In the Cold New Hampshire Countryside, a Feverish Imagination

May 1, 2011

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The Chronicle Review

Robert Lawson, playwright, composer, and artist, found room for all his creative pursuits at Franklin Pierce U., in Rindge, N.H.

By Frieda Klotz

What do a former Republican president and a liberal-minded experimental-theater professor have in common? Very little, you might well think—except when one is writing a play about the other.

A short time ago, Robert Lawson, an associate professor of theater at Franklin Pierce University here, had the task of ensuring that the university's commencement ceremonies ran smoothly. Marlin Fitzwater, former press secretary to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, would attend at the behest of George J. Hagerty, then the university's president. Despite their political differences, Fitzwater and Lawson hit it off. Fitzwater asked Lawson if he cared to dramatize the fall of Communism, dwelling on the friendship that had developed between Bush Sr. and Mikhail Gorbachev. Fitzwater supplied Lawson with copious materials—diary entries, transcripts of phone calls between the two men, and records of their meetings (all now unclassified but not particularly easy to locate). After giving it some thought, Lawson agreed, and a few months later found himself in the Bush compound at Kennebunkport, driving around with the elderly statesman in a golf cart.

Of his art, Lawson says: "It's just taken me to some really very bizarre and interesting places. Why would I ever have contact with someone like that?"

Lawson's play, called Empires Fall, scheduled to have a staged reading at Ford's Theatre in Washington on May 1, deploys lines from real conversations. At one point, when the Velvet Revolution was at its height and protests raged in Prague, Bush called Gorbachev: "I hope this call finds you well, as there have been wild rumors here in Washington—and we have been concerned for your safety." Bush and Gorbachev were close, and their wives became friends. "There's no question, going through the literature, that they got along famously," Lawson says.

Although some of his own friends looked askance on his activities, Lawson remained highly committed to the project and says that it taught him a lot. A dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, he was impressed by Bush Sr., whose best action as Communism came undone, Lawson thinks, was to hold back. "He's smart, he's canny, he's articulate. He's enormously presidential. I always thought that Gorbachev was cool, but the more I researched this, the more respect I gained for both of them."

His decision to accept Fitzwater's commission shows a typical intellectual curiosity. Six-feet-one, given to wearing black sweaters and blue jeans, and with two earrings in one ear, Lawson holds an M.F.A. in music and theater from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. For several years before he entered academe, he waited tables and worked as an actor in New York (he is still a member of Actors' Equity and the Screen Actors Guild). But he decided that his memory just wasn't up to an acting career.

"I was in a show once where I literally went blank, no sense of where the scene should be," he recalls, even now giving a sigh of embarrassment. "There were two people on stage, and the person I was with panicked. We stood there for the longest time. I don't even remember how we got out of it." The deciding moment came when he realized that his favorite part ever was the title character in an operatic version of Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener": He had a single line to sing over and over ("I would prefer not to"), and spent the rest of the opera dying. Writing, he says, for him is "definitely a much, much happier place to be."

Lawson did not move directly into teaching. In the late 1980s, he set up a construction company with an artist friend, and the pair did gut renovations of industrial buildings in Chelsea, which the Gay Men's Health Crisis wanted to use as clinics (the AIDS crisis was at its height). Cash flow was sporadic, and one summer while on holiday at a friend's house in Maine, Lawson and his wife, Sally Bomer, a choreographer, realized that they were running out of money.

Bomer, like Lawson, is a Vassar graduate, and they had met a few years after college at a party in New York. By that summer in Maine, they had a 1-year-old son. From time to time, Lawson had been taking on temporary guest-artist positions in nearby colleges upstate or in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. In 1993, browsing the jobs section of Art Search, he spotted a position at Franklin Pierce, and decided to apply. He got the job, and stayed on. For several years the couple kept their apartment in New York just in case things changed, but Lawson enjoyed the work and noticed that he could be immensely creative at the New Hampshire campus.

"We all have checkered lives," he suggests as an explanation for his irregular route into academe. In some ways, Franklin Pierce is an odd match. Outside his office window spans the New Hampshire countryside, snowy and very cold in early spring. "When I look out the window and look at how much woods there are," Lawson begins, breaking off with a chuckle, "I'm not a hiker, I'm not a skier, I'm not any of those things." But, he adds, "I had complete carte blanche to do whatever I wanted, and I found that I was generating a lot of new work and ideas. I got out of the city and then I could think."

At a time when academic specialization is the norm, the colorful background of this writer, composer, artist, and actor is unusual. Yet Lawson has put his diverse experiences to use in his career as professor. Even his carpentry has come in handy. With one class last year, he constructed a wooden shed called the Camera Obscura, painted it red, and fitted it with a tiny lens (donated by his optometrist) that allowed images of life outside to refract upside-down within. It had a pedagogic function: The camera obscura was a tool said to have been used by artists like Canaletto and Vermeer to help them draw accurately. In addition, though, most of the undergraduates had never touched a hammer or a saw.

With so much time spent typing at screens, Lawson says, "I think it is important for students, and for all of us, to do things physically. To actually go out and build a set, or build a building, or make a drawing, or any of that stuff I think is enormously healthy."

"When I'm rehearsing it's physical but when I'm writing, I'm writing," he says, "spending a lot of time sitting and staring at a computer, which I love but—it goes back to the carpenter in me," he laughs. "It's really gratifying: Building my own sets, I love it, there's just nothing more enjoyable to me. It's art, craft, physical, intellectual; it's all the pieces together."

He likes to conceptualize things visually, and his office is adorned with models of projects that he is working on. A sort of 3-D conceptual scrapbook for Empires Fall sits atop a bookshelf, with the Communist sickle poking out from behind a rough replication of the set. Lawson's favorite way of working is to tack pictures and notes onto cheap paper, which he then rolls up and brings with him to show to actors, a vestige from a time when computers were still too clunky to be useful.

On the wall opposite his desk, thoughts for an opera called The Death of Don Juan unfurl across a background of brown paper. Lawson is a consultant on a new production of the opera, a cerebrally wacky piece performed by four women and a man. It blends music inspired by Pythagorean tonal systems with the Don Juan story, which mutates so as to overturn gender roles. The action takes place not in the actual world, but in Don Juan's mind, with the women functioning as projections of his imagination. A postminimalist composer named ElodieLauten wrote the music and libretto and is musical director, while Lawson's former student Henry Akona directs the staging. (Lawson was initially slated to direct the production himself, but time pressures and the poor health of both his father and Bomer's forced him to bow out.)

Lawson's calendar is as full as his mind. In addition to the Ford's Theatre reading, he wrote a play based on Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, which his students performed this past fall. Also recently, he brought two other productions to the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival: Everyone Knows Who Bombed the Bank and The Transit of Mercury Across the Face of the Sun. And there is The Death of Don Juan, which will run in Manhattan's Theater for the New City from May 5 to May 22. 

 He frequently travels abroad with his students and family. Last summer they went to Greece as part of a five-week summer school with the Hellenic American University. Franklin Pierce's former president, Hagerty, now a provost of the Hellenic American University, in Athens, invited Lawson to set up a summer institute of performance there for students. In May 2010, the group arrived just as Greece began to go through its economic meltdown, in the midst of protests and not long after the firebombing of a bank, in which three people died. The American students interviewed their Greek peers, and Lawson wove their conversations into a drama called The Known/Unknown, while Bomer did the choreography. The title, incidentally, alludes not to Donald Rumsfeld's infamous statement about known unknowns but to the anarchists thought to be behind the bombing; when the play was restaged in the United States, a new title (Everyone Knows Who Bombed the Bank) conveyed the same idea. A similar trip to Athens is likely again this year. 

 Lawson's inspiration comes from art and architecture as much as theater. He loves the Dada movement and Man Ray and describes himself as "a Bauhaus junkie." But his single biggest influence is the avant-garde experimental dramatist Robert Wilson. As a graduate student he saw a production of Wilson's Einstein on the Beach at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that, he says, forever altered his view of what theater could be. "We walked in the back of the house and there was a conch shell on stage—a gorgeous conch shell in light," he says. "Then there were these two women, and they were brushing their teeth and they were singing and talking. It was just like walking into a dream. But—it's five hours long with no breaks and you just sit there. I remember leaving that and thinking: Anything is possible. You can do anything if it makes sense, if there's a logic to it."

Since then, experimentation and openness have been central to his work. In an essay "On Process," which he published in the Austrian magazine Freigeist two years ago, Lawson wrote about a need to allow thoughts to drift into uncertainty before they become durable. Often this means that the different elements of a production come together in the last moments before a deadline.

"Sometimes," he wrote, "I find myself with actors, designers, and others who are staring at me, waiting for some definition to the project at hand." A certain faith is needed, that things will work out. "If the ideas are strong and we let them develop clearly and we get everything out there and wrestle with it in a clear fashion, it will eventually take care of itself and it will get to a point where it finds its feet," he tells me. "If you're really investigating it and really spending time with it, then you know it."

The students I spoke to described Lawson's open-ended style as student-focused rather than professor-focused, and they raved about how responsive he is to their ideas. "He builds a whole environment of trust," said Peter Strand, who played the lead character, Edmond, in The Transit of Mercury Across the Face of the Sun. "You know you can say something to him and you won't just be shot down."

In dramatic productions, his method bears an element of risk, Lawson admits, but says he would prefer actors to hold a script on stage than to perform something that is not conceptually honest. Referring to a current critical and commercial debacle on Broadway, he says: "Look at the craziness of something like Spider-Man.Here's people—they're all smart, they're all talented, they've got an enormous amount of money. And they've been walking around naked on stage for the last x number of months with a show that's a disaster. They know their lines, but they're not making work that's worth anything."

On the polar opposite end of the universe from Spider-Man is The Transit of Mercury Across the Face of the Sun. The title comes from a line in The History of Astronomy: A Very Short Introduction, which Lawson discovered while browsing in an English-language bookshop in Austria. The idea, though, came from his wife, whose father has Parkinson's and was losing his memory. It was one of several occasions on which they have combined their talents. Along with choreography, Bomer contributed ideas for the program, and the results are eye-catching. A stark red door fills one page, while another gives a dictionary definition of an imaginary illness. A third bears a dramatic scribble in capitals: "DON'T FORGET ME."

The titular phrase has a practical and metaphorical connection with the play's subject matter. The protagonist Edmond's grandfather was an amateur astronomer, whose claim to fame was that he had tracked the transit of Mercury across the face of the sun in the 1960s. "Mercury against the sun is virtually invisible. It's the tiniest speck of a dot," Lawson says. "Part of what we were looking at was the way memory disappears and is absorbed by existence."

The emotive subject matter affected everyone involved. Lawson's students, over lunch in the cafeteria at Franklin Pierce, described how they sat around the table for hours at a time discussing the concept behind The Transit of Mercury, which changed so much that the central character, an old man at the start, was a young man by performance time. For one college senior, Erica Hill, the play was an emotional experience because her grandmother was suffering from dementia.

"We would go home and cry and have nightmares, and it forced you to think about things that would never come into your heads," Hill said. "I don't consider myself an intellectual, dealing with heavy stuff. But this play was about memory, and it forced me to think about what my grandmother was going through, and it made me think, maybe it's not a bad thing."

In New York, I attended an early rehearsal for The Death of Don Juan and saw Lawson adopt much the same attitude as he does toward his students. With square white-framed spectacles, and his trademark blue jeans and black sweater, he looked entirely at home in the East Village. He unrolled the sheets of brown paper on the floor, and—a natural storyteller—took the singers through his previous staging of the opera and the reasons why he devised the current conception: a 1920s Weimar aesthetic, with some cross-dressing and Marlene Dietrich-style fashions, which would hold the complicated elements of the abstract, minimalist piece together. When he told the cast, "I'm not didactic about any of this stuff, everything is fungible," they began to relax and offer suggestions.

Said a dark-haired soprano: "I dig it."  

Frieda Klotz is an Irish-born critic and journalist in New York City. She taught Greek literature and philosophy at King's College London and is one of the authors working on a book on the ancient philosopher Plutarch for Oxford University Press.