This week LA STAGE Times is presenting coverage of the 31st International Association for Jewish Theatre Conference via posts from regular contributors Cynthia Citron and Rachel Fain. To read previous conference posting, click here.
Day 3 of the conference examined “Witness & Responsibility.” The day was sponsored by the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, and all events were held at USC. The morning presentations focused on the Shoah, or Holocaust, and included a performance by Stacie Chaiken, Next Year in Jerusalem, based on the testimonies of Shoah survivors, and a conversation with Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, titled “The Art of Witness””a meditation on testimony and story-making.”
Artists Panel: Metabolizing Testimony and Artistic Expression
The day’s first panel featured a conversation with artists who engage with first-person testimony and historical artifact as raw material for their work. The panelists were comedian, author, and activist Betsy Salkind; Laurie Woolery, director, playwright, and associate artistic director of Cornerstone Theater; painter Ruth Weisberg; and playwright Velina Hasu Houston.
Moderator Chaiken started the panel off by providing a bit of context in relation to the morning’s Holocaust-based presentations. “Every testimony,” she said, “is a creation along the lines of what we [artists] create.” The panelists work from testimony””their own or someone else’s””about a catastrophe, personal or universal.
Houston explained that she was born in Japan, and the bombings of Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki were a living part of her childhood. Her early plays dealt with different aspects of World War II. To create these works she conducted interviews, first with her mother and later with 49 Japanese women in Kansas. Houston creates her “story medicine” by absorbing all her notes and tapes of these interviews, and then putting it all aside to write.
Woolery started out in theater leading workshops with kids. They shared stories through improvisation, and she was struck by their truth and honesty. She would tell them, “Your story is worth telling, because I’ve never heard it before.” In her work with Cornerstone, Woolery creates plays based on the experiences of particular communities. People from the dramatized groups “bring the expertise of their community and their stories,” she said, “and Cornerstone brings their expertise in art making.”
Salkind uses her comedy to comment on the power politics in our society as it relates to child abuse, particularly child sexual abuse. She writes from her own experience, although sometimes she doesn’t even realize it. “We hold parts of the memory for each other,” she explained. “There are a lot of experiences that we may not remember, for good reason “¦ so it’s very important for the community to tell us about ourselves.”Â Salkind read and displayed images from her book Betsy’s Sunday School Bible Classics, which tells the stories of Abraham and Isaac and Lot from the points of view of the women and children. Many in the the audience laughed as they absorbed the horror of characters whose experiences are usually ignored.
Weisberg grew up in Chicago and long held a fantasy of living at the Art Institute of Chicago. She bears out that fantasy through her art, re-enacting her own and imagined experiences on the canvas. “It isn’t imitation or copying; there is a way to absorb influences and make them your own,” she explained. To illustrate this idea, Weisberg first showed the painting “Interrupted Reading” by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot””part of the Art Institute’s permanent collection and a favorite from her childhood. She followed that up with images from her series that grew out of the Corot. These showed Weisberg’s daughter posed like the woman in the Corot, Weisberg holding a postcard of the Corot while talking to her daughter, and other permutations, each one adding another layer to the re-enactment.
When the conversation turned to the responsibility of the artist and truth versus storytelling, shades of the earlier Shoah testimony discussions emerged. Chaiken told a story about showing her adapted testimony performance to a friend who said, “I’ve known you all these years and you never told me.” Chaiken was confused. “About what?” “Your grandmother,” he replied. She explained that the piece wasn’t about her own grandmother; it was based on testimonies from the Shoah archive. Chaiken’s friend was angry with her and found the work dishonest.
Salkind’s comedy is based on her own testimony””actual events from her life. She feels that, although nothing is universal, it is her responsibility to present her story in a manner her audience will understand, and as a comedian, she knows instantly if it works. Salkind starts with light and easy material to develop trust and connection with her audience before going into deeper, more challenging material. She tries to provide “laughs with substance,” and acknowledged that her work is “not complete until it’s seen” by an audience.
Woolery tackled a question about “docudrama.” She explained that she feels a huge responsibility to the communities she works in. “I am the keeper of these stories,” she said. But she finds that by not using individuals’ words directly””as is done in docudrama””the community members have the freedom to contribute without becoming too vulnerable. Their words and experiences are digested and become part of the play. This, inevitably, introduces a bit of herself into the play. “Bringing yourself can feel indulgent,” Woolery advised, “but it will unlock it [the play] in some way. You can’t be afraid to reveal yourself.”
“You use yourself as a lens,” Chaiken echoed. “What else do you have to use?”
Houston pointed out that even the Greeks and Shakespeare used historical events as the basis for stories, filtering them through their own experiences and points of view.
AFJT president David Chack jumped into the conversation. “I think there’s a problem in taking a historical moment and translating it into art or into theater and being honest about it.” He noted that the artists on the panel were all tremendously respectful of their sources and emphasized their own imprint on the material, but he expressed concern about stories prefaced by statements of truth””“The story you are about to see is based on true events” sort of thing””which imply objectivity, when, in fact, art is always subjective.
Dan Leshem, USC Shoah Foundation Institute associate director for academic outreach and research, said that many Holocaust survivor documents include the preface “What you’re about to read is true” — and often continue with “even though at times I don’t believe it.” He postulated that perhaps the statements are less about trying to hide artifice, but rather are “a question of memory,” an inability to fully express the experience.
Weisberg called art a “vessel for meaning” and wondered, “What do people do who aren’t artists? Where do they put their meaning?”
Producers Panel: Engaging, Including and Challenging our Communities
After a sack lunch, the conversation continued with a conversation with Ron Sossi, artistic director of the Odyssey Theatre, and Joseph Stern, artistic director of the Matrix Theatre. Selma Holo, director of USC’s Fisher Art Museum, moderated.
Holo started out explaining that, traditionally, museums have been nothing but fourth wall””all barriers””but modern museums are striving to be more like theater. They are trying to create deeper engagements and a sense of community. She described her visit to the Memorial de Shoah in Paris, which was designed to create an emotional and visceral impact. She saw hundreds of police officers leaving the museum’s auditorium and learned that they were there to learn about the role the police played in World War II, so that such a thing will not happen again.
Sossi founded the Odyssey Theatre 43 years ago to produce work that is provocative in subject, style, or both. The alternative and experimental plays that he showcases are “too specialized for the media.” He has resisted growing the Odyssey larger, because then “we’d have to become more populist.” Sossi explained, “I’d rather do quality for the few than shit for the millions.” He tries to stack his season with â…“ original works, â…“ international plays, and â…“ re-imagined “classics.” He has a particular interest in timeless political questions and metaphysical or existential topics. Sossi likes to keep the audience guessing and is currently planning a “theater in the dark” production.
Stern is an actor-turned-producer. He works in both theater and film/TV and is interested in works that address social issues. The Matrix began as an actor-oriented theater, committed to the dignity and artistry of the actors. There was no board””no “money people”””so they made all the decisions themselves, creating high quality work. That said, in the last few years, Stern has refocused his goals.
He set out to do three provocative plays about race in one year, but scheduling difficulties have stretched the series over three years. The plays were Stick Fly by Lydia Diamond, Neighbors by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, and a multiethnic version of the Arthur Miller classic All My Sons (which is being remounted later this month). He sees theater as a healing act for both the actors and the audience and hopes to start a dialogue, form a community. At the same time he believes, “You’re doing something wrong if someone doesn’t walk out at intermission.”
Sossi expected members of the Jewish community””those beyond his regular subscribers””to come out for Way to Heaven, a play about the making of Nazi propaganda set at a concentration camp, but generally speaking, they didn’t. In talkbacks, he found three reasons: 1) people have OD’d on Holocaust stories; 2) young Jews want to be identified by more than just the Holocaust; and 3) it’s too painful for the older generation. Stern had a similar experience with African-American audiences at his race plays.
Both producers have noticed a ghettoization of audiences. They noted that most theaters in town have some success drawing niche audiences to particular plays, but they seldom come back for shows not targeted to their racial or ethnic group. Holo said museums face the same problems. Everyone agreed that in order to create art-loving adults, attending art events must be part of childhood experience.
Rachel Fain’s second grade teacher predicted she’d be a high school dropout, because she wrote pages and pages every week and thus failed to finish her alphabet stories. Her teacher was wrong. Since then, Fain has spent nearly 20 years working in LA theater. She started as a stage manager, technical director and producer in 99-Seat Plan houses, and did an 11-year stint on staff at Center Theatre Group in production, new play development and finally education, where she created nearly three dozen play guides for students and adults. Today she is a freelance writer and editor, and much better at meeting deadlines. www.rachelgfain.com
***All photos by Elaine Siegel