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Friday, March 8, 2013

Interview: Joseph Chaikin

Joe Chaikin and Sam Shepard

by Liz Diamond
At the time of this interview, Joseph Chaikin, renowned actor and theater director, was directing a revival of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven. Chaikin is best known as the founder of Open Theater, one of the most influential experimental theater groups in the United States. For nearly a decade Open Theater devoted itself to collaborative theatrical creations, producing 14 original works that dealt with essential problems of human existence; creation, death, growth, and change were just some of the vast subjects explored. Among the many honors Chaikin’s work has received are the Vernon Rice Award for Outstanding Contribution to the American Theater, six Obie Awards, including the first Lifetime Achievement Award in 1977, the National Endowment for the Arts First Annual Distinguished Service to the American Theater Award, and the Edwin Booth Award.

Chaikin began making theater as a small child while convalescing from rheumatic fever. Living far away from home for extended periods in a hospice for children with heart conditions was traumatizing and also, as Chaikin says, boring. The theater Chaikin created to console himself during this difficult period was, as it would be during subsequent times of crisis, lifesaving.

Chaikin moved to New York in 1955, where he began training as an actor. He was a rising young star in 1962 when he was cast in the role of Galy Gay in the Living Theater’s landmark production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mann Ist Mann. In his 1972 book, The Presence of the Actor, Chaikin credits this role (in which a humble dockworker is transformed into a killing machine) for shattering his complacency as an actor, leading him to begin questioning everything. The business of making theater in America began to disgust him. What had up to this point been a career Chaikin now began to see as a calling. In an effort to explore new ways of making theater, he gathered together a few friends and began a series of workshops, open-ended laboratories in which games, movement exercises and improvisations were employed to “express the inexpressible.” What were the expressive powers of the actor’s body beyond language? How could the American actor escape the grip of naturalism on training and performance? As Chaikin described it, the impulse was “to get away from talking.” Open Theater was born out of these workshops.

A key feature—and radical for the time—of the work of the Open Theater was the collaborative open-ended nature of its exploration. For the first two years of its existence, there were no Open Theater productions as such, just the occasional open rehearsal or workshop. The investigation of the actor as a totally expressive instrument—voice, body, movement, gesture—was another strikingly unique feature. And when Open Theater began to make shows, the creative process of the group was modeled more on the transformation of dance and music than on conventional theater practice. Open Theater’s first major production was The Serpent, a full-length work based on Bible stories that toured the US, Europe and Israel in the late ’60s and garnered many major awards. Terminal, a full-length play with text by Susan Yankowitz, grew out of an extended workshop on death and dying, and opened in France in 1969. The Mutation Show opened in 1971, to be followed by Nightwalk, an exploration of levels of sleep and awareness. Several writers, including Megan Terry, Jean Claude van Itallie and Sam Shepard contributed; it opened in New York in 1973, the last production of the Open Theater.

After disbanding the Open Theater in 1973, Chaikin continued to create theater pieces through his own workshops, but was also increasingly invited to perform in and direct larger-scale works.
In May 1984, in the middle of a heavy schedule of directing and performing, Chaikin underwent his third open heart surgery and suffered a severe stroke during the operation. The stroke left him severely aphasic. At first he was barely able to speak. As he described his feelings in a 1989 article in Hippocrates by Bernard Ohanian, Chaikin was “very very very . . . depressioned, depressing, depressed.” But within a year after the stroke, the theater again offered Chaikin a way out: his own radio performance of a piece created for him by Sam Shepard, The War in Heaven. Other projects rapidly followed, a production of The Bald Soprano at the Cubiculo Theater; Struck Dumb, a collaboration with his Open Theater colleague, Jean Claude van Itallie, based on Itallie’s interviews with Chaikin; and a theatrical production of The War in Heaven.

In the 15 years since the stroke, Chaikin has tirelessly worked to recover his ability to compose his thoughts into coherent speech, and the theater has provided the forum where he has wrestled with, through, and sometimes around words. His body of poststroke work, which, in addition to collaborations with van Itallie and Shepard, includes directing works by Susan Yankowitz, performances of works by Samuel Beckett, as well as the stagings of new plays and revivals, is a testimony to his undiminished appetite for creative work and for the lifesaving role of the theater in his life.

Yale Repertory Theatre, March 17, 1999
Present: Joseph Chaikin, Liz Diamond, Scott Robinson and Yale Repertory dramaturg Catherine Sheehy.

Liz Diamond What drew you to the theater as a child, and what continues to draw you?
Joseph Chaikin As a child, I wanted to be a fireman. As I grew older—from the radio—I became obsessed with theater. I am obsessed with theater still. I enjoy movies, but the stage is most important to me. When I first came to New York I studied acting with Nola Chilton, a very good coach. She had students from The Actors Studio, and was teaching Lee Strasberg’s method. Naturalistic stuff. I had ideas of my own about theater. So I created a workshop with no specific name, that later became Open Theater. Very important to find a name. I worked for a year with actors exploring ideas about character and movement.
Then we went to Rome to work on our play The Serpent; it was exciting to be doing a Bible story. After The Serpent I began to think about another subject, a new focus. When I was a child I had cardiac problems from rheumatic fevers. Breathing was a problem. The idea of dying was near. So for the next project I focused on dying. We worked on improvisations and exercises. I often go for the comic first, then find the serious side. The casting was difficult, 14 people and some were not so good. They were fired and we organized the show around six actors and music. Our play was Terminal, by Susan Yankowitz. The Mutation Show came next. That was fun; it had real humor. The actors were inspired, amazing—Tina (Shepard) and Paul (Zimet). We performed around Europe and Israel. But I began having breathing problems and felt I was dying again. Dying as a child, then again. So I wanted to get to the next play quickly, Nightwalk, the last Open Theater play. We had had ten years of touring and traveling around Europe, America, and the Middle East. Gordon Rogoff once said ten years is a growth period, then things begin to decline. I did not want that to happen. I ended the Open Theater. I also had difficulty breathing again, a major problem with my heart valve. Recovery was very slow, endless, one year in bed.

After that, I wanted to work with Sam Shepard. We wrote four plays together, Tongues, Savage/Love, The War in Heaven and When the World Was Green (A Chef’s Fable). And he is still my friend and colleague. I had met him years ago in New York. He was a waiter and I was an office temp. So we worked together and now Sam is almost finished with his new play, The Late Henry Moss, which I hope to direct. Another project was The Winter Project.

LD Yes, I saw that project at La Mama in New York in the early ’80s—Tourists and Refugees and the piece about open heart surgery, very good and very tough. Joseph, what led you to create the Open Theater? What did you see in theater that you thought you could change in the Open Theater?
JC I’m not crazy about naturalism on stage. An actor is an interpretive artist. They can take their talent further. I wanted them to stretch, be creative. Now, ironically, I am working on a naturalistic play, Tennessee Williams’s Glass Menagerie, but it is so beautiful—such a beautiful play—that I am happy to work with it.
LD I know you have been inspired by Bertolt Brecht. Who else has inspired you as a theater artist?
JC Peter Brook was my teacher in London and in Paris. And (Jerzy) Grotowski. He was not as inspiring for me, but he had so many ideas. He focused on the religious, and while I’m not crazy about the subject, he was a wonderful man, a very smart guy.

LD How different is it to make theater in the 1990s from what it was like to make it in the 1960s?
JC In Open Theater we were a workshop. We’d talk about ideas and then we’d work without talk, focused on voice, arms, legs, neck, and face-playing. And we tried many ideas, a wonderful group really.
LD So, with the Open Theater, you could explore an idea over a long period of time, but not necessarily with top talent at your disposal.
JC That’s right.
LD Now you have the talent, but how about the time for exploration?
JC Open Theater had a big loft. Big. No money, just what it took for the loft. Every month we had a party and sold wine and beer, and raised enough to pay the rent. And we all worked, as waiters or in office jobs. The theater was our focus. It was wonderful.
LD And that’s virtually impossible now for young people to do?
JC Yes. Yes.
Scott Robinson For anyone to do. Joe is working on a project now with a group of disabled people.
JC It’s been very important to me.
SR But it’s an endless search for space. And a lot of time has been taken up with fundraising. The entire schedule is based on when the grant money will come.
LD That’s the difference between the ’60s and the ’90s. But you’re nevertheless excited about the disabilities project—which I’ve heard you’ve been working on in various manifestations for a number of years?
Catherine Sheehy When they’re working in those improvisational environments—for instance, we did the remounting of Terminal—Joe gives them homework—things to think about, stories to bring in—and the writers are involved in that. Then Joe and the writer and whoever else is helping to shape the play will decide what form the stories will take and their order.
LD Among the many projects you’ve directed, do you have a favorite?
JC I’m happy with The Glass Menagerie. I’m not crazy about naturalism, but the play is gorgeous.
LD Tennesse Williams, in his introduction to The Glass Menagerie, talks about how he’s not interested in using projection, which he seemed to think was quite a revolutionary idea. The production I think of the most when I think of this play is Elia Kazan’s. Is your production taking the play further into the realm of memory? Is it more expressionistic? How would you describe it?
CS We decided we wouldn’t use slide projections. At this point the unconventional has become conventional, almost kitschy. When Joe talks to the actors, the Wingfield family members—Amanda, Laura and Tom—it is their memories that invade the play. The Gentleman Caller doesn’t have that “Remember when?” quality. Joe’s particularly interested in Amanda’s stories of when she was a girl in the Blue Mountains: “My gentleman callers were sons of planters, all of them.”
LD So it’s not just Tom’s memories? It’s Amanda’s and Laura’s?
CS We’ve been exploring those. Joe’s constantly asking them to think: When you were a girl… What’s it like to be a girl in the South? To think about everything: your shoes, your father, the fact that he’s gone—all that sort of thing. So there’s this visceral connection. But I think where the poetry of the language meets Joe’s poetry of staging is in the unconventional choices for the delivery of those memories, and the blocking. When you see the production, you’ll find that each character has their own special space. For Laura, it’s not just the menagerie, it’s also the phonograph, the records her father left her. And Joe is asking the actors to really use that phonograph. It’s placed in a very unconventional space for the stage, way up on stage left. Remember when Amanda tells the Gentleman Caller about her memory of being a girl? Joe wanted Laura Esterman, the actress who plays Amanda, to go behind the shed in her mind, to experience the wood on the back of the shed, what that reminds her of, the quality of life that’s now gone.
LD In rehearsals for Menagerie, have you employed workshop techniques? Physical exercises?
JC No.
LD Why not?
JC In the two projects that I hope for the future, the Older project and Disabled, there is much improvisation—no writing, just workshops. But in The Glass Menagerie, what’s most important are the words.
CS When Joe directs Menagerie, he’ll tell the actors, “You know, I couldn’t hear this word. It isn’t clear for the audience.” It’s almost like notes in a score. It gets this great quality when they work on it and work on it and work on it.
JC It’s lovely that way.

LD Every script is a score. I think the job is getting the actors to understand that.
JC Liz, do you enjoy directing?
LD What do I enjoy about directing? I think it’s playing with language in space. I love poetic language, and I love hearing it in a voice, and I also love seeing it embodied in a person. The chance to take a text, a piece of theatrical poetry and find the staging for that interests me so much. That’s one thing I felt when I first saw your work. I had no background in theater, I was just a kid, and I remember coming to La Mama to see this play about open heart surgery. Was it Gloria Foster?
JC Yes, she’s wonderful.
LD I remember the bed she lay in, the way she moved around, the way you moved her bed around the space. I felt that you had found a three-dimensional equivalent for the internal life of their spirit, and that’s exactly what I think directing is.
You’ve said you’d like to direct Macbeth or Medea. Why?
JC I do hope to direct both. Because they’re not nice and kind. They’re all fight and evils. It’s fun. (laughter)
LD Are there special qualities that you want your actors to bring to the work?
JC I want those little Beckett things.
CS I think the physicality that Joe asks of his actors is contrary to an actor’s instincts. The most successful interactions between Joe and actors happens when the actors are open to trying new things. Wayne Maugans, who plays Tom in The Glass Menagerie, has worked with Joe before on Sam Shepard’s Chicago at the Public and on Adrienne Kennedy’s A Movie Star has to Star in Black and White. Wayne and Joe understand each other and Wayne is really good at trying outlandish physical things which come so right when you see them in the context of the play.
LD Catherine, when you watch Joe work, does he show the actors physically what he wants or does he let them play?
CS First Joe says, “Can you change your voice? Can you show me some gestures?” Then he’ll get up and show them, he’s really good at that, and it’s hard to be good at that. It’s a combination. When Joe directs something he has this shorthand, he’ll say, “It’s too night club.” Yesterday he gave an interesting note. He was in the house and the actors were all sitting around, and he said it was too much. He said that 95 percent would be okay, but it was 100 percent and it was too much.
LD Peter Brook says there comes a point in rehearsal where you have to tell the actors to cut 95 percent. It’s great, but cut 95 percent. (laughter) Joe, what would you advise young actors as they begin their professional lives?
JC Jerzy Grotowski told me, “Discourage acting.” I discourage acting. Because so many people are “About me! I can act on film! On the stage! Or anything!” I said, “Jerzy, what about someone who is really extraordinary?” And he said, “Still, discourage acting. And then maybe find someone in there (hands to heart, opening palms) to keep, to support.”
LD Inside the actor?
JC Yes. Yes.

The Open Theatre by Joseph Chaikin 1964

The  Open  Theatre

(converted from .pdf file, some words may be off)

An  interview  with

joseph Chaikin is the director of The Open Theatre in New York, an experimental workshop founded in September, 1963. There have been two public performances by the theatre, the more recent in April, 1964. This fall The Open Theatre expanded its activities to include productions of plays by its own members and classics which Chaikin hopes the group can "provide with new illumination."

Question: What are the goals of your group?

Chaikin: To redefine the limits of the stage experience, or unfix them. To find ways of reaching each other and the audience. To encourage and inspire the playwrights who  work  with  us.  To find ways of presenting plays and improvisational programs with­ out the pressures of money, real estate, and other commercial con­ siderations which usurp creative energy. To develop the ensemble.

Question: Why did you start a workshop?

Chaikin: In order to explore problems I couldn't solve in playing or directing plays, or in classes. I studied with many teachers in New York and elsewhere and I remained in most of these classes a long time in order to advance my work as an actor. I wanted to teach a more eclectic technique than any taught me. I  didn't expect my "research" to be as confusing as it was.
Each teacher taught the Stanislavski System in his own way and
each assured his devoted students that they would find  "inner truth" only by subscribing to this or that specific method. Gen­ erally, the teaching broke down into four kinds.
I. The principle of objectives, actions, and obstacles. This very useful  technique  helps  the  actor  draw  from  his  character  and

circumstances (a) what his over-all objective in the play is, (b) what his dramatic action must be in order to achieve this objective, (c) what obstacles stand in his way. That is, he learns to create the dramatic collision which is at the center of every scene. Many ac­ tors, once they have mastered this vocabulary, respond to it with strength and clarity. But for others, the terms remain obscure and their  acting  inarticulate.
2.   Sensory attention, emotional recall, and introspection. Here
concentration and relaxation are emphasized. The  text is disre­ garded and the actor is urged to show only what he is feeling at the moment. Improvisations that seem like psychotherapy are freely used, as is self-hypnosis. Again, some actors grow with the work, but others move noticeably into a disturbing despondency, with less than skilled psychiatrists to cope with it. My professional ob­ jection to this training is that it prepares the actor to play alone­ he is completely locked out of any ensemble experience.
3.   Logical  analysis  of  the  text.  Every  moment  of  the  play  is
analyzed and scored in terms of the character, the situation, etc. And once the score is finished it remains fixed, regardless of the actor you are playing with, the director, the mood of the audience, etc.
4.   Inspiration. These teachers do not use direct criticism but
"inspire" the actor by stirring him with very articulate observa­ tions about the human condition and social and spiritual prob­ lems.
Each teacher maintained that  his  technique  was  suitable  for all material-contemporary and classic, every period and  all styles. They assured us that the only problem was to understand the approach and practice it steadily and faithfully. My biggest disappointment was in the smugness of all my teachers;  they ac­ cepted a predefined, but rarely stated, limitation on the art.
I've read all the Stanislavski books available in English and I can't separate his school-work from his theatre-work, his theory from his practice. He sought a freedom that none of the New York acting teachers seem to want, let alone work for. The New York classes accept naturalism as the touchstone of theatre (natu­ ralistic Aeschylus and Shakespeare, etc.) and Stanislavski's late work is as unknown to them as Freud's. Stanislavski was always developing his System, testing it against great plays and new ones, but our teachers have "arrived," and they never think of moving towards  something  new.
I haven't been able to reconcile the various approaches I studied.
I have learned only how not to teach acting.
The Open Theatre workshop doesn't try to make us better commodities. It is frustrating and boring to prepare an actor for the type-casting and general artlessness of the career which proba­ bly interests him most. What of us is for sale someone can buy, but certainly we're not going to trim ourselves for a market we despise. Workshop members support themselves  in  the  theatre, but meanwhile we are together as an ensemble, attempting  to widen what seems to be a very fixed vision of theatre.
There are actors, directors, playwrights, musicians, a chore­ ographer, and a visual artist in the workshop. We also have two critics-Gordon Rogoff and Richard Gilman-who assess our ses­ sions and talk to us about the relation between theatre theory and our experiments. All of the actors  have had  extensive  training with Method teachers (and I use the term advisedly) and some of us are still going to class. I can't imagine working with actors who don't have a Method background-such training, even when it's bad, helps an actor know how to use himself. But neither can I imagine working with actors who are content to stop with the Method.
We work on exercises using sounds and movement in "give-and­
take" rather than in words. When we do use words we try to understand the unexpressed  in the situation-not in a logical way, but rather through behavior's irrational and  more  fragile  quali­ ties. Inner truth is not a fixed thing. The word "reality" comes from the Latin res, which means "that which one can fathom." This challenge of the unspeakable in a natural situation may be that when a character is drinking water he is wondering if there is a God. When we locate the inside of a situation in its abstract and elusive texture we then try to make this thing visible. This is only one part  of  the work.
We have an exercise called "perfect people" in which we ex­ plore the advertising world's image of American personality. Madi­son  Avenue  creates  America,  you  know.  The  "perfect  people"
exercise is satiric, of course, and it helps us understand the stage as a weapon. We ask the questions, "What kind of country is it that is populated by 'perfect  people' talking about cigarettes, toilet paper, spaghetti sauce, detergents, and the thousands of other products we consume?" and "Who are these 'consumers'?" A night watching TV convinces us that they are "perfect peo­ ple"-and if these are the images of our aspirations, God help us. Nietzsche said, "Art is to make life endurable."

Generally, our character work is unusual. We do characters who
have the qualities of life or death, who are suspended or grounded; we play "states" and "things" as well as people. We want to know how to play Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, and the others who write about  the man  not in the street.
Question:  Do you  use  emotional  recall?
Chaikin: It's a good process to know, but not one to linger over. Every actor draws on his own life; very often such associations enrich performances. But we don't begin with a sharp personal remembered experience because that keeps the actor with his recollection rather than freeing him into the situation at hand. Often, in places where an emotional recall would work, we choose not to use it. We want to find different ways of working problems through-this choosing to find new ways is the premise of  our work.
Question: Do you use much equipment?
Chaikin: We  work without props, costumes, or scenery. They cost money. We have ourselves and we want to work with that. The visual artist in the group makes props for scenes that abso­ lutely demand them. It's not a pose, but a determination to make the actor do all he can do.
Question: Could you  describe  an evening at  the workshop?
Chaikin: Each meeting begins with a warm-up exercise that has come out of the work. This brings us  together. We don't want to be alone reflecting on our own problems. We want to work ourselves up to being together. After the warm-up we see what themes we've worked with need further exploration and what forms can best embody these themes. In other words, we try to make something theatrical  out of  something  abstract.

We have three playwrights who work with us, Jean-Claude van Itallie, Megan Terry, and Michael Smith. We  have  done  more than a dozen of their plays, some of them very short. Mr. van Itallie works directly with the actors, weaving his work into the context of theirs; the other writers regularly observe the workshop and bring us scripts from time to time. We have no rules about a playwright's involvement. It all depends on his interest in the particular problem we're working with at the moment. The main thing is for the writer to feel free, to have the same kind of op­ portunity for scope that we try to give the actors.

The  playwrights  suggest  forms  for  us-later  these  are  often
written out. These pieces are inspired by the actors' work. You see, there's a give-and-take. After the writer has suggested a form-! don't like "plot" because these things are often much simpler than a plot-we begin to improvise with them. We select what language to use. Very often this is a "language" of our own, sounds which communicate. It is very important to distinguish this language­ making from gibberish, which is a mere substitute for words.
  Sometimes we move in silence or use words or phrases, rather than connected sentences in a logical sequence. The mode of the lan­ guage depends on the form of the improvisation, its goals,  and our own warm-up. The choreographer may suggest a movement or a rhythm. We're always looking for non-conventional move­ ment and physical freedom.
After selecting the form, language, and movement, we may do
several exercises that  approach  the  problem  indirectly.  We're in no hurry. Sometimes we discuss the theme, but more often we do not, because the problem is theatrical and concerns the form, not its meaning. The theme may be sanity, old age, death, the experience of living, a social theme, communication, or the world of illusion and mystery. When we do discuss it, it is very important that everyone, including the writers, talk non-cynically. We aren't afraid of ideas and means that are naive and primitive. Once we can speak without false sophistication we're ready to work directly on the theme, to experiment until we find its precise theatrical expression.
This summer we worked on "the fool." The fool is an interest­
ing problem. He is someone who lives in the moment, ostracized from all societies, amoral, and consistently bewildered and in awe
of being alive. We haven't finished working on the fool yet and it is very stimulating to discover his architecture, his dynamics, and his relationship to each of us. We are also working on dream scenes, trying to understand that fantastic life that Artaud spoke of. Here is where our work diverges most clearly from Stanislavski. We're interested in a theatre of illusion and mystery, not one of behavior­ istic psychology. The character determines us, we don't determine it; the life leads us, we don't lead it. I can't describe these exer­ cises-every one leads to ten others and the work is embodied in our mistakes, discussions, thoughts, and discoveries. Not a small part of the emphasis is to experience the theatre as a celebration. Of what? That depends on the moment and where it leads us.

One of  the wonderful  things  is  that  we're willing  to fail;  it
helps us go beyond the safe limits and become adventurers. This quality comes to a group only when each person trusts the other. It is never possible among actors who are together only for a single show. When we lose this trust, the workshop will die. The creative impulse can't grow in a climate of competition (like auditions) where it is necessary to prove one's value. Nor can acting classes whose purpose is to groom the actor for hiring take the time or be audacious enough to experiment with what the teacher doesn't know. But working with the "don't know's" is perhaps more impor­ tant than teaching the "know's."
Question: What did you learn from The Living Theatre?
Chaikin: The Living Theatre has been the most ambitious and daring thing in New York. I admire the Becks' fanatic devotion to their theatre. But I don't think they ever explored sufficiently the actor's own powers and the ensemble experience.
I can't tell you what I learned from the Becks. Everyone else talks, the Becks  do. They are content with nothing less than a life of total participation and their bravery is unmatched. Some­ how their lives and work and hopes are joined in a single thing. This is what's unique and inspiring  about  them,  particularly here in New York where the theatre is a desperate business of lonely, grasping individuals. The Becks left that scene long ago and tried to shatter the isolation. They understand their own loneliness,  while  most  theatre  people  are  too  absorbed  in  the
machinery of the theatre-living on its surface like a grade B movie-even to know  the depth of their own despair. The Becks express the nightmare within them; there is no gap between their life and their work. That's marvelous.

Question: Could your actors perform Shakespeare, the Greeks, Chekhov, etc.?

Chaikin: Some of them-but that has little to do with the work­ shop. Our work is more helpful in understanding  the abstract theatre of Beckett, Genet, and Ionesco, and the social theatre of Brecht or Joan Littlewood.
Question: What are your hopes, your plans?

Chaikin: We want  to  start  another  workshop,  invttmg  people to discuss and demonstrate their work; we want to produce plays written for us. It's hard to keep a group together, and we all know how perilously easy it would be to end our just-beginning efforts. But I think we'll stay together.

Even if we were to melt away before this is printed, I think we would have already unfixed what previously seemed almost immovable in our work. Somehow, our minds are stirred. The movies have come such a distance in understanding their art and broadening it, while the stage remains stuck in the thirties. But everything-including impenetrable audiences-is changing, and the old work is no longer enough. If Stanislavski were alive, would he be working in the same way, or would he be exploring? The obvious answer is the challenge of his example our theatre rarely meets.

Questions prepared   by  RICHARD  SCHECHNER

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