Can You Believe in the Dark?

Jiehae Park in GHOST STORIES Photo by Dorian Tocker

Jiehae Park in GHOST STORIES
Photo by Dorian Tocker

Surely everyone must be afraid of something, right?  What are you afraid of?  And why is it so hard to answer this really-quite-basic question with something that doesn’t feel like an immediate rote generalization? (Heights, death, dogs, for example.)  When I asked Tiny Little Band’s Jerry Lieblich what he was afraid of, near the end of our lengthy discussion on the process and ideas related to his and Stefanie Abel Horowitz’s upcoming production Ghost Stories which opens on April 30th at Cloud City in Brooklyn, he paused before stating, ‘I’m afraid of climate change and indifference to suffering.’  And then Stefanie yelled, ‘That’s it right there!  Jerry’s are all about the bigness of the world and mine are all about small personal things.  That is what makes a Tiny Little Band show.’

But as we unpacked the idea of what fear is (an immediate reflexive response, adrenaline in the stomach perhaps) versus the feelings Jerry is describing above (more a cosmic sadness, we decided), Jerry found another answer.  “The more honest way to say it is, in high school, I had friends that whenever they came to my house there’d be a moment when I’d leave the room to go to the bathroom or something and then they’d hide. And I knew that they were hiding, and I knew which room they were hiding in, but I would have to go in and they would always scare me and I’d have a very embarrassing physical fight or flight response where I’d go WHAIII and really tense up in a weird way which I’m sure was very amusing for them.”

He knew his friends were there.  He knew they wanted to scare him.  And in spite of all that, it still worked. They scared him.  Aside from questioning Jerry’s choice of friends from high school, what more can we make of this?  How is it possible to be scared when you’re already expecting something scary to happen?  It is from this very basic premise that Tiny Little Band launched into their exploration of darkness and ghost stories, but as the project evolved they discovered that just scaring someone, aside from being sort of mean, is also generally uninteresting (take that, Jerry’s friends from high school!)  Instead, they found themselves creating a show centered around the idea of belief.  What happens when you’re asked to believe something that you don’t believe in?

I had some previous knowledge of this project, having seen an excerpt of it in a very dark and small windowless room as part of Prelude 2014.  I knew there was an element of darkness and therefore sent Jerry & Stefanie an email proposing that we conduct this interview in a very dark place, some scary corner of New York City. I imagined myself writing one of those punchy celebrity profile type pieces wherein the journalist and subject do something crazy together that basically functions to make the reader jealous that they weren’t there. But the night that we settled on turned out to be rainy and cold, plus we were all very busy (being, you know, not celebrities), and so we initially met at a bar in the West Village that was advertised in a Google review as ‘being very dark.’  And it was dark, to an extent – or, as Jerry put it, ‘rather dimmish.’  But it was also very loud and crowded and made me feel the (above mentioned) cosmic sadness feeling of not being able to just sit in darkness and talk about theater with charming new friends, and so we moved to a much brighter but also more manageable vegetarian restaurant just down the street where Stefanie ordered various exciting items such as rice ball dumplings and hot & sour soup. (Stefanie: “I just directed that order!  Or maybe I wrote it.”  Jerry & me, chidingly: “No, you devised it from the menu.”)

Stefanie Abel Horowitz is a director who used to be a dancer and Jerry Lieblich is a writer who used to be a scientist. They founded their company, Tiny Little Band, in 2012 and have made several pieces together leading up to Ghost Stories.  They define what they do as devising, and when asked to define that, Stefanie declared that something that was devised meant ‘everything is important to all of us.’  (Us referring to the collaborative artists involved, which include the actors in the project.)  Jerry found that his definition of devised came from the inversion of the normal process of writing a play (as in, the writer comes in with a finished product or blueprint and the rest of the artistic team executes it).  He’s more interested in having no single source and being able to argue freely over content instead of ‘having the answer.’

It’s hard to imagine a more charming pair than these two – go to their website and be struck by just how blue their eyes are.  But there’s also logic to their collaboration.  Stefanie says, “Jerry is the scientist and I’m the… believer?  Is that what you have to be if you’re not the scientist?”  (Jerry: “IGNORAMUS!”)  The ignoramus and the scientist, then, but playful and beguiling in their interactions. They seek to occupy opposite sides of an idea, complicate things for each other, and fight against things that are ‘too easy’ on either side.  Jerry feels free to bring in text that he describes as ‘cold’ with the knowledge that Stefanie will be able to warm it up, and Stefanie relies on Jerry’s determination to constantly embrace that which is hard (structurally, ideologically) and to find meaning in failure.

As is often the case, the ingredients that make them natural collaborators also infuse their work in various ways.  “When we said we were going to make a show called Ghost Stories,” Stefanie is leaning towards me, excited, we’ve just been discussing whether or not we actually believe in ghosts, “I didn’t really consider the truth of ghost stories, I thought of them more like folklore. Then when we started talking about them in rehearsal, we started having friends tell us ghost stories. Some of our friends told me like six ghost stories, real events that ACTUALLY happened to them. And I got so freaked out. Because I hadn’t really thought about it. I was like, OH SHIT, ghosts are real! This is like, so intense! I came to rehearsal the next day and I say, you guys, GHOSTS! And I told them about the stories and Jerry was like, no.  They’re not real.  SCIENCE. Period. And so that was a big part of forming the show, this idea of what happens when I believe and you don’t believe.”

I’m still trying to make sure I’m doing a good job as an interviewer, and so I ask something like, “So the show is about what it would mean to try and believe in ghosts?”  But that’s not it exactly, because it’s more complicated than that.  “See and feel what it is to be open,” Jerry unpacks and articulates my not-great summation. “Ghosts are real versus ghosts are not real, which are such polars.  How do we exist without this true or false dichotomy? The play wants to sit in a place of possibility. What lives in that place, what does it feel like, why is it really hard to be there for more than like five minutes, why is it beautiful to be there… which is like sitting in the dark, where anything can happen.”

Another way of putting it – like our little foray in the West Village and for Tiny Little Band, the exploration only starts with darkness.  Our lives are so filled with loss; loss of a belief, of a friend, of a person, of a certainty. Loss creates a vacuum, and so Ghost Stories looks at all the absences and that feeling of something being sucked away and getting replaced by something else.  If fear is what happens when you disturb what it is that you think you know, how does that disruption take place?

It’s hard in New York to find a good spot, but sometimes the (brief) answer might be to find a dark outside place and just look at the sky.  It’s easy to feel big and certain as a person in the city, surrounded by man-made things, but what happens when all that falls away and you look up at the stars, these things that are extremely distant and also gigantic. “How do you look at a star as though it’s very far away?” Jerry wonders. “They just look like holes in the sky.”

Or, another place you could go – Cloud City, from April 30-May 16th, where Tiny Little Band’s Ghost Stories will provide you with darkness and guide you through the shared experience of not knowing, at least for a little while.

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