1620640_10202153579775256_1180488683_nThere was a sign in front of the hospital that said: “The quality of mercy is not strained.  It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.  It is twice blessed: it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”  I used to drive by it every day.  It was in front of the public hospital, the place built on the land where two hospitals used to be, one black, one white, and where, my friends and I used to say, you wanted to be taken if you got shot, but not for any other reason.  Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, “the quality of mercy.”   That surprised me.

The title of Peter Brooks’ latest book is The Quality of Mercy.  I haven’t read it.  I went to see him speak because I happened to see his production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream recreated at my high school, as well as a production of Marat/Sade.  I had this incredibly rich public education, sending me out of high school with Mozart and Brecht and Shakespeare and Van Gogh and pretty much guaranteeing I would be all right, and that I could go to any city in the western world and feel at home seeing and hearing these heavy hitters.

Peter Brook is a terrible, I mean terrible, interview.  Not Gene Simmons terrible, but worse than Stephen Sondheim.  I don’t think artists we love owe us anything more.  They’ve had a hard enough time producing the stuff we love.  They don’t have to be good people or good interviews or let you get your picture taken with them or anything.

It was amusing how bad the interview was.  Already, in line for the event, I was feeling a little funny, like, this is a line of people who know something.  New Yorkers (this isn’t an event big enough to come from anywhere else) who like theater, and serious theater.  I sort of felt like I belonged, having read The Empty Space and The Open Door, though some time ago.

As a beginning writer, theater books were important to me.  The same way I learned more about Christianity by reading Buddhist books, I learned more about writing from theater books.  Directing is like writing: you direct your characters and your story.  And acting is like writing, too: you channel these other people through you, and you have to get your head straight about what is happening when that happens, and what it means and doesn’t mean about you.

Theater books were more accessible.  And I spent a lot more time with theater people then.  They seemed very cool.  They knew how to talk to each other and hang out, which I had no idea how to do.

Later I was to spend more time with visual artists.  Maybe just because it was cheaper.  Theater costs money.  Gallery openings are not only free, but have free drinks, too.

Brook covered: exercises are not commandments.  They serve particular purposes.  He refused to be pinned down to anything, which made it seem like he was one of my friends.  He emphasized the importance of alertness, awakeness, like a Buddhist.  He said we do everything for the joy behind it.

Without particular concern for politeness, he dodged questions from earnest seekers wearing fabulous glasses.  He would not tell how to direct or act, leaving them with, “God knows!” or “I have no idea,” or “I hate questions like that.”  He refused to confirm anyone’s suspicions, solidify any practice, or state an opinion about any piece of theater anywhere, any time, let alone right now.

His teaching is his person, and he knows you can do it, too.

A great part, he said, “acts like a can opener.”  Parts of you you didn’t know “tingle, come to life.”  He was willing to say that acting is a balance between accessing your own emotions and accessing something “greater than oneself.”

The last question came from a guy who was either insane or a deeply committed absurdist.  This guy said some stuff no one understood, rambled about cycles and years and beginning and endings.

Instead of saying what the rest of us were thinking, which was, “What the hell?” Brook started suddenly speaking thoughtfully about the Indian calendar and how things were becoming “cruder and more vulgar.”  He wrapped up by telling us that theater should leave people with “a tiny bit more hope and courage.”  Although there were eight minutes left, no one, certainly not the whipped interviewer, was going to ask another question.

Two seats over, a man with white hair woke for the last time.  He had spent most of the lecture asleep.  Why he spent $30 and two hours to take a nap sitting up, I will wonder for a long time.

If I had been a disciple of Brooks’, I probably would have cried.  I agree with the guy, though: you can hardly ever teach anyone anything about anything, and I don’t think he was being a dick by refusing to be anyone’s idol.  Who cares what he thinks about this show or that?

Tonight we read this from Paul: “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?…. God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

Not taking the opportunity to boss people around or tell them what’s up is mercy.  Dodging questions is being weak, is being foolish.  Refusing to let the exploration of art become a fossil, a code, does not feel good, but is honest.

Deleted Scenes

I’m storytelling on Sunday as part of America, Now and Here.  My yarn is about being abroad and mouthing off.  Because my time is so limited, I offer a few subplots that will, regretfully, be omitted:

When I was visiting London, I picked up this child.  I mean, I chatted up this guy, and it turned out he was about 19 1/2  (to my ancient 30), and he went to KU.  Me?  I learned to drink martinis at the Granada.  And the cousin I was visiting in London not only went to KU, he was in the middle of March madness, trying desperately to somehow watch all the games while overseas.  Of all the gin joints, right?

The boy was adorable.  And an English major.  I invited him to the party that I’ll discuss Sunday.  We snuggled up on the couch and he quoted long passages of Shelley.  I didn’t mind that.  I hope that as a young, poor college student, he appreciated access to unlimited Bombay Sapphire gin.  (We were in Britain, after all.)  He proceeded to get gleefully drunk, and then insist he would find his way back to his far-flung hotel alone, on foot, at 3 am.  Luckily, another departing guest volunteered to accompany him on the bus.

The other man I met in London was much too old.  I lined up for rush tickets to “The Tempest” one afternoon.  “The Tempest” is my favorite Shakespeare.  I had already seen Patrick Stuart (ya know, Captain Picard) in a different production of the same play on Broadway.  This is how spoiled I am!  That Broadway production was one of the most powerful pieces of theater I’ve ever seen.  Stuart doing the last speech of Prospero’s ripped me open.

Anyway, I’m lined up in this little theater.  The first time I’ve been in a London theater.  I’m imagining Dickens there.  There are two men in line ahead of me.  Since we’re there for hours, we start chatting.  The man old enough to be my father is a Shakespeare professor at some small British college.  He is charming, and we chatter on and on about Shakespeare and literature.  His son, who is my age, stands there silently and says nothing.  He clearly finds the idea of a Royal Shakespeare Company production to be only slightly less exciting than clipping his toenails.

We all scored tickets to the show eventually, and then I had barely had time to run to my cousin’s flat.  I absolutely would not go to the theater in regular old daytime attire.  I stopped, panting, in front of my cousin’s building, and the buzzer would not work.  My cousin was up there.  I could see him from the sidewalk.  I ducked into a cinematic red British phone booth, right across the street, and stared at the instructions.  I had one pound and a phone number with too many digits.  I managed it somehow, though, flew upstairs, threw on a lovely evening outfit, and ran back to the theater in heels.  Too young, too old– yes, every unhappy romantic encounter is unhappy in its own way.  But at least unhappiness makes better stories.

Storytelling is: Sunday, May 15, 6-9 pm, at Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, 2012 Baltimore, KCMO, 64108


It doesn’t matter who you are until it matters a lot.  It doesn’t matter who that guy is until he’s Barack Obama.

I saw an exhibit of paintings of Shakespeare.  Without Shakespeare, I don’t know that I would be three dimensional, or require food and water.  I know a lot of people feel that way.  This small square room had three portraits of Shakespeare, one original and two copies.

The original portrait is a big deal.  It had been flown over from England for the New Yorkers.  It was the oldest portrait of Shakespeare, maybe even from life.  Or some such story.  I wasn’t really paying attention.  I was sad that everyone seemed sold on Shakespeare having a receding hairline.  That messes with my fantasies a little.  I really feel like he had a lot of hair, and it was wavy and a little crazy, like Einstein.  Of course, some of us think Shakespeare was not even himself, if you know what I mean.  So who should care about the hairline?

Upstairs, at the same place, they had some of Thoreau’s journals.  One of Bob Dylan’s sketchbooks.  I have drawn lots of sketches like that, of hotel rooms, of streets in towns I’ll only see once.  I was deeply in love with Thoreau at seventeen.  Now I think he is too sober and too severe.  We are still in touch, though.

A friend was working on a movie set.  Before I went to the museum, to see the Shakespeares, I stopped by to pick up his house key.  “Michelle Pfeiffer’s here,” he said.  I would have been more excited about her husband.

A writer whose book I liked, she liked me.  She liked my gaps and my roughness and my snideness and nakedness.  Did it matter that she was a person with a name that’s used more ink than mine?  Did it matter that she was my mother’s age?  Did it matter that I imagined some loneliness I had felt, she knew?  And didn’t she make me someone else?

Eating Your Words

There is a difference between kissing and talking about kissing.  There is a difference between dating and marriage (apparently).  And there is a difference between reading and memorizing, which is actually what I’m considering here.

I took my students to a writing workshop last week, and one presenter explained the importance of memorizing poems.  That while reading is critical, memorizing is ownership.  I have a great deal of trouble memorizing.  I read like bulimics eat.  I have trouble slowing down.  I am too impatient to digest.  And even more trouble taking small bites and tasting.  Emily Dickinson helps me with this.  She’s so dense and stingy that she forces my attention.

In high school, I was assigned to memorize Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” and Macbeth’s “sound and fury” soliloquy.  I also memorized Juliet’s “Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face.”  I can’t say it was like pulling teeth.  It was more like trying to shove teeth into your mouth, implant them somewhere up there without a mirror or glue.

I already felt ownership of my language.  My brain waves with iambic pentameter– I grew up on Mother Goose and Protestant hymns.  The smell of English poetry was mine the way Old Spice was my dad.

That kind of ownership is deep stuff, without subtlety or particularity.  With that kind of ownership, I could wax easily about what Shakespeare meant.  I could even write a passage of faux Shakespeare.  I loved writing my own dictionary definitions in 6th grade.  It was much faster than looking them up.  I was never caught.  However, I was caught adding an extra chord to a Mozart piece, and my piano teacher laughed at my insistence on “improving” Mozart.  See, I’m a showoff dilletante.  While I could demonstrate rhythmic and thematic and style understanding, I didn’t own a particular piece.  The generalities were mine and the details swept through my fingers.

My junior English teacher didn’t know or care about my struggle to memorize.  He was just going to sit there with the text while I recited.  (He told us we had to memorize poems so that we wouldn’t go insane if we were trapped in a POW camp.  Funny…and wise.)  There was no way I would screw up an English assignment.  So I shoved Frost and Shakespeare into my mouth, piercing word by word.  I recited to the shower tile.  I recited to the popcorn popping on the stove.  After fifty repetitions, I still got lost and substituted words and mixed up phrases.  I kept going.

Memorizing gives words a sensuality that reading cannot.  Reading once, even reading aloud, you can’t feel the words in your mouth the same way you do when they are memorized.  And the difference is commitment:  time and tenderness toward each sound.

The poems are still there as much as my teeth are– drilled out and refilled, and five of them just gone.  It is good to be able to run your tongue over them, occasionally.  Several times, I’ve silenced students by setting aside the textbook and doing the Juliet speech myself.  I’m not a great performer.  It doesn’t show that I understand Shakespeare.  It just shows is that I own a little of Shakespeare, and I hope it shows that he is affordable.