On Going Back

Last weekend, the theatre department at University of Puget Sound where I received my BA in Theater honored Professor Geoff Proehl who is retiring after 25 years there. I sat next to old friends in the Norton Clapp theatre, listening to Geoff’s colleagues past and present speak about their time with him and watching former students recreate scenes from plays Geoff had directed over the years. I so wanted to get on that stage. I wanted to raise up the ghost of every single production I had been a part of there and watch moments from each in tableaux.

I went back to a couple moments in my mind. The scene at Jezebel’s from Handmaid’s Tale, dancing in a cheerleader costume. Act One of Top Girls, sitting at the table of great women as Pope Joan. Act One of Our Town, standing on the ladder as Emily, talking to George in the house over and, later, waiting in the wings at the top of the third act, Sarah MacLachlan playing, making us all want to sob buckets. My friends sitting in chairs representing dead townsfolk in the town cemetery. Walking in…being dead and then going back to living, the day of my twelfth birthday. “Where’s my girl? Where’s my birthday girl?” I could hear Pannill, who played my father, calling that line as clear as day in my head.

There was a taste of that going-back moment from Our Town in the theatre, but we were still alive. It’s very hard to put into words, and perhaps I’m wrong to assume we all felt the same thing, but it was something like holding a beating heart in your hands. It’s a little too much. You feel awe, tenderness, sadness, and also a sense that it might, it will, at any moment, slip away from you.

The fact was back then most of us weren’t after some particular professional goal in the performing arts, not like you see at other schools. Many of us had not come to UPS to be theatre majors. We just found the theatre department and couldn’t leave. We loved making those plays together too much. Creating a vision together. I guess we must all have been looking for a family too — and we got that. But it was also more than that. It was really pure, a lot of it. A desire to represent a truth we felt about life and being human, a desire to push outside the bounds of polite society, of typical conceptions of success, to be artistically adventurous. I think we were artists, and theatre was the medium we found; for some it would be forever, for others it was just for that time.

The beautiful thing in college is you get to keep making theatre with these people you love over and over again for four years. I think most of us pursued it more because of that than for our own personal drive. But Geoff was the reason it could be like that. He created the space. He set the tone, he helped us touch that experience of living so transparently with/to one another. I don’t think there is a more holy space to me than that stage. It’s my ur-stage. A place that will always be present in my dreams. During Geoff’s program, I kept staring at the voms, I longed only to stand in them. That waiting to enter, in dim light, felt like everything.

The world seems most of the time to ask so little of us, such a shallow level of engagement, such a little amount of courage. The stage asks much more. I think we at UPS all longed for that: a place to be more human. To feel loudly, to show off big, to desire passionately, to spit at the shit of the world, to try to break through, to dredge out what was buried deepest inside of us and show it, good or bad, in the light. That’s the beauty of the actor, that they want to do that. It still brings me to tears today when I see that kind of actor. They’re doing it for themselves, but they’re also doing it for us, being courageous for us, so we might be.

Maybe in a perfect society there would be no need for theatre, but probably there would. Real life demands stability and repetition and, as a result, a kind of mold grows over our existence, cushioning our skins and hearts against life’s texture. Good theatre rips that all off. You know it when you feel it. Your heart goes up in your throat, your eyes get bigger, you get shivers, you might even cry without knowing exactly why.

It can be lonely to long for the rawness of life among people who are happily buried in their layers (Suddenly, Happy Days comes to mind…). So it was good, so good to be among those people who had been, twenty years ago, so similarly dissatisfied with that way of life, who were not thinking too much or at all about jobs during their four years in college, who really followed their hearts. And I do believe deep down that people like this are everywhere, waiting to be given the courage to climb out, the faith to know it’s not unsafe and that that space, outside the cushion of habit, is where real life happens. I fear so many people’s lives, at a certain point of stability, maybe around middle age, devolve into strategy. Strategy. Life gets easy enough that we can master it and “win.” But the truth is that win or lose at that game, we’re left with nothing in the end.

I wrote a play called Losing the Game in my MFA program a couple years after UPS, I guess because I was obsessed with this idea of us all being caught in an unspoken game. Well, at 40, I know now the game will never go away, there will always be plenty who want to play and, frankly, we all have to play, to an extent. (I’m picturing myself tossing a die half-heartedly.) But I also know with unshaken faith that there’s a much bigger realness all around us and, for me, theatre helps me get at it. I need that. And though I would love to write a play that premieres on Broadway (and, believe me, I hope I can write it, I’ll let you know when the script is ready) what matters more is that I can keep getting at that bigger world with groups of people who want that too. And since college, I’ve done it, and though my life circumstances are about to change in a big way and there are many unknowns, I want to do it again.

This revisitation, this honoring of Geoff and reconnecting with my theatre siblings of those tender years, fills me up with energy to make it happen again. And to know exactly why I need to. Thank you, Geoff. Thank you, precious friends. Thank you, Norton Clapp theatre. Amen.

 

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It’s Time

Grassroots

We need a true moral leader in this nation and it can’t be someone running for office or, if it is, their purpose must be bigger than getting elected. Trump took the publicity opportunities of the presidential election and, now, presidential office to support an agenda much bigger than the presidency and only an equal counterforce can oppose that. We need someone who will help us vent our pain over mass shootings and mass extinction. Someone who will help us rise above political parties and special interest group grudges to see the big picture of where this nation is going.

There are pockets of hope everywhere, but the general thrust of our society is in a bad direction: toward ill health of bodies, communities and environment. Individually, we throw up our hands and say, “What can I do? I have to get an education, a job, keep a job, feed a family…” and we put our heads back down and keep scurrying on our hamster wheels, ignorant to the ways our labor perpetuates the things that make our spirits despair. We have to step off, look inward and begin to listen to those silenced, stifled voices we’ve closed off in the basements of our souls.

So if you have been throwing up your hands, waiting for a voice of reason and hope to emerge, take a minute, right now. Open the door, give that little voice a hand, help it to its feet and let it speak. Say you’re ready to listen and to really think about what needs to change in your life, your family’s life, the life of your town, your nation.

My guess is that if we all did this, we would hear the same basic things:

  • I need more time. 
    • to be with myself
    • to be with others
    • to love and enjoy being alive
  • I need to become healthy.
    • end food addictions and substance addictions
    • exercise
    • get enough sleep
    • have access to affordable healthcare
  • I want to be equal and be the owner of my body.
    • I don’t want to be disadvantaged by my skin color, gender, ethnicity or sex preference.
    • I don’t want legislation that dictates what I may do with my own body.
  • I want my environment to be healthy.
    • to stop burning fossil fuels
    • to re-localize agriculture
    • to stop producing toxic waste
  • I want to live free of the fear of gun violence toward me or my children.
    • to pass legislation enforcing stricter gun control
  • I want to do meaningful work that allows me to channel my skills toward something of value for a few or many.

If you made a list, would it look something like this? Am I right in my hunch that most of us really want the same things? If so, why shouldn’t we start making it happen? If we say we can’t change, we are lying. All change takes is action with intention. We are perpetuating the existing state of un-health, inequality and violence every day. Some of us are doing little actions here and there toward change and a small number are going against the current trend in as many ways as they can every day. But often the most high profile activists, those who might become the leader we need, get subsumed by the dominant paradigm, have no regular contact with people on the ground, get distracted by fame and/or burn out and disappear.

There is one growing movement that I feel is aligned with this sense of purpose and with the reality of how we can make actual, collaborative change in today’s society. It’s called Fearless Cities and will see its second international summit in Barcelona this fall. You can find their website here. I am interested in any and all efforts to re-center our individual and communal lives in health, equality and meaning, so if you’re doing work in that direction, please reach out. Maybe that one leader will not arrive, but rather the leader in each of us will find the leader in others and our strength will come from a growing alliance. It’s time.

Theatre and Sustainability

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Production of my play with music Tauris in the Planet Connections Festivity, 2013

My friend and long-time partner in environmental arts, Laura Sheinkopf, currently a long-term substitute at Cold Spring school in New Haven, asked me on behalf of her sixth grade student to answer some questions about theatre and sustainability. It was a great opportunity to reflect on something so near to my heart that I’ve had some distance from for a while. I wanted to share my responses here on the blog.

What are some of the theatre productions about sustainability that you have seen? What were they about?
One production I saw several years ago at an arts sustainability conference in Toronto was Sila by Chantal Bilodeau. Bilodeau had visited the Arctic in 2007 and was inspired to write about climate change on the basis of the adverse effects of climate change she saw there, such as melting glaciers and migration of indigenous populations.The characters in the play include a scientist, a climate activist and two polar bears. To be honest, the polar bears are the characters I remember the most. I was emotionally touched by the parent-child relationship between the bears and inspired by the playwright’s choice to represent these animals’ experience of changing climate. I think it’s imperative that we include concern for the more-than-human world in our calls for sustainability and even though this was a play which we associate with human affairs, the playwright managed to do that, to bring about a concern for the animals and the land itself. Sila has since been performed at three different universities and Bilodeau is now working on a series of eight plays that together will be known as The Arctic Cycle. So, she’s really made this, calling attention to the effects of climate change on the Arctic (but also much more), her life’s work.
What are some of the useful lessons about sustainability have you learned?  
I think one of the most useful lessons is that the key is working together, not alone. There is no way we will be able to push the needle on this issue if it’s only individuals with strong personal beliefs about the environment and sustainability who are doing something, even if those individuals are high profile people like celebrities or politicians. And I think much of the messaging earnestly trying to encourage more people to care has been off-base. I think the answer for real societal initiative toward sustainability starts with building connections across difference in our communities, building community resiliency and commitment to the places where we live. From there, you can begin to talk about community-level changes toward sustainability. But until you have that, I think sustainability is perceived by many people as an “elite” interest, one that requires being able to afford organic produce, LEED-certified construction and electric cars. And if that’s people’s idea of what being sustainable is, we will never see change. It has to be something that is not associated with affordability, it has to be perceived as increasing commonwealth — which it is, but people have to feel that from the inside out, not just be told.
How can theatre change the way we think about the earth?
Theatre embodies ideas. Though theatre is not reality, it can show us what a different reality might be like, what it might mean for people, how we might inhabit a world with a different value system, and that is very powerful. Despite the seeming accessibility of information through the internet, there is actually so much in society — beliefs, habits, fears — that remains hidden. Theatre is the place where we bring that stuff out into the light and examine it. We can help break down unrealistic fears, bad habits and harmful beliefs by making them really visible, maybe even exaggerated on stage, and kind of tearing them down or showing how insubstantial they are and just blowing them away. And, in addition, we can help illuminate alternative beliefs, alternative habits and show people triumphing over fears. This is inspiring, empowering and, I think, strengthening for people toward making changes in their real lives.
Change takes faith, strength and optimism and theatre can help instill that, even if it’s just for a few hours. Those few hours can be a jumpstart. A powerful play can help remind us what is most important in life and inspire us to want to fight for that. In my opinion, we’re in a position now where we must fight to recover some of what we’ve lost in terms of human connection, dignity, connection to the more-than-human world after more than a century of industrialization and consumer capitalism. There’s a sense of homecoming in being able to do that, even just to see this recovery imagined on the stage. It helps us to realize we want that and to believe we can have it. My greatest sense of purpose in this life is that, using art and communication to inspire others to believe in and pursue that recovery. And for me, that doesn’t mean chucking technology. I think technology will absolutely be a part of what will help us make the sustainable transition, but it’s not gonna do all the work. Most of the work has to happen inside of human beings, and that’s where theatre can go.

Teach Them to Speak

aoc

Reading famed 18th Century actor and elocutionist Thomas Sheridan has reinvigorated my zeal for the message I delivered in my last two posts. In British Education, Sheridan makes a pitch for oratory as a great weapon which the virtuous must take up against those who threaten liberty, “Since therefore eloquence, which has a prodigious power in persuading people to either true or false opinions lies open to all who are inclined to make use of it, what can be the reason that the good do not employ themselves in acquiring an art so necessary for the defense of truth? Especially when ’tis considered that the wicked use it with success in defending injustice, in establishing error and in accomplishing their pernicious designs?” (157). Saint Augustine makes a similar argument in Confessions and when I couple that with Sheridan, I can’t help but see the gift of oratory, rooted in study and practice, as a kind of gleaming sword, ready for battle. As I said in my previous post, we can’t expect that being truthful or having upright morals will be enough to fight the existing, destructive powers in our government. We must armor up with the gift of rhetoric, yes, and, especially, of oral delivery. Oratory has found new life in the past few years with the advent of posting video to social media platforms. I think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a beautiful example of someone who is taking the power of oratory (and social media) in hand to go up against the powers who abuse it. Sheridan makes a strong case for a return to the teaching of oratory in British education as a necessity without which liberty may be lost. He makes the argument that writing, in contrast, cannot communicate to an audience the emotion and character of the speaker, or the degree of their conviction. And that it is this, emotion (pathos) and character (ethos), more than anything, that persuades people.

I think the college educated have been trained in modern times to place writing skills above all else because of the drive to be accepted as members of a certain class of society, where a level of vocabulary and grammatical skill is expected, and to be able to communicate professionally. We are not generally taught to write toward public speech. Composition classes are about composing written texts. In recent years, they are also sometimes about composing digital multimodal texts. But they are not about writing for speech. I feel very much like Sheridan 250 years ago. I think that our liberty is at stake and I think we must revive the teaching of rhetoric, all of its canons, delivery chief among them. Writing is a record that preserves ideas for posterity. It is also a silent speaker, disseminating ideas and information to many places at once. But it is not the most persuasive form of communication. And we need our best people trained not in the second-most persuasive form of communication, but in the first.

Sophists for the New Millenium Part 2

Ethical rhetoric respects people’s basic intelligence, powers of deduction and induction, imagination and ability to feel. It works with all these things. “Rhetrickery,” as Wayne Booth coined it, manipulates these things, banking on people’s vanity, pride and lack of critical thought. And, above all, it takes advantage of identification on the basis of absolutist beliefs – the shibboleth of the sophists. Evangelicals have risen as a political force over the past few decades for this very reason. They are easy to galvanize politically on the basis of specific, absolutist beliefs.

Identification, a speaker’s indication of a common ground with an audience, is important in all rhetoric. Identification contributes to ethos, a speaker’s trustworthiness. But rhetrickery goes further. It flatters its audiences for who they are and will even create a straw man doubter as a shared enemy against which the speaker and the audience may align. Flattery is made on the basis of audience characteristics and absolutist beliefs: “I look out here and I see people who believe in standing up for our country no matter what. [Patriotism = unwavering allegiance to one’s nation, its leaders and symbols] You aren’t fools. You know what’s going on. People who punch a time clock every day are hard workers who know the value of a dollar [Belief: Wage labor is VIRTUOUS]. But the liberal politicians out in Washington think you’re stupid [Inculcation of enemy]. They think they can trick you into giving up your hard-earned money. Will you be tricked?” Rhetrickery is especially pernicious as it blames others for doing what it’s doing, suggesting not only its own comparitive innocence but people’s need for a hero (ahem, the speaker) to fight the “bad” guys who are trying to trick them, hurt them, use them. Trump’s drumbeat allegation of “fake news” is a perfect example.

Why do I say we need sophistry now? In part because the sophist helps blow the screens off of simplistic rhetrickery. To simply take the ethical high ground in response to rhetrickery unfortunately doesn’t work. The people who have been flattered and taken in by the rhetricker just see this as further evidence of the other side’s elitism and lack of faith or interest in them. What’s needed is ethical rhetoric that engages and legitimately respects ALL people’s basic intelligence, powers of deduction and induction, imagination and ability to feel while challenging absolutist beliefs.

Americans are stuck in a rhetorically constructed false-binary world and we need sophistry to help break us out. The premise of the Dissoi Logoi, one of the earliest sophist texts, is that any rhetor should be able to offer arguments on a given issue from two sides. American voters’ rhetorical training has grown so weak that we no longer appreciate this ability and instead confuse “consistency” of message with strength instead of considering the ability to see and articulate multiple sides of an argument as a sign of strength. Sophists understood arguments as highly situational. Something can be true or right in a given context, but there are no absolute truths. As a nation, we have veered in the post 9/11 years toward demanding absolute truths, absolute right-ness which also makes us easier to manipulate. When you follow a set of “absolute truths,” you identify with those beliefs. You are thereby made vulnerable to flattery on the basis of those beliefs: people telling you YOUR beliefs are the RIGHT beliefs and you are a GOOD person, the RIGHT kind of person because you have them. Both political parties are guilty of this. And it’s a wonder Americans haven’t stopped to recognize how un-American this is.

A good way of assessing a given rhetor is to ask, “Is this person buying identification by flattering me or a target group? Is this person setting up a straw man enemy to deflect their own questionable ethics? Is this person showing the ability to understand and explain counterarguments? Is this person making an argument based on the relevant situation or are they basing their argument on absolute truths and flattering me/us in the process?” Sophists didn’t play the belief-flattery game and you’d think in the sophisticated, information-saturated, complexity-appreciating 21st century we wouldn’t either. You’d think that, but we’re currently held prisoner by someone who has played that game to great success. So, again, I call out for the sophists of the new millennium, the ones brave enough to shake off the hobgoblins of consistency, to be bold and to appeal to the intelligence inherent in the human mind, to be brave enough to live in 2018 as it is, not as we fantasize nor fear it to be. For inspiration, from the opening of Dissoi Logoi:

On the matter of what is good and what is bad, contrasting arguments are put forward in Greece by educated people: some say that what is good and what is bad are two different things, others that they are the same thing, and that the same thing is good for some but bad for others, or at one time good and at another time bad for the same person. For myself, I side with the latter group, and I shall examine the view by reference to human life, with its concern for food and drink and sex. For these things are bad for those who are sick, but good for the person who is healthy and needs them. Or again, lack of restraint in these matters is bad for those who lack restraint, but good for those who sell these commodities and make money out of them. And illness is bad for the sick but good for the doctors. And death is bad for those who die, but good for the undertakers and the grave-diggers.

Sophists for the New Millenium

As much as we try to conflate style of rhetoric with ethics, we cannot. As much as we would like to paste captions to every political utterance that label it true or false, and thus expose the “liars” and neutralize them, we cannot. Today’s political climate is not the result of the devolution of language so much as it is the result of a mass vacancy of people motivated to engage rhetorically. There is no reason why those with strong ethics cannot enter the sweaty halls of public discourse, nasty as the talk may be. They can and should; but they’re intimidated. Calls for civility have marked the panic of well-spoken liberals, especially academics. A hope that we could return civility to public discourse (and kick out the bad boys and girls) has motivated many well-meaning scholars and political figures (“When they go low, we go high.”) But I think that effort may be in vain.

So much comes down to courage. Trump has it. Civility and fact-checking are not going to take him down. We need sophistry now. We need someone who wants not to be more pure, more correct or to shine in the light of moral superiority, but who wants to get into it, the good, bad and the ugly. Contrary to Socrates, Plato and so many subsequent critics, the sophist is not without ethics. The sophist may flout social conventions, but for a purpose. The sophist is a trickster-enlightener. The sophist can be the rhetorical David fighting Goliath. As Susan Jarrat writes, the original sophists were disruptors who had the courage and skill to disrupt well-accepted narratives. Jarratt writes in Rereading the Sophists, “Each sophistic discourse disrupts a stable historical narrative” (16).

The sophists introduced rhetorical tools for challenging the truisms of a given society at a given time. Jarratt writes, “The sophists employed a verbal techne instrumental in effecting that critical, revisionary turn: antithesis. The stylistic device of setting in sequence opposing grammatical and lexical structures can operate at a deeper level of narrative construction and causal linkage as an instrument of rhetorical historical practice” (21). She goes on to explain that antithesis “is not a spurious trick for clouding the minds of the listeners but rather works to awaken in them an awareness of the multiplicity of possible truths” (22).

In the latest Pixar pic, the Incredibles 2, the happy ending hinges on Mr. Incredible’s ability to turn the rudder of a giant ship set to crash into a major city. I think America is at a similar moment. We are racing toward a crash and we must turn the rudder. One hope for doing that is shifting the intractable, conflicting truisms of both the left and the right. To do so, we need to see our story anew. We need sophists for the new millenium…. (to be continued)

Cherries in the Snow

Red-Berries-in-Snow

Three cherries in the snow. That’s all I needed. On Thursday, I had had a big deadline for a fellowship application I was anxious about getting in. I had done many drafts and revisions, then locked myself out of my house the morning it was due. Sleep deprivation-addled from 6 months of night feedings with my second child, I was kind of hanging by a thread and it finally broke. By good luck, the former owners who live in town still had keys that worked in the back office door and I got in a couple hours later. I got the application carefully groomed and submitted before I had to pick kids up from daycare.

The next day, I decided, would have to be better. It was cold with a biting windchill, but beautiful with fresh snow limning all the branches in forest-y Eastern Connecticut. I walked campus with a heavy backpack that I made heavier when I picked up three books at the library. As I trudged across campus, I wrote myself a little poem:

Bag so heavy

Tail so bruised

I limp across the earth

Like any other animal

A self-tribute to persistence with some strong martyr undertones. The journey to the parking lot seemed so long between the weight of the bag, my (3-weeks) broken tailbone and the merciless windchill. Trudge trudge. But as I made the passage from the employee to the student section of the parking lot, I saw three maraschino cherries in the fresh snow. “Jackpot,” I thought, “That means jackpot!” I smiled and tried to take a picture but my phone died at that exact moment.

Sometimes private, unexpected encounters coax us on with allusions to victory, and whether they be augurs or mirages, they lift us up when we need it. Six more weeks of winter.