A TRIBUTE TO MARK WEIL
by Bonnie Stein
The subject in the email from Ilkhom read: MARK WEIL IS DEAD!!! I first thought it was the name of a new theater production or a publicity stunt for the opening of the company's 32nd season. Then the reality slowly started to sink in.
MARK WEIL, age 55, theater artist, teacher, father, husband, friend, and director most known for his innovative work with his company the Ilkhom Theatre a company based in Tashkent, Uzbekistan that he founded 32 years ago, died at 2:00 a.m. on Thursday, September 7, from injuries suffered during a violent attack. Was it a random crime? Will we ever know? Weil was on his way home. According to reports neighbors, company members, and The Associated Press, he was hit on the head with a bottle and then stabbed. They said the assailants did not rob him but then what did the killers hope to gain?
His last words were: "I open the new season tomorrow, and everything must happen."
In other words 'the show must go on'.
I met Mark in 1997, when he called at the recommendation of the Trust for Mutual Understanding, a foundation that has supported my projects in the former Soviet Union since the 1980s. Mark described some of his work during Soviet times – how he placed a real train engine on stage for a show in Moscow, and how he founded his company Ilkhom ("inspiration") in 1976 with no government support. As Anna Kisselgoff reported in her September 8 New York Times obituary, "Like many Russian Jews, he felt at home in the cosmopolitan city of Tashkent". He was currently working on a project using taboo texts, challenging the wave of oppression that prevailed beyond the 1989 fall of the Berlin wall. He and I instantly bonded and he became one of my brothers. As I grew to know him better, I realized that Mark had the same kind of effect on most people. I believe that many of his friend and colleagues in the performing arts world, both in the USA and overseas, feel as I do. Mark had a way of making us all part of his growing theater family.
Cautious enough to get his own wife and two daughters out of Uzbekistan "when things were getting a bit hard" in the late 1990s, Mark refused to abandon his theater company. When the subject of leaving was broached, he remained steadfast. He was dedicated to the growth and development of Ilkhom Theatre and to the inspiration and promise of the Theater Academy he founded. The Tashkent work was like a cherished child, a lifelong project that he nurtured with love and passion.
I met Mark again in 1999, when GOH was coordinating Global Interchange: Artists in Conversation, an international conference in New York for performing artists worldwide. Mark was invited to participate, along with 60 artists from five continents. Mark smiled and looked me in the eye. "You must come to Uzbekistan! " He said. "Invite me," I replied.
At Mark's challenging invitation, I visited Tashkent the next year with my longtime colleague and friend, Lynn Kable. The visa process and costs were steep. Although the home of many world renowned historical sites (Samarkand, Bukhara) and the legendary local Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, known in Uzbekistan as Amir Timur, Uzbekistan was not at the time a popular tourist destination and it has become less so since 2001. At the time, what impressed me most, beyond the extraordinary talent in the Ilkhom actors and musicians, was Mark's determination to surround himself with a sense of "normalcy" in a regime that defied the term. The company had no government support, yet they thrived.
Mark knew that I could appreciate the hard tasks that he undertook, and the difficult choice he had made to remain in Tashkent when he had many opportunities, from countless friends and supporters.
Besides taking us to several shows and introducing us to historic sites during the trip, Mark's longtime associate, actor and manager Maxim Tumenov, took us to his garden outside the city. As we gazed at his lovely flowers, I felt again the sense that a Uzbekistan person was trying to achieve a sense of normalcy. Why not grow flowers in a nearly forgotten part of the world? Why not try to create an independent experimental theater group in a potentially hostile climate?
While some of the company's standard works were based on Russian classics or Uzbek stories, one of the most popular pieces in his wide repertoire was based on Steinbeck's Tortilla Flats. Another was commedia-dell'arte-based Happy Beggars by Carlo Gozzi.
I am now looking over the correspondence from that time, and I see the moment when Mark agreed that we needed to bring a group of US presenters to Tashkent to see his work in situ. Eventually, this dream was realized and the presenters who visited were as deeply affected as I was on initial first trip. The first presenter trip, planned for September 2001, was postponed for a matter of weeks by the events of 9/11. Later there were two presenter trips led by Lynn Kable.
As a result of our combined efforts, Ilkhom toured in California and Arizona in 2004 with Imitations of the Koran, a multimedia musical theater production based on texts by Pushkin. The US tour was managed by Harold Norris with GOH Productions and, with a title like that, was a tough act to sell in the land of homeland insecurity. Lynn, Harold and I worked tirelessly on getting the texts translated, getting visas approved and trying to locate a New York presenter. We I felt it was necessary for the audience to understand Mark's artistic and moral intent and that the title was provocative enough to stir up controversy. The exact title of the English translation reads: IMITATIONS OF THE KORAN, A Stage Composition by Mark Weil, based on Pushkin's poem and selected Surahs of the Koran, (Ilkhom Theater, Tashkent, Uzbekistan).
Before 2004, the company had only performed in New York City once in 1991 as part of the International Festival of the Arts with a mime piece called Ragtime for Clowns, presented at the Joyce Theater. Ilkhom is not well known here. As part of his international collaborations last year, they toured in Japan with Imitations of the Koran and in Tashkent, Mark collaborated with US choreographer David Rousseve on a new multimedia work, Ecstasy with the Pomegranate. He had also worked with the US choreography team Shapiro and Smith in the early '90s as in other collaborations with European artists. These works have not been seen in the United States.
Now the tragedy is beginning to hit home…
Mark Weil was killed last Thursday by two thugs with heavy, sharp objects. The assailants smashed his head, stabbed his body, then ran away. They did not steal his wallet. They did not steal anything, except his life. Who wanted him dead? Did they do this with intent and purpose? Is this a nightmare? "I want to wake up," said Maxim.
What Mark Weil leaves with us in his tragic and premature exit -- beyond profound sadness and deep deep sorrow -- is the notion of commitment and the possibly unreasonable expectation that we can make a difference in the world with through theater. But transformation of political, moral, religious and conservative systems is not easy. Mark had the personal gift of being able to transform and encourage those who were close to him. He offered hope in daunting situations. He was able to gather love, respect and support from all over the world.
I am looking again at our correspondence, from the years between 1999 and 2005. We had traversed a number of stepping-stones since that first meeting in 1997. I regarded Mark and his work, his mission and his life with great reverence. I realized that as a US Citizen, my challenges were never as dangerous as his.
Aside from their international appeal, lkhom Theater space is never empty. Audiences in Uzbekistan return again and again, to see the next premiere or to re-experience certain plays in the repertory when they return to the stage. Devoted collaborators – actors, designers, technicians, students, administrators, the public -- hail from every part of Uzbekistan, and many international artists have appeared on the Ilkhom stage. Tashkent, the little-known city, has citizens from nearly as many cultural backgrounds as New York. It never ceases to amaze and frustrate me that people are so unaware of Uzbekistan's cosmopolitan side. When I tell people that a friend was murdered in Uzbekistan, most don't even know where that is. All the more reason for getting the word out.
Mark Weil's work with Ilkhom will continue beyond his death. His company and staff have vowed to carry on with their plans. They opened the 32nd Season as he wished, on the evening of September 7. And there is touring and teaching and more performance activity coming up in Europe and the United States and in their theater in Tashkent.
Mark Weil is already a legend. Just google his name and see what you get.
Bonnie Stein is Executive Director and Producer of GOH Productions, NYC, www.gohproductions.org
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