29 December 2010

“All Writing Is Pigshit . . . ”

by Antonin Artaud

[While I was doing research on stage director Leonardo Shapiro, about whom I’ve blogged several times on ROT, I came across a quotation he cited from Antonin Artaud. It wasn’t from anything I’d read before and I didn’t recognize it, so I went in search of the piece (for which Leo hadn’t provided a title) and I soon found not only the text, but the exact translation Leo had used. (In fact, I posited that I’d found the book he had read, which apparently gave him other Artaud phrases he’d used: Artaud Anthology [City Lights Books, 1965]. It’s publication was right at the time Leo, then a college freshman, had begun to discover theater—he had started out to be a poet—and, especially, the avant garde theater of New York City’s East Village. I decided he’d not only read this particular collection but had probably bought it when he was a teenager.)

[The piece—I don’t know if it’s a poem or an essay or some kind of unique Surrealistic writing form—is so provocative (as are a lot of Artaud’s work and ideas) that I’m passing it along to ROT readers. I can’t duplicate here the idiosyncratic typography Artaud used so that part’s just an approximation. (There are other translations of this text in other anthologies; even the title is translated differently in other versions.)]

* * * *
All writing is pigshit.

People who leave the obscure and try to define whatever it is that goes on in their heads, are pigs.

The whole literary scene is a pigpen, especially this one.

All those who have vantage points in their spirit, I mean, on some side or other of their heads and in a few strictly localized brain areas; all those who are masters of their language; all those for whom words have a meaning; all those for whom there exist sublimities in the soul and currents of thought; all those who are the spirit of the times, and have named these currents of thought—and I am thinking of their precise works, of that automatic grinding that delivers their spirit to the winds—

are pigs.

Those for whom certain words have a meaning, and certain manners of being; those who are so fussy; those who for whom emotions are classifiable, and who quibble over some degree or other of their hilarious classifications; those who still believe in ‘terms’; those who brandish whatever ideologies belong to the hierarchy of the times; those about whom women talk so well, and also those women who talk so well, who talk the contemporary currents of thought; those who still believe in some orientation of the spirit; those who follow paths, who drop names, who fill books with screaming headlines

are the worst kind of pigs.

And you are quite aimless, young man!

No, I am thinking of bearded critics.

And I told you so: no works or art, no language, no word, no thought, nothing.

Nothing; unless maybe a fine Brain-Storm.

A sort of incomprehensible and totally erect stance in the midst of everything in the mind.

And don’t expect me to tell you what all this is called, and how many parts it can be divided into; don’t expect me to tell you its weight; or to get in step and start discussing all this so that by discussing I may get lost myself and even, without even realizing it, start THINKING. And don’t expect this thing to be illuminated and live and deck itself out in a multitude of words, all neatly polished as to meaning, very diverse, and capable of throwing light on all the attitudes and all the nuances of very sensitive and penetrating mind.

Ah, these states which have no name, these sublime situations of the soul, ah these intervals of wit, these minuscule failures which are the daily bread of my hours, these people swarming with data . . . they are always the same old words I’m using, and really I don’t seem to make much headway in my thoughts, but I am really making more headway than you, you beard-asses, you pertinent pigs, you masters of fake verbiage, confectioners of portraits, pamphleteers, ground-floor lace-curtain herb collectors, entomologists, plague of my tongue.

I told you so, I no longer have the gift of tongue. But this is no reason you should persist and stubbornly insist on opening your mouths.

Look, I will be understood ten years from now by the people who then will do what you are doing now. Then my geysers will be recognized, my glaciers will be seen, the secret of diluting my poisons will have been learnt, the plays of my soul will be deciphered.

Then all my hair, all my mental veins will have been drained in quicklime; then my bestiary will have been noticed, and my mystique become a hat. Then the joints of stones will be seen smoking, arborescent* bouquets of mind’s eyes will crystallize in glossaries, stone aeroliths* will fall, lines will be seen and the geometry of the void understood: people will learn what the configuration of the mind is, and they will understand how I lost my mind.

They will then understand why my mind is not all here; then they will see all languages go dry, all minds, all tongues shrivelled up, the human face flattened out, deflated as if sucked up by shriveling leeches. And this lubricating membrane will go on floating in the air, this caustic lubricating membrane, this double membrane of multiple degrees and a million little fissures, this melancholic and vitreous membrane, but so sensitive and also pertinent, so capable of multiplying, splitting apart, turning inside out with its glistening little cracks, its dimensions, its narcotic highs, its penetrating and toxic injections, and

all this then will be found to be all right,

and I will have no further need to speak.

* * * *
[*arborescent: Having the size, form, or characteristics of a tree; treelike.
*aerolith: A chiefly siliceous meteorite.]

[In trying to ID Artaud’s "All Writing Is Pigshit," I happened on a website (several, actually) which had the text in the original French. As I had been curious what the French word(s) that had been rendered as 'pigshit' or 'garbage' (depending on the translation), I had a look. In French, Artaud wrote, "Toute l'√©criture est de la cochonnerie". Cochonnerie is a French word for which there is no easy English equivalent--it means too many things all at the same time. Obviously, it's related to cochon, or 'pig,' but it doesn't actually mean 'pigshit' (which would be literally merde de cochon). It means 'filth,' 'trash,' 'dirty trick,' 'beastliness,' 'rubbish,' 'mess,' and any number of other colloquial renderings, depending on the context. (It can even mean 'junk food.') Perhaps the closest single English word is 'crap,' in the sense of "Everything Joe says is crap" rather than "The dog just took a crap on the rug." In fact, it can only be translated in context. I even have a dictionary on CD that doesn't give a translation for the word alone--it lists idioms with the word and translates them. It's more vulgar than 'garbage,' but less vulgar than 'shit.' (In French—and German, too—unlike in English, calling someone a pig is a fairly serious insult, more like calling someone an asshole.)

24 December 2010

Akhzivland

[At Christmastime in 1982, I made a trip to Israel and Egypt (which had just signed a peace agreement that allowed travel between the two countries for the first time since 1948), spending about two weeks in both countries. I was in Cairo for Christmas Day (though I mailed my holiday cards from Bethlehem where the post office has a special window just for that purpose), but while I was visiting Israel, my group drove north to Acre (Akko) and en route the tour guide pointed out an odd little place on the Mediterranean, tucked into a national park. The story of this place was so strange that when I returned to New York, I collected some clippings from the Jerusalem Post (my friend Helen by then had moved to Tel Aviv and wrote for the paper). I’ve added some additional research, but the following report is based largely on the JP coverage of that peculiar place and the man who created it.]

About 2½ miles north of Nahariya along Israel’s Mediterranean coast, about six miles south of the Lebanese border, is Akhziv (the name’s spelled variously depending on how it’s transliterated from Hebrew), a picturesque old fishing village. Known in Arabic as al-Zib (in various spellings also), it was abandoned by its Palestinian inhabitants after the 1948 War of Independence. (The Arabs, who have a different name for this war, say they were forced out, but I’m not debating the politics or history of the Middle East here). The village dates back to Phoenician times (Middle Canaanite period of the Bronze Age, around 1800–1550 B.C.E.) and is even mentioned (as Achzib) in the Bible. (See Joshua 15:44 and 19:29, when Joshua divides up the territories among the tribes of Israel, Akhziv being assigned to the tribe of Asher; also Judges 1:31, and Genesis 38:5 as Chezib.) Over its 3500 years of inhabitation, the area’s been occupied by Egyptians, Assyrians, Israelites, Persians, Macedonians, Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, and Arabs. It’s an archeological site, Tel Akhziv, and a tourist beach location, part of Akhziv National Park.

Just north of the park, fenced off, but tolerated by the Israeli government, stands Akhzivland, a 2½-acre “micronation,” a designation for the sometimes fanciful states conceived, usually without any international recognition, by iconoclastic dreamers and antiestablishment rebels. (Some micronations—not to be confused with microstates, which are just very tiny, but real, countries—aren’t of this planet . . . or even of this plane of consciousness.) It used to be a hang-out and campground for hippies and other nonconformists, but currently, Akhzivland has but a few permanent structures and two permanent residents: its president, prime minister, or king, Eli Avivi; and his wife, Rina, his foreign minister. Looking today like a pacific guru (or, as some have noted, the very image of God), dressed in white caftans and sandals with flowing white hair (he’s gone bald in the front now, though) and a full white beard (Santa Claus in mufti might be another description), Avivi is a thorn in the paw of all authority, a monument to determination and resistance. Akhzivland, the frequent venue of rock concerts by Israeli bands, is also a boon for travelers ready to rough it a little (there are few amenities other than the magnificent scenery and view) and unwilling to spend the money for traditional accommodations. (Admission to Akhzivland was free; today there’s a few-dollar entrance charge.)

Born in Iran around 1930, Avivi moved to Tel Aviv the next year with his family, which was Jewish (not an easy existence in Iran even before the founding of Israel). As soon as he was old enough to do so, he joined other boys his age to carry out sabotage against the British Mandatory forces in Palestine in the early struggle to force them to leave the Holy Land and open the way for the establishment of a Jewish state. “Many times we were caught by the British soldiers and brought before a court,” Avivi has recounted, “but my father knew the judge and we were only fined.”

After World War II, Avivi joined the Palyam, the naval forces of the Palmach, the underground (and illegal) armed forces of the Jewish settlers in Palestine. The “underground navy” was principally responsible for smuggling new Jewish immigrants, mostly the displaced or disenfranchised remainder of the Jewish communities in formerly Nazi-occupied countries, from Europe to Palestine. (Think of the scene near the beginning of Exodus with Paul Newman, as Ari Ben Canaan, on board the refugee ship in the harbor in Cyprus. This was a fictionalized account of a real incident in 1947.) After the British were forced to leave Palestine in 1947, the Palmach fought the Arab forces allied against the new state in the Israeli War of Independence. When Israel was established in 1948, Avivi remained at sea, signing onto fishing boats in the Mediterranean and later the North Sea, sailing the world as a seaman as far away as Greenland, Iceland, and Norway.

Avivi, a soft-spoken, gentle man who doesn’t share the harsher, gruffer demeanor of the stereotypical Israeli, is nevertheless regarded by his fellow Israelis as a colorful, eccentric, free-spirited non-conformist. He first came to Akhziv in 1952 when he was visiting his sister who lived in a nearby village. “I walked to the coast and came across this place known as Akhziv. I fell in love with it and decided to make my home here,” he explained. Avivi managed to get a lease from the government for some buildings on the abandoned property, which was essentially empty land with just the ruin of an old Arab house, the mukhtar’s residence, on the grounds. The coast was pristine and entirely undeveloped. Indeed, it’s still a quiet and serene spot: to the north loom the rolling, lush hills of southern Lebanon; east, the mountains of Naphtali in the western Galilee; and nine miles south, the Crusader town of Acre (also called Akko), one of the oldest ports in the world. To the west lay the crystal azure waters of the Mediterranean. Some visitors have characterized the setting as one of the most romantic places on Earth.

In 1959, Israel proclaimed the acreage around Avivi’s home a national park. In September 1963, construction workers started clearing the land “to survey the village and propose plans for its future,” according to the Director of the Committee for the Conservation of Historical Sites. Over the years, “The Hermit of Akhziv” had turned the old buildings within his fenced-in grounds into dormitories and a communal kitchen where guests could cook their own food and set up a party site, barbecue pit, and picnic area. In the years since he settled there, Avivi’s studied the history of the area and collected objects found, dug up on the grounds, or recovered on dives off the beach; he displays his huge collection in his own Museum of Akhzivland—coins, pottery shards, weapons, tools, stone tablets—in the former mukhtar’s residence. (Avivi charges a small fee to visit the museum.) In the early ‘60s, Avivi married Rina and she came to live with him in Akhziv. But though he’d lived there for about 10 years by this time, he’d never had any legal claim to the land. He was little more than a squatter in the eyes of the law, though in this part of Israel’s “frontier,” the authorities essentially looked the other way and left Avivi in peace.

In March 1966, however, the Israeli government condemned Avivi’s house and ordered him to leave. Having built a home and established his museum to preserve the history of the area, he felt he ought to have some rights. In the beginning, "I made my living selling fish and fruit to the neighboring kibbutzim," Avivi recalled, "but when they realized what a marvelous place I had, jealousy started.” In his typical fashion, Avivi asserted, “Everyone seemed to declare war on me. The ministry of defense claimed the place for security reasons. The neighboring settlements wanted to develop it for tourism. Finally the government demanded that I move. I refused." On 29 March, a Nahariya resident protested to The Jerusalem Post:

Sir – To my dismay I read in today’s “Postbag” that Eli Avivi is to be evicted from Achziv where he had been living for many years and has blended with the landscape I think this is most unjust because he means an addition to this beauty spot in Western Galilee.

Why must the Lands Authority destroy the museum and everything Eli Avivi has built with love? He should be given every help because he constitutes an attraction for everyone who visits this picturesque village.

Perhaps the Ministry of Tourism can step in here to do something about it.

On 24 April, an official of the National Parks Authority in Tel Aviv replied:

As the plan for this place has not yet been completed, we do not know whence your correspondent got the information concerning the destruction of the museum or the eviction of Mr. Avivi.

The ultimate clash occurred in the 1970s. The Israeli government took legal action against the hippie squatter in 1971 and “One day,” stated Avivi bluntly, “the authorities came with two bulldozers and flattened my home.” But history has a tendency to intervene and change the subject, even if it’s only temporarily.

On Friday night, 1 January 1971, an Al-Fatah team landed by boat on the West Galilee coast. Avivi told several dramatic versions of the events but the version he told soon after was that the Coast Guard had warned him that the intruders were likely to come ashore on his beach, which was especially suited for a clandestine landing. Avivi, then about 40, had 10 guests staying at his hostel; he reported that sometime after midnight, his German shepherd, Lopsi, barked and he grabbed his gun and went outside. He said he saw the rubber boat approach when the Fatah men in frogmen outfits stepped ashore so he slipped back to the house and phoned the police who arrived in force and surprised the would-be invaders. The security authorities briefly converted Avivi’s house, about 55 yards from the beach, into an ops center and after a brief search, found that another three terrorists had landed but fled. An Israeli Air Force helicopter pursued and caught two of the men; the third escaped.

Avivi believed that the Fatah invaders intended to kidnap him and even suggested that the Sulam Tsur Regional Council, with which he’d been feuding for some 15 years by then, might have been pleased if the invaders had succeeded. Avivi also quipped to a radio reporter that a stay in Lebanon would have given him some rest from his troubles.

On 31 January, however, the Parks Authority bulldozers started demolishing some old buildings in Akhziv. In a telegram to Prime Minister Golda Meir, Avivi wrote:

I strongly protest the contamination of the destruction of Achziv . . . the Fatah men who visited this beach about a month ago were tame . . . compared with those . . . who try to destroy every beautiful spot in the country. The question comes to mind, ‘What does Israel really exist for?’ I ask for your immediate intervention to stop this criminal destruction of Achziv.

According to local lore, Avivi grabbed his gun again and defied the earthmovers. He was charged with the absurd-sounding “establishing a country without permission”—I wonder if Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, et al., had “permission” from anyone to start the U.S.?—but Avivi recounts that the judge sympathized with him: “He threw out the action against me and said there was no case to answer.” According to Avivi’s own account, the magistrate said, “I know Eli Avivi. I give him permission, he can do what he want [sic]."

On 11 April, Avivi staged a protest, as he occasionally did, against the Nature Reserves Authority, charging it was marring Akhziv’s natural beauty by its development projects. With a group of hippies of both sexes, including a “topless” girl, by his side, Avivi rounded up some journalists and held a press conference, telling “anyone who would listen that . . . I just wanted to be allowed to live in my own place, in my own way.” Avivi pronounced the grounds on which he’d lived for two decades, sovereign territory—its flag, a worn T-shirt with the painted figure of a man picking an apple. Posters on the wall around the acreage read in Hebrew and English: THIS IS THE STATE OF AKHZIV. SHOW YOUR PASSPORT. The newly-proclaimed president explained brightly, “I loved Israel. I fought for Israel. But I didn’t like the government. So I made a passport for myself and declared this place independent, just as Israel itself did before me.” President Avivi observed: “This way I can stay in Israel, but in my own country.” He even wrote a constitution for his micronation and designed a suitable flag—"the legendary mermaid on Akhziv background." The micronational head of state also selected a state emblem, "a torch blazing in darkness," and a national anthem—the sound of the waves.

On 25 April, the Magistrate’s Court in Nahariya ordered the demolition of a wooden cabin that Avivi built without a permit; the president said it was to serve for parties and a Woodstock-like festival in August. The magistrate suspended the execution of the order for two weeks so Avivi could appeal to a higher court.

When Avivi first occupied Akhziv, he claimed he was holding it in trust for the former Palestinian inhabitants. He never put much emphasis on this; in fact, he never seemed to have much of a political cause or a philosophical position; he certainly never preached or speechified about it. “I’m not a political man,” Avivi has said. In reality, it seemed that his only real agenda was to live freely according to his own lights, with as little establishment interference as possible. He welcomed anyone who came along who wanted to share his vision, whether for a day, an overnight, or longer.

Who stayed at Akhzivland back in the day? Around 50 hippies were staying at Akhzivland that spring, about half footloose young Europeans on their way to South Asia “to find themselves” and guitar-playing globetrotters from the U.S. or South America, the rest free-spirited young Israelis. (Runaway minors were sometimes discovered among the visitors; they were sent back home when identified.) President Avivi asserted that Akhzivland was “the only country in the world which puts its hippie residents to productive and useful work,” and his visitors all performed chores at the little state: lighting kerosene lamps in the village, which has no electricity; tending the souvenir stand; protecting the woodwork with cottonseed oil. Two skilled carpenters from Switzerland made furniture. Avivi traded free food or use of the facilities for work on the grounds and buildings. There was also the occasional writer or artist as well. Most carried little luggage and fewer cares.

There was no discrimination in Akhzivland; every nationality and religion was welcome. President Avivi asked no questions and made no demands, as long as there was no harm to anyone. “I don’t examine marriage licenses, any more than the Tourism Ministry’s approved hotels do,” Avivi openly proclaimed. “But I will not tolerate orgies, or hashish smoking. I personally don’t smoke at all, not even cigarettes, and I preach against smoking of any kind.” The strongest drink he took himself was mint tea, but he didn’t object to his guests’ drinking wine. As for drugs, from hash on up, nature devotee Avivi objected to their use, claiming that he gradually weaned his visitors off them. “If they stay long enough in Achzivland,” he asserted, “I may cure them permanently.” And though orgies may not have been tolerated, underage sex was an occasional transgression at Akhzivland and Avivi and some of his “nationals” were charged from time to time and fined, though the men always claimed the girls told them they were of legal age. Avivi, however, didn’t object to nudity, which he insisted “blended well with the wonderful landscape here.” Nude beach-goers were common and a great attraction for vacationers at adjoining beaches at Akhziv National Park just over the fence. Though he said he’d done his best to keep his naturists out of public view, in May, a routine police drug patrol spotted 10 young men and women swimming and sunbathing nude at the independent state. Eight of the nudists slipped on bathing suits in time, but a 19-year-old Netanya girl and a 32-year-old Israeli-American were arrested in their . . . ummm natural state. After being charged with public nudity and indecent acts (unspecified, so you’re free to guess), the two were released on President Avivi’s bond.

In one corner of Akhzivland, a technician-secretary from Haifa sat in her bathing suit in front of a tent, simply “enjoying the quiet and the natural surroundings.” She and her 15-year-old son spent holidays and as many weekends as possible in Akhzivland. “You meet interesting people here,” she said.

Last Friday night there was a big party of Border Police officers and their wives. You meet people—intellectual people mainly—from over the world and from all religions, and from the better side of Israeli society. The atmosphere is free, you can wear a bathing suit all day and the quiet and peace are a tonic. Achzivland to me is one of the few small, quiet places still left that people who work to make an honest living can still afford.

A troop of American boys and girls, volunteers from a nearby kibbutz who’d been to Akhzivland for an overnight stay, piled into a truck. “It’s part of our end-of-work outing,” their kibbutznik guide explained. “It’s cheap and convenient and near the sea. It has everything we need, and we’re very satisfied.” It’s a regular event, the kibbutznik said, “We spend the evening having a good time in a kumsitz [an impromptu party] around the bonfire pit.”

President Avivi wanted recognition for his “state” to “stop the bulldozers” intent on razing his ruins and turning the village into part of the national park. He intended to put up more buildings and facilities for his visitors and tourists. In June, when Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon was touring Galilee and passed Akhziv, the self-appointed President Avivi petitioned him for official recognition of his “independent and autonomous state” by the Israeli government. “Mr. Allon told me the matter was not within his authority,” Avivi said, “and referred me to the Interior Minister. I shall certainly apply to him.”

On 15 July, Avivi “married” two young Tel Avivians at the village in a ceremony of his own making. Wearing a flower-bedecked black robe, President Avivi pronounced the 17-year-old bride and 18-year-old groom, who had met at Akhzivland the month before, “man and wife.” At the wedding party on the beach that evening, dozens of visitors danced naked around a bonfire. The wedding, however, had taken place without the knowledge of the couple’s parents and they applied to a Tel Aviv court to declare it null and void and forbid the publication of the couple’s names. According to Jewish law, though, the ceremony was legal because it had taken place in front of two witnesses and the groom’s pledge was worth more than the binding agora (.01 shekel, or .3¢). Avivi was still liable to legal action because he didn’t have approval from the rabbinate to conduct marriages, and he faced a possible two-year jail term. Such marriages “were only a publicity stunt and I’ve given them up,” Avivi contended later. “But if a couple comes along and love each other, I’m willing to give them my blessing, for what it’s worth, and my official stamp.” No action was taken at that time; however, on 18 August, Nahariya police arrested Avivi on charges of conducting marriages without authorization. After being questioned and fingerprinted, Avivi was released on a bond that was the equivalent of about $50.

After workers from the Sulam Tsur Regional Council and the National Parks Authority reportedly tried to erect fences around his little state, President Avivi went to the Magistrate’s Court in Acre to apply for a temporary restraining order. He said he would use his licensed submachine gun to repel any attempts to “trespass on his village.” On 4 August, the court prohibited the council from doing any work in Akhziv. A hearing was scheduled and on 8 August, Avivi, who had appeared in court without his hippie “nationals of the state,” asked the magistrate to make permanent the temporary order he’d granted earlier. The self-proclaimed president claimed that the council and the parks authority had started fencing off his state and constructing an alternate approach road which would “make it difficult for tourists to visit.” He also claimed that the regional council had established “secure and recognized boundaries” for this 2½-acre state a year earlier, including access to the sea, and they were now “trespassing” and interfering with his plans to reconstruct a 2,000-year-old Phoenician harbor on “his beach.” The Deputy Director of the National Parks Authority, for his part, told the court that Avivi’s rights in Akhziv should be determined “once and for all.” As far as the official knew, Avivi only had leases to two buildings, but no title to the surrounding land. The fences were meant to protect Akhziv and manage park access. The magistrate ruled on a compromise regarding the fencing off of the State of Akhzivland: the parks authority could run a fence around most of the village area, including the approach to the sea, but the court delayed a ruling on fencing along the southern part of the village which contains a copse, in which Avivi had built Akhziv’s “House of Parliament,” and the approach road to the village. The compromise came after the magistrate visited Akhzivland and President Avivi took this as “de facto recognition of my country.”

On 16 March 1972, the President of Akhzivland, wearing faded jeans, long hair, and a Fu-Manchu mustache, appeared in the Magistrate’s Court in Nahariya to demand “secure and recognized borders” for his mini-state. In his continuing dispute with “the neighboring country,” he once again sued the National Parks Authority and the Sulam Tsur Regional Council for the removal of the fence which blocked access to the sea. The counsel for the respondents asserted that since Akhziv was a national park area, Avivi’s land had to be fenced off. He was the expansionist, the officials argued. To show the magistrate why they found it necessary to fence Akhzivland in, the regional council submitted a brochure of photos taken in Akhziv. Entitled “Erotica,” it depicted nude girls, with captions extolling the micronation’s attractions, naming some famous visitors, and inviting others to come. (One wag once described nude photography as the national pastime of Akhzivland. Avivi’s museum displays some of this indigenous . . . er art.) After the hearing, President Avivi said he would initiate “a diplomatic campaign” to attract international attention to the “war of attrition” which “the neighboring country” was waging against him.

In April, Avivi appealed to U.S. President Richard Nixon and other world leaders to put pressure on Israel “to desist from its aggressive policy against his principality.” The State of Akhziv "is the tiniest country in the world," Avivi once observed. "But I will not hesitate to defend my home by any means, including arms." The self-appointed Akhziv president sent Nixon telegrams and appealed to him on a CBS TV program. Avivi explained that he took this step because his telegrams to the Israeli government had gone unanswered. Prime Minister Meir, Deputy P.M. Allon, and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan didn’t respond at all; Shimon Peres, the Communications Minister, informed Avivi that the issue wasn’t one which concerned his Ministry, but was a matter of diplomacy. Foreign Minister Abba Eban, for his part, asked Avivi not to involve foreign governments in his dispute because everything could be negotiated directly and without prior conditions.

Avivi’s first festival at Akhziv descended into chaos. On Friday evening, 16 July, about 5,000 people came to participate in the festival, overflowing the parking area and crowding both sides of the Nahariya-Rosh Hanikra road. Many had understood that admission to the festival was free, but when they were asked to pay the equivalent of $1, they tried to crash through the fence around Avivi’s residence. Avivi said that those who’d broken in outnumbered those who’d paid the entrance fee. The traffic tie-up and confusion at the sole entry gate even made it difficult for the festival artists to get through.

Earlier on the day of the festival, the Acre Magistrate’s Court had dismissed two of three charges the Sulam Tsur Regional Council had brought against Avivi: preparing, holding, and selling tickets for a public entertainment event without a permit. The judge dismissed the first two charges since the festival hadn’t taken place yet, emphasizing that the dismissal shouldn’t be seen as permission to hold the festival, but he barred Avivi from selling tickets because he didn’t have a permit. On a request from the Haifa District Attorney’s office, the Magistrate’s Court in Nahariya issued an interim ruling on 4 August forbidding Avivi from holding entertainment performances and selling refreshments in Akhziv. The District Health Officer in Acre had testified that conditions in Akhziv were inadequate for public gatherings.

On 15 November, the regional council issued the Israel Lands Administration an order to demolish Avivi’s house, which the council’s engineer found unfit for habitation. The council also ordered three other Akhziv buildings torn down—one that was in danger of collapse, and two shacks Avivi was alleged to have built without a permit on what was once a Muslim cemetery. The next day, Avivi, now calling himself the King of Akhziv, petitioned the court in Acre for a temporary injunction and the magistrate delayed the demolitions.

Around 5 April 1973, however, bulldozers demolished two buildings in Akhzivland. Under court orders, local authorities also shrank the already-tiny state by moving a fence deeper into Avivi’s territory. Then on 16 April, a fire, started as gasoline was being poured into a generator’s fuel tanks, caused $2,000 in damage to the generator and two shacks.

King Eli had spent the years since the 1959 announcement of the establishment of Akhziv National Park, which included much of the land formerly in his domain, fighting it with a series of court injunctions. Following months of litigation between the authorities and the King of Akhziv, hundreds of West Galileans attended the opening ceremony for the national park on the evening of Friday, 1 June 1973, and on Sunday, 7 July 1974, the National Parks Authority opened the new Akhziv National Park to the public for the first time. King Eli now found his pocket kingdom encircled by public parkland. The park, including the picturesque ruins of ancient Akhziv, extends from the Acre-Rosh Hanikra highway down to the beach and contains a lagoon which protects swimmers from the treacherous currents along the shore. In contrast to Akhzivland’s more rudimentary facilities, the park also offered lifeguards, a snack bar and picnic grounds, toilets, showers, and changing rooms, among other amenities that have been added since, such as a restaurant, children’s seawater pool, and playground. Unlike Akhzivland’s free admission, the park charged an entrance fee (now about $9). King Eli protested that the parks authority had reduced much of the picturesque ancient spot to an “asphalt and concrete” strip, admitting, though, that “Achziv is still beautiful—in parts.”

In wintertime, the balding, semi-hermitic King of Akhziv supported himself and Rina by fishing but the rest of the year, they depended on tourists. In 1976, however, like other vacation and holiday spots near the Lebanese border, Akhzivland had a bad season. In April 1975, Lebanon broke down into civil war and by mid-1976, Syria had sent troops to occupy the country. After several years of relative calm along Israel’s northern border, only about 10 minutes from Akhziv, the region again became a dangerous place to be. In August of that year, King Eli planned a grand 25th-anniversary celebration for the Independent State of Akhziv which he hoped would be a popular mass demonstration against the Israeli government. Avivi asserted he was still paying the government rent of thousands of pounds (the Israeli Pound was worth about 10¢ in the ‘70s), his only business with Israeli authorities since no other agency recognized him or his micronation. (Along the highway, for instance, directional signs in English, Hebrew, and Arabic point to “Eli Avivi,” not Akhzivland because that might signal tacit recognition.) Indeed, the government continued to try to evict him, raze the buildings, and absorb Akhzivland into the national park. “But they may as well go chase the rainbow,” snapped Avivi.

The authorities have always disliked me and have been trying to dislodge me ever since I started. My personal opinion is that the kibbutzim of the neighborhood have an eye on my land. They harass me all the time. My biggest enemy is the Sulam Tsur District Council, thanks to which I’ve spent all my money in court fees and fines defending myself. That money should have gone into improving Akhzivland; it was enough to really smarten this place up.

Even as Aviv spoke, the regional council chairman announced that he was calling the police once more because somebody had rolled back the green mesh fence that separated Akhzivland from the national park, making it possible to reach the park’s beach without paying the entrance fee, of which the council gets a percentage. “It’s your fence, not mine, and I don’t intend to guard it for you,” responded King Eli calmly. Avivi repeated his point to a friendly policeman, adding with a smile, “We’re on good terms really. He’s only doing his job, and he must be as fed up as I am with the Council’s bothering them about me almost daily.” The officer just shrugged his shoulders with resignation and offered, “Eli, I’m only a small cop. I can’t help you on legalities; that’s for lawyers.”

When asked to state the council’s case, the chairman waved away the question dismissively: “I’m too busy now to talk.”

Ever since he declared Akhzivland an independent state, King Eli provided “official” entry stamps in their passports to any visitors who wanted one. He limited his conflict with Israel’s officialdom to these kinds of “diplomatic actions.” He now decided that diplomacy wasn’t enough any more. “The way they’ve treated me is a casus belli by any standards, ” he warned, “and I’m going to take action against the District Council.” For the 25th anniversary, consequently, he invited “fair-minded Israelis” to demonstrate their support; he hoped that 10,000 revelers would respond. “We’ll clog the highway, stopping traffic with bands and singing,” boasted the hippie king. “A flower war, but a war.”

In the meantime, King Eli appealed to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, “so as to give the Government a last chance.” Avivi cautioned, “I have enough difficulty on the border making ends meet, and if Israel values my recognition and friendship, they’d better stop making trouble for me.” Later in August, the King of Akhziv advised Israelis considering “traveling abroad” to his kingdom for Rosh Hashana—Sunday, 25 September in 1976, but which Avivi was going to celebrate on Monday, 13 September, for the 25th anniversary blow-out—that entry would be granted only to holders of Akhziv passports. King Eli announced that Akhziv travel documents could be obtained at Passport Control on the Royal Highway into the kingdom—and at theater-ticket brokers in major Israeli cities.

Almost two years later, on 14 March 1978, the Israel Defense Forces launched Operation Litani against Fatah bases across the Lebanese border in response to PLO rocket attacks and raids on Israel. (On 11 March, Fatah fighters had hijacked a bus after making a sea landing in Haifa, killing everyone on board and an American tourist on the beach.) A few hours before the IDF action, the gray-bearded Avivi, who apparently had now returned to calling himself president, was alone in Akhzivland with his cats. “The terror must be wiped out completely,” he declared, recalling the 1971 Fatah landing at Akhziv. Though a pacifist, President Avivi announced he’d “opened my airspace for Israeli planes to overfly Akhzivland on their way to Fatahland.” There wasn’t anything between his state and southern Lebanon except Israel, after all, and “I surely need an ally.”

A little over a year after the IDF action against southern Lebanon, on 18 June 1979, Avivi held another press conference in Haifa. The bearded, long-haired President of Akhziv acknowledged that the Sulam Tsur Regional Council and the National Parks Authority had finally tied his hands. The council had convinced the court to prohibit Avivi from conducting any business in his micronation after the Akhzivland Independence Day festival President Avivi held in 1976. “I can no longer hold any festivals at Achziv, under threat of three months in Jail,” he announced. “I am not allowed to operate my dormitory or camping ground, or even sell cold drinks to visitors,” he lamented. “Only my museum is still open, more or less legally.”

In addition, Avivi was now completely fenced in, prevented from reaching the sea or the coastal highway, and most of his wide-open State of Akhziv that drew young people had been absorbed into Akhziv National Park. While still living in his village to show the flag, President Avivi was now ranging as far as Acre, nine miles south. (It’s ironic that in Acre live some of the former Arab residents of Akhziv, which they still call al-Zib, and their descendants.) He and his partner from Jerusalem invested $100,000 to open a caf√©-cum-art gallery and an antique furniture shop in two rented storefronts on Fisherman’s Square, near Khan el-Umdan (Inn of the Columns, built in 1784 as a caravan market), a major tourist stop. President Avivi promised to put any time left from fighting the regional council into building up the medieval city of Acre, with which he’d “fallen in love,” into a tourist mecca (as if it weren’t already).

The legal status of Akhzivland is still ambiguous, but tourists can still visit and stay. (A few of the famous, such as Sophia Loren and Paul Newman, have paid calls on Avivi.) President Avivi, now about 80 and slowing, still rules—58 years after he happened on the site. His micronation was the subject of a 2009 documentary, Achziv, A Place for Love (in Hebrew with English subtitles), by Etty Wieseltier. The Israeli government still doesn’t recognize the state, but it leaves Avivi alone now; there are even those road signs pointing to his pocket nation, even if they won’t name it. Like the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, Akhzivland is a mouse that roared. (There are, as there often have been, rumors that Avivi may give up his realm if the Israeli authorities will promise to protect Akhziv from absorption into the national park.) Many guidebooks include the hostel as a viable alternative to the national park’s campgrounds or nearby hotels. A few amenities, such as cabins for overnight stays (built by Avivi and some of his guests, and for which there is a charge) and a swimming pool, have been added in competition with the park, but for the most part it’s still the scruffier, less refined accommodation it started out to be—if a little less free-wheeling than 50 years ago. There are still impromptu outdoor rock parties—to the displeasure of the neighboring local authorities. It’s still popular with Israelis who, even as they remain fiercely loyal to their country, are fond of questioning authority and even thumbing their noses at the powers-that-be, so if you’re similarly inclined and want to lay down a bit of harmless anti-establishmentarianism, pay a visit to the Independent State of Akhziv. No visa is necessary, but bring your passport—President Avivi will stamp it for you.

19 December 2010

Directing 'Twelfth Night' for Children, Part II

By Kirk Woodward

[The second part of Kirk’s memoir of his work on Twelfth Night for audiences of children in central Virginia concludes the experience. The director completes the rehearsals and describes some of the performances in elementary schools and libraries around Lexington. At the end, Kirk also relates some of the lessons he learned from this work early in his theatrical career.]

May 11

Today Leonard worked with Malvolio individually, and I worked with Viola on being a boy and Feste on constantly being a fool – poses, expressions. Malvolio showed he got the idea of Leonard’s instruction (on which I gave him no advice), but only in spots, to Leonard’s discouragement. Viola, who takes any direction immediately, took to the boy business like a duck to water. She now has a nice first entrance as a boy. She marches out two steps – doesn’t like that kind of walk; marches two more steps, bigger – dejected, doesn’t like that either; then grabs her sword in a huge fighting pose, and freezes. Very funny and touching. Feste said, of his coaching, “I didn’t know if you wanted me to do that kind of thing.” He’ll work on it, I believe; he was a little better tonight.

At the rehearsal tonight I summarized to the cast what Lee had said, and split the group into two: Leonard and all but Feste and Malvolio and I went into the lobby and practiced graceful movement and bows (Leonard worked with Andrew mostly, trying to get him to loosen up). The three of us did the madhouse scene for ½ hour. Then the whole cast worked through the whole play while I stopped them constantly and said things like, “You could bow there, couldn’t you?” “Now add a pretty movement to get from there to there. No, no, pretty.” Some results. Then a refreshment break and a runthrough, up to the last two scenes, which we again didn’t do. It came along decently as a whole.

May 12

Today we met at the church again, and I had an idea which may help a lot. We took separate “bits” and small scenes from the play. With the person(s) on stage doing the scene, everyone else sat at the back of the auditorium and watched and listened. After the scene, I’d say, “React,” and anyone who had a comment would give it; sometimes we’d discuss the comments; and then the whole process would be repeated as many more times as necessary. Hoped-for results were to get the cast to see how much projection and physicalization is necessary to get anything across to an audience, and to draw on everybody’s minds for ways of improving scenes. It looks to me like we really did succeed. (Maria came up to me afterward and said, “Thank you. For the first time I don’t feel like killing myself.” I felt a little the same way.) Scenes became richer in detail and opened up. Three hours of this. Toby resented missing his supper. (I had cookies there, however.) Apparently a good rehearsal. It’s the first thing we’ve done that I’ve been happy about, and the cast seemed to respond. [This is a dangerous technique, because you never want actors to stand outside their roles by judging other actors. However, in this circumstance it helped.]

May 13

Saturday morning rehearsal at 9:00. We did a runthrough, which lacked energy and thought. For example, when Olivia said “Go” to someone, he would get up slowly and saunter toward the door. I gave notes, and then we worked the Viola/Captain scene, the first part of the letter scene, and the Viola/Olivia “’Tis my picture” scene, using yesterday’s methods. A few details were sharpened – suggestions led to the Captain’s being more mercenary, for example.

Leonard knows a lot (witness his very fine work with Malvolio, who is consistent in his physical characterization now) and he’s practical and common sense. I find myself asking his advice constantly, and usually taking it.

May 14

First dress rehearsal. Costumes, which are mostly here, are pretty. So is the set, now complete; I like it a lot. We used make-up; Lee Kahn suggested “heavy and stylized” but it was pretty light tonight. I don’t know the first thing about makeup. I had told Leonard he’d be in charge of it, and somehow I hoped he’d just do it, or someone would, but no one did, so I asked him for suggestions, accepted every one, and they went on that. After the runthrough he told the cast, “Heavier lines on the face.”

The runthrough, lo and behold, was right good. It looks – all of a sudden, it struck me – like a whole show, one we can go with and count on, although nothing like what I originally imagined. There were problems tonight, more in the last scene than elsewhere, so we worked that, punctuating, trying to get openness, clarifying sections, and improving focus of attention. My favorite change was when Viola and Sebastian rush into each others’ arms. I had them run toward each other – stop and look – rush to embrace. It’s much more affecting than before. I tried to get Sebastian to shout “MADAM!” in order to draw attention to himself on his first entrance, but usually he still doesn’t. Then we blocked the curtain call and ran the whole scene without stopping – except the Duke kept breaking up with laughter, so we kept going back to the start of the scene, probably six times, until we finally got through it without anyone’s laughing. An encouraging evening, since a whole show exists and is visible.

Tonight we also changed what Olivia does in the letter scene. Now she and Malvolio stand in ¼ position back to back, she talking and he mouthing the words. It’s much clearer, I think, although Maria says she still doesn’t think it’ll mean anything to the children at all.

May 15

Second dress rehearsal: Sue LaRue had all the costumes completed except Malvolio’s yellow stockings and cross-garters. At 7:00 we began taking photographs. I hoped to take all the shots in 30 minutes; we took exactly an hour longer. A real bore. I made a list of shots to take, but hadn’t thought – have never thought – about photo composition, so they may be good or they may be junk or they may be both. The photographer expected me to know! Depth and variety seem to help make good photos. . . . Then we ran the whole show. It wasn’t as good as last night but it had its points. Most of the problems were technical – for example, Malvolio threw his veil at Olivia; Feste, referring to Viola, pointed at Olivia inadvertently; Malvolio dropped syllables (“Play with some rich Jew” for “jewel”); Olivia, trying to look astonished, looked like she had cramps.

Many words were hard to understand, too. A properly run rehearsal period would teach the cast to discover and correct this sort of problem for itself. We finished about 9:45.

Our crisis for tonight was that Andrew was 45 minutes late for call. When he arrived, he said he’d been apartment hunting and his watch had stopped (he showed me a watch which said 4:10). My first inclination was to replace him in the show with Leonard; and Leonard, although I suppose he didn’t especially want the role (I didn’t tell him he’d have it, but I’m sure he knew), apparently felt we should replace Andrew. I decided to keep him, because of the late date, the photographs, and the cataclysm his replacement would cause the cast; but I told him it was concern for the show, not for him, that saved his hide. He appeared shaken. The cast probably would have been glad to see him replaced, at first; but quickly would have seen how much more they were in for now.

May 16


Final dress rehearsal began at 7:00, with makeup call at 5:30. Maria told us how excited the children were at Glasgow as she told them the story of the play; she said they remembered all the way through who Sebastian was. (We weren’t going to do the play at Glasgow, but because of some scheduling confusion Natural Bridge cancelled out yesterday and Glasgow went in.) I’d asked Betty for some children tonight for an audience, and they were there, but they hardly reacted at all. I thought the performance was mechanical. I told the actors they weren’t listening to each others’ lines, but simply waiting to say their own. They were surprised; they thought they were good tonight. I thought they were dull. Then Feste and Toby worked on the song at the end. Feste speaks it all, because I can’t imagine their working out the singing successfully. I tried to break up his lines for variety. He doesn’t understand the words of the song, and they’re hard to explain. The general problem with rehearsal was that the actors weren’t standing open, but were facing each other and closing themselves off from the audience. The audience tonight came with expectations, but was colossally bored, with some exceptions. We broke up about 8:30, in order to allow sleep for tomorrow. (“Party!” everyone shouted.)

May 17

First performance, at Glasgow. There wasn’t much excitement during makeup, but things went smoothly. The stage at Glasgow is small and the audience only about 150. The set was driven out in an Army 2½-ton truck loaned by VMI for a week along with a Sergeant First Class named Poorboy, who says he doesn’t know much about this Shakespeare. He’s pleasant and although he wasn’t required to, he helped with moving the set. The performance wasn’t bad. The audience cheered for Maria, who’s the school librarian, at the end, but they didn’t react vocally too much during the show. I thought they were watching, though. The cast had expected wall-to-wall tumult (so had I, although Leonard had warned me about that notion – I agreed but didn’t change my tune) and were upset when it wasn’t there. Still I think the cast was pleased, and relieved. It’s sort of a quiet show. It seems to tell the story. (Story outlines had been circulated, so the children knew it anyway. When Feste said, “What do you think? Is her brother really dead?” they said “No!”)

Then we traveled to Fairfield, ‘way on the other side of Lexington, ate outdoors (Betsy Brittigan, that good soul, is providing sandwiches – very tasty), and set up. Then – surprise! – the principal started sending students in early, so the auditorium was filled 20 minutes ahead of schedule, before Sebastian, who had been setting up lights, was even in costume. I’d told the cast that they could play with raising the audience reaction level by varying what they do before the play starts, trying different approaches. They hardly had a chance this time because of the surprise early start; but they did move out into the audience while waiting. The main problem with the performance was that toward the end it became a strain to hear (the auditorium is large), and the audience showed the problem by rustling and talking. The cast was disturbed by the noise; I told them it was simply a problem of intelligibility. When Feste started the Sir Topas routine in a big voice, the noise stopped. Maria’s and Olivia’s voices especially don’t carry well.

Someone at Fairfield asked Olivia today whether Peter Pan would really fly in our production.

Last night Leonard and I decided to have Andrew wrap his head in a bandage for the last scene. Today at the first performance he wore it across his forehead, like a headband. All he needed was a feather to look like an Indian. Leonard and I were as dumb men.

May 18

The Duke slept in this morning; I drove to his house, woke him, lectured him, and drove him back. Later Leonard said he needs a talk generally; he had a separate argument with Leonard; but I haven’t talked to him yet, except for this morning’s remarks.

The 10:00 performance was at Waddell, outside, in their “amphitheater.” The ground was muddy, but the school provided a parachute to walk on. It kept the costumes from being ruined. Lee Kahn warned me yesterday that the set pieces would fly like kites in the first wind if there were no extra weights and braces, but the set carpenter said no. We revised some bits that depended on a proscenium stage, and ran the yellow-stocking scene several times; it picked up some. Malvolio added a new piece of business, in which he sets his leg in Olivia’s lap. The audience was nursery-school through 4th grade. Before the show the cast played Frisbee, also tossing it up to the kids. The performance was good. The actors opened up; they improvised when necessary; and they showed great presence of mind. A dog started chasing actors; Feste chased it off stage, and Leonard calmed it down. The children loved the dog. Then, later, Olivia’s house blew over, not once but twice. The actors picked it up and went on. Audience response extremely warm. After the show, one little girl solemnly insisted on being hugged by Sebastian, who was moved almost to tears. I thought it was their best performance so far. (Leonard said no.) They did too, and attributed the improvement to the audience. I told them not to use the audience as a crutch.

The afternoon performance, after lunch, was at 1:30 at Lylburn-Downing. (The actors were lying down, resting, when the audience started coming in.) Feste keeps improving; he was better this afternoon, using the wide area in front of the stage. It was a good performance, but I thought I detected definite signs of out-and-out ham, and told the cast so, to their surprise. The audience rustled toward the end, but there was a lot of attention, and a good response. Olivia tends to mug a lot when she’s not careful; so does Sebastian. (Toby and Feste do and should.) Viola, Maria, and Malvolio are consistently in character. Andrew hasn’t the foggiest notion of what acting means; he has no ear and no timing and he indicates; he’s my biggest failure. The Duke is becoming melodramatic again.

Touring is a grind. I was exhausted tonight; the cast feels the same.

May 19

Only one performance, at Central. The Duke and Feste were late. Weather rainy. At the school, the principal turned out to be most unpleasant; he hadn’t wanted Olivia’s special education class from the high school to watch – “they’d better be quiet;” he told someone (we heard) that if he’d known seats had to be set up for the show (in the lunchroom/auditorium) he’d never have allowed the show to come to the school; and he gloomed at everyone. A real Malvolio. On the basis of a probably unfounded rumor that this man had once banned Purlie Victorious because it included the word “damn,” and over cast protests, I instructed our group to change our two “hell’s” to “Hades”. . . . I told them the children deserved every moment of pleasure we could give them, under circumstances like this. . . . The children in the audience were pretty rustic, and Betty and Betsy, who saw the performance, were upset by the noise they made, but I didn’t think they were any more unruly than the performance called for, especially since cues were sloppy and the end of the show was style-less and dragged. I told the cast this afterward; they were slightly surprised. I also told them that their moving through the audience before the play started was dull and not attractive, and I told them their cue pickup, from the yellow-stocking scene on, was awful, which it is. The audience seemed to like the play, I thought. (A later report I heard from a teacher indicated the younger children liked it more.)

May 21

For a 3:00 show, call was 1:30. The Duke was 10 minutes late; Leonard told him, and the Duke said so what? “What kind of attitude is that?” said Lee Kahn sharply. The Duke shrugged and went on. The performance was at the Troubadour Theater. We debated whether or not to do the whole in-the-audience routine (since it would be a partly-adult audience), and whether or not to leave the house lights on. To the first, Leonard said “yes,” so we did. For the second, Olivia’s and Maria’s pleas influenced me perhaps more than they should have; at any rate, we turned the lights out when the show started. I made a half-hearted little speech before everyone went downstairs, and debated aloud with myself about how to end the curtain call. (“Let’s not change anything now!” Olivia said.) The audience was mostly adult, but some kids. Toby almost began the show early, on what he thought were instructions from me. (I’m always assuming I’ve explained something when I haven’t.) I didn’t watch the performance except for peeking a little through the lobby door. I gather that Andrew fell off the stage at first; that the audience picked up sexual innuendos and plot twists that child audiences had never reacted to; and that the cast as a whole became sloppy and hammed it up a lot. I said this last to Viola afterward, when asked, and she was shocked, so perhaps she wasn’t sloppy (the word was Leonard’s), but the others seemed to think they were.

Some people in the audience liked the play a lot and a few didn’t. Applause at the end was long. I thought the cast seemed to be working consciously on cue-pickup today.

May 22

Two shows today; an early call. I got the Duke up at 6:30 myself, on request. Some groggy people. Neither Andrew nor the Duke had any sleep at all to speak of last night. We drove to Brownburg, a little school in a little town in a beautiful rolling part of the valley. After we were set up, we sat on the grass and rested; it was a high-point. The performance, when it started, had spurts of energy. At one point Maria kicked Andrew when he wouldn’t hide behind the wall fast enough to suit her. There may have been some personal motivation to the kick, too. The yellow stocking scene was limp and unfunny. The audience laughed often during the play, all the way to the end; curiously, the cast couldn’t hear the laughter, and thought the audience might have disliked them. Afterwards they signed thousands of autographs. Then I gave notes. I told them their performances were solid at the center but contracting around the edges, as though they were saving their best for some other time; as a result many routines, for example, the fight, weren’t as funny as they had been. I told Olivia she was the problem in the yellow stocking scene, since she wasn’t showing any real alarm at Malvolio’s behavior; and that cue pick-up was the other problem.

Then we ate on the lawn, and drove to Goshen, 15 miles away. Goshen’s audience was receptive too. There were some signs of boredom in the audience in the middle of the play. The last scene was extremely interesting. The first part of it, up to “I am Viola!”, was the best they’ve done it; fine listening and reacting. Then the scene immediately began to drag, and continued to do so until “. . . ‘tis Maria’s hand,” when Maria began a long laugh which sounded like it came from the Wicked Witch of the West. This baffled the cast so much that Malvolio forgot to do a whole piece of movement at the end of the show – fortunately not business that the audience would notice. Again, many autographs at the end. I gave Andrew a note – pick up his cues in the first scene – but otherwise gave none. Viola says she’s certain she’s going stale, becoming dull. “I keep trying to change it,” she says. (She appears remarkably consistent.)

May 23

Last show. 11:30 call; many people late. I talked to one actor about another one – something I should never do. We drove to Effinger School, eight miles out, ate, and set up in a rather leisurely fashion. I gave a short note beforehand about not doing any amateurish last-show stunts during performance; I don’t think this group would have in any case; at any rate, they didn’t. The audience wanted action, and tended to be restive in the talky scenes; but the long section of the play from the yellow stocking scene to the madhouse scene was excellent – the best they’ve done it. In the madhouse scene something happened which I should have foreseen, since I saw exactly the same thing occur with David Semonin’s Winnie the Pooh in Louisville this spring. When Malvolio stared ahead of him, indicating that he was in a different place from Feste, the audience followed his gaze to see what he was looking at. They expected someone else to run down the aisle. This wasn’t a problem until Malvolio began doing the scene with some conviction (only the last couple of shows). Leonard recommended a long time ago that we make a simple set of bars for Malvolio to carry out and sit behind; this would have solved the problem; but I didn’t take his advice.

After the curtain call, when the actors went into the audience, the children sat and watched instead of getting up; and they didn’t leave until the principal told them they could. Feste, however, did lead a row or two around.

Tonight was the cast party. The producers and the ladies who’d done costumes and music were very happy. The cast seemed relieved to be through, and pleased with themselves. And that was that.

OBSERVATIONS
  1. The first several rehearsal days should have been spent reading the script while standing, and discussing it. (There was plenty of time in that rehearsal period for anything we wanted to do.)
  2. Projection exercises should have been included from the first.
  3. I failed to work hard enough. I was unprepared, and as a result the things I could have the actors do were limited.
  4. On the other hand, experience is important. As I said to Lee Kahn, inexperienced directors often spend their time telling their actors to fly – because they don’t know how else to reach the results they want.
  5. Although group-direction is not the only method of directing, or necessarily the best, it does seem that it can pay dividends, given a thorough knowledge on the director’s part of the play and of group-direction methods, and given the director’s ability to try other approaches when appropriate. It stands to reason that a director who aims for spontaneity and creativity, freshness, awareness, and energy in performance, will aim for those same qualities in rehearsal. In our production, growth was stymied – growth of scenes (a good routine or feeling would barely begin before it ended) and of the actors.
  6. Still our production contained many good things – Toby’s clowning, Feste’s energy, Viola’s luminous and touching unsentimental character, Malvolio’s surprising dignity, Andrew’s fencing gesture, Maria’s determination, Olivia’s perfectly wonderful comic pathos (perhaps my favorite of all). The audiences were moved by the brother/sister reconciliation. We never had a bum performance, and a week or so into May we started working together. All these things are worthy, and I’m grateful for them.

16 December 2010

Directing 'Twelfth Night' for Children, Part I

By Kirk Woodward

[In 1972, after he’d returned to the states from military duty in Korea, Kirk went back to Lexington, Virginia, home of our alma mater (which provided the Troubadour Theatre for rehearsals), to direct a children’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Kirk assembled a memoir of the experience from letters, notes, and recollections. ~Rick]

[The material that follows is selected from a larger document. My thanks to the many people who contributed to this production, and who helped save my bacon as a fledgling director, all those years ago. Lee Kahn, referred to several times, was the director of the theater program at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. —KW]

April 20

Tonight the new cast of Twelfth Night met at 7:00 PM. I passed around the copies of the adaptation I had written, intended to make the play accessible for children, although I hadn’t included any modern dialogue except for transitional speeches for Feste.

I welcomed everyone, and told them the project was exciting because it was a new script and because it would tour elementary schools in Lexington and the surrounding area. I said the cast will have to create its own movement because it will have to know what is involved in doing the show in different playing areas. We discussed schedule conflicts, and I made notes on them. Then we read the play aloud. I asked them not to put emotion into the reading, but to read as they would a newspaper, since characterization will have to come from interaction on stage. The reading made my original dialogue sound awful – I suppose it is. Along the way we discussed obscure transitions, obscure lines, and the possibility of modernizing archaic speech. I told them I was delighted to have them all in the cast, but wanted to know immediately if anyone felt he or she wasn’t really willing to put out the necessary work on the show. We discussed – rather, I talked about – the difficulties the play presented, and the necessity of making it clear enough for a deaf man to understand. It seemed like a pretty good session, although I didn’t try too hard to cover the fact that I have next to no idea how anything will be done. A good cast, and I tried to provide some excitement in attitude. Will try more on that line. Exercises tomorrow night.

April 21

Tonight’s rehearsal was intended for exercises; but there was a concert at school at 8:00, 3 actors were missing, and I didn’t feel like working anyway, so we only did 45 minutes of work. We did the storytelling exercise: a person casts the story and then tells it, and the actors have to do only what he tells them. It’s supposed to teach physicalization, but I suppose it was too abrupt a choice to succeed; the actors said they would rather have had an exercise where they all had to work at once. I see their point. I found myself constantly trying to assert my superiority and leadership, especially against Toby (I’ll refer to the performers by their character names), who’s a natural actor, a ham, and a leader. Insecurity on my part. I was glad when the session was finished. . . . Also, I talk too much about my aims, and of course have little idea what to do about reaching them. . . . Exercises can’t be used tactlessly.

April 24

First working rehearsal. This afternoon I spent time writing out the play’s major problems (I thought of fourteen) and looking over the script. Fixed dinner and ate. Looked at the clock, discovered it was 7:00 – rehearsal time. And I told the actors always to come early! Horrors. Mad dash. I was late.

I had no blocking worked out. We did selected scenes, so not everyone would have to be present. Putting that all together may be confusing. The procedure was to read once through; then to read again, while I stopped them and gave blocking; then to do the scene again, completely. Big, big problem: I tried to say too much on the first night, when they don’t even have characters in mind, much less characterizations. That’s something I’ve always hated in other directors. I was actually letting the actors do characterizations – much too early. Tonight I’ll stop doing that, and I’ll also mention to them that I realize now what I was doing. . . . I was excited; that’s why I said too much.

April 25

Had a session with Malvolio at 3:00. He read the garden/letter scene. I had him read it several times, each time visualizing in as much detail as possible, and each time increasing the physicalization of the visualization. That last part didn’t work; he barely moved. Maybe he’s not a mover. Then we did the “cakes and ale” scene, and I asked him questions leading to his adoration of Olivia, and his social position. The difficulty here was, I’m afraid I led him too much toward intellectualizing. Results, as a whole: not significant.

The Duke tried, not too hard, to contact me this afternoon; I suppose he was going to tell me he couldn’t come tonight; at any rate, he didn’t come. And this evening I got a call from Olivia, who said a friend of hers was having a nervous breakdown (she herself was crying) and that she’d come in if he fell asleep. I told her not to come. So we were minus two. I told the cast about the opening scene of the play: all the actors on stage, each one talking to everyone else and feeling affection for each other. The affection is the point. They faked it. (. . . Several days later, Maria said, “How do you expect us to feel affection for each other when we don’t even know each other?”) We blocked the first scene. I found myself not being clear about where a movement came in the script, or where a certain place was. Also, I didn’t tell the people who were blocking for the first night where houses, etc, were. Then, after another scene, we did the fight scene, which when I first blocked it was disastrously confusing. I changed it several ways; nothing worked at all. Finally I suggested a break which lasted ten minutes. We talked about the scene during the break. Somebody had an idea, somebody else had another. We tried them onstage; I changed a few things, and it finally looked all right. Finis.

April 26

This afternoon I had an afternoon session with Sir Andrew. He hasn’t done much acting, is scared, and constantly makes smart-ass wise cracks. I tried to point out an “internal” side of acting. I had him choose an age – he chose 40, about two decades above his own age – and show me his age, while waiting for a bus at the bus stop. Then I had him simply sit and concentrate on the age, and nothing else. It worked well; he had moments of really looking 40 through his body in the second part of the exercise. Then I had him relax completely and imagine how it would be barely to be able to move at all. Some success with this too. He’s to practice the age concentration using Andrew’s age, every night before rehearsal. The session may not improve his acting but it slowed him down a little.

Tonight’s rehearsal was a real embarrassment for me. We were going to do the last scene, where everyone comes onstage and discovers everyone else. I hadn’t thought much about it and my improvised blocking was an obvious failure before we were halfway through. I stopped the scene there and sent everybody home except Malvolio, Feste, Olivia, Viola, and the Duke. We did the other scenes in which they hadn’t been blocked yet; they were easy. Out by 8:30, to my great chagrin. It’s a SIN that I didn’t know what I was doing.

Tomorrow will be rough. We’ll have to put the whole show together; also, I have a production meeting, for which I’m not yet prepared.

The Duke is interesting; he plays with great melancholy and pathos. “I want to cry,” Viola said after a Duke scene. Will have to change his course, though; his pathos is dreary and boring, and will be especially so to a child audience.

April 27

First a private session with Feste. I had him do his opening speech, first normally, then in gibberish, several times. He did loosen up and expand some, but he still doesn’t talk directly to his listeners; he sounds stagy. With both him and Malvolio, the need is to overcome inhibitions about big movements, to expand and spread out.

For rehearsal we went straight through the show, leaving out bits that hadn’t been blocked yet. Before that we played the entrance/exit game, equivalent to a relay, where you run, touch a point, hurry back, and pass the baton or whatever to the next person. (The first time we used pigment jars, which got all over everyone’s hands and clothes.) Then we did it walking. They weren’t very good at it, although it’s simple. The object of the game is to build awareness of the moment when you come on stage, the moment when you go off, and the relation of others on stage to those moments; but here it’s a flop. . . . Then we blocked the last scene, better, but now there’s not much movement: Viola and the Duke on one side, Olivia and, eventually, Sebastian on the other side; everyone else in the middle.

After going through the show, we took a break; Maria’s dog was hit by a car in that time, hurting his leg, so she went off to the vet; and Feste left to drive to Washington and take a dental exam. The rest of us did several other scenes, singing them. This is supposed to loosen up the actors and give them new perspectives on the show. Occasionally I thought it seemed to help a little. It was fun, anyway. . . . Toby especially has an inventive mind.

April 28

Rehearsal today was interesting. I had the cast (minus Feste) stretch; stretch the mouth and tongue; and sing “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee” twice for projection. Then I had them surround Malvolio and do the kind of sounds and the movements Malvolio might experience after a long confinement. I hope to work this into a routine in the madhouse scene. Then Toby, Maria, Andrew, Sebastian went outside and worked out their own version of the fight scene, while I worked with the rest on Visualizing the Set (a description of the surroundings as they would appear to the characters). I don’t know if this achieved anything at all. Why do it at just this moment? Pretty arbitrary. Then I worked with the Duke/Viola first scene, but didn’t get the energy or drive I wanted at all. The Duke is deep in his melancholy. Then the fight group did their scene on stage; it is pretty good, involving a lot of nose-tweaking. Then we ran the play through from page 8 to the end, skipping the madhouse scene. A lot of the dialogue is terrible, and a lot of the blocking is awful. They will have to fix it themselves - which they should have been led to do from the first, if I wasn’t going to be any better prepared to give them blocking. I plan to figure out just what to do, during this weekend. Session with Malvolio Monday at 1:00; with Viola and the Duke at 4:30 Monday. The costume lady and I have been trying to meet with the cast ever since the production meeting. Today she was late.

April 30

Our little show is so far nothing but vague. It doesn’t look like anything; it doesn’t sound like anything; and it has no heart. We have 2½ weeks to correct the situation; and at the end of 1½ weeks it has to be set. Also, it’s probably too short – half an hour when it should be 50 minutes.

The basic problem, I think, is that I lost my nerve at first and didn’t let the cast shape the show by itself. Of course it looks like shit! I’ve known for a long time that actors’ contributions can add up to more than direction imposed on them. So the show has no style. (Not that group development is the only way! But it might have had a chance here.)

May 1

At 1:00 I worked with Malvolio on the VMI parade ground (to open him up some). I told him to rewrite words he didn’t like; to make transitions clearer; and to make gestures larger and more precise. We spent the whole hour on his “letter” speech; tonight, at rehearsal, when we did that scene, it became clear that he’d spent several more hours working on it. Good for him. A nice job. I wanted astonishment from him, though, as he reads the forged letter; it’s still not really there. At 4:30, Viola, the Duke, and I went on the campus lawn and did their two scenes in modern language. I had notions of using the new dialogue in the show, but didn’t like it so well tonight. At any rate, it helped them discard their sadness and pathos and reach some new energy, which was all to the good. Of course the actors were playing Bright Young People, not the Duke and Viola.)

At rehearsal, three people were late, and I was severe; later I yelled at people several times, mostly for fooling around and/or breaking character. We managed to get through page 9 – halfway. Some scenes improved. The actors still don’t feel very involved, and often don’t have much to do. I let Maria, Toby, and Andrew work out a party scene and piece of movement on their own and then added it. Viola and the Duke were both much better. I worked a little at the end with Andrew; I told him his character should be played as deaf and stiff. But by that time I was too tired to hope, even, to accomplish much. One good thing I did was to bring refreshments for the break. They loved that.

May 2

Tonight we rehearsed at the Presbyterian Church auditorium in the middle of town. It’s a small stage, like many of the ones we’ll be working on. I read the play aloud and thought about it some in the afternoon, but, as it turns out, I still have no conception of what it really means to work on a play, and to transfer that work effectively to something the cast does. It was a rugged rehearsal, grim in mood, and nothing seemed to work. For example, my idea to have a sort of surreal dance number as a way of getting Malvolio on stage for the madhouse scene didn’t go anywhere – it would take someone who knew how to get movement from his actors, and was getting it all along, to make it work. My conception and execution were vague and therefore failed. At the end, I sat everyone down and asked them what they thought. There were suggestions: keep everyone on the stage all the time (we’ll try it); more transitions for Feste. Everyone left feeling sorry for me and for the show; I know I did.

May 3

This was an afternoon rehearsal (later Lee Kahn told me he never schedules afternoon rehearsals except on weekends). It seemed to go better than yesterday’s. We tried the sitting at the side of the stage; it looked clumsy because people sat until the moment they had to go on (except Malvolio, who tried to make it work; he was big on the idea in the first place); it wasn’t controlled, and looked funny. . . . Used the set tonight for the first time. It’s simple; I like it.

May 4

2:00, session with Andrew, trying to build his military bearing, an idea which occurred to me two nights ago. Some small success – but is it hard to get him to think in terms of the stage! I intended for the cast to play the music within the play themselves, so at 3:45 Feste and, eventually, Maria had recorder lessons, and afterwards Feste and I talked through some more transitions and wrote them down. At 6:00 we rehearsed the scene where Malvolio comes cross-gartered to Olivia; it had been a real bore, but the group changed some things and livened it up a lot. They were so encouraged, in fact, that they wanted to spend more time on each scene in that way. I told them the reason the scene came around was that they found sources for energy within the scene – which I think is right. But we haven’t worked on specific scenes enough, it’s true.

Then at 7:00 we began to work through the whole play. I stopped them sometimes, and occasionally gave notes, but mostly there was too much wrong to stop. After a break, we did the whole play without breaks. It ran 32 minutes. 32 minutes!!! 15 minutes too short. How embarrassing! Now what do we do? Cast wasn’t thrilled with what they saw, either. I gave some notes, and then let everybody go except the people in the first Andrew/Toby/Maria/Feste scene, who were all about to drop from exhaustion by this time – but we worked their first routine once.

May 7

Today I added about a page and a half of additional dialogue. We put the lines in at the theater – some mutters and groans – worked through about 2/3 of the show, and then moved outdoors to Waddell School for a run-through, which was OK. It’s awfully late to be adding dialogue, which illustrates the fact that I didn’t struggle with the adaptation nearly enough before rehearsals started. I should at least have known how long it took to read it aloud. Then, the additions were easy to find; the scenes begged for them. I’d cut too close.

May 8

This afternoon provided one of those curious, accidentally, fortuitous events. As I walked into the theater, I overheard Sebastian and Toby discussing the play. They sounded unhappy and concerned, although practical rather than dejected. I shut the door loudly and walked in as if I’d just arrived, and got them to tell me what they’d been talking about. They suggested that the beginning of the show was confusing. (While Feste speaks, the people in both houses go to the doors, and look out, as if at a storm. Viola and the captain do their first scene in the aisle.) As a result of our talk I made a new beginning to the show, which we introduced tonight (at the church auditorium). The new introduction adds the “If music be the food of love” speech, puts all the speaking on the stage, and cuts out the rain-and-storm business I had in at first. Also, we added a start to each scene where the actors take a pose and freeze, Feste plays a short cue on the recorder, and the scene begins. Toby, who gave most of the advice, was good about it; so was Sebastian; they were trying to help. I had enough sense to be grateful, and to take nearly all their advice. The whole show has been moving away from my vague original notions and in the direction of greater simplicity of staging. Sebastian also suggested that, in the last scene, Viola wouldn’t leave her brother to go to the Duke as soon as she does now; but I’m wary of that, since that last scene is hard to block. . . . We worked through all the changes and transitions, and then did a runthrough, which was ho‑hum okay.

May 9

Afternoon rehearsal at the theater. We worked the long 3rd-from-last scene, then did a runthrough which lots of people watched, including, crucially, Lee Kahn. “They’re not open,” he said; “they can’t be heard. Your show’s not spoken. My second point is related to that: they’re doing it representationally, not presentationally. The word is style. This play is romantic as hell. I don’t know if it’s too late for you to work on that. Try telling them to imagine doing it with a flourish – if you want. Get those girls into costumes as soon as you can. They all walk like droopy boys. . . . I enjoyed the rehearsal very much.” Leonard Darby, our new stage manager, who was seeing the show for the first time, said, “It was dull.” The cast seemed fairly pleased with themselves, however, I think because they’re starting to see a whole show. Lee Kahn’s comments shook me to my shoes. They crystallized what I said earlier about the show’s not looking or sounding like anything – and he put it in theatrical terms.

May 10

Evening rehearsal. I talked about projecting and about Romantic style. Then we worked slowly through the play up to the madhouse scene, and then ran it through that far. Working it, I tried to get bigger speech (without much success, apparently; people in the audience said they still couldn’t understand much of the dialogue) and bows, sweeps, and flowing crosses. Olivia has little “feminine” grace. We kept saying a dress would help her, but when she finally wore one for the runthrough, she moved exactly the same, making tiny swishes while holding the skirt with one hand. Her voice, also, has a whining quality. Maria didn’t change much at all; her voice is pitched high, and on one level, and she can hardly be heard. Viola also is often indistinct, and I have to work with her tomorrow on moving like a boy, which she doesn’t do at all yet (as Lee pointed out), not because she can’t but because I never told her to. (“I was worried about that,” she said anxiously tonight. A sweet girl.) Malvolio lacks any distinctive movement style, and often stands or walks in a slovenly way. Toby is OK. Feste hardly ever varies his body position; he doesn’t look like a fool, ever; must work with him on that tomorrow too. The Duke was nervous and upset last night for external reasons; he left the stage in the middle of the runthrough, to our great astonishment, to get a cigarette and ask how the show was going. Leonard and I yelled at him, “Get back there!” and he went. Sebastian/Captain is so-so. Andrew started picking up the romantic movement idea, and at the end of his “challenge” speech gave me my first moment of delight of the rehearsal period by adding to his “Andrew – Aguecheek!” a beautiful fencing gesture – left arm and sword out, right arm curled above his head. During the runthrough the cast was dead tired, and it showed. During notes I used Andrew’s gesture as an example of what the whole play needs. (But he’s still the weakest link.)

[Kirk’s experience directing a children’s version of Twelfth Night continues in Part II of his memoir. Come back to ROT in a few days to read about the final days of the project and what Kirk took away from it.]