fools mass in philadelphia

Ever since I was a child, I loved playing Mass. I hated actually sitting and kneeling and standing on cue during Catholic Mass with family, but there was something beautiful and mysterious and eternal about the ritual that called to me. I had no interest in simply watching and following along. I wanted to participate fully.  I longed to be the priest, to be the server, to fling around the censor, and prod people with the collection basket and light candles and consecrate the body and blood of Jesus. (If truth be told,  I wanted to be Jesus, but that’s another story.) Playing mass in the living room with my brothers and sisters and friends and stuffed animals gave me that chance to fully immerse myself in the experience of ritual magic of trans-substantiation. I thought I’d lost this chance forever until last weekend when I attended Fool’s Mass by a group from New York called Dzieci, “an experimental theatre  ensemble dedicated to a search for the ‘sacred’ through the medium of theatre.”

I found Dziezi as I’ve found many of my current passions: through a chance meeting on the Internet. I’d been hunting down practitioners of experimental theatre methods as part of a quest to realize a lifelong dream, not to play mass, but to experience theatre experiments as described in a lifelong favorite film: My Dinner with Andre.  Ever since I saw the film many years ago, I’ve harbored a fantasy in the back of my head to recreate some version of Jerzy Grotowski’s experiments as described by Andre Gregory in the film.  I wanted to gather artists musicians and dancers in the woods  and create experiences based on myth and folklore, religion and ritual.  I dreamed of taking part in multi-modal art happenings not unlike children playing Mass, only with big people, musicians and dancers, and, of course, fools like me who are ready to dive in deep. And while I like to be entertained as much as anybody, what I’ve always wanted ultimately from art is an immersion in deep waters, in life-changing, limit-challenging experiences.

And so  Google sent me to  Dzieci’s website. I was enchanted. It just so happened that Dzieci was performing a Fool’s Mass (as well as Macbet) in Philadelphia, where my son lives.  I bought my tickets, got on a plane and took my son with me to see my favorite Shakespeare play and to play Mass.

The two performances were held in a converted living room theater called PSALM in a grand and leafy residential neighborhood. As we approached the house, we were greeted by an eager kielbasa bearing gypsy, who invited me to take a bite. I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed. The cast warmed us up with food and libations, flattery and fortunetelling. The inventive, intensified version of Macbeth was delightful, but it was the interaction with the players who partied with us in artfully sustained character that created the possibility for the kind of  paratheatrical experience I was looking for.

The next morning’s Fool’s Mass took us in even deeper. I didn’t actually get to play the priest or the altar boy, but I did get to revisit my imaginings about art and dance and theatre. The interactive sacrifice of the Mass consecrated by the medieval lunatics chilled me to the marrow. (I can still feel the gaze of one baby-doll-clutching woman. I do believe she looked right into me and saw what I cannot bare to see.)  I never before experienced Mass as honoring the divine feminine, but this Mass certainly did

More than anything, I’m left with more questions.

What if all that I imagine about art, theatre, film, dance didn’t simply entertain and inspire, but were real? What if the ritual was not just for play, not simply for performance for someone else to watch, but for something bigger and deeper and more real than real? What if something more risky were at stake? What happens when players and audience agree to allow themselves to be truly challenged, to be altered by the experience?  What if baby-doll-clutching woman wasn’t just acting and really did see something unbearable in me?  What if  what’s next for me (and a few other fools) is to camp out in the woods and play with a band of misfits to find out?

A slow learner by any other name may be an expert novice

Today I complained to my highly opinionated son that I’ve been  suffering from a severe case of distractability. I had been reading Jerzy Grotowski’s  Towards a Poor Theatre when I was supposed to be doing a million other things I’d started and hadn’t finished.  I’ve been thinking about how cool it would be to set up a lab where a group of friends would do theatre games and mind experiments. Sounds like a great idea, I know, but I have no expertise in theatre. This is totally out of my field (whatever that is).  How am I ever supposed to get anything done when there is so much to do, so much to try,  so much to learn?jerzy cover

I’ve come to trust John to comfort me in times like these by offering me yet further distractions, suggestions for even more reading and movies and cool stuff to look at online. True to my expectations, John emailed me this reply.

“On being distractable, I just ran across this in a footnote, quoted by Katie Salen (the slow games lady):

Situated learning is …constituted by immersion in meaningful practices within a community of learners who are capable of playing multiple and different roles based on their backgrounds and experiences. The community must include experts, that is people who have mastered certain practices. Minimally, it must include expert novices, that is people who are experts at learning new domains in some depth.

Such experts can guide learners, serving as mentors and designers of their learning processes. (New London Group, 2000, p. 33)

‘Expert Novice’ —  That’s what I am.  Constantly excited (distracted) by the allure of learning a new skill, or entering a new domain.  Not so great at actually doing anything with those skills, but great at learning them.  The term ‘dilettante’ is far too negative, and ‘renaissance man’ is far to arrogant. Until now I haven’t had a good way to express the learning and living style that I enjoy so much. I’m an expert at being a novice, and learning communities need me. So there.  Last night I spent 4 hours learning about VJing.  I have no plans to be a VJ.”

I find it kind of funny that John would say this since I had just told a friend that what I really wanted to do with my life was to be a VJ for wild and crazy dance events. Of course, as with many of my impulses, that too passed.

I know I will forever and will always be an expert novice.  And now, thanks to John and Katie Salen, I can be a little less shy about being one.


Postscript: When John and his sister Liz were little I used to tell them that the Ice Cream Truck was really a Music Truck.  I said that the van that would ride around with kids running after it was just for entertaining us with music. Turns out Katie Salen had a similar idea.  Check out Karaoke Ice. You, too,  can be a novice expert on her site for hours. That is until something else distracts you.