Random thoughts about watching, working and living in the arts, from HMS co-founder and executive producer Scott Silberstein. "In The Moment" offers a quick 60-second read about new ideas, events, shows and productions in the HMS world, and "Adventures In Yes" takes a deeper dive into how art and media reflect, define and inspire our world. Enjoy!

January 4, 2015

ADVENTURES IN YES: "Live Long And Prosper. Or Die Trying."

That was the year that was. And in way, it's the year that always will be.

"Defending Your Life." My favorite way of viewing life, and death, and what may come after.

For “Star Trek” fans, there’s a stern test to discover how dedicated you are to the now nearly 50-year old franchise. It’s called “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier,” and if you can sit through it and still want to see “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country,” you’ve passed.

(Even if you hate “Star Trek V,” as many understandably do, you should still see “Star Trek VI,” not only for the great story but also for the best Shakespeare references that space opera has to offer.)

Any franchise, especially one that’s lasted five decades, is going to have its ups and downs, but one of Star Trek’s unique qualities is that even its lowest points have meritorious moments. I remember watching “The Final Frontier” with my dad and my sister (“Star Trek” is very big in my family), and even while knowing that this was not one of the series’ stellar installments, I was nevertheless struck by a particular piece of dialogue that, for all the silliness going on around it, still managed to cut me to the quick.

“Star Trek V’s” antagonist, y’see, is converting people to his own personal cult, in an effort to commandeer a starship and fly it to the center of the galaxy, where God, it seems, is rumored to live. Our villain does so by “taking away pain” – I still don’t really understand how he does that – after which people are overcome with serenity and calm, and are willing to do his bidding.

He attempts this on Captain Kirk, and of course our hero resists, saying, “Pain and guilt can't be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They're the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don't want my pain taken away. I need my pain.”

I know others have said something similar, in more poetic and profound terms. To honor the spirit of “Star Trek VI,” I should note that Shakespeare did it pretty darn well when he wrote “Pain pays the income of each precious thing.” (This is no slight on Star Trek; Shakespeare pretty much said everything better than anyone else, even Mr. Spock.)

Ever since hearing those lines, I’ve carried the idea of needing pain, and of how pain helps shape who we are. Even during my roughest of times, I find myself both incapable and unwilling to repress feelings that some might call negative, and that I would simply call, you know, “feelings.”

Emotions to me are neither right nor wrong; actions, on the other hand, are a different matter entirely. If I feel horrible, there’s probably a pretty good reason for it. Doesn’t mean I can act however I want, but I’d be in trouble if I repressed those feelings. Repression does our relationships and us a disservice, and I don’t want that and can’t have that. I need to feel as bad, or good, as I’m feeling.

And I don’t want bad feelings to go to waste. Even now.

My friend Eric Eatherly was killed in an automobile accident last week. Eric, one of the nicest, smartest, most cheerful guys you could hope to meet, was 35. I first knew him as a performer with Hedwig Dances, when he and his fellow dancers in Jan Bartoszek’s wonderful contemporary company agreed to be part of our Chicago Dance Project series. Eric also danced for Shirley Mordine, Melissa Thodos, Rebecca Rossen and others, before an injury forced a career change, and, as a member of the terrific team at The Silverman Group, he became one of Chicago’s most beloved press reps. His brand of infectious enthusiasm and out-and-out niceness never ceased, and never ceased to impress.

And then, just like that, in the time it takes for one car to crash into another, or in the moment one needs to open an email with the subject line “sad news” and click on a link to a Chicago Sun-Times obituary, Eric’s particular brand of liveliness has been transformed into a memory, and a date in January that was to have been a party to celebrate his wedding will instead be a memorial service to commemorate his life.

The car crash that killed Eric and critically injured his dad happened less than 48 hours before the end of a year which, for the Chicago theater and dance worlds, was marked by a death toll not seen since the days when HIV was running rampant through the arts worlds and a diagnosis was an absolute death sentence. Eric’s passing shakes me to the core not only on its own terms but also as part of a seemingly endlessly mounting list of names:

Molly Glynn. Bernie Yvon. Sati Ward. Trinity Murdock. Terry Fox. Lori Helfand. Bob Christen. Dyane Earley. Harold Ramis. Joel Lambie. Roy Leonard. Fred Kaz. Sheldon Patinkin. Richard Schaal. And now, just as 2015 has started, Julia Neary.

I’m never ready for wonderful people to pass on, and losing mentors who were in their 70’s and 80’s is hard enough, but more than half of those people were under the age of 52 when they passed.

I’m neither a good enough nor smart enough man to find any sense of order or rightness in that, nor do I find any fairness in the rash of scary illnesses that over the last few years have struck so many family and friends.

In the face of all of this, I feel awful. I feel scared. I feel angry.

Which is also why, I think, I feel so lucky.

And I think I feel lucky not only because I’m still here, surrounded by amazing people and immersed in communities who have shown extraordinary grace and kindness to each other, but also because I have been gifted, undeservedly, with enough of their grace and kindness to allow me to feel as bad as I do without feeling self-conscious, and as hopeful as I am that better days are ahead of us without feeling delusional.

These people, and their good will, have allowed me to do something productive with this pain, and not let it go to waste. It’s true that I don’t want to feel all of what I’m feeling right now, but given the givens, I’d be worse off if I were feeling any way else.

I love that so many of us – and I’m biased here, but I think this is especially true in the performing arts worlds – are quickly compelled to talk, sing and dance in celebration of a life, rather than dwell on mourning a death.

For all of the dark and disturbing things that happen to human beings, on both intimate and global levels, there does seem to be something in the communal human psyche that urges us to revel in what we shared with the person we lost, what we remember about them and how they changed us. And maybe, just maybe, that something better, or at least something else, comes after this.

There are all kinds of books, films, plays and dances that speculate on what might happen after we die, which says something very interesting about us. Whether these are the result of humanity’s synchronous understanding that there is more to the universe than meets our eyes or pure wishful thinking, these visions are wonderfully revealing.

My favorite one is Albert Brooks’ very funny and insightful movie “Defending Your Life,” in which he starred alongside a never-more-luminous and funny Meryl Streep, with some shrewd supporting performances by Rip Torn, Lee Grant and Buck Henry.

In Brooks’ vision, we Earth-bound residents are wildly unevolved residents of a lower level of an expansive Universe. Because we’ve only learned to use somewhere between 3-5% of our gray matter (earning us the nickname “Little Brains”), we are thus equipped to deal with one thing: fear. When we die, we all go to Judgment City, where our fear-based lives are put on a trial conducted by some of The Universe’s more advanced souls (the ones who use up to 50% of their brains). The Universe, it turns out, records every moment of our lives, and the purpose of the trial is to measure how well we dealt with fear, from the first day of our lives to the last. Prosecutors and defenders present at key moments from our life recordings to present their case that we either conquered our fears or succumbed to them; if it’s the former, we get to move on to the next level, and if it’s the latter, we go back to Earth and try it again.

I remember seeing that movie with my friend Sara Bibik at the old Evanston neighborhood theater when it first came out. We must have spent three hours afterwards at the Noyes Street Café talking about what moments our attorneys would have chosen, and if we would have made it to the next level or been sent back.

I had a couple of big fear monkeys on my back at the time, and “Defending Your Life” indeed inspired me to go back and face them, successfully I think, although I won’t know for sure until I head (back?) to Judgment City. Certainly some other fears still linger, which is why “Defending Your Life” remains a touchstone, and a source or encouragement, as I think about them, face them, and ponder the continuity of my life from moment to moment, year to year, person to person, situation to situation.

As 2014 ends, many of us in the Chicago performing arts communities are bidding it an exhausted and embittered “good riddance.” Some part of us must know that none of what’s happened is a personal assault by the universe against us. And surely we intellectually grasp that however we attempt to divide time into years and days and hours, really it’s just one big river of time as far as the universe is concerned. With great humility, most of us must acknowledge that however awful this particular eddy has been for so many, there are others out there in the world being tossed about by stormier seas and sucked under by more insidious rip tides.

Still, we feel beat up, and rightly so. It’s no wonder so many of us have talked about being glad 2014 is done, and that’s ok. It gives us something to point at, maybe even something to blame, as if all of this had something to do with this particular revolution around the sun.

Still, I found myself nodding my head while reading a recent Facebook post from my friend Terry Kinney, a Steppenwolf co-founder, an actor/director extraordinaire and a fascinating human being. He wrote, “I actually don't think you can leave a year behind. It's the difference of a day. One day it's 2014, and then it's suddenly 2015. But can you leave 2014 behind you, discarded and rejected? I question that concept. Life is measured in years, but also in months and weeks, but mostly in days, minutes and seconds.”

Indeed. And I don’t want to forget any of it. I don’t want to numb the pain, considerable though it is. I don’t want to diminish the impact of any of the losses that, to this Little Brain anyway, feel senseless, tragic and sometimes just plain freakish and mean. Bring the pain. Every drop.

Because if I’m going to learn how to use more than my 3-5%... if I’m going to get smarter, and more peaceful… if I’m going to follow the one smart thing Captain Kirk said in “The Final Frontier” (and, seriously, that’s about the only smart thing anyone says in “The Final Frontier”)… then I’m going to have to feel it, all of it, and see where I land when I do.

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