Random thoughts about watching, working and living in the arts, from HMS co-founder and executive producer Scott Silberstein.
As I write this, it's Saturday March 18, 2017, the 90th birthday of the great John Kander. We're all familiar with John’s work – everyone knows “New York, New York” and the plethora of incredible songs he and Fred Ebb wrote for shows including Cabaret, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Scottsboro Boys, Zorba and so many others.
Since I was in my late teens, John has been my thoughtful mentor and dear friend. He is -- to me and to the countless others who have seen and loved his shows, or, even more luckily, worked or collaborated with him in music, theater, film and television -- a profound inspiration.
Isn't that what we're all looking for? Inspiration? I know I am, all the time, and that's one of the reasons, perhaps the primary one, that the arts are so important to me.
So it seems fitting that, because many of John’s shows explore the roots and ramifications of criminal behavior, I should take this moment to state my intent to a crime of my own.
I’m going to steal something from Julie Brannen.
You might not know Julie, but I hope you will. She’s a Chicago-based dancer, teacher, choreographer, creative arts therapist and all-around inspiring human being. Julie was one of three curators of the recent Annual Alumni Concert produced by Columbia College Chicago’s Creative Movement Therapy Department, a lovely and intimate collection of dances and scenes steeped in vulnerability and empathy.
Julie's own piece, which closed the first half of the program, was fused with exquisite ideas, movement and rhythms. But before the show had even started, she had already made a major contribution to the evening.
As the de facto host of the evening, Julie offered a pre-curtain greeting which ended with an invitation to the audience to take a deep breath together.
That was a beautiful move, and next time I warm up an audience when HMS shoots another live performance special, I’m copping it. (There. I've confessed. Whatever happens now... "I had it comin.'")
Audience warm-ups are a big deal. They're functional, to be sure; for HMS, they are the moments when Matt Hoffman, our brilliant director and editor, leads our equally talented camera team to capture shots of audience members listening and applauding, shots that we’ll cut into the show when we’re editing it for broadcast.
They're also opportunities to declare what the evening is really about.
Here's a good example. Last month, HMS captured Chicago Voices, a magnificent concert created by Renée Fleming for Lyric Opera of Chicago (it will air in Chicago Thursday March 30 at 9pm on WTTW11 -- stay tuned for national airdates).
When Renée conceived the project a couple of years ago, the idea was to celebrate the diversity and worldwide impact of Chicago vocalists. By including artists like Kurt Elling, Shemekia Copeland, Jessie Mueller, Michelle Williams, Matthew Polenzani, Terrance Howard, John Prine, Lupe Fiasco, The Handsome Family, Jussie Smolett and more, "The People's Diva" had certainly accomplished that.
By the time the show was performed to a sold-out crowd at the Civic Opera House, fifteen days had passed since Donald Trump had been sworn into office, and no one saw the world the same way anymore. Thus audiences could not help but see and hear Chicago Voices (a show that, like so many other happenings on stages and screens around the world, celebrates inclusiveness, truth and empathy) in a different light.
Rather than ignore our current social and political climate, or exploit potential antagonism, our collective choice was to use the warm-up to invite our Chicago Voices audience to come together, and we did it by asking them to take a few minutes before the show started to introduce themselves to someone sitting near them they’d never met before.
Go ahead. Reach out. Touch. Share some time and space with strangers, who might have come to hear something or someone different you did, but who all came to hear music. Together.
Our Chicago Voices audience did just that, and it was lovely. The theater was instantly filled with the same camaraderie that the performers were experiencing themselves, both on-and-backstage.
I like to think that this gesture of welcome, which reminded me of the “handshake of peace” we used to do in church, was the physically interactive version of what I would see Julie ask her audiences to do a few weeks later.
Share some time and space together. Be here now. Breathe together.
Quietly inspiring stuff.
The word “inspire” is, of course, derived from the Latin root for breath. I love the idea that breathing together is a way to connect with each other, on very deep and soulful levels. It’s a profound opportunity to show some support, exert a peaceful influence, and do something that we all too rarely get to do: really, truly connect.
We describe momens that are especially striking as “taking our breath away” or “breathtaking.” I love variations on words and phrases, and have always found it interesting that we use those phrases interchangeably, because to me, they're not. The former made me think of exhaling, while the latter conveyed inhaling. They're both necessary, but they're different kinds of moments. I love that the arts make us do both.
Birthday boy John Kander’s new show Kid Victory, created with the terrifically talented playwright and lyricist Greg Pierce, premiered a couple of years ago at the Signature Theatre, just outside of Washington DC. It told the tale of a young man attempting to recover from the trauma of having been abducted by a man he’d befriended online and then imprisoned for a year in his basement. Sounds horrifying, and it is, but in typical Kander fashion, this is not a punishing show. Kid Victory, like so many of John's shows, is not about exploriing darkness for the sake of being dark, but rather, diving deep into both human lightness and darkness with all nsight, compassion and love that demands, and seeing how we come out the other side.
That first production of Kid Victory was told in relatively objective terms, in that it moved us through a series of events and flashbacks, effectively showing us what happened to whom. It’s final image, a gorgeous moment between father and son, was powerfully impactful, and when the lights came up, I could feel the audience exhale as one. You know that feeling… the whispered “whoooooo” we make as we process a moment of sad and profound beauty, and together exhale it in a moment of genuine catharsis.
So memorable was that experience that I wondered what it would feel like seeing Kid Victory’s second iteration, which is still running at New York's Vineyard Theatre. The show is now more of a memory piece, with everything happening within the perspective and recollections of the young man as he struggles to re-acclimate to the world from which he had been so cruelly and manipulatively snatched.
In this new form, Kid Victory is even more empathic and beautiful, and when that same ending image of father and son reveals itself, I found myself taking a deep breath in, rather than letting one out. What had once left me feeling so beautifully devastated that I had to breathe it out, now filled me with something so devastatingly beautiful that I had to breathe it in.
Another mentor in my life, Jean Rothenberg, told me not long before she passed that we should view the truly important things in our lives the way we look at breathing. Which is to say, we can't live without them, but we’d be ill-served to obsess over them. That was her way of encouraging me to stay present, and be in the moment. Just like Julie Brannen. Just like John Kander.
So, in memory of Jean, in the wake of Julie's invocation, and on the anniversary of John's birth, I will now listen to some music, take some deep breaths, and then I think I’ll go see or hear something in a theater.
I think that's the way they'd want it.