More than two years ago my longtime friend, filmmaker Dylan Kussman, came to a rehearsal of WRESTLING JERUSALEM (the play) in Los Angeles. It was the first run-through off-book (lines barely memorized) with my director Michael John Garcés, artistic director of Cornerstone Theatre Company, where we were rehearsing for a few weeks thanks to their generosity. Dylan and Michael were the only ones in the room. I've known Dylan for over 20 years so I wasn't nervous about him being there. In fact, I was excited to have someone new to share the play with. I had been working on the text for years, and yet I was just beginning to face the very real task of actually meeting this huge amount of material with heart and presence; with focus and commitment; with passion and compassion. That is to say, I was still very much in rehearsal.
Dylan watched the run-through. I was relieved to just get to the end of the thing without collapsing. Afterwards, we stepped outside onto Traction Ave. in the newly hip Arts District not far from downtown Los Angeles. Michael would give me notes after our break. Dylan and I sat down at a café table on the street. We each ordered a cup of coffee. I was wiped out from the run-through. My throat was dry. I downed a glass of water. Dylan was quiet. We didn't say much at first. Each in our own little world. Finally he looked up at me. "You have something very special here, Bro. Really. I'm not really sure what else to say. Everyone has to see this. Everyone." He had tears in his eyes. That's all he said. I could see him grappling with what he'd just seen. I didn't know if the piece was any good. You never do, with new work, until people see it. Until its fully formed and has time to live in front of an audience. And this was so early in the process, all I could think about was the enormous work I had ahead of me to get it right. To get it performance-ready. Michael and I had so much work to do. A mountain still to climb. But that day something was sparked in Dylan. And like a dog with a bone, he didn't let it go.
Six months later, after Michael and I and our stellar design and production team wrestled this play into full production, Dylan came up to San Francisco for the premiere run at Intersection for the Arts. It was March, 2014. After the performance, he came backstage into the dressing room. He gave me a hug. He sat down. Again, he was quiet. Again, I was wiped out from the performance. Again, I was guzzling a glass of water; catching my breath. After a while he said, "This may sound crazy to you, but I have an idea...."
That idea became this movie.
This movie has had more than two hundred people involved in its creation. Um, 200... From the artists, to the crew, to the financial contributors, to the post-production technicians, it took a whole lot of people a whole lot of care and persistence and spirit to bring this film to completion. I'm humbled by the effort. I'm thrilled by the community we've built. I'm inspired by the prospects of our reach. I'm proud of what we've made.
The goal: to craft a film that would create the opportunity for as many people as possible to consider the message of the piece, be entertained by its story and be moved by the collection of voices that make up the project's humanity. Maybe, just maybe, after seeing this film, you might view the world a little bit differently.
We are all complex. We are all wrestling. We all want to live free.
I recently completed performance #129 of WRESTLING JERUSALEM at Cleveland Public Theater. We started keeping track of the number of performances back in the Fall. Partly so I could track the approach to performance #100, which I hit in NY, and which felt like a real milestone. But I also wanted to see, in numbers, the accumulating momentum of the project. What began in the Spring of 2014 at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco—the initial 16 performances—has now taken me and this play to cities around the country including Minneapolis, Houston, Washington DC, Providence, Boston, Juneau, Los Angeles, New York and more. Nearly 14,000 people have seen the play, and half as many have participated in facilitated post-performance conversations. These conversations continue to be rich and full of vulnerability, curiosity and nuance.
We are the sum-total of our experiences, and as our contemporary culture descends more and more into partisan, tribal allegiances, the variation of our experiences is diminished. We surround ourselves with like-minded people. As we grow more self-righteous in our hardened positions, we grow more shallow. We do not understand “the other” because we do not want to. We just want to be right.
This is the climate we’re living in, and it’s not just about Israel/Palestine. Whether we are pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-Hillary, pro-Bernie, pro-Choice, pro-NRA, or whatever, we are losing the capacity to empathize with those that are different from us, because we never have contact with them. The recent Frank Bruni Op-Ed in the New York Times, How Facebook Warps Our Worlds, reflects on the algorithms of Facebook that are specifically designed to keep us seeing only what we want to see. Of course this is driven entirely for the marketplace: if I like blue cars, they show me blue cars. But when these algorithms point us towards news, cultural information and political perspectives, we're only reading what we already believe and we wind up burrowing deeper and deeper into our silos. As Bruni points out, Facebook’s self described mission is to bring the world closer together, but in many ways our world continues to grow farther and farther apart.
activist; that I give the same due to the Israeli father whose kid was killed in a suicide attack as I do to the Muslim teenager shot by the IDF. It’s not an exercise in moral equivalency, though my critics would say that it is. To me, it’s an exercise in acknowledging the subtleties of the very human experiences that got us here. We cling to the narratives that explain our own experience. And yet, if we don’t make the effort to look beyond our own narratives, beyond our own experiences, we’re bound to remain stuck inside our own shrinking world. If we happen to be the ones in power, then why should we listen to other side? We risk losing power. If we’re the ones not in power, why should we listen to the other side? We risk losing our very identity, and everything we fight for.
conversation, even as I grow more weary that the opposite is happening in so much of our public discourse.
I set out to write a play that covered multiple perspectives and would stand for a rebuke against polemic concerning Israel/Palestine. The public discourse has grown so toxic I wanted to bring to light the varied human beings that live in the middle of this conflict, that it might remind us of our own humanity. But I did not realize I was writing a play that would firmly push back against the deeply positional discourse that dominates so many of our political and cultural conversations. How do I know it’s working? One sign is that Google has hired me to present WRESTLING JERUSALEM as an integral part of an on-going executive training on “Complexity and Collaboration.” Google executives from around the world come together for this training, and the play (or film) is being used to explore the practice of holding multiple perspectives. These executives are influential leaders who make decisions that affect people all over the world. They are faced with complicated problems and have to work with people of different backgrounds. WRESTLING JERUSALEM helps expand their sense of “other”, and gives the opportunity to engage with a work of art that invites them to be bigger, more generous, more curious, more thoughtful human beings.
A friend of mine, who is a Professor of Jewish Studies, once said to me “saying Israel at a dinner party is like yelling fire in a crowded theatre.” The word alone elicits pandemonium. I’m exaggerating. Kind of. Maybe not scenes of people screaming and running for the exits. But certainly a room engaged in heated debate; family tensions high; friendships tested. For those who love the Jewish state, she is noble and necessary; a harbor for Jews in an inhospitable world. For those who loath the state, Israel is a domineering colonial force built at the expense of another people who, at best live as second class citizens, and at worst live as prisoners in a land they have called home for generations.
Which side are you on? The polemic is tempting. But those of us who traffic in the arts, and particularly in the dramatic arts, know that just beneath the surface of polemic lay the dynamic, robust world of complexity and nuance. That is to say: the messy truth of humanity. There is no black and white. There is no hero and villain in this story. It’s a big stinky muddle of political maneuvering, violent struggle, ethnic allegiance, spiritual yearning, international migration, remarkable success against so many odds, unbearable loss, unending frustration, and so on…
I wrote WRESTLING JERUSALEM to answer the question: How do you feel about what’s going on in Israel? The power and beauty of theatrical storytelling is that it can bring forward a big narrative on human terms. For us in America, the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians is usually played out in the headlines and on the television news; in Facebook posts and Tweets; at college campus and civic rallies. It's mostly brief, rarely illuminating and often intellectually thin. But real human beings live inside this conflict every day.
WRESTLING JERUSALEM presents a range of voices. There are seventeen different characters in the play. Israeli, Palestinian, American, British, men, women, who each have reflections about their lives that illuminate aspects of the conflict and, hopefully, open our hearts to their perspectives.
It’s a solo performance. The characters are presented by me, as I try to grapple with the complex issues they bring up and understand for myself how to make sense of it all. One kid asked me after a performance, “How do you do all that without going crazy?” I responded with my own question, “How do you know I’m not crazy?” “Good point,” he said. Maybe I am crazy. Or maybe I’m just committed to pushing past the limitations that are presented to us, and that we even accept for ourselves.
The play is enjoying incredible success with a national tour that begins in October at the venerable Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, which is now under the leadership of Joe Haj, the only Palestinian-American Artistic Director of a major theatre in America; then to the Houston JCC; Toronto, where Sara Schwartz Geller, my former partner at Traveling Jewish Theatre, is producing independent work; and Mosaic Theatre of DC, the new venture of Artistic Director Ari Roth who commissioned the play back in 2007; then we head to Perseverance Theatre Company in Alaska; then to New York City for a 4 week run at 59E59 Theatres; and Cleveland Public Theatre.
If that weren’t enough to keep me busy, we’re making a feature film! Shot on location in the desert, in a dressing room before a mirror, and on stage with a live audience, the film, directed by LA based filmmaker Dylan Kussman, will intercut between those spaces and translate the solo performance into cinema. Sponsored by the San Francisco Film Society, the film is a big effort, with a 26 person crew out in the Mojave Desert for 5 days back in May where we got some incredible footage. And a 5 day shoot starting September 29 at Marines Memorial Theatre in San Francisco where we will film the interior scenes, culminating in a LIVE PERFORMANCE TO BE FILMED October 3.
My team and I are thrilled at the community support that has come together for the filming of the live performance, with co-sponsors from a terrific cross-section of Bay Area arts, faith-based and community organizations. It was a significant step to rent Marines Memorial Theatre, a 560 seat theatre in San Francisco’s theatre district, so we need all the community support we can get! I never dreamed the project would take on the life that it has. I suppose it’s a testament to the fact that people are tired of the status quo, and that we’re all searching for a way forward. WRESTLING JERUSALEM doesn’t provide one solution, but it does offer up the possibility that by deep listening we can better understand one another and, together, find a way to create lasting peace.
For more information on tickets, the tour and the film: wrestlingjerusalem.com