Making Theatre As A Whole Person: Remembering Corey Fischer
Wednesday, July 8, 2020
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
by Rotimi Agbabiaka
The Bay Area lost a guiding light when Corey Fischer passed away on June 6 at the age of 75. A Los Angeles native, Fischer left behind a burgeoning Hollywood career to move to San Francisco in 1982 with A Traveling Jewish Theatre, the company he co-founded with Naomi Newman and Albert Greenberg.
For thirty-four years, the company stirred audiences with its experimental exploration of Jewish identity, while Fischer exerted an outsize influence on the Bay Area theatre community through his work as an actor, director, playwright, and teacher.
Ben Yalom, founder and coartistic director of FoolsFURY, spoke with Naomi Newman and Aaron Davidman, TJT’s artistic director from 2002 to 2012, about Corey’s expansive approach to life and art.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Corey Fischer. Photo by Ken Freidman.
Ben Yalom: First of all, I want to say that we are mourning the passing of our friend and mentor. The two of you have had long collaborations with Corey—anyplace you want to start?
Naomi Newman: Corey and I worked together for over 50 years. We met [in 1968] in an acting class in Hollywood taught by Jeff Corey and, even though I’m 15 years older than Cory, we immediately connected and started working together. He was a dream and a nightmare to work with—he was such a multifaceted theatre artist. I loved directing him, acting with him, writing with him—we started in 1978 and went through every permutation of working together. When A Traveling Jewish Theatre ended, [we] did two more projects together: his solo piece, Lightning In the Brain, which I directed, and a music-poetry-theatre piece, World on Fire, which Corey directed.
Ben: Naomi, you just said Corey was a delight and a nightmare to work with. Can you elaborate on that?
Naomi: He was a delight in his artistry but then he had annoying habits like always being late—that drove us nuts. He talked endlessly—that could drive you nuts. As a director and a teacher, he was very supportive, very embracing. Yet in other situations he could be competitive and unkind. He was a human being with a very bright side and a shadow side.
Aaron: He suffered the ailment of being a human being through and through. I would say that Corey also suffered from a lifetime of usually being the smartest person in the room. And I always like to think that when he met Naomi, he finally found his match intellectually.
I was profoundly lucky to have, in Corey and in Naomi, true professional mentors in my field. And the thing about Corey’s kind of impatience is that it was almost as if his brain ran on its own drive. Corey the person—the soft, openhearted, fragile person—just couldn’t keep up with the brain that would drive him and drive him and drive him.
It’s an interesting combination because it led to some brilliant work. It led to him being a brilliant performer on stage because he had a kind of life force that was very powerful and could be very intimidating. When you combine that power with tenderness and softness and honesty and brokenness, it’s so compelling, it’s so beautiful. So when Naomi refers to the dream and the nightmare, I think [it] is really said with great love.
Ben Yalom. Photo by Rachel Tate.
Ben: I had much less in-the-room experience with Corey but he played a very large role in my choosing to pursue a life in the theatre. He came to a class I was taking at Stanford as an undergraduate and, just in one or two days, what I encountered with him was the possibility of having such a large persona and intellect and being able to make theatre with oneself as a whole person, which I had never encountered in my training. My Stanislavski-based training seemed to really have nothing to do with me at all and then suddenly there was this person, Corey, who was warm and delightful and nurturing but also exacting. The difference was he was making art with himself, of himself, as a person, and I had not encountered that in my theatre training before.
Aaron: I share that experience with you, Ben, because I too was on the path of journeyman American regional theatre actor and came in contact with Naomi and Corey and Albert [Greenberg] and Helen [Stoltzfus] and was awakened into the fact that the artist matters—who the artist is and where the artist comes from. I describe it as roots-based work—that my lineage is a goldmine of exploration and reflection of the human condition.
Naomi: I think the root metaphor is really useful in that roots get wound together and what Corey and all of us ended up being willing to experience and portray is the complexity of what we were examining—including who we are. For example, part of what made Corey Corey is his huge size. He had to deal with being made fun of as a kid and so he developed this great intelligence and when he also went on stage he was enormously graceful—he developed a grace out of the awkwardness.
As artists, we can hold that paradox, in what we think of as beauty or light and darkness, and show that it’s what the human condition is. And we did that with Judaism. We did not try to portray a great religion. We tried to portray our struggle with what was nourishing and what was not nourishing—holding the complexity and expressing the paradox. Corey was that as a human being.
Aaron: And I think that’s what people responded to at the time. If you go back and look at those early reviews, you can see that there was a hunger for that kind of honesty and complexity in relationship to Jewish identity. Fiddler On the Roof only went so far and Neil Simon only went so far. A Traveling Jewish Theatre [followed] the experimental theatre tradition of Joe Chaikin and the Living Theatre and what El Teatro Campesino was doing and what the Black theatre was doing at the time—unearthing the complexities of culturally specific identity [with] experimental theatre forms.
Ben: How did the forms that came on stage marry the content?
Naomi: Well, it was coming from the process. Depending on what we were exploring. we would try to find structures and combinations of structures. A lot of that came in the beginning from improvisational theatre, where we used song and music and any idea that popped into your head to create long pieces. We said: all forms are useful and combinable. When we first started, storytelling became a vital form.
The other thing that guided us was contrast. In The Last Yiddish Poet, we had to enter very painful, dark material about the holocaust. It was really important, after guiding Corey and Albert into these painful places, to find a way help them let go [of the traumatic material]. So I would say: "OK. Make fun of everything you just did.” And from that developed the clowns of The Last Yiddish Poet.
Aaron: When we created God’s Donkey, it was a very similar experience. The experimentation was all about mining the research material to then stumble into forms that you wouldn’t have thought of if you are were sitting at your desk just trying to think of the next thing. It was like a combustion of the different elements—the different people in the room, the different materials, and the different forms, and, that day, what you had for breakfast—all combined into whatever the magic of that day was going to be or the “not magic” because most of it wasn’t worth putting into the play at the end of the day. [To] come up with a 90-minute play you’ve got hundreds, thousands, of hours of bullshit.
Naomi: So the content automatically is the form.
Aaron: Corey was never afraid of that process. This is the great lesson that I learned from him. Which is so ironic because he was so impatient in a conversation but he was the most patient with the longevity of a timeline to develop a work of art. To me, coming from the three- or four-week rehearsal process of the American theatre, it’s night and day. And that willingness to just be generous with ourselves, to explore, that was Corey all the way.
Naomi: And to be in the dark—the willingness not to know.
Aaron: Scaffolding is the metaphor—isn’t that what we all used to talk about? You don’t get attached to the scaffolding. You’re building the scaffolding so you can climb on it but the scaffolding gets taken down at the end.
Ben: When you first met Corey in this acting class in LA, what was that that initial encounter like?
Naomi: It’s hard to explain, it’s like falling in love. I think we fell in love. We did not fall in love romantically but there was something about our aesthetics or soul that met and knew. I came from a classical vocal background, singing opera and classical music, but we recognized each other. The way I saw him work in class, the way he saw me work in class, I think we recognized the other's talents and that was it.
Aaron: For me it was a longer, slower romance. It wasn’t love at first sight. TJT was going to cast two actors in The Last Yiddish Poet for a tour that Albert and Corey didn’t want to do. They put the word out and someone told me I should go audition. So I did and I met these guys. I had strong interest in my own Jewish identity as a young man and was a lifetime theatre artist and this was a really interesting way to put these two passions together, which I didn’t really realize was possible.
We met, they said, “Great, you’ll work out fine,” and then the tour was cancelled. But then I was in the mix and there were some other projects—there was the educational program [TJT was] starting and I subbed in and, little by little, we started to know each other, and we started doing work together, and it was a match. And then before we knew it, we were a family.
Naomi: I’m getting nostalgic. I want us to be working again together.
Aaron Davidman. Photo by Lisa Keating.
Ben: TJT had such a long life. Any thoughts or observations on what it is to have a creative collaboration that goes on decade after decade?
Aaron: It’s kind of like being a band when you’re a small ensemble. It’s a big mix—getting the work out there and having an audience and running a business. We were running a business together and its a hard racket, that business. When [TJT] made the move to get a physical space at Project Artaud [in 1994], in many ways it was an amazing thing and in many ways it was the beginning of the end because the company no longer was really a traveling company. I used to joke that the name should be “A Not So Traveling Very Much Jewish Theatre.” In some ways that’s when the company became a hybrid—small artistic ensemble and quasi-local company with a season—and that was a hard balance. We kept that model going for ten years so in some ways it was a big success. In some ways, it was a struggle the entire time.
Naomi: One of the reasons we were able to survive so long was our willingness to be poor. We were willing not to be famous and our artistic need [was] to do what we wanted to do. I had done some TV work, Corey had done much more Hollywood work, I didn’t find it the least bit satisfying. But [TJT] was soul work, this was out of our guts and we were willing to not make money and I think this is important. It was also a tragedy that Corey, the great artist that he was, ended his life in poverty. I wish it hadn’t ended that way.
Aaron: I think it’s worth reflecting that what the company set out to do, and Corey’s stance in the world, was this ‘soul work.’ And people responded to it so deeply and, at the time, there was funding for that kind of work, there was funding for national touring. The TJT was the recipient of many NEA grants and California Arts Council grants.
Naomi: Absolutely, the NEA kept us going and it kept us going because it also supported theatres that brought us to them. When the NEA got the hatchet job [in the 80s and 90s], that marked the end of our touring.
Aaron: That’s really important to understand what it was for a person like Corey to have the support to do the work in the world that they do. That’s not the world that we live in now. It’s a national tragedy that’s around not just art but the economic disparity that we’re seeing. The priorities have shifted … it’s obliterated the chances for TJT to continue, and for people like Corey Fischer to continue to sustain themselves as artists, and our culture is the worse off for it.
Naomi: When we started, Corey and Albert were working out in the studio above our house and my older daughter, Jane, was helping to make the costumes and lighting. It was a cottage industry, just making it happen from whatever materials we had.
I also think the circles of what we’re talking about are very large. We are now experiencing the nightmare of extreme individualism and colonialism and questioning how are we going to come together and recognize the value of nurturing and helping others? We’ve got to come back to how we are all interconnected. And that’s the healing, on the deepest level, that we now need globally. I think our theatre work was an expression of that interconnectedness.
Aaron: When Corey’s work stood on the stage in the room, it created that interconnectedness. What woke me up to that work wasn’t that we had a hit play and that everyone applauded and went home. It was that we had a shared narrative and that’s what culturally specific work does. I always felt we could go farther in an hour and a half onstage at TJT because the pump is already primed, the Jewish experience is already in much of the audience, and we’re all looking to renew what being human means. And as we come into that room, holding these various narratives and complexities in ourselves, now we're in seats, in a community, and we have live performers on stage and we’re actually breaking that fourth wall down. Corey wasn’t interested in fourth-wall performance. He was interested in expanding that ensemble collective to include all of us in the audience.
Rotimi Agbabiaka is is an actor, writer, director, teaching artist, and Features Curator for Theatre Bay Area. rotimionline.com