The Independent Eye is a professional theatre founded by Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller in 1974, now based in Sebastopol, CA. In 33 years, we’ve presented 3000+ performances in 35 states & Canada & Israel, as well as public radio series. We act, write, compose, direct, design and do the dirty work. We also write plays for and do collaborations with other theatres. How we got this way. . .
CB born 1941; grew up in Iowa, rural Germanic working-class from the slums of Council Bluffs; scholarships to Northwestern U. EF born 1940; adopted, grew up in Indiana, corporate-executive family; started U. Michigan pre-med, became addicted to radio drama, flunked out; to Northwestern, married CB in 1960, quit trying to be a student & got a job. We both thought the career was to be in academic theatre. CB finished B.S. and M.A. at Northwestern, Ph.D. at Stanford while EF earned the money as well as collaborating on shows. A childhood piano prodigy, EF had quit music and declared her absolute inability to compose; forced into it in 1963, she’s never been able to stop.
First teaching job at U. of South Carolina (culture shock!), with small, mad band of student drama fanatics, some of whom followed us north to next job at UW-Milwaukee in 1968.
AS WILD CARDS:
Discovering that huge, well-heeled theatre departments were not utopia, we and a few others formed a workshop group that evolved into a collective ensemble in 1969: Milwaukee’s Theatre X. Great excitement in the work, much disharmony in the Department, and CB’s contract was not renewed. Frantic soul-searching, then a decision to stay in Milwaukee and work full-time with Theatre X at salaries of $50 a week. For five years we were artist/managers of an unmanageable but luminous collective, performing original work for every conceivable audience and touring 15 states. CB began writing, not as “playwright” but just as the guy who wrote the stuff. When we and our savings were utterly exhausted, we succeeded in becoming pregnant: Eli in 1972, Johanna in 1974.
Deeply attached to the ideals of Theatre X but unable to cope with management problems, we left—though returned to do collaborative projects—to found The Independent Eye in 1974, producing in a tiny studio in Chicago’s Body Politic before a span of years as a national touring duo playing our own plays for colleges, alternative theatres, social agencies, prisons, churches, community centers, issues conferences, you name it—one year more than 200 shows while raising two kids in the back of a Dodge van. Moved to Lancaster, PA, in 1977 as a place to hang hats between tours, starting a resident season there in 1981, purchasing & renovating a building in 1984.
AS EVOLVING WRITERS:
With Theatre X, we’d provided dozens of short experimental & comedy sketches for tour repertory, several plays, and this continued with the Eye—by 1980 about 20+ produced plays & revues. In 1980, CB sat down and for no practical reason wrote a play that was selected by the O’Neill Playwrights Conference. A positive spur to take the writing more seriously, but the categorization as “playwright & wife” led us to realize the need put our collaboration at the forefront. Next play was a Humana Festival prizewinner and an Off-Broadway disaster, but it got us an agent and a string of other productions at mainstream theatres while still operating a season in Lancaster and supporting it by touring: the week of our play’s Off-Broadway opening, we were performing in Omaha. In 1985, CB began freelance directing as well.
From 1984 to 1988, we focused on Lancaster resident operation, achieving a fair bit of success in a short span of time despite being in a very traditionalist region. With dependence on box office came self-imposed pressure to “mainstream” the Eye’s mission. Administrative duties hampered our work as playwrights and crippled our capacity to devote extended development time to projects. So we gradually deconstructed our resident institution, selling our theatre building to another company whose formation we fostered, returning to itinerant life, and—both kids now off to college—moving to Philadelphia. Old City Stage Works opened in 1992 as our artistic home: a vast loft space converted into an office, a 49-seat theatre, and a backstage apartment for us & our dog.
Seven years in Philadelphia were extraordinarily busy. We premiered many new plays, conducted school residencies, produced several radio series, did commissioned plays for a science museum, toured throughout the Midatlantic, and developed collaborative works with other theatre ensembles & schools. Our Genesis Ensemble contributed to developmental evolution of some of our best plays, and we were a modest part of a huge burgeoning of Philadelphia theatre during those years.
Our personal lives took some radical turns as well, bringing spiritual life much more to the fore and involving us in various circles focused on sacred sexuality and Gaian spirituality—we came to describe ourselves as “Dionysiac Quakers.”
In 1999, we decided to leave Philadelphia, to return (after 33 years) to California as our ultimate home. So we left behind heavy grant funding, our theatre space (whose lease to Mum Puppettheatre we midwifed, allowing its continuance as a theatre), and our support structure—to become new kids on the Bay Area block. Why? Because our center has continued to be work that wants long evolution, and because we get a powerful energy from the roots of California. We purchased a house in Sebastopol with a huge outbuilding we converted into a rehearsal space, recording studio and shop.
It’s been at great cost. We no longer have grant support, decent production budgets, or visibility on the national theatre scene. We’re in an area that lacks a large theatre community. We find that our audiences respond more strongly than ever before, but that it’s infinitely harder to get them there in the first place. But no regrets.
In the years since coming West, we continued limited touring while going in many directions: a public radio series, a monthly artists’ cabaret, collaborative productions with other theatres, publishing CD’s, and beginning a memoir of our forty-four years of co-creation. Now, we’re entering a new phase of concentrated focus on visionary theatre through mask and puppet and an initiative in reinventing repertory touring.
We’ve achieved limited recognition, and our lives as senior-citizen artists (aged 65 & 67) are extremely insecure. What we can say is this:
- We’ve created a theatre focusing on new plays, new approaches to the classics, and experimental interarts synthesis. And we founded another theatre [Theatre X] that over the 35 years of its existence built a major international reputation as a progressive performance ensemble.
- We’ve written 60+ plays & revues as core repertory for our own companies and for other theatres. We’ve published paperback texts of plays that have been performed by hundreds of schools and community groups nationally. And we’ve been trail-blazers in exploring the social functions of theatre, creating plays concerning child abuse, offender rehabilitation, alcoholism, juvenile justice, and family dynamics for performance nationwide and for video distribution, as well as hundreds of workshops with community groups of all kinds. Lots of people are doing it now; not so when we started out.
- Our radio/video work has won recognition, and our radio series have been broadcast on 80 public radio stations.
- We’ve done service for arts development: 3 years on NEA Playwrights Panel (CB); combined 7 years on PA Council of the Arts Theatre Panel; 3 years on PCA Presenting Panel (EF); 2 years on Arts-in-Education Panel (CB); member of task force creating Lancaster Arts Council (CB); member Board of Directors, Theatre Association of PA (EF); NEA Site Reporter for 12 years (CB).
- We’ve won various prizes and fellowships: see resumes.
- We’ve raised two kids and a dog, all gifted. Now feeding four feral cats, two raccoons, and an occasional possum.
- We’ve worked to base stylistic experiment in the realities of human behavior and created a number of shows that have the ring of truth. And we believe we’ve provided a model to some younger artists in the possibility of a fully-lived life in art.
A series of highly premeditated acts of imagination and intelligence. . .—American Theatre
Whirling and astute of language and most intriguing to the eye.—Milwaukee Journal
Brilliant, strange and fascinating. . .—Philadelphia Inquirer
Lives revealed with intense clarity through admirable and uncompromising acting.—Variety
Spell-binding. . .—Seattle Times
Genuinely experimental, done not for “audiences” but for real people.—New York Villager