Professor Ward Regan sits at the edge of a low sofa chair in the center of a high-ceiling studio apartment on the Upper West Side, dwarfed by shelves upon shelves of books and surrounded by the scent of incense that burned out two hours ago.
His small and focused eyes look out from behind bronze-framed glasses, and the ridge of his nose is straight and curves slightly up at the tip. The 40-year-old has a small frame but muscular build with a 5 o’clock shadow and ash brown hair that stands straight up on his head, as though permanently electrified by a galvanizing idea. He’s wearing an old T-shirt and the same cargo pants he wore a few days earlier that week when he taught his NYU undergraduate class. And although he has a show to perform the following night, he probably won’t prepare for it.
He knows the topic of his performance and the dramatic way he’ll deliver it, inside and out. For Regan, the teaching style he’s developed at NYU isn’t all that different from theater.
“I prepared as if I was giving a lecture about the American Revolution,” says Regan about the first time he did the show last year.
Regan teaches history, but his goal is making students suspicious of the way events are fed to them either through history books or present-day media. A few days earlier, during an NYU class with about twenty 19- to 21-year-olds, Regan asked that they pass around a laptop opened to Salon.com. That day, the website had released new pictures of prisoner abuse from Abu Ghraib. The lesson plan for that hour-and-a-half class included understanding Marx as a revolutionary persona. Regan then asked the students what the difference between a terrorist and a revolutionary was, so they could see, as he says, that it was a matter of perspective.
“The show grew directly out of my teaching,” says Regan, before rising quickly from his chair to show some pamphlets made specifically for the performance. The studio he now lives in was bought some 16 years ago, with the help of his mother. It’s an asset for him today since he’s spent his professional life in academia, not earning a lot of money.
His kitchen—a refrigerator, sink and small burner stove—is lined up against one wall. The shelf above it displays the usual student cuisine basics: protein shake powder, peanut butter and an opened box of pasta. He sleeps in a loft 9 feet off the ground, suspended between two walls of the room like a corner web. The pamphlets are tucked somewhere by his desk under the loft.
He pulls out a pamphlet with the name of the free show that he is putting on: A Paranoid’s Guide to History. The pamphlet has some of the same images you see in airplane safety brochures, except the content outlines various ways to deconstruct history, to look at what you’ve been taught with suspicion.
“[Punk] is my aesthetic [to the show],” says Regan, explaining that he and his friends make the pamphlets, not some marketing company. He mentions that The Clash is his favorite band.
In part, Regan has decided to go on stage just for the fun of it. “What else am I going to be doing with my time?” he asks. But there’s a more serious answer to why he’s doing the show.
“As a teacher I have a particular skill that I can bring out of the classroom and that’s good,” says Regan. “We need to have the educational discourse take place other than in very expensive classrooms.” So far Regan only has another two shows planned—on March 24 and March 31 at Barbès, a jazz bar in Park Slope—but if it goes well, he wants to make it a monthly performance.
Ward grew up in Garden City, Long Island, in a home paid for by the Episcopalian Church. His father ministered the tall, gothic church down the street, but he committed suicide when Regan was 12.
Education was very important in the family, and it still is to Ward today, although not necessarily in the sense of good grades. In fact, up until Ward entered fifth grade, a psychologist at his well-heeled public high school considered him a violent psychotic for his seemingly inattentive and irreverent behavior. It turned out Ward had a problem with his eyes, which led him to have difficulty focusing and processing information. He fixed it and immediately excelled in school, making his mother so happy she cried.
He knew from junior high that he wanted to be a teacher. He obtained his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate from NYU. The dean of the general studies program, Fred Schwarzbach, says, “I think what is most remarkable about Ward is here he is a feature in the landscape. He was a student, then an adjunct, now a full-time professor. I think for many of colleagues there hasn’t been a time where he hasn’t been around.”
Before Regan starts the show inside Barbès, he’s waiting for enough people to arrive. Regan is chatting with the musicians in the act that follows his performance. Vanessa Gould, a documentary filmmaker and Regan’s girlfriend of five years, is trying to explain Regan’s relationship to the show. Whenever she sees him working, he’s also on the phone, constantly checking the Internet for news updates, watching Seinfeld and listening to bebop jazz on Sky radio.
“It almost seems like that’s the only way he can concentrate,” says Gould, 34. “I think because there’s a constant monologue in his head. His mind is never quiet. And that’s what you’re going to hear tonight.”
Regan goes up to the microphone, wearing a white button-down shirt rolled to the elbows, a tie, a vest and khaki pants. He tells the small crowd of around 15 that he is visiting them on behalf of a think tank institute. He introduces a man to his left seated on a stool as a Russian there to supervise the talk and the information doled out. He introduces the piano player, a man with crooked posture and a mop of gray hair on his head, whose back remains to the audience.
The show will “examine the human condition (aka life) from a deeply suspicious perspective.” The piano begins and Regan raises his voice over it to say, “The general topic explored here is why should we be paranoid. In today’s political environment, this really isn’t hard.”
Behind him is a large pull-down screen and a video is projected onto it. The lecture is on the American Revolution, but it’s from the perspective of what the British must have thought of the Founding Fathers.
The projected images constantly change and last no longer than a couple of seconds before moving to the next. They range from shots of men in white wigs from the Revolutionary War, to clips from modern nightly news.
Regan is speaking so quickly and in such complexity that it is impossible for me to get a quote down from him. Meanwhile, the piano cycles from loud to louder and from familiar childhood tunes, such as “When You Wish Upon a Star,” to rigorously classical pieces. The piano is suddenly being played so passionately that Regan is almost shouting.
Regan practically bends over the microphone, trying to get the maximum amount of words out in one breath. The disparate images projected on the screen behind him are flashing rapidly. The scene starts to look like something from the original version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: when Gene Wilder takes the factory guests on the boat through the tunnel, and the jarring images and sounds make the children and parents scream to make it all stop!
Regan finishes his monologue on stage, and opens the floor for questions about anything: from historic facts of the American Revolution, to details on the latest on Eliot Spitzer’s affair with a prostitute.
A man in a long, black cape raises his hand. “Talk more about Spitzer, can you?”
And Regan is off, explaining the way Spitzer was caught. But he doesn’t leave it at that. Regan adds, “What I want to know is if all the Halliburton and Citibank guys that were also part of that ring are now also going to resign.”
The crowd isn’t sure how to react. After the show, one man has to think for a while about whether he liked it. “I’m not sure yet,” he says.
An NYU student from Regan’s class has come to hear the show. He says the show is very similar to what Regan talks about in class.
“Except it’s at a bar, so maybe a bit more relaxing,” says Manish Melwani, 21. He adds, “I enjoy the class, I enjoy the show.”
As Melwani wanders out toward the exit, Regan catches up with him.
“Sound familiar?” Regan asks.
“Yeah, definitely!” says Melwani, sounding encouraging.
Melwani leaves behind the sounds of the bar and steps out into the winter night. Regan follows soon afterward and stands with friends smoking a celebratory cigarette, the exhaled smoke visible in the cold night under the bar lamp.
Melwani has his head slightly down and seems lost in thought as he walks up the street to the subway alone to ride it all the way back to Manhattan.