All at Once upon a Time


The subject of the email read “immersive experience in an historic house” and went on in the body to quote “‘this ‘aesthetically visceral, intellectually challenging and emotionally unafraid original work’ sounds right up your alley.”

Indeed, over the past years I’ve had opportunity to experience a number of these immersive performances, where the action takes place all around, often unexpectedly, in non-traditional performance spaces and involves/requires a certain level of audience participation.

Researching the background of “All at Once upon a Time” the new work in question to be staged in the Peabody Essex Museum’s historic Gardner-Pingree House, I learned that some of these experiences even shared a pedigree, tracing their origins to New York based stage director Giselle Ty.

Upon reflection, I’ve come to think that much of the appeal of these happenings [to appropriate the newly voguish 60s euphemism] lies in the anticipation of the unknown. What will it be like to experience a dramatic performance in a domestic space? What will be required of me?

Once you’ve been there and done that though, then, well, there’s not a great deal of mystery to anticipate, except perhaps the particular narrative into which we’ll be thrust.

I happen to always enjoy time spent in new and interesting domestic spaces, and all the better if those spaces are grand and/or historic. After all, a home is our first and most frequent stage, the place where we first learn to perform the roles of family, gender and social hierarchy. Imagining the rich and varied propagation and subversion of those performances over time in a space is a beloved personal past-time.

So, I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never before been to the Gardner-Pingree House, [Yes, I know there are regular guided tours] but was delighted to have an immersive happening as excuse to do so.

I had no idea the narrative I was committing my evening to, but after affirming some house rules (e.g. “I promise not to stroke or steal other human beings, but I understand that gently nudging and physical contact might be part of the experience.”) and depositing my mobile in a PEM-branded muslin bag,  I eagerly and knowingly followed our expectedly mute guide’s wan directing hand to a seat on the floor of the grand house’s front parlor, transformed for our theatrical purposes by moody lighting and an impressionistic forest of trees constructed of raw lumber.

A school girl runs in and begins telling us in dense and scholarly language about the Northwest Coast, forests, and totems [reminding me that I really need to finish writing up those notes from PEM’s new contemporary native fashion show].

Before I have a chance to create context for this uncontextualized avalanche of images and multi-syllabics [post-performance research suggests the text comes from photographer William Reid’s 1968 exploration of decaying totems in British Columbia, “Out of the Silence”], that familiar wan hand guides me mid-soliloquy to an adjoining room where I’m eventually joined by four more of our party of 15.  

This room too has been unrecognizably transformed. Papers are everywhere: clothes-pinned to strings strung across the ceiling, scattered across the expansive table. Some are handwritten; some have been typed on a typewriter; some printed in familiar fonts. Some are in English, others are not. A handwritten card invites us to find a text that speaks to us, copy it, and share it with someone later. We’re here for awhile — no words are spoken though lots of words are read and written, and I struggle to make connections among them, hardly a discrete image let alone narrative of any complexity, so much stimulation! so hard to commit to focusing — until eventually our familiar guide returns with another note inviting us to meet her upstairs.

Totally and blindly committed to the guidance of our mysterious leader, we follow to an upstairs bedroom where another note placed upon a pile of strips of toile invites us to “unravel me,” revealing a ballerina in fetal position who begins to come alive with a violinist’s playing. Taking the ends of organza(?) tied to her wrists, we each are given the power/influence to manipulate her actions. A quick shake or graceful swing is reflected in the kick of a leg or wave of an arm. That sense of “control” or even co-creation is a misdirection though as it must be acknowledged our ballerina chooses and interprets each action at her will regardless of our action or desire.  

Eventually the violin player stops playing and therefore the dancer can no longer dance, and it’s time for us to be guided into another room.

Here we find proper seats, and a portable stage curtain, and a man running a soundboard. It’s almost like a traditional performance space, except of course we’re in the upstairs room of an historic house. We also discover that our presumed singular guide comes in multiples. She’s a twin! And then the curtain moves revealing more of our original group twinning us on the other side of the room. Now newly rejoined in an approximation of what we once we were, we together watch our guides dress as monkey and bear and perform an interpretive dance with bananas to a ragtime recording, the significance of which is honestly wholly lost on me. Are these archetypes? stereotypes? simply an absurdity? Definitely racial overtones. . .

The rest of the groups that splintered from our formative forest in the front room, rejoin us in this newly appropriated theatre. The ballerina and violinst are there. A lute player too. And others I don’t recognize. There’s a dance party! (I worry about the bouncing of the historic floor) and balloons!

And then a return to the room in the back of the house where we started for hot cider and snacks and conversation.

How different all of our experiences were! And so many questions about what we just experienced, where it came from and what it meant.

I suspect it’s this post-performance conversation that is intended to be the substance of “All at Once Upon a Time…(or Variations on the Theme of Disappearing)”. A time for us to make meaning from the rich material that’s been collected for us and presented to us.

Perhaps not much different the meaning-making that’s been being performed in the Gardner-Pingree’s dining room and parlor for centuries?



Thank You for Coming/Wear Clean Socks

My calendar reminder read, “Wear Clean Socks.”

I don’t remember typing those words, though I do remember agreeing to attend at the same time an immersive dance performance at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art,  “Thank You for Coming: Attendance.” Assuming these events must be one in the same, I went ahead and made sure my feet were shod with store-new crimson stockings, just in case.

“Thank You for Coming” is a series of new works by the choreographer Faye Driscoll, heralded by the New York Times as a “startlingly original talent,” which explores the question: “How do we perceive ourselves as participants in the co-creation of our reality?”

Performance notes read:

“Performed in the round, Attendance [the first in the Driscoll’s three part series] opens with a tangle of five dancers communally bound by their reliance on one another.  [. . .] Taking place on stage with a limited-capacity audience, the work also invites viewers into the “weird” and wonderful universe of this “postmillenium, postmodern wild woman” (critic Deborah Jowitt), as they become participants by wearing or holding the offbeat objects that also serve as the dancers’ props. Throughout the performance, the joyful intimacy mounting on stage envelops the audience as well, creating a beautiful shared identity.”

Interesting. . .

Indeed, upon entering the theatre we’re asked to prepare ourselves for a new kind of experience.

“Please remove your shoes and jackets before going on stage and sit as close to the platform as you can.”

Thus liberated of our constraining affectations of humanity (or cunningly stripped of our protective armor?) 120 of us sit on the stage, some on risers, some on the floor, circling a bare raised platform, the unused seats of the audience before or behind us, and wait, school assembly style, wondering who and what and how and why and when. . .

The performers, recognizable not so much by their bare feet or comfortable street wear but their fluid movement and toned muscles, circle and observe.  I suspect they go unnoticed by most, until they file into a row of empty seats in the darkened audience space and sing to us about the fire exits.

Attention then moves to that central platform, where the performers construct with their bodies complex, grotesque, beautiful, unexpected, interconnected forms. Twisting and straining from one structure to the next, feet serve as platforms and handholds and crowns; mouths are by turns sensual and violent.

Photo by Maria Baranova.
Photo by Maria Baranova.

My seatmate says it reminds her of the immigration crisis raging across Europe: connections formed, strained, broken, and reformed with force, regret, fear and ecstasy.

And just like the arbitrary national borders of Europe, the arbitrary borders of the performance space are no match for the writhing life within. Eventually the performers, connected in a human rope hand to foot, roll off that dedicated performance space and literally into our laps. Even my new clean red socks become part of that living form, as a performer reaches to grab my foot, pulling me in with his outward looking motion.

And while I and others are pulled in, and the boundaries of us and them and this and that are being transgressed, the now unnecessary platform as performance space is disassembled from underneath, revealing benches, on which various portions of the audience are encouraged to rearrange themselves, jockeying for position, heightened only by the distribution of props (plastic flowers, golden shower caps, black lace). By the time I’m contemplating what heroic act the mysterious, no doubt phallic?, wooden mace I’ve been handed will  indict me to, I realize the performers have changed clothes before our eyes are now gasping for breath. Dying little deaths their once insatiable virility never suggested possible.

But then there’s more.

The strains of a guitar resurrect a new act. The “stroboscopic” stepping of the dancers suggest a club? They greet each other with joy, intrigue, disgust and fear. And what are the words the guitarist/sound technician is singing? Adam, Puna, Heather, Jon a tha aa n. Chris. Chris. Chris. Our names! One hundred and twenty of them forming the lyrics of the song, animating and enlivening not just the performative action at the center, but our own reaction to its substance as we are it.

Then a new act making use of those pre-distributed props. There’s chaos and confusion. Rushing and grabbing. Are those veils and formal formations of humanity representations of ritual? “I need the flute” a performer asks my section of the audience. A few beats until I realize she’s asking for my mis-identified wooden phallus. Whew! It’s only a flute.

Ropes are threaded from this side to that, separating the golden shower caps from the plastic flowers. Dividing space, creating boundaries and structure where once there was only freedom and connection.

Then darkness as action moves to the ground and the performers act individually from the margins of the space, straining towards the middle their clothing falling way, their stockings stretched from here to over her head.

A nucleus forms. There’s a lightening of a kind. That intersections of ropes once used to divide begin to rise from the floor, creating a canopy under which the dancers begin circling in a simplified contra style. In and out and round about, with each opening of the circle an unarticulated invitation to join, until, of course, a hand is extended in an explicit invitation, and members of the audience join one by one and then more and more, until, is it true?, the performers have removed themselves completely, standing to the side, as those who started the night thinking themselves members of the audience inhabit and perform the central creative act.

I think I’m going to start wearing clean red socks everyday.


Thank You for Coming: Attendance
Oct 9-10
8 pm


Animaris Percipiere (2005). Courtesy of Theo Jansen. Photo by Loek van der Klis
Animaris Percipiere (2005). Courtesy of Theo Jansen. Photo by Loek van der Klis

Reluctantly, I made my way to the press opening for Theo Jansen’s Strandbeest at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum.

I had grown skeptical of the hype that brought an estimated 15,000 gawkers to a preview of Theo’s kinetic “dream machines” at Crane’s Beach and the shallow awe that so often accompanies adjacency to unexpected functionality (i.e. “It Moves!” a la Frankensein’s “It’s Alive!”).  

Assuming I was girding myself for the apotheosis of the equivalent of an engineering dissertation by a grand old institution desperate for adjacency to techie cool, I sated my intellectual curiosity in advance with the recently arrived fall issue of Cowley Magazine, dedicated to the theme of Creation.

Theo Jansen & Animaris Siamesis (2009), Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands . Photo by Lena Herzog.
Theo Jansen & Animaris Siamesis (2009), Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands . Photo by Lena Herzog.

And so it was, that as I took my first sips of press-sating wine in the Asian Garden I was thinking of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (“The world is charged with the grandeur of God”), and pondering anew what it means to be created, to create, and for creation and creator to be in relationship with each other.

This would be the first time I’d hear the artist speak for himself. The first time I’d see the beests move. The first time to see the creator in relationship with his creation.

Animaris Umerus, Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands (2009). Courtesy of Theo Jansen. Photo by Loek van der Klis
Animaris Umerus, Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands (2009). Courtesy of Theo Jansen. Photo by Loek van der Klis

And lo it came to be that it was good!

If Hopkins’ world is charged with the grandeur of God, Jansen’s is charged with compressed air held in “lungs” of Belgian sparkling “SPA” water bottles, also imagination, a lot of math, and unapologetic hubris.

Jansen’s goal is nothing short of creating an entirely new species, and the vocabulary he uses to describe his creations reinforces this premise. The beests on display at PEM are “fossils,” extinct specimens from the beest’s long evolution which is chronicled in a family tree occupying an entire wall of the gallery.

Photo by Federico Davoine. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Photo by Federico Davoine. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Over time the beests have developed various kinds of feet, even “sweat glands” (a means of lubricating joints while in motion), but most striking of all, they’re now procreating! as Jansen has made available online their mathematical “DNA” and encouraged engineering students the world over to tinker, adapt, and 3-d print.

The natural world is more than the sum of its parts and so too the Strandbeests are more than PVC piping and zip ties. Though the beests move without will or even necessarily power of their own, they strut and swagger with such personality one can’t help but smile in that way a toddler learning to walk reminds us of the joy of discovering where our legs might take us.

Theo Jansen’s hands & plastic pipes (2010), Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands . Photo by Lena Herzog.
Theo Jansen’s hands & plastic pipes (2010), Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands . Photo by Lena Herzog.

The Franciscan monastic Richard Rohr has written regarding creative output: “We don’t need a reason for art. Beauty is for beauty’s sake. Art and music are not simply objects, but an experience of opening to mystical awareness. “

Indeed, Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests are more than simply beautiful objects. They remind us of the power of the creative impulse, the joy of creation, and the complexity of life.

But can their creator ever give them life?
Or is their power, like Frankenstein’s, to remind us of what it means to be created to create.


Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen
On view at PEM through January 3, 2016
Exhibition travels to Chicago and San Francisco

Animaris Umerus (2009), Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands. Photo by Lena Herzog.
Animaris Umerus (2009), Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands. Photo by Lena Herzog.

An American Epic

It’s rare, wandering Salem’s world-class Peabody Essex Museum, for me to have a feeling of familiarity. Indeed, becoming familiar with the far away and/or long-ago is part of the reason I wander those halls in the first place.

So, it was especially strange to encounter references to my hometown in the labels for “American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood,” the first major exhibition of the Kansas City artist in 25 years.

Thomas Hart Benton Self Portrait With Rita, 1922 Oil on canvas 49 × 39 3⁄8 in. (124.5 × 99.9 cm) National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jack H. Mooney, NPG.75.30 Photo courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/Art Resource, NY. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Thomas Hart Benton
Self Portrait With Rita, 1922
Oil on canvas
49 × 39 3⁄8 in. (124.5 × 99.9 cm)
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jack H. Mooney,
Photo courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/Art Resource, NY. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

In my childhood, I had known Benton as an epic muralist, prominent in downtown banks and department stores, but his World War II propaganda, representations of the American West, and commercial work for Hollywood were all new to me.

At the press opening, when I’m usually thinking about what intellectual connections I can create to make the faraway and/or long ago nearer and clearer, I was drawn instead to the social connections that might be possible, bringing together in the faraway, communities once known to me by their nearness.

I also have a special affinity for extending invitations, seeing in that vulnerable act of generosity the seed of creation, and in the acceptance of said invitation the assumption of the risk imperative to its possibility.

So, after the press opening, instead of typing up notes and thinking deep thoughts in anticipation of writing a “review,” I took steps towards planning an “event:” Benton and Missourians in Salem.

Thomas Hart Benton New England Editor, 1946 Oil and tempera on gessoed panel 30 × 37 in. (76.2 × 94 cm) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Hayden Collection— Charles Henry Hayden Fund, 46.1456 Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Thomas Hart Benton
New England Editor, 1946
Oil and tempera on gessoed panel
30 × 37 in. (76.2 × 94 cm)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Hayden Collection—
Charles Henry Hayden Fund, 46.1456
Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Myth-making is a central theme of the show, with multiple explorations of stories we create for ourselves about where we come from and where we’re going. Epics are, after all, about journeys, expanding one’s home turf, interacting with the other. There’s risk, and possibility, and attempts to make sense of difference. 

I see this active myth-making most acutely in the propaganda work, where caricatures of Japanese and African Americans eschew any beauty or humanity, focusing instead on dangerous threats of an unknown outside.

When confronted with the otherness of the landscape of the American West, however, Benton seems to exaggerate the beauty of its foreignness; opportunity outweighing threat.

Thomas Hart Benton Lewis and Clark at Eagle Creek, 1967 Polymer and tempera on Masonite panel 30 1/2 x 38 in. (77.5 x 96.5 cm) Courtesy of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1989.2.10. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Thomas Hart Benton
Lewis and Clark at Eagle Creek, 1967
Polymer and tempera on Masonite panel
30 1/2 x 38 in. (77.5 x 96.5 cm)
Courtesy of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1989.2.10. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

And Hollywood? Other than Delphi and its oracle, has there been a more successful mythmaker in the history humankind?

“Benton developed a modern cinematic painting style to communicate epic narratives as memorably as the movies of his day,” says Austen Barron Bailly, PEM’s George Putnam Curator of American Art. “He wanted to capture the feel of motion pictures on canvas: the illusion of three-dimensional space, rhythmic motion and the glow of projected light.”

Thomas Hart Benton Hollywood, 1937–38 Oil on canvas 56 × 84 in. (142.2 × 213.4 cm) The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Bequest of the artist, F75-21/12 Photo by Jamison Miller. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N
Thomas Hart Benton
Hollywood, 1937–38
Oil on canvas
56 × 84 in. (142.2 × 213.4 cm)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Bequest of the artist, F75-21/12
Photo by Jamison Miller. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N

I too had grand dreams for my “event,” harnessing the movement of people across a land, capturing affinities of nearness in the land of the other.

And yet despite extending far-reaching invitations, I fear, in the end, fear won. We were a mere handful of classmates and cousins, risking little more than sharing a morning filled with beauty and opportunity.

Perhaps when “American Epics” opens at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City on October 10 some of you based there will extend an invitation to an-other to explore a beautiful epic?

Thomas Hart Benton The Lost Hunting Ground, 1927–28 From the mural series American Historical Epic, 1920–28 Oil on canvas 60 1⁄4 × 42 1⁄8 in. (153 × 107 cm) The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Bequest of the Artist, F75-21/10 Photo by Jamison Miller. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Thomas Hart Benton
The Lost Hunting Ground, 1927–28
From the mural series American Historical Epic, 1920–28
Oil on canvas
60 1⁄4 × 42 1⁄8 in. (153 × 107 cm)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Bequest of the Artist, F75-21/10
Photo by Jamison Miller. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

A writer’s life

As frustrating as it seems, especially in the moment, life must have challenge, especially if you, like me, like to tell stories about it.

Most often we hear about the challenge of the writer’s block, the fear of failing to improve with our primitive markings the purity of the blank page (cave wall), or committing to a story that might not turn out to be ideally suited to achieving our dreams.

I haven’t written anything for a long time, though I don’t think the reasons for this are the above. Instead, the trouble’s been, I’ve been so busy accumulating stories I just haven’t had a chance to write any of them down!

The backlog goes back at least to the humanistic seder I hosted on Good Friday. It includes dinner parties featuring peking duck, Dutch poffertjes and a banquet inspired by a soundtrack of pre-Khmer Cambodian rock and roll. I attended an extraordinary world premier by the classical music world’s current wunderkind, Matt Aucoin, and made a cross country culinary pilgrimage to dine at the trailblazing Chez Panisse. I was inducted into the Fellowship of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist and spent a weekend in rural Vermont leaving cocktail parties in chicken coops in my wake.

Indeed, I’m writing this paragraph from a shady Montreal garden where an immigrant DJ is ensuring my Fourth of July has more French EDM than yours. Shouldn’t I engage someone in conversation? Make a story, rather than privately muse on the challenges of storytelling?

It’s a long-held writer’s creed, that a story doesn’t count if you don’t write it down. Eat everything you kill. By this estimation the past several months have been pretty indulgent? Self-serving? Profligate?

By choosing not to write for whatever reasons, I am in some sense diminishing these experiences value.

And that’s not because I’m failing to publish them, and personally benefit from dozens of you being convinced of my very unique life.  The problem is I’m not honoring these stories nee experiences, failing to reflect upon and draw connections among people and happenings, imbued with the potential of radical change.

In this way, the accumulation of stories for the purpose of personal entertainment is akin to accumulating hats, or magic tricks, or rabbits: a wasteful illusion.

A story, on the contrary, should not be a mere gimmick but an innately honorable repository of meaning and a vehicle for revelation and revolution.

And so, on this day celebrating a revelation of independence, I choose to break from the chase and do the work.

Vive la revolution!

Reflections on Pilgrimage

[Notes for my reflection on Pilgrimage presented Sunday, June 14, 2015 at Salem’s Grace Episcopal Church’s Celtic meditation.]

21 And continuing on Jesus saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

Matthew 4:21-22English Standard Version (ESV)

The ancient and living El camino de Santiago, the way of St James (or St. Iago as he’s known in Spanish), is I like to think a continuation of St James’s story which begins in the gospel of Matthew when Jesus calls Zebedee’s son from his worldly work at home, to a heretofore unknown holy work in the world.

Church legend tells us James continued on very far from this getting up and going from the banks of the Sea of Galilee. Even beyond sharing in Jesus’s provincial ministry in Paelstine, James ventured to the very ends of the earth to share with the world what Jesus had shown him. In the first century, that meant going as far as spain and portugal on the Iberian peninsula.

Eventually, through many trials and tribulations – historic, legendary and universally disputed – James’s relics became safely ensconced in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, some 20 miles from the Coast of the Atlantic Ocean and 3000 miles from the shores of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus first called James to the Way.

The site too eventually joined Rome and Jerusalem as one of the three major pilgrimages of the nascent Christian World. At its height in the 11th and 12th centuries more than a million people a year left their homes to walk to the end of the world, by some estimates that means a fifth of Europe’s entire population walked the way each year.

They did so in the words of the Catholic Encyclopedia as it defines pilgrimage, to visit some place with the purpose of venerating it, or in order to ask there for supernatural aid, or to discharge some religious obligation.

These pilgrims were very often in desperate search of hope and healing, abandoning homes, fleeing pasts, working for a tangible and literal salvation.

The black death and protestant reformation disrupted many systems and mindsets that had contributed to the popularity of pilgrimages to the extent that by the 1980s only a few dozen pilgrims were trickling into the pilgrim’s office in Santiago each year.

But then something changed. In every year, since 1989 more pilgrims have walked the way than the year before. In 2011, the year I made my pilgrimage for nebulous, unarticulated reasons, nearly 180,000 other modern pilgrims did the same. Walking at least the last 100km into Santiago, checking in with the Pilgrim’s office, and recording their journey as “religious” or “religious and other”. Last year, 237k did so.

Practically this increasing popularity means that when walking the Camino today, very much I imagine like our medieval forebears, you’re never alone. There are pilgrims literally and figuratively before you and behind you, beside you, and when staying in a fully booked pilgrim’s hostel, or albergue on bunk beds above and below. Pilgrimage is never a solo venture.

These modern pilgrims come from all over the world [I met several Koreans] for all sorts of reasons. Young and old, as individuals and as families and as families of choice, religious but predominately not.

Indeed, virtually no one I met was interested in venerating relics or discharging religious obligations as many prevailing but now perhaps archaic definitions of pilgrimage would suggest is a pilgrim’s motivation. Rather, even the most secular holiday-maker couldn’t help but acknowledge the transformative potential of a far-reaching journey made with intention and faith.

As I walked the 500 miles from St. Jean Pied de Port at the base of the French Pyrenees, where most modern pilgrims begin their journey, through the Rioja, across the Meseta and into verdant Galicia, I found myself singing to myself that 1988 song by the Scottish duo the Proclaimers, “I would walk 500 hundred miles.”

In the song, 500 hundred miles is a statement of hyperbole. i.e “It’s ridiculous to think I’d ever walk 500 miles, but for the sake of argument I would if I had to because I’m gonna be. . .”

The grammarian in me recognizes these are conditional, future statements. They express desire and expectation, but not a presence or action. They’re figurative; no one has any intention of going anywhere .

As a pilgrim literally walking 500 miles, though, I had little mental patience for the future or conditional. With each step of each days journey adding up to those 500 miles I could not help but be present in my presence of being, not just a pilgrim, but more fully myself.

And it’s this active beingness that I’ve come to believe is the great revelation of pilgrimage. It’s not about reaching a destination, or achieving a benchmark, getting a certificate, or ticking some epic journey off a bucket list. Rather, it’s the willingness to go in the first place, to be sensitive to that subtle often nonsensical call to leave behind your fish nets and then to have the faith and will to keep going, especially when it’s hard or painful or you question why you even decided to go in the first place. . .

Indeed, now that I have a couple capital P pilgrimages in my history, I’m coming to realize they’re really more like retreats, rest days on the great pilgrimage of life, times to reflect and renew before going back to the far-reaching work of life, ever more sensitive to the inevitable call to get up and go.

Each evening all across northern Spain, in chapels and cathedrals, campgrounds and restaurant terraces, pilgrims pray together an ancient prayer linking their journey with those past and future. I’ve slightly modified it for us and would like to conclude my reflection with this Pilgrim’s Blessing circa Salem, Mass, 2015.

Oh God, who brought your servant Abraham out of the land of the Chaldeans, who guided the Hebrew people across the desert, and who sent your son Jesus to call Zebedee’s son James and all our sisters and brothers to go into the world to do your work, we ask that you watch over us your servants, as we make our own pilgrimages .

Be for us our companion on the walk,
Our guide at the crossroads,
Our breath in our weariness,
Our protection in danger,
Our albergue on the Camino,
Our shade in the heat,
Our light in the darkness,
Our consolation in our discouragements,
And our strength in our intentions.

So that with your guidance we may arrive safely at the end of the Road and enriched with grace and virtue return safely to our homes filled with joy.

In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.


“Opera is a primal union of animal longing, as expressed in sound, and human meaning, as expressed in language,” writes the classical music wunderkind Matthew Aucoin in his notes on Crossing, his new opera for which he unconventionally wrote both the libretto and the music, inspired by the life of Walt Whitman and commissioned by the American Repertory Theatre as part of their multi-year National Civil War Project, at the Citi Schubert Theatre through June 6.

In foreground Alexander Lewis and Rod Gilfry. Photo: Gretjen Helene Photography
In foreground Alexander Lewis and Rod Gilfry. Photo: Gretjen Helene Photography

At 25, Aucoin has done more work with more world-renowned institutions than musicians more than twice his age might dream. In addition to this commission from the A.R.T., Aucoin is the Solti Conducting Apprentice of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Assistant Conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, and composer in residence at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum where he will be presenting a cycle of art songs in the galleries June 26-27.

It’s through multiple performances at PEM that I’ve had the opportunity to experience in the flesh the extraordinary musicianship the rest of the world has read so much about in extensive profiles by the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. I’ve born witness to Aucoin’s pluck and volubility at the piano, precision and expressiveness on the conductor’s stand, and the contagious curiosity he shares for literary allusions and complex sounds.

Amidst all this virtuosity, though, I come away from each performance recognizing above all Aucoin’s youth, as undeniable as his technical prowess. The very picture of precocious. While much of the classical music world lauds this fact as salvific, I worry Aucoin’s fecund youth is being wasted on institutional gimmickry.

Rather than in service to aging institutions selling more tickets, I would love to see Aucoin use his youth to stretch his talents to breaking, absorbing, and creating and recasting the expressive sounds of universal human longing in his singular voice and understanding. By definition, this means he needs to take risks and to fail, a lot: anathema to the world-renowned institutions hiring him today, until he creates something so new and beautiful and true they can continue to sell tickets to productions of it for generations after Aucoin’s youth has faded.

While I have yet to see Aucoin fail, he’s certainly taken some risks, notably, with Crossing.

In content: Whitman’s self-sacrificing care of wounded soldiers introduces the uncomfortable idea of predatory compassion, which for Boston audiences especially, perhaps invokes the trauma of the church abuse scandal. And, while representation of homoeroticism today is largely passe, it still carries an air of taboo.

Musically: a chorus of eleven men creates a sonority of strength and beauty we hear (and experience) too little of. Appearances by women are perfunctory, agents of plot and convention. The Negro spiritual is invoked, transformed and celebrated with finesse and abiding understanding.

Indeed, there is virtually nothing here to overtly criticize. It is outstanding work deserving in every way of the highest marks.

But as Aucoin makes clear in his notes, the opera house is about more than winning high marks from on high; it’s a public, primal space of longing and meaning. And for me, the Citi Schubert seemed more an academic recital hall filled with friends and family in awe of all the music the proverbial young Johnny had learned.

Instead, I yearn and trust Matt to guide me into and through a musical wilderness I’ve never heard or imagined, to draw out emotions and relational complexities that surprise, frighten, and inspire me, to acknowledge the boundaries of my knowledge in demonstrating a new kind of freedom.

I realize, it’s an extremely high order. One might even say impossible. Except it’s been done before.

Ever read Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass?”

I think this kid’s just as good.

The workshop presentation of 'Crossing' on October 28, 2014. Photo:
The workshop presentation of ‘Crossing’ on October 28, 2014. Photo:

Music & libretto by Matthew Aucoin
>With the chamber orchestra A Far Cry
Directed by Diane Paulus
Through June 6
Citi Schubert Theatre
Tickets start at $25

I love getting invited to experimental/avant-garde/new acts of creation, especially operas.

And Guerilla Opera, the independent collaborative performing ensemble in residence at the Boston Conservatory, gives me lots of opportunity to stretch my expectations not just of what an opera is, but what a performance can be, all while showcasing the talents of some of the finest musicians and stage directors in the Boston area, aka the country/world.

I remember well the time the countertenor in a chicken suit serenaded us in a kiddie pool filled with cheerios.

And the existential multiplicities derived from enjambing the infinite versioning of sandwich making.

Guerilla’s most recent production “Pedr Solis” is equally clever, challenging and esoteric.

Brian Church, Baritone in the title role of Pedr Solis.
Brian Church, Baritone in the title role of Pedr Solis.

The internationally acclaimed composer Per Bloland best known for his Electromagnetically-Prepared Piano, found inspiration for this new work in the abstract modernist writing of the Norwegian novelist Pedr Solis, [I can’t find any of his work in translation. . . let me know if you can. . .] particularly Solis’s most famous novel Stillaset (“The Scaffold”), which he describes as the journey of an unnamed protagonist navigating a seemingly infinite edifice, during which time he discovers a “black book” of Old Norse legends and language which begin to disrupt the narrative, eventually taking over and ultimately being overcome itself by cryptic symbols resembling runes. There is no ending, only a gradual “falling apart.”

The obvious complexities of Pedr Solis’s novel are reflected, rather obviously, in the opera Pedr Solis through adventurous polyphony (often atonal), cryptic obscuring shrouds worn by the chorus, and large wooden blocks which are stacked and measured and moved and knocked down in a series presumably reflecting the development of the narrative.

It’s all fascinating and clever and obviously the result of a lot of time spent by a lot of folks with a lot of education.

And yet I can’t help but think there’s something pretty fundamental missing. Perhaps it’s just a hole in my own education or personal preferences, but I yearn for allusions to more traditional conceptions of melodic beauty or the elegance of complexity in harmony (as opposed to complexity as complexity).

Must “new” music completely eschew these fundamental musical experiences in pursuit of intellectual interest or rigor?

I don’t think so, which is why I’m going to keep going to every new opera I can find for a glimpse of some new and yet unknown beauty.

Gout de TGI Fridays

On Thursday, 19 March 2015, over 1000 chefs across five continents participated in the “Gout de France,” a celebration of French gastronomy inspired by Auguste Escoffier’s 1912 “Diners d’Epicure,” creating regionally evocative dishes conforming to a “French-style” menu:

cold starter
hot starter
fish or shellfish
meat or poultry

I thought of attending an official, expensive, fancy menu in Boston.

But then, I read on about a provocative new ad campaign for TGI Friday’s “endless apps”  and thought purquois pas? If we can celebrate the tradition of eating in the French-style with a Caribbean or Asian or Quebecois accent, why not with the distinctive, nutritionally dubious, commercially overwrought inflection of suburban American fast-casual dining?

In truth it’s a tradition with which I don’t have much familiarity or access, as I only really go anywhere accessible by public transit and institutions like TGI Friday’s have mostly limited their access to those displaying privilege through the possession of personal automobiles.

The ride over was as disorienting, intimidating and frightful as that Siberian bus I took from Irkutsk to Olkhon Island: Where am I going? Am I going to survive these horrible roads? There’s no way they’re going to have anything I need once I get “there.”

Once we got there, we discovered it was a popular place?! Only two seats at the wraparound bar.

I started trying to figure what to order for an aperitif (Do you think they have Pernod? Maybe Lillet?), when the townies seated next to us asked about all our strategizing.

How to explain the Gout de France to baseball-cap wearing, Bud Light drinking Baby Boomers at the TGI Friday’s bar?

“The French Government has instituted. . .”

Definitely not.

“There’s a worldwide movement. . .”

Pretty risky.

“We’re crazy cookbook editors.”

True and somewhat relevant if not wholistically descriptive of our presence.

We went with that as I ordered a Jack with two rocks as an aperitif and the bruschetta as our cold starter.

The idea of the Gout of course is that a menu constructed within the sturdy and time-tested framework of the French-style doesn’t have to be weighed down by French ingredients and preparations, but can and should flex and expand to embrace and exploit local delicacies and delights.

How was our bruschetta an expression of the delicacies and delights of this place?

The tomatoes looked to be tomatoes in that they were tomato red, but tasted not of tomato, but of nothing really. We were consuming the image of a tomato, our memories of tomatoes and the possibilities of tomatoes, but not, a true, living, blessed tomato.

The bread: dense, life-less, not just dead, but having never lived.

For our hot starter we ordered pan-seared pot stickers: tasty and texturally interesting but with no real relationship to our previous course. And, what was that taste? MSG?

For the fish course, we had to go off menu in ordering coconut fried shrimp. And, what to say about them? They were fried. But as a course intended to reflect the delicacy and sweetness of the sea, they failed miserably. The shrimp were no more than a vehicle for their fried exterior and might as well have been tofu, soylent or a figment of my imagination.

We ordered Boneless Buffalo Wings for our main course, a dish I secretly adore for its aggressive pungence. But what is it? How does it get its distinctive color? What does it have to do with Buffalo, NY? And do these disembodied nuggets of flesh have have any relation to chickens?

The cheese course is my favorite in a traditional menu, serving as a break from the heaviness of those just passed, consumed at a leisurely pace, featuring sharp, distinctive, often new tastes.

On this night, we ordered for this purpose fried mozzarella sticks, which I suspect you’ve had before. They were not unlike our fish course, except saltier. We did not finish them.

Nor did we order a brownie obsession(r) or mudslide for our final sweet course as we had earlier discussed.

I was stuffed and unsatisfied, filled with a hunger for something more/else/alive.

And so our taste of Danvers concluded. We paid our not insignificant bill and began our not short journey home.

Our French-style menu had failed to reveal much beauty or delight, though I believe there was truth in it. Just as the framework can expose an unsung chef’s skills or a little known ingredient’s complexity, it allowed us to really taste the distinctiveness of suburban America.

Defined by price and excess, valued for appearance and conformity to an outside standard, it’s in high demand to the lowest bidder.

Bon Appetite.




Strange Days

In my guise as sometimes theatre critic I can get some pretty fun emails. . .like this one!

“[You] came up as a potential resource that reviews fringe theater companies.  For that reason I am inviting you to Exiled Theatre’s first production.”

I especially appreciate in this message that there’s no judgment or valuation: no, “I’ve heard soooo much about you” or “I’d loooove for you to come review.” It’s a simple statement of work: “you do this thing; will you do it for us?” Maybe I’m good, maybe I’m not; that’s not really the point.

So often it seems in our noisy, fast-paced, twittering lives, straightforward substance gets pushed aside for the posturing superlatives that might win a valuable few seconds of attention from a random passerby, regardless of truth or relevance.

“Would I like to review a fringe theatre production?”
Why yes, in fact, I’d LOVE to!

And so I put on my calendar the Sunday matinee press performance of “Strange Days: Five Tales Concerning Dark Paths, Odd Numbers and Birthday Cakes,” and made plans to rendezvous in Cambridge at a couple new trending watering holes.

At the nouveaux wine bar around the corner from the performance venue, we overheard some other guests request a speedy check. Are we going to the same place? Do you know what we’re going to? Not a clue. . .

Down an alley, past a rattling roll-up door, up the stairs. It’s dark. Where are those sounds coming from? Do we go through this door? A familiar face! From Salem Theatre. Exiled Theatre’s founder and playwright. Perhaps we’re not so far on the fringe afterall. [Or, maybe it’s the fringe where I spend most of my time. . .]

In the Green Street Studio, we found a few rows of chairs facing an expansive space most commonly used to teach “Advanced Modern and Movement Lab,” “European Swordsmanship,” or “Balkan Dance.”

Perusing the program, we learned that this production was indeed the first for Exlied Theatre and would be comprised of five short original plays by James Wilkinson. The first of which, “Delicious,” was familiar from Salem Theatre’s “Moments of Play” Festival.

Here, it was performed with all the innocent absurdity requisite of a piece involving the mysterious delivery of birthday cakes and a prosthetic hand.

Wilkinson seems most comfortable in this sort of twilight zone, pushing slightly wacky but mundane situations to extremes while testing the disbelief of his audiences. A young girl picks up a couple hitchhikers, one of whom is injured. In the midst of a storm on a secluded island, young Nora goes missing.

Perhaps because each piece is so short, they come-off more as “treatments” or exercises in a game of what-if, than fully developed, complex wholes.

Regardless, Exiled Theatre is most definitely doing the work — a new company, performing new plays — it’s wonderful to see, whether on the fringe, or wherever you happen to be.


Strange Days: Five tales concerning dark paths, odd mercies and birthday cake
By James Wilkinson
Directed by Teri Incampo
through April 5

Exiled Theatre