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  • Loren Niemi

The Summer of '81


On this day after the Summer Solstice, I have been thinking about summer’s past: the summer of ’71 when I was one of six guys working at the girls summer camp or the summer of ’01 when Tim Herwig and I went to meet Jean Armstrong in Montreal for the Jazz Festival come to mind with the stories that go with such misadventures. There are so many summers and so many stories.


But the one that is commanding my attention is the summer of ’81. The summer of “The Gathering” at Gustavus Adolphus college in St. Peter, MN. Billed as a gathering of radical theaters and artists, it brought together the likes of A Traveling Jewish Theatre and the Provisional Theatre from Los Angeles, Word of Mouth Productions from Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, The Talking Band and National Black Theatre from NYC, Otrabanda from New Orleans, and a quartet from Minneapolis: At the Foot of the Mountain, CLIMB, In the Heart of the Beast and the Palace Theatre. Hosting it was Cherry Creek Theatre in the personas of David Olson and Jack Sherman as the producing entity for this uniquely energizing week.


In the course of the week, I had long and wide-ranging conversations with poets and writers - Meridel Le Sueur, Carol Bly, Tom McGrath, Joe Paddock, Harry Boyte – at picnic tables, between performances, and in cheap beer bars that lined Main street. It was in a conversation with Sandy Spieler that the seeds for my working with HOBT’s “Circle of Water Circus” were planted and there that I first met Sharon Grady, who I would tour “Why Romance is Impossible” with through five states in 1982. It was there that I met Karen McCall, who was working design/photography with Cherry Creek Theatre and would in turn be my editor for the column I subsequently wrote for Theater Work Journal and of late designed and keeps my (www.lorenNiemistories.com) functional.


It was there that I marked the death of the “Holy Fool” Ken Feit, one of my storytelling mentors, who was killed in an automobile accident on his way there. His death shifted the experience for many and especially for me. I’ll circle back to that in a bit


I have to pause here. What I just wrote are historical facts and while I feel like I should same something about the performances, the workshops, etc. what I am caught in at this moment are images and feelings. The dominate one is heat. An oppressive heat in the performance spaces, sweat dripping off audiences sitting shoulder to shoulder in the dark, sweat pouring off actors under the lights. It was hot in the dorms, in the classrooms, on the street, even in the shade of the mature trees in the city park that years later would be felled by a passing tornado. If I were to choose a word for it, the heat was “simmering” a stew of ideas and relationships.


Those who were there were genuinely willing to suffer that heat because the meeting and greeting, the sharing of ideas and passion felt so fortunate and so “right”. We were the right people in the right place to bear witness to the beauty and power of art to, as they say, “speak truth to power”.


Of course, many of us were young and idealistic. We wanted to make a different kind of theater, centered in the lives of working people, poor people, marginalized people. A theater that was not Broadway or Hollywood. A storytelling that would give voice to those without access, to say those stories mattered as well. And if at all possible, to make that work beautiful.


Forty years later, the work remains but so many of the workers have passed from the scene. Meridel Le Sueur has passed through the veil, as has Carol Bly, Tom McGrath. At the Foot of the Mountain, and the Palace Theatre have exited the stage. What we know of their art and politics is what has been printed or filmed or handed down as apocryphal stories and metaphorical fables. How often can I encourage those who do not know their art, to take time to seek it out? What was true then, is for many, true now and the clarity with which they spoke to the human condition is worth the discovery.


Those of us who are still here are gray. David O’Fallon, who was there, is more or less retired. The same for Sandy Spieler, Deena Metzger, Jim Stowell, Martha Boesing. Marylin Habermas- Scher was there and became a Zen priest as well as a dancer/vocal coach. Larry Long was there and seems to still be going strong with his particular mix of music and politics. Perhaps the passion is still here but I for one, am happy to hand some of the tasks of making and performing off to a younger generation. Let them wave the banners of Gay or Trans rights, BLM, Antifa, or stopping line 3. Let them make art that that speaks of and to their lives.


There was a memorial service for Ken inserted into the schedule. Some people knew him, others did not. There was an effort to say something about his life though what could you say? Born in Chicago, he became a Jesuit priest, a storyteller and in his own words, a “Holy Fool”. Not much was said about the first, and I don’t remember what was said about the second and third but what I do remember is that during the assembly a bat came swooping in and circled the stage three times. Those of us who knew him, said that was just the kind of appearance he would want to make. To arrive unannounced in a form that many would see as unlovable, and after acknowledging us, disappear again.


For myself, that memorial was an acknowledgement that whatever he might teach and I might learn in life, was done. No more conversations about what books gave us pleasure, or the relationship of the gospels to good storytelling. No more the constant introductions of our ilk or the suggestions of connections to be made and experiences to be shared as when he had said to me, that I should spend some time with Hollis Payer. I did and still recognize the spark of insight and shared values whenever we meet again. Without Ken, I doubt that Hollis and I would have ever driven cross-country or slept on the Opera House floor at the Mineral Point Storytelling Festival.


I suppose after this Pandemic year there are people who might feel that they’re glad I’m still here to offer some insight and compassionate listening, but are steeling themselves for the moment they learn of my passing from the scene. I have certainly thought about it. I’ve thought a lot in the last year about what I might yet be able to teach or perform. About who I have or can introduce to whom, saying, here is someone you will be all the better for knowing. About how much touring I can still do, how much risk I am willing or able to take and who is the community I serve. As Ken was a catalyst for my storytelling, I hope that I might be, or may yet be, that for others.


Has this become a melancholy drift in the river of time? Perhaps.


Here’s the thing of it. In 1981, I was four years into calling myself a storyteller, and went to the Gathering with my friend Brian Branagan as much out of curiosity as intention. It is in retrospect that I can see how many threads of what would be my performing life began or were affirmed there. The Gathering came in the middle of the year-long residency in Northern Minnesota and proceeded writing about theater and performance. It was the start of the two years of working with Sharon Grady, and the two years become thirty-three of association with In the Heart of the Beast and the twenty-five of Bad Jazz with Kevin Kling and Michael Sommers that would not have been likely without the Circus which itself would not have been likely without the Gathering.


The pandemic year was a kind of stasis in which so much that I love and long for was simply not available. One day or another, it would be easy to ask how do you measure time as you shelter in place? Yet, we are not outside of time nor memory nor intention. Living in the now with an attitude of gratitude is not without an acknowledgement of, as they say, “what a long strange trip it’s been.” If the world is a wobble, if the seasons proceed from one now to the next, I am thankful to have this moment to remember that this now is the blessing of then.


So, I offer a blessing to you. Be well. Be open to the now and to all that will proceed from this long day.