On Sunday night I had the privilege of a seat at Madison, Wisconsin’s Broom Street Theater with a couple dozen other theater members and associates to watch a pre-screening of Filthy Theater: A Film About Joel Gersmann, a documentary about the theater’s iconic Artistic Director, the man who ran the theater like a totalitarian dictatorship for almost 40 years. Directed by former Broom Street Theater actor Dan Levin the movie is scheduled to premiere on Saturday, April 21, as part of the annual Wisconsin Film Festival.
The fact that I was one of the interview subjects in the film ultimately had little meaning to me on Sunday night. I got so wrapped up in the images of Joel and his work, hearing him speak again, and hearing others I know well speak about him in the film, that the entire duration of the movie became about memory, emotions, and senses. I could not watch it as an outsider might watch it. At times I could barely watch it at all, although I only came to tears once. I also laughed a lot, the way he made me laugh often when he was alive. It is an odd sensation watching a film about someone you knew incredibly well.
Joel was my mentor and my friend, but in some ways I have survivor guilt about my relationship with him. While many others I know and love came into his life and then were ostracized by him my friendship with Joel lasted for 22 years, and I was still one of his closest friends and associates to the day he died in 2005. In those two decades I saw him cut many people out of his life, for many reasons or sometimes for no apparent reason at all, and occasionally I wondered when I might do something that would get me banned from the theater and cut out of Joel’s circle.
I could never figure out what it was that these people had done, but I think it may have come down to something as simple as no longer having either Broom Street Theater or experimental theater as their first passion. There were some who left the theater whose friendships with Joel remained steady for many years, but they were people who continued to do either experimental theater or new kinds of art. The ones who went on to theaters that produced work that had already been done elsewhere, even if it was more cutting edge than work that other theaters might do, may have signalled the death knell of creativity to him. I’m not sure if that’s it, but he strongly believed in original and experimental work, and I know he often felt betrayed when people moved on to other things. I went off and did quite a few other things, too, such as writing for others, directing Bent, and acting with several other troupes, but my heart always stayed first with Broom Street. When I moved to Denver for four years in the late 1980s and early 1990s the theater where I did most of my work was the Changing Scene, a place like Broom Street that was founded in 1969 and did nothing but original works.
Whatever the reason, I consider myself lucky that Joel never shut me out of his life as he did so many others, because the reality is that I loved Joel dearly and I still miss him terribly. He was irrascible, funny, agitating, intelligent, maddening, creative, pessimistic, hopeful, a contradiction of a contradiction. He was the most well-read person I’ve ever met and I’m confident I learned more from him (at least as far as theater and intellectual pursuits) than anyone else I’ve ever met. He was guarded with his emotions, but could be gentle and sweet, too. Anyone who ever saw Joel with children would know this. He absolutely let his guard down with children. He was childlike himself, and that part of him infused all of his work. While his influences included Bertolt Brecht and other theater intellectuals, he was also heavily influenced by Rocky & Bullwinkle, Mad Magazine, and lowball television, as well as dance and music of all sorts.
Once in a while he let his emotions out. I had some very personal conversations with him, particularly in his last few years. At the time I moved to Denver he gave me a hug for the first time in our friendship, four years after I had met him and at a time when he thought I was going away for good. I came back four years later and started right back in with the theater again. Ultimately, I performed in 14 shows that Joel wrote and/or directed, I acted with him in two, he gave me the chance to write and direct (now more than 20 plays) and I had the good fortune of directing him in his final appearance on stage, as the title character in my play Radical Harry. In it he had to be real and he touched emotional places within himself that shocked people he was so good in it. I am so proud of that play and Joel’s work in it.
There are just a few people in any one person’s life that move you to become in ways that you may not have become without them. In my life there have been a few, and Joel was one of them. Most of my adult life has been about my theater, my writing, and my photography, and Joel encouraged all three of those. He often said that one of his favorite plays ever at the theater was my play Pictures at an Exhibition. Without him I may never have written my first play. As an actor he pushed me to performances I didn’t think I was capable of doing. He had an uncanny ability at knowing what an actor could do and pushed all his actors to find things in themselves that no other director would have gotten. When he saw some of my photographs he encouraged me to continue shooting and because of him I ended up having a one-man show. He was not generally complimentary. If he liked a performance you would hear that he liked it from others, not from him. Still, he had a way of letting you know you were on the right path. His encouragement moved me forward in ways that I would not have moved forward.
But ours was not just a professional relationship. Joel also was one of the best friends I have ever had. He was emotionally awkward and was uncomfortable showing his emotions. But he let you know that he cared in subtle ways. He listened when you needed to talk and he occasionally opened up, and he always gave an honest, even if sometimes brutal, opinion or perception.
It seems sort of odd to consider Joel a mentor as our styles are nothing alike. While he could scream at actors if he didn’t get what he wanted I am one of the most patient and gentle directors ever. His plays on the surface were emotionless and mine tend to be all about emotion. But if you look at the body of his work you can see that his work got more autobiographical as time went on, and underneath the surface were layers of theater that contained a lot of complex emotions. I’d like to think that I helped him explore some of his interior on stage while he helped me with the intellectual and artistic side of things.
Joel often said, “Theater is dead,” but I never believed him until the day he died. Then I believed it for a moment. But only for a moment. I understood that what he meant was that Broadway had become big business and that the art of theater wasn’t what it had been at one time. Yet, he kept creating, he kept making theater. It was new and vibrant and full of life. As long as he did that theater stayed alive, and as long as his successors continue to do that, theater will not yet be dead. What better legacy to him than to continue to create new theater for a new audience and a new age? I will do my best to honor his memory and that legacy as I continue to move forward with my work.