I’m thrilled to have been invited to give a brief performance followed by Q&A at Philadelphia Live Arts‘ first ever Scratch Night at the Live Arts Brewery (LAB) on Thursday, January 12th at 7pm and I would love to see you there.
Scratch Night invites audiences into the artistic process and plays a key role for artists who are testing, experimenting and building new ideas. I will present a portion of my 2011 Philly Fringe show Beautiful Zion: A Book of the Dead as I continue to develop it for future productions in Philadelphia and New York City.
You might know the show was originally staged in the nontraditional space that is the Blue Grotto, artist Randy Dalton’s blue-lit wonderland in the coal cellar of the 1851 former Friends meetinghouse that is today the Community Education Center in West Philly. I could have seated 40 but I capped it at 16 to keep it intimate and participatory for the audience:
My question is, how can the show be modified to be performed on a traditional stage without losing its magic and intimacy? How can it be performed not for a max seating of 16 but a max seating of 100? Doable, or should this thing stay in the basement, wherever that basement may be? Come help me find out.
I was delighted last night to hear again from spirit MALA during our Ouija session that was part of my Plays & Players playwright-in-residence presentation. I began with a little shtick I wrote just for the occasion, then called for volunteers, BZ:ABOTD-style, and moved us all across the threshold from the Skinner Studio stage into Quig’s Pub where we all stood around a table watching the two volunteers try their hands at my antique William Fuld original Ouija board. Our goal was to contact one of the theatre’s 3 resident ghosts.
At first, lots of jibberish despite multiple partners and switch-offs and trying to get the board warmed up. There were a few early highlights, like my asking, “Look, is there anyone there who just wants to cut the jibberish and talk to us in plain English using simple words?”
The response was a swift NO.
At one point it blurted out OZ which got lots of oohs and aahs. Later one of the volunteers emailed me that she got home and flipped on the TV only to see that The Wizard of Oz was indeed on that night.
But whenever it was my turn to switch in with a partner it shot back and forth from M to A to L to A to M to A, sweeping a wide arc back and forth across the board nonstop. It wouldn’t answer any other questions. It was, like, in this catatonic state. I’d get up and let a new partner take over, but 10 minutes later when it was my turn again it’d shoot back to M A L A M A L A. As obvious as it seems now (duh) I kept guessing at names…”Are you Mama?…Alam? … Lala?”
Thankfully someone chimed in, “My guess is it’s a child.”
“Are you a child?” I asked the board. At that she finally stopped the chant and went to YES.
“You’ve been trying to talk to me all night. Do you know me?”
(to the crowd) “This is a little girl I met during my show. She was killed by her mother. (to Mala) You followed me here from the Blue Grotto to Plays & Players?”
“Are you in the room with us?”
YES NO YES NO YES NO (this indecision was also evident during her previous sessionwith me; the personality and her reluctance or uncertainty with her state seemed consistent, as did her childlike repetitions of “MalaMalaMalaMala” and previously “MomMomMomMom” for emphasis)
“Your mother killed you, right?”
YES NO YES NO YES NO
(In our previous conversation on 9/15/11 her discomfort with discussing the details of her death (stabbed by her mother) and her insistence that she has forgiven her, felt consistent again with her current indecisive answers. Previously her discomfort was indicated by the constant use of the infinity sign when she wasn’t sure how to answer; tonight it was the YES NO YES NO maneuver.)
I got tired of monopolizing the board so I stepped away for a slice of pizza while two others continued the chat. I told them Mala was a lonely little girl who meant no harm and to chat with her for a few minutes. I’m not sure of the outcome but I know their chat with her was brief because the board was soon abandoned. People kept admiring it and discussing it but no one would dare to use it. I offered to use it with someone but no one would take me up on it. Everyone seemed too spooked by the Mala thing.
So, not exactly an earth-shattering session but a good experience overall and I was happy to chat with my otherworldly pal Mala again. Most disappointingly no contact was made by any of Plays & Players’ supposed ghosts. Maybe they’re just a legend…
The closing night show was so overwhelming it’s taken me an extra day to calm down enough to write about the Ouija session with some clarity. After 7 evenings of supernatural dissatisfaction for me personally during the brief run of the show and having to close every evening using the nuclear option I was about ready to give up on the spirit world as being able to reach out directly to anyone.
M. was an eager audience member in the final show who joined in with audience volunteer S. to person the Ouija board. They were escorted away and left alone for awhile as usual to try their hands at the board, reaching out to the netherworld in the Hell Room before I returned with the rest of the audience to rejoin them and see if they’d tuned into anything. Here is the main highlight that left us all haunted, especially M:
QUESTIONER (M) (to Jeff): I’m really freaked out right now. I have goose bumps and my hair’s standing on end.
JEFF: That’s normal when you’ve brought someone into the room. Something’s here with us. Do you want to quit?
M: No. I’m just letting you know that I’m freaked. My hands are shaking, I’m afraid I’ll mess up with the planchette.
JEFF: Why don’t you stop? I can take your place.
M: No, I want to keep going.
JEFF (to Ouija board): What’s your name?
SPIRIT (or subconscious ideomotor impulse depending on your beliefs): KHEF
JEFF: Khef? I bet that turns out to be Arabic or Hindi (why I thought so). I’ve seen a lot this week so let’s assume it’s a real language and not gibberish. Are you Khef?
JEFF: Oh. Well, do you know what’s taped to the back of the grave photo?
M: Do you know anyone here?
SPIRIT: M—- (spelling out M’s name)
M: Oh wow. Do you want to tell me something?
At that the planchette shot down at breakneck speed to GOODBYE and refused to budge for anyone. Game over. We ended the session and all returned to the Blue Grotto and I wrapped up the show as usual, using the nuclear option — a personal disappointment for me but a fun way to end a show about Ouija boards.
Afterward M. stuck around as I began to strike the set for the last time, eager to talk to me at length about her first mind-blowing experience on a Ouija board this evening. She needed to unburden herself; I’ve been there, I know what that’s like so I stopped my work and listened. She was highly unsettled. She explained to me that she’s Jewish and said that in the Jewish tradition it’s strictly forbidden to contact the dead. I asked why she did it and — bless her heart — she said she did it to help me find the closure that I need. That was selfless of her but I hated that the experience had left her freaked out. In the end it’s only a show and not worth the trauma.
She said she has immediate ancestors who died tortuous deaths in the Holocaust and that she’d always been afraid to think about how they’d perished. Facing their cruel fate is her worst nightmare, and the thought of hearing directly from them about how they suffered has always been more than she could bear.
“Maybe it appeared to let you know they’re there, but went to Goodbye so quickly to avoid having to tell you what it knows you don’t want to hear, ” I suggested, “to spare you the pain.”
M: That’s exactly what it did. That’s what I’m telling you.
Then I get home and find out that KHEF isn’t Arabic, Hindi or even Urdu. It’s Egyptian. It’s the name of an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph that means “to be laid waste or destroyed.” A reference to the Holocaust in our case? And this hieroglyph appears on the Israel Stele of all things, so-called by archaeologists because it’s the only ancient Egyptian document mentioning Israel by name. And if you don’t know, a stele is a monument to the dead… Yeah. You tell me.