03 June 2009

Remembering Brooks McNamara (1937-2009)

Brooks McNamara, a theater historian and a professor in the Department of Performance Studies at NYU, died on 8 May (though I didn’t learn about his death until his obituary appeared in the New York Times on 26 May). Brooks was one of my teachers at NYU back in the mid-‘80s when I was working on a Ph.D.; he was my academic adviser and one of the two principal reasons I chose NYU for graduate work over Columbia. The other reason was Richard Schechner. He and Brooks had been schoolmates of my undergrad theater teacher and director, Lee Kahn, and it was that connection that swayed my decision (along with the curriculum, which was more to my liking than Columbia’s). Because I liked and admired Lee so much 20 years earlier, and these men had been his friends, I felt good coming to them when I decided to return to school after a hiatus of six years. (I had completed an MFA in 1977.)

Brooks, who was only 72 at his death, was also one of my three strongest influences at NYU. I took more from him, Richard, and Michael Kirby than from any other teacher there, though there were many from whom I learned important things. Those three men pretty much invented the discipline, indeed the very concept, of “performance studies,” but Brooks, Richard, and Michael showed me ways of thinking, writing, analyzing, and teaching that I have used in almost every endeavor since I met them. In one way or another, whenever I start out on a project of almost any kind--an essay, a class, a performance, a review, whatever--I think, often quite consciously, What would one of them do. I owe each of these men some things very specific--Michael was the first person who ever told me that I could write and published my first piece of writing (in TDR, which Michael then edited for the department); Richard encouraged me to get my first essay published outside of the performance studies department; Brooks taught me a “note-taking” process and research method that changed everything I had been doing--but what they all left me with was a more sophisticated, far-reaching way of understanding things I saw, read, or heard, to see implications and ramifications that I’d never have noticed or considered or comprehended before I met them. It’s not that I didn’t learn important things from other members of the faculty, such as Kate Davy, Marcia Siegel, and Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett--I did, but the only other teachers from whom I learned such profound things were acting teachers, back when I was training for what I hoped was going to be a brilliant career on the stages of America. Though I still draw on what I learned in practical acting classes, that didn’t work out as I planned; on an intellectual or academic level, however, Brooks, Richard, and Michael showed me things I can’t imagine having found out any other way.

After discovering those three men pretty much by accident--I knew Brooks’s and Richard’s names, but I didn’t know what they taught in a classroom--I never let a semester go by without taking a class from at least one of them, and I often audited one as well. (I was a preceptor in the Washington Square College Expository Writing Program, so I got tuition remission from the university. I could afford to audit at least one course a term. Besides, Performance Studies permitted “unofficial” audits as well--no fee, but no talking in class--if the professor agreed. I always found a way to squeeze one in. Sometimes I managed to negotiate special deals: Michael’s classes always included lots of slides, so I agreed to work the projector for him if he’d let me ask questions in class.) I wasn’t a kid by this time--I started at NYU the year I turned 37--but I was in awe of the new things I was finding out, not just about the subjects, but the way these guys approached ideas and even sets of facts.

I also found a fascinating way of teaching--well, learning first, then teaching. One of Richard’s courses I audited was on deconstruction. It was a new class for Richard, so he didn’t know how he was going to approach the subject. Since we were all grad students, either MA or Ph.D. candidates, he decided that we’d all teach each other and explore the topic together as equals, scholars. He broke the subject into topics so that each registered student had one as her or his research focus and each would prepare the class for that topic--reading assignments, hand-outs, visual aids, all of it--and be the expert for the rest of us. The students who had the first two or three topics had a tough assignment, of course, but the idea of turning the course into a sort of research seminar was wonderful. Obviously, some students were better scholars and teachers than others, but no one lacked for rigor or discipline, and many had really innovative ways of communicating a subject that was, well, slippery to start with. (Oh, that Jacques Derrida! Zut, alors!!)

Brooks did something similar in a class on Documentary Performance. I was an official (that is, registered) auditor on this one, so I was partnered with another student for the class on the documentary play (a topic I have continued to keep up on). As with Richard’s deconstruction course, each student’s topic was also the subject of his or her final paper. (Writing was, and I presume still is, a major emphasis in the performance studies department. It is not insignificant, I think, that all three of my mentors at NYU were not only often-published authors, but editors of TDR at one time or another.) The Documentary Performance course was intended to be illustrated, so all the students prepared not only their lecture--and the question-and-answer session that followed--but the projections as well. The fact that I still remember these classes this way is proof, I think, of just how exciting they were for me.

I can’t really say I became friends with any of these men, though I liked them all in different ways. (I’m not so sure they all liked one another, at least not all the time.) Richard and Michael were idiosyncratic men, difficult to get close to, I imagine. I can’t gauge how Richard regarded me, but I think that Michael, who died in 1997, respected me as a scholar and writer. He called me, shortly after I started at NYU, and asked me to write my course paper in his class for TDR, which I hadn’t intended to try to do. (He was preparing a Group Theatre issue and if any student wrote a term paper on a Group Theatre topic, it could be submitted for consideration for publication. The prospect daunted me too much in my first semester there, so I had dismissed the idea.) I asked him why he would ask me that, and he said, bluntly, “I think you can write.” No one ever said that to me before; it had never entered my head. Some time later, Michael asked me to participate in a reading of a play he’d written because he knew I had been an actor and could speak German. He ended up being my dissertation adviser before his death.

Brooks, by contrast, was a nice man. I don’t know another way to say that, and I don’t mean it to sound like faint praise. He was a genuinely nice man. I had jury duty once many years ago now, after I left NYU, and while I was sitting around in the jury waiting room, I spotted Brooks there, too. He was in a group that had been called a week or so before mine, so he was nearing the end of his two-week obligation, and we only had a few days overlapping. But we had lunch in Chinatown for the couple of days we were downtown together. I don’t remember talking about anything important--we just chatted and passed the time. Two (middle-aged) guys, just shootin’ the shit.

Brooks’s specialty was American popular entertainment (such as vaudeville, minstrel shows, burlesque, medicine shows, and so on). It was a subject most theater scholars ignored as pedestrian, but which Brooks saw as fundamental and elemental. While I was taking courses at NYU, he had expressed an interest in interviewing my dad for an oral-history record of the productions and performances at the Howard Theater in D.C. Dad had been VP of District Theaters Corporation, starting right after WWII until he joined the Foreign Service in the '60s and went overseas. District Theaters owned theaters in the "inner city" (it wasn't called that back then, of course) and they still put on a stage show before the movie, especially at the Howard and the Lincoln. The theaters were part of the so-called Chitlin' Circuit, the black vaudeville circuit, which featured such performers as “Moms” Mabley, “Pigmeat” Markham, Sammy Davis, Redd Foxx, and others who later became famous on TV and mainstream clubs and movies. (Pigmeat Markham got a second wind in the mid-‘60s when Sammy Davis started doing some of his bits--like “Here come da judge, here come da judge!”--on Laugh-In. All of a sudden, he was in demand again on college campuses and TV variety shows!) Hometown artist Duke Ellington appeared at the Howard and Pearl Bailey made her début there. Brooks wanted to get on record whatever Dad remembered about those days--the Chitlin' Circuit was already gone and most of the performers were dead or dying. It never happened. We--I--didn't follow up fast enough, and Dad developed Alzheimer's a few years later and most of his memories were lost to the dementia. I have always regretted not moving on that.

The New York Times obit focused on Brooks’s work on the Shubert Archive, which opened the last year I was at NYU so I saw some of the huge (and fascinating) endeavor that was, but he was a much more interesting man than that. The Rockefeller Foundation brought him down to the Colonial Williamsburg excavations way back in their early days to help interpret the remains of the town theater when they uncovered them. They were planning to reconstruct the theater, and since Brooks was also an authority on early American theater architecture as well as popular entertainment, he was the go-to guy. After examining the foundation, he helped determine that the building had been little more than a shack--of no interest architecturally or visually--so, based on Brooks’s analysis, the foundation decided not to spend the money to rebuild it.

Brooks and I didn’t completely lose touch with one another after I left NYU two decades ago, but our contact was pretty much relegated to holiday cards with little notes in them each year. But there’s not a week when I don’t think of something he taught me or look at something and think how he’d examine it. He, Richard, and Michael, I guess, will be part of my intellectual life until I don’t have one anymore.

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