Michael Lupu, longtime dramaturg at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, died on Sept. 5 at the age of 89.
Brian Greene, the theoretical physicist and author of The Elegant Universe, once wrote, “Some particles vibrate so much they must move into another dimension.” When I read this I think of Michael Lupu, a former colleague of mine from the Guthrie Theater, who recently left this realm.
From 1981 to 1989 I had the pleasure of working alongside this Romanian-born dramaturg, a polymath with a comprehensive knowledge of world theatre and an all-consuming hunger to gobble up more. Michael spoke at least seven languages, but that is an imprecise count. His research reflected more.
I remember Michael or “Miki” Lupu whizzing about the subterranean halls and rehearsal rooms of the original Guthrie Theater with an impossible energy. He was a formidable intellectual force, joining the Guthrie’s artistic staff in the early 1980s when fellow Romanian Liviu Ciulei had assumed the role of artistic director, establishing a rare creative environment. Major American and international artists appeared with astonishing frequency.
It was the perfect environment for Miki and me to explode the idea of what a dramaturg could be, beyond the conventional office-bound script reader into a rigorous, active rehearsal collaborator whose presence was felt there and on the stage.
Miki never paraded his knowledge. He conducted himself with humility. Miki brought a joy and sense of discovery to the room, whether it was with landmark productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Bacchae. His celebratory spirit was infectious, and it was critical for the emerging company that Garland Wright would build at the Guthrie in the late 1980s and ’90s.
He had worked with Liviu Ciulei as a dramaturg at the Bulandra Theatre in Bucharest before coming to the United States, and then with such artistic directors as Ciulei, Garland Wright, Joe Dowling, and Joseph Haj at the Guthrie. Miki showed uncommon leadership by reaching out to the Twin Cities community, making connections with other artists and companies: Theatre de la Jeune Lune, the Playwrights’ Center, Mixed Blood Theatre, and Actors Theater of Minnesota. On a national level he was a major presence, and was honored for it in 2006 with the G.E. Lessing Award from Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, the field’s highest honor.
But there was more to Miki. We came to trust and respect each other’s opinion without question.
I remember serving as dramaturg for nearly six months on JoAnne Akalaitis’s production of Georg Büchner’s Leon & Lena (AND Lenz) in 1987, which featured Jesse Borrego, Don Cheadle, and Lauren Tom, with sets by George Tsypin, costumes by Adelle Lutz, lighting by Jennifer Tipton, music by Terry Allen, and a short film by Babette Mangolte. It was set in a futuristic fairy-tale corporate kingdom of the American Southwest, with country and western music and corporate automatons. Miki had followed the progress of this production, as with any project when I was the primary dramaturg. After a first run-through Miki met with me for notes. He was subdued. When I drew him out, Miki said, “Mark, it is very imaginative. But it is missing something important.” I was stunned. “What?” Miki looked at me incredulously. “You have forgotten the love story between Leon and Lena.” I blinked. I was angry at first. Did he not realize how brilliant our production was? I went home. I recovered overnight. Miki was right. The next day we talked, and I shared the note with JoAnne.
Even 30 years later, Miki continued to mentor me. He had worked for years under an oppressive Communist regime marked by censorship in Romania. In Minneapolis we witnessed petty bureaucratic and artistic squabbles, imminent threats of firings, ominous changes in personnel. These held little fear for Miki, which I came to respect and admire. He taught me the need as a theatre worker to have a spine at every level of work, and how sacred our work can be.
Years later, as I worked at many theatres and colleges across the nation, I carried his mentoring with me. Shortly after I had left one theatre and headed to work in Manhattan a number of years ago, someone who had worked at that theatre told me I had taken “invisible bullets” defending others from an overly aggressive leader. I had been unaware of this, but when I heard this remark I flashed back to Miki and thought of all the “invisible bullets” he had taken over the years with his fierce Romanian smile. In many ways I learned this unconsciously from him. Michael Lupu may be in another dimension, but I know his impossible energy still vibrates among us.
Mark Bly, senior dramaturg at the Guthrie Theater from 1981 to 1989, is the director of the Kennedy Center New Play Dramaturgy Intensive. His latest book, published earlier this year, is New Dramaturgies: Strategies and Exercises for 21st Century Playwriting.