Elizabeth: [00:00:00] Welcome to Creativists in Dialogue, a podcast embracing the creative life. I’m Elizabeth Bruce.
Michael: And I’m Michael Oliver.
Elizabeth: Our guest today is longtime colleague B. Stanley, who is an actor, a director, a pedagogue, a puppeteer, veteran avant-garde theater artist, founder of Theatre Du Jour, former artistic director of DC Arts Center, a builder, and a father. Welcome, B.
This interview will cover the role creativity plays and has played in the various aspects of your life. Now, of course, we’ll ask you about theater and the role creativity plays in that field but will also explore your life as an executive director, a producer in community, as a husband and father, and [00:01:00] an artist of many disciplines, and ultimately creativity in shaping yourself as a person.
Michael: So, we like to start off all of our interviews with a couple of questions, and the first one is this: In what aspects of your life has creativity played the strongest role or had the greatest impact?
B.: Thank you and thank you for inviting me here. It’s a great honor to be among old friends who know that I didn’t always have gray hair. I think that for me, the most important part of creativity is the human engagement. That I’m engaged in it and which is why in fact, I’m involved in theater and it’s why I took on the role at DC Art Center, or why I even create anything at all.
You maybe don’t know that all my life, since theater’s not particularly lucrative, I’ve always been a carpenter and a builder at the same time. And so, there’s always been a very practical, creative part of my life—designing staircases and trying to figure out how to get [00:02:00] another floor on a house, or how to redo this kind of trim or whatever. In that part, I’m always bubbling things around in my head that deal with numbers and spatial concepts and whatever as, as well as all my theater ideas and, and so a lot of the stuff just comes from stuff that other people dream up, not me. And when I’m working on theater then I’m trying to come up with imagery that will speak to people.
So, like, in the carpentry business, I’m trying to address what people are imagining for themselves and trying to make it come into a realistic world. And then in theater, I’m trying to imagine what I envision and make that come into a realistic world.
Elizabeth: Another aspect that we wanna cover in our interviews with people is how you understand creativity itself. So how do you personally, B. Stanley, view creativity or the creative act?
B.: I think that the capacity for creativity exists in all human beings, just like love or [00:03:00] compassion or anything else, but that the development of any of these things can be thwarted by external conditions, whether that’s your societal, your personal, or your environmental conditions, and that were all too often stopped from going down a creative path because of pressure—from family who don’t understand or believe that this creative path is important or that it will be financial rewarding, which in their defense is probably true, but it’s also hard to be artistically creative if you’re in abject poverty or if you find yourself in a war zone or in a refugee camp. You could live in a town where anything but football and Jesus and getting married and raising a family is considered not only odd, but dangerous, and then that can’t be tolerated in those situations.
But whether or not the creative act is focused on a particular activity or problem solving our communication, I’d say that I don’t necessarily see these two [00:04:00] things as different ways to look at creativity as much as I see them as different aspects of creativity.
I think that we progress in our creative lives a lot like little kids do when they first start to draw, initially they’ll start to reproduce what they see around them: their family, their house, their school playgrounds, so forth. And then later they start to embellish those drawings with, with ideas like how, like, how they would like to see things or how they could make them look better or more beautiful and maybe importantly the ways that appeal to them personally. And eventually if they continue with drawing, then they’ll have the chance to influence other ways—other people’s ways of looking at things. And they’re starting, then they start making choices about what they believe will lead to a particular result. Like in that example, they are honing a skill in a particular field of endeavor—in drawing, I guess. But as they develop that skill, they’re also finding themselves in a world that they want to influence, and they want to bring their perspective to.
And, so, I think that whatever creative activity you might be involved with, the [00:05:00] real difference is identifying at what stage you are in that parallel development both as a practitioner of something and as a socially and emotionally conscious human being. Because it’s there that you can make the delineations that you’re talking about.
You have to be able to create the work that you’re aiming to, to do in order to apply it to problem solving or to communication. So, it’s like your ability or talent has to be developed enough to actually become the tool you need to open those doors.
Elizabeth: So, creativity really in that beautiful description really is a portal, a threshold toward fuller actualization of self.
B.: Yeah, of self or something that we perceive as the com—group self. The common self.
Elizabeth: The common self. Yeah. Speaking of the common self to, to speak a bit more personally as I think you know, you and Michael and I are all southerners. Michael’s originally from Goochland, Virginia, great metropolis of Goochland, Virginia. [00:06:00] I’m from a similarly great metropolis, a small town on the Gulf Coast of Texas.
You once told me that you were raised a dirt-poor white boy in a trailer park in North Carolina, that y’all were quote “vegetarians for years without knowing it” as I recall. And that your father stopped killing pigs because your family couldn’t afford to eat them, which is leads me to wonder how you, B. Stanley got here. You’re an internationally trained, veteran avantgarde theater artist and producer. You are arguably the most well-known experimental theater professional in Washington, D.C.
Now, I think of life, as you described, as a series of pivot points, moments when a person considers what they are and what they want to do next. So, what were some of your pivotal moments and how the heck did you get to where you are now?
B.: Alright, so let’s clarify a point. First of all, it was my grandfather that [00:07:00] decided killing pigs was not okay, economically viable. That story came from my mother and, and I’ve never been part of raising any pigs. My grandparents worked in the mills around Alamance County, North Carolina.
So now you, the original question you ask, how did you get here? Anyway, as I say, they’ve all worked in Alamance County, but I came into DC when I was about 14. My mother remarried a guy who had just gotten out of the army, and after a year or so he decided that he couldn’t hold onto a job in civilian life. And so, he went back into the army, and he sucked so bad that going, being in the army that they demoted him for coming back in which gives you a clue to my stepfather.
So, he got stationed in Fort Belvoir in Alexandria. And so that brought us from North Carolina into northern Virginia. And, and so I went to high school in Alexandria and—but I went back to North Carolina to go to University of North Carolina at Greensboro. And then I came back to this area when a friend that I had made doing outdoor [00:08:00] drama at Tecumseh! in Chillicothe, Ohio, he eventually got a job as director of the Prince George’s Children’s Theater. So, he offered me a job and then I was back in the same neighborhood here. And since children’s theater is a daytime gig, we had, we were young people out at night, DC Space, 9:30 Club, going to see interesting theater. We encountered the Hungry Fetus Theater Company, Seth Kahan and crew over at the St. Stephen’s Church on Newton Street.
Elizabeth: Oh, St. Stephen’s!
B.: Yeah. And, so, me and my friend Kevin Kilgore, we got to hanging around with those guys and that’s where we’ve met Richard Gaylord and Donald Davidson and Peggy Pridemore and other people like that. Mary Ruben. And, and we became involved in the experimental theater scene in DC and then after a short time, my friend who we’ll talk about in a minute George Kaperonis graduated college, I invited him up here, we started Theatre Du Jour. Then we got our space, The Jarry Performance Studio, [00:09:00] and then the Java Rama popped up next door.
And then by about 1986 or so, things were breaking up between us at Theatre Du Jour because he wanted to go down a particular path and I wanted to go down a particular path. So, I moved to New York. And went to work with Protean Forms Collective and Judith Malina and The Living Theater—Julian Beck had already passed by that time—and she and Hannah Resnikoff were running it. I saw, I did a show with them that ran for a few months and did a lot of solo work there. Met a lot of people. It was that you could easily become a fixture on the Lower East Side and never ever leave.
When opportunity came, I went to Italy and studied there with Ingemar Lindh at the Institutet för Scenkonst. And there I stayed for about four years. And when I came back, I thought I was probably going back to New York, but then the job at the DC Art Center came up. And then much to my surprise, I stayed there for 28 years. And started doing Theater Du Jour again in that space, and which was really the reason I took the job, so I’d have [00:10:00] my own performing space that I didn’t have to pay for.
Elizabeth: There you go.
B.: And there so there you go. That’s the history up to now.
Elizabeth: Now, I did not know that you had worked with Judith Malina in The Living Theater. Can you tell our listeners, this is a seminal organization in experimental theater history. Can you just give a little five second description of Living Theater?
B.: Julian would hate that.
Michael: Enough said!
B.: The Living Theater is the creation of Julian Beck and Judith Malina, husband and wife team who started doing regular theater back, like in the late forties, early fifties. And something transitioned and they became activists and they wanted to make theater that was more related to political themes. And so whenever you hear a story of somebody standing up and burning their money in a theater, that was at a Living Theater show. Frankenstein is probably the best known of their shows where Julian visualized creating a person out of this image of all these people on scaffolding doing different things but with different lighting and stuff, eventually made [00:11:00] the face of the, or the image of the monster.
And, so, they, they were very much into society’s shortcomings, how theater could affect that. They were run out of New York because they didn’t pay their taxes. They went to live in Italy and had a huge following in Italy. And in fact, when I was there, they were there, we were all, got together again and did some workshops and stuff.
A lot of my friends worked with them after—until the end. They were always located on the Lower East Side of New York. And, yeah, they’ve affected a lot of people. Bread and Puppet being a group that is very closely aligned with them. But, yeah, they the interesting thing was there was a lot of actors in that group that really wouldn’t be professional actors outside of that. A lot of my friends in The Living Theater, that’s what they did and they didn’t get parts in other shows or anything like that. That’s kinda—that’s what they worked on.
Elizabeth: Yeah, that’s fascinating. So go back to some of these pivot points. You’ve given us some kind of biographical information. Can you talk a little bit more about just these pivot points in your approach to creativity and [00:12:00] how, how your vision of what you wanted to do as a theater artist started to manifest itself in a more specific capacity?
B.: I don’t disagree at all that there are pivot points in your life that you make a choice that really has a big impact. And I tell people all the time—because now I’m old and I get to tell people stuff—that if you wanna find happiness in life, that the answer is to be content with the consequences of your decisions.
Elizabeth: Quotable quote.
B.: And there have been a lot, for me that I’ve—we don’t need to get into the long biographical thing, but I left home when I was really young and then started Theater Du Jour when I was younger and moved to New York, going to Europe, starting at—leaving DCAC, probably more instrumental than starting at—going to DCAC.
But really some of the strongest turning points in my life I would say certainly like that changed my life would be when I left home when I was 15. ‘Cause you’re not supposed to leave home when you’re 15 years old. And I eventually got caught not being at home. [00:13:00] And everybody who was, had something to say about that was very much of the mind that I should return home and live with my mother and my stepfather. But I wasn’t gonna do that. And I wasn’t gonna let that happen because I could see that that life was very set down in a path. My, for my stepfather, my success would’ve been to be a sergeant in the army. Not a, not an officer. To be a sergeant. I lived in a world where intellectuals and people who were college graduates were looked down upon. They were hoity toity, they were above their station, all of that kind of stuff. And so that just wasn’t the world—I wanted to live in.
And, so, I wanted to stay gone. But in order to do that, I had to as, as a 15-year-old kid, to envision what life could be and what life I wanted to have. And then I had to work really hard to convince people that it was possible, that not only was it possible for a person like me from my background to go on and do something different, but that there was in fact a [00:14:00] foster family out there somewhere that would take a 15 year old boy who had been in trouble as it were ‘cause you’d run away from home, so you’re in trouble with the law. But, and, but there it was, that’s what I had to do.
And in fact, that is what happened. And it was a big change in my life. It was—I went from being, poor kid, struggling through to living in an upper middle-class family and participating in afterschool activities and having a social life and being in theater. And as—theater was very developed at my school. And that whole thing gave me a broader and more hopeful perspective of what I could be as an adult. And that took an awful lot of human engagement and persuasion and talking. And so that was the one big one.
And the second biggest decision, I think that was a pivot point, was my decision to stay in Italy because when I went to Italy from New York City, I went there to be part of a, a one-year seminar, there was a theater, Swedish theater group there, the Institutet för Scenkonst, under the direction of Ingemar Lindh. And they did these [00:15:00] seminars, typically two-month seminars. And I had met somebody from Belgium, and they said, oh, you need to go there. These are your people. And then there came a time where when I was living in New York, I didn’t wanna be that guy on the Lower East Side for the rest of my life. And so, I looked them up and asked about their two-month seminars and they wrote back and said—those are the days of writing—wrote me back and said, no, we don’t have a two-month seminar, we have a one-year seminar coming up here. And I thought, how in the world am I gonna go do that. But anyway, and that’s a story all by itself, how I came to raise enough money and whatever to go and live—but I did go to Italy and go participate in that one-year seminar.
And the person I met from Belgium was right. Those were my people. And at the end of that one-year seminar, they announced that they were going to have—soon, ‘cause it ended in, I don’t know, ended December, so it was like December 1st or something—starting in March, we were gonna have a one year and a half seminar. And what they wanted were people who were familiar with the work, experienced with [00:16:00] the work to come back and participate in another seminar, but also they wanted someone, or some two people at the very most, to work as the assistant to Ingemar Lindh. And Ingemar and I had become really close, good friends and I approached him and said, what do you think would you take me if I said I wanted to do this? He said, I had hoped it would be you. And so—now at that point I had no other resources, but I decided, yeah, I’m gonna stay here and do this because, this is what I wanted.
And I had a lot of other ideas of things I would do after that year, including going to work for Peter Brook, but—not that Peter was calling me, mind you.
Elizabeth: The late great, yeah.
B.: But I, I had a lot of other ideas. But I decided to—ended up staying there another three years and working with him and became very close with him. Stayed close until he died in ‘97. And, and in fact, that he died that had a profound effect on my life. And, yeah, not just going to Italy for the seminar, but [00:17:00] staying, committing to that I think was a huge point for me.
Michael: So, going back to that, that, your pivot point at the age of 15 when you leave home and just focusing on that, those childhood experiences that only got you out of your home, and I guess you, it sounds like you were adopted by another family, right? Yeah, so how do those childhood experiences. How have they influenced your sort of creative imagination or your creative spirit?
B.: Of course, now we talk about childhood and it’s different than what we might know as childhood today. Certainly having a kid myself, we talk about the days before the internet, the days before streaming services, the days, the days before cell phones, and that’s a tired old trope that people don’t want to hear from us anymore.
But, when I think about that—one of the things that I think is important about that, not so much that we were suffering in technological aspects, but [00:18:00] that there was such a mystery to the world. We didn’t have Rick Steves, we didn’t have people in your family that had traveled to China or even to England, or in some cases to South Carolina. Everything relied on your imagination as to—what was out there, how could it be? And I’m sure this is the cause of so many, of these stereotypes that we live with today and try to get rid of in our life because people just didn’t know, and you came up with stuff, so South Of The Border, maybe that is the way it is in Mexico, I dunno. Maybe it is “chili today, hot tamale.” I dunno. But I think that was the, one of the main things about being a kid.
But I would say that for a lot of things that happened in my life as a kid we moved around a lot. I joked that we put the word mobile in mobile home for various reasons that make another story unto itself. But that also led you to being like a new kid a lot. And like a lot of kids, like military people have this sensation where you learn to rely on yourself and your own interest and your own books and [00:19:00] so on to, to make up—your life gives you of an introspection.
But I think one of the most influential things in my childhood—and this is before I ever left home—was my sixth-grade year. In school, and you may have this experience too, in a certain economical position in life, your grandparents and your aunts and uncles don’t expect you to get above your station. You are here, this is where we come from. We’re country people. This is the way we are. Don’t get highfalutin. Don’t start thinking you’re better than anybody. Because that’s like I said, people who went to college thought they were better than other people, which is not true, but that’s what they thought, it’s just, there was a prejudice there, a deep prejudice. And, and it stifles people. You see how people end up with no options in life because they’ve been told there are no options in life.
But in the sixth grade, I got my first male teacher, and he was black. And this was a real anomaly, in, in central North Carolina. And Mr. Hurley Patterson [00:20:00] and—‘cause you’re from the south, any educated black man who’s teaching in a middle school in the south has a host of problems. You can imagine. Only as an adult do I actually really think about the things that he must have been struggling with in that environment and just how frustrating it could be. He was the first person I ever knew that had a master’s degree and, and he was doing that while he was teaching. He was taking night courses and getting a master’s degree in teaching. Brilliant man. But as he used to tell us, ladies and gentlemen, I do not play. And he admitted he did not, he did not play. And he would call out the popular kids for being materialistic, for being cliquey. And he never missed a chance to lift up a kid who maybe like myself had come from a trailer park or poor background who was really achieving, who was really doing well, that silent kid at the back of the class that, never got any support at home. That was the guy [00:21:00] he focused on. And I just, I was taken with this guy. I’d never seen anybody like this who was just against the society that is, that existed like it was. But he was smart, and he knew what was up. And I’ll never forget that after the very first standardized test, I think that was given in our state, and it was graded statewide, we got the results back and three of the super highest grades—not the top grades, but super high grades—out of the state were people in our class. And, and I was, I was one of them. And all of the other little popular snotty kids that, whose fathers were in management, they weren’t, their names weren’t being called. And he loved that. And he told those people, he said, look at you. You look around. Let me tell you something. You see these three people? He named us all out again. He said, you people living your mundane lives down here in Burlington and Graham and whatnot. You watch the newspapers ‘cause that’s where these guys will be.
Elizabeth: Oh, I love that.
B.: These people will be at Duke and UNC [00:22:00] and at State and they’ll be the ones making changes in the world. And that’s who you need to be paying attention to.
And, I’d never had anybody talk about me or to me like that. And, and it was just—he was a great guy and it really truly changed what I thought about life and to this very day, I tell people I don’t play.
Elizabeth: Sure. Wow.
B.: And I don’t.
Michael: You obviously how you saw it yourself as well.
B.: That’s right. You didn’t have to be your podunk kid, just because you were today. That—you know so much about that. I can’t even imagine what his childhood was like.
Elizabeth: Were you ever able as an adult to get back in touch with him?
B.: The last time I saw him is when I was on my way to college. No, actually, I was not on my way to college, I was on my way to an audition at the North Carolina School for the Arts. And me and three of my colleagues from high school were on our way to Winston-Salem where that school was, and we passed through, and I stopped in. And in those days, you could just walk into a school. Not anymore. But I just walked in, walked right into his sixth-grade class, and he was so glad to see me and told me, he [00:23:00] said again—he told those kids in that class again—see, right here, this boy came from a trailer park over at Haw River, and he’s on his way right now to audition where—he’s, he was beaming.
And when I finally went to, to try to see him later, he had already passed. So, but three of my cousins had that same teacher. And they hated him.
Elizabeth: They were not headed to, to a life in theater.
B.: No. And I, I look and knowing that those, those guys are, they are typical of North Carolina. Very racist and very single minded. And I, like I said, I can see why you guys don’t like him. Yeah. Because you are the kind of people that he rails against. You think—and I could just hear him in my mind—you think, you think you know, but you don’t.
Michael: Yeah, so you, you mentioned auditioning at North Carolina, and then earlier you mentioned doing a—having a day job at a children’s theater. So how did you get introduced to theater? What was some of the—that sort of led you to a theater career or a theater where you put so much of your creativity at the theater? [00:24:00] What got you introduced to that?
B.: It’s funny enough, my, when my mother, my natural mother, met my soon-to-be wife, she said to her, he was always strange as a child too. The “too” made me realize she still thought I was strange. It wasn’t like “he used to be strange” ‘cause he was always was.
So, I think there was always some part of me that was about it. When I was in third grade, I remember my, me and my friend, we used to reenact all the Laugh-In episodes for our friends. So they would all sit on the back steps of our trailer and we would try to reenact all of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In for them. And in the fourth grade—that was, which was pretty funny ‘cause we had a little tricycle we’d ride up, we’d follow, we’d get down behind the bushes and go, “Very interesting.” All that stuff. We’d do all that. I had no idea what some of the jokes meant.
And then in the fourth grade I, somehow, I persuaded my teacher that it would be a great idea if she would let me have a group of students to learn to [00:25:00] put on plays to reenact things we were learning at school. And how I got that, I don’t know, but I did get it and we did do it. But it was really in, about the time I was about 10, I guess maybe—I was in fourth grade. We went to church a lot. Yeah. The church was a big part of my life when I was a little kid. And—because we lived, poor, for a time, our trailer was not in a trailer park, it was behind my grandparents’ house, so it’s really podunk right there, if you’ve got a trailer pulled up behind your house, that’s—but that’s the way it went. But, anyway, so my grandmother took us to church all the time, and we were Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night people.
And in every church, they put on Christmas pageantry, right? They’re there, it’s usually the wise men and you know the drill. But one year, for some reason, somebody in our church persuaded the people of the church that they should put on a play, this wholesome Christian Christmas play. And they said okay. And I was cast in that—they didn’t have auditions, I was just announced that I was in—I’m sure they talked to my mother, but nonetheless I was in that play. [00:26:00] And so that was the first time that I ever was in a play with a script with a designer, with a director, with other actors—doing a play. And it was a dream come true. I loved every minute of it. The rehearsals, the conceptualizing, the watching the director work with the actors, how the actors changed what they were doing. It was just the best thing that I had ever done.
And it wasn’t long after that a group came to our church, group of young people, and they put on a performance in our church, but it was nothing like that. This thing took place all around us and it was all about trying to scare you to come to Jesus. There was—this was one of those, kind of, hell and fire and brimstone and this, somebody’s like the devil now. They’re rattling the chains and there’s moaning and there’s crying, and people being cast in the pit divided from their families, quite a thing.
And then I was like, wow, there’s other kinds. [00:27:00] There’s other kinds of theater. And yeah, and it can be powerful, and it can be persuasive. And so that kind of got me thinking about all that stuff. But in North Carolina there wasn’t any acting in our schools or anything like that. So really not a lot happened until I got to Alexandria in high school. And in that particular school, in fact almost all of Fairfax County at that time—this would’ve been mid, when, mid-seventies—there were really robust theater programs. Like it wasn’t unusual to have theater one, two, three, and four in your school. And in within those, not only did you do plays, but there was, there was acting class and there was history class and musical theater history and stage craft, how to build things, and so it was very full, and play readings and so on. And every level of that class would present plays and stuff.
And we did a Jean-Claude van Itallie play when I was in high school and opened my eyes to Joe Chaikin and [00:28:00] The Open Theater and all of that kind of stuff. And, and I just dove into that. I did that all the time. And if I wasn’t on stage, then I was building the set. And if I wasn’t in that class, I was assisting in that class. The theater became what I did, and then I went on to the UNC in Greensboro and into their acting program there. And thanks to all that great background, I was way more advanced than most freshmen going into college because they came from the North Carolina schools. And they didn’t have all of this. And I thought I was just all that. And ego has never been a problem for me. Or should I say lack of ego, that’s a, that’s been a problem, but the lack of it wasn’t the problem. And in fact, it wasn’t until I met Eugenio Barba that I decided my ego was not that bad. Because if this guy just blows me out of the water, I could never.
But anyway, so then with UNC, and since I was at this different stage I [00:29:00] tended to hang out more with the grad students ‘cause UNC Greensboro went up to PhD. So, there’s a lot of variables of, of theater in there. And, and what happened was that, the grad students would take directing courses and then if you took directing courses, you had to, the way you got tested was you had to present, which meant you had to have scenes, which meant you had to have actors and they used the undergraduate people for that. And I was really good—am, was, really good. And, so, I got cast all the time in these scenes and so I just stopped going to classes and stuff and all I ever did was rehearse and do shows and hang out with the grad students, smoke pot. Like that. And, and so anyway that was also where we also had a couple of guys in the, that were on the edge. There was a friend of mine who would just disappear. He was a grad student actually from the Washington area, I never knew him here, but Ryan Catrona. And he would go to Poland and work with Grotowski—
B.: —for a few weeks. They had these, what they called beehives at the time and you’d go participate, then he’d come back and then we’d spend time in the studio and he’d just show me all [00:30:00] the stuff they had done while they were there. And this happened two or three times. He had a protector in one of the professors there. ‘Cause otherwise, I think he would’ve been thrown outta school ‘cause he was always leaving. It was only two—it was only a two year program and yet he would be gone, for weeks at a time. And he would come back and he would be okay ‘cause he’s been in Poland or whatever, and believe me, the rest of the people didn’t cotton to that too well.
But that professor, Richard Mennen, he was a very interesting guy, and he taught a class—in fact, I just audited some classes ‘cause I wasn’t allowed to go to 500-level classes—but I would just go in and I said, if you don’t throw me out, I’ll stay. So that’s where I learned a lot of theory. I learned a little bit about Artaud, I learned Jarry, I learned Meyerhold and all, all the rest of that kind of stuff in those classes, in UNC and hanging around all of those people. And actually, all of my grad student friends were leaving ‘cause it was a two year program. Of course, I was in a four year program. But in order to get out, they had to take this massive test, almost like the Bar. And so we [00:31:00] all sat around and we would go over these ideas and answers to all these questions.
B.: And so that in itself was probably worthy of my own master’s degree, because I knew that stuff as well as they did. I, in fact, I even asked if, could I go take the test, if I pass would I have a master’s?
Elizabeth: Yeah, really!
B.: And they didn’t buy that, but.
Elizabeth: So, go back for a moment, B., and tell our listeners who among the notable, kind of, giants in theater—tell our listeners a little bit about Jerzy Grotowski just as a, another seminal figure in theater history.
B.: Yes, Mr. Grotowski. He’s Polish and—we’re talking about the time of the Iron Curtain. For our listeners who don’t know there, there was a time when Eastern Europe was sectioned off from the West and we didn’t know what went on back there, more or less. But anyway, in, in the Soviet times, in the Soviet Union—and, and Poland was a part of that—they subsidized theaters. In almost in every reasonably sized town, there’d be some kind of theater where you could go and [00:32:00] see whatever that they were putting on. And Grotowski was an activist, a social activist who got into theater and wanted to experiment within theater and decided he was going to get one of these theaters and have his own place to work.
And, so, he did, called the Theater of the 13 Rows, which is how many rows of seats there were in there. And he began to produce work. But he didn’t want to put on a schedule of plays like every other group was doing. He wanted to spend time and futz around and do whatever he wanted to and put on a play or maybe what, not even that, per year. And he started calling the theater a Laboratory, which is interesting. I didn’t know that just until some years back when I, people from Poland were presenting that because they said he never—and somebody’s gonna call me out on this, but I got this on good authority—that [00:33:00] he didn’t call it a laboratory because of the kind of experimentation he was doing it, he did it so that the officials wouldn’t make him put on three shows per year.
Elizabeth: Ah, okay.
And in fact, Eugenio Barba told me that he did the same thing when they moved to Holstebro and they offered them this old milk plant so that they could, their theater group could live there. And he said at that time, that’s very much what they wanted. They wanted a group of actors to live and put on children’s shows and be a part of their community as theater, but he had to let them know that they were a theater laboratory and that it wouldn’t be like that. And he said, I did the same thing that Grotowski did.
But anyway, Grotowski goes on to create some really great works that are offsite, they’re not in the theater, they’re in clubs, they’re in other locations. He starts working with trying to discover a training for actors, using a lot of yoga practice to begin with and gymnastic stuff. He asked the actors to bring in things to show each other and train one another. And [00:34:00] so, he doesn’t prescribe what they are doing. He’s observing what they’re doing, coming up with. And he goes on—and probably the most famous play they create is a one person play with the actor, Ryszard Cieślak called The Constant Prince. And that finally gets out of Eastern Europe and is in festivals and things and even in New York.
And then this puts Grotowski in a different category of, of theater person. And he becomes, within the world of theater, well-known. Those of us who are in theater think, oh, he’s a world famous, but in truth, in a particular world, he’s very famous.
But then he left. He decided at some point that he was not gonna do any more productions and performances. He wanted to get into something called paratheater, which was more the development of the individual experiencing the theater that they’re creating themselves. And this is what My Dinner with Andre, that movie with Wally Shawn is about, ‘cause they’re talking about the [00:35:00] experiences, and you know, these are stereotypical anymore, where somebody is laying at the coffin and there’s a funeral going on and then they get buried. But the audience is the person in the coffin, right? All the other people that are participating and doing so for that person’s benefit, so you are at once the performer and the audience. Or akin to tying yourself to a tree in a storm or something, it’s all, and so there’s that.
And then he moves on to a third cycle, which is much more introspective. So that, that’s Grotowski goes. And today there’s still, in fact it’s divided into two groups ‘cause you have Richards doing the Grotowski Center in Pontedera, Italy and he’s gone down some particular path that’s gone way past the paratheater. Then there’s the official Grotowski Institute in Wrocław who is trying to preserve a history and some of—cause there’s a lot of people that work with Grotowski. As we all know that those of us in theater, one person’s name might rise to the top, but really it’s all those other people and there’s a lot of people to [00:36:00] be accredited for that work and so on. But anyway, there—
Elizabeth: There you go. Speaking of masters in the theater world you became immersed in the theatrical work of French Symbolist writer Alfred Jarry. And so first, tell our listeners who Alfred Jarry was and what it was about his approach that spoke to you.
B.: See, this is like a, this is like the graduate school test.
Elizabeth: Yeah, really. Little seminar in experimental theater here.
B.: [Imitating instructor:] Gordon Appia. Tell me about Gordon Appia, why Appia and Craig are different, but similar. I’m ready, you know, I can do this stuff off the top of my head. Makes people think I’m smart.
Alfred Jarry, yes, indeed. He’s a, as you say, he’s a French author who lived in the late 19th century and he had a, what we would call today, breakout celebrity and success. In 1886 with the debut of his play, Ubu Roi—
Elizabeth: Ah, yes, of course.
B.: Or King Ubu. Ubu himself is a character. He’s a very unlikeable, narcissistic character who contrives with his equally distasteful wife [00:37:00] to overthrow the government. And, and this play was presented in a very sparse puppet-like fashion, very unconventional for the day—that day. The first word of that play is a very recognizable derivation of the French word for shit.
And when it was first uttered, according to Roger Shattuck, the author of The Banquet Years, it caused such an uproar that it was practically—people started fighting, people were screaming, people were fainting. It was mayhem in the theater. They eventually got everybody calmed down. Apparently during all of this, Jarry’s doing like an interpretive dance somewhere, that’s what they say. I wasn’t there, to be a bit like Shelby Foote, [imitating Foote:] and here’s what happened.
But the second word of the play is all the same. And so it all started again, after the second word. But suffice it to say that all of that put Jarry in the, in the “enfant terrible” position for French society, cultural society.
And he was [00:38:00] very well known in his day, very sought after. He wrote two more plays that star Ubu, and he wrote several books that are a science fiction that feature a character named Dr. Faustroll. And Faustroll is the professor of ‘pataphysics, which Jarry made up. It’s a science of imaginary answers, for which Jarry says the world is crying for. And he was often seen in Paris on his bicycle, he carried a loaded pistol, he loved absinthe, dabbled in other substances, and died at 35 years old asking for a toothpick on his deathbed.
So anyway, I could go on about that. But that’s the gist about Alfred Jarry and I was introduced to him in my first year of college by Richard Mennen in one of his classes. And he has indeed been a constant in my life every, ever since. I have, I made a rod puppet of Ubu when I was 21, and I have performed a great deal with that puppet. That puppet has been on stage more than a lot of actors in Washington. And [00:39:00] I did sort of standup routines with him and I would emcee with him when I lived in New York at open mic nights at ABC No Rio and places like that. And he’s been on a lot of postcards and Christmas cards, and I made some little films with him.
And you know what appealed to me about him, because when I first came across Jarry, I was, what, 19, 20 years old. Theater guy. So, of course it’s his impudence and his disrespect and disdain for society that really is what got me involved in beginning with. ‘Cause that’s your guy, right? But of course that wouldn’t hold for the rest of your life. As it does.
And but really what—in Jarry’s work is a, a twisting, an intellectual calisthenic, of the way he would twist what we perceive as reality, what you expect to be reality, flip it around, twist it up some, put it in a perspective or in, in, in the situation where it has a different resonance. And it’s ac—it’s actually all of that part of Jarry that [00:40:00] enamors Antonin Artaud some 40 years later. And so he was, he, like myself, was taken with Jarry and, and now Artaud is very much a part of my work too. You’re not gonna ask me to explain who Artaud is are you?
Elizabeth: No, no.I’m not.
B.: Okay. Because I can, but—
Elizabeth: It’ll take a lot longer, yes.
B.: But anyway, Antonio Artaud is very influenced by that. And, in short Artaud’s big push is the “mise en scene.” He’s talking about how all things within the visage of the audience contributes to the play. It’s not just the actor or the thread, but it’s the wholeness of it—whether there’s a shoe laying on the stage or not, it’s a part of the play. And that, real quick, that’s a lot—part of what Artaud’s talking about.
So all those two people come together a lot and that—and so much that right now, I don’t know that you could look at one of my plays and go, “Oh, that’s specifically Artaud,” because they’re so woven into what I do. So I don’t, you could, whether I was doing Pygmalion or whether I’m doing Last Minute, they very much influence what I’m doing.
Michael: So [00:41:00] let’s look at your early work at the Theatre Du Jour that you co-founded in 1982, which was actually one year prior to our establishment of the Sanctuary Theater in Washington, DC. The Theatre Du Jour specializes in the creation of original performance pieces. So, if you could just maybe describe the process that you use, and the pieces themselves that you use, in the creation of these original.
B.: All right, here we go. So, first I’ll tell you how we came to have Theatre Du Jour ‘cause I think that is a part of it.
So, I mentioned my friend George Kaperonis, who I’d met doing outdoor drama in Ohio. And he and I got to be friends then and then we stayed friends. He was in the theater department as an actor, but he was also a writer. He liked to write. And, so, he showed me a lot of his stuff and he would send them to me in the mail. And, so, I told him that when he finished college to come on up to DC and we’d start a theater group together. And he wrote these really short [00:42:00] plays, like 10, 15-minute-long plays. And I said if you’ll come up here and write those kind of plays for two actors, we’ll play in them. You write ’em and I’ll direct ’em, and that’ll be our theater company. And so that’s what we did. And, and then really his goal was to write plays. My goal was to enact all of the theories of an Antonin Artaud. So that is what created Theatre Du Jour.
And we had this big idea that we could create these short plays and then perform them like in between sets by bands at clubs and stuff. So we were really thinking of theater outside of the theatrical situation. And I don’t know that we really, we didn’t ever make the 9:30 Club doing that kind of stuff. But we did make these plays that were flexible. So, then, if you were to see us do a play that had a name, like Bigger Than Life was our first one, you would’ve seen three or four of those little plays smashed together. It would be like—and it would be clear, because it’d be different characters and stuff then they were not related to one [00:43:00] another. It was different sets of what—it’s like a band, four songs or whatever—very much that same sort of setup. And they would be bridged with like poetry or something that also George would write. And there—we created three major plays, Bigger than Life, Go, and Blindness From Looking Too Hard At The Sun, that were combinations of those small plays. But there were more of the small plays, and we would rearrange them in different ways for different performances and these were called compilations. And we could do them different places at different times, we could break ’em up, we would be at festivals, we’d come between this kind of act and that kind of act. And people began to use us for that kind of stuff. Because they knew that if there was a big set changes and we could run out there and do our stuff, we didn’t have any set but somebody on bongo drum and—and then when we were done, everything would be changed for the next typical theater. And, so, we did a lot of that. And those plays were very rhythmic. They were very kinetic. They—George’s wordplay was compared by The Washington Post to Laurie Anderson. [00:44:00]
And, so, yeah, that’s, that’s what Theatre Du Jour was. It expanded beyond George and myself. We included a costume designer, a technician, intern, things like that. And that’s what that was at the time.
And what was the second part of that question? What were the plays like?
Michael: Or the process?
B.: Okay, so you’ve skipped over the perfect time to start such a venture.
Michael: Oh, I’m gonna get back to that.
B.: Okay, so the process. Now as I mentioned before, too, there’s Theatre Du Jour, which is George and myself, and Joe Drayton and Valerie Taylor and other people, Kenny Plant. And then there’s me going away to New York and going to Italy and doing all of that, and then coming back to DC. And then there’s more Theatre Du Jour, which is not George and not George’s plays anymore.
So there’s a difference there. So. the early work of Theatre Du Jour is us doing those plays in the 1980s in DC and in our theater, which are composed of those things. Then there’s my influence of Ingemar Lindh and what I learned working with him. And then when I come back and I’m working in the 1990s Theater Du Jour starts [00:45:00] again, mainly because the people in the group that I was starting working with, they wanted to become Theater Du—they asked if we could be Theatre Du Jour ‘cause we were on our way to Edinburgh, we had to have a name. We were just putting on plays at the time and we weren’t calling ourselves anything in particular. So that’s when we decided we would do it.
So now when you get to that kind of work you have to, our process is different in a way. Because what happened in the early days was, since I was working with rhythms and imagery and George was writing the, the words, I had full control over what we did. And I would script out these gymnastic paths that we would make on stage. Flips and turns and climbing bars and whatever, that, it was all very written out. People used to think we improvised that stuff, but we didn’t. It was all scripted in time. I had little clay people in a set that I would move around like that. And all kinds of things like that.
But what we started to do was we did a lot of what in those days was called sound and movement improvisation. And we did that for fun, we [00:46:00] didn’t do that for money. We just did that like at improv sessions and stuff, but we wanted to incorporate that where we could. So, what we began to do was to break apart the structure that I had given us into very tiny pieces of physical action. And they would improvise that physical action in a sound and movement kind of style. And then take from that what we wanted and put it back in to the structure again. So, we were finding new ways to do what I had already decided to do through an improvisation but put it back into the structure so it didn’t, the performance itself never broke into improvisation necessarily—yes, that would be true.
We called that controlled abstract movement. Or I called it controlled abstract movement. George once called it Stanley’s controlled abstract movement, because then the acronym would be “scam.”
So that was how we were. So [00:47:00] I knew, and I was—or “knew”—I was finding that taking apart action was the path to making more organic action on the stage. Because in the end it’s what’s watchable and what the audience will buy, not what you think you’re doing, which takes us away from Stanislavski and this more realistic path where people are like, if I believe I’m, if I believe it, the audience will believe it kind of thing. And I don’t buy this one minute at all. I don’t think people believe what you believe, or we’d all be the same religion, right? The, the—what you have is what the audience perceives. And so by working on the physicality of the action, you’re, you’re creating what the audience sees and you give them the chance to make their own decisions about what it is, but you have to be precise in what you’re doing for them to make that decision.
It’s like watching a car wreck. It’s precisely a car wreck, but you can make up all kinds of stories about it because it’s precisely that. There’s no question. And if you’re watching something on stage, even if it’s [00:48:00] abstract, you don’t really understand why they’re doing it, if you can say that is what they’re doing, then you can make a decision about what it is they’re doing, and you can create your own world.
This is key to understanding where we go further, because when I worked with the Institutet they—they are working from improvisational aspect of creating what they call material that the actor’s going to use. And so the actor will go on to the floor and do an hour long improvisation, come up with a bunch of actions they want to try. They will distill that into two or three actions, and then take those minimal actions back into an improvisation and then treat those actions with, like, direction, rhythm, size, tension, to see what you can get out of those actions and what they can be. And then, once you’ve done that, the director/observer will say, let’s try this and try it that way.
And, so, you have four things—if you can imagine, you have a—if you can wave over here, you can [00:49:00] wave the opposite way. You can wave north, south, east, and west. That’s four different things of the same thing. You can also wave up. You can wave down. You can wave backwards. And so that’s what you’re trying to do. Every way of waving. At some point, the observer, the director will say that looked like you were pushing somebody away. And when that actor walked by you and you were doing your wave thing backwards, it looked like that. So, it begins to have a resonance, and it’s the resonance that you’re looking for.
Again, this is very distilled, but suffice it to say it’s a long improvisational process. And then when Theater Du Jour re–regroups again, this is what we’re doing. This is how we’re creating our plays. And, so, it’s this reassembling of action and gesture that goes into the collaborative process of performer and director. And that’s what generates the plays.
Michael: And it sounds like—so through this process, you’re creating movements that [00:50:00] you ultimately decide that the audience can somehow connect with and believe at some level. So, this leads me to this question of, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, but this leads me this to the question of Washington DC, 1982, the creation of a theater. And this is pre gentrification DC, right? This is crack wars on the horizon.
Michael: This is, they haven’t cleaned up 14th Street. All the, the marks and the, of the riots of ‘68 are still very much with us, and the money hasn’t yet poured into DC to gentrify it. In what way was DC 1982 the perfect place to start a theater like Theater Du Jour and in what ways was it, like, not the best place to start a theater?
B.: I think that the latter is probably true. I don’t know that it was the best time to start our theater group. But I don’t think you get the luxury to choose that because [00:51:00] you’re only 22 once.
Michael: That’s true.
B.: And you’re only motivated and indestructible like that at one time. And then you are where you are. Now, granted, we weren’t still in North Carolina. We had already gotten through that point and we were here. But I would say, for the—like when I told you we ran into Seth Kahan and The Hungry Fetus people the—there was a lot of that going on.
Part of that, I think, because there was no money, there was nothing, nobody was getting money to put on theater. So we all had an equal standing. I, Robert McNamara and Bart Whiteman and us, we all of had the same resources, which was your friends and what you were willing to do. Yeah.
So I don’t think that it was a great time except that I would say that— ‘cause you know, now there’s way more money. If I was gonna start a theater group, sure I would’ve waited, because now you can get a boatload of money from the city to do all kinds of stuff. Ergo, here we are, right?
But at the same time, I would say that the 1980s really was [00:52:00] the best moment for experimental theater or alternative theater. Because, one, all those practitioners were still with us, Julian Beck and Judith Malina, and Jerzy Grotowski and Ryszard Cieślak. And, we can go down that list of people that were still there.
And it’s not so unusual to find it talked about in mainstream—when Peter Brook does Mahabharata at BAM up in Brooklyn, there’s a three page article in The Washington Post about it. It’s not even in DC. This very lengthy article about this, about that. And, and it wasn’t just that, there were lots of places to read about theater. Lots of people could read about it. And, so, it wasn’t unusual to be reading something that somebody would talk about Robert Wilson or Pina Bausch or Merce Cunningham or Anne Bogart or, it was just like these ideas and stuff floated around all the time.
And today it’s not like that, because—here we get back to our, our struggles with social media—but things have become so blindered that, you really just read the stuff that applies [00:53:00] to you. And, so, if you’re not interested in theater and you don’t get a daily newspaper, then why would you ever know about any alternative stuff? Because it’s never gonna be in front of your eyes. And so there’s plenty of people in the eighties that really didn’t care about experimental theater, but it was around. So I think it that way, it was a good time.
Elizabeth: So, I was gonna ask you about your European experiences and your training and we’ve talked a lot about Theater Du Jour’s process and the tensions within it. But, so, I think I’d like to fast forward beyond those periods of your life and really pivot to your work as Executive and Artistic Director of DCAC, which, am I remembering correctly, you took over the leadership of DCAC, DC art space. Was it ’95?
B.: June 21st.
Elizabeth: June 21st.
B.: July 21st.
Elizabeth: July 21st. Okay. As local folk will know, DCAC has been a, just a constant in the art scene [00:54:00] for, oh, Lord, how many years has it been? 30—
B.: Started in 1989.
Elizabeth: Okay. So, it’s been over 30 years. It’s been almost 35 years. First of all, can you—you defined for most of us who are theatergoers or art people in DC you have really defined DCAC. You’ve very much created the organization. You very much did create the organization’s identity. And can you talk a bit about the creativity within that organizational structure, not just as the artistic process, but also as the organizational process?
B.: I think that the key thing about that is anytime you’re gonna work with an organizational structure to try to create something of it, you have to observe what it is.
You may have caught on when I was talking about, our work and our training, the director’s—not just the director, but the observer of all that work that the actor’s doing ‘cause there’s a lot of stuff that you’re just watching to see if anything comes of it. And it’s the same thing with DCAC. I had to watch it [00:55:00] and see what it was. And I watched the community to see what they wanted.
To be creative in organizational stuff is to be…it means it’s—that you’re looking at the mission of the organization as the framework with which you’re gonna flesh out the fullness of its possible influence on the community. And, so, I hope that if there’s a rec–recognizable aspect to the identity of DCAC that I helped create it’s that we were always paying attention to what was going on and trying to be available to the community that we were trying to serve.
And I think that could apply to any organization, whether you’re talking about bicyclists or artists. I think the two things we always–always said about DCAC, there was a lot of opportunity there and that was always available to you and being true to that being consequent to your decision is the key to that. So yeah, that’s what I would say.
Elizabeth: It must be the, that creative process from an organizational perspective and an administrative perspective–my experience is that process, that kind of mental [00:56:00] model really differs from the artistic process within your creative discipline. There’s a big difference between how you actually spend the granularity of your day to day and your hour to hour. Can you speak a little bit about just the difference between being creative in an, in an organizational and an administrative leadership capacity and being creative as a working artist and an actor and director?
B.: I’d say, I think the main difference there is one is a shared vision and one is a prioritized vision, As an artistic director, actor, whatever I’m gonna be doing, I prior, I prioritize my vision and my perspective as the primary creator who’s gonna guide that work and lead to an end result that I approve.
But when you’re the head of an organization, then your goal has to be to insist that the vision is clear and agreed upon by all the other people that are involved. Like in the theater group, I don’t care if they agree with me or not. But with a board of directors, it doesn’t [00:57:00] quite work that way.
But not just the board of directors. It’s everybody. Everybody that’s involved, the guy who’s taking tickets and the person—not the person who sweeps up if you pay them—but, but the struggle there is that in any group of people, particularly outside of an artistic endeavor, there’s gonna be people who just, they identify themselves as supportive and as a major player, but then they’re just not there. They’re not pulling their amount of weight there. So, you gotta take up a lot of slack and there’s where you can find a director’s personal vision and desire overtaking an organization. It’s very dangerous.
But the, fortunately for DCAC and myself, DCAC’s mission—which I wrote, but, but it was always there—coincided exactly with the reason I wanted to work at DCAC. So I never went to work at D CAC ‘cause I wanted to further my administrative job. I had never had an intention to be an arts administrator.
But I was intent that opportunities like we had of the [00:58:00] 1980s, which meant cheap space and available space, did not disappear entirely from the landscape in Washington, DC. And so that, those two things meshed. And, so, my willingness to fight for that meant that I was willing to fight for the DC Arts Center. And then it was not so hard to pull people along that maybe weren’t pulling in their weight because I was energized to do that fight and make that happen. And so that’s what we did. And, so, I think, so it’s—that’s the difference, my vision versus a group vision. DCAC was just lucky that those things worked together.
Michael: Let’s zero in on the Art Center’s community and, as you mentioned in, at the beginning that you saw creativity as engagement, human engagement and—DCAC that had not only theater artists, but they had visual artists, they had musicians it had obviously audiences, funders, board of directors. It had all these people. And the creativity of managing this diverse [00:59:00] population of people. So, what role does creativity play in the management or the synthesizing of that wide variety of people?
B.: Again, it’s—you find your role in creativity. Not all the roles are the same in a creative endeavor, especially the big group of people like that, ‘cause it is just, as you describe, it’s a community of people. And I like to think that if I have managed to creatively build that organization into what it is now and have the reputation that it has, it’s because I recognize that it took all those people and their creativity to make DCAC what it is.
And you can convince yourself that your vision is the one vision, and that others should support you in doing that, but—I like to sail. I like to sail on big boats, big old tall ships. Not that I captain a tall ship or own such a ship or anything, but I do like it. And but it’s like that on a ship, everybody’s got their task and just because the captain could do any of those tasks, that’s not their [01:00:00] job. Everybody has their job and they’re good at their job, and you have to trust them to do their job and believe that they can do their job.
And I think it was like, it’s like that, it has been like that at DC Art Center, whether there, you’re talking about the funders or you’re talking about people who do the shows or the people who get on the board, or the people who do your organizational fundraising stuff, or the person takes the tickets or whatever. Everybody is doing their job at their maximum capacity. And I think that, I think a lot of people were surprised when I was leaving at how much delegation there was the new director has taken off a lot of the responsibilities that I had delegated back to himself, which is, that’s his style. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do that, but I think people were surprised at just how eager I was to let everybody play. You want a part of this? Sure, sure. But I was always steering and making it happen, as many people as I could get.
Michael: From my experience, yeah, I think [01:01:00] delegating is great then the, if Sartre’s right and hell is other people, it’s really—and then you mentioned role play. Every, as long as everyone plays their role on the ship, everything is fine. But then when they’re, people are stepping out of their role, frequently that’s what creates tension and that’s where the manager of the ship or the captain of the ship needs to somehow come up with a creative solution.
Michael: To get, without naming any names or anything, are there times where you think you came up with really creative solutions to this sort of human interaction problem that organizations frequently have, or communication problems organizations frequently have?
B.: Yeah, outside of the making of soup of people, then I would say yeah. We didn’t make soup outta people.
Yeah, Peter Brook said that being a good director is not about telling the actors where to go and what to do but being ahead of them just enough to open the doors that they were already gonna go through [01:02:00] and allow them to do that. So, I think of my way of dealing with people like that. Hopefully they just go, and I don’t ever see ’em again, but—in some cases it’s like that, it’s like there are definitely times where somebody is not content and they’re not getting what they want and the answer really is that you’ve outgrown this position or this role and there’s, you’re not gonna get my job, it’s time to go. But most of these are positive. I have to say, in all honesty, I’ve had very few ill experiences at DCAC. There’s some, but not many.
And, but one particular instance, I had this really great intern. She wasn’t like a student intern. She was, she, her husband had gotten a job in DC, so they moved here, and she had a master’s in studio art, but she hadn’t found any work that she wanted, so she came to DCAC. She interned and she did that for a year or more. And she was great. She was a grown person, nice to have around and everything, but DCAC had no money. I wasn’t even getting paid at that point. And, so, she said, I like [01:03:00] DCAC I like hanging around here, I can’t, I can’t stay here for no money. And I was like, I really hate to lose this person here. So, I said okay, let me think what I can do. And, so, I came back to her, and I said here’s the thing, I can’t offer you any money, but I can offer you power. How would you like to be the gallery manager? And you and the Board can work together to create the season of exhibitions at DC Art Center. You could interact with the artists, set up the gallery–the studio visits, then work with me to implement the vision that comes up. And she liked that very well. And we never talked about money ever again. And she and her husband both went on the Board later on and she does very, did very well.
Michael: That’s a wonderfully creative solution to that problem.
Elizabeth: Speaking of wonderfully creative experiences, I wanna switch gears and, on a personal note, just ask you, you got married as I understand it, when you were, I think in your fifties. I’m not sure if that’s correct, but—
B.: [01:04:00] I was 50 when I married.
Elizabeth: You were 50.
B.: I was 50.
Elizabeth: You and George Clooney got married in your fifties.
B.: I did not marry George Clooney.
Elizabeth: So, can you talk about how married life has informed your creativity and then just about marriage itself as a creative process? Without getting too personal, I don’t—
B.: My, my wife would love all of that. My wife is an artistic person. She, she doesn’t make her living at it, but she has her, her graduate degree is in African culture and media. And, so, she—and we met at DCAC when she was curating an exhibition there. It’s not like she’s too far away and she loves my theater work and so on. Although she, her day job is working for, Joe Biden.
But yes, I was 50 and, and as, being a married person yourself, you marry, you don’t marry just that person, you marry into a whole family. So, it’s not just that one person you got, now you have all these in-laws and stuff, and cousins. It goes on, depends on how tight the family is. And in my wife’s situation, all these cousins and [01:05:00] cousins of cousins and so on, are out there. And, and when you marry somebody at that point in your life—my wife’s somewhat younger than I am—not only do you show up into this family, but you show up as an elder. Already. Because you’ve already had a history in a life that didn’t include their daughter or her cousin. And there’s, they don’t know what that baggage is. If you get married when you’re 20, you got your whole life ahead of you. But now, I’ve got far more years behind me than ahead of me.
And so that was interesting trying to, like, let people find out about me and so on. The interesting thing was that my birthday comes one month before we got married, and my wife threw this 50th birthday party for me at La Fourchette. We had the back room at La Fourchette and there was a huge circular table. It must have been, I don’t know, 40, 50 people at this dinner. And unprovoked people began to stand up and talk about how they met me and how they knew me and impact I’d had on their lives. And this crowd ranged from my carpenter buddies to Sylvana Straw, to [01:06:00] Quique Aviles, too—it’s a crowd. You get a bunch of people who know me, it’s a crowd. Talk about hell.
So it’s a very strange group, but my father-in-law, my future father-in-law and my future brother-in-law were there. And my brother-in-law was just astounded. I think he learned more about me in that one dinner than a lifetime. Could have happened.
But as far as creativity in your marriage, one of the things I think people believe about creating is like, one, it’s a singular process and, two, that somebody’s always driving it, and it’s not the case. You have to make a lot of room for people. Like in the work I do with my theater group, obviously I have to have a lot of space for everybody to do their work, for me to do my work. And, so, I think it’s the same in the marriage, it’s giving space, not demanding space necessarily. And, trying to have that give and take.
Elizabeth: Speaking of giving and taking, you and your wife also have a 10-year-old—
Elizabeth: And that—having raised two adult children—it’s an incredibly creative process. And I wonder if you could just speak briefly about what your, sort of, creative path as a dad is.
B.: She’s an only kid, which I guess is privileged, although, [01:07:00] judging by her school room, almost all kids are single kids these days. There’s a lot of them. Who can afford two kids anymore?
But I try to be frank and honest with her. And she’s been around my work all the time. She’s sat in the booth with me when she was about five years old and helped me run a show. She’s been around the actors. She would sit during rehearsals and draw pictures of what’s going on. She knows everybody. She’s as comfortable backstage as she is in front of the stage. She’d been around DCAC, she’s been around art openings, she’s been around all of this.
It’s—when she was little, it was tough, because we might go to the Phillips and she’d want to rearrange the pictures. [Mimicking security:] We don’t allow children to touch the art. [In own voice:] I’m like, this child could work here.
Michael: There we go.
B.: But our house is, I don’t wanna say we’re artsy people, but for example, there’s music in my house all the time. All the time. We always have something going on. There’s music in the car. She loves music, she loves to sing. If you ask her today what she wants to do, wants to be a rockstar.
We’ve tried to encourage her to, to think outside of the normal thoughts. Some of that [01:08:00] relates to where we send her to school. She went to the Smithsonian for early education. Which has, they have a great program over there where they take the, like—she was a preschool–Pre-K, no, pre-K and then K and then pre-KK, so three years. It’s a great program for deductive thinking and stuff. So, the kids are in the museums, they’re talking about topics that can be demonstrated and finding your own way to find out about stuff. And now she goes to Rochambeau French International School. And, so, she’s bilingual. She knows kids of all different kind of walks of life and countries and so on.
And you’re really trying to create a human being that you think will be productive in the world, and have some perspective and have ways to, to change perspective if necessary. I think that of all the things I would say that I try to teach my kid is that there’s no answer. That there’s only process.
B.: And that answers change. And, and [01:09:00] whether we’re talking about religion or whether we’re talking about weather, it’s the same thing. It’s just not set. There’s a lot of different ways to go at this and you have to find your own way to do it.
Michael: Since you’ve quote unquote “retired” from leadership at the DCAC, how has that changed your creative life? What new endeavors are you engaged in, in and now that you have more space for them?
B.: I actually have the same space ‘cause I go to DCAC whenever I want.
Michael: There you go!
B.: As I say, I’ve spent, now I spend a lot more time building people’s houses and designing things ‘cause, you know, wasn’t like there was a pension from DC—I didn’t retire with, I didn’t even get a gold watch
Elizabeth: A golden parachute.
B.: No, I got, there was, it was just like, okay, now you don’t work here.
Michael: Oh, so you’ve been taking up a lot more carpentry.
B.: That’s right. I’ve been doing a lot more of that and, which is why I’m dressed like this now, and, but I also did focus, we—obviously some of this coincided with the pandemic and so there hasn’t been necessarily a lot of theater going on.
And, and to be quite honest, I was [01:10:00] very since we have now gone down the path of my kinda my social activism theater, you may get the idea and would be correct that I’ve always thought theater had a role to play in the development of our society, and it, the things I did through the Living Theater, whoever else, would make our society better.
And then Donald Trump became president and I thought, the hell have I been doing all my life? Yeah, I should have gone become the song and dance man. And it was quite depressing, really. So, as my next foray, after the pandemic, was something that I’ve been working on, I just worked on, wherein I play Theodore Roosevelt and I’ve worked on that for a while now.
It was meant to be performed during the election when Biden was running against Trump, but obviously it couldn’t be done then. But the idea was to create a play not for my friends in DC who all just love our work and snap their fingers and say how important it is, but Mitch McConnell’s never come to see my [01:11:00] plays and—
B.: —or Marco Rubio or any of these people. And these are the people we need to talk to. Because we’re not, I don’t, I’m not gonna change my friend’s mind. They’re already, we’re on the same team. So, this has given me the chance to actually develop that play. The idea of that performance is to go into places where people don’t agree with particularly, democratic or liberal policies or whatnot, and to present a character that they would like to hear from but might be surprised at his perspectives on things. Because I discovered some speeches that he had made when he was running for president in 1912, which makes him look like Bernie Sanders. And, and he’s basically talking about distribution of wealth and he’s talking about the rights of individuals and equality and the kind of people that you put into office and saying that morality is more important than your policies. And I think these are themes that will resonate with people and maybe, just maybe, get ’em to second think the, the orange wave, and maybe start thinking, I can be conservative and still compassionate, or. [01:12:00] I don’t know. I’m not trying to change their minds, but I’d like to create a play that actually appeals to people—
Michael: I can definitely can see you as Theodore Roosevelt.
B.: It is not hard. If I show you—
Elizabeth: Put those glasses on and you’re there.
Michael: I’m already imagining this.
B.: Yeah, I’ll show you a picture. Some people I’ve shown pictures of me and they’re like, they do this at the bar all the time, they’ll take my phone and say, “Who is that?” The person looks at it, they go, “That’s Theodore Roosevelt.” And they’ll say, “No, that’s B. Stanley.”
Elizabeth: Reincarnated as.
B.: It is—the first time I ever put the stuff on my colleague was like, “Oh, shit.”
Elizabeth: “Oh my God.”
B.: So, it—and the play is, the conceit of the play is that Roosevelt’s back from the dead and he wants to talk to you. This is not like a trip down memory lane with Theodore Roosevelt. It is, it’s today. And Roosevelt’s come back from the dead to talk to you today.
Elizabeth: Come to tell you all.
B.: And, so, there’s this whole idea that, boom, Roosevelt appears. So, a great deal of the play depends on your ability to buy that this is Roosevelt. And we don’t seem to have a problem with that part.
Elizabeth: Speaking of people buying stuff, you, you told [01:13:00] me years ago that there were people in your family who didn’t believe that you, when you told them that you were the artistic director of something called DCAC and, much less any of your other experimental, European continental experiences. Have the folks in your family come to grasp and even appreciate your life path as an artist.
B.: See now you say many years ago, you mean over 25 years ago?
B.: So if you think about that question, then you’d realize that a lot of those people are dead. There, there are very few people older than me living in my family.
Elizabeth: Okay. Okay.
B.: But some of them I think, yeah. Some of them got it more, but more importantly, the people who were like a baby 25 years ago or five years old 25—were not even born 25 years ago. They’ve grown up with me as that person and have come to DC to visit me, come to DCAC they’ve come to see my plays. And some of them now in their forties and, and it’s, it’s rewarding to have been so influential in—some of them are, have artistic creative [01:14:00] lives themselves. And they’ve, they’ve been around, they’ve seen DC they’ve, they know it and they know a lot of my work. They’re onto it. I’m definitely the cool uncle to them. And they’re now having their own kids. Some of them have kids older than my daughter. And, so, I would say, yes, that most of them have come to a, at least believe it. there’s a lot of who accept it. Whether or not they grasp it, I don’t know.
Elizabeth: You and your work and your life and your, sort of, narrative have been something of a sea change in that scenario you described sometime back about, there’s the, the home, the family, the marriage, that you know that the narrative for folks in your family has–was very constrained and you introduced this other way, this other narrative of how you can actually live a life.
B.: And it’s a different family, because one of the sea changes you get to pick up in my narrative is that I go from one family to another.
Elizabeth: Yeah, that’s true. That’s true.
B.: And the family that I came—now, my original family, if we go back to the same people [01:15:00] living in North Carolina in those, in that trailer park. I, I don’t know that they—in fact, one day my natural mother went to live in Indianapolis and my two brothers kinda lived up in that area too. And this, now I’ve been the director of DCAC for years, and I’ve lived with this other family for years and years. And, so, we can say that I’m somewhat estranged from my original family because I really haven’t been around very much. But I started visiting my mother when I was 26 and, maybe every year or two I would see her. And it was cool. We were—but she was only 19 when she had me, so, by the time I got to be older, it was more like we were colleagues. It wasn’t like she was like an old gray lady. But anyway, she’s an—and so one time I’m over there and I said I want to go while I’m here I’m gonna go to the Arts Center of Indianapolis ‘cause I understand they have really good program over there and I’d like to see what they do. [Imitating mother:] Oh, okay. We’ll go with you.
[Normal voice:] So she and my brother and his girlfriend, we all go over to the Indianapolis Art Center, and it is, it’s a great place. And they have, it’s like an old school or factory or something, that they have classes, they have metal [01:16:00] working shops and glass blowing, and they have outdoor gardens and galleries and it’s a nice place, really.
And, so, we walked around and checking it out, and at some point I said, “I’ll tell you what. I’m going to go see if I can see the director and you guys can wait for me in the gallery.” My mother’s like, why do you think they wanna talk to you? I said, “She may not, but if somebody came to DC and was from another art center, they would come and introduce themselves out of politeness.” And so, she said, “Oh, sure, okay.” Like I’m four-flushing or getting above my station or something.
So, I go off and I find the door and the woman happens to be in her office and she’s delighted. We sit down, we talk for 40 minutes. She shows me drawings of what they’re doing, the new, the new addition and all this stuff. And I said look, I, this is great. I gotta, I gotta go because my family’s out here. You’ve been more than generous with your time, and we’ll be in contact, if you can. And she says, well, I’ll come with you. And so she comes, so here I come, my mother and my brother and his girlfriend are sitting on this bench, and you’re like, [01:17:00] you’re certainly not enjoying the gallery.
And she sees that I’m with somebody, and so she goes, hello. She said, [imitating director:] “Oh, hi. I’m so glad you brought your son over. You’re from Indianapolis. You must be here all the time. I’m—” [In normal voice:] I forget her name—[imitating director:] “I’m the director of the….”
You should have seen this look on their faces like, you got, you did that?
Elizabeth: You’re a peer of this person?
B.: Yeah, that’s right. I don’t know. It’s like that. But my adopted family, it’s a little bit different. And it’s been, yeah. But like I say it’s a world we’ve evolved into.
Michael: So, we’d like to conclude our interviews with the larger sort of meta question about how creativity shapes identity, a person’s identity. So how would you describe the role that creativity has played in the actualization of yourself and ultimately the shaping of who you are?
B.: It’s ironic ‘cause I don’t buy the concept of actualizing or imaging yourself, not that I deny that it exists, but for me it doesn’t, go on. Because we hear all the stuff about somebody identifies themself as something, it’s very much the day. Somebody identifies as the—I heard [01:18:00] somebody identify themselves as a flood victim. And I was like how can that—you either are or you aren’t? Why bother to identify yourself as such? But the point there being that, that identification is external. Here’s somebody who survived a flood, ergo, they’re a flood victim. We don’t, they will, I will identify you as a flood victim. And, but I, that’s why I think that kind of identification and what you are is done from external point of reference by outside of you, by other people.
It’s kinda like the image that you have of yourself and the image that you see in a picture, they often are not quite the same thing. I think I look a lot better than I do in a picture. But and I think that you can, though, control and influence how people identify you by what it is you do and how you do it.
One of my favorite people, G. Gordon Liddy, used to say the Jesuits have a saying, what you think about is what you do and what you do is what you are, And I don’t know if G. Gordon Liddy was accurate in the Jesuit thing. But I think that it’s [01:19:00] true because, like, I did not ever identify myself as an artist. I’ve never thought of myself—I remember one day somebody said something about “you and other arts leaders” and I was like, me? Who? What? Me and other arts leaders? But that’s what they thought. But, so, I just didn’t declare I was an artist. I didn’t determine that I was an artist. I didn’t flip myself around into becoming a creative person or even, like, mentally perceive myself as that. But I would—became a person that was committed to what I wanted to do. And that’s what I did do. And that’s what I’m driven to do. That’s what I think about a lot. It’s what I try to be better at and more precise in what I do, so then I’m identified as that person. And whether that’s as a creative person or as a problem solver or as a pain in the ass, I don’t know. But that’s how I think about it.
Michael: So, it’s the, it is the commitment to doing what you want to do, is what you’re saying.
B.: You live it. You either live it or you don’t. Because too many people will identify as something that they’re not. You can identify as heartfelt and warm and [01:20:00] congenial and be the biggest ass in the world. Just because you want it doesn’t mean it’ll happen. It’s action. It’s not just the want. It’s the commitment. To it.
Elizabeth: Wow. Oh, B., this has been so wonderful to talk to you. I’m just energized now to delve more deeply into other aspects of the artistic legacy of this city and other places. But we love to give our guests a chance to pitch their upcoming activities or events or give us a website or any kind of links that you’d like our listeners to have, knowing, with the proviso that we’ll probably be airing our podcast beginning in mid-January of 2023.
So, is there a place where people could go to find out more about you or what might be coming up—the other Roosevelt productions?
B.: Well, the police station?
Elizabeth: That’s right.
B.: No, the, yes. You can always go to theaterdujour.org.
Elizabeth: Theater Du Jour. Which is, and it’s, t-h-e-a-t-r-e—
B.: —d-u-j-o-u-r dot org. And that’s where we post our stuff. [01:21:00] We try to put stuff on Facebook, but it’s, we’re pretty lame. We’re old. Yeah.
Elizabeth: Yeah. Oh, no, no TikTok for you, huh?
B.: I’d have to say I haven’t, not to say I won’t, but we are filming Roosevelt in the next couple of weeks, so we’ll see what we do with that.
Elizabeth: Oh, that’s great. That’s great. So, if there’s a production of that or a filming—
Michael: So that’s a film project.
B.: It wasn’t to be because I’m, I’m such a theater guy that I refuse. ‘Cause for me, the theater, the ephemeral nature of theater is why I like it. And I hate making films, and I hate making TV. It’s why I don’t do it. But we realized that if we were trying to get bookings, especially in places that don’t usually book theater, we had to have something to show them.
Michael: Oh, so it’s a promotional.
B.: So, we’ll give snippets, but we will film the whole thing to archive it and then, but I don’t think it would ever be released in its entirety.
B.: I don’t think.
Elizabeth: Once again, thank you so much for so much of your valuable time. It’s really been great. I haven’t seen you for years and it’s really great to sit down and chance to re–reconnect.
B.: It’s great to be with you guys and [01:22:00] I’m honored by the opportunity. Of course.
Michael: Thank you very much.
Elizabeth: And thank you all for listening to Creativists in Dialogue, a podcast embracing the creative life. Our guest has been B. Stanley, who is many things—artist, actor and producer and artistic visionary. So, thank you. Thank you, B.
B.: You’re welcome. Thank you.
Elizabeth: For more information about Creativists in Dialogue or our other projects, please visit elizabethbrucedc.com or rmichaeloliver.com.
This project was supported by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.