30 December 2011

Saints of the Theater

by Kirk Woodward

[Once again my friend Kirk Woodward is gracing us with a contribution to ROT. “Saints of the Theater” is a very personal piece of writing for Kirk, as you’ll quickly see. He’s spoken to me now and then of the two men he writes about here, Doug Ramey and Dave Semonin. I only got to know Kirk long after he knew Ramey and I never met the man, but Kirk mentioned him from time to time when he talked about people devoted to making theater for a community or a familiar audience. I did meet Dave Semonin a few times, the last time just before his death. As Kirk says, he was quite a remarkable man. I never got to know Dave well, but he did ask me to join the consulting company Kirk mentions at the end of the memoir as one of the theater people he could call on to help. It never came to fruition, but I was very flattered to have been considered.

[As he often has in past articles for
ROT, Kirk takes a slightly unexpected perspective on his memories of these men. He clearly admires them, but we’ll see that it wasn’t mere accomplishment that engendered that respect. I hope some of the people who knew Doug and Dave will get to read this homage. ~Rick]

Religions aren't the only institutions that have saints. Any field that inspires devotion finds saints in its midst. There are saints of music, saints of poetry, saints of animal rescue . . . and there are most definitely saints of the theater, people who, like saints in religion, live lives focused not on themselves but on the object of their devotion, frequently to the detriment of their bank accounts and even of their health.

I remember, for example, when I was growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, a man with the wonderful name of C. Douglas Ramey, known as Doug, and known throughout the city for his devotion to Shakespeare. The website of the excellent Kentucky Shakespeare Festival includes the following on its home page:

Kentucky Shakespeare began with the vision of actor, director and producer C. Douglas Ramey and the Carriage House Players in 1949. In 1960, Ramey began free Shakespeare performances in Old Louisville and formed The Committee for Shakespeare in Central Park. Among the actors who started with Ramey and went on to achieve national recognition in the theatre are Mitch Ryan, Ned Beatty, and Warren Oates. Kentucky Shakespeare still offers free Shakespeare every summer at the C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheater in historic Old Louisville’s Central Park. For the 8,000 to 15,000 individuals we serve each summer, it is an opportunity to see professional actors and technicians present the works of William Shakespeare without social or economic bias. By presenting our productions free of charge, we stand by our firm belief that art is for everyone – rich, poor, educated, illiterate, healthy or disabled.

In addition to initiating free Shakespeare, Doug Ramey began a "Students for Shakespeare" program which evolved into the "Shakespeare Comes to Kentucky Schools" tour, the forerunner of our current educational outreach programs now entitled "Will on Wheels."

This accurate summary leaves out a couple of important points about Doug Ramey's contributions to theater, at least as I experienced them beginning in the 1960s. One is that he conducted his Shakespeare productions in the old style - that is, he was an Actor Manager, who played the leads as well as directing the plays. This approach was so long gone by the time I saw his work that the experience was a great deal like time travel – seeing one of his productions was like getting to go to a play put on by Garrick, Kean, or Irving.

The other point is that, again, at least in the 1960s, his productions were awful. An online biography notes that in this period he lost much of his funding through budget cuts, so much so that he was forced essentially to run a one-man shop – extremely difficult to do when your main purpose is to stage the plays of Shakespeare. I saw his Julius Caesar at my high school one afternoon and still have a note from the time about the nature of the disaster, which included students throwing pennies, and the end of a scene in which a body ended up half in front of the curtain and half behind it, forcing the "dead" actor to squirm offstage.

Actors reading this piece who have spent any time touring won't laugh at that story, and will recognize it as the sort of thing that happens all the time "on the road," where you may not have a chance to adjust your physical production to the size of the stage. I certainly don't mean to poke easy fun at Mr. Ramey's shows. The truth is that the odds are stacked from the start against anyone who tries to stage a Shakespeare play, and to do all the production work oneself, while also playing a lead, is no way to beat the odds.

Doug Ramey was born in 1908, when Actor Managers still roamed the wilds of theater; he died in 1979, long after he was practically the only survivor of the breed. Toward the end of his life, friends made him go in the hospital for an examination, and my recollection is that the doctors found maybe a dozen major things wrong with him physically. He had not spent any time taking care of himself; he had literally devoted everything in his life to theater. A saint, you see?

A lot could be written about actors who continued to perform knowing that death was knocking at the door. I believe I saw Rex Harrison in his last appearance on Broadway (in The Circle), when he knew perfectly well that he had pancreatic cancer and would be dead soon. He was quoted in an article as saying at the time, "Don't cower. Charge!" Many people saw Yul Brynner in The King and I in 1985 with the knowledge, which he shared, that he could not live much longer. Acting focuses your attention; for the time you're involved in doing a role in a play, everything else is secondary, even staying alive.

I barely knew Doug Ramey; I was just a kid when he was around and I never acted for him, but some of my friends knew him well. One of those friends was another saint of the theater, David Semonin, also known as Speedy, Speed, and Dave. (For this article I’ll settle on “David.”) To cover the facts of David’s life and career, the quickest way is to reprint his obituary (which I suspect he wrote or had a major hand in writing) in the Louisville Courier-Journal:

SEMONIN, DAVID, 68, beloved teacher and librarian at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City, died February 11, 2010 at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx where he was an advanced cancer patient.

Born and raised in Louisville, he was the son of Paul F. Semonin Jr. and Virginia Reeves Semonin. His lifelong career in the theater began as a young child with his participation in the Louisville Children’s Theatre where he acted, built scenery, ran lighting, and learned a lot about life and the theatre from such directors as Moyra Schroeder, Dale Carter Cooper, and Rick Schiller.

In 1950, thanks to his mother’s love for theatre, he saw his first Broadway play at age nine, the original production of
Peter Pan, starring Jean Arthur and Boris Karloff. He always said that he had been trying to fly ever since. As a teenager, he was an apprentice and later a member of the professional company at The Mountain Playhouse in Jennerstown, PA, a summer stock theater where he obtained his equity card at the age of nineteen. He attended the University of Louisville, where he trained with James Byrd and Henry Tharp, graduating in 1966 with a BA degree in theater arts after participating in dozens of plays at the University of Louisville Playhouse.

During his college years, he helped to start the Actors Theatre of Louisville where one of his favorite roles was Lucky in Samuel Beckett’s
Waiting for Godot, directed by Richard Block. After college he moved to New York City and studied acting with Elizabeth Dillon, movement with Anna Sokolow, speech with Alice Hermes, and song with Arabella Hong at the Herbert Berghof Studio.

In the early 1970’s, he returned to Louisville and spent six seasons working as a director, stage manager and actor with Actors Theatre of Louisville under producing director Jon Jory. Form 1976 to 1980 he was stage manager at Syracuse Stage and an instructor in the Drama Department at Syracuse University. Returning to New York City in 1981, he began working at the Drama Book Shop and quickly became a fixture there for over 25 years as a knowledgeable guide to theater history and methodology for aspiring professionals and theater lovers alike.

During the late 1980’s, while collaborating with the Terry Schreiber Studio, he was a working stage manager on some ten Off-Broadway shows, including Bert Brinkerhoff’s
Someone’s Comin’ Hungry and Robert Dahdah’s musical Curley McDimple. In 1992 he put his encyclopedia knowledge of all aspects of theater to work as librarian and teacher at the neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, where he continued to provide inspiration and guidance to students of the theatre arts for 17 years until his death.

In the 1990s he was a founding member of the Drama Department, an Off-Broadway company of prominent New York theater people. In addition to his stage work, he appeared in two independently released films,
Magdalen and A Chronicle of Corpses, both directed by the Philadelphia-based filmmaker Andrew Repasky McElhinney.

He is survived by his brother, Paul Semonin; his cousin, Melinda Semonin Anderson; his nephews, Octavi Semonin and Elam Huddleston; and the many friends and students whose hearts he touched.

Those are the facts, charmingly reported (as I said, probably by him). I can fill them out a little. I happen to know exactly when I first met David. It was on Saturday morning, April 30, 1963, when I went to “Wizards,” the tech group at Louisville Children’s Theater, urged on by my friend Perry Baer, an enormously talented performer.

The old Louisville Children's Theatre is now called Stage One and today it’s one of the preeminent theaters for children in the country. In my day it was not so impressive. It shared space with the student theater at the University of Louisville, its offices and costume collection huddled under the stage in the basement, and it was more a community theater than a professional one. It had a first-rate director, Rick Schiller. Unfortunately Rick left just as I arrived, presumably not through cause and effect.

I'm pretty sure that everyone thinks the people they hang around with when they're young are the most brilliant and clever people ever. I thought our group was, and I indulge myself in saying I'm not sure I was wrong. But actors need leadership, and for us, David was it. He was a student at the University of Louisville when I first met him, and he stayed that way a long time – I believe it took him about seven years to earn his degree, because he kept getting distracted. He was also drafted, to the astonishment of all of us, and spent a whole month in the Army before they sent him home, probably because he was blind as a bat.

David was a mild, terribly intelligent man, a fine and delicate actor and director, who loved theater with every fiber of his being. He was several years older than most of us. He wasn't at all a charismatic personality. He was bespectacled, round-faced, short, and slightly dumpy. He had a beautiful speaking voice, and he used it . . . all the time. He was a world-class conversationalist, one of those people who like to work out their thoughts as they speak them. (Oddly enough, he had a slight stammer, a trait that never surfaced when he acted.)

On his chosen subject, theater, he could talk for hours . . . days. In one diary entry I record that he agreed to drive several of us home, reached the first house on the route, talked so much that he had to leave us there while he took care of some errand, and returned, at 12:30 AM, to pick us up again and deposit us wherever we lived.

His father Paul was the best known real estate developer in Louisville, and David's family lived in one of his father’s subdivisions. David’s room was full of books (theater books, scripts) and record albums (original cast recordings). I would hang out with him at his house and he would play his favorite musicals (not always what you'd expect – as his obituary notes, he preferred the Bernstein Peter Pan, with Boris Karloff as Captain Hook, to the more famous version associated with Mary Martin) and talk about theater.

And that's where his leadership came from, because his lifelong quest in theater was to identify what was really quality work, to do quality work himself whenever possible, and at all times to encourage others to do the same. His process of analysis was continual and painstaking. He loved to identify the genuine moments in a performance, and didn’t hesitate to identify the fake.

Sometimes this process became obsessive. One of my clearest memories is that we both became so irritated at a certain director that we took a mutual vow not to complain about him and his work, not even once, for the entire rehearsal period. For two talkers, this vow was particularly strenuous, and keeping our promise nearly wore us out. We both felt the effort had been therapeutic but exhausting. David would refer to this experience to the end of his life.

I believe I only acted with David once, when the group did a holiday reading of Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince,” which I recall for making me realize that I didn’t have any idea how to act. David’s not terribly enthusiastic verdict was, “At least we’ll all get to see each other again.”

Otherwise we didn’t work together much, but I did attend many of the rehearsals for Reckon On The River, written by the novelist Clark McMeekan, who was actually two ladies named Clark and McMeekan, with a score by Nelson Keyes, then composer in residence at, I think, the University of Louisville. It provided plenty of fodder for our discussions of theater quality. David played a peddler who at one point had practically everybody in the forest passing through his campsite as he sat there singing his song “Finders Keepers.”

One of those rehearsals, incidentally, provided my finest moment, I suppose, at Louisville Children’s Theatre. The scene in question featured a flatboat being steered down the river, an effect achieved by having people behind a lighted scrim crouching and moving across the stage with branches to give the effect that the boat was sailing. I watched a few minutes and suddenly shouted out, “The boat’s going backwards!” It was – because the people with the branches were moving in the same direction the boat was.

Well, everything changes, particularly in theater, and eventually the old gang broke up and went its separate ways. The obituary notes that David worked for several years at Actors Theater of Louisville. He directed a lovely Winnie the Pooh for children there, and played a memorable Lucky in Godot, of which he was very proud. Usually, though, he stage-managed. I recall seeing him one night rushing through the auditorium as we waited for the show to start. “The Pirate King’s cape lost its snap,” he hissed to me as he passed, and rushed on.

It took us a while to get in touch once he moved up to New York. After that we got together periodically; once he came to our house and brought a boyfriend with him, the only acknowledgement I can remember that he was gay. (I suppose that eventually I had guessed. He talked about personal things very seldom.) I always called him; he never called me, and always meant to. He played Malvolio in a production for children of Twelfth Night that I directed, and to this day I can hear the voice of his character, indignant at the things being done to him, just a little baffled by what it all means.

Mona Hennessy (now managing director of Luna Stage in West Orange, New Jersey) and I both studied with a wonderful teacher at the HB Studio named Elizabeth Dillon, and when I told David about her, he studied with her too. When Mona and I developed a plan for a traveling theater for children, I told David about it. He said just one thing. “There are plenty of children’s theaters,” he said. “What will you offer that they don’t?” It was a magnificent question. We’ll write good plays, I said. The answer satisfied him, provisionally, and that’s what we did our best to do.

For years he worked at the Drama Book Shop and as librarian at the Neighborhood Playhouse. Both places suited him to a T. The Drama Book Shop is full of people who have odd questions about plays, and David knew the answers to most of them, and would provide them at length. The problem was leaving a conversation with him; he had so many ideas, so much information in his mind that one had to be firm about going somewhere else. I have no idea how many books he sold, probably not many, but they were well sold.

The library at the Neighborhood Playhouse looks like a tiny room in a medieval castle, and David ran it with devotion. His pride and joy was the yearly book sale, when the library got rid of books that seemed outdated to everyone but him. He would go to amazing lengths to make sure that the right people got the right old books. It was important to him that the books got good homes, and that their owners learned from them.

He knew practically everybody in the theater. I stumped him only once, when I was writing a piece about the playwright Tony Kushner and desperately wanted to ask him a few questions. Kushner is a pretty accessible man, but David didn’t know Kushner and didn’t know how to locate him, and neither did anyone else I ever talked to.

That was the exception. David knew everybody else. He particularly adored the wonderful actress Cynthia Nixon, with whom he worked on The Drama Department, and he was so delighted when someone tapped him on the shoulder in the subway one day and he turned around to see Cynthia surrounded by her family, visiting her in New York.

As I said, David was deeply concerned with the integrity of the work being done in theater. His other passion was trying to help the new people who are constantly streaming into New York hoping to act. They streamed through the two places where he worked, as students and as actors who worked or were trying to. He kept planning to start a consulting company to assist them with productions and advice, and I did my best to help him focus on the practical elements of that idea. I don’t suppose my input was all that terrific, but in any case he was really too scattered to bring the project to fruition. He had too many good ideas. Potential was almost more interesting to him than accomplishment was.

One of the wonderful things about David was how seriously he took the issues of other people’s lives, even though he couldn’t possibly have found all of them congenial, or at least certainly not all of mine. (In the early days I would pester him with stories of girls I wanted to ask out.) Nevertheless he would listen thoughtfully, consider the issue gravely, and make some unexpected comment on it, usually a funny one. In fact he was able to see the ridiculous in everything, even in his own life. I think many of us will take with us the memory of how lightly he carried his own burdens, or at least chose to appear to, and how those burdens never kept him from caring deeply about other people.

In his later years David paid so little attention to his physical person that he was fairly alarming to see as he came walking down the street. It always took me a few moments of conversation before I was able to ignore the fact that he looked like someone who lived under a bridge in a cardboard box somewhere. Actually he took over a tiny room on the Upper West Side when I moved out of it, later relocating a couple of times. For someone whose family was quite well off, he lived only the barely necessary life.

The careful reader of his obituary will notice that in a way there are a lot of theatrical events listed in it, and in a way there are not. For a person of his talent, David really acted and directed surprisingly little. He knew this, and I think he fretted about it, but I think he also saw himself as continually working on his potential. When he was dying he signed up for a directing class, and told me in detail with considerable glee how difficult the work was for him – his scenes got a lot of criticism – and how valuable he thought the experience had been for him.

I have the impression that David didn’t take care of himself medically any more than Doug Ramey did. However, he did get to the doctor (telling us all as little as possible about it) for a minor bout with cancer that turned into a fatal one, and he faced it with astonishing grace. “It’s curtains for Little David,” he said to me. He called me to talk one day. “Do you have time?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. “Well, I don’t!” he said. He practically gloried in the hospice he moved to. The best accommodations, the nicest people, the tastiest food! He told me he’d lived a rich, full life.

They had to hold three memorial services for David, two in New York and one in Louisville, because so many people wanted to attend. I spoke, not terribly well, at one of them, and felt awed by the stories that others told – because there were so many stories, and because he so clearly had reached a level of kindness and selflessness that I certainly never have.

There was the actor from Europe who wrote the Drama Book Shop asking for help planning a theater season. David helped him so much that the actor flew to the United States for the memorial service, then turned around and went right back home.

There was the new student who came into the Neighborhood Playhouse library looking for a class scene. David practically explained to her the whole of dramatic literature, in the process finding scenes for her and giving her advice, and then he worked with her so closely in the following months that she felt he had taken charge of her career. “I don’t know what I’ll do without him,” she said at the memorial service, and she meant it.

There were so many similar stories of his amazing kindnesses to people that you wondered how he ever got anything else done. Maybe for him that was all there was to do.

As I said, a saint.

[I can tell you all now that Kirk has another article in press for ROT as I publish “Saints.” The next one, which I anticipate will be posted in January, isn’t about theater or even the performing arts at all. I won’t give anything more away here, but suffice it to say, Kirk takes his usual oblique perspective on his topic and I’m sure it will intrigue ROT readers.]

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this.
    I met David at the Neighborhood Playhouse when I moved to NYC and I lived two blocks from there.
    I studied theater years before and David promptly and generously exchanged his knowledge and invited me to plays, and to visit the playhouse, indeed he gave me books. He would call me visit him and just sit at the library for a chat, watch a musical or a DVD, I said I wanted to help him with the books but just as you said he has his own ways with it. I was fascinated by his love of theater and also for his humanity.
    I've seen him helping people,tipping the taxi cab, offering shelter. Once we carried some friend's apartment entirely to preserve the contents from it from being dumped after that friend big economic fail. We carried stuff on the streets from that apartment to other friend's apartment with a storage. He was one of the first people I met in this city, and as I said, an amazing soul. I am glad I have met him and that he shared with me some of his light. The world was brighter with David Semonin in it.