Thursday, August 30, 2012

L'enfer, C'est les Autres, Part 2

If I do not love the world -- if I do not love life -- if I do not love people -- I cannot enter into dialogue.
-Paulo Freire

Since the terrorist attacks on the United States of 11 September 2001, muslim citizens and their houses of worship have been frequent targets of vandalism, harassment, threats, and assaults.  To this day and onward, many Americans scapegoat the entire religion, collectively blaming millions of its followers for the actions of the terrorist gang that attacked our country that day.  Meanwhile, religious extremism and distortions of religions continue to inspire hatred and violence.

Police departments around the nation have seen the wisdom of educating themselves about muslims' beliefs and culture.  On the one hand, they are called upon to investigate legitimate suspicions of terrorist plots, and Islamist terrorism does exist.  On the other hand, they are also called upon to serve and protect all citizens, including those who are muslim.  To fulfill both of these imperatives, you need police officers knowledgeable about Islam and its interaction with local culture.

Some police departments have gone the route of surveillance, and been busted for it.  Elsewhere, police departments have adopted a more democratic -- or at least pragmatic -- approach, openly mixing and mingling with their local Islamic community through combinations of one-on-one meetings and community events.

This brings us to something that happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2011.  A new lawsuit has brought the case some news coverage this month and it is my belief it reflects a broad problem for U. S. culture and politics.  (You know it's a weird story when the most neutral coverage you can find comes from the Fox political organization.  Many right-wing sites wrote stories suggesting, at least in their headlines, that this is somehow evidence that the police department is adopting sharia law. The story has nothing to do with sharia law.)    

About a year and a half ago, the Islamic Cultural Society in Tulsa, Oklahoma coordinated a "Law Enforcement Appreciation Day" with the police department, and one police captain, Paul Campbell Fields, refused to go voluntarily.  He was then ordered to go by his superiors.  He refused again, and was punished for insubordination.  He is now suing the department.

From his deposition:

This event is compelling me to go to a venue where a group of individuals is prepared to discuss their (Islamic) faith.  And in my faith, I have a duty to proselytize my faith to people (who) don't subscribe to my faith. I can't do that in uniform. And so therein lies the conflict or moral dilemma I face.

Captain Fields also affirmed that the religious difference would not prevent him from entering a mosque to provide service or to serve or protect muslim citizens.  However, he seems to feel that requiring him to attend a community event where he would have to learn about a different religion -- without arguing for his own -- was not legitimate police business.  I don't wish to put words in his mouth, but that seems to be the distinction he is making. 

This is a much wider problem than "islamophobia."  It is a problem that I fear is so widespread a lot of us don't see it: a simple inability to be in the presence of difference.  According to his deposition, this man felt he could not bear to receive knowledge about a different culture and a different religion.  Feeling that he would not be allowed to respond by proselytizing his own religion, he felt oppressed.  Did he want dialogue, or rather a venue to compete?

It is a disturbing theme reflected in political rhetoric.  Diplomacy is derided as apologetic, weak, and offering "trust where it is not earned".  Candidates win popular support by promising never to compromise.  In other spheres, there are pastors who caution their flock and books advising against discussing religion with others because Satan might be using them to tempt you.  Hell is other people!  Ideas are dangerous!   Knowledge might pervert you!  And co-workers and neighbors, among whom there might be enough good will and intimacy to practice good democratic conversation, will often avoid topics where there might be disagreement. 

What are the social skills necessary to a state aspiring to any degree of democratic process, including, say, an American republic where people choose their leaders and vote on other things of national interest and civic concerns? 

Dialogue seems to be an elemental skill.  At the least, it can yield a wider understanding of complicated topics, and foster a sense of common ground shared by different groups.  Although there are still interfaith dialogue groups, community events involving police and civic leaders, and efforts to promote political compromise between the ruling parties, how highly does popular culture really esteem such efforts today?

When tolerance -- just that, simple tolerance -- is held disdainfully as some kind of appeasement by a society, what chance is there for real democracy?  Or even a truly representative republic?  Do we care?  Popular culture is not exactly rife with talk about building community, bridging differences, and fostering love among humankind.  Most people I observe feel pretty good about their trenches, thank you. 

It is a sad event that this police officer felt so threatened by a situation where he would be asked to learn about members of his community; that he felt oppressed by the expectation to listen without trying to change anybody; that he could not simply view his presence there as a service to the community. 

Click here to read another post about dialogue and process, involving what was then a fledgling "Occupy Las Cruces" movement.

[This image is from the website of the Las Cruces Islamic Center.]

Monday, August 27, 2012

Coming soon, and a moment of reader participation

The studio pictured above is where my mind is concentrated this week.  This is the Isabel Crouch Readers Theatre, on the campus of New Mexico State University.  Five days a week, I can now be found here teaching courses in acting and educational theatre.  This week, I've had to cram all the prep work and new-employee business into a few days because of my travels this summer.

There are some short blog pieces in the works for this space, however.  A piece about an Oklahoma police captain who refused to attend a community event at an Islamic center. Tales of sitting zen in Florence.  A piece about scientific literacy in the United States Congress. The passing of my grandfather, who died while I was in the air flying from Munich to Los Angeles.

And other topics, too.  Readers of this blog (all three or four of you!)  are invited to suggest topics you would like to see addressed in this space.  No promises, of course, but those of you kind of enough to give this blog your attention from time to time are appreciated and we would like these dispatches from the Burning House to be of use to you -- or at least entertaining.

Friday, August 24, 2012

On the Chili-Picker Bus

Many readers of this blog have asked me if there might be a sequel to my adventures with Guda the Penguin, or at least with the Greyhound bus line.  (That adventure has been the clear favorite among all the posts from this summer.)

On Monday of this week, I landed in Los Angeles from a long trip performing and teaching in Tuscany.  Now my task was to get to New Mexico to begin my new assignment teaching at New Mexico State University.  My budget did not allow for another flight, and the train to Deming would not get me there in time.  This meant another 14-hour bus trip, and my choice was Greyhound or the El Paso-Los Angeles "Limousine."  Around Deming, it is also known as "the chili picker bus" because the essential crop grown around here is the New Mexico chile, or chili. This bus line connects Los Angeles and Las Vegas to New Mexico, El Paso, and several cities in Mexico. 

Since I had heard good things about this bus, and it was cheaper than Greyhound,  I asked my friend to drop me off at their terminal.  This is on the corner of 6th and Wall in Los Angeles, an area that looks a bit rough even in the light of day.  "You sure about this?" he said.

Appearances can deceive.  The terminal is a bit beat up, the walls could use some paint, some of the seats inside have been slashed.  On the other hand, I was greeted by a friendly and bilingual staff and made to feel welcome.  They checked my suitcase.  The company doesn't have a uniform, but staff went about its business in a professional manner.  Right on schedule, they announced that our bus was boarding.

The interior of the bus was clean and comfortable.  In contrast to Guda the Penguin's threatening ramble, the driver of our bus said nothing.  Everyone just sat down and he started driving.  Nothing to talk about.  We stopped for a food-and-stretch break near the Coachella Valley and this was his announcement:  "25 minutes please." 

As we drove across the California desert, he played a movie.  Greyhound doesn't show movies.  If you aren't in the mood for a movie, you're kind of stuck, because there are no headphones: the sound comes right over the P.A.  It was a movie with lots of explosions and screaming, too, so tough luck if you want to read.  I watched the lousy movie.  The driver also liked music, and for the first half of the trip he played Spanish-language pop and mariachi.  Later at night, he cut it off so passengers could sleep.

At 5:30 in the morning, the bus pulled into the parking lot of the McDonald's on Pine Street in Deming.  (The driver's announcement was: "Deming.")  Greyhound would have charged me twice as much money to stop in Deming.  The "limo" didn't charge anything extra: I paid the same fare whether I hopped off in Deming or stayed on the bus all the way to El Paso.

It doesn't make for entertaining stories, but it was a far more pleasurable experience than Greyhound.

Brand names and uniforms aren't everything.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Dynamo update: The Theatre of Babel

It is the comedy of Romeo and Juliet. Or La commedia di Romeo e Giulietta.  Or Die Komödie von Romeo und Julia.  Depends who you ask.

Our group of actors from F.E.S.T.A. planned to put on a play with whatever group of children we worked with up at Dynamo Camp. So I wrote a short script we could adapt as necessary when we got there. 

The story is something contrived quickly and thrown on paper.  William Shakespeare is trying to work, but his daughter -- a goth teenager named Miranda -- keeps playing loud music and he can't concentrate.  He tries to get her to make up a story with him.  She is resistant but goes along with him.  He tries to invent a love story about Romeo and Juliet, and she keeps throwing in curveballs to mess it up and make it tragic and violent.  She does, however, rather like Romeo (who evolves into a rocker boy), even though he is a fictional character, and tries to get his attention.  It almost works, but Juliet prevails.  Shakespeare manages to bring the story to a happy ending and as a consolation to Miranda, he revives Mercutio (who now looks an awful lot like Johnny Depp in the pirate movies), and she ends up dancing with him.

Just a silly story with lots of openings for stage combat and modern music.  A bit longer than a skit, an actual play with a beginning, middle, and end; the ultimate point being fun.

My preconceived notion was that we would end up cutting it, depending on the health and energy level of the kids. 

Not exactly. 

At the first session, we worked with a group of seventeen Italian teenagers who were in remission from leukemia or living with chronic physical ailments, but had a lot of energy and imagination and were quite enthusiastic.  Several of them were keenly interested in performing in a language not their own, while others were more comfortable acting in Italian.  We also had a lot of children for a few speaking roles.  The answer became: two Romeos, two Juliets, the Miranda sisters, and two languages.  A line said in English would be repeated in Italian, in a sort of dream-like repetition.  We soon discovered our Tybalt was actually a French speaker so what the hey, Tybalt spoke French, too.

When the first company performed this play, every line spoken in Shakespearean English earned enthusiastic applause.  In fact, just about every event that took place earned applause.  I worked backstage and did not see the performance, but I felt like the lucky one because backstage the children were spilling over with mirth and joy.  The laughter backstage was something I would not have missed for anything.  Jason, my colleague and roommate for the summer, was back there with me and felt the same way. 

At the second session, which is nearing its conclusion as I write, we used the same script but this time we have a group of German teenagers.  They are quite a different group and, unlike the the last group, they did not choose us -- theatre was chosen for them.  They were skeptical and some were resistant for the first couple of days, but as performance approaches they are coming around.  Now the play is being rehearsed with three Romeos and Juliets, and the languages have piled up: the lines come in English, German, Italian, and Dutch, according to the preference of the actors.  The script has been through many pairs of hands, with several people translating it into all of these languages.

Add to this the fact that our audience includes a group of children from Belarus whose problems include vision impairment.  For their inclusion and enjoyment, we decided to add a narrator who would tell the story in Russian and describe the events as the story moved along.  So yet another language, not to mention that the play is now a story within a story. 

We have simply embraced the complexity and are splashing about in a cascade of languages. 

[Image: at Dynamo Camp, Limestre, San Marcello Pistoiese]

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Happy actors do it better

During this Italian adventure I have had conversations with more than one artist about mental health and acting.

There persists, among artists and non-artists alike, a notion that neurosis is indispensable to the actor's craft.  The play of identity, changing personas, embodying different characters and bearing witness to a wide spectrum of human motivation and behavior, continues to be treated as some dark, esoteric art.  Especially when it comes to madness, violence, rage, and all the dark spaces of the human realm.

One artist I spoke to, a former professional actor, claimed straight out that years of successful therapy and healing "fucked up [her] acting."

Many artists do suffer.  Among artists there are high rates of depression and other mental health challenges.  There is even a perennial notion that psychological health is a hindrance to artistic practice.  The artist must suffer to be effective.  Heal the suffering, and the artist will be unmotivated or unable to create. 

For so many years I hated acting and hated myself.  I had good teachers but I was depressed and drunk and afraid, and couldn't do what they taught me to do.  I sensed that I wasn't any bloody good at the only thing I wanted to do, so I hated it and wanted to die.  That really is the middle chapter of my autobiography, right there.  Suffering didn't help my art at all.

Acting requires free use of the self, an intimate familiarity with one's own emotional life, and some high-level social skills.  If an artist loses touch with these abilities, what makes us so sure they have finished the healing process?  What might be happening is that people change as they heal and mature, and the art of acting is simply not as compelling for them.  Nothing is wrong with their acting, they are simply evolving.

Imagine approaching the work from a place of wholeness and happiness.  Imagine being so at ease with yourself that you can use your body, look foolish, show yourself warts and all, using the ugliest aspects of yourself in telling a story and embodying a character, without shame or inhibition, because you are no longer afraid of anything in your head, or anything that has happened to you  or any of your own weaknesses and limitations.  Imagine feeling strong and united in your body during performance, being able to release powerful emotions, even very dark and painful ones, and emerge from the performance feeling exhilarated and at ease. 

Does that really sound like it would be bad for your acting?

[Image:  Yours truly having a wonderful time playing Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet in Florence, Italy last month.  Click on it for a larger view!]

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Letter to AP: Drowning is Drowning

An email sent to Associated Press today...

To Whom It May Concern,

Today I read an AP news article written by correspondent Randall Chase involving the case of Dr. Melvin Morse, a pediatrician in Delaware who has been charged with practicing torture on his stepdaughter.  Specifically, he is alleged to have practiced "waterboarding" on her. 

In the story, Mr. Chase described "waterboarding" as a technique of "simulated drowning," which has been a familiar phrase used by many news organizations.  It is, however, inaccurate and has the effect of softening the truth.  There is nothing "simulated" about it.  Waterboarding has the effect of restricting air flow by sealing the cavities through which a human being must breathe.  Techniques vary, and in many cases water is actually introduced into the nasal passages, further blocking air flow and causing pain.  Waterboarding can cause lung and brain damage the same way drowning in a large body of water would.  It might be more accurate to refer to it as "controlled drowning," as the torturer will keep the subject alive by allowing them to breathe for periods of time before resuming the drowning. 

Drowning, however, is drowning: whether you do it by holding someone's head underwater, or whether you tie them to a table and pour water on a cloth on their face, or do it some other way, the verb does not need to be obscured: a person is being drowned.

[Image:  Look!  A torture device!   Or, a waterfall at Camp Dynamo in Limestre, Pistoia.]

Friday, August 10, 2012

My Florentine Get-Rich Scheme

In this 40-second video from the San Ambrogio market in Firenze, I lay out my newest get-rich scheme.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Your light and your name

Dear Moon,

We gave it a shot, my camera and me, but we couldn't quite capture you.  I don't know the artist who could reproduce your color with paint, or simulate the way you move.  There would need to be a smoldering fire beneath the pigment.

And this is my plight in speaking to you.  I have no language.  Only your name.

As you can see up there, I stay pretty busy; and when my body rests and my pulse slows down and my mind settles, your name comes to my lips as naturally as breath.

That's all for now.



Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Video Update from Dynamo Camp

Jason Speicher -- a cast member of Romeo and Juliet, our fight director, and one of my fellow teachers at Dynamo Camp -- joins me in telling a story or two from our first week at the camp. 

Dynamo Camp is a place where children living with (or recovering from) chronic illnesses get a chance to spend a week having fun: camping, making art, building puppets, dancing, learning circus arts, all kinds of things.  Or doing theatre with us!