Into the Storm

Written by Jenna Schnuer, Photo by Maria Baranova at Abrons Arts Center

David Neumann
Avant-garde theatre tends to attract rule breakers. For David Neumann (theatre), the founder and artistic director of Advanced Beginner Group, a multidisciplinary dance troupe, breaking the rules meant smashing the old chestnut that says kids should resist joining the family business.

Neumann’s father, Frederick, was a member of the influential Mabou Mines theatre company and a well-known interpreter of Beckett. (The playwright regularly implored him, “Please, no music, Freddy.”)

Neumann’s mother, Honora Fergusson, was a comedian both in her theatre work (also as a member of Mabou Mines) and at home. “She could slay you,” Neumann recalls.

After both his parents passed away around the time of Hurricane Sandy—his mother before the storm, from pulmonary disease, and his father after, following a long dance with dementia—Neumann had a revelation.

“I realized that the culture didn’t prepare me somehow, or I didn’t prepare myself, to deal with watching someone die, let alone deal with the logistics of taking care of someone,” Neumann says. “I didn’t find examples in the plays I was reading or books I’d read. There’s plenty of death in novels and understanding of what grief is, but for me it was a deeply shocking experience, both wonderful and terrifying—and deeply, deeply sad. And it was also my parents, so it was very potent. I was very close with both of them.”

That fueled Neumann’s desire to talk about dying, not death.

“I realized that the culture didn’t prepare me somehow, or I didn’t prepare myself, to deal with watching someone die.” …”

Reflecting back on his father’s last days, he thought about what was happening outside his father’s room: Hurricane Sandy was barreling down on the East Coast, and TV weather reporters were heading out into the wind to do their jobs. “I thought, what a stupid impulse,” Neumann recalls. “We could point a camera out the window.” Then he realized he had the perfect framework for his next performance piece.

“I couldn’t help but draw a correlation between the two things,” Neumann says. “Here’s the reporting on this oncoming, unknown, dangerous thing. There’s an excitement here. That’s an interesting aspect to dying. There’s an adventure to it, an internal one. I knew that my dad wanted to be present for his own death.”

The result: I Understand Everything Better, a theatre piece that is, in Neumann’s words, “saturated with dance.” The powerful work, currently on tour, won the New York Dance and Performance Award (aka the “Bessie”) for outstanding production, as well as critical praise.

Though the piece is intensely personal—Neumann returned to the stage for I Understand after years of focusing on directing—he made sure the performance would speak to the universal.

“Everybody has to go through something like this,” he says of his parents’ deaths. Of the performance they inspired, he says, “I wanted it to be celebratory of the ideas of what is the consciousness of dying—of both the person who is dying and everybody else around the dying person.”