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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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Ziggy Learns Guitar

Shoutout to my roommate Kaitlin for taking this picture when I wasn't looking, sometime in my first week of practice.

Shoutout to my roommate Kaitlin for taking this picture when I wasn't looking, sometime in my first week of practice.

A month ago Jonas, the great blizzard of 2016 that pummeled the east coast with several feet of snow, kept me home for a day. As previously chronicled here, I picked up a guitar for the first time then, thanks to a little help from my roommate. Four weeks later, I've continued playing every day, and progressed from strumming each required chord once as I clumsily move my fingers through the progressions, to playing something resembling a proper strumming pattern, moving through many chord changes with ease. In the last week or so, I've started tackling barre chords, which finally opens up... well, all of music. (I spent the first couple weeks proudly posting videos of my progress to facebook, admitting that I was skipping an occasional chord and singing a cappella over it.) Funny how "Space Oddity" is a lot more satisfying to play when you aren't skipping four chords all the time.

As I mentioned in that post about learning Hebrew and guitar, a Ravenclaw heart beats strong in me, its eagle wings fluttering at the opportunity to learn new things. I'm absolutely a studious nerd at heart. As a straight-A student through high school, who graduated with honors from NYU, one of the things I've found hardest about transitioning to adult life (still, almost four years out of school) is the lack of benchmarks for progress. No one returns your paid bill to you with an A on it. I don't work at any of the kinds of jobs that give year-end reviews; I have only my own assessments to determine how well I'm doing at being a grown-up. I love learning and I love feeling accomplished, both less-obviously available outside of the structure of school or a traditional career.

All this is a lead up to say - I have loved learning guitar (and Hebrew), not just because it's exhilarating to be able to play for myself the music I so deeply love, but it's thrilling to film my progress and realize, "wow, I couldn't play that chord a week ago," or, "the progression between those chords has gotten a lot smoother than last time." It's something I can see and hear, concretely. I couldn't do this before, and now I can. It is often pointed out that theatrical disciplines seem to be the one area where people thing "okay, I've gone to school, I learned it all, that's it." Musicians practice daily, athletes train constantly, dancers are in class forever. So why do actors, directors, designers seem to think they can be "done"?

When I went to Berlin last fall, I visited Brecht's Berliner Ensemble, to see a production of The Good Person of Szechuan. At the ticket window, the woman asked me if I was a student. I said "no, not anymore. But I went to theatre school, so kind of always?" She told me that was what she thought (why else would an English-speaker come see a three hour play in German?) and she gave me the student price anyway. Though my formal schooling is over, I see myself as a perpetual student, in life and of life. I realized while I was in Israel that I couldn't remember the last time I traveled somewhere and didn't spend 90% of the trip learning and researching as much as possible rather than just relaxing like (I think) "normal people" do. Even the summer trip I'm planning with my best friend includes several days in Berlin specifically so I can do more on-location research for my ever-lengthening play, rather than explore a new city (though there will be plenty of that, too).

I haven't taken an acting class since I graduated from Tisch, though I have taken every stage combat class I could get my hands on. Physical acting tends to help me, a very intellectual person, get out of my head and into my body so that I don't overthink so much, so in some ways, stage combat classes have been the best acting training I could have as an adult. And guitar has been a satisfying new outlet for my creative leanings and my desire for new skills. It's a little dangerous, in that some nights I come home from work, forget to eat dinner, and play guitar for three hours, but it's exciting to have that renewed passion for learning something new. I think that's a healthy thing everybody should do. at any age. Stay tuned for a new song video, soon to come!

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The Hard Work of Being Broke

The only "selfie" I took in Israel - at sunrise atop Masada, a UNESCO world heritage site.

The only "selfie" I took in Israel - at sunrise atop Masada, a UNESCO world heritage site.

A facebook friend just posted one of those inspirational quote photos - you know, with the mountains and the sunset (kinda like that picture up there) and big block letters - that said "Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life." That post was immediately followed by another friend's post, a cartoon of a horse on the phone that said "when my parents ask me why I only have two dollars in my bank account" and the caption "because I have no self-control and I hate myself." Of late my bank account has had a much smaller number than I'm usually comfortable with. I have always prided myself on being fairly frugal and completely financially independent. I'm lucky enough to have no student debt, and I work hard enough to pay off my credit card bill every month and pay my rent on time. I do okay.

In the last six months or so, I've been able to adjust my jigsaw puzzle of a work schedule (at present I have four jobs; that's pretty standard) so that I have time for things like going to auditions and working on my play - creative endeavors that previously took a backseat to three years of making myself financially stable after college, so that I could afford to stay in New York and do things like go to auditions and work on my play. So, huzzah! I achieved a goal! I am maintaining that goal! Yet now as I get to spend more time doing those artistic things that don't pay out (yet), my bank account sits at a consistently lower balance than I'd ideally like. 

When I look at the number that is (usually) higher than my next rent check or (barely) credit card bill, I get a little anxious that I don't have more of a cushion to fall back on in an emergency. But I have chosen to forge my path in the shoes of an artist, and that is not a path of security. So while I fill my bank account to dance around the line of "just enough for one new sweater" or "I'll pretend I can afford this vintage record," I've been able to fill my life to dance around the world, taking exciting trips to inspiring places. 

Back in November I traveled to England to visit a friend and together we went to Berlin. In January I took my birthright trip to Israel. People said I was "lucky" to get to travel so much. But luck only has a little to do with it. True, it wasn't hard work that gave me a Jewish parent, which entitled me to a free trip to Israel, but luck had nothing to do with me saving up nearly $1,000 to take a trip to Europe. That was working seven days a week and putting a weekly $20 in a coffee can for a year. No accident, no moment of luck or chance put me on a plane to London.

And sure. I could have put that money in the bank, or kept that money in my coffee can to pretend it didn't exist until an emergency arrived and I needed an extra month's rent. But I'm not the cautious, stingy kid I once was. I'm proud to say adulthood has made me a little reckless. Still responsible, still paying my bills, but free to splurge on what I've worked hard for. I'm making a living and making a life. I have self-control and I don't hate myself, even if my bank account is on the small side. I'm free to build my actor's life, my writer's perspective, one audition, one trip at a time.

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