Dan Schifrin, an award-winning writer of short stories and essays and a writing teacher as well, is undergoing a conversion. Immersed in the written word all his life, he’s turning to the stage.
“For me, improv is almost a religion,” he said about his upcoming performances at the Marsh San Francisco. “You are responding to people in real time. In my metaphysics of theater, I’m trying to break down performance into a unique thing that happens between the performer and the audience, instead of [the writing] being imposed on them.”
Schifrin will perform the first part of his play “String Theory” on Sept. 9 and Sept. 23 as part of a Monday series in which five artists present works in progress.
His piece, which he describes as “an existential comedy,” is at its essence a commentary on a central idea of Austrian Jewish philosopher Martin Buber — that we are all yearning to connect in a deeper way, as opposed to the ways we tend to connect in actuality, Schifrin said.
Buber described this deeper connection, in which we treat other people as if they reflected the divine spirit, as the “I-Thou” relationship. This is distinct from routine connections in which people often are treated as objects or instruments, which Buber called “I-It.”
“I have been very curious about the hyphen between I and the It and the Thou,” Schifrin said. “What happens — positively and negatively — in that connective tissue, the string or sinew of relationship? What might relationships and connections look like if we assumed there were literally strings connecting us all?”
His play explores the theme of connections, from the personal sphere to social media to physics — such as he strives to understand it.
“I’m no scientist, just as I’m not an actor, but there’s something about string theory that is so interesting for me,” he said. “It provides a framework for how the universe wants to connect with itself, or how God might want to connect with it. For me, it has a spiritual resonance.”
Given the weighty topic and the staging, he describes his play as “something like a TED Talk meets performance piece.”
Schifrin, 50, has been a J. contributor, a creative writing teacher at San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley and a visiting scholar at Stanford University, and he was last year’s runner-up for the Anne and Robert Cowan Writer’s Prize, an award established by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.
He made the pivot from writing to performance only recently.
“It was something I always wanted to do as a kid but I was too shy,” he said. “As I got older, some shift took place, and I felt more joy connecting with people socially.”
He did some improv training with Second City in New York, becoming more comfortable as a moderator of onstage conversations around the Bay Area.
“My creative work in general is about trying to find connection, and what that means in words. This piece in particular is about connecting with people on a deeper level, and finding our common humanity,” he said.
“But if you are afraid of string — or it may be yarn,” he warned, “do not come to my show!”
Schifrin will perform with four others, including Lauren Mayer (described in the flyer as a “suburban Jewish mother/political comedy songwriter) and Scott Cohen (performing excerpts from a one-person show about his grandparents).