Today’s Theatre in Community conversation is with local theatre-maker Lynnie Raybuck. Lynnie covers her 40 plus years as an actress, puppeteer, director, designer, and theatre founder. Beginning at the legendary Back Alley Theater in the 1970s, Lynnie then discusses her years touring in dinner theatre before returning to DC to establish her theatre career. After working at numerous puppet theatres, New Playwrights’ Theatre, and as a solo puppet artist, she co-founded Smallbeer Theater where her love of new plays and the communal act of theatre continued to shine.
A quick note to listeners: On each episode of our Theatre in Community series, we include a glossary of theatre terms and names referenced in the interview.
Elizabeth: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Theatre in Community series of Creativists in Dialogue, a podcast embracing the creative life. I’m Elizabeth Bruce.
Michael: And I’m Michael Oliver.
Elizabeth: And our guest today is Lynnie Raybuck. Lynnie is a theater artist’s theater artist. She has done it all: acting, directing, costuming, puppet and mask making, puppeteering, teaching, producing, and all the other jobs that make the show go on.
She’s worked everywhere in theater in this region, beginning with Back Alley Theater, a puppet theater in Alexandria, and New Playwrights’, and as a teacher for Wolf Trap’s Head Start Program and Round House’s summer camps. She’s worked in dinner theater and puppet theater and more. In 1970, she was a theater graduate student in South Carolina and later completed her MFA in Directing from the Catholic University of America, a degree she initiated.
In 1986, Lynnie and Kevin Murray, [00:01:00] Deborah Stromberg, Nick Mathwick, Henry Jacqueline, T. G. Finkbinder, and Jerry Boyd co-founded Smallbeer Theater Company, where Lynnie acted, directed, and designed extensively. As a faculty member at George Mason University, she taught, directed, costumed, designed puppets, and produced student shows, as well as acted and designed for Theater of the First Amendment and the Institute of the Federal Theater, for which she also worked as an archivist. She was Community Engagement Manager for the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland. Her archive of the Smallbeer Theater Company is in the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library at the University of Maryland. And she is currently compiling her personal archives for the same library.
Lynnie: Thank you.
Michael: So we like to start at the very beginning of a person’s creative journey. Can you tell us about your first experiences of creativity, either as a [00:02:00] witness or as a participant?
Lynnie: My dad took us to musicals in New York and, once The National was available to us. But my first memory, I think I was four or five, and we lived in University Park in Maryland, and I was sitting on the floor in front of our 10-inch, maybe 10-inch, TV set, watching Life with Elizabeth with Betty White and laughing so hard, I peed myself. I wasn’t going to say peed myself, but—and I’ve gone back and watched it since and I still laugh just as hard, although I’m able to control my physical—
Michael: That was your first experience of comedy?
Lynnie: The first experience of comedy and just seeing that naturalistic style that took you to a different place.
Elizabeth: Lynnie, you’re originally from the metro area of Maryland, as you just mentioned. Can you tell us a little bit more exactly where [00:03:00] you’re from and how you got involved in theater?
Lynnie: We moved to northern Virginia, down near Fort Belvoir, when I was maybe five. I went to Catholic school, eight years, and then four years of Catholic high school. I did some little skit things in grade school, but I was, there was nothing there. There were no art classes. There were no music classes. There was nothing. In high school, they did shows. I was never allowed to participate. I was never allowed to participate in the music trainings. And the one show I remember doing, they gave me the final line walk on dressed as a nun in a play called Seven Nuns At Las Vegas, which you’ve probably heard of. I longed for this. [00:04:00] And I took myself over to the nearby boys’ Episcopal school and started working. And did four or five shows with them before I graduated.
Elizabeth: And you mentioned you didn’t exactly know why they wouldn’t let you perform, but you think maybe you were just not obedient enough or something?
Lynnie: I don’t, I’m not known for my obedience. I am known for being what people consider too much, but all I can say… there’s a psychological theory that if something happens to you when you’re a baby, pre-rational, it sets you up for life. And I just, this was, I don’t feel like I had any choice in this. This was what I needed to do from the inside to the outside. I didn’t have words for it. I didn’t know what the possibilities were. But I knew I was being blocked and discriminated against.
Elizabeth: For the, from the theater’s [00:05:00] vantage point, it’s a good thing you came back and devoted your life to it.
Lynnie: Anger has fueled my career.
Michael: Now, I understand that you worked with DC’s Back Alley Theater after you did a year of graduate school in South Carolina. Now Back Alley was founded in 1967 by a woman named Naomi Eftis. Now, she was the former chairperson of the Congress of Racial Equality’s Community Organization Committee and a music teacher at the Freedom School, which I think was also a core project. It’s first production was literally in a back alley. I think behind her house and her own children were involved in it. Now, because its mission was to give the neighborhood kids the experience of theater. Now, can you share any memories you have of doing shows at Back Alley?
Lynnie: I can and it was extremely important to me and to everything I did afterwards. So I want to just step back for a second from that [00:06:00] horrifying high school experience. I went to, of all places, Radford College. You would not think that was a theater school. One teacher, William Morehouse. He and his wife embraced me, loved me, let me do everything, just turned my life around. Let me do any kind of tech—I would be working tech by myself in the large theater till after curfew. I ran lights for all the guest companies. And then I did a summer stop experience with University of South Carolina, and they gave me, they invited me to come to the grad school. Again, just wonderful responses, supportive, letting me try things I’d never tried before. All wonderful experiences. And Bill and I stayed, Bill and Betty and I stayed friends until they passed.
When I came back to DC, I was working at a GI coffeehouse. This was [00:07:00] right after Kent State. It was the Vietnam War. It was a hard time. DC had been through a lot. I think somebody at the DMV, one of the GI’s did some kind of tech work for Back Alley and told me about it and in little basement on, at 14th and Kennedy, underneath a hotel, maybe. Maybe not, maybe apartments.
But what I’ve learned most about theater is it can be the work you do, but the most important part of it is the people, and that’s what Back Alley taught me. The company was the most diverse I have ever worked with or ever seen. It was racially, gender, ability, [00:08:00] ethnicity, every possible division you could think of was what united us. We had high school kids, we had grandmothers, we had people who had no theater experience whatsoever, but we were all committed to working together and to working. And it was a life changing experience. And the show I think we were best known for was called Black Pepper. It had been in development the summer before, and it was a series of short skits, vignettes, about political issues, which got very good press. Other shows were Bury the Dead, Measures Taken, and we toured a children’s show, Into the Rainbow, by Naomi into the DC schools.
Michael: From my research on Back Alley, they were very committed to doing theater for the people. And thus, I’m certain that their company reflected that mission in terms of making sure the people were the [00:09:00] company.
Lynnie: Represented! And I also need to mention that Naomi was the chief, but the artistic director was John Wentworth, who was a local political activist. I think he had some big job. He’d started other theaters in town with his wife, Hazel. But he had a, it might have been a weekly political newsletter that he published. He drove the ideas. He brought us together around the possibility of making work about something, not just—occasionally like in college, in grad school, we were doing Marat/Sade. When Kent State happened, and the campus erupted, we were doing it outside. We could smell the tear gas. Jane Fonda was on campus within a week. But that was by chance. His was not by chance. His was, this is a world we’re living in [00:10:00] and we’re going to address it. And that was life changing.
Michael: Now as we understand it, after working with Back Alley, you and I think your brother were hitchhiking to California. And while you were there, you got a call from a lighting designer from grad school, I don’t know his name, but who recommended you as an actor for dinner theater. Now, for folks who have either never attended a dinner theater or worked at one, can you tell our listeners how dinner theater works from an actor’s perspective?
Lynnie: I think it’s very different now than it was then. They, yeah, as we did, we hitchhiked to California. Lived a different life. Again, I’d been in, I’d lived in Virginia and South Carolina. I needed to get out! And my brother had just gotten out of Korea, one of his best friends, who became one of my best friends, we all went together. And while we were out there, not too long, we hitchhiked around and done some festivals [00:11:00] and stuff, I did get this call, I can’t remember his name either, forgive me. Oh, Jack Shirk, it was Jack Shirk, through my mother, inviting me to come back. And it wasn’t about auditioning, it was for a part in a dinner theater production. I had to borrow shoes to get on the plane. That’s where I was at.
So back then, dinner theaters were run by production companies who might have three or four or more theaters, and you’d go into the theater, and you would, it wasn’t like a bus-and-trucks that I had several friends do, you were there for four to five weeks. And you lived in the theater, God help us, sometimes great, sometimes not great, sometimes you had a house, sometimes you had little apartments or trailers, but you lived there. You got one free meal a day as long as you didn’t eat all the roast beef. And you had a car to use as a company. [00:12:00] And you were working with mostly people in your own age group, many of whom had some New York experience or something. And you, and once that tour was over, so that tour, four or five weeks later, another theater and then another theater. So you’d be gone for three or four months. And then they’d cast you in the next show. And you’d just keep going. And I’m, so from Roanoke, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Oklahoma City, Kansas City, Memphis. Just really, mostly throughout the South, but ended up in St. Louis and Oklahoma City and Tulsa, which were the final places I worked.
Michael: This, was this prior to Back Alley?
Lynnie: This was after Back Alley.
Michael: After Back Alley. Okay.
Lynnie: So I went to California, I got this gig and—
Lynnie: “I’ll see y’all later.” I was working for money for four years steady. Steady. And meeting lots of [00:13:00] really wonderful people. Most of my housemates in—I went to, Bradford’s all girls—most of my housemates at USC were gay. And again, luckily, a lot of these men we worked with were gay. Occasionally we would get an aggressive straight man who would make everybody’s lives miserable, drinking and playing poker all night. But it was really such a sweet group of people, kind and generous, and we had a lot of fun and treated each other well. It was lovely.
Michael: Now, do we have it right that, I guess this is after the dinner theater, but your sister introduced you to puppet comedy run by Allan Stevens and Paul Vincent Davis?
Lynnie: I came back to Virginia and moved in with my poor younger sister, my poor, patient, younger sister. I had heard that there were dinner theaters open [00:14:00] around here, so I thought I’ll just go home and see the family. I’d been traveling around the country a little bit. I took a break for a little while in Oklahoma to make sure this is what I wanted to do, but I decided I didn’t, and I came back. And none of them were paying. They paid you to wait tables. And I wasn’t going to wait tables. That’s my motto.
Michael: That is an important distinction.
Elizabeth: You will not wait tables.
Lynnie: It was huge. People couldn’t understand. “You get to be in the show!” Nah. I don’t mind working for free, but I’m not going to wait tables, I’m gonna act. I think she just needed to get me out of the house. She has no memory of this, but I have a very clear memory. There was a puppet theater in Alexandria. She lived right, a mile away, and she just took me by, and as I remember, dropped me off. They were pretty new. And they had renovated that Richmond movie house, and Allan Stevens was a very well-known puppeteer, so was Paul Vincent Davis, and a woman named Suzanne Hockenberry [00:15:00] running the shop. And they had all these puppeteers, came down to be part of the company for the opening who were from UConn, which has a master’s degree. Very gung-ho youngsters. Roman Pasca, who’s still a very well-known puppeteer, was one of them, and a lot of other people who probably quit as soon as they left. But yeah, so I volunteered to help Suzie in the office in exchange for Paul giving me, he was teaching a class, so they just let me sit in on a puppet, hand-puppet—
Michael: Sure. On that note, can you talk about the different kinds of puppets that you may have worked with or you saw at that company? And what kind of physical structures the puppets are?
Lynnie: Okay, it was a proscenium theatre. It was a movie house, so it was a proscenium theatre. Paul did hand puppets, and he’s been retired for a while. He moved up to Brookline Village and took over Puppet Showplace up there. But he [00:16:00] primarily works in hand puppets, so that was the first form I used. Allan primarily works in rod puppets, which is a really remarkable, stately style. You’re rolling around on a little stool that’s about knee-high and holding a stick over your head, which the puppet is on. The central stick manipulates the head movement—I’m sure the audience can see me moving my hands—and then you have two rods on the hands that control that movement. So that was the second style I learned because after I had been at the theater for not too long, they ran out of money, and the professional puppeteers got tired of not having money, and they all left. And again, I’m always in the right place at the right time because, there I was. Over here. [00:17:00] And I could do—
Michael: “Give me that stick!”
Lynnie: “Give me that stick!” I could do voices, so we could do that. A lot of the shows were taped. The first shows that we had in there were from Bob Brown who also ran a major company. He came down from New York. He’d been working with… Oh, what was his name?
Elizabeth: Jim Henson? No.
Lynnie: No. The great kids’ artist. Mr. Rogers!
Elizabeth: Oh, Mr. Rogers! Okay.
Lynnie: Bob and Judy Brown. Amazing, wonderful people. He loaned Allan some shows to put up, like a Cinderella, which was hand puppet shows. And then we did another style, which is based on Bunraku, which is a Japanese style of puppetry, where you’re standing behind the puppet and manipulating it, but you’re all in black, you’re masked, and the audience can’t see you. But Bob’s puppets were mouth puppets and then you’d manipulate their hands and then drag their little [00:18:00] legs along. Or you could have somebody else working their legs if it was important or they were in long skirts or whatever. So those were the first three puppet types I worked with. Rod puppets, mouth puppets, and the Bunraku style. Later on, I was part of Bob Brown’s company and he, a lot of his work is with marionettes. And marionettes are, of course, string puppets, often operated from a bridge, which is far above the stage, but, so you’re not visible, but often you’re right behind them, depending on what style, whether it’s a variety show style or whatever it is. So I worked marionettes for him for a long time.
Elizabeth: Bob Brown is a pretty well-known name.
Lynnie: Still working.
Elizabeth: So can you talk a little bit, Lynnie, about the kind of puppet theater scene in this metro area? I mean, what was the kind of creative community like that developed among the puppeteers? And you’ve mentioned Bob Brown is still working, are there other [00:19:00] people you’ve worked with that you still know?
Lynnie: I do. Let me think. Blue Sky Puppets, Michael Cotter and Joe Pipik. Michael’s still working. I subbed in for Joe a couple of times with him. Kind of stick puppets. I wouldn’t really call them rod puppets. More like stick puppets. And then Joe moved down to near Culpeper, and he has a company with his wife, Jeannie Wall, called Good Life Theater. They all still work. Michael hires in other people, but I think he’s trying to find ways to do solo shows. One of the people that works with him is named Penny Russell, and she’s a younger person, and so she worked with him and worked with Joe occasionally.
One of the other companies I worked with who I adored, and I think they might have worked with Allan before because they also did rod puppets was Clarion Shadow Puppet Theater. Donna and David Wisniewski. Exquisite puppets. We did, besides the Puppet Theater, we also [00:20:00] had the Discovery Theater at—
Elizabeth: Right. At the Smithsonian.
Lynnie: —at the Smithsonian. And I did shows there with Allan and with Clarion and the firebird. And here’s one of the nice things about puppetry in terms of being an actor, it doesn’t matter what you look like, it doesn’t matter what gender you are. You can play a dog, I can play the prince, I can play the firebird. It totally frees you to be other than what we’re trapped in as actors. So that was a wonderful experience.
Let me, there’s several—so Allan, after he lost the Puppet Theater, got a yurt out at Glen Echo and partnered with, after a while, partnered with…
Elizabeth: Chris Piper?
Lynnie: Chris [00:21:00] Piper. Chris Piper.
Elizabeth: Or is it the Pipers?
Lynnie: The Pipers, yeah. Both. Both he and his wife. And they built a Puppet Theater in Glen Echo, which was state of the art for the whole East Coast. They do children’s shows primarily, which is the bread and butter of puppeteers, and not my favorite personal form of expression, although it’s a lot of fun. Allan and Chris just turned over the Puppet Theater in the last couple of years. I think Elizabeth Dapo is running that now with some other puppeteers that used to work with Allan. Paul Vincent Davis is retired, he’s up in Boston.
Ingrid Crepeau and Michele Valeri had a company called Dino Rock. Not back then. Ingrid was doing a lot of mouth puppets and then partnered with Michele to do these giant dinosaur puppets. They are still around. [00:22:00] I just saw them recently at the puppet festival. And Ingrid, I think they’re primarily now, Ingrid got a gig doing the racing presidents for the sports teams here in DC.
Michael: Oh, okay. Yes, I’ve seen those.
Lynnie: So I think she does a lot of work.
Elizabeth: And then they worked with Wolf Trap, too.
Lynnie: Oh, they, yeah, no, they were—I think a lot of us were. I would go out to Wolf Trap and work, but they, yeah, they were huge. Wolf Trapp had an early learning program too that a lot of us were involved in.
Michael: Now I understand you also had a Punch and Judy show.
Lynnie: I did.
Michael: Can you maybe talk, tell us about that? I assume it was for adults, or was it?
Lynnie: No! It was to traumatize children.
Michael: Oh, okay.
Lynnie: It is a traditional show. I’m just doing a historical recreation, don’t blame me. But when I was at the Puppet Theater, [00:23:00] Susan booked Paul to do a show and he had already booked another show for Good Bunny. So she said, “Does anybody want to do a puppet show?” So one of the professional puppeteers was still there, we went out and bought materials. She had some, she had her master’s degree. We built a Punch and Judy show. It was probably dreadful. We did it at one of the museums. It lasted about an hour and a half. It was the ‘70s. We had dancers. Two of us working the puppets. It went on way too long and then she left and I said, “What do you want to do?” She goes, “Oh, you can keep it. I don’t care.” I was like—because I think I made maybe 20 bucks a week max at the Puppet Theater for doing eight or nine shows and building. But I could take Punch out for a hundred and a quarter, and start making some—
Michael: A living.
Lynnie: Not a living.
Elizabeth: Beer money.
Lynnie: Enough. [00:24:00] So I did museums, I did Wolf Trap, I did museums in Baltimore. I did most of the museums, Hirshhorn and Smithsonian—Allan, one of the first big gigs where Allan and I did a summer festival at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries, they set up a tent outside. It wasn’t the 4th of July, so I can’t remember what it was. And I would do five Punch and Judy shows, and in between he would do what we call the Dog and Pony, which was what we were talking about. What’s a puppet? How’s it work? But I, and I would also do residencies at the Puppet Theater. So I was doing like, three and four shows a day for five or six days a week. So you get it down. How many hours is mastery?
Elizabeth: A thousand hours, yeah. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Michael: I’m very curious. You mentioned that, obviously, puppet theater’s very associated with children.
Michael: But you say you prefer the adult. And can you maybe just talk about the distinction between those?
Lynnie: Yeah. So, it’s theme. And it’s lack of [00:25:00] fear. Because parents can get very mean if they think their children are being abused. I would measure my success with Punch and Judy by the number of wet spots on the floor. I got better, but not much. But it is, it’s a show about oppression and suppression. He beats his wife. He throws his baby out the window. It goes back to the 1700s in England, but, but here’s—for me as an actor and a performer, and helping people, including children, understand what theater is, and this may just be in my own head, I introduce a show, I’m sweet Lynnie, and then I have a conversation with Mr. Punch, and he’s just an a-hole, and, finally comes up, and demeans me in front of the children and then we get into the show. And it’s about him behaving badly in all ways and until a giant monster comes out and [00:26:00] threatens him and Punch is—and I refused to schlep. I saw enough of puppeteers and how they work, they’d come, they’d set up a big stage, they’d come up with a lighting system, a sound system. It’s, I’m not going to do that. So I wore, I talked to Albrecht Roser, who was a German, famous German puppeteer, who had come to The Puppet Theater, and he said, So he said, “Just wear a bag and let the puppets come up out of the bag.” So I wore a bag around my waist. I was in semi-costume. And so Mr. Punch is here at my waist. Everybody can see that. And then the dragon would come up and his head was this big. And so, it was frightening. And he would go after the kids a little bit and then he’d come back at Punch. And they were, “Look out!” But most of them were like, “Get him, get him!” So they would do a chase around my body, which is me turning in a circle a couple of times, to chase him off. And then, that was it. And they would both come [00:27:00] out, like the performance they were, and take bows, and the kids would applaud. So they could see the transformation of playing a character who was maybe not nice and being something else. Even if that something else was not real either.
Elizabeth: But there’s it’s almost Brechtian in the—
Lynnie: Kinda meta.
Elizabeth: —sense that you see the machinery of the production.
Lynnie: Of my little fantasy. But the reality of it was, because I was a solo act with no set up, I worked everywhere in town. Communities, community celebrations, every place. I could do it outside, I could do it inside, I could do it in a museum, I could—so it was just really wonderful. And I loved every single show. I did all the Shakespeare’s birthdays and the Elizabethan celebrations. All the, any, anything that, some kind of historical thing fit in. But even if people were offended that, culturally, I guess they didn’t feel right that they could express themselves, [00:28:00] and they came back for more. It was a lot of fun.
Elizabeth: We worked with you back in the ‘80s. Speaking of Chekhov, you did these massive, magnificent, large puppets for our production of Chekhov, which I think were made of foam, if I’m remembering.
Lynnie: I used whatever was cheap. Punch and Judy, when we built them, we went to the local thrift shop and bought two bags of polyester. Because I said, this will last. And then when I started building those big puppets, I used rug foam, which I could spray paint and build over cardboard. Again, everybody who makes puppets, Ingrid, everybody, they don’t understand weight. I understand weight.
Elizabeth: Yeah, because you gotta hold them. Or somebody’s gotta hold them.
Lynnie: You gotta hold them and you gotta drag them out. I made them as, as lightweight as possible.
Puppets put you in a different place. Again, an actor is an actor, but [00:29:00] a puppet is something that you might relate to even more specifically, but you don’t quite understand. There’s a mystery to them. And size, it can be one of the mysteries. So I made, I remember, for you, I made a giant puppet, and then I made a little tiny Russian soldier that Chris Bauer—
Elizabeth: Oh, right!
Lynnie: —Richard and Halo’s son, was in the show.
Elizabeth: Chris Bauer was working with us. The son of Halo Wines and Richard Bauer.
Lynnie: Right. So I just sent him a picture of him with that little puppet and then later on in Smallbeer, he was in, when we did Man from Planet 52, which also had giant puppets, I’ve got another picture of him falling back before the giant, who’s about to destroy him. He, he was again—the connections that we make working with each other. And that, those were the connections we also made back in the Puppet Theater. Once somebody saw you with one thing, they hire you for another thing. I got hired at New Playwrights’ because I was a puppeteer.
Elizabeth: That’s right.
Lynnie: But the big puppets, Sanctuary Theater, I did Man Who Killed the Buddha at Round House. That was a lot of [00:30:00] fun. There was American Century Theater more recently, we did A Flag Is Born with a giant Saul puppet and a death puppet and the hands of people drowning.
I loved working with my students at George Mason. I believe in experiential learning. So every time I taught a puppetry class, I would bring in my students and they would participate. They might run the puppets, or they might just help build, but that was a through-line for all of these. We did shows with the Alexandria Symphony. We did four or five shows with them, all of which the students worked on. And they were big puppets as well. We did, like, all the classics, Hansel and Gretel, the Firebird.
Lynnie: I worked for a Grateful Dead band.
Elizabeth: The Grateful Dead, really?
Lynnie: I worked for a Grateful Dead band.
Michael: You made puppets for them?
Lynnie: The Next Step, yep. We played the Bayou, they played the Bayou, and big New Year’s Eve celebrations and Mardi Gras celebrations. Sometimes my students came in, but I just, it just, it was another thing I wanted to play with. Giant stuff. And again, rock and [00:31:00] roll people, just like, what is that? I did a show for a Jewish center called David’s Big Secret, an original show, giant mama.
The one that meant the most to me is I got an opportunity to do a production that was funded by University of Maryland and the Smithsonian. Baird Auditorium. And it was a new musical called Quilt. A musical celebration. And it was about the AIDS quilt. And it was about each section or the people who made the quilt piece, talking, singing about it. And it was scheduled for, I’m not gonna get through this, scheduled for one of the weekends that the quilt was on the mall. And we opened it at the University of Maryland, and we did it [00:32:00] at Baird Auditorium. It poured rain. Watching all those people in white pull up those quilt pieces and store them safely and then all those workers in white came to Baird Auditorium for the show. My segment, and I’ll talk about it in a minute, ended the first act and got a standing ovation.
Here, I want to just bring this, because when you do puppets for theaters, it can be very fraught. I’ve done some beautiful work, funny work, got a good response, but the people didn’t work with me as a puppeteer. They just treated them like objects that they could do whatever they wanted with. As I remember, you worked with me. You let me figure out how to work them, where to put them, how to place them for best effect.
Quilt, I got the script, it was impossible to do as a puppet show, so I, he allowed me to rewrite that segment and to [00:33:00] bring in the puppets as I wanted and to change the whole thing. So he, as a puppeteer working for other puppeteers, having control is very difficult to find. But that was a remarkable, really a remarkable experience for me. We got to walk, we were invited to walk in Clinton’s inaugural parade with the NAMES Project, it had deep roots for me. And of course, we all know what was going, what was happening in our community then and how many people we lost and many puppeteers, many of the puppeteers, people I’ve worked with, Bob Brown and lots of other people I’ve worked with personally, gone. As well as many of my colleagues in Smallbeer, so.
Elizabeth: So let me just tell our listeners, the Quilt Project was in the 90s. It was a massive quilt making project for, in memoriam of people who died of AIDS. It was massive. It was laid out on the Mall, the National Mall.
Lynnie: Covered the Mall. Covered the whole lot of [00:34:00] the Mall.
Elizabeth: Yeah, it was, it was extraordinary, I mean…
Lynnie: It was extraordinary. And getting to be, getting to give them a way to look at it in a different way and to celebrate the work they’d done and to understand the breadth of all that.
Elizabeth: To give physical presence to the body count, really.
Michael: And it sounds like the audience response was, like, a unique experience in terms of—
Lynnie: Yes. My segment was about a little boy who was doing a quilt piece. I could get this wrong, but I think he was making it for Liberace.
Lynnie: And so that required some glitter. It required, he and his family were putting it on, so it required that the puppets look like something a child could conceivably make. Maybe with a little help from his mom and dad. So the whole thing had, but it had to be sophisticated enough to carry the message and it had to [00:35:00] be, it had to take you to a different place by the end, when the little creature transforms into a butterfly. A little worm transforms into a butterfly.
Elizabeth: I have to tell our listeners, who are—anybody under 60, maybe under 70, won’t know who Liberace was, but he was this extraordinary performer and showman. Probably one of the very first openly gay performers—
Lynnie: I’m not even sure he was except for he totally was.
Elizabeth: And he was a pianist, he was a magnificent pianist.
Lynnie: With a piano opera.
Elizabeth: And when he was, both in these glittering tuxedos and had this bouffant hair.
Lynnie: He was like the classical Little Richard.
Elizabeth: Yeah, exactly.
Lynnie: He was way out. He was way out. But really a wonderful artist. And he, so the, it’s coming back to me, the impetus was this little kid wanted to study piano, his folks didn’t have any money, the Liberace Society gave him money so that he [00:36:00] could buy a little keyboard and learn, so this was his tribute back.
Michael: Now you taught and used puppets for Wolf Trap’s Head Start program. With preschoolers. And you created puppets for Round House Theatre’s summer camps. Can you talk about just the process of making puppets with young people?
Lynnie: It’s not my favorite. A lot of those situations were very structured. It was a camp. A lot of the kids didn’t want to be there.
Michael: Oh really?
Lynnie: Yeah. You got, “You’re going with your sister.” “I don’t wanna go with my sister!” “I need a break.” And you had an hour. I can’t do anything in an hour. I got it to the point with my, teaching at George Mason where all my classes were three hours.
Elizabeth: Yeah, if you’re making something physical.
Lynnie: If you’re learning to act, if you’re learning to perform, and watching other people perform, [00:37:00] anything. You can’t do anything in an hour. You get to go to the bathroom and then it’s over.
So yeah, I worked, but Head Start was great because Head Start had a very specific program, and I did this very early on, Michele was doing it, Joe was doing it, Joe still does it I think. They had books, they had workshops, they had learning, all these learning things. It didn’t take me long to start doing my own stuff. I never told them. But working with little kids and—so it wasn’t building. It was theater games. It was physicalizing books. Reading a book. So my favorite was Ezra Jack Keats’ Snowy Day. I’d make them chant, make them chant. Until they were like—and then I’d read them The Snowy Day, which is the best book in the world. [00:38:00] So they would participate as a character in the book. So it was that kind of thing.
So the puppetry I did, I’d take Mr. Punch in or I had a granny puppet that I made who would come in, be just really too sweet to counter me. But they would open up to her. And that let them open up to each other and open up to us. One of the kids said, “My grand, my father writes music.” And everybody went, “Oh, come on.” And he goes, “No, my dad plays music.” And so I said, “Could he come in and play music with us?” And the teachers were like, “What?”
So their lives are so important. Their lives are so important. And they’re so ignored. But everything I did working with them, or any of my teaching, has always been experiential. Because that’s the way I learn. You’re doing something, you’re always doing something. And trying to teach [00:39:00] puppets in those situations, just, it just, it wasn’t, it’s not. I did it, I have done it, I did it with grown-ups, it’s just, it’s really not about making a pretty puppet, it’s really about making something. Which is enough.
Elizabeth: Just that whole concept.
Lynnie: Yeah, and just something you haven’t done before.
Elizabeth: Lynnie, are we remembering correctly that Kenny Bloom of New Playwrights’ Theatre saw you in a puppet show and gave you a part back in the ‘70s at New Playwrights’?
Lynnie: He didn’t give it to me.
Elizabeth: He didn’t give you a part! So you worked with the late, great Harry Bagdasian, as well as Ken Bloom, and Lloyd Rose, and Ernie Joselovitz, who’s had, for many years, the Playwrights’ were one, other just legendary figures in DC theater. Can you tell us about those early days at New Playwrights’?
Lynnie: Again, how right place, right time. Yeah, Kenny, Smithsonian Theater, I think it [00:40:00] was called the Puppet Theater. Harry might have been working the box office there, but Harry, Alan Stevens, and Kenny all worked there together, so they all knew each other. Then, Harry and Kenny spun off to New Playwrights’. Kenny, of course, is a huge music guy. He has interviewed and written books and saved the archives of every single musical, comedy, musical producer on Broadway. He has won tons of awards. They split off to that and then Alan had the puppet theater and then Bob Brown, I think, took over the Smithsonian for a while before it became Discovery Theater and started hiring a bunch of us in.
So, they came to see A Christmas Carol, and, which we built, and I played—which ghost is it that’s the giant one? I don’t even remember. Big Santa looking thing, big wreath on the head, big, it [00:41:00] might be the one where he looks in and sees death and starvation, one of those. It was huge. So here we are on a little puppet stage with little rod puppets about this big, and then I climb up five stairs so I’m towering above these, and Kenny just fell in love with that. No, they didn’t, they, I got an audition. They made me sit with a big dog for about 45 minutes, I was crying and—
Elizabeth: This is a real dog or?
Lynnie: A real dog was there. This is at New Playwrights’. But, no, we’re busy. And then finally let me audition. Maybe we just talked. But then they started hiring me. They hired me for readings. They did lots of readings. And then the first show they put me in, and I think they did this because they thought it was very funny, they had me playing a children’s theater performer. And for a lot of the show, I wore a big [00:42:00] beaver suit, which I think they just thought was hilarious. And I was doing that.
Elizabeth: It must have been hot.
Lynnie: But then I got to go on and do, we’d do readings, so we’d do developmental readings. Then you move into the production. And we did some lovely stuff, Burrhead, And They Dance Real Slow in Jackson, and Debbie Pryor.
Elizabeth: Right. For people who don’t know New Playwrights’ Theatre in DC history, can you talk about the value of New Playwrights’ Theatre to playwrights and the entire theater community? This whole process of helping build a new play and the creative process of working with Playwrights’? Can you just reflect a little bit about what that process is like and how it’s important and what it’s, what it was?
Lynnie: Yeah, it was really important, and I don’t know who’s doing it, I’m sure somebody’s doing it because how else does it happen, but nobody was making any money of course, that was a big plus back then. Really a plus. Because it allowed [00:43:00] things to happen that could never happen otherwise. They had a group of people, Ernie had people, they started a network, they had people in New York, John Nassif, people like that, that would send them plays and they’d do readings. And if things seem to hit, then they might do another reading or might just schedule a production. Russell Metheny did all their designs. Even if the plays were garbage and we were, they would, people would come to see Russell’s sets. Glorious.
Elizabeth: This is Russell Metheny, one of the co-founders of Studio Theatre.
Lynnie: And he designed The Studio!
Elizabeth: Yeah, he designed The Studio and the whole facility. Incredible, brilliant man.
Lynnie: Yeah, he designed the Greyhound station downtown in deco, retro deco. He’s just a remarkable artist.
Elizabeth: Even people like Molly Smith worked at New Playwrights’. And Joy Zinoman, and people who were just giants in the theater world.
Lynnie: Did they? [00:44:00] Before my time. Maybe I was familiar…
Michael: Now, you mention the sort of developmental readings. So, the process, clearly they had a process. Could you maybe just describe what a developmental reading is, and is there audience feedback, and what—
Lynnie: And this is really important, because this is another one of the threads of DC theater, and it is the thread that leads directly to Smallbeer. New Playwrights’, to the Playwrights, the Playwrights Forum, that Joselovitz ran valiantly after New Playwrights’ closed, and then us.
I prefer… adult puppetry. I also prefer new plays. That’s what I, if it’s up to me, that’s what I want to work on. We discovered in 1980, [00:45:00] and I think I was probably, yeah, I was probably at New Playwrights’ by then, or maybe a little later, but we had an international festival of puppetry in DC that Henson brought in. Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, Germany, every place, all over the world. Blew our minds. We’d never seen anything like it. And we’re talking about all adult work. That we didn’t know existed. Those of us, all those people I listed earlier, we didn’t know this existed. We’d see Bread and Puppet maybe, but that was the only adult stuff we’d see. So that was a game changer.
New Playwrights’, and I, they may have been involved with ASTA first, I don’t know where the guys came out of, but yes, by the time I showed up, there were, they read lots of stuff. They did dramathons, 24-hour dramathons, where they read The Toilet play and, but it was a series of readings, some feedback, mostly among themselves, sometimes [00:46:00] with the actors involved. Just very casual, though. We might have a rehearsal for a reading, or a cold reading. And then they would commit to the plays, they would commit to a season and they had a stable of directors.
Michael: Sure. I would, Playwrights Forum, which I know, because I was at Broadway Players, you would do in house, scene reading, etc., etc. But then you would ultimately get a director, you’d get actors, they’d do a group rehearsal, then you’d do a reading before an audience, and then you’d have this discussion.
Lynnie: Absolutely, and thanks for bringing that up. It’s, yeah, that’s exactly what they did. And I don’t remember that process being so specific. But that’s because that was the endgame for Ernie’s groups. There wasn’t a production. So that, that was the most we could give. And Round House did a series of playwright voices or something like that too, but all of us were connected to Ernie. [00:47:00] Nick Olcott, me—Nick and I met at New Playwrights’—all those people were directly tied to Ernie.
Michael: Sure. And it sounds like it was a real community of theater artists focusing on new play development seemed to be developing. Oh, that must have been a wonderful experience.
Lynnie: It was a wonderful thing. And it, again, the, as an actor—I’ve been critiqued for this—you really aren’t the creative artist. You’re the interpretive artist. The closer you can get to the source is the closer you can get to the creative artist. Now when I make a puppet, I’m a creative artist. But not when I’m an actor, I am doing what I am told, and what the script allows me to do. But being close to that source of the idea and the creation of a play is really exciting. And that’s, and when we started Smallbeer, we didn’t know that’s what we were going to do, but it quickly [00:48:00] became all we wanted to do. So we connected to that.
Elizabeth: Speaking of Smallbeer, you and Kevin Murray and—
Lynnie: All those guys.
Elizabeth: A whole bunch of other people.
Lynnie: Which kept expanding.
Elizabeth: Yes. Founded Smallbeer Theater in the late 1980s. I think it was 86?
Lynnie: Maybe. Yeah.
Elizabeth: I think it was 86. Anyway, you said that Smallbeer grew out of that experience of originating characters in new plays. We’ve been talking about the New Playwrights’ experience with Ernie Joselovitz and Harry Bagdasian and others. So can you walk us through the founding of Smallbeer Theater?
Lynnie: Yeah. Yeah. Because we weren’t as high-minded as all that at the beginning. We had been to an audition at a nameless local theater with a really wonderful nameless director. And everybody we knew was in the room. We all knew each other. [00:49:00] Everybody knew what people could do in this town at that time. We were one. You might have some young ingenue or major character person come in and break in, but to all extents and purposes, it was a field that was measurable by human contact. And he took each one of us back, they took each one of us back and said, “Who would you cast?” “Besides me?” So again, that anger that this is not right. So we went to a place called Barnaby’s and had a couple of pitchers of beer and a sandwich and just started griping about, this is not right. You don’t need to have auditions to cast a show in this town.
Elizabeth: Oh, sure. Yeah.
Lynnie: You don’t need a building to do shows in this town. You need to—and that’s pretty much where it [00:50:00] started. There were certain things that we decided you didn’t need. Let’s get rid of these things. You don’t need a hierarchy to run a theater. A theater could be run by a collective. And so that’s what, and we came up with the name sitting at that table.
Elizabeth: Is that where the name came from? Smallbeer.
Lynnie: It was like it was, it was like, and I take credit for it. Of course, everybody disputes that. Because I’ve been reading a book by Ludwig Bemelman called Small Beer, and it’s the dregs. It’s look, it’s no big deal. It’s small beer. What’s the big deal? Why do you have to make a big deal out of this? Why do you have to spend all this money? Why do you have to have all this waste with all these big, gorgeous sets. Who cares? That’s not the point. That’s not what we are made to do. So that’s how it started.
Michael: And can you maybe describe for our audience, maybe [00:51:00] one of the more memorable productions?
Lynnie: We always, we took advice, we looked for playwrights. Rose Caruso, Deb Pryor was a favorite, several others. Memorably, for all the right reasons and all the wrong reasons, was our first production of The Man from Planet 52. We—one of the, one of our press things, Joe Brown was wonderful about giving us, quoting us, anything silly we had to say. “We’re like the cuckoo, we lay our eggs in other people’s nests.” So, we’d work at other people’s theaters. And summertime, back in the day, we didn’t have the air conditioning we have now.
Michael: We know!
Elizabeth: We remember!
Lynnie: I know, because we were in your house in the summer! When the wall collapsed and we hauled concrete out of there. But the first Smallbeer show we did with you. And the American Showcase [00:52:00] in Alexandria, we did several shows there. Several shows at Gala. Probably some other places that are just slipping my mind. But Man from Planet 52 is a play by Deb Pryor. I love Deb Pryor’s work. We did several of her pieces at New Playwrights’ and, just a remarkable crazy woman who I’m still in touch with. She’s out in California now. And a children’s play that was not a children’s play. For me, design heaven. Zombies, aliens, heroes from outer space, onion-headed villains, fish-headed heroes, the Arizona desert with a couple of young twins, one of which was Chris Bauer, and monsters, and Mom, who the alien turns into a zombie, so you have to rescue Mom, and, just, a stupid [00:53:00] sheriff. Just, fun, fun stuff. Delight to build, delight to work with those actors, Nick Mathwick, Kevin Murray, Deb Stromberg, Chris Bauer, Hank Jackelen, a lot of the original company. Bina Martin, Jacobina Martin, Miss Manners’ daughter. Liz Stewart. Forgive me if I’m forgetting anybody. But, for me, wild costumes, big monsters, and I got to direct. It was heaven. And Nick was exquisite as Randall Herring, the fish-headed hero.
Elizabeth: Right. This was Nick Olcott.
Lynnie: The next show we did was Happy Birthdays, which was at, also in Alexandria. Three vignettes. Birthdays. 20s, 40s, and [00:54:00] 60s, women focused. And Nick and I played the 40s, although he was too young. And, at some point something was going on and I just, I’m not, I’m pushy, but I’m not invasive. And I said, “Nick, what’s going on?” And he told me he had thrush. We did that show with that, I did that show with that knowledge. He asked me not to tell anybody. His partner knew it, and he, and his family knew it, and that was it. He died that fall. And then, I, in my grief, decided to mount Man from Planet 52 again. As a tribute to him, you know, with the Richie Porter playing his role. And we did it at Gala. And Steve LeBlanc, the remarkable Steve LeBlanc, who had also gotten a diagnosis, did a remarkable set for us. So this is the world we were living in. So, we became [00:55:00] adults. That’s when it wasn’t just about having a good time with your friends. That’s when it became being adults. Honoring them by working with them and continuing their work. And for me, it was a whole new place to live.
Elizabeth: So something we’ve asked a couple of people who have been in the theater business town for a long time, and you’ve mentioned some of the reasons why creating theater in the mid to late ‘80s into the 90s was the quote, “right time” to found a theater. People worked for different reasons. It was a different time. Can you just revisit some of those, some of the factors that made running a theater, starting a theater, doing theater possible in the way in which you wanted to do it?
Lynnie: We had so many good examples. There were so many small theaters. Many of which crashed and burned. So what? You, temporality made them more, even more precious. [00:56:00] What made it right, in my mind, is the fact that we had three or four newspapers and each one had several critics, all of whom went to the theater. There was no way we could have drawn audiences or gotten any recognition at all if we had not had that public forum supporting us, encouraging us. And they weren’t there to cut us down. This was past the Dave Richards era. They were there to come on out and have a good time. And, look what these guys are doing, and look what these guys are doing. And they were about uplifting. And we had Joe and, I just can’t even list the number, but I’d say we had seven or eight critics writing about, so there were—
Elizabeth: And there were small papers that covered theater.
Lynnie: Washington Post had three critics.
Elizabeth: I know! And they had WaPo Reviews, Style section.
Lynnie: Washington Times.
Elizabeth: And the guy in the Weekend section.
Lynnie: [00:57:00] Yeah. City Paper. City Paper had two critics, Bob Mondello. And every small rag and Fal Levine was on the radio.
Elizabeth: That’s right.
Lynnie: There was just, everywhere you looked there was theater. And the prices were cheap. Smallbeer was $10. Even when other people started charging more, we never charged more than $10. People could come to the theater. Who can come to the theater for 50 bucks? That’s not how you build an audience. Maybe it is in some audience.
Then I think one of the things that worked against us, against that vibe, and against that freedom, and it’s not that I have anything against unions, but the unions did a huge push in DC. And it just made life much more complicated and difficult. Nick was a member of the union. I was told to come up. I said, “Look, we can’t do this. He’s a company member. He wants to do this. What can we do?” And they said, “You can come up and have a meeting [00:58:00] with us in New York.” Here I am making like 200 bucks a week. “And we’ll discuss it.” And it was going to be me and the people bringing Phantom over from London. Again, what is wrong with this picture? What is wrong with this picture? So whatever the reality of the union and how it helped some people, it really made it very difficult for a lot of small theaters to flourish and for actors to work.
Elizabeth: Let’s fast forward or simultaneously go forward. In your own life, Lynnie, you also subsequently became affiliated for many years as a faculty member of George Mason University. And you taught and directed and costumed and designed puppets and produced student shows, as well as acted and designed for the Theater of the First Amendment and the Institute of the Federal Theater. And I think you said once that you had to open four or five shows the same week. And you’ve also talked about not being a, quote, [00:59:00] “traditional” costume designer. Moving from puppet making and acting and directing to costuming, can you just talk about your costuming process?
Lynnie: I wasn’t educated to do that. I sewed, back in the day I always wore skirts, which I could make with two seams, you know, and a drawstring. That’s how I dressed, because I didn’t have any money, and that’s how I wanted to dress anyway. I didn’t know how. I didn’t know what to do. The only costume experience I had was other people costuming me. Again, experiential learning. I costumed for many years before I went to George Mason, one of the reasons they hired me as a resident costume designer. Because they knew all these shows were coming. And they needed somebody. A huge shop, which I never had. But no staff. But that’s the way I was used to doing it. I would come in, I would take everybody’s measurements. And then I would bring in the costumes. [01:00:00] And I worked with color. I worked with shape. I wasn’t afraid to… interpret a character for the artist and the director in case I didn’t think they were getting it. And make it more colorful, make it more interesting. I, again, visually, what do you want? What do you want the audience to take away?
I did shows at Mason which were like, all black. I did Big Love by Chuck Mee. It was a premiere DC performance. We weren’t allowed to say that because Woolley had the rights, but he, they did it as a one man show and it was a 50-person show. That was all black and white until the red blood came down at the end. But it was about men in tuxedos and women in bride dresses. It was about taking women’s autonomy away. And I had statues in burqa around the, like there’s Afghan women looking down watching this. [01:01:00] And, I’ve done shows in all gray and black with the innocent person in white. But usually those are my political shows at Mason. Usually what I was designing for the world I would just bring them in. When I was working freelance, you never had a place to do fittings. You can take somebody off in a corner and try stuff on them, but I could pretty much guess by—and thrift shopping. So everything was thrift shopping. Occasionally, when I did a big show, I got a Helen Hayes nomination for a show I did for somebody and it was set, like, in almost Dickensian time, so I was able to borrow from shops. I ran the shop at PG Community Color for a while, so I could drop them in, I could drop them there. You get to know people. But, otherwise, it’s thrift shopping. Thrift shopping. Creative thrift shopping. And I had a, one of the professional costumers who came into Maryland, I said, she was just remarkable. And I said, “All I do is [01:02:00] put together things.” She said, “Lots of costumers just work that way.”
Michael: Now, the Federal Theatre Project, the archives, they’re at George Mason University. And I think you were an archivist for the Institute of the Federal Theater, right?
Lynnie: What happened was they hired me at George Mason as the costume designer. I taught a class called Adventures in Theater, which don’t, gives you an idea of how much I knew actually. But we had the big federal theater festival. We mounted—first of all, “we” is not, “we” is Lorraine Brown. Lorraine, Dr. Lorraine Brown was the temporary head of the theater department when I got there and she and a friend of hers, John, had… the Federal Theatre was the government’s answer to people starving to death during the Depression. And [01:03:00] they, along with the Works Projects and all the other things, and the Tennessee Valley stuff, they funded artists, and John Houseman, and John Randolph, and Oscar Saul, and lots of people that made a difference to us—Orson Welles—were all part of the Federal Theater. They were getting their paychecks—
Michael: There were productions with 150 people.
Lynnie: So that was it. The government, just like in Oppenheimer, I was having flashbacks, they, the Dies Committee, which was before the McCarthy crazies, but it was all the same thing. It was communist, communist. Hallie Flanagan ran the Federal Theater. They brought her up. They said they’re, you’re communists, basically. One of the things they said they were communists about was a children’s show they did in New York. They did children’s shows. They toured them. They did puppet shows. They had a marionette section. They did all this [01:04:00] putting facts together, living newspapers, to inform people.
So this show is called Revolt of the Beavers. It was by Oscar Saul and somebody else. Oscar was, I got to meet him, he was still alive when I was working. And it was about a factory and beavers, and you had the good beavers and the bad beavers, and then the boss beaver, and it was like, treating them badly. And they were on roller skates, the heroes were on roller skates. So we did a reading of it, but that was shown, it was brought up at the Dies Committee about how the Federal Theatre was communist. And they were forcing communism upon the children, just like we’re forcing transsexuality on our children today. It was a panic. People grabbed all they could grab, the records, before they were destroyed, and they disappeared. And Lorraine Brown and John discovered [01:05:00] this cache of Federal Theatre papers at an airplane hangar in suburban Maryland. She brought them, those archives, covered with dust and pigeon crap and sometimes a bottle of rye or half a sandwich into a wing that they built into George Mason Library. And with her students, organized them all. Pristine archival things.
And it had been there a while when I got there, but not too long. And, but when this was happening with the Theater of the First Amendment, and then she was the head of the theater department, and Rick Davis came in, the idea was to put together Federal Theatre festivals, to not just let these sit in an archive, but to bring them to life. And [01:06:00] to bring them to life in original forms, and to bring them to life in, in ways that built on the original structures or updated the original structure. We did a living newspaper on AIDS. We did all kinds of stuff. And I produced a production of Revolt of the Beavers outside and Oscar Saul, probably 90 years old, came down and rewrote, rewrote part of it. John Randolph, who was one of the beavers, came down. He was a friend of Jane Henson’s, too. All the things went together. But yeah, not too many years later, the Library of Congress reclaimed the archives. They just came and took them. There were drawings by Orson Welles. One of the festival pieces we did that was very exciting, Dianne McIntyre, who’s a really remarkable dancer, and I had never done dance classes before. There was a piece by Helen Tamiris called How Long, Brethren, [01:07:00] which was primarily done with white Jewish dancers but was groundbreaking. Tamiris found these old spirituals and the choreography was gorgeous. Dianne McIntyre, we, she and I researched the archives, the costumes, the structures, the pictures of the women in, and she found dancers that were still alive in New York, brought them down, had them show the movements to the girls who were dancing in it—a mixed group, but lots of Black dancers. And I got to do costumes for them, recreate the costumes for them.
So that was the idea of the Federal Theater. Just heartbreaking when they took those archives. I think we did the festival for three years. I was mostly participating in the first year, because that’s before I was given all the other things I [01:08:00] had to do there, but also the second one and the third one less. But Lorraine Brown was just an incredible person. So, working as an archivist, I would write about the, we had a newsletter. I would write for that. I would go out and see puppet shows and bring them in for the festival. I would publicize the information to puppeteers and theaters and things like that. That was my main part as an archivist. And then researching things that I was working on.
Elizabeth: Speaking of all these things you have to do, I want to ask you a kind of macro question. Because, Lynnie, you’re one of the, you’re not the only person, but you are somebody who has made a living in the theater biz in this region your entire life. Both performing and costuming and creating three-dimensional theater forms and teaching and running all the behind-the-scenes production aspects, et cetera, et cetera. And a lot of theater people, Michael and myself included, have had other jobs, other day jobs, whether it’s teaching or doing non-profit work or something [01:09:00] in the private sector that’s not even related to theater. So just as a kind of life perspective, can you speak to what it’s been like trying to weave together all these different layers of work within theater? It’s just a Herculean achievement.
Lynnie: Not if you spread it out over 50 years. It’s not so bad. But no, there were times when, there are shows I don’t remember. And there are times at Mason where I just, you know, teaching classes and directing and designing shows at the same time and over and then doing a small project on the side, it was just like… I wasn’t pretty. And I wasn’t doing my best teaching. But I pay attention and I pay attention to lots of stuff, but I pay attention to me, too. And I insist upon joy and [01:10:00] I insist upon autonomy. And I insist that the, I tried other jobs. I did other jobs. I just said, look, you’re, I saw how people work. I saw how people had other jobs so they could stay in theater. I couldn’t do that. I didn’t want to do that. It was like, all or nothing. That was pretty much it. It’s all or nothing. And I’ll do anything within this world. And this world is plenty wide and broad and diverse enough to give me all the experiences I could ever want or need. And I made that decision very early on after living in nine different cities, however many, doing theater and just deciding to come back to DC and make my home here where I grew up. Even when there weren’t theaters [01:11:00] around, but that was it. I just, that was that angry person inside of me making sure that all my life I would have joy.
Elizabeth: One of the last questions we always ask our interviewees is what practical, tangible advice they give to, they would give to our listeners or to other people, to young people, to elders, anyone trying to realize their own creativity and to sustain it in this not always welcoming world. So you’ve given us your own example, but is, would you give advice to others based on your own experiences? Or do you have other advice?
Lynnie: I, advice is not… Advice is not something I give. But I think… to groups of people I would be unwilling, I can look at it in advance and give advice, but I think the point is to show up. When I [01:12:00] got the job, the reason they hired me at that dinner theater job, what Jack Kirk told the producers, “She shows up.”
Elizabeth: She shows up. Yeah.
And that’s also been my mantra, I show up. I was late for one puppet show in my whole life. You need to work on something where you’re getting what you need. You’re not just doing it for somebody else. And show up and be present as much as you can. We can’t always be present. Things are complicated. People with families, I don’t know how they do it. It’s just, there’s too many balls in the air. So I limited my life to be able to live the life I wanted. I limited it in terms of what other people think is appropriate or the, what do you mean? But no, I but it was the life I wanted.
Elizabeth: Speaking of your life—
Elizabeth: You are, this amazing narrative that you have you, I mentioned that you’re working on your personal [01:13:00] archives. Are there other projects you’re working on?
Lynnie: That’s just overpowering. And if anybody out there is hearing me, I need help. But you get to a certain point with 50 years of paper, and it’s just, if anything else comes up, you walk away from it. You have to walk away from it. And then you can’t figure out what it is when you come back. I’m a gardener, once Spring hit, it’s oh, my. And my, the archive hopefully will go to the Clarice, I mean to the Michelle Smith Library, but it has to be approved but that can only happen once I finish it, so that’s all.
So what’s next is somehow, and I don’t know how, finishing that. I live in an old house, maintaining an old house as I get to be an old house is becoming increasingly difficult. And the garden is my only plan. Maintaining relationships with my friends. My, I’m 76, so we’re dropping like flies, being there for my friends, as much as they can allow and trying to stay present in my own life on some level. [01:14:00] I was, I locked the door for three years during COVID. So that’s been a big change.
Elizabeth: Right, right. That’s been a big change. So is there a place people can find out more about you?
Lynnie: What else do they need to know? My dress size?
Elizabeth: Oh, Lynnie, this has been great.
Lynnie: It’s been a lot of fun.
Elizabeth: So incredibly generous.
Lynnie: People can find me on Facebook if they really want to. I’m in touch with a lot of my students and a lot of old friends. And I love that. I love, even when I’m isolated, I love being able to know what’s going on in the lives of people I love. So yeah.
Elizabeth: Once again, this has been the amazing theater artist, Lynnie Raybuck.
Lynnie: It’s so good to see you again!
Elizabeth: I know, this has been great. Thank you.
Lynnie: You’re welcome. Thank you.
Elizabeth: We’re so appreciative.
Lynnie: I feel so blessed.
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