the single most remarkable work of 2022

My mother died in May and it really fucked me up. Or woke me up. It depends on your perspective, I guess.

Mom had advanced dementia and cancer, specifically follicular lymphoma. I don’t remember exactly when she got diagnosed with each of these things, but as I remember, it was 2014 when everything really started going downhill. She’d get treatment for the cancer and go into remission only to have it come back a few months later. And her memory just kept getting worse. Then she got COVID and things accelerated from there.

Anyway, it is a really long story, but the short version is that my mother’s last week on this earth was brutal to watch and, I’m quite certain, horrible for her to experience. As the cancer metastasized, it grew into these massive bumps on her neck, back and shoulders, eating her alive from the inside. The dementia wracked her brain, she was constantly emerging in and out of awareness, mostly just lost in some indeterminate, terrifying netherworld. She stopped eating and drinking for weeks to the point where the doctors were amazed that she was alive at all. Those last few days she contorted and moaned and cried until she couldn’t even make words anymore, she just rocked in her bed, got up and wandered around and collapsed back down, alternately mumbling and crying out for help. It was like a horror movie.

So, then she died and we sat shiva and wrestled with all the things – the loss, anger, frustration, resentment, disorientation, revelation, sorrow, pain, etc. etc. You know, the usual. And ever since then I’ve really been trying to figure out what’s the point of this whole thing, right? And I’ve come to some conclusions. I’ve gotten some clarity. And it seems like really simple sh*t but sometimes it is the simple sh*t that blows your mind, that makes you realize how totally deluded we all are most of the time.

But what, pray tell, does this have to do with the most remarkable show of 2022? Only everything.

When I first moved to California from New York, after, like, a dozen years of seeing five shows a week, I really missed theater a lot. But I got used to it. Then the pandemic happened and I really missed theater a lot in a deeper, more profound way. Then I got used to it. Then we were able to go see theater again and I found that on the few times that we managed to muster the energy and childcare to make it possible to go see a show, I regretted it. I just haven’t been getting what I want or need from theater.

Years ago, I went to a show at The Kitchen with Ken Rus Schmoll and neither one of us really liked it that much, for different reasons, and he said, “I just don’t think I’m the audience for that show.” And it has stuck with me, making that distinction that sometimes a show just isn’t meant for you, and that’s okay. I don’t expect all the shows to be for me, that’s fine. I’m getting clarity.

Point of Clarity #1: Life is Short and the Only Reason We Are on This Planet is to Care for Each Other. That’s it. That’s the entire thing: the work of being in the world is about caring for each other. Either you’re doing that or you’re not. People are human, we make mistakes, we fuck up and have to try harder but you’re either actively trying to figure out how to do a better job of caring for each other, or you’re not.

That’s what I need from theater right now and it is very, very hard to find, which is why I was so inspired and moved by 600 Highwaymen’s A Thousand Ways, Part 3: An Assembly.

A Thousand Ways is “a triptych of encounters between strangers” that has been unfolding since 2020.

I did Part 1: A Phone Call two years ago, in December 2020 at CAP UCLA and was delighted and astonished.

This random phone call with a stranger, following a set of instructions and script, took our encounter to some very unexpected places. I never learned that person’s real name or any majorly intimate details about their current life. But over the course of our conversation we discussed life, love, death, friendship and just generally made this really intense connection. I think we both got a little teary and emotional, creating space for each other, holding emotional space for each other, even though we were strangers. Part 1: A Phone Call was a much-needed tonic after the isolation we all had been living with for nearly a year at that point in the pandemic.

After sitting through so many mostly failed experiments in “Zoom Theater” (still not a thing) and listening to so many well-intentioned but entirely misguided conversations about theater, technology, the Internet, etc. it was a wonderful revelation for a theater company to cut through the bullshit and get straight to the essence of what theater does and is supposed to do, by acknowledging the conditions of the site, the limitations of the medium and using those conditions and limitations to inform the dramaturgy of the encounter, to re-locate where the “drama” happens and use an instructions-based script to completely abandon the traditional spectator/audience framework. (mic drop).

Theater-nerd stuff notwithstanding, A Thousand Ways, Part 1: A Phone Call was a remarkable work insofar is it created the possibility for a rare moment of meaningful exchange and connection at a time when I was (and I think we all were) desperately starving for it.

I use the word remarkable because I’m reluctant to use the word “best” or “most important” or other descriptors. I want to resist the easy impulse to make a “Best of” designation as is the annual tradition, but rather cleave closely to the idea of the remarkable.

In 2013 the Goethe Institute generously supported me to take a trip to Berlin for Theatertreffen where, “Ten remarkable productions are selected each year by a jury of critics from among around 400 shows within the German-language region.” It was one of the most intense and inspiring theatrical experiences of my life and I hope that one day I may go again.

Anyway, I love that word “remarkable” because it intentionally resists the commercial imperative, it is about identifying work that we, as a society, should take note of, it is not about trying to create an objective, clearly defined sense of “best” or foisting the mantle of “importance” onto a work. “Remarkable” is about asking: “is this work doing something that we should pay attention to?” And in 2022 especially, when attention is our most valuable and most scarce resource, it is necessary to discern what truly merits attention and what is just so much Sturm und Drang.

I did A Thousand Ways, Part 2: An Encounter in May 2021, just as some of us were cautiously re-emerging from our year of quarantine. The company describes the show like this: “Nested at the center of an empty space is a small table bisected by glass. You sit at the table, opposite a stranger, with a stack of index cards, a handful of objects, and a set of instructions to guide you. What will come from this? It is a chance at being heard, a brave moment to show up.”

It was good to be back in-person. It was good to be having an encounter with one other person. It is always difficult to determine how much of an experience is in the show and how much is what you bring to it. Part 1: A Phone Call had been such an incredible, intimate, cathartic interaction that I think I brought a lot of heavy expectation into Part 2.

I liked Part 2, it was a good, gentle re-entry into one-on-one interaction, but my experience of it wasn’t earth-shattering. And maybe that is part of the lesson of the work: the simplicity, the sparseness, the focus and simultaneous ambiguity over what to do, what is happening, how are we supposed to behave? There was, or maybe I brought with me, a kind of tentativeness. And maybe that’s part of the point, to slow down, to pay attention to the mundane, to resist the urge towards the spectacular or cathartic, to sit with someone and experience something simpler, without judgment or desiring.

Then this past October, as a birthday present, I went to do A Thousand Ways, Part 3: An Assembly. This is how the company describes the show, “A revival of collective assembly. Using a shared script, an evocative story of perseverance comes into focus, tracing how we consider one another individually and collectively after so much time apart.”

So much time had passed I had almost forgotten that there was another part of A Thousand Ways coming and I had been so checked out that I had heard little to nothing about the show. All of which, I think, was working in my favor to have an extraordinary and moving experience.

A brief digression. Full transparency, I am completely biased. I have known Abby and Michael for a long, long time. I remember going to see their earliest work that was so clearly influenced by Big Dance Theater and Witness Relocation, seeing glimmers of something emerging but still obscured by the work of their mentors. I vividly remember the revelation of seeing This Great Country for the first time in Austin, TX, the giddy excitement of discovery – they had not only made this exceptional work of theater but had clearly found their artistic voice, had begun to map out their path of investigation – one that is deeply, deeply human and compassionate, thoughtful, curious, wonder-full and frequently surprising. Given the opportunity I will always find the time and energy to see their work, I always find it deeply gratifying.

In 2017 I was looking forward to seeing their new show The Fever at Under the Radar when, the night before, I got a call from the wife of my best friend since high school who had been battling cancer for years. It was time, could I come? So, I left NYC to head back to California. I didn’t get to experience another 600 Highwaymen show until I did Part 1: A Phone Call in December 2020.

This story doesn’t seem immediately relevant, I guess, except insofar as that my friend’s death in January 2017 marked what I can see, in retrospect, as the beginning of a new era in my life, one where death was to become ever-present in a new way.

In December 2018, almost two years after my friend passed away, my son was born. Ever since then I found myself profoundly reoriented as I stewarded my parents’ end of life journey while simultaneously stewarding my son’s early life journey even as I am perched, precariously, between the two. It has changed my perspective.

Point of Clarity #2: We are our relationships. I used to think that “individuation”, “actualization” and “self-realization” were solo projects, that each of us was individually responsible for our own physical, mental and emotional well-being, our “success” in our professional life and so on. We live in a society that values – or at least promotes – individualism above all else, perpetuating a worldview that is not only misguided but actively destructive.

I have come to believe – not just intellectually but in the very fiber of my being – that we are deeply interdependent and interconnected, that we are defined by our relationships and that far from being the authors of our own lives we are constantly in the process of co-creating our lives and the meaning of our lives with the people around us.

At a time when so much of our public discourse – and interpersonal interaction – has migrated onto “social media” that is – deeply and by design, down to the level of its code – intended to undermine and commodify human connection, it is more important than ever that art become a place of resistance and connection.

And this is what, in my mind, makes Part 3: An Assembly such a remarkable work of theater.

When I “saw” the show at UCLA it was sixteen people in an empty rehearsal room, sixteen folding chairs arranged to face a small riser where sat a big stack of index cards. I don’t want to give too much away, as I hope everyone will have a chance to experience the work for themselves. But over the course of our time together the sixteen of us, mostly strangers, co-created a performance that had moments of intimacy and humor, surprise, compassion, delight and sadness. The instructions on the cards were clear enough that we could follow, most of the time, but ambiguous enough to occasionally require decoding or negotiation. “Is it your turn to go?” “Who can answer this question?” “Who wants to do this next part?” “Did we miss something?”

We were the show: the performers, the audience and the crew. As we enacted the narrative arc of the story, such as it is, we confronted challenges, observed the world around us and interacted with each other. A group of strangers, we were invited to be creative together, to trust each other, to be vulnerable and through vulnerability and cooperation find connection and strength. We became, even if only for a short time, a community unto ourselves. That is truly remarkable.

As with the previous two parts of this work, 600 Highwaymen took a step back and asked some really meaningful questions about what this art form of theater is supposed to do, how it operates and how can we “hack” the formal expectations of theater to actually achieve what it is intended to do?

I think that if theater can be said to have a function it is to “make the stone stony” – to use the tactics of art to create the conditions for us to see the world in a new way, to reveal that which had heretofore been hidden, overlooked or forgotten. In some scenarios it may be about revealing underlying cultural assumptions and biases, in others it might be reminding us of the miraculous that resides within the mundane. There are countless ways that we may be encouraged to see the world in a new way and then return to the everyday world inspired to be in the world in a new way. One of the things that makes A Thousand Ways, Part 3: An Assembly so remarkable is that it not only encourages to see the world, and each other, in a new way, it creates the space for us to actually be in the world in a new way – to try it out, together.

These have been some tough years, these are tough times. People are scared and scary, shouting at each other, it’s intense. Some folks are trying to outrage everyone while other folks are trying to out-righteous each other and the theater is no different. I get it. Alarms must be raised, truth must be spoken.  But there are, I think, profound limitations to didacticism as an artistic strategy, even more so didacticism cloaked as provocation or transgression.

What makes A Thousand Ways, Part 3: An Assembly such a remarkable work is that it not only eschews didacticism, it almost entirely elides all the conventions of theater to achieve the theater’s ends. One can imagine multitudinous incarnations of this performance across multiple geographies, with numerous, diverse publics, each temporary micro-community invited to co-create, even if only for a brief moment in time, a collective story that becomes a shared history. After all is said and done, even if they never see each other again, everyone who was there will be able to look back and say “This was our story, this is what we did and this is who we became.”

Point of Clarity #3: We are not in control, so do the right thing anyway.  We have this idea that we can control the situation, our lives, the world around us. But we’re not in control, and the harder we try to maintain control, the more likely we are to cause harm. The Buddhists call it “Right Action” but it shows up in most spiritual traditions. That person that annoys you? I guarantee you it is harder to be them than it is to deal with them.  It sounds reductive and cliché but you will never make the wrong decision if you act from compassion, gratitude, love and forgiveness. Trust me, Death is a great teacher.

Life is short, attention is scarce: discerning how to spend your time and where to put your attention is one of the only things we can control. I’m grateful that I had the opportunity and chose to spend my time and attention with a group of strangers doing 600 Highwaymen’s remarkable A Thousand Ways, Part 3: An Assembly. I hope you get the opportunity to do so as well.

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