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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.


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.


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


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


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


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


“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?



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.



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



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).


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?



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



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.


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.


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. 


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.


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



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.


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.


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



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


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



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


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.



“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?


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 . . .


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. 


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.” 



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



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.”



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.


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.



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


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



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



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



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



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


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



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.


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



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.


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?


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?



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.


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.


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



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?



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.)


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



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



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.



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!



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



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!


May 15, 2017

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International Human Rights Art Festival comes to the Wild Project (NY) in '18!

Announcing the 2018 International Human Rights Art Festival: December 10-16, 2018 at Wild Project, coincinding with International Human Rights Day.  In the meantime, we'll be running a series of events throughout this year and next.  

May 11, 2017

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Chuang Tzu: Mysticism of the Absurd published in HowlRound

Chuang Tzu: Mysticism of the Absurd

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

New theatrical works can take their inspiration from many arenas. Recently, much theatre has been based in specific contemporary events, using the stage to raise awareness of social and political issues. Plays such as Exonerated (Culture Project, 2003, dealing with the death penalty); Next Fall (Helen Hayes Theater, 2010, exploring faith in contemporary America); The Gabriels, Election Year in the Life of One Family(Public Theater, 2016, about electoral politics), The Humans (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 2016, a slice of life of a “normal” American family) and many others treat the poetry of the present, often exhibiting a specific political point of view.

But the energies explored in these performances, though situated in the present, are timeless. We may not like to admit it, but we humans haven’t really changed that much in temperament or spiritual yearning in the past five millennia or so. The most positive of these eternal energies is represented by the human mystical impulse: the drive to empty oneself of personal desire, to be replaced with a total appreciation for the unity of all seemingly disparate aspects of our universe. As Chuang Tzu (d. 287 B.C.E.) noted: “Great knowledge sees all in one;
 small knowledge breaks down one into the many.”

Within theatrical performances, timeless mystical thought can be utilized to expand contemporary narratives, deepen the meaning of current concerns, and connect them to the enduring issues that humanity has been struggling with since the beginning of our shared journey.

In this and later posts, I will explore the ideas of three mystical thinkers from different eras and cultures, and look at how they might be translated onto the living stage. Through using their concepts to inspire language, theatrical space, time passage, set design, and even costumes, a new dimension can be added to productions.


Within theatrical performances, timeless mystical thought can be utilized to expand contemporary narratives, deepen the meaning of current concerns, and connect them to the enduring issues that humanity has been struggling with since the beginning of our shared journey.  


Chuang Tzu was a Taoist philosopher who lived during the fourth century B.C.E. He developed a philosophy of skepticism generously ladled with humor and absurdity. His ideas can provide inspiration for theatrical interpretation, including spiritual depth, subtle humor, and strange linguistic and performative juxtapositions.

One recurring theme in Chuang Tzu’s work is the importance of uselessness: that sometimes just being is more important than being useful for something else. This story illustrates the idea:

There were three friends discussing life.

One said:
 "Can men live together and know nothing of it?
Work together and produce nothing?

Can they fly around in space 
and forget to exist?

World without end?"

The three friends looked at each other and burst out laughing.

They had no explanation.
Thus they were better friends than before.

In our culture, these men would be called lazy good-for-nothings (or worse), have all state aid cut off, and be forced to live by begging in the streets, treated as outcasts. However, perhaps there is a wisdom to their madness—and something which might stretch a theatrical exploration of contemporary issues.

First of all, language construction or situational staging could show two people sharing a moment—absurd, incomprehensible, or even just plain contradictory (“Can they fly around in space
and forget to exist”)—yet which brings them together. This could help define a relationship without explaining it.

Additionally, taking the cues from this idea (the majesty of uselessness), a circular conception of time and activities might replace the linear. In Chuang Tzu’s ideal, going in circles is no different than taking a linear path from point “A” to point “B.” In fact, it might even have more merit. This idea could be translated into a timescape for the play’s action: the production might begin at a specific point in time, meander about into the future, back into the past, and then terminate in the present, where it began.

It might also influence set design, where any setting from a few black-box cubes to an elaborate visual-scape could be staged in such a manner as to represent the labyrinth of uselessness, the circular nature of yearning, the pointlessness of desire. How could “acceptance” and “the purposefulness of uselessness” translate onto the stage? In as many manners as there are stage designers, each bringing their personal vision to this novel and bizarre mystical idea.

Another short passage from Chuang Tzu’s thought offers further impetus for creative theatremaking:

What is meant by a "true person"?

The true people of old were not afraid
When they stood alone in their views.

No great exploits. No plans.

If they failed, no sorrow.

No self-congratulation in success.

Here, Chuang Tzu touches on a central mystical idea: equanimity. In this concept, a person is completely unfazed by either praise or condemnation. Their internal sense of self is unchanged in either case.

Again, this ideal runs contrary to our contemporary cult of celebrity, media, and putative fame. The idea of being completely untouched by what other people think is not just contrary, it’s anathema. But it is a central spiritual ideal, and by using it to inspire theatrical presentations, an important dynamic between contemporary culture and spiritual history can be established. This view might influence costume design, for instance, by having the hero or protagonist of the piece represented in shabby clothing, or by a person in homeless garb.

Dialogue might take its cue here, making the spiritually or morally stronger character far less verbose, and perhaps even linguistically weaker, though in actions stronger than other, more malicious (and verbally mellifluous) characters. Set design, props—the weaker having the more beautiful pocket watch, for instance—even soundscape could help to elucidate the sense of a character’s rectitude, as one who “if they failed, [feels] no sorrow and [experiences] no self-congratulation in success” (Chaung Tzu: above). A soundscape for a single hero which veered from the beautiful to the grating, for instance, or consisted only of street sounds or might simply be represented by the buzz of a fluorescent light. Something which represents the timeless, the unadorned, the uncaring—but the deeply Real.

Mystical ideas have much to teach us about contemporary stagecraft. And Chuang Tzu, dead now for more than 2300 years, can inform, inspire, and add depth to a theatrical performance. A playwright, director, and production team might use the ancient sage’s wisdom to expand the meaning of their piece, as well as subtly tie it into more than five thousand years of human creative yearning.




March 28, 2017

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Theater is Easy review of Sub Basement

The theatre review site Theater is Easy wrote a beautiful review of Sub-Basement, including the following:

Sub-Basement is a quirky, comedic odyssey that expands from the streets of New York to the inner workings of its characters’ minds.


Sub-Basement is great for anyone looking for something a little less linear and a lot more off-beat than the more common theatrical fare. Tom Block engages with some lofty themes and mind-bending questions in this comedic epic set in a slightly more surreal version of today’s New York City. 


 Sub-Basement is a play that will not only make you think, but give you something beautiful to see as you do. It is, among many other things, an intriguing step into the surreal.

Check out the full review in the review section of my website!

March 13, 2017

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Mysticism in the Theatre: What’s Needed Right Now published in HowlRound

My first article on mysticism in the theater -- how to apply mystical ideas and language to the stage -- was published in HowlRound just after the Festival.  This piece will be followed by three more, concentrating on specific thinkers (Chuang Tzu, 4th century B.C.E.; Attar, 13th century C.E. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer 20th century C.E.) and how to apply their ideas and language to a specific theatrical production.  Here is the first, oveview piece:

Mysticism in the Theatre: What’s Needed Right Now

Mysticism represents the energy which drives, as well as unites all traditional spiritual paths. Mysticism characterizes the singular spiritual yearning at the heart of being. More importantly, mysticism represents the place where all sacred paths are in agreement: it denotes the human religion, shared by all.

As the great thirteenth century Sufi (Islamic) saint Rumi noted:

Though the words of the great saints appear in a hundred different forms, since God is one and the Way is one, how can their words be different? Though their teachings appear to contradict, their meaning is one. Separation exists in their outward form only; in inner purpose they all agree.

British philosopher Walter Stace proposed two aspects of mysticism that were shared across all cultures, religions, time periods, and social conditions. One defined an experience that “looks outward through the senses” to apprehend the Oneness of all through the multiplicity of the world, comprehending this unity as the consciousness of the world.

A second facet comprised an inward looking experience in which an “emptying out” by a person of all experiential content and phenomenological qualities, including concepts, thoughts, sense perception and sensuous images, leads to a “pure” wakeful consciousness, through meditation or other mental exercises.

As we head into a more difficult and divisive period in American political and social history, a reinvigoration of these ideas represents a much-needed remedy. The energy, ideas, and impetuses provided by mysticism can inspire theatre artists and inform theatrical productions in specific ways, offering a timeless healing energy to the social illness that has burst like an abscess into American culture.

Historically, playwrights have utilized mystical ideals to underpin their narratives, as well as stretch the meaning and intent of their work. Of course, a play like Waiting for Godot (Samuel Beckett), immediately comes to mind, as it takes place in the liminal space of mystical time (where eternity and the temporal meet).

We also find specific mystical references. One example comes from Shakespeare’s King Lear, where the bard presents a world where Purgatory exists, but not the hereafter. Purgatory is here and now. “I am bound/ Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears/ Do scald like molten lead . . .” This tracks the mystical concept that physical life is the greatest veil between humanity and the Real—an idea that appears in all three Abrahamic faiths, as well as Buddhism, Hinduism and other religious paths.

Mystical thought is not currently an important aspect of our social, political, or even artistic conversations. It is often considered irrelevant and even anachronistic in our era: something contrary to the cult of the individual, the yearning after fame and fortune, and the capitalistic anarchy that defines contemporary society. But by reinvigorating mystical ideas through their insertion into living theatre, both mysticism and theatre can become central to a desperately needed social renewal—healing wounds, crossing social divides and helping to suture the American society back together.


Most, if not all, theatre artists feel a strong spiritual impetus to create their work. They feel instinctually drawn to use their craft to raise awareness of social and political issues, to influence the culture around them with their art and to better society through their plays.  


There are many specific manners in which these ideas can play an important role in theatrical productions. I will outline three of them below. Just as important, at the end of the article, I will include a number of mystical texts from all time periods and many paths, which might offer language, methods, and concepts to influence theatrical writing, lighting, stagecraft, acting, and productions in general.


Most, if not all, theatre artists feel a strong spiritual impetus to create their work. They feel instinctually drawn to use their craft to raise awareness of social and political issues, to influence the culture around them with their art and to better society through their plays.

However, many of these same socially-driven artists do not consider themselves "religious" per se—they do not draw their inspiration from a particular path or set of religious prescriptions. Therefore, at times, they must draw from the well of social contact, of working with like-minded people or of simply “knowing” they are doing the right thing, though unsure from where this power within them arises.

Mystical thinking can offer a spiritual foundation for these creators, outside of the narrow halls of the religious edifice. Far from demanding, cajoling, asserting, and threatening—as it sometimes seems that religions do—mystical energy is as soft and yielding as water. Yet, as the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu noted: “For dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it.”

For theatre artists, who feel driven to create for the purpose of inspiring positive social change, the gentle wisdom of great and open-minded thinkers can offer a strong foundation from which to work, while not demanding, exhorting or punishing if certain metrics are not met. What’s more, as Lao Tzu assures, this quiet energy is the exact thing needed to dissolve nagging spiritual questions within the theatre artist, and social walls between people without.

To center one’s work in these ideas, I suggest reading mystical texts, sharing the ideas, gathering with like-minded friends and colleagues to discuss their relevance to the theatre and to society, and generally making the mystical point of view present in one’s life and worldview.

Mystics have been thinking about, dealing with and proposing solutions for the very same social problems (greed, will to power, charity/lack of charity, the demonization of the “other,” etc.) for at least 5,000 years. Their ideas can provide a wealth of material, strategies and even specific language which can influence the creation of theatrical work. These ideas might be woven into plays, dropped into the mouths of characters, illuminating contemporary concerns with timeless wisdom.

The precedence for this infiltration into theatrical productions lies in the history of mysticism itself. In medieval times, liturgical language was embedded into Sufi (Islamic) and Kabbalistic (Jewish) poetry, as a manner of providing little turbines of mystical power. This was called shibbutz, or “inlay,” and originated with medieval Sufi poets using Qu’ranic lines as their spiritual ornament. Later, Jewish mystics borrowed the idea, utilizing Biblical quotes to enliven their mystical poetry.

Theatre artists might borrow from these great thinkers, reading and then inserting the words or point of view of anyone from Lao Tzu to Nelson Mandela, to Gandhi, to theBaghavad Gita into their plays, thereby reinvigorating the mystical concepts in a contemporary milieu. These “inlays” might also add a timeless quality to contemporary social and political problems, situating them more clearly in the stream of human history, instead of treating them as concerns unique to our era. It is important to remember that Donald J. Trump (for instance) is hardly a novel social concern. He represents a political energy as old as bread or beer.

For instance, in my play Sub-Basement (IRT Theater, March 24–April 15, 2017), I lace specific mystical quotes through the text, to highlight the spiritual search of the main character as she struggles, halfway between poetry and the law. For instance, Arnaud, a homeless man, states, concerning his fate as an older gentleman with no means, that he is not afraid of dying: “Death isn’t the end, after all. Just the doorway by which the lover rejoins the beloved,” a direct Rumi quote. His friend responds: “I told you not to read that stuff!” And a bit further along, as the “teaching” of the main character Adrienne devolves into the chaos of her internal state, Arnaud (the designated mystical adept) quotes Rumi again: “Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment,” to which our beleaguered hero asks why, if he is claiming to offer answers, he just keeps confusing things? He responds with the one of the most important mystical kernels: “It means that sometimes answers lie buried in confusion. In fact, sometimes confusion is the answer.”

These “inlays” also help theatre artists build their projects into spiritual engines, providing impetus for the audience to think in unusual ways as they work to positively influence the world around us. The infiltration into the general public takes place as the words and ideas are woven into the plays, and the ideas are disseminated to audiences.

Going beyond inspiration and “inlay,” numerous other manners of relating mystical concepts to building theatrical pieces can be explored. Mystical impetus for underlying narrative themes or points of view; for considering set building or sound scores; for acting choices; for discovering novel creative motivations, and numerous other ideas emerge from a consideration of mystical writings and views.

At this point, however, it is vital to point out that I am not proposing a clear and direct expression of these concepts. I do not envision having an actor move downstage and, in a direct address, implore: “As the great Sufi Saint Rumi so presciently queried, ‘can’t we all just get along?!’”

Far from this literal presentation, shibbutz involves subtlety, dexterity, and gentleness in presentation. The audience, in my opinion, should not be able to flag when they are being approached with mystical energy or even quotes. These should be woven seamlessly into the theatrical presentation, leaving their residue in the memory and subconscious of the audience, as opposed to pounding them over the head with a (metaphorical) two-by-four.

Given this, however, there are numerous approaches by which this mystical inlay might be pursued. As noted, the clearest method is in language use. For instance, in a play of mine (La Bestia: Sweet Mother), I use many mystical quotes, borrowed verbatim from the sources. However, far from being delivered directly and with earnest intent, I twist them in such a way as to cause the audience to consider them more deeply.

These words are put into the mouth of a CIA agent to justify her work in killing what we know to be an innocent woman, a Syrian freedom fighter. By putting quotes from theBaghavad Gita, Rumi, and others into her mouth as justifications for her “vital” work, it shows not only how language can be twisted, but also how these ideals can become subsumed in negative, divisive energy. The implicit message is that these ideals must be considered and implemented in the manner in which they were intended: as doorways into the spirit and toward the appreciation of sameness.

Mystical ideals might also influence set design. Although we’ve all sat in a theatre and seen, as the curtain rises, a perfect representation of the inside of a Starbucks Coffee Shop (down to the little red straws!), mystical impetus would ask us to think a bit more deeply about issues of metaphor, the subconscious, and the quiet messages of the spirit emanating from within.

There is much rich visual symbolism threaded through mystical writings, which might inspire set design to move toward the liminal or interior spiritual spaces, as opposed to a twenty-first century coffee shop. A set designer might consider using the softness of materials to create a welcoming space; a water-theme to echo Lao Tzu’s admonition that “for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it” or unusual colors (all red, gold, or white for instance) to bring the audience out of the banal and into the world of essence.

I create liminal spaces through the use of my paintings on set. As a longtime visual artist (and playwright), I am able to pair paintings with subject matter to add psychological and spiritual depth to the set design, as well as expand the subtext of the characters. This is another option: to work with a visual artist to help build a novel, world-bending vision of the tableau of the play. These various and strange visual presentations can remove the audience from the banal world of a Starbucks or perfectly rendered hotel room, and indicate that the messaging involved takes place on a different, and deeper plane.

The same can be said of the soundscape, of course. While I certainly appreciate hearing the exact sounds of the street, a period streetcar, or the interior of a bar (“I know which one that is!”), I feel that sound—like the set, language, and all aspects of the play—should help remove the audience from the banal to consider deeper issues, and how they can affect our interactions.

Mystical and spiritual ideals…offer a vital and fresh manner of reconceiving possibility, approaching the audience beyond their conscious thought.  

Every playwright and design team will define their own manner of doing this. Personally, I like to work with live music, and specifically the cello. A good cellist can not only interpret and interact with the language and actors, but also deepen the tone of the piece’s meaning.

Mystical and spiritual ideals are “timeless” because they relate in a very specific, though different manner to every time and place in human history. Although they are not much considered in today’s theatre world, or any other facet of society (not even religion!), they offer a vital and fresh manner of reconceiving possibility, approaching the audience beyond their conscious thought.

A Sufi saying holds: “Words spoken from the mouth will never get past the ears. Words spoken from the heart, enter the heart.” Now more than ever, our task is clear: theatre artists must speak from the heart, so our audiences can “hear” with the most important sense organ we have: the heart.

Suggested Reading List:

Aurelius, Marcus: Meditations

Baghavad Gita

Berry, Wendell: Standing by Words

Black Elk: Black Elk Speaks

Buber, Martin: Tales of the Hasidim

Buddha: The Dhammapada

Chuang Tzu: Genius of the Absurd

Eckhart, Meister: Selected Writings

Gandhi: All Men are Brothers

Heschel, Abraham Joshua: God in Search of Man

Huxley, Aldous: The Perennial Philosophy

Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching

Mechthild of Magdeburg: The Flowing Light of Divinity

Merton, Thomas: Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Rabi’a: Rabi'a the Female Mystic and Her Fellow-Saints in Islam

Rumi: Rumi and Me (William Chittick, translator)

Sheikh Sa’adi: The Rose Garden

Sogyal Rinpoche: Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

Weil, Simone: Waiting on God

Yeshe Tsogyel: The Secret Life and Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel


December 3, 2016

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Prophetic Activist Art class at the School of Making Thinking

The School of Making Thinking (at the Abrons Art Center in the Lower East Side, NYC) will be hosting my Prophetic Activist Art class, running on Tuesday evenings from February 28 - March 2.    The Prophetic Activist Art class is a laboratory for activist artists and their projects.  The course will work with up to 12 activist artists who would like to build their projects during the semester-long seminar, basing their work Tom Block's manifesto/handbook of art activism: Prophetic Activist Art: Handbook for a Spiritual Revolution  (Centre for Human Ecology, Scotland, 2014).  Mr. Block ( will be running the seminar.

This model utilizes art to infiltrate and co-opt political, business and social structures to inspire specific and quantifiable social change.  Prophetic Activism is based on the idea that true social transformation must come from within societal pillars, and the best manner of implementing change is to influence these power centers.

The eight session seminar will introduce artists to the specific ideas of the model, including co-opting political, business and social energy; partnering with non-profit groups; making liaisons with other artists; utilizing unusual exhibition and outreach methods; "Machiavellian" activism; how to build a project from inception through completion; how to imagine and successfully attain quantifiable activist goals and other specific aspects of a Prophetic Activist Art intervention.

August 24, 2016

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My Essay published: "War in the Name of God: Christianity Is No Less Addicted Than Any Other Religion"

My latest essay on war, religion and statecracft was published in the 34Justice blog:

n a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Gary Gutting (a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame) argued concerning what some call “radical Islamic terrorism:”

Islam has not yet tamed, to the extent that Christianity has, the danger implicit in any religion that claims to be God’s own truth.  To put it bluntly, Islam as a whole has not made the concessions to secular values that Christianity has.

This Western-centric, racist and arrogant attitude from the spiritually “advanced” Christian religion toward the unreformed and medieval Islamic one is all too typical. As I write this, Christian nations (mostly our own) rain bombs down from drones onto weddings, schools and other secular places and events in Islamic lands.  The difference between our bombs and their bombs, however, is (according to the narrative) massive: we drop our payloads in the name of peace and with a great sadness that they force us to, while they joyfully blow themselves up in evil acts of anarchy and murder.

At least Christian killers value their own lives!

One needn’t dig too deeply into the American story, or psyche, to discover specific examples of our country’s Orwellian “war is peace” paradigm, all tightly supported by the loving vessel of American Christianity.

Christian language and imagery are explicit in the American call to arms.  America’s wars have almost always been – and continue to be – spiritual/religious affairs in which young men and women are called to sacrifice themselves for the Christian God.  As was noted in an article in Newsweek:

In America, God and war have a particular kinship: evoking God in the midst of mass killing is inspirational…Divine sanction has been used to give meaning to the Constitution’s promise of equality, as well as to license genocide…This impulse to blend God and war owes much to the American temperament: Americans have always feared one (today, nine out of ten call themselves believers) and loved the other (the United States has fought in dozens of armed conflicts in the nation’s two-and-a-third centuries).  Not a few old warriors have admitted to thrilling to the words of “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

If you’re not convinced that this defines a current American attitude, consider the United States’ response to “Islamic terrorism” (the American existential threat du jour).  “In the weeks after the September [11, 2001] attacks,” Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Christopher Hedges observed, “communities gathered for vigils and worship services.  The enterprise of the state became imbued with a religious aura…The state, and the institutions of state, became for many, the center of worship.”

On the first anniversary of the attacks, seven months before the 2003 incursion into Iraq, President Bush said: “Our cause is even larger than our country.  Ours is the course of human dignity, freedom guided by conscience grounded by peace.  This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind.”  As the British newspaper The Guardianreported:

George Bush has claimed he was on a mission from God when he launched the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Nabil Shaath, Palestinian foreign minister said: “President Bush said to all of us: ‘I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, “George, go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan.” And I did. And then God would tell me, “George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.” And I did.’”

Bush’s politics of war were always framed for the public in a religious manner.  As Anglican Priest Jeremy Young noted, for example, Bush suggested in his 2003 State of the Union address “that America is Christ and that its role is to save the world.”  However, it is true that Bush hasn’t been president for nearly a decade, so it might be argued that now, finally, America has moved past the conflation of Jesus’s will and our military incursions.

Would that it were so.  President Obama, winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, has continued the starry-eyed vision of an American Christ of the sword.  Professor Robert H. Nelson, writing for the mainstream PBS website, notes that Obama, too, has infused religious imagery into his speeches.  And Obama has buttressed this faith with bombs.  According to Politifact, by the spring of 2016, Obama had ordered 500 drone strikes in Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen (as opposed to 60 by President Bush); 1000 drone strikes in Afghanistan in 2014 alone; and a smattering of others in Syria, Libya, Iraq and other far-off, generally Muslim locales.  The Huffington Post noted that “nearly 90% of people killed in recent drone strikes were not the target,” allowing Obama’s scattershot Christian murders to be assured of killing Muslims, though rarely the “correct” ones.  Far from shying away from these actions, our Christian leader has bragged about it: “There isn’t a president who’s taken more terrorists off the field than me, over the last seven and a half years,” he puffed in an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace in April 2016.

None of that is to say that American Christians are in any way different or worse than contemporary practitioners of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, or even Buddhism.  It is simply the case that Christianity is no better, no more evolved, no more peaceful than any of the world’s religions – all of which (even Buddhism) are steeped within a tradition of sacred violence, and are currently involved in wars of choice in the name of God.  (While I am well aware that many will balk at the idea that Buddhism, too, is as bloodthirsty as the other world’s religions – gasp! – Buddhist practitioner Brian Daizen Victoria notes in his book Zen at War that “warfare and killing are described as manifestations of Buddhist compassion” and Buddhists are, in fact, committing violence today.)  All faiths utilize war-like language and imagery to describe matters of the spirit and exhort followers to religious catharsis through violence.  Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer stated in his bookIs Religion Killing Us: “Religiously justified violence is first and foremost a problem of ‘sacred’ texts and not a problem of misinterpretation of those texts.”  Since virtually all major religions have embedded within them violent images of God, people can selectively recall these texts and extract from them divine support for war, creating the foundation for what Nelson-Pallmeyer terms the “violence of God tradition.”

One central reason that contemporary leaders have such a willing audience when representing war as religiously sanctioned – and, in many cases, even a spiritual obligation – is the extensive history of uniting physical war and the spiritual pathwithin the sacred teachings of virtually all creeds.  Though much of the religious language was undoubtedly meant as metaphor, the human mind runs quickly downhill to the literal, leaving reams of imagery and injunctions for leaders to utilize when discussing military campaigns within the secular culture, and influencing the minds of potential warriors.

American politicians, the media and even mainstream entertainers – like those of all other cultures and religions – do everything in their power to play up the similarities between the religious path and war, all for the poorly obscured purpose of exploiting human pawns to protect their own earthly power or to just simply make a buck (e.g., Boeing, General Electric, Northrup Grumman et al.).  Perhaps, to some extent, they might even believe their own words, especially if they themselves have fought in a war and come out more or less whole.  In this case they will be forced to trust in the lie of a mystical war, if only to help justify the horrors they themselves witnessed and perpetrated.

We need only examine the words of a man considered an American hero, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), to understand how war language explicitly borrows from the religious and even mystical lexicon.  Here’s how he eulogized a soldier fallen in Afghanistan:

He loved his country, and the values that make us exceptional among nations, and good…Love and honor oblige us.  We are obliged to value our blessings, and to pay our debts to those who sacrificed to secure them for us.  They are blood debts…The loss of every fallen soldier should hurt us lest we ever forget the terrible costs of war, and the sublime love of those who sacrifice everything on our behalf.

Note how the very real horrors of war are euphemistically referred to in the language of mysticism: “sublime love,” “obligation,” “good causes,” “moral purpose, “save the innocent,” “peace” and “sacrifice.”  This presentation persuades the general population to bypass the intent of their religious teachings, concentrating instead on its sometimes-grisly content.

For those who waver, the dead soldier is held out as incontrovertible proof of the necessity and worth of the war.  After all, how could one “force” the soldier to have died in vain, by questioning the worth of his action?  The war becomes worthwhile because someone has died undertaking it, a reversal of the normal assignation of worth, which defines an action’s merit before the risk is actually taken.  In a horrifying example of the “sunk costs” theory, the more people that die for a cause, however mistaken, the more religiously valuable the action, no matter what the true human or economic price really is.  Through the sacrifice of human souls for political ends, war becomes enmeshed with a true God experience.

Perhaps as dangerous as the ongoing conflation of spirituality and war are assertions like those from Gutting, who declares that American Christianity has “moved past” religiously sanctioning state violence.  This blindness allows our country to engage in wars for our victims’ own good – in much the same way that 12th-century Crusaders (a term used by George W. Bush in describing America’s response to the attacks of 9/11/2001) or 15th-century Spanish Inquisitors did.

It’s time for a dose of honesty: Christianity is in no manner more mature or less war-like than Islam or any other religion. To heal the illness of state-sponsored murder, we must first admit that.