05 November, 2013

The lessons we've gained from Konstantin's play.

I taught a class today about Anton Chekhov's 'The Seagull.' It was one of the most moving days I have ever spent involved in art.

I'm a teacher. Did you know that? I teach at Pace University. (If I might be so bold as to say so--I think I might be a good teacher. I hope so. I do. And I aspire to be better all the time.) I was fortunate enough to have a lot of very good teachers to pave the way for me--Joanne Devine, Thomas Kearny, Jean Gaede, David Montee, Robin Ellis, Mark Saunders, Hugh Hodgart and Judy Chu-- to name the giants. Thus, I am proud to say I am a teacher-- proud to carve the word into the air like Annie Sullivan spelling each letter in to the palms of Helen Keller. It is one of the most rewarding aspects of my life.

On days like today, it takes the top slot.


I realize I don't talk about Art-with-a-capital-A, a great deal.
Perhaps because I don't think people would really appreciate that kind of talk.
I don't really know. Perhaps they would.
But art is why I do this.
All of this.
Art is who I SERVE.
My question every morning when I wake up is "How may I serve today?"
And the answer is usually found in art-- whether it be directly, or in living an artistic "life." I believe an artistic life is a connected life-- looking strangers in the eye. Meaning what you say. Receiving compliments and criticisms alike with dignity and graciousness.
In all these acts, I serve art.
When I write. Interpret the words of others. Sing. And teach.

I have a lot of wonderful students. All of them actually. Each of them in their way is very special. They often rock my world. They often make me stop dead, breathe deeply, laugh, weep, and pinch myself.

But there is one kid who rocked my world today. Let's call him Johnnie.

After weeks of Stanislavski, Uta Hagen, reading, connecting, weeping; of huge revelations, of trust being built and risks being taken, after traversing the depths of our Selves, I assigned our first piece of TEXT. Anton Chekhov's masterpiece of 1896: The Seagull.

For those of you who do not know:
There is an aging noteworthy actress.
A famous writer.
A young beautiful girl who lives across the lake, who is the muse and love of
Konstantin-- the play-writing son of the noteworthy actress.
Servants. Symbols. People in mourning for their life. Etcetera. Curtain.

I asked them to take notes on the first act, then we read through the act in class today.

The central action of Act 1 is the performance of Konstantin's experimental play. In today's estimation it might be considered "avant garde" or perhaps a "performance piece" more than a work of drama, but no matter. Konstantin is as preoccupied and obsessed with creating "NEW FORMS" of art for the theatre as he is with his muse Nina (who will be the sole star of this evening's performance).

The play begins.
It is a tangle of symbols and heightened language.
His mother does not understand it-- perhaps she feels threatened by the entire exercise and creates such a commotion in the audience, Konstantin angrily stops the performance mid-way, running off in disgust and devastation.

...My students took copious notes on where the play was set, what time of day, where we are, who is related to whom, who seemingly loves whom, what everyone does for a living. Facts and details. They inferred. They valiantly tried. It was a good first attempt at analysis.

But without fail, not a SINGLE student had anything to say about Konstantin's play.
Not a word.
They skipped right over it.
As if they were the audience by the lake themselves-- so confused by something so different and "out there" they back away from it altogether.

I understood.

I took a deep breath and I tried to look each of them in the eyes.

"Look. My babies. I want to talk about Konstantin's play. But before we do I need to say something: When we encounter things that are difficult-- whether they be in a play or in everyday life-- we must not respond to said difficult by balking. We cannot give up, retreat, back off or back away because it is too dense or too overwhelming. We must LEAN IN to that difficulty. For only in doing so can we truly grow."

And we dug in. Line by line. We decoded. We drew parallels. We searched for truth and meaning underneath the rocks of language and in between the cracks of the symbols. Our imaginations soared and our hearts opened -- as did our minds.

Then, we read Konstantin's play again.

There was a very long silence.
A kind of reverent hush came over the room.

Then I uttered, almost in a whisper,

     "...Is his play, a good play...?"

And I looked over at Johnnie. Sweet, sensitive, "bro" of a guy from New Jersey. He is a doll-- but isn't always free with laughs or affection, especially for a "theatre kid." He plays his cards close to his chest; a little careful, always observing. Johnnie is also wise. And deep. And willing. I looked over at Johnnie... and I saw his face alter-- almost imperceptibly--but I could actually see his mind open.

His voice was quiet. But sure:

     ". . .Yes. . ."

Konstantin's play is not perfect. But he has talent. And that changes everything.
For Johnnie, it was almost a religious revelation.


... Reader: it was glorious.
I don't think I shall ever forget it.
It is why I am not only in the theatre, but why I love teaching so much.
I love sharing those huge moments, connecting about these great works of art with the young people coming up behind me.

Konstantin's play is so personal. so important. And so incredibly difficult to navigate-- if you are unwilling to dig.

Later, I wrote an email to my students, as I am often want to do. I love to touch base in some way after a meaningful class.
My babies.
This is hard.
But the hard is what makes it great.
The hard is what makes what we do a noble act of artistry.
As Konstantin writes:
". . . Yet I know that victory will at last be mine in the savage ceaseless struggle with the Demon, the source of all material impulses. . . and then matter and soul will join in beautiful harmony. . ."

Just like the people that surround Konstantin, we must not dismiss what we do not initially understand.

For truly: gold is there if you are willing to dig. If you are willing to lean in to the difficulties. To engage with that which we perceive to be so far "beyond us."

It is often closer than we ever could have dreamed. 


  1. Al, you're an amazing talent and am equally amazing human being. I wish there were more people out there like you. Keep doing the great things you're doing.

  2. Oh Al!!!!!!!! It's amazing how one single play can change your way of thinking! I mean, I feel very proud of myself, and very proud of our class that we conquered this! I mean, Chekhov can be challenging! But we dug deep and succeeded. I just feel this sense of...satisfaction.



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