Last Wednesday, May 12, Theater J actor Alexander Strain and I went out to Arlington, VA and presented a program before 400 at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation main offices, on a video simulcast that went to hundreds of branch offices throughout the country. The program, sponsored by the FDIC’s Office of Diversity and Engagement was to observe Jewish American Heritage Month, signed into law only recently. President Obama’s proclamation, “calling upon all Americans to observe this month with appropriate programs, activities, and ceremonies to celebrate the heritage and contributions of Jewish Americans” appears below, as does the cover of their very handsome program. Below that, notes from my talk (one day we’ll turn it into something more formal).
I modified the title of my talk to create more of a link with the work done by the fine folks at the FDIC, and so presented a talk on “Stress Tests” — How drama forges revelation by putting ideas, institutions, and individuals to a dramatic test, heightening tensions to reveal character… in the same ways that the FDIC puts banks through stress tests to assess whether large U.S. banks can survive a protracted slump.
Stress Testing and The Idea Made Flesh – Transforming the Philosophical into Action at Theater J
I am honored to speak here today at the FDIC as part of Jewish American Heritage Month observances. You’ve invited the Artistic Director of a Jewish Theater to help you Appreciate What This Particular Heritage Means. What do we as Americans appreciate about being Jewish? What do we value most in our culture? For me, it’s our heritage of inquiry.
Of reading carefully and questioning our inheritance; putting our biblical and mishnaic narratives under a microscope. From this rabbinic tradition, taught in our houses of learning and worship, a discourse of jurisprudence emerged (and that’s why Jews, of course, have made good lawyers; practice). As it applies to Jewish law, we call this forum for hypothesizing, parsing and explication the Talmud.
As it applies to Jewish behavior, identity, and the way we live our lives—WHAT KIND OF PEOPLE WE ARE and how we record that, and analyze that–we call that Literature; the scrutinized unfolding of our lives. Taking those words off the page, and bringing them to life in five dimensions: we call this is the act of Drama.
What type of drama do we do at Theater J?
Dramas that show us who we are; not merely by holding up a mirror and recording our debates; our dilemmas – but in putting those dilemmas to a test. Our Dramatists conduct stress tests on a little depository of ideas called the family; the community; we put a community to a test.
We are a community full of teeming diversity – a many splendored, divergently opinionated people.
We are a theater that celebrates its heritage and also lives by the highest standard of its art. And so we take the notion of “Jewish peoplehood” and put that to the test; into the smythie of a dramatic crucible to examine the fractures and fissures, and to argue for a strengthened and more unified/fused amalgam to emerge.
We take an idea–like responsibility to our parents–and put that to the test. We take a question, a proposition, and infuse it with it tension, contentiousness, high stakes. This pertains to comedy as well as drama; to musicals as well as to straight plays. The theater is ABOUT Heightened Stakes.
Theater J often subjects OUR OWN LOCAL COMMUNITY TO A STRESS TEST. Sometimes this yields controversy. More hopefully, it sheds light; it clarifies internal conflict simmering beneath the surface. It reveals something of our nature, in how we respond.
Theater J is also SUBJECTED to stress tests itself. For example today, as we receive a less than enthusiastic review in our paper of record for a show we believe in and that audiences are embracing. This ”ding” tests our mettle; how will we–and our show persevere when external affirmation is less than forthcoming? Is that why we produced the play in the first place? For a good grade in the paper? Where do we find the internal affirmation to keep driving forward?
Stress tests, therefore, can often result in a stronger constitution, even if they’re initially painful to experience.
Let’s explore some case examples:
Sean Dugan (David) and Bill Hamlin (Richard Resnick) in Spring Forward, Fall Back
SPRING FORWARD/FALL BACK — in which case the subject is the family: and the stress test is Time and the inexorable force of cultural assimilation