Panache post 5: otherness

with Bruce Katzman at Earle's memorial

I’ve been to two memorial services recently. They were strikingly similar.

The first, held last month, was for Jiri Zizka who in the late seventies co-founded one of Philadelphia’s best theaters with his wife at the time, the director Blanka Zizka. The Wilma Theater gave me my first job in Philadelphia, when Blanka cast me as Lenin and Bennet in Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties, so I feel a special closeness to that theater. Sometimes I tease her, and tell her that she’s the reason my children are alive. And it’s true. In one of those seemingly pedestrian life events, like getting a job, the rest of my life was formed, though I didn’t know it at the time. I never would have met Susan, my wife, we never would have had kids . . . you get the picture.

Jiri Zizka

In what is surely the most romantic true theater story belonging to the city of Philadelphia, Jiri and Blanka fled communist Czechoslovakia, running across wheat fields with Blanka newly pregnant. Months later, with Blanka and their brand new son languishing in a German refugee camp, Jiri arrived in NYC with $136 in his pocket and nothing else. Some of the letters he wrote to Blanka from his earliest experiences were read at his memorial, and they were funny, with that bone-dry Czech wit I have never heard duplicated by another ethnicity; and they were sweet, loving and heart rending, in the courage and romance they exhibited, the courage of the immigrant in the brave new world telling his lover he has not forgotten her. The memorial was held in the Wilma theater, included both former colleagues and family members as speakers and a slide show of Jiri and Blanka through the years. That’s when I cried.

Earle teaching

The other memorial was of my former acting teacher Earle Gister, also held in a theater (this time in New York), also with a mix of colleagues and family members speaking and also with a slide show of his life, including an astonishing black and white of what must be an eight year old Earle pretending to smoke a cigarette. Many years later, Earle would have his larynx removed to ward off cancer, and for the rest of his life spoke through a microphone held to his throat. We gasped when that slide came on.

with Eric Onate and Frank Palmer, YSD actors

It was an impromptu reunion for many of us from the Yale School of Drama, and the whole thing felt dream like. I was surrounded by faces I knew but couldn’t name, faces I hadn’t seen in over twenty years. But I kept coming back to a nagging thought: how eerily similar Earle and Jiri’s memorials were. And then I began to think of the two of them. I knew Earle much better than I knew Jiri. They were very different kinds of people: Jiri was legendary for being aloof and distant; Earle for being gregarious and friendly. But they share these things in common: they were both plagued I think by “otherness”, and they were both killed by the same disease, alcoholism.

I define “otherness” as a chronic sense of isolation in groups; the quality of not being of a group, though you may be in charge of it. It is a symptom of insecurity and self-hatred, though people who suffer from it can be extroverted and grandiose, usually as coping mechanisms. It’s a form of depression. It’s the shadow side of Groucho’s famous quip that he wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have him as a member. It is a lifelong, self-inflicted loneliness. And alcoholism is frequently its demon companion.

My dressing room L > R: Luigi Sottile, Justin Jain, Doug Hara

Both Jiri and Earle held professional positions which I believe reinforced this sense of otherness, even as they exploited the genius otherness can give rise to: an extraordinary ability with groups, a gift for leadership, a visionary streak, an inscrutable insight of social dynamics and individual behavior. Jiri was a director, Earle an acting teacher. Both positions reinforce “otherness” for those that suffer from it. Both nurture deeply intimate group experiences, and individual transformation, while not allowing for direct participation in that group experience. Both require an objectivity which creates necessary distance. I made the mistake early on as an acting teacher of trying to be “one of the gang”. Doesn’t work. When I am the teacher, I am the teacher – an other, apart from the close collegiality of the class. The same is true of the director, who leads a group into deep interconnection, and then departs, alone.

Then I thought of Cyrano. He too is an other, perpetually self-exiled by virtue of physical features he has no control over. And, like Jiri and Earle, cut a completely unique and dazzling path through his life. “One of kind”, “they broke the mold”, “no one like him” – these are the things we say of the other, regardless of whether or not they reach genius, are nice to be around or manage to escape self-destruction. Like Jiri an Earle, Cyrano is not spared, though it is his own obstinate contrariness which fells him, not a bottle.

Fifteen minutes, please.

Sometimes I see myself as weaving in and out of otherness, a syndrome I have felt keenly in my life. I gravitate to positions like director and teacher, and yet I love and thrive being in the group, like the cast of a play, or a team. I freak out when I feel pushed out of groups, and all my defects of character go on red alert, and I become an angry little boy. Oh, and I’m an alcoholic, so . . . there’s that too.

Are there three kinds of people? Groupies, others and in-betweens? Or do we all exist on a continuum, sometimes craving our separation, sometimes cleaving to the crowd? Cyrano himself proudly serves with, and identifies as a member of the Gascony Guard, even as he sulks on his own when hurt by Roxane’s affection for the handsome newbie.

Then there are the moments when we are jerked from one world into another, often accompanied by the release of great energy, such as when the loner finds his group, or the clan member is exiled, or sets off on the hero’s journey. It is in the transition that the drama is revealed. It is in the paralyzed devotion to one or the other that pathology sets in.

Casts of Cyrano and Clyborne Park on sidewalk during an unexpected fire drill during a matinee. Can you find my son, the one who owes his life to Blanka Zizka?