A Traveling Jewish Theatre began in 1978 out of a desire to give theatrical form to various streams of visionary experience which run, sometimes underground, through Jewish history and imagination. Corey Fischer (actor, writer, maskmaker) Albert Greenberg (actor, writer, musician) and Naomi Newman (writer, director) work collaboratively on performance pieces and workshops.
After a ten-day vipassana retreat in August, 1983, Barbara Gates asked me to write something out of my experience as a Jewish actor/writer/maskmaker who sits. For me, performance work and meditation practice have been intimately connected for a number of years.
The theatrical event has a transparency about it, as well as an intensity, that allows it to serve as a kind of practice in itself. In performance, many lessons are available. In the kind of work that we do, things are constantly arising, transforming and disappearing. Masks are put on and taken off, everything becomes its opposite. For the performance to be realized, the performer must move into beginner’s mind. No form exists other than what occurs in each moment of the event. And yet we speak of “repeating” performances, we memorize texts, we choreograph, we rehearse, we prepare. And we learn slowly that all of that “work” must ultimately be surrendered in the moment of performance. It seems that we’re never very far from one paradox or another.
It’s very hard to perform without paying attention to your breath.
It has always been our intention that the work point beyond itself. Another paradox. On one hand: the specific, the corporeal, all our attachments, dramas, moods, personal and collective histories; on the other hand: the universal, transpersonal, transcultural. We dance it out.
In our first piece, Coming From A Great Distance, we explored a very specifically Jewish form of spiritual instruction: the teaching story. The resonances between the Hasidic stories we worked with and Zen koans and stories, Sufi stories, Coyote tales etc., were deep and abundant.
In The Last Yiddish Poet we entered the area of loss and dying. We saw the Yiddish language as an emblem for anything that dies, as a “form” that withers. In some of the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav we found an angle of vision that could include and point beyond despair.
In A Dance of Exile we explored the very nature of duality, of polarization, through material from kabbalah relating to the exiled feminine and to the struggle between “light” and “dark.”
We’ve developed an approach to workshops and training that uses storytelling and solo performance as a vessel in which to explore the self, the other, personal myth, collective myth, ancestral material and the act of performance itself. We usually begin with theatre games, group voice/body work and improvisation, and move into processes for contacting sources of inner imagery that are constantly flowing through us.
Most everyone has an inner tyrant, a “critic,” an inner oppressor. Though the style of the “critic” varies from person to person—brutal, sneaky or charming—it almost invariably emerges in any moment of risk and feeds all our resistance toward self-revelation, toward action, toward performance. Most professional performers are quite familiar with this inhibiting “voice” and, if they continue to perform, find ways of disarming it.
What I see in the workshops, and find in my own experience as an actor, is that only a slight shift of stance can enable one to move out from under the oppression and to transform the “critic” energy in a way that serves.
It has to do with enlarging one’s frame so that the critical voice no longer takes up all of one’s inner space. A new presence that is more witness than judge is discovered. This shift, of course, is a fundamental step in most spiritual paths and humanistic therapies. It also has a political aspect: inner and outer oppression are not separate.
Sometimes this shift becomes a drama in its own right—the struggle between the parts of us which deny and those which affirm. Sometimes it’s like trying to see the back of your own head.
Corey Fischer took the lead in founding A Traveling Jewish Theatre. He has worked with Joseph Chaikin, Linda Putnam, the Provisional Theatre, The Committee, The Winter Project, The New York Shakespeare Festival as well as film and television projects.