A Weaver of Tales
I’m a weaver, a weaver of tales. I can weave great adventures, terrible tragedies, tales of romance, seduction and passion. And all of my stories are true – if you want them to be.” Actor, director and playwright are not just what I do. They are who I am.
We all have stories inside us – the legacy stories of our ancestors, the stories from our life experience and the stories of our imagination that, if we are artists, we nurture and share.
I grew up hearing about the cost of prejudice and oppression. Brecht’s “Mother Courage” is my favorite play, reminding me of my grandmother’s bravery and ingenuity. With four children including my father, she was trapped in Russia during the civil war between the ‘White Russians’ and the communists, unable to join her husband and oldest child who were already in the United States. During a pogrom they were put before a firing squad of Cossacks. Luckily, a sympathetic superior officer arrived in time to prevent the slaughter. After years of danger and struggle, Shifra Lozawick brought her children to safety.
Before I ever saw a play, I wanted to be an actor. I grew up in New Jersey, near Philadelphia. As a toddler, I wanted to be a cowgirl like local television personality, Sally Starr. I made scrapbooks of clippings from the Arts section of the Sunday newspapers, and I read all the theater biographies in the local library, looking for clues on how to enter the world of acting. In eighth grade I gave a book report on the history of London’s Drury Lane Theater. In ninth grade public speaking class, I gave speeches about ‘The Star System in Hollywood’ and The Barrymore Family. At the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, I learned to love silent movies in their nickelodeon. When my Aunt Bea finally took me to see a touring production of “The Miracle Worker,” I was totally and irrevocably determined to fulfill my dream.
By twelve, I was old enough to take the bus alone over the bridge between Camden and Philadelphia, and I joined a hard-core ‘gang’ of theater nerds who laid siege to the stage entrances after matinees. We were all aspiring actors determined to cross those inviolable stage doors past the just-as-determined stage doormen who tried to keep us from meeting our future colleagues. I became quite expert at thwarting security.
One afternoon, at the age of fourteen, I got past the doorman, spotted a door with a star and barged in, shocked to see Laurence Olivier in his underwear! I froze in embarrassment and terror. He smiled and asked if I had seen the matinee and would like to have a seat and discuss the play. Too frightened to speak, I nodded that I would. I don’t remember anything that was said after that. I only remember occasionally giving what I thought was an appropriate positive or negative response. He finished dressing, offered me a small signed photograph, reached for his coat and asked if I wished to walk out with him. I nodded yes, he put his arm around my shoulder, and we exited past the fuming doorman. Standing among the crowd outside the stage door, my gang looked on astonished at the triumph. With this audience watching, I turned to Olivier, held out my hand and with new-found bravado, uttered a loud and firm, “It was nice meeting you.”
In high school I was elected president of the drama club. I did not give up haunting stage doors but now had a strategic plan to reach the actors I wanted to meet when they appeared in Philadelphia. Since my school was in New Jersey, would they tape an interview with me that I could play at a club meeting? Robert Preston, Julie Harris, George Grizzard and the incomparable Buster Keaton all agreed. We had no tape recorder at home, so the teacher who also ran the school’s audio-visual department let me borrow one on condition that I let her play the tapes for her classes. I trusted her, to my regret. When I went to retrieve them, she told me she had returned them to the a-v office recycle bin. I searched, but could not find a single one of them. In retrospect, I believe she wanted the tapes for herself. All I was left with were memories of the interviews.
In ninth grade, the public speaking teacher gave me a brochure about Temple University’s Summer Theater program, and I convinced my parents to let me enroll. The full-time program encompassed basic acting techniques, mostly technical, and gave me a foundation on which to later add more organic skills. I was a sponge absorbing everything for the future. I recall standing in front of the class while the professor instructed me how to project, and I experienced the excitement of hearing my voice fill an auditorium for the first time. We did scenes from classic plays, and in the culminating event of the summer, I played the nurse in Sophocles’ “Antigone.” Later in college I was cast in Euripides’ “Hecuba.”
Still in high school, I saw a casting notice in a Philadelphia newspaper for a film – all ages, no experience necessary, no appointment, just a date and location. I went to my first audition without a headshot or resume. I filled out an application and was granted an interview with Robert Sickinger, the director. He asked a few questions, mainly about school, and the interview was over. But in my mind, I was no longer an amateur. I heard nothing until the following July when the director called me. “Would you be interested in helping me for a few days while I’m casting for a theater festival?” No pay, of course, but the experience was worth a fortune. Besides being the monitor, I read opposite the auditioning actors.
Over the three days, I read all the roles in the plays being cast. In between, Bob talked to me about acting. He also invited me to join a professional workshop he was teaching in the fall – Monday nights from seven to midnight. The workshop was free, supported by H.B. Lutz, a philanthropist who in the 1950’s had financed Edward Albee’s first productions in America. I pleaded with my parents to let me do this on a school night, and they ultimately relented.
At the age of sixteen, I joined a group of adults who were already working actors. From autumn through spring, we met weekly in a North Philly community center. The first hour, Bob read to us from Stella Adler or Stanislavsky. Then we had an hour of exercises – relaxation, emotional recall, improvs. The last hours were set aside for rehearsed scenes.
Finally, it came time to ‘grow up’ and get my career going in New York City. During the day, I pursued a B.A. in Theater Arts from Adelphi University on Long Island. In the evenings I was in Manhattan acting in plays Off-Off Broadway. I loved working on premiere productions of plays by Ted Harris’ “Gabriella,” Tom Eyen’s “Give My Regards to Off-Off Broadway,” and others, creating characters that no one else had played.
After graduation, I studied professionally in Arthur Storch’s workshop and privately with Sandra Seacat and Roz Valero. I gained invaluable experience from the many talented artists I worked with – especially directors Ron Link and Bob Dahdah, actor Marilyn Roberts and that force of nature, Ellen Stewart of La MaMa E.T.C., to name just a few.
In play after play, I learned how to make a production with no or low budget, creating a theatrical setting from a few scenic elements and props – in short, how to beg, borrow or build what was needed. There was camaraderie among venues; one could borrow items with just a phone call. I was a working actor, although like so many others, an unpaid working actor. I cobbled together some of the usual ‘day jobs’ – coat check, market research temp, film extra.
Colleen Curtis, who was producing an evening of plays based on Dorothy Parker’s short stories, fired the director two weeks before opening and pleaded with me to step in. This was my first time directing since college. I took a deep breath and told myself to direct it the way I liked being directed, giving the actors the freedom and space to truly collaborate. This successful production led to more offers to direct, including plays by Nancy Dean and Beverly Thompson and “The Diary of Nijinsky,” adapted and performed by Nina Kethevan, a production in New York that moved to Théâtre Lucernaire in Paris, and then to the National Theatre in London.
For the following decade, I was in a play or in rehearsal, sometimes in one play while rehearsing another. Then came a time with nothing scheduled, and I panicked. But I had been in some wonderful plays and some terrible plays, maybe I could write a play for myself. It might not be as good as the best I had been in, but I was certain it wouldn’t be as bad as the worst, and they all got produced. Thus I became a playwright.
My friend Ray Hagen and I collaborated on a short comedy, with roles for ourselves, that we turned into a longer musical with the help of a talented pair of composer/lyricists – Jean Campbell and Norm Pederson. “Gravediggers” was a spoof of both classic horror movies and movie musicals. Ray played the ‘beleaguered stage manager’ and I played ‘Brenda Farrell, girl reporter.’
Ellen Stewart, who knew Ray and me as actors, gave us a slot at La MaMa. Although I couldn’t carry a tune, I had had a secret childhood fantasy of one day singing a solo in a musical. I knew I might never again have the clout I had with this production and asked Jean and Norm to write a song for me that was easy to sing. I worked intensively with vocal coach Amri Galli-Campi, and for twelve performances my dream came true as ‘Brenda’ belted the comedy song called “Scoop.”
I continued writing plays: “The Forgotten Truths,” a play about French author George Sand, in collaboration with Colleen Curtis, and many more on my own. I never did get to play the leading role I wrote for myself in my first solo effort, “Hell’s Kitchen Has a Tub in It.” By the time it was produced, I was too old. The production, which I directed, was a financial disaster but creatively rewarding.
In 1992, Bob Dahdah, director, mentor and friend, took me to Theater for the New City (TNC) to volunteer on a benefit committee. There I met the second force of nature who changed my life and career – Crystal Field, founder and Executive Director. This was the beginning of a relationship that has lasted until the present day – twenty-two years of annual productions that have enabled me to create a body of work and see my artistic vision onstage. I love combining the artistry of so many others with my own; it’s why I don’t write novels or poetry. A number of foundations as well as private donors have helped fund my productions.
My family’s legacy of surviving war and oppression impacted not only me but my siblings, all of whom pursued careers in social service – my sister Joyce as a guidance counselor, my brother Larry as a social worker, and my sister Phyllis as a therapist who is also active in the global struggle for human rights.
Early on as a playwright, I remarked to Phyllis that I wished I could do what she does; news that upsets me not only upsets her but energizes her to get yet another prisoner of conscience released. She replied, “Why should you do what I do? Do what you do.” She inspired me to change the focus of my writing – a colleague recently described my plays as always about injustice, whether comedy or drama. They explore lives that have been ignored or distorted in popular culture – women, LGBT people and other minorities.
Like an archaeologist, I have learned to ferret out the artifacts of past lives, including Jewish women settlers in the American West, lesbian pirates, free-born African Americans and Irish in 19th century New York, immigrants and victims of war. I write my plays using improv techniques I learned in acting classes. I create characters, put them in situations and let them speak to each other. I’m often surprised at what ends up on the page. When I’m stuck with a scene, when the characters’ refuse to speak to me or to each other, I take a walk.
In the midst of writing my political drama, “Pen Pals,” I was walking in my neighborhood when Martin, a main character, revealed to Monica that their childhood friend Gabrielle was dead, murdered. I liked Gaby and refused to believe it, as did Monica. With my imagination going full speed, I heard Martin describe Gaby’s death in great detail. I felt tears on my cheeks and, afraid that I had been speaking aloud, quickly hurried home to write the final scenes that had eluded me.
Acting is my first love. I continue to write roles for myself, including two one-character plays that I perform whenever I have the opportunity. “Cyma’s Story” is set in Wyoming at the outbreak of World War Two. Cyma is worried about the family she left behind in Russia years before and is haunted by what she calls ‘the ghosts of Europe.’ “CO-OP,” (named “Best Short Play” in the Downtown Urban Theater Festival), is set in present day New York City. While describing the life she lost, Martha, a homeless victim of gentrification, tries to sell a few possessions, enough to get by.
As a longtime member of the Dramatists Guild, AEA and SAG-AFTRA, I have appeared in several films and more recently in the films, “We Made this Movie” and “Something Borrowed.” I’m the ‘filler’ for the annual Lower East Side Festival of the Arts at Theater for the New City, a role I love. I have monologues of varied lengths ready to go when an act is shorter than scheduled or another is delayed.
One of my mentors was the late Barbara Barondess, a veteran of theater, films and design, who presented me with the Torch of Hope Award for ‘Lifetime Achievement in non-profit Theater.’ Throughout my career, colleagues who led the way have generously shared their knowledge and experience with me. I follow their example by coaching other actors and playwrights.
My life in the theatre has been governed by a passion for justice and for quality. In the 19th century, George Sand wrote: “All I want is for people to question the accepted lies and call out for the forgotten truths.” Portraying the truth gives me fulfillment as an actor. Directing with integrity and insight is what I offer other actors. Preserving the truth is why I write plays. © 2015
Written for “The Soul of the American Actor.” Printed with the permission of the author.
BARBARA KAHN is a multi-award winning playwright, actor, director and private acting and playwriting coach. Her plays have been presented on both American coasts and in Europe. She has been published in several anthologies, including MAKING A SCENE: The Contemporary Drama of Jewish-American Women and All in the Seasoning. Ms. Kahn has directed plays in New York, Paris and at the National Theatre in London. Her play, “Unorthodox Behavior” was presented by the Moving Parts Theater Company in Paris, France. She was the sole U.S. based writer/performer at the ‘Jewish Women’s Writing of Great Britain and the United States in the 1990’s and Beyond’ Conference in Mainz, Germany in 2003. Her article on writing historical plays is included in the conference book, published in 2004. Theater for the New City (TNC), under Executive Director Crystal Field, has been the primary New York City home for her plays since 1994. A number of foundations have supported her TNC productions with repeated grants, including the Jerome Foundation, the Puffin Foundation, the Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Her plays are mostly historical plays, often combining her love of the theater and her adopted city. Ms. Kahn directed the premiere productions at TNC, and has worked with Robert Gonzales Jr. as co-director for nearly a decade. Ms. Kahn was honored with the Torch of Hope, James R. Quirk Awardfor the Performing Arts, and the Robert Chesley Foundation Award/Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of Taos,residency. She co-authored the lyrics for the song "Actions Are the Music of the Free" (with Jackie S. Freeman and composer Jenny Giering) for the "Bringing Beijing Home" rally at NYU, later performed on request at the United Nations Memorial to Dame Nita Barrow. “GO! Magazine” named her as one of 2015’s “100 Women We Love.” www.barbara-kahn.com