Opening to You
Based on Norman Fischer’s Zen-inspired translations of the Psalms
Conceived and directed by Corey Fischer
Original score composed and performed by Daniel Hoffman
Additional writing by the performers and Lee Williams
Performed by Annie Kunjappy, David Roche and Rhonnie Washington
Scenic and Costume Design by Giulio Perrone
Lighting Design by David Robertson
Stage Management by Jessica Jelliffe
Opening to You: Director’s Notes
Corey Fischer, February/2003
I first heard Norman Fischer read one of his new translations of the Psalms during a post-performance discussion at ATJT three years ago. Intrigued, I asked to see more. I was immediately struck with Norman’s choice of translating the various Hebrew names for the divinity as You, instead of the usual forms of address (“Lord,” “King,” “Sovereign”, “Master,” etc.) with their centuries of negative baggage. This allowed me to understand the psalms as part of an ongoing dialogue between the human and the transcendent.
Language is prayer. Utterance whether silent or voiced, written or thought is essentially prayer. To speak, to intone, to make words with mouth and heart: where does that come from? Debased as it so often is, language sources in what’s fundamental in the human heart. The imaginative source of language-making, that uniquely human process, is the need to reach out to the boundless, the unknown, the unnamable. Prayer is not some specialized religious exercise, it is just what comes out of our mouths if we truly pay attention. To pray is to form language, and to form language is to be human.
But when Norman suggested that ATJT might make a work of theatre from the translations, I thought the inherent challenges might be insurmountable. The texts lack any narrative and they provide no characters or settings. At the same time, the voices I heard calling through these texts kept haunting me. Continuing to read them, I began to notice a story emerging between the lines. It was a story of the human soul moving from anger to outrage to outcry to hope to praise to disappointment to anger to…. I’ll quote Norman again:
The psalms make it clear that suffering is not to be escaped or bypassed: that, much to the contrary, suffering returns again and again, a path in itself, and that through the very suffering and admission of suffering, the letting go into suffering and the calling out from it, mercy and peace can come.
There is a crucial corollary to this point: if suffering is a path, then those who suffer are to be honored. A key theme of the psalms, and therefore of Judaism and Christianity, is the nobility of the oppressed and the necessity of justice and righteousness, that the oppressed be cared for and uplifted and that there be social justice for all.
With Norman’s help, I began to hear the psalms as oral poetry created by an exiled and oppressed people. I realized I needed performers who could give voice to this poetry with a particular authority, who had lived through displacement and marginalization, who understood the need to call out and the need to offer thanks.
Daniel Hoffman, Annie Kunjappy, David Roche, Lee Williams and I spent four weeks working together in June, 2002, thanks to a generous grant from A.S.K. Theater Projects. As we worked with Norman’s translations, I encouraged the actors to answer the psalms with their own stories, the lived details of their own experience while Daniel Hoffman composed and improvised, creating musical worlds they could inhabit.
My colleague Naomi Newman, co-founder of ATJT, responded to the work with the brilliant and simple suggestion of grounding the material in that recognizable arena of contemporary alienation: The Office. The office became the emblematic place of meaningless work, lack of intimacy and community, invasive and arbitrary controls on human behavior.
When we reassembled in January, 2003, for the final phase of work on the piece, Lee Williams was not able to continue as a performer, though his stories and musical influence remain a central part of the work. Actor/singer Rhonnie Washington joined us and immediately began contributing his own insights, questions and stories.
At this time—as accounts of mass detentions by the INS and proposals for new and draconian surveillance measures filled the news—the form of the interrogation found its way into the piece. By nature, a brutalized form of discourse, interrogation seems a cruel parody of the “I-Thou” relationship the psalms reach toward.
Slowly, through the weeks, the fragments of psalms and lives, the music and the images began to shape themselves into a journey of reclamation. A movement from isolation and numbness toward reconnection with You, in all its levels of meaning. We offer this new work as an affirmation of hard-won hope in these troubled times.
This post was written by AkilahC on February 27, 2003