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Be a Light

 
Our ghostlight at the Wilson after the final performance of Jersey Boys, 1/15/16. (Photo credit: Chris Messina)

Our ghostlight at the Wilson after the final performance of Jersey Boys, 1/15/16. (Photo credit: Chris Messina)

 
 
Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.
— Albus Dumbledore
 

We have entered, it seems, the darkest of times. Yesterday, what seems to be the majority of America (and probably the world) watched (or tried not to watch) the "peaceful transition of power" from one leader of the free world to another. Many of us, perhaps most of us, are scared, for ourselves and for our friends in this new world, where we feel we will be persecuted for our gender, or skin color, or sexual orientation, or immigrant status. We step into another form of darkness - the unknown - unsure if our rights will be protected. My hope is that since things have gotten this bad, hopefully they have gotten bad enough that we will really truly fight for change. Yesterday I kept spontaneously bursting into tears. Yesterday was a very dark day.

But yesterday was flanked by two of the most remarkable days I have ever experienced on a large scale. Today, the extremely visible women's march on Washington, took place literally across the globe in hundreds of cities in the US but also on every continent including Antarctica. My newsfeed today has been an incredible, overwhelming flood of pictures of crowds in pink pussy hats, carrying signs, singing songs, chanting, cheering, smiling. We are proud, we are fighting, we are here, and we will not go back into hiding. (Joan Baez's "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around is playing on my turntable right now and could not be more apropos.)

Thursday was special in a different way. Thursday I participated in the Ghostlight Project, an action by the theatre community across the country - our slogan "be a light" for the dark times ahead. At 5:30 in each time zone, communities gathered and turned on physical lights as a reminder that we will all shine bright for each other in the coming days. "All are welcome," we said, and we meant it. I stood on the red steps in Times Square with hundreds of others, many Broadway actors and crews and stage managers and designers, to remind everyone there and everyone who watched us online that we will not go quietly into the dark. We will continue to tell our stories and give voice to the voiceless.

The ghostlight tradition lends safety to all in the theatre, so that it is never truly dark, a perfect sentiment for all of us in the coming years, for anyone who is not a cis-het white man. So in the coming fight for a better world, be a light. And when you can't be a light, look around - somebody is shining for you. I know I am.

 
I AM a queer, Jewish, progressive feminist/activist/artist HUMAN. I FIGHT FOR freedom of expression & equality for ALL.

I AM a queer, Jewish, progressive feminist/activist/artist HUMAN. I FIGHT FOR freedom of expression & equality for ALL.

 

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Staging a Revoultion

Lately I've been at a loss for words.

Not for the first time (this week, even), I find myself feeling powerless in the face of the great machine of social injustice, overwhelmed at the mighty cruelty of which humanity is capable. It seems that lately in America, not to mention the rest of the world, but I'd like to focus particularly on America, before we have even a moment to breathe after a tragedy, we are struck by another.

The surface of our country is simmering in the summer heat, bubbles of violence bursting all over our mighty democracy, our "post-racial" America. My generation is taking to the streets, shutting down highways in protest, following in the footsteps and standing on the shoulders of the generations that came before us, the fearless activists that marched on Washington, that stood up in public, that sat down in diners, that actively occupied spaces they had been told were not for "them." My friends and I speak out now, echoing those voice as loudly as we can.

I marched in a Black Lives Matter protest back in December of 2014. We originated in Union Square and flooded down Broadway, stopping traffic and eventually blocking the West Side Highway. And as I marched with those people, shouting our grief for the families of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and so many others, I put my hands in the air like so many others. "Hands up, don't shoot," we chanted. "I can't breathe," we shouted, until we were so hoarse it felt like we couldn't breathe. But of course, we still could. In that moment, I felt probably as close as I will ever feel to being persecuted by the police. I live in a certain circle of privilege as a white person, but walking with my hands up, asking the world at large not to shoot, filled me with a sense of vulnerability I have rarely felt. There is a theatricality in these movements, brought forth by the seeking of attention to get a message across.

You want to see a theatrical event? Watch footage of the Democratic filibuster in the senate a couple weeks ago, attempting to start a conversation about gun control in this country. Watch a bunch of people on the same side of an issue ask questions they know the answers to, in order to hold the floor hostage. Every senator who was a part of that discussion (as well as the House reps who staged a sit-in a few days later) knew that their short-term goals of passing a specific bill would not be achieved. And they weren't. After the filibuster, the Senate voted on four gun control measures, two from each side of the aisle, and none of them passed. The House did not achieve a bill before they went on break. But those noble dissenters were working for a greater cause. They wanted to send a message to the people of America that they hear us, and they will work to make change. And they wanted us to see that we have to be a part of that change, and elect the leadership that will make institutional shifts possible. That week was a remarkable moment in America, when I (and I'm sure many others) paid more direct attention to Congress than ever. I watched at least three hours of the senate live stream during the filibuster as well as CSPAN's intermittent broadcast of the periscope feed of the House floor. I'm pretty politically active and aware, but I've never sought out a live feed of Congress before.

I think constantly about theatre's power to affect change, to inform, instigate, instruct, challenge, question, and change the society we live in. Artists are gifted with a need to tell stories, to communicate their point of view in a universal language. But I think that means we are also burdened with the obligation, duty, responsibility, whatever you want to call it, to use our talents and any platform we can find, to better the world through art.

That can take a lot of forms. "Bettering the world" is a very broad objective. Sometimes what will make the world better is laughter. When our communities are hurting as badly as they are now, everyone could use a smile, a hug, and the promise of brighter days ahead. But that future will only come through work, and so sometimes what we have to do is paint a picture for the audience, whether on stage, or through music, or writing, or photography, or actual paint.

Back in November while I was in London, I was fortunate enough to experience a performance by Belarus Free Theatre as part of their "Staging a Revolution" festival produced in partnership with The Young Vic. BFT produces work underground in Belarus, where all art is state-controlled and heavily censored. Their work is all socially and politically motivated, tackling a multitude of issues that are taboo in their country (and not popular elsewhere, frankly). The festival in London was partially performed at The Young Vic, but also included a series of performances in various secret locations around the city. I threw caution to the wind and bought a ticket to a performance, not knowing really what or where it would be. My ticket confirmation included instructions to dress warmly and bring my passport just in case, because in Belarus performances are sometimes raided by the authorities. It took me two trains and a bus to get to the specified corner I was sent to, where I waited with the rest of the audience. We were taken in small groups to a warehouse that had been turned into a performance space that day. The show I attended, Trash Cuisine, was about capital punishment, particularly the death penalty, and was hard to watch and harder to put into words. The performance was live streamed around the world, allowing people in Belarus and plenty of other locations to see the same thing I was watching in London, as I was watching it.

 
 

After the show we were given beet root soup, traditionally Belarussian, and then took part in a post-show discussion, which took the form of an Englishman who is now a lawyer in America reenacting a death penalty case he tried in Louisiana, where he defended a couple both accused of placing their newborn baby in the freezer where it died. The jury was made up of twelve audience members, who had all stated they would be willing to sentence someone to the death penalty. It was fascinating (if a bit uncomfortable) to be a part of the discussion in a country that banned capital punishment over fifty years ago as someone from a country that still has the death penalty. The lawyer-man led us through the case, presenting information in pieces as he'd gotten it, periodically asking the audience to vote on who they thought was guilty, and asking the jury members if they would convict anyone. Ultimately, in the case, the lawyer got both parents off; neither was convicted. The whole experience got me thinking about what a vehicle theatre can be to get people talking about social issues that can be hard to talk about.

The play I finally finished in May is about the surveillance state America has become, something I care deeply about and that is a major issue in our modern society as laws struggle to keep up with technology. And the issues I'm tackling there are about threats to peoples rights and freedoms, but I can't help but feel, right now, in this climate in our country, that I need to crate something about the threat to people's lives in this developed, first-world nation. BFT has perfected a way of using the internet as part of their theatre, to make their message global. I see a parallel between the live stream of the Senate filibuster and the BFT broadcast of their productions. It's about getting the message out to people, regardless of geography. That's important. Those legislators are trying to stage a revolution, too. And people all over this country are taking that revolution to the streets. Now I'm trying to figure out how to take the revolution back to a stage, whether in a theatre or a park or a street corner. I welcome you to join me.

If you don't speak up, your silence will be deafening.

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The Heartbreak of Dreaming

Sunset in the Golan Heights, Israel

Sunset in the Golan Heights, Israel

This post was inspired by a long series of nights spent dreaming I was in Israel and waking up to find that's not the case. It's tough to spend a long and beautiful time in one place and wake up to a different reality.

Artists are storytellers, we are dreamers. By nature we see things for more than they are, deeper than their surface value.  We spend time thinking, wondering, pondering, creating alternate realities. By vocation we live alternate realities all the time. I mean that in the sense of imagining ways things could be, but also nobody read me a story as a kid (nor did I read one as a teenager or young adult) about a person who grew up, went to school, and then spent years working multiple jobs at once to be able to spend a little time on the side pursuing her dream. This life I lead, while not unheard of, is far from common or traditional. But the unpredictability, the flexibility, the constant variables that make up the schedule of a freelancer, paints the world with a different brush. The brush of a dreamer.

Dreamers see possibilities where others don't. They imagine things never created before and, if they're a magic combination of hardworking and lucky, they make those imaginings a reality. Right now, as American politics faces options it never believed possible before, dreamers all over the country are forging new realities for our nation. That's happening through a lot of hard work, and a lot of determination in the face of being told our ideals are impossible.

Some may equate dreamers with optimists, but that's not me. I think of myself as a realist in many ways, making the practical decisions that must be made to make impractical decisions possible. When I was in high school, I made the extremely impractical decision of applying to only one college, a college that happened to be the number one "dream school" in the country. I had no backups. I had a fake list of four other schools I could list off when people asked me where I was applying, so that they wouldn't look at me like I was crazy, but to this day I couldn't really tell you anything about the drama programs at Brown, Carnegie-Mellon, Columba, and Northwestern that you don't already know. I did zero research. I focused 100% on making my NYU dream a reality. I did all the practical work, got all the good grades, did all the extra-curriculars and volunteer work needed to make my impractical decision a practical result.

As graduation loomed ever closer, I realized a dream was coming to an end. Don't get me wrong, theatre school was hard, it is still the hardest thing I have ever done, and I was grateful in many ways to have survived it and to see the light at the end of the windowless theatre tunnel. But the end of that tunnel was also the end of my known future. From age fourteen I had seen myself going to NYU and living in New York, and that's what I did. Yet with that cap and gown staring me in the face, I was completely unsure what to do next. I had been very good at achieving my dreams to that point. But I didn't know what the next dream was.

Most days I still don't know what the new dream is, and I graduated almost four years ago now. I dream of creating new theatre, and telling stories, and changing the world through art. I dream of creating political pieces that start a movement. But I also dream of moving to Berlin, or to Tel Aviv, of becoming a citizen of the world, a nomad whose home is nowhere and everywhere. 

The danger of being a dreamer is that there is a great risk of disappointment. Far too often, reality does not line up with the possibilities we see. Every audition that doesn't yield a role or each play submission that is rejected is a small (or not-so-small) heartbreak. Being a dreamer is full of extreme highs and consequently extreme lows. Dreamers can imagine incredible successes, bright, perfect outcomes - and when life falls short of what our minds create, it can be a devastating letdown. Some days, it can be easy to shake off a loss, but other days, the death of what could have been roots itself in our hearts and makes everything a bit darker.

I was hoping as I wrote this piece it would come to some sort of inspiring conclusion. But the fact of the matter is I'm at a loss. Sometimes things are just hard. They warn you, when you're a kid, that theatre is a hard business, not for the faint of heart. That if you can think of anything else you'd like to do, do that, because it will surely be easier. And by easier what they mean is that it won't break your heart so much when it's hard. Unfortunately, I have yet to find anything practical that I love as much as theatre or rock music. I'm doomed to be a dreamer forever. And I guess that means a lot more heartbreaks along the way. Good thing my phoenix heart is strong. (There it is. There's the inspiring ending I was trying to find.)

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