I’m not in South Carolina any more.
I just finished a memoir draft revision of the chapter that chronicled 1966-68, our two years in Columbia, South Carolina, and celebrated again in memory the day when we crossed the state line en route to Milwaukee. Poor Columbia, it had the bad luck to have come right after three years in California, and I came in with a chip on my shoulder. Actually, a load of railroad ties. Many years later I came to understand the South much better and still have great fondness, but those two years—damn, they were weird.
It was the first life-experience after the seven years of unremitting labor that was Conrad’s chug toward the Ph.D. that would launch him into the real life of his academic career. Boom, goes the cannon, and then you land in Columbia. No theatre department there, just one man in the English department that directed plays and taught some acting classes. Now there was a second man.
It was a yeasty two years. We had a cadre of students who were nuts and fearless, who took the very strange stuff we gave them and helped create some of the most powerful and memorable theatre we’ve ever made. Nobody in Columbia gave an eff about plays unless they came from the community theatre, so we didn’t have an audience base to worry about. We weren’t much older than our student actors and we all hung out together in a local bar-cafe that had an underground room lined with aluminum foil. Drinking pitchers of beer inside a baked potato while singing blues and folk songs is a bonding experience.
It started on an agreeably rowdy basis with The Beggar’s Opera, a huge cast of street low-life performing the play that was later the model for The Threepenny Opera. I wrote catchy ditties that people could learn easily and we all had a ball. Next up was a grotesque 180, Woyzeck. The cast came along with us on a demented carnival ride of military abuse and dehumanization, and given what the US was doing in 1967, it wasn’t an abstraction. The next year was Hecuba, victorious Greeks and captive Trojan women all sweating out being marooned on a hot rocky island when the winds won’t blow. An acid reflection on our Asian war.
This was Columbia, South Carolina, and our chorus of slave women were clad in body stockings painted to make them more naked than naked. They wore heavy collars on their necks and were chained together in a line. The Greek soldiers wore armor fashioned from romex and fender-mender to put their ribcages on the outside. It was grotesque, surreal, and effective. Nobody said, “You can’t do that.”
I was overjoyed to leave, to get back to grocery stores that sold fresh produce, to buy cheap table wine that wasn’t Mogen David, to be in a city that showed foreign movies and a climate that didn’t grow moss on my dining room table. But what had been given to us was something we weren’t leaving. It was an experience of working, even if in a bubble, with people who would take risks, say damn the torpedoes, and make art.