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Michael Rau and Matthew Yates Crowley (Photo: American Repertory Theater)

The window is a small one, so you will need to move quickly. If you are in the Boston area and are interested in idea-driven theater that captures the mind and the imagination both, here’s one for you: Song of a Convalescent Ayn Rand Giving Thanks to the Godhead (In the Lydian Mode), written by Michael Yates Crowley and directed by Michael Rau. This is an unforgettable performance, but it is only running through October 23 at the Oberon Theater (American Repertory Theater’s second stage.)

The character “elements” of this adventure in theater—calling it a play would feel inaccurate—range from Beethoven (and his late quartet that inspired the name), migraines, the nature of pain, the demands of art, Ayn Rand, her acolyte Alan Greenspan and the Cato Institute to a drag queen at a strip club in Peoria. The evening begins with Crowley’s migraine “diaries”—he has suffered from painful headaches for most of his life—but quickly moves into an exquisitely languaged and imagined journey through the landscape that is our lives. Crowley interweaves disparate ideas but does not force them into service of one theme. There are many, and they are vibrant and provocative. The mastery of this work at every level is subtle but absolute.

A review in The Last Magazine references Crowley’s chance encounter years ago with the midnight garbage barge at Disneyland. “It was Disney’s nightly disposal run, weaving a way amongst its larger, more convivial kin on its way towards the dump. There it was, floating right in the middle of all the fun, and everyone was pretending it wasn’t there.”

That metaphor of the garbage barge is apropos for so much of the underbelly that is hidden below the radar screen—like pain, or like the role Ayn Rand’s pernicious legacy has had in our economic and political malaises.

From the review:

In their most recent piece, Song of a Convalescent Ayn Rand Giving Thanks to the Godhead (In the Lydian Mode), that pitchy bark stealing stealthily through our lives is pain. Sometimes hidden, sometimes violently pronounced, it provides the red thread that holds together a series of twenty-four scenelets presenting variations on their chosen theme…Taking as its starting point the vivid descriptions of agony found in Crowley’s high-school migraine diaries, the show is an enthralling and often bizarre excursion that sees commerce with Beethoven (speaking exclusively in German), a small-town drag performer singing lyrics from Emily Dickinson, an Objectivist scholar struggling with a crisis of faith, and even the Great Mind herself (Ayn Rand, for the happy uninitiated).

It’s a combination that in other hands could come off as an artificial muddle, but here there is a direct simplicity, an ease in telling, and a honesty in the presentation that allows these disparate elements to seem not only natural, but essential bedfellows. Rational egotism not your bag? It’s not Crowley’s and Rau’s either, but like it or not it’s a doctrine that continues to inform our society’s most fundamental beliefs. And the particular genius of these theatermakers is their ability to be incisive without forfeiting understanding—a sort of empathy with jagged edges that comprehends the humanity of its villains at the same time as it lays waste to their ideals. There is a sort of wisdom in their work that hums beneath every tossed-off joke and under the strains of the melodica that a long-dead Ayn Rand takes up towards the end (and plays with as much passion and verve, one imagines, as the melodica has ever been played). This, and a startling sense of fun, are what make Song of a Convalescent Ayn Rand such a rare theatrical beast—rarely heard of, less often seen, but fascinating to watch when it is.

At the Oberon Theater, 2 Arrow Street, Cambridge, through October 23.

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Imagined map of the word, Japanese

I am reading a book recommended by my daughter Kellin Nelson: The Art of Thinking Clearly, by Rolf Dobelli. It’s designed with the 21st century reader in mind—succinct, straight talking advice on rampantly human cognitive errors in 99 chapters, each only a few pages long.

Dobelli nails all of us right from the start by detailing those pesky proclivities that flaw our thinking and perceiving. The chapter heads capture much of the spirit of the book: If Fifty Million People Say Something Foolish, It Is Still Foolish; Why We Prefer a Wrong Map to None at All; Why You Systematically Overestimate Your Knowledge and Abilities; Never Judge a Decision By Its Outcome. You get the drift.

In talking about the “confirmation bias,” Dobelli writes:

If the word “exception” crops up, prick up your ears. Often it hides the presence of discomfirming evidence. It pays to listen to Charles Darwin: Since his youth, he set out to fight the confirmation bias systematically. Whenever observations contradicted his theory, he took them very seriously and noted them down immediately. He know that the brain actively “forgets” disconfirming evidence after a short time. The more correct he judged his theory to be, the more actively he looked for contradictions…

Literary critic Arthur Quiller-Couch had a memorable motto: “Murder your darlings.” This was his advice to writers who struggled with cutting cherished but redundant sentences. Quiller-Couch’s appeal is not just for hesitant hacks but for all of us who suffer from the deafening silence of assent. To fight against the confirmation bias, try writing down your beliefs—whether in terms of worldview, investments, marriage, health care, diet, career strategies—and set out to find disconfirming evidence. Axing beliefs that feel like old friends is hard work but imperative.

After several hours of Dobelli’s direct imperative to dismantle the cozy comfort zones we make with our ideas and beliefs, it is hard to not step back a bit and look more closely at your cherished beliefs, proclivities and tastes. We give ourselves permission to set standards and issue judgments, and we do it all day long. Reading Dobelli has reminded me that we each pave a road through the landscape, and all we see is what is on either side of that narrow travel lane.

So “murdering my darlings” plays out in so many aspects of my life. I know what I like after all, be it in art, literature, music, poetry, food. Dismantling those habitual proclivities takes some doing, but the exercise is not without its rewards.

A recent theatrical outing is a good example. American Rep has staged another production by the high energy, high octane theater company from Chicago, Hypocrites. Last year they brought their very popular production of the Pirates of Penzance (reviewed on Slow Muse here) to A.R.T., and this year they have brought another Gilbert & Sullivan classic, The Mikado.

They state their intentions openly:

Our mission – which is ever-evolving to adapt to the growth of our organization – is to make a Theater of Honesty. We define a Theater of Honesty chiefly through two elements of our work: performance and presentation…Through this balance of an unyielding emotional honesty and accepting a concept of “play,” we seek to strengthen the connection between artist and audience, enriching our audience’s imaginative experience…

We will make theater.
We will respect the audience.
We will create a unique theater experience for every production.
We will push our own limits in order to push the limits of theater.
We will honor the playwright’s intentions.
We will hold interest in entertainment and art.
We will change these rules.

Like Pirates, The Mikado is just plain fun. The “all singing and all dancing” cast carries out this wacky G&S storyline amid the audience members and engages everyone in the high jinks effortlessly. Yes, I do happen to love the deep dives into dramatic profundity and the magic of a parallel reality that great theater can create. But by making a concerted decision (thank you Dobelli) to just let all those proclivities go and enjoy a night of being entertained and delighted, I was. Wonderfully.

The Mikado (Photo: Gretjen Helene Photography)

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Still Watching

Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) (Production Photos: A.R.T.)

Suzan-Lori Parks, playwright, Pulitzer prize winner, MacArthur genius fellow, talks about her writing in a manner that resonates deeply with me. She openly speaks about how she lets the spirit inspire her. (A Sanskrit tattoo on her arm reminds her to “follow god.”) “I have a daily practice of writing, yoga and parenting” she proclaimed in a recent interview.

That centeredness spills over into an undeniable sense of self confidence. Parks possesses an artistic sovereignty that enables her to function as her own creative nation state. That is what every imagination-rich artist works for.

From a recent article about Parks by Patrick Healy in New York Times:

But here’s the thing about Ms. Parks: When she thinks she’s right, she’s certain of it. No doubts, no fretting about self-sabotage. While some have knocked her work as self-indulgent or annoying at times, she has an exceptionally vivid sense of herself as a writer who exists on another plane from dramaturgical nit-pickers.

That passage couples nicely with this Parks quote about process from a remarkable interview/conversation with playwright Han Ong in Bomb magazine:

Well, that’s it. It takes a suspension of ego. In the old days, it was, “willingly suspend your disbelief” But now it’s, for me, “get out of the way.” It’s Zen. Suspend your ego long enough to ask the question, who am I, really? I write for me.

These twin concepts—artistic sovereignty and the Zen-like trusting of the process—are extremely well developed in Parks and so admirable. But Parks also commands my respect with her passion for writing stories about and for African Americans. Parks shares her raison d’être quite succinctly in her conversation with Ong: “I write plays because I love black people. I just figured it out fairly recently. Not that I had any other reason before that, but I realized why I want black people on stage—because I love them. And it probably sounds very vague, but it’s true.”

Taking that concept further, John Heilpern quotes Parks in his piece Voices from the Edge:

“Because of a shameful past,” she points out, “there’s an equation from both whites and blacks that automatically goes: Black people are oppressed. There are some wonderful plays about the black struggle—but is that all we get to write about? There’s another equation, I think. And that’s what I’m interested in. How about black people, period? What if you remove the racial tension for a moment? What, then, is the drama and what kind of theater does it make? Maybe really weird theater! But I’m trying to remove the straitjacket.”

Aligning with Parks’ intentions and approach doesn’t necessarily guarantee a connection with her work however. Parks’ recent play, Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), is on a run at A.R.T. in Cambridge after its premiere at the Public Theater in New York City last fall. (In his review in the New York Times, Christopher Isherwood heralded these first three plays as Parks’ best work so far.) As much as I wanted to connect deeply with this latest work, I found it difficult.

Taking place in the Civil War, these three one-hour plays offer a fresh deconstruction of Homer’s Odyssey. The protagonist is a slave named Hero (later called Ulysses,) his wife Penny, a dog named “Odd-See,” fellow slave Homer and a small “chorus” of other slaves. Part 1 is the set up for Hero’s decision to go to war on the Confederate side with his “boss-master.” Part 2 takes place during the war, and Part 3 is Hero/Ulysses’s return home after the Emancipation Proclamation.

As a story line, this is rich with possibility. But that sense of possibility was thwarted early on for me. Perhaps it was pacing. Parks often talks about how language is music (“There are aspects of music that I borrow and use in my work: repetition and revision. A big part of jazz is repeat and revise, and repeat and revise,” she told Ong.) The rhythm of the whole evening was colored by a tedious beginning. The cadence of the dialogue felt slow and labored, more irritating than enchanting. There were individual moments when language and character did come together—the fierce monologue by the white Colonel/boss-master about how grateful he is that he is white, Hero’s meditation on his worth (as a slave or as a free man), the oddly out of place but engaging soliloquy by the talking dog Odd-See. But I struggled to find the thread that could hold all these pieces together in a meaningful arc, and it escaped me.

It could just be a quirk in me, so I have spent a lot of time thinking about why these plays missed the mark. It may be that I just happened to see them on one of those nights when that mystical theatrical magic—the alchemy that transforms words, actors, music, sets into another reality—just wasn’t happening. I did speak with three other people who also saw the play, two of them on a different night. They also had issues although their list was different than my own. It wasn’t stitching together as a whole for any of us, but each of us had our own explanations for why that is. I would love to have someone who adored this play tell me why they did.

Parks has announced that there are nine parts to this work, a long term project that ambitiously takes on the 100 years subsequent to the Civil War. The remaining six parts will follow the progeny of these characters as they navigate an America that we all know too well as crippled by a legacy of race discrimination. Parks is so formidable an artist that my dissatisfaction with this first installment does not preclude me from telling people to see the play and to sign up to sail with Parks on this ambitious voyage. I am, in spite of my reservations, very curious to see where she will take this narrative in its larger arc.

Yes, I’m still watching.

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The Golden Ruhl

Sarah Ruhl

Sarah Ruhl, award winning playwright and member of the genius grant class (it’s a badge you can wear for life), has been the theme of my week. Her recently released book, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater, is like trailing after a very verbal and intelligent friend who is, at the same time, juggling her three hyperactive small children.

That is the truth of Ruhl’s life right now, and her book has been written with that reality evident. But at no point does her dual citizenship come off as self-conscious, manipulative or fey. The two black holes of her life—those spheres where demand for attention is limitless and never satiated—are art making and parenting. And in the face of those great sucking sounds, she comes to a position I wish I had found when I was struggling with those issues years ago: Quit trying to win and just surrender.

From Rachel Cusk‘s review in the New York Times:

In these short (and sometimes very short — one of them consists of a single word) essays, Ruhl anatomizes the central drama of creativity, whereby the self and the business of living are found to contain the moral structure of everything that lies outside it. The question of gender quickly becomes germane: How can a woman writer, a mother of three children and embroiled in the domesticity that comes with them, be expected to believe that her condition of life, far from marginalizing her, is in fact bringing her closer to ultimate forms of knowledge? It is a question not just of interruptions but of that other Woolfian theme, cultural notions of importance. “There were times when it felt as though my children were annihilating me,” Ruhl writes in her first essay, “On Interruptions.” “And finally I came to the thought, all right, then, annihilate me; that other self was a fiction anyhow.” The “other self” was Ruhl’s identity as a writer, which she had been trying to cosset and protect from invasion; yet this moment of surrender, crucially, gives her back her artistic authority. “I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life. And that, tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion. At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life.”

What follows is a set of observations whose most noticeable characteristic is the freedom of association. Having been left with no choice but to interrogate culture from an autobiographical position, Ruhl discovers there a far greater intellectual liberty. The 100 essays represent 100 different links between art and reality, as Ruhl’s meditations on writing and staging plays find reflection in her experience of family life, friendship, illness and ordinariness.

Ruhl is smart and she is funny. Her insights into theater, writing and what matters are worthy but not overwrought. One essay, “An essay in praise of smallness,” is simply one sentence: “I admire minimalism.” In an essay entitled “Is there an objective standard of taste?” she answers, “No.”

In keeping with this Ruhl-themed week, I also saw a production of Dear Elizabeth, Ruhl’s play about Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. Culling through the 400 letters written between these two extraordinary poets over their 30 year friendship, Ruhl portrays a connection that was deeply sustaining to both writers through their trouble-fraught, complex, often lonely lives.

Ruhl has described her approach to theater: “I try to interpret how people subjectively experience life. Everyone has a great horrible opera in them.” Ruhl’s gift is being able to reach into the “great horrible operas” that were the lives of these two poets and pull out the story of a friendship that was so elemental and life sustaining for them both. The sincerity of their affection, the depth of their artistic connection, the innocence and vulnerability they were able to share with each other—this is a rare and extraordinary storyline, one that Ruhl has carefully crafted from their own words.

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Doing Neverland

J. M. Barrie

How does it happen, that a something—an image, a story, a meme—secures a spot in the cultural collective, that shared image/idea database full of entities everyone in our cultural milieu recognizes? Some are ancient, like the stories from the Greeks (Aphrodite, Apollo, Zeus) and the Bible (Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham), and some are contemporary, often cinematically sourced (The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Star Wars.) Once apotheotized, those entities take on a quality of ambience, accessible to all of us without having to be languaged or explained.

The story of Peter Pan took up residence in our Western collective unconscious soon after it was written by the Scottish writer J. M. Barrie in the early years of the 20th century. It emerged from his books and plays, and immediately it was embraced, adored and immortalized. The world of children. A charismatic boy who refuses to grow up and what’s more, can fly. Fairies. Adventures without adults. The enchanted world of Neverland. The boundarylessness of imagination.

This storyline so full of playfulness and hope has its own tragic sourcing. The youngest of ten children, Barrie lost his brother David from a skating accident. To comfort his devastated mother, young James dressed up like his brother and even mimicked his speech. This charade born of grief became a pattern, and when James turned 13—the age that David was when he died—James literally stopped growing. For the rest of his life he remained five feet tall, had a high pitched voice and felt more at home with children than he did with his peers. When Barrie met the Llewelyn Davies family of boys in Kensington Park, the bond was immediate and deep. (After the boys’ parents both died, Barrie became their guardian.)

The Llewelyn Davies boys

Finding Neverland is the latest musical theater production by Diane Paulus at American Rep Theater in Cambridge. There is however no flying Peter Pan or a crocodile with a ticking clock below the plank in this production. The story of Peter Pan is the given that we all already know, and Finding Neverland steps out beyond that shared storyline to expand the context. This is a production about Barrie himself and his beloved Llewelyn Davies boys, brought to life in song, dance and theatrical magic.

And these days no one is doing the “brought to life in song, dance and theatrical magic” better than Diane Paulus. (Her four recent Tony awards are now ensconced in the Loeb Theater lobby.) The professionalism of this production is breathtaking. Paulus has repeatedly demonstrated her genius at assembling All Star rosters for these Broadway-bound productions, and in this one she has brought together a world class team of playwright James Graham, musicians/lyricists Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, choreographer Mia Michaels, and performers who are, to the person, spectacular. What’s more, this time she has the added imprimatur of celebrity producer Harvey Weinstein of Miramax.

The show is nearly sold out and a big hit with audiences. It is already slated to open on Broadway in March of next year. And even for musical theater curmudgeons like me who are more partial to serious drama, the spell cast by such flawless execution made the evening a memorable one. My daughter Kellin did not inherit my musical theater disaffection, and she was utterly enchanted by this production. Neither of us will ever forget the breathtaking artistry of Sylvia’s exit. (I won’t say more in case you are planning to see the play.)

Finding Neverland runs through September 28 at the Loeb Theater. Ticket information here.

The American Rep Theater production of “Finding Neverland” (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

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The Tempest, at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge MA (Photo: A.R.T.)

Ah Prospero. You are my favorite character in all of Shakespeare! The masterful conjurings, the lonely exile, the fierce revenge still raging after twelve years away from the lost Dukedom of Milan, the Other embodied in ethereality and earthiness, the willingness in the end to forgive and forego—there are so many parts of his story that have resonance for me. Many have described Prospero as a primal symbol for the solitary (and often solipsistic) artist, and others see him as a particularly personal stand in for Shakespeare himself (it was the last play he wrote before returning to Stratford upon Avon, and he died just two years later). It is a poetic fantasy, and one that asks for us to step out of the world that we know and to enter into a phantasm of sprites, monsters, magic and manipulated nature.

A.R.T.’s new production of Prospero’s world, The Tempest, makes stepping out of our world and into another domain quite effortless. Aided by the skillful blending of what may seem like disparate themes—old time dustbowl carney shows, classical magic tricks (even cards!), the rough and tumble earthiness of Tom Waits’ music played by rough and tumble musicians, physical performers and Pilobolus-inspired acrobatism, staging in and off the proscenium—Prospero’s island laboratory of extraordinary powers invites us in and we are all his, ready to be enchanted.

Co-directors Aaron Posner and Teller (the quiet one from the Penn & Teller magic duo), have also blended their quite disparate visions of the play in a way that gives it a richly layered texture. For Posner The Tempest is a family play, with the island inhabitants of Prospero, Miranda, Ariel and Caliban making up an odd but not unfamiliar version of the dysfunctional family. For Teller it is the magic, the thing he loves most in life. “How different Prospero is from typical fairy tale wizards,” Teller writes. “He doesn’t use spells and potions to affect the physical world. He creates shows, and those shows—‘that insubstantial pagaent’—are his weapons. That makes him less like a warlock than like a stage magician.” But as Teller points out, Prospero gives it all up, the very thing that is so essential to his very being. And why? For the love for his daughter, Miranda. Which brings all the theatrics right back to Posner’s view of the play as a story about family.

Yes, the editing of the play has been generous, but I do not take issue with that. Purists are often offended by any prunings of the Bard’s original material. But many of us know this play well, and the well-placed nips and tucks hold this production together in a way that does not feel inadequate or abusive of its intent. And what performances! Nate Dendy‘s Ariel is the best I have ever seen—every move he makes is light as air, and in the end he disappears from the stage as if by magic(!)—plus a Caliban cobbled from two sets of bodies is unforgettable.

We all agreed we would love to see it again. But we would need some serious conjuring skills of our own to make that happen since every show is sold out for the rest of the run through June 15. Standing room, anyone?

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Moe Angelos as young Susan Sontag (and as an older Sontag on a scrim above) in the Builders Association’s “Sontag: Reborn.” (Photo: James Gibbs)

Susan Sontag, author of many books that are now classics—Against Interpretation, On Photography, Illness as Metaphor, Where the Stress Falls, Regarding the Pain of Others—has been gone for 10 years. But her trenchant writing, brilliant insights and fearless expressiveness have kept her very much alive, here in the present. She comes up in conversation frequently in my life, and her books are some of my favorites. Now that her journals are available—she began writing them when she was a precocious and voraciously curious 14 year old—the evolution of her mind’s development has been laid open.

It is a tempting idea to capture Sontag’s quickfire thinking in a theatrical setting, and I can think of a thousand ways it would not work. But when your team is actor and adapter Moe Angelos, director Marianne Weems and the rest of Builders Association team, that rarefied Sontagian world is recreated with a multidimensional richness that is mystifying. In Sontag: Reborn, the many textures are captured—how the mind thinks, how reality is constantly being parsed, how a writer arduously creates (and invents) a self.

“We tried to stage her mind at work, her mental process, in a small way,” says Angelos who plays Sontag both as a young woman and later in her life. Part of that mental process involves the vulnerability that was so evident in the young Sontag, a quality that really struck Angelos when she poured over Sontag’s unedited journals in the Sontag archives at UCLA. Experiencing the awkwardness and discomfort of a young brilliant woman gives a new dimension to the hard edged, combative woman that Sontag was known to be in her later life.

While there is only one actor on stage throughout, this is nothing like the genre of the one woman show. Angelos sits at a desk and begins as a teenaged Sontag. Projected nearby is a larger-than-life image of Angelos playing an older Sontag with that signatory white mane. As the young Sontag shares her insights, the older Sontag interacts and comments. (How appropriate given Sontag’s predilection to review her own early journal entires and allow her older self to annotate them.) Words appear on the screen behind Angelos as she writes, and phrases periodically unravel out towards the audience. The dreamy specter of an older self, the stacks of books that were so beloved, the agonizing struggle to make sense of the self and of life–it all comes together to open up a theatrical window into the private and evolving mind of a writer.

I have heard about Builders Association and their singular mastery of multimedia, but this is the first production by them that I have seen. Their own description is a good one: “The company uses the richness of new and old tools to extend the boundaries of theatre. Based on innovative collaborations, they blend stage performance, text, video, sound and architecture to tell stories about human experience in the 21st century.” I won’t be missing any of their future productions.

If you are in Boston, if you love words, if you are fascinated by Sontag, if you are engaged in the life of the mind, this is for you. The performance is at the Paramount Center and runs through May 18. For more information, see ArtsEmerson.

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From “The Shape She Makes” at American Repertory Theater (Photo: American Rep Theater)

Stories move in circles.
They don’t move in straight lines.
So it helps if you listen in circles.
There are stories inside stories
and stories between stories,
and finding your way through them
is as easy and as hard as finding your way home.

(Quoted by Deena Metzger in Writing for Your Life: Discovering the Story of Your Life’s Journey and attributed to A Traveling Jewish Theatre, Coming from a Great Distance.

On the surface, The Shape She Makes (a world premiere presentation by American Repertory Theater in Cambridge) is the intimate telling of one woman’s life journey, Quincy Beth Harris. She is 11 years old when we first meet her, and already she is exceptional: She has achieved a perfect score on the Brackstone Math Test. But not all geniuses land in a family environment that nurtures their gifts, and Quincy didn’t score high on the Family Support Test. She lives with a dysfunctional mother, and her father abandoned them both when she was two. Her life is not going to be an easy one, and that path into adulthood is the subject of The Shape She Makes.

Quincy has a powerfully linear mind, but the telling of her journey does not follow a linear narrative. This is storytelling that intertwines movement, dialogue, music, pantomime. The blending of these many forms of expression feels effortless and unforced, and the rounded, full bodied nature of the narrative makes it easy to feel intimacy with a story that is so personal and also so heartbreaking.

Even the audience is a participant in this telling. When the story begins, we are asked to play the role of invited guests at a celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Brackstone Math Test. (Sample questions from the test are included in the program.) Only eight individuals have ever achieved a perfect score in all those years, and honoring that achievement will be the highlight of the evening. Quincy is one. Her MIA father Bernard is another. Asked to speak on behalf of herself and her now deceased father, Quincy is forced to come to terms with the circumstances of her life and with who she has become.

Large-bodied, socially withdrawn and shy, the sole caretaker for her aged and cantankerous mother, Quincy at middle age is a believable outcome of difficult circumstances. But her razor sharp intelligence is still in tact. What would it take for her to change this trajectory? At one point Quincy says, “There are two things that are incontrovertible in life. One is that the ocean accepts all rivers. The other is that we fashion who we are.”

But do we? There are large questions at the core of this production, ones that explore how childhood determines the outcome of our lives, about how capable any of us are at changing. While that may sound like the stuff of Oprah daytime TV human interest, The Shape She Makes brings us into an intimacy that is neither maudlin nor manipulative. This is a life portrait that breeches the barriers of viewership and detachment. By using so many forms—dance, theater, music, image—all delivered up by a talented cast, we are inextricably pulled into a circle of deep caring.

Conceived over four years by Susan Misner and Jonathan Bernstein, The Shape She Makes maximizes their collective gifts. Misner is a dancer and an actor (most recently she stars in the FX series, The Americans) and Bernstein is a director who also teaches theater at NYU. Life partners for many years, Misner and Bernstein have crafted a thoughtful, intelligent, emotionally fine-tuned and memorable new hybrid storytelling form. Let’s hope there are more collaborations coming.

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“Ekka,” a newly completed painting (33 x 47″). An art collector had this to say when she stopped by my studio recently: “Lately I have wanted to just quietly commune with a work of art. I am not interested in deciphering references or spending time getting the inside jokes. I just want to find a work that I can sit with alone in silence and feel a connection.” What a heartening thing to hear and very close to the way I choose the art that I want to look at every day.

Theater director extraordinaire Anne Bogart recently wrote a post, Direct Encounter, about attending a theater conference where a young presenter announced that she would not be using PowerPoint in her talk. Bogart was thrilled to hear this young woman declare that she and her generation were moving away from PowerPoint lectures because they understood how much more effective it is to speak directly to an audience.

The bullet points, charts and graphs that fill those dreadful and horribly overused PP decks (and which led to the infamous phrase, “Death by PowerPoint”) actually activate a very small part of the brain, in particular the areas that process language. When you watch a PowerPoint presentation, your brain shuts down its other functionalities.

How different things are when you use metaphor, storytelling, and emotional exchange, says Bogart. “Stories are journeys of the mind that provide the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings. If I can engage a person’s imagination, I will have managed to link our brains one to the other. Our brains are synchronized. We are literally sharing brain activity.”

While Bogart makes her case for the full-bodied richness of the theatrical experience, her pitch is an articulate advocacy for direct encounters in every field of artistic expression. Because so much creative expression now is excessively curated and over-mediated, getting to an authentic, unmediated place requires conscious effort.

Case in point, Bogart shares this anecdote:

In Paris, in 1971, writer Deirdre Bair met with Samuel Beckett to request permission to conduct extensive interviews with him for what would become a definitive biography about the playwright. Beckett granted Bair consent but on the condition that she not tape-record their conversations or even take notes while together. Bair agreed nervously. During their nearly three hundred interviews, she listened closely to Beckett who described countless details about his life and work. Then she rushed back to her hotel room to quickly tape-record her memories of Beckett’s words that day. From this she constructed a readable and consequential biography published in 1978.

Perhaps Beckett understood that an unmediated connection between Bair and him would reap more riches than standard interview techniques that depend upon recording and recounting. Perhaps he trusted the event of their human connection from moment to moment more than any act of reported facts. Perhaps what happened between them, together with Bair’s reconstructed memories of their direct encounters, is what makes her biography of Beckett successful and interesting.

While the visual arts occur in a domain that exists outside the spoken/written language zone—for the most part— other factors obscure connection in that world as well. Exclusivity, self-referentiality, meta meanings and other obscurant scrims can make it difficult to achieve that direct encounter Bogart speaks about. Many an eager and open viewer has left an exhibit feeling exempted and alienated from work that appears to be the exclusive province of a limited and rarefied cognescenti.

The solution is not to dumb down a body of work with languaged explanations. Simplification of that nature flattens the potent and richly layered experience that the visual can offer, stripping it of its unique potential for mystery and evocation. The best solution is a two fold one, where both the maker and the viewer take a step towards each other in that numinous space that exists between them.

Some will find this to be nothing more than an idealistic notion. But I don’t see it that way. I have been an artist for a long lifetime, but I still have to work at being an open and trusting viewer. It is easy to fall into suspicion and cynicism, wary of being manipulated or played. As an artist and as a viewer of art, it is a daily discipline to speak it true, to get as close to that direct encounter as I possibly can. It’s a skill set, not a given.

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Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews of Witness Uganda (Photo: Jimmy Ryan of the Boston Globe)

Authenticity has become a critical factor in an age when so much isn’t. Who could have guessed 20 years ago that a huge category of television would emerge called “reality TV” that uses “found” participants but is as orchestrated and manipulated as any sitcom? We know it isn’t real but some part of us wants to believe it is. There’s something uniquely compelling when a story is true.

This has played out in the world of literature as well. A slew of best selling memoirs from major publishers were recently exposed as fraudulent. Oprah Winfrey was so personally affronted when she discovered that a book she had endorsed, A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, was fabricated that she shamed the author in front of her millions of viewers. So many books were exposed as mendacious that a new genre, the “fake memoir,” came into being. Truthfulness—or some variation of Stephen Colbert‘s “truthiness”—is sometimes more crucial in the experience of a work than the quality of the content or the artistry of the storytelling.

That issue of authenticity is a factor in A.R.T’s latest production, the new musical Witness Uganda. In many ways this is a theatrical memoir: Based on the real life experiences of the lead performer, Griffin Matthews, who plays himself, the production follows him from his first trip to Uganda as a naive and idealistic volunteer to his subsequent creation of an NGO to sponsor the education of Ugandan orphans. Partnered with the music of gifted composer Matt Gould (who also lived in Africa—Mauritania—prior to writing this musical), Matthews’ story of volunteerism gone awry, the conflicts in trying to do good and the challenges of running an NGO is transformed into a narrative that takes on meaningfulness in large part because it is personal, because it is based on this man’s actual life story.

Matthews and Gould understand the criticality of that connection. Witness Uganda started off as a musical infomercial to raise funds for their NGO, UgandaProject, and then it evolved. The characters in the play are a variation of the actual students whose education they have funded, and Matthews and Gould have kept their Ugandan friends involved in this creative retelling. The outreach happening during the run of the show with Ugandan communities and others impacted by this story also speaks to a tacit understanding that this is a project much larger than just musical theater.

But musical theater it is, and the Diane Paulus factor has made sure the production is a masterful one. As A.R.T.’s artistic head and the director of Witness Uganda, Paulus has assembled yet another extraordinary team of creatives to produce a high energy/high feed good evening that reflects the professionalism of her Broadway standards. (Many of Paulus’ Cambridge-based productions have migrated to Broadway where they have been met with great success including Pippin, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, The Glass Menagerie and the most recent, All the Way , starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ.) The music is intoxicatingly great (with a live orchestra led by Gould), the performers are stellar, the choreography terrific, and a set that evokes an Africa of poverty as well as natural beauty.

There are parallels in the visual arts with the “larger than the proscenium” scope of this project. New forms of social practice and performance/conceptual art have expanded the experience well beyond the confines of a gallery or museum to include real services provided to those in need. As a committed pluralist—Arthur Danto calls it “radical pluralism”—I will always advocate for open forms and new variations, in the visual arts as well as other fields. Certainly musical theater has more capacity for gravitas than the lighthearted material at the core of an Oklahoma! or a Showboat. And one innovative way to augment the limitations of a storytelling form that is built around song and dance is to do just what Matthews and Gould have done: Take the experience beyond performance and into the lives of real people. Hats off to those who can do both, and do it well.

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Witness Uganda, from A.R.T. (Photo: Gretjen Helene)

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