Anti-anxiety of influence

Criticism | Process

Does this article make me look fat?

When you’re in a thing, it’s hard to know what it looks like. I want to write about a Minnesota style, but I’m in it so it's hard to see. Is there a Minnesota style? I’m sure there is. I know I respond warmly to certain things. And many of those things I learned from Fred Gaines.

I met Fred Gaines when he was half of the theater department at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. I took his “Introduction to Theater” class the first semester of my freshman year. Scruffy boys with bandanas on their heads sat at the back of the class and smoked cigarettes! They didn’t raise their hands to speak and addressed the professor as “Fred.”

Fred is one of those people who has done more and seen more and knows more than seems fair. He’s a playwright and teacher. He spent time at the University of Minnesota and has written a number of plays for the Children’s Theatre Company. He’s been a soldier, and he carves wood. He’s probably worked on a fishing boat at some point. And it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that he was a fire jumper out west in the sixties. Or a line cook at a brothel in New Orleans. He’s like that.

Today, Fred is still writing plays, though retired from teaching. He’s also writing a weekly report, of sorts, that he emails to friends and former students. It’s a record of his thoughts during and after the chemotherapy treatments that he started last fall after learning that he has pancreatic cancer.

I don’t mean to get all “Tuesdays with Morrie” on you. It’s just that Fred is on my mind a lot these days, and as I think about Minnesota Style and my place in it, I know that Fred Gaines shaped that place more than anyone else. As an example: I came to Minnesota because Fred wrote a play for the Children’s Theatre Company, and he suggested I audition for it. I’m pretty sure I was cast in it on Fred’s recommendation. I’ve been in Minnesota ever since.

Oh, and just today I received the book on woodcarving that I ordered from Amazon.

Making connections

At Lawrence, Fred would lean back in a chair at the front of the classroom, dig his hands deep into the pockets of his corduroys and stare at something above our heads as he told stories in a sonorous rumble. He’d start off talking about medieval mystery plays. Seventy minutes later he would be talking about German Expressionism. Somewhere in between, I learned that he once shared a taxi with Ruth Gordon and had been to a cockfight with someone he assumed I’d heard of, but I hadn’t.

Between classes, I would meet my roommate for lunch and tell him about my theater class and laugh about Fred and his rambling style. This is what children do.

The final exam was a shock. I was fooled by Fred’s discursive lectures and casual footwear into thinking that the class would end with a friendly exchange of anecdotes. Instead, we were expected to know the material that had been assigned. I don’t remember my final grade, but it contributed to my 0.3 GPA.

The grade was poor, but I learned some things.

One: Theater was more than a way to get noticed by girls.

Getting noticed by girls is, I suppose, a shallow motivation—shallow, but extremely powerful. Like Lady Gaga. Splitting open my head to an idea of something beyond getting noticed by girls was a big deal.

I began to see those sinuous lectures as a reflection of the big, messy, ongoing conversation that started a few millennia ago. The conversation about what it is to be a human being alive in the universe. What are our obligations to each other? To ourselves? To God? What is justice? Honor? Love? Art? The conversation is sometimes hilarious, sometimes heart-breaking, sometimes violent.

Two: I could be a part of that conversation.

Fred was already a part of that. And he was my teacher. Just jump in. Sophocles, Shakespeare, Chekhov—and me. Everyone is welcome.

Three: Everyone is welcome, but you better know your stuff.

It’s not enough to feel a connection to a role, a play, a style. We’ve all been at a party, having a great talk with friends, when someone jumps in and takes over the conversation with some self-aggrandizing story unrelated to anything we were discussing. That’s the actor who feels in his gut he really gets Hamlet. And everything else—historical context, Elizabethan politics, revenge plays, etc—is inconsequential to his interpretation. Don’t be that guy.

Four: Blood, and farts and piss and sex.

Floating along in the intoxicating realm of great ideas—historical context, Elizabethan politics, revenge plays, etc.—Fred would ask if I thought Hamlet and Ophelia had slept together. He wouldn’t let me forget that plays were about people. And people smell funny and burp and get embarrassed. “Look at these pants,” he’d say, holding up a painting of some Restoration dandy. “How are you going to sit in a chair in those pants?”

During my spotty career at Lawrence University, I took more classes from Fred and did a little better with my grades. I was cast in plays he directed and acted in plays he wrote. I’d like to tell you about Fred’s chuckle. And the earnest seriousness with which he approaches everything. And the gentle humor with which he approaches himself. But I’m feeling guilty for having hijacked this month’s theme for my own purposes. I should probably wrap it up.

Here's what I respond to when I look in the Minnesota Style mirror:

  • The sense that theater is important—not just something to do until a TV deal comes along.
  • There are a lot of smart people here who take the work seriously but not themselves.
  • Everyone’s welcome: new plays, classics, musicals, the Fringe, the Playwrights’ Center, How to Speak Minnesotan alongside August Wilson, Bryant Lake Bowl alongside The Guthrie. The Old Log and The Jungle. We even make room for foreigners from France, Ireland, and California.
  • We don’t much go for Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty We lean more toward Chekhov’s gentle pat on the shoulder while whispering, “You live badly, my friends.”

And I appreciate that. After all, I live in Minnesota. Conflict makes me uncomfortable.

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