Monday, May 06, 2013

Star Trek at Cherry Hill, Philadelphia, New Jersey

On Thursday 26 April I came to Philadelphia's Cherry Hill Crowne Hotel for a single reason, to take part in its Star Trek Convention. On the Sunday evening of 29 April as I walked into the Hotel's atrium to see all the chairs and tables being stacked and packed, rows of shrink wrapped merchandise waiting to be hauled off, and not one Star Trek outfit, I felt a bit empty.

When I decided to come to Cherry Hill I expected participants in costume, collectible items in excess, and people with detailed knowledge of Star Trek Canon. I got that and more; Essie, the waiter in the Hotel's restaurant, told me this had been the busiest Cherry Hill Star Trek yet. 

Where revelation and interest converged for me was with the actors during their stage sessions. Some weaved around questions from fans who saw the actors as characters in Star Trek, some gave snap-shots of lives since Trek, and others sledge-hammered through questions fans ask each other or could direct at the Trek writers. And one actor jazz riffed.

Watching Avery Brooks was watching an improvised musical performance. Brooks, who portrayed Captain Sisko in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9), flowed through certain questions, others got a no or yes with frankness that was abrupt and unapologetic. I heard people say Brooks gives you something, not the answer, and is clearly not with us. But that's not true. I think he was too literal for many. Asked what he thinks about something Brooks actually says what he thinks. Which leads to confusion, because his answers are not always neat and tick box-able against the question; this could be one reason he is Professor of Theatre Arts at RutgersUniversity. Brooks speaks and moves in such a way that you get absorbed. Even the people saying they did not understand stated they were entranced.

I've never been to a religious sermon in America, but I expect what Brooks does is something some preachers achieve to raise congregations. “You can't write love! You can spell it, but you can't write it.” That quote from Brooks is for a poet friend of mine who really doesn't like people using the word love in poems. And it often leaves me cold. Like saying God, the word doesn't make it so; which was a central theme of Brooks' discussion on how he portrayed Sisko. Brooks looked at the character as a brown man in charge four hundred years into the future, and that this was something he wanted.

Brooks punctuated his stage-time with “I see you!” directed at the many rows of people seated toward the back and standing in the farthest reaches of the auditorium. “I see you back there!” Directed at those behind the VIP, Gold and Preferred classes; this statement was enunciation of thoughts encapsulated by his words, “A chorus of existence in the multitude of voices is where I live.” But it's also a device for interacting with the entire audience. I've been to parties and festivals with people declaring their souls filled with love, to such events where they combine this with appeals to the audience. But it never felt as sincere as Avery Brooks yelling again, “I still see you!”

During the convention other actors likened working on the set of DS9 as entering a monastery, and that their best work was done there. Brooks' personality and motivations likely were factors toward this, and his appearance in every DS9 episode would have contributed a consistent driver, something cemented by the nine DS9 episodes he directed. “I still see you!” He cries pointing to the back, before saying, “Exceptional people will impact you every day and you’ll never see them on the screen.” And, “Success is not bound by the relationship between commerce and art.” Which led me to think of poets declaring being a performance poet a viable lifestyle choice, that performing poetry is an optional path for them; but then he declares, “I don't know any other way to talk about the world than through music.” I want to say that means the point is that art is integral to life, not for him a monetary decision. But it is more complex than that. Because they paid Brooks to make people believe him, and he obviously takes pride in having achieved that. The question I wanted to ask Brooks was how the role on DS9 impacts his teaching, but he had already answered that for me over the course of discussions. That creation is every day if lived, and doesn't need a stage, but the stage provides opportunity to embody something, don't tell it; be it; at least that is what I took from his words.

When I very briefly had the opportunity to speak with Avery Brooks he stated that, "If nothing else, it was entertaining.” Which is true, but leaves out how engaging and informative he was, and misses that among all the confused audience I could hear people state agreement and respond in understanding; no doubt there were more who kept quiet.

That emptiness I opened with was in part the result of encountering so many passionate people who then moved on with their lives while I remained another night in the Cherry Hill Crowne Hotel. But it was also the result of listening to one passionate actor speak.

Vaughn Armstrong (Admiral Forrest), Casey Biggs (Legate Dumar),
Max Grodenchik (Rom), Me, Armin Shimerman (Quark),
Jeffery Combs (Brunt, Weyoun, and Commander Shran),
and the guy who played the organ

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