Monday, November 7, 2016

Theater Musings
Shattered Hope


Gary Beck
353 E 83st, 6L
New York, NY 10028
212 481-8220\

Sidewalks Theater did a performance cycle of Moliere plays and received support and other assistance from the French government, including an invitation to perform at the Embassy. They were cultured and gracious. We did a cycle of Aristophanes plays and the Greek government was polite, but disinterested in supporting us. Either they were too poor, too stingy, or we weren’t Greek enough. Fortunately we never depended on the kindness of outsiders to fund our productions, both a great strength and a glaring weakness.
When I first started Sidewalks Theater with the intention of revitalizing the classics with dynamic ensemble performances, I did so with a ten year plan. I had directed in other companies, but I never had a theater. I used other peoples’ spaces, frequently frustrated by my lack of control of the production process. I had read and heard experienced opinions that a new company needed a ten year plan, which I agreed with completely. This at a time when the average life span of a new theater start-up was two to three months.
The plan called for our first hit show in the seventh year. Despite agonizing downs and ecstatic ups in our seventh year we had our first hit show, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. Our theater was on Beaver Street, around the corner from Wall Street and at that time a non-residential neighborhood. Despite all the disadvantages, we sold out every show in our 125 seat theater, sold standing room only tickets on the weekends, and had to refuse between 150 and 200 requests for seats at almost every performance.
Lysistrata was a great show that fulfilled one of my director ambitions, for the audience to fall off their seats with laughter. One amusing incident. A racy PSA (Public Service Announcement) for the show was aired on Channel Nine during a Rangers hockey game and we were besieged with phone calls from avid fans urgent to know what Lysistrata was. The house manager told some of the more vulgar callers that Lysistrata used to skate for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The show cost a small fortune proportionate to our limited means, but it made the money back at the box office. The audience demand for seats was high enough to move the show to a 299 seat Off- Broadway theater. We were negotiating with a theater for an open run, when disaster struck.
We had a large competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Education for our arts and education program for underserved and neglected communities. It paid the salaries of our staff and some of the actors who taught workshops in public housing developments, prisons and other culturally isolated areas. I received a phone call from a government official informing me the Department of Education was closed and our grant ended immediately. We began a desperate effort to raise temporary funds until we could transfer the show and earn enough to pay expenses. A few days later, the Department of Environmental Protection notified us they were taking over our building and we had thirty days to vacate the premises.
Without money and a theater, once again we were vagabonds, forced to work at other people’s theaters. This was a distasteful necessity to me, because of the lack of respect for the physical premises in most Off- Broadway theaters that always caused conflict with my requirement that a theater must be clean and safe. The only consolation was that a number of our actors went with us. A few had been with us for five or more years, others for the last two years. This enabled us to continue to work at a high level that was maintained by the skills and talents of the core group.
Long Before ISIS

Thirty years ago, long before ISIS started executing Kurds, Muslims and Christians, I hired a Pakistani Muslim as an art director in Chicago. I was an Irish Catholic editor putting out a small national magazine. I hired him because his work samples were good and he had worked for the United States embassy in Pakistan for more than a decade. The embassy facilitated his emigration to America. It didn’t hurt that he had seven children and I had five. I too knew the misery of being out of work with a family.

Different as we were, Mohammed and I were also much alike. Deadlines and details were important to both of us. Other than the two of us, the staff was female. It helped on occasion to have another man around the office.

After a few years Mohammed invited my wife and me to dinner. His wife put out a big feast of Pakistani food, dishes we had never had. We also had never had Indian food and we know now there are certain similarities between the two cuisines although I remember to this day that a staple dish like biryani was moist in the Pakistani style and not dry as I have experienced it to be in so many Indian restaurants in America. I have no problem with either version but personally prefer a moist biryani. 

My wife and I knew very little about Pakistani culture and Islam on our arrival for the dinner. This showed when I shook hands with his wife, something I found out later to be a no-no although our hosts said nothing and his wife shook hands like an expert. I also engaged her in informal conversation during dinner which again is something of a no-no but she seemed delighted to respond in kind. 

And I probably made a big mistake asking her about a famous Pakistani poet alleged to be a drunk. Mohammed had previously denied this allegation as a complete falsehood. But his wife assured me the poet was indeed a drunk and seemed to disapprove of liquor in general since most Muslims, I believe, do not drink liquor, never mind to excess.

When his wife confirmed the poet was a drunk, I just happened to see Mohammed look down at his empty plate. He rubbed his forehead for a minute and then managed a slight smile. He knew that I did not know any better about carrying on a conversation like this and he loved his wife. It may or may not have been the first time she had engaged an American in an informal way. She was a terrific cook and certainly knew her Pakistani poets, much to the momentary distress of her husband.

Maybe a month later or so, the subject of religion came up at work. Mohammed told me he was sponsoring a cousin to emigrate from Pakistan and they were not close friends, simply kin, and he was obliged to do it. Apparently his cousin was a Sunni Muslim and Mohammed was a member of the Shia branch and the two branches do not get along when it comes to their theology. 

It was just Mohammed and I talking at that time while laying out an issue of the magazine. I can’t recall precisely what areas we covered but we did not get very deep into the vast differences in theology between Islam and Christianity. I may have asked him questions about his faith but I don’t recall that he had any curiosity about mine. But since I had asked for clarification about certain points in Islam, he wanted to make certain I understood what the facts were. I appreciated that and then somewhat facetiously said all was well as long as he didn’t try to convert me.

He paused for a moment and said, “You be a good Catholic and I’ll be a good Muslim.” I knew already that he was certainly a good Muslim. I also knew at that time I had a ways to go to qualify as a good Catholic.

All this took place as I said 30 years ago when there was no ISIS and I don’t recall any simmering conflict at the time between Islam and Christianity. I knew that neither side had forgotten about the Crusades but by and large the Crusades were at most an unfortunate fact of history for Catholics. I did not realize that certain Muslims still burned quite hot about the Crusades and had other resentments against the West and wanted to avenge the injustices they thought had been visited upon them. 

I am happy that Mohammad is still alive despite the fact that we are both long of tooth. I found his phone number today through Google. I saw his picture as well. He still lives in a suburb of Chicago but the picture must have been taken at a religious event because he was dressed in a black robe and black hat not unlike the garments worn  by imams addressing the faithful on the evening news. Needless to say his appearance disturbed me. 

I still might call Mohammad but if I do, it wouldn’t bother me if his wife answered the phone. It’s been 30 years but I think I’d ask her if she can tell me the surname of that drunken Pakistani poet since I remember only his given name and can’t find him so far on Google. And then maybe I’d have the guts to ask if Mohammed was home. If he was, maybe I’d ask him what is going on in the world today, from his point of view, because people like me don’t understand it. I imagine it would be a long conversation. Thank goodness there are no long distance charges on my wife’s cellphone. 

Donal Mahoney
A Traffic Stop Where No One Was Shot 

An old friend lost an old friend the other day. Jim said they were both getting up in years and he just happened to outlast Herman. Jim was black and Herman was white but that had never mattered in a town where some thought it should.

Herman had been mayor of their small town for 24 years. He was not only the mayor. He was Jim's dentist and his good friend. 

Jim was a teacher and taught Herman's children. Jim also worked with Herman on different social projects to make life better for the poor in the community. There were quite a few poor people in town. Some had jobs and others were unemployed. Jim and Herman worked together to make life better for all of them, as much as the donations they collected would allow. 

One night Jim had a chance to test his friendship with Herman. He had been to the hospital visiting Mrs. Carmichael, a widow Jim and Herman had come to know through their efforts to help the poor. Mrs. Carmichael was in the process of dying a slow death and the thought of her impending death bothered Jim a great deal.  They had known each other for years.

Jim came out of the hospital that evening thinking about Mrs. Carmichael, got in his car and remembered he had a book he needed to return to the library.  He drove out of the parking lot but failed to notice a traffic island he knew full well was there. He swerved to miss it and did but when he turned left to go to the library, a policeman drove up behind him, lights flashing. 

Jim pulled over to the side, put both of his hands on the steering wheel and waited. The policeman asked for his license. Jim kept one hand on the steering wheel and put the other in his back pocket. He took out his wallet, opened it and pulled out his license. The cop looked at it and said, "Mr. Jackson, have you been drinking?"  

Jim said, "I don't drink.”  The cop shone his flashlight in Jim's face with the high beam directly in his eyes.  

Jim blinked from the light and said, "Sir, I have spastic optic nerves.  My eyes will jump all over the place."  

The cop said, "Get out of the car."  

Jim said, "If you think I’ve been drinking, take me to the station."

The cop said, "Walk that line."  Cars were passing and blowing their horns.  Jim was mortified. He knew the cop had called in his name, and people all over town were hearing it on their scanners. Listening to a police scanner is something some people in towns and big cities do even while watching television.

Jim successfully walked the line, placed his finger on his nose with both index fingers and recited his ABCs.  

About that time another police car drove up. The new cop rolled down the window and hollered to his colleague, "You had better let him go; he’s the mayor's friend."

Jim was livid.  The policeman looked at Jim and said, "You know I could arrest you."

Jim replied, "If you think I’ve been drinking, take me to the station!” 

The cop turned and walked off leaving Jim standing there.   

When Jim got home, he phoned his friend Herman, the mayor. He told him what had happened and what the two officers did. He told Herman that he had neither expected nor wanted any special favors and that his cousin Jimmy Joe had been killed some years back by a drunk driver.  

Herman spoke calmly to Jim.

“If you had been drinking and were arrested, Jim, I wouldn't get the police to pull your ticket. You’re my friend, but I don't know why they think I would cover for you. I’ll get to the bottom of this.” 

Jim found out that Herman had a meeting the next day with the police chief and the two officers involved in the incident. Herman let all three know that no matter who broke the law, they were to be treated with courtesy but without favor. And that was especially true if someone was a friend of the mayor.

Jim respected Herman even more for doing what he did. He was a true public servant, Jim said, and there aren’t enough of those around now. He said the town has had some good mayors since Herman retired, but even in death that man stands tall as one of a kind.

Donal Mahoney