Going to see “The Universe of Matt Jennings” was close to the epitome of the Fringe experience. My daughter and took the train into New York City, took the subway down to Delancey Street, and wandered around, in the sweltering heat to find Venue 4, Spectrum, on the second floor of 121 Ludlow Street. We left extra time in case there were transit delays, difficulties finding the venue, or other unexpected complications. There were none, so we were close to an hour early.
Unlike larger theatres, this venue did not have an air conditioned lobby and we were told to come back fifteen minutes before curtain time. There aren’t a lot of nice little places to sit down with a thirteen year old and wait for a play, so instead, we found a compromise worthy of waiting for the show. We walked around Orchard Street. Fiona did a little window shopping at the stores selling leather jackets and rock band t-shirts, as I captured and hacked portals in the augmented reality game Ingress.
The venue was small. It had the look and feel of somebody’s loft. The walls were covered with books and CDs, from Django Reinhardt to Ulysses. As they took my ticket, I asked for a press kit. The response was something to the effect of, “Hey, that’s a good idea. We should have those. Give me your card and I’ll email you something.” It appeared that the audience was made up mostly of relatives of the actor. This could be heaven or this could be hell, a one person play about being gay in the context of Star Trek.
The play started predictably enough, “Captain’s Log, Stardate …” A young actor sits on a chair shoddily portraying Captain Kirk’s Seat in the original Star Trek. He is reenacting the Kobayashi Maru test, skillfully hopping from the role of Kirk to the roles of Sulu, Uhura, and others. The Kobayashi Maru test comes to the predictable conclusion and then, the real magic starts to happen.
This isn’t just some fun little Star Trek homage. It isn’t just another play about discovering and revealing one’s sexual orientation. It isn’t one of those dreadful autobiographical one person plays by an aspiring actor who merely has a few funny stories about wanting to be an actor as a kid. This is an important play about self-discovery, masterfully done. It is a play for everyone who doesn’t quite fit in, which I suspect applies to almost all of us, in one way or another.
This is what the Fringe should be. This is what theatre should be. Enjoyable and thought provoking.
In 1983, I left my job as a consultant at Bell Laboratories, gave up my apartment on Mott St in New York City, which I shared with some aspiring actors, and hit the road. Some of those actors were going to be at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival later that summer, so I added Edinburgh to my itinerary.
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival was fantastic, and for the next several years, I went back every summer, watching an average of five plays a day for at least a week. Eventually, I settled down, started a family, and the trips to Edinburgh came to an end. How I wished that there was something like that in the United States.
I settled into the typical corporate suburban life as my children grew, but after a divorce, remarriage, the oldest kids heading off to college, and a career change, I found myself working as a freelance journalist and was invited to cover the New York Fringe Festival. It was different from my youth in Edinburgh. Instead of staying in youth hostels, I took the train into New York City from the suburbs of Connecticut. One day, I took my eight year old daughter in.
That was five years ago. Soon afterwards, I took a new job as a social media manager for a Federally Qualified Health Center, and it’s now been five years since I’ve went to the fringe.
My youngest daughter is all about movies, television series, web series, and acting. My wife watches television with her and takes her to the movies. I pretty much don’t watch television or go to the movies anymore. Ever since theaters like the Thalia or the Metro closed on the Upper West Side of Manhattan many years ago, I’ve found the mass produced media less and less interesting. Yet the fringe, that is where I’ve always found the most creativity.
This summer, my youngest daughter, now thirteen, was complaining about how uninteresting the assigned summer reading for school was. She wanted to read Shakespeare. My wife and I looked at each other. Was it time to return to the fringe, this time, bringing Fiona to several shows?
So, I got in touch with old contacts, arranged to take an extra week of vacation, and set things up to go to the fringe. Shortly, the two of us will return to the fringe. Today, we are planning on seeing three plays, which I hope to write about tomorrow.
As I’ve described my plans to friends, I have been surprised at the number of people who don’t know about the New York Fringe Festival. If there is any way you can make it, arrange a trip to the festival.
It has been an interesting day. I started off with me watching some videos on Facebook of Presiding Bishop Elect Michael Curry preaching at a pilgrimage in honor of the Martyr Jon Daniels in Hayneville, Alabama. He spoke about Jesus not coming to start an institution, but to start a movement. I stopped to watch parts of Godspell on YouTube and then headed off to church, to a local nursing home, and then to a gathering of longtime friends from a church I attended years ago in New York City. It has been a good day, with lots to think about.
I also read a quote on Facebook, “Worship is no longer worship when it reflects the culture around us more than the Christ within us.” I suggested that the companion quote might be “Worship is no longer worship when it reflects the culture that was around our grandparents more than the Christ within us.”
There were many comments, often about organs, guitars, bee bop, rock concerts, choir concerts, and so on. Most of them seemed more concerned with the culture around us than Christ within us. How does this fit with Presiding Bishop Elect Curry’s comments about movements and institutions? How does this fit with Godspell?
I’m finding the clips from Godspell looking incredibly dated, but also incredibly joyful and powerful. What sort of movement are we looking for, what sort of joy? How do we understand experiencing the presence of God, in silence, in chaos, in organ music, choir music, rock music, or bee bop? Do we exclude people who experience God’s presence and overwhelming love in ways different from how we do? What do we do to change that?
Or, to quote Godspell, quoting Mark, quoting Isaiah, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord”.
Standing in the presence of great beauty
as portrayed by an artist in great pain
amidst a crowd of visitors,
driven up from the city.
What was his illness
and who were the people
he painted in the public gardens
How curious they are to me,
like the crowds of men and women
that caught Whitman’s attention
on the Brooklyn Ferry
Did any of them suspect
their place in history?
My great grandfather
was in the park in Arles
with Van Gogh.
My great aunt
rode the ferry
Now, we stand in museums
looking at Van Gogh’s paintings
We go to special poetry events
where Whitman is read and discussed.
young men are sitting in libraries
learning a quote
Cicero, Locke, and Bacon,
forgetting that Emerson also
was once a young man
sitting in the library
years before Van Gogh painted
or Whitman wrote.
Over the past few months, I’ve been spending a lot of time to get a better sense of what God wants of me. I’ve been reading various books, talking with various friends, and paying close attention to the Episcopal lectionary.
Wednesday was the feast day of Florence Nightingale, and I spent a little time reading about her and writing a blog post about it. Today is the feast day of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who died fifty years ago during the civil rights movement. I read this biography and listened to some of this documentary.
What can I learn from Florence and Jonathan during my journey?
Some of this is to prepare for a meeting I currently have scheduled for September 10. So, I’ve looked at the lectionary for that day. It is the feast of Alexander Crummell, another person whom I don’t know much about, but who seems fascinating and perhaps another person I should seek to learn from.