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Family Narratives

I used to have a business called "Lifesounds." Using my journalist's interviewing and radio production skills, I captured family stories at the request of the families, for a fee. I turned over the raw interviews, or edited them down onto CD's to be presented as gifts at special occasions, or as legacy keepsakes. Often a family had the expectation that a trained reporter could pierce silence, or correct an apocryphal story that had become embedded in family lore over many decades, the fabrications embroidered with every telling. Not that this is a bad thing, from a writer's point of view, so long as we accept that we are listening to tall tales at times. Sometimes a family does not realize that this has happened. They've heard stories they find fascinating and they innocently pass them along without asking too many questions.


So my job was difficult-- not logistically, or technically—but for all the other reasons, as mentioned above. I wasn't always a welcome interlocutor, a stranger digging into the past and to what end? To correct the historical record? Or to satisfy a family's frustration at not knowing "the truth?"


 Once I was commissioned to interview an Irish-American woman turning 80 who had been a nanny to the family's children. They were planning a birthday party and the interview would be a gift, they explained. Everyone had adored her, but knew very little about her. They suspected she had been hiding something, but what?  They wanted her story badly; they were so curious it hurt. Though I suspected there might be a problem, I made the call to set up the first interview and was invited over immediately. Tea was offered. We made ourselves comfortable. The nanny was affable and she was Irish; oral storytelling is in Ireland's DNA. She talked and she talked. It was a good story. But as I started to store my equipment she told me that I couldn't release the interview until she was dead. This was a conundrum. Her former employer had hired me and she had consented. The interview was done. But she was so adamant that I turned back the advance. I still have that CD stored in a box somewhere.


I would wager that within every family there are so many buried stories and secrets that, once unearthed, they could fill libraries. They often remain untold and unexplored. In their place are false stories, evasions, the lacuna of unanswered questions, ellipsis. These gaps create tension in a family, and also curiosity, which is why I started "Lifesounds," as a tool to fill in gaps and find answers to troubling questions. Of course, not all the gaps are sad or troubling; they can be happy gaps, or humorous gaps, or just unintended gaps. That is why Henry Louis Gates' program, "Finding Your Roots," is so successful. The past is a treasure trove, the revelations both illuminating and life-affirming for his guests and his audience.


Everyone has a right to with-hold their stories though I always try to convince people I interview, and my family as well, that it is unwise, even unkind to do so. We are living in an era of obfuscation, lies, and brazen hatreds, openly expressed. More than ever before, I consider it my responsibility, as a reporter and a writer, to assert authenticity as a moral value.

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Green Book

Everyone is raving about "Green Book," and for all the seemingly "right" reasons I won't reiterate here as we are sure to hear them ad infinitum in the run-up to the Oscars. The film is nominated in five categories: Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actor in a Supporting Role and Best Film Editing. Not bad.


Why, then, am I so disappointed, so concerned? "Green Book" is a Hollywood movie, after all, and they—the producers, the money men and women—will usually make market-driven, star-studded choices. Screen writers are instructed to make changes, a mostly hidden process. (Note that there were three screenwriters on this project, which is not unusual.) With "sensitive" subjects such as race and sexual orientation, especially when they are combined, as in this story—the screenwriter is slave--yes slave-- to the director and the producers and the money men and women. How do I know this? My husband is in the business, so to speak. He watched helplessly as one of his teleplays was ripped to shreds and then abandoned because it was too "sensitive" on the issue of adoption.


There is so much money in Hollywood that some screenwriters make their living off option money and never see a screenplay or teleplay produced. My husband backed away, though he still has a project cooking. The constant cycle of expectation and disappointment, of not owning one's own work, is far from glamorous.


So now we have a story, a period piece, set in the 1960's, that is both educational for those who have not lived through the Civil Rights Movement, and Romantic. In my view, it is essentially a love story. As we see the relationship between the two male leads evolve--and why is Ali considered a "supporting" actor, I wonder?—we learn their backstories. There are many car scenes where important conversations unfold, some of which are humorous, some not so humorous, some predictable. Thinly scripted, they leave the two outstanding actors with too little material to work with as character devolves into stereotype and then caricature. I cringed during the cartoon Italian-American Christmas scene, but was relieved the film was over. Thank goodness for the scroll at the end with solid, documentary information and real-life pictures.   


Don Shirley was a brilliant, erudite, courageous musician who suffered greatly during Jim Crow, and then de facto segregation, north and south. His story, his music, and his legacy, deserve better.



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The Birth of a Theater

photo: courtesy Denizen Theatre

The theater is a spiritual and social x-ray of its time.

--Stella Adler


          This past summer, a black box theater went up adjacent to the parking lot of Water Street Market in New Paltz, New York. New Paltz is a small town (population  approximately 14,000)  in upstate New York—exit 18 on the Thruway on the West side of the river—and, like all towns, has a culture particular to the town and its European settler and slave-owning history. As a newcomer, resident for less than a year, I was still trying to decipher the mores of the community when construction of the theater began. Most egregious to any outsider—or  new insider—are the odd demographics of the town: The SUNY New Paltz campus is diverse; the town itself is not.


           I had written a guest editorial for the Poughkeepsie Journal about a dormitory renaming controversy on the SUNY campus. The controversy is an a echo of the monuments discussion we are having in the country:  2,000 students had signed a petition after African-American students voiced their discomfort at sleeping in buildings named after slave-owning families. And though the Dutch, English and French Huguenot settlers all owned slaves, the town celebrates the French Huguenot settlers with an historic site; many streets in New Paltz are also named after them. It's a difficult ancestry, one not chosen by descendants still living in the town. Discussions are charged. Or there is silence, or avoidance, or anger. Facebook pages, in particular, attract thoughtless, ignorant venom. The urban open-ness and respectful discourse I have been familiar with all my life is absent here , as in our nation at large for that matter. Can a new theater encourage a healing, inclusive spirit, I wondered, as Greek theater of ancient times? Or will it reinforce insularity and provincialism, prejudice and divisiveness, by appealing only to an elite who can afford the seats?




          Water Street Market, built on the site of an old lumber yard near the Wallkill River, is now in its 20th year. It's especially congenial in the summer months with outdoor seating areas, boutiques, and various food options. It attracts tourists, but also residents. I've hung out there, met people, and been grateful for the communal space. But when the construction of the theater began, I heard grumblings, dismissive guffaws, and bewilderment. Harry Lipstein, the owner and developer of the market and the new theater, was blamed for the disruption. Questions, as shallow and vicious as town gossip over a white picket fence, were voiced openly: Is this theater a tax write-off for Harry Lipstein or a cultural give-back to a community? Will the theater be sustainable, or is it a vanity project of some sort that he'll  pour money into forever? Will the prices be low enough? Why isn't he building a cinema instead? And what about the parking lot above the market, the one we use? What about that? Will he be taking it over for the theater? And so on.  




       I have interviewed many people over the years but never a man who closed his eyes as he thought about my questions, or began to cry as he answered them. So I was a bit taken aback when Harry Lipstein, worry beads on his right wrist, closed his eyes and wept at the memory of his painful childhood in Queens, NY—an alcoholic father who abandoned his first family, and a bi-polar mother. The ellipsis in the recording of our conversation tells its own story: silent moments as memories surfaced, including what he calls his first acting job with his sister at age 4  as they created a make-believe "normal" family. I asked if the story he'd just told me was off the record and he said, " I'm an open book." 

          We were sitting in a work room between the theater and the lobby and were interrupted often: the stage manager, a photographer, Harry's artist wife, Wendy. Lipstein's long, lithe body outsized the folding chair, sliding this way and that in an athletic restlessness. His face is tanned and angular, framed with a thick shock of black hair. No publicist was around to control the flow of stories and this was refreshing for a seasoned reporter. At the same time I worried when I was asked if I'd like to become a "Denizen Insider?" @ $55 per year.  Not a question to ask a reporter. Naive enthusiasm, I thought, and said, gently, "That would be a conflict of interest."


          I got a press ticket for the second play of the season, "Adaptive Radiation," by Hannah Benitez. During my first foray into the intimate space of the theater, designed by Lipstein, who is also an accomplished architect, I was less interested in the play than the experience of watching a play in close quarters with actors and audience, "denizens" of the community as we are now called, thus Denizen Theatre, a utopian vision. The building is aesthetically pleasing, inside and out, and environmentally conscious—as little paper as possible, just a pull down screen with all the information one usually finds in a printed program, a blanket of green planted on the roof, "and insects, too," Lipstein adds. He has never written a play, but was smitten with the theater about seven years ago when his wife suggested he take an acting class. Since then, he's acted, directed and opened two black-box theaters, the first in Sarasota, Florida where he has a second home. That explains the winter tan.


          "In life, most of us play personas," he says earnestly. "Very little of our life is spent in truth—it happens with loved ones—not as much as we want. Actors that are vulnerable, give a part of themselves, regardless of the role..." He drifts off, taking a breath, closing his eyes.


          My appreciation of Harry Lipstein deepened at an event in the lobby of the theater a few days later which he hosted with his two thirty-something co-artistic directors, Ben Williamson and Brittany Poira, both MFA graduates from Florida State University. They are  engaging, social media savvy, gracious , friendly  and as energetic as Lipstein, or perhaps he is as energetic as them. The father of four grown children—two boys and two girls—it seems that the theater is yet another family Lipstein has created and nurtured, the perfect antidote to his own, long-ago lost family. But perhaps I am interpreting too much and the theater is just a theater. Either way, it's obvious that Lipstein loves what he is doing, that his effort is sincere.


          It was a gracious, pleasant evening, painted guitars hanging on the walls above our heads, a thematic curation inspired by the third and final play of the season, "The Arsonists," by noted playwright, Jacqueline Goldfinger. I arrived for the dress rehearsal on a frigid and squally night as the play's fire roared. The space had been reconfigured and the set was compelling. My first thought was that it must have been expensive.


          The continuing success of regional theater depends on many things: solid, interesting plays (contemporary, classic, or classic reimagined), good actors, a committed local audience, but, most of all, money. The economics of live theater production are daunting; the first three plays at Denizen cost more than $90,000 to produce and the artistic co-directors do not, as yet, even have medical benefits. Workers need to be sustained also, of course, especially if they are not native to the area. Young people move on easily, and a life in the theater is, by definition, peripatetic. When I asked Brittany about medical benefits she said, "We're working on it."


           In this era of searing cutbacks in arts funding, New Paltz is blessed with a wealthy, caring benefactor. Let us hope that Denizen Theatre becomes both financially viable and well integrated into the community in the months ahead. We need it.

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