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Bill George  

actor, playwright, theatre director, teacher, U.S.A.

Bridget and Bill George run Little Pond
an arts retreat.

I can't remember the words of the letter exactly. The Universal House of Justice had written to the Bahá´ís of the world encouraging all artists to commemorate the Bahá´í Holy Year (1992) and the World Congress. I´d just left Touchstone Theater, was on my own, and needed to create new work. I wanted to focus on the Divine, and thought I'd love to create an oratorio on the martyrdom of Badi. Bahá'u'lláh had said that this story should be told. But the world turned, and I realized that a 150-person chorus just wasn't going to happen. Besides, I had to earn a living. Maybe a solo show with puppets...and I began working.

Bill George with some of the puppets for his solo piece, The Kingfisher's Wing.
Photo: Mark Sadan, U.S.A.

Bill George performing his solo piece, The Kingfisher's Wing.

I created The Kingfisher´s Wing. It is based on the true story of the martyrdom of the youth, Aqa Buzurg, of the town Nishapur in Persia (present day Iran), in the mid-1860s. His father, the elderly Haji Abdu'l Majid--aged 60 at Aqa Buzurg's birth--is a devout Bahá´í, whereas Aqa Buzurg holds to the family's Islamic traditions. The father and son suffer the usual intergenerational problems, but slightly more exaggerated and in certain instances reversed, as it is the older who has embraced the new, and the younger who is still grappling with the frustrations of the old. The youth is eventually converted to his father's beliefs, travels to meet Bahá'u'lláh, and is so passionately inflamed with love for this charismatic Figure that he takes on the dangerous task of delivering a letter to the corrupt and all-powerful King, Nasiri'd Din Shah.
Aqa Buzurg, now called Badi, the Wonderful, by Bahá'u'lláh, travels the 1,600 miles on foot to deliver His Lord's letter. For his service he is himself tortured and killed by the Shah's executioner, Kazim Khan.

Technically, the play is a culmination of years of work. It includes puppetry ideas I'd learned from Eric Bass and Sand Glass Theater and John and Carol Farrell of Figures of Speech Theater. It contained mime technique combined with Shakespearean-styled monologues; shadow-work inspired by the drama of Bali, Fred Curchak; and movement drawn from Japanese Butoh.

I first toured the play during 1992. It was insane, more like some kind of initiation ceremony than a tour. I intended it to be hard. Well, put it this way, the difficulty of it was never considered. I traveled with my own lights, my own sound system, and by myself. I handled everything with telephone calls and ordinary mail (no e-mail at this time). The cost of just setting up the tour was approximately $1,200. I lost over $1,000. It took me two days to perform. I'd pull into town the day before a performance, set up (4 hours), train a local believer in handling sound and light cues (4 hours), rest over night, and then perform the next day after a rehearsal. We'd tear the set down after the performance, and then I'd travel over night to the next venue - sometimes traveling up to 36 hours.

At the World Congress, I was given fifteen minutes to perform in a large ballroom in New Jersey. There was no time to set up and the audience was not large, perhaps one hundred. The work didn't show up on any of the videos of the Congress. I wish I could say something meaningful about all this--about the months and months of work trying to be obedient to the call of the House of Justice, just to learn at one point (perhaps mistakenly) that the program was to contain only music, and then finally to find my fifteen minutes in New Jersey far, far from the Holy Site. It's what I expected. It's what anyone involved with the Faith must expect. The fruits of our efforts do not belong to us, only the honor, if it not be all vanity, of the efforts themselves. If you have any ego, any purpose at self aggrandizement in serving the Cause through the arts, forget it and go home.

On tour in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I came across an artist standing in the street hawking his paintings. They were so mystical they set off a kind of chemistry in my brain. The horizon tilted, and I walked into a museum, wandering its halls until I came across a painting of an Indian, naked, dragging the bloody heads of seven horses behind him, around a giant hill. It was a ritual: when members of this tribe become confused about what to do with their lives, they fast and pray and perform this rite so that they might have a vision to guide them. I realized my first tour was exactly what this picture was describing.

I had a dream. I was married to a beautiful girl, a Divine Dancer. It was out West in an old saloon--mid 1800's Music Hall, with dancing girls on the stage. She was right in the center of the chorus line, and all the guys were just in awe. She was like a Spirit or something and she'd agreed to marry me. Of course, everyone else had plans. They were gonna' make a Big River Boat with gamblin', dancin', partying and boozin'. But I'd put my foot down, and said we weren't going to do it, and everybody was sad. I stood in the middle of the elbowing, beer-smelling, smoky crowd waiting for her. And then, there she was, frightened almost, but coming. I realized that she was weak, so I picked her up in my arms and began to carry her towards the doors--everyone all around, their dirty talk, wiping the foamy beer from their faces with their sleeves. I looked down at the Angel in my arms and said, "are you sure you want to come out with me?" She could hardly raise her head, but managed to nod, "yes," and I carried her to the door. There were a couple of angry people in the way--"You could have been a dancer like me," one fella' said. "I don't want to be like you, I want to be like me," I shouted back as we pushed on through the crowd and out the door. All kinds of people were going the other way, into the saloon, as we disappeared into the night.

I became convinced that the Angel in my arms was the Spirit of Theater herself, the Spirit of Art, and we were returning from whence She came.

In another dream, I was a prince, or I was pretending to be one, and I had my First Counselor with me. We were traveling out of the country, having attended a giant party, and there were thousands of hungry people in the fields. I knew that the only place to be was with the poor, so I joined some men in the crowd. The food arrived, and thousands bowed down; they were bowing down because of Jesus, whose power and light was providing the food. I had to bow down too. But I wanted to. We walked down the road, and a man wanted us to carry a cabinet for a short distance. It was a kind of a test, something we had to do. "Please carry it down by the apple tree", he said. So, even though we were the Prince and First Counselor, we carried it.

As an artist on the road, get ready to carry cabinets.

The first tour was a little like a descent into the heart of darkness; but I learned a lot. You'd think that someone with my expertise--over 20 years of touring--wouldn't put himself into such awkward and compromising performance situations. But when working with the Bahá´í community developing performance as part of Bahá´í culture, one is pioneering. We must be willing to work with less than ideal circumstances. What happens on the outside is only the shell of the important work--what's happening on the inside. Though I traveled over 6,000 miles, it's a mistake to think of travel teaching for the Faith as a physical journey. After the tour, I remember buying a piece of French candy with these words written on the inside wrapper: La Coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point.--The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of-- Pascall.

In my report to US National Assembly, I said: "The Bahá´í Community appears to me on the verge of embracing the arts as a powerful teaching tool. The World Congress has stirred up interest and a fuller understanding of how drama, music, and all of the arts can move people's hearts. The emergence of a large number of communities with Bahá´í Centers and numbers of over fifty active adult believers encourages me to believe that a circuit of centers for performing artists might be established and a procedure for coordinating touring Bahá´í artists implemented. There is a great divergence of opinion and understanding of how the arts are to take part in our evolving Bahá´í Culture. Artists themselves are often too battered by the economics of survival and their own culturally trained false assumptions to be able to actively lead the Bahá´í Community over this unknown spiritual horizon."

There were some communities and individuals on the tour who were brilliantly supportive and responsible. Others struggled more with the chore of arranging performances and dealing with the new experience of having to produce. In the end, I became convinced that it wasn't really fair to expect Bahá´í communities to be arts producing organizations. Yet it hurts when one risks so much to go out on the road just to be dropped by a community.

Though religious in tone and subject, The Kingfisher´s Wing is a piece that was created for general audiences. I needed to see if I could make the work pay for itself. In California it was reviewed by the Movement Theater Quarterly, a magazine devoted to dramatic work with a technical approach. Annette Lust wrote: "...This is more than a vibrant performance; it is a faith-renewing experience in times that are technologically advanced but spiritually barren."

Armed with favorable reviews, I decided to set up a two-week run in February 1994 at the Baltimore Theater Project. This time I did not rely on the Bahá´í communities, though I informed them about the work and the performances, and asked for their support if they had the time. The results were quite sad. I´d produced on a percentage basis of the gate. There was moderate pre-performance publicity in the newspapers. The weather was atrocious. It was the time of great ice storms here on the East Coast, and I had to cancel three performances and two or three more were severely hampered. Very few people came, and I and the sponsoring theater lost thousands of dollars. A few Bahá´ís came, and it was lovely to see them.

At present, there is not enough of a market to sell Bahá´í art, or performance on Bahá´í subjects, commercially. People, at least in the United States, have a strong cultural aversion to religion outside of the church they attend. The Bahá´í community, for its part, is too small to support large and expensive projects. But there is a desperate and frantic thirst for all things spiritual.

Having learned that commercial promotion was a very slow road for getting Kingfisher out to audiences, I thought it best to continue building on the work with the Local Spiritual Assemblies during the Holy Year tour. I'd learned that I needed a partner so that I didn't have to do all the work myself--a partner who could stand the rigors of being on the road and me-and-he in each other's faces for long periods of time. So I asked my Spiritual Father, Styve Homnick, to join me. Styve is a deeply spiritual man, a wacky and wonderful talent, and one of the most seasoned touring performers in the Bahá´í community. He's toured with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee for a decade and I asked him to create new original music for the piece and to join me in performance.

I'd also learned to simplify my technical requirements. I was expending far too much energy setting up and tearing down. What the Bahá´í community needs now is not great oratorios and operas, movies and big theatre productions, it needs work that can be done in someone's living room, in small theatres without any technical requirements. (Though perhaps someone else may find a way to achieve those larger works.) Styve and I reworked Kingfisher's Wing to eliminate the recorded sound and all special lighting requirements, and simplified the staging so it could fit into two trunks.

And so we attempted to set up a tour in Britain. Arranging performances at great distances is expensive and difficult without the eyes and ears of someone on the ground who understands what you're trying to do and who actually co-ordinates the tour. It was a very important development when I went on-line and discovered various Bahá´í Listserve Groups. I sent out e-mail inquiries and was guided to Lindsay Thorne - Lindsay the indomitable, and the British tour was arranged.

In Edinburgh, we had a long discussion about the arts. Some said that they would like to see artists "more organized" so that they don't have to do everything themselves, thus creating a frantic situation of intolerable proportions. I suppose they wanted us to be more independent of the Bahá´í community and more willing to create economically viable work so that it can travel in more commercial venues and pay for itself. "Why is it that artists burden already over-taxed communities, whining about how they aren't well treated, are disorganized themselves, and then expect the world from emotionally and economically depleted brothers and sisters?" That seemed the argument.

My feeling is that each community is different and can't be expected to behave or act like any other community. In Edinburgh, for example, the local Assembly must be tough with visiting artists. The business of the Assembly can't be thrown off course every time a company passes through. Smaller communities, for their part, can't be expected to have the resources that larger ones have. Each community must decide for itself the relationship it wants with the arts and with visiting artists. Vice versa, the community cannot assume anything about the artist--it should take time to build relationships and mutual support, and find out the needs of each artist. The key is to actively begin to develop these relationships and patterns with patience, realizing that we will make mistakes, forgiving those who make them, laughing about them, and then going on to try and do better, to evolve.

After the British tour, Styve and I successfully toured the Kingfisher's Wing twice. The first tour was of California; we were determined *not* to lose money. Total costs for the one-month tour were approximately $1,750.00. Total income was $2,530.00. That left $780.00 ...of which $245 went to Styve, the rest remaining to cover expenses. Finally, after four years, we take The Kingfisher's Wing out on the road, and it doesn't lose money! In mid-October 1996, we began the East Coast Tour. It was almost entirely handled through Internet communication. Key to its assemblage was the assistance of representatives along the for the Boston area, another for New York - to co-ordinate and communicate. I am hoping that these signs perhaps indicate Bahá´í agents or co-ordinators of performing arts will develop.

But still, a performing artist can't live off the Bahá´í community--not yet, not unless he or she is without a family and willing to live at the utmost edge of poverty. The problem then, at least for me, becomes trying to find means to create commercially viable work that speaks with the Spirit of the Cause. Styve and I have been longing to add a woman to our team and create a new work--more musical, more physical, and more of a comedy--that would explore the subject of "searching for the loved one." But finding the time, finding the partner, has been difficult. Without any money, we must hope God will put the pieces of the puzzle together for us. Nevertheless, we recognize the next step and pause, wait, prepare, make ready...the opportunity will come.

In the meantime, these realizations led me to create Walden, a one-man show drawn directly from the words of H.D. Thoreau's classic story of his retreat to the woods. This piece is charged with the same Transcendental Spirit that animates the Bahá´í Cause yet represented in cultural terms familiar and non-frightening to Americans.

I'd like to end this report, which I see as full of hope, full of technical suggestions, born in a kind of agony yet bearing fruit, growing, extending branches, leaves, hopeful...with the last words of that play:

"I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings...."

"I do not say that John or Jonathan will realize all this; but such is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn. The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star."

Contact: 92 S. Penn Dixie Rd, Nazareth, PA 18064, U.S.A. tel: 610 837 2741 email:

2003: In 1996, my wife, Bridget, and I moved to a small farm in the countryside of Pennsylvania, about an hour north of Philadelphia, in order to establish Little Pond a center for the exploration of the interplay between religious and artistic inspiration. During our six years of programming, it has been fascinating to see the depth of appreciation, the hard scales of defence melt away, the light in the eyes of the artists--especially non-Bahá´í -of those participants who are asked to come and explore their work or the work of other artists from the perspective of it's "transcendent" properties. At the same time, we've established Little Pond as a home for Kingfisher Theatre Company--a company that now tours adult and children's work about or inspired by the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh around the United States (our next tour features Mark Parry's A Dress for Mona, and an original adaptation of Carol Haney's Dragons of Rizvania.) It is clear how previous cultures have embedded their ethos through symbols in dance, painting, drama, music. The present task is to discover and reclaim the ability to understand how our art expresses the transcendent and to effectively shape it so that it's healing, uplifting, community building powers can work.

  • Letter: Arts Dialogue, June 2000
  • Letter: Arts Dialogue, September 1998
  • Letter: Arts Dialogue, March 1997
  • Review: Theatre on the Road, Arts Dialogue, March 1997
  • Letter: Arts Dialogue, September 1996
  • Letter: Arts Dialogue, March 1996
  • Review: Switzerland - Landegg, June 1995
  • Letter: Coming out of the Closet, March 1995

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