Strangers in a Strange Land
Chashama, like so many worthwhile and wonderful things, has a sword of Damocles hanging over it. The Off-Off-Broadway theater complex, which consists of four storefronts and adjacent office space, enjoys a prime location for such a rough-and-tumble venue—it’s on 42nd Street, half a block from Times Square. Company member Anita Durst is a member of the Durst family, who owns the site. The catch is that the moment the Durst Organization gets a proper, rent-paying tenant, the gang in black turtlenecks has to vamoose.
In the meantime, the theater geeks are making the most of it. Chashama’s latest innovation is a series of workshops for serious Off-Off professionals, organized by company member Tony Torn. A downtown actor and director of some repute (as well as the son of actor Rip Torn), he brings a wild and eclectic curriculum vitae to this endeavor, which he calls Zero One (it was called Ground Zero until September 11). Zero One functions as a kind of oasis in this Midtown neighborhood, surrounded as it is by scores of dubious “acting schools” poised to fleece wide-eyed hopefuls the instant they disembark at Port Authority. “Pay what you can” is the heretical password at Zero One, at least for the first six weeks, after which they switch to a sliding scale. Participants get voice training taught by Linklater devotee Tom Pearl, improv by Mike McCartney, scene work with Torn, and movement by Durst and Julie Atlas Muz. Rather than the typical “guru” model of theater training, the format is open. The teachers are there to learn as much as the students. At a recent class, a student’s description of a performance technique he’d studied in England elicited a request from Torn to come teach it at a future session.
If some of the exercises sound familiar, their content is decidedly not. While Torn stresses that Zero One is not an experimental workshop per se, he does have a fondness for nonsensical text that would certainly blow the mind of an actor looking for his next soap opera audition. For example, Torn loves to force actors to cope with a strange parody he pulled off the Internet—it consists of a “Cosmo Quiz” in conversation with the “Spirit of Scientology.” For the most part, Zero One’s clientele matches the forum. In the improv section, a student assigned to tell a simple, real-life anecdote related a tale about an acid-fueled junket to a UFO convention in Roswell, New Mexico. Zero One received a few unidentified visitors of their own during a recent Monday class, when three street people burst in. “I’m here about the job,” said one. “There’s no job here, man,” the teacher replied, inadvertently revealing another important truth about the theater. —Trav S.D.
Playwrights and Iraq
In 1996, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked on 60 Minutes whether the relentless bombings and sanctions against Iraq, meant to destabilize Saddam Hussein‘s hold on power, were worth more than half a million Iraqi children’s lives. She replied: “We think the price is worth it.” Five years and many hundreds of thousands of deaths later, the U.S.-led assault has not let up. Two years ago, an American official told The Wall Street Journal that there was nothing left to bomb: “We’re down to the last outhouse,” he said. But that hardly stopped them.
Unlike European media, though, U.S. news outlets seldom truly show us how devastating these policies have been: a skyrocketing child-mortality rate; rampant cancer resulting from uranium that’s seeped from bombs into the soil and water; people dying of diarrhea and common infections because antibiotics and other drugs aren’t available; widespread starvation and malnutrition. Is this what the public truly supports?
“I’m convinced that if a majority of Americans had the information and perhaps even some footage of what the sanctions were doing to Iraq, they would be against them,” says Naomi Wallace, who invited a handful of other playwrights, about a year ago, to press the issue into public debate. The result, presented November 19 at Cooper Union by Wallace and the Artists Network of the activist group Refuse & Resist, was a series of 11 short works by nine writers called Imagine: Iraq. “We didn’t ask participants to write specifically about Iraq,” Wallace says, “but in what way the embargo touched them or inspired them.”
Several of the pieces take on the experience in Iraq directly—Wallace’s own lyrical monologue by a man who has sold his prized birds to survive; a melodramatic harangue by Kia Corthron, a cliché-ridden romance by Tariq Ali, a windy little tragedy by Trevor Griffiths. Others—Reg e. Gaines, Richard Montoya/Culture Clash, Robert O’Hara, Harold Pinter—consider the issues from a distance, offering the most successful contributions to the project. One—Betty Shamieh‘s monologue by the sister of a Palestinian suicide bomber—doesn’t address Iraq at all. (In the context, her piece came off as unintentionally erasing differences among Arabs of different lands—or worse, perhaps, suggesting that any lefty evening of theater wouldn’t be complete without some rhetoric about Palestine.)
Indeed, the overall feeling of the evening was one of solemn duty—a reasonable enough demand for Americans, whose government exacts collective punishment against Iraqi civilians, but not usually an effective approach in the theater. Many of the pieces suffer from all the flatness, didacticism, and lack of humor that political art is often derided for. I had looked forward to this evening, expecting it to prove that stereotypical insult wrong and to genuinely help increase not only consciousness, but engagement on a crucial issue. A couple of compelling Iraqi speakers, though, would have more thoroughly and movingly communicated what the project’s participants could not even imagine. —Alisa Solomon