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This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the January 23, 2002
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
The Power of Theater
These are very important times for genuine
says Reverend Al Carmines. "I think that in times like these,
it is the artist’s responsibility to listen and not impose his or
her vision upon the public. Like Picasso’s `Guernica,’ people like
Wendy Wasserstein, Tony Kushner, Maria Irene Fornes, all know how
to listen to what is in the air, and respond to it
As minister of Judson Memorial Church on the south side of New York’s
Washington Square, Carmines established the famed Judson Poets’
in the volatile 1960s. The Judson sponsored challenging theater
— many in musical form — including Carmines’ won adaptation
of Gertrude Stein’s "In Circles." He has won a number of Obie
Carmines is one of the panel members joining an in-depth public
"Theater: A Catalyst for Transformation in Times of Crisis,"
sponsored by the New Jersey Theater Alliance (NJTA). The symposium
takes place on Monday, January 28, at 7 p.m. at Crossroads Theater,
7 Livingston Avenue, in New Brunswick. It is free of charge, but
is limited and reservations are required. (Call 973-593-0189). Joining
Carmines on the panel are playwrights Emily Mann and Deborah Brevoort,
and educators Israel Hicks and Kathleen Gaffney. Clement A. Price,
chair of African-American Studies at Rutgers University, will
"In the days following September 11 our staff and colleagues
an appropriate response to the tragedy," notes John McEwen, NJTA
executive director. "Our mission encompasses raising the awareness
of theater’s role in society and this symposium is an essential
in support of this objective."
In a telephone interview from his New York home on a sunny January
day, Carmines spoke of the impact the tragic events of September 11
have had, and continue to have, on the residents of New York.
"People are stunned. Afghanistan is so far away, but people still
feel it very deeply here in New York," says Carmines. "The
problem for many people is that sometimes in a crisis they can’t
their feelings. I discovered this in my work at Judson. However,
art forms, like dance, painting, or particularly abstract plays, can
provide people with a kind of comfort and courage that helps them
to get on with their lives."
Carmines believes that in times of crisis, the arts can have an
healing effect that surpasses even that of organized religion.
"I now run a small church on 57th Street, and I have found that
traditional worship services don’t work very well these days,"
says Carmines. "The healing just can’t be done with words. We
have special seminars for the members of my church, and we go to the
Whitney Museum or to a concert at Philharmonic Hall, places like that.
This gives them the strength to face what they have to face."
In the weeks following the World Trade Center attack,
Carmines performed a great many funeral and memorial services.
wanted to honor their lost loved ones and needed some sort of
Carmines explains. "I would have a reading from the Koran if the
person had been Muslim, or in Yiddish from the Old Testament if the
person had been Jewish. Sometimes the person had no religion at all,
and in that case I would have a dancer dance silently as a poem was
read. People were comforted. It was as if they needed permission to
continue to live."
Carmines was born in 1936 in Hampton, Virginia, where his father
as a fishing trawler captain on the Chesapeake Bay. His mother was
a devout Christian, his father was a professed atheist, and Carmines
had deeply ambivalent feelings toward religion for many years. He
studied piano from the age of eight, and played, sang, and sometimes
tap-danced at school functions.
Carmines attended Swarthmore College where he met theologian Paul
Tillich one day after a lecture, who advised him to enter the
After receiving his B.A. from Swarthmore in 1958, Carmines studied
with Tillich at Union Theological Seminary. "Tillich was the main
mentor of my life," says Carmines. "By his teachings, I
that I had permission to be an artist as well as a minister."
He received his bachelor of divinity degree in 1961 and his master
of sacred theology two years later.
But while still a divinity student, Carmines attended an art
at the Judson Memorial Church where he saw one of Allan Kaprow’s early
"Happenings." He was soon hired by the Reverend Howard Moody.
"My first job at Judson was to simply go sit in cafes where
would hang out," says Carmines. "I spoke with painters,
and playwrights. I learned about their concerns, and I then reported
to the church what the community was thinking about."
In 1961, Carmines established the Judson Poet’s Theater, dedicated
to showcasing fresh or neglected talent. It opened with Joel
"The Great American Desert" and Apollinaire’s "The Breasts
But it wasn’t until 1962 that Carmines began composing, creating music
for "Vaudeville Skit," "San Francisco’s Burning,"
"What Happened?" and winning an Obie Award for "Home
which ran for 72 performances at the Provincetown Playhouse.
But it was his work on an adaptation of Gertrude Stein’s "In
that won Carmines the most attention. "We created that play in
a special way," he says. "It was a slow process, but we
each actor to choose what character they would play. Then I composed
music in the range of each character’s voice. Gradually we had a play.
We finally presented it at Judson Church at the end of the year. Clive
Barnes came to review it and gave us a marvelous write up."
He admits that few professional theaters could afford to take such
a delicately loving approach to creating their work, but feels that
the rewards far outweighed commercial considerations. "We had
no interest in taking the slick professional approach," says
"It was much more interesting to take the time to find out what
each person could do best, and then build the play around their
After its run at the church, "In Circles" played successively
at the Cherry Lane and Gramercy Arts Theaters. Carmines, who composed
and played a new opening song for every performance, received Vernon
Rice awards for composition and performance.
Carmines went on to teach at Columbia and NYU and continues to write
poems, operas, and plays, dividing his time equally between the arts
and his ministry. "I believe strongly that I have a calling to
give both gifts," he says.
The Princeton area is not unfamiliar to Carmines, who visits from
time to time with his colleagues when on religious retreats.
"I love Princeton. A funny thing happened to me there 45 years
ago," he says with a chuckle. "I went there to attend a
by a famous theologian. Afterwards, we ate at a restaurant that I
think was called the Princeton Inn and someone there sketched my
Well, 15 years later I got back to the same restaurant and there was
a man there who kept looking at me. Finally he came up to me and
`Were you in Princeton in 1964?’ I told him yes, just to attend a
lecture. He said, `Did you eat at the Princeton Inn?’ I told him yes
again. Then he went home and got the picture and gave it to me."
Carmines believes that, since September 11, people really are
"I know the magazines and TV keep saying it, but it really is
true," says Carmines. "People are very different now. They
are still recovering from the shock, and this has made them reach
out. I find people to be much nicer to one another, more genuinely
concerned. I live in Manhattan Plaza and now I get on the elevator
and complete strangers say to me, `How are you? How are you feeling?’
And they really mean it. Before September 11, people just got on the
elevator, pushed their button, and went down."
But as the world stands now, Carmines believes that war will continue
to be a part of our daily lives. "People need to learn that love
is more important than hate," he says. "The only thing that
is going to solve the world’s problem is love. But I don’t think
are capable of this now. It may take 1,000 years before they are.
Jesus said to love your enemies, and somehow we need to summon up
the spirit to love even the evil people of the world, because
they are the world’s lost sheep."
Carmines recently taught a post-graduate course at Columbia University
on the study of evil. "It is very interesting to look at how
like to evade the concept of evil, both on a personal and societal
level," says Carmines. "We prefer to attribute it to genetics,
sociological, or psychological conditions, or to the results of
But I believe that each of us has to be responsible for our own
evil on a personal level, and do something about it. Even if it’s
only something small, like a touch or a thank you."
— Jack Florek
Theater Alliance , Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New
Brunswick, 973-593-0189. Free, but reservations are required.
January 28, 7 p.m.
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