May 21, 2013
Contract received for Response to Machiavelli, my third book
Algora Publisher, who published my second book, "A Fatal Addiction: War in the Name of God" (2012) just sent me a contract for my third book, working title of "Response to Machiavelli."
Response to Machiavelli traces the influence of the Renaissance Florentine thinker on American politics, from the Founders (c. 1770s) through today's rough-and-tumble political panorama. The last section offers a “response to Machiavelli,” a specific, implementable program that will begin to devolve the power of American democracy back to the people, and away from the shrinking numbers of oligarchs who control the political system through Machiavellian means and vast amounts of money.
The book begins with a discussion of Machiavelli’s ideas, and then specifically lays out how his thinking influences American political actors. Machiavelli, whose ideas have been re-interpreted internationally as “real-politik,” proposed that the “ends justify the means,” and any manner of fraud, violence or corruption must be utilized in attaining and retaining power. People, he assured, are so mean, small and selfish that they will only act under necessity, so the successful prince must force the population, through whatever means necessary, to follow his dictates. For Machiavelli, there was no higher form of fraud than the appearance of religiosity, and the successful prince must hold no art higher than that of war.
After coming to an understanding of Machiavelli’s life and ideas, the next section of the book looks specifically at the manner in which the Renaissance philosopher has influenced American politics. The first section of this chapter examines the Machiavellian impact on the ideas of such American icons as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and other founding fathers.
Following this exposition comes a longer look at contemporary American politics, and how profoundly influenced by the Florentine philosopher it is. As Renaissance scholar Paul Grendler noted:
After World War II, [Machiavelli] came into his own as an advisor to American policymakers. Today, Machiavelli’s influence on political policy may be greater than at any time since he served the Florentine government. Machiavelli has become American.
Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, George W. Bush, the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission (2010) and the Super PACs it spawned, the massive amounts of money (“power’s master key”), the intermingling of the language of religion and war, and the 90% negative advertising of the 2012 Presidential campaign (channeling Machiavelli’s dictum that the adversary must be “assassinated,” though in contemporary America by character assassinating) and even Barack Obama's Machiavellian machinations are looked at in light of the Renaissance political philosopher’s ideas.
America is shown to be a surprising example of Machiavellian politics, utilizing all of the post-modern methods of information distribution and “legal” fraud and corruption.
The final two sections look for and find an antidote. Chapter Four (The Threshold of a New Era) explores the specific reasons that we might hope that the citizenry can wrest the public square from it’s amoral, unmoored Machiavellian pit. Morality can become the center of public interaction – even in the bloody 20th century, prophet activists such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela were able to change the course of history for the better, centering their political movements not in Machiavelli's ideas, but in ethical behavior working for the common good.
Chapter Five (A Response to Machiavelli) offers a specific program that may be implemented in 21st century Washington D.C., to insert a moral into the heart of the American political system, as well as our more general public square. Far from throwing up our hands and turning away from the myopic and power-centered political scene, this book proposes that we create a “Moral Ombudsman,” a non-profit organization that would operate within the normative framework of the American social and cultural scene, but with a decidedly prophetic bent.
The specific manner in which the Moral Ombudsman would be built and operate in today’s political climate is outlined. In the end, the reader is asked not to give in to frustration, but to roll up his sleeves in determination. Prophetic ideas are always deemed absurd before the fact; after the fact, they are simply a part of the historical narrative of humankind.
A Response to Machiavelli offers one manner of healing our painfully fractured political landscape.
May 16, 2013
Interview about White Noise: NYTheatre.com
Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue · Tickets on sale through Jul 14
What is your job on this show?
What is your show about?
White Noise follows an African-American painter whose work is based on spiritual themes, as he travels to Detroit for an exhibit of his work. At first calm, mature and erudite, he slowly psychically decomposes as the members of the church art central committee tweak at his interior demons.
What do you do when you’re not working on a play?
I am fortunate in that I have numerous creative outlets, in addition to two children who feed my spirit while robbing my sleep. A mid-career visual artist (I have had more than 100 exhibits around the United States and Europe over the past 20 years), my paintings are an integral facet of my theater productions. The paintings form the backdrop for the stage, adding an unusual visual element, as well as providing clues to the interior, psychic experience of the characters and the play itself. Additionally, I am an author of non-fiction books, which I research and write over several years each. I have also been fortunate in being invited to discuss my art and ideas at universities, conferences and events around the world, in Egypt, Turkey, Ireland, Spain, France and throughout the United States and Canada. All of this information provides fertilizer for the ideas and dialogue in my plays, which are variegated explorations at the frontier between human spiritual aspirations and cold reality. I only began writing plays recently -- my first full-length production took place in Washington DC a year ago -- and I find the collaboration and production experience as the most invigorating artistic outlet I have ever enjoyed.
Why do you do theater (as opposed to film, or TV, or something not in the entertainment field)?
The relationship between the audience and the theatrical production is immediate, vital and can be profound for actors and acted upon alike. I have experienced many public art interactions, from creating permanently installed public visual art to speaking to large audiences, but the energy and excitement of a theatrical production cannot be matched. As I have variously noted, when I have had art shows, I often find myself in a room surrounded by my art, with people standing with their backs to it discussing the quality of the wine. In theater, however, the audience sits riveted, as my multi-media (involving actors, live music, visual art, dance etc.) explorations of human frailty unfold right before their eyes. There's just nothing else like it!
Do you think the audience will talk about your show for 5 minutes, an hour, or way into the wee hours of the night?
One actor referred to my plays as "Rorschach tests." Although I have only had two productions, in both cases audience members have informed me that they were still thinking about the themes, dialogue, relationships etc. for another day or even more. One does not step into one of my theatrical productions looking for answers, or that "ah-ha" moment that defines "riddle art." I dig around in the human unconscious experience with a dental tool (metaphorically speaking, of course), unveiling the bloody innards and then leaving them there on the stage. No putting this mess back together. That is the job of the audience, in their post-show lives, as they integrate what they have seen into their world views and lifestyles.
Which “S” word best describes your show: SMOOTH, SEXY, SMART, SURPRISING?
Hmmmm. There is plenty of sexual tension, but no one has ever accused my work of being sexy (though "sexualized" it most certainly is). "Surprising" would be the word, as I play with theatrical conventions, integrate various artistic media and utilize language and ideas not "courant" in the post-modern aesthetic of theater. So -- let's go with "sexualized" (but not "sexy") and "surprising."
Who are your heroes?
People who will risk everything for what they believe in, provided that what they believe in furthers the cause of humanity. It is this willingness to risk that that brings ideas such as human rights, democracy, social health and other issues to life. Specifically, this includes Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Simone Weil (who appears as a character in this play, by the way), Mansur al-Hallaj, Abraham Abulafia, Meister Eckhart, Moses Maimonides, St. Francis of Assisi, Mitch Snyder, Jackie Robinson and various others who don't come immediately to mind, but are no less heroes for my inability to recall them at this moment.
April 2, 2013
Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award
I received a Maryland State Individual Artist Award for the painting Jiwar. I received the highest level of the award, considering me one of the six most important painters of this every-third year award cycle. http://www.msac.org/iaa2013
March 18, 2013
The Tom Block Interview: Breaking ‘A Fatal Addiction’
ARTIST, WRITER and peace activist Tom Block keeps surprising the world. From eye-opening paintings of great spiritual leaders to unusual theatrical works to historical analysis to activist manifestos, Tom is hammering away at a core flaw in civilization: the intersection of religion and violence. Drawing on centuries of spiritual prophets—including Maimonidies and St. Francis—Tom speaks to audiences worldwide through many forms of media.
TODAY, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with Tom Block about his ongoing peacemaking efforts—and his newest book, A Fatal Addiction: War in the Name of God:
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH TOM BLOCK ON ‘A FATAL ADDICTION: WAR IN THE NAME OF GOD’
DAVID: This new book draws hard conclusions for people of faith. For example, you write: “There are many painful truths that we might have a difficult time understanding and internalizing. This book is about one of them: our fatal attraction to violence and war. And even more confusing, the manner in which war and God are intertwined in most religions and throughout all human time, even into our own.” Compared with your earlier work, which inspired readers with fascinating connections between early Jewish and Muslim mystics—this book about religion and violence is tough stuff.
TOM: This book is the starkest thing I have done, without a doubt. It’s stark because I believe our activism has to start with honesty. This book is Step 1 for me as an activist. I can’t offer a response to the intertwining of religion and violence in the world if I don’t, first, stop and look at this problem in a clear light.
DAVID: So, you’ve written a book that you find helpful to true peace activists—a vocation you have pursued through your art and your work as a playwright and a scholar writing nonfiction books like this one. What do you hope general readers will find in this volume?
TOM: I hope people will take the time to read this book, because it opens the doorway to admitting that we all share this fatal addiction to violence. As I travel and work with people in so many places, I hear them saying: Mine is a religion of peace—but their religion?Their religion is violent. This new book is a response to all of the religious people who say: We are for peace—butthey are not. The truth is that this addiction to violence unifies all of us.
DAVID: Do you consider yourself religious? I know that you identify as Jewish, right?
TOM: I put myself into a category that no religious person seems to want to accept these days: I’m spiritual but not religious. I am Jewish. That’s a moniker I accept, but spiritually I don’t see myself as the follower of a specific creed.
DAVID: Our regular readers will have just met the Irish philosopher and theologian Peter Rollins in last week’s author interview. When I consider the way that you carefully use words like “Jewish” and “spiritual-but-not-religious”—I see parallels in the way Peter describes himself as “Christian”—then says “but obviously in a different way than a lot of other people call themselves Christian.” Peter argues that what passes for religion today has become one more product for sale in our cultural vending machine. He argues that what is sold as “God” in most congregations today is nothing short of an idol. There are huge differences between your work and Peter’s work, obviously—but I also see strong parallels. In fact, I would recommend that readers who bought Peter’s book last week strongly consider buying yours as well. One thing Peter has discovered is: Some people love his message; some flat out reject it.
TOM: Some people reject what I’m saying. People within religious traditions tell me that you have to have a religious structure, tradition, liturgy and prayers to reach into spirit. I don’t believe that. I frame my whole life through a deeply spiritual understanding, born through my work as an artist, a writer, a historian. In fact, this new book grew out of a profound frustration with religion’s ability to take people out of the political system and put them into the spiritual realm. Too often, religion becomes just another political arm.
DAVID: Again, strong parallels here with Peter’s work. He aims his harshest criticism at the global economic system that thrives on preaching to people that they need the God-product religions are selling. But God is far bigger than that, he argues. Tom, you’re arguing that global political powers and religious authorities are joined at the hip in justifying self-serving violence. You’re speaking especially to readers concerned about world peace, right?
TOM: Yes, but as I have traveled, I have come to the conclusion that as pacifism is constituted these days, it’s irrelevant. It’s meaningless in the larger world. The people who consider themselves pacifists tend to be active mainly in church basements, meeting in discussion groups that say: Why can’t we all just get along? We can’t be relevant if we spend most of our time drinking coffee, sitting with our same friends and refusing to confront the larger issue. Very few people are willing to say that the entire system is ill.
DAVID: The once vigorous anti-war movement certainly has faded.
TOM: We are too tempted to talk about war, now, in ways that find honor and glory and truth and a positive ability to shape reality.
I’m calling for muscular pacifists like Gandhi to arise again. In my work, I don’t want to be a weak, irrelevant person simply saying: Oh, can’t we just get along? These times call for muscular pacifism like Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi and activists like them. These are people raising their ideals above their own safety and above their own personal interest. They are people willing to die for their beliefs.
MYSTICS AND PROPHETS LIKE ST. FRANCIS, MAIMONIDES
DAVID: As this interview with you is published, the world suddenly is refocused on the example of St. Francis of Assisi. He’s widely known in America as an animal lover. But in his day, he was a hugely controversial advocate for the poor. He also was one of the first major Christian leaders to hold a peaceful dialogue with Muslim leaders—in the midst of the Crusades, no less! (Here is an analysis by Thomas Reese SJ of Pope Francis I’s choice of St. Francis’s name.)
I think this connects with your own ongoing work, Tom. You’ve often held up St. Francis as a model for religious activists. Here’s a passage you wrote in an international journal about this issue: “Mystics of the 13th century developed a conception of prophecy that moved beyond simply acting as society’s conscience. Medieval prophets such as Moses Maimonides, a Jew, Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi, a Muslim, and St. Francis of Assisi, a Christian, all believed in an activist prophecy, in which a socio-political role was demanded of the prophet, instead of their simply providing societal oversight. It was no longer enough for a seer to simply point out the ills of society, understood through their own personal relationship with God. The new paradigm demanded that he or she propose concrete steps to help remake the society in the moral, caring image of a spiritually conscious world.”
(You can read Tom’s entire article onProphetic Activist Art as it appeared in the International Journal of the Arts in Society, as posted within Tom Block’s website.)
TOM: Yes, I believe that prophetic activist art connects with medieval concepts of prophecy. I’ve studied a lot about past mystical thinkers. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Jewish and Muslim mystical thinkers developed ideas about prophecy that went into something called prophetic activism. They considered it their prophetic job to translate these ineffable messages they received into tangible action. And I am pointing toward people like Maimonides and Francis.
That’s what I’m talking about when I use a phrase like “spiritual but not religious.” These mystics and prophets showed how we can raise the gaze of humanity to the ineffable and focus people again on matters of the spirit. As an artist, I also connect with the tradition that says we can do this through art. Of course, over the past 150 years, art has lost this role. We can talk about why that happened—and, for that discussion I refer people to some of the articles on my website—but the point is not to go back and spend all our time arguing about the past. I want people to reclaim the purpose of art and to wed it with this kind of prophetic action we need to revive today.
TOM BLOCK: MUCH MORE ART AND WISDOM ONLINE
DAVID: We’re going to include links to your website, which really is a treasure trove. So, please, tell readers a little more about what they’ll find.
TOM: My website has a lot of materials that will help to introduce readers to my overall body of work. On my homepage, you’ll find an introduction to my painting and writing and, then, down the right side there are current events in which I’m involved. If you click on some of the topics on my home page, you’ll find much, much more. Under Visual Art, you’ll find a series of art I’ve done dating back to the early 1990s. There are maybe 15 different series of art shown here. And, each series includes 10-15 images. There are more than 200 images to look at on my website. Plus, all of my published writing in magazines, journals and websites is posted in its entirety. Understanding the philosophical basis of my art and writing takes a while and I have provided lots of material to explore.
DAVID: I appreciate discovering rich, deep websites like your collection, Tom. At ReadTheSpirit, we also maintain our entire archive of stories, which readers can access through our Search box or other links. This area in which we jointly work is not something people can pick up at a glance.
TOM: We live in a culture where, if you can’t say it in 140 characters, it isn’t worth listening to. There are other parts of the world where that isn’t the case. I have worked in Scotland.
DAVID: In fact, let’s also provide a link to the Center for Human Ecology in Glasgow. Later this year, they plan to publish your manifesto: Prophetic Activist Art: A Handbook for a Spiritual Revolution. At ReadTheSpirit, we’ve done a lot of coverage and cooperative sharing with the Iona Community and the creative folks at Wild Goose publishing in Glasgow. All spiritual roads seem to lead to Scotland these days, hmmm?
TOM: I find people in places like Scotland to be distinctively caring and politically mature in ways that leave them open to the kinds of things I talk and write about. This is true in a number of other countries. I was over in Barcelona working in a residency program when another artist told me: “Man, you were born in the wrong culture.” When I talk about America being the most warlike nation since Rome, this is difficult for a lot of Americans to accept. No country can get a clear vision of itself. We need distance. But let me stress something right here: I am not trying to bash America in this new book. That’s not the point.
TOM BLOCK: ‘AN ETHICAL FULCRUM’ TO NURTURE EQUITY, JUSTICE
DAVID: I don’t want to leave readers with the impression that you’re a fringe figure way out there on your own. I’ve known you for years and, while you’re not a household name, you’re certainly active around the world as a guest artist, writer and speaker for many organizations and institutions. One of the people endorsing your work is retired Air Force General Charles Tucker, who has spearheaded a number of nonprofit groups concerned with human rights and global security. He wrote this: “Tom Block is a visionary at the intersection of art and conscience. His vivid representations and sagacious convictions merge to form a coherent, cogent and compelling world-view. Written with style and conviction, his new work is a ‘must read’ for those searching for an ethical fulcrum from which to nurture equity, justice and human security.”
High praise, indeed, from a significant figure!
TOM: He is a fascinating man and I appreciate his very positive words. We do not always see eye to eye on every issue, but I appreciate his work. He hosted a conference of activist artists in Chicago and I met him there. Then, he also had me come out and run an art festival around some work he was coordinating on Iraq. We were part of a whole week of events—a mini art festival, discussion groups, films, and panels. He and I are coming at this, we might say, from opposite ends and meeting somewhere in the middle. His support is important because I do believe we need far more than artistic actors in the world buying into these ideas.
DAVID: There are very dark conclusions that you draw throughout your work about the fundamental ills within religion and world culture. Yet, the very fact that you pursue this activism with such passion and creativity, I think, is a hopeful sign.
TOM: This is difficult work. I am calling for people to confront the world in a new way. I’m frustrated with people expressing general hopes, but not acting. I can see a profound ecological disaster in my children’s lifetime—changing life around the planet—and I see no tangible hope that this can be avoided. Meanwhile, look at what we’re arguing about in our country: Whether we should raise taxes a couple of percent. What an absolutely irrelevant issue in terms of the major dangers ahead of us in the world! So, I can’t see the mature choices taking place that will help us make the leaps we need.
Humanity has a responsibility that we have not accepted. There’s a wonderful line from Nelson Mandela, who says: “If God isn’t going to come along and save the world soon—then we have to do it ourselves.” That’s my point. Unless you’re a Quaker or Amish today, you can’t claim your religion is a religion of peace. We need to dig deep into what is wrong at the core of our civilization and culture.
March 1, 2013
Conference of the Birds featured in The Writing Disorder
My painting Conference of the Birds II (2012) was featured in the Writing Disorder, a quarterly arts and letters magazine. http://www.thewritingdisorder.com/artworkthree.html
Conference of the Birds II is based in the 13th century mystical treatise, Conference of the Birds, by Farid ad-Din Attar. In this work, Attar explores the mystic quest, utilizing an allegory of a "conference of the birds" who set off on a hazardous and terrifying journey through valleys and mountains, to meet the "simurgh," or the divine ground of all being. In the end, only 30 featherless companions arrive, and lose themselves in contemplation of perfection.
This piece concerns the journey, not the consummation of the quest. Mystical realization is, I believe, a goal accessed by only a very few, if by any — that which should concern the rest of us is the journey of life. What does it mean? And how do we live here together? The imagery in the piece has been inspired by the Flemish painters, Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel, whose paintings captured the totality of human interaction with the world around them — the vast majority of Attar's "birds" who never arrive at the end of their quest, but most certainly die trying!
February 28, 2013
Manifesto: Prophetic Activist Art: A Handbook for a Spiritual Revolution to be published
The Center for Human Ecology (Glasgow, Scotland) is sponsoring the publication of my activist art manifesto, due out sometime during the summer. Alastair McIntosh, Fellow and former director of the Center, stated: "Tom's message is itself prophetic and needs to be widely heard, because it gives life and weaves the pathways of hope for the future."
Prophetic Activist Art brings together medieval conceptions of prophecy, art's historic purpose to raise the human gaze to our highest spirit and our contemporary "cult of the individual," to propose a mysticism of action, with art as the regenerating force. This theory moves beyond using activist art simply to shock the audience or raise awareness of social issues, to providing specific and quantifiable social change. As I note in the introduction:
"In this short treatise, part manifesto, part handbook, I give an honest assessment of what specific prophetic impetus an artist can hope to provide to the general society, and how they can do so. The chapters outline a vision of how artists can use their talents to infuse a moral center into the public worlds of politics, the media and advertising, thereby introducing prophetic inspiration into the general society. I outline specific manners of using art to inspire quantifiable positive social change, believing that contemporary mysticism must be expressed as action. This defines the rejuvenation of creativity’s historic purpose, for our era. This book is based in the belief that art has had a historic role in helping humankind reach our greatest spiritual potential, and that Prophetic Activist Art provides a manner of reconsidering that role for our era."
A series of social and political leaders have offered their support for the project:
Tom Block is a visionary at the intersection of art and conscience. His vivid representations and sagacious convictions merge to form a coherent, cogent and compelling world-view. Written with style and conviction, his new work is a “must read” for those searching for an ethical fulcrum from which to nurture equity, justice and human security.
Major General (USAF, Ret.) Charles Tucker
Meticulous historian, playwright, essayist, novelist, visual art impresario, painter of vivid, sui generis portraits, and street smart political philosopher/activist, Tom Block is the only true Renaissance man I know. His "Prophetic Activist Art: A Handbook for a Spiritual Revolution," mobilizes Nelson Mandela and Niccolo Machiavelli, among others, for strategic guidance on how to recruit businessmen, state legislators, college administrators, members of Congress and media to help mount art in the service of peace in the world community. The new book, like Tom, is truly unique.
Joseph V. Montville
Director, Program on Healing Historical Memory
School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution
George Mason University
At once idealist and realist, Tom Block opens up an array of pathways of thought for those who love art and have hopes for the future of our world. His intriguing and intelligent work, as both manifesto and handbook, combines two very important elements. It offers a plea to artists and the community that appreciates them not to forget the long and important history of art’s relationship to spirituality and beauty. Additionally, it offers a practical guide for how the artist—as prophet and mystic—can use art as successful prophets and mystics have always used the esoteric knowledge that they gain through contact with the sacred: to help heal the world of its diverse social illnesses. Block recognizes both the historical relationship between art and spirituality on the one hand and politics and economics on the other, and how to utilize that dynamic toward a positive end. One comes away inspired—and invigorated to engage actively in both principles and projects that can improve the world for our children and grandchildren.
Ori Z Soltes, Georgetown University, author of Mysticism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam: Searching for Oneness.
The vision here is excellent: prophecy and art flowing together into contemporary mysticism and mysticism flowing into activism. Tom tells us “The responsibility of today’s artist/prophet is clear: to echo the harmony and beauty of the universe, and thereby point the way toward a new era of ‘secular’ spirituality.” I particularly like the way Tom’s mind roams freely through historical periods and religious traditions to discover and illuminate the “golden thread” (Aldous Huxley’s phrase) that connects all human hearts. Tom’s Prophetic Activist Artists are meant to change the world rather than mirroring and/or complaining about it. Tom is a general in an army of Prophetic Activist Artists. He directs the building of bridges between cultures, hearts and minds. He invokes the prophets of old to give credence to the prophets of new. He challenges us to use our creative powers to manifest the world all of us desire, about which we dream and for which we pray. His manifesto is a roadmap toward that end.
Lewis Elbinger, Foreign Service Office (ret.)
February 13, 2013
An Interview with Playwright Tom Block on ‘Butterfly’
DCMetroTheaterArts caught up with Playwright Tom Block over coffee, in the small, sun-filled writing studio where he creates his written works. As he sat overlooking the rural expanse of his 15/100ths of an acre in downtown Silver Spring, he took a few moments to answer our questions about the world premier of his play, Butterfly, which is being produced by Wanderlust Theater Lab at the Takoma Park Community Center Theater, a 150-seat proscenium stage in the heart of Takoma Park, MD, not far from, Washington D.C. Performances begin tonight.
Joel: Tell us a little bit about your playwriting. You seem to have come to theater a bit later than some, in the middle of your artistic career instead of at the beginning of it.
Tom: Thanks – I’m so glad you asked. Butterfly grows out of my own philosophical and artistic search over the past couple decades. Although I have been primarily a visual artist, I have always been writing. It was only recently, however, that I began to have success in that arena. In just the past couple of years, I have published two books (Shalom/Salaam: A Story of a Mystical Fraternity, Fons Vitae, 2010 and A Fatal Addiction: War in the Name of Love, Algora, 2012) and had two plays produced (White Noise, my first, premiered in DC last June and will be produced at Theater for the New City in New York, this summer).
While there are obviously downsides to finding literary success so late, one bonus is that I have a very highly developed and nuanced philosophical system underpinning all of my work. I have been reading mystical and philosophical tracts for more than 20 years, and all of this information and my Sufi-inspired worldview deeply influence my theater.
Additionally, I found that it in theater, I can bring all of my interests – painting, mysticism, philosophy, even music and dance – together in one place. In my other media, I have to stay within the lines. For instance, in the visual art world, they don’t want too much thinking! It ruins the worth of the object. Just shut up and paint something we can place above a sofa.
And in the world of academia, definitely no painting or un-footnoted theorizing.
In theater, however, I can throw everything I have onstage and it only increases the tension, meaning and theatricality of the play.
Tom, can you tell us a bit about the play? It’s genesis and meaning?
Butterfly is the second of a trilogy of plays exploring fundamental human issues like prophecy, tribalism (racism), sexuality, faith, love, hate, etc. The three plays are organically linked by themes – they do not involve the same characters or a beads-on-the-string time progression.
Butterfly deals, most importantly, with issues of prophecy. What does prophecy look like in our era? The medieval and scriptural prophets that we hold dear in all Abrahamic faiths would almost certainly be ignored and/or end up in a mental hospital today. On a back ward, no less.
How does one cut through the noise in a society with a 140-character attention span to discuss the most important spiritual issues facing us? I deal with the question, but I don’t answer it. My goal is to raise issues – about faith and prophecy, about sanity and insanity, about what makes someone important in our culture, about love. Not to answer them. I want to leave the audience buzzing, and arguing with each other over what exactly I meant.
There are two signature lines from the play that stand out as central to its meaning. The first is spoken by the father (a jazz musician who has been interred in a mental hospital by Todd’s mother) of our prophet/hero/martyr. A young woman has happened onto the scene and is captivated by it, but can’t understand exactly what is going on around her. Finally she says: “This is all so painful. Doesn’t God want us to be happy?” To which the wise old jazz musician, invisible to all onstage except this newcomer, replies: “No.”
The other signature moment is when the acolyte Jan is asking for some kind of surcease from the pain – someone to help “heal” him. But the prophet can only offer this line: “My job is to open wounds, not heal them.” His proposition is that pain is fundamental to human consciousness Without psychic pain, there might not even be a conception of God in the human realm.
When you enter my play, you are entering a parallel universe. That which is normal no longer exists. That which is surprising, odd or completely improbably becomes the norm. The ideas swirl around this world of metaphor. Backed by the original musical score, created by dynamic cellist Desiree Miller, and my paintings, the play removes the viewer from the world of the mundane and into a world where only the most vital questions of human existence are relevant.
The opposite, one might say, of our day-to-day life.
Is there anything else we should know about the production?
Yes, there is. I am not trained in theater, so in my playwriting, I am a bit like a head without a body. I can present the ideas, but I have no idea how to translate them onto the time and place environs of the stage.
That’s why my relationship with my director, Roselie Vasquez-Yetter, and the lead of the play, who is also a theater mentor for me, Michael Mack, is so important. In stark terms, they “get” it, whatever that means. They look beyond the need for linear thinking, specific character development and the kind of normal plot arc of regular theater to the nuance, questioning and impressionism of my work.
Most importantly, they are able to translate these seemingly confusing messages into a coherent whole – one that allows the emotion, metaphor and spiritual questioning underpinning the work to shine through.
Without partners such as this, and the rest of the amazing cast (all of whom have had to take a leap of faith to premier this challenging work), this work might not shine as brightly.
And finally, my plays are never boring. Challenging, head-scratch inducing and non-linear, yes. But I would wager that very few people will be looking at their watches, wondering when the thing will be over.
February 12, 2013
Gazette Newspaper: Wanderlust produces second play in trilogy from playwright Tom Block
Gazette Newspapers, MD
February 11, 2013
Wanderlust produces second play in trilogy from playwright Tom Block
Silver Spring artist spreads his wings with latest work
by Cara Hedgepeth
After establishing himself as a well-respected painter in the local art community, Block has published two books, “Shalom/Salaam: A Story of a Mystical Fraternity” in 2010 and “A Fatal Addiction: War in the Name of God” in 2012.Silver Spring resident Tom Block is a bit of a renaissance man.
Five years ago, looking to expand his artistic repertoire even further, Block began writing plays.
In his short time as a playwright, Block has written six pieces, including a trilogy. The second play in the series, “Butterfly,” makes its world debut Thursday at the Wanderlust Theater Lab in Silver Spring.
“I should call it a pile of plays or a lump of plays,” Block said. “It’s [only] a trilogy in an organic sense. They’re thematically linked.”
Though Block said the trilogy doesn’t necessarily follow a linear progression from one play to the next, the shows are built around a local actor and friend of Block’s, Michael Mack.
“I have a friend ... and I wanted to write plays for him as the lead, basically,” Block said. “I developed the idea of writing a trilogy that he would star in.”
The first play in the trilogy, “White Noise,” was produced by Wanderlust and premiered at The Fridge, an art gallery in Washington, D.C., last June. “White Noise” is the story of an African American artists, Tim, who travels to Detroit for an exhibition sponsored by an older, wealthy couple. Though the show doesn’t mention much about his art, it does explore Tim’s struggle with spirituality and self-realization. “White Noise” will run this June through July at the Theater for the New City in New York.
The production of “White Noise” was the beginning of an artistic partnership between Block and Wanderlust founder and “White Noise” director, Roselie Vasquez-Yetter.
“We had about four readings for ‘White Noise,’ and that whole process really brought Roselie and me together in terms of artistic vision,” Block said. “To have someone who could kind of translate these words of mine ... was very exciting.”
Like “White Noise,” “Butterfly” explores many complex themes including spirituality, humanity, religion and race, often using references to philosophy and mythology. It follows the last few days in the life of self-proclaimed prophet, Todd (Mack), and those in his life who are helping him to fulfill his quest. While Block’s intricate approach may seem overwhelming and even confusing, Vasquez-Yetter said she felt compelled to bring his work to general audiences.
“We both felt like as creative people living in this part of the county, it was challenging to build up some buzz around art,” Vasquez-Yetter said. “Especially around art that pushes the envelope.”
Both Vasquez-Yetter and Block said the artistic partnership between the two of them worked so well because while Block had the concepts, Vasquez-Yetter had the theater background necessary for execution.
“We worked on revising ‘White Noise’ because [Block] didn’t come from a theater background,” Vasquez-Yetter said.
She said Block was incredibly open to suggestions on how to translate his work from the page to the stage.
“What’s beautiful with Tom is he is not wedded to the verbatim representation of what he’s written,” Vasquez-Yetter said. “He’s very open to the creative process.”
As with “White Noise,” “Butterfly gives Block an opportunity to showcase not only his playwriting, but his painting as well. The play will feature work from his “In the Garden of the Mystical Redoubt” series, a collection of black and white art, on stage. The pieces are not merely for decoration; they serve to set the tone of the show and even act as another part in the play, according to Block.
“The art ... on stage ... is a character in the play,” Block said. “It’s static, yet it represents some aspect of the character, and it offers a very strong visual background.”
“The artwork is a fundamental piece,” Vasquez-Yetter said. “Those pieces ... are part of the production.”
Though he’s only been writing plays for a few years, Block said the theater might be his favorite artistic release.
“I have a lot of interests and I’m able to bring them all to bear in playwriting in a way I can’t in another medium,” Block said. “Somehow, it just offers me a way to bring all of these interests into the same time and place.”
January 22, 2013
Article about Tom Block: Playwright-in-Residence on DC Metro Theater Arts
An interview and article about my work as Playwright-in-Residence for Wanderlust Theater Lab is up on the DC Metro Theater Arts site:
Wanderlust Theater Lab: An Interview with Founder Roselie Vasquez-Yetter and Playwright Tom Block
Playwright, author and visual artist Tom Block began writing plays a few years ago. His work immediately attracted the attention of Wanderlust Theater Lab’s founder Roselie Vasquez-Yetter. She led Tom’s first play, White Noise through a series of readings and then to production last June. She is currently bringing Tom’s second play, Butterfly, to the stage this February 15-23, in Takoma Park, MD.
First, we asked Roselie why she was interested in working with Tom.Then, we posed a couple of questions to Tom. The interviews are followed by a biography of Tom’s professional work over the past two decades.
Roselie, what is it about Tom Block’s work that attracted you? And why did you decide to make him your first Playwright-in-Residence?
The moment I read a working draft of Tom’s play White Noise, I was blown away by the content. I couldn’t believe it was his first play and I immediately wanted to read more. After almost two decades in the theater, I was surprised that a novel playwright would be able to do two things so effectively: 1) Make complex overlapping and controversial themes accessible without preaching to the audience and 2) Blend real and imaginary characters seamlessly and seductively.
I immediately agreed work with him on another staged reading of the piece to iron out remaining kinks and our collaborative process was born. After that work, I was “hooked” and invited Tom to be the Playwright-in-Residence at Wanderlust. I committed to incubating and producing all three plays of his first trilogy (White Noise, which we are taking to New York’s Theater for the New City in June-July, 2013; Butterfly, which opens in Takoma Park in February and Night Out in Spain, which we are planning to read for the first time at the Kennedy Center’s “Page-to-Stage” Festival next September) through the same iterative and experimental process. We’ve been digging into his work ever since then.
Another central element to these works are the multi-media dimension that Tom’s plays inspire. We use of a cello (and in the third play, the cellist herself) as a character in the plays. We were fortunate to be connected with an emerging young cellist named Desiree Miller who composed the score for White Noise and performed as the only sound elements outside of the actors in the play. It was thrilling to weave the instrument into the work and we are collaborating again with Desiree on Butterfly. Tom’s paintings form the backdrop to the trilogy as well, setting the tone for the pieces and reflecting the psychological state of the lead protagonist (or antagonist, the audience will decide).
These elements make Tom’s plays an immersive experience of the senses and create a new aspect to the theatrical production process that is totally new to me and which I find fully satisfying. There is so much depth to his writing, but Tom deftly manages to inform us of historical, spiritual, political realities through juxtaposition with absurdity, humor and witty dialogue. Despite their intricacy, we always feel like we can follow the thread, even if it’s multifaceted and covers topics that challenge our assumptions.
Tom is a brilliant artist and I’m so proud that Wanderlust Theater Lab is the vehicle that is introducing his plays to the world.
Tom, tell us about how you got into playwriting? From what we understand, you came to this media a bit later in life than one might expect.
I did come to theater a bit later in life. From my mid-20s until my mid-40s, I was essentially a visual artist, a painter. I exhibited in museums, universities and galleries around the United States, Canada and Europe. I developed an activist art theory (Prophetic Activist Art) which I lectured on; based my work in mystical and activist themes and built a solid art career.
During this time, I was also writing, mostly non-fiction. However, it was only after the publication of my first book (Shalom/Salaam: A Story of a Mystical Fraternity ) in 2010 that I began to have more confidence in my writing. I have since published my second book (A Fatal Addiction: War in the Name of God) and begun my playwriting career.
In theater, I found by far the most exciting and rewarding of the various media I have worked in. Not only can I treat the themes (mystical, religious, sexual, psychological, pathological etc.) that I have been reading and creating art about for the past 20 years, but I also found an incredibly satisfying presentation experience. That is to say: there is no buzz and audience attention that I, personally, have experienced that is more rewarding than in the theater.
After having spent 20 years at art openings for my work, where a bunch of disinterested people stood with their backs to my paintings and talked about the quality of the wine being served, the experience of an audience that was riveted to the work during its production and then arguing about its meaning and even quality afterward was novel for me.
Additionally, having been fortunate enough to find Wanderlust and Roselie’s deft direction of my plays, and the interweaving of music, dance, my art and other theatrical aspects has greatly enhanced by work — as well as opened up new creative possibilities for future plays.
What are your plans and projects upcoming?
Well, in terms of plays, I have been on fire. I have finished six plays, writing myself out to the edge of the theatrical experience. The final two of these six — a Biology (two plays that are organically linked, but don’t necessarily follow one after the other) entitled Airport Shuttle and Airport, have little plot or character development, shatter the fourth wall and involve the director as a frustrated leader trying to maintain control of the play. I wanted to see how far “out” in the theatrical hinterlands I could voyage before turning around, re-forming the fourth wall and rebuilding ideas such as plot and character development.
My seventh play is a historical piece about a friend of mine, Adil Awadh, who was an Iraqi resistance fighter against Saddam Hussein, was evacuated by the United States government as an ally (in 1996) and then accused of crimes against America and imprisoned in the American Southwest for a couple of years. Eventually, due to the direct intervention of ex-FBI head James Woolsey, he was released, but has continued to live in a legal limbo for the past decade. This play will highlight his Kafka-esque plight, as well as deal with issues such as patriotism, justice and the inhumanity of bureaucracies.
I also have three different books wending their way toward publication (the next published book will be Prophetic Activist Art: A Handbook for a Spiritual Revolution, which is my handbook/manifesto for my model of activist art and due out next summer). I also continue to exhibit my artwork and speak about my ideas at various venues.
Lastly, I should note that I have applied to a few MFA Playwriting programs in New York, but I won’t know if that pans out for a few months yet.
Tom Block: Biography
Tom Block is a writer, artist and activist best known for the development and implementation an activist art theory, “Prophetic Activist Art.” His activist work includes the Human Rights Painting Project (Shalom/Salaam Project Cousins Public Art Project, as well as his Heretical Paintings. He also developed and produced the first ever Amnesty International Human Rights Art Festival, an international event that took place April 2010 in Silver Spring, MD.
His art has been exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the United States and Europe. He has been awarded monetary grants and other support from the Norman Lear Family Foundation (CA), Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation (NY), Sugarman Foundation(CA), Nelson Talbott Foundation (MD), Puffin Foundation (NJ), New York Foundation for the Arts (NY), Maryland State Arts Council(MD), William and Mary Greve Foundation (NY), Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County (MD) and Amnesty International (NY).
He has spoken about his theories of using art as an activist tool at conferences and universities, including: Al-Azhar University(Cairo), Irish Centre for Human Rights (Galway, Ireland), Depaul University (IL), Villanova University (PA), Xavier University (OH),University of Arkansas (AR), Ohio University (OH), Fetzer Institute (MI), Manhattan College (NY), Vanderbilt University (TN),University of Calgary (Canada), Institute of Art (Birmingham, England), Emory University (GA), Grand Valley State University (MI),American Popular Culture Association, Mid Atlantic Popular Culture Association, International Peace Research Association and at other universities and conferences around the world.
His first book, Shalom/Salaam: A Story of a Mystical Fraternity, which traces the influence of Sufism (Islamic mysticism) on the direction of Jewish spirituality over the course of 1000 years, was published in Fall 2010 in the United States (Fons Vitae, Louisville, KY) and Turkey (Bilim Artı Gönül Yayıncılık Ltd. Şti., Istanbul, Turkey). “A Fatal Addiction: War in the Name of God” was published this fall (2012) by Algora Publisher (NY) and his novel The Fool Returns will be published in Turkey this spring (2013). His first play, White Noise was produced in Washington D.C. last June, and will be produced in New York next summer, as a Resident Theater Production of Theater for the New City, in the East Village. His second play, Butterfly, will have its world premier in February 2013, in Takoma Park, MD.
This is the second of six articles about Wanderlust, me and the production of my second play, Butterfly.
January 18, 2013
Butterfly and Wanderlust Theater Lab featured on DC Metro Theater Arts
The DC Metro Theater Arts site will be featuring a series of six articles about Wanderlust Theater Lab and its production of my second play, Butterfly, this February 15-23, 2013, in Takoma Park. The first piece, an interview with Wanderlust founder Roselie Vasquez-Yetter, just went up. To see the series, please visit: http://www.dcmetrotheaterarts.com/2013/01/18/part-1-wanderlust-theater-lab-an-interview-with-founder-roselie-vasquez-yetter-by-tom-block/
November 10, 2012
Studio photo shoot
The French photographer Julie Wolsztynski was in the studio last week for a shoot that will be featured in Artists Homes and Studios, by Ashley Rooney and published by Schiffer Publishing, due out in 2014. Julie did a beautiful job, shooting film on a 2x2 camera and really capturing the colorful jumble of my little space! For all photos from the shoot: http://www.tomblock.com/category/series/studio-shots
November 5, 2012
"Shalom/Salaam" exhibit featured on WAMU 88.5's Art Beat
Lauren Landau featured my show at the Foundation Gallery and Live Room this morning. "Artist Tom Block has a new exhibit up at Kensington, Maryland's Foundation Gallery & Liveroom. Shalom/Salaam is an interdisciplinary project that delves into the Sufi influence on Jewish mysticism. A free opening reception will be held this Saturday from 7 to 10 p.m, and the series will be on display through November 23rd." http://wamu.org/programs/art_beat/12/11/05/art_beat_with_lauren_landau_nov_5
October 17, 2012
White Noise going to the East Village in New York City
Just signed the contract today for White Noise to be part of Theater for the New City's (NY) Resident Theater Program in 2013. Theater for the New City has been one of New York City's most important incubator theaters over the past 40 years, giving such stage and screen stalwarts as Sam Shepard, Vin Diesel, Academy Award winners Tim Robbins and Adrien Brody and many others their start over the years. White Noise will run in the black box Caberet space from June 26-July 14, 2013, Wed-Sun. For the review of the world premier production of the play in Washington D.C. last June, please visit: http://dctheatrescene.com/2012/06/09/white-noise/. Theater for the New City is at 155 First Ave., at 10th Street in the East Village.
October 1, 2012
A Fatal Addiction: War in the Name of God
“A Fatal Addiction” explores the “violence of God” tradition as it exists in all religions (including Buddhism), and then examines how this dynamic is flipped, with political leaders using spiritual and religious language to sell war to the general public. Although God and religion have often been used to sell war in the United States, this has been especially true since 9/11/01. After surveying the relationship of war and the spiritual quest in the major world religions, this study concludes with an overview of how that dynamic has affected the contemporary American public discourse on war.
This unsettling book reviews specific instances of “holy war” as proposed in the holy books of the major faith traditions, and illustrates how bellicose, war-like language is used to explain the spiritual quest. The author proposes that this intermingling of war and spirituality prepares the population for the coming of war. War as spiritual practice appears inevitable, due to this religio-violent education which is woven through all faith traditions. The institutional blending of the sacred and human aggression appear to be fundamental to human society.
The second section of the book particularizes this dynamic within our contemporary, American social and political milieu. It concentrates on the political language and speeches of American politicians since 2002, following the run-up to the Iraq war and its continuation over the past decade, showing exactly how this mystical/war conflation permeates American society.
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