A Golem Sleeps and Wakes in the Mourning at Old City Jewish Arts Center

Logan Gabrielle Schulman + Benjamin Behrend in Conversation

Gallery View of Exhibition A Golem Sleeps and Wakes in the Mourning, 2021

A Golem Sleeps and Wakes in the Mourning, featuring works by Philadelphia based artist Logan Gabrielle Schulman and writer Benjamin Behrend, is a collaborative interactive exhibit of images, objects, and video from the theatre of grief, on view at the Old City Jewish Arts Center in Philadelphia, PA through July 2nd. Benjamin Behrend, a writer and performer, says he has recently been straddling the worlds of comedy, performance art, and also various explorations of faith, especially these past few years. Logan Gabrielle Schulman (they/them) is a queer interdisciplinary artist, with a background in theatrical performance, directing, playwriting, and designing, while also developing over the last few years a foundation in the visual arts. They say their work “primarily investigates modern crises of faith and collapse,” which they started investigating initially by drawing on their theatrical design experience through installation work, and gradually later on, in smaller scale work as well. Schulman’s work also draws upon their experience as a Jewish educator teaching about the Jewish diaspora and Holocaust history.

Benjamin Behrend, Raychel Ceciro, and Logan Gabrielle Schulman. Gallery Window Installation, 2021. video, lace, found tube televisions, cinderblock, nylon rope; dimensions variable

AS: Tell me more about the genesis, process, and the idea behind the show. What will people see in it?

LS: It’s an interactive space containing mixed media sculpture, video works recorded from theatrical performances, clay puppets, and of course, a live performance component, all surrounding the topics of Jewish mourning, how certain traditions succeed and fail in the modern world, and how we might approach grief in a healthy and contemporary way.

BB: The exhibition came about because we have developed a number of plays, most of which have been produced and one which has not, but ultimately, our play Now at the End, Again couldn’t be produced and so we wanted to explore it through alternative means. We pitched the idea of a gallery show surrounding a primarily theatrical-based practice to the curator, Rabbi Zalman Wircberg, and he was totally on board. The exhibition is titled A Golem Sleeps and Wakes in the Mourning and its on view at the Old City Jewish Arts Center in Philadelphia.

LS: I want to just break down swiftly the premise of that play, because it deeply informs the whole concept for the exhibition. At its core the play focuses on a family grieving the loss of their child. There is second narrative throughline in which there is this Golem, taken from 16th century Jewish folktales in which it was originally created as a clay protector from the mud by a mystic Rabbi to protect his village. The Golem has informed so much literature and culture, from Frankenstein and Lord of the Rings to a massive canon of contemporary artistic work, including Julie Weitz who has an exhibit on her interpretation of the Golem on view right now across the country at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Anyway, the legend goes that the Golem turns on its creator and the people it’s supposed to protect. And so it has to be destroyed.

And you and I, in the fiction we created, decided we wanted the Golem to have an essentially different function, especially in light of a contemporary reality of gun violence. Like what good is a single hero-figure amidst this epidemic of violence? What good is a clay hero against a bullet? And so from these core questions, we made this whole narrative about this Golem who in our canon has been banished to Sheol, a place most essentially like a limbo-space in the afterlife, deep underground, referenced in the Torah. This Golem is there in Sheol, just waiting for the arrival of the souls of the children it couldn’t protect. So, like the rest of us, the Golem is put in a position of hapless mourner. All the Golem can do is take care of the presences of these small ceramic souls as they arrive, while the families above are learning to care within the absence of those same souls. The Golem is the functional cornerstone of this exhibition, as it represents a sort of social and governmental neglect we see as a key issue in the work to curb gun violence in the United States.

BB: The play [Now at the End, Again] has a third running narrative focused on a group of ancient Hebrews, who, all throughout, are very proximal to death. They are taking care of the body of a loved one who has just died. And they hold both the presence and the absence of the deceased simultaneously, as over the course of the performance they are going through the Tahara, taking care of the body of the deceased in a way that in present day America, we do not. And so we wrote the play in 2019 intended for production in 2020 in the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. But of course, the pandemic came upon us all stopping that in its tracks.

LS: And so the Fringe Fest went digital and slashed their sign-up fees, but there was no way Now at the End, Again could live as virtual theatre. It required a liveness and intimacy. The sounds of metal on clay as the Golem moves around the space, the defining of discrete spaces on stage for each narrative and the subsequent blurring of those definitions as the narratives crossover into one another. It needed space. But we still wanted to produce meaningful work and so we adapted one scene in particular surrounding an immersive and participatory Shiva service from Now at the End, Again into a multimedia and interactive Zoom performance. We wanted to hold space for our audiences to grieve because we saw it wasn’t given any room at all in the U.S. That play was titled Welcome to the Shiva House.

We had to really work to find connective, interdisciplinary, and immersive forms to produce a show about coming together to mourn while being stuck at such a distance. I don’t know how possible that venture would have been, without the distance that we ourselves had to overcome in order to create it. The fact that it had the companion reader/prayer book as a physical invitation to participate, the concluding walking portion which used a separate audio meditation, and of course throughout the Zoom portion of the performance we were asking the audience to engage with particular objects in their own spaces. I think this gave us the experience and confidence to translate our theatrical works into another medium. So the objects in the exhibition are all inherently theatrical, both the works directly from a production as well as the works which invite participation and catalyze a live encounter with the viewer.

BB: We toured [Shiva House] to a number of digital festivals and were presented by a few galleries in their Covid programming. Now Shiva House is an interactive installation in the exhibit.

LS: Practically, the exhibit is a retrospective of the four performance works that we have produced over the last many years along with their related ephemera.

BB: Ephemera which you made with your hands!

LS: Sure, I appreciate that. But I want to qualify though, because, yes I physically made most of the visual works, but they all came from the co-created conceptual, narrative, and written work we have developed together. And I don’t feel like I made them alone. Sure, I did the making—mostly in my studio-slash-garage in Sarasota—but truly, I just feel like a theatrical designer. When you’re in theatre tech, you’re not like the mythical artist working alone in a silo of your own thought and imagination. You are an artist working in collaboration with a team, right? And everyone is moving towards the same goal of realizing this core concept that could be the director’s vision, or it can be the playwright’s vision. But in our specific case, we have both been playwright and director.

Installation view, without veil. Logan Gabrielle Schulman, VEILED MIRROR II, 2021. acrylic paint, disarmed toy soldiers, mirror, lace, wood; 27” x 34”

AS: Tell me about your collaboration – how do you work together?

BB: Well, you came up here for a theatre residency. From Florida to Philadelphia in 2016. And you got a job teaching at the synagogue where I was teaching in 2017.

LS: Right, we met at Rodeph Shalom, and almost immediately began talking about collaborating. You had a really keen eye on theatre in the city. I was very new. And we were talking for a couple of months about what kind of project to explore together. And then the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting happened and it really crystalized our focus. I started doing deeper research on the subject of gun violence in America and was floored by the statistics. It felt like work surrounding the issue was all I could do.

BB: And we began to explore grief, Jewish mourning, and gun violence. You proposed the initial vision for Elegy for a Lamb: A Revival and we developed that play over the course of four months or so.

LS: After we debuted that very metatheatrical and overly complicated play, we got enough confounded feedback to know we needed to improve it. We went back to the drawing board and by the time we were done, we’d created Now at the End, Again. Generally, I struggle to talk about how collaboration happens. Our projects start with us performing a good deal of research, both together and independently of one another. All primarily surrounding violence in America, anti-Semitic violence worldwide, the gun lobby, mass shootings, as well as shootings on an individual basis. And then we commit to a deep probing into the multitudes of various mourning traditions found within Judaism, to really flesh out performative frameworks that we feel are functional towards creating performance works.

BB: I think that the key to our collaboration is not only a keen understanding of one another’s strengths and abilities, but also that we communicate well. And, what I think is great about our partnership is that we’re not the same type of artist. I feel that one specific way I impact our projects is a deeper focus on clarity and narrative, especially in our more theatrical works. Asking “what’s the story here? What’s the structure? Will the audience get this?” Meanwhile your focus has been on experimentation and pushing the performative envelope, and creating spaces that foster community. And it’s not like before our partnership either one of us had zero idea about either experimentation or narrative, but I think in a very synergistic way, our individual strengths have helped elevate our respective artistries.

Logan Gabrielle Schulman, “bullets ain’t got no eyes”, 2020. clay, brass weights, coated fishing line, safety pin, found wood; puppet dimensions variable

AS: How do you see this show in context of your other work?

LS: Would you consider your participation in the Philly improv scene a significant part of your artistic practice?

BB: I would say it’s significant, especially as a vehicle throughout the pandemic. I’ve been performing with my company [ComedySportz] virtually the last year plus.

LS: Do you feel like your improvisational work functions in any way within your more performance art focused work? When you’re exploring faith and grief?

BB: No, actually. Well, not entirely. I find them not to be in communication as fully as you might expect. Which is fine by me. Really, it just gives me two distinct perspectives on performance.

LS: Sure. But if I can disagree with you for a moment: you and I work in creating these sorts of ritual frameworks in our collaborative theatrical process, right? And once the framework exists, we fill it with whatever the good stuff is: the research-based data, and the emotional data, and the narrative data. But it all comes together in a spontaneous moment. And that’s improv, right? Like, you are given a framework, which is a game you have rehearsed, and all of the work from multiple rehearsals is latent in you just waiting to be used. Then in a spontaneous moment, you’re filling it with whatever sort of experience you’re holding. Obviously, the outcome is a little different, but not even so much. Because, in the end, the goal is some level of catharsis, right? For both the performer and audience. Like some sort of relief, or falling over a crest. You know what I mean?

BB: Sure, on that macro scale, it’s certainly possible that there’s unconsciously and perhaps even semi-consciously some crossover there. But more often than not, I find they exist in different planes in myself. How do you see this work fitting into your larger practice?

LS: Truly the show encompasses my work from over the last four years so it’s somewhat hard to distinguish it from my larger practice. But of course, my other projects so frequently involve non-linear storytelling, immersion, puppetry, questions of faith, and activist narratives, so I feel all the work in the show is really just par for the course.

Logan Gabrielle Schulman, Kinder-Megillah for 2021, 2021. found scrap wood, butcher paper, wax pencil; dimensions variable

All photographs courtesy of Noah S. Thompson

A Golem Sleeps and Wakes in the Mourning, works by Logan Gabrielle Schulman and Benjamin Behrend from the Theatre of Grief, is on view at the Old City Jewish Arts Center in Philadelphia, PA from June 4th to July 2nd.

Artist Bios

Logan Gabrielle Schulman they/them is a genderqueer Jewish cross-disciplinary artist, director, educator, and activist working between Philadelphia, PA and Sarasota, FL. Their work has been presented by the Historic Asolo Theatre (FL), the Chautauqua Institution (NY), Sarasota Contemporary Dance (FL), Mara Gallery (FL), Urbanite Theatre (FL), Selby Botanical Gardens (FL), Old City Jewish Arts Center (PA), the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts (PA), Vox Populi gallery (PA), and Maelstrom Collaborative Arts (OH) among others. Their work has been supported by the Florida Council for the Humanities, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the New College Foundation, and the Sarasota Architectural Foundation, and essentially, through tireless crowdfunding and the generosity of loved ones, friends, and patrons. Schulman received their training from the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York, the Headlong Performance Institute in Phila, PA, and holds a BA with Honors in Religion and Performance from the New College of Florida in Sarasota, FL.

Benjamin Behrend is a Philadelphia-based performer and writer. He has worked with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Kimmel Center, Arden Theatre Company, InterAct Theatre Company, Theatre Exile, Act II Playhouse, Passage Theatre Company, and the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium. Behrend was previously on the production staff of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Behrend co-wrote and co-starred in an original production, Two-Man, One-Man, that was performed in the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, presented by ComedySportz, and which made its international debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to sold out crowds and critical acclaim. He also performed as a dancer in an anti-gun violence collaboration, Bury Our Weapons, Not Our Bodies, between the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Israeli-German artist and filmmaker Yael Bartana. Behrend received his theatrical training from the Philly Improv Theater, Wilma Theater, and Lantern Theater Company, and through his apprenticeship with InterAct Theatre Company. He is a Member of ComedySportz where he regularly performs improv. Behrend received a BA in History and Spanish from the University of Pennsylvania, where he currently works in Development and Alumni Relations.