Kevin Leonard shepherds archives at NU, where I sent all my old notes and journals about Alvina Krause. I was surprised when he let me know via email that I am named in Marshall S. Mason's latest book, "The Transcendent Years" which includes the years at NU at the end of the Fifties when were classmates. Leonard said, "I just received my copy of Marshall Mason’s new book. I’m only 20 pages into the story and there you are, working on Mary Stuart at Eagles Mere." My own copy came this week and I put everything else down so I could read it. I already had his earlier books about directing and acting which describe his use of the concept of "beats", which is a way of dividing any time-art into the near-musical concept of small arcs.
Besides being classmates at NU, Mason and I were both at Eagles Mere, which was the summer repertory company in the Poconos that Krause ran. The first sentence of the book quotes Krause's key belief: "I am training you for a theatre that doesn't exist." She meant the vision of a local repertory theatre like Eagles Mere: cooperative, exemplary, excellence-based, beyond political to the point of what Mason calls "transcendent." It is an idea not limited to theatre companies and has guided my life as well as Mason's, though we've taken very different paths.
Claris Nelson's life-path often travels with Mason's. She is a person I owe a great deal: there was a gap of several days between the university housing closing at NU and the opening of the Lodge at Eagles Mere where we all stayed. Claris and her family not only allowed me to stay at their house, but also drove me with Claris and others across the miles to the little mountain resort. The Nelson family house was one of many in Evanston built in a time of wealth and elegance. I had never spent a night in such a fine place. It was the first time I saw window shutters that were fine cabinet work that folded into niches next to the sashes. Claris' father was an architect but it was years before I realized that the fabulous magazine he read was "Architectural Digest."
The house was not furnished in a pretentious way and the family was vegetarian. I had never known a household like this, idealistic but luxurious. High-end glossy shelter mags have been a pleasure and refuge ever since, though I've always lived in shabby circumstances. Claris herself was gifted and unique, a writer and actor of insight and power, though her taste for the whimsical might not be mainstream.
The truth is that after we all graduated in 1961, we all went separate ways. Oregon at the time was a backwater and in Montana, where I went for the next decade, I didn't pay attention to New York until Bob's sculpture was ready for the Manhattan galleries of Western art, like the Kennedy. I didn't hear about Marshall S Mason until he was involved in"Angels in America." By that time I was at the U of Chicago Div School (Eighties) and could make a pilgrimage back to Annie May Swift hall, the scene of so much. And I was more than ready for both fantasy and grit, the gruesome real and the surprisingly salvific.
Which is why I headed back to Montana in 1999 and discovered that Rollie Meinholtz, who directed both Marshall and I in "Queen of the Rebels," was now a prof at U of Montana. Sometimes I feel like there are only a hundred people in the world and I know ten of them while all the rest know each other. The thread of this book is double: plays and theatre people, in a setting of the political and world-wide news of the time. I didn't remember how violent and extreme events were, but it explains why I was determined to stay in Browning, Montana, where things that terrifying had happened in the 19th century rather than the 20th.
I've never been central in any context and that had been true of Eagles Mere as well. I didn't go as an actor but as a costumer, a one-summer career, and Mason claims to remember the stunning white brocade dress I made for Penny Fuller, with white fox cuffs on the oversleeves. He mentions the black dress also made for the character but doesn't remember (mercifully) that the brocade from which I made the dress was dye-resistant. No matter how many boxes of RIT I used, I could never get the dress darker than deep purple and then I ran short of time so that it had to be dried hanging above our only stove: an ancient and massive woodstove unbelievably called "Othello" -- a name embossed on the front. IT was black. The dress remained a little smoky.
The costume shop was in the old ice house but I doubt Marshall was there much. It was full of trunks of the most glamorous clothes I've ever seen, beaded chiffon encrusted with beads and embroidery, hemmed in points or asymmetrically. Absolutely un-useable in any plays we produced. Remnants of former glory that probably ought to have a play written about them.
So many of the plays Mason mentions from those NU years are vivid in my mind's eye. Mason, his close friend Rob Thirkield, and Bill Shaw were roommates. Bill was my biology partner at first and then my thought partner as we sat in the back of the auditorium through AK's classes, trying to understand and appreciate what was happening. I have never seen staged productions with as much power and resonance as some of those uncostumed vignettes on an empty stage.
For instance, Penny Fuller in a bit from "The Property Is Condemned" as the central character balanced along a bit of old railroad. It was ironic that several of us, including me, were practically hypnotized by Tennessee Williams, considering that AK was essentially Edwardian. But then, the undercurrent of fluid sexuality (often paradoxically faithful) ran through her and many of the rest of the actors. It was an underground source of power that destroyed some and raised others into transcendence.