Tuesday, June 12, 2007

remembering Lee Nagrin

I received a startling (though not an un expect able) email yesterday --
Dear David

Sorry to inform you by email -- Lee passed way on Friday 7th June -- it was peaceful.
I had learned of Lee's late carcinoma diagnosis some couple months ago (when phoning NYC from Bhopal to touch base with her). Lee was, in my view, among New York City's best kept secrets: a deep-thinking/feeling theatre artist, extraordinarily innovative and creative, exceptionally patient, persistent, idealistic, gifted with a myriad fine qualities. Her work was only seen in New York, never elsewhere. It was known primarily to relatively small circles among the performing arts avant-garde, on whom it exerted (if one may so generalize) a strong impression. Statistics and numbers are illusory. The influence of such a formidable artist (no matter how hidden from view of our day's ephemeral mass culture) can be both profound and long-lasting.

Theatre Mania (an online news & reviews conduit) carried this obituary:
Playwright Lee Nagrin Dies at 78
By: Brian Scott Lipton

Playwright Lee Nagrin, whose new work Behind the Lid will debut in New York City next week, succumbed to complications from advanced colon cancer this morning in New York City. She was 78.

In addition to being a playwright, Nagrin, who was originally from Seattle, was a visual artist, performer, singer, choreographer, and director. She moved to New York in 1950 and was instrumental in the development of several Off-Broadway theaters, including the Sullivan Street Playhouse, the Bridge Theatre, and the Downtown Theatre. She produced, directed and/or performed in 10 Off-Broadway productions between 1950 and 1963.

From 1971 to 1981, Nagrin was a member of Meredith Monk's company, The House, with whom she developed and performed in a number of works. In 1979, she formed her own company, The Sky Fish Ensemble. Her 1986 work Bird/Bear won an Obie Award for Best New American Play. Over the years, her work was also seen at such venues as La MaMa, the 92nd Street Y, St. Mark's Church, and the Silver Whale Gallery, where Behind the Lid will have a 12-performance run beginning on June 12.

Nagrin is survived by her longtime companion, Bruce Hutchinson. A memorial service will be held at a later date.
That was published on June 7. This evening, Mary-Clare McKenna -- Lee's tireless documentarian (who ventured to New York from her native England a couple years ago, with the aim -- now in process of being well realized -- of helping Lee organize the record of her artistic work) -- sent this note:
I will let you know about plans for a memorial.

Lee's play Behind The Lid it went up on her birthday June 3 and it runs till the end of the month. So I am thrilled [she] and Basil got to make that happen. It felt like a miracle.
One could say that all of Lee's theatre works felt like a miracle. But this would seem particularly so. Wonderful that she was able to have this work see the light of day.

One looks forward -- in the ripeness of time -- to enjoying the book that Mary-Clare has been preparing.

Behind the Lid is slated to be performed through June 28th. Those in the area are cordially encouraged to go and enjoy it. Wish I could see it myself -- but I remain in India some days into July.

Then I fly to China . . .


Other articles & obits --

from Playbill, Robert Simonson, Lee Nagrin, Trailblazing Downtown Artist, Dies at 78 (June 8, 2007)

from Variety (under their unique "legit" rubric), Lee Nagrin, performance artist, 78: Director part of Off-Broadway scene for decades (June 7, 2007)

from BroadwayWorld.com, Performance and Multimedia Artist Lee Nagrin Dies at 78 (June 7, 2008)

from United Press International (under "Newstrack - Entertainment" rubric), Lee Nagrin, off-Broadway influence, dies (June 8, 2007)

/ / / / /

Reading thru yet another such obit -- Andrew Salomon's, from BackStage.com -- the words "Nagrin grew up in Seattle" triggers a recollection. I think it was around 2000 that Lee sent me -- or was going to send me -- on a mission to Seattle. I was anyway going there to visit my brother Larry (who later moved down to Santa Cruz, but had been then living in Seattle since many years). There was an incredible legal wrangle about some family land. This somehow involved the death of Lee's brother -- an event that lies near the center of her remarkable production, The Valley of Iao, seen at LaMama (I think in 2000). But what exactly was the mission? Memory is surprisingly vague -- I suppose I was to meet with a lawyer and give him some documents? Or hire a local lawyer for her? Or . . . Perhaps this got worked out in other ways. It's odd I cannot recall what in fact happened!

I shot, on video, Lee's The Valley of Iao, for more than a dozen performances -- sometimes one camera, sometimes there were two cameras, once or twice we had three. The mass of video footage was more than I was able to get organized, editing-wise; the project lay on the shelf for some years. At last, Lee connected with Dana Duke, a good video editor in upstate New York (where she was living part of the time). I was delighted -- when speaking with Mary-Clare some weeks ago -- to learn that the edit was brought fully to completion by Dana.

Among my US errands (later this summer) is retrieving (from New York) the digital deck that I lent Dana for this editing work. I recall some of that footage (a fair bit of which I showed to Lee in her East Bleeker Street studio) warmly, and look forward to reviewing the edited play-on-camera at some future time. Besides The Valley of Iao, Lee and Mary-Clare and Dana evidently managed to get into edited form many other video documentations of her productions.

Back when I was shooting The Valley of Iao at LaMama (in downtown New York), I was living in Washington, DC, and working fulltime (word processor in a law firm). I would travel to NYC each weekend for a few days. I also recall once having stupidly left my video camera in a taxi. The cab driver kindly came backa nd found me, and the work went on.


Also from BroadwayWorld.com, Nagrin and Twist's Dream Play Behind the Lid Begins 6/3 (published May 14, 2007)


Ah, but I think I recall a bit more about the Seattle lawyer thing. Maybe I had been encouraging Lee to get a lawyer in Seattle, or she had been thinking to do so. I did meet with one lawyer -- though the upshot of that, remains vague in recollection . . .

/ / / / /

The New Yorker Magazine online includes this notice among current theatre listings:

A new play written by Lee Nagrin and the puppeteer Basil Twist, about a woman in her seventies who travels through her dreams, featuring puppetry by Twist. Opens June 3. (Silver Whale Gallery, 21 Bleecker St. 212-868-4444.)


my elegaic poem
Bleeker Street has lost a dragon

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