Four Artists at the Crossroads

by Heather Helinsky

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

Recently, at the Great Plains Theatre Conference, I began to ask my colleagues about better rehearsal room practices and behaviors when crossing boundaries of regarding interculturalism, race, and disability. On a production, we are all working with the same goal in mind and like a new marriage, there’s a bit of a bumpy road to get there. Conferences like Great Plains and TCG are an opportunity to stand at crossroads to share ideas and experiences. In Omaha, I asked three artists at the crossroads: Artistic Director of Brooklyn College’s Department of Theatre, Mary Beth Easley, actor/writer Levy Lee Simon, and actor/Artistic Director Gregg Mozgala of the new company The Apothetae to answer how might we better set up the rehearsal process for success?

As a dramaturg trained at the American Repertory Theatre under Robert Woodruff’s artistic leadership, the point of those productions seemed to me was to put international and American artists in a rehearsal room and allow these border crossings to agitate the rehearsal process. I first recognized this while watching Krystian Lupa direct A.R.T. company actors in Three Sisters. As Lupa was demonstrating to one actor where he wanted him to cross during a line, the entire room looked confused and tense, as Lupa had been asking a lot from them emotionally. Lupa was working off a Polish script while the American actors were using the Paul Schmidt translation. Finally, after a heated back-and-forth, someone realized: “We don’t have that line in our script.”

We don’t have that line in our script.

Mary Beth Easley described her intercultural border-crossing and cross-cultural engagement with Cambodian poet and Khmer Rouge regime survivor, U Sam Ouer. “Composer Mark Bruckner and I adapted U Sam’s work from his poetry, “Sacred Vows,” into a chamber opera, called Krasang Tree, which was produced at Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis many years ago. This was an intergenerational and intercultural project that featured members of the Cambodian refugee communities living in and near the Twin Cities area. What I found most interesting was many of the youngest performers didn’t know the horrors of the Khmer Rouge genocide as their parents had difficulty discussing it. In the rehearsal process it was critical for me to remain open to the experience and expertise of all the performers while building trust through openness and inclusion. So this project opened up a healing dialogue that was truly transformative, deeply informed by U Sam Ouer’s mission to disrupt the repetitive wheel of history (Cambodia’s legacy) by exposing the brutality and thereby move past it.   Except for one final poem, Krasang Tree was sung in Khmer so I worked closely with our translators and engaged each participant to bring their voice to the dramaturgical unfolding of the story.  Through master musician/refugee, Bun Loeung I learned how to weave musical gestures from the ancient Lakhon Kbach theatrical tradition into my own practice of Auditory-Kinetic Theatre. I also developed a deep rapport (and abiding respect) with our Apsara dancers who worked with me to merge traditional Cambodian dance gesture into my vision for a physical and visual world fragmented by violence, loss but moving toward a place of hope and change signified by Lunar Enchantment. Mark underscored this fragmented world by using found-object instruments to substitute for traditional instruments destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. I came to learn that, through their training — which involved concentrated, silent observation of choreography and dance — these Apsara dancers and singers internalized every aspect of the performance, enabling them to replicate everyone’s parts at will.  The cross-cultural sharing about being, proximity, physical space and the emotional journey of a performance was fascinating.   My directorial approach during the development of Krasang Tree was guided by these critical tenets:

1) to be open to the experience of others
2) to recognize what I represent to others, both as a human being and as a professional theatre artist
3) to create an atmosphere of trust where we can comfortably speak about our differences
4) to be clear about my creative vision while creating a world of inclusion that honors the expertise and talents of the other participants in the rehearsal space.

These tenets continue to inform my work.”

Mary Beth Easley and African-American actor/writer Levy Lee Simon worked together back in 1994 on his third play, God, the Crackhouse and the Devil. Mary Beth read the play and recommended that Levy Lee should submit it to Michael Warren Powell at the Circle Repertory LAB, where Levy Lee was an actor at the time and Mary Beth a director. Michael Warren Powell gave the piece a reading and a subsequent LAB production, but the three or four Black directors at Circle were busy, so the question of director was raised. “I wanted Mary Beth to direct,” says Levy Lee. “I’m laughing because I can still see the shocked look on her face. She said, “I can’t direct this play. I don’t know the world.” I told her that I would inform her about the world of the play, all she had to do was direct. I’d seen her work and was confident that she would do a great job because she’s a damn good director. What made it work was her openness to my information and to the mixed cast about the world of the play, which took place in a south Bronx crack house. Circle Lab didn’t have a large pool of Black and Latino actors at the time and in the end all the actors in the play were invited into the company.”

“Of course when race is involved that trust and understanding takes on a different meaning. I would think that includes researching the hell out of cultural and racial subject matter required for any given play. That includes historical, biographical, and so on. Then they should share that information openly. On the other end, the writer of color needs to be open to whatever those discoveries might be. One of my favorite writers, Frantz Fanon says in Black Skin, White Masks, “Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is  extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”

Another example that Levy Lee provided was when he was having a problem with some comments that were made at a Circle LAB critique of a Reggie Rock Blythewood play. “Comments were made by some members of the company suggesting that aspects of the play were unbelievable. I spoke out about the comments passionately but some people took that to mean that I was angry. Maybe I was, but I needed to communicate that I was not appreciative of people telling us that they knew more about living Black in the world then we do. The comments were all culturally based. When I go to the theatre, I learn and am educated about people and cultures. I don’t sit there and criticize other cultures about the truth of the stories they are telling. Anyway, Michael Warren Powell called me into his office. I really thought he was going to tell me I was no longer welcome at Circle. Instead he said, and I’ll never forget, “Lee, I am a white gay man, I don’t know anything about what it means to be Black, and I’ll never pretend to. Please, I don’t want you to feel that you can’t express yourself here, in fact I encourage it, and respect you for it.” I stood there somewhat surprised yet very pleased because I knew I’d found a theatrical home. The sad part is that some of those negative attitudes still exist. We need more people, more artists like Michael Warren Powell, who gave me hope for a theatre that represents all. It’s just sad that so many theatres across the country are not making an effort to be inclusive and open to other cultures, and who feel threatened by people that don’t look like them. I believe that openness and respect is the key. The dialogue that so many people try to avoid needs to happen, years ago. As theatre artists I feel we need to be at the vanguard of that dialogue.”

Finally, I asked Gregg Mozgala, whose radical work with choreographer Tamar Rogoff is now being made into the documentary Anatomy of a Faun supported by the Sundance Institute and whose theatre company, The Apothetae, aims to augment the theatrical canon by developing and producing new works that explore and illuminate the “Disabled Experience.” “Dario Fo said, ‘It is extremely dangerous to talk about limits and borders. It is vital, instead, that we remain completely open, that we are always involved, and that we aim to contribute personally in social events.’ Through my work as an actor and performer, I have noticed that the one thing that is lacking—at least in the arena of Disability—is the tools or structure to have a conversation about the subject. People don’t want to talk about it. People don’t know how to talk about it. I don’t know how to talk about it. As a result, people stay reactive instead of responsive and the habitual patterns that keep us from seeing one another from a different perspective or in a new light never alters.”

Gregg Blizzard

“I was born with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that effects my alignment and gait. My disability becomes very apparent as soon as I stand up and start moving. Everyone can see it and yet, as I make my way out into the world I always carry with me a massive shield that has had an emblem of self-delusion emblazoned on it. I don’t think of myself as disabled until I catch myself in a reflective surface and see how I’m actually moving. Disability is anxiety inducing by its very nature. For those of us with visible disabilities, our vulnerability is unmistakably written on our bodies. When I meet someone for the first time, an amazing pas de deux occurs between us. They see me. I see them see me. Neither of us openly acknowledges the fact of my disability. Sometimes it will come up later if the person asks or I mention it in subsequent conversation. Sometimes it never comes up at all. I’m always curious when that happens. Don’t they want to know? Why not just ask?”

It took me over three decades to figure out how to walk down the street and take in another human being! Because my nervous system is so hyper-aware maintaining my balance in an effort to keep me from falling down all the time my senses of touch, sight, smell, and sound are overridden to such a degree that it’s impossible to take someone in, in an honest and sincere way when in motion. All I see is them looking at me as I barrel past them like a human velociraptor.”
“To some extent I have gotten better at this in my personal life, but I am still struggling to find a way to integrate this into my artistic endeavors.  My company, The Apothetae, had its inaugural production in June 2013 at Dixon Place in NYC.  Playwright Clay McLeod Chapman and composer Robert M. Johansen adapted for us the 1920 Lon Chaney movie The Penalty into a musical.  It is the story of a legless gangster who swears revenge on the doctor who wrongfully amputated his legs as a child.  There were two actors in the cast (myself included), and one member of the design team with a physical disability and the rest were able-bodied.  The set was an intricate assemblage of twenty inch platforms that I weaved through while the other actors walked above me.  This gave the illusion of being legless.  One of the actors in the ensemble was a recent amputee who was required to walk, dance, and sing on the raised platforms with and without her prosthetic leg.  As a result of my CP, my proprioception (the body’s sense of itself in space and within itself) is altered.  Judging distances between objects and basic coordination is compromised. This made navigating the narrow space between the platforms while singing, dancing, and changing costumes a nightmare.  I did it, however, because I’m an actor and that was my job.  The amputee actor, was still recovering and healing during rehearsals.  Although I had told her to tell me and the director if she needed any adjustments or assistance with anything during the rehearsal process not once did I initiate a conversation with the group to discuss the issues both of us were facing.  She eventually had to leave the show the night of our first preview for medical reasons related to her amputation.  We adjusted and continued on.  Towards the end of the run I apologized because I felt I had done the entire cast and production crew a great disservice by not airing these issues in the light of day. The able-bodied cast and creative team did not understand why basic tasks and directions were so difficult for the disabled actors, and I didn’t want to explain myself. I didn’t want to acknowledge my disability. This created a separation between us, a lack of trust, and a fleeting sense of ensemble.”

In August, The Apothetae is working in collaboration with Performance Lab 115, producer, Becky Leifman and director, Kim Weild on an exploratory workshop of William Shakespeare’s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  We are interested in the collision of the three distinct worlds of the play; the Athenians, Fairies and Rude Mechanicals and are using an integrated cast of able-bodied, physically disabled and developmentally disabled actors, respectively.  This process demands a new dynamic and way of working from everyone in the room.  How we work and relate to one another must change.  How we go about doing this exactly has left us with more questions than answers at this point but we are fully committed to the exploration.  We are planning on documenting this rehearsal process and sharing it through social media and other platforms so that this experience can be made visible.”     

“So what can I do to ensure these past mistakes aren’t repeated in the future?  What can we all do?  We can practice empathy, sure, but empathy is a tricky lady who can’t always be counted on to show up.  We need to do what all good directors, artistic directors and leaders in our field do- create ensemble.  If an ensemble is an assemblage of parts, then all of those parts need to be acknowledged and respected.  If one or more of those parts is misunderstood then that misunderstanding can lead to mistrust.  Mistrust will kill ensemble, a positive working experience and can even derail the entire production.  We can try to better, more simply acknowledge the discrepancy, the awkwardness and initiate a conversation about the thing that is other or different.  It may be difficult, but if addressed at the onset, it will be a lot easier than if it festers until eventually boiling over.  Chances are we’re all thinking “it” anyway.  Chances are “it’s” not such a big deal.   Then keep walking and get on with the business of seeing and being seen.  That’s what we’re all here for anyway, isn’t it?”

As artists in American Theatre, we attend conferences to stand at the crossroads and ask questions. Perhaps, we look down and realize “I don’t have that line in my script.” We don’t know where to cross the stage. And yet, to Survive and Thrive, we must stay open, create trust, and build empathy.

Heather Helinsky is a freelance dramaturg currently based in Philadelphia with an MFA in Dramaturgy from the A.R.T./MXAT Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard University, where she received the Beatrice, Benjamin, and Richard Bader Fellowship for the Visual Art of Theatre. Regionally, she has worked at the ART, Borderlands, Philadelphia Theatre Company, Plays and Players of Philadelphia, PICT Classic Theatre, Pittsburgh Public Theatre, and Phoenix Theatre of Indianapolis. She has also developed new works through NNPN, The Lark, The Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival, and Great Plains Theatre Conference, among others. She has also mentored emerging dramaturgs at KCACTF Regions 4 & 6. He has been a Visiting Professor of Dramaturgy at the University of Arizona, Carnegie Mellon, and a guest artist at Texas Tech.

Mary Beth Easley is the Artistic Director of the Brooklyn College Department of Theater. She has directed Off-Broadway and in regional theatres throughout the Midwest. Her work has been featured at Ensemble Studio Theatre, Circle Rep, The Women’s Project, and LaMama ETC, among others. At Theater de la Jeune Lune, MN, she directed Krasang Tree, an intercultural chamber-opera, developed with Cambodian poet, U Sam Oeur.  She directed NYC premieres of Levy Lee Simon’s God, the Crackhouse and the Devil (LaMama), and Caseload (The Workshop Theatre). With Mr. Simon and composer-lyricist, Mark Bruckner, she created Same Train, a spoken-word musical, produced at Algonquin Theater in NYC, and featured as a main-stage production at the 2011 National Black Theater Festival. In March 2012, she directed the NYC premiere of Jeffrey Sweet’s “Court-Martial at Fort Devens” for Woodie King’s New Federal Theatre, earning an Audelco Award for Best Direction of a Dramatic Production.  In May of this year she directed William Burke’s “the food was terrible” at the Bushwick Starr.

Originally from Harlem USA, and a graduate of the prestigious University of Iowa
Playwright’s Workshop MFA, Levy Lee Simon is the author of twenty plus plays (including his For the Love of Freedom  trilogy, The Bow Wow Club, and The Guest at Central Park West) which have received productions and readings in the US and Caribbean. He is an Audelco Award Winner, Lorraine Hansberry Award winner, Eugene O’Neill Fellow, two time NAACP Best Playwright Nominee, an Ovation Nominee, a Cosby Screenwriting Fellow and 2011 winner of the New Voices Playwriting Competition. He was a recent guest artist the 2014 Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha, Nebraska. As an actor Levy Lee, aka Lee Simon, Jr. was a cast member of the Pulitzer Prize winning, Tony nominated, The Kentucky Cycle, the England production of Ms. Evers’ Boys at the Barbican and Bristol Old Vic, plus over fifty plays Off- Broadway, Off-Off Broadway in regional theatres across the country and in the Caribbean.

Gregg Mozgala, Apothetae Artistic Director: is a critically acclaimed actor and playwright. Gregg has been in various New York productions Off- and Off-Off Broadway with Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, The LAByrinth Theatre Company, La Mama ETC, Performance Space 122, Theater Breaking Through Barriers, Foolish Theatre Company, The Brick Theater, The National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped, Imua! Theatre Company, Visible Theatre, and the Ensemble Studio Theatre. Regionally, he has appeared on stage at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Spoleto Festival USA. He has worked internationally in London, England and Zagreb, Croatia. He has participated in the Northeast Public Radio’s Playing On Air series with Mammie Gummer and Tony winning director, John Rando. His plays have been presented Off-Broadway with Theatre Breaking Through Barriers and at the Ensemble Studio Theatre as well as the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and in various theatres throughout New York City. Gregg is a former member of the Obie-award winning playwrights group, Youngblood, at The Ensemble Studio Theatre. His ten minute play, “French Twist,” was presented by SHOUT LCC and Semantic Compaction, Inc. as part of the Pittsburgh Employment Conference in August 2011 and had the distinction of being the first play ever to feature assistive augmentative communicators (AAC users), speaking in real time.

  • Emma

    I remember Crackhouse well, and the way everyone worked together in true collaboration. I was the peon at Circle Rep then, given the important title of “producer” on that project, and I loved every last minute of it; just being allowed in the room was such a privilege. If it goes down in history as a great example of cross-cultural communication, it was so much more than that, because it was never really about how different we were — it was about how human we all are, and I will never forget it.