Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Jewish Theater and Israel

As I work on the Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas, I have been struggling to define Israel's role in it.  It looms over the festival in more ways than I would have thought, as my intention is not to do a festival about Israel or Israeli theater.  But as I work, I find the question has come up multiple times.

It has come up in small ways, at times.  People asking, does this festival have a political agenda, by which they mean an agenda about Israel.  It does not, I assure them.  I rarely speak about my own convictions about Israel, partly because they are complex, partly because I feel convinced that hard-liners on all sides would be offended by aspects of what I think.  But mostly because I don't want to make people feel that my own political agenda is going to infuse this festival.

But of course, it is.  It is inescapable.  I am not excluding Israeli artists, which is a political statement.  I am also not interested in excluding critical points of view about Israel, which is another political statement.  I think good art is good art, as long as it is honest, and of course that's another political point of view.

I must admit that I am worried - there is little in the festival that is truly critical of Israel.  Yet there are things that are celebratory of Israel - a cabaret about Tel Aviv before Israel was formed, which despite being pre-Israel and neutral politically, is still, by implication of celebrating the city, pro-Israel.  A play about the raid in Entebbe.

I may have a reading of a play more critical of Israel.  But I am sad that I was unable to find a full production with that point of view.  The Jewish community includes a multiplicity of voices, and since Israel is such a major issue, I would like to include all the points of view.  There is a very mistaken impression among some non-Jews that a Jewish theater festival will, by definition, endorse every Israeli political position, which is of course false.

One of the Israelis involved is Motti Lerner, a well known Israeli playwright who play, Hard Love, will be produced by a theater company called Genesis, from Atlanta Georgia.  Motti's play is set in Israel, but unlike many of his other plays, it is not about Israeli politics.  It is about a romance between someone from the ultra-orthodox community and an atheist.  I am excited to have Moti involved - his plays have been produced around the country, but this will be his first fully staged production in New York.

The possible reading would be of one of Motti's more politically charged plays, Pangs of the Messiah.  It is set in the future, in the West Bank settlements, at a time when Israel has decided to withdraw from the West Bank.  The settlers, of course, resist.  It is a both highly critical and simultaneously empathetic piece.

Of course, Israeli playwrights are often critical of Israeli policy.  Like most artists, they tend to speak from the left.  Motti wrote an interesting essay on Israeli theater and politics, which I recommend.

The Israeli consulate may help bring him here for the festival.  Of course, that has a small political implication as well...

I have more to say about this, and possibly about Caryl Churhill's Seven Jewish Children, which I have written about on other blogs.  I will return to it..

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Conference on Jewish Theater

The Association of Jewish Theater has announced its annual conference, which will be happening during the time of Untitled Theater Co. #61's Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas. UTC61 will be hosting.

For those interested, the registration forms and tentative schedule are online. I include the letter from the AJT below:

We are extremely excited about this year’s conference, "Jewish Theater of Ideas and Beyond," which will be held June 6 – 10, 2009, in one of the hearts of Jewish theater and the world of theater: New York City. Untitled Theater Company #61 will be hosting us. They are presenting their Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas from May 23 – June 14, parallel to the conference. The festival will include over 100 performances of over 15 productions originating from across the United States and the world, at numerous venues throughout the city.

This year’s conference takes advantage of New York City, highlighting Jewish theatre and culture each day:
• Sunday at Marymount Manhattan College, the college whose Jewish theater festival, in 1980, inspired the creation of AJT.
• Monday at 92Y Tribeca, the new hip downtown venue for Jewish arts.
• Tuesday at the stately Museum of the City of New York where, with other conference activities, we will get a private tour of the theatre archives, the largest collection of its kind in the world, including Jewish and American theater in the United States.
• Wednesday will be at the Center for Jewish History, which houses six different major Jewish organizations, including YIVO with its Yiddish Theater collection.

Conference Fees and Registration Information:
Being in New York, we expect more registrants than usual, and there are space limitations. Early-bird registrants receive a $50 discount. The conference fee is $350 for early-bird members and $400 for non-members. After April 20th the fee will be $400 and $450 respectively, so book early. There will also be day passes for guests and others wishing to attend for single days.

Registration includes three kosher meals from great New York dining venues, free tickets to UTC61’s production of Doctors Jane and Alexander, five other plays of your choice at the Festival, and of course workshops and panel discussions.

Playwrights and Solo Performers:
Playwrights will once again have the very popular Playwrights’ Forum, where we will present seven-minute excerpts of your plays, performed by professional actors and staged by professional directors. Playwrights please note - if you are interested in participating in this forum we can only accept the first 15 scripts submitted. The deadline is April 20. So please be sure to get your play in early.

Solo performers will once again have a solo showcase. You must be registered for the full conference to participate in either program. Please refer to the registration forms for more instructions

Two housing options are available now for those who require New York accommodations: The Muse, our main hotel, is an elegant and trendy boutique venue in the heart of midtown with a rate of $259/room or $130/night if you plan on sharing (a very low rate for a 4* hotel in New York). For those on a budget, we have an amazing deal through a partnership with NYU/Tisch School of the Arts; and have arranged for NYU dormitory room, at $60/single and $40/double per night. If you are interested in booking or sharing a room, contact Kayla as soon as possible: kayla@afjt.com and she will add you to the rooming lists. Don’t delay: we have guaranteed only a small number of booked rooms. We are in the process of reaching out to donors for subsidies for students. We will keep you posted.

Join us and celebrate a new year for Jewish theatre!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

NEA update

Much to my (happy) surprise, the NEA funding survived.

As I said in my (more despairing) earlier posts, I don't think the NEA is the ideal institution for funding the arts, because it can be so easily politicized.  And the benefit my own theater company will get from this is pretty much nil, I suspect.

But still...a ray of hope for arts funding.

House and Senate negotiators on the bill dropped the language prohibiting stimulus funds from going to museums, theatres, and arts centers introduced by Senator Coburn.

Arguing for the $50 million in arts money on the House floor on Friday, Representative David R. Obey, Democrat of Wisconsin, said: “You know what? There are five million people who work in the arts industry. And right now they have 12.5 percent unemployment — or are you suggesting that somehow if you work in that field, it isn’t real when you lose your job, your mortgage or your health insurance? We’re trying to treat people who work in the arts the same way as anybody else.”

12.5% unemployment is a gross underestimation...but then again I don't suppose those who have been unemployed for years because of the lack of arts funding in this country count in the statistics.  In any event, it was a bold and principled stand for Representative Obey - there's not much to be gained politically from  supporting the arts.

Thank you.

The Taste of Blue

Here's a video of a short play/monologue I wrote about synesthesia, as performed last February, as part of Brains & Puppets, a show co-produced by Evolve Company and performed by Tanya Khordoc.

Monday, February 9, 2009

An Open Letter to John McCain

I don't know what's gotten into me. Maybe it's the facebook group Dear John, encouraging people to send John McCain letters about NEA funding. I of course, predicted that any funding of the NEA would be squashed. It has been. At the time, I debated whether art was a luxury. I suppose I have come down clearly on one side of that issue now.

A few years ago, I wrote an open letter to President Bush on matters of civil rights, while working on the Havel Festival. This is on a matter that affects me much more directly of course. Perhaps it's working of the Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas: "If I am not for myself, who will be. If I am for myself alone, what am I." (Hillel)

Dear Senator McCain:

I am not from Arizona, but I am an American, and as an American, I feel you and I both have a cause in common - the health and well being of our country. As a senator, I think it is your responsibility to nurture our country, to see beyond partisan rhetoric to the overall good of our country. There have been times I felt you have been able to do just that.

Which is why my heart broke to hear you, like so many, hold the NEA and what it does in such disrespect.

Senator, I have worked in theater all my adult life. It has never been easy. Like so many with a passion for the arts, I at times had to work a second job. One job was to work as a temp worker in a series of investment banks. There I saw the rampant greed that has brought about the current crises, as bankers slowly lowered the wages of the temp workers while raising their own bonuses, at a time when the economy was its most robust.

Most of the temp workers were in the arts. Many of us went on to make our living, small though it might be, in our chosen field, but it took years of toiling to achieve that honor.

Most of the bankers were puzzled by us. They assumed, if we had been able to make the money they made, we would be. What value, one banker wondered to me aloud, does theater have, if one gets paid so little to do it? Try banking, he advised. Or at least the movies.

At the time, I was mostly working in a downtown theater called NADA. It was a tiny theater, of sixty seats, much like the hundred of tiny theaters scattered across Manhattan. The permanent staff at NADA consisted of three people, all of whom lived at or near the poverty line, but still managed to survive. Every month 100 different people - actors, directors, playwrights, and technicians - used it as their temporary home.

The businesses around NADA loved it. The Lower East Side was then known more for drug dealing than art - but NADA began an influx of artists that have now transformed that sketchy neighborhood into a very desirable one. Every night, actors and audience members flooded nearby establishments, bringing business where there had never been any. With less money per year than the average bank spends in an hour, that tiny theater was able to create more jobs and more economic stimulus for a neighborhood than anyone had been able to provide for decades.

NADA was not alone. The theaters grew, the neighborhood with it, eventually the rents rose - and NADA disappeared. No one valued it enough give it the money to survive in a better economic climate.

Senator, I have not been a temp worker for years. Instead, I have been running my theater, where I have tried again and again the magic trick of taking one dollar and making it into five. I put on theater festivals with hundreds of performances. When people ask me my budget, I lie. I lie because I am embarrassed how small it is, how little I am able to pay anyone, and because I know they would not believe me if I told them. But for fifteen years, I have been able to keep the theater running. Our last festival was in honor of the former Czech President and playwright, Vaclav Havel. At times, when he would introduce me, he would say “This is a very important man in New York theater.” I would have to laugh. Who in America would call someone who earns what I earn very important?

But we are important, Senator McCain. You say that everyone loves the arts, but I don’t know that you believe it. I think it means to you that we all have been told we should love the arts. And I think we should. The arts ennoble a society and helps to form its moral core. In the theater, people without a voice can step onstage and suddenly be heard. It is a boon during dark times and can be a caution when times are better. I don’t know that everyone loves the arts, but I do believe we need the arts.

But you asked another question. Do the arts create jobs? Let me tell you what I think is behind that question – can someone who earns so much less than a CEO really be that important?

Senator McCain, I am ashamed of you for even asking.

Edward Einhorn

Friday, February 6, 2009

The NEA - once again, a political football

I'm angry.

Here we are, in the midst of a huge economic crisis, talking about a $900 billion stimulus bill, and what has been a major focus of the attacks against the stimulus bill? The $50 million for the NEA.

Today's quote: "$50 million in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts — all of us are for the arts,” McCain said. “Tell me how that creates any significant number of jobs?"

Well, I can tell you: in fact, being an artist, whether in theater, or a writer, or a painter, or a composer - those are actually jobs. In theater alone, paying jobs, already scarce, are plummeting. Many artists who are unemployed don't even fall within the unemployment statistics, they are (like me) freelancers who are now receiving almost no money freelancing. But they need the money just as much as the construction workers or the bankers.

The NEA is arguably not the best institution to disseminate those funds. I think state governments, in the U. S., are much less likely to be caught in the ridiculous way that the arts is grabbed onto by any politician trying to demonstrate "wasteful" spending.

Why are the arts so hated? I think it has something to do with the sneer used when people talk about "the elite" and elevate "Joe the Plumber." What makes the statement "we all like the arts" so hollow in that it is such a clear stand-in for "We all know we should like the arts. And part of us deeply resents that."

I know that the arts may get the shaft. But Senator McCain, by picking out that tiny percentage of the bill and making it one of your main talking points on the irrational belief that helping the arts cannot possibly help the economy, you show that, while you say you like the arts, in your heart you can't stand the artists.

Monday, February 2, 2009


I saw Dan Hurlin's Disfarmer at St. Ann's Warehouse on Saturday night.  Dan Hurlin is extremely talented at puppet theater, and as I would have expected the puppetry in the show was beautiful, clever, and even moving at times.  I had qualms with the show: it seemed overly long, and it wasn't clear to me what some of the symbolism was supposed to mean.  And I did wonder, after seeing the whole show, what drew Hurlin to that particular subject.

Mike Disfarmer himself was a portrait photographer who grew up in Arkansas, taking pictures for 25 cents each.  He was a loner and probably had some psychological problems: he believed he had been delivered, by tornado, to his parents door, while the tornado took away the real child.  For the last year of his life, it appears, he lived on nothing but ice cream and beer.

When he died (in 1959), his estate was sold for five dollars.  It included 3000 photographs.  As it happened, the man who bought his estate was a photography buff and kept the glass negatives.  In 1974, the Arkansas Sun asked people to send in some old family portraits.  The man who had purchased Disfarmer's work send in a few photos.  As it happened (once again) the newspaper editor was a photography buff, and noticed something about the photos.  He bought all the negatives and printed them every week for a year.

The editor showed some of the photos to Julia Scully, editor of Modern Photography.  She liked them enough to put together a book of the photos.  The book got good reviews, Disfarmer's reputation started growing, and now (to condense the story) his prints sell for between $10,000 and $30,000 each.

There is a current genre of work known as vernacular photography, which, in essence, takes photographs taken as snapshots by amateurs and elevates them to art, by virtue of the fact that they capture, either deliberately or inadvertently, something essential about a time and place. Disfarmer's work is slightly different: he was a professional, taking portraits. Like the found photographs of vernacular photography, his photos were discovered almost by chance, but in many ways they say more about him then about his subjects.

Some critics refer to his photos as precursors of Diane Arbus, because of the alienated feel of the photos.  The reason for that alienation is clear.  Disfarmer barely greeted the people paying his 25 cents per photo.  He just told them to stare at the camera and not move.  He used old equipment, partly because he lacked money to by more modern equipment, partly out of obsessive compulsion.  But he was a very skilled technician with that equipment.  What resulted was photographs that reflected his own alienation in the faces of his subjects.

Does that make Disfarmer a great photographer?  Arbus deliberately chose her subjects and was trying to make a statement with her work.  Disfarmer was making portraits as best he knew, just for the sake of making the portraits.  He was not trying to speak to alienation.  His subjects might have been happier with somewhat less disturbing photographs, though people did seek him out, partly because of his oddity.  Does mental illness plus technical skill mean art?

I don't know.  The play never really addresses that.  The play itself is more a portrait of isolation.  Disfarmer gets smaller day by day, diminishing into nothing.  In the notes, it says the production deliberately tried to add nothing to Disfarmer's biography, just showing him as he was.  Which is did, and the technical skill of the puppet makers and puppet performers was impressive.   But I did have to wonder, was there anything that the piece said in the end, besides that there are people out there that are a little crazy and a little lonely.

What fascinates me is the randomness of Disfarmer's success (if the classic story of an artist recognized well after his death can be called success).  Disfarmer's photos happened to end up in the right hands, who, by promoting his work, have managed to make a great deal of money themselves.  What does that say about the nature of what we consider great art?  I am an amateur photographer myself, and so often go to photography exhibits.  At times, I look at a photo and I am very impressed.  But at times, I am baffled.  At times, I think, I have taken snapshots no better and thrown them away.  Should I, instead, have blown them up to half the size of the room and hung them on the wall?  Am I missing something about the photo that others see?  Or is the acting of blowing it up and putting it on the wall enough to convince most anyone that it, in fact, deserves to be on that wall.  And how many Disfarmers are there in the world, whose work can be taken and displayed, if only anyone thought to take them and display them?  

I am reminded of the book the Drunkards Walk, which I blogged about some while ago.  It talks about how success and failure in the arts can all be looked at through the lens of probability, that the best indicator of success is not talent but persistence.  Disfarmer rolled the dice poorly during his life.  But after he died someone kept rolling and hit the jackpot.