30 June 2014

Two (Back) Stage Pros

[When most people who aren’t part of the theater world—what one of my teachers fondly called “civilians”—see a play, they think of actors, singers, dancers, maybe directors, occasionally choreographers.  Spectators may see the sets, the costumes, the lights, and all the parts of the show known as “spectacle” or “production values,” but I suspect most just figure they arrive as they appear on stage by magic.  The artists and technicians who create, build, maintain, and handle those important aspects of a show are often entirely unknown outside the business.  Even though there are Tonys and Obies for the work these talents perform, many who watch the awards shows zone out during the “technical” awards, I think.  Well, attention must be paid!  Not long ago, the New York Times and the Washington Post each ran articles on one of the professionals who do this work for the stage: Eugene Lee, one of the American stage’s most renowned and respected set designers, and Paul Huntley, the designer and maker of many of the hair pieces worn by stars, featured actors, and even chorus members on stages across the country.  It’s time ROT honored some of the artists who make the visual force of theater a vital part of the experience.  So I’m going to see to it that it does just that.  ~Rick]

by Sandy Keenan

[This article was originally published in the “Home” section (section D) of the New York Times on 3 April 2014.]

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — For years, the crystal chandelier that Eugene Lee salvaged back in the 1980s, when the original Helen Hayes Theater in Times Square was being demolished, presided over Studio 8H at Rockefeller Center, adding a little elegance to the rarefied air around “Saturday Night Live” cast members like Eddie Murphy and Dennis Miller.

But eventually the opulent fixture was replaced, and Mr. Lee, a celebrated designer whose recent projects include the set for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and the new Broadway show “The Velocity of Autumn,” lugged it home on his weekly commute up Interstate 95 to his Georgian Revival house on College Hill. Now it hangs in the foyer here, brightening all the other things that he and his wife, Brooke, a painter, have collected over the years.

Just walking into the beautifully proportioned house, built in 1912 for the daughter of a Rhode Island governor, can cause a temporary sense of vertigo. There is so much to take in: layer upon layer of objects large and small, useful and not, all of them with a similar vintage and patina.

Mr. Lee, 75, collects utilitarian things like old typewriters, Art Deco sprinklers, old canes and roll-top desks. Mrs. Lee, 65, favors post-1900 tin globes (she has about 200), wooden stacking toys, colorful British china and silhouettes (her collection is so extensive that the framing shop offered her a bulk discount). The enormous pair of tailor’s scissors hanging in the doorway between the living and dining rooms was a joint acquisition.

“We were always great junkers,” Mr. Lee said. “Not to get all artsy or anything, but it’s a lot like painting. You pick, you choose, but you don’t add willy-nilly.”

Mrs. Lee added: “We like the real thing, but we’re not crazy. I don’t spend all day in my pajamas changing the way things are arranged.”

In any case, there is no time for that. Not while Mr. Lee, who was admitted to the Theater Hall of Fame in 2006, continues to be so much in demand.

You may not recognize his name, his kindly face or his spiky white hair, but you almost certainly know his work: In addition to “The Tonight Show” studio and set, Mr. Lee has designed sets for numerous Broadway productions and has won Tony Awards for three of them (“Wicked,” “Candide” and “Sweeney Todd”). He remains the resident design guru for “Saturday Night Live,” one of only a handful of inaugural staffers from the 1975-76 season still at it 21 weeks a year.

And this year has been particularly frenzied: At the moment, he is creating the look of Maya Rudolph’s pilot for a variety television show, while simultaneously collaborating with the writer and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg on a new version of “The Nutcracker” and designing for Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s musical, “Bright Star.” All told, he is working on the sets for eight productions around the country. And this week, “The Velocity of Autumn,” his 25th Broadway show, opened in previews at the Booth Theater.

“It’s fun to have things going on all over town,” he said modestly.

But the busier Mr. Lee is, the less time his wife has to spend on her watercolors, which are scattered throughout the house, because she does his bookings and billings and even handles his small talk. As she said, “I maintain relationships, and I keep Eugene organized.”

While much of his work is based in Manhattan, the Lees have never considered leaving Providence, where his career began in 1967 as a designer for the Trinity Repertory Company, an organization he continues to be associated with as the resident designer. But during the weeks that “Saturday Night Live” is in production, Mr. Lee catches the train on Wednesday morning, arriving at NBC in time for the afternoon story meeting and, like the rest of his design team, works almost around the clock until the show goes live. Meetings are routinely held at midnight or later, and Mr. Lee lives spartanly, sleeping when he can at the nearby Yale Club (he got his M.F.A. at Yale).

It is nearly impossible to keep up with him as he scurries through the bowels of the enormous building, ducking and weaving, and tiptoeing around frenetic set painters. The studio, which he designed when the show was being hatched, is more like an elevated house than a TV set, and under his management, the sets are still built the old-fashioned, expensive way: from scratch, using real wood, genuine antiques (for the White House skits) and (when necessary) live animals. Authentic, realistic, sometimes seedy — the way he prefers everything.

Al Franken, the senator from Minnesota who spent 15 years with the show, credits Mr. Lee with changing the look of television comedy, which had been going in a campier direction in the early 1970s, with “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour” and “The Carol Burnett Show.”

“The look of the show is probably a larger piece of its success and iconic status than most people realize,” Mr. Franken said. “Eugene made it elegant, and never got in the way of the comedy.”

Lorne Michaels, the show’s creator and executive producer, agreed. “Comedy was getting all glossy; they called it the Infinity Look,” he said. “New York was very different back then. Eugene designed what he saw, decay and all.”

Mr. Michaels hired Mr. Lee after seeing his work on “Candide,” a decision he said he has never regretted. “I always say Eugene is the only actual genius I’ve worked with,” he said.

Not everyone has always felt that way. The cast and crew of “Dude,” Mr. Lee’s first Broadway musical, in 1972, took to calling him Helen Keller because he was so shy he was all but mute. (Fortunately for Mr. Lee, the show closed in less than two weeks and the nickname didn’t stick.)

That image is hard to square with the reputation he has developed for taking a bold, even radical approach to set design, ripping up existing sets to create something that better suited the new play. Good riddance to proscenium theaters; he wanted audiences to experience the work at hand, not simply observe it.

For “Slave Ship,” a drama at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that he designed the sets for in 1969, he built a platform that replicated the nausea-inducing motion of a boat on the sea, and placed audience members right beside the actors being tossed about and tortured. And in the early 1970s, for a Manhattan Project production of “Alice in Wonderland,” he had patrons crawl through tiny doors to get into the theater, like Alice trying to fit through an opening too small for her.

“I just have my own funny ideas,” he said. “Set design is not about picking molding.”

Thirty minutes before “Saturday Night Live” starts, Mr. Lee is out the door to meet a driver for the three-hour ride home, a luxury he recently afforded himself after the success of “Wicked,” which is now in its 11th year on Broadway, with touring companies all over the world.

When he is working at home, which is often, the commute is a lot easier: All that’s required is rolling out the back door, through the yard, and up to the second floor of the carriage house at the end of the driveway, where the cramped space is warmed by an old potbellied stove that Mr. Lee feeds with wood and then a steady supply of coal. “Nice dry heat,” he said.

A congregation of old pendant lamps dangles from the ceiling of his studio, and there are more than enough clocks to represent every time zone in the world, all of which need to be wound daily. On an oak filing cabinet is an early model of the Jimmy Fallon set with a balcony, a mock-up done before Mr. Lee decided it ought to be a more intimate space.

Mr. Lee has made some difficult choices about what kind of work he takes on. He has done a few movie sets, but he didn’t like being away from Mrs. Lee and sons Will, now 40, and Ted, 31, when they were growing up. Doing more films would also have meant saying no more often to theater people, whom he also considers family.

On a recent tour of the house, Mrs. Lee pointed out some favorite things, many of which were acquired while Mr. Lee was “propping” his projects. “These are not bazillion-dollar paintings,” she said, referring to the hundreds of artworks they’ve collected. “Most were from fairs, $25 at the artist’s table.”

Their sons recall countless family trips to summer flea markets around New England and visits to salvage yards in industrial cities. And the difficulty of buying gifts for such avid collectors, which is continuing: What do you get the couple who has everything?

Will, who is now a teacher in Vermont with his own children, said it is taboo to give his parents anything new — but if something is old, chances are it’s already part of their collection. “If they see something they like, they’re going to own it,” he said. “So you have to find things they’re not going to find. That’s the challenge.”

Last year, he gave them a miniature model of an Airstream trailer and was happy to see it prominently displayed the next time he visited.

His younger brother, an artist and record store owner in Northampton, Mass., likes to joke about regifting them something that’s already in the house.

“They’d never know it,” he said. “And they’d be thrilled to have another one.”

[Sandy Keenan is a reporter for the New York Times “Home” section.]

*  *  *  *
by Ann Greer

[On 25 April, I posted my ROT report on David Ives’s The Heir Apparent, his adaptation of an 18th-century French farce presented by New York’s Classic Stage Company.  I made particular note of the wigs worn in that production and the artist who designed and made them, Paul Huntley.  In “Easy lies a head that wears his wig,” Ann Greer describes in the Washington Post the artistry of Huntley as it was applied in a recent Shakespeare Theatre Company presentation of Henry IV.  This article was originally published in the “Arts & Style” section of the Washington Post on 4 May 2014.]

When floozy Doll Tearsheet, played by Maggie Kettering, enters a tavern scene in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Henry IV, Part 2,” your gaze is drawn to her crowning glory. Ringlets in extraordinary hues from rust to ruby cascade down her shoulders to perfectly cap her bawdy, worn attire.

This fantastical wig, one of the more than 60 human hair wigs and facial pieces in the productions of “Henry IV, Part 1” and “Part 2,” is the handiwork of designer Paul Huntley. He and director Michael Kahn settled on a contemporary vibe for the wigs, including a Rastafarian motif for high strung Hotspur (John Keabler).

“There’s a slightly modern approach, incorporating what you see in everyday life. It’s a contrast with Shakespeare’s words,” Huntley said by telephone from his base in New York. “I made the wigs a little wild in some ways, as the characters are all a rough and tumble lot.”

Huntley, in his 80s and a native of England, began his life in theater as an actor. He created wigs for the likes of Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh before moving to the United States in 1972. His workshop has four staff members, with others added as needed. Huntley designed wigs for the original Broadway productions of “Les Miserables,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “Hairspray,” among others; his current Broadway shows are “Bullets Over Broadway,” “All the Way” and “Cinderella.” In 2003, he was honored with a lifetime achievement Tony Award.

Not all of Huntley’s wigs have been for actors. In the mid 1970s he made a dozen or so wigs of varying colors, lengths and styles for a man who was not forthcoming about their use. He did say that they were not for a play or movie, and that they should be of the finest craftsmanship and not detectable as wigs. Huntley worked with the man for five or six years, teaching him how to put on the wigs and their accompanying eyebrows and other facial hair. The man, who was middle-aged and graying, was made to look younger with some wigs, in a crew-cut style and a tousled, long-hair hippie look. He transported the wigs in a special suitcase and eventually divulged that he was involved in undercover government work and traveled to other countries. Then, without a farewell, he never returned to Huntley’s studio.

Wig design, as with other design elements in a production, entails familiarity with the script and research into the time period and types of characters. Focused work with the director and costume designer follows, along with input from the actors who will wear the wigs.

Stacy Keach, who plays Falstaff in the Shakespeare Theatre production, last performed the role of the jolly, dissolute knight 47 years ago, when he was 27. He wanted to recapture that look, so Huntley worked from photos to create a wig of silvery white waves with bushy muttonchops. For Ted van Griethuysen’s feisty Welsh warrior Owen Glendower, Huntley contributed to an almost show-stopping entrance with a wig that perfectly compliments the character developed by the actor.

“He adored it,” Huntley chuckled. “It is sort of magnificent, isn’t it? Ted suddenly felt like this grand character; we all thought he should be in ‘Lord of the Rings.’ We went for an untamed look that would also give him majesty with his costume.”

With van Griethuysen and the other actors, Huntley said that wigs give them a complete picture physically of what they have created during rehearsal.

“It’s the last thing they see before they go on stage — themselves in the mirror from the neck up,” he said. “Suddenly they see the character, and it gives them an enormous amount of confidence, it really makes them feel the part.”

[Ann Greer is a freelance writer.]


25 June 2014

'Act One'

by Kirk Woodward

[My friend Kirk Woodward is making another generous contribution to ROT, his report on the Lincoln Center Theater stage adaptation of Moss Hart’s autobiography, Act One, which he saw on Wednesday, 28 May.  The play, adapted for the theater by James Lapine, started previews at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, LCT’s Broadway house, on 20 March and opened on 17 April.  The play closed on 15 June, but according to the LCT website, Live From Lincoln Center filmed Act One on 14 and 15 June for future broadcast on PBS.]

Back in 2007, my wife Pat was teaching, and I was playing piano for, a class for middle-school children in musical theater performance at an excellent drama school in Bloomfield, New Jersey. At one class a student apologized for missing the previous session. “I had to go to my grandmother’s funeral,” she said. “She was an actress. Her name was Hart.”

Pat and I were stunned – we realized that her grandmother was Kitty Carlisle Hart (1910-2007), known to Marx Brothers fans everywhere for her performance in the film A Night at the Opera (1936), for twenty years the Chair of the New York State Council of the Arts, and wife of the celebrated Broadway writer and director Moss Hart (1904-1961) from their wedding in 1946 until his death.

Moss Hart made his name on Broadway, and surely had one of the most illustrious careers there that anyone has ever had. He wrote six plays and musicals with George S. Kaufman, including the much loved You Can’t Take It With You (1936) and the frantic farce The Man Who Came To Dinner (1939). He wrote plays on his own, including Light Up the Sky (1948), a funny look at theater that I recall provided scenes for my acting classes. His interest in (and experience with) psychoanalysis led him to write the book for Lady in the Dark (1941) with a score by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin. He directed the first Broadway productions of both My Fair Lady (1956) and Camelot (1960).

He also wrote an autobiography about his early years called Act One (1959) that’s widely considered to be among the very best theatrical autobiographies. It’s really two stories. The first is about Hart’s young life, and it’s fascinating for its look at a time that’s vanished and a Broadway world that’s changed a great deal. The second is about Hart’s collaboration with George S. Kaufman on Once in a Lifetime (1930), and that’s as fine a theater story as there is to tell.

George Kaufman (1889-1961) was another of the most successful playwrights and directors who ever worked on Broadway, and over a longer period of time. Just a couple of examples: he wrote – actually, he co-wrote, since he almost worked always with a collaborator – Animal Crackers (1928) and The Cocoanuts (1929) for the Marx Brothers, as well as their film A Night at the Opera. He won a Pulitzer prize for the political spoof Of Thee I Sing (1931) with a score by George and Ira Gershwin. He directed, among many other shows, Of Mice and Men (1937). And he was a famous “character” – caustic, phobic, witty, a major member of the famous Algonquin Round Table group of writers, which was a pretty eccentric group in its own right.

So when I heard that the actor Tony Shalhoub was playing Kaufman in a dramatization of Act One at the Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont in New York, written and directed by James Lapine, the production moved to the top of my “must see” list, and I’m glad it did. Others agree: Act One, which opened on April 17, 2014, received Tony Award nominations for Best Play, Best Performance by an Actor in a Play (Tony Shalhoub), Best Costume Design for a Play (Jane Greenwood, also receiving a Lifetime Achievement award), Best Scenic Design of a Play (Beowulf Boritt), and Best Sound Design for a Play (Dan Moses Schreier). It seems to me that it could have received other nominations as well.

James Lapine, particularly well known for his work as both director and librettist with William Finn (Falsettos, 1992; A New Brain, 1999) and Stephen Sondheim (Sunday in the Park With George, 1984; Into the Woods, 1987; Passion, 1994), generally follows Moss Hart’s book closely in adapting Act One for the stage, presenting some 30 characters impersonated by a company of 22. Its large cast brings to mind the shows of the era when Kaufman and Hart wrote together (1930 to 1940) – the number of actors they used in those days would be unlikely today, when a two-actor, one-set new play is much more the norm. Lincoln Center, thankfully, did not accept this limitation.

A play based on a life story – a “bioplay,” as Variety might say – will almost certainly require a large number of sets, because it’s covering so many scenes in a life. For Act One the set designer, Beowulf Boritt, created an enormous, multi-level turntable set that is a thing of beauty in itself, suggesting a city skyscape while still including living rooms, hotel rooms, offices, theater auditoriums, street scenes, and numerous other locations. Lapine, known for the fluidity of his direction, often has actors moving through the turntable as it revolves, making it possible to keep the action of the play going while it moves from one setting to another (surely a dizzying experience for the actor!).

A play with so many characters provides many chances for Broadway to do one of the things it does best – to allow actors to create indelible moments in small scenes. A few chosen at random: Chuck Cooper is searing as Charles Gilpin, a black actor who can brilliantly play the role of O’Neill’s Emperor Jones and isn’t ever cast for anything else. Amy Warren has just the right touch as Dorothy Parker. And Andrea Martin, whom I remember with great fondness from her days as Edith Prickley on Second City Television (SCTV) (1976-1984), and who has developed a major theatrical career, has no trouble at all shifting from batty but inspirational Aunt Kate to the elegant Beatrice Kaufman, a central figure, as it turns out, in the story.

As for Tony Shalhoub, he plays three roles. He is Moss Hart’s rough and ready father, sporting a thick cockney accent and a cap (one less hair style to change!). He is also the mature Moss Hart, and he captures how far Hart wanted to move, and did move, from his early surroundings – he is an elegant man, with just a hint of a British accent. (Hart says in his book that he always had one, but in the show his youthful self, forthrightly played by Santino Fontana, has little or none.)

And of course he is George Kaufman, in a performance of glorious physicality that brings to mind, but is not identical to, the highly neurotic detective Adrian Monk that Shalhoub played on TV from 2002 to 2009. Faced with the prospect of having to shake hands with someone, this Kaufman practically shrinks into himself, like the witch melting in The Wizard of Oz, leaving behind only a finger or two weakly waving the offender away. The calmness, even sweetness that Shalhoub brings to his work adds a rich coloring to this portrait of a most uncomfortable man.

I have said that James Lapine’s adaptation generally follows the book. There are exceptions: for example, Hart describes the room on the fourth floor of Kaufman’s house where they work as dark and spare, but in the play it is bright and elegant. Lapine has a character explain that Beatrice Kaufman must have arranged a party to introduce him to Kaufman’s crowd; in the book Hart does not say this. In the book there is not much conversation with Dorothy Parker, and it’s Gershwin at the piano, not Irving Berlin. This kind of thing, however, is trivial, and it’s amazing how much of the dialogue in the book is used word for word in the play.

But one small change in Hart’s story seems to me to point toward the only real weakness in the show. A number of reviews indicated they felt the show was too long at two hours and 45 minutes (including one intermission) and could be trimmed. Reluctantly I’d say the same thing. I felt that from about 25 minutes into the first act, everything was perfect; and I felt this way well into the second act. But occasionally a scene struck me as retained out of a sense of obligation to the book. That is, as a character in a novel by Charles Dickens says, an “amiable weakness,” and I certainly don’t feel it hurts the play too much. 

But, ironically, the stage version has the same problem that Once in a Lifetime has in Hart’s book. The producer Sam Harris, in the book and in the play, says to Hart, at a desperate moment, “I wish, kid, that this weren’t such a noisy play.” Implementing that little observation – that an audience needs a break from frenetic activity – thrillingly turns out to be the key to Lifetime’s success. It pertains also to Lapine’s version, which keeps its energy up – nothing wrong with that – but the audience never gets a quiet moment for thinking and experiencing. 

I may be exaggerating this point somewhat, but in the play, when Harris makes his pivotal comment, he doesn’t say it in a one-on-one conversation with Hart as a speakeasy is closing (which is how Hart describes it in the book); he says it on the street, the colorful agent Frieda Fishbein (Andrea Martin again) is right there with him, and the scene finishes with a quip. That one marvelous moment of realization, the climax of the book and a moment that represents all the mystery of the creative act, becomes, in a way, just another moment.

Never mind – it’s a fine stage version of a great book. What, after all that, does it give the audience, other than the story itself? The same thing that the book does – the experience of encountering someone – Hart – who has optimism and determination to match his talent, someone who won’t be satisfied until he’s become what he’s meant to be. The story is inspirational in the best way. Hart never wrote Act Two, or even (as the fashion used to be) Act Three. He left them for us to write.

[Kirk has contributed many articles to ROT, most recently “Lady Gaga and Once” on 5 May.  Other pieces include “Stage Etiquette,” 11 February; “Leonard Cohen,” 2 February 2013; “Notes on Reading,” 24 January 2012; “Bob Dylan, Performance Artist,” 8 January 2011; “The Beatles and Me,” 7 October 2010;  “The Most Famous Thing Jean-Paul Sartre Never Said,” 9 July 2010; and “How America Eats: Food and Eating Habits in the Plays of Suzan-Lori Parks,” 5 October 2009.  As you can see, his interests vary pretty widely—as does his knowledge and critical eye.

[As for Act One, when the Tonys were awarded at midtown Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall on 8 June, the LCT production lost all but one of the awards for which it had been nominated.  Aside from costume designer (of over 125 Broadway productions) Jane Greenwood’s Tony for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre, Beowulf Boritt won for Best Scenic Design of a Play at the award ceremony.]


20 June 2014

Black Mountain College: Cradle of Postmodernism

[On 12 October 2011, I published an article on ROT about “Max and Gertrud Bondy,” educational innovators in the first three-quarters of the 20th century.  In the introduction to that article, I likened the Windsor Mountain School, the prep school they established and ran in Lenox, Massachusetts, to a kind of Black Mountain College for teenagers.  It now occurs to me to present a history and discussion of the original experiment in educating young people in this country, and so here is what might be seen as a companion piece to “Max and Gertrud Bondy,” my profile of Black Mountain College, a short-lived but powerful exploration of pedagogical ideas and innovations in the middle of the last century.  ~Rick]

In his 1962 book, which he called a critique of the American college system, Paul Goodman proposed a Community of Scholars, a voluntary association of students and men and women of learning where the students want to learn and the scholars want to teach.  The community would be independent of the outside world of compromise and convention, dedicated solely to teaching and learning, free of the influences of business and commerce, politics and government, society and social conventions.  The only way Goodman saw for such a community to evolve, though, was “for bands of scholars to secede and set up where they can teach and learn on their own simple conditions.”

As Goodman, a writer, political theorist, and public intellectual, acknowledged in his book’s conclusion, this was the very origin of the short-lived educational experiment known as Black Mountain College.  In April 1933, John Andrew Rice, professor of classics at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, was fired for vocally objecting to some of the policies of college president Hamilton Holt.  The dismissal of other faculty, Ralph Reed Lounsbury, a professor of American government, and Frederick Raymond Georgia, a chemistry teacher, followed when they protested the violation of Rice’s academic freedom, and some other teachers, most notably Theodore Dreier, a professor of physics, resigned in support.  (According to independent scholar Mary Emma Harris, chair of the Black Mountain College Project, the American Association of University Professors investigated.  Despite Rice’s history of conflicts with the administrations of schools where he’d taught, the AAUP report essentially vindicated Rice and his followers.)  These four men, having engaged in late-night ruminations on the “ideal college,” decided that this would be the opportune time to launch such an endeavor, there being so little to lose for the jobless quartet in the depths of the Great Depression, so over the next two months, the men found a campus ready for occupancy, drafted a charter and got a certificate of incorporation, hired faculty and recruited students, and set down the new school’s educational principles.  Thus was Black Mountain College born near Asheville, North Carolina, in the fall of 1933.  In the first term, BMC had 12 teachers (including the original four men) and 22 students on the grounds of the YMCA’s Blue Ridge Assembly (which they had to vacate every summer when the Y conducted its summer programs).  In 1941, BMC moved to its own campus on the other side of the valley at Lake Eden where it remained until the school closed by court order in 1957.

At a time when education in the United States was becoming standardized and dedicated to training people for professional careers, Black Mountain College appeared to challenge the status quo.  In his introduction to Black Mountain College: Sprouted Seeds: An Anthology of Personal Accounts, Mervin Lane asserted that the founders of Black Mountain “were seekers sensitive to the constrictions of entrenched, hierarchical, bureaucratic inflexibility.  They felt the need for a more cooperative, co-evolving, independent, experimental approach to learning, liberated from external pressures and the preoccupation with the apparatus of credentialing.”  From its inception, BMC was intended to be a community, emphasizing the responsibilities each member has to the others.  Yet for each scholar to develop intellectually and artistically, the school’s founders believed that the students had to be free from coercion and preconditions, from being forced into a preconceived mold devised by others, so Black Mountain endeavored to assure that each individual was free to grow and learn in his or her own way, without being subordinated to the group.  As Martin Duberman put it in Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community, his study of the school: “the student should be placed in competition with himself, not others.”  Duberman asserted:

Yet individuals can be valued for personal traits or talents—intuitiveness, humor, warmth, a sense of form, color or line—not usually recognized or validated by traditional academic criteria.  Black Mountain at least tried—though of course often failed—to appreciate the specialness of each person, and not to judge him narrowly on the basis of how he performed in the limited context of a classroom setting.  

In “Utopia Revisited,” her 1987 Horizon magazine profile of the school, journalist Marcia Wade characterized the experimental college, where “life was informal, intense, and spontaneous,” as “a community of doers and dreamers, ‘built almost entirely of and on ideas and idealism.’” 

Because the student body of BMC was so small and the student-teacher ratio so low, individuals weren’t lost in a mass of students as they might be at a large school.  Everyone had the opportunity to stand out and be noticed for talents, abilities, accomplishments, or efforts.  “In general,” wrote Lane, a former BMC student himself, “the effort of Black Mountain College is to produce individuals rather than individualists, in the belief that the individualist is bound to be a misfit in modern life, while, at the other extreme, the subordination of men and women to a uniform and consistent pattern of action will inevitably prevent the creation of a better society than we now have.”  No one was forced to take part in any event or to go along with the majority.  The choice of how to proceed in his or her education was up to each student, and joining a formal program or an informal one conducted by a faculty member, or one initiated by another student, or starting one him- or herself was all equally viable.  If a student started in one direction and discovered a more appealing or productive one, changing routes was part of the BMC learning philosophy.  Any time a student wanted help or guidance, the faculty was there to advise as much or as little as the student wanted, at any time and in any form the student needed.  

In the 1930s, just as BMC was being founded in North Carolina, Adolf Hitler and his National Socialists were rising in Germany.  (Hitler was elected Chancellor the same year Black Mountain was founded: 1933.)  Artists from the Bauhaus, the progressive art school founded in 1919 in Weimar, fled the Nazis after the institution was closed under pressure from Hitler’s government; many came to the U.S. and some eventually found their way to Asheville and Black Mountain where some enrolled as students and many more joined the art faculty.  Other European refugees from the Third Reich, such as psychoanalyst Fritz Moellenhoff, neurologist and phenomenologist Erwin Straus, and Heinrich Jalowetz, a musicologist and conductor, also came to Black Mountain.  Aside from the influx of so many world-class artists and scholars from Europe, including painter Josef  Albers and his wife, Anni, a textile artist and printmaker; architect (and Bauhaus founder) Walter Gropius; designer Alvin Lustig; ceramic artist Marguerite Wildenhain; and designer, photographer, and theater director Xanti Schawinsky, the Bauhaus influence also lent the school a leftist bias both culturally and politically.  The Bauhaus artists, quite a few of whom were Jewish but who were nearly all persecuted for their political beliefs, would make a lasting impression on Black Mountain College (not to mention the students who went there) that spanned its short life.  

BMC emphasized an interdisciplinary curriculum “with various means of communications and self-expression—not simply the verbal—utilized: painting, music, dance, weaving, theater,” reported Duberman.  Creative exploration embracing both teachers and students as a means of learning was common and performance often served as “an educational method aiming at the interchange between the arts and sciences and using the theatre as a laboratory and place of action and experimentation,” wrote RoseLee Goldberg in her book on performance art (the seeds of which were planted at Black Mountain).  Additionally, BMC tried “to teach method as against content,” its focus “on process as against results,” recorded Louis Adamic, a former Black Mountain student.  As Albers, who headed the art department at Black Mountain from 1933 until 1950, phrased the philosophy: “[A]rt is concerned with the HOW and not the WHAT . . . .  The performance—how it is done—that is the content of art.” 

Even though none of the four founders of Black Mountain College were artists or arts teachers, they determined “that the study and practice of art were indispensable aspects of a student's general liberal arts education.”  In the college’s preliminary announcement, the founders frankly stated: “Although no efforts will be made at first to train professional artists, dramatics, painting and music will have an important place in the curriculum.  We have found that often through working in one of the arts, students are led to an intellectual awakening more effectively than in any other way.”  The arts were central to BMC’s educational program, but although many faculty were practicing artists, quite a few of some renown, and many students went on to become important American artists in several fields, the teaching and study of the arts was seen as a way to foster “creativity, independence, and discipline among” the BMC students.  “At Black Mountain education was to be a preparation for life,” wrote Harris in The Arts at Black Mountain College.  

Despite the emphasis on the arts, there was a concerted effort to focus equally on the latest ideas in science and the humanities.  The school’s curriculum included traditional liberal arts courses, such as economics, psychology, philosophy, Greek, Latin (last three, Rice), English, French, German, government, public law, history (last three, Lounsbury), chemistry (Georgia), biology, physics, mathematics (last two, Dreier).  There were, however, no formal departments, no grades, no credit hours, and so on.  In fact, there were no designations of freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior years or courses at BMC.  The school was divided simply into a Junior College and a Senior College, with the Junior College constituting a period of general studies incorporating classes the student and the faculty determined were important for the student’s introduction to “the various fields of knowledge” so that he or she could subsequently choose a subject of specialization in the Senior College.  The student’s individual curriculum was determined in consultation with the faculty and tailored to each one’s needs and interests—and subject to variation as those needs and interests changed and developed.  The college stressed continuity of learning, however, in an effort to avoid what student Isaac S. Nakata called “parochialism,” the student’s program so narrowly focused on one subject or in one field that the education was fragmented.  The school tried to foster a search for relationships among many disciplines.  

In the Senior College, promotion to which required passing two days of oral and written comprehensive exams and the submission of a plan of study, the work would be concentrated on one main subject with corollary work all supervised by one or more tutors.  It was in the Senior College that one of the principal innovations of BMC was practiced—projects in which one or more faculty would work with students, often from disparate disciplines, to produce a performance, an exhibition, or even an invention to which all the participants contributed equally according to their (often new-found) talents and abilities.  Architect Buckminster Fuller, for example, improvised his first geodesic dome out of Venetian blind slats in the school’s back yard with student Kenneth Snelson (who went on to become a sculptor) in 1948 and ’49; choreographer Merce Cunningham started a dance troupe; and composer John Cage staged his first Happening with student Allan Kaprow (who later used the name for other improvised events).  In 1948, Cunningham and Cage were on the BMC summer school faculty when painter Willem de Kooning and Fuller were also there, none of them known to the outside world yet.  They reconstructed Erik Satie’s 1913 absurdist play, The Ruse of Medusa, “set in Paris, the day before yesterday.”  The performance, co-directed by Helen Livingston and student Arthur Penn, featured student Elaine de Kooning (Willem’s wife) as the leading lady, Fuller as Baron M├ęduse, choreography by Cunningham, and sets by Willem de Kooning.  

When the student and the mentors felt she or he’d completed the work outlined in the plan, the student was examined by scholars from outside institutions whose evaluation was the main criterion for graduation.  Former student Fielding Dawson laid out the graduation requirements: “After I had reviewed my first three years, I would be subject to cross examination by the students, and then, with only the Student Moderator [the students’ representative to the faculty] . . . present, by the faculty.  The Student Moderator had the capacity to tell the faculty they were being too tough.  It was like a trial.  The next and last step was an examination by any person in the world involved in the particular field.”  

At Black Mountain College, students lived in close association with practicing artists and so learned about “the financial sacrifices, the commercial aspects such as getting a gallery and selling art, the politics of publication, and inevitably the necessity of making a decision for art,” explained Harris.  From their intimate contact with working artists, the notion among new students that “artists were people who were born with certain kinds of magical qualities that they knew about from the time they were geniuses at the age of five” was quickly dismissed.  BMC became an incubator for experimental performance and art, attracting the likes of composers Lou Harrison and Cage; writers Goodman and Eric Bentley; choreographer Cunningham; painters Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Jacob Lawrence, and Willem de Kooning; sculptor Richard Lippold; and architects Gropius and Fuller, among others who were important figures in the arts or were soon to become so.  Some students of note, in addition to Elaine de Kooning, included painters Robert de Niro, Sr. (father of the actor) and Twombly; film director Penn, and writer James Leo Herlihy.  

One principal difference between Black Mountain College and other U.S. colleges was its institutional structure.  Having been born out of a dispute over academic freedom, BMC was owned and operated by the faculty and was committed to democratic governance and the founders agreed that any administrative structure should be nominal with no trustees, regents, deans, or chancellor to constrain the free exchange of ideas and methods of learning.  The founders “decided to discard the non-professional Board of Trustees,” establishing instead a Board of Fellows made up mostly of faculty elected by their peers and one student representative elected by students.  There was also no president in the usual sense, with authority to hire and fire, as the founders believed that having a strong executive would violate their principle that the college should be governed jointly by the faculty and the students.  The presiding officer, called a rector to distinguish the office from a traditional college executive, was elected for a short period and rotated among members of the faculty.  (BMC’s first rector was, of course, John Andrew Rice.)  The duties of the rector, who had no power beyond persuasion, were only to officiate at meetings and represent BMC before the public.  The responsibilities usually discharged by deans and other administrators to discuss and transact business were performed by committees of the teaching faculty with student representation.  The students had a voice in everything that affected their academic lives in order to encourage them to take responsibility for their own educations.  “The College prided itself on the fact that it imposed no rules or regulations of any kind, but depended on the developing maturity, responsibility, and self-discipline of its members,” recalled former BMC student Phyllis Josephs Thomas.  “Major problems were taken up and thrashed out at townhall-like meetings of the entire community.”  

Mary Gregory, teacher of woodworking at BMC, recalled that it was expected that “everyone who joined the community be a contributor, not a purchaser.“  All the community’s members were expected to give something of themselves.  The college’s library, for example, was made up of books from the faculty’s personal collections and even students loaned books.  The teachers were also the school’s fundraisers as well as the students’ instructors and advisers, and they and the students provided an evening’s entertainment so everyone could relax and enjoy free time.  Students and faculty who had already spent time at Black Mountain were available to provide help for the newcomers, to answer questions and provide guidance.

Everyone at BMC participated in its operation, including farm work, construction projects, and kitchen duty.  One former student described his routine:

Every Sunday morning I had to get up and participate in the Work Program . . . .  I did a lot of different things.  I kept the sewer lines open . . . .

Well I also worked on the farm.

I also did road work.  I also cut grass; I washed windows, swept, painted, scraped, fixed roofs, removed hot water heaters, collected stones, kept fires going, cut down trees—etc.

The distinctions at Black Mountain between students and faculty were so blurred that it was often impossible to tell the difference.  Both faculty and students lived on campus and ate in the common dining hall.  Paul Goodman felt, “This made for a fuller life.”  In his book on the school, Duberman explained that “relationships between students and teachers at Black Mountain were ‘much more human’ than at most places—people tended to meet as people, rather than as pieces in the ancient mandarin game called ‘Classroom.’”  The usual stratifications of “academic caste” didn’t exist on the BMC campus, and with everyone contributing to facilities maintenance and no administrative staff visible, many visitors to the college, which included such figures as John Dewey, Aldous Huxley, Henry Miller, May Sarton, and Thornton Wilder who came to observe the experiment, could be confused about who ran things.  There’s an anecdote about Eleanor Roosevelt on a tour of BMC: the First Lady approached a student in the reading room of a classroom building and asked who was in charge of the school.  “I don’t know,” said the young man, and left the room.  

The real disparity between Black Mountain and its conventional sister institutions, however, was in the very concept of learning.  In Duberman’s words:

The one idea most commonly agreed upon was that “living” and “learning” should be intertwined.  Education should proceed everywhere, not only in classroom settings—which in fact, at least as usually structured, are among the worst learning environments imaginable.  A favorite slogan at Black Mountain was that “as much real education takes place over the coffee cups as in the classrooms.”                                  

Every facet of community life was part of a student’s education and the normal division of “curricular” and “extracurricular,” the distinction between work in a classroom or work outside it, dissolved.  “We wrote stories, poems and plays, we drew, we painted pictures, made sculptures, threw pots, danced, took photographs, composed and played music, had softball games in the summer and football games in the winter and brought the cows in,” recounted a former student.  

As Duberman reported further: “Talk was probably the community’s most characteristic activity.  And it wasn’t talk sequestered to classrooms, or segregated in terms of age and sex.  People constantly dropped into each other’s studies, staff and students interacting without planning or formality.”  Learning at Black Mountain, with the experience of living closely with the teachers, was as much about the classes a student took and the instructors taught as by the faculty’s very presence in the community as working artists, writers, and scientists.  Conversations at dinner, concerts, lectures, performances, and parties in the evenings and on weekends were as invaluable as anything that went on in a schoolroom, a studio, or a lab.  Learning simply went on all the time, whenever the opportunity or impulse arose—and it was part of BMC’s philosophy that the students would have (or gain) the maturity to capitalize on those opportunities.  “Formal education was not seen as an end in itself but as one part of the process of life,” affirmed Harris, “and there was an attempt to break down the distinction between the formal and the incidental or unintentional modes of education.”  To be part of BMC was to be part of a community—a community of scholars.  

BMC began to get the reputation as “an interdisciplinary educational hide-out,” as RoseLee Goldberg described it in Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present.  Spending so much time in the company of practicing artists, writers, and scholars readily engendered improvised performances.  Xanti Schawinsky, the director, photographer, and artist, for instance, began a “stage studies” project.  “This course is not intended as a training for any particular branch of the contemporary theatre,” Goldberg quoted Schawinsky as explaining.  It was intended to be an exploration of “space, form, colour, light, sound, movement, music, time, etc.”  The project’s first performance was Spectodrama, “an educational method aiming at the interchange between the arts and sciences and using the theatre as a laboratory and place of action and experimentation” in which a group of students from all fields “‘tackled prevailing concepts and phenomena from different viewpoints, creating stage representations expressing them.”  

Even with its open-learning atmosphere, Black Mountain College didn’t neglect classroom work or assign it a secondary position as an aspect of a Black Mountain education.  Though there was no formal grading system, required courses, or college-mandated exams, classes met at regular times in the morning and evening. (Afternoons were devoted to work programs in maintenance, work on the college farm, or administration.)  A class might start at 7:30 in the evening but continue till midnight.  Then the teacher and students might adjourn to the dining hall or some other gathering spot and continue the discussion over coffee and peanut butter sandwiches.  Without a grading system, however, attendance at class was unenforced.  But as one student put it, the instructor might not appear to care if students didn’t come to class on a given Tuesday, though “when they came in on Wednesday they wouldn’t know what anybody was talking about.”  The student continued:

We had to go to classes or face the wrath of the teacher; there wasn’t any kidding around.  The other prevailing faculty attitude was if you missed my class well fuck you—classes were tough, we couldn’t miss them—homework, heavy as it was, then doubled . . . it was free of academic rules and regulations, but that made it worse, the whole burden was on us, and the faculty maybe getting plastered with us the night before no matter, we had to produce.

Some of the classes were formal lectures with regular papers and exams, but every instructor was free to devise her or his own method of teaching, most preferring some form of small discussion group.  Still others would show pictures or play music (live or recorded).  Diverse forms of communications and expression, not merely words, were explored.  (“Explore” was, of course, a literal description of the efforts: finding new ways to use various media was a regular pursuit at BMC.  Cage and Cunningham together created works using non-instrumental sounds and unconventional movement, for instance, culminating in 1952’s Untitled Event at Black Mountain.)  It wasn’t uncommon for the occasional seminar to be jointly taught by three or four instructors, and, as former student Hannelore Hahn observed:

Anyone could sit around the seminar table and participate in discussion with the great minds of renowned persons.  No one said you could not take part because you lacked some previous requirement.  Once you had arrived, you were part of the community in every way.  It was up to you how much or how little you wished to participate.  

It was also a frequent occurrence that other faculty members or their spouses might join the class as students, further obscuring the boundary between teacher and learner.  This atmosphere, open and free-flowing, with the exchanges of ideas and innovations happening so spontaneously, caused the faculty to see Black Mountain as their own so that when the school was broke, a situation that was increasingly prevalent as the years advanced, many continued to teach without pay just so they could “perfect their arts and to communicate to their students an excitement about their work.”  

In addition to the formal classes and the informal, sometimes impromptu discussions and bull sessions, there was a constant flow of guest lecturers and performers, including the likes of Albert Einstein; Clement Greenberg, the influential art critic; writer, architect, and social historian Bernard Rudofsky; poet William Carlos Williams; Marie-Louise von Franz, a Jungian psychologist; and archaeologist and anthropologist Robert Braidwood.  Classes were often canceled so students and faculty could attend the visitors’ presentations.  “One of the college’s greatest strengths was its ability to let things happen,” affirmed Harris, “not to overprogram and in so doing limit the chances for spontaneous creative events.”

To its benefit, and the benefit of those who attended the school, BMC was, in Duberman’s words, “a place distinctive . . . not in endowment, numbers, comfort or public acclaim, but in quality of experience, a frontier society, sometimes raucous and raw, isolated and self-conscious, bold in its refusal to assume any reality it hadn’t tested—and therefore bold in inventing forms, both in life style and art, to contain the experiential facts that supplanted tradition’s agreed-upon definitions.”  Particularly in the arts, but in other fields as well, it was an intellectual community that fostered “total freedom to experiment, to perform, to get feedback”—especially for those working in experimental forms and trying out innovative notions.  Where teachers, Eric Bentley warned, are a separate caste, “the students continue their high school habit of avoiding study, boasting of idleness,” but at Black Mountain, the closeness of the faculty and the students generated the freest exchange of ideas and the most rigorous edification it was possible to get on a college campus.  Bentley further observed that BMC students often went beyond the usual undergraduate level of achievement, sometimes surprising their outside examiners “not so much by their erudition as by their keen interest in their fields.”  As Hahn described:

The College without locks and keys, without prerequisites and administrative regulations, was also like an open dish in the universe.  It allowed ideas, like particles or spores, to fall into it, to develop like organisms according to their nature, and to attract and to repel.  No individual particle, no individual thought or point of view was to infringe upon or take away freedom from the others.

Boredom, “the great bane of existence” at traditional institutions, added Hahn, “did not exist at Black Mountain.  Nor did it spawn the type of behavior typical of other schools and in the army, where one yearns for school to be out in order to loaf or go on binges.  School was never out at Black Mountain.”  Former student Fielding Dawson proclaimed, “Black Mountain worked; it was real” and social sciences and philosophy teacher Albert William Levi asserted that the college “is an experiment in that it is itself not so much an answer as a question.”  

Life at Black Mountain, however, wasn’t always idyllic.  It sounds, especially in retrospect, like some kind of intellectual utopia, but there were endemic flaws that became the fault lines along which the school eventually collapsed.  First, its very concept proved a burden.  The notion of combining the establishment of a scholarly community in which all members shared both responsibilities and a common objective with an environment dedicated to spawning what Duberman designated “art of the highest excellence” was fundamentally contradictory.  The collective aims of the first proposition conflicted with the individual creativity necessary for the second to happen.  Duberman observed: “At Black Mountain, the priorities had been set: individual ‘cultivation’ took precedence over public issues, local or national, and to achieve status in the community one had to ‘cultivate’ fiercely—to be unusually original, dynamic, fertile, cogent.  For many—those either without special talent or long trained to believe they lacked it—terrible insecurity and a deep sense of worthlessness could develop.”  

Further, Duberman affirmed, because the college evaluated students by broader standards than more traditional institutions, the consequence was that a negative appraisal was more shattering because the implication was that it was based on a judgment of the whole person rather than merely some narrow criteria like test scores or writing assignments.  As Duberman saw it, disapproval at BMC “was the equivalent of being labeled an unworthy human being—not merely a poor student.”  

The anarchic administrative structure was also a difficulty that grew.  Making decisions about running the school by consensus could become time-consuming and cumbersome, even maddeningly so in the estimation of Mervin Lane.  There were committees to handle all aspects of college life and meetings were endless.  Differences in opinion blossomed into volatile disagreements that resulted in one faculty faction and a coterie of its student followers bolting.  With no rules or procedures in place to guide any decision, everything that needed doing had to be started from scratch to devise a process before any action could even be proposed, much less accomplished.  This was exacerbated by the turn-over of the student body, most members of which stayed for two years or less.  Since everyone had the right to be heard on any subject, that meant essentially that every decision that was finally made would have to be re-debated and re-formulated constantly as new students joined the community.  Since the students far outnumbered the faculty, especially near the end when the staff was reduced to as few as three teachers, and the students had the right, through the student moderator, to oppose faculty decisions, they could control the agenda of every meeting.  

Eric Bentley pointed out that one result of the Black Mountain concept was “sheer disorder,” and eventually, in Duberman’s opinion, the school devolved into “little more than a group of squabbling prima donnas.”  The more experimental and innovative the material is, perhaps, the less fragmentary and free the working method can be.  In other words, maybe anarchy works best when ideas are concrete, but it proves counterproductive if the ideas themselves are evanescent.  

The outside world, which, while being acknowledged (sometimes grudgingly and even fearfully) was kept at bay from the cloistered BMC community, also encroached on the uncorrupted atmosphere of Black Mountain College.  One early issue that tore the school apart was integration.  North Carolina was a segregated state and Black Mountain, even as a progressive community, would have been in jeopardy if it desegregated its student body or its staff.  The school tried to sidestep the problem by enrolling two African-American women in the summer program, but a crisis occurred when some students returning from a visit to a nearby campus to hear a famous writer were arrested and jailed.  Resignations of several faculty ensued and a number of students withdrew.  Later, World War II took most of the American faculty men as many were drafted and others left to join the war effort.  This left BMC with an overwhelmingly European and female teaching staff.  

The problem that eventually scuttled the BMC experiment wasn’t academic or political, however.  It was financial.  With no endowment, the loss of students as the school became increasingly an arts academy reduced the income to the extent that the faculty were paid half salaries (sometimes in kind, from products of the college farm), with the remainder held as a debt against the school.  Other debts built up as well, and ultimately, a judge decreed that the school had to pay up or suspend operations.  Burdened with too much debt, Black Mountain College closed its doors in 1957—and took until 1962 to clear its books.  The school existed for only 24 years, but its influence spread across the country and changed the way many educators thought about teaching and learning.  It has also remained a Shangri-La in the minds of many teachers, education theorists, students, and school leaders who harbored the dream that such a place as Black Mountain could exist again somehow and last beyond the short life that generated so many extraordinary artists and thinkers.  Maybe it’s impossible, a Camelot that just can’t exist for more than one brief, shining moment—but a lot of people wish it could.

[Black Mountain College may have extended into my lifetime, but I was far too young to have ever had any personal contact with the school or its students and faculty.  Obviously this discussion of the college and its philosophy is based on research, so, for the curious, I’ll list my principal sources:

Fielding Dawson, The Black Mountain Book (New York: Croton Press, 1970)
Martin Duberman, Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1972; reprint, New York: W. W. Norton, 1993)
RoseLee Goldberg, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1988)
Paul Goodman, The Community of Scholars (New York: Random House, 1962)
Mary Emma Harris, The Arts at Black Mountain College (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987)
Mary Emma Harris, “North Carolina’s Black Mountain College: A New Deal in American Education,” Artes Magazine 13 Sept. 2010, , 18 Apr. 2014.
Mervin Lane, ed. Black Mountain College: Sprouted Seeds: An Anthology of Personal Accounts (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990); including contributions from:
Louis Adamic, “Excerpts from ‘Black Mountain: An Experiment in Education’
Eric R. Bentley, “Report from the Academy: The Experimental College”
Mary Gregory, “Speech Given at Bard College”
Hannelore Hahn, “Excerpts from a Work in Progress”
Albert William Levi, “The Meaning of Black Mountain”
I[saac] S. Nakata, “In That Time Long Ago”
Phyllis Josephs Thomas, “Looking Back on the Lee Hall Years”
Marcia J. Wade, “Utopia Revisited.” Horizon [Tuscaloosa, AL] v. 30, no. 5 (June 1987):13-16

[Some of these books may still be in print, but they’re all available in libraries around the country.  (The one magazine, Horizon, is certainly available on microfilm in most large or university libraries.)  There’s also a good deal about Black Mountain College on the ’Net, some of it even connected to the sources I used, but I found that for the purposes of this article, I had more than enough material gathered in those dark old days before the World Wide Web.]