I paused for a couple days to consider your letter and gather my thoughts. I'm sure whatever I have to say will be inadequate but I will try.
First, I want you to know I admire your courage. You took a great risk. That act alone is worthy of admiration. I hope you will not lose your courage as life will undoubtedly present you plenty of challenges and opportunities.
Second, I do agree with you -- up to a point. I don't consider theater dead. I think it has transformed itself into a sewing circle. The only people who care about a sewing circle's output are its members. They applaud each other, go to each other's shows, buy each other's work. And the outside world doesn't care.
So it is with theater. Theater people care about theater. Theater people go to the theater. The general public does not. Perhaps poetry is a better analogy. Who besides a poet reads poetry?
Here in Chicago, most major theaters import proven hits from New York and London. The smaller theaters seem to prefer alternative themes, nudity, violence, sexual situations, blue language, or all of the above, to good writing. (If it's vulgar, it's art, apparently.) Small homegrown production companies also have an impossible time getting media coverage. I've never heard of anyone bribing reviewers, but who knows? Stranger things have happened.
You said you seek advice. Here's the best I can give you:
1) Who says you have to pay off Stolen Fire's debts by yourself? Go to the community. You'll have to lose your pride temporarily, but it'll be worth it. How about a special benefit performance of "Land's End"? Get local businesses to donate production costs and put their names on the marquee, ask actors to donate their time and charge a higher-than-normal price for tickets.
2) A lot of theaters here in Chicago beg. Literally. I get letters from them all the time asking for money. I personally don't like the practice, it's overdone. But you've got to do what you've got to do.
4) You say you don't know if you still have the heart to do this. Maybe this experience is a turn in the road which will lead to do something you were meant to do. That something may be Stolen Fire. Only you can decide.
5) I know a very fine man here in Chicago, Frank Farrell. Frank mounted a successful Shakespeare production this year and he says that today, a play must have a gimmick. The gimmick's the thing. He's not happy about it, but accepts it as reality. Frank came up with the wonderful idea of staging "As You Like It" as a hike through a Chicago forest preserve. He got lots of press coverage, "As You Hike It" drew 135 people over four Saturdays and he already has plans to expand it next year.
6) The arts are hard. Very hard. I don't have to tell you that. But I would like to tell you how much the production of "Fourth House" meant to me. It was great encouragement. I have put playwriting aside for now because of a growing number of opportunities to write books. But I will never forget Stolen Fire. Thank you.
7) I'll leave you now with a quote from the New Testament, if you won't mind. The usual crowd asks Jesus a question: is it lawful to pay taxes? Jesus asks them to produce a coin and asks whose face is on the coin. "Caesar's," they say. "Render onto Caesar what is Caesar's," he says. "Render onto God what is God's." Let's hope you keep rendering onto God for a long time.
There's no point in my trying to convince you that theater is not dead. Indeed, there's no need to. Look in the mirror and you'll see that theater is alive, throbbing with desire and the will to live and create.
It is in places like Stolen Fire that the brightest and hottest flame shows. Theater has been smothered in dollars elsewhere, the breath of it barely evident in the tons of hype and double-page ads and mega-campaigns it takes to keep those eternal runs of "Phantom" going. Investments, Dwain --- those are like pork bellies or IRAs (sensitive topic, that), but they are not theater.
I won't try to convince you, nor will I argue with you. I'll only remember that Gary had his break in Stolen Fire, and that I almost did, and that's close enough for me to have come to the magic of the stage.
I'm working on revises in Act 2 of "Stages" to strengthen the Lettie relationship and make the loss more meaningful. Let me know if you want to see them, ever --
Thanks for everything,
John B. forwarded your letter. Thanks for letting me read it. I could wax prolific for ever about what you wrote, but I won't. You have said it all. I know the amount of heart and soul and money that goes into what you did with Stolen Fire. Thanks for all the work.
I'm a friend of Gary Carden's. He sent me your lament about the state of the theatre and your own dire straits that resulted from your commitment to good theatre and your dreams of bringing unknown new plays to more people.
I met Gary at an Elderhostel four years ago. His is a talent that I fervently wish would be discovered, nourished, published and acclaimed. You discovered it and followed your heart to try to do all those other things for it. I first fell in love with the stand-up storyteller. Then I went with him to Stone Mountain and became enamored of the playwright. When I read "Land's End" I wept and was transformed by it as with great drama. I was ecstatic that you were doing it in California and hopeful of greater glory in San Francisco.
And now reading the account of your personal plight and your pronouncement that "theatre is dead," I am heart-sick. If I had the money, I'd share it with both you and Gary but I don't have it. However, I don't believe theatre is dead, nor is painting nor good education. We live in a society that gives lip service to the importance of education and the arts, but we've never supported them financially. So I thing that we can't denigrate patronage as elitism. We need all the private support we can get and should be happy to take it, even from rich Philistines.
I'm retired now but I spent a lifetime in education and arts field. Now my career might be labeled "Cultural Sponge." I wish it could be "Major Patron of the Arts." You would share the top of the list with Gary Carden.
I hope that there is some way that you can continue doing what you obviously do so well.
in Akron, Ohio
Thanks for the effort. You have went above and beyond the call of duty. If what goes around comes around, then you should get your IRA money back with interest, maybe in the movies, I'll watch for your name on the credits.
Good luck to you Dwain - WALLY ASHBROOK
Sorry to hear about the misfortune in S.F. I know how much you worked for that opportunity. (At least I remember your moodniness at work). I don't know what advice to give you, I'm just as poor as you and less insightfull (at least at this point in life). But I do hope that things bounce back for you. Hopefully you will still get people to volunteer and sponsor plays at the excellent center since you are such a play loving fool. Maybe I will see you during Christmas time. Say hello to everyone for me.
Stefan (white bread)
Gary Carden forwarded your letter to me, asking if I might have some words to say. What can one say in the face of such loss as you have known? I do know that I was thrilled to see the performance opening night in San Francisco and that it was well worth the trip from Tacoma. It was a treat to talk to so many people involved: you, the actors, the playwright.
All I know is this: Ever since theatre was born in the darkness around a fire, the story has been about dying, about the approaching catastrophe, about the world coming to an end. Every story, every play has pulled the watchers and listeners into some kind of believing, that things would be, could be different IF.
If we fell in love
If we made a different decision
If we went a different way
If we had courage
If we spoke up
If we lived life as if it mattered
Stolen Fire is part of that long tradition, both in its purpose and its commitment to new work. That is a legacy of which one can be proud.
Perhaps it was a mistake to go to San Francisco. A litany of "What if's" could take up an afternoon. The reality is, San Francisco was home for a good and wonderful work and the people lost because they did not see it. More publicity? Better publicity? Short bits done at high school assemblies? All of them useless questions now. Is theatre dead? I'm the wrong person to ask. I still remember the "Three Little Kittens" from kindergarten. I made a splendid scolding mother cat. I'll never believe theatre is dead.
But I haven't lost my heart and my savings giving life to something I love. So death is an apt term, and mourning is the appropriate ritual. Time and space to grieve are also part theatre. I am glad you took the risk, Dwain, and sad that it has cost you so much. I can hold out no hope that things will be better, only the promise of companion souls who know the thrill you have known and who will sit with you in this time of sorrow. It won't be everyone, just a few, but even one other can keep us from going mad.
Oh, Baby!!!! You have been to the mat and been dragged and got yourself a powerful case of mat rash. Sending ointment, arrows pointing which way up, and question marks asking which way from here? All the very best of what is coming unseen round the bend, Dwain. Life comes as many, not sole, serial, not grouped. Looking forward to hearing from you another three or four steps down the yellowbrick road.
Dear Dwain, I get your long soliloquy and Gary's answer just now. I cannot answer either of them even though I will at some point, because I need time to reread them and get the knot out of my stomach. I will only say I hope you hear Gary's words and listen to his genuine passion. To all of us who have that passion.
We leave Tues the 6th for three weeks on the train. We'll see our son in Lincoln Neb., friends in Boston, and our other daughter in Atlanta GA. While we are there, we will drive up to, I hope, Gary and Nance Dude's arena in Haywood Co. and environs. I have just e mailed him to get phone and address and given him dates etc. We'll see. However, I will write you when I get back here. We return the 27th of Oct. Maybe by then I can understand what I feel and what I want to say to you in this dark night of your soul. Meantime, show up every day and know we feel so much for you. We'll talk later. With love...a great deal of love.