Margaret, the main character of my first play, At Home in the World, explains her sophomore crisis to her buddy Mark: “I was afraid I’d never go after the adventurous life I'm meant to have.” I knew her longing well . . . The summer before my Junior Year in France I worked backstage at Oberlin College Gilbert and Sullivan Players on Cape Cod. After graduating from Brandeis University, I left for Ghana, where I taught at Techiman Secondary School for two years. I could visit my friends just by walking into town in the late afternoon. When I had malaria, my students stopped by to tell me stories. Dancing and mocking chants filled the town during the Apoo Festival, the Feast of Fools. When the traveling theatre came to town, the community hall was filled for the concert party that began at 11 PM and finished at 3 AM. We walked back to the school in the moonlight. I returned to Paris, dreaming of joining a traveling theatre company. I taught English at École Active Bilingue, an international school, went to theatre workshops at night, and formed a rehearsal group for the afternoons. A scene partner, Bottom to my Titania, noting that I was also working on five other scenes, commented, “I think you want to play every part in the world.” I studied with directors Yorgos Sevasticoglou, Arlette Bonnard, and Antoine Vitez, whose productions I followed in theaters across Paris, along with Peter Brook’s company at Les Bouffes du Nord, and Ariane Mnouchkine’s Le Théâtre du Soleil at Vincennes. When I saw Yorgos’s production of The Taming of the Shrew, rhythm shot from a cannon, every role equally realized - Katherina’s resistance, alive, theatrical - I knew that I had to study with him.
When Yorgos’s troupe, Théâtre Praxis, split up, one of the offshoots invited me to join them. As the resident troupe of La Cité Universitaire, we had rehearsal space and a glorious performance space the size of a basketball court. On an expansive European schedule, we rehearsed for six months, and luxuriated in a two month run. We adapted a Grimm fairy tale, and the following year, Pinocchio. Pushing a huge cauldron, I entered as the Devil’s Grandmother, singing “Shortnin’ Bread” as I salted the stew with glitter. We turned the Cat and the Fox into a W.C. Fields, Mae West duet of crooks, and entered to the jazzy blast of a trumpet. We leaped by each other in the wings as we ran to the preset costumes of our next characters. One afternoon the kids grabbed the sheets, nighttime camouflage of the Cat and the Fox, almost preventing us from leaving the space. Caught up in the show, they were trying to protect Pinocchio. My words at the end of the prologue to the fairy tale, “Wake up!” acquired their revolutionary meaning when addressed to a group of teenagers from the working class suburbs.
We left the Cité for a cultural center in Montrouge, a suburb on the southern end of Paris. We divided France up among the seven of us, picked up the phone, called community centers, cultural centers and theatres, and toured France with our shows. At Givors we performed in an outdoor amphitheatre that was also the courtyard of a public housing project, built into a hill, designed to include residents of every financial stratum. Under a blue June sky, a swarm of children helped us carry in the sets, about ten kids to each piece. We drove all night through snowstorms, Charles Trenet playing on the tape deck. I was in love with the troupe. In a way, it was my first marriage.
I returned to the United States. I studied acting with Gordon Phillips at the Wilma Theatre on Sansom Street, and two years later I began the MA in Theatre program at Villanova, as a costume assistant. I played One in I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow, by Tennessee Williams. As I poured myself into this part, I already sensed that if I wanted to be always doing theatre once I completed the program, I needed to create my own shows. Dr. Joanna Rotté generously agreed to advise me on an independent project: adapting a fairy tale into a one-person theatre piece. I read over a thousand fairy tales and selected The Olive Lake. I researched Chinese philosophy and Japanese theatre style, and created a working script. Improvising on a hill outside the University City New School, I noted scene to scene movement. Later, back in Gordon’s class, I reworked the scenes, a friend from the class, Perry Romer, built the sets, I constructed the costumes and puppets, Larry Dickerson created the music, dancer Pat Law Stanley co-directed, and the first full performance, following earlier versions at Nexus Gallery and the Community Education Center, opened in the outdoor amphitheatre of Penn State Ogontz campus in Abington. Dropping off flyers in Jenkintown, I stopped at Summersgate Residence, a retirement community. The programmer informed me that it would be too difficult for the frail residents to come to Penn State, but invited me to bring a show to them. I proposed the Singer stories, not yet created! Two weeks later Two Short Stories was a big success, and that winter I performed Three Short Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer at Delaware County Community College. Journey Theatre Company was launched, the name taken from the first line of The Olive Lake: “This is the story of a young man who makes a great journey.” As in France, I picked up the phone, and we began touring. From local city day camps to the QE2 Cunard ocean liner and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, theatre continued to be my ticket into the wider world. And through touring, I polished and streamlined my shows. I began working on an original piece, conceived as another one person show. Exploded, tamed, shaped, cut, and rewritten many times over, and supported by readings at The University of the Arts, this story of a young woman’s coming of age in 1970 has become a four-character play, At Home in the World. I returned to Villanova Theatre when I joined the cast of thousands (well, forty), in Museum by Tina Howe, directed by Dr. Joanna Rotté. Joanna and I worked together again when I played Ono No Komachi in her adaptation of five Noh plays about the medieval Japanese poet, The Beautiful Life of the Woman Komachi. I was so happy to find my former professor and advisor again, and to get a taste of Japanese Noh theatre from director Elizabeth Dowd. As I united this style with the more Method based approach I’d studied with Gordon Phillips, in a way I was realizing my hope on returning to the States, to combine a more interior approach with the highly fantastical, physical style of my French troupe. I continue to love teaching. Along with leading theatre workshops, I bring the arts into my French and writing classes. This began in Techiman, long ago, when my French students acted out Ghanaian folk tales that I’d translated into French. At the University of the Arts students construct creative projects at the end of the First Year Writing semester. A composer and vocalist wrote and performed a tango version of a scene between Donna and Phil in Hurlyburly. An illustrator drew images of Jerry’s stories, clouds of haunting visions pursuing Peter as he flees from the park at the end of The Zoo Story. I had screened the film Berkeley in the Sixties. A dancer improvised on the meaning of daring to break through a barrier. A class of music theatre majors rewrote and performed The Rake’s Progress, resetting it in contemporary America. The rake leaves Arkansas for Beverly Hills. On a more personal note, I am so proud of my son Matthew, talented DJ and fine young man. With great difficulty I restrain myself from taking out a pen and scribbling on his posters, “The greatest.” Sometimes I succumb. The summer of 2013, I went to California for the first time, traveling cross country by train. I was having breakfast by myself in the dining room of the Fort Mason hostel in San Francisco. I was on the other side of the country, and felt At Home in the World. I realized that this was the deep longing of Margaret in my play, and my own.
Copyright ©2017 Janet Fishman. All rights reserved.