Saturday, July 13, 2013

Agents of Change

In a recent post on AmericaBlog, gay activist John Aravosis made the following remarkable statement:
"Evangelicals LOVE Jews and Israel.  But not because they actually love Jews and Israel. The only reason evangelicals are such fans of Jews and Israel is because evangelicals need Jews and Israel… to die… in order for Christ to come back in the Second Coming. That’s right, Christ will return and two-thirds of the world’s Jews will go up in flames. That’s what the Bible says. And evangelicals know that if the Arabs, or whomever, are permitted to push the Jews into the proverbial sea, and if it happens too soon, then there will be no Israel left that can then be destroyed (again) in order to usher the comeback of the Lord. So, evangelicals quite literally love Jews to death."
Do you remember that bizarre moment when Michele Bachmann tried to subvert a Yiddish term for her own use?

The folks with genuine (rather than batshit crazy) chutzpah include people Bella Abzug, Lenny BruceAlan Grayson, Sue MengersHarvey Milk, Emma GoldmanHarvey Fierstein and, for better or worse, Anthony Weiner. The upcoming San Francisco Jewish Film Festival includes two documentaries about men who have as much chutzpah as blood flowing through their veins.
  • While not an international celebrity, each is a heroic figure in his own right. 
  • Although filled with love for his fellow man, each is a stubborn, irascible figure who likes to do things "his way." 
  • While not necessarily a legend in his own mind, each could be politely described as "a real piece of work."
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Jonathan Paz's documentary, Honorable Ambassador, explores what happens when a self-created force of nature runs up against a cultural barrier he cannot overcome. Miki Arbel, Israel’s ambassador to Cameroon, is determined to improve life for the farmers in an impoverished nation in West Africa. A former farmer who knows from personal experience how simple drip irrigation technology can help crops grow in desert conditions, Arbel wants to prove to Cameroon's farmers that they can improve their crops and, as a result, their standard of living.

Israel's Ambassador to Cameroon, Miki Arbel

Filmed in Hebrew, English, French, and Cameroonian (with English subtitles and a delightfully mischievous musical score), Honorable Ambassador showcases a societal problem involving gender roles which, for a determined Israeli who firmly believes in equal rights for women, is more than a little bit baffling. Why? In Cameroon, the women do the farm work, raise the children, handle the cooking, and perform domestic chores. In many cases, the men do little more than impregnate their women.

So why aren't Cameroon's farmers adopting the drip irrigation systems? As he travels to rural villages in Cameroon, explores the jungle in suit and tie, and tries to use every diplomatic tool at his disposal while meeting with local chieftains, Arbel runs up against cultural obstacles and behaviors which aren't the slightest bit impressed with his irrigation technology or, for that matter, with Miki Arbel.

Honorable Ambassador shows what happens when cultures (and the worlds they represent) collide. If Arbel's supply of chutzpah seems inexhaustible, it is no match for the equally stubborn men who don't want any help from him.  Here's the trailer for this often hilarious and occasionally humbling documentary:

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One needs more than artistic vision to survive and thrive in the arts. One also needs a shitload of chutzpah and a willingness to take risks that stray far from the status quo.

On July 6, I listened to Jonathan Moscone (artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater) deliver an impassioned speech to the opening night audience for Romeo and Juliet in which he explained how CalShakes was embarking on an exciting new community outreach program. In a nutshell:
"The Triangle Lab is about making theater together, expanding the definitions of who participates in theater making and how they participate. We aim for theaters, artists, and community members (the three points of the triangle) to become equal partners in discovering and sharing the profound stories of our times. We expect our experiments to yield new ways of making plays, new stories, and new ways of telling them, and to engage a broad range of participants in our community. The Triangle Lab is a partnership with San Francisco-based Intersection for the Arts and its resident theater company, Campo Santo, made possible with generous support from The James Irvine Foundation and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation."
On July 10, as part of its Encores! Off-Center program, the New York City Center presented Marc Blitzstein's musical, The Cradle Will Rock. Originally directed in 1937 by Orson Welles and produced by John Houseman for the Federal Theatre Project, the world premiere made history when the WPA shut the production down days before its scheduled opening night. In a notable piece of theatre history, the cast and crew marched to another theatre where, with Blitzstein seated at a piano onstage and the cast positioned throughout the auditorium, the anti-capitalism musical went on to make theatrical history.

Those of us with a passion for live theatre can easily fall into the trap of taking its existence for granted. While many have sought to label the theatrical art form as "a fabulous invalid," it's amazing how effective that invalid can be at explaining complex situations, disarming people's defenses and, in a very short time, changing people's minds.

As long as one person is capable of performing and another is capable of reacting, theatre will never die. Thankfully, a new generation of theatre artists has taken to blogging about theatrical issues, reaching a much wider audience than was ever possible prior to the Internet. Four recent articles that demand every theatregoer's attention are:
Poster art for Joe Papp in Five Acts

Needless to say, I was delighted to see a new documentary entitled Joe Papp in Five Acts in the program for the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. A true theatre revolutionary, Papp had a producing record that might even have made David Merrick (The Abominable Showman) occasionally envious.

While Merrick often looked for British hits he could import to Broadway (Look Back In Anger, Romanoff and Juliet, The Entertainer, A Taste of Honey, Stop The World - I Want To Get Off, Oliver!, Luther, Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Loot, Oh, What A Lovely War, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de SadeRosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Ross and The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd), Papp believed in grass roots theatre that belonged to the community, reflected the people in the community, and whenever possible, was free to the community.

In other words, Papp's mission was to create theatre of the people, by the people, and for the people. Some theatrical practices that many of us now take for granted were either initiated by Papp after his founding of The Shakespeare Workshop in 1954, evolved during his tenure at The New York Shakespeare Festival, or were adapted by him as his theatrical empire continued to grow.

In some ways, Papp was like a benign yet occasionally belligerent Barnum. While willing to take theatrical risks which would intimidate many producers, he was a stubborn populist who could fight City Hall and win. Some innovations which we now take for granted can be traced to Papp's work with the New York Shakespeare Festival. These include:
  • Bringing free theatre to the neighborhoods: Early in his career, Papp started bringing free theatre to New York's neighborhoods.  A firm believer that, if libraries can bring the world's literature to people for free, theatre should be equally accessible, his efforts live on in the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Metropolitan Opera's outdoor Summer Recital Series in city parks.
  • Workshopping new pieces as a way of supporting and developing young playwrights. One of Papp's biggest payoffs came from offering Michael Bennett rehearsal space in which to conduct the workshops that led to the creation of A Chorus Line. After the show moved to Broadway, its huge success helped buoy the finances of the New York Shakespeare Festival for many years. Papp also helped bolster the careers of playwrights like Ntozake Shange, David Rabe, David Henry Hwang, and David Hare.
The cast of A Chorus Line
Joe Papp in Five Acts features input from many theatre people who worked with Papp over the years (including Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Christopher Walken, Olympia Dukakis, and Mandy Patinkin). Not only should it be required viewing for anyone working in today's American theatre, watching this documentary should be mandatory for any lawmaker who can vote on public funding for the arts.  Here's a news clip aired in 2011 as a promo for New York's annual free Shakespeare in the Park season.

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