are feeling. You are skiing.” 

The Experience of Theater

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someone sees a play. they ask, what’s it about? i’m, like, you just saw it. it’s “about” the experience you just had. … blank face. … but what’s it about? they ask again. … hmm. maybe it’s time we chat about how the play is the thing & not a stand in for some other thing

(Twitter message posted by playwright Caridad Svich)

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