by Jean Schiffman
“Today we are practicing the art of letting go,” said Debórah Eliezer, artistic director of FoolsFURY, at a recent public closure ceremony at the Mission Cultural Center. Her “sunset speech” marked the ensemble’s graceful withdrawal, as a company, from the local theatre scene after 23 years. Concrete symbols of that withdrawal were present among the Center’s colorful Day of the Dead displays: a remnant from the 2020 Sonoma County fire that destroyed Eliezer’s home and artist retreat center, forcing her and her family to, indeed, “let go”; a collection of tiny pots in which attendees could plant a seed and then take home. And, maybe no less symbolically, a tableful of cupcakes for the crowd.
“This ritual, being witnessed and doing it together,” says Eliezer the following morning by phone, “we’re sealing our practice. . . . We’re leaving on our terms.
“Active public closure was our final cultural provocation for the field,” she adds; it was partly meant as a platform for talking about the need for theatres to create succession, and strategies for closing down.
Among the many theatre artists who congregated for the ceremony was founder Ben Yalom. Yalom left the Bay Area in 2011—he fell in love, he says, and followed his wife, a surgeon, as she sought the best work opportunity; the pair ended up in San Diego with three kids—but Yalom continued as artistic director for a while, long distance. He’d been bicoastal for years anyway, going back and forth to New York. “I felt like there was a need for exposure, for me and the company members, for work that was going on in New York,” he explains by phone from San Diego before coming north for the closing ritual. During his long-distance tenure, he led the physically based ensemble in producing biennial Fury Factories—festivals of experimental work that drew like-minded ensembles from all over the country to perform here, 100 of them over time—and worked with Eliezer to develop her solo piece, (dis)Place[d].
Eliezer in (dis)Place[d].
But finally, he says, he had a big personal reckoning. His mother, Marilyn Yalom (a feminist scholar and historian at Stanford University), passed away in 2019, and that event catalyzed him; he realized he’d been living for years half in one location, with his mind and energy elsewhere. “I knew it wasn’t good for the company,” he says. In 2015 he’d promoted Eliezer, who’d been a company member since 2005, to associate artistic director, but in 2020, he officially resigned. “I think it’s true of a lot of ensembles,” he muses, “that whether I wanted my presence to be big or not, it was looming over the company. Even when I wasn’t there, my voice carried a lot of weight.”
Yalom was not involved with the decision to disband; the official word from the company cites various reasons for closure: Yalom’s departure, Eliezer’s loss of home, the pandemic and of course the economic fragility of many such small nomadic ensembles as fF. “Part of me is very, very sad that the company is closing,” says Yalom. “But that’s different from feeling it’s not the appropriate choice.”
Port Out, Starboard Home.
Both Eliezer and Yalom are justifiably proud of the work that the ensemble has created over the past two decades. “Every show we made, certainly the ones I directed [Sheila Callaghan’s world premiere, Port Out, Starboard Home; the U.S. premiere of Fabrice Melquiot’s The Devil on All Sides, which Yalom translated from the French; and others] were challenges for me,” says Yalom. “We didn’t retread much territory. Each time it was an exploration into the unknown. The bar was always high, every time. That may be the thing I’m proudest of.” Early on, fF brought in trainers of non-naturalistic ensemble-oriented techniques–New York’s Siti Company, “Viewpoints” creator Mary Overlie, other ensembles like Pig Iron Theatre Company in Philadelphia—to work with fF’s performers.
When Eliezer took over as full-time artistic director, she was committed to addressing “racial reckoning, the climate crisis, figuring out how to do something different during Covid.” She held workshops that, she says, helped the ensemble redefine the idea of success. “Marginalized or underrepresented people have chosen to work with us,” she says. “The people that have power now have been traditionally underrepresented, and that means we’ve effected change. That makes it possible for us to leave with success and grace . . .” To her gratification, the company had achieved the difficult goal of raising wages for company members by 30 percent.
“That feeling of unknowing,” she adds, “of devising something new with a group and using our training to do it—those are the happiest moments, the whole of us making something greater than the individual.”
Still, when a theatre closes, some goals are no doubt left unachieved. Yalom says he wishes that the diversity work Eliezer had been doing in the last few years had been started sooner. And, he adds, “I think I would have done better and the company been more fruitful if we’d been more connected to our local community. We never landed in a neighborhood and really built our roots there in the way we could perhaps have done.
“And I wish I’d been a better collaborator. In the latter half of my work as director and artistic director I learned to collaborate a lot better. It would have been good to have more voices and more people committed to doing the work than just my and Debórah’s leadership commitment.”
Both Yalom, who’s a translator, writer, and director, and Eliezer, who’s an actor, choreographer, director, and arts administrator, have personal and institutional plans. They will create an oral history project that will archive the accomplishments of the company; they’ve already arranged for a library specialist to coordinate the project. And Eliezer is creating Burning Wild, part installation, part narrative, part interactive performance, to explore healing from disaster and displacement (such as Middle Eastern people in the diaspora, and those who’ve lost their homes to wild fires). And she’ll continue to tour (dis)Place[d], which she created in 2016 to explore her own Mizrahi background, and which she has taken to places like Chicago and the U.K.
For the visionary Yalom, he jokes that he’s joining the family business (his father, Irvin Yalom, was a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at Stanford); he has started a doctoral program in psychotherapy. His goal is to work in the crossover area between theatre and psychotherapy. “Theatre and therapy are both aimed at making fuller, richer human beings,” he points out.
The name foolsFURY was never intended to be a 23-year name, because Yalom, back in 1998, never expected to have a theatre company that would last for 23 years. He slammed those two words together to represent a combination of comedy and outrage (at the way human beings can treat others). It seemed to fit the kind of work he wanted to do in terms of both style and content. “So it ended up being a good 23-year name,” he says.
Jean Schiffman is an arts journalist specializing in theatre. She writes reviews for the San Francisco Examiner and a long time ago edited Theatre Bay Area’s monthly magazine.