Monday, September 14, 2009

Revisiting A SHOW OF FORCE

In his play SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION, John Guare asked "How do we fit what happened to us into life without turning it into an anecdote with no was an experience. How do we keep the experience?"

That question echoed in my head on the day of September 11, 2001. It especially resonated for me on the following day when the media quickly assisgned a name to the tragic events: "9/11". When I first heard "9/11" uttered on the news, it gave me the shivers. It felt insulting to attempt to summarize the myriad of emotions and experiences with what only sounded like middle school chat room talk. Its self-aware cleverness seemed entirely inappropriate. Again, I thought of Guare's description of "an anecdote with no teeth and a punch line you'll mouth over and over for years to come...And we become these human juke boxes spilling out these anecdotes."

Of course, Guare was talking about an entirely different set of circumstances, and yet the words of that play haunted me while living in a city whose breath had just been knocked out. It was clear to me that someone else could call it "9/11", but not those of us who lived here and experienced it or saw it with our own eyes. How could we refer to it merely as a soundbite? It was an experience. How do we keep the experience?

The twenty-four hour news cycle's job is to reduce the complicated events of the world for easy consumption, but this was an event very hard to swallow. An artist's job, it seems, is to do the opposite and to open up and dismantle even the most mundane events of human existence in an effort to uncover meaning. I felt a profound need to respond as an artist as well as a citizen to find expression in my chosen medium. Yet, the impulse frightened me. I did not wish to diminish the complicated feelings of that unimaginable tragedy with the artistic equivalent of an anecdote "with no teeth". And so I postponed my work for at least 2 years. In that time, I found my way into a project that as my mentor Anne Bogart often says "looks a little left of the sun" in order to find the light of truth. My focus shifted away from the singularity of that day's tragedy and towards the moral crisis that our society found itself in afterwards as we were running up to war.

It is almost impossible now to remember properly what that following year was like in terms of the lack of dialogue about how to mourn, how to act, how to react. It became increasingly personal for me as I had family members enlisted who would eventually be put in harm's way. The question at hand seemed to be when is the time to put our loved one's in harm's way? Is there ever a time to take up arms and go to war? I dared to ask the question when is the ideal time to go to war?

This shift and clarity of focus led me to two years of collecting text that sought to answer one of the largest of our society's moral questions. My research included interviewing a variety of citizens, assigning essays to high school students, spending hours plowing through books, and reading numerous entries on the Internet. It was a wonderfully enlightening experience. Personally, I was most interested in uncovering viewpoints that were not my own. I desired to understand and to discover. I followed only one rule in this search: do not use any text that used the words 9/11, World Trade Center, Iraq, Bush, or Al Qaeda. While nearly impossible to do when interviewing people, it was clear that these references were so loaded with emotions and politics that it would distract from the central focus which was to look at war on the macro level, to pull back the lens in a broader sense.

The historian and WWII veteran Howard Zinn wrote "It is important to remember that wars look good to many people in the beginning because something terrible has been done, and people feel that something must be done in retaliation. Only later does the thinking and questioning begin." It is tempting to argue over specific conflicts and individual wars as to which was worthwhile or "just". In doing so, we escape the larger question at hand. Almost immediately in my research, a new question reared its head and that was do we learn from the past? Great thinkers and great spiritual leaders of our times have offered their varied wisdom. We claim their wisdom as our own but have an uncanny ability to ignore it when in crisis. That fascinated me. I asked myself how much of what we learn affects our actions or our choices when we are faced with the emotional reality of sending citizens to die for a greater good?

And so A SHOW OF FORCE was created--a play that truthfully was born from the terrible events of September 11, but ultimately is not about the events of "9/11".

Walt Whitman wrote "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am Large. I contain Multitudes". This notion seemed aptly true for this project. The questions provoked contradictory truths and this revelation led to the structure of the play which would become a solo performance. Up to that point in time, I had been working with a number of strong ensemble theatre companies. My training and experience was largely based on that type of collaboration. However,I began to envision a play with a single character who would embody the very crisis of these contradictory notions, philosophies, and politics. To contain this in one person, to realize that all of this exists in us is quite disturbing. The character reminded me of how I thought of America: ever-evolving and changing. America is after all an idea and one that is constantly tested. At times in our country's history, these tests have been violent or have been welcomed. The challenge was to use the words that make up our collective unconscious and to find a physical environment for which they could live and breathe. I owe a great debt to director Leon Ingulsrud and my designers Darron West, Brian Scott, and Emily Wright for shaping the final structure of A SHOW OF FORCE. This one person show was anything but a single person's effort.

Now, it has been 3 years since our premiere. In that time, our life and the context of our world has drastically changed. As we prepare for our upcoming tour, I am mindful of how differently the play resonates. It is both exciting and disturbing. This question of do we learn from the past seems more vital than ever. How do we "keep the experience" of our recent past and allow it to shape our choices for the future?

To be in the room together with an audience and allow these large questions to loom, is thrilling and daunting. As my director Leon Ingulsrud wrote, we hope that "in the ecumenical space of theatre, A SHOW OF FORCE provides a context in which to meditate on war".

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