One Sunday in 1977, we sat around the littered old table at the Baltimore Theatre Project with a half dozen theatre friends, full of warmth for each other and anxiety about theatre’s future. We knew that live theatre has survived plague, movies, and even respectability, but if it has any function in a world of pesticides that don’t stop the pests, it must be to bring us into the intense presence of others, like an act of love. During this, our five-year-old son printed out paper slips, circulated among us and handed them out: “THIS IS A TICKET TO HERE. RIGHT NOW.” A title we should use for every play we ever do.
We had alighted in Lancaster like a dandelion seed. It was just a place to live between tours. This ultraconservative region would take years to form something as radical as an arts council. True, resident theatres have taken root in even less hospitable ground, but the idea of presenting a “season” was foreign to us: we had no desire to get pregnant five times a year. Yet when a seed is planted, its growth may defy all logic. The sun comes up, the leaves unfold, and suddenly it’s in flower, though rooted on the ledge of a gravel pit with barely a toe-hold.
From that toe-hold, we renovated a building and produced thirty-nine shows, a poets’ series, a music series, videos and radio projects. Our kids graduated from bona fide schools. The family spent time in Europe. We bought a house and a loveable dog. Four of our plays were done by major regional theatres, one Off-Broadway, and we won a bundle of playwriting fellowships. A solid success story, almost.
It’s hard to start writing this chapter. Sorrow sets in as we research these years, scanning the performance lists and cash ledgers, newsletters, and clippings. So much work, and now the building we shaped as our artistic home is a shelter for battered women. This decade in Lancaster stands as a comic paradox: a stark failure to achieve what we actually never wanted to do.
Yet there were so many people who bought into our vision, sweated to help us build and create, and who live in our hearts. There are devotees who, after we’ve been gone twenty years, still send us donations to continue making new work. During that span, our souls made ready for change. We grieve, but we don’t regret.
In 1943, my father deserted. In 1970, I met him. On October 7, 1981, the day before my fortieth birthday, he died. For me, his presence forms a capsule out of time. Our meeting had no direct effect on my life, except as an anecdote for a party and the inspiration for a play. Likewise his death: I met four half-sisters I didn’t know I had, I visited his grave in Brownsville, Texas, and I inherited $10,000, which paid for a new touring van. But there was more to it than that.
He arrived out of the blue. We were in Milwaukee, and Theatre X was moving from birth pangs to growing pains. I got a call from my mom. “There’s someone here who wants to talk to you.” Ok. “Hello, Conrad? This is your dad.” . . .