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When someone tells you about a problem, is your first impulse the desire to help them fix it – or at least figure it out – or do you come down more on the “I’m here to listen” side?

Let’s just say, right now, I have an almost compulsive need to come up with solutions to problems, even when people don’t want them. That’s one of my most favorite things about directing a play. You start out with an indecipherable but somehow appealing text which you then spend weeks, months, or sometimes even years trying to figure out. It’s like the world’s largest Sunday crossword puzzle!

I’ve been over a month on scene 3 of Mother Courage. So much happens in scene 3. It even runs through different genres – slapstick one minute, tragedy the next. It’s a farce scene with Courage trying to keep nine plates in the air at the same time and every time she thinks she’s back on top, the dyke springs yet another leak. That makes me think of the old Laurel and Hardy film when the boys are moving a piano… (Across a swinging bridge-….in the Alps…and halfway across…they meet a gorilla). It’s also an information scene where we learn about the canteen business that Courage runs from her cart and even in the worst of times how there’s money to be made, but of course we know it can’t play like an information scene. Then, finally there’s the part that’s the story of a mother who deeply loves her children, but can’t solve the problem of keeping them alive and safe. Scene 3 culminates in the death of Courage’s middle child the honest “Swiss Cheese”. The soldiers bring in his body and Courage can’t go to it to touch it a final time, or even to say she knows who it is without putting her life and the life of her sole remaining child in danger. You’ve heard about, and no doubt seen, the photo of Helene Weigel’s famous “silent scream” from the original production, well this is where she did it. The Berliner Ensemble has been showing a grainy, black and white copy of the 1957 revival with her on their website this summer. I know it doesn’t sound all that appealing, but watch it. It’s moving without being sentimental, and it will break your heart. I don’t say things like that about a play often. When I watch a play, I’m usually mostly caught up in the mechanics-what are the problems the play presents and how do that director, the actors and the designers go about solving them. But this moment got me going.

We’re in Brooklyn for a few days right now. Barbara had a routine checkup at Sloan Kettering yesterday which went very well, and then we spent the rest of the day with Mac and wonderful 5 year old Paloma who, without our asking, at one point disappeared into the house for a few minutes and returned with glasses of bubbling ice water for the three of us. That was fun, and that was a day filled with the most manageable problems you can imagine – finding a parking place, helping Paloma “decorate” my hot dog. (She likes mustard on the bun and the onions in before the sauerkraut.) The degree of difficulty for each of these problems was perfect – complicated enough to maintain my interest but not so difficult that it led to frustration – and it so reinforced what I need in my own life right now and what is on my mind this morning when I’m back in the world of problems and unhappiness that seem to require such complex solutions. I find myself overwhelmed by disagreements over priorities or even agreeing on terms and definitions. So many contradictions. Is social-crowding as deadly as they tell us or is it only bad at a Trump rally or on a Florida beach but okay at a demonstration? Does how we feel each today take priority over how we think? Am I doing too much overthinking or over feeling?

Right now, today, the smallest things seem to mean the most. The two-minute catch-ups with the neighbors in Brooklyn, Paloma telling me, It’s ok. “It doesn’t matter” and really meaning it. And Barbara putting up with me when I’m obsessing with all of this. The big problems are for later today – or maybe tomorrow.


Jim Niesen


Author Irondale

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