I remember the first time I confronted Jackson Pollock paintings. My eyes hadn't been opened yet. But my youthful spirit was buzzing in blooming confusion. I slowly began to gather the layered transformations of his work. The dripping paint, the action in the sweep of the brush, all inherently dramatic – pulsating. Pollock was not painting an illusion, a symbol, or a metaphor. He was simply evolving through creative energy, a history of his work. I loved it. That's what I want to do, I thought, that's how I want to work with performers. Trust observation, listen, pay attention to the gathering insights, the sudden action shaped by necessity, a dialogue evolving, all discovered in the process of making decisions. Decision making is at the heart of performance, as it is in all of the arts.
Houston, Texas: the 1960's
The Contemporary Arts Museum, a Quonset hut, South Main Street – Donald Barthelme, curator. Don had yet to become the idiosyncratic ways and means short story writer of national repute. When I approached him about my staging Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabal's "The Automobile Graveyard" at the museum, he latched on to the idea. After we gathered the hulks of automobile carcasses into the central space of the museum, I walked in one morning, and Don had painted the beat up cars in day glow colors. The setting suddenly had theatrical potential: Why not convert the automobile graveyard into an edgy, surreal Barnum and Bailey circus act? I thought. Stage action fermented in an atmosphere of "existential dread" – the "in" word at the time. Drop the word "existential", link it with "dread", and you instantly gathered associations that declared you relevant. If you are in your twenties, trying to make a name for yourself, what more can you ask than being thought relevant?
The play was cast, the actors dug in. The lead characters were musicians with names like Emanu, Fodore, Tiosido, Tope, and Dilla, a woman of sexual favors. The automobile graveyard was controlled by Milos, a sinister bell captain, who plied his trade like a medieval devil with fiendish delight and calculated ploys. When the performers arrived, they adjusted to the challenging environment like it was second nature. On the run from the cops, the central action of the play, they hustled in and out of the wrecks: opening and slamming shut doors, half off their hinges; popping in and out of car hoods; honking horns - like clowns in a circus. They absorbed what they were doing as they did it, rather than exercising a superimposed theatrical "ritual" on the action.
The play took on an air of mystery, in contrast to the wild humor: the mystery of a passion play from the middle ages. It was my first lesson on the power of improvisation to create a reality on stage; where it occurred, how it occurred, when it occurred. In short, I discovered the promise of theater work: discovering the universal in the particular, especially when the particular was unusually forbearing of the universal.
Rice University, Houston, again the 1960's. Under the auspices of the Houston Council on Human Relations, I staged, with a mixed cast of five performers playing 68 roles, Martin Doberman's "In White America". This powerful documentary bore witness to painful historical events: the truths, lies, hypocrisy, rationalizations and angry denunciations surrounding the slave trade and segregation. The actors portrayed a variety of historical figures, testing their ability to shift character with ease, while simultaneously developing a shared sense of American history - however painful the details.
Ali Wood's interpretation of Haywood Peterson, an African American laborer expressing his violated sense of humanity under segregation, tested his ability to absorb a real life character's increasing anger, pain, and demand for human recognition. Ali slowly raised the laborer's shovel for emphasis, as if he was rising from the pit of segregation. He took a full stop with a head of steam, and then brought the shovel down hard with rage. The shudder of its effect resonated in the audience. Neil Havens and Arthur Cole's delivery of the rhetoric regarding slavery and segregation, from the likes of Thomas Jefferson, John Brown, Woodrow Wilson, Frederick Law Olmstead, President Andrew Johnson, a Klansman, arch segregationist Senator Tillman, etc, added bite and contrast to the rationalizations and ugliness of American racial history. Pat Walter's portrayals of a Quaker Woman, as well as Mary Boykin Chestnut and Eliza Andrews, secretary to President Andrew Johnson, revealed a sense of irony, bewilderment, and depth. Henry L. Mayes soft spoken and poignant delivery of Booker T. Washington, working his way with benign words to a white audience of his day, was discomforting with its ironic appeal. Mayes also added contrast and humor with his portrayal of Father Devine's urgency to lead his people back to Africa.
The climax of the production was Barbara Marshal's gifted performance of an African American girl working her way through a line of spitting and shouting whites on her first day attending Little Rock High School. Fighting back tears, Barbara built on the silences of the young girl's fear, focusing on her efforts to maintain dignity in face of the brutish crowd shouting at her. Her painfully vulnerable monologue revealed exceptional timing and depth, the audience holding on to each word. At the climax of the monologue, a white man suddenly rose from the audience, and started to run towards the stage. Guitarist Bill Moss was singing with a powerful and commanding voice "Oh Freedom", the signature song of the Civil Rights era. When the man arrived on stage, he made a move towards Barbara. Bill raised his guitar and stepped to the side of Barbara to protect her. The man's intentions suddenly became clear. He stood on the stage singing with the cast, joined by members of the audience who sang along with him and the performers. Others remained silent for whatever reason. It was the worst of times, and the best of times .
The Hamlet Theater, Houston
A hot shot group of group of performers and myself worked hard to introduce cabaret theater to Houston. We staged both original satirical and musical reviews, national and international plays, and added jazz, folk singing, and cabaret cinema to keep the tickets flowing at the door. If there was ever a team effort, this was it. Now that sort of thing has been repeated endlessly over the decades, like a switch on a light bulb. And I am sure many of you reading this have had similar experiences, with similar results.
Noble Willingham was an actor from East Texas who brought with him extensive power of delivery, especially in his portrayal of Huey Long, the corrupt governor of a bygone era in Louisiana. Noble riveted the audience's attention with the unbridled egotism surrounding Huey Long's rise to power, done with enormous energy and focus. Harriet Melinda, who could change her name at the drop of a syllable, was a mainstay of energy and quick wit, in off-the-cuff skits. Oliver O'Connor was an actor and raconteur, with a wicked sense of humor, partly threatening, partly generous, partly devil-may-care, who knew how to dig beneath the surface of reality to capture the audience's attention. His portrayal of Bessie Smith's lover in Edward Albee's "The Death of Bessie Smith" combined humor and trenchant irony. In Lawrence Ferlinghetti's satirical play, "The Allegation" Oliver popped out a green alligator suit to make love to a character named Lady Bird. Go figure that one out.
Deen Gattis was known as "Baby" Deen, for god knows what reason, for he was no baby when it came to his comedic, appealing and inventive turns in improvisation, or his arresting portrayal of a junkie in Jack Gelber's "The Connection – a shocker at that time. Ed Geldart's portrayal of Edward R. Murrow interviewing a surprised Deen Gattis sitting on a john while his wife took a shower, was a skit of hilarious proportions. Ed, a master of understatement, knew exactly when or where to place a verbal bomb shell. Susan Tolsky, known affectionately as "Sue Sue", had a rapid fire delivery with a high pitched voice, that frequently ran away with the audience. Bill Hardy, one of Houston's finest actors from the Alley Theater, joined us as a prankster, and delivered a cutting portrayal of Edward Teller, the atomic bomb proponent during the cold war era. And Bob People's fragile instability returning to Germany as a war veteran after the first World War, who finds his land taken from him in Karl Wittlinger's "Do You The Milky Way?", directed by Bob Glenn, was insightful and moving.
Last, but certainly not least, my brother Michael (Mickey) Bobkoff, who at the age of 18, delivered a masterful performance of Jerry in Edward Albee's The Zoo Story, over and beyond his age. His performance extended the run. He became a main stay of the theatre troupe, and went on to win the Best Actor award as Dr. Stockman in Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People" in the first nationwide college festival at the Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C.
A vision has something to do with learning from experience and using what you've learned to grow into someone you have never been before. It is not a magic formula, a systematic collection of effects, a superimposition of behavior, or a rigid, previously grounded concept. Gaining a vision of who you are, and what you can do with what you know, is a living process done by this person, in this time and place, with these means, and, at the same time, revealing someone we recognize. I hope you recognize yourself in my memoir, and comment accordingly. I look forward to your response.
Part 2 of this memoir will continue in March.