John Glenn, artistic director of Company of Fools in Hailey, Idaho, died in June from complications after back surgery. He was 55.
I have often wondered how many people in the United States have had the experience of sitting in a dark theatre next to a man who was either sighing with bliss, sobbing unashamedly, or loudly laughing. Those people were probably sitting next to my dear friend and colleague of 32 years, John Glenn.
In his almost 40-year career in professional theatre, working on more than 250 productions in 41 states, John was relentless in his passion and love for the theatre. His career included long stints as the artistic director of the Barksdale Theatre in Virginia from 1992 to 1997 and associate director of Theatre IV, now Virginia Rep, from 1982 to 1992.
But it was his work at Company of Fools on Main Street in Hailey, Idaho (population 8,218, in a county of 22,000) that was his greatest and most joyful accomplishment. I was lucky enough to be there for his whole journey until my departure from the company last November.
John loved creating theatre in a small town. He loved that if you really want a review here, you have to go buy milk rather than open the paper. In a small town like this one, someone will always stop you to comment, and more often than not, dissect the current production. He was creating theatre in a special place that makes the dialogue between artist and audience dynamic, immediate, and continual.
It fit John perfectly. Whether directing, acting, designing, leading, or producing, he startled everyone into believing that it is commonplace for one person to possess such diverse and superlative talents. It isn’t. It’s rare. He was rare. It wasn’t a dance, or a jumping back and forth—for him it was one straight line. Artistry and administration tied together in one taut, shimmering chord.
But the rarest thing about John was that he led with kindness while setting an incredibly high bar for excellence. Always. Artists came from all over the U.S. knowing it wasn’t going to be about the money or the exposure, but rather an opportunity to create in an environment they felt was often missing from their work—a place of deep listening, of laughter, of respect for the craft, of healing, of community. A place where the artist can unfold more deeply into the work because they know they are safe, respected, and guided by the seemingly simple tenets of kindness and respect. From John, the seemingly simple allowed vast and wonderful stories to manifest.
John said to me on several occasions that if it were to end right now, he would say what a glorious ride it had been. What a deeply kind thing to leave us as we mourn his absence.
John chose Life Sucks by Aaron Posner as the first show in Company of Fools’ 22nd season. He was meant to direct it, but alas, the production went forward without him. It did, however, turn out to be the perfect vehicle for our community as we grieved. For the play is, at its essence, a story about the basic human struggle to figure out how to live our lives each and every day.
John had it figured out. He understood the profound connection of sitting together and reflecting on our collective humanity— that sacred communion between audience and artist. It was how he chose to serve. If he sometimes could barely contain the reality of the beauty and cruelty of man, he could instead gather up the stories and brilliantly express them onstage—placing them where we could fully receive them, so dialogue could grow.
He achieved this by creating with kindness and respect. These are the things we sometimes forget to add when we wish to inspire and express. But he never did.
“The Fool is not interested in success or failure, or vanity and burden of external knowledge. He is interested in life, in the mystery of consciousness, which comes about through direct perception. The Fool is interested, in other words, in love and its manifestation in that harmony and wholeness which we call beauty.”
Denise is a founding member of Company of Fools as well as a freelance actor and director.