In the Spirit of the Maccabees

It is the third night of Hanukah (or the fourth, by the time I finish this post,) and I’m taking comfort in the Hanukah story in relation to my art-making.

I see the main points of Hanukah centering around the experience of “miracles.” And what I love about the Hanukah miracles, is that they’re not other-wordly. They’re very down-to-earth. But still miracles. The two primary miracles in the Hanukah story are that the Maccabees, the Jewish under-dogs fighting oppression, were able to win a battle against an army that vastly outnumbered them and had much more powerful weapons–and that when the Jews returned to their destroyed temple, with just enough oil to keep the lights on for one night, that the lights miraculously stayed on for eight nights, giving them enough time to make more lamp oil and rebuild their temple.

We premiered a dance/theater/music piece on the first night of Hanukah this year. “Ring the Bells for Peace” is a holiday show geared towards children, created and performed by the Cal State East Bay University Department of Theatre and Dance. I co-directed the production, choreographed it, wrote half the story and accompanied it with live music onstage. Performers from Dandelion Dancetheater joined the CSUEB students and community members to create and perform it. It was a huge cast of about 30, with some seasoned veteran performers, and some performing for the first time. It was a hotbed of chaos. And it was a miracle that we pulled it off.

This production has been stretching me in many ways. It’s my first “childrens’ theater” piece, my first piece co-directing with A. Fajilan, my first piece at CSUEB in a number of years without close collaboration with Dandelions Anne-Lise Reusswig and Julie Brown and my first time working with many of the people onstage. A. Fajilan and I had been working separately for the past two months, and really just brought our groups together this past week. While we share a lot of principles and beliefs about inclusive performance, and we both operate well in the midst of chaos, we also discovered many ways that we do things differently–and when we each brought with us a large, unruly company of performers, our differences multiplied.

After our first run-through, four nights before our premiere, I was trying to prepare myself that this might just be an unrealized experiment. While usually the thought of a project I direct not being an artistic success is terrifying to me, somehow I was able to hold this thought with a good deal of acceptance. I wanted to make it work, and saw the potential for great beauty in the piece, but with how much work it would take to bring it all together, I had a lot of doubts. Nonetheless, I pushed on through.

We worked as hard and fast as we could. We pushed the performers in every way we could think of, and we challenged everyone involved to take responsibility for the success of the whole show, not just their own parts. It was exhausting, anxiety-producing and one of the most intense weeks I’ve had in a long time. I didn’t sleep well and had a headache each  night. We weren’t only putting together a collaborative, interdisciplinary piece of performance, but we were teaching a large percentage of the cast what it means to be in a performance, what behavior brings the whole production down, and what they could do to contribute.

And somehow, when we got to opening night, we had a piece! A complete piece! Yes, there were issues that could be clarified, places to refine and tighten up. But I was not only relieved that we had made it through, but actually quite proud of the result. As a company of performers from many different walks of life, we were able to come together and create many focused and ecstatic moments together, bringing the audiences along with us.

This experience reminded me of the miracle of all performance. It’s amazing to me that with the amount of things that could go wrong, somehow the show does go on. And in experiences like this one, the “miracleness” is even more apparent. There’s something in the pressure of the opening night deadline that kicks us into gear–brings out great courage, willpower, and beauty.  We’re forced to work together and to tune into the ways we are connected, in spite of our differences, and to bring those connections forward. The “miracleness” seems directly tied to the fact that we are all bringing as much presence as we can muster, as much attention and intention, to the same objective–creating a successful performance. And while success might be defined differently by the different participants, the process is the same. We all have to show up. We all have to do our best. We all have to engage.

And maybe that’s what happened with the Maccabees, and the lamp oil in the temple.

We on the performance path are continually seeking and creating miracles. When I take the time to really look at what we do, it is amazing. There are so many reasons why performances that lift up the human spirit wouldn’t happen, even couldn’t happen. But we are always somehow able to find the reasons that it does.

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