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:
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
Cast of Characters
Old Richard Resnick, age 79
Abe Resnick, his father, age 55
Minnie Resnick, his mother, age 50
Richie (Old Richard as a young man), age 18
Richard (Old Richard as a grown man), age 55
Naomi Resnick, a ghost. age 50
David Resnick, his son, 19, later 38
Sean Resnick, his grandson, age 18
Christine Reardon, age 18, later 37
The Old Clothes Man, ageless
Let me share some thoughts from a critic who provided important affirmation for our work, even as our same Chief Critic in the paper of record took a swipe at his old drama professor.
A play that illumines a generation
‘Spring Forward, Fall Back’ asks: Will our grandchildren be Jewish?
By Lisa Traiger
November 2, 2006 – Washington Jewish Week
Spring Forward, Fall Back is a 21st-century ghost story, its characters haunted by regret, disappointment and dreams shattered. It features men who lost their mothers too soon, boys who never quite grew up and an elderly gentleman who becomes more childlike, his mind innocently and innocuously turning to mush.
Both a sonata and a dirge for a family and a people balancing uneasily on the cusp of the 21st century, Robert Brustein’s world premiere, on Theater J’s stage through Nov. 26, is very likely the most important Jewish play of this generation.
Robert Brustein. Our dean of American theater directors, founder of both American Repertory Theater and Yale Repertory Theater, as well as a formidable critic and essayist, Brustein in Spring Forward, Fall Back has heard the cri de coeur of the Jewish people.
It’s a sob and a poignant gasp, for he envisions in his tightly drawn story of one family across four generations the fading of a long and illustrious millennium of Jewish identity. Brustein, himself a cultural Jew of the first order, in his twilight years has come to face a painful reality: A Judaism built solely on deli from Zabars, season tickets to a great American symphony, an addiction to the Sunday New York Times, a collection of Yiddish and New Yorkish colloquialisms, and a vague knowledge of the seasons for Passover and Yom Kippur is not a Judaism ripe for successive generations to carry forth.
Old Richard observes himself in his youth, a brash, know-it-all teenager up against his immigrant Polish businessman father, Abe (Mitchell Greenberg).
As a young Richard, red-headed Sean Dugan is a dead ringer for a Richie Happy Days Cunningham; his performance though, even as the grandson David, a wild Deadhead, is slightly wan.
It’s no surprise that both generations of father and son spar, over music, chores and shiksa girlfriends. It’s an age-old argument that Brustein revisits in subsequent generations, reinforcing his idea of Jewish continuity versus assimilation in America’s 20th century.
By the time Richard becomes a grandfather, he’s a retired orchestra conductor whose career began in a swing band; his grandson is unrecognizable, red hair twisted into cornrows, his baggy jeans, black hoody and inner-city accent reeking of a wannabe hip-hopper.
2) THE PRICE (by Arthur Miller; a Jewish/not Jewish play) with a study of the Franz Family – adjudicated by Solomon, the antiques dealer – questions of responsibility. What is the price of the furniture. What is the worth of family duty? Family belonging?
The dramatic context takes this question and subjects it to the stress test — that the family dwelling is about to be torn down, and all the belongings must be dispersed. What did it all mean?
In many ways, THE PRICES is Arthur Miller’s LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO EVENING… Not quite NIGHT. The couple in this play, after all, goes off to the movies at the end. And Gregory Solomon winds up laughing as well as weeping, as he starts over in the furniture business, one foot in the grave, one foot still in the game of life. It’s a play about reckoning with the past, attempting to reconcile with the family; about the American penchant for reinventing the self as a means of “wiping out what we know.” What we know about our nature and all the flaws therein. It is a mature play, and a play very much about mid-life; the crisis of the professional; the strains on modern marriage; the broken filial bonds that can be restored only posthumously, and about an old furniture dealer insinuating himself into the lives of two brothers, whom he’s just met and also known forever, it seems; almost biblically.
American-Jewish Identity is wrapped up in its relationship with Israel as well, and how we identify with that culture.
3) THE ACCIDENT in Israel – Here the test is one of ethic – how we deal with strangers – an undocumented foreign worker lies dead in the road after colliding with 3 privileged liberal yuppies on New Years Eve. It’s safer not to report the incident. What are the wages of this omission?
4) CASE STUDY OF MIKVEH – The idea put to the stress test here: How to ensure tradition’s continuity, even as there are disturbing events that are not being acknowledged and threaten to upset and offend the guardians of that tradition.
[and it is worth noting here that, much as in 2006 when Lisa Traiger delivered a defining insight in the Washington Jewish Week on Spring Forward, Fall Back that somehow by-passed the Washington Post critic, here too on Mikveh would Lisa Traiger, a day following my talk at the FDIC, deliver a defining review of Mikveh (see here).]
Baruch de Spinoza, born November 24, 1632, was a Dutch philosopher of Portuguese Jewish origin. Today, he is considered one of the great rationalists of 17th-century philosophy, laying the groundwork for the 18th-century Enlightenment and modern biblical criticism. By virtue of his magnum opus, the posthumous “Ethics,” Spinoza is also considered one of Western philosophy’s definitive ethicists, and has been called “the absolute philosopher.” In his early 20s, he became known in the Jewish community in Amsterdam for positions contrary to Jewish belief. On July 27, 1656, a convocation of his temple board was called, and a writ of kherem (excommunication) was issued against Spinoza. Although there is no record of what was said in the temple on that day, the precise terms of Spinoza’s kherem have come down to us. The writ was severe, and never revoked.
You might call this, the ultimate in blacklisting; a community’s refusal to listen to dissent and reasoning.