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November 21, 2013

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Five Different Plays Under Development

I have five different plays under development in December and January.  On December 13, Spooky Action Theater, Washington DC ("spooky action" is actually a physics term indicating two particles that affect each other at a distance that implies a bond that breaks the speed of light - it has nothing to do with Halloween) will be reading my play "Night Out in Spain," which is the third of my trilogy exploring contemporary prophecy.

Then on December 18, 19, I have having three plays read at the off-off-Broadway 14th Street Y (East Village).  On December 18, two one-acts, Danny and the Therapist & Comic Book are being produced by Sanctuary: Playwrights Theater and directed by Katrin Hilbe.  Then on December 19, my full-lenght play Duck is being read by graduates of the New School for Drama MFA program and

directed by Brad Raimondo.

Finally, on January 25, my multi-media exploration of motherhood, entitled "La Bestia: Sweet Mother," and directed by myself, will be presented as part of the LABAlive Series at the 14th Street Y.  This work, based in the earliest human creation myths, involves, dance, cello, an acapella chorus, my paintings and a narrative involving four actors, three mothers and one male voice.  Should be a great evening!  As well as my directing debut.

August 21, 2013

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LABA Fellowship

I just received the news that I have been accepted as a LABA Fellow, where I will spend the next year visiting with a select group of other artists (in all media) in a secular "beit midrash."  We will be meeting once or twice a month to discuss Jewish texts around the theme of "mother," and then I will be creating a full-length play and series of accompanying paintings.  The final product will be seen in the 14th Street Y's (East Village, NY) state-of-the-art off off Broadway theater next summer, as part of the LABA art festival.

Throughout the fall, I will be undertaking a series of creative explorations as a part of the fellowship, including exploring precursor creation myths to the Torah (Sumerian, Egyptian, Babylonian, Zoroastrian, Greek, Hindu and Etruscan); writing poems based on these myths; sketching mothers - current, latent and impossible; writing a series of ten minute plays on the subject; keeping an illustrated journal of my memories of my own mother (in Arabic), and finally, next spring, bringing it all to fruition.

Can't wait to get started in about a month!  For more information about LABA, please visit:

August 11, 2013

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31 Plays in 31 Days Interview: Meet Tom Block by Adrienne Pender

Meet Tom Block

Tom Block is a playwright living in “the graveyard” of the Washington, DC suburbs. 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, had its world premiere in February 2013 in Takoma Park, MD. In addition to his plays, Tom is a published non- fiction author and visual artist whose work has been exhibited in the US and Europe.

1              Is there an overall theme to your work as a writer?

The underlying premise of all of my work is that we (humans) have been given enough of a consciousness to understand that something is going on, but not enough to figure out what it is.  That is to say, creation itself is “the rape of man by God.”  I actually used this line in my first play, but as I have written more and more, I have buried this idea beneath layers of humor, metaphor, absurdist action and other devices.


2              When did you start writing?

I wrote my first poem when I was sixteen.  (“Hope, hope, better than dope . . .”)  Happily, I have refined my craft since then.  Actually, I am quite a late bloomer – I wrote dreck throughout my 20s and 30s; only in my 40s did I begin to finally produce writing of any worth.  I published my first non-fiction book (of four which have been published or have contracts) when I was 47, and had my first play produced when I was 49.  Now, at 50, I am rolling along, and finally think I understand the craft well enough to actually produce decent work on a regular basis.

3              When did you first realize you were a "writer?" Or, did you always know it?

A writer writes.  So, I’ve always considered myself a writer.  But not until I held my first book in my hands did I truly consider myself a “writer.”  As in, I would tell people in a bar: “Yes.  I am a writer.”  Now, much more confident, I am writing everyday.  Especially this August!

4              What was the first play you wrote; and what was it about?

The first play I wrote I actually worked on in my 20s.  It was a one-act called “Frank Johnson,” and concerned two people sharing a single life.  It was very text driven, but 20 years after I wrote it, it was produced in a local one-act play festival.  The first full-length play (“White Noise”), which was produced in both Washington DC and then off-off-Broadway in New York over the past year, concerns art, existential crisis, racism, sexual deviancy and the ghost of a 20th-century prophet, Simone Weil. 

5              If you could re-write that play now, as an experienced writer, how would you do it differently?  If     at all?

I think that I’ll just leave that one alone.  I am applying what I learned in that rather successful failure to what I work on now.  I am not one for beating a dead horse.  However, I definitely like to apply what I learned from killing that horse to keeping subsequent horses alive.  Metaphorically speaking, of course.

6              What do you struggle most with as a writer?

My personal struggle at the writing desk is to create characters that are human, engaging and sympathetic.  Because my work is highly philosophical and absurdist – idea and action driven – the characters themselves sometimes get lost in the shuffle.  If you want the audience to weep when the main character is crucified to the hood of a Volkswagen, then they have to have engaged the audience with that character along the way.  Right?

7              Are you a full-time writer? What do you do during the day?

I am a writer, activist and a visual artist.  I wear all three hats equally.  So for instance, this past week I had visits in my studio from two potential institutional buyers for my art (one a university I have worked with and one a developer looking for art for their new building); I worked on a play for submission to Theater for the New City (NY – where my first play was just produced); traveled to New York for a “Table Read” of a one-act of mine and then participated in the founding conference of a new Interfaith Institute of Peace, with a collection of academics and practitioners.  A bit confusing, but incredibly fulfilling – and I find that all of these interests can be channeled into my playwriting, in addition to using my art onstage with my productions.

8              How do you balance day job/school/family with your writing?

I don’t know.  I have a wife and two kids, and am spending more and more time in New York as my career begins to go better.  I’m kind of all over the place, but it is a hell of a lot better than being no-place, which is somewhere me and my art spent a lot of time for many years.

9              How does where you live impact your writing? Or does it?

Interesting.  I live in the Washington D.C. suburbs and I hate it.  The American suburbs: the graveyard of art and thought.  Still, I have done an incredible amount of quality work in the small basement studio and writing room at the back of the house.  Pain comes in many forms – and pain is always necessary for the creation of true art.  Right?

10          What made you decide to participate in this year's 31 Plays challenge?

A story: I was in art school a couple of decades ago for a short time.  During this short time, I took a six-hour drawing class, which would run from 9-noon and then from 2-5 pm.  It was autumn in Boston.

The day was long.  The morning session was full of students, and then in the afternoon, the class would begin two-thirds full and then bleed students, so that by the end of the day, only a handful of us remained.  Add to this the dying winter sun and no electric light in the room.  By the end of the class, the few of us left were pretty much drawing in the dark. 

I drew straight through.  By about three pm, I was exhausted and by four – with an hour left – I hated drawing more even than boiled cabbage.  I was exhausted, my eyes ached, I hated the paper and charcoal.  The room had gone completely quiet by this time.  The only sound the scrabble of charcoal on paper. 

Yet.  It was here, as I was so sick of drawing that I thought I would vomit, that I did my best work.  I was beyond caring.  I hated the act of drawing and therefor I stopped being in any way a conscious participant in the work.  Yet I drew.  The charcoal had to move across the paper. 

“Men marched asleep; many had lost their shoes, but limped on, bloodshod.” 

I was just one such man.  I would draw until five pm and then pack my things quickly, not even looking at my work.  I would find Emilie and Alex and get my ass to the Linwood Bar as fast as I could and wash the bitter bile of hatred of art from myself with cold Bud tall necks.

And guess what?  The next morning, when I opened my portfolio to look at what I had done, I saw some beautiful work.

And I discovered that true art can emerge from the place beyond exhaustion, when the ego and caring and self have all been quashed, and one is left with only the act of creation.

That is why I want to write a 10-minute play a day for 31 days.  To reach such a level of disgust and hatred and misery.  And art. 

11          What do you hope to achieve while writing in August?

I want to work on dialogue.  I want to carry a story with dialogue.  Little action.  Dialogue.  

12          Do you have a strategy for finishing 31 Plays?

Yes.  To move beyond everything and force myself to write one 10- page play everyday.  No questions.  No excuses.  That’s the strategy.

13          What one piece of advice would you give a new playwright?

Write, write, write, write and write.

14          Open Paragraph!  Please write a paragraph or two on any hobbies or things you do outside of work/school and writing. What do you do for fun? Are you an expert gardener? Obsessed with Scrabble, or Game of Thrones? Jot a few things here! J

This is funny.  Hobbies?  Well, everything I love to do, I do.  I write, paint, research, develop and implement projects.  When I am exhausted, all I want to do is watch sports.  Baseball.  Football.  Hockey playoffs.  Basketball if nothing else is on.  If I am exhausted and there are no sports on TV, I lie on the couch and stare at the ceiling.  Maybe there is an answer up there?

Well, and of course, my kids.  They aren’t a hobby, though – but they do take up a lot of time.  Wonderful time.  And now that they are writing plays and making films themselves, it is wonderful to see their work.  And steal from it, when necessary.


July 24, 2013

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Sanctuary: Playwrights Theater

Sanctuary had me back for a table read of "Danny and the Therapist," beautifully interpreted by core members Patrick Bolger (Danny), Adam Perabo (The Therapist) and Katherine McDonald (Chloe).  Managing Director Anastasia Gammick had this to say about my one act: 

Tom Block introduced us to "Danny and the Therapist." The audience never went 3 minutes without laughing. I think that the actors were as surprised as the characters when we were asked to accept constantly shifting rules. Core Artist Patrick Bolger, as Danny, pulled us along on this delightfully chaotic roller coaster.

July 23, 2013

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Interfaith Institute of Peace: Foundational Conference

I was invited to participate at the foundational conference of the Interfaith Institute of Peace, by convener Dr. Abdul Azziz Said, the Mohammed Said Farsi Chair of Islamic Peace at American University (DC).  I was the only artist in the 30 or so invitees that included peacemakers, non-profit directors, other institute leaders, imams, rabbis and Christian leaders.  

July 12, 2013

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Hi Drama Review for White Noise at Theater for the New City

Bill Bradford of Hi Drama, a New York TV show covering art and culture on Time Warner Cable in New York, reviewed White Noise:

The original new work by upcoming playwright, Tom Block's - WHITE NOISE, is a compelling examination of the search for beauty, hope and faith performed in an existentialism/ Theatre of the Absurd manner. Tom Block's writting has his own distinct and edgy voice and at moments evokes various styles such as Genet, Piradello, Beckett, John Guare and even Tom Eyens, Directed with purpose, Moema Umann managed to make a demanding play flow seemingly effortless with a dynamic ensemble cast. Dealing with a young artist (Matt Nared) utilizing his muse who is actually a ghost (Gabrielle Young) and his dealing with the world around him and the individuals he meets along the way ( Emily Ward, Daniel Abse, Carol Beaugard, and Susan O'Doherty ) All production values were top notch and an added dimension of incidental Cello Music composed and performed by Desiree Miller enhanced the production. A compelling and provocative work worthwhile to see.

May 21, 2013

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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

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Interview about White Noise:

White Noise

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

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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.

March 18, 2013

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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:


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.


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.


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.


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.

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

March 1, 2013

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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.

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

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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

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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

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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

Staff Writer


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.”