A Theater for Us All
On my way to work in the morning, I dream the dream of my ancestors and of my children’s children, I dream of a Theater for us all.
I’ve been thinking lately of theater as an ancient technology designed by the human spirit over millennium of trial and error, pain and pressure, volcanic rage and hatred, to heal, to redeem, to restore a human being, a human community, to its humanity.
Millennium of storytelling, lived stories, stories embodied, that seek you out, find you where you are, that search out the depths of you and find you where you live, stories told with more ear than mouth, stories that listen with eyes, with ears, with ultimate concern for you, for me and for the sacred space between us.
But even beyond the stories themselves, the empty space, the sacred circle, the attention which must be paid and is. Theater is all ears, all eyes, theater in its essence is a respect that heals, is love itself, unconditional love, love as boundless as the sea...
And then there’s the craft of acting, like bones in the body of the art; the ancient collected wisdom, the sacred standards, technique that maps the boundless space within and offers bridges to worlds without. Oh, theater is a redemptive art and the world needs redemption, now more than ever...
Every morning on my way to work I take a good hard and loving look at my fellows on the subway platform, as Stella taught us to look, actively, feelingly, and think “look hard, actor, and love well.”
These are the compatriots, the spirits, the sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, these are the cousins I might die with today. These are the ones I might lose my legs with, or my eyes, ears, arms, genitals...Today I might be mutilated or annihilated with these spirits, these beautiful spirits…
Look hard actor, see like a surgeon or an angel. We're all so vulnerable and life's so much more poignant and vivid, so much more precious and beautiful on the way out. Collect it, reflect it, receive it moment to moment ‘like a new born child.’
Yes, the terrorists have gotten to me. I’m spooked. Spooked but not defeated. Oh not defeated, not by a long shot. Spooked but determined, now more than ever, to keep the dreams alive, to protect the soft parts of my being and yours – the playgrounds of childhood, the glorious, grandiose dreams of youth, the wisdom of elders, history’s playhouses (and hers too), the sacred obligation of the theater to see with my ears, eyes, heart, and mind, to see with my privates, my belly and buttocks, through brokenness and joy, grief and grace, to see secretly and publicly, to keep it all open and alive, vulnerable and tender, to continue to wonder...
I wonder… How I can ‘love’ the terrorist who would want to slaughter my new-born?
All this occurs to me in my relationship to what I've seen theater do for students as Artistic Director of the Stella Adler Studio. For all students; our full-time students and those we train for free.
I’ve seen miracles. I’ve seen civil wars resolved, spiritual lepers’ cleansed, inner hostages released. Seen this in them and in myself.
I’ve seen this most dramatically when it occurs within the Stella Adler Outreach Division; middle school students from the South Bronx, low income high school students, recovering addicts and alcoholics from Phoenix House, the recently incarcerated and students from Rikers Island in New York or The Twin Towers in Los Angeles.
I've seen them come alive when they enter the circle, the down and outs, the forgotten, the ever loving “losers” of the town, those deemed unworthy of time, platform, consideration. I’ve followed them into jail and escaped with them pass the check points, the correction officers, out the window through the razor wire fence, their spirits soaring into a freedom that cannot be shaken or taken, that cannot be tamed and with theirs, mine.
We’re all shackled, tangled in chains, he who wears a suit and gets off at Wall Street hiding behind a hedge, and his neighbor with smeared lip-stick, mascara and amnesia who stays on till Christopher Street. We all need each other to set ourselves free. Theater provides the technology.
How do I love a terrorist? How do I love Donald Trump? How do I love drones?
Hand in hand we heal, around the circle we heal, or in it we heal.
I dream of a theater for us all.
There is a relationship between my brothers and sisters on the subway, and my brothers and sisters at Rikers – a relationship between fascists and strap hangers, between Trump and me, drones and you. Lines ensnare, circles save.
Let's dream of a Theater for us all.
It is the damnedest thing to see a person who's incarcerated, who perhaps has been incarcerated for years and will be for years, a person that comes from a neighborhood which is neglected, abused, that comes from a dysfunctional school system – to see how fast they heal, to see how whole they can be, to see their magnificence shine, to be in an instant, in a moment – their student, their disciple, and then to know how far they are from fully connecting to that freedom, that power which is their own, their birth right, their glory, their healing and health.
I see the psychotic shaman on the sidewalk of Manhattan or Odessa, dressed in rags with tinfoil crown, I hear the distant drums, smell the smoke and dream of Oedipus.
I think of my own madness, my delusion, dissolution, self-destruction, chaos.
That man was born. And so was I.
Imagine the day, the moment of delivery. Who cut the cord? A midwife? A loving father? A dealer? Imagine his mother. Does she grieve? Does she rave?
How do I help him? What theater can I offer?
He matters as much as I or you, he may be you or me, he’s not a shadow or a ghost. He contains the Universe entire too, and must have a theater, and so must his sister.
In my twentieth year as the Artistic Director of the Stella Adler Studio, I ask myself: “What more can the theater do for this troubled world? What might the theater deliver? What child or infant divine might we bring forth? Will she too walk in rags on the shores of Galilee or the Gowanus? Be shuttered from the inn? Cry out for justice? Cleanse the temple of robber barons?
I ask with my grandmother and great grandfather: “What are we ultimately training actors to do? What for? What is the ultimate purpose of theater? In a world so torn, so wracked with violence, so wounded, might it be our turn to lead, to reveal the wisdom inherent in an ample seeing place?” I shout these questions out in the open depths of myself, I share them with my friends, and wait for an answer... I wait for an answer...This is my prayer. I open the doors wide and pray for a Theater for us all. 2016.•
Written exclusively for “The Soul of the American Actor.”
TOM OPPENHEIM In his position as Artistic Director and President of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting for over 15 years, Mr. Oppenheim has articulated a mission, engaged top faculty, structured a world-class training program and created a cultural center. He originated the Harold Clurman Laboratory Theater Company in 2002 which has since presented over twenty productions including eleven world premieres. In addition to producing all of the Lab’s plays, he also directed “As You Like It “, “Songs and Statues” (world premiere), “Our Town,” “What Shall I Give My Children?” (world premiere), and others. Mr. Oppenheim created the Harold Clurman Center for New Works in Movement and Dance Theater, a dance theater company that has presented over thirty new works, the majority of which were commissioned world premieres. He spearheaded the creation of the Harold Clurman Art Series which has presented artists including Harold Bloom, Edward Albee, John Ashbery, Julianne Moore and Harold Mabern in events that are free and open to the public. The Studio’s annual Harold Clurman Festival of the Arts explores the relationship between art and social activism in a week-long presentation of discussions and performances; participants have included Gordon Davidson, Derek Walcott, Olara Otunno, Zlata Filipovic, Ishmael Beah, Anne Bogart, Whoopi Goldberg, Giandomenico Picco, Jonathan Demme, Mike Medavoy, Wallace Shawn, Ronald Rand and Phylicia Rashad. Mr. Oppenheim studied acting at the National Shakespeare Conservatory and with his grandmother, Stella Adler. He appeared in the title role of Macbeth, Michael in “Sister Calling My Name” (Harold Clurman Laboratory Theater Company), as Iago in “Othello”, “Featuring Loretta,” “Henry IV, Part I” and “Macbeth” (New Jersey Shakespeare Festival), “Henry VI, Part I, II, III” (Theater for a New Audience), “Juana Queen of Spain” (EST), “Bound East for Cardiff” (Provincetown Playhouse), “Romeo and Juliet” (Mint Theater), and “Comparing Books” (Producer’s Club). His film and TV includes Mike Nichols’ “Wolf,’ “Going Nomad and Dodgeball” and “Virgin and Hound Dog,” and “100 Center Street.” Under Mr. Oppenheim’s leadership the Stella Adler Outreach Division was created in 2004, a program designed to educate urban youth, and has provided free theater training to over 2,000 low income New York City public school students. The Stella Adler Studio of Acting trains over 500 actors per year, and has evolved from an acting conservatory to a cultural center with a unique focus in American actor training.