On blank pages, theatre, and art...
I wrote these thoughts a few years ago, but reflect on them now and then....
When I was five, I was miffed that I didn’t have any homework. The youngest of four over-achievers, I was thrilled to finally be going to real school, and felt disappointed that, unlike my siblings, I didn’t have assignments to complete. My mom spoke to my teacher, and asked her to come up with some homework for me.
Mrs. Hecking was in her first year as a teacher, a lovely young woman who was expecting her first child that Summer. She remains most famously in my mind as the woman who bought vanilla ice-cream instead of sour cream to garnish Borscht soup during our school-wide study of Russia. My peers were not ones to turn down a teacher’s endorsement of in-school sweets, and all got quite nauseated, while Mrs. Hecking and her baby-to-be happily downed the mixture of cabbage, beets, and ice-cream.
She put similar amounts of thought into the homework she created for me, and gave me a book of blank, stapled together pages, which she handed to me like a toy, with no instructions, other than a half, here-you-go-kid smile.
My mom called her again.
The next day, the slightly humbled Mrs. Hecking gave me a new book, filled with photocopied activities to do, and saved face by explaining that she had given me the blank book so I could “do whatever I wanted in it,” like draw, or make a story. I completed my connect-the-dots and coloring pages, and then I did turn to that blank book.
It was the better assignment for me by far, as it was an invitation for creativity. I wrote and illustrated a story involving Santa and Mrs Claus, and also the “boss-lady” from our favorite Chinese restaurant, all putting on a Christmas nativity-story pageant. Mrs. Claus brought cookies. The Boss Lady brought moo-goo-gai-pan. I have no idea what became of the book, but it would probably make for a great episode South Park.
These memories have come to mind as I reflect on a play I saw last night. It was in a theatre space on the Lower East Side where I have performed three shows, and I was struck by how much creativity and emotion the blank pages of those walls have absorbed.
My friend’s play was extremely good. It began as a five-minute dance piece six years ago, and through developmental grants from different Jewish historical foundations, it is currently a fully realized play with dance. Called “Bella’s Dream,” it is my friend Dana Boll’s story about her Grandparents, whose amazing story of survival during the Holocaust was set off by a premonitory dream her Grandmother Bella had, right before things got bad in Poland, in which her ancestor came and told her to leave Poland immediately. I was so moved during the play to see her dream fully realized, most perfectly, by the very existence of her Granddaughter, my friend, whose beautiful choreography and writing brought their struggles, traditions, and hopes to life. The play ended with her Grandmother, acted by my very talented friend, Lisa Hokans, telling Dana to go live her life as if it were a work of art. I was overwhelmed by how exquisitely Dana has done just that, and overwhelmed by how deeply her play had honored both her Grandparents’ memories, as well as her own life in this world as an artist.
There was a time, entering that same theatre as a performer, where I did my pre-show warm ups and felt such gratitude for the homecoming I felt in that empty, dirty theatre. It was where I performed one of my first shows post graduation from NYU, “Some Historic, Some Hysteric,” a piece by Ildiko Nemeth at the New Stage Theatre Co.
Set in the Salpetriere Hospital in France and investigating the invention and exploitation of hysteria as catch-all term for women’s emotions, my particular hysteric was a young woman who couldn’t remember what her own face looked like. She had also been institutionalized for her deep grief over the death of her lover. As I worked on the piece, and found the buttons within me that would give truth to those realities, I was also working though my own grief: one of the performances would mark the one year anniversary of losing my brother.
Though my training as an actor involved drawing from imagination, not from real life experiences, there came a point in the process where the director, Ildiko, asked us to bring in a story from our own lives, ultimately to share with an audience member at the end of the play. She asked us to tell every minute detail of a last moment of joy, which would contrast the past hour and twenty minutes of silent torture these characters were living through. In rehearsal I was paralyzed as I tried, as earnestly as I’d always tried complete homework assignments, to tell about the last day I spent with my brother. At the time, I was extremely guarded with that information, mostly because I didn’t want to admit that it was true. The director was the only one in the room who knew what really happened. She came up to me and hugged me, and said, “Enough. Find something younger. Younger.” A little flitting memory popped into my head, and the story I told of us playing in the water dripping from a leak in our roof became the story I used.
Each night, I got to give this memory of my brother to a stranger, and see him come alive in their eyes for that moment. The nights my parents came, I chose them. And there was one night when I swear my brother was sitting there, smiling on at me with eyes that said, “Yes, I know. And I’m with you.”
That same theatre space also housed my creation for another New Stage Theatre character: Death.
Set in Weimar era Germany, my Death was responsible for creating the first World War, and ultimately for ending the play with onslaught of the second World War. In between, I sat as a presence in the life of artist Anita Barber, participating in our mutual seduction, as she danced her rings around death. I had to find within myself, as such a God and spirit, my own sense of journey and struggle, and I why I had become the figure I’d become. I worked out in this room my own interaction with Death, as I’d seen her with my brother, days before when no one knew he would die. I had seen a sense of grace falling over him like little flakes of snow, and I knew that in my performance, the presence of Death had to include love, and mercy.
In many ways, the walls and floor of that particular theatre housed my coming of age, as I learned to walk, talk, and feed myself in those early years of learning how to live in my unchosen, new reality of his loss. It housed a piece I created for a rehearsal in which I let everyone finally know what had happened, friends old and new. During it, I lay under a white sheet, as still as a corpse. My colleagues entered the space to the sounds of sirens, and were invited to take a cupcake off of my body, each on a plate bearing a picture of my brother and me cuddled up as babies, with writing letting them know that at 25, I had just turned older than my older brother had gotten to be. I had recorded myself singing his favorite song, Hey Jude, and had printed instructions on the plates to sing Happy Birthday to me when the song was done. An alarm clock sounded at the end of my song, and when my friends finished singing happy birthday, I sat up swiftly from under my shroud with a huge gasp, like someone who had been submerged under water, or like someone who had been revived from a long sleep, as I did finally feel, after dreading for two and a half years the day I would be older than him.
I thought of these parts of my life last night as I sat in that theatre, watching my friend work through her own life and that of her family. I thought about the importance of blank pages, blank canvases, and empty theatres, and the importance of the artists who listen well enough to know how to fill them. The theatre is the most transient form of art, as to experience it truly is to experience it live, with each performance changing like a new patch of a moving river. But its energy leaves impressions, like ghosts, in the spaces where it’s housed, and no tangible monument could attest so honestly to lives lived.