Amy’s Shosha Blog
We taught for a week at Concord Academy and performed for their Summer Stages Series in the summer of 2007.
HEADLONG CO-DIRECTOR AMY SMITH
ON THE MAKING OF “SHOSHA”
Saturday, July 21, 2007
I have loved the writings of Isaac Bashevis Singer for a long time. When I find a writer I like, I often just read everything they wrote, which I did with Singer when I was in my twenties. He wrote in Yiddish and English, short stories and novels, about life in rural Poland and life in New York City. Being half-Jewish, I always felt a little bit interested in Judaism and the struggle with Judaism depicted in Singer’s books. But Singer was first and foremost a humanist, which is how I most strongly connected with him. Of all his books, “Shosha” stuck with me over the years. For one thing, I always pictured David (Brick, Co-Director of Headlong Dance Theater) playing Ari — there is something about David’s stage personality that is both sympathetically laughable and tragic the way Ari is in the book. And I always pictured Nichole (Cousineau, Company Member) as Shosha. Nichole’sexpressive face and “holy fool” clown character are perfectly suited to Shosha, who is childlike, and even mildly retarded in the book, though more spiritually connected than the others.
After a few years of talking about it, I got Andrew and David on board to think about how we would make the piece. First of all, everyone in the cast read the book, and we worked with Mark Lord as dramaturg to help us think about the framing of the piece and collect relevant images, text, and video. “Shosha” was written in the 1970s and takes place in the 1930’s as World War II is engulfing Warsaw. Its original title was “Soul Expedition”, which refers to the communal meditation on free-will free-love experiments undertaken in the fantasies of Ari’s circle of intellectual friends. We tend to think of the 1970s as the time when people broke free from oppressive societal norms in favor of libertarian ideals, multiple sex partners, feminism. But the 1930s in Warsaw was also a time of such experimentation, at least according to Singer. The character of Ari represents the struggle between tradition and modernity, and the uprootedness that can come from sudden freedoms.
It wasn’t long into the process that we realized that the group that puts on the dance play of “Shosha” needed to be characters other than our contemporary selves. Mark turned me on to the diaries of Judith Malina, who with Julian Beck started The Living Theater in the 1970s, and we watched videos of their work and the work of Peter Brook. In many ways, the experimental theater groups of the 70s were Headlong’s philosophical and artistic predecessors (of course, the Judson Church movement was also hugely significant for us). So we started playing with the idea of setting the piece in the 70s and having Andrew (Simonet, Co-Director of Headlong Dance Theater) play the Director of this group, which is trying to put on the play-within-the-play of “Shosha”. We watched videos and did theater exercises to get into “character” for these characters, at the same time developing the movement material for the “Shosha” sections, which more or less tell the story of the novel in a series of wordless scenes.
Another aspect of the piece that felt especially relevant to us was the “personal as political.” In our contemporary time, there’s a lot of struggle about how to be a moral person, a good person. If life isn’t about he acquisition of wealth, or the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, what is it about? Without religion to guide us, how do we make choices? In Headlong and in our community of friends in Philadelphia, we think about these questions a lot. And our opposition to the the war in Iraq feels relevant to the 1970s characters we play, who were meaning-seekers and political activists, and opposed the war in Viet Nam.
So all of these ideas were swirling around our artistic process, and all of these ideas are part of “Shosha”. Singer’s book was really a jumping off point for a series of characters, scenes, and visual pictures. I was reading an article in this week’s New Yorker and a quote by Peter Brook really stood out for me — it reminds me of “Shosha”, and I hope a lot of Headlong’s work: “A play in performance is a series of impressions; little dabs, one after another, fragments of information or feeling in a sequence which stir the audience’s perceptions.” I hope this piece induces that stirring.
Headlong Dance Theater