|A little musing about our Centerep Days and the aftermath...||
The Razing of A Dream
By Tom Fulton
At the corner of 17th and Euclid in downtown Cleveland sits a tiny parking lot which used to be a theatre. Maybe fifty cars - 25 on each side - in yellow, diagonal slots can be accommodated now on the flat, black asphalt. Yesterday I saw a Mercedes Benz parked where the stage used to be, tucked in the far right corner of the lot. An audience of Peugeots, Nissans, Toyotas, and Lincoln Continentals sat silently brooding in place of the seats. Barren brick walls of adjacent buildings form an alley-way now and instead of brightly painted muslin, the old vaudeville proscenium facade, the fruit-like rows of lighting instruments hanging from pipes, you can see clear through to another parking lot behind.
The magic has been let loose, the darkness set free. The walls that once framed a dream and formed a nook of artistic endeavor is now a place of commerce for rubber and metal.
Things change. Buildings go up and buildings go down. What was once sacred becomes profane. What matters must finally be held private - protected in the harbor of our brain where no intruders can pry with their machinery and their blind ambition. Itís only a place, after all. What difference will its loss be to me? Or to the world? Itís much more practical now. Its usefulness is plain, up-front, no explanation required. A parking lot is unambiguous, and a theatre is, after all, perplexing.
Now that the building is gone, I am startled at how small a piece of earth it once took up. My memory enlarges the space, makes huge by comparison. Such big hopes and aspirations went into it. Now I stand at what in essence is its grave and there is no marker, no indication of the years of human activity that distinguished the spot from others on the street. The past is mute here.
On the West Side of Cleveland at a bend in the Cuyahoga river is a grassy slope that once housed thousands of Irish immigrants in the 1860s. A group of anthropology students have been excavating the home of a Thomas O'Conner. They have found pieces of his pipes, broken portions of his wife's matching dinnerware, bones from the meat they ate. We know a lot about their daily lives by comparing old census tracts with evidence unearthed by the students. A picture of the O'Conners is unfolding - something distinct and almost nostalgic is emerging.
What markers have we left, I wonder? Can anthropologists a hundred years from now excavate our theatre and find anything at all to note our passing here? They will find asphalt, a rusty muffler, a brick or two. Maybe if they dig deep enough, a broken top of a pancake makeup-can will emerge, packed with clay. Maybe they'll find a program that fell down a grate and ended crumpled in a corner before the basement was filled in with dirt. One thing they won't find is the piercing desire that filled those old, musty halls. There won't be a hint of the music that played and the voices that cried from the stage. Where anthropologists can find signs of struggle and conflict amidst a pile of dinosaur bones, there will be no sign of the spiritual upheaval that shook the foundations of peoples lives under this ground. No, there will be only silence and dirt, and curiosity or two.
In the theatre we live for the moment. The moment is all we have. We leave no lasting legacy except in the hearts and minds of the people who live on. Nothing physical remains. A costume worn thin, a dog-eared script, a few director's notes Ė yes, these remain for a while like the leaves of autumn. But our art only lives in the summer of experience, in the sudden brilliant flash of a moment - and then dies, instantly, like an extinguished light. No sooner have you worried the air with your voice and the outcry of your soul, than the air becomes still and silent with only memory to ring in your ears.
Fourteen years ago, I stood in this very spot, where the Mercedes is parked now. I spoke to a company about commitment to the theatre, the dreams of our new enterprise. Heads nodded, hearts swelled, hands clapped. We were caught up in the potential of the place, the magic it offered, the relief from life's tedium we were promised. In my office above, I planned a new season, wrote grant proposals. In our 2nd floor rehearsal rooms, I taught acting classes, directed plays and spent late hours worrying over deadlines, sound tapes, actor's weaknesses and strengths. There was a group of us. Michael, George, John, Tony, Tom, and so many others... Our plans for the future were far reaching and bold - a company of actors who worked and trained together - dedicated to devising a style of acting that was unique their own. A corporate structure that held the actor at the center of activity, for which all events were set in motion. Center Repertory Theatre, in the center of downtown Cleveland - with aspirations no less noble than those of the Moscow Art Theatre.
Like Tolstoy's happy families, all successful theatres are alike, but a frustrated theatre is frustrated in its own unique fashion. Everything went wrong at Center Repertory Theatre after a while. The president of the board got socked in the stomach by the managing director, who sneaked away a week before Christmas leaving no forwarding address or explanation. Withholding taxes were somehow neglected for six months. Loans became due, grants dried up, and a vigorous campaign was launched to fire the staff and hire touring shows. Bingo games were suggested as solutions to our financial woes. This state of affairs had a distressing affect on the company, the trustees and me (I was the artistic director). Board members suddenly found that, after much soul searching, they had nothing in common with the ideas of the theatre and promptly resigned, leaving long, accusatory explanations behind them that were dutifully read at each board meeting. At one such meeting the staff was fired. Fifteen mintutes later they were hired again when no one came forth to volunteer their time to answer phones and book touring shows. Blame was scattered around like sand on the beach.
The demise of Center Repertory Theatre was pitiful and quiet. A little meeting of the 12 remaining members of the board (one that at one point numbered 60) was held to dissolve the corporation. A few feeble speeches were made about fine attempts and how proud we should feel that a new theatre had lasted 3 years. I had stayed with it to the bitter end. I watched it leave the world as I saw it enter with a kind of hope.
For all the passions attached to the passing of Centerep, there was mostly joy. When I think of our days in that building, I remember the surge of excitement that accompanied the first day of every rehearsal. I see the shouts of frustration and the whoops of conquest as actors and students tackled scenes and difficult characterizations. I remember the sad faces on actors who were returning to New York after a long run, and whispering in my ear: "We're going to miss this place. This is where the work is." I remember nights alone in the building, sitting in the auditorium, reflecting on a days work. There in the darkness, quiet and still, I spun some gold around my dreams.
I can remember sitting on the side section of the auditorium. It was 2 in the morning - only a single light burned. The day was finished. We were tired and had to rest. But the light, I knew, from wise tales of actors past, was our promise that we would return; that we had not abandoned the task our art had placed before us. This was a silent time for me that touched the private strings that play the secret music of the heart.
How I loved that theatre - that empty stage vibrated with yearning all its own to be alive and filled with the cries and shouts and laughter of life. Its destruction was inevitable perhaps, but it broke my heart. Still, we had succeeded. We couldn't make it last, but while it lasted we lived in the sunny moment! Our days were filled with passion and commitment. We lived like gods, consumed with the passion of creation.
Today I stand at the empty lot. Thereís no marker, no commemoration of our endeavors, but somehow it seems appropriate to have it razed. Over the years, the building became unused, the seats mildewed, the walls cracked, dust settled across the stage. Whenever I would pass the building I felt a darkness creep into my memory, as if its present decay filled my memories with a dank and dying odor. It is gone now and appropriately so. Now the actors who danced across the stage, the dreams that swelled inside the walls, the people who laid their hearts and souls bare to create a theatre can soar in my mind. Nothing physical holds them down. There is no old coffin to gawk at anymore - to point at and say: "That's were we lived once." Now the blue sky shines on a corner of our lives that deserves sunlight.
We are all freer somehow to seek our dreams in another place.
copyright © 2000 by Tom Fulton