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Friday, February 21, 2014

Health Care Is A Human Right, especially when your tooth hurts.


I'm having my first real negative experience with a health insurance company. Given the documentaries, first hand experiences, and the nightly news, I've always felt it was just matter of when, not if, I would have my own story to tell. Well, the answer is February of 2014.

In October I woke up with a dull throbbing pain a tooth that had no business being in pain. I'd had a full root canal on that particular tooth ten years ago and since that procedure involves physically removing the nerves that communicated pain to the brain, I was surprised to say the least. Had the nerves returned? And more importantly, were they pissed?

It was a Saturday and the pain began to get worse. I called my regular dentist and this being New York, they were too booked to see me. I needed help. It was becoming an emergency. I crowdsourced an answer on FB and found a website about self-treating a toothache at home. One of the things suggested was to floss either side of the tooth to see if some debris might be causing the discomfort. "Why not?" I figured. I looped the floss around my fingers and when I brought it down between the offending teeth, it was if I struck myself in the face with a white hot lightning bolt of pain. My eyes flashed open, I saw the unfamiliar look of horror on the face of my reflection and realized what I would look like in an internment camp if someone were to shove bamboo under my fingernails. It was as if someone had taken a sharp steak night and stabbed my jaw. I saw a flash of white light and my knees gave out. I collapsed to the bathroom floor.

"OK, so the whole 'try flossing!' approach has failed, what next?", I thought as I propped up myself on the toilet. Luckily, I had enough friends on Facebook that were able to help me get to a dentist who took a look, took a poke, quickly diagnosed that I had an infected abscess under the tooth, gave me a scrip for antibiotics, and told me to come back to see an oral surgeon in the coming week. 

The oral surgeon assessed the situation and said, "Unfortunately, not all root canals work forever. You have space between the tooth and the gum, probably a crack in the crown and tooth itself, and essentially what needs to happen is that the tooth needs to be removed and replaced with an implant. That means the tooth comes out, we do some bone grafting, and then add an implant. The good news is that an implant is strong, sturdy, and should last for the rest of your life." I nodded along listening to his diagnosis and assessment of the situation. I wasn't crazy to have to have another invasive surgery inside my face, but hey, whatever the Doc says. He's the one who knows best. 

So I headed up and talked to the scheduling and billing person. I told him I wanted to find out how much of the procedure that my Cigna Dental Insurance covered so I could have an idea of what the financial impact was going to be before we got going on multiple surgeries. He said he'd check in with Cigna and get back to me. A few weeks later I got a postcard in the mail from my dentist proclaiming, "GOOD NEWS! You're covered! It's time to schedule your procedure!" Interesting way to convey the news. I called the office and spoke to the business affairs guy and said, "Great that I'm covered. So what's going to be the damage?" He called up my file and said, "Yes. So....good news and bad news. Cigna will pay for the extraction of the bad tooth, so 50% of that extraction is covered. But, they won't cover the bone graft or the implant." All of a sudden the "GOOD NEWS!" post card seemed a little misleading. After finding out that the breakdown is essentially $275 for the tooth to come out, $696 for the bone graft, and $1600 for the implant. So the total number we're talking about is $2570. I told the guy I wasn't going to schedule or go forward with the procedure until I figured out what was going on.

I called Cigna and got on the line with a customer service rep who called up my file and we talked through what the issue was. This is where things start to get profoundly interesting. The Cigna rep told me that indeed, Cigna does not cover implants. "But..." I said, "That's what my dentist said I should have. And your my dental insurance." Beat. "Yes, but we don't cover implants." I inhaled and furrowd my brow. "I'll bite. Why not?" The Cigna rep then said, "Because there are other, less expensive procedures to treat your particular condition." I said, "Oh, really? That's great. What are they?" He said, "You could get a bridge or a partial denture." I said, "Hold on." while I just did a quick Google search to discover that both the bridge and denture options are antiquated, potentially dangerous, need to be replaced every ten years, compromise neighboring teeth, make clicking sounds, fall out, and just kind of all around SUCK. I expressed that to the Cigna rep who said, "Yes, but they are cheaper procedures and address the issue." I said, "How much is a bridge or denture?" He looked it up and said, "$1500". I said, "And Cigna covers how much of the procedure?" He said, "50%." I said, "We, we're talking about a difference of $50 for Cigna." There was silence. "Well, this is ridiculous.", I said to a man who probably was trained on day one of his 'job' to hear fucked over patients say. "Just to clarify. I have paid $750 for my dental insurance that only has a maximum pay out of $2000 anyway. So it's not so much insurance as a Groupon. But nevertheless, it's something. So you only cover 50% of a surgery like this. But you're telling me that you won't cover 50% of the procedure my doctor recommends. So I've paid $750 that I could have put towards this procedure if I'd chosen NOT to have dental insurance?" Beat. "Well, sir, you actually have a pretty good plan." I said, "Listen, I know you're just a guy with a job. But it's a pretty bad job. I would hate to have to be you, telling people they can't have the care their doctors recommend because I'm employed by a mercenary insurance company that puts profits over care. We're done for now. Thanks for all of your help, but man, if I were you, I would find another job. I don't know how your soul can take it." 

When I got off the phone I realized that I was joining the ranks of thousands and thousands of people who are screwed over by their insurance companies every year. Earlier this year my mother had knee replacement surgery in both knees. She was put in a rehabilitation center after leaving the hospital until she was able to get safely home. As her progress was made, her doctors recommended that she stay until the Tuesday following her surgery. Friday, she was called by her insurance company and informed that they would only be paying for her stay until the following day, Saturday. When she asked why, the insurance company said, "Because we have access to your charts and you've hit certain benchmarks that indicate you're able to leave." Again, the doctors, who are experts, and had SEEN my mothers' legs and her progress recommended she stay until Tuesday. But the insurance company, who are not medical experts and hadn't been anywhere near my mother, cut her off Friday night. And that's just my family We're just a microcosm of what's happening out there.

It's also comical to me that insurance companies are allowed to make these determinations. I would think that part of the way the contracts are negotiated between hospitals, patients, and providers would be that what the doctors says is what will be DONE. I mean, unspool what happened with me. To get a bridge would mean shaving down and compromising other teeth for a crappy bridge that would need to be replaced in ten years. A partial denture doesn't protect against bone loss in my jaw and I could end up with facial collapse. Seriously. It'd be like someone breaking their leg in five places and instead of paying for an intense reconstructive surgery, the insurance company saying, "We'll pay for three bottles of whiskey and some crutches." How do we allow insurance companies to determine what care a patient gets based on what they'd like to pay for? 

Dispirited and angry, I turned to the only recourse I felt that I had, Social Networking. I wrote a scathing Facebook message and began tweeting. Surprisingly, the power of Twitter is ample. Within an hour of tweeting about @Cigna, I had them pleading with me to contact a customer service specialist. I wrote to the email provided by Twitter and was introduced to "Nicholas" who assured me that he would do everything in his power to be my "advocate" in this case.

Already I felt as if I'd fallen down a rabbit hole. Who was Nicholas and how, as an employee of the very company that had essentially just told me to 'eat shit', would he help me not have to eat shit? I suspected it would come to naught, but I said, "OK. What are we going to do?" Nicholas told me he would help me with an appeal process and sent me some paperwork to fill out. From November until two days ago, I went back and forth between my dentists' office, oral surgeon, and insurance company in a circuitous spiral of emails, documents, pdf attachments, x-rays, and more to move through the Cigna appeals process. 

I think I actually came up with an interesting and startling revelation in my research for the appeals process. I was actually arguing to SAVE Cigna money. Here are the last two paragraphs of my appeal letter...

"My prime objective is to get coverage for the procedure with the highest likelihood of a positive outcome for my health and well-being. For Cigna, I understand that keeping costs down is the primary objective. The evidence seems to suggest that my surgeons’ recommendations and Cigna’s objectives are actually in concert with each other. In the case of a denture, Cigna would have to pay for replacements every five to ten years and potentially have to provide coverage for jaw destruction and facial collapse. In the case of a bridge, Cigna would also have to provide coverage for replacements every five to ten years. Additionally with a bridge Cigna exposes itself to cost risks by endangering adjacent teeth to decay, root canal, and other expensive covered procedures. Since the failure rate of an implant is less than 5% and will last a lifetime, strengthen the bone in my jaw, and require no replacements or maintenance, analysis would seem to suggest that this in the best financial interest of Cigna. The most current testimony, research, and testing suggests that in the long run Cigna’s best financial decision also happens to be covering the procedures my oral surgeon has recommended.


Given the circumstances, I feel that the expected outcome of this appeal should be that Cigna provide the amount of coverage that it would have provided for either a denture or bridge procedure, with the difference being covered by me. My research into the matter seems to suggest that this is a fair outcome, given that the plan participant can more easily get the procedure recommended by their surgeon while the insurance company is not paying out more than they would have for the procedures that they do cover. Given that in the long run, my health and Cigna’s bottom line are both most favorably looked after by my receiving a dental implant, then I should be covered to some degree for that procedure."

I thought I'd argued my point fairly well. I wasn't asking for a dime more than they would have paid for the inferior procedures. After months of what in retrospect was clearly stalling, I heard back from Cigna that the appeals board has denied my appeal. Imagine my surprise. Oh, yeah, you'd have to imagine my surprise because it was the least surprising thing that's ever happened in the history of planet Earth. Now what's truly hilarious is that I don't know if there even IS an appeals board. I never heard from them. I don't know who they are. I received no letter, no paperwork, no reasoning, no explanation of the board's decision. Just an email from my "advocate" Nicholas telling me, "Sorry I couldn't help you achieve a more favorable outcome." I don't even know Nicholas's last name. As far as I know, there's no appeals board, just Nicholas, the customer service "advocate" listening to Michael McDonald CDs, eating peanuts, and luring me further and further down the rabbit hole to placate and distract me for as long as possible before simply hammering home their initial decision to deny me the care my doctor recommends and that I've PAID for. In that case, there's really a kind of perversity involved; that they hold out hope from some internal appeals board that may or may not exist. 

So here I am, right back where I started. I've resumed my Twitter complaining campaign. I'm going to try to get New York State involved in a third party arbitration which may compel Cigna to provide some sort of care. I'm writing this blog post. I'm telling my story. I'm not going to suffer in silence. And I don't think anyone else should either. I think so many of the problems we face as people, we imagine to be unique to our own lives and so we suffer in silence. But they are too common. These things happen all day every day and the only way they will change is when a critical mass of people stand up, tell their story, and we realize that we're all in this world together and we need to take care of each other.

I think about the recent reforms in Health Care and I'm profoundly unhappy with them. I don't think a program that compels Americans to get insurance from private health insurance companies that participate in the kind of amoral behavior, like that I've described above, is the answer to our health care problems. Ultimately, there is a clear conflict of interest at work here. If health insurance companies are traded on the stock market and operate on the profit motive, then it behooves them to do everything in their power to raise premiums and deny care. Take the premiums. Deny the care. I know it's more complex than that. I've been following this issue since 2009 and Obama's taking up the issue as his legacy initiative. But in my opinion, there is no culprit more culpable for the pain, suffering, and deaths of thousands of people in this country than health insurance companies denying coverage to the very people who have paid for that coverage.

I honestly don't know how we have arrived in 2014 as a United States of America without single payer Universal Healthcare. I think when people are frightened by the talking points about America being in danger of adopting "European-Style Socialism", they don't know what European-Style Socialism is. The happiest people on earth are the Danish who are taxed at a rate of 75%. And you know what that tax rate buys them? It buys excellent and equal education for everyone all the way through college. It buys immaculately clean and healthy cities. It buys months of guaranteed paid vacation. It buys a year off when a baby is born. And most humanely, it buy absolutely Universal health care. In most parts of Europe, if you are sick, you get treatment. Period. And a cursory google search will reinforce what Single Payer advocates have been saying for years. In this country, we pay more for health insurance and get less for it.

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/health-costs-how-the-us-compares-with-other-countries/

But the way that politicians sell us on NOT getting Universal Single Payer is that it would raise taxes. Well, what if we switched out the word "premiums" for the word "taxes"? I mean, you have to pay for health insurance one way or another, right? Whether they're called "taxes" or "premiums", it's money out of your pocket (or your employers) for a service. But you know what the difference between premiums and taxes is? The money you spend in taxes DO something. They pay for police, roads, regulations, food safety, and more. And if you do the research (PLEASE DO), you see that in the countries with Universal Health Care, those taxes pay for excellent and effective paper-work free care that doesn't let people die or bankrupt them. The money you pay for "premiums" in my case and in the case of thousands of others, often does nothing. It's money flushed down the toilet. Well, for me. For Cigna it's money in the bank and certainly helps their CEO maintain his 12.5 million dollar a year salary. The government isn't trying to turn a profit or pay for the lifestyle of a millionaire CEO. It's trying to provide a necessary service. A health insurance company is trying to make money and the best way to do that is NOT give you what you've paid for. It's cold, hard capitalism and it doesn't care if you live or die. I vote for taxes over premiums. You? 

In the founding documents of this country our revolutionary brothers and sisters codified in a Declaration of Independence that we are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights and that among them are, "Life, Liberty, and The Pursuit Of Happiness" It's seems self-evident to me that it's impossible to have liberty of pursue happiness if you're Life is compromised by denied care or you're thrown into personal bankruptcy by an unexpected illness. I maintain that any health-care system governed by the profit motive is out of touch with the contract that we could and should have with each other in a country as abundantly prosperous as ours. We are all in this life together. We are fellow citizens of this great and noble country. We should take care of each other. I hope one day soon we will undergo a fundamental shift in our national priorities and that when we do, we will come to the conclusion that we are better Americans, better citizens, and better human beings when we educate ourselves, help each other, and do that most very human of all human things; Care for each other when we are ill. 

HEALTH CARE IS A HUMAN RIGHT

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Towards Positive Habits

My sister and I were recently talking and at one point in our conversation, I had a revelation. I said, "You know, I think what it all comes down to is self discipline. That's the thing. That's the common trait in the successful people in the world. They're the ones who have the fortitude to have good habits, generate good karma, and put themselves in positions where they're creating opportunities for themselves to grow and thrive." I mean, all positive habits and personal progress comes back to whether or not you have the self-discipline to go to that yoga class, read Blades Of Grass, log out of Facebook, and do the things that you know on some fundamental level you need to do to have the life that you want. It's an area of my life that I sincerely need help with.

So in an effort to start the new year with more self discipline, I am simply writing a little bit in this blog today and setting a goal of building a habit of writing here more often. I think I'll set a calendar event for a once a week event for now. If I can develop the self discipline to update this once a week, that will already put me in a position to write 52 posts this year. And if I get to 52 posts, hopefully I will have wired my brain in a way to build the good habit of updating the blog. Although, I can't promise there won't be more if I get into the groove of it.

Do you have any self discipline tricks? I'm using the reminders and calendar apps in my iphone to try to help me get started. Because it takes self discipline to form habits..but exercising self discipline consistently IS a habit. So that's a snake eating it's own tail I'm trying to train. Wish me luck.

Monday, January 27, 2014

I'm BACK!

It's incredible how much can change in four years. And it's incredible what can remain exactly the same. On one hand, I think of the vast catalogue of experiences and memories that have spilled across the ribbon of time since the last time I wrote in this blog and think of how many places I've been and things I've done. On the other, it really feels like just yesterday that I wrote my last entry.
Regardless, I would like to be more active from now on. As you can see, I've collaborated with Square Space to invent a website. I'm happy with the way it's coming together and I'm happy that I'll be able to update it and change it as I feel fit. But now, as it feels like everyone has a "web presence", I felt more and more that it was sheer laziness on my part to not build a site and have a place where people could go to find out about my current projects, upcoming events, and more. So here it is! Enjoy!
Thanks for coming by! If you've got any requests or suggestions, let me know.

Friday, December 3, 2010

FAITH

I was at the gym listening to Stars play a concert at the 9:30 club in D.C. After the show, Bob Boylan of NPR interviewed the band. As I was treading away on the elliptical trainer, Torquil Campbell, their lead singer said something that resonated with me on a really deep level. He spoke of a kind of faith in a way I hadn't really thought of before. He said,

“It’s an act of faith I think. You know, Just like any theatre, any play, or any piece of art. It’s an act of faith. You have to have faith in the receiver that they’re going to extend, you know, they’re going to suspend their disbelief and go there with you. And you have to have faith in yourself that it’s worth saying. You know? And if you can keep that little thread floating in the air, of faith, through the course of the gig, it’s a beautiful gig. And it seems light as air you know. But if it comes down to Earth then getting it back up again is a hard thing to do. So it’s really just about having faith in it being a good thing to do with your time, you know.”

The first thing I thought was of yesterday when I found myself acting very loudly and really grinding the words in my mouth as I acted. And I could feel myself doing it but wasn't exactly sure how to stop it. But then, toward the end of the show, I said to myself very consciously, "Carson. Just say one or two lines at the volume and speed you'd say them to a friend in the room with you right now and see what happens." And when I did, I felt the room close in. I felt the attention intensify. I felt the response grow.
And I was so happy that I'd done it, but I wasn't sure exactly what I'd done. I mean, sure, I'd switched from condescending Shakespeare "acting" to a more honest mode of "living" in space with people watching, sure. But I'd also done something else that I hadn't named. So I was in a really receptive place when I heard that interview and heard Torquil talk about having that kind of "faith". I think what I realized, listening to the interview, is that because these audiences aren't typical theatre goers and because they haven't paid an admission price (and frankly because at the first homeless shelter we went to people would just get up and walk out on us!) I didn't have faith or trust in our audience's desire to hear or watch our story. Also, because some of the rooms we've been in have been full of buzzing fans and vending machines, I didn't trust that they could even hear us, let alone understand us. And yesterday, while I didn't couch it in those terms, I came around a corner and began to have a bit more faith in them and in my own ability to communicate with them more authentically by communicating with fellow actors more authentically. I feel fortunate to have listened to that interview yesterday to have Torquil put words to a feeling that had already been going on inside me all day.
So today, as we head out to the Boys and Girls Club in beautiful Newark, NJ, I'm excited to keep the experiment afloat and the faith alive. I'll trust that they're present, listening, aware and that I don't have to work so GD hard to keep the feather in the air.

Monday, November 29, 2010

My First Time In Prison

It was my first time in prison, and I was in denial. I was in denial for a variety of reasons. First, I was in denial that we, as an acting company commissioned by The Public Theatre of New York, were about to perform an almost uncut version of Measure for Measure in front of anyone with only sixteen days of rehearsal. Second, I was in denial that we were actually going to be performing the play for the first time in front of the inmates of the Arthur Kill correctional facility on Staten Island.

But denial usually stops when reality comes crashing into you like a sidewalk-hogging New Yorker who shoulder checks you hard to assert their metropolitan dominance. As we pulled into the parking lot at Arthur Kill, our stage manager reminded us that we were to leave everything except our IDs in the car. We all stripped ourselves of our keys and wallets and put them in our bags. Moments later we were all in the parking lot waiting to be summoned to the front of the building to begin the process of, uh, processing.

It was only 4:45 p.m., but the late-fall sun was racing through the clouds in a seeming race to be done with the day. Consequently, the cloudy afternoon sky turned into a strange fluffy layer-cake of bright orange and pink behind the razor-wire topped gates of the prison. As we stood there waiting, we could see inmates traversing the yard bundled up in all green. I hadn’t imagined inmates in green. I’d imagined either construction-vest orange or Shawshank Redemption blue. The green made them look like a gang of Central Park employees on a massive conservation assignment. It was about at this time that I said, “Is anyone else nervous that we’re going to be acting just a few feet in front of convicted criminals?” Everyone kind of laughed and Will Harper, our Claudio mused, “Well, this is a medium security prison. I imagine there are a lot of a folk up in here that were just, ‘In The Car’. You know? Like, ‘Yeah, my cousin Mario was driving and he had a bunch of guns and drugs with him and I was IN THE CAR with him soooo…” I laughed hard and we proceeded to act out a half dozen improvised scenarios of “In The Car” all ending with the hapless accessory to the crime having been completely innocent other than having been “In The Car”. The lightened mood made me feel better. Our director, Michelle Hensley, who has been doing this for years also chimed in, “Now I’ve never been to a New York prison, but in my twenty years in Minnesota, we’ve never had any problems at all. They are usually incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to see the work and are very polite.” I looked at her and joked, “Yeah. But this is New York. This is definitely not a Prairie Home Companion Prison.”

Not long after, we were waved over to the front of the prison. We all ambled up toward the door and our costume designer, Vivian, began running up to us with extra costume pieces, throwing them over our heads or stuffing them into our pockets. “These are pieces we’ve added in the last few days and so they weren’t on the pre-approved list of items we could bring in. But you can bring them in as part of your personal outfits. They just can’t come in as “props” or “costumes” because they weren’t on the list.” So we all looked a little silly as we began to accessorize with chunky ropes, sweaters, and other mismatched costume and prop pieces to head into the processing lobby. I also thought it was funny how the system worked. They guards had JUST seen all of these items and vetoed them for entry because they were not on a pre-approved list. Now, just moments later, apparently these items would be fine to come in, as long as they were haphazardly draped around our necks or hanging out of our pockets. That’s just some crazy bureaucratic bullshit at its’ finest right there.

As we entered the front room of the prison, we all had to present our IDs for inspection and, like the airport, take off any belts or metals and subject our jackets and coats to inspection. Vivian, our costume designer, was made to take her keys out to the parking lot and hide them under the wheel well of her car because she had an electronic door-opening button on her keychain. No outside electronics allowed. As each of us was processed, we were stamped with a kind of translucent yellowish goo on our right hands. As we stood there waiting for everyone to get processed, we noticed that it wasn’t drying. “What the hell is this stuff?” we all began to wonder out loud. As large numbers of us got processed, we were then taken into a kind of “safe room” that served as a conduit between the outside world of society and the inside world of the prison. It was a square room with two sets of thick red metal sliding doors controlled remotely from another glassed in room. A security officer from that adjacent glass room opened the door to the lobby and a bunch of us went in. The door slid closed. “I need you all to hold up your hands that got stamped” an amplified voice said through a speaker in the upper corner of the room. We all did as we were asked. The light in the chamber went blinked off and the odd brown glow of a black light came on. Every piece of white clothing anyone was wearing became a bright blue beacon of light and, sure enough, all of our hands were slathered in a brightly lit glowing glop of yellow. If a picture were taken, we’d probably look like a bunch of kids packed into a dance club pumping our fists in the air to some new LCD Soundsystem track. But a moment later the fluorescent lights popped back on and the door to the inner prison silently dislodged and slid back to allow us in.

It was about this point, as we entered into the caged inner world of the prison, that I began to think about the show itself and the props that we’d been using for it. Items on the approved list that were actually ALLOWED into the prison included; a Billy Club, a variety of percussion mallets, a gavel, an iron key chain with prop “keys” made out of thick metal rebar, and a variety of ropes. I began to imagine every way in which a renegade inmate might be able to quickly commandeer one or many of these items and begin a murderous rampage through the visitor’s center of the prison where we were to perform. I imagined Will Harper making his first entrance as Elbow, the constable, twirling his baton. In my mind’s eye, the image of thick and hardened criminal, let’s call him Mike, appeared. Mike’s muscled up from years of relentless weight training in the yard. Mike’s in year fifteen of forty year sentence and he’s been feeling lately like there’s nothing left to lose and as he stares at that club, he becomes aroused by it’s crushing potential and it’s proximity to his free and powerful hands. I imagined Mike, as Will launched into his hilarious bit about catching his wife in a brothel, launching out of his front row chair and wrenching the baton out of Will’s hand and in a lightning fast motion spinning and jumping on top of one of the other prisoners, his nemisis Rick maybe, and being able to thoroughly beat the brains out of Rick’s surprised head. In the confusion that I imagined would follow, the security guards would run over and try to pry the murderous berzerker off of his now dead victim while out and out chaos took hold in the room. It would be at this point that the sex-starved criminals would begin running after the women of the cast and dragging them into the corners of the visitors center for horrifying gang rapes. All the while, I imagined I’d curl into a ball on the floor under one of the enormous Friar’s robes and pretend to be a pile of costumes while I listened to the horror around me and tried to reconcile myself to the fact that I would, should I survive the night, never sleep again.

The other nightmare that ran through my head was much more specific and personal. I imagined being on stage and saying my first line, “If the duke, with the other dukes, come not to composition with the King of Poland, why then all the dukes fall upon the king.” That line is a bitch. I’m classically trained and I know what I’m doing with Shakespeare and I had to sit with that line for ten minutes before I figured out that Lucio is just saying, “I bet the reason that the duke’s gone is that all the dukes are conspiring with the King of Poland. If they’re not, then they’re probably meeting up to plan to assassinate our king.” But even when I put it into the “easy read” translation like that, it’s still a big and heavy thought. In any event, I imagined a hardened and angry inmate thinking, “I hate the way this character uses such bullshit language. I hate that guy. I’m going to break his face.” And in the middle of one of my speeches, having someone jump up and tackle me and while punching my teeth in scream, “TALK LIKE A PERSON!! TALK LIKE A FUCKING PERSON!!” Suffice it to say, these were not my usual pre-show thoughts.

I tried to breathe through those thoughts and the actual visitor’s center itself helped me do just that. The room was warm and expansive and included a wall of vending machines, a sectioned off play area for children, and walls painted with friendly Disney characters and murals of the New York City skyline. It was not exactly what you would imagine as the backdrop to a horrible prison revolt and a nightmarish exploration of negative human potential. I relaxed a bit. The crudely drawn Mickey Mouse on the wall seemed to be saying, “There’s nothing to be afraid of Carson!” And he was right. As I thought about children, I thought about each of these men, not as stereotypes of bad people, but of specific human beings with specific families and specific sets of given circumstances that brought them into this prison. And then I thought about the fact that it is entirely possible one of the reasons they ended up in prison is that they were never really able to fully put themselves in someone else’s shoes or understand that there were choices available to them other than the ones they made. And, in a fairly self-aggrandizing way, I began to think nobly on the theatre and it’s function. I began to think about the way the early myths were meant not just as storytelling, but also as a means of socialization. The myths put people into situations that would flummox the best of us for understanding how to behave and then showed us choices that either worked or didn’t. But that’s an essay for another time. The point is that I thought, “There are a lot of things that are going to be said in this play that are going to be incredibly resonant for this audience.” All of a sudden I thought about one of my first lines, “Not to be weary with you, he’s in prison.” The line sat in my chest like a weight for the first time. I then thought, “Holy shit, three quarters of this play takes place in prison.” This is going be heavy.

As we walked through the room, running lines, feeling our voices out in the space, and calming our own nerves, different representatives of The Public showed up. Barry Edelstein, the head of the Shakespeare initiative, and Oskar Eustice, the artistic director of the theatre, both came for our first show. A few minutes before the inmates were brought in, the superintendent of the facility gathered us up and made some announcements. He was a professional and good humored man in his late fifties with a head of straight grey hair and glasses. He spoke with a slight Staten Island drawl. “So, we’re really glad to have you. This is clearly, a big deal for the inmates here. I hope everything’s been OK so far. Everyone get in OK? Not too big of a deal to get in? Good. Now wait ‘till you try to get out.” He smiled at his own gallows humor. We all smirked and nodded like, “Jesus.” He went on, “Now we understand that because of your performance, you’re probably going to want to make some sort of direct contact with inmates. We really want that to be as brief as possible. The big reason is, we don’t want people passing inmates drugs from the outside. We understand, it’s theatre and you may need to for your performance but we really do want it to be kept to a minimum. Keep in mind; with an event like this, the men usually have to be stripped when it’s over to make sure there wasn’t something passed to them. We’re not going to do that after this event. So, you know, you guys are kind of setting up how this is going to work for the next group that comes in. If this goes OK with you, then we can keep doing this and it gives the men something to look forward to. And you know, these guys all signed up for this. No one’s here against his will. So they should be pretty attentive. So…that’s all. Thanks again for coming. We hope you enjoy yourself. Thanks.”

Again, I began to think of these guys not in generalized terms, but in terms of their specific reality. And those specifics became even more pronounced as they began to enter the room from the yard. Each prisoner was frisked and patted down as they came into the room and it took a solid thirty minutes for the sixty or so guys to be brought in. The variety in age and race was pronounced. There were prisoners in their late fifties and there were prisoners as young as twenty. Black, white, tall, skinny, and fat. It was striking that any one of them could just change clothes and be on the street with me and I would never know in a million years that they were “criminals”.

The presence of the inmates weighed on a few of our female actresses. One of them became almost overwhelmed and said, “I just feel them so much.” Another felt that they, as criminal men, wouldn’t be able to relate to her characters’ point of view because her character is essentially, victimized by a criminal man in the play. Everyone was kind of processing how things were going to go down in their own way. I had kind of switched over into my usual actor-mode. My mind began to simply process through the script, the lines, the scenes, the actions, the blocking, and the hundreds of little things I needed to remember to do in the next few hours to hold up my responsibility to the piece.

At places I took my seat directly to the right of one of the prisoners in the front row. Barry Edelstein took the floor and introduced The Public’s Mobile Unit and explained a brief history of the Public Theatre and of Joe Papp and his dream of bringing Shakespeare to all New Yorkers. Then Michelle stood up to speak a bit. Michelle is about five feet tall and despite her black motorcycle boots, her inherent softness, kindness, and generosity shines out of her like a light. She cut a fascinating figure, juxtaposed against the assorted population of men in the room. She gave them an idea of what the play was about to her. “This play is a lot about what makes good justice and what makes real mercy. And I think the play says that to know, you really have to put yourself in someone elses’ place. And in this play, I think you’ll see how a lot of characters are put in each others’ places and then they have to see how they would act if those roles were reversed.” I looked around the room at what seemed to be very attentive and understanding faces listening to Michelle and I wondered what thoughts might be going through their heads when being spoken to about compassion. I admitted to myself I hadn’t really thought of Measure For Measure as a play about compassion. I’d thought of it as a play about lust, responsibility, justice, and power. But, as I often say, every fortunately composed piece of art speaks to the fact that we’re all in it together and that no one is alone. And Measure For Measure does have that message woven into its bloodied and lecherous fabric too. Michelle retreated to a back wall and Jackie, our percussionist, struck the opening gavel beats to commence the play.

The next few hours went by quickly and actually, fairly uneventfully. I have to say that my actor mind was at work a lot of the time. I was disappointed with the lack of sound quality in the room and the buzzing of the vending machines and the loud whirring of the fans forced me to act loudly and slowly in a way that made me feel artificial and, well, bad. I began to obsess about our lack of rehearsal time and I began to feel guilty that these prisoners were seeing our first public performance of this play in what I considered it’s under-rehearsed state. “Man, these are the people that should be seeing us really rock this play.” I thought. “We want them to really like Shakespeare. We want them to really get it! We don’t even get it yet!” But as the play went on, many of the men became more and more vocal with their responses. Not surprisingly, they came to really identify with my character, Lucio and with Rob Campbell’s Angelo. It was clear that they identified with the kind of rough-talking slanderous motormouth that Lucio is. And it was clear that they felt a great deal of sympathy for Angelo’s desire to do the right thing, but also to succumb to the temptation to abuse his newly appointed power for his own personal gratification. When the Duke at the end of the play busts Lucio and an officer takes him into custody, one of the guys said, “Oh damn. They got my boy!” I turned and looked at him and nodded solemnly like, “They did. Ah fuck. They did.”

When we finished the play, two things surprised me. First, they absolutely knew that play was over. They were following it fully and they understood the language and what was happening and when the last image had been established, they understood that the play was done. Secondly, they all instantly sprang to their feet to give us a standing ovation. They seemed genuinely happy and fulfilled and gratified to have been given this play. And it hit me in that moment what had transpired. We’d given them a gift. With our time and talent we’d created a show to give them. Without judgment of who they are or what they’d done, we’d given them a wild story, full of amazing thoughts and language to think about, mull over, and process. And they’d appreciated it. They had thoroughly received it in the spirit in which it was given. And, they’d given us a gift too. They’d signed up to be our audience. They’d given us their undivided attention and enthusiasm. They stood and clapped for a long time as we bowed, circled, bowed again, and retreated to the Superintendents’ office to change back into our street clothes.

As we changed, Oskar Eustis came into the dressing room to congratulate us. After a few hugs and “Good jobs” we ended up talking about pacing and how to make Act Five clearer. Soon we transformed into just theatre people in a typical post-show conversation, talking about how to really convey the inherent cacophonous insanity of Measure For Measure’s final act. But then I had a moment where I was thinking about where we were. We were in the Superintendent’s office of a major prison. And it hit me that Oskar had taken the time to drive an hour out of the city to support us as we all ushered in this project together. I detected a real pride in him that he was picking up the mantle from Papp and bringing Shakespeare directly to people who would have no other opportunity to experience it. It’s a noble idea and I was proud to be part of it’s actualization. My first acting engagement with the Public Theatre is fortuitously, exactly the kind of work that I want to do and exactly the way that I want to do it. I’m so aligned with the mission of this project and I’m thrilled to be part of it. I think we should expand it from prisons and shelters too. I think we should do it in the basement of the Empire State Building for the custodial staff of the building. I think we should do it in high school gymnasiums. I think we should do it anywhere that people who might not otherwise get to experience the live theatre, could get to.

The way out of Arthur Kill, thankfully, was not as difficult at the Superintendent had implied earlier. We gathered up our set pieces from the visitor’s center and many inmates called out words of praise to us. “Thanks for coming you guys!” and one guy shouted out to Rob, “Rob Campbell, you’re the truth!” No matter how that was meant, it was a profound compliment. But it does beg the question, “In what way is Rob Campbell the truth? Was it because he acted so truthfully? Or because Angelo is such a complicated and hard-core character and Rob had played him?” Something to chew on as we made our way through the halls with our iron gates and coat hooks. We all ended up again in the little metal and glass chamber with our hands up, still day-glow-gooped and illuminating brightly under the black light. Moments later we were outside.

The air felt clean and crisp in our noses and as the van pulled up we all checked in and talked about what had just happened. It was fascinating to hear everyone talk about what the impact of having criminals inside a prison watch our play felt like. It was both heavier and lighter than we’d imagined. For most of us, it was absolutely our first experience inside of a prison and was plenty of food for thought. And speaking of food, we were starving. We all climbed into the van and sandwiches were distributed amongst the cast. We all began to silently devour our meals as the van lurched out of the driveway and toward the distant Manhattan skyline in front of us. All of us eating…and processing.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"In any art form we seek the experience of going beyond what we already know. Many of us hear the stirring of the new, and it is the artist who must midwife the new reality that we (the audience) eagerly await. It is sight into this reality that inspires and regenerates us. This is the role of the artist, to give sight."- Viola Spolin

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Church, Theatre, or Community Gathering? Yes.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/26/theater/26secret.html

I had the great good fortune to attend the most recent “service” of The Secret City last Sunday morning. I’d learned about The Secret City through Facebook. My friend Lisa Rothe had posted something on her Facebook wall about The Secret City’s “Wonderwalk”, which was a fourteen hour walking tour of New York City that involved dozens of performance artists doing one-time-only-site-specific pieces to coincide with the walkers' pilgrimage throughout the city. Well, that sounded A-mazing to me and so I did some research to figure out what The Secret City was. I quickly found their website http://www.thesecretcity.org/ where I learned about the mission of The Secret City and their monthly “service.” They describe themselves in the following way. “THE SECRET CITY serves the spiritual, social and human needs of artists. We do this by creating and providing live, interactive programs that engage a growing community in restoring the sacred roots of art-making.” Uhmmm. YES please. I marked my calendar.

Last Sunday I got up, poured some coffee down my face, disappeared into the subway and emerged around the corner from Dixon Place, a small theatre on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that is the new home of The Secret City. When I arrived, the lobby of the theatre was crowded with people talking to each other, reading books, and sharing various baked goods and juice that people had brought. (How churchy! Except people had tattoos and were reading the new Jonathan Franzen novel.) Around 11:30, the theatre doors were opened and people began to shuffle into the space.

The theatre was simply decorated and evoked images of a theatre, church, and art gallery. In the middle of the stage, was an “altar” made out of a long folding table covered with a beautiful cloth. On the table was a candleholder with several lit candles, a vase full of fall colored flowers, and a few other items placed there by congregants. In front of the altar, was a stack of suitcases in different sizes. Suspended from the ceiling were various sculptures that suggested “angels” without necessarily being angels. To the (house) left of the altar was a music stand made into a pulpit by being draped with a flowing piece of brightly colored cloth. And to the left of the “pulpit” was a dresser’s mannequin with a robe on it that suggested Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. To the (house) right of the altar was a modest band that included a guitarist, cellist, and a few singers.

As I found a seat, there was a post-it note on the seat with a pen that said, “Today I am grateful for _____.” So I filled out what I was grateful for and shortly thereafter, the service began. Chris Wells, the singer and artist who founded The Secret City three years ago found his way behind his makeshift pulpit and said, “Welcome to The Secret City!” and began to clap. No sooner had he begun than the entire room was full of people standing, clapping, hooting, and hollering to celebrate the beginning of the ceremony. I felt waves of warmth running through my body and a profound happiness infusing itself into me. I was nervous and didn’t really know what to expect. In theory, I loved the idea of community ritual without religious dogma or ideology. In practice, I was nervous about the cult potential of such an endeavor. ("This is the part where we all get naked and throw rotten plums at each other! And also, let's all write down our bank account numbers and pass them to the front.") My nervousness turned to joy as Chris Wells said, “OK! Welcome to The Secret City! This month’s theme is ‘transformation’ and so we’ll be seeing some art, some magic, tasting some delicious caramels, watching a bit of a movie, and hearing some music all having to do with that theme! So we’re going to start with a little call and response. Your part is sung and it’s simply this, ‘We're CONNNNNNNEEEEECTED!’. OK? Let’s all try it.” I was hooked. Immediately.

I wrote to Chris and he was kind enough to email me the words to The Secret City Theme Song...

A Secret is a thing that you can share

A secret is both powerful and rare

To truly know a secret is to bear

Something the world wants to know

We’re connected

A secret can be cruel or it can be

Something that might set the world free

To truly know the secret is to feel

Something is behind what’s all around.

We’re connected

This is The Secret City

A world where everything is seen

This is a Secret City

Can you, feel it. Can you. Touch it.

Can you. Make it.

Live?

The Secret is that we all agree

There’s something underneath the sky and sea

And something floating in the air we breathe

Something the world needs to know

We’re connected

Building the Secret City

You’re here yes we’re all here today

This is a Secret City

Can you. Feel it. Can you. Touch it.

Can you. Make it.

Live?

Yes.

Today

It lives

Tell the Secret

Tell the Secret to

The World Today.

Ah, it was a great way to get things started! The service followed the format of a church ceremony almost to an item. There was a brief meet and greet at the beginning. There was call and response. There was a moment of silent meditation. There was a reading. There was a sermon. There was an offering. There was even a benediction. But, there were other, more unusual things that were incredibly rewarding and beautiful too. There was a “cultural calendar” section where a woman got up and read a kind of, “This Day In Art History” report. For instance, “It was on this day in 1909 when George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance opened in London.” Or “It was on this day two years ago that our brilliant Paul Newman passed.” In addition there was a “tasting” where Dan Jenkins passed out salted caramels he’d made for the service. There was also a “Look At This” section where an artist got up and talked about the aforementioned Technicolor dreamcoat. Broadway vet Michael Cerveris and cellist Leah Coloff did a fantastic rendition of David Bowie’s song Changes. Oh yeah, and a magic show!

It was really rewarding that the entire service was in service of exploring the theme of “transformation”. The dreamcoat that artist Larry Krone was working on was made up of dozens of needlepoint prints that he’d picked up at thrift shops. So by taking other people’s art work and sewing them together into a cape and then adding his own embroidery he was transforming many people’s art into a singular wearable piece. Dan Jenkins mused on the transformation of chemicals when cooking and talked about caramel as a unique food that’s neither liquid nor solid. A scene from Paris Is Burning dealt with transformation of man to woman (through drag) and also the transformation of a group of people from isolated and alienated to welcomed and celebrated within a kind of ceremony for themselves (A "ball"). The magic tricks featured the transformation of a dollar bill to a ripped up piece of paper back to a much stranger version of the same dollar bill. The sermon was Chris Wells story of coming out to his family and the transformation his mother underwent from distant and ashamed into a friendly and accepting. It occurred to me that no church service I’d ever been to in my life undertook such a multi-dimensional and effective exploration of a theme.

Early on in the service, I found myself incredibly moved by the energy in the room and the passion and generosity of Chris Wells's approach to MC-ing the service. I realized that I was experiencing something incredibly important to me. I was experiencing relevant resonant ritual. There was no talk of God and there was no excavation of ancient religious text to search for contemporary meaning. I felt that I was experiencing something truly spiritual and divine with other people in a sacred space.

Joseph Campbell talks about The New Myth being the old myth poetically renewed. (See the full quote at the bottom of the screen.) This is exactly what The Secret City is doing. Chris Wells and company have taken the structure of a ritual as old as the human race and have poetically renewed it, revivified it, and have made it relevant and beautiful. As I read an article in the New York Times about The Secret City later in the day, the reporter talked about it as being a performance piece and noted that The Secret City had won an Obie (off-Broadway theatre award) for 2010. Reading the article made me think back over the service as piece of theatre. In so doing, my psychological definition of what I’d participated in expanded slightly. Was it theatre? Was it church? Was it a show? Was it performance art? Well, yes. (Sidenote: The experience of reporting on The Secret City had so moved the reporter for the New York Times that he'd returned as a congregant.)

I’ve thought about theatre as a place of holy ritual for many years now. I think any place an important ritual is enacted, something holy is happening. I mean holy in the sense of getting after that spiritual potentiality of the human soul that mysteriously resides in us. As Thornton Wilder would describe it, "...that eternal part..." about human beings. Classrooms, rock concerts, theatres, churches, and sports arenas all are homes to rituals that tell important stories. They even have architecture and ceremonial order in common. They are designated places where an assembled group of people participate in a ritual that points past itself to something transcendent in the human condition. That eternal part inside human beings needs rituals. We look for them, pay for them, and use them to understand ourselves and how to live a human life and die a human death. Rituals pitch us out of our every day experience of life and lift us into a place where we have a more euphoric, revelatory, and inspired experience of living. Effective rituals move us, teach us, and change us.

When we watch a sporting event, we go to a kind of temple where we are watching the athletes participate in a competition that teaches us something. Most arena sports have teams of people that could serve as metaphors for armies, co-workers, nations, differing points of view, etc. (People argue that the Kansas/Mizzou rivalry is a yearly re-hashing of the fight over slavery hundreds of years ago!) Sports might also teach us something about team-work and cooperation. The team that wins often is the team that works well together. (“We’re all in this together. We do better when we work together.”) So there are little lessons in there wherever there is ritual whether we overtly see them or not. In classrooms a teacher performs (teaches) in front of an audience (class) and literally teaches them about the world they live in. We’ve come to a place in our human history where most people agree that the difference between an individual’s success and failure socially and financially in this life is directly related to the level of education he or she has. So, we can say that these stories (lessons) that these teachers are passing on are of tremendous personal value to those who receive them. So thank goodness for those rituals. (Classes) Churches feature the same dynamic. A religious figure stands in front of a congregation and tells stories from a religious text and then meditates aloud on how those stories should help us filter and understand the events of our lives. And then, of course, theatres are the exact same thing. There is a congregation gathered before an altar and when the curtain goes up the actors come out and tell one long story that is, like all of the other mentioned activities, trying to point past itself toward some larger truth about how to live or experience being alive. (In my favorite ones, the story is the same as sports; “We’re all in this together. We’re better when we work together.”)

What’s the point? Ah! My point is that, I feel like The Secret City is what it is…which is an interactive ritual that serves the human need to experience community and continuity while opening new dimensions in the soul and heart.

I often found myself weeping during the ceremony. I was so moved as the assembled congregation celebrated the magician, the artist, the singers, the sermon, and each other. I was so excited to participate in a call and response that was made up of ideas and structures of the old myth, “poetically renewed” for this group of people. The final recitation of the service was the following from Rachel Carson

Those who dwell among the mysteries of the earth

Shall never grow weary of life.

Those who contemplate the beauty of this earth

Will endure as long as life lasts.

The clearer we see the wonders of the earth

The less taste we shall have for destruction.

Now THAT is a group recitation I can speak from the heart.

Ultimately, I think what was most inspirational about my experience at The Secret City is that it affirmed my Field Of Dreams theory about the theatre. “If you build it, they will come.” That’s the sentence that the mysterious voice repeats to Kevin Costner’s character in the feature film Field Of Dreams. (Ultimately, the baseball field is a pretty transparent metaphor for church or religious ritual. He builds this place where his community can come and celebrate with the spirits of their ancestors, etc.) In any event, Chris Wells and friends have been building their own Field of Dreams for three years and have watched attendance multiply every month. It’s becoming a bigger and more exciting community of artists all the time. As word gets out, more and more people will come. He had a beautiful idea and there are so many people who want this kind of ritual and community and celebration in their lives. It’s ultimately what I want the theatre to be about and the kind of moving experience it provided for me is what I always hope for every time I start rehearsing a play. The theatre in my dreams is very much in line with the mission of The Secret City.

I want the theatre world in general to take note of what’s being done at The Secret City. I want the theatre to rise up to its mission and its potential and be a place of effective and powerful ritual. I want it to be a place for the human imagination to run wild. I want it to be a place where the old myths and stories can be poetically refreshed and renewed to resonate powerfully and passionately with the people who walk through the door. Whether it’s in the works of Chekhov or in an improvised play or in a community “service”, I want the theatre to embrace itself as life-affirming and necessary ritual and to have the power to enlighten and inspire and move. Joseph Campbell is correct in asserting that the world needs a New Myth and I feel like it is, as it has always been, the artists who will re-create it. (That's the subject of a whole other entry...) The Secret City, at the moment, is about and for artists. I'm glad it is. I think artists need to continually check in with their sense of mission and trajectory and impact. What better way than in an environment that celebrates and empowers them like The Secret City does? I’m hoping to be able to participate more and more in the rituals and projects aimed at discovering how that New Myth might manifest itself through me. But, I’m as sure as I’ve ever been sure about anything, that the New Myth that many people in the world have been waiting for, is taking shape within the walls of The Secret City. It’s a secret I’m happy to share. ("We're connnnnnneccccted.")

Testify!