Featured Drone: Winsome Brown '95

/SPECIAL ROOMS/ DEEP CONNECTIONS

For the past year and a half I have been working closely with the director André Gregory. His production of Ibsen's The Master Builder, adapted by Wallace Shawn, has been in development for fourteen years. With a small group of highly talented actors, he has been rehearsing this play for two weeks here, three weeks there.  The actors have grown older, their work has been taken inside them, so that now, when you watch the play, it is like watching real people live their lives. Only 24 people can watch the play at a time. At the breaks between acts, we serve tea and cakes. Sometimes one of the cast members brings in something that she has prepared specially at home for these few audience members. This play will be filmed in a few weeks by Jonathan Demme, but I am sure that the feeling of intimacy, of, dare I say it, love, will remain.

Speaking to a group of students, André Gregory once said, "With a few friends, and a tiny room, and time, you can make miracles." André and I are now working, just the two of us, on some Chekhov. We have no deadline.

When I worked with Irina Brook on La Vie Matérielle, this gracious human connection was also present. Five actors performed the words of Marguerite Duras while we made soup. I did a strip tease, and then we ate the soup and drank wine together with the audience. We touched them, they touched us. We all left the experience with a heightened sense of our interconnectedness. "Like lace," Irina said.

This conceivably odd notion of performing for just a few people in a room that is well-loved and well lived-in does not strike me as odd at all. At the Signet Society, that was what we did every week. We brought our best work to a very small audience, and then we drank and laughed together. Matt Haimovitz '95, one of the world's great cellists, approached me about performing poetry of W.H. Auden in between his performances of  all three Benjamin Britten cello suites. "I don't think anyone has ever performed all the suites together at once," he said. We did it at the Signet.

When I think of the Signet, I think of these life changing experiences, these communions in a special room. I also think of Reverend Gomes. As an undergraduate, I took his class on the Bible, and learned the term "parousia," which means arrival, or making an entrance, and is often used to connote the Second Coming of Christ. Reverend Gomes used it to describe my habitual late arrival to his class. "Ah, Winsome, has arrived, illustrating once again the parousia." Generous in his handing of terms off to other people, Reverend Gomes was himself, of course, the master of parousia. With his waistcoat and watch fob, his regal "Afro-Saxon" (his term) bearing, his resonant voice, and his hearty laugh, he cut a large figure. We always knew when the Reverend Professor was in the house.

Reverend Gomes said to me, "When you give a speech, you must speak to your audience." Which is to say, get inside them, feel what they need, and provide it as best you can. That kind of graciousness, that kind of big-souledness, was what made him one of the best speakers we will ever know. It also made him great at raising money. Once, at a Signet Society fundraiser honoring Norman Mailer at the Century Club in New York, he stood at the podium, cut through all the BS, and said to us: "We all know why we're here. To open our wallets!" Then he made a joke about serving God and Mammon, and everyone opened their wallets.

If you haven't read his book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, you should, if only for the astonishing boldness of his ideas. He reminds us that Christ was  a shaker-upper, not an establishmentarian, a rebel leader, a redistributor of wealth, and not a shiny-faced Church-goer -- Gomes quotes the Magnificat: "He hath filled the poor with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away," and he even throws out the word Communist. I keep thinking of Gomes's words in these days of Occupy, and wishing he were alive to share his expansive and honest exegesis with us in these times. Yet the man himself was, as anyone who visited him at Sparks House knows, a lover of fine things. I just received an invitation to preview the contents of his estate and there is no shortage of fine china, carved mahogany bow sideboards, prints relating to Queen Victoria, Queen Anne Maple and Fruitwood Highboys, and the like. He was large, he contained multitudes.

I saw him give a speech on "How can a speech become a classic?" and his answer was that even though it is not recorded, even though only a few souls might hear it, a speech can so touch those souls, that they go on to change the world. Reverend Gomes gave many classic speeches himself, but it was during my years at Harvard that he gave the "I am a Christian who happens as well to be gay" speech with which he led the Harvard spiritual community into a new era of loving engagement. That was not in a small room, it was outside in the open air, but it was said with the same degree of brave nakedness that characterizes the kind of artistic encounters I am writing about.

Like this one: I had the privilege of bring invited to watch John Zorn perform his "Theatre of Musical Optics" at his home in New York City. For 6 people at a time, once a year, without words, working with tiny objects on a tiny platform, he makes magic, something almost alchemical, so deep and dear to him that when the 35 minute show is over, he is exhausted. All who are present feel that we are a part of something extraordinary, and that we now carry in us the seed of a deep creative message that grows inside us and fuels our own way of being.

Our mega-culture is not so much geared towards small, delicate experiences. It turns away from the strangeness and potential discomfort of being face-to-face with another human being who is in some fundamental way, naked, stripped bare, down to the heart.

Art, carefully presented in a special room, can bring us closer to our own deep essence. I believe fervently that these close encounters with human beings are healing both for the people who have the privilege sharing in them, and also, through the ripples that reach out beyond the doors and windows of these well-loved places, for society at large. Because we, too, are precious and interwoven, like lace.

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Winsome Brown '95 is a director, writer, and Obie award winning actor.