08 June, 2024

Alec & 'The Newlywed Game"

Beloved, singular and spectacular Alec, O, the utter elation of being yours — of sharing this life, and playing the best role ever: of Biggest Hype Woman. It is an honor to spend my days uplifting your every triumph and expansion as an artist and human being. 
The last few years you have achieved things as an artist (within a worldwide pandemic!) that filled me with awe. 
This is no exception.

Congratulations on a magnificent world premiere of The Newlywed Game at B Street Theatre; but also on your return to ONstage leadership, being funny as hell, and? on looking hot AF in a suit. It is such an abject joy to see you shine.

But, it is an even greater satisfaction to bear witness to how your friends and colleagues regard you as a person — that they celebrate the goodness of your person-hood and integrity of character. How lucky we all are to have a world with Alec Silver in it— on stage and off.

The last eleven weeks have been challenging in so many ways— but never challenged US. The distance is, in every way, merely evidence of our mutual Silb/ver Family artistic flourishing! And despite the distance we have remained so full of trust, valedictorians in AP Communication, and so emotionally close. For our love was born of long-distance loving, and our connection has been ever-present despite the miles. What a gift.

Congratulations, my love. 
On ALL of it. 
Mazel tov, felicidades, 恭喜

 



02 June, 2024

"Goodnight... goodnight..."

@aka_lizlauren
Farewell, Marian Paroo and The Music Man in Chicago.

The most glorious part: creating a new Marian Paroo in tandem with my "whyfe" Katie Spelman-- my favorite contemporary artistic collaborator. It has been a dream, a career highlight, and the definition of platonic intimacy. Katie, along with our peerless female-led creative team Kim Hudman + Laura Rook, not to mention 37 world-class performers. The professionalism of every contributor has made this one of the great artistic experiences of my career, and I’m so proud of what we all made together.

It must be mentioned that sharing the journey of Marian and Harold opposite KJ Hippensteel's Harold Hill— the best I’ve ever seen in the role for reasons I’ve expressed now countless times. 
 
KJ, our creation is a work of art, and I’m proud that it has deepened and enriched over the weeks in ways actors can only dream of. In addition, we’ve never wavered from our shared commitment to telling it honestly, no matter what; a testament to our shared professionalism and love of the work. Thank you. It’s been an honor to tell this story together.


I’ve made some lifelong friends and theatrical chosen family, I’ve conquered so many of my singing demons and felt in my cells once again what I thought was the lost sensation of truly soaring on stage in a musical again. I flew— and it was even more precious because after the last decade or so, I know what it means to fall.

Almost everything has been a total dream.

Yet, being honest, there have been parts of this experience that have been both socially and physically agonizing. I won't go in to detail here, first of all because I am a lady (I have never used this space for idle muckraking), and second because none of the thoughts and feelings are fully identified or organized, and I have learned to only offer reflections in a vaguely public space such as this once experiences are truly processed. Suffice it to say: I’m grateful for the lessons and look forward to ever-more calming of my nervous system. 
 
For although I passionately love this role, adore so many in this company, and revere this gorgeous work of art we all created, I am ready to return home. I look forward to returning to an environment where I feel fully understood, where what I offer as a friend, colleague and human being is deeply valued, respected, and above all: the goodness of my intentions are never doubted or maligned. I know I shall never scramble to prove my worth again, for if we find ourselves trying to prove our worth to others who do not see or value it? We have already forgotten our own value.

Marian and this contract have taught me:
- communicate.
- don’t make assumptions.
- trust.
- love abundantly— without apology.
- and tell people what they mean to you—for our trip on earth is brief.

And so:

“Goodnight… goodnight…”

@aka_lizlauren

29 May, 2024

Wonderstudies

Understudying and swinging is one of the hardest jobs in all of show-business, and although we've had a renaissance of uplifting these performers in a post COVID world, don't be fooled: we still don't give them anything close to what they deserve.

A role in a specific production is not "mine" — to be stingy with. I prefer to think of my primary duty as being to the character herself— and to serve her as best I can. More often than not that means coming to work and doing what I know I'm on earth to do. 

But if I am not capable of serving? Or for some reason require rest and respite to continue effectively serving? Than the way to truly serve is to allow the other members of The Team do just that. 

It's an honor to be on Team Marian with Christine-- it's been an honor my entire career to work with every teammate serving these women I've had the honor to portray. 

You all know who you are.

Some of you are my very best friends. 

After all: what else are we doing on earth if not uplifting one another? 

Here's to Teamwork.


18 May, 2024

"There was love, all around..."

©aka liz lauren
There was love all around, but I never heard it singing…

One of the things I adore—and have truly learned—in the playing of this classic song (‘Til There Was You’) is the humble admission of something I know all too well (because I personally did it for years):

That, as individuals who desire to love and be loved, sometimes we participate in our own solitude. 

We perpetuate it by keeping the world at a safe distance. We think that a world kept at arms length cannot hurt us. But that isn’t how it works. A heart sealed in an airtight box does change— just not with scars or wounds. It calcifies and hardens.

For Marian— a woman who has an almost rigid rigor for upholding the 'absolute truth' — I think this line in this song is Marian’s greatest moment of vulnerability.

To fully admit (in song)—that despite all her research, her knowledge OF love stories, poetry and BALZAC— she didn’t just miss something, she missed everything. She missed the point of all of it: love “all around” her.

And she missed it not because of town gossip, or grief, or the lack of a suitable partner in the area,— she missed it because her own rigid walls were built up and buttressed so high that she almost tossed love aside even when it was right in front of her.

I relate.

And I celebrate her humility and admission because it is, in every way, my own.

Maybe it’s yours too.

(And I thank —infinitely— the love of my life, my beloved Alec, for patiently standing before me until the walls came down)

May you be brave enough to see the love all around you, whenever you are ready to fully receive it.

Love on.

© Marian at sunset by @brave.lux - What a dream it is.



15 May, 2024

Janet: No People Like Show People

photo by @kulpy

Mama. 
Roomie. 
Legend. 
Emotional support animal 
and new Chicago bestie. 
Let’s hear it for JANET. ULRICH. BROOKS. 
 
You know? In the Business of Show it certainly isn’t the career volatility, or the total artistic unpredictability that *gets us going.* And it isn’t living far from home, or the job security; and it definitely isn’t the TENS of dollars we make for the privilege of dedicating our life to art. 
 It’s all about the PEOPLE WE SHARE IT WITH.

The honor of sharing this experience with the legendary talent that is Janet Ulrich Brooks has been more than a joy— in fact there aren’t words for all it has been, and you all know I’m very rarely speechless.

To my stage Mama— 'Widda Paroo,' talent beyond, 
and now dear, 
fiercely loyal, 
infinitely reciprocal, 
unimaginably generous, 
ambulance-calling, 
tradition-upholding,
 laugh-out-louding, 
make-your-own-kinda-music-singing, 
new Friend-with-a-capital-F:
     I love you beyond.

Thank you for allowing me to love you out loud.

You’re stuck with me forever.

photo by @kulpy

29 April, 2024

Making Marian with Katie

Doing The Music Man in Chicago has been a great blessing to and for me, and a great break from the dark dark plays I've engaged with over the last few years. 

There have been SO many revelations—many that have occurred, artistic and personal—some simply because I am spending so much time outside of work by myself, in contemplation). Which, though I miss Alec and Tati terribly, is always fruitful for me. I am an introverted being after all. Solitude always seems to “force” something to the surface, outward, forward. 



It’s a fantastic room, and it’s profound to work with such a close friend
Katie Spelman as director/choreographer because I know she trusts me utterly. 

Katie is one of my best friends-- and, compared to some of my lifelong friendships-- she is a relatively new best friend; one I've made in the last 5 years. Something about that feels special. It's challenging to make friends in adulthood, particularly with fellow women (many of whom pair off and have children in this era of life-- so friend groups break apart and re-assemble around those choices through no "fault"). It's been an expansive relationship in every way.

Katie has visionary ideas but also encourages other great ideas and creates an environment where people can express them with ease. She is passionate but not rigid. She IS visionary — especially in the storytelling-through-dance part. 

But I’ll say the most beautiful thing I've experienced here is a kind of intimacy that I never expected — a feeling of closeness with Katie because we both sort of understand that in many ways I am playing a version of me, but more crucially a version of her. She is Marian at the top of the show, and I am Marian at the end. And together, we are weaving this new vision of Marian together. It's an act of total mutual creation and it feels sacred in its intensity and intimacy.
 

*

    We had an almost inexplicable moment of platonic intimacy the other day in rehearsal discussing the (beautiful, underestimated, gorgeous piece of theatre I utterly underestimated) second act scene when Harold Hill comes to call at Marian's house, and eventually invites Marian to "the footbridge."
 

There was a moment the other day when Katie was begging to cut the line “My dear little librarian…” 

And I took paused. Took a beat. First of all, it’s not my line (it is Harold's), but the ferocity of her passion for cutting it made me pause. I asked what bothered her about it. She said she thought it was "demeaning and diminutive and not Feminist." Despite her intellectualizing, I could see her emotion just below the surface. I love this person. I know her. This was a moment of Knowing.

I asked for a quick 5. 

It was time anyway, but it felt like a good moment to pause. Katie is a 37-year-old woman who if she had her choice, would have a significant life partner. She has some walls (who doesn't?), and it IS hard for her to find a worthy partner because she’s extra, extra extraordinary. But she’s also part of the problem. A problem I know and relate to very well. Because it is a problem I had myself… 

 

For years and years I was unavailable to real partnership and to the real reception of love because I was overwhelmed by childhood trauma, grief and self-loathing, then by illness -- and all of those contributed to the story that "no one could possibly want to love me." But the problem was not that I was unlovable— it was the fact that I believed I was. And with the belief so deeply rooted within my cells, in every action I took that I almost missed it standing right in front of me.
 
For in 2019, Alec Silver was RIGHT THERE. He was standing before me, totally in love with me, with MY EXACT F*CKING NAME

… and I almost missed him. Because of my stories. My insistence on my unloveability. I almost missed and blew the greatest gift of my life  because of my walls and fears. 
 
And this brings me to my next point— the line 
:
“I just can't. Please. Some other time, maybe tomorrow...” 


 
which oddly is the line before the “my dear little librarian” line. 

 
 
I cannot tell you how much this line shakes my soul.
Because again, Alec. And why I had to play this role after Alec.
Because love is right there.

Harold Hill is man making an actual bid to connect with Marian. He is, shockingly, truly worthy of her. They are both as lonely and broken and intelligent and isolated as one another, they both need each other. 

He is saying “please meet me— not just at the footbridge but in a place of intimate love” 

and she says “maybe tomorrow”

That was me.
Until Alec. 

"There was love all around, but I never heard it singing..."




So we broke, and I took her aside in private:
 


     “Katie… my whYfe. One of my very best friends. Part of Marian’s agony is that she is capable of so much love and passion, but her years and years of walls are preventing her from allowing herself to BE loved. And sometimes that allowance looks “soft” and “tender” and “feminine”…. none of that is negative. None of that is anti-feminist. Let’s try the line as a man who is making a bid to be soft with her. Who sees she needs softness. And then we can allow this woman who is terrified of being seen as 'girly' because she thinks it means she is weak... to be a creature of desire and of being desirED. And I think you’ll see it’s right. 
And to allow ourselves to be vulnerable is also the key to all of our liberation… when we’re ready”



Afterwards someone asked:    

         “What was that?” 



        And I replied: “That was love” 

 


18 April, 2024

Turn Crumbs into a Feast

Hello darling one. Feeling creatively blue? 

Man, we can be such jerks to ourselves! Have you ever had that mean-voiced ticker-tape loop in your head chanting on repeat that you have "NEVER been in a relationship/made money/had success in your hashtag career?"
 
Snore.

Instead of making insulting, jerk-like decisions about yourself and your life, stop using “never/always” statements and try asking yourself questions like these:

- Is this absolutely true?
- Have I NEVER booked a gig/ been in a relationship/ made money…?
- EEEEEVER?
- Am I truly always a trash fire of mistakes and loser-hood?


We’re so quick to decide that if we haven’t totally nailed it, standing-ovation-style, at a Sutton-Foster level of validation, that we suck.
 
Dig deep, look for where you have had successes, no matter how teeny-weeny, and build upon it! Tiny triumph by tiny triumph, micro bit by micro bit.
 
You decide what’s true for you, so if you aren’t staring at a reality that lights you up, change your perception, roll up your sleeves, and change your life—brick by brick.
 
Sometimes, we have to turn what we perceive of as “crumbs” into a feast. That's okay—it teaches us to be realistic, optimistic, and above all: innovative.

13 April, 2024

Broadway World: The Music Man Q & A

© Joe Mazza

Originally published at Broadway World on April 13, 2024


Alexandra, stepping into the role of Marian Paroo, a character known for her complexity and depth, what aspects of her personality do you find most compelling to explore?
Given your extensive background in theatre, including roles in Fiddler on the Roof and Master Class, in what ways does portraying Marian challenge you in new ways
?

Having spent many of my marriageable and child-bearing years as a Midwestern, bookish spinster myself, I feel adequately prepared to portray the role…

Okay okay. Jokes aside,

    Being an actor is as fascinating — just when you think you have landed upon the next realization, stage of growth, place of acceptance, or the next “AHA,” another one presents itself to you. What a gift. While Marian is in many ways “in my wheelhouse” (as a golden-age soprano, an American [I play a lot of not-Americans], a bookish, aging woman) she’s presented great surprises.

What I recall from the era of my solitary life before I met my husband, Alec (met him, at the age of 35—) was how very full-to-the-brim with love I was, with nowhere to offer it. I think many people relate to that state of being. I was certain my life story would not be a romantic one (which is absolutely fine, if that’s your choice— but if I could have been honest with myself at the time, it was not my choice). I possessed an equal amount of
    1. Reasonable standards/ principles about what I wanted love and partnership to be, and
    2. deeply unhelpful made-up stories I was telling myself that ultimately just perpetuated my solitude.

No, I was not merely “drawn to unavailable people,” because the most unavailable person in the equation was me. I was in my very own way, terrified of being known or seen or allowing myself to be vulnerable enough to receive love.

This is Marian’s plight.

More than her rigidity, her isolation, or her status as an outcast.
 
And perhaps this plight is why I have not personally played her until now. Perhaps I had to personally be on the other side of Marian’s second act— to appreciate the agony of her self-sabotage and recognize myself in it. To acknowledge how much time I wasted with my heart encased in iron locks. To fully appreciate how courageous a thing it is to allow yourself to be loved, and of course: love’s utterly transformative power on the other side of all that terror. 

© Joe Mazza
As audiences experience this production of The Music Man, what message or feeling do you hope they take away from seeing you as Marian Paroo?


All of the above, plus:

    - Women are people.
    - Read banned books.
    - Let yourself be loved.
    - We need both facts and poetry.
    - It’s never too late.




The Music Man is celebrated for its classic American storytelling and memorable score. How have you approached singing Meredith Willson's iconic music, and do you have a favorite number to perform?

    It is hard to believe that even though I have done a great deal of singing in concert or cabaret settings in the last 5 years, I haven’t been in a “proper” musical production since before the pandemic! So the first challenge is the discipline, technique and stamina to perform such a powerhouse soprano role 8 times a week with consistency and facility of expression.

    And honestly, it’s been pure joy to go to the “vocal gym” and celebrate what I do feel is my natural sound.

    I love the entire score, but I think my favorite song to sing is the “Lida Rose/ Dream of Now” number in the second act with our tremendous barbershop quartet.
Two reasons.
First, Marian’s verse is a soaring dreamscape of fantasy and yearning. It’s almost erotic in how fully alive her yearning is— and I don’t think I had ever previously acknowledged that about this character. (I mean: the clues were all there, she reads Balzac for goodness sake!)

    Second, theatre is a team sport. So while I appreciate a lovely solo as much as they next soprano (LOL), there is nothing like making music in a group— and this particular group is world class.


This production brings together an incredible cast and creative team. What has it been like worth with the incredible ensemble of artists?

A chef is only as good as their tools and ingredients.
A painter only as good as their materials.
A tennis player made better by the quality of their opponents.
By this logic, a theatre artist is only as good as their playmates (and it’s called a “play” for a reason.)

    Every member of our creative team and ensemble is world class-- I’m particularly awed by Raquel Adorno’s costume designs and honored beyond language to share a stage (and a dressing room!) with the Chicago theatre legend that is Janet Ulrich Brooks as Mrs. Paroo, and the rising star that is Kai Edgar Joseph as Winthrop.

These are only a few of the team players that awe me, daily.

    The majority of my work occurs with KJ Hippensteel’s Harold Hill. KJ’s Harold is one of the most fully-realized, heartfelt portrayals of the role I’ve seen— he has the stage charisma of a cult leader and the endlessly likable charm of Dick Van Dyke, and though I don’t know a great deal about the finer details of his personal life, one can tell he really loves his wife (it’s something you can see in his eyes, in his work.) I think one can always tell when an actor knows/has known true love— it’s incredibly special to act with.
    KJ is also so willing and available to exposing the vulnerabilities of Harold Hill (which always, on some level, requires exposure of the actor-self too— and that takes a tremendous courage).  To borrow a metaphor from above, it’s a gift to play “pro-tennis” with him. Long may KJ Hippensteel lead companies.

    But the deepest gift of this experience has been collaboratively re-creating a new vision of Marian Paroo with our director-choreographer Katie Spelman. Katie and I met and worked together 5 years ago, and formed an intense adult-friendship bond that was instantaneous (and mutually insistent upon being permanent.)
    One of the things that has been breathtaking is how our deep knowledge of one another has informed and shaped the mutual creation of this “new” Marian. This Marian is informed by both of us, who share much in common with Marian herself, and with one another as deeply feeling, intelligent women with much to give the world and sometimes getting in our own (different) ways.
    The moments of side-splitting laughter, of debate, of shared vision, of exponential, mushrooming creativity are endless between us.
    But it is the moments of what I can only describe as platonic intimacy that have defined our collaboration. One rehearsal memory is so private and tender it doesn’t belong anywhere but in my memory, but suffice it to say the exchange in rehearsal silently expressed Katie saying “let me give this to you” and my silent reply being “let me do this for you.” The end result is an act of service to Marian, to all woman, to art, and to one another. I don’t know that I’ve ever had an experience like it.
 


The Music Man has a timeless quality that resonates with audiences across generations. What do you believe is the key to its enduring appeal, and how does this production capture that essence
?

    In many ways The Music Man as written by Meredith Wilson in the 1950s is about “America” with a “capital A.” America in the early years of the 20th century, in many ways still young, self-absorbed and foolish, in many ways brave, visionary and pioneering. I think what Katie Spelman is attempting to lead us all to do is envision and embody an America that was and an America that could be, when the best of us comes together as a community.
    In our production the fictional River City has recently been through a terrible plague (not at all unlike our world in 2024), experienced individual and collective grief, and in many ways has spiritually “died.” Harold Hill brings River City back to life— even if it is by accident.

    What human being doesn’t empathize with the sensation of dreams and possibilities bringing our souls to life? That’s The Music Man’s enduring appeal.

    Aside from that? Come on: the score is a hit parade (as they kids say “no skips” on this album), the book is impeccable, the dance numbers are bangers, and there’s an unlikely love story. What’s not to like? 


Marian Paroo's transformation throughout The Music Man is pivotal to the story. How do you navigate her evolution from a skeptical librarian to someone who embraces change and love?

    Everything changes when Marian sees what Harold Hill’s poetic lie has done for her brother Winthrop. Her grief-stricken, shadow of a baby brother transforms into a joyous child. The power of Harold’s promise changes Winthrop’s life, and brings the town of River City back to life— and it is palpable, undeniable. She can’t deny that though he may be a literal charlatan, he is in touch with something powerful that exceeds her understanding. That crack— that one aperture in— lets the light in to her soul as well.

    Not every fact with a perfect citation contains the poetry that makes life fully expansive. Harold provides—almost accidentally—that poetry.

    And what I find most interesting?
Marian lives a truthful life, and Harold lives an untruthful life.
But neither of them live honest lives.
They are dishonest in their own ways— with the world and with themselves.
That is, until they are in the presence of the other— honest at last.


Why must audiences see this production of The Music Man?

- You will see a deeply explored version of this story in character and context.
- You will see bodies of color inside the story in an all-embracing way, allowing new people to tell this story.
- You will see 37 brilliant performers on stage in the round (the second largest cast in the Marriott’s history)  
- You will hear a gorgeous orchestra play this classic score
- You will laugh, you will cry, you will fall in love. You will want to go out and buy a trombone.

See you at the library.


17 February, 2024

AFOOT -- GAIA


In 2124 the world is an apocalyptic landscape after the cataclysmic events known as “The Windfall.”

Adelaide’s Botanic Gardens boast an intricate network of AI-controlled maintenance systems known as “GAIA,” a digitally-preserved testament to nature’s perfection. 

 Enter Inspector Lila Gardener, a homicide detective investigating the murder of Adelaide’s great botanist: Dr. Victor Hale. 

Who killed Hale? 

How

and why?  

What secrets lurk beneath the city’s sleek exterior? 

Lila is on the case, for beneath the vibrant foliage and synthetic streams, a mystery lays concealed…In this immersive, site-specific, new form of theater, you interact with your environment using our new AFOOT console. 

All you need is your smartphone, a pair of headphones, and yourself in this thrilling theatrical walking tour of Adelaide.

 •••

CAST

Detective Inspector Lila Gardener — Amy Maiden
GAIA —  Anna O'Byrne
Yashido Natsuko — Gen Parton Shin
Dr. Amanda Narayan — Anula Navlekar
Ilan Zorillo — Mark Dickinson

"The Keepers:"
Shel Silverstein — Tony Sheldon
Madame Ranyevsky — Beverley Klein
Nessa Diffenbaugh — Ange Lavoipierre
Frankly Burnett — Nick Simpson-Deeks
Kew — Rosanna Hyland



TEXT & STORY by: Alexandra Silber
DESIGN, sound, mapping + concept by: Asa Wember
PRODUCED by: Alley Scott + Alec Silver for Dutch Kills Theater
MUSIC by @wet__hands featuring Argh Reath


16 February, 2024

AFOOT -- Shadows of the Past


SHADOWS OF THE PAST is part of AFOOT: Adelaide— a lush, haunting, and romantic 19th century ghost story. 

The story centers around Amelia Edwards and William Gardener— who come together and fall in love across class divides in 1885. 

 Set in the founding years of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens, this romance intertwines local Australian history and supernatural elements. 

Weaving together history, romance and a touch of the supernatural, SHADOWS OF THE PAST explores themes of love, loss, and the enduring connection between people and places across class, death and time. In this immersive, site-specific, new form of theater, you interact with your environment using our new AFOOT console. 

All you need is your smartphone, a pair of headphones, and yourself in this theatrical walking tour of Adelaide, South Australia. 

•••

CAST 

Amelia Edwards — Anna O'Byrne
William Gardener — Nick Simpson-Deeks 
Florrie — Alexandra Silber
Marianna the Medium — Ange Lavoipierre 
Jonathan Edwards — James Robertson Malt 
Policeman — Mark Dickinson

 •

TEXT & STORY by: Alexandra Silber
DESIGN, sound, mapping + concept by: Asa Wember
PRODUCED by: Alley Scott + Alec Silver for Dutch Kills Theater

15 February, 2024

AFOOT -- Whisper Walk

 WHISPER WALK explores the power of uttered personal stories. 

Inspired in part by the "Phone of the Wind" (風の電話, kaze no denwa) of Otsuchi Japan, WHISPER WALK is a conceptual piece of moving, living, documentary-style testimonial art of life-like personal stories “whispered” into the ears of the audience at ordinary, everyday locations-- all told as they move through the guided walk. 

The private audience thus serves as a confidant and a kindly stranger on the road to whom the speaker can perhaps speak more candidly than to a regular character in their everyday lives… 

In this piece we explore the notion that memory is tied heavily to place, and that a singular place can contain a multitude of “stacked” memories and stories from the countless humans who cross the location from the hours to centuries.

*

Text by Alexandra Silber
Structure by Asa Wember
Produced by Alley Scott and Alec Silver for Dutch Kills Theater
Performance direction by Alexandra Silber 
Walking routes, Recording & Sound Design UI & Web Programming all by: Asa Wember

With performances by:
Michael Cormick
Mark Dickinson
Rosanna Hyland
Beverley Klein
Ange Lavoipierre
Amy Maiden
James Robertson Malt
Rishi Mutalik
Anula Navlekar
Gen Parton Shin 
Tony Sheldon
Nick Simpson Deeks 
Geena Quintos 

11 February, 2024

“PS. I bless you with all my heart”

 

Absolutely no words to encapsulate the experience of Our Class at BAM other than enormous:

Enormous was the challenge.
Enormous were the relationships formed
Enormous is my love of Rachelka
Enormous is my gratitude for having been a part of it.

Farewell for now, friends. 🎈

“PS. I bless you with all my heart”

19 January, 2024

The Eleventh Classmate

Originally published by Broadway World on 19 Jan, 2024

Stephen Ochsner as Jacob Katz

Last spring, I came on board to participate in a casual reading of Our Class by Tadeuz Słobodzianek. Political polarization, disinformation, families and friendships in crisis over ideologies were front and center of all our minds that day:

How could ten ordinary classmates growing up through extraordinary times make such horrific choices, respond to traumatic events in such barbaric ways, inspired by so much fear and so little empathy?

The answers might be difficult to comprehend, but it is not hard to find contemporary evidence— it exists right before use every day. In the comments sections. In our direct messages. Across tense dinner tables. And screamed violently at parallel protests. It seems the global population have one thing in common for certain: we are all terrified.
And in our fear, we have all become more rigid, more intolerant;
    and far less capable of compassion, nuance and meaningful listening.
In that fear, is where our friendships, communities and wider societies begin to break down.

It feels virtually impossible to hold more than one truth these days, but it’s what I feel compelled to do. There’s the visceral: the outrage, the grief, the loss, the fear, the violence, the deaths, the horror. There’s the global proliferation of hatred from every angle. And there’s the relational: the how could yous and the how could you nots. Every day online and in the street I feel the pain going septic behind everyone’s rage.


In Our Class — ten Polish classmates — five Jewish, and five Catholic — grow up as friends and neighbors, then turn on one another with unutterable brutality; in traumatic, life and death consequences.  It is inspired by the real life events surrounding a 1941 pogrom in a small Polish village of Jedwabne.  

It is staggering.  Shocking. Stomach-churningly timely. We follow the lives of the classmates from the age of 5 through eight decades of the 20th century. It examines the nature of hate, and how we—as human creatures— have the potential for both brutality and love.

Yes, the play hits differently than it did last spring. Yes.


 FEATURING THE PERPETRATORS


    From the very beginning our visionary (Ukrainian-born and Jewish) director Igor Golyak told us what his most important concept was: it had nothing to do with visual imagery, playing-style or group dynamics. It was the central idea that we must not approach this play as a story that happened “back THEN, far away from here to and by people that are nothing like me.” We had to do everything in our power to center our own personal morality and humanity into the exploration of this play to make sure it was not a PAST-TENSE play. It was a PRESENT-TENSE play.
    Our Class is not history, it is our present and our future.

    We had to be courageous enough to reckon with that within ourselves.
How?
By making friends with confrontational thoughts.
Rather than asking ourselves
    “how could THEY?”
we were forcing ourselves into twisting our own psychology into an excruciating moral question mark:  
    “How might I? What would it take for me to behave in this way?”
By acknowledging that by the very nature of being human we have the capacity for great cruelty, we don’t distance ourselves from the perpetrators, we acknowledge that at any moment, we might very well become them, were the circumstances “just right” enough to push us over the edge of our own moral compass.
    It is—without exception— the most challenging, fully enacted moral exercise of my career.

Myself as Rachelka turned Marianna

This brings me to an interesting question on the lips of so many these days: how many more stories of oppressed peoples’ trauma (in this instance Jewish trauma) do we need to bear witness to? Haven’t we been through enough? How many times can we hear and see these stories played out and still not experience social change in a wider sense?

Fair questions. And I don’t have neat answers. What I can provide is an idea central to the import of Our Class: the featuring of the perpetrators.

Last week while speaking with a journalist, we discussed the rule in journalism that has become a kind of law— when an act of violence is carried out, do not feature the perpetrators, focus on the victims and their memory. Wise indeed in journalism— where we (at least we used to) get our neutral facts and information. No need to create cult heroes out of perpetrators of violence.

But art is a different matter. We look to artists to meet different needs within society— we “hold the mirror up to nature” and beckon audiences to examine themselves. More than just culture preservers, historians, or beauty-makers— artists have been crucial to social change, catharsis  and personal examination since the dawn of the art form in Ancient Greece. We need art in order to grow as a collective.

For the majority of the 20th century Holocaust art largely followed the focus on victims just as journalists did— it was almost a moral imperative as the last survivors were reaching the ends of their lives. Preserving the crucial stories of victims was the very definition of our collective sobriety toward hatred. It solidified a restored humanity in Europe and around the globe.

But by framing the Holocaust as a mystifying, totally incomprehensible evil to be exacted by “animals” we distance ourselves from the atrocities as impossible to see within ourselves. To view the events and the thinking that got us there, as— to quote Elie Wiesel—“the ultimate event, the ultimate mystery, never to be comprehended or transmitted,” we shield our consciousness from the absolute certainty of our own human capacity for evil.

Gus Birney as Dora

Our Class is no such piece of avoidance or moral circumvention.

Through Słobodzianek’s use of direct address, the audience is implicated— the characters speak not just to one another, but to the audience as the “11th classmate” asking over and over again the haunting question:

    “What could I do?”

Perhaps Słobodzianek is indeed asking us:
    What could we do?
    What are we doing?
    What will and might we do?
And perhaps most chilling of all:
    who are we to judge these characters if we never dare to fully observe ourselves?


That is what distinguishes this piece from others.


NEVER-FORGETTING


Every day I grapple with fear of forgetting. With the fact that I am two generations removed from the events of Our Class (and so many other stories I’ve had the privilege to tell on stage and page). I was not alive during the war — and these memories do not belong to me.


When people continually try to deny the reality of the Holocaust, being a dramatic story-teller complicates matters. These events truly did happen, and perhaps the fear is that if one makes it fiction, people will think it isn’t true.


But we have learned that the documents alone are not enough. A 2022 U.S. survey by the Anti-Defamation League found “widespread belief in anti-Jewish tropes, at rates unseen for decades.” In the first two months of 2023, attacks on U.S. synagogues increased 71 percent.

Second- and third- and soon-to-be-fourth generation storytellers from all genres — as well as those who are not direct descendants — attempt to combat this evaporation.

“Never forgetting” is a trope if it is not followed by meaningful action. And it seems that action is changing and shifting— as those charged with remembering inherit a different—but in many ways identical—world.



Despite challenging subject matter, Igor Golyak’s production features whimsy, music, laughter and even joy. It features 10 incredible performances by beautiful actors. It includes designers that are each the absolute top of their chosen art form— all coming together to tell this story with breathtaking beauty.

As my character Rachelka says:

“We all have our destiny. Our b’shet.”

Perhaps mine—at least in this era of my life— is a kind of theatrical never-forgetting.
We’ll see.





LinkWithin

Related Posts with Thumbnails