Wednesday, July 31, 2013

This is not about you

Last week, I read a zenoir.

Zenoir is my term for zen autobiographies.  The most famous, and still one of the best, is Peter Matthiessen's Nine-Headed Dragon River.  That may have been the book that established the market for books by zen students rather than zen masters.  Matthiessen, incidentally, is now an authorized teacher, but was not when he wrote this book.

Some of these books are better than others.  I don't review them anymore.  Years ago, I critiqued one and heard about it from the writer's entire sangha or so it felt.  In one way, it can even be unfair to review them.  Different zen schools present the dharma differently, so unless there is something clearly incorrect, why pick on them?

This book's most prominent feature is its fearless self-disclosure.  The writer is wonderfully honest and funny.  Yet his book does not look beyond personality and psychology.  Is this an autobiography or a book about zen practice?  The author frequently mentions offering oneself up completely, which could be the beginning of a teaching about bodhisattva vow in everyday life -- but he doesn't really go there.  Offer what?  To what?  For what?

It reminded me of some acting teachers I studied with who became obsessed with 'break-throughs.'  If you weren't reduced to a puddle of weeping jello, you might be chastised for not being 'vulnerable' or 'open.'  You may think I am exaggerating for comic effect.  One of these teachers, a guy in Providence I worked with as a teenager, was heard to yell, "Come on!!!  Nothing's happening!" while leading an emotional memory exercise designed to evoke past trauma. 

It felt like emotional porn.  Our job was to 'put out.'  In acting or in zen, attaching to some kind of big experience is a problem.  A fetish for big experiences that release large emotions produces the fantasy of having passed through something without actually passing through it.

The majority of acting teachers I've met were not stuck here, but a few were.  It's a very distorted idea about what acting is about.  It does, however, do something for the teacher -- giving him a chance to dabble in pseudo-therapy and play high status while their trusting students expose the most vulnerable parts of themselves.

It does something for those in the role of student, too.  Look at me!  Look how hard I'm working at this!  I'm reliving the death of my first pet, I'm vomiting emotion, and all the other students are telling me what a great actor I am. Look at me, marvel at my sins, my quirks and foibles are "crazy wisdom."  Look at me.

And, even worse: many of us simply learned to fake it, breaking faith with ourselves and fabricating a 'truth' that would please the teacher.  David Mamet wrote about this in his wonderful introduction to A Practical Handbook for the Actor.

As you went from one class to the next and from one teacher to the next, two things happened: being human, your need to believe asserted itself.  You were loath to believe your teachers were frauds, so you began to believe that you yourself were a fraud.  This contempt for yourself became contempt for all those who did not share the particular bent of your school of training.  

He could as well be writing about the experience of many zen students in North America. 

There is certainly a useful application of emotional memory and sensory exercises in the art of acting - I teach some of them - but this is not what acting is all about.  And if zen is all about satori experiences and dramatic insights, then it, too, is just a spectacle giving way to guilt and shame.  Which might have to do with why the great teachers of our time have been loath to put their personal 'opening' experiences on display.  In zen, tales of kensho make up the double-sided duct tape ensnaring ten thousand beings who lust for attainment.

Do you see?  Do you hear?

A long time ago, the one Soto teacher with whom I sat sesshin smiled at a young me during dokusan with such affection as he said, in his Irish accent, "It's gonna happen the way it happens." 

The following applies to acting and to zen: it's not about you.  This is a very important point.  The process is not easy because most of us behave, at least some of the time, like this is all about a "me" that doesn't exist.  When that falls it's a little bit like going crazy for a moment.  But this crazy is not crazy at all.

The point is to relax our grip on "me," not to make "me" a celebrity. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Pole Dance School

You've got to learn pole dancing somewhere. 

"This is more than a trend or fad," says their website.  "Sensual dance and fitness classes are a statement of positivity and acceptance, where you are empowered through graceful, seductive movements to feel sexy, confident, feminine, and fit."  

As David Byrne remarked long ago, "To shake your rump is to be environmentally aware."  And in addition to pole dancing levels 1-4, rump-shaking is taught here.  

It's not such a big secret, to look at the testimonials on Yelp. There just might be enough bootie-shaking and pole-dancing going on in L.A. at any given moment that it could be measured on seismograph.  


A Theatre Re-Purposed

On my adventures in Los Angeles, I happened past this intriguing building. The Abdi-Loyola is a medical office building in the Westchester neighborhood of Los Angeles (near LAX).  It was, as you can see, designed as an art deco cinema -- one of the first developments in the Westchester business district, in fact, opening in 1946 (the year my father was born) as the Loyola Theatre.

One of the architects associated with this building has been quoted as saying, "The show starts on the sidewalk."  The swan-like head of the building still stands, as well as the old box office. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Waking up in Los Angeles

[Dharma Zen Center, Los Angeles]

So trite, the tattered analogy between a city where one lived in the past and an old love.

Sometimes the trite and tired analogies still fit best.

Upon my arrival in Los Angeles in 2001 from the east coast, I felt displaced.  It did not feel like a foreign country, but it was obviously a different part of the United States.  The plants were strange to me.  The birds sang different songs.  The local rules of the road were different -- and the volume of traffic blew my mind.  The sun had an intensity my skin had rarely felt.

There was so much I enjoyed about living here, and yet I also remember how difficult it was.  The stress of driving here, the money problems, finding friends and community.  The years I spent here also coincided with a ten-year depressive episode that didn't help matters.  In 2008, there were two job offers I had to consider, both of them wonderful opportunities.  One job was at Bet Tzedek here in Los Angeles, and the other was a teaching job in Deming, New Mexico.  Had to choose.  Thinking it would be better for my child (who was at that time a lentil-sized embryo) I chose Deming.

Right choice?  Is that even a useful question?  No.  That's just checking.

Institutions (like zen schools) have their drawbacks, but in some ways they are very helpful.  Coming to hang out in Los Angeles for the first time in years, it is wonderful to be able to lodge at Dharma Zen Center, get up in the morning and start the day practicing with other students.  Same dharma room and same schedule as it was 12 years ago.  Breathing in, time disappears, just chant.

Mu Sang Sunim, the senior monk, actually looks younger than he did 12 years ago.  "I do weight training," he says.  "Doctor's orders."  Stories, catching up, laughter.  We lay down on the floor together and practice soen yu

My friend Chris meets me at Molly Malone's and we are set upon immediately by beautiful young women in fortune-telling costumes.  The poor things are working for Dos Equis-- it's a promotion for some new beer.  We are asked to pick from a deck of cheesy-looking "fortune telling cards" that are also coasters, a special fortune is improvised based on which design we picked, and we given coupons for one-dollar draft beer.  They are bored and still have half an hour to go, so they hang around us, get pictures taken with us.  It is hard to understand the banter because of their phony accents.  Years ago, Chris and I would have reveled in this attention.  Now we are married men and need to exchange information and advice.

"You come to town and life gets surreal," says my friend.

I thought it was the town.  Or maybe it's just us.  But nothing is surreal.  Los Angeles is a great city for zen practice.  People here throw all kinds of things at you and push your buttons, stimulating all kinds of reactions and offering every kind of sensory delight and fantasy.  One by one, you can practice taking it in, seeing the truth as it appears, and responding correctly.  Weirdness is just an idea.   Even the traffic -- and it does still amaze me, as I sit waiting to make a left onto Olympic Boulevard on a weekday evening, the torrent of cars roaring past like a waterfall -- is just truth.  ("Only this" would be the zen catch-phrase.)

Haven't been to the ocean yet, but even here my skin is opening up and drinking in the moisture in the air.  It feels nice. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Painting some lanes

[Blythe, California.]

Days before a long drive, my car -- a senior citizen in car years and mileage -- lit up the icon that looks like an engine, with a truly eerie color.  Somewhere between yellow and red, a vibrant kind of gold orange, like a seething ember that might, just might, break into a wildfire that burns an entire valley.

As reader Kelly advised in her response to the previous post, ignoring this before a long drive, in a car with more than 200,000 miles on it, is not a good idea.  To manage the risk of being stranded somewhere west of Needles and becoming one with the desert forever, I delayed my trip half a day so the trusted mechanics at Tinley Tee in Deming (that's a plug) could poke around.

Sometimes these dashboard lights just flash on and off spuriously and can be disregarded, but you don't really know.  So the mechanics plugged their diagnostic computer into my car and the machines discussed the matter.  Apparently, my car felt something was amiss with the crankshaft -- a critical part of the engine.  Yet they found nothing wrong with the crankshaft and so I was cleared for my drive to the ocean.  So far, the car and I seem to be doing fine.

Filled the tank up in Deming, pointed the car west, and did not stop until we got here. The drive was rather pleasant.  Some of the heavy summer rainstorms have been moving around, so it is a green time for the desert, with many colors and a beautiful quality of light in the sky.

And for the most part everyone has been sharing the road nicely: from the cars to motorcycles to the pickups to the big rigs and the "oversized loads" hauling houses or turbine props towards California.  It's nice when that happens: vehicles sharing the road, cooperating, everyone agreeing to the conventions of signs and painted stripes as a way to get where we are going and play safely with others. It's not a sentimental idea of everyone smiling and being cuddly; just human cooperation.  By looking out for each other, everyone gets where they are going without having to pull over, fill out police reports, look for their detached limbs, and deal with all the associated inconveniences of high-speed traffic accidents.

These days, I'll gratefully recognize whatever human cooperation I can find.

Sometimes my zen friends avoid engaging in discussions of worldly topics for fear of feeding the unhealthy behaviors of attaching to opinions and fanning the flames of anger in ourselves and others.  Another view  is that one can engage in discussion as a means of "together action," so that we can examine the points of view themselves and practice looking at things (or ourselves) from a different angle.  The last of the iconic Ox-Herding Pictures portrays entering the marketplace with wisdom and compassion.  Zen practice aside, civil argument is one of the social skills essential for a people who aspire to any degree of democracy.  

A recent post attracted some attention and more comments, I think, than any post previously.  The point I was hoping to make got buried but hey, sometimes discussions take a life of their own.  There was some arguing and while the tone remained civil for the most part, I also thought it might be a good time to paint some lanes on the roadway so that this blog may be a place where different views can be examined without the verbal firefights that consume so much of the internet.  Here at the Burning House, let us not have minds like the dry scrub that fuels wildfires.

1.  Presume sincerity and good will.  I may disagree with your argument, but you're okay in my book.  I'm glad you took a moment to read and respond.  (You are rare!) 

2. Arguments are not people.   If I am not convinced by your argument, don't take it personally.  And if you're not convinced by some argument I present, I won't take it personally either.  See #1 above.  I'm not here to convert people to my point of view, I'm just sharing one man's process.  If you present an argument and I question it, it is in the spirit of conversation.  Again, let us presume sincerity and good will. 

3. Personal attacks are not arguments.  Insults and name-calling will be deleted.  Let this be a place where people don't need to feel nervous about responding.

4. What do you want?  If what you really want is to commiserate with the like-minded, there is nothing wrong with that at all.  But a designated chat room or Facebook group is what you need for that.  I happen to know that among the regular readers of this blog there are liberals, and people far to the left of them; conservatives of varying degrees and libertarians; Buddhists, Christians, and people who follow different spiritual paths, who come here for the posts of interest to these pursuits; members of my family hoping for photographs; and you get the idea.  This is a diverse crowd.  So be clear about what you want before wading into a conversation here and feeling disappointed or frustrated.

5.  Ad hominem will be deleted.  I'm happy to say I have not yet had to use that button for this reason.  I've only used it to delete spam.  After several years of blogging, often on controversial topics, that's remarkable.  (There are upsides to having a small reader base.)  Let's keep it that way.  No name calling, no going after people personally.  Arguments are not people.  Presume sincerity and good will. 

6.  It's okay that people disagree.  Popular media present an awful model for discourse.  We have these talking heads who only interview like-minded guests, or go to the opposite extreme and engage in loud smackdowns of people who disagree.  This suggests the only reason to engage is to convert the other, or vanquish them into silence.  It is a violent model.  To the extent this influences the way Americans talk to each other, it does a terrible disservice to our political culture.  We need shows that model constructive and friendly debate.  I think it's pretty neat when I'm looking at something from wherever I am, and someone is looking at it from a different angle and tells me what they see.  It continues to surprise me that so many people feel threatened by this -- but given the behavior modeled on television by celebrity pseudo-journalists, maybe I shouldn't feel surprised.

You can understand a different point of view without losing yourself.  Really.  You'll be fine.  And if you don't want to understand a different point of view, that's fine, too.  Participation is optional. 

7. Facts matter.  Opinions are not facts.  Facts have no partisan bias.  We're going to have different opinions about facts.  There are facts we do not know.  We all can make mistakes about facts.  But without an agreement to acknowledge facts, a discussion simply becomes a defense of facts against falsehood and fantasy.  (Up to and including wild conspiracy stories, historical revisionism, or climate-change-denial.)  That is not a debate that's really going to help anybody.  May as well spend that time playing your favorite video game, for all the good it does the world.

7a. Respecting you does not require me to grant time or space to refuting wild conspiracy stories, historical revisionism, or climate-change-denial.  As Christopher Hitchens once said, dismissing a questioner at a public event who was presenting a 9/11 conspiracy allegation, "I'm not buying any pencils from your cup."  

8.  Review #1 one more time.   

I would really love it if the comments section of this blog was a place where anyone felt like they could share their ideas or opinions or question an argument that has been presented without feeling like someone is going to smack them with harsh words and personal accusations.

Maybe these 'painted lanes' will help. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Neglected Areas

My poor car.

If you need a tangible sign of what life has been like the past year, just go out the front door of this house and look at my car.  Get inside, sit in the passenger seat.  I've been cleaning it up recently, but there is still plenty of desert dust baked into the interior; the effects of sun and dirt on the exterior; the wear on four new-ish tires.  You can't open the trunk because the lock is broken and I've had to permanently secure it.  The mileage is well past 200,000 miles.  The engine light is on.

A round trip to Las Cruces is 120 miles, and I've been doing that commute an average of five or six times a week for the past year.  My family is in Deming, yet all of my paid teaching and artistic work was in Las Cruces.  That is, except for the occasional assignment in Albuquerque, a round trip of 480 miles. 

Most cars would have fallen to pieces by now, like at the end of The Blues Brothers.  This is a 2002 Honda Civic.  It's been through a lot.  But no car is immortal.

The car has gotten some rest the past month.  Fewer long trips.  I've been hanging around Deming, laying low after my assignment at NMSU and an exhausting theatre project.  For the fall, I will be at the university part-time, and if we are getting by financially I intend to spend more time building a place for zen practice here in Deming.

To be honest, I rather neglected Deming Zen Center with all this theatre activity in Las Cruces, and so besides my own fatigue I've been directing more time and energy to this place and this handful of newcomers to the practice.

I have also been spending more time with my two sons.  The elder brother is five, school age and beginning to take in this suffering world.  The public schools around us are overwhelmed and failing, indicative of the destruction of public education that is taking place in the United States in the name of market economics and corporate domination.  (Click here for an excellent analysis by John Bellamy Foster.)  We will need to be so involved in his education we might as well be home-schooling along with child-rearing. 

So, writing less, acting less; parenting more, and practicing at the zen center more.

It isn't very difficult to keep one's own practice going even at a breakneck schedule.  Because I taught acting classes, I could get away with wearing Thai fisherman-style pants that are very comfortable for plunking down and sitting between classes.  Two hours of driving a day allowed a private space for chanting.  If I did not wake up early enough to do prostrations at home in the morning, I had ample time and space to do them during the working day.

All of that was fortunate.  However, just practicing by myself all the time is not the point.  Zen practice -- especially for older students who have taken vows as dharma teachers --  is to be done for, and with, other people.

Out here in the Chihuahuan Desert, so far away from our other affiliate centers (the closest one is in Las Vegas -- the one in Nevada, not the one in New Mexico), one aspect of my practice has been neglected for several years: kong-an practice, the process of question-and-answer interaction that takes place, knees to knees and face to face, between zen teacher and student.

Kong-ans lend a lot of mystique to zen, but in actual practice they aren't mysterious or "woo-woo."  The interaction is, however, an art, and it gets rusty on you if you don't practice it.  For years, during the time I lived at or near established zen centers, I was able to practice with a teacher on a weekly basis at least.  Out here, it's been once or twice a year.

We have been here five years.

When we can afford to fly her out, our teacher visits Deming.  Within minutes of her arrival in June, she sat me down and told me we were going to get very modern and address kong-ans together via Skype and email, whatever it takes to do it regularly.  And I'll look for ways to get myself to retreats at her center in Kansas, too.

Oh, and I may be in the market for a car, soon.  This old one deserves a viking funeral, when the day comes.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Blaming the jury is misguided. So how are you?

So far, anger is prevailing in the "morning after" comments I read on Facebook.

They are responding to the "not guilty" verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman.  That's the neighborhood watch guy who pursued a kid on a rainy night in Sanford, Florida in February of last year.  He got into a personal confrontation with the kid even after 9-1-1 told him to stay put, and ended up in a physical fight that ended with Zimmerman shooting the kid in the chest.  The kid was armed with a snack and a soft drink he had bought at a convenience store.

The trial was televised and the story behind it is upsetting. The verdict was also disappointing to many.  Unfortunately, the sampling represented by my Facebook feed suggests an awful lot of people are confusing the verdict with the root causes of the situation.  

There is a widespread assumption that a "not guilty" verdict in the case could only be a miscarriage of justice.  The possibility that the state did not make its case, did not reach the threshold of "beyond a reasonable doubt," that the jury may well have considered Zimmerman at fault but could not convict him on the basis of the prosecution, are not popular.  Indeed, I'm seeing ugly personal accusations fly around in the heat of people's anger or disappointment; and angry indictment over the supposed inability of jury trials to convict people we think are obviously guilty.  Weirdly, I'm even seeing instances of homophobic language being used to express disdain for the verdict (like the man who claimed that justice had been "ass raped"). 

In the end, I'm still happiest with the presumption of innocence and the higher threshold of "beyond a reasonable doubt" in a criminal trial.  Even though it means that a person who is at fault may go free if the prosecution does not prove the case.

This is not naive.  The system certainly has biases based on race and economic status.  Even in this particular case, social inequality expressed itself.  There was Zimmerman's decision that this kid was suspicious looking in the first place, and his judgment that he was justified in pursuing the kid even after he made his 9-1-1 call.  There was the police, who initially let Zimmerman go.  In order for there to be an arrest and charges, so we could even have a trial, there was a public campaign that led to the appointment of a special prosecutor.  Economic status is also a major factor: those who can afford an expensive legal defense stand a better chance of walking away free, whereas those without resources have a harder time defending their liberty.

There is injustice all over this story and this trial, but it is not this jury's fault.

A better place to focus would be the root causes of the situation.  What happened in George Zimmerman's mind that night, when he saw a kid walking home in the rain and decided this was such a threat he had to take his weapon out and pursue the kid even after calling the police to report a suspicious person?  What makes a kid with dark skin wearing a hoodie more of a threat than someone who looks different?  Why was the impulse to chase him down and detain him rather than than greet him and ask him if he was lost, if he had far to walk in the rain?  Why were the police initially so quick to clear this shooter?

This person's state of mind led to the death of a young man, but it also led to a decision that has arguably ruined his own life, and once again divided friends and neighbors against each other and their society. 

We can accept the verdict of the jury in this criminal process, even if it means Zimmerman gets away with killing a fellow human being.  How pre-meditated the confrontation or the shooting was, we can never know with certainty.  And it probably isn't even the most important thing to focus on.

How do we take responsibility for this story?  For the story we are making out of it?   What is the most helpful way to respond?

Shall we start to address, wherever we find ourselves in society, the biases that determine how we perceive things?  Shall we address forthrightly the inequalities that allow some to enjoy privileged status while others are dealt injustice?

And in particular, can we begin to address racial bias as a natural phenomenon, being a product of conditioning? Can we do this with compassion?   Racial bias ties minds into knots and interrupts lives.   Everyone suffers.

Let it not go unsaid that the process begins with our own selves: owning our own knots and untying them with compassion, for ourselves and our world.  Our problems originate in mind, and our minds express themselves in our actions.

Then, sharing the process.  

Not everyone will recognize it or respect it right away.  This is not going to satisfy a desire for quick and visible changes in the world. Indeed, the sentiment of this post would likely arouse derision in many.  The ways of peace, reconciliation, and healing are frankly unpopular in the United States; they are scorned and laughed at.


If we insist on seeing the world change in our own lifetime, maybe we're still doing this for our own selves and not for all of us.  Cultural change takes many generations.  And it's not guaranteed to go the way we think it should.

So how about this: let's start with our own healing and awakening, and do it openly.  Others will take from it what they will.  And to blazes with the scorn and laughter.  Let that strengthen our vow to grow up. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Violence is everybody's problem

An edited version of this piece appeared in the Deming Headlight today.  This is the version I submitted, but the differences are minor.  Feel free to drop by the page and leave a comment there.  Or here.  As you like. 


On Sunday morning – early Saturday evening here in Luna County – several bombs exploded in the Indian state of Bihar.  It was not a major news story here, perhaps because it was so far away and the casualties were low.  Also, it’s a familiar story: ten bombs exploded, a couple of people were injured, and a suspect from a militant Islamist group was arrested.  Stop me if you’ve heard this before. 

What was unusual in this case was the target: the holiest Buddhist site in the world, the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya.  Even in a world where terrorism is daily news, an attack targeting Buddhists was shocking to some.  Buddhism has a reputation for being a gentle and pacific religion. The very first vow any Buddhist takes, for monks and laity alike, is a vow of non-violence.  Formal Buddhist training includes methods for dealing with angry thoughts and impulses.   Although the area around Bodh Gaya is a hotbed of a militant Maoist movement, as well as frequent conflict between Muslims and Hindus, why would anybody hit the Buddhists?

For those who blame radical Islam as the chief instigator of bloody conflict in our world, the arrest of a Mujahideen member hours after the bombing was a grim confirmation.  Doesn’t this show once again that terrorism is mostly an Islamic problem?

These are both good questions.

The actual history of Buddhism is rather disappointing to its reputation.  In spite of Buddhism’s scriptures and teachings about compassion and forbearance, Buddhists around the world have participated in wars of aggression, civil wars, and ethnic violence just like their brothers in sisters in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and the whole messy lot of us.    Buddhist clergy have sought protection and favor from governments, and in return they have helped legitimize unjust actions by states.  Zen priests helped prepare Japanese soldiers for combat in World War II. 

Recently the Indian Mujahideen have called for attacks on Buddhists in response to recent events in Burma and Sri Lanka, where Buddhists – including many monks – have been beating up and killing Muslims.  There has been no militant Islamist activity in these countries, just Muslim families setting up shop, worshipping their god, and being citizens.  One prominent monk, who goes by the nearly unpronounceable name U Wirathu, has been called “The Buddhist Bin Laden” for advocating the eradication of Muslim culture in Burma.  In other countries, like Afghanistan, Muslim majorities have beat up on Buddhists and blown up their holy sites.  Around and around it goes in a death spiral of tit-for-tat violence.  Where does it begin?  How can it end?

Even Buddhists do it.

These disputes are not religious.  The actual gripes are about ethnicity and economic grievance.  (The recent cycle of violence in Burma began in a Muslim-owned gold shop.)   In the end, human beings fight over common things: money, turf, and race.  We dress up our dreams in the language of patriotism and religion to make these base passions seem noble. 

U Wirathu, the Buddhist Bin Laden, has a dream about saving Burma.  Radical Islamists (including the real Bin Laden) have dreams about a world based on Islamic principles.  Christians who blow up abortion clinics, or pass laws requiring medically unnecessary vaginal ultrasounds, have dreams about saving the unborn and punishing sin.  And humans with no religion whatsoever also have dreams that end in violence. 

We are all involved, whether we engage in violence directly, or fund it through our taxes, or assent to it with our silence.  And we also follow our own dreams, most of them ending in some kind of violence: if not physical, then perhaps emotional violence against our loved ones, or social violence against our neighbors. 

If we wish to take some responsibility for these cycles of suffering and violence, a first step might be to stop pointing fingers and wake up from our own angry dreams.  All religions talk about peace, but none have a patent on it, and very few of us put it into practice.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

The Terra Nova Report

Obviously, I have not been blogging much for the last few months.

One major event during this lull in blogging has been directing a local production of a very challenging play.  It was an exhausting and personally costly experience which I will try to summarize briefly.  It's still going to be long, but I hope you'll enjoy these images from the performance.

Ted Tally's play Terra Nova premiered at Yale Repertory at the end of 1970s and had its heyday in the mid-1980s when it made the rounds of regional theatres.  Trinity Rep produced it in 1984, directed by the actor Peter Gerety; I saw it at the impressionable age of 13.  I found the story gripping: the play recounts the story of Robert Falcon Scott's fatal expedition to the South Pole right up to his death in 1912.  Only much later, reading the play as an adult, did I appreciate the personal depth of Tally's play.

(Tally, by the way, left the theatre and went into screenwriting.  He won an Academy Award for The Silence of the Lambs.)

Terra Nova is a kind of play I love.  The space does not literally portray a place, but rather a human being's mind.  It becomes an arena for showing, theatrically, a heart in conflict with itself.  Scott is shown writing his final journal entries, dying of exposure and starvation, struggling to understand why he made the choices that brought him and his men to this desperate situation.  A rival explorer, Roald Amundsen, appears to Scott as a hallucinatory sort of Greek chorister, questioning Scott's decisions and his interpretation of events.  On a mostly bare stage, actors inhabit a blizzard in Antarctica, a London garden at springtime, or a French bistro.  The dialogue and a few long monologues present complex questions and themes in powerful language.  It is a great work of dramatic writing, and a high-level challenge to perform successfully.  To keep the audience enthralled, it must be performed at a suitable pace, the actors must be actively engaged with the language, and they must avoid some large pitfalls (e.g. playing it somberly from the beginning to its tragic end).

Moreover, it is a play that depicts a person starting to peel back the layers of his identity, his ideas about himself, his desires, and so on, to get at the big question, what am I

When the theatre that I've been working with in Las Cruces since 2011 offered to produce a play for me to direct this summer, I submitted Terra Nova.  It was the kind of work I wanted to do with actors, and the kind of theatre I wanted to offer this community. They accepted.

After open auditions and a period of direct recruiting, we assembled an ensemble consisting of some of Las Cruces's strongest actors.  Many of them have professional backgrounds or training.  Everyone was quite enthusiastic about tackling this play.

Since we would be telling the story of people in over their heads, figuring out how to accomplish what they had set for themselves, I thought it would helpful for as all to take a plunge.  I had seen or worked with all of these actors before, and so I cast them against their strengths or comfort zones, so they would have to work harder in other areas.  The actor playing Scott, for instance, is a go-to comedic actor around here.  Another actor has a face and voice made for villains and conniving people, so I cast him as a very noble character.

(Actually, the real-life Lawrence Oates was a good deal more complicated and conflicted than the play portrays, but that's another topic.) 

It also worked this way with the design team.  Two people were required to design and build costumes.  The props were also a challenge.  A carpenter up in Bayard had to build the dogsled used by the expedition team, which we then distressed.  Antique navigational equipment was borrowed from two different departments of New Mexico State University.  We had a first-time set designer (who struggled and panicked and finally succeeded to a point where her set design was one of the most highly praised features of the production).  Our lighting designer was obliged to approach his design differently than most of the shows I have seen at the theatre; and he did so with creativity and invention.

We also had a first-time stage manager, trained on the job by my assistant director and me.

So to begin with, everyone was having to work out of the comfort zone to some degree.  I also wanted to emulate the rehearsal processes extolled by Robert Lewis (who was my teacher's teacher) and what I experienced working at Trinity.  This required extensive adaptation, however, because instead of 40-48 hours a week of rehearsal, we had about 13.  In addition, I worked with each actor individually -- except one who refused.  They also had to spend time outside rehearsal working with dialect tapes and studying their lines. 

This made for a stressful process.  From a certain viewpoint, the efficient thing to do would be for me to come in and block everything and sculpt the performances as I felt they should be.  This is, frankly, what more than one actor expected from me.  And I refused to do that.  I was adamant that they discover as much as possible on their own.  I tried to ask questions more often than a director usually would, and allow actors to explore choices I might not have made so long as they didn't conflict with the playwright's intention or obstruct the scene. 

The schedule was very tight and there were technical problems and setbacks along the way.  Some of the actors had difficulty mastering their text, and one actor in particular struggled with his lines right up to opening night.  There were personality conflicts, and varying degrees of frustration with the process and/or me.  One actor became so angry with me (after I told him we would cut or re-assign the lines he hadn't learned) I was prepared to physically defend myself.

Rehearsals would end around 9:00 PM, and then the set designer, stage manager, and I would stay at the theatre well past midnight (even one or two in the morning) working on set, costumes, sound, making repairs, etc. 

From my vantage point, at tech week their performances were actually in good shape, and the rough edges were minor and fixable.  Unfortunately, if the actors don't believe it, this doesn't help them much.  One actor, a longtime community actor, decided I was an idiot early in the process (I suspect he was also struggling with something I had asked him to do regarding the character work) and stopped talking to me altogether.  His performance was fine, but he wasn't invested in it.  He had skill and presence, but he was going through the motions.  He didn't want to be there.

During the worst days, I noticed something interesting.  When I listened to what individual actors were struggling with, I kept noticing parallels to what their characters had to confront in the play.  I even found myself in Scott's position, when the aforementioned actor took me to task for how I was directing the project.  For nearly everyone, once they pushed through whatever the blockage was, their performances flourished.  Pointing this out has to be done very carefully, because it can sound very glib or dismissive: "Oh, you're angry?  Put that into your acting!"  So usually I didn't.  But it was amazing to watch dynamics emerge in the cast that mirrored the dynamics among their characters.

A case in point, and a story I'll probably be telling students for years to come, was an actor who grew extremely frustrated with the process and a couple of actors with whom he had dialogue.  (One partner was the guy who had so much trouble learning his lines.)   On his own, he learned other people's lines so he could be prepared to cover, and he felt understandably put out because (1) this required extra work from him and (2) was not always appreciated, so he felt conspicuous.  For a difficult few days, he seemed to withdraw.  I'd be giving notes and he'd be bent over his phone, sending text messages.  He became terse and uncommunicative, visibly unhappy or impatient at times.  At our individual sessions, he expressed tremendous frustration and some panic about the project's success.  His own scenes were being held back for reasons that were not his fault, and he had every reason to feel unhappy about it.

And then, something very interesting happened. He just put it down.  He swallowed the iron ball and decided he was not going to withdraw, but instead he would invest even more.  His partner who had the most difficulty with lines, as it turned out, had an incredibly difficult home situation that worsened during our rehearsal process.  This actor went to him and fully embodied How can I help?  He did, in fact, exactly the sort of thing his character does in the play:  move through anger and judgment, to just helping, and eventually to a gesture of incomprehensible generosity.  And this actor's performance flowered into one of the richest and truest performances in the play.  Because he went through an arc similar to his character's.

I couldn't praise him enough.

And he wasn't the only one to break through like that.

Instead of exhilarated and excited, tech week (the final week of preparation before opening) found much of the cast stressed out and worried about failure.  Then, as often happens, opening night came, we presented our show in front of an audience, the actors were wonderful, and the audience was spellbound.  We fell in love with Scott's wife, played with such wise humor and maturity by a university student named Claire Koleske.  Scott was no historical caricature, but like someone you might actually meet, a person with good intentions who sometimes misses what is right in front of him, who is sometimes awkward and undecided, but who also exhibits moments of tremendous bravery and compassion.  The Terra Nova men were all individuals, prickly and difficult but tight as comrades, who did not always get along but were also strong, funny, disciplined soldiers who at one time or another made seemingly impossible choices for their mission.  The performances were rich and multi-dimensional.  Spectators felt empathy, many of them weeping at their fate, many of them debating events in the play in the lobby and on the drive home. 

If it surprised anybody, it did not surprise me.  We always want more rehearsal hours, but we had made very good use of the hours we had.  A lot of planning and preparation and hard work went into each and every hour.  The show had a solid foundation and the play told its tale through our actors.

There were mixed feelings in the end.  Although most of the actors walked away proud of their work, there were signs of exhaustion.  A couple of people left liking me a bit less than they once did (this happens to directors), and the one guy refuses to speak to me and reportedly has announced he will not work on anything I'm in.  (Apocalypse!)

Night after night, patrons expressed tremendous excitement and joy over what they saw.  This was high-quality ensemble theatre, the kind of work that provoked conversation and debate.  I saw several faces return to see the show a second and even a third time.  It was the kind of project that can excite people all over again about live theatre in their community, and maybe get them to bring friends.  And that's pretty much what I hoped for: for actors to feel like they worked hard and grew, and for our patrons to experience high-quality live theatre that presented a big question about our lives:  why do you do what you do?  what is making those choices? 

Or to put it more simply, what are you?

Even as I am being asked by some, "What are you going to direct next?", I find myself wanting to spend more time at Deming Zen Center, where there are people who want to practice, who need an older student to show them the ropes and help them strengthen their practice, and who are ready to engage in that same question:  what am I? 

It's not as entertaining as being in a play, I guess, but it's a little more direct. And really, none of us are here for long. 

Meanwhile, I'm rehearsing a play -- not directing, just acting in it.  That opens in August.

After that, don't know.  We'll see. 

Espionage and Journalism: An Email to CNN

I am writing in response to Peter Shadbolt's June 15 piece, Convicted U.S. spy Christopher Boyce: 'Snowden is doomed'

Turning to Boyce as an expert in the case of Edward Snowden is to establish a false equivalence between espionage and leaking classified information to the press.  Mr. Boyce sold information to the U.S.S.R.  Mr. Snowden selectively provided an internationally respected press organization, The Guardian, information about a security program he felt endangered the rights of the American public.

This is extremely important, and I have to ask whether Mr. Shadbolt and CNN fail to understand the difference, or are willingly conflating the two?  It is extremely dangerous to American liberty when our press goes along with the idea that whistleblowing is equivalent to espionage.  It is the betrayal of journalism itself, and from within.