In early May I went on a whirlwind trip to upstate New York to see our dear friend and theatre-partner Camilla Schade before she passed through the veil. It was to have been a family visit, Johanna was planning to fly in from Italy (Eli and Meg had been able to go to Lancaster the week before, to see her cancer-memoir-reading, Bones). But we got word that our planned visit would likely be too late, so I canceled and rescheduled myself solo. It was a hard trip but a luminous visit.
Passed through the veil. That’s pastel and poetic. The brutal truth is that she died of cancer, and the dying was hard work. She was embraced and supported by her husband and her sister, and there was a gentle and capable hospice nurse. But it was hard work.
This past weekend Conrad and I took another whirlwind trip, a five-hour drive to Blue Lake (near Arcata, which is near Eureka), to see Going Down in Flames for its final performance. Then we drove home the next day. Camilla had been a force of nature, a gifted comic actress. Our friend Joan Schirle of the Dell’Arte company is another force of nature, a gifted clown/actress, and her lead role in Going Down in Flames was embodying another force of nature, Joan Mankin.
Joan Mankin had a long career in the Bay Area as theatrical actress and over-the-top clown with the Pickle Family, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and every major theatre in the area. She co-created many works with the Dell’Arte company over the years. A no-holds-barred redhead, Mankin took off her clothes when she felt like it, and took a sly delight in al-fresco peeing. In other words, it was difficult to grok when she started really going over the top.
Mankin had been collaborating with her brother Danny on a play about a clown getting dementia, a project they started in 2010. Much of that early work is present as scenes in Going Down in Flames. After a few years, fiction became fact: Joan Mankin was diagnosed with Frontal Temporal Dementia, and she died in 2015. After years of grieving, Danny said, “It’s time. Let’s do this.” The play was developed in Portland, performed there, and then did a weekend’s run at the Mad River Festival in Blue Lake. We had to be there.
Any death rocks the world of the loved ones. But when the loss is of a soul whose life is writ large, like Robin Williams or Prince or Joan Mankin, it’s a tsunami. Joan Schirle opened her gates and let Joan Mankin come in to play, and we were all blessed with tears and laughter.