Chaos

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Our capacity to tolerate error depends upon our capacity to tolerate emotion.
(Irna Gadd)

In 1974 I moved to New York City with the dream of making a life in the theater but first I had to find gainful employment to support my passions.  Here are some of my many day jobs:  Collecting overdue payments from the clients of a bottled water company, teaching theater to adolescents at the United Nations International School after-school program, analyzing expenses for a Wall Street brokerage firm and leading theater workshops in a halfway house for schizophrenics. Each job provided a window into a particular social, political or economic world. Each window taught me valuable lessons about how to be a better theater director.  I mostly learned through my own errors. After many mistakes of presumption and conjecture, I eventually learned to abandon my own carefully premeditated plans, slow down and listen, really listen to what was happening, and then adjust. I learned the necessity of giving up control in order to ride the wave that was already in motion.

Heat

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Successful theater requires a combination of technique, content and passion.  Like a three legged milking stool, if one of the legs is missing, the entire enterprise collapses.  No one cares about the content of an endeavor without the ingredient of the artist’s requisite passion for the material as well as the craft or technique to express it articulately.  Similarly, without having something to say and a point of view, neither passion nor technique is sufficient. 

What is passion and how can it be cultivated?  Brazilian theater director Augusto Boal, inspired by the ideas of Lope de Vega, insisted that, “Theatre is the passionate combat of two human beings on a platform.” He proposed that passion is a feeling for someone or something, or an idea that we prize more highly than our own life.  Clearly Mr. Boal was a passionate Latin American with high ideals.

Time

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I am late with this blog and I feel the pressure of time on my back.  I work on the blog in the five minutes before leaving for rehearsal or on a plane in an uncomfortable seat.  Afterwards of course I reproach myself for not using the extended time on the airplane to write.  Why did I “spend” this precious time watching inflight television?

The ancient Greeks conceived of time in two radically different ways and produced two different words to distinguish one from the other: chronos and kairos.  In English, we have to make do with only one word: time.  This “making do” has led us to confuse these two fundamentally diverse means of experiencing time. 

Chronos is measured time.  Kairos is unbound and unmeasured time. Chronos is quantitative while kairos is qualitative. Chronos is chronological time. It is the difference between time and timing. Any moment can be experienced as either chronos or kairos.  

Longing, Frustration and Desire

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The Buddhists propose that pain is caused by personal attachment to desire. Accordingly, I consciously and vigilantly police my own burning desires in order to live closer to and in harmony with the realities of the unfolding present moment.  I try to stay free from what I perceive as a prison of “wanting.”

In public I have often suggested that the word “want” is killing the American Theater. I propose that in rehearsal we employ the word “want” excessively.  A director says to an actor, “now I want you to walk downstage,” or an actor asks a director, “is this what you want?”  In so speaking I believe that we unconsciously set up parent-children relationships between the director and actors.  And I see this manner of speaking as an endemic and a serious spiritual and political problem in our field.

Community

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The subject of the theater is, at its core, community. The nurturing substance of theater is not only the story that the play relates and the manner in which the story is expressed, but it is also the actual event of a particular community gathering together to experience the “rite” of enactment.  A “rite” is the performance of a ritual and the theater contains vast amounts of ritual. 

In 1987 my dear friend, the actor Henry Stram, was performing the role of Cusins in a production of George Bernard Shaw’s play Major Barbara at Baltimore Center Stage.  Towards the end of the rather long and windy third act during a sleepy Sunday matinee, Henry made a crucial mistake. His character had an important plot line about his parentage and his appropriateness to take over the Undershaft Munitions Works.  In describing why he should be entitled to run the foundry, Henry misspoke a line from the play and rather than saying “My mother is my father’s deceased wife’s sister; and in this island I am consequently a foundling!” he said instead: “My Father is my brother’s deceased wife’s sister; and in this island I am consequently a foundling.”   To his immense surprise, the entire audience, who Henry had until that moment supposed was a sleepy, blue haired mass, gasped loudly, as one, at his slip.  And Henry at that moment realized that audiences DO, in fact, listen; that what we say on the stage really does register.

Direct Encounter

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At the Theater Communications Group Conference in Baltimore in 2009, “Generation Y” representative Nadira Hira bounded onto the stage and announced that she would not be using any PowerPoint in her talk.  Hooray. What a relief!  After several days of presentations and lectures with endless visual information displayed behind the speakers, I was relieved to be spoken to without technical support and accouterments.  Hira went on to explain that her generation is moving away from PowerPoint lectures because they understand the physical intensity of speaking directly to an audience.

Expectations Create Experience

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Human beings are expectation machines. We are constructed physiologically and neurologically to anticipate what will happen next.  This human trait, which almost certainly originated in ancient survival tactics, makes time-based performance a fascinating field and suggests that every theater person embark upon a lifelong study of how human beings perceive events. Alfred Hitchcock, in an interview with Francois Truffaut, explained that if a character appears screen-left, the audience tends to trust and like the person.  If the character arrives from screen-right, we worry that he or she might be dangerous.  These expectations are physiological and probably originate in the fact that in the west we read from left to right. In his film Rebecca, the forbidding Mrs. Danvers always appears unexpectedly from screen-right and then is motionless.  We worry about her.  We expect something bad from her.

Fact and/or Fiction

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Election season is upon us.  I watch HBO’s Bill Maher bang his head on the “Real Time” table in despair at the lack of communication that is possible between parties.   We wade into a season of debates, hearing persistent expressions of surprise that the “other side” does not recognize the logic of a particular argument.  But perhaps the surprise is unwarranted because, in fact, it is nearly impossible to convince anyone of anything via facts, charts, numbers or even abundant proof.  People are not persuaded to change their opinions with facts.  The brain does not respond vigorously to facts alone. But when facts are contextualized with stories, it is possible to effect peoples’ minds via the emotion and empathy engendered in the telling.

Unplugged

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Not long after the cataclysmic events of 9/11, I launched a series of one-on-one conversations between myself and various artists and theater people I admired. Open to the general public, the talks took place in the SITI Company studio in midtown, Manhattan. I did not know that these conversations would fulfill a palpable need for substantive discussion in a room with no separation between the audience and the speakers. We all sat in the same light, breathed the same air and followed thoughts as they developed through the art of conversation.

Reading and Writing

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We read and we write.  We read the world and at times we write upon it.  In order to write effectively we must learn to read well. It is impossible to write without reading first.

Great writers are effectively great readers.  To read teaches one to write.  In a broad sense, we are all readers and we are all writers. A baby swiftly learns to read the surrounding world and begins to write back. The human mind is tuned to detect patterns.  In “writing back,” the mind attempts to craft ordered narratives out of random input. The brain circuitry pores over incoming information, filters for patterns, and arranges those patterns into narratives, into stories. This inborn appetite for meaningful patterns translates into a hunger for stories. 

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