27 February 2013

The Strength of Union and the Arts

[As readers of ROT will probably have discerned by now, I am a supporter of unions for the most part.  The recent spate of union-busting by political and business leaders has generated several articles in Allegro, the news magazine of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians.  (Local 802 represents the musicians who play in the pits of Broadway and Off-Broadway theater here in New York City.)  I’ve collected three articles and editorials, two on the value of unions and the third on the importance of support for the arts (another topic on which I’ve sounded off on this blog), from the January 2013 edition of Allegro (Volume 113, No. 1), starting with this report by Local 802 president, Tino Gagliardi.]

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President's Report
by Tino Gagliardi 

Say no to union-busting laws that hurt musicians and other workers! George Troia, president of AFM Local 5 (Detroit) was one of the many union members and supporters who protested Michigan’s recent right-to-work legislation.

These days, It seems to be fashionable to bust unions. As many of you know, Michigan recently became the 24th so-called right-to-work state in this country. I say “so-called” because the label “right to work” was invented by union busters to disguise the true purpose of this legislation. But these laws aren’t about any right to work. What we’re really talking about is unions under attack – again! To their credit, those who opposed this law in Michigan did their best to have their voices heard at the capitol, and Democratic lawmakers stalled the bills as much as legally possible. But, in the end, the Republican majority pushed through the legislation. The United States is now only one state short of a nightmare scenario where workers in half of the states are forced to live under such
union-busting laws.

We’ve had wake-up calls before, but if Michigan – where unions have such a strong, proud history – can be attacked like this, workers aren’t safe anywhere.

We must protect the gains that workers have made over the past 70 years. We must honor and preserve the hard work of those labor leaders who came before us. Remember, there are plenty of powerful interests who would like to take back what we’ve gained.

For instance, this past Labor Day, the House majority leader, Republican Eric Cantor, sent out a tweet that said, “Today, we celebrate those who have taken a risk, worked hard, built a business and earned their own success.” It was cruelly ironic that on Labor Day – a day to praise and remember workers – Cantor instead honored bosses.

Also, when Mitt Romney made his famous clandestine speech about the “47 percent” of Americans earlier this fall, he referred to them as those “who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”

Criticizing working people who have union protections as being “victims” and “takers” is nothing new. What is new is that big business has managed to bring this criticism of unionized workers closer and closer into the mainstream so that people start believing the rhetoric and voting for union-busting politicians.

President Obama, visiting a Michigan truck factory, put it this way: “You know, these so-called right-to-work laws, they don’t have anything to do with economics . . . . They have everything to do with politics. What they’re really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money.”

Once again, to those who say that politics don’t matter and that the union should stay away from political work, I respond that we don’t have that luxury. We must continue our advocacy to make sure that we have political leaders and laws that are union friendly. Not just in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, but all over the country. To get involved in our political work, contact my assistant K. C. Boyle at Kboyle@Local802afm.org or (212) 245-4802, ext. 176.

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by Mark Mulé 

A musician accepts a non-union tour of The Wizard of Oz and learns what exploitation is really like

The yellow brick road to hell started last year when I was forced through my financial circumstances to play drums and percussion on a non-union tour of “The Wizard of Oz.” The tour gave me an old-fashioned schooling on what union membership is truly about. It turns out that wages and benefits are just the tip of the iceberg of what the union does for us.

First things first – the money. The pay for this non-union tour was about a third of what I had always made on the union touring contract (called “Pamphlet B,” for those in the know.) Also, on a non-union tour, there’s no overtime pay. And no rehearsal pay. It’s just a straight, flat salary.

Let me put this into perspective. On tech rehearsal days, we had to play “10 out of 12,” meaning 10 hours of playing with two hours to forage for grub.

But it wasn’t just about the hours. It was about the days. There was a period on this tour when we played 13 towns in 14 days while traveling thousands of miles.

The last five weeks of the tour consisted of a string of consecutive 4 a.m. bus calls, 10 to 14 hour bus rides straight to the venue (often a freezing hockey stadium), followed by five hours’ rest in a hotel

The grueling, no-sleep schedule included our bus driver, by the way. I spoke to him about this after he nearly went head-on into a highway divider at more than 60 miles per hour one morning. “Aren’t you entitled to more down time?” I asked. His answer was that not only was he entitled to it, but required by federal law to have more rest. The producer’s insane schedule was literally putting his employees’ lives at risk.

During this farce of a tour, I was living under a so-called contract that basically said I had no rights.

Now, most of you know that union contracts are rock-solid. If a producer violates a union contract, the union will back you up 100 percent.

A non-union contract is a totally different animal. It’s more like indentured servitude. Here is some actual language from my “agreement”:

MUSICIAN agrees that Employer shall be entitled to MUSICIAN’s services exclusively hereunder for the entire Period, excluding breaks, and MUSICIAN shall not render performing services for any party other than the Employer during such period without Employer’s prior written consent. Execution of this contract hereby commits MUSICIAN to the entire time period outlined in Paragraph 1 above.

It’s the last sentence that got me. The tour was scheduled for five-and-a-half months. This sort of bondage was what one might find on a contract between a ship’s captain and a destitute passenger desperate to book passage to the New World in 1697.

Then there was this:

It is agreed that the attached MUSICIAN Handbook will be an integral part of this contract.

Huh? What “handbook?” Nobody said anything about a “handbook.” What’s in this “handbook”? What if there’s a “musician must clean the bus latrine every Wednesday” clause in the “handbook?” It turns out there actually was no handbook – or at least, I never saw one.

The whole contract went on like this. Instead of signing it as is, I took matters into my own hands and pencilled in some revisions. No one cared and it made no difference anyway.

All of this was perverse, but the really insane part was that the tour was a nearly endless stream of one-nighters with no scheduled day off. O.K., I’m lying. There was exactly one scheduled day off, that being

Compare that with the standard union tour agreement, which requires that musicians be given two “golden days” off (no travel, no show) and two additional days off (no show, travel allowed), per month.

“These non-union guys are literally going to put me on a bus for five-and-a-half months straight,” I thought to myself. And they did. Five-and-a-half months and 29,531 miles with no scheduled day off except Christmas. And had there been a theatre (or hockey stadium) available on Christmas, you can bet that day off would have been snatched away like candy from a baby.

Luckily, we did scrimp a few unplanned days off from time to time. One time we couldn’t get to the venue because of iced over and closed Canadian mountain roads. (The crew was marooned on the side of the road for many hours and the decision was made for us not to attempt the trip.) We also manufactured
several days off by altering the travel schedule. Sometimes we elected to pack up and travel the same night after performing one or two shows, just so we could create a day off the next day.

Now let’s talk about respect. I overheard some producers refer to the performers as “the dogs.” No kidding. But the actual dogs on this show (the ones who played Dorothy’s dog Toto) actually had better contracts than the humans. Those dogs travelled by airplane whenever the distance was more than a few hundred miles between venues. And I would bet that they made more money too.

But perhaps the greatest evil and the most egregious crime perpetrated against the actors, musicians, and most importantly, the audience, was the use of the virtual orchestra machine.

Non-union producers of musical theatre are absolutely in love with this mechanical monstrosity.

Our orchestra consisted of one keyboard (that came with an optional conductor), one drummer/percussionist (nearly optional), one trumpet player (totally optional and only present because he was married to an excellent stage manager who absolutely would not go on this tour without her husband – bless her) and a “tapper.”

As some of you may know, the virtual orchestra machine is operated by tapping a single key on a miniature keyboard which triggers a computer simulated “orchestra.”

Thus the title of “tapper” is given to the operator of this crime against humanity masquerading as “musical accompaniment” for a so-called “Broadway tour.”

The thing sounded like crap, broke down several times per week (even nightly for a while), and sounded like crap (yes, I realize I wrote that twice).

Forcing a musician to play with a virtual orchestra machine is perhaps the most grievous form of torture one can imagine. No matter how good technology gets, nothing can replace the real thing. Playing with that thing crushed my soul. It made me fall out of love with music for the tour.

All of this did not go entirely unnoticed by perhaps the biggest loser when it comes to a non-union tour: the audience.

Our audiences paid top dollar to see what was advertised as a Broadway show (it was nothing of the sort). But they were not fooled. In Hartford, an audience member looked down into the pit and saw our entire ensemble, which consisted of the virtual orchestra monstrosity, two trumpets, a flugelhorn, and my drums. That was all of us: four live musicians and a computer. And he exclaimed, somewhere between sarcasm and anger, “Wow, the ‘orchestra’ sounded perfect!”

There was more. The main backdrop used in the show had gigantic, visible tears in it that were never fixed. And there were some of the rattiest costumes I’ve ever seen. One critic observed that Glinda’s dress looked like it had been balled up and thrown in a closet for years.

In short, the production values of this tour were the lowest of any show I have ever been a part of.

Yet the ticket prices were as high as those for a first-run Broadway tour, in some cases as much as $120. I calculated the ticket sales for an average week of the tour, and the number I came up with was $850,000. And that was just an average week. A sold-out weekend in St. Louis at the Fox Theater, for example, could have had our producers taking in as much as $1.4 million according to my calculations.

How much profit were our producers really making? I asked our company manager about that. He told me that the weekly overhead (or “nut”) for the show was under $100,000. So we’re talking profits that could approach $1 million in a good week.

This tour was not about good business. It was about business conducted unethically in order to make a killing. It was about greed, pure and simple.

Producers will tell you that there’s a new business model for touring musical theatre productions. They will tell you that they simply can’t afford the over-the-top “lavish” demands of the unions (like a per diem high enough to pay for a couple of decent meals per week instead of the endless fast food norm). I don’t believe them. Nor should you. Nor should audiences.

I believe you should get what you pay for. Always. I believe in ethical business practices. There is plenty of money to be made in an ethical manner. A producer does not have to pay sweatshop wages and maintain sub-standard production values to make money. There simply is no need or place for the obscene greed that has become so pervasive in this industry and business in general.

That is what a union is all about: maintaining high standards. Sure, a union negotiates the best possible compensation package for its members. That is certainly an important reason for the existence of unions. But a union agreement also helps ensure that the product is the best that it can be. It helps assure a consumer that the product they consume is created by people who give their heart and soul to their life’s work.

Too often, employers and right-wing talking heads bombard us with anti-union sentiment based on the false assumption that unions and their members are greedy, lazy and overpaid. I think when those folks make those accusations, they should take a good look in the mirror.

It’s all about ethics. A lack of ethics creates a lack of excellence. And in my business I see an alarming number of ethically challenged employers excusing their ethically challenged behavior in order to squeeze more profit from less product. In my opinion, this is the definition of greed.

[Mark Mulé first joined Local 802 in 1992. A drummer and percussionist, he has played for musical theater, including Broadway’s Annie in 1997, his whole life. He’s the author of numerous books on drumming, and his e-book, “WOZ A View From the Pit,” is available from Amazon.com. For more background, see www.local802afm.org.]

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Guest Commentary
by Robert L. Lynch

Every four years America gets another chance to make its voice heard. And every four years the American arts community, in a way, gets a bit of a fiscal makeover.

How is that? Well, it has to do with how the nonprofit arts in America are funded and how policy affects those funding sources. And every four years, no matter who wins elections across our country, there are new policymakers in town. Roughly 10 percent of the $61 billion aggregate budgets of the nonprofit arts in America comes from government – mostly local and then state government and finally federal sources. Yes, this is a tiny portion of the whole, and it is actually a lot smaller than many people, including many politicians, think. This 10 percent is indeed a small amount compared to the 30 percent the private sector – (mostly) individuals – chips in and the 60 percent that comes from earned and investment income.

But that 10 percent is critical in what is a very conservative funding model for arts in our country. I call this model conservative because a very modest government investment leverages more than 60 times as much private and earned revenue to create a whole industry and support millions of jobs. How? A $146 million investment from the federal government directly leverages close to $5 billion more in local and state government investment, which in turn helps leverage another $50 billion to create the $61 billion nonprofit arts industry in America.

This model has helped grow an industry from a handful of organizations in 1965 – when the federal cultural funding agencies like National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) came into being – to more than 110,000 arts businesses today. And that core of nonprofit organizations has served as the catalyst and R and D engine if you will, that has helped spawn 800,000 additional for-profit arts-centric business like the local music store or dance studio or Hollywood or Broadway, collectively 4.2 percent of all American businesses.

Does a new president, or a new term for a president, make any difference for the nonprofit art industry?

When Kennedy took office, he envisioned a bigger role for the arts in America and set a series of initiatives into motion. Johnson actualized the initiatives and created the federal funding agencies and incentives to create 50 state arts funding agencies. Nixon saw the potential of the arts and the agencies and built up the funding capacity of the NEA and NEH. Under Reagan, federal money was used to leverage significant new amounts of local government investment and even larger private matching dollars. And now that the election is over, we have a new start.

Under Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, we began to see the arts engaged more and more as part of the solution to America’s social problems: youth-at-risk, crime reduction, healing of wounded warriors and rebuilding of challenged communities. And agencies beyond the arts and humanities like HUD, Justice, Transportation, Commerce, DOE and Defense slowly began to become partners in using the power of the arts to make America not only a more beautiful but also a better place.

Nice . . . but too costly? During the presidential campaign of 2012, it was argued that the arts are valuable but unaffordable in our challenged economy. Understandable perhaps but uninformed. There is good news here. The $61 billion nonprofit arts industry and the $74 billion in related audience spending create an economic impact of $135 billion and produce 4.1 million full-time equivalent jobs that return about $10 billion to the federal treasury each year. The federal investment in the arts – the tiny $146 million to the NEA – plus the Smithsonian, the Kennedy Center and every other related arts expenditure equals close to $2 billion. And even then we still have a huge return on investment. Two billion spent on the arts returns $10 billion in federal taxes. Add state and local tax revenues, and that figure jumps to $22 billion.

The arts are so much more than all these numbers I have cited. The arts are making communities everywhere more creative and competitive places. The arts are helping to make classrooms throughout the country more exciting places to learn subjects like science, technology, engineering and math. The arts are helping to make 21st century workers and businesses more innovative and competitive in the global marketplace. But isn’t it nice for our administration, our president and our Congress to know that the arts are also helping to solve America’s core problems while not only paying their own way, but also contributing a tidy profit to our nation’s balance sheet.

[Robert L. Lynch is President and CEO of Americans for the Arts. A version of his essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on 17 November 2012.]



22 February 2013

Short Takes IV

22 April 2012

In a column in the New York Times, a reader wrote about fielding rude questions about her red hair.  It brought to mind something that happened to me when I was a junior in high school.  I, too, was a redhead back then. (I'm gray and thinning on top now.)  I was in English class, finishing something or other at the blackboard in front of the class when the teacher asked me, out of nowhere, “Do you dye your hair?”  Aside from the rudeness in and of itself, the fact that she asked me in front of my classmates was a combination of embarrassing and funny.  In a flash, I told the teacher, “Only my hairdresser knows for sure,” and returned to my seat.  (That TV commercial for Clairol hair coloring was running at the time.)  Of course, the class cracked up, and I came out the winner for the day.

That anecdote also makes me think of my aunt, also a redhead.  We each had a unique color of red; neither of us were carrot-tops, but neither of us ever met anyone with quite our shades of red.  Once when she was at the hair salon, a woman in a chair nearby was getting her hair colored.  The other woman couldn't decide on the shade of dye she wanted, and then she spotted my aunt.  “That's the color I want,” she told her stylist.  “I'm sorry, Ma’am,” the hairdresser replied.  “That color doesn't come in a bottle.”

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22 April 2012

When I was in grad school for my MFA in acting, I appeared in the thesis production of one of my MFA directing classmates.  I was playing the father in Jean Anouilh’s Romeo and Jeannette and in one scene, I withdrew to a side porch at stage right and sat smoking a cigar while the action went on center stage among the younger characters in the play.  All through rehearsals we did that scene with me in semi-darkness, sitting in a sort of lounge chair facing the right wing of the little studio theater, listening to music from a party at the big house up on the hill.  I didn’t do anything but listen and smoke.

After one of the first nights when we had an audience, the director came back to the dressing room with a note.  Several spectators, many of whom were other theater students whom we all knew in the undergrad or grad programs, had commented on how interesting I was being over on the porch, supposedly out of focus.  I started to apologize for stealing focus; I assured the director that I hadn’t done anything intentional to attract attention and couldn’t imagine what I’d been doing.  (I wasn’t doing anything fancy like blowing smoke rings or elaborately sniffing the cheroot or biting the end off.  I thought I was being as inactive and unobtrusive as possible.)  The director stopped me.  “It’s not your fault that you’re more interesting than the characters in the scene.  You’ve been doing just what I wanted.  They’re the ones who aren’t being interesting.  If they were fully engaged in what they were doing”—it was an argument—”you wouldn’t attract more attention.”

I don’t remember what he told the other actors to do to regain the focus in the scene; maybe I never heard.  But after another performance, I met one of my own acting students who’d come to see the play and he said something to me that may have been part of the explanation of what had happened.  My student said to me, “You looked so real—like you really knew how to smoke a cigar!”  Well, of course I did know—I’d been a cigar smoker and so had my father when I was growing up, so the procedure of cigar-smoking was natural to me, and since the cigar was real, it was really lit, and I was really smoking it, I was, in fact, actually smoking a cigar.  I wasn’t acting smoking a cigar.  I always think of this as a lesson in acting: a real action is always more interesting than a fake one, even if the real one is small and ordinary and the other one is noisy and big.  (Consider Uta Hagen’s advice about never appearing on stage with children or animals.)  That must have been what the director had meant—that I was really doing what I was directed to do, while my castmates were “acting.”  Even in the semi-darkness, I was more interesting than they were.

*  *  *  *
4 January 2013

I had a fun little encounter a few days after Christmas 2012.  I was doing a little grocery shopping at the Food Emporium on 6th Avenue in my neighborhood, and as I went around the corner into the produce section, coming at me in the other direction was the actor F. Murray Abraham!  Now, I think he's one of the finest actors in the country these days, especially on the stage—I saw him do a rep of Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant and Barabas in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta in 2007 (he reprised the Shylock in 2011) which was terrific—and I told him so and asked, “May I shake your hand?”  “Well,” he said grinning, “I'm glad I got up this morning!”

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15 December 2005/17 January 2006

My family lived in West Germany from 1962, after my dad joined the Foreign Service, until 1967, and I joined them in ’63.  I knew at the time it was happening that I was having an adventure—though I never articulated this feeling until long afterwards.  I was old enough at 16 to understand while I was in it that this was a special experience.  Of course, everyone else I knew in Europe at the time was also having it—but I knew no one I left back home was.  I was very consciously getting as much out of the opportunity that I could.  I missed out on a few things in those years for one reason or another, but in general, I made a point of grabbing every opportunity I could, such as going shopping in Koblenz, the small city where we first lived; trying a new restaurant or dish; or going on a trip to some new place, whether far away, like Russia, or nearby, like the Rhine castles near our home.  I was like a gourmand at an elaborate party—I tried to get my fingers into every platter.  When I was about to graduate from high school in Geneva, I even tried to convince my parents to let me take a PG year there, but on the French side.  Not only did I want to improve my French, but I wanted to stay in Europe another year.  They didn’t buy it, though, so I came back and started college in in the States that fall. 

Years later, I was watching Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire on TV.  It’s about two angels who hang around Berlin and watch as the humans live their lives until one of them decides he wants to become human and experience life himself.  The movie was released in ’88 and meanders around odd parts of Berlin, including some sites near sections of the Wall.  I'm not sure I can make this make sense—I've never articulated it before—but at one point, one of the angels crosses a street and passes in front of a row of buildings that all looked as if they dated from the immediate post-war period—’50s and ’60s or thereabouts.  It was only a few seconds of film, and it wasn't in the least significant to the movie, but it made an odd connection for me.  For those few seconds, the scene could have been anywhere in West Germany where those kinds of buildings were ubiquitous in the early days of my family’s time there—just like the house we had in Koblenz and the apartment buildings in the U.S. embassy compound in Bonn-Bad Godesberg where we moved in 1965.  The buildings in the movie were just little shops—bakeries, groceries, tobacconists, and such; I don't even know what they were, but it could have been any street in any West German town where new buildings had been erected to replace older ones destroyed in World War II—they went up fast as Germany was recovering, and they all looked alike.  All of a sudden, and just for a second or two, I was right back there in ’63 in Koblenz in those first weeks and months when my brother and I moved there to join my folks.  It was the oddest kind of nostalgic sense—sort of Proustian, I guess. 

I re-experienced the feeling I remember having, but had never tried to describe or even, really, recognized until much, much later.  It was this absolutely certain sense that here I was, doing this extraordinary thing—living in a foreign country—that I knew was both unique and special and exciting.  Remember, I was just 16 and had never been anywhere off the east coast of the U.S. except one skiing trip to Quebec, and in Koblenz we were living not in an American enclave or a housing compound, but right among the Koblenzers, shopping in their stores—no PX or commissary—and so on.  And, this was 1963—how many American teenagers lived in Europe?  I never said this to myself in words before, but I knew I was on an adventure.  Now, I know I'd thought this before—especially when I went back to Germany in the Army, and most clearly when I went back to Koblenz ten years after I first arrived there—but I know I'd never tried to put this into words of any kind—not even in my head. 

As I said, I had this sense at the time, but it wasn't remotely verbal and I never recognized it except maybe subliminally until years later.  What 16-year-old is that introspective, I guess.  I'd be out in town for whatever reason—shopping, exploring, meeting Dad at his office, wandering with a friend—who more than likely would have been Marc Humilien, a French military brat I got to know there, which made it all the odder—and I'd take notice of the German shops with German signs, the German people on the streets, the German kids.  Everything was foreign—but fascinating.  And this feeling would come over me—I live here.  This is now my home.  I'm actually doing this.  None of those words occurred to me—I've put those in later—but the feeling was there.  This only happened in the first months or a year—after that I got very blasé about living in foreign parts, and later, when we moved to Bonn, we were in an embassy compound where all our neighbors were Americans and our surroundings were an approximation of an American suburb.  But those first months in Koblenz, the Germanness of it all, the newness, the strangeness, was actually palpable.  I was doing this really, really different thing—and I knew it.  All this came back to me in that brief piece of movie, just because the setting looked vaguely familiar.  (That feeling came back to me the first day I arrived in Berlin, as I said, and when I returned to Koblenz in 1972 when I was assigned to a German military school located in nearby Bad Ems.  Years later, when I took a vacation trip to Quebec City, I had a similar sense.  I hadn’t been in a French-speaking environment in decades by that time, and though I’d never been to Quebec City before, I instantly felt as if I’d returned to some place familiar—culturally familiar.  Many things I hadn’t thought about for years came back to me.)

*  *  *  *
15 December 2005

I was in ROTC in college and I started active duty at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, in December 1969.  I spent the next 18 months in one army school or another before being assigned to West Berlin.  I was a counterintel agent at Berlin Station, the Military Intelligence unit attached to the Berlin Brigade, from July 1971 to February 1974.  I had worked the system some to get sent to Germany (Berlin was a lagniappe) and at least delay being deployed to Vietnam.  (I wasn’t a supporter of the war, but I also didn’t want to shirk what I saw as my duty as a citizen.)  The one big question was what would happen after 18 months, which was the standard tour for an officer in Berlin when I arrived.  After that, it was home leave and shipment to Vietnam.  I was counting on making myself so indispensable in Berlin that they’d keep me there rather than waste me in Southeast Asia.  I never had to test that plan, though: the Paris Peace Accords were signed in January 1973.  But if I hadn’t been in Berlin to begin with, I can bet on where I’d have ended up.

I firmly believe that my language studies and skills helped keep me out of combat in Southeast Asia.  First, language ability is one of the assets MI looked for, so it helped qualify me for my choice of branch assignment when I was commissioned.  Second, one of the electives I took because I had room in my college schedule—I’d gotten two years’ advanced placement on both German and French, my majors, eliminating a lot of prerequisites—was linguistics.  One of the things you learn in linguistics is how to piece together a language’s grammar from fragments of the spoken tongue.  We did this as exercises several times, and it was part of the mid-term and final exams.  When I got to Ft. Knox, one of the battery of tests we all had to take was the ALAT, the Army Language Aptitude Test.  Lo and behold, the test was exactly that: a language whose grammar we had to glean from sentences, phrases, and words provided.  I maxed the test—got the highest score possible.  That meant I could choose any language training I wanted (except French and German, since I already offered the army those) and I was assured of getting it.  But I had to select a language program.  If I hadn’t chosen one, the army, in its wisdom, was going to choose one for me.  (They weren’t going to ignore my test score!)  They would have put me in a Vietnamese course, and that led to only one assignment.  There was one slot available in a Russian course, and I grabbed it.  Near the end of the course, I took the language proficiency tests for German and French as well as Russian so they were all on my record.  

Now, the fact is that Russian language was an asset in Vietnam—particularly for an MI officer—because of the Soviet presence in the North.  And French was an asset because many older Vietnamese still spoke French as a second language rather than English because Indochina had been a French colony until 1954.  So German was the key.  There was only one obvious place where American troops were stationed where French, German, and Russian were all important skills: not just Germany, but Berlin.  Still under occupation from World War II, Berlin had troops from France in the West and Soviets in the East.  That was the third reason my language studies helped me: specifically my fluency in German.  Since I had also lived in Germany for several years in my teens and knew the culture as well as the language, the army wisely sent me to Berlin instead of Saigon (where the life expectancy of an MI lieutenant was estimated at five minutes after he gets off the plane).   I have no doubt that my acuity in French and German plus my study of Russian were the principal reasons I was in Berlin when the cease-fire went into effect.  (The common wisdom among GI’s was that 90% of all soldiers were malassigned.  Not me: I was just where I should have been!)

*  *  *  *
17 December 2005
While I was stationed in Berlin when I was in the army, I had been sent as one of two American guest-officers to the MAD-Schule, the Bundeswehr intelligence school, in the summer and fall of 1972.  (MAD was the Militärischer Abschirmdienst, the military counterintelligence service of the Bundeswehr, the German military forces.  It is now called the Amt für Sicherheit der Bundeswehr, the office for the security of the Bundeswehr.)  The course was a two-parter, and we went during the summer for the first stage.  We were there over Independence Day, so my American colleague and I decided that we had to throw a Fourth of July barbecue for our German classmates. 

Even by ’72, barbecuing the American way—over a grill outdoors then eating outside pretty much with your hands—was still un-German.  (My mom did a cook-out for her German friends when we lived in West Germany in the ’60s, and the ladies didn’t quite know what to make of it.  They ate hamburgers with knives and forks and then, because paper was still expensive in Europe, wanted to wash the paper plates.) 

Well, since my partner, who was married, went back to Munich for the weekends, I was tasked with doing the shopping.  I drove up to the commissaries in Frankfurt and Wiesbaden and stocked up on steaks, hot dogs, and burgers.  I got number-10 cans of baked beans and all the fixin’s for a traditional Independence Day cook-out.  We had a half day on Tuesday, the Fourth—a coincidence, as far as I know—and the morning was devoted to Sport.  We had done this before, and gone to a swimming pool for the afternoon, but this time we were going kegeling—German bowling.  (Wouldn’t you know it, most Kegelbahns were also bars!)  That morning was raining and gray, and it looked like the barbecue was going to be a wash-out.  But when we came out of the Kegelbahn, the rain had stopped and the sun was shining brightly.  One of the German officers cracked, “Is it Jesus Christ or the good Lord himself who loves America?”  (We weren’t universally hated yet.)  And off we went to our cook-out. 

The mess hall had come up with a grill somehow, and we set up everything outside—the Germans sprang for the beer—and the cook-out was a blazing success.  (All that beer didn’t hurt.)  What went over best, I was surprised to find, was the baked beans.  Man, those guys just loved that stuff.  I had over-bought a little, and they served the rest at mess until it ran out.  I think they even prevailed on me to get more from the commissary.  I fear I created a bunch of addicts!  But we paid those guys back for all their gemütlichkeit and stood America in good stead with a small group of Bundeswehr army and air force majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels, and navy lieutenant commanders, commanders, and captains. 

*  *  *  *
8 February 2013

I had a thought one night recently that's occurred to me before.  I was watching an ordinary TV program and the plot seemed to have been wrapped up.  But I saw that it was still 15 minutes before the end of the hour, so I figured there was something yet to be revealed.  There was, and I even guessed what it was, but mostly because I knew there was a quarter of the program left to go.  In other words, I was getting clues not from the plot or the characters, but from the mechanics of TV—in this case the fact that TV shows have a definite schedule and time span and they have to fill out the time slot.

I've noticed this kind of thing before.  Another clue that comes from outside the script or the acting is from the casting. If a role is played by an actor I don't know from anywhere, I can figure the character isn't very important.  That may or may not end up being true, but if an apparently small part is played by an actor who does a lot of TV, may even be a second-tier star whose name I even know, I suspect the character is going to turn out to be more significant than we're supposed to think.  (This can happen in movies, too, unlike the timing thing, but it's less common.  I remember once watching an old Clint Eastwood movie on TV some years ago in which an apparently inconsequential character was played by an actor who usually played featured roles and even leads.)  

There's a variation on this casting clue syndrome when a character who we know is probably important is played by an actor commonly cast in a certain kind of role.  Even if the character's personality isn't revealed much in the early scenes, you can be pretty sure it'll turn out to be in line with the actor's usual role and you can make a pretty sure bet he'll be a villain or an innocent wrongly suspected or something like that.  (In films, directors and producers might fool you by casting an actor against her or his usual type—and sometimes habitual casting patterns change, sometimes suddenly.  Cuddly Ed Asner, discombobulated Walter Matthau, and comic Zero Mostel started out as "heavies."   So did dimwitted Leslie Nielsen—but no one seems to do that much on TV.)

All of these are clues that you wouldn't pick up except for the mechanics or business of TV—not the writing, acting, or directing.  They're non-artistic clues, external clues.  They seem to belong to TV more than any other form of story-telling, either because of the nature of TV as we do it here (the rigid TV schedule, which is not always followed in Europe, say) or because of the way the directors and producers practice their crafts (the casting thing).  They all keep something that might be a surprise, however small, from being as startling as it otherwise might be.

(There was another clue in that Eastwood film, Blood Work, that the character I noted was more significant than the script let on, but it was sort of from within the film.  The guy'd written his name—I think it might have been on a check, but that's irrelevant—and it was Jasper Noone.  Now, I used to teach writing, and a common spelling error I saw was writing “no one” as one word: noone.  Because of my writing-class experience, I guessed that in Blood Work, this might be a modern take on Ulysses calling himself Nemo—Latin for “nobody.”  It was too prominent—the camera came in close on the name—to be insignificant.  And that's another frequent clue: if the camera lingers on an object in a scene, you know it'll be important later.  It's setting up a McGuffin—but it's an internal clue, perhaps sloppily executed—by the director.)

17 February 2013

“Toasting History In A Cellar Saloon”

by Edward Rothstein

[Last 19 December, I published “Lower East Side Tenement Museum” on ROT, a report on the unusual museum of the immigrant experience here in New York City and across the country from the middle of the 19th century through the pre-World War II years of the 20th.  On 8 February, the New York Times ran an exhibition review by Edward Rothstein of LESTM in the “Weekend Arts II” section.  I’m republishing the article below as a follow-up and supplement to my original report because Rothstein not only adds some additional information about the museum and the era it covers, but he reports on a new installation (which I noted was in the planning at the time I posted “Lower East Side Tenement Museum”).  As Rothstein intimates, LESTM is an extraordinary experience, and I still strongly recommend making a visit to 97 Orchard Street.  (My original article includes information about arranging a visit, buying tickets, and getting there, including phone numbers and websites.)]

Something exciting happens in a museum when its objects and displays take on a life of their own, when they seem almost too large, too various or too unruly for scripted roles or predicted places. Sometimes this happens because they are seen with new eyes or because they are understood in new contexts; sometimes it is because they possess an aesthetic grandeur that resists any interpretive grid.

But at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which has begun a major new venture in its remarkable excavations of New York’s past, it happens because the themes explored are actually too ordinary. They are mundane and usually go unnoticed, yet as uncovered here they cannot be easily contained, nor will they fit into some ready form, which may be part of the point.

It is daily life we are asked to imagine here, in all its plainness and struggle, its dirt, noise and passions. It is also a daily life of the past—really of a series of pasts. And the main theme is as vital now as at earlier moments: immigration.

And how is this accomplished? What is the focus of this excavation? In a word: shops. Half of this new installation, “Shop Life,” is a lovingly detailed re-creation of the kind of German saloon that the immigrants John and Caroline Schneider opened in 1864 in the same spot we see it: the basement of the tenement at 97 Orchard Street. The neighborhood was then called Kleindeutschland (Little Germany), and New York had the third-largest German-speaking populace in the world (after Vienna and Berlin). There are brass musical instruments on shelves (John played in a Union Army regiment), beer steins ready for the opening of a keg, plates heaped with ersatz sausages and cheeses. (Food came with the purchase of lager.)

The method of recreating a historical space based on city records, the Census and found artifacts has already been used upstairs in the living quarters of 97 Orchard, where some 7,000 people from more than 20 countries lived, at one time or another, from 1863 until 1935. The Tenement Museum, founded in 1988 by Ruth J. Abram, purchased the building in 1996 and was prepared to create model apartments based on different periods of immigration

But records about residents were so extensive, and the details so suggestive, that there was no need to invent anything. The actual history could be excavated. Now about 200,000 visitors a year take guided tours of many of these 350-square-foot apartments, restored to reflect the lives of tenants at different times.

In one, in 1897, Harris Levine ran a small dressmaking factory, where he and his wife, Jennie, reared their family. Other tours visit the 1869 rooms of an Irish family, the Moores, whose infant daughter died of malnutrition, and an Italian family, the Baldizzis, whose daughter helped the museum recreate the apartment of her 1930s childhood. Some apartments were kept as “ruins,” showing how their peeling layers of paint and wallpaper were interpreted. And there are plans to tell the stories of the neighborhood’s more recent Chinese and Hispanic immigrants, perhaps in an adjacent building.

But now the museum has done something more elaborate, overseen by its vice president for programs and education, Annie Polland. A sequence of about 30 shops had been in the basement between 1863 and 1988. One of these was restored—the saloon—including a room where, in the 1870s, German patrons might have gathered for meetings of immigrant fraternal associations, a small kitchen where Caroline prepared the saloon’s food, and the couple’s bedroom with windows looking out on the privies serving the 83 residents of the five-story tenement.

The saloon was more than just a business (and there were at least three others on the block). It was a meeting place, even a living space outside of the cramped three-room apartments. Politics was debated. Families were welcomed. And in 1870 some of the 29 or so children living upstairs must have been expert carriers of metal growlers filled with lager.

The re-creation also conveys a sense of the Schneiders themselves, teased out of newspapers (in The New Yorker Staats-Zeitung in 1864 John announced the saloon’s opening “to his fine friends and acquaintances as well as the honorable musicians”), city records (John had been living in New York for 22 of his 34 years) and other documents. (Caroline died of tuberculosis in 1885; John died in 1892 in a public hospital.) Through the narrative we sense the ambitions, the community ties and the precarious positions behind the saloon’s public face.

In the other half of the basement space the museum does something quite different. First it shows a room in its half-ruined state. A cabinet contains the few items that digging had uncovered: a shattered beer stein from the saloon era and cosmetics from a 1920s store. There is also a large red leather-bound book: “Solution for Retail Merchandising Problems.” Its credited author, Max Marcus, was a proprietor of an auction house here during the Depression. Inside, the book is hollow, hiding a bottle of Ambassador Scotch.

Max turns out to be one of the characters introduced in the final gallery, which uses high-tech video-display tables to survey the lives of three storekeepers who used the space. Max (shown in that very room in the 1930s) was the kind of spirited entrepreneur who might have found a solution for merchandising problems by buying someone a drink. And these well-executed light tables also tell the story of the butcher and his family from the turn of the last century, and the underwear salesman from the 1960s, whose family gave the museum photos and samples. Additional videos of current store owners in the area, including one from the Dominican Republic, echo a hundred years of immigrant narratives.

In all, such care is taken with the setting, the artifacts, the interpretation and the guides’ interaction with visitors that we begin to feel, as in fine novels, plays and histories, some understanding of these individuals and their relationships to the larger theme.

This connection is also worth examining more closely. The museum declares that its purpose is to “promote tolerance and historical perspective” by presenting a “variety of immigrant and migrant experiences.” But initially Ms. Abram seemed to have a more polemical perspective, drawing on 20th-century working-class histories and their theories of exploitation. In 1999 the museum organized the International Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience, which included the Tenement Museum; the District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa; the Gulag Museum at Perm 36 in Perm, Russia; the Terezin Memorial in the Czech Republic; and others. The coalition’s mission is “to help sites the world over inspire visitors to become actively engaged in issues from slavery to poverty.”

This suggests that the Tenement Museum was partly conceived to demonstrate a series of injustices that should trouble contemporary consciences. But even by looking at the most horrific of tenements (which 97 Orchard clearly was not) the implied comparison to some of these institutions is grossly disproportionate.

Much of that polemical spirit has been shed. But even now there is sometimes an edge, as if we were being offered a lesson that we should be more welcoming and tolerant of contemporary immigrants.

But is that really an issue? There may always be some resentments of newcomers. But the passionate contemporary debates are not about immigration but about how to deal with large-scale violations of immigration law that dwarf earlier examples. As for legal immigration, since 2000 both the number of immigrants admitted to the United States and the number naturalized are stunningly greater than during any other period. The country is not wary of immigrants; it is welcoming them at an astonishing rate.

As far as the museum experience is concerned, though, this doesn’t really matter. Its imposing achievement in these new shop installations, and in at least two tenement tours I have taken, is that the daily lives become far more important than any arguments. Historical understanding is found in the details. And amid the travails, sweat and sorrows, we find the continuing pulse of aspiration.

12 February 2013

'Not by Bread Alone'

Readers of ROT will know that on 23 January, I published a post called “Dispatches from Israel” by my friend Helen Kaye.  It included Helen’s 2008 review of Not by Bread Alone, an extraordinary performance by the Nalagaat Deaf-Blind Theater Ensemble of Tel Aviv.  “I was very moved when I saw it,” Helen wrote when she sent me the review, recommending very strongly that I see the performance that was coming to New York City.  As it happened, the company was performing its U.S. début at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at New York University just off of Washington Square South, a few blocks south of my home.  So, on Tuesday evening, 29 January, I walked down to catch the 8 p.m. show.  (The performance schedule was very erratic, with shows at different times on different dates and the production was dark not only on Mondays, the traditional day off for theaters, but also on Fridays.) 

Nalagaat (the name means “Please Do Touch” in Hebrew) began work on Not by Bread Alone, the troupe’s second production, in 2005 and it took two years to gestate.  It premièred in 2007 and toured to London in July 2010 (among other places) before coming here this year.  It was the first work of the ensemble at its new home, the Nalagaat Center in Jaffa, the oldest part of Tel Aviv.  The troupe began almost accidentally in 1999 when Zurich-born stage director Adina Tal was approached by a social club for deaf-blind people to conduct a two-month theater workshop.  She’d been asked to lead programs for disabled people before, Tal explained, but, she confessed, “It didn’t interest me, though I thought it was nice that others did it.”  But Tal, who had no previous experience with this kind of work and has characterized herself as having “little patience and even less sense of pity,” agreed this time.  Her intention was to run a general drama workshop, but she was enthralled by the enthusiasm of the group and, particularly, the challenge to find a new way to communicate, especially with a large audience rather than one on one.  The director wasn’t interested in doing standard works like Shakespeare plays with deaf-blind actors and when one participant said he wanted to do a play by Maxim Gorky, Tal responded, “You are deaf-blind and non-verbal.  How are you going to do Gorky?”  (Most of the actors suffer from Usher syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes hearing impairment and deafness often at birth.  During adolescence or later, retinitis pigmentosa develops, resulting in gradual vision loss and ultimately complete blindness.  Only one of the 11 company members was born blind and later became deaf as a consequence of meningitis.)  Tal told the group, “Other people can do Gorky better than us.  But what they can’t do is what we can do. The strength of Nalaga’at is in being us.  That’s what we do really well.”  So after a year of work on rhythm, improvisations, body movement, and touch-sign language until the performers learned to pantomime their feelings and dreams, the troupe’s first production, Light is Heard in Zig Zag, was born.  About the actors’ “heart-wishes,” Zig Zag premièred in 2003.  (Highly regarded, the production went on to play before the Knesset in Jerusalem; in Toronto and Montreal, Canada; and at the U.N. headquarters in Geneva.)  Nalagaat, the only group of its kind in Israel and perhaps the whole world, was officially launched by Tal, who became the president and artistic director, in 2002 and moved into its own home in Tel Aviv’s ancient port district five years later. 

Not by Bread Alone, also directed by Tal, explores “the districts of their inner world; the world of darkness, silence” as the 11 ensemble members make fresh bread.  “Welcome to our darkness and silence,” says one Nalagaat actor. “We invite you to share our everyday lives together.”  Over 80-minutes and ten scenes (many accompanied by music of guitar and accordion, composed by Amnon Baaham and Zvi Tal), the cast shares the individual memories, experiences, aspirations, and fantasies of the actors while the loaves bake in the ovens on stage behind them.  (The aroma of the baking bread is an ever-increasing presence.  Bread Alone is the only stage piece I can remember ever having seen in which the sense of smell forms such a real part of the performance experience.)  The 11 bakers tell us who they are with bits of their autobiographies. As each actor introduces him- or herself to us, telling us where they were born, when they lost their hearing and sight, what they like to do, when they came to Israel, each one takes off the blank, featureless white mask they all wear.  Each actor thus transforms from an anonymous, faceless being—the way I imagine they feel they’re regarded by the hearing-and-seeing world—into an individual with not just a face, but an expressive visage.  Just like you and me.  Later, each performer tells us whom they’d like to share part of their bread with (a pregnant woman, an abused child, soldiers in the army, horses, birds) and what they think life is all about.  Nalagaat’s most successful production so far, Not by Bread Alone ran at the Skirball from 16 January to 3 February.  (Following Bread, the troupe has staged a children’s show, Prince Rooster, and launched a new multi-cultural ensemble of deaf-blind Jews, Muslims, and Samaritans that premièred Luna Park in 2012 after four years of work.)

NYU’s Skirball Center on LaGuardia Place in Greenwich Village was funded in part by the Skirball Foundation ($2 million of the approximately $40 million total cost) and named for Jack H. Skirball (1896-1985), a rabbi who became a Hollywood producer (Alfred Hitchcock's 1943 Shadow of a Doubt) as well as the producer of S. N. Behrman’s Jacobowsky and the Colonel on Broadway (1944-45).  The 860-seat performing arts center, opened in 2003, is part of the Helen and Martin Kimmel Center for University Life, the NYU student center on Washington Square South.  The largest theater in New York City south of 42nd Street, the Skirball didn’t exist when I was a student at NYU (the Kimmel Center replaced the Loeb Student Center which was demolished in 1999) and I’d never been there until this experience.

With only one notable exception that I saw, everyone with an opinion has embraced this performance.  I’ll confirm that Bread Alone was a remarkable and astonishing experience, both humanly and theatrically, but I can’t help feeling that some of the enthusiasm from the professional commentators (that is, reviewers) was considerably influenced by what the performance was and who the performers are and the feeling that they were supposed to appreciate and laud the event.  There’s a proverb, supposedly Russian (which is appropriate since so many of the Nalagaat ensemble are Soviet-born), that says: “The wonderful thing about a dancing bear isn’t how well it dances, but that it dances at all.”  I mean no disrespect by a dubious comparison—the Nalagaat performers are not dancing bears—but I wonder if there isn’t an element of that mindset operating here.  Bread Alone was both interesting and, as Helen said, moving, there's no doubt of that.  But it's such a personal pieceto a degree that's not common in mainstream theaterit may approach an encounter session.  I don’t think it’s a play in the ordinary sense of that term, so if I address it like The Piano Lesson or Harper Regan, this report would be misleading and incomplete.  At the same time, it wasn't exactly The Famous People Players, either.  I probably won’t know what I feel about the performance until I've actually written it—to paraphrase Gracie Allen.

Nonetheless, I won’t take the kind of stance that Adam Feldman, that one outlier, took in Time Out New York.  Feldman savaged the production, thoroughly though briefly, declaring, “That it exists at all is remarkable”—echoing the very Russian proverb I quoted.  Not by Bread Alone means to explore its subjects’ dreams and memories,” the reviewer continued, “as well as their overwhelming isolation, frustration and loneliness—to shine light on their darkness, and give voice to their silence.”  But the performance, “alas, is a mitzvah gone wrong,” resulting in “a maudlin mash-up of The Miracle Worker and Weekend at Bernie’s.  (A mitzvah, for non-New Yorkers and others benighted in the quirks of Yiddish and Hebrew, can mean an act of kindness, a good deed.  I won’t comment on Feldman’s invocation of Weekend at Bernie’s, a 1989 juvenile farce I’ve never seen, but from what I know of it, the comparison strikes me as unnecessarily cruel.)

While it seems to me that the positive reviewers were influenced more by the sociological impact of Bread than by its artistic merits, I feel that Feldman was responding to a misreading of the performance.  When he wrote, for instance, that the performers “enact a series of hackneyed, awkward vignettes,” he seems to have forgotten that he just pointed out that the ensemble is revealing the members’ “dreams and memories,” which they’re exposing as basically the same as everyone else’s.  Tal’s intent was to show the audience that what the Nalagaat actors want from life, what they imagine and fantasize about, are the same things for which we all yearn.  Perhaps Tal could have selected more dramatic examples of those dreams—I assume the material was all drawn from what the company members told her during the development period—but the less common the memories and reveries are, the less forcefully the point of Bread is made.  I don’t know anything about Tal’s pre-Nalagaat stage work, so I don’t know if she leans toward the sentimental and clichéd habitually, but it’s certainly not the fault of the actors that they dream about the same things the rest of us do.  (One of Feldman’s complaints was that in a scene about a trip to Italy, the characters are all costumed “cartoonishly,” and that’s almost certainly Tal’s choice.  I have no idea what the Italians imagined by the Nalagaat players would look like, since most of the actors will have lost their sight years ago, but the company members surely wouldn’t have much inkling what the costumes they were wearing, credited to Dafna Grossman, look like.)  Bread has two main points, one of which, as already noted, is to show the audience what the deaf-blind long for and that those dreams are much like ours.  (The other point, which I’ll get to momentarily, is to let us in a little on what their darkness and silence is like.)  Of course acting them out will seem familiar.  We’ve all seen the same scenes before—in our own dreams and fantasies.

So, where do I focus when I try to describe and assess this performance?  Do I stress the ensemble’s intent, its heart?  Or do I emphasize its aesthetics and skill, its artistry?  Adina Tal declares, “Nothing is impossible,” when she discusses Not by Bread Alone and Nalagaat, suggesting to me that her focus is on the message more than the aesthetics.  Remembering the Russian bear, she seems to want us to see that the players are simultaneously like us and different from us more than how well they reveal this truth from the stage.  If I’m right, then she and Nalagaat have succeeded marvelously, because the revelation was, indeed, touching, striking, and eye-opening.  The overall feeling emanating from the stage was “sweet.”  (Yes, and some of it was painful, too.  But even those memories were tenderly, even wistfully depicted.)  However clichéd the players’ vision of their trip to Italy is, it was imbued with happiness and affection; if that’s how the players see their Italian hosts, it flows from tenderness and pleasure, not meanness.  (As I suggested, however, I suspect Tal had a hand in the visual portrayal we saw, and she should know better.  Aside from her ability to see and hear, we should remember that though the director grew up in German Switzerland, the confederation’s official culture is a quarter Italian.) 

It wasn’t hard to accept that the deaf-blind players have dreams and fantasies much like ours in the seeing and hearing world—though it was remarkable how much of those musings was devoted to or derived from the senses of touch, smell, and taste.  It was also notable that many of the events depicted in the imaginings were the humblest human activities: going to a hairdresser, eating an ice-cream cone, swinging on a swing, slow-dancing.  One Nalagaat member found an immense feeling of gratification and freedom from just smoking a cigarette outside.  Even the fantasy wedding staged at the end of Bread expressed a basic human need: the desire for companionship.  I’m not sure if Tal selected such fundamental acts to reinforce the message that the deaf-blind think the same way the rest of us do, or if it’s evidence that they yearn for the simplest of human interactions because that’s what they miss.  (In several of the exchanges depicting the world of the deaf-blind, players stressed how much they depend on touch—shaking hands, having a stranger touch their hand or arm—just to know that someone else is there, that other people are real.  It is, indeed, how the deaf-blind communicate, by tactile signing, where the receiver reads the signs of the signer through movement and touch.  I believe the importance of physical contact is where the company’s name comes from.)  This is where I feel TONY’s Feldman missed an important point and read basicness as cliché.  The commonness of their visions isn’t a bad selection, a flawed theatrical choice—it’s the very point Tal and Nalagaat are trying to make. 

The second main message of Bread, as I noted, is to show us a little of what the eternally dark and silent world of the deaf-blind is like.  This is harder to do, of course, and possibly a more disturbing experience for us in the audience.  (In an adjunct to the show itself, Nalagaat transported versions of what they call their “immersive culinary offerings” from Tel Aviv to New York City.  Elsewhere in the Skirball Center, the company set up BlackOut and the Café Kapish.  In the first, diners, served their meals by blind waiters, ate in total darkness, guided by taste, smell, and touch; at the second eatery, guests engaged with the deaf and hearing-impaired staff by sign language only.)  While the dreams and fantasies were acted out, often in pantomime, the depiction of the real world in which the players live was principally accomplished by autobiographical narratives and anecdotes.  Many of the stories were from the players’ childhoods, frequently telling what it had been like when they first lost their sight (remembering that except for Itzik Hanuna, the man who was born blind and lost his hearing at 11, most Nalagaat members were deaf at birth and gradually lost their vision) or realized that they’d never know what a new-born nephew’s face looked like or no longer be able to read poems and stories as they’d loved to do before.  It’s not so difficult to grasp the notion that a deaf-blind woman has the same wishes and yearnings as you or I do; it might take a Nalagaat to make the point, but the idea’s not hard to conceive.  Conveying what it’s like to live in darkness and silence, to experience the world entirely through the remaining senses of smell and, especially, touch (taste is only occasionally suggested on stage—and I suspect it’s actually less effective as a gateway to experience than the other two senses) requires a leap of the imagination that was harder for me to make. 

One reason may be that while the dreams and aspirations can be acted out and portrayed visually and theatrically, the biographical anecdotes that illustrate the sensory deprivations are largely verbal and intellectual.  Ironically, the dream portrayals may have been commonplace and mundane, but the stories about the darkness and silence in which the players live were unique and personal.  Whether related directly by the actor, some of whom still have speech, or translated by the black-clad interpreters who functioned on stage much like Japanese stage assistants, the tales were moving and arresting—even as several contained humorous aspects despite the underlying anguish.  (One of the revelations of Bread was how good-humored and light-hearted the ensemble is.  A number of the ensemble members affirmed that what they liked most was to clown around or make people laugh.  What those of us outside their world might perceive as tragic, the players seemed to see as much more like red hair or left-handedness: a fact of their lives, though certainly more challenging.) 

This dichotomy brings me to an assessment of the stage work, the artistry of Not by Bread Alone.  First, I have to go back to the Russian bear—and I don’t mean this as a put-down in the least.  After a few minutes, one pervasive fact took over my perception: these actors can’t see or hear what’s going on on stage.  Not only that, but they couldn’t see or hear what they were doing during the development and rehearsal of Bread.  Several techniques were employed to overcome some of the obvious disadvantages of that fact, but I still kept wondering how Nalagaat managed to do what I was watching them do.  Some of the performers had sighted guides (the interpreters) to help them navigate the stage, but many didn’t.  No one carried a cane and though I know that blind people learn how to gauge distances in familiar places like their homes or workplaces, the Skirball stage is different from their home stage and any other space in which they’d worked.  How did they accomplish this so apparently fluidly and smoothly?  Since the actors can’t hear themselves (and never had heard not just their voices, but their intonations and other vocal variations), how did they manage to deliver lines (those who did) so expressively?  (To be honest, some of the performers were more affectless than others—though the least vocally expressive were usually the interpreters who, when they voiced an actor’s words, seemed deliberately not to convey emotional content, as if to avoid adding a layer of their own personal responses.)  In addition, the Nalagaat players couldn’t hear or see Adina Tal, either, as she had pointed out.  “Nobody could see me or hear me,” Tal explained. “I couldn’t imagine how we might begin to work together.  So we sat in a circle and squeezed hands and tapped knees and tried to find a way of communicating.”  They must have found one, because they communicated like gangbusters—straightforward, unmediated (to a great degree, not counting Tal’s input and the work of the interpreters), honest, and, often, blunt.  As Helen Kaye put it, “They were/are saying ‘Here we are. This is what we do. Take it or leave it, but don't pity us.’”  Well, I didn’t pity them—they seemed to be having too much fun—but I did marvel at their accomplishment.
Not by Bread Alone was very theatrical—some of the pantomime came very close to homages to Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, yet the actors aren't likely to have ever seen them (or, really, to know if they looked like those actors since they can't see themselves).  One of Tal's remarks was that these performers have never seen Pacino or Brando act, so they can't imitate them (an asset in her assessment), so how could they imitate Chaplin and silent movies?  (Of course, all movies would be silent to the Nalagaat actors, but you know what I mean.  According to one reviewer, however, one of the actors especially adept at channeling the Little Tramp had been a fan of the silent film great before losing his sight.)  Furthermore, I found the blatant (but genuine) sentimentality a little off-putting.  I mean, a fantasy wedding for two deaf-blind middle-agers: could you just cry?  It ought to have been cloying, but wasn't.  It was, as I said earlier, sweet—but it was also immensely revealing. 

On the other hand, I contend that declaring “Here we are.  This is what we do” is precisely a description of something that's not a conventional play in the usual sense of the term.  There are no characters—the actors all appear as themselves, though they play “manipulated” versions of themselves—or unified plot.  If the actors appear as themselves, the performance is out of the mainstream of current theatrical practice.  Western theater still relies on the Stanislavsky paradigm, irrespective of the method by which it's reached, where the performer subsumes his or her persona in the character's.  Actors who appear as themselves, telling their own actual stories, are not giving standard performances; even performers like the late Spaulding Gray (that is, monologists) and Anna Deavere Smith are considered theatrically radical or avant-garde.  Bertolt Brecht demanded that his actors appear as themselves while demonstrating the behavior of the characters, a tactic sometimes called “schizoid acting,” but he was also a radical writer and director even by today's standards.  (I described schizoid acting briefly in my ROT report on Venus in Fur, 11 July 2011.  And, yes, I know the concept is misapplied; I didn’t coin the term.)  Further, a performance piece like Bread in which there's no unified plot is also non-traditional, more like a non-musical revue or collage, neither of which is a conventional play structure.  Whether or not any of that's dramatic is a hard question to answer—it depends on how you define ‘drama’—but I still say it’s not a play per se.

The decision to bake bread was both a practical and philosophical one.  First, director Tal wanted to give the actors a basic physical task to accomplish while they’re telling their stories.  Nalagaat experimented with making salads and other basic foods because Tal saw the preparation of food as a “binding experience” for the troupe.  But kneading and baking bread became the activity that brought the company together and connected them to the audience.  Bread is one of the most basic foods, existing in every culture from before history was recorded.  In Jewish tradition, visitors often bring bread as a gesture of friendship and at a Jewish table, along with wine, bread is specifically blessed (in a prayer repeated on stage when the loaves are removed from the ovens).  It symbolizes life in many cultures (“the staff of life”) and, as the players remind us, Jews are commanded to share 10% of our bread with others—as the Nalagaat members share their lives with us.  “Breaking bread” is a custom that demonstrates sharing and offers of friendship and peace (especially among strangers or former adversaries).  God provided manna from Heaven to sustain the Jews during the Exodus and after many Sabbath services, the rabbi invites the congregation to share a challah loaf before leaving the synagogue.  At the end of the performance, the company invited the spectators to come up on stage and partake of the freshly baked loaves and meet the actors.

Theatrically, the aroma of baking bread, one of the homeliest and most pleasing odors known to humans, connected the audience to the performance and, thence, the performers.  (When I was in second or third grade and we were studying food and nutrition, one of our field trips was to a commercial bakery.  Even after nearly 60 years, I still vividly remember the smell of the fresh-baked bread we got to taste after the bakery tour.)  The process also served as Bread’s hourglass: the performance started when the 11 bakers, standing behind long tables dressed in white aprons and wearing tall, white chefs’ toques, began kneading the dough and ended when the finished loaves were brought out of the oven; when the smell began to fill the theater, we knew that Bread was coming to a close.  The separate vignettes give Bread the structure of an old-time TV variety show (think Sid Caesar or Carol Burnett), but the bread-baking corrals them into a single theater event—the string for the beads, so to speak.  Further, as one of the players explained: “While the bread is in the oven, thoughts appear.”  It was a perfect symbolic and practical vehicle for this show.

I have no substantive comments on Tal’s direction, aside from reservations I’ve already expressed about some of her choices.  She conceived and staged a successful and communicative presentation in Bread Alone and clearly drew effective performances from the troupe.  She overcame many impediments, most visibly with the employment of the interpreters who translated not only the performers’ sign language but also sometimes their Hebrew.  (The production used English supertitles for the Hebrew dialogue.)  When the interpreters weren’t aiding an actor, she or he might get assistance from a castmate.  (Both instances were practical examples of how much the deaf-blind rely on the touch of another person.)  The staging used drumbeats to signal the ends of scenes because, though the actors can’t hear the sound, they can feel the drum’s vibrations.  Tal’s job was to get the point of Bread Alone across to a sighted and hearing audience, to show us what she and her troupe wanted us to see, and that she accomplished without question.  If there were cleverer or less stereotypical ways to do it, it might have been a more theatrically exciting show, but it also might not have made the point as emphatically.  I suspect Tal would have rejected the trade-off.

As for the acting, I have to equivocate some.  Though the company has been learning the craft for a number of years now, the Nalagaat players aren’t trained professionals.  (I’m not dismissing their commitment, which is clear.)  It should go without saying that this company had many obstacles with which to contend—learning how to communicate to a mass audience with no tradition on which to rely is just one—so as actors, the players had a burden unlike that faced by any other troupe, professional or amateur.  That they came up with successful solutions at all—remember that Tal, too, had nothing on which to fall back—is truly remarkable.  As for their acting skill, however, I’m still astonished by the resemblance some of their turns came to Chaplin-esque silent-movie pantomime, the timing the whole company displayed, and the joy the actors all exuded as they told us what they dream and how they live.  (Several of the Nalagaat players are excellent physical comics, though how they learned to do it is a mystery to me.)  In one scene, the cast did a Busby Berkeley-esque routine with coordinated twirling parasols!  If theater is communication, then this was top-notch theater, even if there were cavils here and there about some choices and occasional execution.  My college theater teacher used to say that in theater, whatever works is right.  Not by Bread Alone worked.  That’s never wrong.

In the New York press, as I said earlier, all the publications I saw save one praised the company and the production.  (I won’t recap what Feldman said in TONY.  The other weeklies, including the Village Voice didn’t cover the performance, and neither did Variety or the usual on-line theater outlets.)  The reviewers pretty much all spoke in the same terms.  You’ll notice, though, that there’s a dearth of commentary on the quality of the theatrical art on view.  Ben Brantley declared in the New York Times that the actors “possess memorable and distinctively expressive faces,” though he observed that “it’s their hands you’re likely to focus on.”  The Timesman affirmed that “the show is never stronger than when they depict . . . the sensory content of their lives” even as he acknowledged that some vignettes “descend into sticky mawkishness.”  In the New York Post, Elisabeth Vincentelli asserted that Bread “isn’t a traditional way to approach theater” because it “isn’t so much a play as a collection of autobiographical vignettes, skits and anecdotes.”  The vignettes are “sometimes emotional, sometimes funny,” wrote Vincentelli, even “heartbreakingly intimate.”  The Post reviewer noted, “It would be lying to say that the show flows so smoothly that we forget these actors can’t see or hear,” but reminded us that it wasn’t supposed to.  In the New York Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz observed that “there’s nothing cookie-cutter about ‘Not by Bread Alone,’” and he declared the Nalagaat company “remarkable” and “a one-of-a-kind professional company.”  Describing the scenes as “colorful,” Dziemianowicz affirmed, “These moments flow with a surprising ease,” and concluded with: “‘Not by Bread Alone’ is filling on various levels.”  “[D]isturbing sense memories flood back in the first moments of a new play called ‘Not by Bread Alone,’ wrote Linda Winer in Long Island’s Newsday, adding that “I do mean just the first moments.  Almost immediately, the feelings change to wonder, then to amazement, then to something tough but tender—like awe.”  In the theater press, Lisa Jo Sagolla of Back Stage opened her notice with what sounds like a caveat:

Creative practice in the visual and performing arts has lately shifted from the production of an art object—a painting, a dance, a play—to the orchestration of an “experience,” centered perhaps on something of the artist’s own making but substantially dependent on what you, the audience, bring to the game and how you choose to play along.

Sagolla, however, finished her introduction with a reversal: “While many such experiences seem devised simply in compliance with trendiness and sometimes out of laziness or inability on the part of the artists, “Not by Bread Alone” is prodigiously different.”   She went on to describe Bread Alone as “a sublime testament to the power of experiential theater to enrich our understanding of humans as innately social beings.” 

In the end, though, the reviewers may have been right, at least on one score, to focus on the experience rather than the art.  A great part of the effectiveness and edification of Not by Bread Alone was in experiencing the joy which the Nalagaat ensemble displayed during and, especially, after the performance.  I imagine, after seeing Bread, that a similar response must hit each of the deaf-blind players when they reach out of their silent darkness and connect with someone.  Normally, that’s a one-on-one occasion, but in their theater, it happens night after night with hundreds of people at a time.  The impression was that all the actors support and help one another—we saw them do that on stage—but touching a stranger from the seeing-and-hearing society that probably usually ignores them or encounters them in discomfort and making contact this way seems to be an extraordinary feeling.  For us, I suspect, it’s mostly a revelation, a lesson learned, an idea broached.  For them, who do the touching and the contacting they rarely get the chance to do, it seems much more than that; it seems like a piece of one of their dreams, which are filled with light, colors, and sounds.  No wonder they tell us how much they love this work and how it has become so important to their lives and their senses of themselves.  If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.

And you know what?  It hardly matters that Bread may or may not be a play.  It is whatever it is—and that’s magical enough for this world.