Friday, July 24, 2015


in order to escape all this mind-squashing tech stuff, I’m reading “The Circle Repertory Company: The First Fifteen Years” by Mary S. Ryzuk  .  I’m embarrassed to have discovered this book so late, because I went to undergrad school with half of the group of four who started this company, which is the kind of group one calls “seminal,” because they can begin new gestations.  (That’s a metaphor, kids.)

The theatre department was a sub-group of the School of Speech at NU, the Class of 1961 was a sub-group of that, and Marshall Mason and Richard Thirkield were part of a tight elite related to Alvina Krause and her summer repertory at Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania.  I was the cat.  I mean, I made the cat’s choice -- to sit and watch -- and no one paid much attention to me.  I made costumes and stuff like that.

Wilson, Nelson, and Mason

At the time there seemed to be three possible contexts for theatre people: Hollywood, Broadway and Academia.  Each attracted a different type and had quite different consequences.  My closest friend in theatre was Stu Hagmann, who went to Hollywood, directed “The Strawberry Statement,” and went on to direct “Mannix” and a lot of prize-winning commercials.  As I become more socially radicalized, I have less in common with him, though he has always been very generous to me.

My very best friend was Bill Shaw, who also related to a little group that included Thirkield and Mason.  They called him “Hume” because of his skeptical questions about human nature.   He was not a theatre student. Shaw’s father, a doctor, wanted him to follow suit, so he was in pre-med but dubious about it, thinking of psychiatry.  Shaw died young from brain cancer, old enough to have established a family and a reputation for excellence as a professor.  He and I used to sit in the back of the auditorium during acting classes taught by Krause, passing notes.  Quite a few people did, including rival professors.

But I made a fourth choice, which was related to the Peace Corps movement at the time of our graduation in 1961.  It had dawned on me that I didn’t need to go to Africa -- I could go to a reservation on my own.  In fact, I was thinking Navajo, but since at graduation my folks drove me home through the Blackfeet rez and there was a job, that’s where I ended up.  It has been part of my internal psyche ever since.  As far as the theatre department was concerned, I disappeared into a void.

Browning, MT

Long before that, in high school, an archetype had emerged from Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke.”  When I wrote a book report on it, my teacher asked,  “Do you understand this play?”  She meant sex, but I knew better.  Alma (soul) was forever in tension with John (who could easily have been called "Dick" or "Peter"), the doctor’s son, representing the body.  Part of my relationship with the NU people was mediated through this play, this binary.  Most of my classroom acting scenes were based on this play. Alma’s idealism has been the battered and barely surviving part of my psyche, but it persists in spite of both ministry and teaching and, finally, Scriver.  Montana and smoke.

Recently, there has been no counterpoint of a male representing the concerns of the body until the relationship with Cinematheque and the Smash Street Boys.   These are young men whose bodies have been so misused that their psyches are hard to access.  It took a person who was intensely physical and tortured to match that side of the Tennessee Williams script.  The message is that the two sides -- idealism and self-exploitation -- cannot meet.  Tim gets it.  He lives it.

I doubt there are two or three people around here who know “Summer and Smoke” or even who Tennessee Williams is.  When I told my English teacher (an old maid with a great puff of white hair) I understood the play, I wasn’t talking about sex.  I meant intensity, the meaning of life. Unfulfilled yearning.  Painful life.  In this play Alma takes drugs (opium) as an evasion of life, and I vowed never to do that.  In fact, my determination rather interfered with my intention to write, since it is far more meaningful to really live the issues.  And books have turned out to be more transient than anyone guessed, serious thought lost in triviality.

Marshall W. Mason explains the magic.

So, Marshall W. Mason and his group have not just been performing plays -- they have been shaping real lives.  Theatre is only a needle-width from church, as Alma knew.  Prostitution is very close to doctoring.  Humans are always making little distinctions that will allow a bit of dignity and status.  But they break down.  

For instance, teaching is nothing like it was in a class with Alvina Krause.  She was relentlessly focused on the goal she had in mind and you just had to figure out how to cope with that.  I watched -- the cat’s choice.  I hoard my lives, though I’m down to the last one and it’s getting shorter.  Don’t worry -- all of the other eight went to good use.  

But this one has been a flowering, a song, though a sad one.  The counterpoint now is between suffering and creation.  Tim doesn’t know how much time he has either.  Nor do these boys.  But we have all been part of communities of synergy, groups who shared goals and accomplished more than they ever could as individual “geniuses,” which was the Fifties ideal.  The Sixties broke that open; maybe in 1961 when Ernest Hemingway committed suicide.  That year I graduated from college and came to the rez.  Tim was eleven, fighting to survive his family.  He can tell you himself.  It’s always so different than the movies.

Through the Sixties Mason and Thirkield were building the Circle Rep theatre company into a remarkable force off-off-Broadway.  In those years I was absorbed into the Blackfeet world which, pre-contact, had structured itself in bands genetically related at the core, but then open to the inclinations of those who joined or left that fluid, moving world as it traveled over the prairie.  The difference from the urban clusters of rep theatre was that onstage the genetics were ideology, and like -- genetics -- variation was the source of progress.  The rest of the book (I assume, since I haven’t read it all yet) traces the forces affecting the Circle Rep group.

Lanford Wilson, author of "Hot l Baltimore"

The only one of them who probably would understand my high prairie life was Sam Shepard, who never settled into any specific company for long.  During the early years of Circle Rep, on the opposite coast Tim’s parallel but transgressive SF world was smashed by a virus.  Circle Rep ended in 1996 after 27 years. At that point I was back in Portland, all prospects ended.  As soon as I could, I came back here to begin again from where I left off in 1973.

Marshall W. Mason, American Theatre Hall of Fame

The point is that humans are meant to be in small groups, fluid, permeable, sharing, and -- on both scales -- living out their gifts until the environment forecloses them.   If they are terrified by change, they will freeze, which is a form of suicide, but if they can accept new ideas, they will survive.  Not every revelation is comfortable.  It is, after all, a kind of birth.  Ask Justin Many Fingers.

Marshall tells me:  "My new book, THE TRANSCENDENT YEARS, covers the same time-period, but I doubt we'll see it in print before January, 2017."  He feels Ryzuk sometimes went off on a tangent.

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