changing the world 1 student at a time
may 21, 2010
it started out with just the 2 of us. mihaela and i. sitting for lunch at a little wooden table at the "one" café, right next door to the caragiale film and theater university, where i'd been invited to teach for 2 weeks on a fulbright from my imperial government. it was the first day after the first class of solo performance and only 7 out of the 19 students had bothered to show up. half of them late. you know, "romanian time". i had met mihaela on the street, after the performance of "hamlet" by the wooster group. we had both left at intermission. so tedious. sure, it was the imperious wooster group in bucharest, but still, boring is boring. of course, all the sophisticated, cultural glitterati were there. i even had the privilege of meeting mr. liviu cuilei, the 90 year old director-legend of romanian theater lore, who explained to me that peter brook's "midsummer's" was " all white", while his at the guthrie was all "red".
mihaela was with her bespectacled romanian friend, vlad, who had earned his notorious counter cultural reputation by standing up in the middle of yet another pretentious bucharesti performance event at the national theater and said something like, "do you really expect us to watch this shit?" vlad then walked out and cemented his infamous reputation in the hearts and minds of romanian artists everywhere. he did the same tonight (without the shout out), and the three of us walked down the street towards piata romana (one of the many beautiful public squares in bucharest, a little like columbus circle in new york or any of a myriad of others in paris, rome, bangkok/any big city with a vibrant pedestrian life). vlad took his leave, off to a dinner meeting, and mihaela took an uncharacteristic chance and decided to roam the streets with me, taking me to the museum of ethnic village people about half an hour away. by foot, naturally.
the food was authentic but disgusting (various varieties of pig fat, pig feet, pig innards, you know, the kind of stuff village people have to eat to survive the challengingly cold, romanian winters). mihaela and i shared a couple of silva bruns, a deliciously sweet, dark beer, a little like san miguel dark from the philippines with a slight taste of black strap molasses. coincidentally (are there really any coincidences?), mihaela was a woman in search of herself, while i was a teacher starting a 2 week workshop about self discovery though autobiographical story telling. i said i would make a call to my university host to see if we could include her at no charge, and hopefully i'd see her monday morning at 10 sharp.
on the way to the university from the subway stop bright and early monday morning, ioana, my perfect romanian host, and i actually ran into mihaela, walking from home to the workshop. apparently, we were, indeed, "on the same paths". we all climbed the 5 flights of stairs to "pod B", the attic of the old communist dinosaur of a building, and we met the 5 other students who had made the climb. they were all a bit embarrassed at the small turnout, telling me that "it was de last 2 weeks of de semester, dat all their student brethren had exams, finals, etc etc." i said, "no problem." at least they all could speak english and understand me. "let's get started," i enthused. i had seen this same under-attendance problem in malaysia 8 years ago on my previous fulbright residency. there was nothing i could do about it, then or now. it was beyond my control. just show up and do what i came to do. "build a field and they will come," right?
so now i had 2 hours between my 3 hour solo class and my 2 o'clock improv class, which i was assured "would be full". with no car and no place to go, i took ioana's suggestion and went to "one", the adjacent café. "the food is good. and cheap," she assured me. fortunately, mihaela had pity on me and joined me. just the two of us, the first day. the class had gone well. i gave them my usual 1st day pitch, telling them, "you are all unique and amazing human beings and have fabulous stories inside you. you just don't know it yet, and you probably have never been asked to look inside yourselves before for creativity, inspiration, and source material." apparently it was true. how could it be otherwise? not that they all didn't have these fabulous stories, urges, and ideas, they did. but this was communist romania, run by the brutal ceaucescu, as recently as 1989. one didn't speak what one thought... unless one wanted to be marked and persecuted, maybe sent to prison, or eliminated altogether. no, you were part of the whole, part of the omnipotent proletariat. individuality, personal expression, these were self indulgent capitalist concepts, leading inevitably to self ruin, and to destruction of the omniscient state. i had my work cut out for me.
lunch is good. "chorba", a romanian vegetable and chicken borscht. with sour cream. and freshly-baked bread. just like my ancestors had in the schetls of kharkov and odessa, before they made the trans-atlantic schlep to new yawk in the early 20th century. mihaela and i sit across the little table from each other, and she speaks shyly about being a free lance journalist, recently "downsized" from her day job, opportunely making her free to search for her artistic identity and to explore her creative potential. she is completely charming.... in a gawky, six foot, long hair, romanian kind of way. actually, she is yet another "hippie girl" trapped in the wrong decade, but it makes her wide open to the preachings of a still renegade dancer-clown, steeped in the bohemian ways of new york's avant garde of the late 60s and in the principles of tim leary, ram das, and all the other counter-cultural, we-can-change-the-world idealists of the baby boom "me generation".
after too much romanian coffee, we climb the stairs again, this time mercifully, just to the third floor, only to learn that their are no students at all for the improv class. instead i am invited to speak to a large lecture group waiting for their esteemed professor, apparently still on romanian time. "hey, you guys, my name is trules, and i'm a loud-mouthed american from new york and i need students for my workshops!" laughter. "no, i'm serious. you guys need to rearrange your schedules and come to my solo performance class 5 days a week so you can learn how to write and perform your own stories... and to improv class 3 days a week so you can learn how to lose your inhibitions, take risks, and live in the moment!" a few smiles, twitters, and murmurs. i can read their faces: "who is this guy? what's he doing in our masters class, shooting off his big mouth?"
"any questions?" none. "well, look, guys, my unpopular american government spent a lot of money getting me here, and your university had the wisdom and balls to invite me here, so i think the least you can do is show up and take advantage of this opportunity. ever hear of the ‘train of opportunity'? well, here it is, right in front of you." i move my left arm in front of them in slow motion, from stage right to stage left. "how many times do you think this train will come by again?" silence. "that's right. maybe never again. so what do you think you can do about it?" one student seizes the day and shouts out, "get on it!" "that's right. what's holding you back? fear? insecurity? inconvenience. well, you know what i call all of them? ‘excuses'. there's an old wise, jewish biblical expression that starts, ‘if not now.....'". i pause.... but this time half the room shouts out, "when?" "that's right! see you tomorrow at 10, eh?" and i walk off to a smattering of applause.
the next day, i have 15 students up in the attic of pod B. in the bright morning sun streaming through the roof's open windows, i try to teach them about "solo performance voice", about "drawing the audience out of their seats into the solo performer's world by being in and experiencing your own story", about what makes a good story, about "having something at stake like a good spring in a mouse trap at the beginning of a story", about what makes a good solo performance artist. "he or she is someone who can mine the pain and injury from the emotional wounds of life and turn them into theatrical gold. someone who can make art out of the fabric of their lives." "...not just in a self-indulgent, therapeutic kind of way, but with a craft and with a perspective that makes the specificity of the individual story into something universal".
i talk about the 3 greatest american playwrights, eugene o'neill, tennessee williams, and arthur miller. of "how they spun their autobiographical plays out of their own families' tumultuous and painful histories". of "how williams wrote about his southern-bred and overbearing mother and his crippled and too-delicate sister and turned them into amanda and laura wingfield in his poetic and tragic ‘glass menagerie'". of "how o'neill wrote arguably the greatest american play, ‘long day's journey into night' about his drunk and miserly father, about his morphine-addicted mother, about his bitter and failed older brother, and about himself, a taciturn and tubercular teenager... and took them all into one of the darkest and longest nights of soul-wrenching theater an american audience had ever seen." yet "he was so mortified about the power and truth of his own play that he refused to have it produced until after 25 years after his death." i say, "making art out of the fabric of your lives is what playwrights and artists do. not that it's easy, because the doors of avoidance, artifice and escape are always wide open... but for those who are chosen or driven to try, they must follow the path deep inside themselves, and like shamans of old, they must come out the other side... with their individual truths... with their own beauties... and offer them up... to the choir... to the audience... like the greeks did... like shakespeare did... like only they, themselves, must ultimately attempt to do."
i talk. and they listen. i'm surprised. i don't have anything scripted. i haven't planned anything. but the simple truth is that i've been doing this same thing for so many years, that i actually know and believe in what i'm talking about. i've seen the power of stories. i've seen them release their own authors from years of shame and secrecy. and i've seen these same stories make audiences stand on their feet with recognition and appreciation. i believe that we all have something in common as human beings. no matter which side of the border we live on. no matter what our religious or political persuasions are. we all have problematic families: mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. we have all tried to love, been loved or been rejected; we've all been loyal, betrayed, succeeded against great odds, been abandoned, ashamed, overcome impossible obstacles. these powerful stories are what make us human, different from the other species. not just the size of our brain and our intelligence. but our histories. our memories. the way we interact with each other, make choices, carry around our histories and memories in our present.
i talk and they listen. for 2 weeks. i tell them about myself. about my unhappy adolescence. about my defying my family's expectations by choosing to become an artist, instead of a doctor. i talk about my cancer in 1989. about my fear of death. and about my not being afraid of it any more. about living in the moment. about traveling without an itinerary. again, about the train of opportunity. "that life is about making choices and commitments." i tell them about "meeting my wife in front of an ATM machine in bali, completely ‘by accident' and inviting her to america and marrying her a year later, when she was 30 years younger than i was, spoke no english, and didn't know who tim leary, ram dass, or even who richard nixon or george washington was." i use my own life as example. i try to practice what i preach and to learn by practice what i still need to learn.
every day after class, mihaela and i go out to lunch... at the one café. the second day, bibi, mother and improv actress, joins us. we are three. same delicious chorba, freshly baked bread, and strong romanian coffee. the third day, felix and alice-monica join us. we are five. another chorba, same bread and strong coffee. the next day... vlad, and patricia. we are growing. i've never had lunch with a single student in my 24 years at USC in los angeles. it's not my thing. i like to keep boundaries. like a good professional: doctor, therapist, sports coach, you know what i mean. if the student sees you as too human, with problems and weaknesses of your own, they believe you less. they believe in you less. or that's what i always thought. but now, out of need and convenience, i am breaking bread with my romanian students. sure, we talk a bit about class, but... we also talk about so many other things. about communism, ceaucescu, vampires, and family. about the 60s in america, about gypsies living on the sides of the road in moldavia, about courage and cowardice, about ... life. it is totally surprising... and enjoyable. i am discovering that students are so much more than bodies, hearts, and minds sitting or moving around in a class room, wanting to learn. they are actually "people" too.
and... it's reciprocal. they've never had lunch with a teacher before. they've never had a teacher be so open and honest with them before. be so vulnerable, so... him...self. in fact, they say that most of their teachers are disappointing... only going through the motions, with all the power... with all the so-called "knowledge and expertise", treating them like impotent, sponge-absorbing children. "how dare you think of telling your own story? who do you think you are? learn the classics. learn how to act!" i tell them, "look within. find out who you are. what do you have to say? where you want to go? have the courage to say it, to do it. your stories can be as powerful as anyone's. who wants to see chekhov's ‘3 sisters' for the billionth time? we want to be surprised, delighted, moved, provoked in the theater, in ways that tv and movies can't do to us. we want to discover ourselves in new, meaningful, and alive ways... right there in our seats... right there on the stage in front of us. in a community called ‘an audience'." i talk. they listen. they write. we listen. we laugh. and occasionally, we cry. together. and almost every day, i realize that i do, indeed, have a mighty magnificent job.
in the afternoon improv classes, it's different, but parallel. the class grows every day. the word spreads. "trules knows what he's doing. check it out!" i teach them about "not thinking", about "living in the moment", about "saying yes, making it their own, adding something new and passing it on". the 3 steps of improv a la trules. i teach them about "gesture", about "discovering the content of their movement", so that it's real and spontaneous. about "the importance listening and making their partners, their teammates, look good." i tell them about "how little i like comedy sports, and improv teams and improv actors trying to be clever and funny" i tell them that "comedy in our class will come from the surprise of genuine, instinctive re-action. from doing the work and seeing what you discover along the way. not from planning things out and trying to get laughs." "life", i say, "is like one long improv. about having the courage and confidence to make choices and decisions... sometimes under a great deal of pressure. life never turns out the way you expect or want it to. as mr. lennon said, ‘life is what happens while you're waiting for your plans to work out.'" i ask them, "when the train of opportunity comes along, can you trust yourself to step up, swing the bat...improvise and see where it takes you?" day after day, on and on, along the road of life.
in the middle of the 2nd week, i screen my autobiographical documentary film, "the poet and the con". the film about my identification and relationship with my criminal uncle that took me 7 long years to make and which i haven't seen in maybe another 10 years. the film in which i show my parents and i struggling in a sunny california back yard over my arrest for commercial burglary, over my own virulent anti-semitism, over my own discomfort and hatred of myself. it's not an easy film to share with an audience, especially one composed of students who have come to admire and respect me as a teacher and as an artist. but as the saying goes, i have to put up or shut up. take the risk i'm so flippant asking them to take. so... i lose a night's sleep... and don't actually watch the film with them... but i introduce it and come back into the screening room when it's over to answer questions. i'm met by a sea of silence. no applause. silence. but i know from previous screenings at festivals around the world, that my film disturbs people. it's not an easy one to come out of, or to start yammering away about. but then i see, the audience is moved. and after a moment, they do start asking me personal questions. "you look and sound so different now than when you made the film. do you feel different?" "what were you so angry about?" "how did your relationship with your parents survive that awful day of filming?" i try to give honest answers. i try to meet the challenge.
two days later, i'm up in front of an audience again. this time, live. i call the event (tongue in cheek), "trules speaks". as if i haven't said enough over the 2 week residency. but it feels like i haven't had an audience listen to me in years... as an artist... as a man with something to say. so... instead of just doing a rehearsed performance, like i've done so many times before, i decide to "just let myself be" in front of the audience. i want to carry on the dialogue i've been having for 2 weeks... but in front of an audience. i don't want to isolate myself inside of memorization, performance, judgment, and need for approval; i just want to open up and let it rip!
so i do. about an hour before the event, i show up in the theater with nicu, the gentle and self-effacing dean of the theater school. with his palette of theater brushes and his life spent in too many small theaters, nicu is the wizard of UNATC (the university's acronym). he's able to give me a live internet connection with a screen and projector, which we put stage right, next to a white plastic podium in the center of the stage. i see a bright yellow ladder sitting on the side of the room, and after we adjust some lights, i say, "let's leave the ladder stage left." so as the audience comes into the space now composed of these 3 simple set pieces, into a kind of blue soundscape of miles davis' "so what", i have the guests actually walk to the podium, center stage, and sign into the facebook page, "trules speaks", as guests. they're all a little surprised to be part of the performance, but it starts us out on tenuous, interesting ground. like "what's going to happen next?"
next... i walk onto stage and climb the ladder with my back to the audience. the lights dim, the music fades, the audiences hushes, and i turn around and sit there on one of the rungs staring at them all. maybe 50 of them. great! just what i didn't want. expectation. a "performance." but what can i do? i open my mouth.... "when i grow up, i'm gonna be.... a puma whale." silence. "i said, when i grow up i'm gonna be a puma whale." more silence. "is this a poem? a performance? a reading? what the fuck is trules doing?" i plow through the first piece. silence. no applause. i climb down the ladder, walk center to the podium, and start the second. "see my face? it's ugly. it's rubbery. watch." a few twitters, ... discomfort. i finish: "just keep your face outta my face. alright? a few more twitters. silence. no applause.
this ain't workin', trules. do something else. i put on my glasses and look out at the crowd. at least they're not walking out. or hurling romanian tomatoes. "ok........ welcome.... to... ‘trules' speaks'". my mind races to find the right thing to say. "and... here i am... and there you are..." and from that moment on, for the next 2 hours, i improvise. i actually look at, and speak to, the audience. i ask them questions. "do you want to know the difference between new york and LA?" they answer enthusiastically, "yes!" i tell them: "in LA people say ‘have a nice day', but actually are thinking ‘fuck you', while in new york, people say ‘fuck you' but are actually thinking ‘have a nice day." they laugh. they start to loosen up. i start to loosen up. it starts to be a two way street, a dialogue, just like i'd hoped for. i ask some questions. they ask some questions. i read a few more pieces. they open up some more. i address them by name, the ones that i know from class, it seems like we have a friendship, a relationship. if they don't respond, i remind them about the train of opportunity. "if not now..." "when?"they respond. i ask, "if i could do anything in the world for you tonight, what would it be?" i look at them. they look around uncomfortably and twitter again. "come one...!" a girl in the back who i don't know says, "i want to meet johnny depp." the audience laughs. i tell her how: "go to paris, look up his girl friend, vanessa paradis, and start stalking him." the audience likes the idea. "but why waste your time on fucking celebrity? we're all such bloodsucking sycophants, thinking if we get close to fame, something good might rub off. i promise you, it won't...."
and so it goes. and so it goes. more questions. more answers. trules speaks... for 90 minutes, until he finally asks, "have you had enough?" in unison, they sing out "noooooo." "well then let's take a little break, and when we come back, i'll tell you some travel stories...."
and we do. and i do.... and at the end of two improvised, i hope, inspiring hours, where i actually die on stage in front of them... for about 60 seconds with my head glued to the podium... illustrating my point... that we could all die... any time... if not now... when? at the end of these 2 glorious, non-performance interactive hours, i say my heartfelt thank yous, my good nights and my good lucks, and i take a humble little bow. (i think, truly.) they applaud. and applaud. i stand there and take it in. they don't stand up, but they continue to applaud. i think it's the longest, not the loudest, but the warmest and longest.... applause i've ever received. i guess i must have done something right.
on the next day, my last in bucharest, i teach my final two classes, solo performance & improvisation, and naturally, we go out for lunch in between. of course, to the one café. this time, we have to slide 6 tables together; there are more than 20 of us. mihaela is still there. she of the first day and of the first chorba and freshly baked bread. felix and bibi are there. and patricia and lucia and ana pasti and vlad and alice-monica and sorina ... they have all joined us. even the good dean, nicu mandea, is there, shyly drinking his romanian beer and eating his romanian sausage. we are all one happy... and sad... family. my time here is through. i/we've built a field and we all "came together", as mr. lennon would say again. we laughed and we learned. together. we sweated. together. we wrote and listened to each other. we "came together" and we celebrated our 2 countries, our 2 cultures... together... all on mr. fulbright's tab. hey, there are SOME things to be grateful for about our big bad, imperialist, american empire!
in the evening, the solo performers show up at "underground", the typically eastern european underground night club/bar, to read their monologues, the culmination of our 2 weeks of work together. there are 12 of them, and they manage to fill the club with about 50 friends, sitting on stools, standing in front of the stage... to hear stories from the "fabric of our lives". they read: a story of the awkwardness of english class for a young romanian girl, a story of a girl of 7 having sex with a 11 year old gypsy boy, a story of taking care of a mother with cancer, a story of a young gypsy girl coming to terms with years of abandonment and abuse. stories... out of these young romanian lives. and... the audience... listens. and is surprised. and... listens. and laughs. and listens some more. and is moved. and listens... and applauds.... and applauds... into the night.
afterwards, we all mill about the dark, raunchy club with wines and beers, and we take lots of photos... and then felix takes out his guitar to play... but because the club now turns into a disco, we all pile out into the streets of downtown bucharest, ambling and laughing together... until we end up in front of the famous architecture school and the student protest fountain... where we park ourselves and sing communal romanian folk songs for the next two hours. actually, they sing and i listen.... and then at 2 in the morning... we all stand to do our final group hug and shed our tears and say our goodbyes... until i come back again... until i come back again.........
and then it's morning and the next thing i know it, i'm a plane for istanbul...
but that, as they say... is another story...
for now though, trules has spoken. probably too long again... but hey, it's been nice... to have been heard!
thank you, mr. fulbright. thank you, mr. obama. thank you, bucharest and sinaia and moldavia and romania. thank you, my students. i've dome my job... planted the seeds. it's now up to you, to tend them and to take care of them. up to you, to watch them grow and to harvest their fruits and bounty.
there are many fields of dreams still out there. i know. notwithstanding many disappointments, heartbreaks, and failures...
not to worry. say yes. get on those trains of opportunity.........
they're rolling along every day,