I arrived in Chicago a couple of weeks ago to find that I had not packed well. I had brought mostly t-shirts and slacks. I stepped outside one day and instantly had to make my way to a local Walgreens to take advantage of a five dollar sale on sweatshirts.
I was in Chicago to perform You Only Shoot the Ones You Love in a suburban theatre where, as a teenager, I had caught some of my first glimpses of other worlds via their policy of showing foreign films. Subtitles and naked people. How sophisticated I felt then! It was an enormous pleasure to do the show there.
The next day, I was in St. Louis to do the show at the Ivory Theatre. Part of my show describes the early pioneers of the American improvisational theatre movement, and some of that history happened in St. Louis. I asked to see Gaslight Square, where a nightclub called the Crystal Palace had played host to Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Del Close, Severn Darden and Theodore Flicker before any of them had achieved national reputations. Legend has it that, after some performances there, a handful of these geniuses sat down in a kitchen to hammer out some practical principles for public improvisation. (Details are in my conversation with Del Close in Something Wonderful Right Away.) So, off we went, only to discover that not only is the Crystal Palace gone, but Gaslight Square has been obliterated as well. The only sign that what was once one of the hippest places in America was once there is a modest plaque.
I also went to see the apartment building where Tennessee Williams once lived and where it is claimed that the action of The Glass Menagerie takes place. The building has been renamed “The Tennessee.” A look at its back offers a view of the fire escape where Tom and the Gentleman Caller might have smoked and dreamed. I could see nothing of the dance hall mentioned in the play, the source of the ambient music and dime store romanticism that stoked such discontent in Tom.
This autumn is going to be divided between a few ongoing tasks. I continue to work on the book for the musical that I hope will launch my fame in German musical theatre circles. I’m involved with an attempt to start a new organization called the Harvest Group that could make playwrights de facto co-producers of their own work by giving them a mechanism to raise enhancement money for non-profit productions. I continue to go to a fair amount of theatre to keep up with my column for Dramatics and entries here.
And I have been selected to write a book timed to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theatre Center in 2014. The O’Neill has been part of my life since I was a college student and was invited to attend an early session of its National Critics Institute. That visit introduced me to a number of people who have remained friends and collaborators and established an ongoing relationship with the place, sometimes as audience, sometimes as teacher (though, never, alas, as one of the summer playwrights).
I have a number of vivid memories from my visits there:
- Back in the early seventies I saw a children’s play about Marco Polo that featured a young woman in her first post-college job. She struck me as someone to keep an eye on, and she turned out to be Meryl Streep. (She recently said that she learned more from a summer at the O’Neill than from any of her other training. Her training was at Yale University and I will undoubtedly include the comment in the book, which by the way will be published by the Yale University Press.)
- My friend Tandy Cronyn and I saw an overlong but very promising performance of a script by a playwright then new to me; it was the first version of what went on to be Fences, a play that won its author August Wilson the Pulitzer Prize and is now established as an American classic.
- Spent a happy afternoon watching Bill Irwin working with a group of young actors to build a chunk of a clown piece, perhaps in anticipation of the season he would later spend at the Signature Theatre.
- Joined other friends scattering the ashes of John Seitz around stages where he had played as a regular actor at the O’Neill Center.
This weekend I go to the O’Neill to talk with some of the board members and get a first survey of what is in the archives. Next week I’m scheduled to talk to Edward Albee about his early memories of the place. He was there at the first session, has returned several times and undoubtedly will have some sharp observations about the place’s mission, history and accomplishments. And, of course, what he thinks it could do better.