Safe Home, Lanford Wilson
On Monday, May 16, 2011, friends and colleagues gathered on an overcast afternoon at the Lyceum Theater to celebrate the life of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson.
Wilson is considered to be one of the founders of the Off-Off-Broadway movement. He began his career at the Caffe Cino where his plays Ludlow Fair, Home Free!, and The Madness of Lady Bright were presented. It is at the Cino that Wilson met and began work with his life-long collaborator, director Marshall Mason. Together they forged a 40-year partnership that resulted in some of the most heartfelt and celebrated plays of their generation.
A product of a broken home, Wilson was always searching for family. He found camaraderie in the burgeoning OOB community. In addition to the Cino, he also worked at LaMaMa and several other OOB houses of the time. In 1969 he, along with many other playwrights and directors from the OOB scene, founded the Circle Repertory Company. For the next 26 years Wilson called the Circle home; developing strong familial-like relationships with his actors and collaborators.
Many of his works reflect this search for family as his eclectic characters seek out connections and relationships with others. Wilson often portrayed a romantic and patriotic, yet mournful view of the American dream. "No playwright writes with a better ear, compassion, understanding, and clarity about the American search for identity and acceptance than Lanford Wilson” says Terry Schreiber.
During the 1980s Wilson’s work began to be produced in Broadway houses. An avid theatre-goer, Wilson rarely missed a single performance of any of these productions. As Mason noted, “no one enjoyed a Lanford Wilson play more than Lanford Wilson.” While he was effusive about his approval, he was also not shy about expressing disappointment. Both Bobby Cannavale and Lou Liberatore related instances of performing on stage and hearing loud disapproving sighs and groans from Wilson as he watched from the audience. During a rehearsal for Redwood Curtain, Debra Monk remembered Wilson yelling from the back of the house “I’ve only written five good lines in this play. You’ve got three of them and you’re fucking them all up.”
After the Circle Repertory closed in 1996, Wilson began working with the Purple Rose Theatre in Michigan, which was modeled after the Circle Rep. In 2002 the Signature Theatre dedicated their season to Wilson and presented Burn This, Book of Days, Fifth of July and Rain Dance. Each of these theaters provided a home for Wilson and he found an extended family.
Wilson was very generous when it came to sharing his talent and knowledge. From 2004 to 2007 he served as a lecturer at Houston University mentoring theatre students. He attended several productions at the T. Schreiber Studios and always took the time to discuss his plays with the students and spend time with them afterward. “He was so generous to our actors with his time and gave them unforgettable insight into his characters and plays,” says Schreiber.
A long-time admirer of Wilson and his work, I first met him five years ago, when he presented the award for Outstanding Production of a Play at the 2006 New York Innovative Theatre Awards. He arrived early, listened intently throughout the ceremony and stayed for hours after the event socializing with the artists, asking about their productions and sharing stories about his years working Off-Off-Broadway. It was a wonderful evening, made even more so because this theater icon sincerely wanted to learn about us, the artists, our work and how our community had changed and grown over the years.
He had a special place in his heart when it came to OOB because we all share a common experience, a common identity. We are all independent theatre artists and know the joys and frustrations that that entails. As a character from Wilson’s Angel Falls says, “once you know what you are, the rest is just work.”
Since that time, I had had several encounters with Wilson. Each one was special because of the genuine interest he showed in me and my work.
In September of 2010 Wilson was on the receiving end as Debra Monk presented him with the Artistic Achievement Award. This honor was bestowed upon him on behalf of his peers and fellow artists of the Off-Off-Broadway community "in recognition of his brave and unique works that helped establish the Off-Off-Broadway community, and propel the independent theatre voice as an important contributor to the American stage.” Due to health concerns, Wilson was not able to be there in person to accept the award, but he had recorded his acceptance speech in advance.
Patrick Shearer and I were fortunate enough to be the ones to record it with him. I called him at our prearranged time a few days before the ceremony. “Listen, can you call back in a few minutes?” he asked. “I’m not quite finished yet.” I agreed and a half hour later I phoned again. “I wrote something and rewrote it. Would you listen to it and tell me what you think?” I was a little dumbfounded. Lanford Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright was asking me, a woman who has trouble spelling, to critique his writing? “Sure,” I replied, literally laughing out loud.
It was quite a lovely speech that shared his origins in this business. “From the first moment I heard an audience laugh at one of my lines,” he recalled “I was ruined for life.” He then asked me to give him feedback about his delivery. While I felt quite absurd giving him instructions, it was a testament to his openness and humility. I told him to make sure he spoke clearly and to articulate his words because of the recording equipment. I also assured him that we could stop or edit it after the fact so he didn’t need to feel the pressure of trying to get it in one shot. When we were all ready, he recorded his very touching acceptance in one continuous take.
When we had finished recording, I told him that I would follow up with him after the event, but that he could watch the ceremony live online, to which he asked, “is that on a computer?” I answered “yes” and he replied “Oh honey, my computer is the size of a barn and I can’t do a thing with it.”
In February 2011, Nick Micozzi and I visited Wilson in his hospital room at New York Presbyterian Hospital. He was in the intensive care unit and we had to put on gowns and gloves in order to go in. He had had a tracheotomy and was unable to speak, but he was bright and alert. I shared a message from his friend and former roommate, playwright Robert Patrick. “Tell him he better get well soon because he still owes me two months rent and a phone deposit from 1965,” I read. To which Wilson dramatically rolled his eyes and chuckled.
We presented Wilson with the award, described the ceremony and what Monk had said during her presentation. We explained that it was presented to him on behalf of his fellow OOB artists. He indicated that he was touched by the honor. He held the award and, like most of our recipients, commented on how much it weighed. We were told in advance that he did not want a lot of things cluttering up his room so we were prepared to take the award with us and ship it to him at a later time. However, he insisted that we leave it with him and it was set on a table across from his bed. After some more small talk, we said our good byes. As we left the hospital, there was a lump in my throat.
On Monday, in the center of the Lyceum Theater’s stage, photos from Wilson’s private collection were displayed on a large screen. The service consisted of tributes and remembrances from some of Wilson’s closest friends. Funny stories followed tender recollections which followed heartfelt serenades. It was a fitting sendoff for one of our most beloved and cherished friends and colleagues. We were all there, Wilson’s theatrical family, to celebrate his life and bid him “safe home.”