Corey Fischer, actor and co-founder of the San Francisco company A Traveling Jewish Theatre, died on June 6. He was 75.
We loved Corey so much. With a twist of the wrist and a downward pointing finger, his gestural language on the stage was all-embodied. His 6-foot, 7-inch frame housed a soft heart, a seeking soul, and a brain with an outsized appetite for knowledge. Corey was a poet. If you knew him, you would understand why he gave up a promising Hollywood career (appearing in Altman’s M*A*S*H and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, among other film and television projects), to co-found the roots-based A Traveling Jewish Theatre with Naomi Newman and Albert Greenberg in 1978.
NAOMI NEWMAN: Corey was the biggest man in my life—literally and figuratively. His need and capacity to make beauty was enormous. He was like a many-armed octopus reaching for art in all directions. He made woodcuts and drawings, masks and puppets, played the guitar and wrote songs. But his strongest and longest arm reached into making theatre with a passion that took him through every possible permutation of style, form, and expression.
We met in 1968 in Jeff Corey’s acting class in Los Angeles. It didn’t take long before this tall, skinny, brainy hippy and I, 15 years his senior, began an unusual friendship and a creative partnership that was to last over 50 years.
AARON DAVIDMAN: I was incredibly lucky to have in Corey a true mentor. I was 30, still emerging in my career, and he, a senior, master artist. We formalized the mentorship in the first round of the TCG/Duke/Mellon New Generations mentorship grant. We forged a deep artistic and personal relationship that evolved from mentor/mentee on our first co-created piece, God’s Donkey, (created with Eric Rhys Miller and Daniel Hoffman), which he directed and in which I performed, to a collegial relationship when I became artistic director of TJT and directed him in a number of projects including Blood Relative, about the Israel/Palestine conflict, and our rendition of Death of a Salesman.
NAOMI: While touring with the Provisional Theatre, Corey was exposed to Black, Chicano, and Appallachian theatre companies, which so inspired him he decided to create a theatre piece rooted in the Jewish experience and expressed through contemporary and unconventional forms. (He was an admirer of Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theater and Judith Malina’s Living Theatre).
Imagine an upstairs loft space that had once been a painter’s studio in the Hollywood Hills. Imagine two long-haired, bearded, eccentric, gifted Jewish guys in their early 30s, with big egos and little knowledge of Jewish culture, deciding to “work out” in that space in the hope of creating a theatre piece exploring the teachings and stories of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. It was Corey’s idea. He knew some of the stories, Albert composed music and could sing with a haunting voice but had never acted. After months of working/playing/experimenting, they invited three women friends: anthropologist Barbara Meyehoff, writer Deena Metzger, and me, to see what they had come up with. We saw that they needed an outside eye directing them and I volunteered. More importantly we saw the fascinating and intriguing beginnings of what would develop into TJT’s first piece, Coming From a Great Distance, so named because both Corey and Albert had traveled a great distance to align their talents with their hunger to connect to Jewishness.
AARON: I learned watching Corey perform. I learned watching Corey write. I learned as Corey pored over my writing. “The creative process is like a funnel,” he would say. “Slowly bring it down and in, until it’s ready and it drops.” He was of the generation that knows that good work takes time. He was completely uninterested in the three-week rehearsal process. Corey knew what we all know: We need the time and freedom to explore to really make something worthy.
Being in the workshop/rehearsal room with Corey was not always easy or even pleasurable. He could relentlessly dominate a conversation, back off when he was told, and then be right back in there dominating again. I stormed out of a rehearsal one day during a remount of The Last Yiddish Poet (created by Corey, Naomi, and Albert). But inside Corey’s sometimes fierce and cutting exterior was a soft and open heart. He was as quick to cry as he was to laugh. He expressed his love for those around him, and we knew his love was honest and true and vast. His shell was hard, but very thin. One of the qualities that made him such a brilliant actor was that thin veneer. His access to a deep well of emotion made him riveting to see onstage from the seats, and a complete joy to stand onstage beside.
NAOMI: Our first performance as A Traveling Jewish Theatre was at a Methodist church in Ocean Park, Calif. For music, a harmonium; for lights, a few on rickety stands, clumsily controlled internally by Corey and Albert. Poor theatre indeed! But the electric chemistry of the performers and their honest, imaginative struggle to connect to what they had left behind, and, as modern Americans, to carry it forward, spoke to many. We sold out, the critics raved, and we were launched.
AARON: Corey was from the generation of the handmade theatre. He made his own puppets and props and costumes in the early days of TJT, and thus the work maintained a cohesive and organic originality. I was enveloped into the TJT methodology, where new work was born and lived within the intellectual and material world fostered in the room with the ensemble. Hands-on. Corey helped awaken in me a poetry of yearning: yearning to know where we came from, while also offering a cry of anguish as history revealed its brutality.
NAOMI: Corey and I worked together from 1968 until 2020. We collaboratively created 19 works for the stage. Sometimes he acted and I directed; sometimes the reverse, and sometimes we were on the stage together. It was not always easy. There was impatience, competition, envy, anger, and betrayal. There were months when we didn’t speak to each other. But always the deep love, artistic respect, and the need to create together resurfaced and we began again.
So who needs easy when you can have rich?
AARON and NAOMI: Corey would be marching in the streets today to protest the outrageous injustice that has held people of color in its grips for centuries. He was committed to a path of social justice and saw beyond our differences. Awakening his own Jewish soul through art, Corey Fischer offered a theatre that reached far beyond the Jewish community, inviting his audiences, all of us, to reflect on our origins, our trappings and our yearnings to be free.
Naomi Newman was a co-founder of A Traveling Jewish Theatre and Aaron Davidman was the company’s artistic director from 2002 to 2011.
This article originally misprinted the number of years cited by Naomi Newman as the length of her collaboration with Corey Fischer as 15, rather than the correct number, 50.