S.O.S. TCM! // by Jack Cummings III
A midnight airing on Turner Classic Movies gives director Jack Cummings III the inspiration he didn’t know he needed.
I am sitting alone in my office four days before Christmas. Once again, the world seems to be falling apart. Maybe “seems” isn’t the right word—perhaps “is” is more accurate? Words like Omicron and Manchin are swirling together with phrases like “tornado death toll” and “no more shutdowns” in some sort of macabre dance. In different times, going to the theatre, experiencing humanity, could be downright medicinal in such perilous moments. But with shows in New York shuttering in avalanches, this option is becoming increasingly scarce.
As human nature goes, while wallowing in defeat (and like so many of us, trust me, I feel defeated…again), I can’t help but also search for some inspiration—some lighthouse in the night that can guide me back to feeling we can ride through all this horror. Something to just tell me it’s possible—I’ll take any morsel I can grab. Scanning our office, my eyes track all the production photos we have on the walls from our first twenty years. They eventually land on a production photo we have of two actors, Chinaza Uche and Ito Aghayere. In the photo, Chinaza and Ito are dressed casually, sitting on a plastic folding table, and smiling as they look at something off to the side—we can’t see what they’re looking at but it must be awesome based on their expression. As I stare at it, I laugh to myself thinking nobody looking at this photo would ever in a million years guess what show this is, let alone what it’s about. But as I continue to stare at it, I realize why my eyes won’t leave it. My search for hope right now is inside this photo. Alongside Chinaza and Ito, there is someone else in this photo but who is unseen: Helen Keller. Chinaza and Ito are both playing her in this theatrical moment captured by photographer Carol Rosegg. At this point, you might be saying, “What? Back it up, Jack.” Even if you’re not saying that I’m going to pretend you are in order to justify this story I’m about to tell—how’s that for dramaturgy?
Michele Pawk, a well-known actress, is a good friend of mine. We have worked together a few times and become very close. Years ago, she accepted a full-time job as a Professor of Theatre at Wagner College in Staten Island. In 2015, she asked me if I’d come out to direct the students in a production on their smaller stage, a blackbox theatre named Stage II. I said yes and that was that until they asked me what I wanted to direct. Everyone assumes directors have a long list of titles they’re dying to direct and perhaps some do, but most of the directors I know have no such list—in fact, the blank question itself terrifies most of us. I was on the phone with Michele and Felicia Ruff (the department chair), and frighteningly asked, “Anything?” “Sure! Anything you want!” they replied. “Ok,” I said, “let me get back to you,” as I glanced over at my lone bookshelf of plays, none of which seemed much help at the moment. So, like all great scholars and legendary directors through the ages, I turned my attention to Turner Classic Movies and lo and behold Auntie Mame was on so I decided that’s what I would do. What could be better in a blackbox theatre than Auntie Mame? Alas, the department could not get the rights. If someone is ever able to explain to me why the commercial producers who are holding these rights would not allow six performances of Auntie Mame performed by college students in a tiny theatre that I swear was once a shed and is stuck behind a football field in Staten Island of all places, I will give that person a million dollars.
Anyway, it was back to the drawing board—or as I call it Turner Classic Movies. The next night The Miracle Worker was on. After 30 seconds of careful analysis and deep thought, I said, “Let’s do The Miracle Worker!” I mean, who doesn’t love The Miracle Worker, right?—water pump, tears, and Anne Bancroft sass—perfect. Everyone agreed and they got the rights. We were off—that is until one night when I decided to actually google The Miracle Worker and do some “research.” One obscure review I found questioned whether the play seemed dated. That was it—we were NOT going to do The Miracle Worker. It was dated and old-fashioned and it was OUT! [UPDATE: when I actually got around to reading and watching The Miracle Worker, come to find out, it is NOT dated and IS a brilliant, amazing, and deeply moving play.] So, in my late-night swirl of “doubting Miracle Worker madness” I came upon Helen Keller’s Wikipedia page (my research methods are very sophisticated) and discovered that Helen Keller actually lived an entire life after The Miracle Worker ends. Who knew? Not only did she live beyond that famous water pump moment, she lived for another 82 years!—and wrote over a dozen books and countless articles and gave thousands of speeches all over the world and knew everyone from Mark Twain to JFK and advocated for birth control and believed in Bolshevism and —OH MY GOD, my head was exploding. Helen Keller!!?? I knew her mainly as the source of our well timed and “hilarious” jokes on the playground in the third grade. Something clicked as they say, and I called Wagner back and said I’d love to do a piece about Helen Keller, post Miracle Worker, using her own words, culled from her seemingly endless writings. They were supportive and said, whatever you need, we’re here.
I didn’t really know where to even begin. The first thing I did was try to make a list of everything she wrote—the books numbered around sixteen and the many magazine and newspaper articles she authored were too numerous to even count. I ordered as much as I could from Amazon, Etsy, and e-bay and then googled and downloaded everything I could find. I showed up at Wagner to a cast of thirteen (including Michele Pawk thankfully) with no script, an extremely heavy canvas bag of old books, and lots of xeroxed articles. There were only three things I knew for sure: the show would be called The 8th Wonder of the World (Mark Twain’s name for her), it would begin with the cast telling every single Helen Keller joke known to man, and we would recreate/deconstruct the famous breakfast scene from The Miracle Worker halfway through the show.
With no script, we started sitting around the tables, talking A LOT. We talked about their (the students) day, about theatre, about movies, their personal lives, the five senses, pop music, social media, body image, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, favorite foods, clothes—you name it, we talked about it. It’s amazing the number of topics one can come up with and talk about endlessly when one has yet to produce a script. The truth is I was panicking and feeling lost. It’s one thing to come up with an idea—it’s another to actually do it. The high stack of Helen Keller books staring at me every day was incredibly threatening. Each time I began to look through them I became overwhelmed with anxiety. Eventually, I’d simply circle paragraphs or sections from books and bring them in for the cast to read, passing the book around like we were the March family in Little Women. We would read aloud and talk about what we had just read—more often than not being deeply touched by her inspirational sayings or thoughts and then feeling guilty that our seeing and hearing lives would never be as noble as hers.
After a few weeks, Helen Keller and her needlepoint view of life started to become … well … boring. So, I began to search in vain for anything where she was upset, sad, cranky, or downright furious. Thankfully that part of Helen was there in her writings if one looked hard enough. She wanted to get married and almost did until her mother called it off and kicked the poor fellow out of their lives. She toured vaudeville and developed a wickedly smart and hilarious tongue (“What is the slowest thing in the world? Congress.”). She abhorred the mistreatment of any person and was deeply ashamed of her family’s slave owning, prejudiced past. She fought hard for women’s rights and was a staunch believer in Bolshevism, supporting Lenin and the Russian Revolution with full force. She was a pacifist and never forgave Woodrow Wilson for getting us into World War I. Conversely, when World War II broke out, she could not understand what took us so long to enter it! When the German publisher of her books wrote to her in the early 1930s and demanded she cut out the section in support of Lenin in her book Midstream, she wrote back a letter that proves not only her deep humanity but her uncompromising intellectual gifts. I felt like I was sitting on a gold mine.
We sat around the table for a full five weeks reading, discussing, etc. until I finally went away for a few days and basically pulled and xeroxed everything she wrote that I personally found interesting. There was no real method to my process other than, “Hmmm…this seems interesting.” I returned to Staten Island with a xeroxed stack of paper that was ten inches high. Each cast member took an inch or so and we went round the table and read every single sheet. After about ten minutes, it felt like we were reading the phone book. Dammit! Different from snappy dialogue found in plays, this was purely narrative writing. We all discovered we really had our work cut out for us. We had to figure out how one delivers first person narrative prose and makes it active and emotional. Keller never heard spoken speech and so her writing is very “writerly”—meant to be read, not spoken. AND her extensive vocabulary was from another time (how many times a day do you use words like “allotted” or “unscrupulous?”). Her sentences are complex and at times her train of thought is rather complicated—the opposite of our current Twitter “verbiage.” BUT she is a gorgeous writer nonetheless—a true artist. When talking about her mother, who was only 23 when Helen’s illness took away her sight and hearing, she writes, “It was as if a white winter had swept over the June of her youth.” That line gets me very time not only for the poetry of it but for the deep love of her mother contained in those few words.
Eventually the ten-inch-high stack of writings became more manageable. I used the student cast as a focus group, holding up sections and bluntly asking, “Boring or not boring?” One distinct advantage of starting a show like this with students is quick and honest feedback. The next thing I did was ask each student what sections they personally connected with and assigned them accordingly. I felt it was better for the show that the actors had a personal stake in choosing their own material. Although they were speaking her words, they weren’t literally playing Helen Keller but rather interpreting her words and as a result, playing themselves in the end. And so, we, the audience, not only learn about Keller but learn about the actor as well—the line between the two becoming ever more invisible. Eventually, I put everything in an order and an abstract, yet accessible, portrait of Keller’s mind and heart began to emerge. We got up on our feet and I mocked up some rudimentary staging. The cast held their scripts which by this point were tattered xeroxed pages slathered with crude edits hastily dictated by me—I still wonder they could even read from them much less act in front of an audience!
By the end of my process at Wagner, Transport Group’s show scheduled for that summer was postponed and so I decided to put this piece about Helen Keller in our summer slot, now retitled Three Days To See (the title of an essay she wrote for The Atlantic Monthly in 1933). The show was now cast with seven professional actors of all types: Chinaza Uche, Ito Aghayere, Theresa McCarthy, Zoe Wilson, Marc de la Cruz, Patrick Boll, and Barbara Walsh. Keller wrote that in reality, we are all one body and spent her life advocating for “the world.” The process of working with her words and bringing them to the stage was remarkable and quite a gift. We discovered her disabilities were merely tools for her to experience and learn about the world. We wanted the audience to take in her incredible mind and enormous heart while learning about the person underneath who is just like anyone else—sad, angry, desiring of love, needing to diet, upset at injustices, lost, confident—the depths of her being are endless. She taught all of us who worked on this show so many things—that the power of the heart and mind have no limits—the world is meant to be experienced by every sense fully—the ability to truly see and hear one another is the key to ending all hatred. These things probably sound obvious and elementary but when articulated by such a mind as Helen Keller’s they have a resonance that far exceeds any I have ever known.
Back to that photo of Chinaza and Ito. My eyes are still fixed on it. It’s from the last section of the show—the actual article that gave us our title. In this sequence, Helen describes what she imagines she would do if given the gift of sight for just three days. It is the second day and as Helen, Chinaza and Ito are running to every museum they can get to:
“My next stop would be the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I should try to probe into the soul of man through his art. Here, in the vast chambers of the Metropolitan Museum, is unfolded before me the spirit of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, the sculptured gods and goddesses of the ancient Nile land, the Parthenon friezes, and the gnarled, bearded features of Homer so dear to me, for he, too, knew blindness. More splendid still, the whole magnificent world of painting would be opened to me. I should look deep into the canvases of Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, and Rembrandt. It would be with extreme reluctance that I should leave the Metropolitan Museum, which contains the key to beauty — a beauty so neglected.”
As I continue to stare at this photo, I can distinctly hear Ito’s voice saying one particular line that stays with me. This line slowly begins to take on a deeper meaning as I listen to it now on repeat in my mind.
Gradually, I can start to faintly make out the lighthouse I have been searching for:
“I should try to probe into the soul of man through his art.”
The world is falling apart—no doubt about it. But maybe if us artists stick together (as opposed to competing), our art can guide people to probe each other’s souls as well as their own—as well as our own for that matter. If we can accomplish this, there exists the possibility we can actually see each other, understand each other, embrace each other, forgive each other—forgive ourselves.
For those who know me, my admitted earnestness here might seem out of character. But it’s December. And I guess I’m feeling a little more Linus than Lucy.
Merry Christmas Helen Keller.
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