Monday, January 31, 2011

Outside the BCA

Outside the Boston Center for the Arts
I snapped this photo outside the Boston Center of the Arts last week. Bread and Puppet were rehearsing in the Cyclorama and I was catching a show downstairs. After the sidebar piece in The Burlington Free Press, and my response to some of Peter Schumann's statements, I suppose it would have been awkward had we crossed paths. The last time we saw one another was right before I broke off relations with the group.

Curiously, after previous press releases in which Bread & Puppet linked its touring production of The Return of Ulysses presented the story as an allegory of how "we" use "our Judeo-Christian sky, occupied by a divine air force and permitted by the in-god-we-trust court system, to justify our atrocities in Afghanistan, Palestine and elsewhere." the more recent statements to the Boston Globe where Schumann says "We wanted [to link] the atrocities that the opera after all is about to modern atrocities, so we chose this WikiLeaks exposé of a helicopter of US soldiers going on a hunting party." It's pretty minor revision coming from a political artist who consistently obscures the fact that he grew up in the Third Reich.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

New Play Map

A few weeks ago, The New Play Institute at Arena Stage launched the New Play Map an open-source, user-generated, collaborative project to map the American new play sector. The purpose is to make visible – for the first time ever – all the organizations, activity, and generative artists that comprise our yet unknown infrastructure for new work.
Essentially, as the map becomes better known, theater companies, conferences, and festivals that present or develop new plays as well as generative artists (which could be either playwrights or collaboratives) can add themselves and the organizations with whom they work. The idea is that much like various projects of the WikiMedia Foundation, the more users providing information, the more useful the map.

I admit that when I first placed myself on the map, I did not fully grasp the utility of the tool, and shared some concern with Dan Rubin at Dark Knight Dramaturgy that the system could be "overwhelmed" and I even expressed concerns that only an early adopter would reap the benefits, but I'm beginning to see that my understanding of the potential was limited.

Trisha Mead, writing on the New Play Blog, suggests a number of uses:

• An easy visual snapshot of the new play work happening nationally, helping playwrights, funders (and possibly journalists) identify hot spots as they emerge

• A research resource for literary managers and artistic directors to discover new projects in development and join the group of institutions helping to bring them to fruition.

• Built in documentation for funders of a given project, creating a public and verifiable reference for each step in a play’s development.

The more obvious use for me, as a playwright, is that of identifying organizations that might wish to present and develop my work. As Mead suggests, for those attempting to identify how the new play sector actually functions, as opposed to how we imagine it functions, there's a place where empirical data is being compiled:
For instance, were one to investigate how I operate (and I still haven't put in all my data points) one would notice that much of the time, I tend to either self-produce in, or have my work presented by, non-traditional venues. Someone could ask: Is this a viable strategy for playwrights developing and presenting new work? Am I unusual in that regard or are there a number of playwrights out there using similar strategies? Should more traditional presenting organizations adjust their policies to take in account that this is going on? Alternately, does being entered into the map provide a potential opening for a similarly operating artist to "go mainstream?" Will the map show us models to be adopted or show us where initiatives are needed?

How do I work this?

(Yes, I did once describe the Talking Heads' major accomplishment as being "letting a generation of geeks and nerds know that it was okay to dance." Dancing is cool. I highly recommend it.)

Friday, January 21, 2011

NYT Misses The Point Of Staged Readings

New York Times writer Erik Piepenburg enthuses on the topic of staged readings of plays and while not exactly missing the point that staged readings are primarily for play development, seems to regard play development as an afterthought:

NEW Yorkers love nothing more than to boast, “I was there first,” whether it’s getting a reservation at a buzzworthy restaurant, snatching up the latest handbag or seeing a new film before the rest of the country.


One way to catch the next potential It play or musical is to attend a reading. Before a show gets a full-fledged production, it has to start somewhere.

So the whole point of a staged reading is to give bragging rights to the audience members? Piepenburg actually spends the first three paragraphs making this argument.

[...] they allow playwrights, directors and troupes to put a work in front of an audience and gauge the reaction with little expense and relatively few risks. (Critics aren’t invited to weigh in.)

Actually, I do invite critics. Should any attend, I do expect them to keep to ethical standards of not publishing a review, but the feedback of a critic (or indeed any professional or semi-professional) who is only motivated by their personal standard of good theatre is invaluable. Actors, playwrights, directors, designers, techies, critics, and audience members all want the same thing: good theatre. So if the aim is to identify flaws within the script so that they can be corrected in a later draft, why would I not invite a critic? Not only have I invited critics but after they come I have invited them back when I'm ready to present a subsequent draft.

Although readings don’t promise quality, in some cases they guarantee star sightings. The actor Philip Seymour Hoffman and the playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis were both in the audience last month at the LAByrinth Theater Company’s reading of Mr. Guirgis’s new work, directed by Mr. Hoffman.

Why would anyone be remotely surprised that the playwright should be in attendance at a reading of his own play, especially when he is co-artistic director of the presenting organization, or for that matter, at the presence of the play's director who also happens to be on the board of directors for LAByrinth. This is not a "star-sighting" because Messrs Guirgis and Hoffman are at work, and whatever past arguments I have had with Mr. Guirgis, I have no doubt he takes his work seriously. It simply is not a "star-sighting" when one views a notable individual precisely where one should expect them, doing their job.

This is like somebody being amazed not by the artistry of Marcel Marceau, but Marcel Marceau showing up for his own gig.

It is only thirteen paragraphs into the article that Piepenburg actually has a playwright discuss the value of a staged reading to the writer who is serious about doing his or her job:

Andrew Hinderaker [...] whose play has been produced in Chicago, said readings give him a chance to see his own words with fresh eyes. “Part of what you’re looking for is the audience response,” he said. “I’ll probably tweak things a little bit to some degree. What’s great about a reading is that it’s an opportunity to really hear your work again and focus on any changes.”

Now to be fair, Piepenburg does eventually describe the value that a staged-reading might have to a dedicated theatre goer: the excitement of seeing a work-in-progress, but to sensationalize this experience into being one of bragging rights does not contribute much to theatre journalism.

(Thanks to Matthew Freeman for bringing this to my attention!)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Playwright Laureate? A Response to Lauren Gunderson

Recently in her Huffington Post column, Lauren Gunderson asks the question "Why Are US Literary Laureates Only Poets? Why Not a Dramatist?":

The position of Poet Laureate started officially when in 1616 King James I of England gave the title to Ben [Jonson] -- a noted poet and playwright. In 1937, the United States established a similar position that, while at first a title-only kinda gig, is now a lauded (and paying) appointment.

Not to crash the poet party, but why can't the Library of Congress's appointments include playwrights, fiction-writers, or creative essayists? Why only poets?
Of course, Jonson would never have called himself a "playwright": he viewed his plays and the plays of those he considered rivals (like a certain man from Stratford-on-Avon who happened to pass away that same year) as poetry. He reserved the title "playwright" for those with less literary gifts, comparing them to wheelwrights or shipwrights: mere artisans, not artists; "rude mechanicals" if you will.

Still, Gunderson makes a great point. The relative high profile of the post of U.S. Poet Laureate which in recent decades had been held by such poets as Rita Dove, Robert Pinsky, Stanley Kunitz, Billy Collins and Charles Simic amongst others, has not only increased the visibility of poetry in the American cultural landscape (for example, through Pinsky's "Favorite Poem Project") but has had a snowball effect in recent years: Indeed, most states of the United States now have Poet Laureates. While Massachusetts, where I live, does not have a state Poet Laureate, individual cities, like Boston, or Gloucester do, and Cambridge, being Cambridge, has a post of "Poet Populist." (My friend, Doug Holder, has been lobbying the city of Somerville to create a Poet Laureate post.)

Of course, many American Poet Laureates have written plays even though they are by no means most widely recognized as playwrights. However, I have to ask, as much as I would like to see theatre receive greater recognition within American culture, how would a the post of Playwright Laureate work? Not just on a national level, but on a state or municipal level? Would a Playwright Laureate be charged with composing new plays for public occasions? (Jonson and his contemporaries composed court masques.) Promoting the idea of reading scripts as literature? (Students frequently get their first exposures to Shakespeare not through performance but by reading the script in English classes, often with a teacher who has minimal theatrical experience.) Promoting theatre in general? (In which case, why specifically a playwright, when a public spirited actor or director might do?) Theatre is a collaborative artform, so while many plays can be read as literature, they are ultimately meant to be performed. Would a Playwright Laureate have access to a federal (or state, or municipal) stage? What about access to actors, designers and techies?

Now while I share Gunderson's desire for "raising the status of poetic and dramatic literature in the everyday conscience of the American public" her proposal leaves me with more questions. Would this get more people attending live theatre? More interesting plays on stage? Free up more spaces for performances? Give "emerging playwrights" a better shot at being produced? Make it easier for playwrights to make a living on their writing? Get more playwrights interviewed on National Public Radio?

Is the Library of Congress really the agency best suited to this work?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Burlington Free Press on Peter Schumann's Palestine Controversy

On Friday, Burlington Free Press staff writer, Tim Johnson interviewed me for a piece that ran in Sunday's edition, entitled Peter Schumann's Palestine Controversy. There's a brief quote from me that sums up the argument that I have been making since my 2007 essay, Breaking with Bread and Puppet:

Ian Thal, a playwright and Schumann admirer who broke with Bread and Puppet over the spring 2007 exhibit in Boston, said he saw the wall comparison as "inflammatory." To liken Israel's wall, which was intended to prevent violence, to the Warsaw wall, which was a tool of genocide, was "a deliberate misrepresentation," Thal said.
There are several statements that Schumann made to which I shall respond in greater detail in another blog entry, but I will leave you with one to ponder:
Schumann was called a "Holocaust-denier," among other things. "Ridiculous," Schumann said recently. "Offensive and stupid." For anyone of German descent, he said, the Holocaust is "one of the most horrible things."
To which one anonymous commentator responded:
Let's not forget, it wasn't exactly a picnic for Jews, Gypsies or homosexuals either, Peter.

N.B.: I have posted a follow-up with a more in-depth analysis of Schumann's statements

Analyzing Peter Schumann's Palestine Controversy in the Burlington Free Press

As mentioned previously I had been interviewed by Burlington Free Press reporter Tim Johnson as part of a sidebar article regarding the controversial 2007 exhibitions of a series of murals by Bread and Puppet founder Peter Schumann in which he juxtaposed his stylized images of the West Bank with text from John Hersey's 1950 novel The Wall which is set in the Warsaw Ghetto.

At the time I saw the murals at the Boston Center for the Arts in February of 2007, I was preparing to rehearse with Bread and Puppet for the show The Battle of the Terrorists and the Horrorists as I had done for other Boston area shows with Bread and Puppet over the previous four years. The one thematic link in "Independence Paintings" was between the wall that surrounded the Warsaw Ghetto as a German effort to segregate, confine, starve, enslave, and in 1943, exterminate European Jewery and the West Bank wall that was built with the short-term goals of preventing suicide bombers from entering Israel and eliminating the need for Israeli Defense Forces to launch counter-terrorism efforts thus providing an opportunity for greater stability in the West Bank (arguably, this has worked.) I concluded that the comparison between conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto and the West Bank, likening an act of genocide (over a two-year period 500,000 to 600,000 Jews died from forced starvation and overcrowding in Nazi-run Ghettos (roughly 10% of the deaths in Germany's "Final Solution" to "The Jewish Question") to something that, however controversial, had actually saved lives in the middIe of a protracted conflict amounted to cynical trivialization of the Holocaust in order inflame anti-Israeli sentiment, if not a form of Holocaust denial. He was coy as to what he meant but most audience members, including his supporters, seemed to to understand this as an attempt to pin a genocide charge on Israeli. In fact, his supporters used the phrases "Zionist Nazi" and "Zionist Genocide" in order to shut down any critic. I could not morally justify continuing to associate with either Bread and Puppet or Peter Schumann and so I left after one day of rehearsals. I After being verbally harangued in public over my decision to leave, I decided to recount the reasons for my departure.

I did not see the subsequent exhibition in Burlington, but I followed press accounts. (Also see part 2part 3Part 4)

In the interview with Johnson, however, Schumann said:

"It wasn't meant as a comparison. I simply quoted from a famous book."
Then why quote from that book unless one wants to make a comparison?

At this point I wish to discuss Schumann's statements on the matter in the Free Press article:
Schumann's work was regarded as offensive by some who saw it as equating policies of the Nazis and of the Israeli government. "Independence Paintings" drew that reaction earlier the same year when exhibited in Boston, where critics saw the juxtaposition of the two walls, and their respective scenes of human suffering, as an odious comparison. Schumann was called a "Holocaust-denier," among other things.

"Ridiculous," Schumann said recently. "Offensive and stupid." For anyone of German descent, he said, the Holocaust is "one of the most horrible things."
I already noted one anonymous commentator's response. Let us unpack this statement further, Schumann describes himself as being of "German descent." In actuality he was born in 1934 in Breslau, Silesia. What Schumann ellipses is that the part of Silesia in which he was born and raised was at the time part of Germany (the remainder of Silesia would be seized by Germany at the outbreak of World War II.) This meant that for the first eleven years of his life, Peter Schumann lived as a child of the Third Reich. He saw his country's territory expand and then shrink as it was defeated in WWII. The Schumann family were amongst the millions of Germans who became refugees as a consequence of, amongst other things, Allied reaction to Germany's immoral earnings off of genocide, deportations, slave labor, and seizures. In a March 1, 2006 interview in Real Change News [N.B.: Real Change News removed the article from their website, but it is available on] Schumann stated:
I was born in Silesia, which was German. It became Polish in 1945, after the war. It was part of Germany that was given to Poland by the Yalta Conference. Ninety-nine percent of the population of Silesia was made into refugees at the end of the War and we were part of that 99 percent. We were all looking for a new life, so we live as refugees for a few years.
Indeed, I found it odd that Johnson, despite spending a few paragraphs of a feature length-article on Schumann's life before coming to America, also never mentions the Third Reich, only identifying Silesia as "a region in central Europe now part of Poland." (Note: I did mention this in my telephone interview with Johnson.)
"It's very hard in America to speak about that subject[the Israeli-Palestinian conflict]," Schumann said. "It needs to be said, but it's not being said."
Actually, it's very easy to speak about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are a diversity of views on the topic, and I certainly have little problem finding such diversity. What Schumann's problem is that in America, there is a strong consensus that Israel is the Jewish homeland and that it has a right to exist within secure borders. There is also a consensus that the the desired resolution to the conflict would feature two states, Israel and Palestine, peacefully side by side. Within that consensus there is a heated debate as to how best to arrive at that desired goal and whether the involved parties are constructively working towards that desired goal, and indeed, whether that goal is reachable in the foreseeable future.

However a January 2008 interview with Schumann with Greg Cook, in the New England Journal of Aesthetic research is quite telling regarding Schumann's views on why "it's very hard in America to speak":
I think it’s awful that the Western community does not interfere with what Israel’s doing as an occupation force. The Western community does not do anything about it. They don’t even speak up against it. They don’t do anything. They basically serve as the Israeli propaganda for the events there.
Note that he shifts from arguing that the "Western community does not interfere" to arguing that the "Western community" is actively serving Israel. This is the old anti-Semitic canard of Jews or Zionists controlling multiple governments and the international media.
He said the shows often draw picketers, as have talks by other "friends of mine" -- such as Noam Chomsky or the late Howard Zinn
In our telephone interview, Johnson had mentioned to me that Schumann had complained about picketers. It is hard for me to fathom how an elder statesman of "radical" theatre would complain about being the subject of protests. My work has also been picketed. Perhaps this is a cultural difference, but growing up in a democracy where I was permitted, before attaining adulthood, to read books by Mark Twain, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, J.D. Sallinger, Yevgeny Zamatyn, Franz Kafka, or Harlan Ellison, attend plays like Candide, view films like A Clockwork Orange, or The Great Dictator, to listen to comedians like Lenny Bruce, the idea of being picketed is a badge of honor. Perhaps for somebody who grew up in Nazi Germany (though he avoids mentioning it) where dissent could send one to a concentration camp, disagreement is to be feared, and being confronted with disagreement is threatening. I write material which is intentionally controversial, I expect criticism, and I have experienced protest. The price I pay for my freedom of expression is having to acknowledge others' freedom of expression.

It's also a badge of honor because when I look at the small handful of picketers, writers of email invective, abusive visitors to this blog's comments section, I see several consistencies: anti-intellectualism, anti-Semitic rhetoric, conspiracy theories, and ad hominem attacks. I am proud that these are the sorts of people who feel threatened by the words I write. Schumann is upset that his critics are, in his own words, "a faction of the Jewish community."

It seems quite odd that an elder statesman of "radical" theatre and his supporters are shocked that his work is viewed as controversial, to the point of his supporters routinely white-wash his biography on Wikipedia.

If Schumann can not handle being called to task for trivializing the Holocaust by either minimalizing the Nazi "Final Solution" or by making insinuations that Israel is pursuing a genocidal program; if he cannot handle the fact that Jews have the same free speech, free press, and free assembly rights as "anyone of German descent"; if his only explanation for the reason why his views are not more widely accepted are because the "western community [... serves] as the Israeli propaganda [apparatus]" then Peter Schumann is an anti-Semite.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Mark Twain and Censoring the "N-Word"

As many are already aware NewSouth, a Montgomery, Alabama based publisher, is releasing a new edition of Mark Tawin's Huckleberry Finn in which the "n-word" has been replaced with the less racially charged term, "slave." The NewSouth edition features an introduction by Auburn University professor, Alan Gribben:

Gribben became determined to offer an alternative for grade school classrooms and "general readers" that would allow them to appreciate and enjoy all the book has to offer. "For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs," he said.

Gribben has no illusions about the new edition's potential for controversy. "I'm hoping that people will welcome this new option, but I suspect that textual purists will be horrified," he said. "Already, one professor told me that he is very disappointed that I was involved in this." Indeed, Twain scholar Thomas Wortham, at UCLA, compared Gribben to Thomas Bowdler (who published expurgated versions of Shakespeare for family reading), telling PW that "a book like Professor Gribben has imagined doesn't challenge children [and their teachers] to ask, ‘Why would a child like Huck use such reprehensible language?' "
Is this really about the offensiveness of the "n-word" or is this about making white southerners less squeamish about their history? (I do not have an answer, but having grown up south of the Mason-Dixon Line, I am very familiar with the disingenuous claims some southerners make about the causes of the Civil War.)

The whole point of Twain's use of the "n-word" was to portray how racism corrupted every element of southern life: even the likable protagonist and narrator, Huck, who befriends a runaway slave, uses the word. It is integral to the novel. People should be horrified by the racism of 19th century America. Hiding its ugliness hides both how far America has come as a nation, as well as hiding the ugliness of those who wish to pull America back to its past.

How does this refusal to look squarely at the role the word had in America's racist history make sense in an era where the "n-word" is so prevalent in pop-culture?

I am not an African-American. I do not have a visceral relationship with the "n-word." My opposition to censoring it, however, is no mere exercise in academic libertarianism. I am a Jew, and I am very conscious that there there is a large body of works important works in literature, theology, philosophy, history, and drama in which some of the most libelous things are said about my people. Keeping these texts available, and teaching them in context is how we grasp just how deep-seated and widespread antisemitism really is in western civilization. For instance, no matter how often nice liberal do-gooders try to pretend that Shakespeare had liberal attitudes towards Jews, we need to confront just how many times his heroes compare Shylock to the Devil (which I have lampooned in my own Arlecchino Am Ravenous):

The devil [Shylock] can cite Scripture for his purpose,-
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
a goodly apple rotten at the heart."
(Merchant of VeniceAct I, Scene iii 93-97)

...I should stay with the Jew my master, who (God bless the mark) is a kind of devil; and to run away from the Jew I should be ruled by the fiend, who (saving your reverence) is the devil himself: certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation...
(Act II, Scene ii 22-26)

Here comes another of the tribe,-- a third cannot be match'd, unless the devil himself turn Jew.
((Act III, Scene i 70-71)

Of course, this is not the complete listing of anti-Semitic slurs in The Merchant of Venice. I don't want these slurs censored. In fact, I want them taught in their full ugliness. This talk of the devil is not a mere figure of speech. In late 16th century, Christians were taught in folklore, popular literature, songs, and sermons to associate Jews with the devil, Judaism with Satan worship, and Jewish messianic hopes with the imminent coming of the Antichrist (see Joshua Trachtenberg's The Devil And the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jew and Its Relation to Modern Anti-Semitism.) This was the audience to whom Shakespeare was catering.

To engage in further self-promotion, there's a passage in my own play, Total War in which two of the characters discuss this very whitewashing of history, and how it destroys the present context, and in this case, enable a fictitious Holocaust denier named Hadley:

JONAH: The standard western civilization textbook credits the Jews for monotheism, The Bible, rejecting Jesus, and being murdered by the Nazis nineteen centuries later.

ANDREA: But you’re sort of a minority in western civilization.

JONAH: What you call the Holocaust—the Shoah—is the culmination of that civilization, and yet every page that could have offered context has been torn out: leaving the genocide incomprehensible. Imagine each of Shakespeare’s plays with Acts II, III, and IV excised. Nineteen centuries ripped from the textbook. That Western civilization denies responsibility makes Hadley’s mission all the easier.

We should not pretend that Shakespeare's attitudes towards Jews were liberal, nor should we pretend that in the era that Mark Twain wrote about was a time where southern whites had liberal ideas about the skin-color of the people they enslaved. Twain understood the viciousness of the word and wanted to portray it and the society it represented. Wortham is correct to ask: ‘Why would a child like Huck use such reprehensible language?' but how can we ask that reading a bowdlerized edition?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Signs of Our Times

Three of my photographs appear in Signs of Our Times, an online gallery curated by composer and multi-media artist Jane Wang and presented by Mobius Artists Group.