Thursday, October 06, 2016

A Play To Kick Our Asses

Photo by Erica Krauel

Not as eloquent as Aeschylus, perhaps, but one of the most seasoned members of the cast of Agamemnon uttered the unanimous sentiment: "This play is kicking all our asses!"

She meant it in a positive sense. A 40+ year professional actor who has done his share of classics says he found this more demanding of study time and his own technique than anything he's done, including many works by Shakespeare. Indeed, directing the piece, I have felt myself balled up in the Furies' tangled robes.

In retrospect, starting rehearsals at the beginning of August was too late. If we go on to produce The Libation Bearers, the next play in the Oresteia, I want to begin four months in advance. It's a big ask for volunteer actors but as the ensemble finds their footing during tech week, they seem up for a longer process next time around.

It will depend on the community's response to the play. By all reports, it has been decades since any of these ancient Greek plays have been performed here. There have been more modern plays inspired by Greek mythology but no performances of the translated plays of Aristophanes, Euripides, Sophocles, or Aeschylus. My performances of An Iliad - a modern play adapted from the Fagles translation of Homer - have gone over quite well in Las Cruces, and we have cautiously optimistic hopes for this production.

I was already feeling rather exhausted when the actor playing Aegisthus had to withdraw during tech week (due to a sequence of personal mishaps, not his fault), and I found myself taking over the role myself.

with Michelle Tomlinson, who plays Clytemnestra

But here we are. Tonight is our final dress and tomorrow night we open.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Acting, Paid and Unpaid

Your correspondent, center, directing a rehearsal of AGAMEMNON in Las Cruces, NM.

In my frequent crossovers between professional and amateur theatre, when I hear disparaging talk about the latter, it has been hard for me to remain in the room.

Professional theatre buys a luxurious amount of time. You can pay people for a full-time commitment. You can accomplish a lot when people are available for eight-hour rehearsal days and don't need to work other jobs. Money can't buy happiness, but it can buy rehearsal time. In that sense, professional theatre has privileges the amateur theatre does not.

In non-paying theatre, the actors are squeezing the same preparation into what leisure time they have around jobs, school, families, and so on.

In professional theatre, you may also benefit from actors who have more training and experience, but I've worked with some highly trained and experienced people in non-paying theatre, and of course salaries and Equity contracts don't guarantee quality work.

I love working in professional theatre. I like being paid to do this work, and I like the assurances of a professional environment: hours of rehearsal time, a knowledgeable crew, actors who are expected to be prepared and focused. This summer, I directed a show under an Equity agreement in Albuquerque and it was a delight.

In non-paying theatre, we can keep ticket prices low enough that most people can afford to see our shows. This only works because there are people willing to work hard for little or no compensation. They trust the theatre not to exploit them for profit. They donate their time and creative labor to a cause and, I would hope, because they enjoy themselves while doing it.

My expectations in a non-paying environment are not "lower," but there are different constraints and pressures. I can't work with Equity actors but I frequently work with experienced and well-prepared non-Equity actors who care strongly about the work. I also work with less-experienced performers who are eager to learn and not defensive about it. We need to be creative, working within very slim budgets. And those performers must find time for a good deal of homework and study amid their other obligations. God, I love these people.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Why Are We So Magnanimous About War Crimes?

Images of First Lady Michelle Obama snuggling with George W. Bush at this weekend's opening of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture  are being widely shared on various social media. The image is, to be fair, somewhat misleading: the encounter, seen on video, is very brief and not as warm as the still image suggests; it is, however, the still image that has defined the encounter.

Comments on these images praise this convergence of political actors as showing "class" (true, but not in the sense they mean). Even the Reverend Ed Bacon, with whom I worked on the Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace following 9/11 and in resistance to Bush's criminal invasion of Iraq in 2003, called the image "magnanimous."

And Ed isn't wrong. It is highly magnanimous for the First Lady of the United States to embrace George W. Bush, and not place him under arrest so that he can answer to war crimes. This sounds like hyperbole, but it isn't. As President, he authorized a policy that explicitly ignored international laws of war and established torture as policy, and this was on top of the invasion of Iraq itself, a violation of Nuremberg as an aggressive invasion based on falsified evidence, with disastrous international consequences continuing to unfold.

It was inexplicably magnanimous for newly inaugurated President Barack Obama to push the Justice Department to avoid formal investigation or any prosecution for war crimes by the Bush government. The Convention Against Torture requires us to prosecute war crimes committed by our own officials. Obama simply ignored the treaty and hardly anyone protested.

Obama has participated in war crimes himself. Again, this is not hyperbole. Americans are simply accustomed to ignoring our government's war crimes. There is very little public uproar about the drone strike program and the high number of civilians it has killed in a broadly defined "war on terrorism" inherited from the Bush administration. Public opinion was barely phased when the President unilaterally targeted and ordered the assassination of an American living abroad who was involved with al-Qaeda, and there was mostly silence when, two weeks later, Obama ordered the man's 16 year old son killed. Targeting family members like that is a war crime. Under Obama's command, American forces have been involved in the bombing of hospitals, schools, and civilian factories in Afghanistan and Yemen. Despite the evidence that Saudi Arabian forces are involved in war crimes, President Obama has authorized extensive sales of military equipment to the regime. There is no indication the President will ever be called to account for these things - not by the Department of Justice, not by any international body, and not in the mainstream press. My friends who identify as liberal generally express admiration and personal affection for Obama, and regard objection to his human rights record as distasteful.

After eight years of Bush and nearly eight years of Obama, war crimes have been normalized as U.S. policy. We have seen one administration pre-emptively exonerate its predecessor, across party lines. We are not even feinting at compliance with the Convention Against Torture.

But that's not all. Culturally, we have this peculiar affection for war criminals.

Exhibit A, Michelle Obama's public physical affection for the older, avuncular George W. Bush, a man who limits his public appearances and presents himself as a cheerful, retired statesman devoted to painting.

Exhibit B, a marble bust of Vice-President Richard Cheney, architect and staunch defender of Bush-era torture programs, unveiled in the House of Representatives last year to bi-partisan acclaim. Press accounts celebrated the jovial tone of the gathering, the jokes and bipartisan unity. Why intrude matters of international law and human decency on a happy gathering? This was portrayed as classy and magnanimous in the press.

One might say, "Okay, but that's how politicians are. Popular culture and everyday folks don't love war criminals." I give you Exhibit C: comedian Stephen Colbert, a liberal-aligned satirist, yokking it up with triumphant and unrepentant war criminal Henry Kissinger in a 2014 video that invites us to laugh along as Colbert dances around Kissinger's office while the bemused Kissinger himself mugs for the camera.

I don't recall any uproar about that. Colbert came close enough to a man implicated in numerous illegal coups and mass slaughter of non-combatants - and made no attempt to place him under citizen's arrest. Earlier this year, the Obama Administration bestowed upon Kissinger a "Distinguished Public Service" medal, one of many public honors he has received.

And the Bush administration war criminals are invited on to television programs and to speak to universities as if they were honorable public officials, where it is considered distasteful to bring up the apparent war crimes (and admitted war crimes) or suggest they should be questioned about them - much less, tried in a formal proceeding. Sometimes there are student protests, but by and large these figures travel untroubled throughout the country.

What's our deal? Why are we so forgiving of war crimes? For starters, the public does not pay close attention to our wars - they take place far away, are funded without debate, and there is no draft. Popular media doesn't have a narrative about war crimes - it likes to rehabilitate and humanize controversial figures, but it is rather indifferent to the idea that some actions are not okay even in wartime, that you don't target civilians or pillage, you don't rape and/or torture prisoners, you don't send children into battle, you don't inflict unnecessary suffering. These are peculiar distinctions to make if one thinks war itself is a crime, but in a world where warfare is accepted as normal, we have at least some international conventions drawing some limits to what states may do to human beings.

The United States does not consider itself bound to any of these limits.

There is little evidence suggesting this bothers the American people.

So yes, the photo of Michelle Obama hugging George W. Bush is making the rounds, and it is consistent with our national character that we smile, applaud, and speak of such moments as hallmarks of reconciliation - rather than a tacit agreement to cover up our leaders' crimes.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Cant of "Can't"

One needn't live in Seattle to enjoy Charles Mudede's writing at The Stranger.

Nonetheless, a post dated September 22 was a bit disappointing, not merely for stating something imprecise, but because the lack of precision matters so much.

The statement appears in his response to Kshama Sawant's endorsement of the Green Party's Jill Stein in the upcoming presidential election. Sawant is a member of Seattle's city council who has won office twice as an avowed socialist, a rarity in American politics post-Cold War. Follow the link in this paragraph to read Sawant's argument in The Nation.

Mudede wrote:

Sawant recommends that progressive Americans vote for a person, Jill Stein, who has no chance of winning instead of one, Hillary Clinton, who does.

He goes on to argue that progressives will be better positioned under a Hillary Clinton presidency than a Trump presidency. He also insists "there can be no doubt about this" with the peculiar certainty that characterizes anti-Trump hysteria, a way of pre-empting further discussion or thought.

Herewith, my stubborn insistence on thinking.

First, the statement that Jill Stein has no chance of winning is not actually correct. She can win: she is on enough ballots to win the 270 electoral votes required to be elected president. What we can predict with reasonable certainty is that she won't win. She would have to run the table, winning nearly all of the states where she is an option. There are a few reasons we can predict this will not happen, and some of these reasons have to do with her campaign, her own flaws as a candidate, and the electorate's receptivity to a Green Party platform. There are also institutional reasons. The system is set up to prevent her from competing effectively for those electoral votes. As a candidate outside the two dominant parties, it is more difficult for her campaign to gain ballot access, harder to raise money, and even after surmounting these obstacles she is prevented from inclusion in presidential debates despite having a numerical possibility of winning the election. These factors serve to portray her as not "real" and tilt the playing field against her, such that she is not even likely to win enough of the popular vote to qualify for federal matching  funds, lowering some of the financial barriers to her participation.

Thus it is more accurate to say she won't win. When we state that she can't, and leave it at that, we are not only being imprecise: we are concealing a reality about "democratic" elections in the United States. The system is set up to protect the traditional parties from competition.

This is why I am dubious about Mudede's argument that the American left will fare any better under a Hillary Clinton presidency. A Hillary Clinton presidency is more appealing than a Trump presidency for a number of valid reasons, but this particular idea is dubious to me because I have yet to see a compelling case for left politics faring better under a President Clinton. It is stated as a self-evident fact. Yet the American left's challenges stand independently of whom we elect President. The American left's challenge is to organize resistance movements, articulate a liberation movement (from, I would hope, capitalist organization and culture), and carry the struggle in electoral and non-electoral work. Not just the ballot box, not just in legislatures, but in the workplace and the marketplace, at our dinner tables and front yards.

We know what we can anticipate from a Democratic administration: support for the TPP, fracking (which intensifies the ecological catastrophe already underway), further privatization, continued surveillance and over-policing in the name of "terrorism," and war, war, war. To say this is preferable to a Trump presidency is not really saying much. It also conceals another important truth: this isn't getting any better as long as we protect the Democratic Party from competition from the left.

So, under the current system, where we still don't have proportional representation, where electoral votes are mostly "winner take all," a system arranged to protect the dominant two parties from competition, we can vote strategically. In votes that are securely "blue" or "red," one can and should vote for Jill Stein if one supports competition from the left. If Stein achieves an impressive share of the popular vote, it can open up matching funds as well as make a compelling case for the Green Party's inclusion in future debates. In "swing" states where the outcome is less certain, where one is worried about Trump carrying the state and winning those electoral votes, by all means think strategically. It is the best we can do in an American election, until we change the system.

Whichever way we cast that vote, our work is not done. The system must be changed and it's not going to happen by wishing or asking politely or posting things on social media. And it's still less likely to happen if we refuse to make clear, truthful statements about the way power is distributed - and protected.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Statement on Performing "Killing Buddha" on September 11

It is September 11 and I will perform my play Killing Buddha with Randy Granger in a special, very low-priced matinee in Hillsboro, New Mexico. This is a statement I made from my home in Deming about why we are offering this ancient story on this day in particular.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

An Exagium of Seneca, Stoicism, and Zen Practice

That Seneca the man did not always behave according to his own philosophy can be rejected as hypocrisy ("a steersman who is seasick in a storm"), but it would be a loss to disregard his letters to young Lucilius on those grounds. The selection of his letters translated by Robin Campbell - reportedly while he was serving in Africa with the Gordon Highlanders! - is rich with humane philosophy. This is not philosophy of the intellect but philosophy as guidance for character. In the first century A.D. Seneca lamented the specialization of philosophy into an intellectual discipline rather than an examination of how to live. I conversed and occasionally argued with these letters throughout the book, just as it should be.

(Although I have recently returned to Latin, which I studied in high school, I am not diving into the classics in Latin unless I have a good side-by-side translation.)

There are tempting parallels between daily Stoic philosophy and daily Zen philosophy, in that both propose that our suffering at the challenges of life are caused by our view of those challenges as much as the challenges themselves. Both acknowledge what Buddhism calls anicca - transience, impermanence - and stress an open-handed acceptance of phenomena as they appear. (Zen Master Dae Kwang, who taught for many years at Providence Zen Center, burst the balloon on calling this "detachment" because it humors the illusion that we can be attached to anything!) To be open-handed, however, can also lead to confusion and suffering unless there is a sustained practice of paying attention to our direction. As Zen Master Seung Sahn put it, "I always go with the flow - but I watch where the flow is going."

There is a crucial distinction, however, in what Stoicism (with Seneca for a spokesman) and Zen teach us about how to "hold" our minds, if you will. 

Seung Sahn practically trademarked the phrase "don't know" to describe a lively clarity, an unhindered readiness to act, letting opinions and discursive thoughts come and go, without becoming identified with them in an egotistical way. "Don't know" actually goes "deeper" than this. Even the idea of ego ("I") can be let go. "Don't know" is a metaphor for consciousness before it gets organized into nominative thoughts, "before thinking." Click here for a brief excerpt from a talk by Zen Master Bon Soeng of the Empty Gate Zen Center about "don't know mind." 

At conservatory, my acting teachers would warn me about the "stupor" of meditation. I challenged them to spend one week waking up with me to do prostrations and sit before breakfast. They did not take me up on it. 
A normal human tendency is to identify with our thoughts ("I like this, I hate that") which leads us to defend our opinions and tastes as if they were our skin, and this makes non-contentious conversation with other people, therapeutic investigation, or casual reflection very difficult - even painful. A relaxed or "detached" attitude about our own thoughts helps with these things, especially those matters that challenge us to forgive ourselves and other people. ("Put it all down," as the Korean master said.) In fact, this is why daily meditation is prescribed - and why I have done some sitting (in very simple, non-guided, zen meditation) almost every day for 22 years. This actually requires repeated physical practice.

This is not a Stoic idea at all. Although Seneca, intriguingly, refers to some youthful experimentation with esoteric cults, and there were some encounters between Buddhism and the Roman world around Seneca's lifetime, I have not seen any evidence of an exposure to Buddhism and in any case this was "pre-Zen."

If "don't know" is the idea of holding our conscious mind loosely if at all, Seneca advises thinking everything through so nothing can take us by surprise:

What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. The fact that it was unforeseen has never failed to intensify a person's grief. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events. [From Letter XCI]

In practice, this is really a difference in metaphor more than practice. What is mind? Is it really something you can "hold" or "let go of" or "use?" These are all metaphors for how we direct our  attention with respect to our thoughts and observations. Zen is radical in the sense that it questions the substance of self; the Stoics took no interest in this project. For the latter, the important matter was to transform a selfish "I" into an altruistic "I," but not to debunk the illusion of "I" itself. 

It will be interesting to read Marcus Aurelius again, as his writings indicate more attention to habits of perception, not just the content of our thoughts, and a daily practice perhaps akin to samatha.  For Seneca this seems to have been primarily a matter of receiving and implementing good teaching. The notion in Zen is that if we clear unhelpful habits of thinking away, and refer to the Buddhist precepts for guidance, a spontaneously humane nature ("true self") expresses itself. It may or may not conform to changeable and conditioned ideas about good and bad,but it is authentic and essentially humane. 

Monday, August 08, 2016

Of Thomas Paine and Iron Bridges (Book Review)

This brief review first appeared in the Bulletin of Thomas Paine Friends, Vol. 17 No. 2, Summer 2016. Click this link to learn more about Thomas Paine Friends.

Florida State University historian Edward G. Gray tells a seldom-told story about Tom Paine, whom so many know - when they read or hear of him at all - as the early American revolutionist who tried to incite a similar revolution in Britain, and fewer still know he became a citizen of the first French republic and was jailed under Robespierre; they know him as the author of Common Sense  and some may have heard about (but seldom read) The Rights of Man,  The Age of Reason, and hardly ever Agrarian Justice even though we still debate its ideas. Many inherit the impression of Paine that John Adams conveyed in a letter to Abigail Adams in 1776, that he had "a better hand at pulling down than building."

Gray tells us a story of Paine the builder, a creative problem solver who pondered the dangerous Schuylkill River, and saw - perhaps as early as the Revolutionary War, witnessing the role rivers played in key battles around Philadelphia - the importance of infrastructure to a new nation's economy and social fabric.  A footnote in other biographies, Gray's book focuses on Paine's interest in architecture and bridges in particular.

America was covered with old-growth forests and ample timber for building bridges, but wooden bridges were notoriously vulnerable, covered or not.  Paine conceived of a permanent single-arch bridge constructed of iron, and as he traveled to Britain and France and back to America again, he sought the input of trained builders and potential investors wherever he went. His designs earned the admiration of many before his reputation sank, and several important bridges seem to have been inspired by his model of a pre-fabricated design that could be shipped and assembled on site, making architecture and engineering exportable commodities.

This is a pertinent story coming at a time when the United States is learning painful lessons about the importance of infrastructure to domestic economy - or, if investment in maintenance and replacement is the measure, perhaps we aren't learning from our bad roads, crumbling tunnels, collapsing bridges, corroded plumbing, and ramshackle ports of entry. When Philadelphia was still the major port city, but seeing competition from Baltimore and New York, Paine looked to the dangerous riverine barriers around them and saw permanent bridges as essential to a United States, economically and politically.

In architecture as with his writings, Paine was tragically loath to monetize his efforts. He held a patent for his bridge design and sought compensation when others built bridges based on his concept, but Gray shows him repeatedly pulling his focus from bridges to politics, losing political support and networks of friends after the French Revolution and The Age of Reason (falsely portrayed in his time and even today as an atheist treatise), plus a harsh attack on George Washington that backfired on Paine.

Gray ends with an intriguing epilogue about corporations and public-private partnerships in the early United States, including some earnest debate about whether "perpetuities and monopolies are contrary to the nature of a republican government," showing once more that the United States is still engaged in some of the same fundamental arguments from our early years.

TITLE: Tom Paine's Iron Bridge: Building a United States
Author: Edward G. Gray
Pub Date: April 25th, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-393-24178-5
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company, New York, London