The Chairs Are Where People Go: How To Live, Work, and Play in the City
By Misha Glouberman with Sheila Heti
Faber and Faber
Reviewed by Cara Woodruff
Excerpt to be featured in PRISM international 50:1
“There’s a thoughtlessness in how people consider their audience that’s reflected in how they set up chairs […] you have to think about where you put your chairs.” Sheila Heti’s collaboration with her close friend Misha Glouberman contains 72 kitchen table chats, though Heti absents herself after the introduction. As she says, she’d always wanted to write a book about him “in all his specificity.” Raconteur and polymath, Glouberman talks life like your wisest, kindest and funniest friend channeling your eccentric uncle. Intimate and engaging, Glouberman’s thoughts run from philosophy, attending Harvard, theatre with homeless people, experimental music classes, charades and improv workshops to dealing with city councils. It sounds aimless but it’s not. It’s about interacting with people in an authentic and respectful and playful way. And his voice is engaging and the prose clean.
One through line is the impact of gentrification on Toronto’s multi-ethnic neighbourhoods, where Heti and Glouberman live and work. Nightclubs intrude with noise. Trendy restaurants replace neighbourhood grocers. Privileged hipsters impose a particular aesthetic on city planning, so that living neighbourhoods become bohemian entertainment destinations. Glouberman counters this aesthetic and values—which he readily admits to sharing—with his empathy for people such as his Polish, Jewish grandmother, who, born in a shtetl and educated to Grade Five, wanted order and beauty in a city.
He cares a whole lot about how we live together. Mostly he’s concerned that people meet face to face and interact honestly. And the way he likes to do this is through teaching imrov classes, but not to actors; and teaching experimental music classes, but not to musicians. He uses games to help people access different parts of themselves and others: “All these games need to be played properly—you need to figure out how to take pleasure in having limited control of what happens […] The best thing is to have an intention, but also be open to surprise.” At the core of his artistic projects is a desire to bust stale and elitist modes of communication.
Building on his comment about considerate chair placement, Glouberman points out the discord between structure and intention in many of our institutions. His alma mater, Harvard, for example, an institution meant to broaden the best and brightest minds, cuts itself off completely from life’s regular transactions. Students are required to live on campus and never really interact with anyone other than people just like themselves. Similarly absurd, he says, is the way conferences are structured around panel discussions and experts reading papers. It’s mind numbingly dull and completely anti-creative, yet conferences happen this way all the time. He and his friends responded by organizing successful anti-conferences. One of these brought together a bunch of immigrants with “Ph.D.s who are driving taxicabs and medical doctors who are working as security guards, and architects who are working as building superintendents.” He had them group themselves according to country and then profession: “this was the first time in ten years that they’d been able to stand with architects and identify as an architect, or stand with a group of doctors and be identified as a doctor.” Again and again Glouberman returns to his philosophy of authentic engagement with others.
Visit your parents once a week, wear a suit to quit smoking, increase your tolerance for uncertainty, and don’t identify as “the poor” just because you’re an artist or writer in Canada suggests Glouberman. It’s no leap to imagine him wandering around Toronto “in a wrinkled suit,” (as he’s often described in the press) with his big heart, worrying about things and coming up with reasonable solutions to all our problems. It’s certainly a pleasure to spend a few hours with Misha Glouberman now that Sheila Heti has introduced him to us.