You may never have heard of him, but Joseph Chaikin was arguably one of the most important US theater creators of the 20th Century. His book 'The Presence of the Actor' should be required reading for anyone who wants to even stand near a theater, though many people have not read it. It is the core text for my Acting class at Hunter and is the book that changed my life back in 1983 when I directed The Serpent.
Chaikin was an actor making it in NYC, then got a job with the very political Living Theatre, which challenged his ideas about theater. From that experience, which enlightened him politically but frustrated him artistically, he went on to found a lab that became The Open Theater. That company created some of the first ensemble-created work in the US in the mid-late sixties. He wanted to explore the presence of the actor as it could relate to the world in which the actor finds herself. He was looking for ways to bring about new worlds within this one. Quite utopian in some ways, but deeply practical in others. If you don't know about Joe and you are interested in any type of theater that wants to be more than diversionary, check it out.
I don't have the time or energy to talk about all the reasons why he was so wonderful, but do suggest you read his book. A few important quotations in it include "The question is not what do I want but what makes me want what I want." Another favorite insight, slightly paraphrased, is that our self-hatred is a direct reflection of the success of the oppressiveness of the society in which we live.
The line yesterday that saved my life (the book somehow keeps doing that - it is the rare kind that you can read and re-read and find sentences you swore were inserted by elves the night before because it wasn't there before, was it?) was about their work on the play Terminal, which was about the cheery subject of death and dying in America. He writes about how a doctor has to have the discipline to move past his depression at losing his first patients and is also referring to the collaborators creating the new piece:
"If we stop where we are depressed, or even where we're satisfied with simply expressing our depression, we are dilettantes."
Amen and tell it. This was Exactly what I needed to read, because as I have mentioned probably a tedious amount of times in this blog, working on my grandmothers book sometimes sinks me into a swamp of almost - but not quite - paralyzing depression. I have begun to doubt my sanity in taking on this project, since this very depression I feel now is reminiscent of the depression I felt when focussing on my painting when I was a teenager and at times my writing - depressions that diverted me back to the theater - where I got the jolt of working with others. When I've written my stage texts, I've never felt anything like this depression. It is tempting to believe if doing something makes one feel this way, it may not be the right thing to do.
Then along comes Joe with the exact right words at the exact right time. He's talking about a theater project and a doctor learning his trade, but no matter. The fact remains, I need - as I thought at the outset - to walk through this depression because if I walk away from this project to avoid it, I am indeed a dilettante. I'm not condemning my past work as dilettantism, but I can't keep playing the same old song. Well, I guess I could, but I don't want to do that.
Yesterday I worked for 4 1/2 hours on the book, in the form of finalizing the transcription of grandmother Jani's 'obit' and today I worked on it in the form of getting cork board to tile a wall in my study so I can finally put up photos of Dick and Jani from when they were babies to their last days. By grace and some crazed determination, I am in possession of photos of them from most all periods of their life. I need to see them in all their ages in front of me. Let that wash over and through and see what happens.
I am surrounded. Even when prepping my acting class, Chaikin reminded me of what I am doing. So I am incredibly grateful to him for that. FYI, my students seem to love him, too. This book written very specifically in the early 70s still resonates today.
Speaking of which, had a great class with my students on Tuesday. I do love teaching acting - using Chaikin, some golden oldies and my own stuff. This relatively new experience continues to astound.
Welcome to my blog..
"We struggle with dream figures and our blows fall on living faces." Maurice Merleau-Ponty
When I started this blog in 2011, I was in a time of transition in my life between many identities - that of Artistic Director of a company (Apocryphal Theatre) to independent writer/director/artist/teacher and also between family identity, as I discover a new family that my grandfather's name change at the request of his boss in WWII hid from view - a huge Hungarian-Slovak contingent I met in 2011. Please note in light of this the irony of the name of my recently-disbanded theatre company. This particular transition probably began in the one month period (Dec. 9, 2009-Jan. 7, 2010) in which I received a PhD, my 20 year old cat died on my father's birthday and then my father, who I barely knew, died too. I was with him when he died and nothing has been the same since. This blog is tracing the more conscious elements of this journey and attempt to fill in the blanks. I'm also writing a book about my grandmothers that features too. I'd be delighted if you joined me. (Please note if you are joining mid-route, that I assume knowledge of earlier posts in later posts, so it may be better to start at the beginning for the all singing, all dancing fun-fair ride.) In October 2011, I moved back NYC after living in London for 8 years and separated from my now ex-husband, which means unless you want your life upended entirely don't start a blog called Somewhere in Transition. In November 2011, I adopted a rescue cat named Ugo. He is lovely. As of January 2012, I began teaching an acting class at Hunter College, which is where one of my grandmothers received a scholarship to study acting, but her parents would not let her go. All things come round…I began to think it may be time to stop thinking of my life in transition when in June 2012 my stepfather Tom suddenly died. Now back in the U.S. for a bit, I notice, too, my writing is more overtly political, no longer concerned about being an expat opining about a country not my own. I moved to my own apartment in August 2012 and am a very happy resident of Inwood on the top tip of Manhattan where the skunks and the egrets roam in the last old growth forest on the island.
I am now transitioning into being married again with a new surname (Barclay-Morton). John is transitioning from Canada to NYC and as of June 2014 has a green card. So transition continues, but now from sad to happy, from loss to love...from a sense of alienation to a sense of being at home in the world.
As of September 2013 I started teaching writing (composition and rhetoric) as an adjunct professor at Fordham University, which I have discovered I love with an almost irrational passion. So blessed for the opportunity and hope to find a more permanent job doing same.
I worked full time on the book thanks to a successful crowd-funding campaign in May 2014 and completed it at two residencies at Vermont Studio Center and Wisdom House in summer 2015. I have done some revisions and am shopping it around to agents and publishers now, along with having written a rough draft of a new book and some other projects.
Not sure when transition ends, if it ever does. As the saying goes, the only difference between a sad ending and a happy ending is where you stop rolling the film.
For professional information, publications, etc., go to my linked in profile and website for Barclay Morton Editorial & Design. My Twitter account is @wilhelminapitfa. You can find me on Facebook under my full name Julia Lee Barclay-Morton. More about my grandmothers' book: The Amazing True Imaginary Autobiography of Dick & Jani
Recently, I started a website Our Grandmothers, Our Selves, which has stories about many people's grandmothers. Please check it out. I will be blogging there, too, now.