Berkeley monologist Josh Kornbluth, as the many fans of “Red Diaper Baby” know, grew up in the bosom of Manhattan’s Jewish Communist world in the 1960s and ’70s. His family lived within an ironclad system of belief, despite the howling rebuttals of the society they inhabited.
Eventually Kornbluth left the nest, his father died, and over 20 years he developed a literary and dramatic response to being thrust into a space where certainty was no longer possible: the autobiographical monologue.
It turns out this is not such a bad place for Kornbluth, whose work has deepened — and become explicitly Jewish — in recent years. A New York Times feature on his 2009 monologue “Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?” amplified a robust national touring schedule, and Kornbluth is working on a new performance called “Sea of Reeds,” connecting the Exodus story with his experiences with music. (Full disclosure: I was involved with the Warhol project at the Contemporary Jewish Museum).
“Sea of Reeds” builds on Kornbluth’s first trip to Israel last summer and a class he co-taught with Rabbi Menachem Creditor at Berkeley’s Congreg-ation Netivot Shalom called “My Big Fat Jewish Learning.” Those who missed Kornbluth’s recent sold-out run of older monologues at the Ashby Stage can finally get the filmed version of “The Mathematics of Change” on his website. And this winter, Stanford students can take a class Kornbluth is teaching on “The Ethics of Storytelling. “
At a late-night café near U.C. Berkeley, the bespectacled Kornbluth — still recognized everywhere he goes from his performances, and as the former host of a talk show on KQED — pulled back the curtain on his artistic process.
“It’s not conscious on my part, but I often start a piece by coming up with two things that aren’t connected in any obvious ways,” he said. “In the new piece, for instance, it’s the oboe and my investigation of Judaism,” which are explicitly linked only by the word “reed.”
And what is the monologue about? “ ‘Sea of Reeds’ is about the place between slavery and agency, and between the story of Exodus and the oboe. Other than that, who knows?”
In a way, Kornbluth is kidding, as two hours of articulate commentary and reflection follow his question. But in another way, he really doesn’t know where he’s going. His journey toward creating a live theater piece is not so different from the Israelites preparing to cross the sea — not sure what’s on the other side, but willing to take a leap of faith. If God doesn’t save him, maybe the audience will.
Kornbluth plunges forward with his art based on two beliefs. The first is a relic of his early experiences with the closed system of communism. “I work with the assumption that everything can be connected. I have faith in this, although it’s sometimes an act of faith to keep going, especially in the beginning of the process.”
The second has to do with the wisdom and generosity of a community of listeners.
“When I start developing a piece, I shoot things out that are very intimate or revelatory about me. It’s not because of any courage, but because if I come to you with as much authenticity as I can, I feel more likely to reach you. And if I can, the shape of what I am making becomes more and more clear.”
The holy grail, then, is to bring to the performances “not just a moment when a connection happens, but something sustainable. Think about it. A sustained time of connection with a group of strangers is, given the state of the universe, remarkable and very unlikely, like cold fusion.”
The process of creating his pieces, as well as their public reception, also relies on the kindness of strangers, as he performs improv after improv in front of small groups. This monologue “crowd sourcing” allows Kornbluth to learn about his own material by hearing the responses of listeners, then iterating and reiterating until opening night, where the text becomes “fixed.”
During a class at Netivot Shalom, Kornbluth revised this process, asking small groups of people to discuss a biblical passage while he walked from group to group, listening in. He then attempted to integrate all of the comments by improvising a collective response to them. Watching him draw together the thoughts of 40 people reminded me of the high-wire narrative improvisations of Nachman of Bratslav, whose spiritual stories pollinated both Yiddish literature and Hassidic culture, and who never knew until near the end of a story if the spiritual and narrative strands could be synchronized.
The word Kornbluth prefers for this kind of integration is “harmonize.” And it was when he realized that rabbis use this very term to bridge the gap between diverging biblical passages that a shape for “Sea of Reeds” began to emerge.
“One reason I love Bach is that his cantatas, which were religious in nature, attempted to resolve opposites, conflicting musical lines, and to resolve them in beauty. Even if they were resolved only temporarily.”
For the first time, with “Sea of Reeds,” Kornbluth is preparing to present music on stage. He’s not sure how he will harmonize this new element, but he knows that “my work has meaning if I can share it in performance, and people connect. The meaning exists in between performer and audience. That’s where it is held.” n
Dan Schifrin is writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum and co-hosts its podcast series, “The Space Between.”