Below is an excerpt from my never quite finished book about my travels in the Georgian Republic in the early 90's - I am posting this in tribute to my then mother-in-law, Luiza Lominmeshvilli who just passed away. I wrote this many years ago and it is very sad for me to realize that so many of the people in this scene are now gone: Alek, his father, and now his mother. I miss them all. The world is a smaller place without them.
"That's it!" Alek pointed to an enormous cluster yellowed-white buildings that seemed to glow against the thick, inky backdrop of the sky. As we turned into the parking lot Alek’s excitement grew. "My friends: they came to meet me!"
"How can you tell?"
"Shosay's car!" He pointed toward the lot, jammed with dozens of cars seemingly identical cars, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. The cars, like the buildings, were faceless, sternly Soviet, all the same color: a grim dingy white. The only outstanding feature of the entire landscape was mountainous pile of garbage that had long ago overgrown its broken chute and seemed to be taking over the parking lot like a slow-moving, fetid wave. I wondered how long it had been there.
Alek often boasted that his family lived in a building with an elevator, but when we arrived, we found it broken. Alek looked down at the luggage with disgust. "These bags are getting on my damn nerves!”
"What floor?" I asked.
"Three," he spit out angrily.
"That's not bad -"
"Bichoc, will get this. No problem. You stay." And with that he bounded up the stairs leaving me to watch the luggage. Again. I bobbed and paced, trying to keep warm. Along the wall, a row of broken mailboxes caught my eye and tried with little success to decipher the writing on them. Above me, the knock on the door and the surprised delight of a woman's voice followed by a chorus of happy voices all talking at once.
A young woman bounded down the steps, skipping the last two to land squarely in front of me. I knew this must be Alek’s younger sister. She pointed proudly to herself and proclaimed her name, "Leka!" Then we both pointed at me. "Jeni!" we said in unison and hugged. Then there was a simple moment of taking-in, checking to see how our imaginations matched with reality. As it later turned out, we were both surprised. Leka had expected someone taller and more serious. So had I. Alek had described me to his family as "beautiful, with blue eyes and blond hair," and so they were expecting some tall, svelte, movie star-ice queen type, with long legs and golden hair. What they got instead was a short, busty, girl-next-door, with scruffy shoulder length hair, faded blue jeans and exceedingly sensible shoes.
Alek had described his sister as very serious, which I took to mean studious and stern, when what I think he really meant to say was something like "she doesn't laugh at all my jokes." Standing out in the cold night air wearing cut off shorts, a black tee shirt, and slippers, she looked very much like the girls I had gone to college with, and except for the eyes, she did not resemble Alek in the least. While Alek's features were strong and well defined, Leka's were soft and seemed to run together. Everything about Alek was in motion, moving forward, even his hair seemed to move forward. But Leka was settled; she appeared to be leaning back.
"Modi Jeni!" she said, giving my hand a tug. I pointed to the luggage on the cold concrete floor. "No problem," she proclaimed in English as she pulled me up the stairs.
Alek's mother stood in the lighted doorway to the apartment, a mysterious silhouette. God, I hope she likes me, I prayed trying desperately to quiet the butterflies that fluttered nervously in my belly. Here I was, finally, about to meet the only person in the world that Alek was truly afraid of. This was the woman who once, when Alek was drunk, had taken a sledge hammer to the front of his car to keep him from driving. I was terrified.
My mother-in-law, I had been told was a brilliant scientist; a physicist who had been awarded a medal for her work by the Soviet government. She was also a wonderful cook, good with numbers and wise with money. Whenever I would ask Alek to tell me something about her he would start out with the same line. "She gave my birth with only one kidney."
"Yes, yes, I know. What else?"
"She is a physicist."
"Yes, yes, but what is she like?"
"Very serious. Very strict."
In my imagination she became a tall, dark, serious woman. Very bookish, with her hair pulled in a tight bun and eyes in the back of her head. But the woman who met me in the doorway of my Tbilisi home that night was short and round with loose gray hair and friendly light green-gray eyes who cried happily when she meet me and swept me, without hesitation, into a warm – and very tight - maternal embrace.
Deyda Luiza. That is what I called my mother-in-law. It’s what everyone called her: Mother Luiza. A stout, cheery woman with an uncompromising sense of discipline and as far as I could tell only two dress; one dark blue and the other black.
Alek's father, also a physicist, was tall - like Alek - but more round and almost completely bald. His eyeglasses were thick, and heavy, and when he read he would stack another pair of glasses on top, wearing both pairs at once. Deyda Luiza referred to her husband somewhat ironically as "Didi Aleko," (Big Alek) though "Patara Aleko" (Little Alek) was clearly the bigger and stronger of the two now. I was always aware of what a bright, well-educated man my father-in-law was, it shone through even in his "monkey show," an on-going Punch and Judy routine he carried on with a large stuffed monkey. In the mornings he would shuffle about carrying a plate of chopped corn, food for the two chickens they kept on a small side porch, which he would show proudly to whomever was around and declare, "Cheeec-ken. Break-fast!"
Having traveled in Europe as a physicist, he had picked up strange and random English sentences that he would say every now and then for no apparent reason: "Shop number one!" or "Next slide, please."
I never quite figured out what to call Didi Aleko. The Georgian word for father is "Mama," and calling him "Mama" just seemed ridiculous.
A few weeks ago I hosted a panel at the Dramatists Guild's National Conference in Chicago entitled "Playwrights Creating Opportunities." I was very fortune to joined on stage by four inspired and inspiring fellow playwrights: Jeffrey Sweet, Kate Snodgrass, Brian Quirk and Andie Arthur. And while I do intend to blog about the great things that came out of the panel itself (it was really inspiring!), today I'm focusing on a single phrase:
Every Place is a Theater.
This is an idea that came up in the panel discussion, but it also came up a number of casual conversations; playwrights bemoaning the fact that they live someplace where there just aren't any theaters. I remember one conversation in particular, a woman who said her town had a lot of galleries, because there was a large visual arts community, but no theaters. Without missing a beat I turned to her and asked "what do they do with that space at night?"
The world is crawling with theaters. During the Q&A section of the DG panel, there was a woman who talked about an evening of theater she and some fellow writers put together in a kitchen store. I know of a company that did a series of plays staged in an IKEA!
These opportunities were undoubtedly beneficial to the artists, the audiences and the businesses. There is fun factor (What? I get to go to IKEA after it's closed?!?), the opportunity to bring in people connected with your new space that might otherwise never have known about you, and opportunity for the space to bring in new business too (How can we make our kitchen store fun?), not to mention the opportunity to DO THE WORK and exercise your playwright muscles by interacting with an audience. And if you're a playwright enduring the lonely struggle to be heard, the value of connecting with an audience cannot be underestimated.
You may well be thinking - that's great, but how is this going help me get to New York? Well, you've got a point. I can't draw you a straight line from furniture store theater in Springfield to Broadway... but there is no straight line to Broadway, or to anything else in the theater. There is only what you can do today to practice your craft, it is a muscle that must be continually exercised (even if the world we live in does not seem to feel obliged to provide that opportunity).
And truth be told, if I could dream the American Theater into being whatever I would wish it to be... I'd wish it to be something that was happening every night in Springfield (there's one in every state), in a furniture store or a diner or a doctor's office, and everyone wants to be there because it's where something real and new and unexpected and connected is always happening.
The way I see it, I can continue to chase after the dream of getting my work into that handful of buildings located in a few square blocks in a few large cities, or I can look at every space I walk into as the birthplace of the next great moment in the American Theater.
So last week, thanks to Seth Rozin (the fabulous Artistic Director of InterAct who directed the terrific world premiere of "Feast" there) I sat on a panel at the Interact/NNPN Anniversary/Playwrights Weekend entitled "What's Next?"
Suddenly I find myself sitting on stage with Morgan Jenness, Howard Shalwitz, Liz Engelman, S J Dietz, Nan Barnett, Michael Lew and Seth holding forth on the future of new plays in the American Theater. A few weeks before the panel, Seth assigned each of us the task of coming up with at least one practical, actionable idea on how to increase the quality, quantity and diversity of new work on stage. He - very wisely - wanted to ensure that it didn't just turn into a bitch-fest.
I actually came up with 2 ideas (okay, I came up with 3, but I shared 2) - and in the spirit of sharing, I thought I'd share them here as well. I'm also going into more detail here - because I can.
Before I get into the ideas, I should let you know that both of my ideas arose from a single premise: that we have sufficient quality, quantity and diversity of work out there. In other words, we don't have a supply problem. Do we have a problem getting those plays to the stage? Yes. But that's not a supply problem, that's a DEMAND PROBLEM.
Here's the thing, we can't correct the problem in the supply chain because we haven't figured out what demand we're trying to fill. This is just sort of basic economics if you think about it. We tendency to see demand as a marketing problem; we try to create demand or impose - even at times insist on - relevance, but you can't impose a demand to meet your supply. It just doesn't work that way.
IDEA NUMBER ONE - Be a Better Listener
I tend to think of theater as that boyfriend who brings you bucket after bucket of beautiful flowers, but never really does what you need him to do - listen to you when you talk, do the dishes and stop telling you how to feel. This first idea is an effort to overcome this tendency. WARNING: this is not a marketing idea! It will be very tempting to use it as such but trust me, your girl (the audience) can smell that shit a mile away. It will back fire.
You take new plays and playwrights out into the the world - you do readings - lots of them! Not readings of plays you're thinking of doing. Not plays you're trying to sell. In fact you might want to bring shorter plays, or plays still in development. You do them in bars, in parks, at Rec Centers, in offices and lobbies during lunch, in factories, libraries - anywhere you can do them. You do them for free. You bring the playwright and the director too so everyone can say hi to them.
After the reading you get the audience talking. But not about the play - you just get them talking about what they're thinking about after having heard it. And you LISTEN. You don't correct them, or explain things - you just say thank you. This is not for them to learn about the play; this is for you to learn about your audience.
AND BONUS - when you get the audience members talking, they get to experience the thing we want them to experience when they go to the theater - the opportunity to think and engage in a public forum, to laugh together, cry together, to share their experiences with each other. You make space for them to discover why theater is something worth demanding.
IDEA NUMBER TWO - Create a Path to Citizenship
This second idea arises out of what I feel I've learned over the years from listening to audiences (chiefly the incredible audiences I've had the privilege of serving in McCall, Idaho for the past 13 years).
I noticed, looking at the NNPN website, that the majority of playwright programs were open to MFA students from "qualifying" programs. This isn't to be hard on NNPN in particular, we seem to have a fascination with certain MFA programs, and certainly I count among many of my favorite playwrights graduates from those programs. BUT I also adore many non-MFA playwrights, and I'm concerned that our inability to offer those playwrights a "path to citizenship" is keeping some wonderful playwrights - and their plays - out of the supply chain.
So this is a program specifically for those playwrights. And it's about as simple as it can get: offer local playwrights (those who feel disenfranchised from the machines of power) the opportunity to observe the rehearsal process of a new play from start to finish. That's it.
Here's my question: how can we expect playwrights that don't have access to MFA-quality support, who have been working essentially with others who - like them - are looking for support to know the things that you can only learn from actually being in the room? It's crazy. Even if you've worked on dozens of plays with your wonderful supportive friends or in your terrific community theater, there is not way to really know what is different when you're in a professional process. We have to stop blaming those playwrights for not having something that we've out-right refused to offer them: a place at the table.
AND BONUS... giving local, disenfranchised playwrights a place at the table empowers them to make better theater on their own and this can only service to expand the theater community and the demand for new work!
Well, here we are. I've been blogging for a while now in The Land of Noa - and at times hardly have the ability to keep up with that - so I can't help but feel that there is something ridiculous about having yet another blog. After all, do I really need another opportunity to kick myself in the pants for not keeping up with some pressure laden responsibility that I've totally created for myself?
And yet, the Land of Noa is really about... Noa. So if I have some thought about play development, or teaching, or playwriting, or life or health or - well, you get the idea, I need a place for that. I want a place for that. So... here it is. Let's see if anything happens...