Tag Archives: Remembrance

Many, Many Bewildered (and Sad) Breakfast Faces: RIP, Sam Shepard

There will be a general lack of toast in the neighborhood this morning. And by “toast” I mean theater-related joy. And by “the neighborhood,” I mean “American theater.” And by “this morning,” I mean… well, I don’t know how long, but it’ll be longer than a morning.

Actor, playwright, and director Sam Shepard has died at the age of 73.

I first learned about it in a piece in Broadway World, which is worth checking out. You can also read about his life and work in:

Many of us picked up this book yesterday and leafed through it.

I’m not the only one of my generation of theater folk who feel this loss on a personal level. There are many playwrights like Shakespeare or Pinter or Wilson of whom I’ve either read or performed or seen productions of nearly all their works. But Sam Shepard is somewhat different.

Shepard has a distinct, American voice that resonated with so many of us. It was years since I had read or seen all of Kaufman and Hart. It would be years before I would connect with the work of Eugene O’Neill (that’s another tale). Sam Shepard was alive now and pushing his creations out into the world, where we too were training and working to make our marks.

Decades before Neil Gaiman was to tantalize us with his tales of American Gods, Sam Shepard was constructing a uniquely American mythology with plays that were simultaneously gritty and real, yet surreal and absurd. His characters often lived on the edge of society and frequently violated societal norms. There were no gods so much as forces of nature and Fate that his fabulously flawed characters would contend against when they weren’t fighting with one another.

I had many classmates who never looked at me quite the same way after they had seen me play “Mike” in a college production of “A Lie of the Mind.” It’s a disturbing yet incredibly human fairy tale set in a immediately recognizable yet unknowable America. At first, Mike seems like a more sensible character than his parents or brain-damaged sister. By the time he carries half a deer carcass on stage, you realize just how quietly crazy and savage Mike might truly be (and his exit from the play, presumably to start a whole new dysfunctional family cycle, is uncomfortably real). Sam Shepard wrote characters that rich into which actors can dive and explore, with motivations so plausible, audience members can wonder where the character ends and the actor begins (hence my classmates’ apprehension).

And those plays are still with us, thank goodness. If you haven’t checked any of them out (or any recently), do as Craig Mazin advocates: locate a copy of True West and read it out loud. His many parts in films are likewise, thankfully preserved for the ages — and his appearance always bodes well for whatever film in which he appears. Outside of Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch, is there a better film icon for American manhood than Sam Shepard’s Chuck Yeager?

(Come on! I can’t be the only guy who watched The Right Stuff repeatedly growing up).

Yeah Harold Pinter had acting turns too, but he subverted the sound barrier with pauses, not breaks. You see, I’ve studied Shakespeare, I’ve enjoyed Pinter, but with Shepard, you had someone to aspire to, with a voice from your tribe. On the one hand it’s silly and illogical and not something to motivate you… but in the best tradition of so many of his characters, by God it did.

He was inspirational as a playwright. He was moving as an actor. As both, he connected story to audience in a way you long to do as an artist.

Is that a man? Damn right it is.

RIP, Robert Osbourne

Growing up in the DC area, my dad made full use of all the free film series places like the National Archives, Library of Congress, and East Gallery would provide. And, of course, he’d take us along. It was at these places that I first saw such classics as To Kill a Mockingbird, Fort Apache, and Gone with the Wind.

“It was TCM before TCM,” I explained.

Earlier this week, the man who epitomized Turner Classic Movies (TCM), Robert Osbourne, passed away at the age of 84.

Online, I commented that it’s hard to think of him as 80-something. The energy and enthusiasm he brought to his film intros leapt off the TV screen. The joy he exuded while sharing cinema minutiae made you feel you were in for something special — even when he cautioned you that the something special was not the best of films.

Another film historian, Leonard Maltin, has a great remembrance of him. And writer and pop culture historian, Mark Evanier, has a nice anecdote too.

I like what Maltin said that Robert Osbourne was “on a mission.” He will be missed, but I daresay he succeeded in his mission.

Don’t Forget to Breathe

Someone I’ve known just shy of 20 years, Tricia McCauley, has died.

Photo by Tammy Rubicat

Photo by Tammy Rubicat

This is hard. You can do remembrances for people who inspired you from afar or mentors who were decades older than you. And although I have lost friends and peers around my age, this is different.

She went missing late in the afternoon of Christmas Day. Most of us found out through social media the following day, Monday, when she hadn’t checked in for a planned flight. In a sign of the times, a Facebook group was created to help coordinate finding Tricia. It swelled to over 3,400 members in just a few hours. Twitter and Reddit spread the word. Uber and Lyft drivers were recruited in the search. It’s a small comfort that these efforts appear to have helped locate Tricia’s car and the suspect driving it.

Early Tuesday morning, December 27th, the DC police held a press conference which confirmed that Tricia’s body had been found in her car. She was, indeed, dead. Later that day, the suspect was formally charged. The details that came out were horrid. She had not simply died. She had been brutally murdered.

It’s sad to know someone who’s vital and full of life has died through accident or illness. It’s another level of sorrow to know someone with that kind of light has been willfully extinguished. I can but barely imagine the grief her family and closest friends felt and will continue to feel for some time.

I think of the person I first met one morning in Adams Morgan –a talented, energetic, elfin figure in combat boots– to the yogi, herbalist, and accomplished actress so many people came to know by the time of her death. Not only did she grow as a person, she wasn’t afraid to grow or to inspire others to do the same. When I entered the 30s a few years after her, she let me know, with an almost conspiratorial glee, that one’s 30s were the best decade yet. And everything I heard from friends and colleagues over the past week or so has confirmed my impression that she had decided to make her 40s even more extraordinary.

In fact, amongst all those personal reminisces were many posts where the person confessed they didn’t know Tricia personally, but knew about her from her work, her reputation, her very presence in the community. Whatever a life means, that she touched so many people she never met has to count for something.

The Washington Post did a nice piece which captured some of the impact Tricia had on the wider community. She was, or could be, a friend to everyone. She loved to create and inspired others to create and generally be present. And so although we hadn’t worked together for many years, I had hoped we would again, because I knew the energy she would bring to both the work and the rest of the cast.

But that possible future is gone now. And I mourn all the other futures all her other friends and family are now denied. The community lost a vital part of itself.

Tricia was not the first subject of an “RIP post” here and she won’t be the last. But isn’t the purpose of any of these remembrances not simply to mark what we have lost, but what we have gained?

If you haven’t gleaned already, Tricia believed in the best kind of magic: the kind that makes people grow. And for many of us, we don’t want this senseless act to be the last word. Her longtime friend and fellow Washington Stage Guild member, Bill Largess, has some excellent words on what can be done now.

Friends have also started a fundraiser to provide theater professionals health insurance — something that freelancers like Tricia often needed to worry about. It has happily blown past its original goal of $25,000.

So everywhere around the region, people are working to find meaning, to create meaning, to create.

But it’s hard to stay in the moment and look to the future. In fact, I think that balance was something Tricia had found — and kept on trying to encourage all of us to find as well. I try and think of something several NTI teachers mentioned to me while I trained there — and perhaps they mentioned it to Tricia in her time there as well. It’s one thing I tell all the actors who attend Stonehenge Auditions right before they go on to perform their monologues.

Don’t forget to breathe.

Edward Albee, RIP

2016 really isn’t getting any new fans as our cultural icons continue to shuffle off this mortal coil in a manner that befits the most macabre dance number imaginable.

I'm going to need a rather long pause. Something more than five seconds, please.

I’m going to need a rather long pause. Something more than five seconds, please.

Playwright Edward Albee is dead, as reported by NPR, the New York Times, and others. I suppose he wouldn’t mind, what with his work exploring death, gloom, and despair. He was also 88, which I’m sure actuaries would assure me is “pretty old,” statistically speaking.

I don’t care. As a playwright, Albee had a voice. A beautiful, absurd, deeply disturbing voice to be sure, but a voice you don’t forget.

(You can actually hear his voice in this 8-minute interview on Fresh Air from 1984).

I first encountered this voice in high school with The Zoo Story. It wasn’t simply reading the play as a diversion in English class. My idle teenage hands had been repurposed to be a stage technician, so I was the chap responsible for the blood pack necessary at the end of the play. The blood pack didn’t always work to my liking –sometimes a bit more Sanjuro than desirable– but I went on to do blood effects for other productions. More importantly, my interest in this playwright, Edward Albee, began.

Watching the production, even in our inexpert high school hands, you couldn’t help but be drawn in. Albee violates cultural comfort zones not unlike Pinter and other contemporary playwrights. But more than that, his characters are fascinating: intense, driven, and deeply, deeply flawed. Crafted with such specificity, you can’t help but try and understand the nature of what’s broken — even when you, yourself, might not have much in common with them.

Or so you think at first.

It could be, as Leo Tolstoy pointed out, that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Yet among that specific unhappiness, there are some recurring themes. In fact, Albee summed it up thus:

“You know, if anybody wants me to say it, in one sentence, what my plays are about: They’re about the nature of identity — who we are, how we permit ourselves to be viewed, how we permit ourselves to view ourselves, how we practice identity or lack of identity.” -Edward Albee

How else could us countless college students tasked with studying Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — probably his best known work — relate to the struggles of George and Martha (and I suppose Nick and Honey)?

Amid the games like “getting the guests,” there are those questions of identity. How do you see yourself? How do you want to be seen? How much can you bear to see what you have done or have become? As you approach adulthood, you begin to see how many decisions you need to make involving how much you buy into socially constructed pretense and ritual. Where will you toe the line? Where will you stand out? Must you stand out? What do you lose by doing either?

“All of my plays are about people missing the boat, closing down too young, coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done, as opposed to things done. I find most people spend too much time living as if they’re never going to die.” -Edward Albee

That overarching theme is why I think Albee will resonate for decades to come: it’s timeless and –in the hands of Albee– well executed. His expert exploration of mortality and mistakes is also why he’ll be missed. Because it wasn’t simply The Zoo Story and Woolf. He had been steadily writing impactful plays for the better part of 50 years, Three Tall Women and The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? being some of his more recent celebrated works.

But at least we’re left with his works… which does also leave us with a question: at the end, was he visited by a young man doing calisthenics?

Gene Wilder, RIP

I meant to post this earlier, but life keeps on getting in the way. Or maybe it’s bills to pay, and I’m not as clever as Max Bialystock at how to pay them.

Now that the a principal dreamer of the dreams is gone, I'm going to need something stronger than fizzy-lifting drink.

Now that the a principal dreamer of the dreams is gone, I’m going to need something stronger than fizzy-lifting drink. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As has been reported in the Washington Post, AP, Variety, and elsewhere, Jerome Silberman aka Gene Wilder passed away last month, on Sunday, August 29th. He was 83.

2016 has proven to be lethal to the cultural icons many of my generation have grown up with — and Wilder was definitely someone we grew up with: perhaps first known as Willa Wonka and then, as we got older, as Leo Bloom, the Waco Kid, and naturally Doctor Frankenstein -er- Fronkensteen.

Gene Wilder has an additional resonance for many of us who are performers and storytellers because he was a phenomenally sensitive actor. I mean, he seemed to sense what his characters needed to be to serve the story — as mentioned in this wonderful video. He also was a very generous performer in the same vein as Jack Benny as this Vox article details.

Actors and comics from across the industry have mentioned his influence. Writer and all-around pop culture historian Mark Evanier has a great anecdote about Wilder — and Tom Straw has a great story of working with the man himself late in Wilder’s career.

Finally, I came across this article about he met his wife, who I hope is being supported by friends and family in this difficult time.

Now I’m off to munch a Wonka bar for a bit.

RIP, Carl Balson

I did the math a couple years ago and realized he was in his 80s, so I knew it might happen sooner rather than later, but I am very sad to learn Carl Balson, theater professor and all-around audio-visual wizard, passed away on September 8th at the age of 84. An obituary appeared in the Beloit Daily News, but we learned of it a couple days earlier on social media. Here are some of the words I shared on social media a week or so ago:

carl_balson_2007

Carl was a consummate craftsman, a trait I suspect he gained from being a magician. Long before my classmate Tom Kramer and I dubbed ourselves “tractors” or “technician-actors,” Carl was already showing anyone who cared to notice how you could be completely at home in a control room and on stage.

He took great love in the gear both at our radio station (WBCR) and TV station (BAT), and could get into engineering details as needed, but it was all in practical service to storytelling, something he was more than comfortable doing on stage as an actor. And I’m not kidding about the magic part either. A fact that he conveniently did not advertise was that he was a trained magician (or we college students were too obtuse), so on more than one occasion, when something was not working in the television studio, he would come in and tap the equipment while using sleight of hand to press the button that would solve the problem — a seemingly effortless action that implied we students needed to redouble our efforts in understanding how to use the gear.

Both the impishness and love of play he had were inspirational — and he would encourage us to take charge and make our own creations, whether it was producing a wacky skit-com/music video show or concocting morning radio routines. He even joined in on the fun in one episode of the aforementioned TV show, where he played the sinister “They” (who, like in the Far Side, was the “They” in “That’s what They say.”).

I got to study under Carl, work for Carl, and above all: learn from Carl. And I’m not the only Beloiter who’s thankful for that. He’ll always have a place in our hearts and memories. My thoughts and prayers go to his family.

Remembering Ed Walker: Saying Goodbye to an Era

A couple weeks ago, I learned that longtime host of The Big Broadcast and even longer-time radio figure, Ed Walker, would be retiring. He was doing so to spend more time with his family and battle the cancer with which he had been diagnosed. His last broadcast would be Sunday, October 25th.

Like many other longtime fans, I was determined to tune in at 7pm this past Sunday. This may seem strange in the age of streaming and content-on-demand. I even knew that it would be pre-recorded, not live. Still, it felt as close as one could get to a communal event.

Ed picked a smorgasbord of radio that he counted among his favorites to fill the four hours. He had the Stan Freeberg show, a production of Three Skeleton Key, a particularly emotional Dragnet, a gritty, unsentimental episode of Gunsmoke, and even some selections from the Joy Boys, his own creation with Willard Scott that ran locally for about 20 years. It was a great “Best of” showcasing all you could do with the “Theater of the Mind,” Ed Walker’s playground and calling for over 60 years. I mean, the guy helped start the very radio station where this show was broadcasting from!

You could hear his voice was a bit slower, without quite the vigor you’d remember as he introduced shows and songs from broadcasts back. But the warmth was there, all the more so when it finally came to sign-off. It was a great note to end on.

But then I joined many other longtime fans learned Monday that, even though the Big Broadcast would continue, it really was the end of an era. After listening to the final broadcast with his family on Sunday night night, Ed Walker passed away peacefully in his sleep early Monday morning. It really was the end.

I was going to post here earlier in the week, but I’m glad I waited, as WAMU has put together a splendid web page, listing over a dozen great links to articles and interviews… plus Ed’s final show.

Also,  one might expect, many local media outlets published their obituaries/remembrances for Ed Walker on Monday, often linking to interviews with him in recent years:

It’s still very sad to say goodbye, but I’m glad he got to spend his final days with the whole region celebrating his life and career as well as being with his family at the end. RIP, Ed Walker.

Recommended Reading: Oliver Sacks

How could I not be interested in the work of Oliver Sacks? It’s not just the one about the anthropologist on Mars (though I have that). Sacks explored the human condition in a multitude of cases where the humans in question were grappling with many rare and unusual conditions. What is life? What is humanity? What is perception and consciousness? These were some of the questions he touched on in an engaging writing style that I always enjoyed.

Although his work was very much non-fiction, he inspired fiction in the form of plays and films — further validating the notion that science and the arts are not so dissimilar as partisans in both disciplines would have you believe.

Sadly, Oliver Sacks passed away yesterday at the age of 82. He knew his time was ending and remained as insightful and philosophical upon his own impending departure as he had been in looking at the struggles and humanity of his subjects.

Still, at times such as these, you don’t want to say goodbye — or at least you want to remember more.

For that reason, I’m happy Adrienne LaFrance over at The Atlantic has assembled The Oliver Sacks Reading List. (http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/08/the-oliver-sacks-reading-list/401993/)

I can’t say I’ve read or seen all of these pieces, but then, that’s a big part of my delight. I’ll be enjoying reading and watching them over the coming months. And I expect the ideas generated will be ones I’ll be pondering and writing about for years.

RIP, Oliver Sacks.