Monday, July 4, 2016

Tikkun Olam, or My Life in the Theatre


Delivered at B’nai Yehuda Beth Shalom, Yom Kippur 2008 
By Carrie L. Kaufman 

I have spent the better part of my adult life in dark rooms. Occasionally in the spotlight. But mostly sitting, watching …sometimes trying not to fall asleep. And usually taking notes.

I’m a journalist by trade, and birth, but I have lived a life in the theatre. 

I got into theatre because I wanted to change the world. And it seemed like being in those dark rooms, being on those stages, telling stories, was a better way to do that than working in some stuffy corporate office. And it’s not just because I vowed never to take a job that required me to wear nylons.

Though that cannot be underestimated as a motivating factor. 

And theatre has changed the world. It continues to. In small, personal ways, and in large, sweeping ways. It’s transformative, and evolutionary.

Theatre changes the world in many ways, but for me there are five basic tenets to doing theatre. There are others that come and go, but this is the foundation that every actor builds on.

The first is to always be in the moment. This may sound cliché. Where else would you be? But if you’re on stage, you can’t be thinking about your aunt Mildred who’s in the hospital, you can’t be thinking of the fight you just had with your spouse, you can’t be thinking about your next line, or what’s going to happen later in the scene. You shouldn’t even be THINKING. You just have to be. Present. On stage. And then the next day, you can be present with aunt Mildred. 

The corollary to this, and the second tenet, is to always be emotionally available. The work of acting is not done on stage, it’s done inside. Actors spend years looking at themselves, dismantling emotional blocks (sometimes too much), so they can react, with honesty, to whatever is happening in the moment. Actors are the most honest people I know. 

The third tenet of acting is to listen. Acting is a misnomer. 90 percent of it is listening. 10 percent re-acting. And when you put them together, it turns out to be incredibly giving; a sort of uber-communication. 

The fourth tenet of acting, and theatre in general, is to take risks. We speak of performances in terms of choices. The bolder the choice, the more risks an actor takes, usually the better the performance. This is not easy. Think about speaking in front of, say, a couple of hundred people. Now, imagine having to remember your most painful memory in front of those hundreds of people. Not telling them. Just opening yourself up, showing them the emotion, the vulnerability. And then imagine that you take your pants down. 

It’s pretty risky. 

But this is what John Candy did; this is what Robin Williams did; this is what Amy Schumer still and countless others still do. They showed us this depth of vulnerability, while taking unbelievable risks to make us laugh.

This is why theatre is an ensemble craft. It’s about working together and supporting each other and making it safe to take those risks. 

The fifth, and I think the most important tenet in theatre comes from Improv. It’s the theory of “Yes…and…” You come into a scene and you have to agree with the given circumstances of the scene AND THEN say or do something to move it forward. So, you walk on stage and your scene partner says, “Hey Charlie, was that you I saw up in a tree last night?” First, you have to agree that your name is Charlie. Then you have to agree that you were hanging from a tree. So you say, “Yes…I was looking for my daughter. She snuck out last night—with you.” 

Suddenly, you have a scene. If you said “no” then nothing would happen, and nobody wants to sit and watch nothing happen. 

f you think about it, working to always be in the moment, always be emotionally available, always listening, always taking risks and supporting others in their risk-taking, and especially, always walking in to situations, finding agreement and then contributing something to move them forward…is a prescription for making the world a better place. 

During the Holocaust, in almost every concentration camp, prisoners performed music or theatre together. Some of them were commanded and were for the Germans. But there was not a concentration camp that I could find that did not have some sort of legacy of theatre or music by prisoners for prisoners. They did this at enormous risk, both emotionally and physically. Did that theatre change the world? For them, we can only assume it changed it for that moment, gave them a reason to keep going. For me, standing here right now, it’s pretty moving. 

The playwright Vaclav Havel was sent to prison in the late 1960s, for writing plays. Plays. Plays about losing one’s identity in a totalitarian state; about how language can be misused to obscure meaning and progress. His scripts were banned, but people still performed them, in living rooms all over Communist Europe. His ideas had such an influence that when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, people looked to him to lead Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, and he was elected the Czech Republic’s first president. 

Even something as seemingly innocuous as South Pacific transformed the world. I think South Pacific transformed the world a lot, actually. People walked out in the middle of the show on opening night. Because five years after the end of World War II, five years after we let Japanese Americans out of prison camps in our country, Oscar Hammerstein had the temerity to tell audiences that “you have to be taught to hate and fear.”

Did this make people rush out into the street and demand civil rights for all? Of course not. But the play was so wildly popular that the message became part of the Collective Unconscious for the generation who did grow up to demand civil rights for all. 

“It has to be drummed in your dear, little ear.” 

It’s not lost of me that most of these people were Jewish. 

You know, about seven or eight years ago now, Steppenwolf put out a press release about a fund they were administering to cultivate more Jewish playwrights, more Jewish voices in theatre. I responded with an editorial that called for a fund to encourage more white men to enter politics. 

Rodgers and Hammerstsein. Arthur Miller. Clifford Odets. Irving Berlin. Jerome Kern. The Gershwins. Stephen Sondheim. Leonard Bernstein. Kurt Weill. Neil Simon. David Mamet. Harold Pinter. Mel Brooks.

This is just a smattering.

The people who started Hollywood: Samuel Goldwyn. Louis B. Mayer. The Warner brothers.

The acting teachers who taught that first generation of actors how to “be” on stage. Stella Adler. Lee Strasberg. Uta Hagen. Sanford Meisner.

They all had one thing in common. They were all really proud of Sandy Koufax.

So, on this day—actually, I’m so relentlessly introspective I tend to check in with these questions pretty regularly. 

Have I been present, truly present, in every moment of my life? 

Have I been emotionally available? Have I been honest, or have I blocked things out? 

Have I listened? Really listened? Not just with my ears? 

Have I risked? And supported others in their risk taking? 

And, most importantly, have I met people or walked into situations, affirmed them, and then added something to move things forward? 

Because that is the essence of Tikkun Olam. That is the essence of being a theatre person. That is the essence, I think, of being a Jew. 

You know, when I started living a life in theatre, I walked away from Judaism. It was almost as if I was trading religions. But in the couple of years that I’ve been re-exploring my Jewish identity, I’ve come to realize that I never walked away at all.

So…Shana Tova. And in the coming year I wish you all…a life in the theatre.