In the last few weeks, two people died who were very important to me.
Agnes Wilcox was the founder of Prison Performing Arts, a multi-discipline, literacy and performing arts program that serves incarcerated adults and children in Missouri. Before she started PPA, she ran TNT: The New Theatre in St. Louis. TNT’s project to create a play about the inner-city Soulard neighborhood was my first playwriting gig. (I started out as a poet.) Agnes directed, dramaturged, shepherded that show, and the process made me fall in love with the collaborative trip of theatre.
I remember Agnes describing a rehearsal of Hamlet with incarcerated actors. They asked if they could rap as part of the play. She said, “Yes, as long as you use words from the text.” So they developed a rap around “HAIL! The KING! ALL HAIL! The KING!” Collaboration at its best. Agnes knew how to engineer it.
Sean Grathwol was a playwright, actor and director in Minneapolis, and before that, San Francisco. He was the most wide-ranging reader I ever knew. He introduced me to Rose Macaulay and Natalie Zemon Davis. He could cite anyone from Thomas Aquinas to Tina Howe, but he appreciated more than just the big guns. For example, I remember him illustrating a point by describing a farcical Nativity play which I doubt is part of anyone’s canon. Sean was a key member of a writing group I belonged to for many years, and he directed the first play I ever produced.
He was fond of an observation he credited to Bill Clinton: “People like the people they help.” If that’s true, Sean must have liked countless people. Only now that he’s gone have I learned from Matthew A. Everett’s tribute to him exactly how crucial he was to that writing group. In his day job, he was a manager, and I remember him telling me when I was first made a supervisor, “Of course you know you always do what you can to get the best outcomes for your people.” (In saying “Of course you know,” he was being gracious. He knew I didn’t know.)
I owe both Agnes and Sean a lot. Among other things, each of them, at different times, picked me up and put me back on my feet after some pretty humbling artistic failures. I called on Agnes after a failed production and, though overscheduled and sleep-deprived, she made time to have dinner with me and let me pick her brain for hours. Theatre Unbound was very new back then, and I remember her helping me sort out the doable from the not-so-doable. When I would mention wishing for one or another of those not-so-doable things, she would say, cheerfully, “In your dreams!” Her voice, her cheer and her realism were exactly what I needed.
Sean asked me out for lunch once after a script I presented in writing group bombed. He gently probed into the events and feelings that had driven me to write the script. When talking about some of those things brought me close to tears, he tactfully decided it was time for us to leave the restaurant and take a walk around the block. (Tactful is a very Sean word – it describes him, and was also one of his terms of praise for writing that he felt conveyed hard truths in ways that didn’t cause trauma.) He listened and advised. He made me laugh.
Agnes Wilcox died August 29th while on vacation in Canada. She was 70. Sean Grathwol died in his sleep on September 5th. He was 58. In lieu of flowers, let’s take care of our people the way they did, how about.