Sunday, April 7, 2013

Matters of Art and Death

At the Feet of the Master

“Things don't affect people the way they used to. I mean it may very well be that 10 years from now people will pay $10,000 in cash to be castrated just in order to be affected by something.”

“We're bored. We're all bored now. But has it ever occurred to you, Wally, that the process that creates this boredom that we see in the world now, may very well be a self perpetuating, unconscious form of brainwashing created by a world totalitarian government based on money, and that all of this is much more dangerous than one thinks, and it's not just a question of individual survival, Wally, but that somebody who's bored is asleep, and somebody who's asleep will not say no?”

—André Gregory to Wallace Shawn, 

           My Dinner with André, 1981

Today your Miss O’ is thinking about meaning. This single week made fast work of sudden losses, health scares, deaths, and many other shocks, and at one point I remarked to my friend and colleague Howard, “I’ve started seriously thinking about what it all means.” Howard chuckled and said, “Who cares what it means?” And for some reason or another, possibly because I am less evolved than I should be, I care. My playwright friend Lynda remarked on Facebook, "I miss buying a new album and all of us sitting and listening to it, the way we used to listen to records." The shared experience of art means something, I think, and the farther we move away from it, the more remote we become to ourselves. (How's this for light reading on a Sunday in April?)

I was telling Howard about a new documentary showing at Film Forum here in New York City, André Gregory: Before and After Dinner, by his wife, filmmaker Cindy Kleine, and wondered if he had any interest in seeing it (Howard and I are Film Forum buddies who share a passion for classic movies, though he is far better versed in them than I am). As he had not seen My Dinner with André (the film to which this new one alludes), and especially as he had no particular interest in parsing meaning from art and existence in general (and doubtless he is healthier for it), I realized I’d just need to go by myself.

For those of you who are not acquainted with it, the movie My Dinner with André came out in 1981 and became what they call a “cult classic”. Directed by Louis Malle, the movie took place almost entirely in a restaurant over the course of a single meal between actor and writer Wallace Shawn, and experimental-theater director and actor André Gregory. (Gregory's production of Alice in Wonderland in 1970 is the stuff of theater legend.) The two men first became friends in 1973, and they are still collaborators and friends as of the date of this blog; the film was a scripted work based on their real lives in theater, and in it they play characters named “Wally” and “André”. (Shawn has said the "character" of Wally is a man motivated only by fear, and he wrote this movie in part to try to get rid of "that guy." That insight gives the film yet another great layer.) My first encounter with the movie was on video—I’d rented it with my friend Richard—who is now a Broadway stage manager, the one with the twins, for those of you keeping up with the cast of characters in my life—while in college.

I am often teased by some friends for my lifelong habit of using names when I tell a story. You’ll never hear me say, for example, “I had dinner with a friend.” Not only will I tell you the name of the friend and fill in useful biographical data, I will usually also tell you how I met that person. The title of the film, you see, resonated with me immediately: My Dinner with André. I loved the sense of invitation and inclusion in it, as if to say, “You remember André…,” and now as you watch the film you are part of the story, as you must already be friends with Wally. Coincidentally, I read just the other night something that the poet W.H. Auden said about names, from the essay “Auden and God” by Edward Mendelson (posted on Facebook by my friend Andy Becker):

"Auden’s passion for proper names in his poetry had a moral and theological point: like prayer, it was a form of attention. A proper name was a sign of personal uniqueness, and Auden used the word “miracle” to refer to anyone’s sense of the unique value of their own unpredictable individuality. ‘To give someone or something a Proper Name,’ he wrote, ‘is to acknowledge it as having a real and valuable existence, independent of its use to oneself, in other words, to acknowledge it as a neighbor.’ The value that is acknowledged through a proper name is not measurable in any objective sense; it exists in the eyes of the beholder."

Names for me are touchstones: When I say a name to you, as I doubtless will within seconds of an encounter, I am with you and also with that person, and we are all together. Being with people is vital to me, because I spend nearly all of my time alone (the lot of the writer)—and the need to be with people, as well as to be alone, was also one of the draws of moving to New York City after 20 years of my adult life in the country. So in the naming of names, I create a society, and having dinner with André, then, felt like the most natural thing in the world. (The philosopher Suzanne K. Langer said, “The very notion of giving something a name was the vastest generative idea ever conceived,” and when you think of all the things a name begins to conjure in your own mind, you’ll see how right she is: Miss O's friend is a just a friend, until he’s Richard.) Curiously, I almost never greet a friend by name; I’ve long been a person attached to sweetie, dear heart, doll, ass wipe. But once we part, you and your full name become a story for the ages, or at least for my office mates.

But back to André and that dinner with Wally Shawn.

Wallace Shawn and André Gregory, My Dinner with André, 1981

The year is, let’s say, 1985, and Richard and I fell in love with this movie when we rented it a few years after it came out. We were seniors (or nearly, I'm not sure of the season) in Theatre Arts at Virginia Tech, and at the stage in our development where we were not only doing theater and ambitious to do more of it, but also asking why we were doing it. (It’s hard for me to imagine not getting to that place, as I seem to go there for regular and unplanned vacations, but plenty do not.) So as a gesture mimicking a Rooney-Garland barn experience, Richard and I rented the film again and had a showing in a studio in the Performing Arts Building for all the younger theatre majors, complete with bread sticks (because it's a dinner story, after all, and easy to get hungry). The result? Dead silence. Postures of annoyance. Then the words: "This is pointless," they said. "Self-indulgent," they said. "Nothing means anything," they summed up. Everyone seemed to feel his or her time had been wasted, when what Richard and I were hoping for was a rousing discussion about theater, the future of art, our roles in it. So out of the studio the undergraduates went, the breadsticks mostly untouched, off to memorize lines for scene study, to get head shots made, to prepare an audition. Richard and I could only conclude that our purpose for doing theater had changed over the years, while theirs was as yet still motivated by dreams of commercial success. Or something. Who cares what it means? has echoed in my head ever since but doesn't seem to land. "All life is an experiment,"Emerson said. "The more experiments you make, the better." Not every experiment is a success, of course, but considering my list of outright failures, it's astonishing I didn't take up drinking until I was 40.

When that movie was made, André Gregory had been a force in the so-called “experimental-theater” movement since the 1960s, studying with Jerzy Grotowski, a Polish theater director and founder of The Poor Theater, and going on to create his own company. Grotowski and Gregory were contemporaries, born one year apart (Grotowski in Poland in 1933, the same year as my dad, Bernie; and Gregory, the child of Russian Jews, in Paris in 1934, the same year as my mom, Lynne—I mention my parents because I cannot imagine more different lives than those of my folks and these two guys, who seem to live in mythological time), but Grotowski was the master at whose feet every artist who cared about theater’s future went to sit. Astonishing rethinking came out of that era of experimentation, so I'm thinking about that rethinking today, and thinking, "What now, my love?"

“I can't go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” 
― Lewis CarrollAlice in Wonderland

I take issue with the term “experimental-theater” only because it seems such a shame to me that theater cannot simply be theater in whatever iteration; but in the commercial world, when it’s not a Disney-style musical the whole family will enjoy (!), or a contemporary realistic play, or a revival of a classic, one must “prepare” an audience with the caveat, “experimental,” which is to say, “weird/you might not like it/it’s not worth spending as much money on/not a sure thing,” etc. (I get it: Leisure time is golden, money is dear, choices must be made; and I think, Isn’t that a shame?) I love musicals, not ashamed to say it, and loved the commercials for touring shows I'd see on TV. Really, I knew only about commercial theater—though I did not see a live show until I was 15, the first show I saw that I wasn’t in being the Dalewood Community Theater production of L’il Abner (after which show I deeply offended the lead male when I thought my friend Denise knew him from church, hers being Our Lady of Angels, and he flashed, “I’m a proud Southern Baptist,” and it just goes to show politics and religion are the inescapable realities of human life until we all decide to grow the fuck up); thence followed a few high school field trips to see A Chorus Line (by which I was boredno idea what in the hell was going on);  and Evita (thrilling!); and Mark Twain Tonight! with Hal Holbrook (really interesting).

My first encounter with the brand of theater (and may I pause to say ick? What a conceptwhat could feel more ick, really, than to become a "brand," and bless Stephen Colbert for his willingness to become one just to show us how vulgar, limiting, and creepy it is, his genius being to manage to transcend branding at the same time he makes a living from it) called “experimental-theater” occurred when I was a sophomore in college, serving as an assistant stage manager for a play called “Interview,” one of eight plays in a work called America Hurrah by Jean-Claude van Itallie, originally directed by Joseph Chaikin and developed with The Open Theater. America Hurrah premiered in New York (a faraway land hardly real to me then) in 1966, and my encounter with it would have been 1983, so the real question was, “Why was this two-decades-old play still considered avant-garde?” The term “avant-garde,” or in advance of one’s time, was also becoming creaky, and Chaikin’s work (admired by Gregory though they were not collaborators, which I learned in a film talk-back with the man himself just last week) was a revelation to me, and also a natural fit for my sensibilities. The director of this particular production was a graduate student, David Thomas, who went on to co-found ART Station in Stone Mountain, Georgia, which he still runs today (with his husband, Michael Hidalgo, who went to a rival high school of mine and whom David met at Tech—are you following?). Watching David work on this piece was fascinating, because he was taking what had been truly experimental at the time, and now directing it as a revival—which is to say a museum piece. His awareness of this irony was seminal in my education: He talked to the assembled eight actors (I’d failed the audition, but he’d seen something in me that he wanted me to stick around to assist) about the history of The Open Theater and their approach to developing a piece together: An empty space, total experimentation, exercises for building unity of the ensemble, saying “Yes” to new ideas, playing with things, seeing where it goes. That David was doing this as a graduate student project was the sticking point: He has no choice, really, but to treat Chaikin’s work as a textbook case, and reinvent it rather than create something totally new, given that the script was a finished piece, not a work in progress. There is nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes: It was a way of “sitting at the feet of the master,” as best he could at the time.

And it was during those rehearsals where I started to wonder, “Is there any experimental theater happening any more?” Too many plays we were reading for scene study, by then-contemporary writers such as Michael Weller and Kevin Wade, felt so small—stories of troubled relationships, or a bad marriage—so ordinary. Until college, to be fair, my entire theater experience amounted to being in the chorus of a handful of musicals, one Neil Simon play, one Kaufman and Hart play (“Who did you play in You Can’t Take It With You?” director and playwright David Hilder asked me early in our New York acquaintance. "How did you know I was in it?" I asked. "We were ALL in it," he said. Insert smiley face. I played Penelope Sycamore), and a few others, including forgettable competition one-acts and a children's show. That there was MORE, or that theater could be so ugly, imaginative, political, and unnerving, was a joyous discovery, because I was quite frankly bored with both realism and the stock musical comedy: I had decided to eschew acting for directing before I ever started college, mostly because I never wanted to act in anything like these plays again.  I don’t think I understood this at the time—what I mean is I could not articulate why I was disenchanted—and it wasn’t until learning about Chaikin that I awakened and I could say, “Now I know why I’ve been unhappy with acting.” At the time, I hated reading plays, and really I still do. I can count on one hand relatively modern plays that have sent me soaring and made me want to act in or direct them: America Hurrah by Jean-Claude van Itallie (by which I mean not that play, but rather it made me want to create original plays on meaningful themes with my students-to-be); Angels in America, Parts One and Two, by Tony Kushner; Fen by Caryl Churchill; The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder; and Talley’s Folly by Lanford Wilson. (There are others, I'm sure, but these come readily to mind.) These are wildly different scripts—but they have in common something so hard to explain: They are true. One feels it in one’s heart: “This is a true story of being human on Earth.” More than that: These plays have a social conscience and take on real issues, from AIDS, to worker and environmental exploitation, to corporate oligarchies and consumerism, to religious philosophy, to the discovery of love between two lost and unusual people. The language in each play is compelling. One cannot help but want to enter these worlds, and what we find there may or may not reflect us or console us, but it will surely awaken something in us.

"Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle."
― Lewis CarrollAlice in Wonderland

Bored yet?

If you have found yourself drifting as you read today’s blog, it may surely be because my writing is dull, but what’s even more likely is that this sort of reflection bores the shit out of you. If this is the case, do by all means stop reading and go for a walk, and do NOT rent My Dinner With André, which has been described by at least two geniuses I know (neither of whom much likes theater, as it happens) as “self-indulgent” and “deadly.” You have been warned.

What Richard and I responded to in the Malle film was the search for meaning that Gregory was immersed in: After many years as a commercial (if unconventional) actor (you've seem him: the guy who gets his eye gouged out by Wesley Snipes in Demolition Man, John the Baptist in The Last Temptation of Christ) and revolutionary theater director, he just lost heart. He didn’t know why he was even doing it anymore. He walked away for about six years and went on a quest—a quest that most people could not afford, by the way, but that he could and did. Now that I am 48—the age Gregory was when he made the film—I relate whole-heartedly to his mid-life crisis, but when I was 21, I related to his existential crisis, I guess you’d call it: What does it all mean? For myself, I really wondered what it meant to do theater at all, for whom, and what did they, what does the world, get out of it? And if I become a teacher, what on earth do I have to teach anyone? And for what purpose?

More Art, Less Matter

From the time I was a little kid, I worried about where the garbage went, about disabled children feeling excluded, about how much things would cost when I grew up, about people dying or not being cared for. On my first field trip on a school bus to D.C. when I was in second grade, I couldn't take my eyes off the smoke stacks of plants, those clouds coming out of them, the eerie feeling it gave me of its unnaturalness. I was a barrel of goddamned laughs. In high school and college and in my early years of teaching, I used to spend long, long hours writing about meaning, trying to make meaning out of the events of my life and of the world. Mercifully I left my twenties, but not before a complete breakdown at age 28. And then, at the point when I wanted to give up entirely, I started again. It was at this time—in the midst of beginning therapy and moving to a new school and a new house—that I began creating truly original theater with my students, guiding them to write their own work out of their life experiences, which I then shaped into a drama for performance. Mostly I followed what I’d seen David do with his Chaikin work, and yet each process was different because the kids in each cast were always different, and the real fun of being a high school theater director was having a company of actors who came in, grew over four years, flew out, and were forever supplanted by new actors. It’s really nourishing, artistically. The down side is that while you have these kids, you always have to hurry up and put on the show, so the process is truncated in a way we all would sort of resent; then again, at least we finished something we could all be proud of, and audiences saw it and responded in largely positive ways.

André Gregory was not afraid to spend years making a play. His 1970 breakthrough work, Alice and Wonderland (which coincidentally I performed in at the Virginia Tech Summer Arts Festival in 1987), was created over the course of four years with a small company of dedicated actors—the Lewis Carroll work reimagined for adults. What I learned from doing this kind of work myself, as much as I was able, was that art and life can be one thing, and this way of working affirmed for me that the process rather than the outcome is where the joy lies. I have always enjoyed the rehearsals of a show more than the performances, and I must add that I am just as happy to have performed something so I can strike the set and move to the next thing. The performance part is for other people, and it’s the least you can do: Given all the work you’ve put in, why not? (Gregory and company have spent 14 years, off and on, rehearsing Wallace Shawn's adaptation of Ibsen's The Master Builder, and this process, and the resulting handful of performances (discussed in the new documentary), is the subject of a new movie by Jonathan Demme, Wally and André Shoot Ibsen, coming out this year.) And then there’s the question of meaning: If you make a play and no one sees it, does it count? If you create a work and only 22 of your closest friends witness the performance, does it have value on Earth?

“Good theater can happen anywhere,” a professor, Michael Cadden of Princeton, declared to a group of us drama directors at an NEH summer intensive in Vermont. “It can happen in your classroom. Just because only 20 of you saw it doesn’t make it any less valuable.”

Here’s another way to think of it: If you cook the most astonishing meal of your life—Julia Child's boeuf bourguignon, say, with noodles and French bread and garden fresh peas—and only your friends Chuck and David eat it, is the meal any less of a masterpiece?

And yet we live in the age of Hell’s Kitchen and the Iron Chef, of folk legend Leonard fucking Cohen playing to arenas of iPhones; of celebrities (who are nonentities) like Kim Kardashian making money hand over fist for posing in front of plastic sheets of corporate logos at movie premieres for thousands of photographers. Do you hear the clicks, the clatters, the echoes in this empty canyon?

Five chemical companies, including Monsanto, Dow, and DuPont, own 75% of the worlds SEEDS. Even the growing of food has become a synthetic production of the largest possible measure, and food has never had less flavor.

I submit that all this largeness is not only needless and vulgar; I submit that it is foolish, meaningless, exhausting, and that as it is, more powerfully, taking us to greater and greater levels of stupid, it is therefore deadly. My current search for a way back to meaning really is a search for what is alive

What’s the Most Annoying Trend in News? You Won’t Believe It!

Can we say THE TEASER? I am so fucking sick of teasers: What Are the Most Annoying Things Girls Say?  or What Is the Worst Food You Can Eat? The Answer Might Surprise You! or Which Famous Singer Died Today? or Who Has Your Mom Been Fucking? The Answer Might Surprise You! Does anything surprise us anymore? I want life to follow a quest narrative, and while I don't expect or even want an easy-teasy surprise answer, I really do live for a surprising question.

In the preface to the screenplay for My Dinner with André, Gregory wrote this:

 “A few weeks ago I had dinner with Twyla Tharp in her kitchen, and we were talking about the problems of the artist, or for that matter the individual, maturing in our society. Why do we have so few mature artists? Trying to answer this question, we began to speculate that your early years, say your twenties, should be all about learning — learning how to do it, how to say it, learning to master the tools of your craft; having learned the techniques, then your next several years, say your thirties, should be all about telling the world with passion and conviction everything that you think you know about your life and your art. Meanwhile, though, if you have any sense, you’ll begin to realize that you just don’t know very much — you don’t know enough. And so the next many, many years, we agreed, should be all about questions, only questions, and that if you can totally give up your life and your work to questioning, then perhaps somewhere in your mid-fifties you may find some very small answers to share with others in your work. The problem is that our society (including the community of artists) doesn’t have much patience with questions and questioning. We want answers, and we want them fast. My Dinner with André uses some of the experiences of my six years out of the theater as foundation stones for a work which is made up entirely of questions and which I would like to dedicate to all, artists and otherwise, who are out on the road somewhere wandering, with no destination anywhere in sight, almost forgetting why they ever set out in the first place, yet still unable to turn back, because they honestly believe that the shortest distance between two points just may not be a straight line.”
Miss O’ turns 49 in May. Reading Gregory's and Tharp's ideas struck a chord, you might say; this song of aging as an artist makes total sense to me. I have not had loud success, which is to say there has been no arrival, no fame, no (or little) money for my art. What our friend André is getting at is exactly what all human beings might need to be doing, especially in mid-life—it’s the opposite of settling in, shutting down, tuning out, waiting to die. Mid-life, in fact, is the most opportune time to question everything, to awaken and challenge all the old assumptions, because you have learned shit, you have experienced shit, and you still feel pretty good. (Stephen Hawking has lived far longer with ALS that most people can because, his late mother asserted, he’s a searcher.) You are no longer riding on received wisdom, but are rather becoming the potential dispenser of that wisdom.  The secret of a worthwhile life and worthwhile art, I think, is love (searching for it and giving it), followed by questing to understand more about who we all are, followed by making something out of the quest; “to hold, as ‘twere, a mirror up to nature,” as Hamlet said, to show human beings the body of their time, and then to strike it down and start again. And then, of course, to enjoy a fine malt beverage at each day’s end, with friends. I realize, as I say, as I have voiced these ideas over the years, that not everyone agrees with any of them, or with all of them, or with all of them at once. And I think that's why we seek not only our friends, but also art. In art we can feel less alone in our private insanity. Music, poetry, theater, sculpture: there's art for everyone, and an artist to speak to each of us. I never thought I'd care about painting, for example, hard though I tried, and then it happened. If you haven't found your visual artist yet—my first was Georgia O'Keeffe, "Blue Lines," at the National Gallery when I was 21; followed shortly by Van Gogh's portraits of inmates in an asylum, at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; and now the list includes too many to name, but the last artist whose work caused me to sob while standing in front of it was Romare Bearden, a retrospective of his collages at MoMA, in 2006—it's never too late. You cannot plan the epiphany, is what I mean, but nor will you have a chance to experience it unless you get out there into worlds of art beyond what you currently know. 
Death in Chelsea 
All the things I'm musing on have to do with human endeavors rather than connections to the natural world, but I'm concerned today with what human beings are making out of their lives when they aren't trying to kill each other or screw each other over. In New York Magazine this week is an essay, or rather, an elegy, “The Death of the Gallery Show” by Jerry Saltz, which offers as its subhead, “Between online sales and art fairs, fewer and fewer people are showing up to see art in its natural habitat.” The author laments the closing of a lot of galleries, owners thrown out by jacked-up rents ($30,000 per MONTH?) or bankrupted by lack of attendance. “The art world has become more of a virtual reality than an actual one…,” Saltz writes. He is discussing the meaning of art shows, and he echoes Gregory, but for the audience rather than the artist:

Looking, making, thinking, experiencing are our starting point. Art opens worlds, lets us see invisible things, creates new models for thinking, engages in cryptic rituals in public, invents cosmologies, explores consciousness, makes mental maps and taxonomies others can see, and isn’t only something to look at but is something that does things and sometimes makes the mysterious magic of the world palpable. (p. 102)

Saltz concludes:

Proust wrote, ‘Narrating events is like introducing people to opera via libretto only.’ Instead, he said one should ‘endeavor to distinguish between the differing music of each successive day.’ That’s what we do when we look at art, wherever we look at it, however much noise surrounds it. In galleries, we try to discern ‘differing music,’ and it’s still there right now. I love and long for it. (p. 102)

I am always searching for great theater, and whereas most art galleries are free (though their contents are far from it), one of my frustrations about theater is the cost, specifically high ticket prices which make theater more and more exclusive; available to, and therefore too often made only to serve and flatter, wealthy people. I’m sick of wealthy people. I’ve had it with luxury goods and celebrities and blockbusters and Iron EVERYTHING. I’m sick of what my mom, Lynne, calls the vapid. Is it just me? I really do think the free, palpable art experience is worth having, worth seeking out, and worth trying to make. It's why I live, and I guess, just like Jerry Saltz up there, and André and Wally. I guess we keep writing about it because we can't help thinking you should have these experiences, too, that somehow your lives will mean more if you do. And that art will make us kinder, better people. (I'm still working on it.)

"Do you think I've gone round the bend?"
"I'm afraid so. You're mad, bonkers, completely off your head. But I'll tell you a secret. All the best people are."
― Lewis CarrollAlice in Wonderland
Here’s to André Gregory, Before and After Dinner, and all the art in between, coming soon to a theater probably nowhere near you—its commercial obscurity doesn’t make it lesser art, but rather makes it matter all the more.
And so, to drink.
Love from Miss O'

Miss O', Elizabeth Wills, and Richard Rauscher,
BA, Theatre Arts, Virginia Tech, Class of '86,
shortly before setting off to change the world.


  1. An incredible piece Lisa. Very thought-provoking and inspiring. And thank you for the mention; I'm honored to be a proper noun in this beautiful trip you've taken us on through Dinner with André and André Gregory and your life and theatre and art and too-largeness of things and the meaning of it all. That film is also one of my favorites. And I am sure that even if I don't achieve great success as a playwright--success meaning that I get better and better at it and get to see my plays live--I know my life has been enriched by the wonderful plays I've read and seen, and by the people I've encountered and the conversations we've had.

    1. Oh, Lynda! Thanks for reading. We all need to celebrate what we do over a social evening, and soon. Much love.