Latest News

December 1, 2018

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Cimientos Play Development Fellowship @ IATI Theater

I was chosen to participate in IATI Theater's (E. 4th Street Theater District in the East Village, NY) play development program: Cimientos.  Cimientos is in its 19th season of a play development program that has given hundreds of playwrights the foundations to build written vanguardia.  I will be working on my absurdist-philosophical piece (with Flamenco!) "Danny and the Therapist" throughout the Spring, and then there will be a staged reading produced of the piece at IATI Theater in June.  Stay tuned for the date of the production!

October 3, 2018

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Associate Producer on full-length feature film: Being Dead

I will operating as the Associate Producer on the production of "Being Dead," a full-length feature film by 21 Summit Productions, written and directed by John Meyers.  "Being Dead” is a film adaptation of Jim Crace’s award-winning and groundbreaking novel of the same name. Synopsis: A tender story about loss, regret, and the terrible price we must sometimes pay to know lasting love. Shifting back and forth in time in the lives of biologists Joseph and Celice Adkins, we travel with them to revisit the site of their magical coming together years earlier, only to arrive at the point of their death. Their bittersweet fate forces the love story full-circle as their estranged daughter, Syl, embarks on a journey to an unimaginable place where she, and all of us, are changed.

June 25, 2018

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Acting in the web Series "Gay Stuff"

After our wildly successful premier at the People's Improv Theater on May 15, writer/director/producer Jamie Benson has decided to make a web series from Gay Stuff, including the piece I was cast in (as the clueless and not-so-kind cis heterosexual White male husband) "Gaysplainer."  Stay tuned for the final product! 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zVk_DAHJ86E

March 5, 2018

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Interview: OPEN: Celebration of Black Men, Beauty, Poetry and Restorative Nature

Tom Block, Founding Producer of the International Human Rights Art Festival joined Bob Lee of Bronxnet TV for a preview of this event designed to showcase poetry, nature, beauty, and celebrate Black Men: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4mxF9fZ16CE

 

 

March 1, 2018

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Puffin Foundation grant for the Development of "La Bestia: Sweet Mother"

The Puffin Foundation awarded "La Bestia: Sweet Mother" dance/theatre project a monetary grant, joining the Yip Harburg Foundation as supporters of this project.  Jessica Chen and the JCHEN PROJECT has already begun work on this piece about ancient myth, contemporary immigration and human and universal pain and dis-location, to be premiered at the International Human Rights Art Festival (November 12-18, 2018 @ The Wild Project, NYC's East Village).

January 15, 2018

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Featured work in the Dramatist Magazine

The Dramatist Magazine, official periodical of the Dramatists Guild, published an article in their edition on censorship (January/February 2018) about their important role in finding us a home for our banned program back on October 15. Additionally, they used Festival Producer Tom Block's artwork on the cover of their magazine, as well as in the interior, to illustrate their exploration  of censorship.

 

 

January 4, 2018

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International Human Rights Art Festival - Documentary of Dixon Place Festival 2017

The documentary from the first International Human Rights Art Festival is finally complete!  Produced by award-winning (C-Span Studentcam) high school videographers Dalya Block and Kalina Gibson, it documents a bit of what we did -- and where we are headed with the Festival. Check it out here!

December 1, 2017

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"Exhortations" published in North of Oxford

An excerpt from my "Letters to an Imaginary Friend" manuscript was published in the literary journal "North of Oxford."

Anyone who knows you well will know you as a hypocrite.

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Do the best you can, then do better.  Much better.  Even then, it will only be a shadow of what you might have done, if you had really tried your best.

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Just because you can forget, doesn’t mean that the universe will.

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So then: why?  Why do it?  Why bother?  You should be able to answer these questions for every single action.  Can you?

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To see things as they are.  To just keep looking, looking, looking.

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The Hippocratic Oath toward life.  It’s a start, at least – and as difficult as being truthful.  But still: it’s just a start.

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“Why?”  Just that: “why?”  Isn’t the ability to ask that question in such a way that the honest “I don’t know” is the obvious reply?  Isn’t that enough out of life?  Why ask for more?

 

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Sometimes you can’t control yourself – your negative reactions or even physical actions.  Fair enough: you just can’t control yourself.  So avoid the impetus.  Remove yourself.  Don’t send the email.  Don’t flash out on Twitter.  Don’t step into someone’s face. 

Sometimes removing yourself is the best thing – when you know you aren’t up to the challenge.

 

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Hypocrisy: the minute you open your mouth, you’re already deep in it.  Keep your mouth shut!

 

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If “God” and “truth” are the same thing, then how to get at one to find the other?  Patience, silence, correct action, honesty (with oneself).

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David says that we should concentrate on the good – after all, it’s just as real as all the other stuff.  But then what are we to do?  Pat ourselves on the back for a job well done?  Better to concentrate on injustice, mean spirited-ness, hatred and ignorance (a world built out of lies).  Maybe this, at least, can help spur us on to do better.  Or is there some midpoint between concentrating on good or injustice which describes a better course of action?

 

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The idea of being “conscious” – that’s a laugh!  Conscious of what?  And “rational,” also?!  As if.

 

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Everything we can see or feel or imagine: flux.  What lies behind it all?  Stasis.  Not to yearn toward that or try to influence it – just to know it’s there.

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The anxiety in you: it isn’t yours.  It’s the universe’s.  Let it flow through you and return to its rightful place.  Feel it – I’m not saying it isn’t real.  Just be aware of its provenance and its destination.

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It’s not desire (the problem) – desire in itself is not a bad thing.  “Desire” is the fuel that keeps the universe existent.  The desire to “be.”  Our desire is simply an echo of the universal will.  It is where we point our desire that matters. 

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Read things; do things that will make you a better person.  But for God’s sakes – also enjoy yourself!  You were given these senses for a reason.

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Discover what “faith” means for you.  And then live it.

 

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Try to be kind.  Just that: try.  It’s not as easy as it sounds – behind the wheel of a car, in a grocery checkout line, when passing a homeless person.  To be kind: day-after-day, moment-after-moment.

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Does this mark me as a rogue: that my favorite house of worship is a bar?  And why do I feel this way?  Because people in a bar will tell you exactly whey they are there – and actually mean it!  No hypocrisy.

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You’re no better than anyone else.  Know this with certainty. 

 

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Avoid situations which will bring out the worst in you, and gravitate to ones which will bring out your best.  It’s that simple.

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One can never lie if they keep their mouth shut.  So how can I justify writing this?

 

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Don’t ever let fear make a decision for you.

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It’s not what’s “proper.”  After all, as Socrates noted, popular beliefs are like monsters under the bed: only useful to frighten children with.  What’s important is what’s proper for you.

 

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“It’s better to do and regret, than not do and regret” (Boccaccio).  Right?  But where does that leave you when you enter the World of Truth?

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The moment: can you stop there, just there, and enjoy it?  Or at least appreciate it – something come once and never to be seen again . . .

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The agitation that you feel.  Know that it isn’t yours – you are just an organ, something else’s knee throbbing or their heart diseased. 

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To be an alien in your own land.  Right?  Why would you want to be a native and comfortable in a place ruled by “tradition,” popular beliefs, polling information and the “well-bred.” 

 

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Why wait?  Why not start today – now – this very moment.

 

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Don’t believe the wise man.  He knows no more than you do, in your heart.  In fact, don’t believe anyone.  All the answers you need, you already have.  Just buried beneath the offal that society has shoveled onto you your whole life, in the guise of “education,” “the news,” “reality.”

 

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Not pointless.  Not that.  Insignificant, perhaps.  But also absolutely necessary.  Every second, every feeling, every action.  Unique.  Without the individual drops of water, there would be no ocean.  Without each grain of sand, no beach.  The snowflakes taken altogether climb to unimaginable heights.

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The most absurd thing a person can say: “I don’t believe in God.”  Turn away.  Don’t engage.  And think to yourself: “But you’re lucky that God believes in you.”  Though of course, even that is absurd – so just return the subject to solid ground: politics.

 

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Salvation?  Redemption?  Forget all of that – look forward, and just do the right thing from here on out.

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The secret?  To never expect anything in return.  OK – not the secret, but a secret, certainly.

 

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It’s never arrogant to be right.  It is arrogant to be wrong and think that you are right. 

 

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And risk?  Of course – risk everything.  It is called living.

 

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To find it within.  “Within” is the only thing that truly exists, after all.  And to remember that “within” and “above” are synonymous.

 

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Everyone – absolutely everyone who knows anything about anything – says that acceptance is the way.  So why not just accept?

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To move beyond the hope of reward.  And from there, to where the action is the reward. 

 

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Don’t free yourself from anything.  Don’t renounce; don’t turn away.  Take what you learn and apply it more forcefully to everything you do.  We need you here with us! And the better you are (healed), the better we will become.

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Take everything in.  But take everything in with a grain of salt.

 

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Take that sack of barley to the top of the mountain.  Take a pen and draw through the day until dusk turns to blackness.  Walk.  And walk some more.  Spend time turning things off.  Look and keep looking.  Find a silent place.  Can you?  Walk and walk some more.  Maybe in a circle – or maybe not.

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You try to be honest and try to be honest and try to be honest.  But how can you be who you want to be, if you’re honest all the time?

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To travel from moment to moment with an ever-present awareness of Karma, of cause and effect, of interrelatedness.  And then the moments which are unavoidable – in situations which are unpleasant or grating.  How to handle those?  With that awareness?

 

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You keep getting caught up on this idea of goodness (a sweater snagged on a bramble).  “This is good” or “that is good.”  In a universe that is exactly apportioned between “matter” and “anti-matter,” who are we to even worry about such things?  As Rumi noted: there is nothing in the world that is good for one person which isn’t bad for someone else.  Conservation of energy.  Zero sum game.  Infinity.

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You know the answer – you know it!  What you lack is the faith that you know it.  The faith that every moment you know it.

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If every single moment has something to teach you?  Shhhh . . . listen.  Learn.

 

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It doesn’t make sense.  None of it makes sense.  Even the deepest truths espoused by the most profound wisdom thinkers of all eras: they don’t make sense.  So what is to be done?

 

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Why is the premise that “compassion” and “love” are the basis of creation?  The ultimate reason?  What about the more obvious “desperation?”  Anxiety?  The unending violence of the universe?  Not “good.” 

(Fear – that’s why.)

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Only you know what’s right for you.  Only you.  So listen, trust and do it.

 

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You are the passenger, yes.  Of course.  You are also the driver. 

 

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It’s simple.  Far more so than Tai Chi or catechisms or symbol-filled books or the knitted brow of the wise.  And not only is it simple – it’s all around you!  Open your eyes.

 

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Don’t worry about what the payback is.  Just do the right thing.  And when you do the wrong thing (again), think about why you did the wrong thing.  And pay attention this time, for God’s sakes!

 

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Spend more time alone.  That way, you can’t offend anyone.

October 20, 2017

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Yip Harburg funding for La Bestia: Sweet Mother dance/theatre piece

I received a grant from the Yip Harburg Foundation to continue expanding my project, La Bestia: Sweet Mother, which uses a combination of ancient myth, poetry, music, a libretto and dance to explore one immigrant's tale, both in the context of today's political energy, and ancient human (and universal) yearnings and desperation.  This will be a full 40-minute dance/theatre piece, choreographed by a NY dance company (I'm reaching out at this moment to find someone to take on this exciting project).         "La Bestia: Sweet Mother" educates about immigration concerns from the point of view of one female immigrant, using musical dance/theatre as the vehicle. Searing vocal, musical and balletic beauty are set off against the painful story the piece tells. “La Bestia: Sweet Mother” is based in the idea that the sublime – combining beauty with psychic pain – is the strongest manner in which to affect an audience.  I also base my creative philosophy in that the heartfelt story sincerely told has a stronger positive effect on the audience, than an angry, oppositional or accusatory one.                                                                                     The project also is based in the belief that a variety of artistic forms, when woven seamlessly together, will go further in reaching the audience and educating them on a specfici issue.  In this case, the pain of the story of one young female immigrant, as she travels against all odds from Honduras, through Guatemala and Mexico and then into the Texas desert, unfolds against a backdrop of ethereal dance, watery cello and soaring vocals.  An engaging and disconcerting combination.                                               The name of the piece is taken from the series of freight trains which, in actuality, bring potential immigrants from the border with Guatemala through Mexico to the American border. As many as half a million Central American immigrants annually hop aboard La Bestia (“the beast”) on their journey to the United States. As there are no passenger railcars, migrants must ride atop the moving trains, facing physical dangers that range from amputation to death if they fall or are pushed. They are also subject to extortion and violence at the hands of the gangs and organized-crime groups that control the routes north.                                           This piece is told as a bedtime story, mimicking the sugary myths we ingest as children. The musical component, created by Desiree Miller (cello) and Becca Weiss (singer) underscores the libretto (by Tom Block) with virtuosity and a variety of styles. The piece will include Bessie-award winning choreographer Joya Powell, and three dancers from her Movement of the People Dance Company. Joya will create original choreography for this show. I have worked with Joya Powell and her dance company numerous times in the past.

La Bestia: Sweet Mother was originally developed as a one-act play as a LABA Fellow (2013-14, 14th Street Y Theater, NY), and then this one-act version was produced at Theater for the New City's "Dream Up Festival" (September 2014) and the Downtown Urban Theatre Festival at HERE Arts Center (May
2015). After these productions, I expanded the piece to a full-length multi-media piece, and this had readings at the Dramatists Guild Mary Rodgers Room (September 2016) and the Drama League (December 2016). The dance/theatre aspect of this project has never been produced.

The music was also recorded as a 40-minute, single-track CD. Colin McGuire, music reviewer for the Frederick Post (MD) noted: “. . . while it was recorded in New York’s East Village, you almost want to believe it was created somewhere within the depths of your own headphones — the whole thing simply feels that personal.”

 

October 17, 2017

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"Duck" reviewed in DC Metro Theatre Arts

Review: ‘Duck’ by Tom Block at the Highwood Theatre

by  on October 17, 2017

What difference does 1% make? In the case of Duck, a new play by Tom Block currently playing at the Highland Theatre in Silver Spring, 1% can be the difference between life and death.

 

Duck follows the internal struggle of Duck, a CIA statistician who earned that eponymous nickname because, under periods of great stress, he loses the ability to speak and instead quacks at people like a duck.

Over the course of the 60-minute one act, Duck wrestles with his involvement in two deaths. The first death – of a suspected Middle Eastern terrorist – was carried out after Duck determined the man was 60% likely to carry out an act of violence against the United States. (Duck later admits that he rounded up from 59%, not knowing that 60% was the threshold the CIA used to approve executions.) The second death is that of his father,  who, in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, had asked Duck to sign a right-to-die document that allowed the hospital to euthanize him when his disease became severe.

As we watch Duck unravel under the burden of his guilt, the central tenet of the play is clear: To what extent does Duck believe himself complicit in these deaths even though he did not carry them out with his own hands? And how can he come to terms with his role in these deaths?

The show is successfully framed through a series of flashbacks, during which Duck’s brother Crumb (James Nelson) acts as a sort of “ghost of Christmas past,” allowing Duck to revisit key moments in his past that have brought him to this point of crisis. Shaquille Stewart is convincing as the unhinged Duck as he tries to reconcile the fact that some consider him a hero and others a villain.

Clare Shaffer’s crisp and well-paced direction keep the play moving seamlessly and the lighting (E-Hui Woo) and sound design (Drew Moberley) add depth and intrigue to the show.

Playwright Tom Block, a visual artist who uses his own paintings to adorn the intimate black-box spaces where his shows take place, has written over 50 theatrical works. He is also the producer of the New York International Human Rights Art Festival. (In an interesting side note, Block is currently involved in a much-publicized dispute with Cardinal Timothy Dolan over the inclusion of two plays with gay and transgender themes in this year’s festival.) 

Duck raises interesting questions of universal relatability: We may think we are prepared to follow orders, but are we able to live with the consequences of those decisions?

 

 

October 16, 2017

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International Human Rights Art Festival @ the Culture Project

The International Human Rights Art Festival made quite a splash when the evening of performance was BANNED by His Eminence Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan from performing in the original space -- St. Mary's the Grand Catholic Church in NY's Lower East Side -- and was moved at the last minute to St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Brooklyn Heights.  Here is some of the press coverage!

NBC Live! (October 12, 2017): Catching Up with Kathleen Turner

NY Times (October 13, 2017): Festival Moves Event After Church Objects to Gay-Themed Content

Crains NY Business (October 13, 2017): Arts festival scrambling for space after archdiocese nixes LGBT performances

Broadway World (October 13, 2017): Catholic Church Refuses to Host International Human Rights Art Festival Event Featuring Kathleen Turner

Gay City News (October 14, 2017): Catholic Church Anti-LGBTQ Guns Still Firing on All Cylinders

Episcopal Cafe (October 14, 2017): Arts festival too hot for Catholics moves to Episcopal church

Playbill (October 14, 2017) Update: Festival Finds New Venue After Catholic Church Dropped Support Over LGBTQ Content

Broadway World (October 16, 2017): Photo Flash: Kathleen Turner Headlines International Human Rights Art Festival

Christian Post

NewNowNext

 

July 28, 2017

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Farid ud-Din Attar: The Conference of the Birds published in HowlRound

The third in my series of examining how specific mystical thinkers -- in this case, the 13th century Sufi mystic Attar and his mystical allegory "Conference of the Birds" -- was published in "HowlRound."  This brings to four the number of articles in this series:

Farid ud-Din Attar: The Conference of the Birds

This series explores the ideas of three mystical thinkers, and looks at how their philosophies can be applicable to theatrical work.

Farid ud-Din Attar (d. 1221 CE), born in Nishapur, Iran, was one of the most importantSufi poets. The son of a prosperous chemist, he was a pharmacist who personally attended to a very large number of customers. Like many Sufi thinkers, Attar eventually abandoned his day job and traveled widely on a spiritual pilgrimage, throughout the Arab world, South Asia, and along the Silk Road, as far away as Turkestan. During these travels, he met with Sufi leaders and studied their ideas. He then returned to his hometown to continue studying, writing, and promote Sufi thought.

Attar penned one of the most important and beautiful Sufi poems, his allegorical journey Conference of the Birds. In this piece, the birds of the world gather to attempt a voyage to see the “simorgh,” a mythical bird representing God. However, the vast majority of them—each individually representing a human fault that prevents people from realizing God-consciousness—die along the way, in one of the valleys. The trip to the end of time passes through seven horrifying vales:

  • The Valley of Quest
  • The Valley of Love
  • The Valley of Understanding
  • The Valley of Independence and Detachment
  • The Valley of Unity
  • The Valley of Astonishment and Bewilderment
  • The Valley of Deprivation and Death

According to Attar and the Sufis, spiritual attainment extinguishes the human ego, the sense of “I am.” Sufis assure that the individual self is but an illusion, and all truth resides in the universal “naught,” or nothingness at the heart of being. Realization of unity takes place through losing the individual sense of self in the divine ocean of naught, “seas that have no shores.” As Attar notes in his Conference of the Birds:

If you kill the self, the darkest night
will be illuminated with your light.
If you would flee from evil and its pain
swear never to repeat this “I” again!

This idea of killing the “self” provides a powerful and counterintuitive inspiration for a theatrical production. For theatre does not exist without conflict, but conflict is invariably imagined as taking place between two people—two “I’s” adrift (as Attar would assure) in the ignorance of self, fighting against each other to attain some kind of un-shareable goal or supremacy over the other.

 

With the conflict moved to within the protagonist’s head, the rest of the personages in the piece become twisted representations of the internal struggle of the hero.  

 

Applying this central mystical ideal of effacing the individual ego to theatre shifts all conflict into the head of the main character, as they wrestle with the “self’s squint-eyed” gaze: “part dog, part parasite, part infidel.”

This influences a production in profound ways.

First and most importantly, it changes the presentation of all but the main character. With the conflict moved to within the protagonist’s head, the rest of the personages in the piece become twisted representations of the internal struggle of the hero. In a sense, this is a far more realistic presentation of “reality” than the current theatrical aesthetic, in which each character is presented from an “objective,” omniscient point of view. In point of fact, each of us lives within a narcissistic bubble, experiencing and judging the world from our personal standpoint.

Attar’s point of view can influence language, set design, action, blocking—all aspects of the production, which become expressions of the protagonist’s struggle. For instance, each character might linguistically mimic the central character, speaking with a similar lilt, vocabulary, or nervous tic, blurring the line between interior and exterior experience.

Language might also be used in an opposite manner, with the interior character having a particular accent or vocabulary choice and all of the other characters sharing a different trait, thereby highlighting the struggle within the hero’s head. This difference in language—with the main character offset against the others—would throw the protagonist into relief against a backdrop of verbal similarity.

Costume and set designs might also be affected. These props would no longer represent the individual aspects of each character, but the way they were perceived through the scrim of the protagonist’s vision. Costumes might bleed into the absurd, as a seemingly normal lawyer was envisioned as terrifying, impotent, or perhaps as bland as beige. Hatred, love, anger, or another strong emotion toward other individuals in the play might all be represented by clothing choices. These would not be representative of each character’s personality, but represent the feelings of the protagonist, the only point of view that mattered.

Set design would also be affected. The stage would represent the inside of the main character’s mind, as they attempted to free themselves of their “self.” Spaces might seem enormous or tiny: the individual might be represented as adrift, or straddling a world they thought could be controlled. Color might bleed from the environment, turning all to white, to represent the nearing of the goal of the divine naught. Or the space might be presented in riotous colors, indicating an inability of the main character to achieve the stated goal.

It should be noted that the idea of setting the play within the main character’s head doesn’t necessarily have to lead toward spiritual maturity. This concept of presenting a world approaches our lived reality far closer than the standard method to which we are accustomed: with every character presented from some omnipotent point of view, with each enjoying an independent reality. We do not live like that. We live far more within Attar’s vision, than the contemporary theatrical zeitgeist.

This is but one small iota of inspiration one might take from Attar’s work. TheConference of the Birds is rich in symbolism, heightened language, metaphysical and spiritual ideas, bizarre stories, characters, and a plethora of other potential motivations. The beautiful book awaits your perusal.

 

July 20, 2017

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"Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Cost of Discipleship" published in HowlRound

My second in the series of three posts about applying specific mystical ideas to the theatre was just published in HowlRound.  This series explores the ideas of three mystical thinkers (Chuang Tzu, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Farid ad-Din Attar), and looks at how their philosophies can be applicable to theatrical work.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Cost of Discipleship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (d. 1945) was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian, and anti-Nazi dissident. After returning to Germany from the United States on the last scheduled steamer to cross the Atlantic, he joined the anti-Hitler underground and was arrested in April 1943. He was executed by hanging on April 9, 1945.

Bonhoeffer argued that individuals should not retreat from the world but act within it. His struggle offers a parallel to and guidance for how we should act, as American politics take a difficult and dark turn.

One of his more beautiful and timely ideas was his conception of “costly grace,” in The Cost of Discipleship:

We are fighting today for costly grace. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace without price! Grace without cost . . . the world finds a cheap covering for its sins.

While the idea of any sort of spiritual “grace” might seem antithetical to the wry, “realistic” worldview so often proposed in contemporary theatrical productions, it nonetheless resonates deeply with the world around us. A quick perusal of the morning news highlights how many elected leaders, sports figures, social mentors, and religious officials are indeed claiming the easy “grace” of words, while not working for the more difficult goal of genuine contrition and redemption.

Social leader after social leader behaves in a spiritually and often socially negative manner, says a few words of prayer, and accepts “grace” at no cost.

These plays demand costly grace through implicating the audience at the end of the play.

 So, how can the idea of “costly grace” based in deeply felt contrition, self-awareness, and painful personal change affect a theatrical production? Often, theatre pieces look for a “button”—a strong finish defined by a character’s redemption or realization, or simple closure at the end the play. In this case, the audience leaves the theatre with a sigh and a smile, experiencing the easy grace of having been entertained, but not challenged to question or ponder.

One manner of implementing a costlier grace would be to make the idea of closure come at a much higher price. That is to say, have an ending which implicates the audience in the creative process, forcing them to think out beyond the end of the play. For instance, the Broadway production Hand to God ended with just such a moment, the last line being: “The thing about a savior is you never know where to look. Might just be the place you saw the devil before.” Each individual in the audience is left to ponder where they look for the “devil,” where a “savior,” and how much distance they put between the two in their own lives.

Numerous other plays opt for the more difficult “costly grace” over the easy “button” of evil downfallen or love ascendant. Steven Karam’s The Humans leaves us with a question mark, as it follows the disintegration (and not reintegration) of a family; and even a historical play such as Skin of Our Teeth (Thornton Wilder, most recently seen at Theater for a New Audience in 2017) ends where it began, with Sabina addressing the audience and turning over the responsibility of continuing the action, or life, to them.

These plays demand costly grace through implicating the audience at the end of the play. Another manner is to thematically counterbalance a “costly grace” against “easy grace,” by showing two characters or situations which evince both ideas. One of the great mysteries of life is why bad things happen to good people, and vice versa.

This would be a beautiful, confusing, and thought provoking dynamic—setting up someone who utilizes “easy” grace to get ahead, against another person who yearns for “costly” grace, only to find spiritual victory and social and perhaps emotional defeat.

This plot twist might affect many aspects of a production. For instance, a costume designer might dress the anti-hero in beautiful or light colored clothing, while the protagonist—in terms of holding out for costly grace—might be in ill-fitting, dark, or frayed garb. A lighting designer might use lighter yellow and rose hues for “easy” character, while darker or more ominous lighting might indicate our genuine protagonist. And language might be reversed, as well, with the more spiritually yearning character using a degraded, or perhaps even vile language, while the one going for easy grace might be articulate, mellifluous, and convincing.

These confusing elements would not only highlight the difference between the social acceptability of an “easy” grace, but would add an element of “cost” for the audience, as they attempted to unpack all of the confusion and figure out how they reacted to the obvious messaging, and to the underlying, hidden themes.

Another beautiful statement from The Cost of Discipleship might influence the creation of a theatre piece: “The disciples are strangers in the world, unwelcome guests, and disturbers of the peace. No wonder the world rejects them!”

This is a challenging sentiment, which immediately separates a protagonist from the other characters in a play, and perhaps from the world presented. It’s not easy, as it is important in a production that the characters have a kernel of something sympathetic, so the audience remains engaged with their struggles. But when the main character is by necessity a “stranger in the world,” a risk of presenting a black and white tableau emerges.

But what true artist retreats from such a challenge? The idea of setting off a character against the rest of the personages, as well as (perhaps) the central belief system of the play offers fodder for much conflict, thought-provoking dialogue, and action. For instance, in my play Sub-Basement, the wise men were homeless, while the “respectable” figures held important jobs in law enforcement, yet weren’t able to help the main character find her true purpose.

Other devices than character flipping might be utilized. Different soundscapes underscoring the idea of being in the “right,” yet unacknowledged; lighting which highlights the difference between characters in the majority, and the one alone representing morality, or costume choices nodding at this distinction could help drive the designers’ ideas. You can see in the photo above that the repositories of knowledge were dressed in tatters.

Additionally, dialogue might be tweaked, with the “moral” character having a different speech pattern—accent, tone of voice, tempo, or vocabulary—perhaps more grounded than the other figures, offering an anchor in a world of airy, heightened language. This would denote they were “grounded” in a spiritual reality, while generally-accepted social norms were simply poetry, signifying nothing more than a person’s cleverness, not wisdom or intelligence.

Through studying the ideas of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, learning a bit about his courage and, at times, contradictions in his life and thought, many specific ideas for a theatrical production might emerge which can offer novel, thought-provoking, and spiritually nourishing impetus for writing, designing, and producing a play.

Suggested reading:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Act and Being

 

June 1, 2017

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My article "Ramming Morality Into Our Economic System the John Ruskin Way" published

Ramming Morality Into Our Economic System the John Ruskin Way

Let’s forget about Trump for a moment.

After all, as fun and exciting and different as his presidency is proving to be, he will not – in the end – change the course of human events.  Even less so, of the economic pressures that aggrieve and threaten to crush us.  Where Trump is a pimple on the butt of American history, our ongoing economic anarchy is a blistering, cancerous abscess affecting the fate of all of people.

I picked up a book the other day which threw the greed, inequality, lawlessness, and inhumanity of our Western capitalist system into stark relief.  And given that this series of essays was written more than 150 years ago, at the infancy of the Industrial Revolution, I found it both prescient and deeply disturbing.

It diagnosed the creeping illness of the economic system of mid-19th century England, which so closely parallels our own, in 21st-century America.  The only difference being that the ability for “economical science” (as the author called it) to wreak havoc on society and individuals has grown exponentially, keeping time with our frantic technological progress.

More than that, however, the slim pamphlet provides a potential palliative for this social illness.

I’m talking about an 1860 series of four essays, “Unto this Last,” by writer and philosopher John Ruskin.  Ruskin set out to show how economic health concerns far more than the acquisition of “all useful and agreeable objects which possess exchangeable value” (Ruskin quoting John Stuart Mill).  He laid out quite clearly that true economical well-being involves evaluating the totality of society, not just the amount of gold distributed among the fewest number of people (as seemed to define – and continues to delineate – the true state of “wealthy” nations).  In his view, “just or economical exchange…is simply [that wherein there is] advantage on both sides [and] whatever advantage there is on either side…should be thoroughly known to all concerned. All attempt at concealment implies some practice of the opposite.”  He also chafed at the idea that people with different interests (for instance, labor versus capital, or client versus producer, etc.) must “necessarily regard each other with hostility, and use violence or cunning to obtain the advantage.”

Obviously, this kind of transparency and fairness runs directly contrary to what is considered “sound” business practice.  As many current chairmen of publicly held corporations would surely note, their obligation is to their shareholders, not to consumers, to the health of the environment or nation, or even their own workers.  Isn’t the idea of having an economic exchange which is of “advantage on both sides” not only absurd, but antithetical to good business practice?

It’s a zero sum game, man!  There are winners and losers in life – and we want to be on the side of the winners!

This dynamic of greed and self-justification stretches back to the beginnings of capitalism, often dated by historians to fourteenth-century England.  As Ruskin argued, those in power “never professed, nor profess, to take advantages of a general nature into consideration.”  Instead, they believe they are simply experts at “the science of getting rich…Every man of business knows by experience how money is made, and how it is lost,” they’d argue.

Ruskin has an easy reply to this line of reasoning – one that all progressives should keep handy when arguing economic theory with the smarmy and self-certain advocates of economic anarchy (“deregulate the banks!” “deregulate the corporations!” “eviscerate environmental protections!” “never, ever raise the minimum wage!,” etc.):

The circulation of wealth in a nation resembles that of the blood in the natural body. There is one quickness of the current which comes of cheerful emotion or wholesome exercise; and another which comes of shame or of fever. There is a flush of the body which is full of warmth and life; and another which will pass into putrefaction.

As diseased local determination of the blood involves depression of the general health of the system, all morbid local action of riches will be found ultimately to involve a weakening of the resources of the body politic.

And so it is: as the inequality of wealth accretes (as it certainly has since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, he whose name graces an airport, a federal building and perhaps, some day, the dime), the health of the nation, as well as the environment upon which the nation sits and depends, weakens.  And so too, if we can judge by the growing anti-science, anti-truth legions collecting in our public square, does the mental acumen of the polis.

So what is one to do?

One of the hallmarks of my belief in activist social theories is that they be applicable, and lead to quantifiable, positive social change.  We must move beyond simply expressing opposition to current political and social energies, to devising specific manners of combatting them.  We must develop, as Hannah Arendt called them, “clumsy theories” – theories which can actually be implemented.

Ruskin’s ideas show a way forward in the realm of the 21st-century global economy.  And although I believe he would support a universal basic income, universal health care and access to housing for all, he states no such thing, and certainly is no proponent of communism or socialism.

I feel it is his acceptance of capitalism as the economic structure which makes his ideas more powerful.  He is not going against what most people in our society (and certainly the older monied class, though not always today’s youth) accept as the “best” way for the economy to work.  Rather, he is tweaking, infiltrating and massaging it to make it work for a far greater portion of the population.  And in the best of cases, for the entire society.

Ruskin reconsidered the manner in which we think about the most basic aspects of a healthy society.  For instance, he noted: “The vital question, for individual and for nation, is, never ‘how much do they make?’ but ‘to what purpose do they spend?’”  Today, 21st-century “educated consumers” – all of those purchasing organic and fair-trade goods, buying local and at farmer’s markets, examining labels to make certain they weren’t made in far-away sweatshops, staying away from Walmart, Target and other multi-national corporations while paying a little bit extra to support the locally owned store or individual market – are living by Ruskin’s code.

Doing so does cost a little bit more, and given that reality and many workers’ low pay, we also need to think in terms of another movement gathering steam, one that Ruskin would heartily endorse: the Fight for $15.  For Ruskin made it very clear that the price of labor should not be set by the anarchy of the marketplace and desperation of the worker.  A fair and living wage should be paid to all, he argued:

The abstract idea, then, of just or due wages, as respects the laborer, is that they will consist in a sum of money which will at any time procure for him at least as much labor as he has given, rather more than less. And this equity or justice of payment is, observe, wholly independent of any reference to the number of men who are willing to do the work.

This idea of “procuring at least as much labor as he has given” translates into an equitable exchange in which workers are paid what they’re truly worth, not what business owners say they are.  We definitely see this idea in force now, as over the past couple of years, the ideal of a $15/hour minimum wage has been gathering steam.  Low-wage earners in many cities and states can now take home pay more in line with their time expenditure, and thus have greater purchasing power.

Finally, we need to follow Ruskin’s lead and center honesty in our economic thinking.  Currently, the idea of “honesty” in commerce runs contrary to our economic model.  Our economy is built on lying to consumers, usually obliquely through advertising messaging, but sometimes through overbilling, frank misstating of a product’s benefits, and outright fraud, such as Wells Fargo Bank’s practice of opening expensive bank accounts without informing people of their fees.  But it doesn’t have to be that way; as Ruskin said:

The acquisition of [true] wealth is finally possible only under certain moral conditions of society, of which quite the first was a belief in the existence and even, for practical purposes, in the attainability of honesty…There is no Wealth but Life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.

Ruskin’s ideas are hardly revolutionary.  He does not advocate for the cessation of wealth accrual, or the destruction of the capitalist system.  He only advocates for ramming a moral lodestar into the center of the system.  There would still be labor and capital – but capital would treat labor with humanity, kindness, fairness and honesty.  Money could still be won, but it would no longer be the “god” it has risen to in our pagan economic system; it would be simply a byproduct of hard work and good ideas, not malfeasance, cleverness and trickery.  And when gobs of money were won, the “winner” would treat all the laborers in their orbit with fairness and honesty, as well as do their best to protect the values of respect, health and morality.

Unto this Last thus holds much wisdom for today’s progressive economic and social thinker.  The kind of tweaks, infiltrations, and moral compass Ruskin proposes – if advocated by enough people through specific legislative, legal and economic proposals – might actually begin to create the kind of practical utopia he envisioned.  Many such ideas – a universal basic income, access to higher education for all, health care as a human right, etc. – are already percolating in our society.  In some cases, like a living wage, social pressure has driven legislative action and these ideas are actually beginning to be implemented through legislation.

Now we just need more of that!