Monday, June 21, 2010

joseph & lee

The names Joseph Chaikin and Lee Miller keep appearing around me and pricking my brain like some sort of inspiration bug -- pay attention... buzzz... these are important... buzzz.... I've decided I should heed the bug's advice.

Joseph Chaikin was a director, playwright and pedagogue. He is well known for his work with Living Theater and for founding The Open Theater, which he closed after 10 years for fear it would become "an institution". He was known for encouraging and expanding the talents of fellow artists rather than crushing or discouraging their creative inspiration. His book "The Presence of the Actor" was based on his experiments with actors and his ideas about theater as a tool for social transformation. Chaikin suffered a stroke during a heart surgery which resulted in partial aphasia. Sam Shepard, a friend and colleague of Chaikin, wrote A Lie of the Mind -- which features a woman who has suffered brain damage and developed aphasia -- as a reaction to Chaikin's aphasia.  I just read A Lie of the Mind with no knowledge of the Chaikin connection until well after. 

Last month I was privileged enough to take part in a workshop of David Wiener's Cassiopeia. The play is a piece about remembering. The characters are Odetta, a maid from somewhere in the rural south, and Quiet, a mathematical prodigy with some form or another of high functioning Aspergers Syndrome. It's a side-by-side two-hander recounting the stories of their disparate by parallel lives. David wrote the play (in one sitting) with Chaikin in mind, but when Chaikin died in 2003 Cassiopeia was shelved without a reading. When we read the play last month it was the first time David and his director Anders Cato had heard it out loud. 

I wish I was a poet so I could find the succinct words to describe this play. When it was over we were all crying without knowing why. No one could describe why they felt the way they did, but we all felt wistful, thankful and full-hearted. These stunning characters, their stories, the gorgeous layer of live sound created by one of the actors filled us with a generous melancholy that one rarely indulges in. I was so grateful for the chance.

Lee Miller was a war correspondent and photographer for Vogue Magazine during the Second World War. She was one of the first war correspondents admitted to Dachau after the liberation of the camps. She teamed up with Scherman who shot one of the most iconic photos of Miller bathing in Adolf Hitler's bathtub.  She suffered from debilitating clinical depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome upon her return from the war.

I saw a beautiful reading of a play, Behind the Eye, by Carson Kreitzer. The section I saw was Miller sorting through her life after photography as wife, mother and gourmet cook; fighting to unite -- or divide terminally -- the before and after aspects of herself. 

I've long thought about my life in terms of before and after a particularly traumatic six months in my teenage years. Where does that before self go? Does it come slowly back? Is it slowly more revealed by the after self? Can the two unite? Is that healing? I wonder if these Miller and Chaikin's names keep pricking at my brain because of their incredible before and after stories.

I thought I only had one play in me... could be wrong.


  1. How thankful I am for the healing power of artistic expression -- both lived, created, and witnessed -- lately I've been thinking a lot about the power of art to allow us to hold contradictions, to be multiple people at once, the kind of healing that comes not from shedding the dark for the light, but the kind that comes in holding both together.

    (I was in the lie of the mind in high school, coincidentally, I played Lorraine. And in a particularly traumatic period in my own teenage years, I found solace and catharsis in playing Laura in the glass menagerie, and listening to dark musicals like Sweeney Todd :))

  2. It's always there for us, isn't it? Good to be writing again. An excuse for a sounding board!