Monday, February 8, 2016

“Of Dreams and Dogs and Jazz”: A Review of The Plays of Jon Lipsky, Volume Two

 edited by Bill Barclay and Jonah Lipsky (Hanover, NH: Smith and Kraus, 2014). ISBN: 978-1-57525-893-5


If the plays in Volume One of this collection are like a sprout bursting through the soil from a carefully cultivated seed, the four plays in Volume Two are the unfolding of a complex, beautiful patch of flowers, quite unlike each other, or any other, yet recognizable all the same.
I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to share my thoughts on what is now the third book containing the works and ideas of Jon Lipsky. His Dreaming Together: Explore Your Dreams by Acting Them Out (Larson Publications), has had a considerable impact on my theatre education and play-making career, and two of the four plays in Volume Two are directly related to Lipsky’s ground-breaking dreamwork.
The Introduction to this volume, written by Bill Barclay, provides answers to the questions of how Lipsky worked and why these four plays were chosen for this volume. I encourage you to read the introduction a few times before embarking on the journey of the first play, and to return to it before reading each of the others. The following quote sums up the editors’ intent and what this review will explore: “We hope through reading these plays and their introductions that Jon’s unique methods will inspire the artistically inclined reader to engage in similar voyages of their own. Whose story needs to be performed?” (24).
I have certainly been (re)inspired reading these two volumes of plays, and, in answer to the question posed, we ALL need our stories, if not performed, then told, which is the subject of my latest book in the field of theatre education and storytelling, and this is the lens through which I want to discuss the four plays in the volume, starting with Dreaming with an AIDS Patient, based on a book by Robert Bosnak, a world-renowned Jungian psychoanalyst and practitioner of dreamwork (I have had the pleasure to communicate with Dr. Bosnak on several occasions on the benefits of dreamwork in storytelling). Finding the universal in the ultra-personal has been a focus of my work for over a decade, and this play demonstrates its full effect. In the play, both Robert and his patient, Christopher, are played by the same actor, a decision that is out of the box and wholly apt, given the theory that all of our dream characters are aspects of ourselves. This play is full of unabashed truths about the depth of human feeling and having two actors play the main parts would have, I believe, created an unnatural boundary that would have prevented the seamless intertwining of doctor and patient that brings forth the vibrant resonance that the latent story holds. True to form, Lipsky creates a world where image and word are as seamless and re-enforcing in tandem as the play’s subjects. Humanity shines above all in this play; having developed and directed a play a few years ago with an HIV-positive actor, I have a personal sense of what is at work in Dreaming with an AIDS Patient, although any playwright, director, or actor will easily intuit the same after reading the script.
The next play in the collection is Call of the Wild (“A musical adaption of Jack London’s novels, Call of the Wild and White Fang”; written 1997; revised 2011). This is perhaps the most potent example of the derived work at which Lipsky excelled. According to the Foreword by Bill Barclay, the play began as a “class project at Boston University … devising a visceral adaptation.” Visceral, it is. Lipsky and his collaborators have captured the atmosphere, violence, and dark beauty of the lives of humans and dogs in London’s enduring novels. Like the plays in Volume One, Call of the Wild uses an ensemble of actors playing numerous roles, minimal props and costumes, and a tapestry of songs and sounds. The audience is “‘fresh meat’ just arrived to seek their fortunes.” The transformation of actors from dogs to humans is outlined in the ensemble notes and is very much a performance within the performance. If space allowed, I would examine the nuances of the language in the play (e.g., dog/God) and the way sound is used as a character, and the way repetition is used in the lyrics to build width and depth in the playing space that contains the actors, musicians, and audience, but I can only say, if you love theatre, read this play. And then read it again. It is, perhaps, the most purely powerful play in the collection.
Twice in my career I have had the opportunity to develop and direct the life stories of two individuals who portrayed themselves in the debut performances (and I am now writing a screenplay about a third). This is a unique form of storytelling with as many challenges as there are rewards. Coming Up for Air: An AutoJAZZography, conceived and performed by musician Stan Strickland and written by Jon Lipsky, is such a piece. In the introduction, Strickland notes that it was a three year process of conversation and note-taking on the beach on Martha’s Vineyard that brought the play to fruition. Anyone in the fields of storytelling and oral history will find a gold mine of technique and artistic choice-making awaiting them here. Strickland’s experiences and voice—as a person, as a musician—are so unique (the title refers to a near death experience he had in the waters off Hawaii), the ways that Lipsky worked with the text and structure to make them universal provide a roadmap for fellow travelers committed to bringing new stories (and perspectives!) to the world through theatre. Strickland and Lipsky collaborated to show us that everyone has their own rhythm and music—and finding and manifesting them for public performance holds a magic that the modern theatre often lacks.
The last play in this collection, The Wild Place, takes me back to the start of my journey through the processes and plays of Jon Lipsky. In Dreaming Together, he provided the roadmap for creating a work such as this one, which is based on a dream series by Susan Thompson (who was the co-author). Reinforcing a common theme among his collaborators, Thompson, in the Foreword, writes: “[Jon] encouraged performers to find stories within themselves” (301). Similar to the other dream plays in the collection, The Wild Place is deeply personal, taking as its source material dreams from a time when Thompson was “nursing her first child and pregnant with her second child” (Script Notes, 309). It is a moment in time, as the most moving stories are—constructed as a one-woman show with a supporting ensemble. Structurally similar while markedly different in their content and tone, Dreaming with an AIDS Patient and The Wild Place make a strong case for Lipsky’s methods of play creation. And his philosophy that the dreams are presented but not interpreted is one with which I agree. Especially when trying to make the uniquely personal wholly universal.
And that, to me, is what Jon Lipsky did best. Kudos to the editors of the two volumes for making his work available to storytellers throughout the world.