Shirley here, with some reflections on the past week.
As you’ve been reading in Ari’s entries—we spent Monday and Tuesday of this week downtown at the Grand Hyatt, attending the first J Street Conference. And by “we” I mean—Ari, me, several of our Theater J Council members, handfuls of other Theater J friends and subscribers, and about 1,450 other folks who fit somewhere along the “Pro-Peace, Pro-Israel” spectrum. How was it? Exciting. Enlightening. Exhausting.
There was a shortage of chairs. They expected 1,000 people to attend, but something along the lines of 1,500 showed up. So no matter where you went, or what session you were attending, there were usually too few chairs. So people hunkered down on knees, sat cross-legged in corners, and leaned against walls. The most important thing, it seemed, was to BE THERE, to LISTEN.
When you work at a theater and something like this comes up, a conference or an event out of town, something that takes you away from your DESK, from your WORK, there is always a voice in the back of your mind wondering “Should I be here? Am I falling behind in all of the IMPORTANT STUFF I have to do at my desk? Was this WORTH IT?” my feeling after two days at the conference and now one day back at the office is that, it would have been negligent NOT to have been there. With the amount of programming we do around Israel and the middle east it seems absolutely necessary that we check in and put our collective Theater J finger on the pulse of that world. What are people thinking about? What are they advocating for? What bothers them? What excites them?
The panels I was able to see (and I am trying to catch up on the many I missed on the internet—check out Ari’s posts for links to much of the great coverage) did not follow a single party line. On a hot button issue like the Goldstone Report you could walk into a room and hear one view of the controversial document, then enter the room next door and hear the exact opposite. Same with defining a term like “Pro-Israel”—there were usually as many different definitions as there were panelists. Divergent opinions like that are hard to place neatly in a box, and I think it’s a human instinct to want to know exactly who can be put in the same box together. It’s confusing when not everyone fits. I applaud Jeremy Ben-Ami for being willing to provide an environment where each of these voices can be heard (and sometimes applauded, and sometimes booed, yes) but everyone stayed in the room. Do I sound like I drank the kool aid? No worries, I actually don’t like kool aid.
On a Theater J note, I daresay we were a hit. If I had a nickel for every time someone stopped at our table, raved about our season, gushed over David Polonsky’s art in the program, and said “Wow! I wish I lived in Washington! This is reason enough to come down here more often” well, I’d probably be able to buy myself a diet coke. And for the new friends we met who live in DC—welcome! Visit us, soon and often.
Now we’re back in the office gearing up for a Friday Tea @ Two where we’ll hear THE WHIPPING MAN by Matthew Lopez. It’s a fantastic play by an exciting young writer, and the cast is divine: David Emerson Toney, Alexander Strain and James Johnson, and will be directed by Mark Ramont of Ford’s Theater.
Finally, we had our first panel discussion for YONKERS last Sunday. Because we were a Pre-Conference event for J Street, the subject: Arts and Activism in Troubled Times: Can Culture Effect Change?
may not be what you’d initially pin as a YONKERS discussion. Though it’s worth remembering, YONKERS is set during the height of the Second World War and came out while we were engaged in the first Gulf War. So the “troubled times” part certainly fits.
We played host to a range of artists and activists and some artist/activists: Gidon Bromberg, Patrick Bussink, Noa Baum, Patrick Crowley, and Jeremy Skidmore. Unfortunately we ran short on time, but during the time we had many interesting thoughts were voiced. I was fascinated to hear Gidon (the Israeli Director of EcoPeace / Friends of the Earth Middle East) make parallels between Grandma Kurnitz and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “Grandma is both an Israeli and a Palestinian…made bitter by the conflict…how (do we) overcome that bitterness?”. When speaking about the work she does as a storyteller and artist, Noa Baum spoke of the importance of developing “an ability to listen…to acknowledge that there is another narrative that is as valid as your own”. Patrick Bussink was also able to frame YONKERS as a story about oppression and how that oppression gets passed on in a family. It’s an interesting parallel we hadn’t done much talking about—how is this story a metaphor for an even much bigger story perhaps? Jeremy Skidmore, fresh off the very political ANGELS IN AMERICA up at forum theater spoke about the effectiveness of a play that focuses on the relationships and the story and then allows the “political to swirl around them”, rather than focusing solely on the political to engage audiences (because really, without story-telling, what are we left with?). Finally Patrick Crowley spoke of the transformative power that comes when people are given the opportunity not only to experience, but to MAKE art. “It’s powerful to realize that you are not alone”.