Travel Day: Israel with Manny Azenberg, 6/13/11

14 06 2011

I feel a little guilty missing all the exciting LA theater events this month, from the international RADAR L.A. to the TCG conference to our very own Hollywood Fringe. Now that I’ve become little part of this wonderfully dynamic LA theater community, I feel like I’m neglecting an important commitment.

But I’d like to think I have a semi-valid excuse for my absence: I have been saving for several years now to make a trip to Israel with Broadway producer Emanuel Azenberg. I am in Philadelphia right now, about to board my flight to Tel Aviv. I am feeling incredibly blessed, incredibly grateful, and incredibly eager to share this experience with my family and friends upon my return. Depending on Internet access, I might even blog about it!

On the flight from LAX this morning, I did a little reminiscing about Manny’s impact on my life. I have written before about Manny as a professor at Duke, and – more importantly – as a mentor, a friend, almost a third grandfather to me. From the personal, “visceral” play responses that we wrote in his contemporary theater class, Manny opened me to a more fulfilling, better-balanced life. “Happiness is equilibrium. Shift your weight.” I dug through my play responses this morning and came across a response that marked a huge shift in my life. Welcome to a sampling of my junior year of college:

I saw The History Boys during its final week in New York.  Curious what my visceral reaction was to the show when I initially saw it, I searched through my journal entries from the last semester.  It appears that one moment struck me, lodged in my memory and would not let go: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you.  Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead.  And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours” (56).

I relish these moments of emotional connection – in literature, in theater, in dance, in music – yet I never share with others the connections that I so often feel.  Perhaps this explains why I am struggling to write these personal responses.  I haven’t forgotten how to feel, but I have forgotten how to share my feelings with others.  Yet it is this cultural and emotional education and the ability to share it, to “pass it on,” which is so essential to our very human existence (109).  This play thus provoked me to the personal question of why I am so reticent, of why I withhold my own emotions so often.

Knowledge of facts is only of importance insofar as one can pass an arbitrary exam, but cultural and emotional knowledge allows one to reach out to others.  Throughout The History Boys, though, feelings are constantly withheld. When Hector breaks into tears in class one day, the boys hesitate to make a physical or emotional connection with their professor.  And even as Hector speaks the quote that so lodged itself in my mind, he reaches out a hand to Posner – who refuses the proffered connection. Irwin always gives his students the explicit instruction: “Distance yourselves” (74).  I suppose I have learned to distance myself throughout my life.

In the end of The History Boys, each boy has taken a different career in which his factual education is now insignificant; all that is of lasting value is his emotional and cultural education.  And indeed, what good is an education unless it prepares you for life?  After years of educational indoctrination, this class is teaching me a little more about myself with each play and response; it is a struggle, but I am beginning to understand and share my own opinions, emotions, and life.

When I wrote this response in 2007, I struggled to share it even with Manny. Now here it is on a very public blog. I am reminded each and every day of just how much my life has changed in the past few years.

I poured myself into academics and the arts as a kid in Albemarle, NC. As I wrote in my post on fandom, I think those of us who are socially marginalized at a young age often find deep connections in literature and the arts. These surrogate friends and alternate worlds sustain us in times of isolation. Then academia often whips the “I” out of us, in favor of “objective,” “distanced” analysis of these once treasured cultural objects.

In the process of writing – and sharing – such personal responses for Manny’s class, I remembered the affective importance of the arts in my life and realized that I was neglecting the very real friendships that I had finally established in college. In hyper-academic mode, I was actually isolating myself.

As I started to establish a happier equilibrium in my life, theater became an invaluable mode of relation for me: a space to create, to collaborate, and to connect. It has fueled my ongoing academic and creative pursuits – and many of my dearest friendships – ever since. I suppose because I will always wear those scars of being the shy, dorky little girl from Albemarle, NC, I am in continual awe of the incredible community I have found in theater. If I seem to be constantly beaming lately, it’s because I am feeling endlessly thankful for how full, how rich, how multi-faceted my life and my friendships have become – because it wasn’t always this way. C.S. Lewis perhaps puts it best: ‎”In a perfect Friendship this Appreciative love is, I think, often so great and so firmly based that each member of the circle feels, in his secret heart, humbled before all the rest. Sometimes he wonders what he is doing there among his betters. He is lucky beyond desert to be in such company.”

From my relationships to my more personal writing style, Manny has made an indelible impression on me – and I know I’m not the only student who has been so touched. Manny always strives for a sense of continuity in life, and I am fortunate to be one of those strands, continually weaving into his life as he weaves into mine. Every time I visit New York, I drop by his office above the Neil Simon Theatre. The walls are covered in photos of friends and family, and he never fails to take time out of his busy day for breakfast or lunch at the Polish Tearoom with me. Who am I that Manny Azenberg should invest so much time and interest in my life? But … that is Manny.

Manny has organized a post-Tony Awards tour to Israel for decades now, and I feel incredibly blessed to be a part of this year’s trip. When people ask me what I am most excited to see, the better question is probably what experiences I am most excited to share. I am taking this trip to spend time with Manny as much as to see Israel. And in addition to visiting all the tourist sites, Manny has arranged lunches and dinners with politicians, writers, artists, farmers, and others who live and work in Israel. For Manny, it’s the conversations that matter, the relationships that create value and purpose. Shared time is what brings meaning to our lives. Shared time is a gift.

I regret not being able to share time with the LA theater community in this especially exciting month, but other friendships call. I am eager for my return to LA in July, and in the meantime, I hope I can share my experiences with you from afar!

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2 responses

14 06 2011
Jen Fingal

You’re amazing, Sarah =) My heart just swells with love and joy for you ❤ ❤ ❤

14 01 2012
Celebrating 2 Years of Blogging « Sarah Taylor Ellis

[…] as I composed, music directed, and dramaturged from coast to coast. I even blogged my trip to Israel with Manny Azenberg and a bunch of “show business Jews” last […]

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