Fragility, Discomfort, Vulnerability and Curiosity

Jun 17, 2019

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.  I only knew that I had to follow the pulse of excitement triggered by this electrifying experience.

Twenty-two years later, in 1989, I was appointed as the second Artistic Director of Trinity Rep.  I looked forward with great anticipation to meeting Adrian Hall for the first time in person at the press event, a kind of changing of the guard, that he was to attend. When I saw Adrian, I immediately walked up to him to tell him what a huge effect he had had on my life. Much to my disappointment, he turned crisply away from me.  Clearly, he was not happy with this change of the guard at his theater.  I lasted only one year at Trinity before the theater’s Board found a way to get rid of me. But for the entire exhilarating, frustrating and tense year there were reports in various newspaper articles about Adrian Hall’s unhappiness with who I was and what I was doing to his theater. I was disappointed and saddened by his lack of sympathy or support.

Even after I left Trinity and moved on with my life, the stories of Adrian’s denigrating comments about me kept popping up. One of my Columbia University graduate directing students who assisted him on a production of Shakespeare in the Park in Central Park several years later reported that he had to approach Adrian, who was sitting in tech rehearsal with his long-term design collaborator, to say, “would you both stop saying negative things about my professor?”

More years passed and I was directing regularly at Actors’ Theater of Louisville (ATL), which, thanks to the Artistic Director Jon Jory, had become a home away from home for SITI Company and me.  Each year ATL hosts the Humana Festival of New American Plays and one year in the late 1990s, a year that SITI was not featured in the festival, I was nevertheless invited to attend the “Big Weekend.” People come from around the world to see full productions of brand-new plays during this special, crowded, festive weekend. One of the productions that year was a new play by Naomi Wallace entitled The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek and it had been directed by none other than Adrian Hall.  I had tickets to see all of the productions and I climbed the steps up to the smallish Victor Jory Theater on the Friday afternoon of the Big Weekend to see The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek.  The theater was completely full except for an empty seat next to me. Waiting for the show to begin, I suddenly saw the tall, elegant Adrian Hall enter the theater. And I knew in a flash that the seat next to me would be his. Had someone in the box office done this on purpose?  Or was this simple serendipity?  Adrian filed past people in my row and sat down next to me. We both politely nodded “hello” and the play began.  What occurred next felt very much like what had happened to me as a 15-year old seeing Hall’s production of Macbeth.  I was deeply stirred and moved by the production.  It was an early work by Naomi Wallace; a young play and not a perfect play.  But Adrian, as the director, did not try to fix the play or tart it up.  He did not interfere with the usual director-tricks, rather, he allowed the play to breathe. There was space, clarity, wakefulness, immediacy and grace in every moment. As I watched, I wished that all of the graduate directing students at Columbia could experience this production to see how a director might work with a brand-new play by a young playwright.  At the intermission I turned to Adrian and said, “Adrian, this is extraordinary, and I wish that all my students could see your production.” Adrian smiled and during the second act we began to lean towards one another and by the end of the play we were holding hands. “Let’s go to the bar and have a drink,” said Adrian afterwards. And we did. We sat on tall barstools and talked and talked. After that and for the remainder of the weekend, we spent almost every waking moment together. We sat next to each other at the many festival productions. On the Saturday night he invited me out to dinner at Lillian’s, a swanky restaurant on Bardstown road. We never spoke about Trinity. We never spoke about the past. We talked about theater and we talked about life.  When the weekend was over, we said goodbye with what felt to me to be great warmth and feeling.  And that was the last time that I saw him. He went back to Texas and I returned to New York City.  I will never know what Adrian Hall’s own experience was during that weekend, but for me the memory of the weekend lingers and I feel that we had come together in a way that created a pocket of grace in the world. 

The theater, at its best, constructs experiences that can alter the assumptions, the perceptions, and the sensations of one’s life. The value of an artistic encounter may be measured in the memories forged in the experience. Which performances, which paintings, what music create memories in us?  What memories can alter the trajectories of our lives? What traces are left behind? Memories are proteins formed in the brain via synaptic activity, forged by the heat of emotion and excitement and energy. But the vulnerability of memory is also something to consider.

As I have been writing my memories of Adrian, I learned that he is still in Texas and now 90 years old and has been coping with Alzheimer’s. The irony does not escape me. Nor does my sadness. But Adrian managed, in his life and work, to do nothing short of alter the DNA of the American theater by insisting on the primacy of the actor and the possibility of formidable theater companies existing outside of New York City. 

I am grateful for the weekend with Adrian Hall in Louisville.  The years when I had hoped to meet him followed by my disappointment and the discomfort caused by his initial lack of warmth and support during my time at Trinity and afterwards could have prevented our final congress. But we both were able to let go of the bruises of the past and find common ground and friendship.

Generally, we go through life taking note of difficult and challenging experiences that stir anger, fear, disappointment or anxiety. And then we try hard to avoid them. We decide who we like and who we dislike, who we agree with and who we disagree with. We decide that we are the kind of person who does not like boats, or that we are afraid of flying, hard-boiled eggs or enclosed spaces. And then, because of these assessments, we tend to avoid certain people, groups of people, boats, planes, hard-boiled eggs or enclosed spaces. And then because of our hard-wired assumptions, when we do encounter these situations, we feel overwhelmed.

As I get older, I find it increasingly tempting to take the route of comfort and certainty over any real discomfort. And I have learned what steps to take in order to avoid discomfort, to avoid people, situations and emotions that make me feel ill at ease.  Experience has taught me how to circumvent the pain and embarrassment of vulnerability.  And yet, I know that growth and in fact LIFE ITSELF is derived from states of fragility, discomfort and, yes, vulnerability. 

It is natural and sometimes even sane, to run away when danger signals and uncomfortable feelings arise. But communication through the medium of art requires the courage to face vulnerability and embrace imperfection. This is what makes what we do interesting and magnetic.  In a recent conversation, choreographer Elizabeth Streb said that in order to flourish, her performers’ curiosity must be greater than their fear. Her statement is a reminder to me that the fear, the discomfort and the feeling of fragility does not have to stop me. Yes, the fear is real, but it does not have to win in the end.  In moments of panic I try to remember: Get curious.  Investigate the fear.  And it turns out that during the moments of investigation I am not actually afraid. Perhaps the residue of the past fear lurks, but not in the moments of curiosity because in those moments I am doing something else.  I am taking interest. I try not to avoid people and situations and emotions that make me feel uneasy. Every difficult, uncomfortable or unstable situation is information to be used and offers the opportunity to move forwards.