Friday, November 17, 2006

Libby Appel, "It is required you do awake your faith"

I started my actor training in the BFA program at the University of Alberta, but only began. Long story. When it came time to return to theatre, I did an MFA in Acting at the California Institute of the Arts. Several of my teachers, working professionals all, made a huge impact; Robert Benedetti, Lew Palter, Jules Aaron, and others. But especially Libby Appel, who was Dean of the theatre school at CalArts, and also my acting teacher.

We're talking 20 years ago, but I still hear her words come out of my mouth every time I teach an acting class, every time I direct a show. Acting, I might as well wear a little WWLS bracelet: "What would Libby say?"

Soon after I left CalArts, so did Libby (I'm sure it was hard to carry on without me). I started Pacific Theatre, she ended up Artistic Directing my favourite theatre anywhere (even before she was in the captain's chair), the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Huge thrill for me a couple summers back to see an "I'm glad I saw that, never need to see it again" production of RICHARD II (a difficult play to make interesting, I thought) at Shakespeare's Globe in London, then to travel to Ashland Oregon the next month to experience an utterly transcendent production of the same play - directed by Libby.

Now, I was a bit confounded. No, I was stunned. During my CalArts years, Libby made no secret of the fact that she had no time for religion, especially Christianity: it was testimony to her gracious nature that she made as much time for me as she did.
A self-described "atheist Jew," her church was the stage, her god the art of theatre. But her RICHARD II took every last one of the play's deeply spiritual themes and incarnated them onstage: rather than avoid a single gospel reference or undercut even one of the story's Christian elements, Libby foregrounded them all in an exquisitely theatrical, movingly human and profoundly theological production.

Well, I thought, testimony to the power of theatre, imagination, craftsmanship, professionalism: that a brilliant artist like Libby can achieve onstage what she mightn't even believe.

Then this past summer I saw her austere, essential, sublime WINTER'S TALE. And I - to use some hardcore religous language - felt myself to be in the heart of the Kingdom of God. Again, the Biblical notes resonated, resounded; the Christian references, metaphors, paradigms were extraordinarily vivid; I quite literally wept. And only after the show did I read - astonished - Libby's program notes on the show, and then her Artistic Director notes for the overall season.

Obviously I don't know the least bit about what's transpired for Libby in the past 22 years, and wouldn't presume to suggest it's got anything to do with believing what I believe about Jesus. It could even be that she's changed not a whit, that I was a different person way back then, and heard her words about her own spirituality through different ears. Whatever the case, though, I can't help but feel a remarkable kinship with this woman by whom I've now been twice blest; first, by the artistry she taught me; now, by the art she makes.

Here's what she wrote...

From The Director
Sixteen Years Later

In The Winter’s Tale, the central character, Leontes, King of Sicilia, undergoes a 16-year penitential journey from the moment he commits a disastrous sin to his ultimate redemption and salvation. Shakespeare, who can be very carefree and careless about measuring time in his plays (he will often have events tumble and gallop with no attention to a precise time frame), has been very exact about the passage of time in this play. Indeed, he has name a character Time, who introduces the “16 years later” concept to tell us specifically what has happened.

In 1990, I directed The Winter’s Tale for OSF on the Elizabethan Stage. It was the last artistic journey for the incomparable Rex Rabold, who played Leontes, as he died four weeks after we opened the play. Rex was ill throughout the whole rehearsal period, but his mind was sharp and his spirit was thoroughly engaged as we wrestled with the devil inside Leontes. Perhaps you can imagine what it was like to watch this extraordinary actor build the terribly sick (mentally) character who must go through extreme purgatory before he is forgiven and reborn--- this was a once in a lifetime experience for me.

Why then do I feel ready, indeed compelled, to take this journey again? Well, in truth, I found that I had not wanted to think about the play until recently. When I decided to put it up in the 2006 season, it was only at that point that I realized it will have been 16 years from my first venture. A coincidence? A surprise? Or was Shakespeare, somewhere situated in the heavens, looking down (perhaps laughing) and urging me to have another go at his spiritual, most mysterious play?

I only know that I felt ready again. I have worked with the memory of Rex tucked securely in my heart and have tried to find what the wisdom and experience of 16 years has brought to me. I am working with a new team of actors and designers, which has brought fresh perspective to the ideas of the play and has given me vitality and creative energy. But the true secret of this journey retaken is that I have discovered that The Winter’s Tale, like all great works of art, does not reveal all of its secrets on the first encounter. The heart of the play is briefly glimpsed and barely understood with each experience. I have reveled in this new investigation, but I will bet anything that 16 years from now, I will want to rediscover this masterpiece anew.

It’s a mystery, and as Paulina exhorts us,
“It is required you do awake
Your faith.”

---Libby Appel


From the Artistic Director

After every new season is announced each year, I am frequently asked, “Did you have a unifying theme you wanted to express through these choices?” Invariably I answer no. For, in fact, I choose plays for their diversity of theme and style and I do not make an effort to tie them together. Of course, our extraordinarily perceptive audience, who more often than not sees four or five plays in one week, tells me about similar motifs and messages that they find running through many of the plays, even without any conscious effort on my part to make that happen.

When I hear this, I realize that this is not really a surprise. All good plays deal with the deep conflicts within the human soul and within human relationships. Buried below the surface of a play is often a cry for the answers to how we negotiate the relationship between the private self and the outer world---Who am I? Why am I here? What does my life mean? Our former artistic director, Jerry Turner, was fond of saying that if a play wasn’t about a fight with God, he didn’t want to have anything to do with it.

So it was with a mixture of understanding and acceptance that I realized that the 2006 season does indeed have a major theme--- the struggle with one’s spirituality and the quest for reconciliation, redemption and salvation. The play that deals most specifically with these urgent human needs is, of course, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. A late play, placed firmly by scholars in the group of plays categorized as Romances, the structure of the play is literally a journey of atonement with a rebirth, or a resurrection if you will, as its masterful and deeply moving conclusion.

The Diary of Anne Frank, with its struggle to remain human and loving against the insuperable odds of inevitable destruction, is a profoundly spiritual play. Indelibly etched in all of our hearts are Anne’s words, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” ...

So yes, in these perilous times we live in, we are seeking answers to the troubling dilemmas which plague our society and our personal lives. In the theater, we seem to need to explore ideas and experiences that ask our most profound questions in a spiritual and soulful way. I no longer hesitate to say there are interweaving themes in the 2006 season. These are the ties that bind us all together in the human condition.

---Libby Appel
This was Libby's last year as Artistic Director at the OSF. But she'll be back. In the 2007 season, she will be directing THE TEMPEST. Think maybe I ought to go?

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