The influential playwright, performer, and teacher Jean-Claude van Itallie (American Hurrah, The Serpent) died on Sept. 9. He was 85.
I met Jean-Claude van Itallie in the kitchen of his farmhouse. It was a late August evening in the summer of 1974. The sun had set, but its lingering light still stretched over the hills of western Massachusetts.
A few days earlier, Mark Hall Amitin, whom I had met at a Living Theatre workshop, had asked if I knew how to type (of course I did, as a girl educated in the ’60s). Mark needed someone to transcribe his interviews with avant-garde theatre directors while visiting van Itallie’s home. I had heard of Jean-Claude, the fiercely anti-war, proudly gay playwright of works that promised a new kind of theatre. A recent graduate of Hampshire College, I was obsessed with radical politics and theatre. I had lots of confidence, little clarity, and absolutely no plans for my future. Mark said that I could stay at the farm and, if it turned out we liked each other, Jean-Claude might have some work for me too.
I entered Jean-Claude’s rustic kitchen during a birthday party, crashing into many conversations and low laughter, the scent of apples wafting from a large wooden bowl. Among the Dutch Delft tiles lining the kitchen walls was a man carrying a bundle on his shoulder, his head obscured by the lumpy sack. Jean-Claude danced over to me, welcomed me, and showed me to my room upstairs while never seeming to leave the party. He introduced me to everyone. I put my suitcase down. We liked each other.
For the next 47 years, Jean-Claude and I worked alongside each other in one way or another. His first invitation to me was to be an assistant on his plays. I would read aloud what he had written, and he would go over each line, replacing words, rearranging the order. Then I would read again. It was a delicious process. Through it I discovered the many ways that voice can meet text. I learned to love language, the power of words ringing in the air.
Over and over, Jean-Claude opened doors for me (and nudged me through them). His next invitation was that I move to New York City and meet his theatre friends, which led this eager assistant to work with Joseph Chaikin, Kristin Linklater, and Susan Sontag, and began my years of working at Artservices. By inviting me to assist him with The Fable, the Open Theater’s final piece, he opened the door to La MaMa and Ellen Stewart.
A few years later, Jean-Claude invited me to teach with him at Naropa, a university inspired by Tibetan Buddhist principles. We would take the old highways from Massachusetts to Colorado, motoring in his vintage car with the blue leather seats. The night before this epic journey, we were again sitting in the kitchen, the table adorned with small glass bottles holding orange and yellow nasturtiums. We were joined by Jean-Claude’s friend and teacher of many years, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who would be in retreat at the farm while we were away. Rinpoche asked me, “Are you looking forward to teaching?”
I said, “I’m scared. I don’t think I know anything.”
Rinpoche said, “If you always feel that way, you will become a great teacher.”
Jean-Claude was an inspiring teacher. He gave me permission to love teaching. Years later, in 1988, Jean-Claude again invited me to collaborate and teach with him on a project at NYU’s Drama Department, with professional artists and students working together on his new translation of The Balcony by Jean Genet. If I would teach the acting classes, I could play Irma. Another door opened: Yes, I was willing. The following semester I was hired to teach an improvisation class at Tisch Drama, a class that I’ve been teaching ever since. Thanks again to Jean-Claude, my path to the Experimental Theatre Wing was short and direct.
Jean-Claude championed me as an actress. In the 1980s, he wrote Sunset Freeway for me, about an actress on the way to an audition trapped in Los Angeles traffic listening (and not) to the radio as an impending global nuclear disaster unfolds. On another summer day a few years later, we sat on the farmhouse porch in majestic white rocking chairs, reading a newly written scene from Light, his new play. Voltaire and his beloved companion Emilie du Chatalet are laughing, having spilled onto the road from their broken carriage. Our laughter echoed over the hills. In hindsight, those chairs weren’t really majestic—it was the view. The view from Jean-Claude’s porch made everything feel majestic.
In the early 1990s, Jean-Claude and I fulfilled his vision to turn the farmhouse and its hills, bogs, streams, and fields into a center for meditation, healing and theatre, creating the Shantigar Foundation. “Shantigar” is Tibetan for peaceful home. Over the past 20 years he and I often co-taught workshops filled with stories, songs, movement, and everything, with walks in the woods.
Jean-Claude made new adventures possible. We encouraged each other to step out of our theatrically comfortable roles, for me to direct and produce more, and for Jean-Claude to perform. Jean-Claude was always a song-and-dance man.
So many of the steps I’ve taken in my life are thanks to Jean-Claude’s invitations. He taught me how to meditate and how to make the perfect omelet. He shared his piercing architect’s eye in designing a room and showed me how to arrange flowers.
This past August, I was again in the farmhouse kitchen. Jean-Claude was telling more me about the trove of letters that he and his brother were translating from the French, going back generations. Just that day, he had started on a letter from his great-grandmother, written in Paris in 1912, on the same day of her sudden death.
A week later, just before Jean-Claude died, he sent me an email with the completed translation of his great-grandmother’s letter. His last email to me ended with: “I hope this is a short play. Whaddaya think?”
Ah, another invitation.
Rosemary Quinn is an actress, director, teacher, arts administrator, and producer. She orginated numerous roles in experimental theatre productions with Mabou Mines, the Talking Band, the Other Theater, and Roy Hart Theatre.
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