Big Dog Shows Up On Main Street: Manbites Dog Theater, in the beginning

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The Dog Arrives. Fall, 1987, in the former shoe store at 343 West Main Street, Durham, NC. From left: Barbara Dickinson, Jeff Storer, Patricia Esperon, and Connie Watkins, rehearsing Manbites Dog Theater’s first show, Seventy Scenes of Halloween. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

It’s a scene barely imaginable to 2017’s denizens of Durham’s downtown: empty buildings; empty sidewalks; sparse traffic. No baby strollers, no joggers, no dog-walkers, no sidewalk tables, no hotels or nationally-praised restaurants. Not one coffee shop. The banks were still here, and a few low-cost niche shops and storefront churches, and plenty of attorneys–and the oddballs: an artist or two; working folks who appreciated tall Budweisers with their greasy eggs at the Plaza, and others, more leisured, who preferred their Wild Irish Rose in the alleys and doorways; sweet, haunted Mr. Oscar Matthews, the shell-shocked Korean vet who made the rounds of downtown daily; and that nutty couple making an apartment over a boarded-up storefront. But there was the Bagel Dog (one of two local sources for the Sunday New York Times) and Amos and Andy’s venerable hot dog joint–and in the fall of 1987, another dog showed up, friendly and wanting to play: Manbites Dog Theater.

How did that happen?

Manbites Dog co-founder Jeff Storer had come to Durham to teach at Duke Drama, as Duke Theatre Studies was then called, but there had been a rift in their working relationship, so Storer and his partner, Ed Hunt, were looking for places and ways to make theatre outside the university. “Ed brought me out in 1984,” Storer says, “and we were defining our relationship.” Hunt says that a crucial moment in the defining period was when the pair saw a preview of Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart in the spring of 1985.

The Normal Heart,” says Hunt, “is a milestone play calling out institutions and society for not addressing what needed to be addressed.” He and Storer were hit with the realization that “theatre could be a major active voice in addressing the slow motion disaster of the AIDS epidemic.” They immediately determined to produce The Normal Heart in Durham.

To this end, they decided to create a theater and make a season and make some news.

It would be Seventy Scenes of Halloween, which Hunt calls “a really interesting playing with form,” by Jeffrey M. Jones, and a two-person character exploration, The Woolgatherer by William Mastrosimone, “bringing a new playwright” to the area, and The Normal Heart. Although they did not know at the time whether this new theater would continue beyond one season, they established from the first the kind of theatrical mix that would define Manbites for the years to come: experimental form, new writers, and passionate political activism.

“Those were the plays–then we had to find a place to do them,” says Hunt. Through a connection with the downtown artist Tim O. Walker, Hunt and Storer met developer Brian South, who owned some downtown properties, was trying to generate interest in downtown and was happy to let artists do some of that work. He let them have a former shoe store at 343 West Main for a modest rent, and the 1987-88 Manbites Dog Theater season took place there, opening with Seventy Scenes. “An odd strange play in an odd strange place,” laughs Hunt, 30 years later.

“The first season made enough of a splash that we wanted to keep going,” Hunt says. “We did our market research by doing a season–and found an ecosystem waiting to be born.”

So they planned a second season, and were ready to open its first show in space in the old D.C. May building further west on Main Street–but got an unexpected crash course in complying with City code. On what was to have been opening night, Hunt and Storer instead stood on the sidewalk to tell people they couldn’t enter. Suddenly Manbites Dog was an itinerant theater, schlepping all the gear from spot to spot, performing in the Ark at Duke, the Durham Arts Council, and other places around town, and in their third season, in a space in Brightleaf Square visually interrupted by support columns.

Around this time, Hunt and Storer found themselves both reading Larry Kramer’s 1989 Reports from the Holocaust, regarding the AIDS crisis. They began to wonder if they could just use his essay and not wait for him to write a play from it. Kramer was amenable. It would be short, a monologue delivered by actor David Ring, and they would need a “curtain-raiser.” Since this was during the 1990 Senate race during which Jesse Helms was saying terrible things  about AIDS and art on a daily basis, they decided to devise a piece entirely from Helms quotes, and have them spoken by a woman, actress Patricia Esperon. The two pieces together, along with photography by Alan Dehmer and choreography by Barbara Dickinson, became Indecent Materials, and had a two-week run.

Larry Kramer himself came to see it. “He was very complimentary,” says Hunt, adding that during Kramer’s visit, actress Esperon told Kramer, out of the blue: “you should bring it to the Public Theater.” Kramer then called the legendary Joseph Papp, the activist producer at New York’s Public Theater; Papp sent someone down for a look at the show. Hunt and Storer got home one night soon after to a message from Papp on the answering machine.

“Jeff was like a deer in the headlights,” Hunt recalls. He returned the call, and when Papp’s wife answered, Storer gave his name and said he was returning Joseph Papp’s call. Ms. Papp said “who?” and Storer was so flustered he started explaining who Joseph Papp was. “No! Who are you?” Storer crows with laughter, remembering. Once Papp got on the phone, he invited Manbites to bring Indecent Materials to the Public, slotting the show in at the beginning of his season. “I’d worshipped Papp my whole life,” says Storer. “To get a call from him was incredible.”

“The year we went to the Public,” he continues, ” was when we found out about my brother [his HIV/AIDS diagnosis]. It reinforced the idea that theater had to reflect the community. If we wanted to do something, theater was the way we could do it. It unfolded out of the necessity to define ourselves as artists and deal with what was in front of us.”

“We hadn’t met the mark to get any local or state funding, but what we did have was this letter from Joe Papp that he put in every program about this courageous North Carolina company.

“At the moment when we could have given up, that miraculous thing happened.

“Going forward was the only option.”


To be continued.

 

 

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Turn, turn, turn

And now the season is September, and “the days dwindle down.” It’s a fresh theater season–but 2017-2018 will be imbued with the sense of an ending. Manbites Dog Theater–that bold upstart, that instigator, that model of theatrical activism; the mature presenter of new theatre for the thinking class; a support system for independent art theater in Durham and the Triangle–will darken next May, at the close of its 31st season.

There is no way to overstate the size of the hole this will leave. MDT founders, artistic director Jeff Storer and managing director Ed Hunt, along with the theater’s board, plan to help fill that hole with advice and money to other theater artists from a donor-advised fund they will establish at the Triangle Community Foundation with the proceeds from selling the theater’s building in the now-fashionable Foster-Geer Street zone, in the overheated downtown Durham real estate market. It is unlikely that another theater might take its space. The Manbites organization will live on with a somewhat altered mission, but there will be no place for us to go. I won’t see you at the theater.

Yes, of course, more theater-makers will find more spaces. And some of them will be great. But they will have to go some to create the kind of welcoming meeting place for public conversation about being human that Manbites Dog made. One felt that open welcome in the rooms, even in the early itinerant years, but in the theater’s 20 years in its own space on Foster Street, it has become an important physical spot in the urban intellectual fabric, a nexus of art and politics, a crossroads of thought and emotion, and a haven for those who care about such things.

Jeff Storer and Ed Hunt have agreed to a series of interviews with me, and I will be talking with many other people involved with the theater, with the aim of writing a somewhat episodic history of Manbites Dog, its impact on the community, and it importance to various artists. These pieces will run more or less side by side with my reviews of the final season’s shows, beginning this week with the Other Voices series piece, a devised work by Summer Sisters, Bad Mothers & Neglectful Wives. If you would like to talk about some aspect of Manbites Dog Theater, please contact me through the comments section. Or buttonhole me at the theater.

This series will likely be my final project for The Five Points Star, and will be my sole focus. It has been a privilege and often a joy to review and critique visual art, theater, music and dance for various publications, including this one, but it is time to wind it down. When Manbites completes its 31st season, I will conclude my 30th year of writing about the arts, and I believe after that I’ll do some other things as the days dwindle down. Thanks for reading all this time, and stick with me a little longer. And really, you ought to go ahead and get some tickets. We’re still paving paradise and putting up parking lots, but in this particular case, we do know what we’ve got, before it is gone.

 

Aides-mémoire: MARJORIE PRIME, at Manbites Dog Theater

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Jon (Michael Brocki) with his mother-in-law Marjorie (Marcia Edmunson), who is losing her memory in Jordan Harrison’s MARJORIE PRIME, directed at Durham’s Manbites Dog Theater by Jeff Storer. Through May 13, 2017. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

Aides-mémoire, how they gain in importance as one ages. Lists proliferate; photo albums; calendar reminders; pill boxes; one’s own name taped to the mirror–and still memory goes its own strange ways, coyly hiding behind gauzy curtains; seeming to vanish, but occasionally surfacing all a-glow from lightless pools in the brain’s lacunae. Dying from the moment we are born, we repress that knowledge until we begin to forget, and the dying becomes the living as we hunt for consolation among memories, our own and those of others.

As epigraph for her new novel, The Dark Flood Rises, Margaret Drabble quotes D.H. Lawrence, from his poem, The Ship of Death, and takes her title from it.

“Piecemeal the body dies, and the timid soul

has her footing washed away, as the dark flood rises.”

So it is for Marjorie, in the thoughtful 2015 play by Jordan Harrison now at Manbites, directed with his usual empathetic acumen by Jeff Storer, who is also quite willing to prod the monsters under the bed with a sharp stick, just to see what they might do. Marjorie Prime explores the future of forgetting and remembering: artificial intelligence housed in artificial bodies, to keep us company and remind us of who we are.

Marjorie, delicately portrayed by the luminous Marcia Edmundson, is old. Her husband’s dead; she’s losing her memory and bodily control to dementia, but still wit and temper flash. Around her assisted-living living room in Sonya Leigh Drum’s spare but emotive set are placed shelf-boxes containing various aides-mémoire (a scrawl of writing–People I want to remember–taped to a tin box, and so forth). These are reminiscent of Joseph Cornell memory boxes, but they also seem like Stations of the Cross for an ordinary mortal, places to pause on the painful journey. The between-the-worlds quality of Drum’s set is augmented wonderfully by excellent lighting, projections and sound by Andrew Parks and Joseph Amodei.

But Marjorie is not alone. She has Walter Prime, her husband as he appeared in his prime, thanks to computer engineering and some Frankensteinian physical conjuring that is doubtless on the actual horizon. The Primes, as these artificial intelligences are called, can learn and process information, even to the point of drawing inferences and displaying compassion. And they’re there to help, like highly evolved Roombas. Derrick Ivey gives Walter both machine qualities and living warmth in an astounding performance in which he somehow effaces the human while displaying a range of human qualities. There’s a moment when Walter’s given a piece of terrible information and his response is so life-like that it chilled me to the core. Will science soon reproduce at will the heart’s intelligence, so hard-won through millennia of genetic selection and the body’s short experiential life?

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Derrick Ivey as Walter, the artificial intelligence in a simulacrum of Marjorie’s late husband’s body in his prime, in MARJORIE PRIME at Manbites Dog. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

Marjorie also has her daughter, Tess, played with exhausting verisimilitude by Lenore Field. Tess bustles around, plumping and straightening, griping about the staff, alternating between anger and gentleness, obsessed with everyone’s memories. As her husband Jon, Michael Brocki lowers all his shields and gives the most wonderful performance I’ve seen by him. Jon’s a loving son-in-law and patient husband who does his best to assuage everyone’s grief. Eventually he too must turn for consolation to his own AI companion. For while losing our own memories is bad enough, living to be unremembered by others is far worse.

The play hints at an even more frightening prospect. Human flesh will die and human souls pass into the unknown–but these fully-trained artificial intelligences in unliving bodies will not; and, as W.B. Yeats wrote, they will not “know that what disturbs our blood/Is but its longing for the tomb.”

O brave new world, that has such people in’t.

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Jon (Michael Brocki) lost in his memories of his late wife Tess (Lenore Field) in MARJORIE PRIME, at Manbites Dog Theater. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

I’ve rarely been so unsettled by a play. Recommended for all thinking adults. Through May 13 in bustling downtown Durham. Tickets here.

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