How did little Nancy Greenstein get from Erie, Pennsylvania to Amsterdam Holland, New York City and Princeton University? Well, after graduating from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, I arrived in New York City in the 60’s certain of becoming a STAR!
The first place I worked was Cafe LaMaMa where I discovered The Open Theatre and Joseph Chaikin. That’s when the real trip began. In 1968, the year of Robert Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King’s assassinations, Joseph Chaikin invited me to participate in an improvisational, ensemble workshop that was to investigate the Old Testament. We became fascinated with Genesis and because in that year, so many horrific assassinations occurred, we juxtaposed contemporary issues with the Adam and Eve story in a nonlinear form. The result was “The Serpent” which influenced and changed the theatre all over the world.
The process was thrilling, adventurous and We worked at that time in workshops with Grotowski and Peter Brook. Inspiring innovators who opened the mind as well as the heart. Actors were encouraged to “think” for themselves, to improvise within new and exciting forms, to take risks (a new emphasis on combining physical and vocal work) and most importantly, to stretch boundaries and if necessary to fail — we learned that failure was only a necessary step in the process, if we were to go on experimenting.
Grotowski conducted a weekend workshop in the Open Theatre with his associate Richard Cieslak. I was seven months pregnant at that time and he chose me to participate in all the exercises. While doing an exercise, which demanded that we stand on our heads, Joe rushed forward and said, “no, no, she’s pregnant.” Grotowski answered with, “In my company women work up until the moment of delivery!” This was a special moment. Funny, but serious, and I was grateful to the great Polish innovator for an important lesson regarding discipline. Twenty years later, Joe Chaikin and I were invited to his retreat at Pontedera, Italy, where he lived and taught, to perform “The War In Heaven.” It was exciting to be there as Joe’s director, and to socialize at dinner with this great man. I was no longer that 27 year old pregnant actress, but an accomplished theatre director and we talked together of the miracle of Joe’s performance. The reality of the “presence of the actor.”
What was it that I loved most about the work of the Open Theatre and Grotowski? I think it was the emphasis on the inexhaustible energy and potential of the actor. We were challenged, pushed beyond any techniques, which we experienced in theatre schools. Physically and vocally having to let go of old fashioned concepts – no longer prancing across the stage in twos, but standing on our heads and singing. Flying through space over bamboo poles and doing a somersault as an encore. Playing together in sound and movement ensemble work, where there was no time to judge, “good or bad,” jump in and risk deep contact or failure to connect. No critiquing by tired and cynical acting teachers, but rather learning from trusted colleagues who were excited to set up exercises and give us the space to succeed or fail. One exercise after another, bonding with fellow actors and bursting with desire to meet one another at the next workshop. What a time that was . .
I applied many of the new things I was learning as an improvisation teacher in The New York City Theatre Workshop for Students — a special street theatre program for inner-city youth. This was the start of my long and rewarding career as an acting teacher.
Ah, Still acting . . . “Medea” — Andrei Serban, at LaMaMa. Working in Greek and Latin. HOW TO DO IT? Memorizing “Old Greek” — and it really was Greek to me! Rehearsals with Andrei, and Liz Suedos, throwing bamboo poles across tenement roof tops on E. 4th St. Singing and drumming and doing workshops with Yoshi from Peter Brook — 8 months of rehearsal in an unheated basement. Great audience response and great reviews. They went to Europe and I wanted to do something new.
I fell into directing. I had been conducting private professional acting workshops for some years and Arthur Sainer asked if I would come to an audition for a play of his. The director didn’t show up and I ended up handling the auditions. Then Arthur asked if I would direct the play! I said “sure.” That began a 2-year rehearsal period of “The Spring Offensive.” (The Bridge Collective described in Arthur’s book “The New Radical Theatre Notebook.) My Master’s degree in theatre! Nothing like learning it “on the floor.”
Joe Chaikin and Kristin Linklater were discussing a workshop for teachers. Was I interested? Maybe — one interview with Kristin who I thought was great. And then . . . a phone call from Grey Smith who was organizing prison workshops with artists. He ‘d heard about me and thought I was right for this program. He had Rockefeller money for artists to do theatre in NY State prisons. Interested? You bet!
First year in a minimum security prison creating “Choices.” Or “Who Chooses The Choices You Choose” and then the Living Theatre’s “The Brig.” In a prison! Vibrant, energetic dangerous theatre. I worked in prisons for 4 years, two years at Taconic, minimum security and two years at Greenhaven, maximum security for heavy offenders.
I learned how to communicate with men who had been locked up for 15 years, or more, and had little hope of rejoining society. I was exposed to the seemingly impossible task of how to find themes, which interested inmates and would motivate them to continue to come to workshops. The classes lasted six hours and in that time we were absorbed in physical and vocal exercises, discussions about free will and social conditioning, and finally working through improvisation or with text to express ideas and feelings.
I met many talented and gifted people, who would inevitably return over and over to prison and this upset me. So I formed an acting company made up of ex-offenders and actors. I thought, perhaps if some of these guys could work, they wouldn’t need to steal. We remounted “Choices” and toured colleges, hospitals for another 3 years. We did a run at LaMaMa and Ellen Stewart called Joe Papp and told him he must see the production. We were invited to the Public Theatre.
The actors invited their friends, mainly hustlers, dope-dealers, etc. Mr. Papp had a cigar in his hand and a guy sitting in front of him, turned around and said politely, “Sir, no smoking in here!” At the end of the performance, Mr. Papp said it was raw and exciting. Not for the Public, but what could he do for us. One of the actors said, “either a production or nothing.” So, that was the end of that.
Memorable projects: Working with 12 Jewish women and one Afro American man, over eighty years old, in a senior citizens center in the South Bronx. Created a piece using personal documents of their arrival at Ellis Island. Stories, songs, even a little dancing. Performed for a large audience of older people and everyone had a wonderful time.
PS 3 — “I Had an Idea” a theatre piece with twenty-six children between eight and ten years old created from material they wrote dealing with their lives. Short pieces, stories, songs, dance. Big hit . . . moving review from “The Daily News.”
In 1979 I met Lynn Michaels and Harry Baum at the Open Space and that was the beginning of a new chapter. I had been directing since 1972, primarily improvised material, which would later be scripted. Lynn Michaels invited me to do a reading by an absurdist Spanish playwright, Alphonso Vallejo. Harry and Lynn decided to produce it at the Open Space.
It was in rehearsal that I first encountered sexism of the most blatant nature. The lead actor, an older actor who had worked on television for Norman Lear, didn’t understand what I wanted, and I couldn’t seem to make it clear to him. One day before opening, he yelled at me, called me a terrible name and quit.
I took the script over to William Duff Griffin, a wonderful actor. I cooked his dinner while he read the play. “Will you do it?” “Okay, he said.” We worked through the night, I cued him and he memorized. The opening night was edgy, to say the least, but he managed wonderfully and within two days, played like he had a month’s rehearsal.
Another moment that stays with me was doing the lights with Harry Baum. He asked me what I wanted and I didn’t know. He told me to stay with him all night long, and we hung lamps and he showed me what each light did. He insisted that I make the final choice for the lighting. I learned a lot from Harry, on that evening and in the many years to follow when I directed at the Open Space and in other theatres in which Lynn and Harry produced. I directed eight productions for them, with actors that included Lauren Klein, John Turturro, Jayne Haynes, Joan McIntosh and Steven Rowe.
Although I was making some money as a director, the bulk of my income still came from teaching. For four years I worked at St. Ann’s School for Gifted Children in Brooklyn Heights. I directed a big production each year and had a chance to tackle some classics with great students who were very talented and motivated. We did major productions with lower, middle and upper school children, ages eight to eighteen.
In 1986 I went to Kenya with my friend Ronnie Asbell. Another life-changing experience. So many vivid memories. The one that stands out however, was doing Sound & Movement exercises in the bush near Mombassa with ten Masai warriors. These young men danced in clubs run by German entrepreneurs who paid them hardly any money. We had met these men and had long and serious discussions about what it meant to be Masai, (two of them spoke English) and how they had come from Northern Kenya to try to make some money for their families who were suffering from drought.
After socializing and chai drinking for about a week, they asked me “to show them what I do.” We went to a quiet spot in the wild, and first I had them throw their black sticks, (traditionally carved and used for protection from wild animals) in unison the way we had thrown the bamboo poles on the rooftops during the André Serban period. They mastered that with sound in about ten minutes.
Then I set up a storytelling exercise in which they had to work together. It was late afternoon, they picked a hill to play on, and they told a simple, but moving story from their own history. Each man played a person from this village, some old, some young, and two were cows. There was a mother and a baby. The baby nursed, which was shown without embarrassment and then both cows got sick and died. The village mourned, wailing, crying, first lying down on top of the cows themselves, and then they covered the animals with leaves. The concentration and commitment was startling. These guys had no “training.” The knew how to play and how to tell a story.
As we sat in a large circle to evaluate, each man having his chance to discuss in either Masai or Swahili, his opinion of the day’s work, I listened to the long musical voices and watched the day grow shorter. After about an hour and a half, everyone had spoken his piece. I asked James, who spoke broken English, “What did they say?” James said, “They say, they like it!”
The group asked me if I could work with them to find forms in which to tell their own stories, to sing their songs and dance their dances. If they could do that and get someone to book them, they would be free of the German sharks who ran the Mombassa waterfront and ate the bones of the young Masai instead of paying them a decent wage for their efforts. I told them that I too had to make a living, but that I would try to do something in America to help them.
Upon my return, I contacted a friend, Carol Beckwith, a great photographer who had lived and worked for years in Africa and who had contacts with National Geographic. I thought a documentary might be possible, but there was no chance. They were not interested. So, there were only letters across the ocean connecting me for some years to the Masai in Kenya.
For six years in the 80’s I taught acting at the Warren Robertson’s Acting Studio in New York City at the same time I was teaching children at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn. I went from playing with children to encouraging young professional actors how to be playful. Warren was a famous teacher from the Strasberg school who had developed his own method of working. It was at his studio that I was able to develop my own scene study technique and also hone improvisational skills.
A monumental event happened in 1984. Joe Chaikin had a stroke during his third open heart surgery and was left severely aphasic. Six months after the event, I saw him walking a very large poodle (or rather, the poodle was walking him!). I helped him with the dog, after giving each other a heartfelt hug. A couple of hours later I received a phone call from his speech therapist who invited me to attend a session because Joe “wanted me to know what he has to do to communicate.” I went of course, and that began a renewed relationship that changed the course of events in my life.
I had become an ardent listener. Experiencing and working in cultures so different from my own, it was not only necessary, but also extremely important to be able to hear what was actually said, and to trust my intuition as to what lie under the words. I was ready for Joe.
Joe’s language was severely affected by the stroke. He communicated often by association. Once he telephoned me, “Nancy,” “Yes Joe.” “Movie?” “Which movie?” “Angel?” “You’d like to see a movie called Angel?” “No, but close!” After some investigation, I found a film with Joe Norton about a man who becomes an angel.
Throughout the 20 years that followed, over dinner we would discuss life’s important questions: sex, (man-woman?) death (fear of?) and is there anything after death? I was graced with having the opportunity to work with him, directing him in 2 professional staged readings and co-directing a couple of plays, including “The Bald Soprano.” We taught numerous workshops all over the world together, where I functioned not only as Joe’s interpreter but also taught my own work with his support and interest.
Angels were fascinating to Joe. He and Sam Shepard wrote a radio play together, “The War In Heaven,” about an angel who was hovering between heaven and earth. I eventually directed Joe in this piece along with Jean-Claude Van Italie’s, “Struck Dumb” which had a special run at the American Place Theater in 1991.
In the fall of 1989 I had directed Joe in “The War In Heaven” for a Sam Shepard festival in Amsterdam. We performed the piece successfully and were also invited to teach teachers and directors at the Amsterdam School for Theatre and Cabaret. That was the beginning of workshops, productions and classes that continue for me until the present time.
I met Paul Binnerts, a theatre director, teacher and playwright, whom I later married. Since 1990, we have combined our talents and work internationally together, co-directing and teaching in, Japan, France, The Netherlands and America.
In 1996, Paul invited us to perform “Texts for Nothing”, as a staged reading for a small tour in Holland and Belgium. Joe was famous for his performance before the stroke, at the Public Theatre, of the adapted piece by Samuel Beckett. I asked Joe if he thought he could do it, he said “yes” and we went to work. This dense, complicated Beckett piece was very dear to Joe; the question was “how to rehearse?”
We met daily for about 3 hours for a month sitting at his round wooden table. We used colored markers to denote feeling, we stopped and talked about the meaning of phrases and then went over pronunciation. Slowly Joe began to internalize a piece which he had known so well before his stroke. Over and over and over and over . . . The first public reading was for old friends and colleagues. They were amazed. The power of his presence was unexplainable and unimaginable. The tour in Europe was a great success. Audiences were moved, and left breathless by his performance. There were dozens of reviews in Amsterdam and Antwerp, which praised the performance and spoke of the magic of his presence.
In the locker room of my health club,I met a woman from Vancouver, Canada. I asked her what she was doing in Amsterdam and she told me that she was a singer who did voice work in presentation and communication trainings with CEO’s of major international companies. I asked some more questions and became interested in whether this might be something for me. She introduced me to two English women; Jesse Gordon and Ann Perkins co-directors of EPT = Executive Performance Training.
The basic concept of the trainings was that through the use of theatrical physical and vocal exercises participants began to experience what it was like to function in a more connected way. The more connected, the less fear of showing oneself more honestly. As confidence grew, presentation and communication skills improved. Since this is what I’d been doing as an acting teacher for many years, it made sense to me and I found applying the work, with modifications, of course, interesting and exciting in a venue other than an acting class.
I stayed with this work for six years, 1993-2000, traveled to Singapore, South Africa, France, England and many cities in Holland. I learned new techniques, was introduced to world of business and saw and experienced how the enormous need for creative expression applied to men and women from all cultures in all walks of life. In 1990, I became reacquainted with Mel Roman, a conceptual artist and psychologist from New York. Mel had raised money to continue the life of “Choices,” the play created in prison, during the ‘70’s when he was the Director of Psychology at Albert Einstein Medical College in New York City. Mel was very interested in the approach we applied in the trainings and eventually we collaborated and began a business together called “Blue Space.” This relationship continued until Mel’s death in 2003.
I continued to teach in the Amsterdam Theatre School. I worked with Gerrard Verhage, a provocative and exciting film director, as an acting coach, and conducted professional, international workshops. I expanded my trainings to include students from all performance disciplines and continue to offer this work in private intensive workshops.
2000 – 2006
After 2001, Paul and I decided to divide our time between New York and Amsterdam, to live and work in both countries. I continue to teach at the Amsterdam Theater School and since 2002 have taught in Program of Theater And Dance at Princeton. This switching from one country to another was the inspiration for a project with Jenn Ben Yakov, a colleague from the days of the Open Theatre, who has lived in Amsterdam and has made a career in theatre and dance. We worked through improvisation for about eight months and created a solo piece, “There’s No Place Like No Place,” which Jenn eventually scripted and which I performed in Amsterdam. After thirty years, I was back on the stage telling my story, acting again. I discovering that, living in different cultures as an independent artist, I define the culture, the culture does not define me. In creating this piece, exploring the confusion of a dual identity, I embraced the reality of the opportunities given to me.