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AMERICAN THEATRE | Bob Kalfin and Me: A Friendship Over Half a Century


Robert Kalfin, founding father of the Chelsea Theater Middle and longtime Off-Broadway producer and director, died on Sept. 20. He was 89. One other tribute to him and his legacy may be learn right here.


I used to be 18 years outdated and a sophomore at Oberlin Faculty after I was awarded an internship on the Chelsea Theater Middle in New York. I used to be astonished that my dad and mom agreed to let me spend a semester out of the classroom, although I’d obtain a full time period of school credit score by studying firsthand about making theatre. I used to be additionally shocked that the Chelsea Theater Middle was not, in reality, in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood (it as soon as had been), however was by then type of tucked away on the fourth ground of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. (Let or not it’s stated that BAM and its environs again in 1972 had little relationship to downtown Brooklyn at present.)

I’ve a vivid reminiscence of strolling into Chelsea for the primary time on a frigid day in February. The large black field of an area, which I later realized was continuously reconfigured to accommodate every new progressive set design, was laid out for this specific manufacturing in a type of “vast panoramic” structure. Throughout the again wall of the stage had been three big screens the place video was displayed. All of it was remarkably placing, however much more fascinating had been the actors. A girl enjoying an aged Jewish mom was being tugged at by her son, who pleaded along with her as she resisted and wailed. Upstage, video photos appeared: a close-up of the girl’s face in stay feed, the explosion of the Hindenburg, black-and-white photos of classic Fifties Lakewood, NJ. This was Kaddish, an adaptation and animation of Allen Ginberg’s epic poem. Conducting all this wild exercise was the director, a swarthy, curly-haired gentleman named Robert Kalfin, who I found was additionally founder and creative director of the Chelsea Theater Middle. Little did I understand how vigorously and gloriously my life can be reworked by figuring out him.

Robert Kalfin lately.

For over 4 months that winter into spring, I assisted on a variety of productions, together with a reimagined The Beggars Opera by John Homosexual with a rating newly realized by Roland Gagnon and starring Kathleen Widdoes as Polly Peachum and Marilyn Sokol as Lucy Lockit. I used to be, as any novice intern, a gofer, sweeping and mopping rehearsal rooms, getting coffees and bagels, working errands, delivering scripts to performers, usually touring a number of occasions a day on what we then referred to as the IRT to and from Manhattan. I used to be deliriously completely satisfied. I noticed and realized finest I may. When later the next yr, The Beggars Opera transferred from BAM to the McAlpin Rooftop venue Off-Broadway, I grew to become the non-Fairness assistant stage supervisor. (Not an excellent one, I’d add.)

There have been different alternatives that first semester as nicely. I assisted the exceptional designer Theodora Skipitares on The Water Hen by Polish playwright Stanisław Witkiewicz. Theodora, who would change into an acclaimed puppeteer and director, designed and was establishing costumes constituted of woven newspapers, and crystal chandeliers which required many further palms and hours to manufacture.

When my internship ended, Bob grew to become a good friend. He recommended me and inspired me to take dangers and ask deeper questions. One Bob motto that has served me to today: “Maintain onto life like a terrier and don’t let go.” Again at Oberlin, he visited me on campus to see my directorial debut (I and Silence Some Unusual Race by Gordon Porterfield) and offered dramaturgical suggestions. At all times protecting and reassuring. At all times a optimistic spin to life. At all times provocative.

Whereas at Oberlin, I had the chance to learn a brief story by Isaac Bashevis Singer referred to as Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy. To my thoughts, it had “Bob Kalfin” written throughout it. I despatched it to him, and he had it tailored right into a play by Leah Napolin, introduced first at Chelsea, then transferred to Broadway in 1975, launching the profession of Tovah Feldshuh and produced by the legendary Cheryl Crawford. (An apart I can’t resist including: The final play I took my grandmother to see earlier than she died was Yentl. After the present, I introduced her backstage to satisfy Tovah, who graciously escorted us into her dressing room. She requested my grandmother if she “really appreciated the manufacturing.” “Very, very a lot,” my grandmother replied. “You probably did?” queried Tovah, considerably shocked that this 84-year-old émigré was not offended by the play’s subject material. “You appreciated it even when the lady received the lady? Didn’t that half upset you?” To which my Russian Jewish grandmother replied, in her inimitable Japanese European accent: “Vell, ya know? Generally dat’s vhat you gotta do!”)

Mark Baker and Maureen Brennan in “Candide” at Chelsea Theater Middle in 1973. (Picture by Amnon Ben Norris)

After graduating from Oberlin, I moved to New York, the place my first job was as assistant stage supervisor on Christopher Hampton’s Whole Eclipse, concerning the love affair between Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, which Bob staged at Chelsea. Later that yr, Bob organized for me to have an audition for a summer season theatre in Woods Gap, Cape Cod, the place I ended up enjoying Fortunate in Ready for Godot and directing Pinter’s The Assortment. Later I’d assume co-directorship of the Woods Gap Theatre Firm.

In 1973, I ended up serving as a paid casting assistant at Chelsea on Hal Prince’s first revival of Candide, designed by Eugene Lee and significantly “immersive,” nicely earlier than the phrase was commonplace. I recall sitting in auditions on the Shubert Theater on Broadway, the place Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Evening Music had not too long ago opened, and listening to Mr. Prince (later “Hal”) flip to Bob and me (nicely, flip to his precise casting director, Joanna Merlin) and say, “I need younger operatic singers who appear to be comedian ebook characters.” I rode the IRT again to the Chelsea places of work and rifled by means of piles and piles of agent-submitted footage and résumés after I came across a photograph of Maureen Brennan, who had simply graduated from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and who appeared to suit the invoice. She ended up as Cunegonde, in her Chelsea Theater and later Broadway debut.

In 1973, Bob directed Ibsen’s The Woman from the Sea on the New Repertory Theatre on West forty third Avenue, nicely earlier than there was a Manhattan Plaza. In reality, the theatre was in an area that had been a funeral parlor (and would return to being a funeral parlor years therefore). Marilyn Chris, who I had witnessed (and worshipped) as Naomi Ginsberg in Kaddish, was the lead, and I used to be forged because the consumptive sculptor Lyngstrand. It could be my Off-Broadway debut and finale as an actor. A evaluate by Edith Oliver in The New Yorker and Clive Barnes in The New York Instances made me really feel like I had succeeded in a world of which I had heretofore solely dreamed, and Bob satisfied me to suppose significantly about being a director—to have a “chook’s eye” view and a imaginative and prescient for all the story onstage.

Bob continued to uplift my profession. Once I was positioned on the ready checklist for the Yale Drama College however finally not accepted—and felt my life was certainly nugatory—he launched me to Robert Moss, creative director of Playwrights Horizons, which was simply taking on residence on the but to be created Theatre Row. Moss employed me as one among two affiliate producers (Andre Bishop was the opposite), and there I used to be capable of direct my first skilled reveals, together with The Dybbuk at Playwrights Horizons/Queens, which Bob Kalfin got here to see and for which he offered invaluable suggestions and encouragement. 

My life and success within the skilled theatre is as a result of mild soul, graciousness, wild enthusiasm, and bountiful mentorship of Robert Kalfin. With out Bob, I’d by no means have had the impetus to interrogate the “why” of my being of the theatre. There would by no means have been my tenure at Playwrights Horizons, and I by no means would have acquired an NEA/TCG Grant to spend three seasons with Gordon Davidson on the Mark Taper Discussion board. All of those steps led, a few years later, to my spending 23 years as creative director of the Sundance Institute Theatre Program.

What I perceive now’s that Bob Kalfin helped me to see into my very own psyche, to assemble a imaginative and prescient over time of how I imagined theatre and creativity functioning on the earth, to belief my instincts, and—possibly extra vital than all of that—to hold optimism with me. His unwavering love of storytelling, his insatiable curiosity, his indeniable style in literature, his embrace of visible artwork and theatrical house, his stirring risk-taking, all impressed me on a journey of curiosity, to know myself and to know the historical past of theatre and of being a homosexual man on the earth. And to determine my place within the ecology of the American theatre. Bob’s good may even kindled in me the will to uplift and help others as I grew and matured. That has, in reality, outlined my total life within the theatre: an embrace and help of gifted storytellers with the idea that what lies inside our playwrights, administrators, designers, and actors does in reality affect and rework the world.

Some 50 years after we met on that chilly winter’s day at Chelsea at BAM, I sat by Bob’s hospice mattress on Lengthy Island. He checked out me, sighed, and stated, “I’m sorry to be a burden now.” “Cease being so Jewish,” I joked with him. Then I reminded him why I used to be there. “I’m right here since you revealed to me and to so many people the wonder and possibilty of stay theatre,” I stated. “Nobody liked playwrights and designers and actors greater than you. And I’m right here since you gave me a rare present. You noticed me. You noticed one thing in me after I was very younger and unable to see it myself.

“And I like you,” I instructed him.

Philip Himberg (he/him) was the creative director of the Sundance Institute Theatre Program, and is at the moment the chief director of MacDowell.

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