Catching up with the Circus

This entry from Mel Andringa, producing director of CSPS/Legion Arts in Cedar Rapids:

"When I was a graduate student at the University of Iowa in 1970, there was an interdisciplinary program called the Center for New Performing Arts. At least five departments were involved, including Music, Dance, Art, Theater, Film and the Writers Workshop, and each department lent a faculty member to the project. As an art student, I signed up for CNPA’s “Intermedia” workshops with students from the other departments. A big part of the program was residencies by visiting artists, and I had a work-study job assisting them with their projects. I think I got assigned to help Robert Wilson because I was the only art student with some theater experience, and even though Wilson was primarily a theater artist, he had been invited by Hans Breder, an assistant professor in the School of Art.

"We met at the old Mill Restaurant on Burlington (a couple of blocks east of its current incarnation). Bob was a tall guy in a black leather jacket, jeans and a white shirt. He had short black hair and wore tinted glasses. He didn’t make small talk, but spoke softly with his head tilted slightly to the left and described his project in precise if fantastic detail. There would be a deaf black boy, who would witnesses the murder of his siblings by his mother, and enter a forest landscape and sit on a bench and fish from a pile of dirt. The bench would levitate and strange scenes would happen beneath him including a banquet presided over by a frog in a tuxedo drinking martinis. There would be many characters like a pope and a goat-woman, and the whole silent opera would conclude with the earth breaking up and swallowing up everyone, who would be replaced by giant apes holding apples while one of them plays a harp.

"As he talked he drew a diagram of the action on a piece of cardstock with a red magic marker (it’s the only souvenir I have of his visit). I didn’t know what to make of it. I was totally unequipped to imagine how we would get the resources to realize his vision. We were supposed to do this in the ballroom at the student union, and I remember thinking maybe we could do something with projections or flat architectural drawings of trees on plastic drop cloths. But flying benches and palm trees that grow, and a house that get tall and burns and sinks into the ground? How could it happen?

"But Bob had jobs for me the next day and I began doing whatever he asked. The first item of business was to build interest in the big project through an event at the Museum of Art. It was to be called Handbill and we were going to use the entire building as a set for it.

"Bob assured me we would have plenty of help when the ‘Byrds’ (associates of his from New York) began arriving. So we started recruiting local performers for workshops. Members of a Grotowski-based experimental theater group were some of our first takers, although in the end they became disgruntled with the task-like actions they were asked to perform. Bob went to the Dance department to recruit people but wound up offending the director by singing the praises of Isadora Duncan. He started picking up people on the street and in restaurants, art faculty, wives and kids.

"And the Byrds did migrate to us, strangely ordinary people with peculiar gifts and a singular focus to make Bob’s work materialize.

"Rehearsals at the River City Free Trade Zone (a defunct hippy emporium that was a predecessor to the Hall Mall) consisted of long sessions of open dancing to Dylan and Melanie. We watched an hour-long film of nude and clothed people moving in slow motion on dunes covered with beach grass, and learned to do their simple seven part movements. Nobody knew what they would be doing in the eventual production. Cast and crew, everyone danced. In rehearsals, everyone seemed like a walk-on and nobody was being asked to display their skills, just themselves. This disturbed people who were defined by their skills.

"The event at the museum was a ‘happening’. Abstract, constructivist, post-modern and avant-garde, you name it. A flutist played endless looping melodies. The floor of the basement gallery was covered with straw and a man in a hat and a raccoon coat leaned into a wire stretched across the room, to the accompaniment of Alley Cats, a novelty pop song. Upstairs groups of people in wheat colored clothes grazed the galleries like sheep on their hands and knees. Others made haystacks and danced. A 70-year old woman did stretching movements on a cherry picker in the sculpture court. Dead fish dusted in yellow powder with red strings in their mouths were displayed on the Elliot Silver Collection. And on a white sheet on the lawn outside, well out of earshot, an angry actress performed Medea.

"All in all it was a success de scandal, and shortly thereafter resources started opening up for the big production. The theater reluctantly offered its main stage and costumer, and on and on, piece by piece the production began to materialize.

"As the liaison between Bill Hibbard the director of the CNPA and Wilson, I was pushed and pulled in two directions but my loyalties were won over by the vision. I clearly remember crossing that line, when on more than one occasion I signed requisitions without explicit approval from Bill for things that Bob said were essential to the production. In the end, everyone agreed Deafman Glance was a magical event that changed several lives forever. And one month later, skipping graduation ceremonies, I ran away to the Big Apple to catch up with the circus."

-- Mel Andringa, producing director, CSPS/Legion Arts, Cedar Rapids

Check back soon for more pictures from Deafman and Handbill!

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