CHRISTIAN SCHEIDER: The Philosophy of Art

For both the plays and films, he tries to address “a hypocrisy, a paradox. a frustration, a social ill that I believe is still being discussed.”
Christian Scheider is offering several programs at the Amagansett and John Jermain libraries this winter. Jennifer Landes

   There are some unique and thought-provoking offerings this winter at the Amagansett and John Jermain Libraries and we have a native son to thank for it. Christian Scheider has just made the dead of winter here a bit more interesting.
    When he settled down in Brooklyn after graduating from Bard College in June, Mr. Scheider didn’t think he would find his way back to the South Fork so quickly. He was acting at the Stella Adler School and collaborating with friends on various plays and projects. But his mother, Brenda Siemer, had decided to move to Vermont and his sister, Molly, wanted to stay here, so he agreed to come back to Sag Harbor and keep an eye on her while she finished her senior year in high school.
    Casting about for a way to stay busy, he came upon the idea for a series of events. At Amagansett, he proposed and is now doing two weekly programs, a film series on Sundays at 1 p.m. and a set of discussions based on the book “Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights” on Thursdays at 1 p.m., through next week. At John Jermain in Sag Harbor, he will begin a series on jazz and the biographies of four artists: Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, and Duke Ellington, on Jan. 28 for four Mondays at 5:30 p.m.
    “I was coming out of the New York City theater headspace . . . and wanted to keep myself engaged like I was in New York. This is basically what I would be doing anyway,” he said on Friday.
    The film series, “The Claustrophobia of Wealth,” has already screened “Grey Gardens” and “Bernie” and will continue with “Margin Call” this week and “Being There” next week. Each film is followed by a discussion led by Mr. Scheider, who was a philosophy major at Bard. His senior project focused on the function of art in society from a philosophical standpoint.
    “I am completely obsessed with art-making and the communal experience that is art,” he said. “What moves us and what is the function of art in the world.” With millions being spent on plays, music, and films, “anything that has that much power must be connected with a function.”
    Mr. Scheider credits his years at Hayground, a school his theatrical parents (Ms. Siemer and Roy Scheider, who died in 2008) helped found, with his openness to the artistic pursuit and “the faith to have an interesting idea.” The idea led him to a thesis about the social and biological function of art, how it can help people address things they find inhospitable or difficult.
    For the film series, he wanted to approach the role of “the individual in film the way I approach Nietzsche.” Although film has gained more respect in academia, “Many, many people in the humanities department still write off film as a tangential art form.” But film, whether adapted from literature or through an original screenplay such as Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, N.Y.,” can be deeply philosophical, according to Mr. Scheider. “There are great artists writing films, and they should be celebrated the way we celebrate Edward Albee and Arthur Miller. . . . I like to treat them as texts,” he said.
    He also likes to “treat great texts as great texts” and the result is the Stella Adler series. The book grew out of transcripts of her classes. “We read Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, and Thornton Wilder through Stella’s performative lens, we read as an actor would.” For example, in his own attempts to perform works by Williams, Mr. Scheider noted that the playwright demands “empathy and historical awareness of the time” as well as “the imagination to see the character’s movements through that time.”
    With some in his audience holding advanced degrees and at least one who’d seen Marlon Brando on Broadway in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” on opening night, he said his role is more as a facilitator in the discussions.
    For both the plays and films, he tries to address “a hypocrisy, a paradox. a frustration,  a social ill that I believe is still being discussed.” Wilder’s “Skin of Our Teeth” in the Adler book, which was “ahead of its time in how it satirized human attempts to be here forever,” is a good launching point for a discussion of global warming, Mr. Scheider said, adding that the parallels between Chauncey Gardiner in “Being There” and Sarah Palin are also instructive. Recent films like “Bernie,” about small-town Texas rural life, “remind us that our notions of justice dissolve the minute we know the person and he seems like a nice guy.”
    The jazz series comes from his own elective coursework in composing and a father who was passionate about the genre. “At home, my father would scream down the staircase: ‘Christian, get up here!’ I would sprint up the staircase thinking he’d split open his knee, but it was ‘West End Blues’ on the radio. He treated it like it was the only time I was ever going to hear it.” The same passion could be had for a great film on a Saturday. Hayground, too, fostered the same devotion and energy to art during his formative years, he said.
    Although he acted as a child in Shakespeare plays put on by Hayground, “I never in a million years thought I would  have gone on a stage. That was what Dad did. But when he died, I found myself suddenly very curious about why he felt so strongly about what he made and why he felt it was so important.”
    Mr. Scheider was always interested in acting as an observer, he said, but it took this “investigative interest” to push him to sign up for a speaking-Shakespeare class and to go to auditions. “It gave me courage to try, that feeling that at some point, in all likelihood, it was a choice my father made and he had no support for it.”
    The elder Scheider, who worked at his family’s service station in New Jersey every weekend as a child, grew up in a world where “talking about Shakespeare was considered a waste of time. I realized I have a duty to just run with that gift that he gave me, to not be embarrassed to be involved in the arts and to advocate for them.”
    He is currently working on two plays. “William Shakespeare’s Mom” by Milo Cramer and directed by Morgan Green, is at the Brick Theater in Brooklyn, where he is “acting via Skype,” as a venture capitalist, through Jan. 26. He describes it as a “comedy about a young artist recently graduated from college feeling like he doesn’t know if he’ll make anything valuable, and his name happens to be William Shakespeare.” In August, he is participating in an adaptation of the Ray Bradbury story “The Murderer,” by Tucker Marder, at the Sag Harbor Cinema. “Expect to see the destruction of technology on stage in real time,” he said, with no small degree of the dramatic in his description.
    Here and now, there is still plenty of time to take in the two libraries’ programs, where one can share Mr. Scheider’s passions for acting, filmmaking, and music during the South Fork’s bleakest days of winter.