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University of Iowa News Release

May 3, 2006

Festival Play Benefits From Unanticipated Resource

Creating a new play is difficult enough, but creating a play based on the lives of real people and true events in the past is an even more daunting task. Chris Leyva's "All Grace," performed at 5:30 and 9 p.m. Friday, May 5, in the Iowa New Play Festival, is based on the true story of Jewish sculptor Jacques Lipchitz (left) creating a statue of the Virgin Mary for a Catholic church in the Alps.

Leyva read what Lipchitz wrote, of course, and consulted the historical sources. "I undertook a massive amount of research, poring through biographies and art books, and in my search, I found a wealth of dramatic material," he explains. "The play was there. I just had to find it." And then an unexpected resource became available.

"By a stroke of luck, I found that Lipchitz' daughter lived in Iowa," Leyva says. "I couldn't let this opportunity go by, so I wrote a quick letter and hoped for the best. I ended up having coffee with her and she was very generous and open about her father.

"One thing that stuck with me was her father's feeling that creating sculpture was a spiritual experience. He experienced the process as becoming connected to all peoples, connected to a higher spirit of humanity through the act of creation. She said he was so in tune with this 'spirit' that he claimed to be able to tell whether a work of art was authentic or a fake by sensing the artist's emotions and joy of creation from within the work."

She also loaned Leyva a video, which included interviews and scenes of her father at work. "In the video that Ms. Lipchitz loaned me, I watched his eyes intensely focused on the clay, listened to the joy in his voice and witnessed the energy and scope of his monuments."

Once rehearsals began, Ms. Lipchitz agreed to meet with the cast members. "We spent three hours with her, listening to her stories, some of which she hadn't thought about in years. She provided the actors with a multitude of information, which they continued to explore in the rehearsal room."

Since Leyva was intent on capturing, as far as was possible, the spirit of the artist, he was anxious to obtain his daughter's assessment. "I told Ms. Lipchitz that I wanted to be true to the spirit of her father even if I had to change some of the facts," he says. "When she finally read the play, she wrote to me, 'I was very moved by what you have written and how you wove the different themes together! I was truly stunned by how you, a young man in his 20s from the southwest, could have the insight and intuition about the important struggles in my father's life. It amazes me."

Her words were not only gratifying, but they also recalled the artist's own words, spoken in the opening moments of the video, words that grabbed Leyva the first time he heard them: "My business is also to move you. Do I move you, yes or no? If I move you, you have to be satisfied."

Jacques Lipchitz was born Chaim Jacob Lipchitz in Druskininkai, Lithuania, and was creating sculptures even before he knew what he was doing had a name. Because of the persecution of Jews in Russia, Lipchitz moved to Paris at the age of 18 in order to study his art. It was there, in the artistic culture of Paris, that he joined a group of artists that included Juan Gris, Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani.

Living in this environment, Lipchitz soon began to create cubist sculptures. Later he developed a more dynamic style, which he applied with telling effect to bronze figure and animal compositions.

With the German occupation of France during World War II, and the deportation of Jews to the Nazi death camps, he was forced to flee France to the United States, where he settled in New York City.

It was there in New York that Father Marie-Alain (Pierre) Couturier of Notre Dame de Toute Grace (Our Lady of All Grace) met with Lipchitz and asked him to create a statue of the Virgin Mary. Lipchitz is said to have responded, "Do you know that I'm a Jew?" To which the priest responded, "If it doesn't bother you, it doesn't bother us."

The church was built beginning in the late 1930's for the town of Plateau d' Assy, high in the Alps, to serve the large number of Catholic patients in the nearby tuberculosis sanatoriums. Father Couturier was the priest charged with the church's decoration, and he sought to fill the church with the work of "Modern Masters," even looking to artists who were considered outsiders to the Catholic faith.

Many Church leaders, including Pope Pius XII, were incensed by Couturier's claims that he could find truth from the work of atheists and outsiders of the Catholic Church. In defense of his actions, Couturier quoted St. Augustine, "Many are outside who believe themselves to be within, and many are within who believe themselves to be without."

While on the New York City subway in 1948, Lipchitz had a "vision." He was so moved by this "vision" that he immediately took out an address book (the only paper in his pocket) and sketched what would become the basic foundation of the sculpture of the Virgin he would create for Notre Dame de Toute Grace.

"That was the moment that spoke the most to me," Leyva says. "There was something about a 'miracle' taking place in the New York City subway that spoke to the heart of the play. Sacredness surrounds us.

"Reading about Lipchitz' life, I was continually surprised and amazed. I have found a mentor. He has led me to writing this play, and his influence is still leading me to a new understanding about myself as an artist."

The Iowa New Play Festival, a tradition unique in American collegiate theater, will present a dozen new scripts from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop in productions and readings May 1-6 in the University of Iowa Theatre Building. The UI Department of Theatre Arts concludes each spring semester by dedicating all its resources -- acting, directing, design, stage management and technical -- to an intense and event-packed festival that offers student playwrights the productions and feedback that are essential for their development and offers audiences an opportunity to participate in the creation of significant new American theater at the ground level.

A new play, written by a student in the Master of Fine Arts program in playwriting, will be premiered each evening of the 2006 festival, with performances at 5:30 and 9 p.m. (7:30 p.m. on Wednesday). The daytime features readings in Room 172.

Tickets for all the evening productions -- $6 for the general public and $4 for UI students, senior citizens and youth -- will be on sale one hour before each of the performances. May 1-6, and tickets will also be on sale noon to 1:30 p.m. through Friday of festival week at the Theatre Building box office.

The Department of Theatre Arts is a unit of the Division of Performing Arts in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

For UI arts information and calendar updates, visit http://www.uiowa.edu/artsiowa. To receive UI arts news by e-mail, ur-acr@uiowa.edu.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Arts Center Relations, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 351, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Winston Barclay, 319-384-0073, winston-barclay@uiowa.edu