The following essay is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author and of Bob Mooney, NEW MYTS/MSS editor. It is part of collection of essays on the LITERARY LEGACY OF JOHN GARDNER, published in NEW MYTHS/MSS.

 

Moon to Shore: John Gardner and the Laurel Street Theater. BY Jan Quackenbush

copyright: 1995, NEW MYTHS/MSS Binghamton University, State University of New York, Bob Mooney, Editor.

 

Shortly after nine o'clock on Friday night of Thanksgiving weekend, 1979, John Gardner slipped out a side exit of an old brick school building in the town of Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. Standing a moment in moonlight, thumb tamping the dregs of Duncan mix further into the bowl of his pipe, he stared at the tops of the leafless trees, transforming himself into a character in my play Eden's Rock,, already underway on stage inside. He struck a match and drew in, spilling puffs in a burly haze. His signature hair had been cropped on top and sliced at the sides to his ears The unbuttoned dressgreen army jacket of his costume hung open, and the baggy trousers were wrinkled at the seat. A grease- stained apron hung from waist to shin. He was perfectly sloppy for the part.

In the theater, "TV reporters" set amid the audience were interviewing Henry Lamarr, the"first civilian in space," who was--as the play had it--standinng on the moon. Broadcasting "live" from his hometown of Babylon Flats, they ask him how he is feeling. "Great!" he shouts back. Except he has a problem: he's smuggled an easel so as to paint the earth, but is confounded as to what color he should use to render the polluted oceans. He is low on oxygen, and has missed a rendezvous back to earth. A last-ditch flyby is in the works. But first he has to speak, he says, with a boyhood friend named Rudy Miller, an army mess sergeant stationed somewhere in the U.S. Since they used to swim together in the Babylon River, Miller can, Lamarr, believes, tell him what color to concoct. But HoustonControl cannot locate Miller. Lamarr insists on staying until he finishes the painting.

 

I was a struggling playwright making a living in advertising when I met John Gardner in 1979 at a reading given by Galway Kinnell at SUNY Binghamton. On impulse I approached Gardner during a break and introduced myself as a playwright seeking help with my craft. I was blocked, I told him, and couldn't understand why. He invited me to stop by his office the following week; he would read over some of my plays and maybe make some suggestions.

This meeting was the first of many, in fact the prelude to friendship. We had some things in common: we both grew up on farms; we both rode Harleys: we had similar ideas about art and shared a vision of American theater. In time, our friendship grew strong and deep, such that it felt sacred to me.

One evening after a dinner at his house in Susquehanna. He and Liz Rosenberg coerced my wife and me into going to a production of Marriage Go-Round at the Laurel Street Theater. I had, to that point, avoided seeing the plays there. Back in Montrose, where I lived, word was that it was as amateur as theater got, that it wasn't worth the drive--never mind the price of admission. But John was insistent, in fact seemed to have planned this excursion beforehand, so we all piled into his cluttered Chevy and drove the mile from Coleridge Road to Laurel Street.

After paying for our tickets and getting our programs we took seats in the back row--though a gulf of empty chairs stretched ahead to the front where but a few people were sitting. The auditorium had once served as an assembly-hall/gymnasium for the Laurel Hill Academy, a school long since closed. Wainscotting along the walls bordered the dark hardwood floors that hadn't been shellacked in decades; the upper part of the walls were painted blue to the ceiling, which was decorated with embossed tin panels painted a creamy off-white. The main entrance doors in the foyer were narrow and curtained, and the two large windows at the rear of the auditorium were open for fresh air. Sitting there, we could hear the life outdoors: mufflers and brakes, skate-boarding, a squalling infant across the street.

It was community theater home-grown style: on-stage cues loudly whispered, unabashed mugging to front-row friends, misplaced props, mottled make-up. Playing under those humming hot lights, though, were ardent performers who clearly loved their every moment on stage, and as they poured themselves out to the sprinkled few in the seats, eliciting laughs and occasional applause, Gardner, I believe, sensed in their appeal a winging of dreams.

During the production he would one minute he sitting quietly feet planted on the floor, and the next laughing loud enough for the actors to have heard--a friendly sound in a cave. He applauded warmly at the end. In the foyer, he turned to me and abruptly suggested that each of us write a play for the theater. He'd write one and I'd write one. "Try to beat me" he said. In the car on the way home, and then later getting drunk on Premiat wine, he started spelling out to me ideas he had for the theater, how he wouldmake the committee that ran the place an offer to produce plays on their stage--not crappy scuff, he said. Original work. We could fix the place up, he said, we could pack it with people, they could take the gate. He went on and on and on, pouring wine in our glasses whenever they were empty.

John could sail ideas like, frisbees, and I was taken in. Here was this brilliant writer, a man who had won the National Book Award a few years earlier, a devoted teacher who would be a privilege for any writer to have as a mentor--challening me to write a play better than the one he would write, and then to have them both staged in a double-bill. I took the challenge, however it was he meant it.

My knowledge was sketchy about John's previous writings for stage. I didn't know, for example, that he had written a libretto for an opera titled Rumpelstiltskin, nevermind that it was staged in Philadelphia the previous Christmas at the oldest extant theater in America. I was unaware, too, of his radio plays, such as The Temptation Game, and of a program named "Earplay" that was broadcasting them.

So he wasn't new to the world of theater. Still, riding up on his motorcycle with his long white hair dropping over his black leather jacket, his appearance and manner must have come as a surprise to the members of the Susquehanna Community Choral Society--the non-profit organization that ran the Laurel Street Theater-when he attended one of their meetings to present his idea. But his incredible enthusiasm and exuberant nature carried the moment to success, and the Society agreed to produce our one-acts as a double bill.

The plays brought in an SRO crowd of two hundred. His play, Days of Vengeance, featuring his seventy-seven year-old mother in the leading role, went first, then, after a ten-minute intermission Eden's Rock.

"Where's Rudy Miiller?" Lamarr shouts, a bit frantic now, as Colonel Talbot down at Houston Control watches a blinking light on his console flash out the desperation of the moment. When Rudy Miller finally enters from the foyer, wiping his hands on his apron and meekly Talbot, it is clear he is unhappy about being drawn away from pots-and-pans anonymity. He barely remembers this guy Lamarr, and is embarrassed by being associated with the lunatic. Unlike Lamarr, Miller had grown submissive to authority. While Miller's nature was vastly opposite to his, Gardner nevertheless played the character with an insight that seemed to me profound. It was a small role, but Gardner created a full portrayal with incredible depth.

Eventually, Miller remembers the Babylon River as having a particular Asilver-blue" color, which he describes in detail to Lamarr, who in turn finishes his painting in time to rendezvous with the last-chance orbiter. As to who "won" the gentleman's bee between Gardner and me--that is, which play "beat" which--it ended in a tie with each of us claiming victory for the other. The real winner, though, we knew, was the Society, which we hoped would take the success of that evening as incentive to produce more original work-setting the small operation well on its way to becoming a workshop for new playwrights.

Our showswere barely finished on Saturday night of that weekend when Gardner encouraged me to write another one-act, a Christmas play to be completed in time to meet a submission deadline for consideration by the Cider Mill Theater up in Endicott, New York. He would write one, too, and was hopeful they would be produced as a double-bill, and as a substitute for the Cider Mill's longtime standard., A Christmas Carol. We had less than two weeks to complete them. He and Liz collaborated in writing The Sam Weber's Toyshop Miracle, a play with marvelous poetry and music. I wrote Poinsettia. We believed they both turned out very well, Gardner rushed to offer them, but they were not accepted.

Nonetheless, Gardner was active in theater that Christmas season, as Rumpelstiltskin was being staged once again, this time by the Opera Company of Philadelphia at the Walnut Street Theater. The next year, in 1980, Gardner saw two of his works mounted in three notably different venues: in April, his play Helen At Home--which portrayed Helen of Troy as a bored housewife in Sparta twenty years after the beginning of the Trojan War--premiered in the Strider Theater at Colby College in Maine; in October, his novel The Sunlight Dialogues, adapted for the stage by John Bielenberg of the Theater Department at SUNY-Binghamton, was presented in the Watters Theater on campus; and in November, Helen At Home was produced again, this time at the Laurel Street Theater, with Gardner directing.

The success of this Laurel Street production represented a significant third feather in the Society's cap of non-traditional works. Moreover, the organization saw that it was one of the few community theatres in Pennsylvania producing new and original plays. Beginning with "Helen," the Pennsylvania State Council on the Art (PSCOA) regularly granted the Society financial assistance for productions of new work.

Gardner became a voting member of the Society, and despite a busy personal schedule, he regularly attended meetings, offered opinions and suggestions about what to do and how to do it, and was respected for his clearly evident enthusiasm and broad knowledge.

While "Helen At Home" was in production, Gardner was providing me literary advice on a full length play I was writing, hoping that the Society would produce it. At a meeting, Gardner championed the play on my behalf, and shortly afterward a reading committee invited me to present it so they could dedide whether or not to propose a production to the Board.

"Tillman's Crossing" is a five-act drama that includes boat scenes on a river and the destruction of a bridge. Still, and while the Society had never produced a full-length drama, nevermind one with the scope of realism I was intending, the reading committee agreed on proposing to the Board that the play be produced, largely because of Gardner's enthusiasm. His faith had expanded their own.

But worrying about the strength of the writing. I went to Gardner's home one night to ask him to read a new draft. He agreed, but first had to attend to his own work. It was long after midnight when he finally climbed the stairs to the guest room where I sat waiting. His look was sad and serious. My revisions weren't good enough, he said. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he began to explain ill defined characters; ambiguous, stupid motivations; weak plot points. In a scant light from the hallway, he rummaged through pages to show me exactly where he saw problems.

As I had meant to accomplish a serious drama, Gardner's criticism was intense. He read aloud for me the sneering tone in my treatment of the protagonist, a villain. Gardner's point was that I had deprived the character of a heart. I had not loved him sufficiently to realize both the human nature at his core and whatever doubts and fears had twisted it, causing his selfishness and greed. I had written him scornfully, and he came off as a caricature. I needed to burrow through my apparent prejudices in order to explore the villain's character, else he would remain farcical, robbing the play of its inherent realism and potential depth. Exhausted as he was, Gardner sat there for over an hour making certain I comprehended the flaws as he saw them. Over the months to come I worked doggedly at correcting them, and the Society presented Tillman's Crossing in June.

Before the opening of the play Gardner surprised us all with a large sign for the theater that he had constructed himself in his basement. He had cut the letters on his bandsaw and painted them before screwing them onto a neatly crafted pine backing. He helped to hang it high on the front of the building, signaling that the theater was fully alive--which for Gardner meant a broadly based arts center and a colony for writers, artists, musicians and performers.

Gardner wasn't loathe to doing such work for the maintenance of the theater. He could be found in the basement toiling with the sump pump, or up on the roof brushing tar. He attended to costume design and set construction, once helping to devise a trap door for the stage. He consulted with artists on layouts for programs and assisted in advertising. He would help hang up work from local artists around the theater--an idea of his. He'd wander around rehearsals jotting notes in actors' scripts, stopping to offer encouragement, and as always backstage after a production, celebrating with the cast and consoling those who felt they hadn't performed well.

After Tillman's Crossing the society wanted a rouser, and so produced Meet Me In St. Louis--in which Gardner, who was musical director for the production., sang in two musical numbers "In My Merry Oldsmobile" and "You Tell Me Your Dream." In July of 1982, the Society presented You're A Good Ma,. Charlie Brow, which Gardner and Liz Rosenberg codirected. By early fall of that year I was rehearsing for a role I had in a production of Divorce Me, Darling, while Gardner was holding auditions for a musical he had co-written titled Marvin's on "The Distant Shore, " which was scheduled to premier in November. Marvin had been written in such a way as to have provided no limit to the size of the cast. By this time the Laurel Street Theater was fairly well-known, and, because manv people wanted a chance to work with Gardner, auditions for the play were quite crowded.

In September, on the night before he died, I was standing down on the stage prior to a rehearsal for the play I was in, and some of the actors awaiting auditions for Gardner's milled around the theater. When Gardner came in he looked at me but without his usual smile.

He had let it be known he hated the fact that the Society was producing Divorce Me, Darling. In meetings, he had argued against it. In private. he said he did not want the new-works team to support the production or be involved in it in any way. My impression was that he felt "Divorce" represented a throw-back to Marriage Go-Round. By implication, then, these plays were junk, while the new-works team was created to make art.

A faction among the members still wanted light melodrama, though, despite the small audiences such productions brought. Not everyone, after all, saw art as something more than entertainment. And as some members of the Society clung to old and cherished views, Gardner sometimes voiced his impatience.

I saw, the clear disapproval in his eyes from where I stood on the stage that night, and I felt foolish for participating in "Divorce." I badly wanted to explain how the director needed someone, anyon,. to fill a vacated role ... that I wanted to shore up peace between the rivalling factions.

His face, I thought, looked uncommonly pale, as if he were exhausted or ill. He was at that time in the process of translating The Gilgamesh, perhaps up all night and days on end. He had been rushing back and forth to Batavia where his father was recovering from a stroke. He was about to get married for the third time, and had much on his mind by way of planning for the future.

When someone approached him, Gardner looked away from the stage. Puffing at his pipe, arms folded across his chest, he nodded and smiiled, then crossed the room for the start of the auditions for "Marvin." I heard the piano playing and then someone asking, "What key's your voice in?" I never saw him again.

In the three years in which Gardner was engaged at the Laurel Street Theater, he wrote two shows, co-wrote two others, adapted and arranged two musicals--serving as musical director for one and co-director for the other--and musical director for a third musical, Marvin's "On the Distant Shore," that was in production at the time of his death. He also acted in three shows and played French horn in another.

At the time of John's death, the Society had largely realized the fulfillment of its dream of community appeal. Success was apparent in full houses at original plays, in new talent streaming in for auditions, and in the number of aspiring playwrights that submitted work for the Society's consideration. This aspect of Gardner's legacy continued for some time after his death. Eventually, however, the Laurel Street Theater closed down and the Society disbanded. Today, even the building itself is gone.

I recently spent time in the archives at the University of Rochester where Gardner's papers are kept. I was surprised at the abundance of Gardner's theatrical work. Going through box after box of material I came across remnants of play ideas, revised drafts, copies of completed stage plays, radio plays, musicals, opera libretti, and screen plays for cinema and television. Such an expansive range of effort, when seen together with his novels, stories, poetry astounded me anew with his dexterity in so many various forms of writing.

Fourteen years ago, when I looked to John for guidance in writing plays, he graciously and enthusiastically provided more support and encouragement than I could have dreamed of from a writer of his accomplishments. He had nothing to gain, certainly, by doing so. But his love of writing, of story, of language, and his generosity, or need, of sharing that passion, lives on in his former students--a legacy that can not be measured except in small attempts offered by words such as these.

(this essay is copyright protected; permission from the author and the editor must be obtained)

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