Barbara Field, a playwright and co-founder of Minneapolis’s Playwrights’ Center, died in February. She was 87.
Barbara Field had a house. She also had a recent divorce and two small children. It was the 1970s, and, for Barbara at least, it was the perfect time to become a playwright. She enrolled in the University of Minnesota Theatre Department, where she met other young playwrights eager to find productions in the greater Twin Cities community. Together they formed the Playwrights’ Center, which was at the time completely nomadic and non-funded, without even a place to gather.
But Barbara had a house. Soon it was the site of meetings, rehearsals, readings. When funding was finally secured and artists from elsewhere traveled in, Barbara’s house became an informal bed-and-breakfast for writers who would one day have plays on Broadway and/or run their own network TV shows.
Not that she wasn’t pursuing her own career, writing original plays and operas performed across the country. Her work was smart, intellectual, and at the same time very human. Her characters, both women and men, were heroic in their strivings and nearly always disappointed in the end. Barbara also wrote a highly praised series of classic adaptations for the Guthrie Theater (where she also served as a dramaturg), among them her version of A Christmas Carol, performed there for decades.
Barbara was the heart of the Playwrights’ Center. At its origin she was the only female member and served as a pioneering role model for all the extraordinary women writers who have worked there since. She was there for the PWC’s most critical moments. Her connections to major arts donors in Minnesota helped secure its first permanent space: an old church in Minneapolis’s Seward neighborhood. When the PWC ran into severe budget problems in the 1980s, Barbara helped convince Sarah Lawless to come over from the Guthrie’s front office and commit an immense amount of time and energy to save an organization that could well have disappeared forever.
Barbara Field was a bridge between the struggles of young artists and the surrounding theatre establishment. She was also a bridge from then to now. Her efforts, with those of her fellow founders, transformed the Playwrights’ Center from the usual “patient on life support” status of most new arts organizations into one of the most important sources of support for playwrights throughout this country and abroad.
“Beloved friend and colleague” doesn’t do justice to the legacy Barbara left. Few lives have been lived so selflessly and so well in the world of American theatre. Or anywhere else.
Lee Blessing (he/him) has written such plays as A Walk in the Woods, Eleemosynary, and A Body of Water.
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