Mentors & Inspirations
Doric Wilson takes time to reflect on some of the most important mentors and artistic inspirations of his life.
Watch Out For SnakesI have reached an age when the days of my life are numbered like the grains of fairly intimate fish bowl. It tends to make one look to the past more frequently than to the future. Because I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, the landscape was very much a part of what I ultimately became. The Cascade mountains, the high desert of eastern Washington State, the Columbia River Gorge where my grandfather’s ranch was–-this was my real birthplace, however I initially and very firmly denied it. I hated the tumbleweeds and cheat grass and the forever blowing winds of home sweet home. I was determined to be someone far more elegant than the Horse Heaven Hills would permit. I refused to be a character in a Sam Shepard play. I knew in my heart and soul I belonged to Noel Coward.
No one knows where I first encountered theater. It would be years before I would move to town where I could see a movie. Our radio on the ranch was a crystal set strictly reserved for the news and crop reports. All I know is that by the mid-1940s I was putting on plays in my grandfather’s barn with my poor cousins as less than eager actors. King Arthur and his Court or ravaging, pillaging Vikings or Cowboys killing the Indigenous Peoples. All for a penny.
At the end of World War II, I moved to the nearby town of Kennewick to live with my mom and go to school. My mother was a war widow and away at work for long hours seven days a week. I was left all alone with my imagination and a more modern radio. (Most of the playwrights at the Cino in the 1960s grew up with radio, not television.) I never played games with the neighborhood kids, I organized them in huge, costumed, carefully plotted extravaganzas. Julianne Clark remembers, at age seven she was my first leading lady.
The Letter of the LawI have been very lucky when it comes to mentors. Alice Clark (the beautiful lady who
lived on the hill), Dorothy Seeburger (president of the Richland Players), Bernie Hart (famous Broadway stage manager and brother of Moss Hart), Harry Grier (curator of the Frick Collection), actress Nancy Wilder (I played older Patrick to her Auntie Mame), Gore Vidal (a person with opinions), Howard Richardson (playwright, The Dark of the Moon), Joe Cino (legend in spite of himself), the list goes on and on. I intend to concentrate on the three most important to where I am now.
It was in Kennewick that I encountered my first mentor. In Minnesota in the early years of the last century, a young woman named Loraine Larson, enrolled in a University Law School. The
dean informed her that no woman would ever graduate from HIS school with a law degree. Four years later after graduating with top honors, she walked back into the dean’s office, tossed her degree on his desk, and walked out. She never did practice law. She became a monologist who specialized in Scandinavian dialect pieces. In the early 1940s Miss Larson was stranded when the Chautauqua unit she was performing with disbanded in Kennewick. She got a job in the high school teaching English and Speech and directing the school plays.
I met Miss Larson when I started high school and signed up for the debate team. She proceeded to teach me everything I would ever need to know about theater. For her I did the sets for Our Town, and later played the lead in Kind Lady. She got me into the Drama Department of the University of Washington. I was thrown out after one semester when I initiated a one-man protest against a sniper at a nearby gay cruising park. It was Miss Larson who convinced my mother that it might be best for all concerned if I moved to NYC. Not an easy decision in 1959.
No Business LikeHad I not left school early (so to speak) I never would have walked in the door of the Caffe Cino. It was during the run of And He Made a Her that I met my second most important mentor. Richard Barr was involved with Orson Wells and the Mercury Theater. (He is the first voice you hear in Citizen Kane). After producing on Broadway (Bert Lahr in Hotel Paradiso, Nancy Walker in Fallen Angels, etc.), he decided to move Off-Broadway to, in his words, “Turn the theater back to the playwright.'' In 1960, Richard mounted Edward Albee's first play, The Zoo Story, beginning a long time relationship with the playwright.
He also presented the first American professional productions of works by Ionesco and de Ghelderode and the world premiere of Samuel Becket’s Happy Days. In 1967 he became president of the League of New York Theaters, instituting the 8 pm Broadway curtain and inventing the preview (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf) to replace out-of-town tryouts. But more significantly, he was the first producer to recognize the importance of Off-Off-Broadway. Among the playwrights he found there were John Guare, A. R. Gurney, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Terrence McNally, Sam Shepard, Jean-Claude Van Itallie, Lanford Wilson, and even Doric Wilson (no relation). An alternative theater award really should be named after Richard Barr, no one ever did more to legitimize what we do. He taught me how to produce and gave me the courage to start TOSOS.
I was sort of an unpaid assistant for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and got to watch and learn. At the time, there was a lot of concern. The play was very long with some heavy going language new to the delicate ears of uptown. Thanks to the McCarthy hearings, Uta Hagen had been away from the stage for a long time. In 1963, no one was sure if she would be welcomed back. A week before it started previews, Clinton Wilder, the co-producer begged me to use whatever influence I had over Richard to get him to make Edward change the title of the play. Richard budgeted Virginia Woolf for $65,000 but brought it in for $30,000, giving it a cushion to run long enough for word-of-mouth to counter hostile reviews. And the reviews were very Republican.
And A Child Shall Lead ThemThe last mentor I focus on may seem a bit odd. One assumes that to be a mentor, wisdom and age is essential. But to teach an old dog sometimes you need a new trickster. About ten years ago I went hear pianist Ellen Starr in a club on 46 Street. Jazz singer Robert Locke invited me to join his table, and introduced me to Mark Finley. I met Mark when I had completely given up on theatre. I had vowed that the next off-off-Broadway production I would participate in would be my funeral. But we started talking and by osmosis he eventually taught me to see again.
I am four times Mark’s age (if he is to be believed) and however smart and talented he is, the jury may still be out when it comes to wisdom. I have no idea how many people have directed my plays over the years, but no one has ever given them more honest productions, including me. What stands out in Mark Finley's work is an ability to zero in on the tone of a script and to cast it flawlessly. He then stands back and lets it blossom. In fact his perfect casting may be the root of his genius. His productions seem inevitable. He also is a wise (ha! There’s the Wisdom!) and wry playwright. And an excellent actor. And the least convincing drag performer in the entire history of transvestism.
Lorraine Larson shaped my mind to creative possibilities, Richard Barr taught me how make that imagination a reality, and Mark Finley made me believe again. Because of him I am working on a new play. And to me that is the very essence of Alternative Theater. Creativity, imagination, and belief. I did ultimately make it into those sophisticated drawing rooms. But I didn’t stay all that long. Turns out there were even more rattlesnakes slithering around there than back home in the Gorge.
About Doric:Doric Wilson was the first playwright at NYC's legendary Caffe Cino, his comedy And He Made a Her opening there in 1961. His success, in the words of playwright Robert Patrick, helped “establish the Cino as a venue for new plays, and materially contributed to the then-emerging concept of Off-Off-Broadway.” A social-political satirist, Doric Wilson has focused his career on the development of queer culture, receiving in 1994 the first Robert Chesley Award for Lifetime Achievement in Gay Theatre; the 2007 IT Award for Artistic Achievement; and in 2009, the ATHE Career Achievement Award for Professional Theatre. He is an elected member of the National Theater Conference.