BEING THE IMAGINABLE
RUTH MALECZECH: A tribute

When iconic actress, director, and Mabou Mines co-founder Ruth Maleczech passed away last month, she left an expansive legacy of fierce artistic expression. Some fellow artists have spent a lifetime in her company, some have only witnessed her work from the outside, but for each of the contributors to this tribute, she was a touchstone—a living beacon leading onward by way of her fearless creative spirit, sharp insight (and tongue), and her many gifts of time, talent, and mentorship to fellow artists. Here are a few remembrances in honor of Ruth, the great monarch maven of the “avant-theatre.”

 

Joe Stackell

“This is the closest to my natural color,” Ruth would insist. When I met her, just shy of 35 years ago, her hair had yet to transmute into the “natural,” neon-henna shade that would become her trademark. Those flaming locks were an announcement, visible from blocks away; they made her larger than life (though she stood barely five feet). They said: An icon is approaching and “I am outside of the box.”

Little did I imagine at 16 (okay, I was 24), that she would shape my entire adult life. It was her directorial debut: Vanishing Pictures (1980). I found myself working on it by coincidence—through a friend of a friend. It was still the New York that Patti Smith evoked in Just Kids—full of possibilities. Ruth won an OBIE for design, “shared,” she would repeat emphatically, “with Julie Archer,” her beloved colleague.

A few years later, she left her 13-year-old daughter, Clove, in my care while she went on tour. She left her eight-year-old son, Lute, with Ron Vawter. Such were her parenting practices. They, like most everything in Ruth’s life, required a leap of faith. Clove and I spent nights dancing at the Pyramid Club—her faith was not entirely well-placed. However, that would not be the last time she trusted me for that purpose. She was big on second chances.

"Hajj" 1984 photo: Georgina Bedrosian

What I know about her work: She believed in the paradigm of the suffering, starving artist. She loved discourse—loved language, period. She was disciplined and professional. She always wanted to be an actor. She wanted to play Lear and Marie Curie—got to play both. She had the conceptual gift to be entirely in a part, in the moment, while simultaneously creating form like a sculptor. She liked to make choices at the last possible moment—liked chaos. During one run she said to me, “I have to go home now and write down all the smart things this character would say in between the lines I say on stage.” She championed and actualized the work of Lee Breuer better than anyone else.

A mass of contradictions: “Ruth is like a box of chocolates, you never know which Ruth you’ll get”—to quote a friend, said sans malice. When times were bad, her M.O. would be denial. Step two was revising history. No matter how awful, it became wonderful. Repeated twice, it became fact. She could be Madame Mao plotting, turn on a dime—whammo—Marjorie Morningstar. Ruth was rarely a bore.

No more than 500 words, damn! Facts: “A stoli martini with a triple olive,” her drink of choice. She traveled to six of the seven continents and tried to get to Antarctica. She loved her kids, Lee, and her work—not necessarily in that order. She had no “faith,” or so she said. She wholly created her uncompromising, unbelievable life through brains, talent, and will.

I think I will miss most her laugh. Like everything about Ruth, it was entirely, fantastically, unforgettably unique.



Joe Stackell has worked, in many and various capacities, for Mabou Mines for over 30 years. He is currently the General Manager.

 

 

Melanie Joseph

Thinking about Ruth today—on a train to Bard and thinking a lot about her. I wrote something to her children Clove and Lute about 12 hours after she died. I want to share it again today:

Before I even had a name for the Foundry, Ruth told me what to do. She sat down with me outside at some restaurant in the East Village in early fall 1993, and we smoked cigarettes and drank warm mugs of somethings. And I told her about W. David Hancock and his Convention of Cartography and that I wanted to do it in an airstream trailer and start a theater company where we could make theater like that—not knowing exactly what theater is but recognizing it when it arrives and sharing the amazement of recognition with people. And I talked with her about the “business,” about my yearning to be part of a theater company that wasn’t in the “business” of theater. She was already living what I was imagining. She was the only working artist I knew back then as fiercely committed to art as to its making—who produced like an artist with a criminal mind. And she told me it would be hard but I should do it, and for years she told me how it could be done. You’ve always been a touchstone in my pocket, Ruth. I will love you forever for being the imaginable.

Headshot photo: Tom LeGoff




Melanie Joseph
is the founder and artistic producer of the Foundry Theatre.

 

 

Theodora Skipitares

In summer of 2009, after Ruth had been at St. Vincent’s Hospital for a few weeks, Cathy Shaw and I starting going to visit her at home on weekend nights. The evenings centered around food that we made and brought. We always tried to bring Ruth’s favorite wine, Pouilly Fuisse. Soon after, Black-Eyed Susan started coming; she told great stories about her life with Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous and about the NY theater scene in the late ’60s and early ’70s, before I really got to the East Village. Ruth talked about the period of time in the late ’60s when she and Lee lived in Paris. Gradually, more of Ruth’s close friends started coming: Karen and Paul Kandel, Sharon Fogarty, Julie Archer, Ching Valdes, Rob Besserer, Greg Mehrten, Joe Stackell, and more. Ruth was always great at naming things—she decided these evenings should be called “S’lons.” At some point, the S’lons moved out of Ruth’s apartment and took place at my loft. Once, they took place at the Kandels’ apartment, and once at Hanne Tierney’s loft. Hanne’s was probably the biggest.

As I look back on them, I remember that people were usually engaged in one big conversation at a time, and that Ruth was the reigning queen of the evening. As the guest list grew, the events were characterized by lots of good food, and lots of small conversations in different parts of the space. I remember the last S’lon—it was on October 16, 2011, a Sunday night. The guests were Black-Eyed Susan, Karen and Paul Kandel, Cathy Shaw, Bill Raymond and Linda Hartinian, Andrea Balis, a historian; Erica Bilder, a theater director and writer visiting from Amsterdam; John Rasko, a stem cell researcher from Australia; David Gilden, a medical writer; and myself. Ruth was the center of the evening, even though she was sitting in one corner of the space. Each person spent some time coming to Ruth, nuzzling up to her or paying tribute. Erica remembers spending a lot of time with Ruth talking about Moliére’s Imaginary Invalid and telling her about a researcher who had foundthe original Charpentier score in a Paris archive.

That night, people were engaged in many small conversations. Occupy Wall Street had made a big impact in Manhattan then, especially the day before, on October 15, which was Occupy Banks Day. The small conversations broke up when Bill Raymond took center stage and re-enacted his and Linda’s being taken hostage at a nearby Chase ATM by police and Occupiers. It was a full-out performance that expanded and got funnier by the minute.

I’m not sure why we never met after that night. We certainly tried. All I know is that the S’lon was Ruth’s invention, there were at least 10 of them, and I am privileged to have been there.



Theodora Skipitares is a visual artist, playwright, and theater director based in New York. Her work is currently on view at the Whitney Museum in a show called Rituals of Rented Island.

 

 

Mallory Catlett

Ruth Maleczech is very much with me these days. I am currently in the final stretch of finishing a piece that I started at the Mabou Mines/Suite residency in 2009. My project, This Was The End, got back-to-back residencies, which meant about 12 months on and off over two years of work in that great studio. And Ruth was around for much of it. In all my years in various residency programs, I had never experienced someone so skilled at giving artist feedback. Simply astounding. She had this way of being simultaneously brutal and charming. She would often use some seemingly tangential but amazing story to get you going, thinking. Ruth was encouraging because she could see to the root of a problem. She would praise the admirable thing in your work that you needed to get over and out of. “Kiss it goodbye!” it seemed she was saying, without ever having to. There was no getting around her observations. Since leaving Mabou they have been a prodding force in my thinking and working. She encouraged me to premiere the piece at the Chocolate Factory, where it will open next February. The company allowed me to take out a wall of their studio in the PS122 building before the renovations, and it has now been reconstructed as a 16 by 4-feet free-standing wall unit that is a centerpiece of the performance. There is no getting around that SMOKING PERMITTED sign on that old schoolroom sliding door. I think of her often as the money is tight and the pressure of production is mounting. She always seemed unflinching about this stuff, like nothing could stop her when it came to making theater. I’m not sure if this was true, but it’s helpful to think so. I would have liked for her to have seen this piece finished, but I would never question her motives. I knew there would be time without Ruth and I feel lucky to have seen her perform in her later years, but oh Ruth, how I do miss you.



Mallory Catlett is a director and dramaturg of performance across disciplines, who works with a handful of theatrical entities that include: Banana Bag & Bodice, Aaron Landsman and Jim Findlay (City Council Meeting), and Restless NYC.

 

 

Karen Houppert

I have seen Ruth Maleczech play a dog (An Epidog, 1995); a cow (Summa Dramatica, 2009); a pig (Mother,1994); an ant (MahabharANTa, 1992); a loving daughter (James Joyce’s in Cara Lucia,2003); a vengeful mother (Red Beads, 2005); a butcher’s wife (Through the Leaves, 1984); a cave-dweller’s wife (Happy Days, 1996); a bodega owner’s wife (Law and Order, 2003); and many other roles over the past few decades. In fact, I have made it a point to see every play and film she has ever been in since I first saw her on the stage.

That’s because, when I first saw her perform in Through the Leaves at the Public in 1990, I could tell I was in the presence of genius (an odd fact they forgot to mention in her New York Times obit last week). I am not much given to superlatives—as a cynic and journalism professor, I am always warning my students against them—but here, I make an exception. Ruth is the best actor I have ever seen perform on the New York stage.

And the funny thing is, I could never get to the bottom of this. Over the years, I got to be friends with her and occasionally I’d ask her about her acting; I was curious, how did she reach into her soul and pull out these performances? But as quick as she was to identify the moments of flight and, with her sharp tongue, the flaws in others’ acting, she was remarkably inarticulate and cagey about her own working methods. “Oh, you know,” she’d say, and wave her cigarette and take another sip of wine. “I just get out there and do it.”

I couldn’t tell if she was being self-deprecating, disingenuous, evasive, or was simply bored by yet another acolyte trying to plumb her depths for some simple key to artistic virtuosity. The answers she’d give depended on what role she was playing that night, which Ruth she was being. (Once, after I’d known her for 10 years—and even worked for Mabou Mines as a company manager during a fallow period of writing in the ’90s—I sat down to interview her for an American Theatre article, and she began the conversation by carefully spelling her last name for me; what role was she playing then?)

As Lear in "Mabou Mines Lear" 1990 photo: Sylvia Plachy

I suppose it was a kind of game we played. I would circle around the question and she would dance away. I got different answers each time, depending on her mood. Studying with Grotowski, blah blah blah. Inhabiting the role, blah blah blah. Adhering to the text, blah blah blah. And at her most pointed—a critic of my writerly methodology: “You are asking the wrong questions.”

And I was. For Ruth, it was mostly about whether you are all in or not. Are you willing to take the necessary risks that go with making art? She was. That’s all.

She was uncompromising, with her art and with the way she lived her life—and frankly she didn’t see a whole lot of difference between those two things. Either you are an artist and you live with the consequences—joyful and dire—or you are a fake and give in to convention. She had very little patience for people who equivocated and plenty of snark to dish out when they did.

That’s just how she rolls. Rolled.



Karen Houppert is a Baltimore-based freelance journalist for the Washington Post Magazine, author of the new book Chasing Gideon, and a former Mabou Mines staffer.

 

 

Nick Westrate

I called Ruth Maleczech on the phone several times before she would answer. I wanted to interview her for the Process in Performance series at New York Theater Workshop. She has been an idol of mine for many years, and I had practiced what I had to say before each call. When she finally answered, she asked me to tell her about the series and explain my intentions for the interview. She then asked if there would be any compensation for her time; I sadly informed her that there would not. She asked if I was receiving compensation for my time. My reply was the same. She said it was a true shame how often artists weren’t compensated appropriately for their efforts; I (of course) agreed. But she said that she would do it because she thought I was sincere in my intentions, and she liked what I had to say.

We usually tape all interviews at Process in Performance, but Ruth specifically requested there be no recording of any kind. When we met for the first time it was on the sidewalk of East 4th Street. We shared a cigarette, exchanged small talk. I was shaking in her presence at first, but as she linked her arm in mine and forged our way into the theater, I felt calm. Her presence was at once magisterial and maternal.

We had an incredible conversation that night in front of almost a hundred theater artists. I cannot relay it to you, because it was not recorded and I dare not misquote her—with one exception. I usually begin every conversation with the question: “What is the avant-garde, and are you an avant-garde artist?” To this she replied, “The avant-garde is a French military term, it means ‘before the front,’ it means we die first. So in order to be avant-garde you must be brave, carry very sharp weapons, and be ready to die.”

(l-r) Lute, Clove, Ruth 1982 photo: Peter Bellamy

The humor, grit, and fathomless insight she shared that evening will forever reverberate with all those present. I know the resounding example of her life and work will stay with me for all of my days. With Ruth you felt proud to be an artist.

At the end of the evening, we retired to Stillwater Bar and Grill for some wine and more casual conversation, after which Ruth asked if I would help her into a cab. Before she disembarked she thanked me for respecting her wishes regarding the recording of our conversation. “Those who were there were there, and those who were not were not.”

Since her passing I think of this phrase often. I am very glad that she was there, here, with all of us and our tribe for so long, and hugely honored that for a few brief moments, we were there together.



Nick Westrate is an actor in theater, film, and television based in New York City. He runs the Process in Performance series at NTYW.

 

 

Martha Elliot

My first encounter with Ruth was when I was working as Assistant Stage Manager for Peter and Wendy (1996). Jody Kuh, the stage manager, had received a call from Ruth that we had broken the TV/VCR while rehearsing at Mabou Mines’s studio and Jody needed to come downtown to fix it. She asked me to go with her because she was a little intimidated by Ruth.

Fixing the TV was not a problem; we may have put it back on channel 3, or re-plugged an RCA cable. Ruth didn’t pay much attention to us, busy talking on the phone. But we had made an impression. Soon after, Ruth asked us to join an upcoming tour to Brazil to remount Hajj. I was a video camera operator, the perfect vantage point to watch Ruth work.

Thus began our ever-evolving relationship. I continued for a while as one of her “can do” people. I performed each job with a devotion to Ruth and her authority on what the work needed—whether that meant finding a way to do pyrotechnics on a shoestring for Happy Days, or searching the city for the perfect-sized watermelons for Las Horas de Belén.

Even though I was valuable to her in this role, she didn’t try to keep me there. I felt her deep respect for my work as performer. She encouraged me to apply to the Mabou Mines Resident Artist Program, lauded my talents as a comedian, and gave insightful and precise feedback on my work. She did that for a lot of artists developing their craft. She could see the essence of what they were seeking to create, highlight where they were successful, and open their eyes to vast possibilities to take it further.

And then our relationship evolved again. I fell in love with her son, Lute. She became my mother-in-law, and then the devoted Grandma Ruthie to our daughter, Bella. Oh, could Ruth play! Oh, could she read a story! As her health declined, she carefully saved her energy for visits with her granddaughter as she also saved it for her work. And if Bella was ever moving too fast for her, she would summon her talents and vamp—slow it way down. Suddenly Bella, entranced, was trying to keep up with Ruth.

A few days before she died, I got a call from Ruthie. Her daughter Clove had taken Bella out. Ruth thought they were taking too long, she was worried that Clove didn’t know Bella’s bedtime was soon, and had I maybe heard from them? I reassured her a bit and then she said, “Well, I am here with a TV that doesn’t work.” So I went to her place and “fixed” her TV. Nothing worth watching was on, so we got to chat, just the two of us—a treasured occurrence in recent years, as it happened so rarely. Then she was gone, and I thought, wow Ruth, way to bring it full circle with the broken TV thing. She turned the banal into poetry.



Martha Elliot is currently a stay-at-home mother living in Brooklyn.



This article was put together by Addie Johnson Talbott with the generous help of Morgan Jenness, Nicky Paraiso, Wendy vanden Heuvel, and most of all Sharon Fogarty.

Contributor

Mallory Catlett, Martha Elliot, Karen Houppert, Melanie Joseph, Theodora Skipitares, Joe Stackell, and Nick Westrate

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