Visiting writer interprets the biblical book of Job in performance

January 19, 2004|JENNIFER BRUMMETT

Peter Trachtenberg is famished. The creative nonfiction class he is teaching during the three-week winter term at Centre College runs 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. There's an hour break, but if he has to speak with students or make copies of material, it eats up his lunch hour.

So he politely mentions he wants one bite of his Coastal Salad before beginning the interview waiting for acquiescence from the interviewer. He doesn't want to talk and eat at the same time, he notes, almost apologetically.

Trachtenberg, a performance artist, writer and instructor based out of upstate New York, has his hands full this January. He has 11 students who he characterizes as "just terrific" as well as preparation for a performance of "Though He Slay Me Yet Will I Trust In Him: A Meditation on Job" at 9 p.m. Tuesday in the coffeehouse at the Combs Center on campus.

The Tuesday performance is "the best publicized performance I've ever had," says Trachtenberg, who has been performing "A Meditation on Job" since December 2000. Credit, in part, Mark Rasmussen, associate professor and chair of the English program at Centre. Trachtenberg and Rasmussen have known each other since they were 14.


Rasmussen clearly is delighted to have his longtime friend teaching a first-time course: creative nonfiction. Additionally, Trachtenberg's wife, author Mary Gaitskill, is teaching a creative fiction class. It is the first time the English program has sponsored two writers-in-residence at once, Rasmussen says.

Trachtenberg says the performance has two parts, both of which are explorations between God and suffering.

"Its about how we reconcile the idea of an all-powerful, righteous God with suffering, especially the suffering of the innocent," Trachtenberg explains, noting the biblical story of Job exemplifies the theme. "My way of approaching it as part sermon and part standup comedy routine.

"The story of Job expresses the original horror and incomprehension people feel when something bad happens to someone who doesn't seem to deserve it. The performance awakens the initial sense of outrage and wonder, and examines the traditional answers out there. But it doesn't offer an answer."

While the humor of Job is "dubious," he says, Trachtenberg notes humor is "based on suffering or hostility." He says he uses improvisation, riffing and projected animations in the performance - if the tech personnel and he can configure the animations portion.

Says Rasmussen of the performance, "Few of us at the College have seen anything like the fierce and funny performance of Peter's monologue on the Book of Job. For audiences in New York and elsewhere, this performance piece has been a mesmerizing experience, and it will be a special treat to have it take place in the informal, intimate setting of our college's coffeehouse.

"I would urge both students and folks from the community to come and share in this unique opportunity to see a New York performance artist at the very top of his game."

Trachtenberg first performed "Though He Slay Me Yet Will I Trust In Him: A Meditation on Job" for a "night of artists doing sermons on an angry and cruel God." The piece was commissioned, and as he contemplated what he would do, Trachtenberg found himself inspired by the story of Job, with its powerful, beautiful poetry, he says. He also liked the immediacy of the story of Job.

"Much of the Bible tells us what happened long ago in the past, such as Genesis and Exodus," Trachtenberg explains. "Or it tells about what will happen, such as Revelations. Job is still happening. It's set in an unspecified time, and it's not sent in the timeline of the Bible's narratives.

"To me, Job corresponds most closely to the way the world seems to work."

Trachtenberg has been performing more than 10 years.

"I had written for a long time," he notes, adding wryly, "I probably just wanted attention."

On a serious note, Trachtenberg says there always seemed to be a divide between the way he wrote and way he spoke. He wanted to find a way to weave the two together, and saw performance as an appealing option.

"Performance is a way of being out there in the world," Trachtenberg explains. "There are certain things you do in a performance that you can't do in text."

Already well known for his writing

Trachtenberg already was well known for his text. The Washington Post has described Trachtenberg as "a genuine American Dostoevsky." He is the author of "Seven Tattoos: A Memoir in the Flesh," which has an intriguing story behind it.

"I didn't think the story of my life was inherently interesting," he says, adding that while the tattoos were the inspiration for the memoir, the book is not about being tattooed. "So I wrote a memoir structured around the seven tattoos I had at the time. I have more now.

"Each tattoo represented a theme, and I wrote about episodes from my life that represented the theme."

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