‘In dreams begins responsibility.’

By Irene Meltzer Richard

At this moment in the ongoing flow of history, there is a great deal of work we have to undertake in order for liberal democracy to thrive in the United States… Assuredly, we are not the first people to recognize that the American Dream is just that — a dream. However, like any dream we have, we do not have to let it vanish or banish it from our waking life. 

Irish poet W. B. Yeats gave his 1914 volume of poems Responsibilities the epigraph “In dreams begins responsibility,” something that he attributed to an “Old play.” I’ve used Yeats’ epigraph as the title for this essay because I do believe that we, as so many others before us have done, can find in what has been called “The American Dream” the beginnings of our responsibility to participate in the ever evolving dance that is our constitutional inheritance.    

Image may contain: text

During the summer of 2020, Jennifer Dean and I discussed collaborating on the creation of  pieces for a new event series she and her partner Eric Rice were going to produce under the auspices of Undiscovered Works. They were interested in programming works specifically made to be presented in virtual space that would mix together live and recorded elements. They called their new event series Mixology.  

Given the characteristics of Mixology, Jennifer and I came up with the idea of collaborating on a series of collage shorts that would focus on aspects of the entrenched mythology of America’s ‘greatness’ that form the zeitgeist of American exceptionalism. We decided to call our series “LET’S TALK ABOUT…” in order to encourage the Mixology audience and subsequent viewers to consider the pieces we would create as not only something to watch but also a jumping off point for conversation.  

For our inaugural short, I suggested that Robert Moses would be the perfect subject not only because his skill as a ‘master builder’ was equally matched by his skill at playing political hardball, but also because — although long dead — he was once again in the news. Media outlets, who were intently covering the public outcry to remove statues and memorials of people with histories of racism and prejudice, included the news that Long Island residents were signing a petition for the removal of a statue of him that in 2002 the Babylon Village Public Arts Commission, with funding from a Suffolk County grant, had placed in the middle of a grassy park on Main Street just next to the village’s Town Hall.

There was more than enough material available for us to use. Using clips of archival footage; sourced images, some of which got manipulated; and spoken word we put together a short collage documentary with the intent of sparking a discussion about Moses’s legacy and its continuing impact on our lives.

We presented “LET’S TALK ABOUT… Robert Moses” in the first Mixology event that took place in August and it did indeed spark a lively discussion amongst the event’s audience and participants. Buoyed by the success of the Moses short, we enthusiastically embarked on the research for the second short in the series which we intended to present in the November Mixology event. 

Everyday we were reading about how the wildfires in California were spreading —well like wildfire. There were thousands of acres going up in flames as a result of land mismanagement, climate change, and human folly. We had decided to make our next short about the disastrous intersection between what is a natural phenomenon and the machinations of human beings when our anxieties about the impending Presidential election became too intense to ignore. We felt compelled to contribute our voices to the burgeoning Get Out the Vote movement.           

Jennifer, inspired by listening to NPR’s podcast 27: The Most Perfect Album — a deep-dive into the history and resonance of the constitutional amendments filled with off-beat stories and  interviews as well as original songs for each of the Constitution’s 27 amendments — got the idea that we could use the Constitution’s Preamble as a place to jump off from into a paean for “We the People…” finding hope in the Myth of the Constitution that encourages us to exercise our rights as delineated in it as well as participating in the many struggles necessary to make our government an ever more liberal democracy.  

And that’s the idea we chose to pursue.

The ninth episode of the NPR podcast was about the 23rd and 27th Amendment. As both these amendments involve the status of  Washington D.C. (District of Columbia), the person profiled in the episode is Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s delegate, and how she approaches her unique role as a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives (D.C. At-Large), who may sit on committees, participate in debate, and introduce legislation, but cannot vote on the House floor since the district is not a state and therefore has no voting representation in Congress. 

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton’s  profile included an excerpt of her speaking on the panel Retreat from Equality at the Sag Harbor Initiative that took place October 11, 1987. During that year’s Columbus Day weekend, a group of well known writers, educators, ambassadors, businessmen and other luminaries, including William Pickens, Betty Friedan, E. L. Doctorow, and Kurt Vonnegut, as well as Eleanor Holmes Norton, participated in a 3-day event with the stated mission to bring together “black and white thinkers and activists, women and men asking new questions about our eroding American values of equality, freedom and community that has aroused intense and new commitment.” In the Retreat from Equality session of the Sag Harbor Initiative, panelists discussed the issue of minority rights. 

In that panel, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton said: 

“It is very important that myths not be associated only with negative aspects of American life. No society continues to grow without its own powerful myths. One of the only remaining powerful myths in American society, with all of our diversity, is the myth of the Constitution. The myth that all of us somehow have bought in, whatever our religious or ethnic or political background, into that wonderful powerful myth. The fact that that myth has not always been real or true is quite beside the point. The myth of God is true for those who believe in God, even when there is war and famine and pestilence. It is the myth that makes people live through the pestilence so that they can indeed live full lives once again. The myth of the Constitution is in a very real sense the handiwork of black people who enjoyed it the least when there was nothing but racism — they believed those words. Because they believed them, they ultimately made them live. Black people therefore have to be at the forefront of those who celebrate the Constitution. Not because it is perfect, but because they have made it more perfect. One of the worst things we could do, in a time when so little brings us together, is to try to debunk or destroy the one powerful myth that continues to animate the society — the myth of the great American Constitution which has been copied all over the world and continues to drive us to a more perfect society.”

Those words that she had spoken thirty-three years ago became an essential component of the 2nd installment in our collage short series which we titled:  “LET’S TALK ABOUT… Revisiting The Myth of the Constitution.”   

Even though the November 3rd election is resolved, we don’t know what the next weeks, months, years will bring. The state of our country, our constitutional government, and our lives are in disarray and have been badly damaged. At this moment in the ongoing flow of history, there is a great deal of work we have to undertake in order for liberal democracy to thrive in the United States.

In the process of creating and working on our “LET’S TALK ABOUT… Revisiting The Myth of the Constitution” piece, Jennifer and I have been reminded time and again that the Constitution can be, as it has been, a powerful myth inspiring us to broaden and more fully realize the five basic principles set forth in its Preamble.

Whilst developing the piece, I’ve learned more about the Constitution than I ever did in school. It was like taking a ride in Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine although a time machine made out of original sources — from George Washington…

“I do not conceive that we are more inspired—have more wisdem—or possess more virtue than those who will come after us. The power under the Constitution will always be with the people.” — Nov 9th 1787

to Thurgood Marshall…

“The government they [the Framers] devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today.”—May 6, 1987

with many stops in between and afterwards to our present situation which is, in so many ways, critical.

This deep dive I took with Jennifer into the Constitution’s inception and subsequent development has shown me that our country always has been doing a three steps forward, two steps back dance with the Framer’s declaration that:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

By no means am I denying or even minimizing our country’s disgraceful and bloody history.  Without question, our country has been built from and is steeped in genocide and racism as well as the greed that seems to be an inherent part of a capitalist economy. Assuredly, we are not the first people to recognize that the American Dream is just that — a dream. 

However, like any dream we have, we do not have to let it vanish or banish it from our waking life. 

I hope that watching “LET’S TALK ABOUT… Revisiting The Myth of the Constitution” will give you a glimpse into the invigorating and revelatory time-traveling journey that Jennifer and I went on as we’ve explored what people have envisioned to be the meaning of that legal document which provides the framework for our federal republic’s government.  

As Eleanor Holmes Norton also has said “You can’t win what you don’t fight for.”

The Short, Resources, and Artist Bios:

From this year onward to 2087 — the 300th anniversary of the day a bunch of coastal elites signed a document that has come to embody more than they ever dreamed of…

COLLAGE SHORT

LET’S TALK ABOUT… Revisiting The Myth of the Constitution

Created by Jennifer Dean & Irene Meltzer Richard in collaboration with Eric Rice
2020 | USA | 4 min, 41 sec.
Special thanks to Keith Overton for contributing voiceover work.

ESSAY & FILM SOURCES:

The Bicentennial Speech —Remarks of Thurgood Marshall at the Annual Seminar of the San Francisco Patent And Trademark Law Association in Maui, Hawaii May 6, 1987:
http://thurgoodmarshall.com/the-bicentennial-speech/

The Constitution of the United States: A Transcription:
https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution-transcript

George Washington’s Farewell Address:
https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/resources/pdf/Washingtons_Farewell_Address.pdf

The Most Perfect Album: Episode:
https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolabmoreperfect/episodes/most-perfect-album-episode-9

Private letter from George Washington to his nephew Bushrod, dated Nov 9th 1787:
https://csac.history.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/281/2017/07/washington_to_washington11.10.pdf

Retreat from Equality — Sag Harbor Initiative | October 11, 1987:
https://www.c-span.org/video/?528-1/retreat-equality

We’ve Got a Surprise For You, trailer for  27: The Most Perfect Album:
https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolabmoreperfect/episodes/mostperfectalbum-trailer

ARTIST BIOS:

When Irene Meltzer Richard is not making stuff and spouting off on social media, Irene is a freelance consultant in the areas of audience engagement, event management, and partnership development. She has collaborated on campaigns for film and multi-cultural projects at a wide-range of profit and non-profit companies. Irene was born in the Bronx and has always called NYC home even when she’s residing somewhere else. She believes in epistemological modesty and living by the 5W1H: “Who, what, and where, by what helpe, and by whose ~ Why, how, and when, doe many things disclose.” — Thomas Wilson, The Arte of Rhetorique, 1560. Facebook: @irene.richard.77 – Instagram: @irene_ruthless – Twitter: @petitesoeur

Jennifer Dean currently works as an editor and has worked as an actor, director, and producer in theatre and film – and wrote a thesis on women making movies in America, interviewing a ton of incredible people (the2ndSexandthe7thArt.com). She is always happy telling stories in whatever way she can. jenniferdean.biz

Eric Rice NY credits include: Mother Night (dir. Brian Katz, 59E59); Incendiary Agents (dir. Peter Jensen, New Ohio Theatre); Sort of Like Julie… Only Worse (dir. Kelly Hutchinson, Abingdon Theatre); Orson’s Shadow (dir. Lauren Reinhard, Theatre Row); Riverside Symphony (dir. Hondo Weiss-Richmond, Robert Moss Theatre); Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 (dir. Elyzabeth Gorman) and Henry V (dir. Melisa Annis) – RST/Prospect Park Alliance. Film: In-Between (dir. Kanchalee Wijakpaisarn); Stanley’s Thanksgiving (dir. Micah Paisner); To Live Forever and Fear of Heights (dir. Jennifer Dean); Just Love (dir. Charles Peirce); Peeling Apples on Your Own (dir. Nisan Dağ); Game Night (dir. David Ketterer). BA, Applied Arts & Sciences, Drama, Emphasis in Acting, SDSU (US Army GI Bill). AEA, SAG-AFTRA. Social: @riceunderwater. More info: www.riceunderwater.com.

Keith Overton is a New York-based 1st Assistant Editor currently works for Vice News Tonight. He specializes in non-scripted, short form and narrative post production work. Keith has edited a narrative feature length film, assisted on live to tape broadcast shows for MSNBC, Comedy Central, Youtube and Nickelodeon. In addition, he was an assistant editor for Global Citizen, Amnesty International Concert, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Keith’s credits include producer and editor for the Jean Grae’s sitcom “Life with Jeannie,” and Online Editor for Seasons 1 and 2 of TV One’s “Celebrity Crime Files.”

On pivoting…

By Gabbi Traub

I’m 31 and I’m not sure what to do with my life.  

I’m fully aware that this seems young to most people, and that I have an immense amount of time to figure it out.  However, up until this past year, I’ve known what I’ve wanted to do and who I wanted to be since I was five.  Now all of a sudden, I don’t.  How does one pivot, especially when the world seems like it’s about to end in a giant billowy fire (or hurricane) of destruction? 

Ok, that’s a bit dramatic, but sitting here on month 9? 10? 1,000? Of covid related unemployment and social distancing, I’ve had a lot of time to think.  Most of it has been one huge Netflix filled online window shopping (because unemployment, remember?) distraction.  But one can only binge so much.  

Backing up a bit, hopefully without whiplash, I’ve always wanted to be a performer.  At age five I asked my parents for an agent.  They instead put me in kid’s choir and dance classes and that’s been my life ever since.  I did highschool theatre, ballet for 15 years, got a liberal arts degree in voice performance, then a master’s degree in opera at a conservatory in San Francisco (because, apparently, that’s what you do after a BM in the classical world, you go get a MM…) A year after finishing my degree I decided I didn’t want to be an opera singer anymore; I wanted to be a musical theatre performer (which, honestly, I wanted to do all along but I got a degree in opera because it sounded exciting and I was good at it). WHY couldn’t I have been good at/excited about finance or STEM? We’ll never know…

So I worked in CA for a while, by day (at my “survival job” as they call it) as an administrative assistant eventually promoted to an associate at a lovely non-profit in the city, and by night as a very underpaid (if paid at all) performer, auditioning for and performing in as many shows as I could make fit into my busy schedule.  That was the life I’d known since childhood- pack as much into a day as possible, and I loved it.  

Then I got burnt out. After six years in an amazing west coast city, 3000 miles away from family, learning how to be an adult, this east coast baby quit her decently paying day job, sold all her crap, moved back in with her parents, and did approximately nothing for nine months.  It was glorious.  Then I got antsy again. (And my parents, saints as they are, got a little tired of me sitting around in sweatpants all day asking what was for dinner).  I decided, at 28 no less, if I was gonna be a performer I’d better just jump in and embrace all the stereotypes at once.  Just shy of a year of living at home, I moved to NYC, using the last of my savings to pay the security deposit for a room in an apartment with two other girls in Queens.  I got a crappy job as a waitress working nights and weekends at a bar close to my apartment, and dove into auditioning.  

To all that know this life, man it is hard.  I was broke, waking up at 5am to drag myself out of bed and into insanely long lines outside of Ripley Grier and Pearl Studios in Midtown Manhattan with 300 of my closest non-equity friends who looked just like me but had better headshots and longer resumes to wait until 9am for someone to let us into a cramped rehearsal room to wait for 6-8 hours to see if we’d be seen for an audition that only allowed us to sing 30 seconds or less of a song and pay us less than minimum wage if somehow we booked.  Then I had to go to work, where I relied on tips to make money.  (PSA – when you go out to eat, tip well! 20% or more! We literally rely on what you give for our livelihood.  Also, fun fact, if you’re in basically any state that’s not NY, tipped staff usually make $2-4 an hour, which doesn’t even cover taxes, so if you don’t tip, it costs us money to serve you. When I worked in MA I made $2.13 an hour before taxes and didn’t even get a free meal.)

All things considered, I genuinely enjoyed it for a while.  I’d pack lunches to bring to auditions and saved money by getting an employee meal for dinner at work.  I took an audition class and dance classes in the city. I made friends through the long hours of sitting in a cramped room or a freezing line outside during auditions, and friends through work at the bar which opened my eyes to the incredible restaurant industry scene of NY.  Every bartender knows another bartender from a former job or from that bar you go to every night after work.  For a while, I got to live that fun NYC life of going out at midnight and coming home as the sun came up (on days where I wasn’t auditioning of course).  

I’m coming up on my 4th year of living here, though this past year has looked a lot different.  I moved from that crappy bar to an upscale restaurant in Manhattan, worked there for just under a year, then got furloughed.  During that year I kind of lost my drive to audition.  I wasn’t getting anywhere, I was tired of getting overlooked, and tired of not performing and only auditioning.  It’s been 3 years this past October since I closed my last show, and I miss it so much.  I’m so impressed with people continuing to do the work, virtually auditioning for shows they don’t know will even happen, taking classes and lessons through zoom.

I’ve come to the crossroads, somewhat later than some of my peers, and somewhat sooner than others, of “will I be happy doing something else?” “Can I give it up?” “Can I keep it up?” And honestly, it changes from day to day.  If this pandemic ever ends and live theatre can happen again, will I jump back in? Will I be happy trying out the community or unpaid theatre while pursuing a different career? Now in my 30s with changing priorities, do I have the drive to continue with the disappointment and insecurity of the performing arts on a professional level? I’ve had so many jobs, jobs I’ve liked, jobs I’ve hated, jobs that were supposed to be temporary that turned into years-long sub careers. But I never really thought of them as anything but “survival jobs” on my way to doing the thing I thought I wanted.  

What I do know is if you want to make a career out of being a performer in NYC, you have to give it your all.  You have to want to constantly be better, do better, get better.  Selfishly, I’ve reached a point where I don’t want to.  I’ve given it my all for 25 years already. (Which, woah. I feel crazy saying that.)  Now I have to decide, is that something I want anymore? Or are other things more important?  Is it time to pivot? 

Post-Election Sunday – in a Celebratory Mood

By Leah S. Abrams

This weekend, it feels like even the weather is celebrating. And why not? The country, though perhaps not by the mandate level margin one may have hoped for, has elected a new President, one who is interested in protecting the environment, who believes in science, and for that alone I breathe a sigh of relief. Along with this new President comes, finally, this country’s long overdue first woman Vice President – and a woman who represents this country’s diversity.

We have much work ahead of us. We must resist a return to apathy. We must return to true discourse – to listening, to reading (reputable reads). But first, let us do what the NYC sunshine is doing and celebrate. We did what Tony Kushner pleaded with us to do in his 2019 rewrite of “A Bright Room Called Day” – we got up out of our seats, stopped simply nodding and watching, and instead, took all kinds of action. On every side of the political spectrum, we became engaged citizens at a level we’ve not seen in my lifetime.

Four years ago, I was struggling with being away from home and from my girls (aka my cats) for so many weeks, when, in the middle of a dress rehearsal for a pretty timely political play, I learned that every pollster had been wrong while my gut and condemning opinions of humanity had been right. I embarked on a period of endless social media consumption and ranting, reading and rereading dystopian novels, and attending protest marches. I even made the questionable decision to see the stage adaptation of “1984” that had come to Broadway.

After a while, the worst of fears: normalization. You live in a constant state of underlying panic you so come to accept that you forget it’s there. And then a global pandemic smacks you, a law enforcement official spends over 8 ½ minutes killing an innocent man while being video recorded, and you can’t even get through a movie about relatively recent historical events without screaming at the screen. And it all feels, somehow, normal – the way it is going to be.

Yesterday, late morning, I was home, four years and four days after that fateful 2016 election when I learned in the most 2020 sort of way that the world is shifting, finally, out of “The Empire Strikes Back” toward “Return of The Jedi.” I was celebrating my nephew’s 7th birthday – on Zoom – it had been the longest my sister, brother-in-law, or I had gone without refreshing the news when I heard it – my neighborhood.

There came a slowly building crescendo I’ve not heard since our more mournful 7pm gratitude gatherings in the height of the pandemic here. “Ahm, I think we may have just won?! Hang on..” and ran to the other room: “Hit refresh! I think we won!” And then the confirmation, followed by the family celebration where we’ll always remember my nephew’s 7th birthday as the day our Democracy was saved, at least from this family’s perspective.

And then followed the music – our neighborhood DJ who’d played us through those long, dreadful months gave us a largely Motown and R&B celebration concert of my personal favorites.

I made my way out to the fire escape to discover it was 70-ish degrees – my neighbors had brought back the clanging pots and noisemakers we’d used to express our gratitude this past spring.

But it wasn’t until hours later, in the midst of the NY Botanic Garden as bright a rainbow of trees as my nephew’s birthday outfit and decorations, that I noticed it – my shoulders – they had dropped to a place I’ve not felt them in four years. Yes, there is a great deal of effort ahead to continue forming a more perfect union, but for someone as suspicious of our species as I am, this is a good day – a day to celebrate that at least a small majority of one’s fellow humans have chosen to reject fear and divisiveness and try instead to embrace and lead with our better angels.

A Pre-Election Day Blog

By Leah S. Abrams

It is a grey, wet Sunday here in New York City, making yesterday’s crisp sunshine break in these now many days of steady rain feel like even more of a gift.

Central Park yesterday was full of small groups of children of every age in costumes ranging from traditional witch and princess, the latter being a strangely persistent fascination among hordes of youth, to a bunch of inflatable dinosaurs and cartoon characters. On the streets of every neighborhood, businesses still gave out candy and dogs were paraded about as pumpkins and pandas. Gourds and plastic skeletons and cotton spider webs adorned brownstones and storefronts alike. A sense of collective gratitude permeated our distanced silos.

Beneath, or perhaps fueling that grateful, joyful energy was the underlying tension that is the only topic of even passing small talk these days: Tuesday’s election.

Despite my vehement opposition to Ronald Reagan as President, as California Governor before that, and even as second-rate Hollywood actor before it all became “The Make America Great Show,” I was too young then to know what that election meant, to understand that the country was choosing to move from a direction of compassion and unity and more fairness to selling its soul to the devil, cloaked in an increasingly unrecognizable Republican Party from that which I’d respected and even agreed with on various points at times in history. So, for me, 2016 was what I imagine those who saw the beginning of the unraveling in 1980 likely experienced, that “we told you – it can happen here” moment.

What did give me pause as a child and still does today is the fact that not every eligible voter in the country casts a vote. This was unheard of in my family where politics and business and world affairs dominated the nightly dinner table conversation, where it was abundantly clear that our people – and here I mean Jews, not women – had been persecuted and denied our voice throughout history. You turned eighteen in my family and you registered to vote, and then you voted – not every four years, but every time an election is held where you’re living.

That is my lived experience. It is not necessary yours or your neighbor’s or your uncle’s. Surely, though, what we all share is so much more than the divergent details of our own unique particulars. I’ve never encountered a human who did not want to be heard, to feel that their opinion, their story mattered. In a democracy, we get to have that – it’s why so many people who came before us fought and died for the right to vote.

Here is a truth for everyone, myself included, who bemoans the electoral college system: if every single one of us with the right to vote exercised that right, the electoral college would always support the popular vote. It’s the most basic of math – even I can grasp it.

I think we all want more autumn days to praise the sun and the changing colors of the trees and the magic of smiling at strangers beneath the masks we happily sport in a communal health effort that the germaphobes among us hope will be a permanent, post-pandemic norm. Even in the miserable rain, the early voting lines have wrapped around the block. Despite all my disdain for human arrogance and, often, for the species at large, I do believe, buried somewhere deep in the recesses of my being, that there are fewer of us who support the trajectory of the last four years than those who say they want to make America great again while actually meaning they want to tear down the whole of society because it makes for more climactic reality television.

There is one way to communicate our shared desire for a better country: overwhelm the ballot box with 100% voter participation.