I jumped the tracks hooking up with Conrad Bishop, and I didn’t know what I was doing. He wasn’t like others I’d fallen for, and I knew he had a dark surreal streak that I might never understand. Our first theatre work together was a violent nearly wordless murder scene from Woyzeck, and I knew it was powerfully disturbing even before the class responded. Yes, he read lush poetry to me, but there was an edgy undercurrent in what he drew and in the pencil-written letters scribbled during our first time apart when he went home from Northwestern. I said yes in a heartbeat when he proposed making love: “I’d like us to be together. Would you like that?” We plighted our troth in the back seat of an old Chrysler on the cold November streets of Evanston, and both knew immediately that this was permanent. In the words of the song, “The road goes on forever and the party never ends.”
His career became my career, and I didn’t have to give anything up. I wanted to be in theatre, and he was theatre for me. We worked as a team to achieve his goal, a Stanford Ph.D. and a college faculty career. The first job in South Carolina was a hinky byway, but the second one in Milwaukee, the Fine Arts School of UWM, was solid. So it was amazing how easily we became outlaws. The after-hours theatre group we helped spawn, Theatre X, became significant for its theatrical rule-breaking and we found ourselves out on the street. We didn’t look for another job.
Our off-the-map theatre company had a good thirty-five years. After the first five, things had shifted and we splintered off on our own to make the work that was ours to make, work that could only grow in our own hands. We’d sweated and gritted our teeth for the Ph.D., left it on the shelf when Theatre X got us pregnant out of academic wedlock, wept when we decided to leave, and knew we’d find our own way to keep going.
It was weird to be nomadic outsiders expecting to support ourselves and two little kids with what we could write, book, and perform as a duo. Fame and wealth never happened, but that wasn’t what we were chasing. You don’t get that in community centers, little theatres, prisons, high schools, and social service agencies; what we did get was performing face-to-face for real humans, without benefit of stage makeup or nifty lighting, and seeing in real time how it mattered to them. We made a life in theatre and made a living in theatre.
Suddenly the kids were on their own, I was sixty and it was time to break the rules again. We moved across the country, losing all the grant support and funding we’d worked so hard to achieve in Pennsylvania, but we had the nearby ocean and a miracle gave us a house we could buy. I’d been dreaming of California since we left in 1963: now we had our home. What we did not have was the touring network we’d built in the eastern half of the country and we learned the hard way that we couldn’t build one again from scratch. We stayed in Sebastopol and sent our storytelling on the road via radio, recording and producing Hitchhiking Off the Map in our home studio for three and a half years. Then we took a deep breath, started touring again, and made the best work of our lives. It hit the peak with Shakespeare’s sprawling masterpiece embodied by two humans and two bins of puppets—King Lear in a hundred tumultuous minutes.
Now we’ve drawn a new map and found a new way to be. Authors. Words on paper. Books. Eight of them between covers, two more in the immediate pipeline. We’ve seen our 80th birthdays come and go and have more or less absorbed the pain of leaving live performing. But it ain’t over till it’s over. Even if Covid took us off the road, the party hasn’t ended yet.