Award-winning actor and teacher Olympia Dukakis died on May 1. She was 89.
Drawn from the well
Of the people,
And it should be given back to them
In a cup of beauty,
So that they may drink
And in drinking
— Federico Garcia Lorca
This Lorca poem was a precious touchstone for Olympia Dukakis throughout her creative life. It was one of the last things she and I shared, over Zoom, at the height of the pandemic, as we were looking for ways to remind ourselves about live theatre and how much we loved it.
I first met Olympia in 1986 when I was directing the world premiere of Ezra Pound’s Elektra at Classic Stage Company in New York. Already then I longed to work with her, intuiting that what she had to teach me could fill a lifetime. And it did. But that first time out, she said no. It was a “no” that led to 30 years of conversation, collaboration, love, tears, discoveries, rehearsals, losses, sorrows, confessions, and surprises.
Olympia said no to Elektra because, as she told me vociferously on the phone that day in 1989 when I reached her to ask if she’d play Clytemnestra, “I refuse to participate in all that patriarchal bullshit!” When I asked what she meant, she explained in great detail her view that Sophocles had taken the history of a woman who had been lied to and robbed of her child, and turned it into a story of a harridan who deserved death at the hands of her avenging husband. That was not a role Olympia wanted to play. When I asked what she did want to play, she said, “Hecuba.”
Thus it was that as part of my first season as artistic director of American Conservatory Theater, I commissioned Timberlake Wertenbaker to create a new translation of Euripides’s Hecuba for Olympia; we developed it and produced it the following season, and then took it on tour. Hecuba starts life as a queen, is dragged through an intractable war and taken hostage as war booty, and ends up avenging the death of her son in a brutal way that renders her almost as bestial as the men who have captured her.
Olympia’s work on the role was extraordinary and complex. She never shied away from Hecuba’s dark side, never excused or soft-pedaled her behavior, but imbued the character with so much passion and power it was impossible not to be moved. One day, when we had arrived in rehearsal at the scene in which Hecuba defends her behavior to Agamemnon, Olympia stopped and asked, “Why do I have to justify myself to this loathsome man? I did the deed! Enough said.” But Helene Foley, a classicist and our dramaturg, said, “No—this is your chance to write history. You have to put your own perspective out into the world.” Olympia’s eyes lit up, and she immediately launched into that speech as if her future depended on it. Talking to history was something she understood in the core of her being.
I cannot imagine a world without Olympia Dukakis. She was my muse, my confidant, my friend, my mentor, and my guide. She became a trustee at ACT and helped keep the board focused on the mission of making serious art for a passionate community. She was an astonishing teacher, spending hours and hours in the classroom every time she came to ACT, and back home in New York, at NYU. She was a prolific performer, an acclaimed film actor, an artistic director of the Whole Theater Company, a deviser of new theatre pieces, a polemicist and a partisan. She believed in acting companies and great classical literature, she believed in training and generosity of spirit, she believed in community.
The most important thing for Olympia was always the audience. Often, in the midst of working on a scene in rehearsal, she would stop and say to me, “What are we trying to say? Where are audience members to put their minds?” The only thing that really mattered to Olympia was that those watching the play have an experience that was meaningful to them. By keeping her focus squarely on the audience, she felt able to escape the narcissism that performance sometimes falls into, and to find a way to keep each experience fresh and vital.
Olympia was never scared of encountering her spectators after a performance, even when they were bewildered or enraged; I vividly remember an evening at the Whole Theater after her performance as Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days. Without even getting out of the mound of dirt, Olympia started taking questions. Many audience members had no idea what they’d just seen and began interrogating her, but Olympia was unfazed: She listened, she laughed with them, she responded, she sympathized. Even those who still doubted Beckett left the theatre knowing they’d had a remarkable evening, in the presence of a true believer with enormous generosity of spirit.
Olympia loved to say that she was a little girl from Lowell, Mass., with a knife in her boot. Her childhood was complicated, and she had a tempestuous relationship with her mother. But her brother Apollo adored her: “You fought all our battles,” he told her. “With Mother… with Daddy… with other people. You were always on my side, always defending me, always told me I was good, I was special.” She was fiercely devoted to her own children and to her equally passionate, partisan, and hilarious husband, actor Louis Zorich.
What made Olympia such a unique actress was that she never sentimentalized life. She was unafraid of conflict, of strong emotion, of dissent. Long before the rest of us knew how to do it, Olympia called out injustice wherever she saw it. She believed that it was her legacy as a Greek to fight for justice, to debate and argue, to search for beauty and to protect the disenfranchised. She taught us about the patriarchy before many of us even knew the term, showing us how rarely women took centerstage and how often and easily we allowed ourselves to be silenced. She was the one who made me believe that it was not only possible but empowering to be both a mother and an artist. And a sexual being, to boot! For so many women over so many decades, Olympia was the spirit guide that helped us find our own voices.
She was also hilarious and subversive, a bad girl who loved sneaking cigarettes backstage and joking with the stage crew. She cried easily and laughed even more easily. And she had a ferocious trust in her own instincts. Actors, she told me, were “ministers of the interior,” bringing forward internal secrets that were precious and needed to be shared. If she lost the connection to that interior voice in rehearsal, she simply stopped and waited. Sometimes that drove me mad; we were always on a union clock at ACT, and I would beg her to keep going, to trust that her instinct would return. But it was impossible for her to “fake it”—acting was about a connection with the deepest truth, and if it took time to reconnect, then so be it. There was nothing to be gained by rushing forward.
My last glimpse of my beloved friend was seeing her on FaceTime in late April, her beautiful white hair spread out on the pillow, her face completely peaceful. I wondered if she was hearing me as I told her how much I loved her, how much she had transformed everyone she’d touched. At one point, I mentioned that I was working with John Douglas Thompson on Oedipus at the moment, and reminded her that he’d played the Cook to her Mother Courage at Shakespeare and Company. “Remember, O.D., you did Mother Courage six times?” I asked. Suddenly those incredible eyes opened wide. “Sure!” she said, and smiled with pride. Six passes at Mother Courage was nothing to sniff at. To say nothing of innumerable indelible performances of Chekhov at Williamstown, definitive Durang at the Public, the creation of magical Anna Madrigal in Tales of the City, and so many more.
In January 1996, Olympia led a blessing of the Geary Theater after it had been resurrected from the damage of the earthquake. Now it is our turn to bless her, to thank her from the bottom of our hearts for making us bigger, fiercer, more passionate about and more accountable to this magical art form we call the theater. I raise a “cup of beauty” to Olympia, now and always. In drinking it, may we understand ourselves.
Carey Perloff (she/her) was artistic director American Conservatory Theater from 1992 to 2018.
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