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Faculty Member Daniel Michaelson Navigates International Tensions with Play, "Benedictus"

Feb 22, 2008

Bennington College faculty member Daniel Michaelson is a scholar of two very dissimilar fields—mediation and design. In 2005, his dual expertise perfectly complemented a momentous yet sensitive project that took two years to complete, Benedictus. A highly collaborative play, in nature and content, Benedictus explores US, Israeli, and Iranian relationships by imagining two men—childhood friends, born in the same town in Iran, one an Israeli arms dealer, the other an Iranian cleric—estranged but agreeable to a secret meeting at a Benedictine monastery in an attempt to prevent an imminent US invasion of Iran.

The eerily relevant but fictional plot wasn’t the only piece of the project that had the potential for controversy: in fact, even before former Bennington faculty member and dramaturge Roberta Levitow arranged for the culturally diverse, five-person creative team to discuss the possibility of artistic collaboration, there were anxieties. Levitow worried aloud to Michaelson and Golden Thread Artistic Director Torange Yeghiazarian that bringing these artists together “may be a sticky-wicket.” Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, expressed fears regarding collaborating with an Iranian because “each of us would come to the meeting loaded with our own narrative of the crisis.” The Iranian-American poet and director, Dr. Mahmood Karimi-Hakak, confessed he was “afraid to talk with an Israeli, never mind work with one.” With all of this trepidation, Michaelson’s mediation training came in handy during the first residency in 2005 when the group didn’t just meet, but lived and cooked together for an entire week.

“Each day was organized as we would in mediation, each person was allotted a day of uninterrupted time,” Michaelson explains. “Each would talk about their work, their life, their art, their country, their family. In the afternoon we would talk collectively about the possibility of a collaborative project.” The week ended and the once ambivalent team, now familial, voted to continue to work together. Giving a shape to this collaboration, the team decided to begin a theatre project. There was the occasional squabble concerning the cultural origins of a cucumber salad, but Michaelson was most surprised to find that artistic, rather than cultural differences created moments of friction. “Going into the project I thought I would need to do a lot of mediation work but as it turned out Roberta, as the dramaturge, was in the natural position to mediate the artistic differences.”

In April 2007—two years, countless dinners, emails, phone calls, visits, designs, and redesigns later—the play opened at Siena College. Michaelson a member of the creative team recalls his first Benedictus set design. “I created a circular platform covered in sand with war-like objects around it. A parachute that looked both like a flower and a mushroom cloud hung over the disk and surrounding the central platform were sandbags, an old observatory dome I made to look like a missile silo, camouflage netting, cyclone fencing, destroyed objects, and crushed dead toys.”

The first iteration of the play was followed by a talk-back with Middle East experts, including former United Nations ambassador to Iran and Bennington College faculty member Mansour Farhang. The response, as artistic director Yeghiazarian puts it, was “Where is the hope in this piece, where is an element that is more about life than death?”

Thoughtful about that feedback, the writers began redrafting the script and Michaelson, a new design. Until, “I arrived one Saturday morning and half the script was thrown out, along with my design.” With less than a week before the play was scheduled to go into rehearsal at San Francisco’s Thick House, produced by Golden Thread, Michaelson remarks “I had to stay fluid. We were all living together in Berkley. I would ask the writer for hints of the new script. I showed the creative team my rough ideas and rough models. Finally, I arrived at a film noir look—an all black set with sharp angles and Venetian blinds…It was much darker then the earlier sets, more paranoid and trapped.”

The week after the show premiered in California, Brandeis University used Benedictus in workshop at a conference about healing and reconciliation through the Arts. A hopeful concept not lost on Michaelson, who has for nearly a decade taught at-risk students in public schools through a program he and faculty member Susan Sgorbati founded called Quantum Leap. “I use theater, especially when I work with at-risk kids because it’s a collaborative process. It’s a way of developing peace building skills. It is a way to have their voices heard, or to have their voices heard with artistic distance. In art there is a distance which has the potential to open people to another viewpoint.”

Working on matters of war and peace may seem out of place in art but not to Michaelson. “Artists create something new. We invent a world that doesn’t exist. We create another possibility.”