Weller honored at Creative Arts Award Ceremony, speaks with Tom Doherty

January 26, 2018

Brandeis honored Michael Weller ’65 with the Creative Arts Award, which recognizes excellence in the arts, at a ceremony Tuesday, Jan. 23 in the faculty club. The ceremony focused on Weller’s accomplishments in theater and the arts, with remarks by President Liebowitz, Professor Gannit Ankori (CA) and Weller himself.

The next day Weller spoke briefly in a smaller setting with Professor Thomas Doherty (AMST) regarding his life in theater and his plays, “Hair,” “Buyer Beware” and “Jericho.”

The three hour ceremony followed the difficulties surrounding Weller’s work, “Buyer Beware,” a play commissioned when Weller was named the 2017 recipient of the award.

Liebowitz’s remarks included an apology for the circumstances. Weller’s remarks focused on the play and were written as a conversation between himself and Lenny Bruce, a provocative comedian whose archives are hosted by Brandeis University’s Farber Library.

The theater department was originally set to produce “Buyer Beware,” but after some students objected to the language and treatment of minority characters in a draft script, Brandeis later announced the play would be produced along with a class on provocative art. After difficulty coordinating with the administration and student objections, however, Weller decided to withdraw his work.

The Brandeis Creative Arts Award was established in 1956 and is supported by the Poses Institute of the Arts. The award was given out every year until 1994, when it became an annual residency for artists given out by the Poses Institute of the Arts. It returned as a yearly award in 2015. Well known recipients of the award include Georgia O’Keeffe, Buckminster Fuller and Charlie Chaplin.

Gannit Ankori, head of the division of creative arts, began the event by thanking the attendees and introducing a short video tribute to Weller. The video described Weller’s beginnings at Brandeis, containing clips of interviews and comments on two of Weller’s more famous productions, “Moonchildren” and “Hair.”

Many department and division heads were in attendance as well as Provost Lisa Lynch, Dean Susan Brown, Brandeis’ alumni, members of the Board of Trustees, members of the Student Union, student press and students from a new creative arts class, Provocative Art: Outside the Comfort Zone, who participated in a class lottery to gain admission.

Liebowitz presented Weller with the Creative Arts Award and a small bronze medal. He delivered a short speech that acknowledged and again apologized for the complications with Weller’s play “Buyer Beware.” It focused on interpreting the circumstances as a learning opportunity for the university, mentioning the new class that is currently being taught on provocative art and the issues “Buyer Beware” raised.

“The road leading to this celebratory climax has been a bumpy one, it unfolded like a Michael Weller drama—riddled with miscommunication and pain; but also a desire to heal breached and tumultuous relationships and to find a positive path forward,” Liebowitz said.

He continued, “We regret the unfortunate events and apologize once again, Michael…There is no ‘silver lining’ when people get hurt and misunderstandings abound. However, many members of our community realized that this truly difficult predicament must be seized and transformed into a significant educational opportunity.”

Weller then took the stage to give a speech amidst a standing ovation. He introduced his speech by marking the reservations he had with the ceremony, and said he was “unsure of what to say.” Weller then described a narrative where, earlier before the ceremony, he had visited the Lenny Bruce Archives and was greeted by a vision of Lenny Bruce himself.

Weller continued his speech by describing the conversation between himself and Lenny Bruce where Bruce asked Weller about “Buyer Beware,” and Bruce’s part in the play. In the story, Weller explains to Bruce that the production was shut down, causing Bruce to become shocked and sad that the students and administration didn’t like his material but also concerned that his goal “to offend them and to challenge them” was misconstrued. Weller mentioned the possible production of a miniseries based on “Buyer Beware,” which is unconfirmed.

Following the initial distribution of a draft of the play, Andrew Child ’18, a Undergraduate Departmental Representative (UDR) for the theater department, opposed the play based on how it portrayed racial minorities and its use of profane language. Child criticized the play, saying it hides behind Lenny Bruce and uses his name “as a trigger word. I think Lenny Bruce is in there as a scapegoat,” he said in a November interview with The Brandeis Hoot.

Weller also made a commentary through the narrative about modern culture, telling those in attendance to “beware the virtue cops.” When Weller was a child, he said, children would play “cowboys and Indians” in their backyards. Now, he wondered to Bruce in the story, do children play “cowboys and Native Americans?”.

As the imaginary conversation between Weller and Bruce continued, Weller explained to Bruce the purpose of his play. “I wrote a play to celebrate you,” Weller said to an imagined Bruce, “To put issues on display with a scalpel and a laugh…Truth unto its innermost parts and all that,” said Weller, invoking the Brandeis University motto. He continued, “[They] couldn’t handle the gift I wrote for them.”

Weller concluded the narrative by having the imagined Bruce take his pen, and write a final remark on a twice folded piece of paper that Weller was to read out at the award ceremony.
Weller prefaced his final remark by saying that it was written by Bruce, and he had no idea of its contents. Weller finished his speech by opening up the twice folded piece of paper and reading out, “I’m honored, thank you.”

The event concluded with a Lydian string quartet introduced by Marker Berger, chair of the music department. Liebowitz offered a final toast to Weller.

Weller returned the next day to speak with Professor Thomas Doherty (AMST) in the Hassenfeld Conference center. They discussed Weller’s beginnings at Brandeis, his work on “Hair,” the dangers of social media, and “Buyer Beware.” The hour long event drew a crowd of about 30 people. Weller described his natural aptitude for writing dialogue and how his theater professor at Brandeis, John Matthews, cultivated his passion for theater.

Weller also recounted some of his experiences at Brandeis, and concluded by commenting again on “Buyer Beware,” saying, “I’m very sorry it didn’t happen. I think it would’ve been terrific if it had been done. I would’ve liked to have seen it done here.”

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