Catching Up with Jeff Riebe
The word “survivor” is certainly overused in today’s culture – and not just because of “reality” television. As Elaine Stritch once observed about actresses barely into their forties singing “I’m Still Here” in their various cabaret acts – “Where have they been?”
Jeff Riebe, on the other hand, is another matter. Jeff can lay claim to the title Survivor (with a capital S, indeed, and no quotation marks) more than anyone I can think of – including Ms. Stritch. And I can imagine him wielding a martini glass and cigarette with the same degree of authority as our favorite raspy chanteuse. For those of you unaware of Jeff’s story, he was the victim of a near fatal drunk driving incident in April of 2006, when he was struck while on the sidewalk outside his Manhattan apartment. I won’t go into the horrifying details here – this article is about where Jeff is right now; what he’s doing and his amazing progress since that epic misadventure three and a half years ago. Before that trauma, Jeff was one of the Co-Chairs of the Honorary Awards Committee for the New York Innovative Theatre Awards, and in fact traveled back to New York City last September to present the Café Cino Award at the 2009 awards ceremony.
He is also a marvelous actor who has given many excellent performances, one of which I’m happy to report, was in a one-act I had written titled MUSIC MINUS ONE some years ago. But it was during Jeff’s recovery and continued rehabilitation that I began to get the full measure of his character. It has been, to say the least, a challenging, painful, difficult road for him – yet he has always maintained his impish, ironic and occasionally profane sense of humor, his thousand-watt smile, and hair so annoyingly perfect I’d want to bitch slap him if I didn’t like him so much. Let’s say the man has an arsenal of coping tools.
He has been back in his hometown of Minneapolis for the last three years, near his family, and has moved from a rehabilitation unit to a group home, increasingly independent and reclaiming his creative self, most specifically in theatre. Jeff has been working at the Interact Center, a theatre for actors with disabilities, and volunteering at the renowned Guthrie Theater, both in Minneapolis. “It’s cool to be at the Guthrie,” Jeff said when we caught up on the phone recently. “I really enjoy being there.” The big blue building boasts three different theatre spaces – proscenium, thrust and black box. It was in that black box space, The Dowling Studio, where Jeff recently performed with Interact, fully enjoying the experience of being in such a well-noted house. His volunteer work at the Guthrie has been with the Literary and Education departments, where he reads and summarizes both one act and full-length plays. “No critique,” he explained. “I try to filter out my opinion.” Jeff’s assignments also included his protean efforts for their recent Tony Kushner festival, where he wrote a synopsis for nearly all of the Kushner canon. “Wordy bitch, Ms. Kushner,” I commented. “But good wordy,” Jeff countered. Also at the Guthrie, Jeff has been involved with a group seeking to launch a coffee house evening, wherein people would gather to discuss issues relevant to the theatre scene. “The concept started in London,” he tells me. “They were called Penny University, or something like that. We'd like to develop the concept here and see if it catches on, specifically related to theatre.”
Jeff also seeks to launch a new mentoring program, called Artists Mentor Project, for young gay theatre artists. “The idea germinates from the concept that artists have a lot of qualities to offer anyone, regardless of their chosen career path. I simply thought why not apply it specifically to younger gay people, since the artistic world is so full of us?” It’s just in the talking stages, but given Jeff’s determination, I expect it will be a solid program in a matter of months. He’s asked if I would be a mentor – and even though, as a playwright I feel like I need the mentor – I said yes immediately. I was honored. I didn’t have to think long. Jeff inspires the word “yes.”
Photo of Jeff Riebe and Ben Hodges by David Fletcher.