Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Filling the maven form: Just like making theater…

By Jesse Freedman, blogging about his experience participating in Maven Training at Brandeis University, July 15-20.

Storah On The Road

For my Maven chevruta and me, there is a tension between what we wanted to do as theatre makers and what where asked to do as Mavens. As theatre makers we want to dive completely blind into the creative process, work intuitively molding the text and our experiences and accidentally stumble onto a structure that reflects the meeting of ourselves and the tradition. As Mavens, we are asked to fit our selves into the carefully tuned Maven performance structure and to walk the razor’s edge of Rabbi Judah’s rule: fit your self into the form, and somehow, don’t be boring and conventional. The task for a Maven in training is to gain a respect, perhaps even a reverence for the form without letting it restrict the process. The question I am exploring is “what relationship should a Maven in training have to the form they are working within?”

I appreciate the valuable role of limitations and boundaries in the creative process. Orson Wells once said “the absence of limitation is the enemy or all art”. Form can facilitate art, by defining the empty space for creativity to fill and the elements for the artist to play with. I think any artist knows how to have a healthy relationship to form, deciding to write in meter or to paint in perspective, or alternatively, to not pain in perspective. Generally however, the artist decides which form is most appropriate vessel for expressing this truth. When I am told to work in a specific form or structure, it’s because I am performing an exercise, an education in form. Play your scales before you play your rock ‘n roll. Learn the rules before you break them. Or, it’s because the producers of this play are paying my well (please G_D) to direct this drawing room comedy, and that the commission is incentive to find truth in the play without subverting the text.

Although it has been refined to maximize its market vale, the Maven form is not a commercial form, it has specific educational outcomes. Also, it’s a structure not made to be subverted (or flirting with subversion) which is what I as an artist tend to do. The Maven form is something quite different: a structure designed to facilitate a sacred ritual. The Gemara Brachot (duuhhh, somewhere in the beginning) describes the tension between the Torah reader and the Maven. The Maven must be heard, but not louder than the Torah reader. The translation exists to point to the text, not to itself. To quote Bruce Lee quoting the Blue Cliff record (because the inter-textuality is so Talmudic, so funky), “Don’t think, feeeel. It’s like a finger pointing away towards the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.” Paradoxically, the translation that does not point at all to itself fails to recognize its own subjectivity, creating the illusion of being the real thing. This is the tension that Rabbi Judah imposes on us as translators and creative artists.

Take it and run with it, but don’t run away with it …oh and btw, don’t be a liar or a blasphemer. Personally, I can deal with being called a blasphemer, (it wouldn’t be the first time), but I don’t pretend either that it encourages creativity. As a theatre director, that’s not a direction I would give to an actor. “That was good. Can you run it again and this time, Othello, how can you be less blasphemous?”… Then again, as a theatre director I’m always in dialogue with my self and collaborators around the truth of the play? This doesn’t feel real on stage, or, this is not true to the text.

Chekhov is long dead, and rarely complains anymore about how his plays are misinterpreted. Living playwrights generally have more rights regarding the reinterpretation of their work. Shouldn’t we have a responsibility to the LIVING G!D, and shouldn’t the stakes be higher?

Rabbi Judah’s rule of translation is not meant to deter us from creativity, rather to provide a guide to doing justice to the subject, sacred text. When the compositional elements in question are sacred, G-d’s word, G-d’s wisdom, the fear is that if you fiddle with it you might break it, heaven forbid. But the form is not point, it is the finger. The heavenly Glory is the point.

One of my goals as an artist is that my art be divine service; both actively involved in process of creation and in the refinement of myself as a spiritual being.

A way of relating to form is to view the form as empty vessel to fill with light and energy. Another way of looking at form is, (to borrow from the Japanese theatre director Tadashi Suzuki), an unattainable form I hold up to myself so I can see where I deviate and pull myself back in line. If we as Mavens trust the evolving Maven structure and are able to embrace the tension between Rabbi Judah’s demands, we will have created a dwelling place for the divine in lower worlds. We will have given the words of the Torah wings.

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