Authenticity and Storytelling

Posted on April 18th, 2019 by

A blog post by Deputy Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what happens in museums. I don’t mean what happens to the artifacts. I mean, what happens to the museum-goer. Why do people come and why do they come back?

I used to think that history museums connect people to history (and art museums connect people to art, etc.). I’m starting to realize that history museums—at least when they are the most successful—connect people to people (and art museums do, too).

Surprisingly enough, I came to this realization thinking about theater (and with a little help from a wise museum professional). I’ve always enjoyed live theater, and, sort of like museums, the more theater you see, the more you want to see. This season, I’ve made a point of seeing shows here in Baltimore at both Everyman Theatre and at Baltimore Center Stage.

The plays with which I connect the most deeply, the ones that give me goosebumps and make me cry, are the ones that teach me something about the world or myself (or both). They do that by connecting me on a deep level with a character or characters.

I don’t mean to say that I see versions of myself on stage and am moved. In fact, the specifics of the characters who move me are often wildly different than my own particularities.

Some examples from the most recent season include:

The playwright Sholem Asch, as portrayed in Baltimore Center Stage’s recent production of Indecent is hardly someone with whom I imagined I would have a lot in common, and yet sitting in that audience, I felt his pain and helplessness. I shared his dedication to words and the realization that they have so much and yet so little power.

The steel workers at the center of Sweat live a life contemporaneous with mine and yet remarkably distant from me. And through the play, I felt their frustrations, their hopes and regrets. Though I’ve never faced the reality of job instability depicted in the show, I felt their vulnerability and desperation alongside them.

Allison Bechdel, the protagonist of Fun Home, struggles to start a conversation with her father. She wants to talk about the fact that she has just learned that he is gay, and she is also gay. The audience knows she never succeeds. He takes his own life a short time after her unsuccessful attempts in the car ride, depicted on stage in song. I am not gay, nor was my father, but when I saw the show a few months before the sixth anniversary of his death, I cried as if I were watching my own halting attempts to connect.

This is the power of good theater. It is the power of good storytelling.

When theater or art or history evokes empathy in us, we learn about the world and ourselves. In museums the mechanism is different, but the aim is the same. Both plays and museum exhibits attempt to connect their viewers with the authentic human experiences of others.

In museums empathy is evoked through an interaction with artifacts. Sometimes the artifacts themselves tell a story. For instance, the visible, uneven stitches of the many repairs and mends on the tallit gadol (prayer shawl) currently on view in Fashion Statement help the museum-goer empathize with the tallit’s owner. We imagine how he cared for the tallit, how he loved it. I think about some of my own possessions I love that way.

For other artifacts, it is the similarity to others of the same make and vintage that allows the viewer to connect with it or its original owner. For instance, many former nurses linger with a smile over our Sinai nurse’s uniform, musing on how small their wastes were back in those days, or calling to mind specific stories or people they knew when they wore a uniform like that one.

Still others offer a proximity to their owner that was never or is no longer possible. We saw that with the wild popularity of our Houdini exhibit and some of the artifacts, like the straitjacket or the diary, that were used by him directly. In our current exhibit, Gil Sandler’s hat and Shoshana Cardin’s scarves offer a similar, if smaller in scale, opportunity for visitors to be close to influential figures, at least by proxy.

With every day that I am privileged to work in this field, I become more convinced that museums are magic. Through observing authentic artifacts—the belongings of others—we can connect with the people who owned them, who loved them, who saved them. Museums allow us all to be time travelers. Even better than that, as we travel through time and connect with people divorced from our specific time and place, we are offered the opportunity to learn more about the world and ourselves.

I pray this journey never ends.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




The Book of Joseph: Everyman Theatre and a Jewish Play

Posted on April 25th, 2018 by

Playwright Karen Hartman and author and native Baltimorean Richard Hollander were kind enough to sit down with us and talk a little about their experiences with creating “The Book of Joseph” and bringing the story of Richard’s family to life.

Interview by JMM Marketing Manager Rachel Kassman. Filming and transcription by Carmen Venable. This interview was filmed on April 11, 2018 at the Everyman Theatre in downtown Baltimore, MD.

“The Book of Joseph” runs at the Everyman Theatre May 9 –June 10, 2018. It’s companion exhibit, “The Book of Joseph: Giving Voice to the Hollander Family,” is on display at the Jewish Museum of Maryland April 22 – June 3, 2018.

In this clip Karen discusses why Everyman Theatre’s production of “The Book of Joseph” is particularly exciting.

Transcript:

 Karen Hartman: Well, one thing that’s exciting about this production is that Everyman Theatre is one of the few theaters in the country to keep a resident company of actors. This used to be a part of the American Regional system and it just isn’t anymore. So, in our production here, this group of actors, who are playing a family, they kind of are a family. More than half of them are part of this company, they know each other, they work together. There’s this built in rapport and intimacy that they bring the production from the beginning that’s really exciting. And the other thing is, I’m excited about this director, Noah Himmelstein, who I’ve known for a while, who’s just one of the most exciting young directors around, who both has the heart for this play, and the imaginative spirit for this play, and I’m really eager to see what he brings to it too.

In this clip Karen discusses why “The Book of Joseph” is a Jewish play.

Transcript:

Karen Hartman: No one has ever asked me about this play as a Jewish play, probably because it’s in part a Holocaust story, so that seems in some ways obvious, and in many ways we want to emphasize all of the ways that the play is universal and about immigration and American-ness and this idea of a briefcase. There’s also something that in a way, I can’t quite identify, strikes me as particularly Jewish, about a yearning to have a conversation with an ancestor. And I don’t know why that is, but I’ve known it from when I first started teaching playwriting– I started teaching when I was in my early twenties. I was right out of college and one of the first places I taught a playwriting workshop was a Jewish day school, and I asked the students, “Write a paragraph about something you want that you can’t buy with money,” as a starting point for teaching the kind of dramatic questions. And this little boy, a fifth grade boy, wrote, “I wish I could go back in time and meet my grandfather.” And I thought, this strikes me as a cultural habit of yearning to have that conversation with someone in the past. It’s been a huge part of my work, writing about my own family history, probing out those questions, writing a character who meets her own grandmother, and there’s something about the way this play works, that although it is– although it plays around in time and space, it doesn’t play around in a way that’s playful or random. It plays around in a way that serves this central yearning of, “I want to go back, I want to know my history better, I want to know my dad better.” And it strikes me as a Jewish habit of inquiry.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Book of Joseph: Stories Untold

Posted on April 19th, 2018 by

Playwright Karen Hartman and author and native Baltimorean Richard Hollander were kind enough to sit down with us and talk a little about their experiences with creating “The Book of Joseph” and bringing the story of Richard’s family to life.

In this clip Karen and Richard discuss pieces of the story that weren’t included in the translation to the stage.

Interview by JMM Marketing Manager Rachel Kassman. Filming by Carmen Venable. This interview was filmed on April 11, 2018 at the Everyman Theatre in downtown Baltimore, MD.

“The Book of Joseph” runs at the Everyman Theatre May 9 –June 10, 2018. It’s companion exhibit, The Book of Joseph: Giving Voice to the Hollander Family, is on display at the Jewish Museum of Maryland April 22 – June 3, 2018.

Transcript:

Karen Hartman: There are so many letters that go into such detail about the richness of these lives in Poland, and just the limits of human attention dictate that we have to hear these letter in what I hope will be these jewel-like, hologram-like fragments where you understand, “Okay, I just hear a couple sentences here but underneath there’s all of this.”

There’s this tremendous love story that opens up in the Krakow ghetto between the youngest of the sisters, who’s been in a terrible marriage her whole adult life, and now her husband who had kind of left during the war seems to have died. And she falls suddenly and completely in love with this other man. And they both write in the book, and they’re making all of these plans to be together, and it’s pages and pages of detail.

And reading those love letters was one of the most heartbreaking pieces of the play because they don’t make it, and yet, they’re planning their futures together. And that story is in the play, but just, you know, it’s like twenty seconds, right? And the reason that it’s so exciting is because it happens after the sad part, right, after they’re already in the ghetto.

And so we’re looking at it and the way and audience wants to look at something is, “Well, we already got to the ghetto, we know they’re not going to make it,” we can’t take that much time to go deeply into this love story, and that’s just human audience facts. But, I wish we could, because it’s very, very beautiful.

Richard Hollander: Well, the key point is that the family in Poland, when they wrote the letters, did not know that they were going to concentration camps. They did not know they weren’t going to survive, so the letters talk about the day-to-day life, the day-to-day trials, so when a teenage niece says, “Well, I guess I won’t be going to the movies or the beach anymore, she is looking at the restrictive laws against Jews through the eyes of a teenager, not somebody later on in retrospect.

So it’s– the letters have an immediacy to them, in the moment, which is really important. Is there a part– to answer your question– is there a part that perhaps I would have liked if it was in the play? Which adds the whole irony to the whole thing– yes. I mean, in the late nineteen thirties, my father was able to save perhaps a hundred Jews by getting them passports and exit Visas to get out of Poland prior to the Nazi invasion, and many of those people went to Central America.

Of course, ironically, though he tried very hard, he was unable to save his immediate family. So, to take it back to where we were before, the– I didn’t, metaphorically and literally open the briefcase because I didn’t want to somehow tarnish an idealized image of my father, but when I finally got into it, quite the contrary, his image, his persona was enhanced by what I discovered through the research.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland