Theater: How Arthur Kopit led me to wrack and ruin

How did we get inside this weird little circle called the theater, anyway?

With the 33rd Drammy Awards, Portland’s annual celebration of its season of theater, taking over the Crystal Ballroom tonight, it’s a fair question. And on Saturday afternoon, as I sat in the Wieden+Kennedy Atrium for Profile Theatre’s season-ending Playwrights Forum and listened to an affable and obviously very smart guy named Arthur Kopit swap war stories with a distinguished claque of fellow writers and directors, I got a peek at the time the doorway to the circle cracked open for me.

It was a bit of a jolt, to tell the truth, because I’d pretty much forgotten about it. But there it was, in the lanky form of Kopit, whose wonderful play Wings kicked Profile into being 15 years ago and who will always be, in my mind, the author of the play with the best damned title in the English-speaking world, Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad.

Arthur Kopit, dangerous man.

At the time I was a college kid, a sophomore or maybe a junior, and although I was deeply involved in the arts between overtime sessions with my double major – protesting the Vietnam War and drinking deeply from Dionysus’ cup – theater didn’t much enter the equation. My arts were mostly writing and music. I was immersed in jazz and folk music and, thanks to a couple of Leontyne Price albums, a bit of opera. Beat-up old string bass in tow, I gigged all over town. I knew painters and even got involved in a “happening,” helping to transform into a work of art a house that was about to be torn down: one brief shining moment of expressionistic crawl-through glory before it met its doom.

And then I signed up for a speech class, which was being offered through the theater department instead of the English department, and I met a girl who was, as she declared a little breathlessly, an actress, and as one thing led to another I found myself hanging out with the cast and crew of the show she was working on: yes, Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad. And the people were frankly kind of nuts but also smart and a lot of fun.

The infatuation didn’t last long. I can’t remember the girl’s name. Her father happened to teach at the university, and her parents loved me: They’d invite me over for dinner, and apparently approved of my table manners and ability to carry on a semblance of an adult conversation. But as happens so often with college flirtations, the fever broke quickly and easily, without leaving any damage. The actress and I realized we didn’t really have much in common, and wandered amiably off our separate ways.

Oh Dad, however, stayed with me: Kopit never knew, but he’d planted a seed. A few years later, after stumbling from this to that to a few other things and landing at a good-sized daily newspaper, I found myself inexplicably sitting in a dark room, scratching notes on a little pad. And despite the title of that Kopit comedy, I wasn’t feeling a bit sad. Strange as it was, and even sitting on the other side of the action, the place felt like home.

This side or that, we all take our own curious journeys into this darkened little circle of realities and illusions. As one of Saturday’s panelists said (I wasn’t taking notes, and don’t remember which), as long as there are kids who don’t fit in, they will find each other, and create theaters. Which is as good a reason as any to head on down to the Crystal Ballroom tonight and have a party.

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Profile’s Playwrights Forum panelists were a distinguished lot, and their reminiscences were insightful and a lot of fun. One of them, Lee Blessing, happens to be one of my favorite contemporary playwrights. A long-ago Reedie, he’ll be at tonight’s Drammys to present a special award to Jane Unger, who founded the playwright-centered Profile and is retiring.

Blessing and Kopit were joined by Constance Congdon, author of the play with the second-best damned title in the English-speaking world, Tales of the Lost Formicans. And directors Marshall Mason – founder of New York’s fabled Circle Rep – and Circle Rep alum Daniel Irvine were on hand to talk about that company’s close working relationship with playwrights, especially the late Lanford Wilson, whose plays Profile has been celebrating this season. Lue Morgan Douthit, the erudite literary and dramaturgy director for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, moderated.

Mason and Irvine celebrated Circle Rep’s highly unusual practice of including playwrights as full company members involved in every step of developing a work for the stage: as someone commented, it was the way Shakespeare worked. Blessing, Congdon and Kopit talked about the more usual way that American playwrights work, which is mostly in isolation with occasional drop-ins on festivals and producing companies.

All spoke to the essential mystery that is the theater, the way that characters in a good play take over the writing, and Kopit, in response to a question about how he entered college as an engineering major and exited as a playwright, noted that the mysteries still need a solid structure. Congdon commented hilariously on the true authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, and plaintively about the perverse transgressions of daily newspaper reviewers. I happened to be sitting next to Marty Hughley, and thought it was a good thing she didn’t know we were there, or she might have hopped down from the stage and bopped us over the shoulders with an umbrella.

It was fitting that the forum celebrated Unger’s theatrical stamp on the city and her passing of the baton (Adriana Baer replaces her as Profile’s artistic director), because the panelists represented an old guard that not so very long ago made up the American theater’s brave new world. It was refreshing to hear how young they’ve managed to stay and how open they’ve remained.

The truth about theater (about any art, really) is that it shifts as you shift. Unlike a mathematical equation, it’s unmeasurable. Because an act of theater isn’t complete without an audience, and every audience member is unique, you and I and the person three seats over truly never do see the same play. Beyond that, if you return to a production a week later, you’ve changed, and the actors have changed, so the play has shifted, too. This isn’t cause for alarm. It simply means we’re alive, and possibly even paying attention. As Kurt Vonnegut used to say, So it goes.

One Response.

  1. Dear Bob…as always, your words and observations are a complete delight to read. It was an honor to be in that symposium audience as well…and I was pinching myself that Kopit was there, because the first role of my life in theatre (my first scene study class at the estimable A.C.T.) was as the stuttering foolish son in “Oh Dad…” – a play I still adore and think to be truly epic.

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